Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chasing Leprechauns

In the end, the one thing that really defines our trip to Ireland -- more than castles, ancient druid sites, pubs, or sheep -- is hunting leprechauns. When she was around four, Gigi used to construct elaborate leprechaun traps at our house in the States. Now she's old enough to laugh at the futility of that, and seven-year old Pippa joins in since she sees the humor in trying to trap leprechauns in San Francisco. Now that we're in Ireland, though, all bets are off, and throughout most of the trip Pippa is convinced she will capture one.
Our first close encounter with a leprechaun is on our hike in Connemara. On the road, Pippa is convinced she sees a flash of a tiny white leprechaun shirt as we drive quickly by. Then, on the hike, we see off in the distance the tip of a hat running away from us. I see the tip of the hat, too, and it does look extra tiny because the child wearing it is on a sunken path. I say child, but could it be a leprechaun? Pippa is convinced that's what we've seen, and she checks out all the likely secret hiding spots for one of their homes. She is a detective, hunting for clues: the inside of this bush looks recently disturbed. They've been here and run away when they heard us coming!

Between hunting for leprechauns and a strange "Gangnam Style" dancing game that Anthony invented, the girls are cracking up for most of the hike.

It's hard not to believe in leprechauns when we see something like 15 rainbows over the course of our trip (literally, we stopped counting).

One day we see the most glorious rainbow and can't help but chase after it. We pull off the road, into a private drive, where we see the end of the rainbow clearly landing in the middle of a farmer's cow field. Admit it: You see it, too, and you know the pot of gold is just behind the ridge. So we do what any sane American leprechaun hunters would do, and we climb over the fence and chase after it.

But of course where this is a rainbow there has been, recently, rain. And where there is a cow field, there has been, recently, a herd of cows. Together that makes for some very squelchy, squishy, mucky walking. We just can't get to the end of the rainbow, especially since that pesky end just keeps moving further and further into the field the closer we get.

After we begrudgingly admit we can slog no further, Pippa bursts into tears, and we have to console her. Uh-oh. Perhaps we've gone too far. We have to start on a new campaign of talking about how much leprechauns hate being found. They're hard to catch, those wily, tricky, mischevious leprechauns! According to Pippa, that means we may just be the most successful leprechaun hunters around -- having seen their home and hat and all. According to me, we already found the pot of gold: It's the memory of trespassing in this farmer's field, chasing through the mud and muck after the end of the rainbow on an impromptu family adventure while the cows look on, bemused.

This is important enough to us that we make a pilgrimage to the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin where we learn interesting factoids, like that leprechauns are originally Scottish. And that they used to wear brown coats and red hats, and the point was to steal the hat in order to get the pot of gold. Credit for the current image of the leprechaun -- with green clothes and red beard, slightly mischevious but not downright nasty, guarding his pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow -- goes to...... Lucky Charms and Disney. Yes, really. They are magically delicious! The king of the leprechauns in Walt Disney's film, Darby O'Gill and the Little People set the standard in America for their current look, and it was the film and Lucky Charms that brought that image back to Ireland.
And so we say good-bye to Ireland. Pippa writes a song about the trip, with a little help from me and her guitar teacher, that pretty much sums it up perfectly (Her spelling in italics. Translation follows):
We sreached for lepercon's on the maintins. In the wilooold's of Kanamra.
We searched for leprechauns on the mountains, in the wilds of Connemara.
We sreached for lepercon's in the cow feld's at the end of the ranbo.
We searched for leprechauns in the cow fields at the end of the rainbow.
We hunted hi and low.                                                               We hunted high and low.
Wer did they all go?                                                                  Where did they all go?
I gost d'ont no.                                                                           I just don't know.
We sreached for lepercons by the clear strem's in the would's of Klarni.
We searched for leprechauns by the clear streams in the woods of Killarney.
We sreached in the fairy glades and gardin's at the castole of blarni.
We searched in the fairy glades and gardens at the castle of Blarney.
We hunted hot and cold                                                              We hunted hot and cold
For that pot of gold.                                                                     For that pot of gold.
We hunted hi and low,                                                                 We hunted high and low,
Wer did they all go?                                                                    Where did they all go?
I gost d'ont no.                                                                             I just don't know...



Friday, November 9, 2012

Irish Hospitality

At the Blarney Castle, we are told the (possibly apocryphal) story of invaders who tried to take advantage of famous Irish hospitality to gain access to the castle they wanted to attack: "Knock, knock, may we come in?"

Well, we haven't tried to invade any strongholds, but we can testify to the warmth of Irish hospitality. We spend the first night living the vida local by staying at the Dublin home of my friend Brendan, whom I first met 21 years ago in a bar in Tokyo. And now look at us. All grown up, with spouses and kids and glasses of wine at the table.

photo from Brendan's iphone, taken by the waitress

After Dublin, when we head out to the country, it's his family farm where we bunker down for the week in county Galway. The rooms are freshly painted for our arrival; in fact he greets us in paint-spattered clothes with a brush in his hand, literally. At first we feel guilty for driving them to spend their weekend doing house chores, but in the end they convince us it's been on their to-do list for a long time just awaiting the proper motivation. Well, I guess we're happy to oblige. If anybody else needs guests to show up at their lovely homes in order to motivate them to get house-chores done, just let us know! We're for hire.

You know how sometimes friends you really like marry spouses you really don't, and it's just a huge bummer? Well, I am pleased to report that Anthony and Brendan, and Brendan's wife Ashley and I, all seem to like each other just fine. As you can see by the fact that the children are mixed up on each side of the table at our dinner out in the photo above, the girls also get along like a house on fire.

On this subject, we are happy to report that we do not actually set Brendan's house on fire, despite lighting fires in the peat-burning stove. It's a real farmhouse, and we (and by "we", I mean "Anthony") bring in peat blocks from the barn and test out our (and by "our", I mean "Anthony's") fire-starting skills.


Brendan's parents live on a farm just up the road and his lovely mother, Bridie, comes to visit every once in a while. She assigns the girls the farm chore of feeding the kittens which, as you can imagine, is not much of a hardship for them. If only they would clean their room and clear their dishes with this much enthusiasm! It's the best chore ever and, frankly, one of the things they will probably remember the most about our stay in Ireland. I think it makes them feel important, useful, and distinctly not like tourists. Also, we refuse to buy them any housepets. Perfection.


Bridie brings us a homemade apple pie one afternoon which is both delicious and so incredibly thoughtful. To be entirely honest, my own mother has never brought me a homemade apple pie. Probably because my mother has never actually made a pie. So this kind gesture makes me feel like I'm at home -- but at somebody else's home, not the one I grew up in!

Thanks to Irish hospitality, we only spend three nights of our vacation in B&Bs, but these are lovely, too.

Two nights at the Earls Court House in Killarney means two breakfasts at the Earls Court House, and I have to say we are thrilled by this. The B&B is the 2004 winner of the National Porridge Making Competition, an award which we mock for the first 14 hours of our stay...until breakfast. Just how good can porridge be? Very, very, very good. I just can't figure out who won the porridge competition for the last eight years. We all want to eat this every day of our lives.

We ask the secret, and while they won't give us the recipe, they do tell us to think lots and lots of cream.

In the harbor town of Kinsale, we eat what is the best meal of our trip at the restaurant with the goofy name of "Fishy Fishy". You will only make fun of this name till you eat there. The chef, Martin Shanahan, is a celebrity chef in Ireland and, as you can guess by the name and coastal location, his specialty is seafood. It is creative, fresh, perfectly prepared, colorful, and full of zingy flavors. It reminds us a lot of the kind of innovative food we miss from San Francisco. And sure enough, I find out Shanahan spent time cooking in San Francisco. Well, I think it shows, and for the better.

Our B&B in Kinsale, called the Rivermount House, is a true family operation, but very luxurious. Other than the family that owns the home, we have the place to ourselves, since we're so off-season. The breakfasts at an Irish B&B are enormous, and we find we never even need lunch. The bread baskets alone are so lovely I could weep. Here, the owners also serve us smoked salmon covered eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, and the list goes on.


Though we have many, many quaint meals on the road, I would like to send a special shout-out to the Conyngham Arms Hotel in Slane near Newgrange, where we stumble across not only excellent food but also the most charming ambience imaginable. Small parlors in the old hotel have been transformed into dining areas, still with their soft couches and cozy armchairs. Even the library has dining tables, and this rooms wins as the room I will most fantasize about writing in -- with a basket of brown bread and a cup of tea by my side -- for the rest of my life.
We finish off our trip by staying a few days based in Dublin with another Irish friend, Anna, whom Anthony and I met 11 years ago when we were all backpacking around South America. We spent a memorable week together, first on a gut-churning ferry across the Gulf of Penas, then hiking around the incomparably beautiful Torres del Paine. One day, we all went ice climbing together and in a moment of youthful (but sober!) silliness, we all partially stripped for a wacky on-glacier photo. Evidently, Anna has had this picture of us in various stages of mooning/flashing/undress (which I have edited out, because the Internet never forgets....) on her dresser for the past 11 years. When her family asks her who's visiting, she tells them it's the American asses from the photo, and they all know instantly who we are. Or, at least, who our asses are.

Even though we haven't seen her in 11 years, she is exactly the warm, bubbly, funny person we remember, and the girls are completely enchanted.  Besides making our stay so comfortable, she also throws an impromptu Irish dance lesson for the girls, even roping in a former dance-champion neighbor. Gigi, in partucular, loves this, as she has started her own blog called Amikuku, introducing kids to dance from around the world. You can bet she will be writing about Irish dance soon.

In the end, having friends here has made the whole trip so special. Though trips to Morocco or India were more exotic, we feel like we have a connection here that we don't have in those places. We are so looking forward to reciprocating and hosting our Irish friends in Paris and maybe someday in San Francisco. But I'll have to prep for weeks ahead of time to compete with those Irish breakfasts.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

English as a Foreign Language

As we are in an English-speaking country, you would think that language would not be an issue here. But I think sometimes I have an easier time of it in France. The Irish (Gaelic) is of course a huge mystery to us, and since so many of the place names are derived from the Irish, we're often at a loss.

For example, if I want to get to Dun Laughaire, I might ask, "Which direction to Dun LOW-gair?"

The kind Irishman in the tweed cap looks at me quizzically.

I try again, slightly louder of course, because as all Americans know, speaking louder makes us more easily understood. “Dun LAO-jair?," I venture. "Don Low-HAIR?  Dun LOG-hair?”

He walks over to see where I'm pointing on the map. “Aah! Dune Leary!” And then proceeds to give me directions I can't understand anyway.

It’s not just the accent. Or the spelling. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t seem like English at all. Of course, sometimes it isn’t English. Many of the names are given in Gaelic, such as “An dInbhear Mor,” which, according to my trusty guidebook, means Great Estuary. I sound this out as “An DIN-bare MORE” though it is, as I’m sure you have already astutely guessed, actually called “Arklow.” I feel so slow.

In Tipperary, you will find a little town called “An tAonach.” And I’m sure if you were driving along wanting directions, you wouldn’t think of calling that“Nena” either, so don’t laugh. Sure sometimes they write it as “Nenagh,” but how is a non-Irishperson to realize that’s even referring to the same place? Guidebooks, maps, and signs don't always list the towns in the same language.

By the way, according to my Irish friends, nobody actually says, “Top o’ the mornin’ to you!” except the leprechaun from Lucky Charms which are, I’m sure you’re aware, magically delicious but absolutely not Irish. Nobody says “Faith and Beghorah!” either, though I have heard quite a few “Jesus, Mary, and Josephs!” In trying to sound like a native, I am told I hit it dead on about once out of every, oh, 40,000 attempts. The other 39,999 times, I sound more like Apu, the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner from the Simpsons.

Language difficulties aside, we're having a bit of the craic over here. That’s pronounced “crack”, and it doesn’t mean we’re smoking any form of cocaine. Rather, that’s the Irish way for saying we’re having a rip-roarin', grand ole’ time.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Emerald, Ruby, and Other Colors

At the beginning of the trip, Pippa got really mad when she realized that I had only brought her winter rain jacket. Now that's we're at the end of the trip, I ask if she's still mad at me. Sheepishly, she shakes her head no, since she has needed that jacket almost every day at some point.

Between the rain and the cold (it is November, to be fair), we opted out of the boat ride to the Aran Islands. Add in the car sickness, and opted out of a few remote hikes in curvy-road territory, too. But as my Irish friend Brendan tells us, "In Ireland, there's no such thing as bad weather -- just bad clothing." So between the rain coats and dumb luck, we seemed to have enough sun when we needed it to enjoy every day and get photos of the gorgeous scenery. In fact, what we don't have are pictures of the rain, because we either covered the camera or ourselves, or both. 

And the rain certainly does make it all so green. There's a reason it's called the Emerald Isle.

All the rain has pumped up the Torc Waterfall near Killarney, where we go for a wonderfully green and fragrant hike (my nose knows we're not in Paris anymore). The falls are just outside the Muckross House, which is a name that just sounds green and wet.

But it's not all green. We experience the "fall back" time change while we're here, which is appropriate, because we're back in fall weather. We don't get a lot of fall color in the heart of Paris (some, not lots) or San Francisco (virtually none). So this is a real treat for us.

The colors at Blarney Castle:

Road stop at Adare, County Limerick*

*Originally I wrote County Clare, to which sharp-eyed reader Thomas commented: Adare is in county Limerick, not Clare, btw. But who cares (apart from the people of Clare and/or Limerick, that is).

County Galway:

Bunratty and Dublin: