The Emerald Isle: Part 5

My vacation was coming to a close, and I had some hefty decisions to make as I pointed Seamus to the East in preparation for the drive back to Dublin.  Should I swing south and visit Cork?  Do I try to make it all the way to Waterford in one day?  Or do I go inland to see Kilkenny Castle?  There were several other options at my disposal; hundreds, actually, because Ireland is absolutely teeming with things to see and experience.  It was at this moment in my trip that I realized how much I still had yet to see in Ireland, and that I would most certainly need a return trip in the future.  Considering the Waterford Crystal factory no longer functions in Ireland, it seemed silly to make the longer drive to Waterford just to shop and read a few placards about the crystal making process I wouldn’t get to see.  As for Cork, I was advised not to go unless I had a lot of time to spend there, and I only had an afternoon.  Also, I was a little wary of running into my ex-boyfriend’s family, considering they are from, and still currently reside in Cork…haha…  Kilkenny it was!

I would have moved to Kilkenny in a heartbeat.  It is an adorable gem of a city that has just a touch of modern flair, and boasts history, culture, comedy, art, and great food.  I was deeply torn that I couldn’t spend more time there to see all the other attractions that were nearby, but ended up taking a lovely stroll to Kilkenny Castle and touring it in its entirety.  I’ve seen a few luxurious castles in my time, one of which was the Palace of Versailles, which is grand and ornate — bordering on ridiculous, really.  But Kilkenny Castle has a lovely, more down-to-earth vibe, nearly devoid of extreme narcissism.  I would dare even to call it “homey.”  It is grand, absolutely, and of course dripping in finery, but still holds onto the traditional Irish charm, and makes you feel as though the nobles would still have invited you to place your peasant ass on their gilded couch and share in a shot of whiskey.  Its architecture is more modest than some, given that its original purpose was to serve as more of a control fortress than a fancy noble dwelling.  There is a section of the castle in which the floor is see-through, through which you can view the original stonework for the moat, which ups the level of badassery considerably.  If you ever have the opportunity to tour Kilkenny Castle, I will warn you not to stare through the floor for too long, particularly when about to exit into the next section of the tour.  Directly at the end of the see-through-floor hallway, there is a menacing 7-foot tall suit of armor that seems to be strategically placed to scare the pants off of unsuspecting visitors who are too involved in what’s below them (I was one of them).  Aside from the real live history beneath your feet, Kilkenny Castle also boasts an impressive exhibit of one of the sections of Morpeth’s Roll, essentially a GIANT “farewell” letter to Lord Viscount Morpeth (a.k.a. George Howard) in 1841 after he left his position of Chief Secretary of Ireland.  Somewhere around 300,000 people hand signed the document, which has been digitized thanks to modern technology.  The history and circumstances surrounding this event are fascinating all in themselves, but particularly so if you believe you may have familial roots in Ireland.  After roaming the great halls and cozy rooms of Kilkenny Castle, I strolled through the masterful rose garden.  The drizzly, grey-clouded day seemed only to serve as a perfectly neutral background to some of the most amazing roses I’ve ever seen.

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I departed from Kilkenny begrudgingly and headed for my last B&B of the trip, located in Rathcoole.  In the morning, I would depart begrudgingly from Ireland, land of good beer, good people, and gorgeous landscapes, and hop back across the Pond to Florida, land of rednecks who swear they’re not Southerners, suffocating humidity, and dirty diapers on beaches plagued with sand gnats.  Rather than mope for the last day of my trip, however, I decided to simply breathe as deeply as possible and really enjoy my last 18 hours in such a lovely country.  Having arrived in Rathcoole and checked into my B&B, I asked my hostess if she had a recommendation for where I could have dinner.  She informed me that aside from fast food, there was really only one pub within reasonable driving distance, and that it was quite good.  She said it was called Anposhunil.  What?  I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.  What’s it called?  Aumprashientail.  Aoanprasteentel.  Einpreshinshtil.  I asked her to say it probably twelve times, and each time it was as though she either said it faster or changed the pronunciation for her own amusement.  I am a linguist.  I have a 4-year degree in linguistics, with a focus in phonetics, and I had no idea what this woman was saying.  She finally wrote it down for me, and I said, “oh! Of course!  How silly of me,” although I still had no idea how to pronounce An Poitin Stil (and frankly, still don’t).

Regardless of my feeble American pronunciation of such robust Gaelic words, I found Aiprawshenteel with no trouble, and was engaged by a waiter who was terribly friendly.  *ahem*  Extraordinarily friendly.  It was truly some of the smoothest flirting I’ve ever experienced, and I thought to myself, “ah, this must be that ‘Irish charm’ everyone warned me about.”  His brazen overconfidence aside, he was very nice and quite pleasant to talk to, and happened to introduce me to what is still the best whiskey I’ve had to date.  Friends, if you are whiskey lovers, I beg of you to try Midleton Very Rare.  You won’t regret it.  A big thanks to the amiable bloke in the pub who allowed me to taste it, although I suspect he’s still disappointed that I didn’t join him for a nightcap.

The next morning I arrived at the airport and bid adieu to Seamus, my trusty steed.  Having slogged through two security checkpoints and customs, I settled aboard my flight to watch the patches of hunter green, fern green, and shamrock green fade away through the mist.  It was an exquisite trip, more than I could have hoped for, and I will absolutely return to Ireland one day.  But until the day that I can again experience the overt friendliness, the rugged green hills, the sheep, the thin places, the meat pies, the hurling, and the whiskey, I will simply encourage whoever reads this to go in my stead, where I’m sure you will receive céad míle fáilte.

 

 

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The Emerald Isle: Part 4

Perhaps a tiny bit hungover and loath to leave my gaggle of new puppy friends, leaving Killarney was challenging.  After a few fits and starts getting out of bed and putting my feet firmly on the floor, I persevered and managed to get on the road after a most-reviving breakfast provided by the Muckross B&B.  Headed for the westernmost point of all Europe, I came across a fellow driver who taught me a valuable lesson in humility.

I stopped for gas before I reached Dingle, and was engaged in garbled conversation by the station attendant, who was, as many people seem to be, enthusiastically supportive of a young woman traveling the world, and also of my choice of road snacks.  From what I gathered, my Irish country friend enjoys Jaffa Cakes as much as I do, and has a cousin that I look similar to.  Or perhaps it was that there was “a mutton that I should look into”…I’m uncertain.

The town of Dingle not only has a name that makes me chuckle, but is as charming a tourist town as you’ll ever find.  While there’s a definite element of “shabbiness” to Dingle, it is absolutely homey and its inhabitants are impressively patient with the constant stream of tourist folly. Having no idea what I was doing (as usual), I drove in erratic zig-zags around Dingle until I saw a sign reading “Slea Head Drive.”  I reasoned that no matter which route I chose I would find something beautiful, so I followed its direction and ended up in precisely the place I was looking for, easily one of the most invigorating places on earth.

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The one thing I was not expecting about Slea Head Drive was the steep drop-offs that would plunge any overly confident driver directly into the Atlantic Ocean.  Guard rails?  Nah, no need for those here.  Apparently the Irish believe that the best way to keep drivers from careening off the road and piercing themselves on a jagged shoal is to foster pure, uninhibited terror.  Don’t want to die?  Don’t go over the edge.  Having experienced and analyzed this concept first-hand, I can attest to its effectiveness.  Really, that mindset seems far more rational than to try and protect the world’s population of imbeciles from their own ignorance, but I digress.

I eventually got the hang of driving a foot away from a cliff edge and started to feel more like a Bond Girl in a daring Maserati car chase than a freaked out tourist in a Fiat.  But then…then came the sheep.  A gentleman came along with his flock of adorable little spray-painted sheep and was herding them with his car, which I thought was both lazy and brilliant.  However, this farmer was herding his sheep in the opposite direction of traffic, which I had assumed only flowed in one direction up until this point.  I was fortunate enough to have a small gravel median to my left, but I can’t imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t.  I edged Seamus over to about 4 inches from the side of the cliff, and prayed that it would give the flock and the herdsman’s car enough clearance.  It did, and the farmer gave me a nonchalant wave of thanks, while the sheep glanced at me with something akin to suffocating British politeness and normal sheep panic.  As they slid past Seamus, I held my breath, certain that any exhalation would cause the precipice on which my car was parked to crumble and I would become a glorious sacrifice to Poseidon.  But I survived my encounter with the fleecy road plow and continued onward, finding a few places along the road later on that did have a guard rail of sorts.

slearoad

To say I enjoyed my time on Dingle Peninsula would be inaccurate.  Slea Head has a certain kind of flavor to it, one that is both Irish and distinct in its own right.  It’s as though the land is really just a sleeping dragon which holds countless ancient secrets that it is unwilling to share with the silly, mortal passers-by that traipse over its hills and roads each day.  As a visitor, I was painfully aware that I was precisely that: a visitor.  The land seems to own itself, and isn’t exactly a “destination” or a “place” so much as it is a perception-altering experience — one which I would recommend a thousand times over.

I left Dingle Peninsula and was so lost in my thoughts  and memories of it that I suddenly found myself very near Cork, and didn’t really remember much of the drive.  I arrived to my next scheduled B&B and opened my car door to be greeted by yet another new bestest friend, Lily.

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I had already been aware of Lily from the many mentions of her sweetness in the online reviews of the Bridgeview Farmhouse B&B.  As I stepped out of my car, I exclaimed, “Oh, you must be Lily!”  A surprised voice behind me said, “you know my dog?”  And that is how I met the incredible Marion of Kilbrittain.

Marion is one of the kindest and most exuberant people I have met in my time traveling the world.  She exudes a traditional Irish charm, infused with a natural curiosity and love for people.  After settling in my room, Marion, a wonderful couple from Seattle (I think), and I sat in the parlor and shared tea and stories before parting ways for dinner.  Marion recommended two excellent restaurants and I foolishly ignored her advice for the sake of not having to drive for too long again.  I drove into the tiny village of Ballinspittle and opted for a simple pub-style dinner.  If you’ve ever been to Ballinspittle, you know exactly which pub I went to…because I’m pretty sure it’s the only one.

While eating, I was approached by a man named Gerard, who seemed to have some sort of cognitive disability, and he asked if I was happy.  I informed him that yes, I was very happy.  He nodded and left.  1.5 minutes later, he came around again to ensure that I was still happy, and informed me that he too was quite happy.  I ended up speaking to Gerard at length and we had a splendid conversation about America, traveling, how Gerard was born and raised in Ballinspittle, how Willie Nelson is from Texas, and how Texas is larger than the whole of Ireland.  Gerard was excellent company, but just as I was about to pay my bill, a family member of his showed up in the bar with a baby.  The baby turned out to be his niece, and Gerard insisted that I hold her.

Anyone who knows me at all likely knows that children are not my forte.  I have been chastised in the past for referring to babies as an “it,” so I would like to point out to a certain person (you know who you are) that here I was careful to include the appropriate gendered pronoun for the child.  In general, I don’t mind or dislike children, I just don’t know what to do with them.  I am neither skilled nor comfortable in dealing with a human that can neither communicate effectively nor walk a straight line without falling on his/her ass and crying about it.  To be clear, I am not discriminatory: I do not tolerate such behavior in adults either.  But honestly, if your child hands me a toy telephone, my first instinct is not to pick it up and say, “hello?”  My first instinct is to dump a truckload of complex information about telephones on the child and run away.  “Yeah, that’s a phone.  You see, there are buttons here, and each telephone has a series of numbers, seven digits long, that directs a call to that particular unit.  But those numbers are divided by geographic region, as well as country, which in all will add another four digits to the routing sequence.  K, bye!”

 It was clear that Gerard was simply very proud of his niece and wanted to share his joy with me.  That, combined with my confusion and reluctance, led to a small standoff in the pub. Gerard held his niece out to me to receive, and like the terrible person I am, I just sort of let her float there for a second before crushing guilt and social obligation broke me and I took her from him.  So I’m in a foreign country, in a bar, holding someone’s child that I don’t know, who was given to me by her mentally handicapped uncle, and she’s staring at me, and I’m staring at her, and everyone involved is weirded out except for Gerard, who’s thrilled.  The child’s mother had left her with Gerard and was no where to be seen, and I started to worry that she might think I was trying to steal her or something.  In America, you can’t even tell someone else’s kid to stop climbing on a grocery store display without getting rounded on by the mother, and I’m unfamiliar with the proper protocol for passing a baby around a room.  I understand that it’s a somewhat common practice, but…in a bar?  With strangers?  Does everyone get a turn?  Is there a special order for passing her?  Who’s supposed to get her next?   How long do I have to hold her before someone really believes “my arms are just tired?”

To add to the situation, the child in my arms just…stared.  She didn’t do any of the things normal babies do.  No flailing arms, no grabbing for my jewelry, no looking around the room, no babbling.  She and I were supernaturally connected through intense, unwavering, awkward-as-hell eye contact, and neither of us was going to break first.  She then started to lean forward, slowly, and got closer and closer to my face, as I withdrew at an equal rate.  Creepy Baby only broke eye contact when her mother appeared at my side and said cheerfully, “Hello!  Oh, be careful, she’ll bite you.”

What?!  Does she even have teeth?  I would almost rather be bitten than gummed, but that’s beside the point.  I forced a (hopefully) believable chuckle at the apparent flesh-eating hobby of the baby that was clearly making its move.  Oh, how silly the wee ones can be!  Haha...here’s your kid.

While I’m no good with children, I can say confidently that I’m a great actress.  I gracefully rid myself of the Zombie Baby, paid my bill, and said farewell to my friend Gerard, who insisted on giving me a bear hug.  With a sparkling American smile on my face, I thanked Gerard’s sister (I assume) for letting me hold her adorable offspring, picked up my bag and ran the hell away.

Back at Bridgeview B&B, the weirdness of the evening’s events melted away.  Marion served up glasses of some kind of fabulous liquor, and I stayed up with Marion and the other guests until well past 1:00am chatting, laughing hysterically, and sharing our best travel stories.  That evening was one of the most affecting moments I’ve experienced in all my travels.  It was a few perfect hours of genuine camaraderie, respect of differences, and intelligent, fascinating conversation between strangers.  If it somehow comes to pass that anyone who was in that parlor reads this, you should know it was a pleasure to meet you.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this series, in which I tour a castle and am introduced to how whiskey is supposed to taste.

The Emerald Isle, Pt. 3

After inadequate sleep, an awkward breakfast (the Gremlins and their parents joined my table), and a few helpful tips from a lovely Australian couple, I departed for County Clare.  There was a distinct difference in driving conditions in County Clare, and “two-lane roads” became a mere 7-8 feet wide, and were often flanked by seemingly harmless bushes.  I came to discover through second-hand experience that those bushes are really just unkempt decoration for the SOLID STONE WALLS that line the country roads.  Suddenly the zip ties on Seamus’ passenger-side hubcaps made more sense.

I did my best to stay on my side of the road, not that there seemed to be “sides,” really, and eventually came across a small sign that read, “Burren Perfumery.”  It sounded interesting, and considering my nerves and the numbness of my ass from sitting for a few hours already, I made a snap decision and followed the arrow.  It turned out that the roads in County Clare could get even smaller, who knew?  Toss in some blind corners and hairpin turns, and you’ve got one hell of a ride.  I spent at least 20 minutes following sign after sign, hunting through the Burren for some dinky perfumery, just waiting for the moment in which some Irish farmer would come tearing around a corner at 80km/hour and headbutt me into Heaven.  Half lost, I constantly wondered, “what do you do if you meet another car on the road?”  Part of me was optimistic enough to believe that I might get through the Burren and back to the highway without having to answer that question, but it was wrong.  The moment of truth came when I whipped around a half-circle turn and slammed on my brakes as a car appeared out of thin air.  My tires ground into the gravel and my adrenal glands prepared me for impact, but I opened my eyes and saw that the other car had seen me and stopped.  There was a moment where I thought, “oh god, what if this is just the longest one-way road ever, and I’m the asshole American who missed a sign.”  But in true Irish fashion, the other driver was very kind, and he gave an emphatic “go ahead” gesture.  He then proceeded to stuff 1/4 of his car into the bushes, which scratched and squealed against the metal and windows.  Not wanting to seem rude (or stupid), I slammed the car into gear and smashed Seamus into the bushes on the opposite side of the road, barely slipping past as my Farmer Friend waved goodbye with a huge smile.

He disappeared in my rearview mirror, and I was left to ponder what the hell had just happened.  The more I thought about it, the more the answers became clear to me: What happens when there are two cars passing on a teensy road?  You drive through the damn bushes, duh.  But what if there’s a stone wall underneath the bushes?  Zip ties, duh.  In that moment, I realized how much of an uptight American I was being, and proceeded through the Burren with a newfound love of Irish simplicity.

I found the perfumery, watched a video about flowers that I would not see in bloom, poked at some old-looking bottles, and toured a garden the size of my living room at home.  Huzzah, perfumery.  The woman who owns the Burren Perfumery was wonderful and very informative, but it was clear that I was not a member of the usual demographic she served.  I encountered a few more cars on my way back to the main highway, and had perhaps a little too much fun driving through the bushes (sorry, Seamus).  It really is liberating, you should try it.

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The Burren Perfumery

The Burren Perfumery

Seamus really took a beating that day.  Not only was he whipped with branches on several occasions, but he was forced to chug up mountain switchbacks for a better part of the day.  I drove a significant part of the way to the Cliffs of Moher in 1st gear, solely because that was the only gear that kept us moving forward and up.  There’s a great little restaurant at the Cliffs of Moher, with stunning views and really decent food, and also a few little crap-trap tourist shops of no consequence.  But the Cliffs themselves are stunning, and 100% worth the arduous drive.  I’m not going to bother posting my pictures of the Cliffs of Moher because they’re completely worthless.  Every picture I’ve ever seen, including mine, make them look like they’re a part of a Polly Pocket scene compared to their actual scale.  “Majestic” is a word I heard often from people who had seen them before me, and that’s precisely what they are.  I have included below, however, a picture of O’Brien’s Tower, shot from on top of the Cliffs themselves.  There’s also a picture of another buddy of mine who thought my coat was delectable.

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County Clare

County Clare

I left the Cliffs of Moher and took the car ferry from Killimer to Tarbert, and continued on until I reached my next destination, Killarney.  Upon arriving, I checked into the Muckross Farm B&B, a working farm with a wonderful family who were excellent hosts.  I was shown to my room and then told that I was welcome to go see the horses in the barn.  Horses?!  Hell yeah!  Turns out there were not only horses, but also bunnies, goats, sheep, chickens, and THESE GUYS:

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After satiating my intense need for puppy snuggles, I set off in search of dinner and landed at Molly Darcy’s restaurant/pub.  Having consumed half of the most amazing meat pie I’ve ever had, I became aware that there was apparently a very important sports event occurring, and many of the patrons in the bar were engrossed.  There was a group of gentlemen to my left, who were kind enough to say hello and briefly explain the Irish national sport of hurling to me.  I also learned from them that I should root for County Clare to win the game, solely because County Cork people suck.  Having dated a Cork man in the past, I was inclined to agree with them, and we had a great time watching County Clare become champions.  Once the game ended, the gents informed me that they were actually at the hotel next door for a wedding, and would need to return now that the game was over.  They also invited me to join them, so I did.  I was introduced to many people as, “Kaylynn, the American,” and promptly had a Guinness shoved into my hand.  I had a fantastic time meeting the guests of the wedding, including the lovely girlfriends of my newfound pub friends, and left the event in the wee hours of the morning feeling very privileged to have been included in the celebration.  I also learned that the traditional wedding cake for the Irish is fruit cake, which, as an American, I thought was highly entertaining.

Stay tuned for Part 4, in which I’m nearly run off the road by sheep, and have an unsettling encounter with someone’s baby in a pub.

The Emerald Isle, Pt. 2

Right, so…Northern Ireland.

Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, I was regrettably and immediately underwhelmed by Belfast.  I get the feeling Belfast is one of those cities that one must live in for a year or so to understand its true potential.  As for me, it seems I agree with Oscar Wilde, who is said to have held the opinion that Belfast contains only one aesthetically pleasing building (which is now apparently a Marks and Spencer).  It’s a moderately confusing city, with awkward signage and nuances to the roadways that guarantee a few extra circles for any newcomer, but I eventually found my way to the main reason for my visit.

The world’s largest dry-dock, where the Titanic was constructed, is tucked away on a lonely little edge of the marina.  It took me a few minutes to find it behind the museums and corporations of the area, and when I did I was surprised to be the only visitor.  The Titanic Pumphouse houses a simple restaurant, ticket desk and souvenir shop, and offers tours, as well as a Choose Your Own Adventure option, which is what I opted for.  There’s a lot more historical information to be had via the tour, but since I was the only one there…you know, that’s just awkward.

The Thompson Graving Dock is one of the more fascinating and confusing places I’ve experienced.  The placards and informational signs around the dock are well-done and, I’m sure, accurate.  But it’s difficult to force your inadequate human brain to comprehend the facts presented.  It’s as though your mind tries to force everything to be smaller, less significant.  Pictures of the Titanic can’t possibly begin to allow your mind the evidence it needs to grasp the reality.  The fusing of facts and imagination really only begin to reveal the past while you’re standing there at the origin of it all.

For example, this is a keel block, which supported the actual weight of the Titanic.  It’s a little difficult to remember now, but I recall it being a bit taller than I was at 5’1″.

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Looks heavy, right?  I thought so too, but I would never have guessed that it weighs as much as three compact cars.  THREE.  But here’s where the perspective gets weird: in the next picture, you’ll see some of the length of the dock itself, and the line of things running down the center of it are all keel blocks.

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I’m loath to post more pictures of this place because I’d rather you go there yourself and experience it.  It’s a fascinating mental exercise, as well as one of the most badass history lessons you’ll get anywhere.  I had lunch in the Pumphouse restaurant,  which was far better than I was expecting, and took advantage of their WiFi to call my Mom.  I love getting to say stuff like: “Hey Mom, I’m eating chicken soup where the Titanic was built.”

I left Belfast that afternoon and headed NW towards Bushmills (yes, like the whiskey) and made my way to Giant’s Causeway.  Giant’s Causeway is a natural phenomenon that has caused “fields” of hexagonal stone columns to rise up from some past volcanic event.  I got lucky with a warmer afternoon, although not so lucky with the horde of school children who joined me at the Causeway.  There are multiple walking paths of varying degrees of difficulty, and in addition to the wonder of the structures, the folklore stories of Finn McCool really make Giant’s Causeway an excellent tourist stop.

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I stayed the night in Bushmills at the Valley View B&B, and Valerie and her family were absolutely lovely.  If you ever travel Ireland, I highly recommend staying in B&B’s.  It’s definitely a hit-or-miss experience, but it’s worth it for the chance to meet so many wonderful people.  I felt welcomed and cared for even though I was only staying one night, and had a wonderful chat with my hostess over tea and shortbread.  The next morning I departed after a perfect Irish breakfast cooked by Valerie herself, and was sad to leave that little nook in the country.

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Before I departed from Northern Ireland, I had to make one last stop at the single location that had spurred me to visit Éire in the first place: The Dark Hedges.

There is a small stretch of relatively unknown road in Northern Ireland, near Ballymoney, where there are some beech trees.  These trees were planted in the 18th century and have grown to create a twisted, fantastical gateway to…well, a golf club.  But it is a place that encourages the imagination to not only run wild, but to run amok, kick open hidden doors of consciousness, and perhaps briefly believe that there’s such a thing as magic.  It’s said to be haunted by the Grey Lady, a ghost with many possible stories regarding how she got there.  She reportedly slithers between the trees, but has never been seen off the paved dirt of Bregagh Road.  The Dark Hedges is also said to be a place of literary inspiration for several famous authors and poets.  It is a wondrous place, so full of intrigue I can hardly stand it – it is, so far, my favorite place in the entire world.

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I got there early on a perfectly sunny, crisp day and was able to revel in its graceful oddity for about a half hour before several other sight-seers appeared.  Its mystery was shattered once it crossed over from “thin place” to “tourist kerfuffle.”  You can experience my angst and woe in the video below.  I apologize for the extremely poor quality which doesn’t really allow for a proper view of what I was trying to describe.

And so ended the most magical hour of my life, and I proceeded to poke my way through the Irish countryside in search of a highway.  Upon finding one, Seamus and I began our longest-ever stretch to County Galway, a mere 6 hours away!  County Antrim to Derry to Donegal to Sligo to Mayo to Galway, and the whole day was sunny and bright.  I stopped for gas and picked up a Twix bar after a friend recommended that I try one.  The moment I took my first bite, I swore to never taste a Twix bar again unless it was from Europe.  I don’t know why (although I suspect a lack of preservative chemicals), but it’s fresher – the cookie was softer, the chocolate was sweeter, and damnit if the caramel wasn’t smoother.  Twix bars, who knew?

I meandered my way through the Irish countryside and was surprised that I never once tired of the rolling hills or the color green.  It really is a breathtaking country on all sides.  I snapped this photo with my iPhone while zooming down the road:

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No filter!

Despite the challenging driving conditions and the unfamiliar roads, it really was one of the most relaxing road trips I’ve ever taken.  I was completely content for 5 hours in the car.  No radio, no cell phone – just the road, the highway signs, and the glorious scenery.  I sang to myself for probably an hour, stopped to pet some cows, stuffed my face full of Jaffa Cakes, and generally did whatever I damn well pleased for the entire day.  It was lovely.  But then I arrived in Galway. *music transitions to minor key*

Every story has to have a conflict, right?  Some low point, or valley of despair?  Sorry, Galway, but you were it.  It began with the traffic:

I finally reached my B&B in Spiddal, and it appeared as though no one was there.  I rang the door bell, knocked, walked around to the back of the house, looked in the window for a “closed” sign, but there seemed to be no sign of life anywhere.  After about 20 minutes, I decided I would go try to find dinner and come back later…only to have someone swing open the door and ask, “well, why didn’t you ring the bell?!”  I reminded myself that it takes all sorts to make the world turn, and introduced myself.  The hostess was very kind and showed me to my room, and gave me these instructions to get to town:

“You’ll go out, just out, right here, and 1 kilometer down the road, to the right,  find the sign with the squiggles on it, and then go right, and the road looks like a road, but it’s not really a road, and then there’s the water.  Oh, and the water is lovely right now, didja plan to come this late in the season? It’s a good time, a good time.  But right, so you go down to the water, and there’s a thing like a road, but not a road.  Not the one you were just on, but another sort-of-road, and you’ll go by the beach, and there’s some bridges, and then you can eat!  Got it?  I can draw you a map if you need it, but you seem smart enough, and it’s just down the road, there, to the right, to the sign with the squiggles…”

I lied and said I definitely had gotten it, and started off by turning right out the the drive way.  I eventually found the squiggles:

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I eventually found the beach, too, and took my time strolling towards town:

After an incredible dinner of seafood chowder and Guinness, I decided to take the route through town to get back to the B&B, where I met my new bestest buddy:

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Upon arriving back at the B&B, I fell ungracefully into the Most Uncomfortable Bed Ever, and fell asleep…for about 30 minutes.  I awoke to the sound of children screaming.  I thought the building was on fire or someone was being murdered, surely.  I got up and ran to the door, and just as my hand wrapped around the door knob, I heard counting.  Counting?  Who the $*#% is counting?!

“I found you!”

“You’re not the one finding, you’re the hiding one.  Let me finish!”

And so, at 10:30pm, the little English brats in the hallway began their game.  They continued to scream at each other from opposite corners and floors of the house, sprint down the hallways, fight, cry, etc. for the next 3 hours.

“Where are you?!”

“I’m upstairs!”

“WHERE?!”

“UP THE STAIRS!”

Someone was about to take an unexpected and painful trip DOWN the apples and pears when their father finally stepped up to handle the situation, which he did in the most British way possible.

“Ok, guys, time for beddies.”

Another hour of them crying and calling for him and wanting water and “I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP YET,” and finally he either took a brick to them or they fell asleep.  4 hours later, I woke up for breakfast and departed.

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which I almost die, and then later crash a wedding.

The Emerald Isle, Pt. 1

Ok ok, I know.  I was in Ireland in September, and it’s now March, and “where’s the blog about your trip?!”  Here it is, so you gibbons can quit your whooping.  I took some (poor quality) videos on my phone throughout my trip, mostly as proof to my Mother that I was still alive and the messages I sent her weren’t actually from my captors/murderers/pimps.  I hope you enjoy  my falderal.

Ireland was everything I expected it to be and more.  It’s a fascinating place, largely because it’s one where individual perceptions rarely vary too far.  With most locations in the world, everyone is eager to give their opinions and stories, perceptions and favorites; but all of those experiences differ between people.  When I went to France, many told me that going up into the Eiffel Tower wasn’t worth the wait or the money, and that the real splendor was seeing it from the ground all around the city.  I decided against their judgement and clamored up the metal staircase behind a group of 20 raucous French 3rd-graders and didn’t regret a moment of it.  If you were to ask me if the diving is good in Belize, I would advise against it: a few rays, a few fish, a few rocks, but nothing you haven’t seen before.  However, I met a couple on the dive boat who said they travel to Belize to dive every year because it’s their favorite location.  In Ireland, however, everyone seems to have remarkably similar experiences.  I’ve heard tales of people who were rained on for a solid two weeks in the middle of summer and still had the time of their lives.  I met a couple in a B&B who said it was their 22nd trip back to the Emerald Isle, and they had never once been disappointed.  While I’m sure there are people who have had less than stellar experiences in Ireland, I can’t seem to find them.  Perhaps it’s just the novelty of being away from regular life or the thrill of a new place, but I was able to think more clearly, breathe more freely, and really absorb my experience, rather than just traveling from landmark to landmark and checking them off the list.

My adventures in Ireland began when I touched down in Dublin and couldn’t see a damn thing.  Fog.  There was so much fog it felt as though it was raining.  I hopped in a shuttle van to the rental car lot with 6 other strange travelers, most of them American.  Within 2 minutes of our 12 minute ride, the driver had somehow conducted introductions of everyone in the car, given a few basic tips on driving on the left-hand side of the road, explained the difference between black and white pudding, passed out maps of Dublin, and was deeply into a hilarious Q&A with the backseat when we arrived.  There was a collective, “aw,” but we all exited the van and said our goodbyes and well-wishes to each other.  If you allow it to, Ireland will turn you into a nicer person than you were before.

My brain kicked into problem-solving mode as I hunted out my rental car in the lot.  I have driven a manual transmission car for years, but never with my left hand on the gear shift and never on the other side of the road.  My travel method can be generally described as: buy a language book, be aware of major threats, figure out the rest when you get there.  I located my tiny red Fiat, with its wimpy engine and many zip ties that fastened the passenger’s side hub cabs to the wheels.  Wimpy as it was, I developed an anthropomorphic fondness for it, and I named it Seamus.


So I survived the rental car parking lot and successfully navigated the Irish highway system into Dublin proper.  The driving itself is not at all scary or difficult.  The new spacial awareness, however, is downright terrifying.  Coming from the US, I was unaccustomed to allowing my car to come so close to other cars, walls, cliffs, etc., and there were many times I was shocked not to hear the screeching of metal against a pole or other obstacle.  I could have sworn I just hit that pole, but nope – I had just never experienced maneuvering a vehicle with only a 2-inch margin of error.  I was forced to find my courage in a parking garage.

And yes, I was instinctively reaching for the gear shift with my right hand.  It was my first day, alright?!  I finally checked in at the Croke Park Hotel*, and took a 45 minute nap, and then a shower to try and shake off the jetlag.  I spent the rest of the day walking through Dublin.  I somehow joined a small group of retirees and explored with them for a short while.  By explored, I mean we compared maps and tried to orient ourselves for a solid 20 minutes.  They were lovely, good-natured people and together we found our way into the heart of Dublin.  I branched off and headed straight for the one thing I was determined to see in Dublin: Trinity College Library.  Oh, friends.  I can’t express how glorious and reverent this place is.  If you’re a book lover or history/anthropology buff, I highly recommend it.  To get to the library, you’ll pass through the The Book of Kells exhibit, which is well-done and very informative, although be prepared to spend quite a bit of time there.  It’s very possible to flit through to the library, but the historical and culturally significant information there is worth taking the time.  Below are a few images I took while in the library when I wasn’t standing still, slack-jawed and drooling.

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I spent the rest of the day wandering Dublin, eating fish and chips, and generally being a tourist.  Dublin is a very interesting city, and I enjoyed my time there, although it was no highlight of the trip.  Out of the European cities I’ve been too, Dublin is the dirtiest, hands down.  The smell of urine meanders boldly down most streets, and the buildings and walls are covered with a special kind of seemingly permanent grime.  While listening to the radio in my car the next day, there was an entire segment of listeners calling in to discuss the issue of public urination in Dublin, and many contributors were of the opinion that it’s just a fact of life.  So while Dublin is teeming with culture and history and good times to be had by all…wash your hands.

I left Dublin the next morning and headed to Belfast with little-to-no idea of where I was going except “north.”  Throughout the entire trip, I was very surprised at how easy it is to navigate the roundabout-laden highway systems in Ireland.  I found myself many times without a map or a functioning GPS, and still never got lost once.   If you have to, you can get around Ireland just fine with a brain, a functioning pair of eyes, and a few tidbits of local advice.

Adventures in Belfast and the remainder of my time in Northern Ireland will be continued soon.

*Hotel and B&B reviews will be written soon. Eventually. I’ll get to it, I swear.

One Ticket, Please

I’m very much an extroverted person.  I thrive off of social contact, and feel the most content when surrounded by my most trusted friends (the most trusted of which ironically happens to be highly introverted).  However I’ve been lucky to discover the importance and benefit of solitary time as well, which is something that proves to be difficult for many extroverts.  Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate a few solitary hours with a book, or spending alone time rocking out in the kitchen with my favorite music and a new recipe.  When I lived in Las Vegas, I would often bring a book to the bar, and sit alone in the corner with a Bloody Mary.  No one bothered me, no one judged; I was just the loner girl in the corner who enjoyed some cultural expansion and spice with her alcohol.  Now that I reside in a college town, reading in public seems to be understood as a cry for attention.  More than once, I’ve been asked by complete strangers if I was stood up for a date, or if I would like to join a group at a table.  It’s considered sad, or somehow socially awkward here, so I now resort to the more acceptable scene of a coffee house.  While reading in a bar may seem odd to some, my favorite act of solitude seems stranger yet to the general public, and even my family or close friends.

I truly enjoy traveling by myself.  I’ve been to a few countries and several states by myself, and it’s most certainly my favorite way to travel.  I love sitting in an airport, even if my flight is delayed.  I have no set agenda, no where to be and no one to please.  The flight was cancelled?  Who cares!  That only means I have a few more hours to explore my current layover city.  I eat where I want, I take pictures of what I want, I can choose to get up early and see the sights or sleep in late and relax in my hotel suite.  I walk *everywhere* and prefer it that way.  I also believe it helps me grow in confidence, because I have no one to rely on but myself.  I must navigate, and speak the native language, and be aware of my surroundings.

“Don’t you get lonely while traveling alone?”  My answer is “sometimes.”  But whenever I do, I ask myself, would I rather be sitting across the dinner table from someone who is complaining that she doesn’t recognize anything on the menu?  Or someone who is too nervous to try and navigate a public transport system?  Or someone who slows me down because he’s not accustomed to carrying a pack?

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“Isn’t that dangerous?”  Sure, but I am not an idiot.  Am I going to travel to war-torn countries alone?  No, I don’t plan on dropping in on Egypt anytime soon.  Am I going to accept this suspiciously kind man’s offer to buy me a drink?  No, nor do I care to attend his party.  Am I going to leave my money in an accessible pocket?  No, and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a fanny pack anyway.  Am I going to wander down dark alleys at 2am?  No, I am old and will be in bed far before then.  Am I going to refuse to believe that something bad could happen to me?  No, because I say again, I am not an idiot.

“Wouldn’t you rather wait and travel with your husband when you meet him someday?  What?  …wait?  Wait around for how long, precisely?  I don’t have anyone in my scope yet, so the answer at minimum would be “years.”  I’m not willing to abandon my personal dreams just because Mr. Right hasn’t trotted up on his noble steed yet.  He’s welcome to join when he gets here, but I refuse to let a man I’ve never met dictate my personal experiences and determine when I can and cannot travel.

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Of all the arguments and wise words I’ve heard in defense of staying safe at home, none of them outweigh the experiences and opportunity for personal growth that comes with loner traveling.  For me, it is worth all the risk and uncertainty, and I can pluckily say that I don’t care if it makes me antisocial, weird, irresponsible, or alone.

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