As far as fish out of water go, I feel like I’m doing OK at blending in and acclimatizing to Maine life.
Subaru in the driveway? Check. Several days’ growth on the chin to keep the cold air from stinging my face? Check. There are even a few plaid shirts in the wardrobe and I’m slowly but surely amassing a collection of coats I never would’ve imagined I’d own.
But there’s one thing that gives me away as an outsider the moment I open my mouth (and no, it’s not bad dental work. I don’t conform to British stereotypes, regardless of my native land’s membership in the Commonwealth).
Yep, it’s the accent. There’s really no disguising it.
I’ve been told a lot over the past two months that people “love my accent” and how I should “do a podcast instead of a blog so people can hear it.” I say this without even a sliver of boasting, and I’ll tell you why. But before I do, come with me on a quick jaunt down a blurry memory lane.
The setting: New York City, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008, 4 a.m. A hostel on 103rd and Amsterdam, I believe. I can’t double check to make sure because it was the type of place that was shut down by the time I returned to Manhattan two years later.
I stumbled up the front stairs, a head full of cheap beer and cheaper whiskey from a large night out at a small, dank bar with a large number of Australians. I reached the hostel front desk and managed to stammer out a few mumbled requests.
“Where can I get on the Internet?” (Top floor.)
“Do you have a fax for me?” (Yes. Inexplicably, yes.)
“Do you guys have towels?”
“I can’t understand you.”
I was then forced into judicious use of awful faux-American pronunciation.
“Oh, a towel. Right. Top floor.”
Now the scene is set, I’ll say this: contrary to the belief of many Australian (and American) guys I know or have met along my travels, having an Aussie accent in the U.S. isn’t all compliments, curiosity and giggles. Sometimes it’s downright hard to be understood.
Recently, a new friend of mine made the point that she wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to decipher all the things I said, because of the accent, which made me think back to my initial visit to Augusta to check the place out back in early December.
My now-editor took me for a bite to eat at my now-favorite haunt and we talked about all the upsides and potential downsides of me relocating to Maine’s state capital. Most of the cons from her side of the table were pretty small potatoes (or else I wouldn’t be here today, I guess), so she asked me what concerns I had, if any.
And given I rightfully assumed that this city hadn’t seen too much traffic on the way of Australian accents, one of my big worries was: Are people gonna be able to understand what I’m saying?
I’ve vacationed in the U.S. a lot since 2008, so I’m pretty confident in my command of some basic vocabulary differences that I can modify or steer clear of in my daily travels to make sure I get my message across more clearly.
But I’ve still got one big sticking point, and it’s a weird one. I’m extremely self-conscious about repeating myself, especially when it comes to speaking with service staff or people selling me something. So if there’s even a tiny element of mishearing, and my bartender or waiter needs me to say it again, I immediately go to pieces. I get tongue-tied, I speak more quietly and I get flustered. This does NOT make me an adorable shy guy with an accent from away. It makes me a 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pound babbling idiot. Often it also makes me fumble my order and awkwardly change my mind to choose something I know I can pronounce first time around.
Pronunciation isn’t the only hurdle, of course. There are plenty of differences in vocabulary to navigate as well. I try really hard to adjust, but sometimes one or two slip through. At home, a 12-ounce beer bottle is commonly called a “stubbie,” and as such a “coozie” is a “stubbie cooler.” That one gets me some strange looks.
When I’m eager to do doing something, I’m “keen” (or even “keen as mustard”), and the poor guy at the deli counter has no idea what I want on my sub when I ask for “capsicum” (hint: I mean peppers.) And if I’ve forgotten to wear a “jumper,” I’m not intending to drape car-starting equipment around my shoulders — that’s Australian for sweater.
I’m happy to report though that — service situations aside — Mainers have been pretty good at figuring out what the heck it is I’m saying. The best part is that there are enough accents around whose vowels (“cah” instead of “car”, “tomahto” instead of “tomato,” you get the drift) sound like mine, so I’m fairly safe.
My new colleague Matt Hongoltz-Hetling actually penned a great story during my first week on the job that detailed the plight of the Mainah accent. It included a local songwriter’s lyrics that, just by reading them in my head, sounded the same as way the I’d pronounce them.
Oddly enough, it was almost like a twist of fate that I’d ended up settling in a place where my accent wasn’t going to be so alien after all.
Just as well, because repeating myself makes me need a cold beeah. Thankfully I can just point at the tap if need be.
Adrian Crawford is a Web editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email him at [email protected]. Maine Walkabout is published the first and third Sundays of each month. More of his adventures in Vacationland can be found at www.crawfinusa.com.