John Daly: 'San Francisco yoga scene is just like our local GAA club, but without the craic'
It's been said many times, but still bears repeating - you learn a lot about life in public houses.
Over the past few days during this blissful, mellow in-between period of the Christmas holidays, many an occasion has presented itself to plonk my posterior on a bar stool and chat with strangers. This being Ireland, of course, nobody is a stranger after one utters that undeniable social command: "So, how's it going?"
It's been a Christmas of intriguing social intercourse with teenage brainboxes, college drop-outs, alternative industry entrepreneurs, homeless charity volunteers and chic ladies wearing enough jewellery to pay off my mortgage a few times over. Everywhere I went, though, the laughter and 'happy to be home' enthusiasm of returned ex-pats made up the background soundtrack to the convivial atmosphere of an Ireland taking a grateful pause from the hurly burly of normal life.
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Instantly recognisable by their deep tans, deeper wallets and insatiable inclination to hug at the slightest opportunity, these ex-pats offer an interestingly objective view of how our little island is perceived from 10,000 miles away.
Quaffing a few craft beers with a bevy of nurses home from Down Under for a wedding, all were arching their eyebrows at the notion of returning anytime soon to jobs in the Irish health service - even with the incentive of free airfares back as part of the deal. "It's better than it was, okay, but there's still way too many desk jockeys and not enough front-line staff," was the common refrain.
The modern Irish rover is also often recognisable by his altered physical appearance - a fact underlined in an old college buddy who left Dublin three years ago with a growing cocaine habit and 20 kilos overweight. Nowadays he rises at 5am for serious yoga on the beach followed by a daily swim in the Pacific, and the closest thing to an illegal substance he'll touch is the occasional Cuban cigar to celebrate another hi-tech coup in Silicon Valley: "Yoga in San Fran is like the local GAA club at home, it's an intro to social and job networks you'd be stupid to ignore."
As to life in Trump's America, he is fulsome in praise of the Irish fraternity and its tentacles: "If anything, the Irish bond is stronger nowadays, and it's brilliant in everything from finding an affordable apartment to pointing you toward a decent job."
In the end, as my dear old Mum used to say: "The savage loves his native shore" - and almost everybody I met was clearly ruling in the notion of one day returning home.
"Regardless of what happens with the Brexit drama, Ireland will always be an ideal pitch point for accessing the EU market," explained Brian, a 28-year-old whose outside catering company turns over 30 million rand (€1.8m) servicing the booming college market in Cape Town. "And the kind of incentives available from agencies like Enterprise Ireland are better than anything in Europe."
When it comes to what they miss, ex-pats generally subscribe to the same basic desires as their parents probably did - Barry's tea, Tayto's, Penneys, spice balls, the family Sunday lunch and the joy of GAA county finals. Towering over all those, though, is that indefinable, incomprehensible, mysterious and baffling national characteristic - the craic. But what exactly is the craic, I asked?
"Turn your head to your left and right," a 30-year-old Dubliner who teaches English in Beijing commanded me. "It's everybody in this pub, with all their quirks, blemishes and foibles. It is the comfort of being amongst your own, the joy of being home."