Tag Archives: Summer

Beautiful Bayeux: A pink room, loneliness, and a tapestry

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96 of my midlife gap year)

8:20 pm A Restaurant in Bayeux

It’s nice to be in a city again. Bayeux is compact, beautiful, and busy with visitors. The helpful tourist office found me a reasonably priced chambres du hote on the edge of the city centre which I’d never have noticed myself as it’s located over a hair salon. My room is quite pink, and I like it.

A double bed beneath a cheap chandelier in a pink-walled hotel room.
My very pink room in Bayeux.

Sometimes I ride past ‘old’ buildings, but mostly I’m riding in modern France – physically and mentally. This past week I’ve been mired in World War II – history, but of a modern sort. Bayuex is a reminder of the depth of human history here. It was founded in the 1st century BC but there is evidence of older occupation by way of fortified Celtic camps and indications of Druid activities.

Bayeux was the first city liberated following the D-Day landings. The Germans were drawn off to defend more strategically important locations so Bayeux was spared destruction and is – on this late summer’s evening, a gorgeous place to stroll.

Bayeux at sunset.
Bayeux at sunset.

The mass of tourists promises conversation, I hear English on the streets – but I’m feeling stuck in my cone of silence. I know there are chats for the asking, I just can’t find the … energy? Nerve? Conviviality? To bowl up to an English speaker and say “hello”.

So, I’m here –  in this poorly chosen restaurant with a poorly chosen meal.

Jim says I should get out more – he’s right – but getting out more equals getting lonely more. This is the space of loneliness: dining on a Friday night, alone, in a strange city. I am surrounded by couples and families. It’s a lovely city, and I’d like to enjoy it, but lonely plus a disappointing meal makes me grumpy and sad. The irony is that my response to loneliness is a wish to be alone.

Saturday 29 August 6:33 am (Day 97) – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux

I’ve been awake for nearly an hour.

At the American cemetery a British father with two sons under 10: the older says, “So he survived?” Dad looks around and says, “Does it look like anyone here won?”

While I appreciate what Dad was doing there – those boys and men, interred there, may have lost their lives – but that we’re not all speaking German, and are living in free, democratic countries – they won. They most definitely won.

I’ve had an email reply from Robert – which is nice, he’s pleased I’m reading Selected Poems. I’ve typed up my ‘poem’ about reading his poems – as it exists so far … it’s … okay. Not sure if I’ll send it to him – that’s a bit nerve wracking, really.

[I]t seems that someone who wants too much to get things is also someone who fears. And living in that fear cannot be free. (From Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America (Part Two, III, Epistulae I, xvi)).

My freedom on the road is borne of some of this fearlessness – not a bravery but a lack of worry and want. Others tell me they see it as bravery, but I think bravery is mostly in the eye of the beholder.

11:15 pm – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux

Bayeux has been at the cross-roads of clashing civilisations going back to the Roman arrival in Gaul. Later the Vikings came and then the Franks and the English. So, I guess, there’s something appropriate in the city being associated with one of the oldest artistic renderings of human warfare.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which I saw today, was made around 1070. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The 70-metre-long tapestry (really an embroidery) is a series of panels with some (Latin) text. The museum supplies a little audio device which explains the tale as you move along at a steady pace in what is, basically, an ever-moving queue of tourists.

It’s gorgeous, the colours vibrant, and it’s just generally in very good nick for 945-year-old cloth. While the names of famous men are attached to its history it’s important, to me, to remember the work itself, the stitching, and so the fundamental artistry, is the work of women. Anonymous 11th century English women – and they have done a stellar job.

But it is a depiction of war and I am reminded that the same stories of war and loss, bravery and sacrifice, have been played out way too many times.

Detail of Bayeux Tapestry found on www.english-heritage.org.au © DeAgostini/Getty Images
Detail of Bayeux Tapestry found on www.english-heritage.org.au © DeAgostini/Getty Images

Aside from successful touristing, the day was insanely productive: bike fixed (I’d had a wee gearing problem and the brake cables needed adjusting) – they charged me nothing, so I bought a new cap – Australian green & gold with kangaroos no less; Intersport sold me expensive but fine knicks to replace my old, inexpensive, but fine knicks.

This evening I washed my clothes at a laundrette and had take-away sushi for dinner – pricy but good. I chatted with Jim on Facebook – which was nice, as always.

Sound and light projection show on a 1797 tree at Bayeux Cathedral
Sound and light projection show on a 1797 tree at Bayeux Cathedral

Then I went out to see the Rendez-vous a la Cathedrale – Les Lumieres de la Liberte – a projection and sound show on the 1797 tree in the Cathedral courtyard – 10 stories of liberty from across history. The WWII section was haunting in its way, the Flower Power one fun and lovely.

(Not my video – it’s the whole show, so a bit long – but you may enjoy bits and pieces of it.)

A few drops began falling just at the end of the show, which became steady rain, then torrents by the time I got within about 200 metres of home.

It’s pelting – torrential, tropical nearly, with thunder and lightning too. The last rain this heavy might have been on the Australian leg of my journey.

I am so glad not to be in my tent tonight.

Pedaling with Ghosts in the Normandy Rain: Isigny-sur-Mer to Bayeux

Thursday 27 August 2015 (Day 95 of my midlife gap-year)

9:15 am, Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer, France: Rain Rain Go Away

I slept until 9 and it’s raining again.

At 7 the church bells were pretty insistent on waking everyone. I’m surprised I fell back to sleep. If I’d gotten up at 7, I might have packed away a dry tent. Now, and since just as I woke, there is a steady pitter-patter. Riding in this sort of rain is not too terrible but I’m growing weary of it, as a constant companion.

Rainy view from a tent door.
Blech – I don’t wanna go to school today, ma.

I’d like to get to Bayeux today – but that’ll be hard if I just sit here in the rain. Hard in the rain and with two cemetery stops. We’ll see. I don’t want to go out in the rain right now. I really don’t.

10:40 am – The Café at Camping Le Fanal: Still Raining and Feeling Sorry for Myself

Worst morning weather so far.

Who is Cool Kids by? No idea – it’s playing for the yoga class going on in here now.

It’s hard to make quiet my friend when there’s little quiet.

There’s noise and voices and people – but I haven’t the skills to talk to them. Simple … simple conversation doesn’t satisfy. The cuts come both ways – I’m in a cone of a monolinguistic silence or really muteness and the sort of conversation I crave is highly articulate – something erudite and clever.

Between the rain and the silence, I’m feeling sad. On the bicycle it’s fine because I can make quiet my friend. I can have my imagined conversations.

God, it’s miserable – just pissing down.

Maybe I should just pack up the wet tent and go anyway? It’s just rain. Sigh.

This place is making me sad.

Okay, I’m sure the radio announcers aren’t saying “Shitty FM” but that’s what it sounds like. Time to go.

3:50 pm – German War CemeteryMore Dignity Than Deserved?

As expected, this is a place of mixed feelings.

In the display – pictures of Nazi boys, maybe 17 years old, happily surrendering. For their peers lying here I feel sadness – too young to have agency. But the men buried here – maybe they didn’t ‘deserve to die’ – maybe they didn’t personally round up civilians (Jews and otherwise) and send them to their deaths. (Those who did – for them I will reserve “deserved to die”.) But I’m glad they are dead, all of these Nazi soldiers, in so far as they – or some of them – had to die to liberate France and ultimately the camps. And these boys and men – they have graves.

Nazi war graves in Normandy
More dignity than Nazis deserve?

I think of the concentration camp soil at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. The soil on which the greasy human ashes of thousands fell – that’s the best we can do for those victims – here is some soil which may contain a smidge of DNA from whole families.

I don’t know that Nazis deserve the dignity of this cemetery – even if they were someone’s sons, brothers, etc. Jumbled in a nameless pit would be about right.

All that – and while looking at my bicycle noticing all the German bits – Schwalbe tyres, Abus locks, Ortlieb panniers.

I wrote in the book at the German cemetery: “They have the dignity of graves, their victims only ash.”

As I was leaving a tour bus full of retirement-age Germans arrived. So so weird. One fella wandered over to admire my bicycle – we tried to exchange a few words but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to do so. A real pity – we had common ground in my bicycle and I was deeply curious what had brought him here today. Is his father here? An uncle perhaps? How does this place feel for a 65-year-old German?

10:30 pm – Omaha Beach Campground: With Ghosts All Around

It rained more than it didn’t today – no clear spells until the usual one at, like, 8pm. The ride today was map reliant – gone were the good bicycle-centric road signs – but pretty straight forward and easy enough. All the fighting zones feel ghostie and blood soaked.

Pont du Hoc – where the US Army Rangers scaled a crazy cliff to take some German guns, is American run – so everything is in English first. And there are water fountains plus soap & hand driers in the toilets. Sorry, bathroom.

Pont du Hoc cliffs - scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cliffs – scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cows grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops
Pont du Hoc sheep grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops

People look at the bike, at me, with a sort of admiration or envy or wonder but not like I’m nuts.

I was dead keen to find a hotel tonight but this campground appeared first, so here I am, night four under nylon and surrounded by the (mostly) French, which is good. As it should be – though tomorrow night I wouldn’t mind finding myself in a bar with fluent English-speakers.

(There’s a pair of hedgehogs making noises out there – they are snuffling around near my bicycle. There are also goats insecurely penned in what I’m calling an old German defence on the sea side of the campground. We are on the headland of the western end of Omaha Beach.)

I walked down to the beach tonight. And nearly wept. It was high tide – waves lapping into the break wall behind which the landing troops sought a little shelter. There’s a memorial – from the Army Reserve, I think. There’s also a hotel, a place to rent kayaks and paddle boards, people’s summer homes. Life goes on.

Selfie of middle-aged, short-haired woman on a pebbly beach with ocean and jetty
At Omaha Beach at sundown.

The French have gotten on with using these spaces for the living but don’t think for a moment they have forgotten about the dead. In all the rain I’ve taken few photos this week but had I they would show Normandy to be a place of slate-roofed, stone villages adorned with flowers and wind-whipped quartets of flags (those of France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Memorials and remembrances – official and private alike – abound.

It’s been a tough day – in the rain and the places I went, but good too. Always good.

I’m still reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and writing my own poem about reading his poems. I’ve nearly finished the book, the poem … still needs work.

Where:

The Western headland of Omaha Beach

Where a German bunker houses sheep

And the French enjoy their beach hols

Had I been on this spot on 6 June 1944

The sights would have haunted me into oblivion

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96), 8:15 am

Omaha Beach Campground: OMG Sun!

Oh, what is this golden burning ball in the sky which lights the world?

And where is my blanket of cloud?

The tent is damp with condensation and dew which sparkles in this strange morning light. May it last, may it last.

Yesterday I had Midnight Oil’s Blossom & Blood on the mind and Love & Rockets Ball of Confusion – riding through history can do that to you.

1pm – Normandy American Cemetery Visitors Centre: Beauty and Pain

There was a gaggle of French road cyclists hanging about when I arrived. One went to pee in the bush – really? I looked at him – I wish I had the French, but still I said, “There are no toilets? Nice way to show respect.”

I sighed entering.

It was noon and a bell was tolling the hour. Then a carillon played something really tacky – I think it was The Yanks are Coming.

And then in among the graves in the shining sunlight – all grandiose American Americaness.

So much loss. So much gained.
So much loss. So much gained.

The cemetery is profoundly beautiful, and I felt a deep sadness looking at this sea of graves – all these lives sacrificed – all those futures lost. I allowed the scattering of Stars of David to lead me through the graves – taking the time to read the names as I went. There was a quartet of markers which, I thought, said much: on the front right – Adolf Greenburg of California died 24 June 1944, behind him Edmond G. Sokolowski of Connecticut died 9 July 1944, to the left Vito Monticciolo of New Jersey died 2 August 1944 and in front of him “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known But to God”.

These were American boys, yes, and a reflection of the immigrant nation they came from – but, these were also descendants of Europe. Much is made of the idea of that the Americans came thousands of kilometres to help people they didn’t know – and there’s truth in that – but I’d put good money on none of those three Americans being more than two-generations removed from somewhere in the Yiddish homelands, Poland, and Italy. More than likely all three did know people, had relatives, who were suffering under the Fascists.

I will admit to feeling different for the Jewish boys and men here … they died, as Jews, fighting Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds I do hope most of them died with Nazi blood on their bayonets.

The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.
The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.

Looking for somewhere to eat my lunch I, strangely, found no provision for people to sit somewhere away from the graves. The signs even said no eating of food or picnicking anywhere – including the carpark – I ignored it, finding a bit of shaded grass next the parked coaches.

Another bus arrived disgorging a herd of Americans – tethered by earphones to their leader. I thought: I would rather stay home and watch travel docos than travel like that. I thought again of how I may cover less ground but see so much more.

I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.
I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.

I thought about how motorized travel is mediated travel. They ride in their buses – sleeping against the window, emerging to a ‘place to visit’ having not experienced anything of the in-between.

They are barely here at all.

After my lunch (with a side of superiority), I left my sadness and thoughts of war and death at the cemetery gates and rode into the sunny afternoon with a relieved sigh. I thought the best way to honour those brave, crazy, ignorant, terrified boys and men was to enjoy this beautiful day with a light heart and a happy internal dialogue. I whistled and sang my way into Bayeux – greeting the cows as I went.

What a glorious afternoon for living.
What a glorious afternoon for living.
Map showing cycling route described in this post
My route (click to enlarge)
My route in context - see Paris in the lower right.
My route in context – see Paris in the lower right. (Click to enlarge)

To Ride is to Live: Jonville to Isigny-sur-Mer (Normandy, France)

Tuesday 25 August 2015 (Day 93 of my midlife gap-year)

9:25 am, Camping Municipal de Jonville

Today’s ride will bring me closer to the landing zones of D-Day – I’ll be following Utah Beach much of the day. This campground is filled with holidaying European families, including some German-speakers. There’s a dissonance in that.

Over a breakfast of pain au chocolates I’ve continued to read Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and write my poem about where I’ve read them.

Where:

And in the morning

With Irish tea and the crunch, chewy, (not too) sweet of ‘deux pain au chocolat’ from the bakery van.

Three blonde German-speaking children appear and I think: D-Day beaches – weird place for a German holiday.

It’s grey, windy, and cool but, for now, not raining.

11:35 am, St Vaast-la-Houge – To Ride is to Feel Alive

French stone village houses on a small wet street under a grey sky.
A village in Normandy – St Vaast-la-Houge

I’ve ridden 30 minutes in the wind and the rain. I’ve stopped to just get out of it for a bit.

Riding thoughts:

To ride is to feel alive – to really feel it in a way too often masked by all the modern comforts and easy-ways we’ve made for ourselves.

I feel my heart beating and my blood coursing and not in some sort of urban panic or frustration or some professional (or financial) anxiety. And not from some manufactured ‘exercise’- but from transporting myself and all I need from last night’s rest to tonight’s.

I experience the weather – feel the wind and the misty Atlantic rain gathering on my face until the weight of it brings it coursing toward my chin.

In a car – it’s like you’re playing a boring, frustrating, but dangerous video game. You’re watching TV. You’re sitting on your couch.

Driving is not living.

8:50 pm, Camping Baie des Veys – They are Not Forgotten Here

The rain kept my camera in the bag most of the day but with my mind on poetry and my emotions being stirred by how the past is vividly on display, everywhere, here – when I stopped to get out the rain I recorded this ridiculously overly earnest bit of spoken-word picture-making.  (The rain was also pretty loud so I was over-enunciating too boot.)

I saw a memorial disc on a house – as new as yesterday – commemorating it as the landing place of a particular officer from the 82nd Airborne on the morning of 6 June 1944 – something in French about the soil of France and the beginning of the liberation.

And I thought: You boys. You crazy, brave, ignorant, terrified boys. You are not forgotten here.

Memorial road sign for Sgt J. Z. Pritchett, killed in action 25 June 1944
They are not forgotten here.

The ride today – other than being (mostly) wet and (mostly) windy was beautiful. (Mostly) flat and (mostly) small quiet roads – not too much on dirt or gravel, and, generally, near the sea.

In a moment of sunshine, I came to my first German pillbox in a field of French cows.

(French cows, French milk, always make me think of this scene)

I stopped at the second pillbox I passed, to lean my bicycle and reorganise some. I didn’t want to touch that Nazi cement. Is that weird? Maybe. But I didn’t want to. So, I didn’t. My bike did but not me.

Fully-loaded touring bicycle leant against a Nazi pillbox in Normandy.
Nazi pillbox … I didn’t want to touch it.

l almost stopped at a farm camping ground but pushed on thinking I’d go all the way to Carentan but came to this campground with a restaurant and I was home.The steak and chips and beer for €12.60 and now a ½ litre of red wine – very happy. But there are two whingy noisy small children putting lie to the myth of well-behaved French children.

10:25 pm – Tent

In comparison to how we think of the WWII generation – we are miserable at collective action. The EARTH is becoming less hospitable to our species and we can’t agree to do something.

Where French General Leclerc and his 2e Division Blindee landed on 6 June 1944 (Utah Beach)
Where French General Leclerc and his 2e Division Blindee landed on 6 June 1944 (Utah Beach) – Wikipedia Link

1:45 am – Pee Break

I love the French devotion to the freshly baked. There was the boulangerie van at the campground this morning and here I was able to place an order tonight for two pain au raisin – available in the bar at 8:30 am.

Wednesday 26 August 2015 (Day 94)

 8:15 am – Tent

Where:

And in the tent in morning showers (waiting for a break so I can make my way to the loo)

Mild breezes bicker with the trees, small birds twitter. Here it smells of a Chinese tent factory and me. I will not be like ‘The Old Man’

9:00 am – Full of sweet French pastry and almost, but not quite, enough coffee.

I’ll ride to the next town and hope their tourist office can supply cycling information for the neighbouring province – where Omaha Beach is.

Where:

In here – warm with scent of Chinese tent factory and of myself – sleeping breath, yesterday’s riding clothes – of effort and life. I will not be like ‘The Old Man’

2:05 pm – Caratans: Waiting for Rain (Which Will Never End) to End

I’ve become a little stuck here. I stopped at the tourist office and found nothing for the next department. Then I got ham from the charcuterie and F(ruits) & V(eg) from the F&Vie to make my lunch on a bench in a spot of grass next to a car park. The post office, closed when I arrived in town, was open after I’d lunched so Rob’s birthday card, Jim’s and VAL’s postcard are finally on their way. When I came out it was piss-pissing. I retreated to the arcaded shops where the tourist office is for un café in hopes it will pass – lessen – or I’ll just get on with it.

People – hiding from the rain – keep stopping, lingering, to look at my bicycle – propped and locked outside. Still it rains.

Where:

In a pizzeria in Caratans – foolishly waiting for the Normandy rain to stop (as if it ever does). Having un café – a husky-mix under the next table. Interrupted by West End Girls to which I semi-consciously lip synch.

Simple memorials adorn a telegraph pole on a quiet country lane.
Simple memorials adorn a telegraph pole on a quiet country lane.

6:45 pm – Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer: I Make Quiet My Friend

Where:

Third night camping and four days of dialogues beginning, “Pardon, je non parlez francaise. Parlez vous ingles?’ I return to Samuri Song: When I had no friend I made quiet my friend.”

Perhaps it’s that in the quiet I’ve made a friend of Robert – that I fill the quiet with an inner monologue which is more interesting imagined as a dialogue? It is what it is – he’s the presence in my silence for now.

Not that I’m lonely – not too much anyway – okay – a little bit. I do wish I had internet and might find someone to chat with.

The SUN – THE SUN – fantastique!

The bloke in the tourist office said this much rain is unusual for August.

11:45 pm – Oppa

After two nights of wind and rain tonight the elements are silent but there is a thumping disco going here at the campground. And also, a complaining cow in a nearby field.

I ate dinner in the restaurant here – hopefully tomorrow night will be clear and I can cook. It’s hard when it keeps raining and there are no campers’ kitchens or even covered tables. Pizza & wine for €15 – €2 more than the campsite.

While I was eating some sort of entertainment began. I don’t know what it was – a game or maybe trivia. Kids and parents were being led by a loud, excitable woman with a microphone.

The music, the thumping, is fucking awful.

I think …

Oh wait, I think maybe, just maybe that’s Gangnam Style. Yup. Ha ha ha.

Oh, world you are funny.

Ah, there’s a slow song – promising for a midnight finish – oh, now it’s thumping again.

My first stop for the day tomorrow is the German war cemetery. That should be interesting – not sure what to expect.

How often must the keepers of this memorial return to refresh it?
How often must the keepers of this memorial return to refresh it?
The route.
The route.
Context
Context

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.

In Ireland They Offer Chips with Your Chinese Food: Tuesday 11 August 2015 (Day 79)

9:10 pm: A Chinese Restaurant, Kilkenny

I may regret this but I’m so hungry. I’ve ordered sweet and sour chicken – it’s like battered and fried balls of chicken in the usual flouro sauce. It’s Ireland: I had the choice of rice or chips.

Being here, in Kilkenny, is becoming normal. I run into familiar people on the street. I know my way around town really well. After a couple of months on the road, of being someplace new every day, every hour, this is nice – this being of a place and part of a community.

I slept in this morning and woke to find Jim practicing in the loungeroom, for his gig tonight. I booked my bus ticket from Dublin to Belfast but failed to do the same for the train on to Derry because Northern Irish Rail’s website is shit.

Jim and I drove into Kilkenny. While he was looking for parking I spotted Cornelia at the Gourmet Café so I jumped out to see her. She was just off – I had a sandwich and coffee and solved a crossword challenge two blokes were having – by changing ‘interior’ to ‘internal’.

I was stuck in the queue as Jim began playing in the Luminarium but Mali, our friend with the crew there, spotted me and brought me in the back door.

Look who's playing in the Luminarium.
Look who’s playing in the Luminarium.

It was a mighty strange gig but Jim enjoyed himself – he should have had an amp as the sound just didn’t carry. He played mandolin and guitar. Cornelia was there for a time. And a lot of children. Unrestrained small children.

Mali said, “The Irish have so many children.” Jim played Say Your Prayers and I sang along, tunelessly, as I do. It turns out one of my favourite songs he plays is  Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. I’d heard him do it many times before but hadn’t realised it was a cover. It’s really calming and lovely.

Walking back to the Gourmet we passed a group of kids tossing a hurling ball around in the castle grounds, among them a Sudanese teenager as agile and fluid with his hurly as any of his paler skinned mates. It was beautiful.

I helped out around town this afternoon and caught part of The Gloaming’s show at the Cathedral. Amazing music played to a packed house.

Poetry, Light, Ice Cream and Friendship on a Beaut Irish Summer Day: Monday 10 August 2015 (Day 78)

11:20 am – The Gourmet Store Café, Kilkenny

We are finally getting a run of sunny and warm days. Cornelia says this sort of day is exactly what one hopes for when thinking of an Irish summer’s day.

7:30 pm – Zuni Café

I’m feeling like a local. I know where everything is and I run into people I know on the street.

At the café this morning Hazel, Cornelia’s right-hand gal, passed by with Robert Pinsky. He’s just arrived from Boston and they were looking for an Irish SIM card for him but said they’d come back for coffee.

I read the blurb about him in the festival catalogue and had just started in on his Wikipedia page when they returned.

I learned he was US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He’s a poet, obviously, and an academic at Boston University. Jewish, from New Jersey. That’s about all I knew as we started chatting.

Cornelia had to go and Hazel, while she stayed on, was hard at work at other tasks – so Robert and I had a nice chat about American politics, guns, violence, Australia, John Howard & guns, etc. He hasn’t yet visited Australia, but would like to – this seems a worthy project to help with.

The rest of the morning I ran around for Cornelia. I delivered lunch to an organist at the Cathedral. And I picnicked outside St John’s Priory – pressing my ear to the stained glass to hear the Bach Cello Concerto being played within.

At 4pm I went to the Rothe House Garden for Robert’s “Secret Garden” performance, which was quite good.

Afterwards Cornelia and I took him to the Architects of the Air installation.

The Luminarium is a pneumatic sculpture (one filled with air) constructed of specially designed plastics where the colours of the material and the design of thinner bits illuminate the inside just by the natural light.

Here’s how the artists describe it:

Each luminarium is a dazzling maze of winding paths and soaring dorms where Islamic architecture, Archimedian solids and Gothic cathedrals meld into an inspiring monument to the beauty of light and colour.

The domes are the large chambers rising up to 10 metres high that provide the focal points. The tunnels connect the domes and determine the journey the visitor will take. The luminaria also feature ‘pods’ – alcoves where people can sit and relax out of the way of the other visitors.

Each luminarium is made up of around 20 elements that are zipped together on site to typically occupy an area of 1000 square metres. Easy to erect, laying out the structure and anchoring can take as little as 4 hours then, in just 20 minutes, the luminarium is inflated to its monumental size.

Inside the Luminiarium
Inside the Luminiarium (Photo by Glenn Lucas)

W got ice cream and sat in the Butler House Gardens. He was, I think, just trying to keep going to keep jet-lag at bay. A plight I well understand. Cornelia had to go and left me to see Robert back to is hotel but first we lingered.

We chatted away about politics and swapped Clinton stories. He told me about his Favorite Poem Project, which he began as Poet Laureate and continues. They hold events where everyday people share their favourite poems and there’s a web site with videos of people sharing their favourite poems.

It’s been quite a while since I’d had such a long chat about stuff I know and care about with someone who knows as much or more about the same stuff – if that makes sense. The conversation was very enjoyable and unlike any I’d had recently. He gave me his card … if I get to Boston I’ll drop him a line.

Now I’m sitting at Zuni having had a glass of white wine and a serve of chips. I’m waiting on Cornelia to return. My face is sunburnt and I’m very sleepy.

Cornelia arrived and we ordered some more wine and, then, Jim!

Me and Jim (last seen at Sydney Airport 72 days ago)
Me and Jim (last seen at Sydney Airport 72 days ago)

Oh, my goodness how nice it is to see him. I’ve seen a few old friends along the way and made many new ones but I hadn’t seen anyone from my immediate, loving, fabulous circle of Sydney friends for 78 days (when Jim and Vickianne saw me off at the airport) and now, here, was one of my besties and someone I’ve known for 27 years. I think I got a little teary.

Shifting Attitude, Celebrating Art at the Arts Festival: Saturday 8 August 2015 (Day 76)

Saturday 8 August, 6:30 pm – Langston House Hotel (Kilkenny)

Attitude. It’s really a bit about attitude. I’m here. Doing this. Be here. Do this. I’ll sort the rest as it comes. I’ve made decisions which, now made, are as they will be. I’ll be in Ireland until 22 August. Deal with it. Enjoy it.

So, I’ve had a pretty full day with the festival.

I helped Cornelia with this and that before completing a 3 ½ hour shift at Cleary Connolly’s Meta-Perceptual Helmets – which was actually quite good. I met the artists. They are former architects. The project is about how we’d see the world differently with different eyes. They’ve designed a heap, but only made these five so far. They are aluminium and sleek, shiny, with a back like a time-trial helmet with optical contraptions which allow the wearer to see the world like a … cat, horse, giraffe, hammerhead shark, chameleon. It’s set up in the garden of Rothe House.

When my shift ended, I made my way to the Cathedral to find Cornelia and continue to be helpful.

Concert at the Cathedral
Concert at the Cathedral

At the tail end of the day I caught a bit of the beautiful performance by Toumani & Sidiki Diabate

Utterly gorgeous.

This isn’t from Kilkenny but give you a good taste of their work.

Be Here Now, Be Here Now, Repeat: Friday 7 August 2015 (Day 75)

Kilkenny and County Carlow:

What am I thinking? Why am I here?

I feel like the trip has come off the rails a little bit and that I’m stuck in Kilkenny-ish. The ish being stuck-ish.

I feel like maybe I’m spending more time in Ireland than I need to. Though it is pleasant and relatively cheap and filling non-Schengen time. And I’m making decisions and having realisations.

I’ve  gotten an hour’s work done today and otherwise just been … in a town I was bored with after the first hour a week ago. I feel I’ve made mistakes that have me here – to an Irish bog. I want to magically be back on the Continent and pedalling on to a next destination. And I feel like I can’t expedite that process, having said ‘yes’ to helping, and ‘yes’ to wanting to wait for Jim, and having made plans for the North, and have booked my ferry. It would all be fine if I was also having days like I had in Florence – productive.

I spent some time working at the volunteer office this arvo. If I can get on the WiFi there – just put some music in my ears, then, maybe tomorrow, Sunday, Monday I can really crank through some work. That might make me feel better. Now I feel … anxious, bored, tired (I’ve lost my cyclist’s sleep pattern and cyclist’s sleepiness and I’m not sleeping well), thirsty too – of course, and just wanting things to clarify again. I’m out of my zone – I want to be back in it.

Tonight, I did a volunteer shift as an usher at DruidShakespeare’s full-cycle of Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2) and Henry V. It was a long and very chilly night – the production is on in the courtyard of the Castle Yard. They split the telling over two nights. I didn’t stay for the whole show tonight – once the audience was seated after the last break I was free to go – and I did because it was really cold. I hope to get back and watch some of the second half before the festival is over.

Overall, I thought it was a good and engaging production – their twist was that most of the traditionally male roles were played by women and this worked fine but for one of the main actresses who, um, just had an annoying voice and way of speaking. It was overdone, over-acted, and pulled me out of the story.

That said, it was a cool thing to see and it was fun being part of a team and having colleagues again.

So I continue to battle between thinking I need to be working and planning and trying to simply be and enjoy it.

This is (another) test of my commitment to, and ability to, BE HERE NOW.

Yes, I have work to do – writing, photo editing, planning – but I need to BE HERE NOW. Enjoy the festival, embrace it.

Not the Dublin I First Visited – Mostly for the Best, But Not All: Thursday 6 August 2015 (Day 74)

Thursday 6 August 12:40 pm – Umi Falafel

I fear I’ve been pretending to be a normal tourist – more flush, short-term. I’ve been getting coffees, eating out, paying entrance fees for museums. I’m a little scared to add it up and convert it into Australian dollars.

This morning I was meant to join a free walking tour of the city but the crowd was large and the guide too bubbly for my mood so I wandered off before we even got going.

Instead I visited the Chester Beatty Library. Admission was free and they have a pretty interesting collection of manuscripts and religious artifacts collected by … Charles Beatty.

Now I’m having lunch at this smashing falafel and hummus restaurant – this is not the same Dublin I first visited all those years ago, that’s for sure. Seriously, if you are ever in Dublin: Umi Falafel.

I’ve decided I can get through all I want to see and do in Dublin today so I’ve arranged a lift back to Kilkenny from the airport for this afternoon.

I’m thinking ahead to my return to France – I booked my ferry to Cherbourg. Right now I’m planning on turning  left out of the port, follow the coast of Normandy for a bit – not worry about visiting Tom in the South of France or seeing the Vuelta Espana. I feel due for a nice long run of just being on the bicycle day after day after day.

2:35 pm – Busy Bee Cafe

When I first visited Dublin in 1988 I went looking for U2’s studio in Windmill Lane. I found it on the back streets of a drab working-class residential neighbourhood a few blocks back from the dying quayside with its little used or derelict cranes.

Fans had scrawled graffiti on the front of the building with messages for the band and notes about where they had come from to make this visit.

Windmill Lane Studios, 1988
Windmill Lane Studios, 1988

Seven years later, in 1995, on my next visit to Dublin, things were much the same. The graffiti had spread and the neighbourhood seemed a bit changing but all was recognizable.

Windmill Lane Studios, 1995
Windmill Lane Studios, 1995

I’ve just come from there now and I walked around several blocks trying to sort out where the offices had been. Windmill Lane is a construction zone – well – a destruction zone right now – Wikipedia warned me. They said the wall of graffiti has been saved. But was not, presently, on site.

Windmill Lane, 2015
Windmill Lane, 2015

The neighbourhood is now full of new apartment complexes and office buildings housing things like web designers and McCann Erickson.

I know that, on balance, this is a good thing. Good for Dublin. Good for the Irish economy. But it’s another mark of how every city becoming more and more just like every other city with old, close in districts, being remade from homes for low-wage workers in nearby jobs to homes and offices for the “creative class”.

As Paul Kelly has put it … Every Fucking City’s just the same (okay, his story isn’t really about gentrification but still …).

Dublin: I’m done.

The museums were good and some of the wandering but … cities … meh. Looking forward to riding through the countryside again.

4:50 pm – Airport

I feel like I’m just here and time is whizzing past – there’s truth in that but maybe I’m being harsh on myself as well.

Maybe I need to be a little more focused and a little less wandering. Focus on the Jewish stuff, on the learning German. These are shaping ideas. I think maybe it’s time for more shaping ideas.

What would that mean?

D-Day Beaches. Find a German course I can do. Identify Jewish sites/museums I want to visit.

Yes, maybe this needs to be a little less organic.

Coffees and Jews in Dublin: Wednesday 5 August 2015 (Day 73)

11:50 am Wednesday 5 August – Kaph

A lot – Dublin reminds me of Melbourne a lot. Maybe because they are both river cities with dubious weather. But they have Sydney’s pedestrian-crossing system, though, same buttons, same sound – which is strange.

This is the café suggested by Baz – it is not like Melbourne. They call a macchiato and ‘noisette’ (I guess it’s the French name for the same thing) and it’s meh – a little thin and bitter. So, the bitter is like Melbourne but … you know, not so nice. (The music is good, though).

It's a noisette and some kind of gluten-free carrot cake.
It’s a noisette and some kind of gluten-free carrot cake.

Speaking of Melbourne … Laura2 will arrive in Chicago the day after me. TOTALLY STOKED. I’m now looking forward to Chicago. And Dave has asked when I’ll be in New York City. I thought he was off to Istanbul. So some plans for America are falling into place.

3pm – Joe’s Coffee (after the Irish Jewish Museum)

It rains, it stops raining. It’s windy. Or not. The sun shines. Or doesn’t.

The view from Joe's Coffee
The view from Joe’s Coffee

When I arrived at the Irish Jewish Museum the first person who greeted me called me sir then excused his error by noting I was wearing trousers.

He proceeded with his spiel until I was, eventually, rescued by Jason – who was embarrassed for the other fellow and apologised.

He showed me around the old synagogue portion of the museum and we had an interesting and lengthy chat. They don’t get a lot of visitors.

Which is a pity as the museum is actually quite interesting. I learned that Sephardi Jews (those from the Iberian Peninsula) settled in Ireland in 1497 – following expulsion from Portugal. Though there are records of Jews in Ireland even earlier – back to a first reference in 1079. More recently, in the 18th and 19th centuries, whole communities were fleeing Eastern Europe and some settled here in Dublin.

Each group set up their own little prayer room. Eventually a rabbi came from Belfast to bring the community together. That was Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1919-1937 before going on to fill the same role in Israel. (Rabbi Herzog, by the way, was a fluent speaker of Irish.) He was the father of Chaim Herzog, the 6th president of Israel, who was born in Belfast and, Jason asserted, spoke English with an Irish accent (though I’ve listened to some clips and don’t really hear it).

He showed me a mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from a material from a wedding dress and other bits and pieces. A fabric scholar had looked at it and was able to identify different parts of the old Yiddish homelands the various bits came from.

Mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from various donated clothes including a wedding dress.
Mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from various donated material including a wedding dress.

He said the synagogue, which was cobbled together from the upstairs rooms of adjoining houses, had operated until … I think the 1970s or so. “One day the rabbi turned up and there were only 9 men – he locked the door and that was that. Jason imagines him saying: Feck it. If they can’t bother to turn up neither can I.

We had a long chat, Jason and I, about this and that including that six new synagogues have recently opened in Indonesia. He said these are for Christians who have converted. That they had found greater truth in the Old Testament than the New and went to the source. Now some rabbis are going there to teach. I haven’t found a lot about it on line, but there is this one article.

11:20 pm – Abbey Court Hostel

Seagulls – the sound of them, I can hear them here in the hostel.

I visited the Little Museum of Dublin – which is a quirky fun museum full of objects donated by Dubliners. You see it with a guide who tells the story in a loud, theatrical, not-as-funny-as-he- imagines way. He was sort of red in the face and too big for the room.

There was a special exhibition on about U2 and, frankly, it was crap. One small room, only a few artifacts. The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition doing the rounds of Australia shat all over it.

The pretty crappy U2: Made in Dublin exhibition.
The pretty crappy U2: Made in Dublin exhibition.

For dinner, I met up with my friend Tom, last seen in Paris. He’s here working at the Greenpeace International meeting. We went to a place that sounded good on line, and was – I had the corned beef with mashed potatoes and beet root. It was a huge serve and very very tasty, indeed.

Afterwards we walked back into the city centre before going our separate ways. I looked around for someplace to have a drink but nothing makes me feel lonely quite so much as trying to find a bar I want to go into, on my own, at night.

So, I just walked around some for a while instead.

Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin