Lesson #1 of my Ireland trip: If you ever go to Ireland, be aware-- the Irish are watching how you drink your Guinness, and they are judging you for it.
Day 1 of my Irish Extravaganza was one of the longest days of my life, both literally (it kind of stretched on for 48 hours) and figuratively. My mother put me in the security line at Logan Airport around 3:00 PM EST on Friday and my histamines promptly revved to life, for no reason I could understand. Benadryl didn't seem to help, and I spent all of the flight to New York and much of the flight to Dublin sneezing uncontrollably. After a couple of hours my nose was raw and red, and even after I stopped sneezing it continued to run, so I had the good fortune of entering Ireland continually wiping my red, raw nose and looking much like a cocaine addict. Other than allergies, my flight went swimmingly. Waiting to board in JFK I chatted with an Irish woman waiting to go home and see family, my first encounter with the famous Irish friendliness. The over-sea flight was nowhere near full, so I had my own two-seat row and was able to stretch out a little and get a few hours of sleep.
I'm not sure why, but I had somehow expected that it would be at least a little bit light when we arrived in Dublin. However, we arrived around 6:30 AM GMT (half an hour early after leaving 45 minutes late...huh?) and it was finally beginning to get light as I emerged from customs an hour and a half later. There I encountered my first bout of culture shock. I had agreed to call Emily to let her know I would be catching the train to the Trinity gates, but I had no idea how many of the digits from the number I dialed in the states would apply in country. It took me a full four tries staring down the public phone before she sleepily answered, and then I set out to find the AirCoach, another confusing feat.
I met Emily in front of the Trinity University gates, and we walked the fifteen minutes to her flat, which is in the famous area of Merrion Square. It's quite remarkable that Emily's program placed her in this area, which is all Georgian townhouses, very posh (pictures will follow once I am stateside.) We ate some (homemade!) banana bread and got me coffee and then set out into the Dublin morning, wandering around the city for what turned out to be almost 4 hours. I barely noticed-- I was too busy the accents, the mix of more modern and older architecture, local and internatioanl flavors, just all the difference around me. We walked around Trinity, down Grafton Street (a pedestrian shopping district,) and up to Dublin Castle, then stopped for a brunch-like meal at The Queen of Tarts, a positively adorable coffee shop across from the castle where everything was red. At one point I was telling Emily about the bevy of drug issues that seem to crop up in Belmont and the chatter in the cafe got quiet as I uttered the words "underage prostitution and cocaine ring." The couple sitting next to us and who had been shooting us curious looks dissolved into laughter. It was awkwardly hilarious.
At about this time my body gave out for the first time (it had been 36 hours since I got any decent sleep), and so we went back to the house until Emmalee came into the city from Dublin City University, where she and Katrina are studying, about 4 km away. We got a lunch/dinner type meal and went on a quest to Tesco, a grocery store, where many Brits and Janie had gone before me. Although I had just intended to get snacks and breakfast food, we ended up doing a full investigative mission, as I've always heard you can learn a lot about a place from its grocery stores. What we found was: the Busty Cake (picture forthcoming). Yes, a cake shaped like breasts. I'm not sure what this product's availabity in family supermarkets says about modern Irish society.
We met up with Emily and Katrina and spent our night in the city-- first at a lovely Italian restaurant, then Stag's Head Pub, where there happened to be live traditional Irish music. The Pub was everything you could ever want a pub to be. Dimly lit with shiny wood finishing and a map from before the USSR broke up. Busy, bustling, crowded. Getting to the bar required a great deal of physical force and elbows, but we managed to get drinks and, after a bit of good luck, a table right next to the performers. The live music was just wonderful and rollicking, featuring an Irish flute, a strange drum whose name unfortunately escapes me, and Irish guitar. The group performed covers (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon) and more traditional pieces, a Mummer's dance and a lot of old folk songs that involved drinking, lost women, and love for Old Eire. As time went on, and the crowd got drunker and drunker, the bar started to fill with people singing along. Once we past the 11:30 mark, some started to dance, too-- traditional step dancing, which was wonderful to watch and looks like a lot of fun.
Spirits were especially high because of a very important rugby match between Ireland and France that was to go on the next day. An especially vocal bunch of drunk Frenchmen in French colors took a liking to Emmalee, insisting that she dance with them and asking her to sit on their laps. While we looked on, amused, an Irish woman who looked like she couldn't have been much older than us, maybe 26, introduced herself. We talked to her, her boyfriend, and his friends for the rest of the night. It was she who taught me the Guinness lesson. When a particularly intoxicated girl was starting to act disorderly, we were speculating as to her nationality, and Allison claimed that she could not be Irish because Irish people don't let Guinness "go stale"-- when it loses its head and instead gets sort of soap bubble foam on the top. Lesson# 1: completed.
We stayed at the Stag's Head for more than three hours, but I, for one, was completely content. Surrounded by the sweet music, happily singing drunks, and free flowing talk (an Irish man found out Emily was from Maryland and couldn't stop talking about Chesapeake Bay), we learned the choruses to knee-slapping songs, nursed our drinks (I am partial to Bulmer's hard cider, I have discovered) and soaked in the strength of pub camraderie. I felt completely high on all the difference. That's really the only way to describe the soaring feeling in my chest, just purely thrilled at being allowed to experience this slice of life. I couldn't help thinking as I looked around at the packed pub-- why would I want to spend money on anything but this feeling? This is why I travel.