St. Patrick's Day. A Short Story.
A version of this column appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on March 16, 2002. I won an award for it. Honest.
Ah, March 16.
One day till St. Patrick's Day. The only time of year I can begin a sentence with "When I lived in Ireland" without causing listeners to glance at their watches, stifle a yawn or back away.
For years, I've been offering assorted explanations for why I spent three years in Dublin during the early 1980s: To cover a war without going to the Middle East. To avoid appearing in public in a bathing suit. To cure a case of unsightly hand warts. To date guys with Irish accents.
The list changes but almost always contains a kernel of truth.
The real reason I moved to Ireland was because I wanted to live in a foreign country and I had no facility for languages. That left me with an unappealing choice between Canada (too close) Australia (too far) or Britain (too British).
Or Ireland. Land of my jug-eared ancestors.
It's not that I can't speak a foreign tongue. Au contrairio. I speak a lot of languages. None of them well. I always excelled during the conversational, introductory portion of a language class, but the minute verbs needed conjugating, I was out the door.
In the course of my undistinguished academic career I dabbled in Latin, French, German, Spanish, Gaelic and - I'm not proud of this, but it was my last semester of college and I was short three language credits - Esperanto.
Yes, it can finally be told. I am entitled to wear the little green star lapel pin identifying me as a speaker of the International Language of Peace. Developed during the 19th century by a Polish eye doctor, Esperanto was intended to be an artificial, easy-to-learn language that would allow, say, a Chinese peasant to converse happily with a Hutu warrior - assuming their paths crossed and they'd remembered to wear their lapel pins.
I know what you're thinking. What kind of college gave academic credit for such piffle? Mine. A small liberal arts college (accent on liberal) back in the 1970s, when much of academia was blanketed by a fog of drugs, free love and 'alternative' education.
So there we were, a dozen language desperados, meeting three times a week in a stuffy conference room. Bound together by a determination to graduate from college without ever memorizing a verb chart, we spanned the academic spectrum.
There was a dyslexic accounting major, who worried obsessively that her tendency to transpose numbers would sink her on the CPA exam. An elementary education major with an unblemished 4.0 average due to a preponderance of classes like "Phonics Through Puppetry" who figured Esperanto would clinch her summa cum laude honors. And the athlete who had recently discovered a love of ballet and fretted about telling his parents he wanted to spend the rest of his life in a leotard.
We were misfits. Wasting precious hours learning a profoundly pointless language that is best described as a hybrid of Yiddish, Icelandic and Romany.
Twenty five years later I remember just one word of Esperanto: "Birdoj." Birds.
Our snowy-haired, pacifist professor tried unsuccessfully to ignite in us a love of Esperanto. He offered utopian visions of happy Esperantan bus tours through Europe. Once there, he said, we would bound from the bus and instantly begin friendly conversations in our common language with folks wearing berets and lederhosen, and of course, the ubiquitous lapel pins.
"Oh look, birdoj!"
If our little professor suspected that no one in the cramped room gave a rat's patootie about a language of peace, he never let on. And, as it turned out, some of us had a knack for this nutty patter that allowed no exceptions to its grammatical rules. I can still see the proud smile on my professor's pink face as he affixed a lapel pin to my Springsteen T-shirt.
I thought no more about Esperanto until one afternoon years later, in a bustling Bewley's Cafe on Dublin's Westmoreland Street.
Scanning the room for a place to sit, I spotted an older man with florid cheeks wearing a threadbare sweater the color of a baked potato.
He was sitting alone at a table for two.
"This seat taken?'" I asked, balancing my tray above his head.
He shook his head no.
After I sat down, I noticed an eerily familiar green pin on the man's cardigan.
"Birdoj," I said, with a grin.
"Birdoj," I repeated.
"Sorry," he replied helplessly.
"I couldn't help but notice your pin," I said, pointing toward his tattered sweater. "I, too, speak Esperanto."
He looked down at his ratty sweater and began howling.
"Jaysus, Mary and Joseph," he hooted. "I got this off of the St. Vincent de Paul (Ireland's biggest charity) and the pin came on it."
"Well then," I continued stupidly, "I bet you get lots of requests to speak Esperanto."
"Are you mad, girl?" he asked, laughing louder. "I've been wearing this for years and you're the first."
"Bird-oy," he sang, as I scurried for the door. "Leave it to the Yanks."