Lost in Translation: Hilarious Realities Transatlantic Couples Face
They say that the English and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. Even though the tongue we speak is one and the same, we sound different, we spell different, and we sure as hell use different slang for, well, everything.
Now, imagine that the person you are going to marry happens to be an Englishwoman and you a Yank. This is precisely the situation that my fiancée, Victoria, and I experience at our suburban Washington, D.C., home. Although we’ve been together for several years, we sometimes stare in seeming bafflement at one another.
“You’re going to do what with whose dog?” I asked the first time she whipped into conversation cockney slang for the telephone (“dog and bone”).
Welcome to a modern-day transatlantic relationship.
For reasons that still elude me, the English replace every “z” (which they insist on calling “zed”) with an “s.” Thus, I have learned to “recognize” the word “recognise” in my fiancée’s emails.
However, I still can’t see us ever seeing eye to eye on aluminum, which for mysterious reasons, she spells as “aluminium” — thereby inserting a needless extra syllable into a word that, frankly, already has too many.
I like to get her goat by saying that Americans “perfected” the language on this side of the Atlantic. She finds this not at all amusing (nor “amuzing”).
4 P.M. Means Teatime
The market could be on the verge of crashing or a hurricane could be rolling in from the Atlantic, but at 4 p.m., everything — and I do mean everything — stops for afternoon tea in our home. So, if there’s something I need input from Victoria on, it simply must wait until 4:15.
My advice to my fellow Yankees: Shut up, drink your tea and unplug for 15 minutes. Oh, and if you’re ever in the mother country, get yourself to a big corporate office around 3:50, just so you can watch the internal clockwork of the English shift like a switch from hustle to teatime.
More Cultural Differences
Sarah Tyler, an American writer for Anglotopia, warns that her fellow Yanks “have a tendency to view the British as extended family members who merely speak in a different accent, underestimating how large the cultural gap between our two societies really is.”
Tyler writes that people in transatlantic relationships can get lost in that newness factor, sometimes completely losing sight that maybe the two of you are just, well, not compatible from the start. Accordingly, it seems best to approach a transatlantic relationship like mine as a learning experience, yes, but without losing sight of the fact that beneath the differences, I’m growing to love a person, not necessarily the culture from which she sprang.
Soccer vs. Baseball
Soccer and rugby remain largely opaque to me, the same way Victoria still doesn’t understand my obsession with getting to a baseball game in every Major League ballpark. But just as Americans live and die by baseball and especially “American” football, the English are mad for their soccer (which they and the rest of the world call “football”), their rugby and, yes, cricket.
Victoria recently explained to me that a game of cricket takes five days, including breaks for lunch and dinner. Now, if I tried to tell my boss I was going to be taking five days off for a sporting event, I’m pretty sure he’d laugh or just take away my keycard. But cricket is serious business in the U.K.
Tipping Isn’t Required in England
At several junctures in my life, I’ve worked in restaurants and bars to make ends meet, so I’m extremely cognizant of the level of service I receive when dining out, and it’s also very hard for me not to tip when I go to Blighty with my beloved.
No matter how many times she tells me that U.K. servers are paid a livable wage, I’ll almost always round up to the next pound if I’m paying in cash or add a little something extra. All the while getting looks from Vicky punctuated with “you really don’t have to.”
No, I don’t. But I do.
The inverse is that when Brits come to America, they either tip poorly or do not tip at all since it’s just not in their culture to do so. So, perhaps I’m doing my part to even out the scales when Victoria and I are in England.
Pub Culture Doesn’t Translate
In America, we have our sports bars, where folks — often strangers — congregate to watch the big game. However, this is not at all the same as British “pub culture,” which seems all but impossible to transpose to the American firmament.
In the U.K., pubs aren’t places to spend hours and hours; typically, you will pop in for a pint or a “half,” and a packet of crisps (potato chips) and then go on your merry way. Or have a “swift half” before lunch and a quick one after work before going about your evening.
Hanging at bars indefinitely isn’t really an English thing. Especially in the towns, the pubs aren’t open late as people tend to retire early or go to someone’s home to continue drinking. Ditto for sports-watching: It’s better at your mate’s flat who has the Sky cable package to watch the Leicester Tigers.
Whereas over here, there’s practically a Buffalo Wild Wings, with its 7,000 television screens, on every corner. Sure, the action is bigger and louder, but that sense of intimacy with friends is lost among the din. Sometimes, all you need is a pint out and then the match on the tele back at home.
How to Say Goodbye
I’m from New Jersey, which means time is precious, and I’m already on to the next thing by the time I’ve bid farewell. Hence, I’ve often ended a conversation with “peace” or the far more clipped “see ya.” But since the English live and breathe (and probably die) by politeness, I’ve noticed that the parting “cheers” has become my de-facto word of leave-taking.
I’ll admit, this one I’m OK with. Until the doctor told me to cut back recently, I’ve been fond of a cocktail or five, and any variant on a toastful salutation — such as “to your health,” “salud” or the far less ornate “clinky clinky” — I find charming. Ergo, “cheers” is an Anglicism I’ve been happy to include in my vernacular — even without a glass in hand.
The British have so much slang that it should rightfully qualify as an entire subset dialect of the English language. Let’s call it “Slangish” (yes, with a capital "S"). If you ever fancy some cheap fun, watch a Yank and Brit who have never met try to together figure out what a “brolly,” “pullover,” “tin of toms” and “all that and a bag of chips” mean.
In our house, potato chips are “crisps,” cookies are called “biscuits,” and we go to the store seeking items “on offer” to save a few “pence.” And rather than Santa Claus, “Father Christmas” brings the gifts.
And in England, a truck is a “lorry,” a bus a “coach,” and they call the trunk the “boot" — all requiring me to self-translate when we travel to Vicky’s homeland.
Confused yet? Welcome to my my daily life.
Even More Slang: Cockney
The story goes that 19th century industrial workers in the East End of London invented rhyming slang as a way to play windtalkers so that management had no idea what they were discussing.
Whoever thought of this was either a genius or absolutely evil. This syntax typically has the noun in question rhymed with a famous person’s name. For instance, if an East Ender walked into your home saying he “would like a Britney,” that means he’s either after a beer (Britney Spears/beers) or has the hots for your so-named cousin (I don’t judge).
I find this argot more opaque than Greek, and my lips have curled in several acute angles of confusion thanks to my fiancée sometimes talking past me. (See previous comment about “dog and bone.”) This is the same jargon that Keith Richards uses, so I rest my case.
I have a hard time not saying what is on my mind, and I’m direct to a fault. If ever I try to get my dual U.K. citizenship, I have a feeling they will probably try to break me of this.
I’ve seen Victoria get upset several times in our relationship, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times she’s become overwhelmed with emotion. “Keep calm and carry on,” she’ll often say, nudging me toward the kettle in the kitchen for tea.
There’s a famous photo of an English lady drinking tea in the bombed-out streets of London during the Blitz of 1940. The Luftwaffe had rained absolute hell upon the island, thousands were dead, but dammit, tea would still be had and the anger, sublimated. I have so much to learn.
Before You Get Married
On my first trip to Merry Olde with my wife-to-be — who at the time wasn’t even yet formally my girlfriend — I found myself at a pub with some of her mates (those would be “friends” for those of us on this side of the pond). One rather friendly bloke informed me that the ensuing weekend would be occupied with a “stag do.”
“Pardon?” I asked, hoping to ensure that I had, in fact, comprehended the phonemes in the precise succession he intended and that this was not some trick of English ale somehow bedeviling my eardrums. “A stag … do?”
“Yep, my mate is getting married soon, so this is his last blowout before.”
“Oh, a bachelor party!” I all but shrieked, instantly branding myself a Yankee to anyone within earshot with both my volume and idiolect. The feminine form is a “hen do,” which Victoria will be enjoying some time this year.
Upending Certain Marriage Traditions
In the beginning phase of wedding planning, Victoria said she had no interest whatsoever in a bridal shower. Firstly, it would be difficult for her mother and sister to come to America for such an event so close to the wedding date.
And, secondly, she asked, “Why?”
I’ve been to precisely one co-ed bridal shower in my life, and that statistic will hold. Seriously, is there anything worse than gaping at someone open presents for two hours while the rest of us hoot and “aww”? Vicky isn’t one for the center spotlight anyway, from which follows that an American-style bridal shower will be absent from our wedding planning. Why women continue to endure these events I may never know.
No Garter Toss or First Dance With Pop
At a recent wedding, Victoria beheld, for the first time, the traditional removal of the bride’s garter by her new husband. “Oh no, no, no, no!” she screamed in my ear. “I am NOT doing that!”
Furthermore, when discussing which traditions to make a part of our big day, her brow furrowed when I told her it’s typical in America for the bride to dance with her father. “My father and I have never danced together in our lives,” she said, “and I don’t think we should start on such a momentous occasion.”
Even if we nix the bride-father dance, I can’t see my mother being at all cool with the groom-mother analogue. We’ll have to figure this one out together.
Most American weddings I’ve attended feature a toast from the best man and maid/matron of honor. Vicky told me that in England, standard operating procedure adds both the father of the bride and the groom himself to the list of speakers — and the groom usually goes last.
No pressure, right?
I’ve been a best man, for which I spent months practicing and refining my speech, but ultimately, it was someone else's day. Now, I’ll be shouldered with the burden of capping the well wishes of a brand-new transatlantic married couple before friends, family and relatives.
It’s a good thing I have well over a year to get my chips — er, “crisps” — in a row.