They wanted to understand one thing and were nervous about two things, my American visitors.
I was driving from Leeson St into Stephen’s Green, when the wife of the couple screamed and threw her hands over her face. She was not expecting a bus to come around that corner, and when it did, thought it was going to go across directly in front of us and that we were going to T-bone it. Once her shudders reduced to occasional shivers, I asked which of them was planning to be the main driver and was relieved to hear the plan was that he’d be behind the wheel and she’d be navigating.
When she opened the window on the passenger side to cool down, the Viking Splash came level with her and all of its passengers, horn-helmeted, let loose with a yell that put the heart crossways in her, all over again.
Brexit, her husband prompted from the back seat, gently massaging his wife’s shoulders. Five minutes later, floundering around trying to explain where the border that doesn’t currently exist might surface between us and Northern Ireland if the worst comes to the worst, I’d have cheerfully thrown myself under that Leeson St bus or the Viking Splash and my friends didn’t look as if they’d be sorry.
Trying to explain the inexplicable is never easy, but gets speedily impossible if you throw in racism, freedom of movement, the Troubles and branded goods like Kelloggs cornflakes disappearing.
Same thing with Boris Johnson. They listened attentively and then asked how an incompetent unattractive philandering liar could have become prime minister. Much the same way as Trump became president of the US, I rashly said.
Well, at least he cleaned up the swamp, the husband said defensively. He what? Yeah, they said, chiming together. Look at all the government people he’s fired.
I absorbed this in silence. It didn’t seem a good idea, on their first day in Ireland, to point out that most of the people Trump has fired were people he had appointed in the first place, adored for a couple of months and then taken against.
Instead, I supposed, out loud, that they might be Republicans. Not so, they said in horror. Definitely not so. They were registered Democrats. They had adored Bill Clinton when he was president, they said, but so much came out afterwards, the two of them were disgusted across a broad front and believed they were all — all politicians, that is — crooked and out for themselves. They just tried to maintain a certain respect for the role of the president and to be fairminded about things like Trump cleaning up the swamp.
They were nervous that Irish people would blame them for Trump. Throughout the following week, as they toured around Ireland, driving carefully on what to them was the wrong side of the road, the anti-Trump hostility they feared didn’t happen.
Around day three of their trip, people did start to opine in their company that: “Pence is some tool, staying down in the Trump resort when all his frigging pointless meetings are in Dublin. Security and logistics costs a little country, hasn’t he noticed?”
Perhaps because they were away from home, or maybe because Pence is only a vice president, they joyously piled in, telling how he had done the same when he visited their state last year.
For the most part, though, they vacuumed up information about Ireland and dutifully fed it back when they returned to base, to check they’d got it right.
A guy in Galway told them that the Irish healthcare system was the best in the world. Everybody was entitled to hospital care, but you could speed things up by paying around €1,500 a year to an insurer.
I didn’t add to their wonder by telling them that when it comes to morbidity and mortality, Ireland beats the US most of the time.
Then, in Dingle, a barman impressed them about third-level education. Free, he pointed out, not like the situation in their home country where paying off your student loans can take more than a decade.
It was impressive, to hear at secondhand that lads who were not politicians were willing to lay out some of the positives of this country to visitors.
While interrogating and being open to everyone they met, they also began to make judgments. Using Dublin’s Hop-On-Hop-Off buses extensively, they noted that the driver/guides came in three varieties: The first group did a bit of talking but not much else, the second group played an informational recording and said nothing, while the third group yapped the whole way and were riotously funny.
No surprise that it was group three they loved most. Going with them to a couple of tourist venues, I realised that even when the central issue is grim in the extreme, visitors love to be made to laugh.
At one location, when the tour ended, the guide did an exaggerated plea that they give him a good rating online, repeating his name 11 times. They thought he was a scream and doubtless did as he asked.
It was only on the way home after that particular trip that they asked me why he had — in advising them to do the Kilmainham Jail tour — described it as “savage”.
Even when they understood the usage, they couldn’t get their head around a prison being a place to visit for fun, given the reputation places of incarceration have back home.
The two of them wanted to walk everywhere. They were humbly and repeatedly grateful for being told to bring rain gear and couldn’t quite grasp how one minute they would have a flash flood in their boots and a mile further on would be stripping off layers of outer clothing as the sun split the rocks.
Everything worked for them. They were anxious, at the start, to get a handle on the gratuity thing, and were relieved to find Irish service people don’t intimidate or sulk about tips. They decided Irish tap water was fine and filled their bottles every day in the kitchen.
Even when disappointments happened, they were minor. Somewhere near Dublin Castle, they found a little pub that didn’t sell food (no local believes this). When they remonstrated with the server, he asked them crisply what they thought a pub was for. Gotcha, they acknowledged.
On the Ring of Kerry, at the point of maximum terror, they found a sign that bellowed TURN BACK NOW at them and — mystified — were about to obey when they realised it was aimed at trucks only. They went to Cabra Castle for an overnight in order to witness the ghost. It didn’t show. But bathroom doors opened and closed in a random way they were told was ghost-connected, so they were happy with that.
The only lasting complaint they had was that when you ask for mustard in an Irish restaurant, it’s like the ghost. It doesn’t show. You may get anything from chipotle to liquidised hamster. Never mustard.