Monday, 2 August 2010

Information Gaps

The man at the next counter looked tired, and no wonder. "My wee boy's been poorly," I heard him tell the pharmacist. "He's kept us up all night for three days straight coughin' and cryin' and all."

Then it was my turn to be served and the next thing I heard the man say was "January 1993."

I frowned at this. My youngest daughter was born in 1994, but there's no way I'd refer to her as 'wee', not even out of her hearing. The pharmacist asked the man a few more questions and I studied him surreptitiously. He looked quite young to have a son born in 1993. He also looked out of shape and a little overweight, with the sort of fraught, anxious look you get when you've been staying up all night with sick kids. He had a tattoo of a snake that ran the length of his hairy arm, from wrist to above his elbow, disappearing up the sleeve of thin Hawaiian shirt. I had on a long-sleeved shirt and a fleece (it may be summer, but nobody's told Scotland) and I was still cold; he must be very sleep deprived and run off his feet if he couldn't tell he needed to be more warmly dressed.

"Aye," the man was saying to the pharmacist, "his birthday's 15 August, 2008. He's just turning two."

My eyes popped. Without actually staring, I got a proper look at him. And I realized that there was no way in a thousand years he could have a child born in 1993. His birth year was 1993.

And suddenly I could see it: the boy didn't really look old, he just looked prematurely careworn. Underneath it all, he radiated youth: his elbows and knuckles were still round, his eyes still shone with the innocence of youth, and the seams on his face weren't so much wrinkles as newly-formed stress lines. This exhausted, hassled-looking father of a two-year-old was all of seventeen years old.

Sometimes it takes me a long time to catch on.

"Thanks Oaf-lee!" the woman on the other side was saying to the check-out girl. "I would appreciate that very much. Thanks OAF-lee."

We may have been gone for two years, but I'm proud to say this one only took me a second or two to figure out: oaf-lee is the posh way to say awfully. Ten years of life in the U.K. has taught me a thing or two! I know now that I live in a village, might mean I live in Ae village (the village of Ae is only an hour away from us); that sheers can sound like shoes over the phone, and that too many roundabouts can sound exactly like two mini roundabouts.

Feeling not quite so stupid, I went outside and sat on a bench to wait for my husband. I stared at a woman's shopping bags while she yakked on her mobile. BEATING HEART I read under a large, red heart. The woman nudged the bag with her foot and I saw the word DISEASE. Now I was thoroughly puzzled; I once worked in the cardiology department of a large hospital and I never once heard of beating heart disease. Surely if your heart is beating, that's a good, healthy thing? Perhaps this was a new name for something like tachycardia -- a condition where the heart beats too fast? I made it a point to remember this so I could ask someone later. Then the woman nodded and shifted the bag a few inches and I saw the word TOGETHER. Oh for pity's sake: Beating heart disease together. How could anybody be so thick?

But I'm grateful for small mercies: thank God I didn't end up asking anybody about beating heart disease.

"Were you doing the messages, then?" our neighbor asked as we unloaded the bags from our trunk. I stared at her, open-mouthed and then it clicked. In Scotland, doing the messages is shopping.

I've been out of Scotland too long, it seems. And I'm definitely due a long night's sleep.


Robin said...

I love it! I think I've got beating heart disease. I would make the exact same mistakes. I do it all the time now, and I'm in my own stupid country!

One of my many problems, is that when I do something like that it makes me laugh, and I feel compelled to immediately tell someone about it. I probably would have yanked on that woman's arm and explained how I thought she had beating heart disease, and she would have looked around vainly for succor from the mad American.

Vijaya said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vijaya said...

Mary, don't feel so bad. I thought it was heartbeat condition that affects two or more people who are together.

Yes, some people are thicker than you. Grin.

AnneB said...

And I've been "doing the messages" for two weeks straight and I'm sick of it, let me tell you. Tomorrow I get back to my own writing! (and then after that, a porch ms. I'm looking forward to beta-reading!)

Robert the Skeptic said...

My step son and his fiance' are getting married the end of October; they will honeymoon in Scotland. When we warned them that Scotland would be rather cold and wet in November they reminded us that they live in Orange County where it is warm and sunny mostly all year. They are planning on enjoying the Highland weather... and I am guessing they may not be outside all that much anyway.

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pat said...

It's not enough to know a language is it? There are all the nuances, ironies and double entendres to make it a lifetime learning experience. Then too the Scots are a funny lot:)

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I've got beating heart disease too -- a very mortal affliction. I've got digesting stomach and (sometimes) thinking brain disorder as well.

When you tell people about the silly things you do or the interesting (but wholly daft) false hypotheses you come up with accidentally, do they then laugh hysterically and look at you like you're totally crazy? That's been my experience. It's so sad: I LOVE self-deprecating humor and I do so many things like this that I want to share the fun. But I've grown crafty about hiding them, out of necessity.

Vijaya -- That particular misunderstanding was just one of those temporary lapses, but I still got a kick out of it. At least I have a blog where I can share it!

Some people are definitely thicker than I am, but they're smarter about hiding it. I figure I might as well get it out in the open so no one can accuse me of keeping it in the closet.

AnneB -- I've been doing the messages a lot myself and I'm pretty fed up with it too -- especially when people use up what I've bought and leave the empty package on the shelf.

Here's to your having more time to beta read! But don't worry if it takes you ages to get around to it -- remember how long it took me? :o)

Robert -- Your stepson and daughter will LOVE the Highlands! It's the perfect place for a honeymoon: cloudy and rainy enough that you don't feel like you're missing out, staying inside all day.

When I go into town and it's pouring rain (every other day), I keep running into people who know that we've just gotten back from Turkey. "Bet you miss all that sun in Cyprus!" they say. "You must wish you were back in Turkey!" I've learned to just nod my head and smile.

Pat -- Occasionally, I'll have trouble understanding something my husband says and vice versa. You'd think we'd have sorted out all our language differences by now, but there are still a few that catch us. I was awfully proud of getting 'oaf-lee', though!

Charles Gramlich said...

Beating Heart disease. Lol. I can see why that might be confusing. Intersting illustration of how important cultural touchstones are to our understanding.

Anonymous said...

I do a double take after misinterpreting things. I see the strangest word combinations before getting a better look.

Yikes @ the seventeen-year-old father.

angryparsnip said...

The minute I read " oaf-lee" all I could think of was Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet ) I crack up every time I see that show. I love her !
It breaks my heart to read about the 17 year old Dad. At lest he is trying.
Where I live we have too many 16 year old Mexican Nationals who come over the border everyday for delivery of their babies so the babies will be American Citizens and there is never a Dad anywhere to be seen or to pay the bill. (or the Mexican government either)
So at lest the young Scottish Father is trying. I give him a lot of credit for stepping-up.
Never heard shopping called the messages...
I am very dense I would have never figured that out.
I hope your are enjoying being back in Scotland wet summer and all.

cheers, parsnip

Carole said...

Loved this post. And Love Oaflee. Might try and use it soon.

Falak said...

This post was hilarious! It reminded me of my initial days in Mumbai when I had no clue about the colloqualized version of Hindi people generally speak here and would end up making appaling blunders. Even today after three years I excel at misinterpreting even the simplest of things. But I must the the 17year old father was a real shocker!

Lily Cate said...

Not only is he 17, but his kid's almost 2, so wouldn't that make him a 15 year old father?
Double yikes.
Although, to my husband the social worker, a 17 year old dad staying up with his sick kid at night is a miracle outcome.

About the other topic, I am classic for misunderstanding the spoken word. I've learned that just saying, "Pardon? What did you say?" is way less embarrassing than assuming I got it on the first try.

I blame it on all the ear infections I had as a kid, and not my ridiculously short attention span.

Charlie said...

With all the cultural variations of English I agree that Scots is the toughest to understand, with Irish not far behind. The easiest I think is Filipino English—it's totally Americanized, which is a shame.

I have a difficult time imagining you, language junkie, still stumbling over Scottish slang.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- A lot of my misunderstandings here are culturally based -- it took me a while to work out that 'tea' was a meal, not just a beverage. But my problem with 'beating heart disease' had more to do with my mis-comprehending brain disorder.

Medeia -- I think it's just how our brains work, but it amuses me no end. I really don't mind things like this -- I think they make life more interesting. But I'm still glad I didn't ask anyone about beating heart disease.

AP -- I still can't get over the fact that this kid was a dad at 15, and yes, I give him a lot of credit for this too. While my youngest daughter was fretting over her friends falling out with each other or worrying about her latest math test, this kid was mixing formula and getting by on three hours of sleep. But I can't help but feel that if willpower failed him, information about contraception could have made his young life a lot more bearable.

Carole -- Thank you.

Give 'oaf-lee' a go! I use it from time to time, but my girls just roll their eyes and say, "Oh Mom!" They don't like my British accent any more than they like my husband's pretend American accent.

Falak -- Nothing makes me cringe more than remembering some of the stupid language mistakes I've made. I can still make myself warm thinking about some of the things I've accidentally said. And I too can't quite get my head around the idea of a 15-year-old father. Years ago, they were a lot more common, but nowadays we tend to let kids be kids for their first two decades of life.

Lily -- A hands-on 17-year-old dad really is a miracle. I couldn't help but wonder how much younger he looked when he first became a dad, before all the washing and late night pacing the hallway sessions.

"Pardon?" is one of my favorite words. I blame my misunderstandings on being totally scatterbrained -- and on daydreaming and listening with all too often with only half an ear.

Charlie -- I'm in awe of the English spoken by Filipinos. I've known many who've never set foot in the States, but speak English like natives. Their dialect/accent may be Americanized, but it is so beautifully natural, so effortlessly colloquial. Whenever I'm asked who the best speakers of English are in my own experience, I say Filipinos, the Dutch and the Danes.