Irish Times

Alright, so due to the sheer volume of material I want to cover I've decided it will be much simpler if I break things up a little bit.  So, this post will be dedicated to my visit to Ireland and the week that preceded it.

As it happened I had one last weekend between France and Ireland during which I got to enjoy Hamburg without dealing with packing and other such craziness.  I took advantage of the sun and the free time to say my final goodbyes to my favourite part of Hamburg: the Alsterarkaden.  Once I had gotten myself some caffeine I set up camp on the steps of the canal, fished out my notebook and started sketching the far side.  When I had first arrived in Germany my work had gifted me with a small company notebook which evolved into something of a travel diary for me.  At first I put in directions, maps, and itineraries, but later I included passing observations, notes to include in my blog, and sketches of particularly interesting subjects.  It is now one of my favourite souvenirs from my trip.

The day was fairly pleasant and uneventful, though I became very irritated with some passing tourists.  You see, down in the canals is a great collection of birds.  Mostly pigeons and seagulls but also swans, all of whom are drawn to the bread hand-outs by locals.  These tourists, however, weren't passing out food.  Instead, they were approaching the human-desensitized wildlife and kicking at them until the focus of their cruelty flew away.  I quietly hoped that they would fall into the canal in the process, and resolved that if they did I wouldn't lift a finger to help them.

The other moment of note was while I was sketching away.  I was listening to Patrick Watson's "Mr. Tom" on my iPod, and there was a street performer about 25 metres away.  He was entertaining the crowd with torch throwing and balancing, and he added to the show by screaming theatrically/maniacally.  Just at that moment, church bells began to toll.  It was such a surreal moment.  It seemed like the kind of audio-mix you see in film sometimes, where the protagonist stares into the distance broodingly while the world whirls past in slow motion.  But, as always happens, the moment passed, and real life restarted.  Below is the Patrick Watson track, which (I think) was really what set the tone for the experience.

The week passed quickly, and next thing I knew it was Friday.  Most of my coworkers from Online were vacationing during my last week, so it was something of a last goodbye for me.  For lunch we all went out for sushi (I'm sorry to say it had nothing on sushi in Vancouver), followed by the best cupcake I've had.  Ever.  Which brings me to a piece of advice: if you ever find yourself in Hamburg, the best bakery of all time is Liebes Bisschen, and the best salad I've ever had the honour to consume can be found at Esszimmer.  You can never go wrong with a mound of fresh greens, great dressing, and baked goat cheese.  Sigh.

But back to Friday.  Anyway, that evening we had another company party.  My employers recently bought a smaller company, and so we had a mixer so all the new employees could get to know one another.  It was a lot of fun, though I got my ass handed to me at foosball.  Apparently that's pretty much all they do during their spare time.

I don't even remember what time I got home at, but luckily my flight wasn't until late afternoon the next day.  I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, though I was irritated to discover that the "low-cost" airline charged to check any baggage whatsoever.  Thanks for the heads-up guys!  During the flight I wound up flipping through the airline's magazine, which was strange because I never do that.  However, I wound up stumbling upon a little article about something called City of a Thousand Welcomes.  It is something of a tourism project which aims to build on Ireland's reputation for hospitality.  Basically you sign up online and it will pair you with a host; someone who is passionate about Dublin.  You meet up at a prearranged time and go for tea or a pint, and they personally welcome you to the city and provide you with helpful pointers on how to best enjoy yourself.  Tired of traveling alone all the time, I signed up for the next day.

And it was a good thing I did!  Because I had signed up on such short notice I wound up being hosted by the company's founder.  We met up close to Saint Stephen's Green and Grafton Street and then relocated to Bewley's, a beautiful coffee shop right on Grafton Street.  If I remember correctly, the place was built in the late 19th century.  One of its most striking features is the stained glass windows, created by a famous Irish artist.  Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to get photos of them.  Anyway, in the end I was really pleased I had signed up.  I had a pleasant time with my host, who was happy to provide a wealth of personalized advice on what to do while I was in Dublin.

I spent most of the rest of the day doing a little exploring and shopping around the Grafton Street area.  I also got to stroll through St. Stephen's Green, a famous local park. That night I had planned on making a visit to the world-renowned Temple Bar Pub.  And venture out I did.  Unfortunately the weather had other plans for my night.  It had started raining heavily in the early afternoon, and by the time I left my hotel this had turned into a full-out gale.

Now I'd like to throw in a word about navigating in Europe.  Unlike in North America, where street names can be located on posts on every street corner - where they are readable and helpful - in Europe (I noticed this in both France and Ireland) street names can most of the time be found on small plaques placed on the second level of buildings on intersections.  Not every corner though, oh no.  So, you may find yourself at an intersection and the only way of figuring out where you are is by scanning the surrounding buildings, which may or may not have plaques on them.  Now imagine trying to do this at night, when the rain is blowing so strongly that you've lost count of the number of times your stupid umbrella has flipped inside out. Furthermore, crosswalk signals in Europe operate with different timing. Specifically one is allowed about twenty seconds to get across the road, but once this window is passed you will likely have to wait a good ten minutes or so until the next crossing. Apparently Europeans just ignore this and cross the road whenever they damn well feel like it and waiting around is the unmistakable mark of a tourist. I, however, have a strong respect for the damage vehicles can do to the human body and am more often happier to wait the two extra minutes rather than take a risk in areas where I'm totally unfamiliar with the traffic patterns.  To sum up, navigating was endlessly frustrating.

I wandered around the streets just long enough to get thoroughly wind-blown, bedraggled and angry.  To boot, Irish men - unlike German men - have no issue with voicing their admiration of passing women: a "pleasantry" which was rather unappreciated in my windswept and disoriented state.  Plus they were all like 50.  I got completely lost and wound up just giving up on finding the damn place.  Once back at my hotel I headed down to the bar where I nursed a whiskey sour while glaring at the rugby game playing on the TVs.

Weather-wise, the next day was more of the same.  The day started rainy and got progressively worse.  Despite the foul conditions I wandered over to Trinity College Dublin where I saw the Book of Kells (a medieval-era illuminated copy of the New Testament) and the "Long Room".  The exhibit showing in the Long Room was on the court of Louis XIV and consisted largely of books.  The Long Room was another of my favourite places from my European tour.  The photo (like most photos) doesn't quite do it justice.  The atmosphere is much more murky as the windows are all covered over to protect the books. The sense of space inside is so special though - it's the type of place I'd love to have a few hours to camp out within and just take in the surroundings.  The book of Kells exhibit was also really interesting, and included several video displays which demonstrated the medieval technique of book-making.  I was particularly interested in the ways in which the personalities of the various scribes and artists manifested in their different styles of ornamentation and writing.

Unfortunately shortly after I left Trinity College and was making my way down Grafton Street the weather took a serious turn for the worse. Once my boots had become thoroughly soaked I decided to go back to my hotel and wait to hear from my one contact in the country, a gentleman I had been introduced to during my visit to Düsseldorf.

Unexpectedly I wound up having a thoroughly lovely afternoon. Having become slightly chilled from all the rain, I headed for the shower and set up my laptop to play some of my favourite jazz. It was a big shower and I wasn't pressed for time, so I wound up laying on my back and singing along (the shower is the only circumstance in which I will sing) to Billie Holiday, Julie London, and Ella Fitzgerald.  While I had had several frustrations leading up until that moment, I couldn't help but feel completely contented and at ease.  I was in Ireland, a place I've dreamt of visiting for the last six years.  While Dublin wasn't my first choice - I've always been more interested in Ireland's smaller, pastoral, southern communities - it was Ireland nonetheless and I was euphoric.

After taking a good long shower I reluctantly got out and began the grooming process, starting with drying my newly-auburn hair.  Thanks to a spark of intuition (and some common sense) I delayed on getting dressed or putting on makeup, suspecting that thanks to the now-flooding conditions (thanks, Irish weather!) my acquaintance would be cancelling our dinner date.  Well, I was right, and though I was disappointed I decided to take advantage of being stuck inside and do something decadent. So, I ordered room service and snuggled in my jammies (yes, I still call them that).  I was thoroughly impressed by the hotel's clam chowder, and their cheesecake was also good though nothing to brag about.  I was less impressed by my entertainment of choice: Pan Am. Eugh, that'll be on the chop-block soon enough I'm sure. I was hoping for something like Mad Men and instead I got something along the lines of The Playboy Club, which I couldn't even finish one episode of.

I can't even begin to express how excited I was the next day when I woke up to sunshine! Feeling elated by the beautiful weather I got dressed as fast as I could and started out for all the landmarks I had wanted to see but hadn't yet. I started with Christ Church Cathedral, which has turned out to be one of my favourite parts of my whole trip.  Built up on the foundations of an older church, it is a sprawling structure with gorgeous stonework and a wonderful atmosphere. I finally got to experience sun streaming through stained-glass windows, and I took a lot of time just taking it all in.  It also has a great crypt which you are able to explore.  Christ Church was a popular filming site for the television series The Tudors, and in the crypts were several of the costumes that appeared in the series. Another surprise I found in the crypt was an exhibit of a mummified cat and rat.  The pair had become trapped in the cathedral's organ in the 1850s, and when they were finally discovered they were in a mummified state. It sounds terribly morbid but it was actually very interesting.

Attached to Christ Church Cathedral is a museum which explores the viking presence in Ireland over the centuries. While vikings aren't my favourite history subject it was an interesting exhibit (though more aimed at families I think) and I even got to learn how to write my name in "futhark", ancient viking runes.  After that I wandered over to Liffey river and the north shore.  I made it over to the Ha'Penny Bridge, as well as the 1785 Four Courts. I wandered along the (beautiful) river side and made my way up to a main traffic artery, O'Connell Street, and then up to the famous Henry Street where I managed to find some gifts for my family.  By that time it was well into the afternoon, so I made a brief stop at my hotel before returning to the sights on the south side of the river.  I got around to seeing 1752's Merrion Square, as well as (the exteriors of) the National Gallery (1864), Leinster House (1745), and the National Museum (1890).  Running out of time, I then hurried over to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, first built in the 1190s, but renovated and restored over the years.

This was another experience I wager I'll have for the rest of my life. I arrived just as the sun was setting, and as it so happened the young boys' choir was practicing. My camera died almost immediately after my arrival, but on the bright side this allowed me to enjoy the music without distraction. I quietly seated myself in the nave, basking in the glow coming from the high stained-glass windows. The choir's singing was nothing short of celestial. While I find traditional choir music moving under any circumstances and am also clearly in awe of medieval religious sites, the combination of the Gothic cathedral and the music that was specifically intended for that setting was nearly overwhelming. Though I am staunchly atheist I would absolutely attend church if every experience was like that. Amusingly enough, because it was a practice the priest would often interrupt the boys would loud criticisms and comments on what needed to be adjusted. While I would have loved hearing the music all the way through I must admit that it was rather funny listening to the very particular priest.  Unfortunately I couldn't stay long as the cathedral was closing, but I will always cherish the memory.

After leaving the Cathedral I wanted to complete one last thing on my to-do list: get fish and chips. The Irish Republic is certainly not England, and isn't even Britain, but I decided it was close enough and I desperately wanted to try fish and chips - a favourite of mine - in its native land. When I had met up with my City of a Thousand Welcomes host I had mentioned this, and he kindly recommended the best place to find some. Luckily this wasn't far off, so I picked some up en route to my hotel and was thoroughly satisfied.

My friend and I had rescheduled our dinner meeting for the next night, so once back at my hotel I got myself organized and waited for word.  Unfortunately due to a prior commitment we had to push back our meeting time, and I had a vague feeling that things might not come to happen at all. Sure enough the hours passed and with them went my certainty that we would be meeting up at all. Finally, at shortly before 11 he messaged me to let me know that his engagement had run long and he wouldn't be able to make it. I bitterly (and perhaps a little unfairly) thought to myself that that had to be a first: imagine getting stood up two nights in a row by the same person! To add salt to the wound, had I not expected to be seeing this person (I'll remind you: the only person I knew in the entire country) I likely would have chosen to visit a different part of the country more in alignment with my interests. I don't regret going to Dublin and I did enjoy much of what I saw there, but I didn't relish the "adjustments" to my social calendar.

The next day was once again sunny and clear, but for me it was off to the airport and back to Hamburg. Both the ride to the airport (via bus shuttle) and the flight were unremarkable (thank goodness), and I made it back "home" with no trouble at all; with only two days left at my workplace and less than a week to spend in Europe...

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