There is a defining moment in My Fair Lady. It’s when a reticent Eliza accompanied by the triumphant and euphoric Higgins and Pickering breaks her silence and beseeches to Pickering, the universe, to God,
“What’s to become of me? What’s to be-come of me?”
She articulates what she has realized for perhaps some time: that she is between worlds and faced with the consequences of actions she doesn’t have the wherewithal to navigate. In those small words are the desperate cries of a woman who has been stripped bare and rebuilt but without sight of the spirit that she always knew to define her.
Or to put it another simpler way, she’s a common flower girl who finds herself trapped in the vocal chords of an upper class lady and doesn’t recognize herself.
My “What’s to become of me?” moment started a few weeks ago.
I was having Thai in Chelsea (New York not London, natch) with an American friend who used to be a model. He stopped suddenly as I was mid regale and sat so far back in his chair I thought he was going to fall over. With a look of horror on his face, he asked me,
“WHAT did you just say?”
“I said, ‘They are goi-“
“Oh no no NO, honey. That’s NOT what you said,” he replied, his former model blue eyes twinkling. “You said, ‘They aaarrgh,’” He reverberated his Rs. “That is the most American I have ever heard you sound and can I just say I don’t like it. Not. One. Bit!”[pullquote_right]you’ll find very quickly that both cities don’t speak the same language[/pullquote_right]A look of distress came over my face and I put my fork of Drunk Man Noodle back on my plate. I think I hung my head in shame a little.
I’ve been living in New York for seven years, having moved here in 2005 to start a wonderful new chapter of life with my boyfriend of four years [Nine months later we split up but that’s a story for another column]
The point is, in all the time I have lived here I have prided myself on not having lost my slightly posh Surrey tones. I never really understood how transplants somehow forget their natural accents and end up emitting a messy faux pronunciation of their adopted homeland (which strangely disappears when they move away). Like Madonna pretending to be Lady of the Manor whose American twang overruled her ridiculous rendition of a stately homeowner’s vocals as soon as she stepped off the plane to set up home in New York. Again.
New York and London have a particular relationship with each other, both cities personalities having architected the cultural zeitgeist of the West. As a frequent visitor to New York over the years I naively didn’t assume a difficulty factor when relocating here.
This was a mistake. You may think when moving from London to New York that you are moving somewhere English speaking but you’ll find very quickly that both cities don’t speak the same language.
Deciphering milk, for example, was an ordeal I wasn’t prepared for. 2% fat milk, less than 2% fat milk, milk with vitamin A, milk with vitamin D, milk with vitamins A and D, and not to mention Half and Half. It took me fifteen minutes in front of the chiller cabinet to work out which one was the equivalent of semi-skimmed.
However, that was not as mortifying as the step by step process of ordering a salad at the deli. Choosing protein, veggies, more veggies, nuts, seeds, other additions and one of the 28 salad dressings was enough to shake the confidence of Simon Cowell. You must do all of this while contending with frustrated salad mixers at each step awaiting your decision as well as hungry New Yorkers in the queue behind you angrily unable to fathom why you can’t understand the process.
It wasn’t uncommon in my first few months for me to be shouted at by the frantic salad maker responding to my request for Tuna with, “Cheese? What KIND of cheese? What? You said chicken? Why you not say chicken, man? HUH? Ohhh you want TOO-NAH. Why you not say so?”
I was in such a panic that I’d often ask for an inclusion of every ingredient I could see which meant my salad often cost around $20 and was large enough to feed a family of 3.
Naturally, I have substituted some US words for English ones like ‘apartment’ for ‘flat’ and ‘store’ for ‘shop’ because it’s easier. Dishearteningly, I sometimes do it without realizing such as ‘sweater’ for ‘jumper’ or ‘soccer’ for ‘football’ and then, horrifyingly, I forget which one is the English version.
The other week I decided to go back to Surrey for a long weekend to see friends and family including my sister who was there on a break from the NGO she works for in Afghanistan.
If I thought this would help me Hugh Grant things up a notch where my accent is concerned I was sorely mistaken. One morning at our local Starbucks I asked for a tall decaf and a tall Cappuccino.
“One tall decaf Cappuccino,” the barista replied.
“No, no. I want a tall decaf and a Cappuccino.”
“You want a tall decaf Cappuccino.”
“No. Shall we start again?” I offered. “A tall decaf and a tall Cappuccino.” I was met with a blank stare.
“Sorry, Sir…I don’t understand you.”
What’s to be-come of me?
What’s to become of me? Well, first off, I’m going to Henry Higgins the shit out of myself. I’d better start slow, one vowel at a time.