City Stories #3 – Such Fools We Are


City Stories is a semi-regular feature where I write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. In previous stories we visited Brooklyn and Derry.  Today we walk through Virginia Woolf’s London. 

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Clarissa Dalloway’s familiarity with her route to the flower shop meant that she could perambulate Westminster while remembering her youth in the countryside, and pondering her choice of husband.  For a pair of Americans who majored in English literature, however, we need a plan.  To plot our route, I defer to Susan who read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and has an additional graduate degree in English. She spends our flight from Logan to Heathrow highlighting passages from Mrs. Dalloway and charting a course on a map of London.

On our first full day in London in January 2004, we attempt to recreate the route that Clarissa followed eighty years and six months earlier.  On our way to the residential area of Westminster where the Dalloways lived we pass the Houses of Parliament and a statue of Oliver Cromwell.  Filled with the indignant rage of my Irish ancestry, I shake my fist at Cromwell, only to notice the closed circuit camera pointed right at me.  I was now on the the United Kingdom’s list of dangerous people for threatening a statue of one of their leaders.  But as we continue along we saw a large group protesting the war in Iraq holding pointed signs accusing Parliament of being “BABY KILLERS,” so maybe I’m low on that list.

We find the home suspected to be Woolf’s inspiration for the Dalloway’s house in a quiet residential area near the home once occupied by T.E. Lawrence.  From there we set off on our walk, not to find flowers, but the delights of London.  As the leaden circles of Big Ben’s chime dissolve in the air, we prepared to cross Victoria Street. Susan informs me that at this point Clarissa thought “Such fools we are!” while crossing the street and so we should as well. But as we start to cross a motor scooter zips by and nearly runs Susan over.  That would be a foolish way to go.

Smiling after not being flattened by a motor scooter on Victoria Street.

Safely across Victoria Street we divert from Mrs. Dalloway’s route and into Westminster Abbey. Over time this church has accrued so much statuary and memorial plaques as to become something of an unofficial English Hall of Fame and Museum. The area around Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave is known as Poets’ Corner where there are burials and monumental plaques for over 100 English writers. An egregious absence from Poets’ Corner is Virginia Woolf.

After examining every nook and cranny of the Abbey, we emerge outdoors and enter into St. James Park. There is no airplane skywriting over the park but it is a quiet respite with “the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” in the Lake. Additional birds cavorting around the lake include pigeons, geese, and most exotic to Americans, coots.  Unlike other water birds, coots do not have webbed feet but instead have long toes with lobes of skin.  A bird that’s completely out of place in London is the pelican, but the lake is also home to a flock of pelicans descended from those donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador.  One pelican has its back to the government offices, just like Hugh Whitbread whom Clarissa meets in the park.  So we decide this pelican’s name is Hugh and carry on.

We march up Whitehall past the Cenotaph and Horse Guards.  No backfiring cars startle us, but we once again diverge from Clarissa Dalloway’s route and make our way to Trafalgar Square. We visit the cheery crypt of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where we enjoy a delicious late lunch. Above, in the nave of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, we listen to a soprano and counter-tenor rehearse for that night’s performance.

In Trafalgar Square, we pick up on the route of Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old friend and potential suitor. Here Peter pondered “strangeness of standing alone, alive, unknown, at half-past eleven.”  It is much later in the day for us and as we were also unknown we join the crowds of tourists clambering up the Nelson monument to visit the cuddly lions.  We help a fellow American up behind us, but then she promptly falls on her face.  Luckily there are no injuries.  Nearby a pair of young women sit looking at the South Africa house because they say it’s helping with their homesickness.  The South Africans are traveling across Europe, visiting 11 cities in 12 days with a focus on dancing at the top nightclubs in every city.  No wonder they look exhausted.

We notice a bird of prey with a tether on its leg circling overhead and an the absence of Trafalgar Square’s famed pigeons and wonder if the two our connected.  We see two men wearing vests that read Heritage Guardians and approach them with our questions.

“Excuse me, what kind of bird is that?”

“It’s an ‘arris ‘awk.”

“Does it keep the pigeon population down?”

“The ‘awk keeps the pigeon population moving. It’s the boys with the shovels on Sunday morning that keep the pigeon population down.” He makes his meaning clear by using his hands to make the international gesture for braining a pigeon with a shovel.

Susan remembers that Peter Walsh looked up to a statue of Gordon, an historical figure he’d worshipped, but we can’t find the statue anywhere. We return to the Heritage Guards with another question.

“Do you know where the Statue of Gordon is?”

“Gordon of Khartoum?” replies one with a mix of surprise and confusion.

“No, not a cartoon!” says Susan with greater confusion. Clearing up the difference between cartoon and Khartoum, they have further questions.

“Does he ride a horse?” asks one.

“Does he wear a fez?” asks the other.

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  One of the guards thinks that the statue was moved from Trafalgar Square just after the Second World War, and directs us to the Embankment by the Thames.

“There’s a statue there, might as well be ‘im!”

Susan has an Ahab-like obsession to stand under the Gordon statue like Peter Walsh and leads us down Northumberland Avenue to a park along the Embankment.  There are in fact two statues in this park, but the problem is that they’re behind a fence and the gates are locked.  After trying to find a way into the park or verify the statues’ identity from afar, we realize that the sun is setting and our stroll should come to an end.*

We determine the nearest Tube station for a line that will take us to meet up with our host Sarah is across the Thames at Waterloo Station.  We bounce across the Hungerford Footbridge to the tune of “Take Five.” At the far end of the bridge a blonde woman busks on her saxophone.

For there she was.


* NOTE: With the help of Google Streetview, I’ve been able to locate the Charles George Gordon Statue in a park on the Victoria Embankment just one block up the Thames from where we were looking.  Not only that, but the park has no enclosure so we totally could’ve stood under the Gordon statue.  Other Woolfheads, take note!

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City Stories #2 – A Throbbing, Pumping Madhouse


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist.   Today’s story recounts my visit to Derry, Northern Ireland in early February 1998.  If you want to read of my adventures as a child barfly in Brooklyn, check out City Stories #1 – The Pigeons.

 

In six weeks touring through Ireland and Britain, I travel via train, bus, ferry, bicycle, and often by foot.  Uniquely, I arrive in Derry, Northern Ireland by car.  John and Johanna, a couple I met at the hostel in Coleraine who invited me to join them on their outing to the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim Coast, generously offer to drive me to Derry as it is along their planned route into Donegal.  I should be grateful, and I am, but there is a certain beauty to solo travel — setting your own pace, visiting the places only you want to see, and not having to yell directions over the sound of the radio to two people completely incompetent in the art of navigation.

I stew in the backseat, counting down the kilometers to Londonderry from the road signs.  I can also tell we are getting closer by increasing displays of the symbols of sectarianism.  We pass through villages painted entirely in blue and red along the curbs and up the light poles, letting us know that the residents are Unionists, the Protestants who prefer that Northern Ireland remain a province of the United Kingdom.  Then we pass through villages of the Catholic Nationalists, who wish to unite the Six Counties with the Irish Republic and paint their curbs and lampposts in green and orange.   The territories are well marked and grow increasingly so as we approach Derry, the hotbed of sectarian warfare.  As the sun sets and the skies darken, the territorial colors are less noticeable, but as we pull into the city, I notice something else.  All the windows on ground floors of the houses and businesses are covered with metal grates.  I see only a few unprotected windows and without fail, they are shattered.  The car pulls up to Steve’s Backpackers Hostel, my lodging for the next three nights.

Even after entering the hostel, I cannot rid myself of my generous yet irritating companions.  John tags along with me and collars the hostel employee on duty for a lengthy discussion regarding directions to Donegal.  It’s half and hour before I can even register at the hostel.  Instead, in that time I sit in the cozy kitchen – which as in many hostels doubles as a reception area – sipping complimentary tea, and slowly realizing that all the decorations on the walls contain scenes of political violence.  Newspaper clippings show Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) men leading baton charges against infuriated protesters, the wreckage of a burning bus, and lines of soldiers marching through otherwise peaceful suburban streets.  Steve’s Backpackers evidently wishes to make it known that Derry is not a place travelers visit for Broadway shows, exotic scenery, or pink sand beaches.  Which begs the question, why have I come to Derry?

Raised by my parents as a student of modern Irish history, Derry fascinates me as a the flashpoint of the Catholic civil rights struggle in the 1960’s and the ensuing decades of sectarian warfare understatedly termed “The Troubles.”  By visiting Derry, I hoped to see the places I’d read about and somehow make them more tangible and see beyond the black-and-white of a Catholic struggle against British repression, perhaps even see other sides of the story beyond what I learned from my parents and from books.  An additional motive is something of a false bravado.  Part of me wants to see friends’ faces light up as they exclaim, “You went there!”  I know full well that in the midst of cease-fires and peace talks, there was no safer time to be in the province.  In fact, the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement would occur just months after my visit.  Finally, I want to visit Derry for the snog.  Despite all expectations to the contrary, Derry holds a reputation as a party town with a lively pub and nightclub scene.  A sidebar in the 1998 Lets Go Ireland travel guide comically describes how at the end of the night, young men and women partner up on the sidewalks outside of Derry’s pubs for snog – the local slang for what Americans call necking.  Being painfully shy and rarely fortunate in the arena of casual romance, I reckon it’s worth a shot.

John and Johanna finally depart, and Brett shows me around the hostel.  Brett is a slender, clean-cut man of about the same height and age as myself, and like most of the people I meet in Ireland, he is from Australia.  Steve’s Backpackers is another stop for Brett as he works his way across Europe.  The hostel itself is no more than a couple of row houses joined together, the rooms filled with bunk beds.  The rooms are cozy and cluttered, no attempts at making the sheets conform to a standard pattern, and there are raggedy curtains tacked back from the windows.  The whole place exudes a comfy and casual atmosphere; well worn and comfy like an old shoe.  I love it.  The only single bed in the dorm room on the second floor is free, so I drop my bag on it to stake my claim.

In the hallway, a door is marked with a sign labeled “MAP OF BATHROOMDERRY,” the sociopolitical geography of Derry summed up in a lavatory.  A hand-drawn map replicates the bathroom, marking the toilet as Bogside, a pun on the slang term for toilet as well as the name of the working class Catholic neighborhood where Steve’s Backpackers is located.  The bathtub is marked Waterside, again a pun, as it is also the name of Derry’s largest Protestant district.  The Craigavon Floor connects the toilet and the bathtub on the map just as the Craigavon Bridge crosses the River Foyle tying together Bogside and Waterside.  In a bit of silliness, the mapmaker labeled other features of the bathroom as Sinkside and Doorside, although these lack parallels in the city of Derry.

Back downstairs, I sip another cup of tea and study my guidebook until interrupted by the hostel owner himself.  Steve, a rosy-cheeked Scot with a cherubic smile, comments on the snog sidebar and asks with a gleam in his eye, “Do you think that’s a good way to market Derry to tourists?”

“Sure,” I reply, “Why not print pamphlets that say ‘Derry, the Snog Capital of the World.'”  Together we create a marketing plan destined to draw legions of horny young adults on snog pilgrimages.  Referring back to the description in the guide, I ask, “Is it really like that?”

Steve winks, and responds, “You’ll have to find out for yourself.”

He introduces me to some other guests and I accompany them to the Rivers Inn Cellars, an historic pub within the walls of Derry – and more importantly the place where one can get the cheapest pint of Guinness in town.  My companions are Bailey, an art student from Northern California who is tall, slender and has a coif of black hair reminiscent of a New Wave rocker; Mickey Murphy of Portadown, Northern Ireland who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic Rowan Atkinson, so much so that some of our group take to calling him the “Irish Mr. Bean;” and a petite, dark-haired German woman named Jutta, an activist in the Nationalist cause making an extended residence at the hostel.

As fellow travelers to Derry, we all know a friend or family member who warned us against traveling in Northern Ireland.  We agree that it’s safer to be in a city in Northern Ireland than one in America.  The elevated police and military presence due to the Trouble make ordinary crimes less common.  Bailey declares, “No tourist has been killed here in over thirty years.”  As it to defend the reputation of his homeland for violent behavior, Mickey counters with a story of a riot he experienced the previous summer.  A French photographer, fresh from the battlefields of Bosnia, told Mickey that that violence in Derry was worse than any he’d seen in the Balkans.

“When they riot in Derry,” comments Mickey with a touch of pride, “they know how to do it.  They plan ahead!”

I ask if the snog scene in Derry is for real.  Bailey is not impressed.  “The pick-up scene is easy here, but its weird.  The other night I was snogging this Derry girl, and she kept stopping me, saying ‘Please don’t stick your tongue in my mouth,’ and ‘Please don’t put your hand on my ass.'”  Apparently, one can find snog in Derry, but will be disappointed if you want something more.

I enjoy the convivial atmosphere of the Rivers Inn Cellars with my new friends, listening to Mickey tell an amusing story about Ireland’s Gaelic Football All-Star Team’s drunken and destructive tour of America, or agreeing that “The Simpson” are the perfect representation of the American family.  Then begins the typical hipster-traveler talk that stirs my dread and envy.  Bailey tells of smoking pot and playing chess in a café in Amsterdam, and then he and Mickey compare the best cities in Europe to buy and sell drugs.  I feel relieved when someone says it’s time to move on to the Strand Bar for live Irish music, so I won’t have to discuss or defend my drug-free existence.

We exit through the main gates in the city walls into the car-free zone of the city center, a pedestrian strip lined with pubs, clubs, and shops.  As in Belfast and other Northern Ireland cities, driving in the center city is restricted to prevent car bombings.  The resulting pedestrian area is a lively place for shopping by and for partying by night, and the Strand is one of the many businesses that benefits.  This popular bar and nightclub – a “throbbing, pumping madhouse,” as Brett describes it to me the next day – contains four floors of entertainment.  We head to the basement where a band called Against the Grain plays to a throng of Derry youth.  Like many bar bands, Against the Grain draws on an arsenal of classic rock covers and traditional Irish standards, but this being Derry, their set list also includes a number of political tunes, or “Republican songs” as Jutia terms them.  A song about Joe McDonnell, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who died in prison during the hunger strikes of 1981, particularly stirs up the audience.  Sung in first person, the song relates a litany of abuses by Britain and the Unionists that McDonnell believes justify his actions in striking back.  The kicker comes in the chorus:

“And you dare to call me a terrorist

while you looked down your gun

When I think of all the deeds that you have done

You have plundered many nations divided many lands

You have terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand

And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”

As these words are sung, the crowd surges toward the stage, singing in unison, and pumping their fists in the air.  The transformation from carefree youth dancing and swaying to this demonstration of political unity is disjointing.  Even though I’d heard “Joe McDonnell” played before in America, I find myself pondering the lyrics with new insight, unable to let go of the fear and horror I find within the words even as Against the Grain and the audience swing back to happy sing-a-longs of love songs by Van Morrison.

Last call comes shortly afterwards, and we find ourselves pouring out into the street, mingling with the multitudes from the other floors of the Strand and the neighboring pubs.  This is the time to match up for snog, should Let’s Go be believed.  Still overwhelmed from the performance at the Strand, and exhausted from a day of traveling, I’m more interested in going to bed, alone, at the hostel.  That is if I can find the hostel.  I am able to pick out Jutta from the boisterous multitudes and she agrees to lead me back to the hostel.  Jutta tells me she accidentally left her jacket behind at the Strand, but the doors are locked and she can’t get back in to get it.

“I’m so angry I lost my jacket,” she says.  She speaks English with a German accent, but I can also hear an Irish lilt in her voice.

I try to be encouraging. “You can go back in the morning, it will probably still be there, don’t you think.”

“I don’t care about the jacket!  I just want the Bloody Sunday pin that’s on my coat.  It was given to me by Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin at the Bloody Sunday rally.  If anyone touches that pin…”

“Who’s Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin?”

“She’s the wife of Mitchell McLaughlin, the party chairman for the Sinn Fein in Derry.  I met her at the rally and she gave me a pin.”

“Oh,” I said dumbly, feeling amazed that I am walking with someone who has connections with the political wing of the IRA.    We walked along in silence a bit as Jutta’s anger simmered down.

“You like that band?”  She asks.

“Yeah, they were pretty good…”

“I see them quite a bit.  I’m disappointed they didn’t play my favorite song, ‘Sean South of Garryowen,’ do you know that song?”

“Of course.”  I heard “Sean South of Garryowen,” a Nationalist anthem, numerous times at the Irish folk concerts my parents took me to as a kid.

“This band usually plays that song, but they set the words to a Protestant song, ‘The Sash.’  A Republican song to Protestant music, it’s pretty cool.”  I thank her for explaining that to me, and share her disappointment in not hearing the song, although I probably would not have recognized the irony had I heard it played without an explanation.

The next morning I set out to explore the city so nice they named it twice, Derry or more officially (depending on your religiosociopolitical leaning) Londonderry.  Doire is the name given to the area by the city’s patron St. Colmcille, named for the oak groves of his beloved home.  In the seventeenth century, under British colonialism, the capital of England was granted control of Derry adding London to the city’s name.  Today, Catholics still refer to the city only as Derry, and while some Protestants may insist on calling it Londonderry, pretty much everyone ends up calling it Derry for short.  I walk along the fortified walls of the city, never once breached in battle, granting Derry the nickname “The Maiden City.”  A lot of local lore and the ancient root of the Troubles date to 1689 when the city’s Loyalist population defended itself against a siege by James II’s Catholic forces, until finally they were relieved by the armies of King William III.

A portion of the walls are open to pedestrians and I am able to go out as far as the west wall to look out over the Bogside, gazing uphill towards the neat lines of nearly identical row houses covered with a faint haze of smoke from the coal fires that heat the homes and give so many Irish cities a perpetual scent of sulfur.   In the foreground, the words “NO SECTARIAN MARCHES” are spelled out across the balconies of a modern, concrete apartment block. The pedestrian pathway along the top of the wall ends where a metal-frame tower stands fitted with close circuit cameras to keep an eye on the Bogside.  This tower and an adjacent barracks, Bailey informs me later, stand in violation of the Geneva Accords ruling regarding the proximity of military installations to schools.  An elementary school lies a hundred feet away below the city walls.

Heading back toward the main gate, I enter the ancient defensive tower of the city of Derry, today home to the Tower Museum.  Through engaging audiovisual and interactive displays, the museum traces the history of Derry from it’s founding by St. Colmcille to The Troubles of today.  I’m impressed that a section on 18th-century emigration discusses Irish Protestants sailing from Derry to settle in colonial Virginia, my hometown of Williamsburg getting a mention.  The museum does not shy away from current history as an entire gallery is given over to a street scene much like those I saw on the drive to Derry with the curbs and light posts painted in tribal colors.  The exhibit explains the symbolism of sectarianism and oral history videos show local residents speaking candidly of their experiences during the Troubles.

Outside the walls I explore what Steve describes as Derry’s outdoor folk art museum – the murals of Free Derry Corner.  The name comes from a famed sign painted on the end of a row of houses (the rest of the houses are now demolished, but the one gable wall still stands) that states “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY.” The signs dates to the early 1970’s when the Bogside was a “No-Go Zone,” completely under the control of the IRA, the British military unable to break through for three years.  Political murals decorate much of the city’s working class neighborhoods, and Free Derry Corner is home to the most artistic murals, which cover the entire sides of three-story high buildings.  A pair of striking murals use photographic realism to show scenes from Bogside riots: a man in a gas mask holding a Molotov cocktail and women banging trash can lids on the pavement to warn of approaching police.  Many of the murals commemorate Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972 when British paratroopers opened fire on Catholic demonstrators, killing fourteen, sealing the end of the peaceful civil rights movement and the birth of the modern IRA.  These range from portraits of the dead accompanied by calls for justice, to the more subtle mural which pictures two children running around the Bloody Sunday memorial, blissfully ignorant of their home city’s tumultuous past.   Other murals that depict a more hopeful future contain pastoral scenes, a symbol of the peace that nationalists believe will come from unification with the Irish Republic.

I walk along the River Foyle to the foot of the Craigavon Bridge that crosses over to the Protestant Waterside on the east bank.  Here stands a statue of two children reaching out across a gap, a symbol of a hoped-for peace and unity between Derry’s Protestants and Catholics.  I don’t cross the bridge but explore the murals of The Fountain, a small Protestant neighborhood on the west bank of the Foyle.  The mural tradition in Derry actually began among the Protestant community nearly a century earlier, and here I see one of the oldest surviving murals, a tribute to King William III, as always depicted riding a white horse.  Several Fountain murals contain the ubiquitous Red Hand of Ulster, a hand that in both gesture and color screams “Stop!” usually accompanied by the slogan “No Surrender.”  The murals of the Fountain reflect the siege mentality ingrained in the Protestant community (a minority among the larger Catholic population of Derry) since the actual Siege of 1690.  One mural even carries the legend,

“For as long as one hundred of us remain alive we will never, never in any way consent to the rule of the irish.  For it is not for glory we fight, nor riches, nor honours — but for freedom alone, which no man should lose but with his life.”

Tributes to the Loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) picture a man in full military dress, rifle-raised in a threatening posture.  Judging by the murals, the Fountain seems to be saluting a military operation as opposed to the more community-minded efforts of the Bogside.  I find no murals in the Fountain with images of a peaceful future, just remnants of a strife-torn past.  I try to look at these murals with an open mind, but they just creep me out, and so I decide to call an end to my tour.

Back at the hostel, I discuss the murals with Brett and Mickey, and look at Brett’s photo collection of the murals.  When we get to a picture of the King William III mural I saw in The Fountain, Mickey makes the sound and gesture of spitting on King Billy.  Wondering what reaction I’d get, I tell Mickey that I actually live in a town named after King William III.  “What do they call it?” he exclaims, “Bastardsville?”  No, they don’t actually, but when I get home and tell my friends this story, the new nickname gains currency quickly.  I decide to refrain from informing him that I also graduated from the College of William & Mary.

That evening I go out to Peadar O’Donnell’s, a pub known for good traditional music.  While sitting at the bar, a short, burly man in his fifties with wisps of gray-blond hair covering his bald pate stumbles in and looks about trying to locate the toilets.  I point him in the direction of the sign that read Fir Leithras (Irish for men’s restroom).  Returning from the toilets, the man claps me on the shoulder, thanks me for saving his life, and buys me a pint of Guinness.  He introduces himself as Joren from Sweden.  I tell him my name and that I am from Virginia.  Neither of these seemed to make an impression on him. Instead he takes to calling me “Wyoming,” and begins telling me about his one visit to the United States for an anti-nuclear demonstration in Washington, DC twenty-five years earlier, repeating several times “You were not even born!”  I try to correct him on my name and home state, but am met only by reiterations of his trip to Washington.

The third telling of this story is interrupted when the door opens again and two young women enter the pub.  I’m stunned because they are the most beautiful women I’ve seen since arriving in Derry, and even more stunned when the race to bar and embrace Joren.

“There you are!  We’ve been looking all over for you!” they exclaim.   My appreciation of Joren grows as he introduces me to Olivia and Elaine, both students at the local university.

“This is Wyoming, he saved my life!”  The three had met earlier in the day at the Strand, and somehow became separated.  Olivia with short, black hair and a bewitching gleam in her eye tells me that they are from County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, and explains to me the reason why they look so different.

“We’re not like these Derry girls.  You see them with their hair all sprayed up and a lot of makeup caked on.  They like to wear clothes that show a lot of skin.”  While Olivia catches up with Joren, I switch to talking with Elaine, who has long, curly brunette hair and a captivating smile.  When she learns that I am from America she tells me she’ll be studying abroad in Boston next year.  I tell her that I’m planning to move to Boston, I am hopeful that we will meet again.  As the band strikes up the opening chords of a song, Olivia interrupts our conversation.

“I love this song,” she whispers reverently.

“What song is it?” I ask.

“‘Ride On,’ Christy Moore.” she replies.  I shake my head, not recognizing the song title.  She looks me in the eyes and sings, her own eyes reflecting the glow of the peat fire. ” Ride on, see you, I could never go with you, / No matter how I wanted to.”  I am transfixed, feeling for the moment as if she sings just for me.

The four of us emerge from Peadar O’Donnell’s laughing and capering across the pedestrian zone as Elaine and Olivia demonstrate their Irish step-dancing skills.   We return to The Strand, continuing our conversation at the bar on the lower level (much less crowded and noisy than the night before as no band is playing).  Joren takes his leave for the night, thanking me profusely one last time and acknowledging me as a Rocky Mountain state I’ve never been to.  Olivia and Elaine tell me they’re going upstairs to meet a friend, but ask me to wait down below.  I wait for a long time, and finally getting frustrated I head upstairs and find them in animated conversation with their friend.  I try to get their attention, but my efforts fail, and feeling rejected, I storm out of the pub.  I walk home to the hostel feeling drunk, lonely, and depressed.

The next day I take a day-trip to the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh.  I enjoy the museum, but being the off-season the grounds are mostly devoid of people, emphasizing my feeling of loneliness from the night before.  It feels good to return to the vibrant authenticity of Derry.  At the hostel I find most of the hostel staff and guests gathered in the TV lounge watching a fast-cut British program where ordinary men and women comment about members of the opposite sex.  One of the men on the show expresses his frustration at how another man at his university proclaimed that he would have sex with every woman in the residence and had women lining up at his door, and he wonders why women went for these bad guys.  Brett commented, “Women show respect for men by not having sex with them,” adding “I’m the most respected man in the world when it comes to women.”

Cheered by the companionship and silly conversation, I am ready to go out for the night.  After all, I came to Derry partly for the nightlife not to watch television.  I am unable to interest anyone in joining me, as they prefer to lounge about at the hostel.   I return to Peadar O’Donnell’s, half-hoping to find a Swedish matchmaker who will introduce me to Irish women.  Instead I meet Brooke, the Australian woman I’d met previously in Killarney and Dingle, freshly arrived in Derry.  We take a table and catch up on our respective travels.  Like Brett and nearly every other Australian traveler I meet, Brooke is working part-time and taking long breaks to travel around Europe.  She tells me when she finishes her circuit around Ireland she will return to London where she has a job lined up.

“Next year, I want to go to America,” she says.

“Really, which parts?”  I ask, offering my assistance.

“I’d like to go to New York and the West Coast, and maybe a side trip to Atlanta.”

“A side trip to Atlanta?”  I ask puzzled.  I pull out my pocket address book that has a tiny map of the United States.  Unfortunately, it’s so tiny that Atlanta really does look close to New York, so I have to find other ways to convince her.  “They don’t have good trains or buses like they do in Europe.  It will probably take you at least a day to get there from New York.  You’re going to want to fly if you really want to go from New York to Atlanta.”

A woman at the next table introduces herself into the conversation.  Her name is Carmel, a Derry resident, and despite her bleach blonde hair and an excess of make up, she is quite attractive.  Her sister and boyfriend, a tough looking gent from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, soon join her.  I tell him that I might stop in Newcastle later in my holiday, an he takes it upon himself to educate me in the ways of the Geordies (the nickname for Newcastle’s blue collar residents), which seem mostly to involve sprinkling one’s sentence with profanity.

“I love the American accent,” Carmel tells me flirtatiously (I swear she even bats her eyelashes), but due to the looming presence of her spit-and-sawdust boyfriend, I decide not to use that too my advantage.  Instead I decide to call it an early night, my last night in Derry, not once having “caught snog,” but still feeling happy.    I walk home to the hostel, which now does feel like home, or more so since I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve felt so at ease after three days as I do here.  And the warmth and generosity of Steve’s Backpackers makes the biggest difference.

Over breakfast, Steve tells me a story about Halloween in Derry.  Everyone in town dressed up in costumes and hit the pubs and clubs.  A group of men entered one bar costumed as terrorists, but it turned out they actually were terrorists, shooting several people.  A riot ensued, and Steve describes witnessing the surreal scene of the RUC clubbing Elvis Presley and chasing Batman down the street.  The story seems to sum up Derry: funny, a bit bizarre, and terrifying all at once.  Outdoing themselves in hospitality, both Steve and Brett load me up with advice of what do on my next stop in Belfast and then walk me to the door of the hostel.   We pose for a picture together under the hostel sign.  I find it really hard to leave, and begin making plans to return.

(NOTE: 20 years later and still haven’t made it back).

City Stories #1 – The Pigeons


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. The first City Story takes place in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

My grandparents lived in the most boring place in the world.

Correction, my grandparents’ apartment was the most boring place, set in the middle of the world’s most exciting and vibrant city in the world.  My grandparents’ apartment was on the 23rd floor of the western building of the Towers of Bay Ridge, right where the Belt Parkway splits from the Gowanus Expressway.  My sister and I spent many a childhood weekend seeking some escape from the boredom that permeated from every corner of that apartment, including through the plastic-covered sofa.

As a child visiting this apartment – especially when it wasn’t Christmastime when at least there were new toys to play with – entertainment was hard to come by.  Television was the preferred source of diversion, but it wasn’t always available to us as my grandparents were watching their programs, or otherwise forbidden us from watching. Taking out the garbage was always a welcome chore as it meant being able to drop bags of rubbish one by one down a chute to a compactor in the basement.  After disposing our trash, we could keep the door to the chute open and if we were lucky we could see trash falling from higher stories and take the chance of trying to catch some.

Once these options were exhausted, my sister and I diverged on what to do next.  She often ended up in our uncle’s former room, excavating old issues of Mad magazine that were still piled in his closet.  I made my way to the terrace – what my grandparents called the small concrete balconies that clung tenuously to the brick facade of the Towers.  From here I could get a view of  New York City’s famous skyline, bridges, and even a tiny green dot I knew was the Statue of Liberty. I could also see a massive bus yard, where half-concealed by a building, I got a tantalizing view of what looked like red London-style double-decker buses, but could never verify for sure if that’s what they were. *

Eventually, one of our grandparents would have to take us outside. If it was our grandmother, we would typically end up in the Tower’s playground. The centerpiece of this playground was a geodesic half-dome one could climb up and dangle by one’s knees, knowing that should one fall, one’s head would be protected by a thin layer of rubber spread over the asphalt.

I always preferred it when our grandfather took us out. We would escape the Brutalist hellscape of the Towers for a stroll into the more human-scaled row houses and shops along Third Avenue. Our destination was The Three Jolly Pigeons. In the official nomenclature of restaurateurs, The Three Jolly Pigeons is classified as an “Old Man Bar.” True to form, the Pigeons (as my grandfather always called it) featured a long bar of a dark wood with a line of rickety stools, lots of oak paneling, and stained glass windows and light fixtures. The back room was separated from the main bar by a particularly attractive wood-panel and stained-glass partition.

My grandfather was an old man so naturally an “Old Man Bar” suited him. But I’m going to tell you something about my grandfather that I didn’t know. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and a particularly troubled one at that. One of my earliest memories of him was visiting the hospital after he crashed his car on Brooklyn Bridge. The “car crash” and “drunk driving” didn’t connect for me until years later. Children were not allowed to visit the patients’ rooms, so instead we stood outside waving at the window where purportedly my grandfather was waving to us. I was never quite sure that I actually saw him or was even waving at the correct window.

The stories I would later hear of his drunken anger and violence never matched the cuddly old man who’d bring us to this lovely oasis, buy us a glass of Coke, and give us quarters for the arcade games that we could enjoy while he spoke to his bookie. Yes, this is the other thing that I didn’t know at the time. It was not normal for one’s grandfather to regularly meet with a bookie, and I’d learn later that the other adults in our family were not aware of this habit. This is probably because he never said to anything like “Don’t tell anyone I’m seeing my bookie,” because then we totally would’ve ratted him out rather than going along as if it were normal.

But let’s return to those glasses of Coke and arcade games. The Coke was dispensed from a fountain over the rocks into a small glass. I can’t verify this, but it is my belief that the Coke served at the Three Jolly Pigeons was the best tasting Coke anywhere. The bartender would set our Cokes at the end of the bar for us to pick up and from there we made out way through the partition to the back room.

The entertainment equipment in the back room changed from time to time, but the mainstay was a coin-operated bowling game. The shuffleboard-style game was built on a long waist-high table (or shoulder-high table if you were under ten) along which one would slide a heavy, metallic puck. The bowling pins hung from a cabinet at the far end, and the puck wouldn’t actually come in contact with the pins, but you could knock them over if the puck slid over what looked like giant staples under each pin. The surface of the table was very slick and one could make the heavy puck move wickedly fast, smashing into the wall at the far end with a satisfying crash, and rebounding into one’s palm.

Over the years, I got very good at this game. Fueled by Cokes and quarters, I smashed my way into the ranks of shuffleboard bowling greats. Or so I’d like to imagine. I never saw another game like this until about a decade later while in a pub in St. George, Bermuda. I challenged my compatriots to a game and drawing on my skill honed at the Pigeons, I won a round of beer. In another timeline, I may have gone pro as a shuffleboard bowler.

In my memory, it was always daylight when we went to the Pigeons. The late afternoon sun shone through the stain-glassed windows with the multi-color rays tinted by smoke and dust in the air. I can still see the silhouettes of my grandfather and his bookie sitting across from one another at the table by the window in a mostly empty bar. But there’s one occasion I recall being at the pigeons after dark and in a crowded room, on the day after Thanksgiving when the sun sets early. I’ve never paid much attention to college football, but while waiting for another Coke at the bar, by chance I happened to look up at the tv to see Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass. There was some celebration among the assemblage of old men and I before they returned to their beers, and I returned to bowling.

Unlike many places from my childhood for which I have fond memories, the Three Jolly Pigeons still survives in Bay Ridge. Reading the reviews online, it’s hailed as a great place to see rock bands and karaoke, two things I could never imagine in the Pigeons of my time. But I like to think that in the dying rays of afternoon sunlight, the old men still gather to nurse a quiet drink, confer with their bookie, and perhaps buy a Coke for their grandkids.

 

 

* Seriously, this was decades before double-decker buses were used for sightseeing tours in New York City. If anyone could verify if and why these buses were in New York circa 1980-1984, I will love you forever.

Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickeyi


Author: Colin Dickey
TitleGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Narrator: Jon Lindstrom
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book is a travelogue of haunted places in the United States, but it’s not the anthology of creepy stories you may expect.  While the author is skeptical of ghosts and hauntings, this is also not a work of debunking.  Instead it’s a deeper analysis of the stories as folklore that explain the hidden parts of the human psyche as well as how Americans deal with the past (or more commonly, how we hide from it).

Stops on his tour include places known for traumatic events and exploitation, such as brothels, prisons, asylums, ghost towns, sites connected with slavery, and even hotels.  Dickey visits several cities that have made an industry of monetizing their traumatic history as ghost stories for tourists, including Salem, Savannah, and New Orleans.  These stories can sanitize past tragedies while clearing us of wrongdoing. Then there’s the message of the ruin porn of Detroit where the message is that someone’s hubris is definitely to blame, although that may also be a deferral.

In short, one may open a book of ghost stories and find oneself reading a social justice critique of the United States instead.  And a good one at that.

Favorite Passages:

“… all of these stories, in one way or another, respond to history.  Ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.” – p. 48

“If the Kirkbride asylums are haunted, they are haunted by the difference between how history is conceived and how it plays out.” – p. 185

“Surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping.” – p. 200

“Ghosts stories, for good or ill, are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future. ” – p. 248

Recommended booksBeloved by Toni Morrison, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand, and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****

Photopost: Mount Desert Island


We spent the long Labor Day weekend visiting Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our first visit in 10 years, and thus our first visit with the kids. I’ve been blogging long enough to have a full travelogue of our “babymoon” in 2007 still online.

We stayed at terrific vacation home in Bass Harbor on the “quiet side” of the island.

Highlights of the trip include:

Here is a small selection of my photos of this most photogenic island.

Book Review: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom by Aaron Wallace


Author: Aaron Wallace
TitleThe Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom
Publication Info: Branford, CT : Intrepid Traveler, [2013]
Summary/Review:

This will be the last in the trio of books about Disney theme parks I’ve read recently, but it’s also the best of the bunch.  The author takes us on a tour of the Magic Kingdom and fills us in on the history, artistry, and hidden features of each attraction.  Wallace knows a lot about the thinking that went behind creating the attractions and offers insight into how people respond to them.  He also pairs each attraction with a movie to watch, and not always the most obvious one.  Some of the films aren’t even by Disney!  This is a great book on how Disney theme parks work as cultural artifacts.
Recommended books: The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey, The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness, Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World by The Project on Disney
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness


Author: Susan Veness
TitleThe Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World
Publication Info: Avon, Massachusetts : Adams Media, [2015]
Summary/Review:

Having read The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey, it was natural to follow up by reading a book about Walt Disney World.  Unfortunately, this is less history and more of a guidebook listing various details and features you can find at the Disney parks in Florida.  There’s an expectation that the reader is carrying the book while touring Walt Disney World with lots of “look around X to find a special surprise” that doesn’t help if one is reading the book at home. Nevertheless, this book is an entertaining diversion.

Recommended booksInside the Mouse by The Project on Disney and The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey
Rating: **

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Author:Bill Bryson
TitleThe Road to Little Dribbling
Narrator: Nathan Osgood
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2016.
Previously Read by the Same Author: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, At Home: A Short History of Private Life,
Made in America, and One Summer: America, 1927
Summary/Review:

This is a follow-up to Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island with Bryson officially becoming a citizen of the UK to once again travel from end to end of the island nation.  This time he follows “The Bryson Line,” the longest distance between any two points on the British mainland without crossing open water. The book is full of Bryson’s awe of the natural beauty and cultural history of Britain, mixed with a sad nostalgia for what made Britain great when he first arrived decades go in the era before austerity.  Bryson fills his travel narrative with arcane, yet fascinating, facts about the places he visits as well as his crankier moments when he encounters poor service or obnoxious people.   Bryson fans will enjoy another humorous and erudite addition to his oeuvre, although new readers should probably seek out an earlier book as an entryway.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa


Author: Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa
TitleThe Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 
Publication Info: Unofficial Guides (2016), Edition: 2017 ed
Summary/Review:

I did not read this cover to cover, for it is a massive tome containing information about all the Walt Disney World and Universal resorts – theme parks, attractions, hotels, dining, shopping, and more – but I did find it useful for the portions relevant to planning my own trip.  The distinctive feature of this guidebook is the touring plan, suggested itineraries that take one through the attractions at the theme parks in a way to best avoid long waits in line based on collected data.  The book also includes lots of tips submitted by readers offering contrasting perspectives from the authors.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe


Author: Taras Grescoe
TitleThe Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
Publication Info: New York, NY : Bloomsbury Pub. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2005.
Previously Read By Same Author: The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Summary/Review:

In Grescoe’s travel books he seeks out a specific theme for his travels.  In The End of Elsewhere he deliberately sought ought the most touristed spots across the Eurasian landmass and in Straphanger he rode the world’s best metro systems seeking solutions for cities.  In The Devil’s Picnic, the theme is prohibition and Grescoe travels the world to make a meal of food, drink and other consumables that have been banned or severely restricted in different parts of the world.  The menu includes moonshine in Norway, poppy seed crackers and chewing gum in Singapore, bull’s testicles in Spain, smoking in San Francisco, absinthe in Switzerland, mate de coca in Bolivia, and assisted suicide in Switzerland (the one thing the author does not sample).  Many of these items are banned out of concerns of morality and health, but Grescoe notes the arbitrary nature of prohibition and the damages on society and individuals that arise when resources are dedicated to legal enforcement rather than treatment, and forbidden fruits are only available through criminal organizations.  Similarily, there’s the hypocrisy of some substances such as caffeine being considered “harmless” and commonplace, something Grescoe attributes to it being a productivity drug that benefits a capitalist system. At times Grescoe comes off as a jerk, like when he deliberately chews gum in Singapore trying to provoke a reaction, knowing that a white Westerner will not be punished like a local.  But largely this is a thoughtful book on where the lines should be drawn between self-determination and societal protection.
Recommended books: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman


Author: Francis Parkman
Title: The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life
Narrator: Robert Morris
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2012, originally published in 1849)
Summary/Review:

This narrative describes 23-year-old Parkman’s travels west in  with fellow Boston Brahmin Quincy Adams Shaw.  Together they travel with settlers adventurers through the future states of of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas (the title is a misnomer as they never go to Oregon), and spend three weeks hunting buffalo with the Ogala Sioux.  It’s a well-written narrative that captures the flora and fauna of the prairies, the lives of settlers, soldiers, and Native Americans, and the uncertainty of so much change happening in the region at one time.

Unfortunately, the huge problem is that Parkman is deeply prejudice against the native peoples, which yes is a characteristic of the time, but there were more sympathetic contemporary white American writers of the time as well.  Parkman also is dismissive of a number of white settlers he encounters.  I kind of imagine that Parkman and Shaw were like Charles Emerson Winchester haughtily looking down on those around them.  So, yes, this is a terrific descriptive narrative, but there are a lot of aspects that will be hard to stomach for modern readers.

Recommended booksThe Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


AuthorSarah Vowell
TitleLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator:  Sarah Vowell, with  John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of  historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text.  As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War.  Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war.  I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references.  For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew.  Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.

Recommended booksRevolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Rating: ****

Massachusetts 351


I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly 19 years (and in a bordering state for 15 years when I was younger), but despite it being a small state I feel that I have not seen much of Massachusetts.  I am the stereotype of the Boston urbanite who rarely ventures outside the confines of the Rt. 128 beltway and certainly never go Westa Wistah.

There are 351 cities and towns in the Bay State and with a handy list on Wikipedia, I was able to determine how many of them I’ve visited.  I left out any place I merely passed through – whether in a car, bus, train, or bike – and focus on the places I have a concrete memory of visiting.

In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

Amherst
Aquinnah
Arlington
Belchertown
Belmont
Beverly
Boston
Braintree
Brookline
Cambridge
Canton
Carver
Chelsea
Chilmark
Concord
Danvers
Dedham
Eastham
Edgartown
Essex
Everett
Falmouth
Foxborough
Framingham
Gloucester
Haverhill
Hingham
Holyoke
Hull
Ipswich
Kingston
Lexington
Lincoln
Littleton
Lowell
Malden
Manchester-by-the-Sea
Marblehead
Marlborough
Maynard
Medford
Melrose
Nantucket
Natick
Needham
New Bedford
Newburyport
Newton
North Andover
North Reading
Northampton
Norwood
Oak Bluffs
Peabody
Plymouth
Provincetown
Quincy
Reading
Revere
Rockport
Salem
Sharon
Shelburne
Somerville
Southborough
Stockbridge
Stoneham
Stoughton
Sturbridge
Tisbury
Topsfield
Wakefield
Waltham
Watertown
Wayland
Wellesley
West Tisbury
Westford
Weston
Westwood
Wilmington
Winchester
Woburn
Worcester

So there we go, 84 Massachusetts’ cities and towns, about a quarter of the total of 351.  What I’m going to do is try to make an effort to visit all 351 municipalities, take a picture of myself by a local landmark, and post it here.  I don’t know how long this will take (and I’m not even sure how one gets to Gosnold, the smallest community in Massachusetts), but I’ll do my best.

Edit on 1/11/2016: Thinking of some places I’ve been on outdoor adventures in western Massachusetts and realizing I can add a few more municipalities to the list.

Charlemont (Mohawk Trail State Forest)
Lenox (Tanglewood Music Center)
Mt. Washington (Bash Bish Falls)

There are probably others that I will add if I remember them, but this brings the list to 87!

Do you live in Massachusetts?  Tell me about your city or town? What local place should I not miss when I come to visit?

Honeymoon + 10: Day #6: Lazy Sunday Hike from Marinzen and Meeting Oetzi


The final day of our honeymoon remembered….


 

While our first room at Hotel zum Wolf had a view of the mountains, the view from our current room was dominated by a close-up view of the church tower. As each bell vigorously called out to demand parishioners attend morning mass, we realize that sleeping-in is not an option. After a breakfast buffet at the hotel, we take a ride on the Marinzen chair lift. The open air rides provides a good view of the open meadows, the fairytale forest, and the skyline of Kastelruth dwindling in the background. Liam is anxious about getting off at the upper terminus, but discovers that chair lifts are lot easier without skis. We stop to write postcards and sip cappuccino at the Marizen-Hutte. Around the hutte is a children’s petting zoo and we look at the cats, goats, pigs, donkeys, and ducks. One Wilhelm-Goat is particularly impressive although uncooperative about posing for pictures.

Hiking through awe-inspiring open meadows.

We walk down the trails that return to Kastelruth. First they pass through thick forests, occasionally opening into small pastures where cow grazes. Liam poses with the cows for a picture and then inadvertently frightens one by getting too close. As we descend we pass by picturesque farmhouses, barns, and vacation homes. The forest ends and the trail crosses open meadows that make one want to spin around singing “the hills are alive.” We rest on a bench and watch as children ride up the trail on ponies, their guides stopping to give them lambs to hold (although we feel they’re far to young to be playing with these animals). At long last our stroll returns us to the city center of Kastelruth, where we have another yummy meal and more beer.

We take the bus back to Bolzano, Liam finding the close air inside the bus, the rapid twists and turns, and vertiginous drops to the right of the bus to be a bit nauseating. In Bolzano, we bail out our extra bags from luggage check and then check ourselves in the Hotel Feichter. We wander across the city to the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology, home of the iceman Oetzi. Susan wisely rents an English audio guide and is nice enough to share it with Liam when he discovers that all the labels are in Italian and German. The museum is a comprehensive collection of archaeological artifacts from the South Tirol region starting on the ground floor in the Neolithic Age and winding up the stairs through prehistoric times, the Roman Era, and into the Middle Ages.

The centerpiece exhibit is the mummified remains of a Copper Age man found by a pair of Alpinists in the mountains along the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. An entire floor of exhibits contain the well-preserved remains of this man’s clothing, tools and weapons with interpretations of how the iceman may have used them. As the two British narrators on the audio guide frequently comment, “We don’t know for sure.” The remains of the iceman – nicknamed Oetzi – are kept in a temperature and light-controlled room that visitors may peek into to see his shrunken, tattooed body. The narrators of the audio guide remind us that Oetzi is a dead human being and this is his final resting place and to treat it with respect – in fact they insist one turns off the audioguide before entering the room. It’s both eerie and amazing to see the 5,000-year-old remains of this human being (although it’s actually less creepy than the scourging of Christ on Calvario).

The museum is well-designed and fascinating, but museum-fatigue and hunger set in and Liam decides we must go. Finding a place to eat in Bolzano on a Sunday evening is not the easiest thing as most restaurants and pubs are closed, so we settle for a sidewalk cafe that serves food that obviously was heated in a microwave. We return to the hotel where Susan curls up with her fantasy book, but after packing his bags for the trip home, Liam gets restless and goes for a walk. After dark there are now numerous cafes and beerhouses open and overflowing with customers but Liam is not linguistically adventurous enough to go in for a drink. So he sits in Piazza Walther, admiring the catalpa trees that remind him of Williamsburg and the illuminated cross on the mountaintop overlooking the city which looks like it is floating in the dark of night. Liam also finds a machine that vends Pez candy and brings some back to Susan as treats from Mt. Pez that he found stuck to his hiking boots.

Residents of Bolzano commute to work by bicycle.

The next morning we take a cab to the Bolzano airport to begin our journey home. We fly a prop-plane to Rome and from there fly to New York and then on to Boston. It is a long day of travel with all three flights crowded and delayed so we arrive home more frazzled than rested. But we have our memories of Italy and our hopes to one day return.

Full photo album from Day #6: Kastelruth and Bolzano.

Honeymoon + 10: Day #5: To Tierser Alpl and Back Down


The fifth day of our honeymoon remembered….


 

We awake to a chilly morning, the shadows and sunrise transforming the appearance of the surrounding mountains, and a dramatic undercast filling the valleys below. In the dining room, we’re among the first to take our seat and felt further shunned as all the German-speakers gather around the other table to chat and eat breakfast. After breakfast we begin our hike along the ridge of the Schlernalm/Altipiano Dello Sciliar. Again the views are quite impressive, the Alpe di Siussi on our left and a more distant valley down the steep slopes on our right. At one particularly dramatic overlook, an elderly couple we recognize from the Schlernhaus offer to take our picture. Susan and the gentleman converse awkwardly in German, while the woman tells her husband several times that we are “Amerikanische“. Finally the man hears his wife and says, fluently, “Well, in that case we should speak English!” After a laugh, Susan apologizes for not being able to speak German well, but that man replies, “That’s okay, we’re Norwegian.” We tell him about our problems communicating at the hutte, but he says reassuringly that it’s not a problem, “as long as you can eat.”

The language divide provides a moment of levity for Liam & Susan as a fellow hiker takes their portrait with a dramatic backdrop.

Past this point the trail winds around a deep gorge where several mountain ranges meet. The views here a particularly fascinating and Liam stops frequently to take photographs. Peaks of limestone tower over us looking like the drip-castles children build on the beach and perhaps are an inspiration for Frank Gehry’s architectural style. While the hike is generally not too strenuous, our untrained lungs find it difficult to breathe in this altitude, and after passing through the gorge a slight uphill grade feels like a deathmarch to Liam. We stop to refuel at Tierser Alpl hutte where Liam perks himself up with an espresso and fills his tummy with polenta, while Susan enjoys the Huttennudeln.

From here begins the descent back into the Alpe di Siussi along a series of maddening switchbacks that zigzag among loose rocks. The descent here is much steeper than our ascent of the previous day and Susan feels like a wimp not climbing up this side, but a smart wimp. Liam points out that she is in fact a luck wimp since she had no idea what the trails would be like. Numerous huffing and puffing Wanderen are coming up the trail and apparently ask us how far to the hutte. Susan is forced frequently to say “Es tut mir lied. Ich spreche nur Englishe.” Liam smiles and nods. Every time we think we’ve neared the end of the descent we turn a corner to find more switchbacks. Eventually we reach the meadow where the trail levels out. Along the trail, a Haflinger stands blocking the way and Susan enjoy a close-up look at the horse until it bares his teeth at her. The trail crosses the meadow where the ground is spongy and springs back after you step on it so that no footprints are left behind.

Susan befriends a Haflinger, one of the stocky little horses specfically bred to be workhorses in the high altitude of the Italian alps.

Our hike comes to an end at the Panorama hotel, where a group of children are intrigued by a paddock filled with little goats (the kids like the kids). There’s a chairlift to Compatsch here, but since there is no staff to let us on we decide to walk down the road. Along the way we notice some rulebreakers hop on the chairlift of their own volition. From Compatsch we take the Seiser Alm Bahn again, this time hearing conversations in three languages among our fellow travelers in the gondola. The shuttle bus is crowded and we have to stand and hold onto our packs as the bus speeds around the bends of the mountain roads. Burgi greets us and apologizes that she cannot put is in a room with a balcony again. The room also lacks a sofa, a dinette table, a hairdryer and a shower curtain. We think that Burgi is trying to tell us something. Liam discovers that his water bottle leaked and wet all his clothing and thus has no clean shirt to wear. While Liam washes clothing in the sink, Susan heroically returns to the sporting goods store and purchase Liam a lovely plaid shirt made of a wicking fabric.

We dine at a pizzeria, recovering from our hike with a couple of pizzas and lots of weisebier. We write postcards and listen to the church bell ring frantically as it calls worshipers to the vigil Mass. After the sun sets we go on a walk around the Calvario/Kalvarienberg hill where life-size dioramas show the stations of the cross. The scourging of Christ is particularly creepy in the dark. We encounter other walkers including a pair of children out on their own playing with flashlights and some dogwalkers whose vicious hunden bark vigorously at us. Liam worries that we are walking further and further away from Kastelruth on the dark wooded paths, but then we turn a bend and come upon a view of the Kastelruth church tower. Susan claims that she knew the path was circular all along. After another loop around, we head back to our hotel and help ourselves to drinks in the self-serve bar and look through the stacks of German board games. Back in our room, Liam flips the TV channels vainly in search of soccer, fussball, or calcio, but ends up watching the end of Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy humorously dubbed into German. Susan just sits back obsessively reading her George R.R. Martin book until drifting off to sleep.

Full photo album from Day #5: Hiking the Alpe di Siusi and Seiser Alm

Honeymoon + 10: Day #3: From Basilica Di San Marco to the Dolomites


The third day of our honeymoon remembered….


 

 

 

Over breakfast we determine that pricey Venice has emptied our wallets, so Liam sets off in search of an ATM so we have enough Euros to pay our hotel bill. Right in front of Hotel Riva the same fashion models are posing for another photo shoot. The whole crew come into the hotel for cofee and pastries, but the models refuse to eat anything. More tart succo di frutti and cherry preserve on rolls for us!

Liam evades a bronze horse trampling.

Liam in his wisdom made online reservations to visit Basilica di San Marco, yet when arrive at the church there is no indication of where tourists with reservations can enter. There’s a long line of tourists waiting by one door and a long line of tour groups waiting by the other door. This causes Liam to have a hairee-gazairee. We end up standing in the tour group line until the guides for a Japanese group tell us that all we need to do is cut to the head of the line and go right in. So we do. The basilica is crowded with people pushing and ignoring the no photography signs, but when we can sneak off into an uncrowded spot we admire the basilica’s beauty. After years of settling, the marble flooring rolls like the sea. The walls use many marbles of different colors — pink, green, grey, white — like a Neopolitan ice cream. Up in the galleries we can view the glimmering mosaics up close. Finally we step out on on the loggia to stand beneath the bronze horses and enjoy a wide view of Piazza di San Marco. Despite this, crowd fatigue has us feeling cranky and anxious.

We retrieve our bags from the hotel and then take a vaporetto down the Grand Canal to the train station. After puzzling over the self-service ticket machines we eat an adequate lunch and then board our train. Despite having reserved seats, we find a group of pouty, young German women occupying our compartment. They don’t have reserved seats and try using “We are so exhausted!” as an excuse, but we’re still forced to evict them. Our train rolls northward while we nap, read, write and look out the window. Susan is delighted when two gentleman in our compartment get off at Verona. The train heads into a long dark tunnel and when it reemerges we are in a land out of Grimm’s Fairy tales – towering mountains shrouded in mist. Yet even among the mountains it appears that every spare patch of ground is filled with grapevines. We arrive in Bolzano and on the platform Liam tries to buy a snack from a vending machine but it eats his money. Susan goes into the adjacent newsstand and buys an apricot-jam croissant which they share on the train platform. It is the most romantic moment of the honeymoon.

After checking extra luggage at the train station and struggling to find the bus station, our journey continues to Kastelruth. A few miles out of Bolzano our bus leaves the autostrada and starts up a narrow, windy road. Soon the autostrada is just a thin ribbon of black in the valley below, but our bus keeps climbing up, up, up through verdant mountain passes. Then we turn a bend and for the first time see craggy limestone peaks towering still higher above us. Liam contemplates hiking these mountains: “We’re going to die!” We’re seperated on the crowded bus and the friendly woman seated next to Susan tries to let her know where to get off for Kastelruth, but Susan can’t understand. Several rows back, Liam is powerless to reassure Susan that we are riding all the way to the last stop. That stop is conveniently located right next to our hotel, so we head up the stairs where the hotelier (who we learn later is named Burgi) greets is by name. Susan is amazed but Liam figures we’re the only guests who haven’t checked in yet.

Susan admires the view from the balcony of our room at Hotel zum Wolf in Kastelruth.

Hotel zum Wolf is very modern with rusticated decoration and is neat as a pin. We’re amazed that our bargain hotel room is large and cozy with a balcony looking out over the Dolomites. Susan decides she does not want to leave Hotel zum Wolf. Ever. At the desk we extend our stay another night after our planned hike and Burgi reccomends a restaurant for dinner. Our meal at Ausserzoll restaurant may be the gustatory highlight of our honeymoon. Liam eats rocket waffles with gorgonzola mousse and spinach ravioli, while Susan savors champagne soup and frogfish. We wash it down with the local brew and afterwards the waitress treats us to grappa as a digestif. We head off to sleep feeling warm and happy.

Full photo album from Day # 3: Venice — Kastelruth

Honeymoon + 10: Day #2: Venice Walks


The second day of our honeymoon remembered….


Rooftops of Venice in the shadow of the Campanille.

In the early morning, Susan watches from our hotel window as a man and his dog pilot a work boat down the canal. After a tasty breakfast at our hotel, we follow walks around Venice from our Rick Steves’ guidebook. We start in Piazza di San Marco – home to Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile. We ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile where we can see the red-clay rooftops of Venice and clear views across the lagoon. After strolling the waterfront and seeing the famous Bridge of Sighs, we head off in dense web of alleyways toward the Rialto. En route we visit the 10th century Church of San Moise with its Baroque 17th century facade. Our guidebook tells us that during World War II the Nazis had there local headquarters next door to this church named for one of the great patriarchs of Judaism (the irony of this occurred to Liam two days later while hiking the Seiser Alm). Further along our meandering brings us to Scala Contarini del Bovolo where we climb the spiral stair to the top. We are greeted by a slim, friendly gatto wearing a jewel-encrusted collar. The view here is more intimate than the Campanile, with views of tiny Venetian backyards and clotheslines.

Liam peaks out of the bovolo (“snail shell” in the Venetian dialect).

After a stop for a cappuccino, we emerge onto the Grand Canal by the Rialto Bridge where we are reacquainted with the throngs of tourists. We cross the bridge and enter the arcades of the Rialto Market (Erberia) where vegetables, cheese, fish, leather handbags, and tourist junk is sold. Susan is delighted by a UPS delivery boat and piles of pallets on the quayside. For lunch, Susan eats a plate full of tiny squid and Liam cannelloni in a dark, atmospheric pub along the shopping street called the Ruga. We follow lunch with another helping of gelato. Continuing our walk, we visit the Church of San Polo, its small stone nave decorated with art by Tintoretto, Veronese, and the Tiepolos. Like New Orleans, Venice is always ready for Carnival and mask shops are frequent along the tourist paths. We stop in Tragicomica and try on some masks, but don’t buy. Our next stop is the Frari Church, a larger medieval/early Renaissance building containing both paintings and the tomb of Liam’s favorite artist Titian. Next door is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — home to a fraternal organization that performed charitable works for plague victims — and is richly decorated with religious art by Tintoretto. We enjoyed interpreting the religious themes in the dozens of giant canvases on the walls and carrying large mirrors to study the murals on the ceiling.

After all that walking and art, it was time to rest with pizza and beer at a cafe by the Academia Bridge. It was delightfully refreshing until the wind picked up and we got too cold. We ducked back into the alleyways zigzagging our way toward La Salute Church. Along the way we stopped at a gallery selling intriguing works of art by an artist named Tobia Rava. We continued are walk into a covered alley that felt like a dark tunnel. We emerged from the tunnel and found ourselves amidst twig-thin fashion models in a photoshoot. We are certain the photographer said, “Yes! Gauche Americans are exactly what this picture needs to make the cover of Elle!” We returned to our hotel to rest and wash up for supper at Osteria de Carla. The fact that all the other diners speak English and clutch Rick Steves’ guidebooks embarrasses Susan but the food is tasty enough to bury Liam’s shame.

We conclude the evening with a gondola ride. Susan chats up the gondolier:

“Have you gone under all 460 bridges in Venice?”.

“Si, most of them!” He shows as Marco Polo’s house and the City Hall as we sail along tiny canals as well as a brief float on the Grand Canal. In the darkness, we can peep in windows, look at the stars, and listen to the gondolier greet doormen and waiters as we pass. The motion-sensor doors on the fancier hotels slide open as we glide by. Venice looks just right from the water.

We eat more gelato before returning to Hotel Riva for the night.

Susan waits for the gondolier to return to begin a tour of Venice’s canals by night.

Full photo album from Day #2: Venice.

Honeymoon + 10: Day #1: Arriving in Venice


My wife Susan & I recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.  Looking at the website with all our wedding and honeymoon photographs, I discovered that I’d written a travelogue of our honeymoon in Venice and the Dolomites which I’d forgotten about.  In a sense, it was my first blog post; my blog before I had a blog.  A lot has changed since that time (as all the dead links can attest).  Ten years ago I was still using a 35-mm film camera and apparently brought very grainy film on the trip, so the pictures look like their from another era.  Still, it’s a fun time full of fond memories.

I thought it would be fun over the next six days to republish the travelogue and some of the best photographs in blog format. Happy Anniversary, Susan!


Rio di San Giulliano flows by Hotel Riva carrying gondolas and work boats.

We flew overnight aboard Alitalia, our cabin served by handsome bald flight attendants, one who said to Liam “Look at my face!” and apologized for the plane not having vegetarian meals, but did a good job filling Liam up with salad and cheese. During a layover at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport we sipped cappuccino alongside nattily-dressed Italian businessmen and Susan napped. Arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, we rode the Alilaguna water bus into the city. Liam got acquainted with the lagoon when a wave of briny water splashed through the window soaking his shirt. We disembarked at Piazza di San Marco, pushing through its crowds of tourists and pigeons to get to our lodging at Hotel Riva. Once checked in, Susan napped and Liam strolled blindly through Venice’s alleys ending up in Campo Santa Maria Formosa where he kicked a soccer ball back to a local youth. Reunited at the hotel, we headed out for supper at Antica Sacrestia. Following a tasty meal, we search for gelato and happily consume a cone of limone while listening to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco. We dance in the now depopulated square until accosted by flower sellers.

Susan and Basilica di San Marco are romantic by night.

Full photo album from Day #1: Venice.

Book Review: Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnett


Author: Alastair Bonnett
Title: Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
Narrator: Derek Perkins
Publication Info: Tantor Media, 2014
ISBN: 1494505827
Summary/Review:

Dr. Bonnet collects a compendium of curiosities in geography, places in the world at the borders, no-mans lands, enclaves, dead cities, floating islands, and ephemeral places.

Destinations include:

  • Sandy Island, marked on maps in the Indian Ocean for over a century despite the fact that it never existed.
  • The historic Old Mecca, destroyed to make way for amenities for pilgrims.
  • Alan Sonfist’s artistic creation of pre-colonial plantings in New York called Time Landscape.
  • The lost Aral Sea, now the Aralqum Desert.
  • Kijong-dong , the North Korean “Peace Village” along the DMZ with South Korea.
  • Pripyat, the city abandoned due to the Cherynobyl disaster.
  • The intriguingly named Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion  in Giarre.
  • The interlocking Dutch and Belgian enclaves of  Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog .
  • The micronation of Sealand.
  • Spray ice islands used for petroleum exploration in the Arctic
  • The RV park in the LAX parking lot which serves as the permanent home for many air carrier personnel.
  • Nowhere, the Burning Man-style art event in northeast Spain

Derek Perkins voice lends a curmudgeonly world explorer gruffness to the narration.  A fun book and informative.

Recommended booksMicronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Self-Proclaimed Nations by John Ryan, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, and Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London by Iain Sinclair
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Be there now : travel stories from around the world


Editor: Mike O’Mary
Title:Be there now : travel stories from around the world
Publication Info: Dream of Things, 2012
Summary/Review:

This book collects very brief essays that capture a moment of a travel experience.  It’s interesting idea but a lot of the stories come out vapid and are not at all transcendent.  It’s a quick read, though, and a handful of stories stand out such as: volunteers helping sea turtles lay their eggs in Costa Rica ( A Trembling Voice by Frank Izaguirr), a blind man visiting mountain gorillas in Rwanda (In the Footsteps of Fossey by Irene Morse), and a writer exploring the world through Google Maps (Virtual Travel by Trendle Ellwood).  The book kind of feels the first part of a contest in which the authors of the top stories should be awarded with a chance to publish longer stories of their experiences.

Recommended booksThere’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure by Doug Lansky
Rating: **