I usually find it a challenge to readjust to life in Kansas after gallivanting around Ireland and England for a month. This year, I returned to cooler weather and two unexpected delights. The first was seeing the spectacular lushness of the countryside on the drive from the airport. The yellow gorse, dancing dandelions amidst the rich green fields, with the smell of fresh rain on the soaked, rich Kansas soil, bore striking similarities to the landscape I'd just left. The second was discovering a bit of Ireland in an unexpected place.
Shortly after my return, in an attempt to banish homesickness, I decided to drive "somewhere" into the countryside to find solace in the depth and beauty of the Kansas terrain.
I meandered down U.S. Highway 59 and marveled as bluebirds and cardinals swished and frolicked over hedgerows and towering trees. Signs for Baldwin beckoned. I turned onto U.S. Highway 56, then snaked through Baker University campus until I found myself by City Hall at the corner of Main Street. I thought as I spied the green, white and gold of the Irish flag: Jet lag, too much tea and wishful thinking can do funny things to one's system.
"Toto, you ARE in Kansas," I said aloud.
But there it was - the tri-color in all its glory hanging on the 100-year-old building at 813 Eighth St., the home of "Kiss Me Kate's - a Celtic Conspiracy."
I ventured inside to the strains of Celtic music and the lilting voice of owner Kate Skinner.
"Welcome," she said before I'd even closed the door. "Would you like a cup of tea while you look around?"
We moved through a room filled with Scottish kilts in various tartans, including Anderson, and Stewart, and another one packed with Irish goods - Celtic silver, Connemara marble, Aran sweaters and other memorabilia to an Irish tearoom containing several tables and a glowing hearth complete with kettle. Skinner served freshly brewed Irish tea (Barry's teabags) in a shamrock-decorated china mug and a freshly baked scone.
"Is this really Baldwin?" I asked as I gazed around the cozy room decorated with framed Celtic blessings and proverbs.
Three cups of tea later, I ventured to ask the obvious question: How did a shop like this emerge in Baldwin?
Skinner's family moved from New York to St. Louis when she was 2 1/2 years old. She attended Kansas University, fell in love with Lawrence and its lifestyle, and graduated with a degree in political science and Spanish. Six months after graduation, she returned to Lawrence with her husband, and they purchased a 40-acre property in Baldwin, where prices were lower.
She became a national manager for a retail company, and during a family holiday on an estate near Loch Ness, Scotland, in 1996, plans for starting her own retail business were spawned. A friendship with estate managers Alan and Mary Speight blossomed and developed further when they visited Skinner's home. The Speights were enamored with the Sunflower State, and after further exchange visits they embarked upon a joint Internet retail business with Skinner, who traveled to Scotland regularly to purchase unique Scottish items to sell in America. Products from Ireland, Wales and England were soon added.
"I have a thriving internet business," Skinner explained, "but the heart of Celtic culture is connecting with people face-to-face, so I opened this shop in 2007, and made an application to add a tearoom."
That process is now finalized. Starting Thursday, she'll begin selling a variety of Celtic food, including Dublin coddle, Irish soda bread and some Scottish fare. She'll be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, and until 7 p.m. Thursdays.
It wasn't an official tearoom during my visit, so the cups of tea and scones were complimentary. As Skinner chatted with a steady stream of customers and offered them tea, I browsed through "Clans and Families of Ireland" and an encyclopedia of Scottish clans and families. There's even a tourist map of Ireland to help with vacation planning.
If you want to experience a "wee bit" of Irish hospitality and spirit, I recommend a visit to "Kiss Me Kate's." Next time I feel homesick, I'll drive to Baldwin City for a genuine "Irish fix."