'A life in six different cities, and every one of them, my Dublin'
I T SEEMS rather surreal and far off now, but just 20 years ago, my wife and I were all but settled in sunny California, having abandoned a rather dreary and difficult Dublin in the early 90s.
It's only as we sift through one-night hotel deals for a shopping trip to the city next week that it strikes me, what a very different place it is now from the many ways I've known Dublin, though so many years have flown by.
As a child, adopted by American parents and arriving to Ireland from Los Angeles in the early 70s, Dublin first seemed a rumbling, stone and red-brick cauldron of umbrellas, double-decker buses and smoking chimneys.
Those early memories are sensory: roasting hops, exhaust fumes, screeching bus brakes, a rotten-egg Liffey and loose-leaf tea sipped from a saucer in Bewleys. The city was like an eccentric great aunt who tweaked your cheeks and kissed you on the lips with musty lipstick as you tried to wriggle away.
Growing up in her long shadow, Dublin was an occasional tattered treat, a sweet you dropped on the ground, brushed off and popped in your mouth; a dirty, slightly dangerous, pleasure.
It was hamburgers and milkshakes; cinema seats that coughed clouds of dust when you hit them; a paper bus ticket cranked from the belt of a bad-tempered conductor after a race to sit upstairs at the front.
Dublin then became the sick thrill of wandering through the roar for the first time without parents, sharing a bread roll from the Kylemore, pumping the money saved into Asteroids games in the clamour of a quayside arcade, then being chased by gurriers through the Gaiety Green until finally surrendering your Boomtown Rats badges.
Dublin was losing the money for the bus home, picking up a used ticket off the floor and smudging the faded purple fare with a wet finger and hoping not to get thrown off. It was arriving in, soaked to the skin, but safe to a warm house filled with the smell of cooking. It was your mother saying, "So what did you get up to today?" And you mumbling, "Ah, nothin'."
My first tentative steps as a young adult were through the streets of Dublin, where I came to know 'town' in concentric circles from the Actors' Centre on Sir John Rogerson's Quay, filling café ashtrays with smouldering butts and looking out from behind windows streaming with condensation on a city that thundered past, a city in which I suddenly seemed terrifyingly insignificant.
Dublin seemed colder and less forgiving without the bolthole of home, a succession of damp flats that smelled like the mouldering ghosts of countless previous occupants. But Dublin was also chatting to a like-minded soul as near to the crackling fire of Bewley's on Westmoreland Street as you could manage, and before long, it was a succession of familiar faces crossing the Ha'penny Bridge, each saying 'How'rya'.
By the time I began seeing the girl I would marry, she was at Trinity while I worked nights in the old Irish Press, sneaking past the college porters to stay in her rooms on New Square, once even scaling the railings on Nassau Street, though looking at them now, I can't for the life of me imagine how.
When we finally squirrelled away the fare for San Francisco, I don't think we realised how 'Dublin' we'd become, like the cyclists in Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman who unwittingly become their own bicycles through the exchange of atoms from years of rumbling along the cobbles, only that for the first years we wandered around San Francisco saying 'How'rya' to bewildered strangers.
Dublin hadn't always been kind to us, but we never lost a certain affection for her, and that feeling only grew the longer we stayed away, even amid the sunshine and palm trees of paradise.
We had to rediscover the city all over again when we moved back, now with two small children in tow, and Dublin was suddenly all day trips with strollers, packed lunches in Merrion Square; it was an afternoon at the Ark, or a pantomime at Christmas; and soon it was a daily commute for work, trundling past bristling forests of constructions cranes and slowly watching them dwindle away too.
Our kids are almost grown and coming to know their own Dublin now, one quite different from the musty aunt that first tweaked my cheeks on cold, wet streets, though I have a feeling she's still there somewhere, grumbling and smoking, deep beneath the lights.
And rather like the way I'd once tumble in from the city to the soothing warmth of my house, next week on our trip, I rather expect to feel as if we're tumbling back again, to something soothing and warm about Dublin, all bright and grand and filled with the comforting smells of restaurants and cafés... home.