The First Stamp and Drinks with Strangers
December 30th, 2014
2:00 PM IST (Irish Standard Time)
9:00 AM EST
Aer Lingus Flight EL0108, Seat 23K, Somewhere over the North Atlantic
The lights in the cabin began popping on with an aggressive harshness, prodding my eyelids open. My blurry eyes barely began to adjust as a cheery voice with a southern Irish lilt crackled over the PA system. “Good morning! We are about an hour out from our arrival at Dublin airport and our cabin crew will now begin serving our complementary breakfast service.” Coffee. That’s the only thought my mind can muster now. As soon as the stewardess begins working her way down the aisle with the cart, my eyes never leave her until she finally arrives at my row. The coffee is especially weak but the smell alone begins to drag my neurons back into reality. The next cart brings some airline food that I have since forgotten. I barely ate it, the last 24 hours of stress, sleeplessness and walking have left my stomach in a sort of twilight-zone state.
After “breakfast”, my attention is drawn to a crack of blinding light seeping through from under the sunshade pulled down over the cabin window. I poke at the visual map option on my entertainment screen and realize that we should be approaching the island. My seat partner has gotten up to use the restroom, which I take advantage of and throw open the shade. There, sitting in the middle of a churning ocean and basking in the light of the midday sun, is Ireland. This marks the first time my baby blues have seen a piece of land outside of my own chunk of the world. She’s beautiful. And the one thing I notice, the thing I thought was just a cliche or exaggeration, is that she is truly Green. More shades of green than I ever knew existed in nature. Patches of kelly green, blue-green, olive, fern, juniper, sage, and forest greens quilt the land. I’m transfixed. As the plane tilts and turns I can’t take my eyes off of it. It’s so close I can almost reach out and touch it. And in just a few minutes I will, confirmed when the stewardess’s voice comes over the PA again “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now beginning our final approach into Dublin Airport…”
3:30 PM IST
Dublin International Airport
The plane’s wheels finally hit a crawl on the tarmac as roll into our gate. Instinctively, I grab my phone and pull up Google Maps to begin planning my way to the hostel. My phone remains unresponsive. Of course, in my excitement I’ve forgotten the paramount rule of traveling, you live and die by a WiFi connection. This sudden disconnect from what is my primary lifeline, the internet, throws me for a sudden loop. My mind begins to race, wondering if I’ll be able to find a connection and realizing I’m going to have to use that connection to find my hostel the old fashioned way…a set of directions. This begins step one of self discovery, admitting I have an internet addiction. Without it, I feel very unsure and very isolated. It’s a totally foreign feeling to me. I disembark the plane with more nerves than I’ve ever experienced.
4:00 PM IST
Dublin International Airport, Immigration checkpoint
This is it. I’m in line for my first time ever going through customs. All my mother’s advice from being an immigration attorney keeps playing through my mind. Answer directly, don’t try to be funny, don’t be intimidated by their stand-offishness. Finally I’m gestured to approach the little windowed booth.
Behind the glass is a husky, rosy-cheeked man with a sparse amount of strawberry blonde hair and an incredibly thick accent. He smiles at me. That was unexpected. I hand him my passport and information card given to me by the airline. He begins to ask the standard questions. “Business or Leisure?” “Leisure.” I silently laugh at myself for using that word. “What is this address you listed?” “It’s my hostel.”. “Will you be staying there the entire time?” “Yes sir.” He laughs a bit at my formality. I start to relax a bit as he ponders the information a second longer. “Are you traveling alone love?” The personal question takes me aback a second. “Yes I am” He gives me a surprised look. “But tomorrow is New Years Eve! You won’t be alone for New Years will you!?” Ok, this is very much not what I was expecting. “Well I may meet up with a friend or two, but we’ll see how it goes.” As I respond I see him reach for the one thing I’m coveting. The stamp. He grabs it and enthusiastically punches it into my passport. “Well I hope so, no one should be alone on New Years.” He smiles at me, gives me a wink, and hands me my passport back. Relief washes over me and I let out a bubbly laugh. “Thank you!” I beam at him. I cross through the gate and practically skip to the baggage claim as I admire the fresh, green ink of the very first stamp in my passport.
5:30 PM IST
Isaac’s Hostel, Dublin, Ireland
The airport shuttle drops me off at an unfamiliar street corner on the cobbled and clustered streets of Dublin. I quickly pull up the photos I have of the route to my hostel.
I quickly hustle off as I attempt to fight the last fading glow of the setting sun slipping into the cold winter night.
The hostel is down a small alley, it’s walls comprised of ruddy red and brown brick and its sign hanging over a bright red door. Two college-age looking guys are standing in front of the door sharing a cigarette and speaking what sounds to be an eastern European dialect. I enter the hostel and the warmth envelopes me. The front room is lined with long tables and benches which are clustered with young people, most on laptops and cell phones, but some playing card games and a few board games. Cheap beers are littered among the various groups. I beeline for the front desk at the back of the room. A 20-something gent with a shock of red hair and another incredibly thick accent greets me cheerily and checks me in. He hands me a few brochures for bus tours and enthusiastically tells me about the free walking tour that stops by the hostel at 10 AM every day. At this point most of what he says goes by in a blur as my stomach rumbles and my muscles ache. He hands me my keycard and I gladly head to my room to relieve myself of my pack and gluttonize myself on free WiFi.
The room is standard. It’s street level which means its occupants kept the thick light-blocking curtains pulled tight to avoid the constant zoo-animal stares of passersby. I get assigned a top bunk close to the door. Arriving on a Tuesday is a nice sweet spot because the past week’s crowd has cleared out and the next wave won’t hit until tomorrow, New Year’s Eve. So the room is quiet. I still take ever cautious traveller precaution and not only lock all of my zippers together on my pack, but also bike-lock it to the bed itself, too lazy and insecure to actually travel to the luggage room for a proper locker. I then realize that the free WiFi doesn’t actually reach into the rooms, so I head into the common space with my cell phone, wallet, and passport tucked into my travel hoodie. The WiFi lounge is one of the unique features that my internet browsing discovered in my search for the first stop on my journey. The hostel itself is a repurposed 200-year-old wine store. So they converted the old wine cellar into a common space.
It’s warm and cozy. I begin to acquaint myself with my surroundings, thought still trying to stave off the loneliness. It becomes more apparent when I realize I’m starving and need to venture out to get food on my own. Exhausted, I want nothing more than to just fall asleep, but my stomach is having nothing of it. So I approach the front desk and ask the same enthusiastic gent who checked me in where a good spot for a hearty comfort meal is. He directs me to a pub just down the street, giving me verbal directions which I just pray I can follow. So I grab my thick coat and head off into the night, abandoning once again my security blanket of an internet connection.
7:00 PM IST
The Celt Bar, Dublin, Ireland
A fire crackles in the corner, the tables are overflowing with middle-aged and older Irish couples and groups of friends chatting away. A parakeet chirps away from it’s cage hanging above the corner of the bar. The light is orange and relatively dim, and the walls are covered with more flags, posters and Irish patriotism than I can begin to take in. So this is the pub we’ve been trying so desperately to recreate in the States. I take a seat at the corner of the bar and become unflinchingly aware of my own thick American accent as I tune into the rhythmic conversations happening all around me. Behind the bar, a young bartender is being berated by an older gentleman about the arrangement of the forks in the drawer. The young gent rolls his eyes as the older man buzzes around him, enthusiastically waving his hands and shouting. The older man notices me sitting there and waves and the young man to go over. He sighs and walks over to me as the older man hustles to the back. I ask for a menu and a pint of Guinness which the young man obliges. As I take my first sip of the thick beer, I’m instantly taken aback. Holy God that’s good. Rich, chocolatey and smooth, it’s a far cry from it’s import we get back home. It’s a bit warmer too and it starts to fill my stomach as I wait for my food.
I order an Irish Stew, and when it arrives, it ushers in a new era in my life. Because my life will now forever be divided into two chapters. Before The Stew and After The Stew. To date, that first mouthful of spicy lamb, warm broth, and creamy potatoes is the best thing I’ve ever rested on my tongue. Sure, it may have been biased by being the first real food I’d eaten in over 24 hours, and my senses were all heightened by the freshness of the experiences, but the memory of that stew still burns into my consciousness. And my enthusiasm must have been bleeding over into my whole face because somewhere around 2/3 of the way through the dish, I become acutely aware of the middle-aged woman sitting next to me who is watching me and whispering to her husband. My first instinct is the one I’ve reflexively been trained into, which is to ignore, but I can’t help but notice her grin out of the corner of my eye. As the stew fills the last corner of my stomach, I lean back in satisfaction, which brings the woman into full view. She says something to me in the thickest accent to date, so much so that I can’t pick out a single familiar word. Stunned, I ask her “Excuse me?” and she repeats herself. Still not a single syllable is translatable to me, but I’m still somewhat sure she’s speaking English. Sheepishly, I ask her to say it one more time. This time she slows her speech down like she’s talking to a child and I can finally translate “Are you full?”. I laugh and enthusiastically nod. She scoffs and begins to ramble on about how it’s nothing compared to her own. The old man has re-appeared and she then begins to berate him about the quality of his stews, which he sneers right back at her. There’s clearly a standing relationship here. She turns back to me and eyes my emptying pint glass. She then barks at the bartender “Another round for us!” pointing to herself, her husband and me. I’m stunned. She then turns back to me and begins inquiring. Where am I from? Where’s Maryland? Why am I here? How long? What do I do for a living? On and on the questions pour out and I try my best to keep up, while still having to mentally translate each one through her impressive brogue. Once I adjust, I fire the same back at her and she gleefully replies. We tear through the next round of drinks and before I can protest she orders another in one fell swoop, though this time her husband abstains. While we wait for a round she invites me for a cigarette in the back room. I look at her husband who just laughs and immediately responds “Oh don’t worry, I’ll be here looking out” referencing the drink order.
From My Travel Journal:
“The (now finding out not so quite) middle aged woman is Gabrielle and the man is Paddy. They’ve been married 35 years, have 9 grandchildren and Gabrielle clearly wears the pants in this family. We tore through half a pack of cigarettes and she told me all about Ireland, her family, and her dear friends. She’s a cook by trade and clearly abides a large and generous heart. “Good hearts never want” she looked me square in the eye and told me as we lit the third cig and (she) then warily eyed down the pub owner who was a touch over-friendly with me for her taste. “You be careful” she told me over and over, the years of mothering set deeply in her eyes.”
By the end of our third round and easily rounding out the second or third hour, I can’t remember which, I know I’ll never forget these people. Gabrielle is deeply concerned about my solo traveling, fretting over the dangerous men who may like to pray upon the young women who come in and out of the country. She makes me promise her I’ll be careful, which of course I sincerely do. By this point my head is buzzing with the beer and the exhaustion is relapsing. I finally refuse the offer for a fourth round an excuse myself, promising that if Gabrielle ever realizes her dream of visiting the U.S. she has a bed at my home.
I make my way back to the hostel, reeling more from the experience than from the beer. I can’t believe how quickly it all transpired. Just three hours ago this couple were just strangers at a bar. Now, I know where they were born, how they met, their children’s names, their grandchildren’s names, how Gabrielle lost her best friend’s friendship over a silly fight, how Paddy wishes she’d quit smoking, how much Gabrielle loves Kevin Spacey (I told her what I did for a living), and how neither of them know how to operate a DVD player. I’ve been in this foreign land only hours, the first bit feeling quite alone, quite afraid and totally unprepared for what may lay ahead. But now, this evening has given me a foothold, a sureness for the next steps I’m about to take. Meeting such wonderful people on a whim, it gives me hope and confidence in many great things to come. And so, my first evening abroad closes with a new confidence, new friends, and the best damn stew I’ve ever had (I don’t care what you think Gabrielle!).
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