Archive for April, 2010
It’s amazing how fast things can change. I interviewed for a job on Friday. I received a job offer on Monday. I turned in my notice today. I move to Cardiff, Wales next week to work at a hostel. A week and a half ago, I couldn’t have told you where Cardiff was on a map.
I was staying at a hostel in Cardiff last week and was getting on really well with the staff, so I asked if they were hiring. They were. I turned in a CV when I checked out, and by the time I’d made my way to London I had an email sitting in my inbox asking when I could come back to Cardiff for an interview. So I high-tailed it back there and before you know it, I’m the night manager at a hostel in an unfamiliar town. I’ll be working overnights checking people in, bartending, cooking, cleaning and dealing with the drunks returning from the bar. The job sounds much more suitable than my current job, where I’m going a little stir-crazy sitting in a back room, not talking to anyone.
In any case, the town may be unfamiliar, but the situation is not. After all, it was only six months ago when I moved to Ireland without knowing anyone. If anything, I’m safer in this case. I’ve got my citizenship figured out (Irish citizenship allows you to work/live anywhere in the E.U.), I’ve got a job lined up, and I’ve got a safety net: my cousin lives with her family just a few hours away by train (those were her kids in the video I posted this week). It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but unlike last time, when I moved from my home state to Ireland, I’m not leaving nearly as much behind: just the sentimentality of the city that I’ve called my home during these wild, unpredictable and invigorating six months.
Goodbye, Galway, hello Wales.
One week of travels condensed to four minutes, forty two seconds. Here’s what you see:
1. My apartment; Galway Ireland
2. Galway Bus Station
3. Citylink Galway to Dublin route
4. Stena Lines Ferry; Irish Sea
5. Stena Lines Ferry; disembarking in Holyhead, Wales
6. Holyhead, Wales
7. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales (longest city name in Europe)
8-9. Caernarfon Castle; Caernarfon, Wales
10. Hiking trail to Portmerion, Wales
11. Cambrian Coast Railway
12. The Pier Hotel pub; Aberystwyth, Wales
13. Vale of Rheidol Railway
14. Devil’s Bridge Trail
15. ??? pizza place; Cardiff, Wales
16. NosDa Hostel; Cardiff, Wales
17. Apple Store, Cardiff, Wales
18-23. Walking from Cardiff city centre to Cardiff Bay
24. Y Senedd; Wales
25. Cardiff Central Train Station
26. Bizarre Bath Comedy Walking Tour; Bath, England
27-28 Roman Baths; Bath, England
29-31. Bath Abbey; Bath, England
32-33. My cousin’s family’s home, Virginia Water, England
34-35. Southwest Trains; Virginia Water to Waterloo route
36. St. George’s Day Celebration; Trafalgar Square, London, England
37. “Macbeth” performance at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater
38-40. London Luton Airport
41. Irish airspace
42-43. Galway Airport
This weeklong holiday through Wales and England has been a constant reminder of why I love travel. Going solo can be a bit lonely during the long train rides, but it also grants you permission to be more outgoing. I’ve developed a whole strategy for meeting people; go to the nearest pub that’s only a quarter-filled, sit at the bar, bring the travel guide and read it until someone asks where you’re heading. Works like a charm. The museums, the sights and the attractions are neat, but the random people I’ve met along the way have been the most memorable. Like:
• Dave, an Alaskan by way of Iowa who has actually been to through my hometown in southern Minnesota. We chatted on one of Wales’ scenic, narrow-gauge railways on the way into the mountains . He works in “the bush” of Alaska, way up in the Arctic Circle, as a police officer and part-time firefighter. He’s so removed from civilization that milk costs $10 a gallon. Because of the job’s remoteness, he gets a “two weeks on, two weeks off” work schedule, so he can travel all the time without using a day of his vacation.
• Tracksuit Guy with Ironed Hair, one of four people in my hostel in Cardiff who was there for The X Factor auditions the next day. He must’ve spent an hour to get his flat-ironed hair just right, but his solid grey, matching, two-piece tracksuit showed that he didn’t really care about how he looked. He was also too shy to perform his audition piece for us at the bar. Wuss. But just when I was starting to get all judgmental on this young guy from Newcastle, he hits me with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of World War II. We chatted for over an hour on Hitler’s strategic failures. Moral: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
• Sam, the sweet British hostel manager with arms covered in ink and a buzzed haircut. She told me about Ohio, where she went for a big tattoo convention. I told her about The Mall of America and had her saying she had to visit Minnesota. You know, for all the talk I do about Minnesota, I should really get a commission from the Board of Tourism.
• John and Merion, a retired English couple on holiday for the week. I met them on the aforementioned railway where we chatted about dream holiday destinations and for the entire hour-long train ride. It was only at the end of the conversation that I got the real nugget: When he was young, John served in the force as a parachuter. Coolest job ever?
• Bethan, a gorgeous Welsh student who was bartending at a pub where I stayed (they had rooms for rent upstairs). She was born-and-raised in Aberystwyth, where she now to college, and learned Welsh before she learned English. She plans to vote in next month’s prime minister election and thinks you should, too.
• Caitlin, an American working at Dartmouth College. She was recovering from surgery and couldn’t do any strenuous activity, so her travel companions had abandoned her to go hiking in Scotland. After they left, The Volcano left her stranded in Ireland. We met on the ferry where she was planning to take the Chunnel to France and the train to Amsterdam to try and make her flight by this weekend.
• Scott and Heather, a doctor/lawyer couple from Seattle I met on the rooftop pool of the town of Bath’s spa. I was solo at a place filled with couples, so it was grateful when they me to join them for the dinner that was included in the spa package, even if that dinner was in our robes. Fastest meeting to eating-in-our-robes turnaround ever.
• Nathan, another native Welsh-speaker with a masters degree in politics. He gave me a one-on-one tour of Y Senadd, the government building in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. Our mutual interests in politics turned the tour into a fascinating discussion of American federalism verses British devolution.
All these people and my holiday is only halfway through. Who knows who I’ll meet tomorrow.
One of the best things about starting this blog, especially early on, was all the support you guys gave me. When I was struggling with immigration, for example, a lot of your offered words of support and very specific advice on what I should do. But no one was more helpful than Cheri. Although I’d never met Cheri, she found my blog and started leaving exhaustive comments on my blog entries — so exhaustive she eventually asked for my email and we started emailing back and forth. Cheri was another American transplanted in Ireland. A retired employee of a major American airline, she moved here five years ago, and she continued to visit and post on the message boards that helped both of us move over here, which is how she found my blog. After I posted about searching for a job, she (incorrectly) assumed that I’d lost my job at the shop.
“Why don’t you come down to my cottage in County Kerry for a weekend?” she asked in an email. A generous offer, but with my work schedule, I wouldn’t make it work. I finished with work at 6pm on Friday nights and needed to be back to work at 9am on Monday morning, and with a five-hour bus ride that didn’t leave until Saturday morning, I would barely have any time in Kerry. Cheri considered this and emailed back.
“You know, I’ve been wanting to get away for a while anyway. I wouldn’t mind a trip to Galway. What if I take a trip to Galway on Thursday, stay in a B&B and explore the city, then I can give you a ride back to Kerry when you’re off work?”
I couldn’t turn down such a generous offer, so we made plans for me to visit over Easter weekend. The plans happened so organically, it wasn’t until I told my friends at a bar what I was doing that I realized how shady it sounded.
“Hey guys, I’m going to Kerry this weekend,” I told them at the noisy bar.
“Cool! Where’re you staying?”
“Oh, with a woman I met on the internet.”
A long, awkward pause. Further explanation was needed.
“It’s now how it sounds. She found me through my blog.”
More quizzical looks.
“John, where is this place?”
“Oh, she lives in this tiny two-bedroom cottage in the middle of the Irish countryside. It’ll be really cool because it’s not really near any civilization whatsoever.”
“How are you getting there?”
“She’s um, driving four hours out of her way to pick me up.”
Blank stares until someone broke the silence. “You’re totally gonna get Misery-ed.”
So that became the joke of the week. My Irish friends were shocked that I’d take such a risk. But you know what? I went, and had an incredible time. Cheri was an incredibly gracious host, and I got to see a whole new side of Ireland. A side where I woke up in the morning and looked out the window at cows. A side where the woman at the neighboring farmhouse stopped by unannounced because she heard I was visiting and joined us for tea. And a side where houses are acres and acres apart.
Geographically, Kerry couldn’t me more different than Galway. As opposed to Galway’s flat fields Kerry is filled with snow-covered mountains and beautiful drives along the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula, where I took this video of my new favorite sport.
It’s so easy in this brave new world of the internet to get carried away by To Catch a Predator, Craigslist Killers and the like. But if I were to let all that fear-mongering take control, I would’ve missed out on an amazing weekend in Kerry and a new friend. Now, who else in Ireland wants to invite me to crash their place?
Somewhere, in a world where volcanoes don’t disrupt air travel across Europe, I’m having a wonderful time visiting Angela and Michael in Austria. Unfortunately, I’m in a world where volcanoes do happen, and as a result, the last 48 hours have been a whirlwind for me.
“…and the volcanic ash from Iceland forced the cancellation of hundreds more flights today as airports around Europe closed. A spokesman for Ryan Air said they are working with stranded travelers, but prevailing weather conditions…”
That’s the radio report that just played on the speakers of the Citylink bus to Dublin that I’m on right now. Here’s a brief rundown of what’s happened: About a month ago I discovered that my employer gives paid vacation time. After only working at the shop for three months, I had accrued a week’s paid holiday. Amazing! I scheduled my holiday for this week. I was supposed to fly from Dublin to Vienna yesterday morning to see Michael’s choir concert and spend six days in Austria with my friends. Then on Thursday I was to fly from Vienna to London to spend the weekend with my cousin and her family, before flying back to Galway on Sunday. By Thursday, it was looking unlikely that would happen. My fears were confirmed Friday evening when I logged on to Aer Lingus’ website to find my flight had been cancelled. The next available flight was Wednesday. Scrambling, I rebooked a flight on Sunday morning from Dublin to Venice. A blessing in disguise! I’ve always wanted to go to Venice. I would spend the day there before taking an overnight train to Vienna to meet my friends. I went to the bookstore and picked up a pocket travel guide to Venice and leafed through it as I walked home — only to get a text message from Aer Lingus telling me that the Venice flight had been cancelled, too. Looking at the reports, no one really knew when this volcanic ash was going to go away, and I certainly didn’t want to spend my holiday in Galway. If I didn’t get to Austria I couldn’t make my Thursday flight to London. My entire holiday would be ruined. So I improvised.
Since there aren’t any flights leaving Ireland to mainland Europe, I booked one of the last available ferry tickets from Dublin to Holyhead, Wales last night. Then I turned around and exchanged my Venetian travel book for a British one. I’m going to need it, because outside of London, I know absolutely nothing about the Great Britain. I’ve got a B&B booked for tonight in Holyhead, and I’m still planning on arriving in London on Thursday. How I’m getting to London and what I’ll do in between is anybody’s guess. I love travel, but I’m a planner — I like to know where I’m staying the next night when I wake up in the morning. This trip will challenge me by forcing me to let go of what my father calls my “high control need.” I’m nervous, but also exhilarated. I could meet someone cool on the ferry tonight and end up hitching a ride to Liverpool. I could take a train and find a whitewater-rafting outfit in Wales. I’ve got no idea where I’ll be in twelve hours, but that’s one of the joys of travel of travel. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, even if that requires a bit of improvisation.
My mom once cautioned me against using those words. “You know, every time you say that it makes me want to sock you in the mouth,” she’d say. I listened, for the most part. But every now and then, when I’m backed into a corner, that finicky phrase finds its way out of my vernacular arsenal. As a result, I’ve almost been arrested and almost been fired. Lets start with the first one.
In an effort to keep graduating seniors from destroying the rural Minnesota town where my college was located, the administration threw us a party. It doesn’t take much to woo college students. Enticed by free t-shirts and pizza, we drank their beer, jumped in their inflatable kiddie castles (seriously) and partied at the bar they’d rented out for the evening.
Needless to say, I was in a celebratory mood. I was about to graduate from college, after all. I’d imbibed a few more drinks than I should’ve, but not so many that I was belligerent. I was a happy drunk when the bar closed and all of us seniors were corralled into a post-bar pizza garden. The area was gated in by a bright orange, plastic fence. Guarding the gate was a combination of private security and police from what seemed to be the tri-county area. Overkill, if you ask me, but I didn’t care. I just ate pizza and mingled with groups of friends. In a moment of respite between conversations, I made eye contact with Alex, a friend of mine from across the way. The minute we locked eyes I shot him an overdramatic scowl. He scowled back, reciprocating my playful/drunk expression. We were about fifteen feet apart and surrounded by a sea of unoccupied folding metal chairs. Maintaining eye contact and scowl, I slowly touched one of the chairs with my pointer finger and pushed until it fell over with a crash. He mirrored me, tipping over his own chair. I put my hand on one of the other chairs, but froze in place when I saw a huge police office bee-lining straight for me, brisk walk and stern expression, this one not at all playful. He aggressively pushed his chest against mine and barked, “Pick. It. Up.”
“Excuse me?” I said, a little incredulous about how suddenly serious such a ridiculous back-and-forth had turned.
“Pick it up, now!” At this point two other police officers had come over to flank him (like I said, there were a lot of cops around).
“Woah, settle down,” I replied, at which point the officers firmly grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the middle of the crowd, so now I was amongst the brigade of police officers guarding the fence.
The original cop approached me again, “What’s the problem? Why won’t you listen to what I’m telling you to do?”
“Hey man, I’ll pick up the chairs,” I said. “My issue is how you’re speaking to me. Just talk to me like a person, you know?” For the record, I blame the beers for my inarticulateness, but I turned around and picked up the chairs. End of story.
Fast-forward two years to the present. I’m working at a retail store with a manager who has a penchant for temper flares. His name is Jurgis. He’s a tall, eastern European dude who is a kickboxer in his free time and, though he can be a nice guy when he’s in a good mood, today he is decidedly not.
On top of that, I’d just made a mistake at work. Part of my job is to count stock when it comes in and compare it to the delivery docket. I had marked down that only 5 of 25 salt shakers had arrived, when in actuality all 25 came. I must’ve missed a box while I was counting. Jurgis stood over me with the docket glower. He lectured me very seriously on how this could not happen and I needed to be more careful. He has a tendency to take things overly seriously, but I still knew that this was a mistake I couldn’t be making. I told him it wouldn’t happen again, but Jurgis proceeded to treat me like a jerk the rest of the day.
I arrived to work the next day immediately overwhelmed. Usually deliveries start showing up a half hour or so after we’ve opened, but today no sooner have we unlocked the shop door when four pallets of product come rolling on in. I had a flatbed trolley full of product that needs to go somewhere or it would be blocked in by the incoming pallets. So I pushed the trolley to the front of the store to see if Jurgis will take any of it to price and put it on the floor. As soon as he sees me he scowls.
“What the fuck are you doing with that stuff up here?”
I’m used to him being in a foul mood, so I take it in stride. Still, I’d just arrived to work and I didn’t appreciate his tone. “I’m just checking to see if you can take any of this product or if I should bring it up to the —“
“Does it look like we need any more product up here?” he interrupts with anger in his voice. “Look. We have enough product. We don’t need any more. Use your brain.” As the volume of his reprimand grows other employees start listening in. His tone was really getting to me, and before I knew it, I let the fateful phrase slip.
“Woah, Jurgis, settle down. I’m just coming to ask where you need —“
He gets right up in my face, whisper-yelling and finger-pointing, “Do you want me to go to The Boss right now and tell him about all your fuck-ups? Because I can make that happen.”
“That’s not the issue here, Jurgis. The issue is how you’re speaking to me. You can’t speak to me like that, I don’t care if —“
“Shut the fuck up and do your job!”
“You really can’t talk to me like that,” I say, voice quivering.
“Shut up and do your job.”
I walk away before I say anything I’ll regret to the manager.
So as I said, those words can create quite a reaction. I should note one neat postscript from the college party story. As I was walking out of the gate to leave the party about 45 minutes after the confrontation occurred, I heard a “Hey!” I looked back and the first police officer was standing there. “Sorry about before,” he said.
Stunned, I just said “Thanks” and walked away.
Meanwhile, back at work, the boss got word of Jurgis’ blow-up (not from me, but from one of the half-dozen employees within earshot of it). Jurgis has quit acting like a jerk, but I’m still waiting to hear an apology. I’m not holding my breath.
This is a delicious hot whiskey along with Megan. It was taken in January, the second day we’d known each other. She was couch surfing with a mutual friend, and when we met we hit it off. Megan is American, she graduated from a California university last year, but instead of finding a job she decided to explore Europe. We’ve got quite a bit in common, starting with the fact that she’s attempting to obtain dual citizenship (with Italy) through descent – the same way I got my Irish citizenship. She has that same adventurous attitude that is required of us long-term European transplants – she too hopes to move out here on a permanent basis. I offered up my couch if she needed it. It was an offer she would accept on more than one occasion.
I met Megan at a time when I was really falling into a routine here in Galway. Monday through Friday I’d go to work at nine, come home at six. I’d check my email, make dinner, watch TV, do some reading and apply for jobs. Come weekend-time, I’d stay in one night doing nothing, go out another. On Sunday afternoon I’d videochat with my family. It turns out moving to a new country doesn’t eliminate the enticing allure of routine.
Meanwhile, Megan was actively rejecting that temptation. Over the next few months she was a bit of an enigma, sending in dispatches from all over Ireland as she hitchhiked across the country. Eventually she settled into a farm near Oranmore (about 10 miles away) where she’d occasionally call in to crash my couch so she could have a night out in Galway. Last week, I took her out for lunch as she was about to depart for Dublin Airport. She was returning home to consult with the Italian Consulate about her citizenship application. She’ll return later this summer to do god knows what.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in Ireland, but Megan helped remind me that I’ve really got to make the most of my time here, the way she’s been living. That’s why, when one of the commenters on this blog invited me out to her country cottage to spend a weekend in County Kerry, I accepted her offer (I’ll blog more about this later). That’s why I just bought plane tickets next month to rural Austria and London. That’s why I’m not going to let another weekend pass me by because I’ve fallen into a familiar routine.