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Archive for April, 2010

When Irish Eyes Are…

Hello friends and family! I’m in Ireland! This week I’m in Dingle, the westernmost peninsula on “the island of saints and scholars” πŸ™‚ Since we have free internet in the hostel, I’ve uploaded more pictures…and now I’m going to tell you about them πŸ™‚

As I sit here and type, sitting down is painful. This is because I got to go HORSEBACK RIDING up a MOUNTAIN in IRELAND! I’ll take sore sits bones, thank you! I got to see a beautiful vista of Dingle Bay and the sun on the hills, and experience a canter up to the top of the mountain–completely terrifying, but totally exhilarating, too. You could see all the way out to the Blasket Islands, and it was gorgeous.

Wow, it’s been a while since I last wrote. It’s been a lovely week here. We’re staying in a youth hostel that we have all to ourselves, and we’re cooking for ourselves in the kitchen–enjoying Ireland’s brown soda bread (my favorite Irish food), Fruit ‘n’ Fibre cereal, Dingle Gold cheese, and massive 20-person, potato-free community dinners! Ah, spaghetti tastes so good when you’re far away from home πŸ™‚ My group and I made Mexican burrito stack-ups using all ingredients from the Irish grocery store…it was a hilarious culture clash, but they sure tasted good!

The first few days here were quiet, what with classes and recovering from the 16-hour trip to get here. That’s right, our flight from the Lake District to Dingle was canceled, due to the volcanic explosion in Iceland. No flights into or out of the UK. Thankfully, though, we still had a way to get here. Left the hostel at 8 AM, and after 16 hours of a bus-ferry-bus combination through Wales and Dublin, we rattled our suitcases down Dingle’s cobblestone streets at midnight. It was really a miracle, though, because if not for our sweet Irish bus driver, James, we wouldn’t have been able to get on the crowded ferry. He spent the night in Wales just so we could get priority admission onto the ferry, and then drove us the 6 hours across Ireland. Then, 2 days later, he drove us around Slea Head on a tour of the area. Amazing! The view was amazing too πŸ™‚ We’ve been blessed with such incredible weather on this trip–so far, we’ve had about 3 total days of rain in 3 1/2 weeks.Β We stopped at the monastic beehive huts, hiked out to the point of the peninsula (where I was the single westernmost person in Europe [see the picture of me looking out to sea :P]), learned about the Blasket Islands at the Blasket Center, and stopped at Gallarus Oratory, an ancient church built all of stones without mortar (that’s the picture of the dark stone window :)).

On Friday, Dr. Reinsma and Kirsten and I hiked Mt. Brandon, named after the monk St. Brendan “The Navigator”, who was not only a saint and a scholar, but a sailor as well–legend has it that he sailed all the way to North America in a leather boat a thousand years before Columbus. It’s known as “the sacred mountain,” and it was a beautiful climb. We found a chain of jade-green lakes cupped in hidden nooks of the mountain and half-walked, half-scrambled up the steep incline to the ridge. Stepping up to the top, there was a moment when we looked out and saw nothing but a flat horizon of ocean, going on forever. Then we crested the ridge and saw an incredible 360-degree panorama of the entire Dingle Peninsula: sun dappling the green hills of the Emerald Isle, turquoise waters sweeping up onto sandy stretches of beach, and at the very pinnacle of the ridge, a wooden cross planted in a cairn of stones. It was a very peaceful, sober place–with a view out over the whole world, and the cross over all. I read this verse that seems to go perfectly with where I am:

“From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings. For you have heard my vows, O God; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.” (Psalm 61:2-5) Β Being in this place makes me so conscious of the spiritual heritage I come from. With all these sights of rocks and high places, “I lift up my eyes to the hills-where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.” Sitting at the top of the 2nd-highest mountain in Ireland, looking out at the panorama of mountains and sea, watching the crows fly by beneath me in the lofty silence at the top, I was quietly aware of the Rock that is higher than I.

Hm, what else to say? There have just been so many lovely experiences. I’ve gotten to sleep in a few times while we’ve been here, which has been much-needed in the midst of so many activities. I tried Guinness and Bailey’s ice creams at the wonderful, local Murphy’s Ice Cream shop–they were OK, but not as good as the dark chocolate flavor πŸ™‚ Their Extreme Hot Cocoa is also pretty killer…We went to one of the fifty-two local pubs to listen to traditional Irish music two nights, which was wonderful. There was an accordion, a guitar, a fiddle, a whistle, and a vocalist, and they made terrific music. Some drunk Irishmen actually got up and started Irish dancing and keeping time with the bottoms of glasses on their barstools. For people so out of their wits, they were really, really good!

That should explain most of the Irish pictures I’ve posted. The rest are the ones I couldn’t post in the Lake District: of tea and scones in Keswick, William Wordsworth’s grave, me hiking the fells (mini-mountains) overlooking Grasmere (a Norse name meaning Boar Lake…!), and our Sunday expedition to Hadrian’s Wall!!! (it was the day after my last post, so I didn’t get to mention it–a half-excavated Roman fort and section of The Wall from A.D. 122…we walked on 2000 years of history! (and shared it with sheep!) It was an amazing experience and I’m really glad we got to go.

Jeepers, I feel like I’m rambling all around. Maybe bouncing around on horseback this afternoon shook my brain up too πŸ™‚ We’re leaving for Dublin in the morning, where we’ll be for about 5 days before heading to Wales. Taste and see that the Lord is good…and here it tastes like brown soda bread and looks like a view out over the blue ocean to the islands πŸ™‚

Love and hugs!

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Dear friends and family,

Well, in case you were wondering, I put on my British stiff upper lip, forced myself to leave Scotland, and made it back safely…6 forms of transportation, 11 cities, and 5 castles later, I am now back in Keswick with the group πŸ™‚ Left my heart in Scotland, but it sure is beautiful here, too. We are so blessed; we’ve only had 2 days of rain in the last 2 1/2 weeks we’ve been here!

It’s been nice to have some time away from cities to settle into the routine of classes. It would be really hard to keep up on reading with the temptation to sightsee 24/7. I’ve been burying my nose in Middle English Chaucer, Shakespeare, Malory, and travel essays, which really come to life when you’re living in their settings! We read part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Tuesday morning while looking out at the birds in the thickets and the waterfall behind our hostel πŸ™‚ Reading such good books in such a beautiful place hardly seems like homework!

But even with classes, we have 4-day weekends and weekday afternoons to enjoy the countryside here. It’s a slower pace of life; sometimes there simply ISN’T a bus that runs or a phone that connects, so you are forced to stay where you are and enjoy it–a tough and beautiful skill it can be hard to learn in the States. One afternoon I sat in a pasture and wrote while sheep strolled around; another I went rowing on the lake with 3 friends, and then we went for tea and scones at the Wild Strawberry Shop πŸ™‚ Yesterday almost the whole group went to Grasmere, site of William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, and a few of us called ourselves ‘fell walkers’ (a fell out here is a wee mountain :P) and went traipsing all over the craggy moors, then tried Grasmere ginger scones in town after visiting the Wordsworths’ graves (ahhh!) Then my whole room came back and crashed for an hour and a half πŸ™‚

Today I peeled myself out of bed at 5:30 AM to go hiking on more fells with Dr. Reinsma and 6 other girls. We were headed for Castlerigg, a stone circle that’s been standing for 4000 YEARS (wrap your head around that!!) Rocks, bumps, trees, sheep, and a beautiful pearl-and-rose sunrise later, we arrived at the ancient stones with only a pair of photographers for company. We walked around it, marveling at the perfect circle of standing stones, and then sat with our backs to them for about half an hour, taking in the new morning from such a place of history. It exploded my brain to think of running my hand over rocks that someone four millenia ago was heaving into place. This place makes time as transparent as water; reach into it and you might shake hands with your ancestors. All those Celtic songs I like and the Arthur legends are coming to life–not just figuratively, but so realistically that you really feel like you wouldn’t be surprised to see a sword-girt knight walking over the moors because his castle is just down the street. It’s amazing. And the sheep are really cute, too πŸ™‚ It’s lambing season, and the cutest ones I’ve seen are black with white ears πŸ™‚

Anyway, after so much mystery and history (and 6 miles of walking), we switched our minds to the subject of breakfast πŸ™‚ The English are good at scones–dripping with jam and clotted cream, mmm πŸ™‚ They’re not so good at waffles. They think waffles are made of potatoes. Everything’s made of potatoes here. I’m not even kidding. They serve chips (french fries) with pizza. You can order shepherd’s pie (topped with mashed potatoes) for dinner and they’ll still serve you a jacket potato (baked potato) on the side. They put potatoes in burritos. I think I’ll never want to see another potato when I get home. In Dingle, our next location, we’ll be cooking for ourselves in the hostel, and potatoes will NOT be on the menu! πŸ˜›

Speaking of which, tomorrow is our last day in the Lake District. I’m putting together a day trip to Hadrian’s Wall (!!!) which is near Carlisle up north, and on Monday we’re leaving for Dingle, Ireland. They probably like potatoes even more over there! Yikes! I’m looking forward to some good folk music in the pubs, though, and hopefully a bike ride near the coast πŸ™‚

Man, I just can’t believe I’m here! I wish you all could be here to experience it too. Britain is a real country with real people and their lives, just like ours, but there is definitely a strong tie to history here that governs and directs the present. Love to you all! (and, as the British say: Cheers!)

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The Sacred Isle

Hello dear ones!

Wasn’t expecting to have a chance to post this weekend, but God provides! I am in a hostel in Oban, Scotland, having gotten away for the weekend and had the time of my life. Only, I think I’ll be leaving a large and rather important part of my heart here. I love Scotland…

In the last 3 days, I’ve taken 6 different forms of transportation…taxi, public bus, train, feet, tour bus, and ferry…*phew*! It was a lot of planning to get this weekend away organized, but 500% worth it. Saturday my traveling companions, Alison and Alyssa, and I went up to Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle, and Inverness. We’ve had incredible sunny weather this weekend, and picnicked in some of the most amazing places imaginable–on the wall of a ruined nunnery, on the shore of Nessie’s hangout, and…well, the public train πŸ˜› But when you’re traveling across Scotland, even that is an unbeatable view! No monster sightings, but we did sit on a grassy knoll outside the castle and read Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…*sigh* how could life be any better? We watched the sun set across the ‘sea lochs’ on the bus back. The view never gets old–all the islands overlapping, always changing with new angles and new light. And castles are everywhere! The girls say I have highly sensitive castle radar πŸ™‚

But today was even better. I can’t even describe the island of Iona to you. I never wanted to leave. I actually considered abandoning the British Isles tour group and just losing myself there forever. I’ll quote you a bit from my travel journal to give you the best idea I can.

‘The water is unbelievably clear–it’s a stunning, Bahamas turquoi8se blue, with powdery white sand on the Iona shore. It made me feel like I was in a little Mediterranean, in the wrong hemisphere. Stepping off the boat, it was like entering a dream. The island has very limited cars, so the air is serene, and often silent, in a way you can’t get in a city, or even a regular town. This is a sacred city, an island wholly devoted to worship and prayer. It is like a cloud away from earth–a place of solace, a haven and sanctuary from the world. There was an ineffable grace about it that I can’t even describe. It made me want to weep and sing and stay forever. It is not just a city, but an island of God.’

Sorry to presume to quote myself, but I’ve tried so hard and so futilely to put words to the experience this afternoon that my brain is tired of trying to come up with new descriptions. It was simply magical, and yet more than that–a stairway to heaven? My companions and I had only 2 1/2 precious hours to spend on shore, but they were beautiful. We had a picnic in the garden of the ruined nunnery, with butterflies on the hyacinths and daffodils in the sun. We walked through the ancient graveyard, where it is said Macbeth is buried (though I tried in vain to find his headstone), and I had the privilege of praying in a 900-year-old chapel. I just about died with delight. The abbey has ancient Celtic crosses in front of it, and peaked windows that let in shifting patterns of light. Sheep graze all about, and it makes sense that the Lord is our shepherd…candles burn in the windows, and I saw prayers rising like incense. It is truly a place of peace, an island so practiced in worship that it is almost a scent you can breathe in on the air. And to see gardens blooming beside ancient stones–there’s something here that is out of my reach to express, but that touched me deeply. It’s not even worth asking if it was worth it to take 6 forms of public transportation to get here.

Well, we’re back in Oban tonight (a beautiful town all unto itself–so beautiful it’s ridiculous! Swans swimming among fishing boats as the sun sets behind the distant isle of Kerrera…is this real??!!) British food, however, is not magical, and so we were pleased to find an Italian restaurant whose waitresses had Scottish accents and fed us green salad and pasta πŸ™‚ Then, by a bit of a long story, we ended the day by going to a memorial at a local church–we sang hymns with the congregation and the pastor had an accent like the Scottie dog in Lady and the Tramp πŸ˜›

What more can I say? I love Scotland! Here are some pictures for your enjoyment: one of me by a castle (!!!) right in Oban, one of one of the sea lochs at sunset, and two of Iona: the abbey, and the Mediterranean coastline. Beautiful! Love and hugs!

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Hello dear ones!

I write this from Keswick town in the Lake District of England! It’s the perfect haven of pastoral beauty; tranquil and sleepy. The town has peaked gable roofs and a ‘Wild Strawberry Shop’, and I’ve seen daffodils, ducks, stone walls, lambs, and beautiful sweeping views of Derwent Water πŸ™‚ This is where the Brits go on vacation, and I’m here!

This has also been our first week of classes, so I’ve spent quite a few hours cuddled up with Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare, and various travel essays. Not all of them are cuddly: I’m realizing what a violent time were the Middle Ages, with a vengeful honor society and little respect for human life. Children had a 50/50 chance of surviving to puberty, and after that, there were still more hazards, especially for women: if the typhoid and dysentery didn’t get you, you’d probably die in childbirth or be drowned as a witch. Average lifespan was 20 to a very ripe old 40. Makes me really glad to be visiting this place as a 21st century college student!! However, I am really loving my books. Chaucer is all in Middle English, and my new favorite words are ‘ymagynacioun’ and ‘sqwirelle’ πŸ˜› Sound them out to see what they mean…We read Richard III aloud as a group, which was marvelous, and I spent a lovely quiet afternoon curled up on a couch with a cup of tea and my brick-sized tome of Troilus and Criseyde, looking over the misty lake and mountains…:) Malory might be my favorite, though–who gets to read the account of the Sword in the Stone and call it homework?? It’s hard to believe I’m really here! But with all the different area dialects, my own accent is starting to get slip-slidy…

Here in the Lake District, we’re staying in a youth hostel (a converted country mansion! I’d include pictures, but the computers here are silly and don’t recognize my camera). But check this link out: http://www.yha.org.uk/Images/Derwentwater_tcm8-4011.jpg ! I’m in a room full of bunkbeds with 5 other girls; Alyssa, Laura, Cathy, Sandra, and Lisa, and we’re getting along ‘brilliantly’, as the British would say πŸ™‚ Meals are served cafeteria-style, and the charming English staff feed us very well. I must say, though, the Brits have a fetish for potatoes. They’re in everything! Last night I found them in ‘spicy chicken tortillas’–possibly a British attempt to do Mexican food?? But there were potatoes in them…They also feed us what they call ‘flapjacks’, which are actually bar cookies (and very tasty :)).

One of the highlights of being here (besides sitting around a daffodil-topped table by a sunny window and talking about Shakespeare!) was a ramble on the hills I took with some friends yesterday. The constant drizzle that had been going since we got here finally stopped and the sun came out, so we grabbed our cameras and jackets and went wandering! Passing by the waterfall behind the hostel (you can hear its soothing sound from our room!), we saw the pasture of sheep I mentioned. We saw little lambs that jumped in the air and ran around headbutting each other! We also saw a pair of ducks (Jemima Puddleduck? This is Beatrix Potter country!) and some donkeys, and made it to Surprise View, which was an incredible panorama view of the beautiful lake below us. This land has a subtle beauty, not necessarily eye-popping like Half Dome or the Grand Tetons, but one that’s been here a very, very long time and doesn’t really care about performing. It just is. Being here gives you a sense of your place in history; England has a long memory. It is both a rich blessing and a burden of responsibility. We Americans are used to independence, entrepreneurship, and haste, the hare to England’s tortoise, it seems.

Anyway, it was a delightful, aimless ramble through gullies, past fences, and across creeks–a moment of the tranquility of this place. I am reminded of this hymn:

This is my Father’s world/I rest me in the thought/of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.

I love you all!

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Setting forth

How on earth do I summarize 3 days of Scottish bliss? Jet lag? Blisters? Haggis?Β  Eating a picnic while watching the sun dance over a daffodil-strewn medieval city to the accompaniment of bagpipes? Yes, this is Edinburgh πŸ™‚

Well, in case you’re wondering, I’m still alive, and more than that–I’m in SCOTLAND! Alba go bragh! (‘Scotland forever’, in the native Gaelic). After flying for something like 12 hours, with 2 time changes and no sleep, we flew over a snow-covered vista into Edinburgh. The actual city doesn’t have snow on it because it’s right on the sea, but it’s been rather chilly. I’m currently wearing almost all my remaining clothes, after a failed attempt to dry my laundry in the hotel bathroom last night. Amazing how a pajama top can convert into church clothes with a little fairy dust πŸ™‚

Speaking of church, happy Easter, everyone! My roommate Alyssa and I, along with 2 other friends, went to the service at St. Giles Cathedral, which has been standing since who-knows-when; probably the 1500s O,O There were dead knights and lairds buried along the sides of the vaulted nave, and the soaring song of the choir blended with the light from the stained-glass Robert Burns window πŸ™‚ SO beautiful!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Thursday we arrived and hit the ground walking, so as not to fall asleep instantly. Friday morning we had a guided tour of Edinburgh with a guide named Morag (“princess” in Scots) that took us through 2 awesome cemeteries, secret stairways, up the Royal Mile, and finally to Edinburgh Castle at the top of the hill. A few of us had lunch in Deacon Brodie’s Cafe, the man who was the inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, including cream of carrot soup…Later in the afternoon was one of the highlights of the trip so far for me; a hike up the mini-mountain Arthur’s Seat. It was a tramp across the moors,Β  culminating in a view of a ruined tower overlooking a lake of swans πŸ™‚

Saturday we had more of a ‘local’ tour, with one of Dr. Reinsma’s former students. We traipsed around Grassmarket and up the farmer’s market on the far side of the castle. (Castle! I get to be around one!) Alyssa and I tried wild boar burgers with HP (Houses of Parliament ;P) sauce, which is a bit like barbecue sauce.Β  We’re learning all kinds of new words: ‘litter bins’ are garbage cans’, pants are ‘trousers’, and elevator is ‘lift’. Fancy that! My Scottish accent is also improving: I’m learning it’s a blend of elongating the vowels and rolling the r’s πŸ™‚ We blitzed around the National Museum of Scotland, the Museum of Childhood, and then took an underground tour of Old Edinburgh…very far underground πŸ™‚ Visited the Elephant House cafe, where J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote many of her Harry Potter books.Β  I also discovered that the endless miles of walking had rubbed the skin off the backs of my heels…so we voted to do a little less walking today.

Today we went to that glorious church service in the cathedral, and then climbed the 237 steps to the top of the Sir Walter Scott Memorial, with a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city (and claustrophic staircases filled with multilingual tourists πŸ™‚ We then ventured into a Sainsbury’s Grocery and bought Lockerbie cheese, bread, plums, and a Mars Bar, and enjoyed the idyllic scene described in the first paragraph πŸ™‚

Ah! I am running out of internet time. Suffice to say that the pictures are of our hike to Arthur’s Seat, wild boar burgers, and my writing adventure in the Elephant House πŸ™‚ Everything literary in me is going crazy with excitement πŸ™‚ I love Scotland! God bless!

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