Friday, August 29, 2008

Our time in the Eastern Hemisphere was running short. There was so much left to do and see, and we had squandered our days doing mundane things like visiting the police station and going to the movies. The weather was just starting to get nice, so we alternated between states of denial and panic as we tried to simultaneously take advantage of our remaining time and get done all the things we needed to do before we left.

We definitely needed to test more chocolates. I went out to Uccle and picked up a brand that we hadn't tried before called Galler. The shopkeeper was very nice and even gave me an extra free piece (for a total of two) after we bonded over the fact that we both weren't keen on lapsang souchong (which was one of their flavors). It was very good stuff. My other motivation for going there was to get a photo of a sign we had seen that amused us greatly what with our juvenile senses of humor. It being on the door to a school I felt a bit strange trying to get a shot of the "Retards" ("late ones") sign, but no one seemed to notice or care.

We needed to visit more of the parks encircling the city. This one had a pond, benches and grassy areas, really hairy cows, and an area cut up into tiny plots for either a garden or livestock. We took the long way back, dipping into the Flemish region for a few blocks, checking out a couple of cemeteries (one with a free bathroom, almost unheard of in this country), an old church of Roman origin, and some sheep grazing in an otherwise empty city block surrounded by buildings on all sides.

And of course we needed to eat at all the restaurants we had seen in the neighborhood and said "we should go there sometime" and then never did. This was complicated by the fact that people were also wanting to feed us as a goodbye gesture AND we were trying to use up what food we could in the time remaining. We did manage to do some good eating, though. I was happy with both Notos, a high-end modern Greek restaurant that we visited with friends, and Chumadia, a Slavic place.

Since we had tried to get into on a weekend one time in the past and it was full, we went to Chumadia on a weekday this time but they were still unable to seat us right away, so we got cocktails and retired to the back garden/storage space and hung out with the resident cat. Once we finally got in, though, we figured out what all the hubbub was about: massive portions of grilled meats for rock-bottom prices. If I recall correctly I made the mistake of getting an appetizer as well, having never seen platters of that size served in Belgium. It was all very tasty, and I was sad to see some chevapchichi left on my plate when I could finally eat no more. Jack tried to order the horse, but without success. Although it's on the standing menu, they apparently only get it in occasionally.

We had a party to get rid of food items and to guilt our guests into taking pantry and household items home with them, which was sadly only marginally successful, forcing us to force bags filled with half-used sacks of salt and lentils and so on on people when they were in no position to refuse. At the last minute, Jack's new Australian coworker was able to come to an arrangement with our landlord where she would rent the apartment and be able to keep all of our furniture in spite of the fact that he wanted to put down parquet flooring between tenants. I'm not sure how that all worked out, but it was a relief to not have to worry about it anymore.

I was having some issues with my caga tio, who seemed to be harboring a pest that was making ticking sounds that I could only hear when the house was totally silent. Not wanting to be the person who brought an insect to the US that decimated the oak population, I researched methods of eliminating it. (I initially decided that it was a death watch beetle, but after a while I realized that the light in my eyes wasn't slowly dimming, so I researched other insects.) The standard means is to heat the wood to a certain temperature for a certain time. I didn't want to damage the little guy, though, so I removed his cheery hat and smile before baking him. He looked so naked and pathetic in there, like he couldn't understand why he was being subjected to this torture. This stopped the ticking long enough for it to be shipped to the US without customs destroying it, and then it started back up again. I then went for the irradiating power of the microwave, which proved to be a more permanent solution after the second attempt.

We moved into a B&B for three nights after we gave our bed away. It was a single room in a house-behind-a-house one block over from our place. The woman renting it was a doctor of some sort who would put on her leather bomber jacket and drive off on her scooter in the mornings. She would set out breads and cheeses and fruit and yogurt and juice for us in the morning and we'd consume it at the dining table in the front house as the tenants made their way off to work on the other side of the frosted glass doors. After seeing innumerable Nespresso commercials at the movie theaters featuring George Clooney as an idiot who assumes these hot women are talking about him but really they're discussing their beverage, we had an opportunity to try it at the B&B. I guess it's okay for pod coffee, but it creates an annoying amount of waste.

We went to the commune to de-register. Surprisingly, we learned that the de-registration is done in a different building a half a mile from the registration place. As chaotic as that place always was, the new one seemed worse because the windows handled a bizarre array of issues and everyone seemed to be in a great hurry. Since there was once again no line or numbers, you had to keep an eye on everyone else to keep them honest. We paid them something like €20 each to legally leave the country, and then went to the post office and forked over a similar amount of cash to have our mail forwarded to Jack's office (entirely a waste of money since it seemed to be ineffective).

Finally, at long last, came moving day. I called my contact at the moving company in the US on Thursday and Friday to find out what time we could expect the movers on Monday, but heard nothing back. So we arrived at the house on Monday morning not knowing what to expect and discovered the painters were trying to get in, but no movers. We called the local firm and they had no record of a move scheduled for us. Panic set in at this point, yet we couldn't really do anything until the workday started in the US at 2 p.m. Brussels time. It was a very frustrating few hours. Fortunately, the local company was willing to tentatively schedule a move for the next day pending confirmation of our contract with the US company. So in the end we ended up needing that extra day of cushion that we had built in, but it all worked out. I was even able to rustle up some takeout coffee for the first time ever for the movers when they showed up on Tuesday, although carrying it over the bumpy cobblestones was no easy task.

Since we had accomplished all our administrative tasks, we had Tuesday afternoon free. We went on a tour of the Hotel de Ville in Brussels, something we had always wanted to do but the English tour was usually full up on weekends. We managed to get advance tickets due to the fact that I had to go to the bathroom, so they allowed us to purchase the tickets in advance which gained me admission to the facilities. We went over to Martyr's Square and sat in the brilliant sunshine and had our last beer and croque monsieurs at a cafe there.

Looked around for the last time, a bit wistfully, and then went home.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

RoI end

Our last day of our last European trip dawned dry and breezy. We had breakfast, made our picnic lunch, and returned the key to our hostess and said our farewells. The woman advised us that it'd take us about the same amount of time to get back to Dublin whether we took the highway or not.

We got on the road to seek out a cave and a holy well in town. The first, the Poll a Wee cave, was on an unnamed back road on the edge of town. Having no map with us, we had to rely on instinct and the memory of having passed such a road in the vicinity the previous day. The directions on the map we had researched the previous day said you could reach it by crossing a stile and entering someone's field, which we assumed would be okay since they told us how to get there. We drove down the road till it ended in a muddy rut by a farm, and turned around. There was no sign of a gap in a wall for pedestrian access, so we had to give up on it. The well was a bit easier to find, since it was on the main road just past the castle. It was overgrown and under-visited, just a cross sticking out of a patch of ivy surrounded by high grass, but it was our last chance for such holiness so we took it. I felt compelled to at least attempt to cut the grass with a conveniently-located mower.

Then we got on our way in earnest, passing the shores of Lough Rea and any number of small towns, and stopping briefly in Bullaun to see the rather disappointing Turoe Stone, which was practically invisible inside its unlit plywood shack. Fortunately, Turoe Farm and Leisure Park, which shares space with the stone, wasn't open for the season yet, or I would've felt strange tramping around their property looking for a large stone phallic symbol.

We got on the highway for a while, then got off again once it ended (the east-west thoroughfare is still under construction). After a fashion we found ourselves in the town of Kilbeggan (Ireland has more great town names per square mile than even one of them crazy southern states, I reckon). We passed another distillery and, having time to kill, decided to check it out. We paid our entrance fee for the self-guided tour of Locke's whiskey distillery. They don't actually produce any whiskey there, but when the place closed in the 1950s they left everything in place, as if just going on vacation for a few weeks. So everything is ancient and grime-covered and just waiting for it all to be resurrected. The self-guided tour was actually quite entertaining, as it went into the day-to-day conditions of the plant, down to the fact that workers apparently devised a lot of ways to secretly steal alcohol from the place. It was the main livelihood that supported the town, and when things would break the citizens would band together to pay for repairs so they could keep collecting a paycheck. They are currently storing and maturing whiskeys there, so we got to taste a sample given to us by a woman who clearly wanted to get back to chatting with the woman at the front desk. I got one question in before she abandoned us. Probably we should've gone around to the other side of the bar and helped ourselves to additional drinks to spite her.

Helpfully, there was an attached cafe which allowed us to ignore our picnic lunch. It was after the midday rush of tourists and there were just a few straggling locals at that point. The food was fairly standard and we didn't linger too long, having places to be. Back on the road to Dublin we picked up another section of actual highway, and listened to the afternoon shock jocks convincing one of their coworkers to go into an office building across the street from theirs, get past the lax security and make herself a cup of coffee. Titillating! Then it was two times 'round the airport to get to the gas station they clearly don't want you to use to fill up your car before returning it, as the place can only be entered while exiting the airport grounds. We checked in in plenty of time, had our last Irish Guinnesses, hopped on the plane and went home. For dinner: picnic sandwiches.

Monday, August 04, 2008

They Call Me Baby Driver

The next day started out with a pleasant breakfast of eggs, brown bread toast with Irish butter, orange slices, and Irish breakfast tea. Not quite as artery-clogging as the previous days, but one can't eat that way all the time. We researched the day's activities, which mostly consisted of driving around the Burren area and looking at ruined abbeys and the like.

I was thinking of putting together a route map to more accurately depict our day's travels. We did so much circling around and back-tracking and dithering that I can't remember all of it, although if I had it would've looked pretty spectacularly random. Suffice it to say that we spent a lot of time on the back roads of a relatively small area of the country, as we lost our way and corrected our route and stopped places and just drove around. I DO know that we saw the following:

+ Corcomroe Abbey (in ruins)
+ Poulnabrone megalithic tomb (which had fallen down recently but they found another slab rock to prop it up with)
+ Hillsides of the Burren free from any vegetation more than a couple inches high, thanks to cattle grazing that keeps the area tidy
+ Gravestones written in Gaelic
+ A Sheela na Gig near the town of Killinaboy
+ High cross of Kilfenora
+ Lots of ill-proportioned religious scenes carved in stone

We were denied having lunch in the Ailwee Cave because we felt it was wrong that they made you pay to park. After driving through the three roads of Ballyvaughan several times in an effort to find a place to eat, we took the back way round to Lisdoonvarna and traveled all three of THEIR roads, squeezing on such narrow thoroughfares that at one point I clipped the mirror of a parked car with my own. Fortunately in other countries the mirrors readily fold in for just such a reason, so no damage was done. We found ourselves at the Roadside Tavern, which specialized in smoked fish dishes. Having had quite a demanding morning, we grabbed a table next to the cheery coal fire and each ordered a Guinness.

A table of Australians across the way from us were just finishing their meal. For some reason they felt the need to complain about the fact that grocery stores are open on Sundays there. I had to resist the urge to go over and shake them by the shoulders and tell them that they didn't know how good they had it. I just sighed resignedly and ordered a smoked salmon dish. Jack got the smoked fish plate, which contained a variety of species. Both were very good, just the thing to ready us for the afternoon of more driving around. We lingered a bit after the meal, enjoying the quiet coziness of the place. At one point the proprietor came around and tsked himself for letting the fire dwindle, but he had a new pail of coal to toss on at the ready and it soon resumed its former strength.

Eventually we headed in the direction of the park containing the Cliffs of Moher, one of those things you have to see if you're in the area. We drove to the cliff's edge outside of the park and then looped back around on the Liscannor Bay side to come at it from the other direction. On the way, we happened by St. Bridget's Well, a cemetery and spring-fed pond featuring a life-sized statue of the saint encased in glass. A tunnel covered from floor to ceiling with rosaries, pictures, notes and statues led to a man-made pool where people go to get healed or whatever they do at places with supposedly mystical properties. All that needy hopefulness was kind of creepy. How many dreams were dashed after a visit here?

After that, we were ready for some unbridled scenery so we hit the cliffs. After an extensive, award-winning renovation, the cliffs are now essentially walled off and completely lacking in danger, giving this formerly wild place the air of a tourist-trappy attraction. It's a very pretty wall, for sure, but still I found it to be a real let-down. You could take photos of yourself and email them to your friends, but a gaggle of teens were using it so we didn't partake. The only exciting thing about it was the high winds, which forced us to walk at an angle at times. It was like being in a hurricane, except there was only a little spitting rain. We had a warm-up tea in the welcome center/museum/gift shop and then hit the road again, but not before the guy at the parking lot cashier's booth told us that the winds were quite normal, not anywhere near the extremes they sometimes see.

We returned to Kinvara to regroup for dinner. On the way back we bought some gas at a station on the other side of town. I went inside to pay. "Just the gas." "What kind?" "Oh, I don't know, whatever it was on that pump over there." [Gestures towards the car.] "Oh, I thought you said 'cigars'!"

Weatherwise it was another intermittently rainy, blustery day, and not really much fun being out. As the day drew to a close I walked to the grocery in town to forage for food for the next day. I thought we'd picnic on our way back to Dublin to save some time and money, rather than going to a restaurant. I got some tomatoes, cheese, a tube of English mustard, and some pastries for breakfast the next day. I also bought a bottle of Bulmers hard cider that we had seen advertised around but hadn't tried yet. The store wasn't very busy, and the cashier asked me where I was from (Washington) and whether they got snow there this winter (yyyyesss). I didn't want to get into the whole Belgian thing. Sometimes it's just too much for people to handle.

As night came on and the rain and wind picked up, it became clear that we were in no mood to venture out again. We made a meal of what we had on hand and drank the cider, which was good. Our host had this crazy hand-drawn map of the town showing all the ruins and various other items of note in minute detail. The map was printed in the 80s and falling apart, and we wished we could take it around with us because it had every street, alley and footpath noted on it, along with the locations of ruins, cemeteries, holy wells, caves, and other items of interest. But we made a mental note of a couple key features and hoped we might come across them in the morning on our way out of town.