'I Hope You Feel Better Soon': Hello From Ireland

We've been in Ireland for a little holiday. Some of it is a little bit of long overdue literary tourism around Dublin (about which I might have more to say in a few days), but we also spent several days in some of the beautiful western counties, doing some cycling and hiking, and checking out live music in village pubs. For the most part, it's pretty homogeneous -- sizeable South Asian, eastern European, and East Asian immigrant populations have emerged in Dublin, but rural western Ireland hasn't changed quite as much. A lot of little villages have Indian restaurants, but that's about it.

Our best night in terms of live traditional Irish music was in a town called Clifden, in County Galway -- and it was also the night where we had what you might call a 'desi moment'.

The band was very good -- the fiddler was brilliant, and one of the singer/percussionists had a lot of entertaining, if rather corny, jokes -- and a strong rapport with an audience of upwards of 50 people in a smallish space. The audience was a mix of locals from around Galway, and international tourists, speaking Swedish, German, and of course "American." There was even a woman from Uganda in the audience, and I somewhat regret that I didn't get to ask her how she ended up at a pub in a remote town in western Ireland. Then again, there were clearly a number of people in the audience who were eyeing us, a Sikh couple, and wondering the same thing. By chance, we had gotten seats right in the front, which we were really happy about until the point in the evening I am about to describe.

During one break, the jokester/storyteller in the band, a jolly elderly man, asked the Swedish women in the audience how you say "cheers" in Swedish. He ran through "cheers" using the word from every language he could think of, including, now, Swedish. Then he turned to me: "And how do you say it in Sikh?" I couldn't think of the Punjabi (and no, I didn't bother to correct him on that) off the top of my head, so I just threw out "Balle Balle." ("Vadaiyan" might have been more correct). He liked "Balle Balle," and said it several times, relishing the sound, and even getting the Punjabi tonal inflection pretty much right. He even got several people in the back of the bar repeating it as they raised their glasses: Balle Balle! Balle Balle! Balle Balle!

A little later, he got bolder, and told the following story:

"Seeing this gentlemen here [gestures at me] reminds me of a true story, and I hope no one gets offended. One time I was riding a late night bus in London, home from work. It was the last bus of the night, and there were four people angling for just one standing spot in the bus. The driver was a Sikh gentleman in a white turban. From the group trying to get on the bus, he gave an old lady, clearly weary and not very well-to-do, the remaining spot, and told the others there wasn't room. When she reached to her purse to pay, he shooed her away, saying he wouldn't hear of making her pay. When she finally reached her stop, she stepped down from the bus, and said, 'Thank you very much sir, and I hope you feel better soon!'"

[Get it? She thought the white turban was a bandage.]

The joke killed with the audience in the pub. I was blushing, but I smiled weakly and sort of shrugged it off the way one does: no worries, my friend, I'm not going to ruin your good time by taking umbrage. (But could we get back to the music, please?)

During the next little instrument tuning break, Samian got up from her chair and approached him. Without a word she picked up the drum brush he had been using, and batted him lightly on his bald head with it. She then said, "thank you very much sir, and I hope you feel better soon!" He loved it -- I think he must have known he'd crossed a line earlier -- and I certainly felt a lot better all of a sudden.

Our evening out in Clifden ended on a high note. And the locals, including our friend in the band, are likely to remember the random Sikh couple who came in one night, to hear the traditional Irish music.