The Americans said I had courage.
They would say it while I stood there reciting the daily lunch specials, dressed in my emerald green shirt, my black trousers and waitress's apron. Usually, they said it just as I got to the part about choosing lunch sides (fries or salad or soup).
"Are you from Ireland?"
"Yes, I am."
"How long have you been over here?"
"Three months." Later, "six months." Then, "nine months." Then, "two years."
"Family or alone? Job or college? Temporary or forever?"
Mostly, the wife asked these first questions. The husband added his own set of queries: "North or South? Catholic or Protestant? Are your french fries hand cut or frozen?"
Raising my voice over the Irish music and ballads on the pub stereo, I dished up my story. I watched the eyebrows arch, the eyes widen, the mouth pucker.
"Oh, my God!" the woman would say. "That must have taken such courage."
At age twenty-four, in the eyes these chino-clad couples en route to summer-time horse races or the family cottage in the Adirondacks, I was that woman who strides through the airport in dusty hiking boots and with nothing between her and the big bad world but a Kindle full of Lonely Planet guides.
No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than her. For us immigrant women, "courage" means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, "No. Not for me. Thanks."
Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that American woman's undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. Did she mourn that job or that lover that her small-town mother had talked her out of? Had she spent a grown-up life, a marriage, wondering about that man whose cologne and touch she can still conjure? A man far sexier but riskier than the paunchy husband inquiring about his lunchtime french fries? [End Page 9]
For others, I knew that I embodied this woman's worst fear: that one day, her own twenty- or thirty-something daughter, the apple of their parental eyes, would buy an airline ticket to move three thousand miles away.
In the end it was easy to defuse use the whole courage thing, to divert this nice couple back to their lunch order and choosing their accompany sides. It was extra easy if I laid on the Irish accent: "Oh, now, I don't know would you call it courage or just a streak of daftness."
My Lonely Planet courage odyssey began on a Friday morning, November 28, 1986, when I boarded a double-decker bus for Ballsbridge, a suburb just south of Dublin's city center. As I sat upstairs with my top-down view of Merrion Square, I opened my leather satchel for that last, petrified check through all my get-to-America stuff: the Irish passport, my savings deposit book, my appointment letter-summoning me to the American Embassy where I hoped to be granted a US visa. I also had a letter from my expatriate friend Mary.
A year ago, Mary had quit her Dublin job to move to the San Francisco Bay Area and now, in her airmail letter, she said that if I really did emigrate, I could crash on her couch until I found my feet.
On that double-decker bus, I was nobody's image of feminine courage. I was too terrified to behold anything larger or scarier than that short bus ride and my upcoming interview and the cold, drizzly morning out the bus window. Neither did I know that, when they did the final, retrospective count, I would be among the 200,000 other Irish of the 1980s who fled our own country. Nor did I consider that I was fixing to become a small addendum to Ireland's three-centuries' long emigration saga.
But if these big-picture or long-range views were scary, the immediate alternative was a hundred times scarier...