When I was 16, I went to Lyon for seven weeks to improve my French but, instead, I developed a taste for cheap cider and I also got my first tattoo. Not content enough with being the embodiment of a “girl gone wild” on her French exchange, I also nailed another stereotype and stepped up to play the role of Disgraceful Irish Person Abroad. For, you see, my first tattoo wasn’t just any tattoo; it was a shamrock on my hip and I got it on Paddy’s Day.
Every parent’s horror, I went to France a girl and came back a lout. A lout with a shamrock tattoo. It wasn’t my intention to lose the run of myself but it was probably my first time having the freedom to display the part of my personality that goes “sure, why not?” when thrown with the opportunity of doing something for the laugh. Overall, this stint in Lyon was miserable. I was regularly fed plates of cauliflower for dinner by the quirky mother of the house Annie. As an enthusiastic hula-hoop instructor (that was her real job), she was rarely seen without a hoop. She was a joyous and buoyant thing - aside from the forced starvation experienced on my end - who loved watching crime dramas and would regularly emit the Frenchiest sounding sounds like “hop là!” when she was setting the table or “pffffff” if you asked her a challenging question.
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Living for the weekends
The father of the house, the sadistic Jean-Claude, challenged me with something new and trivial every day. One day, in a quest to prove that he spoke English better than I did, he asked if I knew what laser was an acronym for. Before I had a chance to let that bizarre question find a place in my brain, he bellowed “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. He won that round, I guess. One evening, he told me in great detail how foie gras was made, acting out the force-feeding and execution of the goose, before making me eat a plate of it. Another time, he accused me of stealing his soap. I did not steal his soap, although I wish I had.
We drank on the streets and on the banks of the river Rhône until we learned that pubs didn’t check us for ID and then turned an Irish pub in Lyon’s Old Town into our base.
As a result, I lived for the weekends where I could meet up with my two friends who were shacked up in the farther ends of Lyon for a similar torturous yet immersive educational experience. On the weekends, we drank. We drank on the streets and on the banks of the river Rhône until we learned that pubs didn’t check us for ID and then turned an Irish pub in Lyon’s Old Town into our base. We drank Jack Daniels and Coke, vodka and orange, Guinness, Smirnoff Ice and cider. We drank the things we knew the names of and in those seven weeks, we finally landed on the drink that suited us best. Bulmers became my drink of choice and it would remain my drink for the next nine years, eroding my stomach as much as it did my teeth during that tizzy, fizzy timeframe.
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Shammy the Shamrock
Without having to prove my date of birth at all, other than nodding when the heavy-set tattoo artist asked “vous avez 18 ans?”, the tattoo was done in a matter of minutes.
I don’t know when we decided that I would get a tattoo - it was a collective decision - but we knew that it was going to happen. We were young adults! And we had independence to demonstrate! The details are hazy, mostly because I was a drunk teen, but we whittled down a plethora of potential tats down to two; a shamrock or the symbol from MTV’s Jackass that was made up of a skull and two crutches placed like crossbones. I was a crutches user, rather than a wheelchair user, then and I listened to a lot of Blink 182 on my mini-disk player so the Jackass symbol felt more fitting. Thankfully, some external and almighty powerful force nudged me towards the timeless design of the shamrock instead.
Without having to prove my date of birth at all, other than nodding when the heavy-set tattoo artist asked “vous avez 18 ans?”, the tattoo was done in a matter of minutes. Lined in black and coloured in a Crayola marker green, my shamrock, Shammy the Shamrock, was never meant to be cool or fashionable because such a thing is never cool or fashionable. It was done because it was funny then and it’s still funny now.
With the ravages of time, he looks more like an overboiled head of broccoli rather than a dainty little four-leaf clover but I don’t regret getting him done at all.
Whenever my top rides up a little or if I’m swimming with friends or in a state of undress in esteemed company, Shammy has his moment to shine and I don’t balk at his existence, I simply revel in the ridiculousness of his origins. With the ravages of time, he looks more like an overboiled head of broccoli rather than a dainty little four-leaf clover but I don’t regret getting him done at all. Not only do I have something in common with dedicated and ageing Celtics fans, I have an eternal connection with St. Patrick’s Day and Lyon. Never really the patriot, my little shamrock is a symbol of the silliness we practice at the age of 16 that I wish I could exercise more at 31.