Right after my summer course ended, I booked a flight to Galway to spend my last two free weeks in Ireland before the semester. I had a place to stay in Galway and had the tentative idea of flying out of Dublin, but otherwise I decided to wing it.
I had never really traveled alone before, and there were two things that frightened me. The first was just that I knew I’d be alone for a significant portion of the time. It had been about a month since my dad had died, and between family, flying, and two weeks of the hectic summer course, I had virtually no time to myself or to slow down and think about any of it. The second was knowing how hard I’d have to work not to be alone all of the time. Solitary introspection can only be useful — and healthy — up to a certain point. Despite knowing I’d inevitably meet many other people on my tour, I was afraid of feeling lonely in constant strange company.
Sometimes I would feel alone. In Belfast, for example, I went with two other hostelers on a black cab tour, which consisted of a cabbie driving us around and giving a political history tour of the city. I had become increasingly interested in learning about the Northern Ireland conflict and had spent several days exploring the topic in books, museums, and with locals. Belfast, as the largest and most politically and religiously divided city in Northern Ireland, was of great interest to me in my investigation into “the Troubles”. The black cab tours, I was told, were a must-see attraction in Belfast, giving real insight into the conflict. I was unprepared for the biased and vitriolic tour I received. After two hours of listening to a cab driver whose eyes gleamed at the memory of violence, I felt distressed. As we climbed out of the cab I looked to my companions, hoping to discuss it critically, but I found them smiling serenely and expressing their praise for the tour. There is a difference, I think, between learning about the history and the political situation of the places you visit and exploiting the experiences of the residents for tourism, especially when the stories are as heartbreaking and raw as they are in Northern Ireland. Finding myself without a friend to discuss these feelings of discomfort were perhaps the loneliest point of the trip.
But most of the time I was amazed at how much intimacy can be established between strangers. One night I offered to walk home early from a pub with another woman staying at my hostel. As soon as we were outside she said she was dying to tell someone that she just found out she was pregnant. Because it was so early and her first pregnancy, I was the only person she had told other than her partner. For the 20 minute walk home, I got to share this woman’s excitement and nerves. In the morning, I wished the pair luck and will likely never see them again.
And in Dublin, after spending the evening struggling to find anyone to talk to (wifi in hostels has its drawbacks), I took the plunge and approached the only other person sitting alone. It’s maybe the luckiest shot in the dark I’ve ever taken, because I made an incredibly valuable friend. Even with such a brief time together in person, I’ve gained a correspondent with seemingly endless insight, optimism, and creativity.
What I mean to say, and what I hope I’ve conveyed to you with a handful out of many examples, is that by nature, these encounters are rapid and intense, a quick succession of tragic miscommunications and euphoric connections. They required a high level of honesty from myself about what I want from my conversations and friends and about how I express myself to match those desires. They are encounters whose lessons I see continually seeping into the way I interact with people today.
I realize that my post about Ireland really doesn’t discuss the place itself at all, so for those who are left wanting, here are some photos for a scenic tour of the gorgeous country. Click on them for descriptions!
Featured image: Slieve League, the highest cliffs in Ireland