Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dublin, the Pipes the Pipes!

As we were riding the bus into the center of Dublin from the airport, we began to see pubs overflowing with blue- and red-jerseyed football fans (Gaelic football, as it turned out). The blue jerseys considerably outnumbered the reds, so I figured the blues were Dublin. The reds, as I later discovered, were from Cork—and they won. So, um, yay Cork?

Dublin is so easy. From the Charles Stuart Guesthouse, a basic tourist B&B just a few steps from O’Connell Street with The Dublin Spire in the middle, it's just a ten-minute walk to Trinity College and St. Steven's Green. As you're crossing the river Liffey, you'll hear Irish music coming from dozens of bars. Go in. Drink a cider for me. Ah, drink two. You'll never make it to Trinity College, but what the hay.

The Dubliners, at least the taxi drivers, are really proud of their spire. And let me tell you what: I wish every town had such a honking spire. You can see it from all over the city, even when you’ve had a lot of cider. Get a hotel close to the spire and you'll always know where you're sleeping.

There's the sweetest man at the reception of the Charles Stuart Guesthouse. His job is to give you tips and make you smile, and he does his job well. He told us that to hear live Irish music away from the throngs of tourists we needed to go to The Cobblestone. We did. Who likes traditional Irish music? Can we get a show of hands? Put down your fiddles and your pipes. Anyone? No one? That’s sad, because traditional Irish music—even if it is awfully monotonous and, well, painful to the untrained ear—it is also blindingly intricate. It moves me when I give into it.  Here’s a taste:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmSDFCdtH7Y&feature=related

For the first few songs, you tap your foot and wiggle your head. By the fourth song, you begin to wonder if the group of local musicians (who are all seated at the front of the pub in a special area, much like the one in the video above) aren’t playing the first song again or maybe the second one. It all sounded the same. But. But. But. The fifth song changed the way I felt about traditional Irish music altogether. The song still sounded like all the others, but there was an uncanny togetherness among the nine musicians. Not one note fell out of place. When they finished, the pub exploded with applause and I had a tear in my eye. So we left.

“Best to end on a good note,” I said.

“I don’t think I could have taken much more,” said my father.

The next morning we were off to Trinity College to view the Book of Kells. I love learning, but I hate museums. Imagine you’re reading a book, but the whole time there’s a group of Italian tourists behind you whispering veloce! veloce! That’s what I don’t like about museums.

I found the exhibit interesting because it described the art of manufacturing a book, from the production of ink and dyes to the binding of the book itself. If I can’t get a publisher all squishy about my novel, I’ll know how to make it myself. I just need to start digging for some red lead acetate in the garden.

More about Dublin next week, but for now . . .

I must be off,
Christopher

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Poo Project

As secluded as Glen Affric is, we had no problem finding our way there from Edinburgh. It took us two hours longer than we’d expected—on the dangerously curvy and narrow roads, we got stuck behind trucks, tractors, and cyclists pulling there babies in little carts—, but we made it all the way to the gate of Kerrow House without making a single unfortunate turn.

So we were a bit big for our britches when we set out for Grantown-on-Spey, the next stop on our tour of Scotland. It all looked so straightforward on the map: turn right at Loch Ness, take this motorway, turn right on that motorway, and so on. Although we were on major, wide roads almost the entire time, we couldn’t have made more wrong turns. Actually, I think we drove by our B&B a couple of times before we “found” it on the outskirts of Grantown-on-Spey.

Grantown-on-Spey is a conventional Scottish village with a row of shops, a meagre square and one acceptable restaurant. Suffice it to say, there ain’t much to do in the town, except drink cider and listen to the bagpipes. Just a dozen kilometres away is the larger, more congested Aviemore—don’t even think about venturing into the tiny Tesco parking lot on a busy day—where hikers and climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts start there trips to the Cairngorms National Park.

The Cairngorms are windy. And cold. And apparently a little crappy. Literally.

You see, hikers often stay a few days in the mountains, using the mountains each day as a toilet. Well, the park rangers have had just about enough of that.

Introducing the Cairngorm Poo Project. When I saw the sign, I just had to investigate.

As it turns out, hikers staying overnight in the mountains are provided with a little bucket and several biodegradable cornstarch bags, in which they secure their solid waste (yes, I’m searching for delicate phrasing) and tote it back down the mountain. At this point hikers deposit their handiwork into this nifty shaft.

When we came down from the chilly mountain (sadly without an offering for the poo project), we headed to the valley for a walk around the beautiful Loch Morlich. Who says the sun never shines in Scotland? At least for my father and me, the sun came out every day. The heather was in bloom . . .
. . .and the trees were smiling.

Next time, we’re off to Dublin.

I must be off,
Christopher

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Best B&B in B&BLand: Kerrow House or The Shakira of Scottish B&Bs

Scotland (as well as Ireland, but we’ll come to her later), should be called B&Bland. Every third home in Caledonia has at least three rooms for sleepy tourists. As with anything, some are better than others. That said, you’ll always get a tea and instant coffee cooker in your room and “Amazing Grace” piped into the breakfast room.
What sets the B&B men apart from the b&b boys is something called traditional Scottish hospitality, which, being from the South, I know a thing or two about (at least the hospitality part). I’ve stayed in quite a few B&Bs now, so I can tell you that the mark of a truly wonderful experience is getting to your car at the end of the stay and forgetting to pay.
This happened to us at Kerrow House near Glen Affric National Park, which is close to Loch Ness. Oh, I almost forgot: I spotted the Loch Ness Monster. I’m publishing my scientifically verifiable findings here for the world to see. This is Nessie. Very purple.
Kerrow House is not even on the same planet with the beaten path. It’s on a gaited estate, secluded from the sheep in the fields by a sedate copse of don’t-ask-me-but-they-were-pretty trees. The house, a lovingly converted hunting lodge, is near Tomich, Plodda Falls, Cannich, Glen Cannich and Glen Affric. There are lots of trails nearby for hikers of all abilities.
From the moment Liz (half of Liz and John, the proprietors of Kerrow House) welcomed us into her home, she treated us like family. And I liked her. They were in the middle of dinner, entertaining friends, but she took time to get us settled in, give us a bit of information about the glens, and recommend a restaurant in the village.
Our room had the standard tea and coffee tray, but the tea was gourmet and the cookies looked home-made. There were robes to use when going to the bathroom, which was just across the hall, very clean and fully stocked.
Breakfast was served in a beautiful dining room at one large table, which I find better than sitting at individual tables. One reason you book a B&B is that you enjoy a more intimate atmosphere. You want to meet people. Right? Almost everyone we ate breakfast with, from Edinburgh to Doolin (Ireland), was German or German-speaking. I ended up speaking German almost every morning.
Kerrow House was the only B&B whose owners went to great lengths to make sure I had something gluten-free for breakfast. They made gluten-free toast for me and let me take the rest. It’s no surprise that they were prepared for my special diet: Liz called me in May to ask me what I wanted for breakfast (in August).
She also hugged me good-bye, and then said, “Um, you do need to pay.” My dad and I laughed about that all the way to Grantown-on-Spey, the next stop on our Scotland trip. I must be off, Christopher

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Strange Things Happen

Do you believe in coincidence? Do you believe things happen for a reason? Do you believe in Santa?

In May when I started planning my trip to Scotland and Ireland with my father, I played around on Expedia.com for days, searching for the most economical meeting place and starting point for our trip. This place turned out to be Edinburgh, which was excellent because I have a couple of writerly friends there, M.J. Nicholls and Laura Guthrie, whom I’d never met face-to-face.

Besides playing Lexulous on occasion, Mark and I collaborated on a story last year—a bi-national, transexual, dysfunctional Christmas celebration ‘neath the Bridge of Sighs. Ho ho ho. Moo. Yeah, there’s a magic cow.

In May I booked my flight to Edinburgh. Then, in June I came across a contest for bizarre, dark fiction, so I combed our odd little baby’s hair and entered him/her. I was in the contest-entering mood that day. You should see where I’m going with this now, but there’s more.

In June I also started planning another trip. Ulrich the Anglo-Saxon Cartographer wanted to go hiking in South Tyrol with his family, and he thought it would be great for me to plan the entire trip. This is seldom a good idea. But everything worked out fine. The hotel I chose in Meranzen was fine, and we even had a free day to drive to Venice. Yay. I hate Venice. Venice is the armpit of Italy. Venice stinks. So, they dragged me kicking and scratching to Venice.

But then a strange thing happened: suddenly I, along with a hundred other sweaty, irritable tourists, was standing right in front of The Bridge of Sighs, the setting of the story Mark and I had written together a year before. By this time, we had been informed that our baby had won the contest and would be featured in Strange Circle Magazine.

Now we had something to celebrate. Our meeting was starting to make a lot of sense.

My first night in Edinburgh couldn’t have been better. We laughed, talked about writing, our writing, the contest, and the death of a close friend. It was rarely awkward. I was able to give Mark his half of the prize money. At one point Laura took out her notebook and wrote a fairly long poem from memory—a beautifully surreal love poem. It’s going to be anthologized this year. And then Mark gave me a Lucy Ellmann book that I was having trouble getting. I gave him a postcard. Yeah, a postcard. The picture I took of the Bridge of Sighs was crap, so I bought a postcard.

Christmas ‘Neath the Bridge of Sighs is forthcoming in Strange Circle Magazine.

All a coincidence? Well, I’m going to cowrite a story about the Great Wall of China with someone in Rio de Janeiro and see if I get a flight to China and Brazil out of it.

I must be off,
Christopher

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Shakira in Ireland

Sorry about the title. During the World Cup, I noticed that merely mentioning Shakira got me 50 more readers a day. It's a cheap shot, but, well, that's me. I love Shakira. If you're a Shakira fan, well, welcome! And Waka Waka! If you love Shakira, you'll love me too. I promise. I'm also quite flexible.

I wonder how many non-Irish tourists die on the road in Ireland each year. Someone Google that please. We happened upon a few signs-you know, those signs that tell you how many people have died in the last month/last year on a particular road in the hope that you have an aversion to becoming a statistic?—but I was driving too fast to read them.

The problem is, you're an American tourist (and a devoted Shakira fan) who's used to driving on the right side of the road in a driver's seat that's on the left side of the car. You're also conditioned to shift gears with your right hand because the gears are on the right.

And you bought your driver's license at Wal-Mart. Or at least that's what Egbert the Otter hide tanner tells me all the time. He's so funny. When I got my license at the tender age of 15-my God was I adorable at 15-I had to drive around the block once and park the car. The practical part of the test took about 10 seconds. The theoretical part included questions like "Which color means STOP? Red. White. Blue." I missed three questions.

So you'll love this. In Dublin, before they would hand me the keys to our rental car, I had to pass a test, which I'm going to try to reproduce here from memory. I haven't had alcohol in two days, so our chances are good.

1. Which side of the road do we drive on in Ireland?
2. Where do most accidents happen?
a. on motorways b. on dual carriage roads c. on narrow country roads
3. If I have an accident in the car, I automatically get a replacement car. True or False?
4. Which part of the car is damaged most frequently during an accident in Ireland?
a. front left corner b. driver's side c. back bumper
5. Put the following in order of importance, one being the most important
a. always concentrate b. stay on your side of the road c. slow down
6. Are all people in the car required to wear a seatbelt in Ireland? Duh. This is the only one (besides number 1 up there) that I knew for sure.
7. If Shakira comes on the radio, you
a. pull over and dance b. dance in your seat c. trick question because there is absolutely no radio reception in Ireland

I was sweating through this test. I don't like to perform badly on tests. I like to get an A; in fact, I'm a bit obsessed with getting an A. So I cheated. I asked the woman at the counter (we’ll call her bitch for so many reasons) for help, which she was glad to give. It turns out that the rental car company was just trying to get me to sign the agreement after having checked FALSE for number three up there. So it was all good.

“Would you like the windscreen insurance?” bitch asked. “We do get quite a few broken windscreens . . . from flying rocks and such.”

“How much is it?”

“Only five euros a day.”

“Oh, all right.”

I wonder what the employee training is like at Europcar. They must devote at least a week to “How to increase the customer’s bill to four times what he originally wanted to pay.” Extra driver, GPS, blow-up Shakira doll and the Upgrade . . .

“You have such a small car. We can upgrade you to the next . . . class,” bitch said and you know bitch knew the buttons the word “class” pushes in Ireland. I’m sure some people can’t resist the temptation of class mobility.

“Nah. I like small cars.”

“It’s only 15 euros more a day. Do you have luggage?”

“Yeah, but my father can hold it all on his lap. We’re fine.”

“Well. So when you return the car, please return it empty.”

I laughed. “I’m no rocket scientist, bitch, but that seems to be quite impossible.”

“It is our policy.”

Hmmmm. Let’s take a moment to dissect the architectonics of this policy. Europcar in Ireland charged me 72 euros for “Fuel and Service.” The teensie-weensie tank in the itty-bitty car only held 50 euros’ worth of petrol, which means Europcar charged me 22 euros for “Service.” What does this mean? And why should I be paying for it? I'd already paid 170 euros. What was that for? When we got the car, although it had been sprayed off, there were a thousand bug fossils stuck to the front of the car. In case you haven’t guessed, this is my “Rag on Europcar Ireland” paragraph. You see, there was no “Fuel and Service” charge in Scotland. In my next post, I’ll tell the story of how I tried to return the car empty. Have you ever TRIED to run out of gas? It’s hard.

Finally, a few words about the absence of pictures in this post. It looks so somber without pictures, doesn’t it? I’m camping out at my parents’ house right now (I surprised my father by getting on the plane to Nashville with him), so I can’t upload the pictures from the trip. I thought about uploading pictures of Shakira.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing bits of blarney about my trip to Ireland and Scotland. It was a blast, and apparently I survived it.

I must be off,
Christopher