This is part 3 in a series about my three-week trip to Europe in December 2014-January 2015. Read the rest here.
Day 1: December 28, 2014
The plane vibrates steadily beneath my feet. I raise my head, pull the earbuds out of my tender ears, tighten my sore glutes. Except for the engine drone, the eerie silence of several hundred sleeping passengers is unbroken. I look back down the dark tube of the aircraft intermittently lit by the harsh glow of some night owl’s iPad. I see shapes, not details. My contacts are cased away and my glasses stowed in the seat pocket at my knees.
On my right Grace curls against the pitch-black window, asleep. Unlike me. After taking off from JKF in New York around 10:30 last night, I folded over at the waist, laid my head on my pillow atop my tray, and plugged my ears with quiet Celtic Christmas music, but by now the same playlist has looped several times and slumber is still back in the states where I left it after three short hours on Friday night. Not that time or days mean anything anymore.
I squint and press my phone. 03:00 Sunday, December 28. Somewhere over the Atlantic.
I close my eyes, stuff my earbuds back in, and lie down, smushing the opposite cheek now. Thanks to the time warp, every hour forward is actually almost two, curtailing our night from 11 hours to six. Every minute I spend not sleeping is double the loss. But I’m past caring about the fact that I’m currently racing, at roughly 550 mph, towards my first day in a foreign country on zero shuteye. Let jet lag worry about itself. I’m still stunned that I’m actually here. For months, I’ve been convinced I wouldn’t actually get on the plane. Terrorists would strike Europe, ebola would shut down US airports, Grace and I would die in a car wreck on our way to Spokane, I’d slip and break my leg on the icy tarmac, something. Something would surely go wrong.
But nothing has. And here we are, Dublin-bound.
My brain churns with memories of the past two days as much as it caroms around expectations for what lies ahead. Christmas at my parents’ house in Boise, the long solo drive back north to Moscow, dinner with my former college roommate, packing (and repacking), and a midnight theater trip for the newly released Unbroken have blurred two busy days into a seamless blob.
I am still trying to parse Unbroken. Laura Hillenbrand’s book was one of very few I absolutely could not put down, and the movie, though shorter and hence necessarily inferior, nevertheless flooded me with something I can only call joy. Fierce, buzzing, crazy grateful joy. Lying here half smothered by my over-enthusiastic pillow, I remember stepping out of the theater onto the frozen parking lot, my body cold yet burning to run, run like Louie Zamperini—to my car, to Europe, to beauty and hardship and good fights and stories worth telling. We all live life at breakneck speed (exactly one second per second; next! next! next! no time to waste) but now nothing seems fast enough to get me where I’m going. My chest still throbs with energy.
No wonder I can’t sleep.
After watching the movie, Grace and I said goodnight and “See you in a few hours!” At home, I dumped everything out of my rotund suitcase and started over, rolling every piece of clothing as tight as possible and throwing needless sweaters back in my closet. At 01:30, I dropped into bed and into a rigid sleep. I awoke, freezing, to my 04:30 alarm, and at 06:00 hit the road with a sleepy but excited Grace in the back of her parents’ van. The 80-mile drive northwest to Spokane was slow. Clutching my warm to-go mug between my knees, I was grateful that Grace’s dad was taking it easy as snow flakes skated in white, blinding streaks past the windshield. I didn’t known it at the time, but just a few hours later some friends would be heading out into the same snowstorm, and not all of them would make it home alive.
Our first flight departed Spokane around 10:00. We touched down in Seattle for a lengthy layover before the even lengthier flight to JFK in Queens, New York, where the famous Manhattan skyline scintillated in the night like a Christmas tree as we banked steeply around the island. Snatching an over-priced dinner on our way through the terminal, Grace and I settled in for the last leg of our journey: a redeye to a continent neither of us had ever seen.
As usual, I ignored the flight attendants’ patient sermon about inflatable vests and their histrionic gestures to emergency exits until remembering, as my buckle snapped into place, that for the first time I’d be flying over water. All night. All night, we could go down into the freezing black ocean. Nowhere else to go. The horrific plane crash in Unbroken began replaying through my head.
Two things I fear (besides diseases): falling and drowning. Especially falling and then drowning. I started visualizing a plane crash. What to do? Stay calm, think sharp, get Grace, don the life vest, brace for impact, herd everyone for the doors, take it one step at a time.
I leaned over to Grace. “Do you ever picture things going horribly wrong—like, the engine failing or a bomb going off?”
“All the time.”
“What do you picture?”
“Curling into a ball.”
I laughed. “Good, because I always picture covering you and dragging you to safety.”
“Perfect. We’re a good team.”
I sit up and kill the music. It’s not working. Grace sleeps on. I stare up at the dark ceiling and think about Dublin. I have read nothing about the history of this city. The only thing I really know is that they speak English, giving us an easy introduction to life overseas. Okay, two things. The other is that it is home to the Book of Kells—a 1200-year-old illuminated Latin manuscript containing the four Gospels. Stunning work. My sister Kate, a medieval monk in her own right, threatened to forge the famous book and hitch a ride in my suitcase in order to pull a Neal Caffrey and steal the original. Easy. She had hand-bound and illuminated the entire Song of Roland for her senior art project. She could do it. But last I’ve checked, she isn’t in my suitcase.
At last my phone reads 06:00. (Military time has been its standard setting for years now, which proves useful as I head to countries operating on the 24-hour clock. I have spent the journey so far trying to convince Grace to switch her phone too—with no success.) I get up before the flight attendants have stirred and shut myself in the bathroom which provides just enough room for me to squat the cramps out of my legs without embedding my knees in the walls. Airplanes are friendliest to short people. I freshen up, fix my hair, remind myself that nobody looks good in florescent lights, and head back to my seat to wait for landing.
A slow, bloody dawn crosses the eastern sky like a red saber—the furthest east I’ve ever seen the sun. Grace wakes up and we watch the violent sunrise over the wing tip as the plane floats atop billowing white clouds. I’ve never seen clouds like this: big like Santa’s beard, thick and poofy like a foam blanket you could roll around in. Groaning higher, the engines shift and the plane noses lower. A pastel shore strewn with lights appears below. Grace and I look at each other.
Good morning, Ireland.
“Gaelic!” I gasp as we trundle through the Dublin airport. “Everything’s in Gaelic!”
Sotto voce seems wise; I don’t want to be like the American tourist my roommate once witnessed in London, spreading her arms and yodeling: “I’m here! I’m actually here!” Also, there’s the fact that I should have known. About the Gaelic. (TripAdvisor, you failed me!) Luckily, English is just as popular, because the only Gaelic word I know is fáilte, “welcome”—which is what the Irish (presumably) will say to us. If I don’t behave like a tourist.
We join the tedious line to go through customs. Glaciers are sprinters compared to this endless chain of red-eyed humanity clutching passports and pillows and fractious offspring, inching in stagnant hairpin turns towards the gates where bright-cheeked customs officers flip through IDs.
Grace needs coffee; I need sleep but don’t know it. I feel tight and wired and alive.
At last it’s our turn. I hand the customs officer my passport folded in my wallet.
“Can you take your passport out of the case, please, ma’am.” He has a poker face but a charming Irish lilt.
“Oh, yes.” I comply.
He stamps it. “Danke schön,” he says, handing it back. I take it without a word, confused. Why is he suddenly speaking German? How does he know we’re going to Germany next? Or that I’m studying the language at all?
“Auf wiedersehen,” he prompts, this time stamping Grace’s passport and holding it out. I understand what he’s saying but not what he’s doing. He appears to be handing me Grace’s passport like it’s mine, but it couldn’t be mine, I just took mine, didn’t I just take mine?
“What?” I say.
Patiently, without breaking his poker face, he replies: “I’m talkin’ German to ye.”
“Oh. Right. Bitte. I mean danke.” Hauling my suitcase away, I frown at my passport and see the culprit—four little words. Place of birth: Nürnberg. I decide that passports should have a new line: Primary language: English. And I feel dandy but maybe I need a sign around my neck after all: I’ve had 3 hours of sleep in the past two days.
We’ve read in our travel research that it’s best not to withdraw foreign currency in advance, so we haven’t a useful cent on us now. We head straight to the ATMs. In front of us, a dyspeptic, middle-aged man abuses first the uncooperative machine and then his wife when she inquires what’s taking so long, and I make a crucial note (about the man, but for myself): You’re on an adventure, and true adventures never do exactly what they’re told, so you might as well sit loose in the saddle and enjoy the ride. Even if the adventure is an insubordinate ATM.
We withdraw about 150 euros (which seriously look like the fake paper money I had as a kid), spin in circles a few times before finding the right exit, and before we know it are standing on the curb on a bright, frosty morning where the newborn sun flares gold through a majestic cloud bank low in the east.
We squeeze aboard the Airlink 747 bus destined for the heart of Dublin. All seats are full. We join the straphangers (without straps) and grab onto whatever we can. Our driver knows no subtlety on either gas or brake and it’s a spasmodic, 15-minute ride to the city center, but we arrive safely on Lower Gardiner Street. Suitcases rattling over the cracked sidewalk, Grace and I follow the numbers down the wide, beautiful avenue lined with Georgian houses till we reach No. 49 and the quaint, sea-blue door that first drew me to the Anchor Guesthouse four months ago.
We are shown into a sitting room that takes our breath away. This is the moment—surrounded by Christmas decorations, a glowing fire, and Irish nicknacks—that it hits home. We’re here. The adventure has begun.
Joan, the kind-souled owner, lets us into our room early. She’s a slender, cheery woman who immediately makes us feel as if we have a mom in town to whom we should report our whereabouts and when we plan to be home for dinner. “This house is over 200 years old,” she says, walking us up the narrow, burgundy-carpeted staircase to a wide landing on the second floor. Opening the door to our room, I believe her when I see the enormously wide 16-paned sash window that reaches nearly to the ceiling high overhead. Our view is of more Georgian architecture and a few linens freezing on a clothesline.
Joan leaves us to ourselves. We immediately plug in our phones and flop on the soft beds, tapping into WiFi for the first time since New York last night. It’s when I check my email that I see the news about Kalkidan Qualls.
The Qualls, a wonderful Moscow family with a score of gifted children, are good friends of mine. Over the years I’ve taught three of their kids writing and rhetoric extensively. One daughter, Annarose, has been a student for eight years and has become a younger sister to me.
When I open my email and see a church-wide alert that the Qualls lost an adopted daughter in a car wreck on Saturday morning, I feel my heart constrict. Russ and Lisa were driving 13-year-old Kalkidan—a strikingly beautiful Ethiopian—to Montana, heading north on the same route the Burnetts took when they drove us to the airport. Same road, same snowstorm, just a couple hours later. The Qualls rounded a curve and slid into another car and Kalkidan was killed.
Before I can tell Grace what happened, I grab my head and beg aloud: “No, no, no, no, no.” My whole chest aches. Please, go back. Please, undo it. Please, let it not happen.
“What is it?” Grace cries.
My eyes are still closed, my face covered. “Kalkidan Qualls just died. In a car accident.”
I can’t stand the fact that I am 4,400 miles away, unable to comfort my friends. Lying here on a fluffy bed in a bright, cheery room in the middle of Dublin on the cusp of a three-week adventure feels callous and wrong. I am heart-wrenched by the split-second-ness of it all. Our lives reach a new fork in the road every second. God, the perfect Storyteller, the One who put the fork there in the first place, chooses left or right every time. It’s the bitter contrast in moments like this—me, alive, Kalkidan, dead—that make me breathless with gratitude. For my life. For hers. She was a sweet girl, and now she’s home. The only thing I can do is pray, so I do. Grace and I both pray.
Cathedrals, Color, and Curry
Heavy-hearted but knowing there’s no other way for us to help, we change out of our clothes that smell of various airports and strangers, and head out in search of breakfast. “Take a left on Talbot Street,” Joan advises in her light brogue with shimmering Ts. “Poke around there. Lots of places to eat.”
Downtown Dublin is as radiant as a stained glass window, muted here and there with frost as the mid-morning sun has yet to get around to touching everything. Royally hued doors of red, green, blue, and purple; jovial shop signs; and buses the color of canaries trundling down the street keep our eyes busy—almost too busy to scout for breakfast.
We duck into the first restaurant whose window advertisement brags “breakfast and lunch served all day” and something like “yummy!!!” We don’t even check the name. We’re starving (nothing to eat since our sandwich and sushi in the JFK airport last night) and are easily impressed at this point. The restaurant is a cheery little place bedecked in Santa hats. Service is prompt and pleasant. We order what they call a traditional Irish breakfast and feast gladly, realizing too late that we’ve just inhaled—and rather enjoyed—blood pudding. “I guess we’ll survive,” I say, grimacing. It was savory, to say the least; probably the inevitable result of a recipe that starts with four cups of fresh pig’s blood and two cups of finely diced pork fat.
Afterwards, a short walk takes us to the commandingly beautiful intersection of O’Connell Street and Bachelors Walk, thronged with grand, stone-faced neoclassical buildings and marked by the O’Connell Monument, a black statue of the 19th-century nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell. We read the inscription on the massive stone plinth but promptly forget his name and simply refer to him as The Dude. He becomes our reference point for every other site in the city. Everything afterwards is “Just past The Dude,” or “Remember, The Dude was to our left when we turned down this street.” Maps befuddle us, but The Dude—with a seagull atop his head—remains our stalwart guide.
Nippy wind tugs on our scarves as we cross the bridge over the gentle River Liffey in search of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It takes two maps and several kind strangers for us to track it down, and after we find it, we discover it isn’t St. Patrick’s Cathedral after all, but Christ Church Cathedral—the elder of the two medieval churches in Dublin, spotlighted by the morning’s rays.
Now that we know where we are (or rather, where we aren’t) we spontaneously decide to save the cathedral for later and pop into Dublinia first, the Viking museum next door which offers an interactive and richly detailed maze of reproductions of a much less hygienic age. We are glad the Black Death is back in the past. And we pick up all the weapons, of course. “I am no man,” Grace says dramatically, donning a heavy helmet.
After backtracking several times through the labyrinth, we find our way out a different set of doors than we had come in, which leads us down the street and straight to another surprise find: St. Audoen’s Church, where we proceed to climb on top of window sills and buy luxuriously woven scarves in the gift shop.
Leaving St. Audoen’s and following our noses (less stressful than following either one of our maps), we mosey back towards the river (we’re pretty sure) when we suddenly find a stocky door that looks promising. Another church. Churches everywhere. “Let’s see what this is,” I say, heaving it open—and we find ourselves in the middle of Christ Church Cathedral itself. We’re back where we started. Malfunctioning though our sense of direction might be, it has given us the best possible entrance: a surprise.
We are in the nave, a breathtaking unification of original Gothic and Victorian pastiche where light illuminates the high, gem-like windows and the sound of an invisible choir singing a medieval meditation floats through the vaulted space. We instinctively drop to whispers and explore on tiptoe. At length we run into an avuncular, twinkly-eyed deacon or elder or bishop or priest whose name is Bernard, but we call him “sir” because—caught flatfooted—we can’t remember whether the cathedral is Protestant or Catholic and what do you call an elderly church man in a black robe anyway?
“Is that a real choir?” I ask, pointing up to the ethereal sound.
Smiling, Bernard says while folding his wrinkled hands, “No, it’s a recording,” with the gentle manner of St. Francis reincarnated.
We love the Irish.
The last bit of our tour takes us down wide, shallow stone steps into the shadowy crypt, constructed in 1172 and opened to the public in the new millennium. At 200 feet long, it is the largest crypt in Britain and Ireland and smells of cold, ancient stone. It is home to monuments and artifacts—including a coffin (empty and just my size) which I promptly lie down in. “Nope, nope, noppity-nope,” Grace says when I invite her.
The afternoon light is goldening when we leave the cathedral. We get lost on our way home, naturally, but it’s hard to be troubled by that when our ears are filled with the cries of seagulls mixed with tolling bells and we’re surrounded by shamrocked windows and church steeples.
One thing does shock us. The garbage. We are continually surprised to find trash sullying the streets: cups, wrappers, shoes, plastic bags, even a soggy pillow wallowing in the drain below the curb. Every time I raise my phone to take a picture, I have to make sure I’m not capturing someone’s abandoned Burger King (yes, they have Burger King) spilling half-eaten meat on the asphalt.
Time goes on and we’re getting a bit desperate for our misplaced hotel when we discover a little café where a charming, slightly portly man in a trim wool vest serves us hot black tea which makes us feel invincible again. We forget to ask our barista’s name so we privately christen him John as we set out again.
Finally back at the guesthouse, we decide we are craving Indian curry, but venturing downtown one more time, even with a plethora of maps, is out of the question, so I google a restaurant that delivers takeout and then spend six minutes on the phone at a dollar a minute, repeating our order three times with an Indian woman whose accent is a quick and curling as a whip.
Dinner is worth the bother. Curry and naan have never tasted more intoxicating. Huddling in our coats in our freezing bedroom (the heater appears to be in hibernation), we eat off our laps on the floor so we won’t spill on our white bedspreads. Then we open the window and place our leftovers on the chilly sill, instructing the pigeons to leave them be.
We shower, don warm pajamas, and bundle in bed. Grace is out instantly. My eyes are falling shut on their own accord; I’ve now gone 34 hours without sleep and I haven’t had a full night’s rest since Thursday in Boise, which feels like an alien time and place at the end of a long, long tunnel behind me. But I have to journal. Our day was an intense feast and I must digest by putting it into words. I stay up late, typing. Editing pictures. Posting a photo album on Facebook. I am filled to the brim with shock that we’re here in Dublin, wonder at the thousands of years of history we have just roamed, and above all, gratitude. Heavy, delightful gratitude. For here. For airplanes that didn’t crash. For sunshine. For Kalkidan. For strong Irish tea and jovial Dubliners.
And there are still 18 days and 15 cities to go.