January 2010 Reflection

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. In my case, the time I spent back in the U.S. for the holidays could hardly have done more to heighten my appreciation for Ireland.

Sure, as any of the fellow scholars can tell you, I like to complain about what’s missing over here. I’m from Brooklyn – we kvetch. Ireland’s version of the bagel is overpriced, ring-shaped white bread I wouldn’t inflict on the ducks in St. Stephen’s Green. Seltzer, if it’s available it all, is considered a mixer. The use of the word biscuit in reference to cookies has led me to reflexively turn down far too many cookies. That something I’m working on.

Aside from culinary quibbles, I can’t buy a hardcopy of the Sunday New York Times in Ireland. There are no cornfields (I went to school in Iowa and have grown to love them, go figure). Dublin is more diverse than I expected, but Ireland remains unmistakably Irish, as its surnames, accents, and pale skin can attest. Irish politics is engaging, but decidedly more technocratic than politics in the United States, where ideological partisans holler and scramble as if every policy choice determined the fate of the nation.

To my surprise, at home I found myself complaining about what Brooklyn was missing. In New York, there is an acute shortage of electric kettles. I never thought I would stray from coffee as my beverage of choice, but since coming to Ireland I’ve learned that tea delivers a more-perfect balance of caffeination and hydration. Staring into the nostrils of a fellow commuter on a crowded MTA bus, I knew an upper deck would have delightfully relieved the congestion. In Brooklyn, I was more than a 30 minute train-ride from a town like Howth, where I (weather-permitting) hike the peninsula on sleepy weekends. In Dublin, there is a sense that one is never too far from the countryside. As close as the idyllic Hudson Valley is to New York City, it feels like it might as well be in China.

And in the short time I was away from home, a few things about it had changed. For one, men’s caps of the sort I imagine were ubiquitous in Ireland until a couple of decades ago were quite fashionable in New York this winter – so much so that you can find tweed hanging next to black on black Yankees caps on Canal Street. I think Franklin Roosevelt was President the last time those were popular in New York. And how fitting – for maybe it was just among the set I hang around with, but I noticed a deepened pessimism about the country and its future this winter, as if the realities of a grinding, bottomless job market were finally starting to dim my friends’ hopes. When first arriving in Ireland I was shocked at the grim outlook its people had for their nation’s economic future. The average person I talked with spoke fatalistically of the recession as if it was a just punishment for Ireland’s boom years. Ireland had gotten too big for its britches. Economic pain would last indefinitely. It was an outlook I thought particular to the Irish, a people understandably accustomed to suffering. But pessimism seems to have shaken even famously confident America. Some things aren’t so different.

Indeed, I think the experience of living abroad for the first time inclines one to notice and accentuate cultural differences rather than recognize commonality. Moreover, it can lead one to ignore complexity that defies facile definition. The reasons for that are understandable enough. But I fear indulging in too much of the sort of half-baked Tocquevillian observation above is a poor way to experience life in another country. Every interaction becomes fodder for generalizations about national character. Life is reduced to anecdotes. Thankfully, with time life in Ireland is growing comfortably, wonderfully, boring. With a few more months, I suspect I’ll hardly think of Ireland as a foreign country – as something other than home. Maybe then I can really get to the bottom of this place.

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