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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Destination: Ireland. A Home Exchange

A home exchange? What a great idea! Right?

Well, that depends on who you talk to. It's not for everyone, I suppose.
Most of my friends said they could never do it, could never trust strangers in their own home.
My response was simply that everything that I value is coming with me. And I wasn’t referring to what was in my suitcase.

The preparations were intense. On top of the regular packing and planning for our trip, there was the additional burden of preparing the house for the other family. I wrote a four-page summary of information complete with instructions on the proper operation of the dishwasher, TV, washing machine, computer, navigation system, coffee maker, etc. Plus, recycling instructions, baby sitter telephone and emergency numbers. Of course the house had to be in tip-top shape, with fresh bedding and towels, as well as waste and laundry baskets emptied.

By the time we left, I was exhausted.

We swapped cars too. Why not? A rental would have cost nearly a thousand for the duration.

So, we left the keys in an envelope addressed to our guests at the information desk at the airport. We checked in, passed through security and then waited in the boarding area for the passengers from Ireland to embark from the plane that we would subsequently board and then retrace their route.

The waiting area was glass all around and adjacent to the receiving area for arrivals. The aircraft was parked on the tarmac about 50 meters away so the passengers had to descend the stairs and walk towards the terminal. So we watched intently at everyone disembarking, to catch a glimpse of the strangers that would spend the next eleven days driving our car, lounging on our couch and sleeping in our beds.

And then we saw them. A family with several small children. I looked for the mother. I had spoken with her on the phone and passed dozens of emails, but actually hadn't seen any photos of her. What if she were, um, well, unkempt, repulsive even? How could I let someone like that in my very own safe haven?
But she wasn't! She looked, well, like me! An Irish me! OK, but with dark hair and totally different, though very much the same. Ahhhh. Sigh of relief.

And then, even as the disembarking passengers were still lined up outside the terminal, trying to get in, they started boarding us for the flight! We were allowed to go out onto the tarmac, adjacent to the passengers from the other flight, and there they were right next to us!

So exciting! We approached each other and I gave her a big hug and then, to my surprise, I was immediately approached by security who told me that I now had to return to check in and go through security again since I "made contact" with someone not on my flight.

Oh no.

Oh no, oh no, oh no. I was in a semi state of shock. The lines in and out of the airport were outrageous. I'd miss the plane.

Then, the security guard relented, apparently he was bluffing, trying to prove something, and told me to say goodbye to my acquaintance and board the aircraft. I did, in a hurry.

The flight was uneventful and on arriving in Dublin we took an airport shuttle to the hotel where the other family had left their car for us. We picked up the keys at the front desk and found the car quite easily. We were very happy to find that there was enough space inside for us and our luggage. The navigation system was relatively easy to use and, according to the instructions left by the family, I programmed HOME to get us to their house.

The weather was rainy and cold. We drove and drove until the kids were starving and we needed a break. We pulled off the highway and found a restaurant. I had pictured a charming pub for our first night there, but it didn't happen. A plain old family-style place. We brought the map in with us and tried to figure out where we were. Why were we on the M6 instead of the M7? Sure it would take us to Shannon, but it didn't look at all like the shortest route. We kept driving according to the navigation system's instructions, although it kept losing the route since it was a "new" highway (though it looked to us to be at least several years in place). Finally we were in Galway and we were being routed through side streets. Ok, something is wrong here. I grabbed the navigation system and looked through the preprogrammed settings. Why are there two entries for “home”? One written in capitals and the other small. And why is one in Galway and the other in Shannon??? Oh, no, can it be? Didn’t the exchange mother grow up in Galway…and probably still considers it “HOME”. Great. So, I reprogrammed the system to the other “home”, which pointed us straight to Shannon, and the nav system added another hour to our already long day. So, now we were headed in the right direction, but albeit through a storm that greeted us with snow, hail and freezing rain. Also, it was now dark. And the roads were narrow, poorly lit, and completely deteriorated where they met the earth on the outside lane. Did I mention that they were narrow? Let’s now define narrow in terms of an Irish road. Picture this: barely wide enough for two cars to pass, no break-down lanes, sidewalks or leeway of any kind on either side; simply hedge-rows or steep hills on one side with vehicles including large trucks racing against us on the other. Don’t forget, we’re driving on the left to top it all off.

We finally found the house, with the help of the written instructions, and were relieved to find it modern and beautiful. We went straight to the kitchen and poured a couple of Irish Whiskey's. Ahhh.....

But why is it so cold in here?

Oh, because the heating system had been turned off since the weather had been mild the past couple of weeks, although today the temperatures were below freezing and expected to stay that way. So, where’s the thermostat? Really, where is it? Time to call home…at least time to call the Irish folks who were housing in our home. After several calls and an encyclopaedia worth of directions, we finally got the heating system going.

Ok, time for some perspective. Ireland is not at par with the technology of the Unites States or Germany (what we are used to). The heating system, though new, was primitive. Hot water was not always available. You had to turn the boiler on a half hour before you wanted to shower, or do dishes, or whatever and then move quickly before it shuts off again.

I had to buy a pair of slippers (red ones were all I could find) to wear around the house for a week, but we raided the host family’s closets for hats and gloves.
Yes, Ireland is very idyllic and perhaps the nasty weather made it even more so. There’s nothing like warming up with a Guinness in a pub with a toasty warm fire and live music, but with four young kids you can only spend so much time at the bar.

We toured um-teen castles, fought the winds in Cork and compared Irish coffees. And I blew a kiss to the Blarney Stone.
Blew a kiss? Yes.
What you may not know about the Blarney Stone, and what I did not know until I saw it, was that it is at the top of a dilapidated ancient castle. Just to get up to it you have to climb a winding stone staircase, that was in horrendous condition, and from which there were several huge sections of wall missing, no railings, and a misstep could cost you your life. But for the luck of the Blarney Stone it would be worth the risk, right?
So, finally I’m on the roof. And there was a short line which led up to a man seated on the edge of the wall helping people who were then lying down on their backs, bending way down backwards and kissing an unseen stone.
This can’t be true.
Oh, but it was.
I got up there thinking that I would just get it over quickly. I sat down and was about to lean backwards, when I made that fatal mistake. I looked down.
I panicked. And I got up and ran away. Really ran.

Let me try to describe this…once you sit down, the man “helps” you by guiding you gently backwards and underneath the outer wall so that you can kiss the Blarney Stone. But to get to it, you really have to lean out and lower yourself down about two feet in order to reach it. Oh, and did I mention that there was nothing to hold on to? Just this strange man who said, “Trust me.”…and now the clincher, you are leaning back over a void that drops about 50 feet! Ok, there were a couple of rusted old bars down below, that may or may not catch you if you fall, but WTH?!? Not me, not today, not any day. I was shaking in panic for the rest of the day.

The Irish Whiskey flowed in abundance that night.

I was ready to go home.

Which leads me to the adventure of the return trip. It’s not over yet.

Well, everything was just fine, at first. We went through security without a problem and were waiting at the gate to board. We were (thankfully) in the front of the line for boarding, and one of the flight attendants waved me through, along with the kids so that we were out of the way while the other attendant checked our tickets and passports. Then, the attendant saw my US passport and asked why it wasn’t stamped. We looked at him completely dumbfounded. I mean, there was no customs checking us in; we had our boarding passes and simply went to the gate. I have an unrestricted permit to live and work in Germany. Well, the man said that they can not let me on the plane without a stamp in my passport! Not again. Anyway, the guy said that I had to go get it stamped. I told Frank to get on the plane and save some seats with the kids. And I asked the man if they would hold the plane for me and he said „no“ and that’d I’d better run! So, I grabbed my passport and started running back through the airport, and I had my huge carry-on bag on my shoulder, which was further weighed down from the liter of water I had just purchased. I had no idea where I was going, and you know how far the gate is from the main check-in? I would estimate at least ¾ kilometer. I asked a few people there in uniforms where to go and they had no clue. So finally I went to the security (metal detector) check point, and I think then I was nearly hysterical and I said „Please help!“ and the lovely Irish folk there were so kind and took care of me! A security guard was summoned over and brought me back through to check-in and to the customs agent and pushed in front of the line and got me stamped, and then I was still thinking that I had to go back through security and „What about my water bottle? And do I have to take off my boots again? I’ll never make it!“ But the security guard escorted me through, signals buzzing and everything, and he told the other security agents that I was with him, and then to me he said, „Now you have to stay with me for 5 years.“ I said sorry but I’m already married. He smiled and sent me on my way. I was running as fast as I could (thank goodness I am a runner, otherwise there would have been zero chance) and when I got back to the gate, the place was empty and they were just shutting the gates! But thankfully they called the airplane and escorted me down. The kids of course were crying and little Amelia asked me why my face was so red. I was sweating from head to toe and shaking.

And several hours later, we were home. Our home.

Red slippers or not. There's no place like home; there's no place like home.


  1. I think this was a wonderfully told story of a sometimes funny, sometimes worrisome week in Ireland. I loved it!

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