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Accents & Alcohol

Monday, 25 Nov 2002
written by Teresa

For years, the South has conjured up a tapestry of images for me, gleaned mainly from literature, films, history and some personal experience. One of the backdrops of this picture has been high temperatures but in Tennessee this is not the case - it's cold. Now I know it's November, but in my mind's eye it should be hot and sultry and while it is certainly wet, the words damp and misty are a more appropriate description. The ground is water logged, puddles abound and the mud has an English like quality, spattering shoes and clinging to the soles. This puts me in mind of an Adrian Mitchell poem about my hometown:

In Manchester there are a thousand puddles.
Bus-queue puddles poised on slanting paving stones,
Railway puddles slouching outside stations,
Cinema puddles in ambush at the exits,
Zebra-crossing puddles in dips of the dark stripes --
They lurk in the murk
Of the north-western evening
For the sake of their notorious joke,
Their only joke -- to soak
The tights or trousers of the citizens.
Each splash and consequent curse is echoed by
One thousand dark Mancunian puddle chuckles.

In Manchester there lives the King of Puddles,
Master of Miniature Muck Lakes,
The Shah of Slosh, Splendifero of Splash,
Prince, Pasha and Pope of Puddledom.
Where? Somewhere. The rain-headed ruler
Lies doggo, incognito,
Disguised as an average, accidental mini-pool.
He is as scared as any other emperor,
For one night, all his soiled and soggy victims
Might storm his streets, assassination in their minds,
A thousand rolls of blotting paper in their hands,
And drink his shadowed, one-joke life away.

While the water saturation level is reminiscent of another country, the local speech is profoundly different. Rumour has it that it's the same language but it falls on the ear with a laid back, drawn out, long vowelled cadence that slinks forward like a mesmerising cobra, before leaping, leaving the unsuspecting, stunned in the after-word. Most of the time, it's possible to get the general gist, if not the specifics, but it's early days and I'm waiting for my ear to tune in and connect to the appropriate comprehension centres in my brain. It makes me slightly more sympathetic towards people who look to Sterling for translation when I speak. I have found that a completely new and distinct accent with its particular vocabulary and idiosyncrasies, takes some adapting to and requires a level of concentration while listening, that isn't usual in day-to-day conversation at the supermarket.

The sale of alcohol has it's own peculiarities on both sides of the Atlantic. In England it is sold in a shop known as an Off Licence. Pubs, clubs, and restaurants have a licence for consumption of alcohol on the premises. Hence the name - they won't let you open the bottle and take a swig there and then. Here in the States, there is no one rule of thumb. St. Terese's Pale Ale - VERY appropriate name! In Florida, beer, wine and spirits are sold in the supermarket, seven days a week. In Colorado, 3.2% beer is sold in supermarkets while stronger fermented malt beverages, wines and spirits are sold at the liquor store but these are closed on Sundays. In Tennessee alcohol is available six days a week from drug stores (which seems somehow appropriate) supermarkets and package stores. I have found two explanations of the origin of "package store":

You buy the hooch and it is placed in a bag (package) and then you go sit on the curb and drink it using the bag around the bottle so no one can tell what you are drinking. At least that's the way I've seen it done -- no practical experience mind you!
Packaged goods store. In the early days of Repeal, when liquor again became legal, euphemisms were much in vogue. Several state legislatures piously voted that the saloon must never return, so the saloons reopened as "taverns" or "lounges." The expression "barroom" and "liquor store" were similarly taboo in many districts. So the euphemism "package goods store" became widely used - later cut down to simply "package store". The meaning is simple: in such stores liquor is sold only in sealed containers (packages) for off-premises consumption.

And then there's Utah - which the Queen doesn't fancy. There are a number of fascinations worth noting about this state, which claims that it's "liquor laws" are as liberal as any other's and no more arcane. Firstly, motels carry a condensed version of the legislation in each room, usually running to several pages of small faced print, explaining the operation of bars, restaurants and private clubs. The latter has a particular meaning, which still escapes me, but the relevant thing to remember is that you can go in whether you're a member or not, by simply signing your name in the ledger at the door. The second point of interest is that all liquor stores are state owned and run but are not allowed to sell corkscrews - for that, you have to go to the hardware shop, next door, that invariably closed ten minutes ago. So we have the conundrum of the state condoning and even encouraging the sale of alcohol on the one hand but at the same time refusing to aid and abet in getting the bottles open. Thirdly, staff may not ply you with alcohol. To ensure this rule is upheld, there is a stock phrase used in all establishments, even bars: "Can I get you anything other than water to drink?" Fourthly, if you're sat at a bar with a drink and want to transfer to the restaurant to eat, you cannot carry your own glass - you might impale yourself or others on the glass or implode due to the change in atmosphere - the wait staff who have been trained to avoid such mishaps, do it for you. Lastly, restaurant tables in Utah are apparently unable to hold more than one round of drinks at a time, necessitating the wait staff to remove the empties from the first round before allowing you to have the refills on the table. If this means them waiting with tray in hand while you gulp down the last dregs, that's what they'll do. Definitely not arcane but interesting nevertheless.

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