BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Saturday, January 28, 2012

All the small things

Before I left Maynooth, I had imagined myself blogging about all the things that living in Ireland had taught me. I imagined writing about Nikolai's accent (he has one, though I doubt it will last more than a month or two). I imagined writing about laundry (and the many skills required to actually get your clothes to air-dry in such a humid environment).  I imagined writing about my culinary lessons in cooking "good value" vegetables (potatoes, cabbage and various other roots veg).

However, those were just the lessons I thought I'd learned from living in Ireland. Instead it seems the actual lessons learned are much more profound and social than simply learning how to live without indoor heating.  Anyways, after having spent a few days in Vancouver and Victoria, here is a more accurate list of what I learned while in Ireland.
1. My first surprise came while we were getting a bunch of chores done (updating our bank account info, buying cellphones, etc.). I was perplexed to find that the service people were impatient with me. Of course they were friendly and polite, but they were also distinctly impatient with my dithering over decisions. I'm not sure why anyone would be expected to take less than 2 minutes to decide which cellphone plan to choose? Regardless, the service personnel certainly wanted me to "get on with it".

In Ireland, I was always the fast, efficient and organized person. When we first moved there I was the person who was impatiently waiting in line to be served.  So I am surprised to discover that I apparently did learn how to slow down and take my time with things (though I bet my Irish friends are laughing right now, as I never did learn how to be late for an appointment!).

2. After a few days of attending playgroups and taking public transit I realized that Canadians are very friendly, whereas the Irish are good friends.  What I mean by this is hard to define... but I will try to explain myself through a series of examples.

i) We have yet to take a bus ride in British Columbia where someone doesn't try to make small talk with us.  Everyone seems to want to talk about random mundane things, like the guy making my Americano telling me about his juice bar habit (spinach, carrot, spirolina and apple juice on that particular day). This perturbs Nikolai as he's not used to being constantly talked to by strangers. In Ireland, I'd seldom get approached by complete strangers... (though I've heard that this happens a lot to tourists, but it's likely because you're identifiable as a tourist.)

ii) Never in all my time in Ireland has anyone asked me about my plans for more children. Anything even treading close to a subject of a personal nature would not be a topic of conversation, unless it was chosen to be shared with a close friend.  However, at our first playgroup, I was asked about my future children plans, no less than 3 times, by complete strangers. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by the immediate intimacy of these simple introductory conversations. I learned from one mom that she'd moved from her home in Peru to escape "the family business" and I met a mom who told me all about her divorce. Basically, anyone who talked with me was more than willing to go into the deeper realms of their personal stories almost immediately.

Though these features seem "friendly" they are about as "friendly" as facebook.  You may "like" the fact that I'm wearing pink socks, but it doesn't actually mean that we've had a conversation in the past 10 years. Whereas, when we made a personal connection in Ireland it tended to lead to a reciprocal exchange of kindnesses; dinners, sharing toys, cookbooks, exchanging clothes and endless cups of tea.

3. I also have been surprised by the overwhelming affluence and poverty that both present themselves openly in the Vancouver and Victoria streets. Perhaps the poverty isn't any different from that found in Ireland, but it is a striking thing to see a clearly struggling homeless person sitting outside of a grocery store like Whole Foods (Whole Foods would be like Fallon and Byrne, with a much larger store... and notable mostly because Vancouver would have at least a dozen equally posh grocery stores).

There is just so much to buy here! I am bowed under by choice and the plethora of options. Coupled with this increased amount of choice is an increased amount of advertising. Everything is for sale and your happiness is the currency of trade (though I do not profess to know whether owning a baguette flown in from Paris will ACTUALLY make you happy, or rather leave you feeling just that little bit sad).

I can tell that Nikolai is overwhelmed, and Brad and I are certainly not immune to the consumerism fever.  I think my antidote will be to spend a few weeks hiding in the relatively small community of James Bay.  And god forbid that I dare to venture in the Uptown district that is being heralded on the sides of all the Victoria buses. It somehow stinks just a little bit too much of the "Celtic Tiger" era.

Next week we stop being tourists and finally move into our new home. Phew! Nikolai had upwards of 5 temper tantrums today... so I think he's tired of our transient lifestyle (or perhaps it's another repeat of the roseola incident?). Anyways, it brings into question the future of my blog... though now that I have some Irish followers, I'll have to do some blogging about Victoria, if only to encourage future visitors!  The photos are from a December trip to the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I stood by your Atlantic Sea

I should be sleeping off the jet lag. I should be sorting through the luggage. I should be doing laundry. But these last few days have filled me to the brim with everything and nothing at all. I need to download, offload and shift my emotions into a place of rest.  So here is the tale of my last few days in Ireland.

On Sunday we availed of our plan to see a wee bit more of Ireland before leaving. Claire had flown over for the weekend, and we'd rented a car to help us with the final move. First we drove down to the Rock of Cashel. It is perhaps most famous in recent times for its looming stateliness over the small town below. Regardless, it seems to be the ONE tourist sight in Ireland that nearly all the Irish have actually gone to.

It was unfortunately under a good deal of scaffolding the day we went. It was also a day for a bitter wind. Needless to say, we weren't that impressed with the famous rock. However, despite being a cold Sunday in January, the tour buses were still arriving, definitely signalling the importance of this Irish historical monument.
Nearby is the much lesser known Cahir Castle. It was not a place that our friends had gone to, it lacked the tour buses, and was a rather cheaply priced (€3). However, we loved it. It is a well maintained tower castle with the outside walls still standing. You're even allow to walk the walls despite the lack of railings!  Perhaps that's a bit dangerous, but we kept a firm hand on our wee man.  We loved the model scale of the castle. We loved the women in medieval times exhibit. Though it wasn't ever as large as Trim, it is in far better condition and is certainly worth a visit.

We stayed at our friend (and landlord)'s house Monday night to hang out with her brood. More tears followed at our departure the next day. So we were a bit of a somber crew as we set off to on our last adventure. There are hundreds of passage tombs all over Ireland, but there are only a few that are linked to specific solar events. The most famous are Knowth and Newgrange, which are oriented to the solstices. On the other side of the Boyne Valley, in a small corner of Meath is the Three Witches. Even my friends who had grown up in Meath did not know of Loughcrew.

In the summer there are tours out to the tombs from a coffee shop up the road (Loughcrew Gardens). In the winter, hikers collect the key to the tomb and wander up the wild moors to the sacred location on their own. As we drove to the coffee shop I was full of sadness, and mournfully sang "A Case of You", as Blue had been stuck in my head for a few days... it was a surprise to discover, upon entering the cafe, that they had Blue playing in the background. Perhaps it was just a coincidence? Regardless, it was hard for me to see past the symbolism as I silently sang along. After finishing the a goat cheese and coleslaw sandwich that they served for lunch (the menu is based on what they have in the fridge), we left for our journey to the tomb.

We hiked up to the most famous of the three witches. It is hard to describe the moment. The view was so breath-taking that it managed to distract even Nikolai was we made our way up the slope of the hill. At the top there was one large mound, circled by 8 smaller passage graves that had all since fallen in. A ridge ran across the length of the hill, seemingly pointing to the other sisters in one direction and Newgrange in the other.
The cave itself was much more intricately carved than Newgrange, with swirls as well as a flower like "sun" pattern. It is oriented to light up on the mornings of the equinoxes (September 21 and March 21), with the sun's path across the chamber marked by the carved "sun" pattern. First it shines through to a small side chamber, before hitting the wall of the main chamber causing the sun to reflect off the rock surface to light up a second smaller side chamber.

The existence of such a creation seems amazing and Divine when the mounds are considered against a backdrop of history. Built over 5000 years ago, the precise nature of the solar worshipping calculations suggests a fairly advanced civilization.

There were more goodbyes at a dinner party that evening. Aisling had spent two days preparing our favorite dishes, despite the labour intensive nature of the recipes, we dined on spanikopita and moussaka.

That was our official goodbye, but my heart was still caught up on a hill in the midlands of Meath. Up on that hill I found the beating heart of a nation. It enveloped me whole, and spoke to me. Now I know that I will go back to Ireland, because I could not possibly stay away.

Friday, January 13, 2012

And if you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell

By all rights this blog should be about departing. Life is busy with packing and arranging for our flight. And tonight Brad is at O'Neills sharing a farewell pint with the Maynooth Chain Gang (go to their blog if you want to see a pic of the mamils. From a brief glance it's fairly clear that Brad will never blend into the Irish crowd.).  But no! Tonight I will not fall into a pint Guinness and drown in my sadness. I am far too organized for that!  I have left myself a way out... an escape hatch back into our sunny Spanish vacation. So toss your weighty pint aside, and enjoy a glass of sangria while I tell you the tale of Granada.

Granada is the home of the Alhambra.  THE Alhambra.  I didn't even know what it was... but I'd heard of it, floating around in the vernacular of life. The Alhambra. Clearly it was something I just had to go check out for myself.

So... it's a Moorish Palace of spectacular size and scope. It's stands firm because it was never sieged... As it turns out January 2nd, the day of our decided trip to Granada, is the day when the Moors peacefully decided to leave the Alhambra after realizing that no one was coming to rescue them.

However, that's not the story I want to tell you about today. There's loads on the web about the Alhambra because it's a UNESCO world heritage site and a major tourist trap. That would about sum up our experience of the Alhambra... it was nice... well groomed... and entirely sticky with tourists. There is so many tourists that a ticket only lets you in for 1/2 a day, and if you actually want to see the palace then you'd better be ready to queue up.

Afterwards we headed into the city itself just in time to get caught up in the Jan 2nd Granada liberation celebrations. Lost amongst the crush of bodies, it was hard to tell what was going on. There was a military band, speakers on the balcony of City Hall, and heaps of woman wearing fur coats (seriously, I'd never seen so many fur coats before!)
But lets move along to the crux of the Granada story... away from the packed cafes and bars... away from the carnival stalls selling handmade goods... and into the rundown old caravan that came free to use with the rental of the villa. The caravan that decided to lose half of its gears just as we were pulling out of town.

After discovering the car could no longer shift into second, Brad decided to pull into the parking lot of a museum. And the museum guard gave us a 10 minute warning to pull back out of the parking lot as the museum was closing (damn siesta!). As we didn't actually have a proper map of the city we decided to pull off the highway bound road onto a side road... then on to another side road... and then we circled around a few blocks... until we eventually beached the car in front of a hospital.

Siesta and the tow truck driver who did not speak a word of English came to our aid. Cellphone conversations were flying... between our host and the tow truck driver... the insurance company and the tow truck driver... and us, lost in the debate as to where the car was going to go.  Benalmadena, the location of the villa and our host, was more than a 2 hour drive away.

How could they arrange the transport of us (4 adults and el nino) and the car down to the coast?
It was siesta and it was a holiday. Any other day... Si... but it was the Fiesta de la Toma!! and it was 3pm!!! Luckily, the lovely English speaking person on the other end of the cellphone was decisive. The caravan would spend the night in a car hotel before the debate on it's fate would continue. As for us, we would be given a rental car from Avis.

Sigh, apparently even Avis takes a siesta...

So the most memorable moment of my time in Granada would have to be the hours we spent in the lobby and cafeteria of the Clinica Inmaculada Concepcion. It was fascinating for two reasons:

1. It was like visiting a hotel. The lobby had new, comfortable couches for guests to sit on. The cafeteria served a great veggie club sandwich with artichoke hearts, asparagus, tomato, lettuce, cheese and most notably a toothpick to hold the 3 layers together. At only €3.50 it was a sandwich worth returning for.

2. In the 1.5 hours we spent waiting for the Avis siesta to end, I never saw a single patient walk through that waiting room. But I guess there's not that much demand for an immaculate conception these days.

Below is a picture of the car in a typical Spanish carpark.  Brad gets kudos for some amazing parking skills!
And these two pictures are from the cactus garden in Arroyo de la Miel. I've just included them for fun... as I'm unlikely to do another blog on Spain!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Sing Me Spanish Techno

Any tour of the Costa del Sol is mainly about the beaches. We traveled to beaches all up and down the coast from Malaga and Benalmadena to Fuengirola.  They provided the usual beach experiences.  Picture white soft sand dotted with polished shells, a steady row of over priced tapas joints and kiosks flaunting inflatable beach toys, cheap sunglasses and other kitsch.

Our host was entirely of this vein of Spain. An expat Brit who owned a pub nestled in the heartland of pasty-white British sun catchers. His brown and ragged skin bore all the tell tale signs from years of over indulgent tanning. With the easy smile of a practiced host, he provided a knowledgeable expertise to the ways of the Spanish that often fell into a rote memorization of facts that didn't always seem to reflect the reality of our experiences. Perhaps we are less inclined to tut at the wanton ways of a population that still believes in a three hour siesta than his usual pack of tourists.  It's true, that the sweeping application of the siesta closure confused us at first; but we quickly learned to live in the ebb and flow of an afternoon at home.

Since it was December, the weather was not often leading us to a life of margaritas on the beach, and so we managed to explore a number of the surrounding towns.

MALAGA: Large and urban, Malaga is a place for the Spanish to live and work (unlike the other tourist centred coastal cities). We hiked up to the castle and enjoyed the view. Though I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the heat generating hike if it had been summer, as it was, we benefited from the cool day. At the top, Gibralfaro was a cheap enough tour at only €2, however, it wasn't the most impressive castle I've been too.  (Though perhaps I'm jaded after having lived next to a ruin for so long).
We also went to the Picasso museum, which was quite pricey, and certainly didn't contain his most impressive works.  However, the bottom floor did have an interesting layering of ruins from Pheonician through to the Renaissance.

Malaga is most notable for having nice tapas joints, good shopping piazzas and a great food market, which appeared to be free of tourist pricing!
MIJAS: We went to Mijas A LOT.  Basically it's a cute, whitewashed pueblo (village), full of artisan shops (though admittedly interspersed with tourist cr*p).  Viva the off-season touring!  Having seen the huge car park dedicated to tour buses, I can only imagine what it would be like in the summer!
 GIBRALTAR: After waiting in the huge line of cars to have our passports checked, we weren't left with much time to tour this imperialistic enclave.  I imagine that it is the ONLY border in the EU that is still passport controlled.  However, ownership of that contentious rock is still a hot topic of debate... and the likely reason for that will soon be revealed...

The touristy thing to do would be to take the gondola up to see the old Fort.  Unfortunately we didn't have time for that.  Instead the tourist bureau recommended that we walk up the High Street.  And what an ugh ugly High Street!  It feels like you've stepped into a trashy mall full of stores selling alcohol and jewelry.  My mom had a headache, so our first stop was for a huge bottle of Aspirin... which came to just £1.50?  Then we noticed all the shops were advertising Duty Free... a few queries later and we discovered why the place was like an airport shopping mall, and why Spain might be more than a little PO'ed at the stronghold of Gibraltar.  Well, how would you feel about having an open border with a place where EVERYTHING is tax free?
RONDA: This is a lovely little hill top town with a truly gorgeous old town.  Unfortunately, we forgot our camera... as it's a place that is best described with a photo. However, we did have our cellphone camera.  The most notable thing is the massive gorge that divides the town in two, and is best viewed from the two few beautiful bridges that cross it.

We also went to Granada, but this post is long enough... so that adventure will have to remain for another day.