As many of you probably know, I recently embarked on yet another EuroTrip. I was abroad for a total of five weeks, and spent part of that time traveling alone, and part of it traveling with friends and family. This is a trip that I had been planning in my head for quite awhile, particularly when it came to Scandinavia and Russia. I have read so many times over the years about how Scandinavian countries rank as some of the happiest in the world, and after reading the Millennium series, I became even more intrigued by these cultures. They appear to be the epitome of social democracy, yet also have a darkness and an underbelly which seem all the more fascinating in the context of a culture that actually has a word for a “cozy atmosphere in which to enjoy the good things in life with good people”, which comes from a Norwegian word meaning “well-being“. My interest in Russia also began with an obsession with Russian literature. I have read a vast majority of Dostoyevsky’s works, and am now making my way through Tolstoy.
At the time when I made the decision to turn this fantasy trip into a reality, my cousin had just recently moved to England with her English husband and their two boys. So I thought – why not begin my trip with family in England, and make my way east across Scandinavia and end the trip in Russia. And then I thought – well, Ireland has been on my bucket list for awhile as well, so why not tack that on to the front end of my trip. We have family friends that own a sheep farm on the west coast of Ireland, near the Dingle peninsula, close to the town of Tralee, and I had always wanted to go to Dublin out of an affinity to dark, cosy Irish pubs.
So I had an outline of an itinerary, beginning with my family in their new home in a suburb of Birmingham, then making my way to County Kerry, Ireland to the sheep farm, then across the country to Dublin, then on to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Norway, Finland, and ending in St. Petersburg. I had already bought my bookend flights, ATL –> LHR and LED –> ATL, and was getting started on planning the nitty gritty of the internal travel when my mom said, “Wait a minute…. I want to go!” Long story short – she has family in Germany that she had not seen in something like 40 years, so I rearranged my plans slightly and she ended up joining me for the last two weeks of my trip, the final itinerary of which ended up being: England (Birmingham, Stonehenge, Bath, and Cholmondeley Castle), Ireland (County Kerry/Dingle, Dublin, Kilkenny, and Glendalough), Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Norway (Bergen, Flam, and Oslo), and St. Petersburg. And as a bonus – the German foreign exchange student that lived with my family for a year when I was 15 joined us in St. Petersburg! It was a trip of reunions, celebration, and time spent with family and old friends…….
……but also a trip of being alone, introspection, meeting new friends, and a different kind of celebration.
I was taken with each place I visited, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. But the place that really took hold of me, and continues to this day to occupy my thoughts, the place that inserted itself into my spirit in a way that only a very small number of places have (and I have traveled extensively), is Ireland. To be honest, I was surprised by this. I had been wanting to go to Ireland for some time, but I thought it would be a more exotic place that would excite me in such a visceral way. Maybe Norway, or Russia, certainly. But Ireland’s natural beauty, the people’s unfaltering kindness, hospitality, and craic (yes, pronounced “crack”), and the most impressive live music scene I have EVER witnessed, all sunk it’s teeth into me and took hold of my heart. When it was time to leave, I truly did not want to, even though I knew I was only headed towards new and varied adventures. If I had been on a less structured trip, left open to stay or leave a place and head wherever I felt like going next, I would’ve stayed in Ireland. Or at least gone back before heading home. As the wheels touched down on American soil on my flight home, I was already planning a trip back to the Isle of Man, this time to also include Scotland. (I used to think if I’d been to England and Ireland then maybe I didn’t need to go to Scotland. Nope. Wrong. Now I want everything that these countries have to offer. Especially after meeting a particular trio of Scottish men while on a pub crawl in Copenhagen. 😉 )
So I want to take a moment to pay homage to the start of what I hope will be a long term love affair with Ireland – its people, its landscape, its music, and of course, the craic. I only spent a week there on this trip, 3 nights on the sheep farm, and 4 nights in Dublin, with a day trip out to Kilkenny and Glendalough. In the span of just a week, I had many incredible experiences that I could write about, but today I want to share the story of my immersion into the Dublin nightlife. (That sounds seedy, but it isn’t!)
Upon checking in to my (PERFECTLY located) hostel in Dublin, one of the very first things I noticed was a sign advertising a pub crawl for people staying at a few of the local hostels, and there was a crawl that very night. (A very big factor in planning this trip was what cities I wanted to be in on the weekends, and Dublin was definitely one of them.) This distraction may possibly have then caused me to overpay for my reservation by 50 euros, which I did not realize until about 30 minutes later while in the shower, when for no reason whatsoever my brain said, “Hey – you should have 50 more euros in your wallet than you do” and I had a flashback to how much I owed the guy behind the desk, and how much cash I had pulled out of my wallet to give him. (The brain is, truly, an amazing machine.)
So after I had settled in, reserved a spot on the pub crawl, and finally managed to regain the money that would feed me for two days (which involved having to watch myself check in on their security footage – yikes. #travelhair), there were a couple of hours left to explore before the necessary pre-pub crawl nap. I crossed the O’Connell Bridge and walked up to one of the main shopping districts of Dublin, on Henry Street. I passed the Spire of Dublin and the General Post Office of Dublin, both of which hold an important place in Irish history that as of yet remained unknown to me.
The uncharacteristically sunny and warm weather that had graced my time on the sheep farm did not follow me to Dublin, and it was chilly and gray – a much more accurate representation of life in Ireland. (Hence the pubs and the Guinness and the Jameson.) I wandered around Henry Street, found myself a cheap burrito, and headed back to the hostel to relax before the pub crawl.
At long last the time had come! I had been in Europe for about 10 days so far, and that whole time was spent with my family in England or on the farm, therefore meaning I had been going to sleep early, not going out at night, and resting well. While I was grateful for all of those things, and immensely glad to have seen my family and experienced a glimpse of farm life, I was ready for some urban nightlife. And a pub crawl seemed like the perfect way to dive in and get to know the area. I went down to the lobby of the hostel and was on my way out when the guy behind the desk who had helped me get my money back and get a spot on the crawl, said,
“Hey – you’re doing the pub crawl right?”
“Yeah!” I said.
“Great, maybe you can head down there with these guys – they’re doing it too.”
He motioned to three guys, all quite attractive. Oh darrrrrn, sure fine. Turned out they were American as well, and Dublin was the last stop on a EuroTrip on their own. They were extremely friendly, and we hit it off right away as we walked through the Temple Bar area looking for the bar where we would be meeting up with the pub crawl and beginning our evening.
Having found the right people, gotten our wrist bands, it was time to begin the drinking. Part of the pub crawl was various deals on drinks at each of the bars we were to visit, and at this first bar we got two-for-one beers. I have not enjoyed Guinness the couple of times I had tried it in the States, but I figured “When in Rome…” and ordered a Guinness and a hard cider, in case it turned out that I truly just don’t like Guinness. In all honesty, I still don’t love it, but I drank it.
The pub crawl took us to four different bars that night, all within the Temple Bar area. Almost every single one of them had live music, some were more traditional Irish music, and some were cover bands playing in the genre of American 90s’s rock. (Think Oasis. Seriously, holy cow, so much Wonderwall.) But I was just starting to take in the city, and was preoccupied with staying with the crawl, and my new American friends, so I didn’t yet fully appreciate all of the live music going on around me. The pub crawl was an overall success – I had a really fun first night out in Dublin, made some new friends (if only for the night), and was beginning to learn my way around Temple Bar.
Day 2 in Dublin (my first full day) was full of taking in the sights, which included one of those hop-on-and-off bus tours of the city, Kilmainham Gaol, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, driving by the Guinness Brewery (I decided for forgo the 30 euros and 2 hour wait time to do the actual brewery tour), and a few of the other tourist attractions. By the time I got back to the hostel for my pre-evening nap, I still hadn’t decided what to do that night. In general on this whole trip, I wasn’t good about getting contact info or finding people on Facebook that I met while traveling. I wish I had, but alas. So even though my American friends from the night before were staying in my hostel, I hadn’t seen them all day and didn’t know what room they were in or how to get in touch with them. So I decided to brave going out alone on a Saturday night in the center of Dublin nightlife. It was definitely not the first time I had ventured to a bar in a foreign country alone, and my experiences in doing so had pretty much always been positive, but there is still always the anxiety and self-conscious fear of going out alone. Will people think I am a sad, lonely, weirdo? Will the other sad, lonely, weirdos also there alone seek me out and creepily try to talk to me? Will it leave me feeling empowered or even more isolated? But, it was looking like my options were to go out alone or not go out at all, so I decided to put all these fears to the back of my mind and hope for the best.
Now, as someone who has traveled alone more often than not, both for work and for pleasure, I feel as though I have reached expert status when it comes to doing things alone. Very often I go to movies alone, go to concerts and events alone, and even out to eat alone. (Despite the fact that one time I literally got laughed at, out loud, by some bratty teenagers for sitting and eating alone in a restaurant, reading a book.) And yes, I have even become quite adept at going to bars alone. I know what kind of bar to look for, how to stay safe, and when to go home. I’ve never found myself in a sketchy situation that wasn’t easy to get out of.
So that Saturday night, I left my hostel alone and made my way through the center of the Temple Bar district searching for the right bar. The trick is to find somewhere that is crowded enough that you can somewhat blend in and not stand out, but also somewhere that’s not so crowded that you can’t find yourself a nice barstool or chair on which to park yourself. The overly crowded bars will leave you cornered against the wall, feeling like an idiot, hoping the drunk college kids don’t knock into you and spill your drink everywhere (kids these days…). The bars that aren’t crowded enough will leave you feeling exposed and open to the afore mentioned sad, lonely, weirdos who are also there alone, while the bartender is obviously awkwardly wondering if you are meeting someone, but doesn’t want to ask in case you are actually just a pretty, young woman sitting and drinking alone. Having live music is also really helpful if you’re looking to go out alone. It gives you something to “do”, something to watch and participate in that isn’t your phone. This part was obviously not going to be a problem in Dublin, as every bar I walked into had live music. I went in to and out of a few different bars to scope them out, including the actual Temple Bar that the area is named after. I’ve become very convincing at walking into a bar like I am looking for a friend that I am meeting, while actually just scoping out if I want to stay there, and if I decide not to stay, I walk out of the bar like I can’t find my friend and am stepping outside to use my phone to call said friend. It’s a technique developed over time.
I basically walked all the way through the Temple Bar district, and at the end of it found a bar that looked promising. Upon walking in, I saw that the first level had two bars and tables and booths where it looked as though some people were finishing a late supper. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor, I immediately had a good feeling about this place. The second level had another bar in the back, and a small stage in the center where three guys were playing some pretty awesome music along the traditional Irish vein. The stage area had a hole in the ceiling above it, as large as the stage itself, where people on the third floor could look over the railing and watch the band as well. There was one unoccupied barstool directly in front of a small bar that lined the outside of the stage area, so I quickly went to the bar and ordered a whiskey ginger (Jameson, of course) and commandeered the barstool for myself.
It was a perfect place to sit and drink alone. It was crowded enough that I wasn’t feeling like I was on display, but I was still able to get a front row seat where I could sit and enjoy the music. And the band was terrific. There was a guy on the drums, a guy with a guitar, and a guy with an instrument that I had actually never seen before, but looked and sounded like a smaller cousin of the bagpipes, but I believe are called uilleann pipes. I sat there for over an hour completely immersed in the music, the atmosphere, and the bar. Long gone was any anxiety or self-conscious awareness that I was alone, because I felt…… connected. Connected to the guys playing music, and connected to the other people around me also reveling in the fact that we were in Ireland, listening to Irish music, drinking Irish whiskey and beer, and communally sharing that experience with all of the strangers in the bar. I was totally at ease, and LOVING every minute of it. (<—- You’re going to want to click on this.)
Midnight rolled around, and this awesome band was finished with their set. It was clear that another band was slotted to perform next, as they quickly began their setup. My drink was basically gone and I debated whether or not I should stay and listen to some of the next band. One of the first things I noticed while they were setting up was the very cute guitar player, and that the lead singer was, like…. old. Needless to say, I was intrigued, so I stayed. This band was more of the cover variety, not traditional Irish music. And it very quickly became apparent that despite the lead singer’s age, he was badass. Cut to months later, when I was back stateside and still obsessing over Ireland / this bar / the live music, I sat down with Google to find out exactly who all of those musicians were, and found out that this old dude was kind of an Irish rock legend. Although I didn’t know that at the time, I still couldn’t get enough of these guys. (<— This one too.) They played a great variety of rock, blues, and soul. I couldn’t believe my luck in finding this place, and hearing not one, but two incredible live bands. I walked back to the hostel, glowing, and feeling incredibly fulfilled.
Day 3 in Dublin was again dedicated to sight seeing, this time including places like Trinity College, Phoenix Park, St. Stephen’s Green, and the other main shopping district, Grafton Street. When researching the trip, I had come across a traditional Irish music pub crawl that happens every night of the week. So I figured, how better to spend a Sunday night in Dublin than pub crawling and listening to honest-to-goodness Irish musicians doing what they do best. I showed up at the bar where the Musical Pub Crawl began, and it was quite crowded. I couldn’t figure out who I was supposed to find or where I was supposed to find them. I saw three girls sitting and drinking Guinness, looking like they were waiting for something, so I approached them and asked if they were also there for the pub crawl, and indeed they were. I somewhat attached myself to them for the evening, and again, ended up making some really awesome friends for the night. They were three Texas girls – loud, hilarious, and fun.
The pub crawl was led by two musicians, a fiddler player and a guitar player. They took us to three different pubs that night, and played for us in each place, while also giving some history and insight into not only Irish music, but also Ireland in general. For example, I learned that when Ireland gained its independence in 1921, the government wanted to use the Irish harp on their currency as the official symbol of Ireland. However, Guinness was already using it as their symbol. So, the government went to Guinness and kindly asked permission to the rights to use the harp as the symbol of Ireland, and Guinness promptly said – “No”. So, the government took the Guinness harp, turned it around so it was backwards, and put that on their currency. I love that story.
Of course, me with my loud mouth, mentioned to the fiddler player as we were crawling from one pub to the next that I played the violin. At the last pub of the night, the musicians opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to come up and sing or somehow perform for the group. No one immediately seemed interested, so the fiddler player held out his violin to me and asked if I wanted to play something. The three Texas girls all urged me to play and soon many of the people in the bar were shouting words of encouragement and incitement. But really, I haven’t touched a violin in about 3 years, and I certainly didn’t have any fun piece of music memorized and easily performed at that moment, so I declined. It broke my heart a little bit to do it, because it would’ve truly been a thrill to get up and play something at a pub in Dublin. I briefly sunk into a sort of funk as another woman got up and sang something for us. I was disappointed that in all those years of training I had never learned any improvisation or fiddle music that I could whip out at any time. I had been trained classically through and through, where I never would’ve considered performing without months of preparation. It renewed an inspiration in me to pick up the violin again, but this time instead of practicing scales and etudes and concerti, to learn Irish fiddle music and The Devil Went Down to Georgia. That is a piece of music I could’ve performed that night that people would’ve really enjoyed, had I known it.
I ended that night walking around Temple Bar with the three Texas girls. We briefly went into one bar, but they were all exhausted and ready to go home soon afterwards. Again, I didn’t get any info for them, but as we parted ways they mentioned wanting to come back to that same bar that we had just left the following evening. I was hopeful that I would run into them in that area the next night, so that I wouldn’t spend my last night in Dublin out alone.
My last day in Dublin consisted of a guided day trip to the town of Kilkenny, the Dunmore Caves, and the Glendalough valley. When I was got back to Dublin that evening, I was still hoping to run into my new friends from Texas and spend my last night in Ireland with those hilarious and incredibly fun ladies. I headed out to the Temple Bar district yet again, and walked to the end of it, and then back. I decided to hang out in the square outside of the bar we had gone to the night before, and hope that they would come by. After I had been sitting there for quite awhile, I began to feel pretty self conscious, and doubted whether I would actually find the three Texas girls at all that night. I hadn’t really thought about what else I would do that night, and the longer I sat there, the less I wanted to go somewhere alone. It was a Monday night after all, and I had heard that the bars close around 11:30 during the week, so if I was going to do something I didn’t have too long to figure it out.
It was at about this time when my self conscious anxiety was reaching a new level, that a guy in the group of people that had been sitting and chatting next to me, leaned over and said,
“Hey – do you want a beer?”
They had been sitting there for about as long as I had, and drinking some beers purchased at a local market. Initially it had just been two people – this guy, and a girl next to him. At some point, another girl and an older man came over and began talking to them. They all sounded American, and it seemed as if they all knew each other.
When he struck up a conversation by offering me one of their beers, I also noticed how incredibly good looking he was. Maybe this Monday night in Dublin wasn’t going to be such a dud after all? Little did I know it would turn out to be my best night in Dublin.
I accepted his kind offer, which turned into an offer to hang out with them. They were actually Canadian, and the girl next to him (let’s call her Ainsley), as well as the other girl that had showed up later (let’s call her Calli), were both flight attendants. Calli was there on a lay over for work, but Ainsley was just there on vacation with her friend (let’s call him Billy). The old man with Calli was her father, who had decided to join his daughter for a few days on her Irish lay over. I continued to sit with them, talking and drinking. Soon we were out of the beers they’d bought, and we decided the pre-game was over and it was time to head to a bar. No one had a specific place in mind, and we talked in circles for a few minutes before I spoke up and recommended the bar I had been to a couple nights before, with the great live music. They were unfamiliar with the place, and seemed agreeable to checking it out, so we headed that way.
When we arrived, there were once again three guys up on the stage. It was not one of the bands I had seen on Saturday night, but luckily – the same cute guitar player was there playing with this band. We all got drinks and found a spot right next to the stage. They were again playing mostly covers, anything from Oasis (seriously, you can’t escape it) to U2 (Irish pride!) to Incubus. They were playing the soundtrack to my adolescence, the music that shaped who I was while in middle and high school. I, as well as my new Canadian friends, knew every word to most of the songs they played, and we sang along at the top of our lungs as we danced and drank and laughed. It was a high that had nothing to do with the Irish cider I was drinking. These are the moments in my life in which I have felt the most alive, the most connected, the most wholly my best self. These moments are my religion, the times that I revere and worship. In a place where I am listening to music that conjures memories and past emotions, feeling completely free to dance and move how the music inspires me, watching the musicians put their hearts into the music while also feeding off the energy of the crowd, and looking around me at all of the strangers who I will never know, but who at that moment were all a part of me, and I a part of them, all sharing in the perfection of that moment. And to top it off, I was there with people who, while essentially still strangers, were there as my friends. We danced together, laughed together, sang together. It was perfect.
In between songs, Ainsley started yelling out requests to the band. It was hilarious, and created a rapport between us and the band, and they festively honored some of the requests. But, consistent with the rumor I had heard, as 11:30 approached, the band let us know that they were about to wrap it up, but that (YES!) they were moving to another club down the street where they would be playing until 2:30am. Obviously, not all bars in Dublin abide by the 11:30pm rule. I was still in the middle of the high, and immediately knew I had to follow the band to their next venue, despite that fact that I had to wake up early to get to the airport. Ainsley and Billy were in as well. Calli and her father decided to call it a night, so the three of us found our way to this completely hidden, off the beaten track of a bar.
It was a very cool, trendy bar, far from the feel of a traditional Irish pub. All dark with red lighting, vintage chandeliers and barstools, and plenty of plush couches and chairs for relaxing or cuddling with a special someone in a dark corner. The band was already there and setting up when we arrived. They played many of the same songs they had played at the previous bar, but that did not detract from the exhilaration that had carried through the evening.
Thankfully, Ainsley and Billy both found and friended me on Facebook, and I’m very glad that I’m still Facebook friends with them today. I hope our paths cross again soon, hopefully in another foreign country where we can spend more time together exploring and laughing and dancing. Who knows how that night would’ve turned out had I actually made concrete plans with the girls from Texas? Or if the bar where I was hoping to meet them wasn’t exactly where it was, and I hadn’t sat down next to Billy and Ainsley, or if Billy hadn’t offered a potentially sad, lonely, weirdo a beer. So, I’m incredibly thankful to Billy for out of nowhere offering this strange girl a beer, and then embarking on an adventure with me for what turned out to be my favorite night out in Dublin.