Week 1: Arrival and Retreat
I was more than 3,000 miles from home, at the writer’s retreat that had brought me to Ireland, when I heard a saying that stuck with me:
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine – We live in each other’s shadows.
Other translations or interpretations: Through the shelter of each other, people survive. We shade each other from the sun.
The takeaway: Humans rely on each other for support.
When I heard it, I was reminded of the importance of connection and the fact that the best times of my life have always been with other people. And yet, I had chosen to spend a month in a place where I didn’t know a single soul.
I had been in Ireland for five days and had already questioned my choice to travel alone. Quite a few of these unsettling moments came the morning I arrived.
After an easy trip from Washington, D.C., to Dublin, I checked into my hotel in the early morning feeling good.
“I’m doing this!” I congratulated myself, looking around the room confidently, “I’m in Ireland!”
Two hours later, after settling in for a needed nap, I woke up feeling nauseated and terribly anxious.
The rest of the day was a struggle.
I was surprised at how familiar the feeling was. It was almost identical to how I felt the morning I arrived in Japan some 25 years ago – something just short of wanting to stay in bed all day and pull a blanket over my head. However, that time I was with my spouse, and he would be handling many of the details of our one-year stay because we were there for his job. This time I would be handling everything solo.
I tried to calm myself down by turning on the TV, but I kept finding channels where everyone was speaking with Irish accents. Worse yet, some were speaking Irish, a language I couldn’t comprehend at all. It served as a glaring reminder that I was in a foreign place.
I also had to figure out where I was going to eat. I had been told that breakfast was served at the hotel restaurant from “half 7” to 11 a.m. I didn’t know what “half 7” meant, but it didn’t matter. It was already 10:30.
My room was a weird distance from the lobby and I was wishing I had left bread crumbs to help navigate my way back through a series of hallways and two different elevators.
Nevertheless, I persisted, and made my way towards the lobby. Just ahead of me around the last turn was a man in a skirt.
“Wow,” I thought, “I’ve heard Ireland’s gotten very progressive. Well, OK! Well done, Ireland!”
Then I turned the corner and came across a pack of burly, tattooed men in skirts. Or, as I quickly realized, kilts. And matching navy blue jerseys.
Oh! Right. Sports fans. (Scottish soccer fans going to a game in Dublin that day, as it turned out.)
I had to slip through the burly men and their matching ladies to get to the hotel restaurant. I was the only customer.
It was 10:45 and the buffet had clearly been out for several hours. I was looking for something simple like eggs and toast. The eggs looked suspect.
This was hardly the time for food poisoning, so I took a couple of oddly curled pieces of meat (ham? bacon? I wasn’t sure) and the waitress brought me toast and tea.
And that was my first meal in Ireland, sitting alone in an empty restaurant.
After I finished (six minutes later), I retreated to the safety of my room to lay down again and watch TV. I knew it was absurd that the Irish accents on Irish TV were throwing me off, but I couldn’t help it. My heart thawed when I came across a couple of channels showing American programs.
I watched an episode of Friends (which I never liked in America, but now Joey and Chandler were really hitting the spot), then the movies Dirty Dancing (Baby, still not in a corner) and Beaches (which I hadn’t seen since 1989).
Around 4 p.m., it was time to find food again and I decided I really did have to leave the hotel and walk around the area a little.
I stepped out onto O’Connell Street – a busy road with lots of shops, people, busses, and trams – and had some bright moments while heading towards the river. It was cool walking around in a new city, and I had an inkling that I would enjoy the place once I settled in.
After crossing the bridge over the River Liffey, I walked through a touristy section called Temple Bar, which felt like a frat party on a city street. Enough of that! I crossed back over the river, and once again, seeking out familiar things, I ducked into a music store full of guitars.
After about an hour I felt I could check the box that I had “explored” the neighborhood. On my way back to the hotel, I picked up another nutritious meal – a sandwich from the Subway inside a Circle K.
Not surprisingly, the first day in the new place was challenging. I was exhausted from jet lag. I’m also a creature of habit, so having to get my bearings, make sense of new sights, navigate new streets, and forage for food, all alone, was tiresome. I just kept reminding myself that it was going to be worth it.
I was here to grow.
I would need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
The tradeoff was this, I felt: Traveling solo would open possibilities and connections that wouldn’t happen if I were with a partner or a friend the whole time.
And fortunately, the next day, things got much better.
I met up with my sister’s friend Catriona, who lives in Dublin and who had kindly offered to show me around.
I was nervous to meet her, but she set me at ease right away. Chatty, warm, smart, and fun, she brought me to the Museum of Literature Ireland, which had a ton of interesting information about Irish writers, and then to her house for dinner.
Though I had only been two days away from my own home, it was so nice to be in a house, with a family, having a home-cooked meal. Catriona and her husband Jim told me lots about Ireland and answered my many questions. I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon and evening.
On the way back to the hotel, Catriona drove past Dublin Bay and explained a bunch of other things about the city. I ended the day feeling much more comfortable about where I was. When I got back to the room, I ended my journal entry for the day with this simple note:
Grateful for today.
The next morning, I flew to Donegal, where my writing retreat would take place.
In addition to my first-day nerves, I had felt plenty of anxiety about the retreat in the weeks leading up to the trip. I was happy to start my month in Ireland with a week where I would be interacting with other people rather than sightseeing by myself, but I was also unsure of who else would be there and what we would be doing each day. There were only ten participants, so I knew we would be in close quarters.
I met most of the other participants after we had landed in Donegal. I introduced myself at the tiny baggage claim area and we loaded ourselves into a van to the hotel.
It may sound corny to say “we came in as strangers, we left as friends,” but I believe that’s what happened. Even though we ranged in age from 30s – 70s and came from England, Ireland, Germany, and a wide variety of U.S. states, the group seemed to gel almost immediately. A workshop where people are writing about their lives lends itself to getting to know people well in a short span of time.
The retreat was thoughtfully organized. Starting with the first night, we got a writing assignment each evening. Mornings were spent sharing our work and giving each other feedback. From our first morning, I was so impressed with the writing of my classmates. Each day there were pieces that blew me away, and I felt I learned a lot just by hearing the writing of others and the feedback given by the group.
We also had instruction and discussions each day about specific aspects of writing – things like story arc, dialogue writing, and ways to make writing clearer.
On two of the afternoons we took trips to local places that highlighted the culture of the area. The first was to a thatched-roof cottage, the home of a traveler and author from the 1800s. We had a big lunch of Irish stew, brown bread, and scones and cream, followed by a lesson in the Irish language.
The second afternoon we went to Dunfanaghy Workhouse, where we learned about life during the Irish Potato Famine. We walked through a narrated exhibit about a woman from that area who lived through the hardship of the famine. The museum was on the site of an actual workhouse, a place where people could go if they had no food. It was an enlightening and very somber afternoon.
After the Workhouse, we went to a castle in the area, which I found peaceful and interesting.
Evenings were spent at the pub in the hotel, which was not only a ton of fun – I really enjoyed getting to know this diverse group of people – but also served as my first view into how pubs seem to play an important role in communities.
Because the Teac Jack hotel was set in a rural area, it was clearly a gathering spot for people from the surrounding towns as well as hotel guests. And perhaps most importantly, it’s where I broke my strict allegiance to Coors Light and ventured on to Carlsberg and Guinness.
During the first week, I was already getting a taste of the experiences that would tower in my memories of this trip: although I purposefully chose to travel alone, the best parts of this adventure were when I found connection with others.
The Irish are known for their culture of hospitality. You can go into any gift shop and find the saying Céad Míle Fáilte (One Hundred Thousand Welcomes) on a variety of plaques and cards. I don’t know how many Irish people walk around actually speaking these words, but the saying represents something I experienced firsthand, especially that first week.
I was left with the strong sense that I was genuinely welcomed and that people I had just met were looking out for me. What a great feeling to take with me as I began my solo journey.