Mozzarella sticks, Guinness and the International Herald Tribune… Those three things along with Mancunian recording artist David Gray made up a good part of my salvation in the summer of 2000. I was living in Paris at the time — have I mentioned Paris lately? What’s up with that? —way out on the south side of the city. If you have lived abroad you know the paradox of loving your adopted city while missing comforts from home.
I had been in The City of Lights for about a month. Don’t get me wrong, a cheese and ham panini is one of the best foods ever pressed between two hot plates. Just ask George Foreman. But, at some point you break. Everyone breaks. Pizza, Budweiser, football… anything, give me anything that feels like home! Heck, I’d settle for a conversation with anyone with an elementary grasp of my native tongue.
If homesickness is the chronic condition, walking aimlessly, endlessly becomes predominant symptom. I’d walk for a mile looking for something to satiate that feeling. You become almost oblivious to your amazing surroundings. Sacré-Cœur? Sacré blah! Soupe a l’oignon gratinee? I want a burger and not one of questionable origin!
Here I am, wearing holes in my American Nikes around the Roman-era cobblestones of the 6eme, St. Germaine des Pres, head hung low, and belly empty. That’s when the clouds part. A ray of sunshine put its limelight on this green door. Is that a dusty collection of disconnected junk sitting on shelves? Do I spy a Guinness logo? I think…wait… yes, yes that is the sound of English-speaking football (soccer) announcers! Suddenly, my feet are weightless and my body floats over the beret-wearing baguette-wielding frenchmen around me and I came to rest on a bar stool.
Here’s the magic of an Irish bar - they are the exact same anywhere in the world. I’m thoroughly convinced, in fact, there is a bureau in Ireland’s national office of external affairs which must regulate expatriated Irish bars with the same vigor with which it oversees an embassy. They may even be one in the same.
My eyes narrowed. This could be a trick, one can never been too sure about these things, after all, we’ve not exchanged passports… Bonjour, puis-je s’il vous plaît avoir un Guinness et un carte - toujours ouvert pour le déjeuner?
Dude, your French is worse than mine! The clearly Irish bartender laughed as he pulled my pint.
For the next two hours, I sat at the bar inhaling comfort foods, cold Guinness and translation-free conversation. The guy next to me left and handed me his paper. It was in English, was well written and had a pleasing international perspective. That’s when I discovered the International Herald Tribune.
Hey, who’s this guy playing?
Oh, the music? That’s a chap called David Gray
And so, sitting in this Irish bar, as a temporarily transplanted American wondering around the most amazing city in the world, Babylon become the theme of my summer. Mozzarella sticks and poorly executed nachos became my caloric recharge when my internal batteries were drained. And, on nights when my tongue was simply too tired to wag en Franchise, I reposed to my version of Cheers.
Over that summer and the next, when Susan joined me, we got to know the staff at Coolin Irish Pub so well they were like surrogate family. At least one night a week, the bar feigned an early close. Once it was empty, or nearly so, the projector switched from Sky Sports’ feed of football matches to English language movies like American Pie or Die Hard; our Irish oasis.
Last night, Susan and I went to see David Gray in Charlottesville. It was fun to hear those songs and to think back about Coolin, the 6eme and Paris. There is not a moment I’d trade about Paris and we certainly made the most out of being there. There is also something special about finding those places and people who help you recharge your batteries so you can make the most out of experiences like living in another country.