A mixed bag: my last trips in Ireland

The thought of how little time I have left in Ireland makes me feel a little sick — as I’m writing this, the countdown is down to less than two weeks. I have a new understanding of what it means to be a mixed bag of emotions. So, for these past weekends I’ve been trying to make the most of the time I have left by making some quick trips to the places in Ireland that were still on my list.

Here’s the quick rundown:

Cork and Killarney

A story I was working on about Irish attitudes towards Jews brought me to Cork for interviews (they went fabulously — I’m saving those stories for a separate post). Since I made the journey as far as Cork, I decided to take advantage of it and see Killarney as long as I was venturing outside Dublin. Funnily enough, I planned the trip so last-minute that I overlooked the location of the B & B that I booked before I left. It was a good 10 miles out of town, and consequently I didn’t really see any of the town of Killarney at all. What I did get to enjoy, however, was the peacefulness and serenity of the surrounding countryside. I took long walks and enjoyed the quiet for the evening and morning before heading back to Dublin to continue work on my story.

Galway

I had been hearing Galway’s praises pretty much non-stop since arriving in Ireland, so when Emily suggested we take a last-minute trip there last weekend I couldn’t say no. We took a non-stop bus from the Dublin city center to Galway , which took less than 3 hours. We spent that night and the next day exploring before returning in time to meet Emily’s friend from home.

We both wished we could’ve had more time there, but I think we did a pretty darn good job to seeing most of the city in 24 hours.

Our first full day began with the greeting of an unfamiliar friend — the sun! We decided to take advantage of our luck and walk along the river a short way to Galway bay. We breathed in the sea air and basked in the bright, yellow light for a good part of the morning.

Next stop was the Saturday market. There were tons of stalls filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, homemade bread and jams, flowers, crafts and other fun trinkets.

We got a few gifts that  I won’t disclose for the sake of a good surprise. I did make one purchase for myself — a gold bracelet taht called to me from an antique stall. The place caught my attention right away, with odds and ends displayed proudly in shallow, open boxes, guarded by a man with an Sherlock Holmes pipe in his mouth that I don’t believe he was actually smoking. The guy explained that the bracelet was from an African tribe located somewhere near the Sahara Desert. I didn’t know if I should believe him but regardless, the bracelet is pretty cool. I’ve worn it every day since.

After shopping and moseying for a few hours, we were getting pretty hungry. To my delight, we found a great place with fresh, native oysters for our final meal in Galway. It was at The Spanish Arch restaurant, named after a monument nearby. I had to have Emily document the moment I had been looking forward to for far too long.

Nom nom nom. The seafood stew was pretty darn good, too.

Soon after our late lunch (and afternoon tea, which has become a habit), we hopped the bus back to Dublin. Now, the party is really over — I’ve got my last final in one week! Do I even remember how to study? Anyone who’s still reading, think happy thoughts for me.

Abby Taylor Emily Barcelona

Ok. I’m no Scarlett Johansson. And definitely no Penelope Cruz. And I didn’t meet and fall in love with Javier Bardem (yet).

That’s just my (oh so clever, right?!) way of introducing the last leg our spring break journey. We made it to BARCELONA, people, and we weren’t done yet.

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We had heard a lot about the city. People said we’d like it better than Madrid. Literally everyone told us we were going to get mugged and/or pick pocketed while we were there. Still, I had few expectations (as usual), and really, I’m still not one hundred percent sure how I felt about the place, even weeks later.

What I can say is that we got off to quite a rocky start in Spain’s second city. Well, technically it’s the capital of Catalonia, but I still don’t quite understand that whole deal.

The three musketeers took an overnight bus into town from Madrid. This wasn’t quite as romantic and cool as I had made it into in my mind — a fact that I realized within minutes of getting on the bus.

Taylor and Emily and I all snagged seats without any issue. I got in my correct row but tried to get away with stealing the window seat (so I could lean up against the window to sleep, of course). I quickly curled up to try to get some shut-eye. When I felt another person awkwardly hovering over me and staring at me, then their ticket, then back at me, obviously realizing I had stolen her seat. I clenched my eyes shut and prayed that she wouldn’t have the nerve to wake me up and tell me off (she didn’t). I know what you’re thinking — I’m turning mean. I’d say the days of living in hostels without showers and fending off creepy European men and rugby players had begun to harden my heart at this point.

Anyway, as it turns out, I had it relatively easy. Taylor got no sleep due to one of those aforementioned creeps on one side of her and a crazy lady in front of her. As you can imagine, when we got off of the bus at around 6 AM we were extremely discombobulated, and well, cranky. We ended up wasting 5 Euros right off of the bat buying a bus ticket when we needed to take the train. We finally made it to our sketchy hostel only to be told we couldn’t check in until 1. And breakfast wouldn’t be served until 8. So, we just sat in the lounge area with our feet resting on our baggage, not knowing what else to do. I was awoken hours later by some perky Australians talking amongst themselves about perky Australian things. I was still cranky. Luckily, I thought, our day could only go up from there. So once we had all gotten up and brushed ourselves off, we locked our stuff in lockers and headed out to explore until we could check in, no matter how smelly and cranky we were at this point.

Soon, we realized that we were in a pretty bad neighborhood. Like, we had to pass a sketchy group of prostitutes in a creepy alley to get anywhere in the city. We eventually learned to just keep our eyes towards the ground. Eye contact with the men in this alley seemed like trouble. Clutching my purse flap became second nature. But I digress.

We were right near Las Ramblas, a road with a large median that is home to a touristy stretch of stalls filled with postcards and the same old crap the one next to it was selling. The area itself was kind of off-putting in it’s unabashed parade of garishness, but it was useful in that it divided the city in half right down the center, and helped us to get oriented pretty quickly. The city had some great neighborhoods just to walk around and explore leisurely (or mosey through, if I’m allowed my way).

I probably sound like a broken record, but once again after a couple of week’s time, my most lasting memories have been the inspiration I found from art here. We spent the obligatory afternoon ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the Sagrada Familia and walking down the Passeig de Gracia, which was sprinkled with more of Gaudi’s works of pure crazy.

I think my favorite was his Park Guell, a park full of his designs on the top of a hill overlooking the city.

The Picasso Museum was incredible as well. This collection was full of his earlier, lesser-known works. It was incredible to see the paintings he made as a teenager — as lifelike as a photograph and totally unrecognizable as his. The collection was arranged like a timeline, and I got to see his progression towards the more abstract pieces that he’s known for by most.

It was especially impressive to see his take on Las Meninas, particularly since I had just seen the original at the Prado a few days earlier. He took the iconic painting and made it his own — doing and redoing the scene from different angles, focusing on different characters and changing the color, tone, composition each time. Yet somehow, each retained the vibe and feeling of the original, in respect to the great Velázquez that he admired and studied. I went by myself Easter morning while my amigos were at Easter mass. It was lovely to take my time and take it all in.

The Fundació Joan Miró was another highlight, located on the hill called Montjuïc in the eastern part of Barcelona. You couldn’t help but have fun there. And the hill, once again overlooked the whole city and was incredible. This was a theme in Spain. We lucked into nice weather that day, too.

Since we had four full days in Barcelona, we decided to take a day trip to Montserrat, about an hour’s train ride outside of the city. The town is home to the site of an old monastery up on a nearby mountain. We took a cable car up to the monastery to look around and then a funicular to the top of the mountain. It was completely amazing — probably the best views of the whole trip.

MADRID: The rain in Spain…

For me, a trip to Spain meant an opportunity to see some great art. After all, many of my favorites — Picasso, Miró, Gaudí, Dalí and Hemingway — all have Spain in common.

Our first stop was: MADRID.

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Ernest Hemingway said in Death in the Afternoon: ”Madrid is a mountain city with a mountain climate. It has the high cloudless Spanish sky that makes the Italian sky seem sentimental and it has air that is actively pleasurable to breathe.”

And later: ”If it had nothing else than the Prado it would be worth spending a month in every spring, if you have the money to spend a month in any European capital. But when you can have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel badly, all questions of immortality aside, to know that you will die and never see it again.”

I won’t try to outdo Hemingway on this one. There was just something about Madrid that just made me fall in love.

Here were my favorite parts:

1. Ah, that Spanish sky. Its bluer than any sky I’ve ever seen. The clouds were low, and fluffy, like you could reach out grab them out of the air. I couldn’t get enough (when the sun decided to shine).

2. The Reina Sofia. We went twice. The first time, we did a quick tour with fellow Mizzou-ians Sarah and Jaime who were in Madrid for the day. It was raining pretty hard and the place was jam-packed. The second time, we were trying to kill a few hours before catching an overnight bus to Barcelona. Taylor and Emily hung out at the café while I scoured the entire place. I think I saw every corner. The building itself was gorgeous — all stone and huge windows facing the green, lush courtyard. I found a terrace on this second visit that boasted the best view of Madrid that I found the entire time I was there.

Guernica was the highlight of both my trips there. Picasso painted it in response to the bombing of Guernica, a city in the Basque Country, during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. The painting was literally breathtaking. Gaggles of people perpetually stood, silently taking in every part of the wall-sized painting, housed in a white-walled room, guarded by two museum staff at all times. The affect of the work was amplified by Picasso’s studies, which occupied a connecting room. It was so striking to watch his mind at work on how to put together such a masterpiece. I’ve never been so struck by a single piece of art before in my life. I went back to see it multiple times throughout my visits. I couldn’t get enough.

3. Our night out. We met our friend Jasmine from our hostel in Lisbon one night in Madrid. We met her in Plaza del Sol, where a procession for Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) was happening. It was pretty creepy — a bunch of people dressed in what looked like KKK cloaks were walking slowly through the city with a soundtrack of slow, scary music emanated from somewhere in the crowd. Still, it was interesting to see how they celebrated there. Jasmine gave us the plan for the night — two bars and a salsa club. The first was a Moroccan bar. Here, a musician played the saxophone to tracks selected by a hip, dreadlocked woman, bobbing up and down to the beat. The place was decorated in maroons, oranges and yellows and packed with the young and hip of Madrid getting cozy among the plush cushions and draping curtains. We loved it. Here, Jasmine introduced us all for the first time to Tinto de Verano — a delicious (and cheap!) typical Spanish drink made of red wine and lemon Fanta, garnished with a lemon slice. Next stop was La Boca del Lobo, a small music venue tucked away in a dark and narrow side street of the city. As we slipped in, there was a jam going on. A drummer, a saxophone player and two fabulous singers filled the small space with thumping rhythms and smooth vocals. It was so much fun listening to them sing their versions of Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley songs, and even more fun to hear the locals singing along. When we left the jam session and Jasmine suggested the salsa club, I was a little skeptical. After all I really can’t dance — especially not salsa. But, I reasoned that it would be fun to have a Mojito and watch her do her thing. Apparently, though, watching isn’t an option at these places. We had hardly ordered our drinks before four Latin men had come to whisk us onto the dance floor, despite our attempts to explain that we had no idea what we were doing. Though I’m positive I looked like the world’s biggest spazz as I tried to mimic the incredibly complicated dance moves going on all around me, my dancing partners didn’t seem to mind and I had a great time faking it. It’s the best night out I can remember in a long, long time.

4. Parque del Buen Retiro (“Park of the Pleasant Retreat”). I was determined to go here even though it was raining on and off the entire time we were in Madrid. The second we saw the sun, I rallied the troops and we headed there. It was a bit of a hike — down the road and on the other side of the Prado and up a sizable hill from our hostel. Of course by the time we actually entered the park, the sky was back to its familiar grey, and it started to sprinkle. The park is the biggest one in Madrid, and once belonged to the Spanish Monarchy. The trees contained in the parks tall, imposing gates were straight out of a Dr. Suess book — tall, thin, curving trunks with puffs or green ornamenting the tops. We wove our way through the winding paths of the space, trying to ignore it. We made it to the center, where families and couples paddle-boated in the lake, trying to ignore it too. The grand amphitheater faced the water and enveloped a Monument to Alfonso XIII, two lions guarding it from either side.

We paused here for a photo-op when we couldn’t ignore it anymore. It was now pouring and we were in the middle of a huge park, far from the shelter of our hostel. So, we booked it towards the Prado — a very fancy place to wait out the storm. Emily found a window sill to rest in and write while Taylor and I tried to take a quick look around before it closed. We focused on Velázquez, and  I found myself surprised at how much I enjoyed the collection of his work. We saw his work called Las Meninas, which, according to the plaque, is considered by many to be the best painting of all time.

5. Fabio. The hostel was pretty dismal. The showers didn’t often let out more than literally four drops at a time. When I went to the front desk to explain using my limited Spanish (“NO. HAY. AGUA!”), the employee responded with no more than a shrug. We did have a great roommate, though. He was from a small town in Italy, and was named Fabio Felice Frugis. He had tanned skin and perfect white teeth and I’m pretty certain we were all in love. He was the best part. He had come to Madrid to learn Spanish to better his chances to work in a hotel back home. With no place to stay, and no job, he was staying at the hostel until he figured it out. Every night we talked to us, worried that he wouldn’t find a job, but smiling cheerful all the while. His story was so incredibly charming, and incredibly encouraging — if he can just up and move to Madrid, then so can I, right?! He’s another one of those people I’ve met here that I probably won’t ever forget.

6. The Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid). We waited until our last day to do this. It was so worth the hour-long wait and the 10 Euro cost of admission. This is the most incredible display of power and wealth I think I will ever see. It is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family in Madrid, but its really only used for state ceremonies. Each room was more elaborate and crazy than the last and I’m so sad that no pictures were allowed. I snuck one of the interior before I knew that though. Here it is:

The best part though, was learning what each room was for. These people have a room decorated within an inch of its life — floor to ceiling — in a room only used for getting dressed. It was incredible. I felt like Marie Antoinette walking through there. Here are some views from the outside.

7. Mercado de San Miguel. We loved this fabulous food market. We got breakfast here every day, I think. It was Tortilla Espanola, a spanish-style potato omelette. We also came back a couple of times for deserts…

Next up: BARCELONA (aka more Picasso).

Spring break part one: Impressions of Portugal

The week before we left was literally jam-packed with last-ditch efforts to finish up schoolwork before our two-week spring break. I hadn’t had much time to plan things to do, or really think about the trip at all. So, when it finally hit me that I was about to take off again, this time to explore Spain and Portugal, I got excited. I felt like I used to, the night before the first day of school in first and second grades (and still?), jittery and restless — sleep was out of the question.

After staring at the walls of my dark bedroom for what seemed like ages, I decided to drop the act and just get up and do some very last-minute research on Portugal. The various slideshows I flipped through and articles I read really only made me realize just how little I knew about where I would jet off to in just a few short hours — turns out Portuguese is not much like Spanish — and I think that made me that much more excited. It was my first big adventure!

I’ve found that on my most recent trips, certain artists or albums have been on heavy rotation and have thus came to help define the tone of my trip. This time, I had just rediscovered two old favorites: Sufjan Steven’s Illinoise and Devendra Banhart’s Niño Rojo. So, my mood was relaxed and thoughtful as we rode to the airport, these songs creating my own little Portugal soundtrack.

The flight went fairly easy (read: I slept the whole way).

It wasn’t until we were all waiting in line at customs that it hit me: I was an outsider. Almost everyone that surrounded us had beautiful tanned skin and shiny black hair. They were speaking a language I couldn’t remotely understand and I felt them looking at us. I’ve traveled to countries that weren’t English speaking before, but I always had my family as a buffer. I wasn’t really faced with the challenge myself, I just kind of followed my dad around and let him do the talking. But here, I was struck with the feeling head-on and was conscious of my vulnerability in that moment.

To take a taxi to the hostel, all I could do was hand the driver a printed map that had the address of the hostel marked on it. We hoped for the best, and eventually made our way there (only after walking back and forth in front of it about five times, bags and all). It was located in a multi-level apartment building, and had only a very small sign to mark its presence.

When we made it up the stairs to the lobby, a frazzled man working the front desk told us that a whole rugby team was expected later that day. Rugby boys. Thirty-five of them! Taylor, Emily and I all raised an eyebrow.

The hostel itself was incredibly nice — hardwood floors and enviably comfortable beds. After we dropped off our stuff, we made a beeline for the beach and just sucked in the sweet sea air for a few minutes before going to grab a bite to eat. Much to our dismay, it wasn’t actually as warm as we thought (hoped?) it would be, so we had to return to our hostel to bundle up a bit more and cover up our too-soon exposed limbs.

We were sitting in the lobby trying to make a plan when we met a guy from Australia. When he learned that Taylor and I were from Missouri, he asked if we had seen a lot of tornadoes. He told us (honestly) that he had always wanted to travel to Kansas to chase tornadoes in a pickup truck. Isn’t that what you guys do over there? He asked.

After trying to set him straight for a few minutes, we walked out of the door into very first encounter with the rugby boys. “Hello wims!” they said to to us (no idea if that is good or bad or what). I nervously responded with some form of “hey” back, distorted by the excitement I was trying to conceal over living in such close proximity to so many athletic and handsome British boys. Needless to say, the three of us erupted into a fit of giggles as we went off in our opposite directions.

About the city of Lisbon itself: I think that Europe, in general, knows how to do a great city, and Lisbon is no exception to that. Walking around, there existed a palpable tension between open and closed spaces. One moment, we were walking though claustrophobic, winding streets stacked high with small apartment windows ornamented with clotheslines, flowerboxes and electric lines. Then, they would suddenly give way to an amazing open square with an elaborate fountain or a breathtaking view of the city, full of people buzzing about, socializing and living. This interplay made just walking a pleasurable experience for the senses — never boring.

The city seemed markedly poorer than other areas I’ve seen. Not devastatingly so, but it was noticeable. In contrast, colorful patterned tiles and brightly-colored paints decorated many of the buildings, and the people we met on the street often responded with a smile. So, even though it seemed as if a lot of the buildings had fallen into disrepair the mood stayed happy and bright.

After getting the lay of the land and feeding ourselves, we tried to call it an early night — without much success. The evening ritual began, innocently enough, with a shower. The rugby boys made their presence known once in the co-ed bathroom, where it seemed one was vomiting and about four others were looking on and cheering. I found myself confronted with the bulking, loud and rambunctious lot of them once again coming from the shower in my pink polka-dotted nightgown, my wet hair wrapped in a towel and the day’s makeup streaked below my eyes…Needless to say, I was no longer impressed and, I’m afraid, neither were they.

Meanwhile, Taylor got ousted from her bed multiple times that night by John from Norway who had also had too much too drink and was shuffling around their bunk searching for a missing lens from his glasses. I would just like to say now, to everyone out there, that this was our favorite hostel of the trip.

With the aid of my trusty earplugs, I was eventually able to sleep — even with the ever-present chorus of rugby boys hooting and Norwegian man thrashing about and shouting in foreign languages in his drunken stupor. Taylor wasn’t so lucky nor do I think she found it so amusing.

Day 2: our first full one in Portugal.

We decided to go on a free walking tour of the city, with handsome Gonçalo as our tour guide. He gave us the tour in English and Spanish, for a woman visiting from Madrid — here began the trend of most everyone knowing at least two languages and making us feel very inadequate. Afterwards, Emily was feeling sick, so Taylor and I grabbed some lunch and headed towards a large castle we saw up in the distance.

The castle was fabulous. I had a lot of fun imagining medieval people running around through the narrow passageways and stately courtyards. Our long, uphill walk was rewarded by some incredible views of the city.

We got back to the hostel later that night and squeezed into the lounge area stuffed with rugby boys to have a glass of wine and talk over the day. A girl from our room, Jasmine (from Sweden who studies in Madrid), asked us if we wanted to have dinner with her and her friends that night. We cooked pizzas together in the hostel kitchen and talked, after the owner of the hostel’s mother was done with the dinner she offered guests each night. Here, we got more precious Missouri impressions from abroad: One of her friends informed us that Missouri was the state with the lowest average IQ (still haven’t confirmed this to be true).

Jasmine is studying urban planning, and talked a lot about the issues she sees with city development (too many cars, not enough nice, green gathering spaces). I don’t know if it was the subject or her enthusiasm, but she definitely piqued my interest. If only I could have a million different careers…We really liked her, and Emily exchanged numbers with her so we could all try to meet up again once we got to Madrid.

Day 3: Sintra

Based on a few recommendations from tourists and locals, we decided to get an early start and day trip to Sintra, a small town about an hour’s train ride northwest of Lisbon.

Before exploring the town, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat in a little café across from the train station. Here, we met David who was from Boston, but was currently working in Madrid. He was our companion for the rest of the day.

Our first stop was the Pena National Palace, a dreamy edifice atop a hill overlooking Sintra. It was surrounded by Pena Park, a surreal paradise only appropriate for the extravagance of the castle it enveloped.

Next, we continued a few minutes down the hill to the Castelo dos Mouros, which we viewed only from the outside.

Then, we took the bus down the hill and back up another to the arabesque Monserrate Estate. It seemed almost modest after the Pena Palace, but yet so elaborate — all colorful tiles and mural-filled ceilings. Maybe the best part was how it was so perfectly perched atop a dreamy hill. We all left contemplating how we could raise enough money to buy the place…still working on that one.

The whole day passed much like a dream — a dream we quickly snapped out of as we miraculously caught the last bus down the (windy, bumpy) hill to catch our train back to Lisbon.

At dinner we decided we all wanted to try to see some Fado, the traditional music of Portugal. Lucky for us, soon after we set out on our mission, we happened upon some beautiful music emanating from behind a closed black door. We asked the bouncer at the door if we could go inside and in response, he motioned for us to be quiet — he would have to check. He disappeared inside as we all glanced at each other, unsure of what was going on. After a few minutes, he came out and ushered us in to the last table in the small and cozy room dining room of a hidden restaurant.

We sat at what he called “the artist’s table,” which was where the performers had stashed their belongings. We sat in their seats, their coats hanging on the back of our chairs. We ordered a pitcher of the best Sangria we’d ever had and settled in. A beautiful older woman was singing in a warm, deep tone that seemed to reach every corner of that room. Two guitarists accompanied her. Though we couldn’t understand the language, her emotion came through loud and clear — giving me chills. The patrons were still and hushed, moving only to take a sip of a drink or a drag of a cigarette. We sat amazed and happy with our Sangria as she performed a few songs.

Afterwards, the man who seemed to be the owner of the restaurant picked up the pace with a few lighthearted songs including “La Cucaracha,” dancing and goofing around the whole while and inviting everyone else to do the same. He started a string of other musicians hopping up from their chairs around the room to give it a go. Each one was seemingly better than the last and their sincerity talent really struck us all, I think.

We left fairly late (to our standards), but David was just getting ready to start the night. Despite his suggestion to go to a few other bars, we regretfully had to part ways. The next day, an early flight to Madrid awaited us. As we packed our bags that night, we wistfully regretted not budgeting more time for Lisbon. It was a great start to the trip.

Coming soon (promise): the tales of our adventures in Spain.

Teaser: it will include salsa dancing, lots of Picasso and an Italian man named Fabio.

Away to the UK

I’ve spent the last week or so traveling outside of Ireland for my first time since I got here. For our first major trip, we chose to venture to England and Scotland, and visit the cities of London, Oxford and Edinburgh.

First stop, London.

To get to London, Taylor and I flew Ryanair, a discount airline that travels to main destinations throughout Europe. The rest of our friends would meet us there the next day. I had heard that the airline should be avoided, but, since we found tickets for less than 20 Euros, we decided to suck it up and give it a try. Honestly, it was a totally fine experience. The flight was really short, and although we had to fly into an out-of-the way airport, we just hopped an easy bus right into London’s city center. From there, my friend and host for the weekend, Teddy, gave me directions of how to meet him by tube.

As I left the tube station, I walked as if I knew where I was going until I saw this nice little park tucked away behind a tall, dark and menacing gate. I plopped my suitcase down and took out my book while I waited for Teddy. Somehow it felt right to spend my first half hour in England sitting on a curb in park, with my feet propped up by my suitcase, breathing in the English air and reading D.H. Lawrence. After I while, I heard my name called out by a familiar voice. I was so happy to see Teddy, an old and great friend of mine from high school. He is living in London this year while he studies at the London School of Economics.

When we found each other, Teddy grabbed my bag and led me out of the park and confidently wove through the pedestrian traffic (always so many people crowding the sidewalks in London!) towards our destination.

“Is your place close to here?” I asked, dreaming of a shower and a change of clothes after a morning of traveling.

“Yes, but we aren’t going there.” Teddy said. “We’re going to the wine bar.” So we did. I felt pretty out of place, toting my purple duffle bag, and donning worn-out blue jeans with my hair messily tied back. The London-ers seemed to all be constantly dressed in perfectly orchestrated preppy ensembles which is never something I’ve mastered. But, it was a lovely day and it was the perfect thing to do. We shared some wine and bread and cheese together with a group of friends that met us a bit later. The weather was beautiful, and we sat outside chatting and eating for quite awhile.

I’ve already been to London on a family trip a few years ago, so I wasn’t really into doing the main tourist attractions all over again with the rest of the group. Instead, I focused on enjoying the company of my friends and exploring the city on my own terms. We did go to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, which were both incredible (and free!). The buildings themselves were maybe what impressed me the most — all marble floors, rich furniture and high, elaborate ceilings. It might just be in my head, but most things in England seemed to have a palpable regal quality about them, and these monuments were no exception. I especially enjoyed our fifteen-minute reading break in one of Teddy’s favorite rooms of the museum.

On an afternoon while Teddy was off at school, I had a bit of time to myself so I decided to venture towards the Royal Academy of Arts to see a David Hockney exhibit I had heard about before I left. I had to wait in line for half an hour or so to enter the exhibit, and it was packed in the final open hour of the day. But the exhibit was worth the wait. I had known Hockney for his pool paintings and not much else. But this exhibit was full of works that focused on landscapes in East Yorkshire.

I think my favorite part was a series of paintings he did depicting the same spot in rural England at different times of the year, throughout all of the seasons.

The plaques on the wall explained that Hockney had experience as a set designer for the theater, and I could definitely see that influence in this project. The paintings were arranged so that the narrative began in one corner of the room with the dead quiet of winter, and gradually lead up to the bright excitement of spring. The progress was well-orchestrated and quite dramatic, leading up to the grand finale, a huge, colorful abstraction of the spring blossoms (shown below).

The colors and style reminded me of the cutouts of Matisse, one of my all-time favorite artists.

The next day, our group grew. On this particular weekend, Teddy’s youngest sister was to come visit over her spring break. Then, as a last-minute surprise, Teddy’s other sister decided to come as well. So, the visit quickly turned into a pretty epic reunion. It’s always so nice to see old friends again. It seems like these days, the chances to do so are getting few and far between.

Here they are. Pretty cute, right?

Next up: Oxford.

On Sunday, I decided to part from the crew to join two other friends on a day-trip to Oxford. We caught the 9 AM bus into the small city about an hour’s ride outside of London. I really didn’t know anything at all about Oxford itself, as much as I had heard about the university, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the day. We started off by shopping around on the quaint streets and just soaking up the views of the beautiful architecture shining in the warm sunlight.

A highlight was Alice’s Shop, a tiny little store full of Alice in Wonderland items. We also found a bookshop where every book cost only 2 pounds and spent a good amount of time scouring those shelves. It was perfect timing, as I had just happened to finish the book I was reading. Then we walked around the campus for a while and explored a few cathedrals.

This is a photo from Christ Church Cathedral, made famous by the Harry Potter movies (it’s where they filmed the dining hall scenes). I’m not a huge fan or anything, but it was still neat to see. Emily was much more excited than I was initially, but I think some of her enthusiasm rubbed off on me in the end.

People go to school here. (?!?!???)

Finally, Edinburgh.

Early Monday morning, we took a train from London to Edinburgh. The ride was about 5 hours, but we hardly noticed the length of the journey. Possibly the world’s cutest baby was sitting opposite us and we played peekaboo and were just entranced by his cuteness the entire way.

I liked this city much better than London. It seemed to be running at about the same speed as Dublin, but was much more scenic. The whole city is full of really gorgeous stone medieval buildings. It’s also really hilly, so there are tons of spots where you can just sit and overlook the entire area.


From just about every place in the city, you have a view of the Edinburgh Castle, probably the city’s most famous attraction. I loved the way it stood ominously above the town, like it was keeping watch on everything happening below.

On one of our last days, Taylor and I finally toured the inside of the place. Maybe I was too tired, or maybe I had built it up too much in my head as I stared at it for the first few days exploring the city. But it was sort of a let-down. Taylor and I were pretty bored after the fifth war museum we moseyed through. Oh well.

Probably the best part of the tour was seeing these kids dressed up like kings running around. I tried to sneak a photo.

We left early Friday morning, in time to get back and rest for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities that were going on in Dublin over the weekend. It kind of scared me how much coming back to Ireland felt like coming home.

Next up: Spain and Portugal in two weeks!! I can’t wait.

Dingle, Ireland

This Monday and Tuesday we went to Dingle. We left really early the morning after the Super Bowl (which we watched until waaay to late at what is becoming our favorite neighborhood pub), and the trip was long and tiring. It was worth it, though for the beautiful scenery and a very intimate show of some traditional Irish music in a tiny cozy pub by the fire (see a YouTube video featuring me and some friends below!). To be perfectly honest, I don’t have much more to say about this trip. A lot of it was just about experiencing the beauty of the small town and having a lot of nice quiet time.

Here are some photos:

Howth

Photo cred. Gabbi Reiter

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have no class on Fridays. I had quite a long night out at the pubs the night before with some of my DIT classmates, so I allowed myself to sleep in pretty late. I was groggily finding my way to my shiny new French Press when my roommate popped her head into my bedroom. “Do you want to go to Howth today?” she asked. I eagerly said yes without hesitation, even though the train schedule and the length of the walk to the station allowed me basically 15 minutes to get ready to go. I threw a hat over my bed-head, brushed my teeth quickly and we headed out on our wonderful last-minute adventure.

Howth is a small fishing village just a 20-minute train ride outside of Dublin. The round-trip tickets were about 5 Euros, which is pretty good considering I would spend about the same on a couple MetroLink rides in St. Louis to go just a few miles downtown. We caught the train a little after 2 p.m., allowing for us coffee fiends in the group to caffeinate ourselves and grab a quick breakfast for the road.

I barely had enough time to finish my Americano before we got off at the end of the line. We just walked straight into the beautiful little town, not knowing where we were going. Oddly enough, all of the girls I’ve met here are photographers and Andrew and Taylor are both into photography as well, so everyone but me was armed with their big SLR cameras. We all felt a little silly, like a group of paparazzi. Immediately we made our way towards the sparkling blue water, which was set off perfectly by the whitewashed boats parked in the harbor.

We knew that there were cliffs nearby, so we decided to weave our way upward, following roads that seemed to be angled in that direction. Along the way, we came across some adorable houses and a stately cathedral. I found a cemetery that we passed quite lovely as well, small and beautiful with unique decorations on each individual grave. They each were clearly carefully kept up and gave off their own personal vibe. It made me critical of the very prescribed and impersonal way graves are arranged in the United States.

One of my favorite parts of the walk towards the cliffs was when we came upon what looked like a little farm, with little patches of garden and a few sheds. There were roosters clucking about and I even spotted two pigs, black and pink, scurrying past. It was an incredible spot made to enjoy, with a chair situated out towards the view of the harbor. I dreamed of walking out there in my pajamas with a cup of coffee every morning.

We walked down what we thought was a public road and were greeted by two pups, one of which was not so happy to see us. However, the one that stuck around was irresistibly adorable. It was a small little guy that looked like a cross between a sheep and some small, round breed of dog. He picked up a stick and then just ran around between all of us, showing off and reveling in the attention we showered him with. We made quite a little scene over him, dog lovers that we all are. As we rounded a corner, followed by the pup, a woman called out from some hidden spot, “Sorry, but this is private property! You want to go down the road and take a right!” Embarrassed and laughing we made our way out of this woman’s property and said goodbye to the dog (who we had by then named Charlie).

Photo cred. Emily Howell.

We walked up and up. I guess truthfully I was more moseying. My pace is much slower than everyone else in the group, it seems. On the way we saw some horses and more impressive properties. The sun was beginning to go down, and everything looked even more beautiful in the warm orange light. School must have let out at some point during this time, because on this leg of the journey, we ran into a couple of groups of young boys in school uniforms. I must say the kids in Ireland have been extra-cute. We asked them which way to the cliffs to make sure we were still on the right track and hadn’t somehow managed to intrude on another innocent person’s property. They said we were headed in the right direction, and asked us where we were from.

“America, eh?” one said in jest. “Hot dogs on every corner!!” We laughed at his weirdly truthful assessment of our homeland and continued. They called back to us, “He’s from America too!” gesturing towards a boy in the back of the group. We asked where in America as a small, very blonde boy came out of the crowd to wave. “I’m from San Franciscooo!” he called to us, smiling and waving.

We made it to the cliffs, greeted by greeted by some Irish hooligans, rolling around on bikes and blaring American rap music in the parking lot where people can park their cars and hike along the trails carved out along the cliffs. The irony of the juxtaposition of the ugly music with the beautiful scene was not lost on me.

We pushed forward, alternatively stopping to snap pictures and just to sit down and take it all in. Pictures or words really can’t quite capture the beauty of this moment. Andrew pointed out the the fog and the colors of the sea and sky were such that you could hardly distinguish the water from the air on the horizon. The grass along the sides of the cliff was so green, and sprinkled with bright yellow flowers. Below, I could see the blue waters crashing white against the rocky shore. The air smelled so clean and it was quiet.

We walked and stopped and walked and stopped, intermittently chirping variations of “This is incredible.” Meanwhile it was getting a little darker and a lot colder. We went a little off course through a patch of thorny branches and ventured very close to the edge. We threw rocks over the sides of the cliffs and I immediately was reminded of my fear of heights and had to cover my eyes when my friends took a photo with their backs facing the edge.

As we made our way to where we entered the trail, the sun was just setting. We all walked, silently affected by what we had seen, towards dinner. We had been advised before we left that the best fish and chips could be found at a restaurant called The Bloody Stream (unfortunate, I know). So, we all squeezed at a table and feasted on the hot, fried goodness before heading back to the city.

Three Irish perspectives on travel

Something I’ve noticed is that, in general, Irish people are very well traveled. And they like to talk about it. As such, I’ve gotten some interesting pieces of advice about travel from people I’ve met here so far.

1. Pavel, adviser in DIT’s international office: Pavel actually decided to permanently move to Ireland because of an exchange program he did when he was in school (like the one I’m in now). He said ever since then, he was never satisfied staying in one place. He has since married a woman from France, and they live here with their two boys and one more on the way. Before they get too much older, he said, he wants to move some place else. It’s time to move on, he told us with a faraway look in his eyes. You are going to always have this urge to see more, he said. Pavel has a lot of friends that stayed behind in his native Prague, and they don’t understand his desire to just keep moving. His story reminded me how life changing these kinds of experiences can be.

2. Michael, DIT professor: Michael is a professor of mine at DIT. When we met, he told Taylor and I to look on discount travel websites like Ryanair, where prices to European destinations are often below 20 Euros, and to just buy the cheapest ticket, even if it’s someplace we’ve never heard of.

3. Richard, DIT professor: In the introduction to his Studies in Documentary class, Richard ran through a brief history of documentaries as we know them. Early documentaries showed brief snippets of places far away. In time when people were rarely able to make it even to the next town over in their lifetimes, these pictures were undoubtedly amazing. Obviously in the modern world, such pictures wouldn’t have quite the same effect. We have Rick Steves, Planet Earth and National Geographic that make it their jobs to show audiences what it’s like in every corner of the earth. Paris, New York and Beijing are recreated for us daily in newscasts, guidebooks and movies. Diminished is the sense of surprise and adventure that once accompanied world travelers. We have, in a sense, seen the places we travel to well before we even get there. So, Richard’s advice to us was to go places without guidebooks or maps in attempt to fight this phenomenon. That feeling of adventure and exploring is one to seek out and treasure.

out&about

Despite my constant struggle against jetlag and a tragic lack of coffee, I’ve found time for plenty of excitement. Here are the highlights:

The Cake Cafe

A favorite so far was our visit to The Cake Cafe. If you aren’t already sold by the name, I’ll describe further. The cafe is hidden slightly off of the bustling Camden Street. It seems you need to be “in the know” to even find it, for you have to walk through an adorable stationary store to even reach the storefront. We aren’t in the know at all, but luckily our friends have an amazing adviser whose wisdom they share. The cafe is in a little alleyway that is decorated as if it is to be used as the backdrop of an Anthropologie catalog. Mosaics and vines line the walls of the outside sitting area which is partially covered by a wooden overhang. We pretty much all ordered eggs and soldiers, which was a serving of baked eggs with buttered toast on the side, and the food couldn’t have tasted any better to us, who had been craving breakfast food for days. I only regret not being able to taste their vegetarian version of beans on toast, which is apparently a common dish in Ireland and something that my sister, Erica, actually eats sometimes at home in America. Who would’ve thunk.


Tradfest

Last night, fueled by that delicious brunch, we decided to head to the Temple Bar area for Tradfest. This was a days-long festival of “Trad” or traditional Irish music. The idea was that there would be bands playing live traditional Irish music in the pubs throughout the area, and people could pub hop at their leisure and hear a selection. That’s not really how it ended up, though. The pubs were all jam-packed it seemed, and we could barely squeeze our six-person group through to order drinks let alone find a place to park and comfortably listen to the music. Oh, well. Here’s us having our drinks in the one place we could fit: an alley out back.

Toni’s Diner

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can’t resist a good diner. So, I was thrilled to find this one, so close to where I live and go to school. Toni’s specialties are interesting takes on fries. I tried the curry cheese fries. Another of us tried taco fries. All delicious and not nutritious at all. Oh, and the funniest part? A huge picture of Barack Obama hanging up high on the wall right of the menu. This place is way too temptingly close to us and to a bunch of pubs and other late-night attractions. We’ve already gone twice…

Griffith College party

Taylor and I are living in the student residences for a school called Griffith College, even though, oddly enough, we aren’t actually Griffith students (we will attend Dublin Institute of Technology). This didn’t stop us from going to an event organized by the school. All of the international students went as a massive group to a bar down the street, then migrated to a club a little further away. Americans are definitely a small portion of the population around here—the students seem predominantly French, with some Germans thrown in. Here are a couple of photos from the night:

Funny words

Part of the fun for me is learning how people here say things differently. Here, an elevator is a lift. Craic (pronounced “crack”) is not a drug, but rather how people refer to a good time, or someone who is fun to be around. For some reason my favorite so far is how people here say “em” rather than “um.” Don’t know why, but that tickles me.