Irish Dancing (of a Different Sort)

March 04, 2020
Drawing of castle on Irish coastline
Art by Kirsten Hemrich 

In hindsight, it probably smelled like burnt rubber early on. We were jet-lagged, though, and wet from splashing in the Irish Atlantic, so our senses were dulled. I leaned my head against the cool window of the van, focusing my eyes in and out on the water droplets that clung to its surface. The sky was, like usual, cloudy, and the air was chilled with the misty remnants of that afternoon’s rain shower. In the blur behind the window droplets, kelly green painted every grassy space from sidewalk cracks to the pastoral hills beyond. The color was concentrated beyond belief, like a streak of artificial mint in toothpaste; refreshing and just approaching radioactive hue.

I still wasn’t used to the arrangement of the vehicle. I sat slouched in my seat, feeling nearly lulled to sleep by the white noise of the drive. My mom sat in the seat in front of me, talking to my dad, who, on the right side of the car, had one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the gear shift.

European cars were a wonder to me, as at just eight years old I had never seen them before. This family trip exposed me to the marvel, though, along with other useful information for an eight-year-old, such as left-side traffic and the iconic foamy head of a fresh Guinness Beer. I learned quickly that here, castles are commonplace, and fish and chips are the balanced meal of choice. It was 2008, I wore a polka-dot skirt bikini in the middle row of a rental Mercedes-Benz Vito Van, and I was in Ireland.

 

It was 2008, I wore a polka-dot skirt bikini in the middle row of a rental Mercedes-Benz Vito Van, and I was in Ireland.

 

Somewhere just outside of Killarney, we meandered along a quiet road. The tires of the van gripped cobblestones as we made our way up an incline, my mom’s arms outspread to examine a crinkled Irish map. Gaelic signage spotting the roadside matched the tiny type on the map, and signified the language my family tried to sound out as we drove. “Ospidéal” tied up our tongues, and “bóthar” made us cough the same way we did when we realized mid-bite what black pudding was really made of.

My four siblings sat dispersed around the rest of the vehicle, some asleep and others paging through Harry Potter books, as if a wizarding spell had escaped the pages and bound their eyes to every line. As I turned my head from the window and back into focus, my senses resituated themselves. In my next breath, I caught notes of rubber bands and burnt popcorn (… the newest irresistible fragrance by Gucci). My nose scrunched up at the sharpness of the scent.

“What is that?” said my brother Cullen.

My sister Shelby turned around in her seat, offering her support of the break in sacred silence.

“Smells like smoke or something,” she responded. She stuck out her tongue.

The sound of the car muffled their voices, trapping their inquiry in the back seat where it began. I glanced at my dad, whose hand still gripped the gear shift… maybe a bit more tightly than before.

“Dad, did you hear them?”

His eyes bounced to the rear view mirror to look at me. He furrowed his brow in confusion.

“They asked what that smell is. It smells like something’s burning.”

“Yeah… I’m scoping it out,” he replied.

The scent was getting stronger. My brothers Bryan and Cullen attempted to fend it off by wrinkling their noses under their T-shirt necklines. While these rudimentary masks may have worked one way, the cotton muddled no part of the giggles that bubbled between their lips.

“Hey, guys, gimme a second,” Dad interjected.

They slumped in their seats, glancing eye to eye and trying with all their might to stifle their laughter. There was a moment of attempted silence, but between the ruffling rain jackets and snickering boys, it didn’t last long. 

Shelby spoke up again.

“Vito smells!”

 

Just when they’ve turned the corner and their voices fade away, you see it: the Trojan Horse of modern day. A feat of human engineering. A streamlined vehicle fit to travel the globe. A silver speedster outfitted for the very best—okay, fine. It’s an eight-passenger, navy blue rental van with wheels that could fit a toddler’s bike. And it’s like nine feet tall.

 

Vito, as he had been so lovingly dubbed, was our van. Tried and true, Vito had taken us everywhere from the Dublin airport to Blarney Castle. Each time we piled in, my family laughed and shook our heads. We couldn’t have looked more American if we tried.

Picture this: five kids with spaghetti-stick legs and Aeropostale hoodies gallop down a cobblestone street in a clump. Among them walk two adults, who, clad with fanny packs and New Balance sneakers, alternate between zipping coats, grabbing hands, and reading maps. They speak in too-loud voices and point unabashedly at the horses and the sheep and the pubs. Just when they’ve turned the corner and their voices fade away, you see it: the Trojan Horse of modern day. A feat of human engineering. A streamlined vehicle fit to travel the globe. A silver speedster outfitted for the very best—okay, fine. It’s an eight-passenger, navy blue rental van with wheels that could fit a toddler’s bike. And it’s like nine feet tall.

Vito was a clown car, but he was our clown car. So, as any loving friend or family member should know, it was only right to be honest with him. My sister had a point. Vito really did smell.

My mom threw her head back and laughed out loud. Dad wasn’t quite as amused. Glancing subtly toward the hood of the car, he investigated the source of the smell to no avail.

It began to dawn on us that our destination arrival might be a bit delayed. In the moments that followed, boredom met acceptance of the situation’s absurdity. Surrounded by fumes of pencil erasers and gravel, Rombach family lore breathed its first breaths. It began with a melodized version of Shelby’s admission.

“Vito smells!” she sang to a newfound tune.

My little brother Sean and I backed her up with some classic mouth-guitar.

“Na na na na na na na!” we serenaded. Well-practiced from hours spent singing “Dirty Little Secret” on Wii Rock Band, we felt confident in our solos. Such lyrical mastery has, to this day, never been replicated. Cullen and Bryan’s voices added a rickety pseudo-harmony to the songwriting session.

Together, they sang, “Vito smells!”

Soon, even Mom and Dad were in on the song, laughing at the possibility that trusty Vito would crawl to a halt in The Middle of Nowhere, Ireland. With our noses plugged and voices off-kilter, new lyrics came to life.

Vito smells!

(Na na na na na na na)

Like bombshells!

(Na na na na na na na)

On the fourth of July

(Na na na na na na na)

And that’s no lie!

(Na na na na na na na)

Although this private concert was one for the ages, Dad had to make a decision regarding the smell situation.

“I’m gonna drive Vito around for a bit… just to see what’s going on. Can you guys get out for a minute or two? Marth, I’ll pick you all up in just a few. I want to see if something’s up with the clutch.”

Mom looked around. A rolling hill here, a stone wall there. To our left, a small gas station sat lonely beside the road. Sure, an abandoned convenience store might not be the ideal rest stop for a family vacation. But after considering that the village likely had a population smaller than the number of seats in Vito, my mom obliged. 

We pulled up to the curb of the gas station and piled out as Dad drove away to test the car. My purple Crocs squeaked against the sidewalk, toes still wrinkled from our earlier run-in with the icy water. It was a sight to be seen. In soggy bathing suits and jackets, we stood outside of an abandoned corner store, laughing with our bellies full of black currant candy and singing our song. Naturally, on the roadside of a winding Irish street, choreography came next.

Shelby spearheaded the effort. To accommodate our limited dancing abilities, she focused on the arms. In a line on the side of the road, singing and waving our hands, we put on a show.

Up, down, left, right, chop-chop-chop.

Up, down, left, right, chop-chop-chop.

It didn’t take long for rave reviews to come rolling in. When the infrequent car cruised by and offered a friendly honk, we truly felt the energy of the crowd. A sheep bleating in the distance added to the electricity of the moment. With practice came perfection and before we knew it, twelve hands moved in perfect sync to our radio-ready tune.

Eventually, Dad rolled back around with the van. In a Celtic miracle, the clutch hadn’t failed, so we were good to take Vito home for a much-needed rest. The entirety of the car ride back was a continuation of our ditty, every one of us laughing our way into side cramps after each “Na na na na na na na.”

We explored from the Cliffs of Moher to the Dingle Peninsula in that summer of 2008. We ate bread and cabbage, slept like royalty in a grey stone castle, and pet the wiry fur of giant Irish Wolfhounds. It was a magical experience; a brilliant emerald blur in our collective familial memory. But almost 12 years later, to me, my parents, and my siblings, nothing calls back the foggy valleys and rocky cliff sides of Ireland quite like that abandoned gas station and the smell of our beloved van.

 

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