Chapter 01
A Land Without Rs

Experiences of a new life in Cambridge, Mass.

Strangeness, Not Travelogue

This is not a travelogue. At least, it is not supposed to be a travelogue. The question it tries to answer is, What things about this new location and its new culture seem odd at first? After a while, even the strangest behavior can seem normal. What is it that is new, that is odd, that seems peculiar, that is just unfamiliar or surprising? Six months later, you won't remember what was odd about it. Write it down now. After I get accustomed to it, I lose my ability to detect the strangeness.

The idea comes from the "Hong Kong Diary" by my friend Richard Glantz, which he wrote to capture precisely those strange moments, immersed in a new culture, when you see something puzzling, something you don't understand, something off-kilter. I followed his lead with my "Tales of Texas," trying to reflect some of the strangeness felt by a Northern boy moving to the South and West simultaneously.

Well, a decade later, Texas became sort of normal-feeling. Now it is Cambridge, a classic New England college town, that is new. I lived in this area for a long time, but time didn't stand still while I was gone for a dozen years. What's new now?

The title comes from a friend, Laurie Najjar, who has marital experience with the accent. The accent really does exist. One hears it all the time in shops, tradespeople, restaurants, but it isn't all that common among the many college students and teachers who come from all over.

The truth of the accent is much more complicated than simply "without Rs." The Rs are not entirely absent; they migrate. They move from places where they belong, where they are included in the spelling, to places where they don't belong, where they can enjoy sowing confusion among the outlanders. The Rs that should have been in "pahk my cah" move to transform "idea" into "ideer" (eye-deer) and "draw" into "drawer," yielding such goodies as "I have no ideer why you would drawer that conclusion."

20110808 Cambridge, Mass.