“You Talking To Me?”

My first wife, Sue, and I had just spread our hotel towels out on the sand when he came up out of the water nearby, wearing nothing but the turned-down sailor hat that covered his bald head. He strolled by on the way to his wife — sunning equally “au natural” farther up the beach — and we noticed that he doffed the cap and placed it over his crotch as he stretched out next to her.

It was a small, somewhat private beach on a Greek island in the early ‘70’s; part of our summer in Europe to celebrate our wedding and graduations. On the ferry from Italy across to Athens, we had encountered a group of Americans roughly our own age who encouraged us to visit this island. It was a small island where the ferry docked alongside the town square, and the other three sides of the plaza were three-story whitewashed hotels, with restaurants on the ground floors. Every night, each restaurant covered a third of the plaza with their tables, and served wondrous, if rustic, dinners there.

Each morning we walked from our hotel down to a small beach and bay we had found, seldom occupied by anyone else, but occasionally by this older, less reserved couple. On our return stroll, we would stop at a farmer’s stall to buy fresh tomatoes and maybe cheese, and then bread from another man who carried a giant basket down from the bakery in town. We would sit on our tiny balcony overlooking the plaza and the sea and have a nice mid-day meal before an afternoon nap.

Dinner started at dusk with a carafe of local wine, a fresh loaf of bread and, always, a ‘Greek‘ salad. The sliced tomatoes were incredible — fresh and juicy, a small slice of onion, feta cheese and olive oil. Lots and lots of olive oil — enough that it sloshed off the plate as it was delivered to the table.

At the time, olive oil was a little strange to me. I was accustomed to vegetable oil, but had never encountered olive oil as a main part of a meal. Hell, I had only had olives a few times before the trip — but enjoyed them in moderation.

On the first evening, I attempted to explain to the waiter that I would prefer less olive oil. As expected, English became much more foreign in complaint form, so getting my message across to him was quite difficult. He took the plate away and returned with even more oil on it. I tried to remain calm, but I’m sure my voice rose as I tried to tell him “no oil!” I now realize that intentional misunderstanding and obstinacy towards an American tourist is part of what a waiter might enjoy about his job. At any rate, I finally gave up, poured the excess oil onto another plate and ate the damn salad.

The next evening, the hatted gentleman from the beach came over to our table, suitably toweled, and asked where we were from. He suggested that maybe I was from north-central Texas or south-central Oklahoma. Well, we were stunned, since I was from north-central Texas, except for my five years at the University of Oklahoma — in central Oklahoma.

He explained that he was a language professor from the University of Wisconsin and that he had overheard and recognized my pronunciation of ‘oil’ from my rant the previous evening. Amazing. (He also shared that, every summer, he and his wife rented out their house in Madison to some students he knew and were able to live cheaply on a remote Greek island. Tough life.)

The exchange got me thinking about accents. In Texas, most people have strong southern or Texas accents, and quite enjoy their idioms. But I could tell the difference between a southern accent and a Texas one. Having lived in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Georgia, not to mention Alaska and Colorado, I can now tell a lot about someone’s origin by their accent. Of course, I am nowhere near as good as that Wisconsin professor, but I could easily distinguish my Arkansas physics professor’s accent from other southerners’.  (There’s a rich nasal quality and a brevity of vowels in Arkansas. Georgians have long vowel sounds, and a slower pace. Louisiana and Mississippi are similar but very distinct once you’ve heard enough of them.)

Sue was an Air Force brat, had moved around a lot and never developed a regional accent. Not to mention that she was an English teacher and often commented on my Texas accent. Hers was like the American they speak on TV — no regional accent whatsoever (unless it’s appropriate for a given character. Think, Beverly Hillbillies.).

In college, I dormed with guys from Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey, California, Louisiana and elsewhere, and learned to appreciate their different speech. Vinnie from New Jersey was almost textbook (or movie) east coast, and the Louisiana Cajun’s name was not pronounced anything like it was spelled (“Hey Bear” for Hebert, I never got it right). Guys like the Okies and black guys from small places in the very deep south tended to have even stronger accents and patterns.

My time in the 70’s among the Navajo gave me experience with their unique pace of speech and the different emphasis on parts of words, also notable in Southern and California accents. After time in Chicago, I could distinguish a Chicago-Southside accent from Oak Park with ease.

From my wife, Merrilyn’s, English family, as well as Masterpiece Theater, I have come to appreciate the difference between American and British English. Merrilyn’s family is from Lancashire with a strong accent (think Wallace and Gromit), and she can help me untangle the dialog of most British TV. However, when we went to England, I believe she might have been as confused by the Scots as I was. It’s not the language, you see, it’s the accent. On that post-graduation trip to Europe, I didn’t really expect everyone to speak English, but it was a bit surprising that I had trouble with the Brit’s accents.

Merrilyn and I used to have neighbors that had lived in France years earlier and we all joked about how one spoke French. First, you purse your lips tightly, then using a high squeaky voice to say “excuse moi!” I suppose it’s not really funny, but several glasses of good ol’ American jug wine can make most things hysterical.

In a small village in France, late one night after arriving on the last bus into town, Sue learned the hard way that her five years of French in high school and college in Ft. Worth, Texas was not the same language spoken in that town. We were rudely pushed out of a store because they thought we were “Bosch!” Unable to find a room, we were run out of the bus station and ended up sleeping(?) miserably on a nearby soccer field.

Once, unable to sleep when we reached Paris, I went to a cinema across from our hotel and watched an American comedy subtitled in French. It was a little embarrassing, because I would laugh out loud alone at a punch line in the movie, only to be followed a couple of beats later by the French audience when they had read the subtitle. Timing was everything. I was glad the theater was dark, and left quickly at the end.

One thing I’ve learned is that language, accents, patterns and pace are just as diverse as humans are. Sometimes how someone speaks takes a bit of getting used to. I’m sure personality plays a part, but a lot of language is almost innate, you pick it up from the people you’re around over time. Parents and teachers have the greatest effect, but friends and neighbors — and even the people you watch on TV can figure in.

To a given person, other people may “talk funny.” It’s exacerbated if they are from another country or speak another language entirely. But I think of it as a meal. You don’t want to eat hot dogs and mac and cheese every day. Sometimes you want pastrami or a burger or a tuna casserole or enchiladas or fried rice or sushi or BBQ or just a Greek salad (even with too much olive oil).

In speech, as in dining, variety is the spice of life.

Opa! Enjoy!

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