Perhaps a tiny bit hungover and loath to leave my gaggle of new puppy friends, leaving Killarney was challenging. After a few fits and starts getting out of bed and putting my feet firmly on the floor, I persevered and managed to get on the road after a most-reviving breakfast provided by the Muckross B&B. Headed for the westernmost point of all Europe, I came across a fellow driver who taught me a valuable lesson in humility.
I stopped for gas before I reached Dingle, and was engaged in garbled conversation by the station attendant, who was, as many people seem to be, enthusiastically supportive of a young woman traveling the world, and also of my choice of road snacks. From what I gathered, my Irish country friend enjoys Jaffa Cakes as much as I do, and has a cousin that I look similar to. Or perhaps it was that there was “a mutton that I should look into”…I’m uncertain.
The town of Dingle not only has a name that makes me chuckle, but is as charming a tourist town as you’ll ever find. While there’s a definite element of “shabbiness” to Dingle, it is absolutely homey and its inhabitants are impressively patient with the constant stream of tourist folly. Having no idea what I was doing (as usual), I drove in erratic zig-zags around Dingle until I saw a sign reading “Slea Head Drive.” I reasoned that no matter which route I chose I would find something beautiful, so I followed its direction and ended up in precisely the place I was looking for, easily one of the most invigorating places on earth.
The one thing I was not expecting about Slea Head Drive was the steep drop-offs that would plunge any overly confident driver directly into the Atlantic Ocean. Guard rails? Nah, no need for those here. Apparently the Irish believe that the best way to keep drivers from careening off the road and piercing themselves on a jagged shoal is to foster pure, uninhibited terror. Don’t want to die? Don’t go over the edge. Having experienced and analyzed this concept first-hand, I can attest to its effectiveness. Really, that mindset seems far more rational than to try and protect the world’s population of imbeciles from their own ignorance, but I digress.
I eventually got the hang of driving a foot away from a cliff edge and started to feel more like a Bond Girl in a daring Maserati car chase than a freaked out tourist in a Fiat. But then…then came the sheep. A gentleman came along with his flock of adorable little spray-painted sheep and was herding them with his car, which I thought was both lazy and brilliant. However, this farmer was herding his sheep in the opposite direction of traffic, which I had assumed only flowed in one direction up until this point. I was fortunate enough to have a small gravel median to my left, but I can’t imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t. I edged Seamus over to about 4 inches from the side of the cliff, and prayed that it would give the flock and the herdsman’s car enough clearance. It did, and the farmer gave me a nonchalant wave of thanks, while the sheep glanced at me with something akin to suffocating British politeness and normal sheep panic. As they slid past Seamus, I held my breath, certain that any exhalation would cause the precipice on which my car was parked to crumble and I would become a glorious sacrifice to Poseidon. But I survived my encounter with the fleecy road plow and continued onward, finding a few places along the road later on that did have a guard rail of sorts.
To say I enjoyed my time on Dingle Peninsula would be inaccurate. Slea Head has a certain kind of flavor to it, one that is both Irish and distinct in its own right. It’s as though the land is really just a sleeping dragon which holds countless ancient secrets that it is unwilling to share with the silly, mortal passers-by that traipse over its hills and roads each day. As a visitor, I was painfully aware that I was precisely that: a visitor. The land seems to own itself, and isn’t exactly a “destination” or a “place” so much as it is a perception-altering experience — one which I would recommend a thousand times over.
I left Dingle Peninsula and was so lost in my thoughts and memories of it that I suddenly found myself very near Cork, and didn’t really remember much of the drive. I arrived to my next scheduled B&B and opened my car door to be greeted by yet another new bestest friend, Lily.
I had already been aware of Lily from the many mentions of her sweetness in the online reviews of the Bridgeview Farmhouse B&B. As I stepped out of my car, I exclaimed, “Oh, you must be Lily!” A surprised voice behind me said, “you know my dog?” And that is how I met the incredible Marion of Kilbrittain.
Marion is one of the kindest and most exuberant people I have met in my time traveling the world. She exudes a traditional Irish charm, infused with a natural curiosity and love for people. After settling in my room, Marion, a wonderful couple from Seattle (I think), and I sat in the parlor and shared tea and stories before parting ways for dinner. Marion recommended two excellent restaurants and I foolishly ignored her advice for the sake of not having to drive for too long again. I drove into the tiny village of Ballinspittle and opted for a simple pub-style dinner. If you’ve ever been to Ballinspittle, you know exactly which pub I went to…because I’m pretty sure it’s the only one.
While eating, I was approached by a man named Gerard, who seemed to have some sort of cognitive disability, and he asked if I was happy. I informed him that yes, I was very happy. He nodded and left. 1.5 minutes later, he came around again to ensure that I was still happy, and informed me that he too was quite happy. I ended up speaking to Gerard at length and we had a splendid conversation about America, traveling, how Gerard was born and raised in Ballinspittle, how Willie Nelson is from Texas, and how Texas is larger than the whole of Ireland. Gerard was excellent company, but just as I was about to pay my bill, a family member of his showed up in the bar with a baby. The baby turned out to be his niece, and Gerard insisted that I hold her.
Anyone who knows me at all likely knows that children are not my forte. I have been chastised in the past for referring to babies as an “it,” so I would like to point out to a certain person (you know who you are) that here I was careful to include the appropriate gendered pronoun for the child. In general, I don’t mind or dislike children, I just don’t know what to do with them. I am neither skilled nor comfortable in dealing with a human that can neither communicate effectively nor walk a straight line without falling on his/her ass and crying about it. To be clear, I am not discriminatory: I do not tolerate such behavior in adults either. But honestly, if your child hands me a toy telephone, my first instinct is not to pick it up and say, “hello?” My first instinct is to dump a truckload of complex information about telephones on the child and run away. “Yeah, that’s a phone. You see, there are buttons here, and each telephone has a series of numbers, seven digits long, that directs a call to that particular unit. But those numbers are divided by geographic region, as well as country, which in all will add another four digits to the routing sequence. K, bye!”
It was clear that Gerard was simply very proud of his niece and wanted to share his joy with me. That, combined with my confusion and reluctance, led to a small standoff in the pub. Gerard held his niece out to me to receive, and like the terrible person I am, I just sort of let her float there for a second before crushing guilt and social obligation broke me and I took her from him. So I’m in a foreign country, in a bar, holding someone’s child that I don’t know, who was given to me by her mentally handicapped uncle, and she’s staring at me, and I’m staring at her, and everyone involved is weirded out except for Gerard, who’s thrilled. The child’s mother had left her with Gerard and was no where to be seen, and I started to worry that she might think I was trying to steal her or something. In America, you can’t even tell someone else’s kid to stop climbing on a grocery store display without getting rounded on by the mother, and I’m unfamiliar with the proper protocol for passing a baby around a room. I understand that it’s a somewhat common practice, but…in a bar? With strangers? Does everyone get a turn? Is there a special order for passing her? Who’s supposed to get her next? How long do I have to hold her before someone really believes “my arms are just tired?”
To add to the situation, the child in my arms just…stared. She didn’t do any of the things normal babies do. No flailing arms, no grabbing for my jewelry, no looking around the room, no babbling. She and I were supernaturally connected through intense, unwavering, awkward-as-hell eye contact, and neither of us was going to break first. She then started to lean forward, slowly, and got closer and closer to my face, as I withdrew at an equal rate. Creepy Baby only broke eye contact when her mother appeared at my side and said cheerfully, “Hello! Oh, be careful, she’ll bite you.”
What?! Does she even have teeth? I would almost rather be bitten than gummed, but that’s beside the point. I forced a (hopefully) believable chuckle at the apparent flesh-eating hobby of the baby that was clearly making its move. Oh, how silly the wee ones can be! Haha...here’s your kid.
While I’m no good with children, I can say confidently that I’m a great actress. I gracefully rid myself of the Zombie Baby, paid my bill, and said farewell to my friend Gerard, who insisted on giving me a bear hug. With a sparkling American smile on my face, I thanked Gerard’s sister (I assume) for letting me hold her adorable offspring, picked up my bag and ran the hell away.
Back at Bridgeview B&B, the weirdness of the evening’s events melted away. Marion served up glasses of some kind of fabulous liquor, and I stayed up with Marion and the other guests until well past 1:00am chatting, laughing hysterically, and sharing our best travel stories. That evening was one of the most affecting moments I’ve experienced in all my travels. It was a few perfect hours of genuine camaraderie, respect of differences, and intelligent, fascinating conversation between strangers. If it somehow comes to pass that anyone who was in that parlor reads this, you should know it was a pleasure to meet you.
Stay tuned for the last installment of this series, in which I tour a castle and am introduced to how whiskey is supposed to taste.