Flashback to Ireland, August 2001, just weeks before the 911 terrorist attacks would change travel as we know it. We were there to see U2 perform at Slane Castle, but we decided to road trip around the country. Dublin was damp and exciting and challenging and busy, but Killarney won our first-trip-to-Europe hearts. It was the quintessential Irish town that fulfilled all of my fiddle-player-in-the-pub, troll-under-the-bridge, castle-on-the-hill fantasies. We wound up in a pub one night, as one usually does when traveling through Ireland, with a particularly lively band on the tiny stage. It was here that I learned the wonders of hard cider as well as every single word to Whisky in the Jar, Dirty Old Town and a fabulous little ditty about ladies getting locked in the lavatory.
As the evening wore on, the tourists were replaced by locals getting off work. There were two young garda (Irish police officers) who were particularly intrigued by the crazy U2 fans from California. Rounds of beers were gifted. At one point, Daniel wound up wearing one of the officer’s hats. At around midnight, the hatless man asked us if we wanted to join him and his friends at a nearby dance club. As tempting as it was, we had been traveling all day and had a full itinerary the next, so Daniel returned the hat, and we reluctantly declined the invitation. We quite literarily crawled up the stairs to our B&B.
That wound up being the night that taught me the importance of making room for spontaneity, in travel as well as in life.
We woke up early the next morning only to find our room was still spinning, but it wasn’t anything an Irish coffee couldn’t fix. Our itinerary played out the way it was scripted, but throughout the years, I have one regret when I think back on that trip, and it has nothing to do with what sites we missed.
We should have gone dancing with those lads.
Since then, I make it a point to say yes when a local invites us somewhere, especially if food and alcohol are involved. You can learn a lot about a place by what transpires in its restaurants and bars after the sun goes down. Our first time in Paris, saying yes meant a heavy-metal bar called Le Black Dog where the front woman of the band used hand gestures while singing Stairway to Heaven, much to the delight of her French fans (and the horror of someone raised on Led Zeppelin). On our third trip to Paris, it meant Iron Maiden beers at Dr. Feelgood Rock Bar and absinthe at 2 a.m. in a local’s joint I couldn’t find again if you paid me. Yes also meant chunks of homemade bread dipped into steaming pots of cheese at Le Refuge de Fondus in Montmartre where we had to climb over the tables in our dresses to take our seats and where we added our names to the graffiti on the walls with pens given to us by the amused restaurant owners. It was also at Le Refuge where we were introduced to drinking red wine out of baby bottles. You know it’s going to be a night to remember when a tray of nippled bottles arrive full of French wine and no one hesitates to latch on.
In Barbados, saying yes translated to a noisy Friday night fish fry where locals sold loaves of salt bread from pushcarts on the sidewalks, entire families of children hung out of the windows of buses and dinner featuring the catch of the day cost less than $30 for two people.
In New York, yes led to an expensive meal that I don’t remember with a view I can’t forget: Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the pulsing lights of Times Square.
Outside of Philly, it was dinner at the now-shuttered Wyebrook Farms where we brought our own bottles of wine and sat at picnic tables, watching families celebrate birthdays and fireflies twinkle on the shores of the farm’s ponds.
In Chicago, we ate the most expensive lunch of our lives at Spiaggia, a few floors above the tony shops on the Magnificent Mile. It was here that we discovered the simple elegance of a waitstaff who didn’t clear plates from the table until everyone had finished eating.
And after living in Boston for less than three months, when our new, younger, hipper friends suggested — spur of the moment and on a Sunday night, no less — that we all “bounce” to a rock-and-rolled-themed Japanese tavern, we said yes. The Fenway Park joint is called Hojoku because it adjoins a former Howard Johnson-turned-boutique hotel. (Sometimes you have to appreciate the cleverness of the millennial business owner who is determined to save us all from the mundane.)
The night started with kimchi fried rice and a shared bottle of saki, and it devolved into wasabi roulette, saki bombs, tiki cocktails well after cocktail hour and karaoke where the performance from a fanny-pack-wearing woman named Judy will forever be seared into my memory.
On the subway ride home, as the man sitting next to me quietly snorted his heroine (much to the horror of our new friends), I decided that whatever I had scheduled for the following day would gladly have to be postponed to make room for an epic night like this.
It also made me feel like I’d just gotten a little closer to understanding my new home town.