Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

America feels shallow after holidays in Ireland

When we come home we are surrounded by the places we were born, went to school, remember of old; and people who have known us all our lives, or half our lives, or before we even were, writes Christine Doran

Christine Doran with her family during the Christmas holidays in Ireland

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 01:20

   

When we come home we are surrounded by the places we were born, went to school, remember of old; and people who have known us all our lives, or half our lives, or before we even were, writes Christine Doran

Christine Doran with her family during the Christmas holidays in Ireland

Ten years ago this January, I left Ireland with my brand-new green card in hand (thanks to the ‘diversity lottery’) and finally moved in with the boy I’d first kissed almost ten years before that.

When we left, I told my parents it would be for three years; five at the most.

We never intended to be Americans, we never meant to have American children. Even when we decided that really, it was better to go ahead with the ‘having babies’ plan rather than wait for everything – moving back home, buying a house – to fall into place first, we didn’t mean them to be there long enough to develop American accents, to start school, to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. That last one really smarts.

When I come home for Christmas, I look around to see if I can view Dublin with a stranger’s eyes. I still can’t. The narrow roads with impossible parking, the grimy/shiny modern shopfronts beneath Victorian upper storeys, even the concrete of the pavements – it all still forms my baseline for normality.

Of course there are things that have sprung up between our Christmases home: lovely new things like the Luas or Spencer Dock or a new bridge over the Liffey, and I discover these with a pleased pride, to see the old country keeping up with the other European Joneses that have nice light-rail systems and fancy architecture.

Over the years I’ve been gone, the customer service has remained surprisingly good, though I’ve seen the service-industry jobs (that is, who’s behind the till at McDonald’s or manning the espresso machines in Costa) shift from Chinese students to eastern Europeans and now, increasingly, back to natives.

This visit I’ve been particularly impressed by the willingness to make a not-too-hot hot chocolate, loaded with marshmallows, to the delight of my children. In the US we are usually told that the machine spits it out at a predefined temperature, and that’s that. The staff here – native and non – have all seemed willing to cheerfully go the extra mile to facilitate the customer. I can see why Americans still tell me that they found ‘Ireland of the Welcomes’ even in these straitened times.

The roads look narrower every time I come back, and I get worse at parking in these tiny spaces. Driving on the left again isn’t hard, but I do try to change gears with the wrong hand for a while, and I never, on either side of the Atlantic, can decide which side of the car to get into without first checking where the steering wheel is.

After ten years, through nobody’s fault but time, many friendships have fallen by the wayside as family gets first claim on us whenever we make it back. The Internet, though, is a boon. Facebook came at just the right time to help us keep in touch with a lot of old friends, and even make some new ones as school acquaintances proved chatty and sympathetic online.

I started a blog a short while after moving to the States, and it found its stride once the children were big enough to leave me alone long enough to write a post once in a while. Through blogging, I’ve made new Irish friends and found a parenting community that spans the oceans.

We live in a lovely leafy suburb of Maryland outside Washington DC. My Irish husband has a job in his field, one he’d be hard pressed to find in Ireland. Our children are four and six now, and consider themselves Americans, although they know they have Irish passports as well. They have American accents, though most of the time I can’t really hear it myself.

They’re seasoned travellers – we’ve come home every year, and every Christmas but two. They cope with the jetlag and the time difference, with erratic sleeping and cranky behaviour, and our biggest challenge is fitting all their new presents back in the suitcase we came with. We never see everyone we want to see, we never do half the things we’d like to do, and the children will probably never feel that this is home the way their parents do, but we try.

On returning from Ireland after a visit, America always feels somehow shallow. Not that it’s particularly more materialistic or less embracing of the glories of nature; just that our lives there lack depth. Our roots don’t penetrate far, and even history doesn’t really dig very deep on that side of the Atlantic. When we come home we are surrounded by the places we were born, went to school, remember of old; and people who have known us all our lives, or half our lives, or before we even were. It’s more real, more concrete and graspable. It defines us.

The American dream, of course, is that you get to define yourself. That you can become whoever you want to be, without being pulled down by the weight of expectations, tradition, who your parents thought you were. We get to do that too. We get to parent without our parents, which while bad for babysitting, is often better for the ego. We get to be the grownups without having to simultaneously negotiate being the babies of our respective families. It’s liberating. It’s like jumping off a cliff and hoping you can swim.

The water’s cold, but we’re from Ireland: we call it bracing and plough ahead regardless.

Christine Doran blogs semi-anonymously about ex-pat life, children, and muffins at awfullychipper.blogspot.ie. An extract from this article was included in yesterday’s Generation Emigration feature on emigrants’ experiences of coming home to Ireland for Christmas.

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