Prior to this month, my most memorable experiences with the Scottish and with international perceptions of the United States happened to occur on the same day, a few years ago while my family was staying at a hotel in the decidedly American city of Orlando, Fla.
My sister and I were sitting on the edge of the pool while two small boys took turns jumping into the water nearby. We could easily hear their chatter, but try as we might, we couldn’t understand a word. So we figured they were speaking another language, and, as if they couldn’t understand us, proceeded to talk about them (mostly about how adorable they were).
That is, until we finally heard the phrase “deep end” cut through the verbal obscurity, clear as the sky that day.
Only then did we realize that the family next to us was from Scotland and was indeed speaking English. Of some kind. I think.
Fast forward two years later, and I’m finding myself immersed in the Scottish dialect, and I’m not much better at understanding it. The first weekend I was here I participated in an Overseas Orientation Weekend, so while I was exposed to many different accents, I didn’t hear many Scottish ones.
That quickly changed.
Last week, I went to the small grocery store in town, seeking to buy a phone card. When I asked the lady at the counter if they sold them there, she told me they only sold cards for “mobiles” (pronounced with a long ‘i’ so it sounds like something a person coughs up). Then she told me to try “Patata” and gestured toward the next street.
Hmmm. I had never heard of that store before, but I gamely trekked over to the aforementioned street. I soon resorted to searching for any place with a name beginning with the letter P. Finally, when I was reaching the point of desperation, all of a sudden the crowds and clouds parted, and glowing in a surreal light there appeared … the post office. D’oh.
A few days later I was exploring the town when I encountered an older Scottish man standing outside of his pizza parlour, along with a Scottish waitress. Contrary to popular belief, the Scots seem to be very open and friendly, and I was taken aback by their initiation of conversation (although maybe I’m just used to living in Ann Arbor, where people don’t even make eye contact on the street, myself included). I talked to them for a half hour, and enjoyed the dialogue, but it was actually quite comical, because I could tell the old man had as much trouble understanding my dialect as I did his. It didn’t help that someone parked a giant truck next to us and left the engine running. Overall, there was a lot of smiling and nodding and not as much comprehension.
However, this conversation made me realize how America-centric I am. I figured that my English was easier to understand than a Scotsman’s English. Of course I know this isn’t true, but once in a while I’ll find myself falling into the trap of such assumptions, almost by habit. But I’d like to think that every day I’m slightly broadening my world view. Although I still don’t understand why it took me 20 minutes to find peanut butter at the grocery store (it was in some obscure corner labeled “World Tastes” in the back of the store, next to old baked goods).
When I consider America’s place in the world, my thoughts return to the Scottish clan I encountered in Florida. After watching the little boys play in the pool for a while, my sister and I started talking to another member of the family – a guy who was about our age, named Gordon. One of the first questions he asked us (or maybe one of the first questions we understood) was whether American high school was accurately portrayed in movies like “American Pie” and “She’s All That.”
I had to chuckle. I don’t know about anyone else, but my high school prom did not consist of a perfectly choreographed dance number to the Rockefeller Skank. But maybe that’s because I’m from a place fondly nicknamed “Chartucky.”
Here at St. Andrews, I decided to ask some of the British students what they thought about Americans. Some of them are resentful of the large number of Americans that now attend this university. One Scottish girl somewhat snappishly said that she felt like she was a foreigner here. My friend Jimmy, a Scottish student, claimed that America was “a bit dodgy.”
But it seems that the overall consensus was that they like Americans (or at least don’t mind them), although they aren’t big fans of the United States’ government – an opinion not entirely unlike my own.
I did meet one girl, however, who claimed that she loved Americans. She shrieked this fact while jumping up and down and acting thoroughly excited. The fact that the conversation took place late at night in a pub may have had something to do with her enthusiasm. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised – until I heard her reason for her unusual affection for Americans.
She gleefully explained that another American girl and I talked just like the characters on “Dawson’s Creek.”
I went to get another drink.
– Bethany Root can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.