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.

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