A journey to Ireland becomes a discovery of self
By M. M. Adjarian
My mind was made up. I was going to Ireland for my junior year. Pauline, an Asian girl I knew from French class, was going on the Berkeley Pau-Paris program. But my inner teenage know-it-all sniffed that France would be a waste of time. After all, my father had been born in Paris — what did it matter that I had never seen it for myself?
Pauline told me she couldn’t wait to spend time in the sun-splashed outdoor cafés watching stylish people stroll by. I thought she had fallen for the ultimate American college cliché. A small, rainy island in the North Atlantic seemed exactly the right fit for my contrarian spirit. It didn’t hurt that my destination, Trinity College, reminded me of Oxford, which I’d first seen on the Masterpiece Theater series, Brideshead Revisited.
The truth was that my choice was only partially dictated by rebellious impulses. What I really wanted was to keep my past — especially if it had anything to do with my European immigrant parents — at arm’s length. Of course, the more I tried to get away from that past, the more I ran right into it.
Berkeley’s junior year abroad program to Britain included universities like Leeds, Hull and Edinburgh — places I had never heard of. Trinity College was the one name I recognized. An English professor had mentioned that the Church had banned faithful Catholics including James Joyce, a writer he had included on the class reading list, from attending the university. Like many of my classmates, I struggled with ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’; the stream-of-consciousness interiority sometimes made the novel seem more like a secret to be uncovered rather than a story to be understood.
One afternoon, my roommate and I were studying together in our dorm room. Lisa was in the same English class but rarely took any of the assignments seriously. As if to tease me for my studiousness, she began reading from Joyce’s novel in a melodramatic voice.
“‘Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s . . . her thighs fuller and soft-hued as ivory were bared almost to the hips . . .’ And Professor Knapp says that’s supposed to be sexual? Give me a break.”
“Anything can be sexual when you’re that repressed.”
“Takes one to know one.”
I made a face and grumbled; Lisa just laughed.
In the end, what captivated me most wasn’t the erotic undertow that amused Lisa. Rather it was the narrator’s refusal to be smothered by his strict provincial upbringing: “I will try to express myself…as freely and as wholly as I can, using for my defense, the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile and cunning.” (pp. 268-69)
All I could think about as I read and re-read that sentence were the difficult relationships I had with both my mother and father. I had learned to withhold words like “I love you” from mother; I could not love her strange fits of violence — the hitting, the kicking, the endless screaming accusations of disloyalty — anymore than I could love the self-imposed social exile that had transformed her into a recluse.
Silence had also become the way I punished my father who, until college, had been an absentee father. Now that he wanted me back in his life, I silently dictated what he could and couldn’t know. And while the move north to Berkeley from my home in southern California didn’t exactly count as exile since it put me geographically closer to my father, it had allowed me to distance myself from impossible maternal demands that I continue to live with her even as an adult.
In Joyce, I sensed a kindred spirit; and his work was a beautiful, angry mirror from which I could not turn away. So when I applied for junior year abroad the following fall, rather than go with a school in France or Great Britain, I marked Joyce’s forbidden collegiate destination as my first choice.
My year abroad began with a flight to a London orientation meeting in early September 1985. I and a group University of California-system students left Los Angeles International Airport in the afternoon and arrived at Gatwick early the next day. Tired and disoriented, I picked up my suitcases and went with the other students to meet the bus that would take us to temporary digs at the University of London. The driver, a cheerful man with a booming voice, gave us a mini-tour of London, taking us past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Pointing to the spiky-haired, leather-clad youths we saw along the way he said, “Give them a quid and maybe they’ll pose for you.” I was too exhausted to care.
By dinnertime, I gave in to sleep and went to bed. It was just after midnight when I awoke, shivering from the unaccustomed chill of a foggy London night. I stumbled out of my room and down a half-lit corridor toward a large window. There, I saw my own uncertain-looking face reflected back at me. To hell with punk rockers and James Joyce, I thought. This is crazy. I want to go home.
At an orientation meeting the next day, I was informed that our program would only be looking after us for a week. Michaelmas, the first trimester, didn’t start for me until late September; I would be on my own for almost ten days. Seeing my panic, a slim girl sitting near me asked me where I was going.
“Trinity,” I said.
“I’m going there, too. If you don’t have a place to stay, you can come with me to my friend Andy’s house in Belfast. Then we can take the train south to Dublin together. Oh, and by the way, my name’s Valerie.”
Belfast worried me because of what I’d heard about the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. But at that moment, living in good company with the threat of IRA bombings seemed far more preferable than being alone and more than 5,000 miles from everything I knew.
A thirty-something man with dark, thinning hair met us at Belfast airport a week later. “Welcome to Ireland,” Andy said. On the way back to his house, he drove by the triple-tiered barrier that divided sections of the city.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s the Peace Wall,” Andy said. “Catholics are on one side, Protestants on the other.”
The Catholic side looked dirtier and more run-down than the Protestant side where Andy lived. Suddenly I became aware of just how many military guards were patrolling the streets. The idea of religious wars seemed medieval. I’d never seen anything like this in California or on Masterpiece Theater. But I reminded myself that I was in fractious Ireland, not the well-mannered England of Evelyn Waugh’s imagination.
When we arrived, he took Valerie’s suitcase to his room then led us up to a cozy-looking but damp attic that smelled of lanolin. I sneezed almost immediately.
“The room’s cold, but the showers are hot,” Andy said, grinning.
That night, he took us to a local pub and invited a partially disabled friend named Brendan to join us. Crowded and poorly ventilated, the inside of the pub was shrouded in stinking, white cigarette smoke.
“Maybe you have an allergy,” Valerie said as I sat hacking beside her.
Turning to me, Brendan said, “You’re the nicest girl I’ve ever met.”
“Is it like this in all pubs?” I rasped, trying to ignore Brendan and thoughts of the leg he dragged behind him.
“Usually,” Andy said. “You’ll have to get used to it if you want to enjoy the nightlife in Dublin.”
Looks like I won’t be doing much of that this year, I thought.
On the way home, the headlights of Andy’s car briefly revealed someone dressed in what looked like a long brown robe and sandals.
“Was that a priest?” I asked.
Andy grinned at me from his rearview mirror. “No. That was a monk. There’s a monastery not far from here off Falls Road.”
Save me, Father, I thought as Brendan continued to ply me with compliments. Perhaps the monk heard me. As soon as Andy dropped Brendan off, the man who had spent his evening trying to impress me walked away without a backward glance.
The following morning, Andy had already gone to work by the time I got up; Valerie and I were alone. It was gray and raining outside and we had no plans for the day except to rest.
“Where did you and Andy meet?” I asked.
“Australia. We were there a few years ago traveling.” Valerie’s face suddenly turned serious. “Andy says that he loves me.” She looked away. “Then I find out about the other women in his life.”
Valerie took out her wallet showed me a photograph of blond man named John with even less hair than Andy. He was a San Diego boyfriend with whom she had “an arrangement.”
“Isn’t he sexy?”
I smiled but didn’t answer. Clearly, fidelity wasn’t Valerie’s strong suit either. Someone juggling lovers on different continents was as foreign as Ireland was turning out to be.
We arrived in Dublin a week later and immediately went to Trinity Hall, the dormitory that would be our home for the next year. Valerie’s room was in the main dormitory, which housed only students from the United States. But somehow, I and three other Americans had been paired with Irish roommates in nearby Greenane, a big old Georgian with large windows that stood apart from the main hall and housed only females.
My roommate Kathy was a freckled, green-eyed Belfast girl who always took giant bags of laundry home every time she went back to visit, which was often. I knew she missed her family because she would always call me by her older sister’s name just before she went to sleep. But the rifts in my own family had hardened me to what I saw as her sheltered immaturity. The last time I had seen my brother was at my high school graduation in 1983. And if I had brought home laundry from school for my mother to wash, she would have snorted her disapproval and told me to go do it myself.
When my roommate saw how much my studies consumed me, she attached herself to two other UC students who had also been assigned to Greenane. One, Marci, was a vivacious English major who talked non-stop about her upcoming Christmas trip to Rome with a boyfriend from UCLA. The other, Tracy, was a shy wallflower of a girl who studied art history. After a brief escapade with an Irish boy looking for easy sex with a liberated foreigner, Tracy closed ranks with Marci and Kathy. Together, the three of them formed a tight-knit circle of girliness that made me uncomfortable.
Liz was the only other girl in Greenane who stood apart from the others like I did. Though born in England she had grown up in Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland. Everything about her — except her hair, which grew out in a comb-defying curly blonde mass — was sensible including her major, dentistry. Better still, she wasn’t hung up on boys and seemed genuinely interested that I’d come over because I loved literature and James Joyce.
“I wish I could have studied something similar,” she said, sighing.
“What stopped you?”
“Things are too hard for us here not to specialize in a profession early on. And even when we do, we still have to go to the UK or Europe just to get a decent job.”
Although she never said it, I wondered whether Liz saw me as some starry-eyed dreamer following a trail as insubstantial as air.
Trinity College turned out to be nothing like the Oxfordian wonderland I had imagined. The problems began when I tried to enroll for the Michaelmas term. To take the classes I needed for my comparative literature major, I had to cross disciplines. And according to the mustachioed head of the English department, that just wasn’t done.
“Trinity students focus on only one academic specialty from the start. If you don’t concentrate your efforts, you won’t have true sense of what it’s like to be an undergraduate here.”
“But…I have requirements I have to fulfill for my program!”
The chair glowered at me in silence. I could see by the more than skeptical look in his eyes that he thought I, my department — or both — lacked the proper gravitas.
“All right,” he said finally. “But you’ll be the first and last student from your program to do this.”
His rigidity bothered me. But it was of a piece with what I was finding elsewhere at the university. Professorial reverence for tradition in the English and French literature and Latin grammar courses I took chafed against my spirit. And the granite campus buildings began to feel more like rooms in a 500-year-old prison. Now I understood why so many students spent their free time in the downtown Dublin pubs I couldn’t enter without breaking out into a coughing fit.
Bored and frustrated, I went to dormitory dances where I could breathe the air and make a public spectacle of myself in protest. The first time I dressed from head to toe in black and loaded up on bottles of Bass Ale or syrupy black Guinness beer. Moments later, I was on the dance floor, shaking like a human earthquake to Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round.”
The only person who would talk to me the next day was Liz. No one else who had gone to the dance knew what to say to me.
“It was quite entertaining,” Liz said over mugs of strong Irish tea. “Who knew the quiet American girl who’s always in the library could dance like that?”
My head still aching from the alcohol, I grinned. It almost felt like triumph.
The time had finally come to find other diversions outside of the university that didn’t involve pubs or drinking. Paging through my thick orange ‘Let’s Go Europe’ guide, I came across a section about Glendalough, a ruined monastic city in the Wicklow Hills south of Dublin. Descriptions of serpentine paths winding through lush woodland areas made me long for the natural escape they promised. I took the next available Saturday bus out of Dublin, grateful for a chance to get away from the books that I loved and hated.
Wandering around the tumbled-down buildings and moss-covered Celtic crosses of the dead city, I thought of the monks who had had voluntarily withdrawn from the world to live here. My fingertips grazed the eternal roughness of thousand-year-old stones. The monks would most certainly have known the scholar’s loneliness that I did. Maybe Joyce had, too, before he decided against joining the priesthood. Suddenly I felt the laughter begin to rise. You fool, I thought to myself. At the rate you’re going, you’ll never get laid.
Not long after that, Marci invited me on a weekend group excursion to Galway. Her fellow travelers included two other American students, Raina and Pierre. We took a train and stayed in a bed and breakfast run by a bright-faced woman with a son who, at a glance, looked like he had Down Syndrome. Regardless, she hid him behind closed doors. “He’s handicapped, you see,” she said. The four of us exchanged glances. In this otherwise hospitable country, certain kinds of differences — and especially those that shamed — had to be shut away. In thinking about our encounter with the bed and breakfast woman later on, I realized why the bird-girl in ‘Portrait of the Artist’ had been such a daring creation. Earthy and sensual, the girl represented a frank confrontation with the Irish Catholic taboo of sexuality.
Just after all of us went to bed the first night after we arrived — Marci, Raina and I in one room and Pierre in the other — I heard my roommates whispering to each other on the big double bed they shared.
“I’m so glad my boyfriend is coming to visit in December. It’s hard to be good when you’re separated like we are.”
“I broke up with the guy I was seeing just before I came here,” Raina said. “Now I just go out.”
Marci missed her boyfriend; Raina played the field. And I was the girl who didn’t have any religious beliefs to blame for being a virgin.
My mother was determined that I visit her kind, barrel-bodied sister in Rome. Hope that time and age had transformed me into someone who didn’t look like my father, the low-down bastardo who cheated my mother out of a proper divorce settlement, tempered my ambivalence about the trip to Italy.
The first words out of my grandmother’s mouth when I visited the family at Christmas told me that nothing had changed.
“Bellina, ma la ragazza sembra suo padre.”
I was crushed. My grandmother may have thought me pretty; but to her, I still looked every bit as Northern European as my father. For a moment, all I wanted was my mother’s olive skin and dark eyes. Then I realized that my grandmother might not have liked that either, since my mother took after the family that had cheated her out of my grandfather’s assets.
I felt on edge that first night in Rome, After Ersillia asked me about school, she began to reminisce about the knack I had for scraping and bruising my tall, clumsy body.
She smiled when she spoke, but I couldn’t stand it. A sob gurgling in my throat, I jumped up from the table, rushing from the room, past my stunned cousins in the kitchen into the guestroom.
Almost immediately, I heard my aunt calling my name, which she pronounced with a long “o” sound, just like my parents. When Ersillia found me, I was on the bed, face down in a pillow, sniffling.
“Ma perché piange?”
“Why did you talk about me that way? I’m not a child anymore,” I said, wiping away the mucus that dribbled from my nose.
“It is nothing, just stories to remember,” she chuckled. “You can cry when you get to be my age. Getting old — now that’s something worth your tears.”
A few days after I arrived, my mother called me. “Veda l’entusiasmo,” Ersillia whispered to my tiny, big-breasted grandmother, amused at how blasé I seemed. Then I passed the receiver to my aunt, who chatted eagerly with her sister then passed the receiver to my grandmother. I couldn’t understand most of what they said, but I could hear my mother’s desperate voice through the receiver.
Then my grandmother spoke.
“Vendalo!” she intoned.
Immediately I knew that Memé was referring to my mother’s condominium. My mother had been worrying that it had been a poor investment, especially since I had made it clear I wasn’t moving in with her after graduation. Now my grandmother was telling her to sell. Ersillia may have lived with her mother, but there was no way I could be the good Italian daughter and live with a woman bent on controlling my life.
My aunt invited me to stay until after the term started again in January, but I decided to go on a solo expedition to Barcelona instead, where the damp and chill drove deep into my bones. By the time I left for Madrid, I had contracted a fever. Too sick to do anything else, I holed up at the first decent hotel I found and stayed there until the fever broke four days later. I barely had any time left to do much more than walk around downtown before boarding a plane back to Dublin.
I measured the days from Hilary to Trinity terms and the end of school in Irish Cadbury bars, which tasted better than any chocolate I’d ever had, and the mugs of milky tea that warmed my insides all through the wet gray days of winter. Valerie had been the one to teach me how to drink tea without a pot. “You pour the milk first then add the water and tea bag,” she said one day after watching me do the opposite. Her method — which she claimed to have learned from Andy — made no difference in how the tea tasted. But it became the way I drank my tea for years afterward.
I hadn’t seen much of her since we arrived. But she did tell me not long after Christmas break that she had broken it off with Andy and was now only with John. “He’s there for me,” she said. “Every time I used to call Andy’s house, I never knew which of his other girlfriends would answer the phone.”
In a way, I envied Valerie and her amorous distractions; my own Irish escapade had become routine — too much so. I rode the green Dublin double-decker buses to and from school every day, giving money to a uniformed man who put my coins in a purse strapped across one shoulder while dispensing tickets from a small silver machine strapped across the other. I went to lectures where I doodled furiously in my notebook rather than taking notes. When I couldn’t stand the feeling of claustrophobia, I sometimes walked the two-and-half-miles between Trinity Hall and the college, passing through the red brick suburbs of Rathmines and Ranelagh on the way.
On weekends, I studied — “swatted,” the Irish students called it — wrote to people back home and watched over the dormitory mailboxes like a lonely sentinel for the maddeningly few responses that came in return. As much as I hated to admit it and no matter what I told people in the letters and postcards I sent back, I missed the hippies on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I puzzled over how that was possible. I was in Europe, the American dream destination. Maybe all I really wanted was what I didn’t have.
What powered me through my days was the promise I’d made to my father’s brother that I would visit him over the summer. According to my mother, my uncle Pat was cut from the same rough cloth as my father. “At least he took care of his wife and gave her a beautiful apartment on the Right Bank,” she said. My father told me not to judge. “Look with your own eyes and then decide,” he told me, anticipating my mother’s judgments.
He needn’t have worried. Pat surprised me with his unexpected empathy. A graying but vigorous man of few words, he never pushed me to talk. And when he wasn’t staying with his girlfriend or I wasn’t Eurailing around the Continent, he often made me breakfasts of sliced baguettes, jam, butter, eggs and tea.
My uncle even seemed to sympathize with what had happened between my parents. “Qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?” Pat said, his brown eyes sad. Perhaps he, too, had known estrangement from his two children, my cousins Jean and Laurence. But in the end, they had accepted the separation between Pat and his wife. I wondered if I could one day do the same with my own father.
Despite my stubborn unwillingness to admit that France could be anything but the tritest of travel destinations, that summer was a happy one. The long walks all over Paris exploring the different arrondissements; the visits to my uncle’s farm in Fontainebleau eating wild cherries from his garden; the lazy afternoons in his fourth-floor Rue de Seine apartment spent listening to the sound of saxophone music drifting up from the lower courtyard—all of it passed like a dream.
Beyond the endless North Atlantic rain and the too-few sunny days that shone on a landscape so green it dazzled me, I had more to look forward to than I ever expected. Pauline had been right to gush, even if the only way she could do it was in clichés; hadn’t I, with my Oxford fantasies, also done the same? My father had been right, too. Perhaps I was the one who needed to rethink what I knew—or thought I did.
The last thing I did before leaving Ireland for France was visit Martello Tower, a tiny stone fortress on the Dublin coast. It seemed a fitting way to say goodbye; Joyce himself had spent six nights there before going to Europe the first time. But when I arrived, the only thing I could think about was the last time I had seen Liz, which had been a few days earlier.
She and I had gone to the George’s Street Arcade to visit the woman who sat in a black velvet-curtained booth that advertised palm readings. The girls at Greenane told us she was a gypsy and to beware her evil eye.
Liz went in first; I followed. We compared notes as soon as I left the booth.
“It seems I’ll be moving around a lot,” I told Liz. “She said something, too, about how the journey and not the destination will be matter most to me.” I shrugged my shoulders. “What can you expect for ten pounds?”
My friend flashed me a toothy, white grin.
“Apparently, I’m going back to Britain for work. She said I’d do well there, but…” She looked at me sheepishly. “Well, it just sounded like I’d lead a really materialistic life.”
As it happened, Elizabeth did eventually open several successful dental practices and buy a Cromwell-era home in the south of England. And I became a vagabond who could never seem to settle down. But on that breezy May afternoon at Martello Tower, I didn’t know any of that. Gazing out over Dublin Bay all I knew for certain was that my life stretched out before me as open as the sea.
M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in The Provo Canyon Review, the Baltimore Review, The Prague Revue, Verdad, South 85, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly and has work forthcoming in Serving House Journal.