“I have sex for money!”

No, not me.  Someone else.  Patience.

Back when I was in high school, we had an exchange student from Finland.  Her name was Paulamaria, and she was a wonderful young lady, a year or so older than me, tall, broad shouldered, blonde and (at first) terrified.  She spoke okay English at the start.  Anyone could sympathize with her plight, sent to live for a year in a tiny lumber town very far from all she knew.  In hindsight I respect her courage and sense of adventure just to do it.  She lived with us for part of the year, and with a couple of other families later.  But she got our dysfunctional household first.

The budding language junkie in the family already spoke some Spanish and Russian, but no Finnish.  Paula taught me some, and how to pronounce it, which itself is fairly challenging.  In listening to her accent, I came to understand that Finns have terrible trouble with our consonant blends.  It takes them extensive practice to articulate the sounds at all.  Finnish is a very tough language, but it’s not that hard to pronounce.  Great:  a language where you can easily be understood, but knowing what you said is not so easy.  Paula would never call herself a Finn; she would say she was a ‘Feeneess person.’  She spoke ‘Svediss’ and ‘Zerman’ in addition to ‘Eengliss’.  I am not making fun of her at all, just illustrating her pronunciation issues.  She also had guts.  When my mother, on the way home from picking her up, made the absolutely horrifying blunder of asking her if Finns were related to Russians, I saw her eyes flash fire before she had even seen her new home.  “Ve are not Russan people!” she exclaimed.  I had winced.  Good one, Mom.  They take that one real bad in Finland.

Of course, hardly anyone in town even knew where Finland was, except me (who spoke no Finnish) and a lady up the street (who remembered enough from her youth to converse a bit).  Didn’t matter.  Paula picked up English quickly enough, while teaching me how to swear (perrrrrrrrkele!), be grossed out (oooooouuuck!) and be wheedled (ollahyvää???? (please)).

Paula had some resources, enough that she could pretty much go shopping whenever she wished.  She often wished.  We helped her set up a checking account, which made that easier.  So one day my mother, my biological sister, my Finnish sister and I were all riding to town together.  Paula and I were in the back seat.  Now, our household was very religiously conservative, with my father’s interpretation of the tenets of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church and the Bible as the law.  We were self-righteous snobs about it all.  I had only somewhat begun to rebel.  Paula wanted to go shopping with some friends, and said so.  My mother, always keeping an eye out for the details, asked from the driver’s seat:  “Now, Paula, do you have enough money?”

“Oh.  I have sex for money.”

My mother’s very Lutheran head snapped around.  “You do what?”  I attempted to suppress some laughter.

“I have sex!  Oo know, sex!”

Mom spluttered, not angrily but in vast consternation:  “Paula, I have no idea what the customs are like in Finland, but they are different here, and we must have a long talk before you go anywhere.”

For her part, Paula couldn’t understand what the issue was.  Why was everyone reacting this way? Her American mom was discombobulated; her American sister was doing I’m not sure what, and her American brother was snickering like Muttley.  There followed a discussion of much confusion and some concern, but the language junkie finally figured it out.

I pulled out a checkbook.  “Checks, right, Paula?”

“Yes!  Sex!”

You may imagine my mother’s relief.  Once Paula knew she was properly understood, she too was relieved.  Time to shatter that relief, like a proper brother.  I told her what exactly she had been saying.

It’s amazing how pink a very white, Nordic face framed by a bunch of light blonde 1970s hair can get when its owner gets a little uncomfortable.  Almost magenta.

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