A bit of the green

Not a drop of Irish in me, but I’ve always looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as a harbinger of spring and some much needed green in our northern climate.

I always thought it would be great fun to spend the holiday in Ireland, where it’s part of a five-day festival that showcases Irish culture and food. This year, though, the annual parade in Dublin has been cancelled as part of a world-wide effort to curtail large-scale gatherings that could potentially spread the coronavirus. I swear the news is giving me an ulcer!

It’s so important during these uncertain times to find ways to maintain your sanity. Take a break from the media as often as you can, and celebrate life as much as you can. Since we’re all being encouraged to stay close to home, take a little virtual trip to Ireland with my hubby and I, who were just there last fall.

Ireland 2019 – a bit more adventure than we expected!

We flew Aer Lingus, who was having a great flight sale, and arrived in Dublin at 5:30am. The cab ride to our hotel, the Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge, was quick and scenic. The hotel is in a fantastic old building on a quiet piece of property a little away from the city centre but within easy reach via public transport..

Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge

Our room was, of course, not ready at that early hour, but the Front Desk stored our baggage and we walked down the sweeping lobby staircase to have some breakfast.

The hotel has a nice breakfast buffet, and our first surprise in Ireland was that all menus label each food offering as to what allergens the dish contains. For anyone, like myself, who has multiple food allergies/sensitivities, that’s a real boon. The down-side, though, is that more than half the food in the buffet contained items I can’t eat, which made meals in Dublin quite a problem for me, and I’d already stepped off the airplane with a migraine from the food on the flight.

I did manage a nice breakfast anyway, and our next, more pleasant, surprise was that the Irish like their tea ‘sturdy’! When I checked our teapot to see how much was left, I was astonished to see three tea bags in it – a far cry from the generally insipid tea served in North American restaurants.

We spent a couple of great days in Dublin, enjoying the architecture, pubs and beautiful green spaces. Dublinia, the Viking museum, was fascinating, as was the interior of Christ Church cathedral, especially the rock-walled undercroft with its store of treasures.

Christchurch Cathedral undercroft

Neither hubby or I are fond of crowds, so we enjoyed a brief excursion to the famous Temple Bar district, where I found an excellent meal of chicken breasts with a tomato, pepper and olive sauce followed by a delicious lemon meringue parfait.

Strolling the streets of the Temple Bar district

Dublin counts many famous writers among its residents, and has decided to celebrate its more goth heritage with a new attraction called Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. It’s basically an illusionist show that’s very well done and very entertaining, and the building also features a lot of memorabilia from the author’s life as well as his legendary novel and the movies it inspired.

The easiest way to get around Dublin is to buy a pass for the hop-on, hop-off buses. If the weather is mild enough, sit on the open top deck and enjoy your driver’s entertaining commentary, get a bird’s-eye view of more wonderful architecture, and wave at the popular Viking-themed buses that go buy frequently.

Leaving Dublin, we returned to the airport and picked up our rental vehicle. We’d chosen to drive ourselves around, just as we’ve done in a number of other countries around the world, so that we could visit some sights not on the standard group-tour itineraries. A word to the wise about this: Irish roads are much narrower than ours, and hemmed on both sides by things like stone walls and hedgerows, with essentially no shoulder to speak of. Some of the roads we travelled on are purportedly 2-lane but really just a lane-and-a-half, with a few pull-over spots periodically so that oncoming traffic can pass safely. Self-driving in Ireland is NOT for the anxious driver.

Our first stop on the road was the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange. The site is accessed by shuttle bus from the visitor centre several miles away. The skies had opened up, so we sheltered as much as possible while we waited for the next shuttle, warming up with a bit to eat and some hot tea. The site is fascinating, surrounded by its own small stone henge. The entrance and passageway to the interior chamber are low and narrow, but the chamber is the prize at the end of the discomfort. Photography isn’t allowed, but the chamber consists of a central area under an incredible cantilevered stone roof – a masterpiece of engineering 5,000 years ago –  with three side chambers, one of which contains a bowl-shaped rock, and some mysterious swirled designs cut into the walls. Archeologists speculate that Newgrange was a burial site, but they still don’t know for sure.

I managed a few exterior photos while trying to keep my camera sheltered under my rain poncho, which the driving rain and wind quickly destroyed.

From there, rather wet, we went on to the Hill of Tara, where my hubby refused to get out of the car. I was determined, though, to see the ancient seat of Irish kings, so I braved the ongoing rain and wind. There didn’t seem to be anyone at the visitor centre, but the gate was unlocked, so I trudged up a little dirt path to a dismal-looking little grey church with a tiny cemetery. There was another gate at the edge of the trees at the churchyard perimeter, also unlocked, so I ventured onward. As soon as I stepped onto the grassy field beyond the trees, a cloud of white-beaked rooks rose from the tree branches and swirled raucously above my head. I felt like I was crossing the threshold to the underworld.

Rooks apparently guarding the threshold to the mystical Hill of Tara

I continued onward, up and down slippery grass slopes, until I couldn’t go any further for fear of injuring myself in the mud (did I mention that I broke one of my toes less than two weeks before we started the trip!). Also, I was worried that my hubby might be getting somewhat anxious because he’d lost sight of me as soon as I got to the church – and he was – so I headed back, passing another intrepid couple who’d also decided to battle the elements. The rooks went bananas again as I returned to the churchyard; I may have flipped them off in response.

Now truly sodden, we made our way to our overnight stop, the small town of Carnbeg, where we stripped off our wet clothes and had hot showers. My soggy socks had been completely destroyed and went in the trash. The hotel was cozy enough and had a decent gastropub on site, so we stayed in and warmed up over dinner.

The next morning we’d missed breakfast, but the helpful woman behind the Front Desk gave us a suggestion on where to eat, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things on the entire trip!

The garden shop at Standfield, on the fringes of Carnbeg, may be hard to find (we found the signage in Ireland to be as mystical as the country’s ancient history), but it’s worth the effort for the wonderful breakfasts they also serve in an extension filled with a whimsical assortment of old chairs and tables and crockery. The lush oatmeal, studded with fruit and berries, and served with tea and craggy country toast, was perfect for a cool fall morning.

Then it was on to Belfast, the legendary and troubled city which has only been safe to visit for the past couple of decades. Belfast is famous for two things: the Troubles, which dominated world news for three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, and as the city where the tragic RMS Titanic was built and launched.

As you may have already read in this blog, I am a big ‘fan’ of the Titanic story, so the opportunity to visit the slipyard and museum was a big bucket-list item for me. We decided to splurge a bit and stay right across the street from both at the wonderful Titanic hotel.

The Titanic Hotel is designed to capture the nautical ambience of the legendary ship
Our elegantly nautical room at the Titanic Hotel

That evening we booked a Black Cab tour of the sites of The Troubles. Visitors can explore the sites on their own, but we wanted an authentic and personal tour to help us understand what went on and how things became so tragically extreme, and the Black Cab tours are the best way to do that..

There are poignant reminders of the many lives lost, both young and old.

Belfast feels calm and peaceful, but you can sense the deep currents running underneath the surface and how fragile the current peace is even while it’s so desperately desired. The people have expressed their feelings in their wall art, and some of the art encourages young people today to avoid getting ensnared by old animosities, to instead create better futures than their predecessors.

The next day was devoted entirely to the Titanic story, from the excellent museum build in the shape of the a ship’s bow…

…to the only remaining ship’s tender for the Titanic, used in the port of Cherbourg that was too shallow to allow the massive liner to actually dock and necessitating transfer of the passengers and luggage out to the ship by small boat.

Belfast is a warm, pretty city to visit, with incredible history — I hope that the peace holds and that many more people will be able to explore its charms. Can I just take a moment to mention the weird and extremely tasteless proliferation of “Car Bomb” cakes I’ve been seeing on Pinterest under “Irish Food”? Having been to Belfast and feeling its deep wounds, I can’t imagine anyone from Northern Ireland who would endorse such an appallingly-named dessert.

From Belfast we headed north to the Giant’s Causeway as Hurricane Lorenzo began to make landfall. We managed to walk around a fair bit of the site before the rain hit.

With the arrival of the rain, we decided to warm up with a tour and tasting at Bushmills Distillery.

We overnighted in Portrush at a delightful B&B, venturing out in the rain for dinner at a local restaurant with one of the most delectable dessert cases we’ve ever seen!

The next morning it was time for a quick look at Royal Portrush golf course, venue for last summer’s British Open Golf Tournament, the first time it was held in Northern Ireland in something like 50 years. Then we cut across the country toward the west coast, unavoidably missing some of the reputedly spectacular north coast scenery but enjoying the road scenery nonetheless, with a stop at a roadside food truck in the middle of nowhere for a fabulous cinnamon bun and coffee!

We saw a lot of things, far too many to illustrate here, and enjoyed the incredible warmth and generosity of the Irish people throughout. A few highlights:

Our favourite small town, Donegal
Driving along all the small, winding roads of Connemara
Kylemore Abbey is stunning…
…but even more magical is the Abbey’s setting on the lake…
…and the walled Victorian Garden
Enigmatic Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb over 5,000 years old
The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, rising out of the mist and pounding waves
Lovely Killarney National Park
Ross Castle, stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan
The ruined Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century
A labyrinth at Glendalough
The magnificent gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Traditional Irish Stew in a pub

I hope that this little taste of Ireland has given you some ambience for your own celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all the wonderful things our world still has to offer, even though a lot is on hold for now as we stay safe and wait things out. All things pass, and we’ll weather this just as we always have, with grace, humour and perseverance. Next posting: some great ways to snuggle up in your home and make the best of things! Much love and best wishes to everyone around the world.
Erica

A year of light

A new year, and a new decade. Let’s hope that the world becomes a better place — lately it’s been feeling like we take two steps back for every step forward.

New beginnings are always hopeful things. I prefer to be optimistic, and so, while everyone worries about climate change, I’d like to share this charming article with you about sheep in Scotland who have been consuming more seaweed and are belching less methane as a result. It’s a start 🙂

With the growing trend of ‘flight shaming’, here’s a cogent look at approaching reducing carbon emissions in a less confrontational way. I believe travel is a powerful force for understanding and peace, and would argue that there are millions of people around the world who depend on the travel industry to make ends meet. While a lot of criticism has been levelled at travellers, there are industries that have been degrading our environment for decades and need to be examined. Clear-cutting, mining and monoculture farms in the Amazon and other jungle regions have caused an enormous amount of damage, for example.

However, I do love train travel and road trips. We were in Tennessee for the holidays, visiting a cousin, and if you’re looking for a place to spend your holidays in 2020, you might want to consider the Nashville area. We attended two light displays:

  • GLOW Nashville at First Horizon Park, a magical light display with skating rink, tubing slides, shops, and more, and
  • Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood Estate, where the magnificent Cheekwood Mansion is decorated to the hilt, and after dark the grounds turn into a holiday wonderland.
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood

I can also recommend a great Mexican restaurant in Nashville, Uncle Julio’s, where we could have made a meal just of the scrumptious queso appetizer, and we all enjoyed our entrees — I had a fantastic salad with smoky grilled shrimp.

We also ordered a chocolate pinata for my hubby’s birthday. It comes out on a big tray with a wooden baton for cracking it. Our excellent waitress recommended hitting it from the top so that all the goodies inside — fresh strawberries, churros and chocolate empanadas — land gracefully on the tray (instead of spraying sideways onto the hitter’s lap). It was great fun and very delicious. Stop in if you’re in the area!

Personally I don’t like making formal resolutions, but for 2020 let’s all incorporate dreams, imagination, serenity and kindness into our lives. That’s a good start too.

Make the holidays your own

Do you look forward to or dread the holidays? I’ve been in both frames of mind — depends on what you have to look ‘forward’ to, doesn’t it?

This time of year, with longer darkness and — at least in my part of the world — an ever-present chill in the air, bears considerable emotional impact.

With all of the season’s challenges, it’s really important to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Have some quiet times, soften the lighting, play a board game or watch a gentle movie.

One of the nicest Christmas breaks my hubby & I ever had was the year he got a bad cold. He wasn’t dreadfully ill, but tired and bedraggled enough that we had to bow out of all invitations.

We spent our days snuggled up inside by our Christmas tree, with a fire crackling, mugs of hot tea and our favourite movies on the television. I made chicken soup and other comfort foods that didn’t tax my hubby’s tummy. When my hubby snoozed in his favourite chair, I read or indulged in some retro paint-by-number artistry (which is not as low-demand as you might think, and remarkably engrossing).

It was probably the most relaxing Christmas we’ve ever had.

One Christmas a few years ago, we, with our nieces and nephews, decided to take over Christmas dinner at my hubby’s sister’s place and have soup and grilled cheese. She was slightly appalled at not putting on a big meal, but she was outnumbered. Several of us brought tabletop grill pans, and everyone contributed something interesting — my hubby and I brought the perfect grilling bread (golden and crispy on the surface, but soft and chewy underneath), our niece made two pots of soup, people brought their favourite kinds of cheese and some delicious add-ins. We banished my sister-in-law from the kitchen and created easy, delicious melted masterpieces in very short order. Then we all sat casually around the dining table and shared the goodies.

My family’s holiday celebrations centred on Christmas Eve. One year, after several busy weeks at work, I decided to keep things simple. I made a huge pot of chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo a couple of days ahead. All I had to do to serve it was reheat, put out a basket of fresh crusty bread and a big salad. My parents were no longer alive, but my brother came with his kids, partner and her kids, and my mother-in-law wasn’t going anywhere else so we invited her as well. The recipe turned out to be delicious, granted, but I think the cozy and simple meal struck a chord, because that enormous cast-iron pot of soup got cleaned out, even with a big bowl of delicious English trifle waiting on the sideboard.

There was a Christmas when we had both families over and expanded our meal to invite our neighbours from across the street, who had lost both their son and daughter-in-law that year and were now raising their grandsons. We weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable enough to join us, but they did, and our families welcomed them, and it made for a really special Christmas.

The point of holidays, whichever you celebrate, isn’t to drive yourself crazy tracking down gifts, or make everything look like a Hallmark moment, or grit your teeth while relatives behave badly.

Warmth and fellowship are the point. Spend quality time with people who matter to you, and include people who or hurting or would otherwise be alone. Have easy, good food and easy laughter. Put aside differences, because lost time can never be recaptured. Be kind to each other.

I wish for you whatever brings you peace and contentment this holiday season.

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to our American family and friends. It’s important that we all take the time to realize the good things in our lives and be grateful for them. Verbalizing some quick gratitude thoughts in the morning can turn around a bad start to the day — it seems to rewire our emotions. If you don’t believe me, try it. Wherever you are, dear readers, I hope that you have things in your lives that you can be genuinely grateful for. If you’re of a mind to share some, please do in the Comments.

All the best, Erica

Do you remember when…?

I love the smell of fallen leaves in the morning.

It’s straight out of my childhood. I always looked forward to the return to school, Thanksgiving turkey, and, best of all, Halloween!

As an adult I only have Thanksgiving turkey and Halloween in my life, but I have a great deal of nostalgia around all of them.

People seem to either love or despise nostalgia — I know people who feel it’s just indulging in sentimentality — but psychologists have done studies around it, and results have shown that there are benefits to spending some time in pleasant reminiscing:

  • The boost to your mood when recalling a positive experience. My hubby and I often find ourselves laughing at something from our travels that happens comes to mind from something that’s just occurred. It’s really special to us that we’ve shared those experiences together, and those memories have on occasion been a bulwark against something stressful that’s happening in the present.
  • Researchers found a strong social component, where people experiencing nostalgia were more motivated to connect with other people. It may be for the often communal aspect of the shared memories.
  • When we’re reminiscing, it’s akin to reading or watching a good story, but better because it’s from our own lives and actually happened to us.
  • For the elderly, who can suffer from feelings of isolation, it may inspire them to share their experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained.

Autumn is my favourite season, and Halloween my favourite ‘holiday’, dating back to my childhood and a time when as kids we were innocently and fully free to enjoy it. It was the one night where we were allowed to prowl the streets without a parent in tow, and we made the most of it.

My neighbourhood was lined with trees, and as the air got cooler and the beautiful red and gold leaves began to drift to the ground, shuffling through them on the way to school every day, breathing in the earthy smell and crunching them underfoot, became an annual fall ritual. I would often pick up an especially ‘perfect’ leaf to press between book pages and keep in my room.

The scent of grapes would also fill the air – a lot of people had grapevines in their yards at the time, so it’s an aroma that instantly takes me back to childhood, although it’s increasingly rare.

Each grade at school always put on a Halloween party, and, at least for me, weeks of planning went into my costume. My mom had a trunk full of old clothes, which she readily helped me transform into a variety of outfits.

Anticipation on October 31st was intense – the daylight hours couldn’t pass fast enough. We would put our costumes on and wait feverishly for dusk to fall – it was an unwritten rule to not start trick-or-treating before dark! – and for jack-o-lanterns to come to life on front porches as the streetlights came on. As soon as that happened, our parents would let us out the door for a night of adventure.

We always made a beeline to any places giving out candied apples or popcorn balls, and then, in the mysterious darkness that could be concealing who knew what unearthly creatures and the chill breezes that felt like the tap of the grave on our shoulder, we would go up and down the streets, deciding which houses looked welcoming.

There were always a few houses whose inhabitants were either not kid-friendly, or (to us children) downright creepy. If the former, we didn’t bother visiting them, but if the latter and there was a pumpkin out, we would have a discussion as to whether we felt safe going up to the front door; sometimes we did, with some trepidation, but sometimes the risk outweighed the possibility of more loot.

Once we’d completed our circuit, and usually with a full pillowcase of candy, we’d head toward our respective homes to dump out the contents onto a table and see what goodies we’d accumulated. It was always a great night, and I regret strongly that children now can’t have the same thrill.

My nostalgia for those experiences has been a strong influence on creating a spooky effect for the kids that come to our door trick-or-treating. They all seem to enjoy getting a little scared, and their parents get a kick out of it as well. I didn’t realize how much the children enjoyed the creepy contact lenses I’ve worn with certain costumes until a parent commented once that his kids look forward to it every year.

My hubby helps me decorate our front entrance but allows me to do the dressing-up and hand out the candies. He’s invariably lurking in the background, though, to watch the kids react. We’ve put out a variety of decorations, including some large stone gargoyles that we added glowing red eyes to, and there’s usually fog swirling through the bushes and along the ground. Our house has a split entryway, and the kids have even commented on the interior Halloween décor that they can see behind me as I’m putting treats in their bags.

Halloween allows us to experience some chills in a safe way, and allows both children and adults to step out of our normal lives and become something entirely different for a night. It doesn’t have the emotional baggage or responsibilities of Christmas, and it gives us an opportunity for some good, silly fun.

The proliferation of Halloween-themed cooking contests on the Food Network have instituted a new annual tradition for me, and I now have a well-decorated Halloween tree on our dining-room buffet, but you might still sometimes catch me romping through a pile of raked autumn leaves, to my hubby’s combined dismay and amusement. Enjoy your autumn, and I hope you get as big a kick out of Halloween next week as I do.