Saturday, September 29, 2007

Learning the ropes

Some of the interesting things about life in Ireland that we are adjusting to:

- Driving on the left side of the road

- Remembering to get into the correct side of the car (driver is on the right here)

- Understanding how the two lanes in a round-a-bout work (right-hand lane if you are taking the 3rd or 4th exit, and I think it's left-hand lane for the 1st or 2nd exits)

- Remembering to look to your right first (not your left like back home) before crossing the street

- Figuring out the recycling and trash here - it's crazy! There is a black bin for food trash only(rubbish or litter); then a green one for all recyclables except glass and tin (we think) - and the glass and tin must be taken about a quarter-mile down the road to the recycling center. We're still trying to figure it out.

- Learning how to use the shopping "trolleys" at the grocery stores and malls: They have a 1 Euro coin slot and you have to put a Euro into them in order to release your cart; the only way to get your money back is to return the cart to its station - how is that for ensuring your carts don't get stolen or returned to the store?

- Trying to refrain from using "-ing" on the end of our words, end of sentences: here, if a retail store clerk asks if you need any help, you would say, "I'm having a look" versus "just looking" - or ask "Where is the car park?" - never "parking"

- Remembering that articles "a," an" and "the" are not used as commonly: during new reports, they will say that, "The victim was taken to hospital" - it's never "a hospital" - just "hospital."

- Learning that most businesses open later than in the U.S. - gym opens at 7 a.m. M-F and not until 9 a.m. on weekends. Shops don't open until 10 a.m. on Saturday and 12 p.m. on Sunday (due to mass)

- Learning that it takes 10 business days to have any utilities installed: It's a very busy place here with lots of people moving to Galway - the economy is strong. And if they can't help you on the first visit, then you have to schedule another appointment and wait another 10 days, usually - unless you have an inside connection.

- Converting pounds to grams, Celsius to Fahrenheit, etc. - not easy for the mathematically challenged like Lisa!

- Remembering to flip the safety switch on everything electric to use it - every wall outlet has a safety button.

- Always bringing a "hoodie" with you where ever you go: if it's not windy or raining when you leave, it will be very soon - and the umbrellas are pretty much useless.

- Learning how to use electric showers and a "hot box" (hot water heater closet)

- Accepting the fact that while Galwegians are dog people just like us, they do not know what pooper-scoopers are: the dog droppings are everywhere!

- Realizing that the Irish's idea of a clothes dryer is not like ours - we still don't have a working dryer after nearly two weeks in our apartment: it just blows cool air.

- Realizing that every other woman under 35 is pregnant here (except Lisa) - still not a motivator! :) Seriously though, this is a very young city and there are tons of pregnant women - I would love to see the statistics; probably 2 out of every 4 women under 35 are pregnant.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Vernacular Musings: Part 1

One of the most entertaining things about living in another country is learning the intriguing language differences - even when living in another English-speaking country. Here are some of the interesting words and phrases in comparison to U.S. English:

- FAT LANE - the walking path on the promenade next to the bike lane
- DELPH - set of dishes (plates, bowls, cups)
- HOB - stove
- CLOTHES HORSE - clothes dryer (wooden or metal standing rack)
- BOOT - car trunk
- SALOON CAR - sedan
- JUGS - pitchers
- TROLLEY - cart
- LITTER or REFUSE - trash
- OFFIE - an off-license (e.i. wine and liquor store)
- CHIPS - french fries
- CRISPS - potato chips
- BISCUITS - cookies
- SCONES - biscuits
- CRAIC - (pronouced "crack") / having a good time
- COOKERY - cooking
- CAR PARK - never with -ing here / parking isn't ever used
- MIND - "watch" / "mind your children" or "mind the gap"
- GARDA - police or GARDAI (plural)
- LIFT - elevator
- PROGRAM - training schedule
- TRAFFIC CALMING - traffic slowing down

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Grocery shopping in Galway

I've officially entered wine-country snob shock: I'm now on a shoe-string budget and without discount access to fine international wines. Wilson Daniels employee discount...where are you when I need you? Half-price Marc Kreydenweiss Kritt I long for you. But I digress.

These are my thoughts as I peruse through the wine aisle at our grocery store. Granted, there are a decent amount of international wines here - primarily South Africa, Australia, Italy and France - but the Irish love their wine CHEAP. I can relate to that with our current financials. But it's so hard to figure out what wines are good under 10 EURO when I've never heard of 75 percent of the brands in the store. Maybe when we get internet service at home I can do more research on these potential values. So far, I have been biffed by a bottle of Jacob's Creek Riesling; a mainstay, reliable producer from Australia. But this bottle of wine was swill. Could be the worst Riesling I've ever had in my life...did the food pairing ruin it? It couldn't have made this wine any worse, could it?

Okay, back to shopping in Galway. We have a few "more affordable" (not factoring in how weak the U.S. dollar is) grocery stores here - Dunnes and Tesco. They just opened a new Dunnes on Damon's birthday (September 25) few close to our apartment - very exciting.

After I learned how to put the EURO coin into the trolley (cart) so that I could get it out of the bay and use it, I got to experience the grand opening of the new Dunnes at Knocknacarra, replete with characters on stilts, a live band, free wine and food samples and more. The stores are actually really nice; you just have to get used to all of the differences and try to find substitutes for things we have back in the U.S. - like canned minced garlic or Crisco, for example. I also learned last week that plastic bags at the store ARE NOT FREE, folks. How is that for a wake-up call, Americans? Why not charge us for the plastic bags to reduce our wastefulness? It cost me 20 cents per bag on my bill if I don't bring my own. Needless to say, getting ready to go to the store is a big deal because I have to pack up all of my cloth bags to make sure I have enough bags to carry home my groceries.

I decided to make Damon a BIG birthday dinner - and his only request was a homemade cake this year - so this was a very important trip. I made him Salmon with Roasted Beets and Argula Cream, a recipe I found in one of my Food & Wine cookbooks. Trying to find all of the recipes to make my first birthday cake (and from scratch) in my short history in the kitchen. I did some improvising, and it all worked out. Damon LOVED the dish and the cake.

Here is the dinner recipe:

I couldn't find the cake recipe online, but it's called the "Shhh...don't tell" cake from the Bride & Groom cookbook by twin sisters:

We will enjoy the cake (and left-over roasted beets) for days to come.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adventure #1: Aran Islands

Today we awoke to a beautiful Sunday morning with very few clouds in the sky and rays of sunshine peeking through: a perfect day for our first trip to the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, at the mouth of Galway Bay.

There are three Aran Islands, and we decided that our first trip should be to the most tourism-friendly island: Inis Mór.

Inis Mór is the largest of the three Aran Islands, covering approximately sixteen square miles - situated on the west coast of Galway, about thirty miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

We drove from Salthill along the coast, just west about 30 minutes or so, to a port area called Ros a Mhil Quay (or "Rossaveal" in English). Ferries depart a few times a day from here; it's best to get the first ferry at 10 a.m. during the summer months, so you can spend the most time on the island. The last ferry back is around 7 p.m., but we booked for the 5 p.m. return - thinking that should give us plenty of time to discover the island.

The ferry ride took about one hour - a very choppy ride past rolling hills peppered with stones and a few bayside cemeteries - you'd never see that in the U.S.

We exited the ferry in the main town of Kilronan and were greeted by horse-drawn carriages and drivers eager to take the tourists on guided tours around the island. Damon and I decided to walk instead; we stopped first at the Aran Islands Sweater Company (the island is known for its wool sweaters made by hand) - I was in awe and shopped around for at least 30 minutes or more while Damon took photos outside. I finally decided on a button-down sweater and a tan wool hat too, and then we set off to hike to a few of the points of interest on the island - The Black Fort and Teampall Bheanain ("teampall" meaning "church"), the smallest church in the world. We hiked out through town, along charming stone walls dividing green pastures into squares of private property, to stunning views of cliffs near the Black Fort and took pictures for probably one hour. The wind was wicked and the drop-off from the cliffs extreme. It was a little scary: one could easily be swept off the side of the cliff by a gust of wind. Then we hiked back down and found the tiny church at the top of a hill. Teampall Bheanain is considered the smallest church in the world and is notable for its orientation - north or south facing instead of east or west facing. Cows were grazing in the pastures on the hillside near the church, all overlooking Killeany Bay with the village of Kilronan in the distance. The pictures we'll share will do more justice than words. (And I enjoyed taking lots of photos of Damon taking photos; this might become a hobby of mine.)

Before we knew it, five hours had past, and our ferry was departing in one hour. Rather than take the later ferry home, we decided we'd make another trip to Inis Mor in the future and either take a guided bus tour or bike tour - that's the only way one can experience the entire island in one day. Here is a cool map of the island:

We capped off our day trip with a plate of fish and chips at a restaurant by the pier and then boarded the ferry back to Rossaveal.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Discovering Galway - week one

During the house-hunting frenzy, we were able to find some time on Thursday and Friday to see the sites and explore most of Galway. We been lucky and had beautiful weather the entire first week - no rain, partly cloudy skies, sea breezes, 70 degrees.

On Thursday afternoon, Damon took me down to the docks where the Corrib River, which runs through the city, meets the sea at Ballyknow Quay. This is where Damon took the beautiful pictures of the swans back in September 2004, the first time he visited Galway for work. The swans were still there with hundreds of seagulls and pigeons and a few ducks. We watched parents and children feed the swans and pigeons pieces of bread, took some pictures and walked along the beginning of the promenade, which starts in a green-meadowed park (South Park/Claddagh) along the sea by city centre. There are walking and bike paths along the "prom," as the locals call it.

We also enjoyed a few meals down in city centre since arriving in Galway - one at Gemelle's on Quay Street, where Damon had a delicious pork dish with sauteed mushrooms and mashed potatoes and I had a lemon-parmesan risotto with vegetables - and another at Mustard, just off Quay Street, a place known for its gourmet pizzas. We had a pizza with serrano ham, rocket (that's what they call lettuce here), local goat cheese, roasted peppers and herbs. It was quite good, and we'll definitely go back. We also had a nice meal at The Thai Garden, recommended to us as the best Thai restaurant in Galway, located right on the docks. The portions were very large and responsibly priced (around 16 Euro for an entree with rice). We'll definitely go back there too.

On Friday morning, we walked from city centre all the way down the prom to Salthill, our new neighborhood, which took about 30 minutes. We checked out the gym, Leisureland, and then looked into several of the shops in Salthill. We made friends with the owner of our local wine shop, who tasted us on a Cotes du Rhone and only carries wines from Italy, France and Spain - and only from tiny producers. We stopped at Da Roberto's, an Italian restaurant recommended to us by our agent. We had two salads and shared a pizza with pepperonis, mushrooms and peppers - the tomatoes on the salad weren't too favorful, but we are spoiled in California - but we'd definitely come back. The pizza price of 13 Euro was reasonable, and the restaurant is maybe a half-mile from our apartment. There were pictures on the walls of Lucca, the walled village in western Tuscany we visited two years ago on our honeymoon. Our waitress was Australian - the third Aussie waitress we've had - she was very sweet and next time we'll find out what the Lucca connection is; perhaps the owners are from Lucca? And I also need to find out what the connection is between Australia and Ireland - is it just that Aussies come here during their winter due to their countries past ties with the U.K.?

On Saturday we were going to go the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway - but we made the decision too late and missed the first ferry. It was a glorious day - sunny skies - perfect for a visit to the islands. It is supposed to rain on Sunday, so we may have missed our opportunity to visit the Arans for another week or so. I hope the weather holds. Instead we visited the big farmers' market down by St. Nicholas's Cathedral near city centre. My observations at the market:

- The broccoli florets are smaller than those in the U.S.
- The cauliflower are about the same size
- Carrots here are much bigger
- Cherry tomatoes have the best flavor here (the big tomatoes are bland)
- The strawberries are smaller
- The cheese selections are amazing!
- The oysters are bigger here (sadly, I like the small ones)
- Hummus is big here (many types sold at the farmers' market)
- Pestos are big here (many types sold at the farmers' market!)

My next adventure will be to the grocery store next week. Should be fun.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Finding an apartment in Galway

Another eye-opening experience - trying to find an apartment in this happening city. There are about 80,000 people living in Galway, I'm told, so it's roughly the size of the town of Napa. There are a lot of U.S. companies that have set up manufacturing sites here, plus a bustling university, so lots of new residents coming and going. Here's some more background information about Galway:

The housing market here is hot, unlike Northern California. Our leasing/relocation agent, Rosarie, arrived around 10 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, to meet us at the hotel. She said she was thrilled to have four different apartments to show us, one of which was a townhouse. All had two bedrooms, and two bathrooms. (That news made our day already.) We had a cup of tea (we are adjusting well to their traditions) and then hopped into Rosarie's car (I almost got in on the wrong side, as the driver sits on the right here). Our first stop was in Salthill, about 1 mile south of Galway city centre.

This apartment, located in the Baily Point complex, was remodeled in a contemporary, sleek modern style - and had a large terrace with sea views of Galway Bay. Stunning! And Ireland's longest promenade along the seashore was right across the street. Plus there is a little shopping area down the street in Salthill with pubs, wine shops, restaurants, internet cafes, grocery stores, etc. The apartment was a little small, but very nice. It totally exceeded our expectations. We were expecting tiny apartments in charming, ancient buildings with no dishwasher and old decor. We were thrilled.

Next we visited the townhouse; it was in a gated area on Taylor's Hill, a very affluent neighborhood, we were told. It was three stories with a spacious kitchen combined with separate living room and dining room on the first floor, two bedrooms, two baths on the second, and a loft upstairs for an office. The interior design was impressive. Very modern, contemporary and high-end. From a design standpoint, it was nicer than any place either of us had ever lived. But there were no seaviews or a terrace - it was less than a 10-minute walk down to the water, though. And a really nice gym was around the corner, just 3 minutes' walk away.

We then visited two apartments near city centre. The first was on the docks, right off the water - but it needed serious updating - kitchen, carpets, furniture, etc. We passed. The next was nicely decorated, fully remodeled with sleek modern furnishings and kitchen appliances - but no dishwasher. And it overlooked an oil refinery. We decided the city centre would be a little too noisy. And there were three showings of this sleek apartment scheduled that day, so it would be gone within hours. We let it go.

Over lunch on Quay Street (pronounced "key," the made hub of shopping, dining, activities here in Galway), we decided to make an offer on the townhouse. It was so nice and spacious, and only a short walk to the water. And it was a little closer to city centre. (We are keeping in mind that we only have one car, and I'll have to walk, bike or bus everywhere when Damon's at work.) We soon learned that there were several people interested in the Taylor's Hill townhouse, and the agent and owners are very fussy regarding to whom they rent. Their agent told our agent she would be meeting with the owners on Wednesday to select the tenant. We grew anxious (me more so than Damon, of course). Could we have been nicer during the showing? Should we have dressed more professionally? Should we send over a bottle of wine and a thank you note? (That's Lisa thinking....) Should we wait it out? Will we lose Baily Point if we do? It was already past 5 p.m., so all we could do was hurry up and wait.

The next morning, we decided to go walking around town. Finally, at 12 p.m. on Wednesday, we learned that we didn't get Taylor's Hill. Could this be because we are Americans? Our first sign of discrimination, thanks to our lovely foreign policy and a president that is detested worldwide? Who knows. Our agent was never able to find out why. She said she'd start searching the databases again to see if anything new turned up. She said she called Baily Point to make the offer, but had not heard back from the agent. With no calls as of Wednesday evening, we realized that we'd probably lost Baily Point too, and now there was nothing available. Would we be living at the Radisson for the next few months? We had been enjoying the outdoor jacuzzi, work-out room and sauna, but eating out every meal was getting old. It's a strange feeling to know that you are now a resident here, but you still feel like you're on vacation - or will this change when we move into an apartment and start a normal routine? Maybe I will always feel this way, as I still can't believe we are living in Europe.

On Thursday morning, our agent called and said she had two more apartments - neither had been listed yet - which we could see before the feeding-frenzy of potential renters occurred. The first was in the same building overlooking the oil refinery (Damon was not enthused, but it did have an dishwasher). The second was near Baily Point. On the way to the first apartment, we learned that Baily Point was still on the market, and it was ours if we wanted it. All of the anxiety melted away: whatever we saw that morning, we knew we could still have the little place with the seaview terrace that we liked very much. The first apartment was bigger than the last one we had seen in this building; it was a corner unit. I liked it - except for the out-dated furnishings. The street-level noise was too loud for Damon. The other agent showing us the property suggested that we go see the second apartment down in Salthill; she said it was vacated yesterday and not yet cleaned, but worth a look. We rush over to Salthill to Ocean Towers, condos/apartments just north of Baily Point. This was a second-floor corner unit, and it had been recently renovated. We walked in and were hooked - a covered balcony with seaviews, modern kitchen with all appliances, beautiful living room, separate dining area near kitchen, two baths (one with a tub), and two bedrooms - one with a seaview. We looked at each other, then at the agents and said, "We'll take it." Everything always seems to work out for the best. We actually prefer this apartment over the one we were turned down on, and it's a block from a gym that overlooks the sea. It's a little farther of a drive for Damon, but his commute will probably be around 20 minutes - far less than the one hour he drove each way back home. He just has to leave for work around 7:45 a.m. to avoid traffic.

We are hoping to move in on Monday, the day Damon's starts work at Medtronic. Alas, Lisa will be in charge of the move, sans car.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Our arrival into Galway, Ireland

Greetings from the Emerald Isle! We look forward to sharing all of our experiences of living and traveling abroad with you while Damon is on a one-year assignment with his company, Medtronic, here in Galway, Ireland.

After barely making our connecting flight at Chicago O'Hare - they had to re-open the computer terminal to check us in 45 minutes before departure - we settled into a comfortable seven-hour flight aboard Aer Lingus, the main airline of Ireland, replete with a bright, green clover on the tail wing. Once we arrived (the morning of Monday, September 10) into Shannon International Airport, about 1 hour, 45 minutes south of our new home town of Galway, the friendly customs agent took our passports and Damon's work VISA for about 30 minutes, so she could get us set up in the system. Before suggesting that we go collect our bags while waiting for her to finish this computer work, she asked, "What part of California are you from?" I told her that we lived near Napa Valley, and she said with a thick Irish accent, "Well, heavens, my dear. Why would you want to spend one year here on this rainy island?" Then she proceeded to say that it wasn't that bad, and that Galway was a beautiful city.

Damon and I stood at the baggage carousel and made bets on whether or not our luggage made the mere 45-minute connection. We both thought it was unlikely we'd have a toothbrush or our contact lenses cases that night. Shockingly, ever single bag made it - and all in good order. Because Damon is always thinking ahead, he gave fair warning to the car service on our baggage quantity - eight plus carry-ons. We learned that they would be sending a mini-van in lieu of a "saloon car" then. (One of the many new terms we are learning; it's what they call a sedan.) We were greeted by a driver that Medtronic had arranged, a nice fellow who recently returned from his first vacation to the United States - they went to Disneyland in Southern California, as well as San Diego and Las Vegas. We chatted about San Diego and Las Vegas most of the drive up to Galway (two of our favorite cities). His mini-van was almost too big. :)

My first observations while driving through the countryside of Shannon and Ennis leading up to Galway:

- There were more bushes amidst the green pastures than I expected

- The cows are more stout/stocky than ours (big hooves, thick legs)

- There are sheep everywhere (the stories we read are true)

- Most country land is divided by squatty, old, stacked-stone walls (very charming)

- Cars are bigger here than in Italy (still a little smaller than most cars we drive in the U.S. - you rarely see SUVs - but we still haven't seen a SmartCar here; just Toyota Yarises)

- There will always be heavy traffic if you go anywhere between 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. (when school and work days begin)

- School kids have it great here (they start at 9 a.m., out at 2:15 p.m.)

- The architecture reminds me a lot of the countryside just outside of London (although the Irish probably won't like to hear me say that) - stucco houses, tudor-style rooflines, bright-colored doors, very few garages

- Driving on the left-hand side of the road seems weird, and the fact that the driver of the car is in the passenger side is even stranger (I guess we'll get used to it)

We'll be staying at the Radisson Hotel in Galway until we find an aparment. Apartment-hunting begins tomorrow.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

About this blog

Even though this is a personal blog created to share our experiences with family and friends, we hope many people out there find some of the posts useful or amusing. It includes some content that may be useful to other expats living in Ireland and/or traveling in Europe. Fair warning that the travel posts are rambling -- we are trying to capture everything we did in a specific country for our families back in the U.S. Journalistic quality, grammar and spelling received far less attention here than we give in professional work environments, so please, don't read this expecting to see the kind of quality you'd find in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Just enjoy!