Green… It was everywhere. On coats and caps, on grannies’ headscarves, on kids dressed top to toe in it. Irish flags were aflutter in a stiff east wind. There were dancers jigging along to pipe bands and accordions playing the length of O’Connell Street. A troupe of Yankee majorettes in skimpy skirts raised goose pimples (and eyebrows, no doubt) among even the hardiest of anorak wearers. Sleet fell on these baton-twirlers of the diaspora, the parade’s barest nod to multiculturalism. But new faces were already visible in the Ireland of ‘95 and soon they’d be swept up in this homage to St. Patrick.
Within a few years, 17 March would feel more like Mardi Gras. Papier-mâché giants would saunter into Dublin to a samba beat. Though back when the Celtic kitty was just a tiger-striped cub, things were still traditional. I can’t remember if there was a formal salute as the nation’s military hardware trundled past the GPO, reminiscent of Red Army surplus. Or if the reservists of the FCA primed their shovels, ready to save Ireland from Klingon attack. But then, I wasn’t paying too much notice. My unpatriotic aim was to circumnavigate the entire show. Instead of simply nipping over the bridge to Aston Quay, I had to go straight ahead until I’d bypassed the spectacle. Pushing through the throngs, I cursed the fifth-century bishop who’d forced this detour. Finally, I was able to cross at the junction of South Great George’s Street, jostle my way down College Green and make it to the Liffey… to the bus stop.
By this time, the crowd was beginning to disperse – drifting off to ‘drown the shamrock’ or heading home with herds of noisy children. The 78A to Ballyfermot was full of face-painted kids licking their tricolour lollipops and sticks of what the Americans call ‘candy cane’ – prosaically known as ‘rock’ on this side of the Atlantic. The stuff of dental ruin, but the boys and girls didn’t seem to care. Buzzing with sugar and the day’s excitement, they laughed and yelled and fought with smaller siblings. Tired mothers roared at them to sit down as the bus juddered to a halt. I swayed to the front, as giddy as the hyperactive lads who were swinging from the handrails. The doors inched open. I leapt out.
Reason tried to tell me to ‘cop on’. Officially I was going for a lesson… in one of Europe’s newly defined languages. (Spoiler alert/warning: women thinking of embarking on obscure linguistic pursuits, please choose a female teacher if you can!) My mentor was disarming but I was determined to learn Bosnian. And I’d been a diligent student, doing all my homework. Although, unbeknownst to me, it transpired that the assignment I’d been set was designed to test much more than my command of the present tense.
Unaware of this breach of pedagogical ethics, I almost ran to the entrance of the reception centre. Then, innocently (OK… maybe enthusiastically), I let my native-speaking tutor lead me to his room. We started the session with me reading aloud a composition I’d written on the title he’d prescribed: ‘My ordinary day’. It wasn’t world-class literature and my vocabulary was rudimentary, but I felt I’d made a fair stab at the task. Whatever its grammatical mistakes, it impressed the listener. From trivial details about getting up in the morning and going to college to the lines referring to my group of friends, my self-appointed expert in semiotics was riveted by every word. Apparently, his approval stemmed less from my actual effort than from one telling omission. The outstanding feature of my account was the absence of any mention of a ‘meaningful’ other. And that signified…
OK, let’s just call it a green light. There’s an awful lot of subtext između redova which guys from Sarajevo can easily detect. As I discovered… to my delight! The hypothesis which had freaked me, following our previous classes, was proving correct. It explained the mirth with which I’d skipped through the inner city at midnight, on the way back to my flat. Such risky behaviour couldn’t have been inspired by my out-dated textbook, ‘Colloquial Serbo-Croat’. Now, it seemed due to something other than insanity. My affliction was indeed a different sort of disorder. Though not one to which I thought I’d ever succumb. Men were a waste of time… weren’t they? Yet why had I kept that photo of us – taken a few days after our first encounter at a protest for Bosnia – tucked inside the cover of my student diary?
Of course, he didn’t know that until… The narrow room illuminated. Sunshine struck through squalls, invaded what had been a sanatorium. It masked the urban decay across Cherry Orchard and, for an instant, the name of the area sounded less incongruous. Rainbows stretched between the showers of hail. And, while there was no sign of leprechaun-hidden crocks of gold at the ends of them, our fates decreed we’d find much dearer treasure.
Nineteen years have passed and the spectrum of life since has been psychedelic. Our trajectory more roller coaster than arc-en-ciel, we’ve hurtled from exhilarating heights to darkest nadirs. Three ‘little people’ have joined the ride and grown, scarily fast, along the way. Though not yet fourteen, our eldest is already taller than me. Bless her Bosnian genes but, standing beside her, I’m craving stilettos. Just one of the twists on this journey from when Doc Martens were footwear du jour. Et de la nuit…
The evening we made our debut as couple, my style was steel-tipped boots and a woollen patchwork creation crocheted in a palette of shades… including emerald. A perfect garb for Ireland’s feast day. And where better to flaunt it than at a ‘cultural event’ organised to give uninitiated Bosnians an insight into Irish festive rituals – a night of line dancing in the Garda Boat Club. The turbo-country music would’ve driven the druids of yore to sheer despair! To salvage my reputation as a person of any taste, I’ll have to stress that neither I nor my escort partook in this ‘entertainment’. Both of us being left-footed and well… otherwise occupied. Luckily, the frogmen of the elite sub-aqua unit were off-duty so ‘crimes’ of passion went unpoliced. An unlikely setting for a first date but, corny shenanigans aside, Patrick triumphed as our patron of romance.
However, no saintly powers could help me with my bosanski. Once my instructor and I became ‘an item’, our lessons quickly slipped from his schedule… like they’d been nothing more than a ruse for seduction. The double entendre in jezik (language/tongue) was a joke translated with relish by his witty friends. Unfortunately, I’d soon realise that, despite his numerous skills, Don Juan has always lacked an essential quality for good teaching – namely, patience. As a result, my subsequent learning has been largely ad hoc. Still, there’s one phrase I know I acquired on 17 March 1995. Two simple words that have seen the pair of us through our many crises… They mean as much to me now as they did when I first heard them. Even if it sometimes hurts to admit their truth, even if we’re hopeless versions of those younger selves who told each other on a cold St. Patrick’s Day… ‘Volim te’.
Sretan Dan Svetog Patrika!