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Oh, friends.  Friends. Friends, I am here and it is perfect.  But I have to admit, it took me a couple of days to find the Ireland I had hoped to visit – the wind-scrubbed brilliant green and red-clay landscape, cut with steppes of deep black peat bogs and thick wild hedgerows, dotted with cows, sheep and horses…….oh dear, I’ve gone into the reverie already, have I?  Let me go back a bit.

Between Hamburg and the peat bogs: our cheap flight from Germany into Ireland included an overnight stopover at the London Luton airport, arriving around 7:30pm and leaving the next morning at 6:30am.  After a brief psychosis in which I thought we could travel the hour in and out of London and see a bit of the city before catching a few z’s and hitting the airport, I came to reality and we decided to just stay in Luton.  Even with the super cheap flights, I’m not convinced that we saved money by stopping in the UK.  We had to change Euros into Pounds for the night, at a ghastly airport rate, so that we could take a taxi to and from our hotel and eat dinner.  Walking around Luton turned out to be slightly life-threatening as it appears only coal-mining vampires live there, and our easyHotel accommodation proved that the man who invented Port-A-Potties is now designing hotel rooms.  Luckily, we only had 11 hours there and many of them were spent sleeping so the stop was mostly an amusing anecdote.

Wednesday morning we arrived in Dublin and spent two days there.  Dublin was great – we stayed in the famous Temple Bar district which meant that everything we needed and wanted to do was within walking distance.  Our first stop was Dublinia, a museum dedicated to the city’s origins as a Viking settlement and later Medieval development.  As someone with Viking blood in my veins as well as a deep love of Ireland in my heart (oh, can you tell?) it was a pretty cool blending of cultural interests for me.  During our time there we explored the neighborhood, visited the National Gallery, the Book of Kells and Trinity College, spent $25 doing laundry, and witnessed the aftermath of a cement truck which had run into the gates at the Parliament building that morning in protest of the bank bailouts, which were passed the next day.

On our first day we visited a bookstore and I bought Our Man in Hibernia by Charlie Connelly, a Londoner who long dreamed of emigrating to the beloved Emerald Isle, and then…did.  It’s a perfect fit for me, no?  The book is providing some interesting new background for me as we travel around, especially as regards the mood of the country in the wake of the devastating economic downturn, and the fantasy versus the reality of “the real Ireland”.  (For something completely different, Eric bought Columbine by Dave Cullen and is absolutely riveted by it.  If you like journalistic non-fiction, you might want to check it out.)

Okay okay, so here’s the deal: despite Dublin’s coolness and history, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed with my first two days in Ireland.  I wanted to see the Ireland I’d dreamed of, and here I was in a city which can never really give you a taste of the true culture of a place; it’s too conglomerated and pot-melted and global, really.  I half-suspected, half-hoped that I would find (my fantasy of) “the real Ireland” after we left the city.

I was not disappointed.

Yesterday we rented a car and drove north out of Dublin.  I am driving on the left side of the road and doing it pretty darn well!  It took some adjusting, but by the end of the day I felt surprisingly comfortable.

Sidebar: Our money is running out more rapidly than expected over here, which is cause for some concern and frustration.  After discovering on Thursday night that we had already spent 2/3 of our food budget in the first 1/4 of our trip and shuffling money between budget categories to make it okay, I got a little snitty about shelling out an additional €125 for comprehensive auto insurance on the car rental.  As I fretted out loud about this while waiting for the shuttle to the car pick-up, my beloved said with great sincerity, “Well of course, the most valuable part of this trip will be the most inexpensive…our memories.”  To which I replied, “Oh my God I will punch you in the face.”  Eric looked like a kicked puppy only for a second, but since I couldn’t even get it out without smiling, we both broke out in peals of laughter that left the rest of the shuttle bus passengers wondering what was so funny.

About an hour out of Dublin we stopped for lunch at a kitschy seaside place called Fitzpatrick’s, where we chatted with four Americans who were just wrapping up their vacation; two of them lead a tour to Ireland every year!  (Hello dream job, I’ll take one.)  They tipped us off to a dolmen stone about ten minutes down the road, behind a hotel and golf course.  It was my first standing stone and very cool indeed – the doorway to a long-gone burial tomb from about 2000-3000 BC with a top stone weighing about 40 tonnes.  Not tons.  Tonnes.  So many extra letters, these people use.  I secretly love it.

Then our drive took us into Northern Ireland to the Giant’s Causeway, a natural rock formation on the northern edge of the island that is starkly gorgeous.  We got there at a glorious time of day, when the light was just right.  After an hour or so of scrambling around the Causeway, we headed west through Londonderry and back into Ireland proper, stopping for dinner in Letterkenny before the final stretch to our hostel in Ardara.  It got dark, and then it got rainy, and then the road got narrow, and then we saw “Deer Crossing Next 9km”.  My driving confidence faded, but we made it safely to Ardara around 10:30pm and found that we had the cold, cavernous hostel all to ourselves.  It was a strange night, but after a fair-to-middling night’s sleep and a full Irish breakfast we set off for the absolutely stunning scenery of southern County Donegal.

Gleann Cholme Cille (Glencolumbkille) – which might be the unofficial capitol of the Dún na nGall (Donegal) gaeltacht – was our first stop, and an ironic one for me.  Over the last few years I have attended an Irish language immersion weekend in San Francisco, taught by teachers from Oideas Gael, a language and culture school in that town.  This weekend I’m here, but they’re all there, teaching the weekend.  Boo!  Still, there was plenty to see along the coast.  The highlights were the beach at Gleann Cholme Cille and the summit of the stunning Slíabh Líag (Slieve League) mountains – “possibly the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe” which boasted not only beautiful 360 degree views but also a sky and sea that glistened absolute silver and made the Irish belief in fairies more understandable.

But the whole day was the highlight, really.  We drove on the left side of the road through endlessly stunning scenery, listening to Raidío na Gaeltachta, the national Irish-speaking radio station, as they narrated the horse races and played lovely Sean Nós tracks (we also heard a beautiful rendition of “Falling Slowly” sung in Irish!), breathing in the scent of burning peat from the cottages along the road, avoiding both hillwalkers and sheep in the road, and generally taking in the loveliness of southern Donegal.  By the afternoon we landed in our B&B in Na Cealla Beaga (Killybegs) where the entire town is papered with the flag of its Gaelic Football club in preparation for tomorrow’s big game against Na Gleannta (Glenties) and where I now write to you, by the fire, sipping tea, belly full of Killybegs shrimp and Donegal lamb, lungs full of sea air, with my dearest Eric reading next to me.  I am a happy girl.

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