Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In Which I Learn I Don't Speak English English

I almost didn’t leave for London yesterday.

Monday morning before my planned Tuesday afternoon departure for England and grad school, I had still not received my passport back from the UK consulate with my student visa.  As if that were not enough, over the weekend I had managed to come down with a case of bronchitis. Whiffs of panic could be scented in the air in the Skove household. But things came together, as they do; my passport arrived, with all my papers in working order. After a lovely going-away gathering with my farm coworkers, Monday night found me clocking in 11:00 pm at a 24-hour CVS, washing down antibiotics with codeine.  Tuesday my parents gave me a lift to Dulles to see me off, and before I knew it I was on a plane.

It was then that I had a rude realization: British English and the English I know do not necessarily share vocabulary.

Let me digress for a moment to explain that when you have 3-foot-long thighbones, as I do, economy seats are a real pain. I don’t mean this in some metaphysical way, like the way all your friends singing that one song from Frozen is a real pain; I mean the tiny space between seats causes actual physical discomfort.  So you’ll understand that when the time came to choose a seat online, and I saw an aisle seat with extra legroom at no additional fee, I thought my stars had aligned for once. I noticed small print explaining that this seat adjoined “cots”, and briefly registered this as odd—I’ve never seen cots on a plane, I thought, imagining metal foldout beds, like summer camp or M.A.S.H.—but mostly disregarded it, because hey, legroom.

As it turns out, “cot” is British (or Bringlish, a term I just invented now to describe British English, because they don’t own the whole language, thank you) for baby bassinet. This is, I anticipate, not the last time that I will unintentionally hoodwink myself ("Wait, your car got booted?! Were you not supposed to park here? Why are you gesturing to the trunk? That seems irrelevant.")

Let it be stated for the record that those terms are NOT synonymous, whatever British Airways might think. A cot is a cot. A bassinet is entirely different, chiefly in that babies occupy it, a feature that was inadequately advertised. “THIS ROW EXCLUSIVELY FOR THOSE WITH TINY WEAK EARDRUMS AND HEALTHY LUNGS”, the website should have said, in 32-point bolded font.

My linguistic indignation was useless, however; I was sharing a row with two infants and a toddler, and I couldn’t even complain about it, because I chose the seat. I did this, the traveller’s suicide, to myself. We taxied into takeoff, and as the pressure in the cabin increased, the babies, on cue, burst into a chorus of howls.  About the time they quieted down, the fasten-seatbelt sign went off, and the toddler turned on an iPad to resume watching—I kid you not—Frozen.

“Let it goooooooo, let it GOOOOOOOOOO,” Idina Menzel shrieked from two seats over, and I was overcome by a strong urge to beat my head slowly against the baby bassinet (excuse me, cot) in front of me.

It was shortly thereafter that my friend bronchitis made an appearance, and I burst into a fit of chesty coughs. The one doomed innocent in row 35, a nice German man with limited English seated to my left, turned slowly to look at me with an expression of mingled disapproval and despair.

“It could be worse,” I rasped cheerfully. “I could have forgotten my cough drops, then we’d be in real trouble.” I smiled, to indicate that this had been a joke, but he didn’t laugh. We’ll chalk it up to the English.

I started thinking about ways I could possibly be a worse seatmate: I could have athlete’s foot and yet insist on taking my shoes off. I could have brought a bag of spicy nacho cheese to slurp on as an in-flight snack. I could be a third baby, a nacho cheese-eating baby with stinky feet and bronchitis, who didn’t pack cough drops OR clean diapers. This last one made me laugh, which provoked another bout of coughing. I thought about trying to share this bizarre hypothetical with my beleaguered neighbor—“Want to hear about the worst baby in the world? You could have been sitting next to her!”—but in view of the resolute way he was staring straight at the televised flight map in front of him, presumably willing the plane to be in London already, I didn’t think he was in the mood for more of my jokes. I let him be and retreated behind a book.

And thus, inauspiciously, began my time in London.

This morning I got to my new flat in Whitechapel with a minimum of hassle, thanks to an exorbitantly expensive cab ride from Heathrow to the East End. If I never take a taxi again until the day I move out, I may be able to justify that blow to my carefully planned budget. London, as two months’ worth of Charles Dickens audiobooks led me to anticipate, is gray and drizzly. My flat is cute, with (hopefully) just enough room for four people, and a pocket-sized garden out back. My German flatmate, Tayfun, is proving to be as great as he seemed via email. I already have a new number; email me if you want it.

I’ve seen too little yet to give much more of a description than that, so we’ll leave it there—I’m here; I suspect I’m not dying of consumption, as my meaty coughs would seem to indicate; and despite not having slept one wink on the plane, I can’t wait to get out and wander around through the drizzle, exploring my new neighborhood.

So I’m going to do just that. Until next crime!

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