“Chicken for One”
Eleven summers ago, I got a job that paid a liveable wage.
Ten summers ago, I got over a broken heart.
And nine summers ago, I got confident.
That summer, I was back in love–with a new feller, someone intriguing and exciting yet damnably inscrutable and taciturn–ready to embark on the extended dance re-mix tour of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
Unequivocally, I heart Ireland, so hopping a plane across the pond for six weeks was a pleasure. Moreover, when I hit 31, my crow’s feet and I had a talk (Crow’s Feet: “Caw, Caw. You’se a crinkled hag. Caw!” Me: “Listen, Ass-hat, I can easily put duct tape over you and claim it’s some new mid-face fashion trend, so tread lightly”). Ultimately, after some squabbles and a few lost rounds with a bottle of Oil of Olay, Crow’s Feet and I decided to start a skin-maintenance program…and where better to do that than in the misty, pore-drenching climes of Guinnessland? Plus, I had a good friend who was hankering to see the place, who was willing to pay, as well, for a mutual Polish friend to accompany us; too, I had a cousin who was keen to join the fray. The four of us women agreed to do the deed, spending various stretches of time together–on again, off again, depending on the locale and personal desires.
Whereas my trip to the UK the previous summer had been tinged with melancholy and the need for some self-esteem recovery, this holiday was, simply, purely, about joy. I felt strong, healthy and as though my life held at least seventeen kinds of possibility. Let the wind tousle my hair! I shouted. (…metaphorically, of course. Who would I have literally shouted that at? A flight attendant? Would he then have stopped the beverage cart long enough to run a manicured hand through my tresses? As if. Those attendants are way too self-absorbed to do me such a favor. It just wouldn’t happen, so I must be metaphoricalizing. Catch up with me here, Mortimer.)
But lookie: the wind did blow my hair, even though I never actually said it out loud. The Wind Goddess, Mariah, must have read my wishes. Mariah also hosts an infomercial on late-night tv, in which she hawks her tarot-reading powers. Having financial trouble? Call her 1-800 line.
A rough cross-section of that vacation reveals
…a whiff of King Arthur (not the scent of decay you’d expect)
…hospitality from strangers whose walls dripped with history (but not, to my dismay, lager)
…and a terrific snog
Overall, there was much beauty on that journey: the sights, sharing a beloved place with friends, seeing a best girlfriend get married on the Isle of Man. And there was much that was stressful on that trip (suffice it to say, not all personalities mesh well, and it became necessary for some of us to part ways and recover a bit in separate corners before reuniting).
Due to the clashes, however, I stumbled into something I mightn’t have chosen deliberately: traveling alone. Much is made of “women who travel alone”–I’ve seen whole tomes on the subject–but, in this case, gender wasn’t the issue at all. Mostly, my solo week was remarkable because it was comprised of the minute acts of courage that any traveler has to muster when not buffered by the words, presence, and security of a partner or group. These acts aren’t visible to any outside onlooker, not palpable to anyone save the lone individual. But what I learned that week is that once the protective layers of companions are shed, the lone traveler experiences a kind of vulnerability–and welcome exposure–that is a privilege.
Thus, even though I spent six weeks seeing and eating and moving from place to place that summer, the lasting impression I have of that time is actually of one rare week, when I hopped a bus all by my Big Brave Self, bidding my cousin adieu for that piece of time, and stayed by myself at a B & B in Killybegs, Co. Donegal.
Almost immediately, I discovered that being alone meant I was more approachable. When I’d been with friends, no native would approach me or strike up a conversation, but by myself, I was making friends in the line at the cash-point machine, having lingering cups of tea with my B & B hostess, chatting with farmers driving their tractors down the road. As well, I became very conscious of how much time I spent in my room (could have laid on the bed all day, finishing A Prayer for Owen Meanie, even as I cursed its saccharine hero), making sure I had a destination each day that would counter my natural inclination towards the horizontal. Perhaps most gratifying about that week were my forays into hitching; since Donegal is sparsely populated and bus service is irregular, sticking out the old thumb was the prime way to get around. Of course, I’d seen Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher some years before, so every time I emerged from a stranger’s car, all my limbs intact, breath still in my lungs, the air struck me as redolent with four-leaf clovers, and my steps were positive boing-a-sproings of relief.
Heady with the sense of adventure, I explored the county, hiking the glorious Slieve League, buying hand-knit sweaters, popping in to witness a religious Blessing of the Fleet ceremony in a warehouse at the dock, fending off the advances of a gormless but lusty fisherman.
Occasionally, my stomach growled, a noise that intimated I might, at some point, need to eat.
And you know? That was ultimately the hardest part of the entire deal. I dodged the issue a few times by purchasing my lunch from a grocery, but eventually, as is my wont, I craved hot, cooked food. So I paced outside a family-friendly pub for some minutes before entering. Once inside, I eyed the bar and then eyed the tables. It was too dark to pull out my book for occupation. I would have to sit, alone, and eat, alone, staring at nothing, talking to no one.
I ordered the chicken. It came with potatoes.
Then, the next day, as I strolled past a different pub, music wafted out–excellent fiddle music. On a whim, I dodged in and worked obviously and diligently on my travel journal (first day I’d kept one!) until I was certain my presence wouldn’t raise a hue and cry. Emerging several hours later, I felt as though I’d found my new home. Each night thereafter, I visited this pub, pulling on my pints as I listened to the most-lovely music played by the proprietor and his mates, easing into conversation with my fellow fortunates.
Within the space of seven days, I had A Local, knew some familiar faces around the village, and had gawped during an evening of dancing at my B & B hosts’ favorite club (Just me and a hundred 55-year-olds, circling the floor in a waltz, the native ladies in their pumps, me in my London Underground hiking boots). Being alone had given me an entree no passport ever could.
This congenial time of personal expansion ended rather too abruptly, in truth, when my cousin decided to rejoin me in the next leg of my plans: to stay a week in Connemara in a small town called Cleggan. Resolutely, we aimed towards fun, even achieving some (despite an afternoon on the back of an Irish pony).
In Cleggan, and then in Northern Ireland at the farm of distant relations, and then on the Isle of Man, we had moments of great togetherness as we whizzed down the “wrong” side of the road in our rental, taking refuge in that small car when a herd of hungry cows surrounded us, licking their, em, cuds (and chewing their chops); we descended into hilarity rolling around the Giant’s Causeway and mock-attacking at various ring forts; we simultaneously missed heartbeats when we realized we’d visited the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland three days before an IRA bomb in the main square created the higest body count of any during The Troubles. We found a common vibe, and I easily fell back into the comfort of companionship.
As it turns out, learning to forge ahead while feeling nervous and uncertain and alone was a tremendous gift. Nearly the moment I landed back in The States, before I’d even laundered my unmentionables, I was informed abruptly and ignominiously that the new feller was quite over me–had been for some time but was too passive to make the cut earlier (You know, before my trip, during which I then could have rustled up a little comfort in the pub or on a beach. The fecknob).
In the ensuing weeks, as I lay sleepless and agitated and profoundly heartsore, lonelier than I’d known I could be,
at least I had Donegal.