10 August 2014

Irish Conversations: Three

"What is it that you'll miss most about Ireland when you move to London?"

My question hung in the air for longer than a moment, long enough for me to think that Mark hadn't heard. I glanced around the room—we were in the cocktail bar at the Merrion Hotel. It was in the Georgian neighborhood of Dublin, just down the street from the No. 29 House, the restored middle-class home I'd visited on my first day in town, but this room was anything but middle class.

It struck the right balance of masculine and feminine: Rich leather armchairs but instead of the expected gleaming brown, they were in a warm cream. On the low tables were vases of flowers, arranged to look haphazard as if they'd just been brought in from the garden, although I suspected quite a lot of care had been taken with them. The napkins were cloth and monogrammed with an M, and you felt that your conversation should be hushed and about genteel things—about the kind of things the landed gentry would find interesting, such as hunting, garden parties, and who made the best dresses in town.

I wasn't talking about those things with Mark, of course, because we aren't landed gentry and because we'd only just met. I'd read in one of my guidebooks that you can set up a meeting with a real, live Dubliner through the group City of a Thousand Welcomes. They call themselves Dublin Ambassadors, and Mark was mine. You get a free drink and an hour's conversation with someone who can recommend a restaurant not listed in your guidebook and who can make sure that even if you don't talk to another Irish person the whole time you're in Ireland {highly unlikely}, at least you'll go home with one good story.

Mark was 30-something, a born and bred Dubliner. He was the kind of man that the word "slight" was made for. He wore a very correct three-piece suit, something you so rarely see now, and his wire-frame glasses made him look even more like he should've been a clerk in a bank in 1912, one who wrote poetry at night in his cramped apartment.

But for all his buttoned-up look, Mark was not about to be pigeon-holed by my overactive imagination. I learned in the first five minutes that he had, for a time, earned a living as a poker player in Las Vegas. He'd been a dealer in a casino in Buenos Aires, and he'd once ridden a motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina. After that, he worked with a non-profit that helped bring clean water to villages in Africa.

You could say he had a touch of wanderlust.

Mark had been back in Dublin for a couple of years, working at a museum and getting a lot of family time. But it was time to go again; he felt it in his feet, he said, and I understood—I empathized with—his deep love for his home but his inability to live there forever.

In two months, Mark told me, he was moving to London, and that's when I asked what he'd miss most about Ireland. It seemed like the right thing to ask someone who was an Ambassador of his culture.

He thought for so long, I wondered if he was reconsidering the move, based on how many things he thought he'd miss, but then he spoke, quietly but fervently.

"The pubs. I'll miss the pubs. I know it sounds expected—the Irish man missing his Guinness, but it's more than that. The pubs in other places, they aren't the same, you know. Your bars in America are made for hook-ups and for trying to outdo each other. And the pubs in England...they don't have the same feel. What I mean is—is that pubs in Ireland are made for conversation. They're made for getting to know each other, sitting so close because there aren't enough tables and chairs for everyone. And they're quiet: Have you noticed that?

"Pubs in England are places of distraction; the TVs, the piped-in music, it all gives you a place to escape. But our pubs here in Ireland, we go there to find a bit of home, of connection. So that's what I'll miss: the pubs."

Mark, who had been looking at me so intently, now looked away, remembering, perhaps, his favorite moments in his favorite pub. I let him sit in that memory as I tried to think of what place in America could provoke such feel-it-in-your-blood loyalty.

Our diners? But not everyone eats there. Not every town even has one.

Our cafes? We're not French.

The mall? Let's not turn into stereotypes of ourselves.

In a country as large and diverse as ours, it's hard to find that one defining institution, like the Irish pub that Mark will miss so much. It made me both jealous and happy: Happy that the Irish have somewhere they can so emphatically call home, and jealous that we don't.

Mark turned back to me with a smile. "And the Guinness. I will miss the Guinness."

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