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Friday, November 30, 2007

Notes on November

Continuing our trip through Ireland and Scotland, I am so happy to share it with you. But I had to make the leap back to the United States to a little potato chip factory in Middletown, Virginia, a place that friends Joan and Terry told me about years ago but somehow we never passed at the right time.


We began the day with a jaunting cart ride through Killarney National Park. It rained, but that didn’t dampen our spirits one iota. Of course it cleared up just as we left the great outdoors. Then off to other adventures before returning to a second night in Killarney.

The highlight of any trip to Ireland must be the Ring of Kerry. (I realize I keep using the word “highlight,” but there are wonderful experiences every day which I wouldn’t want to miss. It’s a glorious country.)

From Killarney we drove the Dingle Peninsula with its magnificent harbor; then up through the mountains and wild country. Limestone juts from the rough and still wild earth. Cattle and sheep graze, and we are treated to eye-popping natural beauty—most untouched by man. There is the Atlantic Ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream. There is a resort town where Charlie Chaplan vacationed and where there is a statue to his memory. We descend along Corkscrew Road back to Killarney, stopping to take in the elegant Lakes of Killarney from another vantage point. We drive through Adair and see the thatched rooves on the homes there.

Tour companies, other than the ones from France and Germany, have agreed to travel the Ring of Kerry by driving in one direction. We soon found out why.

The roads are so narrow that two coaches cannot pass each other going in opposite directions—neither can trucks, nor even full-sized cars. There were times when a truck came from the other direction and our coach as well as the truck came to a virtual stop; then they inched forward until they cleared their side view mirrors. Then they knew they had a few inches between them, so they proceeded cautiously. Car drivers were not nearly so prudent, and we had several near misses as cars careened around the curves and suddenly found themselves in the path of a monstrous coach! Oftentimes a car had to pull onto a narrow shoulder to allow the coach to pass.

Remember that the Celtic Tiger is relatively new! Electricity did not come to some of these areas until the 1970s. Today there are second homes here, but road building covered what were once basically buggy cart paths. The area is special. It’s beautifully wild and rugged with towering cliffs plunging into deep valleys, and it’s stunningly, mesmerizingly, and naturalistically breathtaking. It is a land of graceful lakes and rugged coastal cliffs. This is the Ireland I wanted to share with Rob. This is the Ireland I remembered.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Today is a big travel day. We leave Killarney and visit Limerick and Galway on our way to Sligo. One essential stop as a sign of Ireland’s beauty and power is the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. No one visiting Ireland should miss this.

I’ve been to the Cliffs of Moher before, but this second visit does nothing to preclude my drawing a quick breath in awe. Rising 700 feet high above the Atlantic, their sheer height guards and warns interlopers of this land. It’s a visual statement: “Enter at your own risk.” The sun is over our shoulders, and the light makes the cliffs appear menacing and formidable. On the spot where the cliffs reach their maximum height high above the water rises the sentry, O’Brien’s Tower. I think of early would-be invaders and cringe. Meanwhile cattle peacefully graze nearby, and looking inland we see calm and sprawling lakes. It’s quite a dramatic moment and very paradoxical.

On to Galway Bay where, after a city tour, we have time to roam the lovely pedestrian mall of this college and tourist town. Youth is at the forefront here, and the pubs and shops reflect their interests and vitality. The atmosphere here is different from Dublin’s youth. This is much more laid back, much more beautiful. Hopefully my photos will give you a “taste.”
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By the way, the tour group is really a unit, and we will be in touch with our new Saskatchewan friends Aggie and Owen, our New Zealand friends, Eric and Claire, and our Michigan friends, Lorraine and Carl.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


When I last came to Ireland, our tour took us to the Belleek China factory in Northern Ireland, allowed us some time to browse and buy, and then the coach scurried back to the safety of the Republic of Ireland. This trip enabled us to spend several days in Northern Ireland wandering the countryside and spending time in the cities of Londonderry and Belfast. What a difference even a tenuous peace can make. What a difference the media can make.

Our first stop was tremendously enlightening. We visited the Ulster-American Folk Park which traces the exodus of the Irish to America. The indoor museum explores the culture, economics and other situations that lead to 200 years of immigration, primarily to America. The potato famine constituted four years of that period. In fact, while the Catholic to Protestant ratio of immigration varied with the times, the land in Ireland was hard on everyone, and many of both religions had to leave in order to survive.

The Folk Park also chronicles the accomplishments of the Irish immigrants in America. There we went outside and traveled a path to different exhibits. We saw, for instance, the actual, pitiable cottage in which Thomas Mellon was born. He immigrated to America with his poor parents who farmed and lived in a small town in Pennsylvania—a luxurious abode compared to the house in County Tyrone. Mellon studies Ben Franklin’s advice, deciding not to farm but to go to the University of Pennsylvania. The rest is financial history.

Some of the accomplishments may seem a bit prejudiced—lauding Tammany Hall, for instance, although in all fairness, those political bosses did get the jobs and benefits for its people.

The point is, one tends to hear less about the many facets of the problems over many years that spurred immigration and more about a relatively short period of time. That really seems an oversimplification. We did come away, I think, with a much better understanding of Irish immigration and Irish successes.

Our second stop was a tour of Londonderry—Londonderry to the Protestants, Derry to the Catholics, London/Derry on the maps, and, jokingly, “Stroke City (/)” to many of the inhabitants. Goes to show how complicated life can be.

We took a coach and walking tour lead by Ronan McNamara, a man in his mid-30s born in the Republic of Ireland to a Chinese mother and an Irish father. He joked that he would give us the Buddhist view on things. He was educated in the University of Londonderry and decided to stay. He teaches and also works in the fledgling tourist industry.

Ronan’s take is that today Northern Ireland is calming. A new government was installed last spring. The position of mayor alternates yearly between a Catholic and a Protestant. There are Catholic and Protestant and Mixed schools—a real attempt at integration. If there is to be a lasting peace, it must begin with the children, he says.

People here as everywhere are interested in better lives, and as the atmosphere calms, effort has been put into reconstruction, education, and equality. Murals on the bogside recall the cry for equal rights. We heard from Ronan and from others that the media played up the Catholic vs. Protestant aspect and extremists on both sides responded to the attention and sought to keep it by perpetuating the violence. The media did not stress that the 1960s’ problems were primarily economic and voting rights oriented. No one who was not a landowner could vote, and that included all the poor regardless of religion.

Today the children of Northern Ireland have the highest grades in the UK in their University exams. The economy is better though the country’s restrictive tax structure prevents the Celtic Tiger from reaching across the border. People cross the border to buy gas.

Ronan told us that while changes are occurring, it will take time, but he did invite us to return in ten years to see how things develop. That sounds good to me. Remember, ten years ago, tour companies did not venture here.

I might add that we crossed the border from the Republic of Ireland as easily as crossing a street. No British soldiers or guards or warnings. That’s only a few months old. It was one of the last things Tony Blair did before leaving office. What a positive and uplifting change that one is.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Several years ago, our friends the Hudsons told us about Rt. 11 Potato Chips right off Rt. 81, a road we frequently travel. They guaranteed that we would love these chips. We just never seemed to pass by Middletown, Virginia when the factory was open UNTIL this last trip.

Good things happen to those who wait, and we were able to hit Rt. 11 Potato Chips on a Friday. What a great time. We got the tour and saw how these kettle chips are made. We met Sarah Cohen the owner and sampled everything that wasn’t nailed down. We filled the remaining nooks and crannies of our car with our and our traveling companions’ purchases. Who knew you can freeze potato chips. I attest to the fact that you can. We just had to keep our purchases in the trunk because they’d be too tempting if they were with us during the ride home.

You can buy Rt.11 Potato Chips on line. They’re reasonably priced, and there is enough variety to please everyone. I can tell you, every flavor is superb. Sarah matches purchases sent to military addresses, and I think that’s a wonderful quality. Her generosity is laudable. You can bet Michael will be getting some in Iraq.

Sarah is doing so well that she is moving the factory to a bigger location and retaining this spot as a retail outlet. Thus far she has refuses to allow her chips to be packaged in other names—a store brand, for instance.

I thank the Hudsons for the suggestion, and I thank Sarah for the good chips. If you’re traveling Rt. 81, Middletown, VA is a hop off, hop on stop just above Rt. 66. Don’t miss this hidden treasure.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Books open doors, it’s true, and Ernest Hemingway’s first book published in the U.S., In Our Time, a selection of short stories, opens the doors to all the great novels he was yet to write. We learn about the man, what he felt and how he thought. Though experienced in life, he was barely out of his boyhood when he wrote In Our Time.

I like short stories, and these are exciting and vivid. Every Hemingway moment comes alive through clarity of details. Each story is a motion picture in words.

Bullfighting? You feel the bullfighter’s anxiety, his sweat mixed with artistic confidence and respect. You also sense the massive power of the bull, his muscles throbbing as he seeks to kill. You practically share his feelings in the ring. Trout fishing? On a hot day, you see the sparkling pebbles at the bottom of the slow-moving stream; you see the line expertly cast, the weight heavy enough to carry the weightless fly out to the spot where it will attract the hungry trout. You experience the fight, and you recognize the respect of combatants in battle. You follow the ritualistic steps of doing it right.

Hemingway’s war stories reflect the horror of war and the confusion that sometimes exists when the smoke clears and the weary soldier returns home often unsure of how to re-enter his old world. We share, in many of the stories, the struggles to bring peace back to a confused and chaotic world and to somehow make sense of life.

The real Hemingway returned from WWI broken by by war and by love, and some of these stories reflect those feelings and the healing involved. We also catch a glimpse of the expatriat American floundering through Europe looking for something even he cannot explain.

If you’re already a Hemingway fan, re-visiting these stories is delightfully enlightening; you see again the birth of the Hemingway hero, the selection of themes, the genesis of ideas that later turn into novels, and the frailties and sensibilities of one of America’s most formidable writers.

In Our Time is a slim volume, quickly read and thoroughly entertaining. With the short story format, it does not require prolonged periods of concentration, and yet, in the end, it seems as if you’ve come such a long way. Enjoy what good writing can give with In Our Time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


We saw it all around us—the confusion over how to deal with money in a foreign land. Knowledge is power. If you know the options, you lose the confusion when you travel.

If you buy Traveler’s Checks in the US, be wary. There is a fee, and the fee varies widely. One bank I called charged 1.75%, and one charged 1%. That’s a big difference. You can also buy them through American Express and AAA, for instance, but check out those fees. Remember, too, that when you reach your destination, you have to convert the American money into local currency. You will be charged to convert, and if you have foreign money to be converted back to dollars, you will be charged again.

In terms of exchanging there are lots of options, but your best exchange rate will be found in a bank or, if available, a post office. But there is fluctuation among banks too. Rates are higher in airports and hotels. We did find that Marks & Spencer, a department store, had a bureau de change in house with no exchange fee and a good rate of exchange. Don’t have to wonder why they want shoppers to have local money at a good rate. Don’t be shy about asking around. Your concierge may be very helpful.

Do you use your credit card? If you do, there will be a transaction fee, so check out the fees on your different cards to see which is least expensive. Sometimes you will be given the option of charging in the local currency or in dollars. We found that it was slightly better to charge in the local currency. Your credit card statement will also give you a spending record, and that might be important. Try to avoid making a cash advance. Use your ATM card instead.

The easiest choice is your ATM card. You just enter the amount of money you want in that currency, and your statement will tell you the transaction rate and the dollar equivalent of your withdrawal. We withdrew $407.10 in Edinburgh. The money was presented in pounds. The total transaction fee was $1.00.

To sum it all up, despite the difference in rates, the real cost difference is not enough to have a hissy. You’re spending a lot on your trip. These fees are the cost of doing business. It’s when we’re not sure of our options that we tend to get upset, and that is something I can help you avoid.