Traveling by yourself as a single twenty-something female is a fantastic idea if you are looking for new friends, freedom, adventures, sleeplessness, and just a skosh of hypertension. I experienced all of these last spring when, fresh out of my 6 week TESOL certification program in England, and with over a month of overseas living under my belt, I felt ready to tackle the world. And by "the world" I, of course, meant another English-speaking paragon of Western culture with Judeo-Christian underpinnings and potable drinking water. So I went to Ireland.
When I left the Dublin airport, I had only a map (given me by the kind airport attendant), an address, and a rental car. The latter I procured after a two hour circus of pissed-offedness that involved me dragging 70 pounds of luggage in circles between the payphone and the Budget car rental, waving my rental reservation in their faces like a lunatic and Skyping my bank because my phone carrier didn't seem to remember that Ireland was in my itinerary.
The address I had was the address to Calvary Chapel in County Waterford, Ireland, several hours south of Dublin down the eastern coast. It was a church my good friend Sebastian had helped to build; the pastor of Calvary Chapel Waterford was gracious enough to let me sleep in a little apartment connected to the church, along with several girls from a visiting bible college. I arrived in Waterford around midnight... knowing only the building number and having no clue what the church looked like, or for whom I should be asking. It was late, it was dark, and I didn't see anything that looked like a church, or any person I was inclined to roll my window down for in the middle of this rather rough looking neighborhood... until suddenly, miraculously, a blonde angel appeared next to my car in a pea coat and a scarf, walking alongside my car and crouching down to see my face. I rolled my window down, and she said in a beautiful Irish lilt "Are you Hilary?" I'd never been more happy to hear my own name. It was Dee, an incredibly kind girl around my age who worked for the church, was friends with Sebastian, and who had just left a late night prayer meeting (thank GOD) with an inkling that she should look for me.
She showed me into the church, and some wonderful, strong young gentleman came and carried my bags up the several flights of stairs (70 pounds of luggage, if you recall). They introduced me to a roomful of the most sweet-faced girls, who were expecting me, and who'd prepared a sleeping bag and pillow for me! They said that they'd be getting up early for morning prayer (around 6 am) and that I was welcome to join them if I liked, or that in the morning I could move my sleeping bag upstairs to the room where they stored their luggage, and I could continue to sleep. When the morning came, I wanted to pray, but I opted to sleep... so I moved my party upstairs. I placed my sleeping bag adjacent to (read: inside) my suitcase, which was lying open-faced against the wall near some desks. The room was packed to the gills with suitcases, chairs, and office supplies, and they told me they'd been keeping their belongings there, so I'd be fine to sleep.
I'm an extraordinary sleeper. You've no idea. I sleep through trains. I also sleep through a school of girls quietly cleaning up their suitcases and moving them to another location in order to free up the room for its original purpose: church office.
Oh yes, this is happening. I woke before I had actually opened my eyes... eased out of a stupor by the sound of typing. I realized I had blankets piled on top of me (these sweethearts had covered me with some of theirs), and I wasn't sure where I was or what I'd see when I opened my eyes. I slowly peeked out from under my pile and saw a guy sitting at a desk, doing his best to work with a homeless person sleeping in a suitcase on the floor of his office under a fort of blankets and unfolded clothing.
I pulled the blanket back over my face. Who was this, how did he know my name, and why were all the other suitcases gone?! Why were people in this room?! I was too mortified to move, because honestly, what do you do in that situation? I couldn't tell you. I don't remember. Nate, the church worship leader, was the fellow in the office and he tells me I pulled the blankets back over my head and fell asleep again. I believe him.
I think I was subconsciously waiting for a lull.
When I pulled the blankets off my face again, the coast was clear. I got ready in a hurry. When I emerged from the bathroom, another church staff member, Brian, popped his head in the office, greeted me by name, and asked if I wanted to go to coffee. All these lovely people knew my name and so wanted me to feel welcome that they let me sleep on their floors, blow dry my hair in the corner of their office during a WORK DAY, accompany them on their outings, and participate in their church events (with food!) for the duration of my stay. I could go into immense detail outlining the extent of their kindness, but it would take hours.
Suffice it to say, the folks at Calvary Chapel Waterford fed me, housed me, and loved me for several days, for no other reason than that we had a mutual friend. This extraordinary kindness was the only thing that could have prepared me for the continuation of extraordinary kindness that I received for the duration of my stay in Ireland, as I migrated westward to my homeland in County Kerry.
I arrived in Killarney, Kerry, and thought the city so beautiful that I decided to stop. I knew there were hostels, but I didn't have that quite planned out. I parked my car in a carpark and walked into the first pub that caught my eye... O'Connors. The moment I walked in, I was greeted by an incredibly kind man with a huge grin and a pint, who extended his free hand and said "Hullo! I'm Fergal! What's your name?!" I introduced myself, first and last name, because I hoped to sniff out some relatives. When he heard my name, he smiled. Well, would you believe it, he knew a fella whose grandmother married to a guy who was probably related to me, and then he ushered me into the next room in the pub.
That's where I met Tom O, the Irish Godfather. He had the kindest eyes and the biggest knuckles I've ever seen. He was a little older than my father. I sat between Fergal, Tom, and a shy, kind fellow my age named Darren; they bought me a pint and told me stories and asked me questions, marveled and worried that I was traveling alone, and inquired about my lodging. I told them I hadn't any details ironed out, and lo and behold, Fergal tells me, "You're in luck!" Tom O tells me he owns a boarding house... and there's a room, it turns out, that's so small no one wants to rent it. "You can stay as long as you like," he says, "for free." I sat there, thinking... Is this real life?
He didn't pressure, but offered to show me the place. He'd had a couple pints, and didn't want to drive his motorcycle, but said that if I drove, he'd show me how to get there. Fergal gave me a nudge and a wink, and said not to worry. Off I went. It was, in fact, a boarding house. I was wary, but I also sensed: this is alright. He gave me the tour, gave me the key, and said "Stay if ya like, no charge. And keep the key in case you return."
I drove him back to O'Connor's pub, where they regaled me with more fantastic tales, and I also heard stories of him from other men in the pub, and from the bartender; he was feared. But to me, he seemed like an angel... a gruff, kind, gentlemanly, and paternal angel with a bald head, several five point bucks mounted on his living room wall, and a virtual armory in his room. Yes, he was an angel and a stud- I could liken him to Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot, and it turned out that having him watching out for me was like having Michael Corleone as your private bodyguard. No one wanted to mess with me. But I learned all of this later... and while I had a good feeling about him, I still wasn't sure. I will tell you this much, I have experienced more than my fair share of trouble and hurt at the hands of strangers I trusted unwisely. So I was wary. But I didn't want to sleep in my car! What to do?!
Luckily I had met a sweet English couple, the Clarkes, whom I met through Fergal at O'Connors pub. They were vacationing there in Kerry. I sat with them for a couple of hours and we talked about life, while an Irish singer serenaded us. I explained to them my dilemma regarding lodging (or lack thereof), and they were concerned for me (always fortunate when you can engender parental concern from kind strangers. Page two in my Travel Guide for Single Girls.) She took my phone number so that she could check on me in the morning to know that I'd survived the night.
Meanwhile, Tom had procured for me a free ticket (right?!) to a show that night at the Grand Hotel down the street, just a stones throw from O'Connor's. Anne and her husband accompanied me to the show, and they were great sports. They stayed quite late, and Anne wouldn't leave until she knew I was alright. I assured her I was, so we embraced and parted ways.
After they'd left for their hotel, and while I was in the ladies room of the Grand, I prayed: "Lord, this seems too good to be true. And I'm tired. I am too tired to try to discern whether this is a bad decision or a good one. If you don't want me to stay, send someone to tell me it's a bad idea." Verbatim. As I walked up the stairs from the basement bathroom to the concert, the bartender from O'Connor's passed me in the hall. He smiled, stopped me briefly, and said simply this: "Hey, I just wanted to tell you, in case you were worried: Tom's a stand-up fella, you needn't worry about him, you'll be okay. He probably showed you his gun collection, don't let it worry you. He's a good guy."
I could've cried. And I thanked God in a haze of travel-weary bliss as I climbed those stairs and proceeded to enjoy an incredible rock concert and meet some fabulous Americans Kate (pictured) and Andrew, who befriended me and then rescued me from the awkward advances of a drunken Australian tourist. To return the favor I drove them to their hotel, which was coincidentally across the street from Tom's, and we sat chatting in the lobby until we were delirious. I spent the following day touring the Ring of Kerry myself, and when I returned to Killarney that night, I was shown a grand time by Darren, Alan and some other Irish guys (true nocturnal creatures who got their second wind around 1 am) who were incredibly accommodating to a pitiful American girl traveling by herself. Tom, the saint, so kindly cooked me a full Irish breakfast the following morning, and sat with me at his kitchen table as we ate, showing me his family photo albums and (my favorite) his scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his run-ins with the law (which were ah-mazing). They make films about men like this.
As if that weren't kind enough, he took me on the back of his motorcycle,
of his own volition, for a tour of Kerry. At my request we visited a few graveyards where my familial headstones could be found, and he patiently let me wander through, taking pictures like an tourist. The best part, by far, though, was next: he took me on a motorcycle ride up through the mountains and around beautiful lake so that I could witness firsthand the most majestic views (and terrifying heights) of the Kerry countryside. One of the most singularly exquisite experiences in my entire life. Thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes.
I am grateful for the kindness of strangers. When you're lucky, it becomes the kindness of friends. The Irish people are better than gold (Nate, Kate, and Andrew are American but the Irish spirit bred these warm encounters, I like to think!). They welcomed me, a stranger and a foreigner, into their lives and their homes: they fed me, they loved me, they rewarded my trust in them by trusting me in return (who gives a perfect stranger a bed? or a key to their home?!), and they spent time with me. I wonder at the time they gave: Dee, Brian, Anna, Nate, Danny, and all the lovely people from Waterford; Eline, Heather, and the gals I shared a floor with; Tom, Fergal, Darren, Alan, and Anne, the wonderful folks I met in Killarney who made it, and I do not exaggerate, the experience of a lifetime. I can only hope that I am as kind and loving and welcoming, and that I will have the means and opportunity to offer what they gave to me, because even now the gratitude I feel to them is overwhelming and I'm not sure their kindness can be repaid, except to give it on.