August 2008

The Austrians seem like a rule-following bunch, which fits the stereotype, I suppose. In Cork, even when the signal says “Don’t Walk,” if there’s a half-car-length space in moving traffic, most of the pedestrians will run for it. In Vienna, the nearest car could be a mile off and they’ll wait for the walk signal.

This need to follow the rules, even unwritten ones, extended beyond walking patterns. For example, we had asked the woman at the front desk of our hostel if she could recommend a nearby restaurant. She seemed reluctant to do so, first needing a list of the types of food we liked, a list of restaurants we had already tried, a list of professional references, a blood sample, a urine sample, a stool sample, and a paint sample. We never got a recommendation from her. Our first night, though, the man at the front desk recommended a restaurant right around the corner, and it did have great schnitzel.

Actually, all the food was good here, and quite a bit cheaper than in Cork. We did have a list of a few places Amy had found in a guidebook and online but often we just tried our luck, having bratwurst from a street vendor, gelato and drinks at sidewalk cafés (about twice a day), and dinner at wherever looked good. We were never disappointed, but there is something strange about sitting in a Greek restaurant in Vienna listening to “Sweet Home, Alabama” play on the speakers.

We didn’t follow an agenda, didn’t have a single thing that was on our “must-see” list, but Vienna is so spectacularly beautiful, we didn’t need one. Even wandering down little-travelled side streets, in what passes for a non-descript neighborhood in Vienna, we saw building after building that could have been moved to any city in the U.S. and become a showpiece.

We didn’t spend our entire time in the city. Yesterday was our nine-year anniversary, and we struck of to the nearby town of Baden Bei Wien. There, we had lunch, walked in the woods, and went to a large pool and soaked for a bit before heading back here to Vienna. In the evening, we went to dinner, a concert (a quintet playing Mozart and Strauss), a late dinner, and dessert at another café. Not a bad anniversary.

In an hour we board the train for St. Wolfgang in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. If you have to follow up Vienna, the Alps will do.


Arriving in Bratislava, Slovakia, we were confronted with a language barrier, since this was the first country we’ve visited where we didn’t understand the language, except Ireland. This was a challenge at first, since we misunderstood the desk clerk’s instructions for which direction we wanted to go on the tram. It wasn’t his fault, since his English was perfect, but when we got to the stop, we had to ask the man there the direction to old town, and he didn’t speak English.

When the man at the tram stop started speaking Slovak, God help me but I answered, “Si.” Yes, you can laugh at me, since we’ve been laughing about it since then, but Amy had just done the same thing, and we were both reminded of the story of her grandfather in Munich answering, “Si, si,” to everything said to him in German. To further my defense, two days later, when I helped a Slovak woman lift her heavy bag onto the tram, she first spoke to me in Slovak. She sat near us and heard us speaking English, and as she left the tram, and I helped her again, she thanked me. In German. I really think when someone is speaking to you in a language you don’t understand, you respond in whatever your second language is, no matter how badly you speak it (maybe because you speak it badly). Especially if the language the person is speaking is Slovak, which has whole words and phrases with no vowels, and the first pronunciation guide in our guidebook was rendered as “gde.” How exactly would you pronounce that?

Stare Mesto, the old town of Bratislava, was beautiful. The first evening was a bit cloudy and cool, the town unfamiliar, and the language unintelligible. By the second day it felt more familiar, the sun was shining, we could hear people saying “Yes” in Slovak, and even recognize a few printed words, such as Saturday and strawberry (stopping a half dozen times the first two days for gelato, Coke, and coffee helped with the latter.)

We had no agenda, no list of things to see (although we did a short trip to Devin Castle, which was fun) and it was a wonderful, leisurely time. We don’t feel a great need to go back to Bratislava, but we were quite content and enjoyed ourselves immensely. This morning, we bought tickets on a boat to Vienna (where I write this), and cruised up the Danube. Not a bad start to the holidays.

Summer was nice here. It was a quite pleasant three-and-a-half hours.

In the first few weeks and months after we arrived in Ireland, we were assured over and over that we were lucky not to have come here a year earlier. Summer 2007 was horrible, everyone agreed, and it never seemed to stop raining. As it turns out, this year is worse, far worse, record-breakingly, sanity-threateningly worse.

An article in yesterday’s Irish Daily Mail was titled, “Will the rain ever stop? More flooding misery in the wettest August ever recorded.” The article explained that normally 71 mm of rain falls in August, 145 mm fell last August, and this year we’ve hit 176 mm (almost 7 inches) – through just the first 17 days of the month. With two weeks to go, there isn’t expected to be any let-up, and in Cork, we’re already at almost 75% the normal rainfall for the year. Last month, Cork Airport was the wettest weather station in the country, recording the wettest July since 1975, with 156 mm of rain.

People here talk about “sun holidays” and now we know what they mean. Usually people head off to the south of Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, or somewhere, anywhere, sunny. This weekend, we head off for two weeks in Bratislava, Vienna, the Alps, Salzburg, and Prague. While this wouldn’t be where we’d have planned for had we been thinking sun, we have looked at the forecasts, and we’re in luck. Sun!

Big Ben From Trafalgar Square

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We spent this last weekend in London, and it was hard to avoid thinking about what-might-have-been. In the spring of 2007, Amy accepted a job in London, and we had planned to live there for two years. We didn’t feel we could move without first selling our house in Corvallis, though, and unfortunately we were caught in the real estate downturn. As we waited and hoped for the house sale that didn’t come soon enough, we planned our move to England for August of last year. Eventually, though, after weeks and months of no offers on the house, we had to pass on London and wait for the house to sell before looking for a new place to move. So, as we sat in a little Italian restaurant in the City on the first night of our London trip, I realized the dinner could have been a celebration of our one-year anniversary in England, had things turned out just a bit differently.

We love Cork and are happy to be living here, but London is wonderful, and by the end of our first full day, we were already rearranging our future European travel plans to include another trip to London. Or two.

With a population of a bit over 7 million people (the number seems to vary depending on just how you define London), London is a huge city, but we found it easy to find our way. Some people complain about the London Underground, but it was so easy to hop on and off the tube, and our hotel was only a four minute walk to St. Pancras/King’s Cross, which is a station for six different tube lines. Within a few minutes, we could get most places without even transferring.

It was incredible to come out of the tube station at Westminster that first evening and see Big Ben and the Parliament Building, then turn to look across the Thames and see the London Eye. Neither of us had been to London before but I was struck time and again over the weekend by how familiar so much of it was, because we’ve all seen London countless times in movies and on television.

Everything is well sign-posted on the tube and on the streets, and it’s easy to find your way with a good map and guidebook (we bought the Time Out Shortlist guide and it was perfect for us – large enough to have lots of useful information but small enough to fit in a pocket). It was time to explore the city.

Our first evening was spent on a short river cruise from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge, followed by dinner in the City. Saturday we wandered the South Bank, Sunday we roamed from Westminster over to the Natural History Museum, and Monday we walked around the West End before flying back to Cork late that night. Over the three and a half days, we visited the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the British Library, the Tate Modern, and Harrods, as well as several parks. We saw (just from the outside) St. Paul’s Cathedral, the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey.

As I mentioned, we’ve already begun plotting our return to London, and we decided that each time we go we’ll visit the British Museum. A person could spend a week there and not see all it contains. We also plan to see a show, and get inside St. Paul’s Cathedral and Winchester Abbey.

The food was great (no, really, it was), and coming first from Corvallis, Oregon, and then Cork, Ireland, seeing the diversity of people in London was fantastic. Take it from someone who participated in the Cork Spencer Tunick installation, Ireland is overwhelmingly white.

Our hope, and our fear, is that we’ll similarly fall in love with each new place we visit. Hope because of course we came to Europe to see as much of it as we could, and we look forward to seeing as much as we can. Fear because there just isn’t enough time to see everything, and we’ll always be torn between seeing something new and going back to a city we love.

Bold and cute

I understand both of these words when hearing them in conversation, but find myself consistently using them incorrectly here in Ireland. In America if someone is bold they are understood to be a fearless, brave person. In Ireland a bold person is someone who is misbehaving. If a child sasses his mother or takes away a sibling’s toy, the mum would scold the child by saying, “That’s very bold!” I overheard one of my colleagues talking on the phone to her boyfriend who is a Guard (policeman), and she asked if he had caught any boldies yet that day. (He had, by the way.)

The use of the word cute is confusing to me, as well. At times it is used in the familiar, “Oh, what a cute/adorable baby.” But, it can also mean that a child is quite precocious or mischievous.

Different cultures using words in completely different ways can make conversations a bit perilous at times. I have to be on my toes to make sure I don’t say something inadvertently offensive.