Northern Ireland

We are spending our last week in Ireland in Derry or Londonderry. Depending upon your political point of view. More on that in another post. So it was the moment to see the Giant’s Causeway.

This basalt rock phenomenon occurs on the Northern coast of Ireland. If you require a little courage before your visit you can stop in Bushmill for a wee dram before you get to the truly majestic scenery a couple miles down the road. I say ‘miles’ because here in Northern Ireland its miles not kilometers. There was no sign when we crossed from Ireland to the UK/Northern Ireland welcoming us to a new country, except the one telling us that now we were calculating speed signs in miles. But our car only had kilometers. So we were doing backwards calculations to figure out how not to speed or go too slow.

In Ireland there are speed signs every 10 meters – even the farmers driveway doubling as an Irish expressway. In Northern Ireland they tell you the speed once at the border with a hearty ‘Good Luck guessing it on the rest of these god-forsaken roads.’

We made our way to the Giant’s Causeway over hill and dale, but it was worth it. From Derry it’s an hour drive. I’d tell you the distance but it doesn’t matter. Distance here means nothing. Its time that matters. 28 kilometers can take you an hour as Google routes you through the parking lot of a welding workshop, only to find the one lane track you were on previously picks up on the other side. You think I’m kidding. Sadly, not. Jeff checked to see if there was a setting to stop this nonsense, but if we turned it off in the app we would never be able to leave the country.

The GC is part of The National Trust of the UK. The Trust was set up in the late 19th century to save historically significant buildings and locales. They do good work and The Giants Causeway is head and shoulders their biggest draw every year. Heading for 3/4 of a million visitors annually. After seeing this area there is no mystery as to why.

It’s set up well with minimal impact to the environment. The visitors center is tasteful and not an ‘Exit Thru the Giftshop’ type of experience. If you’re a member of The National Trust its free. For a family that’s about 100£ per year. A bargin when planning on seeing other culturally significant places throughout the UK.

We did the self guided tour with the head sets, but could have waited the 40 minutes for the guided tour that is also included in the ticket. It was awe inspiring.

The place was created by lava flows, chemical weathering, and time. The hexagonal rocks and pillars are otherworldly.

The walk down to see them is stunning.

The Irish legend goes something like this. There was a giant called Finn. He created Ireland and he was pissed at a Scottish giant who wanted to threaten his land. So he threw the hexagonal stones into the sea to scare his foe, who used them as a bridge or causeway to run across the sea from Scotland to fight Finn. Well, Finn saw him coming and was shocked by his size. He knew he was outmatched so he ran home to his wife, and cried like a baby.

She knew just what to do and wrapped Finn up, swaddling him like a baby and put him in bed. The other giant found his way to their cottage and asked the wife where her husband was so they could fight. She told him Finn was out. But he searched the cottage anyway and heard ‘the baby’ crying – it was Finn afraid to death. But the other giant thought ‘If this is the baby, then his father must be huge!’. So he ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway with his footsteps. There are similar basalt pillars on the Scottish side today to prove the story.

In fact, about 60k yrs ago, lava flowed and formed these pillars. It took 40k yrs for the pillars to interlock. Hexagons are some of the strongest and most frequently occurring shapes in nature. Think honeycombs and tortoise shells.

We walked up to the Giant’s Pipe Organ, said to be heard once a year at 6am on Christmas morn. Then headed up top, via nearly one million stairs straight up, to make our way back. Hoping not to drive to Derry in the dark. The views continued to amaze the whole way. You could easily spend an entire day there.


Well worth a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site. And a strong recommendation on the Bushmills. The town is adorable – you might consider staying there for a night. More importantly, you might need a break from driving out there from Derry. But this is wild Ireland at its most raw and beautiful. Not to be missed.

Holy Shit! Driving in Ireland

First off, renting a car at the Dublin airport mimicked buying a used car on Aurora Avenue in Seattle. It felt like we were haggling with a used car salesman for insurance, transmission and tire coverage. If he’d mentioned ‘clear coat’ I would have gone ballistic. We needed a shower after.

The swearing started directly after the airport, and our wake has been littered with profanity throughout the country ever since. Jeff has made up some new ones and I’m pretty sure ‘Kelli!!’ isn’t just my name any more.

And, as luck would have it, I was driving our automatic rental car and it stalled, almost permanently, in the middle if an Irish round about! We did a ‘Chinese fire drill’ like we used to do in high school; Jeff ran around and hopped in. He jiggled some stuff, a lot of grinding later – much honking from behind – and we moved it to the side of the road.

Here’s where I both bitch about and, well sort of, praise Hertz rental cars. They made us limp it to the West Ireland airport. So wrong. Again, there was prolific swearing during this procedure. Then they swiftly gave us another car. But the new one was a huge luxury car we didn’t ask for, and it was a manual transmission. I can’t drive a manual and me learning it in Ireland was highly discouraged by the rental car guy. Under normal circumstances the upgrade would be welcome. Even the stick. But we are in Ireland sooo yeah, NO!

The roads here – if not on an expressway or carriageway- are of three clear classifications.

  • Shit!
  • Oh Shit!!
  • Holy Shit!!!

Allow me to explain.

Shit! roads have a line down the middle of one variety or another. It’s never consistent. In theory, these roads are supposed to contain cars traveling opposite each other on either side of that painted divider. But not when you’re traveling in your gigantic car you never asked for or possibly wanted. Short of scraping our left side on the ancient stone walls, hedgerows and houses we whiz by, we count our lucky stars to survive them. But even in a Citroen C1 the lane would be inadequate.

Oh Shit!! roads are those that are 3/4 the width of Shit! roads but without the lovely line you were laughing at and mocking just 15 seconds and one turn ago. But now you miss that line, and the extra two feet of roadway with no shoulder. Now you’d sell everything you have for that line. But even if you could allow yourself a moment to scrape together all your worldly possessions, there would not be one place to turn out to hand them over. Just sheep fields, and the sheep are just looking at you with thinly veiled contempt.

The speed limit sign will say 80 on this stretch of tarmac- and your fellow travelers will strive to achieve it. On these roads I recommend only driving with one eye open – like a pirate. You’ll see death coming as you hold your breath and grimace, but from only one side of your body. The other side will be blissfully ignorant.

Holy Shit!!! roads are like snow flakes. Each one is unique and are never replicated in all of human history. These remarkable gems are, however, not rare AT ALL in Ireland. So much so that Google maps thinks they’re normal roads and will route you down them with abandon, even when your rental car needs to get to the regional airport, post haste, to die. These one lane tracks with stone walls and hedgerows growing over the top will require you to put your mirrors in so as not to rip them off the car at the whole 30km per hour top speed you’re traveling. But then this adds in a little Irish mischief. I mean, why not?! When your neighbor, or his cow, meet you on the Holy Shit!!! road, there is no turn out – just a wet bog on either side. You’re trapped unless you go back. What can you do?

But here is when the Irish do something that is only hinted at in literature and legend. Never speak this secret to anyone, but all Irish people are leprechauns. Don’t believe me? Then how do they always find themselves in my rearview mirror after meeting head on, on the Oh Shit!! and Holy Shit!!! roads? Its leprechaun magic. Plain and simple.

That and I’m pretty convinced that all these churches are to stop and pray for your life while driving. When cars were invented it must have filled more than a few pews.

‘Please God, it’s me Patrick Seamus Micheal O’Malley. I just got my driving license. Not driving that one horse trap anymore. So well…you know, I’m gonna a need fair bit of that leprechaun magic. Here’s a fiver for the collection plate.’

There are ZERO straight roads in Ireland. Google maps will make them appear straight but it’s a lie. They don’t exits. Just like pots of gold at the end of rainbows. When you get there, the promised straight road disappears to a narrowing winding deathtrap you’ll slalom through, like the alpine downhill outrunning an avalanche.

Reading signs has been interesting too. Yesterday, when we came upon a couple of head scratchers Jeff asked me what they meant.

‘How do I know?’ I asked him. Like I’d studied the Irish driving manual.

‘Uh, you just took the written test in Spain, and studied for it like the bar exam’

What was he thinking? ‘I only know Spanish road signs. Duh.’

‘These are signs valid in the entire EU. They’re symbols – not words’.

‘Well, I didn’t see that one in my book.’ I hate it when he’s right. ‘Just assume it’s a cliff and don’t go there.’

Now, I can’t drive here anymore, cause of the stick thing. Much to Jeff’s both angst and elation. He did a lot of shifting away from his side of the car, wincing, and ‘Oh my God’ing when I was driving. He would call out frequently ‘Did you see that?!? How did you not hit that?!?’ Quite a bit during my time behind the wheel. I know exactly what it is but I’ll never tell him. I have just enough Irish in me for some residual leprechaun magic. And, I find in most circumstances, a little leprechaun magic is all it usually takes.

Warning! A Rant to Follow

‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’

‘He who is without sin, cast the first stone.’

I’ve heard them all. And of course, they’re true. I’m not perfect. Far, very far from it. And since I’ve heard horror stories of ugly Americans, when traveling, we try to go out of our way to be culturally sensitive and respectful. Do I love everything about living here? No. I miss some stuff and some of it’s doesn’t make sense to me. We choose to live in Spain because we like it here better than we did back in the US. Jeff reminded me the other day it was his idea, after all.

We’ve lived here nearly 8 months now and I’m fed up. ‘With the Spanish?’ you might ask. But my answer would be an emphatic ‘NOOOO.’ I’m fed up with British and the arrogance I witness, over hear and generally experience from these people every freaking day. It’s very clear many British Expats – or even holiday maker –  is under the misapprehension that Imperialism is still an actual thing.

Now, as a caveat, we have some friends here who are Brits. But sometimes even they will say things that make me go ‘Hmmm’.

Today Jeff and I headed to the beach for our morning coffee. It’s been super stormy here and the beach was festooned with mostly locals running. And the waves were huge. The Med is usually pretty calm and flat. This morning it looked more like Manzanita – the small beach town in Oregon where we used to go in the summer when I was a kid. Big angry swells and crashing waves. We watched the Spanish Coast Guard perform a real rescue of a wind surfer.

I was wearing my Pendleton fisherman’s sweater. It wasn’t warm out. And then a flock of tourists came by. We knew they were tourists before we could hear them because they all had large red beach towels with the word ‘ENGLAND’ emblazoned across it hanging around their necks, like they were part of the same flock of red faced birds, to be observed from afar. Then one of them decided that he needed to take a wee and promptly relieved himself all over a stack of beach chairs where we rent loungers in the summer. To say we were actually pissed off is an understatement! How dare he? But we knew they dared – they’re English, and they told us so!

Recently, Brexit has been a large part of the convo around here. It’s become an obsession since so many British citizens live in Spain. They speculate about it, and rant and rave about their Prime Minister’s botched Brexit job. We aren’t one’s to talk with our own country in such a freaking mess right now, so we usually just listen.

‘Well I just don’t see why we have to follow all those laws the EU would come up with. I mean we’re not all supposed to smoke in cafe’s now. It’s the law in EU and in Britain we follow the law. But you’ll notice in Spain they don’t. They just ignore what they don’t like. That’s why I voted to leave.’

My eyes narrowed.

‘You voted to leave the EU because Britain is following EU laws around smoking in outdoor cafe’s and Spain isn’t?’

‘Well, yes.’

I was dumbfounded. ‘First off, you don’t smoke.’

‘I know.’ they said ‘but other people do.’

‘Yes .’ I said ‘But I don’t want to have to smoke other people’s cigarettes while I have a coffee. So it’s good Britain is enforcing it. And secondly, you live in Spain. And you want to stay here, with no guarantee that you’ll be able to after Brexit. So you voted against your own self interest so that Brits you don’t live near can smoke in Britain in outside in cafes?’

But the capper for us was over hearing a rowdy group of English (I’m hoping on holiday and not locals) in a cafe we frequent. Now my Spanish is not good. And after being away for a month it didn’t get better. But I do what I can and I muddle through. One thing I don’t do is shout louder in English when I encounter someone who doesn’t speak any of my native tongue. But this group of jolly, rather inebriated, assholes did. And when the waitress walked away they said something that is the cherry on the ethnocentric cake that seems all too common with those from the British Isles.

‘Spain would be so much better if there weren’t so many Spaniards.’ Loudly and then they all laughed and agreed wholeheartedly that yes, indeed, it’s the Spanish that ruin Spain because they’re all lazy and they don’t speak English. We got the check and paid. While walking ever so close to their table to leave I said – not so much under my breath.

‘I disagree – I just think it’s all the fucking assholes who come here and forget to pack the manners Mummy tried and failed to teach them.’ And we left quickly before I was tackled by a guy who clearly played a game or two of rugby at school.

This week I saw the article about how Spain will surpass Japan in life expectancy by 2040. Yes, if you live in Spain you’ll live longer than all others in the world. It has the weather, A LOT less stress, and the food is a Mediterranean diet. The best for heart health and cancer prevention. And if you do get sick, the health care here is top notch. Believe me, I know. Next time, I want to hold that up to the British who are ranting about the people of the country they are lucky enough to be allowed to enjoy by the grace of the Spanish government, and shout.

‘Your culinary contribution to the world was boiled meat! You didn’t discover the existence of garlic until 1975. Suck it!’

I used to be very quiet about telling anyone I was an American when traveling. Our reputation in the world being what it is. But now whenever someone asks me if I’m from Inglaterra I make sure to tell them NOOO! I AM NOT. There’s a part of me that is hoping that some of the English can’t come to Spain after Brexit. They can go back to the UK. You know how the old saying goes ‘England. Not like Spain at all, and without all those lazy Spaniards.’ Sounds like heaven to them. Wonder what their life expectancy in the UK will be in 2040. Oh wait! I won’t really care because I’ll be living in Spain.

OK – I’m done now.

You know I’m 52

I am 52 years old. After several days at my parent’s house I feel the need to state it out loud. In fact, I’ve already told other people this since I’ve been here. I know it sounds strange but it’s necessary.

In Valencia, or when I’ve lived in any other city, I never felt the need to announce my age to virtual strangers. It’s not because I look older or younger than I am. It’s because other people just assumed I was an adult that could chew gum and tie my own shoes. Or find my own way home. But when I come back to Portland, to the city and the house where I grew up, it’s essential. As a reminder, even to me.

We were checking out at the bike shop the other day and my phone rang. It was my Mother wondering where I was – we had been gone from the house for 2 hours. We spoke and I hung up and turned back to the person who was helping us. She had heard my end of the conversation.

‘I’m 52.’ I told her with a smile.

She laughed. ‘Yeah, I’m 54. My Mom still calls me and wonders where I am. She lives in San Francisco.’

We finished our business and went back to pick up my parents for lunch. They were graciously taking us out for good barbecue – something we can’t get in Spain. I drove because my Mom has cataracts. She drives when I’m not here but that seems to be irrelevant, because from the back seat she told me what to do the entire time.

Now, I’m not talking directions here. It was as if I was 15, just learning to drive and she was ensuring I didn’t hit anything and actually stopped at red lights.

‘Now, you’ll want to slow down here and look to your left because traffic can come from there. Then you’ll want to look over your right shoulder because they’ll be merging traffic. Make sure you’re getting over but not too far over and increase your speed.’

Jeff was sitting next to her in the back. I could see his face in the rear view mirror and he was laughing so hard, knowing what I was thinking, he couldn’t look at me in mirror as his face turned bright red. My jaw was hanging open. Incredulous.

‘I’ve been driving for awhile now – you know. I got this.’ I told her.

‘Oh I know, but this area can be tricky.’ she told me seriously.

We got the restaurant and sat down. I tried not to say anything and Jeff kept his eyes glued to the menu. I looked over and my Mom was reading her menu when I noticed that her glasses were missing one of the lenses. I pointed it out to her.

‘Well, no wonder. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t see.’ she told me.

I sighed. Now I couldn’t be upset. Now I was more worried than frustrated. How she’s driving with her vision the way it is baffles me. It’s so bad she didn’t know she was missing a lens. I think she was telling me what to do and how to get there from memory.

But being here and being babied (cause I am the youngest in my family) has it’s upside. Before I arrived she had called me for special requests and stocked all my favorite comfort foods from childhood. Green jello and pears – always the go to when I was sick as a kid. She made spare ribs and her famous coleslaw. I say famous because it’s in the Nordstrom Family Cookbook sold in their cafe’s around the country under ‘Field Family Coleslaw.’ When I presented her with a copy of it for Christmas one year she was pretty happy. I made sure she got the attribution. This morning I snuck down and ate it at 4am. It’s just that good.

And she’s cooking up bacon and maple sausage every morning and I’m eating like a gluttonous king. An extra 5lbs will be heading back to Valencia with me I am very sure. So perhaps being 52 this week isn’t so important. Maybe it’s more about taking all the concern and care on board and cherishing it. Because I know it won’t be here forever. Someday I’ll wish my Mom was there to tell me how to drive her car and worry that I’m not home. And when that day comes I’ll whip up a batch of her coleslaw and say a little prayer. Grateful that even at my age, she still worried about me.

 

 

¡Hola Madrid!

We took the high speed to Madrid from Valencia for our final days with Emilie before she went back to school. It cuts the travel time in half but still allows for beautiful views of wine, olives and this time of year, sunflower fields by the mile. All along the route it seemed the flowers were facing us with their sunny greetings. And the train station in Central Madrid is a botanical marvel itself.

 

I’ve not spent time in Madrid, other than to fly in and out. We are coastal people and interior cities that don’t boast a large body of water have never held sway with me for vacation destinations. But I must say, I LOVE MADRID!  And now, so does Jeff. And we walked about 30 miles of the streets, parks and museums while we were there. It’s a city so rich with history and culture it nearly soaks into your skin through osmosis.

We stayed near the Prado on the edge of Sol. The neighborhood is old and the streets shady and narrow. Gran Via and Sol are where Earnest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, drank (ALOT!) and generally soaked up the Spanish way of life he loved so much. Cervantes lived around the corner from our hotel and wrote Don Quixote while living there. Walking the streets, there are quotes from famous residents memorialized in brass in the cobbles. Poets, novelists, musicians.

We spent an afternoon in the The Parque del Retiro. It’s and incredible place, built for strolling on a very hot Madrid summer afternoon. Shade abounds and every turn brings new discoveries. The lake (Estanque grande del Retiro) where boats can be rented reminds me of a family vacation to Versaille. Nothing like tooling around on the water on a summer day.

The park sports a now defunct zoo from Franco’s time. But the cages are still there. And peacocks by the dozens roam free with their babies. I had never seen a baby peacock before but, as Emilie found out, the mother’s are very protective.

Madrid has so many monuments recounting it’s rich history and it rivals Paris for military and artistic exploits, and it’s pride in celebrating them. But Madrid outpaces Paris in the ‘Let’s put monuments and statues on top of buildings’ category. Here, they win every time.

The streets nearby the Botanical Gardens are shut down on Sundays so everyone is out walking their dogs, strollers flying and exercising like it seems is the number one Spanish past time. Again, we need to start running if we’re going to keep up. Literally.

We spent some happy air conditioned hours in the Prado. I had never been and had always wanted to go. Caravaggio, Sorolla – Valencia’s native son, Velazquez, Poussin. They’re all there. Portraits of Charles V and his many wives and all the Bourbons and Infantiles of Portugal. And the statuary is impressive. I have, however, reinforced my feelings about Goya. On my darkest day I don’t think I have ever been as down as the images captured in his 14 painting dubbed ‘The Black Paintings’. My first exposure to him was at The Frick in NY and his work in the Prado did little to change my impression.

Our dinner on Saturday night was to DIE FOR! An Argentine meat place near our hotel called ‘La Cabana Argentina’. We’ve now had the best meal we’ve eaten since we moved to Spain five months ago. The meat was perfectly cooked and the sides were scrumptious. It smelled so good that just walking in we were salivating after a long hot day of seeing the city. The service was first rate and we left feeling like we’d gotten a great deal on dinner after spending more than we have on one meal since we left the US.

Finally, it was time to take Em to the airport. We had a couple of choices. A train for 2.50 from the main train station at Atocha. The Metro for 5 euros. Or a taxi for 30 euros. So we took the taxi. With everything else, I wasn’t up for the stress of trying to figure it all out for the first time, while making sure Emilie got to her flight on time. So Jeff and I took the train back after we checked her in and dropped her off at security. I shed more than a few tears. Emilie was her confident self taking it all in stride. Next time it will be a piece of cake navigating Madrid airport transport.

So now Emilie is safely ensconced back at school (I got her text in the middle of a sleepless night) and we’ve had a great final weekend and cultural excursion in Madrid as a family. And now we know it’s a city we want to see much more of. I guess, like Ernest Hemingway, we are falling in love with Spain more and more every time we turn a new corner.