It's a commonplace to joke about the linguistic divisions between the English and Americans. We may share a language, American TV and movies may own the globe, and computers may make instantaneous communication throughout the English-speaking world possible, but we still have trouble, sometimes, making ourselves understood to each other. I find myself saying “pardon?” just as often as I hear it from shopkeepers and telephone service folks myself—it's particularly hard to make yourself understood over the phone, I find, absent body language and gesture. I've spent my first week teaching in Oxford making do with shared computer facilities, and I find myself fumble-fingered and awkward as symbols I use all the time — the “at” sign, for example — have mysteriously migrated to different portions of the keyboard. A week isn't long enough to retrain my old fingers, so I've been hunting and pecking through e-mail addresses and mostly managing.
But it's not just the keyboard, of course. My son, almost twelve, takes an almost gleeful pleasure in trying to predict just how differently he'll pronounce a place name from how it appears on a street sign; we may think “Cherwell” is obvious, but that first syllable is actually more like “Char.” Don't even get him started on “Magdalen” or “Leicester.”
It's really a small step out of our comfort zones. We can make ourselves understood here in ways that we had trouble with last summer in France (on one memorable occasion, my only common language with a ticket agent was my rusty high-school Spanish). But it's because our languages are so close, I think, that some days it feels so distant. Do I want chips or crisps? Cookies or biscuits? Even the things that look the same are just slightly different (don't get me started on the tacos and the fajitas—I should really know better than to try to find Mexican food in Oxford).
The fact is, I'm a foreigner here. And being a foreigner here reminds me of all the ways that I'm a foreigner in my studies as well: a 21st-century person studying 19th -century literature, an adult studying children's literature, an American studying British literature. It's a salutary reminder; my expertise allows me to forget, I think, how distant I really am from the things that I study. Is it a peculiarly American problem, to think we can be at home anywhere? Or is it the curse of the expert, the academic?
I've got the temperature conversion, the time change, and the currency exchange reasonably well in hand, and this weekend we'll even try renting a car and driving on the left. Somehow those all seem easier, today, than trying to order dinner in a pub, which is why I'm glad we've got a kitchen at home. Now if I can only figure out how to read the supposedly universal icons on the stove...
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