It was time. After an uneventful month in sleepy ol’ Austria, it was time to take the first step back on my way back to the UK and to normality: to Ireland.
I had been invited on a school trip as a group leader with one of the classes I teach (don’t laugh, I’m very responsible) and was happy to oblige. I turned up at the bus stop in Rohrbach in the boiling sunshine with my carry-on suitcase and gazed in wonder as students and teachers alike hauled their massive bags onto the coach, wondering what they could possibly need for a seven day trip that would necessitate a hold bag, a question which was immediately answered when I saw one of the boys gaffa tape his skateboard to his rucksack. The coach journey to Munich and subsequent flight felt exactly like a school trip (…probably because it was one) and I was just as excited (if not more) than the students, though I really tried to keep my cool and be authoritative.
Even though we left at 12.30 in the afternoon, we didn’t arrive in Bray until 11.30pm and were knackered. The host families arrived one by one to pick up pairs of students. We all waited in anticipation to see whose name would be called each time a car pulled up, which was horribly reminiscent of being picked for teams on sports day and as such, I knew I would be last to be called – and I wasn’t wrong. I was also staying with a host family because it was about half the price of staying at the hotel with the teachers, but the more minutes ticked by and the longer we stood there in the dark, the more I thought the extra 500€ might have been worth it. Eventually, after half an hour of shivering in the sea breeze, a taxi for 8 people pulled up and called my name. I was ushered inside, a little bewildered.
As the taxi driver sped off, I tried to ask where we were going but got no response. In fact, the driver ignored me for the entire the 5-minute drive as I rattled around in the back, leading me to the conclusion that my hosts must be very old if they couldn’t walk that far to come and get me.
Not so. We pulled up and a lady in a fluffy pink dressing gown and slippers paid the driver. I got out and introduced myself, and she pulled me into a hug and planted a lipstick-y kiss on my cheek but neglected to mention who she was. She smelt strongly of booze. She staggered down an unlit side street and, for the millionth time this year, I began to worry for my safety – but luckily, she led me into a very nice house at the end of the dodgy-looking alleyway. As she fumbled with the door, stabbing her key around the lock but not quite getting it in, it dawned on me that she was smashed.
When we finally got into the house, she explained to me that she had ‘overbooked’ and didn’t have a bed for me, which I didn’t quite understand but neither I nor she were in a position to argue. I was shattered by this time and said I’d sleep on the floor or sofa or wherever. She insisted I take her bed which I really didn’t want to, especially when she said, Ohhhh it’s a lovely bed and you’re a bitch for taking it off me – but at the time same, she wouldn’t hear of me sleeping anywhere else, probably because (as I later found out) there wasn’t anywhere else. So, exhausted, I collapsed into her bed and tried to fall asleep.
I had just dozed off, when around 2am I heard someone thumping up the stairs. There was a bit of a commotion and I heard a man shouting about the FUCKING GIRL in his FUCKING BED. Oh Jesus. Her husband was home and was also, by the sounds of things, off his face. I sank down into the covers and willed myself to disappear, which – spoiler alert – didn’t work. Eventually, the noise quietened down and I fell into an uneasy sleep.
In the morning they seemed relatively normal, if hungover and tired after their night of sleep on the tiled floor of the kitchen without a mattress. I’m not joking. They didn’t have a key for me, but said they’d definitely be in when I returned home from my day trip and would see me later. When I got back, they assured me, I’d have my own room and a key to myself (you can see where this is going, can’t you?) – so I headed off to meet the students and other teachers for the day’s activities.
After a commotion with the buses, eventually we all managed to find a seat on a coach to Powerscourt. I and one of the other teachers, Eva, ended ended up on a coach with a different class of Austrian schoolchildren to the ones we were supposedly responsible for, but whatever.
Powerscourt is essentially a stately home and gardens which I wasn’t overly enthused about to begin with, but actually turned out to be very beautiful and we were lucky enough to have gorgeous sunny weather for it. We had a quick tour of the gardens and then some time to wander round on our own, during which time I was in many selfies with students.
Then we crowded back onto various buses with our tour guide Conor, who was a tiny old man who kept squeaking gee whizz like that’s something people actually say. We drove to Glendalough, an early monastic settlement which was founded by St. Kevin. My favourite part of this was that there actually is a saint called Kevin.
Apparently, we were allowed a wish if our arms could fit all the way around this stone. Unsurprisingly, I was nowhere near.
Then we went for a walk up to these gorgeous lakes…
According to the students’ step trackers, we’d walked over 22km so I wasn’t surprised when I arrived home shattered. I knocked on the front door but nobody was home, which I was pissed off about but also not entirely surprised. I called the host mum (whose name I still hadn’t been told but whose number I had got from the organisers) and who didn’t pick up at first, but who slurred so much when she answered on the third time I rang that I could barely understand her. She told me to go next door to her mother’s house who had a spare key. I wasn’t keen on knocking on strangers’ doors, but it looked like the nice weather had finished its shift for the day and it was threatening to rain so I did as I was told. A stooped old lady answered the door with a lot of difficulty and I started to hate Mrs Drunk Host Mum for making me disturb her. She fumbled around for an extra key which we tried in the front door for fifteen minutes but which we couldn’t make work, so she invited me in to her kitchen which was very sweet of her and made me feel even more guilty as she clearly had trouble moving around but wouldn’t accept any offers of help. She asked me if I wanted tea or coffee (I asked for coffee and got tea) and proffered stale cake at me until I couldn’t refuse any more and gulped some down. Then she handed me a Heat magazine and sat at the door having a fag while we waited for Mrs Drunk Host Mum to come back and let me in.
After about half an hour, it suddenly dawned on us that perhaps we had the key for the back door. I went to try it and to my immense relief, it worked. The relief lasted all of about ten seconds when I realised I didn’t know where my room was. I sheepishly peered into the master bedroom where I’d slept the night before and retrieved my suitcase. I felt horrible creeping around in a stranger’s house, but poked into all the rooms and found them either all full of other people’s things (apparently they also ran an Air Bnb) or without sheets on the beds, so I had no idea where I was supposed to be. Instead, I sat in the kitchen (having poked around even more for the wifi password) and eventually found my way onto the internet to frantically Google ‘how to politely tell your host family they’re being fucking arseholes’.
They eventually came back totally plastered, poured me a glass of wine as an apology (I’ve never needed one more) and proceeded to slag off every nationality under the sun and try to convince me to come to his mum’s house for more drinks – the husband said there would be come good craic and I want to assume he meant Irish craic but at this point I wouldn’t be prepared to bet money on that. I declined as politely as one can decline anything they’ve been offered fifteen times in a row, which, it has to be said, is not that politely. They left after about an hour (thank God) and I was left to choose a room, make my bed, and eat the strange mix of leftover curry and pasta that Mrs Drunk Host Mum had made me for dinner.
I want to mention at this point that I had actually paid for this – that is to say, for a bed and three meals a day for a week-long stay, which meant that I was more than a little bit pissed off about the whole thing. I went to bed around 11.30, just in time to peek out of my window and see my host mum literally fall out of a taxi onto the front garden.
But I am very stereotypically British and didn’t want to make a fuss and instead decided to cheerfully ignore the situation, getting up the next day and taking the key they handed me with a bright smile before heading out into the day.
It was Monday and the students had lessons all morning which I was under no obligation to attend, so I caught the train into Dublin (about an hour away from Bray) to find a coffee shop with an internet connection from where I could get some work done.
After getting bored of spreadsheets (which took forty-six seconds), I went for a wander to find Trinity College and the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells was interesting and beautiful, but the main attraction for me was getting to see The Long Room, which, being the book nerd I am, completely took my breath away and made my heart speed up. It was stunning.
Then it was time to meet the students who had finished their English lessons for the day and head to the Guinness Storehouse, another attraction which exceeded my expectations by a long way. It was really well done and very interesting, plus it was in a gorgeously photogenic building in a lovely shade of blue.
To my massive disappointment, we were only entitled to a free soft drink with our tickets as we were with under 18s and the teachers weren’t interested in trying any Guinness anyway because ‘they didn’t like it’, even though I’m not sure that liking Guinness is a prerequisite to drinking Guinness at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin… but when I handed over my voucher and asked hopefully for a pint, the bartender didn’t even read the clearly printed red letters reading FREE SOFT DRINK ONLY and handed me a pint. Or perhaps he did read it but didn’t care. Either way, I had a pint of Guinness on my own.
We decided to go to the cinema in the evening, and on our way to see Beauty and the Beast I explained to the other teachers about the problems I was having with my host family and they were furious. They told me it was outrageous to be in such a dangerous situation especially when I’d paid for accommodation and that I needed to complain to the company and move out immediately. I dithered, not wanting to make a fuss and told them I’d sleep on it.
Beauty and the Beast was wonderful (I have criticisms too but this is about Dublin and not about poor LGBT representation in Disney films so… that’s an issue for another time) and I was happily singing noooooo oooooone fights like Gaston, douses lights like Gaston, in a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston! to myself all the way home, until discovering that they key I had been given didn’t work. I was left shivering and banging on the front door for fifteen minutes before Drunk Host Mum arrived bleary-eyed at the door to let me in.
This made up my mind, and in the morning I packed all my stuff up and left my keys on the kitchen table (thankfully, they were too hungover to be out of bed at 8am so I didn’t have to awkwardly explain to them why I was leaving) and pootled off down the hill, little suitcase in tow, to kick up a fuss at the school and demand to be moved elsewhere.
To be continued…