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The Irish Read: Rosita Boland on the power of friendships

This week, we have an extract from Rosita Boland’s book Comrades.

Image: Brenda Fitzsimons

THE IRISH LITERARY scene has long been a source of national pride, but it’s in particularly rude health at the moment. Yet with so many books to catch up on, it can be easy to lose track of what’s out there.

Enter The Irish Read, where we feature an extract from a piece of work by an Irish or Ireland-based author.

The taster from a novel, work of non-fiction or short story should spur you on to find out more about the writer and their work.

The writer

Rosita Boland is an award-winning senior features writer at the Irish Times, specialising in human interest stories. She was a 2009 Nieman Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. 

Her first book, Elsewhere, was nominated for the Irish Book Award of Non-fiction.

The book

“Comrades is a book about friendship. In it, Rosita explores the friendships that have shaped her life. She writes about books that provided companionship and counsel, soulmates met while travelling, a childhood hero who became a cherished friend, the surprise encounters that can change and enrich a life in an instant.”

The story

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THE ULTIMATE SOUVENIR from travelling elsewhere in the world is a friend.

There are, of course, the memories of the experience itself. Those are stored in my head, and another version is contained in the diaries I keep on every journey. There are the few small material souvenirs that had to fit into a pocket in my rucksack and be carried onwards for months. A silver beaker from Tibet that I bought in an antique shop in northern Pakistan. A century-old printed Persian cloth, bought in Isfahan. A tiny packet of gold leaf from a temple in Myanmar. A small brightly coloured painting from a market in Ecuador. A spice box from India that still retains a smell of the long-vanished spices it once contained.

I love and treasure these beautiful little objects. Because I was always travelling so light, I restricted myself to finding one (if even one) portable thing from each country I visited. They are scattered throughout my house now, tiny touchstones to adventures in other cultures, journeys made years ago but which never really ended.

In the course of those travels, I met so many people of all ages. So many shared experiences. So many dinners together, or drinks in bars. So many long train or bus rides. Days spent trek-king. Going out exploring cities. Romantic flings, where any schedule was temporarily abandoned in favour of spending more time with each other. Telling and hearing so many stories. I look back in my diaries and, although I recall many of these experiences vividly, often, the memories of the people with whom I shared them have faded away. We met briefly, had wondrous times and moved on; on to the next train, the next bus, the next stage of our various journeys. I loved those shared times: expendable as fireworks; glorious while they lasted but ephemeral by nature. And I also love the friends still in my life whom I first met out on the road: my souvenir friends.

Nancy

I met Nancy in a hostel in Kraków during the Easter of 1993. Or rather, I heard her before I saw her. She arrived late off a train from Budapest, when the hostel was already dark for the night. I heard swearing in an Irish accent – ‘Bollocks!’, followed by a giggle – and ‘Whoops!’ as she banged into a bunk bed in the dark. The people not yet asleep in the dormitory, including me, giggled also.

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The next morning, on my way to the bathroom, I noticed with surprise a copy of Derek Walcott’s Omeros on the opposite bunk. ‘Who’s travelling with poetry?’ I asked of the dormitory in general, lifting the book up like a detective brandishing an important clue. In my experience, backpackers did not usually travel with books of poetry.

‘Me,’ said the girl with the Irish accent, who had just come back from the bathroom. It was Nancy. Within a few minutes, we discovered that we had some acquaintances in common, via Trinity, where we had both studied English, Nancy six years after me.

‘Will we go and have breakfast?’ one of us suggested. It was not long after 10 a.m. by the time Nancy and I found a café on the main square in Kraków’s Old Town. Easter Sunday bells were ringing, women were carrying yellow flowers upside down and there were stalls with painted eggs. We ordered breakfast and stayed there, talking and ordering more coffees, and then, as midday came and went, glasses of wine. We could not stop talking. Nancy had just finished college and was living in Budapest for a year, teaching literature. She had taken the train to Kraków for her Easter holiday. I was four months into an open-ended backpacking trip around Greece, Italy, Eastern Europe and Turkey.

We traded stories like chess masters playing games. Every time one story ended, another began. We each had an endless supply, and we each realized almost at once that day that we were always going to be friends. The one mystery was how we had never met each other before. Twice, different dour-faced women came over to our table to ask us to stop laughing. To stop laughing! This only made us laugh harder.

The café closed at 3 p.m., so we left in search of a bar. We found one, and then, a few hours later, a restaurant. When that closed, we bought beers and went back to the hostel and kept talking. When the dormitory settled down to sleep for the night, we locked ourselves into a bathroom and kept talking.

We talked for sixteen hours straight that first day. At the end of it, we declared our love for each other.

Until I met Nancy, I hadn’t realized one could truly love a friend; I had assumed such love was only for those men I fell in love with and had sexual relationships with. It’s not true. Of course we can love the friends we have platonic relationships with too, which is why it hurts so much when sometimes they break up with us.

Comrades: A Lifetime of Friendships by Rosita Boland is published by Doubleday and is out now. 

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