Friday, December 20, 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Well the weather was definitely not ideal for exploring the beautiful city of Dresden. But being the great Minnesotans we are we didn't let a little cold wind stop us (and later rain). So we started off the tour seeing the beautiful church of our lady Mary.  A wedding was being held there that morning so the church wasn't open to visitors. It would be absolutely incredible to be married in the church. After that we walked to another church and on the way saw a huge mosaic on the side of a building that illustrated many royal figures from Dresden.

 The church we finally got to was another incredible sight with many statues of saints adorning the roof. It is a Catholic Church that had to be kept secret during construction since Dresden is primarily Protestant. After that we took a walk through a kind of courtyard that used to have orange trees growing. (Maybe they still do grow but we didn't see any). The courtyard was beautiful with Greek mythological statues all over and incredible views of the city. After pretending to be royal and promenade around we headed to a museum that had tons of art from the royals of Germany. So many intricate statues, boxes, plates, and figurines that were incredible. It seemed that everything was made of ivory, gold, silver, or had jewels all over. Needless to say I left feeling quite poor. 
We also got to see a Turkish display of old weapons and armor as well as a display of Medieval armor. The more I see medieval armor the more I am amazed that people could even move in it. After the art museum we went back to the church of our lady and got to walk around inside. It's really cool to see how great of a job they did restoring the church after it was essentially bombed to bits during World War Two. So after the long day in Dresden we headed home. I would love to go back someday when the weather is nicer. It's a very cool city. I can't believe the exchange is almost over. It feels like we just got here and I don't know what I will do without doner!! I've become addicted to the cheapness and deliciousness of them. I'll end with a cool quote that Anja told us about Dresden.  It is said that people go to Chemnitz (a town in Saxony) to work, they go to Leipzig to trade, and they go to Dresden to live and experience culture.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hospital Visit

Today we went to the University Hospital in Leipzig, which is where the students at the Berufsfachschule go for their clinicals. We were fortunate to run into a nurse named Clemens who went on the exchange several years ago and he showed us to the orthopedic unit. The unit was more open than ours with a  sunroof right in the center. They still use paper charts in the hospitals and the nurses here are more like LPN because the doctors do most of the work, but Clemens said that was in the process of changing. 
We then headed up to the Reverse Isolation/Transplant unit. We were met by the Head of the Ward and he explained the rundown of the unit. The unit is funded by the International Leukemia Foundation established by the great tenor Jose Carreras, (one of the Three Tenors) who became ill with leukemia but recovered from the disease years ago. In Germany they do bone marrow as well as stem cell transplants. Note: this is not stem cell research. Our bodies actually make stem cells in our bones and that is where they are harvested. These patients have severe illnesses that require treatments that completely wipe out the immune system. Since there is no way for their body to fight off even the mildest of colds, they are put into reverse isolation. This means that instead of protecting the rest of the world from this one patient we protect the patient from the entire world. Even as visitors who had no contact with any patients, we had to take off our shoes and clothes, and put on different shoes and sterile packaged scrubs. 
Each single room looks like something out of a fancy magazine, but with a plastic bubble wall on one side. The patients remain in this one room for about a month while their immune system rebuilds itself after the stem cell or bone marrow transplant. Basically no physical contact if possible--even the nurses and doctors who come to get blood or check vitals stay outside the room and do it using long gloves attached to the plastic wall. Once the patient's white blood cell count reaches about 1000 then they are free to go. If they bring anything from the outside like books or computers, (or for one little girl, a giant stuffed animal horse)  it all has to be sterilized up the wazoo, and they have to keep a really careful personal hygiene regimen too. On this ward there are two separate parts; one side is for patients ages 8 - 65 and the other for 65+. Each treatment protocol is very strict and the patients are monitored extremely closely because even though this is one of the very best transplant units in the entire world, the five-year mortality rate is still 50%. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Saxon Switzerland Part II

It was around lunch time when we reached the top, so after taking 99,000 photos, 

we sat down to munch on some fresh rolls, goat cheese, strawberries and grapes. Yum! We continued on our loop hike through a complex network of paths. Because of the surrounding sandstone, the paths are covered with a layer of fine white sand. Reaching the next overlook involved a very long descent and, since what goes down must come up, an equally long ascent where hands were definitely needed to keep from sliding off the rock face. 
The group felt that they needed some assistance, so they found some great walking sticks. Umm... Dawn? Are you sure that stick is the right size? Always trying to outdo everyone, eh?
When we got to the top, we drank the rest of our water and then admired the view. Again, a spectacular panorama was stretched out at our feet, and we took full advantage of the possibilities of digital photography. 

To prepare for the next leg of the trip, a nap was felt to be in order, and as it turns out, eroded sandstone makes the perfect place to snooze. 
We were sorry to leave this spectacular spot, but there were rain clouds looming on the horizon, so we made tracks for the parking lot. In this case, tracks meant long staircases! The rain luckily held off long enough for us to buy a variety of cake from the wood-fired oven in Schmilka. In fact, while we were devouring a large piece of "Bee's Sting" (Bienenstich) cake, the sun came back out. Kaffeetrinken (afternoon coffee-break with cake) is mandatory in Germany. After wishing that we had bought more Bienenstich, we took a short jaunt into the Czech Republic. It was a really odd sensation to drive right past the old border with its gigantic passport control buildings.
Now, you can just drive right across, and the only thing that changes is the language the road signs are written in!We had a really great time in Saxon Switzerland, and the rain even  held off until we finally hit the road again.

Saxon Switzerland Part I

At the crack of dawn (well, 8am) we met Anja Gipp, the English teacher at the technical school, to go to a national park called Saxon Switzerland about two hours northeast of Leipzig. Anja owns a minivan, which is pretty rare for Germany, so we all fit inside. We headed for the Autobahn and were soon zooming northeast. Anja is a conservative driver, so we only went about 110mph, and there were cars flying past us in the fast lane. Time went by quickly admiring German cars and the surrounding landscape, a patchwork of yellow blossoming fields and forests, sprinkled with small villages, church spires and farmhouses. We arrived in Schmilka, a town right on the border with the Czech Republic, got into our hiking shoes and headed straight up the mountain. First we hiked through the village of Schmilka, which has an operating flour mill and a wood-fired oven that bakes amazing cakes.
The national park encompasses a large area of sandstone cliffs and outcroppings etched out of the terrain by the Elbe River over thousands of years. The climb up to the top of the mountain involves a lot of steep ascents up ladders, stone steps, and along massive cliffs, caves and boulders. Everyone in the group was enthusiastic despite some lingering sore muscles from our long bike ride yesterday. And, as it turns out, the view from the top was well worth it! Far in the distance, you could see the looming outcrop of Königstein, a mountaintop fortress where all the treasures of Dresden were taken for safekeeping during World War II. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Fahrradtour/Bike Tour zum Cospudener See

Today we went on a bike ride to the nearby lake. My day started a little rough. Because of the lack of communication to the outside world (my host was home for the holiday) I couldn't let anyone know my bike was locked up, and I didn't have the key. So I went to my sister, Dawn's apartment to meet Karen with the news. Karen's host had an extra bike at home, so I rode on the back of Karen's bike (all metal rack, feet up) all the way there. Eventually we got on our way with the rest of the group.
The bike ride was very nice. For a city with half a million people, they have a lot of woods and trails to ride through that are also well kept. We passed a big area where Bärlauch, or wild garlic, was blooming. The woods actually smelled like garlic. On the way we were tricked by Surab, one of the students, who told us to run across a structure that sprayed water at us.... very cool though. There was also an awesome little park that had mini rope climbing and jungle gym made all of wooden branches.
We arrived at the lake but it was very windy, so we sheltered behind some trees for our picnic. We had delicious salads, meatballs, felafel and desserts. To work it off, we played Fußball, or soccer, in the sand. After two rounds we were all worn out and sandy; some of us even took naps on the beach. Then we headed out again going around the lake to a lookout tower which you could climb all the way up and see a fantastic view of the lake, Leipzig, and the surrounding towns. Since it was a holiday, the lake was full of people practicing windsurfing and parasailing. We saw a lot more woods, some bison and people canoeing on the way back. Again, for a big city, it sure has a small town feel.
We were invited to have dinner at the home of one of the teachers from the Berufsfachschule (school). Anja had a barbecue for us with again some delicious salads. The food here has been great so far, and also especially healthy. The people we have met have also been very welcoming and hospitable. --Ashley

Sunday, May 19, 2013

I am a Berliner!

Hello all! Well, today we went to Berlin. On the way there we took local trains because we had what's called a Wochenendticket--a group of five people can get a really cheap ticket to travel together on the weekend, but you can't ride the high-speed rail. We were in the same train car as a group of Fußball fans headed to a regional soccer game. They were all wearing team colors in blue and white and were already pretty excited for early in the morning.
Berlin was amazing! So many cool monuments and history. It's just so amazing that I finally get to see all the monuments and historical places I have read about in my history books. 
Checkpoint Charlie
We saw the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, the Reichstag, and the monument to the Sinti, Roma, and other victims of the Holocaust. We walked what is left of the Berlin Wall, which is now called the East Side Gallery and is decorated with lots of pictures by artists from around the world, and visited Alexander Platz, which used to be on the East German side and has the famous World Clock. Then we visited Checkpoint Charlie, the main point where you could cross back and forth through the Berlin Wall from East to West Berlin. The wall was really cool. It's crazy to think that only 24 years ago Berlin was still divided. Seeing video of people crossing the wall and tearing it down gives me chills. It's such an amazing victory. (The even cooler part is that the first peaceful protests that led to the wall's downfall started in Leipzig! We got to see the church where the first meetings were held and went through a museum in Leipzig about the first protests and how it finally led to Peaceful Revolution and the wall being torn down. There is a fountain in Leipzig that symbolizes how one drop of water can cause a basin to overflow--that drop was the Leipzig demonstrations.) The history is amazing and it makes me never want to leave! (But I will... don't worry mom!) After Checkpoint Charlie we headed down to a festival that was happening called the carnival of customs. Tons of people everywhere--it was so crazy. Lots of interesting people from all over the world. 

Berlin Cathedral
It was really cold when we got up in the morning but we kept shedding layers of clothes and by afternoon it was really hot and we ended up with tan lines on our feet!
Berlin highlights the contrast between buildings that have been around for centuries and very contemporary designs that you see everywhere in German architecture. You never know what is going to be around the next corner, and exploring the city is a lot of fun. 
Before we finally headed home to Leipzig we grabbed some food at the Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) and then hopped on the train back. --Mariah

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Wave Gothic Festival

Every year over the holiday weekend at Pentecost, the city of Leipzig floods with Goths from all over the world who come to Leipzig to see and mostly to be seen. The streets are filled with throngs in black and red, long leather jackets, metal studs, multiple body piercings, varying amounts of underwear worn as outerwear, crinoline dresses, shaved heads, colored contact lenses, black lace umbrellas and black and white makeup. If you close your eyes, the overpowering scent of patchouli in all the streetcars makes it impossible to forget it's arrived: the Wave Gothic Festival!

This international gathering of Goth fans has been happening in Leipzig since 1988, when it was broken up by the police in what was then the former East Germany. This year, over 20,000 devotees of steampunk, Victorian Goths, rivetheads and vampires (and quite a few Goth-in-training babies) descended on the city wearing elaborate costumes to listen to a huge lineup of bands including Koffin Kats, Nachtgeschrei,  Lux Interna, and The Cassandra Complex. Like many others in Leipzig, we headed downtown to see what was going on. We argued about the best styles and took lots of notes on wardrobe dos and don'ts for class next fall.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mörderballaden/Murder Ballads

After a full morning of classes on Thursday, during which Kate and Mariah demonstrated to the German students how to administer an enema, we prepared to go to the Leipzig Opera House to see "Mörderballaden", a modern dance performance based on the album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds called Murder Ballads. We all dressed up, as did most of the audience. However, some of the people from the Wave Gothic Festival were also there, which helped to set the macabre mood! 
The interior of the opera house was astonishing. A spiral staircase brought us to the top floor, where there was a gigantic and beautiful chandelier. We were in the 37th and 38th row, near the back, but we had a great view of the stage, which featured a large pond. As we waited there were pond noises which made us feel right at home. As the ballet began, a girl walked and then ran through a forest created with three clear curtains with trees printed on them. It looked magical. It didn't really have a sad tone despite how dark it was. The dancers were dressed in modern costume until the end, when they wore more traditional poofy tutus, but went skidding through the artificial pond and came out sopping wet. There were some really interesting effects with lighting from below and through different materials, like a transparent screen with a projection of a girl's face on it. My favorite scene was at the end when they were in tutus, when it returned to the forest backdrop and it was snowing. It was mystic. When the show was over , the dancers bowed. They bowed about ten times! We thought they would never stop. Our overall conclusion was that Mörderballaden was an interesting combination of dark murder and beautiful dance scenes. We had a great time and loved having the opportunity to dress up! --Dawn

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wilkommen in Leipzig

Leipzig...what a place! When I thought of Germany before coming here I thought it was only men with bushy beards drinking beer...but it is more than that.
Today we took a walking tour of the city and it was so interesting to see the mix of architecture. You have the classic castles, churches, the communist apartment buildings, and the new (modern) skyscrapers.
Old City Hall, Leipzig
Wunderbar!!! They get off most on the same music we do (think Maclamore, Rhianna, Justin Bieber), they have most of the same brands we do, and they enjoy carbs!!!
We walk or take the tram (think Lightrail) everywhere we go to get daily exercise because most people in Leipzig walk, bike, or take public transportation. There are bike lanes everywhere and you had better stay out of them because people go flying by you at 25 mph. Definitely a healthier lifestyle.
So far we have already attended classes (we even got to teach a little bit), toured the city and played ultimate Frisbee with the students. This weekend we are going to go to the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum, a museum all about the Peaceful Revolution that started here in Leipzig and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany; see the Gothic festival, tour old churches, swim, visit Berlin, and experience student life in Germany!
We are very well taken care of by everyone we meet. I don't feel excluded because most students speak English well enough to communicate. The cafeteria people are extremely hospitable, and our host families are the greatest!
Have I mentioned food yet? Because you can't put into words how good the food and drinks are! Katelyn

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Leipzig 2013 Los geht's!

On Tuesday, after a long Lufthansa flight to Leipzig, Germany via Toronto and Düsseldorf, the group of students from the CSS Leipzig Exchange 2013, Dawn and Ashley Schwantke, Katelyn Wegerson and Mariah Sis, and Dr. Karen Rosenflanz arrived in Germany. We went straight to the Berufsfachschule (Medical Training School) of the University of Leipzig near downtown Leipzig , where we'll be visiting classes and getting to know nursing students and faculty.

Frau Roswitha Grötsch greets Leipzig Exchange students at the Berufsfachschule

After a quick briefing on our jam-packed schedule of events we headed downtown on the streetcar to see the sights and dive into German culture. Already conquered: the words for "Excuse me": Entschuldigung and "Nonsense!": Quatsch!! 
The students will be blogging about their exciting adventures in Leipzig over the next two weeks.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Croagh Patrick

As we near the end of our time in Ireland, I find myself thinking back over the highlights of the trip.  The coldest that I have ever been (at a Gaelic football game), the best upper body workout that I’ve ever had (surfing in a bodysuit), the first Guinness I ever drank…the list keeps growing.  And as of last Tuesday, I can gladly (if slowly) add the newest of the Irish life experiences.  The hardest I have ever worked to go just under one, tiny little mile.  It took three and a half hours and my knees may never be the same.

Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain.  It rises from the countryside like a rugged pyramid, shadowing a bay of the Atlantic Ocean and providing a landmark for any wandering around the Westport/Louisburgh area.  The peak rises 762 meters above sea level and can easily be seen from Louisburgh on a clear day.  Since first arriving here, I have used the mountain as a beacon—especially when returning from one of our long trips from across Ireland.  When I see Croagh Patrick, I know that I am almost home.  I have looked upon it with a mixture of respect and intimidation, because I have also known that eventually I was going to climb it.  Now that I am comfortably massaging my weary feet in front of our empty fireplace (I simply don’t have the energy to build one right now), I can only think back to when I stood at the very top of the mountain and shake my head.  This was the experience of a lifetime.


Hikers begin the climb from a small car park eight kilometers outside of Westport.  Beginning the climb is intimidating to say the least.  The trail snakes up the side of a shorter rise next to Croagh Patrick, the mountain itself being too steep at this point for hikers to safely climb it.  The path is made from sharp, loose rocks that roll and shift underneath the unwary hiker’s boots.  By the time we reached the crest of the first rise, I could feel my calf and thigh muscles burning and I was more than happy to take a short break.  The view, even from this midway point, was breathtaking.  The island riddled bay glistened to one side of the mountain while the other side harbored rolling mountains, dark patches of pine forest and (of course) small, rock lined pastures filled with grazing sheep.  It was when I turned to look at Croagh Patrick, however, that I felt my heart sink.  The mountain looked steeper and more daunting than ever.


At this point, we walked along the narrow crest of the shorter mountain until we reached the side of Croagh Patrick.  Many of the people in front of us were nearly crawling as they scrambled up the steep side, loose rocks rolling beneath the hikers.  As we started to climb, I could feel the backs of my hiking boots protesting against my heels and I knew that it would be hell to pay once I made it to the top.  One of the most difficult parts of the climb was the fact that for every step I took, I lost half a step when the rocks I stepped on shifted down the mountainside.  I honestly don’t know how the mountain hasn’t completely shifted into the sea after all these years of traveling hikers and pilgrims. 

After an hour of this, I didn’t have to worry about my feet anymore: I could no longer feel them.  I did however feel (and regret) every single croissant and doughnut that I’ve ingested during this three month period (and it’s no modest amount, because quite frankly the pastries here are amazing).  The last leg of the climb is the steepest and when my two friends and I heaved ourselves onto the mountain’s peak, we were all out of breath and wobbling about on very shaky legs.  However, the view quickly trumped my need to collapse.

It was a mildly hazy day, but even so I could see Louisburgh in the distance, along with Westport, the Atlantic and, of course, the surrounding mountains.  The clouds cast startlingly beautiful designs across the sun lit bay, dancing amongst the islands like an ever changing puzzle.  The wind was incredible and while I had been getting very warm while hiking, I was quickly chilled as I soaked in the view.  Soon we were beginning the slow climb back down and while I was certainly glad to no longer be going up, I still was amazed by the strain this descent made for my already shaky knees (not to mention that I spent much of the downward progress on my rear, since the rolling rocks were still…well, rolling).


It has been two days since we made the climb and I can still feel the aftermath on my very red heels and extraordinarily stiff shoulders.  Climbing Croagh Patrick reminded me of three very important things.  First, the world is a magnificent, beautiful place.  Second, the greatest things in life are often the hardest to achieve.  And finally…

 I am laying off the doughnuts.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Last Port of Call

The "Queenstown Story" Exhibit
As a young boy, 5 or 6 perhaps, I had dreams of being a ship captain.  And not just any ship captain… I was going to be the captain of the RMS Titanic. Never mind the fact that it sits thousands of feet beneath the North Atlantic.  I wanted to be in charge of the largest and most luxurious vessel to sail the seas.  Needless to say, the year was 1997 and I was absolutely obsessed with James Cameron’s cinematic masterpiece, Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio.  I may have been too young to understand a fair share of the movie, but I was in complete awe of the ship and her stories.  Fast forward to present day and my dreams certainly have changed.  I’m now trying to stick to career paths that actually exist and I much prefer air travel over sea travel. However, Titanic still holds a very special place in my heart. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to visit Cobh, the final port of call for Titanic, on her first, and last, voyage.  It was a simply magical experience that was able to reignite the same awe struck emotions that I felt as a child when thinking about the “Ship of Dreams”- Titanic.
Located on the southern coast of Ireland just below the city of Cork, Cobh is a small port town with a very big history. During the famine years, Cobh, then known as Queenstown, became a major point of emigration in Ireland. In fact, out of the 6 million Irish citizens that emigrated between 1848 and 1950, 2.5 million of them departed from Cobh (Cobh Heritage). The emigrants would travel by sea to North America in search of jobs, food, and shelter. However, conditions on the ships for these emigrants were overcrowded and filthy. As a matter of fact, it was initially not uncommon for passengers to perish on their journey over due to sickness and starvation. Years later, Irish and European emigration levels stabilized and the preferred method of overseas travel had transitioned to air travel. Cobh’s significance as a port of emigration may have been diminished, but its’ rich history lives on. In 1989 the local community in Cobh created the Cobh Heritage Trust to preserve and display the city’s history, and on March 1st, 1993 a heritage center known as “The Queenstown Story” was opened to the public. The center includes several exhibits depicting the mass emigration from Ireland and how difficult the journey was. Of course, no heritage center in Cobh would be complete without an exhibit on the most famous ship to stop in Queenstown, the Titanic.
The heritage center itself is located inside a beautifully restored Victorian railway station. The same railway station that an emigrant may have arrived at to begin their journey to the United States on the RMS Titanic. The atrium where the train platforms once stood now house a gift shop full of wonderful exhibit related souvenirs and a café serving delicious soups and sandwiches. Near the back is the exhibit itself. It is set up in chronological order starting in 1791 with the “convict ships” of the British Empire, which sent prisoners to Australia for various crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The “Queenstown Story” then goes on to focus on the famine and emigration in Ireland. With potato crops failing, poverty ensued, and leaving Ireland was the only way many felt they could survive. Between 1845 and 1851 over 1.5 million people emigrated from Ireland due to famine and poverty.  The exhibit is dark and cold in the famine section, with eerie and ominous maritime sounds coming from the background. It plays on your senses and makes you realize just how badly the emigrants had it, if only for a moment.
Further down the line is the exhibit I came to see, the Titanic. I must admit that I may have rushed through the beginning of the exhibit to get to the part I had been waiting for. However, the anticipation was simply overwhelming.  Even though I already knew just about everything the exhibit was about to tell me, I was eager to immerse myself in all things Titanic.  The Titanic portion took up about just as much space as the first two portions combined.  The walls were plastered with historical text and beautiful pictures.  Blueprints displayed just how gigantic and cutting edge the ship was in her day, and scale models showed just how gorgeous a ship could really be. Naturally, much focus was put on the ship’s stop in Queenstown on April 11, 1912. Perhaps most interesting to me was a handwritten letter from a passenger that was dropped off to be delivered from Queenstown.  It’s crazy to think it was written aboard the Titanic over one hundred years ago. Another striking exhibition feature was the Queenstown passenger roster. A total of 123 passengers boarded the Titanic in Queenstown, making for a total of 2,206 on board. Next to the passenger’s names was a cross that indicated if they had perished in the tragedy and, sadly, many of them did. It was a somber moment.
There was one part of the exhibit that stood out the most to me, and that was the photos of Titanic taken by Father Francis Browne, a Jesuit priest who disembarked in Queenstown.  His photographs are the only known to show the Titanic in action with passengers and all.  The pictures remind you that Titanic is more than just a story or a blockbuster film.  They show real people doing real activities, with no idea of what fate lay ahead of them. One picture shows Titanic sitting majestically in Cork harbor, perhaps one of the best photos of her ever taken. Naturally, it was the largest photo in the entire exhibit.
Titanic sitting majestically in Cork Harbor- Taken by Father Francis Browne
The Queenstown Story wraps up decently with sections on the sinking of the Lusitania and the decline in sea travel, but they have a hard act to follow with the Titanic exhibit in front of them. After all, she was big in just about every way, including in her demise.  For a Titanic enthusiast, just being in Cobh is an incredibly exciting experience.  The Cobh Heritage Trust and The Queenstown Experience make it even more exciting by adding real life stories and artifacts. Even if you’re not a Titanic enthusiast, I’d strongly recommend paying a visit. I guarantee you will learn something new, and just maybe, you will fall in love with Titanic just as much as I am.  I may never end up living out my dream of becoming the captain of Titanic… In fact, it’s a certainty I will not. However, she’s called “the ship of dreams” for a reason, and it’s safe to say a little part of my dream will never die. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Of Peat and Plastic

It's spring break here in Ireland and students have ventured off to explore Europe, leaving myself and two other students to watch over the Louisburgh cottages for a week.  Having my own place has been wonderfully relaxing and peaceful, although I will admit that I am looking forward to the girls getting back.  I’ve enjoyed my time sitting in front of the peat fire, crocheting and sipping massive cups of coffee while watching movies and listening to annoying music that I make an attempt not to frustrate my dear cottage-mates with.  All in all, it has been a peaceful break.
        Of course, with St. Patrick’s Day quickly approaching, Ireland is beginning to pick up the spring time pace.  Lambs need moved to greener fields, peat is being harvested and the pubs are preparing for the wave of tourists that make it a point to see Ireland during the most famous of Irish holidays.  So while the cottage is getting a little lonely, I know that I need to enjoy my peace and quiet while I can—it’s about to disappear.

I woke up yesterday morning to find this little guy sulking in my kitchen window…I know that I am deprived of company when I start saying good morning to visiting arachnids.  Figuring that he would take care of any insect visitors, I left him to his web building.  Since he was gone this morning, I can only wonder what part of my house he is making a new home in.  Perhaps I should have evicted him when I had the chance.

            Spiders aside, there have been quite a few things I have learned about life in general over this break.  The first is that no matter what anyone tells you, corned beef is not an Irish tradition.  We visited several butchers over the past week and have been offered everything from strange, ham-bacon substances to straight cabbage and salt until finally a man said, “we don’t have corned beef.  That’s an American tradition and you aren’t going to find it anywhere in Ireland.”  End of story, I guess.  Maybe I’ll have to try to find a new St. Patty’s day tradition.  Or, better yet, I’ll sample the bacon-ham and look forward to an American Irish feast for next year. 

The second thing that I have learned (or rather, perfected) is the art of building a peat fire.  It’s really not as easy as it sounds.  First, you lay down a good bed of coals, arranging a few pieces of a fire starter through the cracks.  Then I used three small pieces of wood kindling, placing them strategically over the starters so that they will catch, but won’t block all of the flame or air.  Then comes the turf.  Since this is several centuries worth of Irish mud that has been cut and dried under an Irish sun (yes, there is such a thing), burning it takes a good deal care and more than a great deal of planning.  I try to make either a Lincoln log style fort or the more customary tent out of the longer strips.  Then I put a compact peat piece somewhere near the middle where it will catch most of the fire starter’s flame.  You know you’ve done well if you can drop a match through a pre-arranged crack and sit back while the fire starts up.  Last night I had a particularly beautiful fire going.

Which brings me to my third life lesson.  I was crocheting in front of this wonderful fire, sipping pint of Guinness and watching Mel Gibson learn what women want when I noticed that the plastic bag my yarn came in was adding to the clutter around my feet.  Thinking this a simple problem, I kicked the bag into the fire.  Of the funniest sounds in the world, I think that the whomp a bag makes when it goes up your chimney has to be one of the greatest.  Well, the bag stuck in the flue.  My cottage was quickly rolling with smoke and after a few minutes of staring at this disaster in a kind of baffled disbelief, I ran to the windows, threw them open and began to tear apart my fire.  In case you’ve never been to Ireland, peat smoke smells remarkably like burning hair or horse hooves.  It’s not exactly pleasant.  The coals, which are usually a blessing, now were adding to chaos…they don’t go out easily and even after I had removed my smoking peat, the fire still was rolling.  It took a good half an hour before the thing was reduced to a mess of glowing embers and ash, during which time I had made and disregarded several plans on how to fix this ridiculous situation.  I attempted to push a stick up the chimney, but because of the angle, nothing would go far enough in.  I tried vacuuming the flue, but this only resulted in a pile of soot falling onto the embers and creating yet another wave of foul smelling smoke.  I opened a vent and tried vacuuming that, but all I achieved was a face full of soot and the realization that the vent doesn’t connect with the chimney.  I looked outside, but in the dark and the rain I quickly decided that climbing onto the roof was a horrible idea.

I know when I’m licked.  I went to bed last night covered in soot, reeking of smoke and freezing while I waited for the gas heat to warm up my cottage.  This morning I had to swallow my pride and ask for help…one of the wonderful cottage managers came over with a long, pliable piece of plastic and managed to pull the bag down.  So I am pleased to say that I am writing this in front of a peat fire, sipping my coffee and chuckling over how quickly one little whomp can flush a perfectly peaceful evening down the toilet.  I think that I’ll spend the rest of my day making some Challah bread (which I will raise in front of the fire) later and maybe finish learning about Mel and what women want.  For right now, I’m perfectly happy listening to the birds sing, the fire crackle and the wind whistle.  There’s no place like Ireland in the springtime.

Where Giants Roam

There is a place along the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland where the past and the future rush up to meet you. Giant’s Causeway makes you a child again as it sweeps you away into a landscape filled with extraordinary sights, both real and imagined. It brings to mind the endlessness of time, that these beautiful shores have been here a millennia and will continue on a millennia more.

Before one even glimpses the great outdoors, the modern visitor center  fills the eye with informative and interactive exhibits.  When the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center was recently completed in 2011, it was purposed to lay within its natural setting. The roof of the building is planted with local grasses grown from seeds collected from the surrounding area so that the center appears seamless with the landscape. The center calls your inner child out to play. The animated story of the giant is excellently produced.  All visitors are also supplied with a delightful and imaginative handheld audio tour of the Causeway.

As you walk down from the visitor center the cool ocean air leaps up and ruffles your hair, whipping wildly at your jacket .  All the while ,a soothing Irish accent whispers in your ear the folklore of this land’s forefathers. A view of the ocean entices you to the edge of the cliff. A bay meets you,  scattered with the evidence of centuries past, worn by the tides. There is a small ruined stone building nestled into the hillside; perhaps at one point it was a fisherman’s hovel.  Walking the pathway that curls downward around the bay, eventually your eye is directed toward a particular outcropping of rocks across the cove. This is the giant’s camel, the audio tour explains, named Humphrey. It’s really quite miraculous how much it does resemble a camel. As beautiful as this first sight is, the best is just around the corner.

The lilt of an Irish voice fills your ear as you round the bend and get your first glimpse of The Causeway. The legend about this magnificent wonder of nature lights the fire of imagination. A giant named Finn McCool lived on the Antrim coast with his wife Oonagh and the bane of his existence was his rival in Scotland known as Benandonner.  Finn was frequently taunted by Benandonner from afar and on one occasion Finn scooped up a clod of earth and hurled it across the sea at him, but missed.  The huge clod of earth landed in the middle of the Irish Sea making the Isle of Man and the depression formed from scooping up the earth filled up with water to become Lough Neagh. One day Finn finally challenged Benandonner to a proper fight and decided to build a causeway of enormous stepping stones across the sea to Scotland, so that he could walk across without getting his feet wet because, as our storyteller explains, giants hate water. As he approached and caught sight of the great bulk of Benandonner, Finn became afraid and fled back home, with Benandonner hot on his trail. In his haste , as he ran, Finn lost one of his great boots and today it can be seen sitting on the shore just beyond the Giant’s Gate where it fell to the ground. In a humorous turn of events, Finn asks his wife Oonagh to help him hide. Clever Oonagh disguised Finn as a baby and pushed him into a huge cradle, so when Benandonner saw the size of the sleeping ‘child’, he assumed the father must be gigantic. Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway as he went in case he was followed.The legend thus explains how Giant’s Causeway came to be in north Antrim, as well as the similar formation at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa.

 As you wander down the trail, the little Irish man in your ear tells you to look far along the coast to the horizon. There, he tells you, is the evidence of Finn’s home. Up out of the cliffside rise two or three columns of rock. Once upon a time, these must have been the giant’s chimney stacks. Soon you come to perhaps the most peculiar natural structure on this earth. Along the shore are many rocks, but as you walk along they make a smooth transition, taking form into great octagonal columns. The columns all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, but their heights greatly vary. They jut out from the shore in mini peninsulas. Some areas are flat, to create the image of honeycombs, while other’s uneven progression create stairs up to the next set of honeycombs. Your inner child will delight in this land of fantasy. It’s a fort to conquer or a futuristic spaceship from which to explore the galaxy.

If you prefer the scientific perspective, you may be interested to know that 65 million years ago there was a period of intense volcanic activity which lasted for several million years. The lava was more than 1000ºC and it spread over the chalk landscape, burning forests and filling river valleys. When it cooled and solidified it formed a dark grey rock - basalt. Basalt is a very common igneous rock. The Giant’s Causeway is composed of basalt, solidified lava from one of the flows that filled a river valley. As the lava cooled slowly, it cracked and shrank to develop regular patterns – much like mud when it dries up. However, unlike mud, which cracks only on the surface, the cracking in the lava went through the depth of the flow creating columns. As the cooling process continued over a long period of time, the evenly spaced cracks created a pavement like surface of thousands of regular shaped columns. Most have five and six sides, but some have four, seven or eight. Now these columns stand as a testament to time and to what can be achieved with a little patience.

The Giant’s Causeway soothes the soul. To know that there is such great beauty and wonder in this world gives me peace. Explore for a day or come back again and again, the Causeway is sure to offer a treasure trove of wonders waiting to be discovered.