We landed safely in Dublin, Ireland at 8:30 AM. We tiredly searched out the first Irish Pub we could find and sat down for a cold pint.
My wife Ashley and I are inexperienced travelers. However, when we do vagabond we are fearless, albeit somewhat naive. Like the time we crossed the endless desert of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. We carried two bottles of water on that journey, not knowing the full extent of the trip. We climbed over each sandy peak assuming it was the last, only to see we had miles to go. We passed scorched and dismal travelers who shouted, “it’s not worth it, head back!” Despite all this, we reached the end to see the secluded beach, kissing the waters of lake Michigan and drowning our sun soaked skin in it’s bright blue water–wishing we could drink it whole.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park
We are full of these types of adventure stories. Jumping head first, experiencing, then asking questions later. We’re the type of travelers who always say to ourselves, “Wow, I can’t believe we did that. We almost died!” I think it’s a combination of inexperience and the first born nature to never give up. We don’t give up. When we set our sights on something, we do it full force. So when we do stupid, we do stupid justice. That’s why we decided our first plane ride would be a nine hour flight across the Atlantic. We wanted to see Ireland, climb its mountains, see its beaches, and experience a piece of our ancestral heritage. Yes, a big part of our trip would involve beer drinking. To tell the story of our first Guinness in Ireland, I have to start back before we even boarded the plane.
Ashley and I were terrified to fly. So much so that it became the main focus of our planning. We wanted to know everything there was about being on a plane for nine hours. In hindsight, we may have spent too much time focusing on the flight rather than being in a foreign country. Yes we had our hotels booked. Yes we had a rough (seriously crayon on a napkin rough) idea of where we would go. We travel with the philosophy that, if you plan too much, you’ll be disappointed by all the things you miss. So we had our highlighted areas, that’s about it. Plane. Plane. Plane. OMG we are gonna fly on a plane! The shadow of that giant sky bus blotted out some rather important details about being in a foreign country. One of those details being the concept of foreign currency.
We made the appropriate plans, got the proper credit card that wouldn’t charge overseas fees. The plan was for both of us to carry a card as well as a backup card. I asked Ashley a few days prior to our departure,
“Should I bring some cash just in case?”
“No”, she replied fearful of bandits, “We shouldn’t carry a lot of cash. Once we get there we’ll find an ATM and withdraw a small amount of Euros everyday. All the sites I’ve been reading say to just use a credit card, its accepted pretty much everywhere.”
I trusted her, being that she was doing most of the research. But I was hesitant to travel outside of the country with no cash. So, for emergencies only, I tucked away two hundred dollars in my wallet before we left. That seemingly insignificant act would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of our trip.
“That seemingly insignificant act would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of our trip.”
Floating over tiny cities, the cold air parted like an ocean across the plane wings. After the first short flight to Atlanta, our jitters had passed. Now if we could just make the short connection. We disappeared like ghosts through the Atlanta airport, jetting through crowds of carefree travelers. Like a giant Indiana Jones boulder, luggage tumbling behind, we boarded the train that would carry us to the international terminal. To our surprise, we were greeted at the gate by three applauding stewardesses.
“Yay, the Miller’s, you made it!” They smiled as we boarded heavy, sweaty, and winded.
The “we were literally the last people to board this plane” selfie.
Arriving in Dublin, we roamed the vast corridors of the airpot like zombies- stupefied and anxious about the day ahead of us. We passed a currency exchange but the line was extremely long. We were exhausted. All we could think about was getting our car rental and leaving the airport. We had many miles to cover on day one. So instead of getting some money for our trip, we got our rental papers and left.
The rental car was fresh and clean smelling, like most of Ireland. A great hollow sound jerked from the car as we attempted to leave the parking lot. I was so nervous about driving on the left side of the road, I forgot to take off the parking break. Then, looking like wistful doofuses, we took our chances on the foreign roads. Our first test would be one of many roundabouts, they’re like stop signs in Ireland, at almost every intersection. The first one leaving the rental lot was giant and full of speeding buses, cars, and trucks. But after darting and zooming our way through, we made it safely onto the motorway. I began to relax, driving at a cool 120 kph. In Ireland, there are many toll roads. It was only a matter of time before we reached one while bounding out of the big city.
“Do you accept cards?” I asked the clerk.
“No.” she replied, “Two Euro.”
“I only have cards and American cash.” I explained.
She thought for a moment and replied, “Three American dollars.”
“The smallest bill I have is a five.”
“Are you sure? I can’t make change.” she asked.
“Yes.” I said thinking to myself, what other option do we have?
Along the country roads we toured ancient buildings (stories I will tell in future posts), drank copious amounts of European espresso, and slowly found our way to the first Hotel in Drogheda (Pronounced Drawh-heda meaning bridge over the ford). Upon checking in we asked the smiling woman at the front desk where we could withdraw some Euros. She looked overly dressed in a pencil skirt suit. Her gaze was long and intimidating as she spoke with a commanding Irish accent. Her sentences crescendoed, ending on high notes.
“Every place here accepts credit, so I wouldn’t worry about it tonight. You can go to the post in the morning. It’s about a five minute walk from here.”
We took off to the cobblestone streets that belong to one of the oldest cities in Ireland. Once twin villages, Drogheda-in-Meath and Drogheda-in-Oriel were split by the river Boyle. Now Drogheda is one united city of great historic bridges, bright colored stone buildings, restaurants, shops and yes-Irish Pubs.
“Every place here accepts credit, so I wouldn’t worry about it tonight.”
We explored the town, crossing the river, overhearing chatter in multiple languages while peering into dark mysterious pubs. The tiny streets and sidewalks brought on claustrophobia as taxis, cars, and trucks sped by over our shoulders. Everything bustled and we were right in the middle, experiencing our first European city. We were full of excitement and slightly frightened at the same time.
While entering a bleak, stoney alley, we overheard shouting from an upstairs window. A savaged and mud-caked SUV sat outside. Then suddenly, an Irishman burst out a first floor door carrying a huge can of trash. He was winded, dressed in a gray work uniform, a greasy five o’clock shadow framed a mouth missing many teeth. I was very confused why Ashley would approach this man.
“Where is a good place to find a drink?”
“What?” asked the man, his concentration broken by Ashley’s American accent.
“A beer, where’s a good place to get a beer?”
He pointed muttering thickly, “Well that place is better than that place.” After studying his ragged demeanor, I realized he was the perfect Irishmen to ask about a drink. He looked like he had already had several. Despite us interrupting his drudgery, he was more than happy to help. He pointed at a yellow building with McHugh’s painted gold over green. The window sign read, “Country Music Pub”. We guessed this meant Irish country music and not Kenny Rodgers country music.
Entering the creaking swinging wooden doors we were met with wood trim everywhere and no music to speak of. A gang of Irishmen watched some sort of sport on a flatscreen. We sat in a small nook that was piled high with newspapers and ordered two Guinness from the bartender. He darted back and forth around huge walls of wood trim. Behind the L shaped bar there was an island decorated with all sorts of liquor. I watched him carefully pour our drinks, then hustle around corners and disappeared before returning to finish the pour. He didn’t ever seem to stand in one place. He was always spinning and turning, wiping hands, pouring tall glasses, always moving. Stopping only for a short muffled joke to a customer or to take a huge gulp from his own beer.
“You’re from the states?” he asked quickly, slightly winded.
We glanced at each other, feeling like two walking cliches. “Starry-eyed Americans” in a foreign country looking for our first pint. Well, so be it. We looked like tourists and we were. We waited patiently as the tender slowly finished pouring the liquid black gold. We searched the bar, reading the foreign liquor labels, sports magazines and newspaper clippings. Music posters hung on the walls along with snapshots portraying great groups of Irishmen drinking. One tiny leprechaun sat above the spigots of hard liquor. And as the bartender sat down our two perfectly poured Guinness, we simultaneously let out a sigh of relief. We made it to Ireland! We survived our first plane ride! We made it many miles in a foreign country, through foreign cities, and we could finally relax.
“Cheers.” said the bartender.
We clinked our glasses, “Cheers!”
Then all at once, Ashley let out a huge burst of laughter at the long black hair peaking out of my nose. This was it. We took a long drag from the glass, and drank the best Guinness we had ever had.
They say the best Guinness is in Ireland and they’re absolutely right. The perfect amount of foam sat upon our glass. The beer was cool, sour, with notes of coffee, chocolate, and cream. The Guinness back home just does not compare. To be honest, I really didn’t like Guinness until that day in that pub. We talked over our beers, recounting our adventure thus far. We made plans for the next day. We talked about what we would eat. We were so hungry. These Guinness were so delicious! The bartender asked us if we’d like another pint.
“No.” we said, wanting to go find a place to eat.
“Ok that will be nine Euro.”
I handed him my card when he said, “no we don’t take cards.”
A bolt of lightning shot threw me as adrenalin spit into my stomach. I recalled the advice from the hotel receptionist, “Everyone accepts cards.” I recalled the travel blog advice, “Everyone accepts cards.”
“I only have my card and American cash”, I said.
“No I can’t take that.”
He looked at us for a minute, then said,
“If you step outside and take a right, head down the street. There’s a stairway that leads to a casino, you’ll find an ATM machine and you can withdraw some money. Just bring it back, nine euro.”
We were both visibly embarrassed, and baffled by the man’s trust in two foreigners. But we gracioulsy accepted this mission and headed out the door to the street.
The sun glowed purple red on the stoney gray town. Passersby smoked, spit and hacked. I started looking over my shoulder. A couple of young men sat on the sidewalk with beers in their hands. All at once the long shadows cast by church steeples and castle wall-walks filled the streets. The once colorful and exciting European city had turned alien. The seagulls were diving about over head, mocking our ignorance.
Why hadn’t we gotten any Euros yet?
Why did the hotel clerk tell us everyone accepted credit cards?
After the experience on the toll road, we should have driven straight to a bank.
We were tired after being awake for nearly twenty four hours. We were anxious and stumbling along the ancient streets, finally reaching the stairway of the casino. When we got to the top, it wasn’t a casino in the American sense. It reminded me of an old bowling alley back home. Outdated carpet, paint, and fixtures, with a couple of slot machines glowing yellow in the dim light. We searched for an ATM and inserted our card. “ENTER PIN” illuminated the screen. I looked over to Ash,
“What’s the pin?”
She stared blankly, “It never gave us one when I got it.”
“Do you have the debit card?”
“No, I didn’t bring it.”
We both began plugging in numbers, hoping that somehow it was linked to our other cards. Nothing. We had never drawn cash from an ATM back home, so we had never needed a PIN.
My forehead began to sweat as the realization flooded behind my eyes. We were in a foreign country, with no money. We couldn’t get money from our card. The only option was to find a way to convert the $195 I had in my wallet to Euros. We hurried back to the hotel and confronted the clerk. We told her our story about having credit cards but no PIN.
“That’s not very wise.” she said with dark European humor, crescendoing high.
“Is there any way you can convert American cash to Euros?”
“Yes, but the exchange rate will be quite steep.”
“Well, we have to go back and pay for our drinks.”
“Oh you haven’t paid for them yet? He just let you leave did he?”
“Yes, he let us leave. We need to go back and pay him.”
She looked on surprised, “How much would you like to change.”
“Ok.” she said, fiddling with a calculator. “I can give you seventeen Euro.”
We were completely fine with the exchange rate. Three dollars is a fine amount to pay in order to avoid a European jail.
Off we went out into the now frightening streets of Drogheda. Finding our way back to McHugh’s in the dark. I payed the unassuming bartender with a small, elaborately colorful ten dollar Euro. We had been gone for over an hour. Without asking any questions he grinned, a mouth full of food, “Cheers.” We walked out of the bar and vowed to never return. At that point my mood had soured terribly. I was starving.
“From now on, our first question at every restaurant is: do you accept credit card?”
As we walked the streets most of the once glowing restaurants had closed for the night. Pubs posted signs reading, “NO FOOD AFTER 9PM“. We found one shop open, a liquor store. We loaded up on Irish craft beer, made sure they accepted credit card, then back to the narrow streets. Ashley was overcome with the urge pee. We entered an empty pub called The Hole in the Wall.
“Do you accept credit card?”
“Do you have a bathroom?”
“Yes, up the stairs.”
We climbed the stairway, defeated. There was no light-switch in the bathroom (later we would discover that they are located on the outside of the door in Ireland). I had to stand in front of the door while Ashley relieved herself.
I was sick.
I was done with our trip on day one.
We dragged ourselves back to the hotel. Hopeless and feeling so naive. Maybe we weren’t meant to travel after all? Maybe we should have stayed home. Just like all the trips we had planned and then canceled at the last minute. Despite my bitter demeanor, Ashley kept her chin up. We desperately needed food. At the hotel there was a small, surprisingly ancient looking Pub just down the hall from the lobby. We sat as a gang of Irishmen poured in from the streets. They bragged of their drinking crusades through Dublin earlier that morning. “Pour me a Guinness!”, one of them shouted. I looked at the bartender,
“Do you accept credit cards?”
“Yes.” she said, smiling.
“Are you serving food?”
“Yes, if you order now.”
We had tramped around the city for hours. We had finally found the Irish pub we were looking for.
Just outside our hotel room.
The next morning we headed to the post office. By that time the streets were shaking with traffic, pedestrians of all kinds, and those familiar mocking seagulls swooping overhead. Great gangs of school kids, clad in their European uniforms passed by howling. Old men painted store fronts. Unrecognizable languages chattered on through stoplights and shuffling traffic. Old cobblestone roads tripped as we searched for the green post office sign. Inside a long line waited nearly out the door. In Ireland, post offices serve multiple purposes. Foreigners stood holding handfuls of packages ready to ship back home, while native Irish folks purchased lottery tickets or picked up their welfare checks. When it was our turn the attendant informed us that the Post Office,
“Does not perform currency exchange.”
We looked on in a daze.
“You can try the bank just outside on the corner. Next!”
We entered the bank were greeted by another long line.
“Great.” I exclaimed aloud, not thinking in my frustrated state. I was received by scowls, unwittingly turning into a loud obnoxious American. When we reached the clerk we asked about currency exchange. She looked on, somewhat surprised.
“Yes, we can do that but it depends on how much.”
“One hundred?” I said nervous and confused about her previous statement.
“Oh yeah we can do that.”, she said performing her calculations. She handed me eighty nine Euro and some change.
It was obvious at that point, the hotel receptionist had no idea what she was talking about. Hardly anyone accepted credit cards in this town. The post office was much more than five minutes away and didn’t exchange currency to boot. I had seen all I wanted of Drogheda. For that day, forever really. We decided to get coffee and a snack for breakfast before hitting the road. We found a small coffee shop located off the main drag up a stairway into a bedroom sized cafeteria. Three windows were a haze overlooking busy streets. The seats were full of waking people, reading newspapers and talking over delicious looking baked goods. Two young women with German accents stood smiling behind the counter. I ordered cappuccinos and scones before remembering that question I was trying to drill into my head.
“Do you accept credit cards?”