Confessions of an Expat – A snapshot of America

passing strangers
Passing strangers. Future Nobel Prize winners or mass murderers: we shall never know

They say that travel broadens the mind, and it is only logical that if you stay in one place you’re not going to see things and meet people as you would when visiting other areas.

This ‘broadens the mind’ in that it shows that other people don’t necessarily do things our way. That applies to everything from food to language : go to the Caribbean, for instance, and the food, even when it’s not fancy or expensive, is vastly different – and so is the way they speak English.

But a recent trip to Canada with several stops in the USA en route underlined that Britain and America are two countries ‘divided by a common language.’

The most noticeable thing about Miami airport, however, is that it is to all intents and purposes bilingual. You hear people speaking Spanish just as much as English, which is, of course, a bone of contention for many Americans. We’re all protective of our own language, and when people talk to us in another tongue in our own land without so much as a “I sorry, no speak English” it can be quite unsettling and seem disrespectful.

The dutiful expat spends his days trying to master this new way of communicating, struggling with a vocabulary smaller than a five-year-old’s, and there is that awkward stage where you’ve picked up enough to make a simple statement or request, but not enough to understand the torrent of words that come out by way of well-meaning reply.

At least the Brit in the US doesn’t have that problem. It doesn’t take long to get used to the fact that they refer to the thin, crisp things made of potato as chips rather than crisps, and they think our chips are ‘French fries’, failing to understand that a real chip is a piece of actual potato, a two-inch long thing with a square cross-section , rather than some pureed stuff made into that shape.

And this, guys, is our national dish. This regional variation from Phoenix airport features extra onions and oil

It is an education to meet random sample foreigners, and at Miami in late December we came across a great one. White but red-faced, he was wearing a Stetson and short, porn star-style cowboy boots not with jeans but with shorts. He looked as if he couldn’t decide if he was a businessman or a cattle rustler on vacation, as he strutted around the waiting area at Gate 3millionB, before disappearing in the direction of the shops and fast food places.

Some time later I wandered over to get a glass of wine (about $15 – standard airport extortion) and found myself perched at a high bench opposite a world-weary couple who had been listening to old JR’s tale of woe. The late stage at which I entered earshot went something like, “So I told her ‘You’re educated, your mother’s dead and I’m going to live in Belize’.” I imagine he was talking about how he told his 20-something daughter his own little American dream was over. Maybe his late wife was the porn star who owned the boots he was squeezed into for sentimental reasons and she had been shot by an angry client. But that’s just idle speculation – you don’t like to ask, do you? Anyway, he was clearly unhappy and if he happens to ever read this, well, Sir, I hope all is well down there in eastern Central America, scuba diving or just drowning your sorrows.

It was refreshing, in a way, to hear such an unguarded tirade in a country where so many public utterances are bland and measured. I bet he’s a Donald Trump supporter.

Nice shirt, son. Don’t get it all muddy, now, hear?

Once the man had gone to get his flight I attempted to engage in conversation the couple who had been his principal audience, but they had had enough of crazy strangers, so I turned to the television and the eerie realization that US sports commentators in films are not exaggerations of the real ones – they’re exactly the same. They would get excited if somebody tied their shoelace as long as the camera watched him doing it. American football: and they say cricket is hard to understand.


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