I was 23 years old the first time I traveled abroad by myself. I took a few days off from university and went to Ireland on a budget trip. I went there two days before meeting my friends, and about 200 other people, in Cork for the kick-off party of an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. Since the team was arriving from Parma a few hours before the party, for Halloween, I decided I would leave earlier and have a glimpse of the country.
I was introduced to Ultimate by chance in the summer of 2008. Biking back home from the pool, I noticed teams playing what looked like frisbee. My curiosity immediately took over and, forgetting my craving for a snack and disregarding the bumpy grassy field across which I was biking, I headed towards the organizer’s stand. The tall, pale-skinned captain of the Parma team, greeting me with a smile under his big hat, explained that the event was the national tournament. He then invited me to practice.
Two days later, I became acquainted with the Voladora team.
A few months later, we decided to participate in the tournament taking place in Cork, Ireland, during the first few days of November. I decided to spend a few days visiting the country and getting to know it, since it was my first time there. Traveling alone immediately gives me a different perspective: I learn about the places I visit more intimately, and the human interactions I have unfold in a different way.
I knew my starting point would be to fly into Dublin and that I was on a strict budget, but I also made it a point to connect as much as possible with people, both fellow travelers and locals. I decided to stay the first night and a whole day after in the capital. I would have reached Cork by coach the second morning. Dublin is a lively and cultural city; I would stay in a hostel; traveling by coach would allow me to freely look around to the countryside and the landscape, showing me back roads and little towns. Cork, being a less international city, would allow me to experience a more authentic Irish town.
I arrived at the hostel late on Wednesday night. The lobby of the hostel was lively, and sounds came from all directions: a young man talking on the phone, a group of friends talking a little bit too loud with a few pints of Guinness in their hands. In the bunk next to mine was a Spanish boy in Dublin looking for a job. He had been there several weeks already. He was headed out for a quick drink, hoping to have better luck the next day. Since I had to have dinner myself, I ventured out in the cold autumn night.
I noticed that a light rain came and left, leaving the sky fairly clear but the pavement wet. It could have been a Friday night: the sidewalk was crowded with dressed-up people, the bars were full, and the lights in Temple Bar were strong and dense, matching the crowded interior. I thought it wasn’t quite the right place to have a chat with someone over a quick meal, so I decided to make it a short night out. The day after would be full with walking, visiting, and wandering around.
My mother taught me to inform myself about the places I visit, and my curiosity is more than happy to oblige: I had read a lot about Dublin and Cork before the trip. Researching a place beforehand immediately takes traveling to the next level for me, as it means I won’t have a map or guide glued to my hand as I explore. I have them with me, but only in case I forget something. I’d rather understand people and places by experiencing them in person. Not having this kind of attachment to a guidebook also makes me appear like less of a tourist. I am a traveler.
It was almost sunny when the line into the Guinness headquarters came into sight. Mostly foreigners waited for the tour with a happy ending—a pint of the famous stout. I had already decided not to go in, so I moved on.
Although the museums were often busy, people were still accommodating. Museums and the signature beer headquarters: places to see, but too touristy. The best places to visit were the cathedrals and the churches, far enough away from the tourist zone. Besides the centuries-old beauty of the building, the church-keepers were old Dubliners.
The old custodian of one of these churches greeted me with a faint smile, straightening his back to look at me and leaning on the broom, saying, “Please be welcome.”
Such a well-mannered greeting made my smile, and it was obvious how the man cared for the place as if it was his own. I stopped to respectfully salute him in the dimly lit central nave. Architecture can be stunning, but it will always miss something without a human element. Those people add a unique dimension to heritage, because every step they took, every stone they felt with their hands, and every last look they gave to the altar before locking the doors at the end of the day represents one more layer of history.
They live with the places, and in turn those places live with them.
Schedules are something else that should be dropped in order to properly savor a new place. This doesn’t mean not having an itinerary, but that it shouldn’t be rigid or fill every minute of a trip. I always leave a lot of time to wander around. I let the moment lead the way and—why not?—get lost. Some of the best experiences are unexpected.
I came across the National College of Art & Design during one of these moments of floating around, the sky above cloudy again. I went inside without even thinking. I found myself in the etching studio. It was quiet and only one student was working. I introduced myself, and after the first few words, the conversation flowed naturally.
“People are proud and they try to pass traditions on. But it is difficult,” he told me when I asked about seeing signs or street names that were written in both Irish and English, although English was the main spoken and written language.
“It is difficult to maintain the language,” he continued, “because more and more young people leave the country or move to bigger cities, where the influence and dependence on foreign markets and countries is strong.”
It must be a size matter too, I suggested. “In Italy we have the same trend of youth emigration, but Italy is a bigger and more populated country, so most of the people end up staying. I guess we also don’t have a single major relationship, like the UK does with Ireland.”
“The government has incentives and programs to keep the Irish language and culture alive from generation to generation,” he said, never stopping his work with the press. “Everybody knows at least a little bit of Irish here.”
Investing in education, especially in programs specifically focusing on passing on Irish culture, is beautiful, and one more reason for the Irish to be proud. Other governments should take notice and follow example.
When the room started getting busy again with students coming back from their lunch break, I bade him goodbye and went on with my walk, heading back towards the hostel. The sky was still gently moving.
Another lesson I had long since learned is not to make comparisons when you travel to a new place. Accept any experience for itself, learn, and enjoy.
With this state of mind, I reflected on my day over dinner in a quiet restaurant, writing in my journal. The next day I would continue on to another Irish city, and it would be like starting a new chapter in a book: different but connected, with me anticipating the next turning point. How would I experience Cork? How would the city welcome me?
The sudden rain flowed almost as fast as the sky’s rapid transformations throughout the day. The Italian song “Il Cielo d’Irlanda”—the Irish Sky—by Fiorella Mannoia came to my mind, the words accompanying my thoughts: The Irish sky is God, playing the accordion: it opens and closes following the music’s rhythm… Wherever you are… the Irish sky moves along with you – the Irish sky is inside you.
Richard was born in the US, grew up in Italy, recently moved to the UK after few years in Oregon. Architect by day, but also athlete and photographer, he alternates sports to reading and writing. Find his work in The Dreams' Chest.