personal

One way to see Ireland …

(Allow time for this to load. Lots of photos.)

About 6.5 million people live in Ireland and Northern Ireland combined. Roughly 10 million have left since 1800, the University of Cork’s emigration site tells us.

After visiting for the second time, I have a question: Why did they ever leave?

OK, yes, Ireland has had waves of dire economic situations, some of it (potato famine) England’s fault. But today, I’m sorely tempted to go the other direction and stay.

Conor Pass, Dingle peninsula

Of course, we can’t extrapolate too much from visits. Going to a charming little town like Ballyferriter is fun. Not sure I’d want to live there. The fun parts of Dublin seemed to have more tourists than residents.

When we visit anywhere in Europe, it’s neat to see all the different products — arrays of sweets that don’t exist in the USA (I was happy to find one of those tooth-ruining toffees that require a hammer or solid whack to separate the pieces), a sublime Fanta orange that in no way resembles the swill sold here — but would a longer stay expose things we love in the USA that aren’t available over there? Is microwave popcorn readily available? Could I find decent pizza?

But I can say this with confidence: It’s a wonderful place to visit.

We went for the first time in 1999. Nearly 20 years (and two kids) later, we went back.

Here’s how we did it this time — feel free to click through to my Google reviews:

Saturday: We took a taxi from the airport to the Ashling Hotel, dropped off our bags and started walking. That’s what you do when you visit a city, particularly in Europe. I saw 1-2 Google reviews complaining that the Ashling isn’t close to anything, to which I’d offer three responses:

img_4726
Seriously, dude — it’s across the street!
  1. Did you not check the map before you booked the room?
  2. Did you not see the restaurants within an easy walk?
  3. Are you incapable of making the 20-minute walk to tons of restaurants, shops and tourist attractions? Or locating a bus?

If you’re visiting any city and not signing up for a tour bus to take you around, you’re going to walk. You may also take public transportation, though we didn’t on this day. We walked down to the wonderful Wuff for lunch, toured the Guinness storehouse (brewery) and had dinner at Harkin’s Pub near the brewery.

Funny thing about Guinness: By the time we got to the tasting, I was reminded that I’m not really a fan of Ireland’s treasured beer. They promised the best Guinness we’ve ever tasted because it’s right there at the brewery, but I thought it accentuated the bitterness that comes from roasting the barley (as we found in the compelling exhibits) to such extreme heat. For the rest of the trip, I had various forms of Smithwick’s, which is under the same corporate umbrella as Guinness, and one local beer I’ll get to.

And the neighborhood around it is disappointing. Parts of it are in disrepair. But Harkin’s isn’t bad at all.

It was windy. Powerfully windy. A bit of rain dripped, but if I’d tried to use an umbrella, I think it would’ve wound up in the Atlantic.

Sunday: How do people sleep on planes without being in first class? I didn’t. This was my seventh overnight flight to Europe and eighth long-haul overall, and I’ve never slept more than an hour.

So we slept for a long time Saturday night/Sunday morning. Then it was time for brunch at Urbanity, probably the most hipster-ish place in Dublin but in a good way.

We didn’t want to flush a lot of cash away on what’s already an expensive trip, but we did some browsing at a comprehensive shop called Toy Master, complete with animatronic dinosaurs. I stopped by Intersport Elverys to see if they had interesting soccer jerseys, particularly one for the team we were scheduled to see on Friday (Bohemians), but they did not. If you like Irish football, the game in which Irishmen attack each other violently to keep opponents from kicking a large ball into or over a goal, or hurling, the game in which Irishmen attack each other violently to keep opponents from whacking a small ball into or over a goal, this is your place.

One of us had to pick up a rental car at the airport for our travels later in the week. It wasn’t me, so the rest of us had lunch at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, which is basically Shake Shack transplanted to the Temple Bar area but with better fries/chips.

After going back to the hotel, we took a brief walk down the street to Ryan’s Pub. That’s known mostly as a steakhouse or a watering hole, and we were interested in neither, but it was fine.

By this point, we felt that we knew the neighborhood. Naturally, we decided to shake it up the next day.

Monday: Did I mention that we loved the little restaurant called Wuff? We loved it so much that we ran over to be at the front door before they opened at 8 a.m. We had to wait at lunch on Saturday, and we wanted to get there and get moving. Turns out no one goes there right when it opens.

Skipping the tram and bus in favor of walking was a good call. Dublin has buses running like hundreds of mice on speed, as well as a frequent tram, but they were still packed in and nearly crushed at the door. You’d think some of them would bail and get the crepe pancakes at Wuff, but evidently getting to work on time is important.

The reason we got the car was that we were going beyond Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, a wonder of nature with tons of rocks, many of them in neat honeycombs, that The Simpsons satirized with Marge and the kids playing a life-size various of the old Qbert video game.

I had picked up a neat hat at one of the touristy stores in Dublin. Here, I stuffed it into my pocket because of …

The Wind. (Not the wonderful album Warren Zevon released as he was dying, but the actual physical force.)

I’ve been outside during a nor’easter that had hurricane-force gusts. This was much more intense. When we hiked up the steep path to the top of the cliff, I urged everyone else to stay several feet away from the edge, lest I end up fishing a relative out of the ocean.

The scenery was stunning, and we had fun hopping around on all the rocks, but we had trouble finding a good place to eat. The cafe at the visitors’ center, which included a screen showing the Simpsons clip, had a prohibitive line. A nearby restaurant had no seats and smelled funny. We decided to pile back in the car and head south.

It’s really not a long drive from Dublin all the way up to the northern shore of the island. It’s 163 miles, less than three hours if traffic is OK. But it includes an hour or so of local roads with scant services, which was disappointing for a hungry group of people who really should’ve braved the line at the visitors’ center.

“What about the border crossing?” you might ask. Yes, we drove from one country to another. You can tell when you’re in Northern Ireland because there’s a well-weathered sign, less prominent than any sign informing you that’s 80 kilometers to an upcoming town, that says you’re in Northern Ireland. That’s followed by a sign alerting you that the speed limits will be posted in miles per hour rather than kilometers. The return to Ireland from the UK doesn’t even have a “Welcome to Ireland” sign at all. A couple hundred yards past the border (we think), there’s a sign telling you the signs will henceforth be in kilometers. Then a small sign welcoming you to County Louth.

Everything around that thrilling transition is pasture. Sheep may safely graze in either Ireland or Britain, and no one would know the difference.

So if the nationalist propaganda (read: lies and idiocy) in London can’t be undone and Brexit goes through, good luck enforcing that border.

We did finally get a small lunch along the way, and then we ate a quick dinner in the hotel bar when we got back.

Tuesday: The 100-item breakfast buffet at the hotel was expensive, but we couldn’t pass it up another day, especially with a long-ish and occasionally challenging drive ahead. We were on our way to Dingle.

We spent some of that time exploring our radio options. Some of them aren’t bad, but the shocking part is the lack of variety. RTE 1 is mostly talk. RTE 2 is mostly crap — current Top 40 stuff. RTE also runs a classical channel (Lyric FM) and a Gaelic channel (Radio na Gaelna … Gaelnita … R na G). Those are available nationwide on various frequencies, and our intelligent car (a Skoda) shifted from frequency to frequency without us noticing. We just saw names.

Other than that, there’s a mostly nationwide pop channel (Today FM), a nationwide Christian channel (Spirit Radio), a nationwide channel called Classic Hits that caters to the “above 45” demographic (which I’m in), and a bunch of regional stations. In theory, many of those stations have different formats, and in Dublin, the “Sunshine” station is more soft rock while the “Nova” station plays music that occasionally turns up the guitar. But really, it all runs together. The “presenters,” not the music, are the main distinguishing feature, and I travel with someone who doesn’t listen to people talking.

What I’m saying here is that it wouldn’t surprise me if at least one Cranberries song appeared on every radio station in Ireland in the past 24 hours, with the exceptions of “Newstalk” and Lyric FM. I even heard them on R na G, with the late Dolores O’Riordan singing beautifully in Ireland’s native tongue.

Ireland has several convenient rest stops, akin to Chesapeake House and other stops along I-95, on its motorways. Most of them, like the radio stations, are indistinguishable from each other, run with warm tidiness by a chain called Applegreen’s and feature decent convenience-store fare along with a Subway, Burger King and a couple of Irish alternatives.

The exception to the homogeneity of these rest stops is Barack Obama Plaza. Yes, Obama. The last half-decent president the USA might end up having has ancestry around the village of Moneygall, and he visited once. That visit is enshrined here in pictures of Barack and Michelle smiling as they tread on Irish ground. There’s even a large photo of the president’s helicopter as it prepares to land.

And the Obama Plaza has gas and a bunch of places to grab food — perhaps not exactly the same chains as the Applegreen’s stops but roughly comparable.

As you close in on the Dingle peninsula, the roads become more challenging. The biggest adjustment to driving on the left is knowing where the left side of your car really is. It’s tempting to hug the shoulder. When you leave the motorway, the highway and the regional road to embark on the local road, that shoulder is replaced by shrubbery and the occasional stone wall. And there ain’t a lot of room in that lane.

The tourist trap, er, town of Dingle rather intelligently features parking lots on its perimeter to encourage pedestrian traffic. We were racing to Murphy’s Ice Cream, which would’ve been fine if we’d stumbled into it but didn’t live up to the hype. I was also a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tourists.

That wasn’t an issue in Ballyferriter. The town center consists of a church, a museum, the Ceann Sibeal hotel (westernmost hotel in Europe), and three pubs, not counting the restaurant and bar in the hotel. We wound a couple of the pubs, to borrow the Monty Python, uncontaminated by food. We settled for Murphy’s, and by a stroke of luck, it was awesome. We wound up going back the next night, in part because the hotel restaurant was inexplicably closed.

Wednesday: We had a nice breakfast in the hotel and then headed off on our drive. Slea Head Drive is one of the most beautiful ways to invite a fender-bender that you’ll find anywhere on Earth. We visited Rahinnane Castle, which entailed driving up to a house and inquiring at someone’s patio. She asks you for two Euros per person and to close any gates that need opening on your way through the pastures where sheep may safely poop. Never have I watched my step so intently.

The Last Jedi used a couple of sites in the area as well as Skellig Michael, the island off the neighboring peninsula of Kerry that’s allegedly visible from a spot on our drive on a clear day. At some point, I did an arduous hike that Rey might have done. Generally, though, words can’t do this peninsula justice. The photos can barely get there.

We were scrounging for food back in Ballyferriter, and we found that the little convenience store. Siopa an Bhuailtain, has everything we could possibly need, plus a couple of tables. It was great until the tour group of kids showed up and overwhelmed the place.

But we can’t spend all afternoon at a convenience store, so we went back to Dingle. I liked it a bit better this time, in part because we relaxed at the amiable Bean in Dingle coffeehouse to enjoy the wi-fi that had been kind of elusive at the hotel. We also browsed a neat bookstore.

Still, we wanted to have dinner back in Ballyferriter. First, we’d have a quick stop at Kane’s (aka Tigh Ui Chathain), which had no food the day before but had a playful dog named Lucy. We decided to go back, where they told us Lucy usually stops in. Right on cue, she popped in and played with us, digging out a tennis ball from behind the bar.

We were planning to eat at the hotel, but when we realized they weren’t serving food that night, we went back to Murphy’s.

Thursday: Somehow, another big group of teens turned up at the convenience store as we were getting breakfast for the road.

Instead of going straight back to Dublin, we went back to Glendalough, a beautiful place south of Dublin in Wicklow County, where the roads are truly frightening.

“Hey, look at the beautiful view.”

“I am NOT taking my eyes off this road.”

Fifteen centuries ago, Glendalough was the home of St. Kevin, a remarkable figure who took asceticism to new levels. He lived as a hermit, rolled around naked on nettles to atone for … the fact that a woman tried to seduce him? I recall he also walked naked into the chilly water of the lakes. Eventually, some people convinced him that maybe he should open a monastery or something.

We returned to Dublin but went to a different hotel, this one right by the airport. In the same area, there’s a big restaurant called Kealy’s, which lived up to its glowing Google reviews.

Speaking of atonement: The Crowne Plaza staff informed us when we arrived that they had messed up our room reservation. Instead, they gave us TWO adjoining rooms with a door between them. It was awesome.

Friday: The hotel breakfast looked great, but I wasn’t feeling too well (maybe too much indulgence on the rest of the trip — I gained back one of the 30 pounds I’ve lost in the last 15 months). Then we took a bus into Dublin for more browsing. One of us spent entirely too much time at Gamer’s World. I browsed Eason’s bookstore and bought a Trinity College shirt to pay homage to what we were going to do in the afternoon.

Remember Tower Records? If you’re under 35, you probably don’t. If you’re under 25, let me explain — before you could download any song you want onto your phone, there were these things called “record stores.” Our beloved Tower in Tysons Corner had gone out of business long ago, and we were surprised to see one in Dublin. We figured it would be a sad experience, with a few holdouts browsing used CDs.

Our prediction couldn’t have been further from the truth. Tower Records is capitalizing on the hipsters’ “back to vinyl” movement and also sells plenty of gear to listen to music at home, but it also has a gigantic selection of T-shirts and other band merchandise. We could’ve spent hours in there, but we also want to go to a famed coffee/tea/pastry place called Bewley’s, which was also much bigger and offered a wider variety of goods than we expected.

Then it was off to Trinity College for a nice walk around campus before seeing the Book of Kells. The campus is fascinating, with ancient buildings in one quad and then newer construction around it. They also have a big rugby pitch and cricket field in the middle of campus, so don’t let anyone tell you college sports are just an American thing. The Book of Kells tour itself was fun and surprisingly witty, even though it was tough to get much out of seeing the Book itself.

Dinner was at J.W. Sweetman’s, yet another place with more square footage than you’d expect in a city location. It’s also a brewery, and I enjoyed their Weiss.

Then the worst part of the trip — sadly, the only part I planned. We went to a soccer game at Dalymount Park, home of Bohemians FC. Parts of the ground are charming, but much of it is derelict. UPDATE: I’m wrote a Soccer America story about that experience.

Also, the Dublin Bus site is useless, and it’s bloody impossible to figure out the best route from place to place if you have to transfer buses. We figured something out and made it back to the hotel to our great relief, just before another short sleep.

Saturday: The Crowne Plaza’s airport shuttle is nice and efficient. Heathrow, where we connected to get home, is not.

And I, for one, really didn’t want to come home. But we’ll go back someday. Maybe with more suitcases.

Uncategorized

Europe vs. America

I spent the first 27 years of my life in the United States, most of it on the East Coast.

I had never been across the Atlantic. I’d never been farther west than Texas.

The East Coast, I’d covered. I knew everything from Florida to Maryland pretty well. I’d been farther north a few times. But aside from that, just one trip to Texas and one to Chicago.

Now I’ve been to England multiple times. Italy for two weeks. Germany for two weeks. Ireland for a week. France for a day. (And in the other direction — China for three weeks, plus several trips to previously unseen parts of the USA and Canada.) And over Thanksgiving, either Spain or Catalonia, depending on how (or if) they vote.

barca

That’s probably not enough to qualify as an expert on Europe as a whole. Of course, there’s some diversity here — Frankfurt and Barcelona are as different as Boston and Atlanta. But it’s enough to have a few observations, and it’s enough to respond to this Irish traveler who’s been in the USA for a year and notes 17 cultural differences.

I’ll start with his list (not all of it):

1. Americans are way too sensitive
2. Everything is “awesome” 

He mentions “political correctness” here, but he’s not really talking about Woke America. He praises our efforts to respond to hate speech — and yes, for all our anti-immigration bluster, you can make the case that we’re actually far more welcoming and far more of a melting pot than most European countries.

What he’s saying is that friends don’t give each other constructive criticism. We’re not straight with each other. That’s hard for me to judge because Europeans generally aren’t going to issue blunt corrections to tourists. You’d have to work someplace to see the difference.

3. Smiles mean nothing
6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing

Let me put it this way: I’ve never going to tell a random woman to smile more, because that’s patronizing and sexist and everything else that’s wrong, but I will tell my sons.

There’s nothing wrong with spreading good cheer. England, frankly, makes the effort. Even their advertising has a friendly tone, while ours usually makes us think about death or illness.

So we smile and exchange pleasantries. Then our ads and our media make us think we’re going to die if we don’t purchase whatever’s for sale. Surely there’s a better balance here.

4. Tipping
14. Always in a hurry
7. Wasteful consumerism
15. Obsession with money

I’m glad European food-service folks are paid well enough that they’re not relying on us for tip money. We’re jerks. On more than one occasion in the USA, I’ve left a tip on another table, knowing that the dirtbags who dined there didn’t leave anything.

And sure, we don’t need to be rushing around as much as we do. Europeans are more patient than we are, and that might explain why they’re not rushing out to buy more crap that ends up in a landfill or in the ocean. (Also noteworthy: Fresh fruit is cheaper in Barcelona than it is here. Legos and other plastic toys are more expensive. That seems like a good thing. Fruit fuels healthy bodies. Legos are great, but when you have a gazillion of them, maybe it’s time not to buy more.)

But I’m still perplexed by the European habit of not bringing the check when diners are obviously finished dining. What exactly is the point of that? You can leave it and say “no rush,” as a lot of Americans do.

5. False prices on everything

Yep. Europe is way ahead of us in terms of getting rid of pennies. Don’t tell me something $9.99 when it’s actually $10.49 with tax. Charge me $10 or $10.50 with tax included. My wallet thanks you.

8. American stereotypes of other countries
16. Thinking America is the best

Yeah, this times 1,000. Granted, we stereotype within our own country. I’ve seen Northerners who think gay people are in imminent physical danger at a women’s soccer game in North Carolina. I’ve spent the last 20 years realizing everything my fellow Southerners told me about the North is wrong. (Except about the cold.)

11. Religious Americans

Americans are more in-your-face about religion, even compared with heavily Catholic areas in Ireland (or Spain, I’d say), our correspondent says. Yes, they are, but what bothers me more is the ignorance. In the USA, the louder someone is about religion, the more likely it is they have the zeal of someone who knows nothing beyond a few feel-good slogans (many of which make them feel good because they can look down on others). I doubt you’ll see a creationist billboard in Germany.

12. Corporations win all the time, not small businesses
13. A country designed for cars, not human

His point here is that in any European town, you can walk around and find a nice place to eat or get coffee. I suppose that’s true for the most part, though it’s tough to generalize. If you walk in New York or Boston, you’ll find places — and frankly, I don’t care if it’s Starbucks. Maybe I’m risk-averse, but sometimes, I like knowing what I’m going to get. And there are subtle variations — I was thrilled to go to a Dunkin’ Donuts in Barcelona because I knew from experience elsewhere that European Dunkin’ Donuts offer far better variety than what we have here. (Also — have you ever had Fanta orange in Europe? It’s simply wonderful. In the USA, it’s just generic syrup.)

Outside big cities, do we have any idea? When I went to Ireland, there was no way I could’ve walked from one of our B&Bs to the town center. Where I live in Northern Virginia, I can easily walk to a strip with banks, restaurants (local and corporate), shops (again, local and corporate), etc.

But I’d have to agree that Europe generally makes it easier to walk to a grocery store. Our grocery stores are the size of aircraft carriers, surrounded by parking lots the size of San Marino. In Barcelona, they had plenty of smaller stores (some local, some corporate) with all the variety you could really need.

That said, I’ve never been in a part of Europe that has single-family homes. I’d have to assume they exist. In Barcelona, I didn’t even see townhouses — everyone lived in an apartment. That was convenient, but I also didn’t get much sleep Saturday night thanks to the neighbors and people out in the street.

And, quite obviously, mass transit is better elsewhere. Maybe New York can compare with what you have in London or Barcelona, but Washington’s way behind. English soccer fans can usually hop on a train, go to their team’s away game, then return that day.

16. Unhealthy portions

No kidding.

Stuff he didn’t cover

We need universal health care. I’d love to have more train travel, but I understand how that can be difficult without overuse of eminent domain.

We don’t need Europe’s provincialism. Ours is bad enough.

Last but not least — we need English toffee. And American dentists to clean up the mess.

 

music

Monday Morning Music: Afro Celt Sound System, “Big Cat”

When I was honeymooning in Ireland in 1999, the radio played a steady stream of Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 and a remix of “Ricky MarTEEN” in which everything that made Livin’ La Vida Loca interesting (horns, Latin percussion, rockabilly guitar) had been stripped away in favor of a bland Eurodisco beat.

I also heard ads for an upcoming performance of Afro Celt Sound System, a collective of Irish and African musicians fusing together all the unique percussion instruments of both cultures along with a pulsing synthesizer beat. Since then, I’ve found they’re almost always worth a listen. This is one of their best — a solid 7 1/2 minutes of hooks and drums that’ll help you get ready for a workday. Enjoy.