Friday, April 27, 2007

A Dublin Miscellany

Today was my last day of work on this trip, and I've just recently finished working out (roughly) what I'll be doing for the rest of it. I'm leaving Dublin bright and early tomorrow morning, then spending two nights in Dingle, and two nights in Doolin. Then back in Dublin by Wednesday night, in time for one more swing dance before my flight home Thursday morning. Before I leave Dublin, though, an assortment of things to share....

Getting to my desk on my first day of work at the new office two weeks ago was an interesting process. I needed to get up to the 2nd (=3rd) floor, but the elevators were slow and full of the morning rush of people. So Signor Pezzin led me up on foot: The stairs in the lobby led to a door saying "Ladies WC." Through that, we took the door that wasn't the Ladies WC, but which led down a hallway to a mini-kitchen. Turn left, down a hall, turn left, down a hall, then through a door saying "Gents WC." Find more stairs through there, go up one more flight. Then U-turn to another door and U-turn to my desk. I thought I'd never find my way out on my own.

There are a few sets of "airlock" doors I go through regularly here, two doors with just few feet of space and nothing else between them. The ones at the top of the stairs here in my hotel are relatively airtight, and not latched, so when you open one, it opens the other a little and then drops it closed again. I always imagine a ghost that lives in that tiny little space between the doors, and vacates it for you to pass through, so he's leaving through one door just as you're opening the other. Very polite little ghost, not wanting to frighten anybody.

Some random teenagers on the street the other day told me I look like Gerry Adams, an Irish politician. I disagree.

There's a smoothie shop nearby called Zumo. Last night I got a discount on a smoothie because I pronounced "açaí" correctly, without prompting. The fellow working there proceeded to tell me all sorts of interesting things about açaí, like how you can't grow it anywhere but Brazil and they'll only export juice and pulp. It's also apparently used for lots of things, including treating children with dyslexia, and it fills the role of "the viagra of the amazon." Somewhat along those lines, this place offers "boosts," like Jamba Juice does. It has the usual expected ones, like energy boosts, immune boosts, etc. It also has one specifically for hangovers, as well as "love factors" for women and men. I suppose the latter probably includes açaí.

Apparently, Polish has recently surpassed Chinese as the second most commonly spoken language in Ireland. (Or third? I can't remember if it beat out Irish or not.) I would probably never have guessed either of those two languages for being so high up the list.

So far I have not had my umbrella out even once since I've been in Ireland. I realize this is completely atypical weather and I should not get cocky about it. However, if I make it through one more week like this before I go home, I'm going to consider writing to the newspapers and asking for a medal or something.

On a related note, as I write this, the weather report has just said we were going to have a warm, dry, sunny weekend. With occasional, heavy, thundering showers.

The house cleaning service here at the hotel always leaves all the lights on. It doesn't waste energy because they don't actually come on until I get home and put my key in the slot that turns the circuits on. But still, it means that the first thing I do is going around turning off most of the switches because I don't need everything at once. I could understand this if they, say, needed the extra light for cleaning purposes. But this extends all the way to the little light on the Mirror of Insecurity in the bathroom (the magnifying one, so you can enjoy your blemishes IMAX style). A couple times they've even left the TV on. Sheesh. If it weren't for the fact that they also replenish the tea supply, I'd just leave the "do not disturb" sign out the whole time.

Anyway, that's it for now. Any further updates of note will probably be from California, after I get back.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

County Wicklow

Dublin Bay Today's trip was a Wild Wicklow tour down through County Wicklow, south of Dublin. Though on the way we drove out to the coast to see Dublin Bay and Dun Laoghaire. We don't exactly have resort quality beaches out here. I only saw one with actual sand, and it didn't even reach the water. Still, I guess you make do with what you have.

From there we passed through Ireland's rich-and-famous area, which is fun if you like being told that people you've heard of (or haven't) live nearby. From one particular vantage point, we could see the houses of both Bono and The Edge (from U2), as well as Enya's castle (!), and the homes of various other people I've forgotten. There was also the place where the former Mexican president lives after running off with a bunch of money, and where the Canadian ambassador owns the most expensive home in the country. More exciting than all the name-dropping on this part of the trip, though, was my window of the bus repeatedly swinging within centimeters of walls and trees as we wound our way along the narrow roads. We stopped for a coffee break at some little shopping center somewhere, too, but that was just dumb, so I'm not going to get into that.

Then we got into County Wicklow, heading up into the Sally Gap between the Dublin Mountains and the Wicklow Mountains. The scenery is perhaps different later in the spring, but right now there's a lot of dark heather, with splotches of yellow gorse, rather than all the green you might expect in Ireland. There were also some large burned areas. Apparently some controlled burns got out of hand yesterday and spread before the fire department could get the fire out. We saw a couple patches still smoking.

Yep, I was there. The lookout point over Lough Tay had some lovely scenery, though, if you could hold on to the mountain without the wind blowing you off it. This lake has such dark water from all the peat bits floating in it that it's nicknamed the Guinness Lake. Someone even trucked in some sand at one end, to mimic the head on a pint of Guinness. I ventured over to the other side of the road as well, to try to go into the forest, but the trees were so pointed, scratchy, and closely-packed that I literally couldn't get in. Right before we had to leave, though, I found an opening that lead to what would have been a great hike up the mountain. No time for it, unfortunately.

This area of Ireland has been used for filming lots of movies, including Braveheart. The reason a Scottish movie got filmed in Ireland is that a canny Minister of Arts offered Mel Gibson the use of the entire Irish army as extras for the battle scenes, free of charge.

Celtic Cross The Glendalough monastery was very similar in concept to Monasterboice, though larger and with some more complete buildings. This afternoon I was more interested in the hike out to the two eponymous lakes. We had about an hour and a half for this, which would have been fine if we just wanted to get out there, see the lakes, and come back. But it turns out that the mountainside there is covered with lovely trails which I probably could have explored and enjoyed for the better part of a day.

Overall, a less ringing endorsement for this tour than the previous one. If I had my druthers, I'd skip most of it and just spend a good long time in Glendalough, hiking around. But still, I enjoyed getting out to see the area a bit.

Relevant tunes:
  • The Wicklow Hornpipe
  • Sugarloaf Mountain
  • Anything by Enya or U2 :-)

The Valley of the Boyne

This was my weekend for day-trips out of Dublin. I don't usually do the whole tour bus thing, but it seemed a handy way to get to a few interesting places without having to get a car and find my own way around. Yesterday's trip was north of Dublin to Brú na Bóinne. (I want to do a limerick rhyming that with "annoyin' ya," but wasn't sufficiently annoyed by anything there.)

Cross and Tower Monasterboice was the first brief stop at the beginning of the tour. Some of the largest and best Celtic crosses are there, which is its main claim to fame. Other than that, it's a graveyard, a crumbling abbey wall, and one of the round towers you find around Ireland that were used for hiding from Viking raiders back in the middle ages.

Newgrange and Stone Circle Newgrange was the centerpiece of the day. It's a stone tomb that's 5,200 years old, dating it to before the pyramids. Over 4,000 years ago it fell into disuse, gradually crumbled into the hillside, became overgrown, and was forgotten. Then in the 1700's it was rediscovered and excavated enough to go inside. It was left completely open to the public for 200 years, though, so the rocks now bear various kinds of more modern graffiti as well as the ancient carvings. It wasn't until the last century that it was fully restored and protected.

Newgrange Entrance For the large size of the mound, the interior is actually quite small. You can go inside, but not take photos. A tiny passage way leads into the middle of the mound and opens into a tiny room with three alcoves and a high, domed ceiling. That's it; the rest is solid rock. But on the winter solstice, for 17 minutes at dawn, sunlight will come in through an opening above the entrance, creep down the passage, and fill the entire chamber with light. The chamber currently has electric lights installed that let the guide do a simulation of this, which gets across the concept but not, I expect, the feeling. I was also disappointed that she seemed careful never to let the lights go completely out. Even when turning out the main lights before the simulation, they had just barely faded when the new light came in. I would have liked to have had a few seconds at least to really get the feeling of being completely encased in stone and darkness. But it's a fascinating place to be in, regardless. They're holding a lottery this year to determine who actually gets to be in there at dawn on the solstice.

Our last stop was the Hill of Tara. Since the visitor's center there doesn't open until some time in May, we got a different sort of intro to the area. The proprietor of an antique bookshop squeezed us all in among the shelves, turned out the lights, and gave us a slide show. He had some excellent pictures on cracked and dirty slides, including some of the excavations in the 1950's and of the British Israelites who tore the place up looking for the Ark of the Covenant, all accompanied by dramatic and entertaining narration. Probably more fun that whatever the official visitor's center might have had.

Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny The Hill of Tara itself isn't actually so much to see when you're actually on it, though it's fun to ride the rise and fall in the land like waves. There were also too many people crawling over it to get the proper feel for it, much the way I remember feeling about Glastonbury Tor. But I did go out to see Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, which is said to roar three times if touched by the true high king of Ireland. I touched it, just in case. A sheep bleated somewhere off in the distance, but I don't think that counts.

A Holy Well I also took a short walk down a little road where none of the other tourists were bothering to go. And so I got to see a little holy well there, with no one else around. It had a gate right on the side of the road, and all it was was a trickle of water coming out the side of the hill, down a pipe, and over the edge of a rock. I liked it because it was just sitting there modestly, doing its own thing and letting everyone else get distracted by the main sights.

Overall, this tour was very worthwhile. It was a nice, efficient way to get around to several of the main sites in this area in one day, filled with history, stories and jokes during the bus rides (props to John "His Grace" Bolton, the driver and guide). It was a Bus Éireann tour, if anybody out there is looking to go on one.

Relevant Tunes:
  • The Battle of the Boyne
  • The Boyne Water
  • The Soul of the Limestone Rock

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ceilí-ing Dublin

After the Ceilí So I didn't end up going to hear Handel's Messiah last night as I had originally planned, but it was a good tradeoff. Sorcha, who I'd met at the swing dance, told me about the Rathmines Festival and invited me to the ceilí that was happening last night at St. Mary's College. So I went to that and had a very nice time dancing and talking with her and other new dancing friends, and listening to good music. Really, I think this whole going to dances thing is just the best way to enjoy being in a foreign city.

The band included a fiddle, button accordion, flute, concertina, and guitar. The concertina player sang a couple of songs as well, in between dances and just accompanied by the guitar. The first one she sang was actually Erin's Shore, in Irish, and it was really hard not to waltz to it. But the songs were more for listening and resting there, and no one was dancing. Lovely to listen to, though. And the band sounded great on the dance tunes, as well. I would have liked to have just sat and listened and picked up some new tunes, but I was rather distracted trying to figure out the dances.

As for the dances themselves, well, it was a bit silly. Hardly anybody knew what they were doing (and the teacher was just barely hanging in there himself sometimes), and the dances were "taught" by doing a quick demo set of dubious accuracy and then throwing everyone into it at once whether they had been paying attention or not. Luckily, chaos can be fun if everyone is enthusiastic about it. Also, most of the evening consisted of doing the same three dances over and over and over again, so we got a bit better as we went along. The dances were a two-hand reel (whose name I've forgotten), The Walls of Limerick (structured like a contra -- couples of couples and progressing down the line), and The Siege of Ennis (a 4-opposite-4 dance, like a double contra).

Now the really funny thing was that I was paying very close attention and trying to learn the patterns as quickly and accurately as I could. Not only because I was new to ceilí dancing, but because it didn't look like I could depend on watching other people as I went along. The result was that by the end of the evening, I was helping do the demo sets, and I also got put in the front of the line for the two-hand reel because none of the actual Irish people trusted themselves to remember how it went. (I fooled them though and screwed it up by mistakenly starting with the wrong part.) I don't have the footwork or style or anything right at all, but I can remember patterns. Anyway, that was pretty amusing.

Besides our main three, we had a couple other one-off dances. The only one I can remember specifically was Shoe the Donkey (or possibly "Shoo," but I'm guessing "Shoe" because of the stomping involved). It was almost like a schottischy sort of waltz. In promenade position you do a hop-stomp-stomp, with the hop on the 3 as a pickup, four times, turning around to face backwards on the fourth time. Repeat all that four times, then just waltz around until the beginning of the tune comes around again.

Non-dance-wise, I learned all sorts of interesting things from Fiona and Niamh about Irish sports, the national anthem, and numbers (which have different words depending on what you're counting). Fascinating stuff, of which I have probably already forgotten a lot. Delightful evening overall.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Swinging Dublin

I had a very nice time at the Dublin swing dance last night. It was at the Camden Ballroom, which sounds rather grander than a little bitty dance floor in a restaurant/bar beneath a hotel. But it was a fine venue for the crowd size we had, and it seemed to be closed last night, since there were no regular customers there, only dancers. So that was kind of neat.

The evening started with an absolute basic East Coast Swing lesson, which I attended as much to have an easy way to meet people as for any other reason. The fact that I more or less know what I'm doing and that I also am always happy to dance with beginners helped a lot in terms of meeting people and feeling comfortable and welcome there. Some more experienced dancers arrived later in the evening as well. The overall skill level wasn't quite up to the level of lots of places in California, but everyone was perfectly good enough and enthusiastic enough to have fun, which is all I needed to enjoy it.

The partner-asking dynamic was kind of interesting. The gender imbalance didn't affect it much, since so many people were usually sitting out at any given time. These people would usually be off at a table or a bar and thus not very accessible to a stranger who might want to ask them to dance. Far fewer people actually standing near the dance floor looking available. But I still managed to get plenty of dances in, both asking and asked. I also had some nice conversations with some people, including one who turned out to be a co-worker, and another dancer with an invisible syllable in her name (Irish is fascinating that way).

Speaking of names, I started paying attention to my own name more than usual last night, since I was introducing myself to so many people. Sadly, I often say my name in a very flat, American-sounding, "Gram" kind of way. But over the course of the evening I found myself starting to give it more of the proper, British, triphthong treatment it deserves. I think there may have been some subconscious training going on, because maybe people understood it better in a noisy environment when I pronounced it that way, or because people kept repeating back to me it in an Irish accent. So it sounds silly, but I should really resolve to pay more attention to my own name. :-)

Overall, it was a lovely evening. Fun to be out dancing and making new friends. I'm looking forward to going back next week, and maybe even the week after, on the night before I fly home.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Dublin, Part II

Jim Larkin Sunday was my first full day in Dublin and I spent a great deal of it on foot again and getting to know my way around. I was up early enough that O'Connell street was mostly devoid of people, which I'm sure is not its usual state. By the time I made my way back this side of the Liffey, though, things were waking up more.

Spiralling Snake I went by Dublin Castle, though I didn't go in for a tour (still too early). Nearby is a delightful little snake-themed garden. It's mostly a large circular lawn with narrow brick snakes forming paths that twist around in Celtic knot-work. There are other little sculptures and things around the edges as well, hidden behind the shrubberies.

Trinity College I took a tour of Trinity college and was amused by their two bells. One is an everyday bell, but the Great Bell is rung only for examinations and funerals. One hopes that isn't because the two events are related. Trinity is also the home of the Book of Kells, but unfortunately we weren't allowed to take pictures of it, or of the rest of the illuminated manuscript exhibit. (Though I did sneak one photo of the Ogham script display, so I could learn the code.) Even more disappointingly in the can't-photograph category was the Long Room. This is the library that houses the 200,000 oldest of the college's books. It's 65m long and has bookcases reaching all the way up to its towering ceiling. Enough to strike awe and reverence into the heart of any book lover. The tricky thing about this library comes when you want to find a particular book (not that we tourists were allowed near them, of course). For reasons, I presume, of space efficiency, all the books are organized by height. Tall books are on the tall shelves near the floor, and everything shrinks as you go up.

In the afternoon I went to the National Museum, which was mostly interesting for the ancient dead people they've dug out of bogs from a couple thousand years ago. I also went to the National Gallery (both of these are right near my hotel) but failed to be very impressed. Of course, I was also kind of tired by then, which probably affected it.

After dinner and a bit of a rest, I headed out with my mandolin to find my first pub session. The Cobblestone had been recommended to me as the best place to go, so I landed there around 9:30. The musicians there let me play with them but, while I don't think any of them were trying to be outright rude, I did feel distinctly ignored. The piper pretty much ran the session, started all the tunes, and nobody did anything without him. He would also spend several minutes in between each set just tuning and adjusting his pipes and reeds, during which time nobody seemed to want to speak to me. The most I got out of anybody was when the bodhran player suggested somewhere else I could go play, "where they're more open to newcomers." I think he was trying to be nice, but the implication was very much that I was in the wrong place. So I felt pretty bad about that. Especially since I felt I was doing the session justice, musically. The other musicians were all good, but not stellar, and I don't think I was dragging anything down. So anyway, not sure what I'm going to do next in the music department. I don't actually want to try the pub that was suggested to me, since someone at work said it was more of a tourist pit and not recommended. So we'll see what else I can find.

There's a TV in my room and the other night I found an Irish language channel, with English subtitles, so I watched that for a while. I know a few words in Irish, so it was fun to try to catch them going by, and also to try to pick up a few more. I saw one talk show discussing someone who had been a great linguist and proponent of the Irish language, which was rather interesting historically. After that was a sitcom about an undertaker. Apparently he wasn't prepared to handle both a cremation and a funeral on the same day. Ah, the hilarity.

Work has been good so far. I like the office and I like the people, though it's also weird being on an almost non-overlapping schedule with the people back in California.

Coming up, I'm planning on going swing dancing tomorrow night, and I'd like to hear Handel's Messiah in Christ Church Cathedral. Oh, and I probably won't actually be going to Galway during my time off after next week, as I had planned. Cryptosporidium in the water doesn't sound like much fun.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Arrival in Dublin

My flights and everything went very smoothly, minus some little things like being able to get a good night's sleep (that's on tonight's agenda, though). My first view of Ireland was all clouds, as we flew over it to my stop in Heathrow, but once I actually landed in Dublin, the weather was lovely and sunny.

The O'Callaghan Davenport, Dublin I'm staying at the O'Callaghan Davenport hotel, which is rather nicer than anywhere I'd stay on my own if I didn't have a company paying for it. I'm on the third floor, for large values of three (since they start counting at zero over here). It's a lovely room, though I'm not sure why I need two desks, or a phone next to the toilet, or this weird "Man by Carmen" thing in the closet. And this is just a "junior suite." Who knows how many things I wouldn't know what to do with if I had gotten a full grown one. But it does have a bed and a shower, which are the things I'm most interested in just now.

St. Stephen's Green I mostly just strolled around this afternoon, getting my bearings. I'm less than a mile from the office, and it's an easy walk, so I'm all ready for Monday morning. The hotel is very close to a couple lovely parks: Merrion Square and St. Stephen's -- that is, James Joyce's -- Green. Both full of happy Saturday afternoon people, Dubliners and otherwise. I also walked up the pedestrian mall at Grafton Street, went by Christ Church Cathedral, and zigzagged over various bridges across the Liffey.

Relevant Tunes:
Tune Titles I Should Use:
  • Fishamble Street (or, The Ambling Fish)
  • The Fire Hose Reel (a sign I saw on a wall in the airport, where they kept the fire hose)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Flight-Day the 13th

I'm off to catch a train to another train to a plane to an island to another plane to another island. Tomorrow I will be in Dublin!

I'm hoping all the usual travelers at the airport will be scared off by today's date, so I'll have a nice, breezy time of it all, with no crowds. On the other hand, it is a Friday, so maybe not.

It's a pity I don't play something small like a flute or a harmonica. The mandolin isn't huge, but flights through the UK (I'm transferring in Heathrow) only give you one carry-on these days. So that'll be my mandolin, and I'll be cramming a fair amount of stuff into the pockets of my cargo pants. Luckily there's no limits on pockets.