Classic rock blares from the speakers as a chubby girl with heavy make-up and a cleavage a continent could disappear down pours me a pint. I didn’t particularly want to go out tonight, but for better or worse, the pub scene is a big part of your social life as an Erasmus student in Ireland. So this is why I let myself be dragged into one of the nosiest pubs in Cork by my new German, Finnish, Spanish, and of course, Dutch friends. Now I’m sitting on a high barstool, contemplating asking the two nervous guys in the corner if they’re going to talk to us already. But there’s no need, they’re heading our way. A philosophy major and a poet, what do you know. Arts boys. The poet asks me if I want to come out for a smoke. I don’t really smoke, but something in his deep, soothing voice lures me out. His hair is messy and while he is explaining something complicated about poetry, he keeps dropping his cigarette. When he looks up at me, his big gray green eyes seem searching.
‘Sorry?’ I ask apologetically.
‘How do you say, ‘‘May I kiss you?’’, in Dutch?’
Four weeks later, sitting in a messy living room, eating last night’s leftover pizza. It’s the weekend of the Jazz Festival in Cork, and my legs are still sore from dancing last night. Cathal is running around his place, throwing camping gear into his backpack, and packing all the food left in the house. We are going to hitch up to one of the most deserted corners of Ireland, Caherdaniel. Cathal has a gig at a little indie festival out there and he’s invited me to come along. We’ve been dating for four weeks now, and it is hard to believe the pace at which our relationship has developed. It might be because I’m away from home and have all the spare time I could wish for, but at any rate we are spending a ridiculous amount of time together. Our next challenge is hitchhiking across the country in 5 hours so we are on time for the gig, and then camping out in the rain somewhere along the coastline. If we survive that, we might just be able to take on the world together.
I’m walking down Western Road in Cork, taking the by now familiar path down from the University College Cork campus to the city centre. Halfway there lies a cute little café with purple windows and hardly any space to move your butt in the galley-like seating area. This is the only place in Cork where you can get a decent cup of coffee, and it will be the meeting point between myself, my parents and Cathal. My mum and dad are visiting for a week and they’re dead curious to meet the Irish boyfriend. I could already see the smirk on my dad’s face when they walked through the arrivals’ hall in Cork Airport. Back home in Holland, before I went on this exchange, my dad kept saying that I would come back from Ireland with an Irishman. Why? Because, as he said,
“The Irish are exactly your people and you will certainly fall in love with one.”
I hate it when he is right. I enter the café and see my very Dutch, very conservative, protestant parents sitting there, squeezed onto tiny stools.
‘Where is Cathal?’ I ask.
‘He went to the bathroom. Probably to calm his nerves’, my dad jokes. When Cathal comes back I immediately see that he was right; the poor boy is tensed to the bone. He’s not used to the formality the ritual of parental introduction demands. Soon, however, he is talking to my dad about politics and water charges and in no time they are deep into a conversation I can hardly follow. I wink at my mum, and she smiles back.
The view from the bus window is pitch black. Although I can’t see it right now, I know that we are passing through a breathtaking landscape of rivers and bogs, hills and mountains. If you walk through Killarney National Park, it is easy to understand the love for the mythic and the mysterious that the Irish have. Right now we are just speeding through on the bus home from Tralee to Cork. I have spent a weekend in Dingle, West Kerry, with Cathal’s family. Their house is built on a cliff, the large kitchen windows facing the open ocean. I’ve met his stern-faced dad, who surprisingly has a pierced ear, a remainder perhaps of wilder times. He is as full of bad jokes as Cathal is. I’ve also met his very loving mum, who keeps the house together and works with his father in the family business. I’ve met their talented and creative kids too. They made me play hurling with them in the backyard all weekend. Hurling is like baseball, hockey and American football all rolled into one, but we’re playing a much gentler backyard version. Cathal’s dad used to play for Dublin, until, as he says,
‘They found out I was shite at it and let me go’.
At night we went out in the town, drinking pints of Guinness in a pub that happens to be a hardware store at the same time. Girls here dress up to the nines and old men mutter at them in incomprehensible accents over their pints of dark, creamy stout.
It is nice to see where he is coming from, especially now my time in Cork is drawing to an end. I have been trying to bring that subject up several times, but Cathal never seems to want to talk about it. It’s the inevitable end which makes the time left all the more sweet. Even if we did talk about it, what is there to say? They say love is stronger than distance, but is it really? It might sound good in books but in reality, a long distance relationship isn’t exactly a picnic. It takes work. A lot of it. And I’m not sure if we are there yet. My thoughts are interrupted when Cathal takes my hand. I continue staring out of the dark window at a countryside I cannot see.
I’m back for Christmas dinner with my family in Holland. After that, we take a weeklong skiing trip in Austria. This is all supposed to be a homecoming and the happiest time of the year, but I feel off. It does not feel right to me that Cathal isn’t here. But when I think of having him here at the dinner table, where all of my family are cracking wise at each other in Dutch, I’m not sure if that would make me feel any better. It is an impossible dilemma, a choice between bad or worse. Breaking up seems impossible at this point, but carrying on like this? I would always feel a bit like a tourist in Ireland, and Cathal would be even more of an outsider in Holland. We both have our own little lives, our goals and plans and routines. Although it was fun to share some experiences together, it seems to me that merging these two worlds would be as hard as mixing the sky with the sea.
It’s New Year’s Eve. Normally I’d be in Utrecht, partying in the New Year with my -friends. This year my family and me have a quiet celebration, with the highlight of the night being my oldest brother stripping off to his underwear and jumping into two meters of snow. At 1 am, when I am almost off to sleep, my phone buzzes. It’s an unknown number calling from Ireland, and when I answer it, it’s Cathal, borrowing a friend’s phone as he has been out of credit for the last two weeks. Obviously, there is some mad party going on wherever he is.
‘REINA, HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ Before I can reply, a friend of Cathal’s steals his phone and shouts,
‘SEE YOU NEXT YEAR IN DINGLE!’ Then the connection is broken. I walk downstairs into the deserted living room. While I make a cup of tea, dark and with milk in the Irish way, I cry a little and I laugh to myself at the same time. What am I to do with this pannekoek of a person?
A year of long distance goes by in a blur of cheap flights and Skype credit. At first I was scared he wouldn’t fit into my life in Holland, but bit by bit it began to feel for both of us like the most natural thing in the world. My mum knits him scarves, he survives all the Dutch birthday parties, he dances through all the Dutch student society’s rituals. He will probably never master biking during Utrecht’s busy rush-hour, or the complicated grammar of my language. But that I can forgive him. We make plans together. Those plans become bigger and bigger with every month that passes by.
We’re in Dingle on New Year’s Eve a year later, and I’m moving to Ireland to take my Master’s in just one short month. Cathal and I are standing on the bridge, watching the countdown in the middle of a tightly packed mass of people. The last 10 seconds of 2015 are ticking away, and the crowd is wild with excitement. In the middle of the stampede, we stand locked into each other’s eyes.
‘Happy New Year Reina’, he says.
‘Happy New Year. This year’s for me and you’.