Thursday, July 30, 2015

Music, Justice, Whiskey: Dublin I

Ireland has always held a bit of romantic mystery for me, as I think it does for many people.  Its enigma is compounded by the tiny sliver of Irish heritage I can claim for my own.  My great-grandmother was from Belfast, which technically makes me one-eighth Irish.  Though I can't name any distinctively Irish traditions, cuisine, or other heritage that percolated into my upbringing, I've always identified most with my Scottish and Irish ancestors on my father's side (rather than the English and Welsh from my mother's side).  I was reminded of this during a curious encounter last February, when I was having a conversation with a new friend.

"Where are you from?" she asked, in the process of learning more about me.

"Oh, from Pennsylvania originally," I replied in a self-deprecating tone.  After all, there's nothing that special or exotic about Pennsylvania unless you're from there (in which case it's obviously the best state in the Union).

"No, no," she insisted, "where are you REALLY from?"

I realized with a surprise that she was asking the coded question that infuriates many non-white Americans, and that she really meant "what is your heritage."  Since I am white, I don't often get this question; people are generally satisfied with "Pennsylvania" and don't press further.  I explained that on my mother's side I was English and Welsh, and on my father's side there was a bit of German (i.e., Pennsylvania-Dutch), but the closest non-American ancestors I knew of were my father's paternal grandparents; she was from Ireland, and he was from Scotland.

"Ahhh," she said, satisfied.  "I was going to guess Irish."  Seeing my nonplussed expression, she continued. "The Irish have a sort of passion about them, you see. Like what I see in you.  And the culture of the Irish tend to be a bit-- well, sticky.  If you take a family of German immigrants to the U.S., their children will of course be German-American, but many of the distinctly German traditions and attitudes will be lost within a couple of generations.  Irish-Americans, however, tend to retain their emotional heritage--their tempers, their passion, their spirits-- well after the actual nationality has been lost."

She proceeded then to tell a story about a friend of hers who was a priest, and about as Irish as they come.  In her job as a community organizer and activist, she was trying to persuade the priest to get his parishioners on board with a particular social reform agenda that her organization was pursuing.  The priest held up his hand before she could fully explain, and said "Sister, no need.  Music, justice, whiskey: I'm Irish."

This story has stayed with me to this day, and I was cautiously eager to see if the truth of the priest's claim would be borne out by the city of Dublin and the character of its people.

We arrived at the John Lennon Airport (where the walls in the international terminal are plastered with Beatles portraits and quotes) several hours before the departure of our flight to Dublin; that flight was again delayed by an hour, so that dining in the airport could no longer be avoided.  To fill the veggie void, I logically ordered nachos (at least they were supposed to come with guacamole).  True to form, they were out of guacomole, and the "mixed greens" side salad turned out to be peas.  Less than an hour after we finally took off, we landed in Dublin!  I headed for passport control with some trepidation: before the start of this trip, I had carefully counted the remaining stamp-spots in my passport and concluded that I had just barely enough space.  However, Norway decided to stamp me on both entry and exit (which isn't common), and both stamps took up two spots. Ireland's entry stamp also took up two spoaces (barring the northern counties, which are legally part of the UK, the Republic of Ireland is an independent nation).  With only a tiny bit of room left in my passport for stamps, I was no longer optimistic about making it through the rest of the trip without getting extension pages added. I'm not sure what happens if you run out of room while abroad-- do they not let you come home?  Regardless, I didn't want to take the chance and ended up getting pages added at the American embassy in Rome (more on this later).

Barring the overreaching passport stampers, our arrival was smooth.  We met our Airbnb host, Paola, in downtown Dublin after taking a bus to the city center.  Despite the pouring rain, she walked out to meet us and even brought us umbrellas for the ten-minute walk to her apartment. The place was ideally situated in a spot just across the River Liffey from Temple Bar, the touristy and bar-filled neighborhood that surrounds or borders many of Dublin's most famous sites. Our first full day of sightseeing was a Sunday, and it showed-- the streets were absolutely deserted until about noon, and most businesses were closed. Dublin is a very young city, with something like 30-40% of the population under the age of 30.  I assume most of these were sleeping off hangovers rather than attending Mass at one of the towering and ancient local cathedrals.  However, as the bells tolled for the faithful, we found ourselves just outside of Christchurch cathedral. Since nothing else was open, we thought we might as well attend the service. 

Christchurch is not a Catholic church, but rather (I think) the Church of Ireland, which is a curious mix of Anglican and Episcopalian.  The priest (the Very Reverend Dermot Dunne-- how does someone become VERY reverend?) greeted the small congregation in Irish Gaelic, welcoming us to the  last Sunday before the summer recess for the choir.  This was fortunate; the choir was excellent, flawlessly executing a difficult Messener mass as well as an additional piece by Jonathan Dove, one of my favorite contemporary choral composers.  After the ceremony, we had tea in the cathedral's crypt, which contained interesting historical tidbits as well as huge papier-mâché toadstools from the recent children's production of Alice in Wonderland.  I spoke with one of the choristers, Niall, who told me about Dublin's thriving choral scene, and invited me back for that day's Evensong featuring music by Herbert Howells (yet another of my favorite choral composers). However, Megan doesn't necessarily share my interest in church music and I couldn't countenance the idea of forcing her to sit through more of it.

After exploring the exterior of the 11th-century cathedral and its surrounds, we began walking in the general direction of the famed Guinness Storehouse with the idea of having beer for lunch.  This is one of the touristiest things one can do in Dublin, but also one of the most fun, and I have no qualms recommending it to someone who is visiting the city for the first time.  Though Guinness is no longer made on the property, Arthur Guinness apparently signed a 9,000-year lease so they use the old brewery building as a sort of Guinness museum.  This paen to Ireland's most famous export is made up of seven floors of history, descriptions of the beermaking process, and displays of craftsmanship, all clustered around a tall glass atrium that is shaped like a pint glass. Included in the price of admission (something like 16 or 20 euros) is a pint of Guinness at the top of this atrium, which boasts a 360-degree view of Dublin.  On your way up to the top, you learn what goes into Guinness, how to taste Guinness, how to make the barrels in which Guinness is kept, how to advertise Guinness, how to cook with recipes involving Guinness... if you are a fan of the "black stuff," it is a neat experience.

In the afternoon, we visited the more famous St. Patrick's cathedral, which was just as awe-inspiring as Christchurch and with a bit more of an emphasis on general Irish history.  In a corner I found a memorial to yet another of my favorite composers: Turlough O'Carolan, considered by many to be the last of the great Irish bards (musically, this day kept getting better and better... and it's not over yet). St. Patrick's also had more of a focus (in my opinion) on memorials and on art, with a very cool "Tree of Remembrance" which served as a sculpture and installation for "those who have been affected by conflict."

In the evening, we headed out for a traditional (read: touristy and vegetable-less) Irish dinner at a pub called Oliver St. John Gogarty's.  However, the real reason we came wasn't for the vegetables or lack thereof, but for the Traditional Irish Music Pub Crawl that starts nightly from that location.  We had read about this as a neat thing to do in Dublin: two musicians take you to several different pubs, play music, and teach you about the history and traditions of Irish music.  Our musicians--Mark (a dreadlocked guitarist of about 40) and a piper whose name I believe was Ronan-- took us around to several small, cozy pubs which had been privately booked in advance.  In each pub we learned about a different facet of Irish music, and the historical and cultural forces that had shaped it.  The two musicians demonstrated different types of jigs, reels, lilts, and airs with great dexterity on their instruments. Ronan's uilleann pipes (pronounced ILL-in) were fascinating; I had never before seen anything like them.  They seemed to be much like the Scottish bagpipes, but instead of inflating them with your lungs, you use your elbow to pump a small bellows attached to the side.  A further advantage is conferred by a set of keys which can provide chordal accompaniment, unlike the uniform drone of the bagpipes.  These are operated with one forearm (both sets of fingers are occupied with the complex main chanter). 

The delightful evening ended with the two musicians inviting the pub crawlers (about 30 people) to join them in an imitation of a traditional Irish "session."  In a real session, musicians gather in the corner of a pub to play traditional tunes, most of which are well-known to the participants, so that they can all join in together on the fiddle, tinwhistle, guitar, concertina, uilleann pipes, or whatever instrument they've brought.  However, in this case, all the audience had were their voices, and no one could be expected to know the bread-and-butter Irish tunes that feature in most sessions.  So the two musicians invited us to sing songs from our home countries.  One American obliged first with a decent rendition of "What a Wonderful World," complete with Louis Armstrong's gravelly affect.  Then it was my turn, buoyed by Megan's insistent pushes and a couple of pints of stout.  I had been to a traditional session once before at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, so I knew a little of the protocol as I asked the guitarist if he knew a particular tune.  Surprised, he answered "I know it... do you know it?" as if he wasn't sure if I was kidding.  I named the key and proceeded through a somewhat shaky version of Irish traditional ballad "Red is the Rose," which goes to the tune of the more popular Scottish air "Loch Lomond."

However shaky, the crowd seemed to like it, as did the two Irishmen.  After we had finished, the musicians shook my hand and declared the session closed, as they didn't think anyone would want to follow.  Over the applause, they asked where I was from. "California," I replied, "but my great-grandmother was from Belfast."  Ronan gave a little whoop at this and said "aha, you've got the blood in you then!"  Both were very encouraging and gave me the name of a good Irish pub in Los Angeles where I could find sessions to join, as well as a long list of female singers they thought I should listen to in order to learn more songs and styles.

Megan and I closed the night by wandering out to one of the pubs that had been recommended by Mark and Ronan (most of the pubs in Temple Bar, which cater exclusively to tourists, host live music but not true sessions, so they gave us the names of four or five pubs which were somewhat more authentic).  There we met up with several of the other tourists who had followed the same suggestion and passed an enjoyable evening listening to good music and drinking good beer.

Music, justice, and whiskey indeed.  If this is my heritage, I'm glad of it. 

Dublin Castle, which was closed Sunday mornings like everything else

Exterior of Christchurch catherdral, est. 1030 A.D.

 Interior of Christchurch

This way to beer!

This was the most delicious muffin I've ever eaten, in my entire life.

Enjoying our pints of Guinness at the apex of the storehouse

Memorial of Turlough O'Carolan in St. Patrick's

St. Patrick's Cathedral, seen from the outside

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


After leaving Oslo, it was only a short flight to the John Lennon Airport in Liverpool, which has the absolute most perfect airport slogan: "above us only sky."  After futzing around trying to get the proper change in pounds and pence, I took the bus to the train station and the Merseyrail train to St. Michael's station just south of downtown Liverpool.  I emerged from the train into what seemed like a setpiece for a romatic comedy featuring Hugh Grant: ivy-covered brick walls lining narrow lanes,  tiny cars driving on the wrong side of the road, church bells chiming the hour, et cetera. Charm was practically oozing from every quaint detail-- although apparently it's a faux pas to call anything "quaint" or "charming" in this part of the world (I'm sure the locals are tired of hearing from it).

I had planned a quick stop in Liverpool to catch up with my friend Megan, who just started working over there and has her own share of stories to tell about the travails of setting up shop in a new country-- even if they do, technically, speak the same language (more on this later).  I had heard that Liverpool was a port city: industrial, working class, not much to offer in the way of culture or beauty.  I am happy to report that those rumo(u)rs are thoroughly untrue; I found Liverpool a lovely city, and although it doesn't have much "bucket-list" value, it's one of the few cities outside the U.S. where I think I could live for an extended period of time.

Megan's flat is near a street called Lark Lane, which is known for its restaurants and shops, as well as the once- (twice?-) monthly farmer's market it hosts.  The Friday night I arrived, we ate at a nice little Turkish restaurant and then went for a pint of British bitters at the liveliest-looking pub in the neighborhood.  Said pint was purchased for us by a cheerful chap called Paul, a gentleman of about fifty years of age who was out with his brother and some other miscellaneous family members-- or so I understood.  In fact, I understood about three words of every ten due to Paul's strong "Scouse" accent, the native dialect of Liverpool and also the label applied to persons of Liverpudlian origin.  This appelation apparently comes from a type of beef stew that is native to Liverpool, which I did not get a chance to sample before I left.  I can only assume the stew is as thick and chewy as its namesake dialect.

The next morning we strolled around the cute little farmer's market in Lark Lane, distinguished by its curious lack of actual vegetables.  In fact, only two or three of the two dozen vendors were selling things that could be conceivably produced by farmers; the rest were selling bread, pastries, cured meats, fresh pasta, scented candles, and the like.  This was the aspect of Liverpool (and indeed, the UK in general) most bemoaned by Megan, who is a top-notch chef and lover of gourmet food. England isn't known for its cuisine; in fact, it's somewhat infamous for it.  An "English breakfast," which I had the next day, consists of baked beans, toast, eggs, potatoes, blood sausage, regular sausage, and-- as lip service to an entire food group, I guess-- half a grilled tomato. And while it's true that there isn't a huge focus on fruits and vegetables in Liverpool, I must say they know how to make a damn fine sausage. 

Whatever their general crimes against food, the English have at least one worthy contribution to global dining: the strange phenomenon of afternoon tea.  In Liverpool (and I assume in the UK in general), afternoon tea is something you do with friends when you are feeling fancy, for birthdays or other celebrations.  From what I can tell, afternoon tea is basically an excuse to eat an otherwise-socially-unacceptable amount of desert in one sitting.  We went to a little tea shop called Cuthbert's Cupcakes (excuse me, can we BE more British) where we were served a towering array of tiny sandwiches, pastries, cakes, and scones with clotted cream and jam along with as much Earl Grey as we could possibly drink.  Though it cost us our dignity and several belt notches, we finished every last pastry.  I think we impressed the waitress.

There isn't much to tell about my remaining time in Liverpool; on Saturday night we took a budget flight to Dublin, where I stayed until Wednesday morning (another post or two to come on the appropriately-named Emerald Isle).  We explored the sunny St. Albert Docks, where we were assured repeatedly that "the weather really isn't like this usually, there are only about three days a year that are this nice"; wandered into the Liverpool branch of the Tate Modern, where an earnest docent painstakingly explained how human beings attach symbolism to colors and shapes, and thus why the canvas in front of us (some blue squares, some yellow ones, and one red one) was worth the obscene amount of money that it was; studied in a truly magnificent domed reading room in the public library in central Liverpool; walked along the Mersey estuary, where we rhapsodized about the nine-meter tidal elevation change and the vagaries of sediment transport in estuaries.  All in all, I found it a charming city and definitely worth a visit!

 Don't tell me not to call you quaintly British if you're going to advertise a croquet league in your park.

Megan's street

Enjoying the Albert docks

Cool architecture in Liverpool's harbor

pretending to be interested in the burger chain that shares my last name

Beautiful reading room at the Liverpool Central Library

Afternoon tea at Cuthbert's Cupcakes with a light drizzle outside to set the mood properly

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A day in Oslo

While I was writing my dissertation, I promised myself that after I earned my PhD, I would go travel and have adventures somewhere far away, somewhere I'd never been.  Given that I actually started writing my dissertation sometime in my second year of graduate school (or at least that's when my first Word document titled "Chapter One" appeared somewhere on my hard drive), I couldn't possibly have foreseen the other two big things that will be happening this summer: 1) moving to a new city, and 2) marrying my best friend.  It's been a whirlwind few weeks, and it's hard to believe I finished my dissertation only about a month ago; harder still to believe that in less than two months I'll be married and living in Los Angeles.  But in the meantime, I've still got some wild oats I'm fully planning to sow!

Over the next month, I'll be travelling through Oslo, Norway; Liverpool, England; Dublin, Ireland; Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, and Livorno, Italy; Bastia and Belgodère, Corsica; and Nice, France.  I'll be returning through New York City and then taking the train back to Pennsylvania, where I will get married (!) and immediately take off to honeymoon for a week on the Pacific coast of Panama.  I'll use this space to write about my travels, post some pictures of the beautiful and curious things that I see, and muse about whatever strikes my mind.  If you're interested, you can follow this blog by email (send me a message at mbyron10 [at] gmail [dot] com), or if you prefer RSS you can scroll alllllll the way down to the bottom and click on the button there.  I'll try to post a couple of times a week as I blaze my way through almost a dozen European cities in the next month or so.

The Grand Tour began at LAX with an nonstop flight to Oslo, Norway.  Though I've stepped aside a little bit from my former life as an aerospace engineer, the dormant plane nerd inside of me woke up a little bit for my first-ever flight on one of the new-ish Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes. My aircraft dynamics professor in college was a little bit obsessed with this plane, and we had several problem sets focused on the 787.  Flying in the 787 definitely lived up to the hype: not only was it more fuel-efficient than comparably-sized airplanes (lowering my carbon footprint-- yeah!), but the ride was comfortable and pleasant despite my super-economy budget, featuring a stellar entertainment system, plenty of headroom, and even a custom cabin lighting system designed to help people with jetlag.  I was flying with Norwegian Air, which has a reputation as a low-budget, nickel-and-dime kind of airline (you pay extra to check a bag, get food onboard, have a blanket in the ice-cold cabin, etc).  However, I got the better of them in the end: I bought all my flights on the Norwegian-language version of their website, and since the Norwegian kroner is really weak right now, I saved about $100 each way on my flights.  Score!

Because the Norwegian flights were so cheap, I had booked my trans-Atlantic flight to Oslo and am using the intra-Europe budget airline Ryanair to get around between countries.  This meant I had a sort of glorified layover in Oslo, with only 26 jet-lagged hours to spend in the city.  However, this turned out to be just long enough to see many of the city's major sights.

The main airport  (Oslo Gardemoen, OSL) is easy to navigate, with signs in both Norwegian and English.  There is a relatively cheap, 19-minute express train to the city center (the Flytoget) that runs several times per hour from the airport to the Oslo S (Central) train station.  Knowing that I'd be jetlagged and sweaty and hungry and all manner of cranky after my 10.5 hour overnight flight, I had opted for the comparative luxury of an Airbnb room instead of a dorm bed in a hostel.  This turned out to be a great decision-- Gung and Martin's apartment was a stress-free and comfortable 10-15 minute walk from Oslo S, in the Grønland neighborhood of Oslo.  My hosts were polite and hospitable, but not overly friendly or sociable, so after a quick check-in I was left to my own devices to drop off my things, freshen up, and strike out to see a few things before the exhaustion hit in earnest.

The central part of Oslo isn't very big, and I was able to see some of the cool architecture for which the city is known just by walking around a little. A friend had strongly recommended that I visit Oslo's opera house, which sits on the edge of the Oslofjord (which is, predictably, the fjord that borders Oslo), so my first stop was at this very hip, very modern paean to music and dance.  All the costume and prop studios are on the ground floor and have big windows, so if you walk around the back of the building, you can see people working on things for the upcoming operas or ballets.  The main performance hall is kind of like a building within a building, a bamboo structure that rises several stories inside a glass-and-stone atrium. However, the highlight was the building's exterior, which is made of a rough white stone (both granite and Italian marble).  The roof of the opera house slopes down to ground level, so that on either side of the atrium you can walk up a fairly steep slope to see a killer view of Oslo.  There are no handrails or rules or security guards, and the whiteness of the stone makes your eyes ache a little as you climb.  The building is so large that it takes several minutes to reach the top, but the view out over the fjord is really nice-- and you can just turn around to see the curious mishmash of modern architecture and old stone buildings in the city center.

Actually, I lied.  The roof wasn't the highlight.  The highlight was seeing a girl in a blue dress, who was clearly having a blast at her own bachelorette party, belting out "Let It Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen" to a crowd of confused but delighted tourists.  That was pretty excellent.

From the opera house, I meandered my way west towards more of the attractions listed in my Oslo e-book guide, hastily downloaded before I got on the plane.  I ended up on Karl Johan Gate, the main pedestrian avenue for shopping and strolling in Oslo.  The word "gate" actually means "street" in Norwegian, which was pretty confusing to an English speaker as there is no physical gate to be found on Karl Johan Gate.  But I did find some Citybikes, the solid little beater bikes that are locked to racks all over the city and can be released with a touch of your membership card.  My Airbnb hosts had given me a Citybike card with my keys, and I used it to unlock a bike and set off for the Vigelund sculpture garden in Frogner park, two miles away on the other side of the city.  Though Oslo is hilly, it was fairly easy to get to the park on my three-speed-cruiser (though the rusty brakes squealed obnoxiously every time I went downhill; it's a great credit to the citizens of Oslo that I received not a single dirty look).  The sculptures in the park were just okay, but apparently I'd gone uphill more than I thought; the view from the park's apex were incredible.  I spent a moment or two enjoying the sunshine before asking a passing tourist for the time, just to make sure my phone had synced correctly.  As it turns out, it hadn't. Instead of 4:45pm, it was actually 5:45pm, and I had very little time before I was supposed to meet my friend Greeley for dinner.  So back onto the bike I went, quickly speeding across the city and finding a place to return the bike, then rushing towards our meeting spot (and only ten minutes late-- Berkeley time, anyone?).

Meeting up with Greeley was a serendipitous treat; when I booked my flights, I hadn't realized he was working on his PhD in Wood Science at the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute (south of Oslo).  A mutual friend told me vaguely that he was "studying trees"-- this turned out not precisely to be the case, as he's actually working on finding better preserving treatments for wooden structural components (e.g. how to keep wooden beams from rotting due to fungi or disease or whatever).  Though he does like trees, and Norway sure has a lot of them.  We had a delightful pre-dinner beer at a rooftop bar whose name I can't remember, but were put off by a 45 minute wait for a table, so we ended up having Indian food instead.

Wait, I hear you say.  Indian food? In Oslo? you say, disbelievingly.  I know, I know.  This was one of the things that really surprised me about my brief time in Oslo.  From what I could observe, the city defies the blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian stereotype and is actually quite diverse, with a ton of different races and nationalities represented.  It could be that Grønland is a more immigrant-heavy neighborhood-- the wealthy western side of the city wasn't nearly as diverse as the area near the train and bus stations-- but it was definitely an international city, where you could certainly get decent, if not mind-blowing, Indian food.  Plus, after reading a sign earlier that advertised traditional Norwegian whale and reindeer meat, I have to say I wasn't enthused about sampling the local cuisine.

After a nice long dinner and a walk and some gelato, I packed Greeley off on his train to Ås, the neighboring city where he lives (pronounced like the first syllable of the word "awesome," said with a heavy SoCal Bro accent).  Even at 10:30pm, it was still fully daylight outside... in summer, the sun sets at 10:30 - 11pm and rises at 3:30 - 4am here.  But jetlag and travel-weariness made it easy to sleep despite the light cues that confused my body.

The next morning, I had a picnic breakfast of salami and cheese (packed as part of my GIANT backpack of snacks so that I wouldn't have to buy food on the plane-- I've beaten you again, Norwegian Air!) in the delightful botanical gardens only a few blocks from my Airbnb.  These didn't show up on any tourist guide but were recommended by my hosts, and they were actually much nicer than the Vigelund garden.  It was very zen to sit and read in the cold morning sunshine, and walk amongst all the beautiful plants and trees.  I especially enjoyed the Viking exhibit, which consisted of planter boxes arranged in the shape of a longboat and displaying the various plants that were used for food, medicine, tools, and trading by the Vikings.

To catch my afternoon Ryanair flight to Liverpool, I had to take an 1 hour 45 minute bus ride to Oslo Torp, the small domestic airport (be careful when booking flights to/from Oslo, as there are three different airports: Torp, Rygge, and Gardemoen).  I had booked my bus ticket online, and while watching the countryside roll by (it looks very like Quebec, actually), I realized that I had never withdrawn any cash in Norway-- it was never necessary!  Hooray for my foreign-transaction-free United Mileage Plus card, which is getting a real workout on this trip.

Though it was added to my itinerary more from convenience than any desire to visit, I really enjoyed my day in Oslo and would recommend it!  Next time I visit Norway, though, I'd love to do some hiking in the beautiful mountains, forests, and fjords.  Who's with me?

Harbor outside the opera house, with a cool ship sculpture

The sloping roof of the opera house
It's actually much steeper than it looks here; imagine climbing in winter when it's covered with ice!

Looking down from the opera house's pitched roof

Interior performance hall

Astrid-Elsa the bachelorette

Yeah no thanks, you can keep that

Karl Johan Gate

My trusty Citybike

View from the Vigelund sculpture garden

The American embassy, decorated with rainbow flags for Oslo Pride week (total coincidence as this was the day before the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling came down)

Hug the trees-- Enjoy!

People practicing staff fighting in the Royal Palace Garden.  I like to think of this as a wizard and his apprentice. Probably.

A little slice of home!

 Botanical gardens!

 VIKING botanical gardens!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Crown of the Continent-- Glacier National Park (part 2)

Dear Internet:

It is apparent that I have been somewhat delinquent in keeping this blog up-to-date.  I'd apologize, but A) I'm not sure who I'm really apologizing to, and B) I'm not sorry.  I've been busy, getting a PhD and all. 

It's not that I haven't been travelling-- far from it.  Since the last voyage mentioned here (to Glacier National Park in 2012), I've been in and around Santiago, Chile; tootling through the French Alps (including Aix-Les-Bains, Annecy, and Chamonix); catching fish (and experimenting on them) in the astoundingly beautiful San Juan Islands of Washington State; and skiing and sciencing in Aspen, Colorado this past January.  Add in a trip to Vancouver, a trip or three to Montreal, and uncountable quick jaunts down to Los Angeles, and I feel like I've spent more time on buses, trains, and planes over the past two years than in the rest of my life combined.  However, there's no burnout in sight, at least not yet.

I'm writing now from a beautiful old library in Liverpool, England, one week into several months of traveling I'll be doing this summer-- covering Oslo, Liverpool, Dublin, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, Livorno, Corsica, Nice, Panama City, and the Panamanian Pacific coast.  Now seemed as good a time as any to revive Globetrotting to share my impressions and imaginings with whomever might want to tune in.  That said, there's no way I'll be able to write about all the adventures I've had from 2012 up to now!  The next entry will be from Oslo.  However, I did find a draft, unfinished post of the second portion of our journey to GNP, in which you'll hear about Quaker weddings, local trout, and mountain goats.  Read on if you're interested-- otherwise, tune in in a day or two to hear about Oslo!


Despite a rocky start, our trip to Glacier National Park turned out to be one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences that I've been fortunate enough to have. We attended K and M's wedding in high style with our TJ Maxx ensembles-- in fact, the dress I wore that day is still one of my favorites, a year and a half later.  The Quaker ceremony was beautiful, brief, and simple.  The bride was luminously beautiful, and the joy on the groom's face when he saw her was unforgettable. There was no officiant; instead, guests were invited to share their experiences of the bride and groom and wish them well.  Each guest signed the beautifully hand-calligraphed wedding certificate as a witness to the marriage.  There was a strange and unified emotion among the disparate guests as we watched them watch each other... it's impossible to describe in words, and harder still if you don't know the couple.  If you combine the "oh, of course" you get when someone states the obvious, and combine that with the comfortable feeling of coming home after a long journey, you may be getting close to the mark.

The reception, replete with local beer, local trout, local beef, and local mountain air, was the perfect complement to the heart-stirring ceremony.  From the historic inn's wrap-around porch, we danced and watched the stars come out in the summer sky over the peaks of the park.  The combination of warm air and full bellies soon sent us to bed, excited by the prospect of exploring the park the next day.

And explore we did!  We had gone into the park on the morning of the wedding to Lake McDonald, with its multicolored stone beaches and crystalline water.  However, today's mission was to conquer the famous Going-To-The-Sun Road, which climbs roughly east-west through the park from its south entrance (near our hotel) to its east entrance, near the town of St. Mary.  On the way, there are near-constant views of sculpted stone and open blue sky.  We stopped constantly to take pictures, highlights being Logan's Pass (where we looked down into a beautiful valley, the trail down to which was barred due to recent grizzly sightings) and the completely unperturbed wildlife-- deer, birds, ground squirrels, and mountain goats.

Going-to-the-Sun Road: typical view

GNP also forms half of the Waterton International Peace Park, which goes across the border into Canada!

Stunning mountains

California Ground Squirrel

Beautiful but beware of bears

Mountain goats.  Yes, they were that close to us.  They just didn't care.

Narrow path which we hiked-- to the left is a sheer dropoff

The fast-disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Crown of the Continent-- Glacier National Park (part 1)

Slowly making my way out from under the pile of unwritten blog posts!  My goal is not to be more than a year behind.  Last summer, after visiting a lovely lakeside cottage in Québec (and visiting my own family in Pennsylvania), I was able to visit one of the most breathtaking and majestic areas in the continental U.S.: Glacier National Park. The park actually crosses the Canadian border and is known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (also a World Heritage site).  This is only the third national park I have visited (after Yellowstone and Yosemite), and it is well worth your vacation time.  Visit soon, though-- the park's actual glaciers are quickly disappearing due to the advent of global climate change, and are predicted to disappear completely by 2030.

Our visit to Glacier was precipitated by some truly lovely friends of ours, K and M.  Two years before, at a potluck on the balcony outside of my apartment, K and M had met and quickly grown to love each other-- after five months, they were engaged.  Of their many shared interests, their joy in exploring nature led them to plan a wedding at Glacier, inviting their friends and family to experience the park with them.  The day before the wedding, JM and I flew from Pennsylvania to Spokane, Washington.  Though Spokane is 5 hours' drive from GNP, it is one of the closest major airports; to fly into Kalispell, Montana, would have cost an extra $200-300 each!  So we Pricelined a car from the Spokane airport, thinking to drive and enjoy the scenery on our way.  However, when we arrived in Spokane, we found that our luggage had not deigned to follow us.  This presented a slight problem-- all our clothes for the wedding the following day were in our checked bags.  Our flight was late getting into the airport, as well, making it impossible to get to our hotel before the front desk closed.

After some anger and frustration with airline personnel, who insisted that they could not get our bags to Spokane before the next day, let alone to GNP in time for the wedding, we managed to get our car from the rental company.  We had ordered a "special" car, which meant that we paid for a compact car but would receive whatever they had available, potentially getting a great deal.  Indeed, we received a big SUV for the price of a compact!  Thinking ourselves clever, we loaded our things with plenty of room to spare-- only then did we realize that the lower gas mileage of the SUV would actually end up costing us much more in the long run than if we had actually received a compact or economy car.  Sigh.

After a speed stop at TJ Maxx for some clothes and toiletries (including wedding clothes), and a slightly longer stop for dinner, we finally got on the road to GNP at about 6pm (four hours later than we had intended).  The mountain- and forest- speckled drive was quite pleasant, especially around Coeur d'Alene in Idaho.  However, as we crossed state lines, we realized that we had forgotten about the one-hour time difference between Spokane and Glacier, putting our arrival time at midnight instead of 11pm.  Well, we thought-- how much worse could it be?

A lot worse, as it turns out.  Though we made good time and did indeed arrive at our hotel at about midnight, we had a spot of trouble searching for our room.  We looked for ten minutes before JM discovered that the innkeeper had left us instructions on the back of the envelope with our keys; we were in an entirely different building.  Finally, we arrived at the door to our room, only to find that the key didn't turn in the lock.  JM wiggled it carefully; still no luck.  Applying a little more force, he attempted to unlock the door... and the key broke off in the lock.

I won't lie; JM is lucky to be alive.  I almost killed him right there.  We stood for a moment in shock.  Then, before I could explode, he went for the last-ditch effort of knocking on the door to the main office and calling the telephone there, knowing full well that no one would be awake or within earshot.  However, by a stroke of incredible luck, the innkeeper's apartment was next to the main office.  An older woman in a flowery nightdress shambled over to meet us, took one look at the broken key in JM's hand, and said vaguely "ah, yes, it does that sometimes."  She then pulled a pair of pliers and another key from a drawer and handed them to us sleepily.  Still stunned at our good fortune, we tried the second key, which turned smoothly in the lock.  We thanked the innkeeper profusely and stumbled, at long last, into our room with its waiting bed (after what had almost certainly qualified as a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day).


More to come (not terrible or horrible, but beautiful, joyful, and full of grandeur and storybook scenery)-- stay tuned!

 Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park

 JM, searching for the perfect stone to skip

 Footprints on the beautifully multicolored, pebbly beach

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

La Belle Province

Please have patience as I update this blog with the many adventures I have had over the past year, which span three continents and five countries.  I hope to write about them soon!  Also, I will use only first initials here on out to protect the privacy/online identity/googleability of the persons mentioned.


Last summer I had a chance to visit the beautiful province of Québec, Canada.  My French (and my cooking) improved by leaps and bounds--thanks in no small part to my boyfriend's mom, C.  We spent an idyllic week on Lac Ouareau (wah-ROH), near the village of St-Donat in the Laurentian mountains, about two hours north of Montréal.

As we drove away from the city-slick area around the airport, the surroundings were surprising in their foreignness.  Signs whizzed by on the side of the highway, and I tried to read and comprehend them before they vanished behind us.  Restaurant chains both familiar (Poulet Frite de Kentucky, or PFK) and strange (St. Hubert) were visible in the golden afternoon light.  All the while, a subtle increase in the colors among the wildflowers in the median signalled the approach of a new flavor of serenity.  We arrived in St. Donat via winding country roads that were not dissimilar to the ones that I grew up with in rural Pennsylvania, but with a few unexpected variants... when I asked about the odd metal tent frame that appeared outside almost every house, JM explained to me that it gets so cold here in the winter, people need roofed structures to keep the snow and ice off of their cars so that they can start them in the mornings.  We arrived at their family cabin after less than two hours, but it already seemed to be a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

The "cabin" was anything but-- replete with twelve bedrooms scattered over two mirror-image wings, one could almost get lost trying to find the kitchen.  A sunroom and living room overlook a sloping backyard and a thin slice of Lac Ouareau, most of which is blocked from view by a thick line of trees.  The living room in the other wing serves as a game room, and the opposite kitchen has become JM's father's workshop.  The building used to house botany students during summer classes or fieldwork; there are numbers on the doors, and each small bedroom has its own sink.  A pathway through the trees at the edge of the yard leads to a long dock and a gravel beach, on which is perched an orange catamaran sailboat.  Everything is surrounded closely by dense forest, as if the house and yard were simply dropped into a small clearing.  Though other houses surround the lake, isolation is the word of the day.  It is a truly beautiful spot.

My family's idea of "vacation" usually involves a beach and a book (or in my case, a stack of them).  Days are passed quietly, sunbathing and swimming, perhaps walking along the shore.  Not so with JM's family.  Over the course of a week, there was hiking, biking, swimming, boating, tennis, and more; no one could sit still while there was daylight to be had.  My mind-- and my legs-- worked hard trying to keep up.  As the sun set, however, the family finished each whirlwind day in the sunroom with a good meal, a bottle of wine, and conversation that often lasted late into the night by flickering candlelight.  Dinner was followed not infrequently by a game of darts, glass of whiskey in hand.  With good spirits, we bid one another good night and retired to bed, where the pitch darkness and utter silence lulled me to sleep.  Each day held new adventures, but not before the morning ritual of jumping into the chilly lake before breakfast!

My time in St Donat was idyllic, peaceful, and restorative-- all the things you could want a vacation to be! I hope to return this summer for an encore.

(I also got to spend a little time in the suburb of Montréal where JM grew up, though I didn't see the city-- hopefully someday I will see the city itself!)

The cabin in St Donat

"Une suisse" (the colloquial French word for chipmunk-- I wonder how the actual Swiss feel about that?)

On a hike overlooking a network of lakes in the area

Father and son

My birthday began with mimosas on the dock and ended with lobster and chocolate cake :)

La famille

JM's parents, C and C

On a bike ride in a national park near the cabin

My first taste of poutine!

Beautiful Québec