Brian Viner: Country Life

I ordered a pint of the black stuff, but noticed that the Irish customers were drinking lager
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AS THE author of a column called Country Life, I seem to have spent precious little of my life in the country these past few weeks. Last week it amounted to about 16 hours, between trips to Chicago and Dublin, which perhaps makes my life as a journalist sound more exciting than it is: dual-destination weeks normally mean Wigan and Sunderland, or Reading and Wolverhampton.

But Chicago and Dublin it was, and I was struck, not for the first time, by how disorientating it is to spend time in an English-speaking city in a foreign land.

Dublin in particular exemplified this phenomenon: so close to home, so familiar, and yet so different. The best example I can offer is the hoarding outside the Gaiety Theatre advertising a production of Mother Goose, starring not Bobby Davro or Anita Dobson but someone called Doireann Ni Chorragain.

I had spent time in both cities before, but not long enough to forge any kind of acquaintance, and in Dublin last Thursday afternoon, with my business done for the day, I walked for miles, exploring St Stephen's Green, Trinity College and Temple Bar, before crossing the Liffey and winding up in a pub on O'Connell Street called Madigan's ordering, in common with the Germans, Swedes and Americans at the bar, a pint of the black stuff. The barmaid, who might have been called Molly Malone had she not been Chinese, poured it in the proper way: letting it rest when it was seven-eighths full, then wandering off to have an amiable argument with the landlord, before returning to top it up. I couldn't help noticing, incidentally, that the Irish customers were drinking lager.

Later, looking for somewhere to have a spot of dinner, I was reminded of something Bill Bryson once wrote, to the effect that there are few pleasures in life greater than that of unpacking one's bag in a hotel that is either comfortable, or comfortable enough, and then setting forth on to unknown city streets. It doesn't put the flake in everyone's cone but I love it, too. And pleasurable though it always is in company, it's more of an adventure on your own. Solitude heightens the senses, somehow, perhaps because instead of nattering, you look more. It also means that while you sup your beer you can also read your book, which in the cities that bore James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, makes you feel properly literary. Not that I was reading either of them, I hasten to add. I wouldn't have wanted to be seen sitting alone at the bar in Madigan's reading Finnegans Wake: you can overdo these things.

I must say that I was struck by how Irish the city was, and here of course I'm talking about Chicago, not Dublin. There seemed to be a shamrock-festooned bar on every other corner. In Dublin, there's a Starbucks on every other corner. I was reminded that 20 odd years ago I went to a Scottish Highland Games in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The authenticity was exemplary: kilted caber-tossers tucked into haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down with wee drams of malt. At the Highland Games I have been to Scotland, by contrast, the diet is hamburgers, Coke and Budweiser.

But Dublin and Chicago are more alike than they are different. So, I dare say, are Stockholm and Shanghai. It's that city vibe, of which I have become much more aware since moving to Herefordshire. Like being on your own, living in the sticks does wonderful things for your consciousness of cities.

Anyway, after my pint of Guinness at Madigan's I went next door to the Savoy cinema, a wonderful art deco picture palace, and saw Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Unless you've recently had abdominal stitches, I recommend it unreservedly. I can't remember the last time a film made me laugh so much.

I also felt an empathy with Borat, albeit in one department only: his naive bemusement in metropolitan streets. Not that four years living in the Welsh Marches have turned me into a hillbilly, exactly, but in both Chicago and Dublin I gave a wide berth to several nutters talking animatedly to themselves, before realising that they were wearing mobile phone earpieces. That's one gag that Sacha Baron Cohen missed.