A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way

This is a little different type of post today.


This has been a tough week. All over the world the anger and hatred of certain people is boiling over to affect other innocent people who have no part in the fight. As a traveler, and one who will be boarding an international flight tomorrow, I was particularly troubled by the crash of the Malaysian flight over the Ukraine. I found myself disconcerted, troubled, morose.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial


So it was a happy respite to have a tour to do on Saturday. My group of guests came from various southern states and included couples and families. We had a beautiful, coolish, breezy day and they got to see nearly everything on their “must see” list of Washington, D.C.

US Capital Dome

US Capital Dome

 

Towards the end of the tour, one of the guests, a college student named Emily (not her real name) asked me where would be a good place for a friend to meet her. After asking a few questions, I learned that Emily, a college senior, had come up from North Carolina with her parents and was embarking on one of those cool, crazy, fun things that college students do – c’mon, you all remember them – and parents fret about.

 

One friend was driving to DC from New Jersey to pick her up. They were going to go back to New Jersey and then on into New York City where another friend is interning for the summer. The problem was, that the NJ friend was stuck in traffic and the parents were reluctant to drop their daughter off alone on the streets of D.C. The bus and group had a 4pm deadline to leave Washington.

 

So I chimed in, “Tell your friend to meet you at Union Station. It’s an easily accessible, well-known location and my car is parked nearby so I will take you there and stay with you until she arrives.”

 


It was all arranged and after kisses and hugs, Emily hopped off the tour bus with me at Union Station. We went in, I showed her around and we got a coffee while awaiting the arrival of her friend. They were texting back and forth about locations and arrival times – the mom in me hoped that her friend wasn’t texting and driving. And of course, I said so. We chatted about college and plans and what to do in NYC.

 

Union Station, Washington,D.C.

Union Station, Washington,D.C.


I asked how long they were going to be staying in New York – it was about 4:30 on Saturday afternoon at that point – she said, “Not too long, I have to be back at work in on Monday morning.” I just laughed and wondered if she realized that it was going to take about 5 hours to drive to New York from DC. This truly was one of those crazy things you do when you are 20-ish, but I knew, given the opportunity, I’d have done exactly the same thing at that age!


Within a few minutes, her friend arrived. We waved her down and my parting words to Emily were, “Be sure to text your dad!” I am a mother, after all.


I headed across the plaza towards my car and before I even got there, my phone was ringing. It was Emily’s father, thanking me again for staying with his daughter and helping her make the connection. It was such a simple thing, really, just a little human kindness. A half-hour of my time to ease the anxiety and uncertainty of so many people. I felt great.

 


It’s amazing that something so simple can make you feel so good. Amid all the chaos of life it is easy to forget that. It’s likely I’ll never see her again – but those 30 minutes made my week. It truly is in giving that we receive.

The Daily Post – Honey vs. Vinegar

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Touring Washington, D.C. – Never a Dull Moment!

Besides being a teacher, an avid traveler, an aspiring writer and photographer, I am a tourist guide in Washington, D.C.  While we are winding down our busiest time of year, there are still a bazillion school groups coming to the Nation’s Capital.  It seems that every 8th grade in the entire country comes to Washington in the spring (and many 5th, 6th and 7th grades as well!). 

This week, I have had a group of adults from Finland and 5 different school groups; 4 from various places in Michigan and one from Texas.  While they generally all want to see the same things, there is variation based on time, weather and schedule.  But there is never a dull moment in Washington.  Something new and strange is always happening. 

Sacred Air Space

On Saturday, my Finnish adults stopped at the Capitol to take photos.  We had just gotten off the bus, when I noticed 20130928_133901that the Capitol police were shrilly blowing their whistles and seemed to be clearing people from the plaza immediately in front of the building itself.  I thought that perhaps one of the Honor Flight groups was coming and they wanted to give them space. 

But suddenly, the Capitol Police officer was running towards us, shouting at people to clear the area and urgently waving them away from the Capitol grounds. I ran back to our bus, which had not yet pulled away and asked our driver  not to leave as I thought we might have to re-board.  Then the police officer is up in front of the bus window telling the driver to “get that bus out of here!” (My guests were beginning to re-board as quickly as possible) So I asked the officer, “Can I please get my group back on the bus?”  His response?  (In a very LOUD voice)”There is a plane headed toward the Capitol.  Do you want this bus here when it arrives? Get it OUT of here!”  I just about shoved the last few people on the bus and our driver, bless his heart, moved it. 

Lunch was next on the agenda, so we proceeded there without further incident.  Many of the guests understood English, but some hardly any so I think that they really didn’t know what was happening. 

I did a little research during lunch and afterwards told them the story. 

Apparently a small private plane flown by a new pilot had violated D.C. airspace and didn’t immediately respond to calls for identification.  They went into emergency mode, scrambled F-16’s, and when the poor pilot, who was just flying to North Carolina to visit his daughter, landed, he was met by CIA and FBI.  Probably not a good day for him.

We were able to visit the Capitol (without incident) after dinner.  And they had a great story to tell when they got home! 

 

Wait – who was that guy?

 On Tuesday, I had a group of middle school students from Texas.  They had a scheduled tour inside the Capitol.  We unloaded the bus on the west side of the building and walked up to the Visitor Center, stopping along the way so everyone could catch up and I could explain all the sights.  We had reached the southeast corner, the House side of the Capitol, and they had a great view of the Library of Congress.  So I commented, “The green domed building you see behind me is The Library of Congress, and behind you is Senator Charles Rangle!” (D-NY)  As I was facing my group I suddenly noticed that he was walking behind them.  I didn’t actually mean to blurt it out, but he was literally a step away from my students. 

He smiled, waved and a few parents shook his hand. 

20140611_121609We proceeded into the Visitor Center for their tour.  I usually don’t accompany the groups on the tour – but the dome is under major renovation in the rotunda and I wanted to see for myself how it looked.  It was a very busy day – not just because of the tour groups, but there were hearings going on, television cameras and newscasters everywhere; the place was a buzz of activity. 

On the tour, the groups move from the Rotunda into Statuary Hall, through a narrow corridor, passing by the Office of the Speaker of the House.  As we passed through the passageway, who should approach from the House Chambers, but Speaker John Boehner himself (surrounded by the usual cadre of Secret Service).  He passed about three feet away from us!  One of the parent chaperones in the group got a photograph!  I wasn’t that quick. 

1, 2, 3 helicopters!

It is uncommon to see the President (or POTUS – President Of The United States, as he is commonly called in D.C.) out and about in Washington.  When he does ‘move’, it is generally in a large motorcade; streets are closed, traffic is snarled and everything generally comes to a halt.  But while stopped at a traffic light on Friday evening with a group of students from Michigan, we suddenly spotted the tell-tale triple helicopters flying low over the Mall.  Sure enough, Marine One was transporting the President from Andrews Air Force Base where he had just arrived back from France and the D-Day/Normandy Commemorations, to the White House.  The students were able to see the helicopter disappear below the trees as it landed on the south lawn.    imgres 

Thundering Hordes

One of the very special things to do while in Washington DC is to tour the monuments at night.  On warm evenings, it is a spectacularly beautiful city – the monuments and buildings are all illuminated; the fountains and pools are bathed in soft light.  Unfortunately, the hot, humid weather of the DC summer often gives way to an evening thunderstorm, some of which can be quite severe.  Last week, while on one of those idyllic evening tours with my group of students from Texas, I noticed the evening sky was darkening ominously in the distance.  Like a hen ushering chicks, I urged my young charges to move a little faster.  We rapidly crossed the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial and raced up the stairs just as the first gigantic drops of rain began to fall.  Safely beneath the sheltering marble pillars I explained the memorial and allowed the students some free time to explore while I figured out our next move in the rain and storm.  imgres Suddenly there was a flash of lightening followed immediately by a huge clap of thunder seemingly right above our heads!  But the subsequent piercing screams of pre-adolescent girls were far worse than any amount of thunder.  They echoed in the cavernous space of the memorial and made my ears ring! 

The downpour began in earnest and most of the noise created by the hundreds of people crowded into the Memorial was drowned out.  Some of the students wanted to make a “run for it” to the bus but fortunately sane adults prevailed.  The gift shop made a small fortune in the space of 20 minutes selling rain ponchos and anyone moving about was ducking and weaving to avoid being hit in the eye by an umbrella! 

After about 20 minutes, the thunder and lightning had moved away and the rain had abated slightly.  The 70 or so marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial are slick as ice when they are wet, so I guided my charges to the handrail with strict orders to “hold-on and don’t run” as they descended.  Across the plaza, through the trees and out to the waiting bus, all the while leaping and avoiding puddles and lochs of water (at least I was!), you could hear the exuberance of the kids after surviving their great adventure! 

Guests visiting Washington often ask me if I get tired of explaining or describing the same things over and over again.  Never!  Because it is never the same, there is always something new and different to see or tell about.  While the basic scenery may stay the same, the people, the activity and the ambiance are ever-changing.  There is never a dull moment!   

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South Carolina: Spanish Moss – Sinister or Sensual?

I spent last week at Edisto Island, South Carolina.  I own a timeshare that has seen embarrassingly little use during the years that I’ve owned it and I decided it was high time that I got better value from my investment.  So I chose a place I’d never been before, coastal South Carolina, to spend a week exploring, sightseeing and learning.  

From the balcony of my condo I had a gorgeous panoramic view of the golf course, swimming pool and a nearby pond.  Immediately outside the balcony was a spectacular, ancient shade tree, pruned and molded to fill the space between the buildings.  It had gnarly bark and from one basic trunk, it wound and twisted it’s way up to higher than the three stories of the adjacent buildings.

Squirrel

As I sat on the balcony enjoying a cool beverage in the waning sunlight, two squirrels caught my attention.  As if for my personal enjoyment, they began to chase one another up and down the mighty trunks of the tree, spiraling round and round, up and down.  They leaped from branch to branch, running in circles, heads down, plummeting toward the ground only to reach a prescribed point and turn to race back up again.  Their antics amused me for several minutes and suddenly they were gone – vanished into the grey-green bark of the tree as quickly as they had appeared.

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Like nearly every tree in Edisto Island, the tree outside the balcony was draped in Spanish Moss.  That day, while I had been walking around the resort, relishing the beautiful weather, the variety of birds and enjoying the peaceful setting, I met and struck up a conversation with a local resident who was casting for fish in one of the many ponds.  He filled me in on much information about the area – places to go and things to see.  He had been coming to the area for many years and eventually decided to retire here, so he knows the place well.

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It turns out that the Spanish Moss is neither Spanish nor a moss but rather a bromeliad- a perennial herb that is a member of the pineapple family whose probable origin is in Central or South America.  Like most bromeliads, it is an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another plant, but does not rely on it (the host) for nutrients.  It is carried on the wind and attaches to any tree or shrub and begins to grow.  It drapes itself all over the bark and produces the long grayish strands that hang from nearly every branch.  It seems just like the moss one might buy in a craft store to place around a potted plant or an artificial basket or arrangement, but I was assured that I did NOT want to take any of the moss from the trees and take it home in the hopes of doing the same.  The moss on the trees is loaded with little red chiggers which can cause an uncomfortable rash to any unsuspecting human who might handle the moss.  So I didn’t touch.  

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The moist coastal environment there on Edisto Island is perfect for the Spanish moss which provides nesting material for birds and shelter for bats and other animals.  It thrives along the Gulf Coast and up the southern East Coast as far as Virghina and has even been spotted in coastal Delaware.  

Although it will attach itself to nearly any “host” tree or shrub, the moss particularly likes the plentiful “Live Oaks” which also flourish in South Carolina and can live to nearly 1000 years!  It fascinated me that as you moved inland, one could literally watch the amount of moss diminish until there was none at all – in just 40 miles from the coast! 

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While some might think it eerie or sinister in some way, I find it graceful and beautiful.  I love the soft gray colour and the delicate drape on the boughs of the trees. The Spanish Moss epitomizes all my romantic notions of southern gentility. It conjures up images of rocking chairs on porches, cool afternoon breezes and sweet tea.  Granted, had I been walking in a dark forest at midnight, the images might have been completely different.  But why would I do that?  

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Corned Beef and Cabbage – typically … American???

Last year for St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to try my hand at Corned Beef and Cabbage.  Now, honestly, I don’t think I’d ever images (3)before cooked a corned beef for anything but to make corned beef hash.  Certainly not as a main meal. 

Primarily because I am Irish and it is not.  “What??”, you say.  “How can that be? Everyone who is Irish eats corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day! ”  Hmmm, not quite.  But I’ll get to that in a minute. 

My father, born and raised between Rathkeale and Newcastle West in Co. Limerick, blessedly eats everything I make for him.  Most of the time I am a pretty good cook, but there is the occasion where what I put on the table is questionably “cuisine”.  

Last year’s corned beef and cabbage was one of those occasions. 

corned_beef_cabbage_by_spackletoe_FlickrIn theory, if you boil the heck out of the corned beef,  you really can’t go wrong.  Well, I thought I boiled the heck out of it but…it was rather rubbery, not good at all, and I absolutely knew I was in trouble when my father looked up at me from his plate across the table and casually asked, “What kind of meat is this?”

As I slid down in my chair like a five-year-old, I rapidly replied, “Well, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it was on sale, and I thought it would be nice to try something different…(pause)    Corned beef.”

“It’s a bit hard to chew, “, he said.

In thoroughbred racing jargon, my dad would be considered a “good-doer”, meaning that typically he cleans his plate, isn’t a finicky eater.  But a few moments later, he placed his knife and fork side by side on the plate leaving the better part of dinner behind.  We moved on to dessert.

Traditionally Irish…NOT!

Meat, especially pork and potatoes were staples of the Irish diet.  Pork was relatively inexpensive and readily available.  A preferred cut was bacon, a lean, smoked pork loin not unlike Canadian bacon.  Cows were used for breeding and to supply milk and would only be slaughtered when they were no more use for milk production.  Hence beef was generally too expensive for regular consumption by the Irish populace.

downloadEven today Irish bacon, nothing like the slabs or strips we think of in America, is plentiful and frequently boiled with root vegetables for a tasty yet simple meal.  A few years ago, I purchased a beautiful bacon at a butcher shop in Ireland, intending to bring it back with me and enjoy at home.  I froze it solid so that it would transport well and happily put it in my suitcase.  It had always been possible to bring meat from Ireland without any difficulty.  Imagine my surprise when the customs officer in New York confiscated my lovely bacon telling me that I didn’t have a “certificate of authenticity” that it had been “on the hoof” in Ireland.  Apparently after entering the European Union, all meat from Ireland needed to be certified because of the risk of strange diseases coming from other EU countries.  Despite his assurances to the contrary, I’m reasonably certain that one immigration officer’s household had a lovely dinner that night…

Well, back to corned beef. 

There are lots of theories or legends as to how Corned Beef became associated with the Irish. 

Firstly, the name has nothing to do with “corn”, but rather the kernel sized salt that was used to cure the beef in order to preserve it.  Since the 18th century salt has been used as a preservative for and in the curing of various kinds of meat.

One of the most plausible theories stems from the cultural collaboration and interaction between diverse ethnic groups during the great influx of immigrants to New York during the 19th century. 

When the Irish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they found that the pork to which they were accustomed was much more expensive than beef.  The Jewish kosher cured beef was similar to the pork and could be boiled with root vegetables to produce a meal similar to the familiar bacon.  Since the Irish frequented the local Jewish delis and food carts, it is likely that they “borrowed” corned beef and made it their own.  Cabbage was much less expensive and more plentiful than potatoes and so it became a worthy substitute as well. 

The meal became a staple in Irish American households, easy and inexpensive to prepare.   As the Irish migrated west, corned beef migrated with them.  But look for it in Ireland?  It is only available to tourists particularly around St. Patrick’s Day, when people go expecting to find what they think is a typical “Irish” meal. 

I say, go for the bacon and the lovely floury potatoes.  It is SO much better. 

Which brings me back to today:  St. Patrick’s Day. 

As I stood in the grocery store yesterday, considering what I would buy for dinner, I was once again lured by the throngs of people poring over the array of Corned Beef on Sale.  I succumbed.  I purchased a nice small piece for a great price. Presumeably made by somone called O’Reilly.  download (1)

But today I’m trying something different.  Since early morning, it is inside in the Crock Pot, slowly simmering away, filling the house with a mouth-watering aroma.  I’m hoping that 8 hours of slow cooking with lots of vegetables will improve my result. 

No doubt my dad will eat it…he is so good that way.  But I wonder what his comment will be this year? 

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!

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Who was St. Patrick? And why does the whole world celebrate him?

 

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Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, people sport their “green”.  Being Irish, I never felt compelled to “show off” my heritage and if I forgot to wear green that day, oh well.  But for my entire life, I have been surrounded by people who, on March 17 celebrate the Irish.  I think.  Or St. Patrick.  Or being Irish.  What do they actually celebrate on March 17? Does anyone even know?

Let’s start with the man, himself. 

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St. Patrick, (Pádraic or Pádraig in Irish) was born in Scotland to an aristocratic, Christian, family around 390 A.D.  His parents, Calpornius and Conchessa were Romans who were living in Britain and were in charge of the colonies there.     

 

Around the time that Patrick was 16, he was captured by an Irish raiding party, enslaved and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was forced to work as a shepherd.  At that time Ireland was a pagan land – the land of the Druids – and young Patrick learned both the language and the customs of his captors. It’s possible that he was taken to the west, perhaps Mayo, where his existence was rugged, isolated and lonely.

 

In his youth, Patrick had expressed little interest in Christianity, but during the nearly six years of his captivity, he deepened his relationship with God.  Patrick wrote in “The Confession” that those years were critical to his spiritual development and that the Lord took pity on him in his ignorance and forgave him his sins.  According to his own writings, “The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same.” “I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”

 

Eventually, heeding a voice that he heard in a dream, Patrick escaped his captors, walked nearly 200 miles to the east coast of Ireland and made his way home across the Irish Sea to Britain.  There, he continued his religious studies, was ordained a priest and then a bishop.   patrick

 

Some years later, Patrick recounts having another vision in which a man comes to him in dream: “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

 

Patrick returned to Ireland with a mission to convert and minister to Irish Christians. 

 

Despite having great success in converting the pagan Irish to Christianity, Patrick’s life in Ireland was difficult.  As a foreigner and a Christian, he did not conform to the typical lifestyle of the Druids and Chieftans; he did not accept gifts from kings nor did he have affinity or kinship to any family.  As a result, he was without protection and was frequently robbed, beaten and even put in chains. 

Chapel atop Choagh Patrick

Chapel atop Choagh Patrick

 

Throughout all the hardship, Patrick “baptized thousands”.  He converted kings and their families to Christianity. He ordained priests to lead the communities that he founded and converted women who became nuns and formed communities throughout Ireland.  For forty years Patrick worked tirelessly until his death on March 17, 461 A.D. near Saul, where he had built his first Church.  He believed so completely in God and the importance of his mission that he feared nothing, not even death.

 

The Shamrock. 

The shamrock was a sacred symbol to the pagans.  Three was a symbolic number and the beautiful color of the plant was revered by them.  It was seen as representing the cycle of life:  birth, death, rebirth.  In the pagan culture there were numerous triple goddesses. images (2)

Legend tells us that Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons in one God.  For that reason, the shamrock is traditionally linked to St. Patrick and to the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Celebrating the Feast Day

 

Historically, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a national religious holiday. Families celebrated by attending Mass in the morning and returning home for a celebratory dinner.  The typical Lenten prohibitions were waived and people danced, drank and feasted on bacon and cabbage.  (There is NO corned beef in Ireland!) Up until the 1970’s Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on religious holidays.  Beginning in 1995, the Irish Government, realizing the keen interest throughout the world in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, began a national campaign to increase interest in and drive tourism to Ireland for the annual festival.  Today, more than one million tourists flock to St. Patrick’s “Day” in Dublin which is a multi-day celebration of Irish history and culture featuring fireworks, parades, outdoor theatre productions and concerts.

 

St. Patrick’s Day Parades

 

The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day Parade was on March 17, 1762 not in Ireland, but in New York City. According to the New York Mercury, Irish troops in the British Army marched through the streets playing “fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.”  It helped the troops reconnect with their roots, their music and other Irish troops serving in the British Army at the time. History_History_of_St_Patricks_Day_SF_still_624x352

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As the numbers of Irish immigrants grew, so did the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  It became a way for the Irish to show pride of heritage and solidarity in numbers. When over a million poor, uneducated Irish fled to America during the Potato Famine in the 1840’s, Protestant America despised their strange accents and religious ways.  “No Irish Need Apply” became a slogan that eliminated Irish from applying for anything but the most menial jobs.  When the Irish came out to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, the press portrayed them in cartoons as drunken monkeys. 

Anti-Irish cartoon - late 1800's

Anti-Irish cartoon – late 1800’s

Soon, however, the Irish realized that their large numbers empowered them with considerable political clout.  The Irish became a powerful swing vote and the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations became a “must attend” for political hopefuls. 

 

The immigrants spread throughout the U.S. and traditions sprung up in every city and town.  Unfortunately, the stereotype of the drunken Irishman persists, but organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians continue to do great work to dispel that myth. 

 

So, this weekend, as you boil your corned beef (that should be bacon!) and lift a glass of green beer (really????) while singing along with a familiar Irish tune, give a thought to the man and his legacy.  I wonder what St. Patrick would think of the worldwide celebration in his name?   150px-Kilbennan_St._Benin's_Church_Window_St._Patrick_Detail_2010_09_16

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Have you seen Ireland’s “Must See”?

The Cliffs of Moher.  One of the most recognizable natural wonders on the west coast of Ireland.  Even the name is magical.  The Cliffs of Moher.

Looking south towards Hag's Head

Looking south towards Hag’s Head

The name comes from the Irish word mothar, meaning a ruined fort.  In the 1st century BC, a fort stood near the site where O’Brien’s Tower is today.  The name of the cliffs commemorates that 2000 year old, long gone structure.

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Looking south – O’Brien’s Castle – Aran Islands in the distance

The dark, limestone walls of the cliffs soar straight up out of the Atlantic Ocean to a maximum height of just over 700’.  They extend for nearly five miles – from near the village of Doolin in the north to Hag’s Head in the south.  A well-established footpath winds along the edge of the cliffs – far enough away to be safe, yet close enough to ensure that visitors enjoy breath-taking views.

O'Brien's Castle

O’Brien’s Castle

On a clear day from Knockardaken, the highest point near O’Brien’s castle, one can see from Loop Head and the Blasket Islands in Co. Kerry to the Aran Islands and on north to Galway Bay and the Twelve Bens of the Connemara Mountains.  Nature enthusiasts come to view the more than 20 species of birds, from Puffins to Peregrine Falcons that nest in the cliffs and fish of their waters.  Sharks, whales, seals and dolphins are frequent visitors to the waters at the cliffs.

One of the most fascinating things about the Cliffs is how they are constantly changing.  I have been visiting them for more than thirty years and every time I go I notice the changes that Nature has wrought on the landscape.

Entrance bollard

Entrance bollard

A calm summer’s day affords visitors spectacular views and a tranquil environment with hardly a thought of the force and fury of the wind and sea that combine to create this spectacular natural phenomenon.  Atlantic storms typically head west towards the Americas, but occasionally they turn north and can pummel the west coast of Ireland with wind of up to 100kmph and waves of more than 30 feet.  As a result, only seaweed and lichen survive on the lower portions of the cliffs.  Closer to the top, however, fallen bits of soil have created a perfect environment for a variety of plant life and wild flowers.

Some of the more domesticated residents of the area

Some of the more domesticated residents of the area

No visit to Ireland is complete without a stop at this spectacular natural wonder.  The cliffs are open daily at 9 am with varying closing times – as late as 9 pm during the peak summer months.  Fees are 6€ per person, 4 € for seniors over 65 and children under 16 years are free. Group rates are available.   May your visit to the Cliffs of Moher be blessed with clear skies and gorgeous sunshine.

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Festive Entrances

Wintertime and the holiday season brings out the best in doors!  Even an otherwise mundane entrance can be transformed by the addition of ribbon and twinkly lights.

Red Pepper Wreath

Red Pepper Wreath

Recently I led a group of friends in a tour of historic Georgetown in Washington, D.C. and took the occasion to snap a few photos of some of my favourites.

 

Red Door

Red Door

 

English Boxwood Wreath

This was one of my favourites.  Although the greenery surrounds the charming door all year ’round, it still looks more festive when the Christmas wreath adorns the door.

 

Decked out with matching wreaths, garlands and a surprise Christmas ornament!

Decked out with matching wreaths, garlands and a surprise Christmas ornament!

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Tucked into the shrubbery is this matching Christmas ornament.

Tucked into the shrubbery is this matching Christmas ornament.

Red doors are the most popular colour it seems.

Side by side surrounded by garland and twinkling lights.

Side by side surrounded by garland and twinkling lights.

 

Some “wreaths” are square to match the windows.

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And some are not “wreaths” at all.

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Plain and Fancy

Plain and Fancy

 

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The holiday decor comes in all colours, shapes and sizes but they all look gorgeous!  Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

 

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A Million Steps by Kurt Koontz

imgres Recently, author and fellow member of American Pilgrims on the Camino Kurt Koontz graciously forwarded me a copy of his new book about the Camino de Santiago, A Million Steps.  I have walked various parts of the Camino de Santiago, one of the three great pilgrimage routes of the world, four times and so am quite familiar with the subject.

There are many, many books in print about the Camino de Santiago.  They range from the ridiculous to the sublime, covering everything from profound spiritual awakening to cavorting through the Spanish countryside.  Every once in a while one captures, at least to me, the essence of the Camino de Santiago – the personal journey.

Kurt KoontzA Million Steps is clearly about Kurt’s personal  journey.    From the title, which is his estimation of how many footsteps he walked from San Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, to the daily-diary style, the reader gets a true sense of the people, places and experience that is the Camino de Santiago.

Most Americans have never heard of the Way of St. James, El Camino de Santiago.  Despite the fact that people have been traversing the routes for more than 2000 years – first as a trade route and later as a pilgrimage route- it has remained largely a well-kept Spanish secret.  And for most Americans, who furiously seek out the camino frances mapparking space closest to the doors at the mall, the thought of walking 500 miles anywhere is more foreign than the Spanish language.  But more and more, in large thanks to the personal accounts of famous and soon-to-be-famous authors like Kurt Koontz, the Camino de Santiago is a secret no more.

Like so many pilgrims, Kurt kept daily notes in a journal, jotting down the names of people and places, his impressions and emotions.  Those extensive notes, along with relevant photos, provide an excellent account of the highs and lows of the pilgrim experience during the 30-day journey.  Chapter titles such as “Camino Wine”, “Arrows and Signs” and “Taxi Temptations” lead the armchair pilgrim through some of the most familiar and memorable aspects of the Way.  I don’t think there is a pilgrim alive who at some point on the journey, did not gaze longingly at a taxi, bus or train wishing to be on it going anywhere – as long as it meant not having to stand on your own feet.

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View from the Camino – near Castrojerez

But more than just writing a memoir of an amazing walk, Kurt opens his heart and allows us to share deep personal insight.   To me it is one of the reasons to walk the Camino “alone”. ( I put the word alone in quotation marks because on the Camino it is a relative term – a topic about which you could write volumes.)  In our incredibly OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbusy world of electronic “connectedness”, the Camino provides an opportunity to disconnect, to quiet your mind and life and to take stock.  From the outset of A Million Steps, Kurt makes no secret of the spiritual, emotional and physical aspects of undertaking the Camino that drew him to it.  Through the progression of days, he shares his thoughts in ways that allowed me to empathize, to smile and made me nod my head in recollective agreement.

Tomb of St. James the Apostle

Tomb of St. James the Apostle

 

A Million Steps is an easy read.  It is neither ethereal nor ponderous, but rather a down-to-earth account of one man’s journey and his existential burdens to which many of us can relate.  I would highly  recommend it to anyone who is contemplating walking the Camino de Santiago.  For those of us who have walked it, A Million Steps is a marvelous way to revisit the journey.  Finally, if walking across Spain to the tomb of St. James the Apostle is not in your future plans, you can still enjoy the journey vicariously through A Million Steps.  A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Full Disclosure:  The author provided me a copy of his book to read, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

A Million Steps by Kurt Koontz  ISBN: 978-061585-292-8 Available in paperback at www.amazon.com

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Spanish on a Segway

I was just finishing my last bite of dinner when my phone rang. It was my friend and colleague Elsa O’Grady owner of Washingtonian Tours.  She specializes in groups from Spanish speaking countries and is often in need of Spanish speaking guides.  “Hi, Deirdre,” she said.  “I know it is short notice, but I wondered if you might be able to lead a group tomorrow.”  Before I could answer, she added, “There is one more thing you should know before you answer.  The tour is on a Segway.”  20131130_122426

As a guide, the name of the game is flexibility.  Go with the flow.  I’ve never been on a Segway, wasn’t sure I could maneuver it, but what the heck?  It sounded like a fun adventure so, “Sure, Elsa!  I can do that!”

20131130_122452We were to meet at noon to get a short “how to” lesson and then two hours of touring the city.  When they arrived at City Segway Tours, we were directed to three bins marked “small, medium and large” to select and fit our required helmets.  We then divided ourselves into three groups for our lesson. 20131130_130810 One by one, after the first tentative grasp of the handles we learned how to mount, dismount, move forward, stop, turn – all the basics.  It is a fun, quirky mode of transportation, easily learned and quickly mastered.  Our instructor and guide, Grace, was clear and patient in her explanation to each person.  I was there to assist with translation as needed.

20131130_130836On completing the lesson, each person climbed aboard his own Segway for a short practice session around the patio before heading out into the streets of Washington.  Moving off with Grace in the lead, I brought up the rear keeping the group together, in a single file as we traversed the city.  20131130_132251Our first stop was Pennsylvania Avenue and White House.  Grace explained the various visual priorities – the Eisenhower Office Building, the Renwick Gallery, Blair House and ultimately the White House itself.  I provided additional commentary in Spanish and answered questions for the guests.  It felt odd for me as I am usually doing the commentary for my own guests, but I was happy to be able to try out the Segway so I sat back and enjoyed the moment!  20131130_133448 However, I must admit I lapsed into tourist mode as I couldn’t let the photo op pass – I wanted photographic proof of the day’s adventure!

Due to the group’s schedule, the tour had to be slightly shortened.  Normally, we would have visited the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and both the Korean War and Vietnam War Memorials.  As it was there was only time in their itinerary for a stop at the Washington Monument before traversing down Constitution Avenue to finish our tour.

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It was great fun and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to try out a Segway.  Rolling along the streets is a fun and different way to visit a city.  For information on tours and prices contact City Segway Tours 502 23rd St., NW, Washington, D.C. (877) 734-8687 www.CitySegwayTours.com

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Gougane Barra – St. Finbarr’s Oratory

As I approached the access to the tiny island, the only sound was the soft crunch of my footsteps on the loose gravel.  The day was sunny and warm; the crystal azure sky

Rom Cua - Gougan Lake

Rom Cua – Gougan Lake

turned the glacial lake a deep, almost ocean blue.  Beyond the lake, the red sandstone mountains soared above the basin enhancing the dramatic setting of St. Finbarr’s Oratory and giving the valley its name – Com Rua, the Red Hollow.

St. Finbarr's Oratory

St. Finbarr’s Oratory

Nearing the grey stone church, I was again struck by the absence of sound.  Birdsong and the occasional soft pat-pat of the lake lapping at the shore were the only sounds to disturb the contemplative silence.  The brown, Gothic entrance was closed, but the handle turned easily and granted entry to the Chapel.  As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lighted interior, they were rewarded with a view of one of the most charming Chapels I have seen in Ireland.  The main altar, constructed in marble, is carved with intricate celtic symbols and statues.  Behind, the honey-coloured, wooden altarpiece continues the carved celtic theme, with intertwined celtic knots and symbols of eternity.  Above the altarpiece, two narrow stained glass windows rise like tapers and filter the natural light with images of St. Finbarr and St. Maria Patrona.

Main Altar, St. Finbarr's Oratory

Main Altar, St. Finbarr’s Oratory

Gougane Barra. The name trips lightly off the tongue and for anyone who has been there, the idyllic setting begs a return visit.  It is no wonder that the 6th Century Saint Finbarr decided to build a monastery here in this quiet place to educate his followers.  Originally, access was only by boat, but today there is a footpath that leads from the mainland.  The monastery at Gougane Lake became known as Gougane Finbarra, which eventually shortened to simply Gougane Barra.

The site has inspired poems and songs, and the Chapel is a favourite for brides.  During the penal times locals secretly wended their way through mountain paths  in order to celebrate Mass at the monastery and still today, it is considered a Holy Place where pilgrims come to pray and collect water from the Holy Well.

Prayer cells in the Monastery ruins

Prayer cells in the Monastery ruins

St. Finbarr’s original monastery no longer exists, and the current ruins are part of a 17th Century monastery built by a priest who, following in the footsteps of St. Finbarr, also aspired to a life of prayer and contemplation.  Behind the chapel, enclosed by four stone walls and surrounding a large wooden cross, are a series of prayer cells.  Each of the back walls of these prayer caves or cells is inscribed with a cross.  Even today, it is a wonderful place to pray and reflect.

In addition to the historical information surrounding Gougane Barra, there are numerous legends as well.  One of the more famous ones tells of the chase and expulsion of a great sea monster from Gougane Lake which resulted in the creation of a large channel that is now the River Lee.  The river, whose source is Gougane Lake flows west to the sea at Cork City.  To commemorate this legend, tucked into a hedge along the road near the isle, is a charming little sea monster just waiting to have his photograph taken.

Sea Monster

Sea Monster

Situated in West Cork near the village of Ballingeary, Gougane Barra features a lovely hotel (closed in winter) and bar with views of the scenic splendor.  We will visit it again on the Emerald Essence Tour 2014.   Lake Chapel Gougane Barra

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