Chasing leprechauns

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Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin. Our tour guide exerting all his Irish enthusiasm to talk about how one many ripped off an entire city of poor people in a brilliant business move by erecting this bridge and standing in the middle, charging people for passage. They’re all pretty proud of the story, it sounds like.

I know I promised I was done with my Ireland stories, but I forgot to write my list of stereotypes, confirmed and disproved – per tradition! So wet the tea and get ready for some craic!

  1. Yes, the Irish drink a lot.

Although it should be noted that most of the not-sober individuals I met in Dublin were tourists, I can personally attest, after a week of traveling through every corner of the country, that the Irish can throw back a pint like a kid tosses a juice box. While pubbing in west Ireland in the middle of the afternoon, I saw five Irishmen between the ages of 29-71, down 16 pints of ale and beer – and that was just for the hour and a half that I sat there trying to finish my own drink.
“Does this town have an industry?” I asked the gentleman to my right. “What do you do?”
“Drink,” he responded with a pleasant smile.
Cheers, and another round was poured.

  1. No, the Guinness is not the king of beer.

I don’t actually think I saw a single Irishman drinking Guinness during the total duration of my stay (though our Dublin tour guide did say with some pride that he only dates girls who can handle a Guinness properly). I had several and they are good – very strong, slightly bitter. The stouts were better; smoother and sweeter. Most of the natives I noticed drank Smithwick’s, a red ale from Kilkenny. It’s gorgeous. It fizzles like a cider but has a fuller taste. By my last day in Dublin, I had given up the touristy instinct to order Guinness and settled for the much friendlier ale. My only regret was knowing that our tour guide would probably never date me for it.

  1. Yes, the Irish are hilarious.

The Irish are a bunch of jokers. The gullible and insecure should refrain from spending too much time in this country because you will find yourself the butt of every joke. I should mention that complimenting an Irishman is not wise, either. He will laugh at and / or insult you for it. I don’t think the Irish ever really grow up (at least not the men), which probably accounts for both their charm and their tendency to behave like eleven-year old boys (and I teach enough eleven-year olds to recognize the signs).
On that note, maybe don’t mention to the Irish that they’re funny because they’re Irish.
“Why can’t I be funny just because I’m actually a funny guy?” asked our tour guide with a smile, half playful, half indignant. I insisted it was the Blarney. He insisted I walk in the back of the line.

  1. No, they don’t “hate” the English.

I was told multiple times that the British are “alright.” Anyone in a position to comment, though dispatching a few well-aimed jabs at their tumultuous history with the Brits, insisted that it was all water under the bridge.

  1. Yes, they do basically hate the English.

“Do you know T’hatcher?” asked a very drunk little Irishman in a thick brogue. I shook my head. “T’haaaatcher,” he said again. “Margaret T’hatcher, the bloody woman from England.”
Ah. That Thatcher.
The little Irishman looked me in the eye as straightly as his sobriety levels would allow. “If I were in Northern Ireland right now, do you know what I’d do?” He took a sip off the top of his pint. “I’d blow up a car.”

  1. No, they are not all red-heads.

They do drink and they do sing, but the Irish are actually pretty dark-complexioned. Dark, brooding hair and thick eyebrows. Not all of them are exceptionally pale, either – though some of that may just be weather-wear. Only their eyes are light. Crisp, clear, cutting eyes that are full of merriment, mischief and magic. If you want to find a rainbow in Ireland, look someone in the eyes.

  1. Yes, leprechauns do exist.

It took four days before Ireland finally showed its true colors and gave me a real rainy day (and then that’s all it gave me for the rest of my trip). It took six days for me to finally catch a rainbow. I never did get to see a fairy or a will-o’-the-wisp. But I saw a Leprechaun my very first evening. A short little man with eyes that danced and jokes that could curdle milk. He laughed a lot (at us, mostly – and at the British, and the Irish government, and the weather). And he sang. If he wasn’t talking to one of us, he was humming a tune from this song or that. Skipping along the street, he had all the mirth of a school boy. So yes. If there are leprechauns still in Ireland, our Dublin tour guide is one of them. And I saw him with my own eyes.

Spaghetti Land

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Stereotypes:

Round 2

My mom is half Italian, a fact we were reminded of quite often growing up. Tales of Sicily, faded pictures of granddad and his brothers looking like total greasers, out-of-this-world lasagnas on Sunday and, of course, our mother all called attention to our much-loved Italian heritage.

I never thought I’d make it to Italy, much less Rome (never really wanted to, to be honest). But four days with my sister (who is much more Italian than I am on a number of levels) in the world’s most famous city brought me face-to-face with two scary truths: that my Mom was not exaggerating about Italians and that most of my accurate knowledge about Rome comes from the Lizzie McGuire Movie.

To be to-the-point (which I rarely am), I’ll say now that the most interesting thing about Rome was the confirmation of five stereotypes I have always held about the city.

1. Italians – This seems the most fitting place to begin. Yes, Italians are loud and friendly and loud. (And they use their hands FOR EVERYTHING when they talk, exactly the way they do in movies). The street outside our apartment echoed chatter and the chiming sounds of broken laughter until 2 a.m. when I awoke with a start at the sound of complete silence, split only by a cozy couple calling “ciao” to the waiter beneath my window.

Italian men are a stereotype in themselves. Very flirtatious. A lot more so than I was expecting. While waiting for my flight back to Prague I saw a group of Italian pilots meeting at the top of the stairs. They embraced each other affectionately (another stereotype!) and then one of them noticed me. I was just walking by and intentionally didn’t make eye-contact because it was not even 8 a.m. and I had no make-up on and we were in an airport, so excuse me for being anti-social/borderline-rude. Undeterred, I saw him swoop off his pilot hat and give me a low bow. I was half way down the stairs before I realized what had just happened – when I turned to look back (not bothering to hide my “what the heck?” expression that only Americans can really master), he was still staring at me cheerily like a huge, happy sheepdog. To be that brazen with a random girl in the terminal, you have to be either very high on life or very Italian. I think he may have been both.

The man playing accordion outside my window.

The man playing accordion outside my window.

2. Motorcycles – I thought when Lizzie McGuire got whisked off on a motorcycle it was just a romanticized Hollywoodism, much along the lines of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. It’s not. Everyone owns a motorcycle. Men and women. Young and old. Competent drivers and less-competent drivers. They all share the road, park in weird places and rev their engines to show off.

3. Tourism – The main reason why I didn’t want to go to Rome was because I figured it was just a tourist trap (with a lot of really old buildings and centuries of history, but you know… tourist trappy stuff also). As it turns out, it is. Between the streets lined with vendors selling knock-off merchandise and the guys dressed as Roman soldiers offering to take pictures with gullible tweenagers, Rome felt a little cheap at points. The tourist shops, the tourist prices, the tourists themselves. And the lines that stretched on for ages. Note to the travel-minded: go to Rome with a pregnant woman – skipping lines is worth the amount of time you’ll spend looking for bathrooms.

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4. Gelato – This was the only reason I actually ever wanted to go to Rome. When I was ten I had a “Barbie travels the world” coloring book and in Italy Barbie ate gelato. Let me tell you, it is worth every Euro. (In case you’re reading this, Dad, you should know that my favorite flavors were the ‘lavender and white peach’ and the ‘rosemary and mint’ – thank you for teaching me to try weird things). When our apartment ran out of toilet paper the last night of our stay (having inherited mom’s penny-pinching ways), my sister and I decided it was time for one last gelato run. I made the order – intentionally paying in a large amount of small change to serve as both a distraction and a time-suck – and she inconspicuously grabbed as many napkins from the dispenser as she could stuff in her purse. I’m still not convinced that could be considered stealing, given that they were free napkins and we did pay for the gelato, but we certainly felt pretty sheepish leaving the store. There’s not a lot I won’t do for good ice cream and sufficient quantities of hygienic tissues.

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5. Romance – It’s hard to be a proper judge of this when you travel somewhere alone, and much less so when you travel somewhere as the third wheel to a newly-wed couple (though, as my brother-in-law pointed out, he was more of the odd-man-out than I was). However, there is something intensely romantic about Rome. I don’t know if it’s the way the streets hum with the sounds of people and music and clinking glass after the sun goes down and the only light comes from candles, dusty lampshades and fountain bulbs, or if it’s melodic rhythm of the city, from the high notes of a violinist outside a café to the steady rumbling of hundreds feet taking their travelers to new places and new people. Maybe it’s just the flirty pilots at the airport. Whatever it was, it felt like maybe Rome was a good place to get lost in and not find yourself for a while. Maybe you could disappear for days in that rhythmic hum of color, food and hot breezes. Maybe you could also be mugged, murdered or forced into the global slave-trade, but the 14-year old in me thinks enough lasagna might even make a kidnapping worthwhile.

London Bridge fell down

“What would you like to drink?” the airline steward asked as we flew over a sleeping continent. Next to the dark window, the Czech woman to my left lifted her head and said, “I’ll have red wine.” Till that point I hadn’t been sure of her nationality because her monosyllabic responses had not provided enough ground to determine an accent, but she said wine with a pronounced ‘v’ at the beginning. I chuckled to myself, how Czech of her to ask for wine with her meal. They do love their spirits.

Then, while still laughing at the stereotype sitting next to me, I asked for a coffee. I’m an American and some habits die hard. Conscious of this, I turned to the man on my right. Would he give us culturally-predictable tick-tack-toe?

“And you, sir?” asked the steward.

Looking up from his newspaper, the thin British man in his mid-40’s said, “I’ll have a spot of tea, please. Cheers.”

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