Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beau Dingle-y


I’m just about done with my Ireland posts!

Day after St Patrick’s, Amynah and I piled into the car and made for Dingle (yes, the Irish looked at their maps, saw a long slab of land thrusting into the Atlantic, and named it the Dingle). Shockingly, the weather was perfect – sunny, and nearly twenty degrees. This was not the Ireland that we had expected.

We had no real destination in mind, but on Eilis’ recommendation, we took the Connor Pass to get to the seaside Dingle scenic route. While the narrow, twisty Irish roads were no less terrifying when snaking their way up cliffsides, the hidden lake near the crest was well worth the shattered nerves.

The Dingle peninsula was everything we could have hoped for – dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches, ancient beehive-shaped stone huts, and sheep, sheep, sheep. The weather was a little off-putting though – at the historic site with the stone huts, the man who sold us our tickets was apologetic for the seltering 17 degree temperatures: “I can’t believe this weather. It’s too hot – I don’t know how people in California or Florida can stand it.”

Beehive huts: made entirely of piled stones, they were used for thousands of years, up until roughly the Middle Ages

There were abandoned stone cottages like this all over Ireland. Unfortunately, I never got to take a picture of one in overcast weather, which might have been thematically appropriate.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Technically, we weren't "lost." We were "Differently oriented."

Cliffs of Moher

Day two of our Irish trip, we rented a car and headed to the Cliffs of Moher, driving through the Burren on our way there.

It was my first-ever time driving on the left side of the road, and I was nervous heading out I soon discovered that it doesn’t much matter what side of the road you drive on in Ireland – they are, shall we say, economical with their asphalt, though liberal with their speed limits, meaning that roads barely wide enough for a man and his dog are posted as being 100 km/h zones.

We didn't know where we were here. The cow was no help.

The road signs are, (and I’m struggling to be polite here) idiosyncratic. They are not always located where one can see them from one’s car, meaning it is not uncommon for cars to stop in the middle of an intersection while the driver peers at the sign, trying to interpret it: not always easy, given that they don’t always indicate which road goes where. They’re more about providing options than information.

In any case, the Burren, we were assured, is a dramatically rocky hilly area in County Clare. Ireland, we had discovered, is indeed the Emerald Isle, resplendent in green. But every jewel needs to be set in something, and in Ireland it’s rock – rock walls stripe the countryside, rock cottages crumble fetchingly in fields.

So the Burren, we assumed, would have to be spectacularly rocky. And, theoretically, it is: but we didn’t really see it. We drove near it – but the road we were on ran parallel to the one we were supposed to be on, so it only ever appeared in the distance. However, we did manage to pass a field that was entirely rock – no vegetation at all – next to an identically bare field, separated by a stone wall. Because, after all, you wouldn’t want your rocks to mix.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Beast of Connemara

Most of the roads we drove on weren't even quite this roomy

All right, I’m going to try to do a series of short-ish posts on my recent trip, hopefully being less-stereotype reinforcing than the previous post.

Our ostensible purpose for visiting Ireland was so that Amynah could deliver a lecture at the University of Galway. Our real reason was to visit our friend Eilis, her husband Jim, their two insane dogs, and the as-yet-unnamed bump gestating within Eilis (so far nameless, Jim’s rendition of its voice has the thickest Limerick-accent you’ve ever heard, much to Eilis’ dismay).

In any case, other than Eilis and Jim, there were only two things that I wanted to do in Ireland – visit the benighted spot from which my ancestors fled during the Famine, and see Connemara.

Connemara is a wild, bleak land, just west of Galway, that somewhere back in paleohistory had been attached to Newfoundland. It’s also the corner of Ireland from where Eilis hails. When we met Eilis in Montreal, where she did her post-doc, she would often talk about the wonders of Connemara, with such wistfulness and longing that for the longest time I thought it was pronounced “Ah, Connemara… (sigh).”

Semi-artsy seaweed picture on a Connemara beach. We bumped into a professor from Eilis' university, and her cousin and sister out here, about an hour and a half away from Galway.

Years of anticipation did not really prepare us for the area. Sadly, I did not get any pictures of the most beautiful spots – massive mountains, bare but for the occasional sheep, looming over enormous loughs. Eilis and Jim were on a bit of a nostalgia kick themselves – they’d been married in the region only a year before, so were hitting the high spots for our benefit – the beach where they took photos, the chapel where the deed was done, the hotel where they had the reception.

At one point, I asked Jim if they got out to the area that much these days. Deadpan, he replied, “Well, not so much, as the weather’s been pretty bad for the last three years.”

At one point, we drove through a massive, desolate landscape, devoid of trees, fields, or even Ireland’s ubiquitous sheep. The incredibly rough roads and the previous night’s Guiness having their effect, I asked for a pause, ostensibly to take some photos, but really to settle my stomach.

Lair of the Leviathan

It turns out that we were in the Connemara Bog, home of the Connemara Bog Monster. What is the Connemara Bog Monster, you might ask? Well, according to local legend, the Bog Monster is Ireland’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster, a massive water serpent some 30 feet in length. Unlike in Scotland, where Nessie’s an industry unto herself, the locals in Connemara seem content to leave their monster be, and aren’t making many efforts to publicise her presence. I suspect they’d feel differently if their sheep started going missing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St Patrick's Day

For St Patrick’s Day, Amynah and I drive from Galway on the west coast of Ireland, to Roscommon, in the center/north of the country. Before leaving, my friend Eilis gave me a sprig of clover to attach to my shirt, assuring me that it was the tradition for the day. I saw no one else in the entire country so bedecked all day, so I can only assume it was actually some kind of tourist identification device.

After a very successful ancestor hunt in Roscommon (more on that later) Amynah and I made our way south. Now, I quickly became accustomed to driving on the other side of the road. What I have yet to get used to is Ireland’s frankly insane roads: major highways are barely wide enough for two cyclists to occupy side-by-side, there are no shoulders, and directional marking are rarely placed in such a way that they could actually be seen or understood by someone in need of them.

So, by the time we decided to stop on our way to Kerry, my nerves were pretty jangled. We pulled into a village called Rathkey, just past Limerick, where I am drafting these very words.

After dropping our bags, we wandered into the village to find a pub that might still be serving food. As we stopped on a street corner, discussing our options, a green-bedecked, cheerily intoxicated fellow spotted us – specifically Amynah.

Irish Guy: (to Amynah) Happy St Patrick’s!
Amynah: Thanks! Same to you.
Me: Hey, could you tell us a good pub where we can get something to eat?
Irish guy: Go over to the chip shop, get some food, go to the Black Lion Pub.
Me: They let you bring food in?
IG: Sure! Just go over to the chip shop, get some food, go to the Black Lion Pub.
Me: All right then.
IG: Where are you from?
Amynah: Canada.
IG: Canada, eh? All right then; go over to the chip shop, get some food, go to the Black Lion Pub.

He then wandered off, in the general direction of the Black Lion Pub. However, as Amynah was not in the mood for whatever was being served in the chip shop, we elected to skip it, and go straight to the pub ourselves.

The pub had a sign saying it was hosting a private function, but the smokers outside ushered us inside. We walked in, past a couple of men who looked like they were about to come to blows, and pulled up at the bar. I ordered a Guinness, and Amynah a lemonade. There was no food on offer, nor was the guy who invited us anywhere in sight.

Irish sprig

The bar was a scene of debauchery: green clad, shouting Irish everywhere, wearing such traditional garb as lephrechaun beards and green cowboy hats. There was a tension in the air – it felt like fights were going to break out in every corner.

Then, suddenly, somebody put on the music. All at once, everyone stood up and started dancing, and the Black Lion became the happiest bar in Ireland. An older lady spotted me tapping my toes on the sideline, and dragged me on to the floor. Shortly thereafter, a man with an Irish flag painted on his face and a surely redundant “Kiss me I’m Irish” t-shirt did the same to Amynah, insisting that one of their friends capture the moment on their camera.

Released back to the bar, I finished my Guinness, and tried to settle up. In the meantime, Amynah was dragged out again, and the bartender poured me another Guinness on the house.

I was desperate to stay, but knew that any more of this on an empty stomach, and I’d never be able to make it to Kerry today, so we bid goodbye to our friends and returned to the hotel. But even in my Guinness-fog, I noticed that not a single soul in that bar was wearing a shamrock sprig.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Nothing west of here 'til Newfoundland

I'm in Ireland at the moment, sitting in what appears to be a converted horse barn on the University of Galway campus, waiting for Amynah to finish delivering a lecture on [fill in Amynah-specific science jargon here]. So far, we've driven around Connemara, eaten a lot of seafood, enjoyed the excellent hospitality of our Irish friends, and watched a lot of rugby.

Tomorrow, we're driving to Roscommon, in order that I may visit the land that spat out my ancestors with some violence back in 1847, then heading South. Regular updates for you to ignore with recommence on my return to Strasbourg.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In which I put something in my mouth other than my foot

I have a standing assignment with an airline magazine to recommend places of interest for businessmen planning to visit Strasbourg. Each one requires that I write a bit about at least three restaurants, one of which should be accompanied by a photo.

While I do like food, and I do like writing, I must admit I’m not well equipped to be a food writer. I have a friend in Montreal who does restaurant reviews for numerous publications. She would occasionally invite Amynah and I out with her, in order that we could help give her our impressions. I drove her nuts, because all I could offer when being asked my opinions was “S’good.” I’ve tried to broaden my palette of adjectives since then, but it’s not entirely natural for me.

For my featured restaurant this time, I chose the Atelier de gout, a fancier place in Strasbourg. We’d eaten there once or twice before and loved it: I still salivate a little bit when I remember the first appetizer I had there. It was pretty much just a fried egg, but the owners handpick all of their ingredients, insisting that they be both local and organically grown, and that made a huge difference. It was easily the best fried-egg I’ve ever eaten, rich and flavourful.

I popped by at lunch, to speak to the owner to get her permission to take my photos. She said not now – the lunch crowd was in, and were mostly businessmen who she felt would not want to be disturbed – and told me to return at 7:30 that evening. I left, thinking “Does she think they’ll believe the camera will steal their souls?”

That evening, I returned with Amynah, intent on treating her to a long-promised dinner. I snapped some pictures in the restaurants back dining area, but as I made my way forward, the owner told me that I had to ask the other diners if it was ok if I took their pictures. I thought this odd, but as there was only two other tables, went for it.

At the first table was a British guy who, judging from his accent and manner of speech, was taking a break from his normal employment of hurling bon mots across the aisle of the House of Lords. I explained what I was doing, and asked if it was ok if they were in the background of my photos, to which they said yes, Lord Duckeater adding “We don’t think it’s going to steal our souls, after all.” Great minds….

The second table was a little more awkward. There was a French couple, about my age seated there. The woman was well along in a pregnancy. I made my stumbling request in French, to which she replied “Why do you ask? Do you think this is not my husband?” (Either that, or she said “This isn’t my husband.” Either way, she gave permission for the photos).

In any case, this is just a long-winded way of doing my first food-specific blog post. I obviously have to do something to get you people’s interest: I’ve received two comments in the last three weeks, both from the same guy, one of which was to request that someone else to do the writing around here. It’s enough to give a guy a complex.

Cow butt, discretely covered by greenery

After we dispensed with the complementary sushi samples, I started with Pimientos del piquillo farci de queue de bouef, roquette poivrée crunchy de “pain “brûlé”. This translates to red peppers stuffed with cow tail, served with salad and burnt toast; that, my friends, is why they write menus in French. Those peppers were more delicious than any dish featuring meat from that far back on a cow has any right to be.

For the main course I ordered a Chevreau de lait rôti, pommes grenailles, jus aux épices de couscous et huile d’argan. Basically, this is not just a cute fuzzy lamb goat, but a suckling lamb goat. And potatoes. Yes, I’m a monster. The meat was a little rich for my taste, but is was cooked to perfection, tender and flavourful.

Yes, meat garnished with more meat.

For her part, Amynah ordered the bar farci aux legumes “comme sur la Riviera” purée de pommes rattes à l’huile d’olive. In other words, fish. Specifically, sea bass, stuffed with vegetables. I only had a small bite myself, but Amynah was raving about it throughout the meal, so I can only conclude it met her high culinary standards.

Fish heads, fish heads, shiny happy fish heads....

For dessert, Amynah ordered something that I’m sure had a fancy French name, but it’s not on the menu I took with me, so I will have to resort to English:A giant lump of chocolate material bristling with chocolate wafers, sitting in a puddle of crême Anglaise. Wasn’t that poetic? It was too rich for my blood, but Amynah seemed pretty blissed out.

Feeling especially French, I ordered an espresso to finish off my meal, a tradition I normally avoid – it was almost 11PM at this point, but I was carried away. I ended up lying awake all night, but the owner threw it in gratis, so I guess it was worth it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Blades of Gory II: The comeuppance

Qi doing the rounds

Amynah was in Nice* for a conference this past weekend, leaving me alone to amuse myself. While normally, in Amynah’s absence, I quickly devolve into an unshaven, pajama-clad, video game-playing mess, this weekend I barely managed to spend time at home.

On Saturday, my friend Qi called me up and asked if I’d like to go skating with her. Qi had only gone skating for the first time in her life the week before, and enjoyed it enough that she wanted to improve, and evidently felt I’d be able to help her.

I must confess a dark secret: I cannot really skate that well. I cannot stop quickly, turn in a controlled fashion, go very fast, or skate backwards. But, I hadn’t fallen at all last time I went out, and so felt reasonably well equipped to help Qi in her quest for skating competence.

When we arrived, we discovered that the normal ice-hockey rink was closed for a hockey game (Go Etoiles Noires!), and so everyone was crammed into the Ludique rink (the etymological resemblance to ludicrous is no accident) with the hormone-addled teenagers flying about to pounding French dance music.


Qi and I gingerly stepped onto the ice, at which point I discovered another problem: my rented skates were as sharp as brie.** They blades were so worn that I had about as much control over my direction as a curling stone, only without the sweepers guiding my way.***

We scooted around the rink for a while, mostly avoiding injury to ourselves and others. Qi gained rapidly in confidence and ability, despite her tendency to suddenly execute rapid pirouettes with little or no provocation, and she did tumble a couple of times (“I see people here, and people there, and a small gap between them. Then I fall down.”)

After an hour, on our twentieth or so circuit, we emerged from the traffic-choke point near the DJ booth. Suddenly, an alarmingly heedless 8-year old on a sugar rush zipped by Qi and I. She started to stumble, I tried to turn to hold her up, but to no avail: my skate caught on a divot in the ice, and we both went down, me badly twisting my knee in the process.

Humiliatingly, I had to be helped off the ice by the security guy. Qi, pitying me, bought me a tea, but soon returned to the ice for a final few spins, while I watched from the sidelines like the fragile old man I have apparently become.

* I am trying to talk Amynah into doing to do a guest-blog post about the city – comment here to convince her to do it!

** Yes, cheese metaphors: I’ve been here too long.

*** Ah, that’s the kind of robust Canadian metaphor I’ve been looking for. Hurry Hard!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

I'm also afraid of loud noises and mimes

From today's Globe and Mail, yours truly, reporting from Basel, Switzerland:

Distorted, terrifying faces lurched out of the darkness at every turn. My ears were ringing, assaulted by the unrelenting din of diabolic music reverberating throughout the city. A group of unearthly creatures bore down on me, drums clattering death rattles. I pressed myself into a doorway hoping they would pass me by - a friend had already gone missing, swallowed into the maelstrom of the freaks who had taken over the night. Frankly, I wasn't entirely sure I'd ever see him again.

And it goes on like that.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The family that brays together

This is a family of goats we passed on our hike this weekend. The Billy was bleating at us, making sure we kept our distance, while the Kid imitated his every move. It was adorable. Meanwhile, the Mother goat approached us, but quickly lost interest once she determined we had no food to offer, wandering off and leaving her menfolk to continue with their macho posturing.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

It makes you feel like dancing

From the rather unpromising terrain of the medical effects of the economic crisis the Irish Times has unearthed a fascinating bit of Strasbourg history:

Writing recently in the Lancet, US medical historian John Waller describes episodes of unstoppable dancing in the streets in what seems to have been mass hysteria.

The largest recorded outbreak was in Strasbourg in 1518. Involving about 400 people, at one point the fevered dancing claimed the lives of some 15 people a day, such was the intensity of their dancing in high summer temperatures.

Perhaps dancing is too refined a description. Those afflicted writhed in pain, screamed for help and begged for mercy in a clearly involuntary act of mass movement.

Apparently, the hysteria was likely the result of a combination of pre-existing beliefs in a type of curse favoured by the local river gods, and collective stress over an upsurge of disease and famine. The article is worth reading, and not only because it explains the popularity of the seizure-combating St Vitus around these parts.

So far, there has been no return of this illness to the city, though I can't be responsible for what I do when ABBA comes on my iPod.

Apparently, this footage is from King Gustav of Sweden's wedding reception. Yes, ABBA dressed as 18th century royalty for the occasion. Those kids were totally punk.

Monday, March 02, 2009

First hike of the year

The Nideck waterfall. The chateau's on top of the waterfall, which is appropriately fairy-tale-esque

I feel like I’ve been hibernating for the last several months – I’ve barely been on my bike except to go to French class in months, my last major outing was in December, while the last one before that was early November.

This weekend was almost sunny, and actually warm – thirteen degrees! The birds were singing from every tree, the streets were crowded with ghostly apparitions of winter-maddened Strasbourgers blinking in the first natural light to grace these parts in months; it finally felt like spring had sprung.

So it was with some delight that I accepted an invitation from our friend Lama to join her, Mirna and Irina on a hike in the Vosges. As always, I suspect the invitation was more for Amynah than me, but my beloved had work in her lab, so they had to settle for me.

Amynah thus spent Sunday afternoon under florescent lights, making science. Meanwhile, I was somewhere past Oberhaslach, lost and floundering through the muck and snow in the vicinity of the Chateau Nideck.

Lama insisted on taking a photo of me in the Chateau, and then backed as far away from me as possible to take it.

I didn’t actually take a photo of said Chateau – all that was left of it was a restored tower and the remains of a lookout. I rather regret this now, as apparently Nideck is probably one of the few local castles that anyone outside of Alsace might have heard of, having featured in an extremely anti-climatic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm about parasitic giants and their parenting difficulties.

This is the remains of a completely different castle in the same vicinity: "Look out attackers, or we'll drop a tower on you!