Monday, March 23, 2009

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Drinking in Belfast

The Polish bartender flashed a blushing smile. He reached over the bar, pulled my head closer, and planted a surprise kiss. “Tonight,” he beamed over the unce-unce-unce club music, “You drink for free!”

Had we been in Kraków or Gdańsk, this might have played out differently. But in Belfast, where I’d come to hear music, the Polish are a new and growing minority. Poles had immigrated in appreciable numbers only since Poland joined the EU in 2004 but already in Irish towns, business banners in English and Polish—or even Gaelic and Polish—are no longer the discordant signage they once seemed.

Sebastian, the beaming bartender, came after hearing of job opportunities. Before settling on Northern Ireland’s capital, he hadn’t spoken any English. Like many of his compatriots, he began work in the service industry; like many, he was self-conscious of his fluency. He shouldn’t have worried.

During an idle moment, I quizzed him about the North and he, in turn, asked about the United States. After days of exploring the city and slogging through the occasional barely-intelligible Norn Iron way with words, his flawless English—newly acquired yet nearly devoid of accent—was a blessing on my ears. I told him so.

Sebastian, apparently, had a button and I’d just pushed it. After that, he refused any money; true to his word, I drank for free.


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