Saturday, 7 July 2012

Two nations separated by common predictions

When American friends come to England, what they tend to rave about is the history. We rehearse all the standard jokes about the homes of ordinary people there being older than the White House, etc., etc. They always want to stop to photograph the mock Tudor columbage facades and they melt in the presence of ancient ruins.

For a Brit here in the USA, the feeling is not so much of being surrounded by history, as having perhaps just stumbled onto a film set. I just had breakfast in an American-style diner: bacon with pancakes and three tubs of Smuckers breakfast syrup, if you must know.

And having stumbled back to my hotel in temperatures that have topped 100 degrees before 9am, I am contemplating - in what I take to be a pre-diabetic haze - what this all means. Why, when I was sat in my diner, did I half expect Jason Bourne to come thundering in through the doors at any minute, smack the waiter between the eyes with a pepper pot, and then head for the back exit after spilling a slick of Smuckers breakfast syrup behind him so as to slow down any pursuers?

I take it that there is something comparable here to what we do with language. When we listen to a foreign tongue, we know maybe one or two words and then we try to piece together the rest like a jigsaw puzzle. We have a sense of the language's patterns; we can follow body language and facial expressions; we are aware of the context, though not necessarily everything that is pertinent. Maybe when we are sat in the bath of a foreign culture, we do likewise. Our imagination works overtime to interpret and inform us; we try to work out conventions so we don't stick out like a sore thumb; and somehow or other, we try to communicate. I suppose it must be the fact I am a child of the 1970s which means that when I sit in a booth in a downtown diner, my unconscious mind throws up a thousand suggestions about the many times it has seen on screen diners, booths, pancakes and endlessly refillable cups of coffee. And I'm sure that for an American, such outlandish expectations disconcert as much as when an American raves about history to a Brit. That is not to say that the foreigner's eyes are always wrong; sometimes we gain much from seeing ourselves 'as others see us', as Burns says. Still, the diner and the history are as they are, not just as they seem to a stranger's eyes. Our expectations are no more necessarily faithful to that reality than the expression 'Hon-he, hon-he, hon' is a faithful representation of French.

I suppose when our predictions are too much set in stone, that is when we are facing stereotypes. Half the fun of being abroad is the wonderful gap we feel between prediction and reality, between the stereotype and the true type. I must report that Jason Bourne failed to enter the diner. The waitress was polite, the pepper pots went unmolested and no Smuckers breakfast syrup was spilled in the making of my breakfast, unless it was on a pancake.


Ttony said...

We got to Tombstone Arizona via Boot Hill and went into a bar and sat as far down the bar as possible from the beer pump so the bartender could slide them down the bar to us. He brought them on a tray, and when we asked he said that when they slid them down the bar, a lot of beer used to get spilled.

Luckily, as far as the West was concerned: waggon trains in the desert; goodies in white hats and baddies in black; we shared the same films and the same mythology. Diners were after my time!

Triduana said...

Ha! I have exactly the same - what? Feeling? Impression? Sense of altered reality? - when I am in the US. It is just like being in a film. It was like that in Chicago, it is like that in Maryland and DC!

Vicki said...

Hah! We faced a similar realization when we honeymooned in Australia, only to be disappointed that it was full of ordinary, hum-drum people, not the adrenaline-junkie Australians one always runs into outside Australia. They were equally guilty of stereotypes, however, as they all insisted we must be Canadians....because we didn't talk like Paris Hilton, and also because we dressed like Canadians. Whatever that means?! Must say, I have never seen the potential of a diner! When I saw this post, i had high hopes you would make amusing comments about teeth, over-sized single-occupant vehicles, and Prozac-infused customer service!

Simon Platt said...

On the other hand, and having myself returned only yesterday from New Mexico via Texas, it seems to me the more I travel the more I think that stereotypes and clich├ęs are mostly accurate.

And - oh! The breakfasts! (Shudder!)