Dispatches From the South – Frames of Reference

One of the unexpected side effects you will discover if you become an expat is that you will often feel as if you are adrift in a sea of uncharted idioms. After seven years, I now know where most of the reefs are, but there is still the overall feeling that I am, ultimately, an outsider, both because I occasionally find myself not understanding what is going on around me, or because, more frequently, I will say something that elicits confused stares instead of understanding. (Such as when I used, “waiting for the furnace man,” as an example of a bogus excuse one might employ to stay home from work. This innocuous remark caused everyone at the table to burst into eye-watering laughter for reasons which remain a mystery to me.)

Even now, while watching TV, my wife will suddenly begin laughing but will be unable to explain why, beyond the brief and unsatisfying explanation that it was, “in reference to a show that was on before you came over.”

Conversely, when I make suggestions that our MPs should be enrolled in “Accounting 101″ or allude to them arriving at Parliament “on the short bus,” no one nods or smirks; they just look confused.

At restaurants, when someone at my table orders the Chocolate Mousse—an occasion that, in the US, practically insists you say, in an appropriate cartoon voice, “Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!”—I have to remain silent, or risk being thought quite mad. And no one gets the double-entendre implicit in “Nice sweater, Mrs. Cleaver,” either.

I also sorely miss in the ability to find out a great deal about my drinking companion by his answer to the question, “Ginger or Maryann?” If I tried that here, he would probably think I was asking about his preference of spices. It really leaves me feeling vaguely out of touch, with my companions, as well as society in general.

By not sharing the same frame of reference, you can never truly be one of the crowd; events and conversations will continue to unfold in a place you can only peek into but never be part of; and you will find yourself staying quiet a great deal more than you might prefer.

Virginia O'Hanlon

Virginia O'Hanlon

But for me, the most annoying aspect—now that I am attaining an age when I can recall a lot of things many of my companions cannot—is that I can no longer get any mileage out of the fact that I met Virginia O’Hanlon of, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” fame. My one brush with greatness and, just when it starts to do me some good, I move to a country where no one knows who she is.

But at least now I can trot out the previously useless fact that I grew up next to the house Jennie Jerome used to live in.

Jenny Jerome


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