There are many advantages to working in an Irish bar in a foreign country. You never have to learn their language, you never really have to meet any locals and most importantly, you can still, just about, meet enough new people to convince yourself you’re still having an experience you couldn’t have had at home. It is the microwave meal of foreign travel.
Nobody plans to work in an Irish bar; it’s a waiting room where you pause for life to present its next chapter. People who live abroad are a strange lot anyway. If you’re at home working in a bar, or as a TEFL teacher; people ask questions, wonder what you’re doing next, but if you’re doing the exact same thing, living more or less the same lifestyle in a foreign country, people assume you’re a winner. There are three types of people that you notice working abroad, those there for legitimate career reasons, those pausing for breath, between travels, after uni, a sorbet between youth and responsibility and lost souls, who turn being a foreigner abroad into their entire identity. At home they were just John, but here they are John the Irish Man. They attend Irish nights, listen to trad music, attend Embassy functions, suddenly only James Joyce understands them. Their nationality suddenly makes sense of their life, defines them, excuses all their actions, answers all their questions with the unexpected gratefulness of a diagnosed food intolerance.
The bar I worked in was run by Mathew; a fat pink faced, German school boy of an Irish homosexual. His family owned the entire chain of Irish pubs and Mathew, the runt of the litter, was in charge of ours. We were all terrified of him. He was known to swan into the bar, empty the till, sack a member of staff and disappear for days. He also notoriously, it was whispered, only dated middle aged men that looked like Captain Birds Eye. I ended up living in his flat for two weeks, mid between bolting from Marina’s and moving to another boho dive with a balcony in Lavapies. It was amazing; park views and satellite TV, but I only got to stay there for two weeks before his landlord evicted him. He was that sort of person. Terrified of him, his kindness to this stranger sleeping on his couch made me flinch. In-between hating himself and everyone else, he was as sweet and soft as the fondant fancies he so closely physically resembled.
The real power was Meabh. A tiny, pale wisp of a girl; she may have looked like a frail Victorian ghost but had a disaprooving stare that would terrify any spectral visitor. She had worked at the pub for years and at twenty three had the attitude, wisdom and weariness of someone years older. Initially her toughness, learnt at too young age, frustrated both our attempts at friendships, but over time her kindness and thoughtfulness emerged from her flinty exterior.
Simon was in charge of the late shifts. He was a gorgeous, tanned, shaved head gay man from Manchester, with dry sense of humour and turn of phrase that made you lose your breath. He lived with Gerard in a luxurious flat overlooking Madrid’s transvestite red light district with their pet Chihuahuas. They weren’t a couple but loved and hated each other with all the intensity of one. Gerard spent his weekends drinking and having complicated relationships with South Americans he met in S&M clubs and his weeks as a trade union lawyer fighting for teachers rights in Colombia. After Sunday lunch at their flat, we’d drink gin and tonics, watch the trannies outside and then settle down in front of the only programme on TV in English “Murder She Wrote”. Did you know that nearly every episode ends with Jessica Fletcher pulling a quizzical face? I never really picked up spanish but I did learn that.
The most anticipated customers were the Irish and English lads working in the city. Since none of us spoke Spanish, the those were the only really eligible men, however, they not quite valuing conversation skills as highly as we did, had not only Spanish girls to choose from but every freckly woman’s mortal enemy – the South Americans. The attributes I’d previously considered deal breakers; good sense of humour, being up for the craic, shared knowledge of Neighbours , melted in the hot groomed, sexiness of those girls.
Most of the lads worked for a dodgy local telesales operation that a notorious, but never seen, Irishman ran. Recruited from behind the Irish bars, they were lured with coke, promises of easy money and trips to strip clubs to a business they vaguely described as an investment scheme. The bright eyed boys quickly transformed to loud arrogant customers, visiting their previous place of employment with swaggering wads of cash, the visits diminishing along with their friendliness, until it was vaguely mentioned they’d mysteriously gone back to Ireland, never to be heard of again.
At least we had Lee. A TEFL teacher from Manchester; he was a romantic figure, which even a predilection for pissing in public couldn’t diminish. A spry pixie of a middle-aged man, he had a stunning Spanish girl he cheated on absentmindedly and a twinkle in his eye. When he got drunk, tales from his previous life would seep out. Sad stories of unclaimed children that looked like him, tangled family trees, grim storylines he’d miraculously been able to escape from. Sometimes we were joined by Trevor, a middle-aged man going through a nasty divorce, with an adored daughter who was quite obviously fleecing her lonely Dad. They’d stay late and we’d drink martinis, laugh our legs off and I’d walk home in the night time heat. Was I happy or do I just remember that I was in hindsight? I can’t remember, lets just assume I was, a memory lasting so much longer than the actual moment. Let’s leave me strolling safely home from work, through the stuffy Madrid night, unaware that soon Paul would walk into my life and everything was about to go kaboom! Goodnight Gráinne, save home, enjoy your yoghurt and biscuits in the morning.