Have you ever made a major life decision based on the results of a google search? I have, which explains how I now live in Glasgow. On a Wednesday evening in January I was that person struggling with two suitcases on the airport shuttle bus. Since I was moving solo I’d mentally prepared for this challenge, and lots of other ones, but the language barrier? That was not one I could properly imagine. I’m a native English speaker, Scots are English speakers, how hard could it be? As hard as: I regularly feel like I should look for a language immersion group or a Scots English dictionary. Now the most mundane tasks, like grocery shopping, are character building exercises. I tell myself vulnerability and embarrassment are good inoculations against ugly pride.
Those windy, wintry January weeks were spent in a flat I rented through Airbnb. It was in a prime location as far as necessities were concerned – 10 minutes from two different subway stops, 1 minute from a bus stop and walking distance from a few food stores. Most of them were little mom and pop places, but scouring the map one day I saw there was a Co-op about 20 minutes away.
The sky was already completely dark when I left the flat to go shopping at 4.30pm. Only the knowledge that I needed food and some form of human interaction pushed me outside into the cold. That and the hope that this Co-op, which I knew was part of a chain, would have more than the tuna, bread and bananas I was finding in the convenience stores.
More and more people walking past me carried grocery bags and I knew I was getting close. Then finally, Warmth! Light! How do I move my body in this incredibly tiny space? Disappointment at the size of the store aside, I looked around for a basket and found just one, with wheels and a tall looped handle. “Well this is great,” I thought, “I won’t have to carry all my groceries.” I tipped the basket toward me and wheeled over to the produce aisle.
Lemons are always on my shopping list, so I grabbed three and put them into my basket. Salad greens are another ‘always’, and I took a step over to consider plain arugula or a mixed lettuce. As I inspected the bags a man came up beside me, reached down and picked up my lemons.
Did he just take my lemons when there is a crate full of them staring us both in the face?
My brain moved faster than my mouth and I stood frozen. Do I need to explain to him that I actually want those lemons, and he could get his own? He moved again before I could decide what to do, and next thing I knew he was holding my basket in his other hand. He said,
“Beurw iqou hend pumlr eryzit xoky reopl wekul gurv conze yoplq arku mumwn.”
And as quickly as he appeared beside me, he was gone.
I looked down at where my basket of lemons had been and saw that there was still a basket of lemons, except this one had no wheels. Slowly my brain made sense of what he must have said, something along the lines of:
“The wheeled baskets are for staff use only, here’s a customer basket for you instead.”
Ohh! My bad. On the side of the world I come from wheeling baskets are for everybody. I felt embarrassed nonetheless, sure that the other two people in the aisle would’ve wondered why I claimed the wheeling basket. Even if they didn’t notice what happened, the staff person probably thought I was strange because I stared at him blankly through our entire interaction.
Never mind. I did a little mental shimmy and made a note not to take a wheelie basket next time, then carried on with my shopping. It was a frustrating exercise since plenty of items I assumed would be available were missing: frozen broccoli, kidney beans and diced tomatoes. I crossed items off my list as best I could and then joined the queue to check out.
Oh nooo. I started feeling nervous.
Standing behind a cash register was the lemon-swiping, basket swopping, impossible to understand man. What was he doing there? The whole time I was shopping he’d been running around the store. I crossed my fingers that he wouldn’t be free when it was my turn, but of course things didn’t work out that way.
Acutely aware of my basket swiping faux pas, I walked up to his station. Placing my basket on one side of the counter and my backpack and tote bags on the other, I told myself to chill.
“Kopwlv sur ityue enub pruly wefoviur rinel dotenit achen wothbu.”
What? My brain did not get that. I asked, “I’m sorry?” So he repeated:
“Kopwlv sur ityue enub pruly wefoviur rinel dotenit achen wothbu.”
This was even worse than our first interaction. I still had no idea what he was trying to tell me, and a split second to decide whether I should ask him to repeat himself again, or if I should ask him to repeat himself but slowly. I could also just pretend I understood him, but who knew where that would lead.
Simplicity won out in my tired brain: “Could you say that again?”
This time, using his hands, he said:
“You zoos xoin bag yuri welm nordem I alumeni portin bag.”
Ok clear enough! He would pack one bag and I would pack the other! It would make my checkout faster. Great.
I agreed yes thank you, and we moved ahead.
You know where this is going right? Whatever else he might’ve said to me about paying with card or cash and wanting a receipt sailed over my head. Thankfully food shopping works the same basically everywhere, and that template got me through the rest of our exchange. Lifting my backpack onto my back and picking up my tote bags, I walked through the sliding doors and into the dark evening.
Scots English as a second language
Not every Scot speaks an English I don’t understand, but I’ve had plenty of experiences in other stores, on public transport and basically everywhere you interact with people where I’m faced with the same three questions: Should I ask them to repeat themselves? Should I ask them to repeat themselves slowly? Should I say nothing and pretend I know what’s happening? Always with a split second to decide.
I also overhear far less conversations. You know how you can be on a quick run for a thank you card, and one minute you’re debating still life vs cartoon, and the next you’re thinking that guy should just quit his job? Or you’re wondering how many things an 80 year old could possibly be addicted to? You don’t actually care that this woman’s son wants tacos for dinner, but it filters through your consciousness anyway. That happens to me far less now. What filters through my consciousness are curse words – the f-word is in heavy rotation – and the rest might as well be Japanese.
Steady state of low grade bewilderment aside, it’s fun to feel like I’m kind of learning a new language. My vocabulary has grown a few words and I know a little about Gaelic pronunciation. Since the coronavirus lockdown my progress has slowed, but that means more mental victories to look forward to when they let us back out.
As for that Co-op, I actually live even closer to it now and have seen the same staff person – I think he must be a manager – on many more occasions. Mercifully we haven’t had to exchange words.
How about you? Have you ever been in a situation you thought would be relatively easy to navigate, but then you were completely at a loss?