Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Shut-in's Guide to Ireland, Part 2

The Shut-in's Guide to Ireland, Part 2

Day Three

Before I get into the specifics, it's as good a time as any to talk about TV. I didn't watch much TV in Ireland – mostly before breakfast in the morning or late at night. Still, it is what I'm interested in. I caught some bits and pieces of American shows, episodes of The Simpsons (available in English and Gallic) and Heroes. I think it would have been funny if the episodes had been re-dubbed so that everybody had an Irish accent.

Children's programming, at least everything I saw, was in Gallic. Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, and Batman, all in a foreign language. (For the record, it was the newest Batman animated series, which I didn't like all that much. This means I didn't have any dialogue passages memorized, so I was lost.) Spongebob has terrible voice acting, by the way. Mr. Krabs has a high-pitched, wacky voice, rather than the dulcet tones of Clancy "Kelvin" Brown. The Gallic actors have weird, vaudeville pacing. And Spongebob's laugh will make you tear your ears out and throw them at the TV. I did like the way that everybody's name stayed the same, so you'd hear a string of something impossible-to-decipher, and then it would end with "Squidward". Also, they greet each other in English. They say "Hi", and then go into Gallic.

Batman was even more fun, because all the tough-guy slang stayed in English, so you'd hear an occasional "Punk" or "Shaddap!". Some of the characters had Gallic names, in the event that it had a reasonable translation. So "The Ventriloquist" had a Gallic name, but "Penguin" and "Rhino" did not, because there isn't a translation for those non-indigenous animal names. It's nice to know that wherever you go in the world, Batman and Dr. Hugo Strange are the same. (Although in Mexico, Batman's real name is "Bruno Diaz". I like to cite this fact as often as I can.)

There are a lot of TV channels devoted to music videos. Either Irish music videos, which largely consist of singers walking around and looking at the camera, or American videos from bygone days. Been a long time since you thought of Top Gun, I bet. Did you know Val Kilmer shot new scenes for the "Danger Zone" video. Anthony Edwards was all like "Dude, I've got too much artistic integrity. Besides, I'm shooting Nerds in Paradise." I realize this isn't actually specific to Ireland, but man, if I knew how creepy the video for "Kayleigh" was, my brief Marillion phase would never have gotten off the ground.

I saw the Irish version of American Idol, which also has duo and trio performances. All the judges are Randy in Ireland, and they're obsessed with the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah". It's an awesome song, but I heard three covers of it within a week, and nothing's skeevier than three pre-teen blondes harmonizing on a song about female orgasms.

Every morning I tried to decide which morning show had the hottest weather lady, channel 4 or channel 9. I think I finally ended up with 9. And at one point, I heard a report about "druggies and cheesers". To the best of my knowledge, "cheesing" was only on South Park, and it's what they called it when people inhaled cat pee. Is that a real problem in Ireland?

Anyway, the big outing today was a trip to Blarney. But first, we went to Cobh, formerly Queenstown, formerly Cobb, for a visit to the Museum of Sadness. It's actually called the Cobh Heritage Center, but since it pretty much focuses on famine, shipwreck, and squalor, it turns out to be the most depressing non-Holocaust related museum in the entire world. Cobh itself was a cool little town. One thing I like about Irish towns is the way they'll have a row of houses or small businesses pressed up together, or possibly all part of the same very long structure, and the individual sections will be just insanely colored. I saw the purplest building I'd ever seen sharing a wall with the yellowest building I'd ever seen. I also like the way that you'll see a pub, and then a bank, and then a ruined castle, then a Laundromat. All these ruins and relics of olden days are just sitting there, and people build around them. It's something you don't see in America, because we're fairly new as countries go. And most of the stuff we build even two hundred years ago kind of sucked and didn't last long.

Cobh is a shipping town, and most of the immigrants traveled from there. There's a bronze statue commemorating the first woman ever to successfully emigrate to the United States. They love bronze statues in Ireland, by the way. I saw a statue of Charlie Chaplin, a dolphin, a unicorn, many a war hero, and just about anything else. (And every time we passed the statue of a war hero, I had to make sure everybody knew how he died. "The horse has one hoof up – he died of wounds sustained in battle!")

The museum itself is, as I said, incredibly depressing. There are exhibits replicating conditions in the steerage hold of a freighter and a prison ship. Never seen a mannequin leaning over a filthy puke bucket? Have I got the museum for you! Plenty of depressing statistics, recovered relics from the Titanic and the Lustitania, woodcuts of starving orphans… It's like they tried to find every sad thing they could, and put it next to a gift shop. If they could in some way have connected the cancellation of Arrested Development to Ireland, it would have had an exhibit.

Oh, you know what I haven't mentioned yet? The sheep. Cows too, actually. In Dublin, all the souvenir shops had things bearing pictures of sheep. It was a couple of days before I got that, since I hadn't seen any actual sheep at that point. On the way to Blarney, it really went nuts. There are sheep everywhere! Sometimes they're in the middle of the road, sometimes they're just pleasantly grazing, and sometimes they're in really dangerous places. Like, you'll see a sheep standing on an incredibly precarious outcropping very high up on a heel. You just want to ask them what's going on. "Man, you passed all kinds of perfectly good grass on the way to this deathtrap. What's wrong with you?"

All of the sheep have their owner's markings painted on their neck, and the females have paint on their butts to indicate where they are in the breeding cycle. That right there is the ultimate Walk of Shame, walking around with a red ass so that everybody knows you're knocked up.

The cows are pretty great, too. They're so much more fit than American cows. I saw cows run! American cows can't run – they're too engorged with growth hormones to increase their deliciousness. Irish cows, if they put their minds to it, could chase you down if they had to.

We went to Blarney Castle, which is very old indeed. It's hard to imagine somebody actually living there, as it's built with inconvenience in mind. It is, of course, the home of the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to bestow eloquence on those who kiss it. (One of the signs that explains the legend includes the phrase "much like Harry Potter's sorting hat". Something tells me that's a fairly new display.) In order to get to the stone, you have to climb 127 stairs, which really doesn't sound that bad. What you don't know until you've already started is that it's a steep, windy, and very tight staircase in that tower.

As you may or may not know, I broke my leg (in four places!) falling down my own stairs a couple of years ago. (True fact: I broke my leg and then watched an episode of The Wire before seeking medical help. Priorities.) To this day, I get a little nervous on unfamiliar staircases. And I am not a tiny man, either. The tower? Lots of low ceilings and narrow passages. It didn't help that Lana, at one point, actually bounded across part of the path like a freaking mountain goat. (Lana: Making EJ look even more awkward by comparison since 1999.)

A bunch of Urban Walkers went with us, and they were lots of fun. Especially Bev, who hit it right off with Lana since they were on the same pee schedule.

Finally, we reached the top of the tower. Now, cartoons have taught me that the Blarney Stone is sitting atop an easily accessible pedestal, ripe for smooching. Turns out, not so much. What you have to do is lay down on your back, extend out over a gap, and then lean way back. The Stone is several feet back and another two feet or so straight down. It ain't easy to get to. In fact, I couldn't tell which was the Stone until my face was nearly pressed against it.

There's an old guy who sits by the gap and holds onto you so you don't die. He does, however, exhibit a bias as to who he doesn't want dead. See, there's a camera posed right over the Stone to take your picture. I wish I had both pictures handy, but you'll have to trust me on this one. In my picture, the man is sort of disinterestedly clutching at the front of my shirt with two fingers. Nothing that would actually provide any support or anything. In Lana's picture, he is holding on to her with both hands! He was deeply worried about her safety, it seems. The disparity is pretty hilarious. Of course, when I came up from kissing the Stone, I announced "I totally scored!", so the last laugh goes to EJ.

People have asked, and I really think that was the single experience I liked best on the trip. It was just a cool thing to do – it was fun, and frankly, it's kind of hard to get up there, and I did it. When it was done, I couldn't have been more excited if there'd been a clue box and Travelocity roaming gnome waiting for me.

After that, it was a short walk to the Blarney Woolen Mills, a giant version of the shop in Dublin where Lana got all of her cold-weather clothes. We had lunch there, and learned that when you order coleslaw in Ireland, you get all the coleslaw. You need a mule to get that plate back to your table. Also, it turns out to actually be a coleslaw-shaped plate of mayonnaise. The Irish love anything that you can spread with a knife.

It turns out, I'm a good shopping companion because I carry things, keep quiet, and stick close. Also, Lana sometimes pretends that I know things and asks for my opinion while shopping. She knows as well as I do that it's pretty much like asking a goldfish for help with your homework, but it's sweet nonetheless. I got an awesome sports jacket, by the way. (And yes, she did have to explain what I should wear with it, and further, to specify that "a gray or black t-shirt" would be all right, but those shirts should not have a Batman logo. She knows me so well.)

Finally, the bus took us to Killarney. Killarney, and the rest of Kerry county (which we were to see the next day), was the most beautiful place I've ever been. There's this Bukowski story about a guy taking a trip on a bus, and they make a stop at a roadside diner. The guy realizes that the diner is perfect, but nobody around him ever notices the magic. I always liked that piece, mostly because of Tom Waits' reading of it on the Orphans album. And then, it actually happened to me. There was this fog over the hills, and that made everything in the middle distance seem so much sharper by comparison. It's hard to explain, but as we drove through this absolutely stunning landscape, I felt like everything was going to be all right. A world that has Kerry in it is never going to get that bad.

Killarney seems like a pretty busy town, but it consists of about three streets. It's a nice little town for a walk, and it has a lot of cool little stores. I saw the first movie theater I'd seen all week, and the only American movies they had were Tropic Thunder and The Duchess. They also had a marquee for the new Bond movie, though it wasn't actually playing. From the posters, it looked like all Irish movies are exactly like the Irish movies that we see around here. Quaint tales of small villages and their eccentric inhabitants, precocious children engaging in odd behavior, people who dress like it might be the late 19th century, that sort of thing. Yes, I'm critiquing the whole Irish film industry based on walking past a movie theater.

This hotel was the least fancy of anyplace where we stayed, but kind of charming. Sure, they had separate faucets for hot and cold, resulting in me burning the living crap out of my hand, but that's how you learn. They did have a table display so ill-thought-out that I had to steal it. There's a photograph of a hotel employee with Down's Syndrome, and a headline reading "Watch Out for our Mentally Disabled Friends!" Lack of political correctness aside, the "Watch Out" makes it sound like they were in some way threatening us. It's so wrong, and I had to take it so I could prove to people that it really existed. I locked myself out of my room once again, only this time, there was sad inevitability about it. I sort of realized it was happening just as it happened. Theoretically, I could have caught the door. But it seemed like I had to lock myself out because that's what happens. I was like a dimwitted Dr. Manhattan. "Five minutes from now, I lock myself out of my room."

At dinner, Lana and I ended up sitting with the New Yorkers. They were a mother and son, and he could have been anywhere from 20 to 37. He was a hard guy to read. Now, there'd been some whispering about them during the tour so far, as they hadn't participated in any of the outings, and he kind of freaked out back in Kilkenny castle. Just to give you the picture, both were severely cross-eyed, and the mother sounded exactly like Kyle's mom from South Park. It turns out, they were very nice people, but a little odd. He told us about his past lives, how his father carries a piece of coal from the Titanic for luck ("Worked for them!" I said, because I'm evil.), and other tidbits. The mother said "We have three cats, a dog, and my disabled son", which was so awful that I nearly choked. (The same reaction I had a year or two ago when Lana's uncle started discussing "cornholing" in great seriousness.) Lana, of course, can talk to anybody and managed to completely charm them, while I suspect I came off as owlish.

That night, a group of us went to the bar. The older women in the group loved me, and tried desperately to coax some rhythm out of me. The bar band started off with Irish songs, but since every musician in Ireland is legally required to play "Ring of Fire", our response pretty well ensured a night of cover songs. The Urban Walkers were feisty, and they did some dancing and played imaginary instruments. By the time I'd had a couple of pints, they finally managed to get me dancing. That, of course, was a spastic display. I did do a double high kick off of a table, which was pretty impressive if I do say so myself. And it doesn't matter where you go, if you're dancing and you undo your belt buckle, people are going to freak out.

Best to end it there, at the idea of my arrhythmic thrashing. Next time, we meet a mule, ice cream becomes a major part of the story, and the Irish attempt to understand "That's what she said".

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