Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I'd be obliged if you'd help me... find my Uncle Dan...(McCann)

Well, the vote's in. Ireland is my favourite country that I have ever been to, now and forever. Well, second, as obviously Canada would be my favourite, being a good Canadian. But, if we were going to leave patriotism out of it, Ireland would win, Hands down.

Disclaimer: I may be a little biased, as we have great family in Northern Ireland that are always great fun, and that spoil us rotten. But, I don't think I am. Ireland's landscape and people are enough to win anyone over, probably within hours of arriving.

We rented what was supposed to be a 'Ka' (very very small, manual car) on Sunday and were to head up the coast. We (well I, Kristen) was a little worried about Jonathan driving a manual, on the wrong side of the road. Individually the challenges seemed manageable, but combined....they sounded a little bit like trying to leave ireland without being bought a round of Guinness: not likely to succeed. However a little mix up with the rental people and we were off with a MASSIVE (like, we should have brought the neighbours and picked up those hitch hikers to make it worth it) Subaru station wagon, with a tendancy to devour gas, with an automatic transmission. Ok.

Northern Ireland, even though I have been here before, still surprizes me with its beauty. We stopped at the Glens of Antrim for a hike, then continued to the Giants Causeway with its octagonal rocks. We stayed in Port Stewart a little holiday town in which the locals cruise up and down the main street Sunday nights. Even Clifton Hill antics are more charming on the island!

The next morning we crossed the border into the Republic of Ireland, county Donegal. Uncharted territory. I, of course, want Jonathan to take every windy, narrow, cliff hanging, brush-scratching the side of the rental, Atlantic view road we come across. But, it is well worth it. Donegal is the 'forgotten' county. Attached to the rest of Ireland by about a 10 km stretch of land. It is rugged and wild, and steep. The first cliff on my itinerary is Horn Head. We drive a windy road to a parking lot and walk the rest of the way out to the (very) windy cliff's edge. You can see along the jaggedy coast for kms and kms! And if you look really hard, on a clear day, you can see Newfoundland! Lol. Thats a lie! Did you believe me? Anyways, its beautiful! And most other tourists are pretty whimpy, so we are the only ones at the tip of Ireland!

The next day we meet a hand weaver in Ardara and he shows, explains and demonstrates for us his loom! Turning local sheeps wool into hand woven tweeds and scarves! Actually, not this weaver, but the one up the street exports his sweaters to Niagara on the Lake! If we'd known that... Jonathan is in his glory, as I'm sure those who know him can imagine. The weaver, quite famous in his circle, probably thinks we are a little off the rocker. Crazy Canadians coming all the way over here asking 5 million questions about the loom and how it works and how the 1500 treads are individually run through their respective holes. Now you are wondering what these 'treads' are, and so were we. The guy is looking at us like we are from Mars. 'The Treads!!' 'What?' 'Treads!' Oh, Right. The 'th' is lost in Ireland. The THREADS! lol Awkward......

We continue (and I am skipping a lot of stunning landscape and seascape along the way) to Slieve League. These are the highest marine cliffs in Europe! The road up is closed off by a gate, which you are supposed to open yourself. I think its a subconcious warning. You, YOURSELF has chosen to drive up this crazy steep road and we hold no responsibility for the one-lane width when you are passing another car on a 90 degree angle on the edge of this cliff, nor do we take any responsibility for the indignant sheep who 'baaaaaaa' and take long, sheep-ish looks at you when you expect them to move out of the way of your car. Our car, as you can maybe imagine isn't meant for these roads, or vise-versa. The sign said trailers were to park in the lower lot.. that probably meant us.

We get to the top. No sheep down, no cars down. Then, we climb up, and up and up. From here, the tallest, sheer-ist drop is 600 m you can see 3/4 of Ireland, on a clear day, which we miracloulsy (i really can't spell) have! Its quite windy near the edges and can be quite dangerous, we had been warned. We were able to climb right to the edge (almost) though, because of the beautiful weather! I can imagine on a windy day though how crazy it would be up here! There is quite a bit of sheep poo around. If the sheep can hold thier own, so could we! The ocean is so far down that it almost looks calm, and you can't even hear the waves rolling into the cliffs from way up here! I may have taken a few pictures!

We head to Donegal town for the grand finale: a night couch surfing with a Donegal local! As soon as Robbie discovers that we haven't yet had a pint of Guinness, its straight down to the pub to remedy the tragedy. Needless to say, 'a' pint quickly turned into two, which somehow became three and suddenly I knew all the words to the Irish folk songs I had never heard before! Which, is where the title of the blog comes from. A handy little song about a wee Irish gal (for the sake of this story) who had lost Uncle Dan! This seemed quite convienent, as I can imagine myself losing Uncle Dan somewhere...and singing this song about it... probably in a similar type of bar, with a similar number of drinks involved. I'll get all the words right and sing a round for everyone when I get home! (If knowing the words isn't contingent with the drinking of Guinness, because I would say I'd had quite enough, and really, I don't think it travels well). There was dancing and singing and Irish tales of evil faries inhabiting thick bushy Fairy Trees and all the mischief the faries caused the poor Donegal locals. It was the perfect last night for our short visit to the Republic, mostly thanks to Robbie and the friendly pub crowd.

Belfast has been very busy with Jonathan's Nanny and Pappy moving house, and his cousins Allison and Ed over for a visit from Britain. Its great to be able to hang out with the family and be a little help with all the moving! Tomorrow (Friday) we are going to a BBQ at David and Holli's place, which will be a great send-off for our Saturday morning flight home! Its really wonderful to be here, but we are also quite excited to come home! Especially with the new baby making an appearance in the next couple days!! (We really hope, atleast, for Nikki's sake)

Hopefully we will be able to catch up with everyone soon! Wish us a safe flight back across the Atlantic! Hey, maybe they will be playing the 'Sex and the City' movie.... right.

Friday, May 23, 2008

to Hel and back

How amusing is a city by the name of Hel? Really the puns are endless. But, since I'm sure you can come up with a dozen of your own, I won't bore you with mine. Hel is acutally a peninsula north of Gdansk on the Baltic. Turns out much of Poland's north coast is a big white sandy beach! Who would have thought? Not really what you associate with Polish landscape.

Gdansk (as part of the tri-City) is the main one on the coast. It has everything, really. Beautiful, colourful architecture, the history of the Gdansk shipyard, the sea and beautiful beaches, and lots and lots of icecream! In Gdansk we couch-surfed with a fabulous couple host, Dominick and Ida. They lived on the Gdansk/ Sopot border, which exactally where we wanted to spend our time. One day in the city, and one day on the beach. Dominick and Ida, aside from having the perfectly placed apartment, where really friendly and knowledgeable about thier city, and their country. We talked alot about Poland in the E.U, and the country's relationship with Russia, as well as Polish politics, religon, culture and food. (Unfortunatly out of their wealth of knowledge came a (in Jonathan's eyes) tragic, trip -changing truth. Some honey in Poland is made with worms! From that momemnt on, all honey bought in Poland MIGHT have worms in it, and therefore tased a little funny to him, and so, the end of the eating-honey-out -of-a-jar-legacy was over).

After two nights in Gdansk we took a ferry to Hel, across Gdansk Bay. Again, mostly to relax on the beach. The whole Northern side of the peninsula is one big white sandy beach. It was like an advertisement for the Carribean.. although the water, being the Baltic, was FREEZING! We lay on the beach for the afternoon in our sweaters and coats and thought about how close we were to Scandinavia... needless to say, another trip idea was born that day.. but for another year, don't worry!

Another 100km or so down the coast is Slowinski National Park, near the Holiday town of Leba. We probably should have just walked the 100km, but no, we insisted on taking public tranist, which efficiently brought us to Leba in about 6 hours. We had chosen Leba because of the National Park and its famous sand dunes. The biggest being 40m tall! It was like being in the desert. Might as well cross Egypt off the list...well, maybe not, but there was sand as far as you could see in every direction. In its path there were also a lot of tree stumps, as the dunes move about 10 m every year killing just about everything in their path.

We arrived in Leba with very little information, and wandered around a bit to find a place. There was one place behind a bakery that appeared to have rooms free. The young daughter of the owner came down to talk to us, since she learned English in school, and was probably the only one who could speak English. Most toursits here are German, as Leba is pretty close to the German border, and people in Leba speak German as opposed to English as their second language. Anyways, in rather broken English the girl explained that her father wanted to give us a gift (because outside on our balcony he was inthe process of laying tile, and it wasn't finished, and so he felt it didn't look nice enough) and to meet back at the apartment at 6pm. We came back around then, ( we didn't want to be rude.. if he wanted to give us a gift, who were we to ruin his evening!) and when no one showed up, we thought maybe it was a miscommunication, or the daughter had her numbers mixed up and they were going to be knocking on our door at 6am... We were hungry for dinner, so we went for food. When we came back there was a little while plastic bag hanging on our door handle. I ran up the stairs to investigate. Inside was the most perfect 7 layer torte I had ever seen (karly's creations exculded, of course). 7 layers of chocolate and cake topped with real chocolate and a fancy chocolate design! Now, I know I should have left the whole thing for Jonathan. He does need some fattening up, and I "am" on Weight Watchers, but again, I didn't want to be rude and not taste (half) of the cake! It lasted not even 2 days. We ate a whole cake in 2 days.

Feeling fat, we attempted to make it to Berlin for our last 2 nights in continnental Europe. Probably as a direct result of the extra 5 lbs we were each carrying around, we were pretty lazy in Berlin. Oh, I forgot that we climbed that 40m high 'mountain' in Leba, so pretty much we didn't have to exercise again for about a week, but then again, we did eat that entire cake,so maybe those two cancelled eachother out... anyways, whatever. We saw the major sights in Berlin and cafe hopped in between. They have a huge Sony centre where they show movies in their original (English) versions, so on our last night we went and saw ' 10 Questions with the Dalai Lama.' I wanted to see 'Made of Honour', or whatever it is called, but apparently we were beging responsible adults instead. (Where was this self discipline with the cake i ask you!?) Anways, the documentary was VERY good, and very imformative. I would recommend it to everyone. For example, one of the most dissapointing things I learned was that Google and Yahoo, wanting so badly to get into the Chinese market, have agreed to sensor thier search engines to Chinese Government requirements! So, if you type in 'Dalai Lama' in China, you only get back approved results, all of which are negative Chinese written articles about the Dalai Lama! Apparently Google and Yahoo think that their profits are more important than allowing Chinese people access to information about one of the most peaceful world leaders of the time, and that encouraging intolerance between two cultures that are living in the same country is fine because of the massive financial compensation they get. Actually I am quite disgusted. Ok, I will give you a quick run down of the story. So Tibet was a country all on its own, not sitting on any particularily useful land or anything. One day China decides that it is going to take over Tibet. This is apparently cool with everyone, as Tibet doesn't offer any oil, or resources that we need them for, so we dont offer any help. So now Tibet is China and the people of Tibet have to live as refugees in northern India (if they are lucky enough to escape without being killed) as the Chinese people turn thier capital city, Lhasa into an amusement park of sorts. They burn all the monastaries and ancient religious artifacts and any sign of the Tibetan culture. It is illegal to say the Dali Lama's name, or have his picture.

When the Dali Lama picked someone to be the Panchin Lama in the mid-1990s(who is someone with a very strong influence over who will be chosen as the next Dali Lama) the child and his family dissapear, never to be heard from again and the Chinese government picks and instates their own Panchin Lama for the people of Tibet, essentially which means China will be picking Tibet's next political and religious leader. And still, the Dali Lama encourages relations with China and does not hold a grudge! He only wants to protest peacefully and disaproves of any violence. It is really explained better in the film.

That is all for now. It is great to be in Belfast with family! We are being spoiled!
We leave for Donegal (the north- west coast) Sunday for a couple days, and then back to Belfast for a little more visiting, and then home next week.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Gingerbread Man

Yesterday was my day, with the chocolate, and today Jonathan got to experience one (of the few) sweets he enjoys. In Torun we went to a gingerbread museum and made our very own gingerbread from scratch with traditional medieval gingerbread bakers (and a gingerbread witch who threatened us with a wart on our tongues if we divulged her secret gingerbread recipe!). Needless to say, we were the only adults there. We had to sneak in with a Grade 4 Polish class trip!

After finding out all the secret ingredients, we mixed it all together, rolled it out and pressed it into moulds. Just as the delicious smell started to waft from the oven we discovered that we had made 'show' gingerbread that we couldn't eat!! Don't worry. We bought re-inforcements. You should have seen Jonathan in his glory smelling all the spices and fighting the kids for the best rolling pin!

Pictures to follow. AND, we will probably let you look at our certificates proclaiming "Jonathan and Kristen from Canada" as trained gingerbread officials. We plan to frame and proudly display them upon returning home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

E. Wedel = my hero

So, we just got back from dinner. At E. Wedel. The chocolatier. I had a hot chocolate made of, get this: MELTED CHOCOLATE! So delicious! We had one traditional and one mint chocolate. This is what it says in the menu about the traditonal 'drinking chocolate.' "true Wedel ecstasy for your mouth that will take you to a world of dreams and desires." After I finished the first cup, I desired more.

We are in Warsaw now, heading to Torun tomorrow. We unfortunately are going to skip the Mazurian Lake District, as only one bus goes there a day, and not until late afternoon, and it takes a while.

We went to Auschwitz yesterday, on a less delicious note. Finding the right word/words to describe it is difficult. I want to say evocative and heavy, but neither quite seem right. I'll have to contemplate until June, I guess.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Sights and Smells of Budapest

The vote is in: Budapest is the worst smelling city in Europe. It smells like a cest-pool. That aside, we have good things to say about Hungary and its people.

The first weekend we were in Hungary there was a big festival in town. Of course, this was accompanied by live music! Most of the lyrics were in Hungarian, but some of the choruses were sung in English. For example, we heard a melody that sounded vaguely familiar but couldn't put our finger quite on it, the, the chorus came booming in, "Come on! Do the locomotion with me!" We didn't do the locomotion, but the Hungarians around us were doing an interesting dance where the children were whipped around by their arms. There were children flying left and children flying right. There were children flying up and children flying down. For our own safety we decided to exit after the song before another Hungarian gauntlet of swinging children started again.

Keszthey, where this children-flinging festival occurred, is on Lake Balaton, the largest fresh water lake in Europe outside of Scandinavia. To us, fresh water lakes aren't such a big deal, but to Hungarians its HUGE. After a couple of ice cream eating days, we were off to Budapest. As Jonathan mentioned, it was a tad smelly. Overall, a beautiful city though, with great architecture and lots of entertainment. The opera, for example. We bought $2 tickets, which means top, on the sides with no view. I walked around and stood at the back and watched the whole show perfectly. Jonathan just listened from his seat, as is the jon-thing to do. The next day, after swimming in Heviz (a naturally heated thermal lake near Keszthey, we went in the Budapest baths. The baths were great! Outside there were three pools, all naturally heated as well (Hungary is on a hot plate). One was the fun pool, with a fast moving whirlpool that spun you in a circle, and a waterfalls and jets that bubbled up. The middle pool was for serious swimmers and was a little chillier, and the last pool was the world's largest hottub. It even had hot water sprays that you could stand under for a massage! When it started to thunderstorm, we went to the smaller inside pools of various temperature, from 38° to 16°!

Eger was our first couchsurfing experience. We stayed with Feri, a native Hungarian. He was really friendly and knew so much about Eastern European history. He took us down to the local cellars and we sampled different Hungarian wines. It was a great experience.

Slovakia, we love. It is ruggedly beautiful and wonderfully cheap. In the High Tatras we stayed in a chata (a mountain hut for hikers). We kind of cheated though and took the funicular most of the way be fair, though, we did hike 5 minutes from the funicular! Then we hiked along the mountainside for 2 hours to the cable car. You should see the photos of the hike! At some points we are on a steep slope, snow covered path, which isn't even side enough to have both feet beside each other and nothing to stop you from plummeting down the mountain except for the pine trees about 20 meters down the slope (Jonathan: at least pine is soft wood!). Then what happens next? A group is coming the other way! Anyway we carefully teatered along until the path widen again. Jonathan kept telling me to be careful as if my coordination was in question...hmmm. We make it to the cable car and I insist on going up the extra 1000m to the top of the mountain. The 'big' cable car which the TI lady explained actually holds a max of 15 pple! The cable car appears to be going up into a cloud and disappears, but I am confident that by the time our turn rolls around that it will be clear sies and panoramic views. For the first time I am wrong...really really wrong. We get up into the clouds and I realized...yup...this is it a view of nothing. Here, you can come along to the 3000m peak with us: just grab a blank sheet of white paper and hold it in front of your face. Seriously that's it. the time we get to the top (we are the last trip up) they are OUT of hot chocolate!! In hind sight, the whole thing is really funny.

We are now in Krackow and have just enjoyed a plate of delicious, government-subsidized perogies from a milk bar for 5zl! 3zl=about $1 CDN! The menu was all in Polish, but that's a story for when we get home...where's Marta when you need her?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Caves, Cops and Canadians

Our last day in Lublijana has been one of our best yet. The day before, we recruited two people to come to the caves with us, Daniel and Sofie. Sofie is an Australian from Sydney who is currently away for several years. Daniel is a Canadian from Virgil! Small world. The story goes like this. Jonathan always thinks he knows everybody. No matter where we are, he is whispering and pointing out all the people he apparently ´knows' somehow. Our arrival at our hostel in Lublijana is no exception. We are walking up the stairs to our room and walk past a guy sitting in the windowsill. 'I know him', Jonathan whispers to me. I give him the look. Seriously, Jonathan. We are in Slovenia, give it up. We get into our room and I start to put the sheets onto our beds. Jonathan is eating honey out of the jar with a spoon. This aparently inspires him to go talk to the guy he claims to know back in the hall. I expect him to be back in seconds because the poor guy he is pestering probably doesn't even speak English. He looks German. After 10 minutes I go check on him. I feel bad for the other guy. Jonathan introduces the mystery man. This is Daniel, from Virgil. I met him at the couchsurfing get together. I'm actually shocked, almost at a loss for words (but that doesn't last long, don't worry). He's got to be right once in a while, I guess. First time in 5 years,but whos counting?

So the caves...

Since I (Kristen) am such a wonderful excursion planner, the caves went off without a hitch. We hopped on the train through the beautiful Slovenian countryside, mostly chatting instead of watching. We get to the station to catch our free bus to the caves. Since it is a holiday, there is a tour as soon as we get there (1st time a holiday has ever worked in our favour when travelling). The caves themselves are amazing. The stalactites and stalagmites (sorry, Laura) are like in a love story, growing closer one drip at a time. It takes 100 years to grow 1 cm! (That would be the LONGEST, WORST MOVIE EVER!) They are so colourful and have very interesting shapes. The caves themselves are massive. There is a river that runs through the cave, ending in a spectacular underground waterfall. It is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. Jonathan, however, is missing it all because he is too busy yapping with Daniel. (Picture Dad and Ronnie on Sunday morning and, for good measure, throw in a Canadian Tire flyer with the best sale of the century!). I keep glaring at them and they keep pretending not to notice.

When we get back from our perfectly planned day trip, we all go back to our room to relax before dinner...but as usual, that's when the excitement starts. Enter Jonathan the Hero.

Downstairs in our hostel there was a traditional-style Oriental cafe with floor seating and the such. We thought that would be a good place for supper (Gnocchi! (not Oriental)). We all went down but found it was closed for the holiday. We asked and heard there was maybe (only maybe) a pizzeria open downtown, so I ran up to the room to get a coat. As I was finishing in our room, a man came out of our shared bathroom with blood all over his forehead. My intial thought was 'Wow...he is horrible at shaving'. After quickly realizing that not even I need to shave my forehead (well, except for that one time...) I next thought he fell in the shower. I was wrong again. I asked if he was okay (obviously he wasn't) and he told me he fell early that day and he thought he broke his shoulder. We cleaned up his head and he laid down in his bed. I ran down to tell the group what happened and asked where a hospital was. There was one across the street. Perfect! When I went back up to tell the guy (Don) he had passed out and wouldn't wake up. Going back to my lifeguard days, I did the 'talk and tap' (or was it the pinch and pat...or was it the shake and shout...or was it...) and he came to. I walked with him across the street to find that the 'hospital' was actually a dentist office. I suppose if Don had of knocked some teeth out when he fell that would have been the right place to be. Anyway, we found out Emergency was several blocks away. We arrived at the real hospital and Don checked in. Lesson: always get health insurance, or, don't fall). I left him at that point to meet the others for dinner. It turns out his collar bone was broken and he forgot to ask about his head. We wish him a quick recovery.

After dinner, Daniel needed to check the schedule at the train station. We dropped the girls off and moved on to the train station. As we were going there a police car pulled up on the sidewalk just in front of us. We smiled and waved at them, commented how friendly the Slovenian police were and walked past...then something strange happened: The blue lights came on! We looked left and we looked right and we were the only people on the street. There were no cars and no people; just us and them. We turned around and walked back and said, 'hello', (maybe they were REALLY friendly and wanted to chat). After a moment of confusion, Daniel, who speaks German, found out the issue. We crossed the street (making sure to cross at a designated corssing area), but, it turns out, without the green walking guy's permission (Kristen and I call him 'the jealous guy'). After getting a 'get-out-of-jail-free-card', we checked our schedule and willingly went back to prison. It was a great day.

p.s. One warning was enough, we have since waited for the jealous guy at all our crosswalks (which annoys the Impatient One).

Till next time, Hello. ('Hello' is like 'ciao', it means 'hi' and bye' in Hungarian)