contiki trip review

50 Shades of Goodbye (Last Day in Ireland)

If Day 7 was weird to wake up to, Day 8 was worse. Since Natalee and I didn’t fly out until 12:30, we were able to take our time getting ready. That morning, I woke up with my focus primarily on making sure everything was in place for our trip home. I collected my things, double, triple, quadruple checking I had my passport, and I wrapped my souvenirs tightly in the hope that none of them would break on the way home.

While I was packing my suitcase, I came to find that the only way I was going to get it to shut was if I reorganized the entire thing. When I left, everything had fit perfectly, neatly. I’d organized it down to the inch. But as I looked at it now, it was kind of a disaster. So, I sat down in the middle of the floor, removed everything one by one and put them in piles around me. And even though I grew frustrated at first, trying and failing and then trying again to making everything fit, I started to realize that I simply had to approach it differently than I had at home. Because like me, my suitcase was different than it was when I started. With each city it had collected little things, memories, pictures, souvenirs, and they changed its shape, changed how it fit together. And so as I again began to make sense of everything, I began to appreciate these differences and I was thankful for them, because I knew that when I got back home and unpacked everything, I’d still have those new pieces I’d collected here and they would stay with me. Further down the road, when the trip becomes more of a distant memory, I know I’ll come across these pieces, in perhaps the most unexpected of ways and I’ll remember how they changed me, how they helped me grow and I’ll be able to look back at them and smile.

Once I fit the last few things inside my suitcase and zipped it shut, Natalee and I did one last look around our room.

“Is that everything?” I asked, and she nodded, opening up the door for us to roll our suitcases out the door and down the hall.

When we got downstairs, we handed the attendant our room keys and asked him to call us a taxi to the airport. Once the taxi arrived, we quickly walked outside, loaded our bags and got in, the initial action of which seemed like it had only just happened, as if this taxi driver should be that same man who talked football with us only a short time ago.

As he drove, I looked around at all the cars driving past. Some were taxis, perhaps shuttling tourists like us, some were families going somewhere on a Wednesday morning, and some were singles or couples, talking or laughing or sitting silently. In all the driving I’d done for work, I’d seen all these combinations before, and now here I was on the opposite end of the world seeing their mirror image. It made me realize how many worlds there are in our world. How many lives are all happening at the very same time, most of which we’ll never know about. But as the taxi driver continued down the highway to the airport, I realized how many lives I’d gotten to be a part of over the last week. Both those in our group, and those of people I’d met in restaurants and gift shops and pubs. We’d all shared something, even if it was brief. And I think that’s one of the greatest things about traveling. For no matter where you go, you’re going to find worlds upon worlds spinning and lives upon lives being lived, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get to be part of them, if only for a moment.

The LegenDerry Ronan (Ireland Day #5)

With the extra sleep from the night before, a good number of us walked onto the coach the next morning looking a little more rejuvenated than usual. This however did little to help us stay awake for the 3-½ hour drive we had before our first stop. If I were to guess, I’d say about 10 minutes passed before 90% of the bus was asleep. What can we say, Rob is a good driver, the Scottish Stallion knows how to rock us to sleep.

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As we approached our first stop, Donegal, we heard “Wake Me Up” by Avicci start coming through the speakers, Tim’s signature “wake up” song, and a collective yawn and stretch began to take place across the coach.

We were told we’d have about an hour to walk around, so Natalee and I immediately headed for the castle, because even though they seemed to be as common as middle fingers on a California freeway, we couldn’t help but gawk. Afterwards we walked down the main street for a bit, oohing, aweing and scouring the restaurants before ultimately settling on O’Donnells, where we both had ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bFrench friesddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417b with our meals.

From Donegal we drove to Derry/Londonderry, the name of which consistently confused me when Tim mentioned it at the beginning of the week. But upon arriving we met Ronan, a Chinese, Irish, Buddhist (the only one we’ll ever meet, ever, he said) who gave us a walking tour around the city, sharing its history (and an explanation of its name) in eloquent detail.

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Essentially Ireland is divided into two parts: The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and Derry/Londonderry is part of Northern Ireland. Within that city, there is a divide between the citizens on whether it should be part of the Republic (these citizens refer to it as Derry) and those who believe it should be part of Northern Ireland, thus part of the UK (these citizens call it Londonderry). This is obviously just the very shell of the story, the center of it relating to religion and civil rights. But unlike most historical cities whose conflicts you’d expect to see far in the past, Derry/Londonerry’s struggles, while they do have deep seeded roots, were very present in the 60’s and 70’s, and the repercussions are still easily seen today. Ronan himself discussed what it was like to grow up in the thick of it all and how prideful he is to see how far his city has come.

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As we came to the end of our walking tour, Ronan gathered us around him and gave a final speech on how thankful he was for tourists like us, because our presence gave him such hope for the future. For lasting peace. He then preceded to tell us a story about one evening when he was sitting in the living room watching TV with his 8 year old son. It was late, much later than his son would normally be allowed to stay up, but that night was special as his son’s idol, Rory McIlroy, was golfing in the Masters. At a commercial break, Ronan recalled his son looking up at him and saying, “I want to be Rory McIlroy,” to which he responded, “I want you to be Rory McIlroy, you’re my pension.” His son was confused by this, but Ronan told him not to worry and smiled as his son turned back to the TV. That night when he got in bed, Ronan said he pulled out his journal and wrote words that he would never forget, for they were as honest as anything he’d ever written.

I’m so glad our children and grandchildren can have dreams.

To him, seeing his son able to aspire to be someone like Rory McIlroy and to dream of doing great things, this suggested a true presence of peace, and with that he was given hope.

If you’re tearing up, please try to imagine what it was like looking into this man’s eyes as he told this story. Then try shaking this man’s hand and realizing that yes, he is a real person who also happens to be an angel. All I’m saying is, THAT GUY 100% kissed the Blarney Stone.

Aran (Islands) Aran So Far Away (Ireland Day #4)

I had been nervous about Day 4 since the start solely because a boat was involved. Having a very weak stomach, I’m not one that thrives on the open water, so as I got ready that morning, I took care in breathing in and drugging up (a.k.a the opposite of what D.A.R.E taught me). I popped Dramamine like nobody’s business, and when we got to the dock I rolled up my sleeves, prepared to throw elbows to get ensure I got a window seat.

As it turned out, my thorough preparation would prove key, as there were uncommonly high winds at the time of boarding, causing the 45 minute ferry ride to be somewhat of a nightmare for a number of passengers. And even though I felt no signs of seasickness, I can honestly tell you that I hated every minute of that damn ride. When we docked I had to resist the urge to kiss the ground, and I wondered if I should try to find a house to buy on the island so that I’d never have to ferry back.

That morning on the coach, as we made the hour drive to the dock, Tim told us our options for exploring the Aran Islands were walking, biking, or a horse drawn carriage, you know, casual stuff. And while the prospect of Seabiscuit trotting us around was enticing, Natalee and I opted for bikes, as we were feeling slightly more confident in our abilities after Kilkenny.

Now, note how I said, “were feeling.” I don’t use this phrasing to express an opinion I had in a previous moment, but an opinion that is no longer physically present in my body, as about 10 minutes after we started biking, I remembered why I don’t ride bikes: IT’S HARD. The moment the road took on even the slightest hint of incline my quads practically started laughing. And by the time we reached the top of the first hill I was fuming mad, considering amputation and practically screaming at Natalee to “pull over” so I could “take a picture” (a.k.a breathe and reconsider everything I’d eaten in the last 4 months).

Here is one picture I took on said break, note how happy and adorable Natalee is (#ThighsOfSteel):

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After the initial hill, the remaining bike ride proved to be quite enjoyable, save for, you know, a few other hills which also made me want to die. But each one proved worth it as they continued to give us incredible views:

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Back on the ferry—which proved far better the second time—our group was one big beaming mess of exhaustion. We were all in agreement that we’d have a great day, and even more so that it was bedtime. Before we crashed out however, once our boat docked we drove straight into Galway for a buffet dinner at Crows. We shuffled in, sunburned and starving, and found a table of food which consisted of (ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bdrumrollddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417b) Irish stew with lamb and potatoes, chicken, potato salad, pasta salad, baked potatoes, and profiteroles (a.k.a heaven in a pastry).

After dinner Natalee and I, along with many others, opted for showers and an early bedtime rather than a night out. And while I appreciated it then for the opportunity to get some extra sleep, I can appreciate it even more now. For as I lay there, hair wet, and eyes heavy, I was able to look back at the day we’d just had; each moment taking ample time to settle in my memory.

When I think of it now, I can’t help but go back to one moment when we were biking down a flat patch of road. We were up pretty high in the hills, giving us a 360 view of grass, sky and ocean, when suddenly it started to rain. At first, we didn’t know what to do. We looked up at the stormy sky that had once been so blue and we groaned, wondering if we should quit and find shelter. But then, as the rain started to run down the lenses of our sunglasses and wet the skin on our cheeks, we both got the same feeling. Natalee looked at me with a smile on her face and I smiled back because it was clear that this rain felt different than the average drizzle, cleansing rather than bothersome. We were on bikes on an island in Ireland, free as ever, and the rainwater was washing us clean of all the problems we might have been holding onto when we boarded the ferry that morning. And so we kept going, our pedaling on beat with the rhythm of the rain, and I shook my hair out feeling unmistakably happily, undeniably alive.

A Mouthful of Blarney (Ireland Day #3)

On the morning of Day 3 I started to finally feel like I was caught up in terms of jet lag. I had slept immensely better than the first night and so as we boarded the coach, once again at a sharp 8:15, I was feeling ready for the day ahead.

As promised, after Tim boarded the bus he put on our day song, the act of which set off a wave of bobbing heads and tired smiles. Once it was finished, he stood up and detailed the day’s activities, the first of which was Blarney Castle.

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We would be given a solid few hours to spend on the castle grounds to look around and thus were encouraged to do and see as much as possible. Arguably the most important item on the checklist was to kiss the Blarney Stone.

Now the history of the stone is a bit of a mystery, thus leaving room for a few theories, including one that states the stone was that which Moses struck his staff on to part the Red Sea. Whether or not that is true, God only knows, but after that no one can say how or why the stone ended up at the castle. Regardless, the story goes that in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I asked that the Lord of Blarney, Cormac Teith McCarthy, be stripped of all his land. But as he made his way to see the Queen, he came across a woman who told him to kiss a specific stone, the result of doing so allowed him to convince the Queen to change her mind. So the hope is, that should you kiss the stone, you too will be given this gift of eloquence or the Gift of the Gab.

If you’ve never heard of the Blarney Stone, as I hadn’t, you might be reading this story thinking it sounds easy. You drive up, kiss a rock, and then suddenly your Morgan Freeman able to convince the world to give you anything you want if only you’ll read them a bedtime story. But it’s not so simple. Upon arriving at the castle, you are required to walk up multiple flights on a spiraling staircase until you reach the top level, which gives you awful views like this:

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You then walk along the outer edges of the top floor until you reach a seated Irish man who tells you to lie down on your back. Casual. Once on your back, he slides you towards the wall and asks you to grab onto two mounted black bars for stability. Then, when you are ready, he slides you even further in, the ground now slanted downward, and your head completely upside down and you pull yourself in, plant one on the smooth stone, and then let the Irish man pull you back up while you ponder what just happened.

Let it also be noted that there is no sexy way to do this:

 

After both me and my sister kissed the stone, we made our way back down the stairs and out into the castle’s gardens where we both agreed that we could live forever.

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We also found some time to tour the largest souvenir shop in Ireland where we picked up more than a few gifts for some friends and family, including a mini hurling stick for my brother. This purchase in particular sparked a conversation between me and the cashier, during which he explained why American football players are weak for wearing pads. On any other day I might have been defensive, as I love my football, but after remembering what I’d already learned about hurling—that it is a cross between field hockey and lacrosse, minus the padding and any sense of fear apparently—I couldn’t help but nod along, saying, “you’re right.”

From Blarney Castle, we headed to one of my most anticipated destinations: the Cliffs of Moher (pronounced More).

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Now, almost immediately after we got off the bus, the winds picked up. And when I say picked up, I mean PICKED UP. It also started to sprinkle. But you see, when the wind is blowing say 30-40 miles per hour, a drop of rain starts to closely resemble a missile, so there is no doubt in my mind we looked absolutely insane as we made our way along the scenic cliffs, laughing hysterically with our tightened hoods and seemingly drunken diagonal steps.

Thankfully, the rain never came down hard enough for me to put my camera away, allowing me to get some pretty good shots, especially when the clouds momentarily parted and we got some sun. As for the wind, it was the Drago to our selfie stick’s Apollo Creed. Every time we tried to be as tourist-tastic as possible, a gust would blow by, nearly taking my sister’s phone along with it. On the brightside, it made for some humorous pictures:

Once we’d successfully braved the elements, we headed to the information building to grab some lunch from the café (a panini, of course, with a side of chips. What kind of chips, you ask? Do I even need to say it? ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417b)

Back on the coach, we made our way to Galway where, after checking into our hotel, we had a brief walking tour around the city from Tim. One highlight was the city’s jewelry store, home to the traditional Irish Claddagh Ring, which is comprised of three main elements: the heart, which represents love, the crown, which represents loyalty, and the hands, which represent friendship. We also learned about the traditions associated with how to wear the ring (the point of the heart pointed up your index finger or into your hand) and on which hand (the right representing single or dating, and the left, engaged or married). Natalee and I each bought one, but unfortunately did not find an Irish man to move it to the left hand while we were there. #NextTime

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For dinner we went to a place called Monroe’s, which was relatively crowded with people who came to watch the futbol (soccer) game and then for the live music afterwards. After scanning the menu, I tried to go for a more traditional dish, opting for Irish stew with…ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bmashed potatoes!ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417b which was more or less a pile of hot Irish meat or, if I held it up in the air, a mirror for the surrounding crowd.

From there, we went to a bar called Clancy’s, where a live band played a variety of popular songs ranging anywhere from AC/DC to Imagine Dragons. Our group remained relatively buttoned together in a corner of the dance floor, drinking and laughing and singing our hearts out, cheersing the end of one day and inviting the adventures of another.

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Whiskey & Kilkenny (Ireland Day #2)

Our first sunrise in Ireland brought in a full day’s worth of activities, the details of which were spelled out in, you guessed it, the schedule, which became known to our group as “the day sheet.”3

At 8:15, we all made our way downstairs to the bus, or “the coach”, where we met our driver for the week, Rob, nicknamed “The Scottish Stallion” for his Scottish heritage and overall incredible demeanor. He greeted us with a friendly smile and a few, thickly accented words we could only pretend to understand that early, welcoming us onto what would become somewhat of a home to us for the next 7 days.

Once we were all loaded, Tim took a seat beside Rob and switched on the coach’s microphone to inform us of a few key points, the first of which was that we would start each morning with our “day song.” It would act as a hybrid between a wake up call and a pump up song, gearing us up for the day ahead. And since we were in Ireland, our day song was, appropriately, full of Irish pride, as well as written and performed by Irish band, The Script.

Each morning would start like this, Tim explained, the conclusion of the song acting somewhat as his introduction to stand up and personally welcome us to the day, go over the day sheet, and undoubtedly crack a few jokes.

First on the day’s agenda was Kilkenny where, should we choose, we could take a bike tour around the city. And even though I’m about as confident on a bike as a cat is on a skateboard, both me and my sister opted in, figuring when in Kilkenny.

In the end, I couldn’t have been more thrilled with our decision. Our bike tour guide—who, yes, I’ve also forgotten the name of, so why not call him Dave—was incredibly lovely. Not only was he passionate about his city and the history found in and around its streets, he also happened to be completely adorable in the reminds-me-of-my-grandpa kind of way and I couldn’t get enough of him. Not to mention, the city was absolutely gorgeous.

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After the bike ride, we had an hour or so before we had to be back on the coach, so me, Natalee, and Sophie, our new friend from Sydney, took a walk down the main street until we found a farmer’s market. From there we would all grab a panini, thus igniting an addiction, as every day after this Natalee and I sought out paninis for lunch no matter where we were. I don’t know what it was (the bread) but there was something about an Irish panini (the bread) that just stole our hearts on the first day, making nothing else sound as good for lunch. I wish I would have written down the name of the booth we grabbed them from so I could give them some much deserved promo. But alas, I had no pen and an empty stomach, making it nearly impossible to bank anything to memory except the taste of the bread, so we’ll just call them “Dave’s Panini’s.” Look them up if you’re ever in Kilkenny.

Once we were back on the coach, we headed to the excursion Natalee had arguably looked forward to the most before arriving: The Jameson Distillery. Being an avid whiskey drinker herself, especially Jameson, she was over the moon when she discovered the distillery tour was offered as part of the trip. In fact, if you ask her, she’d probably tell you it was what ultimately made her click “book.” So you can imagine as we walked through the double doors to find this she was pretty excited:

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Yes, that is a Chandelier made of Jameson bottles.

The tour, while I won’t and can’t go into detail on what it involved, solely because I think it would turn this into a research paper, was incredibly interesting, informative, and ultimately left me wondering: who the hell figured this out? But at the end, when they handed us our free drinks—a cocktail comprised of Jameson and ginger ale which I highly recommend!—I quickly put the question out of my mind. Because no matter how that whiskey got in my glass, I was happy to have it and cheersing errrbody, past and present, who helped get it there.

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From the distillery we made our way to our hotel in Cork, where we made a quick change into dinner clothes before hopping back on the coach for a ride in to town.

On the schedule for dinner that night: Clancy’s.

On the menu for dinner that night: vegetable soup, chicken, ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bmashed potatoesddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417b,  veggies, and for dessert, apple pie.

After dinner, we walked over to the Thomond Bar where I fell in love…with Orchard Thieves, a European cider, which instantly became my go-to drink for the remainder of the trip. I grabbed a pint and took a seat at a table with some new friends, who instantly became closer friends as we spent a solid 30 minutes exchanging pictures of our dogs. We chatted and “awwwed” and tried not to give in on how badly we missed our furry friends, then we made our way over to the bar where we listened to some more live music—probably from a guy named Dave—and eventually walked ourselves home, feeling buzzed and excited and more Irish by the minute.

 
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50 Shades of Green (Ireland Day #1)

It’s not every day you wake up knowing that you’re going to fly across country to the land of luck and leprechauns, but for my sister, Natalee, and I, Tuesday was that kind of day. With our bags packed with clothes and our stomachs packed with nervous excitement, we made our way through security at LAX and took a seat at our gate, anxiously awaiting the 12:45 boarding call, and even more, the 1:10 departure.

Our first flight was to Toronto and we weren’t sitting together. So after we scanned our boarding passes we each made our way to our individual seats, exchanging geeky smiles all the way. I was seated next to a couple who, like us, were in transit to Dublin. The man talked at length about his daughter and her husband and how he and his wife had got roped into taking a vacation with them, never once buying into the fact that they weren’t primarily invited to babysit their 4 grandchildren. He didn’t mind though, said he couldn’t complain, and how could he? It’s not every day you get invited to babysit in another country, especially for kids you already (at least on most days) love.

Before the plane took off, our row was approached by a flight attendant who informed us of a neighboring passenger with a peanut allergy, asking that we please refrain from eating any products that could “create danger.” I nodded along, assuming I’d have no issue with this restriction, not expecting the immense anxiety to come 4 hours later when I was starving, craving the granola bar I had in my bag, but too terrified to even reach for it, as I feared a crinkling of the paper would release a nutty plume and murder my neighboring passenger in his sleep.

When we boarded our second flight, THE flight, Natalee and I again weren’t sitting together, so we again bid each other adieu and bundled up in our chair shaped beds. Then, after six strangely cold and quiet hours, the captain came over the loud speaker requesting that we prep for landing. I rubbed my eyes, stretched, then opened my window shade and all at once was in complete awe. All I could see was green. Miles and miles of green. Which was appropriate, because as I would come to learn, the slogan for Irish tourism is, “50 Shades of Green.” (Those cheeky shamrocks.) I pressed my hand against the window, anxious to be among all of what I was seeing, and then I heard the voice of a boy about 7 or 8 years old who was sitting a few rows ahead of me. “There it is!” he said, “IRELAND!” And while it was adorable, it was also awakening. There it was: Ireland, and soon I’d actually be able to plant my feet in it.

After we made it through customs, Natalee and I walked outside to hail a taxi to our hotel. Our taxi driver, who’s name I’ve currently forgotten so we’ll call him Dave, was a jolly, jumpy, but kind man who merrily chatted with us for the entirety of the ride. He asked us questions of where we were from and told us stories of why he left Dublin to move to Vancouver, only to return to Dublin four years later. And after somehow getting on the topic of football, we learned that he was a passionate 49ers fan, which, upon hearing of our sworn allegiance to the New York Giants, set him off on a rant regarding the seemingly still open wound caused by San Francisco wide receiver, Kyle Williams, in the 2011 NFC Championship Game. When Dave dropped us off, he wished us well on our trip and our team luck in the upcoming season, then waved goodbye from a seemingly misplaced driver’s side of the car. Once he was gone, we turned around and looked up, reading the sign on our hotel: Travelodge Dublin Airport, still trying to convince ourselves that yes, we were actually in Ireland.

At 4:30—actually, let’s go full European on you—at 16:30, we made our way down to the lobby (floor “0” on the elevator panel, strange to anyone else?) where we found 48 friendly faces who looked equally as excited/nervous/exhausted as us. We also met our Contiki tour guide, Tim, who kicked off the meeting with six of the most magical words possible: “I have a schedule for you,” followed by the second best set of words he could have ever given an anxious, jet lagged control freak like me: “And I’ll make one for you each day.” Essentially my first impression was: Tim for President.

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After the meeting we all departed for our rooms as, according to the schedule (drool emoji) we had an included dinner at the hotel set for 18:30. (a.k.a 6:30 for all those of you who just rolled your eyes, I’m just trying to fit in you guys…) At dinner, we were able to get acquainted with a few of our new traveling companions. Among those sitting at our table, we had 4 Californians (including us), 2 Australians, and 2 New Yorkers. (As the week went on, we would find that our group as a whole represented around 6 countries!)

Oh, and on the subject of dinner, allow me to introduce a segment I’m going to call: POTATO WATCH a.k.a the noted tendency for the Irish to include potatoes at every meal. So, for night one, on the plate delivered to me I received: garlic chicken, vegetables and mashed potatoes ddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417bpotato sirenddecf0ced88cca47ff9a9f32330c417b (think the slime alert on old school Nickelodeon.)

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After dinner, the group made its way to the Old Storehouse, our first official Irish pub. My sister and I, in our best attempt to fit in, both ordered a pint of Guinness, and while I’ll never claim it as my favorite, I also wouldn’t classify it as something I’d never drink. Somehow I think I get nostalgic for it in the future, relating its taste to that night in the pub. I’ll think of the faces of all my new friends, how awkward we all were that first night, but how easily our relationships seemed to grow, even in those first few hours after dinner. For as we all sipped our drinks and listened to the Irish music being played, the trip suddenly became real.

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