This big crazy adventure of mine started in Ireland back in 2003.
I landed in Dublin with an absolutely enormous suitcase and a copy of the Lonely Planet Ireland, completely unprepared for my working holiday visa experience. I hoped that I’d feel an instant sense of home when I arrived in Ireland. Or, as I like to call it, the motherland (as we Americans with Irish surnames like to do).
To give you an idea of how green a traveler I was, I had actually considered packing my rollerblades on the trip.
I did not see a single person on rollerblades during my three months in Ireland. Not one. It’s a wild guess, but I’d say the cobbled streets put them off. Among other things.
As you can see, I was slightly out of my depth.
I barely understood what a visa was, let alone a working holiday visa. Here were the facts as I understood them:
1. Secure visa.
2. Find apartment.
3. Find job.
It sounded really simple. Too simple.
I felt strongly that I was missing some vital piece of information.
There had to be more to it – I was uprooting my life. I was moving to a foreign country where I didn’t know a single soul. I was leaving my rollerblades behind.
Surely these sacrifices warranted more of a challenge.
What I failed to take into account were the day-to-day hurdles of life in a foreign country. It was lucky that my tasks were clear and simple; completing them proved to be more difficult than I’d anticipated.
For example, I didn’t expect to encounter a thief in my first hostel (a story for another time) or a flasher on my first day in Galway. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t brought nearly enough money or appropriate work clothes.
Getting a visa was the easy part, thanks to the BUNAC program. I filled out a simple application, provided a reference, and bought some travel insurance. They did the rest, setting me up with a Blue Card that allowed me to work in Ireland for four months, followed by six months in Britain. I was eligible on the basis of my student status, having graduated from Indiana University four months previously.
The laws have since changed. Students or recent graduates from the USA can now work in Ireland for up to 12 months, but the Britain program is only open for internships or work placements. Check the BUNAC website for further details.
Ten years ago, however, things were different. My passport came back quickly, along with a blue card that I was to present to customs on arrival. It was like something you’d make in kindergarten out of construction paper and glue.
But it worked. They let me in.
This was slightly more challenging. I initially looked at an apartment with Kirsten, a Californian I’d met in Dublin. I wasn’t sure about her, mainly because she’d swooped in on a cute Australian I’d been talking to in Temple Bar, so I was wary of her loyalties.
The apartment had one other occupant, an elderly man. Kirsten and I would be sharing an attic bedroom with each other and a crocheted blanket explosion of a living room with him. He smelled of cheese and looked like he was fighting the urge to attack us with his cane.
When I first met Gina from Minnesota, she was sitting on the bottom bunk of our shared hostel room, circling ads in the classified section of the Galway Advertiser. She asked if I wanted to apartment hunt together. Relieved, I told Kirsten I’d found somewhere else to live.
We put in a bid for a room in a shared flat on Merchants Road, near the city center. It was occupied by two Irish students: a tall, lanky bald guy who was into cage fighting or something unusual, and a short, frizzy-haired girl who looked like a kewpie doll. Gina and I would have to share a room, but we went for it anyway.
When they called back to say that they’d chosen us as their new roommates, we were thrilled.
The biggest piece of advice I can give to any working holiday maker is this:
Get a phone.
For god’s sake, do yourself a favor and get a phone. I paced the streets of Galway for three weeks, handing out resumes left and right with only an email address as a contact.
This was before the days when the internet made in-person applications unnecessary, back when you had to ask for the manager and inquire about job vacancies, then watch as they threw your phone number-less resume in the trash when you walked out.
Don’t tell me what an idiot I was. I am well aware.
I applied at restaurants, bookshops, hotels, and pubs. The heels on my only pair of black shoes started to wear down and my pinstriped ‘work’ pants were shrinking from over-washing (also from being cheap).
At my lowest point, I hovered in the doorway of Supermac’s (think McDonald’s), debating whether or not to drop in my resume.
In the end, I couldn’t do it. The thought of serving up boxes of fried chicken to drunk university students was too much. It wasn’t how I’d pictured my carefree Irish existence.
Finally, I had the good sense to ask Gina if I could put her phone number on my applications.
Two days later, I had a job.
“I don’t know if you’re just in the right place at the right time, but I really needed a waitress,” Ronan, the manager of Mocha Beans, told me.
I took that to mean, “I normally wouldn’t hire someone like you but I’m desperate.”
Either way, I was employed. I didn’t have to slink home with my tail between my legs, a complete and utter failure.
Instead, I waited tables at a crowded coffee shop for three months. I brought people butter when they asked for water, told them we didn’t have biscuits when what they really wanted were cookies, and made abysmal espressos while tripping over more baby buggies and pregnant women than I’ve ever seen in my life.
I worked long hours for 6.35 euro an hour and never got my tax back as promised.
But it was enough.
It was enough to get me hooked on this working abroad business. Traveling on a working holiday visa only gets easier with experience, but it never stops being rewarding.
And that’s with or without your rollerblades.