My friends and family think I’m strange. “Why don’t you buy a house? Buy a car? For God’s sake, don’t you want some . . . stuff?” they ask.
The only stuff I want, I tell them, is a box full of photographs and a mind full of memories. This is why I leave so often. I go somewhere, instead of buying things for my sparsely decorated apartment. They think I’m nuts, but they do thrill at the stories I bring back from other parts of the world. Yet they are rarely interested in the stories of trips gone perfectly well. Instead, like most people, they find excitement in the terrible things that have happened to me. Conflict is always more interesting.
I’ve been robbed six times, clunked across the head with a bike helmet once, had my camera crushed under the feet of a trampling mob, and had to arrest a fall down a mountain with only inches to spare between the last branch and the cliff edge. They love my story of the robbery on a beach in Lima, as absurd as it sounds: my Peruvian thief was so pleasant, crouched on his knees in front of me, explaining patiently why it was in my best interest “To geev up your ‘Nuevo Sols.’ We don’t ask much, amee-go,” all the while looking over his shoulder at a gang of young men staring in our direction. It was such a pleasant exchange that I think I even thanked him when he walked away, irked only because he had forgotten to write me a receipt.
These tales are interesting mainly because I survived to tell them, but as sometimes happens, terrible events have a way of turning into the best arguments for humanity. I witnessed one such event in Ireland in the early 90s.
Fresh from college graduation, I set out on a six-month backpacking trip across Europe. Things began well as I tramped through England, Scotland, and Wales. The only source of irritation was the constant rain that seemed to follow me like a homeless mutt. But if I had the pleasure of walking through emerald fields, I had to pay the price for their creation.
After a couple of weeks, I took the ferry from Holyhead ,Wales, to Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin, Ireland. From there I planned to make my way northwest around the coast and through Northern Ireland, until I reached the Aran Islands on the west side of the Republic. After a few rain- and Guinness-soaked days in the capital city, I started my journey north to Belfast by rail.
As sometimes happened in that part of the world at that time, a bomb had been planted on the train. Fortunately for me, it went off in a different car than where I was sitting. Equally as fortunate for the people on that car, the bomb was something of a dud. No one was killed, but the poor woman sitting in the chair closest to where the bomb had been placed lost large portions of her legs from the blast.
The train was just arriving at the Drogheda station as the bomb went off. For obvious reasons, we would go no further that day. All passengers were instructed to disembark; the train had to be inspected thoroughly before anyone could be let back on. As news of the abandoned train spread through Drogheda, a medium-sized town less than an hour from Dublin, the townspeople began to make their way to the station.
I sat on a bench, unsure what my next move would be. It was then that a stout man, looked to be about fifty years old, with a massive full-moon face and ruddy complexion, approached me.
“Where you headed, son?” he asked.
“I was going to Belfast.”
Recognizing my accent, his face lit up. “American, are you?”
“Yes, sir.” In my experiences, such questions often come laced with antagonism, and I know better than to advertise my nationality when I’m abroad. I’ve even taken to sewing little Canadian maple leafs to my pack in particularly dicey parts of the world. But clearly there was no antagonism in this man’s voice; in fact he seemed, upon first glance, to be utterly incapable of bad feelings.
“Smashing! My daughter is in America now,” he told me. “She’s in college in Washington, D.C.”
“That’s where I live,” I exclaimed, completely abandoning my unwritten travel rule never to admit, not only that was I an American, but that I lived in America’s seat of power. My travels have confirmed for me more than once that some people are unable to separate a simple resident of the capital from one who works there setting policy that many people around the world find offensive.
It turned out I didn’t know his daughter, but even without that connection, I became something akin to this man’s son in mere seconds.
“Dennis Broderick,” he said, extending a thick and calloused hand. “Come with me, son.” Soon I was loading my pack into the trunk of his car and I was being whisked through the streets of Drogheda.
I’ve had Irish friends, familiar with Drogheda, who disparage the town, but to an American who lives on the East Coast, where Irish pubs abound, I found the place entirely charming. Of course, Dennis had lots to do with that charm, but I was not yet completely at ease: hopping into strangers’ cars is simply not something one does in the United States, even if circumstances deem it safe.
Dennis and his wife ran a B&B in the middle of town. Before I even had a chance to protest, I was whisked upstairs to a beautiful, clean room, the likes of which I wouldn’t see again until I was home months later. In the few minutes it took me to throw down my pack and marvel at my surroundings, a lovely plate of food had been prepared for me: toast smothered in baked beans, slices of fresh tomatoes, and triangles of hard-boiled egg. I scarfed down the food, each of my many expressions of gratitude waved off as superfluous.
“Tell us all about Washington,” they asked. “Our Bridget doesn’t tell us much. She sent pictures of her school, but that was it. She says she’s not coming home.”
I told them all about the museums and the old neighborhoods (at least by American standards), all the while feeling genuinely surprised by how much I truly loved my hometown the more I talked of it. The Brodericks listened attentively. Then Mrs. Broderick asked me if Washington was dangerous. Not thinking about her motives for asking, I told her the truth, which was that, although it was by and large a safe place, there were certain neighborhoods where you did not want to go at certain times. Only two hundred homicides per year was considered a good statistic. With that, Mrs. Broderick excused herself to the kitchen. Dennis immediately got up.
“Come on,” he said, and we were back in his car, speeding around little streets until we got to Newgrange, a Neolithic burial tomb not far from Drogheda. Over my protests, Dennis paid my entrance fee. From there, he took me to a few local abbeys that had stood for centuries. When the afternoon was over, we went to a pub near his home, where I tried desperately to keep up with him and his intake of Guinness.
It had been an altogether wonderful day, but I began to worry a bit that night as I overheard Dennis on the phone with a potential customer.
“We’re full,” I heard him say. “Please do try us again though. We’re only one room, and it’s taken tonight.” This made me nervous. The Brodericks had extended extraordinary hospitality to me, but I couldn’t assume my stay would be for free. In fact, I didn’t want to assume. Although I was on a very tight budget, living on less than twenty dollars a day, I simply couldn’t conceive of giving them nothing.
As it turned out, it wasn’t even an issue. The next morning, not only did they flatly refuse to take any payment whatsoever–despite my stay having cost them a night’s lodging–they acted as if my insistence was an insult. But they did ask me for one thing.
When I got back home, I was to try and find their daughter Bridget (I knew exactly the apartment building where she lived), and I was to deliver a message: “Your parents want you back.”
I made a promise to contact the girl, and after finally convincing Dennis that I absolutely would not allow him to personally drive me to Belfast, I said my goodbyes and jumped the train that had been cleared to once again head north.
By trip’s end, I had visited fifteen different countries, many of them filled with glorious sunshine, mountains, and beaches. But of course, the Brodericks had made sure that they all fell short of Ireland: that water-logged, often dismal island buffeted by sea and fog.
When I got home to Washington, I told my friends and family about many things I’d seen and done during my six months in Europe, but they were most intrigued by the bombing on the train and naturally, by the prospect of Bridget, who I did eventually meet. I told Bridget that I wrote to her parents, and that I planned to continue writing. I also gave her the message from them, adding her mother’s half-joking lament: “She’s our only daughter.”
“Sounds like they gained a son, though,” Bridget said.
True enough, that sabotaged train, and all of its potential for horror, was a blessing in disguise for me. Bridget’s parents had gained a son, of sorts, and I made a pair of dear friends, thanks entirely to Irish hospitality.