My first backpack and the Irish

‘I need to buy a backpack. I am going to Ireland’  I announced one morning to my parents at the end of the Journalism summer term. I was 18 years old. My dad paused his espresso cup halfway to his Greek looking moustache and brushed mom with a severe look. Sat next to him, she was diving into a red watermelon and at first, she hinted a funny smirk. 

‘Oh…by the way. I am going alone’ 

There, she almost choked.

After a week, I was loading a North Face 50lt backpack, had a ticket to Cork in my 10lt daypack and a single room booked in the most expensive student accommodation. I was a lucky kid and I didn’t even want all this luxury. Crushing in a common dorm would have been fine. However, for the sake of my trip, I surrendered to my mom’s conditions. On a rainy late afternoon, I was picked up at the tiny Cork city airport and driven to my flat close to the train station.

Contrarily to my mom’s hopes, fresh candid blankets and a writing-welcoming desk overlooking a lush garden weren’t as appealing as Cork’s streets. Rough and humid with a grunge vibe calling for youth damnation. I busked playing tunes Oasis, Blur, U2 and Sicilian tunes,  behind request. I borrowed painted guitars from musicians with black teeth, rocking flared jeans and nostalgic leather gilet with Guns N’ Roses pins. Cigarettes, quickly scribbled love notes on bus tickets, coins and Heineken cans used to crowd my feet.  

The Irish spontaneous attitude stroke me like a flashlight before the storm. Like a ginger, 40ish builder that on one of my first strolls offered to pay me the St Anne’s Church tower ticket. I didn’t even want to climb up there.

‘You gotta climb those steps, kid’ he was stuck in my ears like a broken tape. ‘That’s the best view of Cork’

I am not sure how long it took to the top. The man emptied his pocket to pay a couple of red ale before and I was stopping every 5 steps on the narrow concrete. From that height, the chilled breeze shook my guts. Red roofs wrestling with the river Lee and rainbow shades of buildings turning from blue to yellow were a priceless show, as per promise.

In our student flat, a guy from Berlin called Rob threw a leaving party for 2 days in a row. The day he flew back new rules kicked in and I packed my North Face with Lidl beers and red markers. With a tall, French guy called Étienne and a girl from Rome, a painter called Bea, we hit the road.

I will never forget the thrill of holding a piece of Carlsberg box scribbled with smiles. We didn’t even know where we were going. A voice inside me was screaming:

‘See?… This is what they call living!’

A bald doctor from the North gave us the first lift. Driving a red flat pancake shaped Lamborghini, was mocking the French at every red light.

‘You gotta make up your mind man…you can’t keep on sleeping with two women at the same time’ 

I and Bea were squeezed in the leather backseat staring at the empty bottle of Bushmill travelling on our feet, the French with his legs smashed against the tiny dashboard.

Thrown in the unknown, away from my parents and that shithole in Sicily where I grew up, it was hard to remember a duty called ‘ring home’.  After some days, I found out my mom was about to go to the police.

‘I was so worried…where were you?’ she was yelling and crying at the same time. That was a lucky time for rebel kids, without Whatssup and Internet. 

In Galway,  we literally couldn’t stay away from the pubs’ live music sessions. Ireland is a mecca for live music lovers but strolling the wet cobblestone listening to great guitarists day and night, it is special, like the West of Ireland. If you think that Irish from Cork are friendly, try the West. One hour can produce lifetime friends or crazy dances behind closed pubs’ doors until eggs, mushroom and bacon time kick off.

On another rainy day, we hopped on the ferry to the Aran Islands. That was a rough trip, rocking with bad hangovers and slaloming puking passengers but we made it to Inishmore, the biggest island. Whilst looking for a spot to pitch our tent, I thought about asking inside a one-floor grey bricked house. The flat grass surrounding it was a fluffy carpet. I had knocked several times the door, no one answered, but I entered, tempted by a loud TV show noise.

A sweating man was lying on a couch in the room next to the entrance. He had a noisy oxygen tank connected with big tubes to his nostrils. The dark carpet floor was covered in pillboxes. The air smelling dust. I stopped staring at him.

‘Do you have a toilette?’ I asked, my heart racing faster. I pushed away the instinct to run away.

‘Aaaaarrrr arrrrrrr’ he was moaning. 

When he lifted his arm and pointed the back of the house, I went outside looking for a toilet bowl and found a vintage, rusty, once-upon-a-time-white, Volkswagen caravan. All the wheels flat. A dozen kittens and cats were living inside and outside it. The sick man’s daughter one morning woke us with coffee and blueberry muffins. The way the sun brightened her red hair and freckled smile made me forget the mattress the 3 of us shared with some small insects, the rain pouring inside, making a puddle close to the gear and next to Bea’s feet. Who the fuck cared, really. We ended up crashing there for more than a week, waking up surrounded by the dew hugging infinite green until the sight of skinny, pale kids challenging freezing waters would reach. Breathing freedom in wild nature, far from the tourists crowding the shores. Savouring salty chilled breeze mornings. Even the oblique, annoying rain wetting the cliffs held the same pleasure of staring at seagulls swooping down molluscs and other slimy snacks.

Back to the mainland, I and Bea asked work to all the farmers in Cork’s market. Like, all of them.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 10 outside’ – a red-cheeked bald man sang in his Corkish slang after he scanned the width of our shoulders. 

On the back of his truck, with cabbage and potatoes leftovers, we reached a huge farm in Bannon, Co. Cork. This man wasn’t just growing peppers and onions and sheep and cows but owned a small factory where the food was cleaned and stored in boxes. The farm was crowded with Polish workers who were waking up at 4. They were all engineers and could not understand why I and my friend would work as a volunteer (in exchange for bed and food). The truth was, we were supposed to weed the salad and feed the cows but was more the weed we smoked next to the cows. Or the Murphys (Southern local stout, the rival of Guinness) we drank at the only one dark wooden local pub smelling fried onion and crowded with wrinkled farmers. Every night, there were loud banters about whose son would have married me or Bea, or both. I don’t remember we paid any pints during those days, as well as most of the beers ordered during my entire trip. The Bandon farmer landlord looked at us faking an angry look when we gave him our early notice. In fact, we sat at a goodbye dinner later. His wife had baked roast and potatoes, turning the Polish into raging hyenas for this special treatment. 

And then, that day came. My class at Uni and my mom’s chemotherapy were about to start again. 

‘One day I will move to Ireland’ I repeated to myself while hopping on the little Ryanair plane. My wandering soul was a noisy brat in a supermarket pulling mom’s skirt at every chocolate’s corner. 

But it did happen, a couple of years later, on a June afternoon. I landed in Dublin under the hail. Made to Saint Stephen’s green, I was staring at rushing Zara customers under the mall roof. My cheap t-shirt soaked, I had left Sicily with 35 degrees and I was the happiest being on earth, just me and my North Face again.

Even if mom and her smile had passed away. My dad got a new wife and I had dropped out of college twice, drawing myself in gin and an abusive relationship with a heroin addict. Through the hail I envisioned mom scratching all the international pre-paid phone cards she bought to call me while I was hitchhiking the Irish soil with a confidence I never had in my neighbourhood.

Even after years, the Irish were still wearing the same smile. Thick farmers were about to turn into tie and shirt revenue managers. The musical, random strangers of the pubs were about to become my future colourful neighbours in Temple Bar.

I believe a new chapter of my life started in Ireland because I wanted to look for that carefree, wild Chiara I had missed so much.

I ended up lost among Irish loud laughs for almost 5 years 🙂

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