Communication Breakdown

Here's an old travel tale from my student days in Sweden.




I was desperate. It was one of the busiest weeks in one of the world's most expensive cities. Oslo was hosting this year's EuroVision Song Contest. I had bought a ticket for a concert, unrelated to EuroVision, well in advance, but never thought of accommodations until the last minute. The date lined up exactly with EuroVison. It was too late to back out. I would sleep on the street if I had to.

As a last attempt at finding shelter, I began sending emails to near strangers; friends of friends living in Oslo. The night before my departure, I received a reply. It was no more than two lines long, lacking any punctuation. The poor grammar made it difficult to understand, but one fragment was clear “you stay here.” I leaped at the opportunity. I was up for an adventure, however, I was not prepared for the social challenge that lied ahead.

The host, I'll call Dominique, was from Cameroon. He had been living in Oslo for the past 5 years. I followed his directions to a courtyard walled-in by five plain grey concrete apartment buildings. I didn't know what to expect. He sounded young and cheerful on the phone, but a friend told me that Dominique was well into his forties and recently divorced. I stood at the centre of the courtyard surveying the face of each building, trying to figure out which one was his when a door swung open. It was Dominique. He was a tall brooding man who could probably fair well as a line backer on any semi-professional football team. His build gave him an intimidating appearance, but his smile and jovial behaviour made him resemble the Friendly Giant more-so than an enforcer on hockey team.

Following initial introductions, he asked “Do you know why I chose to host you?”
“No,” I replied.
“Because your name. Cameroon! Is that your real name?”
I laughed awkwardly and corrected him.
“Cameron is my last name,” I said trying to stress the last syllable, but he wasn't listening.
“I cannot believe it. I am from Cameroon!” he said between chuckling. “And do you know what Nick means in French?”
“Oh,” I stalled for a minute trying to remember. “Yes,” I mumbled, still scurrying through my memory for a definition.

Growing up, most of my schooling was in French. At the beginning of every year, the teacher would ask “Do you prefer Nick or Nicholas?” pronouncing each option with a heavy French accent. “Nick, si-vouz-plez.” Despite my polite request, they always insisted on calling me Nicholas, pronouncing it Nee-ko-la. Then I remembered. Nick with French pronunciation sounds identical to nic (pronounced neek), a French curse word often followed by “ta mere!” which means “your mother!”

At this point, Dominique was laughing uncontrollably.
“Your name,” he stalls trying to hold back the laughter. “It means Fuck Cameroon! Why your parents name you that?”
“I guess Cameroon wasn't on their mind at the time.”

I was proud of my witty response considering how nervous and socially-reclusive a mood I was in, but he didn't get it. The laughter stopped. He wasn't insulted, just perplexed at what I meant. The language gap was too far for dry humour. One awkward moment after another, I learned quickly to avoid sarcasm.

Another reason Dominique gave for hosting me was that I was Canadian. He was fascinated with the country. I looked forward to showing off my homeland, but quickly lost enthusiasm as we struggled to communicate. He was only interested in supporting stereotypes. Do you cook everything with maple? Is your father a lumber jack? Do you eat moose for dinner?

I tried to broaden his idea of Canada.
“It's hard to answer some of these questions. I've seen more of Europe than I have my own country. Canada is big. Some parts can be very different from the other, almost like a new country. In fact, there is a movement in the province of Quebec to separate.”

Once again, the conversation stopped dead in its tracks. Dominique didn't like this complex version of the country he adored. Canada is supposed to be full of nice people whole are all bilingual and drink maple flavoured beer after a hard hitting game of hockey. I changed the topic asking what he thought about Norway.

“You Europeans are so free,” he answered.

He continued to address me as a European my entire stay. I thought I should tell him that the last European in my family was six generations ago, but I remembered my previous lesson in using sarcasm. Besides, I knew what he meant: Westerner or something to that effect. I asked him what he meant by “free.”

“In Africa, a man and a lady cannot even sit on the same couch. In Europe, friends watch porno films together.”

Again, I felt the urge to correct his choice of words. “We just call it porn now. Porno is so retro,” but I didn't. Instead I corrected him on the bigger anomaly, that “Europeans” believe watching porn is a group activity.

“My friends and I would never watch porn together. I don't know anyone that would.”
“No, it is true. In Norway, my ex-wife always wanted to watch porno films with me. My friends, they watch porno films together on the computer.”

There was yet another awkward pause.

“I don't even know how to find porno on the internet ...” He trailed off, as though he was asking me how to find porn on the internet. Embarrassed by my lack of response, he segued into another computer question.

“Can you show me how to use YouTube?”
“Sure,” I said in a chipper tone, eager to move as far away as possible from the previous conversation.

I directed him to the website and asked. “What do you want to watch?”
“Do they have salsa lessons?”
“Let's see.”
After a quick search, I clicked play on a beginner's salsa lesson video. The instructor announced the steps over and over.

“1-2-3 pause 5-6-7. 1-2-3 pause 5-6-7.”

Dominique stared at the screen in deep concentration studying every move and nodding his head to the beat.

“Play it again,” he said. After studying the first iteration, he grabbed my hand and pulled me up without warning. In less than a second I was being dragged along to the salsa. We stood side by side, arms thrown around each others back. Dominique could wrapped his arm around me twice while I could barely reach his spine. I tried to be a good sport, but I just couldn't keep up.

“Don't you dance?” he asked.
“Sure. With enough drinks, doesn't everyone?”
He laughed. “You do not dance. You cannot move your knees.”
“I've never tried salsa dancing.”
“Then you have never danced?”
“Salsa is only one kind of dancing.”
“So what dance do you do?”

I had no idea how to reply. Just like discussing Canada, our confusing communication was not only due to the apparent language gap, but also our differing ideas. For Dominique, dancing was something that you do with years of training and a positive attitude. For me, it required no skill and a high blood-alcohol ratio.

Once Dominique grew tired of watching me trip over my feet, we sat back down and I guided him further through the world of YouTube.

“You can find anything on here,” he said.
“You're probably right.”
“Can you watch porno films?”
“No. YouTube takes that stuff down.”
“I see. Then where do people find porno films?”

He wasn't giving up. Never in my life had I thought I would find myself instructing a grown man how to find pornography on the internet. Never had I thought this required instruction. Most people find it unwillingly. Somehow, Dominique provoked me into showing him.

“I duno, just type something in,” I said while squirming with discomfort.
“Like what?”
“I don't know, whatever you want to see.”

A few keystrokes later, an explicit film played on the screen which sat inches from our faces on the coffee table. Here I was, in a foreign country, sitting with a strange man I met just an hour ago watching a “porno film” in his apartment.

Looking for a way out of the situation, I invited Dominique to the concert, of which I was already late for. We missed the first act, but had a good time overall. Thankfully, none of the bands played salsa music. It was now time for bed.

As I laid down on the couch, Dominique emerged from his room in boxers and an under shirt.

“No no. I will not let a guest sleep on the couch. Please, sleep in here.”

He waved backwards towards his bedroom. I could tell from the layout of the apartment and the the building that the room was small, with space to fit nothing more than a single sized mattress. The way he said “in here” sounded like he meant sharing that tiny bed. My mind raced connecting the dots from the night's earlier events and what I knew about this stranger. Unsuccessful marriage. Salsa Dancing. Watching porn together! If the next words from his mouth were “It's time to nic Cameroon” I am running out the door, backpack be damned! I insisted on sleeping on the couch, but he offered a lame excuse which only raised my suspicious.

“No. In Africa it is an insult for the guest to sleep on the floor or the couch. You sleep in here.”
“Ok,” I whimpered pathetically.

As I entered his room I saw that somehow he had managed to squeeze two beds inside, leaving no floor space. I must have had an obvious look of relief on my face or maybe he was pulling my chain the entire time, because Dominique erupted into laughter.

“You thought I had just one bed for the two of us. Did you?”

I nodded yes as I laughed. This time, the laughter was not forced.

Our communication breakdown could be blamed on a number of factors. There was definitely a language gap and even some deeper cultural differences. However, the easier factor to eliminate was my own anxiety. Dominique's behaviour was definitely odd, though I never gave him a fair chance. I treated him with skepticism from the very beginning. Someone who voluntarily feeds and shelters a lonely traveller should never be treated like that, no matter how bizarre that host may be.

Nevertheless, I didn't feel comfortable there. Can you blame me? After two nights, I set out for the next leg of my journey. Although everyone suggested heading west to see the coastline, for some reason I decided going north would be a good idea. I knew Trondheim was next major city. I figured it was about 300km away and could probably be hitchhiked in a day. What I didn't know was that hitchhiking in Norway is especially difficult going north and that Trondheim was actually about 500km away.