BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Some gratuitous self promotion

A quick blog only, as our friend's Lindsay (Brad's friend from Castlegar... and my randomly assigned roommate in the University of Victoria (UVic)), Jeff (a class mate of Brad's from UVic) and their 6 month old son Zach have arrived! If you're good at extrapolation, I'm guessing you can see the 90210-style connections between our relationships... Lindsay introduced me to Brad on my first night in Victoria, and Lindsay would have met Jeff at Brad's first house party.   Anyways, a general gang of Castlegarians and Engineers featured prominently in my first few years of University... Zach and Nikolai are just a few of the consequences.

But this blog is all about ME, so let's get back to the topic at hand... namely, how do I avoid dying of brain-numbing boredom while staying at home with Nikolai all day. Well, I blog... I socialize... I garden... cook... clean... and... I paint! In fact I belong to the Castle Keep Art Group! And while we're all total amateurs this weekend, we're having our first art exhibition of the year (and art sale, to give you an inkling, my pieces are all running between €75-€160).

Tomorrow night is our opening party; wine, speeches, and local celebs will all be there. I am very much embarrassed, but excited too. Not sure how my art will be taken... at the moment I'm only painting with milk paint.
Milk paint is an old fashioned paint created from milk protein, lime and natural earth or mineral pigments. It is naturally non-toxic, low VOC and environmentally friendly (which is why I'm keen to use it). The colours are archival quality and won't change or fade over time (which is nice because archival acrylics or oil are very expensive).

The only trick is my palette is limited to natural colours, and so I don't have a full range of colours.  Also, the paint has interesting properties in regards to it's luminance and opacity, so it's often tricky to get a precise shade of colour. Anyways, I took photos of all the pieces I'm going to enter... and my website is not very current (and mostly features milk paint practice efforts) so I'll post a few pics here... just 'cause today it's all about me! (Jeff, Lindsay and Zach will feature in my next blog, but today I've sent them off to Newgrange to explore the prehistoric barrows which will probably feature in their blog sometime soon.)

They're ordered by date of creation... below is St. Patricks... from the cemetery at NUIM.

Saskatchewan 1

Sirince (inspired by Turkey)

My boat is so small (an experiment using fabrics to increase my range of colours and provide some texture).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How long must we sing this song?

In the Republic of Ireland people no longer have the heart for vengeance towards the British. In general, the Queen's visit is more of a passing curiosity than a political travesty (even the more recent travesties of political and economic woes haven't raised much of a mew of protest, so caring about the Royals is not high on most peoples' agenda). Saying that, there has been a bit of resurgence in the fight for Northern Ireland as it seems that there is "New" IRA splinter group. So far this group has focused it's attentions on Catholic Police Officers in Northern Ireland (the police in Ireland are called Gardi) as they are "helping the enemy".

Political will towards this group is fairly slim, because no one really wants a resurgence of sectarian violence (as there are only losers in such affairs). However, the economic woes have left young people with few job prospects, and lots of anger. It is in the hopelessness of a future-less youth that extremism will propagate. In Northern Ireland this takes the form of the new IRA; in the Republic, gang culture is taking over. But in general, given the current state of affairs (the recently elected government has gone back on many election promises, to form a government that looks pretty much like the previous one) I think that everyone feels... apathetic. The following quote aptly summarizes things: "it doesn't matter who you elect, the government always get in".

So, what does it matter whether your taxes go to bailout a corrupt system in Britain, or a corrupt system in Ireland? It is best for everyone to get along with their neighbours, because it is only in our small communities that we will thrive. And this is never more apparent than if you cycle around the peaceline communities of Falls Road and Shankill Road. Both are thriving neighbourhoods, and the "famous" peaceline murals have mostly been converted to pledges of peace... and... well... graffiti. (Also worth noting... as a testament to the strength of the peace process... the downtown core of Belfast was well equipped with trash bins... unlike London.)

So this begs the question of what sort of beast is Belfast? Irish or British?

We found most of the cultural and social leanings to be Irish. The tourist shops were flogging the same Guinness and shamrock speckled kitsch that you would find in Dublin. The library had all of the Irish authors and Irish folk tales that would be found in our Maynooth branch.

Our experience was a bit of "a through the looking glass" version of Ireland, everything was mostly the same... Dunnes, Ireland jerseys, GAA sports... all the components that make Ireland IRELAND were present in Belfast. But the looking glass tilt on everything came from the sub-culture. In Ireland the sub-culture is definitely American in nature. People watch American TV shows, listen to American music and have American cultural leanings. In Belfast all of those cultural leanings tended to be British. Saying that... there were no union jacks around, and hardly a gleaning of the royal family was to be found (considering the excitement of the wedding this coming weekend, we would have imagined there'd be a wee bit more of a nod towards the royals).

In the end, I think Northern Ireland has become its own distinct place. They have their own money (printed by local banks, but not accepted as currency anywhere else in the UK), they definitely have their own accent (if you have trouble understanding someone's accent, they're probably Scottish; if you CAN'T understand the accent, then they're Northern Irish!), and their own version of Soda Bread. Over 90 years of cultural separation from Ireland and continuous political turmoil has lead to an evolution leading to a unique sense of what it means to be from Northern Ireland.

And now for some photos. The Highway of Holiness church with the garage doors was just too funny. Do you think it was an auto body shop or an actual church?

Cycling the peaceline:

A mural near Ormeau Park and our B&B:

And as evidence of the poor economy, every neighbourhood seemed to be fraught with vacancies:

Funny money, printed by the various banks in Northern Ireland:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Journey to the North

I generally approach every travel experience in two ways: a breakdown of what we did, and a look at the differences and similarities in culture. Frankly, I'm a bit uncertain about doing the latter with Belfast, as it is naturally full of controversy... and how could I, after only 3 days know that much about Belfast.

So to start: the sights and sounds. The train ride was lovely... only €20 return (book one month in advance for these fares). Our bikes were locked into a special "guards car". And no, we didn't need our passports, and there weren't any security checks at the train station. Basically it was exactly like taking the train to Maynooth (even uses the same platform!). It's definitely easier to take the train to Northern Ireland (NI) than it would be to go between the USA and Canada. We only knew that we'd crossed the border because our cellphone sent us a text telling us of the change in service providers.

When you arrive in any new city it seems so busy, large and unfathomable. And arriving on bike with your toddler in tow makes it even more stressful to meager into new traffic patterns (mother bear instincts are on high alert). But NI has made a conscientious effort to encourage cycling. Bike lanes are everywhere. At the tourism information bureau (or Welcome Centre, as it's called) we were given a cycle map for Belfast, and maps for routes that are plotted all over Ulster (including down into the Republic. It was so well done, I'm not sure why Eire isn't copying this tourism cache. Ireland, honestly, has the BEST cycling of anywhere we've been, and considering our cycling touring record, that's saying A LOT).

So we spent one day on the Lagan and Lough cycle way. The hostess at Cherryville B&B recommended heading to Lisburn, but we thought the coast might be a nicer view. So we started out by heading along the coast to the North of Belfast... and after getting a bit lost amongst all the heavy the industry... we decided that perhaps Locals Know Best... so we turned around and headed upriver to Lisburn. That proved to be a much better idea. The route was completely car-free, and followed along rolling farmyards and a bird sanctuary. Lisburn itself doesn't have much to boast beyond a quaint shopping street. However, it did have the one thing we were looking for. A playground. Not just any playground. A complete "oh wow" style playground. And I would imagine it's the largest on this Island. It's as though the city council simply opened the playground catalogue and decided to take one of everything.

We also spent time in Belfast proper... doing a few of the touristy things. The shopping was good, but I'm not sure that the famously "lower prices" are exactly true. The Value Added Tax may be a bit lower... but with the loss in currency exchange, I don't think shopping in Belfast is all that is advertised. Besides which... the shopping district of Belfast seemed to be pretty much identical to that of Dublin... clearly a feat of our global market. (Though perhaps an appetite for change is in the air?)

Here's a laundry list of sites, which we visited:

-City Hall (a ridiculously ostentatious purpose built building). They had a small exhibit on the Titanic, and on the Blitz. Both interesting... but somehow lacking in substance.

-The Linen Hall Library (your basic library, Nikolai appreciated the children's section). They had a small exhibit on WWII and some political posters. Again, very small in scope.

-The Viewing Dome. This is located at the top of a shopping mall; thus it is free. It offers a nice view of the city, but it is only about 4 storey high.

-We ditched the pressure of a Black taxi tour (I couldn't see Nikolai sitting on my lap in a cab for an hour) and cycled the "peace line" ourselves. Perfectly safe to do so, though we did remove the Kildare flag from our trailer for the Unionist neighbourhoods.

-The Botanic Garden. A beautiful park, but no where near the scope of the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. However, it does have a very "hip vibe" (aren't I old?) as it's adjacent to Queen's University and was basically filled with sun-catching students.

Now for the photos... (never fear, I will probably give an opinionated piece on the city and politics in the next few days). Above is a picture of the beautiful bike path. Below I have a picture of City Hall, and a Dog Toilet. Since the City Hall is the most impressive building in Belfast, and I think everywhere should consider installing Dog Toilets!

Monday, April 18, 2011

A trip to middle earth

Well, I decided to ACTUALLY test my abilities (and Nikolai's staying power) for our upcoming cycle tour in a more concrete way. So on Sunday we plotted a slightly more ambitious route to the Hill of Tara (64 km return).

Cycling in Ireland is a constant joy. Smaller roads abound, with beautiful rural scenery to enjoy at every turn, and best of all... the weather usually cooperates by being moderate in all regards. Cycling with a toddler involves endless questioning, particularly regarding "where is da hillatarra?" (and I'm not sure if that's toddler-ease, or a Hibernian accent).

For this particular trip we let Nikolai choose between riding in the trailer (behind Brad) or in the bike seat (behind me). We did this to see which he'd prefer for the eventual cycle tour. The overwhelming preference was for the seat on the back of my bike (and I don't think my shoulders will forgive me for the ride for a few days to come!) I figured that would be his preference as he can have a better view, and full conversational participation from the bike seat. Regardless, we'll still have to bring the trailer... because it's impossible to balance a sleeping toddler in a bike seat. But at least we know what it will take to keep him happy!

The Hill of Tara is not much more than a field filled with sheep (the visitor's centre, apparently, wont be opening until sometime closer to summer). But amongst the sheep dung, lambs and ewes lies a number of interesting mounds and troughs. An occasional marker has been stuck in the ground, to let you know that this mound was the royal throne or the mound of hostages.

However, the power and spirit of the location settles deeper than simple facts of historical locations. To start off with, from the hill you have a clear vantage stretching out to the horizon in all directions (to think I hauled a 35 lbs mass, bobbing on the back of my bike much like an off-kiltered gyroscope, up that hill!) It's reverence is evident from the historical importance of the location. Starting off as a prehistoric passage tomb, it then was the location for the Throne of Ireland, with over 142 kings reigning there in the pre-Christian eras. The location was said to be the sacred dwelling place for the gods, and a provided an entrance to the otherworld.

It is clear that Christan's also felt the power of the site, as St. Patrick went to the Hill of Tara to confront the pagans at their most sacred site. As well more recent Christan relics dot the site, and the visitors' Centre is actually located in a deconsecrated church.

Despite the gorgeous weather, it was the cafe and gift shop that were brimming with tourists and we invariably had the mounds mostly to ourselves.

The picture above is of the coronation stone (and yes, it was purposefully phallic in nature. The throne was not gained through inheritance, but rather through power). The picture below involved Brad "discovering" the wide screen option on our camera.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A mental break in the asylum

Given the state of economic affairs in Ireland (ever dwindling, as we are back in a recessionary economy) hotels all over the country are offering deals. Since we are on the train line to Sligo, we thought a quick one night trip with Grammy and Panda was in order. The hotel deal included massages for all the guests... and had enough kid-centred to keep Nikolai happy too!

Most of my friends in Ireland travel to kid-centred vacation spots, especially on the continent. Perhaps these exist in Canada too (?) but certainly not to the same degree, as it seems that everyone who is going on holiday this summer will be heading to a family-"camp"-ground. (Camp only in name... since camping in Ireland is rarely the adventure that MEC provides for. They'll all be staying in cottages rather than a lightweight nylon tents.)

The Clarion hotel had a great leisure facilities, including a pool, mini-golf and a play room. They also have scheduled kid's activities (though only in high season). Having been to Sligo before, we were happy to hang out at the hotel. This time 'round we did eat at the infamous Hargadons Pub. Both would come highly recommended. The pub offered good traditional fare, the hotel offered some much needed R&R, and still had enough going on to keep Nikolai entertained!

There was only one slight pallor to the whole affair... and this pallor was brought about by Brad's natural curiosity and my vigorous imagination. The Clarion Hotel is located in a beautiful historic building. According to the marker stone, the building was built in 1847. But no other historical information is offered... not on their website... not in the lobby... not in the rooms. Clearly the background of the building was something they didn't want us to find out about. And despite the reluctance of the concierge when asked (I've never witnessed such avoidance before), Brad was finally able to get his hands on "The History of the Clarion Hotel Sligo".


it was...

a Lunatic Asylum. Hum, Victorian era Lunatic Asylum does not generally make for easy ghosts. It also doesn't help that I've read The Secret Scripture, a supposedly true story with a poor view of the aforementioned asylum.

The next day my mother went into Keohanes bookshop to purchase the book, only to find out that it is the second book in a series. The first book The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty was not advertised as such because it didn't win the accolades that The Secret Scripture did. And publishers were worried that being the second book in a series would affect the sales of the award winning novel. I didn't find that my read of The Secret Scripture was lacking for not having read the first book. However, my mother now owns both books (I'm sure the bookshop purveyor's intention), so she should be able to give me a review in a few weeks time.

The picture above is from along the river in Sligo.

Below is a picture of some of the boarded up housing in Sligo. We saw a lot of this on our walk to the Clarion Hotel. One of the unfortunate causes of the current financial crisis was the lending of inappropriate mortgages.

From Hargadons Pub.

A typical view from the train. Rolling fields, livestock, and the quintessential piled stone fencing.

At one of the stations along the way (perhaps Mullingar?). The inscriptions reads "Keep the Pavement Dry". Any guesses what it's for? We can only speculate...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A quick Italian tour

Last week I spent 3 nights in Udine, Italy for a conference on power line technology.  It's the 15th iteration of this conference, and it shows in the tight communities within it.  I had a great time, and connected with loads of academic and industry folk.  The city itself was a treat to walk around too.  Having come from Ireland, the contrasts were striking: the cafe culture resulting from the warm Mediterranean climate is so attractive to me, growing up in rural Canada.  It's nearly the antithesis of the Irish pub culture, where people are holed up in cozy, warm and wooden rooms rather than the open stone piazzas of Italy. Of course they share the same social nature.  Here's a photo sampling of my trip.

The main square in Udine.

The view North from the grounds of Udine Castle, of the Dolomites.

Town hall view from the Piazza della Libertà.

I took a few hours to walk around Venice before jumping on the plane too...

  And a view of the Italian plains and Alps from on high.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A tour in rebellion

This time 'round my parents came for a week, and have only just left this morning. With Claire in London, they've an agenda that involves seeing her as well. It is well worth reflecting that we are now very much locals (as compared to their trip last year) and as a result, it was a very different trip from their last one. We took them to all our favorite sights; we knew all the restaurants; and so the experience was much more about us showing them around, rather than playing the tourist ourselves.

To start with... a bit of a flashback... as Brad still promises an Italy-based blog (perhaps just a photo blog if he can eke out a minute to do it). Regardless he had a fab time, loved Udine, would recommend it for an "authentic" Italian experience, and (perhaps most importantly) he has a new interest in powerline research (and not just because they know how to wine and dine their presenters -- but a glass paired with each course in an 8 course meal certainly didn't hurt)!

While Brad was basking in the warmth of the Italian sunshine, Nikolai and I were entertaining Grammy and Panda. We took them to a few repeated locations, however we also went to a few novel, blog-worthy sights.

Glasnevin Cemetery (aka Prospect Cemetery): this is the largest cemetery in Dublin, and is easily seen from the train as you approach Drumcondra station. My mother has always been a bit of a cemetery person (this had disastrous consequences for Claire and I in the 1980's as we both are still completely terrified of ghosts) so she and I left Panda and Nikolai at home for a trip to the cemetery. It was a very interesting cemetery, in regards to those involved in the uprising. As either everyone is buried there, or they have a monument mark their death. Despite having over 1 million graves, the cemetery is not that old... as prior to 1824 Catholics were not allowed to bury their dead in a cemetery. ...Honestly... it's no wonder the cemetery is full of rebellion leaders.

The National Botanic Gardens: touted to contain over 20 000 different plant species, including 4,000 rare specimens. It does sound a bit like an old lady (the blue haired kind, not the hip Grammy kind!!) looking at boring flowers, including XX number of roses, some gardenias and orchids. In fact it was hardly a destination for us, other than it happened to fall directly on our path to the Glasnevin cemetery. As a result we only got to do a quick poke around, but I certainly want to go back! Originally created in 1795, the greenhouses and landscaped lawns make you feel very Victorian. Kid gloves, fancy hats and parasols would not be out of place. Plant species are well marked, and organized into themes, including: world foods, (who's seen Cassava before?) cacti, mosses, etc.

Kilmanim Gaol: Brad and I did this on our own, while my parents visited the National Museum of Ireland with Nikolai. It was all that you can imagine... and very Charles Dickson esque. Incarceration peaked during the famine, as even begging was made illegal. People were being executed for steeling bread, and children as young as 8 being locked up with the adults. Coupled with overcrowded conditions, no window panes for "ventilation" and prisoners being kept on a starvation diet (easier to control), disease and death was rampant. The tour also focused on the leaders of the 5 uprisings as many (all?) were incarcerated at gaol. Of note, many of the rebellion leaders were actually Protestants (i.e. Pearse)... as Catholics were not allowed to be educated. The tour was a bit packed (50 pple) so my only recommendation would be to go on a weekday as I'm sure you would learn more from a tour with a smaller crowd.

NUIM Russell Library: this houses the pre 1850's collection... and it's pretty neat. However, only an NUIM student or employee can get in (though they can bring guests); and you have to pre-book an appointment in order to get in. The library has a pretty hefty collection, with a number of items on display. If you're keen to peruse some historical books, check out their blog for a virtual tour. To continue on our theme of rebellion, we also learned that St. Patrick's college only came into existence because the British feared that Catholic priests going abroad to be educated may be planted with the seeds of rebellion. Given the state of the Penal Laws against the catholics at the time, Catholic priests were pretty much espionage artists anyways. Well, the British decided that allowing Catholic priests to be educated in Ireland would at least enable them to have "inspections" of the college.

Brad had the camera in Italy, so I'll have to wait till my mom sends me some photos... but the above photo is a hint of what we did next.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Getting ready to cycle tour

In my last blog post I may have touched on the subject of the upcoming stress tests... and their importance... so I guess I should follow up on them. But the result was dismal. And for some reason the government has failed to do anything remotely useful about the issue. So the Irish population now owns 4 useless banks and non-existent tax monies will magically pay the bond holders thanks to at least two lifetimes of debt to the IMF. Needless to say, I don't much feel like blogging about this.

On a happier note, we have started the preparations for our next mini-cycle tour! This started with buying me a bike (I returned the borrowed one) one sale from the 2010 stock. It's a pretty skookum (a BC term meaning fast water... but used to indicated coolness) ride. I've talked a few friends into going on evening rides with me, and have a stated goal of a 40km ride at least once a week.

Yes, 40 km.

Now to some of you, that might seem like a lot. However, to those who know us better, it's a bit of a WTF (meaning huh?) as we usually run at 60-80 km in a day. But when you add a busy toddler into the mix, touring becomes more of a 40-50km day... because while we're quite busy cycling... Nikolai is quite... well... bored. He's usually good for an hour of sleep, but that's only 20 km worth of cycling. The remaining time is spent goofing around in his trailer, or enjoying the view from the bike seat (not much view available from a trailer).

Furthermore, after a nice two hour cycle, though we may be ready for a break, Nikolai is ready to burn some pent-up energy (add another two hours of exercise).

Anyways, today is Mothering Sunday!!! My day for a lie-in, breakfast in bed, a day free from chores! But alas, not for me... Brad is having a jet-set moment and is off for a conference in Udine, Italy (warm, sunny days, pizza, pasta, espresso, whine --Freudian slip--). With my parents arriving tomorrow... today is two loads of laundry, cleaning the bathroom, giant grocery shop, etc, etc.

But we foresaw this miss adventure of a Mothering Sunday (Mother's Day comes early 'round here). So yesterday was my day off and we took a family cycle to Howth (leaving from Drummcondra Station). And I cannot recommend this route enough.

1. It's dead flat.
2. Most of it is on bicycle lanes separated from traffic, with the remainder in a bike lane.
3. It follows the coast of Dublin harbour nearly the whole way.