Those who garden can, those who can’t enjoy someone else’s

I have many qualities, but a green thumb isn’t one of them. I can manage to get things to grow, but most of the results are short-lived, except for a Peace Lily I brought home from my work office that’s survived for more than a year, amazingly; a Curly Bamboo my hubby gave me in a fit of optimism that must like the light in our living room; and assorted shrubbery outside the house that survives without much assistance from me.

I grew up on a farm, though, surrounded by nature, so I have a love of plants in all their forms. My mother had more skills than me, and we had glorious hollyhocks blooming every spring in the front of the farmhouse, and even a small vegetable garden in the short northern summer. No matter where we lived she always had an assortment of plants in the windows, something I tried to reproduce in my own homes after I got married but failed so miserably that long ago I resorted to nice-looking artificial plants which people often mistake for the real thing.

In university, studying biology, I even took an entire course in Botany, so I can tell you a lot about plants and flowers – I just can’t grow many myself.

Instead, I really enjoy exploring gardens around the world, including our own little corner of it.

Pond of Giant Amazon Lilies at Sir Seewoosagur Rangoolam Botanic Garden, Mauritius

Gardening, as a form of manipulating an outdoor space, began over 10,000 years ago when early humanity began to nurture useful food-bearing plants and eliminate the ones they didn’t want. As some people began to accumulate wealth and position, they created formal gardens for their own enjoyment, like the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There were also medicinal gardens for ready access to plants with healing properties, and temple gardens for producing offerings to the gods.

A quiet shady path meanders through the Japanese Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Ireland

Gardens reflect the cultures that created them, and I find the different styles fascinating. My personal favourite are Japanese and Chinese gardens – I find them soothing to the eye and spirit, places of serenity and quiet contemplation.

The other day I needed to get outside the walls of my home, so I visited our local Butterfly Conservatory. The buildings are closed, but the grounds are open to enjoy. The sun was shining and the air was fresh and not too hot, but there were just a handful of us enjoying this pretty spot, one of the pluses of being in this situation I suppose.

The grounds are fronted by an allée of shade trees and potted plants leading to a gleaming metal sculpture which punctuates the natural world all around it. Although at first glance it might seem out of place, as you get closer to the sculpture, you can see complexities of colour in the metal that pull it into the surroundings.

Most visitors throng the main building to walk among the 2,000-plus butterflies, as I’ve  done myself when I was giving someone a tutorial on animal photography. The gardens don’t dominate the eye – just a few benches and trees to begin with, with some flowers edging the lawns – but as I explored an unobtrusive pathway they began to unfold a soft beauty meant to be enjoyed quietly and slowly.

I took photos as I walked, so I can remember the feeling of sun on my face, a frog croaking in a pond, beautiful flowers bobbing and riffling in the light breeze. And to forever capture the fleeting splendor of nature’s artwork. I hope you enjoy them as well, especially if you can’t get to a garden yourself.

I’ll be profiling other gardens in future posts, and once we’re all able to travel again, I hope to set up garden tours to some of the many lovely paintings-in-landscape around the world.

Serene little pond along the path
Magnificent irises alongside the pond
Downloading photos, I love how they often capture tiny details that my eye didn’t pick up
The perfect spot to rest your legs
I liked the textures of this bird bath
A spectacular red Oriental Poppy in full bloom…
..and as the flower wanes
A dramatically shaped tree trunk in monochrome

All images by me and rights reserved.

Leisure in the time of Coronavirus

Finally some nice weather is here, and my hubby and I made a beeline for a golf course. It was a still, humid evening, so the air was very heavy, but we chose our tee time at 6pm, past the midday heat and hopefully hordes of fellow golfers.

It turned out that the course was almost empty. It was a little eerie – normally on a weekend the course would be very busy – but the relative quiet was nice, and we enjoyed playing the round at a more relaxed pace without having to worry about either crowding a group ahead of us or having someone come up behind us.

The golfers we did come across on nearby fairways, in a range of ages, all seemed happy to just be out getting exercise in the fresh air for a couple of hours.

Mark Twain once famously described golf as “a good walk spoiled”, but during this pandemic a golf course is one of the easiest places to play at safe distances from other people.  

On the flip side of the outdoors coin, our local news service reported that 300-plus youths crowded onto a lakefront beach on the weekend, making physical distancing impossible.

The hard truth is that, as much as we would all like our lives to go back to normal, they aren’t going to. COVID is going to become a permanent fixture, and, like the increased security in airports and on flights ever since 9-11, the ways that we’re going to mingle with other people will change.

There are upsides to this scenario, though – less crowding at public attractions, for one thing. The last time we were at Disney World, for our nephew’s destination wedding, the park seemed determined to jam in as many people as possible. It was a good thing hubby and I had been there many times before, as we weren’t able to get onto a single ride. We did actually spend 45 minutes shuffling through the long line for the Haunted Mansion, only to have the overused ride breakdown just as we were getting close. Walking around the massive parks, you would have been hard pressed to find any unoccupied pavement, which thronged with harried parents bashing their strollers into everyone’s legs, sugar-hyped children running amok, seniors trying to stay out of the worst of the traffic.

The scenes were a far cry from the video clips on all the shuttle buses that showed happy, smiling families laughing and enjoying themselves.

Universal Orlando park is set to reopen late next week, and one of their primary safety measures is to limit attendance. Prices don’t seem to be very much higher than pre-pandemic, but even if they rise, the trade-off will be greater enjoyment when you’re not cheek-to-jowl with other visitors.

We have the opportunity now to rethink how we want to spend our leisure time.

The Baby Boomer generation, which I’m part of, is arguably the best-positioned generation to weather the pandemic because we grew up without all the electronic gadgets that provide easy entertainment in the 21st century. I know – the horror of growing up without computers and the internet!

Our parents encouraged us to get out of the house, expecting us to more-or-less amuse ourselves from breakfast to dinner. We became very creative at finding ways to play. My childhood neighbourhood edged a large wooded area running along both sides of a river, and we could disappear there for hours! Lots of hiking, ropes strung from trees to swing on, masses of wild roses and plenty of wildlife to hunt for.

In my back yard there was a very large willow tree at the base of which my brother and I constructed a tightly-woven branch-fort that kept us dry in the worst rain. In the winter most back yards had homemade skating rinks and snow forts.

These days I consider our entire region to be my ‘back yard’ – we’ve been exploring nooks and crannies we hadn’t bothered with before when we concentrated on exploring thousands of miles away.

The internet has been a boon while we’ve been quarantined in our homes, and has so many opportunities for trying out new things. You can take online courses in just about any subject, whether just for your own interest or to maybe develop into a new job.

As I write this blog, I’m also watching a show I just discovered on our Netflix stream called The Big Flower Fight. I’m mesmerized by the stunningly beautiful and creative flower creations – on Episode 1, a gigantic and gorgeous floral moth; on Episode 2, breathtaking fairy godmother gowns made of things like orchids and leafy fronds. I can’t wait to see what else the contestants come up with.

I have very little of a green thumb – everything that survives around our home has to be pretty self-sufficient – but if I were a gardener, I would be so tempted to try making a similar creation in my own garden. You could really let your imagination run wild with some wiry supports and an assortment of textures and colours!

Maybe you’ve got a memoir tucked inside of you that’s dying to see the light of day – that happens to be one of my own upcoming projects about some of the wonderful adventures my hubby and I have experienced on our global travels.

I also love photography, and there’s plenty to practice on within a few miles of home, as well as baking, and I finally have the opportunity to try out the hundreds of recipes I’ve clipped over many years. Tea and baking are bosom companions, and I continue to get invitations to do tea-themed talks for our local organizations – I’m booked to do one in October if the situation allows.

Years ago I joined a local Toastmasters club just to learn how to speak at meetings without freezing up. I was a terrified little mouse lurking at the back of the meetings for several weeks, but slowly I learned the techniques of polished public speaking, and with regular practice I overcame my fears about standing up front at a lectern.

Ten years and many talks later, I’ve discovered that I love exploring fascinating topics with enthusiastic audiences. At my tea tastings, one of my favourite things to do is to walk among the attendees, finding out how they like the different teas and food pairings, looking at their favourite tea cups (which they bring to sample the teas with), and hearing their personal tea stories.

I’m so grateful that my hubby and I got to so many of the places in the world that we wanted to see before last December. It’s hard to predict how many more places on our bucket list that we’ll be able to manage while destinations figure out how to welcome visitors again safely, but there are quite a few that we can do within our own country.

When the easy options become limited, it’s time to open your mind up to all kinds of new possibilities. And for those of you who think chasing a little ball across acres of land is absurd, as Mark Twain did, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

What new things have you tried, or are thinking about trying out? The results might surprise and delight you 😊

A little frivolity

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like the coronavirus is Mother Nature’s twisted April Fool’s prank? Well, if so, She didn’t end it after 12pm, the customary cutoff time, so according to tradition we may call Her the Fool for that.

Media opinion was divided as to whether April Fool’s should have been celebrated this year. CNN even pontificated about pranks during the “global cloud of human suffering”. Seriously? How is that description going to help my state of mind? I’m well aware of how many people have been affected by the pandemic, but we need some relief from the grim barrage of information!

Apparently a British newspaper posted a joke image of Prince Harry schlepping around Hollywood in baggy sweats with a hoard of toilet paper in a shopping cart. Harmless fun, I think.

We need to be able to stay as calm as possible while time passes tucked away in our little corners of the earth. And that means controlling what we can control, like creating an atmosphere of fun as often as possible to counterbalance the news.

Go for a walk in your neighbourhood, and be mindfulin the moment. I went for a walk this afternoon. The sun was shining in a bright blue, cloudless sky with a slight cool breeze on my face. I was tempted to let my mind wander, but I steered it back to enjoying the signs of life and Spring around me.

I could hear wind chimes tinkling melodically in the breeze in someone’s back yard. I saw a red-tailed hawk drifting lazily overhead while a bright red cardinal sang melodies in a tree I was passing; spotted tiny, cheery white crocus blooming at the base of a front-yard tree; watched buds emerging into the mild air. A fellow was out walking his dog while he scrolled through messages on his cell phone; I’m certain he missed all these things. Take the time to notice and appreciate all the bits of life as you walk – these things keep us grounded in daily reality during the surrealness of life right now. They show us that life is going onward and that every day brings us closer to the eventual end of the pandemic.

The other day my hubby had a package delivered from Amazon. The parcel service driver had rung our doorbell and left the box on our front stoop, but I happened to open the door just as he was rounding the front of his van. He waved at me and smiled, and I smiled, waved back and called out, “Thank you!”.

Not an unusual exchange most of the time, but I see so many people looking grim when we venture out to replenish supplies, and it was nice to share a smile that day. I know everyone’s worried and uncertain about the future, but we can brighten each other’s days by taking the time to at least smile and exchange pleasantries, even if they are given from a distance.

Since we’re all stuck at home most of the time, couples and families are under each other’s feet a lot more, and it will be easy to get irritated. So this week’s theme is frivolity, in honour of April Fool’s Day and keeping a sense of humour. It’s a way we can help each other chill out in close quarters.

The origins of April Fool’s Day are murky, but it seems to date back at least as far as the Middle Ages. According to the Museum of Hoaxes, a Flemish writer wrote a poem describing a nobleman who sent his servant on silly errands on April 1, and in 1857 citizens of London, England were fooled into going to the Tower to see an ‘annual lion-washing ceremony’.

By Unknown author – http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/Hoaxipedia/Washing_The_Lions/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9873207

Personally I’m not a big fan of practical jokes, although I’ve seen some pretty funny ones. The prankee, though, isn’t always amused.

April Fool’s is all about make-believe, though, isn’t it, and there are all kinds of ways to indulge in a little pretend-fun without offending anyone.

One of my preferred activities is to play board games and jigsaw puzzles. I play a killer game of backgammon, which my hubby refuses to play with me because of my admittedly uncanny ability to roll doubles. As a great alternative, though, we indulge in working on murder mystery jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles date back to the 18th century, and were originally pictures painted onto a piece of wood. They were then cut into pieces using a marquetry saw. The first puzzle is believed to have been created by a engraver and cartographer, John Spilsbury, in London England. It featured a map of Europe and was meant to be educational. Spilsbury called it a “dissected map”, and the idea caught on.

In the 19th century fretsaws were used to cut up the pieces, not a jigsaw, but the misnomer stuck. Eventually the puzzles began to be printed on cardboard, and became enormously popular during the Great Depression as a cheap form of entertainment that could be played at for hours – the same reason they still make a great activity during a similarly challenging time right now.

If you’ve never done a murder mystery jigsaw, let me introduce you to a whole new level of the activity! For these puzzles, the joke is a little bit on you: you don’t get to know what the picture is supposed to look like. You’re given a booklet that tells the story leading up to the murder, with clues as to what you should be looking for to put together the puzzle and solve the mystery. It’s diabolical, and engrossing.

You need a large dedicated surface and patience to put these together – they’re not solved in one or even a few sittings. My hubby and I took three weeks to put the last one together, starting after New Year’s when we got home from a holiday trip, and then on weekends and after work into late January.

Our strategy is to assemble all the edge pieces, just like a regular jigsaw, and then sort the remaining pieces into trays based on colour and surface pattern. Very slowly, with many adjustments and fiddling, patterns begin to emerge and the final story takes shape. Sometimes you step away for a day with frustration and a sore back, only to have an idea pop into your head – damn, I think I know where that piece goes! – and you’re back at it again. There’s a compulsion to solve these complex puzzles, and the mystery they portray.

If you’re a Titanic buff, you’ll love this puzzle, available from Amazon

Think of all the ways you can have fun with some make-believe. People have had ‘Christmas in July’ parties and Caribbean parties in the winter for ages, after all. How about a Pirate party, or an Alice in Wonderland tea? You can while away quite a few hours planning them out, putting up decorations, making delicious food, getting dressed up. Let your hair down, take some photos, and have a blast. In fact, I’d love for you to share a photo with me once you’re done!

If you’re a year-round Halloween person, if autumn is your favourite season, or you’re just looking forward to the fall when hopefully life will have returned more-or-less to normal, make something pumpkin-flavoured. Turn out the lights and light some candles, put on one of the movies I listed in my October blog, or another favourite creepy movie, and enjoy a little catharsis with the pretend-chills.

And a bonus for you, a background image I’ve created that you can download for free to keep on your computer screen to help keep things in perspective. Next week: The Skies of Africa, Part 2: Khwai.

Shelter in Place in style

Oh, what a world, what a world! moaned the Wicked Witch of the West in her wonderfully creepy castle on the hill, having unexpectedly been thwarted by a random bucket of water.

You had to admire her style. Although her world was in chaos – her sister and partner-in-crime had been crushed by a house, the powerful ruby slippers were out of reach on Dorothy’s feet and rival Glinda was helping Dorothy reach the Wizard – the Witch could torment Dorothy in the comfort of her own home through the magic of the crystal ball. Her servants, resplendent in their uniforms, were completely cowed by their mistress. A whole troop of devoted winged monkeys waited to run her errands.

Since we’re all staying close to home for a while, while the global media vigorously chases its tail, let’s make like the Wicked Witch, shelter within our castles and make the best of things.

If things start getting to you, it can be easy to start spiraling downward, but there are some effective ways to break that pattern.

Laughter is a great medicine

The cliché is actually true. Fortunately we have lots of resources to make us laugh, on television, funny memes and videos on the Internet, a humorous book… I find the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards website delightful, and each year I look forward to seeing the entries in the annual photo contest.

One of my own favourite wildlife photos from my travels captured a baby baboon giving its mother the classic ‘I didn’t do anything’ look.

Surround yourself with things that make you smile

Feather your nest, as it were, with things that cheer you up. Maybe it’s fresh flowers, or your favourite colours. I have a friend who collects anything penguin-themed; she has a small set of penguin figurines which get costumed for different holidays just because they make her smile. A long time ago I came to terms with being one of those people who’d live in a Halloween world year-round, and I do have a small number of select items that stay out all year, like this cute nesting measuring cup set I stumbled on a few years ago. How can you not smile when you’re measuring flour for a batch of cookies with a cheeky little skull?

Plan for something special down the road

Like the Witch cackling over her crystal ball, it’s a feel-good exercise to plan ahead. Indulge in some daydreams about putting together a post-pandemic celebration – a special family dinner, a nice trip – or even something sooner. My birthday is coming up next month, and as the likelihood of going out to a restaurant is slim, and as I love cooking and currently have the time to do it, I’m already planning what I’d like to make. Just because we’ll be eating at home doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy something delicious. Coming from a German background, I’m thinking of making sauerbraten, a tangy beef roast that needs marinating for several days. My recipe is from a German cookbook, but this one on All Recipes looks fairly similar. I went out today to pick up the roast and store it in the freezer.

Distraction/a little healthy Escapism

I consider myself something of an expert on this subject, having had chronic illnesses since I was a child and some deep family troubles in early adulthood. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the world. I love to read, and have a handful of favourite novels that I reread when I really need an engrossing escape. Sci-fi/ fantasy is my thing, so here are a couple of my older favourites:

The Eight, by Katherine Neville, a wonderful adventure about a female computer expert solving a mystery involving a mystical chess set belonging to Charlemagne across history and continents;

Summon the Keeper, by Tanya Huff, a funny and eerie story about a woman charged with sealing a tear in the fabric of the world inside an old, odd Victorian mansion in Kingston, Ontario, along with her crusty, old and very sarcastic cat — it has the best depiction of Halloween I’ve ever enjoyed;

and the modern Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning, about a young woman from Georgia who goes to Ireland to try and solve the murder of her sister, only to find herself in the middle of a world of nasty Fae and enigmatic, mysterious allies — brilliantly creative and well-written.

There are lots of movies that make me feel better – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, The Mummy (1999), Death on the Nile (the amazing scenery in this movie actually spurred me on to book a bucket-list trip to Egypt, and the ensemble cast is a delight to watch). I also love some older movies like Jason and the Argonauts, pure adventure and wonderful special effects by the late great Ray Harryhausen, and Forbidden Planet, also a favourite of tv crime-writer Richard Castle.

Practicing Gratitude

March 20 is the International Day of Happiness. While that might seem like a pretty tall order at the moment, studies have shown that the practice of ‘gratitude’, of reflecting on and recognizing things in our lives to be grateful for, even tiny things, can significantly improve our mood. It may seem too simplistic, but thinking of things you’re grateful for seems to press a kind of ‘reset’ button in our brains. If you’re skeptical, you read up on the neuroscience of it on psychology.com.

The theme of this year’s IDoH is Happier Together, “focusing on what we have in common, rather than what divides us”. That seems to be especially appropriate right now.

www.actionforhappiness.org/coping-calendar

Things I’m grateful for:

  • The Internet, which allows me to keep abreast of the pandemic situation where I live, as well as global news (in small doses only!), to stream television for some entertainment and relaxation, and to work remotely as per the college where I’m currently employed
  • The burgeoning spring weather, with some sunshine and milder temperatures to elevate our moods
  • I also have the time to resume weekly blogs and share some thoughts/tips on how we can all weather these times until things start to get back to normal. There’s so much gloom in the media, I’d like to offer the alternative!

I particularly like this suggestion on the UK Telegraph’s 365 + 1 blog, to go to sleep in a better frame of mind by thinking of three good things that have happened that day. Give it a try, it really does help.

Being nice to yourself and others

These are stressful times. Be kind to yourself and to others. It feels a lot better than being grumpy and mean. Be considerate and polite when you’re out buying supplies. Check on elderly or ill neighours to see if they’re okay or need anything. Have phone or video chats with friends and co-workers as an antidote to the social distancing we’re practicing, and share a laugh together. Go out in the fresh air and walk around where there’s some nature to absorb the peacefulness.

And finally,

here’s an excellent article by the BBC, Coronavirus: How to protect your mental health.

Next week, a virtual trip to Africa, one of the most amazing, stunning, evocative places on earth. In the meantime, if you’d like to share some of your favourite ways to keep your spirits up, or a few of your favourite books/movies/resources, please do. Also, be silly a little 🙂

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

Is the sky falling??

If you were paying attention to those two satellites that came close to colliding somewhere over Pittsburgh yesterday, you might have thought the sky was going to fall indeed.

Looking back at just the past two weeks since my last post, to quote Henry Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Our situation has not improved.”

The World Health Organization has finally declared the Novel Coronavirus as a global health emergency, something that seemed pretty obvious to me, and probably a lot of other people, at least a few days ago. The rapid spread throughout China despite all the containment measures, the fact that the virus may not manifest symptomatically in some people until they’ve already passed from one country to another…these things seemed fairly indicative of a significant problem.

If anything, this situation clearly shows why all travellers should have insurance and access to some back-up cash in case of emergency or a delayed return to your home country. If you have to take medication, always make sure you take extra with you.

For those of us watching the news and waiting to see what the next days will bring, it’s important to maintain our own health and sanity. The world has survived other pandemics, so your job is to keep safe and sound in your corner of the planet. Here are some suggestions:

  • Be kind to yourself and other people — everyone’s under stress, so a generous spirit can help ease tensions
  • Watch happy, fun shows. I guess some people might find grim, dystopian fare cathartic, but in my experience the cumulative effect is depressing
  • Practice some cozy nesting. Cook comfort food, enjoy relaxing downtime, turn your home into a haven against the craziness outside its walls.
  • Eat good quality food. One of your best defenses is to be properly nourished, so: avoid processed food, which is full of empty calories and a lot of not-so-benevolent chemicals (I studied organic chemistry in university, and the lecture on food additives was an eye-opener about the crap that companies put into processed foods!), and eat a well-balanced selection of natural foods.
  • Be proactive in prudent ways. If you have essential medications or supplements, make sure you’re well-stocked. For example, I have chronic acute nerve pain in one thigh, and the only thing that keeps it at bay is regular doses of a Vitamin B complex — I bought an extra bottle this week, because if I were to run out I’d be in deep trouble. Maybe even stock up on some nonperishable food supplies that you’d use anyway should we never end up in a lock down situation ourselves. I keep reading stories of the food shortages for people in locked-down Wuhan. They were caught unawares, but we have the advantage of some advance knowledge. Hopefully, like SARS, the virus is stopped before it gets too much farther, but I always feel that it’s better to be prepared.

In the meantime, like my favourite maxim, keep calm and drink tea with a nice cake to raise your spirits.