Friday, July 31, 2015


We've moved! It's official!

Wow. What can I say? It's difficult, saying goodbye to the past and moving boldly into the future. After more than two years of loyalty to Blogger and its free, simple platform, I've made the jump to the self-hosted twenty-first century.

Now that I plan to turn this writing thing into a semi-professional, career-like thing, it is time to embrace the future of website design. A self-hosted Wordpress site allows me the freedom to build a clean, responsive site, with many more options and room for growth. I now have a website that I don't mind sending to potential article-buyers and tourist attractions I am hoping to review.

My biggest thanks go out to the many readers who followed me here at Narc Ex HQ. I hope to see you over at Five Suitcases as I publish both my professional articles and my future personal blog content on a much better platform. Those of you who commented, shared, responded, and helped me with the publication of The Frugal Guide: Dublin will never be forgotten.

Archivists, never fear! The articles here on Blogger will always be available. Although they may someday migrate over to my new web presence – the least cringe-worthy ones, anyway – these posts are an important part of my personal history, and I will make sure they are always accessible in some form, even if most of them are only good for a laugh.

Please join me on my next adventure, and let me know what you think of the new site!
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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Summer Writing

Just back from a memorable trip to Vienna and Lower Austria (see my series of live public travel journals over on Five Suitcases), my to-do list is longer than ever.

After a visit to Dublin's brand-new Teeling Whiskey Distillery, I wrote a review but hadn't yet included it in The Frugal Guide: Dublin. I've since rectified that situation, and the review is in the most recent edition, if you care to check it out. Brainstorming and research continues for the 2016 edition, there are some new eBook features I'd like to include if I can figure out how to do them myself.

I've recently been in contact with the expat community site Expat Focus. This blog was included in a top Irish expat blogs list, and I completed an interview about my experience for other expat hopefuls. I was grateful for the opportunity, and hope my interview proves to be entertaining, informative, or inspiring for someone.

Also this week, I've been working to improve my social media presence, curating my Twitter and Facebook pages to become a more responsive member of both the travel writing and eBook publishing communities. If I'm to be pushing to publish this other book thing later this year, I'll need a bit more robust social presence.

I am also looking at alternate website platforms – particularly Wordpress – to host a better Five Suitcases site. I plan to be experimenting with the options over the next month before I decide what to do with my other site. Moving the site might be labor-intensive, and the longer I wait, the more painful it will be. I'd like to have my web presence looking hale and healthy when I go into book-promoting mode. Learning this stuff will be good for me anyway, right?

Speaking of the book, work continues, but slowly. I've been reading, editing, cutting, and writing the last few tidbits – even doing some work in Vienna's sunny parks. I am feeling very good about its potential, especially when its comedy rhythm is sharpened a bit.

With so many irons in the fire, my progress will be slower on each project, but things are moving along smoothly. Wherever you are, enjoy the rest of the summer, and stay in touch!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Vienna Vignettes

This week (in real-time), I am in Vienna enjoying this wonderful city. In the name of embracing modern technologies, I've been participating in the social scene much more than usual on Twitter and Facebook, posting pictures and updates as often as I can. If you haven't already, please feel free to follow me on either or both of those platforms – particularly as I work on ramping up my Facebook output.

I'm also writing a miniseries of live travel journals from Vienna over on Five Suitcases. These notes will one day be used to write more practical, Internet-friendly travel articles, but if you care to see what we are doing (and preview a few more photos) in real-time, please check out my Vienna Vignettes series over there.

In the meantime, enjoy the Twitter timeline of every Vienna update I send from our comfortable AirBnB apartment in the heart of the city that has been inspiring great minds for centuries. I created this Twitter search of all my Austrian tweets for your viewing pleasure. Once there, why not give me a follow and never miss an update?

My Favorite Austrian Fountain

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

National Treasures

Just home from a memorable ten-day visit to Oregon to see some family, we are unpacking, dealing with eight-hour jetlag, and generally getting our lives back in order. While unpacking, I admired all of the American treasures we brought home with us – things we can't find easily in Ireland.

S'more S'upplies

One of the most mysterious American treats is the s'more. We get asked about this famous s'nack more than any other, mostly because the ingredients are difficult or impossible to find in Europe.

Graham crackers, Hershey's chocolate, and marshmallows. Ingredients for s'mores
The Holy Trinity
The traditional s'more is an outdoor campfire food. It has three perfectly-balanced ingredients, and while some hipsters try chic variations on the classic trinity, most American s'mores are simple.

Graham crackers sandwich milk chocolate pieces (traditionally Hershey's) and a roasted marshmallow. When trying to explain a graham cracker to an Irish person, I'm often stumped. "They, kinda buttery crackers that taste like...honey?" Needless to say, they aren't on most Irish supermarket shelves, despite having such a British name.

Marshmallows can be found in Irish supermarkets, but they are often sold as candy rather than a baking ingredient. Marshmallow fluff might be in the baking aisle, but large, solid 'mallows will usually be in a package of mixed gummi candy. In a s'more, the marshmallow is traditionally roasted – to the eater's preference of browning or charring – over an open flame, but we'll probably be committing a slight breach of s'more etiquette by cooking the chocolate and marshmallows in the oven or microwave. 

As for Hershey's chocolate, well, let's just say that Cadbury-loving Brits and Irish don't much care for it. I can taste very little difference in the two basic chocolate bars, but Irish people who have tried Hershey's in the States seem to find it too bitter. In fact, when imports of British Cadbury's chocolate were banned in America, there was a run on import candy shops as desperate expats rushed to stock up on the last supply of their favorite sweet.

Mac & Cheese

Nothing new here. Boxes of instant macaroni and cheese are a staple for us when we visit our home country. Suspiciously quick-cooking noodles complement a sauce made of nuclear yellow cheez powder, butter, and milk in this classic American home convenience food. For best effect, serve with hot dogs.

Mac and Cheese
Generic Store Brands are a Plus

Drugs! Drugs! Drugs!

It might be due to heavier drug regulations, or it might be due to a general lack of big box chain stores, but whatever the reason, over-the-counter medicines are much more expensive in Ireland than in the States. Large bottles of basic household medicine cabinet drugs like antacids, pain relievers, and antihistamines are difficult to find and very expensive when available. Savvy Irish travelers to the States usually stock up on ibuprofen for themselves and their family while abroad, "smuggling" in the pills upon their return. They (and we) buy the big, cheap, store brand bottles.

Antacid, Antihistamine, Deodorant, and Contact Lens Solution
Antacid, Antihistamine, Deodorant, and Contact Lens Solution
We also stock up on contact lens solution in America, as it is dizzyingly expensive and not even available at all pharmacies in Ireland. When we first needed solution back in 2013, I had to ask around a thee different pharmacies before someone pulled a small, dusty old bottle off the shelf with an eleven-euro price tag. "Is dis what yeh want?" Since then, we've made it a point to buy it on our return visits – at two dollars per bottle.

Be on the lookout for more about our trip to Oregon, and let me know what treasures you bring back from your home country!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dublin Waterways Bird Survey

Birds. Our garden neighbors, our pesky pigeons, and our favorite singers. Most people – including me – don't usually take much notice of most of our everyday birds. Sparrows buzz by as nondescript chirruping and singing gives us an unspecific audible backdrop to a summer's day. A recent push by Dublin City Council and Birdwatch Ireland is trying to change the casual way most Dubliners see their feathered friends, especially those in and around our urban waterways.

Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
They are collecting citizen observation data on four waterbird species in particular. The most famous (and easily-recognized) is the kingfisher. Its bright colors are clearly visible as it buzzes by just above the surface of the water. I noticed these birds on some of my first fishing trips on the River Dodder, and recognized their similarity to the North American belted kingfisher.

Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
Dippers have an interesting – and maybe unique – hunting behavior: they walk along the bottom of fast-moving streams to collect food from submerged rocks. I've seen these little guys along the river, but have yet to see their aquatic tricks.

Grey Wagtail
Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
The grey wagtails are recognizable by their banana yellow bellies and very long tails, which they "wag" back-and-forth and up-and-down as they perch on riverside rocks looking for insects.

Sand Martin
Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
The swallow-like sand martin makes its nests in burrows dug into riverbanks throughout Ireland, though it isn't a year-round resident.

If you see one of these birds in a Dublin river or waterway, Birdwatch Ireland kindly asks that you report it on the survey, which can be found here under the title, "Dublin City Waterways Bird Survey." You will be asked to record the species, date, and specific location of the sighting – you may have to use the provided tool to find the exact map grid reference for your sighting – and any breeding behaviors like nest-building or chick-rearing observed. Filling the form is easy and only takes a minute. The data will be used to help the council work to better preserve our local biodiversity and our sensitive native species. 

I'll be out on the rivers this summer looking for fish, but now I'll have four new local species to watch for. See you on the water!

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Visit to Donnybrook Cemetery

We can learn a lot from cemeteries. The ways in which we memorialize our lost loved ones are a telling commentary on our views of life and death as a society. Some people celebrate their dead as they pass from one form of life into another; others recognize some sort of afterlife; less-religious bereaved simply wish to leave a lasting marker honoring the memory of a family member.

Donnybrook Cemetery Dublin
Tight Quarters
I love a good Irish cemetery tour, and I enjoyed one this past weekend at our local neighborhood resting place, Donnybrook Cemetery. We noticed this hidden churchyard our first week in Dublin, but had never been inside the locked gates. It is only open by guided tour, and I was finally available when a member of the Ballsbridge, Donnybrook, and Sandymount Historical Society was giving a free walk and talk through the cemetery.

An ivy-covered gravestone at Donnybrook Cemetery Dublin
Skulls and Ivy
A number of Irish-famous people are buried here in Donnybrook – of several thousand tightly-packed graves in total – but I was more interested in the imagery of the grave markers. Most had suffered decades (or centuries) of neglect and vandalism, but they still painted an interesting picture when see in the sun-and-shade dappled churchyard.

A decorated gravestone at Donnybrook Cemetery Dublin
Captivating Imagery
On the stones with legible markings, I read the descriptions of the people buried within: their occupation (Groc'r, Gentleman, Barrister-at-Law), their family members, and even their local Dublin address! Sad stories of family tragedy were laid out as entire families were marked on the same stone, dying within months of one another. In times when cholera and death in childbirth were all too common, it wouldn't have been unusual for families to suffer losses such as these.

A face on a gravestone from 1802 Donnybrook Cemetery Dublin
Well-Preserved Details
This graveyard being in Ireland, there was plenty of pleasant green among the sad gray stones. Ivy crept along the path and up some of the out-of-the-way stones, and holly grew in the shade of larger trees. In ancient, pre-Christian times, as now, holly was a symbol of fertility and everlasting life – staying green and lush and fruiting bright red berries through the winter. This is why we still think of holly at Christmas, when all of our seasonal temperate trees and plantlife are dormant and dead.

Fertility and Everlasting Life
Fertility and Everlasting Life

Donnybrook Cemetery is accessible locally by guided tours, which are announced and advertised by a sign on the gate. If you happen to be in South Dublin on a Saturday afternoon, be on the lookout for this fabulous – but not glamorous – free cemetery tour.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Legal Aliens

This week, we had to do endure of the most unpleasant errands undergone by world travelers: the long wait at the immigration office. Just like our first visit back in 2013 and our big day out last year, the office was jam-packed with tired, bored, and scared people waiting...waiting...waiting.

On our first visit, I'm sure our faces would have been on the scared list, hoping we had all the correct paperwork – a marriage license from the State of Iowa and the Catholic Church, in case Ireland wasn't yet recognizing non-Catholic marriages – and that our newly-issued debit card could handle the hefty fee for the privilege of living and paying taxes in Ireland.

This time around, one of the newbies would have seen us as the bored, groggy queue-shufflers that we had seen on our first day. The experienced expats; the longtime legal aliens.

Thankfully, this last visit was our shortest yet, we seemed to have had good luck with the size of the line. During peak immigration times, the office has to start turning people away by ten o'clock, having already issued service tickets to their daily limit of lost souls. As an added bonus, this being our third year in the country, we were issued two-year passes for the hassle – and high price – of one!

It won't really change my schedule or status, but it's nice to know that, come next summer, we won't have the specter of a long wait in line and a big bank bust hanging overhead, blocking out the sometimes-rare Irish sunshine.

This bureaucratic chore out of the way, it's time to enjoy the rest of our summer travel plans! By the way, did you read about our hike in Cashel over the June bank holiday? Much more like that to come!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Summer Games

It's been a long time since I've done any video game writing here on the main blog. Now that I don't need daily content, I've been more...selective about what goes up here. That said, I have been doing a bit of game-centered writing recently that I thought I'd share.

I now have a separate Twitter account that I use specifically for game- and nerd-focused content (@Active_ate), and have been busy tweeting my progress through various old games, sometimes with self-imposed restrictions for extra challenge.

To give all this writing a home, I started another Blogger page ( and have been writing about my game variants over there. If you like math and bad jokes, you'll love what you read. Here's an extra-nerdy excerpt from a Final Fantasy 5 Solo Time Mage challenge run report:
Earlier in the Ship Graveyard dungeon, a well-hidden chest contains a new kind of weapon. The Flail has some very interesting qualities: it boasts a slightly higher Attack (16) than the Dagger (14), it deals equal damage from the back row, and it cuts the enemy defense to 25% of its original value.
What's the catch? The weapon is wildly random, both in Hit% and damage dealt. Here's the formula from the Algorithms Guide:  
Attack = (Weapon Attack/2) + (0..Weapon Attack) 
M = (Level*Strength)/128 + 2 
Defense = (Defense/4) 
ATTACK: 16                 HIT%: 70 
The above Attack formula means that, on any given attack command, the Attack value will be anywhere from 50%–150% of the listed weapon Attack. For the Flail, that means 8–24. The Multiplier (M) will usually be the same as that with the Knife (due to the bug), and the Defense/4 property boosts damage significantly. 
The Hit% of 70 means just what it says on the tin: this weapon will flat-out miss on three of every ten attacks—before calculating any enemy physical evasion, of which Siren thankfully has none. I like the narrative suggestion with this mage-only weapon: picture a frail robed wizard wildly and blindly swinging a spiked ball on a long chain with one hand while protecting his face and eyes with the other.
The Final Fantasy 5 Four Job Fiesta is fast approaching, and in honor of the most wonderful time of the (retro RPG enthusiast) year, I wrote an article about it for Laser Time, one of my favorite pop culture/video game podcast networks. I was proud to share this article with the Internet gaming community, and hope it will attract a few new players to the Fiesta this year.

I also started a new sports project with an old friend, Sticky Bleachers. We hope to one day build it into a multi-writer sports blog and podcast, but for now, it's a Twitter account and some unique video content. We kicked off the YouTube channel with a simulated NBA Finals series with NBA Live '96 for Sega Genesis (that's Sega Mega Drive for you European fans) with a current rosters rom patch. This means we can see LeBron James face off with Stephen Curry in a pixelated dream world – with commentary by my friend and Yours Truly.

I'm also continuing work on Five Suitcases – the book and the travel blog – so I'm keeping myself busy indoors as the days in Dublin grow longer and warmer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Balsam Bashing on the River Dodder

If I write too much about my local River Dodder, it's only because this urban stream is my nearest and dearest source of a peaceful, natural retreat from the noise of the city. A place to fish, to sit, to watch the wildlife, and enjoy the simpler things in life.

A new addition to my river-protecting volunteer projects is the removal of harmful invasive species from the river. Dublin recently celebrated Biodiversity Week, a time to celebrate the wide array of native plants and animals. Native being the important word, as exotic species introduced (intentionally or unintentionally) by humans pose a threat to many fragile ecosystems.

In Ireland, one such invader is the garden escapee Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). This admittedly attractive garden plant proliferates on riverbanks, its seeds carried on the water to take root downstream. It grows quickly and drives out native Irish riverbank plants before seeding and dying out itself, leaving a bare bank prone to erosion with the winter floods.

To celebrate Biodiversity Week, Dublin City Council Biodiversity invited the community to the riverbanks for a quick lesson in balsam identification and eradication. I jumped in with other members of Dodder Action and some environmentally-minded employees of a riverside business to bash some balsam. 

Our First Specimen
Our First Specimen

It wasn't long after we received our identification training that we were hauling out handfuls of this harmful plant. After less than an hour, our team of a dozen volunteers had nabbed buckets and bags of the stuff, leaving one small (but not insignificant) stretch of river free for the native plants to once again take hold.

The Team and the Harvest
The Team and the Harvest

Destined for Compost
Destined for Compost

Local enthusiasts gathering each spring to pull balsam have completely wiped it out on the banks of the Blackwater – another river in Southwest Ireland – and Dublin's biodiversity team hopes that such a community-led initiative can accomplish the same thing here. It is inspiring volunteer efforts like this that keep me hopeful for the future of our urban and suburban habitats. In the twenty-first century, conservation and caring are no longer just for green-minded radicals.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Update: A Big Step

First up, the Netherlands series wraps up with Amsterdam and Haarlem over on my legit writing website. Give it a click if you care to see the urban counterpart to our rural, flowery adventure.

I've recently taken a big step in the process of writing Five Suitcases, the personal memoir of the first two years of my expat experience. Until this point, the book has been written like a series of blog posts – disparate stories in separate files that relate to each other...more or less.

I preferred to start the book this way because the short-form personal story is my most comfortable writing format. Look no further than this blog to see the 500+ vignettes I've put pounded together about water heaters, concert reviews, supermarket visits, and old video games. Thinking one massive document to be unwieldy and overwhelming, I wrote the various stories of the book like very long blog posts, making references and connections when convenient.

But no longer! I have now created one long document in which to do the rest of the writing and editing of the book. Currently weighing in at 80,000 words – a bit more than twice the length of The Frugal Guide: Dublin, which is still available for free at all fine eBook distributors – this book has all the bulk it will ever need. Any new stories I tell (and I want to tell more!) will most likely replace sidebars, exaggerations, and analogies that must be left on the proverbial cutting room floor. Reading through everything I've written over the past six months, said floor looks like it will be quite messy. Does the finished book really need a long reflection about the value of a Midwest American basement? Probably not.

I was surprised to see this word count staring back at me as I pasted the final chapter into my now-massive document. All those weeks of hitting my 5000 word quota had seemed to pay off, and all the individual documents in my Five Suitcases folder had really added up to something significant.

I'm excited to have reached this stage, although I know this will be the hardest part of the project. Taking a series of (hopefully) funny stories and turning them into a cohesive product that will be read (again hopefully) in longer sessions, cover-to-cover, looks to be a laborious process. Jokes about Brooks and Irish Water are great, but how do they relate to the Barry's/Lyons tea battle or the struggle to understand a roller coaster accent through a tiny disposable phone speaker?

Happily, things are right on track for my nebulous "Late 2015" self-publishing deadline. Later this summer, be on the lookout for a chance to preview the book and provide feedback. All volunteers get secret access to this early e-publisher's proof, a free copy of the final e-book when it is released, and the chance to be forever e-immortalized in the acknowledgements of all editions of the final book. That's much better than money, right?

Friday, May 15, 2015


A long time ago, WAY back in 2013, we were struggling to figure out the ins and outs of our new Irish apartment. What is this strange washer in the kitchen? Why do all of the power sockets have switches...and why is there just a weird "shavers only" plug on the bathroom light? Are these Irish things or just big city things? Does every Irish home use an immersion water heater? Why does the water from that heater come out of our separate hot and cold water taps at skin-melting temperatures?

This week, Sara showed me a video that quickly explains why many of our apartment oddities (or normalities, depending on who is doing the asking) are the way they are. This video – from the Anglophenia series, which humorously explains British culture to Americans – is a good primer for anyone in the States to see what one might expect in an English home.

Yes, the video series is about England, not Ireland, and the Irish would be after me if I ever compared Ireland to the UK in any way. But there's simply no denying that the English left a pretty strong cultural impression when they finally let (most of) Ireland have independence. Left-side driving on the roads, blood sausage and curry sauce, rugby, and, of course, the English language.

Onward! In the video, our host explains the dual-use washer/dryer in the kitchen – although she leaves out the part about clothing not being dry after a two-hour drying cycle. She goes on to explain why there aren't any power sockets in the bathroom – so that's why we can't listen to the radio while we're in the shower? And hot and cold water taps are still separate...just because? I've been burning my fingers for nothing!

Interestingly, the last thing she shows us is the window – as she demonstrates that there isn't central heating or air conditioning in the mild climate of the British Isles – and she cracks that leaving the window open will lead to a room full of pigeons. Canny Americans will wonder, "How are birds getting in through the screen?"

How indeed? Not being plagued by sky-blocking swarms of mosquitoes, homes in the UK and Ireland usually don't need screens blocking the few precious rays of direct sunlight that filter through the clouds to their homes.

So there you are, American friends. If you've ever wondered what terrible hardships we suffer in our day-to-day lives, this video is a good start. A bathroom with no counter space? A washer and dryer that doesn't do either very well? Electrical outlets (and very few of them, mind) with switches? Believe it or not, it's possible to survive in such circumstances...somehow.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Just Back from Holland

...And boy are my tulips tired!

We are freshly back in Dublin after a holiday weekend trip to Haarlem, Amsterdam, and the surrounding countryside of the Netherlands. When we first booked the trip, we weren't really thinking flowers, although we should have made the connection right away: Holland, spring, tulips. If the super-Dutch communities we knew in Iowa (the city of Pella and most of Sioux County) went crazy about tulips – and heavy censorship, xenophobia, racism, and Dutch Reform religious bigotry – then what might we expect to see in the home of...actual Dutch people?

Flowers Netherlands
More Flowers Netherlands
More Flowers
Few More Flowers Netherlands
Few More Flowers

Yes, lots of flowers. We took a long bicycle ride through the many commercial-scale bulb flower fields and visited a popular (read: crowded) garden packed with artfully-arranged displays of Holland's most famous export. The gardens were amazing, even with the crowds. It happened to be family weekend, so I was privileged to watch part of a live performance of Sesame Street (Sesame Straat) characters singing and dancing in Dutch. Elmo gave a particularly touching performance of I'd Like to Visit the Moon. No translation needed for such a classic.

We also spent some time in Haarlem and Amsterdam, the former of which is famous for its namesake neighborhood in New York, the latter is most well known for...things the hardline Dutch Reform folks in Iowa might find...improper. Especially given that they famously edited the title of a certain Johnny Knoxville sequel to read, "Jackbutt 2" on their public movie marquee.

Non-Sleazy Amsterdam
Non-Sleazy Amsterdam

Our visit to Amsterdam was just a day trip, the perfect time for the tourist not wishing to partake in some of the city's more infamous entertainment or pay a stiff entrance fee for the art museums and the Anne Frank House. We spent the day walking through the various neighborhoods with our favorite (non-sponsored plug) Rick Steves book and audio guides. The canals and streets were full of bicycles, beautiful gabled building fronts, trees, cruise boats, and things that might have made the "Jackbutt 2" Dutch in Iowa pass out and fall into the water in shock.

Our last day was spent taking a similar stroll through Haarlem. It has its own charm and its own interesting history, but with fewer canals and much smaller crowds.

Haarlem Street
Haarlem Street

Grotekerk Church Haarlem
Grotekerk Church

Old and New Building Fronts Haarlem
Old and New Building Fronts

Finally! A Windmill!
Finally! A Windmill!

I'm writing a series of articles over on Five Suitcases with less personal accounts of our Dutch holiday. The first article covers the details of a day of cycling through the flower fields and visiting Keukenhof, the famous flower garden. More articles about Haarlem and Amsterdam to come.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Saved by the Sausage

We've all heard that some of our strongest links in sensory memory are made with taste and smell. I come in contact with smells almost daily that remind me of very, very specific times and places. That vaguely sweet smell wafting the storefront? Definitely chewy banana Runts candy. The scent of a room or a house visited for the first time? Easy, chicken loaf day in the school cafeteria.

For expats, the smells and tastes of home bring back a pleasing rush of nostalgia that is difficult to describe. The extended absence of these very specific foods makes the experience of eating them just that, an experience. Simple foods that were regular staples in Iowa are now rare treats for us, and we like it that way.

In the American Midwest, we grew up with the traditional foods of mixed Northern European–Americans. Not real Northern Europeans, mind you, whose foods would have been foreign and scary to a young me, but the children's children's children of Northern Europeans, whose food traditions mixed with those of other countries and the spirit of American industrialism to make the beautiful mishmash of Midwest American food.

Enter the sausage. I've written before about the American take on the European sausage. By boldly adding exotic spices, alternative meats and fillers, and appropriating completely different foods, we end up with such gems as pizza dogs, queso-and-jalapeno bratwurst, and turkey jerky.

Savor the 15 flavors of American sausage
The Iowa Gourmet

One of my childhood favorites was kielbasa – the traditional Polish favorite brought to Midwest cities like Chicago by Central and Eastern European immigrants. Love of the stuff spread, and American supermarket shelves now offer a wide selection of traditional (and not so traditional) takes on this flavorful classic. I used to enjoy it grilled, fried, or cold from the fridge at midnight with potatoes, cabbage, mustard, or sauerkraut.

In Ireland, the sausage tradition is much more monotone. For most of its history, Ireland has been a nation of emigration rather than immigration; no one ever brought new food cultures to the country. Recently, when the Celtic Tiger was roaring, the nation finally began to welcome newcomers – including a massive Polish population – to its shores. The resulting mix of cultures (and outbreeding genes) was only a good thing for mostly-homogenous Ireland, as the Polish brought with them their sausage.

Craving a taste of my childhood recently, I paid a visit to on of Dublin's Polish import supermarkets serving the Eastern European population, who miss their homeland favorites just like I do. Like an excited child, I skipped through the aisles, looking at Midwest American foods in their purest form, and in great supply and variety. Dill pickles! Sauerkraut! Sausage! To be fair, I should say that many Irish supermarkets do stock Polish foods for their customers, but the price and variety doesn't compete with the Polish importers. Also, I find it strange and funny seeing American staple foods stuck in the ethnic food aisle next to the ramen noodles and Thai fish sauce.

The jar of dill pickles barely made it into the kitchen before I had my fingers in the brine. Washed with the salty, garlicky taste, I gave up any resistance and ate the whole jar, calling it lunch for the day. I had the courtesy to save the kielbasa and jar of kraut to share with Sara.

Kielbasa and Sauerkraut
All of this Translates to "Delicious"

The kraut? Cooked with potatoes and carrots to make a mushy stew rich with the flavors of fermentation. The 'basa? Simple and no-nonsense: cut into coins and deeply browned in a skillet. The meal? Eaten before a picture could be taken.

Food memories are important, and nothing makes food taste better than a year without it. Now that I've found a reliable supplier of delicious nostalgic foods, I'm afraid I won't have the willpower to stay away for another year. Oh well, I'll always have boxed macaroni and cheese waiting for me back home.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dodder Day 2015

It's difficult to believe that a full year has gone by since my first River Dodder cleanup last spring. I wrote my first published Irish newspaper article covering the cleanup and, of course, blogged (and bragged) about it here.

Since then, I've become more active in the planning of the various Dodder events with the volunteer community organization Dodder Action. To promote last week's cleanup and show the impact only a few volunteers can have in a short time, I got together with a few other Dodder Action members under the main bridge in nearby Donnybrook to gather up what we could on only a short stretch of the river. We collected quite a mound.

Donnybrook River Dodder Rubbish 2015
Donnybrook River Dodder Rubbish

A photographer from Irish newspaper the Herald stopped by to grab a story and a few photos. After the quick-clean for the photo shoot, I did some fishing and caught some great images of a heron catching and eating a large eel near a trashed motorcycle dumped over the river wall.

The event was a rousing success, as always. Hundreds of volunteers hauled out tons (and tonnes!) of litter, landfill spillover, dumped household appliances, and metal from the river. The stretches that I worked at Orwell, Donnybrook, and Herbert Park looked great after just a few hours' work from a small-but-dedicated group of local volunteers.

I got to know many of the neighborhood people, and they got to know each other, as we worked side by side caring for our shared resource. Everyone shared their stories about the river and how they use it, and I was playfully asked more than once, "I'll bet you didn't grow up on the Dodder, did you?" To which I could answer, "Nope, I grew up on a slightly larger river in North America – the Mississippi."

I found a nice letter to the editor in the Irish Times from a representative of the Dodder Anglers – another river-loving local club – praising not only the efforts of Dodder community residents, but local cleanings led by concerned volunteers around the country.

It is inspiring to see so many people in local neighborhoods gather to care for their local resources, be they rivers, trails, lakes, or parks. With so much isolationism and "It's not my responsibility!" sentiment around today, it's refreshing to hear a resounding, "It's not mine or yours, but our responsibility to keep our local treasures just that – treasures to be passed on."

If you are local in Dublin and would like to get involved in Dodder-specific activities, see Dodder Action's website for more information. If not, take this opportunity to find local community action groups in your own neighborhood and get involved. If you can't find one, start one! Government authorities are great for building community resources, but no one knows better how to care for their own neighborhood like good neighbors.

River Dodder Heron
River Dodder Heron

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

In the News: The Marriage Referendum


It's hard not to take to the Internet-waves about the hottest issue facing Ireland in years. In the wake (heh heh, wake) of the water charges battle (which is still raging in some places), this officially Catholic nation is faced with a choice. On May 22, voters will take to the polls to circle YES or NO to the following statement:
Féadfaidh beirt, cibé acu is fir nó mná iad, conradh a dhéanamh i leith pósadh de réir dlí.
Thankfully, for the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens who can't read the previous statement, voting cards will also feature an English translation:
Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.*
*As is the case with all Irish laws, in the event of a contradiction between the Irish version and the English translation, the Irish takes precedent and is upheld. That most Irish citizens (and many Irish lawmakers) can't fluently speak or read Irish is irrelevant...and hilarious.

Yes, this Catholic theocracy – which only legalized divorce, birth control, and other "immoral vices" in the 1990s – now has the opportunity to be on the progressive side of history. Not surprisingly, after dealing with decades of church-controlled governments and schools, a very vocal population has come out in support of marriage equality. Also not surprisingly, a small but loud minority is pushing for a NO vote on referendum day. 

As an American, I of course have no knowledge of small but vocal minorities spinning misinformation, clouding the debate with phony phacts™ and swelling themselves to appear much larger than they are, like a bird scaring off a predator. Irish equal time media laws – well-intentioned regulations like those in the US demanding that representation from opposing sides is heard whenever a political issue is discussed on the air –  helps this small group look like a large, organized movement.

One of the biggest areas of debate (and confusion) is the issue of child adoption. Inconveniently, the government is also working on a separate bill dealing with surrogacy, adoption, and other child-rearing issues. This is completely separate from the marriage equality referendum, but the NO campaigners are trying to convince the public that they are one and the same, or at least related, citing old-timey statements like, "Children deserve a biological mother and a father...except the children of divorce, or parent death, or single parents, or...well, we certainly don't want the gays to raise them!"

In the lead-up to the referendum, public figures are choosing sides. Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese said in an interview that marriage equality was a human rights issue; that future gay Irish citizens deserve to have the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. The following morning, a representative of a hardline conservative action group (chillingly like the ones gaining renown in the US) took to the airwaves in a rebuttal/debate with a morning show host on NewsTalk FM. I believe it neatly sums up the position of both sides: "Equal rights to all citizens" versus "AHHHH! GAYS!" 

Read and/or listen to the interview here.

What the NO side supporter here cites is the issue of child-rearing and the rights of children to be raised by both of their biological parents – which is not part of the upcoming referendum – and the status quo of other countries and the European Court of Human Rights. Heaven forbid Ireland make a more progressive choice than the lowest-possible agreed-upon level of human rights by a continent-spanning court!

After all this discussion of civil partnerships, the right to a Mary and a Martin for parents (like Mary Lou McDonald and Martin McGuinness, hardcore IRA defenders?), misquotes, misrepresentations, and misunderstandings, one line sticks with me: "Equality by any other name is not equal." Pretty simple.

It will be very interesting to watch the upcoming social issues battles as the referendum approaches – especially if Ireland approves same-sex marriage and shows just how far they've distanced themselves from church control and influence in just a few short years.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Dalkey and Killiney

Between Dublin City and the rural playground that is all of County Wicklow, where a small peninsula and accompanying island stick out into the Irish Sea, Ireland's rich and famous make their homes.

And for good reason.

Down there in the beautiful seaside villages of Dalkey and Killiney, some of the most expensive real estate in Europe overlooks the beautiful sea and the coastal mountains—all within a quick train (or stretch limousine) ride away from the hustle and bustle of Dublin. 

We'd also heard that Dalkey and Killiney have a great hilltop park between them with great trails and great views. Excited, we took the DART down the coast on Easter Monday to find...fog.

Fog on Dalkey Hill Dublin, Ireland
Fog on Dalkey Hill

The air was clear at our place when we left; the air was clear on the train going south; the air was clear getting off the train. As we approached the seaside cliffs walk, we watched the thick fog roll in from the Irish sea, pushing up the hill from sea level. From where we were on the seaside, we could see nothing but a midday gray-out. We walked down to one of many swimming beaches on Dublin's coast before heading uphill into the hilltop park. Thankfully...

Looking Down at a Cloud Dalkey, Dublin, Ireland
Looking Down at a Cloud

Sugarloaf in the Fog
Sugarloaf in the Fog

We climbed above the fog line into clear blue sky. In the distance to the south, we could see the top of the Great Sugarloaf in the Wicklows peeking up out of its own fog bank.

Even more strangely, when we got to the north edge of the park and looked toward the city, the weird sea fog could only be seen around Howth. Dublin seemed to be protected by the Dalkey/Bray peninsulas to the south and Howth to the north. It was strange stuff looking from right to left; a thick fog obscuring everything here, a cityscape stretching for miles there.

Dun Laoghaire and Dublin from Dalkey Hill
Dun Laoghaire and Dublin from Dalkey Hill

After admiring Dublin to the north, we headed south to the other rise of this double-humped hill. The other side of the park faced Killiney, where the real money is. But first we had to get there, climbing up the attractive trail.

Steps up Killiney Hill
Steps up Killiney Hill

On the Killiney peak, we looked at the obelisk...because there isn't anything else to do with an obelisk, I guess. This obelisk and a nearby step pyramid were built as pleasant hilltop monuments in the eighteenth century. Today, they are just nice landmarks serving as a backdrop for the panoramic view of the sea and South County Dublin.

Killiney Obelisk
Killiney Obelisk

From the top, we could really see the effect of the sea fog. It must have been the warm air hitting the cold water of the sea, because the fog had very little staying power over the land below.

Fog Dying over Land Killiney, Dublin, Ireland
Sea Fog Dying over Land

I was hoping to take notes on the correct way to get from the south side of Killiney Hill back to the DART station so I could include this walk in an upcoming "Easy Hikes on the DART Line" section for The Frugal Guide, but we took a wrong turn coming into the village and ended up walking way too far inland, ending up closer to Dun Laoghaire, four DART stops from where we planned to finish our day. Oh well, it was a nice day, and we saved four stops' fare for our homeward journey!

I still plan to include this scenic walk in the book in some way, but I'll have to find a Cory-proof route to describe and map first!

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Hike in Ireland's Hen and Stag Capital

Thanks to the great organizing efforts of Sara's co-worker, we recently enjoyed a beautiful weekend hiking and exploring Carlingford, seemingly the center of Irish pre-wedding celebrations.

We took the train (my first time on Irish rail, pretty swanky compared to the bus) straight north from Dublin to Dundalk, and from there took a taxi to Carlingford, a small village on the Cooley Peninsula, just across a small sea inlet from the Mountains of Morne in Co. Down, Northern Ireland.

From the B&B, we could see the peak of Tain (pronounced, TAWN), the mini-mountain we'd be climbing. Luckily, the peak was clear, so we could safely climb all the way to the summit for the best views of both the Republic and the North.

Tain Mountain Co. Louth Ireland
Tain Mountain with Famine Village

On the mountainside, we passed the ruins of a famine village, one of the many small settlements completely abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century as poverty and starvation swept the country. Today, all that remains are limestone walls  and building foundations.

Famine Village Home Tain, Co. Louth, Ireland
Famine Village Home

We reached the shoulder of the hills, crossing Maeve's Gap, a cutaway between two small peaks that legend says was carved by the soldiers Queen Maeve so she could ride her chariot over the hill to capture a prize bull from a competing clan. Hey, legends are legends.

Maeve's Gap Tain, Co. Louth, Ireland
Maeve's Gap

From the windy summit of 590 meters (1900 feet), we got great views of the surrounding countryside of the Cooley Peninsula, Co. Louth, and beyond.

Carlingford Mountain Summit Inland View

Carlingford and Carlingford Lough from Carlingford Mountain Summit
Carlingford and Carlingford Lough from Carlingford Mountain Summit

After the windy descent, we hit the town for dinner and a well-deserved drink. It was then that we (non-Irish) discovered Carlingford's legendary party reputation. While the international (mostly English) stag and hen parties are raging in Dublin's Temple Bar, the Irish soon-to-be-weds take to this tiny burg to drink and dance the night away with other Irish revelers. We met parties from all over the country, and we simply had to ask our Irish companions, "Why here? Of all the small villages in the country?"

"Well, it's just self-perpetuating... Carlingford is the place to have your stag... because it's the place to have your stag!"

It made sense enough.

The next morning, we walked around the village itself, visiting King John's Castle—the King John of Robin Hood fame—on the cute harbor of the village. From there, we set off on a shorter walk along the town's new greenway, a beautiful and comfortable trail following the coast along Carlingford Lough.

King John's Castle Carlingford
King John's Castle Carlingford

An Oddly-Angled Rainbow
An Oddly-Angled Rainbow

Carlingford, as it happened, was celebrating its annual leprechaun hunt for the local kids. The town claims to have one of the last remaining indigenous leprechaun communities—and has even successfully had the local population given protected status by the European Union. We didn't participate in the search this year, still recovering from the previous day's hike as we were, but I got a picture with the shillelagh-wielding mascot of the hunt in the town center.

Cory and the Elder Leprechaun, Carlingford, Co. Louth, Ireland
Cory and the Elder Leprechaun

Legs stiff and bodies rewardingly exhausted, we left the hills and the leprechauns behind to rejoin the real world. Now we know the place to go for a good hike... or a good small-town stag party!

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Big Day Out

While putting the finishing touches on the Frugal Guide, I was looking through the list of free (or cheap) Dublin-area attractions that I had yet to visit. I use "Dublin area" because most of these points of interest are well beyond the tourist-friendly City Centre and buried in Dublin's deepest suburbs. Weighing my options, I decided not to include most of these way-out-but-worthwhile attractions, thinking a normal tourist visit could still be called complete without them.

After continued research (and some local feedback), I decided to take a look at one such far-off sight, Farmleigh, and boy was I glad I did.

I'd heard it was a nice visit, with some great gardens and a (totally free) tour of the old estate house, once owned by the Guinness family, but now used for fancy-schmancy state functions. It sits just past the west end of Phoenix Park—the largest enclosed park in Europe, and already on the west edge of town. Practically, it really wouldn't be accessible for tourists on foot from City Centre, but there are ways to get there without too much trouble—or cost.

I noticed a walking tour scheduled to leave from the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre and proceed through the west end of the park to the gardens of Farmleigh, timed to end just as an interior tour of Farmleigh House would be kicking off. Figuring it would be perfect, I cycled the six miles to the middle of Phoenix Park—to find that the tour had been cancelled for an illness. Shoot.

Not to worry, as another tour of Ashtown Castle, the nearby medieval tower near the visitor centre, was starting shortly after I'd arrived. I took the opportunity to finally poke around the exhibits at the center, which had been closed the only other time I'd come for a tour, which had also been cancelled at the last minute.

The Duke of Ormond, the Mascot of Phoenix Park
The Duke of Ormond, the Mascot of Phoenix Park

I got a look at the displays about the Duke of Ormond, who originally set aside the land for the park as a royal deer hunting preserve. Today, his image is like a mascot for Phoenix Park, his red coat, curls, and hunting falcon showing up on many promotional materials for the park.

Next to the visitor center, the tower of Ashtown Castle Tower House overlooks the nearby sporting fields and the trees and trails of the park's center. I'd always enjoyed the mini hedge maze surrounding the tower, but found out that it is the floor plan of a much larger (and much newer) house that had been added to the original Norman stone fortress. Smartly, they tore down the plaster building and committed to preserving the old tower—viewable only by guided tour today.

Ashtown Castle Tower House
Ashtown Castle Tower House

After checking out the (worth it!) Ashtown Castle, I cycled my way over to Farmleigh. Even though the tour from Phoenix Park wasn't running, the house tours were still running as scheduled. Conveniently, I arrived about ninety minutes before the next house tour—just enough time to enjoy a walk through the gardens.

Farmleigh House Facade
Farmleigh House Facade

Dutch Sunken Garden - Farmleigh
Dutch Sunken Garden

The Only Blooming Tulip on the Grounds - Farmleigh
The Only Blooming Tulip on the Grounds

Those Victorians Loved them some Temples - Farmleigh
Those Victorians Loved them some Temples

The house tour was amazing, but no photos are allowed, so you'll just have to take my word for it. If you can get out there, Farmleigh is worth the trip, especially if you can get there by cycle through the southern part of Phoenix Park, which is how I made my way back home.

I took a nice ride through Furry Glen—with the sounds of One Direction blasting in my ears from a school outing at a nearby pavilion—and got a great shot of a strange, Dagobah-like landscape that doesn't look like it would be within Dublin City.

Furry Glen in Phoenix Park, Dublin
Mudhole? Slimy? My Home, This Is!

Thanks to a tip from my Ashtown Tower tour guide, I stopped at a rather obscure little marker on the southern edge of the park. Part of a small tomb centuries older than Newgrange and, by extension, the Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, Knockmaree Cist still overlooks the Liffey Valley just as it did in the Stone Age. When first excavated, it was part of a larger burial mound complex and contained the cremated remains of at least three individuals.

Knockmaree Cist
Knockmaree Cist

The deer that were the purpose for the founding of the park are still here, carefully managed and semi-wild. The herd mostly roams the open fields of an area called the Fifteen Acre, but I ran into this guy at close range on the southern park road.

Phoenix Park Fallow Deer
Phoenix Park Fallow Deer

Elsewhere, and a bit less impressive than the ancient tomb and the deer, the Papal Cross built just for a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1979. More than a million worshippers swarmed the park to hear him speak from this purpose-built platform. Now, kids play soccer and hurling on the grounds that were cleared and flattened.

Papal Cross - Phoenix Park
Papal Cross

The southern edge of the park is on a high hilltop overlooking the River Liffey and the Kilmainham and Islandbridge neighborhoods directly below, with a passable view of City Centre and the coast in the distance. This strategic position made some parts of the park important for military garrisons. One such installation is still standing, but is crumbling and unsafe.

The Magazine Fort's main purpose was to safely store ammunition and explosives for the British Army. Now, its gate is a great place from which to launch oneself down the steep hill on a skateboard, which is how I saw it being enjoyed on my day out.

Magazine Fort - Phoenix Park
Magazine Fort

Exhausted from such a thorough exploration of Dublin's far-west adventures, I pumped my way home. Look for a Farmleigh review over on Five Suitcases and a new update to the Frugal Guide with my new findings soon.