Friday, April 27, 2012


Yesterday was my first day back in the States after a two-week vacation in Ireland with my husband. We rented a car and drove around the island, starting in Dublin and working our way back there, clockwise. My husband became an expert in roundabouts and driving on the left, we saw about two thousand castles, and we drank our weight in Guinness and Smithwicks. Also, as is my habit, we poked around a couple of bookstores and brought home a few of my favorite types of souvenirs: books.

I was pretty proud of myself for my literary haul. I found story collections by Edna O'Brien and Colm Toibin, plus a novel translated from Irish by Padraic O'Conaire and an illustrated book of Irish legends. Then, in Donegal (pronounced something like Don nay GALL--not DON uh gull), my husband and I stepped into a little pub, and my opinion changed.

We were out of cash, so the first thing we asked was whether they took cards; they did not. We were about to retreat from this rather empty bar, populated by three men in various stages of drunkenness and a bartender, but one of the men--at least six foot six with a bushy red beard, wearing a t-shirt and shorts while we were bundled against the cold--insisted we stay and offered to buy us a pint. We tried to decline, but the insistence was too strong, so we took it, deciding to split a pint between us, feeling a little guilty about taking advantage of his drunken sense of hospitality.

The decision to split the pint fascinated the men at the bar. I felt bad for my husband, whose masculinity was called into question several times; the ability to knock back a pint (or seven, in the case of the swaying little man next to us who kept interrupting the giant with his repetitive, grandfatherly questions) seemed to be the measure of a man. But not only was my nervous husband splitting his, but I seemed to be doing most of the drinking. This was in part because, between us, I was doing most of the talking. They asked what he did and Ian explained, but strangely enough, most of the Irish people we met were much more interested in the writer than the engineer. So Ian sat in the corner, sipping our Smithwick's, while I fielded questions about writing and my knowledge of Irish literature.

"They taught us English," the giant said after rattling off a list of Irish authors I was embarrassed to say I'd never heard of, "and we made it beautiful. We made it better. We were better than them."

I couldn't argue. I didn't know enough to. I'd read and enjoyed Joyce's Dubliners--a fact that made the man chuckle, though I couldn't tell if this was derisive or not--but have never made it through Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and not for a lack of trying. My choice of Edna O'Brien was apparently laughable, and the man had never heard of Colm Toibin, but until the little man next to me interrupted him, after which he went to interrogate an English couple who had just come in, he listed author after author whose work I felt humiliated not to have read, let alone heard of. I hadn't brought my purse, so I had no pen or paper to write the names down. I just sat and nodded, feeling smaller and smaller with every word he said, never sure when he was being sarcastic and when sincere. There were a lot of uncomfortable silences--I'm not the greatest conversationalist, though my husband insisted I did well--and eventually, after he'd moved on to telling me how Americans were like zombies, I thanked him for the pint and said we had to find some dinner, though we'd eaten a lunch/dinner meal only two hours earlier.

I had a feeling I'm quite familiar with: that I'm not good enough. I felt it a lot as I pursued my MFA, hearing my fellow students rattle off lists of books they loved that I had never read, authors I was unfamiliar with. As I did then, I had to tell myself that there are billions of books and only one of me, but still I felt I came up short. It wasn't just that I hadn't read enough Irish literature, but that the one time we found ourselves spontaneously chatting with Irish locals, it was uncomfortable and occasionally combative. I hadn't expected that, and though it was clear the man who bought us a pint was a bit of a butthead, I felt it was my conversational handicap (maybe I should have bent over backward to kiss the Blarney Stone when I had the chance) that kept it from being all it could have been. I flatter myself that I write dialogue pretty well, but it isn't so easy live. Then again, if I'd written the scene, I probably would have reduced this man to a stereotype, full of the famed Irish friendliness we encountered in the B&B owners we stayed with, who in all honesty were probably only so nice because we were paying them. This man had paid for us. We owed him something. We were supposed to entertain him, and I could only feel that we'd failed. Though we might have been infinitely more entertaining had we drunk more, I was glad to have accepted a single drink, as if that made our debt lesser.

It's something I struggle with a lot, this discrepancy between life on the page and in person. And while this was really our only negative experience in Ireland, it's the one I can't stop thinking about. I should probably focus on our great visit to Kells Priory at sunset, where we walked among the sheep and ruins without any other tourists to bother us. I should think about the beautiful Giant's Causeway, or the great national parks we were able to visit. I will. But I had to think about this first.

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