June 27th, 2006

manning: uberbitch

Day 2: Insular small-town hostility


We ate our breakfast in the Kenmare hostel kitchen, surrounded entirely by Germans on holiday. (There are three types of people who go on holiday in rural Ireland: Americans, Irish city folk and Germans.) We felt oddly out of place for not talking in Deustch, so we nibbled our cereal and conducted our conversation in lowered voices.

We saddled up our panniers and hit the road at 10:00 AM, attempting to ignore the protests of our backsides as we settled into our seats. Luckily for us, the weather held beautifully all 50 km to Castletownbere so we took it quite slowly, stopping frequently to take photos, enjoying the breeze as we whizzed downhill and the sun on our shoulders.

We arrived in Castletownbere at 4:00 PM. We went to the tourist office to scope out hostels, another glaring omission from the cycling route book. The office gave us our first inkling that something was wrong with this town. Though two people inhabited the small office, only one, the woman, was actually offering any help. The other, an unnecessarily ugly and overweight man – I give the description because the outside so neatly mirrored the inside – simply sat there staring at his computer screen with an almost visible aura of pompous superiority. The woman was helping someone else, so Claudine and I attempted to ask him for help, despite the misgivings his mien caused. "I don't actually work here," he huffed sweatily. "You'll have to wait for her." (When we later asked whether or not we could take our bikes on buses, we learned he was doing web design for the office. This is why he didn't do customer service, you see. I'm sorry, buddy, but you're doing web design for a tiny little tourist office in the middle of Bumfuck, Ireland. Please to be getting over yourself. Also, he didn't answer our question, but he did try to patronize us by asking if cycling had become "too much" for us. Oh, how I would have loved to see him try to cycle that ample avoirdupois one kilometer, or even get it onto a bicycle in the first place.)

The actual tourist office assistant turned out to be one of the few nice locals we would meet. She directed us to the Ocean View Lodge Hostel right around the corner. We paid for our two nights at the Spar grocery shop and after following the attendant into the hostel, had our second inkling that something was wrong with this town. As I locked up our bikes, I heard her speaking brusquely to a man who didn't seem to know much English. She was trying to tell him to pick up the clean laundry for the hostel the following day. Instead of slowing down and pronouncing her words clearly, she started to mumble irritatedly and finally, when it became clear he'd understood, snipped "OK," turned on her heel and walked away.

I passed him on my way to our room and the look on his face broke my heart. I smiled and said hello. He smiled back and followed me up the stairs, where he proceeded to make up our beds. We talked to him a little, learned he was from Italy and had studied English on his own for one month. He'd been in Ireland for two weeks to learn to speak it. His frustration with the position he'd put into was quite obvious, although we wouldn't learn the details until the following day. "My English is very bad," he kept apologizing. We reassured him that it was fine and we would gladly repeat ourselves and find new ways to phrase questions that he didn't understand. He left looking a little bit happier.

We went to watch the football with a pint of Murphy's to try and shake a little of the foreboding feeling we had about the town, but it persisted. We ate supper at a nice restaurant called "The Old Bakery," surrounded by blonde, upper-middle class Americans, who looked as though they felt welcome in the town, probably because they were prepared to drop boatloads of cash on their hotels, petrol for their rental cars, and all their meals in nice restaurants. The thought put me off my food a little, though not enough to keep me from vacuuming up my vegetables. In the battle between hunger and principles, the exertion of a 50 km bike ride will always win. We watched the second game of the day in a nearby pub with our pint glasses of orange and lemonade.

As the lactic acid accumulated in our limbs and we began to ache, we returned to the hostel to change for bed. When I walked into our dorm room in my pajamas (tank top and a pair of Marco's boxers), I was startled to see a man. We knew there were other people in our dorm room when we arrived, but for some reason I wasn't quite prepared for the reality of a couple of guys. Especially not a couple of Slovak guys, one of whom could barely speak English. We all stayed up for a while holding the kind of oddly stilted conversation that happens when two people are quite fluent in a language and the other two are not. Tom and Peter (or, more likely, Tomas and Piotr) were working on the boats at the docks, painting them. As we would later discover, we were the only hostel occupants who were on holiday, the only women, and two of three non-Eastern Europeans. Piotr gifted us with some large shells he'd gotten from a fisherman friend. We would have tried to refuse except that he likely would not have understood, so we just accepted them as graciously as possible.