Sometimes there is just no hiding the fact that I’m not from around these parts.
I think I blend in quite well visually but the game is given away before I can even finish the first sentence that comes out of my mouth.
It has been one of those weeks when everyone seems to have picked it. Yesterday, for example, I went to Dudley’s local Territorial Army headquarters and spoke to a couple of recruits about why they had become TA soldiers. Before I was done, one of them said: “So, you’re not from around here then. Where are you from?” Less than an hour later I got a similar question from one of their senior officers.
Later I spoke to a local beer brewer and, after he asked me where I was from, he spent a number of minutes telling about his children who had been to New Zealand. It is nice how most people I speak to here have some connection to New Zealand – whether it be relatives living there or even having been there for a holiday themselves and being pleased to be given the opportunity to chat about it.
Last night I was on late duty and was chatting to the commander at one of the local fire stations. I’d not spoken to him before and as soon as I’d introduced myself he politely but curiously asked me where I had come from. “I’m originally from New Zealand,” I replied, quick to add the regular excuse: “but I’ve been here for about five years”.
“Lovely,” he said before asking if I was enjoying The Midlands.
Most of the time I don’t mind being a bit different and having people want to know about where I am from. But at times it can be frustrating.
Like the time I was in a previous newsroom and was asked to call an elderly ex-MP and ask him about his thoughts on previous prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s legs. Strange story, yes, but let me explain where it had come from.
I had been at a village meeting the night before where an ex-diplomat who had worked under Thatcher, had allowed himself to get a bit carried away – perhaps not realising the girl at the back of the hall had a notebook and was scribbling more and more furiously as he did so – on the subject of the Iron Lady’s “lovely legs”.
So I found myself seeking comment from someone more local who had also been in the political game at the same time and asking for his thoughts on Margaret Thatcher’s legs. There was just one problem: apparently I don’t say “legs” the way most English people do.
So our conversation went around and around in circles as he kept repeating “ligs? What do you mean?” and I kept repeating, more and more urgently: “No, LEGS!” In the end, with my chief reporter and news editor beside me both struggling not to laugh too loudly, I had to give up.
Then there was the time I first moved here when I paid my power bills over the phone. To do that, I needed to use an automated system and read out various numbers – bill amounts, card details and the like. After the first few failed attempts where the lady’s voice said she couldn’t understand me and then I got cut off, I began to try to read out the words and numbers the way I thought an English person would. It worked – but it was such an effort!
Meanwhile, this part of the country isn’t without its own challenging accents. Soon after I arrived one of my colleagues asked me what I thought of the accents and if I found them difficult to understand at times. I said they were fine. She said: “You’ve not come across the Gornal accent yet then…” A few days later I found out what she meant when interviewing a lovely couple about their golden wedding anniversary. I struggled to understand what the husband was telling me. Not only was the accent like nothing I’d ever heard before, but there were different words for things as well. He was very kind and patient, however, and decided he would let his wife speak and that might help things. Well, she had lived in Gornal for longer than he had and, while she tried her best to make things better, they were actually even worse! But I’ll get better at it.
I still don’t quite understand why, after more than five years in the UK and only one trip back to New Zealand in that time, I still sound like a Kiwi. Maybe it’s one of those accents that never completely disappear. Meanwhile, I quite like the kindness and curiosity it provokes here in The Midlands and I’m enjoying being a Midlands Kiwi.