Whenever I’ve visited a foreign country, I’ve always made an effort to meet and hang out with the locals, rather than remaining in the tourist realm. When visiting Martinique, my husband and I had a great deal of fun speaking French, though neither one of us really knew how.
When visiting the Dominican Republic, we rented a place in town and hung out with the locals, rather than remain on some compound. This did result in a passport almost getting stolen, a close call with a knife wielding mugger, and a great deal of difficulty driving on construction ridden roads that were unlit at night. But those inherent dangers far outweighed the notion of visiting a country without getting to know it.
I live in Ireland now; I am no longer just visiting. I’m striving to assimilate into (not just “get to know”) the culture. I wrote about understanding the local lingo and the accents in my last blog. For me, getting to know the nuances embedded in phrases that are new to me is essential to feeling at home. The first time I heard the phrase, “Oh it was a good laugh,” my New York defenses were raised. “A good laugh” meant to me that someone was being teased or fun was made at someone’s expense. But all it really meant was “a good time.”
Having been here for just about three months, you’d think I’ve met and gotten to know many Dubliners. Well, think again. I am acquainted with just three Dubliners. I’ve been to pubs and many nights of listening to traditional Irish music. In those situations I am more of an observer, and haven’t gotten to personally know the people I’ve met.
My academic bubble doesn’t offer many chances to meet the natives.
There are four new PhD students this year at Trinity: me, Giovanni from Italy, Kai from Hong Kong and Lindsey from Tennessee. Our research supervisor, Evangelia, is from Greece. Her Greek accent often makes it difficult to understand her.
In one of the classes I am auditing, there is a woman from Malasia, another from Canada, and a man from England. There is a man from Limerick and another who is a native Dubliner. The Dubliner is a shy fellow; I’ve only heard him speak twice. There is also a woman from Washington D.C. When I learned this I was very surprised, because she speaks with a brogue. When I told this to Evangelia, she asked with a measure of alarm whether she herself had developed an Irish accent.
“Absolutely not,” I told her, and she looked relieved.
I have met emigrants who have been living here for many years: the Brazilian hosts of the AirBnb in Temple Bar and an Indian man, Shiva, who runs the corner store, for example. They help me to get to know Dublin and share thoughts about being an emigrant, but I am no closer to getting a grasp of the accent and the culture through their friendship.
When I first arrived in Dublin, I met up with Brew, a high school classmate, who has been living here for more than 25 years. I was happy to hear his still evident New York accent. But there were many Irish-isms in his way of speaking, and it took me by surprise. It’s from Brew that I’ve learned what little of the Irish slang I know. He was with me when I learned that I scored a ‘gaff.’ He is constantly saying, “Oh, you’re grand, you’re grand,” even to the pesky people on the street asking for donations. The first time I was at his apartment, I asked if I could use the bathroom. He told me to “work away.”
“Brew,” I said, “What work is there involved in taking a pee?”
He’s the one who caught me off guard by using the phrase “your man” when telling a story. “Brew,” I’d say, “I’m from NY. Who’s my man?”
Most of his conversation is interrupted with, “Y’know wha’ I mean?,” with the ’t’ at the end of ‘what’ clipped off. Often, if we hang out for a few hours, his way of speaking slips back into New York-ese. As much as I want to get a hold of understanding the Irish accent, I seek comfort in the familiarity of Brew’s New York way of speaking. So I like it when he allows it to come back.
I moved to Dublin during the summer. School had not yet started, and I found it difficult to meet people. I befriended Shiva from the corner store (in New York we’d say ‘bodega’). Starved for human contact and conversation, I would invent reasons to go to his store just to chat. I’d go to his store for milk, even though I had milk at home. He grew curious about me when I began asking if he sold regular household items like a corkscrew or screwdriver.
Finally he said to me, “You’re not a tourist are you?”
After that we started to exchange stories and share photos of our families. We share facts about our native countries. The conversations are always fascinating. This morning I went into his store, and he scolded me for not having stopped in for a few days. I told him I’d had nothing to buy.
He said, “What’s with that? You don’t need to buy, buy, buy all the time. Just come in for the ‘chats.’”
This made me smile.
Occasionally his brother, Manu, is in the store visiting. At those times, both Manu and Shiva will assault me with the terrible US news topic of the day as soon as I enter the store.
“Health insurance!” one of them will shout as I open the door.
Or “The price of education!”
They want me to explain away all the ills of the United States. Of course, I am unable to do that, though I try to be as clear as possible. But the gulf of misunderstanding is evident in the questions they ask. Shiva seems to think that everyone in America owns a gun, though I’ve repeatedly told him it’s not true. One day after a rather lengthy discussion of the price of education and insurance as well the gun laws in the U.S., Manu looked quite exasperated.
“In all honesty,” he said, “I have no idea why anyone would want to live in the United States.”
I told him that it was where I was born, where my family is, and that it was my home. This did nothing to change the look on his puzzled face.
From my balcony I listen to the people below, hoping to catch some of what they are saying. Other than construction workers from the nearby building site, the people who come down my little side street are usually either lost tourists or local drunks or druggies, looking for a place away from the cops. I can understand the Italian and German tourists far more easily than the junkies. To me it seems like they are speaking Swedish. Then I’ll hear an English word like “Wha’ever” and realize it’s English.
Last night I witnessed a threesome desperately try to meet up with a dealer. As they shouted at each other, some phrases came through: “I can’t stand waitin’ out here in the feckin’ cold, y’know!” “You call’em! ’Twas me that dun it last time!” The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for My Man” should have been playing in the background. I could understand little else of what they were saying, but the angst and frustration was evident in the lilt of their language. I could probably notate it musically. When they got on the phone with the dealer, their enunciation became clearer and their tone changed dramatically. Instead of angst ridden moans and shouts, the voices became softer, and they were apologetic: “Sorry, sorry. I’ll wait.”
These junkies are of course not my friends, nor will they ever be. But it is one more angle of the local culture that I’m getting to know.