I could easily have stayed in Athlone and made it to the airport early enough for my morning flight out. There was going to be some Saturday night city-wide celebration of the all-Ireland Drama Festival, I think. But no. Approaching Dublin on the ring road, I passed a billboard admonishing me that I should “Visit Belfast! Only 90 minutes away!” I could have spent my last night in Ireland drinking and singing in Van Morrison’s hometown, and still made my weary way south in time for the flight. No.
It’s always difficult to leave a place you love, and there’s always the question of how to best accomplish the separation. If you’re humming Paul Simon right now, let me remind you that, in spite of his assertions that there must be 50 ways to leave (your lover), he only lists five, and none of them have the hallmark of a respectful relationship.
Which is important, because Ireland has been good to me – she always has been. And though she won’t particularly notice my departure, how I leave will affect me. Being here has affected me – I’m a different person when I’m here. I’m a somewhat different person no matter where I am, but the change feels somehow more profound when I’m wandering the windy moors of the Sheeps Head, or searching for just the right word while gazing out across Bantry Bay. Or settled into my favorite corner at Eileen’s, obligatory half-drained Guinness in hand while I listen to her check in on the regulars around the bar. Stopping being that person, and becoming one of my many other selves, is always a little painful. Sometimes more than a little.
One way to go about it is to rip off the bandage – to plunge in as deep as you can, coming up ragged and exhausted (and maybe still a little drunk) as you stumble into the airport for departure. Go full throttle and embrace Neil Young’s “Better to burn out than fade away” strategy until you hit the wall and wake up on the other side of it. But to be frank, it’s 43 years since Rust Never Sleeps and Neil is still singing that song, on a much-reduced concert schedule.
I’ve tried that way, and it’s worked at times. But this time, it felt wrong. No, this time I needed a more gentle parting, a gradual separation. I left the winding little roads behind on my way east. Improbably, I’d gotten to love them, too, and the odometer tells me that I put – if you can believe it – over 2600 km on them in my little rental car over this past month. Instead, I drove the four-lane motorway into Dublin. Fueled up at a Texaco, a far cry from the little station out in Lisdoonvarna, where Lauren won’t fill your tank until you’ve given her a few minutes of your time to tell her how you’re doing, and what you’ve been up to since she last saw you.
Checked into a faceless low-end business hotel in the shadow of the airport, letting my “Ireland” self dissolve a little more in the chaotic lobby, chipped away by bored clerks and half a dozen languages coming and going. The lobby, the room, the building, could have been a Holiday Inn anywhere on the planet.
I took a last walk outside after I’d repacked everything for my flight. Other than the unnatural summer light – it was past nine, and though the sun had dropped behind clouds on the western horizon, the sky was still a bright blue – my sense of place was already coming unstuck. The shopping center across the street bore big box signs for PetSmart and Toy Superstores. I walked along the narrow green verge between strips of asphalt and concrete, down to the corner where the “Hogs and Heifers” sports bar beckoned for dinner and a final pint. Eurovision blared from screens on every wall, and the servers were all undefinably between 21 and 25, neatly groomed, and clad in identical polos and khakis. The party next to me was on their second or third round of Coors (I kid you not. Coors).
By the time my server slung the plate of “Saint Louis ribs and slaw” I’d ordered down on the counter, I’d already forgotten I was in Ireland.