Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Awkward, continued

It was a late afternoon in autumn, about six weeks after we had arrived in Ireland to live. After wandering along the River Suir under drooping amber chestnut leaves, I was sitting alone at a small table in front of the Lazy Bean café, staring across at the Charteris memorial in the centre of Cahir square.

The transition to life in Ireland had been harder than I had expected. Despite having my husband’s family around us – my mother-in-law as close as next door – I felt isolated, cut off. Our shipment of  belongings was still somewhere on the ocean,  so we had little in the house and no cosy chair or sofa on which to relax. Eircom, the phone company, had promised a landline, but weeks passed with no action. Mobile phone coverage was spotty and nearly non-existent in the house. Which meant, of course, we had no internet – no mobile connection, no DSL, no dial-up – no way to stay connected to the world at large.

Our new house, surrounded by hedges and green fields, was lovely, and I was happy to be there. But still, I was finding it hard to settle. I missed my friends. I missed the long telephone conversations and spontaneous email exchanges, the lunches out and shared shopping trips, the special bond with my young friend’s daughters.

As September became October, and the days grew slowly but perceptibly shorter, I took to driving the five kilometres to Cahir, the nearest town, in the late afternoons to have a cappuccino at the sidewalk café, hoping to find conversation and incipient friendship.

This afternoon, though, foreboded rain, and the square was abnormally quiet. So the other tables were empty when the three women arrived and sat down near me. They were dressed in light tan waterproof jackets, beige hiking trousers and thick-soled shoes. And, not unusually for tourists in Cahir, they spoke with American accents.

I overheard them discuss their next stop, now that they had seen Cahir’s 11th century castle, the town’s big draw. Should they go to Cashel? What about a tramp along the river? Or would they continue further along towards Dublin? They looked at the guide book and considered the possibilities.

The irony of this tale lies in my normal reluctance to engage with American tourists. I usually observe them quietly, deliberately keeping my distance. I suffer, badly, from what might be called the ex-patriot disease, a kind of smug arrogance felt toward one’s former fellow countrymen and -women. Maybe it’s evidence of a childish insecurity. Maybe it’s a natural response to the vulnerability one has felt as a tourist, conscious of the poorly disguised contempt of some locals, the uneasy notion, hard to push aside, that one is being sneered at by supercilious merchants, waiters and hoteliers.

Or maybe it’s my character flaw alone, not generalised among other ex-pats. (Though I did meet, on St Patrick’s night here in Salzburg, another American near the ladies loo in an Irish pub. She was about 22 or 3, a student, who, in our brief conversation as we stood in the queue outside the locked door, was at pains to insist: ‘I’m not a tourist, you know. I live here.’)

So, for better or worse, I tend not to greet other Americans in restaurants or on buses. I don’t engage with them when I bump into them on the crowded streets of Salzburg or in the shops of Cahir. I hear their accents, I spot the matching windbreakers and new white shoes, and I lower my voice and turn away.

But that dull afternoon, the bright Georgian facades lining the square did not touch my heart as they usually did. The charm of the Charteris memorial faded, and the pewter sky lowered oppressively. I studied the women, who seemed interested in some of the same things that attracted me to South Tipperary. I told myself that they might welcome my experience of my new home, experience gained through study and dogged sightseeing during 20 years visiting the area.

I turned toward them as they huddled over their map and caught the eye of one. In her mid to late thirties, she had short curly hear and a square face with an expression of assurance.

I spoke.

‘Cashel is definitely worth a visit. The Rock is one of my favourite places in Ireland. It's magnificent.’

She stared at me, not speaking at first. Her companions, also about her age, looked at me and then back at her.

‘Ah.' She squeezed it out. 'Thanks.’ 

The three women nodded at me. Then they leaned in over their coffees, talking softly. After a few minutes, they stood and walked away toward the river without looking in my direction.

Undoubtedly, they didn’t see a resident but another tourist, middle-aged and on her own, likely to try to insert herself into their plans. A nuisance.

I think of the sixty-ish woman encountered at breakfast in a hotel in Clare one morning. Overhearing the American accents of myself and my companion, a well-travelled professor making a brief stop to see me in Ireland, the stranger had tried to join our conversation. The woman, on her own at the table next to ours, leaned toward us and commented on the breakfast. She asked what we thought of Ireland, told us about her job in America, and wondered about our flight times. Then she broached the idea of sharing a taxi to the airport.

Focussed on our own conversation and aware that our time together was short, we found this an intrusion, and, after a few short answers, ignored her completely. I felt a stab of sympathy as she absorbed this humiliation, finished her breakfast and left without a word. But I was greedy for private conversation with my friend, whose demanding schedule makes time very precious and our meetings infrequent. It was a case of letting our own needs prevail in the moment.

So I understood the women’s need to establish, as they say, a clear boundary. But, oh, the sting. Oh, the irony.

Oh, the loneliness.


  1. I love it! Hope you are feeling more at home now.


  2. I'm pleased to read this beautifully written post, Lorraine. It seems so sad, the way we are when we travel. I, too, avoid my fellow Australian travellers when overseas. I, too, feel a cringe at the sound of my Australian accent, as you do your American one, feel a tad judged as an ignorant tourist and love to share conversations with the locals.

    I also recognise the feeling you describe when you are deep in conversation with someone you love and want no outside interference how ever much compassion you might have for the lonely one nearby who wants to join in.

    Finally, it seems an amazing coincidence to me but I was in Cashel only six weeks or so ago. My husband and I stayed in the glorious old hotel, once the bishop's residence just below the Rock. It cost more money than we should have spent for a night away but we decided to treat ourselves, and, you're right, it is wonderful, though on the day we visited it was extraordinarily cold, as cold as it is here now in Melbourne in the depths of winter, but then in Ireland in summer we had jackets but not enough by way of warm clothes.

    The trip was marred by this bodily need, otherwise it was fabulous.

    Thanks, Lorraine. Keep writing.