Pandemic travel writing is a bit of an oxymoron. The genre is one of such duress yet universality – the masks, the wrinkled brows at those who let it fall beneath the nose, the tests, the joy at seeing long-missed loved ones and the pain at only being able to see them through the crack of an isolation-room door. December 2020 presented me with another oxymoron: a Christmas alone.
Going back home to Colorado in March and returning to Dublin in August had provided me with a month’s total life experience that two weeks of isolation in a single room, while completely medically necessary, was mentally debilitating. So when the holidays and their plane rides home to Colorado from Dublin came around, I sadly informed my family if coronavirus on the way home didn’t get me, the four weeks of isolation required probably would. I also thought bringing my parents and roommates the virus would be a bit harsher than coal in their respective stockings.
So, I went searching for a getaway, my only requirements being a proximity to the ocean and somewhere out of Dublin where I’d stewed in for long enough. I spun the globe of the Airbnb website for whoever had an available standalone property on Christmas Eve and landed on a cottage in Fanore, Co Clare. My lovely hosts informed me my choice was so remote the only small corner shop-cum-tackle shop-cum-bus stop had the basics (not to worry, they assured me – that included wine) but anything “exotic” would have to be bought at a supermarket a town away. I accepted their kind offer to do shopping for my Christmas dinner. They also told me getting about on foot in Fanore would not do and I’d need at least a bike. A friend offered his to bring across the island. I borrowed another friend’s backpack. I assured my parents this was for the best. I bought my bus tickets and was off.
The news of my Christmas plans made for a sort of litmus test of holiday cheer – some looked stricken, disturbed, some offered hands on shoulders and enquiries into wellbeing and sanity – a solo Christmas and plea for help. Others waved away my plans and insisted I go home with them. A few sighed and said knowing their family, they wished they could tag along too. I tried to sell it to everyone as a writing retreat: I’d pull some literary fulfilling hermit stunt à la Thoreau’s little cabin in the Wesht where Yeats told Synge to travel to for material. I did not manage a Walden’s Pond or Playboy of the Western World. My text’s moral reaches no political or subversive heights other than realising that absence does make the heart grow fonder. That taking care of yourself sometimes means making the hard choice and breaking tradition. And that, like Thoreau, I miss my mom doing my laundry.
When the holidays and their plane rides home to Colorado from Dublin came around, I sadly informed my family if coronavirus on the way home didn’t get me, the four weeks of isolation required probably would
On December 23rd, I rode the bike, teetering top heavy away with the weight of my pack to the sound of my friend’s farewell laughter at the sight of me. The bus to Galway stored the bike below. As we pulled out of the quays and the city I felt the old rush of being on the road again–I’d forgotten its pull. Destination was irrelevant. I was moving out of the crumpled stasis of four months in the same house, the potential for the unknown –even if it went badly – a thrilling high after a period when the most variability in my life was the re-organisation of the Lidl aisles.
At Galway bus station I confronted my first risk: a vaguely unguaranteed spot for my borrowed bike. I found the station master, the first of many to be pittingly bemused at this random American girl travelling alone to a random place at Christmas time. After jokingly giving me a hard time, he informed me the bus fleet had been changed a couple weeks before and no longer included undercarriages. Oh. But not to fear, he’d call a new bus for me to Fanore and promised that at 8am on St Stephen’s Day there was a special one to take me and my bike back. It was Christmas after all. I wheeled my bike and unruly bag to the bus terminal for Fanore, and began to hear amongst the chatter between bus drivers, the crinkle of radios, and the station master talk of “the bike girl”. I already had a nickname. The station master came back, mask akimbo, and assured me if the right bus didn’t come, he’d let everybody know there’s a Yank with a bike that’s to be taken care of come the 26th, and to just detach the wheel and we’ll throw it in the back, no bother. I thanked him profusely for his charitable Christmas spirit. Aboard Chekov’s bus, I picked a window seat and set out onto the winding open road.
My Airbnb host met me at the bus stop. The cottage was tiny and perfect, situated between rolling green hills and within sight and sound of the excitable lull of the Atlantic. I was given a tray of breakfast food from my masked hosts. They left the whole chicken, potatoes, garlic, onion, brussel sprouts and carrots on the counter. Ralf and Áine were lovely, kind and curious as many were as to what the hell I was doing out here. We made small talk over the threshold of the door, careful to meet each other from a distance. Áine asked if I would have a Christmas tree and I answered no, I couldn’t fit one in my bag. “Well, that won’t do!”
An hour later I heard the doorbell ring and found her standing with a bottle of red wine and a vase filled with branches wrapped in Christmas string lights. “I’m sorry, Claire, I thought we had one in the attic but I looked all over. This was the best I could do.”
I didn’t know what to do with such generosity that I had to hold myself back from hugging her. We said our goodbyes and they drove off to go spend their holidays with their children in Dublin. I was left holding the tree and the realisation that I was very much alone.
Christmas back home in Colorado is simple enough, but my family has a fondness for the clockwork ritual of it. We buy the tree together at the McGuckin’s hardware store, debating the merits of Charlie Brown-esque austerity or full “chonky boys”. We put on the same Christmas playlist, my mom and I wanting to skip through my dad’s German classical choir to Mariah Carey, and decorate it together. My dad still insists on carefully laying each individual tinsel on the tree himself – my mom and I boycotted the practice when we learned he sources the old-fashioned stuff that’s made of lead “because it’s the only kind that glimmers this way and doesn’t fly off”. We suggest his 1960s childhood nostalgia is not worth lead poisoning. He kindly tells us to mind our business and put on the Bing Crosby, goddamnit. A short, self-made tradition was to try and find crazy sweets we’d never tried before and eat them all on Christmas Eve. Each year the candy got crazier (by year five, chocolate-covered crickets were involved) and an unfortunate by-product tradition being me barfing it all up the next morning. We maintain the life-long custom of Eggs Benedict on Christmas morning. In the tiny bus-stop shop in Fanore I searched for Hollandaise sauce and found none.
When I moved from my landlocked mountain home to coastal Dublin, I used to love waking up to the sound of seagulls. It was a sound of newness, a reminder I made it to a new sea-level passage in my life. At Christmas in Clare, every sight was a reminder I wasn’t home. Home is the snow-cloaked nook between the foothills of the rockies and the flat expanse of the plains, contained and cradled in the crackling dry white Rocky Mountains almost a mile high, the claustrophobia of the west eased by the golden tinder of the pastures and meadows. As I wheeled my bike down the road to explore, Clare was a strange December of lush, green grass and illusory, puffy heather hedges. The sound of the ocean was never out of my eardrum as I picked up speed, where at home I’d have to drive for days just for a whisper of it. In the Venn diagrams of my life, I found a happy Christmas middle in the sight of cows grazing on purple patches along the waves. If I ever needed to clear my head at the large extended family gathering at my aunt and uncle’s farm, I’d take long walks on the farm roads, passing horses, hay and cows. The sight of them so far away in such an oceanic foreign setting was so jarring and ridiculous it made me laugh as I passed them.
From the stasis of lockdown winter where we had to train ourselves to manage stasis, I rode to the sunset feeling like there was a direction to go, the wind whipping life back into the face breathing heavily under an overgrown fringe. My teeth ached with the cold sweet mouthfuls of it like a cavity with Christmas candy. This holiday to Clare had few destinations, only a shop, a cottage and a beach. Left to myself, all I had left was to chase the fading light.
Bent out of shape, I turned into the road to the beach parking lot and whatever was left of my breath was taken away by a sunset that escapes the words I try to write. I was barrelling, swaying towards the setting sun and the edge of the ocean. I raised my arms off the landbars and laughed. I probably looked like a maniac.
Driven to solitude by the pandemic, I became more grateful and pushed to reach out to friends and family. I asked if my dad could make me a playlist of the holiday songs we’d play at home. It began with Planxty’s “The West Coast of Clare,” a song he’d sing me to sleep as a child. Whenever I wasn’t at the beach, or singing and dancing around the house in a way you only can when you know you’re alone, I was on the phone catching up with loved ones I hadn’t spoken to in months. A friend who lived in Galway city sent a video of her walking the Promenade to see the sunset pointing into the bay where she thought I must be and waved to wish me Happy Christmas. I sent a video back and pointed with gloved fingers into the peach fuzz clouds to say “That must be you! Love you!”
I had never cooked a whole chicken before and made an SOS group chat with my aunts who were always found in the kitchen at the Christmas party. They excitedly advised me on olive oil versus butter, how to baste, what temperature to roast it at. I kept up the morbid extended family tradition of naming the Christmas bird, christening her Caoimhe –“pronounced ‘quee-vah’, Aunt Syl.” The photo of my dinner for one gets passed around the Colorado table and I get word my chef uncle thinks it looks great.
Every sight was a reminder I wasn’t home
Christmas day was clear and pale blue. I had to wait till noon to facetime my parents for their 8:00 am opening of their simple presents to each other. I read at the beach eating strawberries with gloved hands till the sunset came blooming in again. I looked up to the sky and its puckered double on the water. I was alone on the sand except for one other man who walked along the shore. I wondered what he was doing by himself on Christmas day, why he wasn’t in a warm living room, picking up scraps of wrapping paper and half sucked candy canes stuck to the carpet.
My daydreams were interrupted by the voice of every true crime podcast I’ve binged to remind myself I was a woman travelling alone and it was getting dark. The only weapons at my disposal were a copy of The Waves and a plastic tub of strawberry leaves. As I walked through the wet sand to my bike he began to follow me. I imagined the Netflix documentary trailer they’ll make out of this scenic crime, “An American girl, alone in the Burren on a Christmas day that would be her last,” as I fumbled with my lock. He walked past me and into his car to drive into the last trail of the sunset. Maybe he just needed a break. Maybe he found just as much joy in sunsets and thrill at the waves as I did. Maybe he wondered what a girl with a book was doing at a beach alone on Christmas day.
The next day I cleaned the cottage and packed my bags to the sound of my father’s playlist, leaving twenty for Áine and Ralf’s grocery trip. I took my last bike ride down past the heather and the sea, which, that final day, was not glowing and lapping but grey and angry. Ralf texted the night before warning it was supposed to be stormy and dangerous and to stay another night if I wanted. But I rode to the bus stop. Christmas only lasts so long.
Twenty minutes late, the wind buffeting me and the bike against an unlit Christmas tree, I spied the bus. It had no undercarriage. The driver pulled up and I explained that the Galway station master said I could take the wheel off the bike and put it in the back. He informed me no way, no how is that bike getting on the back of his bus. If the station master told me so, why doesn’t he drive his car from Galway and put it in the back of his. Dumbfounded, the reality of being stranded in Fanore alone setting in, I asked if there’s any other way to Galway.
He pointed to the bike.
And he drove away. Maybe Christmas in Clare would last forever. I couldn’t abandon the generous donated bike from a friend. Particularly post-Christmas dinner I was not fit enough to follow my friendly neighborhood bus driver’s recommendation. The storm brewed on. The ocean roared. I refused to cry.
Okay, maybe I cried just a little when I called the Bus Éireann help line and explained the situation. Or maybe it was the sheets of rain on my cheeks as I waited for the promised saviour of an undercarriage.
It came, thank God. Once we pulled into Galway the new driver wandered over to me to help me lug the bike out. He asked after my accent and what I was doing out here all alone. I explained my situation and he nodded sadly. His daughter went to university in Florida and couldn’t come home this year either. I told him it was probably hardest on my parents. He looked at me with his kind eyes feathered with crows feet and told me he cried all Christmas day. He looked like he wanted to hug me, but sent me on my way with a booming “Good luck! Merry Christmas!”
I called over my shoulder as I walked the bike away, “And a happy new year to you!”
I got off the bus to a dark Dublin night. Raindrops were beating down horizontally now. Those foolish enough to use umbrellas left their contorted carcasses on the road. The city lights seeped slick into the puddles between the cobblestones. The wheels of the bike sprayed the neon red and green wet across the path and up the hem of my trousers as I walked the 45 minutes home alone.
Perhaps this was a dry run performance of the adulthood I felt looming post-graduation: a stab to prove to everyone who cared about me, anyone who’d want to know exactly where to send the Christmas card, and myself I was independent enough to make the most communal holiday work. But it wasn’t my sturdy flippant independence that gave me a truly merry Christmas. It was the friend who lent me the ever-storied bike, the one who gave me the backpack, the Airbnb hosts who did Christmas dinner shopping for a girl they didn’t know and constructed her a homemade tree, the tackle shop owner who carefully wrapped my punnet of strawberries in an extra bag to keep them safe after asking if I was planning on biking down to the beach. It was my dad’s playlist, my mom’s FaceTime narration of Christmas day, my aunts’ roast chicken FAQ groupchat, it was the bus driver who saw his daughter in me and helped bring me home. Thoreau’s rugged independence was a myth. He hosted parties, was half a mile from town, yes his mom did do his laundry. But that doesn’t discount that his experience at Walden was restorative and beautiful.
I’d love to go back to Fanore. Just not for Christmas this year.