April 2010 was an interesting month. I was at a writer’s retreat in Ireland, a country I knew a lot about from a touristy and literary point of view, but not much from a historical standpoint. I was aware that Ireland shared the same colonial father with India—England—but nothing beyond that.
I flew into the Irish capital of Dublin over the Easter weekend. The crowd on Aer Lingus from JFK to Dublin, was reminiscent of summer holidays from when I was a child in India; families traveling together in big numbers, talking loudly, and teasing each other. People dressed casually, yet appropriately. Even the airline crew seemed relatively less uptight compared to other western airlines.
An American kid, sitting diagonally across from me, asked his Irish American mother, “Mommy, how will we get to Grammy’s house from the airport?” His mother replied, “Honey, Grammy will be there at the airport, of course.”
In American culture it is acceptable for people to ask their houseguests to catch a taxi or rent a car and reach their destination. And sometimes, especially given the size of New York City apartments, parents visiting from out of town stay in hotels and meet their children for meals in the evening. There is no concept of rolling out ten bedsheets on the living room floor and accommodating your entire village. Or a bathroom ratio of one toilet to six humans.
I remember the first time my parents were scheduled to visit us. An American friend asked, “Will you be going to the airport?” Still new to the country, I was baffled. How was that an option? And would you even want that as a choice? Someone travels thousands of miles to come meet us, and we ask them to take a cab home? That’s preposterous. Life can’t always be about “I, me, and myself.”
Another time, a coworker was shocked to find out that my in-laws were not only visiting but also spending three weeks with us. She said, “You allowed it?” I initially laughed at her word choice. Then, a few weeks later, with genuine concern, she asked again, “How are things at home?” I couldn’t relate to the banter on so many levels. It wasn’t about right or wrong; just different cultures and perspectives.
The kid on the airplane probably asked a legitimate question based on what he’d seen growing up. But his parents turned more Irish and less American even before the wheels of the plane touched their ancestral land, something I realized after spending fifteen days in Ireland.
Like the old Indian familial structure, it is very common for the Irish to have five or six children. Big families, big chaos, big cooking utensils. In fact, when I asked a mother of seven whether her twenty two-year old lived at home, she had that “Are you out of your mind” look on her face. She promptly responded, “Of course!” Something an Indian mother would have said.
Like the Indians, the Irish take hospitality very seriously. They go out of their way to help. I asked a woman where the James Joyce Center was located in Dublin. She said something in a thick accent, which I couldn’t comprehend. She decided to ignore her errands and walked with me until we reached my destination. But the flood of kindness didn’t end there. Even in public transportation, the minute someone heard me say to the driver, “Could you please let me know when my stop arrives,” they would make sure I didn’t get lost.
The warmth and friendliness of the Irish culture was like the traditional Indian welcome where a guest is considered God. And affection is expressed through copious amounts of food cooked in butter. I had the opportunity to meet fine Irish women in their sixties and seventies. These ladies cooked the way my maternal grandmother did—with 80% love and 20% of some fatty form of dairy. And not to forget, potato is a staple in both the countries and mysteriously shows up in many different forms at meals.
Living in New York for a decade has taught me the fine art of eating vanilla ice cream with every western dessert. But the Irish, like desis, enjoy drowning their desserts in fresh crème. So it’s fruit cake with crème for dessert. When the housekeeper realized that I preferred vanilla ice cream, lo and behold, she bought a carton for me. No fuss or pretenses. And I swear, if someone had blindfolded me at that moment, I wouldn’t have believed that it wasn’t the Amul brand sold in India. The texture and taste were exactly the same.
At the writer’s retreat, I met several talented artists, including Hollywood starlet and Emmy award winner Barbara Babcock. I got to know Cauvery Madhavan, an Indian Irish novelist (Author of The Uncoupling and Paddy Indian), rather well especially after the volcanic ash stranded me in Ireland and Cauvery offered me a place to stay. She said, “No other country can be as close to India as Ireland.”
I was intrigued by Cauvery’s words. She told me that the Irish language has Indo-European roots and sounds a lot like German. Huh. And it is believed that there are a lot of similarities between German and Sanskrit, from which Hindi is derived. But it wasn’t just the language; the more I interacted with the local people, the more commonality I saw between the two cultures.
The older Irish, like the Indians who fought for the country’ independence, resent the British. Both Ireland and India were colonized by the British government at one point. It’s unfortunate, yet amazing, how both the Indians and Irish complain about the atrocities committed in the past, but citizens from both these countries continue to move to England in search of better opportunities.
The Irish love to talk about others around them in a somewhat gossipy way. Who attended whose wedding, brought what gift, and ate dinner with whom. Sound familiar? The first time I became privy to that sly tone, my mind wandered to all post-wedding rendezvous at my parents’ place in India. One of my aunts whips up delicious coffee along with a side of saucy banter as she dissects the imperfections of every wedding. There is no malicious intent; it’s part of the ritual of bonding and strengthening family ties. Gossip is in the Irish blood, I am told, and so is religion.
People in Ireland are kind with their words. Adjectives like “grand” and “gorgeous” were dished out like “beta” and “gudiya.” By the end of two weeks, I lived inside a bubble of compliments till a stranger’s cussing at JFK airport shook me up.
As the days went by, I conceded that I felt very at home and at ease in Ireland. And for someone like me, who resists change, it was refreshing. What was so unique about this country that I called it my “Anam Cara” (Irish for soul friend)? Is it because our similarities transcended our differences? Our roots have undertaken similar traumatic journeys? Or maybe it was the inherent values of hospitality, family, and food that felt familiar. Whatever the reason, I can’t wait to go back.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an author, poet, blogger, and marketing professional living in New York.