Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good for what ails ya

Our last trip of our European lives was to visit Jack's brother's family in Northern Ireland for a long weekend. This was way back in March, which according to some weather site or another, is the least precipitous month of the year. Right on! We were going to be driving, and to that end we had picked up a map of the Irish Isles when we were in Lille at the biggest bookstore in the known universe. (Thankfully the map section was right in front or else we would have been in there for hours.)

We flew into Dublin and went to the car rental place, where we picked up our automatic car, having learned from the experience in France that it is better to pay more than to have Jack do all the driving on a manual. I had been doing some mental imaging of driving on the wrong side so that I'd be prepared when we got here. Somehow, though, it didn't really stick till we were out on the roads. Jack drove first, and I was talking him through each turn, roundabout and lane change for his benefit and mine. It never quite became second nature, but after a bit of practice it wasn't so bad. Neither of us ever got the hang of the wipers or turn signals. It's probably a dead giveaway that people are tourists when they're constantly turning on their wipers in dry weather when exiting roundabouts.

We stopped in the mid-sized town of Drogheda for lunch on our drive north. We picked out the spot because there was a recommended eatery and because there was a saint's head on view in a church there. We enjoyed sandwiches and Smithwick's ale while overlooking the landscaped backyard of this upscale tavern. We paid close attention to the waitress when she pronounced the beer as "Smithick's", so we called it that the rest of the trip, hoping fervently that it was correct and not that our waitress had some kind of mental imbalance which prevented her from pronouncing the W sound. It was great being in an English-speaking country. Even better that we didn't have to immediately get some money, since the Republic uses euros.

We drove into the town proper and followed our less-than-adequate street map to get to the church. St. Peter's RC church sits diagonally across from St. Peter's Protestant, and you're just supposed to know which is which. We entered the first one we came to and were pleased to discover the head of St. Oliver Plunkett in residence. This wasn't one of those miraculous heads that haven't decayed with the passage of time--this looked like one you'd find on a post somewhere, serving as a warning to others who might think about crossing the inhabitants. I think we may have annoyed a couple of the devout people in the church, but really, what do they expect when they have a shrunken head on display?

After getting caught in a brief shower on our way back to the car that left us damp and cold, we drove to the nearby Monasterboice, an old ruined abbey filled with graves and celtic crosses. While this place was particularly well-known for the intricately-carved "cartoon" crosses they had there, we discovered that having a cemetery on the grounds of an old abbey was by no means unique--I suppose they figured that the land was already consecrated so it shouldn't go to waste. Besides the florid testimonials to the dearly departed, the headstones frequently told you who had erected them, which I found to be extremely prideful for dutiful Catholics.

Back on the road, we crossed over the border to Northern Ireland without any warning, aside from a couple of pieces of graffiti of a political nature. Shortly thereafter the highway became a two-lane road and we were caught in a backup on the road to Belfast. We made a quick decision to take the slightly less-direct route to the west of Lough Neagh, after which it was smooth sailing. Occasionally we'd end up behind a truck hauling hay or something, and they would courteously pull over 3/4 of the way onto the generous shoulder to allow people to pass while they continued driving at the same pokey speed. I had a good time trying to pronounce all the town names as we drove towards Coleraine, emphasizing what I had decided was a guttural "g" sound in Armagh, Maghera, Garvagh, and so on. We stopped and got some Northern Irish pounds in a small market town since we managed to forget our own British pounds at home.

We got to our B&B a bit after 6, parked and tried to check in. The downstairs was full of children who ignored the doorbell. Eventually I wandered into what was clearly the private part of the house, caught a kid's eye and she reluctantly left her rambunctiousness to go get her mam, who came out after a fashion looking a bit harried. Once we got our room we went back out to meet the family in Portstewart.

Having seen them just a few weeks prior, there was no tearful yet joyful reunion this time. We took in their labyrinthine flat, which had approximately the same square footage of hallways and blind alleys as it did rooms, and then headed out for a walk along the waterfront. It was windy and cool, but we had it almost all to ourselves at that hour. We then went into Coleraine for dinner at an Indian place. The food was tasty, the sauces all very rich and creamy. Mine was supposed to be really hot, given that it had 3 out of 4 stars, but it was fairly mild with just a bit of heat. K won the prize for the best line of the evening: "Dad, do 5-star restaurants only serve really spicy foods?"

Once back in Portstewart, we returned to the B&B for an early night of TV watching. Naturally there was nothing on, and Jack fell asleep right away. In the room next door, which seemed to be separated from ours by a thin scrim of paper, they sounded as if they were rearranging furniture. This went on for quite some time, but eventually I drifted off only to be woken at 2 a.m. by the doorbell ringing. Over and over again. A half hour or so elapses in this manner, and the guests finally gain entry and quiet down. In the morning I wake up early and unrefreshed to the sounds of kids thudding around and screaming. Sigh.