Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moving on...(or back in time) to Galway

So now that we've established that life doesn't always turn out the way we planned, I'm more than ready to move on. Back in October, I spent five wonderful days in Ireland, and I really want to continue writing about my journeys there. In my last post on my trip, I wrote about Galway, the city about 2.5 hours west from Dublin that looks out onto the Atlantic ocean.

As opposed to my time in Dublin, which was wild and raucous and yes, a little touristy (I toured the Jameson Distillery, after all!), my three days in Galway were quieter...a little wistful and contemplative and cosy, spent in the company of Iain's delightful, welcoming family. I was promised by a fellow traveler that I would love Galway, and indeed, I was captivated by its charms. I don't want to say that Dublin is not "authentic" Ireland, but it is a capital city and I do subscribe to the theory that if the capital is all you see of a new place, you haven't really gotten a taste of genuine life in that country. Galway was much more laidback and not as touristy (although there are tourists everywhere, and they usually tend to be Americans, as evidenced by one couple walking down Shop Street decked out in brand-new woolly Aran sweaters, Guinness toques, and the Stars and Stripes proudly emblazoned on their backpacks, whilst queuing outside the new Tommy Hilfiger!).

Back in his hometown after 14 months:
Iain on Shop Street,
going for the "wistful and weary returning Prodigal Son" look.

In front of the Spanish Arch, built in 1584.
As a port city, Galway did a lot of shipping business with the Spaniards.

"The tea doesn't care who may drink it":
Inside Galway's 2010 Best Cafe for a delicious lunch

Lynch's Castle - where legend has it that
a father hung (or lynched) his son!

Yes, the sun does come out in Ireland, and the effect
is beautiful.

We picked up some gingerbread from a little
bakery and ate it while sitting down on the harbour quay looking
out at this rainbow-coloured collection of houses.

County Clare in the background

The art of the perfect pour: waiting for our
Guinness at Sean O'Neachtain's pub

If you're interested in polls (I, personally, lost a lot of faith in polls when I read one that ranked Canada as the fourth uncoollest country in the world - I'm sorry, Iraq beat us in the cool factor?!?), then Galway was ranked one of the eight sexiest cities in the world in 2007, and in 2008 was the 42nd best tourist destination in the world. I can't vouch for these claims, but I can urge every visitor to Ireland to discover Galway for yourself. And enjoy a pint or two of Guinness while you're at it!

Friday, November 4, 2011

When life gives you lemons, make sangria

Update from the Andalucia region in Southern Spain:

First of all, Spain is INCREDIBLE. Beautiful weather, mouthwatering tapas, the best mojitos and sangria I have ever tasted (especially the local Seville version of sangria, tinto de verrano), stunning Moorish architecture, and scenery that literally just makes your jaw drop.

So, my whole "pack up and explore Spain with two random guys" thing has actually turned out brilliantly.

But, other things going on right now in my life haven't been that great. Basically, I was told the night before I flew to Spain that my job as an au-pair was, essentially, over and that they didn't want me any longer. Part of me really, really wants to defend myself right now, because I feel like anyone reading this would be like, "well, what was WRONG with you? You must have done something awful." To be honest, I'm not sure what it was I did or failed to do, but I won't get into details here because I certainly don't want to be a mud-slinger and I'm trying to approach the whole situation with grace and dignity. There's no point in being passive-aggressive or accusatory, nor do I really want to victimize myself or villainize the family I was working for. So all I'll say for now is that it obviously is throwing quite the wrench into my plans not only for the next year, but even just for the next week. I have nowhere to go and I have to survive for a week before my flight back to Canada.

Right now I'm looking into hostels and couch-surfing, and trying really hard not to panic. On top of the immediate need to resolve where I'm going to be sleeping for the next week, there's the emotions of "I feel like a failure" that I'm trying to deal with. But I need to look at this next little while like another opportunity to seize and to grow from. Spending this past week in Spain has helped my attitude immeasurably - maybe its something of this Spanish "joie de vivre" and laidback approach! Or it could be the weather - how can one stay depressed when you're surrounded by palm trees? Or it could be the glasses of tinto de verrano I've been downing in Marbella, Seville, Cadiz, Granada... :)

Either way, I just wanted to take this time right now to say that yep, I'm alive, I'm healthy, I've got a place to call home and return to, and wonderful family and friends who have supported me throughout this ordeal wholeheartedly. I flash back to my first night in Russia (one of the scariest nights of my life!) and I think, "Ok, if I survived that, and I survived three weeks of no heat or hot water in my flight in December," I can survive this. Its not ideal, its not what I planned or dreamed about in my preparations for England, but its okay.

When life gives us lemons, use them to make some really nice sangria (or, if you're in Seville, you can be all cultured and call it the local version, the aforementioned tinto de verrano that is so, so bueno)!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Galway: an introduction sponsored by McDonalds

This post is brought to you courtesy of free internet at a McDonalds somewhere in the Rhondda Valley in southeast Wales. Never thought I'd see the day where I'm thankful to ol' Ronald, but when he's throwing in some complimentary wi-fi alongside a much-needed boost of caffeine, I can forgive his creepy clownishness. Anyways, I've got plenty to write about Wales, but that's another Celtic nation for another day. Let's hop over the Irish Sea and travel west two and a half hours from Dublin to Galway...

Iain is from Galway, a medieval port-city on the Atlantic that looks directly across the ocean to my own home and native land, Canada. We took the bus from Dublin on Monday evening - a single trip ticket cost 10 euros each, and I also purchased a ticket back from Galway to Dublin Airport for 15 euros, a nice saving of 1 euro (yes, I'm cheap) considering that the airport shuttle that runs from Dublin costs 6 euros. The bus ride was uneventful save for an unfortunate experience with two extremely rude French-Canadian girls that just reconfirmed my already low opinion of les Quebecoises. Whatever. Who won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham again? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Anyways, Iain's mother Caroline picked us up at the bus station and brought us back to her place where we caught up with her and three of Iain's siblings. Around ten p.m., she dropped us off at his grandmother's house where we were staying and we watched the Irish news for a bit before going to bed. Then off to bed... in what was probably the coldest house I have ever tried to sleep in.
Thats the thing about Irish houses. They are freezing. I thought Iain was just exaggerating when we were back in Niamh's house, as he wrapped his coat around him and complained about the chill. At various times in my travels, I have made the mistake of assuming that because I'm Canadian, I am tough and hardy and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. However, the truth is that I am probably as much of a baby as Justin Bieber (and we all know that's saying a LOT!) I slept in four layers of clothing that night, and the next day went out to Penney's to buy a couple 5 euro long-sleeve shirts for extra layering. Brrrrrr!
I can't complain, though, because I did get to sleep in for the first time in a while. Au pairing is an interesting job to do, and the position brings with it numerous perks and benefits (such as the fact that I'm currently holidaying in Wales right now!) But one thing that you definitely have to accept as an au pair (or, you know, as a parent) is that your days of sleeping in are behind you. Why, oh why, can't we bank hours spent napping in our lazy "life is so tough" student days, to be used up later on, when babies are screaming in impotent rage throughout the night???

So after a delicious sleep-in, Iain and I headed off to the city centre, located around Shop Street, the main artery in the heart of Galway. One thing I've noticed about England is that every town has a "High Street", the main shopping street where you are guaranteed to find a cluster of familiar brand-name labels: Top Shop, Next, LK Bennett, Boots Pharmacy, House of Fraser, Monsoon, etc. (Kate Middleton is a huge fan of High Street style, and has often been said to personify "High Street Chic", although this isn't always a compliment coming from some fashion critics!) Iain disparagingly snorted when I made the connection between High Streets in England and Shop Street in Galway. "High Street sounds so British!" he said. "Its bad enough that we just got a Tommy Hilfiger here! Why do we have to be so obsessed with being like other countries?" The name "Tommy Hilfiger" was said with withering disdain and I burst out laughing as we walked past the store, which was indeed packed with customers.

I have some great photos that I want to post but as I don't have them on my computer yet I'll have to wait until I get back to England. We went to "Food for Thought", a charming little restaurant that won Galways's Best Cafe in 2010. The veggie quiche I ordered was delicious, with a flaky, golden crust. We ate our meals and poured over a trashy British tabloid magazine together (can someone please explain to me who Cheryl Cole is and why everyone over here seems to be obsessed?!) before gathering our umbrellas and moving on through the mizzle.

My internet time has just about expired (damn you, McDonalds and your 2 hour limit! I knew there had to be a catch somewhere) so I'll wrap this up now and continue later. I'm in Wales until Sunday and then I am carpe diem-ing and flying off to the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun...what a stark difference from wet n' wild Wales, huh?) for a week. Yep, Miss Spontaneous herself (if you actually know me, you probably either just choked on your morning cup of coffee or sarcastically raised an eyebrow because I am truthfully usually one of those boring, predictable creatures of habit) is going to Malaga, Spain with American Backpacker Dan (remember him? From Dublin) and his friends. Its a spur-of-the-moment trip, justified by extremely cheap flights courtesy of Ryanair, and yes, it could be dangerous as I don't really know any of the people I'm going to be backpacking with, but its all part of my travel philosophy - be open to new things, new people, new cities, and new experiences!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Trinity College: Books, Bollywood, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon

While some of us (cough, me) went to Playboy's Number Four Party School in North America, others went to slightly more prestigious universities with more of a focus on, crazy as it sounds, academics (disclosure: my alma mater is actually an amazing school with a strong history of excellence in both academics AND partying - we Mustangs work hard and play hard).

My friend Iain attended Trinity College in Dublin, founded in 1592 by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I. It was modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, and was exclusively for Protestants - an attempt on the part of the Virgin Queen to solidify Protestant Tudor rule in Ireland. In fact, even though Trinity opened its doors to Catholics in 1793, it wasn't really until the 1970s that Catholics began studying there.

Iain and I met up with two of his friends, Sinead and Patrick, at The Buttery, one of the student cafes. We talked for a bit and then I left the three to finish catching up while I took a tour of the college. A ten euro ticket included a 30-minute guided walk around the campus by a fourth year history student AND entrance into the Book of Kells exhibit, which normally costs 9 euros. A great deal!

The campus was more packed than usual on this particular Monday morning, thanks to a Bollywood movie that was being filmed on location. As per usual in Bollywood films, plot plausibility lost out to spontaneous musical dancing numbers, complete with rugby players:

Here's a brief outline of the film according to my tour guide, titled Ek Tha Tiger, and you can decide whether or not you will be heading to the theatre in June 2012 when it hits cinemas. A professor at Trinity has been selling secrets from his Indian government to the Pakistanis, so what does Indian Secret Service do? Send in their finest, naturally. And their finest agent is also their sexiest one, played by the woman who is undoubtedly one of the most famous Bollywood actresses, Katrina Kaif, who just so happens to fall in love with the professor whilst on a mission to kill him. Musical dance-offs involving rugby players ensue. I cannot WAIT to watch this cinematic masterpiece!

Russ, my tour guide, was a genial, knowledgeable guy who made several self-deprecating jokes at Ireland's expense. Actually, I noticed this trend of making wry, bitter comments about the state of the Irish economy and the government amongst all the young Irish people I met my age. Everyone seemed so jaded and cynical, which is perhaps inevitable considering the recent bail-out...but I don't know...there seemed to be a lot of hopelessness, too.

Standing on the quad opposite the chapel, Russ explained that every Trinity grad is entitled to get married in the chapel - the only place of worship in Ireland that is for both Catholics and Protestants alike - in the five years following graduation.

"So I have about six years to find a nice girl and get married," he said. To which I quipped, "I'm available!" (hey, he was good-looking and obviously an intelligent guy, and a wedding at can see I've raised my standards slightly from "wears shorts and is not a drug addict", clearly. Don't ask.)

Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that living in rainy climes is not so conducive to my general scheme of attracting members of the opposite sex. Let's just say the rain does absolutely nothing for my hair, which during this tour I had shoved up underneath a cloche hat in an attempt to hide the frizz.

Russ did not exactly seem swept off his feet by the drowned-rat look I was rocking, so I slunk off to the back of the crowd and contented myself with listening to the rest of his tour. I learned some interesting things, like how this building is supposed to resemble the hanging gardens of Babylon:

As Russ said in his lilting Irish accent, "It's a loose interpretation." As I said in my boring old Canadian accent, "Did the architects graduate from the School of Soviet Design?"

The tour concluded at the entrance to the Book of Kells exhibit (entitled "Turning Darkness into Light"), which is one of the top tourist attractions in Dublin and considered to be one of Ireland's national treasures. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript from 800 A.D., a masterpiece of calligraphy and absolutely breathtaking to behold in its intricacy and lovingly rendered details. It is not one of those objets d'art that you build up in your mind, and then when you see it, you're like, "wait, that's it?" The Book of Kells is just as impressive and awe-inspiring as I imagined, and the entire exhibit is beautiful, thoughtful, and informative.

The Book itself is a collection of the Four Gospels in the New Testament, but because it is slowly falling apart, only two pages are opened to the public for a period of a few months before it changes. When I was there, John 6:28-43 was displayed, as well as Luke 4:1, the temptation of Christ.

At the end of the exhibit, you're funneled out into the Long Room of the Old Library, which is the penultimate bibliophile's dream:

I always thought that the library the Beast gives Belle in Beauty and the Beast was my fantasy, but its been supplanted by this one. If you're willing to sign your life away, and you happen to be a masters or PhD student at Trinity, you can read one of these 200,000 books (organized by SIZE, not by author or Dewey Decimal code!) under the watchful gaze of the librarian!

The libraries at Trinity are the only ones in Ireland that have Legal Deposit Library status, which means that they are entitled to a copy of every single book that is published in the UK. So far there are 4 million books in circulation...when you think about it, that's a LOT of crappy chick lit that's getting sent there...

Trinity College was beautiful, and as it is so conveniently located close to St. Stephen's Green and the trendy Temple Bar district, its the perfect stop on a trip to Dublin. Even if there are no Bollywood movies being filmed when you go, I can guarantee that there will be no lack of bustle and excitement on the campus!

Just remember to bring a hat to hide the frizz.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Craic and another Canadian Thanksgiving abroad

If you're going to know one Irish word to impress people on St. Patrick's Day (beyond the standard "Erin go bragh", Ireland forever), make it craic.

Pronounced "crack", it is one simple, neat word that sums up a whole idea - that lively, spontaneous conviviality of good conversation and good company. Its what makes life worth living, those times spent with friends and family, maybe over a roaring fire and an open bottle of wine. Laughter, stories, music, love. It rests on the art of conversation and the importance of atmosphere, and is a vital part of Irish culture.

I learned this word on my first day in Dublin, where I met up with my dear friend Iain and his friends Niamh and Ronan. After I mentioned that that weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving, Niamh suggested a celebration. She quizzed me on the typical Canadian Thanksgiving menu, and then dispatched us to Tesco's with a shopping list.

This time (unlike in Russia last year when we had a similar Canadian Thanksgiving feast/excuse to drink with twenty-five people in a tiny flat), we were able to find sweet potatoes. We also forewent Mrs. Beeton's recipe for stuffing (it had been somewhat and controversially unpopular last year) and stuck to a storebought brand. We were a bit cheap with our "mozzarella":

We thought it should say "Not Italian but still GRAND!"...

And our wine (yes, that is wine in a box, which we carried not-so- proudly down Grafton Street, but quantity over quality was our main objective):

We made a quick detour to one of the many Polish shops (apparently there are a lot of Polish immigrants in Ireland, which I didn't know) where I could finally fulfill my tvorog craving (an incredibly delicious Russian cheese that I became obsessed with last year) that I've been battling since crossing the other side of the Iron Curtain in July. It was just as tasty as I remembered!

We made it back to Niamh and Ronan's, where Ronan and Iain were out on the Parboiling Committee and got to work on the potatoes while Niamh took care of the chicken (alas, no turkey!) and I peeled veggies. And then the feasting began!

There were nine of us: myself, Iain, Niamh, Ronan, their two roommates Hugh and Griffen, (both country boys who had moved to Dublin to go to Trinity College), Bernard (a hardcore Labour Party member who had eagerly followed Canada's NDP party's historic win last May, and then Jack Layton's tragic death, and couldn't wait to talk to a Canadian about these developments...too bad for him that I'm not exactly on his side of the political spectrum, but we had a great chat!), Ruth (an ESL teacher in China), and Dan (an American backpacker from Philly who was "couch-surfing" at Niamh and Ronan's that night). It was an eclectic crew, but oh, what an interesting one! Everyone had done so much traveling and living abroad, and we all had such varied interests and passions that it was one of those nights that just flew by in a blur of outrageous stories, laughter, wine, and...yes, even holy water. That came out when talk turned (albeit tongue-in-cheek!!) to the 'black bastards", AKA the Protestants.

Backpacker Dan (who all the Irish mistakenly thought was named Den for most of the night, thanks to the accent issue!) not believing his eyes that this was actual holy water

I was operating in a haze of sleep deprivation and wine-induced blurriness at this point, so I had to do a second take. Holy water?!?! Well, I guess this IS Ireland, the country where I was just one of many, many red-haired Catholic Katies!

I remember vague snippets of the craic we had that night (craic is always used with the definite article "the", by the way), but the overwhelming memory is just one of thankfulness. Before we tucked in to our feast, I was slightly obnoxious and made everyone go around saying something they were thankful for. Some were funny, others were poignant, all were heartfelt.

And as I looked around the circle of new friends, people I had met only hours before, I just felt so grateful for everything travel has thrown my way. Sure, gazing in wonder at sights like the Kremlin and Wells Cathedral is AMAZING...but its the moments I have spent in company like this, just enjoying the craic, that I will always treasure. Who knows if I'll ever meet these people again? But for one night, we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving Irish-style, and it was unforgettable.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Open House Dublin

Have you ever walked past a building in your city that you maybe walk past every day, or a few times a week, without ever giving it a thought, and suddenly you seem to notice it for the first time? You wonder what actually goes on in there, what that building's story is.

About a week before I moved to the UK, my hometown in Canada was having an "Open House" where old buildings that are normally closed to the public were open and being run by volunteers who were, essentially, telling the stories of these structures that we walk past every day without ever really thinking about. My mum, my best friend Heather, and I walked down the hill to the city centre and toured a few different buildings - the Central Presbyterian Church, a Scottish cottage, and the Armoury. We learned some fascinating history, got to sample bannock and scones, and even got a bird's eye view of the city from a bell tower! The event seemed to be very popular and I thought it was a really great way to learn more about our own past as a city.

Last weekend, it just so fortuitously worked out that I would be in town for "Open House Dublin," the same event that I had attended back in Canada, only in a WAY cooler city this time! (Cambridge, I love you, but you are not exactly in the same league as the city that is named for the "black pool" - Dubh Linn - of the original settlement. After all, you're just named after another city in an Empire far, far away).

We had ambitious plans to check out several of the buildings open to the public, but the incredible popularity of the event and the long queues snaking up and down streets meant that we had to content ourselves with less. We started off with a tour of Liberty Hall for an unmatchable view of the city and the River Liffey that slices the city in two:

As you can see, it was very windy!

In a bit of a sad ending to this building, Liberty Hall is due to be torn down soon and rebuilt. The architect who designed the building said, "I don't care what you do with it as long as its after I die", and he passed away a few months ago.

After coming down from the top, we had worked up an appetite so we stopped at a little shop that specializes in the full Irish Breakfast, a formidable meal that is almost impossible to conquer. I'm not entirely sure what (if any) difference exists between an Irish Breakfast and an English one - English Ian maintains that it is the exact same (but originated in England) and Irish Iain contests both claims. All I know is, its not exactly vegetarian friendly!

Let me see if I've got this right: eggs, sausages, bacon (back or "Canadian"), black pudding (blood sausage), baked beans, tomatoes (gotta have some form of vitamin C to balance out all that protein!), and toast. Whew! But, as they say, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

I skipped out of the meat options but still left feeling more than pleasantly full - and all for 3 euros! We meandered/waddled down O'Connell Street, the wide, elegant main street in Dublin that is named after Daniel O'Connell, a nationalist leader from the nineteenth century. The street is dominated by the grand (in the imposing sense of the word, not the Irish one!) 1818 General Post Office building, and the 120 metre Spire, a rolled steel sculpture that is colloquially referred to by "Dubs" as the "Stiletto in the Ghetto" or the "Biggest Needle in the North" (the part of the city north of the Liffey is the, uh, less "stylish" and safe district, to put it diplomatically).

Our next stop on the Open House Dublin tour was the Department of Education building, built in 1740 by the Earl of Tyrone for 25,000 pounds and sold to the Department of Education a century later for a steal of a deal at 7,000 pounds. Then it was on to the birthplace of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula and perhaps the man we can all blame for this current Twilight crap.

Bram Stoker is the great-something uncle
of Liz! (I'm holding a biography on the
original inspiration for Stoker, Vlad Dracul)

Our last stop of the day was Casino Marino, a "pleasure house" that was built by the Earl of Charlemont, a man whose unique affliction was that his health "required" him to have access to fresh air and social interaction. Um, duh. Like you're the ONLY one in the world who needs those things. Because the rest of us proletariat can just suck it up and live in dank, airless, one-room hovels by ourselves, right? It was hard to summon up any sympathy for the guy, as Iain, Niamh and I had a few laughs at his expense after hearing that! But the building itself was very interesting architecturally. From the outside, it resembled a one-room, one-storey Greek temple with its Classic construction and columns, and it reminded me of how many men at this time, including Thomas Jefferson, were inspired by their Grand Tours abroad to recreate miniature wonders of the ancient world on their own turfs.

Inside, however, Casino Marino was revealed to have three storeys and sixteen rooms! There were lots of little tricks to maintain the sense of Classical symmetry from the outside, such as these trick windows:

Only the 12 panes of glass at the bottom right hand corner are an actual window that looks outward. The rest is just to create the illusion of large, symmetrical windows from the outside of the building!

The guides at each of the places we went were all well-informed, engaging, and passionate about their subject - truly making history come alive for us participants. I felt very lucky to have an introduction to a part of Dublin's past that is "off the beaten track" of O'Connell and Grafton Streets, and to have a peek in at buildings that even Dubliners walk past every day without really knowing the stories that lie within the walls.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ireland: so much more than just "grand"

In true backpacker style, I jumped on a plane to Dublin Sunday morning armed with nothing more than a borrowed rucksack from Liz's days at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy; a guidebook to Ireland; and a trench coat. And it turns out that really was all I needed. My purse-toting, check-in luggage days are over...okay, okay, for now at least. I've experienced what it is like travelling with kids in the past few weeks and I know what my future holds one day...

I don't want to throw an overwhelming and disjointed amount of information about my trip at you so I'm going to organize things into separate posts in the hope that this way, if you're really interested in, say, churches, you can read my forthcoming post about St. Nicholas' in Galway (trust me, it was WAY cooler than just an ABC - Another Bloody Church) and just skip over posts about drunken Irishmen and toting wine in a box down Grafton Street (although trust me, that's a pretty interesting story too!)

Here I just want to give my quick, overall impressions of the Emerald Isle, Aerinn, Ireland. One of the first things I noticed (I am such a language nerd) was the constant use of the word "grand". When my phone didn't work and I had to borrow a Good Samaritan's mobile, she shrugged off my apologies with a sunny "Oh, its grand." The weather and food were consistently described as "grand", and in reply to "how are you?"s, the answer was always, "I'm grand."

"What does all this 'grand' stuff mean?" I asked my friend Iain after a few hours in Dublin and about seventy "grand"s from him, his three friends we met up with, and various passersby on the streets. "Magnificent, wonderful, imposing?"

He burst out laughing. "It just means 'better than s***."

Oh. Okay. Apparently its a very typically Irish thing to say...about EVERYTHING. I myself even started saying it, when people would ask me how I was finding the "mizzle" (mist + drizzle = this delightful combination). "Oh, its grand!" At one point while Iain and I were having pints of Guinness at an outdoor pub in Galway, the weak, watery sun managed to shine through for a brief second and I was suddenly struck with a rather poetically Irish realization:

"It doesn't get much better than this, huh? A glass of Guinness, a good friend, people-watching, and some is grand!" Maybe the Irish are on to something. It doesn't take much, but its better than s*** and maybe we could all do with remembering that every now and then.

But don't think for one minute that Ireland is JUST "grand". It is so, so much more. Ireland is cloudy skies that give way to sunshine that illuminates the countryside. Its a patchwork quilt of jewel-like green squares. It is lively pubs, graceful, arching bridges spanning the Liffey, cheerful smiles, and imposing Georgian architecture. It is cold houses but warm, welcoming hearts.

Erin go bragh! Ireland Forever!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Up in the Air...again!

Tomorrow morning I fly out of Bristol airport to Dublin International - I'll be in Ireland for a five day mini-holiday with my friend Iain. Iain and I worked together as English teachers in Russia, and he is currently working in Helsinki but coming home to Ireland for a visit. I'm so excited to see him (we haven't seen each other since June, when we both headed off to teach at different camps in Russia and Bulgaria) and to finally see Ireland, a country I've always wanted to explore. Can't wait to get my pint of Guinness at the Storehouse and maybe experience some of that luck o' the Irish myself! :)

A cool pic from today's trip to Swindon:

I've noticed red mail boxes around the streets here with "ER" emblazoned
on them for "Elizabeth Regina" - Queen Elizabeth. But today I saw one
from an older era: GRVI for George Rex the Sixth, Elizabeth's father
(reigned 1937-1952), the subject of the Oscar-winning film "The King's Speech."

Friday, October 7, 2011

Bangers, Bubble and Squeak

Mmm mmm good. There's something so appetizing-sounding about sitting down to a meal called Bubble and Squeak, isn't there?

No? Well, even though the name might throw you for a curveball, the meal itself is delicious, quick, easy, and healthy. Its also a great way to sneak in some veggies for kids who might think they don't like broccoli or leeks! (You can see that I'm learning some clever mummy tricks as an au pair!)

Bubble and Squeak is a traditional English dish made from the leftover vegetables from the Sunday roast dinner. Usually, this includes cabbage, but the recipe is open-ended - you can throw in any leftover veggies you want to use up. For Liz's bubble and squeak today, she used broccoli and leek. The veggies get mashed in with boiled potatoes, then fried in a pan with a bit of olive oil until the mixture is well-cooked and a little crisp. Its usually served with cold meat from the Sunday roast, and Branston pickles, although today instead of roast meat we had another classic English food - bangers, or sausages.

Preparing the broccoli, leeks, and potatoes:
just three easy ingredients!

So um, where does the "bubble" and "squeak" come in? That was exactly my question as I hovered over Liz photographing her work (one of the unfortunate side effects of living with a blogger...thank you Liz and Ian for putting up with me!)

The name is inspired by the exact sounds that the dish makes while its cooking - the "bubble" and "squeak" of the mashed veggies as they fry in the pan. The earliest known recipe dates back to 1806 and has always been very popular here as its a convenient and tasty way to use up leftovers. It was especially prevalent during World War Two when rationing was in place.

As I sat down to my very English supper of bangers (veggie ones, so I guess they're not traditionally English if you want to be nitpicky!), Bubble and Squeak, with my new English family grouped around me - Baby B happily chowing down, Wills mauling his mash while James told Liz, Ian and I about his day at school - I couldn't help smiling to myself. One thing I'm so grateful for are all the authentic experiences I've had throughout my travels since graduating university. I don't think it gets any better than this!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Katie the Au-Pair and the Blustery Day

Today we braved the bluster and let the wind push us along the street to James' primary school, which luckily is literally just behind Liz and Ian's house (my house too now? It's definitely starting to feel like home in the sense that I can make my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night without having to feel my way around in the darkness).

Once we got to the school, I stood with James and Wills by the front gate with all the other kids, waiting for the principal to come unlock the door. Everyone was lining up (queuing?) with the excitement that is generally reserved for the mosh pit or a Wal-mart on Black Friday. Wait a couple of years, kids. That enthusiasm will fade.

Anyways, I was chatting away with James and Wills as we waited when it slowly dawned on me that the other children around us were pointing at me, staring, and giggling and whispering to each other. Despite the fact that I still have difficulty operating the baby-proof gates that are installed on the stairs at Liz and Ian's, and glossing over the incident this morning when I finally caved and asked Liz to show me how to open the child-proof Listerine bottle, I am not an idiot. I realized that I was the focus of amusement.

"Are you laughing at my accent?" I asked them mildly.

One red-haired girl (a ginger, bless her soul...oh wait, gingers don't have any) went as scarlet as her hair. "," she stuttered.

"That's okay," I said, smiling. "I'm sure I sound funny to you. Where do you think I'm from?" (I realized this could be a very stupid question as I was currently sporting my Olympic shirt that has "CANADA" emblazoned across the chest.)

"Umm...Florida?" they guessed. Hmm. Never mind. Maybe my comment about the Canadian education system in yesterday's post could also describe the English one. ;)

Eventually, they clued in to the shirt but then the principal came to unlock the gate and I was nearly trampled by the uniform-clad students who, in their eager rush to learn, almost knocked me down. In England, all students wear school uniforms, unlike in Canada where it is only found in private schools or Catholic high schools. The uniforms here are adorable and very smart - gray wool trousers or pinafores, red polo shirts, and blue jumpers (sweaters). Girls wear knee socks and Mary-Jane shoes, and they also have the option of a red and white gingham pinafore. Liz told me, however, that this school uniform is considered actually quite casual, and that usually the kids have to wear ties and blazers! I absolutely loved wearing a uniform in high school, as it made mornings just SO much easier, so I think the prevalence of uniforms in English schools is a great idea and one that should be implemented in Canada.

My accent has definitely garnered me attention here in Somerset county, and its a different kind of attention than what I was receiving in Russia last year. Whenever I spoke Russian with my foreign accent, people would either laugh or look at me like I had escaped from the mental institution that was on the way to Abramstevo. But here, I mostly get curious, welcoming smiles...and a LOT of "Are you from America???"

At Sainsburys' (one of the grocery store chains here) over the weekend with Liz, the check-out girl stared at me with awe. "I just LOVE your accent!" she gushed. "Are you from America?"

"I love YOUR accent!" I told her, which is so true. British accents sound so, so much better! We talked for a few minutes and it was just so nice to be able to have a real conversation. My grasp of Russian was so poor that I often couldn't manage a conversation beyond the basics, which was obviously very limiting.

Anyways, enough about accents. The rest of today was spent playing "spot the chav" at Asda, watching Tom and Jerry with Wills, and letting the wind do the work on my run. It is definitely a blustery day worthy of Winnie-the-Pooh!

Chav-Spotting at Asda

Chav britannicus - a sub-category of the homo sapiens species, noun. Describes a youth or young adult, either male or female. Typically spotted in pink velour or Adidas tracksuits, Burberry (either real or counterfeit), caps with flat brims worn askew, and bright jewelry commonly known as "bling." They congregate in city centres and can be recognized by their distinctive version of proto-English.

Common phrases uttered by chavs include "bruv", "Am I bovvered", and "Wharru on about?" Education is minimal. Skin is an unusual shade of orange that is not naturally occurring in the human world.

Chavs enjoy R&B and hip-hop music, even though they may have racist attitudes towards people who usually sing such genres. They see themselves as glamorous and cool, although this opinion is not shared by other, more productive members of society. A Chav has no motivation to better himself outside of pimping his ride.

Female chavs sport the "Council House face lift" - a skin-tight ponytail pulled back so tightly that the skin around the eyes is lifted. The female chav can be spotted in her natural habitat of a shopping centre, pushing a pram around with mini-chavs in the making whilst enjoying a cigarette.

Spokespeople for chavs include Katie Price, the footballer Wayne Rooney, Kerry Katona, and the entire cast of The Only Way is Essex.

Chavs are not a phenomenon occurring solely in England. Other cultures have also reported sightings of chavs, including Scotland (NEDs - Non-educated Delinquents), North America (white trash), Russia (gopniks), Australia (bogans), and Ireland (Skangers).

Standard descriptions of chavs can range from "low-life scum" to "dregs of society," but usually the adjectival form "chavvy" is enough to adequately define the chav to the proper degree.

If you are interested in observing this curious sub-species, a trip to one of their stomping grounds, the superstore chain Asda, is an excellent place to start. Although their demeanor and behaviour intimidated me to the point where I was too scared to snap more than one quick photograph, I certainly saw a fair share of chavs and left the store satisfied with my cultural experience.

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to a curious breed of human, indeed - the Chav.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Brizzle in the Drizzle

Welcome to Bristol, or as the Bristolians pronounce their hometown in that distinctive twang, "Brizzle."

There's a lot of drizzle in Brizzle. But there's also a lot more to this historical port city than its mercurial weather. Although we were on a bit of a time crunch with a toddler and a baby on board, and a 5 year old with a school pick-up time at 4, we managed to fit quite a bit in to the day. It was a great introduction to Bristol:

The Clifton Suspension Bridge. Fittingly, the name Bristol
comes from the Old English
"Brycgstow", meaning
"the place at the bridge." The CSB was designed in 1864 by
Isambard Kingdom Brunel and is a distinctive symbol of the city.

A little piece of home: on board the replica of the
Matthew - the ship John Cabot sailed to the Banks
of Newfoundland in 1497! The people working on the ship
(now a historical monument free and open to the public!) were
quite excited to meet a Canadian, although my knowledge
of John Cabot's discovery was embarrassingly minimal. I'll
blame the Canadian education system for that one.

At the entrance to The New Room, John Wesley's
Chapel. The oldest Methodist chapel in the world.

Inside the chapel. The pulpit was placed high up with bars around
and no ground-floor windows to protect the abolition-preaching
Wesley from hordes of angry Bristolians who made their
livelihoods from the slave trade and thus had a vested
interest in shutting Wesley up. Yep, Bristol played a major role
in the slave trade, especially between 1700-1807, when more than an
estimated half a million Africans passed through Bristol on their way to
America - and slavery.

The doorways were accordingly adjusted to fit
his height! Duck if you're over 5"3!

Bristol is home to Banksy, the legendary graffiti
artist notorious for his satirical street art (and the Simpsons' opening
that he designed last year!). This particular display isn't Banksy, but
graffiti is definitely very popular in the city - I saw tons of fascinating
murals and eye-catching designs and graphics.
I'll be on the lookout for original Banksy art the next time I explore
the downtown!

This is just a quick introduction to Bristol, a thriving, cosmopolitan city that I'm excited to explore some more. It has a lively student population, thanks to the University of Bristol, and a thriving club, art and music scene that I can't wait to experience. Last night was my first trip to a REAL English pub, the Woolpack, and I loved it!! My first week in England has been a blur, and I can't believe how many things I've already gotten to see.

Liz, Wills, and Baby B on board our ferry - kids are free
and adults pay only 70p! Wills was so excited, although the
picture belies his emotions somewhat :)

Now I've just spent the past little bit trying to convince Liz and Ian to do North American accents, and I showed them the old "I am Canadian" beer commercial so that they can learn some more about good ol' Canuck culture (namely, how we differ from the Americans).

Where's I'm to now, you might ask? (Some more Bristolian slang right there!) Off to order some rainboots/wellies online from Next with Liz! Cheers!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Roses are red, violets are blue...

Marmite, you're brown, and I love you!"*

You know when the marketing slogan of a product is "Love it or hate it" that you're either in for a treat or a disaster. In fact, Marmite has such a polarizing effect on the British population that the phrase "the Marmite effect" has come into play as a description for anything especially provocative or controversial!

So what exactly is Marmite? It and its Australian cousin, Vegemite, enjoy a legendary status (although, because Vegemite has caramel in its ingredients, it has been described as a weaker and sweeter version of Marmite.) I was terrified to try it, but determined to give it a go.

Marmite is a thick, brown paste that gives off a VERY strong, salty smell. Its made from yeast extract, and is 100% vegetarian and also described as "suitable" for a kosher diet, although it isn't made in a rabbinically approved facility. It is packed with Vitamin B12, folic acid, and riboflavin (certain nutrients that are difficult to get enough of with a vegetarian diet) - although the amount of sodium might just cancel out all that goodness!

I approached my first Marmite encounter with no small amount of trepidation. In a perfect example of the Marmite Effect, Liz loves the stuff, Ian hates it. What really confused me about Marmite is HOW you're supposed to eat it. The most typical way is to spread it on toast, bread, or crackers, although mixing a spoonful of the brown goop into a cup of boiling water is meant to make a nice winter drink, and any fan of Mr. Bean may remember the episode when he spreads Marmite on some twigs from outside and serves it as an hor d'oeuvre to his guests!

I stuck to a classic Marmite sandwich. Here we go:

Tucking in

The look of love? Or hate?


Thinking about it


The first bite was a bit of a shock - it was a LOT saltier than I was expecting, and I'm more used to biting into something sweet. But a few bites in, I started appreciating the savoury taste. I would probably not put as much on the slice next time, because its true that with Marmite, a "lil dab'll do ya".

But it actually was quite good, and I think Marmite sandwiches are going to play a role in my diet this year! (And no, I'm NOT just saying this in some desperate attempt to be as British as can count on me to give credible reviews here! After all, I LOVE Russia but I'll be the first to admit that the traditional Russian salad Oliver is the most disgusting food I've ever been forced to choke down.)

Marmite has been in British kitchens for over one hundred years now. It was used in the rationing kit for British soldiers in World War One, and there have been special edition Guinness-flavoured versions, which sounds right up my mum's alley. Some British tourists to tropical climes will bring a jar with them because among its healing powers, Marmite is believed to repel mosquitoes. It got its name from the French marmite (pronounced mar-MEET, although the product is mar-MIGHT), which is a large earthenware cooking pot.

So there you go - a taste test and a bit of history on a food product that is quintessentially English.

Mmm, Marmite. "The growing up spread you never grow out of." Unless you are part of the 50% of the population here that abhors the brown gooey stuff!

*This little rhyme is on the back of Marmite jars!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wells - you mean Wales?

In university, my American history professor would lament the common writing mistakes undergraduates would make. He would admonish us to never, EVER begin a paper with the phrase "Since the beginning of time." It was trite, it was treacly, it was melodramatic and sweeping and outlandish. It was his number one rule, followed by his second commandment: thou shalt not use Wikipedia as a source (and if you MUST, thou shalt not have the shamelessness/stupidity to admit it).

Well, today I'm going to blatantly flout both of his cardinal rules. After all, I'm no longer a history undergrad, right? I'm going to live on the edge a bit. And rules, sometimes, are meant to be broken.

So, without further ado...

Since the beginning of time, humans have questioned who we are, why we're here, if and how and when we were put on this earth, and by whom, if anyone. Some people have called this search for the Other "God", and attempts have been made throughout history to find ways of personifying this Other, of becoming closer to Him, of honouring Him, of understanding Him even when we have a sort of desperate knowledge of the futility of grasping something much, much bigger than us.

One of the ways this search for answers can be exteriorized is through the medium of architecture. And what better way to reach for the heavens than through spectacular, sky-soaring cathedrals?

Men built cathedrals for a myriad of complex reasons, it is true - not entirely altruistic ones, either. Bishops and kings and rulers have naturally wanted to showcase their earthly power, and if they managed to appease the Big Guy Upstairs at the same time, well, all the better. But one cannot ignore the spiritual motivations that lay behind a cathedral's heavy stone walls, that desire to define and glorify the Other in a physical, real manner that we can understand. Some people scoff at beautiful religious buildings, wondering why so much money has been spent on a structure, for goodness sake, when there are homeless, hungry people in the world. I don't have an answer to this. Does anyone? All I know is that when I stood in front of Wells Cathedral, the seat of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, I understood. I understood why someone might be compelled, inspired, moved to build an enormous homage to God, a building that transcends the earthly kingdom that everyone was used to, and tries to reach the heights of heaven, that kingdom that was the focus of everyone's aspirations. Breath-taking, moving, magnificent, stunning...these words all come to mind when you stand facing the western side of Wells Cathedral.

It doesn't matter if you believe in God, or how you choose to worship Him, if you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim. Wells Cathedral cannot fail to impress you. Construction on the present cathedral was started shortly before 1184, but the grounds upon which it is built have been a religious site for millenia. Long before the birth of the man called Jesus of Nazareth, pagan Brits worshiped the site because of its three wells that had sprung up. The Romans also used the land for religious purposes, and in 705 CE the first church was established by King Ine of Wessex. When I learned this (and yes, I first read about this on Wikipedia, the night before we left for Wells in an attempt to cram in some knowledge!), I was stunned. My church back home in Canada recently celebrated its hundredth anniversary, and I thought that was old. Europe is a whole new ball game, it appears.

In the garden of the Lady Chapel at
Wells Cathedral

The Cathedral of Wells dominates the landscape of this city, the smallest city in England (population 10, 406; it has had city status since 1205). Wells may not be on the Top 10 List for tourists traveling to England, but what a great idea to add it! Yes, it is a little "off the beaten track" but that is EXACTLY why you should check it out. It is also 20-30 minutes away from Bristol, Bath, Glastonbury, Cheddar, and Weston-Super-Mare - all fascinating, historically significant places to explore in their own right.

Standing by the Cheddar Gorge, where
cheddar cheese was invented and kept in the
caves for a distinctive flavour!

Wells Cathedral has been described as the "most poetic of English cathedrals." For any history buffs/Ken Follett fans out there, it served as the inspiration for his amazing "Pillars of the Earth" novel, and was used as the completed Kingsbridge Cathedral at the end of the 2010 Pillars of the Earth miniseries! Having read this book, I found that my experience at Wells Cathedral was amplified. I am no architecture aficionado in the slightest, but the book gave me a foundation (pun intended) to better appreciating the marvels of the cathedral.

The unique "scissor arches": a brilliant solution
to crumbling foundations by master mason
William Joy in 1338!

I could write an entire paper on this cathedral (although I doubt I would get a decent mark on it, thanks to my sweeping opening statement!) but I don't want to bore anyone. There are fascinating and compelling stories within these walls, such as the murder of Sir Walter Raleigh's nephew, the pre-Copernican (back when everyone thought the earth was the centre of the universe) astronomical clock, the 300 figures of statuary on the west side of the cathedral, beginning with Jesus at the very top and his 12 disciples underneath, the Lady Chapel and the Chapter House, the medieval brasses that were sold off by Henry VIII during the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries...when you begin to consider just how much history this cathedral has seen in its thousand year life, you are completely staggered.

A bit of Russia in rural England: an icon
painted by a Russian artist depicting Saint
Andrew, the patron saint of the Cathedral.

The actual city of Wells is so much more than its cathedral, however. It is not a sleepy little English city, but a busy, bustling hub. There was an open market in the town square yesterday, where vendors were selling everything from fresh veggies to homemade cheddar cheese (invented in Cheddar, just a 10 minute drive away!) and fresh cider (the Somerset area is famous for its cider, which, by the way, is alcoholic and not at all like the "warm apple juice" I was under the delusion of believing it to be!). There are pubs everywhere, shops and winding, twisting cobble-stoned streets. Yesterday was the hottest October 1 in Britain on record, and everyone was out and about enjoying the gorgeous weather. The night before, Liz, Ian and I had watched "Hot Fuzz", a movie that was filmed in Wells, so it was a lot of fun standing in a particular spot and saying, "Oh, this is where they had the shoot-out!" (Wells is also where part of the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth: the Golden Age movie was filmed).

Another highlight of Wells is Vicars' Close, the oldest residential street in Europe. Unfortunately by this time my camera battery had died a slow death due to my constant picture-taking, but take my word when I recommend exploring this street! It tapers at the end by ten metres in order to create an optical illusion - it looks longer from one end, shorter from the other.

Since I've already broken the "history student guidelines to writing a good paper", I won't bother to write a long conclusion that sums up all my arguments and points and states my thesis in a new and exciting way (how many times can one rely on, anyway?) I'll keep it short and sweet: Wells is a beguiling, captivating, and delightful place. The cathedral will literally make you lose your breath as you cran your neck in an attempt to look at everything and marvel at the human hands who built it.