hot town, summer in the city

After another brief hiatus, I’m back, bitches. Well, “back” to the few of you who noticed my absence. Thanks for stroking my ego and warming the cockles of my heart. Or was that just the heat wave?

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in New York, which primarily revolved around sweating buckets and guzzling iced teas, but also featured several noteworthy guest appearances by friends accrued throughout various stages of my life.

Observations that are by no means revelatory in any way…

Sangria with this gal might not heal all wounds, but it doesn’t hurt. Pret a Manger iced black tea with red fruits is probably one of the best remedies for surviving 100 degree weather. Realizing you’ve forgotten your book is a bummer– until you pass the Strand kiosk on the SE corner of Central Park. 9 times out of 10, a dive bar with the right company will trump whatever’s trendy– especially if there’s skee ball involved. Everything dies, baby that’s a fact, but maybe it is better to bear the news of a deceased childhood pet in the presence of friends, Mexican food, and several midday Margaritas. Sometimes you need the friend who can break your stubbornness by saying trust me that it’s too late for you to take the subway back alone, please get in a cab in a stern voice. Harry Potter exhibits are one of very few exceptions to the avoid-Times-Square-like-the-plague rule. The Lobby Bar at the Ace Hotel just might make a person want to spend an entire weekend afternoon studying. Being able to use walking as a means of transportation is a simple pleasure better appreciated after relying on a car for a long period of time– though probably appreciated even more when the heat index isn’t 110 degrees F.

Though I took no photographs, I can offer the following, taken by a friend in a Dingle diner (County Kerry, Ireland). Though I try to avoid behaving like a tourist while actually in the city, clearly I relish the opportunity to act like an NYC tourist in the Emerald Isle?

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Photo Essay: Belfast’s Queen’s Quarter

Home sweet hostel for my stay in Belfast was in quiet Queen’s Quarter (and look what I just did there), a 15 minute walk south of the Europa Buscentre, the main transportation hub for the city. I found Belfast to be rather tranquil on the whole (though conflicts would break out in Western Belfast only days after my departure); nevertheless, I still appreciated the relative calm of Queen’s Quarter after a day of traveling. For most of the day my empty room suggested that I had snagged a single by default, but I returned from a late dinner to find that I did indeed have a roommate for the night, an amiable American who was making her way out of the country just as I was beginning my adventure. Unfortunately for me, she’d be getting up by 6 am the following morning to get to the airport. Such is the hostel life.

Between my roommate stirring and the sun announcing its presence through the skylight in my bedroom, I found myself wide awake before 7 am, still more than an hour before breakfast. Solution? Spend an hour enjoying the architecture of Queen’s University Belfast and the enchanting Botanical Gardens adjacent to the campus.

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Great Walks: Giants Causeway Coast Way

Though tour buses from Belfast descend upon the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland every day, the causeway coast is best explored at a slower pace over the course of at least an overnight or two. Some of the best vignettes of the causeway coast can be seen from along the 16.5 kilometer (10+ mile) walk between the Giant’s Causeway and the infamous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Beyond the volcanic columns that sink into the cerulean sea there are miles of dramatic cliffs, white sand beaches, over-saturated fields of grazing sheep, and quiet fishing harbors to behold.

After landing in a bitter cold and rainy Dublin only 48 hours earlier (which had me reevaluating my decision to bring only two sweaters on my “summer” vacation), I woke up to flawless weather in County Antrim. When the sun shines in Ireland, the color palate is unbelievable; you feel as if you may have mistakenly wandered into a Photoshopped version of the world, one in which someone has cranked up the saturation beyond credibility.

But it is real life. For reals.

Lacing up the hiking boots that had carried me through the Himalayas last fall, I set off on my walk. Having visited the Giants Causeway the previous night to watch the sunset and had the place almost entirely to myself, I was a bit overwhelmed by the multitudes gathered by daylight at Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site. I challenged my glutes to the stairs that led me up the causeway cliffs and moved beyond the masses. From there, I passed the occasional couple or small guided tour group, but was left mostly alone to contemplate the views, my thoughts, and my hangover with the ocean to my left and rolling hills of sheep pastures to my right. Hugging the cliffs for the first half of the walk, the path eventually winds down to reveal several kilometers of sand and dunes known as White Park Bay Beach. While no stranger to the strange, I was not expecting to share the beach with more cows than humans. Apparently this is just a day “down the shore” in Northern Ireland. Feeling like a beached cow?

Only kilometers from the finish, I passed through Ballintoy Harbour and was wooed by the Harbour Cafe’s afternoon tea special, a ritual that I wouldn’t mind adopting in my regular life. As soon as I sat with my pot of tea and warm fruit scone, I became cognizant of my heavy legs and worn-out feet. I could have easily sat in view of the harbor for an hour reading the collection of Colum McCann short stories that I had brought along for the journey, but something told me I should keep walking. Female intuition? I finished my walk just in time to catch the last bus and headed back to a much appreciated hot shower at my hostel.

Though a five hour walk is not an inconsequential undertaking, the coastal walk is not terribly strenuous; save for a few short uphill climbs (the highest cliffs are about 100 meters), the walk is almost flat. In windy or rainy weather, I can imagine it to be rather treacherous, but with mild temperatures and sunlight it is pleasant and refreshing– especially after a long night involving copious amounts of Irish spirits! Pack plenty of water (there are a couple places to refill along the way), a snack, and lots of layers, as the weather on the Emerald Isle has a tendency of changing every five minutes.

Tip: If you are staying close to one of the end points of this stretch of the causeway, get a ride or take a bus to the opposite end and work your way back. Staying up past sunrise the previous night (slash that morning?), I got off to a late start and didn’t begin my walk until almost noon. Though not limited by daylight when the sun sets at 10:30 pm, the local buses stop running fairly early. I reached Carrick-a-Rede in time for the last admission for the rope bridge, only to realize that the last bus back to the Giants Causeway/Bushmills was leaving in 10 minutes– not enough time to walk another kilometer to the bridge, wander around the tiny island, and walk back. Had I taken the bus in the morning, I would have explored Carrick-a-Rede and had plenty of time left to set a leisurely pace for the way back. You live, you learn.

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Dublin Highlight: The Celt Pub

Traveling alone on my first trip to Dublin (I would return about a week later in the company of five gentlemen), afforded me the opportunity to wander aimlessly through the streets, sort out my mental map of the city at a leisurely pace, pop into a cafe on a whim or take an hour to find the perfect meal, to even give up entirely and plop down for a Guinness (or two… or three) in lieu of dinner. Having no competing interests to deal with can be extremely liberating, and I find that going for a long walk is often my favorite way to get to know a new city… even if a bit lonely at times. Ultimately, I do probably favor my time spent in Dublin with my companions. Being in the presence of people who make you happy is a simple enough luxury at home; being able to travel abroad with them can be an extraordinary treat. But while I prefer the conversation and the mere existence of companionship, I cannot deny that there are obvious merits of having alone time in a new place.

My aimless wandering in Dublin lead me to The Celt, a pub on Talbot Street, which is north of the Liffy River and away from the chaos and throngs of tourists in Temple Bar. Though they serve food and I wandered in hungry around 9:15 PM, my state of indecision and my indifference towards my growling stomach had me opting for a Guinness and a seat at a small table where I could read Joyce and rest my legs. By the time I was ready for another round, a duo with a guitar and fiddle had begun to play and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere as long as there was music to be heard. The two young, handsome musicians energetically cycled through traditional Irish music, well-known Irish folk songs, classic covers, and even a rendition of Poker Face, which was surprisingly awesome. I put down my book and sat with a contented look on my face, Guinness in hand, until they finished at half eleven and I waltzed back to a good night’s sleep at my hostel.

The following evening, I began a similar quest for food and ambiance, stopping by several “traditional” pubs recommended by Lonely Planet, only to be disgusted by the presence of big screen TVs and disappointed by the lack of the craic I was searching for. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I headed right back to The Celt, where another night of live music was already underway, this time by a trio of a guitar, fiddle, and accordion. Though the offerings were similar, they were no less enjoyable than the previous night and I delighted in realizing I had already committed some of the Irish drinking/folk songs to memory.

Three of my favorites are Galway Girl, Whiskey in the Jar, and I’ll Tell Me Ma (Belle of Belfast City), and I’ve included versions of each below. Just imagine you are sitting in an Irish pub, beverage of choice in hand, and listening to a handsome young lad (or lass) play one of these to a tiny, but enthusiastic, crowd.

Though I gushed about it when my companions arrived, I never ended up going back with them. Sorry, guys– we’ll always have Dublin, yes, but it seems like only I will have The Celt.

If you go: The Celt is located at 81 Talbot Street. They have live music 7 days a week beginning at 9:30 PM. Get there early to grab a seat!
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Four years of July 4ths

Yesterday marked the first 4th of July that I have celebrated in America since 2007. Ergo, I thought I’d take a look back at where I’ve been during my last few fourths. (and try saying “few fourths” several times fast)

July 4, 2008 (Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia, Greece): Hey, at least there were sparklers. And a crop of Americans. And a balloon toss the following weekend. And nothing says Independence Day like a balloon toss! Same, same. Just a little different.

July 4, 2009 (Accra, Ghana): Two fellow Americans and I were treated to a nice lunch at a beachfront restaurant in the capital by our French NGO director (I’d unfortunately be gone before I could return the favor on Bastille Day). Obama was visiting in a few days, so there were unusually high numbers of American flags and pro-USA sentiments flying around the city. And lots of unnecessary road painting in the name of Barry O. So much unnecessary road painting. A bit less of an American 4th of July than the previous year.

July 4, 2010 (Kamakura and Tokyo, Japan): Though I had spent the previous few days with American friends, Independence Day itself marked my independence; I spent the day alone wandering the temples and shrines of Kamakura as a day trip from nearby Tokyo. On the return train, I was hit on by an American military man stationed in Tokyo, which was probably the most “American” part of my day. Definitely my least patriotic 4th of July to date.

July 4, 2011 (Washington, DC, USA): And then there was flag cake. Spending the holiday in the nation’s capital, surrounded by friends and food, is definitely the best way to make up for lost time.

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What ever happened to Ireland?

A dead computer battery.

A few days of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, away from said misbehaving computer.

A few hundred Ireland photos to sort through and upload to a friend’s server so that he can compile a huge collection of photographs from the three photographers on the trip.

Excuses, excuses, I know.

There’s a lot of Ireland to go around, and I’ll be getting to it very soon. Until then, let me pay tribute to the footwear that carried me from Baltimore to New York and all over the Emerald Isle. Because my feet is my only carriage– if you don’t count an Aer Lingus plane, several buses, and a Ford Mondeo.

Inch Beach, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland

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j’adore: Icelandic skyr

I’m currently having a breakfast of siggi’s Icelandic style skyr, a rich, creamy yogurt made from skim milk and all natural ingredients that has 0 grams of fat, low sugar, and a whopping 14 grams of protein.

Skyr is the traditional yogurt of Iceland. It is made by incubating skim milk with live active cultures. The whey, the water naturally found in milk, is then strained away to make for a much thicker, creamier, concentrated yogurt. So to make just one cup of skyr, with all that water going out, you need 3-4 times the amount of milk required to make a regular cup of yogurt. As a result of this process skyr comes out with 2-3 times the protein count of standard yogurt.

Siggi’s cup design also gets points for being eco-friendly. The cup is made of nearly 50% less plastic than the typical yogurt cup and is covered by a removable (and thus recyclable) cardboard sleeve.

So if all you know about Iceland is that they have had a string of badass summertime volcano eruptions (or maybe you heard about that time their economy was in shambles), now you can say that you’ve heard of a really delicious, nutritious, filling yogurt that hails from the tiny island nation. Even better, you could say you’ve tried it. Go on. Try it. So. Freaking. Good.

Also, is Iceland Hobbiton? (via). I have to go there. Iceland, I’m officially lusting after you. But only in the summer when there is almost endless sunlight. I don’t need to add travel-induced SAD to my list of random ailments. So, get your act together, volcano-wise, but maybe not financially yet. In other words, I should probably make my way there while the dollar to kr√≥na exchange rate is still so favorable.

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