The Ould Sod: First day off in forever, man

You know those folks who take long vacations and feel the need to explain that it’s their first vacation in five years/ten years/since I can’t remember when/since I started working here/since I got married/since I had kids/since I moved to California/since I moved back to New York. (Or, as the Hold Steady put it in “Chill Out Tent”: “…it was his first day off in forever, man.”)

Well, I won’t put you through that. I was away from the office for two weeks. And fuck it.

I also won’t try to explain that the vacation actually started out as work. Because you’d never believe that attending Hard Rock’s concert series in Hyde Park is work. Certainly not if you were there, what with the amazing VIP tent and free food, booze and service all day, not to mention guys named Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and the Killers onstage. Not to mention the after-parties.

Yeah, I won’t even try. It was work. It was fun. And it rapidly devolved into pure, stout-soaked sloth.

You might guess by my surname that I’m part Scottish (and if you don’t know Duncan is Scottish, well, I hereby sentence you to chug a fifth of Macallan). But you had no way of knowing — unless you believe in behavioral stereotyping — that I’m also half-Irish. It’s not exactly the most exotic background in the annals of American genealogy, but it’s interesting to me. And while I’d been to London a ton, I’d never quite made it to the Ould Sods of my forebearers. So after all my work was done watching great rock ‘n’ roll and scarfing down free booze and burgers, after I’d suffered through all that, accompanied by my long-suffering bride, I headed up to Ireland and Scotland for some well-deserved r&r.

In Dublin, stayed at U2’s hotel, natch. The Clarence, right on the Liffey, the storied river around which Dublin arranges — and divides — itself, and where, if you had read your Joyce (me neither), you’d know that some(?) of the action of Ulysses takes place. But there was no reading necessary to appreciate that each morning we threw open our shades to greet the famous swans who picturesquely live in the Liffey, sometimes amid less-than-picturesque plastic bottles.

You gotta love the name. The Clarence. And you gotta wonder if the name is part of what made Bono and the Edge buy the thing a dozen years back. It’s 150-years-old and manages to be quite an imposing structure, despite the fact that, at five stories, it’s not very tall (like its owners, I suppose). The U2 guys had the interior renovated to make it simultaneously modern and authentically old-fashioned, bringing in lots of unstained and uncarved wood (my sister-in-law, who met us in Dublin, said it was Arts & Crafts-style), and at first you’re surprised it’s so plain. But then you start to dig that it’s part of an even more sophisticated plan and (no joke) innovative, in a retrograde way. You’re also surprised, if you’re on a river-facing room, that there’s no AC — especially when it’s one of the hottest, muggiest days in the history of Eire. But then, when night falls and your window is wide open and you finally get used to that ancient song of truck traffic bouncing in potholes below, you kind of dig that, too.

The Clarence is surrounded (besieged?) by the Temple Bar neighborhood, which you may not remember is where you went, when and if you visited Dublin as a college kid, to get shitfaced among other college pukers. But despite the frats and fat tourists, the vision of those narrow, winding, cobble-stoned streets and even narrower alleys and those 300-year-old (and more) buildings remains deeply compelling. I’m a city guy, and what I like about cities is oldness and denseness, and Temple Bar’s got both.

It probably reflects both my personal inadequacies and the brevity of my visit (and will surely cause my Irish friends to shun me), but I’d be hardpressed if Mr. Hawkins from high school rose up to demand I compare and contrast Dublin and London. They’re a lot the same — well, architecturally. But if you read the bits of history on your free walking map, you discover that when the Brits took over Ireland, they built Dublin in their own image. And they called Dublin and its environs, where they huddled together in their snotty Englishness, “The Pale.” And I believe historians in the audience will  confirm my deduction that the expression, “beyond the pale,” meaning practices or customs that fall outside certain norms, came directly from this. Because “beyond the Pale” in Dublin was where all those crazy Celts lived.

Before we went to Dublin I asked my Irish emigre pal if there were any traditional-style restaurants we should be sure to sample. She also surprised me, saying that having so long been such a poor country — one of the poorest in Europe — there was no great traditional Irish cuisine, let alone restaurants, that Irish eating was pretty much about scraping by and that the great restaurants of Dublin today are the result not of local tradition, but of young chefs who went elsewhere (e.g., France) for training and then returned to re-mix classic continental cuisine with locally-grown ingredients. Basically, she said, the rich tradition of Irish cooking is only starting now.

Well, I’m here to testify about that new eating goodness. Among a pretty much unbroken string of winning restaurant experiences, I had a truly great meal in Dublin, at a charming “wine bistro” on St. Stephen’s Square called Peploes. And then one of the best meals of my life a block away at a tres fancy French joint called Patrick Guilbaud. Granted, another Irish friend told me Guilbaud’s was the best resto in the city — sure enough, it carries two Michelin stars — but it definitely lived up to both of them.

To wit: Galway Bay oysters on the half-shell, topped by a crispy, mini-bird’s-nest of a salad, comprised (I think) of shallots, ginger, coriander, lime zest and a vinegar-based dressing* (*yeah, clearly I’m not a food critic). But never before has this non-food-critic experienced bivalves that were simultaneously raw (delectably, creamily so) and intricately prepared. And because I had the tasting menu, the chef’s surprise, I drank wine by the glass, with the sommelier recommending a different one (more or less) for each course (there was lamb, lobster and vegetables). Turns out, he’s some kind of alchemist. Wine that tasted good by itself invariably tasted over-the-top delicious with the eats.

But my point is, Susannah was right. The tradition is now. And it’s fast becoming rich. In fact, based on my experience with Dublin meals both pricey and cheap, is it too ironic (and insensitive) to say that, in this former land of famine, this is a certifiable foodie city?

But let me tell you about Scotland.

You wanna talk architecture? Edinburgh owns architecture. In fact, my Scotland-born friend assured us that most of the great architecture of London, including the Houses of Parliament, were created by Scottish architects (of course, my Irish friend maintains that the Irish invented wine, after a fashion). But that’s just a side note to this ancient capital guarded by a spectacular castle at one end of its Royal Mile and “Arthur’s Seat” at the other.

Arthur’s Seat is a large plateau of red-rock — large enough, evidently, for the tush of a giant King Arthur — set into a green hill that has a way of suddenly popping into view as you turn corners in the city. It’s an amazing counterpoint to the buildings of Old Town, which are dramatically streaked with the soot of ages, gray and black, like they should be, in contrast to the landmarks of Paris, which Andre Malraux insisted on having washed 45 years ago.

Edinburgh is laid out on a series of hills, like San Fran, but not as steep. And, again like SF, its hills lead down to the water. But nothing so pedestrian as a “bay.” No, Edinburgh lives alongside the Firth of Forth. And whatever it means, it’s sure fun to say. And see.

Edininburgh’s no slouch in the nosh department either. And it’s not all about haggis — far from it. We had wonderful — and cheap — Thai. Delicious enoteca-style Italian. And some kind of upscale Scottish-French menu at the restaurant in our hotel. The hotel, the Balmoral, happened to be this vast, clock-tower-topped architectural landmark in its own right. And while our room was high-ceilinged and capacious, in the old-school style, it didn’t exactly overlook a “Victorian garden,” as the receptionist described it while escorting us upstairs. Seemed quite clearly to be a Victorian airshaft, with nary a Hydrangea or Zinnia in sight. I opened the curtains in front of the guy and actually laughed aloud. He sniffed that, well, it was “all original.”

Victorian gardens aside, I think I could quite happily settle down in this capital city of the country of my genes. It’s beautiful, beneath dramatic, stormy skies. Got culture (the Fringe Festival and much more). And I haven’t even addressed our jaunt into the Scottish countryside, to the almost mystical eastern shore of Loch Lomond or the almost impossible-to-drive country lanes of the Scottish Highlands — the storied region of both Braveheart and the Duncan clan, the latter of which, I’ll have you know, gave Scotland its first king a millenium ago.

Yeah, I could go on. Always. But I’m writing this on the plane home, and — lucky for you — the laptop battery’s running out. Plus, I have lots of work to catch up on after taking my first vacation since, well, forever.