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The International Writers Magazine: Good Times:

Tetsuhiko Endo

The Irish have this word, craic, which has no direct translation in the English language.  Generally speaking, it describes a good time.  But it's not just any good time like going on a picnic or enjoying a quiet afternoon of reading.  Instead, it is a very Irish good time, usually involving friends, music, and liberal amounts of alcohol.  It is used to describe events and situations as well as people. 

Mick Jagger is a person with good craic. Mr. Rogers, God bless him, was not.  Contrary to popular belief, craic is not a Gaelic term, but a Gaelicized spelling of the Old English word crack which came with immigrants from Scotland and Northern England.  Regardless of its Origins, it was adopted by the Irish in the early parts of the 20th century and has now firmly incorporated itself into the national speech patterns.

None of this would have been particularly important to me had it not been for a particular Irish girl who I dated in my second year of university.  She was the first female who wasn't my mother to consider me important enough to invite home to meet family and friends.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance.  As spring break rolled around, I packed my bags, skimmed Lonely Planet guides about the Emerald Isle, and daydreamed about doing things like riding horses through the heath, and sipping pints of Guinness in country pubs while old men played fiddles and bodhráns in the corner. 

My flat mates did not quite share my enthusiasm.  Instead, there was a general preoccupation that I had absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into.  Eventually, my friend Tom, a tall gangly Scot with massive hands and a soft smile sat me down and laid things out. 
            "Ted, your girl friend's family is going to drink you under the table."
            He wasn't being spiteful.  He was referring to an enzyme that I inherited from my Japanese father – a less efficient form of aldehyde dehydrogenase – that makes my natural alcohol tolerance much lower than that of a normal guy of my size, and much, much lower than that of a normal Irish guy my size. 
            "Don't worry about me! I'll figure something out," I told my friends as I left for my trip. 
Their send-off had the unmistakable air of a funeral.

On the plane, after the landing gear was up and it was far too late to back out, I began to have second thoughts.  Like any aspiring "good boyfriend," I wanted everyone that my girl friend knew to like me – I wanted to be considered good craic.  Although I still wasn't sure exactly what that meant, or how one went about doing it, I felt positive that alcohol played an important role.  This observation came from both general Irish stereotypes peddled by beer companies and tourist boards as well as first hand experiences of going out with people considered "good craic" and subsequently ending up sprawled across the floors of various public bathrooms.  Furthermore, I had it on good authority from other Irish friends that my girlfriend was the baby girl in a family whose name was practically synonymous with the word in all of the southern counties between Carey and Dublin. 
"Your girlfriend?  Ah, good craic, like."
"Her Sister?  Wonderful craic, like."
"Her brother? Great craic, like."
(Many Irish people inexplicably use "like" as a vocalized pause at the end of sentences)
            I too, wanted to be great craic, like.  But instead, I found myself feeling more like Goldilocks who has only just survived her encounter with the baby bear, and is now awaiting the return of mama and papa.
            I should point out that it had never mattered to the Irish girl how much I drank.  By that point, she had become accustomed to looking into my eyes around midnight, kissing me and handing me a big pint of water so I could stay on my feet.  But then, it wasn't just her that I was trying to impress.  No one wants to be the "I don't know what she sees in him" boyfriend (drunk after three pints!  Shameful really…).  If being good craic meant drinking a little more than was officially considered good for me, so be it.  Assuming I didn't fight any duels, or start any wars, I was really getting off easily compared to some more classic examples of love struck young men.  

  Dublin is a magical city in the middle of a full-blown renaissance.  In the main thoroughfares, the only vestiges of a history marred by poverty, famine, and war are monuments to the fallen heroes of the Irish revolution and bullet holes in the facades of older buildings.  I spent the first few days of the trip being lead around those colourful, winding streets on the arm of one of the city's native daughters. 

Despite its recent growth and refurbishment, the older parts of the city retain a certain vibrant intimacy that beckons you around every corner and tempts you down every cobbled lane.  For all its mystery, it is a good natured, forgiving place that doesn't take itself too seriously like bigger, more celebrated metropolises.  Like its people, it is forever surprising outsiders with a mix of friendliness and wry charm. 

If our days were dedicated to introducing me to the city, our nights were dedicated to introducing everyone in the city to me.  In student circles, the normal six degrees of separation seemed reduced to about three so that that everyone knew you, was related to you, or was related to someone who knew you.  This meant that someone was always buying a round.  The round is the standard way to buy drinks in Ireland, often even if you go to the pub alone.  It is an invitation or re-affirmation of friendship and community in which the deep symbolism of sharing a drink has been raised to the status of cultural norm.  Although it's not necessarily rude to not buy a round, it's certainly not going to help your craic.  The only catch is that, once you step into a round, stumbling out is often quite difficult.  The reason being that, once you have bought a drink for a person, he or she is obligated by old, strictly observed rules of drinking ethics to buy you one. 
In the raucous, shoulder to shoulder student bars of Dublin, where fiddles and flutes have been replaced by video DJ's blaring Robby Williams and lager and cocktails are preferred to Guinness and whiskey, this got me into trouble every night.   It was not so much a pressure to drink as a general incomprehension of why you wouldn't want to drink.  There was something almost touching in its innocence.  Bear in mind that Ireland, like many countries in the old world doesn't share the very American, puritanical stigma against alcohol.  It is simply something you imbibe when you get together with friends.

My overriding memory of those nights involves talking to people I had just met while fiercely concentrating on not slurring my words like a wino.  All in all, I probably turned down more drinks than I consumed in that city, making blabbering apologies to my girl friend's amused and disbelieving friends who couldn't have helped but wondered where she managed to find someone with the alcohol tolerance of a chinchilla.

 We left Dublin with our sites set on the counties Clare and Galway – The West, as the Irish like to call it – that often mythisized land of pure white horses, leprechauns, rainbows, and narrow, hedge lined lanes that cut through great swathes of verdant countryside.  It is one of the few places that is even more breathtaking and romantic in person than it is in all of the calendars, post cards, movies and National Geographic's that have marketed it to the rest of the world.  Of course, I saw it all while weathering vicious hangovers compounded by the unrelenting winding of those picturesque country lanes. We drove all the way to the Atlantic making boozy stops in towns like Doolin, Lahinch, and one unforgettable, but only partially remembered night with a cousin at the University of Galway.  It is in this more wild country that traditional Ireland reasserts itself.  Continental beers disappear from taps and regional specialties like Guinness and oysters and hot whiskey with honey and lemon (especially good for sore throats) become pub menu mainstays. 

As the days passed, I came to know my hangovers well, embrace them even.  Although they grew no less painful, they added a certain degree of perverse levity to everything.  The wind that whips off the cliffs of Moher becomes twice as invigorating when you've got an upset stomach, the lonely whistle of the tin flute even more heart wrenching when combined with the vague ennui produced by far too many beers the night before.  The only time that my hangover proved to be wholly negative was riding horses.  Galloping through the heath is much less romantic when you feel that you might be sick onto the back of your horse's head.    
On our last night in Ireland, we went to the 21st birthday party of a friend or cousin in Gorey, my girl friend's hometown, about an hour south of the capital.  It was a big event with family, friends, photos, speeches and of course, a fair bit of drinking involved.  I had been on the cider – a traditional Irish favourite with very little comparison to the cheap swill made in England and Scotland – for most of the night and was feeling like good, nay great craic, when my Irish lassie suggested shots.  We went to the bar and decided on Aftershock, a distinctly cough syrup-esque concoction in three distinct flavours – red (cinnamon), blue (mouth wash) and green (sin).   For reasons that are still not entirely clear, we ended up with a blue and a green, which I then put behind my back and made my partner in crime choose a hand.  She chose the green, but since I was intent on finally proving just how great craic I had become, I told her that she had chosen my shot and I would take the green.  The second that filth touched the back of my throat, I knew that things were headed nowhere pleasant.  We stayed for another hour or so, and I vaguely remember being one of the 21 men who had to kiss the birthday girl.  From there, things segued into a party at my girl friend's house full of relatives, parents and various friends.  I'm not sure how long it lasted or when exactly I cut myself off, but I do remember wondering why all of these strangely happy people were intent on giving me alcohol poisoning.

When I woke up the next morning, I was in the throws of what I would later recognize as the worst hangover of my young life.  Through the pain, we packed and drove to Dublin while my girl friend's fretful mother turned back every five minutes to offer me some sort of food.  Each time, I would smile weakly, choke down my gorge and decline.  In the airport, as we sat waiting to board our plane, my girl friend asked me how I was feeling.  Despite sort of wanting to cry, I found myself grinning, then laughing. 
            "Horrible," I said.  "Absolutely horrible."

Soon, we were both laughing at the absurdity of the night before, the vileness of green Aftershock and her parents repeated efforts to get me to have just one more glass of wine.  If the trip had proved anything, it was that I would always be a little more Mr. Rogers than Mick Jagger, but so what?  I'd had an unfailingly wonderful time, my liver would forgive me, and there was always a special Irish girl who would bring me pints of water when things got bad.  That was definitely good craic, like.  
© Tetsuhiko Endo July 2008

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