My Estonian language has progressed to the point that I am able to get by in daily life without needing to switch to English or relying on my own personal interpreter to explain things to a confused cashier.
This benefits me greatly, as many Estonians think they know English but construct sentences that are equal in absurdity to the ones I have spoken.
One fellow mixed up the words "mean," "mind," and "think." "What do you mean about the apartment?" he asked. "I don't mean anything," I replied. "Oh, I am sorry, what do you mind about the apartment then?" These are the kinds of exchanges that only Timothy Leary or Noam Chomsky would appreciate.
In regular life, I am a bit clumsy anyway. This is why I write, because it is so much easier than talking. I might be physically standing in line waiting to buy some groceries, but, mentally, I am miles away. In New York, this can get me into trouble, like at a deli, where the guys take your order in the local accent. "Soyawanbaloneynmustadonroi?" [Do you want bologna and mustard sandwich on rye bread?] And if you don't answer with a snappy response or a quip about A-Rod, they look at you like you are from another planet.
While living in New York, still a city of immigrants, I developed fairly perceptive ears. Two guys could approach me on the street and say, "Gabba gabba hey?" and I would respond, "Right, just hop on the J and get off at Delancey and Essex." I would think little of their accents. Jamaican, Korean, Kaliningradian -- who knows and who has time to care?
Here in Eesti though, they just think I am hilarious. I went to visit Epp's Onu Tiit the other night, who has infamously bad diction. While Onu Toivo, usually lubricated by a few beers, has excellent diction and is a joy to listen to because I can understand every word, Tiit is a lõuna eesti mumbler.
Toivo would say, "Juu-stiin, kas sa tead, et sa räägid niiiii hääästi eeesti keeelt? Iiniimesed on elanud siiin üümbes 50 aaastat ja mitte üüks sõõõna!" Tiit, meantime, would say something like "J'n, t'd 't, s' r'g'd ni' h's'ti 'est' k'lt blub blub blub blub blub viiskend blub blub blub." Even though these two wild and crazy guys have their own linguistic idiosyncrasies, they are still considered "normal." I, on the other hand, am abnormal.
"Justin, kas sul kitarri on?" asks Ave-Liis, Tiit's daughter.
"Jah, on olimas," I respond. It should be olemas, "O-leh-mas," but I said olimas, "O-lee-mas," by mistake; a slip of the tongue caught too late. This prompts a chuckle and a repetition of my mistake. "Ol-i-mas, Ol-i-mas," she teases. I suddenly know how those poor first-generation Sino-Americans feel when they are ridiculed for substituting the letter 'R' for the letter 'L' and vice versa.
Inside the house, where I meet cousin Tomi for the first time, I notice his cheeks ballooning in suppression of laughter as he listens to a Yankee speak his language. I remember another cousin, Ken, now in his early teens, fighting a similar urge to burst out laughing as he heard me try to mumble like the best of them. Estonians, the sober ones at least, are usually reserved and not prone to fits of giggles. But have me speak to them and they are one "olimas" away from losing all control.
Yesterday at Tartu Kaubamaja, I engaged another acquaintance, whose cheeks grew equally rosy as I rattled through my accented words and awkwardly constructed sentences. [I use a lot of English constructions: "Have we met before?" is "Oleme kohtunud enne või?"] And then I crossed the boundary by wishing Häid Jõule [Merry Christmas], to which I received a terse "Jah" and a dry "suurepärane" [wonderful] in response.
I complain to Estonian friends, but they assure me that my language is suurepärane, and that they too have bad English accents [which is probably correct, though I don't notice their accents that often]. And even if I say it right, I still get it wrong. I remember walking into a friend's place in Tallinn and exclaiming "noh, kuidas su käsi käib!," only to be met by reticent stares. "You didn't say anything wrong," my friend said later. "It's just the way you said it."
There is a great scene in the film 101 Reykjavik where one of the main characters has a chat with his foreign-born brother-in-law in Icelandic, then makes fun of his foreign accent behind his back. [Hlynur, the 30-ish main character in that movie, is also shiftless and has an absent, alcoholic father -- oh, the similarities between these two, small countries!] With so many encounters like these, I can't help but wonder if I have become that guy.