Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Shut-In's Guide to Ireland, Part One

I went to Ireland last October, and after I got back, I wrote a multi-part travelogue for my friends. Since I've been lackluster in my blogging lately, I present the first part here for the purposes of entertaining the public.

Now, I have to point out that I traveled with Swear Jar Buddy Lana Just to sum up, there are a couple of key differences between us in regards to matters of travel.

Lana travels for a living and has been all over the globe.
EJ saw a blimp once.
Lana is able to engage complete strangers in conversation and put them at ease.
EJ becomes visibly uncomfortable whenever the topic of conversation is not Venture Bros.
So right off, you can see the potential for comedy.
Day One
First off, I had done a very good job of packing. I was ready for every contingency. Lana came to pick me up and run a couple of errands before heading to O'Hare. And then, in the car, she asked in an almost joking tone of voice, in a tone that indicated Of course you remembered, it's not like you're officially retarded or anything, "Do you have your passport?"

Guess what I didn't have! See, I set my wallet on top of my passport so I couldn't possibly forget it, and then I went and forgot my wallet. Again, not an experienced traveler. After that epic brain-fart, the trip to Chicago passed without incident.

We traveled to Dublin via Aer Lingus. There was a giant shamrock painted on the plane, and the pilot's name was Trevor McCarthy. So, you know, couldn't have been more Irish if his name had been Lucky O'Guinness. Aer Lingus runs a tight ship, in the sense that the rows are incredibly close together. Fine for Leprechauns, not so great for a giant like myself. On the other hand, they have TV sets in the back of the seats, so you can pick from their menu of movies or randomly chosen episodes of randomly chosen television shows. (True Fact: Aer Lingus groups all scripted TV under "Comedy". This includes CSI: Miami.) This means that I got to watch a Season Eight episode of The Simpsons while over the Atlantic Ocean. That makes a flight much more enjoyable.

Weirdly, the in-flight meal of ravioli was actually really tasty. Who knew that the Irish aviation industry had it in them? If only they could perfect the idea of putting seats slightly farther apart, they'd really have something going for them.

On Lana's advice, we took sleeping pills, since the flight was six hours long, but would land us in Dublin in the morning, 24 hours after our day began. Sleeping on the flight would have been ideal. Unfortunately, all my pill did was make me really tired, but didn't actually put me to sleep. We landed in Dublin about fifteen minutes too late to make the first tour shuttle, but their airport was pleasant and clean.

(Sidebar: We were with a tour that had 39 people. 32 of them were a group of Speedwalkers from Flint. Yeah – that meant a bus full of Michiganders. There was also a group from California, a grandmother, aunt, and grandson/nephew. They were very nice, but the young man remained silent until the last night, and then he revealed himself to be really weird. Then there were the mother and son from New York, but we'll get to them later.)

Our tour guide came to pick us up at the airport. He was a nice man named Terry – he had a pleasant sense of humor and sad eyes, and he sort of looked like Shaun of the Dead. He dropped us off in Dublin and told us how to find our hotel. Sort of. We quickly learned that, for all their good qualities, the Irish are crap at giving directions. If you ask an Irish person for directions, they'll do a lot of pointing and tell you about things you'll see, and often assume a starting point that is different from the place where you are actually standing at the moment you ask them. What they will not do is use words like "right" or "left" or give the name of a street. Terry actually described two ways to get to our hotel – one was a very specific instruction to give to a cab driver, and the other involved pointing and landmarks that were not visible at the time he described them. This would become a factor later.

Dublin is the largest city in Ireland, and it made a pretty good entrance point, as the culture shock was minimal. Sure, everybody was on the wrong side of the road, and they misspelled a lot of words, but downtown Dublin at least bears a passing resemblance to other cities. Sure, the sidewalks are incredibly narrow, and they are somewhat lax in putting up street signs, but that's easy enough to assimilate.

Here are some cool things that I learned about right away:
-Irish walk signals make noise. They buzz to let you know that the signal has changed to "Walk", and then there's a rapid beeping indicating the ever-approaching "Don't Walk". It's pretty great, because you don't even have to use your eyes to safely cross the road.
-The stick figures you see on road signs are much more detailed than they are here. American stick figures are five lines and a circle. The Irish ones have knees and elbows, and the basic approximation of a human shape. Some have visible pantcuffs and hairlines. My favorites is the sign near school zones which shows two children crossing the road. Not only do the stick-kids have hair, but the boy is looking up and the girl is looking down, so neither one of them is watching the road.
-There are giant plastic ice cream cones in front of all the shops that sell soft-serve ice cream. This is useful because ice cream is sold in seemingly random locations. A bar here, a newsstand there, maybe a bait shop over there. We'll get into the ice cream later, but the giant plastic cones do brighten up the street.
-Everybody in Ireland is very friendly. It really took us until the flight home to meet any real buttholes. Well, there was the waitress who nearly stabbed Lana, but we'll get to that later. They are also very interested in the American Presidential race. People will ask you who you're voting for, which is sort of unthinkable in America, especially during a retail transaction. It turns out, everybody in Ireland supports Obama, but they always end the conversation with "Either way, it's got to be better than you have now."

We did some shopping, since Lana has forgotten what cold weather is like, and she needed a coat. So we got to see some really cool stores, and talked to friendly Irish people, and it was a lot of fun. We took a double-decker bus ride, and a humorless woman told us about Irish history. It turns out that Ireland's principle domestic products up until the 19th Century were political unrest and miscarriages.

Since everybody was going to ask if we did, we went to the Guinness brewery and learned the story of Arthur Guinness. "Arthur Guinness", by the way, is apparently what Irish people call Jesus. Since I'm not a huge fan of the beverage, the promise of a free drink at the end did not motivate the way it did others. Still, it was fairly interesting, and the design of the building was actually really cool.

After a while, we set out to find our hotel. As it turns out, we each focused on a different one of Terry's sets of directions, and they were not exactly compatible. Of course, once we actually found it, we could see the sense in the directions that he gave us, but by then it was a moot point. Once you've found it, it doesn't really help to go back and reverse-engineer the directions. Anyway, it was a really nice hotel. The outside said it was a Quality Inn, but it had recently undergone a makeover to be a nice, shiny, awesome hotel.

I don't want to get too graphic, but newer toilets in Ireland have a, well, quirk. They have two buttons for flushing. One for number one, one for number two. Now, there's nothing that indicates this on the toilet itself. It's not like there's a picture of a turd on the appropriate button. This was worrisome because, well, I used the toilet. I was horrified when I flushed and the water barely even stirred.

On my way to dinner in the hotel, I came across a group of about a dozen women, all wearing costumes. They were sharing a table, and all of them were wearing superhero costumes. No kidding. This is kind of what my dreams are like. Heck, if somebody were to write fan fiction about me, that's how it would begin. And the really weird thing is, after the biggies (Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl), they got a little more obscure. One of them was wearing a Dr. Fate costume! I have to assume she was my soulmate, this Irish girl hanging out in a hotel dressed like Dr. Fate. I never did figure out what was going on there, but I'll always wonder.

My first dinner in Ireland, I had actual Bangers and Mash! Basically, that's sausage and potatoes, with a really sweet sauce and onions. Pretty darn good, actually. By that point, it was fairly early, but I'd actually been up for about 36 hours by that point, so that was that. The Justice League was gone by the time I finished my dinner.

Day Two

The first full day in Ireland began with me locking myself out of my room. This would become a trend. Who knew those doors didn't allow a grace period? This was also the first of many buffet breakfasts, in which I learned several things.

-Scrambled eggs are invariably nasty in Ireland. They are runny and weird, with a funky smell to them.
-Irish bacon terrifies me. It's a giant slab of pigmeat, and never once did I see a piece that looked like it was fried up well enough to actually kill the trichinosis.
-They love sausage over there. It was generally pretty good, too. Just, you know, there was a lot of it.

Our first activity was a trip to Kilkenny Castle. (On the way to Kilkenny, we not only drove past the spot where Veronica Guerrin was murdered, but also a restaurant that Gordon Ramsay rehabilitated on the BBC version of Kitchen Nightmares. I freaked out.) I was ridiculously excited about being in a castle. I mean, I've never even seen an actual castle. The closest I'd come up to this point was the Excalibur Casino. The tour was really cool – a lot of original furniture and artwork was still there. It turns out, people used to be tiny. Those beds were little. I could probably beat up anybody born before, oh, 1800 or so. I particularly liked that the castle had secret passages, so the servants could skitter around and not have to be glimpsed by the decent people.

In the courtyard, an entire wall was missing, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. It turns out, if something in Ireland is damaged in any way, there's about a 50% chance that Cromwell did it. I think that was his actual goal, and he just cloaked it in political and religious significance. Dude just wanted to wreck stuff.

A group of Irish dancers performed in the courtyard, which seemed to be for a special occasion. They wore something that looked like lederhosen, bells on their legs, and sometimes they banged stick. It was kind of insane, to be honest.

Afterwards, we got to explore the town of Kilkenny, which consisted of approximately three intersections populated by a billion crazed hurling fans. (That is to say, fans of the sport called hurling. Not fans who were vomiting.) It was a nice little town, about which I don't have anything hilarious to say. We did stop at a fast-food place, which I think was a specifically Irish chain. It's called Supermac's, and one of their sandwiches is advertised with the phrase "As seen on The Apprentice". I was particularly excited about that. I asked an employee who hosts The Apprentice over there, and she said she didn't know, but she totally did. Wherever you go, people are ashamed to admit that they watch The Apprentice.

Next, Terry took us to the Waterford Crystal factory. Now, I'm aware of Waterford Crystal, but I didn't know much about it. Because, you know, I'm poor. This was a really interesting tour – we watched the glass blowers, walking around with their superheated glass at the end of a straw and wearing no eye or hand protection whatsoever. As cool as it was, I was distracted by the revelation that, in order to heat glass, you insert it into a furnace opening called a "glory hole". I'm not going to lie to you, I giggled at that. One guy who fired up a vase pulled Lana from the crowd and handed her a metal peg, as if she was going to transport this molten glass from one side of the room to the other, using only a dowel. He was joking around, but you could tell, she was going to go for it.

We got to see the shapers and the cutters and the engravers, and the whole thing was amazing. Watching these guys basically take a perfectly formed vase and take a buzzsaw to it and come back with these intricate lines was mind-boggling. The engravers did some really beautiful work, and when I am rich, I will have engraved crystal in my house. Chances are, it will be something really stupid, too. Perhaps a solid block decorated with Whammies from Press Your Luck.

In the showroom, they had a giant crystal bear. Like three or four feet tall. I want a crystal bear so much. I'll keep it by the door, so visitors think my home is guarded by an invisible grizzly bear. I assume they will mind their manners, if they believe that to be the case.

On the bus, somebody asked me why I had a picture of myself on my bag. I was carrying one of those canvas bags from Barnes & Noble with a woodcut-style portrait of a famous author. Mine, of course, shows Stephen Colbert, who I suppose looks like me in the sense that we are both men who wear glasses. I just explained that it would be easy to describe my bag if I ever lost it – "It looks like me, but with straps."

We spent the night in Cork, in what was probably my favorite hotel. Except for how I got lost. Oh, and then this happened. I bought a tiny lock for my suitcase to keep it safe on the bus. I realized, partway through the day, that I didn't have the key on me, but I played it cool. Until I got to the hotel and went to the front desk and asked them if they could send somebody up with "tin snips" to break the lock. They clearly thought I was insane, but acted as if they wanted to help. And then Lana found the key laying in the hallway – presumably, I left the key in the lock, and it fell out en route to my room. It was at this point that she took the lock away from me. That's just as well. I honestly imagined myself ending up a deranged street person in a foreign land, all because I had no access to any of my belongings.

After all that, we had dinner in the hotel – we ended up at a big table with some very nice speed walkers. Both of us got salmon which was served on a bed of mashed potatoes. It was topped with a whipped potato, and there was another potato on the side. Three types of potatoes on a single plate! Some stereotypes are supported by fact, it seems. This was the meal where the server dropped a dirty knife on Lana (not her own, by the way), and really just seemed relieved that it hadn't pierced the skin. As long as there are no fatalities, they're happy with the job they've done!

I hung out at the hotel bar that night, as it was decided that I couldn't find my way into town. A big group of walkers were down there, and I tried to make conversation. Depressingly, many of them didn't even realize that I was on the tour, until I told them I was with Lana, and they gushed about how great she is. And that was my conversational in – they asked me questions about Lana, and I answered them. It was another day or so before anybody had any questions about me, and two more days before people finally stopped calling me "Lana's sidekick", but baby steps…

Some of the women taught me to play a card came called "Fruit Bowl", which is sort of like reverse Euchre, with the rules changing slightly with every hand. Apparently, they usually play for money. I turned out to be pretty good, which I assumed meant they were actually hustling me, so I called it a night before they could talk me into "making it interesting".

I traveled to Ireland only to spend the night in a hotel bar playing cards with middle-aged women from Flint. That has to say something about my life.

Next: EJ kisses the Blarney Stone, locks himself out of another room, and dances. Not all at the same time.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

You Should Click this Link and Read It!

Remember how worried I was about the The Spirit?

I was right.

On the bright side, Futurama merchandise will be reviewed this weekend. I have a Calculon action figure, and if you don't, you should be jealous of me.