Friday, March 28, 2008

March 2008

Bill digging the veg garden

It's been a quiet few weeks in Ballynacally. We are completely busy with landscaping work and are booking new jobs all the way into the end of April. Our gardening work has ranged from planting native trees (31 in one front yard - a future forest!), spring clean-up and pruning, creating a large vegetable garden with raised beds, and planting a rock garden on a natural cliff behind a house. Everyone we've worked for so far has been really nice, which extends to inviting us in for lunch and offering us baked goods and tea afterwards. At first we thought people were feeling sorry for the poor thin Americans, but we found out that it's traditional to provide lunch for people who come to work at your home. Even if we've brought our own lunch, which we usually do, we force ourselves to eat their yummy cheeses and baked goods just to be polite.

Castle stump in Ballynacally

On weekends we've been busy making new vegetable and flower gardens at the cottage, and we try to get some cycling in as well. On St. Paddy's Eve we cycled to a small town south of us called Labasheeda, which is along the Shannon estuary close to where it runs into the Atlantic. The road to Labasheeda follows the river's edge, looking across the to the hills of County Limerick.

The shoreline at Labasheeda

Labasheeda means "Bed of Silk" and there's a sweet story about how the town got it's name.Hundreds of years ag there was a shipwreck on the rocky coast, and the survivors were rescued and slept at homes in the town that night. The next morning they said they were so happy to be alive that it was as if they had slept on beds of silk. There are many other lovely and poetic Irish town names, as well as some that sound downright silly, like Kilnahaha.

Bill the Viking. Yo Ho!

St. Patrick's Day
St. Paddy's Day here is not just an excuse to drink green beer and pretend that you're Irish. Of course they don't have to flauntit (there were no Kiss Me I'm Irish buttons in sight), and I was asked in shocked tones if it's true about the green beer. It's a bank holiday (the banks are closed and everyone is off work and school) as well as a holy day honoring St. Patrick, a Welshman who brought Christianity from England.

All the towns,large and small, hold parades. We went to the parade in Ennis, which I have to say fell short of the amazingly eclectic Ithaca Festival parade - this one was mostly lots of kids walking along as part of their sports team and a few more colorful entries like a band of bagpipes, stiltwalkers and some lads dressed as beauty queens.

Language Barrier
You wouldn't think there would be a problem with the language here since English is commonly spoken, but I still find it remarkably easy to put my foot in my mouth. For example, the last time we were in Ireland in 2005 someone finally pointed out that we had been misusing the word "ride" - here it's a naughty word that means to have sex. We had yammering on about riding our bikes (which sounds really odd in that context) and had been asking people for rides to town. When we found out it dawned on us why everyone here said cycling instead of bicycle riding, pony trekking instead of horseback riding, and why they would offer us a lift to town rather than a ride.

So after all this time you would think I would have purged the word "ride" from my vocabulary, as Bill has successfully done. but here's an example of a recent conversation in which I managed to sound really perverted multiple times. We picked up an old man with a cane who was hitchhiking on the road to Ennis. Attempting to make small talk, I said "I always pick up hitchhikers if they don't look scary, because years ago I hitchhiked around the United States and sometimes we waited hours and hours for a ride." Bill, in the front passenger seat, automatically mutters "Lift" . The old man makes an indistinct reply.

I carry on. "In the prairie states it's really hard to get a ride." Bill repeats "Lift!", and there's no reply from the hitchhiker.

"One time in Canada we waited all day for a ride, and finally this guy picked us up and gave us a ride almost halfway across the country." Bill hisses "LIFT!!", and in the back seat the old man's eyebrows raise up to his hairline, then he feigns deafness and looks out the window until soon thereafter he asks to be let out of the car.

Another word to watch out for is "pants" - an innocent enough word in American English referring to outerwear worn on the legs. Here they say "trousers" instead, because pants means underpants. A word of advice if you visit - don't talk about your dirty pants, especially if you're turning down a lift. (As in "No, I really can't ride in your car with these dirty pants"

Flowers in March.......Bergenia

Daffodils on a grave

The Weather
People here give out (meaning to whine or complain) far too much about the weather. They laugh uproariously when we tell them that one of the reasons we moved here was for the climate. We point out that rain and wind are much more conducive to gardening than winter snow and summer droughts, and it's the moisture that makes Ireland so green and lovely year round. It does rain frequently, but never very hard or for very long. We've been able to work outside just about every day since we started gardening in early March. Usually the weather is very unpredictable and it can go from sun to rain to sun again in a matter of minutes, usually resulting in a gorgeous rainbow somewhere. But it rarely rains long enough to stop working completely, but just long enough to provide an excuse for another tea and biscuit break. (Biscuits are cookies, but they are passed off as something more healthful, such as the "digestive biscuits", which are really just cookies but sound like an essential aid to digestion. Biscuits are considered an essential part of the tea break.)

Heather and Gold Juniper

Gorse blooms year round, which is why they say "Kissing is out of season when the gorse is out of bloom"

Horse and Gorse

Ireland is a tiny island, roughly the size of NJ, perched way out in the Atlantic on the westernmost edge of Europe. The winds come predominantly from the west, so Ireland catches the full brunt of wind and sea buffering England and beyond. Everyday is a tug-of-war between the warm gulf stream sea currents flowing all the way from the coast of Mexico, and the cold Arctic air mass just north of Ireland. That's why it can be 65 degrees and sunny in February and likewise be 45 degrees and sleeting in August. Last weekend we had two beautiful sunny days in a row and were gardening in t-shirts; today it was cool and windy with heavy sleet every half hour and I wore long johns, a down coat and hat. It's a lot like spring in Ithaca, except it stays this way year-round. The trick is to dress in layers and and never leave the house without raingear.

Rhododendron Tree

And that reminds me of another thing about the language - in idiom and slang you can hear the unquenchable optimism that got the Irish through almost 1,000 years of oppression and slavery by the English, the Famine, and centuries of migration by their young people to better opportunities on distant shores. This same upbeat spirit is heard in their music, well the instrumental music anyway - the ballads are generally about love gone wrong, murder, hauntings by ghosts, etc. Here's an example of that optimism: what Americans would call a damp, misty foggy day is known as "a grand, soft day" and When the weather report calls for "freshening" winds that means it will get colder (it took us a while to figure that one out). So while the Irish may give out about the weather, I think they just like to have something to complain about, and deep down they love the wild unpredictability and dynamic nature of their small island.

Planting a natural cliff in a Kilnamona garden

I was in a shop in Ennis on a fairly damp, chilly and windy day and the elderly shopkeeper said cheerily, "Isn't it a lovely day?" I stammered my surprise at that and he replied "Any day that the English aren't still shooting at us is a lovely day." So I guess it's all a matter of perspective.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

February 2008

It's hard to believe that we arrived in Ireland 3 weeks ago today. The time has flown by, and at the same time so much has happened that it feels like we've been here for months. The first two weeks were a real roller-coaster ride of emotions, alternating between elation at finally moving here and stress as we're spending loads of dollars and not earning any euros yet. I miss our friends and our dogs and I had a couple of meltdowns where I was ready to swim across the Shannon to the airport and jump on the next plane home.

As my mom (a retired English teacher) so eloquently put it, it's as if we've let go of one trapeze and haven't grabbed onto the next one yet. Freefall is simultaneously fun and terrifying, but I feel like we've finally got a hand on the next trapeze.

Here's a recap of the last 3 weeks:

Renting the cottage
We flew into Shannon airport at 5 am and by 2 pm had rented a beautiful stone cottage with a thatched roof. We spotted the house on a real estate website before we left Ithaca and fell in love with the exterior. Sometime these old stone cottages are damp inside, so we didn't want to commit to renting it before we saw the interior.

Our new home

Before we left home we had made arrangements to housesit for our friend Phil (Philomena) in Ennis from Feb. 8-14, and when we told her about the cottage she suggested we go see it while she was still in town. The house is in Ballycorick, Ballynacally, about 8 miles south of Ennis.

The kitchen

We met the landlord, Aiden and took a look at the interior of the cottage. It was love at first sight. The cottage has many beautiful and whimsical details, as you can see from the photos. Aiden is a beef cattle and sheep farmer, but has the soul of an artist. He rebuilt the cottage from a ruin. All that remained were a couple of walls, no roof, and trees growing in the middle of the house. Aiden had lived in the cottage for a year after he built it but found it too far from his farm, so he's been renting it out for the last 5 years.

Dining area and peat stove

It was lucky for us that that the cottage was available – the previous tenant, a young German woman, was pregnant and decided she wanted to live in Ennis when the baby was born. Aiden said that he had turned away a few interested tenants before we came along because he felt they weren't right for the place. We hit it off and he could see that we really appreciated the craftsmanship and would be rugged enough to live in the rustic surroundings. He even let us live here rent free for the first two weeks – is there an Irish word for mensch?

We spent the first week in Ennis, and when Phil returned from her holiday we moved into the cottage. It was during a cold snap (by Ireland standards) with nighttime temps below freezing, and initially the cottage was very hard to heat. After a few days with the indoor temperatures only in the 50's, even with the fire going, I was ready to move out again, especially when our food in the refrigerator started to freeze! I called Phil in a panic and asked if we could move back into her house, but we decided to stick it out for a few more days and sure enough, things improved. The fridge had freaked out because we had just defrosted it – I'm happy to report that it's now behaving itself and not making the house any colder than it already is.

Our bedroom

As it turns out, the previous tenant had moved out in December and since the house was empty for two months, the stones got very cold and took a long time to heat. (Think root cellar or wine cave.) After a few days, the stones absorbed the warmth and now we find that the house holds the heat quite well. We spend most of our time in the large kitchen/dining room where the coal/turf stove is, but there's also a sitting room that will double as a guest room. Aiden is going to buy a futon couch for the sitting room, which has it's own little coal stove, and then we'll start to use that room as well.

The sitting room

The bathroom has a funky old-fashioned toilet - you pull a rope to flush it and it has a funny cattle gate in front of it. The clawfoot tub doesn't have a shower, but instead has one of those rubber thingies that goes on each spigot with a shower head at the end of it. Bill acts as my manservant when I bathe – he holds the shower head above me while I sit in the tub and direct him to apply water to my head or other parts as needed. (I make him wear a butler's uniform when he does this.)

Toilet behind the cattle gate

Our bedroom is beyond the bathroom and has a glass door and big windows that look out onto a stone patio and the flower garden. In the morning we can lie in bed and watch the sun rise or the rain fall. In the summer the sun rises at about 4 in the morning so we'll probably start drawing the curtains then.

Terrace outside our bedroom

There's also a lovely loft above the kitchen with a single bed, accessed by a steep wooden stairs. This will be another guest space and I would like to get a small desk to put up there as well so it can be used as an office. The loft is the toastiest place in the house. So you can see that there is plenty of guest space here for our overseas friends – hint, hint!

Loft above the kitchen

The cottage is at the very end of a narrow lane lined with ferns, tucked between two low hills and facing south. Coming up the lane (but not from the house) there are gorgeous views of the River Shannon. There's a quarter acre fenced sheep paddock in the front yard that Aiden is allowing us to dig up for a vegetable garden. There was also a prepped garden space next to the front stone terrace – Aiden gave me money to buy perennials and shrubs to plant the flower garden, as well as an old stone trough by the front door that I planted with succulents and other dwarf plants. We had some beautiful days when we were gardening at home and the sun was shining, the temperatures were in the low 60's, and all the doors and windows were open. This is February??

Tearing up the pea patch (formerly a sheep paddock)

Buying a car
We knew that we would need a car this time around – it would be difficult to get to jobs and do gardening work for people without one. Buying the car was relatively easy – Phil and her friend Mary highly recommended a used car dealer and they gave us a good deal on a VW Polo (similar to a Golf but slightly smaller). The Polo just had the clutch rebuilt and the timing chain replaced, and the guys also put new tires on it and did a tune-up.

Then came the shocker. We went to an insurance agent in Ennis and found out that our US driving licenses are not recognized here, and we would be paying the same rates as a new teenage driver. I practically fainted when we got he first quote for 2,000 euros a year (about $3,000) and the second quote for 2,500 euros. The third agent wouldn't even consider insuring us, so it was back to the first agent. 30 years of driving and we are considered at a level of 17 year old drivers!

We'll have to take a driving theory test (similar to the US written test but administered on a computer, and more difficult), then apply for a provisional license. When we get the provisional we'll have to put a big red “L” on the front and back windows to warn people to stay out of our way because we're inexperienced (I think it stands for Loser). After that we can schedule a driving test, which are scheduled about 6 months in advance.

If we both pass the theory and the road test our insurance rates will come down by about 40%, but it looks like we'll be paying the high rates for half a year. I guess the advantage is thatby the time we take the road test we'll be used to driving on the wrong side, I mean the left side, of the road. In our first week of owning the car it was a team effort to drive, with one of us at the wheel while the other chanted “Stay left, stay left”.

The emerald fields of Ireland -even in February

Looking for work
The first two weeks of trying to find work were discouraging and humbling. I even applied for waitressing jobs in desparation, and didn't get called for a single interview! Probably just as well since waitresses don't get tips here so it doesn't pay as well as in the States.

We made a poster advertising gardening services, hung it all over Ennis and didn't get any replies for the first two weeks. Our Irish friends told us to be patient because while it may feel like spring to us, it is still considered winter here. Sure enough, in the last few days we've had several calls and hopefully we'll get more work through word of mouth.

One thing we're finding out is that the eastern Europeans (Poles, Romanians, Czechs, etc) are willing to work very cheaply so that has driven the wages down. Damn immigrants – oh yeah, we're immigrants now too, charging low wages for our work. Ireland is also in a bit of a downturn and so people are more conservative now than during the "Celtic Tiger" years when they were spending money like there was no tomorrow.

Mullagh Mor (Irish for Big Hill) in the Burren

We've been so busy setting up a household and looking for work that we haven't been recreating as much as we did when we were wwoofing in 2005. We took off one sunny day to drive to the sea and then to the Burren, the cool rocky Badlands-type area in north Clare, where we climbed to the top of Mullagh Mor. I put a coin offering in the stone cairn at the top, which clinked down through the pile of rocks with a very satisfying slot-machine kind of sound, and asked the spirits of Mullagh Mor for help with finding work. I had also made an offering in the Catholic church in Ennis the previous week - I'm happy to appeal to any and all gods that might be out there.

Atop Mullagh Mor

Bill's main form of recreation has been digging up the sheep paddock, and I've been coming along behind him planting vegetable seeds. So far we've planted lettuce, arugula, cress, broad beans and parsnips, and the cress just started sprouting yesterday which was very exciting! (Non-gardeners, feel free to roll your eyes.)The weather here is fine for gardening year round, which was one of the big attractions to moving here – very little frost, no heat, no drought, just springlike weather year-round.

Occasionally I lift my head up from the day-to-day details of settling in and finding work and realize how lucky I am to be living in a beautiful thatched cottage in Ireland!