In My Shoes


During my time abroad, I had a total of: 18 plane tickets, 44 cities visited in seven different countries, three notebooks filled with annotations, timetables, and reminders, four umbrellas, six new scarves, and seven pairs of worn out shoes.

So here I am, back where I started and substantially poorer. So what have I gained? I don’t think I’m one of those people that changes completely and fundamentally over the course of the study abroad experience. Instead, I know that I am the same person with the same values and integrity that I had when I started. What I have gained is the confidence to step out into a ridiculously uncertain world and own my own experiences. I read maps now; I go on small adventures. I do things differently because I can and because I have the drive to. I’m still the same person that prefers to spend Saturday mornings reading in bed with a chocolate bar; I’m the same person that hates running but does it anyway. But now I’m much less afraid to show those things to people. Now, if I want something badly enough, I will move heaven and earth to get it for myself. I have started to open up and sing in front of other people. If I don’t like something, you will hear about it. The difference is that I can lead the group, I can keep my head, I can stand alone.

I remember those hours I spent, the lone person in a Boston terminal on August 30, 2011, nervously flipping though my guidebook on Spain. I almost turned back, too afraid to go on – how could my life fit into those photos on the glossy pages? In some ways it couldn’t, I knew. But I also knew that if I gave up, if I thew in the towel, I would be missing out on something big, something more enormous than anyone should ever look at in its entirety – it’s like looking at Mt. Everest and deciding not to even try because it’s too big for you. How could you know? And so, sweating like a pig, I got on that plane. I stuck my shaky hands under my legs and held on for dear life. The realization came to me – frightening then but comforting now – that in this crazy mixed-up world we live in, I was always going to be the constant. In a storm, everything else may shake, but I will be there, me, myself, whole.

And so I wanted to share it with you – with whoever has been reading my posts – I wanted to show you the streets I walked, the places on this earth that bear my footprints. I wanted to share what I was learning, what I was excited about. I wanted to give you the most important part of my life thus far on a platter and let you be transported. I told you so much about some of these places because I loved doing it and because I wanted you to understand: the culture, the history, and most of all, the people today.

I also dwelled a lot on the uglier side of history – especially later on – for the same reasons why I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and why I made myself watch hours of news footage from September 11, 2001. I believe that you have to look into the ugly face of history in order to understand it; you have to take the sweet with the bitter and accept the fact that without the terrible things we would not be who we are, we would not have our humanity. So we stare into the cold hard eyes of senseless violence and decide to stand tall, despite the new knowledge we have of our fellow man – or of ourselves.

That seems like a rather melodramatic place to stop all this. I won’t deny that I enjoy a dose of it every now and then, but that’s not what I want to end this magnum opus with – the world isn’t all doom and gloom. The world is ridiculous – it’s a mental patient that has escaped from the hospital and is now standing on the corner telling the weirdest, funniest jokes. But that mental patient is also at times unerringly beautiful, so you can’t help but fall in love. So perhaps that is where I should end: I have fallen in love with the hectic universe, with broadened horizons, with life itself. And what could be better?

So goodbye, everybody. It’s been glorious.

Good Fences


Shortly before leaving Ireland, I went on one last big trip in between my exams – I could do this because I had three exams to do, spaced out in the month designated for it. Full-time college students at Cork look just a little desperate in May – that and practically OD-ing on caffeine – as all the exams for both semesters are in that one month, and seem to be heavily based on essays, to be completed in the prescribed time period. I was feeling a little desperate myself, as I couldn’t leave Ireland without seeing Belfast – it would have been like reading a book and skipping the second to last chapter where all the important stuff happens. Though yes, I do confess to be one of those people that reads the last pages of a book about a third of the way through – if not at the beginning.

Why is that? What happened in Belfast and the surrounding areas was the result of a chain reaction, one that started with Ireland’s [eventually successful] rebellions against the English and ended with ‘The Troubles’ of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. But I’m also not saying that this is all over: there are still animosities on both sides, but a truce has been called and people have stopped killing each other, so we can say that the worst has passed while hoping that no one prods the sleeping bear.

Now if you look at a map of Ireland, you can see that Cork and Belfast are at opposite ends of the island. Now, Ireland is not a huge place, but trust me when I say that I do not do buses – not for long periods and definitely not happily – and that taking one would have meant about an entire day sitting, trying to ignore my itching legs. So I took the train, something that proved to be a wonderful, if sometimes stressful, adventure, especially by contrast. It’s a wonder that anyone who is in possession of a student card would use any other mode of transportation for long distances in Ireland, especially since the cleanliness of the bathrooms puts those in Spain to shame…

I got to Belfast in the evening, took a connecting train to my hostel’s neighborhood (oh Lord, do I love trains!), and was immediately struck by a thicket of ‘for sale’ signs in an otherwise charming college barrio. My hostel was pretty cool, though it rose above what was standard because my room had a skylight accessible by standing on a chair:

I loved the location of the hostel; it was surrounded by cheap places to get food, Queen’s College, and a shop called The Rusty Zip:

This place was great – it’s used clothing with a retro flair.

I also walked right past a cool church:

Queen’s College is another of those collages vying to be the prettiest in Ireland. While I’m not going to pass judgment on this one, it’s certainly not doing so bad for itself:

I spent a decent amount of time exploring the city, walking around, getting lost, walking around, turning my map upside down, turning around…I’m not afraid to admit that even with my newfound proficiency at maps there are still times when they stymie me; I spent a lot of time in Belfast coming up to such landmarks as the Albert Clock Tower and going, “Wait. Wasn’t I going in the other direction?”

But that doesn’t really bother me, as seeing things like this are really very amusing. It made me glad, for instance, that I didn’t go to Pisa, because Ireland gave me its very own imitation. Now, you may think it’s not so very special in comparison to its fruity Italian cousin, but it is quirky in its own adorable way. It’s not just that it’s leaning about four feet to the right, but also that each of the four clock faces tell different times. It’s that the bell, whose metal was used for bullets in World War Two, now replaced with a much cheaper steel, can barely be heard when it is rung. It was built for Queen Victoria (and for those not in the know, Victoria was to Albert what Brad is to Angelina, only perhaps without the scandal, hence the name of the tower) in 1869 to memorialize the death of her husband. Unfortunately, the ground it was built on was marshy and the whole affair started to lean. There have been sizeable efforts since then to stabilize the structure, so we can rest easy in the knowledge that this is not going anywhere.

Belfast is full of these sorts of shrines to Queen Victoria – it’s impossible to walk anywhere without some sort of reminder of her reign – Great Victoria Street, Victoria Street (it’s no wonder I got lost), Albert Square, Queen’s Square (of course, both of these ‘squares’ were actually streets), and Royal Avenue. The difficulty here all arose when Queen V. visited in 1888: people went to all sorts of trouble to make her feel welcome, generally spending too much money for too short a visit, much like in Cobh (they renamed the town Queenstown) and at Muckross Abbey (they bankrupted themselves for a three-day visit). Fortunately, Belfast seemed to largely satisfy itself with the clock tower and a little shuffling of names.

City Hall was started in 1898 and finished in 1906, overshooting V.’s visit by a few years: it’s probably the one huge monument not overtly dedicated to her (though it was more recently made up for by the construction of a massive shopping mall, again in her name– I think it was simply force of habit at that point). Instead, City Hall was a representation of the boom in heavy industry that happened in Belfast in the 1800s: after all, Belfast was home to such manufacturers as Harland and Wolff, the builders of the infamous Britannic, Titanic, and Olympic. There was a huge shipyard (in fact, that same shipyard is coming back from the dead, as the U.K. is pouring money into making it an industrial center again), as well as a port for all sorts of goods coming or going from Ireland.

But despite how decorative it is, it is still a functioning seat of government: this is the center of the whole shebang. The two parties (Sinn Féin and the Loyalists) sit on different sides, with the press right down the middle. The mayor and a couple of honchos sit in very large and uncomfortable-looking chairs on a podium off to the left. The day I took my tour through the building I was informed at least twice that it was the anniversary of King George VI’s coronation (for reference, this is the same King George of The King’s Speech), another not-so-subtle reminder that Northern Ireland is English.

I will say that my favorite part of seeing City Hall was a quote I felt compelled to write down, straight from the mouth of the guide: “Prince William and – what’s her name? Sophie – no, Kate! I’m not so god with names.” It’s nice to know that not everyone is completely and crazily into the lives of the royals.

Keeping with the royal theme, one of the major touristic stamping grounds of Belfast is the Crown Bar, which is worth a visit because it looks like an old-time man cave:

Much of the décor here is original, down to the working gas lamps and the enclosed booths to ensure a little more privacy for those patrons who perhaps want to see how far they can get into their cigar before being noticed by the staff.

Another tourist monument (inexplicably) is the Jaffe Fountain, which was not running when I was there:

I think that it’s tourist worth is in the fact that it is yellow.

Oh, sorry. This isn’t a monument or in any way touristy. It’s a grocery store. For that matter, Tesco isn’t even a ritzy chain. Only in Belfast: here the buildings are simply gorgeous, so you can buy your discounted Nutella (in Cork I saw it in the standard 400 gram size down to 1.50 euros several times, yuuumy) in a genuine historical building. Of course, there is the other end of the spectrum: the ugliest building is also in Belfast, at the junction of Ventry and Wellwood. But I’m not showing you that. Instead, I’ll move on to this:

This is St. Anne’s Cathedral – ironically, there’s also an Anne Street…not all that close to the cathedral. It’s your usual cathedral, except for a maze at the very back of the nave, one path done in black stone and one in white stone. If you follow the black path, you get nowhere, but if you are a morally upright Christian who pays tithes and always returns your neighbor’s lawn mower, you follow the white path all the way up to the altar.

My personal favorite site in Belfast was, hands-down St. George’s Market. This was the place all of the other markets of Ireland had been preparing me for. It’s just…it smells good. And not only is there sumptuous food and produce, there’s various people selling the things that they have created, from jewelry to art to furniture to clothing to table and kitchenware. It was a foodie’s paradise, not to mention the fact that I got a beautiful pendant, the insides of an antique Swiss watch left as is – it’s like looking into the head of whoever designed the timepiece.

I’m salivating just thinking about this place. This was the main reason why I came back to Cork virtually penniless. Crepes, real authentic falafel, Indian, Greek, Spanish (homesickness for Spain!), Italian, baked goods…I have to have eaten before even thinking about it. The smells…

But aside from the whole food component, it was great to interact with a lot of different people, look at what they were doing and just get their points of view. You can tell a lot about people by what they deem valuable. I drank it all in, feeling like this was more like real Belfast, even with all the other tourists swarming around. I hid my camera as much as I could (I have fourteen photos of this place, a small number for a place I went to the trouble of finding twice), and walked around, every time seeing something different.

So hopefully this gives you an idea of what the city looks like now; it’s just the city center, though, not really where many people live. Most people live in either the Protestant or Catholic areas, or father out of the city itself.

It seems fundamentally strange to me, to see two different but still very similar religions be so diametrically opposed to each other, so much that they feel the need to separate themselves in order to avoid conflict, but that is what has happened. The entire time I was in this area, my heart clenched in a physical ache at the realization that this is the way that people expect life to be, even if only for now. In this day and age, when will tolerance be an applied concept?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In order to best see the Protestant and Catholic sections of Belfast, it’s best to hire a Black Taxi: these are actual taxi cabs (black, naturally) that take you on tours of these areas and tell you a history that is often personalized by the cabbie’s/tour guide’s own experiences. My cabbie was Catholic, so that may color my account of The Troubles, but I’ll see what I can do. If it comes out lopsided, know that atrocities were committed on both sides and that in the end it may not matter exactly who did what, so long as we know the result and its implications.

‘The Troubles’ were also referred to off the cuff as ‘a little bit of trouble,’ but were extremely serious, despite their somewhat light name. It was the IRA and Sinn Féin (pronounced ‘shin fain’ and meaning ‘ourselves alone’) against the English government – though it was also the Catholics against the Protestants, respectively.

The fuss actually started in 1921 with the partition of Ireland, when the Republic gained its freedom and when Britain retained six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster. This fragmented the northern province, but for a reason: the vast majority of the new Republic was Catholic, but the six counties in question were mostly Protestant, in a four to one ratio. It didn’t hurt that these counties also had a little money to rub together, due to shipbuilding, linen manufacture, and engineering firms. A Protestant Unionist government was established, and the English moved on to other things.

The person that put The Troubles in motion was called Michael Collins, a hero of the GPO during the Easter Rising of 1916, who was later interned by the English (which is surprising, because most of the leaders of the rebellion were executed). He managed to get back into the country in 1919, to a hero’s welcome. He became the head of the I.R.A. – the Irish Republican Army – which became known for its guerrilla-style warfare and for its faceless leader, Collins. Collins rarely had his picture taken – and never was a photo circulated – so the British were having a hard time finding and ‘eliminating’ him. They ended up sending the Cairo Gang, a group of fourteen assassins, after Collins and a number of others. However, the very day they set foot on Irish soil, they had their photo taken. This proved to be fatal, as the photographer was a cousin of Collins, who got the photo and systematically went about eliminating his would-be murderers. When the English finally cried uncle in 1921, Collins went to London to broker the deal; it was the best he could do, but it still angered many Irish, to the point that a horrible civil war followed the new independent state. Collins was killed in 1922 trying to protect the freedom he had already sacrificed so much for.

In the meantime, Catholics were second class citizens – all of the good jobs tended to go to Protestants, meaning that Catholics (and their big families) were left out to dry. And so these Catholics with their big families multiplied in number and in their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Our guide, for example, had siblings that numbered in the double digits (his poor mother!). In the meantime, the Protestants were chugging happily along, having 1.7 children, growing houseplants, and covering things in doilies.

The I.R.A. wasn’t all that popular, so some revolutionaries went political with Sinn Féin in 1962; they catered to the inhabitants of west Belfast, the Catholic ‘stronghold.’

A six foot high barrier of steel was erected around the city center; any Catholic entering was subjected to a body and luggage search, which was repeated when they wanted to enter a shop.

In 1964, an Irish tricolor flag was hung in the window of the Sinn Féin headquarters, which was still in its fledgling stages. This offended a powerful Protestant political figure, one Reverend Ian Paisley, on the grounds that it was the flag of a foreign state and therefore should be taken down. He vowed that if the Sinn Féin party wouldn’t take it down, then he would – and that’s how it panned out. The offending window was smashed and the flag taken down, but it sparked people to put flags up all over the place, too many for the Protestants to forcibly remove.

This event sparked an ever mounting animosity. The battle lines were drawn between Sinn Féin and the I.R.A. and the British government and the Ulster Volunteer Force, though there were other splinter groups on either side that also competed for attention. For that matter, in 1966, when the U.V.F. was founded, they declared war on the I.R.A.

It’s important to take a moment to talk about the good reverend for a moment: Ian Paisley formed his own religious and political groups in order to fight against the Republicans (Catholics), and remains a powerful political figure (and enigma) to this day. He became known as ‘Dr. No’ in this period, as he was reputed to say no to practically everything.

1969 is when it all went to hell. First there was the Protestant ‘Apprentice Boys’ March in Derry on August 14. I.R.A. supporters started to riot. There were some people in the march who were much more volatile than the others, and this is where the trouble escalated: when the U.V.F., police and the police reserve (led in some respect by Ian Paisley) attacked the march, an out-and-out fight escalated. When people in Belfast heard what was going on, some Catholics decided to take the pressure off of Derry by rioting, as well. Armored cars and soldiers with machine guns opened fire. It was the Protestant might against a majority that was not fighting back. There was no discrimination of gender, age, or apparent intent. Finally, British soldiers stepped in between the two warring groups, to the relief of the Catholics, who saw it as an end to fighting they were not prepared for.

Later, the I.R.A. broke into two factions: the Official I.R.A. and the Provisional I.R.A., which was more inclined to engage in guerilla war with the British army, known for bombing various Protestant or British institutions.

The most intense fighting had been in Belfast, where seven people were killed and hundreds were wounded. In addition, many Catholics were burned out or otherwise driven away from their homes and businesses, one case being Bombay Street. At one point during the events of those terrible days in August, Protestant forces had their eye on destroying a monastery near Bombay Street. When the locals rallied to protect it, the Protestants instead burned down the entire street.

After the dust settled, a collection was done in order to raise money for the rebuilding of the houses; the homes stand today – along with the monastery the people endeavored to save. Today these houses are generally passed down in families and there is a pride in living there.

This is a memorial garden at Bombay Street, to commemorate the losses of that community. Behind it is the Peace Line, a 25 foot tall wall to separate the two groups. The Peace Line here is a part of an over 13 mile long network of 40 walls all over Northern Ireland, most of it in Belfast. Entire areas are fenced in and have specific hours that they are open (staffed with men with rifles) and closed down – in Belfast, they are open from 6:30 to 9:00 during the week and closed on the weekends. There are ways of getting into and out of a neighborhood during the weekends so people aren’t completely closed off, but there is certainly a military presence and a feeling of foreboding.

So here’s the Peace Line again, with the back of a house facing it and, you got it, a cage to keep bombs thrown from the other side from blowing up the entire house. Just behind the cage is a trampoline; our guide dared me to bounce over to the Protestant side. Um, no. But at least there is a trampoline there now – I’m guessing nothing of the sort would have been there in the seventies.

I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude of the Peace Line: I’ve calculated that it’s about five times my height. How terrible is it that something of this height is necessary today, and in an affluent country? I cannot understand how this is not a source of greater shame for the people of Belfast than it is. This status quo simply blows me away.

Some parts of Belfast are blanketed in political murals and graffiti, especially on the Catholic side, on one stretch of road. It’s a form of protest, though now the majority is dedicated for remembrance.

The mural to the left reflects the events of 1970, when the O.I.R.A. fought against the army in the Falls Road area of Belfast, causing the British to shut down the area and search for ammunition – the barricade lasted for 36 hours, until women from a nearby area came in with prams loaded with bread and milk to provide relief to the people of the neighborhood. The army couldn’t contain them – thankfully they didn’t have the stones to fire on women, some of which would very likely have had babies with them – and so the barricade was broken.

The other mural is for the black taxi service, the very service we were using for our tour. They came about due to the fact that buses were being used as burning barricades, which sparked their decommission. Black taxis were bought, and separate companies serviced Protestants and Catholics for reasonable prices. Today, these aren’t economically feasible, but they are still run, out of respect for the dedication of the cab drivers in helping their compatriots.

In August of 1971, internment began – the imprisonment of Catholic rebels. There was no discrimination against age, and there was no need for a warrant – or for that matter, evidence or reason – to imprison someone. These people were held captive with no release date and without the prisoner of war status they sought. It became an incentive to join the I.R.A. or other factions, and eventually ended up backfiring. For that matter, Irish-Americans started to collect money in bars to fund the resistance effort, further antagonizing the British. Internment continued until December of 1975.

It got so bad that the English felt obligated to take over the top three floors and roof of every high-rise in the city for ‘observation’ purposes. However, this was also tactical: from that standpoint, the British would be able to snipe the opposition and be safe from any returning fire, for if the insurgents fired back, they would be at risk of killing some of their own people. The English would hold these apartments for 25 years before giving them up.

On Sunday the 30th of January in 1972, 29 unarmed civilians between the ages of 15 and 59 were shot during a civil rights march in Derry, a town to the northwest of Belfast. The march was meant to be modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, but it went terribly awry, as the more militant marchers were inflamed to violence at the sight of the barricades and tanks imposed by the British. People began throwing bricks and stones, yelling epithets at the soldiers. The soldiers opened fire. Fourteen men and boys died (five of them aged 17) and 15 were wounded.

This event was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’ and has, of course, become even more widely known due to the U2 song of the same name. For that matter, their song ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ also alludes to The Troubles – at one point, the English were set to invade a Catholic part of Belfast. However, they had a hard time navigating their way around, as all of the street signs had been taken down. I don’t know exactly when this happened – looking back on my notes, it appears that our guide, while amiable and knowledgeable, did not have the affinity for dates that I would like – but it was likely during the initial stage of the military occupation of Belfast.

In any case, Bloody Sunday has gone down in history as one of the largest civil rights offenses of modern history; it was only in June of 2010 that the Saville Inquiry was finalized – an undertaking that took twelve years to complete – concluding that the deaths had been completely unjustifiable; as a result, James Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain, finally apologized for the atrocities.

We are left with a photograph that epitomizes the events of this terrible day: Father Edward Daly holding up a bloodstained white handkerchief, leading a group carrying mortally wounded Jackie Duddy. The strain on their faces is mixed with terror.

Over the next several months, the Republican forces contributed a spate of bombings to the overall chaos, and nothing really changed: the violence continued, in Northern Ireland, in the Republic, and sometimes even in England.

This is Marian Price, a woman who was part of the group responsible for the I.R.A. car bombing of the Old Bailey in London in 1973. She had massive public sympathy, which I think was unfounded, as her crime harmed 200 people and caused the fatal heart attack of a man. However, she was a woman and one who conducted a 200-day hunger strike – she lived that long because she was force-fed for 167 of those days, a very violent process that can sometimes kill people. The process used involves using a tube and pumping food directly into the subject’s stomach. In order to make the protester accept the tube into their body, the lips are prized open with a spring-loaded metal device and a wooden clamp is inserted in the mouth – there would be a hole in the clamp so that the tube could be fitted through it. All through the feeding, the protester had no idea whether the food would enter their stomach or whether it would go down the wrong way and suffocate them.

This is not a new process – the most famous historical example I can think of right away is that of the female suffragists in the American women’s movement, which eventually succeeded in passing the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote. The dark underbelly of that protest was the hunger strikes and the horrific force-feeding of a substantial number of women.

This is Kiernan ‘Header’ Neugent (‘Header’ is pronounced something like ‘heter’), the first of the ‘blanket men.’ Header (meaning ‘crazy’) was an I.R.A. man who was imprisoned in 1976 for hijacking a car. He was no stranger to the I.R.A., violence, or prison, so that was perhaps where he got the guts to refuse to wear a prisoner’s uniform, stating that he was a P.O.W., not a criminal. Instead, he opted to wear a blanket. This was heralded as a great idea by many of his peers and was emulated by more than 300 others. However, after three years of this, the ‘blanket protest’ wasn’t getting them where they wanted to be, so they opted for a ‘no wash protest,’ also called a ‘dirty protest,’ which was probably pretty intolerable after a while. Or maybe not. After two years of stink and filth without the desired result, there was a hunger strike. Fewer people undertook this – probably mainly because it is much harder to keep up the willpower – but those that did produced catastrophic results. In 1981, ten men died due to the strike. The first was Bobby Sands:

You may notice the letters M.P. next to his name on the wall: that was because he was elected as a Member of Parliament during his time as a hunger strike participant. The public certainly spoke pretty loudly, but it wasn’t until he and nine other men died that the British government decided to concede the prisoner’s demands. However, this was done in a way such that the prisoners had all the privileges they wanted but without the P.O.W. status written on paper. However, this was close enough for their liking, and after that the action dropped off – there were still bombings, but not to the magnitude and ferocity as seen before.

It is good to mention that in many people’s eyes there were really eleven victims of the hunger strike – Pat McGeown lived to be 40 years old, dying in 1996, but the cause of his death is widely known to be connected to his efforts as a hunger striker. For that, he is another of the heroes of he hunger strike – though he didn’t quite make the mural. He was one of the thirteen others that participated in the strike – those others survived because the strike ended, they fell into a coma and were taken off the strike by family, or because of another health issue. To someone (me) who can’t even imagine doing a juice fast for a week, this is enormous. Imagine what would have to drive you to swear off all nourishment, how your body would change, the pleading from your family, the force-feeding, your dedication. It’s something to think about when you tuck into your extra-large order of fries, cheese-swathed nachos, or your three-patty burger.

I’ve written a lot about what the Catholics/Republicans/I.R.A. & Company were subjected to by the Protestants/Loyalists/Paisley & Company, but I just want to take a breather here and remind you that the Catholic squadron did more than their fair share: mostly it was small bombings, but all those smaller events add up to a much larger picture. Remember that a lot of these heroes were in prison for a reason (well, usually, anyway), and their heroism and sacrifice are only part of the story.

For that matter, there were some popular places that each side liked to take a crack at every now and then, the most assaulted being the Europa Hotel, due to its population of newspeople, assigned with the task of reporting on the action.

There was also a pretty terrible bombing at the opera house, which has since been rebuilt:

Of course, you’re wondering what they were showing when the place was blown up: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

So back to the carnage. These next few photos are from the Protestant barrio we visited:

Not very pleasant, is it? That gun follows you wherever you are in the park, a gruesome shrine for someone who was renowned for killing Catholics, regardless of their political fervor.

And this one is for Stevie ‘Top Gun’ McKeag, an unpleasant sort – or if we’re calling a spade a spade, we’re calling him a bigot. He was active in the ‘90s, known for killing Catholics and Republicans. Eventually, he had a motorcycle accident and was disabled; a year later, in 2000, he died at age 30. You won’t hear me saying that he went too soon, but perhaps the one thousand people who attended his funeral would. I’m simply disgusted by his life and am fervently glad he didn’t make it to the present day.

This is William of Orange, another pill in his own right, but perhaps I’m saying this in light of all the trouble he caused. On the 12th of July in 1690, Will won the Battle of the Boyne, meaning that the Catholic King James was out and William of Orange reigned supreme, free to impose Protestantism where he liked – which, of course, included Ireland. So what followed involved a heavy dose of intolerance and a liberal sprinkling of persecution, making enemies of the two sects. Some Protestants pride themselves in their inclusion in the ‘Orange Order,’ people who pride themselves on being Protestant, celebrate every 12th of July, and exclude people of every other religion. If you marry outside of the faith, you are chucked out of the order and ostracized.

So finally we reach the ‘conflict resolution’ stage. In 1994, the I.R.A. finally realized that it could never truly defeat the British army (go figure). This was perhaps linked to President Clinton and Senator George Mitchell’s visit in 1996. They sought an agreement between Sinn Féin and the Protestant government. They decided on an obligatory 50/50 Catholic/Protestant hiring split, as well as many other things (as a sidenote, Northern Ireland is one of the few remaining places in the Western world where it is mandatory to mark your religion when looking for a job). In 2000, Sinn Féin sat in the government with the loyalists. Now, there are 62 integrated schools, and a surprising amount of tolerance – two years ago, two soldiers and a policeman were killed, without backlash but with regret expressed on both sides. The U.V.F. and U.F.F. (the Protestant militants) completed decommissioning in the latter part of 2010.

And do you remember Ian Paisley? Dr. No? He became a more official political figure (meaning that he was elected); he’s best known now as one of the ‘Chuckle Brothers.’ his ‘brother’ being the Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness. This was during the time when Paisley was made First Minister of Northern Island and when McGuiness was his Deputy First Minister. I don’t know what effected this change, but I can say that it was drastic and very, very welcome. Paisley was even connected to the disarmament movement, as well as the 2006 desegregation of the police force.

The result of this whole thing is that Belfast is the safest city in Europe: there just isn’t any crime. As our guide joked, they only shoot each other. However, my guide was optimistic in thinking that the Peace Line would be down in 30 years – thirty! – and told us with great gravity that he hadn’t been in a Protestant bar for 40 years. So yes, progress. An easy truce. But it’s going to take a long time for these wounds to close up and for the scars to close over: even a passing glance at this city shows that. Belfast will eventually answer the question: Can we have peace with differences? I fervently hope so, as it has ramifications for the entire world.

Now. That was pretty freaking depressing. (Apologies.)

Now that you’re emotionally (and perhaps historically) run out, riddle me this: what are the three top natural attractions in the world? (I’ll give you a minute.)

Hint: two of them are in the United States.

Hint: one of them is partially in two countries.

Now if you guessed that #1 is the Grand Canyon, good job. You win a cookie. If you guessed that #2 is Niagara Falls, I’m less impressed (but you get points if you can link the Falls with the Three Stooges). #3 is, of course, in Ireland. It’s the Giant’s Causeway, and it was on my bucket list about a hundred times over. Now, the Grand Canyon, it’s just a big crevasse. Niagara Falls is pretty cool, but you can be done looking at it in twenty minutes. The Giant’s Causeway is filled with myth, legend, is geologically fascinating, and is just plain fun to walk on. So let’s just say I was pretty excited at the prospect.

It takes quite a while to get there, so it’s virtually obligatory to take a bus tour. Fortunately, our guide was pretty interesting. For example, he explained the Red Hand of Ulster that’s on the Ulster regional flag: there were once two Viking ships in a race to get to the Irish coast, the understanding being that the first to get their hands on the land would possess it. The race was pretty close, but there’s a pretty clear winner – so the king in the second boat began to think logically. He lopped off his hand and threw it ashore, making him the first. And when I said ‘logically,’ I meant that he was an early-onset dementia patient. Great story, huh? Then you’ll love this one:

A week before I took the tour, there was a man arrested for dumping milk from a milk truck into the Lagan River in Belfast, off of Queen Victoria Bridge. When questioned why he was disposing of a bio-hazard into the river, he calmly answered that he was ‘feeding the sea-cat.’ It just goes to show that Northern Ireland has been filled with crazy people since its settlement and that this dubious legacy continues to this day.

On the way, they let us out periodically to stretch our legs and take pictures of things. Fortunately for us, those things happened to be castles, with dizzying profusion:

And then, finally, we were at the Causeway. I hurried off the bus, determined not to miss a single moment. The Giant’s Causeway is set in a series of different little bays, so there’s a little prelude to it:

The Giant who made his home here was called Fin McCool, who rode a camel (pictured above) and was a bit cocky. He built the Causeway in order to fight a Scottish giant (Scotland being only about 20 miles away). He then realized that the Scottish giant was enormous, freaked out, and did what could be considered an act of genius: he went home and asked his wife what he should do. She told him to get into a crib in baby’s clothing. The Scot came over, boiling over with rage, took a look at the ‘baby’ in the cradle and thought to himself, ‘if that’s the size of the baby, what could his father be like?!’ He promptly peed his pants and beat a hasty retreat back to Scotland, tearing up the Causeway on the way. Another of the stories I heard was that the Causeway was built so that Fin McCool could see his sweetheart, but I rather like the other version better.

FinMcCool also had a granny (pictured above, from a distance – consult Google Images if you want a better look), who had a strong liking for spirits (she was, after all, Irish). It got to the point where she was ticking off her grandson with her antics, so he took her aside and warned her that if she got drunk one more time, he’d have her turned to stone. She was good for a while, but did eventually relapse (she was, after all, Irish). So Finn, being a giant of his word, turned the old biddy to stone. It makes you wonder what the camel did to him to deserve the same treatment. A quote from Aladdin comes to mind: “Watch out, they spit!”

And now, the main event:

In traditional Irish fashion – at least for the season, anyway – the weather was great (if a bit breezy) at first, it rained for about twenty minutes, and then it cleared out again. It makes for great, dramatic photos – not like it’s really all that hard to do at the Causeway, anyway.

The true geologic reason behind the formation of this wonder is as yet unknown. We know that the pillars are made of basalt (cooled lava), that there are anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 of them, and that they were formed 600 million years ago, but we don’t know why they formed hexagonally when it has never happened elsewhere on the globe (that we know about, anyway). I like the mystery, because it means that you have a measure of freedom to accept the myth as reality and go on your merry way. After all, a little mystery seldom hurts anyone (“What’s in this box with air holes? OH NO IT’S A HONEY BADGER!”).

Another of the giant’s landmarks is his boot:

And then there’s the organ:

Maybe now those skeptics among us can realize why the Giant’s Causeway deserves the #1 spot on that list. The Grand Canyon? Pish. Niagara Falls? Kid stuff. The Causeway: beyond amazing.

Our last stop before being driven back to Belfast was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It’s set in a stunning setting – though about 99% of the Irish coast could be described with that adjective.

The bridge was used by fishermen until a little after 2002, when fish became scarce. The bridge was used in conjunction with a pulley system, whose purpose becomes evident in about two seconds:

Now ask yourself, ‘Did Sarah cross this bridge to get to the cool island-thingy?’ And now ask yourself, ‘Does Sarah have an almost-paralyzing fear of heights?’ And just one more: ‘Is this fragile-looking bridge thing very, very, stupidly high up?’

The answers to these questions are: No (HELL, NO!), Yes (MULTIPLIED BY A GAZILLION), Yes (my palms are sweating even thinking about it). But it was very pretty and I was very glad I’d gone there (like I had a choice…). Smelling the ocean and feeling the wind in my face made me think of home, on the opposite of that very same ocean I was staring into, while still being grounded in the very Irish-ness of the whole experience.

I left Belfast, feeling like I had gone through the whole gamut of emotional possibilities. The city and its surroundings sucked me in, rolled me around in its culture, and then gave me back to myself, so I could make the journey back home to Cork, where I could say my final goodbyes to that city.

A Train, a Museum, a Sunny Day


I went to Dublin for the second time on a mission (from God, naturally): I wanted to go to the archaeological museum and see the exhibit on the bog bodies of Ireland. And I wanted to do it in a day. Mission impossible? Of course not! I had a train day, a la Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory.

The day started out fairly early, with a walk to the train station and about three hours spent looking out the window at the countryside out the window. Then I was in Dublin:

It was one of those magical sunny days that just did not happen so often while I was in Ireland, right at the time of year when the country became blanketed in a bright vibrant green. It was pure magic to walk along the quay and make my way into the center of the city, bathed in light.

Finally – after a couple of wrong turns – I got to the National Museum of Ireland:

I sped directly to the exhibit on the bog bodies. Well, almost directly. This museum is just the kind of place that makes you forget what you came there to do and to see, because even without all the fabulous exhibits, the building itself makes you lose yourself. Eventually, I wound my way to my destination:

This gentleman was found in 1953, but wasn’t very well preserved. So he’s an excuse to talk about other things. These bodies were human sacrifices to the gods and were often associated with rituals of kingship. Humans weren’t the only ones deposited in bogs: anything that could have been valuable to these people were candidates for burial in the bogs. Weapons, tools, ritualistic objects could be placed in the bogs for the deities to enjoy.

In fact, there was also a huge wooden boat in the museum, something that would have disintegrated if left open to the elements under normal circumstances. Leaving something in the bog is like leaving it in a state of stasis – you never know what you might find, but it’s much more likely to be intact.

This man is fascinating, though unfortunately chopped in half by a peat cutting machine when he was discovered in 2003. When he was discovered, he had a moustache and a goatee, as well as an elaborate hairstyle held in place with gel. It has been estimated that he was about five feet nine inches tall, that he was over 25 years old, and that when he had died he had been living on a plant based diet. This issue of the diet he had been eating doesn’t necessarily say too much about status in this case: people would eat a plant based diet during the summer and autumn months and a meat based diet during the winter. He was naked when he was interred into the bog (most bodies had, at the very least, a cape) and had been hit over the head with an axe and disemboweled.

What would have set this man apart from his peers would have predominantly been his height – six feet three inches. In my opinion, it would have been very unlikely to have had a person of this height normally: it would have either been the product of superior genes and nutrition or a genetic disorder called gigantism. (Disclaimer: I am not an expert. Quote at our own risk.) This man would also have been over 25 years in age but would have died early in the year, meaning that a meat-based diet was more evident. However, when the contents of his stomach were examined (yes, the stomach was preserved after thousands of years…wow) it was found that his last meal consisted of cereals and buttermilk, suggesting that something was a bit awry. His death was also not completely congruent with a sacrifice – the fatal wound that we can find is a stab wound on his chest and evidence that this was an attack. If more of his body was present, we might have found head wounds or wounds to his legs (leg wounds would have been going after the femoral artery, a common target). He would have been someone of high status; we know this because of how remarkably well his hands are preserved – there are even still fingerprints – his hands bore evidence of a manicure and very marginal physical labor.

This is the earliest-discovered body of the four: it was found in 1821. That means that he was not cared for in the best way possible, as those means had not been invented yet. He has desiccated and his hair has fallen out, so he does not have very much to say.

If you’re wondering why these bodies don’t look exactly as you thought they would, there are some reasons for this. First of all, bogs are not all created alike: they can contain different amounts of different chemicals which can alter preservation or color. Second, these bodies have been treated so that they are coated in a substance that stalls further decay; that treatment changes the color somewhat. Other bog bodies have been found in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain; all are different but somehow tied together by a common practice.

The rest of the museum is filled with medieval religious artifacts, Neolithic jewelry, an intriguing Egyptian section (which had a Roman-Egyptian mummy I had seen in textbooks, very cool), and an extensive if a bit monotonous section on the Greeks and Romans. I rather liked the section on jewelry, as it was the most beautiful by far:

They also had small models of a Viking town and a cutaway view of a Viking house I found to be fascinating:

There would typically be about 15-20 people living in each Viking house, though considering a Scandinavian winter, it would likely still have been rather cold.

I was just about done with the museum when I went to go find the café, so that I could eat my packed lunch when I ran into Fabio – Fabio was someone from Sweden I met on the bus back from Dublin, met up with again in Cork (on purpose), and then finally I saw him serendipitously there in the museum in Dublin. I figure if you get around enough in the world, strange things start to happen to you – I’ve chronicled most of mine for you – and that a weird kind of luck accumulates. So I wasn’t so very surprised to find Fabio there, nipping into the museum to take advantage of free public bathrooms. We sat and had lunch together and parted ways for the last time…though perhaps just for now.

My favorite thing about the museum had to have been their floors, so I’ll close down the subject with that. They were carpeted with mind-blowing mosaics, especially where the Neolithic jewelry was located:

After the museum, I realized exactly how much time I had left before I wanted to leave the city, so I went to St. Stephen’s Green again, which was not even three minutes away. By that time the park had lost some of its early-spring airbrushed quality and burst into lushness:

Did I mention that it was a photographer’s paradise?

A note on this last picture: whenever I saw trash bags on the curb of a European street, I always would wonder how many sliced up American tourists might be contained within them. Gross, yes. Macabre, yes. But also highly entertaining. (And now I’ve ruined you! Ha.)

Finally, I walked back along the river to get back to Heuston Station. I cast several looks back, trying to burn the image of this wonderful city into my brain:

I boarded the train and left the city.

In the Clink


Around about March I had to go to the jail here to liberate my new boyfriend, Spike. He plays the fiddle in his all-star metal band, The Screaming Opossums, and has sleeve tattoos on both of his arms. He’s really nice, and surprisingly huggy for a guy with that level of body piercings.

Unfortunately, I went to the wrong jail, so I think Spike may still sitting there, eating freeze-dried reconstituted prison food. I really should get onto that…

This is the view of the gaol you get first, when you’re still a little irritated about having to climb a rather impressive hill in order to get there. This is just the gatehouse – it’s castle-esque, and designed to be so. This jail was built to replace another one that had gotten woefully outdated, so the city decided to go all out; they hired Sir Thomas Deane as architect, and the rest is history.

Beautiful, right? This guy Deane certainly knew what he was about.

Changed your mind yet? Well, get a load of THIS:

This is our buddy Georgie; he’s seeing a therapist, and it’s really changed him, mellowed him down. He’s a great guy. (He can also smell fear.)

I solemnly swear that I will show you no more creepy dummies – though this museum was overflowing with them. They stand over you, watch your every move; some are prisoners, some guards, and some are the miscellaneous other personnel a prison would have required. So perhaps not a place to go at night unless you’re rather desperate…

Creepy fake people aside (and yes, they are hard to get out of your shots), this place is rather beautiful for an incarceration center:

This is actually the ‘newer’ part of the prison, added onto the original when the old section was getting a bit stuffy and overcrowded. It’s also referred to as the women’s prison, as this was where the women were placed after 1878 (for scale, the jail was opened in 1824 and closed in 1923). You might be able to see on the far end of the first photograph that there is a stage of the chamber. This was generally used only on Sundays for services and for other religious purposes – unfortunately, there was not much in the way of diversion for prisoners except for the labor they were forced to do.

That labor was different depending on the gender of the prisoner and on the time period; after a while, there was a distinction made between punitive labor and what was termed ‘industrial’ labor, which was made to be more productive than to punish. Industrial labor for men tended to focus on trades (if the prisoner in question knew any), such as shoemaking, tailoring, weaving, tin working, mat making. If a man didn’t have any skills (unlikely), he would likely be assigned “prison duties.” Industrial labor for women tended more towards sewing, needlework, carding, spinning, washing, and cleaning.

Punitive labor for men was pretty backbreaking stuff – such as stonebreaking (which in the Nazi concentration camps meant that you were doomed to an even lower life expectancy than the usual low number) and the ‘treadwheel,’ an enormous 40-foot long hamster wheel-type creation that was used to bring up water from the gaol’s well and to grind flour. It was initially used as a regular part of the prisoner’s day – groups of five were assigned about 20 minutes at a time – but then was phased out to replace solitary confinement. For women, punitive labor involved yet more cleaning – an easy break by comparison!

This is a pretty typical cell. The beds are wooden pallets topped with mattresses filled with straw or oakum, a kind of fiber; the pillows are pretty much more of the same. Now, some of you may have heard me rant about my freshman year roommate, but even I can’t imaging being cooped up with another person – someone likely to be grumpy (it is a prison, after all) and with questionable hygiene. I don’t know about you, but for me that takes the cake.

There was also the unhappy fact that for some time after 1840, the Cork City Gaol would have been a singularly silent place. It was believed that silence coupled with religion was the best cure for criminality, as it forbade the ‘exchange of innovative ideas’ among the throng and encouraged contemplation of one’s transgressions. This policy was so enthusiastically adopted that a typical uniform – even for guards – incorporated thick felt overshoes to muffle the sounds of footfalls on the floor. As you can imagine, on the whole this scheme had the opposite effect of what was intended: people went crazy. There were people that made noise so that some of the silence would be filled up – though they were unquestionably subsequently beaten to a righteous degree. Some went so far as to kill themselves; some were simply and brutally unhinged.

Fortunately, there was labor in between every meal (including breakfast), meals (rather heavy on bread, milk, and ‘Indian meal’), as well as something called ‘exercise,’ which involved trooping outside (five meters apart) and going for a silent, staid walk. How valuable birdsong must have been to the prisoners.

These two photos represent another period of the jail’s lifetime – as well as that of Ireland. The gaol was used to incarcerate revolutionaries of the Irish War of Independence during 1919-1921 (the successful one), so many of them that the cells were stuffed to capacity, with about five people in each cell. If you look back at the cell with the pallets, there really isn’t loads of room. That meant that disease was rampant and that conditions as a whole stank (literally).

A side effect of this was that the minute the Irish got independence, closing down the Cork City Gaol was on their hit list – the reason why operations were shut down in 1923. Another effect of the incarceration of rebels was the quantity of graffiti that made its way onto the walls. It’s very “give me liberty or give me death,” or perhaps, “eat my shorts, English dog.”

There were many famous revolutionaries that made their way into the gaol, including Countess Constance Markievicz, a spitfire if there ever was one. Now that I think of it, she makes it on my top five list of people to meet throughout history – up there with Teddy Roosevelt and Sappho.

This is where the guards would hang out; outside of the shot there is a cot, but that’s basically it.

So that’s all she wrote for the prison. However, there are perks to coming up to this neighborhood, especially in fine or variable weather (they’re practically the same thing in Ireland):

So what if Spike is still languishing away in another penitentiary somewhere and I neglected to post bail? He shouldn’t be there too long for bond fraud anyway, right? Right?

The Year 1916 and Felafel


Our next stop was Dublin – and strap yourselves in, because this is another long one: this is a city with an immense history (it also doesn’t help that I went there twice!).

Dublin’s name actually originates from Gaelic, even though it was the Vikings that founded the city. The name can be separated into two parts, ‘dubh’ and ‘linn’: When you smack those together, you get ‘black pool,’ probably because of the fact that the River Liffey ends in Dubin, into a harbor. Now, this isn’t complicated enough for the Irish (naturally!): Dubh linn was really the name that the English gave to this city, so the Irish had to have another one: Baile Átha Cliath (pronounced something like bailee aatha clath), which means ‘town of the hurdled ford.’

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be using the name we’re all comfortable with.

One of the first things that we did when we got to Dublin was visit a museum about the Viking and Medieval Age called Dublinia. It’s joined to Christchrch Cathedral by a bridge over a road:

The bridge is there because it connected the archbishop’s residence to the cathedral so that the cleric needn’t associate with the seedy types on the street.

Dublin’s history starts with Vikings. Lazy ones. They decided to set up a trading post, as going back and forth from Norway was getting to be a drag, in the year 841. There had been raiding parties that had swept the area a number of times before, so they must have decided that it was a nice place to set up camp. They built a wooden fort on the water surrounded by a fence of pointy wooden spikes; this didn’t really stop the native Irish, who were peeved that marauders were setting up shop in the backyard, and who subsequently decided to attack a number of times. They actually succeeded in rousting the Vikings in 902, but they were back in 917, though both groups were screwed in 1066 when William the Conqueror decided to tame the heathens of the English Isles and end the Viking Age in the area.

Now here’s the point where I’m going to rant about Vikings for a while. If you’re into it, great, but if not, you have no choice! If there’s a great thing about writing a blog, it’s the captive audience of people that love or at least like you who somehow still have the blind faith that you aren’t about to harp on something you’ve already fixated on. Is this an appropriate moment for an evil chuckle?

So back to the fun bits. Vikings set up in Dublin not just for the heck of it – there has been a nasty rumor spread about that they were a race of brawny men with blood in their beards who communicated by grunting and pounding each other. Not true! They did do a fair amount of pillaging, true, but their main focus was farming, back in Scandinavia: that meant that if you were a terrified European peasant, you could breathe easily during planting and harvesting season, as the Vikings would have been too occupied elsewhere. And then after a while, the Vikings realized that trade was much more lucrative than swiping valuables and burning things to the ground, so that became their main focus: it even got to the point were, in Ireland at least, from 800 to 820 there were no documented raids whatsoever. Of course, it didn’t help that it took a while for monasteries to replenish their wealth – and the fun part was that since people tended to store their valuables in monasteries (house of God and all that), the Vikings were really wiping out whole communities’ worth of wealth. It’s sometimes hard to see the Viking trader, but that’s what they were – in it for the money.

The fact that Vikings did any trading or pillaging in the first place was also an interesting part of their culture: given the fact that the first son would get all the land and that the growing Viking community was beginning to cause a number of shortages, the younger sons didn’t have much choice – it’s like how in England it used to be that a young man of wealthy or noble standing, not given the opportunity to inherit any of Daddy’s wealth, could go into the military, join the Church, or go into politics. The Vikings set sail, thousands of non-inheriting sons with way too much time on their hands to kill.

At this point I’m getting twitchy so I’ve got to correct a mistake in the term ‘Viking’ – it’s easy to see the term and assume that they were all part of the same culture. Not so. There were different Viking cultures – and different tiers of power in each – that influenced very different areas of the world. If you were a Norwegian Viking, you were all over the Scottish Islands, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and America; if you were Danish, you sailed to east England and Normandy; if you were a swarthy Swede, you took your two cents from Russia and the Baltic countries.

The conditions on the ships were pretty basic; there was no shelter from the wind and the cold unless you pitched tents on deck. Vikings were the inventors of spooning (they used it everywhere, including in their homes on land); it came into practice on board, as sleeping bags slept two large hairy men per bag. What that means is that they would have gone to sleep every night in groups of people cuddling. How great is that? It’s yet another thing to thank the Vikings for.

They also packed pretty light: each sailor got one chest, with the barest of necessities: a change of clothes, a bowl, drinking horn, leather helmet, and axe. Not a whole lot. Thinking back to what I took abroad with me, I have it set; the Vikings would have stolen me blind and/or sold me into slavery (more on that later), all the while giggling about the sheer number of things I consider necessary. Hmm. Did Vikings giggle?

Despite their very basic navigation, the Vikings did loads better than everyone else at the time, who hadn’t even figured out the essentials yet. They also did pretty well due to the design of their ships – if you look back at my post for Oslo, you can see the curvature of the ships, something pretty distinctive to that time period. They were light, fast, and maneuverable. If you wanted, you could also beach the thing, sack a village, and be back in the wide open sea before anyone had a chance to blink twice. There were oars in case of still water conditions, and you could even portage the ships from one place to another without too much discomfort, a big bonus when going from river to river. This basically equals the fact that Vikings kicked everybody’s butts for a reason (that and the fact that it was the Dark Ages, but let’s overlook that one).

On a fun sidenote, those dragon heads we associate with Viking ships were actually removable: heads have been found with holes to attach them to their respective boats, meaning that if you weren’t feeling the need to bash people’s heads together, you needn’t make them run in terror (taking all their goods with them), and if a bigger badder not-necessarily-friendly ship came along, you could get Skinny Olaf to go and take the head down and avoid the whole subject of a showdown.

And now I’ve got to stop you: you’re wondering where the breastplates and horns are. Well, I’m sorry but I simply cannot accommodate you. They might have worn a kind of cloth padding over their torso in battle, but that was it. And horned helmets, like in the opera? Excuse me, but that is total crap. It’s a great aesthetic, but it was only the Vikings in the Swedish region that used helmets like those, and that was before the Official Viking Age, likely only for ceremonial purposes.

The Vikings did occasionally wear some pretty interesting things to battle – there were some guys who wore bearskin clothes into battle in honor of the god Tyr: they were famous for going into battle and being absolutely ferocious and basically scaring the tar out of their opponents. Turns out the word ‘berserk’ comes from these fellows: The Linguists say that the words ‘bear shirt’ were condensed in the correct context to eventually become the word we know and love.

Being a warrior was a very important thing to the Vikings, even though there were never standing armies (and even though in pitched battles they regularly got their butts handed to them). The cool side effect of this was that they gave their swords great names like ‘Viper’ or ‘Leg Biter’; these would be passed down due to the superstition that when a blade was ‘blood hardened’ in battle, it had magic powers. They used other weapons, too, like spears, axes (my personal favorite, for some reason), and the occasional bow.

When a warrior died, his weapons were buried with him (it was jewelry and household tools for women), and if he was very important or very wealthy, he would be buried with a ship (though note that women also got this honor when warranted). If the poor chump died in battle, he got to go to Valhalla in the afterlife, a place where he could feast with Odin, king of the gods – most of us know this, but what I didn’t know was that you were taken there by the Vakyries, which doesn’t seem the thing I would want when newly arrived in the afterworld. Of course, dying a peaceful death stunk in some ways, as you would have to go to Niflheim, apparently a pretty gloomy spot to spend eternity.

The other possibility was that your side lost the battle and you weren’t lucky enough to get sliced up by the enemies, you were likely to be ransomed, or more likely, sold into slavery. I don’t consider this as ‘pushing it’ because the concept of slavery in the Medieval period was much different than our deep-south concept: don’t get me wrong, it still sucked, but just about every culture did it, and slavery didn’t necessarily mean that it was for life. More fun word facts – the word ‘slave’ actually comes from ‘Slavic,’ as in the ethnicity: most slaves came form that region and so eventually the sound of ‘Slavic’ was changed into the word ‘slave.’

So that’s it for Vikings, though my infatuation continues. One last parting shot:

“Cattle die, kindred die, every man is mortal:

But I know the one thing that never dies,

the glory of the great dead.” – Old Norse Poem

So after that the museum continued on to talk about the Middle Ages after the Vikings cleared out; it wasn’t half as interesting, except for the part about….THE BLACK DEATH!! I love when museums talk about this because it gets all dramatic, which somehow automatically makes me melodramatic, which cracks me up. So I’m the creepy one smirking while jotting down facts about death rates in the black sections of these museums. For example: did you know that before THE BLACK DEATH struck Europe, 15 percent of women died in childbirth, men lived about 30 years, and a third of children died before the age of ten? Fun times. They looked a little like this:

After the museum, we waltzed directly over to the cathedral using the awesome bridge. Fun fact one: the archbishop built the bridge because Christchurch was sitting inside a slum affectionately called ‘Hell;’ once the bridge was built, it was dubbed ‘Hellsgate.’ Fun fact two: did you know that Handel’s Messiah was first heard in Christchurch? Two choirs joined forces – that of Christchurch and of Saint Patrick’s – and sang their little hearts out…in Hell.

Christchurch is the burial place of a hero called Strongbow (who was not known for his knitting, to say the least); he was a Norman warrior that kicked the Vikings out of Ireland in 1066. The people of Ireland were pretty grateful – to the point where they offered Strongbow kingship, once the current one kicked the bucket. He decided the going was good, accepted, married the king’s daughter, and presumably lived as happily ever after as the Middle Ages would allow.

The basement of the church was pretty cool, too – what you might call crypts except there weren’t any obvious signs of dead people. In fact, the only visible internment for dead beings was this:

One day some poor schlup was tuning the organ in the church proper, and there was one note that for the life of him he just couldn’t get in tune with the others. So he went and looked at the pipe. There was something lodged up there. He stuck his hand in, and pulled out the cat, all mummified and gross. Shaken, he put the putty tat aside and went to see if the organ was working properly again. Nope. In my version of the story he puts on a pair of gloves before sticking his hand back in there, but regardless, out comes the rat. In other words, what must have happened was that the cat chased the rat up the pipe of the organ and then each got stuck and were mummified in eternal pursuit. Gnarly.

Christchurch is pretty interesting history-wise – the was first a wooden church on the site, built by a Viking named Sitric Silkenbeard in 1028 (no, I do not make these things up), then it was souped up by Normans, souped up by the English and others, and then it wasn’t much of a church, especially considering the fact that it contained a market, brothel, and whiskey distillery. Yup, you heard right. They were brewing whiskey in a church! (Viking-inspired giggle.) Fortunately, in 1871, a man with heaps of money named Henry Rowe decided to pour the equivalent of 26 million euros – about 34 million dollars, today’s money – into the restoration of Christchurch, and since then it’s basically been the magnet of attention that it merits.

Of course, some of the attention that has been merited has been somewhat negative, especially in light of the Wood Quay incident of 1975; Christchurch is directly behind Wood Quay (a review: ‘quay’ is pronounced as ‘key’ and indicated the space by a river, in this case the Liffey), and so was front and center for the drama that followed. Dublin Corporation slowly bought up the land on Wood Quay over a span of about 25 years, submitted a plan for building, and let the archaeologists have at it, to make sure it was okay to build on, just as a formality. My issue is, um, what? You thought that prime real estate in the center of historic Dublin, directly on the river, is going to be anthropologically void? Well, excuse me. I have two neurons to rub together. So the archaeologists find something. They find a HUGE something: the largest Viking settlement ever discovered outside of Scandinavia, which included several buildings and a longboat. Yes, a longboat. And then the courts rule a ridiculously short amount of time to excavate, one year. And then the little dweebs of the Dublin Corporation decide to build over untold treasures, thereby destroying everything no one had even had the chance to uncover, which was estimated to be about 60% of what was on the site. It was an abomination and caused a huge hoo-hah, but for no avail. And you know what? The building is puke ugly.

The next morning, we visited the museum where the Book of Kells is housed, at Trinity College. Trinity was the university of such people as Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats, and Braham Stoker. It’s a famously Protestant college – at one point it was perfectly okay to hunt down Catholics with a bow and arrow.

On the subject of Braham Stoker, there’s a popular hypothesis that the word ‘Dracula’ is derived from the Gaelic for ‘bad blood,’ ‘droc fhola’ (pronounced ‘druh-uhlla’). That was a lot of apostrophes. My apologies.

I wasn’t impressed as much by the book itself, mostly due to crowding in the museum and the fact that in order to produce the pages of the book the lives of 185 calves were forfeited (essentially, the monks tattooed ink on cured leather). However, it is still a landmark – though not free, as other people have advertised to me (yes, I am a college student) – and worth going to, even if you’re going to pay through the nose for it, especially as there isn’t just the Book of Kells: there’s also a few other (slightly younger or less ornate) books on display, and then there’s always the library. Oh, boy. The library.

This is where I would show you a photo of the Long Room that would blow your socks off. Book lovers, eat your hearts out! Unfortunately, no photography allowed. You can check online for killer photos…or you can check out the CGI efforts of one Mr. George Lucas, who used the library in the newer Star Wars movies. He simply replaced the busts of the renowned thinkers of our history with dead Jedi heroes. Trinity College actually sued him for stealing their library and putting it into his movie – this was after they decided that they didn’t want smutty film crews gallivanting through their institution. I don’t know what the outcome of the whole deal was, but we still have those movies, now don’t we?

Following after this, we took a free tour of the city (Sandeman’s Free Tours), which was, of course, fabulous.

One of the first things we visited was Dublin castle. Like most major European cities, Dublin is in possession of fortification – however, most castles in major European cities, this one looks a bit different:

Would you believe me if I told you that it was built in 1204? No, really. 1204. Well, fine. How about now?

This is one of four towers, the only one that stuck it out through the ages. What happened was that in 1673, there was a massive explosion of gunpowder in one of the towers and a subsequent fire. Dubliners looked at the ruins and were all like “Well, that sucks. Let’s build a Georgian palace and still call it a castle!,” and have confused millions thereafter.

The remaining portion of the old building is called the Records Tower. Its walls are 4.3 meters thick (as wide as a car is long) and was – understandably – a prison for a stretch of time. In fact, only one person ever managed to escape, a lad named Red Hugh O’Donnell (again, I do not make these names up), who was imprisoned in 1587 at the age of fifteen. He was the son of a powerful chieftain, as well as one that was known to aid in vending bootleg booze to the Irish off the Irish coastline, so you could say that the English were out to get him. He was caught after getting thoroughly inebriated with an English soldier: the soldier conked him on the head and he woke up en route to Dublin Castle. Five years later, Hugh’s friends finally formulated a plan to break Hugh out (took them long enough…): they tunneled through the sewage system, escaped the city, and headed south through the Wicklow mountains; over the course of this process, Hugh lost both big toes. Hugh headed back north to meet with his clan, who kinged him for his bravery. After this, Hugh helped out in a nine year long war against the English; after seven and a half years, the Irish made a final push with the help of the Spanish. 4,000 Spanish soldiers landed at Kinsale (somehow losing 2,000 of their number en route), the English surrounded them and looked down their noses (read: cannons), the Spanish decided that they were late for tea, and head out. The Irish were forced to scatter, something now called the ‘Flight of the Earls.’ Red Hugh scrams to Spain, where he ended up dying of stupidity. How is this accomplished, you ask? Well, how did he end up in jail in the first place? Right. Well, this time around, he drank poisoned sangria some English guy had given him. Told you.

This is the statue that depicts Justice, and she’s atypical for your usual depiction of the entity. Firstly, her sword is unsheathed, she’s not blindfolded, and there are holes in her scales. Holes in her scales? Well, that’s because pre-holes when it rained (and I don’t know if you know this but it rains occasionally on the Emerald Isle), the water would distribute itself unevenly on each of the scales. So they would tip. Imagine being taken for processing to the castle and seeing an aggressive Justice staring at you with tipped scales? Not encouraging. There was a huge hoo hah over what to do about the scales; finally they got some guy with a drill to take care of the problem.

A while back the castle was renovated; the architect in charge of the redesign process decided to paint these parts of the structure in bright colors. When asked why, he said that he ‘liked the colors.’

Nope, these aren’t snakes on the ground – they’re eels. And why would there be snakes? St. Paddy got rid of them ages ago (I won’t sully this moment with science.) But wait! I can mimic annoying commercials on television! They aren’t just eels, this whole area is a helicopter pad! (There are lights all over, to that effect.)

Off to the right is the Chester Beatty Library, a place that is pure magic and inspiration. It’s not a library in the classic sense – it’s a series of museum exhibits to show off a private collection of rare books so large barely a fraction of it can go on exhibition at a time. Chester Beatty was one of the last Colorado gold miners to strike it rich, so with his hands sullied with serious amounts of cash, good old Chester did what everyone should do: he bought books, heaps of books, from every genre that fascinated him. At the end of is life, he had a collection mainly comprised of books but also of other things (furniture, cool nick knacks, and clothing, such as an ornate Chinese emperor’s robe) that could be used to describe the cultures of the world through the ages. In 1950, Mr. Beatty donated his trove to Dublin; the library was opened later, to spellbind, amaze, and dumbfound its visitors.

Let’s be totally clear here. I love books. I don’t just mean the words and ideas, but also the pages, bindings, the very smell. This museum hit all the right notes and then some. Their collection of Qur’ans would just stagger you with their intricate scrollwork; Japanese scrolls that stretch 20 feet and then some; texts from the South Pacific that use a dizzying system of binding the book so that it is more unfolded than anything else.

I spent about twenty minutes to half an hour looking at their scrolls from ancient Egypt – there was a section of the Book of the Dead and a series of love poems (coughcougheroticacoughcough), as well as a drawer system with yet more papyrus hidden inside (unfortunately, it was all locked up in a secure case, so no dice). What fascinated me was a small clear plastic box that contained fragments of papyrus. I was looking at it when one of the very helpful museum attendants sidled up to me and started telling me its history: the man that Beatty entrusted with separating the pages of papyrus and preserving them got an itch in his nose one day and sneezed. The page of papyrus he was working on blew apart. He later wrote a letter to Beatty, apologizing for his bodily function. Imagine having to apologize for a sneeze.

Another exhibit that pressed my buttons was the exhibit showing pages out of the Gospels of the Bible. I’m not talking about the Gideon Bible here, I’m talking about the originals. The earlier examples were from 150 A.D. up until 400 A.D. I stood there, surrounded by these ideas, overwhelmed by the sheer power these words have had on us. These words have hurt and healed so many people we cannot even begin to count them: I was staring at perhaps the biggest agent of change this world has ever seen and was dumbfounded. They’re so delicate and fragile, but the characters are still visible and decipherable to someone who knows how to read them, still powerful in some latent way, waiting.

We ended going to the Beatty Museum twice at my insistence. Having physical books was tremendously important to me while I was abroad, and the lover of books in me was filled with awe and wonder but at the same time immensely comforted. It is so wonderful to know that repositories of wisdom are still valued and accessible to those people willing to look for them.

On another note:

This is the Temple Bar, known for being a hub of bars, cheap and fattening food, and drunk people. This area is called the Temple Bar not because there was a temple and a bar next to each other (remember: Ireland = confusing), but because this part of the city used to be on the water and owned by a dude named Sir William Temple.

The Temple Bar is also the birthplace of U2: they won the Battle of the Bands and then went to celebrate in the area. The went to the Clarence Hotel to imbibe the primary wheat product of Ireland, but were turned away for not being good enough. They attained global fame, as well as the funds for Bono to buy the bar and to host his own exclusive parties. Rule: never shut Bono out of a party. It’ll just make you look silly.

This is Miss Molly Malone, the subject of Ireland’s most popular song…for tourists. My hypothesis is that her bosom is constrained in her dress through the use of adhesives.

Do you know the expression ‘daylight robbery?’ This is the origin of the phrase. At one point the English were stumped on what to tax next, when some bright young fellow piped up and suggested that they tax the very light. This was considered a grand idea, so windows were incorporated into the tax scheme. The Irish weren’t having it and so blocked up windows in some buildings in the city in order to avoid shelling out even more money to their overlords.

These next few photos are of St. Stephen’s Green, a large garden/park complex in the city that fills up in a big way on sunny/warm days.

And this one is the most pointless structure I have ever seen, bar none:

It’s a 420 meter tall needle, Europe’s tallest freestanding structure, and entitled “Monument of Light.” It’s also situated in the heroin hotspot of the city. As such, it has garnered itself some truly brilliant nicknames: ‘The Stiffie Near the Liffy,’ ‘The Erection at the Intersection,’ and ‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto.’ Keep in mind that these were only the names clean enough for the guide to tell his groups, and that smuttier names do exist. It was asking for it!

The needle is on the site where a monument to Admiral Lord Nelson, who was an important leader during the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately for him, he was English, so his pillar became a target of the IRA in 1966, when they attempted to blow the thing up. They did an okay job, apparently enough to merit the intervention of the Irish armed services, who used enough explosive power to create a crater and a flotilla of shattered windows. So who would the terrorists be in this instance? (Maybe we shouldn’t answer that…)

Now for the grand finale:

Dublin’s post office! (Also known as the GPO, or the General Post Office.)

Those among us that know our Irish history know the significance of this little governmental service, but fear not if you don’t. Like all the best villains, I will now fall into a monologue.

The trail to the GPO starts with hundreds of years of suppression by the English, starting with the English invasion in May of 1169 (remember Strongbow?). Then – eventually – there was Henry VIII – yes, the some one with eight wives – who decided to make Ireland part of the Church of England; after that, Ireland was hounded. The Irish were second class citizens, not really worthy of respect or good governance. A pattern emerged over the next 500 years: every 30 years, Irish would rise up in violent protest.

After this were the penal laws forbidding Catholicism – the severed heads of priests were exchanged for money and secret churches were everywhere – as well as the corn laws, which dictated that since the land of Ireland belonged to England, all the crops should end up there as well. If you want a round estimate, 90% of the food grown in Ireland ended up on English soil.

Which is where Theobald Wolfe Tone kicked in: he was a revolutionary in the latter 1700s who came up with the idea of a free Irish republic, inspired by the American and French revolutions. He was different from the revolutionaries that had come before him because he was rich and of the upper class, one of the first people of such status to speak out in that way. The English ended up capturing him and were planning to execute him, but he committed suicide, almost a la Van Gogh. It took him six whole days to die.

We all know what happens next: as many as half of the Irish population grew to depend on potatoes and milk as their sole sources of food and nutrients, which does in fact hit the major nutritional groups. And then a potato blight came in from north America, transforming the insides of the potatoes to a charred black mess. Potatoes could be fouled while they were still in the ground or when they were picked; for six years there were almost no potatoes. People starved. People left.

There were three major famines in 100 years, but the one we know best is the one the Irish call the Great Famine, roughly from 1845 to 1851. Over that period of time, the population of Ireland dropped from about eight and a half million people to about six million. It’s estimated that about a million of these people died and that about 1.5 million emigrated, mostly to America. It was this emigration that softened the blow of the third potato famine, as family members sent back what money they could to those they had left behind. Emigration continued long after the famine ended – by 1921, eight million people that were born in Ireland had moved elsewhere.

Enter World War One. The Irish were again getting restless and even proposed the Home Rule Bill to Parliament, but were put off: the English told them that the war would be over by Christmas, and they would deal with it then. The war wasn’t over by Christmas, not nearly so.

A large group of revolutionaries organized the Easter Rising of 1916, hoping that this would be the last uprising necessary. Unfortunately, we know that Ireland got its independence in 1921, so that was not the case. However, it’s a point of pride for the Irish, a crucial step in their history. Our guide spent at least a half an hour talking about the Rising and about five minutes on the revolution itself. You do the math.

The Easter Rising is also just a great story with all the right elements: heroism, tragedy, laughs, patriotism, and love. Since it failed, you can assume the laughs are attributed to the earlier stages.

As the name implies, you would think that the Rising happened on Easter Sunday in 1916. Unfortunately, that was not the case. In the old Irish game of ‘Who’s My Ally,’ the Irish had cast their eyes over the countries that liked England least. Considering that the English were fighting with the French in the trenches, they were out, as well as the Spanish, who were having their own problems at the time. But wait a minute. The Germans! The Irish managed to convince the Germans to send them a ship filled to bursting with ammunition – not a bad deal for the Germans, as it meant that the English would be fighting a two-front war, perhaps evening things out, as Germany was facing Allies to the left and to the right. Unfortunately, the English sunk their battleship. Understandably, the Irish needed a bit of time to regroup – as well as a way to let everyone know that the show was being postponed. So the day’s newspaper’s headline read “REVOLUTION CANCELLED.” The English thought that this was some kind of weird Irish joke and so had troops on guard on a national holiday. Nope. No revolution.

1.500 people (100 of them women) belonging to a variety of groups stuck to plan, though, and decided to start the revolution the following day; unfortunately for them, the Irish Volunteers decided to nix nationwide involvement, deriving their attack of valuable and comprehensive firepower. They took several different key buildings in the city, among them City Hall, Dublin Castle, a biscuit factory (where the rations were chocolate cake) and, of course, the GPO. Ten men and nine women were sent to conquer Dublin Castle, which proved to be remarkably easy: there were no troops on guard, as they had asked their superiors for the day off, considering that they had not had the opportunity to celebrate Easter. The revolutionary troop got weirded out by how silent and eerie it was and decided to take over city hall instead, which was nearby. They didn’t realize exactly how close they were to holding probably one of the best strongholds in the city – and all because they got creeped out!

Another humorous detail was that while there was fighting on St. Stephen’s Green – where trenches were dug, in an ominous shadowing of what was happening in France – a truce was made with the groundskeeper so that he could feed the ducks as usual every day.

Unfortunately, over the course of six days, one by one, the outposts held by the revolutionaries were taken over until at last the GPO was the only one left standing. It was bombarded ruthlessly: the roof and even the floors collapsed over the course of the firefight. Finally, they had to move to Moore Street, thinking that mixing with innocent people would save them. It did not. The English set fire to the houses and mowed people down as they ran from their burning homes. Finally in the face of this new carnage, the Irish surrendered.

When the dust cleared, over 1,000 prisoners were taken to a jail in West England; the story is that many of them spat on the ground as they left the country, to defile the city that the English were still in ownership of. The death toll ran to about 450 dead: 64 rebels, 132 soldiers, and civilians; 300 buildings were also damaged in some respect.

The popular opinion of the Irish of the rebellion was not that great at first, as there was the misconception that it had been the Irish military forces that had spearheaded the revolt. However, as executions of the leaders of the rebel forces were under way – and publicized, due to the information leaked by a priest – public opinion changed. People realized that the entire force had been comprised of civilians and that these people had some sensational and heartbreaking stories.

James Connoly, for instance, was one of the leaders of the rebellion (there were several) and had been so grievously injured over the course of the fighting in the GPO – namely, infected wounds, a broken ankle, and damages as a result of smoke inhalation – that it was certain that he would die anyway. However, the English would not wait. Because he couldn’t stand, he was tied to a chair and shot.

Joseph Plunkett, who was engaged to be married at the time of his capture, was allowed to marry his intended, spend a short time with her to consummate the match, and then was executed the next morning.

The bodies of Patrick and William Pearse – and most likely others – were not returned to their families as the English were afraid that the graves would only encourage more revolutionary sentiment.

These accounts and others inflamed the population and fed the fire for the revolution that would, for the first time in Irish history, be successful. In January of 1919, the Irish, more united than ever, rebelled. In July of 1921, the British ceded ownership of all but six counties to the Irish people, on the grounds that the six that they did not give back had too many Protestants to merge with the predominantly Catholic republic. This created some considerable friction that in turn fueled the Irish Civil War, as well as the fact that the English still controlled certain aspects of the Republic, such as key ports. The Civil War lasted a year, with the moderate Republican faction winning out over the anti-Treaty forces. The English still controlled the upper six counties, separating northern Ireland from the republic to this day.

But even this period in history produced one lighthearted moment: Michael Collins was the one sent to accept Dublin Castle from the English, a symbolic gesture signifying Britain ceding the rest of the nation; Michael Collins was sent because he was the representative of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army, more on that in Belfast). He got there seven minutes late and the English official sent to do the ceding asked him why. Collins came right back with: “we were waiting 700 years; you can wait seven minutes.” Bazinga!

So this is why a simple post office contains greater implications: history hinged on this one building on O’Connell Street in Dublin, nearly 100 years ago. This event in history is still evident, in the now filled-in craters of the cement walls:

So that’s Dublin…part one. Part two is a day trip, so I promise I won’t drone on. But if what I have done can be called droning, what can reading said droning be called? Perhaps ‘loyal.’ (Thanks anyways.)

Speak Religiously and Carry a Big Stick


After Cork, the three of us took the bus to Cashel, a small town on the road to Dublin. It wouldn’t be really all that remarkable but for the castle that sits on a hill to one side of the town. Or maybe it’s the sheep.

The Rock of Cashel doesn’t really look like the usual kind of castle you might see in Ireland – this one is a bit low on walls – but that is mainly because it ceased to function purely as a military post in 1101, when it was given to the church, and used as the seat of a bishop.

Getting away from the castle for a while, this is where we stayed:

Well, not really away from the castle.

It’s also really close to a place called Hore Abbey, which was my personal favorite of Cashel. It’s a moody set of ruins of a 13th century Cistercian monastery; I loved it so much I went there each day that we were there (a total of three times) – it wasn’t that difficult, either, as it was just across the road from our bed and breakfast. Talk about a tiny neighborhood!

Nevermind that you have to wade through a whole bunch of cows to get there…

This place was a photographer’s paradise; every time I went there I was finding new angles and interesting details and cursing the fact that I didn’t have a fancy-schmancy camera – this from someone who took no photos for over a year before going abroad!

So what follows is a miniature photo album:

Hore Abbey was founded by Benedictines in 1266; they were there until 1272, when they were expelled and replaced with the Cistercians, due to the influence of Bishop David McCarvill. The good bishop put all this into action because of a dream that he had one night, that the Benedictines were hatching a plot to chop his head off. It may have also been a pretty watery excuse to expunge a sect he didn’t like – for that matter, after the dust cleared, McCarvill himself became a Cistercian.

We saw the castle on the second day. The fun part about it was that since the castle is set on a high hill, it means that no matter the weather, it’s going to be freaking freezing. Which it was, on that day. We were informed by the guides that it is sometimes necessary to wear thermal gear at the Rock of Cashel even in the hottest days of the summer.

The castle is actually a pretty big deal for Irish religious history: it was where Saint Patrick converted King Angus to Christianity in the fifth century (about 448 A.D.). During the ceremony, Saint Patrick accidentally drove his staff into the king’s foot – Angus didn’t say anything, though: he’s even reputed to have made no sound at all, except for what was required of him, as he thought that it was part of the procedure. It was also on the Rock of Cashel that Patrick gave the shamrock analogy to explain the holy trinity to the masses.

There are some misconceptions about Saint Patrick, though – like that whole thing about him driving all of the snakes out of Ireland. Total crap. The fact is that since Ireland is an island (gasp!), snakes never really got the chance to make it over. Other stories include St. Pat’s ash staff growing into a tree and his ability to speak with Irish ancestors.

This was part of the rather small indoor museum – I say that it was small because it was warm and we spent so much time outside in the cold. And the wind. And the cold.

The indoor part was a small exhibit room (weapons, pottery, jewelry, that kind of thing), as well as a kitchen area and the great hall. The great hall was the prettiest, so that’s what you’re seeing.

And now for another photo gallery:

This is the cross of Saint Patrick, and it’s famous for something. My brain was asleep at that part (or maybe just frozen solid).

The view from the hill was tremendous:

The oldest part of the whole compound is Cormac’s Chapel, a small Romanesque affair from the early 12th century. It’s not very well preserved, which might have something to do with 100 years of disuse before the first attempts at restoration (which was about 1870, to give you an idea).

After the castle we went into the town, walked around, and thawed out.

This seemed quite poignant to me, as my first exam was a little over a week away at that point.

This is a building termed the Bishop’s Palace, which was the residence of the bishop at Cashel after 1749, when Bishop Arthur Price decided to move the cathedral and his residence from the Rock to more temperate climes. I don’t blame him!

Another cool thing about this building is that the foundations for Ireland’s most famous brew were laid here: Arthur Guinness was one of the people that worked at the Palace, operating the distillery there (it wasn’t uncommon for large households to brew their own). After a while, he decided that his beer was good enough, moved to Dublin, and eventually got into the big leagues.

We walked about for a bit and then found our way to the folk museum:

This place was quite cool – it was obvious that it was an amateur project, but it was also a concentration of so many interesting things that it was impossible not to love. Granted, there were loads of dusty creepy dummies, but I survived by dodging their unblinking eye contact whenever possible. (Shudder.)

There was a small chapel that was used during the time when Catholics were persecuted by the English, under the Penal Laws; a one-room museum on the Easter Rising of 1916; another one-roomer on the Great Potato Famine (so named as ‘Great’ because it was the biggest of all the others); a memory garden with a monument and other artifacts; and last, there was a tinker’s wagon:

Tinkers were, at one point in history, wealthy people turned out by the English for their adherence to the Catholic faith (and for being rich, naturally); they took to living in wagons and became known for their skill as tinsmiths. Their caravans are also quite like you would expect a gypsy wagon to look like – that is because the tinkers took a hint from the Roma people on the continent.

This is the inside of the caravan; back in the day it was used by 14 children and their parents. Surprisingly, they’d all fit in: the parents had the top shelf, the smallest children slept in the cupboard underneath, the middle children slept on the benches and on the floor, and the biggest slept on pallets and blankets outside, underneath a tarp. This wagon is about 90 years old and was used until the early 80s.

The Tinker way of life died out in the 80s due to new education reforms: since children of tinkers didn’t get the best education due to their roving lifestyle, Ireland passed reforms to make attendance to schools (until a certain level) mandatory, nixing the lifestyle. The anthropologist in me heaves an unhappy sigh at this, but you can’t deny the fact that giving the tinkers education raised their level of comfort (and probably hygiene).

The other part of the museum I got really into was the piece of bog butter they had on a shelf in the main building:

This is butter that was placed inside a bog in order to preserve it; this served a couple of functions: for one, it meant that it wasn’t necessary to refrigerate it, as the bog would take care of that, and that should the village be pillaged by Iron-Age hooligans, all was not lost: the butter would be a valuable source of fat for people who would newly find themselves in possession of little else. It was also sometimes used as a sacrifice to the gods, not a bad choice, as butter would have been very important.

Bogs are great for preserving things: it’s a very low-oxygen, high acid environment, which is the perfect recipe for keeping something around (which also includes bodies, but there will be more on that in Dublin). The great part about bog butter is that it still smells like butter when you dig it up – unlike the human body, which won’t smell like the original, thousands of years later!

After the Folk Museum, we went back to the bed and breakfast, hoofed about Hore Abbey, and made dinner. In the morning, we made for Dublin.

Cork 2.0: The Parentage Arrive


Two days after I got home from my Scandinavian adventure, my parents came. I actually met them right as they showed up to the bed and breakfast, after they had had a nightmare with the rented car: wrong side, one way streets, the works. So they were a bit tuckered out. But eventually they rallied, and proceeded to have a wonderful time with the best tour guide in the world. I even taught Mom how to say ‘hello’ in Gaelic. (It’s complicated.)

So for this part of their trip, it was all stuff that I’ve already seen, so this will be a slideshow, for the most part.


It’s said that if you step on this seal, you’ll get pregnant. I’ve stomped on it upward of eight times by now. Am I chancing fate? Maybe. Bring it on!

This was just the door of an entire fence capped with cans and bottles. Note the broccoli.

Kinsale and Charles Fort:

This dog was in the exact same place both times we passed him. Cute, eh?

Going Bananas Over Curried Pizza


After a train ride through Norway and into Sweden, I got off the train in a small town called Arvika to meet Kim, who I hadn’t seen since I visited him and his family in Trondheim (Norway) when I was eight. I was a bit nervous, as I didn’t know what to expect. And when Kim walked up to me, I didn’t recognize him; the child remembered someone six feet tall with a sharp wit and an ever-present enigmatic cigarette – thankfully, he knew who I was. I began to see his personality as time went on, though, until my memories of Kim fit with who he is now. It’s a weird experience to be able to revisit a person from your childhood memory and see how he’s changed, and yet recognize those things that you remember.

Kim has changed, though; when I arrived I was informed that he’d quit smoking (bravo!) and that there was no longer a need to buy mass amounts of ketchup every week – back in the day, Kim ate ketchup on everything. I remember going to the grocery store with my mother and having her ponder by the ketchup, wondering if two huge bottles was going to be enough that week.

One of my favorite memories is of the Thanksgiving Kim spent with us; everyone loaded up their plates with all the traditional foods: turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, creamed onions (et cetera). Kim got this look on his face like something vital was missing and got up from the table. He came back with a king-sized bottle of ketchup and drizzled it on everything – even the gravy and the cranberry sauce. The best part was the scandalized look on my grandmother’s face.

Kim is married now, to a wonderful woman called Jessica, who is an absolutely fantastic cook and who uses the word ‘lovely’ a lot – which is a reflection of her character. It’s thanks to Jessica that I now willingly cook and eat beets and avocadoes.

And while we’re on the subject of food, my time spent in Arvika was a bit like a detox program: I ate good food and got plenty of rest, which gave me the opportunity of getting the twelve snickers bars and one mars bar I’d eaten in Scotland out of my system. Let me repeat that: in the seven days I spent in Scotland, I ate thirteen full-size candy bars. Wow is right. If you’re thinking about doing something similar, you are 1. mental and 2. going to regret it later, because your body will punish you.

Here’s where they live:

The first evening we didn’t do too much; I got settled in and we had a great dinner. The next day we went to Karlstad, which is a place known for being sunny. Guess what the weather was like. (I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t raining.)

We went to two flea markets and a record store. It was really interesting because there was a really long line for the first one, of people waiting for it to open up, as well as the fact that these places seemed to have everything. At the second one there was a huge warehouse of every kind of furniture that you could imagine, stuffed in this huge space. It was mind-boggling and highly enjoyable. The record store was also cool, as while Kim and Jesse were looking at reggae, I found one about a singing nun. I was really quite close to buying my first record, then and there.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Kim has gotten me into reggae, so that’s going to be a bit of an investment on my part, once I get home. (Prepare thineselves!)

After that, we had a fantastic lunch at a pizza place, where they had a kind of pizza known only in Sweden:

The toppings are: pineapple, banana, and curry. Turn up your nose if you like, but that just means that there would be more for me. It’s served with cole-slaw on the side which is made without mayonnaise, which made it an instant hit with me.

The last landmark we visited in Karlstad was the art museum; apparently, this area of Sweden has been known for being the host of a lot of artistic talent over the years – as a matter of fact, Kim and Jesse’s house used to be the home of a large family of artists. Since Kim is a photographer and Jesse is an artist, they’re keeping that part of the house’s history alive.

When we were done, we walked around a bit more…

A tidbit: did you know that when someone wants to say ‘that’s crazy’ in Norwegian, they say ‘that’s so Texas’? True story.

We drove back, had dinner, and watched The Misfits (the 1961 star-studded cast included Clark Gable and Marylin Monroe). It was much better than I thought it would be, as I thought that Marylin would be playing her usual role of the breathless stupid girl. However, she pulled off a character with a backbone quite well.

The next day we had a lazy morning followed by lunch at the art museum in Arvika. There was one painting there that really stunned me, by a guy called Gustav Fjaestad: it was the first time that I saw snow really done right – that kind of glittery kaleidoscope effect when the sun hits it that’s basically impossible to catch.

Later, we drove around the lake near the house; it’s a popular place to go swimming in the summer, but it was still a bit too chilly for any of us to go in. It’s absolutely gorgeous, though:

The next morning was spent picking lichen off of the apple trees in the backyard. It was one of those things that you start to do absent-mindedly and which just sort of takes off. After a while, all three of us were working on them – and Kim had busted out a ladder. (I know, it’s hardcore.)

That afternoon Kim and I returned to Oslo, as my flight was the next morning and Kim had a job to do in the city. We stayed over in the apartment of another of his friends and spent the evening talking with some of Kim’s friends, including the people whose apartment I stayed in while I was in Oslo, Martin and Signe.

Kim was also nice enough to get me some truly stellar chocolate; granted, it’s the normal brand of chocolate in Norway (Freia, which is made in Trondheim, I think), but the last time I’d had it I was eight and I was massively nostalgic (still am). It’s also delicious. So the next morning I woke at 6:45 to get to the airport with four king-size bars in my backpack. Then while I was in the airport, I decided to get more, as that would mean not only more chocolate, but also an extra bag I could take onto the plane.

I boarded the plane with eight massive bars of chocolate.

None remain.

The Shower in the Kitchen and the Ship in the Backyard


After Edinburgh, I struck out on my own to go to Norway, to Oslo. I got there on Easter Sunday, so there wasn’t much open – but that was all right by me, as my day had started at 3:45 in the morning.

I went to Oslo as kind of a halfway point before going to Sweden to see Kim, one of the au pairs I had as a kid; Kim is actually Norwegian, but he’s found a place with his wife Jessica an hour from the border by train, so it’s easy to go back and forth. But that’s for later.

Fortunately, Kim was able to arrange so that I could stay in the apartment of some of his friends – the couple that lives there was in Barcelona at the time, though another friend, Alette, was staying there in order to visit people over the holiday. Are you confused? That’s fine. The apartment had a shower in the kitchen and a bathroom outside the door and up the stairs. That was also fine – though it took me quite a while to figure out how to properly unlock the bathroom door. In truth, I had a great time there; I was a bit fed up with the hostel life.

The afternoon I arrived, I managed to pry myself out of bed, due to hunger pangs and the need for a reliable map. I got directions from Alette to the visitor’s center, which happened to bring me past a specter of Oslo’s recent past:

Last summer on July 22, a man named Anders Behring Breivik bombed two governmental buildings in Oslo, killing eight people and seriously wounding a further twelve. It was done using car bombs, made of fuel oil and fertilizer. Fortunately, the number of casualties wasn’t higher, because it was a holiday and not many people were in the building. People were shocked. They were stunned when, two hours later, the news came that a youth camp owned by the Labor Party on the island of Utoya had been savaged by a gunman, disguised as a policeman. He came into the camp, ordered people to come closer, and then opened fire. First he shot people on land and then began firing on people in the water, who were trying to escape. 69 people were killed and 55 critically injured in the time it took for the police to arrive to arrest him.

During the attacks, there were acts of heroism preformed by various groups – by the police, the fire corps, the ambulance crews – but also by normal citizens. There are several stories of people hearing about the attack on the island and piloting their boats to the scene; they pulled people out of the water and made trips to the island itself. When the police finally arrived, the volunteers’ boats were commandeered in order to conduct the arrest and rescue the remaining survivors.

It’s estimated that one in four people in Norway knew someone involved in the attacks – imagine the same kind of event in America. When she was younger, Alette actually went to the camp that was attacked – picture being able to recognize places on the news that you had good memories of as a child, now bathed in violence. 9-11 is the only comparable example, but even then, 25% of the population was not affected directly. Over the course of my stay in Norway – and then again with Kim and Jessica – I got to talk about this, and I can safely say that the impact has been immense. However, the response has been mainly grief and a resolve for change, rather than anger, which I think is a brave thing to do.

While I am not in favor of walls in general, this one has holes at heights so that adults and children alike can peer into the construction site: full disclosure for a country that is healing.

The trial for Breivik started not long after I left Norway; his defense is insanity.

Update: according to the New York Times, on August 22, 2012, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, after the determination that he was sane and that his motives stemmed from hatred of immigrants and Muslims in particular. This may seem like a small amount of time in prison, but it’s the longest that anyone in Norway has ever received, and can be raised if deemed necessary.

(If any of the above isn’t true, let me know so that I can revise it.)

Also on the way to the information center is the cathedral; it is much different from other cathedrals I have seen elsewhere in Europe, as it is made of red brick and wood, something that barely any other that size has. The only thing that bothered me about it is that some of the murals on the ceiling are damaged, but hopefully that will be fixed soon.

After finally finding a map, I walked around, found something to eat, and stumbled across the National Gallery, which happened to be free that day. There they have many famous works, most notably some by Edvard Munch – such as The Scream. Surprisingly, despite its shock value and obvious emotional content, I liked his other works, and especially his portraits, better. There were also a number of other painters I found to be especially good; most of the artists that contributed to the collection are/were Norwegian or from Scandinavia, though there was one Van Gogh self-portrait, as well as other stuff.

After that, I went back to the apartment, hoping that the next few days would be just as sunny as my afternoon had been. I jinxed it.

The next day I took the ferry (“I’m on a BOAT!”) to go to a different part of the city, where there is a folk museum and a museum centered around the finds of buried Viking ships.

I found the folk museum first; it’s quite cool: there are several different areas, to show what different places and time periods had which kinds of houses. There wasn’t too much explanation, but they did have a demonstration for how to make lefse (a kind of flatbread), which you eat warm with gobs of butter, so explanations were basically unnecessary.

This is the kind of habitation that someone in the Sami tribes could have lived in – though now it’s different, as they all have permanent houses, with things that resemble nylon teepees for when they migrate. The Sami are comprised of several different groups of nomadic peoples; usually they are associated with reindeer herding, but most of them traditionally farmed and fished, though now they are in every profession. The Sami stretch from Norway through Sweden and Finland to Russia, though Norway has the highest population; in Norway, there are three recognized Sami languages and the Sami have their own form of government (subordinate to that of Norway).

Unless I’m wrong, it’s the Sami who are responsible for some of the patterns we associate with Scandinavia, so even though they are a marginal group, they have had tremendous cultural impact.

It was possible to go into at least three quarters of the houses, but since it was dark and since the furniture was really simple (wood all round), I’m just showing the exteriors.

This is a mill, run on water power.

I noticed that the majority of the houses had an outer wall on every face but on the front, and that on the front there was a flight of steps and then a log to step over – I’m assuming that this is all protection for the wintertime, from the cold and from drifts of snow.

This was a remarkable little house: basically, it was peopled with a bed, a desk, a cabinet, and a woodstove, but everything was painted or carved in some way. I think it would have been really crazy living here, especially when the paint was new. It’s a guest house, though, so waking up in a wonderland like this wouldn’t have been totally unwelcome – you wouldn’t have enough time there to go crazy.

This last photo is partially for shock value: the dummy is partially obscured by furniture and by glass, so for the first few seconds I looked at her, I was sure she was real. But this building is supposed to illustrate the rationing of alcohol during World War II: spirits became so prized that they were eventually used as currency for barter, and lines of people waiting for spirits got to be pretty intense.

That was the beginning of the newer section of the museum: there was a gas station, a number of newer wooden houses, and an entire apartment building, filled with rooms to show different periods of time. All of it was pretty much as expected, so you won’t be seeing any pictures of that.

After walking through the museum, I hurried to the other museum, trying to get out of the rain and to let some feeling creep back into my fingers.

This was the part I was really excited about: the Vikings were the original badasses in history. Don’t let the Romans fool you, because as much as the Romans did, they never can quite achieve the height of the Vikings. This could possibly be much like the debate over unicorns versus narwhals that most people my age engage in when the conversation slows to a standstill, but I’m standing my ground anyway.

The museum is set up in the shape of a cross: three wings are devoted to three ships, and one wing is for all the things that were found with the bodies. Bodies, you say? The only reason why ships from that age have survived to the present day is because they were ceremonially buried upon the death of someone important or rich (though it would generally have to have been both – come on, it’s a whole ship!). I was also pretty sure I’d seen these ships before: I have the fuzzy memories of an eight-year old, looking down on three hulks below (my family spent three weeks visiting our au pairs when I was in third grade), though I think the ships have been moved to this building in the interim.

There was one ship buried in Gokstad, with a man buried inside, and one in Oseberg, with two women. The Gokstad man was very interesting: it’s not really apparent because of the angle the photo was taken, but his bones are much larger than normal, especially around the joints:

This is because he had a genetic disorder called acromegaly, which causes bones to continue to grow once they have fused together. So what that means is that bones get bulkier, not longer. You know Andre the Giant (The Princess Bride)? That’s one person that had it, though it may also have accompanied gigantism, which is when the bones keep growing, before they’ve fused – sometimes the two are linked.

What this would have meant for the Gokstad man was that he would have had almost crippling joint pain and that his hands would have been wide, his fingers huge. He would also have had similar facial structure to Andre the Giant – big nose, prominent brow line, and broad face.

But it wasn’t his condition that killed him; there are indications that he faced multiple opponents with different weapons at the time of his demise. There are substantial injuries to his legs – one rendering him incapable of standing, one that cut directly through bone, and then finally one that would have cut through the femoral artery. Turns out hat during the medieval period, attacks to the legs were common – which makes sense, considering how well the torso would have been protected.

The elder of the Oseberg women could have been any age over 80 years old – which is determined by looking at the wear on the teeth, so all this is very subjective. For example, the ancient Egyptians had horrible teeth problems, because the way they milled their grain added loads of little pieces of stone into the meal, which chipped away at their teeth, bit by bit. So that would mean that some of the differences are cultural, but you never can tell. The older woman also had osteoporosis, a history of illness as a child, a fall that reduced her quality of life in her later years, a disorder that reduced the amount of female hormones in her body, as well as some form of cancer, maybe breast or abdominal. Quite frankly, it is incredible how long she was able to survive without advanced medical attention – after all, it was the Middle Ages.

The younger woman lived for a shorter period of time, until she was about 50 (this time it was determined by looking at the roots of her teeth), and that weeks before her death she broke her collarbone. Since the skeleton is incomplete, it’s harder to tell more, but there may have been something else associated with the damage to her collarbone.

What is clear is that the women ate a meat-rich diet, which would have meant that they were in a rich family (hence, why they were buried in a ship), though they still led very active lives.

There were three ships in the museum, in various states of repair. The most impressive one was the first thing you saw on entry:

This is the Oseberg ship, where the two women were found. It’s very impressive, though the hull should be slightly taller – there are supposed to be holes for the oars to go out and you don’t see that on this one. But it is awfully pretty, isn’t it?

This is the Gokstad ship, where the man was found; this is a much more realistic ship, as it has a hull tall enough to be used with oars – as you can see in the photo.

The last ship was the Tune Ship, which isn’t very well preserved:

Behind that are some artifacts from the other ships:

Along with the other things buried with the bodies in the ships, there is a wooden version of a tent (left), tent poles (on the wall), and smaller ships (right). The wooden ‘tent’ would have been buried intact just behind the mast of the ship and would also have been where the body was stashed. I figure they’re like the Girl Scouts: when they go on trips, they go prepared.

With that in mind, I’ve got a number of things that I found interesting in the museum, things also buried with the ships:

This is a horse’s saddle made of wood (for Chelbie): imagine sitting in that all day. All sorts of agricultural tools were also buried in the graves – it depended on the status of the person, so a laborer would have been buried (in much less style) with scythes or plows, where someone with more responsibility would have pitchforks, animal tethers, and sleighs.

There were also wagons and horses (as many as twelve) buried with the dead. As far as other animals go, dogs would also be included, and at one site, a peacock was found, showing how far a Viking’s reach could be.

These are real shoes from that time period. I couldn’t believe that they had survived; it’s strange to look at them and to see the actual size and shape of someone’s foot from so far back in history. Talk about walking a mile in someone’s shoes.

This cauldron was among a bunch of other cooking devices, including a hollowed-out tree used for mixing bread dough. Food would be buried with the dead, as well – grains, meat (such as two whole slaughtered oxen), wild apples, blueberries, herbs, and churns to make dairy products.

Some of what interested me most was the textiles that have survived; generally they break down before we can get to them, but the exact conditions of the burial sites can sometimes preserve fragments.

Much of the fabrics on display came from the Oseberg ship; the women were dressed in their finest and laid on made-up beds, bits of which survive.

The cloth itself could have come from abroad, and the designs could have been influenced by the sorts of products that the Vikings came in contact with, things from as far away as the Middle East and beyond. I think it’s possible to say that the Viking civilization was the first ‘melting pot,’ because they were exposed to so many different cultures.

For example, this probably came from the Mediterranean (I think this is linen, unless I’m wrong). This is not to say that no Viking wove cloth – the Oseberg women were buried with different kinds of looms and other materials necessary to make clothes. I’m guessing that the simple stuff was made at home and the imported cloth was worn on special occasions.

So that was that.

I took the ferry back to the city center and then walked around for a while, mostly in search of a grocery store, as even though it was a Monday, it was still a holiday. I finally found a market with loads of Middle Eastern goods: that meant that what was not in Arabic was in Norwegian. Yeah. However, there was a very nice vegetable section – and a potato will always be a potato.

And while I’m on the subject of buying things: don’t be fooled by the exchange rate for dollars and kronor. For one thing, kronors are the name used to describe all of the units of money in Scandanavia, but they are not all worth the same amount in each country. It’s like the American dollar versus the Australian or Canadian dollar. Second, a sandwich may be priced at 30 kronor – this is not the same as 30 dollars; while I was there, 30 kronors was about five dollars. Still an expensive sandwich, but at least you would know what you were getting into. I had to write down the exchanges for dollars to kronor in my notebook at various amounts in order not to pay ridiculous sums of money for things. It worked out pretty well.

The next day I went to Oslo’s castle. It takes a while to figure out how to get in, and then how to find the exhibition that they have on the castle’s history.

There are other things there – a museum on the Norwegian resistance during World War II, some sort of art thingy, and other stuff. So when I realized that the castle museum was closed, I slouched off to the resistance museum, which turned out to be really cool.

It’s really intense at first, though:

There’s a visceral reaction to having that many weapons pointed at you, and I’m not going to lie – I was genuinely afraid for a moment. I think that’s the point, though, and it sets the tone for the rest of the museum.

On April 9, 1940, Hitler invaded Norway, with a force of 1,200 troops and 1,200 airplanes, basically every aircraft in his army. Basically all of Norway was taken in a very short period of time – much of it before the sun set on the first day – though there were still some outposts. The king, Haakon III, and his government barely escaped before the Nazis arrived, fleeing the country for England, where he would stay in relative safety until the war ended.

While in Norway, the Nazis did the whole nine yards: the possession of a gun merited the death penalty, all Norwegian soldiers went to internment camps, sports were Nazi led and organized (with the result that no one went to games in protest), censorship, Nazi values in schools. They went so far as to close down universities, arrest students, professors, and even police officers.

The largest prison camp was outside Oslo, in Grini; in total, 40,000 Norwegians were imprisoned during the war, and of the approximately 1,800 Norwegian Jews, half survived. It was worse for the Russians and Eastern Europeans that were held in Norway (probably due to the fact that Norwegians are considered as ‘Aryans,’ a big racial/cultural thing for Hitler): there were about 100,000 prisoners, 17,000 of which were killed and buried in mass graves.

At one point I took out one of my chocolate bars and downed the whole thing. Granted, it was lunchtime, but this part was just plain depressing.

The Norwegians had an active resistance movement, of underground newspapers and radio stations, hidden radios (one P.O.W. even had a receiver in his dentures), as well as camps and training centers, from which groups would do reconnaissance or go and blow something up. One of the most important groups was M.I.L.O.R.G., which was destroyed and then rebuilt, so that by the final stage of the war it became a crucial line of communication of the Allies. This organization was also a crucial player at the end of the war, when the Nazis tried to conscript Norwegian men: M.I.L.O.R.G. helped them hide in the forests, get into Sweden, or join the resistance until the Nazis gave up looking.

One thing that isn’t well known is that D-Day almost happened in Norway, rather than Normandy. It was a last minute decision (to throw the Nazis off the trail), and probably a bummer for Norway, but oh well.

After the castle, I decided to walk around the city – I was pretty museum-ed out.

There are loads of cars of this make in Oslo, but this has got to be the most awesome.

The plan for the next day was to spend the morning in Oslo before catching the train to Sweden; so I went to the palace.

Apparently, people are actually still using this as a palace. (How strange!)

The botanical gardens are close by, so I decided to go there instead.

I had a fantastic time here; there was a lot to look at and it was nice and quiet. In fact, there was a guy proofing a paper or something on one of the benches – proof that a garden can be better than a library.

This was one of my favorites.

So in the second glasshouse of the two, there is a pond. With fish. I’m not going to bore you with any fish pictures except one, but it was really and truly beguiling.

This is the clearest image I have of the fish that was tugging on some of the plants – it would move all around the area and you could tell exactly where it was, but with no idea of what it was. So if anyone can pull off a hat trick and tell me what kind of fish this is, you will make that part of my brain that short-circuits at the mere mention of fish very happy. All I can say is that Finding Nemo has scarred me for life.

After this, I went back to the apartment, said goodbye to the wee-wee room on my way back down, and left for Sweden.

Like a Red, Red Rose


Edinburgh was our last stop in Scotland, and definitely one of the most interesting for me. There’s just so much history there, so many good stories. This is a long one, folks!

Edinburgh’s history is mostly centered around its castle, as many cities in Europe are. The first settlement in the area was where the castle is now; human settlement goes back as far as 850 B.C., and in the first century A.D. Romans traded gifts with the local inhabitants of the hill fort, and it’s been a hub since then, of the Scottish, then the English, then the Scottish…

One of my favorites is the story about how Robert the Bruce took over Edinburgh Castle during the Wars of Independence – he was a great guy (flash to Finding Nemo: “hi, my name’s Bruce”), who followed William Wallace, the guy Mel Gibson played in that movie (of course, none of Braveheart is correct except for the way he died; if you want to look it up, he was drawn and quartered, which is not a story you tell at bedtime). But anyway, Robert the Bruce had been going around Scotland taking back one castle at a time until Sterling and Edinburgh were the only ones left. When he got to Edinburgh, he was helped out by a night watchman who had a secret way of getting into and out of the castle (while on duty…) that he used to go and see his lady friends. The Scots decided that information was a fair trade for not killing him, following which they climbed up the cliff during the night and butchered the British in their beds.

More on the castle later (it’s not as great as Sterling, anyway).

One of my favorite parts of walking around the city was that there were bits of Macbeth (‘the Scottish play’) scattered all over the city:

…Which was right next to:

From one angle, there was even a kilt.

I only found two of the odes to Macbeth, but I walked past both of them several times.

This one is right next to what is either called the Market Cross or the Mercat Cross (you get the same thing either way on Google Images), on the Royal Mile, the main street in Old Town:

This is where you would go if you got caught for petty crimes, like stealing from the grocery store. They would grab you by the ear and proceed to nail it to the wood of one of the doors – there’s only two doors now, but originally all of the sides were like that. You would stand there like that for at least a full day, with the inhabitants of the city using you as a place to deposit compost or the contents of their bedpans; little kids would spit on you and adults would insult you, your mother, and your fashion sense. If the hardship got to be too much for you and you just couldn’t wait, you had the option of ripping your ear off of the door, permanently branded as a thief. That would mean that you could only get the lowest kind of work, generally piracy for men and whoring for women.

On a cheerier note (by comparison, anyway), three days after the monarch of Britain dies, someone opens up one of the doors of the Cross, runs up the stairs, and screams that the king/queen is dead. They wait three days because in the old times before trains, telegrams, and radio, it took three days for a horse to get to Edinburgh. Now, it’s just tradition – though I suspect that part of it is rubbing it in: “Oh, your king’s dead? Well that just sucks, doesn’t it?”

There’s also a story about a particular monarch, Charles II, who tried to gain favor with the inhabitants of the city by running wine from the cross for 24 hours. Edinburgh partied continuously throughout that time. And then they woke up the next morning, with the mother of all hangovers, cursing the king all over again.

The cross is directly next to St. Giles Cathedral, which is actually not a cathedral. Since the Scots are mainly Presbyterian, they call this place ‘high kirk’ rather than a cathedral. This is also the only cathedral in the world with a carving of an angel playing the bagpipes. It’s a shame for you that I didn’t take a picture of this, but it just means that if you ever find yourself there, you can hunt for it yourself. It hides very well – I had to have Pauline point it out for me.

This is also the site of the beginning of one of the dark periods of Scottish history: Charles I decided that all of his kingdom would be under the same religion; this applied to the Scots, too, so on the appointed day the Anglican religion took over St. Giles. People went to church at the appointed time as usual; there was one woman, Jenny Geddes, in the congregation who was a little different. She came in, saw the new banners, the new bishop, and the new music, and decided that she could deal with that. However, she picked up her prayer book and simply cracked. The prayer book was The Book of Common Prayer, a canon in the Anglican church: this wasn’t what she believed in and she wasn’t having it forced on her. So she stood up and threw her chair directly at the bishop. As far as the story goes, her aim was true – and she incited a riot of people against the new faith, people called the Covenanters. These people would go down in history as some of the most persecuted people Scotland has ever seen. And for the record, that’s saying quite a lot. There’s more on them later.

Also in the area is a heart in cobblestones:

We were told that, every now and then, some guy proposes on this heart. It would be wildly romantic, but it’s really not, because every native Edinburgian spits on it as they go by; it used to be the site of a hated prison. Our guide said that it is the most hated square meter in the city. And yes, I did spit on it.

And here we have a statue of David Hume, noted Scottish philosopher:

Once you get past the stylish traffic cone, you can notice that one of his toes is really, really shiny. This is because students rub it for good luck – and yes, I rubbed it. Feet and specifically toes completely disgust me; that statue needs to cut his toenails.

Edinburgh holds the fame of being the inspiration and birthplace of Harry Potter; I’m not that into Harry Potter anymore, though I will say that the first three books are all right. (If you want exchange me in an argument about this, I’m afraid that I will not be convinced to see the light, so just accept me as a lost cause.) The building (a school) in the back of this photo was the inspiration for Hogwarts:

A fun side note: J.K.R. is a billionaire – the only author to be one – and richer than the Queen of England. She made 53 million pounds alone on the first day of sales for the seventh book.

This is where she wrote the first book:

There’s a huge sign in the window: ‘J.K. ROWLING WROTE HERE!!!’ You can almost hear the stink of greediness wafting off of this place. I bet they’ve jacked their prices. Capitalist dogs!

Does this name sound familiar? I didn’t actually get the chance to see this stone in person, but a friend we made in Edinburgh took this photo for me after we left. (Thank you Anna!) I’m also informed that J.K. Rowling stole loads of other names from the graveyard: first names, surnames, places.

The photo was taken in a famous cemetery, Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. It’s a pretty small area, but it’s estimated that half a million people are buried there, more than the current population of the city. Did you ever play the ‘how high can I stack these blocks’ as a kid? They did that here, only once you hit the last strata possible (burying the corpse with a few inches of soil on top), and then when it rained, things sort of…surfaced. It rains a lot in Scotland.

Also, if you look at the left side of the photo above, you can see that one of the graves has a set of iron bars around it, and another one just in front of it that has a cement wall. These are ‘mort safes’ or ‘mortis guards,’ to ward off gravediggers. Edinburgh was the home of one of the most important medical universities in the 1800s (and still is today), and there was an urgent need for corpses to dissect, so they paid good money for every body brought in. One option for families wanting to ward off gravediggers was to use these safes, but many people weren’t that rich. What the poor did was wait all night by the graves to keep the bad men with shovels away, at least until the body had decomposed enough to no longer be interesting (two or three days in summer and two or three weeks in winter) – that was called ‘doing the graveyard shift.’

Two infamous corpse-sellers were two Irish men, Burke and Hare. Burke and Hare were in a tight spot one night – a lady friend that they liked had a dead body in her room and didn’t know what to do with it. It was commonly known that the university would take any bodies, no questions asked, so they hauled off dead-whats-his-face and received three pounds. To put this in perspective, three pounds would get you 750 pints of your favorite beer back in the day. I’m guessing that it would have lasted them maybe two weeks. (They were Irish.) So when they ran out of money, they decided that they’d like to keep up their shenanigans. Unlike other people with similar ideas, they decided that grave-digging wasn’t really their thing, especially since the university wanted really fresh bodies. So we can all see where this is leading. The two were able to kill anywhere from 15 to 35 people in the space of a year before they were caught. At that point, Hare looked around, realized that they were both screwed, and promptly squealed his guts out, leaving his friend to dry. The result of all this was that Hare got six months, Burke was hanged, and his body was given to the medical school for dissection. Apparently, Burke’s skeleton is still there for scientific inquiry and his ghost is out for revenge.

On a brighter note, there are good stories about the graveyard; it’s really not a bad place to be (in the daytime, anyway). We were told that on sunny days (so basically three times a year) people like to hang out in the graveyard. Lawn is lawn, I guess.

One of the most visited graves – by natives and tourists alike – is a grave without a body beneath it. It is of a dog named Bobby, who has a remarkable story. John Gray was a night watchman in Edinburgh – basically, a policeman who patrolled around to make sure that no one was up to no good – when a law was passed that required watchmen to have dogs with them at all times. Most guys probably got a mastiff, something big with lots of teeth. John Gray got himself a terrier and called him Bobby; they had two good years together before John died of tuberculosis (note that tuberculosis is also called ‘consumption’ in older literature). After that, the dog Bobby returned to John’s grave every day for fourteen years until his own death. The rule is that only people can be buried in the graveyard, so Bobby’s stone is just a prop. There’s a statue of him outside the limits, though:

I’m going to take the mood back down and talk about the Covenanters again. They had themselves a good riot and then a few more; the government stepped in and decided to put a stop to it. The majority of the protesters were put in a prison inside the kirkyard:

This is very close to how it would have looked when it functioned as a prison. No roofs, little protection in the wintertime. At the beginning, 1,100 people were held here; 300 were left after the winter. After this, the British had what was basically a civil war on their hands, as well as several secret religious services: people were pissed, especially with a total death toll of about 18,000 on the Covenanter’s side. So the British did what the British generally do: bury the evidence. They shuffled the 300 survivors onto a ship bound for Barbados – except that didn’t go so well. It sank off of the coast of Scotland; 43 swimmers made it to the Orkney Islands, and were allowed to live there for the rest of their lives. I guess the Brits decided that they had been victimized long enough.

Edinburgh is called the most haunted city in Europe, maybe even in the world. I can vouch for that myself – though I’m saving that for the end.

The man that organized the persecution of the Covenanters was ‘Bloody’ George Mackenzie, who is also buried in the graveyard; you might notice that his mausoleum has a sturdy padlock on it. This is to make sure that people do not go in, people that ignore their own safety. Once (pre-lock) a homeless guy broke into the mausoleum to get out of the cold; the floor fell out from underneath him and he dropped down onto the coffin of Mackenzie himself. He emerged, having had the fright of his life, inflicted with inexplicable bruises all over his back. There are other stories of people going insane after having gone inside, as well as a number of deaths in the kirkyard itself.

The next area of Edinburgh of interest has another site associated with the Covenanters (I promise this is the last, it’s not a very happy story). I told you that most of the prisoners were held in the kirkyard. 100 people were killed brutally and then butchered on this spot, as a public show to quell violence.

This is in an area called the Grassmarket, where grain for cows was sold. It was also a site where public executions took place – though generally they were not as gruesome as with the Covenanters. It’s also quite close to the old red light district, Victoria Street:

Now Grassmarket is one of Europe’s most popular sites for hen and stag parties: we saw at least three groups when we went out to dinner here. There are still many reminders of the Grassmarket’s past, however, with pubs with names like ‘The Last Drop’ and ‘Maggie Dickson’s’:

We ate here the first night: I had a colossal serving of fish and chips. Fortunately, it was light on the chips, because they gave me a whole fish; I was determined to finish it, as I was paying in pounds. I am pleased to report that I did consume the whole beast, though I could swear it was still swimming around in my stomach for a while afterwards. Pauline had haggis, which she said was okay, but not great. If you’re wondering what haggis is, read on; if you don’t want to know, skip to the next paragraph. First, you take the heart, liver, and lungs of your least favorite sheep and dump them in a pot with some oatmeal and herbs and spices. You let that happen for a while, stuff that in the stomach of the sheep, and place it in a pot of boiling water until it’s done in its haggissy strangeness. It’s generally served with ‘meaps and tatties,’ turnips and potatoes.

Maggie Dickson was the wife of a man that preferred the company of other women, so she took a lover of her own. Unfortunately, in 1728, she got pregnant. This was bad news for her, as it was known that she was married; she kept her secret under wraps. Keeping this covered up was a hanging offense under the Pregnancy Act, so when the baby miscarried, when Maggie tried to bury it, and when it was later found, she was in deep trouble. Maggie was taken into custody and then hanged in the Grassmarket, with a huge crowd looking on. She was hanged until dead, placed in a coffin and loaded into a cart to be buried. So the appointed driver drove the wagon toward a graveyard – it’s unlikely that she would have been buried in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, as hers was not exactly an honorable death. However, on the way there (and maybe after a pit stop for a bit of alcohol), the poor guy heard banging on the inside of the coffin. Consider the shock: what would you be thinking? Zombies? Vampires? Aliens? So the guy summoned up his courage and pried open the coffin. Maggie Dickson sat up, quite alive. (He probably peed his pants.) Then a discussion ensued: should they hang her again? Finally, they decided that since the doctor had pronounced her dead, she had served her sentence, and since when she married her husband her vows were ‘till death do us part,’ she was a newly single woman. Maggie Dickson was literally given a new lease on life. She married her lover and ran her pub (coughcoughbrothelcough) for 40 more years. She became a local legend as ‘Half-Hanged Maggie,’ and went down in history.

This is what looks like a cathedral, but is really a place called The Hub, which is the center of the festivals that happen in the city in August. The festivals are enormously popular: in August, the population of the city doubles – that means that 487,000 people becomes approximately 974,000 people.

The Flodden Wall used to circle all of Edinburgh in a time when an attack by the English was considered fairly imminent. This was because James IV had launched an attack on the English in 1513 but had then been driven back. James IV was killed in battle (the last monarch in the UK to do so), so James V began construction; the wall took 50 years to build, and by that time, Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth of England, the city was bursting at the seams, and the wall was basically useless. There are also rumors that the ashes of witches were incorporated into the mortar in the time of James VI.

Sidenote: so you can figure out the Stewart dynasty: James I was assassinated; James II got himself killed while experimenting with a cannon (still a national embarrassment); James III was thrown by a horse on a battlefield; James IV was killed in battle; James V died due to an illness of the brain (leaving behind one surviving legitimate heir and nine illegitimate ones); Mary of Guise ruled for a while; Mary of Scots ruled for a while before being imprisoned and then beheaded; James VI became the king of England (James I), uniting Scotland and England. They didn’t tend to have happy lives – though what do you want, it was the Medieval Age – but it still leads to the question why anyone would ever want to name their son James after all that lot.

Back in the times before indoor plumbing, things did not smell so great in cities. When we were in Edinburgh, I detected a slight iffy smell in the air; back in the day, though, you could smell Edinburgh from five miles away. This relates to the Irish method of cleaning up dog doo: they don’t. There is the assumption that ‘the rain will take it away’ – total fallacy. Think about this happening on a city-wide scale, with…not dog doo. There are stories about people having to cut the…muck away from their doors in order to get out every morning. Eventually it got to the point where the government had to pass a law so that people could only dump their chamber pots at certain times during the day: the usual way to deal with things as to take the bucket, yell ‘gar dee loo’ (bad French, which means ‘look out for the water’), give the passersby a moment to scatter, and then huck the contents out of there. So this law made it so that you could do what needed to be done at ten in the morning and at ten in the evening. The morning time was fine; everyone was awake and cohesive, but considering what we know of the Scottish, they tend to appreciate their alcohol – and if the bars close at about ten at night, a drunk guy’s response to someone yelling above him is to look up and say ‘wha…?’ I think this is one of the most underhanded abstinence programs in history. And if you were wondering about where the term ‘shit-faced’ comes from…now you know.

Of course, when the stench got too terrible for the rich of Edinburgh, they moved to a completely different area, which now gives Edinburgh Old Town and New Town.

While we’re on the subject, I want to show you something pretty:

This is Prince’s Park, the low ground between the two different sections of the city. Edinburgh is built on a series of steep hills, and there are loads of bridges in between the two (but still, more on that later). So that means that if Prince’s Garden is where the low ground is, when it did rain, all of that…stuff…went the one place it could go. So that means what is a beautiful garden now was once one of the world’s largest cesspools: you need not wonder why it is so green!

To one side of the park, you can see Edinburgh Castle:

That’s the way Old Town works: the backbone is the Royal Mile; at one end is the castle and at the other is the palace (which is now some lame museum about money or something; we didn’t go in, but if you’re into currency you can’t spend, by all means, go).

So I’m going to talk about the castle, because it’s much cooler – though wildly touristy in a cheesy and uncool way. It’s still a great piece of national heritage, but it’s harder to hear the echoes of the past there than at other places.

The castle is located here because it is sitting on a volcanic plug (that people call ‘Castle Rock’), basically the chute of a dead volcano. What that means is that the castle is on basalt that is surrounded by softer stone, which then means that the weaker stone was bullied away by the forces of erosion and that the plug remains, relatively unpestered by the forces of geology, making a cool hill to build stuff on.

It’s been a common thing that Britain has laid claim to her neighbors – with or without their consent – with Ireland, it goes back through to Henry VIII. So it was for Scotland, though much farther back in history. Eventually, it came to the point where Queen Elizabeth I imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, because there as some sort of tie from Mary so that she could contest for the throne of England, bad news for someone like Elizabeth who as breaking new ground and trying to find a place for herself. Some people in Scotland were understandably a bit pissed off about this and so they staged a number of rebellions. One of them as at Edinburgh Castle, called the Lang Siege. It took a year, but the castle was eventually reduced to rubble and the fighters surrendered. It is said that at the beginning of the siege, a group of three golfers were playing a round; a horseman from the castle came up to them and told them to stop, for fear of their lives. They decided to keep playing (“who spit in his haggis?”): they were all killed. This says a number of things about the Scottish: 1. they are crazy; 2. they like to kill things; 3. defying authority is a national pastime.

The last time the castle was used as a player in military action was in 1745 during the Jacobite rising; this ‘rising’ took place all over the British Isles, and included Catholics, Presbyterians, and other assorted groups. Basically, there were some people that wanted King James VII (a Catholic) back on the throne and there were some people who wanted William III (also called William of Orange – basically a Protestant Dutch dude that married an English broad). There were big battles fought, like the Battle of the Boyne, fought in Ireland (the Irish lost because the French flaked out. Stupid French). In Edinburgh, rioters in the streets found themselves under cannon fire from the castle. Effectively, the last time the castle was used it was against the people it was meant to protect. Fun, huh?

But anyway. The castle now has a bunch of museums and memorials in it, including two for military history, one for the P.O.W. prison, the state apartments, and the crown jewels and Stone of Scone (don’t get too fluffed up about the jewels: they don’t let you take pictures).

This is as good a segway as it gets for my favorite story about Edinburgh. Up in that fancy room with the crown jewels is a block of stone with two chunky metal handles on it. It looks exceedingly out of place. It’s called the Stone of Scone, but that makes me hungry, so I’m going to call it by its other name, THE STONE OF DESTINY! It’s kind of a big deal.

The stone is made of red sandstone and weighs about 330 pounds, roughly Paula Deen’s weight. (Did I go there? Yes, I did.) There are loads of different stories about where it came from, such as a lost city in Scotland, a relic from Biblical times (Jacob’s pillow), the pyramids, or (my favorite) from Ireland, that it is half of the Blarney Stone. As is known, I have not the guts necessary to scrutinize the Blarney Stone (I prefer to live), so I don’t know how true these stories might be – but if the aim is an air of mystery, they nailed it. The Stone of Scone was used for the coronations of Scottish kings and is now used for the English. Sir Walter Scott, Superhero in a Kilt, prophesied that whoever had the Stone of Destiny would hold Scotland…we’ll see how true that is.

Of course, the Stone of Destiny is now in Scotland, but that’s only been since 1996. Before that, it was a part of the throne in Westminster Abbey in London; King Edward I stole it in 1296 as spoils of war – though to give the English credit, they did try to return it in 1328, but crowds outside of the cathedral kept it from being removed.

Up through 1996, there has been a campaign to get the stone back. Nothing has really worked, but on Christmas Day in 1950, a group of four students came really close. Their first plan was to have one of the group hide behind a suit of armor in the cathedral until closing time, when he would let his other friends back in. That didn’t work because the guards had eyes and because suits of armor were made in a time where men were short. It just didn’t work out.

So Plan B was breaking in and getting the stone. Funnily enough, that plan worked…up to a point. The problem with carrying a Paula Deen-sized rock out of a cathedral is that there cannot be a weak link. So the stone broke into two pieces. Two of the group ran off with the smaller fragment and managed to drive it across the border, leaving the other two high and dry. So the others looked at each other, looked at the stone, and went, ‘huh.’ They dragged it out of the cathedral on one of their jackets, hoisted it into a car, and started to drive to Scotland. They realized on the way that the border would probably be guarded heavily by the time they got there, so they buried it in a field in Kent, marked the spot, and left it alone for a few days.

They came back and had no trouble finding the spot – however, there was a gypsy camp sitting right on top of it (as a side-note, it’s more politic to call them ‘travelers’). Happily, once they talked to the leader of the group, they came to the consensus that neither of them liked the British, so the gypsies helped them dig it up. They removed the front seat of their car, put the stone in its place, and took turns riding the stone back into Scotland. Once there, they took the two pieces to a stonemason in Glasgow to stick the two pieces together. After that, groups of students hid it all over Scotland. Now, just for a moment, imagine all of the things hockey players do with the Stanley Cup. Then imagine all of the things that were done on/over the symbol of the national heritage of Scotland. However, they did successfully keep it hidden, so that’s a consolation, at least.

On April 11, 1951, the original group had had enough of all of the antics that had been happening and put it on the altar of Arbroath Abbey near Dundee (north of Edinburgh), probably hoping that the church wouldn’t return it back to England. This wasn’t quite the case, as when the pastor came into the sanctuary and saw the stone on his altar, he went “oh crap I really don’t want to go to prison” and promptly turned it over to the police. So all that work was for nothing.

However, Scotland does have it now. This is because a nominee for Prime Minister wanted to curry favor with the Scottish – basically a desperate measure. But the Scots did get it back, so there was a huge procession, bagpipes and everything. However, the bagpipes weren’t playing any of those traditional Scottish songs, oh no. They were playing the theme from Mission Impossible. Take that, English swine!

Of course, in the next election a candidate vowed that Scotland would get its own Parliament if he got elected. So he got elected and now Scotland has both the Stone of Destiny and a Parliament. Winning.

And now back to castle stuff. The great hall was a bit of a disappointment, as it was made to be more of a space for kids, but there were loads of swords and things on the walls:

But wait! What time is it??

Well, if it’s one in the afternoon in Edinburgh, a cannon goes off from Castle Rock. So if you’re at the castle, you get your butt out of wherever you are and you watch, trying to keep your head above the crowd; we found a hilly bit, so it wasn’t a problem.

This is a silly exercise today (duh), but was actually very useful when Edinburgh was a port and trading center: Sailors would come to shore and have no idea of what time it was – you may be thinking that it didn’t matter if they knew what time it was, so long as there was a bar in the vicinity, and you would be right, BUT the captain of these sailing ships would need to know exactly what time it was in order to navigate. So when the cannon went off, the captain factored in the number of seconds it would take for the sound to reach him from the castle (and there are maps to show exactly how many seconds off you would be from each point in Edinburgh), and adjusted his watch.

Many P.O.W.s were held in the castle in the early 1800s; there were a lot of French people incarcerated due to the Napoleonic Wars, but there were also others of other nationalities. They were jammed in cheek-by-jowl, though by all accounts, the conditions here were miles better than in many other places. For example, the conditions on a prison ship (also known as a prison ‘hulk’) floating in the middle of the Thames in London weren’t all that great. There was also an impressive display of the things the prisoners made: a replica of a ship, inlaid boxes, and so on. I liked being down here because there wasn’t that stifling feeling you get when you’re in a usual prison; maybe it was the lighting.

You see that thing the cannon is pointing at? That’s the Walter Scott monument, and I think it’s shamefully ugly. But remember him as we exit the castle:

I should have called him SIR Walter Scott, but I do so love being informal. He was knighted because he was a spanking great author (though this is hearsay for me, I don’t actually know), made being Scottish popular again, found the crown jewels in the castle, and a bunch of other stuff. I like him because he said “Surely, chess playing is a sad waste of brains,” and that learning other languages was a better use of his time. I suck at chess.

Scott also reintroduced tartan back into Scottish culture: after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Rising in 1745, wearing plaid was declared an act of rebellion. Most patterns were burned, so clans had to start from scratch or from a smuggled piece of material. So think of a dead Scottish man whenever you put on that cute scarf you bought for $4.99.

This next photo is what a loom for tartan looks like when it’s all set up – it was in a touristy place meant to make you spend all your money, an amalgamation of people selling products made of different tartans and a small creepy museum with dummies. But I talked to a variety of tailors there, and all of them said my clan was ‘too obscure’ for that pattern to be available (not even for ready money). Underachievers.

So after we did the castle, Pauline went to do nerdytime at the Scottish National Museum and I went to be a literary geekypants at the Writer’s Museum. There I learned about Walter Scott – did you know that he first published his books anonymously not because he was afraid of censure, but because he thought attention would hurt his writing? – as well as Robert Burns and Robert Lewis Stevenson.

A little sidenote: this building looks much as it did in the 1700s, but for the fact that there would have been four or five stories made of wood on top of that, so that some buildings could have been as many as 14 stories tall.

I went to this museum mainly because of Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose,” which has a simplicity I fell in love with as soon as I heard it. In addition to being a poet, Burns wrote loads of songs; during is career, he was increasingly drawn to songwriting, until he was writing barely any poetry at all. He was a farmer all of his life, even though he was successful enough to give it up. The only really sad part of his life is that he died young, at age 37, with the feeling that he had not contributed all he could, that his death cut some of his potential short.

I would like to take a moment to note that the building the museum was in was out to get me; I smashed my head against a low stone doorframe, ironically while letting other people go up the stairs. My head ached for days. But at least I didn’t fall down the stairs:

Robert Lewis Stevenson was also an interesting character. If you’re scratching your head, here is a partial list of his books: Treasure Island, How to Be Awesome Like Me, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson traveled widely despite his poor health, and had been educated as a civil engineer and as a lawyer (he’d graduated by the time he was 26). He ended up living the last four years of his life in Samoa with his family, where he was less prone to the attacks of hemorrhaging that plagued him. The Samoans really liked him, giving him the nickname Tusitala, which means something like ‘the story-teller.’

An interesting tidbit is that Jekyll and Hyde wasn’t an entirely original story: it was actually based off of the life of Deacon Brodie, who was a species of Renaissance man. He was a family man, politician, locksmith, inventor, and thief. By day he was one of the most respected men in Edinburgh, and by night he raided the homes of the wealthy, using keys he copied in his normal line of business. He was wildly successful, partly because on social occasions he had the opportunity to scope out the homes he visited. As a trusted member of the government, he was made the head of the team set up to hunt himself down, so he led Edinburgh on a merry fruitless chase, until the night one of his three cronies was caught and flipped on him. Now, some might be thinking about how that has got to stink for Brodie – but also factor in the practice of torture, widely accepted for hundreds of years: that poor crony probably took one look at the thumbscrews and squealed the secret of life itself. Brodie caught wind of this and fled to Amsterdam, hoping the marijuana fumes would confuse anyone looking for him. Unfortunately, this did not work: he was caught and then hanged on the very gallows he had designed.

I was done with the writer’s museum a bit early, so I muddled my way to the Scottish Museum:

Fine, fine, cool stuff. Yawn. But wait! Was that…?

Dolly was the first successful cloned animal, and if you don’t know about her, you’ve had a life outside the exciting field of biology. But no matter. She has been preserved for your convenience. Did you know why she was called Dolly? Think of the famous people called Dolly over the course of pop history: there’s Barbara Streisand’s character in the memorable musical, and then there’s Dolly Parton, a woman known for the ampleness of her bosom. This is a purposeful correlation, as Dolly the sheep was cloned from another sheep’s mammaries.

So I’ve promised to talk about my own experiences with ghosts. I didn’t see, feel, or hear anything direct or concrete, but I will hold that I was in the presence of some very serious stuff: it’s up to you to decide about your own opinions on the matter. The second night, Pauline and I grouped up with some people from our hostel and did two tours: the first one simply sucked and the second one gave me the fright of my life.

The second tour took us down into the South Bridge – Edinburgh was built on a series of hills (much like Rome, actually, only the Romans tended to level their hills), so bridges were needed to connect them. The bridge has always been surrounded by bad luck: deaths during construction made people wary, so when the bridge was close to being completed, they asked an old lady in the city that everyone liked to walk across the bridge as a show of confidence. Unfortunately, she died, too, a week before the ribbon-cutting. So instead a horse and cart pulled her coffin across the bridge – meaning that the first person to cross the bridge was dead, which didn’t exactly quell fears.

Then there was the fact that the vaults (rooms) inside the bridge weren’t feasible for use as storage, as the dampness permeated barrels of alcohol and other goods and ruined them (“save the whiskey! save the whisky!”). So effectively, there were 1,200 empty rooms in a time when being homeless was illegal: people packed in, sometimes without space to lie down to sleep. Many of the people didn’t have work, didn’t have money for food or light. Disease was rampant – as was crime – making the average survival in the bridge 18 months. This would have been a prime target for criminals like Burke and Hare, as these people would disappear off the map and no policeman would investigate. For that matter, if you were a criminal on the run, all you had to was make it into the South Bridge and they wouldn’t come in after you. You can see why this place would be haunted and why the topside of the bridge was barely used.

We saw four vaults in the bridge – barely scratching the surface – and from the moment I stepped inside, my hands were sweating and my knees were shaking uncontrollably. While it was cold down there, it was also just unbelievably frightening. There were things down there that no one alive could explain, a feeling of being watched very intensely, a feeling of being at a disadvantage in a very important way. Now, on this tour, they did pull some cheap tricks – lights turning on and going out at exactly the right moment, turning off the flashlight (partially to show us how dark it would have been, which was incredibly dark), yelling while it was so dark, then turning the lights back on and having a guy in a scream mask jump out and go ‘boo.’ All that crap aside, I think that there was something truly evil there, something that was glad that we were there and something that, if it had the energy, would be able to do truly horrifying things.

I’m going to make a note here about people that may want to play tricks on me in light of the previous information: I get really and truly pissed off when someone does this, and it takes a while to get back on my good side afterward. I scared the crap out of an Italian guy on that tour because he tried to ‘ghost-touch’ my shoulder.

This is Calton Hill, one of the places I wish I had gone while in Edinburgh. I don’t know what’s up there, but it looks cool.

And that’s finally it for Edinburgh. Thanks for sticking until the end!