Wednesday, January 20, 2010



. . . a well-worn rant about the shortcomings of Americans. I never understand
what people are thinking when they do this. Do they think I’ll appreciate their
candor, or have they simply forgotten that I am one of the species myself?

This passage from Notes on a Small Island reminds me of the first time I met the late Aeronwy Thomas, Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter. I had just started working at the Dylan Thomas Centre at the very tail end of the Dylan Thomas Festival 2008. I was doing my best covering the bookshop, where I was frantically making coffees for people. This is, of course, DTC’s busiest time of the year. I didn’t know who she was at first—though I ended up spending much of this day talking to her husband—and just overheard her sitting at one of the tables. She had recently been on a book tour of America and was complaining about the shortcomings of the country and the people themselves. I suspect mostly it was a tiring trip and since she was secretly undergoing treatment for leukemia, my first impression of her as quite crotchety was probably ungenerous. Eventually she asked for a white coffee, and I must have asked her what that was. I don’t know if she heard my accent at that point—if she did, she made no apologies and no acknowledgments. She was always polite to me after that, in my limited acquaintance with her, though she did have quite the reputation at the hotel where I used to work as a demanding prima donna.

Because I’ve worked primarily in customer service jobs, I get a lot of questions about my accent. At the hotel , I would often get, “That’s not a Welsh accent, is it?” In people’s favor, they often asked, “Which part of North America are you from?” so as not to offend me if I was Canadian. This is how I knew my accent wasn’t changing, though sometimes there was surprise as people had observed that I wasn’t British but apparently my American accent wasn’t very strong, either. Certainly after people have found out I’m American, they haven’t made any disparaging remarks (unlike in France, where once at a party every time I was introduced as an American, the resident wit added, “unfortunately”). Most people are generally curious and many are actually envious! The US they know is from TV and films or the sun-soaked locale of Florida. During my week at the call centre, surprisingly few people ventured any kind of opinion on my accent, though I did once get into a long conversation with a Scottish guy about where I was from.

I remember a lot of excitement during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, though that’s partially (but not entirely) because some Americans I knew had thrown a party to stay up all night to see the results. (I only made it til 2 am, I believe, when I finally switched off the computer and waited to see the results in the morning!) Similarly, there was surprisingly obsessive coverage of President Obama’s Inauguration this time last year, which I did happen to watch (though my Indian housemate was a lot more excited about it than I was!).

My friend Katie had a very funny mix up in 2006 which I am always happy to trot out: when I invited her to the student house Thanksgiving, she said she wasn’t sure she could celebrate the holiday of us throwing the Brits out. Certainly she had Thanksgiving mixed up with Fourth of July. I’ve never quite known how to celebrate Fourth of July in this country—I end up doing nothing. Fortunately the three Thanksgivings I’ve had here I’ve managed to cobble something together.

And what is it Brits have to say about Americans, if not bad things? Everyone at the hotel had had positive experience with American guests, praising their generosity and politeness. (Though it is amusing to note that I always knew guests were American if they asked for ice water with their breakfasts, as it’s a given to provide people with this in restaurants in America. Conversely, I knew a group of guests were Russian when they asked for lemon, not milk, with their tea and used up all the honey.)

I’d like to think the conflicts of previous centuries were behind us!

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