“Yet as he walked up the familiar ways, the streets remembered themselves in his mind.” – Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
As much as I truly do love travelling alone, every single time I have fallen in love with somewhere on one of my solo trips, I have almost immediately felt an intense desire to share it with not any one person in particular but with every person in my life. This is different from the feeling I have when dreaming up a new trip – usually these visions involve a specific person or set of people (ex: I would love to visit the South of France with my Mom and Sister – Mum was an au pair there at one time). But once I have gone past the dream and really fallen for a place, I just want everyone and their dog to see it, experience it, and (hopefully) love it… as I did.
I could go on and on about the many (and I mean an absurd amount) of places I think everyone should see, and perhaps this blog will get to all those places eventually. But for now, in keeping with the narrative already established, I’ll settle with talking about one little village that has found a distinctly dear place in my heart.
Nestled at the base of the famous (infamous?) Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s rough western coast is a teeny tiny village called Doolin. And it is one of the most heartwarmingly lovely places I have ever visited.
I first discovered this beautiful little community by sheer chance back in 2010 when I was living in Holland on a six-month-long exchange.
My undergraduate program was journalism and, honestly, these six months were a very welcome respite for me. Don’t get me wrong, the journalism program at Carleton University is considered one of the best in the World for good reason. Nothing about this program can be taken for granted, coasting is never an option, and you have to fight for every single half-point on each and every assignment. For all this grueling effort, you really do get everything you put into the program, and more, back in the form of focused mentorship from local legends (does the name Laurence Wall ring any bells?) and an unbelievable amount of media and non-media connections the world-over. I, for one, don’t think I would have ever fully exited my very comfortable personal bubble had I never pushed myself through to the end of this program.
Despite all these immensely useful skills learned, however, I think I knew fairly early on in the program that the focus of the most successful students (and, by obvious extension perhaps, the professors) and my own did not always jive. Time after time I would suggest a local human-interest story with a very positive (or, at the very least, hopeful) bend – the types of stories I most like to read – and more often than not, I was told to find something else.
Now, to be fair, perhaps I should have worked a little harder on my pitches, perhaps I did not make the stories sound appealing enough. But my recollection of it was, “It doesn’t bleed so it doesn’t lead,” meaning: what they really wanted was the hard news – the kind of thing you see daily on the home page of the CBC website… or the front of your favourite national newspaper if you’re old-school.
I should clarify that my ideas for stories were not the written equivalent of a cat video. They had meat, they included tales of struggle and hardship but, ultimately, the spin was positive. Not only was this the kind of story I was drawn to but I found it all too lacking in the umpteen media sites I read through every day in preparation for our weekly “in the news” mini-quizzes.
I could go into many different examples but, for brevity’s sake, one that stands out to me is when I pitched a story about a Carleton student’s mission to get one of the school’s many student-run charitable organizations to choose her home community’s dire need for basic school supplies as their year-long cause; and choose it out of dozens of other just-as-deserving applicants. Her passion was heartfelt and personal, I just knew readers would be drawn into her story. And yet, when I pitched this idea, I was told to go in a completely different direction: the experience of women in Afghanistan facing political violence. Bear in mind that this was circa-2008 and Afghanistan was a very hot topic of conversation in Canada at the time.
The story of these women was worth telling. My question was why the professor felt that it was more worthy of exploration than that of the Latin American town struggling to adequately supply its young students – more worthy than the story of a young woman working hard to bring attention to the needs of her community, now that she had the opportunity to do so. I never got a satisfactory answer.
In the end, I bowed to the wishes of my professor and did the Afghanistan story – and it turned out exactly as I thought it would. The story was compelling, the personalized angle was there, the facts were all backed up, but the story had no heart. I was not the writer meant to tell it and hundreds, if not thousands, of other writers have done this and other similar stories much more justice both before and after my attempt.
The Latin American story? Now that, I could have made sing.
So, after that long tangent, back in 2010 I was given my final assignment for the exchange program and this time, I was determined not to buckle under any outside pressure. I was going to tell the stories I felt I could make real to my readers. I would settle for nothing less.
The final assignment was to choose a European city, any city, and move there for three weeks to try and get a semblance of its pulse. We were to write at least one piece on culture, one piece that described a key part of the community we found ourselves in, and the final story could be of our choosing. All three were to be magazine-length pieces which left us a bit more room to really dive into whatever story we chose.
Though this was a lot more freedom than I was used to in my program back home, there was still one big expectation: that we would, each and every one of us, choose a city.
The majority of my colleagues, great writers all, did indeed select major metropoles for their home bases. The stories they discovered were thoughtful, evocative and a joy to read.
For some reason, however, I picked this opportunity to rebel. When my turn came to decide on my new temporary home, I made sure to opt for the exact opposite of a city. I don’t even remember how I found it, but for my first (and only) choice, I settled on the tiny little village of Doolin – 300 people in the entire surrounding area.
You can be sure that my professor balked at this idea – much as my former teacher had balked at my school supply story. But this time, I came prepared. When he opened his mouth, most likely to point out that Doolin was hardly Dublin (the city one my classmates had chosen – with good reason, it’s brilliant) I hit him with a barrage of fun facts: Did you know that Doolin is Ireland’s capital of traditional music? Did you know that at least half of its born-and-bred musicians play the same instruments as their great-great-great grandfathers? Did you know Doolin has a reputation for foreign visitors falling in love with the village (and its people) and never leaving? Did you know it is one of the gateways to the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher?
It wasn’t much, all things considered, and I still wasn’t completely sure what I would report on (aside from music, of course), or how much of this information gleaned from google was actually correct, but it was enough to get the professor to green light my project.
And thank goodness he did.
The moment I stepped off the bus all those years ago and breathed in the crisp, salty air off the ocean, I felt at home. Everything from the craggy beach strewn with huge, smooth rocks hurled up from the murky depths of the sea during one of their frequent storms, to the hole-in-the-wall bookshop run by an American woman who was one of the aforementioned foreigners who fell in love and never left (in her case, with both the locale and a local) – all of this felt instantly and bewilderingly familiar to me, even though I had never been there before.
Throughout that first visit to Doolin, I never felt any desire to leave. Had a family tragedy not pulled me out of my reverie and back into reality, I may never have left at all. I lost complete track of time there, wiling away the days leisurely exploring the area with new companions who were passing through, getting to know the locals through what were ostensibly interviews but which quickly turned into relaxed conversations between friends (albeit with one friend rabidly curious about everything and anything). Nights were spent, almost without exception, in one of the three pubs frequented by locals (we don’t talk about the fourth), losing myself entirely to the swell of a reel played by many people at once with no sheet music: the magic of a session.
When it came time for me to leave, abruptly, and under heart-wrenching circumstances, I both grieved what was ahead and what I was leaving behind. The trip home was made in a fog – I was driven forward seemingly effortlessly on a multi-faceted wave of sorrow.
I vowed I would be back.
Three years later, when I stepped again off the bus in the very same spot – this time with Kristen in tow – every single emotion came crashing back. That first day back in Doolin, our only full day there unfortunately, was a bit hazy. Though I was beyond pleased to be back, and believe me I was, I was not prepared for the sheer force of the emotions that barreled into me.
Luckily, however, my feet seemed to know where to take me and I was able to muster up the energy to show Kristen around this village so dear to my heart. It really was almost as if the streets remembered themselves in my mind – I barely had to think at all. The rocks, the fields, main street, even the very same hostel I had stayed in previously, everything felt so familiar you would think I had lived there all my life.
I’ll do my best to recount our visit there in my next post but, suffice it to say, when Kristen wanted to stay out late that night and hang out with the locals, I passed out absurdly early – overwhelmed, I think, by this emotional “homecoming”.
This time, however, we had a private room. And that alone confirms that life is beautiful.