November 2008

When we first arrived here just before Christmas last year, many Irish remarked to us that they thought Thanksgiving was a bigger holiday than Christmas for us Americans.  We weren’t sure why people had that impression until we spent our first Thanksgiving here, when Amy came up with a theory.  She really missed having Thursday and Friday off, and talked about it at work, a lot.  I suppose a few days of bitching about not getting the holiday days off might make people think Thanksgiving was pretty important.

To celebrate on Thursday, Amy and I met Denise (another American working for the Cope Foundation) and went to Suas, a pub showing American football on TV (we saw the Lions getting thrown to the Titans), then to Captain America’s for a cheeseburger.  It may not have been a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but it was American (except the price, which was purely Irish — around 14€ for a bacon cheeseburger).

Our real Thanksgiving dinner came yesterday at Denise’s.  She and her Irish fiancé Michael hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and invited around 20 friends.  Denise and Michael cooked the turkey and made the gravy (which was excellent), and everyone brought a dish or two.  The food was great, but again we were reminded of how different this was for most people here.  At one point after dinner everyone shared something they were thankful for and most of the Irish mentioned being thankful for being invited to their first Thanksgiving dinner.  I realized this was my fortieth.

One of the guests mentioned he was happy to have tried so many different foods he hadn’t had before, which struck me because there wasn’t a thing on the table that would have looked out of place in most American homes.  Another  guest had gotten hold of a cornbread mix and made corn muffins, and he said he would be waiting to see how Amy reacted when she tried one to see if he’d done them right (he had, and she liked them).  All the food was wonderful and it felt very much like a Thanksgiving back home.  We asked a few people what a traditional Irish Christmas dinner was like, and we were surprised to hear that usually there would be only three kinds of potatoes.

One digression.  After dinner, we played Catchphrase, in which a person gives clues to her teammates so they can guess a word or short phrase (it’s a bit like Password).  As we’ve explained in an earlier post, the th- sound is pronounced simply as t- by most people here, so last year when the game was played, and an Irishwoman had to give clues for the name Goldilocks, she said, “And the three bears . . .”  All the Americans on her team yelled out, “Fruit!”


Mazda 121

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

1997 Mazda 121: €1800
Eight driving lessons: €320
New wiper blades: €28
Passing an Irish Driving Test: priceless

It’s true. Exactly 11 months, 1 week and 1 day after arriving in Ireland I finally have my Irish driving license. The test was nerve wracking, but in the end I was only marked down on one manoeuvre. That old lady shouldn’t have been on the sidewalk anyway!

Now that we are finally free to roam about the countryside, we hope to start doing some exploring. Look out, Ireland. Here we come!

I’m sure there are friends and family back home that think we must hate our time here in Ireland because we talk so much about the rain, or Amy’s problems getting a license, or any number of other problems we’ve encountered.  I need to point out, though, that this complaining is not an American ex-pat phenomena, but an Irish one.  If you’re having trouble understanding what that Irishman you’ve just met has just said to you, it’s a safe bet that it was about the weather, and the lashing rain.  (Actually, it’s not just the Irish who talk about the awful weather here.  While in Spain we met an English couple who asked us how long we’d been on holiday.  The woman expressed regret for us having been there during the colder, wetter weather Spain had just experienced, but then offered us this consolation:  “It’s not as bad as Ireland.”  You see, even Brits in Spain begin their conversations by talking about the horrid Irish weather. ) So, to be perfectly clear, the Irish are great, the food is wonderful, the music fantastic, and we love Cork.  But there are times it’s hard not to feel like we really are cursed.

I could tell you about buying the car only to have it experience engine problems which we got fixed just days before the garda (police) began to enforce the new license laws that made it impossible for Amy to continue driving.  In almost eleven months here, we’ve had exactly one weekend when the car was working and Amy was relatively legal to drive.

I could mention our wanting to join a hill-walking club which requires that all participants have rainproof clothing to join.  Within about five minutes of my reading that requirement, my rain-proof Columbia jacket became a sponge, so I bought a “waterproof” Helly Hansen jacket — except it soaked up water, too.

I could even explain that before we showed up, Ireland was still called the Celtic Tiger because of its strong economy.  A few weeks ago, mere months after our arrival, Ireland became the first European country to officially enter recession.  That’s how powerful our bad luck has become — we have the power to ruin nations.

Perhaps the best example of our bad luck is demonstrated by our desire to learn to sail.  This spring, I read about the Asgard II, an Irish training ship that has a small professional crew but then signs on a couple of dozen trainees who, during short cruises of several days, learn to sail.  I decided the Asgard II was for me.

Amy wasn’t so interested in sailing on a bigger ship, but she got hooked on the idea of learning to sail smaller boats, and when we shared our plan with our friend Arun, he too became interested.  So, we decided the three of us would take classes together and learn to sail small dinghies, which would also allow us to take advantage of the upcoming warmer weather in the summer by sailing on sunny weekends.  Later, I would join the Asgard II for a week or so and experience sailing on a bigger ship.

So what happened to our plans?  The day I called him to finalize our plans, Arun lost his job and has since returned home to Singapore, the weather this summer was the rainiest ever recorded, and the Asgard II sank.  According to the news reports, the captain had “no idea what caused the ship to sink.”  I know, though.  I wanted to sail in her.

Antequerra, Spain

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Driving in the cities had become such a frustration in Spain that we seemed to have only two choices. We could abandon our original plans to see Córdoba and Sevilla and instead visit smaller towns or we could abandon the car in the parking garage, fake our own deaths to avoid payment on the rental, and take a ferry to Morocco. I was all for the second idea but Amy convinced me to try the first so we cancelled our room in Córdoba and instead spent several days in Antequera, a town of about 40,000 people.

I think most visitors would have gotten bored with Antequera pretty quickly, but we really enjoyed our time there. The best part was that we finally had an opportunity to try out our Spanish “skills.” In Barcelona in particular most of the people we came into contact with spoke English, but once we got into Antequera, our Spanish was often better than the locals’ English. One day I dropped off some laundry and had to use my Spanish to establish that we wanted the clothes washed but not ironed, that it would be ready by 12 but not 11, and that we didn’t live in Antequera. I admit that some of this communication was helped along by a little charades. She mimed ironing, while I mimed being trapped in an invisible box.

We spent our last couple of nights in Ojén, a wonderful little white village just north of Marbella. Within hours we weren’t just planning on visiting again but deciding exactly when we could move there, since we had originally planned to live in Spain for three months before moving to Ireland and a two-week working (for me) holiday just wasn‘t long enough. The food in Antequera had been something of a disappointment (except for the roasted chestnuts, a first for me, and oddly addicting), but although Ojén was much smaller, the food was much better. Twice we had pollo asado, or roast chicken, and I could have eaten it breakfast, lunch and dinner.

During the course of our trip, I drank red wine and ate rabbit, duck, mussels, and olives (none of this will seem that surprising to those of you who don’t know me well, but my siblings once offered to pay me a dollar to eat an olive. I did, and they never paid, the lying ) There were times I almost felt like a grown-up.

Two literary notes: We visited Ronda, the town which inspired Hemingway’s execution scene describing people being thrown off a bridge in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The bridge is quite impressive, and while I doubt any executions have taken place there recently, two people have died recently in what are believed to be unrelated suicides.

It was also reported while we were in Spain that the body of the poet Federico García Lorca has probably been discovered. He was murdered during the Spanish Civil War, and his body had never been found, but now it is believed to be in a mass grave under a tree near Granada. The last we heard, there was a legal battle surrounding the decision to dig up the bodies but it will probably happen soon.

Spanish Civil War atrocities aside, I’m not surprised we loved Spain so much. Any country that schedules a two hour nap into their workday is okay in my book.

We were riding the bus from the airport in Barcelona to our room in the city, when we both realized everything felt familiar.  It wasn´t like London, where the city seemed so recognizable from countless movies and television shows, but something different.  It took a few moments before we knew what it was.  We were riding on the right side of the road, the green road signs looked like those in the states, and I was most reminded of the first time I was driven on the freeways from the San Antonio, Texas, airport. 


The familiarity with the roads, though, would not last.  We had decided to rent a car this trip which we would pick up at the end of our four days in Barcelona and use to drive to Andalucia in the south.  We could stop where and when we wanted, and getting out to the national parks would be easier with a car than if we used public transportation. 


This falls into the “seemed like a good idea at the time”category.  We have a lot of those.  Several times on each trip we have taken, one of us turns to the other and declares, “Lesson learned,” and explains what we´ve done wrong or what we´ll be doing differently on our next trip.  Usually our first lesson pops up within minutes of our arrival in a new country.  You´d think with enough of these trips, we´d be making fewer mistakes, but while we really do learn our lessons and rarely repeat a mistake, we are talented enough to discover new ways to mess up.


We actually realized the car was a mistake even before we picked it up, when the owner of our hostal (which is different from a hostel) told us about the toll roads, which no research we´d done on Spain had turned up.  It seems that tolls are collected on most of the roads here, and they charge one euro per ten kilometers, which was quite a lot since we were driving over one thousand kilometers just to get to Andalucia, and more kilometers when we got there.  It turned out that only a fraction of the roads we used had tolls, so it wasn´t quite that bad.


Navigating and driving out of Barcelona was the first challenge.  I´ve driven a little in Ireland where they have lots of roundabouts, but at least there they have lanes.  Here, at the first roundabout I came to, all the cars seemed to shift one lane (there were three) to the right as they entered the roundabout, at which point all the lines disappeared and drivers pretty much went where they wanted.  It was madness, and both Amy and I discovered we really can curse quite effectively when the need arrives.  At least this roundabout had some helpful signage.  Leaving Almeria we found one where the signs before the roundabout listed the many destinations reachable through this roundabout, but once in it, not a single exit had a sign saying where it led. 


Driving on the autovia (freeway) is really not that different from driving in America, except for the larger number of drivers who don´t realize there is a striped line down the center of the road separating the two travel lanes, which, along with the speeding of many drivers, explains why Spain has the highest fatal auto accident rate in Europe.  It´s in the cities, though, where the driving turns to hell.  For example, it took more than 90 minutes after arriving in Granada to reach our hostal.  We had printed a map with just enough detail to show us an easy way to the hostal, with only three turns.  Of course it didn´t work, because before we arrived at our second turn the street was restricted to buses and taxis, forcing us to turn down a side-street and begin our forty minutes of wandering.  We knew from driving in Almeria that there apparently had been a law passed that whatever road we were driving on would not have visible street names, and any street where the name was visible would not be on our map.  This proved true in Granada as well, and only by a little luck did we arrive safely at our hostal. 


The worse part for me is that I was named as the driver for the entire trip.  Amy´s driving test in Ireland was rescheduled until after our trip, and we didn´t want her to relearn to drive on the right side of the road here in Spain and then make a mistake on the test.  To further ensure she wouldn´t be contaminated by this trip to the continent, the entire drive she had to close her eyes, cover her ears, and go, ¨Blah, blah, blah, blah.¨