Nessie, Haggis and Royal Babies

Today marks two years since the kids and I emigrated to America.  In some ways it seems like not that much time has passed (such as when we met up with friends in Lochgilphead in July and it felt like we had only been gone for weeks) but in many ways it feels like ages ago, not quite part of another lifetime but not far off.  For example, we bought our house just over a year ago but already it feels comfortably like home, as if we have lived in it for years.  I reread my first year immigration anniversary post and realised that a lot of what I wrote then still stands now so settling is clearly a slow and gradual process for me; but I am definitely more comfortable with things than I was this time last year.  Things that were initially unsettling, discombobulating, strange, alien and stressful have now largely settled into the rhythm and groove of everyday normality with the occasional panicked peak of being a stranger in a strange land.

From the very first, my Scottisness has been a talking point.  A week has yet to pass without people commenting on my accent, always complimentary, usually an exclamation of, “I love your accent!”  Often that is where the conversation on my accent ends but sometimes I am asked where I am from and that prompts further conversation.  Some of these can be quite peculiar.

Last Winter I fell into conversation with a chap who heard my accent and enquired if I was Irish.

Man: That’s not a Philly accent.
Me: Well spotted.
Man: My family are Irish.
Me: That’s cool. I’m not Irish though; I’m Scottish.
Man: Yeah, my grandparents came over in their 20s.
Me: Uh huh.
Man: So where in Ireland?
Me: Sorry?
Man: Where in Ireland are you from?
Me: I’m not. I’m from Scotland.
Man: Oh. It’s just that you sound a lot like Sean Connery.
Me: Sean Connery is also not Irish. He is also Scottish. Like me.
Man: Cool.

It is perplexing the number of times I have had the “I am not Irish” conversation.  I think more people guess I am Irish than guess accurately that I am a Scot.  I sometimes also get New Zealander and South African.  I think people just hear accented English and plump for an English speaking nation.  I had assumed that Americans would be much better at placing accents given there is such a diversity of accents and dialects in the various regions of the US but apparently not.

When people do know I am Scottish, all sorts of bizarre small talk can ensue.  One of my favourites was when, not long after moving to America, I was asked at the supermarket checkout, “Do you believe?”  I was desperately confused by the question.  Having had a lot of strangers ask me what religion I was since my arrival, my first thought was that I was being asked about faith.  But why would someone be asking me about religion while beeping my groceries?  I must have looked dim for long enough that the checkout lady offered a follow up, “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”  Oh!  Much easier to answer.  She looked quite crestfallen when I replied, “I believe Nessie is good for tourism”.  Did she really think I was going to reveal that I had been given a private audience with the beastie?  That was not the only time I have been asked about Nessie but it was certainly the oddest.

Haggis is another topic of conversation.  I think Britain still has a reputation for terrible food (which is unfair – you can find wonderful and wretched food wherever you are in the world) and the very notion that someone might eat the heart and lungs of a sheep all chopped up and stuffed in its bladder is barf-inducing to some and the idea that such a recipe would become a national dish is truly mystifying.  But, of course, many nation’s have a simple peasant dish to serve as their national dish.  It is just the fact that Scotland’s is a whole bunch of innards that captures the imagination I suppose.  Mostly people just want to know why.  Why?  Why would anyone eat such a thing?  Just why?  I can then take the conversation along a historic or gastronomic track.  The former involves explaining a bit about crofting practices and the economic need to use every part of an animal and the latter involves explaining that haggis is actually very tasty, thanks to the mixture of oatmeal and spices – though, of course, since I don’t eat meat I only eat vegetarian haggis.  I managed to horrify my son’s class when they thought I was going to make them eat haggis.

The expansion of the British royal family has led to two periods since my immigration in which people have asked my opinion about royal babies.  I don’t tend to have opinions about babies, whether royal or serf or anything in between.  People also tended to approach the subject obliquely and without any context so that I again found myself in a state of befuddlement.  “What do you think of the baby?”  I was asked, again at a supermarket checkout.  I asked what baby and was met with the reply, “Baby George?”  I still had nothing.  Was this some TV programme the checkout person assumed I watched.  “Prince George?”  Oh.  The penny dropped.  It’s always nice when people who want a baby have one.  That’s pretty much my sole opinion on the matter.  And, of course, it was repeated when Prince George’s little sister was born a few months ago.  I was quicker on the uptake with that conversation starter though.  I get asked about the Queen a lot too.  And Downton Abbey.  I think many people think the two are related.

The popularity of the Outlander series of books and the subsequent TV show is also something people ask me about a lot when they identify my accent.  They always look disappointed in me when I confess that I have neither read the books or seen the TV show.  Before I had ever heard of the books, I fell into conversation with an older lady in our library once because she heard my accent and wanted to know what I thought of them.  She looked downright affronted when I told her I had no idea what she was referring to.  She looked like she thought I should be stripped of my Scottish identity.  Then it emerged that some of the teachers at my sons’ Elementary School were obsessed with the books – totally obsessed – so they would ask me about all sorts of things to do with Scotland.  One asked me to email her photos I had taken of Scottish castles and was over the moon when I did so.

Ever so often, someone will hear my Scottish burr and will engage me in conversation about travel to Scotland.  It might be that they want to share their experience of visiting the country and tell me how much they loved it there, despite the weather, or it might be that they are planning a trip there and want some personal recommendations.  That’s always fun.  I think Scotland is one of the most beautiful, historically rich and culturally interesting countries in the world and I am happy to be an Ambassador – though I don’t forget to mention rain and midgies.

I welcome all of these little interactions about my Scottish accent and identity.  I like being Scottish so I am happy to chat about it.  The reaction people have is overwhelmingly positive too which is a welcoming feeling, especially at times when I might be feeling a little alien and adrift.  I am quite happy to be “different” and my difference sometimes prompts people to be very helpful and make suggestions as to places to go, things to see and do.  Indeed in the two years that I have lived in Pennsylvania, the only anti-immigration sentiment I have experienced directly was from a man, whose surname I noted was Italian, who felt it appropriate to tell me that people like me were coming over here and making the economy worse because we were stealing all of the jobs that proper Americans should have.  Sigh.

As a final note on Scottish accents in an American context, as my kids accents and vocabulary are drifting into the Mid-Atlantic, they have become much more conscious of my accent.  “You are just SO Scottish!” they proclaim.  I find that quite comforting.

 

Cultural Exchanges

The Elementary School my younger boys attend is very good at utilising parental knowledge, skills and experience.  It is a very good way of including parents and embedding the school’s connection to the community.  It is also a great way of extending the education of the students, building in extra little titbits and exposing them to things they may have had no awareness of.  As a genuine, bona fide immigrant with a very definite accent, the staff at the school have been making use of me since the kids were enrolled in the school.  This may or may not have something to do with the fact that several of the teachers are entirely obsessed with the ‘Outlander’ series of novels which are set in historic Scotland.

Having read one class a traditional Scottish Traveller’s tale – The Hedgehurst – last year, I extended their knowledge of Scottish literature still further by talking to them about Robert Burns recently.  I was visiting as part of a series on tradition exchanges so the focus of my talk was on Burns’ Night.  I told them about the speeches, toasts and recitations; gave them a brief overview of the languages of Scotland; provided a potted biography of Robert Burns; and I read them excerpts from ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘To A Mouse’ in Scots and then provided an English translation.  What most engaged the children, however, was the talk about the food.  They were disgusted yet completely fascinated by the ingredients of haggis.  I assured them that many people find haggis very scrumptious indeed, including the little Pict who is their classmate, but I don’t think anyone was convinced, not one bit.  What’s not to love about sheep’s pluck mixed up with oatmeal and spices and stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach?  When I told them that I had brought a sample of some Scottish food for them to try, their little eyes popped wide open in revulsion and horror.  I quelled their panic by informing them that I had in fact brought small pots of cranachan for them to try.  If you have never heard of it, cranachan is a delectable concoction of cream, raspberries, honey and oatmeal soaked in whisky.  For obvious reasons I had switched the whiskey for vanilla essence.  I think that went down better with the kids than samples of haggis would have done.  In the course of my talk, I had to explain that haggis is illegal in America which is why I could not even provide one for the class to see.  That led to a whole tangent about Mad Cow Disease.  They were captivated by it.  Perhaps next time I should go in and talk to them about my knowledge of diseases (genuinely, one of my nerdy interests is plague).

The following week I was again foisting Scottish victuals onto children.  One of my sons has been working on a unit about different countries of the world and he was assigned Egypt for his project (which led him to  – just for fun – write the story of Osiris from the point of view of Set all written according to the hieroglyphic alphabet).  As part of their studies, the class were having a multicultural feast.  Each student could contribute a food or drink from either their country of study or a country relevant to their own cultural heritage.  As tempted as he was by sticky date treats, my 9 year old decided he wanted to contribute something Scottish to the feast.  I wrote recently about my husband finding a source of British food so he was duly packed off to hunt and gather half a dozen bottles of Irn Bru.  The feast was a huge success and my son enjoyed trying all of the different foods and drinks, several not previously familiar to him.  I am extremely happy to report that the Irn Bru (a Scottish soft drink) was a massive hit with the students.  I am pleased to have had a hand in introducing their tastebuds to an unfamiliar and slightly bizarre flavour.

Those are formal cultural exchanges, of course.  I am, however, also responsible for an informal cultural exchange.  I have been volunteering in my youngest son’s Kindergarten class a few times a week in order to assist the children with learning to write.  This involves me sounding out words to help them figure out which combination of letters to write down to create each syllable and construct each word.  It took me a while to realise that this was leading them to write with a Scottish accent.  There is no emphasis on accurate spelling, just on familiarity with letters and combinations of letters to produce the phonetic sounds of the words.  Therefore, when I was reading their work back, scribing the correct spellings beneath their writing, I was reading in a Scottish accent and as such not noticing that the sounds were wrong for American English.  Their writing was riddled with my clipped vowel sounds and Es in place of As.  Oops.  Since that epiphany, I have been having to adopt an American accent when sounding out certain phonemes.  In return, the children have been helping me remember my American vocabulary and have been correcting me when it comes to my apparent insistence that Z is “zed”.  I am not quite there yet but gradually they will get it fixed in my head that in this country I need to say “zee”.