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Traveling in Europe: Horley, England

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Six Bells--You can see how low the ceiling is.

My recent trip to Europe began with flying into Gatwick airport, which is south of Victoria Station by a half-hour train ride. I stayed in Horley, Surrey (a suburb next to the airport) because I was only there for a day and a half. The first night, after a nap to reset my clock, I just wandered down the road to Ye Olde Six Bells. It was quite dark with inadequate lighting. I also brushed against overgrown nettles. Luckily it was just a light brush because my leg itched for about an hour.

The history of this pub goes back around 700 years, when a man named Norman Lord want refreshment to get through the long sermons at St. Bartholomew’s. A place that old has whitewashed walls, huge dark wooden beams, low ceilings and rambling rooms. I imagine that over the centuries the rooms were added one at a time, the wooden floored ones being the oldest, though no floors would be original. The first floor might very well have been packed earth and straw spread  over it.

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A conglomeration of woods.

Buildings throughout the medieval era were white washed to preserve the mortaring and stonework and to add light to dark structures only lit by candles and oil lamps. Six Bells was all of this, with a note on the ceilings saying “Duck or Grouse.” Above the bar it said, “Before you ask, yes we have hit our heads a lot.” Since this seem to be the normal height for old pubs I must assume that people were shorter at one time, plus I imagine the places were time consuming and expensive to build, and space wasn’t wasted on high ceilings. It may have kept the warmth in as well.

Unlike North American pubs, many British ale houses or public houses are part restaurant and you’ll see people bringing their children. The central and oldest area is the bar, and rooms jut off in three directions for diners to sit.

The Six Bells menu is quite extensive and I had  a fish pie, since it seemed traditional British fare; a mixture of peas (the English love their peas), potatoes, shrimp, smoked haddock and cod in a white wine, coriander cream sauce, with a salad of red onion, tomato, spinach and tongues of cucumber in a simple vinaigrette. It was tasty and filling, costing around 10 pounds. I was too full to try dessert, which some British just call puddings in a generic way. I like to sample new ciders and England is the place to do it. I tried the Aspall Suffolk cider at 5.5% alcohol (higher than most of the beers on tap). This drink worked very well with the smoky taste of the pie and I think the food brought out the cider’s flavor. Aspall is a light golden color, light on the tongue (medium effervescence), crisp apple taste and not overly dry. The flavor isn’t too strong but it’s more noticeable than Strongbow’s nondescript taste. Of all the ciders I tried on my trip this one remains one of my favorites.

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Aspall Suffolk Cider

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The fish pie at Ye Olde Six Bells

I would recommend Ye Olde Six Bells. The rest of Horley seemed rather small. The second night I had Chinese food and though it was a simple fare of broccoli, chicken and mushrooms I found the chicken tasted old. Not bad but not fresh, and I’m quite sensitive to the change in meat flavors. It could have contributed to the stomach unrest that hit me the next day as I arrived in Amsterdam.

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Six Bells at night: a conglomerate of eras

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Alcoholism and Life

I grew up with an alcoholic father. Some might debate this but he drank a fair amount, did terrible things to us and grew violent. It was not pretty and it marred us with scars we bear to this day. My mother went back to school at one point and worked as an alcohol and drug abuse counsellor so she knew the signs well. It’s interesting, before she moved into that line of work, the men she dated were all alcoholics.

I also had a friend who became my best friend and lived across the alley from me. We got into various types of trouble together, went to parties, and drank underage, as most of our friends did. I cannot tell her tale as to what pushed her too far. It could be an easy statement of physiology though easy is not the way it was. By sixteen she was an alcoholic with a host of embarrassing events under her belt, making difficult for her friends to be around her. I asked my mother what to do (and I have to say my mother was very good about not berating us for drinking underage) so she gave me some pamphlets to pass on to my friend. One was a checklist of behaviors that could indicate you’re an alcoholic. Some of the statements were: do you not remember what you’ve done while drinking, do you pass out after drinking, do you feel the need to drink every day–things like that.

Of course, giving a teenager such pamphlets didn’t go over that well and as high school grew towards its end and my friend also became pregnant (facilitating a quick marriage), we also started to grow apart. I couldn’t help her and she was going to need to help herself. I don’t know if she was embarrassed by her alcoholism or felt that I judged her (and I confess that I did at that time) but we eventually lost contact. It was only many many years later that she made the effort to contact me, having been dry for a long time, with grown and growing children. I then had to get past the wall that I had left behind from that time.

In high school I had also started dating a guy who I went with for a year and a half. He was two years older than me so he was finished while I was in grade 11. And he worked at a pub. I looked old for my age and could get into the bars without being ID’d. (Oddly enough, after I turned legal age, I was ID’d often.) He too became an alcoholic, drinking too much and too often. I don’t remember if that’s what broke up the relationship but it was a contributing factor.

I’d seen enough alcoholism by my mid-twenties, including an Irish couple in Vancouver who were on a self-destructive path through their drinking.  We also stopped being friends. And there are others, those with the red splotchy faces, the abusive tongues, the rude behavior that had driven friend and family away. I would often talk to these people, if they were friends, expressing concern but when they continued along their way I felt I didn’t need to be in the path of their abuse either.

I was arrogant enough to think I’d never be an alcoholic because I didn’t like alcohol that much and I was aware of it. That may have been the case but I wasn’t aware of the abyss in my soul and where it was sucking me to. I was unhappy and single, while all my friends were in couples. I hated myself, my eating disorder was out of control. On top of it, I’d fallen in love with a man who didn’t love me and inadvertently probably rubbed the fact in my face with his patronizing way.

Before I knew it I was drinking to drown the pain and perceived loneliness. I stood in the back of a poetry performance night one evening, crying (from my broken heart), then going out to my car to drink a cider, then coming in and crying, and repeating in progressively drunken way. I went to a camping event and proceeded to get so drunk that I didn’t know what I did. In essence, I had a blackout. Then on New Year’s eve I went to Blaine to some friends’ party. Bored and feeling the loneliness around all the couples there, I decided to drive back to Vancouver to another party.

Lucky for me, some friends braved my wrath and took my keys away. I later passed out and left the next day. Shortly after that night I was thinking of my life and realized I teetered on the edge of becoming a full fledged alcoholic. The brink was close and I was sliding over it. Also lucky for me, with that realization, I started to reassert control over my life.

And two friends at that time, drew straws to see who would approach me and say I had a drinking problem. The loser got to come up to me, probably expecting me to tear into her. But when she said, we think you have a drinking problem, I said, Thank you for being such good friends to tell me. You have the right, if you see me out of control at any time, please tell me.

And after that, I did try to control it, and not drink to cover my problems. Alcoholism, though, can strike for a number of reasons. Some people are physiologically more susceptible. Others make it part of their lifestyle. Others use to flood the hollow spots. It is the duty of anyone who is friend or family to say to the drinker, You have a problem and you need help. But as always, it is up to the person to change and hopefully have the support of friends when they take that path. I learned some valuable lessons about drinking and about me. I wouldn’t want to go that road again.

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Dublin and Keating’s Bar

This is the last day in Ireland, before we flew back to Glasgow, in October 2007.

Sunday October 14, nearing the end of our trip and our last night in Ireland. We had come back to Dublin a day earlier hoping to have some time to see a few more sights but what with getting lost over and over again, we really had time only to pack, drop off the car and get something to eat. Driving into Dublin after two weeks of driving, you think would be easier. But there were multiple lanes, the signs were unclear and once we got off the highway, we proceeded to meander with the streets.

I think we stopped twice to ask for directions and finally found the same B&B where we had stayed before, the Charleville. Whereas this place had very nice rooms when we arrived we were given one in the basement this time. It smelled moldy in the corridor, the light didn’t work right, the door knob was loose and the water cool. It wasn’t as impressive but we were only there for the one night. (So if you’re planning on staying there, don’t let them put you in the basement.)

So after wasting part of the day getting into Dublin we decided it was wise to drop of the car first, knowing how signage just doesn’t match reality. We got lost, typical by now, went the wrong direction, finally got directions that took us to the Liffey (river) where the dropoff for the car was. The guy who gave us the best directions said, take the last road before the Liffey and turn left, then go one block and turn up. Not only were the names of the streets wrong but we couldn’t turn left on the street he said we could, nor go up the street that was next (because it was one way the other direction). It seems even the Irish don’t know their city that well.

After driving in large circles for about an hour, we finally found the entrance, not marked in any discernible way to say it was the right place. And then we were hungry. We were downtown on a Sunday and couldn’t find much. Many things were closed, or looked very cheesy. So we ate at a diner with unremarkable food.

We then caught a taxi to Keating’s Bar because my friend Will in Glasgow had said check it out. We could have walked as it was only a few blocks away but we didn’t know that after our long adventures in Dublin. It turns out to be an old church that fell into disrepair. Eventually it was bought by a local restaurateur and restored, keeping both the history of the place preserved. Part of the deal was to keep in in good repair and it has more parishioners of food than anything else. The crypt in the basement (with tombs in the floor) is the wine bar, which was closed that night. The large open-space bathrooms are on that level, where you walk in and go right if you’re a man and left if you’re a woman. When you’re at the sinks you can see men and women equally. Very Euro trendy.

The main floor has a long oval bar down the middle, and the top floor, overlooking the main floor is the dining area. If we had known there’d be food we would have eaten there and had a better meal. There are plaques and tombs in the walls to different personages. I wonder if people from two hundred years ago would roll in their graves to know a church had been turned into a bar, but then I thought, it’s the Irish. They tend to be more relaxed about drinking as part of life and religion.

We had an early flight the next day so we caught a taxi back to the B&B (not risking getting lost again) and that was that. Although there were a few things I didn’t see in Dublin I would probably skip it the next time. At the least I wouldn’t rent a car in the city and would the very least take a bus to a neighboring town and rent there to save on the confusion.

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Belfast to Ballycastle

 

Ireland 2007–Belfast to Ballycastle

In honor of St. Patty’s day tomorrow, here is another excerpt from my trip to Ireland in the fall of 2007.

Here we are still on Sunday Sept. 30, going from the Newgrange area to Belfast. We gassed up before Northern Ireland (as opposed to the republic) as they use pounds and that’s even more expensive (at least $2 CDN to the pound). It was the first time gassing up and we couldn’t get the gas flap open on the VW Polo or whatever that piece of crap was. No levers, no buttons and the gas jockey was stymied too. Finally he asked one of the other guys and it turns out you just give it a good push and it pops open. Duh.

The only difference crossing the border, which was indiscernible, was that the speed limits changed from kilometers to miles, much like driving from Canada to the US. However, the speedometer did not show miles, not that it mattered. If it said 60, people went 120, no matter whether km/h. I just flowed with the flow.

There are fairly major highways between Dublin and Belfast so it was smooth sailing and little getting lost though my sister would laugh her head off every time we saw a sign that said Heavy Plant Crossing. This usually wasn’t on the main highways but we later found out it meant lumber trucks crossing, so in a sense, heavy plants. Our three maps of Ireland were deficient in different ways. The one from CAA only showed major routes and everything is a minor route in Ireland. The best map had roads going where they didn’t, roads missing, and sites not exactly where they really were. You cannot have too detailed of a map for Ireland, even if it is a small country.

So, we drove into Belfast with no city map, a scary prospect after the maze of Dublin. But we found downtown (reminded me of Edmonton with the type of streets and construction going on), drove in circles for a bit and then parked, by sheer luck, across from the tourist information center (a large “i”) so we did some internet posting, then got a map and yes, you guessed it, it was not accurate for Belfast. The woman drew lines to the Crown Liquor Saloon, the only place we were going to see as we were now shy of hanging around in the big cities. But of course she said go this way on a street that turned out to be a one way the other way. And you know what one ways are like when you’re lost. You’re always going the wrong direction. And we drove around and around and around and couldn’t find this world famous Victorian saloon.

Finally I stopped by a taxi and told my sister to ask him. He was so nice that he actually just led us there and then pointed. And still we drove back and forth, because the saloon was under renovations and we couldn’t see it for the scaffolding. Arrrghh! But we found it and it was truly beautiful, with warm wood booths and pillars. The pillars had little carved lions and griffins holding shields and in all, there were only about six booths with lovely wooden doors and stained glass. Each booth had a metal plate that said Matches. We were talking to this man and woman and he said that at the turn of the century that was where people struck their matches when smoking. Ireland (both republic and north) are smoke free environments inside establishments, just like BC.

This guy also regaled us with politics and told us the only reason Dublin was considered dirty was because the tourists litter, not the locals. I kept my mouth shut but later saw what the Irish college crowd is like in Kilkenny and the streets were littered. Belfast itself was very modern in the downtown core. We got lost (of course) getting out and the area we were in was a little rougher, but no sign at all of all the chaos of recent years gone by.

We then drove through to Ballycastle. Bally means “bay,” so we passed many a place name Bally this and Bally that. It is a resort town and we did the usual, park and go into a pub for a drink. This was very much a sports bar and rugby is on every screen (or is it soccer–I mix them up). There was a man at the bar could have been my friend Terri Fleming’s brother; similar hair and skin color, and looks. The Flemings (once Flemish of course) ended up in Ireland by way of many routes and the Scots.

On the outskirts of the town, right beside a golf course are the ruins of Bonamargy Friary. Built around the early 1500s it houses many graves of the MacDonnells, the past chieftains of Ulster and Antrim and is still in the same family to this day. The most famous was Sorley Boy (an Anglicization) and his brothers who ruled and repelled the English. The MacDonnells married the MacQuillans to quell the past Lords of the Route. Turns out the one headstone I took a picture of is rumoured to be the Black Nun of Bonamargy’s resting place, Julie MacQuillan who was said to have made seven prophesies.

From the pictures you can tell it was dusk and we weren’t having any luck with finding the B&B the pub recommended. We went back and tried to call three places but duh, you dial first, then stick the money in and if you’re not fast enough, it cuts you off. And then you have to keep adding coins to keep talking. We goofed so bad the pub owner helped us, and one B&B just called back because we got cut off. Eventually in full darkness we found Clare house, after having to knock on someone’s door and scare them in the dark. We unpacked and went back to town for dinner. Some pubs have restaurants upstairs and I don’t know the name of the place we ate at but it was very modern in design and high end. It was a Sunday so there weren’t a lot of places open. A bit pricey but very good.

It was late and we were tired so we drove back after eating and hit the sack.

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Dark and Scary: Bathrooms

Restaurateurs, wherever you are, learn this lesson. No matter how dreamy, retro, romantic, funky or sporty your restaurant, pub or lounge, one thing you do not want ever, and I mean ever, is a dark and scary bathroom.

Maybe guys like pissing in the dark, though I doubt it because their aim is never that good, but women really don’t.

When I was a teenager, in high school, the janitors went on strike. I didn’t have the opportunity to see what state the boys’ bathroom ended up in but reports were the girls’ was the worst. And it was more disgusting than a pigsty, which really is just pigs wallowing in mud (and maybe some other organic matter). The girls stopped short of wiping their butts and throwing it on the floor but used tampons and sanitary napkins were spread far and wide.

It was truly appalling. In our me-me-me culture, women are as bad as men. There are those women who don’ t like to sit on a toilet seat because of germs or because someone sprinkled on the seat, so they squat above. Some also come from cultures where squat toilets are the norm. However, some of these squatters spray everywhere because there is a larger space in which their non-aim can go. Unlike guys, we don’t have a hose to direct.

I think half of these people leave the bathroom stall, having flushed, but not wiping the seat, because they didn’t touch it, or they don’t care and are ignorant of other people’s use. Sometimes it is the toilet’s fault where the water splashes up when the toilet is flushed.  In either case, I tend to check and wipe the seat before I leave. After all, I try to leave the toilet how I would like to have it found.

When I enter any sort of public/restaurant bathroom, I always check for toilet paper and then put some down on the seat. The few times I haven’t checked, thinking I’m safe I’ve had the misfortune of sitting in a wet spot and there is nothing more disgusting than sitting in another person’s urine. Ick!

So bright lights for the toilets are tantamount. Romantic mood lighting doesn’t help there, nor when a woman is trying to fix her make-up. Glaringly bright fluorescents that give people green-tinged skin and makes them look like zombies is not optimal but I would take it over the dark and scary toilet.

One of the worst in Vancouver, is Waazubee’s on Commercial. It’s cramped with dark blue walls, doors that rarely close right and just too dark. Time for a reno, Bennie.

Of course the scariest toilets were when I was in Asia. Singapore had modern, flush toilets, but they were squat toilets. There was a hole in the floor (porcelain, mind you) with metal footprints on either side showing you where to put your feet, as well as which direction to face (it wasn’t always easy to tell). Being a big of a benevolent tyranny, they also had very large signs posted about the fines people would receive for not flushing. It was something like $50-100.

That was the luxury in the predominantly Asian squat  toilet. Some were a horrific combo, such as the porcelain bowl, absolutely filthy and stained, but with no seat. You had to squat halfway and that was harder than squatting to the floor. And try it with dysentery, not sure if you’re going to puke or have diarrhea or both. Yeah, that was way too much fun.

Then there was the long, unlit tunnel behind some ramshackle cinder block and brick building. You ducked and duckwalked in, past a tattered sheet hung on a string, and squatted over a runnel with some water trickling through. Fetid does not describe the odor in the hot Indian sun.

The experience of using a squat toilet on the Indian trains was something else. There was a bar to hang onto as you watched the tracks beneath the hole. As well, you’re swaying to and fro, which helps little with hitting that hole. Imagine trying to hold a skirt up, squatting and hanging on and then having to use toilet paper. That was a very interesting problem.

In Mexico City the toilets were usually brightly lit but few of them flushed. This wasn’t long after a big earthquake and their water table is notoriously low. If you didn’t bring your own toilet paper you had to pay some matronly senora for paper, by the square. But the worst was that because the toilets weren’t flushing, you did your business in them but put all paper in an open garbage can beside them. Imagine the smell in the heat of Mexican summer. Not exactly pleasant, and very very disgusting.

So, in retrospect a dark restaurant bathroom may be paradise but a lot of them could improve. The Japanese and some other European countries are big on bidets that wash and blow dry your nether regions. No paper is used and considering the number of trees we kill for toilet paper, it’s not a bad solution. In India they didn’t always use toilet paper either, or water. That’s why it was important to always always carry your own.

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Newgrange & Knowth

Ireland 2007–Newgrange & Knowth

Here’s another excerpt from my trip to Ireland in Sept./Oct. of 2007

We left Dublin on the 28th of Sept. However, trying to navigate out of a city that’s centuries old with winding streets and missing signs was quite a challenge. The 15-minute drive from the car rental place to our guesthouse took an hour and a half.

The guesthouse gave us directions north on the M1 when in fact the map showed that we really wanted M2 to get to Newgrange. Part of the problem is that here you have a map that fills your lap of all Ireland, the same as a map of British Columbia.  A map even of BC would mean hours of driving so our sense of size and distance were skewed.

On top of that, let’s say that Dublin tourism has good maps. They list some of the more known sites. They list major roads and smaller subroutes or connector roads. However, the sites are sometimes before a town when they’re shown as being in the town, or north of a place when shown to be west of a place. Some of those connector roads don’t connect to anything but a playground while there are new routes not listed anywhere on the map. We had three maps and none were accurate.

We took N1 with my sister driving and I kept trying to navigate us back to M2. What a mistake. We did end up in a subdevelopment, a schoolyard, on the M1 and back to still being on the M1 (which can disappear and become the M1 and then R125 or something and then back to being the M1). All this plus navigating the many roundabouts any time there is a road leading in a different direction. We were told to turn at a cemetery by a local at one point and either she’d never been up that road in years or they moved the cemetery, bodies and all.

So, eventually with half the day gone after starting at 11 am to get the car, we made it to the Huntsman Inn somewhere around 4 pm. We stopped in because it looked cute except for the scary horse thing outside. Thatched roof and a few hundred years old, it seems it was competing as the oldest pub/tavern/restaurant with other places. We saw several of these signs and had, while in Dublin, bought a drink at the Stags Head and the Brazen Head pubs, both the oldest for something. Though there were nice staff, I had truly awful onion rings with soft doughy outer layer and soft, too fleshy wings. Blech.

Revitalized and coming to realize that though it’s a short distance through Ireland, it’s not a fast ride, we continued on. We even found Newgrange all by ourselves…but about a half hour too late to get into that day. So we drove along the road to Slain (Slane) and asked there about B&Bs. We stayed at the lovely little Roughgrange home of Irene and her husband, mere minutes from Newgrange, itself a 17th century grange (form of ranch house). We trotted off to Donore for dinner in a pub and had fairly acceptable food with a few massive potatoes.

The next morning we decided to stay a second night as we had plenty in that area to see and drove off to Newgrange. Only done by tour (not enough time as far as I was concerned) we went first to Knowth (nowth for pronunciation). This was the first of many experiences with the stones of Ireland. Knowth and Newgrange are megalithic (or neolithic depending on the info) passage tombs that date back 5-6000 years. These were Stone to Bronze Age cultures. Knowth’s chamber was bigger and there were several mounds of varying sizes.

There have been upgrades to the mounds as over the centuries they were farmed or even had small villages starting up on the top of the mounds. Excavation was needed to bring back the kerbstones which are made of a stone called greywacke (greywacky). I believe only one was missing. In most of the passage tombs there is an alignment to one of the solstices or an equinox. As well, cremated human remains were found and in some the bodies of several people. Archaeologists know these were used for ceremonial or ritual purposes in the earliest days. Knowth and Newgrange are the oldest manmade structures in the world.

The sense of age and history is immense. I could almost see the people moving amongst these revered mounds of long ago, imagine the importance of sun and rain and the turning wheel of the seasons. This was the beginning of a growing sense of stone in Ireland, as if I was being etched, like the whorls and swirls that were set in these kerbstones of long ago to endure weather and touch, and the changing of culture and times.

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