Here Be Dragons
On the desk where I work sits a writing box, home to stamps, pens and paper clips. It belonged to my mother. After she died, I came across it while emptying out her cupboards. The box was empty and unmarked, and I realized it was never used. But I also saw that she had valued it enough to preserve it carefully.
Handling it in her soon-to-be-sold house in Ireland was like entering a time machine. All at once I was seventeen again. Catapulted back to the summer I worked as an au pair in France, my first time in another European country. I had carried home that souvenir to her in my luggage. It represented an on-the-cusp stage of life for me. Before I went to France, other lands appeared far-flung but intriguing – as remote as during the medieval era when “here be dragons” was written on uncharted territories indicated on maps. Afterwards, I knew a little more about the world and how it was beckoning me to carve out a place for myself in it.
Perhaps that sense of terra incognita – the allure of the unknown – is what drew me to the box when I lingered over it in a giftshop, hesitant at its price tag. The image embossed on the lid shows a knight on horseback, lance pointed at another knight on the ground who’s been vanquished, demanding his surrender.
It’s quite a bloodthirsty picture to appeal to a teenaged girl who spent her working hours trying to keep three French children amused, her free time reading the Brontës in her room or practising her parlez-vous on the local shopkeepers and café staff. It puzzles me today that I chose the box with battling knights rather than one showing a knight wooing a lady, say, or another in which a damsel entices a unicorn to lay its head on her lap.
But as I study it, something swirls in my memory. Blurry, at first, but swelling in certainty. Yes, now I have it. That ornate wooden receptacle spoke to me on two levels: conspicuously, it suggested the writing sphere but subliminally something else was suggested. Did I buy it because it symbolised elsewhere to me? The unfamiliar, the exciting? I didn’t realize it at the time but I recognise it now: the box whispered of worlds distant from mine. And not just geographically.
Yet they were waiting to be discovered – just as this French château town, my home for the summer, invited exploration. I was in Azay-le-Rideau, which seemed like the manifestation of a filmmaker’s vision – an adaptation of a Dumas swashbuckler such as The Three Musketeers, perhaps, or the backdrop to O. Henry’s Roads of Destiny.
Azay-le-Rideau is defined by its sixteenth-century palace, a Disneyesque confection rising improbably from a mirrored lake. Some call it the most elegant château in the Loire Valley, but it’s not what I remember best from my time there.
For me, that trip was a hinge moment when I connected with people from another culture. It was a foreign place, distant in multiple ways from my home place – the small market town of Omagh, slap-bang in the middle of Ulster. But more conspicuous than any difference was the parallels between these two points on the map.
I knew we Irish were Europeans, both emotionally after centuries of intercourse, and in fact – we’d joined the European Economic Community five years earlier. But growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was an isolating experience. I felt locked into something. My summer in France, at the heel end of the 1970s, gave me a sense that the key could be turned.
That summer changed me. It didn’t give me certainty about the future path I’d take. I was just a teenager, after all. But I did feel as if I was striking out on the road to becoming myself. “may I be I is the only prayer – not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong,” as e e cummings puts it.
Remember the thrill of it all? Those unforgettable adolescent experiences which tilted your world on its axis? My time in France wasn’t memorable for a big-bang event but a series of glimmerings. The world was vast – but composed, mosaic-like, of small towns not so dissimilar (give or take a fairy-tale palace) from the town where I grew up.
The first thing I noticed in Azay-le-Rideau was that people always asked me if I was English. It was disconcerting. “Non, je suis Irlandaise.” If I said Irlande the reaction was “Guinness … green fields … delicious bread.” If I said Irlande du Nord it was “Where the Protestants and Catholics are fighting.” And an expressive French face would purse into a moue to convey sympathy. People’s reaction made me uneasily aware that I was from somewhere notorious.
This conflict I was born into, which shaped my world but didn’t define it, was reduced to stereotypes. “Catholics hate Protestants. And Protestants hate Catholics,” said Monsieur, the father of the kids I looked after. “You take guns and shoot each other.” He narrowed his eye along the sightline of an imaginary rifle. “Bang! Bang!”
He was right, people were shooting one another. He was right, some people did hate one another. He was wrong, we weren’t all shooting and hating. But we were lumped in together by the commonality of place. A teenager struggling to express herself in a language she’s still trying to master doesn’t answer such an observation. She simply blushes and feels inadequate.
What I didn’t know was that Breton nationalists had recently bombed the palace of Versailles, causing millions of francs worth of damage and injuring a security guard. Northern Ireland wasn’t the only part of Europe where separatist aspirations were in the news.
That summer was a red letter time for me. I saw my first hatchback. Had my first motorbike ride on the back of a local boy’s machine. Used my first bidet! Tasted my first and last snail. Realized that some people drank wine with their meals. Oddly, I was never homesick. It was all too glamorous, too colourful, too riveting.
They were welcoming to me, that French family. They rhapsodized over my hand-knitted Aran jumper, packed at my mother’s insistence, although it was mortifyingly old-fashioned. They made me feel my red hair and freckles weren’t the hideous cross I felt doomed to carry through life. They knocked on my bedroom door to get me up for Mass on Sundays, a practice they approved of, although not for themselves. They were Catholics … but not like any I’d ever met. The election of a new pope while I was there engrossed them. Madame was particularly intent on the outcome and expected me to be interested, too. (I was in my teens, I cared nothing for it.)
“He has a kind face.” She showed me a newspaper photograph of John Paul I. “I think he will be a good pope.”
That time in France introduced me to a world secure in its identity, rather than the one riven by identity conflict which I called home. But it was no Eden. I was puzzled by some of what I noticed there. By how all the domestic workers appeared to be Portuguese, and their kids didn’t interact with the French kids. My society wasn’t the only one with divisions.
I used to talk with our Portuguese cleaning lady, sometimes in sign language when we ran out of words, and she told me how hard all of her family had to work. She pointed to the novel in my hand. Was I a student? Not yet, but I hoped to be. None of her children could expect to go to college, she said. Once or twice, I tried to help with her work – the stairs were steep, the floors were stone and needed to be washed often. She always shook her head. “Forte,” she’d say, pounding her chest. And she was strong. Also industrious, formal and courteous in a way that suggested bygone eras.
One evening, there was a disco in the town and she arrived at it with her pretty daughter, who was the same age as me and worked in a factory. She waved at me and I waved back, thinking she was leaving. Not a bit of it. She sat with folded arms at the side of the dancefloor, intent on chaperone duty. Never one to shirk a job, she took it upon herself to act as duenna on my behalf as well, rejecting dance partners deemed unsuitable. As soon as the music ended she escorted me home – no loitering. If I was taken aback, her daughter was downright huffy.
My duties included teaching English to the two older children, aged five and three. Problem was, I spoke Hiberno-English. It wasn’t only the pronunciation that differed but also the idiom.
“Take my hand to cross the road,” I’d say.
“No,” the small boy would answer, dancing away.
“No,” his sister would pipe up. “If my brother won’t then neither will I.”
‘Maman will give out to me if you don’t,” I’d tell them.
They were indifferent. But at least they knew what being given out to meant – the only other people in Azay-le-Rideau who did.
I bribed them shamelessly with sweets they’d never tasted before, the humble Polo Mint. “Les bonbons avec le petit trou,” they called them. My life would have been easier if I’d brought more packets in my luggage.
Smithereens was one of my words they latched onto, from the Irish smidirín. Reaching out from her high chair, the baby broke a saucer at the lunch table. That stone floor took no prisoners.
“Ooplah,” said Madame.
“Smee-zair-eens,” said the children.
Madame looked mystified.
They also learned to say grand instead of good or OK – even though, to everyone else but Irish people, it means something more extravagant and, well, grander. After hearing myself on their lips, I tried to censor my own use of idiom.
One of the wheels turned wobbly on the baby’s pushchair. “That’s gone bockety,” I said.
“Buh-kay-tee,” they echoed.
“No, no, not bockety, it’s just needs fixing.”
“Buh-kay-tee,” they chanted, jumping about like exceptionally well-dressed elves (Madame liked her offspring to colour coordinate.)
Now I had to think twice before I spoke. No more “putting something on the long finger” (deferring it), describing myself as “up to ninety” (busy) or complaining about people “chancing their arm” (trying it on).
Our lessons showed me how distinct from English-English was Irish-English. Later, I realized that we borrowed expressions from other European languages, too, and lobbed them into the mix. A nixer or job on the side came from German’s nichts or nothing. Leaving my room in a kip – untidy – was an Irish slang word adopted from German via Dutch, a kip (or kuip) being a bundle of hides.
And so to pronunciation. I decided to teach the children simple, everyday words. Can’t go far wrong there, I thought. Except I heard my accent in their mouths … and let’s just say it wasn’t BBC diction. A car wasn’t the cah sound of English-English. In my universe it was kyaar. A farm was meant to be fahm but I said the r. For me, foot rhymed with hut. I went up at the end of sentences rather than keep everything staccato like Monsieur and Madame. If the children were learning, so was I.
I made discoveries about food, into the bargain. There was garlic with everything. You hardly ever saw a mug of tea. Salads were dressed with olive oil and vinegar, which didn’t just strike me as gilding the lily but pouring the entire paint pot over it. They gave a great deal of thought to their meals, discussing menus and planning dishes – at home, food served a specific purpose: to fill you up.
They were decent to me, this host family, and took an interest in my souvenir shopping. Monsieur urged (was he teasing?) a twelve-hole pottery snail plate for my father.
“He wouldn’t eat snails,” I explained.
“On special occasions, peut-être?”
Monsieur pantomimed astonishment, overacting like a silent screen character.
“He’d prefer toffees,” I said.
A Gallic shrug allowed it was a reasonable substitute.
And so my summer job was over. Madame drove me to the train station. I felt grown up, worldly and sophistiquée, especially when she kissed me goodbye on both cheeks. I didn’t suppose there’d be much opportunity to do that flamboyant double kiss thing back in Omagh, but it was handy that I knew how to, should the occasion ever arise.
I arrived home to hear about the first flamingo chick born in Dublin Zoo, in the happy news slot on the evening bulletin. Happy news slots were essential when the rest of the report was devoted to death and injury tallies from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. While I’d been making French connections it was business as usual at home. Stalemate, with the emphasis on stale.
But I knew something now. Knew it from personal experience rather than hearsay. There was a wider world – I’d tasted, smelled, heard, seen and, best of all, touched it. And I could still travel the road to elsewhere along my mind’s pathways. I was only back a few weeks when there was widespread amazement because the new pope was dead, thirty-three days after taking office. My first thought was for Madame. She’d be puzzled and disappointed.
From time to time, my imagination visited her there in her ancient house, ordering her world. We sent each other Christmas cards. A few years passed and we lost touch. But I can see all of them still in my mind’s eye, as plain, as plain. Madame in her wraparound dresses and her painted toenails, the sturdy Portuguese cleaning lady in her floral pinafores.
I didn’t immediately understand everything I’d intuited from that summer in France. But by and by, in the years that followed, I grasped how much common ground we all shared, “as naught gives way to aught” in the words of Paul Muldoon.
I was aware now, not in theory but from experience, of that European world beyond our garden wall. Where life planted me was beyond my control but to where I decided to belong was a matter for me-myself. My home was Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. But it was also further afield, so long as my factory setting was outward-facing.
Here’s what flickered in me at seventeen – not all at once, with what Virginia Woolf calls “the whole dome of the mind,” but patchily, the way daylight slants through a roof with missing slates. The world is out there, ready for you whenever you’re ready for it. I can see it now through the windows of this Dublin house where I live. Windows open. I unlatch one and there it is, the world, streaming across the garden and leapfrogging the hedge. The local fuses into the regional, merges with the national and synthesizes into the universal. Some pieces are shiner than others but each fits snugly into the whole.
When I returned to Ireland from France, I was primed and ready for further adventures. Here be dragons? Maybe. Maybe not. You never know until you go looking. That’s what the French writing box represents to me, and it’s why I keep it beside me on the desk where I work.