Warm Plane, Cold Welcome
It is said that travel broadens the mind. While there’s plenty to learn from exploring foreign lands, experiencing different cultures and meeting new people, the act of travel itself provides its own valuable and pragmatic life lessons, as well. Globe-trotting involves everything from
acting like a headless chicken running around to entombed in a middle seat sitting still for far too long, making the argument for function over form when it comes to clothing. I’m more of a “jeans and t-shirt” type since I’ve never been comfortable in dress wear, and especially with the rigors of peregrination. However, given that we were representing an international organization with a public image, PTPI required us in suits and dresses for the plane.(1)
Ireland was our entry point into Europe via Aer Lingus. Unfortunately, the plane was on the
sultry warm and humid side from the moment we boarded, and by the time we landed it was as fresh and invigorating as an old school gymnasium. Since this was well before iPods and smartphones, I made the best of it by taking my mind off the stifling air and passing the time without my then trusty cassette tape Walkman. This was because it, the tapes and battery charger were too bulky for my welcome sign for pick pockets PTPI standard issue carryon bag and already crammed-to-the-max suitcase.(2) As a result, I was at the mercy of the plane’s complimentary entertainment – the inoffensive choices of traditional Irish melodies, classic/adult contemporary/light FM music, or the in-flight movie My Left Foot – the moving story of how Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar just by grimacing.
I often kid that my visiting a locale is frequently heralded or accompanied by shitty weather, and this journey may have established that bon mot long before I previously realized. The post-dawn sun was playing peek-a-boo through grey and windy clouds as we disembarked at Shannon International Airport (SNN). Whether from acclimating to the plane’s muggy conditions or the genuine shock of the relatively cooler air, it felt like we skipped Summer and landed in October. Complaints regarding the stuffy flight quickly morphed into fond remembrances as we shivered on the tarmac. Since we were an official group from an established organization, passing through customs was relatively easy (though how the Irish didn’t think twice about admitting an army of American teenagers is beyond me).(3)
Shannon International Airport and on the road to Killarney.
There’s Plenty of Time to Sleep When You’re Dead
We arrived in Killarney (southwestern Ireland) and checked in at the Glena House (called the Harmony Inn today), a comfy, family-run home-away-from-home on the outskirts of town. Just in time for the end of breakfast, our teacher leaders reviewed the itinerary. Our first day was free and open, mainly for
sleep deprivation torture recovering from jet lag. Despite the sound advice to avoid sleep until the evening, a weary few gave up the ghost and crashed, but some of us kept ourselves occupied, especially with the clouds breaking and the sun quickly warming things up.
One of the hotel staff mentioned bicycle rentals at a shop up the street. After securing our transportation, we rode off – winding through town, dodging legitimately annoyed drivers and beasts of burden alike of numerous horse carriages, and eventually worked our way partially around Lough Leane. We rode by Ross Castle, hopped over to Innisfallen Island and explored the abbey. In retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have clambered all around the ruins like rabid monkeys on our own, but no one was there and we were doing everything possible to ensure we slept that evening. In retrospect, I’ve developed a keen respect for historical sites and natural phenomena that dissuades me from boasting about and discouraging that kind of behavior. On the other hand, if a castle is still standing centuries after enduring everything that people and the elements can throw at it, then surviving a few exhausted teenagers probably isn’t much of a challenge. Still, I’m encouraging anyone who’s even thinking of doing what we did to just not do it.
Bike riding around Lough Leane.
Actively staving off sleep for nearly two days crept up on us as the beautiful afternoon waned and evening ensued. Tired and hungry, we dragged ourselves back to the Glena House in time for dinner – warm plates of eagerly woofed down quasi-lasagna. Afterward, the teacher leaders thoroughly reviewed the next few days’ schedule again as we defied gravity’s best attempts to faceplant us into our desserts. At long last, the behave-yourselves-you’re-representing-your-country-but-still-have-fun speech ended, followed by our zombie horde crawling upstairs and collapsing into bed.
The Déjà vu Tour and Making Out with a Castle
Sleeping around the clock did wonders – this being my first real experience with jetlag, I felt like a brand-new person after a long sleep. With a good breakfast in our bellies and internal body clocks reset, we jaunted out for the first official round of international tourism (well, it was my first time). Killarney is a quaint village, drawing on a lot of well-deserved, old world charm. One of the big attractions is horse-drawn carriage tours that point out the noteworthy buildings and sites, and eventually follow our same bike route from yesterday. We revisited the abbey, saw the Muckross House and surrounding gardens, and finally Ross Castle (again). This time, we toured the inside of it, which consequently and utterly annihilated my D&D– and Society for Creative Anachronism-inspired delusions regarding the “high life” of residing in a castle.(4)
TOP ROW: Downtown Killarney. MIDDLE ROW: Muckross House. BOTTOM ROW: Ross Castle.
We spent the following few days seeing the sites and doing all sorts of touristy things, including a road trip to Blarney Castle. Walking around this keep is more like climbing it, especially since most castles were built when ergonomics wasn’t as high a priority compared to storing food or fending off sieges. We walked, crawled and scaled through the bowels of the castle, steadily reaching the top. Now, when I say we all kissed the
geological equivalent of the village bicycle legendary Blarney Stone, I don’t mean we were like a pair of callow teenagers on a first date, anxiously holding hands, staring wantonly in each other’s eyes, trying to decipher awkward facial expressions. No, being bestowed with its “Gift of Eloquence” was more of an exercise in risking your life to smooch a promiscuous boulder. Since the castle is kind of old, parts of it have literally fallen apart not stood the test time. Case in point, the area directly below this hussy of a stone fell away a long time ago, providing a lovely view of the ground far below. As a result, fulfilling your marital duties with this trampy piece of masonry is accomplished by grabbing the handholds around it, hanging upside down and hoping you snag the tiny bar stretching across the gap underneath should you fall. Not being particularly superstitious, I’m dubious of magical powers associated with licentious slabs of limestone, but I like to think I gained an iota of wit, humor and – even dare I say – charm from playing tonsil hockey with that slutty chunk of rock.(5)
Blarney Castle – one of my group kissing the stone and the view from on top.
After the past few days of sightseeing around the Irish countryside, we celebrated our last evening in Killarney with the Glena House staff, who played traditional Irish music while attempting some dance lessons. This further reinforced my long-held conviction that I didn’t miss my calling as a “song and dance” man.
Meeting at the Crossroads of Anxious and Awkward
The drive to Dublin was a morning-long commute, followed by a quick tour of Trinity College and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. While this church was my first time seeing Gothic architecture up close and personal, we would receive a more extensive explanation and demonstration of how it worked later on.
TOP ROW: Trinity College. BOTTOM ROW: St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Part of PTPI’s then outreach effort included arranging and sponsoring homestays where student travelers live a few days in a foreign household for the “walk a mile in their shoes” experience. We were split up and assigned different homes throughout Dublin, with most of us parceled out one student per home. Our orientation briefings made it sound entertaining and exciting (i.e., it’s like a sleepover…with complete strangers!). However, now that the moment of truth was at hand, the reality of leaving our familiar collective left us like jumpy deer caught in the proverbial headlights. In what can best be summed up as one of the most painfully awkward experiences of my life, we lined up like suburban revolutionaries waiting for blindfolds and last cigarettes before a shooting squad. By contrast, our waiting Irish hosts’ expressions ranged from OH, LOOK! AMERICANS! HOW EXCITING! to OKAY…WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?
I was one of the many in a solo homestay and was welcomed by a pleasant enough, but slightly dour divorcee and her college student son who lived in a small house in the middle of town. Since she worked full time, I didn’t see much of her except early in the morning and at night. Her son was an Irish Che Guevara wannabe, with a bedroom full of books on Marxism and a Soviet flag prominently hanging over his bed. He smoked inside despite warnings not to, and cornered me once or twice for ridiculously one-sided discussions on the benefits of socialism and/or evils of U.S. imperialism. Admittedly, I was much more conservative back then, but finally grew up and became a solidly left-leaning Democrat today. So it was a little ironic that I didn’t particularly disagree with his less militant and aggressive points; however, he tended to keep arguing even after I told him I thought he was right.
With the mother working and the son attending classes, I was a latchkey pilgrim in a foreign land, so I wandered around the neighborhood and surrounding parts of the city, occasionally crossing paths with one or two of my travel group. The evening routine involved chit chatting over a quick meal and watching TV or playing board games. Around this time, the 1990 FIFA World Cup was in full gear, and you couldn’t find a TV or newsstand that wasn’t covering it. The tournament was the one subject the son could talk about sans political overtones, and on one of my last nights with them, he and his friends took me to a pub and we watched the quarterfinal between Italy and Ireland. I spent most of the evening futilely relating with the Peoples Student Commune of Downtown Dublin while slowly sipping a pint of Guinness.(6) As the evening progressed and Italy kept winning, everyone around us became proportionately more drunk, which was fine until one of the guys in my crowd slapped me on the back and announced far-too-loudly-for-my-comfort “I’LL BET YOU’RE HAPPY TO BE ITALIAN!”
(1) For what it’s worth, I’m not known for my fashion sense, and I’m sure family and friends alike have a few embarrassing stories to share regarding my questionable taste in clothing and attire (I share one in a later entry…keep reading). That being said, my hating dressing up is partially due to the time I spent in high school working a concession stand at a movie theater whose dress code required white dress shirts and black bowties. In addition to looking as dorky as possible, the uniform was really uncomfortable, especially as soda fountains
performed bukkake scenes sprayed syrup and water on me or I sweated buckets over open pits to Hell hot and oily popcorn bins. To this day I rarely eat popcorn and the modern dress codes for cinema employees in more comfortable polo shirts or t-shirts pisses me off a little whenever I go to the movies.
(2) Gather round children as I spin a yarn about the “good ol’ days” of cassette tapes – a portable data and music storage medium from before iPods and smartphones but after dinosaurs ruled the Earth! They were sold in exotic places called “music stores” that were frequented by long-haired dudes in heavy metal band concert t-shirts and gum-gnawing girls with hairspray-saturated coifs that made them walking fire hazards. Whereas today one can carry their entire video and music collections on an iPod, smartphone or tablet, back then one frequently struggled over which cassette tapes to bring on a trip.
(3) By this time, much of Europe adopted the Schengen Agreement, making border checks much easier for crossing into other countries, but it concurrently diminished the
bragging rights sentimental trophy of a “road weary” passport. As a result, the only stamps in my passport for this trip were from entering Ireland and leaving Germany.
(4) I’ll save you the
mere minutes of Googling long hours of library research and sum up – living in a castle sucked balls, but probably still beat living as a peasant in complete filth.
(5) I would refer you to friends and ex-girlfriends for their assessment of me along these lines, if not for their testimonies
wildly disagreeing being just a tad different.
(6) I was never a huge Guinness fan, even long after I began enjoying beer. And yes, Mom and Dad, this was my first drinking experience. No, really.