Culturally Discombobulated

Category: Reflections

Hell is other people on a duck tour

The irritating pitch of duck whistles warns me that a duck tour is near. As it passes, I hear the miked-up tour guide say, “the house on your right is where the cast of Jersey Shore lived for the show’s Miami episodes.” The tourists’s cameras flash, and the world gets just that little bit dumber.

Reflections: The Collection

“You must have been very proud of her,” said the hotel owner.

I never knew her.

“We’re all proud of her,” she continued. “This is just my little tribute.”

“That’s nice,” I said. I didn’t mean it, obviously.

There mounted on the wall of the sitting room was the subject of our awkward conversation – a shelf on which the hotel owner kept her prized collection of “individually authenticated” Princess Diana dolls.

“She would have been so excited about Will and Kate’s wedding, don’t you think?”

“I guess.”

The hotel owner certainly kept them all in good condition, there was no disputing that. I pictured her on a step ladder on her tip-toes, reaching out unsteadily as she tries to grab a doll to bring down for its once a week dusting. I had noticed the collection as I left the hotel bar for my room and on the way passed the sitting room. Surely, it couldn’t be, I thought, but true enough it was and I now found myself staring intently at the collection. It seemed to me such an odd thing to find in a New England hotel. The elderly owner of the collection appeared by my shoulder.

“They get lots of admirers,” she said.

“Yes, I’m sure.” On hearing my accent, she was doubly keen to talk to me about the “People’s Princess” and politeness forced me to stand there listening as she told me about the many, many Princess Diana books she owned, and how upset she had been when learning of Diana’s death (“We couldn’t believe it”), but I found it hard to concentrate on what she was saying as ten doll’s eyes stared blankly back at me.

“Has anyone ever said that they find them…” I was unsure how wise I was in broaching this, “…just a little unnerving?”

“Are you one of those,” she said, her tone frostier. “Did you not like her? Well, I like you,” she said, addressing her collection.

Reflections: Scenes from the County Fair

She was not the budding gardener her granddad wanted her to be, but that still did not stop him submitting an entry form in her name for the Floriculture competition at the County Fair. The theme she was given by the fair was “Island Tropics”. “Do not try for a literal interpretation of the theme title,” her granddad read from the rules the fair had mailed her. “Use each title as a springboard for imaginative creativity.” She asked her granddad what that meant. He told her that it meant she should let her imagination run wild.

On the opening day of the fair she packed all that she needed (four Barbies, several sheets of colored paper, Scotch tape, and various potted plants) into a shoe box and with her granddad drove to the fair. She and the other children competing in the under-eleven category were given an hour to set up their gardens. Needing to drop off the dahlias, roses, and chrysanthemums that he was entering, her granddad left her to get on with it.

Away from her granddad she let her imagination run wild. One Barbie, she decided, would float dead in the pool. Another would lie crushed underneath a palm tree. It was called, she told the judges, “Murder at the Beach.”

She came in second place winning $35.

Reflections: Staring at the sun


San Francisco, 20 May

At the corner of Folsom and 8th, a middle-aged man held up a sheet of dark glass and stared at the sun through it. As I passed him on the sidewalk he started talking to me. “It’s beautiful,” he said, “so beautiful.”

I assumed he was another cracked prophet in a city full of them. A request for money was going to come next, of that I was sure.

“Do you want to look at the sun through it?” he asked me, indicating his sheet of glass. I looked at him confused. “It’s welder’s glass,” he said by way of explanation.

As I was about to smile and utter a quiet “no, thank you,” he held the glass up in front of my face, and through it, like some wonderful magic trick, he showed me a partial solar eclipse – something that had completely passed me by. To the naked eye, the sun was a little larger perhaps, a little hazier maybe,  but nothing out of the ordinary, and yet through the glass I could see a dark disc at the bottom of which was a firey crescent. So I took hold of the smiling stranger’s sheet of glass and looked straight at the sun through it.

And all down Folsom street, people were stepping out of the bear bars and facing away from the sun they tried to see the eclipse with impromptu pinhole cameras they had made from cardboard sheets, some tried to use their hands to project the crescent onto the wall, and the smiling stranger was right — it was so beautiful.



Reflections: Communication Problems

“The really astute Englishman..must feign a certain diffident hesitation, put in a few well-placed — ers.”
Aspects of Translation (1958)

“And your name is?” asks the Starbucks barista, a black marker pen in hand.
It is the simplest question you could ask someone, and despite knowing that it has been coming, it is one that I have learned to dread and that I am unable to answer crisply. I can’t help it, I’m not sure if it is a subconscious affectation, but I – and I always do this – hum and haw my response.
“Err… Anthony.”
“Erm… it’s Anthony.”
“Okay,” says the perplexed-looking barista and scrawls down onto the paper cup what she thinks might be my name. That I pronounce my name Ann-Toe-Knee rather than the more standard American pronunciation of Ann-Thon-Knee complicates matters further, but it is that momentary hesitation – that damn “err” and “erm” – that I am unable to mute. When friends from the UK visit, I hear in some of them that same faltering indecision repeated in their voice as in mine – I end up loving them for it.
“Grande latte for Anty,” shouts the barista. In Starbucks I answer to Anthony, Anty, Andrew, Aaron, Timothy, Alex, Jeremy. Perhaps some sort of name badge is in order?