Words I learn

I keep them in this wonderful notepad that Ingrid gave me

I keep them in this wonderful notepad that Ingrid gave me

There are always new words to learn even if you master a language rather well. My friend Emily sometimes teaches me dubious English idioms (“blowing the Popsicle stand” meaning to head out) and I teach her weird German sayings.

When I lived in Sweden, I carried a little book with me everywhere in which I jotted down what people would mention. The book is a hilarious collection of seemingly incoherent vocabulary. The more proficient you get in a language, the fewer opportunities to add words to the list. But I still keep a little list on my work desk and whenever my co-worker says something I don’t recognize, I pull it out and interrogate her: “What does this mean? When can I use it? Is this offensive or colloquial?” In my list so far, I have after three months, håglös (indolent), inte lägga fingrarna emellan (to make quick work of someone/something), jungfruben (split pins), räd (razzia) and sitta stilla i båten (to not rock the boat, interestingly, in German it becomes to keep your feet still). Now you can try to reconstruct our conversations – good luck!

I swear I know Swedish

At the Swedish Christmas market, I learned how to calculate really fast. When people paid 3,75 Euro with a 100-euro-bill.

At the Swedish Christmas market, I learned how to calculate really fast. When people paid 3,75 Euro with a 100-euro-bill.

Five years ago, I remember taking a look at the TISUS sample test. I only read through the first page and thought: Well, this is hopeless, I would never ever pass this. I cannot even talk two minutes about bostadsbrist let alone 20. When I moved to Stockholm first and ended up feeling so much more comfortable in English, I decided: Well, maybe you can only learn and master one language at a fluent, high level. When I was placed into the lower level group at Stockholm University’s Swedish courses after the placement test, I thought: Well, maybe I am actually bad at this. 

But today I got the results of the TISUS test I took a couple of weeks ago and I am thrilled to report that I passed! I officially know Swedish. (On a university level.) What a relief. This is living proof that you can learn anything that your brain finds relevant (let’s not go into the reasons why my brain finds a language spoken by almost no one relevant). It even instills hope in me for my Farsi language acquisition. One fine day. Maybe.

Today was an eventful day at work including a long meeting with our new Swedish client. It is a big shame I can’t talk about it, I wish I could tell you, but I guess you just have to ask me in person. In the evening, I strolled around town waiting for my friend Marita to arrive at the central station so that we could cultivate our transit friendship. Marita was – jetset alert – flying from Italy via Hamburg to Stockholm (a few days later though) and of course I want to meet her at the central station for a fika. Even if we only had 30 minutes, it was a pleasure. You can almost pretend to live in the same city and happen to be bump into each other at the station.

Oh, look, I "happened" to find one of my best friends in the station's bakery!

Oh, look, I “happened” to find one of my best friends in the station’s bakery!

And tomorrow is the big day when three of my friends, Tabea, Christian and Michelle, are coming from North and South to visit me! Not very like me, I am still rather unprepared but I took a day off so I hope to be able to get a Christmas tree. Yes, you heard right…!



(Headline: My friend Emily, a native English speaker, sometimes accidently writes incorrect English to me. She usually follows up directly with “I swear, I know English!”)

And this is what I came home to, after a day that lasted from 6:50 to 21:15. It is Ingrid's last night as my housewife, eh, housemate which is really sad but it was a very lovely last evening.

And this is what I came home to, after a day that lasted from 6:50 to 21:15. It is Ingrid’s last night as my housewife, eh, housemate which is really sad but it was a very lovely last evening. Please note that I polished my brass candle holders, something that might become my new hobby. The effect is tremendous! Such rewarding work!

Encounters with the past

I spent all weekend volunteering at the Swedish Church’s Christmas Market again. (Obviously, I still have not fully grasped the point of resting and recovering from a work week.) I sold Dala horses and elks and cakes and even asked the German where the elk-obessesion orignates and they told me it is because elks are “such giants”. I am not yet buying that because whales are very big, too, and I don’t know many Germans who want to have whale accessoire in their homes.

The funniest thing happened on Saturday when I had just arrived to my shift. I was chatting away with my co-volunteer when one of the many customers in the sea of people in front of our stand said, “Hold on, it’s you! You were my Swedish teacher in Bremen!”

I wrote the directions to the Midsummer's party on the pavement, in Swedish to teach my students

I wrote the directions to the Midsummer’s party on the pavement, in Swedish to teach my students

One of the best jobs I have ever had was when I supervised the students who in an “independent learning programme” studied Swedish (and Danish). As their tutor, I had the honor to give them my best tips on learning the language, monitored their progress, wove in cultural information and sent them out to Sweden half a year later, following them either on their blogs or even personally (that happened with two of them who went to Stockholm at the same time that I was there for a vacation, and one that came over from Denmark). In short, it was pretty much the perfect job for me. I taught them all from Veronica Maggio to Fettisdagen and we celebrated Midsommar together. 

So to unexpectedly meet one of my lovely students again and to hear they are longing to celebrate Lucia and “do you happen to know where we could find that?” –ah, the delight! As my former fellow student Stephan used to say, “Helen, there is more teacher in you than you want to avow”.

The two best things


What are one of the two best things in the world? Exactly, Swedish cardamom buns (kardemummabullar) and raspberries (hallon). So typical that I like the most expensive berries most. (Raspberries are very expensive in Germany.) Luckily for me, I am friends with the superb food blooger Delphine who runs Del’s Cooking Twist. On her blog, she does not only provide readers with new recipes all the time (I wish I was that creative. I have been cooking the same twelve meals for three years.), she even gives her tips on the best eateries in Stockholm. Or Paris, New York, Lisbon – you get the idea. (It is okay to travel somewhere else than Stockholm once in a while in case you wondered.)

Delphine has made it into several magazines and has an amazing number of followers so I am honored to be allowed to share one of her fabulous recipes with you. And of course, it includes the two best things: cardamom and raspberries.


Do you want to go for a real Swedish fika Friday? I suggest you bake these “fruity, deliciously cardamom-parfumed” buns then:

Ingredients (serves 20):
For the dough:
7 cups flour
50g fresh yeast
½ cup butter
¼ cup milk
½ tsp salt
½ cup sugar
2 tsp ground cardamom
For the filling:
400g raspberries
½ cup butter, at room temperature
Zests of one lemon
1 cup sugar
½ tsp cardamom seeds
4 tbsp raspberry jam
To decorate:
1 egg
Pearl sugar

For a detailed tutorial to walk you through each of the steps of the preparation, click here.  Happy Baking!


Back to school: Taking the TISUS test

Paradise for me

Paradise for me

Yesterday, I left Hamburg at 6.45 a.m. to go to Kiel, a city 100 kilometres north. Unlike Hamburg, Kiel still has a university department that teaches Swedish, or rather Scandinavistics, and there I was called to do the TISUS exam. TISUS is recognised by all the universities in Sweden as a statement of eligibility regarding Swedish language proficiency. Unfortunately, the test started at 8.30 a.m., so I was dead tired when I, together with two others, started reading the texts about “torv” (english: turf) as part of the reading comprehension.

It felt just like being back in school and writing a long exam. In German schools, students write six 2-hour-exams every year in every subject (usually you have 10 to 15 subjects, I guess). With a school system like that, you develop exam-skills that you at the latest need when you write your Abitur, the A-Levels, that make you endure four 6-hour-exams. You learn what to eat,  how to cheat,  how to study, and most importantly how to manage your time. When I was in high school, I always had a watch with me and when I got my sheet of tasks, I – even though maths is not my strength – calculated at which time I should be done with which task in order to complete the entire assignment. Well, interestingly enough, these competences seem to be forgotten by the brain after some years. University meant writing long complex papers instead of putting knowledge onto a paper under time pressure (#bulimiastudying). So yesterday when the instructor said, “Ni har tre minuter kvar!” (You have three minutes left), I had ten unanswered questions…Luckily, I work okay under pressure and managed to scribble down the answers to “Who can get legal aid?” (Not all texts were about turf…).

After the test, I met my aunt Karin who took me to the Baltic Sea

After the test, I met my aunt Karin who took me to the Baltic Sea

TISUS consists of the reading comprehension, an oral exam and an essay. The essay had a political topic asking about “global development, is the world changing for better or worse?” In early stages of high school, we used to first write our notes, then write the entire essay as a draft to then copy the whole thing in the neatest handwriting. I considered that yesterday but deemed the time to short. So instead I found myself taken back in time to 13th grade where one wrote all these little asterixs because “ah, I forgot to mention this” and the words above other words because “I guess this needs a preposition”. It was really just like being back in school!

Love in the Scandinavian languages

Love in the Scandinavian languages


Given the political topic, I got a bit carried away I guess, phrases like “leva på andras bekostnad” (to live on others’ expenses), “klyftorna ökar” (the social gap grows) as well as “miljöproblem”(environmental problems) and”rättvis handel” (fair trade) lined up in my 711 words. (Remember counting words in your essays in the end of an exam? So terribly annoying.) I might blame my friends for my green-left plea that I submitted, or differently phrased: Josefine will be proud of me! And Magdalena. And Martina. And Annika. Nils as well. You get the idea.

Something that is funny with me and languages, and especially the Swedish language, is that I have some kind of register even beyond passive vocabulary. The definition of passive vocabulary is that you understand when you see them but you do not actively use them. I have an instinctive vocabulary: I want to write something and in the very last corner of my mind I find a word, like huruvida, and I am not even sure if the word exists and unsure whether it means what I think it means at all. And then in 99% of cases, it turns out to exist and mean what I think. I never trust this guessing vocabulary though, I always think I’ll make a fool of myself next time I try. (I am more often wrong when it comes to articles, prepositions and conjugations. Can’t trust instinct there.)

The oral exam was on gender roles and I told the instructor about my all girls’ school, my female Swedish bosses and how German men usually don’t dress as elegantly as Swedes. This time, I made sure I had my phone counting the minutes. When I took my oral Abitur exam, I spoke so quickly that I was done with the assignment in 7 instead of 25 minutes and the teacher had to start asking me questions about a topic that was not on the agenda. That didn’t happen this time! 😉

The room we were sitting in was albeit being borderline filthy, a paradise for me: lots of Swedish language books and beautiful posters for scientific gatherings. The thing that impressed me most at Kiel university was the art on their library, the writing “Some glow” and on the other corner, “When you read them”. So beautiful, so poetic, so true. 

somw glow