2015–2016: What was that you said? (Part III)
A New Yorker in London on 365 days of “Britishese”
The first time I tried living abroad, it was in Paris. I spoke relatively decent, bordering on fluent french back then. Really, I was pretty good at it once! The experiences I had as an American speaking en français to les Parisiens ranged from daunting to discouraging bordering on downright maddening — as Eddie Izzard has remarked, “they are kind of fucking French at times.”
No disrespect intended to any French people reading this. One side of my family comes from France, and I do have the letter Q in my name.
Many of my friends and family figured I wouldn’t have much difficulty communicating across the pond, as they speak English in the UK.
England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
— George Bernard Shaw
Very early into my career at the BBC, my boss flew off to Nairobi for a World Service event, as did my boyfriend, Iain, who was also then working for the BBC. Early enough that I wasn’t yet setup with a laptop, an email address or an ID card.
No matter. I was very excited to start doing stuff at the BBC! These were trivial details, addressed through the typical processes a new employee anywhere in a digital journalism role would expect.
So I showed up at the main headquarters of the BBC — the Broadcasting House — intending to find a seat somewhere in the newsroom.
After all, I had been in that newsroom once before on a visit. It seemed simple enough then to get a visitor pass. Now that I was an employee, how hard could it be to get my ID card or at least temporary staff pass?
Plus, I knew they hot-desked.
A helpful colleague (also known as my friend Paul Rissen, who will come up again, I’m sure, in these posts) met me in the reception area and signed me in. Boom, visitor’s pass again.
“How do I get a real ID card like yours?” I asked.
“The ID Unit. It’s on the 2nd floor.” he told me.
Whoa, I think, they have an ID Unit and it’s even in this building? How organized and efficient! I visit this ID Unit, which turned out to be a desk behind a curtain behind a kitchen area in the middle of the floor. I gave my name, had my photo taken, and was given a temporary pass along with a dark blue lanyard. The kind ID Unit lady told me I should attach the pass to the lanyard and wear it whenever I was in the building.
Now, you might have been wondering when the hell I’d start discussing the whole “Britishese” stuff. Right here, right now.
Above is a photo of the pass I was issued at the ID Unit. It even says, “Issued By: W1 ID Unit” on it! I knew enough about London — or so I thought, ha ha ha — to understand the “W1” referred to the building’s postal code, W1A 1AA. Ok cool, an abbreviation.
I took that photo outside the Broadcasting House. In the background, you can see a bit of the sidewalk, right? A couple of things:
- The ground outside the Broadcasting House isn’t just some sidewalk — it’s a commissioned work of art called “World” that in theory is a map complete with latitude and longitude lines and place names. In reality, it’s a confusing array of location choices which, as the artist put it, “are situated in associative juxtapositions.” I try to avoid the tiles for Waco, Jonestown, Dachau, Auschwitz and Srebrenica when possible.
- No one at the BBC refers to the building as the Broadcasting House. The section I work in is referred to as NBH, for New Broadcasting House, which extends and even connects to the original Broadcasting House, or rather, Old BH or simply BH.
- It’s also W1A, possibly the most meta television show I’ve ever seen (1.5 episodes of) and cannot watch. Season 2 was being filmed right behind my desk during my third or fourth weeks of employment… in NBH.
- Saying something is “very W1A” kind of reminds me of how people would tell me, “TIA” (This Is Africa) when the power went out in Dar or our connecting flight in Blantyre ended up being 12 hours later — though on time — than originally scheduled and on Air Zimbabwe instead of our ticketed Air Malawi.
See, while I am an American living in London, I’m also an American working at the BBC HQ in London. This brings another layer of “what?” to the whole US-UK “special relationship” thing.
I’ve had to learn a lot of slang, idioms and pop culture references both British and BBC over the past year. Here are some highlights:
- Arriving at Iain Collins’ mother’s house for Christmas and her telling us we could just throw all our stuff (suitcases, bags of presents) “in the glory hole,” which apparently means “ a deep built-in cupboard under the eaves or stairs of a house used for general storage, particularly of unrelated or unwanted items stored in some disorder” in Scotland.
- Upon hearing this statement, I was told I was “corpsing” (aka roflmao). “The origin of the term corpsing is unclear, but may come from (provoking an actor into) breaking character by laughing while portraying a corpse.”
- I thought this Scottish Christmas glory hole corpsing situation might qualify for an ASBO, but none were issued. That’s an “anti-social behaviour order” btw.
- Some British shows recommended to me that I cannot watch under any circumstances: W1A, Twenty Twelve, and Peep Show.
More soon in Part IV, including how to get inducted into a building. See ya :)