divided by the same language part 1
October 10, 2006
Having been made aware that not everyone is completely at home with my peculiar insular brand of English, I thought of retailing a few anecdotes on American and British varieties. The first lot turned out to be more about the cultures than the language so linguists will have to be patient until part 2.
On my first visit to the USA I was flying from Bogota to New York via Miami. In my excitement I had failed to notice the ‘via Miami’ bit and arrived there wearing a thick padded coat ideal for New York winters. At Miami customs I was promptly seized and thoroughly strip searched surrounded by signs warning ‘No Joking’. Every time I was about to say ‘a funny thing happened to me..’ I had to bite my tongue. I was terrified they might try a sting operation and the customs guy might come out with ‘Kock knock…’.Anyway, as I managed to keep a straight face they let me go. In the posh new York hotel the bellboy who insisted on carrying my microscopic travelling bag waited rather blatantly for his tip. I handed over the only bit of American cash I had on me which turned out to be a 50 cent piece. I deduced from his expression that he did not consider this an adequate reward for his services. The other tipping thing that used to bug me was the spooky characters who hung around in public lavatories (sorry, ‘bathrooms’) handing out towels and waiting for their gratuity. I had to give up frequenting these places as a result, which at times cast a cloud over my visit. When I failed to tip a waitress who had, I suspected, deliberately ignored me during my three hour struggle to order a starter of guacamole, she pursued me furiously down the street. Luckily, I was in better shape in those days. Ordering food was also made unnecessarily challenging in my view by the fact that every dish had been given a name like an attraction in Disneyworld. On the behaviour of the waiters and waitresses I would rather not comment except to say that I felt quite embarrassed by having to hear so much about their private lives and the immense joy they had experienced when I walked in the door every time I needed some more water. From New York I proceeded to Atlanta, where I went for a first meal with an Algerian and a Russian who spoke no English. They understood more, however, of the waiters than I did. It was in Atlanta that I first experienced the form of CIA interrogation used by restaurant staff. Having consulted my phrasebook earlier and memorised terms like ‘sunny side up’ and ‘easy over’ I thought I was ready for anything but I was unprepared for the barrage of questions which were designed to extract from me every possible detail concerning the piece of fish I wanted. The interrogation then moved on to the vegetables, by which time my knees were shaking. Just when I thought my tormenters would relent they turned to the subject of bread and listed thirty seven varieties that I was required to choose from. Summoning every ounce of strength I managed to gasp ‘Grandma’s Farmhouse wholewheat’. But they weren’t going to be satisfied as easily as that. Pleading for mercy I was still ordered to choose between butter and fifteen butter substitutes. I chose butter as it was the only word I could pronounce and I hoped it would satisfy them But they had one last fiendish trick up their sleeves. ‘Salted, unsalted or the dairy fresh special?’ If I hadn’t been rescued by my friends there would have been one more victim of torture for Amnesty international to document. And all this was before I was tripped up by the numerous lexical traps that lie in wait for the unwary Brit…..