CULTURAL BRIEFING
Nine!

Jun. 22 - I took my oral Danish exam on Monday. My monologue went well. I'm not especially proud of it as an essay, but I'll share it with you anyway:

I am a writer. As a writer, I've always been wild about mythology. It's therefore exciting for me to live her in the land of Vikings.

I've learned a lot about the Vikings since I arrived in Denmark two years ago. Last year I read an article about a group of people in Jylland who still worship the Vikings' old gods. I thought that was interesting.

The Vikings believed in a lot of gods, who they called "aser." That is, a god was an "as," and an "as" was a god. There were a lot of aser, as you know, like Thor and Odin and Frigg and Baldur and so on.

The Vikings also believed the world was flat and round and divided into three parts: one for the gods, another for the giants, and the third, of course, for the people. The world, they thought, was surrounded by a vast, deep sea. And the sea was surrounded by a great big worm that was called "Midgårdsormen."

It's not especially weird that the Vikings should have believed such things a thousand years ago. On the contrary. The incredible thing, in my opinion, is that about 500 Danes still believe in the aser and the flat, round earth, and that super-huge worm.

Four-hundred and fifty Danes, with their computers and mobile phones and MP3 players—and their websites—go out in the woods and worship these old Viking gods.

But of course it isn't that strange, because two years ago the Church Ministry [a governmental body with the equivalent of a Cabinet post at its head] officially approved of the faith Forn Sidr, which is the faith of the Vikings.

Anyway, I just thought that was interesting.

Sparkling it is not. Nor especially informative. But the goal of the piece was not to enlighten my listeners on some fine point of Viking culture, or to entertain them, but to demonstrate an ability to compose and deliver a brief speech in Danish. This apparently succeeded.

My audience consisted of a Censor, an Examiner, one classmate, and a row of curious onlookers. These latter were other teachers of Danish as a foreign language, we were told. There may also have been someone from the Immigration Ministry. I'm not sure if the onlookers had to pay admission. If so, I'm still awaiting my cut of the door.

The Examiner was a woman who'd been my teacher for the past two courses. The Censor was a woman from a program in down in Svendborg, on lower Fyn. I'd never seen her before and will probably never see her again. The classmate was a young Lithuanian woman whose Danish and vocabulary were and remain far beyond my own. We'd known we were going to be partnered in the exam for some time and had been practicing accordingly.

Lithuania and I had run our monologues by one another in the hallway outside the examination room just before we were called in. Hers was a very sophisticated discussion of the self-regulating job-market in Denmark, and how it compared to the market in her homeland. She used a lot of long words and idiomatic expressions. Hearing her made me ashamed of my own little speech, so childish and unsophisticated by comparison. We also reminded one another briefly—too briefly, it turned out—of a few strategy points we'd previously agreed on.

When called, we went in and took the seats indicated to us: side by side and opposite our Examiner. The Censor was to our right. The panel of onlookers was to our left.

The Examiner introduced us to the Censor and the panel and explained that we'd begin with the interview segment. Ladies first, she said. Lithuania's topic would be "Children and Traffic." The lead-off question was, "Studies show that more and more children are killed in traffic accidents every year. Why do you think this is, and what can be done about it?"

"As to what can be done," Lithuania began slowly, buying her some valuable time to assemble her arguments, "I think the government should become involved..."

It was a brilliant introduction to any public policy question posed by anyone in Denmark. Of course the government should become involved. You could sense the approval in the room. I was glad I hadn't been asked, because I probably would have pointed out that a rise in numbers didn't necessarily correlate to a rise in frequency—that rising numbers of cars and children could generate more accidents even while the rate of such accidents declined. I would have asked about the study or studies in question. And in the end I would have talked about the importance of parents preparing their own children for the very real hazards of being a pedestrian in Denmark. Lithuania made no such errors, and didn't even bring up parental responsibility until explicitly asked about it by the Examiner.

Then the Examiner turned to me. My topic would be Daycare. The opening question was—I'm not sure. I hadn't entirely understood. It had something to do with children spending more and more time in Daycare during their formative years, and whether that was a good or bad thing.

I said there were advantages and disadvantages. I said I thought it would probably help children develop their social skills. I said it would teach them an early sense of independence. I said that it was two-career families driving the trend, since it was no longer always possible for one parent to stay at home with the children while the other parent went out and worked. I awkwardly discussed my own situation as anecdotal evidence of something, though I'm still not sure what. I floundered a lot. I said "um" and "uh." I used incorrect verb tenses and botched some idioms.

Then came the monologues. Lithuania's came off well and she handled her follow-up questions decently. My own went as described above. Afterwards the Examiner asked what I thought the reason was that Danes were beginning to worship the old Viking gods.

"Well," I said, "I think people like to believe things, they've always believed things, and they probably always will. People have all kinds of religion. Many people worship a man nailed up on a. . ." I cut myself off, thank God, and backpedaled furiously: "I mean, I don't want to go too deeply into that, but people will worship just about anything, so why not the Viking gods?"

"So you're saying, 'Why not?'" asked the Examiner.

"Yes," I said. "Why not?"

Next came the pictures. The Examiner showed us pictures of five people at work. "These people are all on the job, which is the topic," she said. "But the question is what each of them is responsible for, and who has the most responsibility?"

Lithuania and I had practiced this exercise repeatedly. We would take turns descriping each of the five photos in short, declarative sentences. She would then offer her answer in the shortest possible manner, I would offer mine, and we would then flip the pictures over (to avoid distraction) and elaborate on the topic and theme. In doing so we would go back and forth in ping-pong fashion, rapid-fire, very conversational.

Our descriptions of the pictures weren't too bad. "The first picture shows two police officers on duty." "In the second we see a teacher with her students." "This third picture seems to illustrate a doctor with a patient, possibly in a hospital." "Here we see a man fighting fire, a fireman." "This is Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark's Prime Minister."

"I think the person with the most responsibility is the teacher," Lithuania told the room full of teachers. I tell you, her political savvy was untouchable. "That's because if children aren't educated they can't become firemen or doctors or politicians, so none of the other responsibilities are even possible unless the teacher has taught the children properly."

Ass that I am, I went straight to Denmark's unpopular Prime Minister. "I think Fogh has the most responsibility," I said, "because he too is responsible for education, but also for everything else. He's in charge of it all. That's a lot of responsibility."

Now it was time for the ping-pong, for our well-rehearsed "McLaughlin Group"-style riffs. It didn't happen. Instead, Lithuania rebutted my argument for about forty seconds, I rebutted her rebuttal and made my own case anew for another forty, and that was that.

At last came the final segment. I can't remember what Lithuania was asked, but my own question went something like this: "A lot of Danish employers have recently been moving over the border. This is costing Denmark a lot of jobs. Why is this happening and what do you think should be done?"

I had learned nothing from Lithuania's shining political genius. Instead I opined that although there were of course painful disadvantages, overall the process of globalization was a good one and the redistribution of jobs was a natural side-effect of that process. It would create employment problems in the short-term, by reducing low-wage and low-education jobs in Denmark and raising the average educational requirements for employment, but it would be well worth it in the long run, blah blah blah, and in conclusion I'd say it's not worth worrying about."

I might as well have declared the Little Mermaid a crack whore. There are about eight people in Denmark who support globalization, and I know seven of them.

Lithuania, the panel, and I were dismissed from the room at this point so the Examiner and Censor could confer on our grades. A moment later we were called back in.

They had given Lithuania a nine, the Examiner said, and she began enumerating the reasons: her particular strengths and her particular weaknesses. Dread overtook me as I realized I shared all of her weaknesses and none of her strengths.

"We have also given you a nine," the Examiner said to me. I missed the next sentence or two from pure shock. I thought it was obscene I should have received the same grade as Lithuania, who'd so clearly outshined me—not just in political delicacy, but in vocabulary, pronunciation, everything.

"...but you were very lively, and conversational, and quite excited about your subjects," I heard the Examiner conclude.

Well, shit... I could have been lively and conversational and excited back when all I could say was "My name Greg and I am come from New York in fourteen months ago." It didn't seem right to have had my enthusiasm enter into the calculation of my grade. I fulminated over this with Lithuania as we left the building. She had been done a great injustice, I said.

"A nine is a good grade," she said. (I don't honestly recall what language we were speaking, but I'm confident it wasn't Lithuanian, the only words of which I know are "Go home, go home, company go home.")

"That's true," I acknowledged. "But I deserved worse and you deserved better."

She shrugged. "I don't think so," she said, "and no one else cares. So why worry about it?"

A very, very good point.

So that's that. I'm done with school. No more classes, no more homework, no more tests or exams.

Now I just need to find a job and support my family. You know: the easy stuff...

© 2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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