About a month ago, we were over at my parents’ house and my dad nonchalantly mentioned his upcoming trip to Ireland to meet with a contact about some opportunities for UMHB students. He was also going to preach at a church in Galway.
“You’re going WHERE?” I demanded.
“Ireland. Ginni and Jeff were supposed to go with me,” he said, indicating my sister and brother-in-law.
“I wish I could go,” my husband said wistfully. The trip was to be the week before his spring break. Apparently everyone had known about this adventure but me.
“Well, you ought to take Lindsay,” I said obnoxiously.
“Sure, why not?” My dad said, barely looking up from his laptop.
So he hadn’t exactly invited me, but he didn’t fight me too hard on it.
“So…I should go?” I said, realizing that all the pieces fit together perfectly. I would be on Spring Break that week, I could afford it, my son would have a parent, a grandparent and an uncle to stay with…I wouldn’t be going alone…nothing was stopping me.
Well, I thought—guess I’m going to Ireland. I tried to talk myself out of it for the next 4 weeks, and various troubles presented themselves to dissuade me from going. I had troubles with my stomach and a bout of the flu and I was scared of airplanes and I didn’t want to get Hepatitis A from eating fruit and my passport needed to be renewed during the government shutdown—
And yet, I got on a British Airways plane on March the 5th and was in London at Heathrow 8 hours later, weaving between very well-dressed travelers to try and order something that wasn’t available at a Starbucks with the wrong currency. Yeah, I was an American in London. Two jet-lagged and Dramamine-blurred hours later, I was an American in Dublin.
Jamaica Kincaid said that when you’re a tourist, you’re ugly and stupid. That’s something most people reject. We want to blend in and be world-travelers—I looked up what to wear to Ireland in spring and what to say and not say and where the locals liked to eat. And sure, you don’t want to get pickpocketed or taken for a ride in a country you don’t know. And you don’t want to be miserably wet in a country where it rains all the time—it’s good to plan ahead.
When I was in elementary school, I took Irish dance for about 3 years. It was fun and hard and exciting—that reel music would play, those fiddles and pipes and drums, and I would fall in love every time. I listened to Enya and Maire Brennan and Celtic Woman, dreamed of Saint Patrick and hills and ancient churches covered in mossy gray bricks, of cliffs over dark oceans and misty skies punctured with black crows. I studied Irish Literature in college and saw Michael Collins and Secret of Roan Inis, read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Yeats’s poetry… I even briefly (like for 2 days) tried to get the hang of the Irish language. In fact, that’s how my husband and I first got to know each other…we were walking to chapel, practically strangers, and I mentioned that I would like to learn Irish. He offered to loan me a book—he’d wanted to learn it as well. We frequented the British import store in Newburyport, which boasted one bottle of Irish perfume.
He was so jealous of me going, he said he’d give a kidney to get on the plane. So I figured I’d absorb it all for him as best I could. I’d learn everything I could on the Island of Saints and Scholars.
I went to Dublin and saw the sights: Dublin Castle, complete with the Viking-era excavation going on under the city. I went through Trinity College and stepped quietly through the Old College Library, filled to the brim with shelves of dusty books. The Book of Kells has its own exhibit in the college, and you can peer through the glass at the microscopic letters and designs of the priceless illuminated manuscript. It nearly had me in tears. Then I went to pick up some things at the Irish equivalent of Forever XXI and my dad whispered that we were near the old General Post Office, and that the pockmarks in the columns were bullet holes from the Easter Uprising in 1916. All day after that I had songs in my head about “Proudly high over Dublin Town they hung out the flag of war…”
The next day we got up early and trudged through the rain to Kilmainham Gaol, the prison where the leaders of the Rebellion were held, and where most of them were executed. It was so grim and bare, naked gray stone floors and walls, white light coming into the place in bars. And so cold.
Last stop on the tour, our guide took us outside to the yard where the rebels were shot. There’s an Irish flag flying there now, and two small black crosses—one where most of them faced the firing squad, the other where the last one was so weak he was unable to stand and couldn’t even sit in a chair and was shot tied to the chair with ropes. The feeling of that yard was awful. I don’t believe in ghosts, but…you know.
That was the last thing we did in Dublin, and due to a traffic incident, we got kicked out of a cab and had to walk 3 miles. We nearly didn’t make it out of the hotel on time with all our stuff. My feet were tired and sore, and I was pretty emotionally troubled by the trip to the gaol. So when our cab driver to the bus stop asked where we’d been, I said, “Kilmainham Gaol. It was very depressing.”
“You find it depressing? Oh, I don’t,” he said emphatically. “I suppose it is a bit macabre, but I just find it thrilling. As an Irishman, to think, standing there in that yard, that these men being executed are the reason I can walk around now free.”
“It just made me so sad, though…their sacrifice…they didn’t know it would work,” I said, embarrassed but trying to explain my feelings to this more knowledgeable stranger.
“Well, it didn’t work!” He chuckled. “That’s the great joke, it didn’t work! They started a rebellion on the weekend and everyone said, ‘Easter Sunday? No, we have that day off—can you do it when we’re working?’ But then to hear that Connolly—tied to the chair—that an
Irishman wasn’t allowed to die with dignity—that really changed people’s opinions.”
I saw that he was right. I was embarrassed because I hadn’t gotten it. Stupid American Lindsay.
You can wear the right things and keep your accent to yourself, but you’re a Stranger in a Strange Land. This awesome trip was being wasted on me. It’s possible I’m too hard on myself sometimes.
I kept my mouth shut for the first few days in Galway, because I realized that people would know I was foreign by my voice. It was weird—it’s been so long since I was a Stranger. I didn’t want people to know I wasn’t from here, that I was a tourist.
It’s strange the things that are different and the things that aren’t when you travel. They have Starbucks, but they carry different things. The same things sit in the dairy case at the supermarket, but they all have different names and they’re unfamiliar brands and I don’t know which ones are best. Their grocery stores make you buy the plastic bags, and this one particular Dunne’s wouldn’t take my debit card. Maybe there was a minimum purchase…I don’t know, I was too embarrassed to ask. I jettisoned the Liberte yogurt, dug through my pockets for the heavy Euro coins, and tried not to make eye contact with anyone.
It STARTED to be a big deal…I raced back to the apartment saying “don’t freak out…don’t freak out,” checked my bank statement, decided it really was THEIR problem, and put it out of my mind. Mostly. Ginni, Jeff, and Dad all hurried to pay me back for their tickets to the museums in cash, so I guess it all worked out.
I shouldn’t be here, I told myself, folding up their Monopoly money and hiding it in my inside pocket so it wouldn’t get stolen because I’m the sort of idiot who wouldn’t notice she was being pickpocketed. And I didn’t understand Kilmainham Gaol. I should have found it inspiring rather than devastating. Well, at least don’t freak out, I told myself as I bit into my thirtieth order of fish and chips—The List item I wanted to check off was “Travel internationally without freaking out.”
My sister and her husband took a bus, then a ferry, then bicycles around the Aran Islands. They saw all those things I dreamed about when I was a little girl and listened to music from Ireland— moss-covered rocks and dark ocean and misty skies and cliffs and ruins. They saw seals in the water and a dog that appeared in the mist and led them where they needed to go (I’m not making this up…they nicknamed him Bernard and he was their guide).
I did not go with them—after three days of following my brother-in-law around a city at breakneck pace, I wasn’t sure I could do it. And thanks to a miscommunication about schedules, I had the afternoon to myself while my father gave a talk about personal finance. “Do the dishes—clean up the apartment. If you go out, get more milk,” he said. So I cleaned our teacups with unfamiliar soap and not-my-usual-paper towels, put on my coat, and went out into the city of Galway to return to the scene of my previous humiliation—the Dunnes grocery store.
I retraced steps we’d taken all week, following landmarks and stopping only once to take a picture of the canal and the gray sky. I was terrified, so I tried not to think. Here I was, walking through an unfamiliar city in a foreign country where I would give myself away with one word.
Street musicians were set up next to stores, and when one faded into the distance I would start to catch the sound of another one. Saturday is the day when everyone is out in Galway, apparently—kids bundled into coats in strollers, couples holding hands, old men in hats, a bachelorette party, and a woman with a midwestern accent talking loudly on the phone. And I felt myself fade into the crowd.
Across from the gelato shop, I ducked into the mall with the grocery store on the ground floor (or underground…I wasn’t really sure). I filled my arms with cartons and bottles and lingered over sweets for my brother and exotic flavors of Pringles. Then I got into the line, took a deep breath, and asked the woman in front of me, “What’s the difference between this queue and that one?” Queue means line…so it wouldn’t be SO obvious, I figured.
“Oh, nothing—whichever one’s moving faster,” she said with a little laugh.
I got to the cash register and said, “thank you—can I have a bag?”
“Of course,” the lady said, chatting with the regulars on either side of me. Then I left and walked out quickly, a shopping bag in both hands, with my hood off. The sun had come out.
While Ginni and Jeff climbed up cliffs and rode bikes for miles, and my father worked and taught and studied, I bought milk, water, treats, and juice from a local grocery store and then came back and washed dishes. I was pretty proud of myself. So it’s the island of Saints, Scholars, and grocery-buyers. Because when I was a little girl I dreamed of Ireland, but I never thought I’d get to go. As a grown up adult, I think it’s beautiful and moving. And the thing I hoped would happen actually did—I managed to afford it, bring the things I needed, walk around without getting into trouble, and take some nice pictures. Sure, I broke my dad’s new mug five minutes after buying it, but I also bought milk. By myself. That’s another thing down, thank you very much. Travel internationally without freaking out? Done.
Ok, I freaked out a little. I got scared that I was sick…that I would have to spend the night in an Irish ER (most of my freak outs look the same and seem to follow the same plot). I picked around fresh lettuce and didn’t eat the lemon slice on my incredible fish and chips because I was afraid of getting Hepatitis A. I accidentally threw away a bunch of stuff in my haste to pack up and leave Dublin on time, and had to borrow tiny clothes from my sister who is a size double zero. I probably didn’t NEED to be so nervous about one store not accepting my card. And I definitely felt stupider than I needed to feel when talking to Keith the cab driver.
But here’s the thing…I could’ve listened to Keith for another four hours. He told stories about trips he’d taken to ancient burial sites, he read the Irish language license plates for me and explained the words, he told us what to do in Galway. Just listening to his accent was an experience I could never get if I stayed home. And yeah, I didn’t get Kilmainham Gaol the first time around. But, I mean…it isn’t my country (although the lady at the sweater shop told me, “We love Americans here—nine out of ten of you are our people.”). One of my literature professors at Gordon once said, “It’s ok to be a Stranger in a Strange land.” You have to give up the idea that you’ll look stupid or that you won’t understand something if you’re ever going to travel abroad. And only then can you really GO anywhere but your home. Because you can’t take the comfort of home with you and also see places you’ve dreamt of all your life. It sort of has to be one or the other.
Well, see you guys on the other side of the Atlantic. I’m going to bed because it’s 10:30 here.
Thanks, team. 🙂
This is great, Lindsay! I’m so glad you got to do this! I also enjoyed the memories you shared, like reading Jamaica Kincaid in class. I cried when we got to Hungary because I couldn’t figure out the sheets for the bed or open the windows. At the grocery store it’s the same; you have to buy your own bags, and bag your own stuff, which I didn’t know. Please share pictures on Facebook.