I knew something was wrong as soon as I lifted the shade to peer out the window of the airplane. The pilot had announced that we were beginning our descent, and would be landing in Dublin at about 8:45 local time. He also told us that the temperature was a frigid 2 degrees (around 35 or 36 fahrenheit), and that it was a very rare occasion when the temperature was actually colder here than when we left Chicago. I was anxious to see what the guidebook described as the green quilted landscape that was visible from the air, so why was it all grey? I believe it was at this moment when Maureen’s mouth actually fell open. The quilt was still there, but this landscape was covered with ice and snow. We landed in Dublin in a snowstorm.
After a quick snafu at the rental car counter, we soon found ourselves standing in the Avis lot with a midsize Toyota covered in snow. The young man who drove us over in the shuttle bus did the best he could to clean the snow with the only item he had for the job, a push broom. Although it did knock off the loose snow, it did nothing to break free the thick layer if ice that encased the windshield. I tipped the driver with the only thing I had in my pocket, three American dollars, and I know, I am not supposed to tip in Ireland, but some habits are hard to break, and at least Maureen was able to reel me in so that I was only leaving a “small” tip at each restaurant and pub. The driver gave me a quick smile, and soon we were left by ourselves with a halfway frozen car somewhere just outside Dublin.
After pulling the last few chunks of ice of the windshield with my hands, we hit the road for our first destination, Belfast. The tank was full, and the sun was out and it was actually much warmer than the snow would indicate. As we pulled onto the M1 heading North, me in the American drivers seat sans the steering wheel, and Maureen adjusting very quickly to driving on the left side of the road, we decided to make a quick stop to get some euros, water, coffee, and a little something to eat, before our adventure was to begin. About an hour into our drive, as I was looking over our maps, the left lens of my glasses popped out and rattled to the floor between our seats. I gave it a quick look, but it became apparent the search was going to have to wait until we stopped again.
The actual drive to Belfast was not too bad. The weather changed about every ten minutes as we would go from snow to rain to bright sunlight within just a few miles. The road was what they called a dual carriage Motorway, or the basic two lane highway here in the states. Even with the snow, this would be one of the best roads of the trip, but there will be much more about that at another time. It wasn’t until we actually got into Belfast that things started to get a little hairy. Maureen had made a reservation for us on the North side of town, but the road we were looking for was not on our map. To make matters worse, Irish street signs are almost non-existent. To figure out what street you are on, you have to look for signs on the side of the buildings, and since Maureen was trying to maneuver slim one way streets, I was stuck trying to look for signs through the one lens I still had in my glasses.
It became apparent that we needed to make a stop, so while Maureen looked through the maps, I searched for the missing glass that had fallen between our seats. But the lens had pulled a David Copperfield and had disappeared. Front seat, back seats crawling on my belly, I searched all to no avail. I should probably add at this point that we had both become a little agitated from our travel, but to be fair, I was in a much fouler mood than Maureen. I was not able to sleep at all on the seven hour flight, which we boarded at 7 pm Saturday in Chicago, flying right through the night and landing Sunday morning in Dublin. With very little sleep after the Friday night wedding, I was now passing the 24 hour mark without sleep, with maybe just a few hours of sleep over the past two days. To put it bluntly, I was a tad bit crabby.
Since our cell phones were now useless, and after a bit more driving in circles, we stopped again at a petrol station to get directions. I made another futile attempt to find my missing lens, but the directions turned out to be helpful and we soon found Antrim Street and our hotel. We must have been quite the sight, two tired, dirty Americans walking into the lobby. And the poor lady behind the counter probably didn’t fully understand how desperate for sleep I was when she first told us that check-in time was not for another hour. When it quickly became apparent to her that room or no room, I was going to lie down, even if it was on one of the couches right there in the lobby, a key and directions to our room were quickly handed over.
As Maureen will tell it, I was asleep before she even set down her purse, and what seemed like a quick snooze turned into a two-hour nap. I probably could have slept for about ten more hours, but we decided we needed to push through the night and get adjusted to the new time zone. We decided to take a quick walk before we were to meet some friends later that night. And that turned out to be a good idea. After I apologized for being so short earlier, the woman at the front desk told us to be careful because the walkways were “treacherous” and they had not all been properly “gritted,” two terms we came to be very found of while in Ireland.
Despite the warning, we heading out into the late afternoon to find the air was brisk but not windy. The sun was already setting, this time of year it is dark by 4:30, and many of the shops were already closed up. It was after all Sunday night. We did find an ATM, because the euros we picked up were no good here in Northern Ireland, British rule still made the Pound the correct currency. We grabbed a quick bite to eat as the sun set, and then walked back to our hotel to get ready for the night.
Long before I had met Maureen, her family had hosted a young child from Belfast. This was some time in the early nineties, and that child was also named Maureen, or Little Mo as I have been told they called her. Well, Little Mo is now all grown up with a husband and three great kids of her own, and Maureen and her husband Mark were to be our hosts in Belfast that night. My Maureen was a little nervous about the meeting. They had reconnected through the wonderful world of Facebook, but when you haven’t seen someone in almost twenty years, it is understandable that things might not be as easy as before. But all the worries were for nothing, and very soon we were all laughing and drinking like old friends.
As a quick little side note, I did find it interesting that while I was drinking a Harp, I was holding off on the Guinness because I was afraid it might speed up the rate of how quickly sleep took control, Mark had opted for an American import. Budweiser.
After a few drinks at our hotel, we called a cab and headed back to Maureen and Mark’s house to meet her mother and the kids. I was thrilled to find out that even though we live an ocean apart, kids are still the same everywhere. Grumblings about washing hands and brushing teeth are no different in Belfast than they are in Bolingbrook. As the kids were sent to bed, the real adventure was about to begin.
On the cab ride to our next stop, we learned a little about the strife that still exists in Northern Ireland. Similar to the way racism can still haunt us here in the states, the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics is still cause for tension, although it was not so overwhelming as to detour us from traveling to Belfast again. We probably wouldn’t have even noticed it at all if we had not been with locals, or visiting a local night spot. That aside, we were made to feel quite welcome in the pub we ended up in, where we met another nice couple from Dublin, Tom and Margaret, and another gent we just refered to as Strange Martin. Even for a Sunday night the place was hopping, and a band played as we drank, danced and talked. That whole sleep thing had passed me over, so I decided it was time to move onto the Guinness. And as the pub was closing and I thought our night was coming to a close, Mark informed us of a fun little Irish fact. Guest in a hotel can continue to order drinks from the hotel bar, even after hours!
So needless to say, we were back in a cab and at our hotel to continue our night.
I am really not sure how late we stayed in that closed down bar off of the lobby, but Mark was indeed correct, and the man at the front desk continued to serve us pint after pint until the wee hours of the morning. Thankfully the bar also had a vending machine that dispense those tiny cans of Pringle’s. The salt and vinegar ones were an especially tasty treat and went well with the overabundance of beer. When the machine was empty of all of its little cans except for one, I finally hit that wall and needed to hit the sack. Reluctantly we parted ways, and we made drunken bar plans to meet up the next day, even though we were supposed to move on to Bushmills for the next night. The last thing I remember was watching a pillow meet up with my face, and then there was darkness.
Our first night in Ireland, and I slept like a baby. A 250 pound drunken baby.