I was twenty-one and soon to finally begin college full-time in my hometown of St. George, Utah. I felt behind—behind my friends, behind where I had hoped to be at that time, and panicking.
My friends had slowly trickled away, moving, getting married, some of them even having kids. My biggest milestone to date had been getting off the anxiety medication that pulled me through my teenage years and into my twenties.
I believed that the medication sucked away any motivation to accomplish anything other than the daily drudgery of my job at the mailroom of an airline—but maybe that was just an excuse.
Overall, I felt like a total loser.
I signed up for school shortly after, and this solo trip to Ireland was a final chance to do what I wanted before everything changed. I realized that, too shy and stuck in routine, I hadn’t taken advantage of my free time before or the flight benefits that were the main perk of my job. As Thom Yorke sings in Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”:
In a little while / I’ll be gone / the moment’s already passed / yeah, it’s gone.
It was the end of July. I spent the previous seven months planning, saving, and convincing my parents, relatives, miscellaneous acquaintances, and myself that it wouldn’t be scary to go to Ireland alone, and it would not culminate in a repetition of the plot of Taken.
I did half-heartedly invite my best friend (i.e. the only friend who still lived in the hometown and hadn’t gotten married) to come with, but she couldn’t get time off from work and school.
And going to Ireland alone felt right, inevitable.
While, now that I think about it, I could have gone anywhere, going anywhere else never entered my mind. I had idealized Ireland for so long that it felt like I had to see it, the magical land that flowed with the world’s most beautiful music. Some of the best independent movies, such as Once and The Snapper, were filmed on the streets of Dublin.
I felt like I would land there and step into my dream version of life, where, like in the movie Leap Year, a handsome Irishman named something like Declan would greet me, and I would connect with my ancestors and discover “roots” that I could relate to.
What I didn’t realize is that traveling alone isn’t necessarily fun, at least for the first time. Upon getting off the plane, one is filled with anxiety. A different country feels like a different world. English is spoken, but it is a much different English. Even something that would be simple in the U.S., like breaking cash into change for the bus, is a dilemma. “How do I ask for change?” I wondered. I went into an airport convenience store and asked for a twenty Euro bill to be broken into “ones,” and the cashier seemed utterly perplexed. Somehow, I can’t remember how, I ended up with change for the bus.
Finding the bus was another thing. Following the instructions given by the website of the hostel where I would stay, I couldn’t seem to find the correct stop. When I was just about to panic, an older man who worked at the airport appeared and helped me.
I made it to Dublin’s main thoroughfare, busy O’Connell Street, and took out my phone to look at the directions. To my horror, two words greeted me on the top left of my iPhone’s screen: No Service. The edges of my eyes filled with tears, and my cheeks became hot. From everything I’d read, I thought that all iPhones had international service, you just had to pay extra. But it turned out mine was made right before they were “international ready”; like usual, I hadn’t done my homework. How would I tell my mom I’d made it there safely? She would probably think I died. Right now, she was probably thinking the worst had happened. She was probably calling everyone and telling them.
I decided to press forward and find the hostel. It, thankfully, was easy to locate, and I went in and told the front desk that I was booked to stay there. The girl said that check-in wasn’t for two hours. In some sort of overheated, panicked, desperate state, I forgot that I was in a different country and they probably wouldn’t be okay with someone making a foreign call on their phone.
“Can I use your phone?” I asked.
“Why?” the girl responded.
“Uh...I...um…” I stuttered, “My cell phone isn’t working, and I really need to call my mom.”
The young woman looked at me as if I was crazy and pointed at a door behind her, to the left. “There’s a payphone in there,” she stated.
The payphone took credit cards, and so I swiped mine and was put on the line with a foreign operator who kept trying to put me through to a different country, claiming that the international code I gave him belonged to Yemen. Frustrated, I finally hung up, and the whole exchange resulted in a faulty charge of a couple hundred dollars to my debit account. But I digress.
I took out my phone again and looked at it mournfully. “I’ll just have to fly back home. It’s fine,” I thought. “I’ll go back to the bus stop right now.”
Suddenly, I remembered something important. WiFi. Cell phones can always connect to WiFi, right? I looked at available networks and selected the one belonging to the hostel. It connected. I texted my mom that I’d made it there.
All of the panic I felt fell away. I was in Ireland. I was really there. I went into the hostel’s guest bathroom and freshened up, put my backpack on, and went out onto the street. I didn’t even need my phone’s navigation to find where I was going. I could go anywhere.
Walking outside, I was greeted with the magic of Dublin’s cobblestoned streets.
That there / that’s not me / I go / Where I please / I walk through walls / I float down the Liffey
Most people think “How to Disappear Completely” is a sad song. I think it’s one of the happiest songs I’ve ever heard.
On the first day, I explored the city during a several-hours-long walk, listening to buskers on Grafton Street, taking photographs at Christchurch Cathedral and St. Stephens Green, and taking it all in. The library in Trinity College looks like something straight out of Beauty and the Beast—a true bibliophile’s fantasy. In the evening, I sat on a bench near the Ha’penny Bridge eating gelato, watching the clouds change from gray to gold.
The next days were a kaleidoscope of dreamlike food, beauty, and music—spending late hours at O’Donoghue’s pub and going to a Glen Hansard concert in Galway. Seeing the Cliffs of Moher in person, I learned where the phrase “breathtaking” comes from and what it means. I probably walked at least ten miles each day exploring but never grew tired of walking—there was too much to see.
While all of the places I saw surpassed expectations, the people I met were the absolute best part of the trip. I never felt scared or lonely traveling alone in Ireland because everyone I met was so warm, funny, and kind. One night, I got lost on Galway’s winding roads, and an older gentleman named Barry, with a bounce in his step, appeared from his purposeful course to guide me to my hostel. For some reason, I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else.
In Ireland, I was able to cut the cord from my past. And in only a few short days, I learned to love Ireland like…home. Now soon graduating from college, I’m planning a trip back and cannot wait. Ireland is now part of me, my life, my future.
Ashley Imlay is a senior English creative writing major at Dixie State University with a passion for writing opinion and memoir pieces. For a recent sample of her published writing, visit Utah'
* Originally published in April 2017.