We wasted no time getting from Dublin to the north of Ireland. Some may censure our speedy trip to Dublin, arguing that one day does not provide ample time to see all of the things Dublin has to offer. Indeed, a second day in Ireland’s capital city might have been needed, especially since our lack of sleep found us nodding off at the genealogy center in the National Library (and the first edition of Dracula lay waiting for me at a museum north of the Liffey, aka not on our route). But to be fair, we managed to squeeze in Trinity College, the National Library, the Guinness storehouse, three pubs, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in about 12 hours in the city, so I’m pretty impressed.
It was a cloudless, sunny day when we hit the road for Bangor, a few hours’ drive from Dublin. Kacey had flaunted her map-reading skills earlier that morning when she’d successfully navigated us off the main road and down a wooded, overgrown route that landed us at the Hill of Tara. We’d meant to visit Newgrange, but we were running short on time and wanted to reach Bangor before dark.
Simon, my extremely eccentric Irish friend I’d met in Egypt, had graciously offered up his family home in Bangor for our visit, explaining that we’d have our own wing.
“But you’ll have to overlook the construction,” he warned. “We’re renovating part of the house, but it shouldn’t get in your way.”
This was easy for me to overlook. A free place to stay trumped any sort of construction issues that might arise. Besides, if we had our own wing, I was sure we’d be just fine. I envisioned a sprawling ranch with a long, uninhabited wing with a bathroom, some bedrooms, and maybe even a ghost. No worries.
We were driving north through a scenic sea town and Kacey and Allison had dozed off, when suddenly, Kacey shot up in her seat, squinted at a sign, and shouted, “Milkshakes!”
“Should we stop?” I asked.
We pulled into an empty church parking lot on the main road, but I was still wary. I’d gotten many parking tickets in New Jersey for parking in perfectly acceptable spots that turned out to secretly belong to affluent neighbors. Or an officer happened to drive through the bank parking lot where I was leaving my car for a few minutes, only to kick me out.
“I don’t want to get a ticket,” I worried, pulling into the parking spot.
“So put your hazards on,” Kacey remarked.
The hazards comment traces back to the previous night, when my friend Cody mentioned that Ireland loves hazards:
“You can park anywhere here as long as you put your hazards on,” he told us. “You’ll be driving and see a car stopped in the middle of the road with its hazards on. People will just pass you.”
We were in an actual spot off the road, but we thought it couldn’t hurt. As we walked back with our chocolate milkshakes, our blue car remained happily in its spot, the hazards flashing.
Revitalized by the milkshakes, we continued on our route. Our next stop was a brief ferry ride from Strangford, where we encountered more Irish hospitality:
“Good day,” the man collecting money greeted us merrily. “Single or return?”
“Single,” I replied.
“Single! You three lovely ladies? Ah, don’t say ‘single’ to a man like me.”
“OK, OK. Try again.” He shuffled backward, then approached the window again.
“Good day! Single or return?”
“Ah, alright then. Don’t be afraid to get out and explore the boat!” He gestured at the small ferry, including the signs that read REMAIN IN YOUR VEHICLE. Unsure, we remained in our vehicle, until his colleague approached the car and really encouraged us to get out and walk around.
By the time we got out, the ferry was basically arriving at the port, so we got back in the car and drove off down another beachy road, this time even more energetic.
Kacey found an Irish music station on the radio and blasted it, rolling the windows down, while Allison dug out a penny whistle I had bought at the Hill of Tara and began whistling out a tune that (sort of ) went along with the radio songs.
This amused us until we reached Ballyholme and had to concentrate on where we were going. Since none of us possessed a working phone, we had taken screen shots of the directions to Simon’s house, which were a little unclear. We attempted to find the correct road and follow the directions, but three attempts kept landing us in the town center near some place called Pickie Fun Park.
Despite our earlier amusement, we were all becoming a bit tired from the long drive, and wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed. Allison sensibly suggested that we pull into some cafe and use the WIFI to get in touch with Simon to meet us, but instead, we decided to rely on strangers.
I drove slowly along the marina with my hazards on, holding up a line of patient Irish traffic, while Kacey hollered out the window at passersby asking if they knew the street or the general location of the place we mentioned. Eventually, a woman pointed us in the direction from which we’d come, and we headed back, disgruntled.
All this time, a red car had been immediately behind us, though I didn’t notice it until we stopped in a residential neighborhood so Allison could read out the directions for the tenth time, hoping we’d missed something.
“Hello there! You three look well lost!”
The red car had pulled up beside us, revealing two older men smiling happily.
“Yes, we’re lost,” I told them. “Do you think it’s safe to give them Allison’s phone?” I asked Kacey. The girls shrugged, so I passed the phone out the window to them.
“Good, we have the phone. Now we can go!” they chuckled. I scrambled out of the car (Kacey had to undo my seatbelt, as I’d forgotten that important bit) and listened as they discussed where we were and where we were heading. Finally, the driver exclaimed, “Ah, I know where this is! Follow us!”
He passed the phone back and we obliged, following them back through town – exactly the way we’d just come. At one point, we reached a steep hill, a point of contention for me, driving manual.
“They’re stopping on the hill to tell you something,” Kacey pointed out.
“I can’t stop!” I panicked. “We’ll roll back down. Tell them we can’t stop!”
I flew past them, Kacey shouting out the window, and we waited at the top of the hill as their car slowly pulled up next to ours.
“You driving a manual?” they asked.
“This your first time driving in Ireland?”
“We can see that. The house is at the bottom of the hill, on the left. We passed it.”
We followed them back down the hill, where their car awaited, the passenger slowly getting out.
“Why’s he getting out?” we wondered nervously, pulling to a stop behind them. Immediately, we saw why.
“Are you sure this is the house?” the man asked us uncertainly.
The house he stood in front of looked worrisome. A large yellow sign in the lawn shouted “DANGER.” Boards of wood were piled up on the side of the lawn and tools were scattered about. But what was more shocking was the fact that the house did not have a proper roof. The entire upstairs, which was quite visibly under construction, was completely exposed.
“Um, yes,” I ventured. “This is it.”
“My wife would kill me if she knew I left three women at a place like this,” the man said, boldly knocking on Simon’s door. No answer. I began feeling a little guilty. What did Kacey and Allison think? All their trust in my decision-making skills probably went out the window. I knocked on the door again, and there was movement.
“Someone’s getting up from the couch,” Kacey whispered. The man beside me shuffled uncomfortably and then – Simon emerged.
“Hello! I was having a nap,” he explained, turning quizzically to the man we’d brought along. “Hiya.”
The man asked Simon a few questions, and then concluded that they’d both attended the same sailing regatta that morning, which appeased the man enough for him to leave us there. We thanked him and his friend (who probably drove off to a pub to meet the men from Dublin and recount tales of saving hapless Yanks) and followed Simon up the creaky stairs to the upstairs landing, where we stepped over nails, screws, hammers, and splintered planks.
“Happiness is a room without a roof,” he emphasized, opening the door to our small, free haven for the next two nights. Despite the construction and the fact that a rainstorm could probably flood us out, our little room was perfect. It was in good condition, with three sturdy mattresses on the floor, a shower in the corner, and a skylight overhead.
Warm and happy, we freshened up and followed Simon to a party at the yacht club, where the night culminated in Irish music and a slightly intoxicated woman dragging the three of us to the dance floor for the finale. Allison and I do-si-do’d, Kacey did a pretty impressive Irish jig, and Simon swung me around rapidly, breaking the only fashionable sandals I’d brought on the trip.
That night, before falling asleep, I thought of how we’d started the day at St. Patrick’s in Dublin, touring the cathedral with a volunteer named Reg, and how we’d milkshaked and pennywhistle’d our way up here to the north of Ireland to meet a friend I hadn’t seen since we left Cairo over a year ago.
Adventures like these are the reason I travel.