Monday night is quiz night down at the Irish pub. I always arrive early. I sort through the pile of newspapers that the bar keeps for customers. Some of the papers look fresh with no creases, and you can be sure they're today's. I scan the line of text under the banner: "Daily Mail", "De Morgen" or "Financial Times". European edition. Price : One pound sterling or Two euro fifty. Then the date: "Friday 3rd". Ditch it and try another. But even old papers are acceptable. Anything in English, from "home", will do.
I choose a paper and sit down at our usual table. It's thirty minutes before the quiz and the pub is always a little empty at this time. Outside the window, at a busy intersection, buses are getting caught and missed. Trams are dinging their bells at kamikaze commuters dashing for bus-stops. People look a little frazzled by the rush, but relieved to have finished work, to be out of the office. They are determined not to lose a second more of their day to their job. Each one has someone waiting for them to come home. Their phones ring and they ask questions about dinner. Always the same questions. "What will we eat tonight? I don't know, what would you like to do? Do you want me to pick something up?"
I'm just happy to have my paper. I smooth my sleeved arm across the dark wood table to clear away the grains of salt left over from its previous loving owner's homely fish-and-chip dinner. I lay out the paper and hunch down with my face over the cover. I try to physically absorb stories than have become signals from home, a lost place to which I have no intention of returning, but home nonetheless. The vocabulary assumes I understand it, which I do. I take pleasure in turns of phrase that I haven't heard in years. "If the shadow cabinet is to be believed..." or at sensational tabloid headlines "Shocker as chief axes vice squad bigwig". Big exaggerations squished into tiny sentences that have me searching for a verb. Don't you need a verb to make a sentence? I have to check myself. I'm not really an authority on my language anymore.
I'm a thousand years removed from stories of bus driver strikes and political overspending and some savage commentary made on a radio show that a DJ/politician/religious leader refuses to apologise for. I get involved for just a few seconds and then flip the page. I don't have any responsibility. I am detached.
The others start arriving about five minutes before the start of the quiz. They are slapping each others backs, talking loudly and trying to figure out where we came in last week's quiz, or what to bring to the next party or picnic ("...Pasta? Or rice this time? I have a recipe for quiche. Who's invited anyway..?")
We are all foreigners in this city. But on Mondays, in this faux-mahogany Irish bar with its pictures of Irish rebel leaders and its pints of bad Guinness, we are sheltered from the strange language and culture into which we have been flung. I am already in place, sitting, watching from behind my wooden table as my friends come in. I always feel very conscious, at this moment, of my solitude. They know that we always sit at the same table, and yet they scan the room anyway. Then their eyes fall on me and they smile. I stand up. We air-kiss, something we picked up over here, and we laugh at nothing. Chairs scrape along the floor. Jackets are removed and waiters are signaled. Calls for beer, blanches, house reds are ignored by a harried looking waiter who considers us inconsiderate. Can't we see how busy he is? We roll our eyes and call him an asshole under our breaths but then we laugh. We don't mean it, because if we did, it wouldn't be any fun.
A guy says something into the microphone. It's our signal to shut up for the quiz, but we just lower our voices and talk about people we know. Kristen is telling a story about a woman in her neighourhood who has taken to walking around with an empty pram. She said the first time it happened, it was just odd, but she could think of possible explanations. Then the second time, it was more difficult to explain away. The third time, now that was just crazy. We teeter between laughter and genuine concern, making jokes ending with "Ah no but seriously". If she's crazy, is it still okay to laugh? Bob is commenting on the waitresses. I'm folding up my paper and telling Chloe, almost in a whisper now, that I saw her ex on the metro. She asks me, leaning forward, how he looked but she is silenced by the quiz master, impatient to get things going.
The quizmaster is a tall English guy. He has a sweet smile, but very shy. The Americans among us think he might have learning difficulties, or be dyslexic. (Everyone has a "condition", according to my American friends). We all like him. The first round starts and we listen raptly for the questions that are rising over the din of the steadily filling pub. We all laugh when the quizmaster mispronounces "posthumous" and "colonel" as he reads the questions from a mess of papers in front of him. We have all heard the name Diane Fossy but can't think what she's famous for. What's the Latin name for...? What movie did Oliver Stone win an Oscar for? The Greek god of what? We exclaim and shake our heads at the difficult ones, saying "that's impossible", even as we see our neighbours at competing tables hunched over their answer sheets and scribbling away furiously with their tongues sticking out.
But we rarely look at the other tables. Our lives are spent among strangers. These Monday night friends of mine are here to talk laugh and be ridiculous with familiar people. We touch each other's arms or pat each other's backs. We make jokes and tell stories to distract from whatever is hurting us. John's uncle is dying. Kristen's ex husband wants her back. I am slipping back into the dark, damp basement of depression. Bob's mother has dementia. We are losing our jobs.
A genuine smile has spread across my face by the end of round one. I'm grinning as the mood gets sillier and innuendo less subtle. Every time we get an answer right, the table is slapped. William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army. Mumbai is the most populous city in Asia. When one of us gives a correct answer, we throw back our shoulders in mock pride. Or, we shrug our shoulders when we get it wrong as if to say "I never said I was good at this". And it doesn't really matter anyway.
What really gets me going is when we win. The quizmaster, our shy, slow announcer, reads the results. He starts with the team with the least points and goes up. "In seventh place...". We lean forward, fists clenched, sometimes with our faces down and our noses almost touching the table, fingers crossed, holding hands, breath held and sssshhhhhh!!! the rowdy group over there shouting. As he reads "...and in third place..." and our team name doesn't follow, our eyes are squeezed shut.... Then he reads out the second place winner and ... it's not us and I let out a yelp! and he says "...and this week's winner..." in a kind of bored voice and we are so excited we could burst and he says "...The Expats!" and we cheer and our drinks slop all over the table and we grab each other's shoulders and hug each other and say things like "ohmygodwecouldnthavedoneitwithoutyou!!".
Then the grumpy waiter comes over and puts five free drink vouchers down in front of us and says congratulations as he changes the ashtray.
Within 5 minutes, we have all left the bar. We clear out and part ways, singing "We are the champions, my friends..." and hop, skip and jumping home to bed because there's work and humdrum tomorrow and life is hard and people are dying, but right now I'm so happy I could burst. My footsteps are light on the ground and my heart is, momentarily, uncluttered. I kiss everyone goodbye and look for my bus. These are my friends and this is what we do on Mondays.