Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

LARPing at Worldcon

September 30, 2017

Here, finally, is an account of the LARP (Live Action Role-Playing game) that I played at Worldcon in Helsinki back in August.

There were five players in the game. Most of us had played tabletop role-playing games (like Dungeons & Dragons) before, but only one of us had any experience with LARPs, and that was only as a side character in a larger game. It was nice to all be relative newbies together. We played the game in English, although two out of five of us were not native English speakers. Sometimes we had to restate things so that everyone could understand, but we managed quite well. A coordinator explained the game to us and helped us get out feet on the ground, then left the room and just let the five of us play things out.

As in any role-playing game, each of us took on a new character. Unlike in most tabletop roleplaying, we stayed “in character” throughout the game. It was like an extended dramatic improv scene without an audience.

The setting was that our characters, twenty years ago, were a group of paranormal investigators. Then something happened and one member of our team died; we all split up and went our separate ways, but we’ve come back together in the place where it all went wrong. We were each randomly assigned some background for our characters (I was a small-time con artist who had never believed in the paranormal stuff but helped the team get into places and out of trouble, who had gone on to minor celebrity as an author and television personality), but the rest was up to us to work out. We first just sat around and talked, figuring out details of how we had gotten together as a team and what had gone wrong with our last adventure. Then we got into character and spent the next hour and a half just playing out the events of our reunion.

There was no set story for us to follow. We each decided for ourselves what our characters were trying to accomplish by getting back together and then had to try to work through our individual stories. Another interesting mechanic that the game had was that we each at some point (that we chose ourselves, when it felt right for the story) became possessed by ghosts who had their own motivations and goals (also randomly assigned to us at the start of the game) and which propelled the story in new directions.

It became clear to me fairly early on as we were coming up with the background for our characters that the major story was a tangled love/envy/hate triangle between three of the other characters and that my role in telling the story was to step to the side and help them work through their relationship. I quite enjoyed taking on that role; it appealed to the same narrative instincts I rely on when writing stories or guiding a class discussion. While the other players were busy focusing on working through the complicated emotions their characters were experiencing, I was trying to create opportunities for the story to progress. The game also reminded me of some of the improvisation exercises I did when I took some theatre classes in college.

We were told ahead of time by the coordinator for the game that this game can play very differently depending on what the people involved want out of it, that it doesn’t always have a happy ending, and that it can get emotionally intense. It was indeed an emotionally intense experience, but all of us players, without having planned it ahead of time, worked our way towards a satisfying happy ending. By the end of the game, old feuds had been patched up, broken friendships restored, the dead were at peace, and we were getting the gang back together again to keep hunting ghosts.

I really enjoyed this game. I hope I have the opportunity to do some more LARPing of this kind in the future.


August travels: Helsinki

September 3, 2017

For our Helsinki lodgings this trip, we tried something we haven’t tried before: AirBnB. We found a little one-room apartment in a neighborhood of eastern Helsinki we haven’t spent much time in before. It turned out to be a very good choice. The apartment was small, but there was enough room for us to spread out comfortably. The kitchen was basic but functional and stocked with simple staples like cooking oil and salt. It was on the top floor of a very quiet building; the street in front was noisy and busy, but we could close the windows and have some peace. The nearest grocery store was just on the other side of the block and there were stops for several different tram lines right outside.

Our big reason for being in Helsinki this year was to attend Worldcon, a big science fiction and fantasy convention that is held in different cities each year. This is the first time Worldcon has ever come to Helsinki and we were excited to be part of it.

Unlike, say, a Star Trek or Lord of the Rings convention, Worldcon is about genre literature broadly rather then being focused on a particular author or franchise. Much of the schedule is panel discussions among authors, critics, scientists, and other experts on various topics ranging from writing advice to costume design. I saw a lot of interesting panels on fiction writing, history, translation, and language with some great presenters. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of panels I didn’t get to see because of some planning problems with the convention. They were not prepared for the number of attendees who showed up and many panels had been scheduled into spaces that were too small for the crowds who wanted to attend. I frequently found myself sitting in a hallway reading a book because all the sessions I wanted to listen to were full.

After a couple of days of being frustrated by how few panels I actually got to attend, I decided to try something different. Another event at the convention was a series of LARPs (Live Action Role-Playing games). In the US, LARPing has been largely shaped by classic tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and often consists of not much more than running around in the woods hitting people with foam swords, but in Scandinavia there has been a development of LARPs focused on character development and collective storytelling. It’s something I’ve been curious about for a while, so I decided this was a good chance to give it a try. I had a remarkable experience at the LARP, which I’ll write about separately, and I look forward to future opportunities to play Scandinavian-type LARPS.

We encountered a lot of old friends in passing at the convention (including an old fellow student of mine from grad school days) and we spent a good deal of time hanging our with E’s sister. I still had work to do, so I fitted that in where I could. We also scheduled ourselves some rest days before and after the convention to have some down time away from the noise and crowds.

All in all, it was an excellent vacation, both restful and productive.

August travels: Oulu

August 20, 2017

Our travels went fairly well. We first flew from Boston to Reykjavik, then on to Helsinki, where we had a long wait before our flight up to Oulu. It’s getting harder to do these long travel days as we get older. Fortunately we know where the good cheap food is in the Helsinki airport and we found a quiet corner with benches were we could take turns stretching out for a nap.

In Oulu, E’s father kindly picked us up at the airport and gave us a ride to our hotel, which was right by the market square. We had just enough energy left in us to wander out and get some lunch/dinner (smoked salmon savory pancake with chocolate strawberry sweet pancake for dessert, yum). Then we collapsed and slept for about fifteen hours.

I woke up in the wee hours while E was still asleep and got some book work done (it was a working vacation for me). After breakfast, I needed to go back to bed for a nap while E went out and happened to find her youngest brother and his girlfriend in the market.

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of family visits and good food. We saw old friends and new apartments and some days we ate at roughly two-hour intervals. We played with the niece and nephews. In the moments in between, I kept on working on materials for the book. I was mostly assembling illustration recommendations, something that made me very glad to have the internet.

After a long and wonderful weekend in Oulu, we flew to Helsinki for the next part of our trip.

(I stupidly forgot to pack the camera for this trip, so I’m afraid there are no pictures to share.)

Finland, November 2016

December 1, 2016

It’s been a tough fall—a tough year, really—so we decided to take a break over the Thanksgiving holiday and go to Finland. Plus, we haven’t been to Finland in almost three years, so it was high time to go. We found a really cheap flights-plus-hotel deal and planned a city walking holiday in Helsinki. E found us some suggested routes that would take us through several different parts of the city, including some we haven’t seen before or have only glimpsed from the windows of a bus.

Helsinki seascape at noon

Helsinki seascape at noon

Our travel went smoothly enough. We flew from Boston to New York then New York to Helsinki. After getting some lunch at the airport we took the brand new airport train to the center and walked to our hotel. The hotel is older and a little haphazardly updated. Our room was small and oddly shaped, but perfectly good enough for what we needed. Plus it had an excellent breakfast that kept us going most of the day.

The areas of our walks

The areas of our walks

After traveling all day Sunday and into Monday and sleeping for the rest of Monday, we woke up very early Tuesday morning and spent a few hours planning our walking until breakfast was open. After breakfast we went out to walk in Katajanokka and Kruununhaka. Katajanokka is an old harbor district that was rebuilt as a mostly residential area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that period, the major architectural style in Finland was Jugendstil, a style related to Art Nouveau which combined references to nature and medieval decorative arts with a love of asymmetry, peculiarity, and colorful details. Helsinki has a rich collection of Jugendstil buildings and Katajanokka is one of the great districts for them. Kruununhaka is an older district where buildings of many different eras coexist and is also home to many of the important historical buildings of state. The weather started out gray and rainy, but gradually dried up over the course of the day, although the clouds never broke. For dinner we hit Eerikin Pippuri, our favorite kebab joint, with E’s Helsinki-dwelling sister L.

Owls as decoration on a Jugendstil house

Owls as decoration on a Jugendstil house

On Wednesday we set out to walk around Töölönlahti and through Kluuvi, an area of parks and older buildings around the bay that separates the main body of the city from the mainland. Unfortunately, we ran into a lot of construction that we had to find our way around, so we kept getting off our route. The weather was also the worst of the week that day: cold, wet, raw, and rainy. After that day, it was good to get back to the hotel, have a snack, and heat some water for tea. For dinner, we went to Zetor, a restaurant that serves traditional Finnish farmhouse food in an aggressively country-kitsch atmosphere. It’s sort of the Finnish restaurant equivalent of being inside a country music song, but we love going there because the food is so good: simple, traditional, unassuming, but perfectly done.

The door of a Jugend house, made to look like a little tower

The door of a Jugend house, made to look like a little tower

On Thursday we enjoyed window shopping in some local stores in the morning, then we took the bus to visit L in her new apartment. We enjoyed relaxing and chatting with her through the afternoon. Since it was Thanksgiving Day in the US, we considered the possibility of cooking a big dinner at L’s, but the previous tenant left the kitchen in pretty miserable shape and we didn’t really want to fight with it all, so I treated everyone to dinner at a local restaurant by way of celebration. We had a wonderful day together.

Statue of a Czar, from part of the old city built when Finland was under Russian rule

Statue of a Czar, from part of the old city built when Finland was under Russian rule

On Friday we walked around Kaivopuisto and Eira, some of the richer parts of town. A long time ago Kaivopuisto used to be a little spa village a the southern edge of the city. Now the city has grown up around it, but there are still some beautiful old villas tucked among the modern apartment blocks and office buildings. It’s also the center for a lot of foreign embassies, so we walked by a lot of fences and flags. Around midday we stopped at at seaside cafe for tea and cinnamon buns. The weather was better, warmer and dry with some breaks in the clouds, but it was still nice to get inside for a little while. Afterwards we followed the self-guided walking directions for a while, but the last part of the route went past modern buildings that didn’t interest us, so we veered off and headed back to the hotel. L joined us for dinner in the evening and we went to a fancy pizza place for dinner. My pizza had smoked reindeer, cranberries, and dots of cloudberry jam, in addition to tomato sauce and cheese.

The oldest wooden villa still standing in Kaivopuisto

The oldest wooden villa still standing in Kaivopuisto

On Saturday, we walked in Kallio, an old working class neighborhood that has more recently become a student and hipster district. (Also apparently the local red light district, given how many strip clubs and massage parlors we walked by on one street—I’m surprised that whatever local tourism board wrote up these walking guides decided to send us that way, especially since there wasn’t much to see on that street in the way of architecture or public art, which is mostly what the tour highlighted.) It was a shorter walk with less spectacular things to see, but we still enjoyed it, especially since it was the best weather of our trip, partly sunny and positively warm. After our trip we went candy shopping. We may have rather overdone it, since we ended up with 14 pounds of stuff, but I’m not complaining. E’s parents made a surprise trip down from Oulu that day and joined L and us for dinner in the restaurant hotel. It was nice to see them again after such a long time.

Sign in front of a candy shop: "Candy is good"

Sign in front of a candy shop: “Candy is good”

The next day we headed home. We left the hotel in the morning and took the train to the airport. Our first flight was to London where we connected to a flight to Boston. Heathrow was a bit of a mess and a short connection time plus poor signage had us dashing down wrong directions then having to turn around and run back. We made it to our flight (which turned out to be delayed, so we would have had time to walk at our leisure anyway), but the whole ordeal was rather more stress than we needed. In any event, we made it back home tired, sore, but happy after a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable trip. Now it’s back to work as the semester comes crashing to an end and I have more book chapters to draft.

Statue of a bear

Statue of a bear


October 16, 2016

Last weekend I went down to Virginia to attend K and D’s wedding. Unfortunately, because of teaching and flight schedules, I was only able to make a short overnight trip of it, but I’m so glad I was able to be there.

It was beautiful. Everything was beautiful. The ceremony and reception happened at a winery in the mountains with a lovely view out over a green valley. Sadly, the weather was cloudy and drizzly with the dregs of hurricane Matthew, but even shrouded in clouds it was a beautiful location. The ceremony was very sweet and full of thoughtful touches that suited both of them perfectly. The dinner afterwards was amazing with lots of local foods and wine. (Not being much of a wine drinker, I went for the local cider, which was also amazing.)

The next morning I got to see the new old house that K and D have bought to renovate and settle in together. It needs a lot of work, but you can see good bones there and I’m sure it’s going to be fantastic. Such a wonderful location, too.

I had a marvelous weekend. The only thing that marred it was getting delayed on my flights home. The flight out of Washington that was supposed to leave at 4:30 kept getting delayed a half an hour at a time until we finally got on the plane after 7. Then the pilot announced another delay and we didn’t take off until almost 8. Still, I did get home (and it was only my last flight of the weekend that got delayed, so I didn’t miss any connections show up late to the wedding).

Thanksgiving in the South

December 3, 2015

My officemate is on a two-year fellowship in Tennessee and her husband has just started a teaching job in Alabama, so we’ve been missing them lately. When they invited us to come down for Thanksgiving, we were excited to see them again. After considering flying down to visit with the inevitable delays, crowded airports, and security indignities, we decided to drive instead. Our Ohio tip in the summer has made us pretty confident about our road-tripping ability and we looked forward to being in control of our own transportation.

It was a long trip, but it went well. On our first day we made it from home to northern Virginia in ten hours. He next day we drove down through the beautiful Shenandoah valley and made it, after twelve hours on the road, to Florence, Alabama.

We spent a couple of relaxing days with our friends seeing the local sights and eating good food. We all worked together to make Thanksgiving dinner. It was a lovely time. The temperatures were up around 70 F, which was a wonderful change from the cold grayvember days we’ve been having at home.

We had been planning on staying with our friends, but despite their best efforts at cleaning and our best allergy meds, it turned out that their three dogs and a cat were just too much for us, so we got a hotel room nearby. When we were able to sleep comfortably away from the animals, we were able to enjoy our time with them much more.

Our trip home went well, too, even though our second day of travel brought us home into greater-Boston-rush-hour traffic. I’ll be happy not to spend much time in the car for the nest few weeks, but I’m glad we went.

Sheep’s Head Walk – The Wet Half

October 5, 2015

Day 4

Today was the one truly miserable day of our trip. It was also, sadly, my birthday. Since this whole trip was a sort of birthday present for myself, this was a disapointment.

We’d had a few days of mostly good weather, but todayour luck ran out. It was sheeting rain and blwoing a gale off the ocean today. We could have skipped walking entirely today, but we didn’t like missing out an entire day of it so we dressed up in all our rain gear and headed out. The B&B keepers drove us back to the tip of the peninsula where they picked us up the day before and we set out from there to walk back to the B&B from there. The trail would have had us climbing hills and going through fields, but we decided that today was a day to just stick to the road.

We stopped at one point where a farmer was leading his cows from one field to another. He was a firendly young man and we chatted with him while the cows were passing. He had a very friendly dog with him, too, who was interested in us.

Later, on the road, the farmer came by in his van and stopped to ask us if we wanted a ride into town. It was nice of him to offer, but we were determined to walk. As the van drove away, the dog came running after it. When the dog couldn’t catch up with the van, it decided to trot along with us. We didn’t mind the dog’s copmany (and we figured that, being a local dog, it was fine to go wandering around), but it kept chasing cars on the road. There weren’t a lot of cars for it to chase, but we were so worried about it getting hit. Fortunately, all of us made it into Kilcrochane safe and the dog went wandering off.

We got back to the B&B in the early afternoon, soaked through and cold. The B&B keepers took our jackets and boots to dry, but for everythign else we were on our own. After hot showers, we hugn up all our gear as best we could to dry, but it was hard. Not one of the B&Bs we stayed in had proper drying racks or even hooks in the room. I really don’t know what the Irish do to dry their own clothes, but whatever it is they don’t seem interested in sharing it with their guests.

We hung out and took it easy for the afternoon, concentrating on staying dry and warm. In the evening we went out looking for some dinner. There was a pub in town that was advertising live music, so we went to check it out, but it turned out they didn’t serve food. We got drinks and waited to see what sort of music there would be, but when an hour after the music was supposed to start the musicians were still standing around the bar watching tv, we gave up. We ended up back at the hotel restarant for dinner, which was fine, but we had ben hoping for a little variety.

To cap the day off, I had insomnia and barely got three hours of sleep that night. Fortunately, I had slept very well on the previous nights so I was able to keep going the next day. Still, all in all, I think I can safely say this was the worst birthday I’ve ever had.

Day 5

We walked from Kilcrochane to Durrus today. Durrus is a town at the head of Dunmanus Bay. When we finished our walk today, we were technically no longer on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

The weather today was unsettled. The morning was dry and partly cloudy. We had a few sheeting rainstorms and a few scattered showers that came and went during the day, then we ended the walk mostly in sunshine. We could see the weather coming from out over the Atlantic and we spent a god part of the day looking up at the sky and wondering whether the rain clouds or sunny breaks were going to hit us.

The trail for today’s walk made a lot of loops and turns, but we decided to forgo most of those and navigate ourselves by map, mostly along roads and country tracks. We detoured a couple of times to look for some sites of archaeological interest. There was supposed to be a stone circle and the remains of a ringfort along the trail. We found the stone circle, right on the trail and very easily visible. The ringfort remains were much harder to identify, but we think we spotted where they were supposed to be.

A neolithic stone circle near Ahakista

A neolithic stone circle near Ahakista

We believe the shrub-covered hill here is the remains of a ringfort, but it's hard to tell for sure

We believe the shrub-covered hill here is the remains of a ringfort, but it’s hard to tell for sure

By the end of the day’s walk we could tell that we were getting into a larger town. After several days tromping through fields and on quiet country roads at the end of the peninsula, it was startling to have to dodge traffic and find ouselves walking on sidewalks again.

At the coast, near Durrus, looking back at the Sheep's Head Peninsula

At the coast, near Durrus, looking back at the Sheep’s Head Peninsula

We got into Durrus in the mid-afternoon, but our B&B wasn’t open until later, so we parked ourselves in a pub for a few hours. We started with tea (being still a bit cold and wet), moved on to cider, and eventually had an early dinner so that we cold just go and collapse at the B&B.

Our B&B for this night was a pleasant house a little way out of town. We finally found places to hang some of our gar from the previous day that was still not dry.

Day 6

Today we made it back to Bantry, returning to the same B&B we stayed in before.

In the morning, our host drove us a short way to a place where we could pick up the trail, skipping a boggy and uninteresting section. We followed the trail for a little while as it went up a hill and gave us some beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. After that we stuck to country roads and mae out way the back way around into Bantry.

A view from outside of Durrus

A view from outside of Durrus

The weather was again unsettled. Early on in the day the sky opened up with a torrential rain. We were caught with nowhere to tak shelter and had to just carry on as best we could. Then the afternoon turned sunny and windy and after a while we were mostly dry again.

We stopped to have a little lunch at a lookout point in the hills above Bantry. We had an excellent view down into the town and decent sunny weather to see it in.

When we finally got back down to our B&B there was a bit of trouble. The keeper was out shopping and we had to call her to come back and let us in, but the number the walking outfit had supplied to us for the B&B was actually to a different but related business. Fortunately, we were able to get the right number and get in touch, becaue today was our longest walking day and we were exhausted.

After a bit of a rest, we strolled down into Bantry and found a cozy little pizza place to have dinner.

The return trip

Happily, the return trip went much better than the trip out did. We had to do it over two days, just because there was no other way to make the various bus and flight schedules work, so one day was devoted to getting from Bantry to Shannon (by way of Cork), where we stayed a night in the airport hotel. That night we had a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant and were amused to note that we were the youngest people around.

The restaurant dinner was supposed to be billed to our hotel room. We checked in about it the next morning when we checked out, but the front desk said they had no record of our dinner. We were anxious that it might have gotten billed to the wrong room (we weren’t sure that our waiter heard our room number right), but they checked with the kitchen management and told us that it hadn’t been billed to a different room it just hadn’t been billed correctly at all, so since it was their mistkae they were just giving us the dinner for free. That was a nice perk and we were happy to take it.

At the airport we had some fuss with the check-in, but everything got smoothed out in the end and we were relieved to found ourselves seated together. US immigration is now doing customs at Shannon and Dublin airports, so we were able to go through customs clearance before even getting on our flight, when there was no line and we were well-rested and relaxed, a huge improvement over doing it in the US after a long flight.

We flew from Shannon to Philadelphia and from Philadelphia to Boston. On the Shannon-Philadelphia flight we were not only seated together bu had a whole row of seats to ourselves, which is always delightful. Everything went well and we wer picked up in Boston by our car company and driven home.

On balance, it was a good trip. We had some wonderful moments and some good walking, but the bad parts were pretty bad. The travel out was two long days of stress, the walking in the frist few days was much rougher than we had been expecting, we had one disappointing B&B, and the weather was sometimes unpleasant. Now that we’ve been home for a little while, the bad memories are fading and the good ones are still good, but still it was not the relaxing vacation I had been hoping for and I didn’t come home feeling refreshed and invigorated the way I wanted to.

Another rainbow from our final day of walking

Another rainbow, from our final day of walking

Sheep’s Head Walk – The (Mostly) Dry Half

September 28, 2015
Our 6-day route around Sheep's Head

Our 6-day route around Sheep’s Head

Day 1

After a fitful night of sleep but an excellent breakfast we started out on our walk. The beginning of the trail was a little meandering but went past Bantry House, the local great house. We walkers were allowed to pass by the house, but we didn’t feel like paying the fee to wander through the gardens.

Bantry Bay, seen from the drive of Bantry House

Bantry Bay, seen from the drive of Bantry House

Pretty soon we were on country roads and skirting farm fields. Then the path took a long uphill climb to the peaks of the ridge. Once we made it to the ridgeline, we stopped and sat down on a hump of rock to eat some lunch out of our bags. We had beautiful views down both sides of the peninsula.

The north side of the peninsula

The north side of the peninsula

The north side of the peninsula from a little higher up

The north side of the peninsula from a little higher up

We were lucky to have good clear weather, but it was raining most of the day just to the north of us. There was a rainbow over Bantry Bay that moved around but lasted pretty much all day and was at times quite vivid.

Perma-rainbow over Bantry Bay

Perma-rainbow over Bantry Bay

We had a good map of the peninsula and detailed walking notes for the trail, but we started to find the walking notes strangely inconsistent. For much of the trail, they were very precise and informative, some of the best walking notes I’ve ever read, but then they would completely miss some rather important things, like the spot where you have to go sideways up a steep series of ridges interspersed with bogs. We were also finding the walking a good deal rougher than the description and photos on the website we booked the tour through had led us to expect. We were prepared for rough country walking. That was what we wanted. We were not prepared for scrambling sideways on our hands and knees up hills made of mud and animal poop with bogs at the top, which was what we got. The end of the day’s walking really soured the experience for us. It was a long trek down a slope with poor trail marking and no visible path that was slick with fresh sheep droppings and full of boggy pockets. We dubbed it “Sheepshit Hill” and coming down that took more time and energy than getting up onto the ridge in the morning had. We were both very glad to have our Finnish walking poles with us for stability and testing the ground ahead. Without mine, I would certainly have tumbled into fresh sheep leavings three or four times.

By the time we got to our B&B in Glanlough that evening we were tired, dirty, and getting very worried about the rest of the trail ahead. Fortunately, our B&B that evening was great, run by a charming older couple who gave us tea and scones as soon as we arrived (and were the only ones to take E’s dietary restrictions into consideration on the whole trip). After a shower and a bit of a rest, they drove us out to a local restaurant to get dinner. There was another walker along with us, a German lady, and we chatted over dinner, which was very pleasant.

Day 2

We had left the trail the previous evening and walked along the road a ways to get to our B&B and the trail notes had us backtracking to get back on the trail, but after the first day’s walking, we didn’t feel much like doing that, so instead we set out along the road looking for another path, known as the Old Mass Path, that goes across the peninsula. The Old Mass Path was described in our guide as a trail that the few people on the northern side of the peninsula used to take to go to the nearest church, on the southern side, and it crossed the Sheep’s Head Way we were walking, so we figured we could use it to get ourselves back on track without having to walk back so far. We reasoned that a path that old ladies used to take to get to church couldn’t be too hard a climb. Well, apparently the old ladies of Sheep’s Head were made of tough stuff, because the Old Mass Path was a brutal slog up near-vertical rocky slopes and over bogs. We were exhausted by the time we got to the trail crossing.

The south side of the peninsula

The south side of the peninsula

We’d had sunshine in the morning, but the weather was starting to get windy and rainy. After walking the ridge path for a while, we came to a place where another path crossed and we had a choice of either continuing along the ridge path to Seefin, the highest point on the peninsula, or turning off and taking a lower, more sheltered path. There was a signboard at the crossing that said “Half an hour to Seefin,” so we figured we could manage that and pressed on.

Looking ahead to Seefin peak

Looking ahead to Seefin peak

After half an hour, we came to another signboard that said “Half an hour to Seefin.” Cue much grumbling and the coining of a new term: “Irish half hour.” (A distant cousin, perhaps, to “Mañana Standard Time.”) Fortunately, the weather was clearing up. We found a sheltered spot in the sun to sit and have some lunch, then we pressed on to Seefin.

The views from Seefin were glorious. We could see the whole peninsula and a long way into the distance besides. I’m glad we decided to push ahead and make it to the top.

The view from Seefin (to the south, over Dunmanus Bay)

The view from Seefin (to the south, over Dunmanus Bay)

Self portrait at Seefin

Self portrait at Seefin

Then it was a matter of getting down. There was a path down, but it was extremely rough and treacherous. Today the danger was not sheep crap but uneven rocks. We both came close to twisting our ankles a couple of times and only made it down the last rocky scramble by inching along on the seats of our pants.

What we came to know as "Breakankle Hill"

What we came to know as “Breakankle Hill”

We called back to the B&B we had stayed in the previous night and got a pick up to go back there for another night. We had dinner at the same restaurant, though the German lady had moved on already to the next stage of her walk.

Day 3

We got driven out to the foot of Seefin again in the morning and there we had a choice. We could take one path that went back up into the peaks, or we could take a lower path down by the coast. We decided we’d had enough of the peaks and took the lower path.

Here, finally, we got the walk we’d been looking for: quiet old farm roads and country paths, rugged but well marked and with good footing. It was such a nice change from the trackless peaks. We enjoyed the first part of our day’s walk very much.

Finally, the quiet country walk we were looking for

Finally, the quiet country walk we were looking for

This led us to an old abandoned village (known locally as “Crimea,” for reasons we were never able to get clear) where the ruins of old stone cottages stood near the shore.

Ruins at Crimea

Ruins at Crimea

From there on, the path became rougher and required some coastal rock scrambling, but it also took us past some interesting abandoned copper mines and worker housing.

The "Miners' Path" to the abandoned copper mines

The “Miners’ Path” to the abandoned copper mines

The ruins of miner housing, we're guessing

The ruins of miner housing, we’re guessing

As we continued down the peninsula, the path got rougher and more difficult. Our walking notes warned us about a boggy stretch that had us worried. We decided to press on and stop for lunch only after we had gotten past the bog. The bog turned out to be no problem, though – easily crossed by a couple of stepping stones. With relief, we sat down on the hill on the other side to have some lunch.

Hooray for Finnish walking poles!

Hooray for Finnish walking poles!

Our notes were vague about what came after the bog and by this point we were starting to worry about what that meant. We carried on over more rough ground until we came to the worst part of the trail, the only section of our walk that actually made me fear for my safety, as we had to pick our way along a narrow cliff ledge high above the sea. The day had started out calm and partly sunny, but by now it was getting windy and wet, which made our footing on the cliff ledge that much worse. We made it safely through that section of trail, but this made us finally give up on the route notes. For the following days, we walked by the map instead.

There is a little lighthouse at the tip of Sheep’s Head. When we spotted that, we knew that we had made it to the halfway point. The next three days would be spent walking back to Bantry along the southern side of the peninsula.

Sheep's Head light

Sheep’s Head light

We called up our next B&B and, after a bit of trouble with the phones we got a pick up and a ride to the B&B in Kilcrochane. This B&B also has a restaurant in-house where we had dinner. It was convenient to have dinner so handy, but sadly the rest of the B&B was old, cold, and poorly taken care of and we were not very comfortable in our stay there.


Sheep’s Head Walk – Getting There is Half the Fun

September 26, 2015

We are just back from a walking holiday on Sheep’s Head, Ireland. It was not an entirely happy experience, I’m sorry to say, but it had its good parts.

Sheep’s Head is a peninsula on the western coast of Ireland south of Bantry. It is in between Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay, a quiet, isolated place with no towns of any size, only a few villages and isolated homes and farms. When looking for a quiet, relaxing walk to do at the end of the season, it seemed like just the place. As it turned out, maybe we should have gone somewhere a little less remote, but I’ll get to that.

Geographically, Sheep’s Head is a long, skinny peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic. There is a ridge of low peaks running along the length of it centered towards the northern side. The northern slope of this ridge is steep and rocky and falls swiftly down to the shore. The southern side is gentler, falling away in long shallow slopes. Most of the human habitation on the peninsula is on the southern side, clustered around the villages of Kilcrochane, Ahakista, and Durrus. The highest point is Seefin, a rocky hill near the center of the peninsula.

Looking to seaward down the spine of Sheep's Head. Bantry Bay is to the right, Dunmanus Bay to the left, and the peak of Seefin in the distance.

Looking to seaward down the spine of Sheep’s Head. Bantry Bay is to the right, Dunmanus Bay to the left, and the peak of Seefin in the distance.

But our adventure began long before we got to Sheep’s Head. Pull up a chair and listen to the story of how our relaxing vacation became the most stressful near-disaster trip I’ve ever been on.

We were booked to fly from Boston to Philadelphia and from there on to Shannon, Ireland. The plan was to then get a bus from the Shannon airport to Cork and another bus from Cork on to Bantry. We had looked up the bus timetables and worked out the schedule. Then the company we booked the walking tour through suggested buying bus tickets in advance, which you can now do online, since that’s cheaper than buying them in person. This sounded like good advice, so we popped back onto the Bus Eireann (the Irish national bus company) website with planned schedules in hand ready to buy our tickets.

Only, the Bus Eireann ticket sales system was showing completely different timetables for the buses we needed to take than what we had found before. We spent hours going back and forth, trying different ways of selecting the tickets, checking to make sure we had the correct timetables, not something that was out of date or about to go out of date or just the Sunday-Saturday-St.-Patrick’s-and-Jewish-holidays version of the timetable. In the end, we just had to give up and resolve to buy our bus tickets in person. (We managed to get our first ride, from Shannon to Cork, settled, but everything after that both going and returning was up in the air.) So, a few hours down the drain and we were none too happy about it, but problem solved.

The day of departure arrived. We were both pretty relaxed, having spent a couple of days packing and cleaning up the house. Then, literally as we were heading out the door to drive to Logan Airport, the phone rang. We were so close to departure that I was considering just letting the answering machine take the call, but fortunately I didn’t because it was an automated call from US Airways telling us that our flight had been canceled because of a mechanical fault.

I placed a call back to the customer service number and I was soon talking to a very helpful agent who did her best to get us rebooked. There was an earlier flight out of Logan that we might have just made it onto, if I threw the phone down, we jumped in the car, hit every green light and didn’t get stuck in traffic on Route 1 inbound to Boston on a Tuesday afternoon. Not impossible, but not something we wanted to chance. The only other option was a flight from Manchester that was reasonably possible for us to make. We took that, even though it meant flying out from a different airport than we would return to, which meant we couldn’t drive to the airport and park our car for a week as was the plan.

As soon as I got off the phone with the airline, I looked up a local car service that does both Logan and Manchester airports and asked if they could fit us in that afternoon. They said they could just make it if they sent someone out immediately, so we booked our drive with them and sat down to wait.

The car pulled into our parking lot ten minutes late because it had gotten stuck behind a construction crane getting to us. We just barely had time to make it to the airport to get checked in and get our bag checked (we were traveling with just one checked bag). Fortunately, the driver was a friendly guy who assured us that we would make it and put us at ease.

We did make it to Manchester in time and headed straight for a check-in kiosk to get our boarding passes. I entered our confirmation code to call up our booking. It found nothing. I entered my name. It found nothing. I tried both again. It found nothing and directed us to see a ticketing agent. Starting to panic a little, we went to the check-in desk to talk to a live person. After some poking at her computer she discovered the problem: when the oh-so-helpful US Airways customer service rep rebooked our flight, she booked it for tomorrow! Not only that, but she had also rebooked our flight from Philadelphia to Shannon for tomorrow! Now, I don’t think she did this intentionally, since she was very clear with me on the phone about finding flights today, but somehow it happened.

I pulled out my print-out of the e-mail confirmation of our original flights and showed her that, yes, we were supposed to travel today and someone screwed it up. She went back to poking at her computer. The she called over someone to help her poke at the computer, who called over two more people to poke at the computer. All this while, the time was ticking away to the departure of the flight that we were supposed to be on. At least one of the check-in agents knew the right magic spells to cast over the arcane machinery because we got our flights re-rebooked with barely fifteen minutes to spare. Then there was the question of luggage. The hold of the plane we were supposed to be on had already been closed, but after placing some calls they promised us they would open it again and get our bag on, checked through to Shannon. We didn’t have time to worry about that though, as we had only single-digit minutes left before they boarded the plane and we still had to get through security.

We ran through the terminal to the security checkpoint. (At this point, I was very glad to be at little Manchester instead of big Logan because 1 – it was a much shorter sprint, 2 – it was a much shorter line, and 3 – there were fewer people around to be alarmed by the sight of a dark-skinned, dark-haired man looking slightly deranged as he charged towards airport security with a backpack.)

We just made it onto the plane. We didn’t know whether our bag made it or not, but we hoped that it had. The flight to Philadelphia was blissfully uneventful, even though we were seated separately in whatever seats were available.

We reconnected in Philadelphia. It had always been a fairly tight layover and now we had even less time to make it from one terminal to another. We raced through the airport and got to the waiting area for our gate with enough time to spare to grab some crappy airport fast food. Our seats were separated again on the Philadelphia-Shannon flight and we were both stuck in middle seats between two other people. (We asked, but no one was willing to trade seats so we could be together.) It was a long, dull flight with bad food and no elbow room, but we made it to Shannon and to our relief there was our bag, waiting for us and wagging its tail. (Okay, maybe not the tail-wagging part, but after the day we had had, learning that our luggage had made the trip with us was almost as big a relief as finding a lost pet.)

We got a good breakfast in an airport cafeteria, which helped, and then we set to work figuring out the buses. It turned out that the timetables we had originally made all our plans with were perfectly accurate. I have no idea what is wrong with Bus Eireann’s booking system, but at least we could fall back on our original planned route. We took the bus to Cork, dozing fitfully on the way, then got tickets for Bantry and took our next bus, dozing fitfully on the way. Finally we stepped off in Bantry and headed for our B&B, which was a little bit of a hike from the town center.

Once we had gotten our stuff stashed at the B&B, we dragged ourselves back out on the town for dinner. We ended up at a tiny local restaurant (there was room for barely over a dozen people in the dining room) serving fresh locally-caught fish where we treated ourselves to a marvelous dinner.

Bantry, a charming seaside town

Bantry, a charming seaside town

We finally got back to the B&B at around eight in the evening local time, which to us felt like three in the afternoon after going all night with only a few restless naps. We were weary from travel, exhausted from stress, and needed a good night’s sleep before starting our walk the next day. So, naturally, we were both stricken with insomnia.

We did at least get some hours of sleep before we had to be up and off in the morning. After an excellent Irish breakfast, we set out on the first day of our walk of Sheep’s Head.

Tune in next time and I’ll continue the story of the vacation that went sideways.

June and July update

July 22, 2015

We’ve been busy in the past month. Here’s the highlights.

We took a road trip to Ohio to visit our friends M and S. M has been teaching at a university in Ohio on a temporary basis for the past two years, but she has just gotten hired to a full-time tenure-track position at the same university and we are thrilled for her. We took two days to drive there, spent a long weekend, and then two days of driving back. While there we thoroughly enjoyed the company of two friends we don’t get to see enough of, including going with them to a couple of open houses, since, now that M has a permanent position, they’re looking for a place to settle down. There was, of course, plenty of good food, and we also got to spend time with the very sweet kitty that they are cat-sitting.

Not long after getting back from Ohio, I went up to Maine to spend a few days with family. It was a lovely, relaxing stay. Kris and I went for a kayak up the Tenney River to Crescent Lake, something I haven’t done in years. I had lots of good time in the water, and also got a good chunk of work done outlining my book.

Now, back at home, E and I are getting ready for a big project. We’re having a local handyman come in to do some repairs on the house and help us deal with a persistent leaking problem. We’ve been very busy for a few days getting ready. We cleaned up the entire basement and garage (for the first time in six years), moved furniture out of the way, and been out buying supplies. It’s a big operation, but there are things that need doing.

My garden is coming along beautifully. I have tomato vines bursting with little green tomatoes, lots of tiny cucumbers, and a patch of potatoes with the first plants almost ready to pull. The raspberries have been outdoing themselves this summer; we’ve been out picking nearly every day for a week and eating them by the handful. My one melon plant is putting out flowers and we’ll see if anything comes of that.

We just endured a heat wave and are happy to have some cooler weather.