Mind the Gap: A Journey into Language

I place two coffee cups on the counter, as if each is a fragile antique I had picked up at Portobello market. The mugs feature a map of the London Underground and the ubiquitous subway warning, Mind the Gap. “I’ve been looking for these all over London,” I tell the clerk in Heathrow’s duty-free shop. He looks squarely at my smiling face and asks, “Why? He does not seem to understand the fascination tourists have with this particular souvenir. He probably shares the view of The Urban Dictionary— Mind the Gap is “repeated by stupid, annoying, American tourists who find the phrase fascinating and funny.”

I begin to explain my fascination, unaware of the queue of international customers behind me. “Well, Mind the Gap is an expression we don’t use in the United States . . . And it really means more than it says. You see. . . ” The clerk hands me my credit card and the hastily wrapped parcel. “Cheers!” he says, the Brit expression signaling the close of social and economic transactions.

Language differences entertain me. In Wales, I had flummoxed the ladies in an eyeglass shop when I asked to purchase a pair of cheaters. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Quite right. In the United Kingdom, one may enjoy faggots for breakfast, bangers and mash at the pub, and bubble-and-squeak for several days after the Sunday roast. Mums and dads cover skinned knees with pasties. Drivers operate their hooters and winkers to get the attention of lorries and motorcars. On a rainy day, one is wise to wear a mackintosh and a pair of wellies. Of all these expressions, the mindful warning on the subway is my favorite.

(By the way, the proper British term for magnifying eyeglasses is “peepers.”)

On the London Underground, a recorded voice politely warns riders to mind the gap between train and platform. The announcement features a female voice sounding like a posh schoolmistress. Her tone is softly lyrical, as if she is helping a wobbly elderly lady across the road. “Come along darling. Mind the step, now!”

“Mind the Gap!” I say to my 24-year old daughter. “What a cool expression. And so British.” She grimaces. Liz dislikes my running commentary when I travel. She recalls how, years ago, she blushed when I acknowledged an extreme purple hairdo. “Don’t be embarrassed,” I had explained. “She wouldn’t have a purple Mohawk if she didn’t want people to notice her.”

I make no apologies for being a people-watcher, a chronic eavesdropper and a lover of the expansiveness of language: the way it is fluid and figurative.

Consider the contrasting styles of American and English warnings. When Americans want people to use caution, we say “Watch out!” Conversely, Mind the Gap asks the passenger to use several senses: to see, hear, and feel the pavement underfoot.

After the London Underground, our UK trip continued in a rental car through rural Wales. My husband navigated along the left-side of narrow winding roads, some single track, hemmed by six-foot hedges, no shoulders. In urgent staccato voices, we warned— Mind the sheep. Mind the hedge. Mind the oncoming car.

I especially appreciate the phrase because it suggests a deeper meaning, reminding me of a couple of other common sentences that, coincidentally, relate to transportation. Printed on my car side mirror is the sentence, “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Flight attendants announce, “The best exit might be behind you.” Both suggest the possibility of danger and the value of mindfulness. Both can be interpreted as metaphor.

I cannot imagine a better vehicle for Mind the Gap than a coffee cup. Morning is a parting between sleep and workday. My London Underground mug reminds me to consider the transitions in my life: between coffee and shower; between home and office; between the empty nest and retirement; between the here-and-now and forever-after.

About the author—Kimberly Crum MSW, MFA teaches memoir and personal essay to aspiring writers who want to write for publication or posterity. She is the co-editor of The Boom Project: Voices of a Generation (Butler Books 2019)—a literary anthology of essay, poem, memoir and fiction by Baby Boomers of the Ohio River Valley. Work-in-progress—A segmented memoir titled Slouching Toward Self-Actualization.

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