If I learned one thing from our trip to Ireland, it’s this: pray before entering a roundabout and get a good GPS. Okay, two things.
Stacey locked the deadbolt while I waited in the minivan with all four of our children, ready to make the ten-hour drive from Corvallis, Oregon to Sunnyvale, California. Sunnyvale is a city in the Bay Area and is where my wife’s parents live. They agreed to watch the kids for us while we flew from San Francisco, California to Dublin, Ireland to celebrate our ten-year anniversary.
We married young. I had just turned nineteen and Stacey was ready to settle down at the ripe, old age of twenty-two. A few people said we were too young to get married but most were happy for us as our engagement lasted a year. Ten years and four kids later, we’re still married and still like each other. Each year we spent together built the anticipation of this trip.
We’d talked about traveling to Ireland ever since I could remember. Something about the Irish accents and stone castles called our names from thousands of miles away. We booked the trip, dropped off the kids, and landed in Chicago before catching our connecting flight to Dublin. My nerves began to set in as I thought about driving on the left side of the road and trying to find my way around a country I’d never been to.
We walked through customs with passports in hand and stated our reason for visiting their fine country: it’s our anniversary. I found my bag almost immediately, mixed in with everyone else’s luggage except for one. Stacey’s bag seemed to be lost and the carousel stopped spinning around. We both walked around the baggage claim, checking all the other carousels just in case. We walked over to the lost luggage sign on the other side of the baggage claim and they had no idea where the bag was. According to their records, all the bags arrived without incidence.
We turned and prepared to leave, thinking about the extra Euros we’d surely be spending on clothes and hair products for Stacey. As we passed the carousel that was supposed to contain her bag, we spotted her gray bag with black trim on a cart headed for some door that surely held an ungodly amount of other lost bags. I made it to the man, the same man I spoke to earlier and described her bag to- right down to the ribbon tied to the handle, and claimed her bag to make sure our trip got off to a good start.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I learned I didn’t have to pick up the rental car till the third day of our trip. Our first two days were in Dublin and there was no need for a car in the largest city in Ireland. We attempted to blend in casually with the other million people around us by not looking at maps and pretending to know how to cross the crosswalks, which proved to be a small challenge.
On our first night, we settled into the cozy hotel that held an historic charm and cozy warmth, shutting out the chilly autumn air outside. Stacey and I walked three blocks past shops and lights, small cars and tall buses. We found a pub off the corner of a busy street and ordered food we’d never eaten before, trying to get the full European experience. I ordered an IPA to drink but they had no idea what I was talking about. I looked around at what everyone else was drinking and glanced at the various TVs, which were all on one of many soccer games.
Of course, their futbol games were dramatic and we found ourselves moving side-to-side with near goals and rising from our seats when one finally did go in. I didn’t know who to root for and it didn’t really matter. I could feel the excitement in the air as the busy pub filled itself with Dubliners of all ages. I let the waitress bring me a beer that she thought I would enjoy and she was right, I did enjoy it. The alcohol worked its way down not for the purpose of getting me drunk but for the flavor and experience of another world.
The walk back to the hotel felt almost magical as we passed stone cathedrals in the shadows and caught glimpses of architectural masterpieces in the occasional lighted alley. I spotted the James Joyce Writing Museum almost directly across the street from our hotel. In the morning, we’d walk around and learn about a great writer from the country that allowed us to visit her.
The easiest form of travel for us was simple: walking. Driving in that big city with narrow streets was out of the question and the city buses were a bit too daunting. I was scared to get on the wrong bus, not to mention dealing with fear when it came to figuring out how much to pay. These are things I’d never thought of before, not even when I rode the subway in New York City as a senior in high school.
So, on our second night there, we walked in the light rain to go see a movie. We’d spent all morning walking around the James Joyce Museum and then to various shops around our part of downtown. We enjoyed an Irish breakfast with coffee and beans, though neither of us could take more than two bites of the beans. We tried them anyways and smiled at each other while drinking the most expensive glass of juice of our lives.
Surely a movie would remind us of home and in fact, it did. Though the ratings were unusual and more complex than ours in America, seeing a movie on the big screen felt more like home than anything else. I thought that ordering bacon would be the closest thing to America for me but when it came in the form of Canadian ham, I couldn’t hide my visible frown.
So, on that dreaded third morning, we took a cab from our perfect hotel to the car rental shop on the outskirts of town. We passed roundabouts and streets that narrowed with each passing block. The man behind the counter was just as friendly as everyone else in Ireland but that didn’t calm my nerves, which were shaking in anticipation of the three-hour drive to Killarney.
I sat in the driver’s seat, on the right side of the car, as Stacey took a picture of me gripping the steering wheel for dear life. I set the GPS up with the audible voice, something I usually hated. I checked my mirrors and adjusted my seat before placing my foot on the gas pedal to make sure it went down the same way my car did back in Oregon.
As I pulled out of the parking space and prepared to turn left onto the busy street, I studied the passing cars to make sure I turned onto the right (or left) side of the road. When I finally did, a small amount of perspiration fell from my forehead as I drove on the left side of the road, from the right side of the small car. I listened to the GPS but the roads were named in a way that left me more than a tad confused.
I stopped at a gas station about five kilometers down the road, to make sure we were headed the right way. Gas was priced by the liter and equated to more than six dollars a gallon in the US. We were headed in the right direction so I had to turn left once again. My heart began to slow down as we drove out of Dublin and neared the motorway.
The motorway.I gripped the steering wheel and put all my trust into the somewhat mechanical voice that spoke to me from the GPS. I attempted to sense how fast I was driving since my speedometer read in kilometers, matching the speed limit signs along the way. After about five minutes on the motorway, I felt somewhat comfortable driving, staying in the slow lane at the beginning. Only in Ireland, the slow lane is on the left, not the right.
The rain held off as the cloudy skies whispered words to each other that felt like something divine. We stopped by a castle for most of the afternoon and toured a beautiful stone building that used to house a king back in the third century. We saw where they slept and ate; where they lived and where they died. We walked by the tombstones outside the massive stone building that sat in the middle of rolling green hills. The beauty and depths of life that lived there stuck with us as we walked down the street to a local shop and talked to a lady from the town. We left humbled and awestruck by the beauty only normally seen in a magazine.
We stopped in Cork simply to sleep at a modern hotel near the airport and woke up early in the morning to finish driving to Killarney. We took our time getting there, stopping at gas stations to make sure we were headed the right way and driving through small towns that called out our names. We pushed through the temptation to stop at every one and made it to our eventual favorite stop: Killarney.
Stacey and I checked into the lovely hotel and quickly walked out the front door and down the street for the mile or so walk through the downtown. We shopped and shopped and then, we shopped some more. We filled an entire suitcase with Christmas presents for the kids. Back in Dublin, we bought new boots for her and shoes for me. Killarney, however, belonged to our mutual love: our kids. We found toys and clothes and odd items we simply couldn’t pass up.
We shopped till our feet couldn’t take any more and our wallets felt the same way. We headed back to the hotel after eating at a local restaurant and watched Modern Family on our bed till we fell asleep, exhausted from the day of walking and shopping. The next day, we shopped a bit more but also talked to some of the locals about sports and drove out to an incredible church to see the majestic beauty.
Once again, we were surrounded by stone and the towering ceilings inside the church. The pews held the prayers of parishioners prior and the stained glass told the greatest story of love and forgiveness. We left the church determined to attend Mass the following morning, though neither of us were Catholic. The next morning, we slept in and missed Mass, something I still regret today. But we left Killarney feeling refreshed and in sync with the Irish town.
Our last drive landed us in Galway. We were exhausted but happy to spend time together. Our drive went smoothly without any major trouble except for the occasional roundabout that contained five directions to turn. My heart raced each time I stopped at a roundabout, trying to remember which direction to turn and which lane to choose. It was easier said than done- especially at night and in our last town of Galway. Galway was great but the city center had more traffic than Killarney and the roundabout near the mall was terrifying.
Stacey enjoyed getting her hair cut and died and we both ate amazing Irish breakfasts that began to grow on us after a week in the country. I read the paper and drank coffee and juice. I tried the beans again and started to eat the ham with my toast and eggs. The final two days flew by and before we knew it, we found ourselves at the airport on the other side of the country that we originally landed in.
We boarded our plane that stopped in Boston and eventually landed in San Francisco, where four loud yet comforting voices waited for us to come around the corner of the well-traveled airport. We listened to their stories and returned their hugs with even stronger hugs of our own. Our trip of a lifetime seemed like the most amazing thing in the world. We talked about how we wanted to stay longer and how we wished the trip would never end. But when we saw their smiling faces and held their tiny bodies we knew…
We knew that our greatest trip was still to be had and each day after that day would hold the greatest memories of our lives.