An Eejit Abroad: I Didn’t Order a Milk
By Conor Makem
People ask me all the time, “Is sleeping on the sidewalk outside a busy train station as wonderful as it sounds?” The short answer is no, and I normally tell interrogators this with a hearty laugh and a pat on the arm. But there’s a more thorough answer:
I turned twenty in 1988, and celebrated with a trip across Europe, a good friend named Jim accompanying me in the endeavor. It was a month-long excursion, an experience I felt sure I would repeat many times (Advice to younger folks: take the trip whilst you can. Life has a way of crushing all of your hopes, plans and dreams).
We hadn’t planned it much. We knew the areas we wanted to hit, and some of the sights we wanted to see. But we wanted freedom, so things were left loose.
Okay, may I just say one thing? Who am I asking? Of course, I can.
Going back over the memories, the old instamatic cameras were absolute crap. My photos from the trip are dark and lifeless, fuzzy and indistinct. So, all you young people out there, appreciate what you have on your smartphone. Hold a tissue in front of the lens the next time you snap a photo. That’s how these things used to look.
Anyhoo, we started our journey in London, where we hit some of the favorites, like Abbey Road and the Changing of the Gordon’s Dry Gin spokesmen. Near the end of that bit of skylarking, I found a cheap flight to Ireland (yes, we actually read a slip of paper in a window and booked it that way. Crazy, right?).
All of my cards on the table, Jim didn’t want to visit Ireland. He figured we were heading in the wrong direction and was anxious to streel the mainland. I would not acquiesce. And so, we went.
I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that he fell in love with the country.
At one point, in the small townland of Derrynoose, which contains more Makems per square foot than any place on earth, we decided to walk into town, which consisted of a church and a post office/shop. Along the way, a single tractor lumbered past, with a pipe-smoking farmer at the helm.
“Hello boys,” the man said as he took to the passing lane.
We waved back and Jim consequently asked who the man was. “I dunno,” I replied.
“No, come on,” says Jim, “who is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, quit kidding around, who was that guy?”
“I told you, Jim, I’ve never seen the man.”
“So, you’re telling me that guy just said ‘hi’ for no reason?”
“That’s what I’m saying, Jim. We’re in a village that could probably fit on a bus and we’re the only three people likely to pass each other.”
Pizza in Ireland
And that was that. Jim loved Ireland. His first hope was to move there and set up a pizza delivery business, which I informed him wouldn’t work in Ireland (Don’t send me mad emails, this was 1988 and what you got at the time was meat, veg and two forms of potato).
Then he decided just to move over and get a job. I shot that one down too, it still being 1988 and him not being Irish and all that and the country being pretty adamant about bestowing any available jobs to the Irish, many of whom were quite looking for one.
So, after a swell time on the ould sod, we caught a ferry to France, saw Paris and what it had to offer, and then booked an eight-hour train ride to Amsterdam. Now, we had Eurail passes, providing fairly good travel across the continent, but we had heard that the trip from Paris to Amsterdam was standing room only and if we didn’t want to be perpendicular for eight hours, we were well off throwing down a few shekels for a booked seat. We happily complied.
Here was the first real flaw in the otherwise perfect Persian rug that was our vacation. For although our seats were occupied when we arrived at them, there was a cheeky young man in Jim’s seat and a weary, old dozing biddy in mine. Jim’s seat was easy enough to clear. He showed the man his ticket and that was that. But what was I to do, kick a frail and sleeping granny out into the aisle?
So, for eight hours, Jim sat happy as a clam as I meandered through the throngs, leaning on seats and generally yawning at an alarming rate.
(Amsterdam is not for a family publication.)
(Nor is Germany.)
Italy was fun. I should mention that in an alley in Rome, we ran into the kid from the train-who was sitting in Jim’s seat-and who we also joined for some festivities in Amsterdam.
Then we returned to France, Nice to be exact. We left our belongings in a locker at the train station, passports, wallets and all. Then we headed out to explore the city.
I had heard that McDonald’s sold beer in France, so we being two twenty-year olds … well, you know. Having had nine years of French at Catholic schools, I approached the cashier and said, “Donnez-moi un bier, s’il-vous-plaît.”
She uttered something that left a blank look on my face. Recognizing how terrible my accent was, she responded in clear English. “Is that for here or to go?”
“Ah yes, very good. To go, then.”
“Beer needs to stay on the premises.”
“Right-e-o, I’ll have it for here.”
“Is that all?”
“Oui,” said I.
“You can’t order just beer. You need to order food with it.”
“I see. Well, okay, I’ll have a beer and a small fry.”
I paid her and she left, returning with a small fry and a carton of milk. So that turned into a whole thing, which ended up with me sulking over a plastic cup of beer and a small fry in a McDonald’s in Nice, France, while Jim complained that it cost money for the packets of ketchup.
Yes, this McDonald’s episode actually happened.
When we returned to the train station for our belongings so that we could secure some bedding for the night, we-along with several other young men-were surprised to see that the train station was closed at 6 p.m. and that everything was locked up.
We tried our hand at sleeping on the beach, but to be honest it was comprised of rocks and not comfortable in any way, shape or form. Plus, we were wearing our summer gear, which was shorts and tee-shirts and it was pretty darned cold. And on top of it all, there was a noisy brawl on the boardwalk above us, which put us at unease, so we returned to the station and slept on the sidewalk outside, waiting for doors to reopen.
I will say this once and for all. Sleeping on the sidewalk outside a busy train station is not enjoyable, even in Nice, France. Give it a try, if you must, but be prepared for disappointment.
*Conor Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem.