Thursday, January 02, 2014

Of accents and onion rings

I find myself in the North of England for the first time in years, surrounded by accents which I can't quite get a handle on and an England that feels somehow familiar yet foreign. Because I come back so infrequently, I tend only to see Oxford and London and so my memory of the beautiful diversity of this country fades. It is lovely to be reminded of this again, and having spent Christmas in Swansea having had a scenic drive through Southern Wales, I'm getting a good dose of this for the first time in far too long. While I have traveled the world, I feel that I've neglected seeing much of the UK. I don't really understand the idea of patriotism, yet I still find coming 'home' to the UK a rather pleasant sensation, even if I am coming here from a city which I am quickly coming to feel very comfortable in.

I took the train up from King's Cross this morning, racing through beautiful countryside and being blessed by the Angel of the North as we tore up through York, Darlington and Gateshead and arriving finally in Newcastle. I'm staying with an airbnb host, a woman in her 60s who has a lot of travelers staying with her, often working in the university, as I am. She was arriving home later so I found a barber's shop to give my beard a much needed trim. I realised immediately how hard I was going to have to concentrate to understand the accent up here. Many things have happened to my English as I've lived on different continents. While native English speakers think such an idea very strange, I've had perhaps a dozen non-native speakers ask me if I'm Irish of late. I think that my accent has simply been softened by being around so many different accents over the years and I've definitely simplified my grammar in order to make myself better understood. Living in China also meant that the way that I asked questions changed due to the nature of questions in Chinese. I will often ask a question as a statement with an upward intonation at the end (where a question particle would go in Chinese). This has confused people greatly over the years, most notably Italians for some reason.

I popped into a cafe to read a little before going to my host and was greeted my a woman behind the counter whose words I truly didn't understand at all. Luckily, having bought coffee on a number of previous occasions I knew the protocol but I am a little thrown by not being able to understand my own countryfolk.

I took a quiet stroll through the streets of the city centre as it grew dark and have so far been very impressed by the beautiful architecture around this part of the city. I jumped on a bus and took it towards Wallsend, going over the Tyne and past Northumbria University, where I will spend the next two weeks in the mathematics department. Hopefully I will be able to talk soon about what I will be doing there, but truth be told, I'm not entirely sure myself yet.

While I feel very safe in Cape Town, it is part of the way of things there to know where you can and can't go at what time of the day or night, so I found myself asking my host whether it was ok to walk around the area at night. She replied that while the locals might swear quite a bit, they mean no harm and with that I pottered off to a shop to buy some groceries for the coming days. I was greeted by a friendly shopkeeper, perhaps of Turkish descent, who regaled me with tales of the enormous onion rings he and his wife were presented with in Thailand. Come tomorrow if I am lucky he may be able to show me the pictures on his phone, comparing said onion rings with a large glass of coke. I shall certainly be back as to miss such an opportunity would surely be a crime.

For now I have a little work to be getting on with and so will dive into it before I fall asleep, in a new bed, in a new city. The familiarity of this novelty is an interesting paradox.

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