Friday 31 August 2012

Losing My Way

Image via Vintage Printable

This week I've felt a little lost.  Moving back to your hometown after a very long absence is a strange experience, and my commute between Dublin and Melbourne has both helped and hindered, by keeping me with one foot in and one foot out for nearly a year.

Moving home seems like it should be easy because it's familiar - but in fact, that almost makes it harder.  It's like trying to catch up with a TV series you once watched religiously, when you've missed several seasons and almost all the characters are new.  Just because I was a big fan of Home and Away in days of yore doesn't mean it makes any sense to me now.  (Although it's reassuring to see that Alf's still in it.)

I'm scared of not being able to find a place for myself here after so long away - but, conversely, I'm also scared of losing my Lady Traveller identity and the openness and sense of adventure that has been part of my life for the past three years.

But here's what I know.  Getting lost is an inevitable part of any journey.  I've always found my way in the past - so I have to trust that I will find my way now too.

Thursday 30 August 2012

South to Samarkand

Having finished (finally) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I decided it was time to turn to a new lady traveller.  You know how it is: you take a book off your bookshelf (originally found in a bottom shelf in the farthest reaches of the top floor of Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford), google the author and discover that she was a prolific novelist, a lover of W. B. Yeats and Bertrand Russell (bien sur), a sometime anarchist (aren't we all?) and looked like this:

Ethel Mannin

So I was already pretty excited when I turned to the publisher's introduction:

South to Samarkand: subtitle - 'how to get to Turkistan and back without getting caught.'

I can't wait!

The tomb of Tamerlane

Wednesday 29 August 2012


I avoid talking about the day job out of courtesy to my clients, but it occurred to me recently that that doesn't stop me sharing some of the amazing content I come across ... especially things that might not otherwise jump up on your cultural radar.

Last night I finally got round to watching 'Mabo', an Australian docudrama about Koiki 'Eddie' Mabo. His name is part of Australian history because of the landmark case he, with several others, took against the Queensland government.  The Australian High Court's decision in 'Mabo vs. Queensland' rejected the doctrine of 'terra nullius'.  In a (very small) nutshell, this was the concept that the Europeans who settled Australia were arriving in a land that didn't belong to anyone - so the Indigenous peoples of Australia could not claim that the land was actually theirs.

The film is, first, a romance - and I love that it humanises the people involved.  People whose names pass into the history books are sometimes drawn as sort of idealistic robots (weird image, but do you know what I mean?  As though they're only programmed to see their cause through.)  This movie shows that Mabo was a passionate and courageous person - but also a real man and, as such, flawed.

The film is beautifully shot.  The image that has stuck with me since I first saw it a few months ago in Australia (at 0:56 in the trailer) shows the barristers and judge - all in their formal black robes - clambering barefoot out of a rowing boat with their trousers rolled up.  Somehow it reenacts, not just Mabo's story, but more than 200 years of cultures colliding.

More on Mabo:

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Still Smitten

So - I visited Helsinki at the end of June.  It was probably clear from the posts I wrote that I fell for the place - completely head over heels.  I was going through some photo files today to look for something else and I found a photo that reminded me of everything I loved about Helsinki.

How beautifully, simply designed. How elegant. How Lotte Reiniger. How gorgeously right for a hairdressing salon to have this above its door - and let me tell you, Helsinki is lousy with hairdressers.  We saw one on every corner.  So having a sign that acts as a visual aide memoire is a great idea.

But this was just one example of thoughtful, simple, beautiful design that we saw everywhere in the city.  And the best part?  It was egalitarian.  Everywhere we went we saw great, affordable design.
Oh, Finland.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Sisters on the Roof

Flashback a few weeks to Greece.  Three sisters at a rooftop bar.  

Sisters, sisters, never were there such devoted sisters,
Never had to have a chaperone - no, sir!
I'm here to keep my eye on her.

Caring, sharing, 
Every little thing that we are wearing.  
When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome, she wore the dress, and I stayed home.

All kinds of weather, we stick together, the same in the rain and sun.  
Three different faces, but in tight places, we think and we act as one.  

Those who've seen us know that not a thing could come between us.  
Many men have tried to split us up, but no one can.

Lord help the mister, who comes between me and my sisters ... and Lord help the sister, 
Who comes between me and my man.

Monday 20 August 2012

Up There

As recent posts indicate, I spent a couple of idyllic, sun-drenched days in North Antrim recently.

When my brother and sisters and I were children, we took for granted our frequent journeys to the North of Ireland.  Through the 70s and 80s, when most of our schoolmates associated 'Up There' (if they associated it with anything) with daily news bulletins of violence, we knew it as where Granny lived - and one of our favourite places to be.

You can now travel from Dublin to Belfast in two hours or less on the motorway.  Back then it was closer to four on narrow roads - woe betide you if you got stuck behind a tractor.  We could recite by heart the towns we would pass through.  Ashbourne.  Slane, where the father built his four daughters each a house on a corner of the square. Collon. Dunleer. Dundalk.  Crossing the border which now has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality.  Back then there were soldiers with big guns.  The soldiers were usually young, and usually friendly.  But even our big car packed with mother and children and snacks and teddy bears was sometimes searched.  Newry. Banbridge. Lisburn. Belfast. Antrim. Ballymena.

Ballymena is best known for its two most famous sons: Liam Neeson and Ian Paisley.  Handily, they represent both sides of the political and cultural divide.  To us, though, it was home to our Granny, numerous cousins in the first, second and third degree, McGroggans' ice cream and Camerons, fervently believed to be the best toy shop in the world.  (You could fit Camerons in a corner of Hamley's or F.A.O. Schwartz ... but that's not to say that it wasn't the best toy shop in the world.)

Our visits to Northern Ireland were a complicated mixture of the familiar and the exotic.  Familiar: family, food (the Ulster Fry as executed by my mama is a thing of great beauty), stories and songs. This was where my mother grew up and I knew the stories of her childhood and her mother's childhood as well as the plots of my favourite books.

But then there was an exoticism as well.  The money was different.  The accents were different (and my brother and sisters and I stuck out with our strange Dublin pronunciation). Distances were in miles, not kilometres. The school system was different and great was my embarrassment when I couldn't explain which 'P' I was in at school. (In Dublin, we had 1st through 6th Class; in the North they had P1 through P7.)  I felt foreign and not-foreign, all at the same time.

That an awful lot has changed in Northern Ireland is well-documented.  Last week, I realised something had changed in me too.  The years I've spent living overseas have helped me to overcome the foreigner/not-foreigner issue.  I've learned (living in Oxford, London, Cape Town, Melbourne) that you can belong to multiple places.  You may have a 'funny' accent (oh, if I had a cent/penny for every time I've heard that ...) and occasionally refer to events that nobody else in the room ever heard of.  But here's the secret of belonging: a willingness to learn new customs, to accept old traditions and - above all - to love the place.

Friday 17 August 2012

Visit NI!

A typical summer's day on the North Antrim coast -

Starting with a stroll in Port Bradden,

followed by an icy cold a refreshing swim at Ballintoy.

Then you walk along the cliff path towards Carrick-a-Rede,

to cross the rope bridge like the fishermen of old - and the tourists of new.

Then back to Ballintoy for lunch on the pier.

You're welcome, Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

p.s. honesty compels me to point out - for the sake of any innocent tourist who may be planning a trip to Ireland - although these places are always beautiful, they're not always this sunny.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Seals and Selkies

Walking near the Smugglers' House on Rathlin, I heard the loud and unmistakable sound of snoring.  I could see some seals in the water, but it couldn't be them - because the sound persisted even when they went underwater.  I looked around for some stray smugglers who might have sampled too much of their wares, but there were none to be seen.

Eventually (and because one of them moved) I realised that what I thought were piles of driftwood were actually lounging seals.  They had arranged themselves on the rocks and in the rock pools.  Some were entirely out of the water, others had their noses and the tips of their tails out - but their bellies submerged.  They were snoring and sighing and snuffling and calling to each other in very human-like tones.

And the legend of the selkies - creatures who are seals in the water, but abandon their skins or cloaks on land and take human form - made perfect sense to me.  I could see the seals becoming human - or I could imagine myself putting on a seal cloak and diving under the waves.

Would it be to much to ask, in my selkie life, for a seal husband who doesn't snore?

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Rathlin Island

As documented here and here, I am endeavouring to visit all of Ireland's inhabited off-shore islands.  Last year I went to Cape Clear, in Co. Cork, and last week I went to Rathlin Island, off the North Antrim coast.  So that's one on either end of the island of Ireland ... and, at the current rate, I'll have visited all the islands around about my 75th birthday.  Might need to increase the rate slightly.

A few quick facts about Rathlin: it is shaped like a capital 'L' (as seen upside down) and is 6km from east to west and 2.5km from north to south. The island is almost as close to Scotland as it is to Ireland.  To get there, you take a ferry from Ballycastle, 10km away.  You can buy ferry tickets on the day although it is advisable to book ahead for weekends in the summer.  Depending on whether it's the fast or slow ferry, the journey will take between 20 and 40 minutes.

Ballycastle Harbour
1 x mama, 1 x aunt

The morning we went was sunny (!), the sea was calm and we had a marvellous view of Marconi's cottage (where he pioneered wireless radio transmissions) and some friendly porpoises.*

The first thing we saw on Rathlin was the village at Church Bay, which consists of a six-pupil school, two churches (one Catholic, one Protestant), a hotel (which houses pub, restaurant, shop and medical centre), a second pub, a post office, a visitor centre and a fish and chip shop. It is entirely typical that an Irish island with a population of fewer than 100 people should have two churches and two pubs.

Church Bay
Manor House
The Village
Rathlin is a famous bird sanctuary and home to a colony of puffins.  The ferries are met by two buses, which will take you to the RSPB sanctuary at the West Lighthouse for a small charge - the entertaining commentary is free.  But I begged to go to Bruce's cave** first - or at least the East Light, which is the nearest accessible point. En route we spotted cows, cottages and Scotland in the distance.

The cave is only accessible by sea, so this is the closest I could get to a photo of it: I drew the line at lowering myself over the cliffs.

Bruce's Cave is about 10m down and round to the right
The route to and from the lighthouse is a loop and on our way back we visited the two churches.  The Catholic Church contains a stained glass window in honour of St Eithne, which I found pleasing.  My aunt remarked that she didn't realise there was a St Eithne (thought she was some rando, made-up saint) but clearly the people of Rathlin do.

The Church of Ireland church has, rather beautifully, pebbles inset into its walls.

Its churchyard is also the (multi-denominational) graveyard for the islanders and contains these graves: all sailors who were washed ashore in World War I.

We stopped at the Manor House hotel for tea and scones and a slice of island life as we waited for our tea to be made.  I watched (and eavesdropped, sorry) fascinated when the postman came in with stack of letters and mail order catalogues and much discussion of ordering and receiving of parcels.  I know we hear all the time about the internet revolution - but can you imagine just how much the internet and online shopping have changed island life?

After scones, we got the bus to the West Light, unusual - even unique? - in that it's upside down.

The light, you'll notice, is at the bottom of the building, instead of the top.  There was an explanation concerning cliffs, sea levels and optimal heights for ship-to-shore light viewing but I didn't entirely understand it ... sorry!  Apart from the unique lighthouse configuration, this is where the RSPB hangs out and volunteers will point out different birds to you, lend you binoculars and help you work out what you're seeing through the fixed telescopes.
1 x blogger plus new puffin friend
Kittiwakes, razorbills and one peregrine falcon - honestly, they're all there.
To complete our lighthouse set, we walked to the South or Rue Light.  Close by is the ruined smugglers' house.  No smugglers now but lots of seals.

Our last stop was back in Church Bay for fish and chips.  I had read that Emma's Chip Ahoy was 'award-winning'.  It was suggested, meanly, that the award was for best fish and chips on the island, but actually the award in question was impressive and the fish and chips (fresh mackerel) delicious.

And then - it was time to say goodbye.

On the boat back to Ballycastle I pondered two things. First - that my island-hopping seems to coincide with rare good weather in Ireland. Second - could I live on a small island?  I don't know ... but I'm excited to explore the next one.

*One of our party thought they were sharks ... but the consensus was porpoises

**The Bruce of the story is not some stray Australian who was marooned on the island but rather Robert the Bruce, now best known as yer man the narrator of Mel Gibson's Braveheart ... The real, historical Bruce was king of Scotland in the 14th century.  Before he became king, however, he was defeated in battle and forced to hide on Rathlin.  The legend is that he fell asleep in a cave while watching a spider struggling to spin a web across the cave mouth.  When Bruce awoke, there was a beautiful web - seeing it, he resolved to  keep on fighting.

Monday 13 August 2012

Ireland or Greece?

No, not some kind of existential challenge, but a new game.  Just look at the following photos and guess whether they were taken in Ireland or in Greece.  Ready to play?

My dears (and the clue is in the fact that I'm wearing jeans and a shirt in the blazing sunshine) they were all taken in Ireland last week.  I threw in the picture of the Orthodox priest as a bluff but it was sheer coincidence that he turned up outside the tiny blue and white church of St Gobban's in Port Bradden just as we were remarking how Greek everything looked.

I spent a couple of days in the North of Ireland last week, working on no. 21 on my Life List: Visit all of Ireland’s inhabited off-shore islands.  I was in the company of my mother, aunt, uncle, assorted cousins as we were also celebrating one big birthday and revisiting childhood haunts.  The sunshine was an unexpected, but glorious, bonus.

More on the island hopping, sunshine and nostalgia to follow.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Let's Go

People have asked me whether we saw any evidence of the political / economic turmoil in Greece.  Mostly, the answer is no - we spent much of our time eating, swimming and sleeping.  But, we did encounter this demonstration on the streets of Thessaloniki.  (I asked one of the guys nearest to us if he would donate one of the banners to the project I'm working on but he told me the banners were counted on the way out and the way back in!)

'Pame' means 'let's go', but I have no idea what they're shouting for (or against).  Life in general, I suspect.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Gyros at Midnight

The Three Sisters (non-Chekhovian, non-depressed variety) went for cocktails in the nearest town.  After two rounds of lethally strong Caipirinhas (or the Greek interpretation thereof) we realised we needed something to mop up the alcohol.  Being in Greece, the obvious solution was to head to the Gyro shop.

At the time, a full gyro with the works (tzatziki, chips, mustard, tomatoes, onions etc) seemed the obvious way to go and I went happily to bed afterwards, feeling no ill effects, or so I thought ...

Had the strangest dreams all night, culminating in one where Barry Manilow was my boyfriend.

Caution: Handle with care.