One of the great gifts of travel is it coaxes us to rethink our ideas of what’s “normal.” It’s one of the reasons we choose to travel at all, isn’t it? To leave the comforts of home to see how others live. As we do, we see ourselves in new ways and occasionally, we risk doing things we probably would never do at home.

I was reminded me of this recently while out walking in Killarney, Ireland, with my non-stop talker of a son.

We were returning from an evening walk that I take often with my kids these days: an outing for an outing’s sake just to get them some fresh air. As dusk fell, we passed a local craft brewery that just happened to be owned by the hosts of our cottage rental and I pointed out the big fermentation vats where the beer is made.

My boy, an eight-year-old who’s always eager to prove he’s an expert on just about everything, listened to my limited understanding of beer brewing, and piped up, “Oh I know about that... I think,” he said hesitatingly, “they keep the beer for two years in roasted oak barrels.”

An older man, stepping out of a laneway onto the sidewalk just then, heard the bit about “roasted oak” beer and started to chuckle. He caught my eye and then said to my boy: “I’m not sure about that one.”

Since the man was headed our way and the streets of just about every town in Ireland are absurdly narrow, he began walking in step with us. And that’s when he began a story, out of nowhere.

“You know, I know a little bit about beer. I brewed my first beer when I was 15. Made it my basement, using a kit,” he said. “I made ales, mostly. They were delicious. But my mother put a stop to that.”

“Oh?” I asked, wanting to be polite but also half-wanting to know where this story was going. “Because of the smell? Or was it because you were drinking all of them?” I teased.

“Of course I drank them. No, it was because I started adding extra sugar to the bottles. When the bottles started exploding all over the house, that was the end of that.”

We both laughed and though I can’t remember what I asked next, we continued to walk along together as he told me about his experiments in homemade wine, his childhood in Killarney, his time in Dublin and his decision to move back to his beloved hometown.

As he talked, I realized this was one of the weirdest and yet easiest conversations of my life. This man had literally stepped out of nowhere, locked step with me, and begun telling me tales. He didn’t ask me much about myself beyond where we were staying and how were we enjoying our visit, but he was so easy to talk to, I wanted to hear more. I wanted to ask about what he did and where he lived, why he loved Killarney so much. But then just like that, he announced, “Well this is my street. Have a good night,” and he was gone.

“Do you know that man?” my son asked after the man was out of earshot. No, I told him; we had just met. “Why were you talking to him, then?” he asked, clearly bewildered.

I remarked to myself that that was an encounter I likely never would have had back home. We’re polite in Canada, but are we strike-up-a-conversation-on-the-sidewalk friendly? In my experience, if you find yourself accidentally walking in step with someone on the street, one of you is sort of expected to hold back by pretending to tie your shoe or something so the other can get ahead. It’s just too awkward to walk beside a stranger.

I wondered if that conversation was able to happen because I was in Ireland, a country whose people are renowned for their friendliness, where everyone has the “gift of gab” and loves a bit of “good craic.” Or was it because I was in a small town, where people are just generally more at ease with strangers? Or was it just this man? Or was it me, getting a little lonely after weeks on the road with just my husband and kids, eager to chat up anyone new and learn more about life here in Ireland?


Hey Killarney, lookin' gooood!

A photo posted by Angela - Toronto (@amulho) on

A few days later, after we left Killarney for the bigger city of Cork (pop. 119,000), it happened again. We had taken the bus to a castle-slash-science museum on the edge of town and somehow missed the bus back to town (long story). I went back to the castle’s ticket desk to ask the girl when the next bus would be coming by. Might be an hour, she said, but she could call us a taxi?

“Or I could drive you,” said the man standing next to her.

He explained he was from Cork and came out to the castle every weekend for rowing or bike rides. He was just on his way back into town and had plenty of room in his car, he said, and it would be no trouble at all to give the four of us a lift back.

At home, I’d have hesitated. But, maybe because of the experience in Killarney a few days before, I could see right away this man was exactly as he appeared. He wasn’t looking for payment; he was just happy for some company and happy to help.

My husband looked a little horrified when I came out of the ticket office and said, “This is John, he’s offered to give us a ride back to town.” But of course, as we drove back into town together. John turned out to be delightful; a long-time local who had lots of tips for sightseeing.

He told us he was a reporter who covered equestrian sports. He told us about currach boat rowing and how it had changed his life. He took a detour and showed us his local rowing club along the River Lee. And when he dropped us at our door, we thanked him so much for his help and we shook his hand.

“Not a bit,” he said. “It really was no trouble at all.”


Gathering peat for the wood stove. #irishlife #snuggling by the��

A photo posted by Angela - Toronto (@amulho) on

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