Welcome to Dublin, the flight attendant says.
The man at border control cracks a joke as he stamps your passport and the man at the car rental desk welcomes you with a friendly demeanor.
Lovely accents abound. It makes you smile.
The car is yours. Something small, probably black. An automatic because you never quite got the hang of manual back home and Ireland isn’t the place to try to learn.
You climb in, on the right side instead of the left, and start the engine. You navigate out of the parking lot, wondering how long it will be until it doesn’t feel weird to be on the “wrong” side of the road again.
Not long at all.
Soon you’re off the highway and zooming down narrow back roads, the kind that remind you of home. Sometimes your travel companion gasps from the passenger seat. You are going a little fast after all.
You turn the volume up, crack the windows, enjoy the breeze. Enjoy the view.
Hit the brakes. There’s a massive herd of cows slowly crossing the road. Laugh at the sight, take a few photos, and continue on your route.
The sun sets as you roll into the first small town for an overnight stay. There are colorful row buildings, a river, an ancient church, a Guinness sign hanging from the pub on the corner.
You ditch your bags in search of food, heading to that pub on the corner with another sign promoting “live music every night.” You’re seated right by the speakers, but it’s okay because the Irish folk songs quiet something loud in your mind.
The next morning, you explore the town. Kilkenny. There is a looming church, a winding main street, and plenty of shops to peruse.
Grab some snacks and take off again — back on the road. Along the way there are plenty of sheep, crumbling castles, and wide-open lengths of road. A big map of Ireland is perched on the dash — open, inviting.
At some point, you come to an overlook. You hastily pull over, grab your camera, and lock the car. Ireland stretches out in front of you, all uneven, square-shaped plots of color, distant mountains, and shades of blue sky. It’s endless. It takes your breath away, reminds you of a similar instance, years ago and in a different part of the country. The thought comes floating back to you, something Ireland never ceases to remind you of. There is so much more to life than Morrow, Ohio.
That night, you watch the U.S. gymnastics team win gold while sipping a soda at an Australian bar in Cork. Everyone else is, of course, watching soccer — well, football.
You’re following the Wild Atlantic Way, pausing without pulling over (the road is empty anyway) to take photos while hanging out the window. There are beaches and fields and small towns that fade into the background, and cliffs and more crumbling castles. You drive through Cobh and Dingle and County Clare.
One day, while chugging along a mountainous road, you encounter fog so thick you can’t see cars coming until they’re right in front of you. You push through, stopping at the top to hop out into the rain to see if anything is visible down below. Nothing is, but it doesn’t matter. You’re covered in rain droplets and overcome with laughter.
You stop at the Cliffs of Moher, drive through Burren National Park, walk along windy cliffsides, and reenact “Outlander” at a set of standing stones. You burn through playlist after playlist, move on to a favorite audiobook, and then another and another. Hours spent behind the wheel slip by in visions of passing green countryside.
There is a night at a pub in Galway when you realize something monumental about yourself while waiting for the folk duo to begin playing. It’s big and overwhelming and makes you want to cry. But instead, you hit record as the band takes the stage. When they do, the soft chords and lyrical words make everything else fade away. You listen to those songs still, the less-than-ideal recording always taking you back to a country more green and beautiful than anywhere else in the world.
Back to Dublin, where your trip began. You ditch the car and walk the gray cobblestoned streets, whiling away hours getting to know the city center. A spur-of-the-moment decision takes you to the theater, where you see “Once” performed in the very place its story is set. The music is hopeful and sad and uplifting all at the same time. It stays with you.
You don’t know Ireland, not completely. But that’s the beauty of it. And you don’t really want to leave either, but the next morning takes you to the airport anyway. Funny how life works like that.
You return the car, check your bag, find your gate, board the plane. It’s time to leave but, you know, it’s okay.
Ireland isn’t going anywhere. And you’ll be back.
Of that one thing you’re absolutely certain. You’ll be back.