I think I saw them at Glastonbury in 1979, but I couldn’t have done, it would have been ten years before they were born. One had her hair in dreadlocks, the other had tied hers back, but loose curling strands hung either side of her face. They wore the distinctive uniform of the hippies of the 1960s, or the New Agers of the 1990s; bright skirts, thick coloured tights with boots, multipocketed coats. Their backpacks stood on the floor beside them. They stood at the roundabout north of Kilkenny, thumbs extended in hope of a lift. Pulling up, I pressed the switch on the window, ‘where are you going?
‘Portlaoise – are you going there?’
‘I am, I have a hospital call to do, but this is an odd place to be looking for a lift to Portlaoise’.
‘Oh, we’re going to Mullingar, but we figured that there would be no-one driving from here to Westmeath’.
Two backpacks and their owners were crammed into a little Peugeot. Their English was spoken with such a soft accent, it might have been from anywhere. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Northern California’. (Maybe their parents had been at Monterey? But no, they would have been too young).
‘Why are you hitching in Ireland on a cold morning in December? It’s not a great time for backpacking’.
‘We’re woofing’. Before I could inquire as to whether this was a canine or sound system activity, she elaborated, ‘worldwide opportunities on organic farms – we work in return for our accommodation’.
Since September, they had worked on a number of farms, but their visit was now drawing to a close.
They talked about their visit and their work, mostly manual and menial, and about returning to the United States to find work in order to save to go to college.
‘The US system is very different from what we have here in Europe; even Ireland is very generous in its treatment of students compared with their American counterparts. I read that if California became an independent republic, it would be the seventh biggest economy in the world’.
‘I wish we could leave the Union; there are some scary people in the US’.
‘Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin – the Tea Party?’
‘Yeah, and more besides’.
I drove them to the Tullamore road north of Portlaoise and bid them farewell. Had I met them at a pop festival in 1979, I would have been intimidated by their confident worldliness, and, probably, by the deep political opinions that brought them to the country to labour on organic farms. Hippies, New Age, whatever – they supported themselves and owed nothing to anyone.
The brief interlude was a reminder that another world is possible; that the Europe dominated by Merkel, Sarkozy, the bureaucrats and the bankers, is not the only life out there. California is a far remove from the darkness of an Irish December; perhaps, in San Francisco, they can see the world more clearly.