By Peter Winkler
More years ago than I care to count, I was an exchange student at the
University of Sussex in England. One fine English afternoon (yes, they have them sometimes), my friend Dene and I fell to arguing about the pronunciation of leisure. I advocated LEE-zher, he insisted on
LEH-zher. To lend force to my case, I dusted off a maxim from first-grade phonics: When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking. Surely that would settle things. (Looking back, though, I realize the handy rhyme doesnt really apply. Oh well.)
Dene responded placidly, Peter, its our language.
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That little exchange perfectly summed up the oddities of being an American in England. Everything was similar but not the same. And just when youd started to feel at home, some cultural quirkgenerally linguistic, culinary, or both at onceswiftly reminded you that this was definitely a foreign country.
Even a routine grocery run involved cross-cultural borders. To head into town, I walked through the subway that ran beneath the A27 motorway. At the railway (never train!) station, I queued to buy a return ticket for Brighton. Then I ambled down Queens Road, taking care to look right as I negotiated the roundabout. The raw winds made me glad Id remembered to wear a jumper.
At Tescos supermarket, I filled my trolley with mince for shepherds pie, rashers and eggs for an indulgent breakfast, a few courgettes to make me feel virtuous, and aluminium foil for wrapping leftovers. Sweets and crisps looked perfect for long nights of writing essays on medieval art, but Id lost nearly three stone the previous summer and wanted to keep slimming.
Once that lot was safely stowed in carry bagswhich cost five pence each, an outrage I never quite acceptedI trudged back toward the train (never railway!) depot. Along the way, I popped into the off-licence for a bottle of sherry. (England having sensibly exported its Puritans some centuries earlier, I could drink legally.) Then into the chemists for something to alleviate the recurring colds that came with living in a country where central heating was an exotic novelty. Finally, back to the block of student flats.
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True confession: As a wordsmith wannabe, I loved every one of those new words, and the Queens English crept into my own speech. When an American friend phoned to arrange a visit, I instructed him cheerfully, Ring me when you get to Brighton, and Ill come collect you. He mocked me for days.
Eventually, I returned home, learned to look to the left again before crossing streets, toted free (!) shopping bags full of Diet Coke and candy, and reaffirmed that I am indeed an American (and damn glad). But once in a rare while, cider or squash in hand, its brilliant to close my eyes and think of England.
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