Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Manner of Speaking

Since moving from England to the United States in the 1990s, I still get a kick from some of the questions and verbal exchanges my accent (British) elicits. Here are some of the best -- or, depending on your point of view, the worst -- encounters that have endeared themselves to me.

Traveling is always guaranteed to produce some good exchanges. One time I stopped for something to eat in rural Iowa. Hearing me order, a trucker walked up and asked me, “You from Canada or something?“ Most definitely something, I thought.

In a Kansas City coffee shop I got talking to a couple of teenage girls and, after a while, decided to introduce myself by shaking hands whereupon one of them took my hand and, bending her knees and slightly bowing her head, curtsied. I was highly amused and told her, “There is no need to curtsey to me!” Perhaps she thought that was the expected etiquette when meeting a Brit.

Bar Talk - In Minneapolis I spoke with a man in a bar who, after learning I was half English and half Welsh, said, “But Wales is just a part of England, right?” Trying to explain the difference, while carefully throwing in the few words of welsh I knew for good measure, he accused me of trying to hoodwink him. Hilarious.

And how could I forget the drunk in a Detroit bar who refused to believe I was not faking my accent. He asked that I show him my “currency” as proof of where I was from. Except he wasn’t quite that polite. Twisted, eh.

The holidays - “Do you guys have Christmas in England?” someone once asked. “Used to. We all recently converted to Islam,” I quipped. Needless to say, I wasn’t too surprised when my explanation was accepted at face value.

Some exchanges just stretch belief. Case in point: I once parked in a downtown Minneapolis parking lot when the attendant, to whom I paid the parking fee, said, “You speak English very well. Where do you come from?"
“England,“ I replied.
A confused look, and then, “So they teach you the language there, huh?”
Apparently, they’ve been teaching it there for some time. I smiled, wound up the window, and drove off.

Perhaps the most bizarre exchange of all took place in a Jacksonvile, Florida, supermarket during a break from a road trip between Miami and Atlanta. Ordering a sandwich at the deli counter, I became conscious of a man nearby staring at me. A look back a few seconds later and his eyes were still fixed on me. After collecting my sandwich I headed toward the checkout only to notice the same man heading my way. By this point I was a little apprehensive so decided to turn into the adjacent isle, stop and pretend to look at something on the shelf, and hope that he’d walk past. But he didn’t. Instead, he stopped inches away, and in an elongated Southern drawl, said, “Excuse me sir, can I say something to you?”
My heart began to pound a little faster as I imagined what he might want. “Sure, say whatever you like,” I replied.
“Cheers, mate!” he boomed, adding, “I’ve always wanted to say that to an Englishman.”
And then he was gone. Just like that.

Being (mis)understood can also present its challenges. At a state park this past summer, having just been on a hike, I asked someone to take a photo of me and my new friend.
“Take one a little closer,” I requested.
“Take our clothes off?” my friend said, a look of complete surprise on her face.
Oh sure, but I hardly know you.

And then there are the really fun encounters. Not long ago, in a Brueggers Bagel shop, I asked, “Can I have a little more cream cheese on that bagel?”
“Honey, with an accent like that you can have as much cream cheese as you like,” replied the woman, smiling.

These are, of course, some of the more memorable (and extreme) encounters. For the most part having the accent I do can be a fun thing and, more often than not, a non-event.