Getting there

Getting there

Monday, February 28, 2011

Beauty and Greed at the Cliffs of Moher

Before I begin this entry I must admit that I considered not writing this story at all. Our experience at the Cliffs of Moher was so atypical of every other experience we had in Ireland that I felt that I should just forget this story. It almost pains me to tell it because of how I feel about Ireland and the Irish, and telling a negative story almost seems like a betrayal. The story is true, though, and deserves to be told just as much as all my positive stories about Ireland. Again I will say, though, that this experience was an utter anomaly, which is perhaps why I find it even more troubling.

Our visit to the Cliffs of Moher started out well enough. We flew into Shannon airport from London on Aer Lingus. Our Irish chauffeur met us at the airport, we collected our bags, and climbed into the van that would be our transportation for the next few days. Our driver explained that the first stop on our tour was the Cliffs of Moher. We were all game as we were well rested and ready to begin our Irish adventure. So, off we drove to the Cliffs.

The Cliffs of Moher are considered one of Ireland's top tourist attractions, and likely the finest of their natural wonders. They are awe-inspiring to behold, spectacular cliffs that extend for miles. The sheer cliff face meets the swirling ocean below, and the thought of seeing them as our first Irish stop delighted us.

When we arrived at the Cliffs my husband and I realized that in our hurry at the airport we had neglected to visit an ATM to get some cash. We had spent our last bit of British currency at Heathrow, and we needed to get some Euros. We explained this to our driver, who kindly pulled out his wallet and handed us a 50-Euro note. He explained he would drop us at the entrance to the Cliffs and collect us again in an hour or so.

We got out of the van and as it drove away realized that we had just entrusted all our possessions to someone we had just met, and now had only what we could carry. My husband and I laughed and decided that if we were going to trust our driver the time to do so began now. We were in high spirits and ready to begin what was promising to be a magical time in Ireland.

We began our trek to the Cliffs. We passed what appeared to be a visitor centre, but anxious to see the Cliffs we walked by and began the climb. Despite the blustery cold day there were a couple of musicians busking along the way, adding to the wonderful feel of the place. We climbed the rough-hewn stone stairs, and marvelled at the birds who were attempting to glide on the wind but being buffeted about by the strong air currents. When we had our first real glimpse of the Cliffs they did not disappoint. They are spectacularly beautiful, stunning in every regard. At the top of one cliff is a small lookout tower built in 1835. It promised an especially lovely view so we entered the tower where the attendant informed us there was a 2-Euro fee for each person to ascend to the top. That seemed quite reasonable - after all  the tower requires maintenance, so we happily paid our fees with the 50-Euro note our driver had so kindly lent us, and we climbed the stairs to the open viewing area at the tower top. It was an amazing view, and we snapped many photos.

We descended the tower and meandered a bit more on the cliff paths, taking photos as we went and drinking in our first taste of Ireland. Finally, defeated by the brisk wind and the cold we began our descent towards the visitor centre and to meet our driver. As we got closer to the centre I realized there was a small cafeteria inside, and I was absolutely desperate for a coffee. So, we decided to go in as our driver was not expected just yet and we had a few moments to spare.

We had just entered the building, my husband leading, my daughter in the middle, and I trailing behind when a man stopped me and asked if he could have a word with me. I replied "Of course". With no introduction of himself, and in a brusque manner, he asked me for the name and company of the driver who had dropped us at the Cliffs. Now, I am by both nature and nationality usually a cooperative person, but his approach rankled me. He stood there, pen and paper in hand, waiting for my answer, and I decided it was time to use the "dumb tourist" response. I looked at him and explained that the driver had picked us up at Shannon airport less than 3 hours before and that I had no idea of his name or his company. I suppose I refused to comply for a few reasons. First, this man had not identified himself, and as such I felt no compunction to divulge anything to him. Secondly, I had no intention of "ratting out" the driver with whom I was going to be spending the next several days, especially since I had no idea who was asking for this information or why. Finally, this man was standing between me and my coffee, which is a dangerous place to be.

At this point my husband realized I was no longer with them and began to make his way back to me. The man, who still did not identify himself, informed me that it was "not allowed" to drop people at the entrance, and that we were required to pay entrance fees. Apparently what was required was that every vehicle park in the car park and pay your admittance fees there (you paid for each person in the car even if not everyone in the vehicle intended to see the Cliffs). He said we would have to visit the front desk of the centre to pay these fees, and I said of course we would but we just wanted to grab a coffee. I turned to rejoin my husband and daughter to head to the cafe when the man said "Right, you'll come with me then" in a rather menacing voice. I looked at my husband and quietly told him we needed to accompany this man, who I now could see wore a jacket that said "Ranger" on it, and pay our fees.

We headed to the front desk, feeling both a bit harassed and a bit confused. At the desk the receptionist was a little kinder. We explained we had no interest in seeing the exhibits at the visitor centre, but had just come to see the Cliffs, have a coffee, and perhaps spend money in the gift shop. All to no avail, though - the Cliffs of Moher are not free, and one pays to see this natural wonder. We paid our 6-Euros each, the ranger shoved a pamphlet in my hand to give to our driver, and we walked away. I still got my coffee as I needed it now more than ever, but there would be no perusal of the gift shop or any other part of the centre. We couldn't leave quickly enough. We found our van and driver, climbed in, gave the pamphlet to our driver, and explained a bit of what had happened. It turns out that the admission fee at the Cliffs is a contentious issue, and we had been caught up in it. We drove on to Limerick and to continue our trip, away from the beautiful Cliffs and what became some very mixed feelings on them.

There are so many reasons this episode troubled me. I was shocked that there would be a charge to see a natural beauty like the Cliffs. It's like charging a fee to gaze on the Rocky Mountains or the Niagara Falls. It makes sense to charge for entry into the visitor centre exhibits, but to charge to see the natural wonder of the Cliffs seemed wrong. Suddenly the charge to access the lookout tower didn't seem reasonable but rather greedy, as that charge is not included in the Cliffs admission and must be paid separately. To top it all off I discovered that while you pay to see many visitor attractions in Ireland (like Blarney Castle) most museums and permanent art gallery exhbitions are absolutely free to visit. Even places like Glendalough only charge to see the exhibits - the grounds are free to everyone. Places like museums, art galleries, and old sites like Glendalough take massive amounts of money to maintain, and those are free - but a natural wonder like the Cliffs that require little maintenance become cash cows? It just seems that because the Cliffs attract so many visitors they have decided that this is where they will make their money, and make money they do. 6-Euros (plus 2 if you visit the tower) doesn't seem like much, but when you consider that the Cliffs attract over a million visitors a year it becomes clear very quickly that money is being made here. I don't resent making money from tourism, but I do feel that making that money on the back of a natural wonder that anywhere else would be free to see is questionable at best. Money can and should be made from the exhibits, gift shop, and cafe - use the Cliffs to lure them in, and then let them hand over money to access all the other delights.

I suppose I was also troubled by the rudeness and hostility of the ranger. Even when I explained that I had been in his country for less than 3 hours there was no compassion or extension of courtesy. There were no kind words of welcome or regret for any misunderstanding. He treated us as if we were interlopers and untrustworthy, not simply confused tourists. It was the only time in Ireland that I felt I was treated rudely, and it's unfortunate it happened so soon after we arrived. It could have easily formed a first impression of Ireland that I could not have shed, but my husband and I decided we would do our best to consider the incident over and see what the rest of the visit to this country brought us. As my regular readers know I quickly fell in love with Ireland and the Irish, and this initial episode was quickly forgotten - but not really forgiven.

So, some advice. If you go to Ireland do go to the Cliffs of Moher, as they should be seen and enjoyed. Pay your fees, and when you do perhaps make a small joke about how we don't normally charge to see natural wonders in Canada, but deliver it with a smile. And stay away from the rangers. In my opinion they won't enhance the experience.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fellowship of the Ring, Revisited

For several years now my husband and I have been waiting for our daughter to be old enough to watch Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy with us. Initially she deemed it too frightening, and there are scenes which can certainly be nightmare inspiring for young children. Then it was no longer too frightening but too boring and it didn't hold her attention. In the last six months, though, she had discovered the X-Box game "Oblivion", a fantasy role-playing game replete with elves, orcs, and goblins. She could spend hours immersed in the game. The time seemed auspicious and so last night, without any fanfare or announcement, my husband popped "The Fellowship of the Ring" into the DVD player and we wrapped up in blankets to watch.

I've seen these movies several times. I read Tolkien many years ago, and I always thought the movies were an incredible achievement. I'm not one who knows every scene and all the lines, though. I know the storyline, and enjoy the movies, but I'm not the kind of fan who names their children Arwen. I am the sort of fan who adores Viggo Mortenson as both the dirty, sweaty Aragorn and the cleaned up version. I am the sort of fan who thinks Orlando Bloom makes one sexy elf. I am the sort of fan who enjoyed the movies in a rather superficial sense, loving the cinematography and the epic feel of the story. Last night, though, as so often happens when you do something for the first time with your child, I watched the movie with new eyes.

During the opening scenes it was just as I first thought when I arrived in Ireland and decided that Tolkien must have been inspired by his time there to write of the shire and hobbits. Even though the movie was filmed in New Zealand the depiction of the shire is as Irish as the Emerald Isle itself. There is even speculation that Tolkien based some of the story on Irish legends and myths, although I don't know enough of these to have an opinion. My daughter and I both marvelled, though, at how the shire reminded us of the Irish countryside, and how the lives of the hobbits could have been modelled on that of ancient rural Irish folk.

As the movie played on, though, I saw past the spectacular cinematography and realized that Tolkien's themes are almost exactly the lessons parents try to impart to their children. I was actually mildly astonished at how I'd sort of missed that in previous viewings - I'd always enjoyed the story but hadn't given much thought to the ideas behind it.

There is, of course, the loyalty of Samwise Gamgee, who may not be the brightest hobbit but proves to be the most faithful. Frodo is leaving to continue his mission to Mordor, and tells Sam he is going to Mordor alone. Sam's reply? "Of course you are, and I'm going with you!". Who hasn't wished to have a best friend like that, who will follow you in good times and bad, never leaving your side even if you tell them to?

There is Aragorn, who struggles with his own fear of weakness and is not sure if he can embrace his destiny to be king. He is so courageous, and yet he knows that even the bravest and strongest cannot know for certain that they will always choose the right path. He does not know if he can be what the world of humans needs, but of course none of us know if we can be what those around us need.

There is Boromir, the human who struggles with his own desires and that which he knows to be right. When Boromir attacks Frodo and attempts to take the ring my daughter asked what happened to Boromir to make him act in such a way. I explained that he was so blinded by his own desire for the ring and the power that he would do anything he could to get it, even betraying one he had sworn to protect. I told her that this happens often, and people will do anything - plagiarize a book, rob a bank, cheat investors - to attain something they want. It's a struggle people face every day, and with things with far less power than the One Ring. Boromir of course redeems himself when Merry and Pippin are attacked by Orcs, and he fights to the death to protect them. This is a powerful depiction of how even those who have done wrong can redeem themselves by choosing the right path. As I always do I cried when Boromir died, arrows protruding from his chest as the Orcs storm past him.

There are Merry and Pippin, those mischievous hobbits who seem a bit silly and always doing the wrong thing - and yet when the Orcs are about to find Frodo they take what seems to be a suicidal path and convince the Orcs to follow them so Frodo can escape. Only true friends would take such a risk.

There are Legolas and Gimli, who swear to help Frodo achieve destruction of the One Ring, and who not only put themselves in danger but into alliance with each other to do so. This speaks to the ability to work with those we distrust to attain a common goal, and to perhaps even find unexpected friendship along the way.

There is, of course, Gandalf. Gandalf is the mentor we all wish we could have, the one whose words we carry even when they have left our lives. When Frodo expresses his wish that the ring had never come to him Gandalf replies that everyone who lives through such times wishes these things, but that we don't usually have the choice of the time we have, only what we do with that time. How often do people wish they didn't carry a burden, that it had fallen to someone else instead of them? Do we spend time lamenting being given such a task, or do we simply choose how we will deal with that burden, and then do it? These are words to live by, my friends.

And there is Frodo, the hobbit who seems too small to carry the One Ring to it's destruction. The fate of the world rides on Frodo's shoulders, and it weighs on him heavily. Frodo, though, doesn't give up, and somehow manages to keep going despite injury and grief. He accepts his fate and while he doesn't know if he will succeed he forges on. How frightened he must be, as we all are when we face things we don't understand or think we cannot achieve. Frodo provides perhaps the most powerful lesson of all - that even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

By the time the credits rolled I realized I had seen the movie and the story in a way I never had before. I looked at my daughter and thought that perhaps these movies should be required viewing for every child of a certain age as they depict so many of the lessons that we as parents try to teach. It's not only children who can benefit from these stories though. So many adults could use a refresher in these lessons of loyalty, faith, trust, and courage. When Tolkien wrote he wrote not of elves and dwarves, hobbits and wizards - he wrote of all of us.

Into The West, Lord of the Rings Soundtrack
Annie Lennox

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Snow above the Thames

When Noel Coward wrote the song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in 1932 he explained that "Mad dogs and englishmen go out in the noonday sun". I can't comment on that, but I know when Englishmen don't particularly like to go out, at least those who reside in London. That time, my friends, is when it snows.

We arrived at Heathrow on December 17th, 2010. For those who followed the weather news from Europe this past Christmas that was just before Heathrow closed the runways due to snow. Now, on the plane over we had read the London papers predicting a snowy blast for Britain. We chuckled a bit at headlines of "Big Freeze Hits London" as the temperatures of -3C seemed downright balmy compared to the -30C we were leaving behind. It was just gentle chucking, though - obviously they weren't ready for this.

We arrived at Heathrow and it was cool, but not cold. As we were driven to our hotel in the car we had hired it began to snow, soft and fluffy and beautiful. It was the kind of snow that seems magical no matter where it falls, and the kind children in Canada love. Our driver, who had formerly driven race cars, was unafraid but expressed that this snow did not bode well for traffic in London.

Much of our first day in London was lost to jet lag and general travel weariness. We did go for a small explore on The Strand, but soon tumbled into bed. The next morning we awoke and watched while London became a winter wonderland. Our window had a spectacular view of the Thames, but the view was soon obscured by the snow. The snow fell thick and heavy, the kind of damp snow that instills fear in those who rely on shovels to clear their driveways. It was delightful for us, and astonishing  for the locals who just shook their heads. We of course put on our coats and boots and headed outside - being Canadians who have spent most of their lives on the prairies snow was hardly a deterrent. At the concierge desk at the hotel they tried to hand us umbrellas, and we laughed. We explained how useless an umbrella is in thick heavy snow, and that besides if we used umbrellas in the snow we could never show our faces in Canada again. So, out we headed into a city that is most decidedly not prepared for such snow.

Now, I must say that for the most part they coped quite well. The icy, snowy streets obviously struck terror into the drivers, except for the black cabs that zoomed around as normal. Pedestrians still ignored walk lights and crossed wherever they pleased. The snow did, however, throw their travel system into chaos, with flights cancelled and trains not operating. This ruined the holidays for so many people from Britain, and many people spent their holiday time sleeping in airport terminals. As Canadians this surprised us. Inclement weather can affect air travel here, too, but an inch of snow isn't usually cause for such chaos. Heathrow just seemed shockingly unprepared.

Every time we told someone in London that we were from Canada the response was always the same : "You must be laughing at how we are dealing with this weather". What a silly thing to say to Canadians - we are far too polite to say "yes, we are, in fact, laughing at you" even if we are. So we would assure them that we were not laughing and commiserated with their state of shock over the snow, while behind closed doors we read articles about the "Big Freeze" and continued to chuckle. We laughed quietly at those who struggled with umbrellas collapsing under the weight of the snow. We giggled at those who were out shovelling sidewalks in front of the stores but who seemed perplexed by how to use the shovel and where to put the snow. We were bemused by those who spread salt so thickly that the sidewalk was not treacherous with ice but rather with an inch-thick layer of salt crystals.

It was amusing to be in Covent Gardens in the snow, where snowball fights began to break out - not between children, but rather between 40-year old men in business suits and slippery soled shoes. Snowmen began to appear everywhere - again not from the hands of children but from adults who seemed to be enjoying a second shot at childhood delights.

That evening we went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. The Wonderland is truly a wonder of carnival rides, marketplace vendors, and food and drink outlets. We enjoyed mulled wine and hot egg nog (learning quickly that egg nog should never be hot). We tried roasted chestnuts and discovered they must be an acquired taste, and one that we were unlikely to acquire. We wandered in the snow and watched the Londoners delight in the snow. The snow that earlier in the day had made the locals all a bit nervous was now being avidly embraced and enjoyed.

The snow didn't last long, I'm afraid. Very quickly the snow in London disappeared, although it remained cold and they continued to lament "The Big Freeze". For these Canadian visitors, though, that initial snow made us feel so welcome in London. It was like a bit of home for those who were from so far away. For the residents of  London I think the snow was a bit of a shock, but as the English always seem to do they simply "kept calm and carried on". They overcame their initial dismay and persisted in their routine until the snow disappeared and normalcy was regained.  Perhaps those in charge of Heathrow could use a refresher in that philosophy. I rather think the English expect it from them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

These Are A Few Of My Favourite (New) Things

I think I need to start this post with a couple of disclaimers. For starters, I like material possessions. There, I said it. I like things. I know it's far more politically correct for me to say "oh, you could drop me in the forest with nothing but a journal and a pair of sandals and I'd be happy" but that's an outright lie. I can't help it - I like my stuff, and I'm not going to apologize for it, either. I'm not obsessed with it, mind you - but I do like it. Secondly, I am not primarily a woman of expensive taste. Some of my favourite items of clothing cost less than $20. However, if I like something and I can afford it then I won't balk at spending money to get it. I realize not everyone shares my thoughts, and that's cool - but now you know who I am, how I think, and we can move on, right?

The genesis of this post dates back to my recent housewarming party. At one point in the evening I found myself in my bedroom with about 8 women, all of whom wanted to see the "stuff" I bought while on holiday. I hadn't suggested it - they asked. They wanted to see it all (and in some cases try on the shoes, and in one  case in particular try to stuff my new Jimmy Choo clutch into the pocket of their hoodie - and I know you're reading this, and you know who you are!). So, I thought I'd share some of my favourite finds here on this blog. If you don't care for "stuff" you may as well stop reading now. You've been warned!

All the retailers I'm listing ship to Canada - and most ship for less than Canadian companies do. There is the exchange rate to consider, and one must keep in mind taxes and duties. One company, though (I won't say which one) shipped a recent order to me as a gift and thus I paid no duty or taxes. They did so of their own choice, and not my request, so it was a delightful surprise.

Since I began in London let's start there. London is fabulous for shopping, not just for the "big name" designers but for some fairly unique items from lesser knowns, too. One of my favourite purchases in London was, of course, this tote:

The Brit Tote - Aspinal of London
I freaking love this bag. It has been my constant companion since arriving home, and I've received more compliments that I can count. It's amazing quality, too, which means it's standing up very well to the abuse I tend to dish out to totes and handbags. It's available from Aspinal of London and they have so many other fabulous things, too.

Since we are on the topic of handbags one of the things I wanted was a bag from an English designer. Before I left Canada I did my research and discovered Lulu Guinness. Lulu is a favourite of actresses like Helena Bonham Carter, and is known for her whimsical designs. Considering they are designer bags the prices are pretty decent - less than you pay for Coach bags in Canada, anyhow. This is the bag my wonderful husband and daughter got me for Christmas - can't wait to pull it out this spring!


There is a clothing store in London that must be mentioned, and that is Topshop. The clothing is fresh, inspired, and relatively inexpensive. Quality is decent, too, and they even carry shoes. I must admit I did not purchase anything while in London from Topshop, but I would certainly have done so if I could have stuffed more into my suitcase.

Finally, the shoes. Ah, my favourite fashion subject, shoes! My daughter and I were walking around Carnaby Street, just browsing, when I spotted an eclectic looking shoe store and suggested we go in. My daughter took one look around, looked at me, sighed, and said "We're going to be here awhile, aren't we?". Yes, indeed, we were. The store is called Irregular Choice, and they have the best shoes in the world. Now, these shoes are not for the faint of heart, and one friend said she could never be brave enough to wear them - but they're shoes, not nipple pasties, and every woman should feel free to wear whatever she wants on her feet. These are the ones I brought home:

I absolutely love them, and they cost a fraction of high-end designer shoes. You can't see it, but the inside is lined with blue velvet, and the soles have a whimsical mad-hatter rabbit type print. I can't decide whether to wear these or display them as art. Now, Irregular Choice will ship to Canada but I find their shipping rates prohibitive, so there is another option to get your hands on some of these fabulous shoes. That option is Schuh (funny name, but say it out loud with a "sh" sound at the beginning and you'll get it). Schuh not only carries Irregular Choice but other brands as well, and many you will never find in Canada. For shoe addicts like me it's a treasure trove of delight. And the shipping? Dirt cheap, my friends.

Right, moving on to Ireland. One of my very favourites is Newbridge Silver. Not for their cutlery, but rather for the silver jewelry pieces. Again quite reasonably priced. This is one of the bracelets I have, and it reminds me of Ireland every time I wear it. You can order right from Newbridge Silver or any number of online retailers, including Arnotts.

Product Details

Finally a favourite haunt in Ireland rapidly became House of Ireland. They carry a wide range of items from Ireland, ranging from Newbridge Silver jewelry to Waterford crystal to Aran sweaters. A warning about the sweaters, though - no Irish person would be caught dead in one, and it seems to wear one there, especially in the major cities, will mark you instantly as a tourist. When you come back to Canada, though, everyone will be impressed with your lovely sweater, so it's all good! I came home with a sweater similar to this, although in a beautiful kelly green. I can't wait to pull it out this spring as it will remind me of Ireland with both the colour and the fact I purchased it there.

Patchwork 1 Button Cardigan Natural

So, there you go. Now you know all my secrets, like where to find the best shoes in the world. Even worse you know I'm a shallow person who loves shoes and handbags. Hey, we all have our faults and weaknesses. Mine just happens to be those. Happy shopping!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy Blogiversary!

This morning I woke up and realized that as of yesterday I've been writing this blog for one month. That seemed worthy of mention, if not celebration, as it took me a long time to decide to write a blog at all. I'd considered it many times but always rejected the idea as I couldn't imagine why anyone would care. If it wasn't for the encouragement of my friend Jo it would never have happened, either.

To be honest I began writing this blog as pure catharsis. When I arrived home from holiday in January I was happy to be home but found myself not homesick but heartsick for another country (and if I have to tell you which one then obviously you haven't been reading my blog). I had stories that I was burning to tell but my immediate family already knew them and everyone else was growing weary of hearing them. I figured if I wrote them down I could get them out of my system and even if no one read them it was okay as at least I'd gotten them into words.  I've been incredibly grateful that there are people who have enjoyed them. I've been fortunate to have the support of my husband and daughter, and the advice of some very good friends. I'm grateful to those who have added me to their own blogrolls or asked if they could put my blog link on their own Facebook pages or websites - it meant so much that they thought that what I wrote was worthy of sharing with others. I am so grateful for all the comments, emails, and messages on Facebook that some have sent telling me that I made them laugh or cry or smile. You have no idea what that means to me, so I'm telling you - it means so much to me! I'm thankful to those who gave me permission to write about them without knowing what I would say, and to those I wrote about without permission but hoped that they wouldn't mind.

It's funny that some of my favourite blog entries start out not as an idea in my head but rather a small kernel of feeling deep in my chest. That feeling grows and grows until it must burst out and spill all over this blog (and if you are envisioning a scene similar to "Alien" it is a bit like that, just less gory, thank goodness). Those are the entries that it seems aren't written with my head but my heart, and it seems those are the ones that find the most readers, too, which is incredibly satisfying to me. I've had some friends tell me that they could never blog as they are too private and I thought "Hey! I'm private too!", although I've come to recognize that perhaps I am either not as private as I thought or I have a different definition of privacy. All I know is that I don't feel I have given away pieces of myself with this blog. I feel that it has added to my life, not detracted from it.

So, on I will blog. There will be more about my travels, of course, and a friend has suggested I pay some attention to my own country so that's another direction to explore. March is a difficult month for me in a personal sense and thus I know there are some stories coming that have been brewing inside me for years and are finally ready to be written. For all those who have joined me this far I want to say thank you - and I do hope you stick around for the rest of this ride, however long it lasts. Just keep your arms and legs inside at all times, eh? I really have no idea where this is going, and at times it could be a wild one.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Have You Been to Cashel? (or "Why I Hate Travel Guides")

Rock of Cashel
Photo used under Creative Commons from adactio

I'll admit it. I'm not a fan of travel guidebooks. I often buy them before we head out on a holiday but very rarely read them or even consult them. I suppose I find them a bit dry and, well, boring. I do tend to like armchair travel, that genre of literature that allows you to travel to exotic destinations vicariously through the author. Before we left for Ireland I loaded up my iPad with travel guidebooks with the honest intent to read them on the plane or consult them while there, and never did. I was too busy enjoying Ireland to read about it, I guess. When I returned home I picked up a couple of armchair travel books on Ireland as well, anxious to compare the authors' perspective and experience of Ireland to my own.

While reading one of the armchair travel books I came to a chapter on Cashel, County Tipperary, and I thought "Marvelous! Can't wait to hear what he thought of Cashel! I loved it!". The chapter started with the author getting out of his rental car at the Rock of Cashel, which refers to both the natural hill and the astounding ruins that tower over the town of Cashel. The Rock of Cashel has an amazing history, which the author covered quite thoroughly. I was a bit concerned, though, as the end of the chapter was rapidly approaching and he still hadn't said anything about Cashel itself. The chapter ended with him getting into his rental car...and driving away from Cashel. This was his trip to Cashel?!?

You see, I've been to Cashel. The funny part is that we weren't even able to go inside the Rock of Cashel buildings as due to the cold temperatures the pipes in the administrative offices had burst and they were closed for repairs. And you know what? That didn't diminish my experience of Cashel one bit.

When we arrived in Cashel we checked into lovely Ladyswell House, a B&B situated right at the foot of the Rock of Cashel. I was delighted that our room had a view right up the hill, and Beatrice, the charming proprietress and wife of our Ireland driver, assured us that the lights at night on the ruins were magical.

We decided to explore Cashel right away, and our first stop was Cashel Palace Hotel, which is famous as the place where Guinness was first brewed and served (for the Bishop, no less). My husband was completely delighted at this bit of history, and insisted on photos of himself with a pint of Guinness in hand at their Guinness Bar in the basement of the hotel.

 Our driver in Ireland had arranged for us to dine that night at Chez Hans, a restaurant serving some of the finest food we had in Ireland. The restaurant is housed in a beautiful old church built in 1861, complete with stained glass and amazing architectural features. The food was spectacular and the decor wonderful. I ended the meal with "Gordon Ramsay's Rice Pudding", and after having dined at two of his establishments in London can say that it was quite up to his standards.

Night had fallen by the time we finished our meal so in the dark we walked up the hill to the Rock of Cashel and took  photos of the old stone walls and the town below. Beatrice was right - at night the ruins are bathed in an amber glow that lend them an absolutely ancient and ethereal feel. It's one of those places in Ireland that seems utterly other-worldly, leaving you wondering at the history this place has seen, and wishing you'd been there to see it, too.

With our driver and his son we headed to Mikey Ryan's Grocery and Pub, where I had to trust the bartender had a steady hand as we sat at the bar and the business of selling and distributing pints was conducted directly above my head. We had walked by this place earlier, but seeing the grocery sign assumed it was a convenience store. When our driver and his son led us there I was initially perplexed and then delighted to see that the "grocery" was really a quaint little pub. How many men in Cashel have told their wives they were just going to nip out for some "groceries"?

We walked back from the pub and I noted the almost absolute silence at night in Cashel - no car noises, no loud music - just the sound of our feet clicking on the pavement, and the quiet murmurs of our conversation as we made our way. We ended the night back at the B&B where we shared more conversation and a final drink with the son of the owner. The family's beautiful Irish Setter sat at my feet, helping to make me feel less homesick for my own beloved dog.

In the morning we enjoyed a delicious leisurely breakfast at the B&B before departing Cashel - without ever setting foot inside the Rock of Cashel ruins. And yet I felt that I had experienced Cashel - walked the streets, ate at the restaurants, visited one of the locals, and met some of the people. The Rock of Cashel is obviously a huge part of the town in both a physical and cultural sense - but it's not all that there is to Cashel, not by a long shot.

After I finished that chapter on Cashel in the armchair travel book I grabbed my iPad and decided to see what the travel guidebook I had loaded had to say about Cashel. It said this : "Other than the Rock of Cashel, there is nothing of interest in Cashel". No mention of Ladyswell House, or Chez Hans, or Mikey Ryan's. It had taken a whole charming little town and dismissed it as "disinteresting". I was so angry I almost threw my iPad (and instead deleted the guidebook on the spot). This, my friends, is the problem with guidebooks, and maybe even with those who travel and write armchair travel books after reading guidebooks - they don't come close to capturing the heart and soul of a destination. The only way to do that is to toss the guidebooks in the trash and get out into the place.

I'm thinking that some day I might write an armchair travel book about Ireland. It would require several more visits to the country, of course, and I will need to see the inside of the Rock of Cashel ruins in order to write about them. In my chapter on Cashel it won't end with me leaving the Rock of Cashel and driving away, though. It will end in a local pub with men who've nipped out for a few groceries.

Cashel at night

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stan and The Rocky Road to Dublin

In 1990, at the age of  24, I fell in love with Stan Rogers. Stan was an incredibly talented man, with the most amazing voice and presence. Sadly in 1990 Stan had already been dead for 7 years, killed in a tragic airplane fire in Cincinnati. He was 33 years old when he died, far too young and far too soon to be taken. What Stan left, though, was a musical legacy that I came to love with a passion.

Stan had been born in Ontario but spent a good deal of his life in the Maritimes where he was exposed to east coast musical styles. He was able to take this music and make it accessible to a wider Canadian audience who hadn't really heard it before and who had little exposure to folk music of a Canadian bent. As time went on my passion for Stan cooled a bit and I moved on to other musical styles as people often do, but there was always a soft spot for Stan in my heart, and I still recalled the words to many of his songs.

When I was in Ireland recently I became enchanted with Irish folk music. Initially I didn't understand exactly why it touched me so deeply. I thought perhaps it reminded me of my musically-gifted father and his family, but their musical tastes ran more to "You Are my Sunshine" and "Okie from Muskogee" as opposed to true folk music. It wasn't until my last night in Dublin that I connected it with Stan Rogers and realized that the reason it touched me was because it was, without a doubt, the genesis of the folk music he had loved and performed. I'd always known that the music of the Canadian east coast had it's roots in the music of Ireland and Scotland but it wasn't until I heard it played live that the similarities struck me. This music is such a deep part of the culture in Ireland that it is tightly woven into the fabric of their world. You enter a traditional pub and everyone from the very oldest to the very youngest knows the words and the melodies. It's remarkable, and even more so when you consider that this is quite unusual in Canadian culture, except perhaps on the east coast. The content of the songs differ - the songs of Ireland are often about oppression, poverty, struggle, or cheating wives, while on the east coast the songs are more often about the sea and a seafaring culture. The feelings the songs evoke, though, are almost exactly the same - nostalgia, longing for a simpler time, and a sense of kinship.

Since I returned from Ireland I've been listening to a lot of Irish music. I've been delighted that while many of the songs have been recorded by traditional acts like The Dubliners they've also been performed by groups like The Pogues and individuals like Damien Dempsey. It seems that at times even the younger people of Ireland have embraced these traditional songs and made them their own, just as Stan did here in Canada. Sadly, though, just as Canadian east coast music has very few who still try to bring this traditional musical genre to the forefront I suspect that the same is true in Ireland. I'm sure that many look on this music as antiquated and perhaps even boring - except that this music is perhaps the truest reflection of these cultures and thus has an important place in our history. I'm not Irish, and I'm not from the Canadian east coast - but I have a deep appreciation for the music from both these places, and wish that more people were able to hear it and, more importantly, feel it. Once you listen to this music - truly listen to it - I think you start to get a sense of the heart of the people who performed it, and a glimpse into the soul of a culture.

Stan Rogers - Barrett's Privateers

The Dubliners - Black Velvet Band

The Pogues - Dirty Old Town

Damien Dempsey - Rocky Road to Dublin

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Love of a Bad Dog

I'm sure you're thinking there is something wrong with the title of this entry. Shouldn't it be "The Love of a Good Dog"? Well, it would be if I was writing about my previous beloved dog, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever that was simply the best dog ever. But I'm not writing about him - I'm writing about my current dog, and she is, quite honestly, a very bad dog.

Our previous dog had to be euthanized far too young when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He had been such a huge part of our family that it was an absolutely wrenching time, and one that still brings me to tears. After he'd been gone for a year, though, I began to feel the need for another dog. My husband travels a great deal, and a dog always made me feel more secure at night (even if our home already has a security system worthy of Fort Knox). During the day when my husband was at work and my daughter at school I was finding myself lonely - the house seemed so empty without the presence of our 130-lb retriever. My husband was not enthused about the idea of another dog. We like to travel and pets always complicate that. My daughter was on board as she loves animals just as much as I do, and possibly more. So, I floated the idea but left it alone to see what developed, and one day my husband suggested a breed - the Irish Terrier. It sounded terrific - a smaller dog, but still active. Beautiful dogs, with red coats and bright little faces. Intelligent, family-oriented, brave - it all sounded good. I quickly agreed. I would have agreed to any breed he suggested as I just wanted a dog. We managed to locate a breeder, which was not easy as this breed is quite unusual in Canada. We put a deposit on a pup and waited. We decided on a female this time, and even chose a name - "Cassan Grania", which is Gaelic for "red haired she who inspires terror". That seemed ideal for our little red Irish terrorist, as we began to call her before she even arrived. We thought it was a joke. We had no idea.

After a long wait of six months our pup was born and we arranged to fly out to the breeder to collect her. We should have known that when the breeder used words like "feisty" and "courageous" they were euphemisms for "almost impossible" and "stubborn beyond belief". We should have known when we arrived at the breeder's home and all we heard was incessant barking. We should have gotten back into the rental car and driven away. But no - in we went and collected our adorable 8 week old puppy.

She was adorable. Sweet and cuddly and seemingly trainable. Quickly house-broken, too. It was only as she grew that we realized that the sweet little red furry face was a cover and that this dog had a will of steel, tenacity of heroic (and scary) proportions, and a deeply-seated neurotic personality. This is the dog who discovered the concept of "up" after seeing an advertising blimp and spent the next two weeks terrified of everything hanging on our walls (we had to move her food bowls as she wouldn't eat because she suddenly noticed the clock on the wall above them). This is the dog who will sleep on every sofa at every opportunity despite knowing it's forbidden. This is the dog who will steal kleenexes and toilet paper just for the joy of shredding them and spreading them around the house. This is the dog who will spin in circles until she is dizzy enough to fall over, and chase her tail until she catches it and screams. This is the dog who will try to escape from every open door (which terrifies us, as the breeder warned if she ever got away we'd likely never see her again). This is the dog who barks at everything - children, other dogs, cats, birds, leaves - the list is endless, and so is the barking. She drives my poor husband nuts, as all he wants to do is come home and relax, but is confronted with a dog who has a nervous system constantly set at "react instantly". We have at times questioned her intelligence, and, well, her canine sanity.

It sounds like she's a terrible dog and that I don't love her, doesn't it? Except that it's the exact opposite. I love this dog with an intensity that surprises even me. Why? Because despite all her faults she is so incredibly loyal and loving. She is the dog who follows me from room to room all day long, and sits outside the bathroom door while I shower. She is the dog who sleeps on my feet while I do dishes. There is much more to her than just her loyalty, though. She is the dog who taught me to seize every opportunity, just as she does when a tasty morsel falls on the floor or a squirrel enters the yard. She is the dog who greets every day and every situation with such unrestrained enthusiasm and gusto that you can't help but be inspired by it. She is the dog who can show you how to truly live if you just let her do it and follow her example (minus the spinning in circles, perhaps).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the love of a good dog will sustain you, keep you warm, and comfort you. The love of a bad dog, though, will do all that, drive you slightly crazy, and help you learn to embrace life in your own crazy and passionate way. I think everyone needs a bad dog in their life once in awhile. I'm so fortunate to have one of the very worst.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Definitely Not The F-Word

I don't really recall when I first began watching Gordon Ramsay on TV. I suppose it was probably the first season of Hell's Kitchen when I noticed him - after all, he's pretty hard to miss. I know he's controversial, and I've met many people who hate him, or at least hate his TV persona. And yes, he is prone to temper tantrums and foul language on his shows. I however, have always found him handsome (ok, I confess that I've always thought that Willem Dafoe is attractive, and think David Bowie is dead sexy, too, so my taste may be suspect). I understood his bouts of anger as the result of perfectionism. I've worked for perfectionists - doctors and veterinarians in my case - and frankly they are all very similar. I've dodged nasty comments and sharp implements in the workplace, too, so I understood Ramsay's behaviour to be that of someone who wants things done right the first time. Besides, a handsome man can be forgiven many things.

So, I watched Gordon in several seasons of Hell's Kitchen, and then Kitchen Nightmares. When I could I'd watch his shows from Britain, too. Funny thing is, of course, that I don't even like to cook. I like to eat, but cooking is profoundly boring to me. I just enjoyed watching him cook, rage, and look handsome.

As my daughter grew older she began to watch Gordon with me. I know what you're thinking - what about the foul language? Well, she's a pretty bright kid, so I wasn't worried she'd start dropping the f-bomb in front of grandma. She liked Gordon, too - he's a pretty lively character to watch, and entertaining even for kids. We would watch and discuss his shows, and we both became pretty avid fans.

In 2010, just as were in the midst of planning our trip London, along came Gordon and the new season of Hell's Kitchen. The prize this time? The head chef position at the Savoy Grill in the Savoy Hotel in London. Almost immediately a wicked plan began to take shape - we were staying at the Savoy for Christmas. We needed a place for Christmas Day dinner. The Savoy Grill would have a Chef's Table (for those not in the know this is a private table in the kitchen). Wouldn't it be marvelous if we could book it for Christmas Day? My husband was on it straight away. He booked the Chef's Table for dinner (we call it lunch here, but it's traditionally the big meal on Christmas Day in England). There were some considerations - the table was for eight, and there were only three of us, but we would have to pay the fixed price for all eight. Well, once in a lifetime, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, chef's table, blah, blah, blah - of course we would pay it! So, we booked it, and paid for it all in advance. Normally they don't allow children under 12 at this table but as we were Savoy guests and our daughter is eleven we managed to slide her in - and I suppose paying for 8 people for a party of 3 probably helped.

We arrived in London on December 17th, and threw ourselves into enjoying the city. We had a fabulous time, a wonderful Christmas Eve, and when Christmas Day rolled around we donned some of our finest and wandered down to the restaurant for our 1 pm reservation. When we checked in they initially couldn't find our booking - until we mentioned that it was the Chef's Table. That's when the royal treatment began. As the table wasn't quite ready yet they seated us at the small lounge area and served us a glass of champagne. Santa came to visit our table, and gave our daughter a lovely children's cookbook, and gave me a delightful Jo Malone gift set. Various people began to introduce themselves - the maitre d', the bartender - and then David, the charming Barbadian-born restaurant manager, came over to visit with us.

David introduced himself and explained that our table wasn't quite ready for us as Gordon was still getting it ready, and then went on to ask if we had been enjoying our time in London. Um, hold up, did he just say GORDON?!? My brain went a bit blank at that point - I was pretty sure he had said Gordon. Was in the back. At our table. And then he said "Oh, the table is ready, let's go!".

Our daughter went first, right after David, through the kitchen doors - where she stopped absolutely dead, eyes big as dinner plates. There, standing before her, was Gordon Ramsay himself, looking devilishly handsome and with a huge smile. He looked at her and said "Hello sweetheart, aren't you beautiful?" and kissed her on both cheeks. She looked at me with an expression I've never seen on that face - awe, shock, and a bit of panic. Gordon then turned to me and said "Hello, dahling", and kissed ME on both cheeks. I felt a bit faint and weak in the knees. I couldn't help it - I hadn't expected to meet him, and this was someone I'd been watching for years. Gordon turned to my husband and shook his hand, and then turned his attention back to our daughter. He told her he had heard she was a bit of a foodie, and asked if she would like a chance to cook in the kitchen later. He told her he loved her dress, and she was so overwhelmed that I could see small tears in her eyes. She was completely speechless, so I stepped in and told him that we were big fans from Canada. He told me that he loves Canada, especially Whistler, and that when he'd been in Edmonton two months before he couldn't believe how cold it was. He was incredibly charming - and much larger than I ever expected, tall and broad. And I was right - he is bloody handsome, with a delightful smile. What really impressed me, though, was just how kind he was to our daughter - he obviously likes children, and she was thrilled with his attention.

The moment ended quickly, and we said our farewells as Gordon was moving on to his other London restaurants and to spend Christmas Day dinner with his own family. We met Stuart Gillies, the chef director, and head chef Andy Cook (who went on to cook our steaks personally that day). We were shown to our table, and we had a visit from Santa as well as a private magic show. We cooked our own fish course in the kitchen, and we enjoyed an exquisite meal that took almost 4 hours. Over it all, though, was the fact that we had met Gordon. We learned we had been the very first people to reserve a table at the renovated Savoy Grill. We learned that we should be honoured as Gordon doesn't spend much time at the restaurant, but had come in to visit his staff and meet us. We discovered that his staff love Gordon, and that his TV persona is not the same as the man and chef they know, and certainly not the same as the man we had met. I was touched that this man would take time from his own Christmas Day to meet a family from Canada. I know my daughter will remember that Christmas Day forever.

I've been asked if I have a photo of us with Gordon, and the answer is no. There are many reasons for this - it happened so quickly and was over so fast. And it seemed to me that it must be tiring to always have people wanting something from you - a photo, an autograph. I thought that maybe he'd like meeting someone who asked for nothing. And you know what? I don't need a photo of that moment - I was there. I'll never forget my daughter's face when she saw him. I'll never forget how excited I was, and how I fought to maintain control so I could speak to him and not gush. It's a moment I'll never forget, most of all because it was unplanned and unexpected. It was really one of our best moments in London.

Almost immediately after our return from holiday our daughter began cooking from her new cookbook. She now has an interest in cooking that had never before existed. When I returned to Canada I even went out and bought one of Gordon's cookbooks. As I mentioned I'm not much of a cook - but you know,
maybe, just maybe, I'll give it a try. Just for Gordon. He's a lovely man, really. And he never uttered a single f-word, either.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lessons of the Bonsai

A couple of years ago my daughter became fascinated with bonsai trees. I have no idea where it started, but she began begging for a bonsai of her own. I explained that they can be finicky plants, and I don't have a green thumb at the best of times (I'm known for killing our poinsettias on an annual basis). Finally I told her that if she researched it thoroughly and agreed to be responsible for the majority of the care I would consider it.

She hit the internet with fervor and soon had her bonsai facts down. She knew which kind she wanted and how to care for it, and she was very earnest in her desire. I was so impressed with her diligence that I agreed, and we took a trip to our local greenhouse. We found a beautiful bougainvillea bonsai in full bloom, lush with pink flowers. It was quite expensive but I pulled out my wallet and we took it home.

The bonsai lost the blooms quickly, but it did okay. It had full green leaves and seemed happy - until we moved to our new home. I noticed shortly after our return from holiday a few weeks ago that the bonsai was losing leaves at an astonishing rate. The remaining leaves seemed dry and droopy. The bonsai was not happy. I feared for it - it was clearly struggling, and I thought it was going to die. Every day I checked it, watered it faithfully every third day, and waited for the final leaf to drop and for it to be over. The bonsai was going through a difficult time.

People who know me well know that a couple of years ago I went through a difficult time, too, a time of struggle. My mother, who was elderly but in good health, had been found in her apartment unconscious but clinging to life. After a few days in the ICU the decision to remove life support was made and she died with all her children, including me, at her side. Her death was so unexpected and so unfair - she had just begun to truly live again after my father's long illness and death. She had made new friends and a new life, and it was taken away from her. When my mother died my heart broke - but something else inside me broke, too. I now realize it was hope. Any hope I had that the world made sense died with her, it seemed. All my hope that things would be okay perished. I entered a very dark period in my life, devoid of joy and happiness, and, yes, hope.

It took many months, the love of my husband, daughter, family, and friends, and, quite honestly, a few sessions with a therapist for me to find hope again. When I found it, though, it was a new form of hope and a fervent desire to embrace life. I decided that if I loved someone, friends or family, that I would tell them, always. I decided that if someone had touched me with their talent or wisdom or kindness that I would let them know and not allow my own insecurity stop me from making sure they knew they were appreciated. If I met someone new whose company I enjoyed I would do what I could to keep them in my life because I realized that those people are rare gifts that should never be refused. I would do my best to retain old friendships that had stood the test of time because I knew those are rarer still. I decided that if the opportunity presented itself and felt right I would dance until dawn, sing until I lost my voice, listen to very loud music, and accept every invitation to every party and event. I would allow myself to make mistakes (drink too much, or stay up too late) and forgive myself. I didn't want to just survive - I wanted to thrive, to embrace all that is this too-brief life. I would do the things I loved with the people I loved in the places I loved, and I would greet every day with new appreciation and enthusiasm. At times now I am so happy that I find myself with tears in my eyes and my heart thumping so loudly I fear it will fly out of my chest. I have renewed hope. It had never disappeared, it had just been lost for a little while.

A few days ago I looked at my windowsill at the poor little bonsai, again expecting to see that it had finally given up. I could barely believe my eyes when I saw, just visible, a tiny pink flower. And when I looked closer there were several more, and bunches of tiny new green leaves. The bonsai wasn't dying - it had survived the dark days and it was thriving. The little bonsai, for which I had no hope, had blossomed. I looked at my little bonsai, not surviving, but blooming, and thought "Me too, little tree, me too".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lovely to Meet You - I'm Canadian

When my sisters went to Europe over 30 years ago they told me that it was an advantage to be a Canadian. They said that displaying the maple leaf almost guaranteed better treatment and a kinder greeting when meeting new people. The myth is that people from around the world sew a Canadian flag on their backpacks so they will be taken for Canadians, not Americans. When I recently travelled to London and Ireland I was sure that this was all a relic of the past and that this prejudice no longer exists. I was quite completely wrong - this particular prejudice is alive and well.

I noticed it first in London, where no one asked where we were from. It was assumed from our accent that we were American, and initially I didn't realize what a problem this was. It wasn't until we were sharing a picnic table at Hyde Park with three generations of an English family that it became very clear. We had shared the table for some time and they never spoke to us once. It wasn't until we were leaving that one of the men turned to me and said "So, I suppose you've come from America for Christmas in London?". I replied that yes, we had come for the holiday, but that we were Canadian. The change in their attitude was nothing short of astonishing. Suddenly they all wanted to speak to us. The elderly grandmother told me how her father had come to England from Canada during WW I, met her mother, and never returned to Canada but always spoke so wistfully of it that she felt she knew it, too. A younger man quickly engaged my husband in conversation about Canada, and they all expressed regret that we had to leave so soon - and yet moments before I suspect they had felt we couldn't leave quite soon enough.

This experience led to an epiphany. I needed to establish very quickly in every meeting of a new person that I was Canadian. I quite literally began conversations with "Hi, I'm Theresa, and I'm from Canada". And you know what? It worked. Suddenly people were friendlier than they'd seemed before. They were interested in Canada, and in why we had come to London - did we have family or friends to visit? When they learned we came just because we wanted to spend our holiday there they often seemed very pleased.

I thought perhaps it would be different in Ireland, but alas, that was not to be. When I spoke to the lead singer from the band that played for us on New Year's Eve I thanked him for performing some Michael Buble and told him it made us Canadians feel at home. His response? "Oh, we LOVE Canadians!". At various traditional sing-songs we attended the musicians dedicated songs to "their new Canadian friends". When I told an Irish friend that we'd been mistaken for Americans he said he couldn't imagine that as we clearly weren't American - we "looked European" and were "vivaceous, not boring". Ouch. Those Americans have garnered quite the reputation, apparently, and it doesn't appear to be a favourable one.

Regardless, the approach I took in announcing my nationality worked for me on many levels. While it was proactive and avoided any confusion it also appealed to my very proud Canadian side. You see, I am absolutely proud to be Canadian, and always have been. We have a wonderful nation, and I am proud to represent it when I travel. I don't have a problem with Americans - they are our neighbours, and I have met many that I liked a great deal. I think, though, that Canada has a gentle patriotism and sense of humour that is well suited to European and British ideals, and they recognize it.

I don't know if this is the same all over Europe, of course, and I don't pretend to know all the reasons for it. I do know, though, that when my daughter leaves for her backpacking trip through Europe and the UK in a few years she will do so with the maple leaf sewn onto her backpack, and a rehearsed greeting of "Lovely to meet you - I'm Canadian!".

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's All Just a Lot of Blarney...

Quick! Riddle me this :When someone says they've just been to Ireland what is the first question you ask? From recent experience the correct answer appears to be "Did you kiss the Blarney Stone?". It seems kissing that iconic stone has become the North American standard for all visits to the Emerald Isle. Funny thing is that I think the entire population of Ireland has kissed the Blarney Stone. Repeatedly. And this is why...

When I first arrived in Ireland I noticed that as a general rule the Irish are very quick-witted. Always armed with a sharp retort, amusing pun, or clever turn of phrase they made me feel a bit dull and slow. Not to blow my own horn but I've always considered myself fairly intelligent and have even been accused of eloquence on occasion. These people, though, ran verbal circles around me. It was actually pretty damn frustrating.  I'd manage to come up with some witty banter - several minutes after it would have been appropriate and after the conversation had already moved on. I truly began to doubt my own cleverness and thought that perhaps I simply wasn't as bright as I'd previously thought. I couldn't keep up with them in conversation - oh, I could talk, but I lacked their charming easy wit. What made it even more astonishing is that they are so generally laid-back and laconic, and yet having a conversation with them is the verbal equivalent of a couple of hours at a high-impact aerobics class.

You can see it in the nicknames they have in Dublin for public attractions. The Museum of Natural History, which hosts exhibits of taxidermied animals, is called "The Dead Zoo", which is perhaps one of the most fitting monikers I've ever heard. The Spire of Dublin on O'Connell Street, which is an enormous shining silver spike (resembling the business end of a hypodermic needle), has several clever nicknames, my favourites being "The Stiletto in the Ghetto", "The Binge Syringe", and, best of all, "The Stiffy at the Liffey" (the Liffey being the river). Even the statue of poor Mollie Malone has not been spared and has been nicknamed "The Tart with the Cart". And no doubt James Joyce, who is immortalized with a statue of him with a walking stick, is rolling in his grave at being deemed "The Prick with a Stick".

Brilliant nicknames aside it just seems these people have an ever-ready arsenal of quips. When the Guinness flows the quips seem to grow even more clever (and occasionally more sharply pointed), which baffled me as most North Americans become decidedly less clever after a few pints. I must admit there were occasions when I was rendered speechless and bewildered, and those who know me know that this is an unusual state of affairs indeed.

On our second day in Ireland we did, in fact, visit Blarney Castle and kiss the stone (as I've mentioned before, 4 stories up, hanging upside down over the outside wall of the castle - they don't want to make this easy, you know). We all kissed it - my half-Irish husband who had already kissed it years ago and frankly never needed to kiss it in the first place (he does blarney just fine, and always has). My eleven year old daughter kissed it, and to be honest she doesn't really need the gift of blarney, either (this is becoming all too clear as she approaches adolescence). I too kissed it, and thought that perhaps it would be the boost I needed to finally achieve the eloquence that seemed to be required to survive a conversation in Ireland.

Funny thing is that after about our fourth day in Ireland I noticed that the witty retort was coming easier to me. I seemed quicker on my feet, more able to follow the twists and turns in the banter and add my own clever remarks. This was two days after kissing the stone. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe it's just that being around those who engage in such things forces you to think a bit faster and to be ready with a zinger. I seem to have even retained this ability after coming home, managing to fire off a few comments recently that had others almost crowing in delight. It's rather addictive, actually. I began to see why they seem to aproach conversation as a form of verbal guerrilla warfare where the goal is to score points off each other. I've even started to find it amusing when others I am speaking to are clearly struggling to come up with their own clever comeback - I can only imagine how amused the Irish were by my early attempts at the same.

So, does the Blarney Stone really impart the gift of eloquence? I don't think I'd ascribe that ability to the stone - but I firmly believe that spending time with the Irish would hone anyone's conversational skills. My advise when going to Ireland is go to Blarney Castle for it is a wonderfully beautiful spot (perhaps one of the most beautiful I saw while there), and kiss the stone if you wish - but if you really desire the gift then head down to the local pub, order a pint, and start talking to the locals. Pretty soon you'll be doing just fine with the blarney, guaranteed.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coffee and Dogma

When my daughter and I find ourselves in our local coffee shop we have a ritual. It revolves around a small flyer called "Coffee News". I suspect these publications exist in most places - little papers full of odd stories, trivia, bad jokes, and advertisements. Our ritual is that she reads me the stories, tells me the jokes, and tries to trip me up on the trivia (she is delighted when I get less than 3/5 right, and I feel vindicated when I manage to pull off a full 5/5). Today we found ourselves there while waiting for a prescription to be filled and we had time to waste.

She began with a story that stated that a recent poll showed only 20% of people believe in aliens. She was amazed by this as we've often discussed how unlikely it is that we inhabit this universe alone. I told her that I think it's the height of egotism to think we alone have a planet with life, but how very human it is to want to believe that we are special and the only ones.

This discussion rapidly morphed into how we would recognize alien life if we found it - would it have to be like life on this planet for us to realize it was life? I told her that as far as we know life plays by certain rules, but she pointed out that these rules may not be true everywhere. I told her my favourite quote from Shakespeare - "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy", and how that sums up pretty nicely how much we don't know. She commented that he was a pretty smart man, and I agreed, saying he was ahead of his era in many ways. We talked about how there are so many things we don't know, and things we can't answer as we don't even know the questions yet.

We did the trivia (3/5 this time, not bad!), and then she began with the jokes. One of the jokes asked about dogmatism and had some punch line about puppyism. I asked her if she knew what dogmatism is, and when she said no I explained it's the inability to change one's beliefs when confronted by contrary evidence (and yes, I recognize there is more to dogmatism than that, but this is a start). She realized this dovetailed nicely with our earlier discussions about aliens, and we discussed how if one starts with absolute dogmatic belief that we are alone they are unlikely to ever recognize alien life no matter how it presents itself. We discussed the dangers of dogmatism to growth and progress, and how to guard against it.

I suggested we should go check on the prescription, and suddenly a man who had been sitting at a table behind us working on a crossword puzzle turned around and said "I don't mean to eavesdrop, but I just had to say she's going to be a very smart girl after speaking to you". We both smiled and thanked him, of course - it's not the first time someone has said something like this after overhearing our coffee shop discussions. I walked away thinking that while he seemed surprised that this, to me, is what parenting is. It's not just about taking care of them when they are sick, as I have been this week, or driving them to school - it's helping them to navigate the world. It's talking about all the "isms" - dogmatism, activism, negativism, and all the rest. It's not about lecturing them solely on what you believe but allowing them to explore these concepts as they relate to them, and how they play in their own lives. While the man in the coffee shop thinks I am making her smarter he has no idea how these discussions become the wind beneath my own wings. Every time we have these discussions all I can think is how much I want her to know that there are no limits - about what you can discuss, or think about, or do. That in turn makes me question the limits I put on myself and my own life. It forces me to challenge my own dogmatism, to confront it and turn it upside down.

So, coffee and dogma. All in fifteen minutes, at your local coffee shop, thanks to a small flyer and an eleven year old girl.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Safety Dance, Irish Style

Touring Ireland's historic sites is magnificent, of course. They have done a remarkable job of preserving these sites - not "restoring" them, which often means just getting them prettied up for tourists - but rather keeping them in a manner which suits their environment and context.

There are some spectacular examples, such as Blarney Castle in Blarney and King John's Castle in Limerick. One of the other things that strike you about these sites is that they would never be open in North America in their current condition. Why, you ask? It's not just because of our North American predilection for Disney-fying everything we can get our hands on. It's because of our abject fear of litigation.

You see, these sites are likely some of the most dangerous tourist sites I've ever seen. As I said to my husband I'd never bring anyone over 75 or under 5 to these sites unless I was quite willing to say a permanent farewell to them. The stairs in the castles are treacherous spiral affairs of uneven stone, often damp, and with a tiny handrail to attempt to secure yourself. The parapets are open affairs where a small child could easily slip through or climb over. It's only recently that they closed access to the most frightening parts of the Cliffs of Moher, where you could lay on your stomach and stare straight down the cliff face and into the ocean. Apparently they recently added an extra safety bar to the part of Blarney Castle where you kiss the stone (4 stories up, incidentally, while leaning backwards over the outside of the castle wall and being held by an elderly man who you are forced to trust quite literally with your life to accomplish this feat). I don't know if this was spurred by legal fears or perhaps by incidents I'd rather not know about (there is a sign at the Cliffs of Moher dedicated to those who lost their lives there, but I was assured those who have did so intentionally, not accidentally).

I found all this absolutely refreshing. It seemed so well-suited to the easy-going Irish nature to not worry about these issues. The attitude seemed to be that those who shouldn't attempt several flights of uneven, damp, twisted stairs wouldn't, and if they did, well, it's a shame but what can one do? Such a charming perspective, and so different from our neurotic North American style.

I believe it was about day 5 in Ireland when I was again moaning about having to use the hotel-supplied hair dryer outside the bathroom that the light bulb went on. You see, in Ireland you can't use a blow dryer in a hotel bathroom. In every hotel we stayed in they would supply a dryer, but the bathrooms had outlets that quite specifically would not allow one to use a blow dryer. It was definitely quirky, and at our last hotel I asked about it. The concierge looked at me with some concern and said "Well, we don't want anyone to electrocute themselves, do we?". I was bemused. In North American hotels if you wish to electrocute yourself in the bathroom with a blow dryer we will not only provide the outlets but hand you the blow dryer, too. I almost asked the concierge exactly how many people in Ireland electrocute themselves this way every year, but thought better of it as I knew it would come off as North American condescension and not the genuine curiousity I meant (I'm still looking for those statistics, actually).

That's when it occurred to me that the Irish are not really all that different from us North Americans, it's just that they keep their fears in different boxes. We fear the litigation that could follow a child slipping several stories down the side of a castle, and they fear daft tourists electrocuting themselves. It's a bit funny, really, as they think tourists are able to exercise good judgement when visiting potentially dangerous historic sites and know how to keep themselves out of trouble, but they draw the line at allowing them to use those notoriously dodgy electrocuting blow dryers in bathrooms.

To me these quirks just make Ireland and the Irish even more charming. They aren't a perfect people, and they are indeed easy-going, but have the same little neuroses you find in every culture. In North America we fear, well, almost everything. Apparently in Ireland their fear just happens to be tourists armed with blow dryers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog...

So when I write I find I need music. Sometimes the choices are obvious - when writing about Damien Dempsey I was listening to him, of course, and only the Sex Pistols would do when writing about the Union Jack. At other times, though, I listen to whatever is catching my fancy at that point. Recently I've been going through an 80's phase. I thank you in advance for not referring to this as "retro" - for those of us that were there to listen when this stuff was brand new that term is mildly (okay, highly!) offensive.

Let's start here:

 Men Without Hats - Safety Dance

If you're a Canadian of a certain age you know Men Without Hats. They were from Montreal and briefly lit the Canadian scene on fire in the 80's. I saw them play live at a gig at the Centennial Auditorium in Saskatoon in 1984. Ridiculous place for them to play as there was nowhere to dance. My date and I led the charge to dance in the orchestra pit, which had security panicking. They would pull us all out, send us back to our seats, and we would climb over the seats and back into the pit. Absolute mayhem! After the gig we headed behind the auditorium to meet the band. Lead singer Ivan invited me to spend the rest of the night with him on their tour bus, much to the dismay of my date. Only three of us know how that evening ended...and I'm not telling. Moving on...

Eurythmics - Love Is A Stranger

Annie Lennox. This woman is a goddess in every sense. The most incredible voice in 80's music, and possibly ever. Sexy as hell, too. Angelina Jolie has nothing on Annie. And the lyrics!

"Love is a stranger in an open car
To tempt you in and drive you far away"

Bloody brilliant. One of these days I'm sitting my daughter down to listen to the gospel according to Annie. The woman knows of what she sings....forward we go...

                                            U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday

This band is iconic, of course. In later years I wasn't as keen on some of U2's stuff, although they've managed to stay remarkably current. This song, though, is almost emblematic of the 80's to me, and probably to many others. I'll always remember the first time I heard it, and every time I hear it it reminds me of those years. And finally, saving the very best for last....

Crowded House - World Where You Live

Crowded House are a completely amazing band. Easy to listen to, musically intricate, and lyrically perfect. Finn's writing is nothing short of poetry. Again, an individual who knows of what he sings:

"Tell me I don't know where you go
 Do you climb into space
 To the world where you live?"
Neil Finn

How often have you wanted to ask someone that question? I have, frequently, but fear the answer.

And that, my friends, is what I've been spinning the past couple of weeks. Perhaps it's nostalgia, or perhaps it's a yearning for younger days - but it's definitely NOT retro!