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Archive for October 18th, 2019

“Fish & A Chip”

When I first thought about a title for this blog post,  “Fish & A Chip” seemed to be a bit of fun:  it was both a nod to the classic dish found everywhere during our 17 day journey through SW Ireland (Cobh and Limerick), Northern Ireland, Scotland and London, as well as a tongue in cheek reference to our determination to eat somewhat modestly.  Hence, “a chip”, not “chips”.  And given the UK reputation for soggy, fatty, over cooked comfort food, which I shudder to even think about, I thought that the goal was a reasonable one.

Well, as you might imagine from the set up, we were doomed to failure. I now realize that neither Ben or I have enough self restraint to go on a cruise where tempting foodstuffs are available 24/7.  I never eat pastries. Well, “never” now means “hardly ever”.   At our hip hotel in Dublin, the art deco extravaganza in Belfast,  and the multi table breakfast buffet at the stately Adare Manor, the breakfast pastries were over-the-top delicious.  Of course, I always think that my next breakfast could not be as nearly wonderful, so I might as well sample one pastry.  All right, two, because they were so little.  All right, even if they weren’t little.  And it wasn’t just the breakfasts which tempted me:  there is something about the texture and taste of the dark wheat bread in southern Ireland which naturally led me to the fresh rich butter and sweet tart marmalade.  Bread at every meal is such an extravagance and one that I indulged in.  A lot.

In fact, you might say that indulgence was the theme of our whirlwind tour.  Ben’s son, Scott and his beautiful wife Tricia, were our agreeable travel companions for the first 14 days of our UK journey.  We stayed in a combination of home exchange, boutique hotels, a VRBO condo and more corporate hotel type accommodation.  We also spent the weekend in a fabulous Irish country manor:  with all of the money we saved from the exchange of our house in Mexico, we justified the expense of Adare Manor, called by some, “the best country house in Ireland, if you have the coin”.  Truly, I can rationalize just about anything.    Just like I can not say which country or city I enjoyed more, I would have a hard time stating a firm preference for accommodation.  We tried always to get good value for money, at every price point,  and I think we were successful.  Certainly, every place was a different experience.

Of course, I think that the Adare Manor was the standout.  A big part of what drew me to that particular property was the opportunity to experience Falconry.  Since I read the book “H is for Hawk”, by British writer Helen MacDonald, I have been fascinated by the idea of working with predatory birds.  When I was searching for a “castle” to stay in (my daughter-in-law and I had decided that staying in an Irish castle was a fine plan and there are a lot available.  Many ancestral family homes of, for example, the “8th Earl of WeWereWealthy Before Grandad Gambled, Drank or Whored it all Away”,  have been opened up for guests, a necessary evil when your leaking roof dates back to the 17th century.  After a brief misunderstanding (that’s a polite way of saying that this usually fine Hotel screwed up), the Manor staff recovered nicely and Ben and I were upgraded to a suite.  With a tray of chocolates and mini macaroons to say how very sorry they were.  Indeed.

We were eager to experience something of upperclass country life at the turn of the century, when aristocratic English families had lots of money and lots of leisure time. Accordingly, we had signed up for clay pigeon shooting, gun dog trials and falconry.   So after spending an entertaining hour with Willy, owner & trainer of prize winning Labrador and spaniels,  we moved on to Charles and his group of birds.  Notice that I don’t say “flock”:  birds of prey do not flock.  Or stay around after mating.  Only one of the type is the least bit social and when it was “mantling”, (protecting its food by spreading its wings around his dinner), I wouldn’t describe it as friendly.  We learned so much:  that owls are actually the dumbest of the group, that all birds weigh much less than they appear to because their bones are hollow, that they are superbly aerodynamic and possess extraordinary hearing in order to sense movement of their prey.  It was thrilling to have such a creature land on my arm, and to stare into their unblinking raptor gaze, even for a moment.  Actually, likely just a moment was a good thing, before they had time to size me up as an appetizer.

What else?  There is a noticeable bar culture in the UK cities:  everyone under the age of 35 seems to congregate at bars every night of the week.  In Dublin, there are cocktail specials for college students on Mondays, and they roam up and down the streets in packs, the boys noisy and jostling each other, the girls teetering on stilettos or strutting in boots, dresses in short skirts and “bar tops”.  (A new phrase to me:  “bar tops”, refers to a presumably provocative article of clothing that you can wear out with regular clothes on the bottom.  Think glittery or low cut or both).

On a related note, about 2 years ago, when I had to quit drinking alcohol for medical reasons,  I came across a woman’s only online community  called “Soberistas”.   It had lots of confessional postings from young women who had been alcohol free for a period of time, but had recently gotten plastered in a bar, forgotten most of the evening, and were equal parts ashamed and regretful, looking for absolution and encouragement.  This support group was based in Britain, and I could really see why it found an ready audience, especially for the under 35’s.    “Pubbing” is so engrained in the UK culture.

The spectre of Brexit hangs over the Irish cities of  Belfast, Dublin and London:  among ordinary folk like cab drivers and servers, there is worry,  concern and general unhappiness.  Dublin itself is very friendly and walkable but the Irish still feel the Diaspora of more than 150 years ago. There is no forgetting the harm that England did:  food was piled high on ships destined for English or French tables, while the Irish starved on country roads.

Recent memories of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland are even more acute and our tour guide thought that it would take a generation or more to calm those troubled waters.  I saw black & white billboards of with images of tortured and murdered people that were so graphic and bloody, it brought back my memories of the infamous killing fields in Cambodia.  And when all of the convicted political prisoners were freed from prison as part of the 2000 Good Friday Agreement, murderers on both sides were walking amongst those who were their victims’ families, only  2 months or even 2 days before.  The bitterness is tangible and the walls that separate the 2 factions still exist.

The Titanic Experience in Belfast is a absolute treat and a must do when you visit Belfast.  You must, if only to visit a bar called the Harp:  so much fun!  There was a young singer/guitarist playing who managed to sound like a 4 piece band:  he was doing enthusiastic covers of songs we recognized easily, and then he rocked the house with his version of “She’s a Belter”.  And what is a “Belter” you ask?  Well, it’s Scottish slang, implying that someone is stupid or uncool.  Or, in the case of this song, it means that she is one hot babe, “diamonds on her fingers, and she always looks her best”.  The song had the crowd yelling and screaming out the chorus:   apparently, being called a “Belter” when in Belfast is a high compliment

We had a grand time in Ireland, and then flew the next morning to Ben’s birthplace in Scotland and then onwards to London.

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