“Who would be crazy enough to go into a war zone?”
“I’ll be in the south part of Ireland, not Northern Ireland,” I said.
In 1975, friends and colleagues believed I was daft for planning a trip to any part of the Emerald Isle. At the time I was working in London, Ontario, not far from Detroit, Michigan. It did not comfort my nay-sayers when I pointed out that Detroit had more murders in one month than Northern Ireland had war deaths in one year. “Seems to me,” I said, “it’s safer being at war with Ireland than shopping in Detroit.”
My reasoning did not entice anyone to join me.
After landing in Shannon, it was evident the Airport agent for car rentals didn’t relish handing keys over to North Americans. I promised him I would practice driving on the wrong side in the parking lot before attempting a public road. “And which wrong side are we talkin’ about?” he threw out with a gruff tone. I apologized, grateful that I did not have to declare my dyslexia on my Passport.
I promised every Irish person I encountered that I would drive carefully. Those who had shared a little Irish Whiskey with me were especially adamant that I reconsider at least three times before pulling out of anywhere. Fulfilling my promise meant the Irish dander behind me rose to an all time high. One chap screeched to a stop within inches of my car. He taught me Irish expletives after my hesitation created a right-of-way for 84 scatter-brained sheep.
Eventually I decided a passenger could feel safe riding with me. Young hitch-hikers spotted the roadsides so I decided I would give a ride to a single woman as soon as one appeared. As if willing it to happen, just over the next hill, safely leaning against a hedge, a woman my age quickly jumped to attention. I stopped to see where she was going.
“I’m going in the same direction as you,” she said.
“I’m going to Galway Bay, north of here. That is, if I can find a road sign with English still on it.” The Irish, as a protest for having their own language spoken, painted over the English names on road signs. A road map was only helpful if I could pinpoint where a large, well-laboured, Irish finger pointed on the English document.
“Yes. Me, too,” she said. She had an accent that sounded French, but she looked Arabic. As soon as we were on our way, we began introducing ourselves. She was from Algiers. Her beautiful Algerian name began with a “T”.
She said, “Since you are from Canada, you speak French, no?”
“Poorly,” I said.
“Well, my English is not good so I think we should both practice. You speak French to me and I will speak English to you! Brilliant, no?”
“It’s not brilliant if you know how much I have to concentrate on driving.”
“Oh, you are a good driver! Let’s do it!”
“I’ll try.” I wanted to dust off my High School French that Parisians could understand, but not my French-speaking countrymen. Go figure!
T. ended up doing most of the talking. Questions, in French, remained fresh enough that when she spoke, I could ask a question about the subject. She elaborated with gusto. Her trust seemed to grow with each mile.
Soon I was hearing her heartache over the way women lived in her culture. She attended university in England and returned to Algiers believing she would convince her countrywomen to liberate themselves. She had returned believing women would want to follow her example and break the fetters that she, too, had previously accepted. She didn’t realize that they would be too fear-ridden to fall into step with her. She consistently felt disappointment when she would passionately attempt to rally their willingness to protest and change.
After a couple of years, she accepted that any change would take a great deal of time. She saw that a transition would need patience. Meanwhile, her father began making overtures that it was time for her to marry. She panicked.
She told me, “I fell in love when I was at Oxford. I had sex with this man. He was from England and I believed we would be together forever. However, the love did not last. It was my fault. I found our differences became burdensome. I ended our relationship.”
“Are you thinking you would like a reconciliation?”
“Mais non!” she said. “No, I am here because I am frightened for my life.”
“Oh, T.! What does that mean?”
“If my father found I was no longer a virgin, I would be put out on the streets.”
“Your mother would not allow that, would she?”
“She would have no say. That’s what I mean about women in my culture. I’d be on the street and none of my family could have anything to do with me.”
“Ohmigod! Is it still like that? I thought that was a thing of the past!”
“I wish it were.”
“So why are you here?”
“I told my father that before he began marriage plans, I wanted to come to Ireland. I told him that when I was studying at Oxford, I had no time come over to this beautiful land and I really wanted to see it. Fortunately, he agreed. I have an appointment in London to have my hymen replaced.”
Somehow I managed to stay on the road. “Let’s stop for a bite to eat. I need some food,” I said. I pulled in at the next pull-over, shut off the car and said, “You are such a brave woman, T.! I cannot believe you have to do this.”
“No matter how difficult the operation, it will be less painful than the consequence of not having it done.”
We got out of the car.
A herd of sheep grazed peacefully in the field beside us. The land extended its green carpet down to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Birds flitted about us singing their notes of satisfaction. The sun warmed the countryside, bringing out the aromas of rural, green growth. As if rehearsed, we pulled out our bags of food to share on a grassy spot by a shade tree. Irish breads, a variety of fresh cheese and ripe tomatoes were laid out with large, green olives. Apples, oranges, bananas and grapes lay on the sidelines. T. added two bottles of mineral water.
Our sadness, felt in silence, created a bond based on impenetrable feminine unity.
Feeling like a priest performing ablutions before communion, I broke our food, wiped my hands on spare tissues and looked over at T. Dark brown eyes, brimming with tears, spoke her exhausted sorrow over centuries of repression.
Shared tears offered the holiest grace of any communion thus far in my life.