Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's Been Ages

So, it was pointed out to me that Matt has made three posts since I made my last. Well, fine, easy enough to remedy that. When last I left you, we were in our first days here in Derry. Matt was at first unnerved at the immediacy of the history here and how easy it is to feel it all, the violence and the ongoing tensions (to use a state department phrase), but I've been to other places with that same feeling, so I'm more used to it. Of course, every city is... its own city; each city has its own combination of current culture, lingering tensions, rich history, etc. But I've enjoyed taking in Derry, one sip at a time. Our first few days were so fun, just pure fun; watching Matt learn the perks of staying at a hostel with a great atmosphere, trading jokes and all of that, was just lovely. Don't get the impression, though, that I just lazed around thinking, "Crap, doesn't he know this is a waste of his time, making friends? We'll be out of here in two days!" No, no. For the first night, all the girlies were inside but me. That's how cool I am, oh yeah.

We ducked away for like a weekend trip, haha, to Bushmills. This town I agreed to go to so that Matt could rock the distillery. Even when he kept saying--and everyone kept repeating--that the Giant's Causeway was up there, I was just like, Yeah, yeah. I didn't look it up, and I almost psyched myself into not going. Pssht, would that have SUCKED! The distillery was excellent, they don't let you do tours like that at home, with all their rules and worries about lawsuits, and I sipped my free drink of whiskey and then gave the rest to Matt. It was really good, but it makes me queasy... Anyway, then we went to the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, and at first I was disappointed because you walk through this grass and then you see... not a really old, really dangerous rope bridge like something out of Indiana Jones. And I was thinking, That's kind of lame--£4 each for this? But then I crossed it and there's perfect sand below and there's no fences of any sort on this little island, and there were these birds like penguins (I believe Matt covered this) and it was lovely. We power-walked back (sweaty!) to make the bus over to the Giant's Causeway. Not knowing what it was, as we went down to it, I had Matt tell me the basic story about it--do look it up on Wikipedia, both the mythology and the science are fascinating. It's this thing like straight out of a video game and you can clamber all over it and just run right out to the edge, where the tide was already lapping at the stones; there are barnacles and tidepools on this thing. So cool. SO cool. It was a good little getaway, even though the hostel was more like an empty dormitory with a common room that no one used, though Matt did make a nice little dinner of grilled sandwiches with garlic bread and some microwaved mashed potatoes and cheese on the side.

Since then, on Saturday, we've been back in Derry. This feels like our home base, like this is now our home away from home. We've been here long enough to give advice to people coming through and I feel absolutely comfortable greeting all the new people and asking them where they're from originally, where they've been, where they're going, why they're here, all that. It's been hard adjusting to this idea that we don't have to go-go-go while we're here; we can slowly take in "the sights" and do a museum this day or that day if we like, or stay in and do nothing. I've enjoyed that, and talking movies, politics, cooking, everything with the people. The other night we even went to a movie with a few other people, two of whom have been dating each other 8 months and have never gone to a movie together! Milestone; if they stay together a while, we'll be a part of their story together, their first job at a hostel, their first movie date, and that's just wondrous to think of because they'll be a part of our story of our first trip abroad forever too. (It was Year One, and it was thoroughly silly and enjoyable.) We went back to Peadar O'Donnells last night and if possible had a night where we connected even more with locals, a lot of whom have worked in the States, visited more than once, and/or have some family living there. It's fascinating and I'm learning new bits of history and ties amongst us every day.

So we're planning on staying here until the 4th. Now we're trying to decide if we want to spend a night in Belfast, or just stop there on the way to Edinburgh. Now, I know, it's a capital, and everyone we've met says we have to take what they call the Black Taxi Tour, which is a ride through both 'sides' of Belfast and the drivers matter-of-factly tell what happened there in recent history, and include personal stories seriously. I think it sounds fascinating, but I feel like I want to learn more about it before I do that so that it will mean more. Also, it's never been a city that I feel drawn to, but I'm sure I'd enjoy it. So we're thinking. Definitely we're still going to Edinburgh for a couple of days before London, but we've pushed out Cardiff to stay here because we REALLY don't know a thing about it and what to see and how to enjoy it.

Oh, and we'll put some more pictures up tomorrow, I think.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

More photos...

 


Some more photos are up on Picasa from our last few days.  Zoe and I are back in Derry now and I'm sure one of us will make a post later.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lamb chops with mint pesto...

Food. Everyone knows how much I love food, well, how much both of us love food. But its so rare, especially for us travelling at the moment, that we take the time to go out for a nice meal. And yet here we are in Bushmills wandering down the main drag (one street, three blocks, appropriately titled Main St) with pub, chip shop, chip shop (chip shop=fast food joint), cafe (cafes close in the late afternoon), pub, gift shop, and the one nice restaurant. So Zoe and I splurge and head into 1608, named after the year in which the Bushmills Distillery first opened, the first ones in for dinner service.

The decor is sleek, chic and very classy nouveau, completely unexpected in this sleepy little town known for its excellent whiskey and its proximity to several major landmarks. The service, lets just say that I've been less than impressed by the service in the whole of Ireland, Northern or Republic. But the food, the food was absolute heaven. We started with the soup of the day, a brocoli (pardon me, food drunk and I can't spell) brocolli and Cashel Bleu cheese soup that tasted like pure heaven, served with lightly garlicked croutons. Zoe, for entree, had a Chicken Chilli wrap with rice noodles, vegetables and a caesar salad. It was tasty, with little chicken pieces that were lightly breaded. I was brave and ordered the special, a trio of lamb cutlets (aka chops) served with a mint pesto, vegetable stew provencal and roast potato spheres.

Good lamb is easy to come by in a country so populated by sheep, but this just purely melted in my mouth. As we were sitting and digesting, the chef smiled at me from the open kitchen and asked me how the meal was. So she and I had a brief yet pleasant chat about her fantastic food and I attempted, with no avail, to persuade her to share that soup recipe. Alas, I'll just have to figure it out on my own. Now I need to determine how to import good Irish cheese.

From Bantry Bay to Derry Quay, from Galway to Dublin Town...

I'm ending radio silence after our few days in Derry. Its been a strange experience for me, both good and bad. Well, not bad, just strange, weird. Derry is a city steeped in history, most of which was violent, and especially recently. The murals of Free Derry, the walls that date back to the 1600's, the war memorials to WW1&2, the Apprentice Boy's, the Bloody Sunday Memorial, even just the graffiti on the walls from both sides of The Troubles is a constant reminder that All Is Not Well and that even though wounds are healing, they are still slow and infected. Beyond that, if you listen, you can hear the whispers and echoes of the ghosts, and you can still almost smell the blood in the cobblestones and the walls. It makes you truly consider the rifts in humanity, here in Ireland where it is still brother against brother in so many ways.

The hostel we've been staying in has been excellent though, warm and friendly, full of interesting characters and numerous stories. People who we know could be excellent friends given half a chance, people you're glad to have met that once but never need to see again. Tuesday night we found ourselves in the heart of the craic, in a pub called Peadar O'Donnell's, where the beer flows right along with the gorgeous traditional music, the sounds of fiddle and fife mingling with laughter as they drift out into the streets and everybody is one whole seething being in that glorious moment. Its what I'd been looking for, what we hadn't found until we tagged along with a load of drunken Aussies and Canadian tramps so that we had at least some familiar faces.

Yesterday Zoe and I walked the Walls of Derry, a mile circuit around the center of the city, complete with cannons placed every so often, churches and old graveyards, and magnificent views of the city surrounding you. You walk these places, this mix of old and new architecture, 500 year old churches next to shopping malls and restaurants, and you find yourself wondering what our own ancestors will make of us in 100 or 200 or 1,000 years.

Shortly, Zoe and I will be heading up to the town of Bushmills on the northern coast, home of the oldest whiskey distillery in the country, and we'll spend a couple nights there to take in the distillery and see the Giant's Causeway, until Saturday we find ourselves coming back to Derry to hang out at the hostel for just a little while longer. After that, who knows? Maybe Belfast and on to Scotland.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Two In A Row

Two posts in a row for me, mwhaha!

Hello from Matt's first parliamentary democracy / constitutional monarchy! Otherwise known as Country #2, that being, of course, Northern Ireland. At this moment, we're in Derry, at our very first hostel. It is just what I've always experienced and come to expect out of hostels. It's rag-tag and the staff are not locals (Aussies and a South African, currently), they have a main building with crowded rooms and an annex for those fortunate enough to have private rooms or smaller rooms versus staying in the dorms, there's a tiny kitchen filled with the odds and ends of many a buying trip to the N. Irish version of Wal-Mart, I'd guess, and everyone likes talking to everyone.

Last night we big firsties for us all around. We hung out with this big group, mostly younger than us and silly, but nice, here at the hostel in their little patio, and then a whole lot of us went to a pub--typical bar construction, door at the front, toilets at the back, bar on one wall, tables on the left, people crammed everywhere--with live music of (what else?) traditional Irish music: the best addition to it, versus the lamer pub-style bars in Chciago. Oh it was glorious. We danced a little, drank, manfully tried to understand the rather mangled N. Irish accent, and came back to the hostel around 1:30am, ooooh.

Yes, all lovely. I could go on and on about how cool it is meeting youngsters of other nationalities and discovering that 95% of our experiences are identical--well, parallel at any rate--and that the 5% that aren't identical/parallel are completely random. We talked about what wild animals we have, people who travel and only go 1 place in an entire country, the fights we saw or got into when we were teenagers, what sports we played, what work we do and how crazy some of our friends are and what drinks we've had where and how they were awful.

Yes, all lovely, but you can imagine it. It's just what you imagine it would be like, it's no mystery what sitting around a hostel patio and chatting with a mixture of Americans, Australians, South Africans, Englishmen and Canadians is like. It's kind of like the first days at college, where everyone's comparing notes of growing up in Chicago versus Cleveland versus the tiniest town in Kentucky... only without the school spirit and with people who are independent people who are determining their own lives.

Instead, I'm going to make some observations about the 6-hour bus ride from Westport to Derry yesterday. We drove from Westport to Sligo Town, Co Sligo, first, maybe an hour or so, and then changed buses at a dash. That first chunk I nodded off during. But around Sligo, I started noticing that while there were still palm trees, now too there's evergreens, more farmland divided by hedgerows or a line of trees in irregular rectangles (a toddler's rectangle), far less sheep, more horses and cows, and towns that seemed fancier, or at least they seemed more propserpous. Or, more prosperous in a way I could measure, with new housing developments being built or freshly inhabited. Then I started noticing the architecture was changing in the houses, that they had what we'd call a more Mediterranean influence, but also these sort of decorative flourishes that seem more like Minnesota cottage than anything else. It was a delicious transition. Things semed to get "richer" as we went north, but as we came into Derry, it felt more industrial somehow. Not like Detroit industrial, depressed and kind of scary, just like this is a less la-la-leprachauns-la-la-charming-lilt sort of place, more solid Irish workingman's business-y sort of place. But the people we met at the bar were so nice, willing to talk and cracking jokes, just making fun of you right away, asking where you're from and just saying they're glad you're here.

On a hilarious note--well, hilarious considering Matt and me--we woke up naturally this morning around 7:30am and tried to go back to sleep, but it didn't work. We're now on a morning schedule, thanks to being too polite to blow off our breakfasts at the B&Bs, where they served at 8 or 8:30.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Quick Moment

Last night and today have been thoughtful days for Matt and me. We've been talking a lot about what we're doing here, in the bigger sense, and how people think we're crazy to travel (aka waste all our money) and then move (and never, ever find work EVER!), but we think it's the perfect time for all of this. We're young and it's all fresh, and there's no better time to do something a bit daft than when we don't have a mortgage and our jobs are the sort of jobs we can honestly do anyplace. More, this is an awesome opportunity for us to expand our worlds, to just see everything, anything, in a slightly or vastly different light, or to consider some small or gigantic aspect of something that's never crossed our minds before. For example, today we saw a movie and then afterwards, I went to the toilets (not a sort of rude phrase here, a little hard to get used to actually) and of course it was full and there was a line, but it was SILENT. A line of women, lots of them young, mostly clearly together, and there was no yelling or giggling or whatnot. That's never happened to me stateside. So, tiny stuff, and then bigger things, such as how hard it is, we feel, for us to be brave and step into someplace new and potentially exclusive and try to talk to people and meet them and find out about them, without being seen as... weird. We tried tonight, to go hear some local music, but the place was hot--and a little BO-ish--and packed and we thought, Ok, well, we tried, but we're claustrophobic, there's nowhere to sit, and everyone's all in their knitted community unit thingies. We're trying in a bigger city: Tomorrow, it's Derry!

Pictures! Real pictures!

 

And at last, a photo!  Or several, as our photos are being uploaded to Picasa as we speak.  This photo was taken our first night at Lough Inagh after one of the many fleeting rain showers, and the next night we saw another rainbow as well.  In fact, we've seen several.  So, more photos up on the web at http://picasaweb.google.com/jackwhiskey, so please, do enjoy!
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hello. (No one says "Hi" here, by the way.)

Not to be melodramatic, but Thursday when I posted last, seems like AGES ago. When I list what we did in the last several days, you all will be thinking, "Okay, that's not too much." Fine, maybe. But it feels like so much has happened. Or, so much has happened, but it hasn't been so much about movement or activity, it's been more... internal. (Yes, I love words from AP English. My other unwilling favorite, if you're curious, is juxtaposition.)

Thursday: After the internet cafe, we bought groceries and went back to Lough Inagh, ate in (mini-baguettes with Nutella and strawberry jam, and real Fanta, with fruit juice and real sugar) and slept.

Friday: We walked to Leenane. There were bogs that were less boggy than they might have been. What's a bog? It's squishy ground, basically. Like walking on a sponge that you used and half-heartedly wrang out, say, forty minutes earlier. Your feet sink in and when you lift your shoe you leave an impression that literally bounces back into its original place. It sounds kind of nasty, but honestly, it was enchanting. The woods around us were really old and the trees that had fallen over were mossy and ancient. Peaceful, and we saw nobody. We tried to detour to a ruin, but we just kept rounding a bend in the road and seeing another stupid bend, so we gave up. Ah, well. The last bit was the worst, kind of, because I was like, "Oh please just let us get there!" Your feet really kill from the downhill bit. I thought my Achilles tendons were going to snap. The name of our B&B that night was The emocleW--Welcome spelled backwards: Laaaame!--and the woman was standoffish, but I think because she thought we'd want to be left alone. We went for an excellent dinner: I had local cheese that tasted like Brie deep fried in batter and a little salad, and some Bailey's cheesecake. Oh my God, it was delicious. I thought it could never fill me up, but it did, easily.

Saturday: Our tour planner arranged a taxi to take us back to the Western Way, which we were walking, and take our luggage on to the next B&B, but we were so bushwacked that we rode with him all the way to Liscarney, also in the middle of nowhere. We woke the poor proprietress up--her son had left at dawn or something for golf, trying to get into an amateur tour, cool--but our room was ready. We relaxed, then Matt went for a hike to see a ruin while I wrote, we took lunch across the street at a picnic bench next to an inlet thingy for a big lake, I read Stephen Fry's memoir (fantastically hilarious and ridiculously... British), we wrote more and then we ate at the B&B. She made potatoes--my first potatoes so far, actually. She gave us each a drink and we had them while watching hurling on the TV with her and her husband and son. Hurling is like field hockey, American soccer and lacross rolled into one. Late night, we watched British TV, Comedy Roadhouse where they go to different towns and semi-famous comics perform, and then a Russell Brand stand up (Doing Life) that slayed us at 11pm.

Sunday: That would be today. We had a light breakfast (we quickly got picky about the full Irish, because it's damned heavy in your stomach and unless you really want two strips of bacon, two little sausage links, one egg, a cooked half-tiny-tomato, coffee/tea, toast and jam and possibly cereal or yogurt...). Our nice lady dropped us off at the Pilgrim's Way at the foot of Crough Padraig, St Patrick's mountain, where they have a pilgrimage of 30,000 people every year who hike this crazy ROCKY and STEEP MOUNTAIN BAREFOOT. BAREFOOT. Not to bring up religion, but... that's crazy to me. Not that the Hebrew God is undemanding--He liked His floods and plagues, don't get me wrong--but I don't think people should walk barefoot if they have the option of footwear. The hike was enough of a gift to God. Anyway, we hiked it, it was tough and misty so there was zero view to be seen, the walk down was treacherous and yet there were idiots running downhill. I was indignant at all the dogs people took walking because those !$%&ers were skipping here and there the way I skip around my freakin' kitchen! Lucky dogs. Then we took a taxi ten minutes to tonight and tomorrow night's B&B in Westport, three times bigger than any town we've seen in days, quite charming, and tonight, we're finally going to hear some traditional music!

So, maybe a little bit of literal activity.

The hiking has been a challenge for me and some moments I thought that I was mad to do it just so that I could be there with Matt for one of his favorite things, especially today which was challenging even for him. But at the end of it, your muscles bounce back better than ever, you've had this singular thing happen to you that you won't forget, and you saw incredible, hopefully unique landscapes that you took lots of pictures of that don't really get it right. Was all the moaning and sniffling (because I never could manage to bring enough tissues with, not because I was crying) and the windburn worth it? Of course, without a doubt. Just seeing Matt all goat-like and running with his arms flapping out like a deranged penguin made it worth it.

Besides, I told him he could never complain about a single museum after today. Mwahaha.

We keep losing track of days...

So we've finally reached Westport, towards the end of our walking tour of the Connemara, and I swear that as soon as we've found some place with wireless we'll upload some photos. I've completely glossed over the walking so far, so let me give you a proper update.

Day one was lovely, if long. Started up tar roads, steadily heading uphill amongst farmhouses and sheep tucked back behind the Maumturk Mountains, until suddenly we were off the road and onto the track, heading through the valley and up into the mountains proper. Near the top of the ridge, after much struggling (and encouraging mockery directed towards Zoe), we saw the Holy Well of St Patrick (or one of them anyways), took loads of pictures, laughed at sheep and kept on going downhill until we reached another tar road, 5 miles of walking and we reached Lough Inagh and the lovely B&B for the night.

Told you about Clifden already so we can skip that, moving on to the next day of walking, from Lough Inagh to Killary Harbor and Leenaun. The walk was pretty even, climbing gradually uphill around the western side of the Maumturks, filled with more sheep and little rivulets running down from the mountain and through the headlands, until we wound up in forest and fen. The second day was completely off road right up until the end, and you're walking through these rocky foothills surrounded by sheep and splendourous views, then suddenly you're surrounded by forests and walking along this dirt and rock track. The landscape shifts so suddenly at times, its amazing, that we were soon in the middle of fen (which is much like bog or marsh, I just like the other word), surrounded by brooding pine trees and up to our ankles in peat. Peat is kind of fun to walk on though, springy enough that it rises after you take your foot off, but you can sink fairly deep if you aren't careful.

After a ways, we crossed a beautiful stream surrounded by the largest rhubarb plants, something straight out of a fairy story, with these deep, mossy woods, very mystical-like. And as suddenly as we crossed into it, we crossed out and back into the headlands near Killary Harbor (Ireland's only fjord, as many brochures will tell you if you let them), and into the sleepy little inlet of Leenaun. The few miles were downhill, torturous for both Zoe and myself, and we ended up walking down a main road into Leenaun, very nerve wracking for me as cars hurtled by at 100kmph.

Leenaun itself was a one street village with a few pubs and a restaurant, and probably a dozen B&Bs (the story of every tiny village in Ireland, it would seem), and we were only there for a night. We ate at a lovely restaurant called the Blackberry Cafe, where we ate deep-fried Irish cheese and Chicken Gettysburg (chicken breast stuffed with cream cheese and smoked salmon, served with a garlic cream sauce), and I can't for the life of me firgure out why its called Chicken Gettysburg, but it was delicious. Followed it up with Irish Coffee Cheesecake, and enjoyed a half bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with the meal.

The next day, Zoe and I both felt beat up so we decided to skip a walk that involved lots of tar roads. A taxi service was supposed to drop us off at the next walking point and then take our packs on to the next B&B, so we convinced him to ferry us along to Liscarney with our luggage and take a lazy day of walks around Moher Lake. Zoe relaxed in the room and worked on her writing while I walked to investigate an archeological site (the Boheh stone) but couldn't find a way to get close without cutting across farmlands and cow pasture. That night we ate at our B&B, a lovely dinner of breaded, pan-fried chicken, garden vegetables and home-made mashed potatoes. Its very easy to forget how lovely a home-cooked meal can be, enough to warm the soul when you are so very far from home. And then after the meal, our host offered us a treat of liquor (Irish Coffee for me and Bailey's for Zoe), we watched a hurling match and retired to watch hilarious comedy.

Today's breakfast was fantastic though, smoked Irish salmon and scrambled eggs for me, with pressed coffee and homemade brown bread, fruit, cereal and yogurt for Zoe. Our host was kind enough to drop us off at the base of Crough Patrick (St Patrick's Holy Mountain), which was wreathed in mist and made it impossible to see more than 10 meters in front of you as we climbed slowly up to the top, only to still be wreathed in mist, so we could barely see anything. Up one side and down the other, we came down into Clew Bay, ate a bit of lunch and caught a taxi into Westport. Which is where we are now. Talking to you. And Zoe is next to me, posting herself, and it seems we nearly lost track of what day we've done which thing, which is fairly easy to do when you're travelling and away from cities.

We're in Westport through Tuesday, which will give us time to decide where we're heading next, though it looks like we'll be leaving the Republic and heading into Ulster (Northern Ireland), to see Derry and make our way along the Causeway Coast into Belfast and the Mountains of Mourne. Tonight's plans involve finding a nice light dinner and then relaxing in a pub owned by Matt Malloy of the Chieftains to take in some beer and some traditional music. Tomorrow, we'll be questing for wireless and exploring this awesome town.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thistle & Dying Muscles

Since I last posted, not that much time at all has passed. But where we were, and what I was feeling and thinking about, has changed so much I can hardly remember now where I was when I last posted. So, I'm just going to talk about yesterday. Never mind that the rest of our time in Galway was delightful, and that Matt was indeed blissfully satisfied with his first taste of a home-cooked full Irish breakfast. Forget the bus ride to Maam Cross, which was short and our first real taste of the cooler, not midlands style Irish landscape.

Let's talk about day 1 of our walking tour.

First: Holy crap. It was 7 miles, which Matt insists on measuring in "clicks," if that's how you spell that, and it's fine, but doesn't help me visualize things. I looked at a map beforehand, but it didn't really prepare me. I'm used to a map like that equaling a nice walk through, say, a forest preserve. Meaning there is no change in elevation at all. Yesterday, we walked on a proper road for a bit, past lots of SHEEP--they were there, with us, absolutely every step of the way, spray painted with the owner's mark like some weird graffiti tagging gone wrong--and stopped for a snack of banana and Aero chocolate bar, then it got sparser. There was more up and down, and before I knew it, we were in this sort of valley thing, and then this other valley thing which may or may not have been the same one, except from the other side. And then we had our second snack, same thing.

And then we really started... hiking. I was enjoying all of the views up till that point, tired and kind of achy, but not not-enjoying myself, taking in the views, comparing them to other views I've seen, and kind of wanting to meander. I had a great laugh at the sudden downpour that caused us to all but leap into our ponchos; of course, the second we were in, the rain and the wind pretty much stopped right away. But then: that first ridge.

Kill me.

I mean, seriously, I'm out of shape and not used to hiking, and my shoes were great and it was windy and cool enough to keep my body at a nice level, but... kill me. There were moments where in my head I was so melodramatic, and then Matt would mock me or get me going, and we would make fun of sheep, and then we'd stop and the view would be so breathtaking that I could pant a little and take some pictures. So many little rivers to cross, so many rocks protruding all over the place, so many sheep, all these lovely listing trees and all of this insane greenery, these fluffy clouds where every few had a somewhat ominous gray-ish bottom. In between that, the skies were so blue and after a couple of hours, we couldn't really see houses or any signs of man but the fences and the sheep's markings, and later, the pack of French tourists back a mile or so behind us. And yet, in spite of all these lovely things, I sort of thought I was going to stroke out, or burst into tears, or get to the bottom on the other side and plant my feet and put my hands on my hip and yell, "I'm quitting! I'm not doing this again--are you INSANE? This isn't FUN."

But then we were at the top, and all of a sudden I was calm and happy again. Still sore and a bit winded, though. The descent, if possible, sucked more than that. There were rocks and gravel, scree, apparently, it's called, and it was very hard to pick my footing while worrying about wrenching an ankle and still use the natural downward momentum I could've been gaining. Matt went a lot faster, but the arrhymthic gait required made his knee hurt a little too, so at least in that I wasn't alone. All the same, I was glad to hit the bottom.

Only, I thought we were like a 1/2 mile from the B&B at that point. But... we were like halfway done. Oh JESUS. So, we walked... and walked... and I actually had to friggin' pee in the Irish countryside, which is NOT THE SAME as peeing in the woods where there's shelter. I wanted to faint. But we made it and the woman was nice and our room is small, the bed's hard, and there's no water pressure, but they're nice people and it's in the middle of nowhere with views that all those Hudson River school guys would die to paint. We walked down towards the lake, Lough Inagh, to a hotel for dinner in their bar, next to the French tourists, and almost died laughing at the two old Irish guys--total stereotypes!--sitting in there drinking their Guiness, and we mocked / were mocked by the bartender. We had a great meal, though.

And right now, instead of going on the optional walk today, we're in Clifden, where our B&B lady works, and it's a sleepy little place. We'd thought to come here later, actually, but after today, we won't need to come back really. Not much to do. The tourist office is closed for inventory (haha), we saw the water, we saw the castle-now-hotel, we sat in the library and read the paper, we got coffee. Still, it's charming and all that. And this internet cafe has nothing but Macs, so hilarious and glorious. So we'll have lunch, maybe back to the library or something, then grocery shop, then back to the B&B at 4:30.

Tomorrow: to Leenane. Matt promises it'll be less... up and down, though just as long.

There are more sheep than people in the Irish countryside

So we never actually made it out, that night in Galway. Rather, we got back to our room for a nap and woke up in the wee hours of the morning. The good thing was that we got rid of our jet lag, and lord but we needed the rest. Galway at 6 in the morning, when the city is still sleeping and a gentle rain falls from the sky is an absolutely lovely thing. Zoe and I took a lovely walk through the City Centre, seeing it without people milling about, with everything still closed, and I found myself entranced.

Made it back to the Ivies after that for the perfect Full Irish breakfast, with tender, savory sausages, well-cut bacon, delicately fried eggs (with yolks so yellow, they could've been poached) and I must say, I was in heaven. Caught an early bus out to Maam Cross, where we met up with our host for the evening, a gentleman named Padraig, who dropped us off for the beginning of our walk and took our packs to our Bed and Breakfast ahead of us.

The walk itself was magical, and I've a hard time framing it in words. The first couple miles were down a tar road lined with cattle and sheep and quaint houses, until it turned off onto a rocky path and thus we left houses behind and walked off into the Maumturk mountains. The terrain was a bit rough, with barely a path at times, and gates to keep the sheep in their grazing lands every so often. I'll speak more on the walk later, when we get a chance to upload our photos.

We had dinner last night at a lovely hotel on Lough Inagh, a bowl of tomato-pepper soup for each of us, with a pan-fried chicken breast in a wild mushroom sauce that was served with chips (read fries) and a rather bland vegetable medley anglais (read boiled until the flavor's gone out). I had my first proper pint of Guinness in Ireland, followed by an equally proper Irish Coffee (mostly Jameson, rather than coffee), while Zoe had a large pint bottle of Bulmer's Cider on ice. Our fellow guests at the B&B were there for dinner as well, a group of middle-aged French hikers that spoke no English, and Zoe translated for me what little she could make out.

This morning, after another lovely Full Irish, our host, Julia, drove us into the seaside town of Clifden for the day, so that we could borrow the internet, do some grocery shopping for our next day of walking and lazily meander through a small Irish town. Which brings me to our current locale, in an Internet shop, killing time and making a proper update. The hotel by where we're staying has wireless, so the plan is to pop down there tonight for a coffee and a chance to actually use our laptop. Maybe by then I'll have muddled together a few more observations on our travels, so that this blog doesn't start becoming a byplay of daily events.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Westward Ho

This morning we were in Dublin, and now we're in Galway. One end of the country to the other. So, say, Boston to San Francisco. But in reality, when you're talking about Ireland and not the States, that's a three and a half hour bus ride. Insanity. I dozed off a little bit during the ride, partially because my body schedule's still a little off, and partially because I put on my iPod--because there were two German girls and a Spanish guy near us who were young and loud and I didn't really care about them--so I was lulled by my calm Shuffle choices. The countryside between the two cities is fairly flat, with some things that look like mountains when you're far away, and even though you swear you're moving closer to them, they just never appear as more than hillocks. I think it's a cool optic illusion, but there's probably a scientific reason. It's standard countryside as far as it goes, but it's standard IRISH countryside. For instance, they have low walls dividing up either property or as pens for sheep and horses, and they looking like crumbling, ancient things that were whitewashed like 400 years ago. Awesome. And they do have hedgerows, and even the tiny houses have lush lawns, flowering bushes and trees of all different sorts; my favorites are the trees that are like non-tropic cyrpruses.

I loved Galway before, and I already love it again. We left Eyre Square, and instead of grabbing a real map or stopping at the Tourist booth right there (oh no), we headed to the neighborhood where the B&B is. Only without a map, and heading to a terrace, of course we went farther than we needed to. Lots of helpful people got us there, including a bartender who looked like the waiter we had last night and a French girl at another tourist bureau, and all in all it was a nice walk, although we were sticky by the time we were brought up to our room. The room's charming, tall with three beds in it actually, and green walls with some wallpaper, and a tiny TV on a tiny stand, and that nice Irish linen with embroidery, though sadly not lace. The toilet, like the one at the hotel last night, flushes forever! I don't get it, since in Lux, they tried to have as little water as possible in the bowl to conserve water, but it didn't take an hour to flush.

So then we made our way back to the square, stopping at an ATM (of course, grr), and grabbing some fries with garlic and cheese at a kebab stand to snack on. We think we want to bypass returning to Dublin in favor of heading north directly from Westport, where the walking tour ends, if we're able. Candace said she rode horses in Donegal and that we'd like it, so we're going to look there, etc. etc., and then get to Belfast that way. I think that's much better, since Dublin didn't grab me and I hate the idea of going backwards, even in that small way.

Tonight we're planning to go to a pub just down the street from the B&B to hear some live traditional music and probably have some dinner and a pint. I hope it's not just a place full of old guys, since the lady at the B&B isn't in her twenties / thirties, but if it is a bunch of old guys, we'll find one to befriend. Or, realistically, Matt will make friends and I'll ride his coattails. I like the people here better; one guy on the street asked us if we were lost and if he could help, and then was really sorry when he didn't know the street we were looking for. Just lovely. But, lest you think this place is a dreamland, remember: the kids are all hooligans. We passed this boy trying to convince this other boy, for whatever reason, to let the boy punch him in the face. The face. Thankfully, the other boy was not dumb enough to agree, and was fast enough not to get hit anyhow.

Proper Irish rain is cold...

The thing with not-rain is that it was all a figment, a happenstance. We are in Galway, and it is in fact raining. Woke up this morning, had the full Irish breakfast, left the hotel and caught a bus across the country. From Dublin to Galway it took almost 4 hours, about the drive from Chicago to Madison, or to Champagne if you drive like a crazy person. The bus was a little cramped, but not crowded and the Irish countryside was gorgeous. We passed through a few towns that seemed quaint and interesting, napped and listened to music until we reached Galway.

Right now, as seems to be my lesson over the last few days, I'm very tired. I mean very tired, to the point where my brain isn't functioning properly and I'm having a time trying to compose this entry. Thanks to a complete lack of directions and our own bravery in the face of new lands, Zoe and I set out to find our Bed and Breakfast which was supposedly located in the Salthill area of the city. So we walked, our packs strapped tight and heavier with every step we took, until we reached the Salthill branch of the Tourist Information Office, only to discover that we'd walked completely past the area we should have been in. Now the address given was a terrace that none of the locals knew of, and we didn't have a map (idiots that we are at times, we didn't think to grab a map when we got off the bus), so we didn't know what cross streets to look for, and we didn't receive any directions from our travel broker. So really, we could've spared ourselves a good hour's walk if we'd only been sensible in the first place. But never the less, we found the place and it really is lovely.

Now let me say a few things about Irish breakfast...

To begin with, the concept is delicious and much akin to what I prefer to eat at home. Hashbrowns, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, rashers of bacon, sausages, jams, breads, tea, coffee, black and white pudding. Really just an enormous spread, more food than anyone should probably eat first thing after waking. The concept is excellent. But this hotel we were at, which was quite posh for the most part, they managed to bugger the entire thing for a lark. The eggs were soft and runny, but not in any appetizing sort of fashion. The rashers of bacon (Irish bacon more closely resembles fried ham than what Americans think of as bacon) were as tough as shoe leather and over salted. And on the subject of shoes, the hashbrown (think a McDonald's hashbrown patty, except triangular) had a vague aftertaste of dirty foot sweat. And don't get me started on black pudding. If you don't know what it is, you're probably better off.

Now as I said, the concept of it is brilliant and I'm sure I'll have some fantastic examples of it over the next several days, but this hotel just couldn't carry it off. And to make matters worse, they served it buffet-style. Buffet is bad. More on Irish breakfast after I've eaten more of it.

I think that for the moment, Zoe and I are going to take in some traditional music, find some dinner and I'm going to finally get a proper pint of Guinness.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Little Update

So I read Matt's update and felt like I had done a guide-book summary of our day. I know it's fun to follow in our footsteps, to maybe look at a map and to see where we were walking, to imagine us here, holding hands and sitting on wet benches and taking pictures of random things.

But there's more, too, to the way the day felt for me. For me, the trip to the airport is the surreal part, this strange in-between land that makes me a little dazed. But once we boarded the plane and all the overly-made-up flight attendants talked with their lilt and one of them sat in front of us and started the "how's so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so?" with a girl on the flight whom she obviously knew, then it came to me: I'm going back. It's been hardly more than a year, but already I was relieved to be back. Not quite relieved to be gone in the way I think Matt's feeling, but just relieved to be back on this soil, in this land, with the greenery and the population that even in the touristy capital is still filled with people who will take the time. Other than the old lady at the pub where we had the pint, who clearly could care less about it all. But that's a picture of a type, too, so I'm okay.

Going to run out of internet time now, another hazard of being away from home. Less charming than the surly bartendress, I might add.

And so I discover not-rain...

Flying is something that I find both exhilarating and unnerving, such a delightful combination, much like roller coasters. That take off, where gravity fights against technology and acceleration, a losing battle to keep wingless beings on the ground as we take off in our great winged Pringle cans of aerodynamic excellence. And as we gained altitude out of O'Hare in the late evening, the sunset caused the satellite dishes and skylights of neatly manicured, miniature replica subdivisions below us to wink and glitter and glare and I felt relief. Relief that for the first time in my adult life, I'm embarking on something grand and momentous and completely outside of my frame of reference. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful, and I'm quite impressed with the tiny little personal on-demand television screens that offer your choice of programming. And they run off a Red Hat shell, which I find interesting.

The landing, the time through Customs, all such a perfectly nothing experience. The customs officer made fun of me for wearing a green shirt, and Zoe helped, and then we were on a bus to the hotel, and we only got lost a bit. After that nap (the one that Z mentioned), we put on our feet and wound up walking deep into the heart of Dublin, stopping at a little place called the Boulevard Cafe for a bite. It was a nice little Italian-style bistro, good music, nice open atmosphere and the only staff member we saw was incredibly friendly. The food itself was simple and elegant, the best kind. I had a steak sandwich, which was served open-faced on a ciabatta with confit (read carmelized) red onions and a portabella mushroom. The texture of the mushroom was perfect, the brown sugar and red wine vinegar in the onions complementing the savoriness of the steak and mushroom, and the bread deliciously sopping up all the juices, providing amazing counterpoints to each other. Zoe had a goat cheese tartlet, filled with pears and what-have-you, wrapped in a buttery, flaky pastry, amazingly filling and light at the same time, and she of course followed it up with Bailey's cheesecake that beat the holy hell out of any cheesecake I've had stateside. Just remembering this meal, typing it up to share with you, I'm getting hungry again.

We wandered back slowly through St. Stephen's Green, admiring the lush foliage and giant evil swans (pictures to follow later, after sleep), stopped at a pub for a pint of cider and use of the lavatory, where we were the only two people in the entire establishment and were thoroughly ignored by the elderly Irish woman behind the bar, and then kept wandering back towards the hotel until our tired bodies betrayed us and we were forced to catch a taxi.

So here we are in a hotel in Dublin, tired, jet-lagged and overjoyed. Tomorrow, Galway. Now, sleep.

P.S. Not-rain, possibly similar to a light drizzle in Chicago, is a phenomenon occuring in Ireland, in which water dribbles from the sky long enough to refresh your face, or long enough for you to open an umbrella and walk a block only to realize that water is no longer dribbling from the sky. By the time you've walked another few blocks, the not-rain begins again. Bollocks to the umbrellas.

Mwahaha!

We have arrived!! I hate multiple exclamation points--in a row, or more than one inside of the same stretch of ten pages... unless it's someone yelling in dialogue--but I'm using two here because I'm so excited. I'm also extremely tired. They call it jet lag, but I think it's a lot of stress and then not enough sleep and then running on adrenaline all day as we walked Dublin a bit.

To back up, the flight on Aer Lingus was super duper smooth, as was customs at both ends. Amazing. We even landed 45 minutes early, which put us to our hotel by 9:30 in the morning. Woah. Our room is nice, the bed is soft, and we did sleep, but even one night in a hotel is enough; we feel kind of like tourists. Well, I think we deserve the first night to be a bit luxurious, but it's all I really need. My feet hurt, too, but it was worth it; we saw, in no particular order (too tired): St Stephen's Green, Merrion Square, a bit of Temple Bar (where we had a lovely meal, but I'll leave its description to Matt, if he wants to pick up that ball), a stretch of Grafton St and had short, friendly exchanges with several people, including two Garda at two different times. Oh, Ireland! But still, it's a city; people don't look at each other, we heard Americans and people kind of stared at us. Don't know why.

I'm too muzzy to have more right now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Signs point to...

What a bloody day. As some sort of sick homage to American culture, but mostly because it was a blast, Zoe and I went to Great America (an amusement park) with our friend Anthony, my mother and my two brothers. It was in fact, a blast, eating disgustingly unhealthy, grease-laden food, running around the park dodging teenagers and trying to find the shortest lines, so that we could ride as many coasters as possible in the few hours that we were there. And boy did we, and my voice is hoarse from the adrenaline-fueled screaming as I plunged forth into another drop. I could think of so many metaphors that will remain wasted.

After we got home I rolled over to The Bar, home of The Show. This one place in Chicago has more memories in it, more good times and bad, than any childhood home, and so tonight was my somewhat fond farewell to the Heartland Cafe on Wednesdays, to the open mic that spurred my growth as a writer (if we can call it growth when you realize you're too old to write angsty poetry and perhaps you should just work on fiction), and to all the people that I know and love there. But there was so little to say goodbye to, so little left of value to me but friends and memories, and there was such a confluence of petty drama, needless angst and bad poetry that it made me sick. At the risk of sounding like some sort of liberal New Age dweeb, the negative energy in that place tonight was enough to make me vomit. And I'd meant for this to be such a happy occasion. Shrug.

So we have four days before we leave for Ireland, four days of packing, scrambling, saying farewells and doing every single little possible last minute thing we can without exploding our heads in the process. Fortunately Chicago is doing a fine job of encouraging us to leave and all signs in our lives point to yes. Yes, this is the perfect time to leave. Yes, this is the perfect time for adventure. Yes, if you stay in Chicago too much longer, you will slap the wrong person and then there will be trouble.

Le sigh.

Monday, June 8, 2009

For a second, I couldn't remember what font I've chosen. How mortifying.

Okay, completely beside the point.

What I was going to write about was the sort of dual nature of preparing to travel, which I love, because I love anything that is more than one thing simultaneously. I love things that shouldn't be able to be two (or more) things simultaneously and still exist / not combust into insanity. What I mean is, we're preparing to travel and there's excitement, utter panic, anticipation and mundane nerves. It's like the part in Half Blood Prince when Hermione's explaining all of the things that might go through a girl's head in a single given moment.

The excitement and the anticipation are easy enough to handle, and I'm always dealing with mundane nerves. Will we have enough money? What happens next? Can my heart explode from worry? I know it's silly, considering I'm practical and smart with finances, and also because I don't particularly need or want too much money laying around while I'm young. If I had money, I'd be tempted to spend it on dumb things... like cabinet knobs from Restoration Hardware, for example. (I really do want them someday.) It's the utter panic that's hard. Duh, I know. It's panic: of course it's not easy to deal with! But there it is, coming and going. It's not neat like waves of panic flinging to the shore and then getting sucked back out to sea. It's just chaotic, thinking so many crazy things at once, like, "What if I'm so out of shape I can't do the walking tour? What if there's nothing at all to do in Belfast? What if it's not warm enough to enjoy the beach in Italy? What if Matt doesn't love Europe? What if I'm not enchanted by Europe this time? What if it's more a chore than an adventure?"

A quote aimed tongue-in-cheek at Matt:
"A man of ordinary talent will always be ordinary, whether he travels or not; but a man of superior talent (which I cannot deny myself to be without being impious) will go to pieces if he remains forever in the same place." —
Mozart

I wanted to find a rather poetic quote about traveling to put in here, but instead, I came across a great one from Daniel Boorstin, who I read a lot while writing my thesis. (Highly recommend him.) "The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.'"

Less than a week! We bought our packs today. Mine feels wonderful on my back, but it has so many sodding straps that I want to cut them all off. But I won't. Worse, I have to get used to flipping back the top pouchy thingy to open the backpack to shove my hand down into its abyss to find anything. What if I just need some chapstick?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Learning from the mistakes before we make them...

Remarkably, Zoe and I came to our senses and realized that a.) its going to be bloody difficult to find someplace to camp in Northern Ireland and b.) neither of us is really looking forward to hiking with all of our bloody belongings on our back for two weeks and nearly 60 miles.

I feel that if we were only backpacking, that the sole purpose of the trip was to spend two weeks exploring the County Antrim on foot, we'd be better able to pack for it, and pack light enough that it wouldn't matter. But with all the other things we have planned on our first big adventure together, it makes more sense to nyx that part of the journey. So we'll go to Belfast for sure, and try and find some daytrips up to the Causeway and the Glens, possibly with an inexpensive youth hostel nearby. The plan for tomorrow is to visit the travel agents, show them our planned itinerary and request that they use their unique knowledge and wisdom to guide us in an appropriate direction.

And today was Zoe's last day of work, poetically enough two weeks to the day that we leave, and she is tremendously excited. I suppose that I should really be panicking more than I am, but its only just now starting to feel real, now that both of us are off work, stepping out of that daily grind and into something mythic. These moments are foundations in our lives, and its so rare that you get to closely examine them, actually plan them out. It helps though, being armed with the knowledge that there is always someone at your side, always someone who will get your back. I know that alone, I am strong, but together we are stronger, just as I know that alone, I am fiercely determined, but together we are unstoppable.

Really is quite exciting, isn't all this?