Communing With the Mountains for Some Solace

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After Sterling and the fracas in Glasgow, we finally caught our bus to GlenCoe. Technically, we didn’t stay in GlenCoe itself; we stayed in a small town called Kinlochleven, which is in the same area. Again, this place doesn’t have heaps of history, but it lacks in heritage it more than makes up in landscape:

Snow-capped mountains: check. Small village with great people: check. Lakes and streams: check.

We really only had one afternoon and one morning after that due to the missed bus, so we didn’t have the time to check out Hidden Valley – the major feature of GlenCoe – but there are some paths from the town that are incredible in their own right, as well as views of the loch.

I was astounded not only by the views – as you will see – but also by the idea of living in such a place year round, in a community in which I could know everyone. I know that when I settle down (and God knows when that will be), I will try my damndest to find a place like that.

You may not be able to tell, but this waterfall is ginormous: we later hiked up to find the top of the falls; there are no pictures of this because the brush got in the way and because I was too busy holding onto trees for dear life and attempting to control my fear of heights to keep track of my camera.

Say hi, Pauline!

This is what the path looked like after the falls. Gnarly.

Onwards and upwards, right? We eventually ran into a fence and turned back, which was tricky going down the hill.

The town felt much more different than Luss at Loch Lomond ever did – it may be laid out in rows and organized meticulously, but everyone has a garden that’s arranged differently, and nearly no one caters to tourists. It was refreshing.

It was peaceful on the loch the next morning, the water a mirror of the mountains. Birds were singing, but otherwise it was utterly still. There are moments when you travel, of knowing where you are but being completely lost, but this was also coming home in many ways.

Someone took an eraser and wiped away the top of this mountain – what geology took millennia to create vanished in moments.

For those of us that are cow-conscious, there is probably some rumbling at the back: “She went to Scotland and didn’t even get any pictures of #$%^&* cows!” (Cough cough ZoeChelbie cough) Well, have no fear: while we were waiting for the bus back to civilization, Pauline went to go have a ‘cow moment’ while I had a quiet cup of tea. (What? I was tired.)

Meet, from left to right:

Bridget, Alastair, Tavish, and Elspeth.

In the following photo:

Ewan. He was supposed to be losing weight, so please don’t mention it to him – he’s very sensitive.

And finally:

Lorna. Yes, it is a new haircut.

Glasgow…City of Pain

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I’m mentioning Glasgow because we seemed to find ourselves there quite often. We didn’t mean to – but it seems that in order to get anywhere in Scotland, you have to go though this point, by train or by bus. We were in this city FOUR times, and spent one night here following our time spent at Sterling, because we missed the last bus to Glen Coe. My only positive association is the ABBA song that pops into my head whenever I hear ‘Glasgow.’

But here are some pictures anyway.

Just know that this represents a pound of flesh taken from me – and that you should never go there unless bidden to by travel authorities. Here be dragons.

Where People Volontarily Jump off the Battlements

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After a day in Loch Lomond, we decided to go somewhere else before Glencoe; we felt like we’d seen everything worth seeing where we were. So after a conversation with a great woman who seemed to know her history and geography of Scotland, we chose to go to Sterling, because she said that there was a fab castle there.

Turns out, you should always listen to the advice of strangers (except for…), because this was well and truly awesome. Sterling Castle is on a hill – most of them are – so it’s a bit of a hike to get up there, but it is well worth the effort.

There is so much to see there and even though it is touristy, it’s not really touristy in a bad way. It’s also gorgeous:

So after getting a hernia on the way up the hill (I’m not exactly sure about what hernias are, but I’m sure we had them, as we had our heavy backpacks on), we were greeted with:

Yes, fellow dudes, that is a castle. It’s a really cool castle. You can also tell at first glance that there is a reason why the king that held Sterling Castle and Edinburgh Castle held Scotland. This was also the home of a very important mint for the English pound – Sterling is why they call it ‘pounds sterling.’

This is the view from a tower back toward a balcony of some really strange statues (it’s to the left). There was even one of a devil with the usual horns and tail, but also with breasts – it’s supposed to be androgynous, some weird phase. You aren’t seeing a photo because it was cold and that statue was just too weird.

Whatever the case, this particular balcony was only meant for royalty, so because you know what the name ‘Sarah’ means and that I’m Scottish (in part, way back), I had full right to be there.

The balcony-gallery leads to a museum about the Sterling Heads. They aren’t real human heads, thank God (admit it, that was your first thought) but are instead wooden carved disks that have survived from the Middle Ages. They used to be on the ceiling of one of the king’s apartments; I think it was the king’s inner hall, but in any case, the king and queen each got a set of rooms: outer hall – inner hall – bedroom/receiving room. The king’s apartments in Sterling Castle weren’t furnished – with the exception of replica, full-color (garish) heads to replace the real ones, which are too frail to expose to tourists. The bareness of the kings rooms is due to the fact that the museum follows the story of Mary of Guise, King James the fifth, and Mary, Queen of Scots. King James died during the continued construction of the castle, so he never got to sleep in his apartments all that much.

For that matter, none of the three really lived fantastic lives. Mary of Guise was a widow from a powerful French family when she married James V, childless but with two children dead before their time. Then things were looking up: two boys were born, a year apart. The younger child died of an illness, and then his older brother followed soon after; Mary was able to go on, but James was brokenhearted (according to the audio guide we got – how do they know that?). They tried again – turns out that girls were luckier for them. They had Mary 2.0 a little over a year later, but James wasn’t around long enough to enjoy it: he died six days after.

Mary of Guise was left with a veritable graveyard of four children and two husbands, but she soldiered on, acting in her daughter’s name as regent. She ended up dying and passing on the unluckiness onto her daughter, now grown-up enough to eventually merit beheading by Queen Elizabeth due to her Catholic-ness and her plotting to escape confinement and regain her throne (the first Queen E. – the current one isn’t that old).

On a sidenote: Sterling Castle has a group of people replicating the Hunt of the Unicorn series of tapestries, in which a unicorn is killed – this is the last one, where the unicorn is magically back to life, though still in captivity. There are speculated Jesus references.

Mary, Queen of Scots (I really like Mary 2.0 better – why do they repeat names in adjoining generations?) managed to get married three times (one of which she may or may not have had murdered), so over the course of that time she had a son, James VI – who is also called James I, because he eventually ended up taking the English throne when Elizabeth I died, childless.

Congratulations! That’s something of a crash-course of Scottish history during the rule of the later Tudors. You made it. I’m sorry, but I have no medals for you.

In 1507 the court alchemist, John Damien, badgered for results, decided that it would be time to exhibit his skill and put on a show for the royal court – to ensure continued funding for his expensive experiments. We all know that this is not going to end well, so when I say that he declared that he would fly to France in a chicken suit and that he jumped off the battlements of Sterling Castle (pictured above), you’re expecting a crash landing. Fortunately for Damien, he survived with nothing more than a broken leg – however, this was because he landed into a manure pile. So while his exhibition was not a success, he continued as the court alchemist for many years – though perhaps taken less seriously than before.

This is the Great Hall – up at the other end there is the table for the king and queen, so the open area is where everyone else would be sitting. There are a couple interesting things about this place, too – for starters, there are fireplaces all along the gallery, so it wouldn’t just be the high and mighty kept warm at mealtimes. There’s also the ceiling, which is built without nails and is also the reason why this building is often associated with maritime nicknames, due to its resemblance to the hull of a ship. And speaking of boats: at one point there was supposed to have been a great feast here, with many important people in attendance. All of the courses were over the top, but they all seemed to pale in comparison with the fish course (of all things), which was served off of a platform with a scaled-down replica of a ship, complete with mermaids and other mystical creatures.

Up next: Glencoe – or maybe not…

Number of Nessies Sighted…Zero

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Loch Lomond was our first official stop in Scotland – Pauline and I had taken the bus from Cork to Dublin, flown into Edinburgh from Dublin, and taken two more buses. You may be thinking, “Holy Crap.” If this is the case, then you have an idea of the amount of time that it might take to get from A to B, something like 14 hours and 20 minutes, from one in the morning to 3:20 in the afternoon. We were a bit tired.

However, we had picked Loch Lomond due to what we had read on the internet: it is touted as one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. Well, it’s not so bad:

There isn’t much history here, though, so this will basically be a photo album; our hostel (more on that later) was pretty far from pretty much everything, so you had to get a ride from people you met in the hostel to one of two towns. We went to Luss, and forgot the name of the other one.

Most of these pictures are from the boat tour we did of the Loch; it is remarkable how much it felt like a lake at home, except it wasn’t so densely forested away from the shoreline.

The town of Luss is like a postcard – though in a very deliberate way, a gift shop on every little lane.

After getting off the boat, we walked down some of the paths around the town. It was fantastic to be in the woods again – that feeling of being lost and yet completely in my element.

Not only has there been a campfire at the base of this tree, there is also something odd going on…

The rest of the photos will be of the hostel. Why? Because it looked like this:

Yeah. This is a hostel. However, it’s not just for backpackers; they accept families, school groups, and weddings. This must be the only hostel in the whole wide world that people actually want to get married in. And who could blame them?

Now that you’ve all been wowed – a warning. I do recommend this place, but you need a mode of transport or willingness to hitchhike, as well as tolerance for a less-than-stellar staff. We were woken up just after we had gone to bed after that travel extravaganza because the guy was unsure we were in the correct room, as well as two mornings later. But they do have a staffed kitchen, and they’ll give you a great dinner (three options) for a reasonable price. Pros and cons, right?

That’s one dead deer. Also note the wallpaper. It’s not paper: its tooled leather, so you are technically looking at several dead animals, not just this one. I wonder if they ever make these heads with a tongue sticking out?

This is the smuggest bird I have ever seen. Too bad it’s too dead to enjoy the other dead thing…

Plaid carpet. ‘Nuff said.

The day we left – April third, 2012 – it was snowing. This is significant because I have a picture of it:

…and because I thought that I would be able to get through a whole winter without snow. Bummer.

And a final note:

I do rather like Scotland.

Land of Mists and Mellow Fruitlessness

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This marks the beginning of a series of posts about what I have done with my month break from school in April – my marathon of traveling: planes, trains, and automobiles. But before that even started, I had a week of field trips for a class and before that I had a weekend in Galway, which is what this post is about. If you’re confused, it’s fine. I have decided that events on trips are so muddled that it’s just not worth the effort – and it’s more fun that way, no plans so set that they can’t be changed.

It takes four hours to get to Galway by bus, which gives you an idea of where it is: it’s on the western cost of the country, about halfway up the coastline. It’s known for an oyster festival that is (apparently) very famous. I’m not that interested in eating mucous out of a shell, so don’t be too down that I didn’t participate in this aspect of the culture (they’re all farmed, anyway).

Galway is also the birthplace of the claddagh ring, which is the traditional crowned-heart-and-hands we see in the movies. They’re all over the shops in Galway.

Galway is a city of 18,000 people on the River Coribh (pronounced as ‘coriv’); as far as I can tell, it’s a commercial center, and has been for a long time:

This is the Spanish Arch, one of the remaining parts of the wall protecting the harbor from marauders. It’s called the Spanish Arch because this was the area where the Spanish did their trading with the Irish of Galway.

I really loved being in this city, because there was high density of friendly people and because the streets and buildings are beautiful in a non-pretentious kind of way – which is saying something, more than a month later.

This is a bank. In a castle. Think about that.

One of the places in Galway that I kept finding myself in was Eyre Square, a park in the city center – unfortunately, I don’t know if this is a reference to my favorite book or a happy coincidence –this is where all the kids go to hang out and be cool, which is unfortunate, as Irish teens are vicious sometimes. Why? No clue. Everyone above the age of eighteen seems normal enough – congenial, even. Also at Eyre Square – or rather, the top of the square – was ‘Occupy Galway’:

I thought that this was ridiculous. The main thing that the people there were unhappy about was the charge on septic tanks so that they can be properly maintained. This is a directive from the European Union itself (one with a time limit), so this should be no surprise to the Irish; however, the government dragged its heels and now they’re up to the deadline and everyone has to pay the tax or be fined by the E.U. It seems fairly straightforward to me, but what do I know? Getting septic tanks checked and/or emptied, will, by the way, prevent nasty situations happening in your lawn and in the environment around. (Consider yourself reminded.)

The first day I was there, I got to the city late in the afternoon, so everything was closed, but I walked around with my friend Joel and his friends (blessed is he among women). There is a beautiful walkway that has been put in by the river that we went to:

The walk ends at ‘Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas.’ Despite the long and pretentious name, it is beautiful inside, not too complicated, not too simple.

The next day I went to the Cliffs of Moher (also known as The Cliffs of Insanity), a major geological feature of Ireland. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

Uhm…duh. Though it was in part justified: the wind that day was fierce, and there were many people stepping over the barriers at the point where the walk ended. I didn’t go – if Blarney Castle makes me shiver before I even get to the top, 200 meter high cliffs sans fence are just not an option.

I was surprised that I could still hear the waves from so high up, but if I listened hard enough I could put aside the howling of the wind in my ears. But after all, this is how the cliffs were formed: millenia of waves beating themselves against the rock.

There are many stories about the Cliffs, some of which are more true than others. For instance, there is a long record of shipwrecks on the cliffs, including a few from the infamous Spanish Armada. There are also stories of mermaids, a sunken city lost to time, and a hag that became part of the cliff. There is a general history of people having the crap scared out of them at the sight of the plummet down to the ocean. I can’t blame them.

In order to get to the cliffs, you have to drive through The Burren, an area of rocky ground and mountains made of jagged rock and sheep.

I got back to Galway with some time left in my afternoon; I wandered around, ate gelato (!!), and encountered a street market, where there was this great pea-potato-curry yumminess and other foods, as well as crafts and curiosities.

The next day I went with Joel and Company on a tour of Connemara, an area in County Galway known for being beautiful.

If you have ever seen a spindly yellow plant in any of my pictures – like the last photo for Waterford, for example – that’s gorse. It’s a plant native to Ireland and England that you can find all over the countryside. It smells like coconut, or maybe coconut shampoo.

One of the most important sources of heat historically and in the present day is peat, an organic, dark solid that if you give a few thousand more years becomes coal. Peat is found in bogs, and when it has been cut looks something like this:

There is an upside and a downside to this; peat is part of the Irish culture, part of traditions and national identity. However, the bogs that it is cut out of get a substantial amount of water drained from them: this is critical for the life and health of bogs, a critically endangered habitat in Ireland. In order for the bog-building moss (sphagnum) to survive, it has to be in a water-dense, acidic environment, so you can see the problem here. Bogs help to purify water by removing toxins and excess nutrients, as well as promote the health of a variety of species. In Ireland there are under 20% of the total bogs left in their natural state.

We were also shown a classic example of a thatch-roof house (one thing I abhor about bus tours is that you are let out for five minutes at a time to take pictures, and in this setting, I felt like I was intruding into people’s lives bigtime, though I was nothing next to the woman that took photos through the window of a house to see what the interior looked like – I’m not kidding!).

We made a longer stop to see Ireland’s only fjord. Not to diss Ireland’s geologic heritage, but even my dim eight-year-old’s memories of fjords in Norway shove Ireland’s fjord into a locker, relieved of its lunch money. But it was still beautiful:

This last one is a fairy tree; if you want to make a wish, you take a token, climb over the barbed fence (ouch!) and tie it to a branch. They’re found all over Ireland – or so I’m told. It’s a great idea, though, isn’t it?

We spent the most time – a mere two hours – at Kylemore Abbey, a huge mansion nestled into a mountain, facing a lake. I could have spent double the time we were given there; it’s beautiful and very well maintained. By nuns.

Sweet digs, eh? There are about 15 nuns that run the place, accompanied by a load of staff that run the café and clean. I’m not really sure how much the nuns actually do, but these are definitely the nuns that have got a sweet life. If I ever get struck by lightning or impaled by an iron bar and convert, I’m moving there (and hitting tourists with my stun gun when they displease me). The house was not originally meant as a nunnery; it was built by a man called Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret as a wedding present. They had honeymooned in Connemara and loved it so much that they decided to spend the majority of their time there. It was built starting in 1867 – in the years after the biggest of the potato famines (this is the famine with the capital F, from 1845-1852). This basically means that if Kylemore took four years to build and employed about 300 people (100 of which actually constructed the mansion), the Henrys saved the area from continued, unbroken destitution. The potato or poverty didn’t go away after the Famine, after all.

At the end of it all, there was Kylemore Castle, with 70 rooms – which included 33 bedrooms and a Turkish bath, if you can believe it – and the estate, which included six acres of Victorian gardens (which also housed 21 glasshouses), as well as a forest of about 30,000 trees, native and non-native. For that matter, Kylemore comes from Gaelic roots, ‘an choill mhór’ (pronounced, maybe, ‘an keol mhooer’) which means ‘the big wood,’ because of the oak forest that covered the area. And now, cut over to you, sitting at your computer: “PICTURES!!” It’s like a battle cry, right across the Atlantic. Just calm down; the pictures are coming:

This was taken while walking through the Victorian gardens, which I assume are a lot nicer when they’re in full bloom. The tulips were really nice, though.

The nuns are also working to rebuild some of the glasshouses – now it’s a lot of really old exposed pipes, but it looks pretty cool. The head gardener also got a sweet place – less showy, but definitely roomy and comfortable enough. If you’re asking, “What the __ is a head gardener?,” he’s the guy that organizes the minions to do his bidding, botanically speaking. He also arranges the layout of the beds and all of the flowers therein, and problem-solves when something is wrong. That house is open for people to walk through; I liked it better than the manor itself, as it looks much like a place frozen in time (once you take out the annoying museum ropes), someplace I could see myself living in, back in the day. He also had a great collection of books:

See an interesting title there? Yup. I think I might put that on my Christmas list…

The manor itself only has a few rooms open to the public; the other rooms are used to do mysterious nunny things that we, as members of the heathen public, are not allowed to see. But the ones that are available are pretentious enough – just imagine a whole house of rooms like this:

That’s that, really. But no bother; the parts outside were really more interesting, anyway.

This is the mini-cathedral that Mitchell Henry bought when his wife Margaret died. All indications show that he really and truly loved her, and even though he really didn’t have the money to spend on a mini Gothic cathedral, he did it as a memorial for his wife when she died. By the end of his life, Mitchell was broke, so in 1903, the estate was sold to an oil baron, who then gave it to his daughter as a wedding present; unfortunately, the man she married was a gambler, so then the property was eventually sold to the Benedictine nuns, and became much creepier. (The reputation of nuns as depicted by The Blues Brothers has stuck with me.)

The inside of the building is exquisite; the columns there are made of four different kinds of marble from the four different provinces of Ireland – rose for Munster (where Cork is), emerald for Connaught (the west), black for Lenster (the east), and grey for Ulster (the north). It’s highly symbolic, but also just plain pretty. Connemara marble is sold everywhere in Ireland (tourist trap! tourist trap!), because it really is emerald-colored, shot through with veins of white and black. This might also be on my Christmas list – and for all those judging me right now, that’s fine. Rocks are cool and you’re just too afraid to admit it.

Don’t Cross Me – I’ll Get a Posse and Throw Tomatoes at You!

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Last weekend I went to Waterford; for those of you that remembered not to get pinched, it was also St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday. I was wearing green in several places (including my socks, black with shamrocks) and carried not one but two Irish flags for at least half the day. I know. You’re impressed.

If you have the name ‘Waterford’ tickling your ear, it’s because it is famous for its fine crystal. I don’t think anything can cap Murano glass, so I wasn’t too bothered with it. Besides, they don’t even have a factory there, just a showroom:

What I thought was cool, though, was the fact that Waterford Crystal was started by Quakers (the Penroses); that’s super neat because the Quaker edict states that nothing too showy can be included in a Quaker’s life. Quakers are not supposed to drink alcohol, either – and guess who was making beer? They represented two percent of the population but employed loads of people, and never involved themselves in politics.

Waterford is like many towns; it is comprised of buildings in rows, which form streets (gasp!):

And cathedrals:

And other stuff:

But it also has…VIKINGS!!!

And now you’re thinking, ‘Sarah is interested in many things. Also, she gets unnaturally excited whenever she sees fish.’ This may be true, but everyone knows that Vikings kicked major butt, and looked good doing it. (Just forget those nasty images of busty women in breastplates, screaming on stage and looking wrathful.)

Vikings started venturing out of Scandinavia at 790, to plunder and trade their way through the known world – and a hefty chunk of the unknown (take that, Mr. Columbus ‘Meany Pants’ Columbus!) – which included such far reaches as Iraq. The Vikings began doing their thing in Ireland in 795, pillaging mostly, but also setting up some pretty important towns (ever heard of Dublin?).

The earliest site in the area is actually Woodstown, five kilometers from Waterford. It’s not fully excavated yet, but the eggheads have decided that it was settled in about 840. They have found evidence enough to indicate that this was a dual-gender trading colony and a mint. And then, poof! It was abandoned, almost a la Roanoke.

Vikings started using currency in the 800s and 900s, importing silver from the far reaches and using a system of weights that was consistent in all of their known lands – not bad for when Europe was in severe economic decline and when people named their fleas. Vikings also had that wonderful tradition of metalwork we love so much.

In 840, loads of riverside bases were established…and then in 902 the Vikings were driven out…and in 914, they just came right back again, under the leadership of King Reginald. I don’t know about you, but times have changed: I wouldn’t be caught dead in a posse where a Reginald was orchestrating the gang. What can I say? Vikings had guts.

In 914, they founded Vedrarfjordr, which if you say it really fast, turns into Waterford (eventually); the name means ‘the winter haven.’ Waterford is actually the only place in Ireland that still has a name derived from the Norse. The Vikings founded their town on a triangular ridge of high ground, which is still called ‘The Viking Triangle’ today.

By 1090 in Waterford, there had been intermarriage with the locals and the Vikings were well established; however, the inhabitants of the town were never really seen as natives of the area and were called ‘Ostmen,’ which means ‘men from the east.’ I’m not sure why this isn’t ‘men from the north,’ but it is the Middle Ages we’re talking about here; only the Vikings and the Arabs knew what they were doing.

The city fell to Anglo-Normans in 1170, fell to re-invading Ostmen in 1174, and then permanently went to the English/Irish/Whatever/History Is Complicated. After that, the history of the town got really, really boring. Sure, Cromwell mounted his only unsuccessful siege of a town in Waterford, but he just came back the next year and kicked butt. What’s the point, if there are no Vikings?

Where this information is coming from is my visit to Reginald’s Tower, a neat looking place:

It wasn’t actually built in the time of the Vikings (sorry! If I had known, I would have changed it!), but it is built on the site of a Viking fort. The structure today was built in two stages, the first two floors first, and then the next two. It’s badass. They even remembered to install toilets:

They flush and everything. Sort of.

The part I liked best:

…Maybe not.

But at least there were two different bars to cling on to, and there were courteous signs posted:

Um. Duh?

After the Tower had exhausted its use for defense, it was converted into a mint and later a jail, where it is said that the female inmates “were in the habit of indulging in jigs, reels, and country dances to while away the tedious hours.” I think it was also used for storage at some point.

So after I was done with the Tower, it was almost time for the events of the day to get started; I found a good place on the mall (actually a street, not like the grassy stretch of grass in front of the gazebo in Brunswick, Maine), leaning against a barricade. After a long wait, a group of girls – and one boy, who was probably either cursing or blessing his luck – came out to dance. They all danced in different groups; the littlest ones went first (there was a collective gasp when one of them fell on the wet surface), followed by the others. The boy got a solo that involved a lot of high kicking and skill.

Finally, the parade started to come through, starting with your standard emergency personnel:

And Bagpipes. I LOVE bagpipes. Though you rarely meet a handsome bagpiper – but there was that one we met in Algorta that one time…

And then there were absolute swarms of desperate and unhappy children that walked past (yes, I am superimposing my own memories of parades here), and then…through the mist…

GIRL SCOUTS!!! Haters are told to hold their foul tongues on this subject.

There were loads of floats inspired by Reginald’s Tower and other architecture of the city:

And there was other Viking stuff:

These are the Vikings beating the stuffing out of each other, and have a riotously good time with it. I roared at them as they walked past.

This is more local color; throughout the parade, there were a few moments where everyone stopped and bits of Waterford history were re-enacted in front of the mayor. This was where a guy was put in the stocks. I felt a little bad for him, as it looked like he was going to have a few bruises the next day, due to the tomatoes people were throwing at him. I was really hoping that they would have a good cabbage, but no, just tomatoes. Cabbages – if at the right stage – could just explode in a very fetching way.

Wait…was that?

The answer is YES. That is a massive war elephant – and it can blow steam out of its trunk. I don’t know if you can see him, but there’s a guy riding on its back, having a great time brandishing his spear at people.

I was pretty sure the parade was dying down – after all, at least half of the town’s children had marched past us, as well as racing dogs, the coast guard, and more military dudes (with bunches of fresh shamrocks tacked to their chests). At one point we’d even seen a helicopter flying over.

And then the announcer announced the final contribution:

There were at least 100 guys/leprechauns/biker chicks that roared past us. A thought occurred to me – whatever started with bagpipes and ended with a motorcycle gang just HAD to be good. And so it was.

After the fumes had cleared, I went into the Bishop’s Palace (which had been directly behind me the entire time) and took a tour through it. There were chandeliers, elaborate place settings, and paintings of pretentious people.

There were also some great stories, though, about a doctor who cared for the poor in his spare time (it was pretty rare in that period to get a decent doctor if you weren’t rolling in the dough); I would tell you his name, but it’s unclear in my notes.

There was also an architect, John Roberts, who had an interesting family and set of descendants; look him up sometime if you are so inclined. He was a man that worked until the day he died – and he died in a construction accident, so he could have gone on quite a lot longer than he was able to. His grandson (or great grandson, I can’t remember) was an officer in the first World War; in the Palace there is a letter of his telling his nephew not to enlist for the war right away and to finish his schooling first, as his talents would be needed later – this shows great foresight, because most people thought that the War would be over before Christmas.

I don’t remember the name of the lady in question, but one of the dames lording over the Palace had great fun in moving the fireplace mantels around while her husband was away. In that time, if you were wealthy, you showed off with elaborate mantels over your fireplaces; this was a significant investment, so if you decided to move, you would take them with you. This means that they must have a certain mobility when they are put in place. I would like to think that if I were a rich lady of that time in possession of a house such as that, I would mess with my husband’s mind in such a manner after he had gone away.

After that, I was museum-ed out; I walked around and looked at some shops. There were stalls set up in a square in the shopping district, music from the speakers, and a small amusement park near the river.

And that was it. In the evening I went back to Cork to celebrate the holiday with friends (don’t worry; I didn’t drink much, as the bars were too crowded to get close enough to order) and slept in deliciously late the next morning.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

Competitive Jaywalking

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I’m a bit behind – it seems that all of the classwork rolls in like a tsunami at the end of the semester. Fortunately, I’m managing to run just ahead of the tidal wave. Well, for now, anyway.

Two weekends ago I was in Limerick – yes, that is actually a place. It’s not a verdant green forest like you might think – and there are definitely no leprechauns. Sorry to ruin the buzz.

Limerick is the first place in Ireland that has really felt like a city to me – though that might have been because of Friday, during which I spent two hours walking around trying to find the bed and breakfast I was staying in. I was told multiple times that “Ennis road is a big place.” And it is – it goes between Limerick and the great town of…wait for it…Ennis. I knew I would surprise you. The kicker is that the road is about 25 miles long – though thankfully I didn’t have to walk all that distance before I caved and called a taxi.

And I mentioned that I was in a bed and breakfast – usually I opt for a hostel, but this was different: me, a television set, privacy… Don’t get me wrong: I like living with other people, but after a certain point I want to round off my day with a bottomless bag of chips and crappy television on the one station that is any good that the tv seems to get.

Friday evening was spent convalescing; I put my feet up and snuggled into a mountain of pillows.

Saturday morning I ate the complementary breakfast and took the bus into town. I didn’t feel like taking my map out just yet, so I walked around until I saw a sign pointing toward something promising; I saw an arrow pointing toward something called ‘The Milk Market.’ Now I’m not really into milk, but it sounded cool. Turns out, I was right:

This is much like the English Market, but more temporary – the high point is on Saturday. It sells a huge array of things, from clothing to shoes to candy to foods of all types (including olives and pesto from that place I like – turns out it’s a chain, my life is wonderful) to weird foods, such as wheatgrass.

For those who don’t know what this is, be not concerned: this is something hippies eat. Or maybe drink – or maybe just kind of endure. It’s something you pay two euros for (about two dollars and fifty cents), and then you get about half a shot’s worth of intensely green liquid – about two teaspoon’s worth of liquid to non drinkers. I was instructed to ‘sip’; it was the most intensely weird thing that I have ever tasted. It was okay, almost pleasing, but at the same time, made me want to spit it out all over the sidewalk. It had a taste strongly reminiscent of chives.

There was also a bit of a head-scratcher:

I was too afraid to ask.

And then yummyness:

Yuuuumm…

Also scrum-dilly-umptious was the elderflower cordial I had. I think this is another hippie food, but I don’t care: it’s this old-fashioned drink, made with a concentrate out of a bottle that is then diluted with water. It was sweet, with notes of apple, pear, and honey. I’m adding this to the list of things I’m looking for when I get home.

It was Sarah-heaven. Though the toughest part was refusing the six-cadbury-eggs-for-one-euro deal I saw at one of the tables. I rationalized that I had to make sure that I could still fit into my pants, after all the trouble I took getting them.

After eating so much I could barely walk, I eased my way over toward the Hunt Museum, which is filled with all sorts of cool things from the medieval ages on back to the stone age. It’s wicked cool, especially when you follow one of the guides of the museum around; they’re very knowledgeable and if you find the right ones, really funny.

I liked the older stuff the best, but it was just really awesome to go from one massive period in history and just leap into something completely different. They have a Picasso (a menu cover for a restaurant that wasn’t successful), and a Renoir painting. I didn’t like the Picasso; I liked the Renoir.

The collection is the legacy of the Hunt family, which collected all this stuff and then left it and their house to form the museum. It’s kind of like the Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum in Boston (yes, kids, this is free advertising, but I am available to come under contract. Snap it up early; I hear Swiffer is very interested), but laid out much more like a museum.

Some of the greatest hits were from the bronze age, like the really cool ornamental shield found at the bottom of the Thames River, or the huge urn and cauldron found in bogs. Turns out that people in that age sacrificed more than prisoners of war to the bogs: they would toss in things like used cooking vessels as appeasements to the gods; it’s part of how much we know about that time period. Surprisingly, people cutting peat will sometimes find butter in the bogs: this is not just centuries old, this stuff is thousands of years old – and when people find it, it still smells like butter. Crazy, right? Apparently the equivalent of the bronze age housewife would get her husband to put the butter in the bog in the backyard (to keep it cold, I’m assuming), and sometimes when she got him back out there with the shovel to dig it up, he found that, well, he couldn’t find it. Imagine the nagging he came home to. Poor sod.

I heard all this from one of the guides at the museum; he also enlightened me on a very important point: anything that you see labeled as ‘ceremonial’? Complete bunk. Archaeologists have no clue whatsoever. This was a shooting-off point from talking about these fist-sized stone balls with bumps on them, used for ‘ceremonial’ purposes.

There were also these things called ‘momento mori,’ pendants in the form of skulls worn by people to remind them that they were going to die. So they would get up in the morning and see that the sun was shining and be happy, but then they would put on their necklace and go around on a crying jag all day. Though to be fair, it was totally natural in those days to be really sad, especially if the Black Death was going around.

This is St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was closed for touristic activity…and whose door I couldn’t find, even though I walked all around the building. But it’s kind of pretty:

Well, maybe not from that angle. Call the creepy organist, STAT. Also note the little sign pointing to the ‘entrance’: total lie.

Moving on…

TO DEATH, MISERY, AND DESTRUCTION!!!!!

It’s a castle. A big one. And it doesn’t have creepy stairs! Well, not many, anyway, and I didn’t have to go on them.

This place is pretty touristy, but it has great history, once you get past the exhibits that make noises, startle you, and make you want to make them meet their maker. (I couldn’t find the speakers and was pretty sure that there were cameras.)

It’s King John’s Castle, and it was built from 1205 to 1212, and it is AWESOME. I’m trying to spice this up for people not so interested in history. So how about sieges? This involves catapults, pouring burning oil on people, and guys in armor. The castle was under attack five whole times (maybe more, I can’t remember), two of those times during the Williamite-Jacobite War. Unfortunately the Irish/French lost that one, even though they were the defenders. The English had better organization and the French were being weenies, like always.

The castle was built on a site that had previously had a Viking fort (I love Vikings! Seriously. They had bathing practices before people in Europe knew what soap was). When the English came in, they knocked down the fort and built the castle. Unfortunately, the castle is named after King John – the only King John in English history for a reason, as it happens. He was cantankerous, despotic, and pissed people off. He is actually known for pulling Irish chieftains’ beards, which wasn’t completely popular.

So let’s go back to the Vikings, and completely skip the weird mannequin dressed as King John:

This is part of the early settlement, and some of the wall behind it.

During one of the sieges people actually dug tunnels to infiltrate the castle. Unfortunately, people inside the castle figured it out and started digging a counter-tunnel. And then they were THIS CLOSE and the siege ended. Too bad, right?

Um, this is a shed for manure. Did we see any livestock? Um, no. And there’s a lot there. What did they do, bring in a truck?

I can’t really remember, but I think these walls mark the expansion of the fort. You’d probably have to visit to know, so I could say that this is where the unicorns live – and didn’t I tell you…?

This is a view of a bridge, where a massacre of 700 men fleeing into the fort occurred: the Irish defenders pulled up the gate, fearing that the English attackers would get in. The Irish ended up losing that one; I’m guessing it was based on the fact that their karma was shot to hell.

The bridge separates the English part of Limerick from the Irish part. The English got their nice fancy castle, and the Irish – well, they got squat.

So after that, I walked around for a while, and then back to the bus, and then to bed. Sheer bliss.

The next day everything was closed, so I wandered around, in and out of a few stores. On my little sashay through a department store, I saw:

And right by the bus stop is a beautiful park – it was open, so I spent a few minutes in there. Flower lovers, raise your hands:

So that’s Limerick.

‘Sploring

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Over the past months I’ve been doing a lot of exploring around Cork. Some of it has been involved with hunting the elusive bar-ba-loot (it’s Dr. Seuss, look it up), some of it has been wandering around looking for things (why does St. Patrick’s Street have to bend, anyway??), some of it has been field trips, and some of it has been actual touristic visitation. So what follows is MOST of what you can do in the city; I’m still missing a couple of things, so don’t think when this is over that it’s over (and confusion is part of the process).

What would be the most fitting would be to start with Finbarre’s Cathedral. I mentioned before that St. Finbarr is Cork’s patron saint – Ireland in general has two saints, St. Patrick and St. Bridget – who founded a scholastic monastery on the site of what is now UCC, in the sixth century. This means that Finbarre’s is really close to the university (as well as one of the best natural food stores I’ve been in, with some of the best baked goods I’ve ever tasted [shamelessadvertisement]).

And a piece of trivia – Finbarr founded his monastery on a marsh, which is what ‘cork’ means in Gaelic.

Finbarre’s was built from 1863-1870, so this thing is pretty new in comparison to similar buildings of the style – it reminds me a lot of Notre Dame in many ways, but smaller and with more mosaics. Is it in bad taste to say that it feels ‘homey’ inside?

This is the front of the cathedral. Notice something? Yes. It’s the sun. Wow.

There are daffodils all over the place here now – this photo was taken maybe a month ago, and there have just been more and more since then. It’s like walking through an ocean of daffodils sometimes, and I am the last one to complain.

This is the back view of the cathedral – if you’re noticing the gold figurine on top of one of the domes, that’s what I’m calling the Angel of Doom. This thing has fallen off of its perch twice; the third time this happens, we should expect seriously messed-up apocalypse stuff to happen. I just hope it happens in about 30 million years – I don’t plan on dying any time soon!

On the first field trip I did with Freshwater Resources Management, we went to the Iniscarra Dam, just outside of the city.    We got the full tour – of which I did not hear half – but this was basically the last non-disgusting field trip we took. Well, okay, the Heineken factory wasn’t half bad…

This is a power-generating station (though the energy generated by this facility doesn’t justify the costs involved, economical and ecological…hem hem), though its main reason for existence is that it serves as a measure of flood control. Which is funny, as in 2009, Cork experienced a 600-year flood, which means that the flood has a .166666% chance of happening every year. That also means that the city was flooded: the River Lee has been redirected through Cork to follow certain channels, so when the flood happened the river reverted back to its original channels…channels that ran right down streets. The bottom line is that it cost a lot of people money, that there was no water in the city for a week, and that such new buildings as the River Lee Hotel and the university’s new technology building (with all the fancy computers in the basement) weren’t patting themselves on the back concerning their timing. Now there are two construction sites basically right outside my front doorstep, in order to reinforce the walls that contain the river. The University College Cork is also suing the dam for damages done – which is funny, as it’s one governmental authority against another.

Here are some funny-looking engines:

…Nevermind. I didn’t load that photo; this one is much prettier. This is the lake behind the dam – it’s deceptively small looking, but don’t be fooled. It’s a river basin, so that basically means that it is a very long and thin lake. Is that too nerdy for you? Well, hold on!

This is a fish ladder – it’s what takes migratory fish, like salmon, from the bottom of the dam to the top of the dam. So it’s a big net-box thing, but if you were wondering, that’s how it’s done. (It also has not been proven to be very effective, but it’s better than nothing.)

Are you wondering what happens to the fish trying to get back downriver? Well, that’s a bit more tricky. There are two turbines that generate electricity inside the dam, one large one and one small one. These are the impediments between upstream and downstream – a bit of a problem if you aren’t interested in fish puree and a lot of angry anglers and environmentalists. The solution is a bit…iffy. During the time of the year that fish migrate back downstream, they simply turn off the smaller turbine (ever notice that things like pinwheels move slower the bigger they get? That’s what this is). I’m not sold on this method, but now you are smarter. Or maybe more bored. Or maybe you’re hungry?

If so, your cravings are about to get worse.

This is the English Market. This is the gold nugget in Cork: if you can find it, your life is set. This is where you get any ingredient you could ever possibly wish for, for any dish you could ever dream to make. This is also where incredible olives and pesto are from: I try to limit myself to one purchase from this place each month in order to pace myself…and not go bankrupt. Otherwise, this blog would be about how happy my tummy is, and as interesting that may be for me, you wouldn’t be getting your money’s worth – oh wait! You don’t pay me for this!

This is the main entrance of the market – but there are several others. It’s like this giant incredible secret place that even once you know where it is, it keeps surprising you.

This is yet another part of the market – note the shop, ‘Pots n’ Pans,’ as well as Dan (twin of Nick, who studied with me in the same program in Bilbao). The market is like a labyrinth. I’m considering getting a tattoo on the palm of my left hand, or maybe bringing a ball of yarn with me next time, a la Greek mythology. This is really and truly one of my favorite places in Cork – it’s just awesome. Period.

And now a bunch of really random stuff:

This is a cool cathedral with a massive Byzantine dome in the center, with similarly massive gold mosaics done behind the altar. One thing I can say for Cork is that they do good church.

I don’t know what this is, but it’s really cool. I’m also getting the feeling that I should know what this is – maybe the courthouse. Oh yeah. That’s right – I was a bit tipsy at the time. I’ll have to ask around and see if that thing with the traveling mimes also happened.

This is a park in the city center. (Your line: “ooooh, aaaah”)

And notice that the one closest to us is wearing a cute little hat…

This is St. Anne’s Church; I went here with Nick and Dan on the promise of being able to ring the bells. Nothing doing. Massive disappointment. We all had a good cry; it was a cleansing experience.

Moving on – last Friday I went to Blackrock Castle with Pauline, which my mother might recognize from the bag I decorated for her:

Blackrock Castle is now retrofitted to be a museum about space and natural history (behind the tallest tower is the dome of an observatory). The museum was pretty blah for Pauline and I, as we already know all of it – though we both were pretty enthused about trilobites: they never get old (comparatively speaking).

We had a nice dinner at the restaurant there; I had a gratin of sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, cheesy, savory, wonderful. So wonderful I did the tourist and took a photo:

And then we heard a guy talk about nothing. Literally, nothing. For example, a nugget of thought:

The absence of something is nothingness, BUT the absence of everything is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The whole idea of nothing is incredible to us because we can’t imagine what nothing is – just as we can’t imagine what the state of being dead, of our bodies not being occupied by our personalities.

Crazy, innit? And if you want to talk about crazy, well, I bought the guy’s book! (I’m looking forward to it, though.)

The view from this castle is tremendous, especially on a night such as this one was. I’m not much of a city girl, but I did like the prospect of the lights on the bay like that. It also makes me a little sentimental; I imagine the ocean closing the distance between me and home – wherever that might be – because all of the homes I have known have been on the water, with my fondest memories being looking out on the water as night falls.

And my last hits – at least in this edition:

There is a hill that, if you take the trouble to walk up it, affords the best views of the city.

So that’s all for now. Keep [Austin] weird!

This Way for the Future

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This past weekend I went to Cobh – pronounced ‘Cove,’ isn’t Gaelic great – a town outside of Cork.

It’s got a load of history for such a small place; for example, Cobh (also called Queenstown for a while, thanks to a visit by Queen Victoria) was the last port of call for the first immigrant into Ellis Island in 1892, a seventeen year-old girl called Annie Moore. She traveled with her two younger brothers to America and in thanks for her trouble, she was given a ten dollar gold coin. Think about the courage that must have taken – maybe she and I would have had something to talk about (too late to strike up a conversation now, though).

Cobh was actually the town through which the majority of Irish emigrants passed; chances are that if you have Irish ancestry, he, she, or they came through Cobh before finding a new life. Cobh was the last part of Ireland they were likely to ever see.

Cobh is even more known due to an event that happened 100 years ago and which is immortalized in one of the most popular films of all time. I’ll give you a moment to guess. Go on, take your time.

This is the White Star Line office building that passengers used to board the R.M.S. Titanic. That’s right – this coming April is the 100th anniversary of the night the unsinkable ship sank into the North Atlantic.

History geeks may be shaking their heads at me right now – doesn’t anyone know that the Titanic left from Southampton in England? This is true, but that didn’t stop it from making a few stops along the way, to be admired and to take on more passengers. At Cobh about 40 people boarded the liner and seven people left. One of those few that exited the vessel was Father Francis Browne: he asked his superior if he could travel to New York with a wealthy American couple, but upon receiving the cryptic message “GET OFF THAT SHIP – PROVINCIAL” (pardon the capital letters – I’m assuming that’s just the telegram’s fault), he left at Cobh and went back to Dublin. This is already a great story, but there’s another little part that you can’t overlook. The movie Titanic is so great in part because of how authentic it feels, but how could anyone really know what the place looked like? The place is a rust-covered wreck now; we’ve all seen the photos. But we would know if Francis Browne owned a camera, which he did. All those iconic photographs of the ship’s interior – just assume that was the good padre.

Titanic was the second in a three-part series of megaships: the R.M.S. Olympic, R.M.S. Titanic, and the R.M.S. Britannic. To give you an idea, the Britannic was also nicknamed Gigantic: and I checked – the White Star Line still built it after the Titanic disaster.

2,223 people left Southampton, England on the 10th of April with high hopes; on the night of the 14th, 1,517 people died. That’s a huge number by any means, but if I have my math right (it’s possible that I don’t: even simple math sometimes eludes me), that means that 68% of the passengers died in the North Atlantic that night.

What I was not prepared for was the magnitude of the incompetence of the people that built and ran the ship: the ship was going at a very fast rate, considering the waters she was traveling through (in order to make time, to be sure) – sure, the captain navigated her into a slightly southerly course to avoid the worst of the icebergs,  but there was still a danger. That risk was compounded by the fact that the men in the crow’s nest did not have binoculars. And to top that all off, the number of lifeboats on the ship was based on the tonnage of the vessel, not the number of people that would need to be saved. There were 16 lifeboats, well withing regulations (down from 20, in order to free up more deck space, though that wouldn’t have been enough anyway), and when the ship sank, there were still more than FOUR HUNDRED free spaces on those boats. The abomination of it still riles me.

But there were some good stories, all the same. One woman, Margaret (Molly) Tobh Brown was a millionairess from Denver that was saved on one of the lifeboats, and spent the rest of that time helping others and going out of her way.

Another (anonymous) woman was distraught when she was pulled into one of the lifeboats, because her husband was being left behind – the others on the boat were afraid she might have some kind of attack. However, she was sane enough to persuade the rest of the people on board to take on a man in the water; everyone else was afraid of capsizing, but she convinced them. As dawn broke, she realized that it was her beloved husband.

There are also the not-so-great stories, like that of a 39 year-old woman with five children (the youngest of which was two years old), who was last seen, along with her entire family, on the deck of the sinking ship. It’s humbling.

On board there was not only the captain, Edward Smith, go-to-sailor for the rich and famous, as well as the most senior captain in the White Star Line, but also the Astors, a rich and powerful American couple, as well as Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus, and many others. I don’t know about the others, but I do know that the captain went down with the ship, as well as Mr. Astor (though Mr. Astor’s very controversial very young wife survived the wreck).

Okay, moving right along…

After lowering the mood substantially in the museum, we walked up to St. Colman’s Cathedral, a gorgeous bit of architecture that works as the equivalent of a mini stair-master. But there are killer views:

And then there’s the cathedral itself:

After that, we went back down on the hill. There had been a cat that we’d seen a few times out and around – once in the bushes, once crossing the road (I closed my eyes and prayed for the best), and then, for the last time, at his front door:

I just missed getting the two mirrored and looking at each other through the glass, but I still rather like this one – partially because you can see me reflected. Beautiful, aren’t they?

The Daily Grind

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This is a post I’m writing to appease my mother, that will also answer the question ‘Where the heck have you been all this time?’ So what will follow will be a side-by-side approach to my daily life, in Bilbao and here in Cork.

In Bilbao, I reluctantly woke up at 6:30 in the morning, Monday through Friday, dragged my sorry butt out of bed, groaning, crying to myself, writing sonnets to my pillow and the inside of my eyelids; I eventually got to the bus stop at 7:35 to catch the stupid bus. Notes on the previous: never wake me up before 7:00 in the morning – yes, that half hour does really count – and the bus is stupid because of the schedule that made it so that we had to wait an hour after we got to school, draped over tables and trying to transpose our reality back to our beds, or at the very least into a more comfortable chair.

Classes began at 9, and lasted until about noon. Every morning I had my track class – track three, which combined Spanish 301, 305, and 410 and moved at a breakneck pace – which was then followed by either History of Art on Mondays and Wednesdays or Conversation on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Friday was screwy, as we had that in Bilbao. Wait a minute! Bilbao? Weren’t all my classes in Bilbao? Well, actually, no. Most of my classes – Monday to Thursday – were in Leioa, where the main part of the university is. On Fridays we went to the business school in the heart of Bilbao (Elcano), which was fine by me, as we used the metro to get there, which bought me an extra 15 minutes of sleep, sometimes a whole half hour. Decadence.

I didn’t have any classes with Spanish people, because I wasn’t at a level where I could be learning about my subject material (environmental sciences) in Spanish; this meant that my classes were entirely through my program. I did learn a lot, though.

The weekends you’ve all heard about if you’ve been keeping up with me, so I’m going to skip that and heap unnecessary condemnation on those that missed it the first time around. For shame, et cetera.

Here in Cork, my classes are all 15 minutes away or less; I have classes earlier in the morning Tuesday through Friday, and on Monday, my one and only class is at 12, so that means I wake up at 7:30 or 8:30…or 10, if I’m skipping class…(you didn’t hear that!). I rush off to class (I am always five minutes late, to my perpetual consternation), making it just in time because of the Irish schedule at the university. Classes are scheduled on the hour – 10:00-11:00, for example – but really go from five minutes past the hour to five minutes before the next hour, so from 10:05-10:55 for this one. This is a wonderful idea, as I can (almost) always make it to class before they start teaching.

This time restraint is completely unofficial; it’s meant to give students time to go from one class to the other, but in reality I believe it is another sign of Irish Student Disease. What is Irish Student Disease, pray tell? It involves being late all the time (“I was having a coffee with the lads, and woops! I was a bit late…”), or if not being late, simply not coming to class (“…I realized that I pissed away a whole class again”). I suspect another part of this new regional disease will crop up in April, when there is a month break: unwashed bodies, bent over desks with a lone lamp on, hair standing on end. This is the time when Irish students realize that they’re up the river without a paddle, so they spend those heady days of spring frantically searching for it, when it’s already gone downstream. Go to class, kids. Seriously.

But I hear someone in the peanut gallery shouting “Pictures! Where are the pictures?”

Here’s what home looked like in Bilbao:

Satisfied, Mom? I wasn’t living in a crack den. Where I am living now isn’t a crack den, either; my apartment is clean, spacious enough, and well located. Though there are some interesting fumes from the meth lab downstairs…

Okay, stop freaking out. It’s not a meth lab. It’s a flea circus. You have to see it under a magnifying glass, but it’s fantastic: they jump through fiery hoops and everything.

My bedroom window is the one two windows to the left of the second floor balcony, which is where the living room is.

Highlights of the surroundings:

Commuting in Bilbao was absolutely no fun if you went by bus (so you don’t need to see photos of that), but the streets and the metro were both an absolute delight.

Here in Cork I take one of two routes to class – most of my classes are really close, because they are in a different part of the campus, so that doesn’t really count. When I’m running late, I go by the city way, but on those occasions when miracles happen and I’m on time (also when pigs fly), or when I don’t give a toss about being late (more likely), I go by the river, on a path that runs to the university.

There are a lot of flowers along the path – it’s February and there are blossoms littered liberally along the side. There aren’t just crocuses like this, there is actually a medley of plants: daffodils, other colors of crocuses, and flowers I’m going to call snowdrops because that’s what I imagine what they would look like.

So I’m just going to ruin it for you and say that the university in Bilbao did not impress me with aesthetics.

One thing I really liked about this university is that basically all of the buildings on our side of the street were connected by balconies, so you didn’t have to go downstairs if you weren’t leaving that part of campus. Crazy, right? The part I especially love here is that you can see the beds of lavender that were planted at the foot of the staircase. Sometimes I’d pick one and hold it to my nose the entire way home.

On Mondays I had two classes I helped teach and two different Catholic private schools: the first school was Pureza de Maria (Purity of Mary), where I helped with the five and six year old class. I don’t think I did much to help them, as they didn’t know more than colors, food, and the members of the family. They were really cute, though: they remembered my name the second time I came around, which really surprised me. All I remember about being five does not involve a long attention span – or for that matter, a long memory. I must conclude that these children were geniuses.

After an hour, I left to go to my next school, nursing a slight headache but looking forward to my next group.

Those were the fifteen year olds at Nuestra Senora del Carmen (Our Lady of the Carmen), all pretty socially awkward, but I think we had a really good dynamic. I told them all about Maine, taught them to sing a couple of my favorite songs (one of them was Running Bear, which people from camp know…), played one of my favorite parlor games, and made them do the jellyfish when they skipped doing their homework. The jellyfish is another camp tradition and I hereby promise that if you want to see this, you can ask me – ONCE – and I will do it regardless of the situation. I will be stared at and will turn as red as the reddest raspberry. Let’s just say that the homework assignment that I gave following this activity was a pretty good effort.

The University College Cork is much, much prettier. The college was placed on the spot that is actually responsible for the existence of Cork City: in the sixth century, a guy called Saint Finbarr came in and founded a monastery, where educational as well as spiritual pursuits were carried out.

Here’s the building they put on postcards:

This is the oldest building on campus – as well as the prettiest, though it’s surrounded by tasteful modern architecture. The grass quad in front of it has a bit of lore (probably spread by the groundskeepers) that anyone that walked across the grass would fail their exams. I have not seen a single person so much as put their toe on so much as a single blade of grass while at the university. There’s also an archway there under the tower, on whose floor is the crest of the university (which I don’t have a picture of, sorry), which is supposed to make women pregnant if they step on it. I’ve stomped on it three times out of spite, gleefully, and in a manner that draws stares from passerby.

Other great hits of the university:

In the center of the circular plaza here, the spoken word is echoed in a way that people outside the center of the space can’t hear – it’s pretty awesome.

I really like this school because it’s always active with some sort of student group organizing something. I think that UMaine would be like this, if not for the ratty old winter.

So there it is. I haven’t been squatting under a bridge (much) or on police watchlists (unless you count…). I’ve been walking a lot every day, basking in the warm weather (and alternatively wondering why nature is conspiring against me so I can’t wear my nice coat), and delaying doing my homework for as long as possible.