Daffodils and Irish Freckle Bread

About halfway through March I was fortunate enough to discover that I had an unexpected three day weekend at end of the month. My first thought, the same as any study abroad student: let’s go somewhere! My second thought: let’s go to Ireland! Call me unadventurous for wanting to go “home” for a weekend (something impossible at Cornell) over somewhere new, but I was ecstatic at the possibility of visiting my granddad and uncle in Dublin (and my wallet was ecstatic about not having to pay for a hostel and food). I checked the flights and it just so happened that Ryanair’s seasonal direct flight between Santander and Dublin started the Sunday of that same weekend. So I would have to fly out of Bilbao and have a layover somewhere on the way there, but at least on the way back it would be directly to Santander. Not quite perfect, but close enough.

I should start by saying that it was 100% worth it, BUT getting there turned out to be wayyyyy more stressful than it should have been. I must admit it was partially my fault but also very much not my fault. I was flying out that Thursday at 6:20PM, my class ended at 2:00, and Bilbao is only an hour and a half bus ride away, so I had plenty of time, right? Well I got to the bus station in Santander around 2:45 planning on taking the 3:05 bus which would supposedly arrive in Bilbao at 4:30, leaving me plenty of time to then take the local bus to the airport.

I don’t think any bus I had taken from the Santander station had ever been late before (and I’ve taken quite a few) but this one didn’t even get there until 3:20, at which point I was already concerned about getting there on time. However, as soon as it pulled up, I realized that I didn’t have a ticket. You can get them online beforehand, at the station, and for some busses you just pay the driver when you get on. I’d taken a bus to Bilbao many times before and always bought the ticket online, but for whatever reason the system was being really finnicky and wouldn’t process the payment. I figured no problem, I’d just get the ticket at the station. For whatever reason I was thinking that for this route you get your ticket on the bus, but when it pulled up and everyone pulled out their paper tickets I ran upstairs (the station has three floors, the ticket desk and bus terminal being as far apart as possible of course) and asked for a ticket for the 3:05 bus. The lady, who seemingly was not having a good day at all, didn’t even look at me and said that wasn’t possible because the bus had already left. I explained that the bus was late and had just gotten there but she said that regardless, it was past the time of departure so she couldn’t sell me a ticket. After a moment of major déjà vu​ (back to standing at the gate in Miami airport last summer, entirely out of breath after running probably the equivalent of a mile from my connecting gate, and being told I couldn’t board the plane to Bolivia that the rest of my team was already on) with a knot in my throat and the tears coming fast, I slid the €7 across the counter and she printed me a ticket for the next bus at 3:45. From checking the bus times beforehand I knew that this bus would make more stops and therefore take longer than the other would’ve, not arriving in Bilbao until 5:30.

So yes, it was my fault for not having a ticket, but if the bus had arrived on time (at 2:55 like it was supposed to so it could leave at 3:05) I would’ve been able to still run upstairs and buy a ticket. And even if I’d already had a ticket, the bus left so late that I probably still would’ve been really pressed for time in getting to the airport.

Thankfully the next bus left exactly on time and on the way there I was able to check in for my flight online and call a taxi to be waiting for me when I got there (as it would be much faster than taking the local bus). Somehow we arrived ten minutes early so, while kicking myself for not having asked for the taxi to be early instead of right on time (I hadn’t wanted to make the driver wait around) I looked around for a taxi stop. I figured there must be one close to the bus station but I couldn’t find one anywhere and there weren’t any station workers around to ask. As soon as the clock turned 5:31 I called the taxi company and they simply told me that the taxi was occupied, which completely defeats the purpose of calling ahead (and that made it sound like they only had one taxi even though it was a whole company), so then I was just fed up with all forms of public transportation. While still wandering around trying to find a taxi, one pulled up right next to me at a stoplight and happened to be empty. I asked if he could take me to the airport and thankfully he said yes and helped me put my bag in the trunk before the light turned green.

He was very friendly and tried to make conversation but at that point it was 5:45 and I was so nervous that I could hardly form sentences in Spanish. He said I would’ve found one faster if I had gone to where all the taxis were, but he was speaking almost too fast to understand and I was too annoyed in general to bother asking where on earth that had been. When we got there I handed him cash, told him to keep the change, and ran inside. I was scurrying between the two screens on opposite sides of the check-in area trying to find out which gate the plane was at but it wasn’t displayed on either of them. I checked the time, 6:10, and ran to the information desk to ask, trying to sound as calm and sane as possible. The man looked at me, smiled, and calmly told me that the flight has been delayed but will probably be at gate 3. To say I was relieved was an understatement.

I went through security and actually had a bit of time to sit and try to relax. The plane was set to leave at 6:45 but didn’t end up taking off until about 7 so I was still a bit nervous about making my connection. The layover was in Barcelona, meant to be an hour and 45 minutes, now shortened to only an hour, and I wasn’t sure if I’d have to go through security again because I was switching from a domestic to international flight. If that wasn’t enough, Ryanair also requires that silly visa stamp on the boarding pass of non-EU passport holders that you can only get at the check-in counter, so I had no idea how I was going to get that. And after hearing stories of people missing weddings, funerals, etc. simply because they didn’t have the stamp, I wouldn’t have put it past them to not let me on.

Thankfully the connection could not have been easier. The two gates were in the same terminal, really close to each other, and I stalked some Ryanair employees from afar until they weren’t busy and asked if they could sign my boarding pass in lieu of the stamp. Also getting their boarding passes signed were two girls about my age with American accents so I introduced myself. In the 45 minutes they made us stand in line before boarding the plane I learned that they were studying for the semester in Barcelona and going to Ireland for the weekend, where they were from, what they were studying, and we even bonded over the fact that we missed the huge snowstorm in the northeast a few days prior.

By the time we landed it was pretty late (11:30) and after the relatively stressful few hours of thinking that I was going to get stuck in Bilbao or Barcelona, I was ready to sleep, so I didn’t even think to try to find the two girls to say goodbye when I got off the plane. I walked down the long walkway to the main terminal but the flow of people stopped and piled up in the hallway right outside the immigration control room. After a few minutes they let a few more people in and I realized why: the room was packed. I have no idea how many flights arrived at the same time as mine but it must have been at least 3 or 4 because I’ve never seen so many people waiting in line to have their passport checked. Normally traveling on a non-EU passport is an advantage because the line is generally shorter, but in this case there were only two non-EU windows open so even though the line was shorter, it moved much much slower.

I got to a window just after 1AM and after asking me the normal question of “what’s the purpose of your visit,” “how long are you staying,” etc. the guy asks to see my boarding pass for my flight back to Spain. Ummmmmm my flight isn’t until Sunday, why would I have the boarding pass right now?? So he asks me to show him a confirmation email or something to prove it. There was no wifi and I didn’t have any data so I wasn’t even sure if I could search through my email (thankfully it was already loaded though), and  for some reason the only email coming up was for my flight there, not the one home. I told him I couldn’t find it but that I could tell him the time, date, airline, everything. He wasn’t impressed. I stood there for at least 5 minutes silently raging at Spain for not letting me get my Irish passport through the embassy in Madrid and frantically scrolling through my email until finally I found it. He let me go but I was honestly pretty annoyed because no one has ever asked me to show physical proof of a return flight when I’m only staying for a few days (and I’ve gone through many passport controls in my life) and he didn’t seem to care that there were a million people waiting behind me in line, including a couple with 5 very young and tired children, at an ungodly hour of the morning after having traveled for probably much longer than I had.

Anyway, I finally made it to my uncle, who had been apparently trying to get a hold of me to ask if everything was all right, at about 1:15 AM, or 2:15 Spanish time. We drove to my granddad’s house where we stayed up for at least another hour chatting and drinking the obligatory Irish tea. So what should’ve taken 7 hours of traveling took 12, but I was just happy to be there. I still can’t even believe how lucky (more like blessed) I was that my first flight was delayed enough so that I didn’t miss it but not enough that I missed my connection, and I am entirely sure that it was quite literally by the grace of God that it all worked out so perfectly.

The following day was my only chance to go into town for a bit so, even after sleeping for not nearly enough hours, I set out for the bus stop. I wasn’t sure how much it was so I asked the only other person waiting, a grandmotherly woman, if she knew. She said she wasn’t sure but gave me an estimate and, due to my clearly-not-Irish accent, asked where I was from. I explained the whole Florida-New-York-Spain-Ireland thing (I’ve had lots of practice at this point) and she said she might know my granddad since he’s lived in the same neighborhood for so long, but she didn’t recognize the surname Green. When we got on the bus she waited with me to make sure I had the correct amount of change and even offered to pay my fare in the case that I didn’t. We chatted all the way until we arrived at her stop and she made sure I knew which stop to get off at before she left. It was only afterwards that I realized that I didn’t even know her name.

When I got into town, thanks to the lady’s very helpful instructions, I stopped in the tourist information office and grabbed a city map since I didn’t think it was worth turning on my phone’s roaming just to have a map for a few hours. I figured between that and the countless times I’ve navigated through Dublin with my mom and siblings during the summers we spent there that I would be fine. I wanted to first visit Trinity College, my mom’s alma mater, so I set off down O’ Connell street. I wanted to double check that I was going in the right direction so while I was crossing the bridge I stepped to the side, pulled out my map, and literally less than three seconds later a very well-dressed businessman stopped and asked me in the most charmingly Irish of accents if I was trying to find somewhere in particular. I told him I just wanted to make sure I was going towards the college and after very happily telling me that I was indeed headed in the right direction and giving further detailed directions to the entrance, he wished me a lovely day and a lovely stay in Ireland. As he trotted away I merely stood there slightly taken aback, in the best of ways.

I had recently heard of the stereotype that Irish people are very kind and friendly, but before then I had really only ever interacted with people who were either related to me, the kids on the block in my granddad’s neighborhood I used to play with, and parish priests; none of whom I’d expect to be unfriendly anyway. But lo and behold, twice within an hour a random stranger was incredibly welcoming and kindhearted towards me.

As I approached the entrance to Trinity, I saw a table covered in Daffodils alongside it (as it was National Daffodil Day for cancer awareness) and in front of the table was a blonde ponytail, boots, and a purse, all looking very familiar. Against all odds it turned out to be the two girls I had met on my flight the previous night! We explored Trinity together for a while, lamented over the insanely long line through immigration at the Dublin airport, and exchanged numbers before they had to head somewhere else for a tour.

Then I made my way through campus to the science museum (which is entirely free, fyi) where they currently have an artificial intelligence exhibition. They had a robot that drew and colored its own pictures, an interactive pet robot, and a machine where if you turned the crank continuously it spit out a penny ever 4 seconds or so to demonstrate the equivalent of their minimum wage. My absolute favorite part, however, was the piano robot. You have to keep in mind that there’s no music school at the University of Cantabria, it’s not socially acceptable in Spain for just anyone to play the pianos in the churches, and I don’t have a piano in my flat of course, therefore I hadn’t even touched a piano since the previous May. So when I walked in the room and saw a piano in the corner I flipped out just a little bit. I racked my brain trying to remember any songs and the only one that came to mind just so happened to be one from an Irish musical (it’s called Once and it’s on Netflix, definitely watch it). The robot’s purpose was to analyze what you were playing and try to play a few notes back that fit with what you’re playing. It didn’t sound very good, but I was so rusty after not playing for so long that I was thankful that all the mistakes I was making blended in with the robot. I probably would’ve stayed and played much longer but figured I should let someone else try. When I got up from the piano, one of the student employees told me he didn’t want me to stop playing.

I did some thorough wandering and exploring around Dublin city center (centre, if I’m culturally correct) and on my way back to the bus stop I went in search of a key part of every summer spent in Dublin: a hole-in-the-wall donut place. And I mean that quite literally because it’s nothing more than a little window where you can buy the most delicious donuts I’ve ever had for €0.80 each, and I had to ask my mom where to find it because I had never bothered to find out its name. They’re nothing at all like Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme. They’re homemade, really fluffy and warm, and come in three flavors: sugar, cinnamon sugar, and chocolate. This is one of the few places I will ever choose another flavor over chocolate, and I love watching them toss the donuts in the little tray of sugar. They were even better than I had remembered.

I then realized that I actually didn’t know where to catch a bus home because it definitely wasn’t the place as where it had dropped me off. Again, from the random bits of memories I could gather from nearly a decade ago, I somehow found the block where we always used to wait for the bus after a day in town, and I even bought some daffodils on the way. This time I sat on the top floor (they’re all double decker, another thing I love about Dublin) and at the very front. While walking home from the bus stop the sun was just setting over the horizon and with all the yellow daffodils glowing it was just magnificent. Unfortunately it was also on this short walk that I somehow suddenly realized that I was coming down with a really bad cold. I was annoyed that it might put a damper on my visit but also slightly relieved because I would much rather get sick at home than at school.

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My granddad had a few options we could make for dinner, but like any real Irish meal they all contained meat. I suddenly realized that it was a Friday during Lent so I asked if there was anything we could make that wasn’t meat, but we soon found out that the only vegetarian option in the house was something in a can that had been sitting in the cupboard for many years (we actually found things that had been there since I was in high school). I told him it was perfectly fine if we had meat since there wasn’t really another option, but, even though he himself is not Catholic, he insisted that no it was not fine and we would find something. He had a flyer for pizza on the countertop that he had received that morning in the mail, so we called them up. I’m honestly not sure if my granddad had ever ordered pizza before, so I made the call, relieved that it wouldn’t have to be in Spanish (Spanish over the phone is way harder than Spanish face-to-face). Of course, with my luck, the guy on the other end spoke so fast and with such a heavy Irish accent that I had to ask him to repeat everything he said a second time anyway, but in the end we got our surprisingly cheap thin crust veggie pizza. I felt kind of bad for putting my granddad through so much trouble just because I forgot to tell him beforehand that I wasn’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays, but he was really happy with the pizza and between the two of us managed to eat nearly all of it.

I had promised my parents that we would skype them when they got home from work, so 10PM our time, but I only made it until 8:30 before I went upstairs and collapsed on my bed. I think getting sick was a delayed reaction of the combination of traveling, being around a lot of people, stressing out, and not sleeping much over the past 48 hours. The next morning I woke up around 7:30AM with a full-on chest, head, and everything else cold. And even though that sounds really early, considering that slept for 11 hours (which is highly unusual for me anyway) it really wasn’t. Since I had gone to bed so early I hadn’t gotten as much homework done as I had hoped, so somehow I mustered up the will power and worked, still in bed wrapped in all my blankets, until 9:30 or 10.

It wasn’t until I heard my granddad’s neighbor Mrs. Sheehy come through the front door, like she does every morning, to bring the paper and chat for a bit that I summoned all my energy, shed all my blankets except for one, and shuffled downstairs. When I slid into the kitchen the first thing they said was why didn’t I just put on the robe that was hanging on the back of my door? The thought honestly hadn’t even occurred to me because throughout college I’ve always avoided having extra unnecessary things because having to fly back and forth is such a pain and very limiting in what you can bring, so I’ve never had a robe. I’ve always just shuffled around wrapped in a fuzzy blanket. But I was already downstairs so I wasn’t going back up.

I made some tea and we all sat and chatted for a while about I don’t even remember what, and after Mrs. Sheehy said goodbye my granddad started telling me stories: of an aunt who worked in a leper colony for a few decades in Africa the better part of a century ago, how he found out he’s allergic to whiskey, and, since St. Patrick’s Day had been the previous Friday, I asked him what the holiday was like in Ireland. He said that everything closed, including the bars, everyone had the day off of work and school, there were several big parades in town, and many people had get-togethers with friends and family. It’s also first and foremost the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint so I’d imagine that a lot of Catholics attend a special mass that day. So to me it sounds like the equivalent of our 4th of July, but minus the barbecues. Also, fun fact, they actually don’t eat corned beef and cabbage. That tradition was started by Irish immigrants when they arrived in America, so really it’s Irish-American rather than Irish. Although my mom had told me that she remembers her mother always making special orange and lime Jell-o with whipped cream as an Irish flag-colored treat. All that said, it honestly makes me sad that when celebrated in pretty much any country except Ireland (I saw it here in Spain too), people simply use it as an excuse to be drunk all day.

A few times a week my uncle takes his two dogs (well really his sister-in-law’s and niece’s dogs that he watches often) and my granddad for a walk in Howth Harbor. I like to joke that he walks the dogs and the granddad. (Side note: If you ever go to Dublin, go to Howth Harbor, it’s absolutely beautiful and you literally see the fish part of the fish ‘n chips you’re about to eat coming off the trawlers.) On the way there we stopped at the pharmacy to get sudafed and cough drops so I wouldn’t be a zombie and they worked almost immediately.

Thankfully I got super lucky and the weather the entire weekend was actually better than in Santander, which is crazy unusual, so the drugs and beautiful weather did me a lot of good. I got to walk Luca, the crazy one, and we meandered around the piers a bit. After learning about breakwater structures, ports, wave patterns, etc. in my coastal engineering class, I actually found it really interesting to walk see Howth from an engineering perspective. We also picked up the fish for dinner, Sea Bass I think it was, at a little family-owned fish shop that my granddad has been going to for as long as I can remember. I also noticed for the first time ever that there was a fish tank with a few goldfish (clearly not for the purpose of eating) and I found it amusing but at the same time slightly morbid.

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My granddad and uncle at Howth (taken a while ago though because I was having so much fun that I forgot to take photos this time)

 

On the way home I asked my uncle if all the daffodils in my granddad’s neighborhood had just been planted recently because I didn’t remember ever seeing them there before. “They’ve always been there,” he said. And in that moment I realized that every time I had ever visited was during the summer, so of course they were never in bloom and I just thought they were all patches of extraordinarily long grass.

Back at home my uncle made tea, put on the Rugby game, and pulled out the tea brack. What is tea brack, you ask? According to my two minutes of google research, it’s a type of “breakfast bread” (but I’d say more like a fruitcake) that has dried fruit that has been soaked in hot tea (normally Irish breakfast tea). It’s also nicknamed Irish freckle bread which is an AMAZING name. (I actually laughed out loud when I read it and immediately changed the name of this post because that is just the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.) Anyway, my uncle said he’d give me a “small bit” to try and he gave me a whopping slice that was probably about an inch thick. Luckily I ended up liking it! My granddad also pulled out some rich tea biscuits so along with everything else it was probably as Irish an afternoon as it could possibly get and it was absolutely lovely.

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After my uncle left with the dogs my granddad and I made fish, sweet potato fries chips, and a rhubarb compote with custard for dessert. We chatted a bit more and, thanks to the aforementioned drugs, I was able to do more homework and actually stay awake long enough to skype my parents. My granddad wasn’t too familiar with skyping, as he just makes calls on the telephone, and he thought it was a great invention to be able to hear and see the other person.

Sadly, Sunday had already arrived and my flight was at 1PM. Had I nearly (or even completely) missed this flight I wouldn’t have been upset in the slightest. I would have no problem being stuck in Dublin with my granddad for a few more days, but unfortunately, with having very easy access to the airport via a 15-minute ride in my uncle’s car and a direct flight to Santander, there was almost no chance of that happening. Darn.

I went for a walk around the block where I used to play with the neighbor’s kids, past the cluster of short trees that we used as our clubhouse, and through the empty field across from my granddad’s house where we used to play fetch with Bruno the Bassett Hound when he and his owner were out. It was a lot of Fado. At one end of the block there’s a cul-de-sac and I stumbled upon an intense hopscotch chalking. Seriously, this kid was training for the hopscotch olympics. It went all the way around the cul-de-sac and up to number 311. You go kid, you go.

I didn’t know until the previous day that this particular Sunday was Mother’s Day (I think only in Ireland though) so I asked my uncle if we could stop by St. Mary’s church to see Nana before going to the airport. It’s the church where my mom grew up, where my parents were married, and where my Nana is buried. I wanted to bring the Daffodils but my uncle said they don’t really like people leaving flowers there (I’m not sure why). We stopped by for a bit, ran into the church organist, and I attempted to make the overgrown and very illegible gravestone look a little less overgrown.

My uncle dropped me off at the airport and told me to try not to get everyone on the plane sick. Lo and behold I ended up in a row with only one other person who coincidentally was just getting over a cold. He appeared to be maybe in his early thirties and introduced himself as Iarlaith (pronounced EER-lah) and we ended up laughing for a good ten minutes over all the strange ways people have messed up our names in the past. It turned out that he actually used to teach English in Gijón, a town not far from Santander, and he was going back for a week to visit friends there. Then he asked me where I was from and what brought me to Dublin, and he got really confused when I answered (I don’t blame him haha). ¿Entonces tú hablas Español? he asked. So we launched into Spanish and it was really cool talking to someone who speaks with the same clearly-native-English-speaker accent and makes the same mistakes that I do.

When we were landing there was a bit of turbulence which is not unusual, but every ten seconds or so we could hear the engines increasing the jet propulsion for a few seconds, and then going back down to normal. As we descended, I realized that we were seconds away from landing and still over water, and then right before we landed I heard the engines turn up but they didn’t die down again like before. I’m pretty sure we were incredibly close to landing in the bay, but I figured worst case scenario I would still make it back alive, so I wasn’t terribly worried. Ahhh I’m going to miss the excitement of flying with Ryanair.

If you made it all the way through I commend you for your perseverance, because I’m pretty sure this is the longest post I’ve ever written. Now that I think about it, I think I wrote this more for me so that I can remember my too-brief time in Ireland this year, but I hope you found it at least somewhat interesting. Keep an eye out for my next post about Holy Week in Rome! I’m going a bit out of order because I’m so behind but everything will make it into the blog eventually so just bear with me. But if you’re impatient like my you check out all the photos at least on my facebook. Hasta luego!

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