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Friday, July 9, 2010

Third Week at NUIG

This week at NUIG, we had guest speakers Paula Meechan Reading and Theo Dorgan. Both were very interesting writers and stressed the importance of knowing the history of a word to draw on its many layers of meanings. Then we watched a documentary about Nobel Prize winning Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney.

I think it was Sunday night that I dropped a heavy jar onto my laptop's keyboard and fried the hard drive. It was in the repair shop for several days installing a new hard drive and getting it all up and running, along with attempting to save most of the data off of the old hard drive to transfer over to it.

So, the good news is that I have my computer back. The bad news is that I've lost a lot of stuff and I'm behind on my homework. And I know what you're thinking. Part of my homework is to keep a journal. A rose is a rose and all that junk.

We went to town one evening after classes to shop and decided to eat at the Couch Potatas. The potatoes are slow baked in the oven and all of their ingredients are fresh. The service and prices were very reasonable. In our group of four we have one vegetarian and one vegan. It's sometimes hard to find a restaurant for all of our needs, but this one fits the bill nicely.

I had a warm chicken salad. It came with brown bread or a potato, and I chose the potato and ordered a side of sour cream and chives to go with it. The other sauce came with it and was a cucumber dipping sauce.

For dessert I had the strawberry lumpy bumpy. It was a layer of crust, cheesecake, ice cream and white chocolate, with a side of real whipped cream. OMG, it was amazing. Dessert and tea or coffee was only $5 Euro. Molly ordered the caramel lumpy bumpy which was the same thing in caramel and delicious, but extremely sweet. Erin ordered another dessert that I've forgotten the name of, but it was also very good. Alas, they did not have any vegan desserts for the other Molly, so she was left out.

The Galway Film Fleadh is in town and I've been attending a few indie films. I saw the animated film The Illusionist which was very sweet, then a drama London River which was about the London bombings a few years back, then a Leonard Cohen documentary about the Isle of Wight concert which was very interesting. I got home just after midnight.

The next day I saw Nothing Personal which was very interesting and funny and then The Disappearance of Alice Creed. I rate Disappearance top notch. It's gritty, but extremely entertaining and one of the best indie films I've ever seen!

Today Katelyn and I explored and shopped a bit. We ate at the Amnesty International Shop and Cafe.

Where we had the vegetable soup and brown bread for only $3.95 Euro. It is one of the best vegetable soups I've had in Ireland thus far and the shop is filled with a lot of fair trade gifts to browse.

I had a little more than an hour before I had to get down to the boat dock to take the river tour of Galway on the Coiribe and we made our way slowly in that general direction. While we were outside of Enable Ireland thrift store, I looked at my watch and realized that I had missed my boat! I mean, I hadn't bought a ticket yet, but I was really planning on going. Oh, well! At that point we stopped in the nearest pub and had a cider, then headed homeward.

On the way, we stumbled upon the house of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's wife. She was also the inspiration for one of the greatest short stories, The Dead.

After that, we had planned on going to more indie movies, but we're leaving for the island of Inishbofin in the morning and I still have laundry to do and packing, etc. So, there will be more to report and more pictures in a few days!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Second Week at NUIG

The second week of classes we're getting into a routine. We're trying to stick with our homework during the week, and plan on exploring on the weekends, with some exceptions for special events. Most of our jet lag is gone and it's just a matter of getting used to the sun coming up at around 4:30AM and setting at close to 11PM. Our day usually consists of at least a short nap somewhere. We can't seem to help ourselves.

This week we had talks and readings by Dermot Healy and Kerry Hardie. They were both delightful in their own way. I bought Kerry's book of fiction called The Bird Woman and she signed it. I also bought Louie de Paor's book of poetry called Clapping in the Cemetery and Mary O'Donoghue's book of fiction called Before the House Burns.

The folks at NUIG put on an Independence Day celebration for us with a bar-b-que. They had hamburgers, cole slaw, etc. (and of course the obligatory baked potato) and showed fireworks on the television sets and gave us poppers for party favors. The college bar was decorated in red, white and blue balloons. This time I had 2 wine coolers. Those of us who had bought Louie de Paor's book hit him up at the party to get his signature. We're shameless that way!

On Thursday, I went to the post office to mail off an urgent package and found out that their post offices don't offer nearly as many services as ours do. I guess they don't have as much competition or something. Anyway, in preparation for sending boxes home in the future, I went to Eason's book store (which has stationary in the upstairs) and bought some shipping boxes and packing tape. I need to investigate if the airlines will ship something back home because there appears to be a 5 kilogram weight limit. A kilogram is 2.2 lbs, so I can ship roughly 12 lbs. If I have more, I guess I'll send multiple boxes, but the airline might be cheaper. We'll see.

On Friday, I booked the Connemara tour with O'Neachtain Tours and had a blast. It was an all-day affair. These guys only charge students $15 ea (not $20) and they pick you up at your door in the morning and drop you off in the evening so that you don't have to walk or worry about a taxi. There were only seven of us on the tour that day and so they took the smaller bus, which was much more maneuverable. He stopped several times to let us out for photo opportunities, taking pictures of the Connemara ponies, waterfalls, etc.

Our tour guide and bus driver Stephen soon started referring to me as his #1 photographer because I was always the first to jump out and take pictures. He painstakingly explained to us how the farmers of Connemara dry out turf from the bogs to use for fuel. He pulled over and encouraged us to take pictures, which none of us did. He said, "What? My number 1 photographer is not interested in the number one fuel choice of Ireland?" I said, "No, maybe if you had some cute sheep I would, but not for just the turf." So we drove on and he found me some cute sheep!

As Stephen was giving us information about the Connemara region, he said, "The Connemara region is filled with eligible bachelor farmers and they're many times seen walking the roads. If you ladies are also looking for a man, this could be your lucky day. If you see one you like, we can pull over and invite him on the bus. Oh, look there's one now! Ladies, what do you say? Shall I pull over and invite him on with us? Is he a keeper?" It was an old grizzled farmer smoking a cigarette. We declined.

When we pulled over, Stephen would say, "We're stopping for 10 Irish minutes. That means I'll let you out now and I'll be back to pick you up on Tuesday!"

Stephen also kept saying that at 4PM that we'd have bus karaoke. At 4PM, he stayed true to his word and even sang us 2 Irish folk ballads to get us going. And yet still, no one would take him up on it. Ah, well.

When Stephen dropped us off at Kylemore Abbey he said that we were to meet him back at the bus at half 3 (3:30). He said that if we weren't there that he would assume that the sisters had convinced us to join the Benedictine order and were staying. We were ALL on time.

We spent 2 1/2 hours at Kylemore Abbey. Lunch was first on the agenda. I had goat cheese and sundried tomato quiche and a seafood chowder that was generously chock full of salmon and other seafood. It was among the best I've ever had.

Then it was off to tour the castle, the cathedral, I skipped the mausoleum, but I spent a lot of time in the gardens. The food raised in the gardens feeds the sisters and guests, and is also used in the restaurants. I had just enough time to breeze through the main gift shop but I had no time to really find anything before I had to be off to the bus. Aftera all, I was not about to join the Benedictine nuns!

If I did this right, this week's blog should have paragraphs and this next object should be a video of one of the many street musicians we encounter in Galway's city center.

Monday, June 28, 2010

First Week at National University of Ireland at Galway

The way our studies are set up, we have a background lecture at 10:30 AM and a writer's workshop at 2:30 Monday thru Thursday. Fridays are usually clear unless we have a field trip planned, which we did the first week. Students usually have a choice between poetry workshop or fiction workshop, but since the group was so small (9 students), we decided to blend them together. The first day, we had a background lecture by Hubert McDermott from NUIG who gave us a wonderful, personal lecture on James Joyce and the story The Dead from the book called "The Dubliners." You can tell that the Irish are fiercely proud of their literary heritage and excited to share this with others. Not only did we get a lot of personal, contextual information about James Joyce's life, but he included a map outlining where all the important historical buildings still stood, should we choose to visit them. We also got clued in to where some of the local names came from. Like Bogden round-about didn't register with us until we were told that Michael Bogden was the real identity of the character who died as a young lad in the story, the one that was in love with the main character's wife, who was in reality Joyce's wife. That afternoon we had our first workshop because we had turned in poems and short stories on Tuesday, which were photocopied for everyone and ready to go. For non-writers out there, the workshop process is a priceless commodity to those of us who write. Our friends and family may think our writing is wonderful, but without someone critiqueing our work, we have no idea where we can improve which makes us much more competitive should we submit our works for publication or for contests. It should make us better writers in the long run, but things can almost always be improved. Then the trick is learning when to quit and leave it the heck alone! At 5:15 there was an informal reception at the campus bar. They provided sandwiches, onion rings, fried chicken and spring rolls along with 2 drinks. I opted for a ginger ale and then a small bottle of wine, Gato Negro. It was really good, too! Most were enjoying Guinness or Cider. The next day we had an engaging lecture by poet Dr. Louis de Paor. He explained how he liked his poetry to be at the intersection of a major event, like a birth, death, leaving home, marriage, etc. It is the point where once you pass it, there is no turning back to the way things were. That afternoon we began workshopping some of our fiction. Friday, we all went on a field trip to Coole Park (Lady Gregory's estate) and Thoor Ballylee (summer home of W.B. Yeats and family). For those who don't know, Lady Gregory was an amazing woman, a tireless defender and supporter of the Irish arts, mostly poetry and theater. She was a good friend to Yeats and he spent a lot of time at Coole Park and wrote a lot of poetry based on his experiences there. After marrying, Yeats bought a smaller place down the road a piece that he fixed up for his wife Georgie and where their family spent most of their summers until things got so unsettled in Ireland that it wasn't safe to be there. Thoor Ballylee is the site of Yeat's famous tower where he retreated to write near the end of his life. Friday night we went exploring downtown Galway which was like Greenwich Village meets Haight Ashbury meets Eureka Springs. It was amazing with cobblestone streets and window boxes with colorful flowers and street musicians. We ate at a great Thai restaurant and while we were leaving around 10PM, it was just starting to threaten darkness and we headed home after a long day and long week. Your cultural lesson of the day is that apparently if you don't get your bill in an Irish or English restaurant, you must get up and approach the cash register because they don't want to rush you. If you are waiting on your bill, you could be waiting a very long time. Saturday morning we woke early and headed to the farmer's market in roughly the same area we were the night before. It's near St. Nicholas Cathedral, near Shop Street. We found amazing produce, very hip clothing, hand tooled leather, live chickens, fresh cut flowers, scones, cheeses, handmade jewelry, jellies, crepes, etc. It was an amazing market and shop street had more street musicians and cute little shops. I found all kinds of great stuff there. A spot of bad news is that while we were running across an uncontrolled part of the round-about, I must have strained my foot because then I could barely walk. I cancelled the rest of my plans for Saturday and Sunday to just rest. The farthest I walked was just to the grocery store so that I could eat in. The good news is that apparently I didn't break anything and I just have to not overdo it. I'm not the only one with very sore feet, but I am twice as old as everyone else and have to remember that. Friday night we had a big potluck over in apartment 38. We played a game that's like Pictionary meets Telephone. You write a saying down on a piece of paper, the next person draws a picture from that saying, the next person writes their interpretation of the picture and so on and so forth until the end and you get your own saying back. When we read them back to everyone, we were literally rolling on the floor laughing. Those of you on Facebook know that Sunday night we played "Never Did I Ever" which someone my age should never do with a bunch of 20-something year olds, LOL. I was the second one eliminated. What chance did I have? Facebookers can see my pictures in FB in a photo album labled "Writers in Galway." I will see if I can upload at least a few here. We'll see if I can figure this out.

Oh, and over here bangs are called FRINGE!!

:) Ciao! Catatonic1

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Shannon and beyond

During the bus ride to Shannon, we stopped at a truck stop to use the rest rooms and get refreshments. My camera was set on some weird setting and I enlisted the help of others to see if I could fix it and no one could figure it out (pictures were coming out in a grid of 16 pictures per frame instead of one). I gave up and decided to figure it out later.

When we finally got to Limerick, another passenger Dee and I decided to go for fish and chips (my first, and it was good!) while we waited on the bus to Shannon. Then we took the first bus to the Shannon airport because it left an hour earlier than the one that went to the city of Shannon. Since The Oak Wood Arms Hotel was only about 2.5 miles from the airport, I thought perhaps that was a good idea. We also talked about sharing a taxi, but then her hotel was right there at the airport and she walked. Oh, well. At least I got to Shannon while it was still early enough to enjoy a little bit. And the hotel was so beautiful! Everything is brick, stained glass, thick carpet, wrought iron, etc. It's just stuffed with charm.

I was so tired of riding buses that I decided to go for a walk, which you can do because it stays light until around 10PM around here. So, I walked down to the turnabout and took pictures of the odd statue there of what appears to be some seed pods. There is no plaque explaining it and the locals don't even know what it is exactly. Then I saw a sign that read "Pelican Crossing." I had to take a picture, though I did not see any pelicans. I'm guessing they might have a problem with that or they wouldn't have made the sign.

Then I came back to the hotel and decided to go into the bar for a bit of dessert and a cider. The bar was gorgeous and I ordered a cheesecake and cider, cider being a cross between apple cider and beer. Both were excellent!

Then I went to my room and took a nice warm bath. The hotel prides itself on handicapped accessibility, yet the handles in the bathrub weren't levers, they were round and hard to manipulate. I am not a person with a disability, but I even had a problem with it. Anyway, I was relaxed enough at that point to crawl in the comfy bed and have a good night's sleep. I set a wake-up call for 6:30 since Kaytee Stephens was flying in early the next morning and I promised to meet her at the Shannon airport.

I got up as promised (hating the alarm!!), showered and went in the dining room for the continental breakfast. In the morning, my fight with the shower handles was so bad that when the epic battle was over, there was water all over the floor. If I wasn't wet with nothing on but a towel, I would have demanded another room. It was downright ridiculous.

When I went to the restaurant for breakfast, everything was in those covered heated serving dishes. Note: never eat sunny side up eggs from one of those things! They're like rubber. The rest of the breakfast was nice, though.

I went to check out and asked about a cab in 15 minutes. The concierge made the call and I scurried to the room to pack. I got out of there just in time and the taxi was waiting. We went over to the Shannon airport and he talked about the water to the left of us being tidal and the tide was way out. He also mentioned something about all the trees in Ireland being cut down and there just weren't any ancient trees anymore.

I walked into the airport and was going to have Kaytee paged, but I saw her sitting there knitting. I said, the bus to Galway leaves in 29 minutes, let's go! I didn't want to wait on the others. She did. I had learned in the past 2 days that you can get just about anywhere in Ireland simply by asking someone. Anyway, we waited. We shouldn't have because had we left earlier, the bus would not have been so hot (they don't have air conditioned buses because they would only use it one or twice a year) and we would have checked in before everyone else and avoided a bottleneck.

But, anyway, we got to Galway and took a cab over to the Gort Na Coroibe apartments and got all signed in and everything. The apartments have a downstairs living room and kitchen combo and a half bath. One story up, there is a single room, a double room and a bathroom. Another floor up, there's two single rooms. Since our program was so light on participation, we only had Hannah on the top floor and me on the floor below.

Now, get this. I was having trouble communicating with the maintenance staff about the problems in our apartment. We refer to the ground floor usually as the 1st floor. Then one story up would be the 2nd floor or 2nd story, and so on. To them, the ground floor is the bottom, then one story up is the FIRST floor! yikes!

So we settled into our rooms and went to the grocery store. I think I mentioned before that the produce isn't always up to American standards, especially the lettuce. Every head I looked at was brown, except one, so I bought it. Days later I find out a big secret. If you want nice lettuce, go to the farmer's market! Everything looks wonderful there.

Anyway, we get together and walk over to the National University of Ireland at Galway (NUIG) to register. It's a good long walk, I think maybe a mile and a half maybe? I'm a bad judge of distance. Let's just say it's a long walk by our standards. The Irish seem to do a lot of walking, so to them it's no big deal. It's been a little hard on some of us, especially if we're used to just hopping in our cars or taking a bus to get where we need to be.

Then we get a tour of the campus, which is just beautiful. There is so much greenery that you don't have the same line of sight from one end of campus to the other like you do at the University of Arkansas. So, we had a walking tour, but it was hard to get our bearings. At 3:30 we were introduced to the faculty, Moya Cannon, and for those who didn't go to the UA, they were introduced to Skip Hays from our English Department.

Most of us expressed a desire to take advantage of the poetry workshop class and the fiction workshop class (which go on at the same time) so they decided to stagger them since there is such a small class (only 9). Afterwards we get signed onto the NUIG system.

Then we walked all the way back to the apartments. Some of the group went out, but some of us settled in and ate from what we bought at the store. We were mostly exhausted. It had been a really long day with bus travel and a lot of walking. Most all of us had jet lag to some degree.

The next day, we started classes.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Dublin to Shannon

I mentioned that I had taken a bath in the evening. The Irish are very conservative with their resources. You will find switches and things that have to be flipped for appliances to work. They don't just stay plugged in and sucking up electricity.

The tub's faucet was of a design I had never encountered before. It had a knob on the left controlling the volume of water and the knob on the right had numbers for the water temperature--in Celcius of course! You might want to set this to your liking before you take your contact lenses out or take your reading glasses off.

I unpacked completely in order to repack and know where everything was. Remember that my husband had to repack things at XNA so that my bag was compliant with airline regulations. I found my letter from Fiona, the vital letter that was going to be what got me into the country. It was tucked in my journal the entire time.

FASHION CHOICE of the day: Green linen crop pants, white sports bra and t-shirt with Crocs. Still going for complete comfort since I'm still lugging that infernal bag.

Called hubby with international cell, but no answer. I don't know what my phone number is yet. I was hoping it would show up on his end and he could tell me.

Note: when you see a date, they Europeans usually do it day/month/year rather than our customary month/day/year.

Breakfast 8AM at Ardmore Hotel. I got the Ardmore Delight for $9.50 Euro which is 2 poached eggs on toasted focaccia bread with bacon (like Canadian bacon), tomato and hollandaise sauce. It was good, though I did not detect any hollandaise. Not sure if it was just forgotten or they decided to drop that practice. I didn't ask because I didn't really care. I am given blonde sugar for my tea, yay! I'm pleasantly surprised by this since I don't particularly like white sugar very much.

They played a variety of music including American folk music, Beatles, Gaelic music, international music, etc. You will notice that while we seem to hear overwhelmingly American music played around the U.S., the Irish are much more internationally inclusive in their choices.

I grabbed a nectarine off the breakfast bar on the way out, with their blessing. It was extremely ripe and scrumptuous. Make a note that Irish fruit and other produce can be below American standards of perfection. For instance, the nectarine was shriveled looking, but it was not in the least bit mealy. They serve their fruit much fresher than we do and so do not make a practice of artificially ripening things. Looking at a fruit stand makes you think the produce is rotten, but it's usually perfectly fine. They don't wax their fruit and it doesn't seem that their stuff is genetically modified to be overly large, etc. This is just locally grown stuff. Take it or leave it.

I was supposed to pack and go so that I would have tourist time in Shannon, but I wound up succumbing to another nap. This time it was about 2 1/2 hours and consisted of some realistic and strange dreams. I woke up just in time to pack and check out at noon. I ate lunch at the hotel as a matter of convenience. I ordered a half chicken with ham, roasted baby potatoes and fried potatoes, and a healthy portion of veggies. That's another thing. The Irish will serve you very ample portions of veggies. Get used to it.

I boarded bus 140 across the street from the hotel and took it to Busaras, which is the name of the bus station. I saw a sign on the way in one of the neighborhoods that said, "be quiet, be tidy." The buses do not announce their stops and at least in Dublin the drivers don't seem particularly eager to help you know your stop. And there are no regular signs like in Thomas the Tank Engine. You really have to be on your game.

A fellow passenger let me know that we were at O'Connell Street and I thanked him and got off. It was exactly as it was described by the concierge. There was an enormous spire in the middle of the square. It went so high that there was no way to get it in a picture completely. And that's another thing. Their statuary does not always include signs explaining the history or reason behind said statue. It's just there.

As instructed, I went down O'connell Street on the left. I was immediately greeted by an amazing sidewalk chalk artist. A few feet away there was a street band singing Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison among other things, like traditional Irish ballads. I was beginning to wonder if I was entering a Bohemian neighborhood like Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, or Greenwich Village in NYC. No, it was just that short block that had two artsy street attractions. The rest was a typical jumble of stores.

I walked several blocks to Busaras where the Bus Eireain Company operates. The bus takes 3 1/2 hours to Limerick, and then I have to transfer to Shannon. The bus was scheduled for 2:30, but it arrived late and we left at 2:50. I knew I was going to be arriving in Shannon too late to explore. Mental note: it would have been a better choice to either stay in Dublin and extra day due to jet lag OR just go straight from Dublin to Galway. It seemed like a good idea to meet up with the group, but in retrospect, totally not necessary. You can get all around Ireland on your own just by asking a few questions or looking things up on the internet.

I observed my driver and I will have to say that the Irish seem to drive a lot like I do. I've been accused of being a "late braker," and these folks drive with a vengeance and then really apply the breaks. On parts of the highway, the bus lane is actually way too thin for the actual buses and they can be seen sometimes straddling two lanes. In the bus lanes within the city, motorcycle/scooters and bicycles ride without fear. Drivers seem to be very patient with them.

I see many things going out of the city of Dublin that I'd like to investigate further upon my return. I want to ride on the river tour for sure, and take the highly recommended bus tour which is a day pass that takes you all around the city and drops you off at any attraction you want to see for however long you want to be there. You then reboard the bus and continue on at your whimsy.

At the end of town, every street has a bridge crossing the river. Most of them are romantically historic with rock and wrought iron, but then a modern one is just thrown in the mix. Did that bridge crumble and get replaced? Was it an afterthought? Who knows?

In the median of the highway were several boys in swim trunks, wet, looking like they were about to dive in again. How curious! My mind begged to ask, "Did your parents ask you to go and play in traffic as my own did so many years ago?"

Also note: men in neon orange coveralls sell newspapers in the streets, literally. They are right in the middle of traffic.

Esso gas is $1.33 Euro per liter, and as low as $1.20 at some other stations. So if there are 3.79 liters/gallon, then the price is $5.04 Euro per gallon. The Euro is at 1.25 exchange rate, so that's actually the equivalent of $6.30 American dollars per gallon. Yowza. No wonder people walk and ride bikes or drive little half-pint cars. I would, too!

In retrospect again, I think I would try to find a hotel or hostel closer to Busaras, or at least more convenient to the city center than where I was, under the same circumstances. I think things near the city center are slightly more expensive unless you go the hostel route. Still, you want to pack in as much time sight seeing as you can rather than waiting on and traveling on buses. Another point to consider in planning your trip.

The bus wound up stopping in Kildare. I notice a business named Heffernan's something. I can't tell what it is exactly, but I think Professor Heffernan would like to know. He visits Ireland regularly and might already know about it. If he does, he'll be able to tell me about it in great detail. If not, he'll be sure to investigate.

There is a lot of pastureland around the County Kildare. There are lots and lots of sheep initially, but then you see more and more cows and some horses, too. As you leave Dublin, you get into the country that W.B. Yeats initially held in such disdain for not being sophisticated enough. Of course, this is exactly the Ireland you want to see.

There are numerous roundabouts, and even a double roundabout. As I see them over and over, I find that they're really not as scary to the native driver as it would seem. As a foreigner, I'm sure it would take some getting used to.

Familiar businesses I've seen: Curves weight loss centers, Dominoes Pizza, and Burger King is advertising it's "Mad Burger." It asked you, "Can you handle it?" Interesting choice considering their problem with Mad Cow's disease a few years back.

I watch the countryside slip by the bus window, and am moved to try my hand at writing a poem in the style of Mary Oliver (very brief).

On The Road to Limerick 2010

Slipstream past the bus window
in Nenaugh, there was an old family cemetary
nestled within what looked like a courtyard
of moss grown castle walls
but was probably the ruins
of an old stone farmhouse

Further on, a recycler harbors
mounds of rusty metal and worn out tyres
while serene horses graze outside the gate
like noble junkyard dogs

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On to London Heathrow and beyond

The flight to Heathrow from Chicago is more than 7 hours. First class looks spacious and sort of like the Captain's seat on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Business class looked comfy as well. As you would expect, economy class looked a bit tight. Immediately upon taking off, the clown, I mean passenger, in front of me flipped his seat back and was practically in my lap.

For the rest of the flight, we were packed like sardines, or perhaps tinned kippers! And there wasn't just one screaming infant, but two. Oh, the joys.

I was in the very last row. Do you know how the last car on a roller coaster experiences the bumpiest ride? Well, the same applies to an airplane ride that encounters turbulence. Thank goodness no one got sick.

The Jordanian-American man next to me was tall and husky. He couldn't get comfortable at any point in the flight with his knees jambed into the seat in front of him. None of the three of us in the last row were petite, but we did our best not to overflow into each other's space.

My neighbor let me use his cell phone before take-off to call my husband at home. That's when I found out that the airlines had agreed to refund the price of the ticket for the flight from XNA to Chicago. That made a rest of the trip so much more enjoyable and relaxing!

We made small talk and he told me that his parents were celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary which was why all 7 kids were flying to Jordan to their house. He said his parents never actually stayed there because they spent 2 weeks in each kid's house and just rotated from one to another. This way, they didn't stay long enough to have major fights and no one had to worry about how they were doing or if they were being taken care of. Being single, he always looked forward to them staying with him because he could get lonely.

To my surprise, we were served pretzels and a beverage at around 9:40 PM and then it was immediately followed by supper.

When I watched the little movie screen in front of me, it first showed the flight and where we were along that flight. Interesting. Way out over the Atlantic Ocean with no land in sight. Splendid. Then I watched a little tv and movies. I viewed most of Valentine's Day before falling asleep for about 2 1/2 or 3 hours.

WARDROBE CHOICE for travel: capri sweat pants, sports bra and t-shirt. Crocs can be kicked off and put back on easily going through security.

We finally arrive in London Heathrow Airport. Because my baggage coudn't be checked all the way through for some unknown reason, I had to go into the long "E ticket Disney ride" line to go through customs instead of going straight through to my flight to Ireland. You know what that means? I had to go through customes in Heathrow and then get my baggage, then go through security all over again! Good thing I had a really long layover, I guess.

The customs people were efficient and helpful. He even remarked that I was very organized, which is probably high praise from and Englishman. 1st Passport stamp: London Heathrow.

I must say, Heathrow is kind of dumpy when it comes to airports, at least terminal one. There are not many services once you get away from the center part and it's just old and dirty looking. I bet the newer Terminal five is much more modern and nice.

As I was walking through the airport, I saw a series of posters on a wall. It had a classic car, like a GTO, and the first poster had a tagline that said, "Freedom." The same poster was next, with the tagline "Status Symbol." Same poster next, with the tag line, "Polluter." The next poster admonished about reducing our carbon footprint. I do think that it's good to be conservative, but your carbon footprint is affected if you keep trashing throw-away cards and replacing them every few years, too.

My husband and I own several old cars which mostly serve us well. We have a '99 Nissan Sentra that gets almost 40 m.p.g., a '93 Ford Explorer, a '93 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra, a '55 Chevy Pickup, a '72 MG convertible, a '53 Pontiac Cheiftain, a '94 Plymouth Voyager and a '79 El Camino. The first 5 cars are driveable. We have no car payments and low insurance. These cars are old enough where my husband can do almost all of the repairs. The classic cars are all a piece of our history and we like to try to restore them, so shoot us.

Anyway, back to my travels. I'm getting extremely uncomfortable and hungry but I can't find an ATM machine and don't have any Euro. A granola bar will have to suffice. I'm bone tired, but afraid to fall asleep and miss my flight. It's 1:10 PM and my flight doesn't leave until 4.

There are so many flights to Ireland that they don't tell you what gate you'll be leaving at until the plane lands. So, you have to hang out by the monitor until just before your plane starts boarding to know where you need to be. Finally, I lay down on the bench and succumb to an hour's nap.

While I'm awake, I watch the BBC news provided by Samsung. Tuesday temps are predicted to be in the 20's. That must be centigrade. Fabulous. I sit here with no cell phone, no internet, no Euros and no Fahrenheit to Centigrade conversion table. It's weird to be in a foreign country where people look and speak very much the same, yet everything is so different. I have 15 minutes more to wait.

And while I was waiting for my flight to Dublin, I saw a lot of the same fashion faux pas that I see in the U.S., including the unfortunate scary jeggings. I mean they could have been jeans, but I've never seen jeans stretch quite that way.

I helped an elderly Irish gent find his gate. He said he was sent to the wrong gate by someone who didn't bloody know what they were doing (in an adorable Irish accent). I smiled and bid him well. My flight will be boarding next, in about 10 minutes. Next I help two young men who can barely speak English find our flight before someone steered them to the wrong gate. Even the Irish find the whole thing in Heathrow confusing. I had the young men follow me since we were going to the same place.

The flight was good and mercifully short. I was sitting next to a cherubic toddler who spent most of the flight sleeping on her dad. England and Ireland look so cozy on the maps, but you actually fly over quite a bit of water to get from one to another. Her dad explained to me that it was easy to convert centigrade to Fahrenheit. If it's 20 degrees in London, you double it and add 32. So, 20 degrees C is 72 degrees F. Cool!

We arrive in Dublin and that airport is much nicer, with polished wooden handrails, wooden doors, etc. It looked like it was kept up well. The signs are in English and the sometimes long Gaelic translation. I go through customs quickly (second passport stamp in a day: Dublin!), get my baggage, hit up an ATM for Euro (finally!!) and buy an international cell phone. I took a $25 Euro taxi ride to the Ardmore Hotel in Dublin where I had pre-paid $47 to stay via Expedia. Perhaps a Clarion with their shuttle may have been a better deal? Something to consider. Price isn't everything. You have to consider what's included in that.

The taxi driver was jovial and we talked about several things, like raising kids. It's pretty much the same all over with us probably providing too much for our kids which would have constituted "spoiling" by the standards we grew up with. He said, "You get out of the dog what you put into the pup." Well said, my friend. Well said.

I get to the Ardmore and smile when the desk clerk says, "If you would sign here, that would be splendid." I was told that the English and Irish tend to request things rather than demand it. It sounds more like you'd be doing them a favor than it being a requirement. There is free Wifi, which makes me happy. My mood is lifting considerably. I'm in Dublin!

Here is a new thing to get used to. Your door key powers everything in the Ardmore from the "lift," to the door, to all of the electricity to your room. And you must leave the key in the whole time you're in the room because it is timed to go off in about 2 or 3 minutes. And the Irish hotels might not provide washcloths like the American ones do. They expect you to use a handtowel instead.

My co-worker Brian warned me that the Irish tend to eat earlier than Americans, so I quickly washed up and went down tot he hotel bar. Apparently the pubs serve meals and they are opened late, so no worries at least in the major cities, though it's apparently true that most restaurants will close around 9 or maybe "half nine" which is 9:30. Anyway, I sat in the bar for 20 minutes without being greeted, so I had to ask the bartender if I could be served sometime soon, which he arranged for me. This will not be the first restaurant where I will feel it is busy and understaffed according to American standards. Service is not bad, but not as quick as most of us would expect, so be prepared. If you're in a hurry, better grab a bag of fish and chips instead. If you're sitting down, it could be a while.

Since I was waiting, I put my international cell phone together, a Motorola W156. I can't remember, but I think the phone and sim card were about $60 or $70 Euro? Anyway, I do feel a sense of accomplishment for putting it together on my own and having it actually work.

The guests are watching the World Cup. These folks really love their sports. You will see it on practically everywhere there's a television set. Also, there are a lot of smokers. The laws and customs are completely different here. Not that the bars are choked with smoke, but there will be at least some.

Meal: home made vegetable soup (pureed, not chunky) with crispy roll and butter ($4.50 Euro), 8 oz. sirloin steak medium with sauteed mushrooms and onion and garlic butter ($16.50 Euro). The garlic butter came in a gravy boat--I kid you not! A big pot of tea - $2.30 Euro. I had to ask for sugar and was pleasantly suprised to get brown sugar! Finally, some real food. It's definitely been a long and expensive day.

Just about every dish will come with one or two kinds of potatoes. I've eaten more potatoes so far over here than I have in years. With this dish I got grilled baby potatoes and fried potatoes, too.

When I return to my room, the "free wi-fi" signal is too weak to take advantage of on the 3rd floor. Apparently it's the strongest on the first floor. I took a warm bath and dozed several times so decided I had better pour myself into bed. The weather is so pleasant that I sleep with the window open, and no screen. It's not buggy there at all. I was comfortable crashing on top of the covers.

In the morning I check the view from the hotel which was the back end of it. There was still noise from a busy street where you can see double-decker buses drive by. It is a mostly middle class residential neighborhood. I see the back end of a row of semi-attached houses with their satellite dishes and clothes lines. I see someone's bike leaned up against a wall, no chain. I can see a parking lot and an overgrown grassy area and ivy spilling over a wall.

The hotel is utilitarian but adequate. If I didn't have all of my stuff in tow for Galway, the stuff I had planned on shipping ahead, then I would explore, but as it is, I had better start packing and head for Shannon to meet the rest of the group.

First Day of travel

I should really think of this trip as a way to discover crap I wish I had known before I embarked on this journey. It’s nice to know that instead of dialing 9-1-1 like in the US, you have to dial 9-9-9 all around Ireland and the U.K. But, it would have also been nice to know that an international cell phone calling cell phones in the U.S. apparently burn up about twice as many Euro as calling a land line. It would have been helpful to know that before I burned $10 Euro in about as many minutes. Bummer.

But okay, let’s get on with this travelogue.

DAY 1: Departing U.S.A.

I should have known the day was not going to be an easy one when we ran out the door with my baggage and the back tire on the Nissan was flat. We turn around and hop in the ‘Old Man’ Man Car (hubby's Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra). It’s 2PM and my plane leaves at 5:20. We have stops to make on the way.

I couldn’t find my letter from Fionna (from NUIG) which I was told was essential to get into the country. I really stressed about this. I wound up driving to work on the way to the airport with the intention of printing off an email from her, hoping this would suffice since I couldn’t find that stinking letter that you were NOT under any circumstances supposed to lose. Oh, except it’s Saturday and I forgot my keys! Turn around and go back! And I was already in Fayetteville when I figured this out.

So I finally get to work and print out the letter. Much later, like when I was unpacking in Dublin or Shannon, I found the letter was safely tucked in my travel journal. Of course it was!

And earlier that day, I received a text message about a horrendous $300 phone bill! So, off to Verizon to figure that one out. Apparently the $10/month plan doesn’t include unlimited internet from your phone. Son owes me a bit of money for that! After I went through 2 customer service reps, we got it down to $120 for this month and $60 for next month. Yikes! That was an expensive mistake. Good thing he has a job. Cell phones are another area where you wish you knew things before you run up good sized bills. I know I'm not the only one to experience this kind of treatment. It's all highway robbery, but we're all addicted to a degree.

Then we arrive at XNA (NW Arkansas Regional Airport) and no one is at the United ticket counter. Security tells us we’re WAY too early for my flight. It’s 4PM and the flight leaves at 5:20. A little time passes and hubby sees that the flight that I am on doesn’t exist on Saturdays! Say what? We talk to other airport and airline personnel and call United. Finally we get the number for Student Universe (travel agent) who can’t do anything without a supervisor’s approval. The American Airline ticket agent says she has a flight that can get me to O'Hare, but, “You need to have your ticket purchased by 5:30 to make your connection in Chicago.”

At 5:29, I am still on hold and hubby whips out his credit card and makes the purchase. One way, economy, from XNA to Chicago O’Hare is how much? Try $735 American. Yeah, that’s how much. I hand my cell phone (which won't work in Ireland) over to Steve and run for security to board the flight and he spent almost 3 hours but finally got them to agree to reimburse us the full $735. I only paid less than $1,000 for my entire round trip ticket. I'm amazed that my Pookie got them to reimburse us for that much!

American tried to be helpful but could only check my heavy bag to Heathrow. I said fine. I just needed to get on the plane. I would worry about the luggage later. This snafu would bite me later.

I flew into Chicago without incident. I was looking out the window as we approached O'Hare and checking out the rural countryside outside of Chicago. We flew over a wind farm. Is it Slim Pickens that has one there? Since there is more room, some of the housing developments had fanciful shapes, like weird crop circle patterns as seen from space. Some were more traditional. Some followed the contours of the land.

As you get closer to the city, the developments become more uniform and of course closer together. Lake Michigan is enormous! Wow. It looks like you’re flying to the east coast, but of course if you know your geography and are smarter than a 3rd grader, you know you’re not at the Atlantic yet!

We land at 7:30 and I walk to terminal 1. On the way I see that Chicago has taken great care to make their airport magical and memorable. There are giant dinosaur skeletons and art hanging from the ceiling and art made of neon lights and music. There are people movers, but none of the trains that I saw in the N. Carolina airport. That might have been more practical than the fancy wavy walls (just sayin'). I got to Gate C just in time to grab a yogurt and start boarding the connecting flight to London Heathrow in 20 minutes!

I check in with the airline personnel and she looks incredulous when I tell her that my travel agent booked me on a flight that didn’t exist and so I had to take another airline here at my expense just to make this connecting flight. Then she looks me up and sees that I’m confirmed on the flight and that my luggage is already loaded (second spot of good news I’ve had that day – maybe things are looking up?).

Next, I will catch up on the rest of my flight and experiences that day.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I'm leaving tomorrow

Wow, okay. I can't believe I'm leaving tomorrow. I'm filled with anticipation of all the great things I'll experience and all the fun I'll have over the next six weeks seeing things I've only read about or seen in documentaries. I'm also somewhat mourning my comfortable rut as I prepare to leave (my husband says 'abandon') my family and friends, my life, my routine.

I'm a bit of a nurturer and maybe a slight control freak. It's so hard to let go! I actually worry about who will do the things I normally do, like pick the dog dishes off of the floor and put them in the sink because my teenager will stand next to these aforementioned dishes and do everything in the sink and call it done. Who will pick up the paper towels from the bathroom floor in the ELC (work) while I'm gone? Maybe these are the little things that will create the voids where I normally leave my touch. These are the intersections where people might miss me.

I know as I travel I will keep saying to myself, "I wish Steve could see this with me." I went through this during my trips to Maine to see my sister Veronica. I will take on a whole new culture of experiences with my friends that he will be excluded from. Do you know how each couple and each family has it's own micro-culture? You have shared experiences that no one else has. You've seen the same movies, experienced the same comically horrible waitresses, gasped as the bed broke out from under you unexpectedly, held your baby for the first time, laughed at the same public spectacles or cried at the same tragedies. One look or one word, and you don't even have to say anything to explain how you're feeling. It's understood. It binds you like nothing else can.

If an outsider wonders what you're grinning at, you have to explain it and they may enjoy it in the way an interloper can. It's a cheaper version of the real thing. And so, that is all I can offer my life partner and my friends, including my dear friend Sarah Lee who we were hoping could join me in England. A cheaper version of my experiences. For that, I do feel a bit bad.

I'll be missing my boys (Stephen 17 and Carsten 14) more than anything I can describe. I've enjoyed watching them grow up to be fine, smart and sensitive young men. Stephen is working for the Housing department on campus here at the University of Arkansas and continues to make me so proud with his work ethic, exceeding all expectations. I will really miss our shared love of alternative rock and our talks, especially his off-beat sense of humor.

Carsten is "away" at camp, ha ha. He's actually in the Upward Bound Math and Science Academy Summer Camp which happens to be at the University as well. In school, he was accelerated ahead a grade a few years back, and yet one of his instructors said that he was far more mature than his peers in his class and will do very well. I also got to see him interacting with his peers and he is bright and funny. He also is doing well and enjoying his first real job working for a local nursery, weeding and watering the plants. He possibly wants to be a landscape architect, so this is a great experience for him!

It will be hard to not have them with me and so disappointing that I can't expand their horizons. But, I do plan on taking them with me on a family trip in a couple of years. I'm plotting already.....

In preparation for this trip, I plan on only carrying what I can carry on my back. I'll be gone six weeks. My friends are laughing at me. Okay, I will admit that I plan on shipping a box of necessities over to the University because I have no idea what products I can get there and I have allergies and other special needs. I am highly allergic to most soaps, detergents, shampoos and deodorants. I know there's stuff I'll be able to use over there, but it will take a while to learn what these are and where I can get them. You have no idea what it will be like to not be able to run over to the Walgreens on Sixth and South School on the way home from work and go directly to aisle three and pick up exactly the product I need by recognizing the name brand, the shape and color of the bottle, etc. I can be in and out of there in a few minutes.

I won't even have a car over there! I doubt there's a Walgreens on the way to anything and I think I'll be doing a lot of label reading. So this will be my care package from home, from myself. No chocolate chip cookies from mommy. I'm allergic to chocolate, too, so it's all good. On future trips, I'm sure I'll laugh at how much I shipped over and feel silly about it, but this time I'm playing it safe.

This one-bag frame of mind was inspired by my Aunt Veronica who insists that you travel everywhere with just one carry on bag, and she's a world traveler and knows these things. Also, if you read "Six Months Walking the Wilds (of Western Europe)" by Steve Cooper, you will see that it can be done. His book makes me think I might retire to the Ligurian coast of Italy, opening up a hostel somewhere along the El Camino de Santiago. Doesn't that sound romantic? And why not? Dream large! What is life without our dreams and aspirations?

If you haven't been listening to your dreams lately, you need to. Life is short, way too short. I've lost so many dear friends and family over the years, but especially lately. I would like to think that a combination of hitting my forties (can you say midlife crisis?) and this sense of loss has driven me to shed the shackles of mediocrity and live a more authentic life. To me, life is not worth living otherwise. I don't just exist; I make things happen. I'm not passively buffeted by life. I am moving mountains.

And before I end today's boring blog, I will share a few other random thoughts that are going through my head. I know you'll either find this funny or be shocked, but here goes. Some of my close friends and family know of my fondness for cussing. Yep, there ya have it. As I go off on this journey, I was thinking that without my disapproving husband and children and certain of my purer friends and family, I will feel free to cuss with abandon if I want to. Well, I doubt that. I'll be roomies with some young souls who look rather like Bambi (from the Disney movie, not where your mind probably just went). So, I may have to keep this penchant of mine under wraps for a while. I'll keep you updated on this front. I don't know why it pleases me to let loose with a string of profanity, but I find it immensely freeing and I really appreciate the folks I can do this around. I will miss your company Slee!

The other random thought and probably odd obsession of mine is the pursuit of comfortable underwear. This has been a large consideration in preparing for this trip. I live by the mantra that life is too short to wear uncomfortable underwear. Can you imagine how it could ruin your day? Not gonna let that happen! :)

See ya'll when I get back in August. In the meantime, I hope you're at least a little entertained by my ramblings. Much love!


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hey friends!

Well, I'm leaving for Ireland to study abroad for the next six weeks. Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I'll be taking off Saturday, June 19, 2010. I hope this blog will be an entertaining journal of my travels. I've never done this before, so it should be muy interesante!