It began as an attempt at adventure. I met and instantly connected with another American on the second day of an independent trip around Ireland. She’d just landed what was a serious win in the broke-student-traveler-community: a job waiting tables in one of Ireland’s most scenic and secluded tourist destinations. The pay would be in cash and meals and housing were included. They needed more help and it took all of two hours for her to convince me to join her.
I had some firm commitments for the next few weeks, but after that there was a job secured and a bed waiting for me in a former youth hostel dedicated to housing crazy travelers like us who happily dropped everything for a chance at menial labor in a foreign country. Funny the glamor an exotic locale drapes over a situation I would never consider at home. I felt incredibly brave. I had just graduated from university and seemed like a giant step towards true independence. I was a free spirit. What adventures awaited a soon-to-be-waitress on a magical island? Yeah. That lasted.
I traveled and volunteered, all the time anticipating my daring plans, and became enthralled by my second-hand copy of “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell. His trials as an expat casual kitchen laborer and depictions of his home in various Parisian slums were fascinating, touching, and at times hysterical. I had served my time as a waitress in high school and college, and I nodded along with his descriptions of pretentious waiters and raving chefs. Life surely would not be like that for me on my upcoming adventure. The Irish were friendly and relaxed after all, so surely waiting tables would be a breeze of pleasantries. How could anything possibly go wrong in the quaint mountain village that would be my home throughout the tourist season? I envisioned myself taking long post-lunch service walks through the heather-covered hills, or having chatting late into the night with story-spinning locals while traditional music played in the background. Poor Orwell and his days working in appalling conditions and nights spent in rat-infested rooms filled with the sounds of consumptive coughs. Not for me, but thanks for sharing the stories.
One week after my job began, my friend left suddenly due to events back home. I was sad to lose my kindred spirit, but traveling friendships are like that. Mysteriously, when she left, the job and its surroundings began to go pear-shaped. The formerly quiet hamlet of two-hundred odd locals turned from friendly and charming to surly and sinister.
The two brothers who owned the restaurant and hostel remained kind and friendly, but they doled out the pay, not my food and camaraderie Almost overnight, my attempts to acquire the promised meals were met with expressions of shock and confusion along with a bill to be subtracted from my salary. The town’s only other buildings consisted of houses, a post office, and two other two pubs also frequented by my unfriendly neighbors and colleagues. The weather quickly became colder and wetter, and when I wasn’t working I turned to my bed and books for solace and comfort.
I resorted to sneaking into the local shop and shamefully buying anything I could prepare surreptitiously in the hostel kitchen. I slurped Ramen noodles and toasted bread while reading about Orwell’s true hunger after days of food being a luxury he couldn’t afford. He became my partner in misery. His vivid descriptions of the eccentric characters he lived and worked with led me to view my own environment through the eyes of an unseen onlooker. Rather than focusing on my constant frustration and paranoia, I began to imagine those around me as Orwell might. How would he describe the Russian dishwasher with slow and limited English but swift and roaming hands? Surely he too would inwardly mock the shift-long tirades belted out by our chef, a burly blonde woman who could give Gordan Ramsey a run for his money in the drama department. How would my crew of revolving roommates compare with those he shared guesthouses, homeless shelters, and the later the streets with?
The roommates were a story in themselves. Originally, my friend and I were the only two occupants in a large room with empty beds reserved for future women who might join our team. An executive decision shifted my once safe and stable accommodation, and suddenly the formerly ladies-only beds were opened to anyone who needed them. Since I worked in a rural Irish restaurant/pub, weekends brought some pretty interesting regulars. Orwell shared with destitute sock darners and thieves posing as Communists. My roommates included a girl who drank far beyond her fill in the pub below and preferred to wake me rather than her parents with seemingly endless moans and bouts of vomiting. Then there was the harmless, yet noisy gent in his late seventies who came like clockwork every weekend. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent listening to sports matches at high volume from his pink-sheeted bed. Nights were even louder, as his perpetual snores competed only with his flatulence for frequency, volume, and melodiousness.
Thankfully, my only permanent roommate was a homesick young Kiwi who was also working “off the books” on the restaurant’s addition. He was as equally miserable and spent most of his evenings writing letters to his fiance and reading books. He wasn’t reading Orwell, but if I hadn’t been holding on to my book for dear life, I might have lent it to him. We remained unspoken outcasts from the noisy pub below, saving our pennies for flights back home since management had somehow managed to exclude us from the “free daily pint” enjoyed by others. We were better off with our books.
The fateful events that took place as I served lunch on September 11th, 2001 increased my loneliness and anxiety even more. The daily news talked of halted air traffic and fear of further attacks and created a mounting dread that I might somehow become trapped in the town I inwardly referred to as the “Peaks of Despair.” Fearful of months, or even years of bringing sea trout, lamb and pints of Guinness to busloads of tourists while the town around me tutted, gossiped and openly insulted me and my country’s vast evils, I retreated even more into Orwell’s words. By now he was homeless and living as a tramp. This was too much for me to bear, and I skipped back to his days in restaurants, being swindled and abused by seemingly everyone he came in contact with. At least I didn’t have it that bad.
I left only a few weeks later, with a less stable but far friendlier job secured by a good friend in Dublin. As I watched the Peaks of Despair grow smaller through the bus window, I knew that one day, I would look back on my dark days there through an entirely different light. Years later, I even took a friend to see the beauty of the town, and was able to smugly ignore the few people I still recognized.
Orwell was not my guide on a journey down and out, as I was on a quest for experience rather than poverty. My hostel room and service job didn’t begin to compare with his slum accommodation and exploitative labor conditions. He was, however, a great companion. His vision of the world around him helped me emulate his method of interpreting people and situations.
“Down and Out” showed Orwell’s willingness to publicly share deeply personal experiences of degradation and poverty. His detailed and often merciless depictions of those he encountered were matched with a profound analysis of himself and society as a whole. He taught me to view life as a series of tragi-comedic events, peppered with a cast of complex characters. I try to see the world through the eyes of a self-deprecating narrator, and thus I hope I have developed more empathy, patience, and perhaps most importantly during unpleasant times, humor.
What is your favorite On the Road reading moment? What book have you read during your travels that touched you or changed you? Why not share and enter the On the Road travel blogging competition by publishing company “The Works”?
I nominate these 3 travel blogs: