24 June 2011

Belfast & Giant's Causeway

Sami, Deirdre, and I  decided to take a break from our dissertations and jetted off to Northern Ireland for a couple of days. The flight to Belfast is only about 35 minutes, so we were there before we knew it! Deirdre's family is from there so we had the advantage of a very gracious cousin who agreed to transport us from the airport to Deirdre's grandma's house, where we were staying. After dropping our things off we made our way to the center of Belfast via bus. Around City Hall is the shopping district so we were perfectly content to wander around there for a couple of hours before we found lunch. We especially enjoyed our time in Primark, which is not only packed full of cute clothes but it's surprisingly affordable. Sadly, they have been promising Edinburgh a Primark for like 2 years now. It will finally open in...September. Just as we're leaving. BOO!
City Hall, Belfast
Belfast's answer to the
Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Titanic's Pump House
After a lunch of chicken pie and Guinness we went in search of the hop-on hop-off tour bus. We weren't really sure what there was to see in Belfast so we were decided to leave it in the hands of our tour guide. For just £10 this ended up being a great investment. We say the pump house for the Titanic, parliament building, Queen's University, and City Hall. Along Falls and Shank roads we saw plenty of paramilitaristic murals and 'peace walls', which are walls that are literally dividing whole neighborhoods based on religion. While I certainly appreciated the historical value I couldn't help but find these things a little sad. It was like a living reminder of the 'troubles' that had plagued, and still do plague, North Ireland. 

Sidenote: the tour guide was particularly hilarious. He made a point to explain that Belfast has been a safe haven for Jewish immigrants escaping persecution in Russia. He noted the irony that any group of people would turn to Belfast to escape religious persecution, adding that the only question that Jewish immigrants were asked is, "Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?" Ha!
Old Court House - sadly in disrepair and routinely vandalized.
Parliament...or Pemberley?
Queen's College
 Since we didn't end up seeing anything that particularly caught our fancy we hopped-off at the close of the tour. After doing some tourist shopping we met back up with Deirdre's cousin for a drink. Sami and I were really interested to be able to talk to a genuine resident of Belfast since the peace walls and murals had incited our curiosity.
Dalai Lama quote on one of the many 'peace walls'.
One of the many paramilitaristic and politically-charged murals.

Friday was really the reason for our whole trip, however. Early in the rainy morning we embarked on our coach tour to Giant's Causeway. Our first stop of the day was Carrickfergus Castle. We didn't end up staying long, though, since it was raining sideways at this point. In the few moments that we hopped off the bus to take pictures we were essentially soaked through, so we didn't mind leaving earlier than usual.
Carrickfergus Castle

After another hour we made a brief stop in Carnlough. This was a cute little town that was set right on the water. Coincidentally, it was also where Winston Churchill used to spend his summers. Once we had explored the pier and grabbed some ice cream we were back on the road. From here on our we were mostly along the coast, which made the scenery particularly beautiful. I especially enjoyed the moment when we passed through the glens, which is what apparently inspired Johnny Cash when he wrote 40 Shades of Green. Conclusion? Scotland is not nearly as green as Ireland.
Beautiful Glens
Bushmills deserved many, many
Dad Pictures
12 Year Reserve
Our next stop was Bushmills and we were excited to warm up with some whiskey. As we enjoyed our 12 year old reserve (which you can only find at the original distillery!) we admired the decor. After we were on our way again we stopped briefly at Dunluce Castle where we enjoyed some momentary sunshine and blue sky. 
Dunluce Castle

Finally, FINALLY, we made it to Giant's Causeway. An UNESCO World Heritage Site, Giant's Causeway was a remarkable thing to behold. Scientifically, the phenomenon is attributed to an ancient volcano. These hexagonal stepping stones are actually massive columns that extend into the sea. Personally, I like the legend more.

Legend has it that Fionn mac Cumhaill, the famous Irish warrior, built the causeway as a bridge so he could walk to Scotland, where he hoped to fight his Scottish counterpart, Benandonner. At one point Fionn fell asleep before he actually reached Scotland. When he did not arrive, Benandonner went in search of him. In an attempt to protect him, Fionn's wife laid a blanket over him so he could be passed off as their baby son. When Benandonner saw the massive "infant" he fled assuming that if the baby was that big, Fionn must be massive. The bridge was left destroyed by Benandonner so as to ensure that Fionn could not follow. Thus, we have Giant's Causeway.

Lounging on the Giant's Boot.
I'm on top of the world! And really cool.
On the Carrick-a-Rede
Rope Bridge!
After our time at Giant's Causeway and Sami's near-death fall - not an exaggeration, unfortunately - we made our way to the last stop of the day: Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. The bridge was originally built by salmon fishermen but it is now a major tourist attraction. The views from the bridge are gorgeous, which helps to distract from the nagging threats of death when you look down at the rocks and shallow water below.

Don't look down!
Beautiful view....The water is so clear!
It was certainly a brief trip to Northern Ireland but it was also a memorable one! I may not have entirely loved the city of Belfast (minus the Primark!) but I certainly enjoyed our coach tour to Giant's Causeway. For anyone visiting Northern Ireland, be sure to make the natural wonders the focal point of your trip.

19 June 2011

Happy Father's Day!

Most people think I look like my mother, but they’re wrong. If you set me up next to my dad, and really look at us both, you see the resemblance. We have the same type of hair – curly yet fine. And our eyes are the same shocking blue – so blue they’re almost grey. His eyes have a slight sparkle, all the time. But it’s really when I smile I think you can see my dad in me. We were both blessed with straight, even teeth. Our lips make the perfect half-moon shape when we grin, and our dimples are embedded in our cheeks like they were always meant to be there. I suppose I like to see the resemblance because I want to resemble him so much.

My father was always the dad in the neighborhood who came out to play with the kids. He’d take his little break after work, sure, but he would always get up and come find us outside. He’d be the all-time QB for our football games and would use the lawnmower in the big field behind our house to carve out a kickball diamond. He always made sure every kid was nice to others, and that everyone was involved in the game. No one got left out, and he knew how to make these games fun. Some of my fondest memories come from his time blocking out other kids so my teeny little brother could get a clear shot at the basket, or making sure our scrawny neighbor was open so he could throw to him nice and easy.

I always wonder why I was so blessed with such an involved dad. He never missed a moment with us. He would work hard all day, only to run right over to soccer practice (which he coached, along with basketball and softball…and that’s just me!). I can’t remember a time when he chose work over us. He was there for everything, and he always seemed to know how to make a special event even more special. I remember one Christmas we woke up in the morning, raced downstairs, and found sooty footprints trailing from the fireplace to the Christmas tree, winding back around to the plate of cookies. In the middle of the night my father had dirtied up his work boots, just so we could believe in Santa’s magic a little bit more.

My father is the strong silent type. His mere presence can calm you, like he is literally the anchor holding you in one place. He can look at a situation and, without saying a word, figure out the answer. He thinks everything through in his mind, and he always seems to know the right answer. I can call him crying hysterically about some minuscule thing that upset me. He’ll listen patiently on the other end while I get all my tears out. He’ll pause. Wait for me to be done. Then he’ll say something so simple and profound, that you wonder how you could have possibly missed it. (This, coincidentally, makes him impossible to contradict.)

For how calm my dad is, he is equally funny. His face really lights up when he laughs – you can just see his amusement. He has this big laugh, where he sucks in all of the air in his lungs and lets it out in one big string of barks. And he doesn’t just waste his laugh like some people. When he laughs, you know he means it. Sometimes when he thinks back to all of the stupid things we did as kids, he laughs so hard his laugh becomes a jolly chuckle, where his oxygen intake can’t keep up with his humor.

So, thank you Dad, for being such a strong and steady presence in my life.  I always felt a bit smug when I compared my dad to others. I know that I'm where I am today because you gave me the strength and encouragement to run after my ambitions.You are kind and funny and beyond wise. I love you and Happy Father's Day.
After one of our many Sylvania camping trips.
At the Northwestern homecoming game in 2009.
Ending our camping trip with a quick visit to Bonds Falls.

18 June 2011

Grayslake Reunion Part III: London, Days 2-3

It's been a good few days since my last post, but I promise I'll finish up my tales of London with the girls in one last go! Stick with me here...

On our way 'out' for the day!
On Sunday we woke up a bit late, but it ended up being fine since it was absolutely pouring outside. We decided that this day would be our indoor activities day, so we headed to a covered street market in search of some breakfast and shopping. The market was absolutely massive with plenty of stalls to occupy our time.
Megan and me in the market
I love Harrods!
After dropping our goodies off at the hotel we hopped right on the tube and made our way to Harrods. This massive department store is like a strange and perverse amusement park. You can find anything your heart may desire there - including caviar that runs at £5,000 a pop. Instead of the usual men's and women's departments, there is also a pet store, chocolate room and bar, espresso counter, food hall with some of the weirdest imported foods imaginable, incredibly massive toy section....and there are many more that are eluding me at the moment. We had quite a bit of fun running around for a good few hours.
Riding the Egyptian Escalator.
This proved to be our biggest tourist attraction for the day as it was raining even harder when we left! After a delicious Italian dinner, we headed back to our hotel for a rousing night of euchre. Our friends group has always enjoyed a good, competitive game, so we were perfectly happy to sit in our hotel for the evening.
Why, yes....We did push our beds together. We're that cute.
Mind the Gap? Mind the RAIN!
After checking out and depositing our luggage for safe keeping the next morning, we were determined to hit up the spots that we had missed the day before. Although it was still raining, we were determined to brave the elements and squeeze in some more touristing before we had to leave for Elizabeth's. We decided that our morning would start at Westminster Abbey in hopes of squeezing in some breakfast and pictures before the changing of the guards ceremony. 
A rainy version of the Mom Picture.
Even in the rain, Big Ben looks good.
And then we found Abe Lincoln....and those jerks shunned me for leaving IL!
We proved to be disappointed, however. It was another rainy morning, which meant the changing of the guards ceremony was decidedly cancelled. We still managed to enjoy the absolute decadence that is Buckingham Palace. We spent the time marveling at the golden gates and climbing on the Victoria Monument before heading to Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly is London's answer to Time's Square, and, let me tell you, it is way disappointing. It is basically just one tiny corner of Time's Square, so it's a little underwhelming in comparison. There were some massive tourist shops in the surrounding area, however, so we were perfectly entertained.
Megs, JJ, and me in Piccadilly!
Red Phone Booth +
Big Ben = Super Tourist
Trafalgar Square
Our last stop on our tour of London was Trafalgar Square. Although we did not climb all over the lions, we did manage to finally enjoy some nice weather. The rain clouds had finally cleared, so our last stop in London managed to include some blue sky. Who woulda thunk?

The gang in Trafalgar Square
For the rest of our stay we were at Elizabeth's house in Bury St. Edmunds. We did a lot of hanging out, wine drinking, dessert eating,  and euchre playing. It was just nice to have a bit of normalcy with the girls. It was kinda like old times, so it was perfect that we ended the trip that way. 

On that note, I will leave you with Megan & Elizabeth, our trusty tour guides:

And did I mention that Miss America came with us to London?

13 June 2011

Grayslake Reunion Part II: London, Day 1

Right before they passed out
on the train ride...

On Saturday morning Megan, Janice, and I awoke bright and early so we could catch a train down to London. After grabbing some coffee and bagels, we were on our way. We chatted and napped to pass the time and, before we knew it, we were pulling into King's Cross. After a very short while, we were jumping up and down and group hugging with Elizabeth. We were only a little bit excited....

Since we were already there, we figured it was the best time to take our first group tourist picture. After inadvertently wandering onto a construction site, we finally located Platform 9 3/4 - Harry Potter's finest attraction! Now, Elizabeth, Janice and I are HP buffs. We would spend summers at the pool in high school discussing the latest installment, bemoaning the loss of Sirius and Albus. Megan, however, is our last holdout. After years of friendship, we have yet to convert her. This, somehow, didn't stop her from joining in on the fun with only the slightest of eye rolls.
Right after the homeless man scared the bejesus out of Megan.
The gang at the Tower of London.
From there we made our way to our hotel, which was situated near the Tower of London. After dropping our things off, we decided to check out the glorified prison and its famous bridge. We decided not to pay the entry fee, but we did spend quite a bit of time on the surrounding steps admiring the view and enjoying some ice cream. Once again, we were thrilled to have such a beautiful day. There was nary a cloud in the sky. The last time I did all of the touristy things in London it poured the entire time, so I felt like I was experiencing the city for the first time all over again. Plus, the girls were there with me this time, so, ya know, that helped. :)
Oh man....we sure are artsy.
Sweet angle, dude.
Getting ready to walk across!
Elizabeth and me at the
Globe Theatre.
It seemed only logical that our next step would be to walk across the famed Tower Bridge. This is always a really cool experience, purely because the bridge is so incredibly massive. We took our time so as to admire the views and appreciate the breeze. Somehow, we managed to follow up that bridge with a much newer one. We put our walking in for the day and wound our way down the river to the Millennium Bridge. On our way we were lucky to spot some intense street dancing, the HMS Belfast, and the Globe Theatre. 
The Tower Bridge!

On the Tower Bridge, enjoying the majestic breeze.
Megan and me on Millennium Bridge.
Walking across the Millennium Bridge was an entirely new experience for me. Being an engineer's daughter and a member of the state-winning bridge building team for science olympiad (respect), I was especially impressed with the sleek design. Elizabeth was kind enough to share that when the bridge initially opened it shook so dangerously that it had to be closed for renovations. Thanks for that one, buddy. You could have waited until after I had walked across...
Millennium Bridge with St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance.
Mom Picture with
St. Paul's.
The Millennium Bridge leads right into St. Paul's Cathedral, so it was a no-brainer where our next stop would be. We had some fun taking pictures a la The Bean in Chicago. Outside St. Paul's are plenty of large, shiny orbs. Not sure what they're actually for, but they made for a good picture opportunity nonetheless. At this point we had pretty much exhausted all of the tourist attractions in that area. Since Megan's cousin was also in town, we decided to meet her under Big Ben. Oh, did I mention that Elizabeth (almost) ran into a pole on our way to the tube? With her face less than an inch away from the obstacle, she luckily caught herself. Beware of reading a map while walking!
The Bean in London? Yes, please!
The Eye! Basically a glorified
ferris wheel. But I'm not
It's Big Ben, duh!
We decided that since the weather was so flawless and there was a chance of rain for the next day that it was time to check out the London Eye. This was another entirely new experience for me, so I was particularly excited. Despite the slightly steep entrance fee, I have to say that it is entirely worth it. Like a massive ferris wheel, you are sequestered into a glass pod in which you can freely walk about. This allows for a 360-view of the city, so you're left to marvel at the famous landscapes. It takes about a half hour for it to go all the way around, so we had plenty of time to take a million pictures.

Looking down at one of the pods.
Mom Picture, back by popular demand.

View of Buckingham Palace
St. Paul's Cathedral

Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster

Janice and me - so cute!

Megs and me

Wait...we're missing someone...

There she is! The whole gang's here!

This is what happens when
you let us loose in London.
After dinner at a pub and a bit of rapping on the street on my part (Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, anyone?), we headed back to the hotel. The hotel bar was surprisingly active, so we decided to make an appearance. We had a great time, despite the old man bachelor party that followed us around.   Direct Quote: "You all remind me of my daughters!" Creeptastic. 

That's all for now -- I will be sure to share the rest of our London adventure in the coming days! I'll just leave you with this picture, which will be the cover for Megan's forthcoming debut album entitled "I Heart London"
She makes riding the Tube look GOOD.