Garden State

As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. After the weekend that was my 22nd birthday celebrations, all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch for a few days and recovering. Mischa, Jesse and Georgia had all had to head home soon after the weekend was over, so it was back to normal life for the rest of us – well, whatever normal happened to be for me, at the time. However, instead of hiding from the city and feeling sorry for myself, Melissa and I had an interstate excursion planned. She had come bounding in from the other room like an overexcited puppy when she’d got the phone call before the weekend.
“My mom wants to make us her special spaghetti and meatballs! We’re gonna go out to my home in New Jersey, and we can spend a couple of days there, if you like.” I was always keen to check out other less frequented parts of the country and, let’s face it, I couldn’t let me only impression of New Jersey be the nightmare that was returning home from Six Flags.
“Wow, Laura is gonna make her spaghetti and meatballs for you?” Stefon seemed genuinely impressed, maybe even a little jealous. “You should feel special  – they’re kind of a big deal.” Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t able to join us for the trip, so I promised him I’d have a plate in his honour. Laura, Melissa’s mom, picked us up one evening to drive us back to New Jersey, asking questions all about the birthday weekend, as well as all the other travels I’d been doing prior to New York. She was just like Melissa in that she was so generous and kind-hearted, and I watched the the New York skyline glitter in the distance and eventually fade, happy to be surrounded by such beautiful souls.

***

I actually really enjoyed my time in New Jersey. I try to not say that with a tone of surprise, but I guess the pop culture references had planted me with a few doubts. But for every movie that I’ve seen that was set in the busy streets of New York City, I’ve also seen one set in the all-American suburbs. I don’t want to lump the suburbs of every state into one blanket stereotype, because I know how much the US can vary from region to region, so I guess the way I would describe the Marlboro Township of New Jersey is ‘cozy’. The streets were wide, yet still neat and trim, and there was a lot of trees and greenery – probably why they call it the Garden State – that made it all seem so homely. It was late by the time we made it to Laura’s place, so after a quick tour of the family home we hit they hay. The following morning, we went for a drive to with Laura to pick up Melissa’s friend Asha before driving to the state border with Pennsylvania to visit a flea market. We browsed the markets for a while, and I bought a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones Kathi had given me in Vienna, which were literally falling apart by now. Laura insisted that they were a gift from here, forcing me to put my wallet away, and afterwards we drove back over the border for her to treat us to lunch in a quite, leafy little area. I don’t remember the names of many of these places – I just let the locals take me wherever they thought was best.

I also experienced a couple of things that felt like a huge culture shock to me, but were completely normal for all of my American companions. For Laura to make her famous spaghetti and meatballs, we had to visit a grocery store. Not like the ones in New York though, which had an extraordinary range crammed into an unbelievably small space. The supermarket we went to was huge – it even had its own free wifi network. And the selection of brands within certain types of products was simply staggering. Potato chips? There had to be at least 20 different brands, all with their full range of flavours. Chocolate bars? They basically had their own entire aisle just to cater for the range of selections. I found it completely overwhelming. The other thing I found peculiar that was apparently common in these parts was drive-thru anything and everything. I hadn’t seen it as much in New York, probably because hardly anyone owns their own car in the big city, but out here it seemed to be a very standard thing. We have drive-thru establishments in Australia, but they’re usually limited to fast food restaurants, and the occasional movie theatre. But on our drive back home to New York, Laura told us she had to stop at the bank. I was expecting her to have to park somewhere and visit a branch, but instead we turned off the road an into a driveway. Yep, there was a drive-thru bank. Your money gets delivered to your car window in a little express tube. It was like Laura was a secret agent or something. There might be Americans reading this thinking, “Yeah… and? What’s the big deal?” That, my friends, doesn’t not happen in Australia. Or anywhere else in the world, as far as I have seen.

I was even impressed – or surprised, at the very least – by a drive-thru Starbucks. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks all over the world (thank God for free wifi) and that one in New Jersey was the first I’d ever seen with a drive-thru lane. Melissa and Asha found my sense of wonder amusing, though I had to refrain from making the critique that this whole obsession was drive-thru’s was actually incredibly lazy – mainly because it really was just so damn convenient.

***

In the way of tourism, there wasn’t a lot to see in New Jersey. No museums, no iconic landmarks, nothing like that. The state itself is the butt of more How I Met Your Mother jokes than I can keep track of, and I guess in a way it sort of lives up to that reputation. It’s peaceful, clean, relaxing – everything that New York isn’t. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to the Garden State, not only because I spent it with such fantastic company, but because I got to see a part of the country that isn’t really on every tourists to-do list. I’m always saying that I like to live and experience places the way that the locals do, and when you visit places like the suburbs of New Jersey, you don’t really have any other choice. I saw a very different corner of the world, one that I think a lot of people are too quick to brush over when doing a tour of the US. Of course, not everyone has as much time to go off the beaten track as I did, but if you do – and you know some locals who will show you around – I would definitely recommend to any travellers to go beyond what you think you know from the corny American high school movies, and actually experience that setting for yourself. I returned to New York with Melissa feeling refreshed from my stay in the suburbs, and with a tonne of leftovers of what was potentially the best spaghetti and meatballs ever made.

Drunk and Drunker: Dublin Bars Continued

As I previously mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I always thought the drinking culture in Australia was a little excessive. That never stopped me from taking part in it, but that’s what made me notice it with a little more clarity when I finally left and went to places like Germany and Italy, where I found that I didn’t always need to get blind drunk to go out and have a good time. I remember it felt like somewhat of an epiphany. However, as soon as I arrived in Ireland, it seemed as though the tiny country’s mission was to reverse that notion and re-corrupt me with a level of drinking for which even I was quite unprepared. I’d given up counting the number of pints Matt had brought me that evening, and eventually we stumbled out of the George with me leaning into his side, almost unable to walk by myself. In any other situation, a guy buying someone that many drinks, to that point of intoxication where they were all but helpless, would have been considered a pretty shady or suspicious thing to do, and leaving with that guy is probably the last thing you should be doing. Yet Matt seemed quite genuinely surprised at how the booze had hit me, and in my drunken haze a remember thinking with crystal clarity that maybe I had finally found a country and a people that gave me a run for my money when it came to alcohol tolerance.

I knew my hostel wasn’t too far from where we were, but I had no idea exactly where, and was also aware I was unlikely to make it there by myself. But I’d always had a feeling Matt would take care of me – one way or another – and he insisted that he had a surprise for me. He seemed a bit frustrated, and I wasn’t sure why, but we hopped in a taxi which drove us for a short while – I have no idea in what direction – until Matt got a phone call, after which he asked the taxi to pull over. We got out, seemingly in the middle of no where, but Matt was still all smiles and carefree so I went along with it. We were waiting by a main road that was fairly quiet at that time of night, but there was one car I could see in the distance. As it approached it slowed down just enough for the driver to wind his window down and hurl some homophobic profanities at us. That riled me up, and in my drunken stupor I went to scream something back at him, but Matt caught my arm and calmed me down.
“No, don’t worry, he’s just joking. He’s my mate, the policeman from Panti Bar.” Sure enough, the car was turning around to come back towards us and pulled up beside us.
“What’re you two lads doing out here at this time o’ night?” He said with a mock stern look on his face.
“Ah, we’re just a little lost, officer,” Matt played along. “Would yer mind takin’ us home?” They said hello after that and had a bit of a laugh, and we climbed into the unmarked police car so that Matt’s friend – who’d probably best remain unnamed – could drive us home.

I’d never bothered to ask Matt where exactly he lived, and it wasn’t until we were whizzing through what felt like the countryside that I realised that he definitely didn’t live within central Dublin. I couldn’t say whether or not this was exactly far out, given that Dublin itself seemed like such a small city, but I guess I would find that out eventually. Matt, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, asked his friend if he could flick some of the switches on the dashboard. All of a sudden we were roaring down the road with the sirens blaring and the lights flashing through the night, and I couldn’t help but sit up like an excited child and stick my head out the window like some enthusiastic puppy. Part of me wondered how many boys they’d tried to impress with a stunt like this, but at that moment I didn’t really care. It was definitely a memorable experience for my first night in Dublin, and I wondered what my mother would say if she knew that I’d been escorted home in a police car that evening.

***

The next day was probably one of the laziest days I have ever had in my life. After passing out very heavily in Matt’s bed, we woke up at some point in the middle of the morning. We spent most of the day there, hanging out and messing around, watching videos on YouTube about anything and everything – mainly Matt giving me a comprehensive cultural education about Ireland – and we chatted and I told him all about my year so far and the travels I’d been on, where I’d been and where we were going. With the exception of skipping out to use the bathroom once or twice, I never actually left his bed. At some point close to noon he disappeared for a little while, so I just stayed put and had a nap, and he returned with a full plate of Irish breakfast – toast, eggs, sausages, bacon, tomato, and even black and white puddings. He didn’t tell me what those last ones were, but I’d had a pretty good idea of what they were when I started eating them. He was surprised I wasn’t more grossed out when he told me what their major ingredients, but then I reminded him about the time I ate fried tarantulas in Cambodia. “Fair point,” he had said.

To say that I spent most of the day in bed was actually an understatement. By the time we finally decided it was well and proper time to get up, the sun was already on its way down again – we had literally spent the whole day in bed. Part of me felt extremely guilty, like I had wasted the day, and I supposed I had from the perspective of a set itinerary. But as I so often reminded myself, I didn’t have a set itinerary, which allowed me to do crazy things like spend an entire day eating breakfast in bed with an Irishman who I had just met the night before and not worry about whether or not I was missing out on a day of sightseeing.    I had no idea where the hell I was though, so Matt said he would take me back to my hostel. It had gotten so late in the day that it was almost time to get ready to go out again for Saturday night, so after Matt had gotten ready I ventured out to see the rest of his house for the first time – other than the drunken stumble up the stairs in the dark.

“Just got to say goodbye to the Mammy first,” Matt said, using the typical Irish jargon for ‘mother’. And then I realised – oh my God – he lives with his mother! I suppose I should have realised that earlier given it was obviously a large family home. But still, I had never gone home with a guy who still lived with his family before – I mean, I’d never met the parents of any of my previous boyfriends, let alone a one night stand! I thought I would quietly wait in the hallway while Matt said goodbye – nope, he called me in to introduce me. She was so nice, and seemed completely unbothered by the fact a random Australian had spent the entire day in her sons bedroom, but nevertheless I was mortified, and died a little on the inside throughout the whole exchange. But apparently the mothers of Irish men play a significant role in their lives, and it seemed important to him that I met her before we headed off, so despite being severely embarrassed I sucked it up and paid my dues before we headed back into the city.

***

Honestly, I still can’t tell you where Matt lived, but it was at least a half hour ride on the local bus back into the centre of Dublin. In places like London, or even Sydney, that’s probably considered not too far away, but for Dublin it was like we were literally not even in the city anymore. I’m not even 100% sure we were. I was completely disoriented, but I stuck with Matt and eventually we alighted in the main street of Dublin, a short walk from where my hostel was. I went back to quickly get changed before we hit the town again for more drinks. Now, I have I have to be completely honest here – on my next two nights in Dublin, so much happened and I drank far too much, to the point where they have blurred together and I’m unable to fully distinguish between them. So here is a general overview:

In an attempt to show me more than just the gay scene, Matt took me to one of his favourite local pubs. From the moment we stepped through the doors, I knew that I was in the true definition of an Irish bar. Up in the back corner there was an old bearded man surrounded by a bunch of other patrons, and he was playing a guitar as the crowd chanted through some traditional folk songs. The ceilings were low, the room was narrow, the walls were polished timber and the whole place seemed to glow with warmth.
“Right, I don’t care what you say, but you have to at least try a Guinness,” Matt said as we walked up to the bar. Last night, I’d insisted that the last Irishman to attempt to convert me was unsuccessful, but Matt assured me that whatever Guinness I’d been drinking in Australia wasn’t the same as when it was fresh from the brewery in Dublin. We sat down at a table as I stared at the thick, black monstrosity of a drink.
“I just… I can’t get over the head,” I said, as I poked a finger into the thick foam that covered the stout. It was so thick that there was an imprint, a little dent in the creamy foam from where my finger had been. I proceeded to draw a little smiley face in my Guinness, having a little giggle to myself.
“Ah, yer edgit! Stop playing with your food!” Guinness was such a heavy drink that it was sometimes considered a meal in itself, and even my own father had once told me you could have two Guinness’ instead of dinner. So I tried to drink it, pursing my lips to try and drink through the foam. But I had to tilt the glass so much to even make it to the thick, dark liquid, that all I got was a nose covered in foam and just as much Guinness dripping around my mouth, out down my chin and onto the table, as I had going into my mouth. Matt found that rather hysterical, but to top it all off I didn’t even really like the taste either, so it made the whole ordeal a rather unpleasant and pointless exercise.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Other highlights of the weekend were finding myself in the most crowded midnight kebab shop I have ever seen in my life, meeting another one of Matt’s friends in another more alternative nightclub – down at Temple Bar, the main nightlife strip – that felt more like an old house that had been fitted out with a few bars, giving it a pretty chilled house party vibe, and ending up in the George again, lost in the dark hallways and dank, grungy bar rooms. One particular memory that stands out through the haze is being at the George, completely unaware of where Matt or any of his friends were, and being so drunk that I could hardly keep my eyes open. I sat down on a couch or a seat or something and… well I didn’t fall asleep, but I would definitely have been well on my way to passing out. I closed my eyes, and must have been slumped over or something, because the next thing I knew I was being shaken at the shoulder by someone. I opened my eyes to find a security guard staring back at me.
“You alright, mate?” He stood back as I pulled myself up to sit up straight.
“Yeah, yeah… I’m fine… I’m just… I’m waiting for my friend.” I had no idea if that was even true or not, but I wasn’t capable of saying much else at that point.
“Alright, well, don’t go falling asleep here,” he said to me, and carried on with his patrol of the venue. I was in shock. I was practically passing out in the club, and all I got was a smack on the wrist? Not even that – literally just a shake of the shoulder. I had been tossed out of a number of Sydney venues for much, much less. But as if right on cue, Matt came along to find me sitting there, and decided it was best we be on our way home.

***

The weekend also introduced me to a few extremely Irish cultural customs. The first involved GAA, which is kind of like Irelands answer to AFL in Australia – or for readers of any other nationality…. ah, local football? I don’t know, I’m not great with sports. Matt had a ticket to the final on the Sunday afternoon, so we had to get out of bed a little earlier that day so that he could make it back into the city centre. It was a sold out ticketed event, so I couldn’t go to watch the game, but I did join Matt and another friend of his in a nearby pub afterwards for celebratory drinks, given that the Dublin team had had a victory over the visiting team from Kerry, a county to the far south west of Ireland. If I had thought Matt’s accent was difficult to understand, then the people from Kerry must certainly have been speaking another language. In all honestly, I thought that they were when I first overheard some of them speaking when I went to the bathroom.
“Do they speak a lot of Gaelic in Kerry?” I asked Matt upon my return. He had a good laugh at that.
“No more than anywhere else, really,” he said with a smile. “No, that’s just how they talk down there. It’s okay, even most people from the rest of Ireland have trouble understanding them.” So we sat there as the afternoon post-match crowd grew bigger and bigger, watching the rows of pints of Guinness as they settled on the bar in front of us, and listening to almost comical, undecipherable accents of the GAA enthusiasts.

A round of Guinness' in their various stages of settling.

A round of Guinness’ in their various stages of settling.

But perhaps the most special of my authentic Irish experiences was that of a lock-in. Now, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me in the beginning – and I’ll be frank, I’m still not sure it does now – but from the way Matt talked about it I knew that it definitely meant something in the pub culture. Essentially, when it becomes the time that the bar is legally required to close, a lock-in happens when the owner of the bar allows drinkers to stay on the premises after they have closed up shop – it technically becomes private property from that point, existing as a loophole in licensing laws. I’m not sure of how the monetary exchange works, but technically no drinks can be “sold”. No more newcomers are allowed in, most people don’t leave, and patrons are allowed to smoke inside since we are all ‘locked in’. The bartenders join in the drinking, and it becomes a cozy little evening of tradition that wears on well into the night.
“You’re lucky to see this,” Matt had said to me once the lock-in started. “Definitely something most tourists aren’t allowed to hang about for.” It was quite funny to observe, and an interesting experience, but the pub was mainly occupied by middle-aged or older straight men. Matt, who outwardly appeared as straight as the rest of them, seemed right at home, but it wasn’t exactly my scene, and in the end being locked up in a room where everyone was free to smoke started to get to me a little bit. I can’t be 100% sure, as I was most certainly quite drunk as well, but we said goodbye, passed through the locked in doors and out into the night, in search of our next adventure – which was probably me passing out in the George. It was definitely another unique experience to add to the list though – I hadn’t experienced this much culture shock when I was in London though, and it was crazy to think that just across that narrow sea existed this place that sometimes, for better or worse, felt like a completely different world.