Wednesday, August 18, 2010

To A City Fair Rode I

Here is the first of several updates to be made over the next few days about my weekend alone in Dublin and the orientation I'm currently attending. I can't believe I managed to get so far behind already.

I was nowhere near a window on the plane, which was sad because I love seeing the place I’m going from above before I get there, so my first glimpse of Ireland was from the windows of the shuttle bus I took from the airport (after realizing as soon as I stepped out of the airport that a stop in the tourism office before leaving the airport might have been worthwhile). It wasn’t a very exciting introduction. The plantlife along the highway didn’t look terribly unfamiliar, though I didn’t recognize any of the birds, and I barely noticed that the bus was on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to. I did observe that I didn’t understand any of the road signs, even when they were in English. Once we hit the suburbs, there was a European feel to the architecture that I couldn’t describe if you asked me to but that I definitely recognized. To be honest, though, I didn’t think the outskirts of the city looked all that different from the rundown parts of Queens I’d passed through the night before on my epic four and a half hour journey to JFK Airport. (It’s really only supposed to be about a three hour drive.)

I got off the bus at O’Connell Street, which is the main thoroughfare on the north side of the river in central Dublin, and set off towards the river (or so I hoped). I attempted to follow the sound of the seagulls, but it was fortunate that I was headed in the right direction anyway, because I’ve since learned that the whole city is full of gulls and while they might eventually lead you to the river, it may not be as directly as you’d hope. I crossed the bridge and walked towards my hostel, only to fail to come across it and to discover that I didn’t recognize any of the street names. Perplexed, I was forced to give up on pretending to know what I was doing and pull out my map, at which point I discovered I had gone the right way but had misjudged the direction I’d come into the city from and thus done everything backwards.

In hindsight, that might be why I’ve had the city upside-down in my head all weekend and can’t seem to stop mixing up north and south and walking in completely the opposite direction of where I want to go. After all my travels, I actually do have a decent sense of direction, but it has totally failed me on multiple occasions during the past few days.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Dublin is easily the most confusing city I’ve ever been in. Streets begin and end and change names in odd places, and come together at strange angles that make it hard to tell whether you’re standing at the junction of two roads or just an awkward bend in a single road. Streets also often have very similar names to nearby streets, or are marked with names that don’t quite match up to what’s printed on my map. Or they aren’t marked at all, which never happens when I already know where I am, only when I don’t. The streets rarely go in straight lines and often don’t come out where you expect them to. And God help you if you miss a turn, or take a wrong turn, because if you expect to be able to go up another block (which isn’t anything close to a standard unit of measurement anyway) and cut back over, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Pretty much every time I’ve gotten turned around, there hasn’t been an easy way to get back on track without walking around in some ridiculous circle that takes four times as long as if I’d managed to get it right the first time.

That said, my handy popout  pocket map of Dublin from AAA, which is actually a total of five maps in varying degrees of detail, has been a lifesaver. I’d highly recommend one for anyone traveling to any major city, even if you’re already familiar with the area, because in addition to helping me find my way around it has led to my discovering things I never would have otherwise. Plus it’s compact and way more subtle than a big fold-out map.

So anyway, after getting myself back on track and locating the hostel, I paid for my bed, locked everything but my purse in the luggage room, and went exploring. I just wandered around the neighborhood for a while. O’Connell Street and its side streets are a big shopping area, and my hostel is right on the riverfront about a block west of O’Connell, just across the river from the Temple Bar neighborhood. Most of the big things to see sort of fan out around Temple Bar. I chose the hostel for the location and I really don’t think I could have done better in that regard.

After walking around for a while I attempted to find City Hall to meet up with a free walking tour I’d seen advertised at the hostel. (I was sure there had to be a catch to that, but there really wasn’t.) That was the first time I got thoroughly lost. Let’s just say I had expected to have about an hour to kill in the vicinity of City Hall before the tour left, and in reality I caught up just as they were starting out.

The tour lasted over three hours and was completely worth every second. I learned more about Dublin and about Irish history in that afternoon than the internet could have taught me in a week. The guide, who was a history and music student at Trinity College, was incredibly knowledgeable, adorably enthusiastic, and extremely funny. Her name was Fiona, and every tour guide and bus driver I’ve had since has had a similarly classic Irish name—at some point I started to wonder if they were really all legit or if people who work in tourism sometimes take on atmospheric names. Also, there are Viking-themed duck tours around Dublin, and after explaining to us exactly why the stereotypical horned helmets don’t make any sense historically, Fiona instructed us to shout “Your hats are historically incorrect!” every time one of the duck vehicles passed by with its costumed guides. That was the point at which I wished gay marriage were legal in Ireland.

Anyway, when I put up pictures later I’ll have more stories from the tour. But we saw most of the big historical things in the area, and Fiona was great. And I greatly admire the way she talked about the Easter Rising. She was incredibly passionate—I couldn’t take my eyes off her—and there are few people, I think, even among historians, who have the ability (or even the desire) to balance that level of feeling with the level of fairness that she gave to multiple sides of a controversy. I have a lot of respect for that because it’s something I feel like I see disappointingly little of at Oberlin, which is one of the places I would have most expected it.

I’m getting off track. I think it’s amazing that there are people out there who give wonderful, three-hour-long tours to big groups of foreign tourists and only get paid in tips. Of course, with a group as big as the one I was in, if everyone just gives the one euro my guidebook said was normal for a tour guide, that still works out to be more per hour than I’ve ever earned. Personally, I tipped her three times that, and I saw a couple people slip her even more, so she probably came out pretty well.

After the tour it was getting towards evening and I still hadn’t officially finished checking into the hostel, since I’d gotten there before rooms were ready. So I went back, and got my key and my bed assignment, and got my backpack out of the luggage room. I was in a long, narrow dorm room with six bunk beds and its own bathroom. There were metal basket-style storage lockers underneath the beds, and the first thing I noticed was that I only had half of a latch. I pondered that for a while, until my bunkmate (a Mexican filmmaker) pointed out a piece of chain lying on the dresser and a couple of other lockers in the room that were locked that way. Ok. I wrapped the chain around the bedframe and through the latch and then discovered that my padlock wouldn’t fit through the links. At that point I was seriously annoyed, so I emptied all my clothes and whatever else I wasn’t concerned about having stolen out of my backpack, took the rest with me, and went out to wander around until I found the Irish equivalent of a dollar store (a two-euro store, which is bordering on not actually that cheap if you ask me), where I bought three much smaller padlocks. They didn’t look terribly sturdy, but they were at least metal and at that point I really didn’t care.

I was planning to cover more, but since I ramble and this is getting pretty long, I'll stop there for now and pick up with Friday evening and my "Haunted Dublin" tour (!) later on.

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