Well, I have finally taken my trip of a lifetime to the UK (and sundries), and it started out innocently enough. If you remember how I started my blog, you know that it was originally begun in a madcap effort to get to England. And, my friends, England did NOT disappoint. But first things first.
Our trip (consisting of my neighbor, her daughter, and myself) to the British Isles started at around 8 PM our time, when we soared into the sky for a grueling trip over the ocean, with a brief stop in Iceland. We didn’t see much in Iceland other than the airport, but on the way over we saw the Northern lights in the sky, out the window. I really can’t describe how beautiful they were. They were mesmerizing . . . the effervescent green tendrils ebbing and flowing like water. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I found it breathtaking even in the middle of the night as my eyes winced from tiredness.
Then it was off the plane and onto another one, bound for Ireland. The reality of travel is that it is exhilarating and exciting, but it’s extremely wearying, too. Our thought of “it will be great to fly overnight– we can sleep on the plane!” turned out to be an exhausting 9ish hours of “I am so tired but when I doze off I wake up every few minutes because I can’t move my feet, someone is brushing past me on the aisle to use the bathroom, the altitude is making my ankles swell (I was surprised, but yes, it totally did happen), and I finally dozed off only to wake up with a killer cramp in my neck.” Throughout the myriad of airports you have to go through security more times than you can count, clutching your passport which becomes more important than a stockpile of pirate treasure, and quickly semi-stripping while you spread all your earthly possessions out onto a conveyor belt to be inspected, picked over, and then stuffed (somehow . . . and how in the WORLD did I fit all this in here before?) back into your groaning backpack, to be hoisted onto your weary back for the next round.
You are just starting to wonder if traveling so far was a good idea, as your neck aches and your ankles beg for relief, and you would give anything to stretch out your legs, when you see . . .
You look out the window, and the captain’s voice, first in a Germanic volley and then in English with a strong Icelandic accent saying, “Tank you for choosing Iceland Air. Ve vil be arivving in Dublin in approximately tirty minutes.” You stare. The vast, blue ocean stretches out below, like a still life painting too lovely to be real. The clouds part . . . and you see Ireland in all its beautiful, green glory for the very first time.
The sea, even from so far above, is choppy. You can see little crests of waves. Tiny fishing boats. A ragged, rugged coastline. You see a patchwork quilt of green fields. Little red roofs. People driving on the left side of the road, appearing like little moving dots from the air. The plane gets closer and closer. You touch down. The green grass skims past, and you know that, finally, you have arrived.
You wait through customs again . . . a line that is so long you almost despair. You can’t even see the beginning of it, and here you are, at the end. Then you hear a bright, cheery Irish lilt saying, “Here then loves, you follow me then. Come on.” And suddenly you are being whisked to the front of the line– walking for about 5 minutes past passengers laden down with bags, just as you are. They open a special line just for you, and you can’t believe it. One lady in our group (J) is handicapped and using crutches, and you find, too many times to count throughout the trip, that although Europe is, often, sadly lacking in handicapped access (did you ever try to climb dark, spiral castle steps, without an elevator, using just crutches?), they more than make up for in kindness. I can’t tell you how many times people offered to help, moved us to the front of lines so we wouldn’t get trampled, and even offered to help us lift our group member, bodily, so she could see something. It was like discovering a bunch of enthusiastic, long lost teammates helping us all along the journey. When I came on this trip I was prepared (and happy to be so) to wait extra time, take more stops, rest, so that J could have a break. But it ended up being exactly the opposite. She gave us wings.
We whiz past people whom I know have been waiting for hours. I feel bad, but there’s no time. They open up the line for us, moving the barriers for us to cross. One lady tries to dart out of line and say that she’s with us. They glare at her and shove her back in place. “Here now back in line with ye.”
Then we are at the customs officer. In a beautiful Irish lilt he asks us where we are from– what are doing, and how long we are staying. He asks us what we do. We all recite our jobs. I say that I stay home with my kids. His eyes twinkle with merriment. “Well that’s definitely a job too, then. The hardest job of all, isn’t it.”
He stamps our passports (in green ink, of course), and just like that, we are allowed to enter Ireland.
All around us people are speaking in Irish– the native language is Gaelic, and it has experienced a rebirth of interest, whereas once it had almost died out. People now speak it frequently, and their English carries an accent as lovely as a perfect, old fashioned Spice Cake– cozy, warm and comforting. Nonetheless we have to listen carefully, as many phrases and terms are different. One thing we notice right away is how friendly everyone is, and friendliness translates over into any language, thankfully. “Well hello girls!” our taxi driver says, amicably helping us load up our luggage into the back of his car. It’s strange to see the driver on the right side, and even stranger to drive on the left, feeling like any moment you are going to run into a car because you feel like you’re going the wrong way. The Irish treat driving like a contact sport– at times it almost seems like they swerve to HIT pedestrians, who scramble out of the way, barely avoiding losing their tailfeathers. When my brother asked what side of the road the Irish drive on, I initially said “On the right side– the same as we do.” In time I realized I mistakenly thought that because the Irish drive on BOTH sides– weaving and laughing and creating generally cacophony wherever they go. And everyone seems to be quite fine with it.
The driver winds through the streets of Dublin, simultaneously gunning the car and then slamming on the brakes, at one point even opening a tourism book, thumbing casually through it and reading while hurtling through the streets, and even leaning back and showing us a passage, over his shoulder, in the text. He doesn’t seem one bit concerned that I could see the driver of the car we ever so narrowly avoided hitting at the last intersection so closely that I’m pretty sure I could see that he had broccoli in his teeth. But wait– it can’t be broccoli. They aren’t big on vegetables, here. Well, unless you count potatoes as a vegetable. Carbs, carbs, and more carbs. My kind of place. 😉
He points out sights and informs us that Dublin has just won some sort of sports match, and this is why there are blue flags and balloons everywhere. “It was the funniest thing,” he smirks. “After they won, all the men in Dublin got sick for a week and couldn’t make it to work.” He winks. He asks if any of us have Irish heritage, and he says I look Irish. I say that my grandma was Irish. She used to tell all kinds of stories (mostly blarney), and loved to relax and always have her own way. He smiles approvingly. “Sure then she sounds Irish. I always say– never let the truth get in the way of a good story, myself.”
He isn’t sure where the place we are staying is located, so he calls “his best mate” in the car. They argue about directions “No it’s not that way– you’re daft. That was the road they just finished. I’m thinkin’ it’s over here then . . . oh Eee on with ya then.” We grin at each other. It’s so surreal. When he drops us off he helps us carry our bags to the door. I smile and say thank you. “My goodness don’t you have beautiful teeth, then! Now I know you aren’t from Dublin!” He tells me that the Irish drink Guinness constantly and don’t care about their teeth. He winks and is gone.
The host has told us we can place our bags in the room before check in, but nothing is marked and we aren’t sure which buzzer to push to get inside. A cleaning woman from next door opens the door for us. We wonder how she even knows who we are. Up about 4 flights of stairs we find our room, door hanging open merrily, with no one to be found. Through the rest of the journey we found that, since almost no one has air conditioning, windows and doors are often left hanging open. I could walk down the sidewalk and look into almost every house and see how the homes were decorated. Sometimes you’d come across a person sitting on a chair in the doorway, doing nothing but feeling the breeze and savoring the sun on her face. It was so different, but honestly, maybe we should all sit still and feel the sun on our faces once in a while. It seems to work for them.
As we walked around Dublin, the gigantic Guinness factory loomed over us. It seemed that almost everyone in the neighborhood was connected to it in some way, and everyone was immensely proud of it. A man told us that most of the apartment buildings in this neighborhood were originally created to house the workers for the Guinness factory. He tells us that “if you work for Guinness, you have a job for life around here.” There seems to be a pub on every corner– they are small, cozy establishments. Many of them have a crowd of “regulars” that look up, surprised, when you come in– as if you have walked, unbidden, into someone’s private living room. They seemed to be more private about their pubs than they were about their homes, ironically enough. Perhaps the pub is “the home away from home.” 😉
Another thing that I didn’t understand at first was how to order at a restaurant here. Sometimes the waitress comes over, but most times you have to go find her and tell her what you want and where you are sitting. All drinks are served without ice– generally, they bring you a small pitcher of tepid water and glasses for the table. You pour your own. When you’re finished eating you have to go find the waitress to tell her you’re finished. They don’t rush you, and if you are in a hurry and grab her after only a shockingly short time of say, 20 minutes, she looks at you, surprised (and maybe even a little offended) that you are finished already. Forget quick meals– food here takes a LONG time. It takes a long time to walk to the restaurant, a long time to grab a waiter’s attention, a long time for the food to come out, and then you are allocated an even LONGER time to eat before trying to hunt down the waiter to pay. Budget at least an hour– many times more like an hour and a half– to eat even a small meal, even if the restaurant is not at all crowded. The pace is slower here. And that’s not always a bad thing.
I found Irish pubs to be very interesting. They are always covered, and I mean COVERED in flowers, like something out of a fairytale. As far as food, it was cozy, simple fare. The bread was brown and coarse and strong. It tasted like oats. Pretty much every meal had potatoes, in some form. There were often found in comfort food favorites, such as Shepherd’s pie and Lamb Stew. I tried a Corned Beef Sandwich and found that the coarse, brown bread added nicely to the flavor. It’s like those rich, malty flavors were meant to be together, which I’m sure is the point.
During our visit the city was experiencing some rare sunny weather, and as I walked around, I couldn’t believe how beautiful Dublin was. But our Ireland travels were just beginning.
The next day we took a rattly little bus, winding thither and yon amongst the green hills, to the Cliffs of Moher. The guide argued amicably the entire time with the bus driver “Here then John, me boys from Limerick beat your boys from Clare, but we won’t talk about that . . .” (good natured grumbling from John). They joked and teased the entire time, like a couple of leprechauns. On the way back, they opened a bottle of whiskey (on the public train) and passed out shots to everyone, getting merrier with each round. No one stopped them, and I think the conductor even stopped by for his share. I couldn’t believe that they did this and no one even blinked an eye, but it made me chuckle.
After winding through the green, GREEN countryside (it truly is green. Almost electrifyingly green), we arrived at the cliffs. There are really no words to describe the feeling I had when I crested this hill (it’s quite a climb, even from the bus parking lot) and saw the magnificence of these cliffs for the first time. The wind was fierce and cold and strong, and it smelled like seawater. The wind was actually so strong that it almost blew the camera out of my hand. The entire place had a sense of rugged, untamed beauty about it. And the colors! So lush and green and lovely. The pictures do not do them justice.
I stood there, looking out at the wild, windswept sea. There is a path (a steep one, but a path nonetheless) now that leads you on a trip around them to see better. But I couldn’t help but imagine, before this footpath . . . how long it must have taken to climb through the thick, reedy grass growing wild and untamed beside the sea. I imagined that kids probably spent an afternoon pulling themselves up through it, only to crest on the top of the hill and be rewarded with this incredible view– the majestic kings of the cliffs, with the deep blue, boiling sea beneath. Breathtaking.
There were castles (or ruins of castles) every where you turned. Sometimes, there would be a castle remnant in the middle of a cow pasture. And yes, the grass those cows were dining upon was greener and more lush than my lawn at home. Amazing. The roads were incredibly narrow and surrounded by many gray stone fences, which the lovingly bickering guides explained had been pulled from the rocky fields so that crops could be grown. Of course now that we are speaking of fields, Limerick took the field and beat Clare in the match . . . (grumbling and coughing and good natured arguing from John, copious laughter from Andy, the guide).
The day finished up at the lovely “Galway Bay,” made famous by Bing Crosby’s song of the same name:
If you ever go across the sea to Ireland
Then maybe at the closing of your day
You will sit and watch the moonrise over Claddagh
And see the sun go down on Galway Bay
So amidst all the tidy little stone cottages, the rippling oceans of green grass, the wild, rocky cliffs and pale skinned, red haired inhabitants, here are my thoughts about Ireland:
Things that Surprised me:
- I craved my daily iced coffee. Apparently ice is a rarer commodity here than silicone valley futures. When I asked for ice in my drinks, people always stared at me like I was nuts. I literally walked 40 minutes each way to find the lone McDonald’s in town, asking (through the haze of smoke– everyone smokes here. I think babies are born with a ciggie in their mouth), “Do you have iced coffee?” She looked confused. No. No, we don’t have that. “What do you have that’s like iced coffee?” She says they have tea. Will that work? Sigh.
- Meals are long, friendly, and unrushed. You have to pretty much suit up for football before you go, because you’re going to need to tackle your waiter if you ever want to pay your check.
- Generally, people do not tip here. Americans are the only ones who do. Taxes are included in the price. If something says it costs 5 Euros, then you pay 5 Euros when you get it. I liked this system a lot, because there were no surprises at the checkout.
- They are proud of their Guinness. Whew are they proud of it. Everyone drinks it like it’s a national badge of honor. And perhaps it is.
- The driving is CRAZY. Crossing the street is like taking your life into your hands. And because it’s Europe, you walk everywhere. I bet we walked 10 miles a day. When I started, my shoes had tread. Now they are worn smooth. Do yourself a favor and follow someone else when you cross the street. I think Irish drivers get a kick out of trying to hit pedestrians. Or maybe it’s just all the Guinness.
Things I loved:
- The people are truly treasures. They look at you with sparkling eyes, and that charming, lilting Irish Brogue, and it’s no wonder that “When Irish eyes are smiling, sure they’ll steal your heart away.” They were sweet and helpful and mischievous and flirtatious and just downright fun to be around.
- The entire country has a soft, cozy feel about it. People wrap up in Aran sweaters and wool socks. Andy told us (amidst little jabs at John about how Limerick took Clare to the cleaners) that the Aran islands (which still speak Gaelic exclusively) are famous for these sweaters, and originally each family had a distinctive stitch. When someone was fished out of the ocean after drowning (because fishing accidents were so common), you could tell what family he belonged to by the stitching on his sweater. I guess that’s cool . . . in a creepy sort of way.
- The pubs are warm and cozy, with soft lighting and warm, burnished wood everywhere you look. The food is simple, but wholesome– brown bread, rich stew, Guinness marinated meat. I feel that this is the exact cuisine I would pick if I had to stay inside on many rainy days. And perhaps that’s why they have chosen it, as well. Although not especially exciting, the food breeds comfort, and I liked it.
You are never really sure whether the Irish are lying or not. Sometimes, I don’t even know if they can tell. But in truth, I really was sorry to leave this enchanting, green place. Or perhaps I’m just pulling your leg.
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