Reflections on Ireland

After the last glass of champagne was drunk and the last wedding toast was made at my sister's wedding celebrations a few weeks ago in England, my husband and I decided to make our way over the Celtic Sea to the Emerald Isle, otherwise known as Ireland for a wee vacation. During our six days we were there, we visited Cork on the southeast of Ireland, drove up to the Dingle Peninsula in the west and then drove northeast to Dublin.
Now being travel junkies, Ireland is definitely not the most exotic place we had ever visited. For people who like to be challenged and taken out of our element and comfort zone - this was not the trip. Nevertheless, we did have some very special experiences. A good friend of mine whom I knew many years ago in Tokyo, who has since returned to her hometown of Dublin, told me that there was a concern that Irish hospitality and their friendly nature was on the wane. But we happily reported that we met incredibly helpful and friendly people. Any Irish person we stopped for directions, and that was often, was always very generous with their time. (The only exception were two African taxi drivers in Dublin - one drove away instantly in tremendous haste when I in my most friendly yet pathetic voice asked for directions to our hotel. It was as if I had just asked for his first born. The other taxi driver informed me that any directions he would give me would result in me getting even more lost, so it was best he said nothing).

The name the Emerald Isle is a very apt for Ireland. I don't think I have ever seen such endless fields of brilliant green. Coming from pollution rich Los Angeles, I inhaled the Irish country air like it was my last breath. And while we were never suddenly inundated by herds of sheep on a narrow country road as I had desperately hoped to be, we did see sheep everywhere - white little furry clouds like polka dots against a lush green backdrop. We also did see a lot of cows which are no doubt responsible for the sinfully delicious butter and ice-cream we had in too much abundance all over Ireland.

In the City of Cork, we stayed at this wonderful hotel called the Hayfield Manor. The grounds and the rooms were large, well kept and comfortable. And for the most part our service was very good. But something did strike me as odd. They, at this hotel, had a huge number of Eastern Europeans who worked as wait and support staff. That in itself is perhaps not so unusual. After an influx of Eastern European countries joined the EU, many came to Ireland from Eastern Europe drawn to the opportunities available when the Irish economy was booming as the Celtic Tiger. However, what was so striking, given that they are working in the hospitality business, is that none of them ever smiled. There was instead a harshness in their tone when they took your order, brought you your food, cleared the table. They were actually so cold, that I started to feel very uncomfortable. Did they not know that communism had failed and that big brother was no longer watching them? I finally concluded that either the hotel was badly abusing them or that the vestiges of the dark days of communism still hung heavily over their heads. Or perhaps it was the endless rainfall all summer. That would make me cranky too.

As we travelled around Ireland, we did meet many more people from Eastern Europe who had left their own countries and made new homes in Ireland and for the most part, our experiences were much more positive after we left the Hayfield Manor. Odd.
For us, the city of Cork was a huge disappointment, as was Kinsale, the supposed sailing and foodie capital of Ireland. I think if we knew better, our time would have been better spend driving around the Irish countryside. Kinsale, although, lauded as wonderfully picturesque and glamorous felt more like a kitschy tourist trap. And although, we went to one of the most renowned restaurants in Kinsale for lunch "Fishy Fishy," I can't say we were blown away. For the most part we were completely thrown by how overpriced the restaurants were in Ireland. Most of food we had was wildly disappointing if not sometimes inedible until we got to Dublin. (Although, we did have one of the best fish and chips ever in Dingle).

We did learn while in Ireland, that the Irish still take their potatoes very seriously. Every meal I had, every meal, came with potatoes. As if not carb-ridden enough, my big bowl of pasta at dinner one night came with a side of potatoes three ways - potato croquet, french fries (which the Irish do very well), and potato gratin. "Would you like some more potatoes with your potato?"

Something the Irish make very well however, is soup. I never had so many different soups from so many different kinds of food establishments and they were all good.

Dingle Peninsula

From Cork we drove to the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle turned out to be a wonderfully charming town. Very picturesque - with planes of green grass terminating in black cliffs that plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. We only had one night there, but wished we had more. It would have been a great location to do some hiking.
Good pub in Dingle

Fast food in Dingle

Our final destination was Dublin - which we loved. Dublin has a great vibe and energy. Although, we visited the all standard tourist destinations, my most favorite parts of Dublin were found when we just wondered around aimlessly. There was however, one historic building well visited by all tourists, that as an architect and a nerd gave me tingly sensation down my spine. Well actually it was one room in particular - The Long Room in Trinity College. I was in love. It is the main chamber in the Old Library of Trinity and is 65 meters in length and houses 200,000 of the Library's oldest books. This room is spectacular. It killed me that they did not allow photography. I would have gone wild capturing every angle, every detail. Instead I just stood there, motionless, trying to memorize every little nook, every capital, every arch. My only option was to buy a postcard of the room (which I have scanned below), but the image does not do it justice.
Dublin Castle

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

St. Patrick's Cathedral Interior
James Whiteside, Chief Justice of Ireland 1866-1876

Capital, interior St. Patrick's Cathedral

While in Dublin we stayed at the Dylan Hotel - a uber chic, sometimes a little too cool to be practical hotel. We loved our stay there. The service was exceptional. Our room was comfortable, the bathroom was little odd but since each room has its own unique design, it may have just been our bathroom. The location was also great. The Dylan Hotel is located just on the periphery of all that craziness in Dublin. Turn down the street and you have escaped the hustle and bustle of the city but within a 10 minute walk you are back in the middle of the throng.

Lounge area, Dylan Hotel

My last comment on Ireland is about the street signage. I would imagine that many of the people who visit Ireland rent cars and drive from town to town, as we did. However, in all the research I did on Ireland and in all the guidebooks I read, nobody mentioned how direly lacking street signage is in Ireland! They are either invisible covered by a tree or ivy, or mislabeled or missing. At first I thought, it was just because we were tourists and didn't know any better; didn't know where to look; just weren't savvy enough. Turns out the Irish also have problems with their own street signs. It seems that we were all getting lost together. In addition to the lack of signage, the Irish also love their roundabouts. They are everywhere coupled with the poor signage. You have no choice but to keep going in circles trying to guess the best road out. On the plus side, we had none of the common problems we read about renting cars in Ireland. Our car we rented still had the new car smell and drove like a dream. We loved our peppy Peugeot.

If we had to do it all over again, I would definitely go back to Dublin and Dingle but instead of the southeast, I think I would focus more on the northwest of Ireland as was recommended to us at the end of our trip. Our trip was not as thrilling as I would have hoped, but it was an experience we would never forget. And now back in Los Angeles, every time I open up my refrigerator and pull out that Irish butter to slather on toast, I am once again in the midst of rich green fields surrounded by sheep and cows.

Aaah...breathe deeply.


Bath Revisited

So it seems, contrary to my sentiments in my previous post, some recent developments in the City of Bath have called into question how purely picturesque and historic this city truly is - and how worthy it is of its unique World Heritage status.

First I should correct myself. Apparently there are only two cities in the world - where the entire city has been awarded as a World Heritage Site. One is Bath and the only other is Venice. Only Dubrovnik's old walled city has been awarded that status not the entire city.

Back to Bath - with its most famous Roman ruins north of the Alps; the Georgian city which evolved over the 17th and 18th century, harmoniously planned and laid out with Palladian inspired architecture and urban design. So harmonious in fact that two new huge urban development projects almost had UNESCO rescind Bath's prized World Heritage status. A shameful fate that has befallen only the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman.

The first of these controversial projects is Southgate - an urban mall designed by Chapman Taylor. It is unfortunately, one of the first buildings you see when you step out of the train station. While most of it is still under construction, I did see some of the complex start to take shape and it does stick out like a sore thumb. Architecturally, it is definitely not the first thing you want to see when you enter the city. Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian described its style as "Las Vegas Georgian for its soulless imitation."
Southgate - artist renderings
(Images from www.southgatebath.com)

Southgate - Aerial view
(Images from www.southgatebath.com)

The other apparent urban blight that has just received the go ahead from Bath council leaders despite tremendous opposition is Western Riverside - a huge residential complex designed by Feilden Clegg and Bradley that will include 2200 flats and take the form of blocks of 9 story buildings. Apparently, rather generic in design, critics claim that it looks no different from buildings you would see in any other part of the world. Critics also say that both projects lack a sense of scale and place and are a complete deviation from the understated monumentality that makes buildings like the Royal Crescent and the Circus in Bath so special. Both the Western Riverside and Southgate are expected to be completed next year.
Western Riverside
(image from www.bathwesternriverside.co.uk)

Going back to my prior post (which I still stand by) about Bath simply too picturesque... I simply don't think I know any other city in the world that can pinpoint only two developments that they consider unsightly. In most cities the commercial pull of the developer is infinitely much stronger. (Uh, Los Angeles). But then I guess, not all cities have the distinction of being a World Heritage Site. This predicament then begs the question - when you have a historic city of such extreme architectural unity and beauty and new urban developments projects are necessary to service a growing population - what design or form should they take?


A little Roman with the Georgian in Contemporary Pretty Pretty Bath

Since I reside the majority of my time in Los Angeles, a city which epitomizes American urban sprawl and endless miles of hideous strip malls, the thought of a place being too picturesque rarely enters my mind. That is not to say that there is no beauty in Los Angeles. The ocean, the lush natural environment of the mountains and the desert are incredible. A meditator's dream. But generally, Los Angeles is a city of grit. One can drive miles and miles in a desperate search for thoughtful design and come up empty.

And then there is a place like the city of Bath in England.
It is almost so pretty, so overwhelmingly picturesque, that my foreign, unsophisticated eye could almost not handle it. Can a place be too picturesque, too charming? Can such a thing be possible?

While visiting the more industrial city of Birmingham this past May, I took a two and a half hour train ride through the lush English countryside, down to Bath for a day.
The City of Bath was originally founded around naturally occurring hot springs. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the Romans built their famous baths (see images below) and temples. Having lived in Italy and visited the sites of many a Roman bath, I was amazed at how well preserved this bath in England is. Not only was I able to get a good sense of how the space was developed and used by Roman society, with a lot of the structure still intact, I was also able to marvel at its engineering.
The Great Bath

Overlooking the Sacred Spring

The brilliance of Roman construction hollowed out tiles bricks to lighten the load of the roof and to serve as an effective insulator.

During the Georgian era, the city became a popular spa resort which provided the city with some of the best examples of Georgian architecture constructed from the 'Bath stone.' In 1987, the City of Bath, the entire city, was honored with the designation of a World Heritage Site.
The other prominent monument in the main town square is the Bath Abbey which originated in the mid-700's. The first effective king of all England, Edgar, was crowned in this Abbey by St. Dunstan and St. Oswald in 973. During the Middle Ages, the Abbey and its Monastery continued to thrive with a growing middle class. Even during the bubonic plague or Black Death, the church remained an important part of English life, providing guidance and assistance to a devastated population.
Bath Abbey nave

Under the rule of Henry VIII, his clashes with the Catholic church resulted in the closing of all monasteries and this church essentially fell into ruin after January 1539. For twenty years the parish stayed dormant. It was not revitalized and rebuilt until the rule of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth who supported a plan to restore the abbey as a parish church of the Church of England - which it remains today.

In 1942, the city of Bath was bombed in the midst of World War Two and the Abbey was damaged once again. Restoration of the Abbey finally took place between 1991-2000. The organ was rebuilt and the Risen Christ statue was created.

Reconstructed organ

"The Kiss" by local artist Sophie Ryder inside the Abbey

The Risen Christ Statue outside the South Transept
The Minotaur also by Sophie Ryder in front of the Abbey - a little brute amongst the beauty

Royal Victoria Park - lush greenery and manicured parks also envelop the city of Bath

In conclusion after my day in Bath, I suppose a city can be 24 hour beauty all 7 days of the week. But for me, the city of Bath would be a too sleepy and just too pretty place to live. (Aside from the one disgruntled resident, stuck in 'rush hour' in Bath who tried to run me down). I suppose I have gotten used to needing a little grit with my architectural or natural beauty. I thought about another city that also has the title of World Heritage Site - the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. With its fortress walls plunging straight into the blue waters of the Adriatic, this city is extremely, breathtakingly beautiful. After all it is known as the pearl of the Adriatic. However, the bullet holes that still remains in some of the buildings, the sagging orange tiled roofs, the laundry hung out to dry and of course a history of war and a fight for survival gives the city a raw edge, a vulnerability and complexity that is captivating beyond the initial brush of beauty. Perhaps my time was brief, but I did not see or feel that in Bath.

But for a day trip - I had a good time.


Out and About Southern California: From Country Marts and Monocle to Sea Urchins and the Channel Islands

Sea lions and a seagull enjoying the sun

The month of April has turned out to be surprisingly busy for me, which has resulted in a lack of posts. However, with the weather warming up, I also seem to be scurrying around a little more and so here are a couple updates on some recent activities.

This past weekend we visited up the Brentwood Country Mart for the first time in search of Monocle's new store in Los Angeles - its first ever in North America after the success of the original store in Marylebone in London. In spite of my high hopes and great anticipation, I left somewhat disappointed. During mid-day Saturday, around lunch time no less, when there was increased buzz and circulation around the store, we spent 45 minutes waiting for the store to open. The "Back in 15 minutes" sign was obviously not very accurate. During that time, we saw other potential customers approach the store, peak through the window and walk away. For the brief 5 minutes someone did show up to open the store, the salesperson seemed disinterested and was dressed somewhat slovenly (this in a city that is so driven by appearance) and left again promptly soon after. We actually never made it into the store. This entire experience was really not in keeping with the sleek smart brand that Monocle (or Tyler Brule) promotes. It made me realize that when you are trying to create or solidify a brand - everything matters from the location, the space, the design, the items sold, the human representation and service. Since many of the products sold in the store are created in partnership with Japanese designers and Monocle I would suggest that they might benefit from adopting also the meticulousness and promptness of service found in any department store in Japan. I guess at some point I will venture back. It would be nice to get in the store this time.
The Monocle Shop in Brentwood

Shifting from the commercial to the natural - a couple weekends ago, we drove just over an hour north of Los Angeles to Ventura, then motored 14 miles out into the Pacific Ocean to reach the island of Santa Cruz - one of 5 in the Channel Islands National Park. (There are 8 islands in all). Santa Cruz is the largest of all the islands (96 square miles) and like the others is contains animals, sea creatures, flora and fauna that are found on no other place in the world. It is often known as the American Galapagos Islands. Surprisingly, although easily accessible, it is one of the least visited national parks in the U.S.

Santa Cruz - the view from Potato Head Point

While we did not make it to the sea caves this time, the ones around Santa Cruz island are some of the largest in the world.
Remnants from the ranching days

The island is named after a Franciscan priest's staff which was topped with an iron cross. It was accidentally left here during the 1769 expedition by Gaspar de Portola for the King of Spain, who was the first to claim ownership of the island. Before and during Spanish rule, the Chumash Indians lived on the island for over 9,000 years, originally named the island Limu which means "in the sea." Unfortunately, the 'white man's disease' measles apparently wiped out the majority of the native population on the island. The rest were forcibly moved to the mainland in 1814. In the 19th century, Santa Cruz was used as a sheep ranch and vineyard- farming Zinfandel, Reisling, Muscatel and Granache grapes. The wine was then shipped and bottled under the name "Santa Cruz Winery" in San Francisco.
The tail of a humpback whale

Orange starfish underwater

The purple fuzz are sea urchins

On the way to the island, we spotted sea lions and a couple humpback whales (or one very fast moving one). These sightings kept my mind preoccupied and less focused on my gurgling seasickness. Once on the island we picnicked and hiked for hours, feeling most of the time like we were the only people on the entire island. The clarity and color of the water was unlike anything I have seen on any coast of the United States. The cool temperature of water was the only barrier keeping me from diving right in clothes, backpack and all. But the pull was strong. After about 7 hours on the island, we packed up all our trash, as nothing is to be left on the island and boarded the boat back the mainland. The ride back was calmer, the ocean had settled and by the time we had driven back to Los Angeles, the entire trip seemed almost like a dream.


Some thoughts on Speed...

Some days ago, I was reading about the latest technological developments in Japan's bullet train or Shinkansen. I have taken trains in North America (Canada and the U.S), all over northern and southern Europe and in Northern Africa (where the heat made me hallucinate), but it is the Japanese Shinkansen that makes me salivate like Pavlov's dogs. Don't get me wrong, the French (TGV) and the Germans (ICE) all make fabulous high speed trains -

Computer generated image of the Shinkansen E5 - to be released in 2011.
(The image is from JR East Press release. www.jreast.co.jp/press/2008/20090112)

but nowhere else in the world do you have the extreme speed and punctuality, the cleanliness and comfort and a hot ōbento served at your seat. Japanese officials claim that the average train is late less than 30 seconds each year and that includes delays caused by earthquakes, typhoons and snow. (Ha! Only in Japan)! And in the line's 45 year history of transporting 7 billion passengers, there have been no deaths caused by derailment or collisions. (The shinkansen was originally developed for use during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics).

This is the present Shinkansen model in used, the S500 (image from wikipedia)

(Admiring) Sigh...

However, not satisfied with the status quo, JR Tokai is pushing forward with their plans to develop the magnetically levitated (maglev) Chuo Shinkansen. The superconductive maglev train holds the world speed rail travel record at 581 km/h (361 mph). This advanced transportation technology could in its commercial use - link Tokyo to Nagoya in 40 to 50 minutes (while traveling at a mere 500km/h). To provide some scale of that speed, commuters could go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just over an hour. (To drive from LA to SF takes about 6 hours. Presently to take Amtrak from LA to San Francisco requires a couple if not more connections and over 8 hours of travel time). To be fair, I should note that construction of Chuo Shinkansen is anticipated start in Japan within the next two to three years and the line would open in 2025.

In the meantime, the E-5 series of trains is scheduled to take the rails in 2011 in Japan. This model will travel at a speed of 320km/h (200 mph). On the flip side, I live in a country where the railway tracks still used were laid around the time of the Civil War (1860's), and where every American industry is desperately looking for a handout from the government to stay afloat - I cannot help but admire that JR Tokai will cover the entire cost of the estimated 5 trillion yen to develop the Chuo Shinkansen by themselves without relying on any government subsidies.

The irony is that the maglev technology was first developed in America by Dr. James Powell and Dr. Gordon Danby in the 1960's. However, due to tremendous mind blowing short-sightedness, the ongoing development of this technology was terminated in the U.S. in the 1970's by the Department of Transportation under their faulty assumption that cars, trucks and planes would suffice for the future.

Bigger (depressed) sigh...

Aside from being infinitely more energy-efficient than flying and driving and virtually pollution free, there are many other potential positive repercussions of this superconductive maglev Shinkansen for Japan. While Tokyo is already an economic powerhouse, if easily linked by train to other urban centers like Nagoya and Osaka, connecting the rivaling Kansai and Kantō regions, these three cities could form a very dominant economic bloc. Additionally, with the option of taking a brief train ride from Tokyo to Osaka, Haneda Airport in Tokyo (the airport Tyler Brûlé cannot stop gushing about as the world's most efficient transit hub) would be able to increase its number of international flights and thereby strengthen its role as a gateway to Tokyo. Its proximity to Tokyo alone would make it a very attractive alternative to Narita Airport.

Hmm...mental note...make travel plans for Japan in 2025...book ticket for Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka...experience the future of travel.

For information on Maglev technology click here or here.


Faris al Saffar and his Magical World

The Fisherman

Yesterday, I went to a small art show exhibiting the work of Iraqi artist, Faris Al Saffar. The exhibition was called Baghdadism and was a collection of sketches influenced by the artist's life in Iraq. The gallery was simple and perhaps did not display the sketches in the best possible way but that did not diminish the magical quality of the images. The sketches which ranged in subject matter from children's songs, to horses, to children, to fishermen, to architecture and religion were playful, animated and dreamlike. Powerful and poignant in their seeming simplicity. Yet there were so many little details that enriched each image.
Children's Song

I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Al Saffar during the course of the evening. He was mild mannered, almost shy yet excited to share his work. Given my background in architecture, he was curious if architecture firms could use his rendering abilities. When I complimented him about his art - his eyes twinkled when he smiled. Given all the horror stories we often hear about Iraq, it was hard for me to reconcile the gentle man that stood before me with the life he lived under Saddam Hussein.

Born in Baghdad in 1964, he grew up on a multinational corporation's oil processing plant outside Karkuk. After university, he was drafted to serve in Saddam Hussein's military as a civil engineer where he was forced to work in secrecy on Saddam's long range missile project. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Al Saffar went AWOL and returned to Baghdad to protect his family. Managing to get through the Republican guards, he eventually fell into the custody of the American military. For the next year and a half he was sequestered in a refugee camp in the desert of Saudi Arabia along with 100,000 other Iraqis. During this time he taught himself English. With the intervention of the United Nations, Alsaffar was later given political asylum in the U.S.

Art and drawing has always been a passion of his. While in Iraq, the University of Technology in Baghdad sponsored 5 exhibitions of his work. Then in 1986, the university selected Al Saffar to be their representative at the prestigious Arab Gulf Universities Festival.
Children's Book 5

Since moving to America, Al Saffar has worked at Disney as a special effects artist. He also taught art at the City of Glendale Parks and Recreation. He also continues to study, always trying to perfect his craft.
Children's Book 1

After I came home, I took the business card he gave me and checked out more of his work on some of his blogs. His range of work blew me away. The mediums changed and some of the images were much more layered and complex. Each image captured my imagination, moving from one wondrous story to the next. The images were foreign yet welcoming. His portraits spoke volumes of lively characters and their mysterious stories.
Portrait 3

Portrait 4

I hope Faris Al Saffar continues to pursue his art with the same passion and devotion that has driven him so far. And I want to thank him for the joy his art has given me.

Caricature 4

Caricature 5

For more information on Faris Al Saffar and to see more of his art, visit the following websites:
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