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‘When I see another eejit using a Centra bag as carry-on, I wonder how so many of us managed to emigrate’

Every shift Molly Furey serves at least one Irish customer and attempts to identify them before they open their mouth. It is easier than you think

As he scans the counter for a menu, I smile to myself. I know, I just know, this lad is Irish. There’s a bewildered, delighted look about him that could only be Irish.

“Do you need a menu?” I ask, accustomed now to the uncertain, self-conscious entrance of a polite but desperately hungry compatriot.

“You’re Irish!” he exclaims, gratefully accepting the greasy menu I’ve handed over.

This is a fun game I play at work these days. I live in Amsterdam and have spent the past nine months making coffees and bagels at a small deli cafe in the city. Every shift, I serve at least one Irish customer and attempt to identify them before they open their mouth.

I eye up each patron with what must be an unsettling amount of curiosity, searching their face for some trace of familiarity, unsure of what it is I’m looking for exactly, but certain that it will be recognisable.

Perhaps everyone feels this way about their fellow countrymen, but there is something distinctly conspicuous about the Irish abroad. When I see another eejit using a Centra plastic bag as a carry-on at Schiphol Airport, I wonder how it is that any of us – let alone so many of us – have managed to emigrate.

I’m constantly reminded of Dylan Moran’s description of the Irish as a people that “look like they’re just about to pull a ham sandwich out of their pocket, and it doesn’t actually belong to them”.

In Amsterdam at least, there is a ragtag, cluelessness about us that is starkly visible in a sea of sophisticated, overly confident Dutch. Maybe I am doing us a disservice by suggesting that we are only recognisable insofar as some kind of twee bewilderment is apparent, but our near ceaseless look of delighted confusion is difficult to miss once you look out for it.

A girl walked into the cafe recently wearing a beret and an ever-so-chic vintage ensemble that epitomised European refinement and worldliness. But she betrayed herself at the final hurdle when she cringed as the bell atop the door announced her arrival. Nothing more Irish than reeling at even the most fleeting and mundane of spotlights.

After greeting her with “hiya” in lieu of the “I’M IRISH” sign I wished I had around my neck, I asked her what her name was for the order. “Aoife”, she told me, smiling conspiratorially, clearly grateful to not have to go through the rigmarole of explaining a name that is 80 per cent vowels to the uninitiated. I laughed and explained my guessing game to her. “Ah, the beret is there to throw you off,” she joked. “Hardly be wearing this in Westport, I’d never live it down!”

Too right.

Another day, following the requisite “and you’re from?” and “whereabouts?” of it all, a customer started speaking Irish to me. After thinking I’d got away with some rusty attempts at conversation, I was quickly rid of such illusions when he introduced me as “young Paul Mescal over here” to his friends. Brutal, but fair. There is a finely balanced cruelty to Irish humour that, it turns out, I have actually missed. Quite frankly, my international friend group has been far too nice to me.

I have found that the unprompted mockery of an Irish stranger has been more nostalgic for me than a packet of Tayto or cup of Barry’s tea (although I do, admittedly, have an industrial-size box of the latter to at least partially fill the void).

There is something ambiguously comforting about someone you have only just met readily offering up their best Ross O’Carroll Kelly impression upon learning that you are, embarrassingly, from South Dublin. “Christ, a Jackeen,” they shake their heads at my confession – I’m left bitter and humbled.

I like to think that our willingness to jibe at one another is not an expression of some urgent need to bully or deride (perhaps this is my Dublin naivety at work), but rather stems from a knowingness that exists between compatriots abroad. There is a giddy relief in encountering someone in Amsterdam who has also followed the RTÉ scandal with a bemused distance or is also wondering if the horror stories are true: that pints have climbed up to €6.20 in Dublin?

My American colleague stands back in confusion, wondering if I had just been verbally abused or embraced

With this familiarity assumed, you jump ahead of niceties and formalities and, gratefully, chat as you would with a distant cousin at a wedding.

It is a funny thing, this feeling of connection with total strangers. Benedict Anderson writes in Imagined Communities that national identity “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. Without ever having met these people before, you find yourself assuming – imagining – that you still know each other in this vague yet grounded kind of way.

“Was that one or two lattes they ordered?” I ask my American colleague working on the till one day at work. “Jesus, you’re Irish!” the customer points at me, thrilled with his attuned ear. “I am,” I call back. “F**k, well, it’s two f**kin’ lattes,” he calls out in an inexplicable but nonetheless charming attempt at some kind of expression of national solidarity.

His addition of a couple of expletives to his order is one of the most efficient Irish code-switches I’ve yet witnessed on the job – as if we are all just walking around these metropoles struggling against the ceaseless, instinctual urge for lalochezia. As if, at home, baristas are just f**kin’ making f**kin’ lattes upon f**kin’ request. He scattered expletives over his order as if he was, at last, able to speak his native tongue freely.

My American colleague stands back in confusion, wondering if I had just been verbally abused or embraced. Assuring her of the latter, we proceed to explain the grammatical rules of cursing in Ireland – including the potential use of f**k and sh*te as punctuation marks where commas simply do not suffice – thrilled to have this in-joke of sorts; waving off her bemusement with a “you had to be there” wave of the hand, rolling our eyes at one another, smug in all the glory of our Irishness and absolutely proudly, parodying a cartoonish version of our nationality.

I suppose this is why we take such joy in finding each other out in the wild. These brief encounters offer a fleeting feeling of belonging – they remind you that there is a place where you are not totally foreign. But these moments pass, and then you serve the next customer without compulsively mapping out your six degrees of separation and you find that, in fact, that is okay too.

I was only delighted to make his f**kin’ coffee for him – as delighted as I would be to discover a ham sandwich in my pocket that was not even mine

On my birthday, a Dutch customer returned half an hour later with a celebratory cupcake for me. Another day, a lady came into the kitchen to tell me she had been watching me work and just wanted to say well done because it seemed stressful. Exhausted, I had to stifle the pathetic urge to cry, but gratefully accepted the plaudit as a child would a gold star in school. “It will all be worth it,” she smiled at me before shuffling off.

There was also the elderly man who came in every Sunday for a coffee and a cookie who would speak to me in Dutch despite my embarrassingly basic level of the language. Every week I exclaimed “ja”, “echt?” or “nee” along with his stories, not really knowing what was going on, but enjoying the ritual of it all.

I suppose this is the thing about moving away. It is as much about forging new experiences and immersing yourself in a different culture as it is about gaining an altered sense of your Irishness. In a new cultural context, a mirror is held up to you and all that you have taken for granted as “normal” and reflects it back to you in this uncanny, novel way. You begin to see – and grow to love – the oddness of asking “how are you?” without actually waiting to hear the answer.

So many of us leave Ireland for different reasons, economic, cultural, personal. Some people suffer crippling homesickness after moving abroad, while others find themselves creating better lives and building a new home in these different countries. In this way, bumping into compatriots abroad means different things for different people. But I think there is something universally cheering about how we interact with one another in foreign places; how we willingly recreate some version of whatever it is we were willing to leave behind, of home, just for a moment.

The other day, a man tripped over the doorstep on the way in before attempting to casually walk over to the counter. His eyes bulged as he shook his head and raised his brows, before he became suspiciously engrossed by the page-turning read that is the menu. Irish, I thought to myself. I had to stifle a giggle of delight when he opened his mouth and struggled to wrap his Northern accent around his order almost as much as an Italian would struggle to wrap their head around his ordering a “c-y-appaccino” at three in the afternoon.

I was only delighted to make his f**kin’ coffee for him – as delighted as I would be to discover a ham sandwich in my pocket that was not even mine.

  • Molly Furey is a 24-year-old writer based in Amsterdam where she has just completed an MA in Cultural Analysis, doing her thesis on Derry Girls. She is from Dublin and has lived in the Netherlands for a year where she also works in a cafe.
  • If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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