Saturday, May 17, 2014

Successes and Shortcomings

D graduates in three weeks. Three. I knew it would go fast, but I didn't imagine getting to three short weeks. During the last three years, I wasn't sure we would make it to this point. But here we are.

Of course this is a time of reflection. A time to think about what we've been through, how beautiful she is, how she frustrates and surprises me in the same half hour, and what kind of parent I've been. I have failed a lot. In little ways, in big ways. I can't help but feel regret for those moments. Knowing there were plenty of times I could do better. So much advice I would give to my 27-year-old self and my 35-year-old self.

I knew as a parent of a baby to appreciate every moment. I would hold her for hours, not putting her down for naps, but rocking with her. Memorizing the feel of her baby skin and how her small body weighed on me and how long she was as she grew. I inhaled every bit of baby scent I could get. As she grew, I talked to her constantly. I taught her "sign language" before she could use words. I encouraged her sentences and relished in her tiny accomplishments. Babies are so easy that way. So eager to please and to smile and to laugh. D was no exception and she was just, overall, an easy baby. An angel at two with no tantrums. I couldn't have been any luckier.

By second grade I was tired. I have never enjoyed school assemblies or concerts or any other event that required parent participation. Mostly because I don't want to suffer through 60 other people's kids to see mine do something for 45 seconds. She did ballet so I drove back and forth to practice multiple times a week. I was trying to hold together a relationship that was always destined for failure. D had her own likes, dislikes, and agendas. They didn't always mesh with mine and I lost my focus. I was more concerned with grades and behavior than with who she was and who she would become. Mostly, I stopped having fun with her.

My biggest regret is that I didn't have more fun with her. I forgot to remember to treasure the little moments. I never forgot that I loved her and would do anything for her, but there are very few occasions in which one actually has to save the life of her child. The love is really in the little things. Vacations reminded me of what an incredible person she is and I started to live for those rather than the hour on a Sunday where we did nothing but sit back and appreciate that minute. She begged for my attention but I didn't want to play Chutes and Ladders. I didn't want to play some dumb video game with her. I chose not to relish those moments, thinking that the big ones would suffice.

Teenagers are a completely different animal. Her depression both pulled us apart and pushed us together. I have pushed her away and pulled her towards me in the same way. This last year especially required a lot of my mental and emotional energy. Fortunately, there isn't a whole lot I would do differently in that sense. She was my sole focus. Her life became my purpose. And maybe that needed to happen. I think I needed to be reminded of who I was as a mother.

Now every moment feels bittersweet. Her last play. Her last concert. Her last prom. Her last, her last, her last. I think I've cried more over her growing up this last year than in the previous 17 years combined. Senior pictures reminded me so sharply of her one-year-old portrait session. She even wore denim similar to her tiny little dress in those photos. Prom made me sob for about half an hour. The graduation announcements arrived and I couldn't even read them. She now watches me for the tears that she has learned to expect.

These moments are poignant because they just are and they're supposed to be, but it's more than that. I'm losing her to her adult life. It's coming. It's just down the street. I hear it and I'm trying to be ready. I'm finally trying to be what she needs me to be. Problem is, my feelings get in the way. I want my baby back. I want another chance. I want to fix my mistakes. I want to be the mom with endless patience and hours of time and the sincere desire that I had when her feet were so tiny and she needed me so much. She needs me less now and it's both heart-wrenching and rewarding. Mostly it's just too much to process in three weeks.

So I'll cry. I'll beam with pride and cry some more. I will continue to be amazed at how beautiful she is. How surprisingly talented because that doesn't come from me. I can't claim that one. And I'll cry some more.

You can find me on June 8th in the corner. Crying and spilling with pride at the same time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What the Guide Books Don't Tell You

When researching a destination for vacation or other purposes, there is a plethora of information from guide books to websites and forums to blogs and travel magazines. These are all very good and necessary, but I think it is equally important to speak with someone who has actually been there. Now that I have a single stamp in my passport, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on traveling. Or at least traveling in Ireland. Or just traveling the part of Ireland that I saw.

Anyway, here are some things that I found interesting that you also might like to know.

1. Restrooms/bathrooms are called toilets. There are signs for toilets everywhere and it never ceased to amuse me. We started to declare, "I'm going to the toilet" and vowed to say it regularly when we got home.

2. Pay toilets are also endlessly amusing. The ones in Ireland, at least, claim to completely clean and disinfect themselves after each use and we were able to listen to what sounded like a small hurricane whirling around inside before we were allowed to enter. The giggling only started there. The wife and I shared one so that we wouldn't have to pay twice, which we thought made us smarty pants but the toilet was smarter. It wasn't as clean as we'd expected and everything was covered in water, including the toilet seat. Guess what sounded like a giant hand dryer wasn't that effective. Everything is automated though, you don't have to touch anything. Not to flush, not to turn on the sink, not to get soap. Except it only runs through once because it only expects one person to be in there. I got to have clean hands, the wife didn't. Still, it's worth it for the laugh factor.

3. You can buy pretty much anything in a bathroom vending machine. They have condoms, small sex toys, and then diapers in case the condom doesn't work.

4. Ireland closes early. Don't expect to go shopping after 6:00 p.m. Not even in Dublin. Restaurants like to be closed by or before 8:00 p.m. It's weird, it's like people actually go home to spend time with their families for dinner or something. But then they go back out after 9:30 to the pubs for music.

5. Cell phone coverage is spotty. I don't think they have 4G at all. Most of the time I had 3G but then sometimes I only had G. And nothing in Northern Ireland, which you can pretty much skip anyway.

6. It takes a lot longer to do things there than you think. We were told we could see plenty of attractions in Dublin in two days. Not so much. It's a small island so you think it can't take that long to go 60 miles, but it can and it does. Between the smaller roads that twist and turn, you occasionally have to stop because a farmer is moving his cows from the field on one side of the road to the field on the other side. Or there are lost mama sheep with their baby lambs. This will take longer because you must ooh and ah and squeal over how cute they are and want to either sheepnap them or find their proper field. Also, there are cool and bizarre shops to stop into on coastal roads. Sometimes you might even find a bear penis.

Another note about tourism and time - there is this great-sounding bus service. It's called Hop-on Hop-off. Which sounds so simple. You want to go to Guinness? Hop on the bus, hop off when it gets there. Only if you start at Point A and want to get to Point L, you have to ride along and stop at everything in between. Likewise, if you get off at Point C, when you get back on, you don't get to go straight back to Point A, you have to go through all of the other stops. It adds about 90 minutes to anything you do.

7. People in Dublin aren't friendly. You will hear how Chatty Kathy everyone in Ireland is, but this doesn't hold true for Dublin. Everyone there rushes around with their heads looking at the ground. They don't make eye contact. After a while, your self-esteem might feel like it's getting kicked in the gutter. Just get out in the country and you'll feel loved again.

8. Ireland is not a country where heels should be worn. Ever. Not only is there a lot of mud and water, but there are also lots of cobblestone streets where heels can get stuck. Even the sidewalks that seem level have these weird little rain gutters placed at random intervals. Luckily, I didn't learn any of this by experience but by simply observing the silly ninnies that did wear them and ended up looking like toddlers walking in roller skates.

9. A lot of places take only cash. I'm so used to using my debit card nearly everywhere at home but even a lot of the restaurants there take only cash. Be prepared.

10. While we're talking about restaurants, you should know that they take a billion years to bring you your check at the end of a meal. You could probably sit and have enough meals for a week by the time you get the check for the first one. I guess they want to be polite and not rush you out, but it's ridiculous. Someone finally told us that you just have to go up and ask for it. Which then made us feel rude.

11. There isn't a lot of honey available in the country it seems. I only got honey for my tea once.

12. While most guidebooks tell you the best times to travel, they don't tell you when not to travel. We didn't learn until we looked for a place to stay on March 31st that most of the B&B's don't open until April 1st. If you're not traveling in the summer, you may need to make prior reservations.

13. The toilets don't all flush the same way and the electricity plugs have on/off switches. There is a main switch for lights in the room, but then each plug also needs to be turned on. Also, some of the showers run on electricity and need to be turned on before any water will come out. I learned that one the hard way.

14. They still use skeleton keys. Like for doors that are used daily. It's adorably quaint.

What you should really know is that you should just go because it's now one of my favorite places on earth. If they had a Disneyland (and more than a handful of days at 70 degrees), I'd move there next week.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Imbibing in Ireland

Ireland is known for how green it is and how much its people drink. The first is definitely true; Ireland is as green as you imagine. The second? Well, there is certainly enough alcohol available to drink to your heart's content and they are clearly proud of their spirited heritage.

First of all, Guinness is everywhere. Small neon signs advertise it in nearly every pub window. It's in stews and desserts. There is a huge shrine to it known as the Guinness Storehouse with a self-guided tour and plenty of historical memorabilia (and also plenty of gimmicky souvenirs to fill up valuable room in your suitcase). Not to mention the chance to learn how to really pour a pint. Which they give you a certificate for that, in turn, gives you the ability to be smug to people who haven't learned this important life skill.

I heard from people on both sides of the Atlantic that Guinness tastes different in Ireland. Apparently it doesn't travel well. It's been a while since I've had any over here, so I couldn't compare, but it goes down easily enough. And it's the perfect drink to celebrate a new tattoo with.

There are some other Irish beers, believe it or not. The only other one we really got to experience comes from Dingle Brewing Company - Crean's. It's new and small and quaint. Their fermentation tanks are about a quarter the size of Deschutes' and made of wood. I didn't have the chance to enjoy my sample pint because of the stupid tonsillitis but they were nice enough to send me home with a bottle.

I didn't realize how much the Irish like hard cider, but it is also found all over the island. I lost track of how many different kinds there are and I only sampled about three. One thing to note is that no matter what you order, it will be served in its own glass. You order a Guinness, the glass has the name and logo. If you ordered a Corona, you'd find the Corona label on your glass. Same with the cider. It's a pretty good marketing ploy.

Now, what I was really waiting for was the whiskey. I mean, drinking fecking Guinness in fecking Ireland was fecking grand, but I'm a whiskey girl. Luckily, my first whiskey was at the Jameson distillery in Dublin. There is really nothing like a Jameson Manhattan. It's delicious. I think it's the cold Irish air that makes it so much better. Or I was thirsty. Or it's just a damn fine whiskey.

We also toured the Bushmills distillery which was cool because they let us walk right through the factory where we saw the assembly lines for labeling and boxing. I've never seen so much booze in one room before. It made me a little dizzy with joy. And of course there was the free drink at the end. Oh, happy day.

Unfortunately, the stupid tonsillitis ended my fun here. If you go, please drink 10 pints and a  few bottles for me. Trust me, there's enough for everyone.

Defining Tea, Scones, Sticky Toffee, and the Myth of Corned Beef

A co-worker brought in scones from Safeway this morning. Immediately I was reminded that I haven't yet told you about the food in Ireland. Food is always a big part of any vacation for me and, this being my first European trip, I was especially intrigued about the epicurean delights I might encounter.

My only aside is that, because for the majority of the trip I felt like I was forcing down a ball of sandpaper heated to the temperature of molten lava every time I swallowed, I wasn't able to indulge in everything I wanted. In fact, I lost four pounds which is unheard of in vacation history. However, I made the most of what I could and fell in love with a couple of dishes and that's what I will spend the rest of my life obsessing over.

Our first night in Dublin we searched for and found the perfect little eatery. I'm calling it that because there is a distinct difference between pubs and restaurants in Ireland. If you ask for a food recommendation, they will ask if you want a pub or a restaurant. This place leaned more towards the pub side, but they did have more restaurant seating in the back of the building, whereas we sat in front by the bar. Of course.

We ordered a Guinness. Of course. Which isn't food, but it's such a staple of the meals there that it has to be mentioned. There is a specific way that Guinness is to be poured, which I didn't know at the time but one of us did, in fact, notice that night. Supposedly if you just order "a pint" you will be served Guinness but we always asked for it by name. Anyway, that night, we just couldn't get over the fact that we were drinking a fecking Guinness in fecking Ireland. Really, for the first two days I thought I was just on a movie set at Universal Studios because it was just so unbelievable.

The menu that night listed something called a beef casserole. Here, casseroles tend to be a jumble of a bunch of ingredients tossed together and that didn't sound extremely appetizing so I ordered the traditional Irish stew. The "casserole" turned out to be delicious beef covered in a hearty sauce next to creamy mashed potatoes. My stew wasn't bad, but the casserole was better.

Lesson #1: You can't rely on the descriptions/labels given on the menu. We started asking specifically what things were.

The next morning I fell in love. I had my first Irish tea and I will never think of tea the same way. I am as obsessed with Irish tea now as I am with sweet tea in the south. I could happily live off of both with some bread and cheese for the rest of my life. I had heard that Irish and British tea drinkers often pack their own tea when traveling because they can't be sure they will be served the same quality in foreign destinations. This is smart because they won't. American tea is rubbish. Even our tea houses can't compare. I don't know what it is about that simple liquid, but it changed my life.

Tea is something of a production, whether you're ordering in the morning, afternoon, or with dinner. It's always the same. You are brought a cup on a saucer, a small pot of tea, a substantial-sized creamer of milk, and either a jar of sugar or bowl of sugar cubes. These dishes are almost always white, always ceramic. If someone else at the table also orders tea, they get their own setup. You only share the sugar. It feels very special even if it's the standard custom there.

And the tea itself? I can't even describe it. It's soft and creamy and comforting and luxurious all at the same time. When I was sick and couldn't have booze, I had tea and didn't feel like I was missing out on anything. The first things I missed when I got home were Irish tea and Irish accents. Everything at home felt flat and dull without them.

The wife fell equally in love with the scones. Scones at home are often hard and dry. They're really pointless. Irish scones are moist and delicious, sort of a cross between a cake and a biscuit. You can slather them with jam or butter or even eat them plain. I don't think either of us could count how many she had while we were there but her eyes would light up any time they were on the table and she'd pout if they weren't.

There are a few things you'll find everywhere. Irish stew is one of them. It doesn't really differ from ours except they do like to put Guinness in theirs. Why not? Alcohol makes lots of things better. Also, in a country that is so often cold and damp, it's really a nice dish to warm up with.

Nearly every dessert menu had sticky toffee pudding. This isn't really pudding, it's sort of like bread pudding, but more cake-like and covered with gooey toffee yumminess. I only had one of my own the whole trip and it wasn't the best. The best was at Bruno's in Kinsale. It was just decadent and perfect and I didn't get enough because I had to share it.

Bruno's deserves its own special mention because it was the best restaurant on the entire trip. Kinsale is purported to be the foodie capital of Ireland and it definitely is that if Bruno's is any indication. Our B&B hostess recommended it to us and I will forever be grateful. Bruno's is a wonderfully inviting restaurant, part of which is housed in an old lighthouse. There was a fireplace in one corner and brick accents all over. The menu was short but you don't need a long list of choices when what you do is this fantastic. In-N-Out has the same philosophy and I will love them until the day I die. We had pizza, risotto, and ravioli. They recommended the perfect wines and it all combined to create an experience, not just a meal.

There are a few terms the Irish use that are different from those that are American. Beetroot is just a beet. It makes sense since it is technically a root, but they don't say carrotroot or potatoroot. Aubergine is eggplant and they had some fancy term for zucchini that I can't remember. We saw rocket everywhere and finally found out that it is merely arugula. Rocket just sounds more fun. Malt vinegar to us is just vinegar to them. Most of us know that chips are french fries, but these are the wider cut, a lot like what they have at Red Robin. They come with nearly every meal. There is no shortage of carbs on this island.

There are a couple of things you needn't bother ordering. Skip the hamburgers. The Irish are good at many things, but hamburgers aren't one of them. They either top them with really weird things like pickled onions or capers or they come to your plate bone dry. Also pass on the pancakes. The first B&B we stayed in had a limited menu, consisting of porridge (which is also EVERYwhere) and yogurt, which is always plain there and has to be doused in honey. I thought pancakes would be a safe bet but on my plate was a single, round object as dry as an American scone. Accompanied by about a teaspoon of syrup so I couldn't even mask the bland taste. The really comical thing is that the grocery stores all carry "American" pancakes in shrink-wrapped packages. Lastly, never, ever order nachos there. I don't even know what I was thinking except that I was cold and I wanted some hot cheese. My dog could throw up better-tasting nachos than these.

Lesson #2: You can't rely on your regular stand-bys.

Pastries in Ireland are hit-and-miss. A lot of them aren't as sweet as what we're used to in our sugar-soaked and soda-heavy diets. I did love the pie crusts. I don't know why they're so different, they just are. Less flaky, but with a hint of sweetness. They're delightful. What America has that sucks is chocolate. Our chocolate tastes like flavored cardboard compared to what they have in Europe. There were so many Cadbury options to drool over, things we just don't get here. I got D a bar with caramel and brownies and it has real layers of caramel and chunky pieces of soft brownie. Even their cheap, commercial, gimmicky, made-for-kids crap is dozens of times better than our "gourmet" bars.  Seriously, it breaks my heart.

Another very important meal all over the place is fish and chips. Fish and chips are the iconic Irish and British meal. Remember the scene in Angela's Ashes where his uncle eats his fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and he's starving so he licks the salt and grease off the newspaper when his uncle discards it? I was hoping they'd be wrapped in newspaper but they've probably learned something about how bad newsprint is to ingest with food. Anyway, I was really looking forward to this experience and Kristi found what claims to be the oldest fish and chips establishment in Ireland. We were in Dublin, it was our second night there, and we were ready to immerse ourselves.

But then they were awful. I have never had a meal with less taste than this one. This is why tartar sauce was invented. Even the grease didn't have a taste. Drowning them in vinegar just tasted like vinegar-flavored paper. Horrid. It was like 30-second sex. We did entirely too much walking and anticipating to make it even worth the trouble of ordering and picking up a fork. Unfortunately, this was the standard experience. These were definitely the worst, but most of them were just bland. On the last night, with our celebratory Guinness (for getting our ink done!), the wife tried one more time. This last option was made with cider batter and that just might be the difference between horrendous and outstanding. Or maybe they did something else magical, but these were the best fish and chips I have ever had.

Oh, speaking of fried, I have another new love. Fried brie. Just what it sounds like. They take a wedge of delicious creamy brie, batter that puppy up, and fry it. You slice your fork through that golden nugget and are rewarded with gooey, melty heaven. Tiny angels sing.

Sausage and bacon are not the same in Ireland. I couldn't wait to get home to have real bacon and I think it was one of the first things I ordered. Bacon in Ireland is like Canadian bacon, only slightly thinner and fried. Also very hard to chew. Sausage rolls are popular and consist of a pastry with sausage inside. Sort of like a sausage pop-tart but flaky. Their sausage is a different color, more of a white, and when we asked someone about this, he told us that it's all the rest of the pig that isn't used for other things. Well, we do the same thing with hot dogs, maybe it's just less processed. At any rate, it turned the wife off from it for the remainder of the trip.

The one thing I absolutely refused to put in my mouth was blood pudding. Because it's made with blood. They don't even hide the fact with a cute name. Why on earth would I want to eat blood voluntarily? I'm carnivorous enough that I like my steaks fairly rare and juicy, but they aren't called blood steaks for Pete's sake!! Kristi was fool enough to eat this crap not once, but twice. She claimed it just tasted like a veggie burger, which didn't make it any more appealing because I also hate veggie burgers. Blood. Icky.

One thing that I think is important to note is the fallacy of what is traditional Irish dinner. Every St. Patrick's day everyone wants to make a big deal of celebrating with corned beef and cabbage. This is wrong. Don't do this ever again. I never once saw corned beef on any menu. There might have been cabbage but it wasn't prevalent. Making corned beef because you want to be authentic is as lame as dying your beer green. Make a stew or fish and chips. That's the real stuff.

There is a lot more that I could bore you with, like what kinds of other gross sausages you find in the grocery stores or how giant the mussels are in coastal towns or how sad it is to know how much they love putting those adorable little leaping lambs into stew. But mostly what you need to know is that there are some wonderful dishes in Ireland to be found and they are more than willing to explain the odder-sounding menu items to you because it's important to them that you enjoy your dining experience. If you're ever in doubt, just order tea and a scone with some fried brie and you'll be happy as a clam.

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