Fiorella Mannoia, my favorite Italian pop recording artist, sings this beautiful song -- Il Cielo d'Irlandia (the sky of Ireland) and though it's odd to quote Italian music when I am eating a breakfast of Irish salmon and brown bread...
... outside the tiny town of Ballina by the Lough Derg, I can't help it. I stepped outside this morning, looked over the hills toward County Clare (I myself am in County Tipperary) and immediately thought of it (a good version of it can be heard here).
It's a mighty fine breakfast, no? You cannot actually expect a breakfast when you rent a room or a flat from AirBnB, but Mary, my stupendously wonderful host, stocks the little fridge for you. Organic Irish smoked salmon, eggs, cheese, jams. Coffee. Organic milk. And did I mention that when you first enter your unit, there is a pervasive smell of baking bread? She bakes a loaf of Irish brown for you. Welcome to Ireland indeed!
I am extremely lucky on many counts, not the least of which is the weather. Whatever may be happening in Dublin, here, a short step away from the North Atlantic, the weather is dry! Partly cloudy and a brisk mid fifties. Ireland, I love you!
I made plans to go with Mary on her weekly (Saturday) morning run to Limerick for the market so let me go straight there with you. And Mary. (Here she is, meeting up with her brother -- one of many! -- at the market.)
The market is under a covered dome and that's a good thing for days when the rains come down (all too often here). And it is sizable. I follow Mary a little at the beginning (at this stall she and the vendor tell me that this is the true Irish potato: starchy! not waxy, like in America!)...
...but then I let Mary take off on her own. This is her social time. Occasionally she'll sit over a coffee and a sandwich and talk to one person or another. Though her shopping is important too. Seafood. Especially that. And of course, the potato.
Me, I wander off, loving the music players...
Such good melodies! So... Irish!
...and I take note of the usual markers of local tastes and growing seasons...
And I sidestep a bit into Limerick proper. It's not really talked of as a tourist destination, but it does give off the vibe of whatever it is that we think of as the Irish.
Back at the market, I muse how the photos that I take invariably bring out what I think of as local and therefore interesting. You're not likely to find me taking a picture of the Polish guy who was standing on the street with hand extended asking for a few coins. Or of the stores along the main drag -- they have a ubiquitous face to them that could appear anywhere at all: places of cheap clothing, a few tattoo parlors, many barbers and butchers too. I like walking up one, peering into another, but my camera waits.
...until I am in a tea shop/bakery. A place with very very sweet looking cakes. I need to warm up and they appear to have good teas. The clouds have taken hold and there is a definite chill in the air. A warm cup of chamomile tea would do the trick.
The particular coffee shop is favored by an older crowd. Lots of people coming in, going out, exchanging the longer story, where the telling of it is as important as the content.
And then I'm back at the market and this time I pick up something too. Herring from the Irish waters. So I guess that makes it Irish herring, no? Beautifully prepared by this woman.
Mary approves when I show her my purchase. She's got the pickling brine down right. Just excellent!
Time to turn back. Mary gives her brother a lift home and they exchange comments about how there are too many cars on the road with single drivers, using excessive fuels. Ha! They should take a look at our clogged roadways! I remember driving in Connecticut and California where highway lanes were set aside for cars with at least two passengers. The bulk of the traffic was in the other lanes.
We're home. Mary hurries off to do her weekly work at the local community gardens. We want to grow our own food, but too few people show up to do the hard work. We're building raised beds now for spring.
I want to help, but I also want my lake walk and so I go off on my own. (After a lunch of herring and brown bread. And tea.)
I Should Have Listened to Mary
I had asked -- where can I walk around here? A nice, long scenic hike -- what do you suggest?
Oh, take the trail up in Ballycuggaran. Other side of the river, about two miles past Killaloe. The trail starts there.
Maybe I can walk to it?
Mary looks doubtful. You've got a mile from here to town, another through the village and a couple more up to the trail. Both ways.
I like walking -- I say. With determination.
Mary has only been hosting AirBnB guests for a few months, but she has HR experience. She knows when to leave kooks alone.
So I set out. Under now unquestionably gray skies.
At first the walk is quite nice. Over the bridge...
(...passing two girls who are holding... what? I asked a local young person later. Be patient.)
On the other side of the river, I walk along the Killaloe Canal, once heavily used, but in recent times preempted by the raising of the Shanon River's water level (through dams and such).
(I note that fuschia blooms everywhere. Despite the fact that they claim to have had frost last week. We have had no frost yet back home and still we could not possibly support wild fuschia. Life in the wild is basically unfair.)
But after a mile or so, the pleasant little path along the canal ends and I am on the road, sharing it with cars. Not highway level traffic, but frequent enough to make me regret this chunk of the hike. I should have listened to Mary.
Some hours later I finally come upon the trailhead. But now time, measured in daylight hours, is slipping away. I dare not walk up far. There's that whole return journey to look forward to.
And it's a shame, because it really is a beautiful walk.
Really beautiful, with stunning views to the hills and the lake and river below.
Eventually I force myself to turn back.
I encounter several hikers now, including this guy with his dogs.
This little pup is forcing himself to keep up with the two big guys.
I continue down. Gorgeous walk. Really heavenly.
Okay. I'm on the gravel road now, heading toward the main road. What's this? The guy with the pooches is coming down by car. I waved them over to the side.
By any chance, are you going in the direction of Killaloe? (btw, why do so many Irish names have the letters "kill" in them?)
Could I flag a ride?
I would never hitch a ride in the States. Ever. Especially from a hunky single guy. And that is so strange, because I spin my life according to probabilities and the chance of getting into a bad place is so small and yet, I wont do it. The very idea ignites fear in me.
But here, I am just grateful for the ride which spares me an hour-plus of road walking.
In the end, I find out that my driver is not Irish. I could tell after the first few words. Eastern European accent. I ask him, but carefully, where he is from ('carefully' because I really think it's poor form to insult people by highlighting their off-sounding speech; I say this as one who has been on the other side of things, when words like "where are you from?" sounded more like insults than curiosity).
He tells me he lives here now, but he hails from The Czech Republic.
You are here for work?
Yeah...I came in 2007. He sounds resigned.
Having a hard time of it?
Not in the summer. Plenty to do then. But now it's dead. Ghost town. His English is quite good. I listen as his little pup climbs all over my lap and settles in to purr. Like a cat. My pants are muddy from the pooch's paws, but then, they already have their share of dirt from Mary's dogs. I rub the pup's ears and turn back to the driver -- it's better here than back home?
Oh, I can get work there, but the pay's lousy.
He asks where I'm from and what I'm doing here. I tell him I am originally from Poland and I hope it all sounds positive and hopeful. I'm of the era where there were still good immigrant stories to pass around. I hope I convey the hope for a good ending. Luck helps. I wish him luck.
He drops me off just where I want to be right now - on Mary's recommendation (I'm listening now, Mary!) -- at the Ponte Vecchio, (Mary does not mince words and she has quite the spicy expressions that she uses freely for emphasis. Surely if she lived in Madison, she'd be my good friend.) She rolled her eyes at the name of this cafe-bar. I call it Andy's place. He should call it Andy's place! ...but you should look for the proper name: Ponte Vecchio.
There are nooks and books and pieces of art and I love it! If I lived here, I'd pop in constantly. I settle in to people watch and write in my red notebook.
After a while, the dad (above) and his lads (his choice of word) leave and an older gentleman comes in with a girl that I correctly assume to be his gradndaughter. She's maybe 14.
The gentleman is supremely polite. And chatty. He offers me a coffee, but I tell him it's too late for that. Were I to caffinate myself after 5, I'd be up far too late.
Another glass of wine then?
I protest, but somehow the wine appears and the three of us are immersed in a conversation that leaps and jumps every which way. And yet it is so revealing and touching. No, I can't write much about it. Here's where respect for people's lives has to supersede blog-worthiness. But I'll say this much -- the gentleman was beyond delightful and entertaining and the granddaughter -- hats off for putting up with all of it. Surely she would like to have been texting or facebooking instead -- well, maybe not the latter: I asked her if she does that much and she shook her head with total disinterest. I don't even have an account (this despite the fact that she and her family have lived abroad, including in the States, where surely she would have been exposed to thumbs flying wildly over a little screen).
(She's the one I ask about the wooden boards held by the girls on the bridge. They're for hurling -- the one truly Irish sport, though in the female rendition it's called camogie.)
We all part ways with promises of staying in close contact. You know how that goes. Maybe Ed and I will head out one day and help restore the gentleman's castle over near Galway. You never can tell.
Dinner at Goosers
This was to be the night of pub food and Guinness on tap. Mary suggested Goosers, for the food and for the pub atmosphere.
But after two glasses of Pinot Griogio at Ponte Vecchio, I couldn't do it. The waiter tries: beef and Guinness stew? No... Traditional lamb stew maybe? Not that either... What's with me -- have I become soft? Rabbitt pie? -- a no again.
I settle for the daily special: Atlantic seafood over pasta with a side salad.
And it's good. Very very good. I'll have to muster up the courage for real pub food tomorrow.
I look around me: a tired couple lost in their own thoughts. Then, a father daughter pair. Very quiet as well. Neither says a word during the entire meal. And to the side -- two older women. Sisters? They look like sisters. They're reading newspapers in each others company. It takes a great deal of intimacy to reach that point where you go out to dinner and read papers together.
Eventually the two women get up and they pause by my table to wish me a good evening.
Sorry for appearing impolite, but did I hear you say you're from Bray?
No, I'm from Dublin -- one of them answers.
Oh, my apologies. I misheard. It's just that I'm heading toward Bray myself tomorrow and I was looking for eating suggestions when there.
Why would you stay in Bray?
Well, it's outside Dublin -- I thought it might be a good option. I have an early flight the next day.
Next time stay in Dublin. She smiles and they both leave.
Is tomorrow's post going to run the caption -- "I should have listened to the gray-haired woman from the Goosers?"
I walk home along the almost dark road. It never rained today -- not even a drop, but I am mighty glad I have a sweater, a jacket and a scarf on.