A British Man Buys Books


There’s a new English bookstore in town and I have found myself there several times in the last four months. This bookstore has everything I could possibly want. It’s a large room filled with cheap English books, those selling said books are young, attractive, and clad in boxy glasses, and it’s literally across the street from one of my favorite pubs.

Last Saturday, I brought three books up to the counter. Life couldn’t be better. It was Friday and I was about to leave my second favorite venue for my first favorite one.

Perhaps in anticipation of that mecca I looked across the street at the pub’s entrance.

“Dobrý den,” the woman behind the counter said. She was early twenty-something, guardedly chipper, and wore glasses which suggested a knowledge of Sartre.

“Dobrý den” I said back.

“Oh,” she stuttered a second. “Um…hello. Is this all?”

OK, this happens. Sometimes Czechs switch to English upon realizing their interlocutor isn’t a native Czech speaker. It has upset me before, both morally and conversationally. Morally I sometimes take it as an indictment on the quality of my Czech. Conversationally I get flummoxed as to what language I should speak back. I have had entire conversations with a Czech person speaking English and me speaking Czech. It’s like being in a David Lynch dream sequence.

“Right,” I said, “that’ll be all then.” The words themselves aren’t as notable as the fact that I spoke them in what my brain tells me is a British accent. I clipped the ‘T’ off of the ‘Right’ and based the rest on Inspector Morse, Tiny Tim, and what I’d always imagined Mr. Bean would sound like.

Afterwards, I peered closely at the woman as she rung through my books, inspecting her for a sign of confusion, judgment, or abject disgust. But she showed nothing but a keen interest in efficiently moving along this sales transaction at a rapid pace. I calmed when I remembered that most non-native English speakers can not pick up the differences between accents in English. And so I bought into the character and, after taking my bag of newly acquired books, signed off with a “thank you lass,” as I took off for the door.

My foray into the British archipelago of accents may have gone completely unnoticed and left to my own embellished folklore, had it not been for the presence of my American companion. If my companion had just ended up in the store it might have played out as wrong place, wrong time movie humor. But in fact she had come to the store with me. I had bought one of the books for her.

“Did you just…?” she started as we ran across the street to the pub. Fortunately a tram almost took our lives and so the question was diverted.

I have always done this sort of thing. There just seem to be some accents more appropriate to a situation. Whenever I catch a student cheating and have to undertake the unpleasant task of busting and failing them, I often do so in an Irish brogue. I think bad news is best delivered in the pleasant lilt of the people who invented Bushmills and Guinness – two things which, by the way, greatly ease the pain of bad news. The Irish know how to cope with bad stuff. As a kid I got under my mom’s skin by complaining about her food impersonating the old Jewish men from my neighborhood. This was always well received and never resulted in explosions of rage at all. Nope. Never.

By this deformed logic, can there be a better accent for conveying awkwardness than the British one? Nothing captures socially horrified better than a good old T-glottalization or a non-rhotic purge.

When we got to the pub, our favorite waiter was not there. Instead it was the grumpy one, the one who relegates people to corner tables and charges people for ice in drinks. If he pisses me off, I might have to go full Australian on this son of a bitch.

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