I'm back from my two week summer holiday trip to Ireland and the UK (Google map overview here). Part II continues in the next entry.
Carrying my passport always makes me think about what it really means to be an American citizen, and how fortunate we are. I remember going into Switzerland from Italy on a train, and a bunch of border guards got on. As they were working through the car, they gave the third degree to someone with an eastern European passport sitting one row in front of me. When they saw my American passport, they didn't say a word, took a quick look, and moved on.
Looking at my passport after getting it stamped here in the Shannon, Ireland airport, I realized that I hadn't been in Europe since 2003, when I did a loop from Amsterdam through France, Austria, and Germany and back (photos here). And I hadn't been in the UK since 1986, when I was working for Associates & Ferren on the film Little Shop of Horrors (photos here). That was my first time out of the US, and it was my first opportunity to view the way the US was perceived in the Reagan era, and see my whole culture from the outside. That trip changed my life.
This time, sitting in Ireland, I'm 23 years older, and the world seems like a much smaller place. I'm waiting for my three-hour delayed flight (my only travel glitch in two weeks), and writing this on my laptop, with email running in the background. I just checked into Facebook, I'm listening to the morning public radio broadcast from WNYC in New York over the internet stream, and I have an Irish SIM card in my cell phone (giving it a local Irish number). I could reach over and call anyone back in the states for pennies/minute if it weren't so early over there.
So after a whirlwind trip all the way across Ireland and 1/2 of the UK, I feel like I've kind of got (at least European) travel logistics pretty well figured out. There are less small surprises (they eat blood sausage for breakfast?) and travel has gotten a bit routine. But it's still worth it, if only to disrupt my own routine after a long, crazy spring semester. I always think that, whizzing across some foreign land, staring out some train window at some unfamiliar landscape, I will have some personal breakthrough or formulate some important insight. But I've learned over the years that the insights come more gradually, and that staring out the window is important mostly to clear out my head.
And I had a lot of time for window-staring during this trip, the crux of which was a bike tour in Western Ireland (which I cover starting in Part III or this write up). Ireland had been in my head for some reason, and when I found a bike tour I liked (with a company I had used before), I decided to create a pretty intense week of travel over to and through the UK the week before the tour. So the first week involved (as is typical for me) a lot of planning and logistics, but everything came together really well, and I was able to see a lot of old and new friends, and cover a lot in a very short period of time.
I flew from NYC to Shannon, Ireland on On July 5, and landed very early in the morning. I didn't want to carry my bike stuff all the way down to London, so I had arranged to drop off a bag at the hotel at which I would start and finish the bike tour--the very nice Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. I actually packed a small, carry-on bag inside my larger bag, so after taking a bus from the airport to the Ennis train station and walking up to the hotel, I took the smaller, pre-packed bag out and left the larger bag and all my biking stuff (shoes, etc) at the hotel. I then had a very nice Irish breakfast, and walked back down to the train station. Public transit in Europe is light years ahead of the States, and they do very smart things like co-locating the bus and train stations, making this kind of stuff very easy. I was in a bit of daze, but I made every connection from Ennis to Limerick, from Limerick to Limerick Junction, and then on into Dublin, arriving in the afternoon.
My American friend Lori lived in Dublin for a couple years, and she connected me up with two of her good Dublin friends--Linda and Glen--who took very good care of me while I was there. Glen recommended a good deal on a hotel (about 50 Euros/night) at the Ballsbridge Towers. It turns out that this had been a very well-known hotel in Dublin, which had been bought by a developer. The developer, though, apparently never got the rights to develop the property, so he is running it as a hotel, even though he has no experience in that area. And this was obvious because when I arrived, bleary eyed, in the afternoon to discover that there were no rooms available because the linen delivery was late. I told the rude woman at the desk that I had been traveling for something like 18 hours, and then, magically, she found me a room. The room was very nice, but the hotel felt a bit like the Twilight Zone. For example, the elevator doors opened opened and most of the lights were out. One guy with a suit was riding it, who turned out to be an Irish Member of Parliament, who lived there three days a week while the legislature was in session. They also had a broken beer machine in the lobby (Linda said this was not a normal fixture in Dublin, I thought every hotel had one).
I got cleaned up a bit, and then Linda took me out for some very nice Indian food. Glen joined us later at the pub, and it was all we had a very nice time, although, having not gotten much sleep on the plane, I was struggling to keep awake.
The next day, Linda, who was (fortunately for me, but not her) recently "made redundant" (laid off) met me for breakfast and we set off for the 02 cell phone store, where I bought a SIM card for 10 Euros that would allow me to get a new, local number for my phone (I mostly wanted this for local logistics, and it definitely was helpful). We then embarked on a walking tour of Dublin, with Linda as my private guide. We went to visit the Book of Kells at Trinity College, and just as we were entering the courtyard, a bunch of motorcycles and BMW's sped by, into the gate. It turned out (thanks to Linda for recognizing) that it was the president of Ireland (in the red dress).
We covered quite a bit of the city, with Linda filling me in on Irish history, and we ended up at the fascinating Kilmainham Gaol (Jail).
In the States, when we visit historical sites, we go to Thomas Jefferson's house, or visit the Liberty Bell, or maybe the capitol. But here we were in a decommissioned jail, learning about the series of Irish uprisings, the leaders of many of which were put to death or spent time (literally) breaking rocks in this jail which has been used as a set for quite a few movies.
We had lunch at a nearby pub, and then continued on our tour, ended up eating fish and chips for dinner in Howth, a beautiful port community on the northern end of Dublin, where they have seaguls who can intercept thrown chips in mid air.
The next day, I made my way down to Dun Laoghaire, on the other end of Dublin, where I ate more fish and chips for lunch and then I boarded the fast ferry to hollyhead in Anglesey, Wales. A combined ferry/rail ticket from Dublin to London was only 44 euros, and this was a great way to at least see some of the countryside. This was a very fast ferry.
In Hollyhead, I boarded the train over to Chester and Crewe. The scenery in Wales is simply stunning, and though I had a book to read, I mostly just stared out the window.
I made it with a few seconds to spare onto a bit earlier train in Crewe, on its way from Manchester to London. And this train was flying (my Android phone has a GPS in it):
I arrived in London a bit tired but looking forward to being back after so long. More on that in Part II; click here for the next entry.