Come away, human child, to the waters and the wild…
—W. B. Yeats, “The Stolen Child”
It’s been seven years since I was last in Galway and it’s good to be home.
I’ve come into town on the express bus from Dublin, following a week in Belfast, and for a moment I stand inside the new bus station, grinning smugly, the way you do when you’re standing in a place you know better and love better than nearly everyone around you. We drove through some rain to get here and the wind is picking up, pushing thick gray clouds through, but the blue sky between those clouds makes me think that rain isn’t imminent. The first time I came to Galway, fifteen years ago, it was a January morning of such cold and rain and wind that magnified my jet-lagged misery. While I’ve seen this city in different seasons, I have come to believe that I like Galway better in the winter, in the rain and the wind, that there’s a way that we imprint on places when we first meet them. To be here in July seems not quite right.
Since my last visit, the global economy collapsed and the Celtic Tiger died, leaving an Ireland a little unsure of itself, and I want to know what this looks like in the town that forms as much of me as my bones, a connection born when that bus from the Shannon airport pulled up against a dinosaur of a building that shared its space with the trains.
Today, in the shiny new bus station, I discover you now have to pay to use the toilets.
I’m thirty-six years old now, and solo, as I’ve learned that I prefer to travel alone. I tow my carry-on suitcase the few blocks west to Eyre Square and find a place to sit in the southwest corner on one of the low concrete benches that slash the square like em-dashes, the gray so much lighter than the concrete of the sidewalks, my back to the busyness of the Corbett Court shopping center. If I entered the door directly across the street from me, I would find my favorite honeycomb ice cream, but I’ll save that for another time. Under this tree, I’m sheltered from whatever rain might come if I’m wrong about reading the weather, far enough back to comfortably people-watch, but not in a place to be bothered by anyone. The Galway Races are on, so there’s a queue of Bus Eireann coaches just behind me, flatulent with exhaust, waiting to ferry people to the racetrack and back, the diesel bass rumbling to accompany a young man with his guitar across the square playing a mash-up of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” The route to the bus station has been cleaned up and boasts new coffee shops. There were no coffee shops in this area when I arrived here as a student. As a tea drinker, I never really noticed the lack. Ireland is a good place to favor tea, but the Celtic Tiger brought a fondness for coffee.
I’m sitting here for several reasons. First, I cannot check in to my hotel for another hour. I’ve been on a bus for three hours and I still feel like I’m moving. I want the rolling from side to side to stop before I attempt narrow stairs. But there’s a practical reason for sitting here as well: a friend and I explored the Giant’s Causeway a few days ago, easy walking the paved road down to the famous hexagonal columns of basalt, forty thousands of them linked to form the foundation of Finn MacCool’s most famous legend, but less delightful as we hiked a narrow trail up those spectacular cliffs, with tiny steps carved into the cliff face. At the top, we caught our breath and contemplated the sign we found as we cleared the rise: farmers used to climb those stairs with a sheep on their shoulders. We watched the clouds snap together like magnets and the squall drenched us immediately, nothing to be done except to laugh and realize that we were at the halfway point of the hike with no shelter until we got back to the visitor’s center. What I wouldn’t realize until later was that the ensuing combination of sand and water between the soles of my feet and my hiking sandals resulted in blisters that skinned the whole ball of my foot. My feet have held up okay today—padded with gauze and Band-Aids—but I cannot imagine an unnecessary step.
Later tonight I will meet up with my college flatmate, Ana-Louise, who’s now a doctor, and we will eat pizza at outdoor tables at Fat Freddy’s on Quay Street and watch the people in town for the Races. Ana-Louise is three years younger than I am, taller by an inch or two, at least five-nine, with wild brown hair and blue eyes, and she was one of my three Irish flatmates when I studied at the National University of Ireland—Galway. She’s thrives on the energy of people as much as I’m drained by them, the kind of person who is electric with intensity, the kind of person who seems incapable of being still, even for a moment. Me, I’m the one who finds the darkest corner of the pub to read her book. I’m not sure two people could be more opposite—and maybe I should be surprised that we still get along. Over our pizza, we have three conversations going on at once, without tangling a single thread of any of them.
It does not surprise me that Ana-Louise would love Race Week, even as I know that if I lived here, I’d leave town for the duration. I’m not used to those gray, medieval streets of Galway so packed with people—and I’m not used to people so formally dressed turning those narrow streets into a solid mass of humanity. Men in three-piece suits with hats, women in fancy, bright, short dresses, stiletto heels high enough that walking on cobblestones seems like a bad idea, with hats and fascinators so elaborate that I’d worry about getting an eye put out. But there’s a romance to it that I find enviable, what it means to dress to the nines and go to the races.
Ana-Louise and I go for a drink at Neachtain’s after dinner, somehow find a table, and we sit back to people-watch over my pint of Bulmers cider and hers of beer. The people-watching, it was good, especially in the company of a friend I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. The people, their outfits, antics, and state of inebriation—you can’t make that stuff up and you can’t retell it. It’s one of those things that cannot exist outside its moment.
The next morning, I stand on the Long Walk in the kind of weather the Irish might call a fine, soft day. The world is full of dim and fog; the rising sun has pressing business elsewhere. The brightness of the houses behind me form what I know of colors, the pink and the green and the blue and the yellow townhouses, one sharing a wall with another, putting me in mind of vertebrae, the curvature of spine as it follows the quays of stone on the east side of the Corrib River. The tide is out, the stairs built into the quays like piano keys, and the hooker moored to the Claddagh quays across the river has tipped on its hull in the shallow water. I don’t think it’s a bád mór, the largest size of boats native to this shoreline, but I can’t be sure. The wind is that gorgeous Galway wind that keeps everything breathing, that non-sound of air in motion.
Most of the adjectives associated with happiness are energetic—but whatever I’m feeling on this morning in the city of Galway is closer to a feeling of absolute rightness. Maybe I should have done more walking of the streets before I met up with Ana-Louise, but I have no regrets in my choice. The streets weren’t going anywhere and I needed a nap: this is the travel of real life. There’s something marvelous about burrowing into a city, like you are under the cocoon of a duvet, and letting it surround you when you are at your most vulnerable.
The truth is that I am as in love with this city on the west coast of Ireland as I was when I first arrived. John Banville writes that “to take possession of a city of which you are not a native, you must first of all fall in love there.” I did not fall in love with anyone on any of my visits to the city: it was the city that I came to love. To love a city like this is to straddle a divide. Like photographic film, positives become negatives, negatives become positives. Black becomes white, white becomes black. You cannot take a city you love for granted. Everything you thought you knew becomes strange and everything you didn’t know knits to form your bones. The city, especially a city like Galway, is a fractal, the detail increasing painfully the closer you get to it, but the closer you get, the more you see.
They say stories fall into two tropes: a stranger comes to town or a person goes on a quest. Which story you have to tell depends on your perspective, if you are firmly placed or not, whether you are the one in the state of movement. Paul Theroux once described the travel narrative as “the loner bouncing back bigger than life to tell the story of his experiment with space. It is the simplest sort of narrative, and explanation which is its own excuse for the gathering up and going.” The story of my relationship with this city is this kind of simple narrative: a stranger comes to town as a naive college student studying abroad for a semester and finds a chemistry between herself and this place that she’s never been able to explain. She will question what it means to travel, what it means to be home, but the answers remain elusive.
In 2000, at the Shannon airport as the immigrations man looked over my shiny new passport and letter of acceptance to the National University of Ireland, Galway, he asked me how Irish I was. He was entirely too cheerful for that time of the morning and his energy made me suspicious. Was there a right or wrong answer to this question? Did I have to claim ancestry to enter the country? It was eight o’clock, local time, and my body and brain were six hours behind. I tried to unclog what travel had done to my synapses, because processing simple questions was beyond me.
“My great-grandmother was Irish,” I said, nauseous with adrenaline-fueled jet lag, half-sure it was true.
His smile lit up his broad face, brightened his eyes. “Welcome home!” he said.
Home? Not likely. I trudged to the baggage carousel, feeling a fraud. I don’t have enough Irish blood to matter and culturally, I consider myself to be Swedish and German. I sighed, heavily, dramatically, in the way that only the truly, bone-deep, soul-deep exhausted can. How could any place besides Minnesota be home?
The truth is that I did not go to Ireland to find myself. I did not go to lose myself. Ireland was neither an escape nor a homecoming. I did not go to Ireland to escape a broken heart or a broken life. I did not go to Ireland to find my ancestors, a link missing in a family narrative. It was, quite simply, an extension of real life. Perhaps because my first exposure to the country—and to the city of Galway itself—was a six month study abroad, Ireland was never unreal for me. Life doesn’t get any more real than milk and bread and sleep.
The trouble with traveling to escape is that what you left is always there when you return. The realism of Ireland would always linger, even as I later read travel tales of lives and loves gone wrong. What I left behind in my home in the North Woods of northern Minnesota was worth returning to, a land of light and dark, the taste of winter snow and summer humidity, lakes and trees and eagles and loons, northern lights and sun dogs in a world that needs snow and cold for its primal identity. Minnesota is a place of intensity and deliberate intention, and as a result, who I knew myself to be could not be separated from who I was as a Minnesotan. Even as young as I was when I went to Ireland that first time, that one thing I knew for sure.
And so how do you say that curiosity is enough of a reason to do something, that what precipitates an action as large as travel doesn’t have to be emotionally catastrophic? Desire needs to be an acceptable answer, so that I want to go to Galway is enough of a reason for getting up and going. And I want to go to Galway by myself is equally marvelous. If there’s a narrative arc to my experience of Galway, it’s closer to Calvino’s Invisible Cities than any other story. When Marco Polo describes Venice, I see Galway. In Zaira: “I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past.”
Or Tamara: “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.”
Or Zora: “Zora has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of streets, of houses along the streets, and of doors and windows in the houses, though nothing in them possesses a special beauty or rarity. Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced.”
Perhaps it is too obvious to consider that a life does not consist of the number of steps in its path, but the relationship between its stories and is spaces—and I’m not good at sharing my space and I never have been. Making a life means actively searching for the confluence of self and space and creating it for yourself if need be. For myself, this means a solo life and I need places that respect that need. Part of this is introvertism, part of it is just personal preference and the knowledge that my brain has always been wired solo. But the world is not kind, generally, to the single woman—at the very least, the world does not understand women who don’t want marriage and children. The solo life was much more socially acceptable in my twenties, when I could say “I might find Mr. Right, but he’ll have to live next door” and people would laugh; in my thirties, the negotiation of self and space means being the odd number at a table, the only one without a partner at social gatherings, and finally being beyond questions about my dating life. Perhaps the awkwardness I often feel in these situations is simply my own perception, but public spaces are generally configured for two. Even mental spaces are strangely rigid in this way: grammar is not adequately suited to fully explain these kinds of relationships. Single is a cultural failing, alone is unnatural, strange, suspicious. About the time my middle sister married, I made the conscious decision to shift thinking of myself as single to thinking of myself as solo. The difference matters. Single means looking for a double. Solo is stable in its space. I am stable in my space.
Paul Theroux writes that “Travel is at best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered. Other people can mislead you, they crowd your meandering impressions with their own; if they are companionable they obstruct your view, and if they are boring, they corrupt the silence with non-sequiturs, shattering your concentration with Oh, look, it’s raining and You see a lot of trees here.” My life is solo and my travel equally so. I can go for days without talking to anyone, beyond please and thanks very much. When I travel, I eat by myself at restaurants and generally try to avoid people. I’m not one who hangs out at the pub, sits at the bar, and makes small talk with the bartender. It’s not in my nature.
I am a solo woman who travels, lured by the experiment with space that is the city of Galway, but the truth is that my presence here does not cause a noticeable ripple. I may as well be invisible here, my self becoming part of the existing story that is this place. The city is not a blank frame on which to hang my personal experience—it is the city that matters. Galway is the excuse for the gathering up and the going and the city embodies both the movement of travel and the movement of everyday life. I am the observer, not the subject.
This exercise of self and space requires significant time to process; it cannot happen easily or quickly, nor should it. There is a difference between traveling and traveling alone. I travel (alone) because I want to. There are things I want to do and things I want to see before I die—they’re not going to come to me. I have to go to them. I travel (alone) because I can. Women are more independent now than they have been at any other point in history and I am cognizant that represents a certain measure of class, gender, and racial privilege. Women are marrying later (if at all), we’re taking up opportunities in college, we’re having children later (if at all), we’re having careers that make our own money. I travel (alone) because it destroys my comfort zone, a place I dearly love. Traveling (and traveling alone) helps us find out what we’re really made of, what my limitations are, what I find acceptable and what I find unacceptable. I travel (alone) because it’s an escape from societal expectations. I’m supposed to want a communal life and people don’t understand why I don’t. I’m not running away from love, nor am I running to find it. I like my life just the way it is. And finally, I travel (alone) because that’s what’s going to make me happy. Staying at home and never leaving would defeat the purpose of having a home. I don’t want to be somewhere by default, just because I never left, and if I waited for somebody to go with me, I’d never go—and that would defeat the entire purpose of leaving home in the first place. Don’t you get lonely? people ask. No, I don’t. Don’t you ever feel afraid? Not yet, I haven’t. They might eventually understand what compels this solo travel, but they’ll never understand what is compelling about traveling alone.
The act of movement, on your own, is undiluted freedom. The freedom not to have to compromise in this one area of your life, because the rest of life is all about compromise. The freedom to get up when you like, go to bed when you choose, eat the food you choose, change your mind and scrap the rest of your itinerary and return to the place you left two days before because you’re still thinking about it. To do everything because you want to—and because you can. This is what it means to really live your life, you think, rather than just slide through it.
Sometimes, sitting alone at Fat Freddy’s on Shop Street in Galway eating the best thin crust pizza you know or watching the sun go down on Galway Bay, there’s a moment, a silky moment that slides against your skin, through your fingers, against your mind and then it slips away. This is what it feels like when you actually live your life exactly the way you want without explanation or condemnation.
This is it.
This is it.