Towards the beginning of our relationship, Patrick and I would often browse Groupon’s travel section “just for fun.” We would plan imaginary trips to Italy and France, and talk about our future plans for world exploration.
But when a really great deal for a seven-day trip to Ireland popped up on our home feed, our dreams suddenly became reality. We whipped out our credit cards and purchased the trip before we could say, “But we’ve only been dating for five months!”
We spent the next seven months obsessively preparing (more me than him) for our eventual travels. We (I) created spreadsheets, bought travel books, and planned itineraries. It was our first time out of the country and we were going to be ready for whatever Ireland had to throw at us. However, we quickly discovered that despite all our research, our expectations were a bit different than reality.
And as we boarded our plane to Dublin, I realized that we had forgotten our travel books at home.
Fortunately, the best possible way to experience a new country is to jump in feet first! Here’s what we learned:
Expectation: We would sleep on the plane and wake up in Ireland, ready to take on the world.
Reality: Despite the fact that I slept for a total of two hours the night before, and despite the fact that I swallowed more than the recommended amount of ZzzQuil 30 minutes before boarding our international flight, and despite the fact that I had come prepared with a neck pillow and stretch pants, I did not sleep on the plane.
Believe me, I tried.
But after an hour of uncomfortably wrenching my neck to rest my head on Patrick’s shoulder, on the seatback table in front of me, or on my useless neck pillow, I resolved myself to watching The Hobbit followed by Night at the Museum 2 instead. In any case, we arrived in Ireland at 4:30 in the morning (Dublin time) and I had been awake for over 30 hours.
We stumbled through the airport, wandered around the parking garage in search of our mysterious rental car, and spent the final 45-minute drive to our hotel dreaming of the king-sized bed that was waiting for us. Unfortunately, upon arrival, we were told that we would not be able to check in until 3 p.m. — or at least, until the previous guests vacated our room.
With no other options, we returned to our car, eased the seats back, and attempted to sleep right there in the parking lot. When that didn’t work (and the sun began to rise), we moved to the lobby.
At this point, it’s important to mention that this particular hotel is a pretty classy joint. While uniformed bellhops and refined guests streamed past us, I lay splayed on the vintage victorian style couch with a beanie pulled over my eyes (the glare from the crystal chandelier above me was just too much) and a couch cushion as a blanket.
Fortunately, a room opened up at about 9 a.m. — we were briskly whisked from the lobby and finally, mercifully, presented with a bed. We told ourselves we would sleep for just a few hours — we would wake up fresh and ready to start our day … but we woke up nearly nine hours later feeling hungry, sweaty, and disoriented. We kicked ourselves for wasting our entire first day in Ireland and, surely we thought, irrevocably screwing up our sleep schedule. Fortunately, after a quick dinner, we were able to return to bed and sleep for yet another nine hours. We awoke at 8 a.m. the next morning feeling well rested and, finally, ready to take on the world.
Expectation: Driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car would be different, but doable.
Reality: It was one thing to read about driving in Ireland, another to actually do it — and it was much harder (read: scarier) than we thought.
The roads in Ireland are impossibly narrow and winding — and they’re bordered on each side by a stone wall (so when another vehicle is cruising around the bend at 50 kph, straight towards you, you’ve got nowhere to go). Worse, the already narrow roads get even narrower when they pass over bridges or through tunnels. And, in the city, the questionable “two-lane” roads are effectively transformed into one-lane roads due to the line of cars parked on each side. We were told, “if you can’t casually high-five the driver of the car you’re passing, you’re not doing it right.”
On top of that, the speed limits are too fast for comfort, and Ireland drivers aren’t afraid to use their horns. Because the roads are so narrow and twisty, it’s impossible to pass slower drivers (read: me) without running the risk of a head-on collision (I mean, more so than usual), so we were often the brunt of tailgating and horn honking.
Now, take into consideration that it was pitch black outside the first several times I got behind the wheel … and Ireland isn’t big on street lights. As we exited the relative safety of the freeway for the first time (where the lanes are wide and the way is lit), we quickly discovered that we had been driving without headlights … and we weren’t quite sure how to turn them on. Through the use of brights, the saving grace of GPS, and a whole lot of pep talking on Patrick’s part, we somehow made it to our hotel in one piece.
Fortunately, the woman at the car rental counter had smoothed talked us into upgrading to an automatic transmission for the low, low price of €250. At the time, I was so tired I was willing to part with the money just to get out of the airport and into a hotel — but in the end, I’m glad we took the bait. There’s only so much my brain can comprehend at one time, and driving a stick shift with my left hand was just one less thing to worry about.
Expectation: We’ll drive everywhere!
We had plans to drive all the way across the island to see the Cliffs of Moher, to drive the Ring of Kerry, and to visit villages just a few short hours from our hotel.
Reality: Our eyes were a bit bigger than our stomachs in that sense.
For one, we seriously underestimated how much time each attraction would take. During our first foray into Dublin, we planned to visit Trinity College, tour several cathedrals, see the Dublin Castle, and hit up the museum on our way out — leaving plenty of time for several other day trips. But by the time we had toured the college and the castle, we had already walked ten miles and it was starting to get dark. We decided to call it a night and return the next day — and even then we didn’t see all the things we had planned to see.
Secondly, as I mentioned before, driving was much scarier (and, in my case, slower) than we expected. The thought of driving all the way across the island was terrifying at best (I could barely drive to the pub in the next village over) — and while our GPS told us the trip to the Cliffs would take about two and a half hours, my cautious driving guaranteed it would be more like three or four. As a result, we stuck pretty close to home.
Fortunately, the public transport system in Ireland is nothing short of fantastic. We bussed into Dublin each day for just €3.30 each. The bus picked us up right at the end of the hotel lane (which, granted, was about a mile from the hotel itself) and dropped us off in the city center. When we were done, we made our way to the nearest bus stop and enjoyed the relaxing ride back home.
Now, when I say “relaxing ride,” I really mean “I was just glad I didn’t have to drive.” The bus ride itself was actually pretty adrenalizing. Think back to the narrow, winding roads I described earlier — now imagine a double decker bus barreling down those roads at 10 kph over the posted speed limit. Patrick and I sat in the top front as much as possible and treated it more like an amusement ride than a public transport system.
On our final day in Ireland, we had a choice to either bus into Bray (the town closest to our tiny village of Enniskerry) or drive just north of Dublin to visit Malahide Castle. I didn’t want my fear of driving to stand in the way of seeing something really cool, so we loaded up the car and made our way north. And I’m so glad we did. We ended up spending the entire day at the castle, and it was well worth the trip.
That being said, we both agreed that when we return to the Emerald Isle (someday), we’ll ditch the rental car and utilize public transport to it’s fullest extent.
Expectation: We’ll blend in seamlessly.
Reality: We picked Ireland because A) it was a great deal on Groupon, and B) we thought it would be a great first step into world travel. They speak English, they eat fairly normal food (read: American), and they operate much the same way we do. At least, that’s what we expected. What we got was a little bit of culture shock.
The Irish speak English, sure, but not the way we speak English, and we found ourselves wondering, “What did he say?” more often than not. Fries are chips, chips are crisps, and as far as we could tell, the locals communicated in nothing more than grunts and sounds.
And because we both suffer from a refusal to appear like we don’t know what we’re doing, and a refusal to ask for help, our first few forays into the world were a little bit scary. When we woke up at 6 p.m. on our first day in Ireland, we wandered into our hotel pub in search of food. Unfortunately, there was an event taking place that night and the pub was overflowing. Rather than sit at a table with strangers (which, we’re pretty sure is exactly what a local would have done) we wandered back to our room and hid there until we came up with a more solid plan. We then drove (after some serious cajoling on Patrick’s end) to a nearby restaurant and hovered near the doorway until the bartender kindly told us to take a seat. Unbeknownst to us, Ireland is a “seat yourself” kind of place. After our meal (of cheeseburgers), we waited patiently for the waiter to bring us our check. As it turns out, Ireland is more of a “pay at the bar when you’re ready to leave” kind of place as well.
With those lessons under our belt, we began to get more and more adventurous over the course of the trip — Patrick ordered corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash, and consumed plenty of chutney — but more often than not we stuck to things that were familiar (read: American). We visited probably 10 different Starbucks locations, ate at Subway, and had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.
That being said, we were impressed by how incredibly kind the locals are. The bartenders encouraged us to “put our feet up” and relax at the end of the meal, rather than ushering us towards the exit, and our bus/shuttle drivers were more than willing to discuss their favorite stops.
Expectation: It would be cold and rainy the entire time.
Reality: We were expecting cold and rainy, my weather app forecasted cold and rainy, and, the first few days we were there, it was cold and rainy. But as Monday rolled around, so did the sun, and we were lucky to experience three entire days of pure sunshine.
Despite the fact that spring had yet to have sprung in Ireland, everything was still incredibly green and incredibly beautiful. I couldn’t get enough of it! Our hotel overlooked the Sugarloaf Mountain, which looks like something straight out of The Shire, and I took probably 500 pictures of that alone. Of course, no picture could capture how colorful and shining the world actually was, but I tried my hardest.
We enjoyed walking around in Dublin, but strolling around the Irish countryside while the sun beat down on our heads was one of the very best parts of the trip.
Expectation: Ireland would serve as our first step into world travel.
Reality: Ireland certainly wasn’t what we expected — it was better. And it left us more prepared (and yes, even more eager) to take our second step!
Sure, there were times when all we wanted to do was hide in our hotel room rather than face a world we thought we understood, but quickly realized we didn’t. But once we opened ourselves up to new adventures, new experiences, and a new way of life, we opened ourselves up to having the best possible time! We learned so much about traveling, and about visiting another country on our own — we now feel much more confident, much more gung-ho, and much more willing to ask questions.
It sounds incredibly cheesy, but we left Ireland feeling like different people — people who are thirsty for more: More knowledge, more travel, and more life experiences.
In fact, a few weeks ago, we turned down the opportunity to see a potentially really cool David Bowie tribute concert right here in Boise. We didn’t go because we were tired, we had been working, or I had to do laundry. “I think … knowing what we know now, we would have gone to that concert,” Patrick commented. And I think he’s right. We’re less willing to sacrifice those moments — less willing to sacrifice experiences because we’re tired or unsure. And that outlook, along with my new hat with the poof on top, is the best souvenir we brought back from Ireland.
It’s hard to choose our favorite part of the trip — we saw so many amazing buildings, walked through endless beautiful gardens, and ate more than our fair share of great food — but our tour through Trinity College is definitely one of the highlights. It was a student-run tour, and it was filled with nonstop history and amusing stories (if you haven’t heard the one about the murdered professor, it’s a doozy).
It was definitely our favorite tour of week (Church of Christ comes in at number two — our tour guide took us up to roof of the cathedral, to the bell tower, and allowed us to ring the bells) and it culminated in the Old Library — my favorite stop of the entire trip (keeping in mind that we visited several castles). Those rows upon rows of books stashed under a cathedral-like ceiling were completely breathtaking — and if I could live in that room, I would.
I’m wont to say that driving was the worst part, but by the end of the week, I had really started to get the hang of it. The real worst part was my inability to sleep on planes — and consequently slept through an entire day in Ireland. I’m still kicking myself for that (although Patrick keeps reminding me not to regret it — we needed it).
And then, because we’re insane and I apparently did not learn my lesson, we decided to go to Disneyland on the way back to Boise. I refuse to categorize Disneyland as “the worst” — but how tired I felt in Disneyland was kind of “the worst.” Once again, I was running on zero hours of sleep and about 30 hours of awakeness (movies enjoyed on the plane: Hotel Transylvania 2, The Martain, and four episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
You know it’s bad when you start thinking in terms of rides you can realistically nap on. Hint: Hyperspace Mountain is not one of them. Pirates of the Caribbean kind of is. Fortunately, thanks to an excessive amount of sugar and coffee (and Mickey-shaped treats), we managed to make it through.
Gaelic is the official language of Ireland, but a very small percentage of people still speak it. Nonetheless, all signs are written in Gaelic first, English second — which took some getting used to. Patrick really enjoyed attempting to pronounce the Gaelic words (which sounded more Elvish than anything else).
Also, all speed limit signs are posted in kilometers. We expected this, but it was still strange to be driving along at 120 kph (which translates to about 75 mph).
… er, it was funny later.
I mentioned earlier that the bus system in Ireland is truly fantastic, and it is, but if you don’t know the route very well, it can be easy to hop off at the wrong stop — which is exactly what we did. I’m willing to admit that it was 99 percent my fault, but I heard the word “Enniskerry” and popped off the bus before Patrick could say, “This is still five miles from our hotel.” Unfortunately, the next bus was about an hour away, and it was way too cold, and way too dark, to consider walking. So we huddled in the warmth of a nearby phone booth and prepared ourselves to wait.
That is, until I discovered that a spider also occupied that phone booth. At which point we found ourselves back out in the cold.
Fortunately, there was a small convenience store on the corner and, with luck, it was open! We wandered in and meandered up and down its two aisles several times, before eventually purchasing a package of mini muffins, asking the cashier to help us determine the correct bus fare, and returning to stand in the cold — you know, in case the bus was early.
The bus finally pulled around the corner (approximately 60 minutes later), we paid our bus fare for the second time, and 30 minutes later we were back at our hotel, warm, sleepy, and grateful for the mini muffins. So it wasn’t a total loss.