“Do you sell sugar?”
“Sugar,” I repeated, but my cashier's face was still blank. I fumbled for something eloquent and settled on, “You know. Um. Sugar?”
That seemed to do the trick. His expression clearing, he directed me to the appropriate aisle. I was just about to turn away when, slyly, as if he'd caught me out, he asked, “You're from the States, aren't you, love?”
I nodded. No point dissembling; American travelers are somehow visible from miles away. I don't even have to open my mouth sometimes before people around me know. Maybe we have an aura, or a scent, or something? (One local woman laughed at my confusion and answered, “You just look American!” Not that that helps.)
Fortunately, I don't think anyone cares that I'm foreign; I've been welcomed to Cork, Ireland – my home for the next three months! – as if I'm family. I've experienced any number of small kindnesses already, if you can believe it. A tour bus made a detour to let me hop off in the direction of my apartment, a couple of museums have given me random discounts, and a few strangers have offered me their cell (excuse me, “mobile”) numbers, in case I have any major problems while away from home. (It's Colorado, if you were wondering. Most people here ask for the specificity.)
It's magical. It's as if, despite any troubles the Irish have understanding you, they're already sure you're going to be great friends.
Still, the communication barrier's rough. My sugar incident is one of dozens – and words don't quite match up either! A line is a “queue;” sweaters are “jumpers” and pants are “trousers;” a “bap” is a bun while a “biscuit” is a cookie; someone asking to “bum a fag” really just wants a cigarette (!); and they get even stranger. One girl at a local Tesco's (a grocery store) asked me if she could borrow a “biro” twice before she took a look at my blank face and amended it to “pen.” (What?)
I'm picking up bits and pieces, though. I can tell you decisively that my favorite new word is the local expression “craic” – and yes, it is pronounced “crack,” and used in phrases like “so, where is the craic tonight?” Which, to a visitor from the States, can be downright alarming.
Its meaning: fun.