Friday, March 16, 2012

[EID Feature] 5 Days in Dublin

There are many moments in a person's life that get perhaps prematurely described as "life-changing" experiences, particularly with travel. So often you hear of "once in a lifetime" trips and travel experiences to exotic foreign lands that are "journeys of self-discovery." While there are certainly people in the world who take humanitarian holidays, most of us just go for the food and fun.
For years I've wanted to write something about the 5 days I spent in Dublin over St. Patrick's Day in 2006. I don't know that it necessarily changed my life. I didn't leave there a better person, or any wiser for it. But, aside from the more obvious reasons, it was a significant event in my life. It was the first time I had ever traveled alone.
Nowadays I actually prefer to travel solo. More often than not I'm on a working trip, and even if it isn't a specific assignment I still treat it as a potential one. I bring my camera everywhere and take my time shooting things I think are interesting; I make schedules that are usually shot to hell within the first 15 minutes of the day and I just do everything at my own pace on my own whim. I enjoy the absolute freedom from expectations and obligations ... and not having to cater to other people.

(Now when traveling with others I just try to take the path of least resistance and do all the things that they want to do. It rarely results in a great trip for me, but it deters any useless bickering that could sour a 'good enough' getaway into a miserable one.) The best travel experiences of my life have been the ones I've done solo, and I wear that like a badge of honor. Maybe it's an only child thing; maybe it's because I've always functioned better as a lone wolf type. Regardless, I most enjoy being able to experience things for myself by myself. (Plus I meet many more interesting people that way.)

This is usually the part of the story where people look at me like I just admitted to being super-into methamphetamine and dudes on probation. Look, it's just as hard for me to wrap my head around being the kind of person who can never be alone as it is for them to understand someone like me who craves it; it's just that the former types tend to account for a much larger percentage of society than my kind. (Then again, my kind does tend to be a bit quieter.) To me, doing things alone is more than just normal; it's preferred.

But it wasn't always like that.

In early 2006 I had been dating a guy for a little over three years. It was one of those relationships that was fantastic except for when we were fighting, which was constant - you know, the kind of cripplingly insecure relationships you have in your twenties. We would break up and make up every spring for progressively longer periods of time, until finally after five years it burned itself out entirely. I understand it all now, and I admit to my fair share of crazy there. Problem was, it was one of the worst periods of my life and that had absolutely nothing to do with him; his only crime was that he was there for me to take it out on.

I was hell-bent on going to Ireland for St. Patrick's Day (contrary to popular belief, they DO indeed celebrate it there, and they do it big). We got a great deal on airfare and booked the trip. Then, two weeks before we were supposed to leave for the Emerald Isle, we had our annual knock-down, drag-out blowout breakup. And I said fuck it, it's my trip and I'm going.

And good golly molly I was scared. Me! The girl who is regularly accused by friends, family and lovers as being too independent, too guarded, too closed-off, too detached; the girl total strangers have commented on having walls to rival Fort Knox. ME. I was fucking terrified. At this point in time, I had never really done anything of any magnitude alone. An introvert by nature and also something of a social phobe (thank you alcohol for the many years you have enabled me to feign social confidence), traveling *TO ANOTHER COUNTRY* *BY MYSELF* *FOR FIVE DAYS* seemed just shy of committable insanity. And my friends all thought so too.

And that's really the story right there. It's not about what I did, what I saw, or the fact that I went for a United Nations hat trick of dudes I made out with. It's really about the people I met - from Howard, a molecular biologist I met on the plane who kept me text message-company for the duration of my trip, propping up my ego to what would ultimately be the tune of a $300 phone bill; to Column, the native Dubliner I met outside while smoking a cig who invited me along to hang with his crew for the day resulting in the best St. Patrick's Day I've ever had. Really, it was about learning to be comfortable in my own skin, on my own. I could have hidden in my hotel the whole time, ducking out only for daytime walks and tourist attractions before disappearing back inside the safety of my room before the intimidating night came alive. I could have had a nice, safe, boring trip. But I didn't.

Sure, I did the touristy stuff: saw the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the Dublin Castle, St. Stephen's Green. I toured the Guinness Brewery and the Old Jameson Distillery. I bought T-shirts and shot glasses. But I also spent time in the Temple Bar area and in THE Temple Bar (actually, it was the very first thing I did in Dublin and promptly almost got kicked out when the first thing I did was light up a cigarette - not knowing Dublin had gone all non-smoking). I watched a soccer match at a local pub called Nancy Hand's, where I had my first-ever fried egg on a burger. (I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world. This was before Roast.) Had a few pints of Guinness at the historic Mulligan's Pub (rumored to be a James Joyce haunt ... as are most of the old bars in Dublin). Treated myself to a fancy dinner in a fancy hotel because I deserved something nice.

I was still terrified through most of it (except for when I got so stinking pissed - that's Irish for "drunk" - that I forgot to be). Coming home I didn't feel particularly empowered or accomplished; I still felt like a scared little girl who had faced the big bad and hadn't necessarily come out any stronger for it. My friends all said they were proud of me, which seemed like such a strange thing to be proud of; it's not like I cured cancer or anything, but I guess not all moments in a person's life exist on a Cured Cancer/Did Not Cure Cancer scale.

Like most things, it was only with time and reflection that the significance of the event became clear. It wasn't just about not missing out on the vacation I had been so looking forward to and going despite the breakup just to prove I could because I'm stubborn; it was about overcoming fear and tapping into an inner reserve of independence and self-reliance that, in the end, did make me a stronger person after all.

I had intended to go for the food and fun. But I learned something vastly more important over those five days: to not be afraid of being alone. There aren't a lot of major moments in a person's life that changes them forever; really it's more like an infinite number of small moments all contributing to a constant process of personal evolution. But if I had to draw a line in the sand between the person I was and the person I was to become, it would be at this moment. It wasn't the best trip of my life, but it was the most important.

"May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven before the devil knows you're dead." - Irish blessing