Yet Another Clusterfuck: Britain, Brexit, and Belfast…
I realize that I’m not an expert. I can’t figure out Brexit, its implications,
though I can understand why such a large percentage of Brits voted for it.
Mistakenly. I think even they realize it now. And certainly, four days in
Northern Ireland, as a tourist, doesn’t make me a pundit. But I can report on
what I saw, what I felt.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are worried. This nervous peace, which most of us an ocean away point to as “see, it can be done if the two sides want it badly enough,” is tenuous, fragile, like a bad marriage that relentlessly threatens to come apart at the seams. It is just that — a bad marriage, with years, now centuries, of merciless history barely concealed below the surface.
it is 95% better than it was.” I heard this phrase,
these exact words, from every tour guide, every native spoke with. And I have
no reason to doubt it. But it also signals how bad it was. The Nationalists, Catholics,
want one nation, harbor what seem to me to be ancient grudges; the Unionist,
Protestant Presbyterians mainly, harbor more recent resentments. This nervous
Here’s what I saw – in Belfast, the City Centre, alive, vibrant, restaurants, coffee shops, tour buses; then a bit north of the centre, beautiful, tree-lined streets, and the beautiful campus of Queen’s University. Ah, all is well, you think.
And then – for isn’t there always an “and then”? — the “other” side of town, where working people live, those without the resources for those well-manicured lawns and highly-polished brass door fixtures. Rows and rows of smaller houses, most neat and well-cared-for. And graffiti, and slogans, and murals on so many of the building walls. The Nationalists, the Catholics, you can tell their neighborhoods. They support Palestine, identifying with them in their fight for existence.
They support Catalonia in their fight to be separate from Spain, though to this outsider, the argument can be made that the Catalonian issue supports the Unionists, who want to be separate from the Republic of Ireland. (I kept those thoughts to myself.)
Protestant neighborhood, no graffiti or slogans, their umbrage more subtle.
To me, an outsider, the neighborhoods seems identical. But they are still separated by walls, by fences, by religion. Separate. Still separate.
with the children, you say. Sounds good, except 97% of the public schools in
Ireland are under church control, 91% of it under the control of the Roman
Catholic Church. And while the Irish seem to have found the acumen to think for
themselves (same-sex marriage, legal abortions), this does not appear to have
affected their thinking about bringing Ireland under one aegis.
I visited Derry, or Londonderry as the Unionists call it, the city that experienced the worst of The Troubles. The Battle of the Bogside historically marked its official beginning. So much history, so many mistakes, and the bog area, the west bank of the River Foyle, still glaringly poorer than the rest of this lovely city. Yet I walked across the Peace Bridge, constructed in 2011, as a visible symbol of …what? Peace, perhaps?
So many mistakes. The English valuing country over people; the Irish valuing independence over human lives; systematic starvation; and the feelings so deep, religion an easy coat to label.
this has nothing to do with Brexit, right? Or does it?
I talked with worried that a split, with Northern Ireland leaving the EU, would
provide a vehicle for Nationalist sentiment to come to the fore, a tacit
approval to mount a campaign of violence. The Republic of Ireland likes being
part of the EU. They have fared well, as, it appears, has Northern Ireland.
Open borders, free flow of traffic, goods, and people, and, perhaps most
importantly, money. Pulling Northern
Ireland from this agreement raises a myriad of imponderables – how would you
monitor goods, how would you keep good with lower standards, and perhaps lower
prices, out of the EU? And should you?
what about this peace, this nervous peace?
I have no answers, no advice. I was but a tourist. But my heart aches for this island, this Ireland.
None of us look like
this. Thought some of us once did, or wished we did. Our group brings to mind
that passage from The Velveteen Rabbit.
You know the one about becoming Real:
a thing that happens to you…It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes
a long time…Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been
loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t
be ugly, except to those who don’t understand.”
We gather a few mornings
a week – in the warm pool at the downtown Y, and go through an hour of water
aerobics, easier on the joints. We greet each other affectionately, gathering
in newcomers who may at first feel awkward, protecting themselves, shy in their
bathing suits without the camouflage of Spanx and loose-fitting tunics and
leggings. We’ve all been there, that first visit, and remember. We welcome the new while remembering those who
are no longer with us.
Now, unlike the Velveteen
Rabbit, most of us still have our hair, though some not – chemotherapy. Our
eyes haven’t dropped off, and our joints are tight, or replaced and, most times,
achy. We know one another by first names only. Few of us socialize on dry land.
But we are here. We are here for one another. We have been here through chemo
rounds, through mourning, through recovery. We’ve been here to celebrate
milestones and victories, great and small, all while semi-submerged in our
chlorine-laced pool. We are here- without makeup, without artifice.
So here’s to us, who show
ourselves as Real, because once you are
Real you can’t be ugly, except to those who don’t understand.
Here they are – my maternal grandmother and my great aunt. They each had their stories, all forgotten now, except by me. Their birthdays come and I am the only one who knows, and that pains me a bit, though my rational side tells me it is only normal and makes me realize that this will come to me as well. That there will be no one to remember my birthday, or my story.
Perhaps that is why I write – on the off chance that someone, someday, may pick up a book and give a thought to the person who wrote it. But for now, I am thinking about their stories, their lives, what I know of them. And this year, I will write about them, so that, perhaps, someday someone will remember and wonder.
While Butterscotch may have wanted to go with me, I
ventured alone to meet Michele in Amsterdam. Flights went smoothly, with aisle
seats – who could ask for more, except perhaps business class. Watched The Notorious RBG, a superb documentary
of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now one of my favorite people. Also read Richard
Russo’s Trajectory, a good collection
of related short stories.
December 5, 2018
After a very long flight and easy entry to the Netherlands, was met by a GCT guide who took a group of us to the ship, M/S River Rhapsody. Had time to visit my room before lunch, during which Michele and family arrived. The group gathered before dinner for a port talk about the next day’s tour (Nijmegen), then, finally, to bed. Lots of steps on the ship, but I’m managing. Mind over matter…
December 6, 2018
A morning Nijmegen tour led by our wonderful guide Bjorn,
restored after an accidental bombing by the US during WWII. Rain did not deter
us. Also learned about “coffee shops” which sell weed. Our group purchased a
nickel bag, which yields about two buds. Also had a lecture by a docent from the
military museum about Operation Market Garden, which we know from A Bridge Too Far. After lunch, I napped –
and I slept so soundly that I slept through the fire drill – only woke up when
staff came to my room to check where I was. Then our Cologne port talk, dinner
and to bed.
Learned that the water level of the Rhine had risen to
the point where we will not have to disembark and bus to another ship further
south. So we get to stay onboard! This is
great news for us, but also great news for Germany. This is the first time for
many months that the Rhine has been deep enough to be navigable. Great expense
entailed in unloading barges and getting supplies from one place to another.
December 7, 2018
A Stollen baking demonstration in the morning, then
late morning out for our walking tour of Cologne. I broke off from the group
and met Gina and Ludwig in front of the cathedral. We had a delight-filled day –
talking, walking around the Christmas markets there, my personal Ludwig-guided
tour of the Cathedral – and a special treat – a walk to see the location where
August Strauff was born, then a mere two blocks away, the church where he was baptized.
Also had coffee at a café where the doors to the toilets are transparent –
until you do in and lock the door – then it becomes translucent with a flower
Gina and Ludwig walked with me back to the ship where
we had a farewell drink. Just a lovely day with these two people, whom I already
Then dinner and a port talk and to watch the lights of
the city of Cologne as we sailed from port that night.
December 8, 2018
Started the morning with a walking tour of Koblenz, which
is at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Again in the rain, but we
were undeterred. Michele and I stopped in one of the markets for coffee – and
saw the house where a mural of Max and Moritz was painted. Max and Moritz in
the US is the Katzenjammer Kids, a Sunday comic strip that I remember from when
I was a little girl at Rock Springs.
After lunch we set sail for Mainz, cruising past the
Lorelei. I think this was part of my trip in 1964, but am not altogether sure.
Will see if I can find pictures or some type of memory. Lots of memories all
jumbled up, for sure.
December 9, 2018
A morning walking tour of Mainz, led by an interesting
looking German man – one can see generations of German, of hardship, of this
obviously educated guy who now leads tourists around his city, even in the
rain. Visited the Gutenberg Museum, looked at architecture – the post-war
reconstruction, some of which is in the old style, some in the hurry-up-and-build
1950s style. Walked around the markets – sat on a wet bench to drink coffee. All
these Germans eat and drink standing up. And the food smells are fantastic
wherever we go.
That evening went on the optional trip to Rudesheim, for dinner and the markets there. Lots of free time, more than I knew what to do with, especially in the rain and the treacherous cobblestones. But I explored the markets and bought a Stollen, which turned out to be very heavy to carry. Then to dinner at a German (of course) restaurant, very touristy, but then I am a tourist, so I didn’t mind at all. And sat with some nice people from the trip. Enjoyable, but a rigorous walk.
December 10, 2018
I napped after breakfast, loving having a room to
myself, It’s like it’s my personal nest, private, just for me. And the treat of
having coffee brought to my room in the morning – a delightful surprise.
We arrived in Speyer after lunch. I have been surprised to learn of the influence of the Celts and the Romans in this area. Love hearing all this history. If only I could remember it. Our home visit was today – four of us went to a woman’s house – she was in her 70s, I think. We saw her apartment, her garden, she was most hospitable. Talked about school after the war – Speyer was in the French-occupied area, so they had to speak French. She served a lovely cake, stollen, coffee, tea. A lovely way to spend an afternoon, and then a woman’s singing group in the evening for entertainment after dinner.
December 11, 2018
To Heidelberg all day. Rainy, but interesting bus ride
– I always enjoy seeing the countryside and the parts of the city we don’t see
on our walking tours. I thought that I had been to Heidelberg in ’64, but once I
was there, I think not. First the castle – very interesting, but oh those
cobblestones, oh those wet cobblestones, oh those hills with wet cobblestones. I
used my cane and don’t think that I would have made it without it. All very
exhausting for me.
After our morning tour, we went to the city of
Heidelberg – the castle was on the hill, unsurprisingly. Had lunch with the
group in a local restaurant, and then Michele and Sven and I explored the
markets and shops. By this time, I know that I am coming down with a
cough/cold, so we picked up some super-German cold tablets.
Enjoying the food, the people, the markets, everything that we’re seeing and doing. But I must say that the pace is rigorous and walking treacherous. It’s exhausting, truly.
December 12, 2018
Our ship arrived in Pittersdorf during the night and
we were on an early bus to Baden Baden, another Roman site. We had a lovely
city walking tour and then Michele and I walked around the markets and ended
the morning with coffee and a pastry at a local shop.
The day before, a terrorist had killed four people at the Strasbourg markets, so it was decided that the ship would not go there. The markets there had closed and the borders secured. We were set to go to Freiburg instead.
December 13, 2018
The ship docked at Breisach during the night and we
set off to Freiburg directly after breakfast. The borders were still closed,
but the bus went through without being stopped. And Freiburg was a lovely
treat. We had a walking tour led by a delightful young woman, saw the Cathedral
and the city and then had a great lunch with Michele and Sven. Michele and I
stayed in town and walked through the markets; also picked up some super cough
drops, since my cold was not getting any better.
Everyone walks around the market drinking Gluwein – a hot,
spiced wine. You can buy it at most stalls, then you pay 1 Euro for the mug;
when you finish your drink, you can return your mug at any of the stalls and
they refund the Euro. A pretty good system, I think.
But all in all, a lovely day and GCT made the change in itinerary seamlessly. Great job.
December 14, 2018
Our last day – spent the morning on ship where the
guides did a presentation on their Christmas traditions and we had the Secret
Santa – I hate those things…
Then in the afternoon we bused to Kayserburg where we explored the city – more wet cobblestones, more uphill wet cobblestones, and then on to Riquewihr, a wine village known for its Rieslings. All were lovely towns, lovely Christmas markets, but I have to say that by this time I was tired. The pace, the cobblestones were grueling, and I wasn’t feeling my best. Was glad to get back to the ship, dinner and then pack to head home.
December 15, 2018
Up at 2 a.m. – luggage out at 3 a.m.; left for airport
at 3:30 a.m. – and an exhausting check-in and flight from Basel to Amsterdam;
then what felt like an endless trip to Atlanta. My poor seatmate – I coughed
much of the flight and felt more miserable with each mile. Then, to top it all
off, I spilled my orange juice over her. I don’t think she’ll forget that
flight, nor will I. But I made it home – R and I arrived at the same time,
about 7:30 p.m. G’so time.
And so…. a lovely trip, even with the weather, even
with the cobblestones. And it was a delight to see Gina and Ludwig. But the
trip, the pace, made me feel my age, I have to say. And made me glad that I had
done so much traveling before it got so difficult. And made me realize that I need
to waste no time in seeing what I want to see.
On Festivus and the Inconveniences of Taking the High Road…
Once again, I missed Festivus. I love the part about “airing of grievances.” For I come from a long line of folks who never do that; we call our lack of rejoinders “taking the high road,” and, indeed, sometimes, most times, it is exactly that. Plus, we get to feel superior to those who thrash and get red-in-the-face in response to an insult, real or imagined.
I am one who finds it
exceedingly difficult to air my protests, and though my spouse might deign to
disagree, he doesn’t know the half of it. While I have no trouble letting him
know exactly how I feel, it is the others, those further removed, yet not
removed enough to make them be of no concern, who rankle while I’m practicing
I have not made public my
protests to those “deaths by a thousand paper cuts,” each by itself too trivial,
too insignificant, to bring to light – slights delivered with or without a
smile, insinuations, exaggerations, or sometimes outright lies. This is how I’ve
tried to live my life, what I have advised those who have come to me with both
workplace and personal issues. “Take the high road. It will pay off in the long
run, and you will feel better about yourself.” And when they followed this
advice, which most did, I was there to congratulate and cheer them on.
Now this is one of the
great rewards of taking the high road – having someone (or many) know about it.
To take the high road in total private – well, you have to have a pretty strong
sense of yourself to take solace in that.
And I realized that is what
is missing. What I want is someone to say “Wow, are you not great? You are
taking the high road. You are the better person. You are a person of character!”
That’s what I want to hear. All these years of raising an eyebrow and keeping
my counsel, all these years of not reporting what the other person had said or
setting the story straight. There are times I want to scream “there are things I
know that I haven’t told you because it would hurt your feelings or change your
mind about someone you think cares about you.”
But I haven’t, and I don’t
think I will. I’m working on leaving all that stewing behind. It benefits no
one, especially me. It’s unlikely that I’ll change my ways, and most likely
that’s a good thing.
In the end it really won’t
matter. In the end we’re all dead anyway, Festivus or no.
One of the few pictures
of us together. See much love here? Me neither.
Maybe she loved me, later on, when I was always there to babysit for her children. Or maybe not. And now I wonder if I ever loved her. I thought I did, though perhaps it was only longing, longing to be special, longing to be beloved.
She was complicated. That’s one way of putting it. She could be charming; she could be kind. And she could be vicious, a laser-sharp cruel streak that makes my heart seize in its memory.
She was my sister.
I intruded upon her world after twelve years of having our parents to herself. The one she loved was our father. The one she hated, or so it seemed, was our mother. And the introduction of a fourth person to that troubled triangle disrupted whatever balance they had assembled over the years.
I was docile, loving,with a craving to please. She was confrontational, angry, seemingly immune to disapproval or reproach. She saw me as weak, a coward. Most likely, I was. I know I was where she was concerned.
Hostile, angry, prone to violent outbursts toward me, out of sight of either parent, she was a master of physical and verbal abuse. Not a fair fight, she a teenager, me a toddler, though she relished her victories.
She was not one to tell the truth. I think her lies made her feel powerful. And I never called her on any of them. I was afraid, afraid that if I did anything to displease her,including standing up for myself, pointing out her “inconsistencies,” that she would have nothing to do with me.
Which she chose to do anyway.
“You will see her once more, but you will never get what you want.” A tarot-reader answered my question almost twenty years ago. She was right.
A decade ago, we met in a restaurant and sat across from one another, polite strangers. I complimented her hair, still thick and auburn after rounds of chemotherapy. It was a wig,she told me, with an air of superiority and a smirk that I had been so naïve, so gauche, to mention it. Or so I interpreted it. I noticed that her nails were ragged and unkempt, and curled my fingers to hide my manicure. We parted in the parking lot, she leaning away as I moved to embrace her. It left me off-kilter.The last time I saw her.
My wounds, most of them, have healed. And I see now that she also had wounds, deeper than mine, though I know that I will never fathom why.
Would that it had been different, we, victims of generations of puzzling family fractures. And I’ll always carry a sadness, somewhere, not too near the surface.
Dear sister, I wish you well. I wish it could have been different.
These days even calling myself a writer fills me with anxiety. I’m somebody who writes. Yes, I am. Just not much these days. Or should I be honest and admit that I’m writing nothing. I’m hoping that this piece, that writing this, putting my anguish out there for the world (or those few who actually read what I post) will do the trick, will get me out of my rut, will spark the engines. I could go on…but, for you, dear reader, I won’t.
I’d never used the term “writer’s block.” I always thought of it as too easy an excuse, one that could be used when it was just too hard to think of something to say, when “your imaginary friends” had other things to do, other writers to grace, or when you realized that what you wrote was just a word ragbag, too full of fancy adjectives, or synonyms, or Victorian phrasing. I’ve experienced all those, but somehow was able to keep at it, knowing, deep down, that I could do better.
But for the last months, truth be told, I just had nothing to say. Well, that and a major dose of laziness. Each morning, I’d tell myself that at least I’d sit at the computer and do more than answer emails and read like-minded Facebook posts. And each day I would do only that. I still had nothing to say.
I couldn’t find a book that enthralled, and after binge-watching The Americans, no Netflix, Prime, or Acorn captured me. I was nothing but a mess.
And then the cloud parted, or at least became a bit more gossamer. I found books I liked – Tana French, Daniel Pink, Bill Bryson, H.L. Mencken, Lianne Moriarity. No pattern that I could discern. Some readings by author friends,. each in her own way nudging me back to the keyboard, if only to write that I cannot write.
And so here are 300 or so words. A start. And it really doesn’t feel that terrible. Fingers crossed that I will hear good news about the one story that I did write this summer and submitted for inclusion in a commemoration of a favorite author. And even if it is not accepted, I sense that my imaginary friends are on their way back to me. I will welcome them with maple tea and stale Krispy Kreme donuts. They tell me that combination is one of their favorites.