Category Archives: last-minute plans

Mushrooms of the Eleventh Hour

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Tiny Buzz Lightyear searching (possibly for a blog topic) on Alki Beach

I’ve jinxed myself. Earlier this month, I was crowing to Jane about how pleased I am with myself that every month of 2017 I’ve written a blog post as promised. It’s been a real learning experience to set a goal so small that it is almost impossible not to meet it, and it feels really satisfying each month to think, well, at least I kept that promise I made to Z and myself on December 31st. Look at me! There might be stacks of laundry waiting to be put away on the table for a week or I might have forgotten to submit five pieces of writing each month (a goal I made, but not a promise, which, it turns out, is key for follow-thru for me), but by golly, I would get my monthly blog post written. Twelve for the year. Not impressive, but maybe next year I can promise two a month. Baby steps and all that.

 

Here it is, people, 5:30 p.m. 6:55 p.m. 7:22 p.m. 9:42 p.m. on October 31st, and I’ve got nothing. It’s Z’s late night to work, and I promised him when he got home at 10:30 that there’d be a bouncing baby blog entry for him to read, but right now, all I’ve got inside my head are the Mary Tyler Moore lyrics and there just isn’t very much I can do with those. I think that line “who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile” was giving me hope about an hour ago, but now it’s just taunting me. I’ve already rewarded myself with a Twinkie (well, two, because they come packaged in pairs and I didn’t want the one to feel left out) and a phone chat with Mom. Now it’s just me, the blank screen and an even blanker mind.

 

Why wouldn’t you want to read this blog? It’s riveting!

 

It seems pointless to write a Halloween post since by the time you read this, we will have started that best of all American holiday seasons, ThanksChristGivingmas, but I do have a question for those of you who are roughly my age or older. Do you remember in elementary school when we were taught to write out Halloween and it was spelled with an apostrophe? Hallow’een. Yeah. What happened to that apostrophe? When did we give it up? Who decided? Was it some consensus from the collective unconscious to do away with unnecessary punctuation marks or was there a presidential decree making it so during the Carter Administration?

 

Get back to me on that asap, would you?

 

October has been a month of celebration and grief, and I think these contrasting emotions are why I’m feeling so stuck. I don’t particularly want to write about the grief—which was grief felt for others who were grieving more than it was my own, so it isn’t mine to write about—but it also feels in poor taste to sit here chomping gum and wise-cracking about the lunatic I sat next to on the bus yesterday or how I was lamenting with Mr. Han at the bodega down the street our similar lack of Halloween plans tonight when I stopped in to buy my Tuesday night bag of ice and Twinkies.

 

Last week, in response to an honest post my friend Anaïs made on Facebook about feeling a little blue, some ass-hat chided her for “casting a wide blanket of sadness” that would be, apparently, contagious to her friends if they read it on their feed. For days I had that phrase stuck in my head—wide blanket of sadness—and that woman’s superior tone and her follow-up post about how we all have hard lives and how basically Anaïs should check herself before whining publicly about her life and making other people miserable.

 

The thing is, Anaïs is no whiner. She never complains. This year has kind of kicked her around, but at no point did she kvetch about the lot that was dealt her. So for this “friend” of hers to chide her for admitting on one random Monday that she was feeling a little down? It’s unconscionable.

 

Frankly, I’m disappointed Facebook hasn’t unveiled a punch-in-the-face emoji so I could direct my hostility toward this stranger visually. (I also want to suggest to Mark Zuckerberg that a feature be developed post haste that allows you to unfriend a friend of a friend who you believe not to be worthy of your friend’s time or wall space. A sort of Better Friendships By Committee option.)

 

So anyhow, in the interest of not spreading a wide blanket of sadness to you, Dear Reader, instead of telling you about the sorrows and fears of October, and in the interest of not making you wild with jealousy for the bits of my month that were stellar, I will, instead, tell you the story of a mushroom.

 

Z and I often have conversations about what things are called. I suspect this happens in a lot of cross-cultural relationships. Sometimes it’s about pronunciation—he’ll spell a word and ask how I say it and then we’ll argue about how wrong the other’s pronunciation is. Other times, he’ll say something like “what do you call the thing you push around the store and put items in that you want to buy?” and I’ll say, “cart” and he’ll say, “hmmm.” (This is actually a bad example. Z has had me calling that thing with wheels a “trolley” since about 2002. ) Some of his words I’ve had to just adopt as my own: biscuit (cookie), braai (a barbeque), brolly (umbrella), robot (stoplight), takkies (sneakers), muti (medicine), chongololo (millipede), and so on. Please note: I draw the line at pronouncing aluminum with an extra syllable and I will not concede that the name Shari should be pronounced any differently than the name Sherry.

 

In Z’s case, he’s lived in America for so long now that there’s the added fun where sometimes he can’t remember if a quirk of his language is unique to Zimbabwe, unique to Minnesota, or unique to him alone.

 

So last week, he showed me an emoji on his phone and said, “What do you call this?” This was the emoji:

 

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“Mushroom,” I said.

 

Z raised an eyebrow.

 

“Or toadstool,” I added. “They’re the same.”

 

He was indignant on this point and insisted they are NOT the same. Not at all. A discussion ensued. We had a similar argument several years ago about turtles (my word for any sea-going or earth-walking reptile that carries its home on its back and also my Power Animal) and tortoises (Z’s word for earth-walking terrapins only). I love the word “turtle”—the sound is superior to “tortoise” with the repetition of the t’s and I grew up with Indiana box turtles and I will not give in to tortoise. I will NOT. He is wrong.

 

Finally, while I wouldn’t agree that he was correct and a toadstool and a mushroom were different, I did say, “The truth is, I don’t even think those red and white ones even exist. Aren’t they more mythical—like unicorns?”

 

On this we could agree. Alice in Wonderland might have eaten a toadstool, but there were no toadstools in the real world, just as there are no March Hares with pocket watches or grinning Cheshire Cats lounging on tree limbs. Those mushrooms people ingest for fun, we were both certain, are the boring brown variety and they only think they are red with white spots once they are high.

 

We both left the conversation certain that we were correct and the other person was wrong, wrong, wrong about the word choice— but we were also glad there was a middle ground on which we could agree: it was stupid to argue about a thing that only existed in the fantasy world, video games, and on our respective phones.

 

When I say we were each certain we were correct, you should probably know that the next day I called my mother and asked her if I was right. Mom knows everything. She’s always my definitive answer-giver about things in the natural world, things in the art world, and things in history. (I do not ask for her assistance with technology.)

 

I described the object to her and she said, “Oh. That’s a toadstool. That’s what I would call it. But I don’t think they really exist.”

 

The next evening Z and I were strolling by St. James Cathedral, which sits high on a bank so the ground under the trees and bushes is at eye level, and there, plain as day, was a crowd (a flock? a menagerie? a murder?) of red-and-white dotted toadstools. It was so out of the ordinary that I half expected Mario or Luigi to hop from one to another, or for them to start swaying and tittering. My brain tried to make sense of it quickly. It must be an art installation, I thought. But then just as quickly, that seemed unlikely since who would go to the trouble? The massive size of these things was also improbable. The largest one was bigger than my hand. We stopped and studied them and finally had to agree that they were 100% real.

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We were giddy for the rest of the walk with the notion that the city—in all of its filth and congestion and electric light—could manage to delight us like this. Later, when I did a little investigating online, I discovered they aren’t rare at all, are plentiful in places with pine trees, and are both slightly poisonous and mildly hallucinogenic (the latter of which might explain why the next day they were all mostly gone).

 

Z and I (and Mom) had been wrong. Maybe you already knew this and think we are dolts, but in our respective parts of the world they aren’t known to us. But they are real. Even the knowledge that we were the idiots who knew less than we thought we did about the fungal world couldn’t wreck the magic of having spotted them there two blocks from our apartment.

 

I’ve tucked into my pocket for some other, rainier day the notion that the world can still surprise me in colorful and mysterious ways. I won’t pretend to believe that the memory of discovering some toadstools can protect me or anyone else from our own blankets of sadness, but I hope…I hope, I hope, I hope…that the knowledge that there are still things out there—things that are new to us, mysterious, things that will mesmerize and pull our attention from the regular to the irregular—that will help us keep our eyes trained on the horizon instead of at our feet.

 

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Who knows? Maybe gnomes are real too. (Sculpture by Rita Jackson http://www.ritabunny.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Antidote to Careful Living

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Today, I would like to talk to you about coasters.

 

You know what I mean, right? Those little bits of tile, slate, or cardboard that you use to protect your hardwoods from the sweaty bottom of your glass?

 

When I was growing up, Mom had a set of fruity ones of coiled raffia-esque material. For years, she only had one of the more polite, roundy fruits (an apple? an orange?) out for use because a) it went with her Early American décor and b) our end tables were Formica, and therefore impervious to the sweat from my Kool-Aid mug or a (glass) bottle of Coke no matter how icy  nor how long it sat there. However, the wooden bookcase next to the chair where most guests sat was maple, and therefore, at risk for water rings, hence the coaster.

 

One day I discovered that this coaster was from a set that Mom kept secreted in the drawer of the end table. This seemed like a remarkable discovery to me, and though I can’t remember the other sister-fruits, the one that made my heart race a little was a series of tiny coiled circles that added up to a cluster of grapes.

 

It was, ohmygosh, purple! Clearly Mom had either failed to recognize it’s majesty OR she was saving it for very special guests, like Indianapolis TV personality Cowboy Bob or, even, possibly, the president, should either of them happen to stop by our apartment in Richmond. I suspect I tried to encourage her to use it. (Mom is a great preserver of things that are “good” and to be used or worn “for something important” and I rail against this: if you have something nice, you must use it. Use it all up. If tomorrow never comes, then you’ve enjoyed your best blouse or your best teacup.) Though I don’t remember how I was alerted that this grapey treasure I’d found was off limits, the case was closed: the “good” coasters stayed in the drawer and never, to the best of my memory, ever saw the light of day.

 

But I knew they were there, those beautiful, unused grapes, just waiting to be liberated and fulfill their purpose in life.

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Photo Credit: Reluctant Girl Scout Mother (see how pristine the grapes are!)

 

I tell you this unnecessary story so you’ll know this about me: I am a coaster person. I believe in them. I believe you should try to have attractive ones that either match your personality or that are, at the very least, souvenirs from some travel/ favorite pub. Despite having been raised with those impenetrable Formica end tables, I was encouraged to respect hardwood and would no more think of putting a sweaty glass on a wooden table—my own or someone else’s— than I would take a box cutter to it. It’s barbaric.

 

At my former teaching job back in Indiana, each office was supplied with a set of truly depressing tan metal office furniture, including one bookcase (like that would be enough for all of my books), a rattle-y desk, and lateral filing cabinet. It was as far removed from my idea of a university as you can imagine. I draped scarves over surfaces, I covered the filing cabinet with magnets, I bought a little wooden table to put near the chairs where students would come to chat, and when my George W. Bush stimulus check arrived in 2008, I stimulated the economy by buying some not-that-expensive and only-vaguely-wooden-ish office furniture that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright designed it instead of the imagineers at Target. I wanted to be transported to another kind of academic office—the kind where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could sit around talking about hobbits and wardrobes when they weren’t teaching. And more importantly, I wanted my students to feel welcomed there and to feel like they were some place besides the bank trying to get a short-term loan.

 

On the whole, I was satisfied with my creation, particularly when someone new would walk in and use the word cozy or when an old student would email me and tell me that he or she missed sitting there across the faux oak, talking about their work.

 

That said, I was regularly in a state of consternation and apoplexy because people—and not just students—would come in with their oversized, dripping Big Gulp cups, look directly at the coasters I had out for their use, and then choose—deliberately choose—to set the cups or bottles on the table. This forced me into a position wherein I had to decide if my strong desire for friendliness and hospitality would win out over my equally strong desire not to have water rings on my surfaces.

 

And this brings me to the question that has been plaguing me for awhile: why, when we see or read a character who insists on someone using a coaster, are we immediately meant to assume that person is prissy, uptight, tedious, and annoying? Isn’t that a bit unfair? Isn’t it really the guest who assumes he or she can leave their mark on your belongings who is the problem? A cretin? Maybe even passive aggressive?

 

I haven’t come up with an answer for this yet, but I think it has something to do with injustice and lazy writing.

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Barbarous hoards have left glasses here, coasterless.

 

Lately, as Z watches me spend hours on a one-page piece of writing that doesn’t really matter, he has been trying to direct me towards Voltaire’s Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I am a weird perfectionist in that the perfectionism only applies to certain areas. My kitchen floor is rarely clean, for instance. You can’t see the top of Melvin, our coffee table. In high school, anything less than an A in a class I cared about would have gutted me, but I was perfectly content with a B in biology because I had no desire to dissect a frog.

 

But writing is my Waterloo. A single sentence in an email could take twenty minutes if I let myself, and I can’t tell you the number of times Z has walked into the room and seen my face all pinched and twisted while I stare at the screen or the notebook in front of me and said, with alarm, “What’s wrong?” Nothing is wrong except the words in front of me aren’t perfect.

 

I’m not sure how my quest for the perfect sentence and coasters are related except I’m sure they are.

 

Maybe it’s self-protection—I don’t want anyone to point out that I’ve misused a word or missed an opportunity for some lovely imagery. Criticism is the water-ring on the coffee table of my writing.

 

Ugh. That was a terrible metaphor.

 

We had a weekend heat wave here in Seattle, and since I knew it was a weekend-only heat situation I didn’t spiral into my Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder Depression (which Z will insist is NOT a thing and which, I am here to tell you, IS a thing). I did get completely addled from the heat though. It’s a bit like that old public service announcement where someone breaks open an egg on the hood of a car that has been sitting in the sun, the egg fries,  and then a commanding/ parental voice says, “Hot enough to fry an egg ? THEN IT’S HOT ENOUGH TO FRY YOUR DOG’S BRAIN.”

 

As PSAs go, I guess it was an effective one in that even in the dead of winter I used to worry that if I ran into CVS to get toilet paper and left Mac in the car that there would be some reflection of light that might turn 30 degrees into 100 in the two minutes I was inside.

 

Clearly, I’ve never been that strong with the science.

 

If it gets over 74 degrees my brain synapses start working with the sluggishness of a sloth. I’m extra clumsy. I can’t think of words. Z will ask a simple question like Do you want a glass of water? and you’d think he’d asked me to solve a geometry proof whilst riding a unicycle. I have no answer. He makes me a drink and then for good measure brings me a wet cloth to put on the top of my head to cool my core temperature down.

 

At one point on Sunday, Z and I were writing out some cards to friends and family for various reasons, and I kept putting words on the page that made no contextual sense and then I’d have to invent a whole second part of the sentence that made it seem like it was all planned out that way. I was so delusional from heat that I thought I’d gotten away with it, but then even Z—who is so supportive of everything I write that I sometimes distrust his praise—shook his head and raised an eyebrow as if I’d lost my mind.

 

Monday, it cooled down, which was a relief because I teach on Monday nights in a room that must formerly have been a terrarium, but the heat fog in my brain was still hovering. The critiques I wrote took twice as long as usual and were likely less coherent. I sketched out some lesson plans in my notebook with my trusty green pen and discovered that what the syllabus said we were meant to be learning I’d already taught the week before. I scratched down some other possible lecture points and activities, packed my bag, and headed out the door.

 

Without the notebook.

 

Class was fine. (I am good at improvising.) I’ve loved re-discovering how much the classroom agrees with me, and even beyond that, how much I like working one-on-one with someone to get their writing to a stronger, sharper place. This group is very enthusiastic and very forgiving of my tangents, which is good, because ¾ of the way through class I looked down and realized that the green pen I’d been writing lecture notes with in my notebook was still nestled in my cleavage. It had come with me even if the notebook was still back at the apartment.

 

I looked at it, plucked it from it’s resting place casually, as if I were brushing a stray hair off my shoulder, and went right on with the critique. I suppose I could have left it there and hoped no one noticed, but it was my favorite pen and I write better last-minute marginal notes with it while a critique is in progress.

 

This attitude—this ability to improvise, to not be bothered by a snafu or poorly executed phrase—this is the thing I need to embrace in lieu of perfectionism and self-protection.

 

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, yes. But also, if offered, always use the coasters.

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Can I offer you a drink?

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VII: Galway, a Girl in a Cape, and a Dream

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When I was newly out of college and driving into town to work at the public library—a job I thought I’d love but didn’t—I’d often find myself giving tours to imaginary people riding in my Dodge Omni. I don’t know who the people were or why I thought they’d care about the historic train depot or the various beautiful but poorly attended Victorian churches in my little Midwestern town, but I’d sometimes arrive at work completely uncertain of how I got there because the intensity of my gig as an imaginary tour-guide had made time disappear.

 

It never occurred to me that this was odd behavior for a 23-year-old woman to indulge in. Certainly, it makes one wonder why I was in hot pursuit of a fiction degree if my imagination couldn’t cook up better fantasies than driving figments around my hometown and pointing out the Tiffany windows at Reid Presbyterian Church. When my college friends (real humans, not imaginary) would visit from out of town, I’d often figure out routes to drive them from one of our two historic neighborhoods to the other, explaining about Richmond’s Quaker heritage, telling them about how at some magical point in its history there were supposedly more millionaires per capita in Richmond than anywhere else in the U.S. I’d point to the old mansions that more recently had been turned into mortuaries and B&Bs as evidence. My friends always indulged me even if they were bored out of their minds.

 

This wasn’t Richmond-exclusive behavior. I did the same when showing people around my college and grad school campuses, around Chicago after I’d spent years there with some regularity, and eventually around Ireland. Not only did I offer tours to family and friends, but on two occasions I invited people I’d met in other parts of Ireland to come with me to Galway so I could show it off. As an introvert, this behavior was out of character for me: inviting people who were very nearly strangers to come with me on a sacrosanct trip to Galway? But it felt like a venial sin if not a mortal one not to introduce them to this city I love and then point them into Connemara.

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I’ve dreamed of giving Z the Grand Tour of Galway since before we were even a couple, so the minute we get off the train I’m hurrying him towards the luggage storage at the station so we can maximize the few hours we have before checking into our B&B. He is heavy laden with suitcases, but even so, I am an oversized border collie nipping at his heels to hurry him along. It is frustrating that we need lunch before my formal tour can begin because there is so much to show him and so little time: in three days we’ll be heading into Connemara and the next leg of our adventure. Already, I’m regretting that I didn’t schedule an entire week here in the City of Tribes.

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Free of our luggage, we go across from the station to a pub that looks like it’s been there for two centuries even though I know a decade ago it was a nightclub with sleek, modern decor. It’s deserted, except for the barman who is friendly and fills us in on the upcoming sporting events that have Dublin, Galway, and neighboring Mayo full of excitement for rugby, Gaelic football, and hurling.

 

Galway is not, perhaps, the most Irish of Irish towns. Historically speaking, it was more English than Irish with a helping of Spanish influence. The course of Irish history was never changed significantly because of anything that happened here, and other than Claddagh rings (those rings with the heart and hands and crown that Irish Americans love), not much is exported out of Galway to make it noteworthy. Yet the twisty old Shop Street, the rapidly flowing River Corrib, the churches, the area by the bay called the Claddagh? It all calls to me. If I don’t get there every few years, I start to twitch.

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My plans are thrown into a tailspin when we leave the bar and find ourselves standing in Eyre Square in the midst of a heavy downpour. Because I had all those years of imaginary tour-guiding in the 1990s, I know that the hallmark of a good guide is one who can adapt to circumstances. I hurry Z into the shopping center across from the open park square. He hates shopping centers and is no doubt disappointed with my choice, but I nudge him towards the back where the medieval wall that used to surround the city still stands, incorporated into the heart of the mall. On the one hand, it’s an historian’s nightmare to have something so noteworthy jutting out of a Pennys. On the other, were this wall in America, it would have been ripped down with little thought of preservation. We admire the quirk of it and then head towards the Vodaphone store to see if it’s possible to make our English cell phone magically Irish. It isn’t. The woman who delivers the sad news is so charming that we don’t really even mind forking out the money for another phone. She tells us that the store across the way might be able to help by cracking into our English phone (they can’t) and refers to them as “the likes of them over there” with a dismissive head nod. Though it’s not a phrase unique to Ireland, with her lilt, it sticks with me for the rest of the trip and I try to figure out ways to work it into my own conversation. Phone in hand, we venture back out where the rain has disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

 

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Medieval wall-in-the-mall as decorated for Christmas, 2005.

Petra House is my favorite B&B ever, and that includes some posher places I’ve stayed in Ireland and America over the years. It really does feel like a home away from home.  Over a decade ago I randomly picked it out of a Rick Steves’ tour book when my mother and I were in Ireland, and now it is the gold standard to me of what an excellent B&B should be like: tasteful accommodations, a spotless room, a delicious breakfast, and friendly hosts who make you feel you’re being looked after. Mom and I both had crushes on the owners, Frank and Joan, a couple who embody the “thousand welcomes” that Ireland is famous for. At one point, Joan and my mother were talking so animatedly that they could have been mistaken for girlhood friends, and Frank endeared himself to me on my second visit two years later, when he saw me at the breakfast table and said, “Ah, last time you were here, you were with your mother and were leaving us for Inishbofin. You know, the new dock they were building burned down right after you were there.” This visit is no different, and when Z and I leave in three days time, Frank will walk us out to the car, hand us road maps, tell us to be careful on the narrower, rougher roads of Connemara, and generally make us feel like we’re forlornly saying goodbye to a family member. Other than all meals with my cousins at the end of our trip, we won’t have another meal as delicious as Joan’s either.

 

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Galway Hooker venturing towards Galway Bay

The three days we are in Galway, I walk the legs off of Z. I want him to see it all immediately. Admittedly, I tell some fibs so he readily agrees to walks that are three times as long as he is led to believe. I walk him along the River Corrib, the canal, to the cathedral, the Claddagh where we see postcard-perfect Galway Hookers (red-sailed boats that were used to haul turf to the Aran Islands but now seem to be used to sail tourists around in circles). There is an extra long walk along the Salthill Prom overlooking Galway Bay and the rocky moonscape of the Burren across the water in County Clare. I force Z to sing a chorus of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” When we reach the end of the promenade, I insist that he “kick the wall” like a true Galwegian. Here, I am disappointed that where there was once just a wall and where you could imagine decades of citizens kicking it instinctively, now there is a donation box sloppily cemented into the wall for some charity wherein I’m meant to deposit euros for the privilege of the kick. In protest, I do not deposit coins ( also because I think we might need to take the bus back to the town center because we’re knackered from the walk) but I do spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and uncharitable.

 

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View from our damp dock picnic perch

Perhaps my worst sin against Z is the day I lead him on a long walk past the university to the area where I lived for a summer so we can have a picnic by the river. The walk takes longer than planned, Z is hungry, and when we arrive, the picnic table that had been there over a decade ago has been removed in an attempt to make the youth of Galway behave themselves. The view across the river is still lovely—with the city behind us, we look out across fields, at some oldish stone ruin and larger house. A boat tour glides past us and we wave, happy to be less touristy than the people on the boat. I feel momentarily victorious that I’ve brought us to such a lovely spot, but then, as we lower our middle-aged bones to the dock so we can eat our sandwiches along the river, it starts pouring with rain. Z has a look of annoyed resignation on his face. He’s a trooper though and never says a word about the inconvenience of our lunch, or even the annoying walk to and from our destination during which I have lamented at every turn all the changes that have befallen the UCG campus since I was there last. The biggest sin, as far as I am concerned, is that the pub where the writer Dermot Healy once bought me a pint is no more (much like Dermot Healy himself). But I also lament the trees in the wooded area through which I’d walked to class every day like a modern, thirtysomething Red Riding Hood; they’ve been chopped down and an athletic center built there. It all feels like a travesty of justice. The place should have been laminated after I left. Buoyed from his lunch and a lessening of rain, Z happily sits with me in the inner courtyard of NUI Galway that is modeled on Christ Church at Oxford and lets me reminisce about the summer before I met him when I was here.

 

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In the UCG courtyard, recounting past glories

 

Z has some research to do on this leg of the trip as well, and the half hour he turns me loose to interview someone, I make a beeline to a shop I like. Within two minutes, the clerk has dropped this rich green cape thing (don’t even think about calling it a poncho) over my head and clearly it is meant for me. Another clerk comes up and says it matches my eyes and when I tell the likes of them that we’ll soon be spending a night in a castle, they both nod their heads and say, “Sure, you’ll be wanting this to wear while you sit by the fire with a glass of wine.” This trip has not been about the buying of mementos, but even so, I’m an easy mark. I hand over my money and the clerk hands me the bag. I’m only half way out the store before I’ve tugged it on—all of this within five minutes of having said goodbye to Z. To my credit, it’s lovely and I do not look as ridiculous in it as I did on the first trip when I bought a thick Aran sweater and insisted on wearing it daily even though it was summer and the sweater was heavy enough to be a winter coat. (Mom wears it as a coat now actually.) I have no doubt any Irish person passing me on the street must have thought then, “Americans are ridiculous.” On this day though, I can only imagine they are all admiring my new purchase and assuming I’m a native Galwegian. When we are reunited, Z grins at me and shakes his head when he sees me sashaying up shop street in it. Because he likes to name things, he dubs it “Capey” and it becomes a sort of family pet for the rest of the journey. Did you pack Capey? Don’t spill Ribena on Capey! Don’t leave Capey behind?

 

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Z with spendthrift wife, elderly passerby, and the beloved Capey

 

We do the things I always do when I am in Galway too. We poke our noses into the restaurants in the Latin Quarter trying to select the best one. We go into my favorite sweater shops and fondle sweaters we aren’t going to buy. We look in the windows of jewelry stores at Claddagh rings we’ve no use for since I seem to already own three and Z refuses to wear one. We go into St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, a 14th century church said to have been visited by Cromwell. We look at the Spanish Arch and I tell Z about how Columbus popped by Galway when he was off on his exploring adventures. I point out Lynch’s castle, now a bank, where the mayor of Galway hung his own son, who had killed another young man, and the mayor became a recluse afterward. Sometimes serving justice is a heart breaker.

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Galway’s Latin Quarter, geared up for the big match

We go to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop and buy books we’d have to work hard to find in America, including the latest Jack Taylor mystery by Ken Bruen that is set in Galway. Z and I are both big fans of this brutal series, and I know now that he’s seen the city, the books will be even more (horrifying) fun—I’ve spent these three days reminding him of plot points and where I think Jack Taylor lives, where various crimes unfolded, etc. As we’re checking out with our purchases, I spy a Charlie Byrne’s tote and Z gallantly tells the clerk I’d like one; the clerk even more gallantly says, “No charge.” In no time, I’ve filled it with books and postcards and pieces of detritus and added it to the increasing pile of luggage hogging our room at Petra House.

 

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Oh, Charlie Byrne’s–you never disappoint!

On our second night in the city, Z is presented to my cousin Mary and her husband John, who have driven into town to meet us at the hotel where their son Eoin is working for the summer. I see Eoin first, and am shocked that he has grown approximately 12 feet since last I saw him. On my first meeting, he was in “junior infants” (kindergarten) and finagling sweets out of his mother when we stopped to get petrol. It is a real joy to reconnect with all of them since I haven’t seen them for six years, and a greater joy that at the conclusion of the evening when Z and I are snuggled in at Petra House, he tells me how much he enjoyed Mary and John, and I shortly receive a text from Mary telling me that they approve heartily of Z and are happy to see me so happy and healthy. The next night, we have dinner with Mary’s niece Catherine—my “little” second-cousin-once-removed–who introduced me to nearly every cow on her grandfather’s farm when she was about six and now she is a grown-up college student who loves to read and has a wicked sense of humor. Another delightful evening with family, and I feel so happy that all those years ago I was uncharacteristically nervy enough to demand that my grandfather give me the address of his cousins in Ireland so I could claim kin and be the first member of our little American branch of the tree to meet them. What a lucky day for me.

 

This day is also a lucky one for Z and me because John and Mary take half of our ridiculous amount of luggage back to their house since we’ll be seeing them again, thus relieving us of the Samsonite albatrosses that have been weighing us down. There’s a ferry ride to an island in our near future and I don’t want to be seen as the ridiculous Americans with the steamer trunks for a two-night stay in the Inishbofin House Hotel.

 

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Galway Cathedral window

On our last morning in Galway, Z and I walk down the hill to pick up a rental car—a little red one that we dub the Galway Hooker—and head back to Petra House to settle our bill and collect our luggage. Because I have trouble with The Leaving, I want to insist to Frank and Joan that they tell their next guests they have to find other accommodations because we’re staying another eight nights and just forego the next leg of our adventure. They’ve made us feel so well taken care of, that I even feel a little nervous leaving. Who will be looking after us once we pull out of their driveway? Surely, we need looking after.

 

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Galway Cathedral

 

Though I’m looking forward to the next leg of our trip—some of it familiar to me, some of it brand new territory—I am loathe to leave Galway. We’ve hit the highlights, but you can’t really settle into a place in three days. I’m lucky to have had those days, but I am greedy and want more. No matter how much time I get here, I always want more. A week. A month. A year. I’m not sure how long it would take me to tire of Galway, but I’d really like to push those outer limits.

 

After Frank has kicked the tires of the Galway Hooker and waved us off, we head west into Connemara. We’re out of Galway in a matter of minutes, and I distract myself from the sadness with self-congratulations that I was clever enough to have married a man who is used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road as I now have a built-in chauffeur. We wind around the bends and I feel giddy to be doing this with Z, pointing out favorite places of mine from past trips and oohing and aahing over sights I’ve never seen or have forgotten. Though I haven’t hung up my tour guide cap entirely, from this point on, there will be a lot less of me giving Z mini history lessons and a lot more of us discovering places together. Abbeyglen Castle, here we come.

 

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Galway’s iconic swans

 

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VI: A Little Irish Anxiety

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Before Z, there were other loves. Z and I do not speak their names because he is a jealous husband in the best kind of way, and though I am perhaps more curious, he knows at heart that I am wickedly jealous myself. He is a Scorpio (“jealous” being one of the main descriptors in your better astrology books) and I have a Scorpio Rising and a Scorpio Moon (“double jealous,” I guess), so it is an arrangement—burying our heads ostrich-style to the pre- Beth & Z past—that works well for us. It probably works best for me because Z does not write personal essays or keep a blog where he occasionally feels an urge to mention some former object of his affection. He is also not confessional by nature, whereas I, well…you’ve read me. I might not tell you all my details over lunch, but somewhere, they are being typed into an essay or post.

 

There is one photo of him going to a formal dance in high school with, he tells me, “a family friend”, and I’ll admit it, I hate that girl whenever I see that photo. She’s probably a lovely person and could now, easily be my daughter, but I can’t help myself. (Frankly, when he tells the story about the six-year-old twins who used to fight over who got to carry his school bag when he was in first grade, I don’t much like them either.) So I’m not really sure how Z handles it when I accidentally mention an apartment in Chicago I used to frequent in my twenties where my art-student boyfriend lived or how Z felt the night we watched a documentary about the famous-ish brother of my high school boyfriend, and there, in the middle of the show, said boyfriend appears looking uncomfortable in front of the camera, staring through dark sunglasses right into our living room.

 

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat's Lido Deck.

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat’s Lido Deck.

But this is all old news. Z and I are all about being in the present moment, and the present moment has Ireland on the horizon. As Z and I board the ferry in Holyhead and the horn sounds as our three-and-a-half-hour journey across the Irish Sea commences, I have butterflies in my stomach. My palms are sweaty. I get ratty with Z while we try to find the Club Class area that we paid extra for so we’d have free wi-fi and complimentary snacks. Z looks at me bewildered. We’ve had a lovely trip so far in England and Wales with none of the tiffs or dramas other couples might expect, and we’re about to start the last two-week leg of it—the part certain to be the best from my Irish-American perspective—and I’ve turned into a shrew. I bark at him as he (ineptly, I think) reads the ship map to try to locate this Brigadoon of spaces on the ferry, a place no elevator nor staircase seems to want to take us. I stomp around. Roll my eyes. Huff. We can’t get to Ireland fast enough and somehow it seems he is impeding our progress, even though he is not piloting the ferry. In the end, his “inept” reading is correct and he ushers me into the quiet, sparsely populated club room, and we settle into a comfy booth at the front where a vast bank of windows gives the impression that we are at the world’s best drive-in movie. I take a few deep breaths. It doesn’t take long into our three-and-a-half hour journey before a grey silhouette of Ireland comes into view. My eyes fill.

 

I met Ireland for the first time when I was 32. My college friend, Anaïs, and I booked a week there without knowing much about it other than we both had some vague family ties there, both listened to U2 and Sinéad O’Connor, and had read Ulysses together in a college Modernism class, taught by a bore of professor who refused to let us read any female writers because he didn’t believe any women had written anything worthy of being studied. We also both liked the idea of Guinness. At the time, I’d recently begun writing letters to my paternal grandfather’s first cousins in County Galway who farmed the land where my great grandmother grew up, and the only real itinerary Anaïs and I had, other than a vague plan to go to Dublin and Belfast–the only names on the map we really knew–was to get ourselves to Galway to meet my kin.

 

I don’t know when I fell in love with the place exactly—whether it was love at first sight or if it took a couple of days, the whole week. Nor do I remember the catalyst: did the light hit it just right when we were riding on a bumpy bus through Connemara or was it the smell of my first peat fire or the sound of the voices? Regardless, I fell deeply, madly in love with the place. I’d spent the whole of my adult life thinking what was missing was the perfect boyfriend or an acclaimed writing career, but what had actually been missing was an entire country where for whatever reason, I felt most myself. On that first visit, I stood in the ivy-covered quadrangle at the national university in Galway and vowed that I’d take classes there, and two years later, I did: studying Irish poetry, scribbling  some halting poems of my own, but mostly, loving Ireland up. Two years after that, I brought my half-brother over to celebrate his 21st birthday, then my mother, then I attended a writing workshop at a haunted castle, a spring break with my friend Belle, and so on.

 

I was hooked, body and soul. I studied the history, read the literature, taught classes on it, carried Edna O’Brien’s suitcase through the Denver airport after an Irish-themed writing festival in Aspen and thought—all the while trying to make clever conversation with her—“this suitcase is going to Ireland”(only it wasn’t: Edna O’Brien lives in London). The only way I could talk about Ireland was with the over-exuberant language of the infatuated, which shamed me because it made me seem like just another American with an idea of Ireland in her mind (leprechauns and rainbows and Aran knit sweaters) who could just as easily be talking about any vacation destination. Like a teenager whose parents believe she just has a crush, I wanted to stamp my foot and shout, but you don’t understand—this is real! Even so, if I heard a commercial for the Irish tourism board come on, I stopped what I was doing and stared at the television, haunted that it was playing “our” song by the Cranberries. I listened to heart-wrenching Celtic music and wept for no real reason. I refused to wear any perfume but the sweet Irish lavender I special ordered, and every day when I dabbed it on, I’d be transported to what felt like the life I should have been living.

Irish Ferries ferry

Irish Ferries ferry

As Z and I watch Ireland get closer—stuffing our faces full of free fruit, muffins, and Jacobson’s crackers—I am conflicted. On the one hand, I cannot wait to be reunited with my beloved. On the other, Z is my beloved now, and I am afraid he will not share my affection, will not like the idea of Ireland as a sort of sister-wife in our marriage, afraid he will point out all the ways it is sub-par (the showers are almost always more complicated than they need to be for starters), afraid he’ll see me differently after meeting the place: who is this woman with the irrational obsession with a somewhat grey and rainy landscape?

 

And also, my last tryst with Ireland was not my best. Six months before Z and I got married, I spent a summer residency for my MFA program in Dingle. I was without my normal klatch of friends and with, instead, a group of people I didn’t know. I’d just said goodbye to Z for the entire summer, and I was so homesick for him that every morning in the half-light before workshops started, I’d walk half a mile to a phone box to call him in Zimbabwe for a few minutes just to help me get through the day. Furthermore, though I kept it to myself, I was having issues with shortness of breath and vague chest pains that I now know from a slightly disgruntled nurse were not “mini heart attacks” but panic attacks about the impending nuptials and move across country. In other words, I was not fully present for Ireland, and Ireland knew it. After the residency, I met my cousin and her daughter at the Shannon Airport to introduce them to the country I loved, but something was off. None of us were as bouncy and excited as I imagined we’d be, swilling Guinness at trad sessions, traipsing through monastery ruins, standing over the bones of our great great grandpeople. We were glad to be together, but we all had our own internal wars being waged though on the surface, all was well.

 

I was relieved to get back to America after that last trip, and I don’t even remember saying a proper goodbye to Ireland or any promises to return soon. The best I can compare it to is a romance that you know is faltering and you aren’t sure if it is worth fighting for or if it should just become a shoebox full of memories. Maybe my time with Ireland was over. Maybe my head had been turned too much by Z, by the mystery of Zimbabwe that was now on my radar.

Dublin from the Irish Sea

Dublin from the Irish Sea

As Dublin gets closer, Z squints and says, “But where are all the buildings?” A week ago, we were in London with a skyline so bizarre and full of both tall buildings and cranes making more tall buildings, that Dublin’s low-to-the-ground profile must be a surprise to him, and I feel instantly defensive of it, but also disappointed that it is disappointing him before we’ve even landed. The only thing we can really see are the twin smokestacks of the Poolbeg power station, but already my brain is seeing the Liffey as it moves through the docklands and goes under O’Connell Street, the country as it stretches west towards the place that is always my destination: Connemara. My gut clenches. If Z is disappointed before we’ve gotten off the ferry, how is he going to feel about the rural bits I love where there is nothing much but sheep, rocks, a pub, and the random “Up Galway” banner? I send a sort of prayer across the remaining expanse of water directly to Ireland: Please be good to Z, I implore. I need for him to love you a little. For me, that is what is on the line here: if we have a bad time, if Z does not take a fancy to Ireland, this could conceivably be my last trip to a place that has felt like my heart’s home for nearly twenty years.

 

When the ferry docks, it takes forever for us to be let us off the ship, and the anticipation and anxiety builds. Finally, we work our way through customs, as usual, a process that is quicker for me with my U.S. passport than it is for Z with his Zimbabwean one but even so, within fifteen minutes we’ve gotten our passports stamped, our luggage collected, and a taxi hailed. I sit forward and peer out the window, like some kind of over-eager Labrador retriever. As the cab moves through the docklands, I look for the spot where ten years ago Mom and I walked in the dark of the night with a Swedish woman we’d just met to U2’s recording studio; this unlikely trio of groupies stood outside until nearly midnight, hoping to get a look at the band. We heard them recording songs for the next album, saw Bono’s wife drop someone off (not Bono), and caught a glimpse of the top of Edge’s knit cap when he stuck his hat out the door, but that was the extent of that night’s adventure. Now, the docklands look quite different. They seem more vertical than the last time I was here, less tatty. As we move into the city center, I have to ask the cabbie the name of the two new bridges that are crossing the Liffey: one, the Samuel Beckett Bridge, which is lovely in that it looks like a harp but strikes me as something a little too Irish for Beckett himself to approve of, and the Rosie Hackett Bridge, which is named for the founder of the Irish Women Workers Union and which pleases me more even though the bridge itself is no work of art. Z peers out the window; it’s all new to him.

 

I ask the cabbie, “What else has changed in Dublin in the last six years?” (How can six years have passed since I was here?). He sighs at the traffic jam we’re tangled in because the semi-final for the Gaelic football game just ended in a draw—fans pour into the street, most wearing Dublin’s light blue, but a few in the red and green jerseys of Mayo, both sides celebrating, sure their team will win the re-match in a week—and he chuckles, “Nothing much.” The Angelus bells start to play on the radio, which he turns up and we sit quietly there in traffic, penitently waiting as each bell strikes, despite the cacophony outside the cab as the revelers revel. After the last bell chimes, he turns the radio back down and explains that he’s going a roundabout way to our hotel to try to get through the crowd, and it pleases me that I am familiar enough with this little hunk of the city to know he’s not padding the fair and is getting us there as best he can.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Our hotel sits on Bachelor’s Row, just across from the River Liffey, and the city tugs at me before we’ve ever checked into our hotel. In the mere day and a half we have in Dublin, I’ll drag Z to my favorite spots—touristy, all, but I will be an unapologetic guide. I march him up to the General Post Office (GPO) and force him to admire the bullet holes still in the façade from the 1916 Easter Uprising that—in an overly simplified blog-sized history lesson—was the beginning of the Irish Republic. (Think July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, only with gunfire and men shortly to become martyrs for the cause of independence.) I never come to Dublin without buying stamps here, even though there’s now a machine outside built into the building façade where you can make your purchases. I like being inside, imagine the noise and the barricades and the smoke and people willing to die for a little freedom.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

From there, we head to Trinity College, another of my regular pilgrimages. The campus is beautiful—a walled respite in the heart of the city—but the real reason I’m there is to see the 800 A.D. illustrated gospels depicted in the Book of Kells on display there. Every day, a page is turned, so though I’ve seen the scrolled letters and intricate knotwork that decorate it six or so times, I’m always seeing something different. What is always the same, however, is the disorganized crowd of people around it, all jockeying for a prime spot right in front of it. It’s a frustrating labor of love when it’s just me, but because Z is here, I want to push people out of the way so he can have a few precious minutes admiring the craftsmanship. Finally we, push our way into position and refuse to give up ground until we’re satisfied that we’ve properly admired it.

 

My annoyance with tourists around me (always “they” are tourists, whereas I see myself as having some divine right to be there) disappears as we climb the stairs that spill us out into the Long Room of the Old Library. It smells of books and knowledge and mysteries unsolved. Though it takes my breath away, I normally walk through it quickly after a few cursory photos that simply cannot capture the vastness or atmosphere of the place because I am gift-shop bound. But on this trip, Z and I are not in the market for trinkets, so we linger over each case, read the placards hanging up for the display about myth and folk tale through the ages. We sit on a bench and soak it all in, and it is, no contest, my best ever visit to this library because I am just there and not anticipating our next move or the Book of Kells tea towels and key rings calling out to be purchased downstairs.

The Long Hall

The Long Hall

We do the other things you do when in Dublin: we wander down Grafton Street, which is a shopping area where buskers are often attracting attention with their songs or puppet shows; we try to pick our favorite of the distinctive Georgian doors on the townhouses that surround St. Stephen’s Green; we meander through both St. Stephen’s Green and Iveagh Gardens in the rain, exclaiming about the beauty, the dampness, the half-breed Scottish terrier that defies description in that it is equal parts cute and hideous.  In Iveagh Gardens, we traipse around a hedge maze, though the hedges have not yet grown much higher than our knees, and we are perplexed when we get to the center and find a sundial, which seems a useless thing to have in a shady park in a climate that tends toward cloud. We search for an ATM that isn’t opposed to Z’s bank card to no avail, and then briefly wonder what the rest of our trip might look like without cash in hand. I convince him—as I have convinced others—that’s there’s really no need to go to the Guinness Storehouse because it’s gotten too chic and sophisticated since my first visit, when it still felt kitschy. We eat Mexican, Italian, and a full Irish breakfast. We saunter around the Liffey, stand at the peak of Ha’penny Bridge and watch the night lights dance on the water.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Both nights there, I drag Z through Temple Bar looking for the Ireland v. Zimbabwe rugby poster I had seen in a pub there in 2003 that felt cosmically placed specifically so I’d remain focused on him despite the fact that my confession of love had fallen on his somewhat clogged ears just a month before. I had visions of taking a photo of 2015 Z standing next to the poster as a sort of triumphant conclusion to my earlier, more forlorn and very single trip, but alas, the poster is nowhere to be found lo these twelve years later, and though the most likely reasons are the pub in question has redecorated or I had taken too much drink the night I saw it because it was my half brother’s 21st birthday and only ever imagined it, I’m convinced it was one of those weird synchronicities that only Ireland delivers where you see the thing or meet the person or hear the bit of information that you most need at that very moment. And certainly that poster and a few other of these mystical occurrences on that 2003 trip kept me hot on Z’s trail even though he’d tried to gently put the kibosh on my love.

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

I regret that we have budgeted only two nights in Dublin. Though Z has professed to like Ireland, I hear an unsaid “so far” in his voice that worries me. As me make our way to Heuston Station with our mountain of luggage so we can head to the western edge of this country I love, I begin to worry again. What if after Dublin, the rest of Ireland will pale in comparison? What if he doesn’t fall in love with Galway’s twisted streets and Spanish Arch and raging Corrib River? What if he sees Connemara as a rocky sort of wasteland? What if he doesn’t like my cousins? What if, what if, what if…?

 

Like the ferry ride two days before, as the train lumbers through the Midlands towards Galway, my anticipation of arriving in my favorite bit of Ireland begins to override my fear that Z will not fall in love. My throat constricts as soon as we are out of the city and the countryside and villages speed past the window. As the fences surrounding the rolling pastures begin to change from wire to stone, as the sheep become more plentiful, as the train stops are names more familiar to me: Ballinasloe, Attymon, Athenry, it seems likely that I will come unhinged with excitement. I will never understand why Ireland affects me this way, and still does after all of these years, but I am glad for it. I want Z to love this place as much as I do, but as we pull alongside the estuary that spills into Galway Bay, I begin to believe that even if he hates it—and why would he anyhow?—my ardor hasn’t dampened. It is still mine and I can love it enough for the pair of us.

Iveagh Gardens

Iveagh Gardens

 

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part V: A Welsh Interlude

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And then there is Wales.

 

Other than a deep love for Gavin & Stacey, which is set in Wales and that I watch at least twice a year and quote daily, I leave Shrewsbury with no idea of what to expect. This trip has been so ill-planned that I haven’t had time to do my usual research before leaving, wherein I’d meant to read up on the history, immerse myself in some Dylan Thomas (including re-watching one of my favorite Christmas movies, the depiction of his poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”), study the guidebooks carefully so I’d arrive in Wales ready to feign a previous acquaintance. Z has been in Wales once on a rugby tour, though his memory of where he was and what he did there is too hazy to offer much insight other than an amusing anecdote about getting spooked in a graveyard of movie-quality mist and eeriness, a quality custom-built into Wales I’m beginning to suspect. We sit on the platform at Machynlleth in the dark, waiting for our connecting train, huddled together in the cold as we try to figure out how a person should say “Machynlleth.” The woman next to us mentions her stop at Aberdovey, and it sounds like Abu Dhabi, and I wonder exactly where this train will be taking us.

 

I’m not being dramatic: as we sit there in the dark with the moon the primary source of light, I fully expect to be attacked by werewolves. I’ve needed the toilet for the last twenty minutes, but my brief attempt to find it on the other side of the station where it is even darker left me scurrying back to Z, convinced that I should hold it until I get on the next brightly lit train that will be taking us to Barmouth, a seaside resort on the Atlantic, and Z’s family friend, July. I snuggle in next to Z and feel very content despite my full bladder and our impending evisceration by werewolf. The Abu Dhabi woman tells us that the next leg of the journey is the best, most beautiful bit, but because it’s so dark, we’ll miss the mountains, miss the descent across the estuary, and into Barmouth. Ah well, Z says. Next time. I like hearing this. I am not a person who easily goes to a place just the once. I like to return.

 

We are no sooner off the train than July envelopes us in bear hugs. We haven’t seen her since our wedding five and a half years ago (which was also when I met her), and I love the sensation of instantly being cared for. For the next five days I won’t be in charge of what we see and do. With July, you know you’ll have a good time and it’s nice to have her at the helm. I can’t say I know anyone like her. I suspect she’s never met a stranger and she’s never said no to any sort of potential adventure. Though she is English, she became a part of Z’s world when he was a teenager and she was teaching with Z-ma in Zimbabwe before heading off to work in Botswana, while Z-ma and Z-pa looked after her children who were in school. She was working in Libya when she got the notion to open a tea room in Wales, and she’s been ensconced in Barmouth now for twenty years, though she has retired to travel. It is no surprise to look at Facebook on any given day and see that July is some place on the globe you’ve heard little about, always with a new set of friends she’s made.

 

And also, she wears purple every day, and it’s really hard for me not to like a person who has that particular signature color.

 

She drives us around the few streets of Barmouth to her place in the upstairs of a 300 year old building on the main drag. Because the place is “listed” (in the U.S. it would be on the historic register), when she remodels or makes structural changes, she has to get permission and is sometimes denied, so the front of the building will remain pink indefinitely. The space couldn’t be more delightful. It is crooked and leany and has low ceilings in some places and high gabled ceilings in others. Black crossbeams go across the ceilings and I suddenly want to write on parchment with a quill pen. The trek from the bedroom we are sleeping in to the bathroom requires that we duck so we don’t conk our heads.

 

In short: it’s exactly the sort of place you want to stay when you are in Wales.

Thank goodness for the English translations

Thank goodness for the English translations

July has gone out of her way to be an excellent host. We’re greeted with a basket of fruit and a bowl of crisps (behind which is sitting the children’s book my mother illustrated). Towels are laid out for us like we are staying in a guest house, and before we lug our suitcases (our blasted, blasted suitcases) up the stairs, she is making us late-night eggs since we had wrongly assumed there’d be dinner to be had on the train or at the werewolf-infested train station. While she talks to Z in the kitchen, I poke around her space, looking at the stacks of books I have either read and loved or want to read, admire her artwork, imagine my life if I were living it here. Her decorating sensibility is geared to entertaining and comfort. Though her living room and dining room is shared, she’s chosen furniture that can expand and retract as needed based on the number of people present. In one corner, there is a reading chair that she tells me sits on a ley line. I’ve never fully understood ley lines, but when I sit there, I do feel strangely content.

 

Ley line or not, my favorite spot in the whole space is the cushion in the wide, deep-set kitchen window where you can look down on the happenings of Barmouth while talking to Z and July.

 

While in Wales, I have my first experience with the British National Health Services because a couple of mosquito bites have gone wonky. My left hand is so red and swollen that I remove my rings before they get stuck. When Z says, “I don’t like the look of that,” I agree to see the doctor because the last time Z said, “I don’t like the look of that” and I ignored him, I ended up with a scorching case of shingles and a threat of hospitalization. July explains that because people go too frequently to the doctor—which is paid for by the state for everyone—there is a new rule that unless it is an emergency, you visit your local pharmacist first to have your ailment assessed, and then you are told whether going to the doctor is necessary. For whatever reason, I feel more ridiculous stretching out my hand to the too-young pharmacist so he can survey my bites than I do actually going to a doctor. Surely this poor man has better things to do like dispense drugs. He suggests the bites are on the verge of being infected, and if it isn’t better in a day or so, I should go to the doctor. The next day, it is no better, is maybe worse, so we make an appointment. We do a little sightseeing before the appointment, me periodically checking in on the redness and swelling, and then, as we drive to the doctor’s office my hand suddenly looks nearly normal. My rings fit easily on my finger. The redness has shrunk down so it’s just around the two bites. By the time the nurse looks at my hand, I feel like a fool. I am one of the idiots who has jammed up the National Health Services with a mosquito bite so people with real conditions now have to see a pharmacist first.

 

July, who never has to pay for healthcare, is outraged when they charge me 30 pounds because I’m not a taxpayer in the UK. Z and I look at each other as we do the calculation with the sub-par exchange rate that makes the UK expensive for Americans and realize that even so, this is the cheapest doctor’s visit I’ve ever had.

 

Barmouth Estuary

Barmouth Estuary

After our short, five-day stay with July, if you asked me what is in Wales, in no particular order, this would be my list:

 

  • more sheep than I’ve ever seen anywhere (and I’ve been to Ireland seven times)
  • the lushest, greenest pastures and hillsides I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to Ireland seven times)
  • charming villages and towns
  • castles
  • tea rooms and cafés at every turn
  • The Little Trains of Wales
Barmouth

Barmouth

Every night, it rains; every morning, we wake up to a drizzle. Miraculously, by the time breakfast is finished and we’ve made our way to the car, the rain has dried up and we have nary a shower to impede our sightseeing, almost as if the tourist board has made an arrangement with Mother Nature.

The green, green hills (and pastures) of Wales

The green, green hills (and pastures) of Wales

And the rain is put to good work. As we careen around mountains and down into valleys, I begin to worry that when we get to Ireland Z will be unimpressed because this is truly the greenest, most verdant landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s also worth noting, the roads are some of the most narrow too. At one point, we come face to face with a driver on a narrow mountain pass and we have to inch slowly past each other with our side of the road being the one most likely to deposit us down the mountainside. I momentarily think, We’ll die today, and then quickly amend, At least it will be beautiful death.

Thistle

Thistle

July is a master tour guide. Each day is the perfect mix of driving, sightseeing, and stuffing our faces with scones and lemon drizzle cake in some stately home she’s been going to for years, the proprietor of whom is a personal friend or at least familiar with July. In one place in the mountains, the owner’s children offer to show us their chickens and rabbits. In another—the space where July’s daughter got married—renovations have been made that July is not entirely sure she approves of. In another, the server teaches me how to say “Mabinogion”, the name of the earliest prose literature of Britain.

Penmaenuchaf Hall

Penmaenuchaf Hall

My favorite of the spots we go, Penmaenuchaf Hall, is the sort of house I feel certain I must have lived in in a former life (admittedly, probably as a scullery maid who was oft chastised for her poor quality work) because each room is so comfortably and beautifully appointed. While we wait for our tea—served on dishes I find photograph worthy—I sneak into the adjoining library and peer at the books.

Look at those little flowers. How could the tea not be delicious?

Look at those little flowers. How could the tea not be delicious?

After tea, we wander around the formal gardens, sniffing the lavender, getting a lesson on the different types of heather from July. I try at length to take a picture of the hydrangea that line the driveway—a pantheon of color the likes of which seem unwilling to be captured in a photo. I want to live here. Or maybe at least sell a few essays so we can stay for a few nights and have meals served to us on that china.

Penmaenuchaf Hall Hydrangea

Penmaenuchaf Hall Hydrangea

As we travel around, we weave in out of some of the most picturesque villages I have ever seen, most of which could easily be inhabited by hobbits or other characters from some mythical tale, so charming are they. July has to give me pronunciation lessons at each one, as the string of consonants run together make no sense to my brain or tongue.

Waiting for Frodo Baggins to cross the bridge.

Waiting for Frodo Baggins to cross the bridge.

One day, we make our way to Portmeirion, a tourist village/resort that was fifty years in the making and has been used as set for TV shows and movies, most notably for The Prisoner, a series from the 1960s. It is the quirkiest, most brightly colored place I’ve ever seen—it is reminiscent of Main Street at Disney World, only this is even brighter, looks more like something on the Italian Riviera, and has a jumble of items salvaged (or created) from around the world.

Portmeirion, where all is not as it appears

Portmeirion, where all is not as it appears

Trompe l’oeil is used to trick the eye into believing a mural on the side of building is a bank of windows on a villa. Small statues, cleverly used paint, and forced perspective make buildings look larger (or sometimes smaller) than they actually are. There is a huge golden Buddha sitting under a loggia, a town hall despite the fact that this is a resort with no actual residents, ornate doorways that lead nowhere, a ship in the harbor that is really a retaining wall. As Z and I walk around, wrinkling our brows and occasionally mouthing “what is this place?” to each other, July (and everyone else we talk to) is clearly delighted by it. Eventually, we settle into the fantastical kookiness, though perhaps the most surreal moment for me is when I walk into a bookshop in one of the brightly colored “village” shops, and the clerks are speaking Welsh to each other, reminding me again that I am not in some fairy tale Mediterranean village at all but instead clinging to the coast of Wales.

 

There is no light in the Portmeirion lighthouse

There is no light in the Portmeirion lighthouse

 

In every guidebook, in the tourist literature, and on many of the road signs we are pointed to one or another of the Little Trains of Wales. At first, when July refers to them as such, I think it’s a term of endearment that she’s coined, but it turns out this is what they are called. They are the narrow gauge railways built to transport slate that have been repurposed for tourism. Because we have a notion that the trains will be full of the badly behaved children we were surrounded by at the Tower of London and because we still haven’t quite recovered from that experience (seriously, the kids were horrid and left me feeling like the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” without an oven to shove them in), we opt not to ride one of the national treasures.

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The affection with which everyone speaks of the trains and of the different scenery each line affords, however, leaves me wondering if we’ve made a mistake. But then we start touring castles and I no longer care about trains large or small.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

All of the castles we visit were part of Edward I’s “iron ring”, an impressive collection of castles around Wales, built within about a three-year period during the 13th century, meant to keep the Welsh in their place, let them know who was in charge, and sure, also ward off foreign invaders. But mostly, they were about the Welsh. Because of the time frame, the four castles we see are all reminiscent of each other so when Z asks which one I like best, it’s inevitably whichever one I’m standing in front of. That said, they are all amazingly unique. Our first, Harlech, is the closest to Barmouth, and the thing that is most striking to me is that we’re driving down the road and then boom, there it is in front of us, high on a hill letting the whole world know it is not to be trifled with. When it was built, the sea likely brushed up against the rocks on which it sits, but now the village of Harlech has expanded beneath it.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

Later, as we stand on the ramparts looking down, I see a school, people going to shops, living their lives completely unfazed by what must have, when the castles were inhabited by English nobility and soldiers, made the Welsh either quake in their boots or feel seriously pissed off about the liberty-taking invaders. Though it is a ruin, the castle is in remarkable condition; the walls and towers stand nearly to their full height. Z and I walk along the ramparts, feeling a little dizzy as the wind whips us around. I try to snap a shot of the be-dragoned Welsh flag and discover later that it is nearly in tatters from that vicious Atlantic wind. This castle is my favorite.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

The next castle we visit, also my favorite, is Conwy, which still has the medieval wall surrounding the village it is attached to. As we approach from across the bridge leading into the village, it strikes me that Conwy looks like the castle most of us try (and fail) to build at the beach. It sits majestically by the water and I can’t wait to get inside. Unlike Harlech, this castle was “slighted” during Cromwell’s time, which means some of the structures were partially demolished so it couldn’t be used again as a fortress. As Z and I walk around inside while July has tea in a nearby café, I can’t help hating Cromwell for this (as well as some other sins committed against Celts here and across the Irish sea).

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

Inside, you can see arches on what would have been the chapel windows, you get a sense of how grand the royal apartments might have been, how horrifying the drop into the prison cells below. It seems a tragedy to me that it wasn’t maintained. Z and I are also impressed with the small signs that give us just enough information without distracting us from the views (there are no piped in animal or battle noises here, like at the Tower of London!). In this space, it is not difficult to imagine a Guinevere or an Arthur living a life. When we leave, July drives around the narrow streets that weave in and out of the village walls. It’s a place where I wouldn’t mind returning.

 

The narrow roads of Conwy

The narrow roads of Conwy

 

We are too castle-greedy on this day, and when we finally make it to the famous Caernarfon Castle in another walled village, the castle has closed.

Caernarfon Castle after hours

Caernarfon Castle after hours

I’m a little disappointed because this is where the Prince of Wales had his investiture in 1969, and I’ve seen photos of that ceremony. It is formidable with it’s large polygonal towers, and it is no surprise that this is where Edward I determined to make his son the first Prince of Wales, to remind the Welsh that they were no longer their own people. It is so odd to me that if I see castles in England, they seem romantic—fortresses to protect that sceptered isle set in a silver sea. But in Wales, I can’t shake the feeling that the English were just thumbing their noses at the people they’d conquered. If you are Welsh, living in 21st century Wales, do you see those castles as a national treasure, or does it chafe a little all these centuries later?

 

I have an idea how I’d feel.

 

The last castle, Beaumaris, I am sure will be my favorite. The guidebooks I’ve barely cracked mention that it is the most technically perfect castle in all of Britain. It is symmetrical, a sort of castle within a castle, and July agrees that it really is gorgeous. I can’t wait. We save seeing it for our last day because it is on the Isle of Anglesey—the place Prince William and Kate Middleton lived right after they got married—and we’ll be headed to the ferry that will carry us to Ireland. Because we are running a little late, we only do a drive-by of Beaumaris. The road to it is twisty and you can’t see around the bends, so at each turn, I’m sure I will look up and there it will be, this example of castle perfection. The anticipation is almost more than I can stand. And then suddenly, there it is, and all I can think is:

 

huh.

 

It has a lovely moat, gorgeous round towers, I can imagine what it looks like on the inside because I’ve seen an aerial view in one of my books. But it is so short. There is nothing about it that is formidable. Earlier in our trip to the ferry, July decided to drive by some standing stones near her house. I was expecting Stonehenge, but when we got to a rugby pitch, there at the side of it were stones no higher than an average fourth grader. I was instantly reminded of the miniature Stonehenge created for the band in This is Spinal Tap when the band mistakenly commissions an 18 inch replica instead of the 18 foot one they were imagining. This stone circle would have been perfect on the grounds of the vertically challenged Beaumaris. July offers to stop and Z and I wave her on. Maybe next time we don’t have a ferry to catch we can be wowed by the technically perfect interior and I’ll issue a retraction so Beaumaris can become my favorite too.

Beaumaris, how small you look!

The road flattens out in front of us. The trees become short and scrubby and the mountains can only be seen in the rear view mirror as we get closer to the ferry port. I have mixed feelings about leaving Wales and July. It’s been such a wonderful respite to be with her and this gorgeous little country has exceeded my expectations. But Ireland has owned me since I first stepped foot there in 1999, and while we make the final stretch to Holyhead and the ferry, all thoughts of English royalty, castles big and small, and the Little Trains of Wales dissipates.

 

The pipes, the pipes are calling.

 

Ireland is out there somewhere

Ireland is out there somewhere

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour: Part IV (A Shrewsbury Short)

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Shrewsbury, England

Shrewsbury, England

After some trial and error, Z and I have a policy that when we travel we spend at least two nights in any given place, though we believe three nights is better.  With one night, the place you stop is really just a waiting room for the next leg of the journey. With two nights, you are either coming or going. With three, you can settle in a little, maybe unpack part of your suitcase, return to a favorite pub, feel familiar enough with a few places that if someone asks for directions you aren’t lying if you point them up a particular street. Shrewsbury was my first experience with a one-night stand that worked perfectly, despite rain that wouldn’t stop.

Sometimes it’s good when you break your own rules.

Train stations in England seem to be universally designed for discomfort so you’ll spend as little time there as possible. Euston is no exception. We like to arrive extra early when we are departing, so the lack of seats, general chaos, and giant digital board everyone stands gawping at, wasn’t exactly welcoming. Fortunately, we had splashed out an extra $18 for first class tickets which meant we had access to Virgin’s upstairs lounge.

As it turns out, one reason you should pack light when traveling in Europe (or possibly anywhere but North America) is the size and quality of the elevators. Our hotel’s elevator in London felt cramped if another couple got in with us, but the one shuttling us and our five bags of varying sizes up to the first class lounge where we are promised snacks and free wifi is basically the size of a phone box built for two. It is glass, so we watch an elderly couple ascend to the floor above us and then descend because they can’t figure out how to escape the pod. We laugh knowingly with the people in line behind us. Clearly this couple is a pair of boobs, unschooled in basic elevator mechanics. Eventually, the box returns empty and Z and I stuff ourselves in, press the button, and chug slowly upwards. I lean against the wall while we wait for the journey to end—clearly hamsters on a wheel somewhere are powering this thing. Suddenly, the lift stops. We can peer down at the people below us, and we have an idea of our destination above us, but there is no movement. There also isn’t room to dig for the Xanax I’ll need if we are going to be indefinitely stuck in this glass coffin. Then I see a sign about keeping clear of the walls, which aren’t moving with the lift, so I shift myself away from the wall and the elevator starts moving again. When we see the couple that had gotten stuck before us, I look at them and mentally retract my “boob” description. (After spending an hour in the lounge eating our lunch, we opt to descend via the staircase, with Z makes multiple trips to collect our bags and I make a mental list of all the ways we can and will pack lighter next time.)

The trip to Birmingham is delightful with views of bucolic fields and little hamlets, though I find it impossible to stay awake. As someone who often has insomnia, I would be the first in line to buy a bed that is created to simulate both the sound and movement of a train or ferry. I can’t keep my eyes open. At Birmingham, the peace of the first leg of the journey is shattered. The station is crowded and under construction. The platforms are labeled in an orderly fashion except our platform, which is as mysterious as Harry Potter’s platform 9 ¾. When we finally spot a set of escalators that looks like it might lead us to where we need to be, we discover the train is about to leave without us and have to run, rolling our luggage as fast as we can. In movies, running for a train always looks romantic and exciting. In reality, it’s awful. I’m huffing and puffing and my new four-wheeled suitcase doesn’t want to go the direction I’m going. The only car we can reach before the train pulls out is the last one where all the other late arrivers have poured themselves. We are sandwiched with all of our luggage in the little entryway amongst a group of similarly out-of-breath people, including a friendly young woman with a baby in a pram. Every time the baby threatens to whimper, she shoves a Cadbury Finger in his mouth and I worry that he’ll choke but am appreciative of his chocolaty agreeableness. Eventually, a seat opens up that the chivalrous Z directs me to though he has to stand  for another half hour.

Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury

Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury

Fortunately, the minute we step out of the station and into Shrewsbury, all of our traveling angst disappears. It is exactly the town I’ve wanted to spend a day in even though two days ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever even heard of Shrewsbury. It is medieval with all the little twisty lanes and crooked buildings you could want, and there are flowers everywhere. Our hotel, The Prince Rupert, is on Butcher Row, right across from a a lingerie shop, where spinning mannequins display intimate apparel in the Tudor-era building. A small, picturesque church stands on the corner. Prince Rupert was the grandson of James I and our hotel was his home. It is slightly less luxurious than the website photos indicate, but it is quirky and charming and we aren’t unhappy with it, threadbare as it is.

 

Spin ladies, spin!

Spin ladies, spin!

 

Full disclosure: we booked the hotel when we read that it had an elevator. The excessive nature of our luggage situation makes an elevator a real boon. Then we see the elevator. My mother’s nearly useless, too-small coat closet is bigger than this lift. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise we aren’t both going to fit into it at once, so we take separate trips up and I refuse to ride it for the rest of our stay. (When we leave the next day, I help Z cram the luggage into the tiny thing, then cram Z into the tiny thing, kiss him goodbye just in case, and then race downstairs for the reunion.)

 

The Dingle

The Dingle

We spend very little time in the room because we have very little time in Shrewsbury. After a quick tea at Camellia’s next to the hotel (where I re-discover my love of crumpets), we head into the winding, medieval streets, snapping photos at every turn because the whole place looks like the set of some historical movie. Ultimately, our destination is the Quarry. Unlike it’s name and the quarry where Fred Flintstone earns his living there in Bedrock, this Quarry is a large, gorgeous park that butts up against the River Severn. Inside the Quarry is a gated off section called The Dingle, wherein there are some of the most gorgeous flowers I have ever seen. The brochure we read earlier boasted three million blooms. I don’t know who does the counting, but they may have underestimated.

The Dingle

The Dingle

There’s a formal garden, a beautiful pond with fountain, artfully arranged trees and shrubbery, and various memorials to England’s war dead. The school children must have recently done a unit on the animals who were in service and gave their lives (though perhaps didn’t volunteer to do this!) during the First World War, so in one section of the garden there staked to the ground are children’s drawings of various enlisted animals.

 

Few people speak of the elephants who valiantly gave their lives during the Great War!

Few people speak of the elephants who valiantly gave their lives during the Great War!

Once we leave the Dingle, we see a statue of Hercules that is quite stunning. He used to live in town but in order not to offend the ladies, he was situated so his nethers faced away from the center of town so the “fairer sex” need only see his bare bum. Now, he is living in the Quarry, happily displaying his fig leaf to all. We walk around the Severn, speculating about whether the building we see on the hill is where native son Charles Darwin and Michael Palin went to school (it wasn’t) and greeting passersby as we circle the town.

 

Hercules and his fig leaf

Hercules and his fig leaf

It is the perfect leisurely antidote to the hubbub of London. After dinner at an Italian restaurant with Darwin-themed wallpaper, we stop at Waitrose (a grocery chain) to get a few supplies like bottled water because we don’t know if they’ve replaced the pipes in the hotel since Prince Rupert’s era, and then we call it a night. I have a little trouble sleeping after I read in the hotel brochure that there have been some hauntings.

The next morning we get a late start, check out of the hotel but ask them to look after our luggage, and have a very un-picturesque brunch at Burger King. Surely this alone is proof that I am not a fabulist. A fabulist would have invented something much better, but we want cheap and we want quick because Shrewsbury Castle awaits.

Shrewsbury Castle

Shrewsbury Castle

A smallish and not-that-ornate red sandstone building, Shrewsbury Castle’s original parts date back to the 11th century, though there have been several additions to the present incarnation. My love of castles is largely based on fairy tales and the Fisher-Price castle I had as child that had turrets and a moat and a fire-breathing dragon kept in a dungeon behind a portcullis. This castle is a little less romantic in that it now houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum. It is an impressive collection of uniforms and other military artifacts from the 18th century to the present day (if you can be impressed by such things). Z looks over the displays contentedly, while I try to find more personal elements to distract me from the ceremony of regimental life: a description of life for the wives of the soldiers, letters penned at the front (whichever front it is), photos of individual soldiers. In a huge case full of swords and uniforms, I zero in on a wooden spoon, hoping for some domestic connection, only to discover it was the “prize” for worst bugler.

The wages of bad bugling.

The wages of bad bugling.

We make our way to a room where weddings are held where a photo album of past brides and grooms is displayed. It seems a dubious place to begin married life, surrounded by the accoutrement of war. The photos in the archway by the heavy, ancient-looking door are stunning though.

Doorway to wedded bliss?

Doorway to wedded bliss?

Very little of the castle’s history seems to be covered here other than in a small, stuffy room where there are panels with the castle’s early days recorded there. I’m fascinated to discover that the battles covered in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I are directly related to the battlefields near the castle.

View from Laura's Tower

View from Laura’s Tower

Z and I walk the castle grounds, hike up to Laura’s Tower, where there are great views of Shrewsbury, and then find ourselves in a rainstorm, huddled under our cheap London umbrellas. Since we’ve checked out of the hotel, we’re homeless until our train leaves for Wales in the evening. We see the library across from the castle, housed in a beautiful old building—the former school of Charles Darwin—and so go there to write postcards and wait out the rain.

Chuck sitting around his alma mater

Chuck sitting around his alma mater

While it seems a silly place to spend our precious Shrewsbury time, I love being inside this space with people who aren’t tourists. It has been repurposed cleverly. Ancient-looking beams and other architectural elements have been kept intact. I’d happily spend the whole afternoon here, perusing books, but we have items on our list that we want to tick off: a visit to the chemist’s to get some antihistamine cream for some mosquito bites I’ve acquired, a stop at two stationery stores, a bookstore, and Neil’s Yard, a store I discovered in London in 1992 that sells a variety of potions in cobalt blue bottles. Also, there is the matter of me wanting to stop back by a shop where a gorgeous William Morris coverlet is on sale, though Z declares it “ugly” and I spend the rest of the day, in vain, explaining the merits of Morris designs.

Clearly Z needs new glasses

Clearly Z needs new glasses

Ultimately, we end up in a sleepy pub where we kill time happily for a couple of hours, eating lunch, having a drink, writing more postcards, watching local people interact with each other. It’s a perfect pub in that I think we are the only tourists in residence. It’s dark but cheerful, and one of the customers has his little dog with him. The rain buckets down but we don’t care—we are warm, cozy, and dry.

Cozy pub of the day

Cozy pub of the day

Because the rain won’t let up, we leave the pub and scurry back to yesterday’s tea room so I can have another round of crumpets, then we make our way to the hotel where we camp out in the lobby for 45 minutes while waiting for our taxi to take us to the train bound for Wales. No doubt there are more experiences to be had in Shrewsbury (certainly there were more stores and cafes to visit, and with another day or two, I might have won Z over on the issue of William Morris bedding), but I’ve enjoyed this lazy, rainy day, killing time in what is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been in. I’m glad we broke our own rules.

Shrewsbury, we hardly knew ye!

Shrewsbury, we hardly knew ye!

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2

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In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.

 

As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.

 

This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.

 

At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”

 

Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.

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Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)

 

In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.

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On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?

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While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.

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On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.

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I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.

 

But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.

 

Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.

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The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part I

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My first trip to London was in 1988 with a small group of my fellow liberal arts majors and my beloved mentor, Gibb. I’d just read 84 Charing Cross Road, I was 3/4 of the way done with a lit degree that focused heavily on British Lit, I was studying British history as an elective, and I had an unhealthy attachment to the Royal Family. (Specifically, I was sure I was meant to be one of them and was holding out hope for Edward.) It was my first trip abroad and as soon as I discovered that the ability to read a train schedule, a guidebook, and a metro map opened up a person’s world exponentially, I was hooked. And so a love affair that began in books was finally consummated.

Four years later, a family friend agreed to act as tour guide for Mom and me, and we spent two glorious weeks living in a house owned by Stephanie, an Austrian octogenarian who was friends with the doctor who delivered Prince Charles and knew from first hand experience that Winston Churchill’s wife’s  Siamese cats had ugly dispositions. Her three-story brick house was on Muswell Hill and on the first day there we looked out the back windows to discover not just rose-covered walls but also a community bowling green where men dressed in whites looked like something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. In America at the time, we were obsessed with all things British, all things Victorian and Edwardian. It wasn’t just Mom and me; entire stores were dedicated to bringing a little 19th Century British class to our ranch houses and condos. Though the city was modern, it was as if the plane that carried us across the Atlantic had also been a time machine. Because of the lady of the house’s age and social class and the length she had owned her beautifully appointed home, we could, at the very least, pretend we were in pre-Blitz London. At night, I’d eat biscuits and work on a needlepoint project I’d purchased at Liberty while Stephanie and I would watch TV. In my twisted memory, instead of viewing episodes of East Enders though we were listening to the wireless and hearing news about impending troubles in Europe. We were delighted one day when Stephanie was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find her hat for Royal Ascot, and the next day, we were lucky enough to see the entire Royal Family leave Windsor Castle for the big race. They were waving and all be-hatted, while we stood along the road, cheering and clapping and taking blurry photographs. (Sadly, Edward did not notice me, and one of us noticed how miserable poor Diana looked despite the fact we were all about to be surprised by her tell-all biography and impending separation.)

Because Barb, our tour-guide friend, had traveled extensively, I studied her actions carefully. She carried a small backpack so she was always ready with a rain coat, London A to Z, and space to shove bread and cheese from Sainsbury’s for lunch on a train to Dover. She understood the Tube and planned well a day’s itinerary so no time was wasted. I could do this, I thought, unadventurous as I was. I was in my early twenties and determined not to spend the rest of my life in Richmond, Indiana, waiting on the Barb’s of this world to take me to the places I wanted to see.

When Mom and I left, we had an extra suitcase full of all the bits of England we’d purchased in gift shops in an attempt to take the experience home with us. In our carry-on luggage alone, we had three teapots. All these years laters, it remains one of the Big Moments on the timeline of our respective lives.

Seven years later, I fell in love with Ireland and never once looked back  across the Irish Sea to England’s green and pleasant land. I became obsessed with Irish literature and Irish history, and the best I can do to explain this is to compare it to the difference between a first love and a soul mate. There would always be a tiny corner of my heart that belonged to England, but I was in love with Ireland body and soul, and because England had been, over 700 years, badly behaved towards Ireland, it was like realizing that first love of yours was actually a bully who’d been taking your (eventual) soulmate out into the school parking lot and beating him senseless while you were eating a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In 1998, I started seeing Ireland exclusively and I never regretted my decision. The landscape, the literature, the people—it all felt like mine. The first week I was there, it occurred to me that  I’d spent my twenties looking for the right man when really what I should have been doing was looking for the right place in the world. Ireland was that place. If I could have easily moved there, I would have. Because I couldn’t,  after every return back to America, I’d start planning my next trip, enlisting other people to go with me, traveling solo if the situation dictated it.

So now Z and I are spending a month traveling through England, Wales, and Ireland, while he does research and I write and stare at views and buildings that quicken the heart. It is the most ill-conceived, ill-prepared for trip ever because we’ve had to postpone it twice and didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was even going to happen because of visa issues. (If you have a US passport, might I recommend you take it out of its hidey-hole and kiss and bless it for the ease of travel it provides–not all passports are created equal). Also, the day I decided to extend my trip to Indiana by a week, we got the news that this trip was a go. I don’t regret being home to visit Mom and her ailing back and to help my stepfather celebrate his 70th birthday, but what this means is I was back in Seattle for just two and a half days before we had to be on our Heathrow-bound flight. And finally, in the eleventh hour, I thought I was coming down with shingles again, which would have thrown a further kink into all of our plans. While in my suitcase there are the clothes and equipment for every conceivable weather condition and natural disaster, the rest of the trip has only the vaguest of outlines. Barb nor my Girl Scout leader would be proud with my planning and preparedness levels at this moment. Case in point, we seem to be in London on the brink of both a train and Tube strike, which could make things interesting.

But even with delays and missed connections and the realization there’s no way to do “it all” in just a few weeks, I’m looking forward to reconciling my past love with my current one and sharing both (plus Wales!) with Z, who is better than any Windsor prince, any day, any time.

Stay tuned.