1. This is a story I used to tell a lot. I was in Dublin, mid-March 2001, around midnight. It was my second day in the country, on the travel component of a travel-study course, and I’d followed a group of classmates to the Temple Bar area, which is famous for its nightlife. We lined up at a bar and took several shots of whiskey, then we ordered a round of Irish Car Bombs. This is how young we were – even while ostensibly in a class studying Irish religion and culture, it had never occurred to us that the name for that drink might be offensive to actual Irish people. The bartender refused to serve us, not because of the name but because, “nobody should ever do that to a Guinness.” We moved to another bar. It was too loud to talk, and I had no interest in dancing. I drank and watched the room. At some point, I followed a pair of funny Englishmen out of the bar because they said they would take me to a better bar. I didn’t tell my classmates I was leaving. My new friends led me to a nightclub with a line stretching around the corner. Suddenly, three police officers rushed us, and before I understood what was happening, my two Irish companions and I were pinned face-first against a brick wall while the police frisked us. They found knives on the other men, then cuffed them and dragged them away. I was lucky they realized I was just a drunken tourist, not really affiliated with those guys, so they shoved me away. I begged the police to let my new friends go. “Shut the fuck up, Tom,” the officer said. I didn’t remember giving him my name. I was still registering the knives I'd seen on the ground. I wasn’t sure if I was even standing. Another cop shoved me. “Shut the fuck up, Tom," he yelled. I don’t know how or why, but I ended up in the nightclub by myself, lost in the confusion of flashing lights and Britney Spears songs. In desperate need of a bathroom, I followed the wrong signs and found myself in an alleyway holding a pint of Guinness. In a panic, I hurled the glass at a wall and ran. I was so full of booze there was no explaining anything. I was all blunted animal instinct, and my instincts were terrible. I sprinted through the streets of Dublin, stopping occasionally to ask strangers if they knew how I could get back to my hotel, but when they asked me where I was staying, I couldn't tell them. I was wearing cargo pants, and had forgotten the pint glass I’d stolen and stashed in one of the cargo pockets, until I bumped into a wall and heard it shatter. The next morning, I would notice the blood stains on my pants, and would spend a few minutes trying to shake all the loose glass out into a hotel trash can. A stranger grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and shook me. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he said. “You run around like this, you’re gonna get your ears boxed.” I tried to tell him my story, but I realized I was crying and incoherent. He led me to a cab, but I had no cash and didn’t know where to tell the cab to go. I’ve been lost many times, am famous among my friends for getting lost even in my own neighborhood, but I’d never been so completely lost that I thought I might never be found. I found a pay phone and tried to call my parents collect. I didn’t know what they would do, but I was pretty sure they would be able to save me. I was nineteen, and incapable of saving myself. The vagaries of international calling were lost on me, though, and I never got through. I sank to the curb and cried and listened to a busker singing a bad version of a bad U2 song. I thought if I could find a safe place to sleep overnight, maybe my teachers would find me in the morning, and I would have time to figure out some explanation for my behavior. I thought it was possible I would die here. Then I heard someone calling my name; this time it was my roommate. He’d been in the bar directly behind me wondering where I’d gone. I’d thought I’d covered so much ground, but it’s possible in all my running that I never moved outside a two-block radius. He hugged me and I pretended I hadn’t been crying, and he helped me get home. In the room, I vomited for hours. The next morning, we got up just after sunrise and boarded a bus that bounced us along winding mountain roads while I chewed feebly on a single piece of toast.
2. When I got home from the trip, I told that story for laughs. I downplayed the parts where I was a blubbering mess in favor of the slapstick elements. The way to cope with a terrible drinking experience is either to learn from it or pretend it had been fun, and never stop talking about it.
3. Later on that same trip, I got so drunk at a medieval castle banquet that I was convinced everyone could see through my shirt, and I kept telling people to stop taking pictures of me. I tried to confiscate the souvenir photo that the castle wenches had taken, because I didn't want anyone seeing my chest. I cornered a professor and repeated over and over that there was something wrong and the cameras could see right through me. He just looked disappointed in me and led me back to the bus.
4. I went to Ireland twice as a student, both times on spring break. The first time I was nineteen and finishing freshman year of college, and the second I was on the verge of graduating. Both times, I went primarily to drink. While I was there, I learned some things about Irish culture, particularly the religious history. I saw so many abbeys, it’s hard to distinguish them in my memory. A lot of our tourism involved looking at rocks: ruined castles, mysterious pagan altars, incredible cliffs. We looked at rocks and said these are interesting rocks, and we took pictures of the rocks. When we got back to our rooms, we drank Jack & Coke out of plastic cups and then went out to the bars to get drunker and drunker and maybe meet real Irish people.
5. Midway through the second trip, one of our professors, a native Irishman, lectured us over breakfast. Drinking is part of the Irish culture, he said, but not like this. “We don’t just sit around and drink pint after pint after pint,” he said, disgusted. “It’s not a race.” That night, we did our bad impressions of him while we drank even faster. One of the girls on our trip disappeared from the bar with a married couple and didn’t turn up again until the next morning, just before breakfast. She would later miss the connecting flight in Paris on the way home, because she’d run outside to have a cigarette. Years later, now a college professor, I think about how much I would hate to run a travel study course like this, having to police the drinking of a bunch of students who have no interest in learning and only signed up because college means drinking and Ireland means drinking and so college plus Ireland equals double drinking.
6. Between binges, we saw some things that were impossible to forget. The Cliffs of Moher, towering Cathedrals, Croagh Patrick, rolling green hills everywhere like a living postcard. Even viewed through the filter of a jaded, hungover college student watching through the window of a bus, it was impossible to deny: this was a truly beautiful country. This wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but it’s still shock to see it in person. It’s a world made of colors I didn’t even know existed. I wouldn't truly appreciate any of it until I returned to the country five years later, with LauraBeth, and with a much clearer understanding of what I wanted to find.
7. So much of what I remember from my student trips is my time on the bus. We seemed to always be bussing from one place to the next. Our driver plowed down two-way roads that seemed too narrow to even accommodate a motorcycle, and I sometimes felt sure we were about to die. A senior named Hugo sat in the front of the bus by himself, refusing to speak to anyone. He had bought a set of new clothes for this trip and each day, when he undressed, he just threw them out. Another senior and his girlfriend sat together, making out with each other in the sloppiest, lip smackingest possible way for the length of every drive. There was an adult student on one my freshman trip who one afternoon sat with me in the back of the bus and told me that when she got home she would smear peanut butter over her crotch and let the dog lick it off for hours. “You think I haven’t done it?” she said. “I’ve done everything, man.”
8. The experiences of the two college trips run together in my memory. In the moment, there is a rushed intimacy on this sort of trip—you are crammed into close quarters with thirty other people and expected to work it out. On my first trip, I spent a full day with a girl whose longterm boyfriend had died in a car accident just months prior. She cried, and I hugged her, and we trusted each other. Later, when I was too drunk to even get to my room, she escorted me there and made sure my roommate was taking care of me. Now, I can’t even tell you her name. You spend all day with these people and tell stories and laugh and reveal parts of yourself you try to hide at home. Then you get home and you disperse to your real lives and leave the rest behind. You can reinvent yourself for ten days, but then when you get back, the new version of you and the old version can’t coexist. After the first trip, I ran into one of the professors on campus, and he said, “I can’t believe you’re not drunk!” It was ten AM. I was going to class. I wasn’t even sure if I liked drinking, and I was pretty sure I didn’t like being drunk. What I liked was having been drunk. I wanted to accumulate exciting stories, but the further I distance myself from that time, the more I realize there’s nothing exciting about those stories: first I wasn’t drunk, then I was, then I was not again. That’s it.
9. When I teach courses in creative nonfiction, I can count on getting a few essays from students about their own travel study experiences. Most of them follow a similar pattern: leaving the country, getting really drunk, a disastrous sexual fling, and then everyone learning an important lesson about themselves. When I get these essays, I spend a lot of time in class trying to convince people that there's nothing at all interesting about a travel essay in which the person just drinks and drinks until they're very drunk. "Try to think more interesting things about the world," I once wrote on a student's essay. "Nobody cares how drunk you are at a given moment." Like most of my teaching advice, I realize these notes are written to a younger version of myself. Everything I tell students may as well be written on a slip of paper, stuffed in a bottle, and tossed back into the past in case the nineteen year old version of me is there, looking for help.