Explaining Cavan to a boy from Bangladesh
I felt close to the boy, whom I met in Warsaw, as exiles feel with others who are far from home
Michael Harding. Photograph: Brian Farrell
I brought acorns home with me from Warsaw. Three little acorns that were still green when I picked them up off the grass near Saski Park, where I would walk every morning, at a little distance from the traffic, with other people: elder couples entwined at the elbows, or young couples absorbed with the contents of their buggies. I would sit at the water fountain, beneath the trees and watch Warsaw waking up.
One morning I saw a wedding couple sitting up on the back of a bench like teenagers do; he in a tuxedo, and she in a long, white wedding dress. And they were kissing. They seemed relaxed, as if they had already been to church, and were relishing the feel of the world made new by their commitment to one another. I passed them as unnoticed as a ghost.
I saw quite a few wedding couples in Warsaw. Not in the back of limousines, but just walking along the street, or sitting in some park; her with a jacket around her bare shoulders, maybe, and him smoking; the informality of it stunned me.
One day, not far from Saski Park, I saw the acorns falling from a great oak tree; a tree so old that it had clearly been there when Chopin was a boy and it must have been there when the Germans made slaughter in the ghetto. So I couldn’t resist the acorns.
The boy from Bangladesh
I didn’t eat much, as I walked around Warsaw. An occasional bowl of tomato soup or a dish of sausage chopped up in a sea of mustard kept me going. I would return to my apartment late in the evenings, passing a Lebanese restaurant, which had a small kiosk serving takeaway falafel, and I usually stopped there to have a chat with the boy from Bangladesh who prepared the food.
He asked me where I was from.
“Cavan, ” I declared.
“Is that an independent country?” he wondered.
“It is part of Ireland but colonised by Dublin, London and Washington,” I explained. “What remains of our own way of life – accordion music, pig farming and a flair for conversation – has been mostly extinguished by our masters.”
“Ah,” he said, “I understand; Cavan is like Scotland.”
“Exactly,” I agreed, impressed by his clarity.
“I have seen Mel Gibson film,” he explained. “Braveheart.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Cavan is like that.”
And then I bought a bottle of water and started munching the falafel as I stood on the street, and he came outside the kiosk with a mug of tea and lit himself a cigarette.
United as exiles
Both of us stared at the skyscrapers and I felt close to him, as exiles feel with others who are far from home. I raised my bottle of water and offered a toast to our two great nations, Cavan and Bangladesh. And he smiled.
He said Bangladesh was a good country. “Many fish in rivers, and green countryside with fruit and vegetables, and beautiful trees.”
I felt he wanted me to like Bangladesh. I felt he wanted to believe that I wasn’t wearing clothes that people are forced to make in sweat factories for the western market. I felt he wanted to believe that a bit of Cavan wasn’t completely colonised by the great capitalist Satan that tears communities apart with its multinational claws.
“I’ll see you again,” I promised, as I left. And each time I returned he smiled. “How is Cavan man this evening?”
“Good,” I would reply. “And how is everyone in Bangladesh.”
“Good, good,” he said.
Of course everyone in Bangladesh is not good. Everyone in Warsaw or Cavan is not good. But since I came home I often think about him. At a certain hour of the evening, when I’m in some theatre in Longford, Sligo or Kerry, waiting to go out on to the stage and tell stories to strangers, I think of him, leaning over his kiosk waiting for strangers to buy a falafel for 10 zloty.
And he is with me in the mornings, when I’m in the garden in Arigna, and the breeze shakes the dry leaves off the trees, and I think of Bangladesh as more than just a musical word, but as another garden where trees grow, and are cherished by the people who live there.
So I planted the acorns – that fell from a tree that survived the war – and if they grow they will always remind me of the boy from Bangladesh, who makes his living on the streets of Warsaw.