Moving from London to Chicago in the late 1990s, I never imagined I would find myself facing a language barrier. Last time I checked, England and America both spoke English so, short of getting used to different accents, I had not anticipated there being a problem.
My first encounter with confusion occurred in an Ace Hardware store, where the poor clerk, with whom I very quickly became short, had no way of knowing that by "a rubbish bin to go under the kitchen work surface" I was looking for "a garbage can to fit under the counter."
I has similar problems attempting to purchase what I considered to be common everyday items, such as squash (a drink cordial as opposed to the vegetable), Weetabix (a breakfast cereal, more common now but unheard of 15 years ago), Marmite (try explaining why anyone would want a yeast extract spread to put on their toast) and tea (I was repeatedly asked, "Would you like lemon or 'erbal?" when I just wanted the normal breakfast kind; I had yet to learn that Americans do not pronounce the "h" in “herb”). I soon realized the list of differences was mind boggling!
Simple conversations also posed problems. Having accepted my new friend Danielle’s invitation to meet at the beach one day, I remember being mystified when she reminded me not to forget my “suit.” A suit to me was what business men and women wore to the office, so why would I need one for the beach?
I thought it best to politely inform her that suits hadn’t been a necessity in my previous job so I didn’t own one. I reassured her, however, that I was sure I had something suitable in the event that we went out for a fancy dinner afterwards. After all, if she was asking me to bring a suit, she must have had something upscale planned for the evening.
Wondering how I would manage on the beach all day without a suit, Danielle suggested we stop off on the way to buy one. When I told her I would be fine because I had a costume, I knew I had lost her. I had no idea a suit was, in fact, swimwear and that Danny would think a "costume" was something you wore at Halloween.
I was a useful tool for Danielle when it came to deciphering words and expressions in Bridget Jones’ Diary, a book we were all reading at the time. Austin Powers was taken to a whole new level when I explained the real meaning of some of the seemingly innocuous lines Mike Myers managed to get away with in the movie. (Did anybody in America even know what, “Shag me, baby” meant before that film came out?!)
My translation of The Full Monty, the movie in which six unemployed steelworkers from northern England form a striptease act and are cheered on to take everything off (i.e., ”the full monty”), was essential as the accents had many Americans completely baffled (even Brits have trouble understanding the northern regions of our island at times).
But probably the most memorable experience was the time I worked as a waitress for our oversized, loud, cantankerous and overbearing neighbor, “Smokin' Woody."
Woody was a character and a half. He owned Smokin’ Woody's on Lincoln and Berteau, which was some of the best barbecue I had ever tasted. He wore jeans in a size I hadn’t previously suspected possible and held them up with "braces." I quickly learned the word used in America is "suspenders," but I had a hard time saying it without sniggering. The English use that word to refer to piece of underwear worn by women to hold up their nylon stockings.
Woody lived on the other side of the alley from our second-floor apartment. One day he called over to say that if I was bored, I could always work some shifts at his restaurant (he probably felt sorry for me as I was usually pottering around alone while my husband was traveling with his new job). After some brief consideration, I decided it was something I should try.
Never having waitressed before, I remember feeling an onset of nerves as he showed me around the place and introduced me to the staff in his finest English accent, which incidentally was absolutely dreadful.
It’s fair to say my serving career was not long lived. From the outset I caused nothing but problems. Placing hand-written orders for "beef burger with chips" when what the customer wanted was a cheeseburger with fries didn’t fly too well with the chef, Sergio.
After just a few hours and more than a little frustration by my constant errors, I decided to try to pacify the fiery chef by striking up a conversation. I asked him how long he’d been living in Chicago.
“I came from Mexico seven month ago. Why do you ask?” he responded with an air of suspicion. “Did you speak English before you came to America?” Amazed when he shook his head no, I couldn’t help telling him how impressed I was that he could speak so fluently after such a short amount of time.
I couldn’t imagine moving to Germany, for example, and becoming almost fluent after just a few months, so my reaction was genuine. However, I was mostly just trying to strike up a bond so he would stop shouting at me every time I messed up an order.
“So how long since you move here?” He questioned me slowly and I told him we had arrived just three weeks ago.
“Three week!” He nodded more sympathetically. “OK, that make more sense.” He paused momentarily, as if still a little confused before asking, “So how long you been speaking English?”
My instinct was to give him some attitude while reminding him that I am English, but after careful consideration I decided instead to remain quiet.
That was the first and last day I waitressed for Woody, but we remained friends and faithful customers of his for many years afterwards. My inability to communicate properly was not about to stop me from enjoying such fabulously delicious barbecue.
After moving to Plainfield several years later, it wasn’t until my husband discovered Baby Back Blues at U.S. 30 and Lily Cache Road that we were able to indulge our love of this fantastic American tradition, once again and to our delight, so close to home.