Belfast

If you came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, like I did, Belfast is one of those cities that probably raises images of people running down burned-out city streets, chased by British security forces. Or maybe you remember Belfast as the site of the 1980 hunger strikes that took the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republicans. Either way, Belfast, when I was growing up, wasn’t a place that your folks took you on their European vacation nor even a place you dreamed of visiting one day.

That’s because from 1969 to 1989 Belfast was the epicenter of a period of Irish history that’s known as the Troubles. In 1920, the British government agreed to partition the island and twenty-six of the counties were allowed to break from the British empire and govern themselves. The remaining six counties remained with Britain and became the state of Northern Ireland. For its first 50 years, Northern Ireland was a simmering cauldron of political and religious discontent and then in 1969, after Catholics (and some Protestants, too) started a civil rights movement that was based on the American Civil Rights movement, Ulster loyalists grew restive and violent against people participating in the civil rights marches and then, ultimately, against ordinary Catholics. The minority Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry became targets, and in this charged and violent atmosphere the IRA emerged (to some extent) as the perceived defenders of the Catholics against the vigilante violence of forces like the Ulster Volunteer Force. Both sides committed atrocities and horrors, and by the time the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in April of 1998, over 3,000 people had been killed.

Throughout the twentieth century, while much of the rest of Europe was shucking off centuries of religious thought and practice, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remained mired in religious narratives and fueled by ancient religious prejudices. It makes sad sense, then, that the Irish would find a religiously-inflected name for this dark period of their history: to be troubled is to be overcome with fear and dread and to go through trials and tribulations like Christ did in the lead up to his death. Placid waters are troubled by dark forces and the act of being troubled means there’s no quick solution and there’s no easy way out.

I visited Belfast for the first time in 2000, just two years after the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. I was living in Dublin at the time, and while the Good Friday Agreement was still very much in the news, you couldn’t really feel the effects of the 30 years of communal violence that had just (mostly) ended. Aside from being quite a bit wealthier, Dubliners in 2000 went about their lives pretty much like they had throughout most of the twentieth century, and the Troubles felt like a distant and fading echo.

This was decidedly not the case when I took the train north and visited Belfast one late winter weekend in 2000. The place felt like a boxer who had been knocked down, bloodied and battered, and was wondering if it might be a better idea to just stay down and take the count. I stayed in a dingy hostel near the Europa–a hotel in the city centre with the infamous distinction of being bombed out more than any other European hotel (29 times over the course of the Troubles).  The manager at the hostel recommended I take a black cab tour, so I booked a cab and spent the better part of Saturday riding through the burnt-out streets, looking in awe at the ‘peace lines’ that divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, the murals telling stories of the ancient hurts that each community had suffered at the hands of the other and flags, emblems and painted kerbs, all marking loyalties and flashing warnings. I can’t quite remember, but I’m sure that I ate alone and drank more than I should have that evening.

Seventeen years later, I returned a changed man to a changed city. In 2000, I was, as they say, alone as a stone, and troubled by what seemed a certain fate. Then, Belfast city felt like an eerie reflection of my own life, present and future, and when Sunday finally rolled around, I couldn’t wait to board the train and beat it back to Dublin.

In 2017, I arrived in Belfast with Sujata, my children, my dear friend Andy Auge and 12 bright and curious students from Regis University. Like me, the city had changed for the better. Belfast seemed to have risen up through its rubble. We found an Indian restaurant that served some of the most delicious chana masala I’ve ever had. We drank cappuccinos and espressos in an cozy Italian cafe. We rubbed shoulders with locals in Belfast’s oldest pub, The Crowne, and we walked up and down streets with passersby from all over Europe and the world.

Here are some photographs of our weekend in Belfast.

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Look up young man! (Giant’s Causeway)
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With Andy Uncle on Giant’s Causeway
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Smiling through the wind and cold
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Paul Donnelly took us on a day-long walking tour of sites associated with the Troubles
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My favorite Belfast mural: The Irish Congress of Trade Unions mural in Cathedral Quarter
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Me and Seamus Heaney
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A post box on the Falls Road. Most post boxes are painted red, but on the Falls Road, a predominantly Catholic, nationalist neighborhood, they sometimes get a green coat
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A memorial garden for those who died during the Troubles, presided over by armalites.
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One of the many memorials to Bobby Sands
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The ‘peace wall’ that separates the Falls Road and Shankhill Road communities
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On the Shankhill Road side. Site of some of the 12 July bonfires commemorating William of Orange’s victory over James II in 1690
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The Regis crew
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Andy and I made a pilgrimage to Van Morrison’s childhood home on Hyndford Street
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“Down on Cyprus Avenue/With a childlike vision leaping into view”

 

 

Living in Other People’s Homes

It has occurred to me a number of times over the course of the past few weeks that for the past six months we have been living in other people’s homes. Because we’ve been renting on the short-term rental market (Airbnb, Homestay, VRBO) we’ve stayed in hotels maybe 10 nights out of the 180-odd nights that have passed since we left Denver. By the same token, for that same period of time, other people have been living in our home in Denver. We get updates every so often from our property managers, but for the most part, we don’t hear anything, so I can only assume that things are just fine.

Living like this prompts you to think about the nature our lives together and the domestic spaces we inhabit. Sipping coffee from other people’s mugs, eating dinner from other people’s plates, relaxing on other people’s sofas and sleeping in other people’s beds for a considerable period of time makes you wonder about things: Where is our home? How do the things we surround ourselves with hold our memories?  What holds us together? What pulls us apart?

A house is brick and mortar. It’s something you buy and sell and occupy or allow someone else to occupy for you. A house is defined by legal documents like the deed or mortgage that sits in a box in your basement, and it’s defined through space–there’s a foundation, walls and a roof and there’s a fence that separates your property from your neighbors’.

A home, on the other hand, gathers up the emotional current of family life; it holds our memories, conversations, arguments, joys and failures. A home is the box of Christmas ornaments in your storage closet, the creaky step on the stairs that you just can’t fix and aren’t really sure that you wish to. A home is the way your front door key slides into the lock and the window in your bedroom that you gaze from in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.

A hotel room is an instrument–you use it for a night or two, maybe three, and it’s primarily a place to drop your bags and return to after a day of sightseeing. There’s a bed and a bathroom and there are some mass-produced cups and glasses and towels, but a hotel room isn’t populated with material objects that hold memories, that carry on traditions and that shine a light onto the interiors of our lives. A hotel room doesn’t leave anything behind. Once you leave, the cleaning crew comes through as sweeps, dusts and wipes away what you left behind.

I often wonder how living in other people’s homes has changed our experiences on the road, and while I’m sure staying in hotels would have been just fine, I also think that we would have missed some of the things we’ve gained. Beyond the costs and the inconvenience of staying in hotels, living in Airbnbs gives you access to a different kind of travel. It’s a travel of existence, as opposed to a travel of instrumentality.

Because you communicate directly with the Airbnb hosts, you learn things about their lives just through exchanging information and sorting out arrival and departure plans. My favorite Airbnb homes are the ones that are occupied by the owners. This situation was actually quite common among the places we stayed and it’s especially the case when you rent outside tourist regions and when you get off that tourist grid. In these homes, you can, in some ways, literally see and feel the imprint of other lives in the houses you are visiting. Generally, these properties are the primary residence of the owners, who clear out when renters arrive. I like these kinds of arrangements because you are actually living in someone’s house and you are sharing in a part of their lives. It’s a home that is populated with material items that have personal and family history.

The owner of the shotgun row home we rented in Sydney, Australia collected Asian art and had children’s drawings (his nephews and nieces, I presumed) taped to the refrigerator. The flat we rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was owned by a British national whose bookshelves were stuffed with French literature and Cambodian history and whose walls were lined with  portraits of family members. With their fine English suits and dresses and their knowing, confident gazes, they looked like they came from a long line of diplomats. The frayed edges of the blanket on the sofa of the young woman’s flat in Tokyo, the chips and stains in the tea cups of the Chinese couple’s hi-rise in Auckland, the weathered picnic table in the backyard of the farm house in Rotorua, New Zealand–all these things, all this stuff, makes up the history of other people’s lives that we, in some small way, participated and shared in. It causes me to wonder: what will our home in Denver feel like when return?  Will it feel, for a time, just like another short-term rental which we are passing through? Or will we immediately reconnect with the material world that we’d left behind?

Five years ago, the short-term rental market barely existed so we would have spent the better part of the last six months in hotels. There are some real benefits in renting off the short-term rental market. From a purely economic perspective, you save a lot of money. A three-star hotel room in any given European city would be a minimum of 150 euros a night, about twice what we generally spend on an Airbnb. So, thinking like an economist, this is great for everyone: we have more money in our pockets to spend in restaurants and shops and the local economy, in turn, the community benefits from our extra Euros floating around. By the same token, our house in Denver is nearly fully occupied, so are we bringing in revenue to pay off the mortgage and there are people in the house, making it less likely to be broken into or flooded from a broken pipe.

The short-term rental market also offers you a wider range of geographical places to stay in most cities. Most hotels, that is, are located in central tourist areas (city centers) or commercial areas (like near airports) so you can get caught in tourist traps and geographical spaces that are dominated by multinational commercial interests. The short-term rental market, though, is made up of properties in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout most major cities.  When we were in Sydney, for instance, we stayed in Surrey Hills, a neighborhood about three light rail stops from the main business district. We ate in locally owned restaurants, shopped in small markets and just sort of mixed in with the other residents of Surrey Hills. This was the case, as well, in our stays in Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Budapest, Rome and Seville.

But lest this starts to sound like free advertising for the short-term rental market, let me say that there’s also a dark side to this whole thing because while it’s easy for me to hail the cost and convenience of Airbnb rentals, the reality is that Airbnb rentals can do real damage in many places. Think about it: you own a two bedroom flat in downtown Barcelona and you start to realize that you can make more money renting your place through Airbnb. What are you going to do? Or, worse: you are an estate agent/real estate developer and you start buying up whole apartment complexes in downtown Barcelona, turning a majority of the units over to Airbnb rentals. That’s great for the developer and the landlord and for people like me, but if you live in one of these areas, how would you feel if swaths of the real estate market in your neighborhood started getting turned over to short-term rentals?

It took me way too long to come around to this understanding. In fact, I remember almost the exact moment that I snapped out of this optimistic haze and started thinking about the deeper and darker implications of short-term rental market: Sujata and I were out for a stroll in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful evening. There were loads of people out on the streets, there was music in the cafes and bars, folks were walking around with bags of groceries to make their Christmas meals and bags of presents to give to their loved ones. Everyone seemed happy and I just kept looking around in wonderment that I was here, in the middle of Barcelona, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, during the holiday season. Sujata broke my naive reverie by declaring, “You know, this is great and all, but what is this city going to look like in five years when this whole neighborhood is turned over to Airbnb rentals.”

Thud.

Most of us enjoy living where we live because we know and trust our neighbors. Strong communities and strong neighborhoods are made up of families and individuals who have a stake in the communities they live in and who watch out for each other. Back home in Denver, there have been countless times when I’m making something in the kitchen and realize that I’m short one ingredient so I just send the kids over to our neighbors to make up the difference. They go over to Wayne and Darlene’s for an egg or an onion or down to Matt and Malia’s for a fist full of basil (or more likely, two fingers of whiskey). And what we take is always paid back: homemade cookies for the eggs, a bowl of fresh pesto for the basil and, a beer or two for the whiskey. And it’s not just about borrowing household items. It’s quid pro quo; you take a little and you give a little and in the exchange you develop relationships with your neighbors. Sure, you get people watching your back, but you also get the richness of knowing the people who live on your block.

You can’t operate that way, though, in a community that’s dominated by short-term rentals. It’s not so much that people don’t trust each other; they just don’t know each other and ultimately not knowing breeds mistrust.

So, I get it that great cities like London, Barcelona and New York are wary of short-term rentals eating into their communities. This dynamic is a testament to the complexity of living in the globalized world we live in. The benefits abound, and an argument can be made that those benefits are shared, to some extent, across a diverse and wide range of participants. The deleterious aspects are there as well, although they are a bit more difficult to see (or easier to ignore). This, I suspect, is the nature of the economic world we live in.  Multinational corporations like Apple and Airbnb (I think it will be offered as an IPO this year) provide us with reasonably inexpensive goods and services that make our lives easier on many levels. So easy, in fact, that it benefits us to ignore what lies underneath. That said, I don’t expect that we will stop renting Airbnbs because of ethical considerations. But it does, I think, point to the fact that we need strong and ethically-minded public officials who know how to establish fair and thoughtful legislation that allows for the kind of freedom and adventure that a traveler experiences through Airbnb and, at the same time, protects and nourishes the integrity of community life.

 

 

 

 

Irish Music

We’re nearly two months into our stay in Ireland and I still haven’t heard any traditional Irish music.

Thank god.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I just don’t like traditional Irish music. I can listen to it for about ten minutes in a pub (or through half a pint of Guinness) before my head feels like a tin can being smacked with a spoon and I have to walk outside and listen to the tire wheels passing by on the surface streets to get that sound out of my head. My friend, Andy Auge, reminded me a few weeks ago, that last time we were both over here together, we were standing in a pub somewhere in Dublin and I (allegedly) turned to him and said, “I need to hear some bass,” and promptly left the pub. I gravitate toward music that blows your hair back and that you can feel from the inside out, so, it makes sense that I’m not, for the most part, taken with treble-governed traditional Irish music

There are, of course, many varieties of traditional Irish music and song. I don’t mind the ballads and the laments so much; in fact, I love “Raglan Road,” a Patrick Kavanagh poem that’s been put to music. It’s a haunting poem set to a simple and beautiful four-chord melody and when you hear it, it kind of pulls at you in the way an old photograph from the time when you were a child might do. “She Moved Through the Fair” is another good one, as is “My Lagan Love.”

As you’d expect much of traditional Irish music includes strong political themes. The republican/nationalists historically have had the corner on this market and since about the time of Wolfe Tone’s rebellion of 1798 they’ve been writing and singing nationalist/anti-British occupation songs in the pubs and at public meetings. My favorite of this genre of Irish music are the anti-war or protest songs. In one of my favorites, “Arthur McBride,” the narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, are walking “down by the seaside” on Christmas morning when they are approached by a sergeant for the British army who tries to trick them into joining up with the King’s army. The sergeant offers them 10 guineas apiece and paints a picture for them of a fine and comfortable life should they sign up. Arthur basically tells the sergeant to fuck off and then he and the narrator whack the sergeant over the head and throw his sword in the ocean. Fair enough.

On the other hand, I absolutely cannot stand the rebel songs. There’s a long tradition of rebel songs in Ireland and their function has been generally to inspire the populace to support armed resistance against the British occupation of the island. I’m no fan of occupation, but I’m less of a fan of political and communal violence which has, for the most part, resulted in little more than sorrow and heartache on this island.

This, too, is kind of an unpopular opinion, although, I have to say that yesterday in my American literature class, I made an offhand and subtly critical comment about the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the students raised his hand and sang out, “Oh, well, just so you know, most of us here thing that Padric Pearse was a total gobshite.” Pearse was the ‘mastermind’ of Easter Rising and he couched much of his rationale for armed resistance in images of blood sacrifice. I’m not sure why my student took a dim view of Pearse, but I suspect it had something to do with that.

And, after 30 years of communal violence (the period known as the Troubles, 1968-1998) waged by the IRA, the island is still partitioned between the Republic and Northern Ireland. So, what did those 3,000-odd people die for?

I don’t like the Irish rebel songs because I’m basically opposed to any kind of music that attempts to raise nationalist goosebumps on my neck. So, in regards to classical music that leaves out Wagner, some Mozart and, sometimes, Copland. Nationalism in popular music is more problematic, though, than it is in classical music because whenever you put nationalistic or pro violence lyrics up against three chords and a guitar, bass and drum, watch your back. Before you know it, there are fists pumping in the air and half-crazed people yelling about making American great again. No thanks.

When it comes to Irish music, then, I prefer the Pogues and Bob Geldof. Geldof has been a hero of mine since I was in grade school. I loved his first band, The Boomtown Rats, and then, of course Geldof was the mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concert to benefit people starving in Africa (“Feed the World”). He’s spent the better part of the past 30 years speaking out against genocide and encouraging western governments to provide aid to developing countries. Beyond that, Geldof (Bono followed him in this regard) had no truck with the IRA and the senseless political violence that was happening here during the Troubles and, more recently, he has spoken up of England staying in the EU. Good on you, Bob Geldof.

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Bob Geldof (photo taken from Pinterest)

The Pogues are basically two bands: there’s a rock and roll outfit made up of electric and bass guitars and a drum kit and then there’s a traditional Irish ensemble that plays instruments associated with traditional Irish music: acoustic guitars, tin whistles, accordions and banjos. The rock and roll side of the Pogues is decidedly punk–that’s the part of the band that makes you want to pogo stick across the living room. The traditional Irish side of the band sounds like a ceili band and that’s the part of the band that makes you want to tap your toes, lift a pint of Guinness to your lips and feel a bit of sentiment. So, bringing those two (quite contradictory) musical traditions together on one stage was, well, exciting.

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And early iteration of The Pogues (Pinterest)

The Pogues enjoyed their heyday in the late 80s/early 90s and even if you think you’ve never heard of them, you have. Their Christmas song, “Christmas in New York,” is played incessantly over the loudspeakers in any given mall across the world from early November to Christmas Day. Around the holidays, you can’t get away from that song anymore than you can hide from “Hotel California” if you listen still listen to FM radio.

Beyond the music, the Pogues, especially their troubled and brilliant lead singer and songwriter, Shane McGown, were fucking crazy and it was that part of the band (the excessive use of alcohol and drugs) that truncated their career. That said, I like the Pogues and I think they are still relevant because of the way they embraced and sloughed off parts of their Irishness (and it needs to be said: not all of the members were Irish, but McGowan is and he was basically the heart/heat center of the group). While McGowan has always taken pro-republican stances his songs never tip over into a kind of hard-headed, hot-blooded, pro-nationalist cauldron.

In fact, perhaps the Pogues’ most political song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” sounds more like a cry for justice and a critique of the British legal system than it does a call to arms. It’s a brilliant song about a terrible event. In November of 1974, the Provisional IRA set off a bomb in a pub in Birmingham, England that left 21 people dead and over 180 injured. The British police went looking for the culprits and when they couldn’t find them, they did what they were wont to do: they rounded up six Irishmen, accused them of the crime and threw them in jail where all six of them sat until March of 1991 when they were released because they hadn’t actually committed the crime. The Pogues song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” is about the six men who were falsely accused of the pub bombing and appears on their 1988 album If I Should Fall from the Grace of God. The same year the album was released, the Pogues performed the song on BBC Chanel 4 and halfway through the song, someone behind the controls shut off the audio and sent the show to commercial. Shortly after that, the song was banned in Britain because of it’s criticism of the British justice system. Three years later, the Birmingham Six were released from prison.  Here’s the song.

Give it a listen.

Cycling in Maynooth

I haven’t written a blog post in some time because I’ve been spending much of my free time calling my senators and encouraging them to vote against the extreme policies and executive orders of the new regime. I hope you are doing the same.

That said, today marks exactly one month into our six-month stay in Ireland and, so far, it’s been wonderful. The children are nearly fully assimilated into Irish life: they are learning Irish (it’s hard!) and immersing themselves in Irish history and mythology. It’s not unusual for them to argue over the pronunciation of an Irish word or to tell us about an Irish mythological hero they read about in school. Atticus is learning to play Gaelic football and he’s also playing on the Maynooth community basketball team. He is as inept at Gaelic football as his Irish friends are at basketball. Eleanor is singing in a local choir. Both have made a handful of friends. Honestly, I’m not sure how we’ll ever get them off this island. Sujata, too, is taking up Irish ways. She’s taking a class on Irish mythology and haunting the pubs although she has yet to acquire a taste for the black stuff. All of us, especially the children, are developing a soft lilt in our voices.

There are so many things happening on so many levels, but in this post, I’m going to focus on cycling in Maynooth. Here in Ireland, we don’t have a car. Our house is a little under a mile from the center of the town and while that’s not too far to walk occasionally, walking back and forth two or three times and day (sometimes with full grocery bags) is a bit much. So I bought a bike. In the four weeks I’ve had the bike I’ve probably logged 70 miles and saved myself hours of walking back and forth from our house to the town and the University so I’d say it’s already been a good investment.

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Back in Denver I ride my bike as often as possible. I ride to work, to the grocery store, to the fitness center and swimming pool and sometimes I just get on my bike and cycle around the city for fun. The rest of my family enjoys riding as well. Sujata was reluctant at first but she has, over the years, become an enthusiastic rider. I taught the children to ride when they were very young and now they can tear around Colorado’s single tracks with the best of them.

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Every Easter weekend, we load up the car and drive to western Colorado where we camp and ride single tracks with our dear friends, the Shea-Davis family. (How I am going to miss that trip this year!) And some of my best friendships in Colorado have been forged over long rides in the mountains. I’ve spent many an early summer morning riding the Boulder trails with my pal, Tim Trenary, and I have fond memories of sitting around the campfire after a long day of riding with Matt Shea. Here are some photos of Tim and me on one of our Boulder rides:

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Tim single trackin’ in Boulder

Traveling hasn’t diminished our time on cycles. In fact, some of our best traveling days have been on bikes. On the north island of New Zealand we spent a day riding through redwood forests. We cycled through the countryside in Cambodia and Vietnam, around Naoshima Island in Japan and through the cobble-stoned streets of Milan.

Riding in Milan (left) and Siem Reap (right)

Cycling in Ireland, at least in Maynooth, is very different from cycling in Denver, or probably most other American cities, and much of that is simply a function of history. Denver was founded in 1858, so the city is laid out on a twentieth-century grid plan. Maynooth, on the other hand is, at a minimum, 600 years older than Denver. There’s a castle in the middle of the town that was built in the twelfth century–quite a long time before Denver got its (white American) name. Over the years, Maynooth has acquired a high street, cow and foot paths have been straightened out and widened and there are new estates popping up on the outskirts (we live in one of them) with modern roads that provide access to the town centre. But, Maynooth is still connected to Dublin only by a two-lane road, and when you walk or ride the streets and look out across the fields on the outskirts of town you can get a strong sense that the very roads you are following have been tracked by others for a very, very long time.

Denver’s grid (left) and map of Maynooth (right)

That said, compared to riding in the States, cycling in Maynooth is a bit tricky. Until I got here and started riding around I don’t think I ever really though much about cycling etiquette and safety:  calling out my position when I’m passing pedestrians, coming to a full stop at lights, and using hand signals is just something I (and most Coloradoans) do as a habit. For instance, in the States (or at least in Colorado) it’s protocol to call out your position if you are passing a pedestrian or another cyclist. So, if I’m riding down the Cherry Creek path in Denver and I’m getting ready to pass a pedestrian, it’s expected from both parties that I (the cyclist) will call out “On your left” before I pass. This, I have to say, is a very sensible practice and I’m sure that it’s saved me from at least a couple of accidents. In Ireland, though, this practice of calling out your position is absolutely unheard of. The first few weeks I was here, out of habit, I’d call out my position when I was passing a pedestrian and people would just wheel around in fright, wondering why some crazy American was yelling at them. Now, I just slow down and go way around the pedestrians.

Maynooth’s bike lanes are narrow and treacherous and they provide almost no separation from automobile traffic. Oddly, the city planners decided to place drainage gates straight in the middle of the bike lane and the gates are not flush with the road so you either have to scoot around them (thereby increasing the possibility or colliding with traffic) or get up off your seat and pop over the gate (also not very safe).  I ride up on the sidewalks as much as I can.  There are bike lanes on the high street, although they are up on the sidewalk and pedestrians, for the most part, don’t pay much attention to lanes, so the whole thing is really kind of hurly burly.

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“Bike lane” with drainage gate

 

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An intrepid rider heading north on Moyglare Road

Oh and when you finally get to your destination, good luck finding a place to lock up your bike. There are several bike racks on the high street and a few around the shopping mall just north of the centre but there aren’t enough racks or they are in inconvenient locations, so cyclists end up chaining their bikes to trees and lampposts. The university campus has a surprising dearth of bike racks and today when I was looking for a place to lock up my bike before class, I had to ride around the perimeter of two separate buildings before I found a place and even then, I had to settle for a fence post.

The Royal Canal runs right through the center of Maynooth and you can catch the canal path and ride it all the way into Dublin. I’m going to try to do that one weekend when the weather is a little warmer.

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.

 

 

Some New Year’s thoughts on European populism and the EU

It’s New Year’s Day 2017 and we are, again, in transit. We’ve just left Seville, Spain and in less than an hour we’ll cross into Portugal and make our way up to Lisbon until we fly to Ireland on Friday for the last leg of our journey.

For a Cold War kid like me, it’s hard not to walk and travel around Europe in 2016 without thinking about the politically-fractured Europe of my youth. Had we visited Europe prior to 1989 we couldn’t have done half of the things that we’ve done over the course of the last five months. Romania was in the throes of a 40-year dictatorship, and while the Fulbright program was open for much of that time, I doubt I would have taken my family to live under a totalitarian regime. Karoli Gaspar University, the university in Budapest where I visited and taught a few classes in early November, was closed in the 1960s by the communist government on account of its faith-based mission. It wasn’t reopened again until 1993. Even visiting my friend, Todd Waller, and Regis student, Adleigh O’Neill, at Spring Hill College’s Bologna program wouldn’t have happened in that few universities in the 1980s were offering full-service, single-institution run programs like what Spring Hill is doing. We may have made it to Bratislava to visit Eva and here parents, but it would have been under very different circumstances as, then, Czechoslovakia was under a communist regime as well.

When the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989 and the Cold War effectively came to an end, Europe was on the cusp of an era that twentieth-century Europeans like the Stefan Zweig could only have dreamed of. With the fall of communism and the gradual expansion of the EU, borders and markets opened and the dream of a secular, unified Europe became a reality, at least for a time.

We benefitted economically from being in post-1989 Europe and most of those benefits are directly related to the EU.  The free trade and non-tariff barriers that EU countries enjoy keep prices of goods and services affordable. Yesterday, for example, we bought 22 Euros worth of groceries in Seville, Spain for our New Year’s Eve dinner. In the States, that would have cost double that. Of course some of that has to do with the relative strength of the US dollar. EU trade policies also allowed us to buy Italian clothes in Romania, Spanish wine in Slovakia and Italian and Spanish oranges in Austria. Beyond that, though, the collapse of communism and the benefits of EU membership have, from what I could see, made the Europeans nations we visited vibrant, open, interesting and very safe places to visit.

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Waiting on a train in Milan

Underneath the ostensible laid-back optimism, safety and good will on the streets of any given major or minor European city, though, is a deep undercurrent of anxiety and frustration. Romanians told me about their frustrations with a corrupt political and economic system that is weighted against ordinary people and looks to many of them like the old Communist Party members in new suits. I talked with many Italians who expressed frustration and anger that there were no opportunities for the to succeed–many young, educated and ambitious Italians seek employment in other EU countries. And while Spain is a wonderful country to relax and enjoy the Spanish sunshine, it suffers from 23% unemployment.

I know that a majority of Americans who voted on 8 November in the States are still reeling from what happened on 9 November and are bracing themselves for what’s to come in 2017, and beyond. Europeans, on the other hand, have been dealing with far-right, populist movements for some time and in many ways, the new American populism looks a lot like European populism: both are soundly anti-pluralist, both fear immigrants, both use the term “the people” in an exclusionary manner and both are dangers to democracy.

European populists rail against the EU in the same way that American populists fume against Washington, DC and I wouldn’t be surprised if #45 was stealing his tweets from his kindred spirits in Europe. In early 2016, for instance, Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski condemned the previous Polish government (pro EU) for governing “as if the world . . .  were destined to evolve only in one direction—towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians.” (Hey! That’s us!) Actually Waszczkowski’s anti-EU comment is probably too sophisticated for #45.

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Watch out! A vegetarian cyclist in Milan. Very dangerous.

The US immigration issue looks like small potatoes compared to what Europe is struggling with right now. Some 60 million people are on the move in the world right now and a good chunk of them are moving north into Europe from war-torn, climate-ravaged African and Middle Eastern countries. European populist sentiments are, of course, directly related to these mass migrations and the anxieties they produce among many Europeans.

Already, the European immigration problem is affecting changes at many borders of EU member states. As I write, France, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Norway and Austria have instituted ‘temporary’ border controls. Hungary’s populist, anti-EU prime minister, Viktor Orban, erected a fence on the southern Hungarian border with EU money. All of these countries are Schengen members, meaning they have agreed to eliminate border controls between other EU member nations, except in extenuating circumstances and the the current immigration crisis is certainly a set of extenuating circumstances.

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The Dacia Duster we drove across the Hungarian, Slovakian and Austrian borders without ever stopping at border control 

Given the outcome of the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of populist movements and governments across Europe, I wonder how much longer this post-1989/EU-governed Europe will last or what Europe will look like in 30 years when, hopefully, my children have a chance to bring their children here.

 

Cycling, running, walking to school

Back home in Denver, my kids went to a neighborhood school about five blocks from our house. They could have walked to school on their own, but I enjoyed walking with them so, barring an early morning meeting at the University, I’d usually walk them to their school and then hop on my bike and then ride in to work. In the afternoon, I’d hop back on my bike at 3:15 and arrive just as the school bell rang.

Things are a bit different in Ireland, though. The Girl gets picked up by a bus every morning because her school is on the other side of town and with the Irish weather, walking that far everyday could result in a soaking wet child before the school day begins.

The first few days, Sujata walked to the bus stop with her but today she walked out on her own proclaiming, “I have to get used to doing this myself.” It doesn’t matter to her that we just stick our heads out the door and watch until the bus picks her up.

The Boy’s school is well within walking distance, so I walk with him in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. We started a little practice that I hope continues for the rest of our time here: He walks out of the school at the end of the day, gives me a hug and says, “Let’s go get a cup of tea and talk about our day.”  There’s nothing one could say to that except, “Okay! Let’s go!”

Today was a kind of special day because I got a new bike with a rack over the back wheel so rather than walking home, he hopped on the back of the bike and we rode all the way home.

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We got home around 5 pm. He trundled into the kitchen where he spilled the contents of his backpack all over the floor and the table and started a spirited conversation with Lu and Sujata about his school day.

I had one of those typical “settling in” days that was mostly comprised of standing in lines, buying stuff for the house, opening a bank account and trying to figure out how to order a garbage bin for the house. Fun stuff. Oh, and of course, at the bank, during my greatest point of frustration, they’re playing The Eagles’ “Greatest Hits” over the loudspeakers. Thank god I got out of there before “Hotel California” came on. Who knows what I would have done, although it did make me think that the line from the song, “We are all just prisoners here/Of our own device,” stupid as it is, would basically sum up how I’d feel about being in the States right now, if I were there. And, as bad as The Eagles are, they are at least good Lefties so I won’t be able to make fun of them about playing at #45’s inauguration.

By the time I got home I was frustrated and anxious so I laced up my running shoes, popped my earbuds in and went for a run. The Irish call apartment complexes ‘estates’ and in the middle of the estate where we live is a very large Gaelic football and hurling pitch with a gravel running track around the perimeter of the pitch. It takes me about 5:40 to do one loop so I suspect that track is something like three quarters of a mile.  It was cold and sunny in Maynooth today and by the time I got to the track, there was a brisk wind kicking up.

After spending most of the day under fluorescent lights and breathing recycled air, it felt good, to be out in the elements and to feel the hard ground underfoot  and the cold wind in my face. As I turned east on my second lap, I looked up to the sky and there was a full moon hanging over the pitch.  I wondered what the moon looked like over the Irish Sea, just 15 miles from where I was. I looked down and the reflection of the moon illuminated the gravel path. Nick Cave was singing something about a lime tree arbor and there was a moment where everything just felt right.

Ireland will do that to you if you let it.