It’s official: I’m one year an expat. More specifically, to be closer to some family, I moved from Los Angeles to Ireland. But not, like, Dublin: an hour and fifteen minutes outside it. That might not seem too far from the city, but it’s like a completely different planet.
My neighbors are mostly sheep and cows and magpies. The bucolic part I don’t mind one bit, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
And while I did some time abroad in college, living in London and knowing I was going back just isn’t the same thing as the Irish countryside for the foreseeable future. It’s totally changed my life and my perspective. Here’s what I’ve learned.
For someone who’s a borderline anarchist, quite comfortable with the “live free or die” ethos of America, the rules here drive me absolutely bonkers. It’s not even the regulations that bother me quite as much as the fact that people seem to like them.
America Is Not the World
If you think that moving to a country that shares a language is easy, you’d be wrong. The Irish are as different from Americans as apples and motor oil. Living abroad, I’ve learned that every culture has some sort of unifying value that the rest of the world just doesn’t understand. After a year in Ireland, I’m still not sure what theirs is, but I know America’s: freedom.
Even the most socialist, big-government, Bernie Sanders-voting American still basically believes on some level that they should be left alone (at least, I hope they do). Not over here. An example: Google how to beat a speed camera in America. There’s tons of articles, ebooks and forum threads about how you can get out of paying a speeding ticket that you probably deserve. Now look around on how to do that in Ireland. You know what you’re going to find? Lots of people telling you to suck it up and pay the damn fine.
You can’t drive a car without a rigorous inspection, good luck getting a gun and all political discussion takes place in the context of people’s responsibilities. The notion of “rights” exist, but it’s the positive concept—you have a right to this and a right to that. Guess who’s paying for it? If you’re a taxpayer, you are.
For someone who’s a borderline anarchist, quite comfortable with the “live free or die” ethos of America, this drives me absolutely bonkers. It’s not even the regulations that bother me quite as much as the fact that people over here seem to like them. They trust the government. They believe what they read in the newspapers. They think rules exist to protect them and keep them safe, not to shake them down for cash.
Clearly I’m not in America anymore.
Irish-Americans Are Not Irish
I’m quite possibly the only man from New England with no (zilch, zero, none) Irish blood. My people are from a part of Germany that’s not in Germany anymore and the Dutch countryside. Half my family got here before there was an America, half my family got here just before the immigration boom. But, growing up in New England, most of my friends were of Irish descent. One of my high school best friends has a name so stereotypically Irish—I’d rather not share it, but it might as well be Paddy O’Sullivan—that every time I tell people about him, they laugh.
But the Irish-Americans aren’t Irish. The Irish, for the most part, hate the idea of Americans who consider themselves Irish. I’ve tried explaining to them that as America is a patchwork, there’s not really any such thing as an “American” (not yet, anyway—sure there are Indians, but when was the last time you called them “Americans” without a modifier?) and that there are significant differences even between the various and sundry flavors of white Americans. Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, each has group has their own history, folkways and even to a certain extent, some language. Example: How many of your Italian-American friends can swear a blue streak in the mother tongue, despite the fact that Nana’s nana was the one who came over from Naples?
Having lived here a year, I’ve stopped trying to explain the melting pot to the Irish. There’s one thing I can tell you, though: The Irish and the Irish-Americans might share a few features (self-deprecating humor, pride in hard work and a violent allergy to even the most mild compliment), but they’re not the same beast. It’s a pretty simplistic way of putting it, but if anyone has a better way I’m all ears: Your ancestors, Michael O’Malley and Thomas Kelly, are the ones who left.
Ireland has its perks, but mostly I just miss America. I like wide roads, gas-guzzling cars, bikini girls with machine guns, professional wrestling, fireworks on the Fourth of July, rock and roll and 1,500-calorie cheeseburger meal deals. A cafe is not a diner and a pub is not a bar. The differences are subtle, but they’re massive.
Europe’s Notion of “Service” Leaves a Lot to Be Desired
The food here is hit or miss, but good luck ordering a cocktail. I once tried to order a Gibson, spending a couple minutes to explain what the hell that was and verify that they had the ingredients. I got a martini with a slice of red onion in it. I made a really sad face and just ordered a damn martini.
Some places on the continent have good service. In Italy you’re going to get properly waited on. In Ireland and the UK? Nope. I’m fully aware that this is absolutely, positively, the most Ugly American complaint I can possibly have, but I really miss living in a country where we pay waitstaff poverty wages. When waiters work for tips, they provide better service. Over here, they take your order, drop your food and then you’re on your own. Protip, restaurateurs of Ireland: If you send your waitstaff over after they deliver my food, I might order more stuff and spend more money.
Poor service is by no means universal over here. I know of a few spots that are at least on par with American places. And oddly, coffee shops offer a superior level of service even to most American restaurants. But generally speaking… hoo boy.
Europe Takes Its Age for Granted
Some ancient castle falling apart that’s the most beautiful ruins you’ve ever seen? Meh. No one cares.
Living here in the country, I’m convinced that no Irish farm is complete without a stone house that’s falling apart. To me, it’s beautiful. There are literal ruins around me everywhere. At least once a week I drive by one of the oldest monasteries in Western Christendom that now sits next to an Anglican Church. During the summer, on a weekend you might see a car or a caravan pulled up next to it, taking pictures. For the most part, however, it just blends in with the scenery.
Ditto for the old churches here, which actually aren’t all that old by European standards. The oldest Irish Catholic churches date to around late 18th and early 19th Century, the time of Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom. Still, that’s pretty old and they’re absolutely beautiful—a lot nicer than that glorified parking garage they’re using for a cathedral in Los Angeles.
The Irish level of appreciation for this architecture is pretty low. People walk by it, but no one really pays attention. I hit up an old church down the street from me every few days; it’s basically like having an entire building to myself. Europe takes its antiquity for granted in the same way you take American hypermodernity for granted.
American Accents Are Terrible
Boy, howdy am I glad that I don’t have a Middle American accent. I took an accent test once—it placed me in a triangle whose corners are Albany, Baltimore and Worcester, which is fairly accurate. I don’t “pahk the cah in Hahvuhd Yahd” (neither does anyone else who doesn’t want to get towed), but I’m clearly not from Ohio or California or Texas. I might be from Utica, I might be from Concord, I might be (and actually am) from Providence. I’m a nasally, fast-talking, frequently-cursing Northeastern American. “R”s are optional, soft when occurring and slowly disappear the more alcohol I consume.
When I hear a gaggle of American tourists “like, ohmigawding” as I walk through Dublin the sound now stands out like nails on a chalkboard. It is the absolute worst accent I have ever encountered in my life. I recommend elocution lessons for anyone who talks like they stepped out of the cast of Gossip Girl. This is especially true of men. That uptalking shit is embarrassing.
But hey, you want to know what the most important thing I’ve learned by living abroad for a year?
I Really, Really Love America
Look, I won’t lie: Living in Ireland has its perks, but mostly I just miss America. I like wide roads, gas-guzzling cars, bikini girls with machine guns, professional wrestling, fireworks on the Fourth of July, rock and roll and 1,500-calorie cheeseburger meal deals. A cafe is not a diner and a pub is not a bar. The differences are subtle, but they’re massive. As learned sage Garth Algar once said, “It’s like we’re looking down on Wayne’s basement, only that’s not Wayne’s basement.” Hence they serve only to make me miss America more. It’s like being transported to a world of veggie burgers when you really want a sloppy quarter pounder.
I miss America, and I have no idea when I’ll be back for anything longer than a couple weeks. Every time I walk out my door among green mountains as far as the eye can see and fresh country air, it’s hard to complain. It’s real nice, but it just ain’t home.