Category Archives: Ireland

Developments on the Northwestern Front

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There are new developments here on the Pacific Northwestern front.

 

Veins in my forehead.

 

I don’t mean like I’m angry and you can see the contours of a vein sticking out of my forehead in a telltale sign that I need to do yoga to de-stress. I mean I just looked in the mirror and thought I had a newspaper ink smudge by my hairline. Only I wasn’t reading a newspaper. Nor have I been canoodling with a chimney sweep while Z is at work.

 

And it’s not a good delicate blue-vein-on-a-milky-forehead Michelle Pfeiffer style circa Frankie and Johnny. No. It just looks like I need to go wash my face.

 

I was calm about this because another recent development is that I started meditating almost two weeks ago. I’ve been an avid Not Meditator for years. While I acknowledged that it’s likely a beneficial practice, it seemed an impossibility because focusing on my breath makes me hyperventilate, and I’ve always had an aggressive resistance to someone—anyone—telling me what to think (or not think). But a friend said the Headspace app changed her life, so I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say it has changed my life yet, but there is something so soothing and pleasant about the speaker’s accent that I find I look forward to my “daily practice.”

 

Before you get wildly impressed with me, please know I’m only doing it five minutes a day and suspect ten minutes a day will be my limit because, well, it’s kind of boring. But still, me doing anything nine days in a row that I know is good for me but am only marginally interested in is quite an accomplishment.

 

Other developments in the PNW: I’ve become obsessed with watching packing videos on YouTube. That’s right. I willingly give up 5-to-10-minute increments of my day to watch people pack clothes into a carry-on suitcase for three-week European vacations. It is mesmerizing. I rarely learn anything new. I’ve been mastering the fine art of packing and rejecting the mantra less is more for decades now, so I don’t watch to learn anything. But, oh, is it satisfying to watch someone take a heap of clothes, fold them up, and shove them into a suitcase. I’m also curious to see what items people deem necessary for such travel. Please note, usually these suitcase packers are young women so petite that they could fit their entire wardrobe inside an empty box of saltines.

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Today’s development was that I left my card in the ATM without realizing it until 20 minutes later and then nearly had a full-fledged anxiety attack at the drug store when I reached for my card and realized it was gone. Ironically, I was waiting in line to pick up my anti-anxiety meds (that I’m always anxious about not being allowed to have—it’s a snake chewing it’s own tail this anxiety thing, let me tell you). I did not want to appear twitchy in front of the pharmacist lest he alert my doctor that I shouldn’t be allowed anymore of these pills, but once they were in my hand, I hightailed it back to the bank where I was assured the card would be accessible but I had to wait a few minutes for the banker to fetch it for me.

 

This is a weird thing to say about a bank, but I find ours a soothing place usually. The tellers are always friendly, it feels local even though it isn’t, and they’ve always got Dum-Dums out in a bowl so you don’t even have to pretend you’ve got a kid outside waiting with your husband to score one, and no one looks at you sideways if you root around for a strawberry or ginger ale one. But for reasons inexplicable to me, the anxiety that kicked into gear at the drug store did not dissipate even though I’d been assured the card would be returned to me very soon. I got hot. My heart pounded. A lady was hollering at a teller about the bank not treating her right, ratcheting up my stress. I started to worry about bank robbers (something I haven’t actively worried about since about 1977). I worried about how I was going to get packed before my 5 a.m. flight to Indiana, if I could stand being away from Z for two weeks. (This last one I do every time I have to be away from Z, so it was not abnormal, though perhaps abnormal to be twitchy in the bank lobby as I worried about it.) So what I know now is that even with 52 total minutes of meditation under my belt, it did not soothe me.

 

Finally, the woman brought my card out.

 

She’s helped me before—mostly with laundry quarters, but once because I’d made a math error that meant my account was empty for the exact 15 minutes the bank thought it should not be and slapped me with an overdraft fee that she kindly reversed. I like her. She’s thorough and friendly and I think of her as a contemporary though she’s probably in her twenties. I felt better as soon as my card was zipped back into my wallet. I was a little uncomfortable, however, because while all I needed for her to do was use her magic banker key to open the ATM and get my card, she somehow managed to pull up my information and decided she had some products to sell me based on the numbers she saw in our accounts. If it had been another teller or banker, I might have been annoyed, but I like her, so I asked her some questions. She answered them.

 

Why I often feel obligated to apologize to bank staff that I am not good enough with my money to be a millionaire is beyond me, but I do. For all I know, this woman has four roommates, has her credit cards maxed out, and lives on ramen noodles. Why do I assume that someone with a bank nametag on is automatically more fiscally responsible than I am? No idea, but this is how I am. So I said something like “ha ha, I’m not so good with financial stuff.” I loathed myself for saying it. It’s the same voice I use if someone has to change my tire or unclogged my sink, “ha ha I’m such a dolt I can’t manage to master basic gettin’-through-life skills ha ha ha.”

 

What I loathed more was what she said to me with a very kind smile on her face. What she said was this:

 

“Oh, that’s okay! That’s how my parents are too!”

 

Her parents? HER PARENTS? She thinks I’m the same age as her parents?

 

I probably am the same age as her parents, but it pains me that this is the correlation she made. Instead of recognizing me as a fellow apartment dweller who must suffer the slings and arrows of the communal laundry room, she sees me as an aging parent who never got her banking crap together so she could move on up to a condo downtown with the washer and dryer right in the unit.

 

I’ve kind of gone off her now.

 

What else is new on First Hill? Our trees out front bloomed. More construction went up around us. Belle visited from Indiana and she and I had some writerly adventures, including her guest appearance in my Writing for Procrastinators class. I edited three dissertations, attended Hudge and Providence’s dissertation defense (congratulations!), picked up a new coaching client, helped Z index his book (which will be out in July—expect to hear shouts of joy from our vicinity!), and taught a session on reflective writing to some of Z’s students.

 

Oh yeah. And we booked airfare for a month in Zimbabwe this summer. So excited to see Z-ma , Z family, Z friends, and Skampy. And a cherry atop that triple-layer cake: we’re going to “swing by” Ireland on the way home for ten days.

 

Also, when I wasn’t meditating, watching packing videos, or having public anxiety incidents, I logged a lot of hours watching the Royal Wedding. A lot of hours. Before the wedding. During the wedding (which started at 2:30 a.m. out here). And after the wedding.

 

The thing I hate most about a Royal Wedding after you put all that time in and the happy couple drives off in their horse drawn carriage is the realization that you haven’t been invited to the reception and you aren’t getting any cake.

 

So, this isn’t much of a post, but I’ve got to go pack my bag, adjust my thermostat for Indiana’s humidity, and spend my last remaining hours of May with Z.

 

Summer is upon us, friends, and what that means is there is a 78% chance my next post will be complaining about the heat.

 

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

 

Two Dreams Diverged

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Z is hounding me that October is almost over and I haven’t written a single blog this month. Not a word about my two weeks back in Indiana in September, Mom’s three week visit to Seattle, nor a week-long interlude with July, who we haven’t seen since this time last year when we descended on her cozy home in Wales. Nor have I mentioned Z’s birthday this week.

I also haven’t coughed up a sentence about how this is pretty much my favorite time of year from mid-September through my own birthday in January, and how though I generally find Pacific Northwest autumns subpar when compared to Indiana, it’s been stellar out here this year.

Nope, you’ve gotten bupkis from me. I’m beginning to feel guilty at night when I look over and see Z re-reading old blogs of mine, refreshing his browser, as if his wife in an alternate universe—the wife who is more productive, less anxiety-ridden, more inclined to clean and have a regular skincare regime—might have produced a nugget or two for him to read. (I just know that alternate-universe wife of his has a VERY popular blog that has a bajillion followers, just signed a three-book deal, and would not have banished half of his Zimbabwe-inspired art to his office. I also suspect she makes her own pie crusts, uses one of those plastic exercise balls to keep herself Olympically limber, and never takes a bad pic. I hate her.)

Even when I’m not blogging, I email Jane regularly about my joys and concerns of the day. She is the kind of friend who actually listens to me and tries to help me figure out what my really real (read: multi-dimensional/fully sensory/non-grainy) dreams mean, but her hot water heater is busted and I don’t want to bother her right now while she’s bathing with bottles of Aquafina and wet wipes.

So instead, I’m going to tell you about my dream analysis problems. Lucky, lucky you!

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Last night, I dreamed Sandra Bullock had died and somehow I had gained custody of her son Louis. In the dream, he was just a toddler. In the dream, I didn’t know Sandra Bullock any better than I do in real life, which is to say not at all. I’m not sure how the kid ended up in my arms. I like her as much as everyone else in the world does. A couple of her movies are my favorites, but I’ll probably never watch Speed or Miss Congeniality 2, so I’m not like a Kathy Bates style #1 fan. A few months ago I was happy enough to read a cast-off People about how she loves being a mother to Louis and his new sister, but it’s unclear why her “death” featured in my dream or how I got saddled with her little son.

For the record, I did feel terribly sad that she’d died because she seems like a genuinely decent human, and I was relieved to wake up and realize she’s still out there raising her kids and donating her millions to worthy causes.

Anyhow, I was carrying Dream Louis around the house, wondering what to do. He was upset and I was upset: poor Sandra, poor kid, poor me. Even dream Beth seemed to know she wasn’t equipped for instant motherhood. There is no What to Expect When You Suddenly Become the Guardian of Sandra Bullock’s Toddler for sale on Amazon, so I couldn’t bone up on what to do. I was wiping away his tears and shoving food in his mouth and jiggling him around in a manner meant to be soothing. But also, I was pacing because I knew Child Protective Services was headed to the house and if it seemed like anything about me wasn’t legit, then they’d take this kid away from me. Despite concerns about whether I could rear him appropriately and how his presence was going to alter my daily life, I suspected that I’d be a better mother to him than some arbitrary person. Particularly a person who may or may not love While You Were Sleeping as much as I do. (Seriously, y’all can have your White Christmas and your It’s a Wonderful Life, but if I don’t get to see While You Were Sleeping every December, I feel like a major strand of lights has gone out on the tree.)

In the dream, I was frantic to paint a picture of serene maternity as the authorities pulled up to the house. I wanted to look capable, confident, and like Louis and I already had a unique bond. So I asked Dream Louis what he wanted me to call him— like a special nickname between us—and he said quite clearly in his little toddler voice, “Carrington.”

I’ve never written “WTF” in a blog before because I like to keep things halfway wholesome in the public domain, but surely this is an instance that deserves it.

WTF.

Just as I was thinking, “This kid does NOT look like a Carrington. He’s got to come up with something better,” Z’s alarm went off, so I have no idea how it all turned out. Was I allowed to keep Louis/Carrington? Did I rise to the occasion like Sandra Bullock in Blind Side and make sure my young charge graduated from high school and went on to college? Would there be any money rolling in from the Bullock estate to help me raise this kid or was he going to have to get used to a lower standard of living, maybe eating the off-brand cereal and having a homemade Superman costume instead of a real one this Halloween?

Elements of the dream possibly worth exploring: motherhood, babies, Carrington.

Though there have been points in my life where I hungered to be a mother, this is not one of those times. There are a few small children I’m personally smitten with, but on the whole, I’m quite happy with my child-free life and the easy access I have to my non baby-proofed electrical sockets and cabinets full of poison.

So I don’t think this is about babies and the impending fossilization of my own womb.

In the mid 1990s during my “depressive” stage, I was briefly obsessed with Dora Carrington when the movie about her starring Emma Thompson came out. I read books. Studied her art. Felt cross that she wasn’t quite in the inner sanctum of the Bloomsbury group despite loving Lytton Strachey quite literally to the death. (One of the only times I haven’t liked Virginia Woolf was when I read something in her diary about Carrington that lacked compassion.) Two books about Carrington are sitting on the shelf by my desk here in my studio, but they are in the extra dusty upper reaches and are never taken down.

I suppose I did sort of date a guy in high school who turned out to be gay, but I wouldn’t have killed myself over him a la Carrington and I’ve never worn jodhpurs like her, so I don’t think this dream was about Carrington either.

I’m at a loss. It was all so real. Louis’s breath in my ear was kind of sweet and snotty because he’d been crying so hard and my arm hurt from the weight of him. My subconscious might have given me one of those “real” dreams to help me with something I’ve been struggling with (writing, geography, existential questions), but I’m not Robert Langdon and thus can’t decipher my own personal Da Vinci Code.

Hopefully Jane’s water heater will be fixed soon.

In the category of dreams becoming reality, it’s Z’s and my 10th anniversary of love today. If you’ve read this blog before or come within a mile of me, you already know our story, but it’s my favorite and all roads seem to lead to it eventually. (And why shouldn’t I prefer it to all others?)

Because it’s close to Halloween, I’ll tell you the extra eerie, woooooooo elements I sometimes leave out.

We met in the fall of 2001 when he was new faculty where I was teaching. We were at a faculty party, I saw him, felt the love instantly in a way I previously thought was entirely made up, and drove straight to Leibovitz’s house to say, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” Over the following weeks, I gave him a battery of personality tests and listened carefully for him to say something that would put me off him forever, making special note that his delicious accent might well make something truly intolerable sound acceptable. He only ever said delightful and funny things though, and when he went home to Zimbabwe for the holidays, he left a message on my voicemail: “I’m just calling to say ‘banana,’” because I’d told him how much I’d miss hearing him say that while he was away. I played it for any friend or relative who would listen: all agreed, his accent was exquisite, and surely he must be flirting back to leave such a message.

This is not the wooooooo part, fyi.

He wasn’t flirting. For the next two years we were together almost every day—after work, having dinner, going to movies, shopping—but I made no headway and was choking on my love. Finally, a few days before he left to go back to Zimbabwe for good, I screwed up my courage and told him how I felt, vowing that I didn’t care where he went, I wanted to be with him.

(Note: I’m hoping this vow is not legally binding because we once stayed at a truly deplorable motel at Plymouth Rock and if he decided to take up residence there, we’d probably have to live apart. It was disgusting and the smell of the moldy carpet is still living somewhere in one of my olfactory receptors.)

He was kind when he said he didn’t feel the same way and that he’d always consider me his friend.

Later that day, I had a spiritual experience that I’m not recounting here because believers will say how could you ever doubt that you’d end up with him eventually after that? and cynics will say your brain simply invented that so you’d be comforted. Suffice it to say, while I had a sort of knowing that Z and I would end up together eventually, I was also full of doubt. Over the years, my brain has concocted a considerable amount of bullshit that did not ever come to fruition, so while I hung on to the possibility that maybe eventually we’d be together, I was pragmatic enough to know I needed to get on with my life in the meantime.

The next day, I dropped Z off at the airport, unsure when or if I’d see him again. I sniffed his neck when I hugged him goodbye and sent him on his way. I cried all the way home, stopped at the reservoir to collect myself and was greeted by a gaggle of goslings, waddling up the hill, which seemed to speak to all sorts of hope.

But none of this is really the weird, other-worldly part.

When he was teenager, he was an extra in a crowded market scene in that Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone “masterpiece,” King Solomon’s Mines. We’d watched it one night in his flat, and he pointed out the two very brief shots where he is in the background. He is playing the role of “European riffraff” and when there’s a kerfuffle in market scene involving the stars, the camera pans the crowd and there is Z—brows furrowed—as he looks to see what is going on.

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Z and friend, on set but not scowling.

The night he left for good, I went home and moped around the house like you do. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but if the movies are to be believed, I probably cried and ate a carton of ice cream. What I do remember is that I couldn’t get to sleep that night, so I turned on the TV. What was on the exact channel the TV was tuned to? King Solomon’s Mines. Whose face was staring at me a second later, brow furrowed?

Until I’d met him, I’d never seen the movie, and I have never seen it airing on cable since. But there it was, and there he was, peering at me from the big screen, daring me to try to forget about him.

But wait, there’s more. Woooooooo.

Two months later, my brother and I went to Ireland to celebrate his 21st birthday. It seemed a good way for me to distract myself from the terrible ache of life post Z. We saw nearly the whole of the Republic in something like six days and we had a good time. He was several years younger than me and, I could only assume, not that interested in the quality of his big sister’s broken heart. I wasn’t inclined to point out to him that I’d just passed a hamburger joint with Z’s first name in neon just as I was thinking of him, nor did I mention the irony of the rugby poster above our heads in Temple Bar that said “Ireland vs. Zimbabwe” just as we were having a conversation with a couple about rugby. My brain was filled with the photos and stories Z had shared about his own rugby days, but I didn’t say a word. Surely to goodness these were all signs from on high that Z was back in Africa, realizing he loved me.

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Stevie Nix & I keep our crystal visions to ourselves. Unless one of us decides to blog.

The night of my brother’s actual birthday, he was deep in his cups at the pub and I was tired and didn’t want to bring down the mood, so I left him dancing with a Scandinavian woman and went back to our hotel room where there was little to distract me from my thoughts. There was a tiny TV with bad reception that had sound on only one channel. Sadly, the channel with sound was playing a spooky old black and white movie starring one of those cadaverous actors like Peter Cushing. I was not interested in the plot but the company was nice and distracted me from the idea of Z. As I settled in to lose myself in a mindless scary movie, in his creepiest voice, Peter Cushing said Z’s very obscure and completely rare last name in reference to a developing situation with the occult.

I’ll grant you, the hamburger joint with his first name was just wishful thinking on my part. And the rugby poster with Zimbabwe written on it was probably a coincidence. But Peter Cushing in a movie I would NEVER have watched had there been even one other working channel on an otherwise soundless TV saying Z’s surname that if Googled produces only results for Z and a guy from Sweden?

Imagine some eerie music right here, would you?

If, three years later, Z had not come to his senses, then these would just be unfortunate coincidences, but because he did, I can only see it as messages from the divine or as an unbelievable plot device should I ever turn this into a novel.

All this week I’ve been forcing Z to remember how I arrived in Seattle right before his birthday in 2006, reminding him where we ate meals, where we walked on Alki Beach and badgering him about why he didn’t say right then how he felt. “Shame you slept on that foam egg crate all those nights in your living room and left me by myself in your bed,” I’ll say. And then I’ll pester him about why he let almost all the days of my visit go before he told me his feelings had changed.

Poor, poor Z. When I declared myself in 2003 (after two years of suffering in obsessed silence), IF ONLY he had gotten on board with my plan for his future he would have saved himself all of this future grief, wherein I force him to remember all of that wasted times. Total strangers on the interwebz would not be reading about his hesitancy. My friends who marvel at the quality of our rightness together now would not say to him, “What were you thinking? Why the delay?”

I’m insufferable on this count, and he’s a trooper. He’s put up with the teasing and the ribbing for a decade now. Though please note, he never will say, “You were right, Baby. I was SO wrong.” Instead, he says, “Things happened as they were supposed to.”

Possibly if he said he was wrong I might relent. Or possibly not.

Anyhow, today is the anniversary of the night we went to the Quarter Lounge around the corner from his apartment (and which you can see for yourself in the opening episode of Man in the High Castle—a First Hill claim to fame) and we had too much to drink and we were both being more honest than perhaps we had previously been, and soon enough he said what he said about us needing to be together, and I slammed down my hand on the table and said, “I KNEW I was right!” in a truly insufferable way (and so unlike how Sandra Bullock would respond as a romantic heroine).

This was not a cinematic climax to a love story with ocean waves breaking over rocks in the background as he wrapped me in a passionate embrace. Instead, something like “Play that Funky Music” or “Back in Black” was on the jukebox and I excused myself to the women’s room where I looked in the mirror at my red, bleary face and then did an honest-to-God happy dance with my arms raised in victory. Probably you will never see the story of our love on the big screen because of these details.

I may be incapable of deciphering my dream about Louis Bullock, but this Z dream of mine? The visions? The coincidental placement of rugby posters and hamburger joints? The late night TV programming of both America and Ireland? All those signs pointed to “yes” and that has made all the difference.

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

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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 VIII: Connemara, A Castle, and Cromwell’s Barracks

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A better person would have taken a non-reflective photo for you.

There’s an old travel poster hanging above our bed back in Seattle that says Connemara “Ireland This Year”, and since we got married, it has been a daily reminder that this wild and wide-open hunk of Ireland has been on our to-do list. Kerry’s landscape might be green and lovely, and the lush mountains and charming villages dotting the countryside of Wicklow might make it a big tourist destination, but Connemara haunts my dreams.

 

It is moody in places and feels desolate in others, I often don’t know if I’m looking at rocks or sheep, but it stirs my soul and calls to me every couple of years. Once I’m out there, I don’t even necessarily know what to do with myself, but I’m happy to be looking at bog cotton and the barren mountains and little thatched cottages that look like something from a dream of Ireland instead of the real thing. As Z guides the Galway Hooker along the narrow road, he says, “It’s a lot browner than I imagined,” and I’m so in love with where I am, that I don’t feel like I have to apologize that there are fewer of Johnny Cash’s forty shades of green here than in other parts of the country.

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Connemara and a few of Johnny’s 40 shades.

A decade ago, I spent a week at a castle with a group of writers with ties to Aspen Words. We were at Kinnitty Castle in the Midlands and though it was lovely there and I had one of the most enriching writing experiences of my life—studying under novelist/memoirst Hugo Hamilton and spending a day and evening with novelist Colum McCann—I felt let down not to be in Connemara. When I arrived at the castle, which had been in existence in one form or another since the 13th century, I felt off my game. It was not in the Ireland that I was most familiar with, and the others in the group were all older than me and richer than me. We had in our midst, amongst others, a couple on the Fortune 400 list and a countess. The first night, alone in my four-post bed, staring out the Gothic window, I was near tears and ready to head home because I felt so out of place. But then my cousin Mary called me to see when I’d be coming “home” to County Galway, and suddenly, I felt not so alone and more than a little spoiled that I would let myself get into this low state when I was staying in a castle in very princess-y accommodations. Never mind I didn’t have a second home (or even a first one) and hadn’t been a major donor to a presidential campaign.

 

That week at Kinnitty was grand. Hugo Hamilton’s writing workshops changed the way I led my own, I realized that despite the size of their stock portfolios the people in this group really were just people, and I made a few friends. The owner of the castle chatted with us one night in the dungeon pub about the various ghosts in residence, and he seemed a little too pleased that a ghost hunting show had come to the castle to film paranormal activity. Later though, talking to two different members of the wait staff, the tales of haunting seemed more legitimate. One server said she refused to go in the banquet hall alone and reported that someone down in the Dungeon Pub had seen a hooded monk there. It felt like the perfect setting for a murder mystery like Ten Little Indians, where one by one, various guests are picked off.

 

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Kinnitty Castle, 2005

With Kinnitty as my only Irish castle experience, I’m not sure what to prepare myself for when Z and I pull off the N59 in Clifden looking for Abbeyglen Castle Hotel where we’ll be spending the night. As we wind our way up the drive and spill into an overflow parking lot, the buildling is impressive enough there on the hillside overlooking the little town and the estuary that eventually spills into the Atlantic. It’s more Victorian than I’d imagined, and with its helipad and tennis courts it seems more like a stately home. It’s too early to check-in, but when we enter the lobby it’s clear that it is more 19th century than actual archers-in-the-turrets castle like we were clambering around in Wales. Though it is much bigger, it gives me a sense of Fawlty Towers at first glance, perhaps because there is a parrot near the reception desk that says, “Goodbye” whenever guests walk past.

 

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Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, complete with throne to greet you and a piece of our luggage.

 

Mary has recommended the castle restaurant for our evening meal where, it seems, you eat what is being served for the night instead of ordering from a menu. I am a picky eater with the palate of a four-year-old and the delicate stomach of an octogenarian, so after we walk back into town to kill time, we phone the front desk multiple times to see what will be on the evening’s menu so we’ll know if we need to make alternate plans. Every time we call, we’re told to call back later because the chef hasn’t decided yet what he’s serving. On the last call, the receptionist says brightly, “Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be lovely. It always is!” We decide that a better plan for us might be to have an in-room picnic, so we walk to the nearest Clifden Gas-n-Sip and piece together the makings of a meal, and then head back to check in. Later, when we finally get the final word on the menu, it was the correct choice (for me anyhow–I am not a duck confit kind of person).

 

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Abbeyglen Castle grounds looking towards Clifden

Our room is massive with a canopy bed, a fireplace, wing-back chairs, and a bathroom that our living room in Seattle would easily fit into, complete with a claw-foot tub where I spend an hour soaking and pretending my lady-in-waiting will be ushering me into a velvet robe when I get out.

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The bed I’ve been looking for my entire life.

We watch rugby in our room, sitting in the worn wingback chairs by the fireplace, our feet propped on the single bed that randomly juts into the sitting area, and nosh on our meal. Z says, “This place is an interesting combination of ‘posh’ and ‘worn’, isn’t it?” It is. But I feel strangely pleased by this combination and by our dining choices. It is comfortable, and I don’t feel haunted or homesick at all. Also, there is supposedly a tie in our family lineage to Eleanor of Aquitane, so that canopy bed is feeling like my divine right even if we are in Ireland instead of England or France.

 

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Abbeyglen Castle room with bonus single bed.

What does make me homesick, however, is the lack of room wi-fi. After dinner, we head to the lobby to check our mail. Though I know it is “ugly American” behavior, I feel indignant that I should be staying in castle where the website boasts fine amenities, but then I have to sit in the lobby with all the other guests glued to their screens. I grumble. It feels like an airport, as if we’re killing time on Facebook before our planes take off to their disparate destinations. That said, I am wearing my glorious green cape, which makes it feel slightly more glamorous than the all Internet Call Shops I used to have to frequent on my Irish trips.

 

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My kingdom for a hotspot.

We leave early the next morning for the teeny town of Cleggan and the ferry that will take us to Inisbofin, an island hanging off the western coast and a favorite spot of mine since I went there ages ago with another group of writers and poets Mickey Gorman and Gerry Donovan. Because we’re so early and the ferry doesn’t leave for a couple of hours, we wander into a pub next to the field where we’ve been directed to park, ask if they mind if we sit with our luggage, which still seems too huge despite John and Mary having reduced our load by half. We sip early-morning-appropriate beverages, eat crisps—the only food on offer at this time, write postcards, and wander outdoors to introduce ourselves to the neighbor donkey. While I sit there, I think about my fantasy of living in a small village and how idyllic it would be, but then simultaneously realize how much I’d feel like I was in a goldfish bowl with everybody down the pub knowing your business. There’s no pleasing me.

 

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Cleggan welcoming committee.

Finally, we roll our bags down to the dock to catch the ferry. A decade ago when my mother and I made this same trip, we stood at the back of the small boat like a pair of lunatics, getting soaked from the waves that splashed us, and cackling with glee as the boat heaved and ho’d through the icy Atlantic. I’ve been telling Z that the ride will be rough, but when we arrive at the dock, the boat is much larger than last time and it turns out we’ve had rougher rides on the sedate Washington State Ferry System than we will on this one.

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ShellE, regular stowaway on all my journeys, enjoys the Inishbofin ferry.

We opt to sit out front and look at the mountains, the craggy cliff faces, and eventually as we nose our way into the island’s harbor, Cromwell’s barracks from the 16th century, where supposedly Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen, once lived. (Grace O’Malley seems to have lived a great many places in the west of Ireland!)

 

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I prefer thinking of this as Grace O’Malley’s castle instead of Cromwell’s barracks, but suspect there is more historical accuracy in the latter.

 

On my other two trips here, I’ve stayed at the Doonmore Hotel, high up on the hill, partly because it was the only hotel on the island. On one of the rainy, gloomy days Mom and I were there, the power was cut while repairs were made to the cable that brings the electricity to the island, a relatively recent development: the island wasn’t electrified until the 1980s. So Mom and I poked our noses into the hotel lounge to see if it was a place where we could pass some time, and as luck would have it, the owner, Mrs. Murray, was there. She ushered us in, commanded someone to bring a pot of tea and biscuits, and we settled in for the rest of the afternoon, getting to know her and learning about the island hotel life. It was one of those delightfully happy accidents that happens to me only in Ireland. Because of this fond memory, I can’t say what made me book our room at the newer, closer-to-the-docks, Inishbofin House Hotel, but I did. Nearly as soon as we arrive there, who do I spy but my cousin Brendan (Catherine’s brother), who has been working at the hotel for the summer. Another happy accident I wouldn’t have had the benefit of if I’d been true to the Doonmore.

 

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Inishbofin, heather and sheep/rocks.

 

Our room has a view of the harbor, and it’s glorious out. Possibly the most beautiful day I’ve ever seen on all of my visits, and therefore I cannot explain what compels me to leave my camera back at the hotel when we venture out. I have no photographic evidence of how sunlight hits every surface in a perfect, magical way, and scenery looks like it was fabricated by a Hollywood prop department. But it’s true. Everything sparkles and shines.

 

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Inishbofin, view from our room.

I grew up with access to the country—spent summers frolicking in the cow pasture at my grandparents’ farm, played with kittens in the hay mow at my aunt’s farm—but until I am on Inishbofin, it is a quality of freedom that I forget ever having had. (Possibly, because there are no parental units here warning us off of a particular walk or activity, it is actually more free than those childhood rambles.) If you asked me what there is to do on the island, I would be honest and tell you the truth as I see it: absolutely nothing. And it is glorious.

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Inishbofin

There are cars on the island, but they aren’t really a worry and the drivers seem to know that tourists will be gawping in the middle of the road. (Plus, Irish drivers are at least 80% more careful and polite than in the US, even on the mainland.)

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The narrow roads of Inishbofin.

So we walk. We talk to cows. We watch sheep scuttling across a distant hillside as a dog nips at their heals. We stop at an old cemetery and marvel at the Celtic cross gravestones marking the resting places of centuries of island dead. When we get to the water I’m shocked by how the best descriptor for its color is sapphire. It’s windy and too cold to comfortably wade, so we find shelter next to a tall rock, eat a packet of crisps, and try to soak up all the beauty. We’re on island time and the ocean air relaxes us better than any drug could. We eat supper in the hotel restaurant and sleep well.

 

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On the island, we sleep like babies, but fortunately not like this one, found lashed to a post on one of our rambles.

The next day I’m determined to see the seal colony on the other side of the island. On the last two trips here it has been a failed goal due to weather or lethargy, so Z and I pack our lunch, grab the map that has little on it other than three trails we can take. I pick the one with “seal colony” written along the far coast and we start walking. On the way, we pass the public school, where the children have painted murals depicting the history of Inishbofin, including the 1927 Cleggan fishing disaster that is mentioned in all of the island literature because it was so devastating, the island getting electricity, and a mysterious panel from the 1960s called “The Cocoa Years” that leaves me hankering for a café and an explanation, neither of which is forthcoming.

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The Cocoa Years predated the Electricity Years. Which would you pick?

The ground on our walk is uneven, rocky most places and then surprisingly spongy when we reach the bog—from which turf is cut to heat island homes. There in dark peat someone has spelled out with small rocks, “Aisling, will you marry me?” and someone, one hopes not Aisling, has spelled out beneath it a rocky “NO.”

 

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Maybe next time DON’T propose in the bog?

We reach the seal colony, and there they are, waiting on us, bobbing up in greeting. I peer west and pretend to see America. We settle down on a rock, ready to tuck into our picnic when the midges start biting. We move. They follow. We move again. There’s no getting away from them unless we keep moving, so we have a walking picnic instead, munching and traipsing across the hillside. It’s not part of my magical dream and we’ve walked about six miles so I had been looking forward to sitting down for a while, but I can, on occasion, still tap into my inner Girl Scout and adapt to changes of plan.

 

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Amerikay is out there somewhere.

The place is covered in sheep and thus, sheep crap, but it is my idea of heaven. We run into very few people, so the walk is desolate (other than the sheep). I spin in circles with my arms outstretched, Julie Andrews style, and sing the first few bars of “The Hills are Alive” and Z just shakes his head.

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Steep hill, sheep crap, midges–yet I couldn’t be happier here.

I love being out here with no place to be, no one pushing us along to the next tourist site, no sense that I should be dong something better with my time. In the front of my journal, I have written “You are here; this is now.” It’s meant to remind me not to live in the future or the past, but I daily fail to live up to this goal and distract myself from the present with some memory or plan. Even if we are at a beach somewhere lovely, I often find that I’m troubled because I feel if I close my eyes for a nap or pick up a book to read, that I am somehow not fully taking in the moment. But on this day, hiking around these sheepy hills? This day, I reach my goal.

 

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Inishbofin.

 

As we walk along the edge of the island, we can see the derelict buildings on Inishark in the distance, an island that is no longer inhabited. We hear the water crash against the rocks below us. A colony of big rabbits has threatened to take over the island, and I’m happy to see so many of them only because I’m not an islander and don’t have to deal with the havoc they are wreaking.

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A Bofin Bunny.

As we make our way back towards civilization, we pass the Doonmore and I say hello to it and think good thoughts about Mrs. Murray. By the time we make our way back to the hotel, we’ve hiked twelve miles and we’re both in need of Advil, but this day will be one of my favorite memories of this entire trip. In the evening, a traditional céilidh band is playing, and I nudge Z away from the room and towards the music for what to me is the cherry on the top of a perfect day.

 

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Inishbofin cottage

Before we arrived, I assumed I could comfortably make this my last trip to Inishbofin in lieu of future trips to other islands I’ve never investigated, but after today, I’m not sure I’ll ever be done with this outpost. And what I don’t know yet but learn the next day when we leave the island is that Mrs. Murray has just died and as we are sailing back to the mainland tomorrow, her body will be returning to the island one last time. This is no “happy” accident, but even so, I feel weirdly lucky to have been on Inishbofin, thinking of that afternoon tea with her eleven years ago, when her own island story was ending. It’s a melancholy thing, but it warms me.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Galway Hooker venturing towards Galway Bay

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

 

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View from our damp dock picnic perch

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

 

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In the UCG courtyard, recounting past glories

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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Oh, Charlie Byrne’s–you never disappoint!

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

 

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

 

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Galway Cathedral window

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

 

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Galway Cathedral

 

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

 

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

 

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Galway’s iconic swans

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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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 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.

St. Paul Snapshots

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St. Paul Cathedral

St. Paul Cathedral

When I am in Seattle, the Midwest exists in my mind as a singular place where everyone has a shared sense of values, habits, conversational tics, and driving styles, and where the landscape is a sea of rolling hills and horizon dotted with cows and corn. There are specific things about Richmond, Indiana, that I miss, but often enough, what I miss is that less specific country called the Midwest.

 

So when Z and I visit Minnesota, where he spent the first twelve years of his American life going to college and grad school, I am often surprised by how foreign it feels to me because I am expecting it to be Indiana. Last week we flew into the Twin Cities in order to attend the wedding reception of one of Z’s college roommates, and though in the first couple of hours I was bouncing around at all the things that were magically familiar (the landscape! the manners! stores that sell plus-size underpants!), before long, I started noticing the differences. Only I couldn’t quite name them; I only knew that I was not yet fully home.

 

The houses there—things that appear to have been designed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright–line tree-filled boulevards on Summit Avenue and other similar routes and are different than the brick Federals and turreted Victorian and mid-century ranch houses that fill my hometown. The grocery chains are different. People seem more mannered but also a little more distant (in a polite way) than at home. A phrase like “You betcha!” takes me aback when I first hear it because I realize it isn’t just a quirk of the characters in Fargo. The accents are almost the exact opposite of the southern twang and drawn out syllables that let’s me know I’ve ventured into my particular county in East Central Indiana, where the inhabitants often have connections to Appalachia.

 

House on Summit Avenue

House on Summit Avenue

And frankly, every time I’m in the Twin Cities, I’m completely shocked to re-discover that the Mississippi River is not just a southern entity.

 

Another thing that surprises me is the realization that Z has rich memories from his time in St. Paul and though I’ve heard the stories multiple times and met many of the players, those memories—no matter how diligent I am in imagining them—will never be mine.

 

The best cure for this ailment of mine is usually to make new memories, so we got to it. We visited with old friends at favorite haunts (no trip to St. Paul is complete without breakfast at the St. Clair Broiler), walked around his old campus to see the changes there (campus bookstore moved off campus—do not approve even if it is next to Garrison Keillor’s bookstore!), drove an hour to the little town where the wedding reception was (we got lost and there was some verbal abuse directed at Siri) and enjoyed an evening of nuptial revelry before heading back to the cities.

 

For this trip to St. Paul, Z’s old friend McGregor hosted us at her new, adorable house, which we found much cozier than the hotel we usually Priceline when we are in the cities. She has a lush garden because she was born with “green fingers” as Z-ma calls it, and were I not mosquito averse, we would have spent more time in it. It was charming and cozy and I say this as a person who generally does not notice things like gardens because I prefer being indoors.

Path into McGregor's Garden

Path into McGregor’s Garden

We played Scrabble and chatted and some of us (ahem) were coveting her hardwood floors and woodwork. She and Z caught up on the people they have in common and again, I felt those little jealous fingers tickling me under the chin. It’s ridiculous really. I have good friends. We have had good times. But somehow, his history seems 3-D in Surround Sound and mine is more like a Viewmaster reel. He lived in an apartment once with plumbing problems so severe that one had hold an umbrella while using the toilet. I never had an apartment with quirky facilities!

 

Z's former leaky apartment.

Z’s former leaky apartment.

 

One place we visit every time we go to St. Paul is this lovely shop called Irish on Grand. If you love Ireland and miss Ireland like I do, then going to a shop like this and talking to the proprietor makes you feel almost like you are there. I don’t need any more Irish sweaters, pottery, jewelry, or other Celtic doo-dads, but I feel better just knowing if I have a sudden urge, I can get them there. When we stop in for a visit, we always buy whatever Tayto Crisps (best potato chips ever: my favorite, Smoky Bacon) they have available and then get either a book or a new CD. Once, I loved a band I’d discovered there so much that I accidentally bought the same CD on the next visit. On this trip, I opted not to buy any music just to be safe.

 

Irish on Grand--excellent shop for Eire-ophiles!

Irish on Grand–excellent shop for Eire-ophiles!

As luck would have it, we happened to be in time for the Minnesota Irish Fair on Harriet Island. It’s reportedly the biggest free Irish festival in the U.S., and so we boarded a shuttle marked Galway and made the short trek to the festival, which was just getting under way.

Minnesota Irish Fair 2014

Minnesota Irish Fair 2014

We were a bit too early to see the revelry that looked bound to happen later in the weekend when Gaelic Storm and The Water Bhoys performed, but it was still a good time. I got to pet two hot-looking Irish Wolfhounds in the Celtic Canine tent. Between roasted corn and drinks, we also managed to see some Irish step-dancing, though admittedly, instead of focusing on the performances, I spent more time lamenting that the costumes had gotten so garish (sequins! neon knotwork!) and the wigs had grown more ridiculous in the decade and a half  since Riverdance hit America  and the Irish dancing resurgence began.

Nicki Minaj should wear this--not an adorable 10 year old celebrating her Celtic heritage.

Nicki Minaj should wear this–not an adorable 10 year old celebrating her Celtic heritage.

At one point, I had to keep redirecting myself to watch the footwork instead of the wig of the dancer in front of me who had yet to perform. Despite the visual assault, the dancing was remarkable.

Irish dancer "hair"--so springy! so lifelike!

Irish dancer “hair”–so springy! so lifelike!

Irish dancing always chokes me up, and I don’t know why. I’ll be clapping and having a good time, and then all the sudden there is a tightness in my throat and I start sniffing so the tears won’t spill over. It must be genetic.

 

Minnesota Irish Fair 2014

Minnesota Irish Fair 2014

On the last day in the Twin Cities, we sat in McGregor’s backyard amongst the flowers and vegetables watching Z go through a tub of his things that McGregor has been storing for a decade or so. She and I were keen for Z to whittle down the items he had in storage, but then when push came to shove, as he threw things away, we’d exclaim, “But you don’t want to get rid of those!” even if “those” was just a pair of old rugby socks. He just shook his head at us. As he chucked letters and menus from awards dinners into the trash, I rescued the best so he’d have a semi-accurate historical record of his past. He has two more tubs to go through on our next trip. Maybe by then, McGregor and I will be willing to let him let go of more memories.

 

And thus begins our summer sojourn back to the Heartland.

 

Paul Bunyan; Cusack style.

Paul Bunyan; Cusack style.

 

 

Flashback Friday: The Sea is Wide and I Cannot Swim Over

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[In this final installment from Ireland, I pack my bags for home and try to make sense of the personal and the political.]

Monday, March 27, 2006

There’s something about leaving Ireland that makes it imperative that you listen to all of your favorite Van Morrison songs immediately. Lucky for me, I had several on my iPod and so could begin the lament on the long train journey from Waterford to Limerick before I ever got on the plane. I started with ‘Carrickfergus’ where the line about Kilkenny had new meaning to me, and ended with “Won’t You Stay.”

The last day in Ireland was a drizzly one, so it took awhile to get moving. I have about a sixty minute tolerance for museums of any sort, so even though I’d been warned to have three hours for the Waterford Treasures museum, I had to walk around the town centre, poking my head into stores, getting dew kissed from the drizzle, and generally feeling a part of life there before trekking to the museum. The Irish coat I bought when I was there in November must make me look more like a native, because again I was asked for directions. This time, sadly, I had no answers.The museum is nicely done and has a remarkable amount of interactive “treasures” as well as the more traditional kind. The first thing I did was go into a little theatre where an aluminum version of a Viking ship made up the seating area. I was the only person in there and almost got hysterical when the movie started and the ship started rocking back and forth beneath me. The movie itself was silly–about a bunch of Vikings making the journey from York back to Waterford, calling out to a horned old disembodied head who must have been Odin. But the creaking of the aluminum bleacher-seat ship was worth 12 minutes of movie boredom. I was only sorry that I was alone on it and so my laughter must have seemed a bit deranged.

Probably the most impressive piece in the whole museum is the city charter, which is, essentially, a bunch of documents about mayors and city ordinances written and illustrated on vellum and then sewn together into one big historical quilt. I liked seeing man’s history presented in such a girly fashion. Which brings me to my main beef with museums and history in general. I can rarely find myself there. Sure, there might be some bowls women served food in, a beaded necklace of some ancient peoples, but mostly what you see are the stories of men. Likely, they affected the women in fringe ways, but I would prefer learning about women’s lives & that forgotten history. What shaped domestic life instead of how a political action shaped a nation’s history, or, to borrow words from the Feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I am most interested in how the political shaped the personal. While I don’t care which king presented the Mayor of Waterford with the Cap of Maintenance (which, by the way, looks over much like the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat), I am curious about the woman who helped piece it together or the Lady Mayor who had a laugh with her husband after the presentation about how stupid he looked in it. (“Ohhhh. Don’t you look divine in your cap o’ maintenance, Darling.”) But those aren’t the stories we get in museums or history books because they aren’t considered important. They aren’t national or global. They aren’t worthy of being recorded. In museums, it seems, the female story is predominately relegated to who wore what and which of our dishes were used to feed the men who were fighting the wars and signing the charters. This is an old, unoriginal argument I’m presenting, and it is changing in terms of recorded _modern_ history, but it does have an impact on my level of interest in dusty relics that I pay seven euro to see.

I cruised through the rest of the museum, paying homage to anything that seemed homage worthy, but generally reassuring myself that I am not a bad person or a bad student of life if I don’t love museums, where life and stories are kept in airtight cases.

Back at the Artist’s house that evening, he showed me his artwork from the period right after his wife had died. These were all chalk pastels with mythological figures and death symbols throughout. He explained each one, which I appreciated, because it helped me understand his thought process. Talking about these pieces must have been exhausting for him, both because physically it is hard for him to get breath behind his words and also because of the subject matter. I was overwhelmed by the pain that was in them and found myself having to turn away periodically. After he had shown them to me, I asked about the sketches he did while his wife was dying and he nodded toward the cabinet where they are kept and said that his children can’t even look at them because they are too painful. At that point, the phone rang–two of his friends were taking Belle and me out for a drink–and I felt relieved to have the spell broken and to have been spared witnessing that pain. Even so, as Belle and I were driven away while he stood at the door, holding onto his wheeled-walker, waving goodbye to us, I wanted very much to hop out of the car and insist we spend the evening at home with him instead of drinking with his friends. I wanted to soften the sadness of what I’d just seen. Of course he has lived with these paintings and his grief for several years, so it is likely that I was the only one who needed the softening.

The man who picked us up was the Artist’s neighbor, a retired banker who now travels and studies languages. He drove us to the house of the other man, a sort of care-taker for a Big House that was formerly owned by the Waterford Crystal people. Gates had to be opened before we could drive in. We had drinks there and then later at a 17th century pub which sits under an ancient-looking “flyover” (overpass). We talked about politics (Irish, U.S., Zimbabwean, E.U.) and drank, then went back to the Big House for tea before heading home to our unpacked suitcases. When we got back, the Artist was already in bed, so Belle and I stayed up until 1:30 talking about life, even though we knew we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to catch the cab that would take us to our train. Though we’ve worked together in one form or another for over ten years, we didn’t know all the bits of the other’s life, and it felt good to share

Morning came early, but we made our connections and had only an hour to kill at Shannon Airport. There were a few U.S. service men (I saw no women) walking around in their desert cammies. I felt self-conscious about my black shamrock, anti-U.S.-troops-at-Shannon-Airport button and was glad it was out of view. As much as I don’t believe in this war and don’t believe we should be involving Ireland in our nation-building, I feel none of those things about the soldiers themselves. They are my neighbors, my students, my cousins, and, if I’d been more productive on prom night, they could be my sons.

As we were in the departure hall, we could see a large line of soldiers on the other side of the glass just arriving from their trans-Atlantic flight, ready to be shipped to Iraq. As they walked by us, a few waved tentatively through the glass, and Belle and I and some others felt compelled to wave back. My God did they look young. I know this is what people always say about soldiers, but seriously, these boys looked about 14. And maybe I was reading in, but they looked a little scared too. More people waved. A few clapped. I got teary, thinking of the hardwork they were about to undertake. How some of them wouldn’t be coming home the same as they left. How some of them wouldn’t be coming home at all. I had to turn away, as I had the night before looking at the Artist’s study of grief, because the idea of it all was overwhelming. But then the cheers and chants of “U.S.A.” started and the spell was broken. Suddenly it became not a poignant, human moment, but a sporting event. Our team is best. Our team will win. Our team will trounce your team. Gooooooo team. No doubt there is need to build up the gladiators  before they go into the arena, but it rang false.

My thoughts turned to a local business owner whose marine son recently walked through that same arrivals hall on his way to be a tank gunner. She said this is what he wanted to do with his life, that this is his destiny. She told me the story of how he and a woman he’d met online tried to connect at Shannon so they could meet face-to-face before he went to Iraq. She talked about how upset the woman was when they missed each other, how touched she was that someone cared so much for her son that she would drive all the way from Dublin, just for a glimpse of him. She explained how she sent an angel statue to the woman as thanks. So anyhow, I ignored the cheers and false bravado and thought instead of these two women and this young soldier, and how though I haven’t met him, I hope he comes back in one piece, because this personal story is the one I care about. Not the oil. Not the WMDs. Not even how political boundaries are drawn or how the history books later present the events.

Maybe its juvenile of me to have this attitude, but I don’t think so. Several years ago a friend told me that he believed poetry would save the world. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the concept at the time, though appreciated the validation he gave to my chosen line of work. Now, I think I understand better. It’s the little moments of personal pain or joy that are recorded into the story, the song lyric, the dance, that will do the work all of our peace talks and war making cannot. It is art that will breathe life into dusty relics in those air-tight museum cases, even if it is by way of an aluminum Viking ship and bad video. It is Van Morrison telling us how he longs for the ability to swim or fly or pay a boatman to carry him back to his own ones across a wide sea.