If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that moving to another country wouldn't be so hard because they spoke the same language as me, I'd own a Gucci purse. I'm very grateful there is not a language barrier, however there is a "Big Ben" sized semantic barrier that has caused me much confusion and embarrassment.
Let me give context. We are living smack dab in the middle of London town, our neighbors are SUPER chic. Remember that puppy party we were invited to? After being there one hour I met a former FBI Agent, a celebrity photographer and a professor at Oxford. It was like playing that Sesame Street game of, "Which one of these is not like the other." I am sure the new American couple stood out. Which is fine by me, it goes with the territory. However, I am trying to walk the fine of line of embracing our new culture, and remaining who I am at my core. Let it be noted, in this crowd, the stakes seem high for a girl who went to school in the middle of a cotton field in Louisiana.
Walkin' the fine line.
In order to be both respectable and a quick study, I carry a card sized notebook around in my back pack. It is where I not only record the names of people we have met, example, Fenton- waiter at Bills, you-tube sensation, lives in Eailing or Tyler- American, wife is from Venezuela, owner of dog Charlie. But to also write down things that either don't make sense, or words that have another meaning entirely. This is so I can look them up later and spare myself future embarrassment. Example, "in queue"- is to stand in line, while "overtake"- is to pass up. If you want to set up a lunch date, you write it down in your "diary" formerly known as your day planner. People will ask were we are residing. We currently live, in the Marylebone area. We have pronounced it Meril-bone, Marlee-bone and Marla-bone. We are still unsure which is proper, so we just say it quickly to avoid detection. Daily conversation here is rife with British adjectives like cheeky, miffed and daft. I have had several people ask if I am "posh." I believe they are asking me if I like to dance and sing in tight black leather and heels, I always answer "yes." These days, I am rarely "in the know," which leaves me feeling like the guest star in a Bridgets Jone's Diary movie. I do a lot of smiling, and a lot of nodding my head.
We mustn't overlook the confusing terms, that make you question your adulting capacity. The subway is "the tube," while the above ground subway is the "train," but the actual train is the "express" or the "railway." You must "mind the gap" for all of them. This means to "watch your step and get out of the doorways." In order to partake in transportation you must get an "oyster" or a metro card. You can "top it off" or pay it in full at every major station. But don't try to use your oyster to get on a the international railway, that is another ticket entirely. Confused yet? Do you see how we could be those people that are turning in circles in the middle of the station waiting for some lighting bolt to strike us in the right direction? How people did this before apps and google maps amazes me.
Throughout this process, I have also come to realize that London is the gateway to Europe, thus making it a melting pot of European cultures. If you go to a Greek restaurant, ninety-five percent of the staff is Greek. Same for Indian, Japanese and Italian eateries. When we go to grab a bite at most places here, there is an obscene amount of googling that takes place to find out exactly what we are ordering. I discover a new ingredient almost every outing. Once we have completely researched and made ready our order, you can see the pained smiles on our waiter's faces as they try to decipher what WE think we are ordering. Sometimes we resort to the Kindergarten Method, which is pointing and pretending we are mute. It's all a messed up game of "telephone," we often wonder if they go back to the kitchen in a fit of laughter. The upside to this game, is that we always win, as the food in the city is pretty sensational.
With our new found zest for foreign diction, I was bound to make a critical error at some point. In reading the headlines of the papers here, and hearing conversation amongst our park posse, the word "barisster" kept creeping into conversation. I could not tell from context clues, nor from pronunciation, what a "barisster" was exactly. So I assumed, they were pronouncing the word "barista," which we all know is person who is well versed in coffee making, especially the Italian kind. Before arriving, I had heard how serious the Brits took tea time, I thought it was pretty cool how serious they seemed to be about their coffee too. In an early morning conversation with our friend Henri, owner of Toby who has the big birthday party at the cinema, he tells me he is a "barrister." He also tells me and another guest, waiting in line for coffee, about a wild time when his own barrister got punched in the nose for asking for a croissant. (That is a whole other story.) I say, quite frankly, "Man, you guys have surely got a love for coffee! I feel like everyone here has a personal barista. We don't really do that in the states, it's basically Starbucks or bust." I can see both men turn to me. The record has stopped. I can also feel a hot spot light on my face. Oh shit, what did I say? Is Starbucks a dirty word here? Have I offended their trade? Oh God, I want to melt into the pavement. Henri and his friend begin to chuckle. (The sophisticated kind of laugh.) I take a breath, but I can tell I am nervously blinking a lot because I am not yet in on the joke. He says, "Oh dear, I practice law, I am a barrister not a barista. Don't confuse me with a Solicitor, that is another kind all together." Okay, there is so much to unpack here. They call a lawyer a barisster? And a solicitor is a lawyer too? What is the difference?! They would surely be offended by our "No Solicitor" signs in America. Who knew? The answer is...not me. I begin to laugh like you do when you trip and fall in front of a crowd but you want them to know you meant to, and even if you didn't mean to, you are so cool you just laugh it off. Meanwhile your knee is bleeding and you need to seek both physical and emotional cover. (That kind of laugh.) At just the perfect time, the cheery and legitimate Italian barista comes out with my Cafe Latte. Saved by the very thing that got me into trouble! I bid the boys adieu and practically drag Nola back to the flat like a fluffy paperweight on a string.
I later recount the story to Zac who gives me a loving smile that reads, "Gosh I am glad you have long legs and can cook." He knows that I sometimes look before I leap, which is why his "speak softly, if you speak at all" is a good ying to my yang.
I have bumped into Henri several times since my occupational blunder and he seems to think I am a kick in the pants. Which means the fine line I am riding of embracing England and remaining a true southerner, up for a good time, is working out. I may not be a rocket scientist, a linguist or a poet, but I think I am keeping things interesting in my own unique way. I will continue to lean into the culture, while "minding the gap." Hoping everyone I meet has a short memory, a big heart, and a very good sense of humor.
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This post is in loving memory of my dear friend Jenny. Who made everyone feel at home no matter where they were from. We were instantly family. The world needed more Jenny, a lover and protector of people.