Friday, August 27, 2010

Venturing to the "North"

Finally, at the ebb of our time in Ireland, Katherine and I made it to the fabled land of Northern Ireland. If talked about at all in Cork, Ulster is usually mentioned along with a raised-eyebrows; an unspoken understanding that something's not quite right up there. Turns out that belief is not at all unfounded.

Katherine's sister Elizabeth was with us for ten days and for the first four days of that stretch we explored the capital of Protestant Ireland: Belfast. I learned much about the history of the Troubles and Catholic/Protestant violence in general, and I won't bore you with all of nuances. I'll just say that the Troubles were worse than you thought they were and, no, they're not exactly over. Well the shooting is (mostly) over, although even in 2010 an occasional British soldier is murdered and your odd car bomb goes off. But what remains is a startlingly segregated society.

From the American point-of-view one can't help but think of the Jim Crow South. Indeed, replace the word "black" with "Catholic," and you're on your way to understanding how Belfast and Ulster operate. Catholics are now allowed to serve in the police force (they now constitute nearly 30% of the officers) and they've even had Catholic Sinn Féin Lord Mayors. But it was unbelievable to hear, on a tour of West Belfast, that in all of Northern Ireland "there are now sixty integrated schools. It's not much, but it's a good start."

In the middle ground, the main "Peace Wall" in West Belfast between Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill.

Going a bit farther than the American South are the so-called "Peace Walls" erected in Belfast and throughout the North. These are thirty and forty-foot tall barriers separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, and the oldest ones have been up for nearly forty years. The homes next to the walls have protective barriers to deflect petrol bombs and other explosives that could be hurled over from the other side. And far from being just a holdover from the Troubles, they are actually still building Peace Walls in volatile neighborhoods throughout the North.

As you can tell, for me the main attraction of the city was its politics, past and present. We hit up the famous political murals, an obligatory exercise for any first-time Belfast experience. But there was more than the Troubles. There was the Crown Liquor Saloon, the most visually stimulating bar I've ever set foot in. It's like drinking in a work of art: from the Italian-made painted tin ceiling, to the hand-carved and luxuriously decorated drinking booths, to the beautiful painted ceramic tiles covering almost every surface, you actually enjoy looking around more than the very good Guinness they sell. And it's right across the street from the Europa, "the most bombed hotel in the world."

Probably the most famous mural, this painting on the Sinn Féin HQ depicts Bobby Sands, the first of ten IRA men to die on a hunger strike in British prison in the early 1980s.

This charming number greets you while you're walking down toward Queens University. The Loyalist murals are almost always more militaristic and, well, terrifying.

Other worthy sights are Queens University and the magnificent Botanic Gardens. The Ulster Museum––located conveniently in the Gardens––is world-class.

A flower in one of the Botanic Gardens glass houses.

The sisters in the opulent city hall of Belfast. This rebuilt room actually suffered a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during the Battle of Britain.

Elizabeth left for the States today, leaving Katherine and I about a week to prepare for our final foray into the Continent. We're visiting Switzerland after many suggestions to do so from Katherine's grandparents––just as important, though, is meeting up with Swiss friends we made during our honeymoon last year. Within days of our return to Ireland we'll be packing up and leaving Cork for good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Final Weeks

In a few short weeks we'll be waving goodbye to Cork from the back window of a Dublin-bound bus. It will be at least a little somber: Cork is the first place we've lived where Katherine and I feel "at home". Williamsburg, Va., always felt like the temporary trial it was; we never integrated into the community. Maybe that's because half of the community honestly thought they were living in the late-eighteenth century. Anyway, we feel welcome and plugged-in here in southern Ireland––naturally, it's always with a tinge of regret that one leaves such a welcoming environment.

On the other hand, our exit seems to be blessed with good timing. I am still out of work and there's really no hope for finding any at this point. I've been a drain on our finances for weeks now, eating and using electricity but not bringing home any dough. I try to do the laundry and go grocery-shopping to make up for this.

Furthermore, our section of town––Oliver Plunkett Street––seems to be turning against us. Ever since late-June there has been almost incessant road work, masonry work on the building next to us, painting, grinding, and jackhammering. It's a rare, very rare, day when there's any quiet. And the nights....well the nights have been loud too. I have the uncharacteristically good summer weather to thank: warm, clear evenings mean droves of revelers walk around the city at all hours creating all sorts of noise. Sometimes they like to camp out right in front of our building and sing loudly. At 3:00 a.m. Lovely. Last night seemed to be one of those uncommon respites. That is, until 12:30 a.m., when a neighbor's small dog started barking hysterically for several hours.

It's like the city is trying to tell us "'Tis time to go".

As for our European travels? Honestly I thought we were done after the Germany trip. Not so: we are, inexplicably, going to go to Switzerland for five days in early September. Katherine's late grandfather highly recommended la Suisse to us (Basel in particular), and we figured that actually going is a good way to honor him. It seems crazy but the tickets are booked and there's no backing out now. We'll get back to Cork with four days left on our lease.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Long, Dismal Absence

I know, I know. I've neglected my responsibilities. But in a way I have been saving you all from exceedingly dull reading––nothing much has happened! As with the past few entries, employment prospects are, well, nonexistent. Also working against me is my ever-shortening timetable: we're in Cork for only another six weeks. So I would either have to lie to a potential employer about the permanence of my residency, or tell the truth and not be hired.

So as you call can imagine, I'm planning on no more work in Ireland. I gave it my best shot! And grumble though I did, the warehouse gig saved us. Without that there would have been a much earlier departure for the USA.

Another factor working against my blogging proclivity is, simply, cultural acclimation. After nearly a year in Ireland the glossy novelty has worn off. Our way of life, the sights, the food, the accents, driving on the left side of the road, all of this seems more or less normal. I don't even give it a second thought anymore.

That's not to say that we're not trying to explore anymore. Here's some photographic proof of what I've been up to recently:

The around-the-world Clipper race made it's annual stop in Cork harbour in early July. The clippers are sponsored by cities, countries, and other types of localities from all over the world.

California's clipper was the lone USA representative that I saw in Cork. The crew was, charmingly, singing "Born in the USA."

July 15: My birthday. The big 2-5. Katherine got me a cappuccino cake from the Natural Foods Bakery. Best cake money can buy.

Also in mid-July: my little sister Caitlin came to visit us. After my birthday we went to Cape Clear Island for a couple of days. Clear Island is the most southerly point in the Republic of Ireland (and thus has the southernmost authentic Irish pub in the world). As seen here, the scenery on the ferry ride to the island was pleasing.

We were joined by our friend Meredith, on the left. The views on Clear Island were generally beautiful, like this shot of the South Harbour. Even though it rained for the entirety of our stay we still managed to hike around and enjoy the sights.

It's hard to believe that in six weeks we'll be bidding adieu to Cork. For the latter half of September we are cruising around the island with Katherine's mother and grandmother, and then we depart for the States on September 30. I will keep up with Éire Apparent while I'm still in residence, so be sure to keep popping in!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Missin' June

The word on the street is that May and June were the best months we'll see in Cork this year. And fine they were, lots of sunshine and hardly any rain to speak of. July is unfolding a little differently: the past three days have seen constant rain, heavy at times. But most of the time it's what some here call "swirling rain," precipitation that's almost lighter than air. The droplets don't really fall according the laws of gravity. Instead they swirl around on invisible air currents, enabling them to find you no matter where you're hiding. Under an umbrella, in a doorway, under an get wet.

The precipitation only adds to the fun when I'm pacing around the city streets looking for help-wanted signs. No luck thus far (by now it's a familiar story on this page). Nowadays there are even less opportunities than the winter and spring, mostly because college is out for the summer and the part-time market is clogged with university students.

So I remain on the hunt in Cork, but part of my attention is now on the American scene once again. Sadly, in a couple of short months we'll be leaving Munster. Recently I have been spending more time scanning the classifieds in the States––do me a favor and don't ask me what I'm going to be doing. Let's just say that I'm keeping my options open.

A Corkonian friend of ours recently referred to his joblessness as being "funemployed". It seems I have uncritically adopted this philosophy: we have wave after wave of visitors staying with us throughout the summer, and a lack of an income isn't stopping me from pubbing with them and taking trips out west. It might be the epitome of financial irresponsibility, but what about this whole experience hasn't been?

When my cousin Nick was with us last week, we took a road trip to the Beara Peninsula in West Cork for a couple of days. The scenery might well be incomparable as far as Ireland goes:

Katherine and I near the old mining village of Allihies

On Dursey Island, accessible only by cable car, we found dramatic scenery––here Dursey Head extends out toward a small island called "The Calf".

There was also a castle ruin called Martello Tower.

Sea cliffs on Dursey provide stiff competition for the Cliffs of Moher.

Naturally, sheep were ubiquitous on the trip.

My sister is our next guest, arriving next week. We liked what we saw in West Cork so much we are planning a second excursion. Hopefully the weather cooperates.

Since I'm in Europe, it seems appropriate for a couple of words on the World Cup. I have been following the tournament as closely as one can without a telly. While we were in Allihies we caught the Uruguay-Ghana quaterfinals match; incredible! The most exciting match I've seen. Anyway, we're down to two teams. Spain and Holland. Interesting historical rivalry, Spain being the former oppressor of the Low Countries. As much as my heart wants the Dutch to pull off an upset, my brain tells me that Spain should win. Therefore I'll go with the Iberians, 3-1.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Long Days in Cork

The return from Germany melted into working full-time at, yes, the warehouse. My current phase of manual labor in Blackpool ends with the month of June, but, as my boss has confirmed, there could always be a July or August "guest appearance." By July or August the money will seem quite attractive, I'm sure.

Offering our place to friends and family who want to visit Ireland has resulted in a flood of visitors––a cousin of mine comes in tomorrow, and a friend of Katherine's is showing up (with a friend) in the first week of July. The more the merrier, really, because visitors give us convenient excuses to visit some pubs and chippers, and to take road trips to the west of the country.

As for Irish current events––a topic I've neglected for some time––instead of focusing on the extremely repetitive glum economic news the country is in a highly positive mood thanks to some wonderful early summer weather. June has been just about perfect: clear sunny skies, highs in the 80s (or about 90 at the hottest), and long, long days. Seriously long days...I've never seen anything like it. But then again, I've never been this far north around the summer solstice. Consider last Saturday, when I was out until 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning. At 11:15 p.m. I glanced at my watch and noticed that it was still twilight some lingering sunlight still visible in the west. When I turned in for the "evening" at 4:30, the first rays of sunshine were visible in the east. Only about four hours of full darkness!

It is quite agreeable all around. Even if you work full-time, when you get home you still have four or five hours of time to soak up some rays. The only (slight) problem with the situation is you don't get as much sleep as usual. But that's where the Irish winter comes in handy, when you only have six or seven hours of daylight.

Anyway, the country is loving the weather. We've been told that June 2010 has had more sunshine than the entire summer of 2009. Just add this to the list of extreme weather we've encountered during our stay.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

S is for Schnitzel

We returned safely from Germany on Wednesday, no ash cloud interference in sight. Our week away was very enjoyable––we spent most of it in southern Bavaria at the beginning of the Alps, which rise suddenly and impossibly out of gently rolling wheat fields and cow pastures. Those mountains are truly awesome, we had never seen anything like them.

If you’re Alp-bound, check out the Bavarian town of Füssen. It is a favorite vacation spot of Germans, and it’s easy to understand why. The outdoor activities are top-notch. But for foreigners it’s probably best known as the home of Schloss Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig II’s “fairy tale” castle that supposedly inspired the Disney World castle. But something tells me that Ludwig’s is a little more impressive, if anything because it is perched up on an Alpine hill with stunning views of the countryside. That and it’s not made out of fiberglass. As long as you don’t mind being crammed into small rooms with eighty other sweaty tourists, Neuschwanstein’s worth a stop.

From the front steps of Neuschwanstein

We biked around the reservoir Forgenßee

From Füssen we went to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a great example of a German medieval walled town. It’s extremely touristy. Worth it, though, for the photos of traditional German architecture, giant snails, and a local pastry called a Schneeball.

Tilman Reimenschnieder altarpieces alone were worth the trip to Rothenburg

Germany has large snails

Love the architecture

Lastly we wound up in Frankfurt am Main, Germany’s financial capital. Frankfurt has a nice big-city buzz about it, and some great food too. German friends of ours took us out for some Frankfurt apfelwein (apple wine) and food––I got something called the Schlachtplatte. Literally translated as the “slaughter plate,” it was a mound of blood sausages, ham, and sauerkraut. It was magnificent, the best German food we had for the whole trip.

Frankfurt am Main

Two stereotypes were confirmed. Firstly, Germany is all about pork. You find every type of pork preparation imaginable. It’s actually tough to find beef or chicken on a menu. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe go to Spain on a holiday instead.) Second, the beer was second-to-none. Sorry Ireland, you’re a close second. The sheer number of brews available in Germany is overwhelming, but I tried to make a small dent. Every kind I had was nearly flawless. Even types of beer I’m not too crazy about––weiss beers and pilsners, for example––I have to give two thumbs up. (If you don’t like beer, maybe go to Italy on a holiday instead.)

One more observation: my God, the Germans are into the World Cup. Maybe their enthusiasm was dampened by their recent loss to Serbia, but I doubt it. While in Rothenburg we watched Germany beat up Australia 4–0. Locals then proceeded to drive around the town in a circle, probably a hundred times until 11:30 at night, honking their horns, singing, and blowing into bugles. This was a preliminary match…I don’t know what they’ll do if Germany wins the cup.


Much to my horror June is already drawing to a close, as is our time in Ireland. I’m going to be upfront with my loyal readers: Katherine and I might not be staying in Ireland for the full twelve months of our visas. A combination of factors has us thinking about heading home in late September, but I won’t bore you with them. The easy explanation is that we’ll run out of money.

I am currently limping along at the warehouse, that place won’t let me go. (One of my bosses joked that he originally came to the company sixteen years ago as a deliveryman trying to drop off a box. At least I think it’s a joke.) Nonetheless they won’t have any work for me after June, and the job market in Cork is, well, unchanged.

Right now our preliminary plan for the rest of our time is to enjoy summer in Ireland the best we can. We are seriously considering doing a month or five-week stint at an intensive language school on the Continent at the end of the summer. When are we ever again going to be living in Europe, sans career and other responsibilities? Might as well try to pick up a language, or at least jumpstart the learning process. If we commit to this then we commit to our finances being taxed beyond repair––thus the early return to the ol’ USA.

Note: I have no idea why this post is having formatting problems. I don't know enough about HTML to fix them. Sorry!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

June Already?

May came and went nearly unnoticed in Cork. Between our interesting trip to Italy and France and the visit of Katherine's brothers there was little time to sit out in the sunshine and smell the roses. It will be more of the same in the coming weeks, of course. We head to Germany on Tuesday: we're flying into Munich and start a week of exploring around Bavaria. And there is still a slate of friends and relatives planning to visit this month and next.

Cork is fully awake for summer. Today I saw two parades, of sorts. The first was a rather large march in protest of Israel's actions this past week. In case you didn't watch the news, Israeli commandos stormed an aid ship bound for Gaza, killing nine crew members and humanitarian workers in the process. Today we learn from the news that another ship––this one Irish-owned––has been seized by Israel while on the same course.

As with any other situation involving Israel, folks are riled up about the seizure of the aid ships. So what I saw today was a rather large (by Cork standards) demonstration against Israel's aggressive actions. The second "parade" I witnessed was a raucous procession by the Cork LGBT community (Google it if you don't know what I mean). There was a massive flotilla of dancing people surrounded by rainbow balloons while the Pussycat Dolls was blasted for the whole city to hear. Again a reminder of how much Ireland has changed.

The derelict building next to ours has started to literally crumble into the street below, a spectacle that offered some entertainment last night. The fire brigade noisily arrived to assess the situation. To examine the building closely, they of course had to use a cherry-picker.

But the biggest hazard turned out to be not the unstable building, but advertising banners:

But they're professionals. They managed to get past this hiccup and focus on the task at hand:

The whole fiasco went well into the night––I think it was around midnight before the hubbub died down.

Firemen working away into the evening.

The solution? They ended up gating off the sidewalk and street around the crumbling building. We'll see what happens next...
I just finished my first week back at the warehouse, and it's like I never left. They want me back when we return from Germany too, so I don't know where exactly this is heading. On-and-off work throughout the summer? Who knows?

On the economic front, more of the same. I have been fascinated by the slow collapse of the European economy for the past couple of months, and it seems like talk about a break-up of the euro is more common by the day. While no country that I know of has officially endorsed a revision of the common currency, it might be a matter of time. Markets plunged again yesterday as Hungary has admitted it has a Greek-style debt problem. Things will get really interesting if Spain or Italy eventually require bailouts, a situation that would compel the stronger economies (France and Germany) to abandon the currency.

But for the time being the union is holding together. We're going to take advantage by spending some euros in Germany. I'll report upon our return, of course.