Over the past week, I’ve been upgraded from CouchSurfer to freeloading flatmate by my new friend Gideon and his roommates (two Italian guys and a Spanish girl). Because someone moved out, I’ve had my own room and key through most of this week.
As my new flatmates’ nationalities imply, Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, is not a very Irish city. Probably fewer than 50% of the people here are Irish. Dublin isn’t much different from a typical U.S. city, actually. But as they say in Pulp Fiction, it’s the little differences.
A lot of people smoke here, but not everyone. It seems about equal to the U.S. about 15 or 20 years ago, only they can’t do it inside. And if you’re looking for a bathroom in Ireland, don’t call it that because people will laugh, thinking you want a place to take a bath. “Restroom” works, though most say “toilet.” Also, despite a strict law enforcing that all public bathrooms have a door-behind-a-door setup to ensure proper hygiene, by my prudish American standards most bathrooms here are pretty gross. A lot of them have urinals that consist of a trough with a grate over it next to a tiled wall; the idea is to stand on the grate and relieve yourself on both it and the wall itself. No bidets yet, though.
Things are more expensive in Dublin, too: most pricing is comparable to Portland if you just change the dollar sign to the euro — so with current exchange rates that makes it about 20% more expensive on most items, plus the additional costs I’d chalk up to cultural differences. For example, grocery stores here charge for bags (about 0.25 each), and bottled water is a daily purchase in the city because public faucets and tap ice water from restaurants are hard to come by.
One thing is cheap here, though: the yogurt. Tasty organic Irish yogurt can be had for 0.80 per 16 oz if you go to the right place. By now I’ve probably had as many pints of yogurt as I’ve had of Irish beer. And the beer on its own has been worth the trip.
A tour of the Guinness Storehouse (where they fermented the beer until 1988) included the opportunity to pour a pint of my own that was so good I had to con my way into a second. It was creamier and stronger than we can get in the States, but still smooth and rich. Frank at Shanahan’s, a South-Dublin backstreet pub popular with locals, pours the best pints — even better than the fresh stuff from the storehouse, and well worth the low price of four euro. And the company at Shanahan’s is unbeatably hospitable, with accents so Irish you’ll need a translator.
Aside from the great beer and conversation found in its traditional pubs, Dublin’s nightlife is nothing special. The clubs downtown are pretty much the same as any in the U.S., with loud American music, dancehall lighting, and packed with young people. But there is one big difference: no one dances. Even when the song “Just Dance” is pumped over a sea of half-drunk twentysomethings, they stay seated and shout conversations to each other over tables. If you go to the biggest, most crowded clubs in downtown Dublin, you’ll typically see just three or four people dancing out of hundreds. And they’ll be drunk.
The most striking thing about Dublin itself is the sense of history about it. Cobbled side streets lead you to towering, thousand-year-old stone cathedrals with shockingly gorgeous stained glass and high wooden arches that will make you want to bow down and weep when you step inside. Monuments to noteworthy Irish nationals like James Joyce and Daniel O’Connell dot the city. But no one here cares, really. There’s no atmosphere; no interest or pride in tradition, and that attitude is unfortunately contagious.
So many of the buildings in Dublin are historical and beautiful that most of the population takes them for granted. It’s easy to walk down the street with blinders on, forgetting that most of the structures around you are hundreds of years old or more. From the local hole-in-the-wall bakeries to the newest Burger Kings to the gigantic city post-office, almost every building is worth saving in a picture. Even every Spar (their version of 7-11) is housed in a piece of architecture that predates the culture that birthed the business within.
But the biggest adjustment for me has simply been living on a continent where I haven’t known anyone for longer than a week. I expected it to feel like a combination of freedom and loneliness, but the proportions are weighted a little more toward the latter than I anticipated. I’m meeting people and finding things in common with them even more easily than I thought, but being in vagabond mode makes it difficult to form attachments and feel connected. I suppose that’s a big part of why I’m traveling in the first place, though: to stretch myself, mentally and emotionally.
It has helped that my host, Gideon, has also been a good friend. We share several interests: he works for a financial company, has published short stories in the Netherlands, and has a good sense of humor except for the occasional bad pun; and he’s only been in Dublin for about a month — long enough to show me around, but short enough to relate. And he has spent so much time in the U.S. that he’s actually adopted a convincing American accent. It’s been fun exploring the city and the nearby rocky coast with him and his friends (we went on a 5-mile coastal hike in Bray last weekend), as well as meeting people on my own over the past ten days.
The locals are for the most part very welcoming and helpful, as are the numerous foreigners here on student and work visas. One middle-aged Irish man on crutches told me the first day I was here that he’d been viciously attacked by a gang of Irish thugs for no reason the week before, but they’d stopped as soon as he asked them to. And an old man and his wife befriended me in town yesterday, giving me an ice-cream bar from their box of three and a lesson in Irish history along with a cloth bag with a picture of Daniel O’Connell on it.
So while I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the island, my leaving Dublin tomorrow will not be without a sense of loss. Planned next stops: Kilkenny, Galway, Carrickfergus, Belfast.