Don’t Expect Benevolence When Traveling

Benevolence: 1. disposition to do good 2. a. an act of kindness b. a generous gift.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I’ve recently completed planning an upcoming trip to Spain. I’ve inevitably said it before. I love Spain. Specifically, I love Barcelona and Catalonia. One day, I plan to own property and spend as much time as possible under the Catalan sun. I could drone on and on about it, but I’ll spare you. This post, rather, is a story of lessons learned in the pull-no-punches world of travel.

March 2 or February 3?

It all started with the date. My birthday is March 3. My better half and I tend to travel on or around my birthday. This past year, we opted for other locations rather than our beloved Spain. It has left a hole in our hearts that we aim to fill post haste. So this year, we’re headed back. As a huge football (soccer) fan, and having chosen FC Barcelona in 1978 as my club of clubs, we prioritize games at Camp Nou. We’ve been many times. We’re accustomed to searching the schedule and selecting games. We know, for instance, that European dates are written as Day-Month as opposed to Month-Day. Or are they? Earlier this year we looked on the website and saw the schedule that Valencia will be in town to face our blaugrana on 2/3. Perfect! I haven’t seen Valencia play in person and its a day before my birthday. Except that it isn’t. When we recently logged in to buy tickets, we came to realize that the website had transposed the dates for us American folk and Valencia will in fact be playing not on 2-Mar, but on 3-Feb. Of course, the game has now moved to 2-Feb because of other midweek fixtures, which will highlight my next point. But not so fast. Instead of playing a home game on 2-Mar, the current rendering of my childhood heroes will be on the road playing their bitter rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on 3-Mar. So if I want to see the game – and of course I do – we now have to travel to Madrid, which we weren’t planning to do.

Moving Targets

Having realized our folly, my wife and I shared a laugh. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t changing the dates of our travel just to see FCB play a home game. And, come on. If we can make the budget work, we’ll get to see another El Clasico, this time in the Bernabeu, which we have never visited. On top of that, we LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We often figure out how to visit another city simply to enjoy the train for a few hours. So, we checked our budgets and figured out how to get the tickets for the big game. Tickets now procured for the big game on 3-Mar (happy birthday to me!), it was time to get train tickets. I dutifully logged into Rail Europe and bought tickets at a great price. I was more than two months out, so tickets are quite manageable. I opted to not double the cost of the tickets with insurance because, come on, how could the date of El Clasico change? I then logged into Airbnb to find us a spot near the stadium for the night. It was a night game and we knew we would want to sleep in Madrid instead of chancing a busy night train back to Barcelona. I found an incredible little place at a great rate within a few blocks of the stadium. I am lucking out! It was available, which Airbnb tells me is a bit rare for game weekends and it auto-books as soon as I hit the go button – no negotiations. That is about the point where it all started to fall apart.

To my utter dismay, we got an alert from the ticket agency. Due to a midweek match in the Champions League, the date of El Clasico was moving from 3-Mar to 2-Mar. For any American readers who don’t appreciate European sports, this is like moving the NFC playoff game from a Sunday to a Saturday. Simply unheard of. Yes, yes, the European club schedules all have the asterisked liner note *subject to change*, but seriously? Who changes El Clasico? LaLiga, that’s who. With one stroke of the pen, my Airbnb reservation and my fast-on-the-draw train tickets were rendered useless. Surely not. There is plenty of time, and I know my way around the negotiation table. I’ll make short work of this. It is a simple change of the date for reservations that are more than a month away. Just a few more conversations to take care of. Minimal complications for an experienced traveler.

Not so fast Mr. Negotiator

First up, the train tickets. I logged into the website to figure out the contact point. Often European travel companies such as the rail system have a US number so you can call and talk to an actual person. But I see they’ve added Live Chat as an option. Perfect. I’ll state my case, strike a fine balance between self-deprecation and skillful logic, and voila, we’ll have new tickets issued, perhaps for a minimal change fee. If I’m on my game, I could even negotiate my way out of those pesky fees. After all, who changes the date of El Clasico? As things would have it, I apparently was not on my game. Not only did I fail to get my reservation moved by a day for a change fee, I had no success whatsoever. I asked what they would do with the now useless tickets we had purchased. Did they need me to at least confirm that they would not be used so someone else could buy them? No, my delightful little chat agent told me, “Simply, don’t show up. We don’t track how many tickets go unfulfilled.” My inner Process Engineer was balking at the waste in this process. But all for nought. My indignation and roughly $150 were able to purchase a new set of tickets at a time when we’d be able to actually see the game. Ok, unlucky at cards, lucky with the bed. I’m certain I’ll do better with Airbnb.

Airbnb is different. It isn’t some cold hotel employee who could care less about your silly needs. Airbnb is run by people – real people like you and me – who will appreciate the scrambling caused by the date change of El Clasico. And besides, this is Spain, where they run the Teleferico for an extra 90 minutes after closing because people are standing in line. I’m sure my Airbnb hosts will have a good laugh with me and we’ll get this all sorted out. Simple date change and we’re good to go. After several back-and-forth messages, here’s the deal that I was offered: “Good morning Troy, March 2 is available but it’s needed booking 2 days or more and it’s more expensive for the match and weekend day so we understand if you don’t want to book.” So instead of simply moving the reservation by one day at the same price, I now needed to book at least two days and pay a higher price per day than the one day I had previously reserved. In this case, I did not take the bait. The Airbnb host and I mutually agreed to cancel the reservation (for a minimal fee, of course) and I did business elsewhere.

The universe does not care about your silly travels

I have to admit that I was feeling a bit daunted by this round of failed negotiations. I’ve been extra busy at work and simply committing the time to make the adjustments was a fairly big effort. Figuring out new days and times, where to be and when, how to coordinate with other plans during the trip were all complications before the matter of money hit the table. A few weeks ago, I observed in Why We Travel that we travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. I think this is part of that very same message. I’m not special. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If anything, I should thank my lucky stars that I’m privileged to have these complications. My attachment to the way things should be is just unskilled thinking. In the end, it will all work out. So far it has cost more time and money than we wanted, but we’re still going to have a great time. And the uniqueness of this new experience has pulled me out of my routine and challenged me to think differently about the world around me.

Wishing you great travels filled with less folly than mine.

Cheers!

Why We Travel

Our family just returned home from a family weekend trip to the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth – as the name suggests – is a bit like a small town was scooped out of the Bavarian part of Germany and transplanted in Central Michigan. My wife and I stopped by Frankenmuth on our way to Traverse City in the summer and we concluded that this would be a fun place to bring the kids for our Christmas trip. I don’t think I’m spoiling the blog post here to tell you, dear reader, that we parents miscalculated the kids’ embrace of this little trip. Put simply, we missed the mark.

Scooped out of Bavaria

I started drafting this post in the hotel room the morning of our departure. As I sat down to write, three of our four kids were staring creepily into their personal device screens with headphones in. The older two kids were sharing a sofa, which means they were within 2 feet of one another, and yet they were in their own little worlds. As I watched them geeking out, I sat for a moment pondering the failure of this trip.

We reserved a suite in a hotel with a water park, replete with kids’ adventure areas, multiple water slides, a lazy river, and an old fashioned indoor pool and hot tub combo. Right next door was Bronner’s Christmas World, which is an out-and-out extravaganza of Christmas consumerism. If nothing else, it is worth a walk through to see the nearly countless ornament combinations in terms of color scheme and thematic character. The town of Frankenmuth is well-decorated year-round, and although it could be accused by more cynical travelers of being a bit of a tourist trap, it has a quaint charm that draws people in.

Before we think more deeply about this failure of ours, let’s first talk about the magnitude. Our daughter didn’t bring a swim suit. The two youngest boys brought swim suits, but each was at least one size too small. No one brought sandals or any form of cover up. In essence, this trip wasn’t really on their minds. All of the kids turned us down when we offered a walk down town in the well-lit evening to see the Christmas decorations and to pop in and out of the nearly 20 fun and unique shops on the main street. Instead, they opted to keep their noses in their individual devices in the hotel room. The three boys spent an hour in the water park. Our daughter went out with me the morning before we left to pick up breakfast for the family. But other than that, it was a pretty dismal showing.

Where did we go wrong? The last several years, we have had fun trips to some great destinations that they’ve really enjoyed. Have we lost them? Has the internet cyborg finally mind-melded with our children to the point of no return? I resisted the temptation to get angry and tell them off. “Your mom and I planned this trip for you and now you’re going to enjoy it!” But that’s self-serving. Yes, their devices can be like black holes, but we’ve overcome this digital inertia before.

In short, we missed the mark because my wife and I were drawn in to the quaintness of this town and we projected our 40-something perspective onto the kids. “Oh they’ll love it,” we told ourselves this summer. “We can take them shopping and get them tickets to the water park and they’ll have a blast.” The truth is that our kids mostly don’t like shopping and they rarely go for swimming these days. This caused me to start thinking about why we travel in the first place. Now wiser from a failed journey, I think I have it.

We travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. Frankenmuth didn’t do that for our kids. Don’t get me wrong, Frankenmuth is a lovely town. But given our kids’ historical travels and experiences, there was nothing new enough for them to overcome the tractor beams of WiFi. Are they spoiled? Debatably, yes. Could we, rather, should we have predicted the outcome? Absolutely. Next year, we may not travel with the kids. We might be coming to the end of a cycle with them where our interests are just too different to pull together. However, if we decide to travel, the uniqueness of the new experiences must be enough to pull them out of their routines. Because if not, it isn’t worth the time and energy.

Wild Horses Save The Beach

If I’m honest, I don’t love the beach. There, I’ve said it. Yes, yes, it is beautiful. But I’m more of a go-out-and-explore than a toes-in-the-sand-with-a-beer-in-my-hand kind of person. So it was with some trepidation that I set aside a week to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am quite clear on how silly that sounds. My lovely mother lined it up so that my sister and her family and I and my family could come together with her for a week at one of the most popular beach destinations in the Eastern United States, and I’m feeling trepidation? I’d probably make a good extra in an Adam Sandler movie.

We’re now in the second half of beach week. We’ve gone to the pool, we’ve caught some rays, we’ve gone to the beach, we did battle with some large waves and decent riptide, and we (I) got a small crustacean stuck in our swim suit. With a couple of days to go, I was thinking that was it – rinse and repeat – although hopefully I could avoid another sand crab incident. But then my wife and better half decided to pull on a thread that has been dangling in front of us. All of our rooms include this seemingly obligatory picture of horses on the beach. Someone mentioned something about wild horses at dinner the other night, but we didn’t think it was a real thing. I mean, this is the modern, arguably overdeveloped Eastern sea board of the US, and it’s the beach. Horses? Pulling out her trusty mobile device, she quickly learned that there is in fact a not-quite-indigenous population of wild horses roaming free on a 7,500 acre stretch of American beach.

Spanish War Horses

In the year 1492, there was this Italian guy who left from Spain to find a short route to the East Indies. He kind of muffed it. But, he did run across this new place that had some prospects. You’ve probably heard that story. So fast forward a bit and pretty soon the Spanish are sending boats to the American coast pretty routinely. The Outer Banks, it turns out, are particularly difficult to navigate. A naturally occurring string of barrier islands that span 200 miles, there are shoals and riptides and all kinds of fun little things for boats to stumble upon. No one knows for sure, but it is assumed that either the horses were tossed off a grounded ship to lighten the load or they somehow survived a wreck. Either way, a group of Spanish war horses (their DNA has been verified) made it to shore in the Outer Banks and have been hanging out in the wild for about 500 years.

Now, I’m an American and I love America, warts and all. But one of the things we Americans are not good at is leaving well enough alone. So forgive me when I declared shenanigans at the idea of a rogue colony of Spanish War Horses living on the beach in North Carolina. I think it would have been much more likely that settlers discovered the horses, tamed them, and their story was swallowed up by history. What I didn’t realize is that the Outer Banks are a relatively new build-out. As late as 1985, there were no paved roads in the Corolla Beach area. So at this point, the horses have been here a good bit longer than the people.

Hop In My Hummer

My skepticism in check, I’m now fully on board. I’ve got to see this. My wife unholstered her trusty smartphone to figure out that Wild Horse Adventure Tours was the best gig in town. We were able to pick our tour time, complete the transaction, and sign the waivers all from the phone. Fantastic! But wait, it gets better. The company has outfitted original Hummers with 12 bucket seats for passengers in an open air environment. The evening was cool for North Carolina and again, the tour company was on point with blankets for all the passengers. We met our Tour Guide, Pippy, whose enthusiasm for the area and the horses was infectious. So we sat in comfort and made the 20 minute trek out to Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.

Wild Horses

The tour was fantastic. It included a good bit of the natural and human history of the area as well as the horses. Pippy masterfully guided the Hummer back into the dunes. The first thing that struck me about the area was the number of gigantic beach houses interspersed among the dunes. I want to be clear here. There are no roads. To get to these mostly two-story homes built on at least one story of stilts to avoid the floods, people have to have 4X4 vehicles to navigate the dunes and trapped water in the area. Also, I don’t quite understand how they’re building in a wildlife refuge, but this is much more like the America I know. If you’ve got a cool million to throw at a beach house in a probable flood plain that has no roads and requires a rugged vehicle to reach it, we’ll find you a permit to build. But I digress. We were back in the dunes about five minutes before finding our first harem of horses. The herd is made up of about 100 horses, but these split off into harems as the males are quite territorial. A harem is comprised of at least one stallion and one mare, but – to quote Pippy, “The stallion will take on as many mares as he can handle, usually 3-5.” The horses are beautiful, and I’m sure they are wild. However, they’re certainly not easily spooked. As we drove around the only navigable parts of the dunes, we frequently came quite near the horses as we passed by slowly. We were even treated to a good look at the herd’s only colt of the season, as he was eating grass next to an outdoor air conditioning unit in the backyard of one of the mega-houses. In all cases, the horses went on about their business grazing and doing what horses do as we and other tour companies patrolled the area.While we did not see horses running and frolicking in the waves as the pictures in our condo would suggest, it was still an excellent experience. We learned a little history, saw a good bit of the dunes between the Atlantic and the Currituck Sound, got fairly up close and personal with some wild Spanish War Horses, and got to do all of it in the comfort of a well-navigated Hummer. If this is life at the beach, I am revising my future beach-going trepidation.

Here are a few more photos I took on our travels

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat

Reflections of Ireland Part 4: Bloomsday in March

I know I’ve mentioned it in other posts, but I’ll say it again. I am a huge fan of James Joyce. With this year’s major trip going to Ireland, there was simply no way I was going to miss out on having a Joyce / Ulysses experience. Readers of James Joyce will know that June 16, aka Bloomsday, is THE big day for fanatics. For the less initiated, Joyce’s book, Ulysses takes place over the course of this single day in the city of Dublin. I couldn’t be in Dublin in June, so I celebrated my own Bloomsday on Sunday, March 5. While doing my trip research, I was delighted to find not only a James Joyce Centre but also a Ulysses Walking Tour. I have taken several walking tours in the past and they feature in some of my fondest travel memories. After getting my private walking tour set up with David Halpin, Owner and Guide of Dublin Ulysses Tours, my day was set. I was ready to geek out.

The Centre

Before the walking tour, I decided to visit the James Joyce Centre. I’m glad I experienced the Centre before the walking tour. While I want to support the Centre in its efforts to preserve and promote the works of James Joyce, it honestly left a bit to be desired. There are three floors to the Center and the unguided tour is started by climbing the stairs to the top floor to experience the museum on the way back down. The top floor has an interesting Ulysses publication “family tree,” which traces the various Ulysses editions relative to their publishing houses and publication dates. There is also a video that plays three short documentaries about Ulysses. On the second floor, there are several painted portraits from the Joyce family as well as visual schema of each of the chapters of Ulysses. The ground floor has the gift store and a viewing parlor with John Huston’s movie, The Dead playing, but the display lacked any indication as to how it tied to Joyce. So… the James Joyce Centre was good but not great. At €5 per person, I think it’s priced right for the value delivered. If you go, plan for about 1 hour max. The short documentaries on the top floor, which I haven’t found to be available on the internet, take just over a half an hour to watch in total. The rest of the museum will take no more than 30 minutes to walk through.

The Walk

Having wrapped up the time at the museum, it was time for the main event. David and I had arranged via email to meet at The Palace Bar on Fleet Street in the Temple Bar neighborhood. We recognized each other fairly quickly and settled into a back corner over pints of Guiness. Note that David provides customized, personal tours and he’s constantly looking to improve, so if you go (and I highly recommend it regardless of your experience level with Joyce / Ulysses), your experience will likely differ from mine.

The Palace Bar is a time capsule with wood paneled walls, a hardwood bar and a friendly curate to match. While there is a single mounted TV, it was turned off. This is no sports bar. The Palace is an old fashioned pub meant for talking and to add to the ambiance, its walls are adorned with pictures and portraits of the writers and artists who have frequented it over the years. The seats are comfortable and we were free to arrange them as we pleased. The bar was about half full and the other patrons paid us no mind as David pulled out his hefty copy of Ulysses to call out specific quotes and points. During our chat, David and I discussed our own stories and how we came to experience this tremendous author and his seminal work. David is a polite conversationalist and he really takes his time to make a connection. We chatted for nearly an hour. Then we packed up and headed out into the early spring Dublin weather for Bloom-style walk around Dublin.

Immediately outside, David pointed out the gold colored memorials built into the sidewalk commemorating four of the Irish writers who frequented The Palace. He explained their connection to literature and to Joyce. At this point, I had been in and out of The Palace twice and hadn’t seen these gold colored plaques. As I would soon discover, I had been walking over similar commemorative sidewalk features for the previous several days.

After leaving The Palace, David took us down backstreets pointing out Dublin street art dedicated to Irish literature. We stopped by the statues outside of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Bar and viewed the murals on Bloom’s Hotel.

From there, we walked out to College Green and headed toward Trinity College Dublin. David is full of insights about the roles the characters and buildings played in literary history. I wouldn’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to take the tour. From here, we turned right onto Grafton Street and picked up the trail of Ulysses fictional protagonist, Leopold Bloom. This was my third time to Grafton Street in as many days because it is the main shopping district; however, like those plaques outside The Palace Bar, it was my first time seeing the gold colored Bloom plaques embedded in the pavement. Pictures of three of the plaques follow.

These plaques mark the walk of the fictional Bloom as he traveled the very accurately portrayed streets of Dublin during the course of the day and night of June 16, 1904. Experienced readers will already know from the pictures above that the plaques quote passages from Ulysses at the time in the book when Bloom was at that real life juncture. Off of Grafton, we turned left onto Duke Street, which is where I learned not only that Davy Byrnes still exists in a modern state, but also that there is a Ulysses Rare Book Store. I would later visit the store and purchase one of several vintage copies of Ulysses available for sale. For vintage book lovers, this place is worth the trip just to get a glimpse of the Ulysses first edition that is stored under glass behind the counter. But there are plenty of more accessible vintage books by a wide variety of authors on the shelves that the average wallet can afford.

We then followed Bloom’s footsteps over to the National Library, where David brought Bloom and his arch rival, Blazes Boylan, to life with a quick reading of the corresponding parts of Ulysses. From here, we traveled to a neighborhood hotel for a quick stop and a view of what is perhaps the least known – and by far the best rendering I have seen – memorial to Joyce and Ulysses. David’s narrative perfectly illustrated the quoted text as we made our way around the 360 degree monument. Given that this piece isn’t yet called out on Joyce sight-seeing website lists, I’ll keep this spot concealed and again refer the reader to David’s Dublin Ulysses Tour to catch a glimpse.

From here, we made our way to Sweny’s pharmacy, which is where Bloom fictionally picked up the lemon soap for his wife Molly. Sweny’s is no longer a working pharmacy, IMG_2558but is rather a standing homage to Joyce and societal home to – these are my words – a loose knit group of local Joyce volunteers who are committed to keeping the sights and sounds of his work alive. Inside, David introduced me the volunteer in chief, PJ, who shook my hand and inquired about my surname. After providing him with my four nearest related family names, PJ rattled off a brief and authoritative geographical history of my 4 bloodlines. After that, he sat down and sang me a song in Irish as he strummed along on guitar. And with that act, I’m pretty sure I joined this Joyce “society” in whatever form it exists. My tour with David had concluded, but my evening was far from over.

The Reading

There was almost no question as to whether I was coming along with David to “the reading” after my whirlwind initiation. PJ just looked at me and said, “We’ve had to move the reading across the street to Kennedy’s because we have a good sized group. This is good because we’ll have some pints as we read. Grab a book and let’s go.” So, I did.

“The reading” as the name would suggest, is a group of people sitting around the table each with the same book in hand and each taking his or her turn to read a page. The book was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which I had never read.

IMG_2559
David Halpin, me, and other “readers”

What I did know about the book is that it took Joyce 18 years to write and that the language was almost entirely Joyce’s own amalgamation of various languages around the world. It has a reputation for being nearly unreadable. There was no time for me to be intimidated. About 4 minutes after I sat down and caught the place in the book, it was my turn to read. It is said of Joyce’s work that one of the best ways to access it is to simply read it aloud. I’m sure I got most of it wrong. Others sounded more authoritative in their readings. However, I’m sure that the pints of Guiness that were flowing helped all of us “just go with it.” With one loop round the table of 9 readers, I settled into the process and had a great time. After several loops and a few pints, PJ signaled that it was time to wrap up the reading and he gathered up the books to take back across to Sweny’s.

As the books closed, the discussions opened. I formally met most everyone around the table and we quickly leapt into topics large and small: gun laws in America; US Presidents Trump, Obama, and a sprinkling of Bill Clinton; Irish social classes and Dublin neighborhood distribution relative to the River Liffey; the movie Pulp Fiction, and on and on. Unfortunately, I had to wrap up the evening and get back to my family. As I made my rounds and said my goodbyes, it was a bittersweet moment. I had immediately connected with a Joycian tribe and after a few delightful hours, it was time to go.

Finding Joyce’s Dublin

Through his works and his correspondences, we know that Joyce was fiercely committed to the human experience. After all, what landed Ulysses on the banned book list in all English speaking countries as soon as it was published is the fact that it is an odyssey of the human body and mind. Joyce wrote about things that – at the time – just couldn’t be written about. My day up until that point had been committed to knowing more of Joyce and the Dublin of his time. I was focused on facts and figures. But as I reflected on the day during my long walk along the Liffey back to my Airbnb, I began to realize that my evening at Kennedy’s Bar, connecting with David, PJ and others who share a common interest as we discussed the politics and issues of our day, was as much taking part in Joyce’s Dublin as anything I have done. This is Dublin City. Constantly renewing while celebrating its rich history. Today’s Dublin is Joyce’s Dublin. To experience it, one needs to find a pub, grab a pint, and start a conversation.

Reflections of Ireland Part 3: The Day Dublin Stood Still

Friday, March 2, 2018. If I were to believe the headlines and talking heads on the news, this day was supposed to be filled with danger as the “killer storm” Emma which gave way to #thebeastfromtheeast settled in on Ireland. And yet somehow, we’ve made it alive. Dublin is our third and final leg of our cross-country tour of Ireland. We had significant plans to see various sights and do a bit of shopping. But… Mother Nature has thrown us a snowball. The snow was predicted to be as deep as 10 inches (25 cm) in Dublin City. By my estimates, we’re right around 4 inches total over 2 days of snowing. For a country that gets roughly 2 inches of snow per year, it is a lot. They’re not equipped with snow plows and such, so they do a little grit-spreading and hope for the best.

Closed for Business, but Open for Craic

All major tourist attractions were closed, as were all public transit systems. Essentially all businesses were closed and very few taxis were operating. This vibrant, mischievous city eerily rolled up its sidewalks for a bit of snow. However, the residents of Dublin were not to be deterred. Being from Ohio, where we get plenty of weather of all types, I happily went out in the weather several times and I encountered loads of people. In fact, at the height of the storm on Friday morning, I set off on a run from Sarsfield Quay (pronounced “key”) along the River Liffey and out to the ocean via Irishtown. The round trip run was 10 miles and took me a little longer because I had to check Google Maps from time to time. Travel Tip: When traveling to a city outside your home country, I highly recommend downloading offline maps of your destination. It will allow you to see where you are and navigate streets without using data. Its a handy replacement to using a physical map. I want to be clear here: when I say “navigate” I’m not saying that it will give you turn by turn directions like navigation, but it does allow you to see your “dot” on the street and you can zoom in on your location to see street names and notable locations. Every time I ventured out, I found people walking their dogs, searching for open grocery stores, or having a bit of craic (Irish term loosely meaning “fun;” pronounced “crack”). I came across people building snow men and several “gangs” of teenage boys itching for a snowball fight.

Snowballs Thrown

I was hit with several snowballs during my travels in the city. I took it for what it was – boys having fun. I noticed that only men who appeared fit enough to defend themselves were targeted, so this wasn’t a situation where kids were out being bullies. As I made my way in the streets, I would catch a glimpse of someone making a snowball and turning away. It was a sure sign that one was coming my way. A couple of times, they’d miss and I’d talk a little trash about their poor marksmanship. Usually, they rose to the challenge and fired a few more my way. Only once was I hit in a malicious way. I was walking past an older teen with grocery bags in both of my hands. I noticed the snowball in his hand and made a mental note that I’d brace for the throw about 15 paces after we pass one another. It didn’t take so long. Right after he passed me, he smashed the snowball into the back of my head. For a second, I considered dropping my bags and retaliating. But I’m sure that’s what he wanted, so I just kept walking without giving him the satisfaction. Not everyone took the same turn-the-other-cheek approach that I did.

Things Heat up in the Cold

On two occasions, I saw the snowball situation escalate. On one occasion several boys pelted a van with snowballs. The driver stopped, words were exchanged, but not much more came of it. On another occasion, a boy threw a snowball over a car – to be clear, it didn’t even hit the car – and the driver pulled over. This was in the midst of “The Beast” and the driver hopped out in only a t-shirt and jeans. He was itching for a fight. Muscle bound and shaved head with a chain connecting his wallet, he got out and gestured at the boys. I couldn’t hear the words, but he clearly wanted a fight. The boys – there must have been 8-10 of them – all stayed out of arms reach and I thought that it was over. Nope. The man made a “That’s what I thought” gesture and started to turn around to get back into his car. And that’s when they hit him with three snowballs at the same time. I was laughing out loud, incredulous. I live in a de-escalated world where this simply doesn’t happen. Furious, the man rounded on the boys and took a few steps in the direction of the snowballs. The boys scattered, but it only lasted a few steps. When the man dind’t get hold of anyone they turned back around and fired off more. I kept thinking that this is going to end in fisticuffs if someone doesn’t layoff. That’s when the girlfriend got out of the car.

Apparently muscle man had a significant other in the vehicle and she was tired of seeing her man pelted with snowballs while not one of the snowball-hurling kids being willing to physically fight him. So she jumps out of the car and into the street while making wild hand gestures and – although I only wish I could hear her – yelling madly at the group of kids. She’s egging them on to either fight her or to hit her with a snowball, which thankfully no one does. I assume at this point if she gets hit with a snowball, muscle man is going to run someone down with his car. This Mexican standoff continues down the road in front of the Guinness factory, and then well beyond our ability to see it with the car moving about 20 yards at a time. Here’s what I know: I didn’t read about it in the papers the following day and I didn’t see a snowball fight-related murder on the news. So I can only assume it all ended peacefully enough.

Slow Down and Have a Laugh

In the end, I think this incident was a perfect microcosm of Dublin. It’s a vibrant city full of young adult things to do but it lacks a bit of maturity. Yes, there is an incredibly rich literary history, but if you look into those authors, few of them were above a bawdy joke or a long night of hard drinking. And that’s just fine by me. I know that I’m certainly guilty of taking myself too seriously from time to time and this mischievous city with its public shutdown and wild snowball fights is just the reminder I needed to sit back, have a drink, and enjoy the ride.

– Sláinte!

Reflections of Ireland Part 2: On the Road to Tralee

If you’d like to connect with a people and their culture, spend a couple of days in the hospital. I know, I know, that sentence didn’t end the way you were thinking. Our trip hasn’t exactly gone the way we thought it would either. On the second half of our bus tour of the Ring of Kerry, my wife started getting sick. By the time I got her back to our Airbnb in Killarney, she was literally green and feverish. After she had a nap and overcame her fever, we consulted WebMD and discovered her symptoms checked all the boxes for an appendicitis. Having never experienced a health problem away from the US, we called her insurance company for some direction. The response was swift and admirably simple: go to the hospital and save your receipts for reimbursement.

On the Road to Tralee

Our stay is in Killarney, which is a lovely little town of about 14,000 residents and no hospital. The closest hospital is about 30 minutes drive into a neighboring town of Tralee. We consulted our Airbnb hosts and they confirmed that Kerry General Hospital in Tralee is the place where they go if needed. So, we packed up and headed out. I was raised in the US so driving a sizable right-side drive, manual transmission vehicle on the left side of the road is a bit disorienting. Luckily, I’ve had a few days practice so I was able to deal with the added stress of driving my wife to the hospital at night on roads I hadn’t seen. However, I’ll readily admit that my knuckles were white from time to time over the half hour drive. Over the next 36 hours, I would make this drive in both directions several times as I made provisional trips to and from the hospital. Travel Tip: Planning to drive in Ireland? On top of allowing yourself some time to orient to the left side of the road before jumping into city traffic, I HIGHLY recommend paying the extra fee for the GPS. It took the guess work out of reading road signs (written in Irish first, English second), navigating countless roundabouts, and helped me keep track of the not-always-noticeable speed limit signs.

Irish Healthcare

In hindsight, I’d have looked up the information before traveling to know what to expect. What I learned in our exhaustive time in waiting room of the Emergency Department is that Irish Healthcare is among the slowest in Europe. My wife was seen promptly for admissions and was seen by the triage nurse within 35 minutes. After a very short interview, she informed us that it would be a 4-5 hour wait before we could see the doctor. It was closer to 6 hours. Having arrived at the hospital at roughly 9 PM, we were able to see the doctor at 2:45 AM. Other than taking blood and urine samples and a basic interview of symptoms, no diagnostic work was done until the next morning. At least she had a bed. After sitting in the aluminum bleachers in the waiting area for hours on end, getting a bit of rest in a hospital gurney helped her feel a little more comfortable. I spent the early morning in minimally padded chair next to her and only nodded off briefly once or twice. Over her 36 hour stay, she had an ultrasound, a CT scan, and several consultations with knowledgeable and caring nurses and doctors. The amenities left a little more to be desired.

Other than during her initial consultation with the doctor, she spent the entire time on a gurney in the hallway because the hospital was over-full, which we’re told is quite routine. I promptly lost my chair when she moved into the hallway and either had to go sit in a waiting room away from her or stand in the hallway near her bed. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the visit was the delivery relative to commitments. For instance, after learning that her ultrasound did not help with the diagnosis at 10 AM, we were told she would have a CT scan by 3 PM. She actually received a CT scan at 5:30 PM and was later told that only emergency CT scans are read after 5. That was when we realized that she’d be spending another night in the hallway. Thankfully she didn’t require surgery and was released the next morning with prescriptions. In the end, I would rate the care received as very good, the amenities as less-than-adequate, and the wait times to be longer than average. Travel Tip: If you need hospital care in Ireland, Americans can expect quality care comparable to what we receive in the US but with significant wait times.

The Human Connection

Spending 36 hours in a hallway gurney along with other patients and their families provides significant opportunities to connect with people. We met, among others, a 12 year old girl who broke both wrists in an elliptical bike accident, an elderly lady who was denied an oxygen tank because she hadn’t demonstrated that she had “given up the fags” (stopped smoking), a retirement-aged mother who personally thanked me for the existence of Bon Jovi, and a nurse who wondered what we thought about President Trump. We also got the chance to sit quietly for a bit and listen to conversations among locals. There is a wonderful, polite rhythm to the Irish conversation. It might go something like this (the reader will have to insert the Irish lilt):

  • Man 1: Alright John?
  • Man 2: Never better. You and the missus?
  • Man 1: Nary a complaint
  • Man 2: Where’s that no good partner of yours?
  • Man 1: Did ye check the canteens and pubs?
  • Man 2: I ‘spect he’ll be shutting ’em down later
  • Man 1: Dontcha know
  • Man 2: Alright, gotta get on with it
  • Man 1: Good luck to ye
  • Man 2: T’anks a million, take care

I mentioned in my last post that Ireland and her people reminded me of my childhood home in Southern Ohio. Never was this more apparent than in the hospital. The spoken and body language communicates so much with so little. There is a wonderful wit and wisdom communicated with a sense of humility in these little exchanges. Briefly, one can let the another know that he feels for him and that “we’re in this together.” My wife and I discussed this at length. We believe this comes with the homogeneity of culture that permeates much of rural Ireland. Because of their shared culture and vernacular, they’re “hyper-communicating,” which is my term for sending paragraphs of dialogue in verbal and non-verbal shorthand. And while our accents are different, this brand of communication is very much a part of Southern Ohio’s Scotch-Irish culture. In fact, we even share several colloquialisms. To illustrate, I was giving one of the nurses a hard time and she didn’t respond, feigning frustration. My wife told her to not take me seriously and I said, “Ah, she knows I’m only just funnin’.” This prompted an almost immediate reply from a third party nurse: “Where did you say you’re from again? Because you’re clearly Irish.”

Welcome Home

I wouldn’t wish an appendicitis on anyone. My wife experienced intense pain and I’m sure she was “this close” to having an appendectomy while in the middle of our vacation. However, the experience – without question – gave us a chance to better connect with our host country. And when you boil it all down, that human connection, that rediscovery of the common thread that binds us all together, is essentially why we travel. In the waiting room, as we were chatting with the mom and her little girl with the broken wrists, an elderly lady overheard us and asked if we were American. We said that we were. She smiled from ear to ear, looked at each one of us and said, “I’m sorry for your trouble, but welcome home.”