Tuesday, November 30, 2010

County Wicklow, Ireland's Lovely Garden

On the Sunday of the weekend I was in Dublin last, I headed south into the countryside on a tour I’d wanted to do back in August and was determined not to miss out on. Naturally, it was grey and wet and raining that day.

The first stop was Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains.* Glendalough means something like “the place of the two lakes,” which is nice, but the reason it’s famous and I wanted to go there is that there’s medieval abbey with a round tower and multiple ruined churches. You’d think I would be tired of these places by now, but not quite. The bus driver dropped us off a kilometer or so up the road and said he’d pick us up at the church site about an hour later, so there was a nice walk through the wet woods in addition to exploring the ruins. It started POURING halfway through, but I didn’t really mind. It was lovely.

We then drove through the mountains along the “Braveheart road,” where a lot of scenes from that were filmed. I couldn’t really take pictures through the bus windows in the rain, which was unfortunate. It did, however, really make me want to watch Braveheart.

After leaving the hills (and possibly Wicklow--I don't remember what county this is in), we came to Brownshill Dolmen, which is a portal tomb and has the biggest capstone of any portal tomb in Europe. It’s massive. It weighs something like 100-150 tons (they guess). That was cool to see, and was actually the reason I booked this particular tour, because none of the half dozen others to Glendalough and Kilkenny stop there, but it’s never been excavated, so there’s not really much to learn about it because nobody really knows anything about it. Other than that it’s monstrous. The setting doesn’t hurt, either—the area it’s in is ridiculously flat (like, northeast Ohio-caliber flat), which makes a giant, unnatural rock formation really stand out.

We spent the afternoon in the city of Kilkenny, which is filled with medieval buildings, most of which are churches or monasteries and most of which I didn’t actually see.

I was somewhat disappointed, because despite being on a “tour,” we didn’t tour Kilkenny so much as get taken there and told where to meet the bus in three hours. I’m not sure that visiting the dolmen was worth not going on tour that might actually have been organized, or not just figuring out how to get to places myself on my own time.

At any rate, I visited Kilkenny Castle, which is enormous and would be right at home in the Loire Valley, I think. I paid the nominal fee** for a self-guided tour, which in theory should have taken about an hour and took me about twenty minutes. The reason for this is that while the castle has been fully restored and is indeed beautiful, it’s been restored to what it looked like in about the 17th and 18th centuries, which is a little late for my interests as far as castles are concerned. Back in high school I found the Palace of Versailles to be somewhat dull for the same reason. I’m aware that that’s blasphemous.

Anyhow, I saw it, and then I had almost two hours to kill. The tourism office was closed because it was a Sunday, so I had no maps or information other than a sign here and there around town. For a little while I just walked around aimlessly, in search of an inexpensive lunch (know what else is closed on Sundays? Most cafés) and feeling frustrated and annoyed with my choice of a day tour. About the time I started actually seeking out medieval buildings and realizing how close together everything was (more so than it looked on the map sign), I had to rush to get back to the bus. Other things that were closed that day included a medieval house museum and gardens (I’ve never been in a medieval townhouse!) and the round tower at the cathedral (the first one I’ve seen in a city, and also the first I’ve seen that one is allowed to climb… but no).

So, I’d call that day a partial success. Glendalough was beautiful and I’m so glad I went. Kilkenny was kind of a bust. If I ever get another chance, I will definitely be doing that differently.

* Not really mountains, apparently. Actually, I learned that, technically speaking, most of the “mountains” in Ireland aren’t high enough to be officially called mountains. Could have fooled me.
** Student discounts abound. Sometimes they’re not great—-a euro or two off—-and there’s at least one bus route I know of where it’s actually cheaper to buy an adult day-return ticket than a student return ticket. Go figure. But other times, student prices are like half the regular price, or even less. This was one of those

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dublin's Fair City

Disclaimer: I wrote this last night but was unable to connect to the internet until today. I am far too lazy to go back and correct all of the "todays" and "tomorrows" and "yesterdays," so figure it out yourselves.

All right, Dublin. You’re just as ugly and crowded and generally unpleasant as I remembered, and I’m still going to mock and criticize you as much as any Irish person, but the truth is I don’t hate you as much as I pretend I do. You were the first piece of Ireland I saw, and we got to know each other pretty well those first days when I was totally lost and alone and nervous about what was going to happen once I left. In some ways I still feel like I know you better than I know Cork, despite the fact that I still seem to have that directional dyslexia.

Of course, setting is everything. Today was a beautiful day, bright and sunny and not very cold. And my hostel? Awesome. I’m staying across the river this time, right next to Trinity College and Temple Bar. There’s a great pub next door and another across the street, and a Luas* stop on the same line as the train station not five minutes away. The hostel itself is bright and clean and plastered with posters and fliers about discounts and fun activities, and my room has windows and an actual shower instead of just a drain in the bathroom floor. And I have a locker that can actually be locked! And breakfast includes pancakes on Sundays, which I’m going to miss, but still. When the first hostel I stayed in was less than fantastic, I shrugged and thought, You get what you pay for. Every hostel experience since then, and especially this one that’s also in busy central Dublin and only slightly more expensive, has suggested I chose poorly (both from the outset and by not leaving once I saw it). Well, live and learn.

Another perk, which is mostly just mocking me but is nice nonetheless: The kitchen/common room area is filled with oranges. Big plastic bowls of oranges on almost every table in the room. NOT FAIR.**

Dublin is gearing up for Christmas. There are decorations and displays in all the stores and lights over Grafton Street. It’s a little weird, so early and so warm, but I may not see this place again before I go home, other than on the way to the airport, so I’m enjoying it while I can.

The plan: museums tomorrow and yet another bus tour on Sunday, to Glendalough and Kilkenny.

I really like trains. It’s a different perspective, somehow. I’m kind of miffed that my ticket was as expensive as it was, and I’m a little annoyed with myself for my insistence on booking a ticket that wouldn’t require me to miss any classes (Leaving Dublin at 8 a.m.?! Really?!), but it’s just so much nicer than taking a bus, even though I don’t really have a specific reason why.

In other news, a very strange thing happened yesterday. The older man sitting next to me in my Vikings In Ireland And Britain lecture turned to me and struck up a conversation while we were waiting for class to start (this in itself is unusual) and after a brief exchange he said, “You’re not from these shores, are you?” I said no, I’m American, and he asked what part of America. I said Pennsylvania and he nodded knowingly and I thought nothing of any of it because I’ve had this conversation eighty times.

And then he said, “Pennsylvania… Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton.”

I was so astonished*** I think my mouth literally dropped open, and I have no idea what he was going to say next because I was already exclaiming, “I’m from Bethlehem! How do you know it?”

Come to find out, he lived in the LV for a few years back in the 60s. Small. Freaking. World.

Also come to find out, he’s not actually a student. He just sits in on classes that interest him, with permission from the lecturer but apparently totally off the record. And he takes notes anyway. It’s a good way to pass the winter, he says.

I think that’s what I’ll do when I’m retired.

* Dublin’s light rail system, in case I didn’t mention it before.
** For those of you who don’t know me that well or who missed it, there’s a high probability that I am allergic to oranges, which I only discovered about a year and a half ago. I’ve made a point of trying to avoid oranges and orange juice since then, just to be safe, but for most of my life I had no such restriction and I LOVE ORANGES.
*** It’s a rare Irishman who can name Pittsburgh or Philadelphia when I mention PA, and even in the US I’m surprised/impressed/curious when someone from outside the Mid-Atlantic has heard of Allentown, let alone the whole ABE triad.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

As The Light Declines

This past Sunday I went on another archaeology field trip! You thought those posts were over, didn’t you? So did I. This was an optional trip for students taking Early Medieval and/or Viking archaeology classes, and I figured an inexpensive guided outing about Vikings was worth sacrificing a potential weekend for independent travel.

There was actually less Viking stuff involved than I thought when I signed up, but it was still interesting. We first went to Ardmore, which is a major early medieval church site overlooking the ocean. Sparing you a lesson on early Irish church sites, things that are there include, in chronological order: two ogham stones, a “shrine-chapel”* in the style of a very tiny early stone church and with an open grave in the floor that probably once held the bones of the site’s founding saint (St. Declan, if anyone cares), a really well-preserved (unless I missed or just wasn’t told something about it’s having been restored) round tower**, and a ruined Romanesque church with an interesting but badly worn frieze on the west wall.*** And of course the inevitable eighteenth and nineteenth century cemetery that’s taken over the entire site with its lopsided, haphazardly placed tombstones and built up the ground so much and so unevenly that the lintel over the original door to the shrine-chapel is almost at ground level from the outside.

After Ardmore was an early medieval ringfort, much smaller than the one at Garranes that my earlier class visited, but with an intact embankment. It still caught me off guard—we walked right past it before hopping the fence, and our teacher was standing in the entrance before I realized it was there. (Eyes-of-an-archaeologist fail.) Partly I was just not paying attention, but also, like the walls of James Fort at Kinsale, it’s so covered in vines and brambles that from the outside it just looks like a stand of shrubbery if you aren’t looking very closely. Once you spot the entrance, though, it’s painfully obvious, and inside, there’s no mistaking what it is. There’s nothing visible other than the embankment, but that’s A) still standing, and at a fairly significant height, no less, B) still surprising level, and C) almost perfectly round. I thought it was really cool. And after giving correct answers to several questions posed by the teacher, including one that was directed at me without my volunteering for it and to which I knew the answer without having ever been told before, I got to feel a little bit less unaware.

I also got a laugh out of one of the “mature students”**** when I got hung up at the fence because I’d failed to leave my purse on the bus and announced “This is why archaeologists don’t carry purses” after throwing it over the fence ahead of me.

We then moved on to Waterford city (possibly the least exciting Irish city I’ve yet been to) to see the collection of Viking artifacts at the Waterford Treasures Museum.

Said one boy in the class, after the fact: “The Waterford Treasures Museum, the foremost museum on Viking archaeology… in Waterford.”
Me: “Quite a distinction.”
Another boy: “Yeah, it’s also the worst.”

It actually wasn’t that bad. They have a pretty cool sword that was broken intentionally before being buried. And Waterford is an important area, Viking-wise; one of the most important sites in Ireland, Woodstown, is just a few kilometers away and was discovered quite recently. Also, they’re moving to a different building in the next few months, where they’ll have room to be able to display more of their collection. I think the vast amount of stuff recovered from excavation at Woodstown (despite the fact that it was only a teeny tiny percentage of the whole site) kind of overwhelmed what started out as a smallish local museum. Expanding will probably make it a bit more impressive. There are currently exactly 12 cases in the Viking exhibit right now, all quite small and several of which only contain one or two things.

Cool stuff other than the sword included a tiny weight with a face carved on it and a bird-bone flute. I think one of the most interesting things (for me to recount, anyway) was a medieval dog collar. It’s not really something you think about or expect to find in a museum, but if you look at paintings or tapestries from the Middle Ages, you do see them, especially on aristocratic hunting dogs. I laughed, though, because the label in the case said something like, “This collar may have graced the neck of an Irish wolfhound, but was more likely worn by a greyhound” because blah blah prized by the nobility blah blah blah. And I was looking at this thing thinking, prestige value be damned, has this person ever SEEN a wolfhound up close? That collar might fit around one’s leg…

Anyhow, that was that. It was a good day, although we didn’t spend as much time in Waterford as I would have liked and I’d kind of wanted to see other things. Something I did not take into account sufficiently when thinking about the timing of my travels (and how most of them should have been undertaken earlier to avoid the cold and rain) is that it gets dark really really early now—by about five, maybe a little after. (Not “sunset is underway” at five, but “the sun is a faint glow on the horizon” at five.) I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle that while in Dublin this weekend. I mean, although I do take some basic safety precautions, total avoidance of walking alone at night, especially in familiar areas, is clearly not usually one of them. But also, the last time I was in Dublin I had more than three extra hours per day in which that just wasn’t an issue.

Also… that was three months ago. Holy crap.

I think just in the last week or so almost all of the visiting students had the sudden realization of how close this is to being over.

* term apparently coined by Tomás (who taught my Early Start archaeology class), which I think is pretty significant and which I did not know until now
** I don’t care how many of these things I visit or how often they’re discussed in my classes or even how closely they’re associated specifically with church sites, I cannot see one without thinking of Rapunzel. Especially if the pointed roof is still intact.
*** The one Biblical scene, other than the Adams & Eves and Adorations of the Magi that pretty much everyone recognizes, common in medieval art that I seem to be able to consistently identify is the Judgment of Solomon. I’m not sure whether it’s a particularly obvious scene or this says something about me. I’m also good at spotting Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, so whatever the explanation, it must have something to do with babies and knives.
**** This phrase always strikes me as a somewhat non-specific way of describing students who are older than the typical college age range (more of a non-description, actually), although perhaps part of its appeal is the subtle implied insult towards traditional undergraduates.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Through Streets Wide And Narrow

When my sister and I were little, we had these travel bingo cards with various things you’d be more or less likely to see from the car window. One of the things that never failed to be almost impossible for us to mark off was the dreaded S-shaped curvy road sign, which isn’t exactly surprising considering most of our traveling involved four to six lane interstate routes across open countryside.

Well, not only is the S-shaved curve sign ubiquitous in many, if not most, parts of Ireland, they’ve got curvy road signs here in shapes I didn’t even know existed.

That’s something I had intended to mention while I was comparing striking landscapes earlier, but had forgotten about.

Some other interesting travel facts:
* There is just one bus company for almost the whole of Ireland (the Republic of, anyway). They do the city routes and the inter-city routes. The only city I’m aware of with its own separate bus system owned by someone else is Dublin. As if the agony of trying to find and navigate public transportation in America didn’t already make me weep, here is this beautiful, convenient simplicity. Of course, I realize the U.S. is far too big for this to make sense… but on the other hand, just HAVING affordable and readily-accessible-wherever-you-are buses is something of a novelty for me. I remember trying to explain to my roommate Claudia and her German friends that I’m not really used to getting around on buses because I don’t live in a huge city and realizing how absurd that sounded. I’m sure more Americans would choose public transportation over driving if it were an option outside the most urban of urban areas. I can’t even get from Oberlin to Cleveland on a bus now that LCT did away with the airport express (which never did go to Cleveland proper; you had to go to the airport and then get on a different bus); I’m not sure, but I’m betting the same is true between Selinsgrove and Harrisburg. Here, even though the numbers of people in any of those places would be much smaller, that would be unthinkable. Also, round-trip bus fare from Cork to Dublin (a four and a half hour trip) is significantly less expensive than round-trip bus fare from Bethlehem/Allentown to NYC or Philadelphia (a two and a half hour or a one and a half hour trip, respectively)—even though gasoline is far more expensive. There’s something wrong with this.

Sorry, that was more of a rant than a fact. Moving on…

* Roundabouts (a.k.a. traffic circles or rotaries, depending on what region of the States you live in) are EVERYWHERE. Outside and in between cities and towns, I don’t think there is a junction of main roads anywhere that involves a simple fork or intersection. Ireland is all roundabouts, all the time.
* One-way streets are common to the point of being excessive. I can’t imagine trying to drive here.
* I also sometimes can’t tell what’s a one-way street. I couldn’t tell you what an Irish one-way sign looks like. Maybe no such thing even exists. And the roads themselves do not always have markings on them. Highway routes and streets in the city centre make their intentions quite clear; streets in some other parts of the city, not so much. And it’s not just quiet residential streets like in some parts of my neighborhood in Bethlehem—the road UCC’s music building is on seems to be a fairly important one, and it has no markings at all.
* Pedestrian-only streets exist somewhere in almost every city or town I’ve been to that’s of any respectable size. They’re not all in medieval quarters where the streets are too narrow and/or winding for vehicle traffic, either. In fact, there are plenty of narrow streets with too much vehicle traffic. There are also narrow streets where cars can’t go, but just today I was on a pedestrian street in Waterford that was easily wide enough for two standard car lanes.
* Parking half (or more) on the sidewalk on streets where there’s technically not room for on-street parking (which is most places in the city) is commonplace. I’m not entirely sure how well it’s tolerated by people with the authority to collect fines, but drivers are clearly not deterred.

That’s all I can think of for now.

I had an “Aha!” moment this afternoon wherein I finally realized exactly what a bookmaker is and why there are so many of them. To be fair, I hadn’t exactly been pondering this, or really paying much attention to them at all, but three months is still an embarrassingly long time to be that oblivious.

I’d blame the fact that I come from a country with conservative social values, where people paradoxically prefer to make their vices more sketchy by keeping them underground, but in some other ways (drinking culture being a prime example), the norms in both Ireland and Britain are closer to those in America than to those in continental Europe.

Fortunately, I was alone when I had this little epiphany. And surely that’s better than the fact that one of my roommates, based on a fragment of conversation I overheard earlier, has somehow managed to live here for two months without realizing that “first floor” and “ground floor” are not synonymous and that we therefore do not live on the sixth floor from the ground, but the seventh floor from the ground and the sixth that is numbered. Clearly someone always heads straight for the elevator and pushes a button without paying any attention whatsoever to anything else. I’m still wondering how she hasn’t either had a ton of problems or just figured it out long before now in trying to find her way around other buildings.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where Fisherman Go When They Don't Go To Hell

Roommates. WTF. We have a weird living situation anyway because we have very little contact with each other, somehow. Claudia and I have remarked upon this before, that it’s bizarre to live in an apartment full of people who don’t really try to be friends with each other. Friendly, but not friends. Or if not friends, then at least, I don’t know, aware of each other’s existence more than just in passing. I mean, obviously there is guilt for that on everyone’s part, but it’s still weird. But also, someone (or maybe a couple of someones) apparently doesn’t think it’s necessary to clean things like pans and oven racks after using them and that pieces of food too big to fit down the sink drain will magically disappear instead of sitting there being wet and disgusting. It bugs the hell out of me. I had intended to leave a polite-but-angry note about it before leaving for the weekend and forgot, and then the other day I discovered a note from Claudia to the same effect—on top of the roasting pan that had been sitting unwashed for days and that she had finally cleaned herself even though she’d never used it, let alone last. That made me really angry, because that’s not the first time she’s taken it upon herself to clean something that shouldn’t have been her responsibility, and I left a note next to hers that was considerably less polite than it would have been before this development, saying she’s clearly a better person than me and it’s ridiculous that people can’t clean up after themselves. I also pointed out that the other oven rack, which I’d just pulled out, was ALSO dirty and someone had better wash it.

As of last night, it was clean, both notes were in the trash… and the roasting pan was back in the oven and dirty again. If it’s still like that when I go in there to make lunch today, I may kill someone.

Onwards, then, to being almost caught up. After Killary, there followed several weekends over which I didn’t go far from Cork for various reasons. In hindsight, this may have been poor planning since those were the last of my three day weekends and the last weekends over which I could get away with pretending not to have essays hanging over me, and now the weather sucks to boot. But at least I had good weather for the short trips I went on…

The first was to Kinsale, a small town on the southern coast of County Cork, about thirty or forty minutes by bus from Cork City. Seemingly everyone around me had already ventured to Kinsale back in late summer, so I was behind the times, but I’d heard all about how adorable it is, and how good the fish and chips are, and how cool the 16th century fort is. The first and second facts are true. I may never about the third, because there are in fact two 16th century forts at Kinsale, outside either end of town, facing each other across the harbour. Charles Fort has been preserved or restored or both and is open as a tourist attraction, with exhibits and tours and a trolley shuttle from the center of town so you don’t have to walk the two kilometers or so to get to it. James Fort, roughly the same distance in the opposite direction, is accessible (on foot) but in ruins. I picked that one. I had a reason for doing so at the time that I’ve now forgotten. I was planning to go back another day and visit Charles Fort as well (I could have been able to do both in one day, but I’d gotten a late start and only had the afternoon to work with.), but as I’m running out of days and the weather is getting colder and wetter I’m no longer sure I’ll manage it.

Regardless, I absolutely do not regret that decision. It was a long walk, along the highway, and part of it was a little sketchy. The path up to the fort was more sketchy. The fort itself, on a hill overlooking the harbor, was EPIC. You can’t go into the main part of the fort, but you can walk all the way around it, and there are places where you can climb onto/through/over some of the outer walls, which are pretty much totally buried and grown over. There are also some other structures, including one that almost looks like the remains of a small church and what’s left of some kind of guard tower or something on a promontory right on the harbor (we’re talking windows right above the water and water on maybe five out of eight sides) with views in almost every direction. It was late afternoon on a bright, clear day, so the light was amazing and I took an absurd number of pictures.

I spent a lot more time at the fort than I’d expected it to merit and would have stayed longer if it hadn’t been getting close to sunset with a two kilometer walk back to town. There, I ate fish and chips in the park, and took a few dozen more pictures of the harbour and its assortment of fishing boats at sunset (because the colors were awesome) and then walked around for a bit before the bus back to Cork came. I would really like to find time to go back and explore a bit more.

That Monday, since I still didn’t have classes on Mondays yet, I carpe diem-ed and took another short bus trip to Youghal, another small coastal town, this time east of Cork City. Youghal’s biggest claim to tourism, other than beach and fishing boats, is its medieval ruins. It’s one of the few places in Ireland where a substantial part of the old city wall still survives, including an interesting clock tower that’s now in the middle of town straddling a main street. There are also several old churches, a tower house (which is interesting because these tend to be countryside phenomena; urban ones exist but are relatively unusual), and an assortment of other old buildings, many of which have been renovated over the centuries and are still in use. I think my favorite is the friary-turned-pizza-restaurant. There’s a well-marked historic walk around the town with information about a lot of the different things to see, and although it didn’t quite live up to my enthusiasm, it was still pretty cool. I don’t think I could ever get tired of being able to walk down a modern street and pick out medieval doorways or parts of medieval walls just hanging out alongside more recent additions to the same buildings. Everything changes; things never change—in some places, those phrases aren’t contradictory at all.

The only other significant adventure I can remember from October was the weekend after my explorations of Cork’s historic fishing villages, when I and four other girls got up on Saturday morning and went to Midleton, home of the Jameson Whiskey Distillery. I guess I don’t have anything in particular to say about that; I like history, I like drinking, and I like to do touristy things with fun people, so where could it have gone wrong? One could argue that before lunch is a bit early in the day to take a tour that ends with free alcohol, but hey. It’s not like we college kids were the only ones.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Rattled O'er The Bogs

Backing up again… The weekend following my trip to Killarney was the first of two trips that IFSA-Butler organizes for its students in Ireland each semester: Two days at the Killary Adventure Centre in Connemara.

Killary is located in the middle of nowhere (again!) next to Ireland’s only fjord. Who knew Ireland had any fjords?

Connemara was breathtaking. Mountains and bogs and scrub and the ubiquitous sheep. Instead of green, it is mostly shades of brown and orange. I loved the Burren, and I loved Kerry, and after Connemara I had to resign myself to having three favorite parts of Ireland. (Observe: They are all in the west and near the coast.)

I tried for a while to think of how I’d describe each of them if I had to choose just two words and wanted to really describe them instead of using vague terms like wild and beautiful and stunning. I still think of the Burren the way I first described it, in words like “stark” and “desolate,” but at the same time I feel like there needs to be some kind of qualifier or disclaimer to keep those words from making it sound sad or unappealing. Perhaps “haunting” instead of “desolate.” I’m not sure that’s any better.

Kerry is harder because it’s so varied. I like “lush.” I also like “dramatic,” but that doesn’t do a very good job of differentiating it from the other two. “Vivid.” “Sweeping.” I’ll have to ponder this a while longer.

For Connemara, I choose “vast” and “rugged” without question.

Anyway, so the way the Adventure Centre works is that you sign up for any of an assortment of outdoor activities, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We were there for a day and a half, so we had time for three activities. Nearly all of these activities involve getting wet, getting muddy, climbing and/or jumping from things that are really high up, or some combination of the above. As I’ve already discussed, heights, and specifically exposed heights, are NOT my thing. Water and dirt are less problematic, but since it was October on the west coast of Ireland and was beginning to get genuinely cold (and was absurdly and apparently abnormally windy on that particular weekend), I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about those either.

That left three things about which I was enthusiastic: hill walking (which as far as I can tell is just an awkward way to say hiking), archery, and clay pigeon shooting.

Well, hill walking didn’t happen, because I signed up for a combined archery/shooting session first because I was determined not to miss out, but then it turned out that that was a possibility Saturday morning and afternoon and Sunday morning, whereas hill walking only showed up on the sign-up board on Saturday morning. (We signed up for things one at a time, so I could not have seen this until it was too late.) That left me with a dilemma on Saturday afternoon, and an even bigger one on Sunday morning. For the first, I was forced to resort to zip lining. Oh lord. And for the second, “ringo,” which is apparently what the Irish call tubing. Not lazy river tubing, either. Dragged-behind-a-speedboat-hanging-on-for-dear-life tubing. So much for not getting wet. In summer, I think it would have been really fun. As it was, cold and grey and me with a cold and kind of done with the whole weekend at that point anyway, I really really really wanted to not wind up in the water (which everyone else did at some point). I was successful in that on my first turn, and refused to take my second so as not to take any chances.

Fun fact: When firing a shotgun, you sight with one eye—the eye that’s on the same side of your body as the gun. For most people, this is presumably not a problem because their dominant eyes and dominant hands are on the same side. It does, however, become a problem if you’re, say, unambiguously right-handed but basically half blind in your right eye.

Translation: I have to shoot left-handed. I’m not sure why I didn’t foresee this, but I didn’t. And it took me a while to convince the guy in charge that no, really, I physically cannot close my left eye independently of my right eye. My body is too smart/thoroughly adapted for that. And since chances are I wouldn’t see the stupid pigeons if I managed it, anyway, there’s not much point.*

Now, since I’d never held a gun before, there’s probably an argument to be made that it would have felt awkward no matter what. I’m inclined to think it would have been far less awkward if it hadn’t gone against every instinct I have. I can imagine holding it right-handed and I’m reasonably confident I could translate that into reality with minimal strangeness. Left-handed, everything seems backwards. I literally had to think about every move I made.

Of course, the other problem was that I had assumed “clay pigeon shooting” would involve stationary objects, maybe lined up on a fence or something. In fact, the clay pigeons are launched into the air, and you’re supposed to hit them in flight. Yeah, right. I got 1 out of 25.

Archery went much better. The targets are closer, and more importantly, they don’t move. And nobody ever taught me to shoot a bow with one eye closed; I do it right-handed and use both eyes, and that seems to work just fine. (Then again, that’s how I throw darts, too, and I have zero skill at that.) I’m tempted to go shooting again at some point and try that the same way and just see what happens. If I still embarrass myself, well, I like archery better anyway.

After the fun of the morning, the zip line was decidedly not how I would have chosen to spend my afternoon if I’d really felt I had a choice. However, everything else was equally or even more out of the question (unless I just signed up for archery and clay pigeon shooting again, and don’t think I didn’t consider it). I figured, I don’t have to DO anything to go zip lining; I just have to hang there in my harness and survive, and it’ll be over quickly. So I went. I was one of the last to go, so I got to dread it for probably a good forty minutes or so of watching other people fly past over my head. Then I discovered the second thing of the day that I should have foreseen but didn’t, namely, that you don’t just get launched from the top of the hill. You have to climb up a sketchy wooden tower first, and stand there for an agonizing five or ten minutes while they hook up all the ropes and explain how to let yourself down when it’s over. By “climb,” I don’t mean a ladder; I mean there’s a series of what looked like enormous staples in one of the corner posts, and it’s a little like rock climbing, except your harness isn’t attached to anything yet. And by “stand there,” I mean on a crate. Yes. Let’s take someone who shakes and cries in high places and not only stand them on the edge of a twenty-foot drop knowing they’ll have to step off it any minute, but bump them up an extra foot and ask them to balance on a much smaller surface. Did I mention that it was absurdly, abnormally windy that day? Fun times.

Oh well. At least it was indeed over quickly once the standing around part was finished.

In a nutshell: Adventure Weekend could have been more fun… but it also could have been a lot less fun. I was glad I went, even if I fail at shooting clay pigeons and the weather was too dismal for me to enjoy being on the water. The second IFSA-Butler trip is coming up two weeks from now: Thanksgiving weekend (presumably so the Americans don’t spend that weekend sitting around feeling sorry for themselves while their families are all together across the ocean) in Northern Ireland. We’re going to spend all of Thanksgiving Day on a bus, probably in the rain, and they are going to try to give us a Thanksgiving dinner when we arrive in Belfast. Cute, but I’m curious to see the Irish take on an American holiday feast. If nothing else, it’s bound to be better than my sister’s Thanksgiving in Hawaii four years ago when the caterers apparently didn’t believe in vegetarians.

* Before anyone starts feeling smug: sure, I could have if I’d been wearing my glasses, but even with glasses I still can’t close just my left eye, so it’s a moot point.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In A Strange But Happy Land

In the interest of not falling farther behind, I’m going to write about this weekend before working on the backlog of updates from the past month. Apologies to the chronologically anal—I do feel your pain.

I believe I’ve already mentioned the awesomeness that is the UCC Medieval and Renaissance Society, so if you missed it, go back to around the end of September to catch up. I missed a few weekly meetings/training sessions after that first one, but I think I’ve managed to go about half the time and it’s always a good evening. The spear and I are not a very good team, but I am uncoordinated, slow to process visual cues, and pretty damn small, so I don’t think anybody should be very surprised about that, myself included. It bugs me, but no one makes a fuss about it. I know that sometimes the guys with a couple of years of experience go easy on me during training to sort of let me [try in vain to] figure things out, but there is no such mercy when we play games, so I don’t feel like an object of pity.

This past weekend, the society booked out a hostel in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, County Tipperary and nine of us spent the weekend holed up in the woods with an experienced reenactor who worked with us on spear and then on dagger. The experienced also got some sword and shield training time, and those of us who are beginners got a few minutes of very basic sword instruction, too.

I was absurdly excited for daggers, partly because it’s cooler than spear fighting and partly because I had a suspicion/hope that dagger might go better for me because it’s considerably less unwieldy than a spear. I’m not sure I’m any better at it, but it was really fun. I definitely felt like my size was somewhat less of a disadvantage—I can at least name both pros and cons to being small and using a dagger. Using a spear… mostly cons. Using both was just problematic: If the dagger is in your belt, it’s hard to get to it fast enough while you’re still learning how to react to things, but keeping it my hand like everyone else was even worse. I could probably do it with my own dagger back home, but we were using big clunky wooden practice daggers that had handles as big around as the spears, and I could barely get my hand around both at the same time, let alone find a good enough grip to handle the spear effectively.

I do think one of the biggest things I took away from this weekend is that I just wasn’t made for hand-to-hand combat. I could have the best reflexes in the world and fantastic hand-eye coordination and I’d still be 5’1” and not strong enough to get out of a contest of force. Or, alternatively, I could be tall and muscular and still be slow and clumsy. There are just too many things to fix that are out of my control.

I am very much looking forward to archery this weekend. I really like archery, and I think it’s partly because I’m not at the same automatic disadvantage.

It was pointed out to me a couple of times that being closer to the ground does have its advantages. And that if I ever do get to be pretty good at something, I'll have the element of surprise in that my opponent won't expect it of me.*

Anyway, it was a lot of fun even if I kind of suck. And the place we were staying was completely awesome. When I said it was the middle of nowhere, I was absolutely not exaggerating. There’s a sign at the place where you turn off the main road, and then a long, narrow, bumpy road through the woods to the actual hostel. It felt like it took half an hour. So when I say we were out in the woods, I mean it. Utterly surrounded by trees, no signs of civilization. There are deer nearby, and a random lone chicken in the yard.** The owners of the hostel do not stay there, nor is there any staff; they live somewhere else on the property and come up in the late afternoon to light the fires, and if you need anything else you have to call them. Yes, I did say “light the fires”—I think supposedly there is some sort of heating, but I never noticed it. It was quite cold. We stayed near the coal stove in the dining room or the fireplace in the sitting room whenever we weren’t in the kitchen. There is no electricity to speak of; there are lights in the rooms but they run on batteries. The ovens and stoves are all gas, and the refrigerators are somehow also powered by gas, which I’ve never even heard of being done before.

When we went to bed the first night, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. The four girls (two Irish, one German, and me) shared a room, and the Irish girls (or rather, their disembodied voices in the dark) were gushing about the darkness and how they’ve been in the city too long. And I was like, well… I grew up in the city. I was amazed at how many stars there are when I moved to a small rural town for college. I don’t think I experienced total darkness until I was an adult, and frankly I still don’t like it very much. I like to leave my window shades cracked to let in light from the street. I don’t think I minded the dark that much in the jungle, but the jungle is never silent in the same way as the Irish countryside.

Speaking of stars, there was a clear enough sky on Saturday night that we could see them. And oh my. I saw constellations I’ve never even seen in Ohio.

Anyhow, it was remote and rustic and altogether a perfect setting for us. We all loved it. I think they are going to try to go back to the same place for training weekend next year.

We stopped at a discount grocery store on the way up to the hostel and all chipped in and agreed on what food to buy for the weekend. We were able to eat A LOT quite cheaply, and it was really really nice to cook real meals with other people. It was a little like being in a co-op. Or like living with Meredith and Thalia and Matt, whom I already missed before being reminded of how much I love “family” meals.

On Sunday, two of the other girls and I had planned to get up early and go explore the woods before training, but after a marathon zombie board game the night before that kept everyone involved and two of us who were invested in watching up until two, everyone overslept and there wasn’t even going to be as much time for training as we’d hoped. We ended up skipping training and going exploring anyway. It was very pretty—it was a cold, grey, classic-November morning and the woods are mostly pine forest where everything is covered in moss and you can totally understand how Ireland came to be the land of fairies. I am not a fan of autumn or winter in their own right, but I do love the woods this time of year.

It still catches me off guard that it’s ok here to wander off the road or the path and just dive right into the woods. But… there are no snakes. No bears. No large carnivores, or large animals at all other than deer. Ireland’s great outdoors is so very safe. All you have to do is watch you don’t stray into the Otherworld. ☺

We found a deer skeleton. Smooth white bones, totally clean, half buried in a bed of pine needles. I didn’t want to move it or try too hard to dig out what I couldn’t see, but everything I could see was roughly where it should have been. I don’t think it had been moved or dismantled at all. I pointed out what the different bones were to the other two. It was seriously cool. Totally made missing out on more spear time worth it for me.

Sunday afternoon before coming back to Cork, we visited nearby Cahir Castle, which is very large and was expanded and remodeled a lot over the centuries. It’s apparently one of the best preserved castles in Ireland, and was very different from most of the others I’ve seen in terms of layout and design (presumably because it was occupied for something like 600 years, which is ridiculous, and changed so much over that time). So that was cool. And a really fun thing to do with people with whom you spend a lot of time playing with medieval weaponry.

Something else that’s a fun thing to do with those people is watch the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven (which it turns out is exponentially better/more interesting/more cohesive that the cinema version that so disappointed me when it was first released), which is what I did last night instead of going to my history class. Hey, I think I’m allowed to absent myself one time—and it was even historical.

On a somewhat irrelevant note, I utterly failed to come up with a really good song-line title for this post, which kind of puzzles and irritates me. Why do I not know any songs about battles and castles and green Irish woods?

* He meant well. But it’s probably fortunate I am not easily insulted about stuff like this.
** We discovered this on Saturday morning, and he became a sort of mascot. At least I think it was a he, based on the impressive spurs. It had no tail or comb to speak of and I never heard it crow, but one look at its feet and I was not much inclined to try to catch it. Spurs or no spurs, we never did figure out how it avoids getting eaten in the night.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Along The Enchanted Way[s]

I used the same song twice in a row again. Oops.

It is [past] time for another belated update: my solo trip to Killarney almost a month ago.

Well, as I mentioned at the time, I had planned to enter tourist mode and go on two bus tours, one of the Ring of Kerry and one of the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle was first, and best. It was not a promising beginning: It was a grey, drizzly morning with clouds hanging low enough to suggest they weren’t going anywhere, and our departure was delayed by several late arrivals, much to my annoyance. But, Ireland never stays at its worst for long and the rain and clouds did clear up fairly early in the day, and once we were underway our driver proved to be entertaining as well as knowledgeable. He kept up a fairly steady stream of commentary all day, filling in jokes and stories where there wasn’t much to say about our surroundings.*

Our stops included a famous beach, Inch Strand, several scenic overlooks with spectacular views of Dingle Bay and cliffs and the Blasket Islands, the town of Dingle itself, and, most exciting to me, the Gallarus Oratory, an early medieval stone church that the guide claimed is the oldest surviving church in Ireland. I’m not positive that’s true, but it’s highly possible. I suspect it’s the oldest intact church, at the very least. It was beautiful. I don’t know if you’ll believe me when you see the pictures, but trust me.

Dingle, which is where a lot of movies set in Ireland have been filmed, is stunningly green, full of sheep and wide open fields and rolling hills. It also has some pretty dramatic changes in elevation and some roads that A) are exceedingly narrow and on cliffs next to the ocean and B) would rival Arizona’s mountain highways for hair-raising curves. It’s gorgeous, though.

The Ring of Kerry is also gorgeous, and very similar but surprisingly different at the same time. Still lots of green, but a lot of not-so-green, too. I think [I can’t remember the name of the peninsula the Ring of Kerry loops around…] has more mountainous terrain than Dingle, despite Dingle’s rather impressive cliffs. More of it seemed remote and rugged. That could be a flaw in my memory, considering how long ago this was now, but I know for a fact that the last stretch of the Ring is along the MacGillicuddy Reeks and through Killarney National Park and involves several truly stunning vantage points at elevations that are not to be sneezed at, shall we say. There were a lot of scenic stops along the Ring of Kerry, some on the coast and some in the mountains and at least one that was both (and also includes an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary). We also stopped in a couple of cute little towns, one of which is apparently where Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier spent their honeymoon (why, I don’t know and can’t imagine). Our first two stops for the day, though, were super-touristy (not that the whole tour wasn’t) cultural attractions. The tour price did not include admission to either of them, which irked me, but I decided to assume they were worth five euros apiece. The first was another of those folk parks, the Kerry Bog Village. More 19th century cottage reconstructions: marginally interesting. More wolfhounds: better. TINY FUZZY PONIES: totally worth it. The next was a border collie demonstration from a guy who is apparently a world champion in sheepdog trials and trains really fantastic dogs. This one I really almost didn’t do, since I grew up going to Celtic Classic and watching sheepdogs every year of my childhood, but there was nothing else nearby and I really do love watching the dogs work, so I grudgingly paid my five euros and joined the group. And I’m glad I did, actually. He had some really weird exotic sheep and the dogs were amazing and this was in one of the areas where everything is uphill and people raise sheep because that’s all the land is good for, so the demonstration was basically on a more or less vertical slope that made for easy viewing and some really great pictures.

All in all, I think the Ring of Kerry was a fuller day than Dingle, even though we weren’t gone any longer, but even though it was exciting and beautiful, I think I preferred Dingle. I think people who had already done the Ring of Kerry played it up too much for it to live up to my expectations, especially since I’d seen the beauty of Dingle just the day before. I think it would be hard to argue that either trip isn’t touristy, but Dingle definitely had more of a “hidden Ireland” sort of feel to it. I don’t know if any of it was actually more remote or off the beaten path than parts of the Ring of Kerry, but it felt like it. I think the drivers/tour guides also made a difference: Ring of Kerry guy was far less chatty and not as interesting when he did talk as Dingle guy, who as I mentioned before was hyper-engaged. And there again I think experiencing the one before the other hurt the second.

Both nights after my bus returned I wandered around Killarney a bit, exploring and souvenir shopping, and both nights I found a nice pub with music and had dinner at the bar. There was a great band at the one I went to on Saturday, who I think was originally from Cork, and I didn’t want to leave. Sunday was less awesome music-wise, more like a typical trad session, but still good, and the Irish stew was well worth the expense of eating out here.

Monday morning I (along with a couple on vacation from Georgia who were on their way to Cork next, making me an awkward human travel guide) went horseback riding in Killarney National Park. It was awesome. I rode a bay pony named Diamond who was less than enthusiastic, but didn’t give me too much of a hard time even though I’d never ridden English style before and had not a clue what I was doing (and I’m not exactly an expert rider in the first place). It was another drizzly morning, but never more than a drizzle, often through sunshine, and we saw two or three rainbows in the two hours we were out. We also saw a herd of deer and my first-ever pheasant. The park is lovely, although admittedly I spent more time thinking about my horse and the mechanics of riding than about the scenery. That was okay, though. And I think maybe I prefer English to Western now that I’ve tried both. The English saddle is less comfortable, but as I predicted the stirrup position feels more natural to me and my short legs. I have a very hard time keeping my heels down in a Western saddle, not to mention keeping my feet in place if I get jostled (which I do, because I’ve never figured out how to post and probably never will until I manage to find time for riding lessons). And I like having both hands on the reins, although on the other hand I’m a lot more comfortable with the way one uses the reins in Western riding. The guide keeping up the rear of our little group told me I could shorten the reins about a dozen times that morning.

So now that I’ve bored the heck out of everyone who doesn’t ride with that little comparison, that’s the end of my Killarney adventure. I didn’t want to leave, and I had wanted to go back up before now and explore the Park some on foot, but that didn’t happen. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance now or not.

* The best of these that I remember was a story of uncertain factuality about this trio of robbers/highwaymen/outlaws of some sort or another (I missed the beginning of this story, so I don’t have the details) that are on the run and end up hiding out up in the hills somewhere with two sheepherders who “were very good friends… if you get what I’m saying.” After a while the outlaws get too comfortable and start using their real names, and the shepherds figure out who they are and tie them up in their sleep and hand them over to the law. And, said our driver/guide, if there’s truth in that story, “it must be the only time in history that two queens have beaten three jacks.”