Category Archives: travel plans

Of Minutiae and Lack of Momentum

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Ethan Currier’s rock art, Bainbridge Island, WA

 

I’ve been waiting for a day when the news isn’t so horrendous that I can blog about frivolous things without feeling superficial, but it’s becoming apparent that I could be waiting a very long time for that day to dawn. In the interest of not letting the terrorists, racists, misogynists and general practitioner haters “win,” I’m just going to write. Just going to go right on as if in the midst of the world ending it’s perfectly reasonable to be talking about things like houseguests and having to pretend the trolley system in Seattle is a viable means of transportation and how my friend Jane nearly ruined my life by forcing me to read The 12-Week Year. Forgive me.

 

Aside from all that ails the world, here is my list of beefs today:

 

  • It’s supposed to be in the 80s next week and you know how much I hate heat.
  • Hudge invited us to an outdoor movie tomorrow night, which sounded like fun, except I pretty much can’t be outside in the evening anymore unless I go in full-on beekeeper garb to ward off mosquitos; I am the sad combination of delicious and allergic.
  • The high-rise across the street from us is putting in new windows. Did you know that installing new windows requires a buzz saw at 8 a.m.? Me neither. Also, at the rate of two-windows-per-day, it’s going to be a loud, peace-less summer here on First Hill.
  • The election. The mean memes. The idiots.
  • People on Twitter are shouting that little Prince George should be sent to jail because in his just-released 3rd birthday photos, he appears to be feeding his dog Lupo some ice cream. He’s 3. His parents aren’t idiots. I’m guessing if it was intentional, then it’s probably a vet-approved iced doggie treat, but even if it wasn’t and Lupo licked that lump of ice cream, dogs eat truly terrible and disgusting things on a daily basis. The likely result will be either nothing or a single puddle of dog crap that someone (who is not the Duke or Duchess) will have to clean up. This is NOT animal cruelty. (What do people get from this online righteous indignation? I imagine them walking around all puffed up and proud of themselves after posting their “wisdom” but they’re really just self-satisfied idiots who can’t read a situation. Kind of like the warriors who “liberate” dogs trapped in cars even though the dog in question is not in distress—because it’s November—and the owner has been gone all of two minutes.)
  • A mouse is trying to move into our apartment.
  • Why DID Seattle try to sell us on the perfection of above-the-traffic monorail travel at the 1963 World’s Fair but then choose in the 2000s to cast their lot not with the monorail—a futuristic and therefore superior mode of travel that shows up in virtually every sci-fi movie ever made—but instead with a nod to yesteryear and a streetcar that holds fewer people than a bus and is stuck in the same rush hour traffic that all the cars and city busses are in, except on a track so it can’t even navigate obstacles? Mind the gap.
  • Someone washed and dried what appears to have been the innards of a hamster cage in the communal machines in our basement and didn’t bother to clean out the woodchips, animal fur, and chocolate chips. (I’m pretending they are chocolate chips. Please don’t tell me they aren’t chocolate chips.)

 

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Graffiti encouragement, Seattle

 

Jane, who is one of my oldest friends from college, suggested that I should read Brian P. Moran’s The 12-Week Year, and it is exhausting me. The principle behind it is good: most of us put off goals and projects until the 11th hour, so instead of giving yourself a long time to get something done, give yourself a short time and impress your friends and neighbors with how much you have accomplished.

 

In theory, it agrees with me. I am a procrastinator by nature and almost anything I’ve ever accomplished in my life—from a master’s thesis to stacks of student papers graded—happened in that magical eleventh hour when suddenly my thoughts, my energy, and my ability to solve problems would somehow work together to get me across the finish line just before the due date arrived.

 

In practice, I’m having to make out goals and lists of tasks, and then do those tasks to accomplish the goals, and then assess my progress on the tasks and the goals both daily and weekly. It is seriously cutting into my relaxing time. I’ve never been particularly good at anything close to a long-range plan, which explains in large part why I forgot to have children and have never really achieved the perfect capsule wardrobe.

 

The fatal flaw in my embracing of the 12-week year, however, was my idea that Z might like it too since he isn’t teaching this summer.

 

Z is much more task oriented than I am. He gravitates toward routine and is a creature of habit. The salad days of our summer are now over because of my stupid suggestion. No longer do we stay up until 3 and sleep until noon. No longer do we lounge on the couch watching episodes of “The New Girl” we’ve already seen twice. No longer do I have graham crackers and beef jerky for breakfast, because he’s got me on an oatmeal and banana system to help with the 12-week goal of “better health.” Do you know how much less fun this breakfast is than Pop-tarts or a bowl of Lucky Charms? (If he were writing this, he would tell you that the oatmeal has to be nuked so I’m basically eating an oatmeal cookie and we’re sharing the banana. Also, he would want you to know that I am very dramatic.)

 

After the banana, when I’m just starting one of my eight-page emails to Jane or a witty Facebook update, he ushers me next door to the writing studio, where he sits down and instantly goes to work.

 

Mac used to have to scratch his bed for five minutes and then turn in circles three times before settling down to sleep, and I’m similar with writing. Only I’ll spend about an hour putzing around online or reorganizing my paper clips and Post-it pads. Often, I have to re-read something I’ve already written years ago and consider its merits and failures, or read something someone else has written to get in the right frame of mind. And then I have to sit and think about what I want to write.

 

I could spend DAYS doing this. It is hard, hard work, the trying to write, and the results are inconsistent. Sometimes, while I’m trying, I actually do write something. But sometimes, at 6 o’clock, Z will slam shut his laptop and say, “I’m done” and he’s accomplished 15 things and I’ve still only written two sentences. Correction: two sentences I hate. Maybe I’ve also doodled a picture of Virginia Woolf in my notebook if it’s a really good day. He’ll ask me what I’ve done with my time, and I have absolutely no idea. No. Idea. I sat down. I started thinking my thoughts and now it’s 6 p.m.

 

Until we started this program, Z had no idea how much time slips through my fingers. He’d come home from work, ask what I’d done all day, I’d say, “I wrote” and because I had no goals written down where he could see whether they had a check next to them or not, he was none the wiser. Possibly he was suspicious since in the three years since I quit teaching and started working for myself he has never come home from work and had me place an entire manuscript into his hands. But now, for sure, he knows he is married to the least productive person in Christendom.

 

Last week I was reading a novel in which two women accidentally killed a man (he wasn’t very nice, so it was no great loss) and they had to clean up the mess and hide his body before the lady of the house returned home. It was set in the 1920s, so there was no Roomba or Dyson sweeper, no Lysol wipes, and I can only assume neither of them were doing Crossfit, so the heavy lifting had to be hell. Yet somehow, through sheer determination and hard work, they moved his carcass out of the parlor and into the alley, cleaned up all evidence of scuffle and bloodshed, and hopped into bed pretending to be asleep when Madame returned an hour later.

 

As I was reading it, I did not think what a tragedy it was. Nor did I feel fearful about what would happen when the cops discovered the body. I didn’t even worry about the bits of bloody apron that got buried in the ash pile, just waiting to be discovered. Instead, all I could think was, I must never kill anyone because I wouldn’t have the energy to clean up the mess.

 

A good life lesson, perhaps, but probably not what the author was going for.

 

And since I’m confessing all of my sins of laziness and haphazard lifestyle choices, let me add that last night I got an email from the Seattle Public Library requesting volunteers for homework help with school-age kids who are speaking English as a second language. As soon as I saw it, I realized that I probably ought to volunteer because I don’t do much of anything for the local community except complain to the parks department when they make bad projected plans for existing green space or steal parking spaces, paint them blue, and pretend it’s a park.

 

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Ridiculous “park” five feet from real park with trees and water fountains.

So it is with great shame that I confess to you now how relieved I was to discover at the bottom of the email that the closest library within walking distance was not participating in the program. It was like the most glorious snow day radio announcement of the 1970s and ‘80s liberating me from a day of school: all the free time I thought I was going to lose was suddenly mine again!

 

Other joys this week: aside from recommending books that are quality-of-life-ruiners, Jane and her family flew cross country and came to my noisy, congested, but sometimes glorious city for a few days. In another life, I should have been a tour guide. I love offering people suggestions about what to do, leaving helpful maps on the coffee table, having some candy bars in a dish waiting for them. I love introducing my people to new places.

 

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Space Needle, Seattle

Mostly though, I just loved having them here. I may be six years deep into this Seattle experiment, but it feels so good to have people around who know me in the context of my natural habitat, where there is no need to explain myself, apologize for my Midwestern-sized butt or Midwestern values or the way I say “pen” and “pin” so they sound like the exact same word.

 

I don’t have to work so hard to hold back my essential self, in other words.

 

It felt good to talk to them. To see their offspring growing and thriving. To take them on the Bainbridge ferry and stand on the bow of the upper deck and look down at a woman with dreadlocks holding her pet duck up so it could enjoy the sea spray. To have mutual friends from college over for a dinner that was nicely cooked and presented by the Great and Talented Z, so the whole lot of us could sit around reminiscing about life when it seemed less violent and ugly. It was violent and ugly then too, but we were young enough to believe that with Bono’s three chords and the truth and our own starry-eyed optimism, things were going to get better.

 

Some things did get better. When I went to college, Apartheid was still a thing. LGBT students on our campus had to keep themselves closeted or could be kicked out and they certainly had little hope of having rights equal to their straight classmates once leaving campus either. AIDS was still a death sentence instead of a chronic condition. When we graduated—we women of Anderson University—we’d be making 65 cents to the dollar that our male classmates were making, and now we’re up another thirteen cents (though we’re spending most of that on waxing). If people are being harassed by anyone because of the color of their skin, gender, the uniform they wear, their accent, etc., we’ve often got access to video coverage, shining a light on injustice and sent out over the internet while it happens. We’ve had our first black president and our first female presidential nominee.

 

We’ve seen the surface of Mars.

 

It’s easier (and sadder) to look back at all the things we were too naïve to know then: that the Challenger wouldn’t be the worst televised national tragedy in our lifetime, that terrorism would become real to us, that we’d get mired in a 15+ year war that shifts geography but shows no signs of stopping, that something as magical as the internet would highlight some of our ugliest human tendencies.

 

We didn’t even know what a Kardashian was or that they’d be trying to weasel their way into our homes on a daily basis.

 

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A girl and her duck.

When asked if the glass is half full or half empty, I’m inclined to recognize that what you have in your hand there is half a glass of something to drink, which is better than nothing but not quite as good as full-to-the-brim. But with the company of Z and good friends, my glass was full this week, even with buzz saws across the street, hamster cage dumpings in the washing machine, and the realization that I’m too lazy and discombobulated to clean up a crime scene.

 

Peace be upon us.

 

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Puget Sound

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour Part IX: The Final Chapter

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Renvyle sunrise

One of the advantages of being married to a Communication professor is that Z is a great communicator himself and an excellent interpreter and facilitator of other people’s communication. He’s not exactly psychic, but it’s close. I’ve never figured out exactly what he sees in my face or hears in my tone when I say, “Sure, we can have lunch at Jimmy Johns” but he seems to know by some bat of an eye or lower decibel to my voice that I’d rather eat almost anything than to eat one more Turkey Slim #4. We don’t argue. We never have to worry about going to bed mad because we aren’t ever mad at each other. (Hopefully, by writing this, I’m not jinxing us.) Our biggest sin against each other is the occasional loud sigh or growl when, say, I have to push in drawers he’s left open, or, say, when I insist I’m ready to go and then he has to wait another ten minutes while I look for my phone, my billfold, my shoes, my hat, my gloves, no-not-these-gloves-the-other-gloves before I’ll walk out the door. Home for us is peaceful and supportive (if not messy, with all the open drawers and cast-off gloves), and I feel lucky that we work like this.

 

Plus, it turns out if you aren’t hollering at each other all the time, it frees us up to talk about other things, like books or politics or current events or, a subject we spend a lot of time on that we like to call “what do you want for dinner? I don’t care. what do you want for dinner?”

 

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Grotto, Kylemore Abbey

When we started planning our Grand Tour last spring, it was fun and easy. One of us would toss up an idea and the other would say, “Sure! Why not!” And then it was time to plan Ireland. Suddenly he was looking at photos of cottages on HomeAway and getting figures for twelve-day stays, though he’d never been in Ireland and I had been there seven times. He wasn’t picking up on my “non-verbals” or maybe he was ignoring them. For weeks, he kept looking at one cottage in particular that was too close to Galway for my liking. (If I’m going to be close to Galway then I want to be IN Galway, not Galway adjacent, even if the cottage itself was adorable.) I felt frustrated that he wasn’t just handing the Irish reigns over to me since I was the expert and simultaneously like a spoiled only-child for wanting it exactly how I wanted it. As I remember it, there was no actual growling at each other, but I’d feel my eye twitch whenever he’d start poking around online looking for lodging and I knew he was about to turn my idea of our magical trip to Ireland into a lengthy stay in a holiday home that we could just as easily have had in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Finally, because he’s clever with the communicating, we talked about it, and because he’s reasonable, I didn’t have to purse my lips or go silent, as is my inclination. He compromised on the length we would stay in a cottage and where we would stay, and I struck the Dingle Peninsula, County Clare, and the Aran Islands off of my “must do” list. There was a certain reasonable-ness to his request that we spend more time in one place and not be constantly on the go that I had to agree with. Plus, if the cottage was a dud, I’d be out nothing myself having been to all of the places before and he wouldn’t know what he was missing anyhow.

 

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Ashleigh Falls, Connemara

As we leave Inishbofin for the last leg of this grand tour, I’m indifferent. Sea for Miles, the house we’ve rented in Renvyle, looks lovely in the photos and I’m sure we’ll have a nice time there, but it is Z’s dream of what he wants to do, not my dream of what I want him to do. Instead of the cottage, I have my sights set on the last Irish hurrah, our two nights with my cousin Mary and family, and a party across the road at my cousin Gerry’s. Sea for Miles will be fine, but I’m not getting my hopes up: HomeAway photos can be taken at deceptive angles with beauty-enhancing filters, and sometimes you find yourself in a cracker box that smells of someone else’s life.

 

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Kylemore Abbey

We load up the Galway Hooker, which was unmolested by man or donkey in our absence, and head north. Because I have a very Midwestern sense of space, I once again imagine we’ll be in the car for hours, but in about twenty minutes we’ve arrived at Tully Cross, which is our turn-off for the cottage. It’s too early to check in, so I suggest we drive further down the road to see Kylemore Abbey, a beautiful Benedictine Abbey that was originally a private stately home, built in the 1870s at the foot of Dúchruach Mountain, a spot where legend has it that the folk hero giants Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn once fought, tossing stones at each other.

 

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Kylemore Abbey church

I’ve been to Kylemore Abbey multiple times and though I love the way it looks from afar, the throngs of tourists lumbering out of tour busses always puts me off. Plus I go into full-on Irish Republican mode and get indignant about the Big Houses of Ireland oppressing the people yadda yadda yadda, as if it is still the early 1900s and I’m a scullery maid whose boyfriend is about to die fighting the long arm of colonialism. On this visit with Z though, it is so early in the morning that the tour buses haven’t rolled in yet. A mist hangs down from the mountains, and it feels as if we have the whole place to ourselves.

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Kylemore Abbey church interior

Since my last visit, the house is no longer a girls’ school and is in a bit of a transitional phase, but it has never looked lovelier. Because we aren’t being pushed and rushed by tourists on a schedule, I get to read all of the signs in the big house, admire the treasures therein, meander around the Victorian garden that is being restored to its original splendor, and saunter up the path to the miniature Gothic cathedral that the original owner had built when his wife died suddenly from malaria.

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Shamrock stonework inside the church

From the literature we’re handed with our tickets, I learn how much Mitchell Henry loved his wife, how much they loved their tenants, how much their guests loved visiting this splendid house, and later in its history after the Benedictine nuns turned it into a school, how much the girls who were students loved their time there. For the first time in 15 years’ worth of visits, the Abbey seems like a warm, happy place instead of a Brontë-esque misery.

 

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Kylemore Abbey Victorian Garden and Head Gardener’s House

After lunch and a gift shop stop, we wend our way back towards Tully Cross, through Tully itself, and along the coast as we look for Sea for Miles. The mountain range, called the Twelve Bens and Connemara National Park are in the background, and though we don’t see it, I know that Inishbofin is just around the bend in the road. When we spy the two-story castle ruin—again said to have been one of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley’s–we know we’re near our destination. Sea for Miles is not so much a cottage as a house, and it is fabulous. The owner built it as her own home but is currently teaching in Abu Dhabi while family members and a tenant in a small space where the garage would be watch after the property. It’s clear that the house is well-loved and cared for, as are the guests who stay there.

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Our home away from home

 

As soon as we walk in and see the three bedrooms, the gorgeous views, and the fresh hydrangeas that have been cut just for us, we feel disappointed that we didn’t invite someone to come along with us and share the bounty. Big picture windows in the living room and dining room look out at the Atlantic as it crashes against the coast. We can see neighboring Connemara ponies, the mountains in the distance, and later, when the sun starts to set, it hits the chapel at the top of Croagh Patrick, the mountain in County Mayo where pilgrims climb—sometimes barefoot—if they can work their way around the throngs of health nuts who race up and down the dangerous mountain using it as their personal training ground.

 

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A kitchen big enough for us to live in.

The owner’s mother comes over to greet us and we stand in the kitchen chatting, less about the workings of the house and more about the family and the weather and the beauty. She seems so nice and the view is so lovely that I feel badly that her daughter, Debbie, is living in Abu Dhabi instead of in her own house, though lucky for us that she is. Her mother gives me the sad news that Mrs. Murray on Inishbofin has died and reports that she saw the helicopter hovering over the island to either pick her up or to return her body, she’s not sure which. Though I’m sad for Mrs. Murray’s passing, I’m glad I am hearing the news when it is fresh and while I am in Ireland instead of reading about it three years from now online.

 

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Our neighbors, the Connemara ponies

Even though the house is lovely, I’m still not quite ready to concede that Z’s plan is a winner. I wonder if we’ll get bored over the next few days, sitting out here in the back of beyond. I gather up a stack of books from Debbie’s shelves and scan them. I jot some notes down for a blog. Z (ever hopeful that I’ll turn into the productive writer I sold myself as when he married me) sets up the ironing born at desk height in front of the living room window so I’ll have a place to write with a view. I like the idea of writing there daily and maybe doing a watercolor sketch, but I also feel as if I should be soaking in the views for later instead of sticking my nose into my computer. It’s a regular struggle with me. I write a blog, I paint a picture, I read half a book about Nell McCafferty, but mostly, when we are in the house, I stare out the window and think about what a lucky place this would be to live.

 

We unpack our bags and then walk down to the beach, hop on rocks and listen to the waves. We walk around Grace O’Malley’s tower and wonder at the 16th century engineering. The thickness of the walls is considerable, and we can just make out where the stairs would have been. I try to imagine the landscape Grace would have been seeing from her tower before there was the smattering of houses and barns, though it’s likely her eye was always trained on the sea.

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Living room view and neighbor.

 

While we’re in Renvyle, we drive through Connemara, visit Killary Harbor—a fjord where there is some controversial salmon farming taking place, we have picnics on the beach, and go on little errands into Tully Cross to buy groceries and stamps. On one of these trips, the post mistress asks where we’re staying and because I can’t remember Debbie’s name or the name of the house, I tell her I can’t remember but the owner is teaching in Abu Dhabi. “Oh, that’ll be Debbie’s place. Isn’t the view there lovely!” I’ve no idea why my heart quickens at this level of familiarity—that at home would no doubt make be feel completely spied upon and invaded, someone knowing my whereabouts or that my house is sitting empty while I’m on the other side of the world—but here it feels charming, and I love the connection, love that for these few days I have a (tenuous) connection to this place.

 

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Killary Harbor

In the evenings, Z cooks dinner and I clean up, realizing how much less cranky I am about my job when there is a dishwasher, a view, and the kitchen in question isn’t the size of half a postage stamp. We watch the sun until it sets and then turn on the TV, watch the news, some non-American TV, talk about the day.

On this trip, the Syrian refugee crisis that is on both the UK and Irish news every night is often a topic of discussion. While we’d been in London, the situation seemed particularly dire to me because the city already felt too crowded, yet the numbers of people pressing themselves against the safer borders of Western Europe had grown to critical mass. Over the course of the trip, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the crisis, the impact it might have on Europe, and as I watch the disproportionate number of males to females headed west, I also worry about the women, when so many of the refugees appear to be mail. Plus, because Z and I have been dealing legally with the extensive hoops one must leap through to become a permanent resident in the U.S., my feelings about those who arrive in the country without following regular channels are complex and conflicted. When we turn the news off to watch Stephen Frye host the celebrity quiz show QI every night, it is a relief, but the day’s footage of refugees angry or terrified about their plight, still plays in my mind. It seems ludicrous that we can be enjoying our holiday when other people are so miserable.

 

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Near Killary Harbor

While Z and I are in this part of the world, I determine that he needs to see Doolough Pass. As we drive there, Z has to keep his eye firmly on the twisty road that hugs the water and is more likely to produce oncoming traffic in the form of sheep than car.

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Rush hour on the open road.

Though it is a sunny day as we make our way through the valley, there is something ominous about the way the rocky hills around us hug the water. It is a picturesque piece of the country but it feels desolate even as the sunlight plays off the mountains and water. Doolough, which means “black lake,” feels haunted. The first time I visited in 2001, I felt the sadness even before I knew about one of the more tragic Famine stories that happened here in 1849. Aside from the haunting, it is also magnetic. I have yet to make a trip to Connemara wherein I don’t feel an urge to make a pilgrimage to this spot.

 

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Doolough

The Famine itself—caused by both a blight on the potato crop (the staple meal of 90% of the Irish in this region) and by bad, colonial politics—left an estimated million Irish people dead and another million as emigrants. Because the powers that be didn’t want to hand out food relief to the undeserving, they required those who had less than a quarter acre of land on which to feed themselves, to come to Louisburgh for “inspection” to determine their suitability for assistance. However, when the already starving and tattered group got to Louisburgh, the men who were supposed to evaluate their need, had gone to Delphi Lodge, 12 miles to the south. The miserable crowd was instructed to get themselves to Delphi by the next morning. On the grueling walk there, people died along the road. It was cold, rainy, and the river was at flood level. When they did arrive in Delphi, they had to wait outside while those in charge finished their lunch before the relief would be distributed. Only the relief was not distributed and the group of people—in some estimates, over 400 men, women, and children—were sent back to Louisburgh with no promise of food, clothing, or aid of any kind. On the walk back, the storm kicked up and many of these people died—blown from cliffs, drowned in the lake, or they simply dropped from starvation. The number who died on this pointless journey varies wildly from 20 to 400, but regardless of the number, it had to have been a harrowing sight. Those who died were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves where they fell.

 

There are two markers here now to commemorate this tragedy, one of which has a quote from Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?” Z and I stand at the other, plainer marker and take in the view, which is beautiful, but too horrible to enjoy. He says he feels a melancholy sensation here, but admits he isn’t sure if it’s because I’ve told him the story or if it’s something in the air. I wish I’d kept my mouth shut and just brought him here to see if he picked up on it, my own Zimbabwean ghost detector. I stand looking at the water and think about those huddled masses of people, making their way not once but twice through this valley, and I feel some shame that I can so easily churn up emotion for people whose suffering ended over a century and a half ago, but when we turn on the TV and I see the refugees, I allow myself to think pragmatically instead of compassionately. Though I want to say, “Yes, but these people who were so badly treated all those years ago were my people” I can’t come up with a good argument as to why they seem any more “mine” than people who are on the planet at this same moment as me, pushed out of their homeland by politics and hatred.

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It’s a relief to leave Doolough and its sadness, as we head back towards our temporary home in Renvyle. We stop at the grocery and fill the cart with more food than we have days left in Ireland to eat it. I’m mad for the Tayto crisps.

 

The next morning, I wake early and watch the sun come up, casting the mountains in silhouette for a time. I wonder what it would be like to wake every morning with a view like this instead of 9th Avenue and the sirens and yapping neighbor dogs and people hollering on the uneven sidewalk in front of our building. I’m overcome with a sense of friendly envy of the poets Ted and Annie Deppe, who taught my MFA summer residency in Ireland six years earlier and who have arranged their lives so they are able to live in Ireland full-time. I don’t know them well or where they are living in Ireland, but I’m compelled to send Annie a message on Facebook telling her that I’m looking out at the Atlantic in Connemara and feeling jealous of her life. Within minutes, I get a message back saying that she’s just looked at the photos I posted the day before and she’s sure that Z and I are staying not far from where she and Ted have been living. We agree to meet that evening for a drink. Ireland delivers more of it’s magic.

 

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View from Sea for Miles

Z and I spend our last full day in Renvyle hiking the least vigorous of the trails at the nearby Connemara National Park. On the way, we meet a cow that is rare and one of the oldest Celtic breeds in Ireland. It looks surprising like. . . a cow.

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Irish Moiled Cow and friend

We look at wildflowers and heather. I complain about steep inclines while Z waits patiently for me to catch my breath. I huff and puff and glower at the younger, fitter folks who are zipping past us to trek the steeper incline. When we reach the summit of our particular trail, it feels like all of Ireland is stretched out in front of us. I’m reminded of the cover of my old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, as we look down on the patchwork quilt of fields and hills and sea. It is beautiful and hard to imagine there is any strife here or anywhere else.

 

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View from Connemara National Park

That evening, we sip pints with the Deppes at Paddy Coyne’s pub in Tully, and talk about their life in Ireland, my alma mater, writing, and Hugo Hamilton’s novel about Nuala O’Faolain (which I become obsessed with getting in the remaining few days in Ireland, sure I’ll never find a copy in the U.S.). Ted is a fellow Hoosier and both he and Annie went to Earlham, so we also talk of “home.” It’s a delightful evening. I love being in this pub with people I actually know instead of as an outside observer whose soul purpose is to watch the locals in action. It feels as if we nearly belong right where we are.

 

Later, while Z and I start packing up at Sea for Miles, it’s hard to remember that  I  thought our time in Renvyle would be a waste, that I was just humoring Z. I love Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, the lunar-landscape of the Burren, and rocky isolation of the Aran Islands, but now I’m glad I didn’t try to force my own itinerary in lieu of this respite. We both agree that Renvyle—and if available, Sea for Miles—will be on our “must do” list on future trips to Ireland.

(I can’t tell you what it does to me to hear Z refer to our future trips to Ireland!)

 

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Rainy road to Westport

The next morning we leave Renvyle and make the long, soggy drive to my cousins in Caherlistrane by way of a lunch stop in Westport. I remember Westport as a picturesque little town built around a meandering creek with a be-flowered stone bridge that I’ve always wanted to return to, but when we get there, it is raining so hard that even Seattleites are put off. We spend a leisurely lunch in a pub writing postcards, that later, I will leave on a shelf in a bookstore, so excited am I to see the Hugo Hamilton novel. (The postcards have, as yet, not been sent by a well-meaning passerby who finds them. But we’re still holding out hope. If you didn’t get a postcard from us, this is why!) We try walking around Westport, but it is a miserable day and I just want to be home, though I’m not sure what I mean by that word: with my cousins? back in Renvyle? on Inishbofin? at Petra House with Frank and Joan? Across the Irish Seat at July’s cozy digs? At the hotel in Kensington? We’ve been gone nearly a month, so the likeliest answer is Seattle, but as on all of my other trips to Ireland, the thought of leaving makes me sad. I will never be a person who travels exotically (I don’t think Zimbabwe counts if you are married to a Zimbabwean), but when I do travel, I’m always focused on the “what’s next” instead of the “how soon can we head back?”

 

The remaining two days zip by in a flash. The family entertains us, feeds us, plies us with drink, and makes us feel like royalty. It is good to see everyone again, including my grandfather’s first cousin, Kathleen, and her husband, Tom, who first hosted me all those years ago when their grandchildren—now adults—were introducing me to cows and the delights of Crunchie candy bars. The last baby, born not long before my arrival on that first solo trip all those years ago, has her 16th birthday party our last night here, and I am amazed at how quickly time has passed.

 

More drink is taken.

 

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Ashford Castle–I’m _sure_ I can prove this is the family estate.

The day before we leave, Mary drives us to Ashford Castle—a gorgeous Anglo-Norman turreted creation—and we walk the grounds, see the falcons  from the falconry school, walk the various gardens, look out across Lough Corrib, and speculate as to whether the Burkes in my family tree (and Mary’s) are related to the de Burgos (which over time become Burke) who built and lived in the caste for a few hundred years beginning in the 13th century.

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Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle wall

My brain begins building a case that relies on this key piece of evidence as to why I’ve always felt a tiara is my God-given right. Now Ashford is considered the premiere castle in Ireland and has hosted various Hollywood royalty as well as Prince Edward and Princess Grace. The majority of its guests now are Americans (rich ones) and the majority of those are from California. We are not rich and therefore are not allowed inside—stone dogs guard the door. We pay for the privilege of walking on the grounds–where parts of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man were filmed– and it truly is a beautiful piece of real estate.

 

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Beware of dog

I’m more interested, however, in the real estate where my cousins both live because their grandfather was my great-grandmother’s older brother who farmed that land, and Grandma Bridget and her brother grew up there, as did their father. I love looking out across the fields, at the old stone walls, at the flowers and imagining that this is what Grandma Bridget saw, speculating about how difficult it must have been to leave when she knew it would be nearly impossible to come back from America with any regularity. I always wonder at her decision to emigrate: did she feel like it was a choice or a necessity? Was she afraid, with only a black-thorn walking stick to protect her on that trip across the Atlantic? She wasn’t a refugee—most of her siblings and the aunt with whom she would live were waiting on the other side—but for me, making that sort of choice to put that much distance between myself and home before there were trans-Atlantic flights would have been a misery.

 

Kathleen hands me a stack of letters that her sister Patricia—whom I met once before she died and who was the family historian—saved. They are from the American cousins and their children. Some of the letters are written by cousins I know, others are those I’ve only heard of who died before I was born. One is from my grandfather and I get tears in my eyes when I see his elegant, familiar penmanship. (In the letter, he offers information about his children and grandchildren, and I smile wryly as I see the only description next to my name: “single.”) Most of the letters from America spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the weather, which seems a shame, until it dawns on me that what the writer is really trying to do is keep open that line of communication “back home.” Kathleen once told me—when speaking of her husband whose numerous siblings all emigrated—“You lived and died by the post. It was a lifeline to family.”

 

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane

And then it’s time for us to leave. Z’s first trip to Ireland is winding down. Mary and John drive us to Shannon where we say our goodbyes and then spend the night in a personality-free airport hotel before our early morning flight back to London, and from there, we’ll fly back to Seattle. Our whole grand tour is about to unwind itself and soon we’ll be lugging our ever-multiplying baggage up First Hill. I’m like a mad woman in the airport gift shop, trying to stuff the last little bits of Ireland into my already bulging carry-on and coat pockets, greedy to hang on to what has been, with no question, the best trip of my life.

 

My favorite of the letters that Kathleen shared with me the day before is from Sister Mary Baptiste, my grandpa’s first cousin, whose name was always spoken with reverence because of her vocation. In her careful penmanship, she describes in detail the changes that have come with Vatican II and how now she and her fellow nuns can drive cars because they no longer have the big, vision-shielding wings on their habits. There is joy in her description of the freedom that has been afforded her, and I imagine, joy at the promise of the open road.

 

 

 

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.