Opinions of a novice traveler
I felt a little weird last week when I wrote about our trip to Ireland as if it was a big deal to us. Many people today – including our children – travel across continents as easily as I travel to Sioux City. They must think I’m just a hayseed, when a trip to Schaller Popcorn Days is such a big adventure for me.
Until three weeks ago, when we took our kids to Ireland, my only trip outside of North America was 40 years ago when I made my first visit to Ireland. Things have changed over those four decades, and if you please, this tramp will give you some feedback.
First of all, the most obvious is that cars drive on the left in Ireland, a legacy of England’s rule for hundreds of years. I balked at the chance to try my skill with the right wheel. I left that for the younger, more adventurous people in our rental van. We are alive.
Roads ranged from four-lane interstate-like highways to single-lane trails where 10-foot hedges touched the sides of our truck, and we sometimes had to yield to sheep wandering in the middle of the track. Sheep have the right of way. Winding roads don’t stretch for 100 yards without a bend in the rugged mountainous countryside.
Speed limits on four-lane highways are 120 kilometers per hour (about 75 mph) and on two-lane highways, the speed limit is 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph). Unlike America, where everyone drives 5-10 mph over the highway limit, we saw none in Ireland. In fact, most of the traffic was traveling at 5-10 kilometers per hour under the limit. And it wasn’t like there were police everywhere either. Irish drivers don’t seem to be in any rush.
The police in Ireland are called “Garda”, which is a Gaelic word meaning “guardian”. Gaelic is the Irish language that is taught in primary schools alongside English. All official signs are written in Gaelic (also known as Irish) and English in an attempt to keep the ancient language alive, but in practice few Irish people choose to speak it except in a few scattered rural areas on the coasts.
As in most parts of Europe, the Irish police are unarmed, except for a small number of specially trained officers who perform support roles. Weapons are tightly controlled and crime is very low. It was major national news when a tourist was robbed in Dublin one night while we were there. The Garda could be easily seen as they had high visibility yellow coats. They are very friendly and were happy to answer visitors’ questions. We were on foot trying to cross a busy road one morning in Cork when a Garda car driving past saw us waiting and stopped traffic for us.
Unlike large, four-wheel-drive American police cars, Garda cars are compact. In fact, all cars in Ireland are small, perhaps because the roads are narrow and fuel prices are high, as is the case across Europe. Gasoline and diesel, which are sold by the liter (about a quart), are about $7 per gallon. Diesel is a few pence cheaper than gas (“petrol”) and fuels about half the vehicles in Ireland, even BMWs, which seem to be the most common luxury car along with a few Mercedes. Most people were driving small cars like a Toyota Prius, Volkswagen, Ford Fusion, Hyundai, Peugeot, and a fair number of Skodas, a Czech model I had never seen before. I haven’t seen any products from GM or Chrysler. I counted only about a half-dozen pickup trucks – all small – in this mainly rural country. There’s no F-150 or Silverado in sight. If farmers have to transport something to town, they pull it behind their tractors.
If you are a novice driver in Ireland, you must put a large red letter on the rear window of your car: L is for learner and N is for novice, with restrictions on where and when they can drive.
During my trip to Ireland in 1983, we stayed in bed and breakfasts, which were ubiquitous. B&Bs don’t seem to be in abundance today, so this time we stayed in hotels. Because of favorable exchange rates, we were able to stay in upscale Irish hotels for the same price as a budget American hotel. An excellent meal at a nice restaurant costs $15-$20. The currency in Ireland is the euro, which is worth about 92 US cents. (Northern Ireland uses the British pound).
This is despite the VAT (Value Added Tax) common throughout Europe. It’s basically a national sales tax of up to 23% for most consumer goods and services.
When paying by credit card in Ireland, the clerk or waitress never touches your card. They give you a portable card reader and you tap your card on it to record the sale. This should reduce credit card fraud since the card never leaves your possession.
An elevator in Ireland (and the rest of Europe) is an ‘elevator’. If you want to go to the ground floor, press 0 in the elevator. If you press 1, you will go to what we Americans call the second floor; 2 goes to the third floor, and so on. That took some learning for us.
When we got into our room with our key card the first night, none of the lights or outlets worked. The front desk told us that when you enter the room, you must insert your key card into the slot just inside the door to activate the lights and outlets. This appears to be to save energy. When you leave the room, you can take the key card with you, and cut off the electricity when you are not in the room. Most hotels and houses are not air conditioned due to the cold climate.
The best tourist attractions aren’t the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher or even the Blarney Stone. That distinction belongs to the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, which hosts up to 8,000 visitors a day for its tour and samples of its world-famous dark red beer.
Bachelorette parties are bachelorette parties and bachelorette parties are bachelorette parties.
The most popular songs in Irish pubs seem to be American favourites: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”.
My little trip They pale in comparison to the stories many residents of Storm Lake can tell, a university town where professors travel far and wide, and home to immigrants from all over the world, many of whom risked their lives to get here.
We’d love to hear some of your stories about life in other lands. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, Irish Blessing:
May lead the way to meet you,
May the wind always be at your back,
May the sun shine warm on your face
The rain falls gently on your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God keep you within His reach.