Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ireland, Day 5b: "Feet they hardly touch the ground, walking on the moon."

The friendly Lisdoonvarna tourist office person who had urged us to eat outside because the nice weather was "not going to last" also suggested we take the longer drive along the coast to get to Ballyvaughn.
Along the way, the landscape changed and became increasingly rocky.
I'd thought the Burren would be like the Cliffs of Moher - an isolated place with an admission fee. In fact, we'd seen bus tours for the Burren. Somehow I missed that it was an entire landscape, covering about 250 square kilometers (155 square miles).
At some point, we pulled over and got out to walk around. It was described as lunar in appearance and that's certainly what it called to mind. Desolate and a little unsettling.
Burren is from "boeireann," which just means "great rock." The glaciers during the last Ice Age left this vast karst topography.
Dissolution of some of the soluble limestone left huge slabs of rock separated by deep fissures.
Across from the road from where we were walking, we saw some folks climbing the face of a small cliff.
Small patches of scrubby grass and various flowers grow in the cracks. This is a bloody cranesbill, which strikes me as an unflattering name for the pretty pink geranium.
The barrenness was a stark contrast to the lushness we've seen everywhere else we'd been so far. But it was warm and sunny out, and we spent a good while exploring.
"Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon.
I hope my legs don't break, walking on the moon.
We could walk forever, walking on the moon.
We could be together, walking on, walking on the moon." (The Police)
It was actually hard to make ourselves get back in the car, but we wanted to get to where we'd spend our last four nights.
Our Clare-style Caher cottage in the village of Ballyvaughn.
Again, for a surprisingly low cost, we found ourselves in a spacious house. Two stories, four bedrooms, five (!) bathrooms.
We only needed the one bedroom, of course. We chose this cozy and light-filled room.
We didn't actually do much in the way of cooking, except for breakfasts. The washer came in handy, though.
After we'd unpacked, we walked into town to look around.
The town itself was small, but very walker-friendly. I had to test out this public water faucet. It worked.
On the way to the waterfront, we passed a field of speckled cows. A little change of pace from all the sheep.
We decided on Monk's Seafood Restaurant for dinner and had smoked salmon with salad, and more fish and chips. And Guinness. Because, you know - Guinness. In Ireland.
The view from our backdoor - green lawns and the rolling hills of the Burren rising above it. It was a full day and I think it took me all of three seconds to fall asleep that night.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ireland, Day 5a: Leaving County Kerry.

Back to the painfully slow and delayed travelogue:
Our last morning in County Kerry started with watching from our living room the sunrise over the Maharee Islands in Brandon Bay.
We'd made blackberry jam from the blackberries we'd picked on our walk the day before and had it on some of the bread we'd bought at the little village market, along with cheesy eggs and coffee. Americans that we are, we still had coffee every morning.
We drove down to An Clochán to the cottage of Maura, our landlord. When we mentioned the lovely weather, she urged us not to get "too good an impression" of Ireland! We talked about the rest of our trip and she tried to talk us out of going to the Cliffs of Moher, insisting that they were too touristy and not really any better than the cliffs along the coast of the Dingle Peninsula.
Before leaving An Clochán, we drove up the tiny road past the church to see the old church ruins and the graveyard.
And then it was back in the car to drive along coast to Trá Lí, then through County Kerry farmland along the Stack Mountains to Tarbert.
We got to Tarbert just in time to drive on to the 11:30 ferry across the Shannon Estuary over to County Clare.
It was a twenty minute trip, which gave us time to make fun of the guy with a selfie stick taking endless photos of himself. We'd planned to go straight to our next cottage in Ballyvaughan, but since we had a little time, we drove up along the coastal road.
We stopped at the Cliffs of Moher, which Maura had advised against. It was indeed touristy and we were reluctant to shell out the 12 euros to enter. Particularly when we saw the fake castle, O'Brien's Tower, built in 1835 as a tourist attraction. There were hundreds (thousands?) of people spilling out of tourist buses and milling around and taking photos of themselves at the tower.
But we'd already paid, so we veered away from the crowd and walked along the cliff-edge path that lead away from most of the other visitors. It took us onto land owned by a farmer, with sheep fields on the other side of the fence.
It was very windy along the cliffs. I'll tell you up front that I'm a little skittish with height and I did NOT like the wind. I was certain a gust of wind would carry me right over the edge to the abyss below.
But oh my God, it was beautiful. The cliffs stretch for 8 kilometers and reach a height of 720 feet, and soon we left the fake castle and crowds behind.
Some 30,000 birds from over 20 different species make their homes there and we watched them flying in and out of nesting sites in the cliff walls.
Did I mention that it was windy and we were close to the edge?
We sat down and inched our way to the very edge, to dangle our feet above the ocean for a bit before walking back along the pathway to our car.
From there to Lisdoonvarna, home of the matchmaking festival.
That apparently is a real thing, which started when area farmers would bring their daughters to town for dances and help from the local matchmaker. A matchmaker still works there and the festival attracts thousands of singles. For the last three years there is even a matchmaking event for the LGBT community.
We had lunch - a gooey brie, pesto, sundried tomato and roasted onion panini and a couple of pints of 9 White Deer beer - Stag Bán for me, Stag Rúa for him.
As we headed out of town to continue our journey we watched an older couple waltzing in front of the Ritz hotel. I think that will be us some day.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I keep thinking I'll get less busy and instead I seem to be busier all the time.

I'll just have to be a sporadic blogger for now. I'll visit when I can, eventually finish up the Ireland travelogue, and post about life once in a while.
Like my adjustment to being in a blended family. I grew up in one, so it's not exactly foreign to me. With my own kids, I tried to spend time with each of them individually because the dynamic is entirely different when there is just one kid along. This morning, for instance, I watched "Top Gear" with my younger son and then went with him to try on boots while everyone else went off to church. A couple of weeks ago, we took only the older daughter to see a play at the tiny theater downtown. It was pretty good, if perhaps a wee bit over-acted. But she is in theater herself and absolutely loves being taken to plays. I guessed that the murderer would be Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Wrench. Wrong game. And my fiancé horrified his daughter by uttering aloud the name Macbeth. An usher overheard and he had to stand in the aisle, spin around, curse over his shoulder and spit into a trashcan. All in the name of protecting the actors from superstition.
In the midst of moving we had my birthday, which we celebrated by going out to dinner and then ducking into our favorite speakeasy bar for an Irish whiskey to reminisce about our trip. Fall is often very mild and we eat outside when we can. On one of those occasions several weeks ago we had this conversation at dinner:
Me: "You know, in the 8 months or so that we've been together, we ..."
Him: "Eight months, 15 days and 2 hours, give or take."
Me: "That's not normal."
But I actually like that he does that sort of thing. It's very handy - I no longer have to figure out how old someone is, when an event will be occurring, or what day a certain date falls on - I just hand that problem over to him. On the day of Halloween, we drove down to the mountains with the older daughter to visit my soon-to-be brother-in-law who was spending a little time in the Smokies. He greeted me with a big hug and later pulled me aside to thank me for "giving my brother back something he'd lost - his smile."
We decided at the last minute that we'd carve a couple of pumpkins to lure trick-or-treaters to our home.  All our own kids would be elsewhere that evening, but after the block party earlier in October, I wanted to participate in the night in this kid-packed neighborhood. We ended up putting one out in the street so people would see easily that we were handing out candy.
The finished jack-o-lanterns. The one on the left is supposed to be a cat. Myself, I alway carve the same traditional smiling face. I can't help it. It just looks so happy to me. I was surprised at how many of the kids' parents were also in costume as they escorted their kids from house to house.
There's been lots of the usual chores - gardening and cleaning and cooking. Always cooking. One morning we were sorting through recipes to find something to take to a pot-luck reception and I commented idly that I made good risotto. "Prove it," he said. Challenge accepted. It's a zen experience really, because risotto just can't be rushed. And one I enjoy - there's something so lovely about slowly stirring broth and wine (and a shot of bourbon) into the arborio rice. I ended up making a seafood and vegetable risotto with shrimp, crab, sweet onion, red peppers, spinach and green beans.
And yes, he agreed it was delicious. Some dinners we have on our own, some with one or another of our children. A couple of nights I spent tending to my younger son who had all four wisdom teeth (including an impacted one) cut out. Through a series of snafus on the surgeon's office's part, there was a very long delay in getting him any pain medication. There's nothing quite like helplessly watching my normally stoic son in severe pain. So I sheared off the side of a molar on a Lifesaver in solidarity. Because I take mothering seriously.
And on top of everything else, we have been adopted by a stray cat in the neighborhood. He has the characteristic notched ear of a feral cat who has been captured, neutered and released. At first he'd sit on our deck and watch us eat, consenting to be petted once in a while. That merged into brief visits in the house and then the fateful night when we were too cozy to put him out at bedtime. We named him Hodr (more correctly Höðr, but that's cumbersome to write), the Norse god of all things cold and dark, as a nod to the Norse heritage we both have. We can't even pretend that Hodr isn't ours anymore. We feed him, gave him flea medication, and he now sleeps on the end of our bed. When he isn't climbing into strange places, that is.
Last night, one of each of our kids were here. The younger daughter was reading from one of the Harry Potter books to me before bed, and then we lay for a while talking. I mentioned that my youngest kid was here and her Dad's youngest kid was here. And then I amended that to, "Well, actually, now you're my youngest kid." She nodded and snuggled in closer and we continued talking for a bit. I kissed her goodnight and then I paused for a minute in the hallway to listen to the steady breathing of my younger son in the room next to ours. I slipped into bed and my fiancé wrapped around me. As I lay there in his warmth, I couldn't help but reflect on the enormous turn my life has taken this year. Busy? Yes. But unhappy about that? No way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ireland, Day 4: Ni Éireannach mé, 'sea mhuise, ach tá beagán Gaelainne agam.

The next morning, we went for a walk along the road to Brandon Point to pick more of the blackberries we'd been eating with our breakfasts. I was surprised to see them ripe so late in the year - I guess it's the shorter growing season.
Then back in the car to drive to An Clochán. Driving on the wrong side of the narrow roads stayed a little nerve-wracking for me which meant that I would occasionally say, "Go mall!" when I thought my fiancé needed to drive a little slower. I'm pretty sure that was helpful.
Bréanainn was born in 586 AD in Trá Lí, a town we had passed through our first day. He became a priest and later built a monestary at the foot of Mount Brandon. He set out from there to search for the Garden of Eden, which he believed would be located on an island. As it happens, I've listened many times with my younger son to Mick Moloney's version of a song about Brendan:
"Oh, I was an artist with canvas & paints
I sailed with St. Brendan & his jolly saints.
We told a good people goodbye for awhile.
We sailed for St. Brendan's fair isle, fair isle,
We sailed for St. Brendan's fair isle."
St. Brendan stands in a strangely small boat outside the church in Clochán, where we parked to walk along a path walk through the townlands of Clochán Sídh and Doire na Muice. But honestly, we weren't even sure when we were passing through "townlands." Apparently a couple of houses makes a townland.
We did find this little glade with a spring back in the woods. Maybe it was Doire na Muice, where St. Brendan banished the pagan wild boar, who protected the magical wood of oak. St. Brendan used the oak to build his boat to sail from Ireland to Scotland, then Iceland and Greenland, then America.
The boar was banished to Loch Geal where he appears every 7 years to light up the whole valley.  It's not clear exactly what that would entail.
And indeed, there was not a wild boar to be seen. Just the placid black-faced sheep grazing and watching us walk by.
It was a gorgeous day, sunny and clear.
We passed a few houses and lots of farmland.
When this tractor came through we had to duck into the shrubbery along the side of the road to get out of its way.
At one house, this friendly dog left his porch and leapt up onto the rock wall along the road, eager to play.
We took a wrong turn on Mullach Road and extended the walk a bit. That took us out by the little market in Clochán, so we bought a chocolate scone to split before returning to our cottage.
It was still morning, and we were headed for a day in Dingle, so it was back over Conor Pass.
We'd decided to tour the Dingle Distillery, and artisan distillery over the bridge in the Milltown area.
They produce small batches of gin, vodka and whiskey in these copper pots.
There were only a handful of us on the tour and the guide, who we dubbed "Whiskey Joe" had us each lean over the fermenting barrel of "distiller's beer," which would later become whiskey. One by one we breathed in and recoiled at the acrid scent. It was flat impossible not to react to the burn.
The barrels where the whiskey ages are marked depending on what sort of alcohol was originally produced in them - bourbon, port or sherry.
At the tour's end, we sat down for a tasting. First the 63.5% (127 proof) new spirits which would age into uisce beatha. Then Whiskey Joe gave us generous pours of the vodka and gin to sample, poured over lemon slices and ice. I added tonic to both of mine but still could not choke down the gin. The vodka, though, was excellent.
We had walked around earlier buying gifts for the kids.  I'd texted both my younger son and my older son's girlfriend about what my older son might like and as I waited for answers, we spotted a music shop and bought him a tin whistle made in Ireland. Just after I bought it I saw a text from his brother suggesting a tin whistle. A few minutes later, I got a text from the girlfriend suggesting a musicals instrument, but for her sake, anything but a tin whistle!  Oops. Shopping done, we walked up to Caifé Deirdre for tea and scones with current jam and clotted cream.
To balance out the crazily late breakfast times, we discovered that "early bird" dinner is much later here than in the states.
Down to the harbor again to Murphy's pub to try half pints of Hop House 13, a Guinness Irish Pale Ale.
We walked around on the pier for a while just enjoying the beautiful day.
Then to John Benny's for half pints of Guinness, where we chatted with the bartender JP, who was adopted by a couple from Connecticut but brought back here to live when he was 7. He had an overly romanticized view of the U.S.
We'd asked around and ended up at Out of the Blue, which looked unassuming from the outside. It advertised "No chips, nothing frozen" and looked like a fish and chips stand but came highly recommended, so we went in. Turns out, it was an elegant restaurant with a French chef who worked with local catches. We had a duo of smoked and pickled salmon, mussels Marianne, and char-grilled cod with beets, snow peas and potatoes. All with a tempranillo and all absolutely delicious.
We headed back through town and then drove back over the pass under a darkening sky. We decided to stop one last time at O'Donnell's for a nightcap. John, the young bartender, was there along with a couple of old sheep farmers and we spent quite a while talking with them. I was itching to use the Irish I'd learned for the trip and said hello and ordered an Irish whiskey and then asked my fiancé if he wanted one. "Día dhuit. Dhá uisce beatha, le do thoil." (then to my fiancé) "Ar mhaith leat rud éigan a ól? Uisce beatha?" He answered, as coached earlier, "Ba mhaith liom." John looked bemused and I asked him if my pronunciation was close. He said it was perfect but also wondered if I had expected that everyone there would speak only Irish. I had to explain my habit of learning a little of the language of any place I travel. We stayed for three drinks because it was fun talking with them about life there in Clochán. Before we left they had been picking lotto numbers so we had each of them, plus the woman who cooked, pick a number for us to play when we return. (Ahem. We did not win.)
Finally, we drove back to the cottage and built a turf fire. Rather, we tried to build a turf fire. There were no matches to be found, so our landlady's husband, Seamus, brought matches and stayed long enough to get the fire going thoroughly.  We had a last shot of whiskey in front of the smoky fire.