In 1971 I was in Denmark with my Danish husband, visiting his family and friends. I didn’t know much about his parents since he never talked about them. One of his sisters told me their mother was the Protestant daughter of a postmaster, with only a grade school education. Their father was from a rich Jewish family, with a PhD from a fine university, but seemingly unable to keep a job because he knew better than anyone about everything. Their mother spoke Danish, French, and German, but no English. Their father spoke Danish, French, German, and English. When my husband and I were together with his parents only English was spoken, leaving his mother out of the conversation. I tried, with no success, to get the two men to speak Danish and then translate, but they behaved as if I’d never spoken.
When his mother and I were alone we had a good time. Despite her initial shock at my offering to help with meal preparation, we began communicating in sign language and mime, coupled with my pidgin French. We didn’t always fully understand each other but we laughed a lot, especially at my awkwardness filling the balls of dough with apples, which she called appleskiver, that she cooked in a special pan.
I enjoyed being with her and she seemed happy to have whatever relationship we could make given that we had no common language and lived oceans apart. As soon as my husband or father-in-law entered the room, her laughter stopped. Her demeanor changed to that of a servant, responding to requests with a subservience that hurt my heart. At dinner, she didn’t sit or eat until everyone else had started.
When we visited his wealthy sophisticated paternal aunts and uncles, everyone spoke perfect English. They ridiculed my mother-in-law, with no complaint from my husband or hers. When I spoke up in her defense, they shook their heads and changed the subject. Later, when I talked with my husband about how badly I felt for his mother, he shrugged and said, “She’s used to it.”
We spent time with some of my husband’s friends, all of whom spoke very good English, but my husband answered them in Danish and pretty soon everyone was speaking Danish. I watched them talk and laugh as if I were not in the room. I imagined this was how his mother felt.
In the days that were left of our visit I decided to do what I could to include my mother-in-law in conversations, or at least make it obvious that I wanted to hear what she had to say. I studied the Danish/English phrasebook I’d brought with me, knowing that my attempts to use it in the past had not been well-received by my husband. “You don’t need to bring that book. I’ll translate for you.” I didn’t and he didn’t.
During dinner the next evening I said, in Danish, “The food is delicious.” Everyone, including my mother-in-law burst into laughter. I understood. Danish is difficult to pronounce correctly, but after the laughter subsided, my father-in-law took a bit of time to help me correct my pronunciation. Even this evoked laughter, but at least the conversation didn’t leave out my mother-in-law. When I said, “Thank you for dinner,” in Danish, she responded in Danish. I figured out, sort of, how to say, “You’re a good cook, and thank you for dinner,” which gave her another opportunity to respond.
For the rest of the visit, I carried my Danish/English phrasebook wherever I went. When it was time for the visit to end, my mother-in-law took my phrasebook and found the words she wanted to say, in English. “Thank you for the visit. I enjoyed meeting you.” I took back the book and repeated her words in Danish. Just before we left for the airport, she hugged me, saying once again, “Thank you for coming,” in English. I responded in Danish, “Thank you for a wonderful visit.”
We didn’t have words in common, but we found a way to create a warm and caring relationship despite all that we didn’t share.
Have you been in a situation where you saw someone being left out, treated badly? How did you respond?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.