Posted on October 22nd, 2012
You never forget your first Guinness. How can you? Brown so deep it might be red, like looking into a bottomless pond where you worry about what’s swimming beneath your toes. A head of foam, thick and perfect as an ice cream float, that you puzzle over at first, wondering if you need to scoop it off with a spoon in order to reach the drink underneath. A true Guinness pint glass has the curve of a woman’s hips, and you hold it, cool and solid in your hands, and you think, “Now this, my friends, this is a real beer.” And you are afraid.
I drank my first Guinness in the most appropriate way possible: seated in a seedy pub on the outskirts of Dublin, on a wet January night in 1998. Fresh off the plane, I’d come to Ireland on a six-month student visa. I had a backpack, a passport, a wallet stuffed with traveler’s checks, and a bunk in a hot, noisy hostel down the street. The next morning, I’d get on a train that would take me across the width of the country to Galway, where I was ostensibly going to study Irish literature for a semester. Really, though, I’d come to learn to be Irish, beyond just the words. I wanted its music and its weather and its history, all the bogus tales of its magic to nest in my bones.
For now, though, I’d settle for its beer. I was wearing a fleece jacket, one of two pieces of clothing (the other being overly fastidious raingear) that I would later learn marked the American students from the Irish, with their long scarves and wool sweaters. In fact, there was a row of us newly-arrived Americans sitting at the bar on this rainy night, and we all looked like the rubes we were, children of Irish ancestors, naively reverse-migrating to this damp island in search of some essential kernel of romance or truth about our past lives as potato farmers or poets. The bartender asked us what we wanted to drink, and we all looked at each other, the dare passing between us, unspoken: a Guinness, please.
Let me pause here and set the scene of this country I’d landed in. Ireland in the winter of 1998 was an intake of breath held just before an outburst or a sigh, no one quite sure which would come out next. It was here that I discovered what the word “sectarian” meant, where I saw armed guards for the first time in the street, where I learned that the Catholicism I’d been raised with in the American Midwest was a pale orphan child compared to the heavy fist with which the church had ruled, until only recently, all aspects of Irish life. In the Republic, subdivisions nudged at the edges of castle ruins in cow pastures, signs of the economic resurgence about to slap the landscape with a bang, and up in the North, a peace treaty was being put together, behind closed doors and after so many painful decades, with Great Britain. All of Ireland seemed waiting for something to happen that winter, tiptoeing on the edge of the new millennium.
All of that came later, though. For the time being, there was just another kind of long wait – for a pint of Guinness, poured by the barkeep and left to settle behind the bar. Another thing you learn in Ireland: that all Guinnesses are not equal, because so much depends upon the skill of the pourer and his attention to your pint. The proper way to pour a Guinness requires patience and finesse. Hold the glass at an angle, the tap pulled towards the body, and the stout flows in until it just tickles the bottom of the glass’s bell curve. Then, the pint, three-quarters full, must be placed down gently to sit for a bit, to let the head float free from the dark, velvety body of the beer and settle at the top. This settling time is the most necessary part. It’s when you make eye contact with your pint for the first time, because you are sure that the bartender must have forgotten it sitting there so lonely under the tap. You gaze at it, wondering, and impatience and thirst start to swell your tongue, just as the beer’s creamy head gently lifts against the sides of the glass. You wait, and it waits, and time slows, the stout priming and the drinker lusting.
It’s a long minute before the bartender steps back and holds the Guinness up level to the tap. This time, the tap must be pushed away from the chest, and the pouring is deliberate and slow and aimed straight into the middle of the foam. To do otherwise is to invite a disaster hard to hide: the telltale dribble of foam staining the side of the glass like a wince or a bruise. The perfect ones, though, arrive with a head barely crested above the lip of the pint, a low cap of pale beige quivering over the rim. But now, set the glass down and wait again. Wait until the foam almost imperceptibly calms and quiets. Wait until the glass has a sheen like sweat. Wait until your conversation falters and stops. Only then may you sip.
And sip I did. I stepped into that Guinness gingerly, fearful that, like haggis or Vegemite, this might be a cultural condition I could not inhabit. But the first taste was smooth and almost milky, with a not unpleasant undercurrent of bitterness, and there was a satisfaction in the way it settled in the stomach like a meal. The Guinness warmed my tongue and shook loose the stiffness between us strangers. It was my first introduction into the Irish art of sitting, of pints slowly drained and stories slowly told and not much to do except the pleasant wait for the next pint to arrive.
I did a lot of waiting those next five months in Ireland. I waited for the rain to stop, for the gorse to bloom, to fall in love, to be fallen in love with, to write the perfect poem, to go back home. When the waiting was a solitary thing, I went to the café for coffee, to write and read or just gaze at the beautiful Irishmen with their sad eyes and elegant fingers. But I was never alone when I waited for a Guinness. At the pub on the banks of the narrow canal that emptied out into Galway Bay, we shouldered four-deep onto benches for epic conversations, cheese toasties, and bottomless pints. Over Guinness, love affairs bloomed and were discarded, friendships were tearfully toasted over, then broken later in fits of pique, and afternoons blurred into evenings and back into mornings. Out in the streets beyond the pub, the peace treaty was signed, Bill Clinton did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky, and I nearly failed modern Irish history. I guessed that those things mattered, but the real business seemed to be happening inside, between friends and strangers sharing a round.
It was all so cliché, my Irish life, that it transcended itself and looped right back around into authenticity. But who lives in Ireland and does not order a pint or two to ward off the perpetual chill and sit by the fire, a seisiun reeling through tunes in the corner by the door? After all, going to the pub for a Guinness is, as they say in Gaelic, good craic. Which does not mean exactly what you think it does – but it also kind of does, because drinking is the best kind of entertainment in a country where the wet, cold days vastly outnumber the sunny, warm ones. Every day in Ireland is a lovely day – for a Guinness, at least.