Dublin is a bleak city.
The sky is an endless wall of gray. The cobblestone streets are slicked and muddy with the morning’s rain. The buildings are blunt, made of old stone and wooden doors and windows that look like eyelids half closed. The dumpsters overflow into the streets, turning a greenish slop in the sewer grates. And everywhere the air is tinged with the smells of raw meat, coffee grounds, and beer.
But Dublin, I realized, is not a city that reveals its positives outright. No, Dublin chooses to appear cold and unwelcoming to the visitor unwilling to challenge its façade. Like many cities I’ve visited, I found that Dublin hides its warmth in its people. However, gaining any meaningful access to the lives of others as an American traveler can be something of a challenge.
I’ve been staying with friends of a friend, Rafael and Camilla, a young Brazilian couple living in Dublin 8 (one of the cities outer districts). Since my arrival, I’ve been sleeping on a mattress on the floor of their living room, I’ve showered in their bathroom, helped prepare meals and clean dishes, skimmed books on their coffee table, and held conversation with them and their friends in clunky, awkward English. It has been an incredibly warm and fulfilling experience, but part of me still feels I’ve found only a window into their lives, and I have yet to find the door.
Because when traveling, I find that experiencing a place strictly from an outsider’s perspective is simply not enough. I feel the need to engage and connect with a city, a culture, a people in a way that is more intimately involved than what my pre-assigned role as “American Tourist” allows. That is, instead of consuming a culture through its designer shopping and fast food, its hotel rooms and postcards, its guided tours and souvenir stands, I want to leave feeling that I gave back in some way, that I mattered to someone, rather than relied solely on the kindness of strangers.
And while this may be a foolish sentiment to rely on, one that may be nearly impossible to realize in a week’s time, I’d say that, so far, I’ve been reasonably successful in this endeavor.
So far, I’ve watched the Ireland match on a big screen in a dimly lit pub, drinking beer and eating free chicken wings, cheering on Ireland as it was utterly pulverized by Spain 4-0 in an opening round of Eurocup 2012. And it can be argued that in this experience I shared in the sense of camaraderie that surrounded Ireland’s downfall, because football (not soccer) is not something taken lightly in this country.
So far, I’ve attended a Brazilian BBQ at Rafael and Camilla’s apartment, one with a nearly endless supply of grilled sausages, rump roast, sirloin and strip steaks, and even chicken hearts. I contributed through bringing a few tall boys of Heineken, duct taping a tarp above the patio to protect the grill from the ever-potential rain, and washing a few dishes that were floating in the sink. I also met people, a lot of people, from all around Ireland and some from as far as Germany and Poland. We often held similar conversations: “Yes, I’m from the states. Chicago. Well, not Chicago exactly, but the surrounding area. Oh, you’re from _________? I’ve never been there, but I hope to go there during my travels,” and so on. It can be argued that in this experience I helped facilitate and participated in a social/cultural event not normally accessible to American tourists.
But have I really accomplished my goal? Did I really give back to Dublin culture or its people? If you look at the common themes between my two anecdotes, you’ll find that “consumption” is right at the top of the list. So did I really avoid the pitfall of the American Tourist in Dublin, which is to say, did I really find a doorway into these people’s lives? Perhaps it’s impossible to give back to a culture or its people without, in some way, consuming what they have to offer. Or an even scarier thought, perhaps culture as a whole is merely a long series of social habits that lead to never-ending consumption.
I’d like to not believe that this is true. I’d like to know that I hold the ability to leave a place feeling as if I contributed, rather than just took away. And while my musings may hold some truth, I am not willing to accept them fully as of yet. So that will be the purpose of this blog and of my journey through Europe. How will I give back to these people, these places, these cultures that were fine before my visit and will be fine after my visit as well. This is what I want to do. To find meaning in the mobile sense.