Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at weddings. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (because I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

I like cemeteries.

I felt very unfestive this year at Halloween.

In years past, we’ve celebrated pumpkin decorating parties,

had enormous Halloween fetes,

and thrown big celebrations at school.

The Novio usually has a training course during this week, so I was excited to finally show him why my love of cemeteries and ghost stories is normal.

This was as festive as we got:

During my sophomore year of college, Lisa, Beth and I were studying for our Age of the Dinosaurs (if you don’t believe this is actually a class at the University of Iowa, you can find the course description here) on a blustery Halloween Eve night. Bored of cladograms and sauropods, we hatched a plan to visit the Iowa-famous Black Angel, a reputedly haunted statue in the Oakland Cemetery of Iowa City. equipped with flashlights and warm clothing, we took a water bottle full of liquid courage (Hawkeye Vodka, clearly) and set off.

Legend has it that the monstrously large statue was erected by a woman who had once lived in Iowa City to preside over the remains of her dead son and husband, but over a few years’ time, the statue turned black and the wing bent inward. Locals claim the statue has always been connected to the paranormal, and like Scout Finch and the Radley house, we dared one another to touch it to test its claim that virgins were safe. In the windy, damp night, the statue seemed twice as large and even more sinister. In the daylight, however, the whole place just seemed idyllic.

Cemeteries have always fascinated me, whether or not it’s the Halloween season. During my travels, I make it a point to see the way people are laid to rest, how their living relatives honor them. Maybe it’s just because of the Spanish celebration of Día de Todos los Santos, a more pious version of Day of the Dead, which was celebrated just yesterday.

Reputedly, 30% of flowers are sold in the days leading up to the one reserved for families to honor their deceased by offering flower ofrendas and cleaning up the gravesite. I was dying (whoa, wrote that without thinking and am going to leave it) to go and see if the Manchego All Saint’s Day from the movie Volver was spot-on.

In the end, that stupid DELE exam won out, so I’ll just leave you with some shots from hauntingly gorgeous cemeteries from around Europe.

Prayer candles in Bukovina, Romania

A forlorn cemetery in Maramures, Romania

The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, right on the border. I love the jovial depictions of life and death of over 800 people.

In Spain, the 75% who choose not to be cremated are usually given lockers at the local cemetery. This one is in Olvera, Cadiz

The creepy, even in broad daylight, cemetery in Comillas, Santander, is reputed to be haunted.

Like Iowa City, Comillas has its own Angel. Summer 2010.

Along the road to redemption in Cashel, Ireland.

A peaceful Christmas morning with unbelievable light in Limerick, Ireland. I may or may not have looked for Frank McCourt’s dead brothers.

Do you like cemeteries? Seville’s San Fernando Cemetery is home to celebrated bullfighters and flamenco dancers, and it’s a peaceful garden. Free to enter, though photos are not allowed.


Dublin Doors

Way back four years ago, I made a list in a freshly-opened journal with an Old World Map on it. Underlining in black ink, the list read:

Places to Go This Year.

Ireland. Portugal. Morocco. the Netherlands. Germany.

For someone hellbent on traveling to 25 countries before a birthday of the same age, I had some work to do in just under three years. I scoured Internet travel agencies and budget airlines in search of my first destination, though I always knew what it would be. Given my reddish hair and blue eyes, freckles and being a softy for beer, the Emerald Isle, home to my father’s family, would get my well-saved travel dollars first, even if it was the most expensive.

My passport is now home to four green stamps, proclaiming my four trips to Eire, which include three in the last eight months. On each jaunt, I’m more enamored with Beef and Guinness pie, the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey, fields exploding in bright green. And those doors! I spent an entire morning hunting out the most brightly colored amongst squat, brown brick buildings and the ever-present grey skies.

Have you ever been to Dublin?

Expat Life in Photos: Limerick, Ireland

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but I’ll write a few anyway.

While traveling around Western and Southern Ireland with my parents during Christmas, we stopped in Limerick, widely known for the river Shannon that dissects it and some dude named Frank McCourt. I had brought along Angela’s Ashes to read during the trip and found that Limerick was kind of like he described it: forlorn. Ugly. Worthless. We saw three people who morning, all walking dogs. It was Christmas Day and not even church bells rang.

We walked through an old cemetery through a broken gate. The place had tombstones dating from the early 18th century, mausoleums and, when looked at through the lenses of my dearly departed Panasonic Lumix, seemed serene on a morning with soft light and not a sound around.

I left McCourt and his depressing childhood in the train station at the Geneva Airport a few days later.

Hopped up on Hops in Ireland

Pints of Guinnes at the Gravity Bar at St. James’ Gate, Dublin

Smart people would travel to Ireland, land where the holiday originates, for Halloween, but I chose to stay in Sevilla and go to a party and out to the bars with friends here. The next morning, I had to catch a bus to Málaga to take a plane to Dublin to visit my buddies Matt and Brian from school. Eva came into my room just after 8, meaning I was up over an hour late. I threw whatever I could find into my backpack, brushed my teeth and went; no shower, no breakfast, no sense of how I was going to deal with a hangover and traveling 12 hours to get to the Emerald Isle.

Despite feeling like I was going to get sick every ten minutes as I sat on the 2.5 hour ride into Malaga, I enjoyed seeing Sevilla transform into small towns, then again into a bustling port. The countryside is beautiful, just much different from the natural beauty you may think of elsewhere. Andalucía is hot and arid, with pueblos blancos cropping up between mountains and acre after acre of olive trees, perfectly placed in rows. I was happy to see the sea and get to Málaga, though I had a lot of time to kill.

Once on the plane to Ireland, feeling a bit better after some food and caffeine, I relaxed. I’ve been anxious to go to Ireland since my 100% Irish grandmother traveled there about 10 years ago. I got off the plane in Dublin at 5:30 (it was already dark) ready to cry, from both exhaustion and excitement. I’ve never traveled to a country where I’m from, but I feel much more connected to my Irish heritage because of my grandma. I fell in love with the country in the busted up airport terminal – the way the signs looked, the way the people talked, the different traditional food. I went to the tourism info booth to ask for a map and how to get to the city the fastest, and the women was just so friendly, giving me all kinds of pamphlets and discount information about all the things I planned to see. She even walked me out to the bus. The driver was more friendly, and told me exactly where to get off about 45 minutes later on Dame Street. Just seeing english and watching pub after pub pass by the windows on the right side of the street was exhilarating. Without having done ANYTHING in Ireland I wondered why I hadn’t moved there to work. Perhaps next year?

I got off the bus on Dame St., a block that stretches along the River Liffey from Trinity College down into the suburbs, full of pubs, cafes, businesses, embassies and the like. I stayed in the area known as Temple Bar, a sort of hippie area full of lively pubs with music filling the streets and people wandering back and forth. By now, it was 7:30 and the nightlife on a Thursday was starting to heat up. I checked into Barnacles Temple Bar, a fantastic hostel with big beds and plenty of them. I asked the man to direct me towards a pub crawl, as I was only in Dublin for a night and didn’t know much about the nightlife or even what else the Irish drank besides Guinness and whiskey. He told me I had 20 minutes to make it back to Trinity College for the famous Backpacker’s Pub Crawl. I hastily threw my pack onto my bed, changed clothes, made myself look a bit better and practically ran to the college.

I was met by Matt, a senior from Indiana U studying at the International Business school of Dublin and three people traveling from California. Generally the pubs are a bit larger, but apparently the Dubliners were recovering from a crazy night out for the holiday. So the five of us trekked on to enjoy fine Irish beers and a few shots of aftershock. Our first stop was a bar modeled after a viking ship with ice cold pints. I had a Carlsberg, muchhhhhhh sweeter than a Cruzcampo that I’d be served in Sevilla. We all got on (yes, I speak British English now) well, and I was so happy I didn’t feel any sort of regret or shyness for being alone in a European capital. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to stay in the hostel all day. We walked the Trinity College grounds to the small bar on campus, packed with students from all over the world. Most of them braved the cool night o sit outside on the steps or on worn picnic tables overlooking the footy and rugby fields and the ancient buildings. Matt and I split a special – 4 20-oz. Bavaria beers. Not fantastic, but for 4 quid I could have gotten one pint of Guinness or two of Ireland’s equivalent of Keystone. Cheers. I met some Spanish kids, too, so it was a worthwhile stop.

Our next pub, a much bigger one playing American music, afforded us fantastic strawberry beers and other non-traditional flavors, and stupid Adam bought me a tequila shot that I didn’t need. Finally, we went to a “club,” which looked like Friday’s on the inside and had overpriced drinks and American pop. I was very angry at the prices, and sufficiently pissed (as in drunk, not mad), so I stole a bar glass and we all ran out into the street. I then realized I hadn’t eaten in about 12 hours, but figured nothing was open at 2 am. I came upon SPAR, the most glorious creation ever. The store is kind of like Walgreens in that it sells snacks, magazines, small groceries and has a 24-hour deli. The nice waiter gave me a bucket of chips (as in french fries) and I sat on an alley and ate them before sleeping in my clothes.

I woke up the next morning even more exhausted than when I started the trip, but I had to do a lot of sightseeing in a short time. I did see Trinity College in the day time, which looks much like MU Ohio: very stately, with leaves turning colors and falling to the ground, full of students all over the lawns, which are intensely green. In the Old Library, an impressive long corridor full of old, dusty books and relics from Ireland’s long history, the Book of Kells is housed in a dark room. It’s a huge manuscript (I think) written in Irish with delicate drawings and swirls. It was kind of cool, but not worth 7 euros to be there for only a short time. I stopped in the tourism office to book a room in Galway and was off to explore Dublin castle. In this now-parliament building, every Irish president has been inaugurated since independence. The grounds are full of cars and garda, or policemen, but it’s stone walls and courtyard were beautiful against the clear blue sky (nothing I expected!). I skipped a free museum with apparently an astonishing collection of Irish history to head to Christ Church, one of the most famous parishes in the city. It was originally a wooden heap meant to worship secularly, but has been rebuilt in stone and stands in the center of the city. It’s beautiful inside and outside, and its crypt holds all kinds of beautiful excavated tombs and silver pieces.

The highlight of my day was for sure seeing St. James’ Gate, otherwise known as the Guinness brewery. The city is famous for its merrymaking and pub life, and the brewery tour is not a disappointment. Walking up High Street, I could smell the factory at work, turning out millions and millions of pints. Though beermaking had been around for centuries before Arthur Guinness started making his special dark brew, he is believed to have honed the art. Everything from the amount of water used to the barrel making was perfected under his care. The factory tour is set from the ground up, and even the elevator looks like a giant pint glass. I’ve been on brewery tours before, but this one was incredibly entertaining while still being informative. I learned how the hops were grown, how the brew was mixed, how bottling worked. From the first floor, you were then able to taste the perfect mini pint, learn how to pour a perfect pint (tilt glass at a 35 degree angle, pour to the top of the harp on the glass, let sit for two minutes to separate, then top it off with a thick layer of foam), wander through advertisements through the 300-year-plus history, find out how to cure a hangover, and top off the trip on the last floor in the Gravity Bar. From the seventh floor, the bar serves free pints of Guinness in a round room with floor to ceiling windows, offering fantastic panoramic views of the city. The beer tasted incredible when doubled with how magnificent and rustic the city looks. Despite being big (I think about a quarter of the population lives there), it retains its charm and warmth. I loved it immediately but had one more thing to do before I left town for Galway – try Irish stew.
Having a perfect pour at the Gravity Bar

I walked along the river on the Quays (pronounced like “keys”) as the weather started to turn cooler and found a small, dark pub that served stew and cold beer. I was one of the only people in the bar, so the tender told me to just have a seat at the bar. I didn’t think twice, figuring it was just the Irish being friendly, despite this being an older gentleman who asked me if I wanted to stay an extra day at his home for free. Just being nice. As it turns out, Nick is from Turkey and has been living in Dublin for three years. I ate delicious Irish stew, a filling broth full of meat, carrots, potatoes and rosemary and drank a sweet tasting Carlsberg and talked to a man from turkey. It was quite wonderful. I wandered a bit through Temple Bar before picking up my bag from the hostel, finding a bookstore to stock up on English language books and go to the bathroom again (it’s the beer here, I SWEAR. It’s practically a diuretic!!) and finally to the bus station. I caught a national bus to Galway, on the other side of the country, at 4 pm. Sadly, it took a bit longer than expected due to immense traffic jams in the capital, and it was too dark to really see the countryside. But it was fun watching the small towns pass by quickly, much like driving through the pueblos blancos down here in Spain.

The River Liffey from Merchant’s Quay

I got to Galway and my super sweet hostel about 8:45 and immediately called Brian. He and Matt, former coworkers of mine, moved to Ireland about 2 months ago with BUNAC to work for four months before heading to the UK. They traveled for a bit, got a job doing fundraising all over the country and meeting really awesome people. They moved to Galway, one of the fastest growing cities with a population of over 70K, just a week ago or so. Galway is so Irish – green squares, colorful buildings, small specialty shops, claddagh all over the place, and old pubs serving the greatest beer in a really cozy and homely atmosphere. Brian was actually staying in my hostel while he works as a kitchen porter, so he met me in the lobby. He had shaved his head and I hardly recognized him!! I can’t explain how nice it was to see a familiar face, even if it was a hairless Wolken. He introduced me to Emma and Toast, two chuggers, or fundraisers, who he worked with at the company. They were friendly and both interesting. We ate at a Chinese restaurant for the Canadian Grace’s birthday. Man, I missed having flavorful food and enjoying it with a big group of people. We went to the pub they’d been frequenting, the Spanish Arch, because their buddy works there, and just had a bunch of pints and caught up. It was relaxing and a really nice change to Seville. I could wear any kind of clothing and not have to wear uncomfortable shoes and still have entrance to any place I wanted. Brian and I shut the place down waiting for Matt to get off work, then found our way to SPAR (they gave me a shepherds pie like thing…strange) and hung out until about 4 am. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I loved listening to the guys sprinkle their speech with Irish slang like “grand” and “chippers” Funny stuff.
The next morning Matt had time off, so we explored some of Galway’s sights, which aren’t many. We walked through a small market sampling soda breads and watching people barter, stopped by St. Nicholas’ Church and the Nora Barnacle house, walked along the canal to the Cathedral (which looks like every other one), then hiked through the Claddagh, a traditional Irish fishing village. Next we walked along the Galway bay toward Salt Hill, just catching up and taking our time. As there was little else to do before Brian got off work at 3, Matt and I shared a plate of curry chips (I AM IN LOVE) with Rebecca, who we ran in to, then sat in Galway’s oldest pub and had a Guinness a piece. Rumor has it that Matt runs on Guinness, and his new catchphrase is “Guinness is good for you!” We met Emma and Brian, then Toast and Lyndon, and went to another pub for another pint (this time, I got a Blumer’s, a tasty cider that has a crisp aftertaste) before grabbing dinner at this ultra swanky eatery called the Living Room. My food was as basic as it gets, even by Irish standards, but it filled me up in preparation for a night of traveling.


Since the guys had to go to work, I hung out in the hostel with Toast, Emma and two other former Chuggers, Bec and Danny. Although not the most exciting thing to be doing on a saturday night, it was nice to relax and get to know people. That’s my favorite part of traveling – I learned a lot about Australia and veganism and perceptions of Americans from the four of them. When it was just before midnight, I had to leave to catch my bus, but it made me sad to leave these new people who were so friendly and interesting. I actually got a little sad to go back to Spain and back to a semi-real life (yeah, I know, working 12 hours a week is not a real life. But in Ireland I had no responsibilities or lesson planning!). I wanted to get more curry chips from McDunah’s, the most famous chipper in the country, but the place was just boarding up, so I settled for curry chips from SuperMac’s, a huge fast food chain. Not quite as good, but I knew I wouldn’t be eating until I got back to Malaga about 11 am the following morning.

Matt, Brian and me having pints at another pub

I walked back through Eyre Square in the center of town, grabbed my pack from Kinlay House, and walked to where the bus picks up at 115 am. I was konked out almost immediately after sitting down and woke up at the Dublin Airport with a little drizzle. In contrast to the longggg queue in Malaga, no one was in the queue in Dublin, and I had checked in, gotten through security and gotten to my gate at the end of the last gate in about 20 minutes. I kept dozing off and would wake up with a start thinking someone was going to take my stuff .I’m cool. On the plane, I got a little sad to be leaving Ireland after such a short time, but I was looking forward to my own bed and a hot shower and reliable appliances. I woke up just before we got into Malaga and saw the mountains and the pueblos blancos spread out amongst the olive trees. I was happy. Too bad the Agente de Pasaportes wouldn’t let me back into the country. Apparently my visa is only valid for one entry, which happened in Granada on Sept. 13. I tried to fish out my NIE, but it was not with me, so I had to wait until practically all of Malaga moved through the line. I tried to keep from crying, but I was so tired and ready to be back in Sevilla that I couldn’t help it. The guy took pity on me and let me though but warned me that they may not be so nice next time. I got a bus to the bus station, a bocadillo de queso and a bag of doritos to make me feel better and a bus back to Sevilla. I also passed out that whole time, too. Once I got back to my piso, Eva was there to greet me and give me a hug and tell me how much she missed having me at home. I wish she was staying in Sevilla!
Long, yet fantastic, weekend. The boys and I agreed we all made a great decision to come here and that we were fortunate to be safe and happy and have great friends so close. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else right now that teaching and learning and smiling all the time. I would travel the same way in a heartbeat. We’ve got another puente in a month…I’m thinking about asking for an extra day off and going to visit Jessica in Prague and stopping in Brussels or something? Or Vienna? Or anywhere else? Love it
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