Freezing rain in an English village. My shoes were soaked. I ducked into the local pharmacy (Boots) to see if they might have something that could keep my shoes dry. “Boots” is to England what “CVS” is to the United States. I knew that.
I pointed at my wet shoes and said, “I need rubbers, or something.” The clerk cast a kindly look and said, “Do you mean ‘boots’?”
I knew the word “overshoes,” but couldn’t remember it at that moment.
“Not boots exactly, just something to keep my feet dry,” I said. I figured that ought to explain all I needed on that rainy day.
“Well this is Boots,” the clerk answered.
“I know,” I said, glancing at the store’s logo above.
“So you need rubbers?” the clerk helpfully said.
“I think so, yes.”
“Well you’ll have to see the pharmacist for that.”
I knew that European pharmacies were a bit more fuddy-duddy than American drug stores, which sold everything from small vacuum cleaners to sophisticated chocolate bars.
“Right,” said the clerk.
“I just want something to keep my shoes dry,” I said.
“But are you feeling lucky today? Because if so, the pharmacist can best help you.”
I said, “I guess I am sort of lucky to be in your charming town, but really I only need some rubbers to keep my shoes dry.”
The clerk gave me a conspiratorial and approving glance.
“So you need boots, is that right?” she said.
“Not exactly boots. Just rubbers, or what do you call them…” I answered.
I realized that “rubbers” were “condoms” in the United States, but I didn’t think the same slang applied in the United Kingdom. What I did not realize was that the English equivalent was “boots.” I did know about “French letters,” but that didn’t seem to count.
“We are Boots. Evidently you are looking for rubbers. The pharmacist can help.”
I realized we were at a cultural and lexical impasse. I saw the item I wanted on the shelf, and pointed to it.
“You mean, ‘overshoes’?”
“I think that’s what I mean.”
“If you want just something to keep your shoes dry, it’s a bit late now since they are already soaked. Just look at them. What you might have done, earlier today, would have been to fetch some overshoes and get them on in time to deal with this rain we’re having.”
“You couldn’t be more right,” I said, reaching for the item on the shelf whose name I no longer sought to know.
“Again,” said the clerk, “If you are feeling lucky, the pharmacist can best help.”
“I am surely lucky to be in your lovely village,” I said. “But I don’t expect better luck than that for today. The overshoes will be great, and thanks enormously.”
I took the item and managed to get the pair over my soaked shoes, more keeping the water in than out. It was no minor achievement to find rubbers in a Boots. I would have added condoms, but there wouldn’t be much use for those on that day.
Luckily, we were all speaking English.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
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