DOOM20: The Accent Exhibition of 2013

Hey guys. It’s been a while. I’d been meaning to come back to write more, though I debated whether or not to continue the DOOM20 series. I originally planned on writing 10 of these entries all before I turned 30, but alas procrastination got the best of me. Though I’m no longer in my 20s, I’ve decided to complete the assignment so that every Distinctive Occasion Of My 20s (DOOM20) can be remembered forever on the internet. This next one harkens all the way back to around the time I was just entering my third decade…

I arrived in London in September 2013 as a newly minted 20 year old, eager to begin a semester abroad at King’s College London. The British Isles seemed like the natural place for an English major to study, and when I was deciding where I wanted to travel to during my Junior year it was the only destination I considered. Even before I declared my major I had designs of studying somewhere in the UK, as evidenced by one of the early line items on the 101-point bucket list I’d penned less than three years prior as a high school Senior:

14. Study abroad in the UK and entice many a lady with my lack of their accent

Let’s put that into a little context. Around the time that list was composed I’d just finished working my first summer at Surprise Lake Camp (first as staff, seventh summer overall). Each year, SLC works with different organizations that place foreigners, including Brits, in summer camps across the country as part of a larger effort to let international 20-30 somethings experience life in America. Without fail, the British contingent would consistently be some of the more popular people in camp, thanks in no small part to their accents. There were times when hordes would crowd around to demand the token Englishman say different words and phrases, just to hear the funny way they pronounce “aluminium.” The one time I had a Northern Irish counselor, kids would hound him to reenact Lucky Charms commercials. I saw countless infatuated Americans fawning over the British, and only assumed that the obsession would work both ways if I were in the phonetic minority.

In hindsight, this was a gross overestimation of how the world views American accents. While most variations of the British accent are viewed in such high esteem that any documentary sounds incomplete if not narrated with one, American accents are just shrugged off (save for one). The American media empire is omnipresent to the point where an American accent, even one as splendid as my New York dialect, doesn’t turn heads. Americans have also spread out efficiently to the four corners of the globe, making just one individual American in a city like London unremarkable. Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way.

No photo description available.
What’s Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes?

I spent most of my time in London living in a first year’s (fresher’s) dorm in the posh Hampstead area of the city. There were students from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities living in Lord Cameron Hall, including from all parts of the UK, France, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, as well as a few other American exchange students from different universities. Much time was spent socializing in the dorm’s large kitchen where, absent a dining plan like most American schools, it was one of the only places to prepare and eat a nutritious meal. This is where I got to really know the people on my floor, and where memorable events, such as the world’s longest Halloween predrinks (pregaming) and the Thanksgiving feast I cooked for my friends, took place.

While spending time in the kitchen, I gave my peers plenty of opportunities to get me to say things like “I forgot my vitamins in the garage,” or “that slice of eggplant looks like a chocolate chip cookie.” No one was interested in hearing how I pronounced the last letter of the alphabet, or even wanted to know what Americans did with the “U”s from words like “colour” or “valour.” As far as I know, none of the other Americans were treated as curiosities, either. I don’t often clamor to be the center of attention, but, seeing how it was important enough to put on my list of things I wanted to do before I died, it was something I’d been truly looking forward to. I came to London fully prepared to defend my accent, but no one came to challenge what I had to say or how I said it. The closest I ever came while in the city was having the French students laugh at me in the kitchen when I told them about all the things I was taught in high school French class (ouaiiiiiis). I cooked my first ever turkey for these people, and they didn’t have the decency to at least comment about the funny way I say “coffee.” By the time the end of the semester rolled around, I’d almost forgotten about my desire to juxtapose accents. 

After the conclusion of the last classes of the semester, one of the friends I’d made in the dorm, Sophie, invited me to stay with her family for a couple days at her home in Crewe. I’d mentioned in passing my desire to experience British life outside of the big city, and she was happy to volunteer her house. I had a few days to kill between my last class and my flight back to the States, so we were able to fit in a few day trips, including a long-awaited visit to the city of Chester (the seeming inspiration for the name of my home county in New York, Westchester).

Ms. Sophie’s Mum drove down from Crewe to pick us up, and having only taken the bus while staying in London, this was my first true ride on the wrong side of the road. It may have been after dark (which comes on very early in mid-December at that high of a latitude), but it was still wild seeing all of the lights on the highway careening towards us from the right, although sitting in the back seat didn’t afford me quite the view I would have wanted to truly appreciate it.

We arrived in Crewe around supper time, just about when we planned to meet up with Sophie’s friends. Ms. Sophie’s Mum was kind enough to drop us off at the pub a little later than we’d hoped, but we made it just in time for the start of the pub’s trivia night. Three of Sophie’s friends had already snagged a table and saved us a couple seats in the booth. We slotted in beside them, and after some quick introductions the games began. As the former captain of my high school’s Academic Challenge team, any trivia night is a fun affair, though that night would be memorable for much more than where we placed at the end of the game.

Sophie’s friends all lived in Crewe, a good three-hour drive from the London metro area. As such, they all had fewer interactions with foreigners than those living in the capitol, which made me more of a novelty in this much smaller city. After living in London for three months, I forgot how much I could stand out for how I spoke. I don’t have the official data, but it’s safe to assume that there are fewer Americans in Crewe than in London, and as such the way I spoke was more likely to catch someone by surprise up north.

It started shortly after our orders were taken amid the early rounds of the game. I don’t remember what set it off, but I must have said something in such a way that made one of the Crewe natives giggle. For the purposes of this story, let’s assume that I ordered a food item that I was both extremely surprised and annoyed to discover could be pronounced any other way.

“I’ll have the pita sandwich with chicken,” I could have supposedly said to the waiter.

Once the waiter left, one of Sophie’s friends could have said something like, “Hehe. Did you mean pitta?”

“Oh, I know what I said. I said it the right way,” I would have proudly proclaimed.

This initial dialogue, regardless if it was over oregano, tomato, zebra, or any other words British people say incorrectly, led to the exact sort of scenario I’d seen play out at summer camp. Sophie and her friends would ask me to say something, and I’d give them the proper pronunciation in response. When they ran out of words or phrases they knew were different I was happy to volunteer a few of my own. We marveled at how we could speak the same language and yet say some things completely differently. That conversation didn’t take up the entire time we spent at the pub, but it was certainly the most memorable portion of the discussion. 

After we placed near the bottom of the pack in trivia, one of Sophie’s friends drove us back to her house. I was allowed to sit in the front seat for this short ride, which left me awestruck at just how weird it was to sit in the front left seat of a car and not have access to a steering wheel. I had a grin on my face for most of the ride back. I unfortunately never got to drive during my time in the UK, but that was the next best thing.

I’m happy that, even if it was just for one evening, I was able to have the sort of accent exchange I’d been hoping to have for years (whether or not any of the ladies attending were “enticed” is up for debate). That said, I can’t help but wonder if that experience would have been any more remarkable if I hadn’t been anticipating it. If I hadn’t arrived in London knowing a laundry list of words and phrases that differ between American and British English, would I have been more engaged in the conversation in the pub? If I hadn’t witnessed Brits being interrogated at summer camp, would I have known that this was something I wanted? I enjoyed it in the moment, but none of what we discussed that night was new to me. Some of Sophie’s friends’ reactions to what I had to say did amuse me, but would I have been more astonished if I hadn’t already anticipated what words would illicit the best responses? There are many what ifs, though it’s hard to deny that the event lacked the authenticity it could have had if it had come as a surprise.

In the end, riding reverse shotgun back to Sophie’s house tickled my fancy more than the highly anticipated accent showdown. Despite the disappointment, however, it ended up being one of the first items to get crossed off the bucket list. Only around 90 things left to do…

Honorable mentions for other important moments of 2013: Completing my first go-around at the MTA, my first ever panic attack on the first day in London, the epic adventure leading to the best ID picture I’ve ever taken on my second day in London

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