I apologize to the people of Scotland. Evidently, I have an accent. Yes, we all speak English, and yes, we all make fun of each other’s accents, and yes, few of us think we have one; but, after watching various folks try to twist their ears into hearing what I said, I apologize.
The first day wasn’t the worst, but it was a good introduction. I’d made it to Glasgow, thanks to modern aviation. Before I left the airport I wanted to find my next step, a train to my starting point: Stranraer. Finding the tourism booth was easy. Humbling myself, as if I was speaking a foreign language, was a little tougher. They understood most of what I said, but Stranraer came out Stran-rear, Stran-rah-er, Stran-rer, and then frustration. Finally, I found a map and pointed at the spot at the southwest end of the rail line. I was so tired and the nuances were so new I didn’t catch on even when I spent the night in Stranraer. It wasn’t until two weeks later, in Montrose, that I heard about the visiting team for tomorrow’s match and finally caught on to Stran-raer, just the way it’s spelled.
Most days had no problem. Every place I was going to or coming from was less than twenty miles away, so everyone could guess at what I said, at least for place names. As a conscientious traveler I try to pronounce things the ways the locals prefer. Why not? It’s their country. Even getting dialects correct isn’t enough. A Yank and a friend who spent years in Edinburgh has a vocabulary seeded with fields of unfamiliar terms and phrases. The phrases make no sense at the start, but with a bit of context and training they become so innocuous that they are hard to remember. It’s like subconsciously looking right then left before crossing the street. Once upon a time I owned a British sports car, a Triumph TR-7, which means the User’s Manual trained me to remember bonnet versus hood, boot versus trunk, and pozidriv versus phillips screwheads, but even now, only a couple of years after my trip, those daily phrases fade until I catch them on the BBC.
Not knowing the local language has dissuaded me from traveling in some countries. Chile and Argentina appeal, but my poor understanding of German, Russian, and Japanese aren’t even good in their homelands. South America looks wonderful, but I wonder how I’d get along.
I also know that, at least for my favorite way of traveling, language only matters at the borders, at meals, and when I want a room. Those are important, but they only take a small fraction of the travel time. The majority of each day is spent outdoors with Nature’s eternal language, and indoors reading whatever bit of English is available.
Even in Scotland, where we both supposedly knew the same language, I had to resort to pantomime one morning. I wanted orange juice. He heard oysters. His face contorted as he kept from calling the hotel’s only guest daft, and he was persistent enough to listen through three attempts before we finally succeeded when I pretended to drink from a glass. “Oh, orange juice. Why didn’t you say so?” he said shaking his head as he walked into the kitchen.
Somewhere down around Dundee, a local warned me that he couldn’t understand the folks up north, especially those beyond Aberdeen. That’s not why I stopped at Aberdeen. It’s actually why I wish I’d had more time and money to explore that country, and those wonderful sounds, those other accents of Scotland.