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If there’s one thing I love about travel, it’s the ability to be myself but become something else for many people. What on Earth are you talking about, man?

“Where’d you come from?” the lady asked me in the mega-department store. ‘From the airport,’ I replied. Not satisfied with that, she asked, “No! Where’d really come from?” I scratched my head, and said, ‘Well, I came from Miami.’ She pressed on: “But, you ain’t from here…America.” Right, she was. I didn’t yield. Then she came with the blast that many do: “You have a’ accent!” I giggled, and replied, ‘So do you, just different.’ She shook her head.

I know she was trying to pin me down as being more than just out of the immediate area. Americans are great when it comes to playing this game. They seem to have more problems than most figuring out accents from other places. Just a while ago, an oldish man asked me if I was from New Zealand. Now, that’s not a bad guess, given that my English is very English. But, how do I get mistaken for French?

I met a neighbour of my daughter’s yesterday, and as they talked, the lady asked me if I could guess where she came from. Her accent had a kind of east European/southern Mediterranean tinge, but sounded Latin, too. She was from Colombia/Chile. Her speaking English as at best a second language can pose many problems for a listener, because she could simply sound like her teacher or audio tape had taught her. When I spoke to her in Spanish, it was clearer that she was unlikely to be from Spain, based on what I had learned from my Colombian teacher. You get my point? It’s not easy to pin people down by how they speak.

When I tell people I come from Jamaica, I’m often met with variants of “You don’t sound Jamaican!” We know that they want us to sound rawer and less comprehensible, not maybe as hard to understand as many a dancehall or reggae artiste, but certainly not polished. I can’t tell them where on the spectrum to put me, but here’s a helpful guide:

Once in my life, I formed a men’s football team, called ‘Internatonales’; I chose that name because the players came from a wide range of countries–about 15, if I remember well. Our team working language on the field was English, but between groups of players it could be any of several mixes, including two or more at the same time, as many people were multilingual. Add to that, two players had come from Gallaudet, the DC university for the hard-of-hearing, so some of us also see sign language to better communicate with them. Refereeing our matches could be fun, especially when we needed to tell officials that some players could not hear the whistle. (It gave us some leeway, too, as we could argue that some players shouldn’t be treated too harshly because of their disabilities.) I played sweeper, not because it was my best position, but I could manage things better from the back and deal with almost everyone on the field evenly from there. Running and playing with that team taught me a lot about the importance of clear communications and also the dangers if things got misinterpreted. It also stressed the real value of learning other languages. Dare you to curse at us in what may seem an obscure language, like Serbian; chances were we’d have someone who understood. Those were fun times!

When I’m in a good mood, I often ask whether my speaking French or Russian would make me one of those nationalities. French many can handle, but Russian? You mad!

I’m due to have lunch with one of my old friends, who played on that team with me. He’s white Portuguese, born and raised in Mozambique. We worked together in the same organization for nearly 15 years. He speaks excellent Spanish, Italian and French. He speaks lovely broken English, and when he writes it’s even more broken. We’re due to meet in an Irish pub in America. Should be fun, if we break out the languages.