Friday, March 17, 2006

Kiss me -- I’m not Irish, but I’ve been to Ireland.

I was traveling around after a semester in London. Rather than have the hectic summer itinerary like most other American students -- “It’s Tuesday, it must be Slovenia or Slovakia or Kreplachistan” -- I decided to focus on a few places for a few days at a time, soak up the culture, learn the lingo, experiment with their plumbing systems...

But who would be my traveling companion? The girl I had been dating back in the States was broke and couldn’t fly out.

One of my good friends from college, Zucker, was in England, too, but he had been studying in Sussex. Before we left, we discussed hanging out across the pond. But this was before cellphones were ubiquitous; in fact, at that time, the UK’s communications network was about as good as their cuisine. So we never got in touch. Still, one day during my semester in jolly ol’ London, I heard something familiar. Even with the roar of trains on the Underground I recognized that deep voice which lacked the Limey lilt.

Without even looking, I said, “Zucker.”

He turned and bellowed, “Miiiike?”

He was up from Sussex, doing the tourist thing: exploring Picadilly Circus, visiting Trafalgar Square, seeing how many holes it took to fill the Albert Hall, etc. We each mentioned how we planned to call each other but, well… Hey, how weird was it that we ran into each other in this spread-out city of seven million people? Zucker’s baritone was the beacon, but I remarked that those of us with half-decent dental work stood out around here. Okay, we agreed we’d get in touch to travel around Europe at the end of the semester.

Yeah, right. We both flaked again.

And since my short-attention-spanned colleagues didn’t want to linger in any single nation for more than a single pub-crawl or hashish bar visit, I decided to mix up my travels by doing some of it alone, some of it with others. I had already driven around Spain and Portugal with my friend Dave, and visited much of England among the other Yanks. Later I would go to Denmark and Sweden, after I checked out Ireland and Scotland.

The plan was to meet up with a couple of girls I knew in Edinburgh, but first I flew into Dublin for a few days. I walked all over the Emerald Isle City, saw the historical churches, sites of IRA-related battles, went up and down Grafton Street, learned that “crack” meant a good time, as in “aye, you’ll have grand crack”… And then I was getting tired.

The benefits of venturing out solo is that you can do whatever you want, and you find yourself more accessible toward trying different things and meeting new people. The downside is that it can get lonely at times. Even if you’re someone who absolutely must have time to yourself everyday the way Brits must put blood pudding and kidney pie on every menu, you still may start to crave meaningful dialogue over the internal monologue.

I decided to give my aching feet and self-reflective brain a rest. I hopped on a bus to go back to the hostel, where I’d undoubtedly run into other travelers and see what kind of trouble I could get into.

But where was that hostel? These roads didn’t look familiar. Finally, I asked the driver when we’d get to my destination and his Gaelic-garbled response was that I was going the wrong direction. Great.

I got off the bus before I wound up even further out of my way. Was I even in Dublin? Cork? Kerry? Limerick? If so, I’d have to tell everyone that I was from Nantucket.

There was a pub right there, a place called Hardigan’s. The name reminded me of one my favorite albums, Hard Again by Muddy Waters. I went inside, replacing the chatter in my head with the song “Mannish Boy”.

That was the night I decided I definitely didn’t like beer. I already knew this, but for years I had let people sucker me into trying their favorite – German beer, lager, ale, pilsner, microbrewery labels… to me they were just different varieties of piss. I figured Guinness was the ultimate of the suds, and if I couldn’t enjoy a pint in a pub somewhere in the Dublin vicinity, I should just give up.

Yeah, whatta startling revelation. Big deal. I sat there in this quiet tavern with my half-drunk Guinness stout and my three or four empty glasses of Irish whiskey, feeling kinda down. A stranger in a strange land. Long ways from home. The Muddy Waters song in my mental jukebox now playing was “Can’t Be Satisfied”.

Just then, throngs of people poured in. Young locals in an extremely festive mood. I discovered that the nearby university’s medical school had just finished their finals for the semester and the students were ready to celebrate. And let me tell you, these Dubliner doctors-to-be knew how to let loose. I don’t remember a lot from the evening, just that the blokes were funny and friendly and the lasses were freckly and flirty. Aye, I had grand crack there.

Somehow I got back to the hostel late that night. Hungover the next day, I decided to leave Ireland. Nothing would top that night. I figured I’d head over to Scotland early.

Dublin to Edinburgh isn’t that far as the crow flies, but as the poor student travels, it takes forever. I caught a ferry across the Irish Sea where I chatted with some cute Canadian girl… no, no bodily fluids were exchanged, just reading material – her Margaret Atwood story was good; I wasn’t reading American: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

On the train from Liverpool to Glasgow I sat next to an off-duty London police officer. Yes, I told the bobby, cops in my country have guns. All Americans do. When you pass your citizenship test, they issue you a 9 millimeter. He said, “Is that right?” No, I said. Actually it’s a .38. We hate the metric system.

I ended up traveling all day, meeting interesting people everywhere I went, but getting less enchanted with each of these short encounters as I had arrived in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful city – one of my favorite places in Europe that I’ve seen. But I was too tired to appreciate it at first.

I slumped into my bed at the hostel, telling myself not to fall asleep. I wouldn’t connect with the girls ‘til tomorrow night. It was around 7 that evening, and I’d wake up at 11, ready to go do something, but if Scotland was like England, everything would be closed and the city would shut down. Damn wimpy UKers. No wonder they needed us to help win the war. They were probably all asleep by nightfall instead of defending Europe: “I say ol’ chap, it’s too late for this bric-a-brac. I’m knackered. A spot of tea and off to bed. Cheerio.” I was missing New York, where you could start your evening at midnight. Man, this whole trip sucked.

Again, such is the nature of solo journeys. Traveling partners can hold you back at times, but can also be like workout partners – someone to help keep you going when you don’t feel like it. And vice versa. Just another point to ponder in the ongoing monologue in my head. It got louder with curmudgeonly thoughts, and among the sounds was a voice in a deep baritone. But that wasn’t coming from me. That was real.

I didn’t even open my eyes. “Zucker,” I said.


Zucker and I wound up getting to hang out in Europe after all. And when I met up with the girls the next day, it was even more fun.

Running into him there was perhaps not as bizarre as back in London. Edinburgh’s a smaller city, and this was the biggest hostel in town. But weird coincidences, like exotic travels – whether alone or with friends – are experiences that you never forget.


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