BACK TO THE OLD SOD

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

2017 was a hard year – friends died, good buddies moved away, and I didn’t lose the five pounds I so optimistically recorded on my New Year’s resolutions.  So when I saw a sign in a gift store that said, “Life is Short.  Take the trip.  Buy the shoes.  Eat the cake.”, I took it to heart.  In fairness, I’ve never had an issue with the cake part of the affirmation.  In fact, eating cake is right in my wheelhouse.  But I’m not a good shopper and my travels are limited to occasional trips with my nieces and our summer road trips.  As a life-long knitter I’ve always dreamed of going to the British Isles or Ireland but year after year I put it off.  Until I read that sign.  Exactly a year ago this week I asked a few friends if they would like to go on a knitting trip to one of my dream destinations.  They all responded a resounding “YES!” So next week we’re embarking on a nine day trip to Ireland, which we have dubbed the “Irish Princess Tour”.

Why ‘Princess?’  Because we decided that if we’re going to go, we’re going to go in style.  We are flying from Phoenix to London on a British Air 747 in the Upper Deck.  Riding “upstairs” has been on my bucket list for a long time.  I recall many years ago flying from San Francisco to New York on a 747 but I was “stuck” in business class down below.  This time, I was going to make it to the upper deck or bust!  We also decided that we would rather stay in one location rather than constantly pack and re-pack our bags.  After all, the weather this time of year is still a bit chilly and rainy so numerous layers, requiring lots of clothing options, are required.  We concluded that Killarney is centrally located, has good restaurants, and more importantly, plenty of pubs.  So we selected the Killarney Park Hotel, which I discovered after the fact, is the same hotel brother Bob and his wife Linda stayed in when they visited Killarney.  Apparently the KPH is a Sparrow tradition!

My husband helping me get into the spirit – or spirits.

Once we had our plane and hotel reservations we began to work on what would occupy our time.  Here is where another good life lesson was learned.  There is a very famous knitwear designer, Carol Feller, who lives in Cork, about an hour away from Killarney.  She does many large group classes for the Irish Tourism Board tours and we were a bit disappointed that we could not join in the tour’s classes.  Mustering up my courage, and on the premise that the worst she could say was “no”, I emailed her and asked if we could visit her studio and have a private class for the five of us.  She emailed me back within hours to say not only would she do the class, she will come up to our hotel to do it.  Armed with my newfound confidence in asking strangers for favors, I emailed a yarn store in Dublin that we’re visiting and not only did she respond that she will greet us with tea and biscuits, but that she’s arranged for Kieran Foley to give us a private trunk show.  Okay, by now most of you have glossed over Carol Feller and Kieran Foley so let me put it in terms you might relate to: it is the knitting equivalent of a golfer getting a lesson from Rory McElroy or Padraig Harrington.

One of the wonderful aspects of this trip is that there is another Type “A” on it!  While I arranged the knitting end of things, my friend Patsy worked on many other aspects, most importantly our touring agenda.  We knew that big bus tours are not for us – we’ve all had the experience of people in a group that are so annoying that you spend half your time ducking them.  Patsy did some research on Trip Advisor and found Jack at Killarney Taxi and Tours.   Jack, it turns out, is a treasure.  It’s little wonder he gets rave reviews.  Not only does he have wonderful recommendations, he acknowledged that we might want to spend a “wee bit of time in the pubs” AND he’s taking us to the Skelligs Chocolate Factory.  I love this guy already.

To top it off, well be spending our last night in Ireland at Dromoland Castle.  Yes – a real castle for fake princesses!  At the time we made the reservation the exchange rate between the Euro and the dollar was much better.  If it keeps climbing at the current pace we may be Princess Dishwashers.  Finally, I got my Ancestry DNA results in last week and I’m 20% Irish.  More about that after my brother gets his results and we find out if we’re really related.  In the mean time, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to  be 100% Irish, visiting its wild coasts, singing “Ireland’s Call” at a few pubs and paying homage to my ancestors.  I’ll keep you posted.  They do have bail bondsmen in Ireland, don’t they?

THE LUCK O’ THE IRISH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Are you sober yet?  If you’re like millions of Americans you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last Friday by consuming some spirits in honor of the occasion.  Some of us are genuinely of Irish extraction but on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish.  Simply donning a green hat or sporting shamrock underwear gives the wearer some implicit permission to get toilet-hugging drunk.  There actually are a lot of Americans with Irish bloodlines – 37 million to be exact.  That’s 12% of the population, ranking just behind Germany in most frequently reported ancestry.  Heck, we have eight times the number of Irish than Ireland itself!   Which is probably as good an explanation as any as to why the holiday is so much more popular here than in Ireland.  Twenty years ago my husband’s cousin from Scotland came to San Francisco on business and we met him for dinner near our workplaces.  Unfortunately, the only night he had available was St. Patrick’s Day and to further the problem, we worked right around the corner from Harrington’s Bar and Grill.   We met at a nearby restaurant that required our cousin to walk from his hotel right by Harrington’s front door.  Or as close to the front door as he could get.  There are a lot of Irish in San Francisco and they seemingly all gather at Harrington’s each year to celebrate the patron saint.  When he finally navigated his way to the restaurant he was wild-eyed and I think just the tiniest bit shell-shocked.  He stammered, “What is with you Americans and St. Patrick’s Day?”  Well, it turns out, we practically invented the holiday.

 

 

Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast of St. Patrick on March 17.  But the first parade held in honor of St. Patrick’s Day took place in the United States.  On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.  The parade, along with their native music, helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots and fellow countrymen.  Over the next three decades numerous groups formed to celebrate Irish heritage, each sponsoring a parade on St. Patrick’s Day.  By the mid-1800s the groups combined forces into what is now known as the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the largest in the country and the oldest civilian-sponsored parade in the world.

 

Of course, all that marching is exhausting so finding a good pub to quench one’s thirst became part of the day’s tradition.  Some people take pride in finding good Irish pubs wherever they go, regardless of the time of year.  In fact, although I won’t mention names, someone I’m related to that also writes for this blog fashions himself a connoisseur of Irish drinking establishments.  He is the only person I know who could trek all the way to Machu Picchu and find an authentic Irish pub in which to have a Guinness.  But he is far from alone.  What is this obsession so many have with the Irish?  I’ve read more than one article claiming the Irish are the most beloved ethnic group in the world.  Of course, part of that affection is tied to the “happy drunk” reputation, but in fact it goes further than that.  The Irish are deemed to be some of the most sentimental souls on Earth.  One need only read the famous Irish poets to understand the truth of that.  The Irish are also known world-wide for their sense of humor and dry wit.  Oscar Wilde, the noted Irish writer, filled our world with his bon mots.  One of my favorites is:  “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious”. George Carlin was perhaps one of the funniest comedians ever with his wry observations of everyday life and Melissa McCarthy is a talented entertainer (come on, that bathroom scene in Bridesmaids is a classic!).  The Irish also have the ability to write lyrically and capture an audience, despite sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts.  One of my favorite sayings, told to me by an Irish friend who was wound-up in the middle of a fantastical yarn, is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.  My brother and I have at times adopted that as our motto.

 

There’s also the famous saying “Luck of the Irish”, although I have discovered that the phrase started as a derisive jab at the Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s.  It originated in the gold and silver mines to describe the Irish who found their “pot of gold” and became rich and successful.  The Irish were never given full credit for their accomplishments.  Instead it was widely believed that the “Irish fools” had gained fortune only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains and hard work.  Our only full-blooded Irish ancestor, Julia Stack Billiou, came to America during this period but as you might recall from my last post, she was not lucky in any sense of the word, having been shot by her Chinese cook.  Nevertheless, her immigration gives our family claim to Irish heritage and provides cover for our love of good writing, a stout beer, and a strong Irish Coffee.  I call that lucky indeed!

 

 

 

LIFE IN THE BIG CITY

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

I’m home.  Tired, and with a banging head cold, but I survived my time in New York.  I set a relatively low bar in terms of my expectations.  I figured that if I wasn’t mugged, knifed or blown up in a terrorist attack in Times Square I’d be ahead of the game.  As it turned out…it was a lively trip but in the best possible way.

Happy HourDay One:  My alarm sounds at 3:30 a.m.  I check my phone and discover that the airline has changed my seat assignment.  What they failed to tell me is they also changed the departure gate to another wing of the terminal.  I have a whole blog worth of observations about airlines and weird people on airlines but that’s for another time.  So let’s just pretend that through the magic of space travel we made it back to NYC in time to have a glass of wine at an Irish pub.  As it turns out, we ate at three different Irish pubs over four nights – West End Bar and Grill, Alfie’s, and McHale’s.  All three places were filled with locals, had decent prices and – this is critical – awesome happy hours.  We also frequented Hurley’s, the Irish pub next to our hotel, for an Irish coffee one night.  We decided that it must be our partial Irish heritage that attracted us to such places, along with the aforementioned happy hour of course.  In any event, we checked into our hotel, the TRYP Times Square, where we discovered our room to be approximately the dimension of a good-sized bathroom in any other city.  But, as they say, we didn’t go there to sleep.  And with the blaring taxi horns and the visiting high school ski team from England next door, we didn’t.

2016-03-30 13.49.24 (Small)

Day Two:  We had tickets for the 9/11 Museum at 9:30 so we Uber’d it downtown.  There is so much to say about the memorial that I will write about it in a separate blog later this week.  It was a beautiful day so after our tour we decided to walk The High Line.  The High Line is a recent addition to the New York experience and is well worth a visit.  It is approximately 1.5 miles of unused elevated railway that has been transformed into a walking trail lined with beautiful plants and resting areas.  It is a fabulous stroll, meandering through the Meatpacking district and Chelsea, and has totally transformed what was a blighted area into a neighborhood where apartments sell for a cool $5 M.  That seems to typify New York…transforming an area where no one wanted to live into a place that is unaffordable for all but bond traders and trust fund babies.  The other nice feature about the High Line is that for a brief period of time you are relieved from having to dodge the cabs that terrorize the streets.  It would appear that most New York cab drivers take traffic lights as mere suggestions and running down pedestrians is what they do for sport.  I imagine that at the end of their shifts they gather to see who “scared off” the most tourists.  From the High Line we walked back up to our hotel, where I collapsed in a heap of total exhaustion.  But, again, we didn’t go there to sleep, so after an hour’s rest, we walked up to Central Park.  My two great-nieces, you see, had not had enough exercise for the day and wanted to get in a little run.  Note to self:  I need to be in much better shape to hang with 16 and 18 year-olds.  After dinner at Alfies, we retired for the day.  I checked my Fitbit – I’d walked 20,000 steps (9 miles) that day.  No wonder my knees ached.  The good news is that the English ski team checked out so at least it was quieter.  Except for the horns.

WaldorfDay Three:  Sometimes you’re lucky to know someone in town and this certainly proved to be the case in New York.  A good friend of mine recently moved there because her husband became the General Manager of the Waldorf Astoria.  The poor thing has to make do with a three bedroom apartment in the hotel.  Can you imagine the hardship?  Heck, I’d order room service every night.  In any event, she arranged for us to take a guided tour of the historic hotel and partake in a wonderful lunch afterwards at Peacock Alley – named such because people used to watch the “swells” parade like peacocks between the old Waldorf and Astoria hotels.  But here’s where it really came in handy to have a connection – the maître d’ gave each of us a box of FOUR of the famous Waldorf red velevet cupcakes upon our departure.  I won’t say how many I ate but I’m not sure I walked enough to account for all of the calories.

That night we skipped dinner – we were still full from lunch and cupcakes.  We had tickets to see “An American in Paris” at the Palace theater.  The play is magical – a combination of ballet, jazz, singing, and acting woven into a great story with a Gershwin score.  It won several Tony awards and after seeing it I understood why.  It made me wish that I hadn’t given up ballet at age 10.  I do have to say that the only surprise of the night was how some people dress to attend the theater.  The worst was a man wearing one of those “wife-beater” shirts – you know, the sleeveless ones that instantly deprive the wearer of at least 50 I.Q. points – and shorts.  Ironically, he was seated right next to a man in a suit and tie who clearly understood the sense of occasion.  It made me think that perhaps we are becoming a nation of slobs.  But again, that’s a blog for another time.

Day Four:  No plans or tickets to anything.  We ate a late breakfast and then took off walking.  We strolled by Rockefeller Center and over to Fifth Avenue, the universe’s vortex of high-end shopping.  It’s fun to window shop but on the theory that if you have to ask how much something is you can’t afford it, I didn’t go in any of the stores.  I speculated that the necklace in Harry Winston’s window would have eaten up my entire 401k.  We walked up the East Side of Central Park, crossed over to the West Side and then stopped for coffee.  That’s the great thing about NYC, as my niece says, you can’t swing a dead cat without finding a Starbucks.

AAIP

Later, on our last evening, we hit McHale’s for dinner and then decided to “do something”, although that varied for all of us.  The girls wanted to wander Times Square and then go work out (seriously, it’s hard to believe we’re related), my niece wanted to see “School of Rock” on Broadway and I wanted to see “An American in Paris” again.  I know, with lots of choices and infrequent trips to NY, why would I see the same show again?  Well, it’s that good and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.

The next day we woke to pouring rain – the first bad weather we had encountered.  So it really was time to leave.  Our group headed for the airport, flew to Dallas and sadly said good-bye as we boarded separate planes for the final leg home.  It was a wonderful trip – truly the adventure of a lifetime – spent with wonderful people.  But I have to say, as I crawled into my own bed last night, I don’t miss the honking horns.