Happy Holidays to One and All!

My blog posts may be way behind, but I did actually look at a calendar (or maybe someone mentioned it) and noticed the rapidly approaching winter holidays. So I’d like to wish you all a very merry whatever-you’re-celebrating. I, for one, will be lighting Hanukkah candles and exchanging presents beginning tomorrow night — and maybe y’all will get a post about the perfect fried potato pancake recipe (my dad’s, duh) later on.

In related news, there’s a great new blog that I’m very excited about called A Home for the Holidays which collects and posts anonymous letters for people without welcoming families. Christmas time has the highest rate of suicide out of the whole year, and I think if everyone knew just how much they’re wanted on this earth, we could change those numbers. I encourage all of you to write a short letter and welcome a stranger into your hearts this year. After all, what else are the holidays really about, if not spreading the love around a little?

P.S. – If you don’t have a tumblr to submit with, you can send me a message and I’ll get it posted for you.

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Someplace Unpronouncable, Wales

After leaving Ireland, we spent a few weeks in a lovely small town in Wales. Don’t ask we where exactly, but possibly somewhere near the Brecon Becons, and it probably had a nigh-unpronounceable name. That’s all I got, folks.

It sure was pretty, though.

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 There was this cool bench made from old pieces of wood. It was pretty awesome, and I probably would have sat on it if not for the risk of bugs (seriously. I can’t even sit on grass anymore.), and the fact that it had just rained. And no matter how cool the bench is, no one wants to be walking around with damp pants. (I was going to clarify “pants = trousers” for you non-American folks, but then I realized the statement really works either way.)

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Unlike the US, Wales has life preservers prominently placed near every large body of water. In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw them throughout the UK. This one had a bird nesting in the warm, protected hollow created by the life preserver’s stand.

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Near the lake was an amphitheater made of earthen bleachers and a large “stage” in the shape of a pig.

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I couldn’t resist taking this picture. A town nearby is apparently called Ysgwyddgwyn. And if anyone who isn’t Welsh can tell me how to pronounce that without looking it up, you get a prize. (Except giving out prizes after discriminating on the basis of Wlesh-ness would be kind of unfair. So you get a cute picture of something Welsh, probably. Posted publicly. Because everyone deserves cute things.)

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I couldn’t let you go without seeing a picture of normal Welsh weather — I mean, you didn’t think all those sunny pictures were normal, did you? They were taken during one of the half-day breaks in the rain! We even had one day with hail, shown here.

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 This last set of pictures has a bit of a back story. Well, first off, they’re pictures of pretty clouds. I like clouds. I appreciate them so much more after a year of blank white skies from air pollution in China. But I didn’t realize how much of an effect those blank skies were having on the people around me, who didn’t get to leave them at the end of the year.

I was hosting another team English competition in one of my 10th grade classes last Spring; all of the students were frantically trying to name blue things: blue notebooks, blue pens, blue jackets, and so on. It took a few minutes to get all their answers up on the blackboard and correct grammar. When I was done tallying the points I took a look at all the answers and told the students they’d forgotten one — the sky! It was so obvious to me, I couldn’t imagine why they hadn’t said it. Surely a student at my old high school would have gotten it immediately. Finally, one girl raised her hand and said hesitantly, “but teacher, the sky is white.”

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“In Dublin’s Fair City…”

In Dublin’s Fair City
Where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheel’d her wheel barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels alive, alive o!

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Molly Malone is one of the most famous residents of Dublin — though some would argue that she’s not there, and never has been. Molly is one of the city’s great myths and the subject of Dublin’s unofficial anthem; a poor fishmonger who died of a fever, and whose ghost continued to hawk her goods long after her death. Some historians say she may have lived in 1600s Dublin, and while there is no definitive proof that the song was written about a specific Molly, there were certainly many women with similar life stories. Today Molly Malone stands on Suffolk Street, still waiting for someone to buy her goods.

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After hanging out with Molly, we took a stroll down through Temple Bar. Now, to be clear, Temple Bar is the name of a specific bar, as well as the street it stands on, and the district containing that street. The district is known around the world for it’s fabulous night life, and the bar itself pays homage to the original Temple family owners with a couple of neat plaques.

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But Temple Bar isn’t the only place with nice signage. This next sign is possibly my favorite for it’s sheer practicality.

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This next one takes the cake for awkwardness. I don’t know who chose the name of this drug, but they may want to reconsider.

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We took a quick stop to watch a street artist…

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…and then it was off to bed.

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Cliffs, Castles, and Churches (Bus Tour #3)

Next city on our British Isles whirlwind tour was Galway, Irealnd. Galway was also the home of our third, and final, bus tour. So. Here we go!

Our first stop was Dunguaire Castle in Kinvara. It was a pretty nice, picturesque stop, with just enough time to run up to the castle and peak inside. Climbing up to the ramparts cost extra, though.

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We parked next to some cute little mostly-authentic Irish cottages.

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 On our way to the next stop, we passed some great views:

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Next up was Corcomroe Abbey. There’s a cemetery outside, and most of the church itself is in ruins, as you can see from the lack of roof. The one section with a roof is the chapel, and our tour guide’s brother actually built it! According to our guide, his brother is very protective of that roof, so Roof Builder Man, if you;re following the Corcomroe Abbey roof, don’t worry. As of September 2014, it’s totally fine, and very pretty.

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                                                              Can you find me?                                                                         (I had to run around the back and partially climb up the wall to get this shot. That grin is actually my gritting my teeth as I do one very long pull-up.)

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…some more gorgeousness…

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Our guide took us to an pre-Roman European ring fort that happened to be along our route. We were actually supposed to stop at a different location with all the other tour buses, but because of the amount of rain we’d had recently, it would have been totally flooded. The fort, for defensive reasons, was on top of a hill, and thus perfectly dry.

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Our next official stop was at Poulnabrone Dolmen, a neolithic portal tomb. Now, that top piece is pretty dang heavy. How do you think people got it up there without modern technology?

Think about it, and I’ll tell you the answer two pictures from now!

IMG_1386IMG_1388Have you thought of a good way of lifting that stone on top of the others? Well actually, the original builders didn’t lift it at all! They actually erected the side stones, and then build a huge earthen ramp — a small hill, if you were, right behind the side stones, and simply pushed the top stone up the ramp and into place!

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Stop number five was Leamaneh Castle. It’s been around for a while, and has been owned by a descendent of Brian Boru (probably the most famous king of Ireland), Henry VIII, and “Red Mary” who may or may not have frightened Oliver Cromwell into leaving her and the surrounding area alone by marrying one of his soldiers and then throwing the new husband off the roof.

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We passed through the town of Lisdoonvarna, famous for it’s annual matchmaking festival. Young people come from all over the country–and sometimes from other countries as well–to find their perfect match. However, the man who runs the festival also happens to own a pub in town where many of the events are held. So basically the whole festival funds his pub. Not a bad business strategy, if I do say so myself.

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Lunch. Finally. We stopped in Doolin and got Irish lamb stew, which, according to our tour guide, is pretty much the only dish Irish people eat Irish sheep in. The rest of the sheep get exported.

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And then the main attraction: The Cliffs of Moher.

Be careful! According to these signs, people do some pretty stupid stuff. First of all, don’t climb over the wall. Or the cliffs. Or, you know, just don’t climb things.

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Second, don’t run off the edge of the cliffs. Or, possibly, balance on one foot right on the edge. You may cause a small avalanche and possibly fall to your death.

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On one side of the cliffs is tiny O’Brien’s Tower. Cornelius O’Brien was a descendent of Brian Boru who was an early believer in the economic power of tourism. He built the tower for select visitors to stay in; it later became a popular viewing platform. Unfortunately, there is now an extra fee to go up to the top.

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If you walk along the right side of the cliffs for a while, you reach a farm. You don’t actually have to stop there, though. You just can’t sue the farmer if you die of cliff or cow.

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On our way back to Galway we passed another castle. There are a lot of castles in Ireland, ok? They’re just everywhere.

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Last stop was at these beautiful rocky cliffs. Some people had trouble walking on them, but the view was worth it.

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Market Day

On our last day in Belfast we went to St. George’s Market. It’s a huge room filled with booths selling food and crafts, and if you like markets (like I do) then it’s the place to go in Belfast.

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Lookout Point

Belfast city center has a lovely little look-out point at the top of Victoria mall (inside). After climbing up approximately fifty-bajillion stairs (read: about six staircases), you read the viewing platform. Of course, if you’re lazy, you can take the elevator.

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Some of the surrounding roofs are “green roofs,” meaning they use sustainable methods to lower their environmental impact. The ones below have grass planted on the roof to absorb runoff and add insulation. In other cases they might be covered in solar panels.

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Hop-On (but don’t Hop-Off because it’s the last tour of the day)

After the bus tour to Giant’s Causeway we did actually go see Belfast city on one of those hop-on, hop-off tour buses. (Hint: we didn’t hop off.) Here are some of the things I saw:

One of the many signs referring to “Her Majesty.” So when the UK gets a new monarch, all these signs will need to be changed from “Her” to “His.” I wonder how much leeway time they get…

I don’t know what this is, but it was cute.

That big bell tower (which I can’t stop referring to as “little Ben”) is leaning a little to the right–can you see the tilt? That’s because it’s built on the banks of a river that flows through the city… uh, under the city, now. In a pipe.

The titanic museum: The titanic was built in Belfast. Each of the points is the size of the Titanic’s front bit. Also, in an amazing use of irony, the whole building looks like an iceberg.

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I don’t know what this is. It’s very…uh, orange.

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This is the little baby ship that used to ferry rich people to the Titanic. Later it was used as a floating restaurant.

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I don’t remember who this lady is. She’s got a hoop. How nice for her.

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This is an old prison. It’s connected to the courthouse across the street via underground tunnels, for ease of transporting those proven guilty.

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Here you can see evidence of the unionist population in Northern Ireland. There are two main groups, politically speaking: Unionists–i.e., those who support the union with the rest of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists–those supporting one single country and government for the island of Ireland, and disconnection from the UK.You can generally tell the political orientation of a community by which flags they’re flying; the union jack or Ireland’s white, orange, and green stripes.

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Here you can just catch a glimpse of Belfast’s housing system. Yeah, all the houses look the same. It’s a little frightening. It just goes on and on.

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There were these giant posters scattered throughout the Belfast residential areas, which our tour guide referred to as “murals.” Now, I have always assumed that murals are painted, and some of these were quite obviously prints. So…call them what you like, I guess.

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There was also a, uh, lovely representation of their majesties waving at the crowd street.

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This is The Crown Bar. It’s kind of famous, and also kind of pretty. I think I have a better picture of it to post later. We were going to check it out, but it was full. All the time.

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And lastly, the opera house.

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Belfast, Giant’s Causway, and my Sister’s Spirit Animal (Bus Tour #2)

Our first outing in Belfast was actually out of Belfast, on our second bus tour. The main attraction of this one was Giant’s Causeway, which is a super cool geological phenomena that I will explain more later. First: a castle. Carrickfergus Castle, to be exact.

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Can you find the wee soldier on the ramparts?

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In front of the castle there is a statue of Prince William of Orange, since he used to be in charge all up in those parts.

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Now, William of Orange is famous for a very different reason than just Carrickfergus and the little fact that he ended up the King of England. He is also credited with the orange carrot. Yes, you read me right. Without this dude here, we wouldn’t be buying orange carrots in the supermarket. …we’d probably have more variety, actually, seeing as how the purple and white carrots were way more widespread before the orange took over… but anyway, back to the story. William was a pretty popular guy in Northern Ireland and also in the Netherlands. The Dutch just loved this guy. And I mean really long lasting love–the kind that inspires farmers to breed special vegetables in homage. According to the tale (and various google results), the dutch farmers bred purple and white and maybe other colored carrots together to get what we know today as the orange carrot.

After Carrickfergus Castle we drove through mini-tunnels and over roads and past pretty rivers and stuff.

IMG_1143IMG_1149IMG_1157(I give that last one a five out of five, would drive past again.)

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We stopped again at some cliffs that you could cross on a rope-bridge. The bridge is right between the mainland and that first big hunk of not-mainland.

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Can you see it, there on the right?

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It’s a long way down, folks.

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On the walk to the rope bridge we passed some cows. Striped cows, to be exact.

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At first I thought they were all wearing white blankets. But no.

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In other, closely related, news: my sister seems to have found her spirit animal.

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After the cows we actually did cross the rope bridge.

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It’s actually a lot steadier than it looks. It hardly sways at all. Even Monkey took it pretty well–although she had a ride.

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On the other side of the bridge were a couple row boat pulley systems, which I’m pretty sure are no longer in use. They were originally used to lower men and boats up and down from the water below to check fishing nets and traps.

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There was also this extremely unspecific warning sign:

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And less ambiguously, these gorgeous views:

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After the rope bridge we went to lunch. At a distillery.

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We had Irish lamb stew/pie with mashed potatoes, and a slice of whiskey cheesecake for dessert. It was all very tasty!

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After lunch we stopped briefly for a photo-op of this old castle:

IMG_1246I have to tell you I don’t remember the story behind this one, except that it was abandoned when a back section literally fell off into the ocean, and the people inhabiting it at the time didn’t know how to rebuild it.

I look very smug for some reason, though.

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Then, we finally, finally got to Giant’s Causeway. Where it was raining. Because, Ireland.

Before you look at these pictures, let me explain in the simplest way possible what Giant’s Causeway is and how it came to be. So, first; Giant’s Causeway is an area of shoreline in Northern Ireland composed of really super old stone pillars, each of which is hexagonal (has six sides). Some of these pillars are low enough to serve as stairs, and are so flat and even it appears that they are man-made. In fact, according to geologists, the pillars of Giant’s Causeway were formed by slow cooling lava about a bajillion years ago (and yes, that’s approximate). The lava made a deep pool, which took hundreds of thousands of years to cool; because it was so deep, the top cooled off faster than the bottom–just like when you blow on your cup of coffee to cool off the top later and make it drinkable, the air and water cooled off the top layer first. Because of it’s cooling process, as the lava hardened it began to crack, and these cracks appeared at regular intervals because of geological reasons that basically come down to the basic shape of stone is hexagonal. (You know how salt is always square?  Like, when you look at tiny bits of salt they’re always cubes. Well tiny bits of this rock are always hexagonal.) At the wind and sea broke down bits of the other rock layer, they exposed the hexagonal pillars underneath, which is what we see there today.

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So why is it called Giant’s Causeway? Well, there’s an old Irish legend that tells the story of the giant who lived here, named Finn McCool. Now Finn McCool wanted to expand his territory, and he could see Scotland just across the water. He thought he could fight the Scottish giants and get their land–easy-peasy! So he decided to build a causeway, or road, over to Scotland, and he used all the handy stone pillars to build it with. However, when Finn McCool got to Scotland, he discovered that the Scottish giant Benandonner was even bigger than Finn McCool, and the Irish giant was afraid to fight him. So Finn McCool ran back across the causeway to his wife, Oonagh. But Benandonner ran after him! Luckily, Oonagh was very intelligent and quick-thinking. She wrapped Finn McCool up in some makeshift baby clothes and put him to bed. When Benandonner showed up, she proudly showed him her “son”. Benandonner assumed that such a huge baby would grow up to be an even more enormous adult, and became afraid in return. He didn’t want to face whatever father had given that baby such big genes! So Benandonner ran straight back to Scotland, and tore up the causeway behind him as he went, which is why it now only exists on the Irish coast.

And there you have it, folks! According to Irish legend, men don’t know how to pick their battles and also apparently don’t know what babies look like. But don’t worry, the women are there to help you out.

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Travel Day: Glasgow to Belfast

Going from Glasgow to Belfast was possibly one of the most beautiful trips we took. We went from train to ferry to bus, and it was totally worth it.

IMG_1094IMG_1095IMG_1097IMG_1098IMG_1103IMG_1109IMG_1108Monkey joined us for the ferry ride, as well.

IMG_1105IMG_1110IMG_1114It was windy on the ferry boat.

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IMG_1116The inside of the ferry had a crazy number of activities: lounges for normal passengers, truckers, company members; cafes, a cinema which played a free movie on our two hour journey, a spa (which you had to pay extra for), sun deck, and more.

IMG_1125IMG_1126IMG_1127Next up: Belfast.

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Glasgow and the Tenement Museum

IMG_1064I was super excited to get to Glasgow, but it turns out there’s not much “touristy stuff” to do there. We did go to the tenement museum, which is a fully preserved tenement house, with a small informational display and gift shop. It was actually pretty cool!

in Glasgow, tenement houses were really just a specific style of apartment that most people seemed to have lived in during the early to mid-1900s. This specific tenement house was owned by a relatively wealthy person, so it had a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, and living room, plus two more beds stuck in closets for other people. They just slept in closets. I think we should bring that style back for expensive college towns–students can rent a closet-bedroom, with use of the kitchen and bathroom, for $100 plus a share of utilities. What do you think? Sounds good to me!

Anyway, the house had been owned by one Mrs. Toward, so had moved in with her mother at a young age and never quite moved out. She died in the hospital and never got the chance to clean out the house. When it was turned over to the Scottish Trust it still had preserves in the pantry and soap in the bathroom!

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When we left the tenement museum we found a very pretty little synagogue around the corner. It was closed, but I could still grab a shot of the outside.

IMG_1069Our walk took us into the shopping area,

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where we found a so-called American Candy shop, which in reality sold some American candy, some American sugary breakfast foods, like Lucky Charms and Poptarts, and a crazy amount of candy that I have never seen before and I doubt is actually American.

IMG_1081We walked past a really sad looking TARDIS,

IMG_1083caught a glimpse of the skyline,

IMG_1084a pretty building,

IMG_1085and just about the absolute cutest Nero Coffee ever!

IMG_1087Before we left Glasgow, I figured I should take a picture of our hostel, The Tartan Lodge, to show you; it’s in a renovated church, and was pretty nice for such an unorthodox building design.

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