We Fly Kites on Derry’s Defensive Walls

Derry, an ancient and storied town on the extreme western edge of County Derry, Northern Ireland is a border town with a border mentality.

I love Derry because of its literary and historical position on this island, and I think that if you really want to understand Ireland you have to, in some way, come to understand Derry.

Back in the U.S. I teach a course on the literary responses to the Irish Troubles with my friend and colleague, David Hicks. Derry, because of its literary and political history, plays a significant role in the course so I was excited last weekend to take the Regis students and my family to Derry for the weekend.

The old city of Derry sits on a high hill overlooking the River Foyle and its seventeenth-century walls are still intact, so you can walk the perimeter of the old city and gaze down at the picturesque Foyle river valley below the city.

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West side of Derry’s defensive walls, looking down onto the Bogside

 

Derry is a plantation city that was established by James I in 1613 to essentially provide London with a plentitude of Northern Ireland’s natural resources like salmon and timber. James called the town Londonderry and if you are loyal or sympathetic to the Crown you would, to this day, refer to Derry as Londonderry. If you are Catholic or a nationalist you drop the London and call it Derry. The road signs outside of the city read “Londonderry” although, as is the case with many of the signs, they have been defaced so they read “Londonderry.”

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Two years ago, when David Hicks and I took the train from Belfast to Derry, the conductor would switch back and forth between saying, “This is the train for Derry,” and “This is the train for Londonderry.” Even the train tables referred to the town as both Derry and Londonderry. That’s just to say that the city is so politically and culturally fraught that even the name illustrates its conflicted past.

In 1689, one of the more dramatic scenes of Irish history (and there are many) took place here in Derry. James II, a Catholic, took over the English throne and subsequently invaded Ireland. This was good news for the Catholics, who were a political minority on the island and very bad news for the Protestants, who controlled the island. James’ forces sailed down the Lough Foyle and laid siege to Derry. The gates of the city were shut in December of 1688, the siege began in earnest in April of 1689 and it was finally broken in July of 1689.

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Scene depicting the closing of the gates of Derry by the storied Apprentice Boys

The breaking of the siege of Derry is to (some) Protestants in Northern Ireland as the battle of Gettysburg was to the Union army in the American Civil War and the battle of Stalingrad was to the Russians in WWII and the end of the siege of Derry is still celebrated every August in Northern Ireland.

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There is a good deal of heroic depictions of the ending of the siege of Derry

The best way, perhaps, for an American to understand the modern town of Derry in Northern Ireland is to imagine this scenario.

It’s April 1865 and you are one of the many abolitionists living in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Confederacy has won the Civil War and the new political border that’s been drawn to separate the United States from the Confederacy runs west along the Ohio River and then just a before Cincinnati, the border juts northward and wraps around the northern side of the city and then continues westward. Cincinnati, a solidly Union town during the war, becomes a Confederate city and you find yourself a member of a nation to which you are radically opposed. 

What’s more, the town of Cincinnati remains solidly supportive of the Union. A full 2/3 of the citizens of Cincinnati remain loyal to the Union. However, the new Confederate government redraws the district voting lines so that that Union supporters can never win back political control of the city. As a result, the 1/3 of the population of the city loyal to the Confederacy controls the judicial, legislative and executive decisions for years to come.

This fictional scenario is not dissimilar to what actually happened to Derry.

In 1920, a year before the end of the Irish War for Independence, the Government of Ireland Act created a political border in Ireland that separated the six northern counties from the other 26 counties on the island. (See the map below for the full visual effect.) This didn’t cause too much of a stir until after the Irish won the War for Independence and the six northern counties were given the choice of joining the Irish Free State or aligning themselves with Great Britain.  They chose the latter, of course, and set in motion a century’s worth of trouble and conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the six northern counties.

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Derry is at the very top of the island, just to the east of Donegal

The six northern counties choose to go with Britain because the majority of its citizens were loyal to the Crown. This was not the case, though, in Derry, where 2/3 of the inhabitants were Catholic and would have preferred to align with the Irish Free State. To make matters worse, the Unionists in Derry (who made up less than 1/3 of the population of the city) set up judicial, administrative and legislative norms and practices that discriminated against Catholics who, as a result of the institutional discrimination, found it difficult to find housing, jobs and a decent education.

I should say, too, that it’s easy to characterize the Protestants of Northern Ireland as intolerant and unjust but that position it mostly unfair. Protestants in Northern Ireland aren’t any better or worse than people anywhere else. Their loyalties and their culture has, for centuries, been associated with Great Britain so it makes sense that a majority of them chose to maintain those ties. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland some very bad actors on both sides had their way and basically held the entire region under the sway of their cultural and ideological demands.

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Unionist mural on the east side of the old city: “Londonderry Westbank Loyalists Still Under Siege No Surrender”

When you stand on the west side of the old city of Derry, you can look across the Foyle River onto the green, rolling hills of County Donegal, the extreme northwest county of the Republic of Ireland. For centuries Counties Donegal and Derry had more in common than not and aside from the political border that separates them, they are still nearly indistinguishable.  Imagine, if you can, what it might have felt like to be a Catholic and a supporter of a united Ireland and to stand on those ancient walls realizing that your gaze fell on soil that didn’t discriminate against you because of your faith tradition. It wouldn’t have been unlike the fictional abolitionists of my scenario above looking across the Ohio River at the Union state of Ohio.

Things simmered in Derry throughout the 40s and 50s and then at the end of the 1960s, they came to a boil. The situation for Catholics in Derry for most of the twentieth century was not much different from that of blacks in the American south prior to (and after) the American Civil Rights movement.

Catholics and Protestants in Derry and Belfast joined together to begin a civil rights movement modeled after the American Civil Rights movement, but violence erupted on the streets pretty consistently and it all culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972 (the historical basis of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday). At that point, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement effectively died and the militant wing of the IRA, the Provos, basically took over. The whole country, then, devolved into 25 years of communal and state-sponsored violence that simply devastated Northern Ireland.

Nothing good came of all this violence (nothing ever does). Even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the IRA didn’t secure a united Ireland–the very thing it had been waging war for 30 years. But, there were a number of literary figures that chronicled these dark times in thoughtful and lucid ways. Ireland’s greatest poet, Seamus Heaney, hailed from County Derry and attended St. Columb’s College (it’s a high school) in Derry city. Many of Heaney’s most profound poems use the Troubles as foreground and background and it’s safe to say that reading Heaney’s generous and humanistic poetry about the Troubles is one of the best ways to understand that dark period.  One of Northern Ireland’s greatest politicians, John Hume, is a Derry man as is the writer and critic Seamus Deane. The same goes for the great Irish playwright, Brian Friel, who was born in County Donegal and who wrote a number of plays that take up the topic of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Deane and Friel were the creative forces behind the Field Day project, a literary and historical movement committed to viewing the Troubles through a nationalistic and post-colonial framework.

 

Halfway between the old city walls and the River Foyle is a neighborhood called the Bogside, so named because the land was reclaimed from the Foyle before houses began cropping up in the area. The Bogside is the working class, Catholic and nationalist neighborhood of Derry where much of the communal and State-sponsored trouble took place in the later part of the twentieth century. The Bogside is unique for its many public murals which have become sites of public memory regarding the Troubles and the 30 years of conflict that transpired there.

If you ever have a chance to visit Derry, you must visit the Free Derry Museum. When we visited Derry last weekend, the museum had just opened so I was excited to be one of the first patrons. I’ve visited a lot of museums over the course of our past ten months of our journey and I’d say the Free Derry Museum was one of my favorite. It’s collection mostly commemorates the horrible events of 30 January 1972, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday and there are artifacts and video footage of the massacre that I had never seen so I found the whole experience moving.

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Sports jacket worn by one of the 13 marchers killed by British forces on Bloody Sunday. The yellow arrow marks where the bullet left the body of the young man who wore this coat.

Derry is a complicated city and in a short blog post I can’t do justice to the historical and cultural circumstances that have gone into making it the city it is today. If you are interested in learning more about Derry, I suggest reading Eamon McCann’s War in an Irish Town, Seamus Heaney’s early poems, my friend Andrew Auge’s very good book on Irish poetry, A Chastened Communion or Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows On Our Skin. And, by all means, if you ever find yourself in Ireland, take the time to visit Derry.

On our final day in Derry, we woke up early and walked the perimeter of the old city walls. The children brought along the kites they made the previous day and flew them as they walked the walls. Children flying kites on militarized walls. I can’t think of a better image.

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Flying a kite on Derry’s defensive wall

 

 

We attend an Inauguration protest in Dublin

I collected the kids at school today and we walked to the Maynooth train station where we hopped on a train to Dublin. We met up with my dear friend, Andy Auge, and his student Alex and headed over to an Inauguration Day protest that was being held in city centre.

The kids have been talking about and looking forward to this this all week. They are unnerved and anxious by the ascendency of #45 and sorrowful to see Obama exit the public stage. Atticus was up until nearly midnight earlier this week, composing a thank you letter that, among other things, informed President Obama that everyone Atticus has talked to in his travels over the past six months has supported Obama and that he shouldn’t worry about the people who don’t like him in the States. Attending the protest was a way for the kids to see that there are other people who are worried and angry about what’s ahead for our country and for the world. They were uplifted and excited by the collective action and I think, all in all, it was good for them. They held up signs, talked with other protesters, listened attentively to the speakers and even got an Irish Times reporter to interview them.

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Their first, and hopefully last, encounter with the media

I, on the other hand, have been dreading this moment all week. As I stood there listening to the speakers I just kept looking at the kids and thinking about the dangerous and uncertain world they were inheriting. I was angry to be standing out there in the cold, listening to people shout over loudspeakers, and I was distressed that my country was at that moment being turned over to a band of thieves and charlatans. Money changers in the temple of democracy.  I didn’t feel joyful or hopeful standing about with the 300 or so other folks gathered in the plaza. I didn’t feel connected to something larger than myself, and I didn’t feel at all that things were going to be okay.  As all this was running through my mind, I looked at my phone and read a  New York Times feed: the new regime had taken down all government websites related to climate change and LGBTQ issues.

I remembered a photo of  Obama and Andy’s son, Thomas, taken sometime in 2008. They live in Iowa and on one of Obama’s visits to their town Thomas had a chance to ask Obama a question at a town hall meeting. The shot was taken over Obama’s right shoulder so he’s in the foreground and he takes up nearly half of the frame. You can’t see his face, but you know it’s him because he has probably the most famous ears in the world. And given the aperture setting, what you see of Obama–the back of him from the waist up–is blurred. This in and of itself is unusual–usually the boken (the blurred or out-of-focus part of a photo) is in the background. To see the out-of-focus subject in the foreground and taking up a full half of the frame is part of the drama of the photo.  Thomas occupies the other half of the frame. The camera is trained on him so you see a smiling, clear-eyed and delighted boy  wearing an oversized Packers t-shirt and regarding Obama with a sense of wonder. Thomas’ right hand is in the air with his palm facing Obama and it looks like he’s taking an oath until you notice that Obama, too, has his left hand in the air, palm facing Thomas. They are just about to hi-five.

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Hi-Five.                                                                               (Thanks, Thomas, for permission to use this photo.)

I love that photo because it captures the idealism and the hope that many of us felt in 2008 and because it captures Thomas in what I suspect he’d refer to as a political coming-of-age moment.  I am pleased that Thomas and his generation had a chance to come of age under a strong and compassionate leader who carried our country forward, and I hope that his influence will inspire many of them to become public servants and defenders of democracy. God knows we’ll need them after today.

And I’m also furious that my children and their generation will come of age under an arrogant, bullying and hateful regime that is, as I write, trampling on the things we hold dear.

 

 

The New America Comes to Rome . . . Or Does it?

We have been in Rome for five days and I am happy and relaxed because traveling like this tends to keep my mind off The Unraveling of America. I am more focused, for instance, on admiring the multitude of public fountains, obelisks and statutes in this great city than I am on checking in on the latest Cabinet appointment or tweet from #45. That is as it should be. There will be plenty of time to mire myself in and fight against the reactionary forces that have become my country. For now, I’m just trying to bask in the ancient sunlight of Rome.

For the most part, that’s all gone fairly well. Until last night, that is, when Sujata and I, in that hour or two after sightseeing and before dinner, left the kids in the flat and trundled down the stairs and out the door to a quiet, cozy little wine bar just steps from the Pantheon.

Sujata had stopped in on her own the day before to get a bottle of wine for dinner and the young Italian barkeep, Alex, greeted us warmly and welcomed her back.  We sat ourselves in the middle of the bar’s only table–a long narrow wood-top that faced myriad bottles of Italian wine.  Alex suggested a bold, fruity Cab and in no time at all we were swirling our wine in glasses and chatting with Alex about his life in Rome. Alex is an uncommonly friendly and generous host. He shared stories about his own life and asked us where we were from and about the travel adventures we’ve had over the course of the past four months. At that point it was just the three of us in the bar and we were all laughing and enjoying the conversation.

I felt a cold breeze at my feet and turned to see the door swing on its hinges. A tall blond woman with a fur coat emerged from the street and behind her was a man in a Patagonia jacket and carrying (could it be?) a forty ounce bottle of beer in a paper bag. They had that charmless American habit of talking (loudly) as they entered a room and that, combined with the accents, gave them away as American passport holders within seconds.

Fair enough, there are plenty of Americans here in Rome and most of them we have had contact with have been perfectly nice, so I just tucked my feet under the chair for more warmth and turned back to the conversation with Sujata and Alex.

It became, though, increasingly difficult to focus as the New Arrivals paced up and down the bar, making audible observations about the decor and announcing to Alex that this was exactly the kind of wine bar that they planned on opening in St. Louis. The woman began taking photographs on her iPhone while the man, hunched over his beer, began a discourse on “price points” and square footage.

Alex, who was very happy to serve Sujata and me and to go into great detail about wines we were sampling, made the New Arrivals serve themselves. I was ready to down the wine and get the hell out of there, but, at the same time, I was enjoying myself and why should these people force us out? We stayed, ordered another glass and the New Arrivals, after 15 minutes or so of  continued public observations, picked themselves up and scuttled out the door, in search, no doubt, of another space to call their own.

While all this was happening, I (unsuccessfully) tried to supress a dark thought, so I just whispered it to Sujata. She winced.  Maybe my speculation was just that, just speculation. But, maybe this was it. Maybe this was that Two Americas that we’ve read about since 9 November, that has divided homes, enboldened some citizens to sucker punch, verbally harrass and deface the property of other citizens. The New America that we have  been protected by from our travels.

I hope I was dead wrong and I hope that my thoughts were rash and harsh judgements on perfectly reasonable and kind fellow countrymen and women.

But the sad thing is that the thought even occured to me and that I believe it is occurring to people all over the United States, every day and every hour.

Schadenfreude, Guns and Logic: More Notes on the New America from Abroad

Well, congratulations, America. You have, among other things, made post-communist, marginally corrupt and economically inefficient nations like the one I’ve been living in look like models of decency, civility and economic opportunity.

When we talk about the New America with our friends here in Romania, they laugh and say everything will be okay. They say that Trump will be controlled and that things will eventually return to normal. I can understand their perspective. After what they lived through, Trump and his brand of xenophobic nationalism looks like small potatoes.

They are, though, by and large worried about Trump cozying up to Putin and his threats to pull out of NATO. Most Americans either don’t know or don’t care that most central and eastern European nations have weak and disorganized standing armies. NATO is their firewall against Russian aggression. One good head fake from Putin could cause Trump to turn his head for a moment and voila any or any number of these nations could be occupied.

You may want to lock in that Prague vacation pretty soon. And, if you think that’s hyperbole, remember what Russia recently did in Ukraine.

I think what’s really going on, though, with my Romanian friends is that they are experiencing a pleasant, yet scary, sense of schadenfreude, the German word for deriving pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. The pleasant part is that we are finally experiencing what they suffered under a hateful, autocratic, intellectually and morally compromised narcissist. The scary part, of course, is that Trump, by nature of the fact that he controls the free world, can, and probably will, make choices that affect all of them, and none of it will be good.

I’ve been aware for a long time that guns are a mighty scourge on America. When my students in Romania learn that there are 30k handgun deaths a year in the States, they shiver. When I tell them that it’s common to get a text from my children’s school in Denver stating that the school is on lock down, they gasp. We (I’m using the term “we” more and more loosely these days when it comes to my attachment to America) are so inured to gun violence that most of us hardly care at all anymore.

But living in Romania, where guns are illegal, creates a very different habit of mind, especially when you go to public places. Here’s an example: we took the kids to a movie tonight and I didn’t think for a minute about the possibility of some crazy person storming the theatre and opening fire. Moreover, I routinely walk around Timisoara, or any other given city in this part of Europe, late at night and I never worry about my safety.

I don’t worry about these things because people aren’t walking around with concealed weapons in their coats or strapped to their belts. Because guns are illegal, citizens can enjoy a greater sense of freedom (yes, freedom from the anxiety of getting shot) and ease. God only knows how guns and violence will spread their already-powerful wings over the nation over the course of the four, eight, who knows how many years.

I’ve also been aware for some time that America is a land that plays fast and loose with the truth. Over the course of this past election season, and as I watch from afar as Trump continues his early morning tweets, it appears that reason and logic have simply flown the coop.

I imagine all those old Philosophy Professors who in the 1990s lost their logic classes to general education curriculum revisions that made way for sexier introductory courses. I can see them all gathered around televisions in university pubs across America, sniggering in their beers and shouting at the the television.

When Trump calls Hillary Clinton “very dumb” the Philosophy Professors leap from their chairs and shout, “Ad hominem attack!”

During the second Presidential debate, when Trump was asked to explain his aggressive comments about women and he kept repeating, “ISIS . . . . ISIS . . . ISIS,” the Philosophy Professors, face palm and mutter, “Begging the Question!”

When Trump tweets “Beyonce and Jay Z, I like them . . . I get bigger crowds than they do. It’s true. I get far bigger crowds,” the Philosophy Professors, sing in unison, “False Analogy!”

When the Philosophy Professors read Trump’s tweet, “14% of noncitizens registered to vote,” they just whisper to themselves, “Bat shit crazy.”

Not that even a national course on logic could save us from the mess we’ve put ourselves in.

I understand why President Obama has to publicly encourage the success of the Trump regime. He has to do that–it’s his job as the leader of the nation and the Commander-in-Chief to keep the ship of state right and true.

It’s not, though, my responsibility to do the same. In fact, I see it as my responsibility to do just the opposite of what President Obama is doing right now: Trump is a demagogue and a nationalist and and his brand of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic henchman must be stopped.

This should be shouted from the rooftops. We can’t wish or cry this away or think that everything is going to be alright. It’s not going to be alright.

As I write this, word is spreading that Trump and his emerging staff will implement a national registry for American Muslims.

Ominous days.

Scenes from a Romanian classroom

Prior to teaching at West University in Timisoara, I had zero international teaching experience. I certainly heard lots of stories, though. People told me the European system is so different than ours, that the students came to class if they felt like it, that there was a big plagiarism problem and that, compared to U.S. students, European students in general and Romanian students in particular, are shy about talking in class.

I’ve only taught six classes so far at the University of the West, but each class is 90 minutes long so I feel like I’ve racked up some good contact hours and, at this point, I’m happy to report that none of the complaints above are true. In fact, my experience to this point has been just the opposite: the students are lively, energetic and knowledgeable; they do the reading before class, they are very willing to share ideas and even disagree with me and their peers and they take writing assignments seriously.

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Students in my U.S Culture and Civilization class

They do have a slightly more liberal interpretation of attendance expectations, but that seems to be more of a function of their class schedules; that is, sometimes they get enrolled in two classes that meet at the exact same time. I still haven’t really figured out how that can be, but it’s a reality and it’s common for them, when they are in this situation, to attend half of the classes in which they are double enrolled.

Oh, they also laugh at my jokes, a big plus, and they are also playful. Last night, for instance, after I finished some opening comments, I looked down at my desk and noticed that my book of Flannery O’Connor stories was not there. This is a heavily annotated book that’s not replaceable. “Oh my god,” I thought, I left it in the library and I’ll never get it back!” About a minute later, I noticed one of the students in the back, smiling, almost giggling, and she said to me, “Dr. Fretz, I took your book as a Halloween prank!” I was relieved (that my book was safe) and grateful (you don’t do something like that unless you like the person you are playing the prank on).

I realize all this could change over the course of the next eight weeks and I also realize that, in many ways, there are qualifying circumstances: There are a number of Fulbrighters that come through here, so the students seem to be used to American professors, but, still, I suspect they see me as a bit of a curiosity and in that regard, show their best hand. At the same time, since I am here for such a short time and since this is all so new to me, I suspect that I am more relaxed than I would be in my classes back at Regis so I imagine that my students here are responding positively to that as well.

One of the things that has struck me up to this point, though, is the student’s willingness and interest to talk about controversial and sensitive issues. Last week, for instance, we were talking about two Flannery O’Connor stories in my first class. O’Connor’s characters liberally use the N word so it was incumbent upon me to address that issue straight away with the students. I told them a bit about the history of the word, why it made me uncomfortable and why it’s hurtful to blacks. It was hard to gauge how much they knew about the word, so I don’t want to overgeneralize here, but I can say that I was impressed with their willingness and ability to think through how O’Connor uses the word, how it’s used in popular culture and how the word has different meanings and connotations when it’s used by different groups of people.

One of the funnier moments occurred when we started talking about a reference in one of the O’Connor stories. In “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” a tragically racist character is heading to the Y for “reduction” (weight loss) classes. The students asked me what the Y is so I told them is short for Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA. I noticed some funny looks on their faces and when I asked them about it, they wondered, “Why would she go to a place where gay men hang out.” It took me awhile to untangle that, and I’m not really sure I did it well.

A similar thing happened in my second class where we spent a good bit of time talking about the history and the ideas behind the Black Lives Matter movement. They were familiar with some of the spotlight cases–Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner–and they engaged in a lively discussion about gun laws in the U.S. compared to gun laws in Europe. They were deeply troubled by the levels of gun violence in the U.S. and they wanted to know what was being done to mitigate such violence (not much, sadly, I told them).

Last night, though, during our discussion of two of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, I had perhaps the most profound teaching moment I’ve had in a while. First of all, students (generally speaking) hate Hawthorne. He uses too many words, his sentences are baroque in their complexity and he’s writing about things that most of them don’t care about. Fair enough. I get it. Here, though, I purposely chose two stories–“The Maypole of Merry Mount” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”–because they both deal with issues of religious and political expression and political violence. In “The Maypole of Merry Mount” a band of Puritans break up a pagan celebration (a marriage around a Maypole), kill off some of the Merry Mounters and force two of them–the Lord and Lady of May–to convert to their harsh brand of protestantism. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a young boy, Robin, arrives in Boston at the lead up to the Revolutionary War looking for his kinsman, a Major Molineux. It gradually turns out that Molineux is a Tory whose been captured by the revolutionary group, the Sons of Liberty. At the end of the story, Molineux, whose been tarred and feathered, is paraded in front of Robin. It’s pretty ghastly.

Toward the end of our discussion of the Hawthorne stories, I asked the students how they felt about Hawthorne’s portrayal of political violence in light of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. They jumped all over this, making connections, telling personal stories and just generally breathing life into this nearly 200-year old story.

I left class and I felt like I was walking on clouds.

Bucharest and Back

I just spent three days in Bucharest at Fulbright meetings. Sujata and the kids stayed in Timisoara. Here’s a brief photo essay:

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Blue skies in Bucharest
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The Bucharest Metro–not as nice as Tokyo, but not bad.
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Statue of King Carol I across the street from the National Museum of Art, Romania. The collection is mostly made up of Carol’s collection of medieval German and Italian art
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Peles Castle, Sinaia. The Fulbright Commision took all the 2016 Fuilbright Scholars here for the day. Peles was Carol I’s retreat from Bucharest.
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Outside Peles Castle
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The Communiists left Peles mostly undamaged. Carol remains on guard.
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Fulbrighters outside Pelisor, the summer residence of Queen Marie, consort to Carol’s nephew, Ferdinand
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Queen Marie was a working artist and this was her ork room
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Marie’s “Gold Room.” Hers was a mind on fire and this room nicely represents that.
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Back in Timisoara with the ones I love most
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Dr. T.J. Eckleburg eyes in Timisoara
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I missed these three

First Dispatch from Timisoara

We left Japan last Wednesday at midnight, took a nine hour flight to Dubai, where we laid over for four hours and then boarded a five-hour flight to Budapest. We stayed two nights in Budapest (lovely city)  and then rented a car and drove the five-hours south to Timisoara where we arrived Saturday afternoon, haggard and jet lagged.

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The Chain Bridge in Budapest

Needless to say, it was a bumpy arrival to this place where we’ll be based for nearly three months. Part of that is the really extreme differences between Japan and a middle-sized eastern European city. I was sort of prepared for it, but not really and that combined with the fatigue made Saturday a rough, rough day. Where Japan is clean, efficient, friendly, Romania, at first, with the veil of jet lag, felt dirty, cluttered, disorganized and a rough around the edges. I didn’t sleep much that night.

Things brightened up on Sunday, though. We woke up to warm temperatures and sunny skies, hung out in our flat for a bit and then ambled to the city center where we met up with Rob Manning, his wife Dana and their son, Sebastian. Rob is a former Fulbrighter to Timisoara who fell in love (with Dana) while he was here and has pretty much stayed here in Timisoara. Dana teaches at West University where I’ll be teaching and Rob teaches there too–he still holds his faculty position in the Philosophy department at Quincy University in Illinois.

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The streets of Timisoara

I’m forever grateful to Rob and Dana and Sebastian. They were kind and gracious–they showed us around the city–the nice parts!–and they were just fun to be with for the afternoon. We met at the plaza in city center and then walked over to an outdoor cafe where we ate lunch and talked for almost two hours. After that, we walked through the streets of the old city, through a series of connected plazas that dumped us out onto what Atticus calls “the best playground I’ve ever seen.” We have been on the move for so long, huddled into our own family unit that I sort of forgot how nice it is to talk to other adults (besides Sujata) in full sentences. I’m really looking forward to spending more time with them and I hope that we remain friends long after we leave Romania.

Right now, I’m sitting in the Timisoara airport, waiting for a flight to Bucharest where I will attend Fulbright meetings on Thursday and Friday. It was hard to leave Sujata and the kids–not because I’m worried about them, mostly because I’ll just miss them. Our day-to-day life is so different than anything we’ve ever experienced except perhaps when the children were infants and we were both home with them. Here, we wake up, eat a leisurely breakfast and then we all sit around the table and do the kids homeschooling. The kids do their math work online while Sujata and I prepare their history and literature lessons and then when they are done with math, we all come together and talk and write about the books that we are reading. After we discuss for an hour or so, the we give the kids a writing prompt. As they are writing, we prepare lunch, and then we go out and explore the city. When we get back the kids do more math and some science work, we eat dinner and by then we are exhausted.

I’m not sure about the Fulbright part of the experience. I haven’t met anyone from the University yet and I’ll miss my first classes because I have to be in Bucharest. I am, though, looking forward to meeting my Fulbright colleagues in Bucharest.