In which we enter the harried world of tourist Paris, and later seek refuge in the woods and art

Our next day was our first weekend day in June Paris, and the city groaned under the weight of human bodies. Places where we’d previously seen empty were swarmed with selfie-stick armed visitors, there were lines at places we’d simply walked into a few days ago. We descended to the path along the Seine to meet up with our friends at St. Chappelle Chapel. These roads have been converted into pedestrian walks, with little diversions for kids along the way like small playgrounds and climbing walls built into the stones along the bank. It’s a way to escape the crowded overland and move through the city in peace.

Rock climbing along the banks of the Seine

Saint-Chappelle, built in the 13th century, is known for its stained glass, and in this it does not disappoint. The chandeliers appear to float in midair, lending even more of a magical air to the multicolored space inside. While waiting in the short line to get in, a French man behind us struck up a conversation. He had lived in Paris for 20 years but had moved out, and was now bringing his son to come visit for the first time, and was clearly so excited to show him around the glittering city. I know that feeling – it’s the same one I get when I take my kids to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or introduce them to a favorite childhood book of mine. Some of it is the joy of sharing a beloved experience with your kids, and some of it is the magic of watching them feel the wonder of it for the first time. He told us all sorts of fun facts about the chapel, that the palace courtyard in which we stood was the hall of Kings, and that the pillar on the right when you enter has “29 January 1910” inscribed on it and a line below about five feet off the ground, indicating to where the waters of the Seine rose during the great flood of that year. 

The magical interior of Saint-Chappelle

Onwards to Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur, and here especially was where the annoying side of tourist Paris reared its ugly head. Crowded sidewalks and side-by-side tchotchke shops selling all the same made-in-China crap that will eventually end up in a landfill. I’d premarked a few possible lunch places on Google Maps and we went to check out a creperie. The one  I’d wanted had too long of a wait for starving bellies, but voila internet, there was one around the corner with good reviews. We headed over and it was tiny, with only a few two top tables left. The kids took one table like little gourmands, and we had our own. Creperies are the best lunch options in the city in my opinion. For between 10-15 euro for the lunch special, you get a savory crepe, a sweet crepe, and a drink of soda or cider, the latter of which is served in a wide-mouthed shallow mug. C’est magnifique!

Ick


Myself? I prefer Sartre to Camus, don’t you?

Goat cheese with marmalade and hazelnuts

We headed up the stairs to the cathedral after lunch, being accosted by men who tie a bracelet onto you and then demand money. Most of us walked on by but as we’re a large group a few were bound to get trapped in the net of deftly lassoed embroidery floss over a pinky finger before being able to shake free. Some steps up the hill later and we stood at the base of the white travertine cathedral, built in the years around 1900. 

Sacre-Coeur, the steps, and lounging tourists

I downloaded the free audioguide, and the boy and I listened to a few seconds as we walked around. It should be mentioned here that this was NOT one of the boy’s best days. He kept picking fights and bickering with his sister, and then me. We were listening to the audioguide together on low speakerphone volume, him standing on my right hand side. The girl was on my left and talking to Dana on her left. The boy then leaned over and across me, nearly knocking over a cordon holder in the process to ask the girl what she was talking about, as he can’t bear a discussion to be had without his input. She rebuffed him and wouldn’t really tell him, which I say fair – you can’t expect people to repeat every conversation which you’re not part of. But then he leaned back to me, annoyed that his sister wouldn’t acquiesce to his demands and became upset that I continued to listen to the audioguide without his presence. “You’ve got to pick – you can either listen to the audioguide with me or walk over and join their conversation. You can’t try to do both at once,” I admonished. Apparently this was too much for him to handle and he got very upset and started fighting back with me. As Sacre-Coeur is meant to be a silent space, this means we had to walk out of the chapel a few times to work this out. Even then, it wasn’t finished and he continued to needle his sister and at one point actually hit her later in the day. 

View of the heat shimmering city from the top of Sacre-Coeur

I’d like to chalk it up to heat and fatigue and hunger, but it’s still obnoxious to deal with at the time. Small graces though – the next day as we were walking along he apologized for his behavior the previous day, “I’m sorry for being so mean yesterday,” he admitted. And this I appreciate, for we all have days when we’re just not quite ourselves for whatever reason, but I’d venture that most of us adults aren’t quite as good at acknowledging it. I know I’m not. More importantly, it goes to the rhythms of travel with children. Not every moment is sheer delight – almost every day are small squabbles, corrections, and minor breakdowns. We get through them, and memory is good sandpaper to erase the edges of the hard days, and leave behind the soft glow of happy times only. 

At the “I love you” wall, Montmartre

We were all spent by the end of the day. I will share here an unpopular opinion, but it is this: Sacre Coeur is skippable unless you are someone who loves seeing cathedrals. If that is the case, do not miss it, but if not, then don’t bother – at least not on a weekend day when the descending hordes make it impossible to enjoy the experience. The area of Montmartre surrounding was lovely, and I wish we’d had more time to just wander the streets, but given the heat and fatigue, it wasn’t to be. Hot, sweaty, and feeling squashed into the city, our flat and dinner was a true relief.
 

Sunday was another looming weekend day, and we decided to avoid the city and seek refuge in greenery. My initial plan was to take the Metro to the Bois de Vincennes on the Eastern border of Paris, but I couldn’t find a bike rental place for kids that was open on Sunday. This ended up being a very happy accident. We ended up instead in the Bois de Bolougne on the Western edge of Paris. When I’d read up about it, I saw a Frank Gehry building – the Foundation Louis Vuitton – that looked beautiful and housed an art museum. I bought a family ticket online and off we went. Arriving at 11, we rented bikes and rode around the park for an hour first. Not really knowing where to go, we got a little off track and out of the really lovely woodsy part. If I did this again, I’d make sure to look up some riding  paths first or at least stay in the western side of the park. It was hard for me to enjoy the ride, honestly. I felt some of the Paris gloss had worn off after the day yesterday in tourist ville, instead of where we had previously spent it in “pleasant surprise-ville” or “picnic-in-a-garden-ville.”

When we’d walked in earlier we’d passed by the Jardin d’Acclimation and saw a queue. What’s the queue for? As it turns out, the Jardin is actually a very large space containing green areas for picnicking and also an amusement park, paddling pool, sprinkler area, and multiple playgrounds. Busy though it was, it is almost entirely French with few tourists that we could hear. A ticket to the foundation also gets you entry to the Jardin, and this was a fun surprise. We got surprisingly tasty sandwiches from a little shop outside the park and walked in for a picnic before our museum visit. My travel mood was restored! I had again the enjoyment of a pleasant surprise and a delightful picnic in a park! 

Picnicking in the shadow of the building, so pretty


I wasn’t sure what to expect from the institute. I knew there was an art exhibition, but not much else. Friends, this is a fabulous place and deserves a stop by all who come here. The building itself is something else, with swooping reflective glass wings that guard over it. Depending on the angle, the roofs reflect the cloudy sky or the shimmering movement of the fountain below. 

Currently there is an exhibition featuring African artists, which had some of the most innovative pieces I’ve seen recently. There’s an excellent free audioguide which comes with a pair of very cool earbuds clad in wood which you get to keep at the end of your visit! If you go, get the audioguide. 

Woven tapestry by Athi Patra-Ruga “The votive procession (to exile)”

Series of hairstyles of Nigerian women, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere

Series of West African masks made out of found objects, by Romuald Hazoumé

After the galleries, we wandered around the building itself and admired the angles from the interior. 


Then the Jardin beckoned – there are a lot of fun rides to be had for 2.90 euro/ticket, but we wanted to get in a little more time with our friends, who had opted for museums and the tower that day. The kids settled for a run through the playground and then the misters to cool off, and back home we went.A metro ride later and we were at the Place de Republique, where on summer weekends they have a kiosk with free board games to borrow and play on tables set up on the plaza and a bunch of free outdoor games for children scattered around. We met back up with Rob, Dana and S, and left the kids to the games. We went across the street where we could still watch them playing and had a beverage to end our time in Paris together. Occasionally I’d see the girl running across the way, foam sword in hand in front of her chasing away an enemy and with a white felt crown on her head, looking all the world like Max from “Where the Wild Things Are” just without the wolf suit. Then I’d take a sip of my Provençal rosé and return to the conversation. 

Free games at the Plaza de Republique

Saying goodbye to our friends

After returning to the flat and eating leftover meze, we began to hear what seemed like live music just out the window. A piece finished and I heard clapping – it WAS live music! I craned out of the window but couldn’t see any players. We were tucked in for the night, but my curiosity got the better of me and I headed down the stairs to see where it was coming from. As it turned out, across the street in the little bar were musicians who looked like they’d gotten off of a concert gig and were now just playing for fun. Tarantella, the Star Wars theme, Hey Jude – all were up for grabs for the tuba, stand up bass, violins, cello, and trumpet players. Another pleasant travel surprise! Eric and I went over to listen and play a game of backgammon on a magnetic travel set I have. I am loath to report the truth, but it will be told – he won the game handily

-s

In which I get pickpocketed, and Eric nurses a Brutalist hangover

After a lazy morning in with more croissants, fruit, and yogurt, we headed out for a day at the park. Passing by the Centre Georges Pompidou along the way, our first stop was to the Musee Cluny, the Medieval Art museum. It is housed in one of two remaining Medevial buildings in Paris, and contains multiple medieval artifacts and the ruins of old Roman Baths that used to be onsite. As always, I’m a sucker for anything fiber arts related, and they have a room with seven other “lady and the unicorn” tapestries, clearly a popular motif of the middle ages. Was it the only art form of the time which allowed phallic symbols? Perhaps so. 

Really, the tastiest yogurt ever.

I now feel free of the need to try and visit the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, their medieval art museum. Whenever I go, I talk about how I’d like to visit and see the unicorn tapestries there, and now it’s something of a running joke with Sapana because it’s really far out of town and we never make it there. Spirit, you  are free of the need for more medieval art! (But really it would be nice to make it up there sometime)

Contemplating the sartorial appearance of a knight. One word: heavy

Unicorns! Lions! Monkeys! and a millefiore background. This tapestry has it all.


We strolled down to the Jardin de Luxembourg, intending to pick up bread, cheese, and vegetables along the way for a picnic. I assumed that I’d be able to walk up any street and see a million fromagerie and boulangeries. While there are a lot, they do need to be found. We wandered around for longer than I would have liked in the hot Parisian noontime, and I resolved next time to pre-pick some selections and save them to my googlemap. We found a fromagerie on that app and headed over. Upon entering what was actually a food hall type of place with many smaller vendors, we found the cheese shop closed. I walked over to the butcher next door and asked in French, “What time does the cheese shop open?” “Not until 4 pm!” she explained. “Oh…” I replied, “We were hoping to get cheese for lunch. Do you think the Marks and Spencer food shop next door would have some?” At this she visibly shuddered and placed her hand on her chest, as if to say “God forbid one eats cheese from Marks and Spencer.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that for this American, cheese from Marks & Spencer in Paris would probably be tastier than anything I was used to back home. She told us to go up the street for an open cheese shop, however upon following her instructions there was nary a fromagerie to be seen. We ducked into a Carrefour supermarket, away from her offended eye and bought some brie and comte, some fruit, veggies and two bottles of Heinekin and headed to the park. We got waylaid by a pastry shop and picked up a lemon tart too, because Paris. 
Friends, thus began a perfect afternoon. Walking into the garden from the North entrance, we found ourselves on a path lined with trees that opened into a plaza with a pond in the center. Beyond were rows of larger trees fiercely manicured into severe rectangles arrayed in rays extending southward. I kept remarking to Eric that I felt we’d wandered into an impressionist painting! 

Children sailing boats at the Garden of Luxembourg, Paul Michel Dupuy

Finding  a shady bench, we set up shop, tearing the bread apart and slicing the the cheese and vegetables into it with a plastic knife. Eric used his bottle opening ring to pop the caps off the beers, and we munched away in happiness. Below us was a pond where colorful wooden boats lazily made their way around in the breeze, chased by children holding long slender bamboo poles. When the boats would reach the edge of the pond, the poles were used to push them off into the center again, their little sails billowing out when they caught the wind.  

I like to send the kids out on small missions in foreign countries, especially in ones where they don’t speak the language. I feel it helps them to learn how to operate in unfamiliar circumstances, and at this point they’re comfortable with this. They went down on their own to find out how to rent boats and how much it cost, scurrying up a few minutes later with the verdict – 4 euros for 30 min. I handed them a 10 note and off they scampered to get their boats. The boats sail for a country – the boy wanted Japan but it had been taken, so he settled for Ireland instead. The girl, she sailed for Spain, and I suspect it was partly because her boat would then match her dress. Without electricity or motors, children happily sent the boats around the pond, devising races and competitions. Beware though – some flags look quite similar, as the boy discovered when he found a little pirate trying to poach his Ireland boat instead of the India boat that he actually owned. The cheek! 

Once the maritime adventure ended, we headed over to the large playgrounds. 2 euro for the children to enter, and 1 for the adults. Eh, I could take pictures from outside the fence and save 2 Euros. We handed them enough coinage and found a bench where we could watch in but not actually have to sit among the running bulls. As it was before 3 and not Wednesday (because French children just don’t have school on Wednesday) it wasn’t terribly crowded. The kids befriended a couple of other visitng American kids, Eric took this time to enjoy a nap in the shade, while I read a book (The Sympathizer) and took a few pictures. We ended up spending almost four hours total in the park, and enjoyed every single second of it. 

Fast times on the flying fox

Zut Alors! The Métro!


We popped down to the metro and found it…packed. Cheek by jowl (and guarding our pockets) we made it home and conjured up dinner. This evening from Maison Plisson, a high end small grocery store and cafe around the corner from our flat, akin to Dean and DeLuca. Fresh ricotta and spinach tortellini and a side salad made a perfect summer meal.


After dinner, we let the kids entertain themselves (translation: play Minecraft and some game called Animal Jam on the iPad) while Eric and I scouted out some speakeasy cocktail bars in the area. The first one was Candelaria, in which you walk up to a hole-in-the-wall taco joint with maybe six seats in it, serving up fresh tacos off a flat grill. At first we looked at each other, thinking, this can’t be the place, but then we saw someone exiting through a false wall in the back! We slid on through and found ourselves in a small well lit space, the bottles behind the bar glowing from golden light. 


We texted the kids, and as they were fine we decided on another stop – the Red Door. There was a doorman holding the false door open, so this element was no surprise this time, but the fun was that all the drinks were based on architectural styles. Eric chose a “Brutalism” which came served, appropriately, in a concrete columnar glass. Perfect. I chose “Modernism” mostly because it came in a very long-stemmed bowl cocktail glass which felt quite elegant. We chatted with the British waitress afterwards – the staff was responsible for the thoughtful drinks, and she told us they considered various ingredients for months before putting the drinks together. The Brutalism, for example, has ingredients that are all treated rather harshly – burnt roasted orange, oxidized vermouth – down to the coated and fried baby’s breath garnish on top which was indeed edible. I took a bite of the flowers, syrupy and crunchy without being overly sweet.

 

Brutalism and Modernism side by side in cocktail form


—-

The next morning, Eric woke up with a headache and nausea. “I feel terrible,” he groaned. “I think you might have a hangover,” I replied. “I only had two cocktails though!” he said back. Unfortunately, when you are generally a relatively light drinker of beer (no more than two a night) two cocktails with any possible combination of alcohols can easily do you under. For better or worse, I was not so afflicted and so once it was clear that Eric wasn’t suddenly struck with meningitis or another life threatening condition, the kids and I took off to see the pyramid of the Louvre and then visit the Musee d’Orsay, complete with a picnic in the Tuilleries along the way.

 

Most of the time when I’m out and about, I just put my money in a deep inside pouch of my backpack, but today I thought that with going into tourist territory, I’d be better off with my money in a fanny pack (yes, I do have one) right in front of me. As we boarded the relatively empty metro at our first stop, I suddenly felt a few people shove into me forcefully and push me back. I was pushed into the kids, they were pushed into the people behind me, and I couldn’t tell what was happening. A group of British women behind me started talking about times when they were pickpocketed, which made me wonder. We were all crammed intogether in a small space, and then one of the women, teenager really, who had pushed me picked up my coin purse off the ground and handed it to me. Turns out – I HAD been pickpocketed! Given that my attention was entirely on the kids, I hadn’t noticed the group of women hanging around at the station looking for easy targets (me). When they pushed us all in, my focus was nowhere near my money and it was easy for them to zip open my bag and then lift out my coin purse. Now, I actually keep my credit card, driver’s license and a little cash in that, but if you were to pick it up it feels empty. After the thieves got off at the next stop, I checked my coin purse and saw that everything was still in it. The cash, about 50 Euros, wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but to lose my license and credit card would have been a real hassle. The British tourists behind me said that they thought that perhaps the would-be thieves returned my wallet because they felt found out, but I partly think it’s because they thought that there wasn’t anything valuable in it. At any rate, deep into the backpack went the little coin purse. I kept the fanny pack for my phone and for decoy. Mostly though, I felt incredibly foolish – here I am, someone who’s been all over and considers herself a savvy traveler, getting taken for the oldest trick in the book. Sheesh. 

The Louvre? Who cares! BUBBLES!!

After this, we exited at the Louvre where I was triply careful, and walked past the pyramid. I gazed upon the I.M. Pei piece in wonder and gawked at the huge palatial buildings around me, the former Paris residence of Kings Charles V through Louis XIV.  The kids saw “BUBBLES!!” and ran off to play, with barely a sideways glance at the architectural masterpiece. One of the really nice things about having more time in a place is that you don’t have to feel rushed to always be getting somewhere, so bubbles it was. 

MORE BUBBLES!


We spent about twenty minutes in front of the Louvre while they chased bubbles big and small in the sunshine, before heading to Eric Kayser to grab a baguette and some drinks. This time, I’d marked out a few places before we set out for our trip so we wouldn’t wander forever. I’d brought some cheese and salad from dinner the night before, and we settled for a picnic in the Tuilleries. After this we walked over to the Musee D’Orsay, the Impressionist museum across the Seine from the Louvre. Housed in a former train station, the building itself is a gorgeous sight. I’d purchased e-tickets that morning, so we just walked into the museum and skipped the line. Side travel note: I cannot tell you how many times I’ve skipped a line buy buying e-tickets. Why everyone doesn’t do this is beyond me, since most of the people I see in lines are staring at their smartphones. I’ve even bought e-tickets while waiting in a line and then simply left and walked into the speed entrance. Granted there are times this isn’t possible, but for all others, why not? It is always, always worth the extra Euro per person. 

Looking up at lady liberty

There’s an exhibition at the D’Orsay currently on spiritualism and Impressionism. It was packed. We moved slowly, waiting for popular paintings to be able to get in closer without pushing people. Whenever I go to an art museum, I always like to find an artist I like who I’ve never heard of before. This time it was Odilion Redon, who paints dreamlike scenes that draw you into the miasma, so different from other impressionists who generally stick to real-life scenes, painted softly. 

Tree on Yellow Background by Odilon Redon. (Sorry for the crappy photo, best I could get in the crowded gallery)

While the kids and I were looking at an artwork, and I pulled the girl closer to me so that she wouldn’t be in someone’s way, I heard an angry British voice behind me (again with the Brits! What country is this?) “See there?! You just moved in front of me!! I was trying to read the information and you just moved right in my way!!!” I looked back at the man who was at my eye level and said coolly, “There’s no need for that. I wasn’t aware that I moved into your way. All you had to say was ‘Excuse Me, I can’t read the sign anymore,’ and I would have happily moved aside.” “Well! I can’t even look at a piece of art around here without people stepping in front of me!!” he exclaimed back. “It seems to me you need to work on your manners.” I admonished quietly. “My manners are FINE,” he said back angrily. “That’s … debatable,” I said. He moved on, and a French woman next to me said, “You guys are being fine! I don’t know what his problem is. Some people just want to be unhappy.” Indeed. We walked through the rest of the gallery, not letting the incident mar our time there, and later crossing paths with the French woman from time to time and exchanging words of amazement with her about the beautiful paintings.

I CANNOT find the. name of this artist. Internet, if you know it, help.

After a walk through the van Gogh and pointillism galleries, we headed back home to meet up with Rob, Dana and their son S who had flown over from Timisoara to meet up with us!! I’m again floored by people who take time and space out of their lives to meet up with us, and am always, always grateful. This time dinner was from a traiteur, a tip we’d learned from Bruce the bike guy. Traiteurs are takeaway catering places, and we’d walked by a Greek one near our house the last few days. This time we went in and found a little place with a cooler full of delicious looking Greek spreads and foods.  I asked if I could take a picture, and the woman there said “only of the food! I don’t even have any makeup on!” I told her truthfully that she looked beautiful, and snapped a few shots. 

 

We loaded up on dolmades, olives, hummus, artichoke spread, greek salad, tabbouleh, and sarmale that the proprietor told us “people come from far away to eat.” She wasn’t wrong, and we had a happy evening catching up over the delicious food.

-s

In Which I Embarrass Myself in French, and we begin our plan to eat all the carbohydrates in Paris

19 years ago, I travelled solo to Europe in the summer before starting medical school. One of my favorite memories from that trip was having a picnic lunch on the Champs des Mars park in front of the Eiffel tower with a gathered  crew of like wanderers from the youth hostel. The girl has also had a lifelong (9 WHOLE YEARS) wish to visit Paris and see the Eiffel tower. Thus, I decided to end our year with a week in Paris. But then it turned out we could spend a few days in Reykjavik on layover on our way home, so that changed a bit. But that’s a story for another blog post. 

We flew in relatively early, landing in Paris before noon. The first thing we saw was sunshine, glorious glorious sunshine, and coming from Ireland we nearly lay down on the airport sidewalk to soak it up, but thought it might be frowned upon. We hopped into a taxi to get to our flat, and I began speaking French with our driver. This proved only moderately successful.  I took French from 7th grade through some relatively advanced college courses, at one point was conversationally fluent. I remember my French professor, a thin sprightly woman named Sophie who had dark-rooted blond hair that frizzed past her shoulders in messy waves, who always wore all black clothes with a black leather jacket and smoked a cigarette outside before class. She was really far too cool for San Diego, land of cargo shorts and flip flops. She always yelled at me for my terrible grasp of the negative construction.  When I tried phrases in my mind before arriving here, Spanish words would worm their way in so that I was speaking some bizarre form of a mutated Romance language patois. Our Algerian taxi driver, however, was a patient listener and helped me to figure out some of the words, and having been here now for a few days it’s coming back to me. I’m sure I sound like a three year old, and at one point told the hostess at a restaurant that “she need to go sit outside” instead of asking if we could sit outside, garnering a furrowed brow and slightly offended look. I corrected myself, she broke into a smile and waved us to a table.

The view from our 4th floor flat, across the street from St. Denys

We’ve a little flat in the Marais, clean and modern in what’s clearly an old building. The Marais is one of the oldest districts in Paris and the one least touched by modernization. Whereas much of Paris is characterized by large grand boulevards and Haussmanian architecture, the Marais retains its near-Medeival heritage. Many houses are fronted by large double wood doors that open into a courtyard, created for horse and carriage to pass through and then have room to turn around. “Le Marais” literally means “the swamp,” and was a waterlogged area for vegetable gardens until drained for French nobility to build grand mansions. After the Revolution in 1789, the nobility declined as did the area, becoming a more working class neighborhood. It then became an important Jewish & immigrant neighborhood, before turning into a gay friendly neighborhood, before being completely gentrified by what our taxi driver referred to disparagingly as “bobos” and what we would call yuppies, if we even use that word anymore.  For visitors like ourselves, however, this means a delightful place with small narrow streets filled with boutiques, bars, restaurants and museums. 
 

Crossing the bridge to Ile de la Cite, the breeze flapping up Stitch’s ears

After dropping off our bags, we went on a mission to find crepes. This proved surprisingly more difficult than we’d anticipated, and we didn’t find a restaurant until we’d wandered onto Île de la Cité, and were grandly rewarded for our efforts. We continued to Notre-Dame, and walked in to look at the cathedral, built and remodeled over the years. I particularly like the gargoyles myself, edging the stone as protective spirits. In that they shuttle rain away from the structure, in a way, they are literal protectors as well.

 

In front of the famous cathedral, the breeze has died down making Stitch once again lop eared

Ironwork detailing on the doors

Our Catholic schoolgirl lights a candle for St. Therese

We continued on to the very tip of Île de St Louis, to see the love locks left by romantic hopefuls on the fences surrounding. You engrave your name, close the lock on the fence, then throw the key into the Seine. The more famous bridge with love locks is the Pont des Artes, where they’re cut down as they damage the structure. Honestly, I get the idea behind it, it’s sweet. But it seems to me a modern and damaging form of graffiti that will eventually destroy the beauty and the structure itself, is this the legacy you wish to leave? Not to think of the keys rusting at the bottom of the Seine, which I can’t imagine are good for the environment or the fishes. Akin to carving initials into a tree stump, what is it about young love that requires some form of violence to prove it’s legitimacy? Call me a curmudgeon if you will.

 

Across the bridge to Shakespeare and Company, an English Language bookstore on the Left Bank. Opened by an expat American, Sylvia Beach, its other branch in Paris had been a literary hangout for Hemingway, Joyce and other authors of their ilk. That branch is closed, but the one across from Notre Dame remains. No pictures are allowed inside, sadly, but to wander among the tall narrow winding pathways filled with gorgeous books is an experience. Upstairs is a quiet reading area that echoes the reading library at the former space, complete with nooks and slumbering cats, where you’re welcome to sit and relax.

The only picture we got outside the shop, taken the next day. The girl kept trying to photobomb and I got so annoyed that I just walked away instead of waiting to get a picture without the random tourist in the background.

Here, of course, is where we were when a terrorist decided to attack a police officer with a hammer just across the street at Notre Dame. Eric writes about this eloquently in his post here.  I was at the front register when I heard two loud sounds from outside. Couldn’t possibly be gunshots, I disbelievingly thought to myself, but I’d turn out to be wrong.  I had been waiting for an employee to bring me a copy of “American Gods,” so we were still in the store instead of walking past Notre Dame right when it was happening. (She showed up with the book, but it was a heavy hardcover and I felt too guilty to get it, knowing that we’re carrying everything with us. Now of course, it feels like a talisman protecting me, as had we not been waiting for it we likely would have been walking across the plaza at the time. I went back a day later to buy the book, and alas, it was sold out.  I bought a copy of “Anansi Boys” instead, I hope it serves the same protective influence.) The store employees closed the doors and told us to all stay inside. The kids were nervous and scared, but sat in a corner reading books calmly.  After sheltering in the store for a while in limbo, I asked someone scrolling on their phone what was happening and learned that it was one person with a hammer who’d been shot. Feeling safe to do so, we left through the side entrance and took a long route home, staying well clear of the Notre Dame area. Later on, we talked it over with the kids, and over the next few days answered more questions from them as well, hoping to help them process what had happened. 

 

Eric and I dropped the kids at home and went to find bread, cheese, vegetables and wine for supper.Given how expensive Paris can be for food, our goal was to eat in as much as possible.  As always in a new neighborhood, it took a little longer but home we came and after a deliciously fresh sandwich, to bed, content at our first good day in Paris, terror attack and all.

 
___

Given that it’s bright here until well near 10 pm, we slept in in the morning before heading out for a leisurely walk through the Marais, stopping by the remnants of the old city wall and various other architecturally interesting buildings, ending at the St.Paul Metro, where we hopped on board to get a bit outside the city and meet Bruce for a bike ride along the Marne. 

Remnants of the medieval wall, now surrounded by cellphone checking teens. Bookends of new and old in Paris


Bruce is an American who’s lived in Paris for many years and runs bike tours in Paris and also in the countryside. If you are planning a trip to Paris, I highly recommend his tours to get out of the city – email him at French Mystique Tours. We did a three hour bike trip along the Marne, and it was lovely. As we wheeled past the geometrical French cottage houses, the boy burst into song, “Little town, it’s a quiet village, every day, like the one before…” 

Cycling in France is a bizarre experience, in that cars respect bikes on the road. Vehicles on the right have right of way, which is respected by car and bike alike. If we were going slowly on a narrow one way road, cars slowly trailed us until they could go past, with not a one getting too close or trying to squeeze around. Used to being nearly run over by Irish drivers, we were hesitant at first around the cars until we realized they really weren’t going to hurt us. 

 At one point, the girl’s front tire slipped on a curb and the bicycle tumbled sideways, throwing her off of it onto her palms. Without tears or wailing, she picked herself up slowly and rolled up her pants leg to see how badly her knee was skinned. We waited back, asking if she was okay. “I think so,” she replied. “My thumb hurts.” In all honesty, I was worried she could have broken her wrist, as she landed on outstretched arms. A quick finger and wrist exam, though, didn’t reveal anything other than some bruising, so off we went again. That girl, she is tough.

 

Returning to the town of St. Maur des Fosses, we walked back into the quiet center for a drink and a waffle at an outdoor cafe before returning to Paris, our cozy little flat, and a well deserved night of sleep. 

Attacking waffles with a Viking manliness, and YES to rose in French summer


-S

In which I share some thoughts on leaving Ireland, and the children assure me they’re not sociopaths

It’s nine o clock on a Monday night, our last in Ireland. Even though we’ve got a few stops before getting back to Denver, this day feels like the end of the year we had planned. Ireland is giving us a proper Irish goodbye, with gray rainy weather and low cloudy skies. You’d think that packing up a life of six months with all of its attendant detritus would be overwhelming, but not really. Over the last few weeks, we’ve packed 4 duffle bags, one large, one medium, and one small, and one extra small rather like the bears of fairy tale, or perhaps like luggage matroyshka dolls, and have sent them across the ocean with those who have come to visit. What was left was clothing, some shoes, a few souvenirs, and lots of mugs, which we couldn’t really send home early as we needed them for our daily morning tea. At this point, we’ve managed to pack everything we are taking with us into our original travel backpacks, plus one additional small backpack for each of us and one extra medium sized duffle bag. 
Today was spent packing for a few hours, after which our friend Alena came by to cart away things which were staying behind, including those which she had kindly lent to us, like her bicycle and a corkscrew. We also packed grocery bags full with food that wouldn’t get eaten, though as for that we did pretty well and didn’t have mass quantities of food to give away. After she left, there wasn’t much to do until the last load of laundry finished drying so we piled into our rental car and Eric and the kids went swimming while I went to a coffeeshop to finish up the last blog post. Pizza for lunch, then a matinee showing of “Wonder Woman” (mostly liked, can’t say I loved) and then back home.
The kids took off on their bike (singular, yes, as the boy rides the bike and the girl rides standing on pegs that stick out from the back wheels) over to their friend V’s house a few blocks away, their last hour of being able to take off and simply yell “we’re going out!” that they’ll have for a while. They said goodbye and then left the bike there for V before walking over to their friend S’s house, who ended up trotting home with them. They all played a card game called Exploding Kittens, but not before first creating a Minecraft world in which one could actually make a kitten explode so that when a poor feline was decimated in the card game, they could recreate this in the pixellated world. I expressed my concerns about animal cruelty and it’s future bearing on sociopathy, however they seemed unfazed, and reassured me that no actual kittens were being harmed.  

I have trouble characterizing my feelings today, as it comes at the end of what feels like a fairly epic journey. Wistful, perhaps, comes closest, but not quite. I relate it to the feeling of having completed some big event in your life, and once it’s over, feeling a sort of empty space inside where you previously held the emotion you used in planning the event and then experiencing it. Even though I know the adventure isn’t entirely over, for in less than two months we’ll be moving to New Zealand, it’ll be different in that instead of bouncing around from place to place in a peripatetic existence, we’ll be more rooted in one place and well, I’ll be back at work. Something about the thought of that fills me with profound sadness. There are those who never like to really go anywhere, to remain settled and find comfort in that. I’ve always been the opposite, mostly happy when I’m moving hither and to.

In two months I’ll be back in a hospital seeing patients again. I wish I could say that I really, really missed working, that a year away has made me realize how aimless my life is without my vocation, and that I’m itching to get back to use my skills again. I would, however, be lying. I’ve quite enjoyed being away from the high-stress world of medicine and the headaches of hospital administration. This isn’t to say that I think I’ll be unhappy once working again, but just to say that life without it hasn’t been the doldrum plodding I’d feared.

Mostly I think I’m feeling the inexorable passing of time, in that I cannot believe all that has passed since we left home. Looking back, there are perhaps a few things I’d do differently, but sitting here it’s hard to say exactly what those would be. Friends, it’s been a full year, and I hope I can say the same after the next. 
-s

In which I describe the Weeping Hour, and we nearly ride away on the Kelpies

Side note on travel & dinner:

There is a time of day I’ve started to call “The weeping hour.” This is the time directly before any meal, when the boy is at his nadir of exhaustion and apex of emotion, and will begin to sob uncontrollably over some slight offense. Once, it was because I started to play a game of “we went to the zoo and saw…” and then each subsequent person adds on an animal. He simply couldn’t tolerate even an imaginary trip to the zoo, which he sees to be gulags full of creatures who live in desperation at their captive state. No amount of pointing out that we were not, in fact, going to a zoo and instead simply waiting for dinner would mollify him, and we had to change the game to “On our travels around the world, we saw…” and continue with the animals. After food has been processed by his digestive system and the subsequent glucose molecules have transported across the blood-brain barrier into his cerebral cortex, good humor is restored and he can usually laugh at his prior foolishness, though he maintains his views on real zoos.


As a last quick trip before leaving Ireland permanently, we hopped over to Edinburgh for four days in which we had no visitors. Friends, I wasn’t expecting much from Scotland. How different can it be than Ireland? I surmised. Greenery, gaelic, and gloomy weather I expected, and was entirely surprised by how much I loved it.

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A  view of Edinburgh castle from across the park

After learning that the tours we would have wanted to take were booked, we decided to rent a car instead. Saving some money by renting a midsize manual car, we showed up to find that we had a free “upgrade” to a large passenger van! Still manual, but now that I’ve had plenty of driving experience in Ireland I was comfortable with it. I wish I could say that the garbage cans put out for collection in the narrow-streeted villages were as comfortable with my side view mirror, but I digress.
Our first evening we wandered around the city, stopping by the Elephant Cafe where JK Rowling first wrote “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” which is, well, a cafe. We walked on. Behind it, however, is Greyfriars Kirk with a picturesque cemetary and where Rowling was inspired for some of the character names in her novel. There’s also a tribute to Bobby, a loyal dog who came to the cemetery every day to sit on his master’s grave for 12 years, eventually becoming something of a mascot and garnering a burial spot of his own, though alas, as the cemetery is consecrated ground he could not be buried alongside his master. Short shrift for the dog, eh?


The next day was a driving one, and off we went to see the Falkirk Kelpies, a massive outdoor art sculpture. I’d seen photos before, as you will below, but nothing really prepared me for how enormous they are. The Kelpies are mythical beasts, who lure people to ride them due to their beauty, and once they’re astride, dive into the water to drown them. The sculpture rises out of the horizon, far overhead, and is a dramatic example of when large scale public art really words. We were entranced by the statues and nearly hopped on ourselves. One of the horses is getting a little work done, and we chatted with the workers who told us that this was the first day since 2013 that they had needed any maintenance. They reached over onto the scaffolding and handed the kids a set of nuts and bolts from the original statue, to wide eyed thanks.

 

 

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The Kelpies rising up over the horizon

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More importantly, the Kelpies sit on a large complex of parkland and as we had driven in, the kids had espied a playground off to the left. Back we went to check out the structures. A super high slide, speedy merry go round, spider web structure kept us all in play mode for a good half hour. The kids say it’s one of their top five world playgrounds, among the ones at Sydney Harbor, Timisoara’s Parcul Copilor, New Zealand’s Raglan Beach, and London’s Hyde Park. That is some high praise from these two.

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Even Eric took a turn on the slide!

Onto to Stirling castle after this, a Renaissance castle about an hour away. While the initial castle was built during Norman times (12th c.), due to various occupants and occupations had been torn down and rebuilt such that the current structures date from the 16th century onwards. The king responsible for most of the changes was highly influenced by Renaissance ideals, and the palace is filled with and surrounded by artworks carved from wood and stone. A large restorative effort has gone into the castle to regain its former splendor, down to a ten years long project in which seven large scale tapestries depicting the hunt of the unicorn were woven by master weavers, using the ancient techniques. The original tapestries currently hang at the Cloisters in NYC, and to see them brought back to full life was stunning. There was also a restored painted ceiling of carved wooden figures, repainted as they would have been during the time of the kings. I loved seeing the restoration, to get an idea of how the castle would have actually looked, not just in the semi-ruined state you usually see.

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The carven ceiling, here you can see Caesar in the center,and other Roman gods around.

At lunch yesterday we’d stopped off at a little bar/restaurant called the Mockinbird, and it was here we returned for quiz night this evening, run by a convivial host named Anna, who is a fellow American. We all had a blast and WON, if you can believe it, getting pounds 30 knocked off our bill!


Friday was our Edinburgh day, and we started off by a visit to the National Museum. This place is incredible. The building architecture itself is spacious and full of light, and the museum is arranged in four parts from east to west and then vertically so that if you were interested in, say, Scottish history, you’d start at the ground floor of the East hall and then go upwards to stay within a topic. Alternatively, you could wander across a floor and get a cross section of Science, Paleontology, Fashion/Design, and History. Filled with interactive exhibits, you could easily spend a few days here and not run out of things to see.  We also popped into the St. Giles, where there was a display of a Scottish diaspora embroidery project, some of them pictured above, though my favorite has to be the one from India showing a lassi on the left, whiskey on the right. On the plaza outside was a motley crew of characters, including a blue-mohawked woman spinning yarn, “singing” Scottish ballads loudly. For a fee, you could take a picture of her, however I chose to abstain.


Our last full day in Scotland we headed to Doune Castle, a true Medieval castle just an hour out of town. While not on the radar as one of the most important castles in Scotland, it had a high importance to us as the filming site of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” We spent the time wandering about and chatting about the average wingspeed of unladen European swallows, as they kept flitting about overhead and into the castle through the open windows. Both children farted in my general direction quite often as well. The audio tour walks you through the scenes where it was filmed, and adds in its own bits of humor. Oh, I suppose it also talks about the history of the castle and how it was used in Medevial times, but pish tosh.  (For Outlander fans, it’s also Castle Leoch so you may recognize it from that, the gift shop certainly does.)

 

After a delicious lunch at the Buttercup cafe in Doune, we headed over to Loch Lomond. While Loch Ness is the famous highland lake, we didn’t want to spend five hours in the car to get there and back, and instead headed west to the far more accessible Loch. At the first stop in the excellent visitor center, the Ranger gave us tips on hikes and we set out. First a short hike around the visitor center, where a soft path leads through a forest and to a waterfall. The path is surrounded by bluebells in high flower, the trees coated in fuzzy moss, and with the constant chirping of songbirds around us, it felt as if we had passed through the veil and into fairieland. At a wildlife hide we sat and watched red squirrels feed and scamper head first down trees, crossbeaks and great tits vie for birdseed at the feeders.

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Public art along the path, eerie to see the reflections in the woods

 

Westward to Loch Lomond, we headed off for a hike up a nearby hill for panoramic views of the lake and the islands. It is possible that on the way up this hill, there was a slight tiff in the family due to fatigue, interrupting words and a bit of the weeping hour setting upon us, but by the way down all was well. This is where I should start to sing the “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road” song, or Loch Lomond as it’s properly known. Apparently, the high road is meant to represent death, as the rebels heads would be displayed along pikes on the high road, and hence why the singer will never meet his true love again “On the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” What else do you need but pictures here?

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-s

In which we have a few visitors from across the pond

The Era of the Visitors descended upon us. Because Irish weather can be utterly miserable before May, and because most of our friends are tethered to the school calendar in some way, everyone who wants to visit us is doing it now.
This is fantastic, though when we spend time with people on sunny days here I feel as if it’s a little unfair, as if they aren’t really understanding the doldrums of gloom that the weather can bring.
The first of the crew was Eric’s parents. The kids were so excited to see their grandparents!

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The first few days we took Cheryl and Dave into the city, where they saw the Book of Kells and then we went to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I hadn’t been in before. A Protestant Cathedral, it houses an altar, seats, a museum exhibition of the history of the cathedral, and a gift shop all within the main space. The overall effect is one of an overstuffed attic.
I was most impressed with the detailed needlepoint cushions that hang on the back of every chair, hand embroidered by people from all over the country.


We took a side trip to Cork, the second largest Irish town, and other than a stop at a pub that was putting on a traditional Cinco de Mayo burlesque show, we didn’t spend much time there. We drove down to Kinsale, which is really very pretty. A hike along the coast, a stop for lunch and then to the Charles Fort, a preserved stellate fort from the 1700s, and still used as an army garrison until 1922. Legend has it of a groom who, on his wedding day, was shot by his new father-in-law due to a bit of confused identities. The bride flung herself over the ramparts and is said to haunt the grounds still.

 

Cheryl and Dave went further west and north the next day, while we returned to Maynooth. Our friend Wren popped over from Chicago the next day, and as she is a huge Harry Potter fan as well, the kids very sweetly spent time preparing her room, complete with a breakfast menu titled “Espresso Patronum,” and hid a speaker in her closet to play the theme music as she entered. Wren and I and Eric wandered about Dublin while the kids were in school (yes, they’re still in school despite evidence to the contrary), and over the course of a few days going into Temple Bar, Christchurch, and Trinity University among others.

 

 
The weekend was for a quick getaway to Galway, but not before we welcomed our friends Tim and Amy to Dublin! They arrived exhausted as expected off the plane, but gamely met up with all of us for lunch and a pre-train beverage.

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First pint of Irish Guinness is always an occasion to be documented

Galway is a cute little town on the western coast of Ireland, known for the university, traditional music, and apparently quite a party town and home to many stag and hen parties (bachelor and bachelorette for those of ye from the states). The central part of Galway is little more than three or four cobblestoned streets, lined with shops, pubs and restaurants, and seems to be lively at any time of the day.


We happened upon a delicious tiny pie shop straight out of a movie set for a fantasy film, where perhaps cloaked characters might stop in for an ale and a meat pie before heading off on their journey. In the afternoon we made our way to a microbrewery in Salt Hill, and then to a Gaelic Football match. I personally find the most entertaining part of these matches to be how the audience screams at the players, the coach screams at the players, and the players scream at each other, all laden with expletives and a lot of passion.

 

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Back in Maynooth the next day, Tim and Amy joined us again and we had two rousing evenings of Dungeons and Dragons hosted by the boy, where much merriment was had though perhaps little progress in an actual game. A walk around the Maynooth campus and a stop in at the Russell Library, the old library housing the ancient manuscripts of the University. Tim took his time reading mathematics texts. I’m always enthralled by these old books, that each piece of them from the papers to the inks and quills and of course to the writing itself all had to be created by hand. The immense effort it took to produce one book rendered them precious objects, so different from the mass production of paper and words today, or even “ink” on a screen where words are cheap.

 

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Our last set of visitors before we leave this little country were our dear friends Rudy and Liza and their boys. We’ve all known each other for almost 8 years now, ever since our kids became friends at preschool and it turned out we lived up the street from one another, but what really seals the deal is Rudy’s ability to take anything innocuous and make it seem vulgar. Here in Ireland, this talent blossomed as he found himself free to create limericks, an art form that lends itself to crassness. As this is a family blog, I will not detail these limericks further, but buy me a pint at home and perhaps I’ll share. We also got to spend a night with David Hicks, who was in Ireland for a writer’s retreat and found the time to come out to Maynooth to see us for an evening after a long day of travel from the West of Ireland and before heading back to the states the next day.
Our two families went to Glendalough for a few days, a lake nestled in between two mountains and home to an ancient monastic site complete with a well preserved round tower.

 

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While they arrived on a sunny day, these were the visitors who finally got a glimpse of the Irish gloom. Readers, they could only tolerate it for 2 days before complaining of the desperation one feels being deprived of the sun. We fortified ourselves with pints of Guinness and a peat fire, spending the evenings catching up at the Air BnB. I got to spend so much time with Liza, and as it always is with the good friends in life, we fell into step with each other with little pause.
Side note : this Air BnB is apparently rented out as a yoga retreat, complete with a studio and outdoor meditation hut. It also had a copy of something called “The Transformation Game,” which you play to change your life. With instructions such as “pick three angel cards while you hold your spirit intention in your heart” and “if you have not been born naturally after your third die roll, you will have a spiritual caesarian and may enter your life loops at the top space,” this game was not for sarcastic heathens such as ourselves who left our healing crystals at home and instead mercilessly mocked it.

We’re off in a few days, our time spent saying our goodbyes and figuring out exactly how much we can pack into our bags. Most of our visiting friends have also been turned into luggage mules for us, hauling back duffle bags of various sizes with clothes, yarn, books and snow globes, leaving us with a much simpler job of getting our belongings out of the country.
More importantly, I’m just overwhelmed with the love that people have to come out and visit us when we’re abroad. It’s such an incredible feeling to know that there are people who care for you enough that they will board a plane and cross an ocean to spend time together, and I feel grateful to have all of them in my life.

-s

In which we visit Diagon Alley

Our main interest in going to London was, quite honestly, to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour outside the city. I wish I could tell you that it was for a higher cultural purpose than that, that we were going to see the great historical sites, Westminster Abbey, the Tower, the Palace, the stolen treasures of colonized cultures. But I’d be lying.
London was also fun because of all the people we met up with while we were there, some old friend who we hadn’t seen in years, and some relatively new ones we’d only spent a little time with.

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Overlooking Big Ben and the Thames

Our first full day in London, Eric went to find his pool and the kids and strolled through London before our tour in the evening. We were staying just next to the London Eye, and while this was a handy location, the constant crush of tourists was claustrophobia inducing. Squeezing our way over the Westminster Bridge, we strolled through St. George’s park, sidling up to tour guides to “accidentally overhear” their patter about the variety of ducks and coots in the lake, until we reached our first destination : the playground. While the kids were playing among wooden spiders and rope bridges, I suddenly heard a loud commotion in the street – tubas and other brass instruments, and wide swaths of tourists with phones moving along from spot to spot along the street like a bee swarm finding a new nest. A parade? I supposed, and gave it no more mind. As it turns out, this was the changing of the guards. I had never understood the appeal of this, as I thought it was literally two guards swapping places, like late night security detail at a bank, and didn’t realize there was all this ceremony about it. We still skipped it in favor of the playground, but I guess I get why it’s interesting. Maybe.

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The purported inspiration for Diagon Alley, which, much like the oldest pub in Dublin may be one of many

A quick stop at a small street that is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley, but here I must question the advertisement, as there are several streets in Edinburgh that claim the same, and given that that is where Rowling wrote the first novel, it seems far more likely. A visit to King’s Cross, of course, where we waited in line for the official picture going through the wall. While we waited, a chirpy employee asked “Who would like to answer some trivia questions?” The kids began to bounce up and down, waving their arms in the air in a close approximation of Hermione and handily answered all questions, winning some free Hogwarts Express tickets for their efforts.

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A small confession here, I suppose. I don’t actually like any of the Harry Potter movies. I find them rather dull in general, with the storylines plodding along in slavish need to mirror the books line by line, particularly the earlier ones. Good books don’t always make good movies without good screenwriting, but this was hampered (in my opinion) by a strong fan base who insisted on seeing page by page renderings of the text. That said, a visit to the studio tour is, as Ron would say, brilliant. Even if you’re not a fan of these movies, chances are you’re a fan of SOME movies and the site is a dedicated tour in learning about movie making in general.

I learned, for example, about how most of the actors wore wigs and even facial hairpieces throughout filming to maintain consistency. Since the scenes aren’t filmed in order, it would have been too jarring if the hair looked different from scene to scene. The level of detail given to background objects – the green tiles in the ministry of magic are cardboard, hand painted with a seven step process to look like gleaming ceramic. How many ideas were worked on for months and then discarded because they didn’t work, such as using actors on stilts for the werewolves.And then some, like the inferi, which were worked on for years for less than seven minutes of screen time.


My favorites were the physical set pieces that were created for illusion. Hallways that seemed to stretch on for miles but in reality are less than ten feet in length. The famous bridge is only a short stretch for filming, then was digitally extended for the film. Half the time you see Hagrid on screen, it’s not even a human face, but a highly detailed animatronic mask worn by a very tall actor. My other favorites were the physical set pieces WITHOUT illusion – many of the mechanical workings of the film actually worked as such – the snake door, Gringotts vaults, the rising staircase to Dumbledore’s office. Some of the reviews say that for little kids, seeing these things takes away from the magic of the film, but for us it enhanced it, to see how these objects were brought to life and the care with which it was done.


Our following day, we went to the Tate modern partly to go but mostly to meet up with an old friend, Elaine. Elaine was a British exchange student who lived with me and others my sophomore year, and we travelled for a bit afterwards to the East Coast and Chicago. A favorite anecdote is when we visited my uncle in Chicago, and Elaine asked for a glass of water without ice. My uncle seemed overly surprised by this and went to fetch it, while Elaine and I looked at each other with puzzled glances. Was water such an unusual request? She accepted the glass and began to sip at it, then leaned over to me and whispered, “I think…your uncle just gave me a glass of vodka,” which indeed he had, misunderstanding her accent. Elaine, of course, did the proper thing and drank the glass handily without complaint.

My children, of course, chose this exact hour to engage in a prolonged bickering session, belying all the lovely ways I try to depict them in this blog. Despite that, it was fantastic to see her again & reconnect.

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At the globe, the view from the £5 plebian seats

A stop at the Globe theater to see Romeo and Juliet, which was surprising to say the least. I’d expected traditional Elizabethan staging at the Globe, and instead was shown a rock/hiphop version of the play, complete with an emo Romeo, female Mercutio, Indian priest, and more surprisingly, an execution of the parents by gunpoint at the end. “Did that happen in the play?” Asked the girl.
I enjoyed the production and found it entertaining, with the exception of the decision to release crinkly shiny plastic streamers into the audience, which my kids and others found irresistible to pick up and crunch. “Stop it!” I found myself hissing repeatedly, and silently cursed whoever made this foolhardy decision. My purist son and husband however, were dismayed at the alternative staging and would have preferred more heaving bodices I suppose. Fun fact, the priest was chanting in Marathi so I could understand what he was saying for filler in his scenes, which was just “we are going, we are going.”

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With Betty and Jon, overlooking the millenium bridge

After this we met up with friends we made in Portugal, Betty and John, both involved in recruiting students for study abroad in London, and just very, very cool people overall. We started chatting in a microbrewery in Lisbon, and so they found a tasty one to visit in London. Unfortunately, no children were allowed inside. I have to say, this is a pet peeve of mine in the UK & Ireland in general – Kids aren’t welcome in pubs really at all. Some family friendly ones will serve dinner and you can bring kids, but then you’re relegated to a small sad cordoned off area at the back. I completely understand having a time after which no kids are allowed, say 9 or 10 pm, but for the travelling family who would like to try a microbrew it can be rather difficult for places that don’t allow children at all, and such a change from everywhere else where we generally felt welcomed as a family. We found one around the corner that let us in, and next door was a tea shop.

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recording the day, or more likely a new d&d campaign

Upon hearing of the kids’ love for tea, Betty popped out and returned with some bags for them to take home, which was so sweet. While we sat and chatted, the boy sipped on his tea and worked with his new quill pen, as 11 year olds do. We ended up later at a delicious ceviche place in Soho and then a stroll through Chinatown, the night filled with discussion of travel and politics.

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On our last day in London, we were again besieged with requests for a playground, and made our way to Hyde Park as it’s noted to be a good one. The reviews tell you to get there early else you may have to queue. (Yes, queue) A large space filled with structures and hideaways based on Peter Pan, the children scampered about happily until it was time to head out for lunch.

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Here we met up with Nick, who we’d met about two years earlier at my house. He’d come to my music birthday party at my house as a guest of of other friends. He borrowed a saxophone and picked up a pair of drumsticks, and then stayed on even as the friends he’d come in with had to leave to get home to their kids. After all the other guests had left, Nick, Eric, Sapana (who’d flew in) and I were sitting on our back porch in the warm June night air. Nick was busy gobbling down brownies in rapid succession, when Sapana furrowed her brow, turned to him, and said, “Now, wait, WHO are you exactly?” in that way of hers where she will just bluntly blurt out a question. [Side note: one of my favorite of these is from one of the first times she’d met Eric, when she looked at him intently and queried, “Eric, will you ever go bald?” To which he took the question seriously and replied “No, Sapana, I will never go bald.” And thus far he’s kept up with his promise.] Nick proceeded to tell us about himself, his time in the foreign service spent in Iraq, a return to London and changing careers to psychology and providing group support for PTSD survivors, and turned out to just be a very interesting person overall.

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The last meetup of the trip was getting together with Ellen, who is the daughter of one of Eric’s best friends John. Eric knew Ellen as an infant, so seeing her as a grown woman with her boyfriend Jon was emotional. Catching up on lives and talking about plans at an Indian tapas restaurant, which I must say is a wonderful concept that should be replicated everywhere. Basically, you get small plates of various dishes to taste and share and get fresh poli (roti, like a tortilla) to eat it all up with as you wish. Amazing. They had a blood orange lassi that kicks a mango lassi butt anyday.

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-s

In which I tempt a curse and thus far succeed

In the knitting universe, there is a phenomenon known as “The Sweater Curse,” whereby if you knit a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will end during the knitting of or sometime in the near future. There is some truth to the curse and it’s widely believed by many knitters. Sweaters are long projects to make, especially if you’re knitting one for a moderate to large person.  They are tricky things to fit and there’s accounting for personal taste as well. You may love to knit a large oversized heavily cabled and decorated sweater, and the recipient may feel that this makes him look like a tea cosy, and thus never wear it. You see the sweater as a physical embodiment of love, and yet it sits shapeless on a shelf. The presence of the unworn sweater will be a constant reminder of love rejected, a catalyst for arguments and eventually, the demise of the relationship.

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Things I’ve knitted along the way on this trip

Thus, while Eric has long asked for a knitted sweater, I felt that our relationship should be in a stable place before undertaking such a task. It’s taken almost 13 years of marriage, but I thought we could handle it at this point. I hope I’m not proven wrong.

At home I have an entire arsenal of needles at my disposal, as one may need different sizes and lengths for various projects. I brought along with me a roll of mostly bamboo needles as I was worried that if I brought my sets of metal needles they might be taken away by airport authorities. I don’t quite understand why it is that you can’t bring a pair of nail clippers on a flight, but I can bring long wooden sticks on board no problem as long as they’re attached to some yarn. Not that I’m complaining, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some heroic fantasies of saving the plane from evil doers with a sharp set of circular needles. I’ve never had any issues with the needles on any flights, and if I were to do this again, I’d bring my metal Addi interchangeable set and just check that bag and take on board the one set I was using at the time.

Throughout the trip I’ve picked up yarn at various places, as it’s fun to visit the shops, chat with the owners and then make a souvenir out of them. In New Zealand, this is a possum blend yarn that became a pair of socks. In Budapest, I bought yarn that became a baby blanket for my new nephew and another pair of socks. Japan provided bulky green yarn for a hat and a feathery looking cowl. In Ireland, I’ve picked up yarn at local woolen mills as mentioned in the last post.

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Sock yarn from Austria and Budapest on the left, Black yarn from japan tucked behind. White and purple yarn from Studio Donegal in Ireland, Gray/brown from Kerry woolen mills. Green Wollewein from Vienna, and white yarn on the right from Lisbon.

For Eric’s sweater, he really wanted wool from Irish sheep. Personally, I find this wool to have the softness of a kitchen scrubber, but it is sturdy and he’s not sensitive to the roughness. We went to the shop together where he picked out the color, a lovely tweedy green. I knew I’d want to knit a Brooklyn Tweed design for the sweater – they’re all classic, well designed patterns and make modern gorgeous garments, nary a tea cosy in sight.

 

Note: The next few paragraphs are going to be knitting detail. Feel free to skip.

Eric gave me a favorite sweater of his to copy for sizing, and while the width was around the medium size,the length was longer than the largest size listed. Additionally I was using a DK and the pattern called for worsted. I also decided to add shaping so it wouldn’t be such a large rectangle and would be more flattering, as it’s knit with a fair amount of positive ease as is. I knitted a gauge swatch and got 19 stitches/4 inches, so did quite a bit of math and cast on 190 for the ribbing, planning on increasing by 4 stitches every 3″ up to the armpit for a total of 209, which would bring me back to the pattern and I would then follow.

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Planning notes, and math, lots of math. I totally messed up the stitch counts the first time and had to rip out four inches and redo it.  Ouch.

I was nervous about the sleeve lengths in particular – the largest size the pattern calls for is 17″, but Eric measures a 18.5″ sleeve – so I cast on with a provisional cast on and knitted them up in stockinette then knit down in ribbing which made the addition of thumb holes very easy and would also make it easy to add or subtract length. For the thumb holes, I simply knit back and forth for several rows before joining the sleeve back up, then when weaving in the ends I looped around the edges of the hole to strengthen it.

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Several times during the knitting, Eric would look at my progress and say “That looks a little narrow, doesn’t it?” Instead of stabbing him with one of the sharp pointy ends, I’d spread the stitches out on several circulars and have him try it on. The pattern does call for short rows in the back, and this is the only thing I wish I’d done a little differently – the sweater does bulge out a bit where the shoulders meet the arms, and I don’t think it needs all the short rows the pattern calls for. The other change was that instead of twisting the yarn for the button loops, which I thought looked janky, I crocheted a single chain and attached that to the sweater instead.

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It’s pretty near perfect as far as I can tell and looks gorgeous, if I do say so myself. He says he’s going to wear it every day. He’d better.

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-S

In which I feel a bit homesick, and later am told that we’re a pagan family

A few weeks ago I took a short trip back to America, to visit my sister and my brand new nephew!

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Look at this adorable family!

I thought he was pretty cute. Here he is in some of the handknits I’ve made for him, and there will be more.

Being with a newborn again makes me reflect on parenting in general, especially as my children start to begin the process of pulling away even more. Your baby is wholly dependent on you for care and often for food, and you are quite literally their whole world. You’re physically in contact with your baby for most of your waking hours, and often much of your sleeping hours as well.

 

Over the years that changes, to where the kids separate more, to feeding and toileting themselves, dressing themselves, and to now where there are large swaths of time where I have absolutely no clue exactly where they are or what they’re doing. At night, we still have snuggle time where I crawl into bed with the kids and we chat for a bit before I kiss them goodnight and they go to sleep. I sense, however, my time doing this is coming to a close especially for my older one. At some point it’ll feel weird and I don’t picture myself getting into my 16 year old’s bed to snuggle anymore, just maybe a kiss on the forehead if that. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, in that I’m happy for this independence and I certainly wouldn’t want it differently, but the difference is stark and made me nostalgic for those heady early days, where despite the sleep deprivation and difficulties, you had a tiny little being that only wanted to cuddle in your arms all day long.

 

Being back in the States was fantastic. It can get wearisome to always feel like a stranger, so to be in New York where I just understand how things WORK was such a relief. I was also lucky enough to have friends  who could travel to see me and got to spend time with them, and marvel on what good friends I have. This was soul-reviving, to be with people who I could just relax with instead of having to feel like I was “on,” and I’ll admit that I was feeling quite homesick after the journey.

 

Back in Ireland, I returned to spring break and a trip out west. First stop was to get the rental car from the airport. Eric had made the reservations and so went to pick up the car, but when he arrived, it turned out that his US Driver’s license had expired! Of all the details to overlook. So out I went to fetch the car, and did all the driving along the way. We did upgrade to an automatic transmission, which I was glad of after I nearly got into an accident on the way home in one of the roundabouts. Tricky things, those are.

 

As I sat down to write this blog post out, I looked through the pictures I took of the trip. For once, there just weren’t all that many. I wish I could tell you that this was due to some nobler purpose of being so involved in the moment that I couldn’t pull out my camera, but I feel the truth is simpler – I was feeling a bit travel weary on this trip. It’s a complicated moment in our time away, where I’m simultaneously itching to move again, bored with being in one place, and yet tired of feeling like we’re on a trip. That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy this leg to see more of Ireland, but we couldn’t help but feel that we would have enjoyed it more from a warm beach, with an umbrella-garnished cocktail in one hand.

 

We started in Dingle, a peninsula on the southwest coast. We checked in to our hotel and started chatting with the proprietor about living in Maynooth and the kids being in Catholic schools, given that it was Easter weekend. She asked, “If you don’t mind, what religion do ye follow?” I didn’t mind at all, shrugged my shoulders and replied, “We’re really not religious, don’t follow anything in particular.” At which point the girl piped up and said loudly, “We’re Pagan!” as the boy nodded vigorously beside her. The hotel owner looked simultaneously shocked and entertained, I tried to correct the kids but they kept insisting that they were indeed pagan as they believed in the Norse gods, and Greek gods, and Hindu gods, and what have you. I suppose this summer we’ll be dancing around the Beltane fires at this rate.

A stop on the Slea Head drive around the coast

A favorite stop was the Dingle Brewery where we had a glass of Crean lager and chatted with Paudie, whom the girl informed “had a name that sounds like ‘bathroom’ in America.” Awesome. She’s making friends all over this island. Tom Crean is a local hero in Kerry, and rightfully a proper badass.  Known as a famous Arctic explorer, he took three separate trips to the South Pole in the early 1900s, was turned around each time, dealt with frostbite, starvation, team members dying, and at one point walked solo across the ice for 35 miles to save a colleague. After the last trip he returned to Kerry, settled down to raise three children and opened a pub. I’m happy to report that the lager brewed in his name is quite delicious, made from spring water near the brewery itself. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a glass of fresher tasting beer, and it made me appreciate lagers again after years of being an almost exclusive IPA drinker.

Enjoying a pint in a recreation of the arctic sailing vessels

Next was a drive northward to Westport, where we stopped in at the stunning Cliffs of Moher along the way. Also known as the Cliffs of Insanity from the Princess Bride, or the Horcrux cave site from Harry Potter, a sheer 600 foot drop from the edge to the ocean is carved out of rock. A signboard tells you of the types of birds that nest on the cliffs, and upon seeing this I yelped “PUFFINS!” so loudly that Eric jumped. Like daughter like mother, I suppose. Thankfully, we were well inland when this happened, else he might have had a long journey down. I was so excited to possibly see a puffin (puffins!) but alas, they had gone sea fishing in the afternoon and I was disappointed. You know you’re not in America when there’s nothing to block you from a cliff edge other than a few signs that warn “danger” in a half-hearted way.

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The next day the girl woke with a fever. Because I’m a medical parent, and I have little sympathy unless you have an obviously broken bone or an active hemorrhage, we popped a few ibuprofen into her, proceeded to rent bikes and took off on the Great Western Greenway. This is a 27 mile long trail from Westport to Achill island, with exit points along the way. We decided to go for the 19 mile section and take a shuttle back. It’s almost all entirely car-free, which is a rarity for cycling here and was utterly gorgeous. The mountain Croagh Patrick is in the distance, and all about you are peaceful rolling hills and grazing sheep, goats, and some curious cows. Around mile 15 of 19, the trail became almost entirely uphill, and the girl may have wept a bit at this point. We may have said things like “Come on, we just have to keep pedaling!” and she may have wailed back “Fine! Fine! Just leave me behind!! You don’t even care about me, DO YOU?!?!”  After about a mile of this, however, the trail again turned downhill, she hopped on and returned to her usual sanguine self.  I swear, I don’t know many adults who would have been able to do what she did, she is so, so tough.

 

Our last stop was to Donegal on the Northwest coast. Along the way, we stopped in at the Country Life Museum. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a dark room with a butter churn and walls covered in text, as I’ve seen in some other museums. This is however an incredible place. Displays about Irish rural life from prefamine to the 1960s bring to life what was clearly a very difficult existence. I felt like I was walking in a real life “These are the people in your neighborhood” song from Sesame Street.

Listening to school lessons, trying his hand at the butter churn (yes,there was one after all), and hand woven straw baskets


 We tried to hike up Slieve League the next day, but were stymied by fog. Another high cliff like those of Moher, there’s supposedly a gorgeous view up there but it was not to be for us. I looked for signs of puffins as well, and again they were not to be.

 
The Donegal Yarns workshop was a delight. Rooms filled with beautiful yarns and handwoven and handknitted scarves, sweaters and hats. Fun fact: most wool in Irish products does not come from sheep living here, and is imported from England, New Zealand and Australia. One Irish season is enough to turn the softest sheep’s wool into Brillo pads, and as such the wool is exported for upholstery. Most of the adorable lambs you see tottering about on the side of the road are fated to end up on your dinner plate in the next few weeks.

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Upstairs is the weaving room, where fabrics are created as they always were, on long hand looms with foot pedals, by one person at a time.  Behind that is the spinning room, where the dyed fleece comes in and is mixed into skeins for the weaving, and then the sewing room where the fabrics are made into their final product.
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Here he is in action, the rhythmic click clack of the loom with each shuttle pass taps out a cadence for him to follow. Unfortunately, the sound didn’t record so you’ll have to use your imagination.

On the way back home we visited the Corlea Trackway Museum, where an ancient 2000 year old wooden bog trackway has been preserved. No one knows what this road was for – there are many such roads along the spongy bogs, which were heavily trafficked as ways to cross over without sinking into the sludge, but this one remains pristine. It was a long road, and took months and many people to construct, and as such is a mystery as to why, after all that work, it remains unused.

 

We’re back in Maynooth now, and glad to be here. We pulled up in the rental car, I dropped Eric and the kids off to go and return it, and when I got back the kids were nowhere to be seen, having run off to join their friends somewhere in the green of the estate. I think I’ll have a glass of the Crean’s lager we brought back with us.

 

 

In which we wander around Belfast, old and new

Belfast is a lovely little city, at the foot of the bay with the River Lagan running through it.

Belfast today, as seen from the banks of the Lagan. Sheep fields in the near distance of this compact city.


 My favorite little encounter there was at the museum shop, where they had papyrus for sale. Actual papyrus! I went up to the shop clerk and asked “Is this real papyrus?” To which he looked at me, raised his eyebrows and quipped, “Well, it’s not imaginary is it?” The museum, by the way, is excellent,  with a nice selection of dioramas, a walkthrough all of Irish history from prehistoric times, and lots of hands on stuff for kids. They had a replica of a penannular shawl pin,  used in the Medeival period,  and we could finally see how to actually put one on! 

My other little story about Belfast is from a coffee shop we went to in the morning. The guy sitting in the chair next to us was speaking loudly with a thick Bronx accent into a flip phone “Did you find the DNA on the body? Because I know who did it! And if you find the DNA it’ll prove it!” We assiduously avoided eye contact while trying to maintain ear contact. The police on the other end were clearly trying to stay professional and saying they couldn’t give him any info. He later came over asking if we could help him text, and at first I and the boy were like “Sure! We can help! We are nerds! We know lots of things!” And then realized that we were going to help someone who clearly a) had mental issues and b) may or not be involved in something unsavory. I looked at the boy, widened my eyes and shook my head slightly and he mumbled some excuse about not knowing how to text on flip phones and the guy walked away.

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The day before we took an all day tour of Belfast, focusing on The Troubles. For those who may not be aware, a little background on the history of Northern Ireland. As a child, I remember knowing that you didn’t go to Ireland because of bombs and terrorism, but I can’t say I knew much about it other than that until now, and I suspect that most non-Irish people my age and younger would say the same. Side note: the history of Northern Ireland is as fraught and complicated as that of Israel/Palestine. My goal here is to share what we saw on the trip and talk about the history in very simplified terms to provide background. On both sides were many different official and splinter groups often at odds with one another in their practices, and tensions and emotions are high to this day over who did what and what the proper terminology is. For the purposes of this post, I refer to those who supported British rule as “Loyalists” and those who supported a politically unified Ireland as “Republicans” or the IRA, Irish Republican Army, for short. There is also a religious component in that Loyalists were Protestant and Republicans Catholic, however it is still controversial what degree religion itself played in the struggle.


Ireland was a British Colony until its Independence in 1920-21. At that time, Northern Ireland was partitioned off and remained in the British United Kingdom as a majority of citizens supported continued British rule. From 1920 to the late 1960s there were sporadic events of violence, riots and peaceful marches protesting not only British rule but the curtailing of Catholic (essentially Irish) rights. The violence escalated dramatically in the late 1960s until 1998, and this period is known as the Troubles ending when the Good Friday Agreement created a power sharing government in Northern Ireland.
In one seminal event, riots broke out over a few days in late 1969 across Northern Ireland after a Loyalist parade near a Republican area resulted in fighting and then violent military suppression by Loyalists. A system of forced internment was put into play to stop the violence. Purportedly for agitators from both sides, for the most part only Republicans were interned. A peaceful march against forced interments on January 30, 1972 ended when British soldiers opened fire and killed 14 people, in the event known as “Bloody Sunday.” [Yes, this is what the u2 song refers to.] Both the forced internments and the brutality of Loyalist police and paramilitary to peaceful marchers did much to recruit support for the IRA.
Over the next 26 years, Loyalists and Republicans battled, sometimes in overt firefights, and more often through terrorism including bombings, kidnappings and outright executions. Paul’s tour took us through Belfast to understand what happened during that time and what life was like.

On what is now a bustling main street in Central Belfast was a second-story nightclub, popular with young people and packed to the gills one weekend evening in the early 1970s. Two IRA members had planted a large bomb in the lobby, and were arming it when they were surprised by two off duty British police officers. The IRA members fled, one being shot in the spine and paralyzed from her injuries. The other made it around the corner where he was shot and killed. Accounts vary – the police insist that he was a threat, other eyewitnesses stated that he was already on the ground. The frightened patrons were either led out past the active bomb, not knowing when it would go off, or jumped from second story windows in panic, breaking limbs. One of the aftereffects of bombs such as this was to create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that lingers to this day in its aftershocks. The street now is filled with fast food restaurants and convenience stores, but many of these shut down in the evening and no one is out.

Main street, city center then and now. Barricaded checkpoints at the entry to search for weapons

Due to the constant threat of bombs and weapons, main streets were barricaded with checkpoints. Entry required a full search. The picture above shows what that street would have looked like in the 1970s, complete with metal bars. Paul impressed upon us the mentality of living in a police state, accepting of curbed liberties and always in fear of death from a bomb.
Here used to be an indoor promenade, lined with shops. One day a young woman working in the shops suddenly died when the bomb she had been assembling in the back went off early. Other IRA members had been smuggling in pieces bit by bit through the checkpoints. All of this, again, created an atmosphere of fear.

Then and now, an old shopping arcade where a bomb exploded by mistake, killing the assembler

It often seemed to me that the IRA bombings were indiscriminate in that the people killed could just as likely be Catholic as Protestant. Paul tells us of another story, when a bomb that perhaps was meant for an officer’s bar was hurriedly disposed of in a busy family restaurant shortly before it detonated. This bomb was one that got the British Government to talk to the IRA, so the logic went if one bomb can do that, well, let’s make it bigger to get a bigger government reaction. In addition, the bombings were retaliations for aggressions and killings of Republicans by Loyalist groups.

Belfast now, with lovely art filled spaces tucked into the city

In the afternoon we headed to West Belfast,  while Paul spoke of July 21, 1972 when the IRA set off 22 bombs throughout central Belfast, and the sky was blackened with smoke, people running in panic to try and find somewhere safe, only soon to realize that there was no safe place to go to.

British soldier standing guard over a bombed building in Belfast


 

I realize that much of what I speak of here is IRA fueled violence, but Loyalist violence was damaging as well. Catholic civilians who may or may not have had any association with militarized groups were killed, disappeared, or thrown into internment camps.
One of the lasting legacies of this time was the construction of “Peace Walls” between working class Catholic (largely Republican) and Protestant (largely Loyalist) neighborhoods, which are still in place today. This blew my mind – in 2017, there still exist cities in which the populations are separated by literal walls. The gates of the walls are closed at 6pm most days and open in the mornings. According to some, the communities still feel safer with the walls in place, uncertain what true unification and open crossings would bring.

The peace wall as it stands today, separating Catholic from Protestant neighborhoods. Cartoonish artwork seems to try to “prettify” the harsh structure.

Today, Belfast is a city which,while rising,  still clearly bears the reminders of the bitter struggle, and in someways is ongoing if not violent. The recent election saw a rise of the Republican Sinn Fein party to near equal numbers in the Parliament, meaning that politically the two sides must come to agreements. If they can’t, there’s a possibility of Britain taking over direct rule of the North. It made me think, too, of the current divided States of America – nearly 20 years after peace in Northern Ireland, it is nowhere near true unity – and I wonder what it will take for the US to achieve that.
–s