Canadian Barista in Ireland
I moved to Ireland at age 24 to start over on my own and connect with my ‘Old Country’ culture. Instead, the international friends I found there turned me into a citizen of the world.
The ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom is over. I was lucky to be hired by Starbucks at an upscale mall on the outskirts of Dublin. Although I worked for Starbucks in Canada, there were things about Irish customer service I had to learn. Our customers could not seem to grasp cup sizes, and I don’t mean ‘tall’, ‘grande’ or ‘venti’: they didn’t understand the concept of sizes at all. My boss Jason explained that specialty coffee shops were new in Ireland. Not long ago, your only choice was coffee or tea.
My co-workers were expatriates or gregarious Irish girls with non-phonetic Celtic names. In contrast to them, our Eastern European girls were stand-offish. Lenka, from Slovakia, was as admired for her efficiency as she was feared for her icy stare. “Who said this to you?” she demanded when you complained about a rude customer, “WHO?!”
Varun was a dedicated shift-supervisor from India. He could be obsessive, as when he made me count the mugs to make sure we hadn’t “lost” any, but he left the day’s stresses at the store. He had a goofy sense of humour and if you laughed at his lame jokes he would slyly wink. We developed a brotherly rapport, but we didn’t discuss our personal lives until one night at a pub we ran out of Starbucks shop talk. He said he had a girlfriend in India and asked if I had one back home. I thought everyone at the store knew I was gay. (Anna from Poland had asked me once, “How do you know when a man is the gay? Because I have NEVER known the gay before!”) Caught off-guard by Varun, I answered, “No. I’m gay.” Barely pausing, he continued, “Well, do you have a boyfriend in Canada?”
If Varun was big brother of our expatriate family, Daria was the rebellious sister. Petite and pretty, with cutting-age style, she hailed from Mongolia. It surprised her that I’d heard of Ghengis Khan. “The Irish don’t know about him…” she muttered. She treated Jason like an overbearing father, but he always forgave her for rolling her eyes or opening the store hung-over. She was brutally honest and said whatever she felt. “I didn’t like you at first,” she told me. “But now I do!”
Most of my co-workers couldn’t relate to my occasional homesickness, but Daria gave me a big hug. “I’m away from home, you’re away from home,” she explained, “Sometimes we all just need a hug.”
Sometimes a person fills a void you barely knew was there. I felt I was a good gay role model for my international friends, but I had no one to check out handsome customers with. Enter Eduardo. Tall and with a boyish face hiding his naughty streak, he came from Brazil by way of London, where he spent two formative years of his youth nightclubbing and befriending hip, neo-punk lesbians. I figured out he was gay by singing Britney Spears lyrics and noting whether he joined in. Newer to the city than I was, he desperately needed to meet people and we became fast friends. After a day of wandering the city alone, I could always phone Eduardo and get him to join me.
I even convinced him to go on a weekend trip to Glendalough, a medieval monastery nestled amongst hills and forests, where we trudged around the marshy lakes discussing skinny jeans and Lady Gaga. We walked in the rain for forty minutes to find the town’s lone pub, but when we did it was perfect: a fire place, mulled wine and local men gathered around rugby on the TV. Here, of all places, Eduardo opened up for the first time about coming out, his uncle who made him give up his nose-ring and punk clothes, and his hipster London friends. “I keep referring to them as my best friends,” he confided, “but you’re my best friend now.”
When I decided to move back home, my Irish co-workers insisted on a going-away party. Everyone came, including my boss and the raucous gaggle of Irish girls. Daria danced all night. Lenka cuddled up to me and kept saying, “I don’t want you to go, because I really like you.” Varun stayed until last call, even though he had to open the store the next morning.
Eduardo, the most upset at my leaving, asked if I was ignoring him. “No,” I said. “If it seems I’m paying you less attention, it’s because you’ll be the hardest one to say goodbye to.” After the bar closed, we stumbled into McDonald’s, the traditional Irish thing after a night of partying. As I walked up Grafton Street with Jason he said it was sad that it took one of us leaving for us all to go out together.
Although I didn’t feel I left an impression on Dublin, I marvel at the legacy I left with my expat family, who are now spreading back out around the globe. Soon after, Varun returned to India to get married, and I missed my chance to experience an Indian wedding. When I visited the store during my last weekend in Dublin, I learned Anna was pregnant and planning a Polish wedding. I joined Eduardo for his break. As he puffed at a cigarette, we said awkward, unmemorable things. His timer dinged when his break was over.
“Okay, I’m going to go,” I said, not knowing if tears were going to come or if I just thought they should. “I’m going to miss you a lot,” Eduardo said, hugging me.
“Behave yourself!” I said, getting up to leave. “Don’t forget about me!” I added as I walked away, not looking back.
My expat family will go their separate ways; their influence on me will last.