This morning I'm in Nottingham, on the 77 Bus en route from my hotel to a client's site and there is a three-year-old kid sitting behind me singing the Shut Up Song. For those of you unfamiliar with this ditty, it goes like this:
Shut up, shut up
Shut up, shut up
Shuuuuut up, shuuuut up
Shut up, shut up
This appears to be the only verse, although there is an occasional refrain that sounds something like, "Shut up, shut up, shut shut shut up . . ." One gets the feeling he hears that phrase a lot. But the worst part is, it has an unfortunately catchy tune so I just know it will be with me for the rest of the day.
Basically, I have two transportation options when I'm here: cab or bus. The bus is only one pound fifty but it takes about half an hour; a cab is more expensive but gets me there ten minutes sooner. I was in a hurry, so I took a cab. I should have walked.
I don't know why I continue to think, "This time will be different," when I have never arrived at my destination from the same direction twice. Nor have I ever successfully conveyed where I want to go without lengthy explanations accompanied by sign language. Don't they make these cabbies do The Knowledge?
At any rate, with misguided optimism, I climbed into the cab and said, "Harvey Road."
"No, Harvey Road. H - A - R - V . . ."
"P? Arppie Road?"
"No, 'V' as in 'Very difficult!'"
"'B' in Berry? Arby Road? Are you sure it is in Nottingham? There is no Arby Road in Nottingham."
"It's near the Stadium," I tried.
"There is no Arby Stadium."
I dropped my head into my hands and stared at the cab floor. Generally, at this time, a kindly stranger steps in to translate, but there was no one else in the cab, a queue was building up behind us and I knew we were trapped together with our mutual misunderstandings.
The driver pulled away.
"Do not worry," he said, "I will find it."
This failed to fill me with confidence, especially when he reverted to my patented method of trying to find a place by driving aimlessly around and hoping to run into it.
Turns out, there is another stadium in Nottingham, and a Harvey's Haircutting Parlor. I think he drove me past both in the hopes I would get out there. All the while he punched frantically at his SatNav. I was on the verge of telling him to find a 77 bus and follow it when he turned to me in triumph.
"I have found just one Arby Road. Do you think this is it?"
"If it's Harvey Road, it must be."
"Are you sure?"
"If it's Harvey Road, it's got to be the right place."
We set off with renewed, but still misplace, optimism. I turned my attention to some documents and when I looked up a bit later, expecting to find us nearing our destination, I instead saw a combine harvester and figured we had gone a little bit wrong.
In desperation, I called my office for the client's Post Code. This contained an unfortunate series of G's and B's, so getting the simple code punched into the SatNav required a lay-by, slow, loud and careful word enunciation and much gesticulation. Eventually, the proper code was entered and we pulled back onto the farm road.
"The SatNav is still telling me to go this way," he said. So we did. A hundred yards later the SatNav spoke again.
"Now it is telling me to go another way."
We turned off the farm road down a single-track lane. I saw a sign pointing toward Leicester. Sometime later, the roads got wider and I saw signs for Derby, Birmingham and someplace called Loughborough.
By now, we were 45 minutes into a fifteen-minute cab ride and I was too frightened to look at the meter.
Now, please don't think I'm getting all BNP on you; I mean, as an immigrant myself—and one, I am assured, with a distinctive accent—I am the last one you will catch tossing figurative projectiles. I'm just saying, if it were me, and I were in a job that required clear, concise and constant communication with the general public, I might find it to my advantage if I brushed up on my "English as a Second Language" skills.
Eventually, I made it to my actual destination. I looked at the meter.
"You don't expect me to pay that," I said when I stopped chocking.
"I asked, 'Are you sure?' You said, 'Yes.'"
There really wasn't any arguing with that. It was, literally, all the money I had. I even needed to dredge through the linings of my coat pockets for spare change to make up the full total. I didn't give him a tip.
It provided a bumpy start to my day, but I'm sure he drove away hoping his next customer wouldn't be so dense when it came to understanding accents.
But next time I find myself faced with an inability to understand or be understood, I think I will heed the advice of the little boy sitting behind me. It would be cheaper.
This post was written by Mike Harling, an American author living in the south of England. His debut novel Postcards from Across the Pond, is a hilarious account of life as an expat. You can keep up with Mike at his blog, Postcards from Across the Pond, Dispatches from an Accidental Expat.