In an article for The Village Voice, John Berger, writing about European emigration to the United States stated that, “Originally home meant the centre of the world – not in a geographical but in an ontological sense.” It was a place where two lines intersect. “The vertical was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and the dead in the underworld.” The immigrant, meanwhile, “never finds another place where the two lines cross.”
For Berger’s emigrants, leaving home was often forced upon them and rarely chosen, but as Aine Greaney wrote in a recent article in The Irish Times, emigrants now have a “diversity of stories and joy and tears. One person’s economic displacement is another’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And furthermore, they at least have the “guts and the vocabulary” to talk about their loss of home. Indeed she counters this with, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living abroad, among Irish and other-nation expats, we might auto-cite the default reason (economics), but there’s nearly always a secondary driver, always another reason for leaving.”
In her memoir, What Brought You Here? (from which there are two chapters extracted below), Greaney bravely seeks to answer that near impossible question posed by the title. When told in America that she had “courage” to leave her home, she reminds herself that, “For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.””
“Home,” for Berger was “the starting point and, it was hoped, the returning point for all terrestrial journeys.” Fortunately, for us, Greaney’s writing has the courage to talk about that place where the two lines may never cross but where the language now exists to communicate (at a point of near return) with the gods above and the dead below.
Dublin Blood and Stateside Fables: Visa Day at the U.S. Embassy
The Americans said I had courage.
They said it just as I got to that part about the fries or salad or soup, and how our restaurant customers could choose one side dish with each selected lunch special.“Are you from Ireland?”
“Yes, I am.”
“How long have you been over here?”
“Three months.” Then, “Six months” Then, “Two years.”
“Oh! What brought you here?”
The wife asked these first questions. The husband had his own set of queries: “North or south?” “Catholic or Protestant? “Are your French fries hand cut or frozen?”
Dressed in my emerald green pub shirt, my black trousers and waitress’s apron, I raised my voice to answer their questions, to get heard over the Irish music on the bar stereo.
“Oh, my God!” The woman would say. “That must have taken such courage.”
The evening shift and the dinner hour were too busy for these tableside chats and my short-order immigration tale. But the lunch shift gave me all the time in the world. At age 24, at least in the eyes these chino-clad couples en route to the family cottage in the Adirondacks, I became that woman who strides through the airport in dusty hiking boots, with nothing between her and the big bad world but a Kindle full of Lonely Planet Guides.
No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”
Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. Did she mourn that job or that lover that her small-town mother had talked her out of? Had she spent a grown-up life, a marriage, wondering about that man whose cologne and touch she can still conjure? A man far sexier but riskier than the paunchy husband inquiring about his lunchtime French fries?
For others, I knew that I embodied this woman’s worst fear: That one day, her own 20- or 30-something daughter, the apple of their parental eyes, would buy an airline ticket to move 3,000 miles away.
In the end it was easy to diffuse the whole courage thing, to divert this nice couple back to their lunch order and choosing their accompany sides. It was extra easy if I laid on the Irish accent: “Oh, now, I don’t know would you call it courage or just a streak of daftness.”
Even now, almost three decades after landing at JFK Airport, New York, I’m at a dinner party or some evening fundraiser thing, and someone will ask and I will tell and it gets said again: That must’ve taken some courage. Nowadays I have the benefit of online articles on youthful impetuosity and how our under-25-year olds cannot foresee or care about the consequences of their actions. Standing there in my summer linens or corporate jackets, in my best expatriate patois I say: “Courage? Sure at that age none of us knows what the heck we’re doing. If we did, we’d have done nothing at all.”
It’s another diversion tactic, guaranteed to garner a counter story about a teenage son who texts while driving, or a daughter who won’t make school-night curfew.
How I loved that all-American makeover. It was so guileless and generous—at least until that day’s restaurant shift was over, when I shed my gussied-up Irish shtick and waitress’s getup to stand under the shower. As I scrubbed away the smell of French Fries, the whole courage thing felt (and still feels) like a private joke. I am that girl who gets crowned beauty queen when, in fact, it’s all been a secret Botox job.
My Lonely Planet odyssey started on that Friday, November 28, 1986. I had planned to spiff it up and look good for my visa interview at the American Embassy. But the Dublin morning was cold and drizzly, so I abandoned the interview dress-up for one of those padded winter jackets. I remember: it was cream-colored, machine washable, a high, zip-up collar but no hood. As I left the house to catch my city bus, I doubled back to grab a knitted hat from the overflowing coat pegs in the hallway.
When the double-decker bus creaked to a stop in Fairview, on Dublin’s north side, I clamored upstairs to sit with all the other smokers, and for a top-down view of the terraced houses, the school playgrounds, each city neighborhood with its butcher’s and newsagent’s and bookie’s shop.
I bit my nails. My right thumbnail had started bleeding. I stubbed out my Players Blue cigarette on the floor and, seconds later, lit up another. On my lap was my brown leather satchel that contained everything I would need to get to America: the Embassy appointment letter; my green passport with the gold harp on the cover; and an airmail letter from an expatriate friend, Mary, with her American phone number and her offer of a couch to crash on once I landed. If I was granted my visa, then I would telephone Mary at her shared house somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. If she meant what she said in the letter, then I would empty out my Bank of Ireland savings book to buy a transatlantic ticket from Shannon to San Francisco. I planned to leave immediately after Christmas. So the flight ticket had to be bought soon, with enough advance purchase time so that the money in my bank book would actually cover the cost of the flight.
Also in the letter was a snapshot of her sitting by an American swimming pool, wearing white shorts and a yellow T-shirt.
“Note the shades,” Mary had written and underlined on the back. Yes, of course I had noticed the shades. And I saw how much brighter and bolder she looked in her new life, working as a live-out nanny for a Bay Area family who let her drive their “extra” Volvo car.
If they saw me at all, I am certain that none of my fellow Dublin bus passengers nudged and whispered to a seat mate: “Jayzus, would you look at yer wan in the white bleedin’ coat. Now, there’s a little daisy that looks like she has loads of courage.”
That morning, I was another wanna-be, 1980s émigré joining the 200,000 others skedaddling from our small island with its runaway inflation and public debt and, in some regions, a 20% unemployment rate. I was fixing to become a small addendum to our three-centuries-long Irish emigration saga.
On that bus, this retrospective, historical stuff was too big and scary to consider. The immediate alternative was a 100 times scarier. If I flunked the interview and the Americans refused my visa? I would be a girl with no job and no place to live and barely enough money to see me past the upcoming Christmas holiday. Much worse, my family would have to witness and cringe over my looser-state, and, even worse, I would have to witness their cringing and shame. I knew this because I already had.
Whatever those online psychology articles say, the impetuous young brain is actually a blessing. Plus, young or not, fear and desperation will regress any of us to that myopic thinking in which we can only behold this city bus, this morning rain, this day’s errands.
I was afraid. And desperate. Though these, too, are retrospective.
Without that short-order mind-set, I would have clamored down those bus steps and walked out into Dublin traffic to find a piss-smelling alleyway where I would have curled up and wept.
In Dublin’s city center, I pulled on my knitted hat to walk in the rain up Talbot Street past the just-opened shops, turned left into O’Connell Street and across O’Connell Bridge that links Dublin’s north and south sides.
In winter the up-river whiff of the Guinness Brewery always made the River Liffey and that part of the city centre smell like stale coffee. This was before the construction cranes dotted the skyline, before city-centre apartments incited estate agents’ bidding wars. The Ha’penny Bridge, the houses and shops along Bachelor’s Walk, the Four Courts. It was and is the post-card view of our capital city, but it always looked in need of a good power wash.
I walked up D’Olier Street and along the walls of Trinity College, Europe’s oldest university and home to the Book of Kells. Outside Trinity, on the corner of Nassau and Grafton Streets, I waited for my second bus, a Number 7 or 7A or 6 or 6A that would take me south to Ballsbridge and the Embassy.
It’s a short bus ride from the city center to Ballsbridge. On a drier day, on a day when I wasn’t so petrified to be late, I would have walked it.
In those weeks before I left for America, I was sleeping on the floor of my younger sister Frances’s rented house that she shared with her college-student friends. I had moved across the country to stay in Dublin because I had enrolled in one of those commercial “business schools” and this crazy, new-fangled sounding class, “Introduction to Word Processing.” Every day, we students, all women, sat before a bank of computers the size of washing machines, squinting at our black screens as we cursed and muttered at that blinking cursor.
On the opposite side of the country, in my small-town convent school in County Mayo, we had never been offered typing classes (the Sisters of Mercy deemed typing classes to be far too working class). So the business school woman demanded that I enroll in an extra, add-on session, “Basic Typing,” where a few of us clanked away on black Royal manuals while the typing teacher strode between our desks shouting: “Left hand: A-S-D-F. Stop. Right? Everyone O.K.? Now, girls! Right hand: Semi-colon, L,K,J. Ready? Now, girls, type the following sentence, but without looking down at yer typewriter.”
Today, I was skipping both classes to do all my American errands.
Among the many then-rumors about America was that one about how the Yanks could hardly tie their own shoes without switching on a computer. So if you knew how to type some words on a keyboard, the American jobs were just there for the taking—especially in hospital administration.
Hospital administration. It had a lovely ring to it, but I doubt any of us had the slightest idea what it actually was. A hospital was a place full of antiseptic smells and old men in plaid robes and nurses in their stiff white hats, so why would you need a computer for any of that?
At night, cocooned in my sleeping bag on my sister’s bedroom floor, I dream-typed that day’s business-school exercises: A, S, D, F. Stop. Semi-colon, L, K, J.
I also pre-dreamed this day, this hour of reckoning that was waiting at the end of my second bus ride. In my dreams, I got on the wrong bus. Or, when the city bus got there, I begged the driver to stop, please stop, but he just sped on toward Dún Laoghaire. The Embassy was suddenly, permanently closed. Or it was open and everything was fine until, when I reached the top of that long emigration queue, an American man stood up to scream across his desk and to banish me from his country.
Heart thumping, I would wake up to lie there in the dark and wait for my younger sister’s breathing, where she lay in the single bed next to and above mine, to lull me back to sleep.
On that second bus, I lit one last cigarette and opened my leather satchel to check my paperwork one last time. And the knitted hat. According to the rumors, the emigration queue would extend, Soviet-style, down the Dublin footpath and I would need my knitted rain hat.
From the footpath, the American Embassy with its glassy, Lego-look frontage didn’t seem like the kind of place that could make or break your Friday or the rest of your life.
Inside, a woman with a Marcia Brady accent directed me to Consulate Services. The queue? Where was the reputed queue of doleful, desperate people waiting to flee our 32,599-mile country?
I crossed that room with its line of pale desks flanked by giant American flags, my footsteps clack-clack-ing. I stood behind a white line on the floor, a queue of one waiting for that 60-something man in the white uniform shirt to look up and beckon me forward.
Another American rumor: They all spoke loudly, whereas I had been told (and told) that I spoke way too softly, and if I wanted to seem like the kind of person suited for the land of the free, then I’d better project my voice.
Right. Well, here I was at last, sitting in the chair across from him, and here came the questions whose answers I had rehearsed and was ready to shout out like a quiz contestant.
Adequate financial means to travel and live in the United States?
YUP. OH YEAH. Through my satchel, I fingered my Bank of Ireland savings book and was ready to produce it.
ABSOLUTELY. ALL FIXED UP THERE. NOT A PROBLEM.
IT’S ALL THERE, SIR.
Suddenly, he stopped leafing through my paperwork to give me a what-is-your-problem look. Hard of hearing? Tourettes? Some kind of anger issue?
Christ. I was certain that the Americans wouldn’t want or welcome any one of those infirmities. So here was my nightmare about to come true. He was going to scrape back his chair and point, Christ-like, to the glassy entrance behind me. I was about to be pre-banished from America.
He returned to the paperwork, his face impassive. Then, without meeting my eyes, he stamped my green passport and handed it back to me.
I whispered, “Thank you.”
America Had Big Blue Freckles
Why in the name of Christ was nobody hitting the call buttons? Or had I just imagined what I had just seen down there, dotted amid the buildings and roads and gardens of America?
I scooched back across the empty seat to my tiny airplane window. No. No joke. There were blue freckles, giant, azure-tinted mercury spills on Long Island, New York.
Eight months earlier, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded in the Ukraine. Now, the Americans had had a similar disaster and of course, this would all have to happen on the very day that I was flying here. While the Aer Lingus flight attendants were serving up tea and drinks and miniature meals, while all my fellow passenger in the smoking section seemed determined to drink out the in-flight bar, nobody had bothered to warn or divert us?
My hand-knit wool sweater was so hot that the sweat had pooled in my armpits.
The pilot made another announcement. Oh, would these drunken yahoos all around me just shush up to hell? What did he say exactly? I was terrified to ask. Our plane descended. My ears buzzed.
The blue freckles finally disappeared. Then, here they were back again, only bigger this time, some of them rectangular and bright green, not blue.
Swimming pools. Jesus! Bloody swimming pools. Down there, on that forked tongue of land surrounded by ocean, the Americans had installed their own backyard swimming pools.
We trooped down the skybridge, and my ears popped and my older sister Mary’s voice replayed in my head: JFK is the busiest, the loudest place in the world.
The wool sweater was even hotter, even wrong-er for that florescent-lit airport and the huge immigration processing room where a uniformed woman herded us down a corridor and around a corner toward a long bank of Plexiglas windows where another woman yelped at us, herded us into queues. Here, the heat-flushed Irish faces merged with the black and brown and taupe faces, and our immigration queues were a calico blend of pale and dark, of wanna-be, various hued immigrants lined up before each window and its corresponding INS man.
Jackets and sweaters got shed. Men rolled up shirt sleeves. People stepped out of the queue to check the delay, how many more people left to process? Except for the shuffle of clothes and bags and feet, everything was eerily silent.
The Caucasian guy in front of me had awful body odor. I probably did, too. But mine was only eight hours’ old.
Someone else just got stamped and admitted. Like spectators at Wimbledon, heads turned to watch that person’s jaunty walk toward the glassy airport doors.
The queue moved on. I tried not to stare too hard at the dark-skinned people, to gawp at how different they were, what a shock it was to be here with them—the same, but not.
Now the sweat had lodged between my breasts.
Just pull the damn geansai or sweater off. I stepped out of line for a distant glimpse of my INS man in his silent, glassed-in animation. Under the sweater I had a faded yellow T-shirt from a long-ago concert. Maybe that INS fellow didn’t like concerts or girls who went to concerts? Didn’t like music overall? Didn’t like musicians? Especially hated Irish musicians who secured American landing pads for their sisters in law?
Now, I was about to test the American factoid or rumor that really mattered. One false step, one type-o or misspelling of your name could set the INS computers flashing and auto-unleash the airport Alsatian dogs who would herd you to a holding room where you’d spend the night sleeping upright in a plastic chair until they deported you back to Shannon Airport and your father would have to apologize to the gaffer and forgo his overtime pay to drive down to get you.
No, no striptease acts here. Just sweat it out and practice your immigration quiz responses, the same information you gave to the Dublin Embassy over a month ago.
As the well as the body odor, the guy in front had a huge pimple sitting dead center above his shirt collar. I kept staring at it while begging and promising myself that I’d stop staring at it, stop breathing in his smell.
My sister’s voice: Remember to write the date backward. Month, then day, then year. That’s how they do it over there.
When I got to the beehive window, the INS questions were rapid-fire fast: Where to, how long, adequate financial means to live in the land of swimming pools?
I fingered the little wad of $200 cash in my jeans front pocket. At Shannon’s Bureau de Change desk, I had wrapped the wad of dollars in the lined notebook page with Bob, my sister’s American friend’s phone number.
“I’ll pay it all back,” I had assured my mother when she had lent me that money. “You have my word.”
“Yes,” I told the INS agent now. (Act confident. The Yanks like confident).
“Yes, I have adequate means.”
Thunk. I was in.
The Arrivals Hall was a mad mass of smiley, waiting families, lovers with their bunches of flowers, Indian families with their luggage trolleys piled high and the women in brightly colored saris. Here people spoke with their hands flailing, as if a dozen wasps swarmed around their heads. Lots more black people. Brown. Tawny. Old white women in colored sweat shirts and stone-washed jeans. Old white men with paunchy bellies. Wait! These people knew they were headed to America’s most important airport, but they couldn’t put on a pair of nylons or a decent sports coat?
Trainers. Young men, young women, even the hobbling elderly with their travel belts. The Indian men with overcoats over their kurtas and dhotis. Well over half of this airport was wearing trainers or sneakers.
Don’t gawk. Whatever you do don’t gawk.
But Jesus! How could I not gawk at this giant indoor souk? How could I not flinch at the shouting, the laughing, the tack-tack-tack of foreign, non-English words?
My rucksack bopping against my back, I sidestepped around each group. I checked my $200 again. No pickpockets. Yet.
Follow the signs for Ground Transportation. Ask about the bus to Albany, New York. My sister’s instructions were a bullet-pointed list in my head.
The woman at Ground Transportation jabbed her forefinger at a paper brochure on her desk. “The Holiday Inn, Wolf Road, Aww-lbany,” she said. “That’s the last stop, where the bus will take you. It’s about three hours; maybe more.”
Ha. Ha. Well, this was a bit of a joke. I grinned up at her. The Holiday Inn? When he bought his hotel, this Albany fella couldn’t come up with a less obvious name than the Holiday Inn?
No. No joke. There was, in fact, something about me that was obviously pissing this woman off. She nodded me toward another set of glassy doors. “Wait out there.”
The airport doors slid open to a giant, outdoor fridge. It was dark now, and the freezing air was fogged with car exhaust fumes. I watched the mad dodgem-car race of yellow cabs and courtesy vans and black livery cars. Everyone zipped up coats, pulled on hats and gloves. Not me. I lit up a Players Blue cigarette and stood there in my sweater, no jacket, letting my body heat rise and convect into the New York night.
Finally, when I could no longer feel my feet, I pulled on my jean jacket, but the denim seemed to attract, not insulate against the December cold.
After the airport exit, our bus nudged onto and along a stop-and-go motorway. The distant lit-up skyscrapers were straight out of the old King Kong movie, and I presumed I was looking at Manhattan (I wasn’t). Soon, a giant brown apartment building overflowed the edges of my bus window. I held my breath at the enormity of it. Just as that building slid out of sight, here came another, then another, each with its row upon row upon row of Christmas-lit windows. I was glimpsing and gliding past hundreds of American lives, hundreds of squabbles and fights and tears and hugs, a thousand breakfasts and suppers and bedtime stories. Yet, it was safe to assume that these lives were as unfathomable to each other as they were to a just-arrived Irish girl on a Trailways bus. I scrunched down and dipped my head to find a horizon, because somewhere, I thought, all that brown brick had to end, had to collide with an amber-lit night sky.
Another motorway. This one passed by old wooden houses with petrified back gardens and chain link fences. Suddenly, the amber city lights disappeared from the sky, and we were tunneling into endless darkness. In less than an hour, we had gone from a jungle of crammed-in lives to an abandoned place where no dog barked from a roadside gateway. Nobody maneuvered between the cars on his bicycle. Nobody stood by the side of the road with his thumb out hoping for a lift. Except for the car and the motorway lights slithering over our passenger faces, this place had no human life.
Over the motorway hung these giant green signs: Tarrytown. Newburgh. New Paltz. Kingston.
Albany. It was the last bullet point on my travel list. Albany and the Holiday Inn. If I nodded off asleep, if I didn’t pay attention, I could end up in Canada. So I sat with my rucksack propped on my lap, watching and reading the green motorway signs.
Áine Greaney grew up on a remote farm in County Mayo. In 1986, after a brief career as a primary-school teacher in the Irish midlands, she moved to America, and she now lives and writes on Boston’s North Shore. As well as her four books (Simon & Schuster UK, Flume Press, Syracuse U.P. and Writers Digest Books), she has placed and broadcast personal essays and short stories in consumer and literary publications in the U.S., Ireland and the U.K. Her non-fiction essays and fiction have appeared in “Creative Nonfiction,” “The Feminist Wire,” “Salon.com,” “The Boston Globe Magazine,” “Forbes Women,” “Cyphers,” “National Public Radio Boston,” “Natural Bridge,” “Books Ireland,” “Sunday Tribune New Irish Writing,” “The Fish Anthology” and other publications. Her essay, “Green Card” (listen to Áine read her essay here) was selected as a “notable” in “Best American Essays 2013,” while her essay, “Sanctuary” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Áine Greaney holds a B.Ed in education and an M.A. in English. She is on the MFA Faculty at Baypath University where she has developed and teaches a writing course on narrative medicine. She has also led writing classes and workshops at various conferences and arts organizations in New England and presented at the National Writers Digest conference in New York City. www.ainegreaney.com