Saturday, 23 June 2012


Seven CDs had arrived in the post that morning and if I had been a teenager I would certainly have put all life on hold while I listened to them back-to-back. But I am a responsible adult (how did that happen?) with important things to do: my newly arrived foreign tenant must be shown around his flat - the CDs must wait.
I admire and respect foreigners who turn up in the UK having taken the trouble to learn English in advance.  My own lifelong habit of arriving in someone else’s country clueless is more than simply rude: it has a whiff of colonialism about it. And so I try to remain patient, attentive and helpful when communicating with those thoughtful, diligent foreign visitors to my country - although this can lead to unwanted linguistic complications.
While showing my tenant his accommodation I introduced him, by way of a hint, to the cupboard where the cleaning implements are kept. His reaction was unenthusiastic but as we engaged with its contents a conversation evolved around how the verbs ‘to brush’ and ‘to sweep’ differ in meaning. Flattered by his interest in the niceties of our language (or maybe it was a diversionary tactic on his part) I pushed colloquialism a little too far by attempting to explain that being ‘brushed off’ is quite a different experience from being ‘swept off one’s feet’. Our mutual comprehension soon reached its limits.
I wish he had been with me on the train the next day when, for a while, I sat next to a young man who clearly had been swept off his feet – judging from the excited phone conversation he unselfconsciously shared with me and others nearby which revealed his sumptuous wedding plans in considerable detail. The reception was to be at a country hotel in Cheshire but his guest list, it seems, was problematic in so far as there were numerous jealousies and rivalries to be taken into account. I understand this is a common predicament but I was surprised to hear the groom agonising over it. The mist began to clear, however, as we heard him describe the outfits he had chosen for the bridesmaids - Justin, Alex, David and Wayne.
After his disembarkation I was further entertained by a pair of young girls, whom I took to be first-year college students, whose non-stop conversation was remarkable for its considerable breadth and minimal depth.
          “I was gonna do, like, pasta. Do you have to cook that?” said one.
“I dunno. I think so” said the other.
Towards the end of the journey, as the tide of topics began to wane, they decided to play a game of cards called Snap -
“Not Whist. That’s, like, rubbish”
- soon after which they were approached by a middle-aged man from an adjoining carriage. I took him to be their teacher.
          “What do you know?” he asked them
          “Not much” said one, not looking up
          “Good” he replied
          “Snap” said the other
          “That’s, like, so unfair!”
          “Why? You should of bin, like, quicker?”
He stood, foolishly, hoping for a signal of engagement before trying again:
          “Has anyone got any toffees?” he enquired
          “Are we near London yet?” asked the one
          “I’ve got some biscuits” said the other
          “What kind?” he enquired, brightening
          “Chocolate chip. Do you want one?”
          “Great. Thanks”
They continued to play and talk together while he stood and watched, crumbs falling to his feet. After an uncomfortably long two minutes he flicked the front of his shirt clean and coughed.
          “Right, well, see you later, Thanks for the biscuit”
Thus was he dismissed: or “brushed off”, as we say in English.
I finally found time at home to savour the musical treasures recently acquired. Top of the pile was a compilation of Colombian songs. I have no idea what they are singing about but, sometimes, ignorance can be bliss.

No comments: