Monday, November 2, 2015

European Vacation - Car Issues, plus some Gaelic

This year, our European trip took us to three countries: We did our usual two - Holland and Italy, and we added Ireland to the mix, one of only two European countries which I had never visited before (the other one is Portugal).

We have some rules for our annual European travel: The Netherlands is always a must, because that’s where my 102-year old mother lives. Then there is Rome: That, too, has become an annual Mecca, because my wife Anita is an avid antiquity buff. Each year she discovers new nooks and crannies at the Forum, the Palatine Hill, the houses of Augustus and Livia Drusilla, Nero’s Domus Aurea, Ostia Antiqua, the Baths of Caracalla, Trajan’s Market, or some other site. A lifetime is far too short to explore Rome and do it justice. And then, we add a third leg to each trip, and that has to be a place we haven’t yet seen.

So first came Holland, as always. My mother is hanging in there. Her faculties - seeing, hearing, walking - are deteriorating, but her mind is 100%. We take her out to beach cafés; she can still get there, slowly, with a walker. She basks in the sun and converses, happily. It’s a miracle.

We take care of business, making sure all the elder care services are in order. The Netherlands are a paradise in this regard. Dutch medical services and elder care put America to shame. But this is another story. (See Madeleine’s There are Angels in Holland). After a week or two, Anita and I flew to Ireland for some vacation time.

Ireland is a fine little country. Great food, very hospitable people, beautiful sites. Dublin is wonderful, as are the small towns and the coastal scenery. Only the weather leaves something to be desired. Plus: They drive on the wrong side of the road.

As you get older, international travel becomes more challenging. Your energy, your reflexes, your whole body and your mind are all on the way down. So rushing through airports and railroad stations, driving in cities where the traffic is wild and chaotic, all this becomes increasingly exacting. Many of my aging friends now just take cruises. But we haven’t thrown in the towel yet. We feel that a true international experience can only be had by mixing with the natives, crisscrossing their towns and their lands. If you are not prepared to do this, just rent a video.

For us, this was once again a trip that was stressful at times, we experienced some misadventures, but all in all, it was a blast and everything turned out well.

The greatest challenge in Ireland was the driving - as it had been in Scotland the year before, and in Britain, Australia and other places where we have been and where they drive on the wrong side. Our hotel was about 80 kilometers South of the Dublin Airport. It was the magnificent Powerscourt Hotel in Enniskerry, part of an historic estate that rivals in beauty the royal gardens at Versailles. The trick was to get there, even with GPS.

When it comes to overseas driving, it’s always worst at the very beginning, just after I pick up the car and leave the airport grounds, not yet used to the car, the rules, the place.

So we pick up our Opel Astra (manual transmission) at the Dublin airport Avis office, and we drive out of the rental parking lot. Somehow, we need to get to tollway M50 and take it South. Right away, there is one of those damn roundabouts. I know all about roundabouts, because I grew up in Europe and that’s where I got my first driver’s license. But here, you must get onto the roundabout and drive to your LEFT, for crying out loud! And you must look for traffic coming at you from the RIGHT. It’s all opposite of what you are used to. How is one to remember to do this, reflexively, right away? 

Fortunately, it’s mid-morning and traffic is light. We get trough the first roundabout unscathed. However, at an intersection a few hundred yards further, I really, really mess up: I enter a one-way road the wrong way! Thank God, there are no cars coming at us. I even have time to do a U turn and go back to the intersection. Anita is beyond panic. She is frozen silent. She can’t even scream.

By now, we are lost. The GPS can’t help us. She merely keeps repeating “recalculate, recalculate.” At a red light, I roll down my window and ask the driver of the car next to ours, “pardon me sir, how do I get to the tollway, M50?”

And this is when we experience our first case of wonderful Irish friendliness: The guy just says “follow me.” So that’s what I do. For the next half dozen miles, he drives around various two-lane suburban roads/streets, taking right turns and left turns, and finally we arrive at the onramp to the M50. Then he disappears in traffic. I could never, ever have found it by myself.

Then there is the toll payment. It’s really weird. You have to pay a toll, but there are no toll booths. I learn later that it’s an honor system: after you take the tollway, you have three days to pay. And how do you pay? You go to a local grocery store or post office, you tell them where you drove, and you pay. Weird.

And while I am on car issues, we had one more interesting experience: At first, I couldn’t for the life of me find the reverse gear. What was really bad about this is that we were parked with the front of our car just a foot and a half away from a wall. So each time I put the car in gear, hoping it to be reverse, the car would lurch forward a few inches, and soon it would hit the wall. As a precaution, I placed one of our suitcases between the car and the wall, so the car wouldn’t get banged up the next time I tried to put it in reverse but failed to do so. Somehow I finally figured it out: unlike previous European rentals in which you get reverse by pushing the gear shift DOWN, in this car you had to pull it UP.

Then there was the flat tire: Rural roads in Ireland are lovely, but they sure are narrow! Because a frontal collision with an oncoming vehicle would be the WORST thing that could happen, whenever I drive in a country where they drive on the wrong side, I tend to get real close to the LEFT side of the road. Often, the road hugs quaint stone walls which may or may not be concealed under ivy or some other growth. And these walls, as well as the very narrow road shoulders, consist of jagged shale stones. So once again we got a flat tire. And not only a flat, but a totally shredded tire requiring replacement. Oh well, as I always say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. We replaced the tire and Avis reimbursed us for the full cost.


We also learned some Gaelic while there, thanks to the fact that many signs are both in English and Gaelic: After we landed in Dublin, we picked up our baggage under the sign saying Bagaiste. We had to go the left-handed side of the carousel, indicated by the word citeog (pronounced "kit-ogue.”). Then we went to the public toilets (= Leithris Phoibli). After that, we exited  the terminal by following the sign that said Sli Amach. Later, we drove to the Rock of Cashel (= CarraigPháidraigh) where a sign admonished us to please keep off the lawns (= Ná gabh ar na faichi. Led’thoil). When we flew out of Dublin, we took the train to Pearse Station( = Stáisiún na bPiarsach), on John street (= Sraid Eoin). We arrived at the airport and went to the US pre-clearance line (= Reamh-imreiteach SAM), and then to the Departure Gates (= Geatai Imeachta). But first, we visited a photography shop, and this is my favorite Gaelic word so far: Ghrianghrafadoireacht. I suppose beautiful Deirdre, Merlin and leprechauns didn't know about photography...

In my next post I’ll tell you about some of our exciting experiences in Rome.
© Tom Kando 2015
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