OK, as I mentioned in my last post, my DH and I recently got to spent a week (actually nine days!) in Ireland. I had never been there before, even though part of my family is (supposedly) from there. My DH has family in Dublin still, and has been there several times, but hasn't traveled much outside of Dublin. So, if you imagine that Ireland is a circle (it isn't), Dublin is at 3:00 - smack in the middle of the East Coast. We then traveled clockwise around the perimeter until Galway (9:00), and then cut back across the middle to Dublin. I loved rural France (which we visited a few years ago), but I may even have liked this better (though France, of course, has better food). We have already agreed we have to come back and see the north of Ireland - but it may take a few years. We'll probably do more modest excursions for a bit. And next time we go to Europe, I really want to go to Italy (which I also have not seen).
The planning for the trip was somewhat complicated by my DH's and my vastly different approaches to foreign travel. He never wants to sit still. I want a defined base of operations, where I can unpack, and (in an ideal world) even cook some of our meals. I don't feel I've really been in a country if I haven't used its public transportation and bought a few groceries where the locals buy them. I did most of the planning, and tried to defer to his methods - a different place every night. This proved exhausting (mostly for him - since he got sick and had to do all the driving, as I can't drive stick), which you better bet I will be reminding him of when we plan our next trip. Also, I discovered that our preferences for what to see and do diverge more than I thought.
We start out with strong similarities: neither of us likes cities (though I want to see the cities a little bit to get to know the place; he would avoid them altogether if possible), bars, clubs, or people our own age. (I know - we sound like a blast!) I wanted to see castles (as many castles as possible), livestock, old churches, a traditional woolen mill, historic architecture, and basically spend afternoons walking in the door of every single shop in every village of 1000 we passed (if left to my own devices, this is how I would spend my time on vacation in any location on the globe). I simply will not get tired of finding out how people serve their food, make their clothes, decorate their spaces, and live their lives. I assumed my DH would find this idea equally delightful. I was wrong.
As we moved through our itinerary (as you will see in more detail), I realized that my DH wants to see only one thing: the water. The rough ocean ranks highest in this narrow set of preferences. And whatever the attractions of a thing, his patience to remain there is inversely proportional to the number of people it contains (and I do not mean the people ahead of us in line - I mean any people). I think the landscape is beautiful, but I grew to realize that I prefer rolling hills dotted with small villages to rolling hills, period. I do think the water makes for a beautiful view, but I don't see the rolling hills without the water as less picturesque. And while I like a nice quiet bay (with a pretty village on it), the rough ocean I find less attractive. Finally, I find the ocean qua ocean boring. There's just so much of it. And it all looks the same. Once I've taken ten pictures of it, I'm finished. I want to go and see something a bit more varied - ideally, something humans have interacted with in some interesting way. My DH wants to stare at the ocean (or, even better, jump in it). All day.
Because I can't really get my head around his preferences, I present them as weird. They seem weird to me. I can't dispute that they're admirable - he wants to commune with God's creation. What's not praiseworthy about that? But my approach seems normative to me; I can't help presenting it that way. At some point on the trip, chatting with a fellow working at a B&B, I concluded that I was lucky to have made this trip at my current age, and not some time before - because I've developed an idea that I can learn important things from the way different people live their lives, things that have something to tell me about how I should live my life. In my view, this is particularly true of traditionally-based ways people live their lives - developed in times when people were aiming for survival, and basic well-being, and the fulfillment of fundamental values. In modern times, people will live their lives in strange ways just to "be different," or highly artificial ways that aren't easy to maintain. I don't see much to learn from in that.
And lest you think that my reflections were deeply philosophical, I mean what I say very concretely. By "how people live their lives," I mean, how many pairs of shoes do you own? How large does your house need to be? How many stores do you need in a village? How many hours a day do you spend on the garden? What kind of food preparation do you think is worthwhile? What kind of community revolves around the local parish? How hard do you fight to preserve the historic language? At bottom, I suppose, I was pondering two general questions: what sorts of endeavors make up a well-lived human life, and what things could I do to make my life better in little ways? And for the second question, I was looking for answers on a humble scale indeed.
I found plenty. Unfortunately, I didn't start getting cell phone pictures of them until a few days into our trip. (The big camera has all of my DH's pictures, and some of mine - including all the beautiful scenery. And some awesome pictures of sheep. The "things that make you go 'hmm'" pictures are all from my phone.) Starting, then, at the Sea View House in Ballylickey, I noticed a truly awesome front door color that I shall be considering when we paint the outside of our house:
As you can see, the place had pretty formal decor overall (which, of course, I loved). But, interestingly, only part of the building was historic - but the decor was pretty consistent. One thing I noticed was that in buildings in Ireland, except the few that have wholeheartedly embraced "contemporary" design, there's a generally traditional-leaning look: smattering of antiques, wallpaper, printed carpets, molding, etc. This was certainly evident with fireplaces:
I took this one because we have two non-original-looking fireplace surrounds, and I have been debating whether I want to do something about them (given that neither is working or could be restored without an insert). But also because I wanted to capture something of the moment. Ireland is 15-20 degrees colder than DC, which may have been the nicest part of the trip - a return to cool spring weather. And an opportunity to see all the spring flowers in bloom twice! The downstairs of this B&B was a warren of small public rooms - there was a room adjacent this with some casual seating and a bar (which serves coffee and tea as well as alcohol), a pair of formal sunny rooms full of windows overlooking the garden, where they served breakfast; a larger room with couches and a TV, which looked much more like someone's living room than the downstairs lounge in an American hotel; and this room, a small parlor, with some chairs in the window, and a couple of chairs around the fire - gas logs lit up and quite warm, on that crisp afternoon. An absolutely congenial place to sit with my DH and catch up on emails on my phone using the hotel's wifi connection. (YES, I KNOW.)
What I most need to remember from that B&B was what I didn't capture: breakfast. The breakfast rooms were absolutely gorgeous, with soaring ceilings, sunny pastels in formal prints, scattered everywhere with antique tables and chairs. Breakfast was served with real silver place settings, linen napkins, and crystal and china serving pieces. And the main breakfast room had an enormous bay window wall, overlooking a beautiful garden and the bay. (As I would learn, every B&B in Ireland appears to have a breakfast room with the largest window in the place, overlooking the building's best view - whether that's a lovely garden, the bay, or the Cliffs of Moher.) Every B&B also used linen napkins. But the use of real silver (which I didn't see elsewhere - I'm sure not every establishment can afford it) struck me particularly. Americans tend to reserve the good table service for exactly two occasions a year. It makes it a little more special when it's rolled out, but it also makes for a needless production. These people were using silver every morning for breakfast. To serve strangers, no less. How formal is your breakfast? I stuff a granola bar into my face while looking over the edge of the platform for the train. Obviously, I have a lot more time on vacation for breakfast (and since it was included in the price of our rooms, we ate a big breakfast every day, and usually weren't hungry for lunch - we'd grab a snack before dinner, or sometimes a hearty tea). But still. Worth the thought.
Oh, one more thing before I leave that B&B - the first place we stayed (which I really liked) was a little bit more of a typical hotel. Amenities, big lobby, the guests didn't really interact much. But the Sea View House put me in mind of descriptions I've read in Forster novels - of guest houses where guests can't help interacting with one another when they come down to breakfast. Quite different from the typical American experience at a Holiday Inn, where other guests are to be ignored altogether. At this B&B, most of the guests ate dinner there (we went out, and thereby missed the opportunity to get to know our fellow vacationers), seated in little groupings throughout the downstairs rooms - on a couch with dinner perched on a coffee table; in a pair of arm chairs; scattered about, several parties to a room. Entirely comfortable, but without the commercial uniformity of a restaurant. Oh, and they dressed for dinner - zero jeans and t-shirts and flip-flops to be found.
The next day we drove around the Ring of Beara (which I highly recommend - and ideally for longer than a day, as we weren't able to take advantage of all the hiking opportunities and the many things to see). We did get to see an enormous number of sheep. I pondered whether sheep farmers in that area are likely to live much above the subsistence level, and what they would think of an opportunity to work in an office, far from the ocean, suffocated by traffic, and make three times as much money and never shear another sheep. And what I would do if offered that trade from their point of view.
That night we stayed in Kenmare, a very tourist-driven but lovely little town. Unfortunately by that time my DH was very much under the weather; happily, however, our quiet B&B was a short walk from town, and I got more than my fill of exploring while he slept. Why don't our downtowns look like this?
Some of the color pairings and architectural details and little things just struck me as genius:
What's not to love? Our B&B also provided some food for thought, in the "how to live" department. As with the previous place, it had a generally formal decor style. Despite my love of both formality and antiques, one place I've never entirely gotten on board with traditional decor is window treatments. I certainly love long drapes. And fancy ones more than plain (though I do not love the cost). Drapes layered with sheers are even better. But fussy valances and swags and even tie-backs have held no interest for me. But this was interesting:
Obviously, that's a crappy picture. But I think that might be more congenial in my living room or dining room than some of the things I've picked out. I'm not going to throw out my curtains and spend a fortune on replacements. But maybe next time...
While this place didn't have real silver, it certainly had nice table linens. Like most of the breakfasts we encountered, it consisted of two parts: a cold buffet (cereal, fruit, juice, bread), and a hot table-side service (bacon, sausage, eggs, toast, black and white pudding, tea, and coffee). The cereal on the buffet was all in cut-crystal bowls. This detail made a strong impression on me. I think most people have either no crystal or rather too much. (I am already leaning into the "too much" category, and I'm only 31. And I note that I would not turn down more crystal.) And despite shelves - or possibly even boxes in basements - groaning with crystal, most people don't use it. Why? Would it be worse broken and unused than sound and unused? It's hard to break crystal, anyway. So if you have five good-sized footed crystal bowls, and you serve five types of cereal, why wouldn't you put the cereal in the crystal? It turns out to be a very attractive way to present cereal. I don't have any occasion to serve vast quantities of cereal at one time, so I think my cereal is staying in the boxes (though I certainly gave it some thought!). I did realize that, when I bring a salad to someone's home for dinner, I always bring it in crystal. So I think I get partial credit on this question; I just need to be mindful of making more conscientious use of the things I have.
Another thing to which I paid (a possibly inordinate amount of) attention was bathroom decor. The proper way to put together a traditional bathroom is a question of some debate in the US, and I found some fascinating ideas. For example, this tub surround:
Sorry for the quality of the picture - the lattice has a fleur-de-lis pattern. By the way, the marble on the floor is fake; I'm not sure about the walls; the countertop was real marble. It would be quite easy to build that molding once you get the tub in. It's highly functional (easy to remove for plumbing access). And yet it takes a modern-looking streamlined tub - the sore thumb in a bathroom in an old building - and turns it into old woodwork. Brilliant.
From Kenmare, we went to the most fascinating place we stayed: the Aran Islands. Inis Meain, the middle island, has a population not much above 100. It has one store, which sells everything from food to hats to duct tape (and not in the way Target sells everything from food to hats to duct tape. It's tiny. On the other hand, it offered a generous supply of parsnips, at decent prices - my grocery store doesn't even sell them. I was slightly bitter). A fellow giving horse-and-trap tours during our ferry layover (!) on Inis Oirr, the smallest island, explained the islands' topography. They're solid rock - this rock:
(By the way, the blue on the horizon is the Atlantic Ocean.) The span stretching from the left edge is what the islands naturally look like - big flat slabs of stone, on top of a flat expanse of stone, which goes all the way down. The islands have been inhabited for a long time - Inis Oirr has a gravestone that dates to the bronze age. Apparently, what the early settlers did was break up the huge slabs of stone into merely large pieces of stone. They then assembled these pieces into walls:
When I first saw it, I assumed that they had assigned sheep-grazing plots in impossibly tiny parcels, and were outrageously territorial about it. That's not the case. The fences were created just to have someplace to put the rocks. (They vary between three and six feet in height. They also have built-in gates, also made of stone, stone water troughs with an ingenious rainwater collection system, and often stone staircases leading over a wall into the next area.) The residents then pulled up sand and seaweed from the edges of the island and spread it over the cleared bare rock. Over the years, that and cow and sheep dung decomposed and formed a thin layer of soil - just enough to support grass for grazing. Each family owns several of these smallish plots, though generally not adjacent - you might own one at the top of the hill, and one on the west side of the island, and one on the east side.
As a result of this setup, the islands do not have trees (there's not enough soil to support their roots). Though there are some bushes - not many. Despite these challenges, a few people have gardens. These folks are growing potatoes:
Really, it makes the challenges I face with my little garden seem pretty pathetic. Of course, my garden does not have that view. And another enterprising gardener had roses already in bloom:
That house is contiguous with its neighbor - sort of an island duplex, if you will:
The house on the right has a beautiful wildflower garden:
The fauna were also picturesque, if not so hospitable. This bovine did not appreciate me stopping to take pictures:
(He's only moving at a walking pace, and I was protected by a wall of rocks. But yes, that is a he. And yes, he was irritated with me.) The females among the cattle were somewhat less aggressive, but still not happy about my visit:
That cow would not stop mooing as long as I was within earshot. After I turned a corner, I realized she shared her pen with several calves. Fine, but I can't really get at them, now can I? I started off by responding, "It's not like I eat -" and then realized it wasn't a helpful line of discussion and she wasn't listening anyway. I was also chased by chickens:
The one in the front is legitimately chasing me; when I stopped to take pictures, he sped up (fortunately his maximum speed was not impressive). And my DH was bitten by a sheepdog (not a joke). This horse did no worse than refuse to pose against the best scenery:
Which is not so bad. The island also sports an ancient church, which for whatever reason I could not find. I thought this was it, at first:
It's not. It's actually just an abandoned house (hence the plants growing out of the thatched roof). That's the original building method - stone walls, thatched roof. And typically they would spread mud on the walls to prevent wind whistling in between the stones. Without trees, and right out in the ocean, I imagine the wind is terrible in the winter. But there is a new church, described by the tourist pamphlet as built in 1939 and "thoroughly modern." Let's see whether you agree:
Again - I would be endlessly happy if the thoroughly modern church I attend (not even 20 years newer than this one) looked anything like that.
Much as my tendencies incline toward the small-town, rural, and out of the way, I realized that the islands are too desolate a place for me to live. I tried to picture the lifestyle in my head, and I got no further than concluding I would have to have my own motorboat - so I could get back to the mainland freely without waiting for the ferry. I'm not really cut out for that sort of thing, but I have endless admiration for the people who live there - living their lives the way they deem best, uninterested in the fact that the rest of the world is crazily bustling somewhere far away.
After we left the island, we stayed at another little B&B on the coast near the islands, with a view of the Cliffs of Moher. I found this, too, a source of fascinating ideas. It was one of a couple of places we stayed that had separate hot and cold water taps:
(I don't know whether you can read them - around the "HOT" and "COLD," they say, "Waterford" and "Ireland." I didn't even know Waterford made faucet handles.) I am aware that this system is thoroughly impractical, and I am definitely using it in my next house. I was also fascinated by this toilet:
We actually have that flushing lever on one of our toilets, for which, again, I think we deserve some sort of bonus points (though it was installed by the original owners). But I really love the separated tank - reminiscent of the original Victorian design, where the tank was hung high on the wall, far above the bowl. Where can one buy these things?? Obviously, the Atlantic View House shared the more traditional decor style. Including wall-to-wall carpeting that I would never have picked out, but found that I rather liked:
Perhaps my attempts to draw a line between antique and "fussy old lady" have been misguided, and I should simply embrace my inner octogenarian. I did, as likely goes without saying, pick up some embroidered Irish linen table runners; sadly, they turn out to be the wrong width and look for my table. I'm glad I bought the clearanced "shop-soiled" models, as I'll now use them on the outdoor table without compunction. (And the stains came out fairly easily.)
And I don't want to suggest that the cities were without their merits. At the end of the trip, we went to Dublin, where I got to meet my DH's cousins, and hear from a real live person who irons her sheets before she puts them on the bed - and views that as normal. And see some lovely spots in downton Dublin, including this one:
I don't know what it's made of, but yes, those edges are shiny metallic gold. Again - if only our downtowns looked like this...
In other words - as always, travel is eye-opening, albeit, for me, mostly to pretties, and small things, and (of course) food. (I have a new garden salad idea to try. And an appetizer. And chowder.) Frivolous things, really; but I think they have fundamental meaning - reminding me to think outside of my current habits, to use the things I have better, to do the best I can in feeding and taking care of the people I love.
Which brings me, somewhat haphazardly, to Part III: who we are. Stay tuned!