Tag Archives: travel photography

No 48: Malabar – A winter solstice beach (25 June 2017)

In 2014 I heard a story on the radio about ceremonies people create for themselves. A caller described a women’s winter solstice ceremony she had been conducting for years. The Winter Solstice, marking the moment when more light begins to fill your days, is the beginning of a new cycle and a nadir. The caller’s ceremony involved letting go of the past year – which I then sorely needed to do.

I had then run my worst turn around the sun to date and was, finally, starting to recover. I’ve missed marking the solstice in 2015 (I was in the northern hemisphere) and 2016 (I was focussed on other things), but this year I’ve returned to the idea and set off on a glorious winter’s day to beach number 48, Malabar.

I like how the demographics on the bus shift as I travel from home to beach. From the city to the University of New South Wales we are a mixed crowd leaning East Asian, from UNSW to Kensington mostly East Asian, from Kensington to Maroubra moving towards working-class whites and Southern Europeans. Beyond Maroubra – mostly working-class whites with maybe a few Aboriginals as well.

Malabar has a strange not-in-Sydney vibe – it feels like it could be a down the South Coast someplace … a village between the ‘Gong and Kiama. A row of old-school 1950s – 1970s family homes face the rich blue inlet and the undeveloped green headland to the north.

This is an ocean beach but set at the back of Long Bay and the big waves just don’t reach the shore. When the water is clean enough to swim in (which it isn’t always) it’s a great spot for a lazy paddle.

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I’ve come with my pocket datebooks of the last year. On most days, I’ve recorded three short bullet-points – an event, my mood, the weather, a movie I saw or book I finished reading, that sort of thing.

The sea is a saturated indigo, the sky pale cerulean. The park behind the beach is filled with families, the barbeques in high demand. I sit on a bench facing the beach and, accompanied by the metronomic squeak of a child being pushed in a swing, review my year. One day’s snapshot after another. It takes nearly an hour.

Looking up from my task I notice two frolicking naked 3-year old children – a boy and a girl – and think “I love Australia”. Shame about our bodies is a learned thing. And until they learn it and stop wanting to run around naked, let kids be free – it’s lovely that these kids haven’t had embarrassment and fear imposed on them. People see people in public and think what they will think – it does no harm (predators who act do harm). That the parents of these kids are, themselves, unashamed of their naked children and not fearful that someone might be masturbating in the bushes or about to swoop in to snatch their kids, makes me happy.

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I retire to the Malabar Beach Café for the writing of the Lists – one of all the worst things that happened this past year: the disappointment of a thing not working out with a man, the long search for work, the unexplained silence of a friend, the outcome of the US election, boredom & uncertainty. And then a list of all the best things: that I maintained old and developed new friendships, became a baseball fan again and attended games, that I met my birth mother and her family, the excitement and pleasure when I thought the thing with the man might work out, getting involved in the Women’s March in Sydney, and finally landing a job.

All those things – the good and the bad – are done. They are equally behind me – I can let them all slip into the past today and begin afresh.

I walk to the northern end of the beach and prepare to burn the paper – first the bad, then the good. All the best rituals involve fire. But the paper won’t light – it just smoulders and chars. Rather than take this as a bad sign I move to an alternative. I tear them into little pieces and fling them into the sea. (Actually, I discreetly sprinkle them in an area from which I hope they will quickly be washed away from the beach.) Frankly, it’s not as satisfying as fire – I’ll have to prepare better next year.

Ceremony finished, I go for a walk on the Malabar Headland.  I am passed by two teenagers on bicycles. When they get to the sign for the National Park which says “No bicycles” the boy urges the girl to ignore it, “who’s going to be checking? Come on” he pleads. She refuses – nope, not going to do it, it’s not about being caught it’s about the rule. I like the strength of the girl’s refusal to do what the boy wants – I think that bodes well for her.

Not much further along a couple in their 50s or 60s, difficult to say as they have clearly lived hard, pass in the opposite direction talking of the wisdom and regrets of age.

I think about the lifetime of experiences between the rule breaking teenage boy and the craggle-faced man with regrets. I think about how distant the man’s age must seem to the boy and how near the boy’s age may seem to the man. Time is a funny thing.

Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Ancient rocks, endless sea
Ancient rocks, endless sea

The last time I did this Solstice ceremony I had feelings of lightness and release, unexpected but real. Today I’m trying to feel those things – and am sort of succeeding: being in the moment, breathing in big lungfuls of clean air, watching the sea. But, it’s not quite as good as the first time. Then I was farewelling a momentously bad year, while this one just past has been … well, just a year really. Better than some, worse than others. Even if the ceremony is about putting things behind and moving fresh into the new year – the reality is life is a continuum and the effects of the last year will continue.

Time, in the end, is like the the sea, it keeps rolling in – today, right now, both are steady and calm.

And that’s okay too – it’s been a gorgeous day and I’ve enjoyed reviewing and letting go.

The wreck of the MV Malabar
The wreck of the MV Malabar

Malabar is not named for the region of India but after a ship, the MV Malabar which shipwrecked on Miranda Point on 2 April 1931. Europeans, since arriving in the area in the 1860s – had called the suburb either Brand or Long Bay, the latter still naming the nearby prison.

Wiki says that the area had been a camping location for the original Indigenous residents. There are said to be carvings on the headland and that a rock overhang on the south side of Long Bay was used as a shelter for Aboriginal people suffering from smallpox in the late 1700s. An English historian wrote in 1882 that Aboriginal people referred to Long Bay as ‘Boora’. Scraps, all we have are tiny scraps from a once thriving culture and the few strong descendants of the survivors of a horrible, horrible injustice trying to hold on to what remains and piece together some of what was lost.

In the 2016 census Malabar was home to 5,420 people of whom 64.8% were male – I’m guessing the prison population is skewing that statistic as the state is only 49.3% male. 359 (6.6%) Malabar residents are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders heritage. 67% were born in Australia with England as the top overseas location with 3.5%. One-third had one or both parents born overseas (England, the top location). 1,925 (35.5%) show their religious affiliation as Not Stated (again, I think that’s the prisoners as state wide it was 9.2% – 1,920 did not state their education level as well – state wide 23%). Catholic came next with 26.5%. The top language, other than English, was Greek for 90 people or 1.7%

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Malabar is 12.3 km (7.6 miles) from home.

Malabar is in the local government area of the City of Randwick, the State Electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and the Federal division of Kingsford-Smith (Labor, Matt Thistlethwaite) (prior to Matt this was the seat held by Peter Garrett, presently touring the world with Midnight Oil).

Long Time a Coming – Long Reef (No. 47*: 16 April 2017)

You’d almost think I’d grown weary of this project given how slowly I’ve returned to it after my time away, but that’s not it at all. I continue to love the idea but sometimes it just becomes hard to get there.

No 47: Long Reef ... slowly, slowly
No 47: Long Reef … slowly, slowly

While unemployed, my weekends weren’t a break from my labours – I could just as easily search for jobs at the weekend as any other time. Even if I wasn’t looking for work at the weekends I felt the pressure that, perhaps, I could be, I should be.  While unemployed, I was also more conscientious of spending money and felt that if I stayed close to home I’d spend less than if I went to the beach. That may not be true, but that’s how I felt.

So, I’ve been meaning to get to Long Reef for weeks but now that I am again professionally employed in a 9-5, Monday to Friday kind of way – it’s finally time.

It’s Easter Sunday and a cracker of a day: blue sky, light breeze, hot for April but not scorching. Australians being Australians are flocking to their chosen places of worship: the beach, the footy grounds, and other places of recreation and beer. I’m heading for the Manly Ferry – such a perfect day for it.

I walk through the picnickers and off-leash dogs in Hollis Park on my way to Macdonaldtown Station where I join a trainload of Sydney’s diversity for the ride into the city. At Circular Quay, I make my way through the throngs to Wharf 3 – where I find there are enough passengers queued to fill a ferry and a half. I guess I’ll take the bus.

From Wynyard Station I get a limited-stops bus which drops me at Collaroy Beach in about 40 minutes, from there I catch a local bus back two stops and pop into Outpost Espresso for a pick-me up.

It’s nearly 2 pm, and closing time, the only other customers are a salty, sandy, end-of-summer bronzed family of five getting milk shakes and iced lattes.

I find myself in a state of joyful liberation because I am employed and it is Sunday and there’s nothing I must do. I have employment and pay coming around the corner – so, no worries.

With this feeling of lightness, I set off for the walk past the golf club and Fisherman’s Beach (No 27 – visited in April 2013). Around Long Reef Point the footpath is crowded with families and couples. A paraglider is circling on the breeze, casting the occasional shocking shadow – like a giant raptor looking for prey. The sea is an autumn steel blue and crashing into the rocks below. I turn the corner and eye Long Reef Beach from its tucked-in northern end sweeping south and melding into Dee Why Beach (No 21 – visited February 2012).

Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond
Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond

 

Walking on Long Reef Beach
Walking on Long Reef Beach

I walk up the beach to the flagged area, plant myself near the Surf Lifesavers marquee and survey my fellow beach-goers. They are mostly white, mostly local – I’m guessing. There are a lot of families, a few clusters of teenagers, a smattering of couples. A toddler with caramel skin, curly locks and nothing but her Manly Sea Eagles bottoms on – dashes, laughing, away from her Surf Lifesaver father, who is trying to wrap her in a towel.

The sea is a bit dumpy and the flags are planted narrowly together so it is through a crowd I wade into the surf. The water is cool but I grow used to it, dunking my whole self beneath a folding wave and I’m happy to bob in the power of the ocean for a wee bit while dodging little kids on boogie boards and full-grown men body surfing into shore.

I realise I have not been in the open ocean – not a bay or harbour – since before I left for my Midlife Gap Year. Anywhere. I visited some on my ride home to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland but for one reason or another didn’t swim at any of them. Admittedly I’m a bit intimidated by the surf – as a native of the American Midwest I came to ocean swimming late in life and being dependent on glasses to have clear vision – the power and mystery of rips and waves unsettle me. The last ocean beach I visited as part of this project was No. 31 Freshwater back in January 2014 – wow.

Autumn, Sydney-style.
Autumn, Sydney-style.

Wet and sea-salty I take up a position on the beach in the sun and enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun – generally more pleasant than Sydney’s often bitingly hot summer sun. It’s already late afternoon and I don’t stay long – but it’s been a lovely day for it and I’m glad I got to Long Reef before the beach season ends.

Long Reef was part of the homeland of the Dharug people, probably, before European invasion of Australia. The commonly used name, by Europeans, for the people who had been living in this area is Guringai, however, it now seems this is not what the people who lived here called themselves. Some rock engravings done by these people remain in the area.

European settlement began in 1815 when William Cossar (a master shipbuilder) was granted some 500+ acres (200+ hectares) including Long Reef. By 1825 it was in the hands of James Jenkins, a former convict who had been transported in 1802 for stealing sheep. His eldest child, Elizabeth, had inherited land in North Narrabeen in 1821 and with the 1825 acquisition, the Jenkins family owned all of the foreshore form Mona Vale to Dee Why. At the extent of their holdings they had 1800 acres (728 hectares).

LongReefMap

 Long Reef is 24 kilometres (15 miles) from home.

For census purposes it’s in Collaroy, which was, in 2011 home to 14,388 people of whom 50, or 0.4%, identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Conversely, 110 residents listed the United States as their country of birth. So there are more than twice as many Americans in Collaroy as there are Indigenous Australians.

It’s in the Northern Beaches Council local government area, the state electorate of Wakehurst (Liberal – Brad Hazzard), and federal division of Mackellar (Liberal – Jason Falinski).

*The next beach in the alphabetical list is actually Little Patonga – another Pittwater beach needing a boat. Four of those have now been set aside to be visited in one weekend out on the water, eventually: Gunyah (Brooklyn) No 35, Hallets No 37, Hungry No 39, and Little Patonga No 46.

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

Back On My Bicycle in France – Riding from Cherbourg to Jonville

Bonjour (again) France
Sunday 23 August (Day 91 of my midlife gap-year)
11:35 am , Cherbourg YHA: 

I woke to the ferry-wide announcement that we were soon arriving in Cherbourg. It was raining;  perhaps I wouldn’t start riding straight away after all.

A view of a rainy morning at sea taken from a cabin window.
Hmmm … rain again

Waiting for my passport to be stamped and returned to me, the driver of a car – also awaiting their passport – sought my attention. “Excuse me!” he said, “Yes?” I replied. “Are you from Australia?” The guy waiting for his passport was also Australian and as a huge Oils fan, noticed and loved the Head Injuries t-shirt I was wearing.

Pedalling off in the now heavy rain, my face was soon streaming with it but I spotted and was able to follow street signs to the local hostel.

Of course, now that I’m all settled in here, the weather has cleared so I best go have a look at Cherbourg.

1:00 pm – I’ve Been Attacked by A Giant Hungry Seagull

It’s Sunday and most shops are closed. I found an open bakery and got a Croque Monsieur which I was eating as I walked towards the city centre. I just sensed an approaching mass in my peripheral vision when – swoop, snap, flap-flap to land, and there, a few metres ahead of me, was an enormous seagull gulping down my sandwich. All I could do was laugh.

It’s weird, but good, being surrounded by French and being back in my monolinguist cone of silence. I feel like a traveller again. And, ah, yes, back in a land still full of smokers, sigh. But there is almost acceptable coffee available everywhere, so that’s good.

4:40 pm, in a Parc: From Here …. To a Liberated Europe

This morning’s rain has given way to warm, bright, sunshine and a cloudless blue sky.

It would have been a beautiful day for riding – but I’m glad I stayed. I’ve gotten useful information from the tourist office and visited the Liberation Museum. I hadn’t known that the choice of the D-Day beaches was driven by the desire to capture Cherbourg. The Allies needed a port, a good one. The Germans, of course, destroyed the port facilities and the Allies had to put an insane effort in to clear it and get it operational again. But when they did, it became a busier port than New York – then the busiest in the world. The liberation of Europe – on the Western Front, anyway, began right here with the troops and materials delivered through the Port of Cherbourg.

I am struck by the idea that it was from here – this secured port and the materials it could deliver to the front lines – that the beginning of the end of the Holocaust originated and that soon those who could hold out until the troops got to them would be, forever more, Survivors.

11:30 pm YHA Cherbourg: First day back in France Counts as a Good One

Middle aged, short-haired, glasses-wearing woman against a blue sky and the French flag.
Vive la France

It’s funny how a person can get in your head and settle in there. I’m reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and I’m having a conversation with him, in my head, which he doesn’t know about. I guess that sort of happens whenever you read a book but, in this case, it’s made a bit more peculiar because I am having an email conversation with him. A chat, an email chat, not so much really a conversation.

I think it’s been a good day. I’m back on the Continent, and back – sort of – on the bike. Someone liked my Oils shirt, I had that weird seagull incident, and the weather cleared. Cherbourg is lovely. I learned stuff about WWII which I hadn’t known before. I didn’t spend much money and I fed myself dinner, and oh – got good info at the tourist office (Do you have … bicycle tour? Oh, of course, yes.) And this is the second night in a row where I expected to share a room but haven’t had to, which is nice.

Tomorrow: I RIDE AGAIN!

Stone French three-story house with flower boxes and a sign for Rue Grande Rue
Old Cherbourg, Rue Grande Rue
Modern apartment blocks with multi-coloured window dressings.
New Cherbourg – I liked how colourful the window dressings are.

2:00 am – Thoughts in a Wakeful Night

I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it was the tea with dinner, the excitement of riding again, or the little nap at 6:00 pm.

There are eucalyptus trees by the waterfront here. I plucked and crushed a leaf – the scent so strong. Home.

I’ve finished reading Jane Smiley’s Some Luck – which I enjoyed – but an e-book doesn’t give the satisfaction of closing the back cover.

It’s raining again – off and on.

In the parc this arvo there was a drug-fucked but friendly enough (not too friendly) French guy – who wanted me to take his photo (I didn’t) and later asked about my writing. I said I write about … stuff. Which is true. I wonder how these notebooks will read later.

They Sent Boys Such as This
Monday 24 August (Day 92)
8:25 am , Cherbourg YHA: 

I’ve just met young Quinn of Utah – recently studying in England. An email from Dad provided the details of Grandad’s service – he landed at Omaha Beach – so he’s come to look.

Grandad was probably no older (probably younger even) than Quinn when he landed on D-Day. Quinn chose the Coco Pops for breakfast and dipped his baguette in the left-over chocolate milk. Soft-spoken, soft-eyes, wheaten hair. It’s hard to imagine such a boy, such boys, retaking Europe from Hitler.

But they did.

1:10 pm – Le Vast: Feeling the Joy of Bicycle Touring (Again)

Sigh, it’s so good to be riding again! To feel my legs turning, hear the wheels on the road, smell the salt in the air.

I’m toying with writing a poem about reading Robert’s poetry. Why not? I mean what’s the point of being out here doing this if I don’t follow some random ideas.

I’m only about half way through Selected Poems but I have some ideas already.

Where I’ve Read Your Poetry

[First line of the first poem in the book]

Keeping one eye on the changing colours of Mount Leinster as the sun set on my last day in Ireland

On board the Oscar Wilde sailing from Rosslare to France and wondering ‘does he have a tattoo on his right shoulder?’

In Parc E. Linis after a drug-fucked and bruised, but happy, young man interrupted to ask what I was writing about. I said ‘stuff’

When I meant – Cherbourg, D-Day, the first day, finally, counting toward the day when the survivors would be freed to tell the truth of the horrors visited upon them (again)

In La Vast – at picnic, beside the river Saire, under menacing clouds. Riding again – joyous (or joyful). Poem with Refrains – dog eared as a favourite.

Heavy grey clouds blot the sky, but a small river courses through a sunlit green landscape.
The view from my picnic spot beside the River Saire

4:45 pm – Camping Municipal de Jonville: It’s Raining in Normandy (Of Course It Is)

My new tent is being put to a test straight away – it’s windy and raining off and on. It started showering with intent just as I got everything into the tent. So far so good – I’m dry and it hasn’t blown away but this being the first use I am a bit nervous.

I have to pee and I’d like to shower – so I’m hoping it will lessen soon. That’s how it seems to go here.

It’s a joy to be riding again. The day was mostly lovely – a little rain, a few hills, a bit more than a little unpaved and muddy/wet road. I rode through what strikes me as a very French landscape – familiar, perhaps, from war movies?

A white-stone French chateau reflected in a pond.
It could only be France, non?

It’s been exactly a month since my last riding day. On 24 July I rode 28.74 km from Laugharne to Tenby (Wales). Today it was 49.65 km and they felt pretty easy.

Where I read

Huddled, hunched and happy

In my new tent as wind shimmys the nylon

And Atlantic rain tap-dances (Jonville)

(Welcome back to riding: Tent cramp – right thigh, ow, fucking ow)

9:15 pm – A Sky of Fuchsia, A Navy Blue Horizon, a Dark Sapphire Sea

The rain has stopped. I went to the toilet, and on the western horizon below the clouds a burst of pink as close to the colour of my jacket, thongs (flip flops), and computer as I’ve seen – brilliant – a reminder that the sun is out there. I climbed a dune to get a better look at the sunset and at the sea as well. Heavy charcoal clouds remain, dropped to the sea. A smudge of navy-blue eyeliner marks the horizon – while the sea … what is that colour of blue? Dark sapphire perhaps.

Rain heavy sky over a deep green to dark blue sea.
The Atlantic Ocean from Camping Municipal de Jonville

Beautiful.

But hard not to think of Nazi German patrols and boys like Quinn’s grandfather coming to take it away from them.

12:40 am

Not only has the rain stopped and the wind relented but the sky is mostly clear. The Big Dipper – big and bold (it’s a plough in Ireland). And Orion – standing tall. I think we can see him in Australia – but he’s upside down.

Right now, I want the riding part of this journey to never end. To ride and camp or stay wherever day after day without destination or deadline. I feel like I’ve just kind of come to terms with a good pace and mindset. No worries about distance. Just ride. Of course, that’s especially easy on a well-marked route.

A fully-loaded touring bicycle leans against an age-wearied memorial cross in a small French village cross-roads, a signe reads: Village de la Croix Perrinot
A photo of near perfect happiness.

Leaving Ireland with Melancholy and Hope

17 – 22 August 2015 (Days 84 – 89 of my Midlife Gapyear)

Monday 17 August 11:30 am – Flanders Cross

And just like that, time is fleeting. The Kilkenny Arts Festival is finished and all my new acquaintances have begun to fade away.

I returned to Kilkenny via Dublin sharing a festival courtesy car with American author Jane Smiley and her husband Jack. They were both lovely. We talked about Australia. (Jane wondered why the people of Adelaide think so little of their city. “They live there even when the festivals are over,” I said). Not surprisingly, for an Iowa person, she has Chicago connections; I said that I grew up in the Skokie part of Evanston, “I see,” she said, “why you moved to Australia.”

Once back in town I was, again, helping Cornelia and Hazel. Then we had dinner and went to Druid Shakespeare. There we met a friend of Cornelia and her sister from Australia. Perhaps she missed that I’m from Sydney – when I asked where she was from she said 4 ½ hours north of Sydney. Yeah, where abouts? Sort of Armidale – yeah, where abouts? Walcha. Oh, sure, I know Walcha – inland from Port Macquarie. She was amazed.

When we were leaving Druid Cornelia exclaimed at how terrible that actress’ voice was. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my opinion. She’s like some sort of Nicole Kidman-looking love child of William Shatner and Al Pacino.

We went on to The Set Theatre for the Brooklyn Rider, Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill Marble City Session. So good – such beautiful, beautiful playing. I saw Robert Pinsky there at the end of the show and it pleased me that it pleased him to see me, “I thought you’d gone,” he said.

Then yesterday, Sunday, was the last day of the festival.  The finale gig at the Cathedral was fantastic – really amazing.

I expect to long have very fond memories of this time here – my time spent on the festival – the people I’ve met, the performances I’ve seen.

Monday 17 August – 5:55 pm, Kilkenny

I’ve gone and bought watercolours. I won’t paint if I don’t have them, now I do, so it’s a matter of finding time to use them.

Cornelia and Matthew are mother/son-ing. I’ve had an ice cream at Kitty’s Cabin. A gaggle of local youths hang about nearby with their ubiquitous hurling sticks – I wonder how often they are used as weapons?

Tuesday 18 August 12:40 pm – Waterford, The Larder

It’s a beautiful day – sunny and warm.

My bike is having it’s wheels trued. I’ve wandered Waterford – basically to find places: bicycle shops, phone repairs. My phone – the cable connection is fucked – is irreparable (a lesson in getting something unbranded).

The coffee here, at the Larder, is passable and I’ve had a nice chat with the proprietor – Patrick Murphy (really, he was born in England of an English mother and Irish father, they didn’t think they’d be moving back, but they did when he was four).

He’d been in retail most of his career but decided a couple of years ago to take a crack at a café. He was talking of Celtic Tiger times when everyone was flush. He worked at an electronics retailer and new TVs came in. He went to discuss how to display them and the manager said just stack them by the door – they’ll sell. Patrick was like ‘is this what this trade I’ve been working in all these years, the skills I’ve gained, come to?” He quit that day. He told this story to say all that all that wealth had made the Irish loose and careless with money. One good thing to come of the GFC, he thinks, is that people care more about quality now and this has something to do with the improvement of coffee in Ireland (though, let’s be honest, they still have a way to come).

I’m feeling keen to be riding again and also a bit weird that I’ll soon leave this place. And a little – just mildly – disappointed for not having gotten more writing done. But this week remains.

4:10 pm – At the library

Cornelia described this building as a Celtic Tiger building. Built to be a mall with major retailers but left standing empty when the GFC hit. It’s still basically empty but with council business – a library and regional office in part of it.

I have to admit that Robert has taken a hold in a space in my brain. I think the conversation I had with him was among the best I’ve had on this trip. I really enjoyed swapping Clinton stories with him and talking about American politics with someone quite attuned with the ways of that world.  I’m not sure I’ve recorded some of the Hillary Clinton stories he shared. He was a young professor at Wellesley while she was there. He was teaching an American Poetry class to arty young women who were sure the revolution had come or was nearly upon them, it was 1968. They were discussing a poem which mentioned a lawyer. And the response was “who would want to be a lawyer, or marry a lawyer? Ugh, how horrible”. And then a few of them saying “Hillary Rodham” chuckle, chuckle. It was the first time he heard her name.

He was at the commencement where she spoke. It had been the tradition of the school that a student did not speak – she was the first – and it was controversial. The main speaker – who went before her – was US Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, African-American and Republican; he spoke of patience and incremental change, of letting the system work. Hillary, in response, abandoned her prepared text to say something along the lines of, “Senator, we were hoping you’d have something to say about how we can solve these problems, etc.” Robert said that it was measured and well-delivered – that he went away thinking: This is an impressive person.

Hazel asked him about his Simpsons’ experience. He had flown to LA just before 9/11 – on one of the same flights that was highjacked on the day. He imagines (or knows) it was the same crew from his flight that would have been on that one. With air travel grounded, he was stuck in LA. The Simpsons crew took him under their wings. “In my circle, I’m considered by some to be funny,” he said, “but with them I felt an amateur surrounded by Olympians.”

I’d be quite pleased to make a friendship of it.

Wednesday 19 August – 10:22 am, Flanders Cross

Wispy clouds washed pink by sunset with crescent moon.
One of my final Irish sunsets.

On the drive home last night Cornelia said of her mother, “Her worry is deep and awesome.” I thought that was beautiful.

We were on our way from Waterford and stopped in at Bobbi’s where we were invited in for a glass of wine. She and her youngest daughter live in this mad beautiful manor house with views of green rolling hills and sheep. She lived in Australia for six years in the 1970s working as a station cook in the Outback. She told a story of visiting an Aboriginal community south of Katherine with a didgeridoo player of her acquaintance.

9:07 pm – Flinders Cross

I’m really beginning to stress out about whatever comes next. I was hoping to visit the French family with whom I rode in Wales in Caen. They’ve had to cancel – which puts me at a looser end.

I am looking at a two-week German class. Is that a good investment? Worthwhile? Or should I just ride from Cherbourg and stop worrying? Should I head to Germany on the shortest line? Or the Belgian border following the coast? Find the quickest way out of France? Or spend another €100 on the train out? Fuck if I know. Fuck if I know. I’m ready to go – but to where?

I emailed Robert Pinsky today – anxious to see if he replies and if he does, how.

Thursday 20 August, 7:17 pm – Flanders Cross

This morning I woke stressed by indecision, of uncertainty about where to go, and how to spend my time.

Cornelia suggested that I settle in somewhere for a month. This led to the idea of doing a four-week German course in January rather than two-weeks in October. It makes so much sense. I’ll sleep on it but it feels right and like a burden has been lifted. I can just ride from Cherbourg – head up the coast, the D-Day beaches. I’ll get to Berlin in time for my flight, easy.

And then I had an email reply from Robert Pinsky. Which pleased me.

I’ve dipped into his Selected Poems and think I’m going to like his stuff.

I have never been good at reading poetry.

I like to read faster than poetry invites. Poetry seems to require a deliberative reading which I have, so far, been unwilling to offer.

But maybe now is the time. Maybe it’s the time in my life to be a reader of poetry. Perhaps even a writer of poetry. And perhaps my meeting Robert is a bit of influencing good fortune.

Friday 21 August 12:25 pm – Umi Falafel, Dublin

I woke early. I’m excited about getting going again. I like the plans I’ve settled on. Glenn was coming up to Dublin, so I’ve tagged along to look for knicks and eat at this restaurant again.

I quite like this from Robert’s Gulf Music:

“… but the immigration papers did

Require him to renounce all loyalty to Czar Nicholas

As he signed, he must have thought to himself

The Yiddish equivalent of ‘No problem’, Mah la belle”

11:41 pm – Flanders Cross

Things are happening as they ought: I only rode 15 km in Ireland; I’ll study German in January; meeting Robert. As is ought. Fortuitous but as they ought to be.

To read and write and paint and take my time. To think and meet and learn. Poetry, reading poetry, enforces deliberation. Deliberation is good.

We’ll see, we’ll see.

Saturday 22 August, 4:05 pm – Pulling out of Rosslare

Farewell, farewell Ireland. I’m feeling a little wistful, a little sad to go. My time here was spent in unexpected ways – but it was good for me. Friendships made, forged. Decisions. Ideas. Realisations. Just settling in for a time.

A family - mum, dad, and pre-teen son and daughter, with me - standing in a green field, arms around each other.
With my Irish family

6:00 pm

I’m reading family scenes in Jane Smiley’s Some Luck and looking at the groups all around me.

There were dolphins – everyone rushed to the window to look – not me. I didn’t want to leave all my stuff at this table un-monitored.

I am alone again.

A melancholy selfie of a woman in a blue jumper on the deck of a ferry, cloudy day, dark sea, a bit of Ireland in the distance.
On my own again, farewell Ireland.

9:00 pm

I’ve painted a watercolour of the sea beyond my window while listening to a podcast of Robert speaking on modernism someplace once upon a time. He’s a smart man, knowledgeable and interesting – which shouldn’t be surprising, he’s been at this thing he does for 50 years.

Here’s the thing about the intelligence others see in me, and which I see too, albeit less clearly – why can’t I figure out what to do with it? How to use my smarts, my talents, to produce, to create – to leave something?

Listening to RP, reading his stuff. Reading Jane Smiley’s novel. Admiring all the artists at Kilkenny, I feel the twinges of regret for having not done more with my 46 years.

Time to retreat to my cabin to eat biscuits. Tomorrow I ride. And seek. Seek. Something. What am I seeking? I don’t really know. But, in the meantime. Just. Be. Here. Now.

The gloaming: Low clouds over a gently rolling strip of Ireland on the horizon, the foreground calm steel-coloured sea.
Goodbye Ireland

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.