The Perfect Snowflake

It was something unexpected. An invitation to join a road trip after only three weeks at Georgia Tech, with people I didn’t quite know yet and to a town I knew just one thing about. Where to begin the story of that great journey to place far away? A journey out of Georgia and across Tennessee on MLK weekend, to Nashville with 9 wonderful people who I would call my friends forever after. The best place to start dear reader, is in the middle.

The Air-BnB was huge. Just right for a party of ten who didn’t mind sleeping on the sofas. Alec was making his famous chili in the kitchen as the sun went down on the rooftop decking and the back garden. We milled around exploring the house and the garden, chatting, and taking pictures of each other in the golden light and drinking beer. There was an air of contentment and excitement in this new place among new friends.

I went to the off-license several times that first evening on resupply missions. One shop was across the road from an old grain storage building. A tall concrete thing with a giant mural of an old man looking up towards the sky. We wondered who was so important. He looked a bit like Jimmy Carter to me.

One gray man rises above Dollar General. 7 men in gray wait for one to come out.

When the sun went down and it got cold outside, dinner was ready, and Alec instructed us on how to best serve ourselves his chili in burrito wraps. It was imperative that after you added the chili, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and doritos (in that order) that your burrito was de-juiced over the chili pot and that further seasoning was added on top before wrapping it all up whatever way you liked. The chef was roundly complimented by all at the table. (and by table, I mean in the kitchen/open plan living space. There was no big dining table.)

Left: Chili a la Byrne. 35mm; Right: Hannah and Mel chowing down. Both with a Canon AE-1

After we had filled ourselves up with that delicious meal and with more beer, we ubered into town. The Broadway Strip was our destination. I didn’t expect every bar in Nashville to have a live country music act, but it was so. Every bar did have a live country music act. Our bar was ‘The Ol’ Red.’ Because it was the only place letting people under 21 inside before 9pm. We managed to stay there for the evening to hear Skylar Anderson sing Tennessee Whiskey and Can’t drink you away girl. I don’t know why, but those two songs in particular became the anthems of the trip after that. I listened to those songs standing beside Mel, and maybe that was the reason that they had such an effect on me. We had some common experiences with women at that time which those two songs spoke to. I tried to ask him about that and about our lives with some stupidly cryptic question that only annoyed him briefly before he returned to cheering over the balcony.

I saw Linda was standing further along the bannister I went to her for some company. I asked her what I had asked Mel. “Where are you, and where are you going?” We had some fun discussing that while Skylar Anderson went around with the tip bucket, singing and talking with the wireless microphone. “I’ve been doing the for 5 years and I call it a job!” At the end of the night when he was finished up and getting ready to leave. Linda, Mel and I saw fit to go down and talk with the man himself. “You sang how I was feeling!” I said to him as I shook his hand, Mel and Linda made similar acclamations. We even got a picture with him.

Sometimes, you’ve got to tell someone how you feel. We were big fans. Photo credit, Alec (I think)

We left the Ol’ Red soon after he did and walked up and down Broadway looking for bars that would let us all in. We found none, but we did find a cowboy boots and hats shop. A cultural experience. You could walk in at 11pm as we did and try on all of the party boots that you wanted for free. Many of them were very flamboyant indeed. $400 for a pair though. No thanks. We just took pictures

Somewhere in Tennessee, 1888. Colourised.

On Sunday, after a good breakfast of Danish style porridge, we went to see some of the sights in Nashville. The super bowl semi final was playing on screens in the city center. Nashville vs. Kansas I think. But it was cold outside and we had another plan for the early afternoon. Line dancing. We were in the capital of country music after all. Classes were on every half an hour in a bar off Broadway, given by a teacher who had to stop waiting tables and give us tourists a class in what she must have thought was the most boring dance in the world. Once we got to know the dance, we found that its 4-beat rhythm makes it fit into just about any song you can think of. For the rest of the semester, at every big party in Atlanta, a line dance could break out at any time to almost any song.

That smile says it all. Line dancing became iconic for us after this trip. Photo credit: Linda.

On our second night, after a day of seeing some sights and going to the grocery and liqueur store for more supplies, Hannah made a delicious congee for ten with spring onion, crushed nuts and a lime on top. We taste tested whiskey from a taster’s kit that Julien had bought. There were three varieties. It seemed to me that each was more bitter than the last. We talked over beer and Jack Daniels until quite late at night.

The lovely congee. photo credit: Linda.
Whiskey tasting with the connoisseur himself, Julein. 35mm with a Canon AE-1

We played a wonderful game then when we were all sitting on the couches and brought the chairs over. The game was to tell your life story in sixty seconds. The ten of us had known each other for just three weeks at this early stage, but this was a great way to get a proper introduction to how everyone viewed their lives. The conversation continued down several veins and got quite intimate at times. I think when you’re in a confined space with like-minded people, you tend to get very close very quickly. And so, it was  a pleasantly long night in.

Left: The “Who’s the most likely to…” game in action; Right: Linda, Shauna and I pointing at you, dear reader. Both are 35mm with a Canon AE-1. photo credit on the right to unknown

The next morning, I woke up to Viggy shouting, ‘It’s Christmas!’ Sure enough, it was snowing outside. Viggy had brought his frisbee and Mel and I played outside in the snow. Linda came out and played too. It was cold and we got hungry and no one else had gotten up yet so the four of us decided that the most marvellous thing to do when we got back inside was to play Christmas songs throughout the house, while we made ‘Christmas pancakes.’ That roused the troops well enough.

As we prepared to leave, Viggy continued frisbeeing outside with Alec. Of course, it had to land on our neighbours’ roof and Viggy had to knock on the door to ask for it back. Our neighbours were an elderly couple. The man came out and lent Viggy a ladder to retrieve his frisbee. How the conversation turned in the direction it did, I do not know, but the man revealed to Alec and Viggy that the huge mural of an old man on the side of a tall concrete grain store just down the street was in fact an image of him! Viggy and Alec were dumbfounded, and they told the rest of us when they got inside. We didn’t believe them at first but they were adamant. They were too polite to ask for a picture, so here’s Mel standing in front of the mural instead.

The resemblance was uncanny. Photo credit: Linda

We came home in the two cars via Lynchburg Tennessee where, upon Julien’s suggestion we visited the Jack Daniels distillery. The place was not visually impressive, but the different smells that were in each room and the scale of the production of whiskey going on there (every bottle of JD in the world is made there) and the connection it seems to maintain with its history were striking.

The trees around the factory were covered in a strange jet-black coat of what looked like paint or ink. When asked, the tour guide explained that ‘the black stuff on the trees is a kind of micro-flora which feeds on the alcohol vapours that’s in the air around here. In fact, during prohibition times, one of the ways that a bootleggers forest distillery could be found out was the police looking for the tell-tale “black frost” which was growing on the trees around their distilleries.’ Fascinating.

It was on the factory tour that the perfect snowflake landed in Viggy’s hair. I didn’t thing that they really existed, but there one was in front of me. A fitting omen for the outstanding weekend that was just coming to a close.

The perfect snowflake. suitable that it landed in Viggy’s hair too.

In Lynchburg, after the tour, we had our lunch in a quiet, just-about-to-close-at-5pm diner. The food wasn’t great and the interior over-decorated, but it was something to keep us going and I spotted some local honey for sale at the register. (I’ve an interest in honeys like that because there is a beekeeper around where I’m from in Portlaw who makes honey from just a few hives so you know that the honey is from the flowers around my hometown. There’s something in that that appeals to me. )

The food was sorely needed, for the car ride home was long. 3 hours through rural Tennessee past Chattanooga and into north Georgia. On the way, I was delighted when we decided to read a short story aloud in the car. The story was ‘The Lady and the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov. It was on my kindle and I had read it last year. We took turns voicing the characters. We finished it in an hour, and then talked about it for some more time after that. A rare pleasure with friends, to talk at length about obscure books that you have all just heard read aloud.

Before we knew it, we were parked outside the I-house helping everyone carry their luggage in from the rental car before we returned it that evening. Linda, my star navigator throughout the trip came with me for the last mile of the journey. I was glad she did, or else I may have fallen asleep or gotten lost more than twice as I did anyway. I was sad turning in the keys at the hotel that it had all so soon glided by. That marvellous time with those marvellous people already a memory.

But I was so glad that it had happened. It showed me what was possible. You don’t have to know anything about where you’re going, or what you’ll do there. It’s the people you go with that count, and you don’t even have to know them very well. What made this trip to Nashville the perfect snowflake, was the unexpected bond we formed together over food, whiskey, beer and country music.

20,000 Leagues Over the Sea.

The most wonderful time that I ever had in my life, was when I went on a university exchange to America. I have never known such a deep and rich experience as that, and I hope that I will someday feel that way again. To understand what made me feel this way, it’s not necessary to know the minute details of the day to day happenings of my life there. I believe that the essence of the time can be conveyed in handful of stories which exemplify all that was great and good about that time and place. I have some 35mm film photographs to show here as well which will help show you what it was like.

This account is retrospective. I am writing now in May, 6 weeks after I left. What happened at the end of the trip and since, will colour my view of what came before it. Instead of trying to write an accurate objective account, using my journal as a reference, I think it will be better to recognise the perspective from which I am writing and let it into the story.

This account is personal. I will be writing from my point of view in the past. It would be wrong of me to publish an account in which I try to write like a fly on the wall, when I was not. I was there, participating in the stories you will read here.

I’d like to say too that none of the fun that I had would have been possible without the friends I went with and the friends I made there. It was the people that made the place what it was.

20,000 Leagues Over the Sea.
3rd and 4th of January

It had only been 13 days since I was drinking beer in the Neiderdorf and saying goodbye in Zurich, but today I was going again, further away, and for longer this time.

On the morning of the 3rd, I awoke from my bed and went downstairs to have breakfast. The sun had not risen yet but my father had. My mother came down soon after and was eager to be off. We couldn’t be late. She was followed by my two sisters who were sleepy eyed and reluctant to be going to Dublin so early in the morning.

The drive felt short because I slept most of the way up. At the airport, we parked the car and all went inside. I checked in my huge heavy bags with a nice lady in at business check-in, while my family got themselves breakfast. On my way up to the cafe I met Mel with his whole family and then some, coming down the elevator to do the same as me. A happy reunion. I said I’d meet him at security after breakfast.
                They had finished eating when I came up and I had only a croissant and a damp cup of coffee. My mother kept asking for the time. I don’t remember what we talked about. They were eager to send me on my way. My mother was anxious, my sisters were tired and apathetic, but I could tell that my father was happy that I was going. Even a little proud. We hugged and said goodbye at the start of security where they could follow me no further. They were all smiling at me when I looked back to give one last wave.
                Inside, at the start of the duty-free, I met Mel and Alec. Looking back, I consider this as the start of the trip. It was then that I joined with the two friends who I would rarely be without in Atlanta. We went straight to the US pre-clearance centre, got through (with some difficulty) and headed for the business class lounge. We flashed our tickets to the ladies at the front desk and we were in. A set of huge floor to ceiling windows gave us a panoramic view of the taxing planes. The rising sun was bright and was beaming down through the east window onto the food. We set down our bags and scooped ourselves a huge fry with coffee and ate it watching the airplanes go by. I took this first picture on my camera then.

The Frenchman’s idea of an Irish breakfast. Look at all that cheese.

We didn’t talk about what was to come. Only how delicious the food was and about the planes outside. It was an ideal breakfast to start the long journey.

                On the plane, an Aerlingus A330, we were shown to our business class seats. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. But only because it’s special. We left the booking of our tickets quite late. The fares were volatile and it just so happened that the business class fare was cheaper than economy on the day that we booked it. We simply had to. I still cant believe we could have paid more for a seat in economy than what we got.
                The seats were huge, and they lay down totally flat for for sleeping. I took my second good picture of the day then. A little dark, but you can see them smiling,

All comfortable on board. You can see Alec’s first glass of white on his table.

The first glass of wine was offered before they even finished boarding. Alec accepted. Mel and I remained temperant until after take off.
                The whole flight was an experience. The food, the wine, – Alec had five glasses by the time we landed in Boston – The conversation with some rich Americans sitting nearby, the comfort. Being able to lie flat and sleep after my roast beef and two glasses of red was simply marvelous.

The food on this flight was better than many meals I’ve had on the ground.

I had the pleasure of a window seat too. I saw Ireland pass under me from Dublin to Galway, then over Inis Mór and Inis Méan. the last piece of western Galway receded to the right and we were over the great blue expanse of the Atlantic. After some hours of food drink and relaxation, Newfoundland started appearing through gaps in the clouds.
                We arrived in Boston after 8 hours over hurtling through the air. I was a little sad that the flight was over. It was a gray day, around 1 pm local time when we touched down. Mel and Alec were good friends in UL with a girl in Electrical Engineering called Theresa who happens to live in Boston. She came over to UL for the cheaper price of college. She was our cicerone for the day. And what a wonderful 5 hours of walking around Boston we had. She took us to Fanueil Hall, Boston Common, the freedom trail, the grave of Benjamin Franklin. Boston is a city which wears its history on its sleeve. A history which is longer and grander than that of any other American city. And Theresa knew the place well. I took a good few nice photographs then.

Mel and Alec acting the fool on the Greenway
Boston reflects.
History and modernity both well behaved on the same street
One from my phone. (Pixel 3a). Late evening in central Boston.

Because of its density, and older age, Boston feels like a European city. Although the buildings are tall, I felt like its scale was still human. It reminds me a little of London.

                Theresa was a fantastic guide and lovely to talk to. I don’t know why I had never really spoken to her before then. My favourite part of the tour was Boston Common. A huge public park, one of the oldest in the world. It had fountains, statues, well kept grass, big old trees, many grey squirrels, and an ice rink. We considered getting on for a skate, but the evening was getting on and we were getting hungry.

We had dinner in a Thai restaurant. I don’t remember much about it, except that the food was OK and filled me quite well and when I we emerged from the place, the streetlights were on, and two boys were playing with a baseball on the steps. I wanted to keep walking around. The city was beautiful at night, and I savoured the sights as they came to me on our walk back to the bus station. A man playing jazz on a street corner, a woman feeding the pigeons from a bench. Crowded intersections of people crossing the street under the lights of the city. At the airport we all hugged and said goodbye to the Theresa. She had been great company on our flying visit. We made our way to the gate for the flight to Atlanta. Tiredness was beginning to set in. I don’t remember what time it was, but I know that I must have been awake for at least 20 hours by the time they called our boarding group.

A person sitting in a chair

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“Delirium. The new fragrance for jet-lagged fuckers.”- Alec

The flight to Atlanta was three hours. Pittance compared to the eight hours we had spent crossing an ocean. But that was in business class. And oh! How I missed those comforts on this second flight. I couldn’t sleep a wink, the lights were kept on the whole time, and no free food. We landed in Atlanta at one in the morning. It was pouring rain outside.

                Finding bags and making our way through the rain to the uber pickup was a challenge after having gone so long without sleep. We found the uber and drove to the I-house on Techwood drive. Driving through Atlanta late at night in the rain while sleep deprived gave me a certain type of first impression of the place. More big lights, a six lane highway through the city center, People sleeping rough in the underpass tunnels. As a city, not as impressive as the London of the west we had come through. We reached the I house and noted how the bank of America building whose orange-lit spire was half obscured by the rain clouds, looked a bit like Sauron’s Tower.

A city street at night

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Is the what Mordor looks like? We would soon find out.

We called a resident’s assistant number and waited outside in the rain for someone to let us in. We were shown our rooms and we collapsed into bed. Mel had to walk a half mile to his accommodation at North-Ave in the rain. I did not envy him. We had been travelling for twenty-five hours and thousands of miles to get to our beds in this place. They had no sheets, so we slept in our clothes. The long journey was at an end, a new age would begin the very next day.