Saturday, November 27, 2021

Trainus Interruptus - or: Bonus Time in London

 Going to jump way out of order here. I know I still owe you the rest of my time in Kerry (I haven't even started on all the fun stuff!), and the highlights of the last couple of weeks in London. But for right now, I'm going to tell you about this morning, because UGH. 

Long-time readers may recall a short trip I took to London during college, in which the first day was A Day That Will Live in Infamy. It actually wasn't that bad, if I were to lay it all out, but it was just very frustrating and tiring and everything seemed to go out of its way to go wrong. This morning has been a bit like that, though it is finally looking up. 

After several days of dithering about perhaps cutting my trip a few weeks short due to the skyrocketing Covid numbers over here, I finally decided on a middle ground of heading to the relative isolation of the countryside for a week and then heading home a week earlier than planned. I was supposed to take the train from London to Windermere today to start the final leg of my European jaunt. It was all going well - I got all packed up and checked out of my London hotel without incident, walked the few blocks to get to the train station with direct service to Windermere, and the train station at Windermere is only a few blocks from my inn. No transfers, no taxis, no nonsense. So smooth and simple. 

Well, no. 

Apparently there is some sort of "severe weather" event going on somewhere along the tracks, and all of the trains going to Windermere have been canceled. The workers at the station kept assuring me that my ticket will work tomorrow, but well, the ticket isn't really the concern! Having no place to sleep tonight is the concern. My place to sleep tonight is over a hundred miles away! 

I spent about an hour trying to find a cheap hotel that wasn't a hostel dorm (not willing to go that route during the pandemic). That wasn't working. I tried finding hotel rooms in Preston, the furthest town the train was actually going to. Shockingly devoid of any places to stay whatsoever. I finally remembered that I have travel insurance, and surely this sort of thing must be covered. Couldn't get anyone on the phone since apparently they keep US business hours, and my not having a place to sleep tonight was not deemed an "emergency." But I was finally able to dig up a copy of my policy, and confirmed that there is indeed coverage for up to two nights of "trip delay" reimbursement. I found the absolute perfect place, just a few minutes walk from the train station and cheap enough to qualify for full reimbursement. One room left. I pulled away from the screen just long enough to double check the conversion rate of pounds to dollars, popped back in literally less than 90 seconds later, and in that time someone snuck in and booked the room out from under me. 

Can I just tell you, in case it isn't already immediately obvious, a last-minute booking in London for a Saturday night, especially when there are probably several hundred people all in exactly the same boat as me, is not easy to come by, nor is it cheap. I tried two more hotels that were less conveniently located, but still "affordable" (a laughable usage of the term by any other standards). Again, they were sniped while I was trying to book them. I finally ended up in a pretty posh place that is over the reimbursement limit in the heart of the West End. Hopefully my insurance reimburses me for part of it, because this was literally the best I could do! But I finally just went for it before even something that expensive was no longer an option, and even if my claim somehow gets denied, hey, that's what the emergency savings is for. Emergencies like having nowhere to sleep! 

Still more drama trying to get to the hotel, lugging my enormous backpack the whole way. For some reason the Euston Underground was temporarily closed for about 15 minutes, and security guys were blocking all of the entrances, and it was just this chaotic crush of people. I had my mask firmly in place, which of course made me a sweaty mess, and kept causing my glasses to literally slide off my face and onto the ground if I so much as glanced at the floor. Took over 20 minutes to just get to the Tube (for reference - the Euston train station and the Tube station are one and the same, just above ground vs below ground. I didn't have to walk anywhere, all I had to do was go down). I had the good sense to wait for the second train that was literally a minute behind the first, which the entire backlog of people packed onto, and I was able to just float over to a seat on the next one. 

And once I finally got to the hotel, I was too early for check in and my glasses fell off TWICE as I was trying to offload my bags for the porter to stash. I also didn't know it at the time, but my hair was sticking out in about eight directions, and as previously mentioned, I was a sweaty mess. I did not feel up to snuff for a swanky hotel. 

But I was able to finally remove the massive literal weight from my shoulders, and wander around Leicester Square for 45 minutes - there was a little Christmas market set up in the middle of it! I wandered through a protest in Chinatown, saw the movie theatre they held all of the Harry Potter premieres at (and sadly did not go inside in deference to the lack of vaccine and mask mandates here), and found a side street that consisted entirely of Italian restaurants. And now I'm finally in my room, and it is darling. Cool view over the rooftops of London, a robe and slippers, and a big squashy armchair. 

Not entirely sure what the next day or two shakes out like. If the ice or whatever it is clears overnight, then I'm going to continue on as planned and take my train up to Windermere and enjoy a week of hiking around in the Lake District. If trains are cancelled tomorrow as well, I think I'll just heed the Very Loud message from the universe and move up my flight home. Off to research Covid testing centers in case I need to do that! 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

A Week in Kerry - Part 1

 I don't even know how to begin my series of blog posts on my time in County Kerry. For one thing, there are literally over 500 photos to wade through. I guess I'll just work my way through chronologically, and stop whenever the post seems to be getting too long!

Where our story really begins and ends is with Liz, the owner of The Anvil Bar - the BnB and restaurant/pub I stayed at for the week. When the staff worked out that I was alone and without a car, she basically adopted me for the week and personally took me all around the county. I learned so much about the history of Kerry and Irish culture, and had such a fun time with her. If you ever find yourself in southwest Ireland, head outside of Castlemaine to find The Anvil and say hi to Liz for me! 

I know I said I'd go in order, and this is already out of order, but here's the lovely Liz herself!

Now onto a more linear narrative:

I knew I wanted to travel by train as much as possible during my brief stint in Europe, so rather than take a quick puddle jumper from Dublin to Kerry, I opted for a leisurely train ride instead. It was such a low key and simple way to travel - no worrying about security lines and weight limits and minuscule seats, just plenty of space to move around and lots of scenery to watch. I was feeling a little edgy when I started, as I find I generally am on travel days, but I pulled up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on my Kindle and the accompanying movie soundtrack on my phone, and boy if that didn't just whip me right into a good frame of mind. Going between reading and staring at the rolling green fields while Hedwig's Theme played, even if I was technically in the wrong country, just felt so fitting and like I was on an adventure and maybe even on the right path. 

Scenes from the train

The windows were evidently tinted blue!

Everything was surprisingly ambiguously signed, but I made my transfer correctly and upon alighting in Tralee I found the taxi stand - though it took about half an hour for a taxi to show up (there was one leaving right when I arrived, so I wasn't just standing around optimistically, I promise). My taxi driver gave me my favorite weather forecast I think I've ever heard: 

"If you can see the mountains, it's going to rain. If you can't see them, it's raining."

The Anvil is on a quiet road out in the countryside - the only stretch with sidewalks has the Anvil, another bar called Murphy's Bar, a sewing shop, a church, and a tax advisor. There is also a hiking loop that starts right behind the bar, but it was apparently closed for renovations, so I never tried it out. The pub itself was exactly what it should be - dark wood and amber lighting and a good crowd of regulars. And SPECTACULAR food. If you ever stop by (and you should!), try the grilled goat cheese. My taste buds swooned. 

Working dinner in the pub

Monday morning I took it nice and slow - but was actually awake during the morning! Jet lag is finally over! I enjoyed my lovely room and the views of the rolling hills I could see from my many windows, and rescued a butterfly that somehow got inside my skylight:

And I went for a little walk around the stretch of neighborhood that I could reach. It was very peaceful, and since I was in the countryside and did not need to block out city weirdos, I did not have headphones in, which is how I discovered that I was walking past a burbling brook:

Returning to the Anvil, I came across the owner's son who works the bar, and he figured out pretty quickly that I didn't have a car, and told me about the shuttle buses. During the summer they are available for the guests in the high season, but during the winter they actually function as school buses. But that means that they make runs into Tralee and Killarney each day for a few hours (and for the full day if I wanted to go with them for the morning run at 7:30am, which I decidedly did not). "Just let them know at the bar, and they'll let the drivers know." 

And then later that night, I met Liz. She popped by my table as I sat enjoying another fine meal in the pub to give me a handwritten schedule of the bus for the rest of the week, and we got to chatting. Soon enough, she had brought me a brochure of County Kerry and all of the places the school bus could drop me off for a few hours. When we were done talking and she left me to the rest of my meal, I experienced one of those odd moments that happen only when I'm traveling, where I have an actual physical feeling of overwhelming joy and like the whole universe aligned to create this singular moment. Running off to the Irish countryside was such a random, spontaneous decision on my part. Choosing this particular BnB was a complete whim, and the whole thing came together in a matter of minutes. I didn't do enough research to realize that I couldn't walk anywhere from the BnB, I had no idea what even was in the area to see, and it just generally could have been such a dud of a week. And instead, I was sitting in a picture-perfect pub with music playing and rugby on the TV in the background and that warm glowing lighting, eating a warm meal and getting ready to adventure around the Dingle Peninsula for the week, making friends, and it just felt amazing. All of those days and stretched where traveling is so much harder than just living at home, where I don't feel adventurous just overwhelmed, where I wonder what on earth I am thinking doing this with my life - this was one of those moments where it all pays off. 

I'll take you through the adventures and wanderings that ensued in the next post. For now, I leave you with one more out-of-order photo, just because I like it:

Having a WONDERFUL time on my impromptu Kerry trip

Sunday, November 7, 2021

An Evening in Dublin

 First, an exciting announcement: I appear to be FINALLY over my jet lag. *knock on wood* This means I can actually spend the middle of the day out enjoying where I am, instead of sleeping until I start work in the afternoon, then hanging out awake all through the wee hours of the morning with nothing to do but play around on my computer, and I didn't need to cross continents to do that!

I left Dublin by train this morning, and as referenced above and in my last post, between the sleep schedule and the work schedule I didn't get out and about to see much. But last night I was determined to venture out into the city before I left, so I booked an evening walking tour through the AirBnB "Experiences." 

It. Was. Spectacular. 

Daniel O'Connell, The Liberator

It was chock full of the history and culture of Ireland in general and Dublin in particular, ancient and modern. We started at The Spire on O'Connell Street, and learned all about it's namesake (that's him at the top of the statue there), wandered down the River Liffey and into the Temple Bar district, which included a surprising amount of rock n' roll history.

This is one of my favorite travel photos I've ever taken

A nice small group of friendly people on the tour with me!

I learned the background of the phrase "beyond the pale," and why milkmaids are traditionally understood to be gorgeous (it has to do with nutrition and immunization, of all things). I learned that Van Morrison is Irish, and still alive. And I learned that apparently there is an Irish superstition that Christmas decorations not taken down by January 8th must then be left up all year. Last year because of the lockdowns, the Temple Bar couldn't get enough workers to take down the giant Christmas tree you see pictured above, and so it's actually been there all year long. The whole city is starting to get done up for Christmas now, so it wasn't out of place to us, but apparently Jack the tour guide has had to explain it to people all year long!

It was such a fun night - I just wish I'd managed it a bit earlier in the trip so I could go back to a few places. After the tour, two members of our party had to split right away to make a dinner reservation, but the tour guide and the French girl Stephanie and I all hung around at a pub for well over an hour, talking Celtic culture and language and the French's obsession with food and all manner of things, and when we finally called it a night Jack was nice enough to escort me back to my neighborhood, even paying for my bus fare. 

It was an absolutely excellent evening, and I'm so very glad I got myself out to do it. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

Checking in From the Emerald Isle

 Hello everyone!

Sorry I have been lax in updating you. I'm in Europe now, after a brief sojourn home to celebrate my Mom's birthday. There aren't too many pictures to show you - between my work schedule and the jet lag which is only just starting to lift, I haven't ventured much beyond my little neighborhood. I am right in the heart of Dublin, though, so it's not a bad neighborhood to stick to! 

Since there aren't any wild tales to tell right now, here's a smattering of things I've learned or noticed:

  • This is a wildly international city. I can probably count on my fingers the number of actual Irish accents I have heard! Almost everyone here, myself included, seems to be from somewhere else. Maybe that's just my neighborhood (see "haven't been anywhere else," above), but it has certainly been a surprise. 
  • Fireworks are a Halloween thing. I gather they are illegal in Ireland but legal in Northern Ireland, and with the open border you basically get fireworks going off all over Dublin for a solid month leading up to Halloween. On Halloween itself it was nonstop for hours. When I went out that evening, the whole city smelled of that unique smoke/ash that they generate. 
  • Churches EVERYWHERE. 
  • Frustrating but also supremely useful: they don't have American junk food here. Junk food aplenty, to be sure, but it's not American brands and even the ones that seem like they will be straight dupes actually taste quite different, and not usually in a way I enjoy. So my eating habits are being kept in check whether I want them to or not! My kingdom for a bag of plain unflavored potato chips. 
  • Also on the subject of potato chips: they come in every flavor I've never even thought of - Balsamic vinegar. Curry. Shrimp. Cheddar and onion. And if it looks like a big US-style bag, it's not - it's actually a big bag filled with six mini bags. 
Double rainbow, as seen from my window

My time in Dublin is wrapping up here shortly, and from this point on I actually hop around quite a bit for the next couple of months - a week on the other side of Ireland in a tiny little town, staying over a pub, then a couple of weeks in London and a couple of weeks in Paris, then home for the holidays (again, a couple of weeks), and then I join my first Chapter with the WiFi Tribe! I'll talk more about them in another post, but in short it's a really neat digital nomad group full of people doing just what I'm doing - traveling while working remotely full-time - that sets up shop in various places around the world for a month or so at a time. I'll be spending January with them in Dahab, Egypt!