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Feeling the fear and doing it anyway - embracing being a tourist in Ireland

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Being a 'pure tourist' in Ireland
 “The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.”
-Russell Baker

“It’s okay to be a tourist. It’s okay to be a tourist. It’s okay to be a tourist.” I repeated this small affirmation to myself as my older sister Katie and I walked through Killarney, stopping at every Irish gift store we saw, searching for the perfect hand-knit Aran wool sweater or rugby shirt, and renting bikes to cycle through Killarney National Park.

So, I have this fear about being a tourist. I cringe at the thought of someone looking at me and realizing that I have no idea where I am. I am not at all afraid of being lost, but I’m terrified of someone perceiving me as lost. I hate being seen as tourist so much that when I was going on tours at colleges and universities as a prospective student I made a rule for my parents to follow - No pointing (a sure tourist giveaway). This fear of being perceived as a tourist makes traveling in foreign countries extremely difficult.

In Ireland, I don’t consider myself a tourist. I am here for a somewhat extended period of time and I am attending University. Katie, on the other hand, is a pure tourist. She’s in Ireland for only a week, so I felt obligated to show her a traditional Irish experience. As much as I love the lifestyle in Cork city, that’s not really what Americans envision when they think of Ireland. So I tucked away my touristy fears and brought her to Killarney.

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In addition to the shopping, we ate traditional Irish stew, we relaxed over a pot of tea and scones, and we listened to the Molly Maguires, a band from Cork (represent!) at the famous Danny Mann. At one point I almost crawled out of my skin when someone requested that the band play “Danny Boy.” Nothing screams American tourist, more than asking to hear “Danny Boy” in Ireland.

I tried really hard to give my sister the Irish experience. We had an amazing trip, and my sister claims our activities reflected her notion of Ireland, but I realized afterward that the food, the music, and the cute little “Irish” town weren’t what made our trip “Irish”. It was the people.

As we were shopping for a Claddagh Ring (tourist alert!), the woman behind the counter at the jewelers was genuinely warm, congenial and welcoming. She took the time to get to know Katie and I and she even joked about our Irish first names. By the time we left the store we were ready to give this woman a hug. I really wish I had. Immediately after leaving the store I told my sister, “If nothing else, those 15 minutes have made this trip completely worthwhile!”

Then, we met O’Sullivan (Sully as we later referred to him). Sully, a man in his mid 60s, is the owner of O’Sullivan’s Bike Rental, which was recommended to us by the woman from the jewelry store. Sully wasted no time in poking fun at me, teaching me the Irish word for being a leftie, a Ciotóg, and making jokes about our slow departure from the bike shop — he saw my sister and I milling about and said ,“You two are still here!”

He was funny and sweet and cared very much about our heads, explaining to us, “Helmets are free and heads are very expensive.” Sully started our day with a smile and after meeting him I understood why he has been in business for many years.

Katie and I didn’t leave Killarney with a wool sweater or a Claddagh ring, but we left with an everlasting feeling of being welcomed and appreciated. In a place through which so many tourists pass each day, I expected to be just another face and pocketbook in the crowd. But the fact that the woman at the jewelry store and Sully took the time to get to know us and have genuine conversations with us explains the real draw of a tourist center like Killarney.

Because I’m in Ireland for an extended period, my recollections of the country will be more than hearty Irish stew and the sound of the bodhrán drum. I am pretty sure that my sister’s memories, despite the short length of her trip, will have more to them than these things as well. We will remember the people, the jokes they made with us and the feeling of being appreciated as individuals, when it would have been easy to treat us as mere tourist.

Even though I hate being a tourist, we would not have met these two wonderful Irish characters unless I was doing touristy things. So I should probably thank Katie. Nah! After all, I did catch her pointing a few times.

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