Category Archives: United Kingdom

In Northern Ireland the Troubles Still Bubble Beneath the Peace

13 – 15 August 2015 (Days 81 – 83)

Thursday 13 August 4pm, Connect Hostel, Derry

Small cities, I should only visit small cities. It’s 4pm, I’ve done the lot and feel I’ve given everything it’s due.

It’s been a gorgeous and sunny day. I started things off revisiting the Guildhall – where President Clinton spoke in 1995, a trip I worked and wrote of in my last blog post.

The Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry
The Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry

Derry isn’t as much changed as I’d expected. It still has a working class, slightly hard-done-by air but with more tourists and tourism-related businesses. There are new cultural institutions and more shopping – more of the high-street staples anyway – but that would be true anywhere.

What had been the tea rooms where our advance team spent much time 20 years ago are now the Museum of Free Derry (which was both emotionally charged – bullet torn clothes from Bloody Sunday and the like – and felt, the more I took in, quite propagandistic).

I lingered over an exhibition (Out There, Thataway) at the Centre for Contemporary Art – feeling like it was saying something to me about travel but I’m not sure what.

From the
From the “Out There, Thataway”Exhibition at the CCA.

The historical placards around the place seem to remain safely in pre-troubles times. But for in the Bogside where it’s all about the Troubles, the people murdered by the police, and those who fell “in service.”

Things are quiet and peaceful in Derry on this warm, sunny summer’s day but it’s clear the conversation about political control, national affiliation, etc is not over.

The Union Jack still waves over unionist areas and the flag of the Republic over nationalist areas. It feels a long way from the sort of blandly 21st century capital-city vibe of Dublin.

That's a childcare centre behind that wall.
That’s a childcare centre behind that wall.
In the Bogside
In the Bogside
Bogside mural
Bogside mural
Memories of Bloody Sunday on the walls of peoples homes.
Memories of Bloody Sunday on the walls of peoples homes.

Friday 14 August, 11:16 am – Bus to Belfast

It’s another lovely emerald isle summer day – low hanging grey blanket of a sky, cool enough the bus driver had the heat on for a while, raining off and on. Green, green, green out the window. Rolling paddocks, sheep and cows and hay bales.

2:45 pm – Art Café, North Road – Belfast

Walking through town, looking at all the same-same modern office and apartment buildings, I thought: Belfast is a bit boring. A nice thing for locals I’m sure. They’ve had more than their share of excitement but for me, as a visitor … yawn – it’s just a provincial UK city.

Then I walked up Shankhill Road and through the Lower Shankhill neighbourhood feeling a little freaked out by it. Flags everywhere – Union Jacks mostly – and red, white and blue bunting. Murals – commemorating the fallen – still aggressive. “No surrender” graffiti. Row houses – many neat as a pin with houseproud displays in the windows (vases of flowers, statuettes). Kids playing on a construction site which seemed at a standstill. Demolition work on another row which looked fire damaged.

I felt uncomfortable – part of that is perhaps simply a class thing – I am not of these people and they would see that. Part of it the shadow of the bit of the history I know. The sense the conversation is clearly not over.

Different walls, different memories, different homes,
Different walls, different memories, different homes,

I saw several ‘Black Taxi’ tours roll in – tourists ensconced in the back – peering out the windows – hearing whatever stories the taxi drivers tell. I was glad not to be them but to be walking around by myself. But still, I was uneasy and took my pictures quickly.

And on it goes ...
And on it goes …

Des Moines. Belfast would be like Des Moines, Iowa but for the undercurrent. Or, wherever – a small city, trying to be something interesting, trading on a bit of history (The Titanic) and celebrity (Game of Thrones). But on the front page today: Kevin McGuigen murdered – suspected of involvement in the murder of a former IRA colleague. And so it bubbles along.

I saw a pair of African women in ankle-length flowing chadors on a corner of Shankhill Road.

It’s such a white place, Northern Ireland, but with this uniquely intense historical division between two groups of white people. It would be – I’d think – a weird place to be an immigrant or an Englishperson of non-European heritage who has moved here from elsewhere in the UK.

Saturday 15 August, 11 am – Great Northern Peanuts Smokehouse (Railway Station Diner)

The radio station just announced flight delays at the International Airport: Flight XYZ from blank due at such-and-such time now arriving at such-and-such:25.

I had a lovely and hospitable evening with Cornelia’s friend Danae. She lives in Holywood – a Mosman-like suburb (that is, comfortably well off but not flashy with its wealth). It sits on the south side of the Belfast Lough and Danae’s tidy row house is a short walk to the beach. We spent time strolling there with her pup and taking in the sunny end of the day.

Sunset over the Belfast Lough
Sunset over the Belfast Lough

We cooked dinner together, listening to a political comedy show on the radio – she thought maybe I wouldn’t understand the jokes – and she was, mostly, but not completely, right in that.

When I think of those who travel staying only in paid accommodation – who never make the connections which allow for this sort of human interaction – I think their experiences are thinner for it. To each their own, but I’m grateful for every opportunity I get to enjoy the hospitality and to see inside homes and lives as I go.

On the bus to Dublin:

This will be a ride. The Rugby’s on in Dublin so in addition to the usual passengers there are fans going down and AND, oh joy, a hen’s group: LOUD, LOUD, LOUD and we haven’t yet left Belfast.

After leaving Danae’s I thought of questions I might have asked about life in Northern Ireland. But we had been talking of other, normal life stuff, it just didn’t come up. But walking through Holywood this morning I wondered how the lingering dialogue about the sectarian stuff plays out in the middle-class suburbs – and are there Republican suburbs like Holywood? Leafy middle-class places. Or is there a rising Republican middle class moving into places like Holywood?

Questions to ask someone sometime.

** Written two years later: I never got to ask those questions of Danae as she lost her battle with cancer some six months after my visit.

Cornelia, who had introduced us, had told me that Danae was ill but it hadn’t fully registered how ill and, in person, for the time I was with her – if you didn’t know she was ill, you wouldn’t know she was ill.

The topic was alluded to in conversation as she explained how she had come to live in Holywood (she’d lived across the Lough before and had long wished to live in Holywood – when she got sick she made the move). But I didn’t know she was terminal and I think, as such, we both quite enjoyed our evening together because my ignorance meant her illness was neither a topic of conversation nor an elephant in the room. Instead we spoke, as people do, about common interests, my travels, her life, politics and our mutual friend.

I am grateful for our meeting and regretful that at this point in the trip taking photos with hosts hadn’t become habitual. Danae and her friend Norah co-wrote a gardening column and, together, in the end, the book A Tale of Two Gardens – which I haven’t read yet, but really must. If it’s your sort of thing you really should too.

Leaving Australia – Flying Forever – Arriving Finally in Milan

I write from seat 70J of Qantas Flight 127 halfway through the first leg of my three-legged journey to Milan.

We are somewhere over the Arafura Sea, perhaps – my last view of Australia passed across the portal some time ago. It was a beautiful view of reddish earth and worming watercourses meeting the blue of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Gulf of Carpentaria

I’m listening to Blue Sky Mine on the in-flight entertainment system –

I could not believe the stars of Warburton were waiting for me.

Those stars will appear tonight in their dense wondrous clusters over that remote Western Desert hamlet. As they will tomorrow. And the next night and the next; as I lay beneath a northern sky.

I’m excited and tired. I feel both the warm bolstering support of my mates and a little pressure to have the trip they expect – a pressure that is all me, not them. I am on the verge of a year of days – each of which stands on its own, clearly separated from its neighbours both by being actually different and through a sort of presence that comes with dealing with New all the time and of solving problems as matter of course. I feel like I’m going to thrive, be super present, be in my element, use my strengths, do things I like doing … all that good stuff. That’s how I feel about it but I fear weighing the thing down with expectations.

This day came as it always would with a last final rush of disbelief and a mistaken fear that I am unprepared. I am deeply ridiculously prepared. I have, in someways, been thinking about this trip since I was a teenager and in practical terms I’ve been planning for nearly a year and a half.

From early on I wanted it to be an organic journey – something I made up, more or less, as I went, with certain anchor points to aim for. That’s pretty much how it’s looking right now – I have plans for this coming week in Milan, some ideas of which direction I’ll point my bicycle in the coming weeks but nothing solid, and a ferry ticket from Le Havre to Portsmith on 9 July. I’m uncomfortable with not having sorted the first week or two of riding but recognise it is as it should be. That making it up as I go holds the life of the thing. Discomfort can be a creative energy.

I fell into conversation with my seat neighbour. We came to speak of my relationship with Australia. I spoke of the waves of Australian cultural exports which reached me in 1980s America which included Midnight Oil. He mentioned their street gig in New York. Which I was able to say was 25 years ago today because Jim had said so an hour earlier.

 

You know, I’m not generally a name dropper but he’s like how did you know that … we spoke of the Oils and other Australian music as Sydney disappeared from view.

Wait … what? I was going to Hong Kong (diverted due to weather to Manila – how my already long day became monumental).

I’m sitting on the tarmac in Manila watching episode one of season seven of Mad Men. A storm in Hong Kong had us diverted – the smidge of compensation was a beautiful sunset illuminating great walls of curvaceous clouds. But this is going to be one very long day. When we do take off it will be nearly 90 minutes back to Hong Kong and then who knows what will happen there with my onward flight to Doha. It’s an adventure.

To the credit of the customer service people in Hong Kong we Doha-bound passengers were efficiently gathered and rushed across the airport to join a flight just before it took off. To London.

There comes a point when being on an airplane almost becomes the totality of one’s reality. Right now I’ve been on board for 23 of the last 24 hours with nearly four and half more on this flight, a two-hour turn around at London then whatever it will be to Milan.

I’ve slept and watched a few movies. My newish attitude toward long-haul flights that it’s just time; this attitude is being tested but has mostly held sway. To say I’m glad that my next scheduled flight isn’t until October is a huge understatement.

As I was originally scheduled to have a nine-hour layover in Doha (oh how I long for that missed hotel room) I will arrive in Milan at pretty much the same time as originally scheduled. My luggage – that is my bicycle – well, I know it’s not on this flight. Nothing to be done about it right now so I can’t worry too much. Hopefully I’ll have time in London to talk to Qantas and find out where it is and when I might expect it in Milan. I’ll be there all week and I have travel insurance.

We’re flying over early Monday morning Russia.

Trying to see some sort of positives ….

  • This day and a half in the deadening void of economy flights will serve as a hard full-stop between before and after. It’s a hard double return on the page breaking up the getting ready from the going.
  • I’ll hopefully get to ask questions about my luggage to native-English speaking Qantas staff.
  • I’m accidentally following the most-common traditional path of Australian gap-year takers: Sydney to Hong Kong to London.
  • The last time I went to Europe for open-ended travel – when I was a 19-year-old with a Eurail pass – I flew into London.
  • My first international flight landed at Heathrow, too.

Might try to sleep some more. Four hours to London.

….

And now, in the final leg of this very very very very very long long day of travel here I am in seat 13A on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Milan – Malpensa. Were it clear I would be looking at France down there.

Our approach into London came in right over the city – and even after all the travel I had to smile at the totally unexpected view: Tower Bridge! The London Eye! The House of Parliament and Big Ben! Yeah … wow. The Thames, brown sinuous silvery.

Um, London? I wasn’t supposed to see you until like July. But whoa – hey, look Tower Bridge.
And the Houses of Parliament! Big Ben! The London Eye!

All things considered I was doing pretty well and still in good spirits right until I dealt with a British Airways customer service representative who greeted me with an accusative and unsympathetic tone.

The first guy I spoke was pleasant and easy to deal with but he couldn’t help with my question about baggage and sent me to another counter. There, I began by saying I’d been flying for 27 out the last 28 hours and asked for her to bear with me – I’m a little out of sorts. I explained my situation and provided all the paperwork I could. She looks my details up on the computer says, not asks, that I’ve come in on a Virgin flight, not BA. No, I assure her I’ve just disembarked from the British Airway flight from Hong Kong. She tells me the computer says I was on a Virgin flight not a BA flight …. Well, um, I wasn’t. That sort of set the tone.

She looked at my onward paperwork and told me the people in Hong Kong hadn’t done it right – not with any, you know, charm or humour but like I had something to do with that. “If I ever see them again I’ll be sure to let them know.” She issued my next boarding pass and said I was done. And my luggage? I said – she said she’d added it to the system but couldn’t tell me more and to ask at the gate.

As I was putting my paperwork away she noticed a docket I was given in HK – which I had shown her earlier to her disinterest – and she says “You didn’t give me this.” A regular charmer she was, definitely the right person for customer service.

After leaving her I had a little, you know, total meltdown. Head in hands, weeping, struggling to breathe evenly. Eventually moving from general view to the limited audience of the ladies. There, someone, a worker of some sort, asked if I was okay – she was the only one who did. I thanked her for asking, explained why I was so out of sorts and assured her I’d be okay. It was then that I also realised that I felt like I was still on an aeroplane – you know feeling the movement.

Luckily the people at the gate were much more friendly, sympathetic, and helpful – they at least were able to tell me that my bags weren’t at Heathrow and were last in the system in Hong Kong. She assured me that they would be following me and that, generally, they put them on the next, most direct, route to one’s final destination. So we’ll see what they say in Milan.

In the meantime I had been using the free WiFi to message Jim and Vickianne asking them to ring Qantas in Sydney and see if they could learn anything. Unfortunately I finally got a reply from Jim as I lost signal joining the bus to the Milan-bound plane.

Boarding, I asked the flight attendants for water and if they could tell me who won Eurovision. They had been voting when I boarded in Sydney and I hadn’t been able to learn during my long, long, long day. Sweden, the favourites – had taken it out. One more win and they will either tie or move past Ireland for most winners. Guy Sebastian had come fifth: which – especially in my state – made me rather Aussie proud.

They showed the safety video first in English, then in Italian – I listened, recognised a few words, and was struck in a way by the reality of this journey. I think that moment marked the transition from this buffering void of tin-can travel to the beginning of my actual journey.

I wanted to say something of the final days in Sydney … of the way, in the end, it rushed up to greet me. That I was prepared but not quite as ready as I hoped. But still got out on Saturday afternoon to soak up something of the city. Earlier I’d run some errands at Burwood – I’d bought a luggage scale …

HOLY FUCK – THE ALPS!

… and had a final coffee from George at Mrs P’s – my final Australian piccolo for the year.

I went home and sorted the packing and felt I was in a pretty good place with it. Went to the city and rode the Manly Ferry over and back. Getting at times a bit emotional about it but resolved to just be in it, with it, enjoy the view, the rise and fall of the swell, the throb of the engines. Coming back with the Vivid lights – it was really good.

I promised myself that later I would let myself just feel what I felt and not push it away.

I’d hoped to meet Erin and Jonathan at Hart’s but they had pushed back their meeting time too late for me – I got the bus home, began disassembling the bicycle. Jim arrived with bad but necessary pizzas, red wine and a willingness to help or simply keep company. Not long after Vickianne came home. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was on SBS – Jim had never seen it. NEVER SEEN IT.

We were done around 1:30 or 2:00 and then I wept, I let myself feel what I was feeling – what was it exactly? It wasn’t fear or worry that made me weep. It was a certain sadness … a sadness at leaving Sydney for so long, for leaving my friends for so long – a sadness that was real and unassuaged by my joy and excitement for the trip itself. Maybe a touch of sadness too that … while everything has long since been done and over with Mitch that my leaving for this solo mid-life gap year is a hard mark between before and after.

….

I’ve been at Malpensa for two hours. Finding it strangely hard to break orbit from the flying world. My bags are … someplace and I’ve filed the paperwork to encourage them to find them and deliver them to me. I’ve bought a SIM and await its activation. I’ve had an espresso and a donut.

 

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