The UK in Pints, Part One: London, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin

I took a two-week trip in May and June last year, but I hadn’t published my daily travelogue until now. It’s a different one for me; there’s whimsy in here, yes, but also a lot of emotional heaviness because this trip fell just after some pretty major and very frightening health stuff with my mom, and that wasn’t even the only hard thing happening then. Because of that, what follows has the good tourism stuff, museums and concerts and cemeteries and my pint-a-day goal I have for some trips, but it’s also a story of what happens to natural wonder when everything else is so very hard. If you too are feeling griefy, this will, I think, either be right up your alley or something you might prefer not to read today. Take care of you, please.

Days 0-1: 25-26 May

On our departure day, I have zero pints, because I’ve come strongly into part of my heritage in the last three years: I have officially, medically become a high-strung middle-aged white woman. I realized during my 2021 trip to Paris and Barcelona that I’ve developed some serious plane fear, afraid of both ceasing to exist and a substantial body of writing never being published in the event of my death.

The second could be somewhat remedied with planning and credential sharing, but I haven’t yet, because I spent the six weeks before we left on this trip afraid of my mom dying, my cat dying, or both. It’s miraculous that I managed to squeak onto the plane with my passport and a tentative ability to be calm, or at least to fake it long enough to get through things.

After an experiment with flight Ativan in March 2023 that did not end to my satisfaction because I could still feel feelings, I have beta blockers and Ativan in my little orange backpack. This rules out plane booze but makes my fear sufficiently remote that I can be the comforter during a bumpy landing in London that fucks my partner up a bit.

Zero pints on day zero, but also zero panic attacks or threats of them, so we’ll call it victory.

Wheatpaste street art of a line drawing of a frog with long legs that weave around each other. The frog has green spots and holds a sign saying, "My legs... wtf"

We arrive in London on day one, and I manage to keep my shit together through deplaning from the very back of the plane, the slowest and strangest stops in human movement I’ve seen while getting off a plane and out of the jetway. An alarm interrupts luggage retrieval; after that, we have several minutes of no movement at all, during which I watch my partner shut down. He’d been fine and functional until that long lag, and after that, I put my hand on the rudder for the rest of our trip into the city. We make it through customs and to a sweaty trip on the tube, a walk down a chaotic and tourist-riddled street, and finding and checking into our hotel.

When we get into our hotel room, our sole planned posh accommodations for the trip, I take a shower, talk with all the lucidity you can expect for someone who’d slept one shaky hour in the last 24, and then collapse in bed for seven hours. I wake up at 11:30 pm to eat a sandwich and drink some water, and then I sleep for another seven hours. I love this bed, I love this too-fancy hotel. I wish we could stay here for days and days instead of in the mid-range hotels and good-enough Airbnbs that are in our future, but it just didn’t work out that way.

On Saturday, I am once again a person and so can start the trip in earnest.

Day two: not a pint but a champagne flute (27 May)

I like to get myself through difficult times with bribes. Once I realized that I never stopped responding to incentives of snacks or other treats, life got simpler. And so, when we booked our posh hotel with my partner’s substantial employee discount, we also booked afternoon tea in the lobby. I get the kind with sparkling wine and drink it while eating all the tiny sandwiches, perfect scones, and fussy little pastries I can. I ate well enough on the plane, but it feels like a warm welcome after a rough few days. Or weeks. Or months. It’s been a hard year, to be honest, and it accelerated mercilessly in the weeks before we left.

I enjoy the sparkling wine.

After, in the hour available before we head to London Euston station for a train north, we walk down Piccadilly and into Green Park. Dodging the people there, obnoxious Americans but also lots and lots of oblivious people from other countries, I no longer wish we were staying at the fancy hotel any longer than we are. When I only needed to be cocooned in a room, it was perfect. The moment I left, though, I realized we were in the wrong place. It made sense to reserve the extravagant hotel for the day we’d be spending the most time inside, but not after.

As we take the train north toward Glasgow, we learn we’re going to be delayed enough that we might miss our connection at Carlisle. This problem is solved by our connecting train from Carlisle to Glasgow being canceled entirely. We learn this partially from the garbled and too-quiet conductor announcements, partially from my endless app refreshing, and partially by following people from our train to a bus connection area, where we’re guided onto a fleet of buses and minibuses without any ticket checking at all. The likelihood for exploiting this vulnerability, as we say in my job, is low, but it’s weird anyway. Free trip to Glasgow!

We arrive the night of a big football match and have to navigate some of the drunkest people I have ever seen as we walk to our hotel. I’ve lost a lot of my ability to consciously feel terrified across the pandemic, so instead I realize how uncomfortable I am by how fast I’m walking. My partner mostly keeps up but has to ask me to slow down a couple of times. When he stops to light a cigarette, his first after six hours of transportation, I almost vibrate out of my body watching him conduct entirely normal lighter operations and finally get the cigarette lit, something that spans at most 20 seconds but feels like ages, the latest in the horror-inflicted temporary stretching of time I’ve experienced lately. We dodge blurry and loud men, the occasional barf splatter, and glittering sprays of broken glass on the sidewalk as we navigate. Unlike Oakland, these are bus shelter windows or signs and not from smashed-in car windows. We travel to see new things.

The hotel locked their front entrance due to the football match, which I learn is a very normal precautionary measure in Glasgow on nights like this. After determining that we are not hooligans but merely confused people with a reservation, a weary but friendly hotel employee lets us in. From our room, we order Indian takeout, thinking that it would be hard to go wrong with that in the home of tikka masala.

I’m wrong. My veg with butter sauce is sweet, creepy sweet, and I’m hungry enough that I burn my mouth on it because I don’t have the patience to wait, even though it’s objectively gross. At least I got one good meal today; I miss the tower of treats.

Day three: pint and bonus pints (28 May)

In the weeks leading up to this trip, friends and coworkers asked why exactly I was going to these specific places in nearly peak season, something I’ve avoided on almost all other international trips.

“Well, um,” I started, “I needed a vacation. And also, sometimes I buy tickets to things.”

Six months ago, I saw an Instagram post from a singer I like, saying he would be touring with a different band than usual. He’s good and puts on a good show, and I thought: why not. I’ll buy a ticket to their London show, and I’ll either find another reason to go there or sell it. I ended up in New York in March for similar reasons.

A couple of weeks later, I learned that another band I’d come to love across the pandemic, when I had nothing but time to stalk around my neighborhood inhaling new music at a rate I hadn’t since I was a teenager, would be touring. I made a rule during lockdown: if a band I loved was touring, and especially if they were in their 50s or older and not guaranteed to tour again, I would go. It’s how I saw Bauhaus and Blondie in the same week in 2022, and I saw Love and Rockets a few days before this trip for similar reasons. And so I learned VNV Nation would end their short UK tour in Glasgow, and I bought a ticket.

I also sent a text to my partner: hey, want to do something unlikely? He did. He usually does.

The day of the Glasgow show, we head to the site of my first actual pint on this trip: Ubiquitous Chip, well regarded, and said to be a fine place to try haggis if you don’t usually eat it. In ordinary life, I’m pretty strictly pescatarian, but I make exceptions when traveling. It feels stupid to go to Scotland and not try haggis, and so I do, a fancy venison version with a lovely sauce we both dip our fingers into once we move the plate to the edge of the table, sneaking just one more little drip of the sauce, licked surreptitiously from a fingertip, before the waiter collects them. I drink a pint of their exclusive beer, Liquid Chip, to go with the haggis and potatoes and other lovely things we summoned. I finish with elderflower custard and feel well taken care of.

It healed some things. The day started with a shitty disagreement with my partner, and because I am worn down to a sad nub, I immediately began sobbing. I tried to escape into the shower to get myself together in privacy, but the shower stopped draining as I washed my hair. I fished some hanks of stranger hair out of the drain, feeling my disgust at a manageable distance, but had to ask my partner to come in and help. He fished more stranger hair out of the drain, and he gagged, and then I gagged too because the situation became more immediate to me with his reaction. Then we both gagged, though at least he wasn’t wet, naked, and crying while gagging. The drain worked, and I finished the shower. I cried once more before we left for lunch. For luck, let’s say.

Or we could be more accurate and say it’s because I’m so emotionally overtaxed from the last several weeks that my continued functioning is a study in stubbornness and a willingness to get things done at my own long-term expense.

And after all that, I took my emotionally devastated act on a plane. Great!

After lunch, we have an aimless wander. We visit the Kibble Palace in the Glasgow Botanic Garden. Over Christmas 2020, my partner and I went to see lights in Kensington, a town between our homes in California. A chain-link fence outlined a demolished lot, left barren with delayed construction, and neighbors had laminated stories and poems to hang. One of them was about the narrator drinking scotch and reminiscing with his dog. The dog shares that he’d always felt betrayed by the name of the Kibble Palace, since it was neither made of nor full of kibble.

I find the Kibble Palace to be beautiful but full of hot air and so very many people taking wedding pictures. I don’t feel betrayed, but I do feel inclined to exit quickly.

Next, we take the subway south and then walk a long half hour through a desolate part of the city that, even once it gives way to shops and denser streets, has very little shade and feels underserved. It reminds us of West Oakland: not scary, just stark. We take this two-hour journey out of the way to pick up a book I ordered from a local queer bookstore. I do this when I travel: these little field trips meant to get me to new parts of the city, to learn things in places other than museums. I have a bad feeling, though, because so much has already gone wrong today and this week and in the last six weeks, that they’re not going to have my book, and I know I’m not going to be able to handle it the way I’d like if that’s true. I emailed them about it the day before, trying to get any kind of confidence that this is going to go well, but I didn’t get a response.

After ten minutes of good-natured research, the person who runs the shop confirms it’s not there but in a shipment that didn’t get picked up due to vacation schedules. “We can send it to an address here once we get it on Wednesday, though!” they cheerfully tell me. A totally reasonable response, and I manage to say, “Oh, we’ll be out of town by then, but I’ll email you with thoughts on what to do,” pretty certain already that I won’t be emailing about it, mostly saying it to end the conversation so I can take my whole deal outside and away from this situation.

I have no interest in being punitive about this, but I also can’t engage in disappointment or optional complications right now. My partner tries to “fix” it, offering up ideas for where to send it, a friend coming through town later, and I cannot take it, I cannot fucking take it, I just want to not think about this and other broken shit anymore, and my chest feels like a pile of glass shards, and I say the tersest, most final no I may have ever said, enough that he physically recoils, puts his hands up, says, “Whoa, okay,” and thank fuck he drops it.

But I’m too jagged and sharp to act normal, and we manage to get on a bus that actually accepts our payment. I’m too fucked up to even wear a mask like I usually would, and I pour all my energy into not having the big giant sob I want to have, most likely really need to have, and I can tell my partner feels how brittle I am and thank god he leaves me alone.

I get an hour in the hotel room by myself after this, and I don’t cry like I hoped, like I need. I do stretches, I write a little, I read. I text friends and stare into space. I try to will the hard feelings away, something that has never, ever worked, even though I’ve been trying it for almost 30 years at this point. Instead, I hope dancing and drinking will help, because that sometimes actually does work, at least for the span of an evening. And that is how I measure my well-being now: in spans of mere hours. I try to plan for the long term, but honestly, if I manage to keep it together for the next hour, I feel I’m doing pretty well. Chain enough of those hours together, and you end up with the occasional day that isn’t a complete trainwreck.

In the evening, we see my show, and we play the same game we always do when walking to events where people might look a certain way: we spot our people. Black hoodies and undercuts, people in their 40s and 50s with more piercings than average, band shirts and little signifiers of not-quite-ordinary people. We both have teal hair, and I have pink and purple in mine too, so I suspect we get read similarly, and that feels nice. The world feels full of barbs and traps for me lately, so any sense of belonging helps a little. Most things are bad, but I can be part of something I like every so often.

It’s a good show. The band plays a solid 2.5-hour set, longer than any band I’ve ever seen, and I suppose that’s what happens when you come to these almost-hometown shows. I drink three pints of Strongbow, a wild bargain at £5 each, and feel beautiful connection with everyone around me. Then someone drags her fucking boyfriend up next to her (and oh, so many problems start with someone’s fucking boyfriend getting dragged into the picture), and he acts like I’m not there and leans against my arm, and so I furiously dance with elbows for the next three songs like a chicken on speed until finally he gets the fuck away from me.

I watch the last half hour from the back, where people are spaced out more, and am happier.

After, we go to a chippy, and I drink an Irn Bru because of course I do. We eat fried fish and chips covered in brown sauce with little two-pronged wooden forks that my Scottish coworker informs me are ridiculous and avoidable when I send a picture. We conclude our meal with a deep-fried Mars Bar. The drunks are more endearing than scary tonight, subdued by it being Sunday and there being no exciting football matches. I watch the young women in their uncomfortable shoes, the parade of fake tan, the grudging and resigned feeling I get from the groups of both girls and boys, like they’re going into battle with each other instead of heading out for a night of dancing and perhaps fucking. It seems grueling. I hope it’s better than it seems. I never had the strength or interest to be part of that culture when I was the right age for it, and somehow I manage to have even less now. Did I ever have energy for anything? The year has been too full of bad news for me to be able to conjure the memory of it. Maybe I always dragged myself to and fro. Maybe it just stung less because I was younger but was actually always the same old slog. Maybe I just see it better now.

Day four: birra chiara (29 May)

I sleep in the next day, and it helps, though my dreams remain fucked up. At least the day doesn’t start with a disagreement. My partner asks how I am after I come to, and I say, “Above the ground and not crying, which I think we both will agree is an improvement over yesterday.”

He finds this less funny than I do.

We start the day at Tim Hortons, which has an outpost in Glasgow. I send my Canadian family pictures with Timbits and my flat white. From there, we talk to the Glasgow Tenement House, which shares wonderful themes with the Tenement Museum in Manhattan and the Icelandic museum I went to in 2014 that showed how people got by until the early 1900s, all the glorious minutiae of what it was like to live in another era. One letter confirms a holiday reservation and asks Miss Toward to bring her ration card and a jar of marmalade on her trip. We see glove stretchers and other items meant to extend the life of clothes, medicated toilet paper for when using pieces of newspaper was unwise, and jam jars with handwritten labels dated June 1961. We learn about what bed-closets are and when they were made illegal (1900) and why (preventing disease transmission in a small, shared space, or at least that was the idea, which… fair, it turns out).

We wander around after, through residential neighborhoods, back to downtown with its wide pedestrian area. We get coffee and visit the Glasgow outpost of Forbidden Planet, where I get local comics. We attempt to visit a cemetery near us, but it’s closed for a bank holiday neither of us were aware of. Instead, we wander to Glasgow Green, then along the river on both sides, and back up toward our hotel. We’re both still jetlagged and getting hungry at weird times, so we force ourselves to stop for dinner, lest everything close before our bodies catch up with the clock. It’s here that I have today’s pint: a Peroni in the big glass, company for my pasta and fish. Not the pub I’d intended when I proposed returning to this goal, once I’d created for our 2017 trip to London, but in an Italian restaurant with an Italian waiter, it feels as thematically appropriate as I could hope. It was also literally the only beer on draft.

Detail of a hotel room mural with a speech bubble containing the words "SUNS OOT TAPS AFF"

I’m grateful I feel less jagged today, but I’m still not okay. I’m not sure I’ll be okay again during this trip. I’m not sure I’ll ever be okay again, really.

When I described the days leading up to this trip to my therapist the day before we flew to London, she stopped me. “You’re describing a lot of other people’s feelings,” she said. “What about yours?”

I thought about that. “It’s like I got hit with a blunt, full-body force,” I say after a minute. “Like a car crash where you don’t have visible injuries, but in the days after, you find this or that fascia that’s been strained or torn, or purple traces of bruises that take time to come to the surface from the middle. Little hurts emerge, and then maybe later, big ones.”

It’s what I’ve thought of ever since, on a plane and a train, in a hotel bed and in a minibus, feeling how much I couldn’t handle being spoken to harshly by a Scottish soccer hooligan. I am still finding the damage.

A friend is going through an extremely stressful international move while I’m on this trip, and I tell her that I’ve felt myself emotionally maxed out, so much that I don’t react at all to things I normally would. “Yeah,” she says, “repeated trauma has that effect.”

I send her a series of emojis: sob, melt, scream. Some things are more accurate when wordless.

Day five: one pint to exhaustion (30 May)

I lean into stereotypes. Wearing my Bauhaus shirt, I go to not one but two cemeteries as part of today’s itinerary. One is small and low key, an open gate next to a church with no sign, graves from the late 1700s and early 1800s, lots of merchants. Wall-mounted stones indicate that the plot is the property of its inhabitant; good to know. The Glasgow Necropolis is from the more recent era of burials, a for-profit cemetery that took over the burial business from being exclusively the provenance of churches. The sun bears down at midday. I lean in harder than just my t-shirt, black pants, and boots, deploying my purple umbrella to keep from completely roasting as I read the epitaphs: all these Agneses, these elaborate inscriptions saying not only who died but also who mounted the memorial. Credit where credit is due.

Day six: pint on a boat (31 May)

I know I’m having a rough time when I resolve to write a service piece about whatever I’m dealing with. Today, I vow to write about how to book bus and ferry passage from Glasgow to Belfast, how to find your bus, how the bus/ferry exchange works, and how best to be ready for it. The ticket was light on details and heavy on implication: water is involved, so a ferry will come into play at some point, but it wasn’t clear if the bus drove onto the ferry or what. It turns out to be bus to ferry, which you board on foot, and then boarding a second bus on the other side. Makes sense, but a couple sentences explaining what to expect would have eased my troubled soul.

Something that made everything else make sense later: the ferry between Buchanan, near Glasgow, and Belfast is primarily a car ferry. Foot passengers were a distinct minority. This made it make sense that:

  • So few passengers were on at first, followed by a giant wave of them after everyone parked and came upstairs
  • So many families were on board
  • Teenagers were everywhere

The teenagers were mostly well behaved (except for you, group of shitty kids shouting at people on the smoking deck from the sun deck), but there were multiple roving groups of them, and it’s a lot of activity and noise. “Oh,” I thought, “this is a Family Experience.” Meanwhile, I was dressed all in black drinking a Strongbow at 1 pm. I was not there for a family experience. I was there because I associate ferries with nice views and quiet, an association that I held much more loosely after this voyage.

I write this from the hotel bed in Belfast: it all worked out. We made our connections, we found our hotel, and we hit all the marks. I had a pint on a boat, I got to sit and stare at the sea for a couple hours, and I learned about a completely different class of private ferry. Hygge rooms! Private suites! Cinemas and sit-down restaurant spaces! And a safe place for families to let their older kids roam around and feel a little independence.

Just a bit different than the simpler, quieter government ferries I’m used to, which was hard on another day with weird sleep and travel stress.

Today, I met the Big Fucking Fish of Belfast (usage: “Turn left at the Big Fucking Fish to get to the hotel”), and therefore I am already halfway toward navigating with confidence. Also, I recognized the hotel next to the Belfast bus station because Atlas Obscura has it listed as the most-bombed hotel in the world. Hello, most-bombed hotel.

Belfast is tougher than I am, but most cities, countries, and people seem like that to me right now.

Day seven: fancy pint (1 June)

I wish I felt fewer feelings.

It’s deeply weird to have a weep in the Ulster Museum’s Troubles room and then pass bars full of happy people, chatting people, social people, drinking people spilling joyfully onto the street, while longing for a quiet pint in a dark corner with my dark thoughts and having Thursday afternoon Belfast unable to provide. Wrong season, I suppose.

Instead I get tacos (Belfast tacos! Actually decent tacos!) and eat them in my hotel room while texting with a friend who was here two months ago and knows the feelings I’m talking about. I am far from the only person to have a weep in the Troubles room.

It’s strange to feel quietly effective museuming like that, where they slowly build a story, skillfully adding weight after weight, artifacts and context, until there are the feelings, reasonable and unquestionable, right in the forehead and the sinuses, waiting to come out. I managed to mostly cry through my nose until I asked my partner for a tissue, and he responded to me with the soft feelings voice, and then all bets were off. I used all the tissue. He reminded me that we didn’t have to stay, but it was so interesting, and I was glad to be there despite everything, and also I left right after we finished the exhibit to continue crying under a tree outside.

Feelings aren’t far from me right now, so it’s not so surprising, but I really had enjoyed not crying for the last four days. Time to reset the counter: this feelings site has gone 0 days without a crying incident.

No promises for tomorrow.

I end up getting today’s pint in relative privacy. We reserve a snug at the gorgeous Crown Pub. For ten pounds, we get an entire enclosed booth, with walls just above eye height—meaning that as people pass by and want to see if it’s free, we get to see them rise onto their toes to peer over and then disappear again. No, this one is taken. Find your own snug, please.

I have a Guinness, finally, and then a Magners, which I enjoy more. Being here reminds me of drinking in my early 20s, just after I moved to Seattle, when I learned that hard cider was a thing. It was around the same time that I learned to like beer. I reread my early-20s LiveJournal during the pandemic, surprised it was still online, and was taken aback at how much I talked about drinking. I was generally pretty responsible about it (particularly since I didn’t drink much in college and rarely got hangovers until my later 20s), but I mentioned it so frequently in the way of something new and possessed of so much joy. It was the center of a lot of my socializing: hey, let’s meet at the bar! We can have small-brewery beer, we can have artfully made cocktails at the former mortuary, we can drink cheap well drinks at the metal bar and feel briefly well-tended by this big bad world.

It happens less now, by frequency and volume alike. I call myself Two-Drink Maximum, a joke and a guideline. Alcohol lands differently for me on trips, same as coffee, and so I have a little more space to operate.

Still, I’m halfway through my second drink when the last-call bell sounds, its brassy tone a match for the electrified gas lamps, pressed-tin ceiling, carved-wood details, and the lacquered gryphons that overlook our snug. Today mostly felt like hurt and jangled nerves, but hiding in a booth deciphering scratched-in graffiti and interpreting the sounds from the bar around us helped.

After, we get cheap pizza, in line with drunks and drunk-adjacent sorts from Belfast and so many other places. Wherever we go, we’re rarely the only ones with American accents. We walk home, where we pass people panhandling, people who have just left bars, people who are figuring out the considerable balance of their night. As we pass one couple, the guy calls the woman an ungrateful cunt, and my partner and I both freeze, wondering how much of this was local vernacular with less sting than we felt and how much I should have turned around and said, “You know, the dick can’t be that good, can it? Do you really need this?” But the best-case scenario for that is both of them angry at the intrusion, and just as likely is the guy taking it out on her after in some way. We stay silent and afraid but watching and listening until the couple turns onto a different street while we continue straight, toward our hotel.

We eat our pizza while watching Naked Attraction, which hadn’t arrived on American Netflix yet, a best-of episode with some of the more interesting guests, including a woman who called herself the top 45-50 MILF in her region (and really, cheers to you, babe) and a 75-year-old nudist with a strong fuck-it attitude who wanted to explore his pansexuality. I’m surprised at how many different kinds of bodies there are, how many trans and nonbinary people, how often it’s not straight and cis. It’s still garbage, to be clear, and one contestant is rude about different kinds of labia in a way that goes tragically unchecked, but it’s less bad than I expected. Having it immediately followed with a recent TERF “documentary,” though, removes some of the surprise sweetness. “NO,” I bark, lunging to the remote control to turn the TV off before explaining to my partner what just happened. I’ve managed not to bump into much of the UK’s current spate of trans hate, and then there it is, casually aired after a relative affirming show, like all sweetness must be chased with the sour, bitter, and hateful. I supply my own sourness right now and do not need more from other sources, particularly the bigoted kind.

Day eight: honorary pint (2 June)

I want all of my breakfasts to be fabulous spreads brought to me on a tray, silver pots of coffee and tea, tiny flaky pastries, piles of scrambled eggs and sauteed mushrooms. It’s a leisurely morning with food and reading, finally using the excellent shower (with working drain and no hanks of stranger hair to be found), and tumbling out of the hotel at noon to check out and leave our bags with the front desk.

Today is an activity that more people have lobbied for than anything else in this trip: the “I swear it’s better than you think” Titanic Museum in Belfast. The “it’s not like the ones in Branson or Las Vegas” museum. Multiple friends with very different viewpoints told me as much, and then the bartender on the fancy ferry with zero incentive to lie said the same thing.

It’s what I think of as a pop museum, a for-profit thing that laces spectacle and education together, and more artfully than some, it’s true. They illuminate class differences and all the roles passengers had via individual stories, building a sense of foreboding so that even our tourist-heavy flocks go subdued and quiet, because we all know what’s coming. It does a nice job of showing how the ship company influenced Belfast and how Belfast influenced the company.

I feel the unfamiliar desire to do some genealogy research. I grew up, like so many white Americans, with declarations of our Irishness and Germanness, but more than ever, I wonder what relatives of mine might have hammered bolts in brutal conditions, or spun flax, or longed to move to the country I think about leaving at least a couple times a week in this era. In the Tenement House in Glasgow, I had the same thought I often do in museums of that era, that I am wealthy beyond my ancestors’ imagining, but I think it again here: I am the satisfaction of dreams they didn’t even dare to have. Could I quit work forever and financially survive? Absolutely not, but I could quit work for a few years if I knew I could return to a job like the one I have now. I have clothes for all seasons, and while I often darn my tights and replace the soles of my shoes, I do it by choice rather than for survival. My maternal grandmother was born in 1920 and quit school in junior high because she had one dress and other girls made fun of her for being poor. With the exception of certain necessities, I could forgo clothes shopping for a few years and be occasionally annoyed but likely not substantially inconvenienced.

After, we head to the train station, where I don’t have a pint, because I’m trying to figure out a system. Is the QR code in the email my ticket, or is it my ticket to get a ticket? (It is the former.) When do we line up? Is it that line? Are we going to the same place? Are seats assigned? Will they have luggage storage in the train, or will we have to do awkward things like suitcases in seats, where I’ll feel weird and wrong the whole time?

I used to love this part of travel, and now I appreciate it in a more tepid way, grateful that I can navigate unfamiliar systems and do just well enough to get what I need. I used to get deep satisfaction from it, though, old scarred gifted kid shit about successfully navigating something complicated being evidence that I deserved to live another day. Now, it’s more remote, and that’s better.

Life before this trip was already steeped in constant navigation, which diminishes the old enjoyment further. I’m wildly grateful that we chose English-speaking countries this time; as recently as a couple years ago, I liked figuring out how to navigate France and other countries despite my paltry language skills. I assume I will again someday, but for now, optional challenges just sound exhausting. The longer I’m on this trip, the more I assume I’ll be pulling out of Burning Man this year. [Ed note from the future: I most certainly did, and it was the right choice for a thousand reasons.] Maybe I’ll go again next year, but right now, hauling a ton of stuff into a brutal environment, where sleep is difficult to come by and privacy nonexistent, sounds punishing without enough redeeming qualities. I felt this a couple days into the trip, after a couple rounds of navigating unfamiliar public transportation and figuring out how I wanted to get my next meal. Small challenges like when will I get to wash my clothes again are the largest I can handle right now. That and “I know I should eat local stuff more, but Tim Hortons is right there, and I’m on the edge of being brain-broken hungry.”

Small challenges are okay too, I remind myself.

I did not allow for this possibility for a long time, but I remind myself that no one is warmed by throwing myself on the fire. 

To that end, I do an uncharacteristic rush through the Titanic Museum’s hall of survivors after my partner goes ahead of me and texts me that it’s pretty affecting. Teary, he said. I already feel overwhelmed by the sense of impending disasters that’s grown in the last hour, so I read some of the transcripts as I go through but don’t stop to listen. I don’t feel like crying more today. I understand enough for now. No one’s pain is justified or lessened by me upsetting myself.

When I meet him outside after, I say, “We’re the worst species.” It’s an overreaction to the last act of the museum, which goes from solemn witnessing of tragedy to “here’s a guy who was really into submarines.” He’s done interesting and important work, but the way they shift to trivia from his background gives the strong sense that his most important contribution to this work as as one of the financial backers of the museum. The exhibit got into the more interesting science of the depth of the wreckage and their work with the US Navy, but it’s weird to switch to the Bill Paxton part of the story, basically, after a room that talked about the Halifax System for numbering bodies and their associated effects, how burials at sea happened both when bodies were too decomposed to bring to land and because they ran out of coffins and had to switch to returning the bodies to the water. It almost evens out, but then you enter the media room, complete with Celine Dion belting it out once again, Kate Winslet dolls, a ship’s prow you can stand on to pretend to be Jack Dawson, and a deeply weird (yet undeniably accurate) dive into weird Hollywood glitz at the end of a somber exploration of classism, engineering hubris, and death.

We’re not the worst species, maybe, but we’re very, very weird sometimes. I wonder what it feels like for people who work there who knew their recent ancestors worked in the shipbuilding industry, maybe on the ship itself. Maybe, in their less-grueling jobs where they direct clueless tourists and don’t lose their hearing from hammering in small spaces, they too are the satisfaction of their ancestors’ greatest dreams.

When we arrive at our accommodations in Dublin, I feel the disappointment in my chest. It’s a sinking feeling but also itchy, because the tiny room stinks of smoke and mold. I lay on the bed (which takes up roughly 70 percent of the apartment’s footprint) and, to satisfy my sudden curiosity, begin looking up nearby hotels using my partner’s discount. I’d booked the Airbnb because Dublin hotels were, even in comparison to London, shockingly expensive, and this was the best compromise I could find when no discounted rooms were available for our dates.

We both spend a half hour convincing ourselves separately that this is fine, but at about the same time, a friend tells me it’s worth reaching out to Airbnb customer service, and my partner comes back in from a walk around the block to say that this place is going to wreck his allergies, make him snore terribly, and cause us both to have terrible sleep for the three nights we’re supposed to be there.

I get deep into Airbnb customer service and then realize it’s fully 8 pm, and I need to know where I’m sleeping tonight. I book the hotel that’s now available with my partner’s substantial work discount before I learn if we’ll get refunded for this tiny, stinky, dirty place.

The contrast is dizzying. We go from a smoky, dingy room with worn-out bed linens and a dirty hand towel in the bathroom to a hotel that named Grace Kelly’s favorite suite after her and features a story of JFK’s visit on their key card packets. The oak-and-leather luggage rack is nicer than any of my furniture at home. The bed feels like an embrace. There are cookies in the tea tray, monogrammed slippers on the floor by the bed, and bathrobes on wooden hangers. The elaborate wardrobe has multiple compartments for specialty items I will probably never own, some of which contain a minibar and his-and-hers umbrellas.

I promptly lose my mind, only in the good way this time.

A white woman in a black hoodie and black skirt printed with red hearts lies face down, arms over her head on a hotel room bed with nice white linens

By the time we get resettled, it’s too late to go out to dinner, so we manage to get a room service order in just before their offerings get cut in half for the reduced overnight menu. We receive a tureen of some of the best fish chowder I’ve ever had, exceptional butternut squash risotto, finely made fish and chips, creme brulee, and the day’s honorary pint: an Irish coffee, which has a thin piece of chocolate floating on the foam with the hotel name and logo in gold.

A table with a white tablecloth holes an Irish coffee with a chocolate disc on top, a silver spoon next to it. Other silverware and dishes are out of focus in the background.

I lose my mind again. It’s nice to be overwhelmed with good things. I’m not used to it in this era.

The cherry on top is having our Airbnb refund confirmed.

Once dinner is finished and we’ve moved the table out in the hallway to be cleaned up, we settle our next two nights in Dublin, booking a different discounted five-star hotel down the street.

An elaborate space in a hotel lobby with marble columns and gilded molding surrounding a polished wood-and-marble table with six white vases filled with blue-purple hydrangea and other flowers

I stay up too late, as it takes me a long time to cycle down after everything. The darkness in the room is possibly the most complete darkness I’ve experienced in a hotel. The curtain tracks overlap by about a foot, shutting out even the brightest morning light. I wish we could stay for another night, but one night to heal wrecked expectations is a joy beyond that which I could have hoped. It’s enough.