There are a lot of great quotes about travel.
For example, Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life. There is something about being in a country that is utterly unlike your own; it stalls the senses and resets your brain to create a new normal built on the foundations of the old.
Today, I’d like to write about any one of the many places I’ve visited on my travels. That’s what I really feel like doing. I want to spin an amusing tale about the time my milk withdrawals led me to sneak into a shop, in which I then had to mime extensively in order to procure a clear plastic baggie of unpasteurised, unhomogenised milk from an unknown animal. It was a lot like the scene from Bridget Jones, only with milk and confused Egyptians rather than a pregnancy test and confused Austrians.
Anyway. That’s what I’d like to write about… But that’s not what I’m going to write about, because I don’t feel that would be right. This is my first post about travel, after all.
Let’s start elsewhere.
Let’s go back for another travel quote.
Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. […] Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
So I’m going to start there. Or rather, I’m going to start here.
I’m going to tell you a bit about Ireland.
I was born and raised here, on this small but surprisingly popular patch of land; the little spoon to Great Britain’s big spoon. If you’ve never been, it really is as excessively green as people say.
This is mostly due to the truly appalling weather, which by all rights should have us lolling about despondently in deep, unremmitting depression. Instead, it has spawned a peculiarly Irish sense of humour and a steadfast, grim camaraderie. The citizens of Ireland are fighting an interminable war against the weather, and all we have to get us through it is each other.
… And we love to talk about it. Rain, naturally, gets the worst of it. Naturally, considering the amount of rain we have to deal with, we’ve developed different ways of saying the same thing so we don’t get too bored.
- “It’s only drizzle” = It’s raining out.
- “It’s only spitting” = It’s raining out.
- “It’s trying to rain” = It’s raining out.
- “It’s just a shower” = It’s raining out.
- “It’s lashing rain” = The rain is coming down in sheets.
- “It’s pissing rain” = The rain is coming down in sheets.
- “It’s pouring rain” = The rain is coming down in sheets.
- “It’s bucketing down” = Ready the Ark.
The default conversation with a stranger here tends to at least start with a comment about the meteorological conditions. I’ve traveled extensively, and nowhere else have I experienced this chronic, obsessive need to discuss what is happening in the sky. At work, answering the phone becomes an exercise in zen-like patience, since almost every call begins with the same – apparently compulsory – conversation about the type of weather we’re having.
“[Workplace name], how can I help you?”
“Hello! How are you?”
“Well, thank you, and you?”
“Ah sure, you know yourself. Ticking along! Isn’t it a dirty day*? A dirty, dirty day…”
“It is! I’m glad to be inside.”
“Sure this is it!”
It’s a thing. You get used to it.
As Mr. Pratchett rightly pointed out in the quote above, sometimes you don’t appreciate certain facets of your home country until you’ve been elsewhere. For example, it wasn’t until I was living in Germany that I realised why the Irish reputation for being friendly was so deserved. The first time I found myself waiting at a bus stop with a German stranger, the silence lengthened and, without shame or compunction, I commented, “Es ist sehr kalt, meinst du nicht?” (“It’s very cold, don’t you think?”). This was greeted with the same reaction I feel I might have received if I had stuck my middle fingers in her face, thrust my pelvis at her and insulted her mother in lewd terms, rather than made a fairly banal remark about the weather.
The second time I attempted casual conversation with a stranger was at a bar while I was waiting for my drink. I turned to the person on the stool next to mine and told them their cocktail looked delicious. They stiffened in alarm, and without a word picked up their glass and turned their back to me.
The third time I tried it (and was again rebuffed with much the same wide-eyed panic), my shoulders slumped in cultural surrender and I finally realised my mistake.
In Ireland, if you don’t spark up small talk when you find yourself thrown together with a stranger for longer than three minutes, the situation feels tense and awkward. In Germany, if you do spark up small talk when you find yourself thrown together with a stranger for longer than three minutes, the situation feels tense and awkward.**
Superficial small talk is not encouraged, or even welcome. Keep your congenial phrases of muddled German to yourself, is my advice.
Another thing I’ve learned about Ireland from traveling elsewhere is that we have tiny toilets. Well, either that, or our toilets are regular-sized and Florida received a supersized upgrade, because the toilets there are so inexplicably and comically enormous that when I first visited Miami I had very real fear that I might fall in. Every visit to the bathroom was fraught with danger.
Not only that, but I had always thought that a high water level in a toilet was the warning sign of a blocked pipe. Not so in America, where the water level in the toilet is so high, I imagine anything that falls into the toilet is a lost cause unless you’re Trainspotting-level committed to getting it back.
A cultural fascination with the weather, small talk skills and relatively tiny toilets.
That’s what I’ve introduced you to today.
Welcome to Ireland!
*Translation: It’s grey, cloudy, miserable, and probably (yes, you’ve guessed it!) raining.
**This is not to say that Germans are not friendly. They’re very friendly! You just have to get to know them first… Preferably not by accosting them unexpectedly with superficial conversation.