It’s funny how I get busy with projects and baby and life and almost forget I am a foreigner in a strange land until one day I stroll out of one of my usual haunts and get the usual, “Oh isn’t he a handsome baby!” and how big he’ll be when he grows up. To which I almost always respond, “Yes, his father is quite tall. We’re just not sure if the little Cork man will do Munster Rugby or GAA yet.” (with a humorous tone in my voice, of course). Almost everyone continues to dote on the little man. Taxi drivers usually respond with their true opinion, like “Munster Rugby. Then he’ll get paid.” or “My local GAA would love the little fella. I’ll write down the name for ye.” Then the other mothers say things like, “Oh, don’t wish him grown too fast. It happens so quickly.” (Don’t I know it!).
But this one occasion I received a completely different response than I have ever heard before. “He’s not a Cork man. He has American parents. He’s American. He’s not from Cork. Why would he be from Cork with American parents?” She wasn’t angry or arguing about it either, completely calm and curious how I reached such a silly conclusion as to think my son was a “Cork man.” At this point, I was stung. The place I now call home and have lived in for over four years (since moving here in 2008) was disowning my son. Sure, anyone can be American because we’re made up of every country, every culture and every faith (and non-faith) but the truth still hurts sometimes when I remember it doesn’t work in reverse.
Almost anywhere you go in the world, if you tell a local about your roots there, the statement will be met with warmth, curiosity and, sometimes even, enthusiasm. Ireland is no different. Though anyone with any Irish ancestry in American calls themselves “Irish”, over here in Ireland “Irish” means being born and raised here. There is a nuance and specifics I haven’t figured out but that’s the gist of it. Sure, I have a name with Irish-ness and I know all about local things and can say a few words in Irish, but I am a foreigner. I am an American. Just like thousands of other Americans, I have ancestors who left Ireland with family in the famine and boarded a ship for a new start, brimming with hope. Sure, in the States I’d be considered “Irish” because of that. Here, I’m an American… with Irish roots.
To be “Irish” in Ireland isn’t to step dance, drink Guinness and get wasted on Saint Patrick’s Day (by the way, don’t even think of calling it “P Day” in my presence). No, that’s one American interpretation. Here, it is just what it is. It’s daily life. And even though the Irish here have survived the Famine, the Troubles and the Celtic Tiger losing its stripes, that part of Irish culture is overlooked so often by Americans in favor of the stereotype. And to walk back into Ireland and say “Hey, I’m Irish too!” overlooks the decades of oppression, adversity and turmoil those who never left have lived with and thrived in spite of. Yet, it’s a pint of Guinness that is the focal point for many tourists, thinking that’s what life is like here for the Irish. Not that the stereotype isn’t true, but just like anywhere it’s not a standard. In my experience, at least. I have met TWO people who do Irish step dancing since moving here (not counting these ladies). I knew dozens in the States. Guinness is ordered occasionally by my friends but usually it’s a local craft brew that’s favored or even Beamish, Murphy’s, Bulmer’s or… Budweiser (don’t ask, I still can’t figure out its popularity). And getting wasted on Saint Patrick’s Day is a personal choice but let me just say that since being here I’ve seen more drunk people on the student night out in town than on Saint Patrick’s night.I don’t want to crush any American dreams (only one-sixth of this blog’s readers are in the States) of leprechauns and rainbows, but the Ireland I know is rich in a phenomenal food production and culture, amazing compassion and political awareness, acute understanding of global issues, and the sense that a cup of tea and a chat can cure anything. That’s the Ireland I fell in love with.
Yet, here is one of the people who also lives in my adopted hometown telling me the little human I nurtured for ten months with local ingredients and visits to CUMH is not a Cork man. The baby that while in my belly listened to jazz music and enjoyed a spiced beef omelet at last year’s festival and went to Bantry for lunch because I was craving tartar sauce. Many mornings, I would do my English Market run when it first opened with producers setting up and a peaceful feeling like the curtain was about to rise on one of the most delicious productions I know. It’s magical and each stall holds a promise of culinary adventure. My ever-growing belly along for the visit. Back then Óg, as he was known, was with me when I waddled to Tweet Meet Tuesday on the day I went into labor and each Tuesday before that. He was along when I went to my knitting group and non-fiction writing group. He listening to all the conversations and enjoyed all the meals, including the Cork Gourmet Trail, Cork Culture Night at English Market, Good Food Ireland events and Cornstore evening. He got to know his new home without setting sight on it and since then he was joined me for little adventures. But there I was with LB that day, thinking that as much as Cork feels like home to me, it may not feel that way about me. It was a sad thought I had only had twice since moving here. So, I told the lady how my son was born here after we’ve lived here for a several years. Still no dice. Whatever. I said a polite wish for her to have a nice day and went about my own day. You can’t change anyone’s mind unless he or she wants it to (or lets it) be changed. I wouldn’t have argued with her about politics or religion, after all.
This was weeks ago, I write this after the sick feeling in my stomach has passed. I still feel un-home though. How weird is that? I go to the English Market for my groceries. I stand in the same hellish queues at Tesco. I get taxed at the same high rate as everyone else here. But I’ll always be a blow-in. I understood that in California and didn’t mind, because I didn’t feel completely at-home there. It isn’t a concept I understood growing up though. In Washington, D.C. there are some natives (not many beyond one or two generations) but everyone else left their homeland or hometown to come to a political hub where every single country is represented. And it’s not that you just see them in a suit at a big meeting like the U.N., they live there. Ambassadors, diplomats, Congressional staff, interns, political experts and their families rotate through Washington, making it their home just like the natives. It changes the city’s personality, dynamic and economy and it happens every time there is an election. D.C. is organic and living with the new life and fresh perspectives arriving, hoping to change the world then leaving having done their best in spite of the traffic circles, muckrakers and political obstacles to policy making. It is a world away from Ireland. Cork is different. In the end, I must remember that we are expats and have a unique perspective of being from one place but having our hearts belong to another. It’s a blessing and a confusing twisted love triangle all at the same time.