Sunday, May 15, 2011

Leah WITH a Map [for 2 weeks]

Ireland, North Ireland, England
Karlsruhe, Offenburg, & Return
   By midday on Thursday the 10th, I had still not been successful at finding anyone to travel with me to Ireland, or any place to stay, but I at least had people to meet there, and also somewhere to stay once I got to England. After much deliberation I decided I honestly could not pass up the trip I had been waiting for years to take, so I bought a ticket to Dublin leaving on the 14th. That night, as every Thursday night, the International Tutors from the university in Bamberg were meeting for drinks with other exchange students at a local bar, called "stammtisch". The last Thursday when I had gone, there was only one other exchange student, so I figured I would go again to see if any more had arrived. The night held many surprises, meeting students from Greece, Mexico, Iran, Britain, Ireland, Canada, the US, and of course Germany. Amazingly, 2 other girls from the US were really interested in going to Ireland, and we immediately got to making plans. The next day they had plane tickets, and the day after that a hotel was booked, as well as train tickets to the airport.
    Day 1: Monday: wake up @ 05:30, train station at 06:30, train leaves for Frankfurt at 06:45, then take the bus to Frankfurt Hahn airport (in the middle of nowhere & board plane (avoid creeper guy), fly to Dublin (minus 1 hour), grab taxi and finally drop bags at hotel at 5:30. 12 hours of trains, planes, cars, and people-watching while waiting. Our hotel was just outside the city, about a 20 minute bus ride from the city center, and the bus stop required walking through some grass to get there, and also running across a road on return from the city. The driving on the 'wrong' side of the road was only really strange when making a turn (and I discovered later that re-adjusting to driving on the 'right' side of the road was harder than first adjusting to the driving in Ireland/England). I will admit that while in Ireland, I ate a lot of potatoes. Also ''cheeseburgers'' - just because they were typically cheaper than anything else, but they were always far from the decked-out burgers with cheese, ketchup, lettuce, bacon, mustard or whatever else people want on them in America, and typically if you wanted anything more than ketchup on it, you got charged per each extra item.
    Day 2: After talking to the receptionist, we made a decision to take a tour out to Galway the next day, which required being in the city center at 7am. So once again, an early morning & a taxi ride later, an unmarked bus was picking us up on a dreary Irish morning. (Needless to say, our trip was turning out to be an adventure, but after a confirmation by the drivers ID, ticket scanner, and a few other early morning traveleres we were sure we weren't in any shady business. Also, its much more comforting to have other people with you in these situations, also to be able to laugh about it later.) The ride to Galway city was about 2.5 hours and we passed a lot of sheep along the way, but after picking up the rest of the tour group in Galway, we were underway to see the Cliffs of Moher (a.k.a the Cliffs of Insanity! (from The Princess Bride)), Dunguaire Castle, Ballyalban Fairy Fort, the Kilfenora Celtic Crosses, and the Poulnabrone Dolmen tomb (nearly 6,000 years old!). Our tour consisted of a mix of  people, mostly young travelers come to Ireland for the St. Patricks day festivities, including a pair of seriously hungover college guys from Arizona, who provided quite a bit of entertainment during the trip along with our guide and driver who were both Galway natives (they sang for us (incl. the famous 'Galway Girl' song (look it up if you dont alredy know it). The roads in Ireland can be a bit unruly, especially in the Burren region, and the back roads we were required to take to get to some of our stops for the day, but, to the relief of the driver and guide the weather was amazingly sunny and warm which made the drive a bit easier, and thus we ''didnt 'have' to wear our seatbelts.'' We even made a couple of un-scheduled stops to enjoy the view of the Aran islands and just to enjoy the weather (ref. pics of rocky cliff edges and me standing waaayy to close!). Should anyone make a trip to Ireland, or to Galway, I really do recommend the tour (it was cheap too!), and you can check it out at
    Day 3: Find a way to Wicklow! By recommendation, County Wicklow, just south of Dublin was a good daytrip, and also of personal interest for one of my companions who had some family roots there. However, the route to Wicklow turned out to be more difficult than originally planned, and we were forced to stick in the city center for just a few hours before returning to Dublin. However, even this short trip didn't fail to provide some story, as we got to witness a pre-wedding bachelor toast in a local pub, after getting some drink recommendations from cheery old Irish men, and watch as the pub became quite loud during the broadcasted horseraces. Also, we got a lovely recommendation for food from a friendly old lady and her fluffy dog. Wicklow, being on the east coast, definitely had more blue in it than the green and rocky west coast of Galway. On return to Dublin, we spent some time walking around the city, enjoying some of the nightlife and early celebrations,, and we even got to meet a Leprechaun. We also discovered that blow-drying hair without opening the window would set off the fire alarm…. Apparently.
     Day 4: ST.PATRICK’S DAY!!! We decided to wake up early to get into the city and secure a good spot for the parade. Our taxi driver recommended a café on the river for breakfast, The Eliza Lodge/ The Italian Corner, where we were treated to a traditional Irish breakfast of eggs, sausage, and toast. At 8 in the morning, the city was beginning to come alive in preparations for the days festivities, that began with the annual rowing regatta between UCD (University college of Dublin) and Trinity crew teams. It was actually quite exciting standing on the bridges over the river and watching the students and alumni fans cheer on their teams all decked out in St. Patty’s Day gear.  There was a family standing next to us, 2 girls and their mom and dad, who apparently were divided between UCD and Trinity. The dad was joking that whichever team lost, the supporter of that team would get thrown in, or they wouldn’t nominate a daughter to be thrown in for them, and he voted for the older daughter because she would make a bigger splash. It reminded me of my dad, and it was refreshing to see a family out together and enjoying themselves. However, on St. Patrick’s day this was not a scarce sight. 
     We picked a spot on O’Connell Street, down from the river and before the Millennium Spire, near where the parade would begin. By the time 11 rolled around we were already smushed against the railing by a rather large group, or family, of Southeast Asians whose young boys thought it was totally appropriate to crawl between people’s legs and hit each other with flags regardless of who was behind them. Needless to say, it was an interesting 4 hours. Once the parade started however, all attention was diverted to the amazing array of costumes, colors, props, and street performers. The theme of the parade was based off of a short story, ‘Brilliant,’ by Roddy Doyle, and each state of Ireland was given a chapter to interpret and perform. Disney’s got nothing on the costumes and props of the Irish parade. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. And I recommend to everyone making a trip to see this spectacle. And the crowds aren’t so obnoxious, unless you’re in Temple Bar after 9pm. We did venture to a few bars, I recommend Gogarty’s in Temple Bar as well as Arlington Hotel/Knightsbridge Bar, where we saw some River Dance, and also some highly entertaining (and good) Irish musicians, and I even danced a bit of Irish jig. Everyone has been in the city celebrating since the parade at 12, so by 7 or 8 a lot of people have already had their fun, or too much fun, and headed home. After that, its only the very hearty and capable celebrators that are still around and mostly concentrated in the bar-filled areas. For us, we were there from 8-8, without sitting, and we were done, not to mention I was going to be up at 6 the next morning to catch the train to Northern Ireland. It was an amazing day.
     Day 5: Northern Ireland Celebration. The train from Dublin to Portadown was gorgeous, half of the ride was right on the coastline and on the early morning train the day after St. Paddy’s there weren’t many people, so the view out of the window was spectacular.  I will say this: I wanted to spend more time there before I even saw anything or met the wonderful people. To give you a recap of how this trip came about, a friend in Jacksonville goes to Celebration church who has a sister church in Portadown. She put me in touch via facebook with Dave, who is one of the program leaders for Celebration church in Portadown. He picked me up at the station, and showed me around the whole day, and then introduced me to some of the other group leaders for Celebration at a small-group meeting in the hotel where the church has their services in Portadown. I have never felt so welcome, or been greeted so warmly by a group of strangers, who didn’t even know I would be there. After the 2 unnerving weeks of trying to get settled in Germany, it was heart-warming and calming to meet such nice people. *If anyone should travel to Northern Ireland, I recommend stopping by to one of their services, even if you’re not a church-going person, they are open-armed and friendly and have lots to share.   
    BUT, onto the days adventures: Dave had the whole day planned, starting with some Starbucks coffee, as he has had yet to meet an American who would turn it down, and we both shared an affinity for white-chocolate mocas. Then we drove out to the White Rocks beach, and ­­­­­Dunluce Castle, which was phenomenal with the ruins of the rooms, stairs, and fireplaces so that you actually walk room to room and imagine the castle as it was. What an amazing thing to live on the Cliffside in a castle such as that.  Then onto the Giant’s Causeway, which is a magnificent sight. Steps out to the ocean… the myth is that the giant Fionn MacCool was chasing another giant to Scotland and was building the steps to get there. The water spraying up and the different heights of the stones, as well as the view of the other rock formations coming out of the cliffs such as the Giant’s foot and the Giant’s Organ was really phenomenal. We hiked back up this outrageous incline and stairwell, that I cant deny left me winded.  Afterwards we headed to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge (!)… I was already shaken from standing on a cliff edge to look over the Giant’s Causeway, and now I was going to walk across a flimsy bridge made of planks of wood and ROPE – in the RAIN – totally comforting. It was a triumph to make it to the other side for sure, which was basically just a large rock island, where a fishing hut had been built in a tiny alcove and the rope bridge had been constructed to haul fishing loads across to the “mainland.” I could proudly say I wouldn’t melt in the Irish rain, as I stood and looked across the startling blue-green water and cloudy skies, relishing my victory over the bridge… until I realized that I had to walk back across it. 
    Needless to say, I survived otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, but I was very happy to hear our next destination would be to a seaside town, Portstewart, for some ice cream (!) to wind down from the adventures. The ice cream parlor was right on the main road overlooking the “bay” and is owned by an Italian family that has been running the shop since immigrating to Ireland over 40 years ago. It was delicious! The shop overlooked the main road, which ran alongside the “bay,” and we were there at the end of the storm with the sun beginning to set creating a sight to see with waves crashing against the rocks in the cloudy sunlight. It was gorgeous. On the way to dinner in the nearby town of Portrush, we stopped by an open park, Rennigree Point, overlooking the ocean with pathways over the grassy rocks, and a great spot for a driving-range. A couple of houses were nestled discreetly in the park, on top of the cliff and at the base of it, and I couldn’t help but envy and also envision the life to be had living in one of them. So, dinner – another amazing spot, located in the port of Portrush, an Asian & Italian restaurant where I had the most delicious chicken and curry, but it didn’t compare to Dave’s pasta. Just outside the restaurant were the old docks, where immigrants during the famine took their last steps in Ireland before leaving for America – pretty humbling.   
    Next back to Portadown to meet with the Celebration group, which was just a lovely meeting, like I said before. I booked a room in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast for the night so I could catch an early plane to London, but when we arrived there, a huge crowd was swarming the streets (apparently the arena is right next to the hotel) and the boy-band BoyZone had been performing, leading to the swarm of thousands of tween girls running around and screaming at passing cars who may hold the band. The clerk at the hotel seemed to be relieved that I had no idea who they were when I asked what was going on. I had been sleeping soundly when the fire alarm went off and people started rushing into the halls. It was apparently a false alarm, only to be affirmed with a polite apologetic letter under my door in the morning, however I seem to attract fire alarms in hotels. I had hoped to see a bit of wear the titanic was built before catching my plane, but the whole port is under construction to make the attraction a bit more appealing to tourists. Alas, I was quite sad to say goodbye, with such a wonderful experience and great people, and also a bit apprehensive of the British Culture.
    Day 6: Upon arrival at London-Luton airport (there are 4 airports in London, all well outside of the city, and all rather difficult to get to, especially if you are on the opposite side of the city.  I took a bus and a train to get to the village of Flitwick (Harry Potter reference! (Not seen so by the locals.)) And was picked up by Maggie and her son Matt.
I guess I have to explain the back-story about how this trip turned out. A very old friend of the family, and coworker of my Dad’s, Brad, has been working in London for the past few years. When I made plans to go to Ireland, and had some extra time, my dad suggested stopping by England to see Brad and meet Maggie and family, as they would all be moving to the states in the summer. So, I made plans. I hadn’t seen Brad since I was a little girl, and once again I would be picked up by a complete stranger, Maggie, however we had chatted on the phone and I wasn’t too concerned about it. So, Maggie and her son Matt picked me up at the train station and we stopped by the store to get some supplies for the BBQ (YAY for visiting an American!) she and Brad were cooking that night.  Also, poor Matt, who works in London, but came home to visit for the weekend, needed to buy some casual clothes so he wouldn’t have to wear his work attire the whole weekend. It was quite hilarious to me, that you could buy jeans and clothes in an average grocery store (this was no Wal-mart people).
     Marston Moretaine is the English village (stereotypically) where Brad and Maggie live, and when I was there, Spring was just blooming. I would compare it slightly to driving through the upper-east-coast of the US, Maryland/Virginia area, with hills, and fields, and brick houses – but much less traffic, and much more flowers blooming everywhere. There is a lovely lake and park/recreation area in Marston Moretaine that Matt showed me around, while discussing the difference and stereotypes of Britains vs. Americans, tv shows (Super Sweet 16 just doesn’t exist in England), humor (dry British humor doesn’t catch on so easily in the states), etc. We also stopped by a local Pub to try some cider (which I actually enjoyed!), but Matt warned against spending too much time in the local pub, as it causes as much drama as a middle-school girls chorus group.
    Back at the house, Brad arrived home from a bike-auction in his amazing Van-converted-to-RV. He took an average, European style Mercedes work-van, gutted it, and transformed the inside into an RV, complete with kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area, and sitting space. At the same time, Matt’s younger brother Luke came home from soccer practice, and I had the pleasure of meeting the most feisty and fervent Chelsea Football Club fan. No grown, drinking, man could compare to the intensity of this 11-year-olds support of Chelsea. I could barely break it to him that I appreciated Chelsea, but instead Manchester United. He also has no idea how much trouble his accent will get him into with middle-school girls in the US. But that story has yet to play out, so we’ll see.  
      I was so excited for dinner, BBQ chicken and good American food. I loved their kitchen, it was a wideopen space, allowing for everyone to stand or sit and chat together while the food was being prepared or passed around. I also discovered their large jar of Skippy Peanut Butter, and I’ve never had such a craving! I hadn’t realized until then that it is virtually impossible to get American peanut butter without paying top dollar or sneaking onto a military base in Germany. It was at that time that Brad suggests taking a trip to COSTCO(!!!) so I could get some creamy Skippy peanut butter to take back with me. (My bag weighed almost 1 pound more, but it was sooo worth it.) OK, back to dinner, it was DELICIOUS. And some other friends came over, and we watched the Ireland vs. England Rugby match (which was fantastic! I loved it! I can appreciate it a bit more than American football actually, because the men actually have to be fit and strong in every position) then a poker match ensued. The company was quite amusing, full of British humor and a bit of small-town gossip, that didn’t help any previously discussed stereotypes. It was a “splendid” time.
     Day 7: The next day we took a trip to an Antique Emporium, in a tinnyyyy town, Ampthill, where all of the shops were closed outside of this 3-story, antique-itself house, full of STUFF. The most amazing thing I found was an old Nazi military jacket, that shocked me to see, but Matt explained that the Britain’s have a bit of a strange humor towards that paraphernalia and love to collect/buy it and use it for costumes or jokes. It was a quiet, relaxing Sunday, which I have to say I really appreciated compared to all of the running around in Ireland. It was nice to just sit and have good food, which we ordered Indian for dinner and it was really tasty.
     Day 8: Monday, Matt had to go back to London for work, so I caught the morning train with him into the city. We came into St. Pancras Station (which houses the international trains like the Eurostar to Paris), right next to Kings Cross station. Matt informed me however, that Kings Cross wasn’t actually used for the filming of Harry Potter but a complete separate station in the city. They did however put up a little scene in Kings Cross station were it looks like there is a luggage cart disappearing into the wall. The JK Rowing’s idea for Kings Cross station was that platforms 1-8 are in one room and 9+ in another section of the station, but there’s actually a whole wall and large separation between the two area, leaving the filmmakers without much material for an interesting platform 8 ¾ scene. Also, all of London is currently under construction to prepare for the 2012 Olympics, including Kings Cross station, making it rather difficult to traverse, so I skipped that tourist spot. After grabbing a biscuit and coffee, he showed me where the British Museum was and headed to work.
     The museum didn’t open for another 40 minutes so I ventured to take a picture with a British telephone booth and then browsed the museum’s info on their current visiting and permanent collections. Presently they have an exhibit on Afghanistan history and art, but it costs extra to see, so I flipped through the book they had for sale on the collection, and came across a photo that I recognized. When applying for my high school magnet program, I attempted to create an oil painting for my audition and had chosen a photo out of a magazine of the horses grazing in front of mountains in Afghanistan. This was only 2 years after 9/11, and I recall that the magazine article was about the effects of 9/11 on tourism and how Afghanistan stil retained some of the most beautiful countryside and natural monuments in the world. Anyways, 8 years later, in a book on a traveling exhibit of Afghanistan trying to raise awareness of the culture, art, and history of the war-torn country, is the same photo I had tried to re-create in paint. It was exciting to recognize it, but also a reminder that times have not changed so drastically since then – I myself may have changed drastically in that time period, but the world’s issues are still the same, and the same fights are still being fought in the same places with the same people; in direct war, or to bring awareness. 
      The rest of the museum was amazing; I got to see pieces of art that I had only studied in books, such as the Rosetta Stone, Ramses II, & the Standard of Ur. After the museum I just walked around the city. I wasn’t terribly interested in seeing the major tourist spots, so I just decided to follow the map (who would’ve thought!) around the city and see what I could see. I ended up seeing all of the major tourist spots, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace (although I have to admit, I was sorely disappointed that the guards no longer stand outside the gates, so I couldn’t mess with them L.) I met Matt again for lunch in Soho, where we tried out a traditional English Pub and I had a delicious Shepherd’s pie and I got to try a bit of British Fish & Chips. It was all quite tasty, I must say. I had to make sure though, that while in England I bought a Manchester United something, and found a comfy red sweater on sale. In the train station before catching the train back to Marston Moretaine, I discovered a cute bakery known for their cupcakes, and picked up a box for dessert. We had delicious Indian cuisine from the local Indian restaurant for dinner, which was interesting… very colorful, different textures of bread, and lots of spice.
     Day 9: London, Day 2. In the morning, my plans to meet with friends in the city fell through, so I took a later train into London, trying to use a cheaper ticket for residents after rush hour. However, 20 minutes into the ride when the ticket-taker checked my ticket, he asked for my residence card, which I didn’t have, and then charged me a fine for not having it… we wont talk about how much that was. It was a moment of growing for me; I just paid the fine, and chose to enjoy that the sun was shining, I had a map of the city, and I could go anywhere and see anything I wanted. Which is exactly what I did. London Bridge, Shakespeare Globe, and Trafalgar Square < which was phenomenal with the view of all the different directions and the countdown for the Olympics. Luckily, Matt was willing to meet me for lunch again, and we enjoyed a delicious Asian meal at Wagamama that was in the basement of some building and you sat cafeteria style on big long tables, and the food is served from a line quite quickly but was totally amazing. We need to bring this place to the US. 
     Spending the majority of the day alone, I really got to observe the city life; London is designed for workers & commuters: the eateries are all clumped together, there’s always extra footpaths and escalators, multiple entrances to places, and amazingly fast service even at sit-down restaurants. And everyone moves fast here, even if its not for work. Also, the underground is slightly intimidating… in some stations you have to spend 15 minutes just walking straight down a staircase under pipes and drains, before walking down a short ceilinged, slanted tunnel to get to the actual platform.  Needless to say, I was happy to get back to the small English town outside of the city, but sad to know I’d be leaving the next morning. 
      Days 10 & 11: Marston Moretaine -> London Stansted -> Frankfurt Hahn -> Heidelberg -> Karslruhe
In the morning, a sad goodbye, with promises to meet again in the states, and many thanks for a wonderful English visit (especially for the peanut butter), and then the trek to get to London Stansted airport, that required I take the train back into the city, change stations, and go back out to the airport. After getting back to Germany, I had to wait for the bus at Hahn airport (in the middle of nowhere) to take me to Heidelberg where my friend Roman, who was an exchange student in NY from the Pedagogische Hochschule in Karlsuhe, picked me up and drove the rest of the way to Karlsruhe. Back with my old friend, Julia we got to catch up, and prepare for her moms birthday weekend. The next morning I met Roman again for coffee and to see the library (aka jail) where all of my Karlsruhe friends have been holed up studying for their state exams for education. Happily, a couple of them, Simeon & Franci were willing to take a break for a couple of hours for lunch and to walk the city a little bit. My friend Bjorn met with Simeon and I for delicious ice cream in the Maxplatz, and then we followed the path from the palace to the soccer stadium for a charity football game between KSC and Hoffenheim. Being an unofficial game, it wasn’t too crowded, but their fans were quite excited, and I can say Ive been to a real German football game. Afterwards, we met back up with Julia, Simeon, and another friend Lisa for drinks, and attempted to go to one bar, where the bartender was not only slightly out of it, but did not know how to make any drinks. Needless to say we shared some drinks over some pizza, and then called it a night. Once again, I have to say, it is a wonderful thing to be able to meet with friends after spending so much time apart and feel like you just saw them yesterday.
     Day 12: Travels with Julia & Leah RETURN! On the train to Offenburg to celebrate Doris’ birthday, it was such a familiar sight to see the train station and their village, Zell Weierbach, on the hill above the city, right on the edge of the Black Forest. Julia’s mom picked us up, and had been practicing her English for my visit. When we got to the house, she had even put an American Flag in the spare bedroom. After saying hello to Klaus and Mitze (their cat), we took a walk to visit their neighbors, an old Doctor and his wife, who live above them on the hill, in this gorgeous beautiful old house full of treasures they collected from their years traveling around the world – when customs didn’t exist, and you could bring back exotic & priceless artifacts. They also have a pool on the edge of their property that looks over the whole of the village & Offenburg and in the distance the mountains & France. The sweetest couple ever, insisting on giving me a drink and being patient with my poor German skills. Herbi had asked Klaus to come over to help him fix his fax machine, but Herbi has self-wired the whole house when it comes to anything electric, which makes it very difficult for other people to fix things. After our visit, we headed back to the house for afternoon coffee with some family friends, 3 generations of women from the same family, the eldest being nearly 90 and perfectly capable to walk up the many stairs and have a sassy attitude when discussing men over coffee. The night was relaxing, getting prepared for the next days big dinner for the whole family and friends, and Doris prepared some grocery bags for both Julia & I to take back to school with us, even with some of her homemade strawberry jam which is delicious!
     Days 13 & 14: Happy Birthday Doris!!! Julia and I went on a hunt to find a yard game that she had discovered with some friends, an old Viking game, called Kubb, using wooden blocks and sticks that you use to knock down the blocks. We also stopped by her brother’s soccer game in a nearby village, which was actually a pretty intense game. Its always a bit amusing for me to see how hyped up Germans get, even for their local teams. The weather was a little cloudy, but still nice, so when her family arrived, we gave it the Viking game a try – and I quickly discovered that an overwhelming majority of Germans are amazingly athletically fast learners. Dinner was typical German cuisine, but the best part was the array of cakes and desserts. Fruit cake, strawberry cake, chocolate cake, and Julia’s [attempt] to make a Russian pound-like cake, which I thought was delicious but wasn’t totally cooked in the middle. All of her family knew me from my trip 2 years ago, but I was still a bit nervous to speak up in front of them – it’s a little intimidating being in front of an entire family, multiple generations of German-speakers and trying to explain things in broken grammar & poor vocab. Also, as most of you know, getting the family together means there is lots of fast & loud conversation, which I couldn’t always follow, and it didn’t help that I had been spending time in Frankonia/Bavaria where they speak a different German dialect, and then 2 weeks in English-speaking countries. Bad planning on my part. It was still wonderful however, and Julia’s grandma suggested that I get my German license & a car so I can visit more often (she didn’t know that I already had my license). It was so nice to see them all again, and where they live near the Black Forest the air is so clear and clean, I stood for a few minutes on the balcony that night just soaking it in before leaving in the morning. I was able to ride the train back to Karlsruhe with Julia but then we had to say goodbye for me to change trains and head back to Bamberg where my roommate, Olesya had arrived and to get prepared for the next 4 weeks of German language training and meeting new people…

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