“Good morning,” I said to Joan and Fernando having tea. Joan got up to make me a cup of coffee.
Hangover, coffee, cute baby contest. That would be my day, in that order. It was sure to be a memorable one.
Fernando and Regina went back to town to help with Fair Day, so Joan and I talked most of the morning. So long in fact, that we talked through the church ceremony she planned on attending.
Before heading back home, she walked me up the road to the ruins of St Cianan’s Church, the first stone church built in Ireland.
"This church is where Duleek gets its name," she said. "In Gaelic, it means, house of stones."Before we parted, she invited me to stay with her family in Northern Ireland who lives very close to where I'd be walking. She wrote her address and phone number on a piece of yellow paper then we said our goodbyes.
“I have to admit, I’m feeling a little weird about that,” I said. “I’m this unshaven stranger who just walked into town and now I’m going to judge your babies.”
Regardless of how true all of that is, I knew I had to do it. You can’t have your life’s mission statement be, "Live for the anecdote," and choose to not be the judge of an infant beauty pageant in a small village in Ireland.
I walked around the fair until the time came to make enemies out of all but one of the mothers of Duleek. I used this time to replenish some lost calories. My pants are starting to slip down my waist, before long I’ll have to make a belt for myself. I ate a nine-inch pizza, but not before eating the cheeseburger and the vanilla ice cream cone.
When the time for the contest neared, I found Regina and Gearoid to find out exactly what I would be doing.
“You just go around get their names, learn a little bit about them, and pick the one you like best,” they said.
I asked Regina to be my co-judge, but it became clear to me that the reason they grabbed the foreigner in town was because I didn’t have to live here. I could be hated by all but one of the mothers in Duleek, then walk away. They didn’t have that luxury.
I asked Regina how many babies there would be.
|(Photo: Regina with her father)|
“Oh god. That’s a lot of moms,” I thought.
Moments before the contest started, Gearoid brought over another foreigner he found visiting the fair. An older woman with a kind grandmotherly face. “Oh thank God,” I thought. She would offset the fact that I hadn’t shaved for weeks and was wearing all black clothes and a baseball cap, which wouldn’t ordinarily be creepy, but as baby pageant judge, it suddenly felt extraordinarily creepy.
Luckily, there were far fewer contestants this year. Only about ten showed up. They sat in a circle with me and my co-host standing before them in judgment.
Everyone introduced their infant son, daughter, or grandchild, giving their name and age. Immediately, one ginger baby stood out because he looked exactly like a miniature Glen Hansard, my favorite Irish singer-songwriter. I also like that he looked confused, because if nothing else, we at least had something in common.
At this point, you can already see that I have no business doing this, but it was too late to turn back now.
“This is Cooper,” a proud mother said while looking into her baby’s eyes. He had a round head and massive cheeks. Admittedly, I thought Cooper was hands down the ugliest baby of the group, but before you go judging me, remember that it was my job to judge these babies. Nobody asked you to judge me!
Anyway, let me finish. When Cooper’s mom said his name, his face lit up. He gave everyone a huge smile. I thought his fat cheeks would have been too fat to allow such a thing, but there it was.
Okay, he's a contender.
At the end of the line, the final woman introduced her granddaughter, an adorable little girl with two pony tails sticking out the top of her head, which contrasted the sullen look on her face. She didn’t want to be judged any more than I wanted to judge.
I knelt down beside her and asked, “So, if you were to win the Bonny Baby contest, how would you change the world?”
She stared at me stoically and thoroughly unimpressed.
“She would end all war,” her grandmother said. That scored her some big points, I have to admit.
Gearoid told me and the other judge to go convene out of earshot and decide who would get our votes. She didn’t even have to discuss it. Her mind was set on Cooper since the moment he smiled that impossible smile.
I had to agree. Not because he was the cutest. No, he was definitively the ugliest, even if in an adorable way, but I felt like Best Smile was the least creepy characteristic by which to judge two week to twelve month old babies.
“Alright,” I said to Gearoid. “I think it needs to be unanimous. I second that.”
And just like that, Little Cooper was the victor and I walked away with another anecdote.
When the 2014 Duleek Fair Day came to a close, I helped put away tables, speakers, and gathered up garbage. Afterwards, Regina, Fernando, and I went back to their house to have dinner. Fernando made spaghetti topped with his amazing homemade sauce. Regina, while spreading butter onto baguettes asked, “Do you like garlic bread?”
|(Photo: A shop in Duleek. Together at least.)|
“This man isn’t from America," Fernando said. "I think he’s Irish. His favorite beer is Guinness and he loves garlic bread.”
“I didn’t know garlic bread was an Irish thing,” I said. “I thought it was Italian.”
“No, in Italy,” Fernando said. “We bake it with garlic in it, but we don’t put it on top with butter.”
I still have so much to learn about the world. And since that authentic Mexican restaurant in Dublin seems to be the only one in all of Ireland and the United Kingdom, my solution to terrible Irish food is now to seek out authentic Italian food.
I monopolized the conversation at the dinner table, telling them stories from backpacking and hitchhiking around the U.S. That evening, we went back to town where other volunteers would be meeting at the pub.
The place was packed. We all squeezed together in the back corner. A man best described as an Irish Johnny Cash played guitar and sang both traditional Irish folk songs and American songs by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and others.
We all talked, laughed, and drank all night. I didn't have to buy any of my drinks, since Fernando kept bringing them over. Gearoid told everyone that I was walking around the entire world. This started conversations that I never would have had given my incredible shyness in rooms packed with so many people. I had a long and wonderful conversation, with an artist who sold all four of her paintings in the Art Expo, about what we've discovered are the most important things in life.
A group of eighteen year olds, who were celebrating reaching the legal age to drink, pulled me aside and said they told them to ask what I was doing in Ireland. I showed them the overview map of my cross-country hike and what I had planned afterwards. Their mouths hung open with disbelief. It made me feel great.
When that group of kids left, one of them was repeatedly tapping the end of his nose with his index finger while looking at Gearoid. I didn’t think much of it, since I see lots of things I’m not used to here.
“I told them to ask you what you were doing in Ireland,” Gearoid said. “If they thought you seemed absolutely normal I told them to tap their nose once. If they thought you seemed a little crazy tap twice. And if you seemed completely mad tap three times.
I thought about how enthusiastically the boy was tapping his nose. And so there it is. Proof that the Irish, who according to Gearoid don’t walk, think I’m beyond mad.
I sat back with my third Guinness, looked around at all the laughing, dancing and singing, and absolutely fell in love with the town of Duleek, a town with little more than a grocery store and a couple of restaurants, but with such wonderful people who possess such a contagious friendliness and sense of community.
“I’m going to be sad to leave this place,” I told Gearoid once nearly everyone had gone home.
“Stop right there,” He said. “The Irish don’t do sentimentalities.” He turned to the only other person in earshot. “Listen to him, talking about sad.”
“Seriously,” I said. “This has been the best two days on my trip.
I know I’ve said before that I’m not looking for anything on this trip, and that remains to be true, but that is in no way preventing things from finding me.
I walked back to Reginia and Fernando’s a little less wobbly than the night before, but not for a lack of drinking. Maybe I’ve finally been in Ireland long enough to keep up.