My Irish Weekend Part 1: “The Happiest Place on Earth”

When I started writing blog posts that included references to real people, TumbleweedWrites was still in its infancy, and I was ignorant of the ethics of such a thing. I took advice from my roommates- who, being central figures in my life, feature in a lot of my posts- about what was the right thing to do. I made a commitment then to always use pseudonyms when referring to real people, and (perhaps more importantly) to never include mention of a person’s address or place of work. With a glass of Captain Morgan in my hand and a border collie nuzzling against my hip, I went through all my previous posts and edited them accordingly.

As a general rule, I try to avoid writing about people unless they give necessary context to a post. I think that’s just good practice- whether you are writing a short story or an article- to leave out any extraneous details, to make sure that every sentence relates to the overarching theme. And a digression into something that only makes sense to myself and a handful of chums would only diminish the quality of the piece.

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Today, I will be breaking both of these rules- but not without valid reason. Firstly- I will be giving the actual name of a place. However, this place is a business operated by my friend’s uncle, so its address is already in the public sphere. Secondly, any adventure I have with Elizabeth becomes inextricably linked to her character, so my descriptions of the places I went and the things I did will be infused with insights into her personality. It would be impossible to narrate something as simple as going to the DMV with her without revealing some aspect of her wit. In fact I’ve done that- and it was hilarious.

Elizabeth has featured a few times on this blog. Diligent readers will remember her from such posts as Our Only May Amelia and Lamb Boobs. I first met the lady I call “Elizabeth” in 2012 through her older brother Aaron. And to this day she still comes out with stuff that completely catches me off-guard. I think that’s one of the defining things about being friends with her; even her siblings will be left dumbstruck by some of her jokes. In that way, she is utterly unique. The effectiveness of her humor comes from a perfect storm of juxtapositions that makes remarks that shouldn’t be surprising to those who know her seem as fresh and shocking as if you just met. She’s neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy. She can be cooing about how “precious” a fluffy lamb is one minute, tying daisy-chains into my hair and calling me “doll”, before turning around and uttering something so crude that we can only categorize it as “pipefitter humor”. She would be just as much at home shotgunning beer in the center of a rave as she would be going through stamp collections in the company of an old bat with a goiter the size of Azerbaijan. No description I give can really do her justice or give you a truthful account of her persona. She’s an actress, a singer, a dancer, an archeologist, a historian, a swimming instructor, a pre-school teacher, a writer, a comedian, a scholar, a prom queen, a roller-blader, an audio-cassette enthusiast, a Pokemon trainer, and she’s fluent in Swedish. In high school she was voted the friendliest kid in her grade. I look at Elizabeth and I see flashes of Scout Finch’s sass, Tom Sawyer’s thirst for mischief, Mad-Eye-Moody’s wildness, Ella Fitzgerald’s rhythm, and Bob Ross’s chilled-out oneness with the universe- but those are just impressions, and not really that helpful. They say more about my associative thought processes than Elizabeth herself, because in truth she is none of those things; she is simply Elizabeth.

Her husband George is similarly hard to categorize or draw comparisons to. He asked me during my stay at their house what my preconceptions of him were prior to meeting him, and I couldn’t really give an answer. I had no idea what Elizabeth’s soulmate might look like, because Elizabeth herself doesn’t fit a certain mold. I answered that I could remember being very curious who such a person might be like; everything from his accent down to his moral values. I had no idea what to expect- what was the perfect match supposed to look like? After meeting him, however, their relationship seemed to make perfect sense. Their personalities seem almost tailor-made for one another- which is not to say that George is simply a male Elizabeth. It’s more like they are two pieces of a functioning whole, and I had a great time in the company of that dynamic synergy. George is just as quirky and unique as his spouse, and I am convinced that if I met him first, I would have been similarly stumped as to who in the heck would turn out to be his other half.

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Even though George and Elizabeth came to visit me in January, I began to miss them terribly. After just a few weeks I was desperate to see them again. They had just moved to Ireland and I lamented how out of reach my close friends were- but such is adult life; I think your 20s really are the decade you begin to realize just how important people are to you. I had so much to talk to them about that I was sending them 10-minute voice messages on Whatsapp every time I walked home from the warehouse. A weekend was agreed in which I could visit them, and the timing could not have been better. I got a dirt cheap flight to Shannon and a couple days off of work, which, combined with the bank holiday Monday, gave me five precious days with my American family.

Getting to Shannon from Bristol was the easiest flight I’ve ever had. We had barely been in the air for half an hour before the captain told us to sit our asses back down and buckle up for landing. The customs process was as smooth for us as gaining admittance to a Mad-town frat party is for the owner of a D-Cup bust. The duty free was full of jerseys for the Irish rugby team. It’s a tiny little airport but very neat and super-relaxed. Before I knew it I was outside, breathing foreign air for the fourth time this year. That’s always the first thing I think about when I exit an airport- the air. I always seem to be trying to get a feel for the wind and- I know this sounds crazy- in that moment it always seems different. I look at the sky and the trees and the cars and I think about how I’m in a new land with its own customs and history. I think about the lives of ordinary locals who look at what I’m seeing with as much familiarity as I would the sky, the trees, and the cars that pass through my peripheral vision in my hometown. I obsess about that sort of thing- the lives people lead in other places, and whether or not they disregard as “ordinary” the aesthetics that are for me so fresh and exotic. And I’m not even talking monkey-puzzle-exotic or pagoda-exotic; I was staring at parked Ford Fiestas, chain-link fences, and the brick backs of pubs where disgruntled employees sucked on cigarettes while taking the bins out.

Whenever I meet George and Elizabeth we do this big group hug thing. It’s more than a little bit adorable, and it always acts as a way to quickly soothe my built-up anxiety and loneliness. My trip to Ireland was convenient for a number of reasons- I was feeling particularly melancholy and stressed at the time. I’ve come to terms with the fact that depression isn’t really something I can permanently exorcise from my existence; however much progress I make it will always be there, and it comes and goes in its intensity like the tide. When it comes around, it has a way of magnifying everything I feel and think so that little worries become big ones. But standing in the Shannon airport parking lot with each of them under my armpit I felt a different kind of tide, a happiness washing over me, the cleansing effect of which I can best describe as “soothing”. Sometimes I think of depression as being like a balloon in my skull that grows in size, and as it gets fatter I become less rational, more agitated, and it’s hard to think or communicate- but then something comes along and pops it, and all the toxic air is farted away. And there I am- my mind is my own again.

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As we drove through the Irish countryside Elizabeth threw packets of Salt & Vinegar crisps at me from a giant bag between her knees. For some reason they had the mother-load of this particular flavor. I never asked why and they never explained, and it’s entirely possible with them that they were fresh off an impromptu heist of the Walkers factory.

“We gotta surprise for yoooou,” Elizabeth trilled excitedly.

The surprise was a visit to George’s aunt and uncle, who run an award-winning fairy garden outside of Limerick. It’s called Terra Nova and you should totally go if you’re ever in the area. It’s ranked number one on TripAdvisor out of 116 things to do in the Limerick area. I’m always surprised when people I know turn out to be successful for some reason. It’s like I never considered that the people behind roadside diners, traveling circuses, and baboon sanctuaries were real.

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We arrived at Terra Nova before it opened, and I was lucky enough to be given a free private tour. At first when Elizabeth told me that her husband would be serving as my tour guide, I just assumed that she meant it in that casual way a gracious dinner host would say “I’ll give ya the tour.”

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But it turned out that I was getting an official, scripted tour. George picked up the Terra Nova leaflet and looked back at his wife.

“Why don’t you tell it, dear? You’re so good at it.”

“No. You tell it much better than I do!” she insisted, and I could tell that Terra Nova really had become a second home for them.

George cleared his throat and put a hand on my shoulder.

The tour wasn’t, as I would have assumed, a string of facts about the flora or the history of the garden. The tour was a story. It was an original fairy tale, blossoming with creativity and whimsy, that brought to life the plethora of gnomes and hobbits and other statues throughout the garden. I was in awe of how detailed it was- going in depth into the habits and neuroticisms of the garden’s inhabitants. Because I’m lazy, I probably wouldn’t read a written tour if it were handed to me, and if I had come by myself it is likely that I would have missed out on this imaginative experience. George led me from one part of the garden to the next, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

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What struck me about the garden were the little details. It seemed that every possible corner, alcove, and space was crammed with eclectic faerie motifs- and each with its own story to tell. Elizabeth told me that she discovers something new every time she visits. You really can’t rush through this place- there’s so much to see that it’s easy to miss something. When you first arrive it looks smaller than it actually is, because there are no wide open spaces. The whole place is made up of tiny, enclosed grottoes and narrow footpaths shaded by thick canopies. You go from one little area to the next and remark “Well heck, there’s more!”

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George’s uncle joined us for some scalding-hot instant coffee by the pond, and told us how he is always adding to the place, thinking up new stories to tell. It’s such an interesting and quirky place, and you’d be remiss to leave it out of your trip if you find yourself in the greater Limerick area. I lamented that I was only stopping by; if I were a local I would come to Terra Nova on my weekends and just read in one of the gazeboes. It’s so serene and enchanting. It actually won the title “The Best Garden in Ireland”, but I prefer Elizabeth’s name for it: “The Happiest Place on Earth”.

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Wanna know more about Terra Nova Gardens? Click here to see their website!

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