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Friday, June 23, 2017

Adiós, coche

The good news is that Madrid, the largest city we’ve visited so far on these travels, is friendly, accessible, and not (yet) too crowded—just as well since it’s also the hottest place we’ve been. The bad news is that we are saying goodbye to T’s old car.
Well, maybe it’s not such bad news. We always intended to give it away to someone, and in Yvonne and her family, we’ve found people who 1) think they can fix it (eventually) and 2) will give it a good home. We weren’t going to drive it to Africa anyway! So Vaya con Dios, coche, and Gracias to our new friends!

“Every Peruvian I’ve ever known was super nice,” I said. “Like Sra. Bingham, my Spanish teacher (and how I wish I remembered more). And of course my guinea pig, Woozy.”

T. looked thoughtful. “Wasn’t Paddington Bear from Peru?”

I actually do remember more words in Spanish than I did a week ago, but we were both relieved to find one of the familiar yellow-umbrella guides in central Madrid, giving a walking tour in English. (Irina, of course, is Romanian.) If you’re ever in a city like Krakow or Madrid where they have these yellow umbrellas, I cannot recommend them highly enough. You just follow along in your own language and at the end of the tour, pay a recommended amount or whatever you think it’s worth. They are technically “free,” but I think they’re incredible value. So much knowledge and, luckily for us, it was also cloudy that day, so we didn’t suffer too much in the hideous heat.
It just happens to be World Pride 2017 in Madrid this week.
As a bonus, Irina recommended a couple of places in Chueca, the gay neighborhood, that still serve the traditional way—tapas included with a drink. So we made our way to El Tigre and had a very enjoyable and cool afternoon. That fortified us for the Museo del Prado, one of the world’s great art museums. We couldn’t possibly do its collections justice before we ran out of steam, but we did see a lot of works by Diego Velázquez and Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known in Spanish just as “the Greek” (El Greco). 

El Greco whetted my appetite for Toledo, the city where he did most of his work, but first we had the adventure of el coche and, of course, more art. The Ermita De San Antonio De La Florida is a royal chapel, free to enter and, it seemed, little visited (fortunately we finished our visit just as a big busload pulled up). It has the distinction of frescoes painted by Francisco de Goya, which you can see in their original setting on the ceiling of the royal chapel. Goya is buried there, too.

And then there was the Museo Reina Sofía. As with the Prado, we managed to hit this one for the free evening hours, along with a large number of other people in Madrid; but it was worth it. I happen to be a Picasso fan, and the central display of the Reina Sofía are works connected to and drawings for its showpiece: Guernica.
by Pablo Picasso. Oil on canvas, 1937
I have a long history with this painting. My father had a large reproduction of it on his office wall when I was growing up, and along with other Picasso works, it features in my favorite novel, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. But nothing could prepare me for its size. Whereas the Mona Lisa is a surprisingly small portrait around which everyone in the Louvre crowds, visitors to the Reina Sofía couldn’t dwarf a painting 25.5 x 11.5 feet in size. It is not a beautiful painting, but I can’t think of any art work that is more powerfully antiwar.

(Guernica was a village in the Basque country whose destruction was a test drive for World War II. The Nationalist side in the Spanish civil war, i.e., Franco’s people, got their Nazi and Fascist friends to bomb the place to smithereens. That is what Picasso depicts.)

The museum also has works by Salvador Dalí and many other modern painters, and once again, we couldn’t hope to view them all. 

The other Toledo, that is
One of the things I like most about traveling is arriving in a new city and figuring it out on foot. There’s also the guilty pleasure of not having to see, or not having to see certain sights in, a city I’ve already been to. Of course, taking a bus to Toledo is nothing new to me; I’ve done that more than once before.

My interest in Toledo was not principally El Greco, although some of the works on view in the sacristy of the cathedral were familiar to me. Toledo, in Castilla-La Mancha, is the city of tres culturas. Its urban structure is Arab: narrow, winding streets in which one can, and does, easily get “lost.” Its Gothic cathedral, the primate cathedral of Spain, is unusually wide because it incorporates the original Friday mosque. It is also home to synagogues, one of which, the Sinagoga del Tránsito, is now the Museo Sefardí—the museum of Sephardic Jewry. It all came back to me—the name Samuel ha-Levi, whose synagogue it was, is a great one in the heyday of Muslim-Jewish relations, when Jews played important roles for many rulers in Spain. If you want to find out more about how they continued to do so for Christian rulers and, eventually, how it all went wrong, the museum costs only €3. 
"This is the bread of affliction": Babylonian exile
No visit to Toledo would be complete without views from its highest point, the Alcázar. It was a 3rd-century Roman palace, a Holy Roman Empire palace (where the conquistador of the Aztecs was received), and, in the civil war, withstood the Republicans to become a symbol of Franco’s dictatorship. Despite all this, it has great views. A sign in multiple languages helpfully advised that if I went to the third floor of the library located in the building, there is a cafe where I could see out three sides, the finest views of Toledo. All for free.

We are getting good at this free stuff. Too bad bus tickets aren’t free, but there were hidden costs associated with driving, too. If our next bus trip is anything like the short day trip to Toledo, we should be in good shape.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Things get Real

I wrote last time about French and what a pleasure it is to come up with the necessary words in another language, even while making all kinds of mistakes. Since we have an old car, I’d been running through various words and phrases just in case (we’ve never had any trouble with the car before): Les freins ne marchent pas. La voiture est tombée en panne.

But the brakes didn’t act up in France, or for that matter, an English-speaking country. They waited till Spain. Which is why, having reached the outskirts of Madrid safely and without incident, our first priority is to see if we can get the car fixed, and when/how we will be able to proceed. Somehow, in all my years of studying Spanish, I don’t seem to have absorbed much of use beyond the numbers. So I’ll be able to understand what the mechanic would like to charge us, just not what is wrong.

I hope this reassures anyone who thought we were just on some beach jolly over here.

Since we have some time, I think I’ll write a bit about my interest in Spain, a country whose mainland I never visited until two years ago. The earliest thing I remember learning about the country was that “Don Marcelino took his daughter Maria/ Into the cave at Altamira.” In the version we read at school, it was Maria who at least helped in the discovery of the Altamira cave art, Europe’s most sophisticated Stone Age drawings (doce mil=12,000 years old). We passed signs for Altamira on our way to Bakio, in the Basque country.

We didn’t go there, nor to the landmark we visited last time, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. I feel very fortunate that we saw San Juan a couple of years ago, as I’m told that since then, it has become famous as background scenery for Game of Thrones. We tried to watch Game of Thrones once and couldn’t get into it, but I pass no judgment on the program’s legions of fans. My real problem with it is that it is ruining Europe. Ever since San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was on TV, busloads of people crowd it every single day, putting (we were told) no money into the local community. 

I’ve also heard that they’ve ruined Dubrovnik, but we’ll see about that next month. Or maybe the month after. Depends on the car situation.

You could do worse on a cross-country trip than the Madrid-Burgos highway. Burgos has an impressive Gothic cathedral. As with Bordeaux, we didn’t actually go to the city, but Burgos’s cathedral is visible across the sweeping landscape, so I was still able to see it. One of many mighty impressive views. Another was this:

Somewhere in the middle of the meseta, you go over a rise in the hill and there is this toro. I don’t know why, but I recognized it from the cover of an old Lonely Planet guide I was reading.

Speaking of guidebooks, the best laid plans kind of go adrift when your transportation is kaput (that’s a Spanish word), but they’re great for getting ideas. For example, I understand that here in Madrid, nightlife only really kicks off in the wee hours of the morning. We are not testing this proposition tonight and are unlikely to.

The contrast between this continental climate, which I’m used to, and the islands we’ve been living on is quite striking. There was some rain on our drive, and there’d have to be; inland Spain is much greener than, say, Arizona. But the hills and valleys were still pretty stinking hot (dipping from 35 degrees C to a mere 27 in the rain). At the same time, we passed signs with snowflake symbols on them, warning of the danger of ice in the winter.

But there are other, more cultural contrasts I’d never have thought of. For example, in Ireland I could never find a trash can. There were rows and rows of recycling bins, seemingly everywhere, but never in one of these rows was there a place to put regular rubbish. I am as big a fan of recycling as anyone else, but when there is no place to put plain old trash, it ends up where you’d expect: in rotten piles on the ground. 

In Spain, on the other hand, there are pairs of trash cans everywhere: one for trash, one for recycling. I’m not even sure people are allowed to throw things away in their homes, as we kept seeing people arrive at the cans and empty their trash. Even the beach was lined with cans. It made me wish I still had that banana peel from Ireland, just so I could throw it away.

Trivial, I know. Here’s what really interests me about the Iberian peninsula: it’s the only part of Western Europe that was ever Islamicized. And by the standards of the Middle Ages, it went pretty well. For the age of convivencia, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived together in what passed for peace and harmony in those days.

Of course, there was no equality or modern concept of human rights. Muslims ruled, and there were special rules and taxes for the other “peoples of the Book.” As for infidels, there were about as welcome as you’d expect them to be in any Islamic state. But the fact remains that for centuries, people who worshipped the God of Abraham in three distinct manners managed, by and large, to keep from killing each other. That would stretch the capacity of the twentieth century, and maybe the twenty-first.

For mediaeval Jews, not being killed or forced to convert to a religion not their own was as good as life got. And they made the most of it. Islamic Spain was a place where much classical knowledge, such as from ancient Greece, was preserved by learned writers. Before there was what we would call a Spanish literature (Castilian) most of that learned writing was in Arabic—except for that which was in Hebrew.

Then came the biggest year in Spain’s history: 1492. U.S. schoolchildren used to be taught that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” with all the caveats that entails; but Ferdinand and Isabella have two other disturbing acts to answer for.
Statue of Cristóbal Colón, Madrid
The same year 
Colón sailed, they expelled the unconverted Jews from Spain. (England, and most other European countries, had expelled Jews centuries before. You didn’t think they moved to Poland for that continental climate, did you?)

And then Isabel and Fernando started the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition is one of the most monstrous institutions ever to bleat out religious terms, but its first target was converted Jews. Conversos were, naturally, suspected of having converted to Catholicism only to escape expulsion, and of secretly still doing Jewish things, like not eating pork. This type of deviant behavior may have been OK under the Moors (Muslims don’t eat pork either), but the Catholic monarchs could not tolerate it. And so the conversos were in an impossible position. If by any chance they wanted to convert to Christianity, it would do them no good anyway, as they would still be persecuted as Jews.

Does any of this sound familiar? I wrote my graduate dissertation on the conversos of Spain, so I still get kind of worked up about them.

But I never visited any of the cities of Spain, or al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain (now Andalucia) was called. So I didn’t know what the historical remnants of this convivencia looked like in practice. What’s happened seems similar to how all of Ireland’s trash cans were shipped over to Spanish beaches: the religious buildings of Spain betray each other’s heritage. Córdoba's 8th-century mezquita, the finest mosque in Spain, has had its minaret replaced with the tower of a cathedral. In Seville, the world's largest Gothic cathedral retains the minaret of a mosque.
It's just a question of getting on the road again.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Heureusement, nous sommes en France

I’ve been to France more times than any other foreign country, except England.* We spent several days here en route to our friends near Bilbao, but we will be back. 

*One of the things I’ve quickly realized is that it’s futile to count how many countries we’ve been to. I count England, because it’s the country we started from, but T. is from England so she started counting from Wales. We could then dispute whether England, Wales and, even more controversially, Northern Ireland should all count as the U.K. Eire is obviously an independent republic, but Bretagne is not, and yet it’s one of the Celtic lands, like Cornwall in England. France seemed straightforward enough until we reached the Basque Country. Parts of it are legally within the boundaries of France and Spain, yet many Basques would not regard it as either…

Landing in France from Ireland was a culture shock. We drove around for a while to find a gas station and when T. realized the pumps were automatic, and you paid by card, she began cursing. After all, in the U.S. this means it is impossible for us to pay. We can’t use our cards in a U.S. gas pump because it always asks for our ZIP code, and of course, foreign residents don’t have a ZIP code.

Luckily, this was France. I expect that to be the refrain of the rest of our travels here. We did buy gas, didn’t get lost, used every variety of toilet imaginable at successive (and very well-maintained) rest areas, ordered café au lait, and managed to kiss new friends on both cheeks without overly offending anyone. (Cheek kissing has always posed a challenge for me. The first time I was in England, physical touch seemed to me unknown to the people there, but over the years first hugging and, more alarmingly, cheek kisses from men one knows seem to have become the norm. I never know which way to lean or whether the lips are really supposed to touch. Luckily, we were in France.)

I mentioned “speaking” French in my last post. When I say this, I do not mean in any kind of a fluent way. What I mean is that I am not too afraid to open my mouth and let French come out. That is, after all, what speaking a language is. I am sure I make all kinds of mistakes and sometimes completely fail to make myself understood, but amazingly often, whatever I am using works. And people appreciate it. One of our new French friends expressed constant concern at whether her compatriots were being nice to us, as one of the local shopkeepers had once been rude to an American relative of hers. Having been treated with nothing but politeness and charm by everyone we have met in the country so far, I began to suspect that the rude shopkeeper was being not so much anti-American as an asshole.

One of the pleasures of France, on which I have remarked before, is the little layer of politeness on everything. You can’t go into a French establishment and not say Bonjour or the equivalent, even if you just turn around and leave (saying Merci and au revoir and probably a monsieur/dame thrown in). Maybe it’s as shallow as people think the American “Have a nice day” is, but I miss it whenever it’s not there. Being spoken to, acknowledged, being made to feel a personne, is better than feeling like personne. (See what I mean?)

In the Dordogne, which is the region around Bordeaux, we saw a lot of vineyards. One thing about France that is ever so slightly confusing is that every place, road, etc. has at least two names or numbers, and sometimes several more. It’s never clear to me just how these overlap. Nonetheless, we continued not to get lost. It’s true we’re never sure when mealtimes are in other countries, but we always seemed to find what we needed anyway. 

For example in Surgères, a town with an astonishingly beautiful château, now (I think) the town hall.

Heedless of the restaurateurs who, our host kept fearing, would be rude to us Anglophones, we found ourselves at La Roma, effortlessly ordering pizza, which was as good as you would expect. T. noticed that two little girls kept creeping closer and closer behind my shoulder, unself-consciously listening to us talk. Finally one of them asked “Vous parlez français?” 

Un peu,” she replied; “nous sommes d’Angleterre.” (It’s too complicated to explain about me, even in English.)

Ah,” they exclaimed, “vous parlez anglais!” Clearly they had been trying to figure it out. It is so cool to be in a part of France that mostly French people visit, where English speakers are exotic to children who then proceed to climb trees and dance in the street. How heureuses we were to be in France.

In Ireland it was all Tidy Town competitions; here it’s all Villes Fleuries. One thing that remained the same though was that all Airbnbs have really complicated coffee. Not a single one knows a drip-style maker, or even a kettle with instant coffee. Each has a cafetière, or a pod machine more complicated than the last. We were reduced to buying coffees in paper cups from a vending machine at the supermarché. If it had only been a cafetière, I might have coped—I first encountered one of these the first time an Englishwoman made me breakfast. (You never forget the first time an Englishwoman makes you breakfast.)

As pro-American as our new French friend was, she had the same care for food and drink (and complicated coffee) that the rest of her compatriots have. A look of sheer pain crossed her face when T. confessed, hyperbolically, that the only time she drinks wine is champagne mixed with orange juice. The dear lady looked as if someone had just run the tricoleur through with a sword. “Are you English, or what?”

It may be possible to eat (or drink) badly somewhere in France, but I haven’t done so yet. We were struggling in Côte des Landes to find any place in the evening that was not serving a €23 set menu of canard, and so, three weeks into our travels, broke down and went to McDonald’s. Yet even visiting McDonald’s is not the same in France. They bring the meal to your table, and it’s served with a knife and fork. My gosh, they even bring you napkins and straws that you don’t have to pick up yourselves. Bien sûr, it cost more than McDonald’s would in North America, but then I remember from my first visit here that Coke was more expensive than wine. C’est la France. 

To be fair, we’d mainly gone into the restaurant for air conditioning. We’d been in Ireland for two weeks and weren’t accustomed to the heat yet. Nothing to do next day but hit the beach. We were obviously in the part of France that likes rugby, because both young women and young men around us had rugby balls and seemed to know how to play. 

I’ve written before about European beaches and how astonishing they are to a North American—particularly one from a landlocked state. I never saw the ocean until I was fifteen, so I don’t have a personal memory of what it’s like to be a child on American beaches, but I am fairly certain it’s different from here. For one thing, kids run around wearing anything—high-visibility swim trunks so their parents can spot them, nothing but hats, or just naked. They are completely unself-conscious about it (why shouldn’t they be?) Here in the Basque country one little kid said “Hola” cheerfully to us every time he passed by, and if he hadn’t been naked I might have mistaken him for his sister, as they both had the same luxurious long locks of hair. 

No one seems to be looking out for these kids, and yet everyone must be. Families and groups are clearly here together, yet the littlest kids all seem to play together, presumably with people they’ve met on the beach. If I were in North America, I fear their parents would be attached to them with some kind of leash, or at the very least, bathing them in sun protection. Not that Spanish kids need as much as I, pale and white, do.

The most alarming thing about being naked on the beach is not nudity, but the worry about sand. I grew up thinking the beach meant a lake and with freshwater swimming, there’s no surf to rinse sand away, so within a few seconds of entering the water you’re carrying brickloads in your swimsuit. With no suit, perhaps kids are carefree and never accumulate sand. In any case, there are showers on the edge of the beach where adults pick the littlest children up and flip them upside down, efficiently washing them without removing anything. The kids howl, but the washing is soon done. It reminded me of nothing so much as rinsing a colander.

As for adults on the beach, this is an even greater pleasure to discover. For on the French and Spanish/Basque beaches we’ve been to, the population is mostly not English or German visitors, but French or Spanish families in for the weekend or the holidays. And unlike the predominant Anglo culture, in southern Europe no one seems to care what they, or anyone else, looks like on the beach. 

I have heard grown North American women describe buying a swimsuit as if it were a unique form of torture, designed to humiliate them all summer. I don’t think French or Spanish women feel this way. To be sure, an astonishing number of them are amazingly beautiful, which helps; but every kind of person, young or old, seems equally comfortable on the beach. Women take off their tops revealing the full range of what is possible there. Maybe someone is ogling through sunglasses—I certainly notice—but no one seems to bother anybody else. An absolutely ancient grandpa happily plays Frisbee with a woman the same age; regular-looking people appear to wear whatever makes them comfortable. As a result, I am comfortable.
Happy Pride, y'all.
Oh—and one more thing factors into my high comfort level: It remains the case that never, in my entire life, has a non-English speaker mistaken my gender. At least, not that I noticed. The small politenesses of French, madame etc., are never misdirected at me—I’ve never been monsieured. Do French speakers look at my hips, rather than my haircut? Or are they just extra classy? Who knows and who cares? Life is OK dans la plage.

Of course, as we keep reminding each other, this is not a vacation. We’re in this lifestyle for the long haul, and it’s taking some time to get used to. I’ve had to learn that travel is not about checking things off in a guidebook every day, but rather experiencing the people that I meet and whatever the weather brings. The first time I visited the European continent, crossing the border from France was a proper passport experience, with police and everything; now we barely noticed we were in Spain. 

But that’s for another post. For now, I’m content with having learned one more thing about packing lists, besides that that sewing kit would have come in handy after all: I really wish I had brought my Swiss Army knife. Years of U.S. travels, necessarily involving flights, have conditioned me to fear checking luggage and therefore, not to carry anything the U.S. would ban. But I already have a nail clipper, and now, thanks to not having my knife, I have to use it to clip all the thread we’re using from the sewing kit I had to buy! Why didn’t I bring the most useful part my Swiss Army knife has: a corkscrew? It will be months before I have to worry about flying anywhere, with or without paying for luggage, and now if I want to open a bottle of wine, I have to find someone to borrow a corkscrew from!

Heureusement, nous sommes en France.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

From Eire to here: An interlude

So we've made our way to France. Different language, different culture, and certainly different landscape and weather. Being from a continental climate myself, this is more how I expect to feel in June. 
Needless to say, we took the sea route.
I feel an interlude is in order. Because we’ve now been on the road for three and a half weeks, and I’ve discovered something important that is not about just Ireland or France. I underestimated how important the people we meet would be to making our travel experience.

Before this trip, I’d never stayed in an Airbnb before. I expected these to be budget places to stay, and to vary in their eccentricity, and those things are true. But our hosts, together with other people we’ve met along the way, have made the difference between tourism, with a guidebook in hand, and getting a glimpse of what a place is really like. And while I know that sounds clichéd, it seems more important to me to write about that right now than about the beautiful views.
Ring of Kerry

I have some deep personal beliefs, and one of them is that love is the strongest force in the universe. Like other beliefs, this one has been tested plenty of times; faith by definition is a conviction of something that is not provable or evident to the senses. But I believe that treating each other with kindness is the truly human way, and this is true no matter where you are in the world. Hatred and violence are deviations from that, no matter how often they keep cropping up.

It is the kindness and helpfulness of people that makes me feel I have really been to a place, rather than just passed through. For example the Italian guys, married in Ireland last year, who could not do enough for us when we stayed with them in Galway. Rather than just being customers, we came away feeling that we had friends in the city. Sitting in a pub listening to traditional Irish music, we met a priest who was visiting from Pemba, Tanzania. It was the first time he’d ever heard Irish reels and jigs, and he seemed to be enjoying them as much as I was. He said he’d see us in his country later this year.

Now we find ourselves in Chambon, Poitou-Charentes. We chose to stay here because there is nothing—that is, it is not on the tourist map (I couldn’t even find it in the atlas). That is exactly what we wanted after an overnight ferry journey and a long drive down from Brittany. I’ve been to the historic sites of northern France; I wanted to see more of the countryside.

And so, I’m speaking to the kids (mostly) in French and hanging out with the animals. Clearly this is a house of Christian faith, as the Bibles and many signs attest. I know that many of my friends would jump to fundamentalist conclusions about Christianity, because they have been wounded by the church, just as many others have been hurt by violence in the name of other religions. But here in the French countryside—Marine Le Pen country—is a house full of rescue animals, damaged creatures, and human guests, and it simply exudes love. That is the faith I was raised in. That the kindness with which you treat God’s creation is how you show your Christian love.

Back in Ireland, we stayed with a man who was a devout Buddhist and eager to talk about his religion to us. It was interesting, but the real impact he made on me was to say he would chant for our safety, and that we would have the best trip ever. His sincerity was evident. We did not have to share his faith—he was sharing it with us. And he did this by extending positive energy to us on our travels.

On our way through Bretagne, we stopped in a lovely and well-preserved small town called Dinan. We only stopped for a coffee (and to make sure our French worked), but then T. saw a sign for the Cimetière des 31 Martyrs. She thought we’d mosey on over and check out this historic site. Imagine our surprise when the gravel parking area was full of cars, and the sound of a bugle alerted us that a ceremony was taking place.

It was the closest Sunday to the 13 of June, and on that day in 1944, 31 hostages had lost their lives for the Resistance in this place--the Bois de Boudan. Of course, a few days earlier had been the anniversary of D Day or “Jour J.” In revenge for this invasion by the Allies, the Nazis tortured and murdered 31 people.

It’s surprising how much we can understand when a person is speaking deliberately, as when making a speech. From the speakers at this ceremony, I heard that the community remembers the martyrs every year: that whether of North African or French origin, known or unknown, they did not die for nothing, “but for us, and for our liberty.” And that “we are working together with the younger generations to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

(But it can happen again. We've already met a woman whose cousin was shot in the Bataclan, in Paris. Isn’t it rational to fear? How far can faith get us?)

Then that younger generation, a lineup of schoolchildren, read the names of each of the 31, followed by the words “Mort pour la France.” I could read the names on the gravestones closest to me: Christian and Islamic buried side by side.

It was Sunday morning, and I felt I had been to church.

A clarinet and drum played La Marseillaise. And I remembered the previous day, at Killarney National Park, where there is a memorial to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Thanks to this “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” 6,500 Italian Jews, Allied prisoners and airmen were saved from the Gestapo. After the war, Monsignor O’Flaherty turned his efforts to making sure the Allies, in their turn, did not mistreat their Axis prisoners. He upheld his faith in kindness and morality whether it was war or peace, British, American, or German. The memorial urges us to remember O’Flaherty by his strong belief:

In Killarney National Park, we heard a German boy whistle the whole of Beethoven's “Ode To Joy.” (That’s the European anthem that Emmanuel Macron walked onstage to at his first appearance as the elected president of France—a powerful rebuke to Le Pen’s nationalism.) Then on the ferry we spotted a group of Americans, one of whom was wearing a T-shirt with all kinds of Tennessee sponsors listed on it. Turns out they are from Knoxville. They had just biked down from Dublin to Cork and now they’re off to do more biking in the Loire Valley of France.

In a way, this whole journey is an act of faith: that the world is beautiful, full of people doing wonderful things. Never let anything convince you otherwise.

Friday, June 9, 2017

From Clare to here: Connacht to Munster

It's our last night in Ireland, and we were talking about our favorite place. For me it has to be Connemara, but there is an important caveat here. We were very fortunate with the weather in Co. Galway. Sure, it rained some every day, but for five minutes and then the sun would come out. If we had switched this for the weather we had in Co. Kerry, we might have climbed a mountain in the McGillicuddy Reeks, and this might be my favorite place in Ireland.
There's no getting away from it: this is a wet country. There is a stereotype about it raining all the time in England, but it really doesn't. Here it really does. My rain jacket packs away nicely and clips onto the outside of my backpack, but I haven't done that since we sailed from Wales.

I have lost all track of the time of year. I will hear something about the French Open or hear that school has let out for the year somewhere in the USA, and think "Oh yeah, it's June." There does not seem to be a season here, at least not one called summer. This is not a complaint, though; a week from now I may be sweltering on the continent of Europe and longing for a single Irish cloud.

The weather is one element of what has become our nomadic way of life. Our days are dictated by elements of the environment in a way they wouldn't be if we were living in one city and going to work every day. What shall we do? Check the weather. What shall we eat? Well, what is there? What shall we wear? Check the weather again. What's the first thing to do when we get to Kerry? Sit in a parked car and wait for the coin laundry to finish. The joys of clean clothes and being dry. 

Two other things that stick out about Ireland are the public Catholicism and, cleanliness being next to godliness, the Tidy Towns competition. Seemingly every town we pass through has a sign boasting of the year it won Ireland's Tidiest Town. (I can tell you Clifden is not going to win it--lovely as Connemara is, get into a town and you've never seen so much dogshit.)

That's Dooneen Pier, and it shows how accustomed I'd become to the shrines to Mary that I didn't even notice this one when I took the picture. We saw terns, a grey heron, oysters, and starfish on our boat tour, though no interesting mammals. Well, there was one woman whose accent sounded similar to mine. She told us she was born in Wales, grew up in Canada, and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. From the UK to Canada to the southeastern US--an exact reverse of my own journey up to now.

You see, I feel I've been on a journey for years already, which is why I don't keep thinking this is a vacation and I am about to go home. My time in the UK has felt like one long study abroad program. I'm adjusting to life on the road, sometimes finding ways to pass the time, sometimes struggling to take it all in. The world outside continues to shock with its violence and the idiocy of politics, but meeting people one by one as we travel, I continue to think what a beautiful world it is.
Skellig Ring, Kerry coast
Connemara concluded with the best of the live music sessions we've found--not advertised on the street, just a family and friends group jamming in a pub in Letterfrack. The tin whistle player started singing a song about "He kissed me on the navel"; at least that's as far as she'd gotten when she realized there were kids listening. One of the little girls carried a pint of Guinness across the room. I assume it was for someone older...

On our way out of town we stopped at Ocean's Alive, which I've already mentioned--John's labor of love. The little museum was included in the price of our boat trip, and well worth it. Even before we met John, I could tell from the highly eccentric spellings of the signs, and random displays, that this was the work of one person collecting everything he could about farm and coastal life so the visitor could step back in time. It was fascinating.

Another person who's been following me around Ireland is the president, Michael D. Higgins. Not that I've met him, but for someone I wasn't previously familiar with he sure pops up a lot. I read his highly moving poem "The Prophets are Weeping" on the Connemara nature trail the day before the London attack. Then in Galway city on the Salthill Promenade, we started talking to a saxophone player who proudly displayed a picture of himself with Michael Higgins. And the next day's Irish Times pictured Higgins with US Senator Bernie Sanders and his wife, whom they were careful to name as Jane O'Meara Sanders.

It's hard to get away from politics, especially when Northern Ireland holds the keys to the UK election results. Somewhere in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking region on the coast of Galway Bay, is Patrick Pearse's cottage. On my visit to Dublin in 1994 I learned that Pearse was one of the executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. It was several years later that I heard Fergal Keane, the BBC News correspondent, reading his "Letter from the South," in which he talked about the disconnect between the history he learned growing up in Ireland and the living present. He remembered meeting a hero of the Irish past and thinking "this is just an old man, not glorious and dead like Pearse."

You know you're in a Gaeltacht when there are suddenly no English-language place names on the signs. And then as suddenly, you're in Galway. Traffic lights! The first McDonald's I'd seen in Ireland! Not that I wanted one--the almost complete absence of chains has been one of the pleasures of this country. But I remembered these pedestrianized streets and the constant music in pubs. We met a priest from Pemba, off the coast of Tanzania, who was posing for a picture with the accordion. He said he'd see us later in his country.

We took a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, in Co. Clare. I'm used to seeing tree branches blown into permanently horizontal shapes by the wind, but this was something else altogether. I have never before walked in such a wind. T. reckons it's not that people throw themselves off the cliffs suicidally--they were having a perfectly nice day, they just blew off!

Next stop, Newfoundland
And so to Dromin, Fossa, Killarney, home of the aforementioned coin laundry. The guy at the caravan park offered to make us cups of tea. We have learned to appreciate whenever food or drink is offered to us, especially when it is free. The full Irish breakfast the next morning went down very well too!

The weather dictated that we should not attempt to hike in Killarney National Park, so we drove out on the Dingle Peninsula instead. I should probably have pointed out before now that I am not the one driving. If you could see some of the narrow roads, hairpin bends, and blind plunging-over hills that have made up our driving in Co. Kerry, you would be glad of this too.

Inch strand, the beach where movies I've never seen were filmed
It was only raining steadily for part of today so, giddy with possibility, we went around the Ring of Kerry. This is Ireland's biggest circle drive, and with Killarney being such a well-known tourism machine, it seems to be the country's biggest attraction as well. Getting off onto the more remote Skellig Ring was better, and avoiding the coach trips entirely by cutting through the Black Valley and the Gap of Dunloe. The point at which we gave up on the main Ring of Kerry was a village called Sneem, which had the twin merits of clearly marked free public toilets (not to be taken for granted) and a sewing kit on sale for €2. Yes, I admit I have turned out to need needle and thread.

And so, with apologies to my mother who composed "The Ballad of Smoot, Wyoming" all those years ago, I give you a song about Sneem:

"Well I'm driving to Sneem
Looking for a sunbeam
We could get an ice cream
T. is ready to scream!"

Monday, June 5, 2017

Galway Bay: Ulster to Connaught

So John built a museum to country life on the site of the thatched cottage he was born in. Afterwards, we chatted to him about the coming of electricity in the 1950s and current British and Irish politics. Then he said, "And that Tr*mp's not doing anyone any favors, is he?"
That's what I love about meeting people in other countries. They're appalled every day by what is going on, but they're too polite to make an American feel unwelcome.

Connemara, in the northwest corner of Co. Galway, is said to be the last place God made. I can understand why: It is relentlessly beautiful. There are gorgeous mountains, beaches, flowers, etc. around every treacherous curve, and if we stopped to take pictures of every one of them, we would be here for the rest of our lives. The frequent rain—“the price we pay for the green,” as one of our hosts said—means a bright rainbow standing between mountain and sea, like a cliched postcard of Ireland.

And it is the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.

I don’t say this lightly; I’m Canadian, after all. I’ve been in Chicago when the wind chill was -70 F and have been out for hours on a snowy Ontario winter day. I have never felt colder than in an Irish bedroom in June. Blew the shopping budget on replacing my Aran sweater, and I’m not sorry.

Back in Donegal, with country music on the radio and a rooster crowing, and the view, I could almost have been in East Tennessee. Except for the sheep. (See Aran sweater.) And the obituaries read out loud on the radio. And the two-fingered wave from every passing driver (it's a myth, apparently, that the hand you use says something about your religion). What does say something about your religion is if you cross yourself when passing consecrated stones. There was a time when churches were burned and Mass banned; the only consecrated ground then were these places in the open air.

Cáife na Sráide in Carrigart is my favorite place to eat in Ireland so far. Cheap, cheerful, reliable for breakfast and lunch. That is, if you don't need to eat until 10:00. Irish kitchens open late and close early. You'd better get your supper finished by 9:00, as that's when the live music starts kicking off.

On the way down through Co. Sligo (Yeats country), we saw guys in flat caps, one of them walking a pony down the sidewalk. There are a lot of things in Ireland you can't make up, that you'd think were cliches on a postcard. Like the rainbow. I didn't get a picture of it, but if I showed you everything, you'd have no reason to come here yourself.

And you really should. If there's a prettier drive than the main road to Connemara, I don't know what it is. Thatched huts, Virgin Marys, crucifixes, plus a Buddha on the side of the road just to cover all bases. More rhododendrons in the Kylemore Valley than Roan Mountain in the spring. 

To get there, you need to go through Co. Mayo (Maigh Eo in Irish). If you're from America, Canada, or anywhere else in the Irish diaspora, the one thing you know about Irish history is the potato famine(s). The famine years from 1845-52 were so disastrous that they've overshadowed the rest of the nineteenth century, though there were other waves of emigration at other times. The dependence on the potato crop, and thus the loss of life from its failure, were exacerbated by economic policies of the time, and the consequences for Irish nationalism here and abroad have been felt ever since.

Today there is a national monument to the Great Famine in Co. Mayo. It honors not only those who suffered from hunger and disease in Ireland, but victims of famine in other parts of the world.

I can tell you the Irish have made up for that shortage of potatoes with a vengeance. Ordering lamb stew? It's full of potatoes, but here's a side of mashed potatoes too! Fill up on those and you won't have room for the rosemary-seasoned lamb (and it is delicious!)

Westport is one of many towns to brag of its Tidy Town status--clearly an important one in this country. According to the Irish Times,  it is also "the best place to live in Ireland." And why wouldn't it be, with a backdrop like this:

That's Croagh Patrick, a 764-m mountain and, this being Ireland, pilgrimage site after the saint of the same name. Curiously, Trish did not express a wish to climb Croagh Patrick, though the path to the summit was clearly visible from the other side of the mountain.

She did agree, the following day, that we should hike the upper trail to the top of Diamond Hill, which is 512 m. Because we were on a mountain and not hiking through woods, we had amazing scenery the entire way, culminating in 360-degree views from the top.

Apart from five minutes of rain, which we could see rolling in like a grey curtain from the Atlantic, we even had dry (though windy) weather. I was grateful for my quick-drying trousers, and even more grateful that T. had sewn on a button that had come loose, as otherwise they'd have blown off me. I was the one, after all, who said "Why pack a sewing kit? When will we ever need that?" And we didn't. If an Irish hostess can't lend you a needle and thread, you're in dire shape indeed.

I was so impressed by the day that when I saw a fellow hiker trudging up ahead of us, phone in hand and jabbering away, I expressed disgust. How could someone come out into this incredible place and make all this effort, when his attention was on something he could have done anywhere?

T., being who she is, immediately began to suggest reasons such as he has to work, and why am I judging a stranger anyway? In honor of this, I bring to you the final verse of a real song, “The Speculator,” by Lou and Peter Berryman. 
When you're nearly hit by a yuppie little twit
With his godforsaken noggin on the phone.
Swervin' in your lane, goin' 90 in the rain
In a cloud of amaretto and cologne,
You feel the anger in you start to work 
Maybe now's the time to go berserk
Before you pop a vessel let the speculator wrestle
With another way of looking at the jerk:
Maybe he's a shrink with a patient on the brink
And he's rushing there while trying to talk him down
Maybe he's aware there's a toxin in the air
And he's off to warn the people of the town
Someone in his family could be sick
His daughter hit his mother with a brick
His dog has got the rabies  or his wife is having babies
Though the odds are in your favor he's a pr*ck.