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Irish small town « An American in Ireland

Irish small town


Friends Old and New

Though I’ve never had an enormous group of friends, I’m lucky to count a good dozen who I can describe as my closest. There are a few of us who’ve known each other since childhood, a few more who met in high school and a handful with whom I connected in college and during my early working career.

Sadly, they’re all back in the U.S. and lately I’ve been missing them something fierce, as an American might say. I miss our spontaneous happy hour meet-ups after work and our weekend trips away and our long, slow dinners washed down with far too many bottles of wine. Skype is a great tool but with the time difference and our hectic lives requires some scheduling, and it pales in comparison to an actual meeting or a night out.

I do take heart knowing that some of my best friends will be here in less than six months for our wedding; it will be so, so good to see them again and to celebrate with those closest to me. The thought of being together again gets me through the more difficult days. But I’m also bolstered by the fact that I’m forming friendships with Mountaineering Man’s circle of tight-knit mates, who over the last year-and-a-half I’ve gotten to know quite well.

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 croissant ricotta I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I live in a small town. Not small by Irish standards, but small by my Los Angelino standards for sure.

While there are many benefits to living in such a place (people are friendly, there’s little traffic, it’s easier to get to know your neighbors, etc.) there are a few drawbacks as well, one of which is finding certain ingredients at the grocery shops in town. For example, it’s impossible to find chocolate chips here. For that, I’d have to go to Dublin.

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manners There’ve been a lot of stories coming out recently about the behavior of the Japanese in light of the terrible tragedies they’ve endured over the last several days. Though they’ve been tested well beyond the limits of any reasonable human being, their impeccable manners and stoic strength still remains. Even the freezing cold weather and threat of radiation exposure and dwindling food and water supplies – any one of which would warrant a psychotic break – they are polite, courteous and selfless. This is simply their nature.

It’s made me think a lot about the nature of the Irish…who are they, really? For the first several months I lived here I took note of the superficial things like the funny accents and quirky slang and the national obsession with chocolate. But as I spend more time here I’m starting to get a feel for the sociological and psychological traits of Irish people. Of course I’m no expert; I simply know what I’ve observed.

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glory daze Back in my early college days, my friend Cat and I were recruited to be extras in a movie while having coffee at a neighborhood café in Santa Cruz, California. We were told to be at the beach boardwalk at 5 a.m. the next day and to wear casual attire. We’d be paid $50 for a full day’s work and be fed breakfast and lunch, which we could eat with the cast. To us starving college students, it sounded like a fun way to spend the day.

Being on set with all the cameras and lights and rigs was a thrill and when the actors came out we giggled with excitement. The biggest star of the film was ‘80s child actress Alyssa Milano, who at the time was trying to break her good-girl image. I remember she wore a skimpy outfit and smoked cigarettes and made out with one her male costars in between takes. That male costar was a very wet-behind-the-ears Ben Affleck, sporting a bitchin’ Vanilla Ice hairdo. (It should be noted that many years later, we realized the cast was actually quite impressive: Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, Brendan Fraser – all of whom were complete unknowns back then – as well as the late, great Spalding Gray were all in the movie). We soaked in the atmosphere and did everything we could to get an understanding of the storyline, but because we were just extras no one told us anything. We had no idea what the movie was about but we didn’t care. We were just happy to be there.

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gyoza kid The other day while out to eat with my friends we got into a discussion about colcannon, the much-beloved traditional Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage, spring onions or kale, depending on how your mam prefers to make it. Sinead and Earnan recalled how as kids, they always had a very specific way of eating their colcannon. They and their siblings would create a little volcano with the potato mixture and then put a lump of butter in the middle, resulting in a butterlicious lava flow that churned out from the center of the mash mountain. No one remembers who started the trend but they both recalled with great affection this small but crucial colcannon custom.

I am always impressed at how close my Irish friends keep their childhood memories; whether we’re drinking at the pub or taking a spin around town, the entertainment is often tales from their childhood, always told with smiling eyes and a kind of pure giddiness that’s usually limited to children themselves.

gyoza cooked 1

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squash cakes

A while back, I wrote a blog post about What I’ve Learned since moving here to Ireland. Now, on the six-month anniversary of my move here, I’d like to present what I love about Ireland and about living here.

*High visibility jackets: I know you think I’m crazy right about now. OK, I don’t really love the high visibility jacket in and of itself, but I love what it represents. About a month into my relocation, my friend and I took a walk down a country road sometime in the early evening. It was still quite bright outside, but as we walked we were stopped by four separate people asking us why we were not wearing high visibility jackets. These people literally pulled their cars over, rolled down their windows and gave out to us (as they say here).

“You’ll get hit by a car!” said one. “The sun is going down and it’ll be dark soon, what are you thinking?” asked another. Even a week later my friend’s cousin, who was one of the people who’d stopped us, scolded me again saying, “I still can’t believe yous (<– slang for you girls, you guys, you people) were out on the road with no high vis jackets!”

high vis ernie

I found all this fretting about high visibility jackets touching, really. Out in rural Ireland it gets really dark at night and therefore everyone who lives there owns one of these jackets. It’s as essential to the country wardrobe as Wellies and rain slickers. Whether you’re walking your dog or changing a flat tire, if it’s anywhere close to dusk you’ll be sporting one. In Los Angeles, the only people wearing high visibility jackets are road crew workers and night-time cyclists. I’ve never owned one (or even uttered the words “high visibility jacket”) my entire life. I remember that was the day I understood I was in a totally different place.

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photo_10896_20091223 Illustration credit: Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Whenever my friends and I go to the pub, something strange occurs. Though we all go there together, the second we arrive there is a separation of the sexes: the women sit at one table and the men at another. It’s kind of like the Red Sea, but instead of Moses it’s a peculiar, old-fashioned standard that parts us.

I suppose no matter the culture, women have their bond with other women and men with men but I still find this automatic, consistent division very hard to understand. While I’ve never been one to pay much attention to social expectations or opinions, I feel self conscious when I move over to the men’s table (and I find I’m almost always the first to make the crossover!). As the evening goes on people eventually mix but there’s always the core male table and female table enforcing the divide with talk of football on one side and babies, handbags and clothes on the other.

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pub4

In a place like Los Angeles, most Irish bars try especially hard to capture the essence of a real pub in Ireland. There are the dark wood accents, the Guinness on tap and the thick-accented Irish bartenders (or at least struggling actors pretending to be Irish). It’s a bit like the theme restaurants at Disneyland; while they’ve manage to capture the look and feel it lacks the  spirit of a true Irish watering hole.

There’s probably no Irish drinking establishment more authentic as the auld country pub in Ireland, and I’m lucky enough to have found one where I’m becoming a semi-regular [cue the theme song from “Cheers”]. The place is Mathews, which is bewilderingly pronounced “Mat-te-tis” and it’s an old pub in the middle of tiny Collon village, about a 15-minute drive from my place. On any given Friday or Saturday night, I know that my friends Bushman and Richella will be behind the bar, and that at least a few people I know will be wearing holes into the old barstools. On the weekends there will be some choice covers (think Garth Brooks and Air Supply) performed by a well-meaning and painfully earnest musician and by the end of a long night there might be a drunkard or two being thrown out on his ass by James, the barman you just don’t f*ck with.

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Irish Men

The first Irish guy I really noticed was a barman named Martin. It was 1996, and I had just moved to a grungy apartment above a carpet store on Clement Street in San Francisco’s Richmond district. My local pub became the Front Room, which was conveniently across the street from my front door and where Martin happened to work. His dark eyes, adorable Dublin accent and mischievous grin instantly drew me in. My best friend Cat and I became fixtures on the pub’s weathered barstools every Tuesday and Thursday, Martin’s nights behind the bar. I don’t remember how many times he “lost” our ever-growing bar tab, which was fine considering I was living on student loans and barely able to make ends meet.

It was all very innocent. Although he was an outrageous flirt, he didn’t make a move for a very, very long time. Some would say he acted more like a protective big brother than a romantic suitor but I fell hard nonetheless. Finally one evening he walked out from behind the bar and took the empty stool next to mine. I don’t remember what we were talking about but at one point he reached over, cupped my face with his hands and gave me a long, slow kiss. The room seemed to go quiet and my cheeks turned scarlet. I barely had enough time to savor the moment when Basil, the other bartender on duty, leaned over and whispered, “That’s Martin’s girlfriend sitting on the other side of him!” As if in slow motion my gaze swept over to my left to see Martin, who’d already turned his back to me at this point, holding hands with a blonde woman I’d never seen before. By some small miracle she hadn’t witnessed his betrayal. As my vision grew blurry with tears I slipped out of the bar and vowed never to return. I found out later that his girlfriend had been in Ireland and had recently moved to be with him. Funny, he’d never mentioned her before.

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traders5

Working from home is a luxury I thoroughly enjoy, though sometimes it has its drawbacks. There are days when I’ll look up from the computer and realize an entire 10 hours has passed, and I’m still in my pajamas, my neck stiff from sitting in the same position all day and my eyes glassy from staring at the screen too long. I’ll go days without interacting with a single person. Sometimes a necessary errand to buy milk is a welcome excuse to exchange pleasantries with another human being. A bit sad, really.

Back when I lived in Los Angeles, I had a choice of several cafes where I could buy a decent cup of coffee and spend a few hours doing work away from home. In Drogheda, there was no such escape…until now. As I walked home from a bar in town recently I noticed a new shop front, and as I peered in the window I saw a bona fide espresso machine and a few tables and chairs. A real coffee shop in the Drog?! EUREKA!

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