Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Work is the curse of the drinking class" ~Oscar Wilde

A few weeks ago, two friends, my fiancée, and I had the amazing opportunity to be tourists in Ireland with the additional bonus of experiencing an Irish wedding.  Trust me, it is an experience.  I must say that while I was excited to see a new landscape and couldn’t wait to see my dear friend Kate on the occasion of her wedding, my past experiences in the UK had me prepared for bland, fattening food and dreary, depressing weather.  I was really pleasantly surprised by how flavorful every dish we ordered was.  We had robust stews served with hearty brown bread, fresh smoked salmon, garlic and white wine mussels, Bailey’s cheesecake, and plenty of Guinness.  Compared with the entirely white, lukewarm plates devoid of flavor I had continually been served as an exchange student in England, I was delighted.  Considering the reputation of their climate, we had pretty great weather, with the exception of two days- the worst being a monsoon-like situation in Dublin.  That day, we just found a lot of excuses to head into shops and cafes for hot chocolate. 

Hot chocolate is not the beverage of choice in Dublin, mind you.  I was personally struck by how apparent the Irish stereotype was in this city.  At night, the Temple Bar area in Dublin is like Bourbon St or the strip in Vegas.  It’s the hen and stag party central of the UK and with the city center being quite small, it is extremely congested with drunken partiers. Then we’d see people stumbling around drunk at 2:00 in the afternoon in the streets of Dublin— seemingly functional members of society otherwise.  We took a tour of the Jameson factory and our guide once said: “At this point in the distillery process, the alcohol is 80 proof, and tastes extremely foul, but for my money you can’t beat it.  You’re drunk instantly for 40 minutes and hungover an hour later.”  Maybe I am getting to be an old, stodgy American, but that didn’t actually sound fun to me.  I suppose I should give the city of Dublin the benefit of the doubt, because we were there over a weekend.

Our first night’s stay in the Dublin hostel was an adventure unto itself.  The only space available for that particular night was in a co-ed dorm for twelve.  Brendan was on a later flight, so Christina, Rachele, and I were on our own that night and then were scheduled to stay at Kate and Peter’s apartment the second night.  Having stayed in four or five hostels before in Europe and having had no problems, I figured we’d be fine.  We met a handful of gentlemen with whom we’d be sharing a room when we tried to catch a short afternoon snooze.  We’d gotten only about 3 hours sleep on the red-eye.  They were very cordial when we asked if they would please be quiet at four in the afternoon.  We figured we’d better stay out late that night, in preparation for the wedding, but also to give our dorm mates ample partying time.  Surely, they would be in shortly after 2:30 or so.  How naïve we were. 

Our hostel's vending machine

When we arrived back at the room, there were several people asleep, and no sooner did I get into bed than the man in the bed next to me started to snore… loudly.  He flipped over, and I considered myself saved.  Falling asleep in an unfamiliar bed is an arduous task for me, but I was bleary-eyed enough from the flight to be up to it.  Approximately, every half hour following though, another loud drunk Irishmen would roll into the room and talk loudly for an hour.  Every one of them had a mouth he couldn’t kiss his grandmother with, (and trust me, I’m no prude.  We were told later that one word in particular doesn’t hold the stigma it does in America).  Most of them had actually lost their room keys and just banged on the door until their friends let them in.  The one guy came in crying that his friends had left him and then continued to loudly extol that it didn’t matter because his cheeseburger would be the best he’d ever eaten and would save his night.  He then chewed it very loudly while continuing “Ode to his Cheeseburger” for another half hour until he finally fell asleep mid-bite, aspirating cheeseburger with every breath.  It was shortly after two men started throwing punches at one another above Rachele’s bunk that Rachele and a friendly and sleepy Scottish man in the corner insisted repeatedly that they please be quiet.  I approximate that this was around 5 or 6am.

And then they woke up at 8am, and all started chatting again.  I know it was 8am because I asked Christina what time it was and one of them said: “There’s more than one of you?” (I assume he meant that there was more than one joy-killing America woman in the room.)  “YES!” we all yelled; “There are three of us”.  It was about an hour later, when the chatting hadn’t ceased, when I suggested with no too few profanities, that they find another space among the many common rooms of the hostel, in which to chat.  When this didn’t work, I shouted: “Why can’t you sleep until 11:00 like other drunks?!”

One of them did apologize when he left, but when I also found that they had eaten my precious Galaxy Ripple chocolate bar, we took the bottle of whiskey they’d left, checked out, and hit the road.  We enjoyed a blissful, night of peaceful sleep at Kate and Peter’s that night. 

Furbo Beach- Spiddal, Galway

Our next stop was Galway and I highly recommend it.  Galway City is a great university town and its surroundings are wild and beautiful.  We tried an “Air bed and Breakfast” stay for the first time and our hostess was lovely and animated and wanted to show us all around her town outside the city.  She took us on a local tour of abandoned stone homes.  We would reach a structure where the entire room was the size of our apartment’s living room, and she would say: “The family that left here in 1920 had ten kids and all twelve of them slept right here.”  Travel is often a good jolt to one’s perspective.

Cliffs of Moher

Brendan deserves a shout-out for navigating the narrow and windy roads, in a stick shift, with this left hand, on the opposite side of the road.  Those of us with minimal standard vehicle experience had to bow out of that one.  The drive to the Cliffs of Moher was pretty eventful, and shall we say, stomach tossing, but the view was spectacular and unlike anything you’d see on the east coast.  We also found a pub in a nearby town that Brendan and his family had visited when he was fourteen.  We had to call his parents on our prepaid mobile to be reminded of the name of the place, but we were happy we did.  My cousin who’d spent a semester in Dublin said that all you had to do in Ireland was see the Cliffs of Moher, catch some great live Irish music, and befriend the locals, who are all admittedly, extremely friendly.  This brings us to our next stop on our travels: The Wedding.

We had been warned by the bride that at Irish weddings, they close down the bar at 3am… to restock.  She even said she chose a castle with a lot of couches “so the Americans could rest”.  And so, we trained all week to stay up and party, as if for a decathlon.  As a friend from Galway, now living in Boston put it: “Yes, a decathlon is a good analogy.  There’s the beer round, the whiskey round… Ok, there are only two rounds, but you have to do them at least five times each.”  The ceremony began at 2:30 in the afternoon.  When I went to bed at 4:30am the party was still going. 

The Bride and Groom

First of all, Kate and Peter have a beautiful love story and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell it.  Kate, originally from California, was in her second year of grad school with us at NEC when she was at a bar in South Boston for St. Patrick’s Day.  She literally bumped into a handsome Irishman and the love of her life there.  Peter pursued her that night, telling her that even though he lived in Dublin, people meet for a reason and that that’s what phones and email are for.  So it was after about 3 or 4 get-togethers in Boston, California, and Dublin, that she told us she was going to move over there to be with him.  Her logic made sense.  She didn’t have plans after grad school, she was burnt out with singing, and she thought she would take a chance.  I cried, but then that’s not unusual for me.  I was worried for her.  She said; “If he turns out to be an asshole, I’ll come home.”  That was five years ago and she hasn’t regretted her leap of faith.  Peter has turned out to be every bit as amazing as she deserves.

Back to the wedding itself, the castle hotel in Sligo where it took place was stupidly beautiful.  It was once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-believe-how-idyllic-this-is beautiful.  Kate told us the church for the ceremony was a small gray stone church on a corner, and we must have passed about four gray stone churches on the road there, (along with plenty of cows and sheep butts).  After the beautiful Mass, it was back to the castle for cocktail hour.  Then, there was a slowly served, but decadent dinner.  “Oh, more potatoes?  But I have potatoes on my plate already,” seemed very funny to the Irish when I said it.   There were several toasts, including a rather emotional one from the groom.  He made a connection to Kate’s Irish great-grandmother and how Kate was now, in a sense home after her family had sought and found a better life.  Then the Irish band played, followed by traditional Irish dance led by children and the teacher from a local school.  And then at about 11:30, the DJ arrived to set up.  At 12:00 they served sandwiches and tea and coffee.  This is a key step in the process for recharge.  We are told that if this does not happen, the wedding will be remembered for ten and twenty years to come as that damned wedding with no sandwiches.  What we realized later in the evening, is that while we were dancing for the first two hours of the DJ’s timeslot, the Irish were resting in between, and so they were able to dance until he stopped at 3:30, while most of the Americans were more or less prone on the couches.


And then, the “Sing-song” began in the bar.  Apparently this is a thing.  There's no piano or anything.  Everyone just belts out the old Irish tunes.  Sometimes there were solos, but mostly it was just a group effort until everyone forgot all the words.  Peter’s dad has an ardent love of country western music so there was randomly a good deal of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams thrown in there.  Peter’s dad was also yelling at everyone who was not singing. This is my kind of after-party.  Too bad I started falling asleep in the middle of it.  I nearly wept when Brendan told me the next morning that it was 10:00 and checkout was at 11:00.  The partying continued for several days after back in Dublin, but we were headed in a different direction. 

Next it was off to Limerick County where Christina’s godmother, Joan lives. Upon our arrival, Joan had ordered us fresh fish and chips and she and her quick-witted sisters entertained us for the evening.  The next day we visited nearby cities.  Adare was a lovely, albeit touristy old village full of thatched cottages.  At this point I could barely walk I was so tired, and I was often blinded by my own involuntary tears of exhaustion.  (You may be noticing a theme here.)  Then we headed to Limerick where there was a River Festival going on.  The appeal of legally drinking outdoors in public places never gets old for Americans.

Joan also lives next door to a complex of “Travelers”.  That’s right.  Irish gypsies now essentially own the town of Rathkeale where she grew up.  They have these enormous stone mansions with gates and padlocks, where they keep all their things, and when they are in town, they park their trailers outside of them, where they continue to live.  We even visited a Travelers’ cemetery, because we were told we would see nothing like it elsewhere.  Every elaborately carved gravestone was decorated to the nines with balloons, plastic flowers, handwritten messages, and even baskets of champagne and chocolate.  We were intrigued to see that so many of them had passed in their 30’s and 40’s because of all the inbreeding.  Ever since spending a semester in Rome, (and performing in the opera Carmen), I’ve been fascinated with gypsy culture and how they have remained an “other” for so long.  Apparently today, it is in large part due to the massive amounts of drug money they make.

Our last night there, Joan said we had to get outside for a walk because the Irish air is particularly fresh and we certainly agreed.  I’ll remember the greenness of the hills and the smell of the peat in the air, hopefully as clearly as I will remember our night in that Dublin hostel. 

Token sheep butt shot