As a travel blogger, it isn’t super shocking I have an endless list of places I hope to visit. I want to do more than see them; I want to taste the food, walk the landscapes, meet the locals and touch historic monuments so the past can flit through my fingertips—if only for a few seconds. I want nothing more than to feel connected with as many branches of humanity as I can.
Looking at a world map, I can name off at least the top ten places I want to go next. Belize, Mexico, Greece, Russia, and Iceland are my current top five, followed closely by Israel, Norway, Sweden, Morocco, and India. Unknown locations are my inspiration, yet whenever I’m asked the question, “If you only had a week to live, where is the one place you would go?” it will always be Ireland.
Ireland was my travel crush for as long as I could remember. In kindergarten I told my teacher I couldn’t pick my favorite color because the Irish flag had three colors: green, white, and orange. Years of my life were spent looking at pictures, reading books written by the Irish literary elite, listening to CDs of Irish pub music, and going to the yearly Irish festival in downtown Saint Charles. I even had a professor at my university ask why I didn’t apply for the Celtic studies minor seeing as I had already taken all of the courses offered in the department. I was admiring the country from afar, seeing it through rose-colored glasses.
When I was accepted into the study abroad program at the University of Limerick, the first feeling I had was fear. I was terrified that the place I had dreamed of since my childhood wouldn’t live up to the expectations I had set for it. It’s kind of like finally getting to go on a date with the guy you’ve liked for months. You don’t really know him extremely well, but you think you do, and when he finally asks you out, you’re terrified that the things you have fantasized in your head are all fake. What if he’s a jerk underneath those breathtaking blue eyes? What if he’s boring and has never read your favorite book? It was the same thing with Ireland. What if I had built it all up so much that all I had left was disappointment? So, when people asked me if I was excited, I would just smile and say, “Yeah,” and change the conversation. Before I was ready, January 18, 2015 came and my Irish adventure began.
I’m not one for commitment. I’ve always allowed my academic and career goals cloud my ability to let someone else in, so I can’t say I’ve ever actually experienced a fling. However, I think my time in Ireland can easily be defined as a traveler’s version of a spring fling. I fell in love with the country I had flirted with my entire life. I had the opportunity to experience the quirks and flaws I didn’t know existed, while also appreciating the cultural qualities I had studied for years.
One of the first things I learned to love about Ireland wasn’t the scenery or the historical landmarks. It was the people. Growing up in the Midwest, the importance of hospitality was deeply ingrained into my psyche. Now that I’ve traveled some, I know each country has its own definition of hospitality and I personally love Ireland’s the most. Midwestern hospitality has its limits. It’s the kind of hospitality where you smile at a person on the sidewalk and ask, “How are you?” then continue on your way without more of a response than, “Good. How are you?” In Ireland, the hospitality has no bounds.
One of my favorite stories was when a friend of mine stayed at the pub a little later than the rest of us. She had befriended a group of Irish blokes and told them she was heading home. One of the guys turned to her and said, “Me ma would slap me upside the head if I let a girl walk home by herself.” With that, she ended her night with a great story and an entertaining walk home. Another night, my friends and I were invited back to the flat of some Irish acquaintances to have a cuppa (aka tea and biscuits) after a night out. We drank our strong cups of tea, played a few rounds of Cards against Humanity, and had some great late night heart-to-hearts. The Irish are willing to talk about anything, as long as they get to talk. They call it “the bants.” They’re also an extremely passionate people who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. It’s a part of their DNA. I was lucky enough to witness one of their protests while walking the street of Cork. Seeing the fighting spirit I had read about in Irish history books still at play today was quite inspiring.
Irish food is synonymous to its people’s hospitality. There’s a homey aspect to every plate you eat. Each scone you bite into is like a warm pillow and every plate of stew feels like a hug from an Irish mammy. I’ve eaten more bowls of seafood chowder and plates of fish and chips than I’d ever imagined I would consume. Even the junk food has a quirky quality that sticks with you. If I could, I would always have my pantry stocked with dark chocolate digestives and prawn cocktail crisps for the rest of my life. From time to time I still willingly treat myself to a small box of Lyons, my favorite Irish tea brand, paying the $11.50 Amazon shipping fee every time.
The lack of Internet connectivity was also surprisingly refreshing. My iPhone was on airplane mode all four months and the Internet in my flat was supplied by a shoddy router my five flat mates and I shared. For a small first-world country, it may seem odd that Ireland doesn’t have Wi Fi in every corner of the country, but a majority of the nation is rather rural outside of major cities like Dublin, Cork, and Galway. It was one of the biggest culture shocks of living in Ireland at first, but by the end of my trip I was thankful that I hadn’t been constantly connected to the World Wide Web. I am closer to the friends I made there because of it and I have more memories too. We had to go to each other when we wanted to chat and our time together wasn’t spent glancing at our phones. Hours weren’t spent on Netflix. They were spent going to the pub, exploring Limerick City, or just walking along the River Shannon—soaking up the scenery of Ireland.
Every county I visited while there was breathtaking and greener than any picture or film I had seen set in the Irish countryside. I’ve explored 3.75 corners of that country and can’t say I have one place that is better than the rest. I can say that the coastal counties on the west, like Sligo, Dingle, and Galway, have some of the most humbling views you’ll ever set eyes on.
You can see the sea, the pastures, and the mountains simultaneously—breathing in the salty ocean air while feeling the sun kiss your face (don’t forget your sunblock!). You should be warned, however, that rain is unavoidable. You need to learn to hike, shop, and maybe even dance in the rain. I was on a tour bus once whose driver cursed the sun. To quote him, “It’s so much easier to drive when there’s a good drizzle going.” As a sweater-loving bookworm I couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere or climate.
I cried on my flight home. It felt like a break up when I left, not knowing the next time I would put my feet on Irish ground again. On the way back from one of our European excursions while there, I remember flying back into Ireland. There was a lightness in my heart when we landed and I felt at home; a sensation I hadn’t really experienced many times in my life.
As a person with a chronic travel bug, I have always had an issue defining what home was. It didn’t feel like one place to me. Home was the people I surround myself with, not the actual place I lived in. While a four-month semester was only a blip compared to the time I will hopefully spend on this Earth, a sliver of me will always consider Ireland one of my homes.
“When you know, you know,” is a saying people say when they fall in love. I think for travelers, the same thing can be said when they find a place they can call home.