Ciara Kenny

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

‘There’s nothing like being around your own people’

The arrival of a friend to live with me in San Francisco has been emotional, writes Sarah Griffin

Sarah Griffin (right) celebrating the arrival of her friend Christina to San Francisco

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 00:00


Sarah Griffin

The autumn has finally started to reveal itself – it is the Saturday before Halloween. We’re standing in the back yard of a gorgeous house in Bernal Heights at a birthday party, all in costume. Christina has been living in San Francisco for five days.

She arrived into SFO Airport I stood with a welcome balloon and a sign that read, “Thank God You’re Here”. It said this because everything I wanted to say about my best friend arriving to live in the same city as me after almost two years apart was a bit too long for the back of a pizza box. She has been crashing on the red sofa in our little flat since. We have watched a lot of Father Ted and spoken in broken Irish in front of Americans a lot. There has been a lot of laughter.

So we’re all dressed up. Christina is Sonic The Hedgehog (painted blue and wearing a slightly altered costume originally intended for a 4-6 year old girl). My partner CB is a sexy cat. I’m Marie Antionette. Our friend Tim is dressed as a toaster, half wearing a huge silver cardboard box. It is very cold and very dark out here. The party rumbles along politely inside. We sit in a semi-circle around a table and our backs are to the green and shrubbery of the garden.

I fell hard on the street on the way here, tripped over my Queen of France $12 Salvation Army gown. The traffic on Mission Street was greatly amused but I picked myself up, laughed and sauntered on. An hour down the evening and the adrenaline has worn off and I feel a bit weird. The cold of the garden is calming. We chat away.

Blythe comes outside and joins our circle: she is covered in cobwebs and wears a top-hat with an eye-ball affixed. It is her birthday. She tells us oh, careful about sitting with your back to the garden. Raccoons, she says, this district is full of them. They write about it in the paper and all, the place is teeming with huge, vicious raccoons. I raise my eyebrows and look into the garden. Come at me, I think. I have not seen one or thought about them in quite some time.

I wrote some things about raccoons in a book, recently. They were a metaphor for things that only exist in America. They arrived as mirages when I was writing about a situation in which I was alienated, experiencing something that would never happen in Ireland. Something bigger than I’d imagined it would be, more frightening. I’ve actually only ever seen a raccoon the flesh once. Since I finished the book I haven’t thought much about raccoons. Maybe I’ve just got used to the weirdness of America.

“What’s wrong with them?” asks Christina. She’s never seen one.

Blythe goes on to explain that they destroy everything they touch. She has to keep the cats locked in the house, just in case the raccoons get them. They’ll tear their eyes out, she says, they’ll kill them. Christina doesn’t say anything.

There’s a silence. Blythe tells us to let her know if we hear them out here, she’ll get some chilli flakes. Throw ‘em at their little bandit faces and then they won’t be back around here for a while. Won’t hurt them too much but it’ll teach them a lesson.

We all move our chairs to face the black depths of garden. It is very quiet now. I don’t see the cats for the rest of the party, even when we all sit in and play card games in the living room. I keep wondering if they’re ok.

When Christina arrived and we drove back into San Francisco down the freeway, I rattled off a list of things that surprised me when I first got here – things I thought I would have liked to know in advance. Subtle surprises, like how the weather never changes. It probably won’t rain for six months in a row. Supermarkets are really expensive and the vegetables are pretty terrible, but the fruit is really delicious. People here are really kind, but really hard to make friends with. The Californians aren’t really into sarcasm and are really in touch with their feelings. A lot of people you meet will have a therapist and will tell you about it, don’t be offput by their emotional honesty, but don’t mistake it for friendship either.

There are huge wealth divides and people talk about their money a lot, and will openly ask you about yours. She was a bit shocked by that. We drove past the rising hills and I looked at her in the rear-view mirror. She had tired eyes. Her hair was the colour of pomegranates, it was blonde when I last saw her. I told her then that the pomegranates are really good here and only a few dollars and she should try one really soon. Like you crack them open with your thumbs and the inside of them are all jewels. I hope you like it here, it’s really strange, I said.

“Sure, it’s probably no different from any other city,” she replies, “All cities are different.”

She’s not wrong. I was nervous that she’s here and wanted to seem like I’ve grown and changed and learned things since I emigrated but there’s nothing I could say that will make this experience easier, or less weird. How I experienced moving to a new place is not the same as how anyone else will experience it; the things that shake me will not be the same as the things that shake other people. The moments that were easy, they would be different too. Her journey was not the same as mine. The raccoons would appear for her at different moments, if they appeared at all.

A week later CB, Christina, me, and Moriarty, our fat black and white cat, sit around our apartment watching pre-Winter Olympic figure skating trials. We commentate, as if we know a single thing about ice-skating. Or dancing. We laugh a lot. This is how it has been since she arrived; such a relief to hear an accent like mine, like CB’s.

Our American friends have sudden, striking context for us. Tim said at one point says hey, you’ve changed since she got here. You’re so much more relaxed, he said. You’re not wrong, I told him, I feel better. There’s nothing like being around your own people, I told him. Part of me is dreading when she finds her an apartment of her own, in case I don’t see her so much, in case I lose that magic part of home she brought with her, that effortless laughter. Most of me knows I wont, but still.

As we sit around mindlessly critiquing the incredible physical skill of these athletes, CB and I are about to leave for Ireland for a month. We are excited and nervous and sad and to be honest, more than anything, my insides feel like concrete because I am not a good flier but the thought of my Dad’s arms at the other side are keeping me upright. My mam. My sister. I am so excited to see my family I can barely think.

The taxi arrives. I hug Christina really closely and nuzzle Moriarty for a moment. He meows in discomfort and I really hope he doesn’t forget me while I’m gone, but I know him and Christina are great friends. He’ll look after her, she’ll look after him. I know she’s going to be just fine on her own – she’s busy going to conferences and finding her feet. Making business cards. Applying for jobs.

CB and I take our suitcases down the stone stairway and lug them into the yellow cab. Before I step in the door I look up at our window and Christina stands there, holding Moriarty, waving. He’s a giant cat and from this distance he is enormous in her arms. I squint a little and from down here his face almost has black ringed eyes and his tiny squish paws are almost malicious hands and his pink nose a snout and his question mark curled tail is ringed with stripes. Raccoon. I blink, and he is our handsome longhaired tomcat again. She waves one last time and then disappears into the apartment. I turn my back and get into the cab. SFO, please, chirps CB. We pull away down the hill and begin our journey home.

Sarah Griffin is in Ireland to launch her debut book, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home, a non-fiction collection of essays about her experience of moving to San Francisco. She is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read other articles written on her departure from Dublin, on ‘The ache of homesickness’, on Christmas in Ireland, a dialogue about the emigrant experience with fellow Irish writer in San Francisco Ethel Rohan, how ‘Making a new home does not take away the home you had’, and about how a cat helped her feel at home in San Francisco.