Blarney

 

It was late August. I was five weeks into my working holiday and I hadn’t had a single job interview or even a phone call from a potential employer. I was getting discouraged. Having spent the weekend weighing my options, I woke up Monday morning knowing it was absolutely imperative that I spend the entire day on my job search.

Half an hour later, I was on a double-decker bus enjoying charming views of the Irish countryside along the way to Blarney Castle, home of the famous Blarney Stone. To be clear, there were no job opportunities at Blarney Castle. I was choosing, amid my unemployment crisis, to take a carefree day trip to a mystical castle so I could kiss a rock rumoured to have magical powers.

The weather forecast promised it was going to be a nice day and warned that it would rain for the rest of the week, so really, it was a good day to fit in a little tourism. I was also beginning to worry that if I did end up having to cut my Ireland adventure short, I hadn’t really visited any of the classic Irish tourist attractions. So there were those practical reasons. And then also I met up with Shaun who I’d met the week before, and of all the sexy international accents I’d been enjoying, I’d been enjoying his the most. So my response to his question “what are you up to today?” should have been, “I’m searching tirelessly for a job so I can stop wasting money and avoid bringing shame to myself with another employment related failure”. Instead I said, “Nothing…” And so our journey to Blarney was hastily arranged and we caught the next bus going that way.

Blarney Castle is only a short bus ride from Cork. Because I don’t do research and am just generally ill-informed, I always pictured the Blarney Stone as a large boulder in the middle of a field. But it turns out kissing the Blarney Stone is a whole experience.

The castle you have to climb to get to the Blarney Stone is enormous with endless nooks and chambers and twisty stairwells. One chamber is very well-appointed with both a view out over the banquet hall and a “murder hole”. Just a person-sized opening in the floor, the murder hole was an enemy-disposal system so simple and convenient that it could be used while, feet away, your family and friends were seated at a long table anxiously awaiting the roast beast cooking in the giant fireplace for Christmas dinner. I was impressed with the murder hole to the point that I don’t think I would now consider buying a home that didn’t have one.

An unreasonable number of areas throughout the castle were designed to facilitate the throwing of boiling liquids onto approaching enemies. The antics these medieval folks must have gotten up to! I felt a creepy little thrill being in the same space where real people actually walked, talked, plotted and did all manner of Game of Thronesy things.

Everyone who ever trod the halls of the castle felt an uncontrollable urge to carve their names into the walls. My untrained eye couldn’t tell in which century these carvings were done. The initials carved into the stone by young Irish lovers in 1690 before they were murdered by their duelling families are probably right next to the initials of the Abner family from Alabama who took a selfie of themselves defacing the ancient treasure.

I ended up not actually kissing the Blarney Stone. I climbed to the top of the castle, watched others delight in the experience and thought “I’ll pass”. I had recently met a German girl at my hostel and I based my decision on her three-word review of kissing the stone. “It was wet,” was all she said and that’s all I needed to hear. And so I did not contract the gift of the gab or anything else left behind by the sloppy affections of tourists.

The actual Blarney Stone was easily the least impressive aspect of the whole Blarney experience. If you enjoy enchanted forests, unusual gardens, scenic lakes and romantic picnics, I can’t recommend it highly enough. For best results, go with an attractive foreign stranger.

 

For every fairytale day, there must then be one day depressingly grounded in reality.

It should have been a good day; I finally had a job interview. I had gotten a call from TK Maxx, a discount department store similar to Winners in Canada, and was asked to come in for a group interview.

I have fond memories of TK Maxx from my days living in England. I had gotten a job at Curves, a women’s gym, that December. But the gym didn’t open until January so my boss, Liz, and I spent the month of December handing out flyers in the street to advertise the grand opening of the gym in January. When we couldn’t stand the cold on the extra chilly days we would seek shelter in TK Maxx and I would help her pick out bikinis for her next bodybuilding competition. In my mind, TK Maxx represented a warm haven from cold and boredom.

I arrived for the group interview and met the other three candidates who were all Cork natives. The interviewer was named Eoin. I was delighted that he had an Irish name, one that I’d studied and knew how to pronounce. There are so many traditional Irish names that are completely unfamiliar to me. Whenever I would see someone wearing a name tag with an Irish name, I’d ask them how to say it.  By doing this, I’d met an Aoife, a Niamh, and an Aisling. All these names sound very beautiful, but you’d sure never know it by looking at them. For example, the name ‘Caoimhe’ is pronounced ‘Kee – va‘ or  ‘Kwee – va‘. If you say so, Ireland.

The interview starts with an aptitude test to see if you’re “a good match” with the company. I’ve done a ton of these tests. They’re basically a way to weed out free-thinkers and shit-disturbers who may ask too many questions or try to start a union. Some actual questions on the test for Superstore include these gems that are to be rated on a scale of “I agree” to “I disagree”: “I believe rules are meant to be broken!” and “I forget to put things back where they belong.” I’m pretty sure students in grade primary have to pass a similar test to move on to grade one.

The comparable test given during interviews at Walmart has about fifty questions, half of which are some variation of “Do you love smoking marijuana?” They’re correct to be paranoid about unusually high numbers of their employees partaking, but it’s a silly question because the company erroneously sees themselves as the victim of marijuana users when, in fact, they’re the cause. For more useful data, they should be asking current employees receiving their 10-year pin, “At what point during your Walmart career did you turn to marijuana use to get through the day?”

The test I took at TK Maxx was pretty much what I expected. When the four of us had completed them, Eoin collected them and went off to mark them. But the results were shocking, to me anyway. Eoin spoke to me privately in his office to let me know I hadn’t passed the aptitude test and wouldn’t be continuing on to the one-on-one interview. I politely asked him to repeat that while I tried to control my urge to yell, “Are you shitting me right now, Eoin?!”

I would have accepted pretty much any other explanation as to why I didn’t get the job. Anything from “I don’t think our customers will understand your stupid accent” to “I just don’t like you” would have been tough but fair. There’s no way I failed their dumb test.

I should have taken the opportunity right then to apply for more jobs while I was all dressed up and had a folder full of resumes. Instead I sat on a bench by the river and pondered life. Then I went to Tesco and bought a chocolate cheesecake and ate most of it. Then I stopped kidding myself and just finished it.

I probably took this rejection unusually hard because it was kind of my last chance to make things work out in Ireland. But all I could do was add TK Maxx to my list of enemies. It’s a pretty short list which includes my former Walmart co-worker Gladys from Housewares who cut holes in my rain boots and Officer Michael from the Canada Border Services Agency who kept bothering me at home and insisting I knew more about my roommates’s drug importing business than I actually did.

Back at the hostel, I told people about my interview and an African man who spoke eleven languages and seemed wise told me they were racist and that it wasn’t surprising they didn’t hire a non-Irish person. It made me feel better but it still marked the beginning of the end of my time in Ireland.

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I Did This to Myself

Sometimes, I like to play “Witness Protection Program”. I do this when I question what I’m doing here in Ireland. Why would I come to a strange place I’ve never been before all by myself? Where I don’t know anyone? And then try to find a place to live and a job? That’s crazy. But if I pretend I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnessed something I shouldn’t have, testified against a homicidal crime lord, and then was exiled to a secure foreign locale for my own protection, then I feel way better about this whole situation. That’s a scenario in which this all makes sense.

But that’s not the case. I did this to myself.

“Have you made any friends?” asked my mother. Sort of. Hostels are a flurry of friendly interesting people. I have a huge collection of international 24-hour insta-friends. Rebecca from Edmonton and I climbed the Shandon Bell Tower, rang the ancient bells, and then went for fish & chips. Katie from Norway and I went for Chinese food and ran in the rain. Yvette from France and I cooked pasta together in the hostel kitchen and later went to sleep in our bottom bunks aligned foot-to-foot and giggled when our toes accidentally touched. But these relationships only last the day. When I wake up in the morning, my newly-made friend has moved on. And I have to start all over again with some other weirdo. It’s sort of like a friendship version of Groundhog Day. Maybe I’m being taught a lesson about how to treat people and once I finally get it right, I’ll be released from the loop and one of them will be my friend forever. Currently though, I’m making one of the same mistakes Bill Murray makes in Groundhog Day, trying to speed through fragile human interactions. The repetitive nature of daily friend-making has forced me to find ways to expedite the process.

“Hi, nice to meet you, Jessica from Wisconsin! I’m going to go ahead and assume your general outlook towards life is the same as that of Cara from Australia who I met yesterday. But she’s gone now so let’s jump right to your hopes and dreams… No, not your childhood! There’s no time, Cara! …I mean Jessica. If you’re still here in the morning we can discuss your history pre-2012.”

So forming lasting friendships is tricky, but at least I have my health. Or I did until my fifth night in Cork when I woke up in the wee hours with that “gonna barf” feeling. Of all the times I’d wished I wasn’t in a top bunk, this was the time I wished it the most. When climbing on ladders, I always think of the method drilled into my head by the Safety Committee at Walmart where I worked for many years. But that method requires 3-point contact with the ladder and doesn’t allow for having one hand clamped over your mouth so you don’t vomit on the innocent German backpacker sleeping in the bottom bunk. I hoped none of my three roommates were awake to witness my graceless descent and crash landing. I did my best, but it was clear I shouldn’t be around other people. Right then I decided I was going to spring for a hotel the following night.

By morning, one of my toes was completely purple from my awkward late-night bed dismount, but it wasn’t broken. Or it was; it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing you can do for a broken toe except tape it to another toe for stability. So I taped the purple toe to my big toe just in case it was broken. As I admired my first aid handiwork, I realized I couldn’t wear flip flops now. Flip flops are essential footwear in hostels to avoid what lurks in communal showers. Good thing I was going to a hotel! I hobbled through the city to the closest hotel that had rooms available. The receptionist at Jury’s Inn greeted me and asked, “So what brings you to Cork today?” Instead of truthfully answering “I live in Cork. I’m just here so I can throw up in peace and leave my toes taped together”, I just said, “Vacation.”

One night in the hotel cost me what six nights in a hostel would have. Yikes! Is a hotel six times better than a hostel? No. It’s about a million times better. It was heaven. As soon as I got there, I wondered how many baths I could fit in in 24 hours. Three? Is three baths too many? I made tea in my room and drank it in the unbelievably comfortable bed. I Skyped with my family without a horde of backpackers within earshot. I stayed in bed and recovered from whatever had struck me. Food poisoning? Mild flu? I’m not sure, but it took two days before I was well enough to head back to the hostel.

Arriving back in reality after my sick days, I remembered that I was supposed to be looking for a job. And as I lugged my 50 pound suitcase up three flights of stairs, I admitted to thinking that sometimes it felt like living in a hostel was a job.

It turns out I’m not the only person who thinks hostel living is a job. At my second favourite hostel in Cork, the one at the top of the hill, there lives a character who is in complete agreement with me. Hailing from Hungary, Tiberius fancies himself quite the ladies man. His rich gravelly voice would be best suited for voicing cartoon villains in Disney movies or narrating your nightmares. He’s well-known around the hostel because he’s been there so long and he maintains an air of mystery by never revealing what he does for a living. When he mentioned that he’d done some of his own tattoos, someone asked, “Is that your job? Tattoos?”

He answered, “My job is living here at Sheila’s Hostel and hitting on people”. He laughed villainously and I really don’t think he was joking. Because that’s all I’ve ever seen him do. One day he approached me while I was reading a book in the hallway and said, “Ah, you’re reading about Hitler.” I said, “Oh no, this is just a mystery novel. Fiction.” Somehow, even after a physical demonstration of the book, he continued to insist I was secretly reading about Hitler. I felt like we were seconds away from him lifting his sleeve or the bottom of his shirt to reveal his inevitable swastika tattoo. I’m not sure if he considered this hitting on someone or just being friendly.

Perhaps naively and because I considered Ireland a fairly safe place, my list of dangers to watch out for included only drunk people and magic. Now I have to add Nazis? As I write this, I can see him across the room, hitting on someone, as he does. I wonder if he’s using one of his classic Hitler pick-up lines.

Constantly moving between hostels and between rooms within hostels was becoming a real drain. I hadn’t bothered my friend Tina in a while and I knew she would understand because she had done a working holiday in Cork several years ago. I wrote her a series of whiny messages detailing my struggles and listing my various complaints. She wrote back to tell me that she had lived in a hostel for three and a half months and maybe I should stop being such a little bitch about it. Actually she wrote to tell me how she had coped and gave me some survival tips, but I know what she really meant.

I tried to keep her advice in mind the next day when the pub/hostel was fully booked and I had to move back to the hostel at the top of the hill. I cursed quietly as I towed my giant suitcase up the steep incline and cursed silently when I moved into the windowless six bed dorm room and surveilled my new group of roommates for signs they may be snorers or stinkers.

At breakfast the next morning I met Jay and Shaun, neither of whom were weird or leaving the next day. Those were my newly-established prerequisites for potential friends. And these two knew little tricks for having free fun at the hostel on a rainy August Sunday. Like that there was a guitar behind the front desk, which was entertaining for awhile. The possibility of busking in town was even discussed, then abandoned when we discovered only one of us had any talent. When the board games came out, I was reminded that I’m awesome at Jenga. The front desk staff tried to get in on the action and help my opponents by blaring the radio when I was at a critical point in one of my awesome moves, but I couldn’t be defeated. Victory was mine and, God knows, I needed a win, no matter how small and even if the category was Non-Competitive Children’s Games From That Rarely-Used Activities Cupboard At The Hostel. When the rain let up a bit, we went on a misty walk to Elizabeth Fort, a historical site that was only recently opened to the public where you can see some of the best views of Cork’s least attractive areas. The day was the most pleasant one I’ve spent with strangers. My icy hostel hostility melted a little and the hostel at the top of the hill crept from being my second favourite up to first.

 

Alone in Dublin, I had some decisions to make. First, whether or not to stay in Dublin. My friend Salima and I had planned on staying in the capital city, but now that I was on my own, I’d been thinking I might prefer one of Ireland’s smaller, more intimate cities. I’d heard good things about Cork.

While I decided, I worked on making new friends. So far I’d had Salima to talk to, so I’d really only had very superficial conversations with other people. But once you’re on your own, you start noticing other people, and they start noticing you, for better or worse.

I decided to stay on at our favourite hostel, Abbey Court. They serve a type of a melon at breakfast that I like but can’t identify. There was no guarantee another hostel would serve the same kind of melon, and I didn’t have enough information to procure my own.

I began making friends with my new roommates right away. My first bunkmate was an Irish girl who was in town taking a cosmetics course. She was very, very friendly. Right away, she complimented my looks and started giving me free samples of moisturiser and face cream. But our relationship began escalating rapidly without my participation or consent. She wasted no time telling me how it was going to be between us.

“I’m going to do a smoky eye on you. Do you want false eyelashes? Start using this moisturiser now and tomorrow I’ll give you a makeover. I’m going to need a model on Tuesday night. Are you doing anything on Tuesday night?”

Her intensity was like a physical force and I had to take an actual step back, which wasn’t easy in the tiny room we shared. Our interaction went from pleasant to scary in two minutes flat. Suddenly aware that she was coming on a little strong, she added, “I’m not crazy… as long as I have my medication.”

The next morning when I woke up, she was standing by my bed. When she noticed that my eyes were open, she asked, “Have you seen my medication?” There were no words to express how much I didn’t want her medication to be missing. Or how nervous I was that I might be implicated in its disappearance.

Don’t worry; she was fine. We found her medication. I was sympathetic to her troubles but I wasn’t really interested in finding out how the whole situation would play out, so when it came time to book another night in the hostel, I chose another room. It was a tough decision. I was leaving behind a shower with excellent water pressure and a really nice Norwegian girl who was an excellent Game of Thrones conversationalist, but I had to sacrifice those things to avoid the possibility of having false eyelashes applied to my sleeping face in the night. You win some, you lose some.

The only reason to remain in Dublin now was to attend an orientation session provided by SWAP to give program participants an introduction to Ireland. They provide information on how to search for jobs and apartments, how to open a bank account, and how to get a Personal Public Service number. This is all incredibly valuable information…to which I was not entitled. When I signed up to go to Ireland, I had gone with their “Visa Essentials” package which includes only a work visa and no support services. It is marketed to expert travellers. I’m not so much an “expert traveller” as I am cheap and cocky. My plan was to save a considerable amount of money by being friends with Salima, who had bought the full package and would take excellent notes when she attended orientation by herself. Since she had gone home, she had no problem with me taking her place at orientation.

SWAP was not so keen on that plan. Their email said “services are non-transferable” and “nice try, loser” or something like that. I can’t remember the exact words now. But they did say they’d be happy to collect the difference in the cost between the two programs from me. Oh, good. I couldn’t afford it before, but now that I’m a homeless, unemployed immigrant, it’s an option for sure.

So SWAP stuck with their policies, which are completely reasonable and legal. But you know that feeling you get when someone bends the rules for you because it doesn’t cost them anything and it means so incredibly much to you and you feel your soul soar a little at this small kindness shown to you? You won’t get that feeling with SWAP.

I’ve left up a link to their page because as far as I can tell, it’s the only way for a Canadian to get a working holiday visa. Also, they are extremely good at what they do, just very bad at what they don’t do, which is make exceptions. SWAP: not wrong, but not cool. I believe that’s their official motto.

Friendless and lacking basic knowledge of how to become a contributing member of Irish society, I hopped on a bus to Cork, three hours southwest of Dublin.

 

The undisputed high point of my first day in Cork was meeting up with Andrea, a fellow Nova Scotian, actually a fellow graduate of my high school, who was also doing the SWAP Ireland program. She filled me in on what the biggest challenges were in finding work and accommodations and gave me her orientation handbook containing valuable information which, if it were up to SWAP, would have remained forever a mystery to me. She was the dose of positivity I needed just by being visibly happy. Life here was clearly working out for her. Or maybe they put something in the water here in Cork. In either case, I was sold. So I decided to stay awhile.

The hostel I had booked in Cork was a pub on the ground floor and a hostel on top. Delightful! It was an obstacle course trying to wheel my giant suitcase through the pub, smashing into bar stools the whole way to the reception desk at the back. “This will be fun!”, I thought, because I didn’t know any better.

Entering my room, a four bed mixed dorm, was like being a new character joining the cast of a show already in its second season. There was so much going on. There was a fiesty French girl and a moody Spanish man in a pre-existing feud about his snoring. Though they had only met one day earlier, they were no longer on speaking terms. He would glare menacingly and she would say to me, very loudly, that she was afraid to be alone with him in the room, a result of the previous night’s wall-punching-as-a-snoring-deterrent, I understood.

The other roommate was a local man named Michael who had been kicked out by his girlfriend for being drunk, which he still was three days later. “I can’t believe I’m staying in a hostel” he moaned “I’m 35. I’m too old for this shit.” He was clearly more like 45. He told me his whole sad story in a thick Irish accent. He ended his lengthy tale of domestic woe by asking me to go out for drinks but then went to sleep immediately. The French girl, who had been there the whole time said, “I guess he didn’t recognize me. He told me he was 25 and he was here because his house burnt down.”

Michael had been kicked out with only the clothes on his back. His presumably long-suffering girlfriend hadn’t been thinking of others when she kicked him to the curb without at least some deodorant and a fresh pair of socks. In other words, the entire room smelled horrible. The Spanish Snorer made a great show of throwing open the window and sneering in disgust, though his performance was lost on poor inebriated Michael. I thought maybe I should put my ear plugs in my nostrils, but I restrained myself. This turned out to be the wise choice. Though unsavoury to think about, I grew accustomed to the stench, but once the Spanish Snorer revved up for the night, I was glad to have some uncontaminated ear protection.

Luckily, our room did have a giant window, which we opened all the way. I slept with my head practically on the windowsill. It’s probably the closest I’ll come to camping in Ireland. The night was cold, but the duvet was warm, and I slept better than I had all week.

You sure were gross, drunk Michael, but for contributing immeasurably to my authentic Irish experience, I thank you.

Week 1: Dublin

My first week in Ireland was a lot of what I expected plus one major curveball.

Weather

I’m glad I spent so much time deciding which sandals to bring with me. I’ll save someone else some time. The answer to, “Which sandals should I take with me on my vacation to Dublin in July?” is “None”. The same goes for, “What colour should I paint my toenails?” I chose blue, but the right answer is “Don’t bother.” You’re welcome. The weather was a little worse than I was planning on, but not in an unpleasant way. I like the consistency of being able to wear the same general thing everyday. I haven’t once regretted my decision to take my rain jacket with me everywhere, all the time. To be fair though, I’m told Ireland is experiencing an unusually poor summer so far.

Entertainment

Upon arriving in Dublin, I headed to Abbey Court Hostel in the city centre to meet up with my friend from Calgary. We’d been planning our Ireland working holiday adventure for months now. We had both left Calgary three weeks earlier and gone our separate ways; me home to Nova Scotia, her on a tour around Europe. Now we reunited for some good Irish times. Our hostel was in the perfect spot to access a lot of Dublin’s most famous attractions. We took in the National Gallery of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College, and Dublin Castle. We went to a Irish pub called John Mulligans where there were some older Irish men pulling some kind of caper on their friend involving a chicken. We didn’t understand what was going on, but it was all very lively and Irish. I don’t like beer, so I tried a cider but I couldn’t even finish that. I am so bad at drinking!

Accommodations

Saturday night rolled around and we went to check in at our hostel, but somehow we’d messed up our reservation. Basically we had no reservation and there were no beds left. But the resourceful stoner running the night shift had a solution for us and several other paying customers they didn’t want to turn away. We were told they would set up some cots in the Hammock Room and we could sleep there. Great! Now we didn’t have to wander the streets looking for somewhere to stay.

We settled into the colourful but poorly ventilated Hammock Room, excited to be sleeping on cots instead of bunk beds for once. Bunk beds are fine, but I’m not ten years old or in prison, so I prefer the comfortable dignity a cot provides. This room is normally a relaxing recreational room for all guests to enjoy, but the hostel staff successfully re-purposed it for us and four other weary travellers.

As it turns out, the hammock room is very popular and the other people staying at the hostel were not impressed that they were being denied access to it. Outside our door, people furiously attempted to punch in the outdated door code, with no success of course.

“The door code for the hammock room isn’t working!” whined one annoying girl.

“What is this bulls*#t! I can’t get in the f*#*ing hammock room!” said one man who I hoped I didn’t run into in the hall. So I put in my ear plugs and that pretty much solved the problem.

HammockRoom

Enjoying the hammock room, at great expense to other guests.

This was also the first night we had to share a room with boys. In my experience, there are three stages of modesty in a mixed gender hostel room. Stage 1: “I can’t get changed. There’s boys in here.” Stage 2: “Hmm, I think he’s sleeping. I’m going to go for it.” Stage 3: “Whatever. I’ll never see him again anyway.”

Business

We were having a great time doing the touristy stuff, but we had to get back to the real reason we were here which was to find jobs so we could stay awhile. That’s when my friend told me she wasn’t going to stay in Ireland. She had been thinking about it the whole time she was on her European tour and had decided Calgary was where she wanted to be. For me, there had been hints all along that this was coming. And I understand completely. This craziness just isn’t for everyone. So after we spent an amazing five days in Ireland’s capital, she caught a plane home to Calgary.

So now it’s just me, alone in Ireland…

Scotland, August 2005

By early August, I had resigned from my job and I had time for one more adventure before I headed back to Canada. I found a company called Haggis Adventures that hosted bus tours of Scotland. I signed up for the 4-day tour and hopped on a train to Edinburgh to meet up with the tour group.

As promised, our tour guide was an authentic Scotsman. He knew his stuff and his tour narration was rich with history and peppered with anecdotes. By day two, he was pretty comfortable with us. So comfortable that, in between William Wallace commentary and Loch Ness Monster jokes, he made it pretty clear that he usually sleeps with one or more of the women on the tour. His not-so-subtle admission didn’t get the lusty response he was looking for so, dejected, he further insinuated that the pickings were slim on this particular tour.

The tour hit up all the beautiful highlights that Scotland has to offer. We travelled to Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye, Inverness and Glencoe, all the while stopping to see spectacular scenery and unique attractions. The people on the tour were all youngish and from countries all over the world. I didn’t care for the other Canadians. They were annoying. So I made friends with a group of people from Spain. They were an absolute delight. Friendly and free-spirited, they included me in all their activities.

One night the Spaniards invited me along on their pub crawl/dinner. For a place that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, there were a lot of pubs. We went to the first one, which I assumed would be the one where we ate dinner, but no. Nor was the second one. Or the third one. By now, it was late and there weren’t any places serving food. I was about to ask if anyone else was hungry when one of the girls explained, “Usually when we start drinking, we forget about food!” Huh. Good to know for next time. I headed back to the hostel because I am not a very hearty drinker.

I found my way back to the hostel and looked around for a vending machine. There were none, so I went back to my room which I was sharing with three Japanese girls who were travelling together, and went to bed.

I had been soundly asleep for about nine seconds when the fire alarm went off. My bunk was closest to the light so I reached over and switched it on. That’s when I noticed the bunk across from me was empty. So was the one below it. How long had the alarm been going off? My roommates had time to get up and leave me here to burn? Bitches! I climbed down off my bunk and started looking for my shoes. Then I saw that all three of the girls were comfortably cuddled together in the one bunk under mine. They were fine; they didn’t even seem crowded. They also didn’t seem to be in any rush to escape the burning hostel so I said, “There’s a fire.” No response. Having spent the past few days with them, I knew they spoke zero English so I decided I better kick it up a notch. Using hand gestures that I felt represented burning flames, I said loudly “There’s a fire!! Burning! Death!” The one girl who was most awake still had her eyes closed but made it clear through body language that I was annoying her. Okay then. I don’t want to be a jerk here but what is the protocol for saving people from fires? Should I drag them to safety? Or just let them fend for themselves? In the end, I went with the “Every man for himself” method I used during every nighttime fire alarm that occurred while I lived with a roommate in university residence. (Sorry Vanessa.)

Once outside I saw that there was a pretty lacklustre response to the deafening fire alarm. Only North Americans had reacted. No Europeans or Asians had bothered. The Spanish group did show up after about ten minutes, but only because they were just arriving back from their night of revelry. One of the annoying Canadians was eating a chocolate bar for which I’d happily have paid ten twenty dollars.

Word came fairly quickly that it was safe to go back inside. There had been a small fire in the kitchen but everything was under control. Hostel staff didn’t open it up to questions, but I had some. How did the fire affect the food situation in the kitchen? What does this mean for breakfast? Is anyone else hungry?

Back in the room, my roommates were all sleeping peacefully curled up together like little kittens. The room was dark now, so clearly one of them had gotten up to turn off the light. I felt like an ogre as I ambled blindly back to my bunk, tripping over very small shoes and Hello Kitty backpacks all the way.

In conclusion, don’t be led astray by Spaniards, no matter how sexy and fun-loving. Or do. Whatever. There’s no lesson here.

My policy on saving roommates from fires remains unchanged.

England, November 2004

I had been in England about two weeks, living in a London hostel called the International Students House. It was early November and London was still enjoying beautiful fall weather. I had been meeting interesting people, exploring the city and taking care of the business of moving to a new country. I’d gone to the SWAP-provided orientation at the BUNAC hosting centre, opened a bank account, gotten a cell phone, even handed out some resumes.

But it was right at this two week mark that it began to sink in that I had no idea what I was doing and that London was a huge city where no one knew who I was or cared why I was there. Armed with this new understanding of reality, I reported directly to the first floor women’s washroom at the hostel and cried in one of the stalls.

It turned out to be the last time I would cry on my European adventure. Two weeks later I took the train to St. Albans, a small city just north of London. I met a woman named Jo at the local Starbucks and we chatted and she interviewed me for a job at the gym she was opening. I got the job! But how…

Back home in Nova Scotia, my parents had been rightfully concerned that I had few life skills and a personality not ideal for making a strong first impression. They worried I wouldn’t be able to find a job, or even a friend. So they took an inventory of their British acquaintances and came up with one name, Pauline, an actress who lives in our town who they met at a church picnic. They called her and asked if she knew anyone back home in England who would hire me. She did. Her daughter Jo was opening a new women’s fitness centre and she was looking for staff. So that’s how I got my first job in the UK.

So I had a job, but it wouldn’t be quite so easy to find a place to live. Just kidding! It was totally easy! The day after Jo hired me, she called to tell me she had a spare room in her flat and I could move in when I moved to St. Albans. The room was unfurnished so she came to pick me up in London in a van she rented and we went on a shopping spree at IKEA. We picked out a chair, a bookcase, a bed and a few other furnishings. It was the first time in my life I’d gotten to choose a mattress. I bounced enthusiastically upon several, in front of my new boss, before deciding on my favourite.

Back at her lovely flat, I proved wildly incompetent with assembly instructions and the use of an allen key so Jo ended up doing most of the work setting up the spare bedroom which was now my bedroom for a very reasonable rental fee.  Because she knew I was only just starting my job, she let me have the first month free! And that’s how everything worked out just fine when I moved to England.

In conclusion, there is no possible way things will work out so smoothly when I get to Ireland. I better be prepared.

The Longest Shower

London, England, November 2004

After nearly three weeks of living in a hostel, I was really getting the hang of the lifestyle. The front desk staff at the International Students House knew me by name. On several occasions, I was actually able to get the internet working. I knew where I could scrounge complimentary breakfast coupons out of the garbage and enjoy a delicious second breakfast at the cafeteria. I was able to explain to North American newcomers how the beds worked when they were confused that there was no top sheet. From bottom to top, it goes mattress, fitted sheet, your body, duvet. No top sheet. I wish someone had explained that to me the first day.

Most importantly, I knew that it was stupid to wait in line for a shower in the morning. That’s only for people with things to do and places to see. For people like me, the causally unemployed, it was best to wait until mid-afternoon. The first day I tried this schedule, there wasn’t another soul in the communal bathroom and the hot water lasted the entire time. This was a fine luxury and I stayed in considerably longer than I had on previous days.

When I finished and tried to leave, I couldn’t open the door. The shower stall wasn’t just a shower stall, it was more of a tiny, square shower room, with no windows and a wooden door that swelled from the moisture. My extra long, extra hot shower had provided the perfect conditions for me to imprison myself.  I pictured David Suzuki scolding, “Serves you right, you ecological nightmare”, and then laughing as I scratched at the door of my moist upright coffin.

The second I realized I was trapped, I began worrying about the air supply. It was very steamy and hot, but I tried to breathe calmly and wait until the door became operable again or I was rescued. Then the lights switched off. It was now pitch dark and my panic arose anew. I had previously failed to notice that the light was activated by a motion sensor near the main door. No one had come into the bathroom in the last twenty minutes. Everyone was out being interesting and living life to the fullest and I was going to perish in here because I spent too long shaving my legs.

Riddled with problems, I decided to deal with the most pressing, which was that I could fall unconscious and then be discovered naked. My clothes were hard to find in the total darkness and were wet from dragging on the floor. I got dressed sloppily; my clothes felt constrictive and backward. But the task of dressing was complex enough to distract me briefly from my death, which was imminent.

I occupied my mind for an additional two minutes by picturing the British detectives investigating the suspicious circumstances of my death.

“I do say, Nigel. It looks like the killer tried to dress the body.”

“Rubbish. It’s a open and shut case of a dumb girl in a hot room.”

“Ah, well done, Nigel!”

“Cheers, Rupert. Enough of this grisly business. Join me for a spot of tea?”

Back to my own frantic monologue. Is this an emergency? I’ll wait two more minutes and if no one comes, I’ll yell “Help”. No. First I’ll yell “Hello?” If no one responds, I’ll upgrade to “Help” as my situation worsens. Wait! What if I’ve become too weak to yell? Every humiliatingly fatal scenario swirled through my head.

But then a saviour arrived in the form of a girl who had to pee. She swung open the bathroom door and I called out for help. She laughed at me, but went to work yanking on the door. And it wasn’t easy. With her pulling and me pushing we eventually dislodged it. I was so happy to be able to breathe freely again! I recognized my rescuer as a fellow Canadian named Tina. I had seen her around the hostel the past couple of days. Once I re-adjusted to breathing air and seeing light, I thanked her profusely. It was the first of many hostel adventures for Tina and me.

Now, ten years later, whenever we get together, I inevitably bring up the time she saved me from suffocating in a hostel bathroom. Or of the good times, like when we failed to book beds in our regular hostel and we had to move all our stuff to another hostel in the bad part of town. Convinced we would be murdered if we ventured out after dark, we spent the night in with our roommates, two Canadian ladies in their fifties who made us a delicious supper. And then there were the weird times, like when drinks with a fellow hostel guest from Cyprus turned into awkwardly avoiding a marriage proposal from a guy who was looking  to get married like, today, tomorrow at the latest.

If this little trip down memory lane doesn’t entice Tina to visit me in Ireland,… I’ll think of something.