Oh the beauty we have to behold in this life… It blows me away.
Here I am sitting in Hotel Chocolat, “the deliciously British chocolate shop,” attempting to overcome writer’s block, which in my case could be more accurately described as a boulder. I’ve been sitting here for a while now. Starting and restarting. Typing and backspacing. Referring to articles I’ve pinned on how Mark Twain and Barbara Kingsolver overcame this unfortunate occurrence in their day. One of those “off” days when even all the Queen’s Men might not be able to help me get my act together. Also, there is a girl in my peripherals who is literally petting and pouting at her boyfriend, which is painfully distracting and throwing off my mojo.
And then, as I’m staring off into the nothingness, the most beautiful sight finds its place in my line of vision. A little baby boy. Sitting on the table. Staring directly into my eyes, with eyes as deep and dark and delicious as the chocolate in the shop. Naturally, a smile broke across my face. (There really must be a scientific causal relationship between babies and smiling… If baby, then smile. Yes.) And then his chubby cheeks smiled a little bit bigger. And then I laughed a little bit brighter. And then he laughed a little bit louder. And then I sat on my hands to keep myself from scooping up the little nugget and stealing him away forever.
After a few minutes of absolute distraction, smiling and laughing, (and realizing that the fact that I’m effectively flirting with a four-month-old reinforces my grandmother’s advice that I join a singles group), my new little friend was tucked into his pram and rolled out of the shop with his mum. And I’m back here thinking, isn’t life beautiful?
And then I remember I just spent a weekend in Ireland and I say, yes. Life is beautiful.
In the wee hours of Thursday morning, when all the little children of Kensington were tucked sweetly in their beds, an alarm was ringing in Room 309 of Atlantic House, pulling two not-so-little children of Kensington out of their slumber. Abs and I said “hello” to 4 AM, “see you later” to London, and began our journey to the Emerald Isle.
After a few minor setbacks (no one ever said adventure was easy), we were well on our way to part one of our weekend getaway: Belfast. From the Dublin airport, we hopped on a bus that would take us to the north. We had every intention of napping away this two-hour ride to rest up for the day ahead, but the rolling hills of Ireland had another plan in mind. We were both so amazed by the scenery that our noses were practically pressed against the windows the entire ride. Parts of the ride felt like a cross-country trip across the states, minus the boring ones like Nebraska and Nevada (no offense). The ride brought me back to the days when my family of six would make the sixteen-hour trek to Colorado, when not even a broken DVD player or a seriously carsick kid (usually me) could keep us from reaching those snow-capped mountains. We almost always took the scenic route, because if you’re going to be stuck in the car for the better part of a day, you might as well have something beautiful to look at.
|View from the bus window? I can deal with that.|
The bus to Belfast was just that, except shorter and complete with the luxury of stretching my legs without starting WWIII with my sister. I made a bold attempt to count the cows and sheep as we passed through, but I lost track somewhere in the eighties, with many more barnyard friends in sight. The hills rolled on and the trees sprouted up all over the place. Nature, I’ve noticed, has this strange ability to calm the soul. Especially when that soul has been dwelling in the bustling city for a spell. It calms the thoughts and cares swirling within, leaving behind the delicate sound of quiet and the peaceful feeling of wonderment.
|If you squint your eyes real close to the screen, you can see little white dots speckling the hills. Hi, sheep.|
We arrived in Belfast and took a quick walk to our hostel, soaked in sunlight. On this walk, we made a quick comparative assessment of our surroundings. While the boys in England are prettier than the girls, the girls in Ireland are prettier than the boys. (And I think they all get their eyebrows done at the same place. Just an observation.) Now I’m not trying to be judgmental here. I’m just feeling all the more confident in my decision to study in London.
We found our hostel, jumped for joy when we realized that we had a six-person room to ourselves for the night, and then headed toward Queen’s University, where we had plans to meet up with our friend from Bethel, Trent. Since Queen’s sprawls throughout much of the city, Belfast had a similar feel to a college town in the States. I actually felt like I was walking through Madison. That is, until, we asked for directions from a group of very Irish boys with very Irish accents to match. Nope. Definitely not Wisconsin. We searched high and low until we finally found Trent, and then proceeded to nearly bowl him over with a bear hug. It’s not every day you meet up with friends from school in a foreign country, okay?
After a quick lunch, we took a trip to Belfast Castle for a hike! And it was just marvelous. I’ve had a fierce craving for a good hike for quite some time now, so this was right up my alley. The view from the top was just breathtaking – a view of the entire city of Belfast all in one swoop. The city is nestled on the sparkling coast, with a river running through the center. To our left were rolling hills and grassy green cliffs peering over the sea, and to our right was the cityscape down below, stretching for miles before disappearing into the foggy sky. It felt a bit like the Lion King, with Mufasa’s deep bellowing voice in my ear saying, “Look, Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom.” More accurately, it was just Trent pointing out notable landmarks to Abby and I. Close enough. We even learned a thing or two about Irish history thanks to a class Trent is taking. (Yes, we study abroad students are indeed doing school here. Do not be misled.) One of the most exciting things I learned was that the Titanic was built and launched in Belfast. Who knew? Not me. I could have sworn Jack and Rose set off from NYC... Clearly my historical recollection and geographical understanding of this event is a tad foggy. From where we stood, we saw the huge landing strip where the ship was built and the museum that stands as a tribute to this monumental part of history. Pretty cool, huh? Also, the wind was so strong I was a teeny bit alarmed I might take to the sky like a kite. So after a quick Snapchat to all our friends back at school to stir up a little good-natured jealousy, we decided it was time to come down.
|On top of the world.|
|Belfast Castle. How's that for a backyard view?|
After our hike, the three of us ate breakfast for dinner at a cozy local restaurant called Maggie Mays. Trent threw out some ideas of what we could do after dinner, and Abby and I graciously decided to let our host pick. And thus, we found ourselves buying tickets to the 6:30 showing of Thor: The Dark World at the movie theatre down the street. That’s what happens when you let the boy decide for the girls. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly dying to see this movie, nor was I confident I would even be able to stay awake to see it after a long day of travel. On the contrary, not only do I report that my eyes remained wide open for all 112 minutes of the movie, but I urge you all to call up the first person you can think of and go see this movie. (Once you get to the bottom of this page, of course.) Ladies, I realize that Thor himself is possibly the only reason you might consider buying a ticket. Same. Totally acceptable. What I did not anticipate, however, was what a BOMB movie it was going to be. It got me all pumped up and ready to watch the next one right that very second. And of all the cities in which this action-packed flick could take place, Thor just so happened to take place in LONDON. Can you say synchronicity? The only other time I have ever been able to interrupt a movie and say, “Hey! I live there!” was while watching the 1996 American Christmas comedy Jingle All The Way, so yes, I was rather thrilled.
We finished off the day by heading back to Maggie Mays for some hot chocolate and good conversation. It is just so incredibly strange to think that the last time we were all together we were in the quaint and comfortable suburbs of Minnesota, surrounded by all of our best friends. Five months later, we’re sitting in a restaurant in Northern Ireland, sharing stories about life on our own in big European cities and thinking about how weird it will be to be back in the States in a few short weeks. Take it from me. Life has a wild way of taking you to places you had never imagined.
|…like to Irish cliff-tops, for example.|
Well the day flew by and before we knew it it was time to say “see you later” to Trent and “hello” to the second portion of our journey. Nothing like an all-out sprint to catch the bus to Dublin to get our blood pumping on a brisk Friday morning! If travel has taught me anything it would be to hold those plans and expectations loosely, because it is dang hard to keep your act together. Also, it is always wise to have an ample supply of deodorant on hand, because you never know when being on time will literally cause you to break a sweat.
By the sheer grace of God we made it to our hostel in Dublin, all in one piece, suffering only a lost towel as a casualty. A group of our friends from London had signed up for a trip to Dublin through our school that weekend, so we decided to make like a box of Girl Scout cookies and tagalong. (That was both the best and worst pun of my life. Nonetheless, I hope you slapped your knee like I slapped mine.) We met on the corner of O’Connell Street and tooled around the city, popping in and out of shops as the rain came and went. Later on, the whole group had dinner at a pub called O’Shea’s. (FYI: If you wish to sound Irish, tack an “oh-apostrophe” on to the front of your last name and you are good to go, my friend.) In our mad dash of a morning, Abby and I only had time for a piece of bread from our hostel (indeed, we missed breakfast) and a protein bar. So by six o’clock in the evening, “famished” was an understatement.
After dinner, we covertly joined the school group in a musical pub-crawl. Now this was not your average pub-crawl, I might add. I would more accurately describe it as a musical tour through an area of the city called Temple Bar, led by two Irish musicians. At each of the three pubs on the crawl, these two guys hosted what they call an “acoustic session.” They played for us traditional Irish music, using guitars, an Irish drum-like contraption, and their own voices, in a small gathering space, with commentary throughout the night to give the audience a greater understanding of the history and inspiration of Irish acoustic music. Sounds super dorky, I know, but by the time we arrived at the final pub, I was surprised by how entertaining it turned out to be. The atmosphere was cozy and casual, the musicians were talented and quirky, and the evening was enjoyably Irish. I was thankful for the chance to experience something that is such an important part of Irish culture, a notion that would be reinforced the following evening.
We made it back to our hostel to find that one of the other guests in our room had arrived while we were out: a sweet and innocent Asian girl, rocking blush pink long johns from head to toe and tapping away on her iPad. Bless her heart. Our new roommate, along with the shower situation in general, made me realize what a shaping experience summer camp is. Camp prepared me for hostels for two reasons: 1. You never know what kind of character might be sleeping in the bunk next to you, and 2. Public showers are a frightening reality that must be dealt with both calmly and rationally. So thank you, Lake Beauty Bible Camp. Your pivotal life lessons continue to build character long after my days as a camper.
On Saturday morning, our lovely new roomie seemed to think it was about time we all greet the day and flipped on the light at the bright hour of eight o’clock, serving as a delightfully unexpected wakeup call. We got all ready for the day and headed over to meet the rest of the group for a walking tour throughout Dublin. An animated Irish degree student by the name of Eoin (pronounced Owen) led the tour; Eoin spoke quickly and extensively as we marched all over the city, trying our best to retain the flood of information coming our way. (I swear, tour guides in Europe are like a walking, talking Wikipedia page on their city of choice. The amount of knowledge this kid had locked inside his brain was astounding.) The tour began at Dublin Castle. Historically known as the city prison, this castle has lasting connotations as the source of all things evil in Dublin. Coincidentally, the building right next door is the Irish equivalent of the IRS.
|See those windows way up high? 3 prisoners escaped…1 died…1 got frostbite…1 survived and started a war. Yikes.|
Since we visited more places on this tour than I could possibly remember, I’ll just entertain you with the big ones. We saw the Project Arts Centre, where some band you’ve probably never heard of got its start. I think the name was U2? Directly across the street stands the Clarence Hotel, a hotel that kicked Bono and his band mates out on the street one night many years ago when they had only just begun their career of music-making. Not one to be bossed around, Bono snapped at the hotel manager on his way out, “Just you wait. One day I will own this hotel!” Many years later, I’ll give you one guess as to who owns this lovely establishment. You guessed it. Bono. Stick it to the man, kids.
Looking at Dublin from an architectural standpoint, this city is like a teenage girl who can’t quite decide what to wear. Some buildings are boldly colorful, but some are calmly neutral. Some buildings are extremely modern, but some are traditional and slightly British. For example, if you walk down O’Connell Street and look just past an old colonial-looking statue of O’Connell himself, you’ll find something that looks like it belongs in outer space. The Dublin Spire, which protrudes upwards from O’Connell Street over 120 meters into the sky, pokes through the clouds like a giant stainless steel toothpick. Even later in the tour, though, we found ourselves in the quad of Trinity College, surrounded by remarkable collegiate buildings that reminded me of the U.S. Capitol. So while many of the people of Dublin generally look very much alike, the buildings in which they live and work and learn are strikingly dissimilar.
|That skinny silver thing in the back? That would be the Spire.|
The tour concluded in St. Stephen’s Green Park, a lovely grassy area with ponds and birds and gazebos that reminded me of London’s own Kensington Gardens. At this point of the tour, I’m afraid my brain was so full of information that the remainder of what Eoin told us in the park was lost on me. What I do remember was the part in the middle of his last spiel when the professional Irish rugby team nonchalantly strolled right past us on their way to their afternoon practice in the park. That I remember quite well. Then later that night we watched those exact same guys absolutely crush Samoa on TV while we ate dinner at O’Connell’s Pub. It’s casual.
|We stopped at the oldest pub in Ireland, The Brazen Head. It's 300 years old… that's older than America!|
|A quick peek inside...|
After dinner, our group of six girls set out to explore the nightlife in Temple Bar, starting with The Temple Bar Pub itself. This place is renowned for its vivacious atmosphere and live music tradition; it’s absolutely exploding with dancing and live music on any given night of the week. I even saw a sign on the wall that read, “Guitarist Dave Browne broke the Guinness World Record for longest marathon playing guitar here: 114 hours live / 12th-17th June 2011.” How cool is that? We listened to two younger guys play guitar and belt some Mumford & Sons covers. The main guy was as fantastically talented as his hair was red. And oh was it red. How’s that for a surefire sign you’re in Ireland? The pub was completely packed and the energy was contagious. Everyone was smiling and moving to the beat. And the next place we went to was just as loud and lively. This, I realized, was just what the two guys on the music pub-crawl were getting at. Music runs through the veins of the city of Dublin, energizing the people like a heart pumping blood.
|Live music at the Temple Bar Pub.|
We topped off the weekend with a tour of the Guinness Storehouse on Sunday morning. This factory-slash-museum was fascinating. The tour takes you step-by-step through the longstanding Irish tradition of brewing Guinness. The company takes its trade very seriously, treating it as both a science and an art. I was thoroughly impressed by how much work goes into a single pint of this classic Irish drink. And for a drink so important, not only do they have a specific method of pouring a pint, but they also have a special way you’re meant to drink it. When it comes to Guinness, the Irish don’t mess around.
|Outside the Storehouse.|
Through the whole tour, as we climbed up and up through the storehouse, I couldn’t help but feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, except that this building had professionals brewing alcoholic beverages instead of Oompa Loompas making chocolate. Minor detail. The final leg of the tour takes you to the tippy-top of the storehouse, to the Gravity Bar. The Gravity Bar is surrounded by windows from floor to ceiling on all sides, much like the John Hancock building in Chicago, where you can look out over the whole city of Dublin. The view is incredible. It was the perfect place to end the weekend and say “cheers” to a fantastic stay in Ireland.
Whether I’m traveling to new countries, sitting in cafés in London, or simply going through my normal routine, I am stunned by the beauty that surrounds me, time and again. I don’t always see it, though, and I would bet you’re right there with me on that. Sometimes our eyes are clouded over with the heavy fog of things to do and worries to entertain. What a miserable state, isn’t it? Surrounded by such remarkable things, yet distracted and detained. To be frank, it’s embarrassing how easily I allow myself to enter that state sometimes. And then I find myself standing on a cliff in Belfast, looking out over creation in absolute awe of my Creator. Or standing in a jam-packed pub in Dublin, pulsing to the beat and singing along with a brilliant musician and a crowd of many. Or even sitting in a café in London, caught up in a happiness contest with the sweetest little baby. And all of a sudden I consider the beauty that surrounds me and I simply can’t keep the words inside me.