Erin Go Bragh

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ve had a long, if somewhat oblique, relationship with Ireland. My English grandfather was stationed in Ireland during the 1920s. He was regular army – not the much hated Black and Tan who came later – and always expressed sorrow over the difficult lives experienced by so many of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

As a teenager interested in fantasy, I was drawn to Celtic mythology much of it based in the legends of Ireland. I still have a copy of Nora Chadwick’s ‘The Celts’ on my bookshelves. Given how often I’ve moved and how many books I’ve given up, that’s an indication of how important it was to me. On the fantasy side, Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer, was a favorite.

the celts

Over the years, I read many Irish writers. Some like Yeats and Joyce were readily identifiable as such; others, like Beckett, less so.

In my mind, Ireland was a green land, filled with mist and bog and surrounded by a tumultuous ocean. It was a land of faerie and myth. It was much more than that, of course. Though the common image of the Irish church is one of oppression and backwardness, this was a modern development. Irish monks had been essential to the preservation of much of the legacy of ancient times. While libraries were being burned across Europe, they preserved and protected books and eventually returned them to the mainland. The Irish may well have saved western civilization. Irish theologians were also the strongest defenders of the idea that women had souls – a matter of some dispute in the 9th century.

In the 1990s, I wound up becoming the Artistic Director of the Liffey Players in Calgary and was introduced to the majesty of Irish theatre. I directed half a dozen plays by Friel and Heaney and Keane. I even had a chance to chat briefly with Seamus Heaney – the year before he won the Nobel prize. I wrote a play of my own – thankfully lost now – loosely based on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The highlight of my time with the company was directing Bold Girls by Rona Munro.

The Cure at Troy

The cast of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

A couple of years ago I finally visited Ireland itself – or at least Dublin – where I walked the banks of the Liffey and cruised the many museums and parks that fill the city centre. Dublin was a little down at the heels – Ireland was swept up in the banking madness of the early 21st Century and is still suffering the consequences. But it was still a pleasure to see.

We visited numerous pubs where we heard too many versions of ‘Whiskey in the Jar” but also some great traditional music. Liz and I spent a fun evening dancing to live music in what passed for a pick-up bar in Dublin. We even tried to get the locals up on the floor. The lasses were willing but the lads went so far as to fake injury to avoid participating. At the end of the night, one of the women took Liz’s hands in hers and told her in a beautiful Irish lilt: You’re lovely.

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The River Liffey

Which is pretty much how I felt about Dublin. I look forward to returning to it and the surrounding countryside someday.

And that’s ten minutes.

Homecoming

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I love to travel. It is enlightening and enlivening. When you go to a new place, it can be challenging and even a little scary in the ‘horror movie’ kind of way. It seems dangerous and risky but you’re pretty sure you’re going to survive it and come out just fine on the other side. Travel can broaden your perspective and enrich your understanding of life.

I love to travel but, after a while, I love to come home again. The sense of familiarity makes it easy to just be yourself; you don’t have to be cautious or concerned about the impression you’ll make. You can talk politics freely without risking starting a riot, an international incident or a term in a Turkish prison.

Coming home is also eye-opening. Even in ten days, a lot can change. The leaves fall from the trees; your balcony garden has dwindled to the last few cold-hardy plants. There is even a new layer of dust on all your things. And of course there is the mail to open – yes, I still get relevant things via Canada Post – and the contents of the fridge to explore (cautiously).

On the first day back, we all say the same thing – ‘do you realize that just 24 hours ago, we were walking on a beach in Cuba or listening to the call to prayer in Istanbul. After a week, it all begins to blur – the best parts standing out as shining moments and the worst acquiring the patina of wild adventure. A trip is never better than it is in memory.

Still, if you do it right, remain open to new ideas and tastes and concepts of beauty and cultural value, a trip, whether for pleasure, for business or for learning, can be an almost endless string of singular moments, that, while they are happening, have a sense of eternity. A journey, I suspect, is the only kind of heaven that would be worth dying for.

Back home, the demands of routine return. There are bills to pay – including those impulse purchases we often make on our last day abroad, desperate perhaps to extend out stay just that much longer, by having something special to unpack. Work soon beckons, whether it’s the day job or a publishing business that demands your attention or that story that needs to be finished or marketed. You chide yourself a little for not getting more done while travelling but you know in your heart that you don’t regret your preoccupation with people and place one little bit.

Still, it is great to finally lay your head on your own pillow and let the familiar sounds of your own home and your own city drift you off to sleep. In a month, you’ll say, that was such a great trip. Remember when… Or you will say as you look at a favorite souvenir or photo, oh, that was such a perfect day…

In three months, you’ll say: darn, we never have any fun. And start planning your next trip and your next homecoming.

And that’s ten minutes.

Turkish Hiking

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If you ever go to Uchisar in Turkey, you must spend part of everyday, hiking down one of the many valleys that cover the land. With names like Pigeon Valley, Love Valley or Rose or Swords, the choices are myriad. The walks are pretty arduous and, therefore, good for you and the vistas are spectacular. But of course the real reason you must walk them is, it is the only way to work off the tremendous amount of food you will eat.

Breakfast in Turkey is always sumptuous but at our hotel in Uchisar – the Sakli Konak – it was spectacular. You arrive when you like between 7 and 10 and take a seat at one of the large breakfast tables. Soon a young man will bring you a tray with nine kinds of cheese on it. Surrounding that will be five kinds of olives, several slices of deli-meat or perhaps sausages in tomato sauce. A basket of bread, of course, is provided (more if requested – you pig) with 10 types of homemade jams as well as peanut butter and honey still in the honeycomb. Had enough yet? Would you like an egg prepared, any style? Have some fruit – melon one day, slices of apple and orange wedges the next. But wait, there’s more. Some eggy fried bread perhaps or crispy fried pita with cheese in the middle. Don’t forget your coffee and orange juice. And what would breakfast be without a tomato, cucumber and pepper salad? And to fill up the corners, a few chunks of delicious nutty halva.

Now you walk. For three to four hours or so, scrambling up and down steep slopes and along narrow ridges, taking pictures every ten steps or so because you can’t believe the next fabulous magical view. And the reward on the other end? A nice cold beer and lunch on a lovely rooftop terrace with more spectacular vistas to look at.

It doesn’t matter what you order, they always start you off with a free appetizer. On our last day it was fresh baked bread which you dip in oil, spices and crumbled feta cheese. Delicious. Then we had hot hummus (the edges were still bubbling when they served it) topped with beef bacon. For our mains we shared dry roasted lamb neck with rice, potatoes and grilled vegetables. And we had worked so hard on our hike that we deserved a dessert of yogurt with honey plus some thick Turkish coffee (with a few pieces of Turkish Delight thrown in as ‘thank you for your business’ treat).

I’d like to tell you we then walked back up the hill to Uchisar (some 8 km away) but we took a cab. We needed to rest up for supper.

And that’s ten minutes.

Turkish Carpets

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It is always interesting to visit a city or a country for the first time. No matter how many guidebooks or travelogues you read, the reality is always different. The first day or so is spent recovering from jet lag and learning the rules. And it always takes a few marginal – hopefully not bad – experiences to really let you start to figure things out.

Wednesday was our third day in Istanbul and was the transition point when we went from bumbling foreigners to semi-confused tourists. The previous day was forecast to be the last sunny day so we had gone down to Princes’ Islands on the ferry. It was glorious but on the way back we misread a map and got off at the wrong ferry terminal. We were dropped in the middle of the busiest night life of the city – at a bus terminal in the dark. It was a wakeup call of sorts, a reminder that this is not home and we are strangers here.

The next day we decided to stay closer to ‘home’ and went up to see the Blue Mosque. On our way we were accosted by a friendly fellow who greeted us warmly. Being Canadians we responded politely and soon we had a boon companion. He was very clear – he would help us out and we would visit his shop later on. And, in fact, he was very helpful. He advised us that we had arrived too late for the Mosque –it closes at lunch – and suggested we go to the Hagia Sophia instead. He got us past several queues and gave us good advice as to what to look for. Ninety minutes later there he was waiting patiently by the exit in the rain.

What else could we do but follow him? We went to his shop – not his at all but his ‘family’s business’ – and then the hard sell began. We were given a fifteen minute history of the evolution of the Turkish carpet along with explanations of how much work went into them and all the rules governing the sale and export of heritage rugs. Then the display – carpets rolled out across hardwood floors and flipped artistically through the air to show off their colors. There was talk of government set anticipatory prices and discounts to be had. This one was $2000 and that one only $1200. Though we expressed a desire to see something smaller and more modest (we live in a small place, we explained), the hint was never taken. Oddly, if they had shown us something nice for $750 we might have bought, but I guess the margin wasn’t high enough. In any case no sale was made.

Our friend was waiting outside – disappointed no doubt that he would earn no commission. He gently asked for a small tip for his time. It wound up being 50 lira ($25), not bad given the show we had received. We made our escape before he could guide us to his favorite ‘family’ restaurant and spent the rest of the day in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts but that’s another story.

Lesson learned in any case – don’t respond to friendly offers with anything more than a smile and shake of your head.

And that it ten minutes.

Istanbul

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As I write this it is late afternoon in Istanbul. Meanwhile back in Canada, polls have barely opened and Canadians will spend the day deciding the fate of their country for the next four years. It seems odd not to be there, watching the results flow in with friends but I’m sure they will flow in without me.

Arriving in Istanbul after a 10 hour flight was, as you might expect, disorienting. The long hours combined with the dramatic time shift – seven hours – is only compounded by the distinctly different nature of the city. There was fog at our arrival obscuring the land around the airport, but almost immediately one senses a difference quite unlike the various European or Mexican cities I have visited. The combination of old and new is dramatic as is the massive amount of construction that seems to be going on everywhere.

As we drove in from the airport I was struck by the size of the city’s port – dozens of ships filled the waters of the bay – and by the importance water must play in the life of the city and its citizens. As I’ve been reading – and despite the joys of books they only take you so far – Istanbul is intricately linked to the life of the waters that surround it and divide it.

Our hotel in is in one of the oldest districts and from the small balcony where I write this I can see the dome of one of the many mosques of Istanbul. During our lunch on a sunny rooftop terrace, the call to prayer began to reverberate from the many minarets – now all equipped with loudspeakers – that rise above the rooftops all over the city. The echoing and ululating cries truly marked our entrance into a different world. Liz and I found it quite beautiful, but from the way many Turks responded, I suppose it is possible to become quickly blasé in a mostly secular city. Still, as we left the restaurant we did come across one the waiters praying to Mecca as is his obligation five times a day.

Istanbul has already begun to capture my deepest imagination. The range of people, both local and foreign that fill its streets, the way two great religions face each other often from across the square, the mix of old and new architecture, traditional and modern dress – and everywhere you look stray dogs and cats slinking or strutting along the sidewalks and across the patches of grass – will undoubtedly fuel my thoughts for months to come.

So, vote my Canadian friends and give me something to come back to or I might just stay here.

And that’s ten minutes.

Respect

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Some years ago I was visiting Chichen Itza in Mexico. It is one of the largest of the abandoned Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula – with many features including temples and ball courts. Though sometimes called a city, it was, in fact, even the days of the Mayan empires, a place with great religious significance. Most of the building there served the theological classes of that culture. It was therefore a sacred site.

Though the Mayan political system largely disappeared just prior to the arrival of Europeans, the people are still there. You can see it in their faces, many of which resemble those carved in stone. You can also see it in their religious rites where Catholicism is wedded to ancient Aboriginal traditions and practices. Like most Aboriginal peoples, these practices are closely tied to the land, especially waterfalls and jungle pools, as well as to man-made structures.

On this particular visit a small group of us were being escorted by a guide – actually a local college teacher – who was well-versed both in the history and current significance of the place. He asked us to speak in low tones and generally behave in a manner that we would adopt if we were visiting a gothic cathedral in Spain or England. Even if we didn’t believe, we should act with respect.

In the course of our tour we came across three or four twenty somethings, stretched out on one of the shelves of a pyramid, sunbathing. They were dressed only in their bathing suits – very skimpy ones. To say the guide was upset would be an understatement – you could see it in his face and body. But he calmly went to them and explained that they were violating a sacred place with their behavior and that local people – who had already lost so much to colonialism – would be offended and hurt by their actions. Maybe it was his manner; maybe these people (all Europeans) were more sensitive to issues of oppression than some others – but in any case they were clearly embarrassed (I told you they were nearly naked and I can attest that a full body blush is possible). They apologized profusely, gathered up their clothes and slunk away.

Respect is not a hard thing to grant people and cultures not our own but all too often tourists arrive in a place, completely ignorant of the people and places they are visiting. It is all just a theme park to them. They paid their money and they seem to feel they have a right to take the ride any way they please.

That’s what the situation in Malaysia is all about. People arrive from foreign lands and want to do something – they seem to have no idea that their actions may cause cultural earthquakes if not real ones. How is stripping off your clothes (with your sister!) and pissing on a sacred site different from doing it to a war memorial or in a church? Of course, there are some people who have no problem doing that either.

Maybe the ability to show respect for other cultures should be one of the questions people get asked before they are granted a visa to go.

But that’s ten minutes.

Pastoral

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Many people go on and on about the beauty of this particular landscape or the other. They tell me how much they miss the hills of home or how there is something about the light in the sky that always tells them where they are. Each outcropping or stand of trees represents a landmark in their journey from childhood to maturity. Blah, blah, blah.

Frankly all countryside looks pretty much the same to me. As The Arrogant Worms put it: it’s all rocks and trees, rocks and trees and water. Which pretty much sums it up.

I was recently in rural Alberta visiting my in-laws in the wake of my mother in law breaking her hip. It involved a lot of driving around. My wife was telling me how it was all so familiar, so Albertan. I responded that the only way I could tell I was in Alberta as opposed to rural anywhere else was by the large number of oil pumps extracting hydrocarbons from the ground. That’s right. For me the most distinctive feature of the landscape was a manmade device important for powering cities.

Really, when I look around – to the extent that I can see through allergy blinded eyes – it all looks like empty fields broken by clumps of bushes or trees of various heights. I’m sure there is some variation in types of trees but really, it’s all just wood, right? And one little valley shaped by a piddling ass stream is pretty much the same as another wherever you go.

Now I’m not oblivious to the spectacular. Mountains with snow on top have always impressed me as have really big waterfalls and the ocean. Though it has to be a real ocean like the Pacific and not some piddling little sea or lake. Yes, nature can be impressive but really, if you’ve seen one big gush of water going over a cliff, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

For the most part I view the country side as pollen filled wastelands one has to cross to get from one city to another. Not that every city is a wondrous place but in my experience they are all significantly different one from the other. No one is going to confuse Seattlwith Paris the way I confuse Saskatchewan and South Dakota or the wilds of New Brunswick with northern Ontario or Wisconsin. Contrary to what Karl Marx said, even an idiot must prefer cities to rural life.

Cities have character. They have interesting architecture. They have fine restaurants. And theatres. They have interesting people rather than coyotes and bears. They don’t generally have an excess of allergens.

And they have airports which – to me – is the next best thing to teleportation.

But that’s ten minutes. Inspired by Sheri Dibble Shvonski though probably not in the way she meant.