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?
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.
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.