> Well here I am again: back in the comforting embrace of cozy Toad Hall. I am just beginning my 13th visit to this beautiful Emerald Isle, and though I am, of course, very glad to be here, things did not get off to a good start.
. Air travel in 2016 is a trial by fire- death by a thousand cuts. It is ludicrous to me that I paid one thousand dollars to be tortured for 10 hours.
. I had every reason to suspect that I had found a great flight: it was $300 cheaper than last year’s ticket with a convenient three hour stopover in the middle, that would enable me to get off the plane and stretch my legs. Even better, it was via Air Canada- and since that country gets just about everything right, I had high hopes for the carrier….
. I will never fly Air Canada again.
. Boarding my first flight, I found the coach clean and comfortable. Then I made the mistake of sitting down. Uh-oh. I barely fit in the seat- and I have a good deal less girth than the normal American traveller. Being shorter than the average man, I found sufficient leg space… until I had to stash my computer under the seat in front of me. At that point, I was pretty damn uncomfortable- and the plane had not yet left the tarmac. NOT a good omen…
. Once we were airborne, the flight crew walked the aisles trying to rent us headphones for the tiny screens embedded in the seat in front of us. I could not recall ever being forced to pay for the privilege of using the entertainment system on any international flight I have ever taken in all my traveling life. But what was the point of shelling out $3.50 to watch a movie on a screen the size of a postage stamp, that was so close to my face my eyes could not focus on it? No problem, I thought. It was only a 5 hour flight to Toronto, and I could just whip out the book I FORGOT to pack in my luggage. Crap. The couple seated next to me were not overtly friendly, so conversation was out of the question. Oh well- perhaps there was something to read in the in-flight magazine. But when I pulled it out, I could not find a single page that interested me. Then I noticed, tucked in with the barf bag in the seatback pocket, a menu of the duty-free items on offer… along with the quasi-food items available to BUY. To buy? A thousand fucking dollars, and I gotta pay to eat? It seemed to me that when I (successfully) requested vegetarian meals, this indicated there WOULD be meals. Nope. They let me chose the option, confirmed it, then provided… nothing. If I wanted to dine on licorice, candy and crisps (potato chips) I was welcome to pay for the privilege. There was not a single healthy and affordable choice. Not one. As I had to leave for the San Francisco Airport from my Santa Cruz home early in the morning, it looked like I would not eat that day until 5:30- presuming I could find something to eat in the airport- never a good option as the choices are usually poor and the prices obscene in any airport where they have you over a barrel, and can extort almost any amount they chose when there are no alternatives.
. The flight was smooth- no turbulence over the Rockies, as there often is. Toronto, a clean, modern city looked quite lovely from the air on a beautiful, sunny Ontario day. The touchdown was a bit of a jolt, but it took us no time at all to taxi to the stand and disembark into the easy-to-navigate Toronto Airport. Very nice! Canadian customs took less than one minute to negotiate and I was turned loose in the main terminal. There, I found hundreds and hundreds of iPads embedded in the tables, free to use for everyone, paying customer or not. Civilized! The first thing I did was to go looking for some food. Hm. Not much to choose from. I went to each eatery twice to peruse the menus for something I could eat that would not place me deeply in debt to the bank. Then I made the wrong choice. There were long lines at most of the eateries, but the seats at the sushi bar were empty. No, this is not going where you fear it may be. Bad fish could be a serious nightmare! It was not off- just not very good. Oddly, the restaurant was called “Joy”, yet featured the single most joyless sushi chef I have ever encountered. I splurged and bought a Molson Canadian, because I used to enjoy them so, back when they were available to me at home. One disappointing roll and a beer set me back $19 American- well outside my budget for a single meal. I regretted the choice almost immediately. (Should have gone for the vegetable biryani at the Indian place.)
. It came time for me to go to my boarding gate, where I loitered enjoying my favorite pastime: peoplewatching. My goodness was everyone fat! Particularly the women. I could not help but notice gigantic, oversized buttocks after gigantic, oversized buttocks. I know that as they age, women tend to become pear-shaped and men apple-shaped. Without a doubt, there were a whole lot more pears than apples in this waiting room. Were these all Americans, or do Canadians have the same unchecked appetites? Worse- they all seemed to be wearing tight spandex material that accentuated this feature woefully. (Thanks Kim Kardashian! Great role model!) Watching the clock, I kept expecting to hear the boarding announcement at any moment. I did not. By the time we boarded, the flight was a half-hour behind schedule. Thirty minutes later, we were all aboard, buckled in and ready to go, now one hour behind our scheduled departure time.
. Unfortunately, they were not.
. We sat there for the longest time. Nothing seemed to be happening. After about twenty minutes, the pilot came on the intercom and explained that there was some problem closing the door of the aircraft- hardly an announcement that inspired confidence! A closed door seemed rather important. Fifteen minutes later, the captain came back on, saying the door was fixed and flight attendants should prepare for departure. Then… nothing. Another twenty minutes went by without any sign of flight preparations being made. Finally I got out of my seat and went to the galley to inquire. I was told four technicians were working on the door. The captain’s pronouncement had been optimistic at best, a total lie at worst. Ten minutes later: the captain’s voice again. “Just waiting for a crew to push us away from the gate.” The delay forced them to move on to other planes, and we would have to wait until they could return. Ten minutes later, the aircraft began to move- two hours and ten minutes late. A terrible start to a terrible journey.
. Once we were underway, I noticed something very, very strange: this 767 had NO entertainment system. Weird. No problem. Just take out your mobile phone or iPad, download the app and watch all the free movies and TV you want. The rather rude presumption: all passengers were wealthy enough to have smart phones or iPads. I, of course, had neither. Free entertainment for the well-to-do, jack shit for everyone else. No problem! Simply rent an iPad from them ($10 Canadian + $3.50 for the privilege of hearing the soundtrack on headphones) to get your “free” movies. Forget that. No problem! I could just read the book… I didn’t bring. Six hours is a long time do sit in a terribly uncomfortable chair and do… nothing. After about an hour, I was terribly antsy with five hours still to go. By hour three I was miserable. By hour four I felt like a prisoner of war being kept in a stress position to soften me up for interrogation.
. At about 2 AM Toronto time, they served us meals. Turns out they were not legally obligated to provide food on the first leg, because it was only a four hour flight. On a six hour trip they have no choice but to pony up. On several occasions in the past (notably, on Virgin Atlantic and United flights) when my specially ordered vegetarian meals arrived the passengers around me were jealous. “I want what he’s having!”, they would say. This time, the strategy was a dud. I simply cannot eat a very heavy meal in the wee hours of the morning. The entree smelled intriguing, looked like vomit. Hm. Steamed kale. Big yuck! I tried a bite anyway- and spent the rest of the flight trying to wash the awful taste out of my mouth. Green salad. WAY to heavy. Unripe melon: a culinary sin. (This was desert. Why on earth they think vegetarians don’t eat brownies or cake or whatever everybody else is having is beyond me.) A hard roll I could only eat with somebody else’s teeth, accompanied by unhealthy margarine- not butter. The only item I could enjoy: a small plastic bottle of water. So I had water for a meal. As we were coming in for a landing they served “breakfast”. Everybody else got banana bread, I got a big cardboard box containing plastic utensils, more unwanted margarine and a very tiny, heavy blueberry muffin hard enough to kill a bird with. Pitiful.
. I have never been able to sleep sitting up on a plane. While others dozed, I writhed in what felt like eternal torment. It was like being claustrophobic- and stuck in an elevator all day. The one good thing: I always jokingly request a seat next to a beautiful single woman. This time- they set me next to a beautiful single woman. And she was very friendly… for the first half hour. After that she either slept or watched vids on her iPad. We didn’t speak again until deboarding in the familiar Dublin Airport. With no sleep and little food, I was a basket case. The line at Irish immigration was longer than I had ever seen it. It stretched well beyond the assembly room and seemed to move very slowly. I was in the middle of the pack by the time I reached the front. A very pleasant-seeming Irish border guard called me over to check my documents, and proceeded to give me the toughest greeting I have ever received entering Ireland. She had tons and tons of questions- and did not appear pleased with any of my answers.
. Is your mother a legal resident of Ireland? Yes. Does she have an Irish passport? Yes… or rather no. I dunno. You’d have to ask her. What’s her name? Arline Liley. Why is your last name different than your mother’s? She remarried and took his name. Who is he? Paul Liley, but he’s gone now. She lives alone? Yes. Where? In Glengarriff. Glengarriff! How lovely. What is her address? Toad Hall, Glengarriff, County Cork. No numbers? No. Turning to her computer screen she typed and scanned and pecked at keys and screwed her face into a moue. L-I-L-E-Y? Yes. Hm. A-R-L-E-N-E? No A-R-L-i-N-E. Hm. So why doesn’t she appear in our database then? Pause. I have no idea. A technical glitch? No Mr. Keelan- your mother does not exist. I politely assured the lady that my mother did in fact exist- as a flesh and blood person. When did she move here? 1981 I think. Oh. That may have been before the database was compiled. How long are you staying? Two months. What is your return date? July 29th. Show me your return ticket please. I have no paper ticket. Just an e-ticket confirmation code. Show me the code. I have it written in my journal… No. I need to see the email. Fortunately, I did bring my computer with me, (What if I hadn’t?!) so I had to take it out, power it up, get into my email (no longer a simple task now that my Hotmail account has been replaced by the absolutely shitty Outlook Mail), find the message and boot it up, turning the screen so she could see and scrolling down to the departure details. Staring deeply into my passport she asked: So you’re 59 years old? Yes. 60 in October. And your mother is still alive? Yes. (I checked the impulse to say: I just told you that.) She’s 86 now, I believe. And she lives alone? (Again, I had to check the same impulse.) Yes. One of us might need to go live with her eventually. Looks like that family member might be me. Oh you can’t just move here without permission! I wanted to reassure her that I was in fact, not a simpleton, was well aware of this, and would of course, do it legally, but I bit my tongue while she went through the details of how I would accomplish this- at some unnecessary length. Then she noticed something amiss with my passport. When were you last here? Last summer. When? (Pause. I am not very good with time. As soon as the past becomes the past, I tend to lose track of timelines.) Um… July, I think? You think? I’m not good with time. This is my thirteenth visit. I tend to get dates confused. But it says here you came through Irish customs in July, and then again in August… No. I mean, that doesn’t seem right… No Mr. Keelan. You have two entrance stamps and no exit stamp. Where did you go in between? Nowhere. I stayed in Glengarriff the entire time. But that’s not possible, Mr. Keelan. I assured her that not only was it possible- it happened! Why is there no exit stamp then? (What could I say?) I HAVE NO IDEA.
. By now, all the people in the long line behind me had cleared customs and I was the only traveler left. No matter what I said- every word of it true, nothing seemed to satisfy her. Take off your hat, Mr. Keelan. I’m going to take a picture of you for our files, so they know you are a frequent visitor. Finally, some half-hour later, I was free to leave.
. By this time, I had undoubtedly missed my train west. With no cellphone coverage in Ireland, I had no way to call Arline and my brother Keith to let them know I would be at least two hours late before the next bus left for the city center and Heuston Station, a trip that takes an hour and fifteen minutes, even considering the 3.5 mile underground tunnel built to bypass the city streets.
. Entering the bustling station I am quite familiar with, I went to the kiosk to buy my ticket, since some credit card snafu prevented me from booking in advance online. Sure enough, the fare I was expecting to be around 24 Euro was 88 Euro- exactly what I tried to avoid. Then I realized: this was the cost for a return ticket. The kiosk provided no other choice. I will need a return trip on my way home- but not for two months, and all travel on a return ticket has to be completed within thirty days of purchase. I went to the information desk to seek guidance. The attendant told me to go into the main ticket lobby and talk to a teller. Turned out a one-way trip from Dublin to Killarney (about 150 miles) cost 60 Euro- almost three times what I had expected! Did my Visa card work at payment? I’ll give you one guess. NO, it did not. I was very careful about notifying- and then reminding my bank that I would be overseas during this period and would need to use my card. Did all this diligence make any difference? No, it did not. Damn good thing I had the foresight to buy 200 Euro from Western Union before I left home. So I paid the man in cash and boarded the waiting train. It wasn’t two minutes before a conductor came along and asked for my ticket. The thin, dour man looked at it and said: 20 Euro, please. What? I already paid! Now I have to pay again? You are in the first class coach sir, but you have only paid standard fare. I had no idea. It’s not like the coach was marked first class or anything. It wasn’t. How was I to know? And strangely, the coach did not look any different from the coach I eventually settled into.
. The final leg of the journey was hazy and loopy from exhaustion, but very pleasant and comfortable indeed. I love train travel. If there were a train to Ireland I would never dream of boarding a flight. And this particular rail journey is a lush and rich treat. The Irish countryside is bucolic and lovely beyond a poet’s ability to describe. I never tire of it. As we finally pulled into the quaint little Killarney train station- there she was! Me sainted (non)Irish mum, watching the passengers disembark and looking for my familiar face. But she was looking the other direction. I managed to sneak up to her unseen and sit in the chair next to her. After a moment I leaned over towards her and asked as though breaking the ice with a stranger: “Meeting someone on the train?”
Kevin Transitions to Irish Mode.
Thanks for reading friends! Happy travels.
* * *
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.