Saturday 31 March 2007

Best of both worlds? I'm a tourist, but I live here too!

Tum tee tum, this is fun. I'm sitting at my breakfast table in Casey's of Baltimore, staring out over the bay where small boats bob in the wet wind, a soft mist hangs tropical over tops of hills.
Choral music seeps gently through the ether, and over by the fireplace, two waitresses are kneeling, squealing and laughing with joy at the chirpy sound of the chicks nesting high in the chimney above.
Sauntering over to the simple but thoughtful buffet laid out in the dining room, I sip my orange juice, and am taken aback.
Not only is it fresh, but soft, sweet and silky.
Yea, I have drunk of many orange juices, but this baby takes the biscuit, not least because its excellence was so unexpected.
Grabbing three days of freedom, the Snapper and I head off to West Cork.
I'm excited, as this journey will close the book on a personal and very pleasurable odyssey: after walking the cliffs at Mizen Head, I will have either trod upon or driven alongside the entire west coast of Ireland.
Loving the Ennis bypass, we plunge south, and park the car in Schull. This trip is a pootling adventure, with no advance bookings, but I have already checked out a couple of Schull hotel websites, and expect to find them in flesh and stone when we arrive.
But no, we cannot find the hotels of Schull. Despite an abundance of touristy brown signposts, we walk up and down the tiny town, drive in and out of it, until eventually deciding that Schull doesn't want us.
The Snapper and I are tired, but neither of us gripes. The sun shines low and bright between black cloud downpours, and Shaaany Car zips along through rainbows.
We head to Rolf's, which has been recommended by a friend, where we are met by a rather disinterested woman, who appears to be prepping the veggies whilst working in reception, and not really wanting to show us a room, even when we ask to see one.
High above Baltimore, Rolf's represents the new face of Ireland, as given life by the likes of me and all the other blow-ins who arrived over the last 20 years.
The communal areas look so lovely, warm and friendly, it is a shock to be shown a small dark bedroom that is so cold the carpet is queuing up to get out.
And so we end up at Casey's; an altogether better result.
Completely unpretentious, Casey's manages successfully to balance three different functions.
At the roadside there is the original pub.
Behind, a restaurant that serves perfectly good grub that will satisfy the local and tourist palate alike, without surprising or intimidating anyone.
Above, there are bedrooms, offering standard modern facilities and comfy beds.
All of which conspire to make me feel relaxed, happy and yet, blown away by the orange juice.
Having waited a healthily long time for my Full Irish to arrive (I hate it when breakfast arrives in two minutes - you know it's just preheated ingredients microwaved to buggery and back) I am amazed at how good the food is.
Each rasher, banger, pudding and egg has been cooked perfectly, and offers exceptional flavour.
A sticker on Casey's front door declares the place is listed in the 2007 Michelin Guide, but my brekkie is not fancy shmancy Michelin cooking. No, this is just bloody excellent Irish home cooking.
As I eat I overhear the couple at the table behind me. They talk in German, until her son calls on her mobile. She then speaks in English, and when she involves her husband in the phone conversation, he responds in English too, revealing an Irish accent.
Don't know why, but that makes me happy too.
Saturday night, and the Snapper and I walk into town to see what's going on.
Nothing is going on.
The place is empty, and everyone we meet is heading up to Casey's, where there is music promised later.
We find the one restaurant open, an eccentric French place called Chez Youen. Truth be told, we had been trying to book a table there for a couple of days, but nobody ever answered the phone.
The waiter is a tall, far-too handsome Frenchman, who carries himself with an arrogance so Gallic it is almost a caricature.
The food is superb, but presented with disdain, as if the waiter is saying:
'You feeelthy h'Irish pezzants, you h'are not wurrzy of ziss gastronomic h'excellence! You are not hivven feet to look at ziss food, you h'ignoran' spurrd heeterz!'
It's not just us. All the customers are scared, but it is worth it. Just about.
The next day we listen to a debate on NewsTalk Radio, about the loss of 'Irish charm' in the hospitality industry.
Apparently, since the influx of Eastern European and Latin workers, Irish pubs, hotels and restaurants don't offer the same 'Irishness' to tourists.
Lets get something straight here. Whilst the Irish are masters of craic and charm when they are being served, I harbour hardly any recollections of joy felt when being served by an Irish person.
Sometimes surly, resentful and even churlish, Irish waitstaff often pale in comparison to our new arrivals.
Admittedly, it is vital that everyone working the floor can understand the menu and converse a little with the customer, but beyond that, let's just be happy that we're lucky enough to suddenly have an eager smiling workforce, wherever they are from.
After dinner it's back to Casey's, where the bar is hopping.
Don't know whether it's our body language or anoraks, but we feel and are treated like the tourists we are.
Backs are turned towards me as I order drinks at the bar, and we find ourselves sitting in a windowsill, as the locals get into the spirit of the night.
When I earlier saw the sign declaring 'Traditional Irish Pub' I felt a shiver of fear, wondering with dread what kind of clich├ęd wooden monstrosity the owners had pieced together for the Yanks and the Germans, but I was wrong.
This is traditional all right.
The band strikes up 'Gee It's Good To Be Back Home' and right in front of us, three huge female backs at the bar suddenly raise their hands and voices to help out with the chorus.
As they wail and pierce the air with careless melody, I wonder:
Maybe too traditional, altogether!

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