Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Houseplants, walking, and other cultural idiosyncrasies

Moving to a new country has revealed to me how deeply we are shaped by our home culture. I knew about the food, the social rituals, the idiosyncrasies of language, and many other things that a different culture has to offer, but there are little things - tiny things - that amaze me, or frustrate me, or just baffle me.

For instance, I can't seem to walk properly on the sidewalk. I don't mean that I've been imbibing too much Guinness, but that there is something about the way people move in public spaces that I just can't figure out. I keep almost bumping into people, or having to slow down suddenly because someone in front of me has stopped. I cannot figure out what is going on. At first, I thought "Aha! I'm walking on the right side of the sidewalk, and I suppose people naturally gravitate to the left side here, in order to do as all good pedestrians are trained to do: act like traffic. So I tried consciously shifting, but it didn't really make a difference. Then I tried altering my pace. Perhaps I was walking too quickly? A little bit too much NYC in my North American mobility patterns? Didn't really work either. It's clear that I am just not picking up the cues. People send off cues unconsciously, and I am not picking up the signal when it comes to walking. I have decided to stop thinking about it, and perhaps my body will figure it out on its own.

I was in London this past weekend visiting friends (more on that in a future entry), and SF asked me how I was doing in Dublin. He lives in London, but has spent chunks of time in other places (including Toronto), and said to me "Everything is completely different, isn't it?" And I said - "You are SO right!" I had never really thought of it that way before, and just thought that maybe I was getting dumber by the minute. We see the obvious differences quite quickly, but the more subtle differences -- such as the humour and unmarked references to celebrities or local politicians -- just glide right over my head at times. I'll stop thinking about it, and maybe my mind will figure it out on its own.

But onto more serious differences: shopping and consumption. There are certain things that I found very easy to find at home, and clearly I took them for granted. In Dublin, I have searched and searched for such things, and only with great effort have I come upon them. Like a bathmat made of simple terrycloth towel material. Like one of those Japanese scrubby towels used for vigorous exfoliation, which I used to pick up for two bucks at the Korean stores on Bloor. Like pretty tea towels, made of absorbent material. Like Toms of Maine or JASON toothpaste that doesn't cost 8 Euros. Like HOUSEPLANTS.

I love houseplants. We had so many of them in Kingston that going out of town always made us scramble for botanical care-givers. Parting with my plants was harder than parting with my clothes, or my small bottles of Aveda products taken from hotelrooms, or the ginger I had lovingly cut into cubes, dried, and saved for a days when all the fresh stuff was lying flavourless at the bottom of the teapot. My consolation of course is that houseplants are easy to come by. Every corner store, grocery store, florist, and even some hardware stores in Ontario have them, so it wouldn't be a problem in Dublin, where many indoor plants in Toronto could live happily outdoors. But I was wrong. I have been here for over a month, and have kept my eyes peeled on every shopping venture. Marks & Spencer (which has yummy and healthy prepared foods, by the way), had a few sickly day lilies next to their cut flowers, and one florist had some limp looking heather, but there was not a schefflera or philodendron in sight.

And then I remembered that Dublin just got an IKEA. Woohoo! Multinational mega-chain comes to the rescue! I tried - I really did - to go local. At least I took the bus. The trip back to the city, on the 13A bus, is like a nature peep show. If you sit in the front row of the top deck as Sophie taught me in London - you can see the Wicklow mountains beyond the city as the bus weaves back and forth through different neighbourhoods. It always amazes me when I see mountains in the distance. They look close enough to walk to, but I think it would take a good day.

Anyway, here's a picture of some of my new plants. The basil was from M&S, and I think it was meant to be eaten, but I just separated the roots and put it in a bigger pot. It was very unhappy for a while, spitting brown leaves at my floor, but it is perking up. The peace lily on the TV was left beside the dumpsters in the courtyard this morning, so I figured that was a 'good garbage' sign. There is also an ivy in the bedroom, but I'm feeling too lazy to upload two photos, because I am at least 6 or 7 blog posts behind...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yoga Studio 1: The Elbow Room

Since I arrived in Dublin almost a month ago, I’ve been keeping up an (almost) daily practice in my living room, which is much nicer now that I have wooden floors, and not the industrial carpet of the residence room I was staying in at the beginning. I’ve been surviving on audio podcasts that you can download for free through iTunes – check it out, there are tonnes of yoga podcasts to satisfy every kind of practice. My favourite hour-long ones are Greg’s from Yoga to the People – a New York based studio that wants to, well, bring yoga to the people. At their live classes, they charge very little, and pack everyone in like happy little yogi-sardines. There are nine classes currently available from YTP through iTunes, but I find they can really handle repeat playings.

I’ve also done podcasts by Wade Zinter, Kinndli McCollum (who does a Baptiste-style power class), Eoin Finn, and the super-hot Seane Corn, whose grace and core strength I long to achieve (see her Body Prayer on YouTube for an idea of what I mean – watch those feet float back into Chattarunga like someone had rigged her up à la Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!)

As a quick fix, Yogadownload.com offers 20-minute classes that target a specific area, such as “Shoulder Opener,” “Hip Opener,” and “Yoga for Buns.” The cool thing about these 20-minute podcasts are that they offer a pick-and-mix approach: you can choose a couple, fire them up on your iPod or through your computer speakers, and have a longer class tailored to what your body and mind need that day. They also come with PDFs of pose guides, so you can consult the visual if you’re not sure about a particular pose. You can download these directly from their site, but if you download them through iTunes then they go directly into your Podcast folder, which I think is preferable to having them show up under Music.

As much as I find yoga to be a deeply personal practice, I’ve been starting to feel that it is way more satisfying to practice it with other humans. For one, I’ve been concentrating on my alignment in some of the central asanas, but without having a teacher around to guide me, I might be on the path to perfecting an incorrect alignment without knowing it. And I somewhat begrudgingly admit that I like chanting Om with other people at the end of class. So with this in mind, and my chest cold/sore throat on its way out, I decided to hit a studio last night. And I decided that I wanted Hot Yoga.

I don’t think hot yoga has caught on in Dublin the way it has at home, but there are a couple of studios in Dublin that do some version of it. Dublin has at least a couple of Bikram studios, and if you're interested, here are the links: Bikram Yoga, Bikram Yoga Fairview. However, I’m not a big fan of Bikram yoga – it just seems too militaristic, and frankly, at odds in practice with the spirit of yoga – so I had to seek out a place that uses heat with non-Bikram classes. I wanted the heat because I had been sitting in my cold, draughty, office all day, my fingers were turning blue, and I needed to finally stop wearing my coat and scarf. I quickly found The Elbow Room on the internet. It’s located in an area called Stoneybatter, which is just above Smithfield, which is less than a 15 minute walk from my flat.

View Larger Map

As an aside – Dublin has names for many of its areas, and it always makes me think that I will have to travel to a suburb to get there. Then I find out it’s a stone’s throw from … well, wherever I happen to be at that moment. Dublin is really not that big.

Anyway, off I trotted to Stoneybatter, yoga mat and hot-yoga mat-towel under arm, and my bag full of yoga clothes, new underwear, another towel for the shower, and face cream (the only product I feel I really must have after a shower). For anyone who has never done a hot yoga class, it’s really really sweaty. You basically come out looking like you went for a swim in your clothes, and dropped your towel in the water to boot.

The Elbow Room is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, because it’s in a little courtyard on the north side of Brunswick St. North, just east of Blackhall. The sign is inside the walls of the courtyard, so you have to go right up to it to see it. The reception area is very nice, and there are magazines and cushioned benches to sit on while you wait for the previous class to empty. It also has change rooms and a couple of showers with free toiletries. And you can book and pay for your class online, which means you don’t have to bring your wallet. So far, so good.

I went into the room to get set up, but it wasn’t very warm. I thought perhaps I was in the wrong room (they have two). I went out to ask the guy at reception, and he told me that indeed I was in the right room, but it’s hard to get it very hot, you know, depending on how cold it is outside (it was probably about 15 degrees outside at that point, which is really not far from the warmest temperature that Dublin reaches). So I went back inside, wishing I had worn yoga pants and not my favourite blue Lululemon hot yoga shorts. I think the temperature reached, maximum, about 25 degrees, which is considerably cooler than the high 30s or even 40s that I’ve had in places at home. In fact, one day at my sister’s studio in Mississauga, Leewi Yoga, the instructor confessed after the class that it had accidentally reached 50 degrees! It’s not that I needed to be baked like a little Irish potato, it’s just that, as I said, I had been freezing all day and was hoping for something to replicate the tropics. I almost wanted to ask for a blankey.

However, the class was good, and the slower pace of it helped to bring me back to some of the basics. I’ve been pretty addicted to the power side of things for the last couple of months, but not every class needs to test the outer limits of one’s breath and physical stamina. As I suspected, my alignment was off in a few cases, and Aidan helped to correct an errant butt here, a lose leg there, and a tight shoulder…everywhere. And this is totally silly and immature to say, but it was kind of funny listening to someone say all the yoga words with an Irish accent. Maybe it’s because I find many Irish accents have an earthy quality to them, and yoga language is a bit more on the airy side. Anyhow, I’d like to go back, but I was really disappointed by the lukewarm temperature. I don’t think I will practice hot yoga all the time, but when I crave it, then I want it to be actually hot, because the heat helps to bring about a very deep peaceful (read: exhausted and perhaps delirious) feeling by the end of class. Yoga is also very expensive (like everything!) here, and that might be prohibitive. This class was 17 Euros, which, if you do the conversion, is about $27 CDN. I keep telling myself to STOP CONVERTING.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

From one green place to another

I'm off to the Inishowen Peninsula on a short research trip, so more beautiful photos of green places will be arriving on the blog next week. But it's been a busy week getting down to work and planning out what I will see at the Dublin Theatre Festival, which starts next week, and coincidentally (for me) boasts Quebec's Robert Lepage as one of the big-name headliners...

But I realise I haven't posted on the blog in a while. I have so many quirky things to report, but they are going to have to wait. Until I return, here are some more photos of the hike at Howth - I went again last weekend, and had a beautiful sunny day, so I decided to do the longer walk, which should have been a 10km loop. But I got a bit lost on the way, and didn't loop back towards Howth when I should have, so I ended up at Sutton Cross, which is the town one DART stop closer to Dublin. It was a really long hike, and while I think the cliff walk before you get to the lighthouse is more awe-inspiring, the part after the lighthouse has its own charm.

Here's another, clearer pic of the walk up to the lighthouse. But the time you see this, you're most of the way there:

And here is a view once you've come around Howth head. Not as stunning, right?

My favourite part about the backend of the hike is that it brings you to this beach, which includes a rather treacherous set of stairs/rocky path combo to bring you down. I saw a family there with kids and a stroller, and I have no idea how they got it down... 

And here is what the rock formations look like at beach level. I stepped into the water, and it was surprisingly mild - I expected to get the freezing-pain feeling in my feet that I first experienced as a child at Cape Cod, but I was able to stay in it for a while. On a warmer day (haha, as if), I might even attempt a swim.

I paused for a little camera-timer action because I love this heather-strewn landscape. A friend pointed out that this is my 'Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man' pose, which wasn't the intention. It was actually a test shot to see if I was standing in the frame...

See you shortly. And don't be afraid to use the comment function below - I have no idea if anyone is actually reading this thing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Keeping it clean, environmentally

I've been a fan of Ecover products for a long time - they smell so good, and kept our house clean and fresh. But I always felt a bit odd buying them; the intention was to rid the house of harsh chemicals, and to use something friendly to the environment, but Ecover products are made in Belgium, and it's a long, carbon-emitting journey from Belgium to Toronto. So when I stepped into my new favourite health food shop, Down to Earth on South Great Georges St., I was happy to find Lilly's Eco clean products, made just a hop, skip, and a jump away in West Cork. I've tried the toilet cleaner and the floor cleaner, and can report that although they both give off a topnote of vinegar, the sharpness subsides after a while and everything is left sparkly and fresh.

The Liffey at Sunset

Garbage is Gross and SO ARE YOU!

I've been busy moving so the blog has suffered, but I promise an update on the flat hunt, and the eventual find, shortly. For now, just a little observation about Dublin's current obsession with cleanliness. Everywhere I walk in the city centre, I keep my eyes open for fear that I will be swept away by a street cleaner. The pedestrian areas around Grafton St and Henry St. are the worst (or the cleanest) -- I don't think I have walked on either of them yet without seeing one of these puppies:

This is not a pedestrian-only street, but the fairly heavily trafficked Westland Row, so clearly they don't just keep to the cobblestones. I was walking around Trinity College the other day, and noticed, through the frame of my camera, an unprecedented number of litter bins within eyeshot. The naked eye may only be able to pick out SIX in this shot, but there are actually more of them in the distance.

And on the green across from the Book of Kells entrance, there are new-fangled bins (about one every 10 feet):

This sweeper almost ran me over as I exited a department store on Henry St:

And here are a few pics from earlier this evening, with the crews cleaning up the Moore St. market area after the day's sales, and a recycling cart touring down Henry St.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ballygowen sparkling: 7/10

It's called sparkling water here, in order to distinguish it from 'still' water. At home we call it soda, or bubbly. I'm addicted to it, but have found that it's just not as bubbly here. I like really big, sharp, mouth-popping bubbles, so I am going to track the different brands. Today I had Ballygowen sparkling, and it caught my attention because it seems to pack more CO2 than the others I've tried. I'll give it a 7/10, in the hopes that I can find an 8 or 9...

Fringe Festival Review: Point Blank

The Dublin Fringe Festival opened tonight, and knowing nothing about most of the companies, venues, or performers involved, I spent a few hours in a cafe pouring over the program book in an attempt to find performances of interest. It's quite a new thing for me to choose shows without knowing any of the above information - as a somewhat professional theatre-goer, I am usually armed with a lot more information. But in some ways it is a relief to come at things so purely, without preconceptions. I might end up seeing some real groaners, but then again, I won't really feel compelled to see anything because I know someone in it, or I've seen that company's work before.

Tonight I saw Point Blank, written and directed by Edit Kaldor, and performed by Nada Gambier. It was at the upstairs space of the Project Arts Centre (which, quite brilliantly, is also right around the corner from my new flat, the Irish Film Archive, and the Farmer's Market -- have I scored, or what?).  The performance was excellent, and concept deceptively simple: a young woman finishes highschool and travels to find out what she wants to do in life. She takes thousands of pictures using a powerful zoom lens. The pictures are voyeuristic -- couples kissing on balconies, an old woman eating by herself inside her apartment -- but the young woman's interest in them is introspective and philosophical. By showing us the picutres, and discussing the taxonomy she is trying to create around them, Point Blank provides a very thoughtful meditation on the everyday, which, of course, is more profound than we usually want to believe. I highly recommend it to anyone in Dublin, and I believe it is also touring to other Fringe Festivals.

Obesrvation #3: It even rains when it's sunny!

And here is proof. The blinding light on the sidewalks is the sun's reflection.

Farmer's Market

 Yeeha, I just found out that there is a weekly farmer's market in Temple Bar, just around the corner from my new flat (more on the flat-hunt later). I'm getting used to things being on a smaller scale here - grocery stores are smaller, apples are smaller, and neighbourhoods are smaller -- so I was kind of expecting a very small market, with maybe three vendors. But to my great suprise and glee (I think I may have audibly yelped), it's a full market that rivals the one at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto. There is one major fruit and veg vendor who does everything organic, and then there are several cheese stalls, bakers, butchers, and even one flower stall. There are also a few prepared food vendors, serving noodles, sandwiches, burritos, and 'Gallic fare', and all of it seems on the healthy side, and not the fast-food side. I'm eating the kale I bought right now, and it tastes very fresh and earthy.

Translation moment: I know that aubergine = eggplant, but there are a few other translations necessary for the interested eater:

rocket = arugula
mangetout = snowpeas
spuds = potatoes

I'm sure there are more, so I'll update this as I go along...

In the same way we have seen the rapid growth of the organic food movement at home, the local food movement seems to be rapidly growing here; I've been noticing signs in many restaurants about where food is sourced. Very exciting, because eating cheese from 'Wicklow cows' is much more exciting than eating regular old cheese.  I came across a list of other farmer's markets, so I look forward to checking them out.

I spoke with one woman at a bakery stall (I bought a lovely loaf of rosemary garlic bread, which, as it turns out, is a bit salty), and asked her when they closed up for the day. She said that they closed at 5pm, which is great news for me, because despite my early rising these days, and my intentions of getting out early, I often find myself attending to other homey kinds of things on a Saturday morning. "Great!", I said, "and when do you close down for winter?"

"We never shut down - we are here every Saturday, all year, rain, hail, or sleet"

Well didn't I almost fall over. I thanked her profusely, as if Ireland's temperate climate were all her doing. Yes! One point, finally, in favour of Ireland's climate!

The vegetable vendor is all little off on his own through a laneway on the east side of the Meeting House Square:


But the rest of the vendors are smack dab in the middle of the square, which has its nicest entrance off Essex St. East:


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Observation #2: New Ground

Earlier this week, the road changed in front of Trinity College's main gates:

Notice the light-coloured ground. It used to be regular black pavement, but the night before, the trucks were out putting down "skid proofing." Considering all the rain, this is a great idea. Notice how slick the black stuff in the background looks in comparison.

Observation #1 : Church and Economy

I was walking around the north side after having visited the new art cinema in Smithfield with my dear friend Sophie -- who brilliantly hopped on a plane from London to help me flat hunt earlier this week -- and we paused to look at this beautiful church, which is certainly a landmark of an older Dublin:

We gazed up to look at the shiny brass plaque:

"Is that an @ sign?" Sophie said, with disbelief in her voice.

"Well, yes, I think it is," I responded, equally surprised.

Now that's the New Ireland.

Incidentally, the Lighthouse Cinema is a gorgeous space, with lots of crazy levels and interesting nooks and crannies. Sophie was drooling at the layout, thinking of all the arty events she could host there. I haven't seen a film there yet, because at last check, they were playing almost all the same films currently in rep at the Irish Film Institute on Eustace Street, which is just about my favourite place in town. I'm hoping the Lighthouse will diversify their offerings once we're out of the dreadful summer film season, because the IFI plays the same few films for over a week at a time, and I need more than that.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What You Need to Get Things

This is a partial list of the documents required to ... get other documents or important things once you've arrived in Dublin. I'll add to it as time goes on.

To get a ... You need...

1. Proof of identity (passport),
2. Proof of address (a utility bill mailed to you at your Dublin address, or, in my case, a letter from my university stating that I was employed there, but could not produce a utility bill because I have not been living there very long. Make the bank be specific about exactly what they want in the letter. I had to go back and get a different letter, built on a template they gave me.
3. A PPS Number

1. Proof of identity (passport)
2. Proof of address
3. Any statement of employment if you have it already

*If you choose to pay as you go - to just top up money and not purchase a monthly plan - then currently you don't really need anything other than money to buy the phone or SIM card to convert your current phone. But if you go with a plan, you need
1. A Bank Account so that they can direct debit monthly
2. Proof of identity (passport)
3. Proof of address

1. A Bank Account
2. Then you need to go the Tax Office. If you're in the city centre, this is on Cathedral Street, which you get to by walking up the east side of O'Connell past Cleary's department store, and then turning right at the Burger King. They are very efficient at this office. If you neglect to set up your taxes, your employer is obliged to charge you 'emergency tax'. It's an emergency to YOU, not so much to the government, because emergency tax means they dock a huge percentage of your wages until you set up your taxes, as as incentive to ... set up your taxes
3. You probably need an address as well.

As you can see, each of these relies on the other, but the most key one other than your passport seems to be an address. May the force be with you if you're staying at a hotel and can't find a way to prove even a temporary address.

More to come...

Postscript to Howth, or More About the Rain

My shoes got so wet hiking in the tall wet grass, that they have come unglued. I've been flat-hunting in shoes that are separating in several places. And they are serious hiker shoes. More proof that I am going to have to live in wellies.

Lily O'Connor and My Hike at Howth

Seeing I couldn't do much in the way of getting settled on Sunday, I decided to take a trip to Howth. Howth is a small suburb about 25 minutes north around Dublin Bay on the DART. It's quite tony now, but I have made a point to go there every time I've been to Dublin, in order to hike the ridge that follows the sea. It's a beautiful, peaceful place for contemplation, and just what the somewhat dazed and lonely expat requires. I looked up the timetables for Pearse station (Tara and Connolly stations also go to Howth), and found I only had a few minutes to make the next train. I ran there, argued with the attendant who said he could not make change for at 20 (you mean I am going to miss the train because you don't have change??), and finally arrived, breathless, on the platform, only to discover that the online timetable was not correct. I had 40 minutes until the next train....

Luckily I met Lily O'Connor on the platform. She was asking me for timetable information, which I thought was hilarious, seeing I detected a faint Irish accent in her voice. Here's a picture of Lily, just before we had to part ways half an hour later:

Turns out Lily is Irish, but she's been living in Australia for 30 years. She's also a writer, who has published two memoirs and is now working on her first novel. We had a lovely chat about living in Ireland and living abroad, and we shared our love of walking. She told me that she was going to a small town on the DART line to find her sister's friend. Her sister is also in Australia, but had lost touch with this Dublin friend. So Lily looked up the friend in the phonebook, found the street name, and jumped on the train. No phone call, no map - she was just going to ask around to find the street. I love her sense of adventure! I'm carrying around two maps, my mobile, and my notebook that has all the DART times listed in neat To and From columns...

As Lily left the train she grabbed my hand, and gave me the following advice: "You've got to keep fit in life. That, and a good diet. And observe. I take down everything I hear. In a cafe (she mimics scribbling on a notepad). Observe. It keeps you alive. Take good care of yourself!" If Lily's books are even half as interesting as she is in person, they're bound to be a great read.

Lily's books are on Amazon.com

A couple of stops later I was in Howth, and it was raining, so I was happy to find the  O-One Coffee shop - a very cute place to wait out the latest shower. 

I ordered my first coffee as a Dubliner - so far, I've been practically drown in tea, and despite the heart palpitations from all the caffeine, I just needed a change. I had a long espresso with cream, and much to my delight, the cream came whipped, on top of a tiny perfect bowl of espresso. I'm extremely picky about my espresso - I don't drink it very often, so when I do, it better be good. O-One, despite their kind-of-dumb name, passes the test.

I picked up a wifi signal from the Quay West Cafe across the street (thank you thank you for not password-protecting - I promise to frequent you in the future), and soon the rain had passed and I was off on my hike.

It takes about 10 minutes to cross the harbour and get to the road that leads to the mountain path. Along the way there are drop-dead gorgeous houses, and, of course, little bits of humour:

And then you get to the beginning of the path. It's really not dangerous, unless you decide to walk many many metres off the path, and lean over the cliff. This cannot happen without intention.

The walk is stunning, and I managed to stay pretty chipper despite getting soaked in my efforts to take pictures of myself doing yoga amidst the heather. The umbrella had to shield the camera, which was on a rock on timer, so I was left exposed to the elements. Thankfully it was a warm day, so I'm still pneumonia-free. Here's one of the outtakes (it's really hard to press the button, run 20 feet away, balance, and pose gracefully all in ten seconds - thankfully regular yoga does not require such sillyness):

But mostly, the scenery looked like this: stunning but drearily romantic, fresh and cleansing:


The prized view is just before you reach the 'summit'. One can turn around at the summit, or keep going for a much longer hike around the other side of the ridge. I haven't done this longer one yet, but it's in the books for a future hike.