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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Crossing Cardigan Bay

The title sounds like it should be a Celtic song, about the sea crossing between Wales and Ireland, two of the seven Celtic lands. (For reference, the others are Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, and Cape Breton—I’ve missed out only Galicia in Spain.) And music was the theme, as we were accompanied on the ferry by coachloads of Welsh rugby fans, on their way for today’s big match against a Munster team. From the other end of the ship I thought I must be imagining it, but no, the fans had assembled on deck and burst into a series of songs, including “Sosban Fach.” I have never known exactly what “Sosban Fach” is about—something about a saucepan and Nellie catching her finger in the door—but the fact that I recognized the tune from the foredeck once again reminds me of what I love about Wales. England may be all about the Football Association Cup match today, and Scotland the Scottish cup final, but there is only one game for the Welsh.

The weather could not have been sunnier for driving down to Fishguard (Abergwuan) in Pembrokeshire, a part of Wales new to us, or for the crossing to County Wexford in Ireland. There was a slight delay while a Garda (policeman) took away my passport and brought it back with a large green stamp, dates written in by hand. For a passport stamp it is lovely, but it also takes up an entire page; I sincerely hope this is not repeated at every border I cross or my new passport will very soon be full!

Co. Wexford features numerous berry stands by the side of the road. In places like Wiltshire, these stands crop up often too, selling strawberries, cherries, and other fruits of the field. Here, being in Ireland, every one sells potatoes as well. 

So after twelve hours of travel (leaving Abersoch early in the morning) we arrived in Co. Wicklow, and here is where things got a little bit interesting. The Airbnb model is based on people opening their homes, or extensions of their homes, to others for a budget price, and so naturally the hosts’ addresses and contact details aren’t posted on a public website the way a hotel’s would be. All very well, but somehow we didn’t have anything printed or saved. Text messages sent from the mysteriously uncontactable host were truncated, and we couldn’t access WiFi because the pub we stopped at in Rathdrum doesn’t have it.

What to do? Well, we ordered cold Cokes from the publican and the next thing you know, he’s fetched his wife Geraldine from upstairs, and they have WiFi in their home, so she’s on her phone looking for our hosts (by name—T. guessed they might all know each other here). Several laughs and Euros later T. had successfully found the directions via Geraldine’s phone. We will definitely be back at the Corner House to say thank you properly, now that we’ve had a rest!

Airbnb seems to know its market, which is proper coffee drinkers. After the initial scare of not being able to find instant coffee, T. is an overnight expert with the cafetiere. So this morning we were outside the little log cabin at the bottom of our hosts’ garden, drinking coffee at a picnic table and listening to the birds and sheep. Then the rain came. In we went to the glorified outhouse, which is part kitchen now, to fix a basket of eggs I am pretty sure were laid by the chickens we met scratching in the yard last night. 

So there are your recommendations: the “Cozy Cabin” near Rathdrum; the Corner House pub; and not to forget the customer service before you sail from the ferry dock at Fishguard. That guy must be the cheeriest person in the world. It was a pleasure just to ask him a question.

I foresee the weather being a big part of our travels, at least in Britain and Ireland. When we arrived in Snowdonia we had low cloud, so low that mists appeared to be rolling onto the beach and we couldn’t see the island across the water. The next day required sunscreen, but there’s no danger of burning today! 

One of the perils of planning a trip like this, especially talking about it in advance, is that for every idea we have, others have an equally good suggestion. Even before we got to Ireland, we were told we must go to the Causeway Coast. (We aren’t going to the north this time.) Or, “How can you not go to India?” (India deserves a trip of its own; you could spend months there.) “Are you going to China?” (Weren’t planning to.) The world is round and there are as many ways to circumnavigate it as there are people to try.

Finally, a couple of additions to “Great things about Britain.” Real ale!
And my all time favorite: British signs.

No room for subtlety here.

It comes to us all. So get out there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

England to Wales

Having stayed in exactly one Airbnb so far in our lives, I don't feel qualified to recommend the service yet, but it was value for money. Not sure about the second b. The coffee was too complicated (i.e., not instant), but the real challenge was toast. Touch the toaster and all the power went out. Luckily, our host was on hand to get us on our way.

Continuing the theme of my earlier post, I had been to Manchester, and yet never been. I've celebrated many holidays in the vicinity of Altrincham, and further in towards the center, T. has shown me around her old stomping grounds, Stretford. I've seen Old Trafford and we got hitched at Sale Town Hall. But until this visit, I had never been to the end of the tram line in Altrincham, actually gotten on it, and ridden into Manchester itself.

In 1996 the I.R.A. set off a bomb in Manchester. Although no one was killed, it was the biggest bomb detonated in Britain since World War II, and caused much destruction in the city centre. The irony is that the massive redevelopment of Manchester in the subsequent decade has been credited with making it the powerhouse city of the north of England.

I don't know what it looked like before. I've read about nineteenth-century Manchester and the filth and misery of the industrial revolution, so it's interesting to see through revolutions from the other side. You don't have to be a militant trade unionist to understand that Manchester was the epicenter of struggle for rights and democracy, at least in Britain. The Manchester Guardian, as it then was, campaigned against things like the force feeding of women suffragists.

In case you haven't read it here before: We have rights because people struggled for them. The fruit of this can now be seen on Canal Street which, thanks to the original Queer as Folk on TV, is famous all over the world.
To someone who came of age where homosexuality was illegal, this pride of place is as mind blowing as a woman prime minister probably would be to Emmeline Pankhurst.

Another highlight of Manchester is the John Rylands Library. Rylands was a textiles magnate who made his millions when Manchester was known as Cottonopolis. His widow used her money to have Basil Champneys build a cathedral to books, a library that would be free for all to use.

There are real treasures in this collection, including the oldest New Testament text in existence (a fragment of the Gospel of John) and one of the Bibles first printed by Gutenberg. What most impressed me, though, was a Hebrew alphabetical writing exercise from the Cairo Genizah. I noticed the letter rosh was written before lamed in the aleph-bet, which is not how I learned it! The find in the genizah (storeroom) of the Old Synagogue in Cairo was not only a thousand-year collection of Hebrew and Jewish fragments, but is the largest and most diverse collection of mediaeval manuscripts in the world. 
Historic reading room
And so to North Wales. Despite the challenges I experienced hiking Welsh mountains, or perhaps because of them, I love Wales. I even tried learning Welsh once, at Dewi Sant church in Toronto, where the lessons were free. I got what I paid for. All I can say is "Nothing but water" and "Vengeance is coming!"

Although I wasn't successful in learning Welsh, I love hearing it spoken. I also love hearing English spoken with a Welsh accent, and hearing Welsh people sing. Somehow they always seem to be in tune, even in a crowd at a rygbi match. Pretty much the only thing I don't love about Wales is the climate, and that's no worse than the rest of the British Isles.

Speaking of things we don't love, T. has her own blog in which she noted things she wouldn't miss about the UK. I offered to list, in return, things I will. Of course she only came up with three! But let it never be said that I "slag the place off": I dedicated an entire post to things the country does well. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Love letter from Manchester

I was going to write about our day in Manchester, and then hours later it was on the news. So I'm interrupting the regular schedule for a special post. T. came up with only three things she won't miss about her native country. In return, my Things that Make Britain Great. 

  1. Top 3, seriously: These people aren't fazed by anything. Terrorism is terrible, but they've been there. British people have been handling bombs going off since before most of us were born. 
  2. Guns? Even the police don't carry them.
  3. Whatever you're dealing with, Britain has been dealing with it longer. If I had a big sister who inspired equal amounts of annoyance and affection, she would be Great Britain.
Now here are some others, affectionately and in no particular order:

  • Marmite. The quintessential "love it or hate it" item. Plenty of native-born Britons don't like it, but I have acquired the taste.
    100% vegetarian (you're thinking of Bovril.)
  • "On toast." That is, Marmite on toast, beans (more on those below) on toast, etc. I would never have eaten these things let alone put them on toast, but somehow in this country, it's comforting.
  • Heinz baked beans. They are not baked beans, in the way that Heinz beans in North America are (baked). They are a particular kind of runny item that Britons love, too soppy to do anything with but bake in something else, or eat on toast.
  • The BBC News. Especially Radio 4. No "newsreaders" will ever compare to the glorious Charlotte Green and Harriet Cass, but hearing the news on the BBC is still pretty bearable, as the voices present it so calmly. I always imagined that if the world were ending and everyone else were hysterical, the BBC newsreader would still just take a breath and move on: "Now sport."
  • Britain (and Ireland) are always green. These islands don't turn brown or frozen in the winter. That's because of all the rain, damp, moisture, whatever; but it's a benefit.
  • Indian food. What is called "curry" in this country has become the national dish, as much as fish and chips. Of course you can get Indian food in many other places, not least India, but it's not the same as here. (Chinese food is also different here from anywhere else, and probably from China, as well.)
  • Place names. Sure, every country has them, but Leighton Buzzard? Hooton Pagnell? Only in the U.K.
  • Nobody can pull off a celebration like British people. Where else do you see ladies' hats at a wedding? Or women, dressed to the nines in high heeled shoes, falling over trashed at a horse race? These people can party.
  • Again, they handle the weather. Is it freezing and pouring down rain? No problem; we're going to have a cookout! Just light the chiminea, put up an umbrella and wear fleece. The British let nothing spoil their day.
  • Kettles. Every kitchenette in the country has an electric kettle that boils shortly after being plugged in. It must be the most efficient device ever invented, and I have no idea why they aren't more common in North America. Kettles are the reason the British are happy with instant coffee, but  their real love is...
  • Tea! Only in this country could Lily Allen sing: "Beans on toast with a nice cup of tea/ Then we'll get a Chinese and watch TV." See beans; Chinese. Tea is the national drink and what keeps people so calm. Big rough builders drink tea out of flowery china cups. Groups of motorcyclists "queue" up at roadside stands for cups of tea. It's amazing.
  • The Ramblers. Hundreds of groups of hikers, many of them retirement age (who get free or reduced public transportation), spend every weekend and some weekdays as well trekking across hills and fields in every part of England, Scotland, and Wales. Thanks to them, public footpaths and rights of way are kept open no matter what village, farm, or busy built-up area they are in. It took everything in me to keep up with the Ramblers.
  • Sheep. Yes, other countries are better known for sheep and other cultures eat more lamb, but seeing sheep (rather than cattle) in pastures is emblematic of Britain for me.
  • The National Trust. For a membership fee you get free entry to how many parks and properties all over the country? And countless stately homes, woodlands, etc. are preserved rather than bulldozed over. Bargain of the year.
  • "Post" boxes on sticks or set into stone walls. For that matter, stone walls.
    Victorian post box. Note "V R" indicating who was queen.
  • Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, pork pies, Sunday dinners. If you're vegetarian they'll have a roast for you too. Even not eating meat is old hat to them.

Hats off, Britain. 
John Rylands Library, Manchester. Free to all

Monday, May 22, 2017

Soft Brexit

As the United Kingdom debates how "hard" or "soft" to exit the European Union, we are easing our way out of the U.K.

In my personal history, England occupies an odd space. It was the first country I ever visited outside my country of birth, but I wasn't on a tour through Europe like other college-aged Americans. Instead, my father and I stayed for three months (a mini-sabbatical). By the time we went on a two-week visit to Italy, Monaco, and France, returning to England felt familiar, even though we were leaving it the very next day. England, specifically Oxford, was thus the first place I ever felt both "home" and "not home," the way I have felt about an increasing number of places in my life.

I have a habit of traveling thus far on an international trip and then stopping. I came back to England, but stopped, staying on a six-month work permit and traveling to Scotland and Ireland. I did graduate study at Oxford. Each time, I was living (temporarily) in the new country, not just touring around or spending most of my time in London. When I emigrated to Canada, of course, I stopped in Toronto. It was my plan to stay in Canada forever, not just keep traveling. I lived there for many years without ever even visiting vast areas of the country. It seems I am more of a migrant than a tourist.

What we're leaving
For all those months spent in Oxford, I never spent a single night in Greater London until this last time. How many visitors can say that? Naturally, I stopped in London, and have been based here (with plenty of travel "abroad") for more than seven years. It has been home and not home.

So about our last few days in England, I cannot write exactly as a traveler, nor as a resident. We went "up north," by which the English mean "not London," to see family. Not my blood relatives, but T's family. I am related to them and not related.

I have become British--by residence and marriage [sic]--and not British. I have the same Right of Abode as any British citizen, but as soon as I open my mouth, the question is always, "Where are you from?" And I guess I should get used to it, because that is the question that travelers everywhere are asked.

After that first six-month stay in England, I wrote about the positives and the negatives and how, when it was all over, I felt more American than ever. Now that I have immigrated (again), I realize how much of me has become Canadian.

Next stop, Kilimanjaro!
Suketu Mehta wrote: “It was when I realised I had a new nationality: I was in exile. I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other. I am an exile, citizen of the country of longing.” But for me, the experience is more positive than exile or adulterous imply. I have felt at home in the house we have emptied, yet I can hardly wait to move on.

Two women, six continents. Thank you for reading along.
Wise words at uncle's house

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Letting go

I feel I should write a post on the eve of our going, because this is a bigger trip than any I've ever been on before. In fact, it's not really a trip, in the sense of traveling someplace and then returning. The house we normally come back to will be lived in by somebody else, and there is no return ticket. reckons that most longterm travelers spent much more time than they need to planning their itinerary in advance, while devoting too little time to packing well. I am starting to wonder though if we have erred in the opposite direction. A long period of time has gone into preparation and getting the backpack exactly right, while almost every detail of our itinerary is up in the air! Or sea, or overland.

The "before" picture
This morning when I was running errand #1,000,000, I glanced through the window of an independent coffeeshop (yes, they exist) and saw a guy who looked pretty carefree. He was sitting on a stool with his laptop out, looking as if he were musing on something rather than doing work. He was wearing a casual cap and flip flops. Perhaps a traveling writer, I thought, making his lightweight way around the world.

Around the corner in front of the coffeeshop, I saw a woman with a duffel bag who looked considerably more haggard. I don't think she was homeless, in the indefinite sense that none of us would choose; but she did look as if both she and her bag had been on the road too long. I am now wondering if I am more likely to look like that in months or years.

When you live in a house, you're in danger of tucking stuff away and forgetting you ever had it. I'd never lived in a house before, since my parents' growing up, so I was in for a shock. Thank goodness I started lists of tasks and sorting through papers, etc. in my study (also known as Harry Potter's cupboard under the stairs) months ago. Otherwise the temptation would be just to throw everything in the recycling center when we make our final (?) visit this afternoon.

Other than one unfortunate incident with the potato masher, though, it's been pretty smooth sailing. The guy at the storage center helpfully suggested that as we have multiple industrial-sized rolls of bubble wrap, if the stress of moving gets too much we can always use some for stress relief. We may yet make use of that!

George Carlin used to go on about "stuff" and I know what he means. I was feeling pretty good about the fact that for every box we are storing, another box's worth has been donated to charity or at worst recycled. We have not gotten rid of all the furniture however, so the real test will be when the big items are moved. Good luck to the men tomorrow. 

If you don't hear from The Discreet Traveler again, I'll be bouncing around the unit padded with bubble wrap.