Our columnist talks up a storm on board a cruise ship, where fellow passengers hang on his every word.
I was on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, having dinner at a table of strangers in the blue dusk of the Riviera, and I was telling an extremely uninteresting story when I noticed that one of my fellow diners, a young woman from New York, was listening with surprising attentiveness. Her eyes sparkled rapturously, her lips parted in purest ecstasy. This was flattering but also distracting.
What was she finding so compelling in my account of the time my friend Daryl and I pretended to be library prefects to get out of cadets? Did she think this was building to a dramatic finale? It wasn’t! I had no big finish!
I started stumbling over my words, losing my train of thought.
‘Anyway, so I can’t even look at the Dewey Decimal System today…’ I finally trailed away.
The others sort of nodded politely and turned back to their roulades, but she would have none of it.
‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘Don’t stop! I just love your accent!’
It pleases me to think that there might be a whole new generation of young South Africans that aren’t embarrassed about their accent, but I’m of an earlier era. When I’m in a foreign setting and I hear the thin vowels and dusty consonants of my tribe, I feel my heart seize in embarrassment. Surely South African accents are the very worst of all accents?
She turned to her boyfriend. ‘He sounds like Colin Firth? Right? Am I right?’
‘You’re right, honey,’ said her boyfriend. ‘Say something else, man. Say “crumpets”.’
‘I will not say crumpets,’ I said, and to my horror I noticed myself sliding into a Colin Firth impersonation. ‘Nor shall I say tweed, or kipper, or Piccadilly. No indeed.’
‘Oh, I could listen all day,’ said the young lady from New York. ‘It’s so elegant and sophisticated.’
‘Gosh, I say, is it really?’ I said, veering slightly off Colin Firth and dangerously close to Hugh Grant. ‘Well, I mean to say, thanks awfully.’
A recent internet survey voted the South African accent the sexiest in the world. I just assumed that was a joke, or that the person running the poll was an expat futzing with the figures, but what if it’s true? What if our voices don’t mark us as dullards and provincials after all?
There was another South African couple on the ship. I generally avoid South Africans abroad for fear they’ll start talking about Jacob Zuma, but I began lightly stalking them, trying to listen with foreign ears. Elegant? Sophisticated? Was that American mad?
At a café near the water in St-Tropez I recognised an Irish guy from the ship. I asked him if he thought my accent sounded elegant and sophisticated.
‘Can’t say I do, mun,’ he said. ‘Then again, I can’t see what’s so cracking about mine either, get my meaning?’
‘I wish I had an Irish accent,’ I said.
‘That’s what everyone says, and the ladies love it, but it used to embarrass me. I used to try sound English, can you believe that?’
‘That’s crazy,’ I said, blushing slightly.
There’s no accounting for opinions, he said, especially our opinions about ourselves.
‘Here’s what I think. There’s loads of voices in our heads, all with opinions. We may as well just choose to listen to the friendly voices, not the mean ones.’
And normally I might have argued, but it sounded so convincing. It must have been the Irish accent.
This story first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our bucket list January issue features 48 fabulous destinations to suit your budget, time frame and wildest fantasies. Here’s why you should go to Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Zambia and Hawaii in 2018.