Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmastime in Germany

This post could have been titled "Germs Come from Germany," but that would have been unfair. I'm pretty sure I caught my bug in Ireland, and then I'm pretty sure Jenny caught whatever I had during the trip. We went to Germany for five days, and between us, I think we were some degree of sick for seven of them.

So when I say we had a most excellent trip, even with being sick, let that tell you something.

Some bits of the trip I will save for Jenny to detail (because Zach was half phlegmzombie for those parts, perhaps). Because this trip was her first time in Germany, so many of the wonders that to me had become more typical when I lived there were much more remarkable to her. (Also, she's kind of a crusader-history nerd. So I leave her the Aachen Cathedral.) But I'll give it the old heave-ho and get the chronicle started.

We left for Düsseldorf right after I got out of class on Friday, December 16. (Okay, we headed straight for Dublin Airport. But you know.) We arrived more or less on time, which was late in the evening, and my language abilities were put immediately to the test when I had to get both of us through immigration by explaining our residency status in Ireland. Whoo boy.

We headed straight for the train station end of the airport to catch the ten-minute-or-so train to the city proper. I had bragged to Jenny about German punctuality (like, for two years), about how German trains were more precise than Japanese watches, about how even the moon crashing to Earth could not delay the Deutsche Bahn.

The little sign said the first train was fifteen minutes late. Then twenty. Then twenty five. Then forty five. So we went to another platform. That little sign didn't even bother to guess how late its train would be.

So much for that. (To be fair, there was a snow storm trundling through Germany that night...which is apparently more catastrophic than a moon-crash.)

Finally we made it to D-dorf, where we got a nice extended nighttime stroll around the block looking for our hotel... which, as it turns out, was actually connected to the train station. But Jenny got to catch a glimpse of Germany!

We crashed pretty much right away. (Remember, I was feeling tickles in my throat!) In the morning, we were educated about/reminded of the glorious spread that is German breakfast. (Absolutely nothing like an Irish breakfast, and much better cold than its insular counterpart.) Brötchen, fruit, cheeses, yogurt...

We took the train to Hagen and transferred there to the Siegen-bound train. This route was my weekly regular for a year, and the first time I felt I was getting to introduce Jenny to the whole other world and time of my life that was living in Germany. And what a perfect day for the ride, too -- the snow grew ever thicker as we traveled south through the wooded hills and tiny towns that dot the rails.

Once we arrived in Siegen, I showed Jenny around a bit before we met some old friends. I showed her the vast expanse of the city center... about which there's not much else to say. We had coffee and tea at a cafe in one of the shopping galleries, again testing my linguistic capacity (Wie sagt man "lactose free milk" auf Deutsch, anyway?). Then we met Jochen, Petra, and Finn, who were my surrogate-German-family while I was there. Jochen and Petra looked precisely as they had three years ago, and Finn did, too... except for growing as boys will between being 4 and 7 years old.

We had coffee and snacks, then Jochen took us walking up the big hill in Siegen and to... the Weihnachtsmarkt! A fine and upstanding German Christmas market, complete with the traditional Christmas teepees. (Apparently they missed the boat on an ice skating rink this year.)

(Here's a video clip of the Dixie Santas, who plucked away the cold night charming everyone in the Christmas Market with their oompa-clink-clink sound!)

Then, after a tour of the rest of the hill, including the High Palace (the Lower Palace surrounds the Christmas market), we met Petra and Finn for dinner, along with some of the teachers from my old school -- Stephan (with his pregnant wife, Nadine) and Gaby (and her new husband, Rasim). We had glasses of Krombacher, the local beer, and Jenny and I both ordered plates of Siegerländer Krüstchen, the signature local meal. It's a schnitzel with a fried egg on top (translation: chicken-fried pork chop), served with fries and in this case (thank goodness) a salad. Yum.

That night, Jochen stayed up talking with us in his dining room for a good long while, telling us the history of his home and their plans for expanding into the neighboring unit. The house has belonged to the Haardt family since Jochen's grandfather bought it in the early 1900s. It survived heavy bombing in World War II, and when American and other Allied troops arrived in Siegen, they commandeered the building to house troops (first American, then Belgian) and store goods in the basement. (He remembers being a kid in the '60s or '70s and still seeing boxes in the basement labeled "US Army" and the like.) I'd never heard the history before, and it fascinated me.

We slept in said basement that night, and when we woke, the picturesque sliding glass door onto the back patio (they live on a hill) revealed the most beautiful and peaceful snowfall. It was not heavy or thick, but coated everything and continued to fall as we gazed out on it. Once we finally tore ourselves from the view, we enjoyed an even better German breakfast, quatsched for a couple hours, and then the family invited us on a hike through the woods. Jenny is better at describing scenery and landscape (and enormous deer) than I am, so I leave it to her!

Honestly, words like picturesque, pristine, winter wonderland all seem lame compared to what we actually experienced. So for just a moment, try to imagine you are the size of a pea, running around the powder-sugared paddocks of a minty mountain bundt cake! Snow sloshed up past our knees! Finn slithered, slipped, and dived in and out of snow-drifts like some kind of arctic seal! Zach forgot to mention Tara, Finn's dog! A cuddly-wiggly black labradoodle who also blasted in and out of the tundra like a black furr-dragon!

Jochen also made sure to lead us to the spring, or the source of the River Sieg (on which Siegen nestles). I was told to drink several cupped handfuls of the spring water because those who drink from the source are sure to come back one day. I made sure to get my fill of water fresher than life itself!

Our snow-strolling took us to the ranger's station-equivalent where there was a gingerbread-like cabin with a cafe inside. Like Hansel and Gretel, Zach and I ordered a heaping mound of oozy-warm pancakes drizzled in fruit and syrup. We guzzled hot coffee and thanked our hosts again and again for a magical day. But they would not accept our thanks...just yet, for around the back of the gingerbread cabin, there was a feeding station for the deer who inhabit the nearby wildlife preserve. Lucky for us, the deer were hungry that day. We stood on the observatory deck and marveled at the nonchalant creatures with their graceful legs and moose-like antlers. Okay, "marveled" is way more dignified than what actually happened: upon seeing the deer, I squealed out with toddler-like glee, "Reindeer!"

That evening -- later than intended, but well worth the delay -- we took the train over to Cologne. Jenny the Gothicist got to see the Cologne Cathedral for the first time, and they're still picking bits of her jaw out of the pavement. (Heethzz not kidding. My jaw theeriuzzly droppethd.)

We checked into our surprisingly nice B&B hotel and went to check out the first of many Christmas markets in Cologne. Where Siegen's is more quaint and traditional, this one (set right against the side of the Cathedral) is more modern and burns with the fury of millions of tiny lights. We enjoyed more glühwein and food, browsed the stalls, and left promptly when we were kicked out because it was Sunday and everything closes early on Sunday, if it's even open in the first place.

Monday morning, we met our friends Gabe and Leighanna at the main station. Not only was Gabe an old school chum from my sister's class, but also I tutored him and Leighanna in German this summer because they were moving to Hannover for Gabe's graduate school. They came down to visit us, and we had a heck of a good time! We explored the same market for a while, then ventured inside the cathedral to poke around. We climbed to the top of one of the spires, which is I don't even know how many hundreds of steps, and enjoyed the views over the Rhine and the rest of Cologne provided by the highest points in all the city.

In continuing our beer quest, we had to have the traditional Cologne brew, kölsch. It's served chilled in thin 2 cl glasses, and in theory they just keep serving it until you signify you're done. (I still don't know the proper etiquette for indicating your belly is full.) Our waiter was a bit put off by something, I think, and so we didn't receive the typical Cologne bar service. But the beer was still excellent.

The rest of the day was more or less Christmas-market-madness. We visited the market in the Altstadt (old city), which appears more rustic and has a theme of gnomes. (That's where Jenny and I tried roasted chestnuts for the first time, and I introduced her to Reibkuchen with applesauce!) (hashbrowns mit applesauce!) We walked along the river and visited a market on a boat (where we got our adorable ski-girl and ski-boy!). We had more kölsch in another brewery, and then went to yet another market in the Neustadt. By then, I think all of us were worn down and tired of market food...

Gabe and Leighanna left for home, and we left for crashing into bed. But first -- well, we might have thrown a pebble or two into an old suspended boat to see how many pigeons were nested inside it. The answer: A TON OF PIGEONS.

Tuesday we got out of Cologne for a while and visited Aachen, over by the Belgian border. We traveled there on a high-speed ICE (inter-city express) train, just to experience the luxury of nice seats and a smooooooth ride. We both wanted to see the cathedral there, but particularly Jenny, because she's so well-versed in the religious and political history of the area.

Just like raw oysters, I am convinced Crusader history is an acquired taste. So for those who do not savor it as I do, suffice it to say that the cathedral in Aachen is the epitome of the kind of elegance and splendor that inspired, girded, provoked, and bolstered the barbarous Crusaders who ventured out of modern day France (mostly) and went all the way to Jerusalem thinking they could liberate it from Muslim control. The effect is like this: let's say the fanciest place you've ever seen is a Hilton hotel. Then you travel far away from home and you wander into the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. Yeah...that's what it was like for the Crusaders when they went from their Gothic cathedrals to the Byzantine-inspired cathedrals of the east and farther east. Check out these videos we took while inside the Aachen Cathedral and tell you don't get a little dizzy from all the jeweled and gemmed mosaics! Just don't get so dizzy you go off and pillage some faraway land... 

Last fun-fact about Aachen: it is the final resting place of Charlemagne, or Karl der Grosse!

Jenny by this point had started to morph into a phlegmzombie too, so we began the next and greatest linguistic challenge yet: describing symptoms and understanding medications in a foreign language. (Fun fact: mucus = Schleim. Sounds like "slime." Sounds about right.) That evening, back in Cologne, we went to a very fun little restaurant/cafe/bar around the corner from our place, where we got to enjoy the Käsespätzle, which is like German mac and cheese. I don't know what it was about the little place, but we really enjoyed the vibe of it. (That is, once I could decipher the hand-written menus.) (And, and, let's not forget that after days of being surrounded by a foreign language I did not speak, I managed to order my meal and drink in German! Proof: Zach is one of the best German tutors you can get!)

The next morning, Wednesday, was the beginning of our day of departure from Düsseldorf Airport. So naturally, we decided to visit Bonn.

They had another cathedral, which felt more provincial than Aachen's (though that's not saying much) which we wanted to visit. We took a walk through their Christmas market, though I think we were still too sausaged-out to have anything more than pretzels. We decided, because why the heck not, to find Beethoven's birth house and give it a gander. Yeah, that didn't go so well. (Not our fault. The signs guiding us that way pointed in some very inaccurate, and im-Germanly-precise, directions!!) At least we saw the exterior... after we re-emerged from the 1970s!

We caught the train then to Düsseldorf, and because we had several hours still to burn before our flight, we took a walk around the town. We saw a bit of the Altstadt, which is probably the more beautiful part of D-dorf, but honestly, by this point we neither one were feeling up to much. We of course had to have dinner, and of course with it we had to sample the Düsseldorf brewing specialty: altbier, the antithesis of kölsch.

But the real discovery came, ironically enough, in an Irish pub. We wanted something warm to drink, mostly for our throats. So we ducked into this place, and the Englishman behind the counter said he could cook us up a mean hot toddy. Changed our lives.

And that was more or less the end of that. We flew back to Dublin, took a bus back to Sandycove, and fell immediately and soundly into bed. We walked through the land that is, ultimately, Christmas and made it back again, just in time to celebrate the real holiday together. I'm pretty sure we plan to do so with hot toddies in hand.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Candy Eggs?

Yes, you read that correctly. While taking a jolly sojourn through the Temple Bar district with our friend and fellow Trinitite, Jess, we came across an old fashioned Sweet Shop called Aunty Nellie's. It had a full-front window full of row upon row of glittering jars full of sugary delights!

In we went without a second thought. (Hey, we're stressed grad students nearing the end of a tough semester away from home, facing a wall of succulent candy. What's there to think about?)

For the Harry Potter fans out there, let me just say that we basically walked into Honeydukes Sweet Shop! We were in a palace of pasties, grotto of gummies, a citadel of suckers, a bastion of bars! Hang it, we were in heaven!

The two chaps working behind the counter were extraordinarily helpful and cheery (obviously sampling the goods). As the greatest show tunes hits of Julie Andrews warbled over the speakers, they tweezed little samples for us to try and answered our many questions about the unfamiliar sweets we might never have seen before. 

For example, I was struck by a bin full of white chocolate goodies that seemed to have been shaped like urns and crinkled up last-wills-and testaments. I asked about the need for funeral candy, which they explained, after a lot of laughter, was actually fish (what I thought were urns) and chips (the crinkled wills). In another example, Jess noted the huge glass jars of candy lining the shelves behind the counter. She ran to one like an eight-year-old with her own allowance and said with glee, "Are these big jars really just one euro and sixty cents?!" (She was ready to buy in bulk for that kind of bargain.) Unfortunately no, the price on the jar represented how much you could pay for a big handful of the treats inside. 

Jess selected her favorites: watermelon gummy candies dusted with sugar. Zach found oddly shaped citrus gummies--also dusted in sugar--which packed enough zing to make your left foot kick up! I was about to make my selection when I saw them: candy eggs! Apparently, fried egg candies are a big hit in Ireland! We were obliged with a sample, and I went home with a bag full! The eggs, trust me, are super delicious! Creamy, and the yolk is like a sweet sort of jam on top!

But this was not a post meant to taunt our dear readers with dreams about delicious candy! It actually got me thinking about how we've learned a lot about Irish culture through our experiences of its food.

These discoveries go beyond the differences you might see at your typical tourist-fare restaurant, where one might think that the Irish eat nothing but stews with soda bread or fish and chips with mushy peas. No, it was actually outside of the restaurants where Zach and I have seen the telling differences between Irish and American food culture. 

For example, at the grocery store, here are some of the things we have found (or not found):

Rather than chocolate syrup, there is "festive chocolate juice" or sometimes "dessert sauce,"

Jell-o comes pre-made in boxes. Yes, you can squeeze the little jell-o box and feel it all squish in side, 

Cookies are biscuits,

Potato chips are "crisps,"

Bread comes in half-loaves and is about two inches taller than bread back home, 

They. do. not. have. chocolate. chips. 

Granola bars are called flap-jacks,

There is something called pancakes, and they come pre-mixed in big jars but the picture on the label looks nothing like a pancake....

Eggs are not refrigerated at the store,

Bacon is called "rashers" and it comes in slices as big as pork chops,

Peanut butter comes in a teeny-tiny jar and costs about $7.00,

Eggplants are called aubergines,

Zucchinis are called courgettes,

Spaghetti sauce is always called pasta pomodoro sauce,

Marshmallows exist, but they do not puff when heated...they disintegrate into sugary bits (this was an issue for our Thanksgiving dinner when we tried to make yams with marshmallows on top).

And none of this is meant to sound like complaints. The differences are fascinating to us. And when we can't find something we're used to back home, it entices us to be more creative in our meal-planning and more adventurous in our sampling of foreign food, or learning to appreciate it beyond the typical American expectation.

It all comes down to attitudes. One the one hand, what I can tell you from grocery shopping is that the Irish feel very strongly about buying from local providers. Items grown or made in Ireland are clearly marked and we are darndest to help support the local economy! (Plus, nothing tastes as good as Irish butter!) I would love to see a much more aggressive campaign for shopping local back home (in actual grocery stores, and not just in the Sunflower Markets or farmers markets). 

On the other hand, they do not feel the same do-it-yourself zeal that Americans have when it comes to baking or cooking. In relation to that DIY attitude to food, I find that our deli sections are huge, and so are the aisles with baking goods and spices. 

Here, there are entire aisles of Uncle Ben's pre-made rice bags and meal-boxes. The frozen food section is full of pre-made meals and lots of what we call TV dinners. The baking aisle is relatively sparse, and does not have the same kind of Betty Crocker section of quick-mix goodies. I might conjecture--as just a tourist passing through--that perhaps the Irish approach meals with a sense of convenience, but what I have learned living here is that kitchens in America are different from those in Ireland and across much of Europe. On average, they are small. We have an oven the size and height of a kindergartner! There are meals I simply cannot even attempt like I would back home.

But the differences are what we came here for, when you think about it. Otherwise, we would have picked a grad program back home in the States, where the marshmallows puff and the ovens are as big as NFL full-backs.

So as we come across these differences, we can revel in them knowing that not only do they help us to learn about cultures and attitudes other than our own, but also remind us of what we have to look forward to when we go home.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Music and Language Lessons continued...

Well, Jenny pretty well covered much of the weekend's entertainment. Filling in the very few gaps I can think of before moving on to the evening's top billing...

Running along the very full and rapid Garavogue River in the heart of Sligo town (and it is a town--half an hour's steady walking takes you clear through) was the very popular French market, featuring a dozen or so booths with food and crafts and food and more food. We probably could have eaten all our meals at these stands. We had one crepe (pronounced "creepy," at least by us) with Nutella and bananas, and then our dinner Saturday evening was a savory crepe filled with cheese, spinach, cheese, mushrooms, and cheese. Yum.

Then, with our bellies full of cheese and our ears full of fantastic traditional Irish session music, we set off to find the Sligo Institute of Technology, a venue name that ought to set music lovers' hearts a'flutter. (What, you've never heard of it?) It rests outside what one could call the proper "town" part of Sligo, and we had a bit of an adventure finding the place, despite our best map-reading skills. But thanks to a friendly cabbie, who didn't even charge us for the short lift he gave us to the venue's front door, we made it well before showtime.

Now, all the hype surrounding Sligo IT Arena as a musical wonderland made perfect sense. The arena (no, seriously, they called it an "arena") was a basketball court with fewer bleacher seats than my high school gym. Of course, the floor itself was filled with folding chairs and a stage. Seats were unassigned, so we were able to grab two aisle chairs in the second row, just stage right. (If you are ever going to see a guitarist up close, shoot for stage right--audience left--as that provides the best view of the guitar and, consequently, the musician.)

The opening act was a Scottish woman we had never heard of. (I think I'm allowed to call her a girl, seeing as she's younger than me. That's the rule, right?) Her name is Rachel Sermanni, and she simply blew us away. She played some songs solo, then brought out her friends and bandmates -- three fiddlers and a keyboard player -- to finish off the set. We were entranced. Her voice is at once soulful and soft, airy and earthy. She could sing you lullabies and then wake you up by challenging the moon at midnight.

During the between-set break, we bought Rachel's CD (tragically, it has only four songs). Her bandmates stood talking at the front of the "arena." Jenny walked right up to them, told them how much we enjoyed the show, and got them to sign our CD envelope. They told her they all thought the show was rubbish and that the audience was bored by them -- to which Jenny said "Nonsense!" The audience had been blown away, we both thought, not knowing what to expect from this unknown artist. Then Jenny went back out to the merch table to meet Rachel herself. Tres cool!

Then the lights went down and Elvis Costello ran on stage. He is, if nothing else, an inveterate showman. Whether his songs were rocking or crooning, the man was high-energy. He played a one-man concert, which I gather is somewhat a rarity for him, and he did a stellar job at it. (Jenny and I both wondered if he had been influenced by Neil Young's solo Twisted Road tour. It's not every day you see a man on stage alone with an electric guitar.)

I'll link to some videos below and let them speak for themselves. But some of the highlights were his medley of a song we didn't know with the Depression-era "Brother Can You Spare A Dime," his rendition of "Good Year for the Roses" which we had just heard done by the Irish band that evening, and his slowed-down and mellow version of "Alison." I could go on... but then I'd just be giving a set-list.

When Elvis wrapped up for the night, we walked by the stage and one of the roadies tossed me a pick. Not bad, huh?

Outside, all the cabs had been claimed by people apparently more desperate to avoid the walk home than we were. So we undertook the late-night stroll through dark and wooded roads, until in the distance we saw the lights of the city. We were not out of the woods yet, though, so to speak. We still had to make it past the hordes of vampire hookers and zombie athletes.

It was the Saturday night of Halloween weekend, after all.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Music and Language Lessons in Sligo

On Halloween weekend, Zach and I traveled across the island to Sligo, the home of Yeats! We had heard of a music festival going on there and wanted to take in as much of Ireland's modern and traditional music as possible. As an added bonus, Elvis Costello was also playing there, so we got tickets, boarded a train and set off for adventures 'round Ben Bulben!

We shot out of Dublin after Zach got out of class, and arrived in Sligo early that evening. We dumped our bag at the B&B then set off to see what was happening at the local bars. 

Not much at 8 p.m. That's apparently too early. An ungodly hour for music, some might say. So we set off for dinner where we took in some Guinness (Zach) and Bulmer's Cider (me). 

Now the Sligo Live website had a full program listing all the local bars hosting all sorts of musicians and various forms of music, from modern to rock to traditional. We had not yet located a printed program, so after dinner we resorted to wandering the streets and using our ears to guide us. We stopped in at one bar where the musician tried with all his might to sound awesome doing CCR covers with his lone guitar, an elaborate back-up music machine, and his shaggy drummer. I do emphasize that he tried. Three whole songs. But he had to stop in between them all to keep readjusting his equipment settings, so we bailed. We went to another bar and got to hear Ireland's version of modernized rockabilly! It was fantastic! Here was a very young bunch of guys covering everything from Elvis to the Big Bopper! The chap on keyboard was brilliant! The bar was hoppin' as a result and had there been more than 18" between the bar and the tables, I think everyone would have been doing the Lindy Hop! 

Knowing we had a full day ahead of us, we went back to our B&B. This place was fantastic! McGettigan's! Book it for yourself when you're next in Sligo. The owners (Liam and Geraldine, husband and wife) were so hospitable and so eager volunteer where we should go and what we should check out! Liam was also so good as to help us improve our Irish-English. Evidently, we Americans have a problem saying, "Perfect." Well, Liam illustrated through a series of snappy jokes why one should not say "perfect" in response to good news. Instead, he taught us to say, "Grand." 

Q: Do you like your breakfast?
A: Grand! (not Perfect!)

Q: Would you like another pint?
A: That'd be grand!

Besides the wonderful hosts, the breakfast was sensational...or should I say grand? There were, among other choices, two "Irish Breakfast" options: large and small. We tried the small on our first morning. It came with two eggs, two sausages (which are about five times the size of American sausages), two slices of bacon (which are what Americans would call pork chops), fried tomatoes, lots of toast, endless cups of hot tea, yogurt, fruit, fresh artisan breads...I know I'm forgetting some stuff. 

Suffice it to say we were beyond stuffed and very glad we did not get the "large." 

Off we went to ride horses. I had booked a one-hour ride along the beaches of Grange--just a few miles north of Sligo. Of course it was raining full-force when we arrived at the stables. The good folks there lent us some Wellies (Wellington boots) and some rain pants and we stalled as long as we could, but the rain was not about to let up. So we clambered up our noble steeds and set off. I rode a sweet little horse called Lollipop, while Zach rode the sometimes more willful Gippy. 

The ride along the soft sands with rain splashing down, while sometimes f-f-f-freezing, was about the most breathtaking way to experience the scenic beaches of Sligo county. I wish that as a writer I could communicate how stunning it was to see the light green grasses flowing atop the tall, rounded embankments of tan, soft earth or the frothy, choppy waves splashing ashore like so many sea dragons! But I know I lack the skill because I cannot even describe for you that special shade of grey that is sometimes blue and sometimes green which spreads across the horizon when you look out to the sea and keeps you from perceiving where the water ends and the sky begins. 

All too soon our ride was over. We were back at the stables peeling out of our rain gear, discovering that we were still pretty well soaked to the bone. We caught a cab back to Sligo because we needed to shower and rest up for a very full night. Not only did we have a list of bars and pubs we wanted to visit to see the live jam sessions, but we also had the Evlis Costello show that night!

As for the sessions at the pubs, what the locals call "trad" sessions, here are some videos! 

Let me just say that we got a treat! At one point there are three fiddlers. One, an 85+ year old gent, the father of a man in his 60s who was one of Ireland's most respected fiddlers and composers of trad-music, and then an 11-year-old (or younger) who had just been crowned the nation's best fiddler that weekend! I'm being brief on my descriptions here because I'm letting Zach take over on the next post where he will talk about the music and Elvis Costello! 

The next morning, after yet another scrumptious breakfast, we made a quick trip down to Sligo Abbey, or rather it's ruins. Be sure to check out or photo gallery for pictures! After that, we had to check out and catch our train back to Dublin, but our ears, eyes, and bellies were more than satisfied with a quick getaway to Sligo!

Video of the young fiddler-champ of Ireland:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ancient Mystical Birthday Adventure

[Yes, this blog post is about four weeks late. I'm catching up.]

I had no idea what Jenny was planning for my birthday near the end of September. I figured she had it all sorted out, though, and was just waiting to spring it on me.

Which she did. Sort of.

You see, Jenny had come up with two ideas so different, and yet both so thrilling, that she simply could not decide between the two. So she presented both options to me not long before the day of jubilant celebration, and made me pick. I'm an indecisive fellow, so I took my time. The decision-making process was rough and brutal, because both options were stellar. And in the end, I opted for the tour of Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, both ancient sites very important to the archaeological, anthropological, and spiritual history of Ireland.

(What was the other option, you ask? Well, you think we'd let such an excellent second option go unfulfilled? We'll write about it -- when we find a beautiful day to accomplish it!)

As it turned out, I made the right decision, not only because the sites were exceptional, but because it was the rainiest day we had yet seen in our four weeks in Ireland. We spent a chunk of the day on the tour bus itself, which was guided by an anthropologist who detailed the history of the land surrounding us, whether we were still getting out of Dublin or were tootling through the rolling green hills and old stone walls of the countryside. She was quite informative, too, and a pleasure to listen to (when she wasn't gurgling snot through her sinuses--seriously, lady, take the microphone away from your face when you do that!).

First, we arrived at the Hill of Tara by late morning. The Hill is one of the highest points on the island, and on a clear day you can see about three-quarters of Ireland's counties from its summit. (We did not have a clear day, and still the view was impressively vast.) We climbed from the end of the road to the top of the hill, which is a fairly wide, relatively flat expanse. Man-made mounds and trenches cover much of the summit, and these served various purposes in the ancient religions of the land. The Hill was believed to be a center of spiritual energy, and is therefore still revered by certain mystical types today. The Hill is also where all the old pagan kings of Ireland were crowned, both because of this spirituality and because of the commanding view of the island.

We got rained on pretty heavily, but the wind was even nastier. Still, Jenny and I disregarded the suggestion of the guide that we stay off the paths due to slipperiness (ah, youth!) and we experienced a couple perspectives that no one else on the tour saw. Frolicking across ancient ceremonial grounds in the wind and rain, with your love by the hand: magical!

(Also, there was a very impressive stone phallus on the hill. I posed with it for a picture, and partook of its energy. Not that I needed it, but what the hell, right?)

Then we drove through the Boyne Valley on our way to Newgrange. The Boyne was the site of a critical battle with England, but more than that, it's a gorgeous valley molded by a small, calm river. We could feel the energy of this place. It is still one of the more beautiful sights we have found in Ireland.

Newgrange itself is both the oldest and largest example of a ceremonial burial mound in Ireland, and is apparently the oldest standing man-made structure in the world, older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids by several centuries. Don't be misled by the term "burial mound," though--while there is evidence of funereal activity here, the site was clearly more than a place for sticking the dead.

We arrived at the visitor's center and ate a yummy lunch of soup. The visitors to Newgrange are strictly limited each day, and so thankfully our tour ensured our entrance to the site. The only way to go into the mound is through this center, walking a bridge over the Boyne, to a shuttle bus that drives up to the ticket window in front of the mound, and then walking up the hill to it. Of course, it was raining again at this point, but that took nothing away from the sight of the mound. Its front has been restored using original stones, and it's a great wall of quartz with a small entrance in the middle. There are various carved stones standing around the site, and from the front you can see a couple other much smaller mounds dotting the landscape.

Our half of the group was the first to enter the mound itself. Claustrophobes beware: the entrance is tight. You squeeze through some very narrow stone passages, climb ever so subtly uphill, watch your head on the cross-stones, and suddenly you enter the main chamber. Considering the size of the mound, the interior is very small, but incredibly high. Ancient geometric carvings of swirls and chevrons decorate the stones (as well as carved graffiti from as far back as the 1800s, before entrance was more recently regulated), and three very small chambers go off from the main chamber. The ceiling is an ever narrowing stack of rocks with one enormous capstone peaking it. (More than five thousand years old, and the roof has never once leaked.)

Standing there, you can smell the stone. You can sense the earth surrounding you. You can't help but reach out and touch one of the ancient carved stones.

The guide (a site-specific one here, rather than our bus guide) discussed the architecture and the history, and then dimmed the lights to give us a taste of the solstice experience. You see, the ancients knew their astronomy. This mound was designed to line up precisely with the winter solstice. So at dawn on the shortest day of the year (and two or three days either side of it), the sun rises and throws its beams directly through a small window above the entrance, through the air above the passageway into the chamber, and then for a few brief minutes, the chamber is brilliantly lit from the floor up.


We had a simply wonderful time. Wonderful doesn't actually cover it. We nerded out, loved every moment of it, and it was a delightfully thrilling way to spend my twenty-sixth birthday. Then, of course, we topped it off with a birthday pint at our local, the Charles Fitzgerald, which thankfully serves Beamish (better than Guinness!), and then home for a delectably (warm!) meal of leftovers.

I know that sounds like a lame way to end a birthday. Leftovers? But this stir-fry was made by Jenny, and it was the perfect taste I craved to end my fantastic birthday of ancient adventures.

Castle and Coastline Adventures

Last Monday, Zach and I took a day trip up to the town of Malahide, where the famous Malahide Castle sits. 

We had yet to really travel north of Dublin. The confines of homework (lots of reading and writing) meant that in the whole weekend we only had enough time for a day trip. And these factors all combined to make Malahide the ideal destination. 

We set out on a partly cloudy and extremely windy morning. Travel was easy enough. We had to walk through our little town of Sandycove to the Dart stop (the Dart being the Dublin-area commuter train). We boarded and road to the end of the line--one of two lines. There is a junction where the trains split, sending some to Malahide and others to Howth (which, incidentally, is the huge land mass in the picture at the top of this website). 

Leaving the train station we set out on what looked like a main road and encountered something we thought to be a bit of a rarity in Ireland: signs! Clearly marked and extremely visible signs telling us exactly where Malahide Castle was! It was a miracle. Signage is not a big thing here. Not on campus and certainly not on the streets where the road name changes every fifty feet or so. But this was the exception. 

We followed the the sign to a public park (which was a massive grassy field ringed with clusters of trees). Following the path which skirted around the park we eventually came to another sign directing us down a shady concourse curving deep into a thick woodland. 

It was an ominous undertaking at the time. The wind battered and bullied the trees, wringing from their boughs and limbs the churning and charging roar of the ocean. But into the woodland we went--fearless adventurers that we are. The forest was gorgeous even as the wind swirled the tree tops and clattered the leaves. Debris fell all around us, but onward we progressed. At last the path opened up onto a parking lot for the castle. We passed through the lot and around a grassy hill where we were finally able to glimpse the great round bailey of the castle jutting out over the landscape. 

Malahide Castle sits amid a vast acreage of grassy hills and woodland clusters, much like the one we traversed to reach it on foot. Walking the gravel road leading up to the formidable structure was like hiking back in time--or became more so like that as soon as the service van parked out front made its deliveries to the gift shop and cafes inside the castle and drove away.

All joking aside, it was stunning. Ivy-swept stone walls. Mullioned, oriel windows, thick stone teeth lining the battlements. We were both in awe!

The wind flogged us until we nipped through the front entrance. We had read in a guide book that castle tours were all audio, so we expected to pick up some headphones from the gift shop and start meandering. In fact, visitors to the castle must go on a tour of the castle at particular times throughout which speakers and sound systems installed in various nooks and crannies broadcast the audio tour. We were only ten minutes away from the next start time and as luck would have it, we were the only two visitors in the entire castle at the moment!

(Unfortunately photography is absolutely forbidden so we only have pictures of the exteriors.)

Feeling very exclusive, and every giddy at the thought of roaming through a castle unsupervised, we took our tickets and scurried into the first room. The recordings started playing background music appropriate to the historical period of discussion and the narrator continually reminded us to not touch anything! Some areas of some rooms were roped off or enclosed behind glass walls, but we could otherwise move freely about the room and examine the dressers, the wood paneling, and the furnishings, which were as luxurious as they were musty!

Guilt-wood dressers, marble-topped everything, ruffled and tassled window dressings, cornices and wainscoting filigreed with wood-carved birds, fruits, and mythical animals! Much of the furniture was beautifully hand-crafted and inlaid with the kind of floral and Arabesque accents that would make normal people swoon, while a carpenter like my dad might be inclined to shoot a cool glance and mutter, "It's not aplomb."

The best room in the house was a small library located just off the dining hall. As the recording talked ad nauseum about all the portraits hanging in the dining hall, we snuck off to see this room. I'm sure you can just picture two nerds , gasping and gawking at the many shelves, stacked floor to ceiling, with old musky books! I'll not go into the depravity of our geekery here, for the sake of decency, but suffice it to say, we were in a small slice of heaven!

We learned a lot about the the castle, which passed from Viking to Norman hands after the Norman Invasion in 1066. Don't even get me and Zach started on the Norman Invasion, as it is one of those historical topics that both of us can talk about endlessly and with extra nerdy zeal. Suffice it to say that for those who don't know, this invasion of the Normans into England and the surrounding islands, changed the world!  

After the castle tour, we wandered back outside to the brutality of the wind--which howled and moaned through the castle crevasses like something out of the best Gothic novels! We found many fine lanes to walk which wrapped around the the castle. At last we emerged back on the main road and reluctantly gave up the thick woods for the sandy beaches girdled around Malahide's coastal town. 

We walked the scenic road through the village, which reminded me of Georgetown. Finally we reached the dunes of the beach, all spiked with tall grass. Though the wind blustered and barked and shoved us along, we stopped to pick up shells and poke at the carcasses of dead crabs. We shot some footage of the churning breakers which clawed at the beaches like the great foamy hands of deep-sea beasts fighting to be free of the water.

It was when we turned back that we saw a vibrant rainbow spanning the estuary. Soon after this discovery, rain fell like spittle from the looming black clouds encroaching from the south. We hurried off the beach and snugged up inside a coffee shop just as the rain began to pour down in earnest. We gave our feet a much-needed rest, warmed up with some frothy Italian-style coffee, and filled our bellies with a brownie--sent all the way from Cravin' Cookies.

With much reluctance we quit our day trip and made our way back to the train, happily knowing that not even gale-force winds could blow away the charm of Malahide, its castle and its coast.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

(Photos) Juveniles Abroad





Be sure to check in on this album from time to time as we do update these photos with continuous, immature zeal.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hunting for Mollusks

Zach and I have established the following morning pattern:

8:00 a.m.--wake up to local radio station and try to listen to the local news, weather, traffic
8:30 a.m.--turn off the radio alarm clock after determining that the DJ a.) has a charming regional dialect that b.) moves at the speed of light, which is c.) too charming to be intelligible
8:31 a.m.--Jenny must wake Zach up again because he's fallen back asleep during the charming news, weather, and traffic reports
9:35 a.m.--succeed in waking Zach, then get out of bed and go for a jog

We've been pretty dedicated to this regimen and have been able to map out a very lovely route through Sandycove. We do a warm-up walk down Sandycove Road, going most of the way to the old remnants of a castle and fishing dock. From there we do an about face where we then commence with the jogging.

We pant and puff our way down to the Martello tower which overlooks the expansive Dublin Bay. It's called Joyce's Tower only because Irish poet, James Joyce, was shot at in that tower. 

The bay is some days serine, some days stormy and soupy with seaweed and kelp. Up and over a hill we pump or legs and then we pass the swimming area. Yes, in next to freezing temperatures, the locals like to go swimming in the area around the tower! We marvel at them as we continue around the sidewalk to where it joins up with the main promenade or boardwalk. 

We jog this flat expanse of concrete--lined on one side with a grassy copse and on the other with huge granite boulders and the sea--as locals walk their dogs or push baby carriages. Meanwhile, the gulls giggle overhead. Who they're always laughing at, we've yet to determine. Is it the Yanks out for a jog? Is the semi-shameful dog owner who fails to pick up their spaniel's little brown sculptures? Or are they laughing at the unfortunate few who step in one of those little works of pup-art? 

Who knows...but those birds laugh the day away.

Zach and I reach the end of the promenade, which actually terminates near the marina in the neighboring town of Dun Laoghaire (said Dun Leary). We touch the wall and turn back. Most days we jog all the way around Joyce's tower and back home where we stretch and then make a yummy breakfast of (sometimes) eggs, spicy papitas, tea, and toast.

Today, however, we stopped off at the swimming area because the tide was very low. We descended the stone-paved ramp to stand on the soggy sandy beach. We discovered the ocean's little trinket treasure trove full of little bits of kelp, cockle shells punctured and fractured by the birds, abandoned spiraling periwinkle shells, amazing conglomerate and metamorphose pebbles, and lots and lots of cone-shaped limpet shells. 

We picked through the unguarded treasure like a couple of hens rooting for choice worms. We filled our thieving pockets and then returned home with our nautical plunder! All the way back we--two self-ascribed "desert rats"--reveled in our new coastal home.