I went to the US Embassy the other day to renew my passport. The one I only use to get back into ‘merica when needs be. Because in Europe, using a US passport involves all kinds of scanning and cross-checks and mad-skillz keyboarding at the immigration counter. Show the same officer a UK passport and it’s like handing a transfer to the bus driver; they just wave you right through.
I had filled out the necessary paperwork online and printed out the form. Most of the fill-in-the-blanks were drop down menus, so it was fairly idiot proof, but I’m just the guy to put such failsafes to the test. The Spanish lady (who was lovely, btw) behind the glass window reviewed it, stapled my picture where it needed to be, looked at me, looked back at the form and then said, “Why did you put gray has your hair color?”
I pointed to my “natural highlights” and said, “Gee, I don’t know, what would you have put?” If it’s not totally gray right now, it will be long before the next one expires, so it seemed to me to be pretty much the safest bet.
I thought perhaps she was going to have me opt for something more youthful, but Preference 9 1/2 Pale Blonde is a thing of the past with me.
“No,” she said. “I mean why did you spell it with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘e’? There’s nothing wrong with it, I just wondered why you spelled it like that. What’s the difference?”
I was going to explain that I didn’t actually choose the spelling, as that’s what was in the pulldown, but instead I just said that it’s just one of those crazy little differences between US and UK usage. Americans tend to use gray, while the Brits tend to use grey. There used to be people who argued subtle differences between the two, but nowadays it’s just a spelling variation. She seemed happy with that, and went back to her colleague and explained the American vs. British thing in rapid-fire Español (which I only understood via context) and there was much appreciative nodding and hmmm’ing in the back of the office. Apparently it had been a long-standing question that their American bosses had never been able to answer.
It’s a common enough question, one I’ve been asked about in English classes before, so I’m glad I had the answer. Of course, once I got home, I had to double-check, and found an Internet source that confirmed my theory. Not that the Internet ever lies.
I moved to the next window to pay my fee, where a fellow citizen, who looked to be in his mid-30s, on my side of the glass windows asked me a question that, while I was happy to answer, took me by surprise.
He was there getting an official document to validated his single status — not divorced, mind you, but single (I reckon because he was trying to marry a local?) — and had been walked through the form he needed to fill out. He came up to me and asked, “When they tell me to put my signature on it, does that mean print it or do it the other way?”
“If you have to sign your signature, that would be in cursive,” I said.
“Cursive?” He looked at me as if I was reciting a badly translated line from a Lorca play.
“The other way. Not printing.”
“Thanks, man,” he said, and went back to his form, where he proceeded to begin filling in every blank in a very slow, methodical handwriting.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him he should probably print most of the blanks and use “the other way” for his signature. I was too preoccupied with the fact that in 7-10 days I’m going to have an official document that says I’m a gray-haired man.