A Child’s Journey To Ireland — Part Two
(Read Part One here.)
Christmas still means almost nothing to me — it’s not part of my native culture, and I grew up with the idea that it’s a financial strain rather than some sort of magical phenomenon — but I’ll never forget the taste of my first one; apricot jam, in one of those tiny plastic containers that you get in hotels and aeroplanes. If you ask me, that’s the true flavour of goodwill.
We finished our complimentary Christmas breakfast with the kind of genuine gratitude that is only possible when the gift was truly unexpected, the kind that makes you feel visible in a world that has stripped you of all hope and entitlement. I don’t remember if we ever managed to express our thanks to the staff in a reasonably coherent way, but I like to imagine that we tried.
Crossing the Border
The final stage of the journey saw us crossing the Northern Irish border in the back of a car belonging to a couple that now, on reflection, I can only describe as being wonderfully mad. They drove us from Belfast to Kerry, hopefully not going too far out of their usual way, and delivered us to the doorstep of the renovated garage that housed my father and brother. Ecstasy, tears and joy. In an era before Google Maps and real-time location services, there weren’t very many ways to confirm that you have arrived exactly where you intended to be.
Photographic evidence shows that I had, at some point along the way, acquired a Sylvester James Pussycat balloon that I held proudly aloft for all to admire. Everything was back to normal, as far as I was concerned, as if my entire universe was contained solely within the walls of that garage. But the great adventure was over, and now began the slow acclimatisation to a new and lonely life.
There are things you take for granted when you’re not forced to consider them too deeply; friends, language, and even your name. Our names, among other things, didn’t work in this country — they could barely be pronounced, never mind written down — and so I became “Eva”, with a Russian “e”, and a Russian “a”, but an entirely nonsensical “v”. I didn’t take kindly to that, it looked and sounded silly to me, and I felt great shame in having to say it out loud.
My father and brother had spent the past few months taking intensive English lessons, none of which appeared to have had much of an effect, and my mother was struggling through each day with vague memories of high school grammar classes. Language became the priority as we moved from from Kerry to Dublin, manifesting itself in thick volumes of exercise books and ridiculously oversized dictionaries.
My brother and I were sent to school, where we flopped around helplessly for the first few months, but eventually pieces of conversation started to make some form of sense. I remember poring over a huge children’s language book sent to me by my uncle, reading and re-reading every single page until I could figure out what was going on. I collected words, stories and poems on an almost industrial scale, just to feel some form of control over this terrifying new reality.
Immigrant friends were quickly made, not necessarily out of personal preference, but rather out of relief and convenience. It felt good to have someone who understood what your heart really wanted to say, and not just what your brain was able to articulate. My parents may not have always agreed with their actions or views, but beggars can’t be choosers, and so any discussion of questionable economic activity was diplomatically avoided.
Along with social connections came jobs, much sought-after jobs, that my father and mother threw themselves into with impressive dedication. It can’t have been pleasant to wash dishes well into the night at 35 years of age, but welfare was never an option.
Slowly but surely, Dublin started to price us out. Rents were rising, and even the local council-funded school became a daily reminder of new and unfamiliar costs. Uniforms had to be bought and worn, as well as meticulously predefined shoes — black, with no embellishment and a flat sole — which became something of a controversial issue once winter came around. I only had one pair of winter boots (brown), and buying a second pair in a different colour was not up for negotiation. My cheeks burned with shame whenever the teacher pointed them out.
When the city became unaffordable, we moved to a suburban cottage in a nearby county that became the closest thing to home that we had felt in a long time. Throughout this to and fro, we enjoyed the help of two Franciscan priests, who felt so spiritually impassioned to help people like us that they must have been sent by the universe itself. English classes, clothes, books, school references — they offered it all, for close to no reward. They remain very good and much-valued friends to this day.
My brother and I were getting older, more fluent and more actively critical of the events of the previous few years. He desperately missed home, his friends, and his carefree way of life in the countryside. Ireland was incomprehensible to him, with its linguistic insincerity and lack of outdoor stimulation, and he soon began to act out in every way possible, trying to stifle the anguish that no one around him had any time for. He was eventually sent to a boarding school as a last-ditch attempt to save his academic prospects, a move which ultimately failed to accomplish its goal.
Things at home were starting to fall apart, brought about almost entirely by the stresses of everyday survival, and I began to avoid being inside the house as much as possible. My luck with the kids outside wasn’t much better, as the words I had learned to identify myself quickly turned into insults and slurs to be screamed loudly in my face and whispered softly behind closed doors.
“Refugee”, “asylum-seeker”, “foreigner”, “eastern European” — none of these, as it turned out, were good things to be. They were a secret to be kept hidden away, as became my parents, whose accent would quickly unmask me as an impostor.
One mother in the area didn’t put much effort into concealing her disgust, and constantly made an almost theatrical attempt to keep me from accidentally touching her or her property.
“You should ask your parents when you’re going home,” she would hiss at me during one of her routine checkpoint stops on our road, “because you know you don’t belong here.”
Buoyed by this example from authority, my friends joined in, inventing cruel and unique ways to display their animosity. Ambushes were planned, games were invented, lovingly-donated clothes were torn from my skin. Life turned into an inescapable cycle of misery that haunted every waking second, reminding me that my very essence was something to be despised.
I couldn’t remember home anymore, but it was somewhere I desperately wanted to be, and something I strongly resented my parents for taking me away from. While I didn’t want to be different, I also realised I didn’t want to be the same, because fitting in meant becoming one of them — a person who treated others like a disease to uphold his own fragile sense of belonging — and that was a side I could never allow myself to defect to.