Ireland: The Ring of Kerry

If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.


Car or Bus?

Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.

I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.

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This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.

The Challenge of Skellig Michael

Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing.

Skelig Michael Steps, Credit: IrishFireside via FlikrEven before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.

Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.

As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.

Skellig hivesThere are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well.

Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.

What I Actually Did on the Ring

Cahergall Stone Fort

Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.

There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.

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I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. 

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Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across.  It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.

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Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

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On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.

Valentia Tetrapod Trackway

There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land.

There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.

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I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil  hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go.

We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.

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It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland.

It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.

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The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.

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Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.

It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.

Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates

Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views.

I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.

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As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.

Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.

Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.

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If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.

Staigue Fort

I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.

The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.

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Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.

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I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.

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There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.

The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!

Kenmare Stone Circle

Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars.

Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)

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Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates.

I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.

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As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.

The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.

Torc Waterfall

I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.

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After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.

In Conclusion

The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep.

Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.

Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.

What is Up with 2 Irelands Anyway?

One of the things that bothered me most while I was on the Emerald Isle was realizing how little I knew about Irish history between the potato famine and now. Like, I know some fun things about the pre-history, and the Celts and druids, and how those terrible Anglo-Saxons invaded and enslaved … well impoverished anyway, the native Gaelic people. And I know that Ireland is free now… and somehow also 2 countries, but, I really had no idea how that happened. So, this post is going to be all about my discovery of Irish history, how many and what kind of countries it is today, and how we got there.


Pre-History & Myth

A while ago, I got a book of Irish Folk Tales that I have long since passed on to other needier readers, but one of the stories toward the beginning has stayed with me. Irish pre-historic tradition tells of a series of invaders that came and conquered the island in waves. They’ve been Christianized now so that some of the earlier inhabitants are the descendants of Noah, but earlier versions describe them as gods or demi gods, followed by the kind of super-humans that do things like discover how to plow or build tools. There’s a race of monsters and one of giants.

The 5th wave of invaders is known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, which is a familiar word if you ever watched Willow. The Tuatha were described as beautiful, blonde and wise, skilled in magic. Their enemies were the Formorians, described as ugly, deformed and monstrous. It really could be Tolkien’s elves and orcs.

The 6th and final wave were the humans that make up the Gaelic people, also called Milesians, a name which means “soldier of Hispania” because the Milesians were said to have sailed to Ireland from Hispania (Spain) after wandering the world for centuries. They defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, but didn’t kill them all. The remaining Tuatha went underground and became the fairy folk of Irish folk lore.

I was completely fascinated by the notion of this tiny island with zero decent natural resources being invaded by wave after wave of supernatural races before finally being settled by humans. It explained so much about the modern persistence of Irish fairy-tale beliefs well into their Christian conversion and even the Enlightenment and modern age.

20190803_095046.jpgI’ll be sharing some of my own experiences with Irish pre-history in the form of ring forts and museums in a later post.

Here There Be Vikings

Recently, some archaeologists found a whole ton of Viking relics around Ireland, especially in Dublin. Previously, historians thought the Vikings just came to raid the settlements and monasteries in Ireland before returning home, but the recent digs show that there were full on Viking settlements in Ireland as early as 759. If I ever get around to writing about the Viking Splash Tour or the Dublin History museum, I’ll go into more detail there, but I thought it was worth mentioning that after the 6 mythical waves of settlers, there was also a real wave of tall, blonde, fair skinned, skilled at metalwork and… wait, they kinda sound like the Tuatha Dé Danann, don’t they? But, no, the Vikings didn’t appear in Ireland until well after the semi-mythical defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann, aka the much less mythical arrival of the settlers from Spain.

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The British Invasion

I am not a historian, I’m not trying to write the definitive work. I’m not even going to try to compete with the 17 Wikipedia articles about this. I am just writing a short, hopefully oversimplified, series of events for perspective.

The Lordship

From the 12th-16th century, there was an almighty struggle for the soul of the island. The Normans (aka the English) really wanted to introduce landlordship and feudalism to Ireland, but the Gaelic chief system was more about people (clans) than land because sheep move around, and not much grows in Ireland that’s edible, so the whole feudal peasants farm the land and pay taxes thing (think Robin Hood, right?) did not go over well. Dunluce Castle (below) is an example of the kind of medieval castles used by the lords during this time.

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The Kingdom

In 1542, King Henry VIII of England was made King of Ireland. Yes, that Henry the 8th. The one who 8 years prior had taken his whole country out of Catholicism because he wanted a divorce. There was an almighty row between the Protestant and Catholic countries, and many catholic countries refused to acknowledge his (Anglican) rule over (Catholic) Ireland, but eventually it sank in. One example of this struggle can be seen at the the Ross Errily Friary (below). It was a highly contested property from Henry VIII’s invasion until it was finally abandoned after the Franciscans were forced into hiding by the Popery Act of 1698, which placed a bounty on Catholic clergy. From then, the monks lived in hiding, pretending to be a textile factory for a while, and taking up residence on a now vanished nearby island. The last of the friars died in the early 1800s.

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Cromwell

They SAY it was the Kingdom of Ireland until 1800 (remember this year, it will be important later), but there was the little matter of Oliver Cromwell, and his Irish invasion. Cromwell was an ambitious and possibly crazy dude who led a very early anti-royal rebellion in the 1600’s, got King Charles I beheaded and lead England as a Commonwealth (no king = no kingdom). He also invaded the fuck out of Ireland.

To be honest, before this, I really only knew about Cromwell from the Monty Python skit/song, and now that I’ve learned more about him, it’s almost too hilarious not to share. I went looking for the skit, but all I could find was the song (with lyrics). I definitely remember watching it as a younger person, and it’s probably somewhere on the internet still, but not on the Monty Python YouTube channel. Regardless, it’s still Monty Python and funnier than any other version of history. Have a listen:

Cromwell finally got Charles I executed in 1649, whereupon Ireland and Scotland were like, “okay, Charles II is king now!”, so of course he had to invade and do terrible war to spread his anti-royalist sentiment for all of… 4 years. It really was horrible and mostly because of how much he hated Catholics, and only slightly because of how much he hated royalists. Anyway, Cromwell kicked the bucket in 1658, and I don’t usually go in for exact dates, but in this case it’s important cause this dude only ruled (um, commonwealthed?) England for 9 years… slightly more than 2 American election cycles… and he is STILL remembered for the atrocious mess he made. I got to see some of his leftover forts while I was there. This one is on the small western island of Inish Bofin in Galway county… yes that is on the opposite side of the country that’s close to England. Cromwell was a dick.

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People hated him SO MUCH that 3 years after his death by natural causes, they dug his body up so they could have a public execution posthumously. WHAT? True.

Aside from Cromwell’s pogrom of oppression, there were multiple violent occurrences (aka wars) during this time because of the systemic oppression of the Catholics under Protestant rule including: the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53), the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–91), the Armagh disturbances (1780s–90s) and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Feel free to read more about them at your leisure. I’m not going to.

Unification

Remember that year I told you to remember? What’s so special about 1800? Interesting you should ask. The Irish Parliament actually voted to erase Ireland! It was ratified by the British Parliament and they officially became ONE dysfunctional country. Why did the Irish agree to such an obviously dick move? Weeeeell, it seems the British might have lied slightly about the quid pro quo. Most Irish who supported unification thought that the horrible, yet very legal, discrimination going on would finally stop.

For those of you who think that I mean like, oh people just didn’t like them, no. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t inherit wealth. They couldn’t GO TO SCHOOL. They couldn’t gather for worship and prayer. The clergy had bounties on their heads and lived as fugitives in the woods. Catholics were cut out of government entirely with no possibility to ever get a member in Parliament. They were also outright forbidden from certain jobs.

This oppression started with Henry and continued until 1829… that’s like… almost 300 years. The Irish Catholics are bitter for a reason. Even after 1829, there was still a lot of the more “everyday” sort of discrimination like people not wanting to rent to them, or hire them, or let them in the pub or whathaveyou, and there was no such thing as the ACLU.

Also, I swear to all things I hold dear, if ONE person tries to use this as some reason why the Irish/white ppl are “as bad off” as the African Americans/former slaves — I will scream. It is NOT the same. Please don’t even.

The Potato Famine

Everyone with even a drop of Irish blood probably knows about this at least a little. This 4 year period from 1845-49 was one of the greatest losses of life in the 19th century, and it didn’t only affect Ireland. Everyone that relied on potatoes as a food staple was affected. This whole mess was generally blamed on the oppressive British rule that left the Irish farmers super poor and reliant on a single crop for food. Almost all the other food around was taken by the landlords or exported (also by the landlords, so the people got no money from it).

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It’s a long and complicated socio-economic mess, and again, I’m not going to try to explain it all here. Suffice it to say that if you have Irish ancestors, it’s likely they left Ireland as a result of this famine. More than 2 million Irish left following the famine, many going to America. The diaspora is still felt in modern day Ireland. Ireland is the only country to have fewer residents TODAY than they did in 1840. All other countries experienced a massive population boom as a result of the industrial revolution and improved travel/economic factors. Ireland had a bit over 8 million people before the famine hit, and only slightly more than 6 million today. There are literally more sheep than people in Ireland today. Those sheep pictured above are special Connemara sheep. You can tell because they have curly horns. Apparently they taste better, too.

Easter Rising, The IRA, & Irish Independence

Back up a minute….  Ireland and England never stopped struggling over class, religion, and land. In 1916 there was the Easter Rising, which was a mostly political move (yeah, there was definitely fighting and dying, but there was also some election stuff) to establish some degree of Irish independence. While I was visiting Trinity College in Dublin, I got to see one of the original declarations of independence that was put up on the post office during the Easter Rising as well as a number of random bullet holes on buildings and statues around town that were left as reminders of the event.

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The upshot of this was that in the 1918 elections, the political party known as Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats in parliament, but then REFUSED to sit with the British. Instead, in January 1919 they formed the ‘Teachta Dála’ and declared the Independent Irish Republic, of which the IRA (Irish Republican Army aka Army of the Irish Republic) became the guerrilla military.

These guys fought the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921, and eventually won “dominion” status for Ireland… well southern Ireland… Northern Ireland opted to stay part of the UK at that time. What is “dominion” you ask? Me too! Apparently it’s the baby step between being part of an empire and being totally independent. Canada did it, and I guess maybe Austria too? It wasn’t until 1937 that (southern) Ireland created it’s very own shiny constitution and became a real boy, er, country.

The IRA had it’s first of many splits over that dominion treaty, since some of them thought it wasn’t good enough and it was still just British rule with a nose job. So, the OLD IRA who accepted the dominion treaty went on to become the National Army, while those who opposed the treaty remained the Republican Army, and they rejected both the new Republic of Ireland (south) and the still-part-of-Great-Britain Northern Ireland.

I know, I always think of the IRA as being part of North Ireland, too. I’ll get there. For now, this iteration of the IRA hated everyone for being too British and kicked off the Irish Civil War. Even after they lost the war, IRA 2.0 continued to cause trouble, a little bit like some other civil war losers I know.

The Troubles

The Troubles are a very sensitive topic. I am going to make jokes, but not because I don’t take it seriously. Rather, I need some humor to keep from screaming at the sheer bloody-mindedness of the human race.

Aaaaanyway. There was a (probably) non-violent protest about Catholic rights in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was at the time mostly protestant and still part of the UK, and while the big huge discrimination laws had ended… the actual discrimination had not. Go figure. The British police responded with violence and the whole thing got way outta hand, and the IRA was like, “fight the man” — with bombs.

In 1969, the IRA split again, giving us the “Official” IRA (OIRA or as I will call them, IRA 3.0) and the “Provisional” IRA (PIRA aka IRA 3.5). I *think* the OIRA were Marxists who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and also participated in politics as the Workers Party. And. I *think* the PIRA were not-Marxist but still left leaning folks who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and practiced a kind of politics known as abstensionism, whereby one runs for and wins seats in a legislature, but then doesn’t participate, rendering said seats… obstructive, and I guess maybe also preventing things like quorums or majorities. Honestly, I’m kind of freaked out by that tactic and I think it might be what the Republicans are doing in America right now.

Bloody Sunday

While I was in Northern Ireland, I took the opportunity to pass through Derry and see the Bloody Sunday bog murals (one of which is pictured below), which was certainly a large part of what piqued my interest in learning all this history. Bloody Sunday, also captured in a U2 song, was a brutal example of police violence in 1972 when 13 unarmed men were killed by police in a civil rights protest.

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Now, maybe they were “not angels” in the sense they may have belonged to one or more violent groups, but at the time they were killed by police, they were unarmed and not committing any violent acts. They were killed without an arrest or a trial. By the police.

I swear to all my gods, if you wanna compare this shit to what is happening re Black Lives Matter in America, please do so only within the context of shitty ass policing and do not try to say shit about the white people being victims too. It is NOT the same.

Sigh.

Then in 1986, yet ANOTHER split created the Continuity IRA (CIRA, or IRA 3.8). I gather their main objection to the PIRA was that around this time the PIRA stopped practicing the rather shady tactic of abstentionism, and the CIRA thought that was not cool. Other than that, the CIRA didn’t really do anything until 1994, when the rest of the IRAs were gearing up for peace.

The Northern Ireland Peace Process

Getting to a part of history I sort of remember! In 1994 there was a real movement to create some kind of peace and to end the decades of violent clashes between the various IRAs and the British forces in Northern Ireland. This went on for a while, and it danced around a lot, which I think is how I ended up with such a wildly confused idea of modern Irish history. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1997 supposedly fixed things, it wasn’t until 2005 that the IRA actually declared they would stop fighting, and not until 2007 that the Troubles were declared officially over.

And yet…

What’s with Northern Ireland now that they stopped bombing stuff?

The IRA lives on. I saw quite a bit of pro-IRA graffiti (below) while I was looking around the bog murals in Derry. A new splinter group called the “Real” IRA (IRA 2011), came about as a faction who rejected the peace process decided to remain active. They are considered by all governments  to be a terrorist organization and have no legitimacy as a political party or national military force (unlike previous incarnations of the IRA which had one or both). Attacks this year (2019) have included Derry, Belfast, London, and Glasgow.

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As long as Ireland remains split, there remain unionists (who are for British union) and the nationalists (who are for a single non-British Ireland). Nowadays most nationalists are far from violent, and prefer to imagine they can either persuade the Northerners to vote themselves out of England or (as one of my tour guides told me) that the Catholic minority in the north will overtake the Protestants by virtue of birthrate (Catholics don’t go in for any of that “family planning” after all) and that on that day, they’ll have the pure numbers to push a vote through. The spirit of the IRA and the goal for a single free Ireland lives on, but nowadays it’s (mostly) just talk.

Beware venturing your opinion in earshot of an Irishman though. However much they may feud with one another, like any family, they can take exception to outsiders choosing sides. I recommend a pint of Guinness and a willingness to listen more than talk as the key to smooth international relations. 

Don’t let the politics put you off a visit. Northern Ireland is insanely beautiful, that’s why they shot Game of Thrones there, after all. Just look at this stunning coastline! Plus, it really is quite safe, especially outside the major cities. I’ll go into more of my personal experiences there in my futures posts so you can be charmed like I was.

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Finally Writing About Ireland

I have published something like 6 posts that are distinctly NOT about Ireland since I got back this past summer. Usually that would be because I was hard at work chronicling my adventures and polishing each post into a sparkly gem, but this time… it’s not. This post is going to be the start of the Ireland Chronicles, however, I’m going to take some time at the beginning to talk about a personal issue, so for those who are just here for the tourism, please feel free to skip down to the second segment. 


Why Aren’t You Writing About Ireland Yet?

It’s starting to feel like I can’t go traveling with anyone really important to me. I’ve now had two close relationships disintegrate after a trip, while the travels I take with friends who are less close have been great. I don’t define “relationship” as only romantic or sexual, by the way. I happen to think that any degree of association can be a relationship (work relationship, teacher-student relationship, my favorite barista relationship, etc). In this case I am talking about people with whom I felt a long term and deep emotionally intimate connection.

In reality, those close relationships were never actually healthy, and the constant close exposure of travelling together simply put them under a microscope until it was impossible to deny the core problems. As I learn about healthy relationships and boundaries, I find that it’s easy to spot the red flags in a new person, but almost impossible to drag myself out of denial with a person I’m significantly attached to. When you’re so used to something being a certain way, even if that way is awful, it just seems normal, and the abnormal situation of long international trip can cast it into sharp relief.

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In this case, I think I was most of the way out of the fog of denial before we actually embarked, but the plans had been made and the money spent, and I genuinely hoped that a nice, low stress holiday would reduce the big problems that I was still blaming on things like job and life stress. The only thing that could have made that more sarcastically apt is if we’d gone to Egypt instead of Ireland and I could really make some d’Nile jokes. I suppose I’ll have to settle for Blarney jokes instead.

I know in my heart of hearts that a single vacation cannot ruin or fix any relationship, it can only blow the truth up to billboard sized letters. However painful the experience was, I’m glad it happened because I think it’s better in the long run to identify unhealthy relationships so that we can either work to make them healthy or if that’s impossible to walk away. However, it makes it hard to write about a holiday when the memories are either good memories tainted by loss or just plain old bad memories. It’s like that movie, Inside Out, when Sadness touches all the memories and they turn blue and sad forever.

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When I wrote about the Philippines I did my best to simply leave out any and all references to the person I was with, treating it like a blank space in the narrative and jumping around the timeline to avoid describing the personal details of arguments and emotional clashes. I think it helped, too. The memories of that relationship are still painful, but now I can look at the experiences I had in the Philippines and remember the joy I took from them, happily recommend the island, and even think positively about going again someday.

I’m going to try to take the same approach with Ireland, yet at the same time, I don’t want to paint this in some kind of idyllic holiday life. Those who read this blog often know that I don’t like fake-positive online life, but I struggle to balance my need to be honest about the challenges I face with my desire to share only the best and most delightful experiences. I’ve been putting off writing about Ireland explicitly because I don’t want to think about the hurtful parts, and yet I think it’s vital to my gratitude practice and to my remembering self that I take the time to tease out the good parts and keep them alive.

So here’s the disclaimer: I’m cutting out all the personal negative experiences, I’ll only be including things that could happen to any traveler or group based on regular travel challenges. It could result in a choppy or unbalanced story, but that’s just how it has to be. My life is far from perfect, but I’m trying my best to be better.

Without any further ado… Irish Road Trip

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Renting a Car

I enjoy road trips when I’m getting out of a city. I love public transit and happily take buses and trains on most of my excursions, but I had some lovely experiences driving in the US, and later in Germany, France, New Zealand and Sweden. When I choose to get a car it’s because I want more freedom to go to places that are off the beaten track, way outside the city, or just generally hard to get to. Ireland is no exception.

When I was planning my trip, a friend of mine told me that he and his wife had done an Irish road trip about 20 years ago, before there was any kind of highway system at all. Although there is a large intercity highway system today, most of the things we wanted to see in the countryside were still on the old roads (more on that later).

In case you’re curious about renting a car, we used EuropeCar. I looked at a few local rental places, but it seems that there are a fair number of hidden fees with those places that can add up and be frustrating and expensive. By opting for a larger company, we got a real price quote up front and the process of picking up the car was much smoother. I was initially irritated that they were trying to up-sell us the “full coverage” insurance (quite expensive) at the pick up. I was extremely tired from running around Paris all day and a delayed flight into Dublin, so all I wanted was to get to our hotel. When we were standing there it felt like a scam sell, and I was very dubious.

The regular minimum insurance covers any scratches or dings that are less than a 2 Euro coin size (it’s a law) so the car companies can’t charge tourists for tiny chips, dings and scratches that occur in the normal course of driving. It also covers a minimum amount of liability in case you damage someone else’s car or property, or have to go to a hospital. There was a high deductible, but to me, it seemed worth it not to pay a few hundred more in insurance. However, since I wasn’t the one paying, we got the full coverage, and after I saw the driving conditions in the countryside, I was very glad that we did. To sum up, if you want to drive anywhere other than the cities and highways, get the extra insurance. If you want to stay in the cities and highways… ride the bus.

Driving in Ireland

The first thing to mention here is that driving in Ireland is done on the left side of the road, and that the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car… completely backwards from the US where I learned to drive. Lucky me, this wasn’t going to be my first time driving left as I’d had a chance to learn in New Zealand some three years previously. Nonetheless, I still spent a good portion of the first few days just reciting “left side, left side, left side” under my breath the whole time.

You also need to know how to use a roundabout, which is a complex system of yielding and merging that is supposed to be safer and more efficient than traffic lights. Basically, anyone already on the roundabout has right of way over anyone trying to join it. Interestingly, some of the busiest roundabouts at major highway interchanges also included traffic lights because otherwise no one would ever get on.

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The road signs are pretty good, written in both English and Irish, and the streets often have painted arrows to help you remember your lane, and also let you know which lane to be in if you want to turn or go straight. There were a few times that the signs an Google Maps did not agree and I got a bit tangled up, but it never took more than a few minutes to sort out.  Except Coleraine (pronounced call-rain) in Northern Ireland, which is a hellhole of one way roads and inaccessible streets. My Google travel history looks pretty linear everywhere else, but in Coleraine it looks like a Gordian knot. Don’t get sucked in, drive around.

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There’s only one more very important note about driving in Ireland which is that outside the cities and arterial highways, the roads are typically only one car wide, but accommodate two way traffic. Even in the villages with two lane roads, there are so many cars parked along the roadside that traffic is reduced to a single lane’s width. In a lot of places, they are also lined closely with thick hedges, deep ditches, or stone walls meaning you have zero shoulder room. Two way traffic includes other normal sized cars, tour buses, farm equipment, and livestock.

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On the one hand, it can be a relief driving these roads because there’s no need to worry about left-side or right side. On the other hand, when you meet oncoming traffic, your knuckles immediately whiten on the steering wheel as you try to figure out how not to have a head on collision.

The good news is that the locals are very used to this. There are a fair number of turn outs on the most narrow roads, and often there is *just* enough room for two cars to pass on the single lane if we’re both willing to rub up against the shrubbery. Once I realized that the vast majority of other drivers were polite, careful, and familiar with the process, I did relax a little bit. As intimidating as these roads can be, it’s worth it to drive them because a lot of little hidden gems can only be accessed this way.

Public Transit in Cities

While we were in Dublin, we were actually able to simply walk everywhere we wanted to go by getting a room next to Trinity College. The main tourist district is quite tightly packed and walk-able, but if you want to go a little further or it’s just too rainy, there’s a great system of buses and trams. However, paying for these modes of transit are unnecessarily complicated. Fares change based on where and when you board and exit, so you can easily end up paying the maximum if you don’t know how to navigate the system.

The easiest way around this is to get a LEAP card. There’s a few ways to do this, but the simplest is to walk into nearly any convenience store and buy one. They cost about 5 Euro and are re-loadable. Fares are automatically calculated if you tap in AND tap out, plus you get a fare discount for using the card instead of cash. I wasn’t able to get the reloading app to work for me, but it’s very easy to reload at any number of grocery shops and convenience stores.

There is a tourist LEAP, but I’d shy away from that one because of the limitations. They are technically unlimited travel, but they only apply to city transit (and a few airport options). Generally, visitors to Ireland want to see the countryside or travel to more than one city, and the LEAP doesn’t cover that. The LEAP is good for most major cities (NOT Derry or Belfast as that is a different country), so I think the top-up card is the way to go.

Please note that the LUAS tram system is a bit unique. There is a post at the tram stop OUTSIDE the tram where you need to tap your LEAP card BOTH before you get on and AFTER you get off. If you don’t tap when you leave, you’ll be charged the maximum fare! I was a bit thrown off by the tapping posts being at the stops rather than inside the tram, but it did make boarding more efficient. I used this in Dublin.

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I used buses in Galway. With a bus you need to tell the driver what stop you plan to get off BEFORE you tap your LEAP card. The driver will program your fare and then you can hold your card to the reader. It takes much longer than the tram, but the drivers are generally pretty nice about it. Just make sure you use Google Maps or similar to know the name of your stop before you board. Again, failure to do so means a much larger fee.

Traveling Outside the Cities: Public Bus and Tour Bus

If you do want to travel to another city, there are great and affordable inter-city bus options. I used CityLink. You get a slight discount for booking online. The drivers don’t generally require a printed ticket, so you can book online from your phone or hostel no problem. You can also buy tickets at the bus stations in each city.

Finally, another great way to see Ireland without a car is to join tour buses that leave from the major cities and head out to the countryside. I personally did this twice: once from Dublin to the Wicklow mountains, and once from Gallway to Kylemore Abbey.

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I shopped around using Viator to compare deals and I found that a LOT of agencies overcharge or misrepresent their tours. Read the details carefully. One of my day trips from Galway was to go out to Inishbofin. I did find a “tour” but it was nothing more than the public bus (CityLink) and the public ferry. They wanted to charge three-four times the cost of those tickets and didn’t even offer a guide to help you find the bus/ferry!

Long story short, if you can use the public transit to get someplace, do it. If there is no public transit, then make sure you pick a reputable tour company with plenty of positive reviews for the tour you are interested in. You can find the links for the tours I went on here:  Kylemore Abbey with Galway Tour CompanyWicklow Mountains with Gray Line Dublin.

If you do choose to join one of these tours, please be aware that not all the buses offer all the amenities. WiFi, charging ports and the like are hit or miss, but the seats are comfy and the drivers are very entertaining. I would recommend bringing lots of snacks or even a pack lunch as the timing doesn’t always allow you to eat when you’re hungry or both eat and sight see. They also have deals with some random tiny towns that they stop in for lunch. There’s usually only one place to eat, so it can get crowded or expensive.

Planning the Route

We had decided on a basic road trip itinerary before arriving. I think it’s important on any time sensitive vacation to schedule a certain amount of things. I like to schedule where I’ll sleep, as well as breakfast and dinner (lunch can be on the fly unless there’s a special reason to schedule it). I like to schedule one or two things in a day and also leave myself room to change, rearrange, add or subtract. The schedule for Ireland was unusually tight because my travel companion had a very long bucket list and while I might go back one day, it’s unlikely they will, so I tried hard to accommodate them. Even with a tight schedule, I don’t like to buy tickets in advance unless they’re likely to sell out so that I have the freedom to change things around as needed.

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Our schedule was also based on not doing more than about 4 hours of car time a day. It’s a holiday after all, there’s no point in spending all day driving. As a consequence, there were a couple places we visited just because we needed to stop. No regrets, though, even the small out of the way places were awesome. Our final road map looked like this:

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Finally, the end of the trip we spent in Dublin, so we returned the car and used the excellent buses or just walked from our very central hostel next to Trinity College.

After 16 crazy busy days, my travel companion returned home, and I had a much more slow paced week spent between Dublin and Galway where I relied on coach bus tours and public transit to enjoy myself.


EXPANDED 3 WEEK ITINERARY

For those who either want a sneak preview or need some ideas to plan your own Irish holiday. You could use this in all or part:
two week drive -day 1-14
one week drive: South = day 2-6+12&13 or North = 11-7 (backwards) + 12&13
one week Dublin/Gallway no-car experience – 12, 13, 15, 16/17 combo, 18, 19, 20/21 combo

Day 1:
arrived very late at Dublin airport, picked up car, stayed in a hotel near the airport

Day 2:
Irish National Stud
Leap Castle (haunted?)
Sol y Sombra Tapas, Killarney

Day 3:
Kerry Ring
(ancient stone forts, sheep, waterfalls, chocolate, and prehistoric fossils)

Day 4:
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin & the cliffs of Star Wars

Day 5:
Inis Oir (of the Aran Islands)
Doolin Cave
Traditional Music House

Day 6:
Lough Key: castle in a lake + treetop walk
Seaweed Baths @ Enniscrone

Day 7:
Belleek Pottery
Derry: Bog Murals, Guild Hall, Peace Bridge
Downhill Demesne

Day 8:
Giant’s Causeway
Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
Dunluce Castle

Day 9:
Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Dark Hedges
Glenarm Gardens
Glenariff Waterfall

Day 10: Game of Thrones Day
Belfast TEC: GoT Exhibit
Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)
Inch Abbey

Day 11:
Newgrange
return car to Dublin Airport
Pub Crawl in Temple Bar
This is the day we were supposed to go to Newgrange, but had a “zero damage” accident with a German family in the parking lot and ended up doing police and insurance reports instead, then had to leave to get the car back to Dublin on time.

Day 12:
Viking Splash Tour
Dublin Walking Tour
The walking tour was cancelled last minute, but we were so tired that neither of us actually minded and we spent the afternoon resting.

Day 13:
Trinity College Library & the Book of Kells
The Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Natural History, aka “The Dead Zoo”

Day 14:
End of two week version, companion departed from Dublin airport
As the person doing the 3 week version, I took this day to rest and do laundry.

From this point, the schedule is FAR more relaxed… and I really needed it after so much fast paced adventuring. I also did the final week on public transit or tour groups.

Day 15:
Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough (GrayLine)

Day 16:
Bus to Galway
Honestly, you could do more, but I was enjoying the slow pace life.

Day 17:
Downtown Galway + unexpected Pride march

Day 18:
Kylemore Abbey (Galway Tour Group)

Day 19:
Inishbofin Island (public transit)

Day 20:
More downtown Galway… really good Irish food.

Day 21:
Bus back to Dublin airport and fly home.

Art, Food, and Parks in Paris

The majority of the August 2019 was spent in the Irelands, but I decided that I wanted to spend a few days in Paris on the way. You can’t really fly direct from the US to Dublin (without forking over a fortune). Connecting flights go through Heathrow or CDG. Any excuse to visit Paris. I know it’s very stereo-typical, but apparently I’m more basic than I want to admit: I love Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Paris is one of my favorite cities on Earth.


Where All Good Food Goes When It Dies

Pardon my mangling of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, but this was the thought I had the first time I had a meal in France (not actually Paris yet, since I was on a road trip from Prague and my first stop was in Metz: photo album). I have not had any disappointing food experiences in France at all. I have been trying to figure out how to afford to live and work in France doing nearly anything just so I could have daily access to the food. Since I haven’t yet figured that out, I am having to make do with an annual pilgrimage to see my favorite art and food stops.

I was only able to spend a few days in Paris this time around, so it was mostly a food oriented excursion. I wanted to get a full range of food experiences from fine dining to street food. The first dinner was at a beautiful souffle-centric restaurant called Le Souffle which serves a three course menu of entirely souffles. I was a bit apprehensive that it might be textually monotonous, but they serve each course with some sides like salad or croquette, and the main course was a mild cheese souffle with the beef bourguignon in a side dish so you could pour the meat and sauce into the souffle, breaking up the taste and texture. For dessert, I was torn between chocolate and creme brulee… I love both, but the idea of a creme brulee souffle was too intriguing to pass up. My only regret was an inability to finish everything.

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I got to have just “regular” (amazing) French food in a nice neighborhood bistro. I got to have breakfast at my favorite chocolaterie: Angelina’s. This place has arguably the best hot chocolate, and the breakfast pastries were exquisite. I got some “fast food” at Paul’s, and a picnic lunch from the Marche d’Aligre which included this fantastic “blue” cheese. It’s actually a Tomme duBerry a la lavande. It’s a mild, uncooked, pressed cow’s milk cheese that’s colored blue and flavored with lavender and rosemary. With some lemon olives, fresh bread, ripe apricots, and a lemon tart for dessert it was a magical meal in the park.

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I could go on and on about the food in Paris. Many people have. I was going to say I have, but it turns out that for some reason I never actually wrote about my first time in Paris, and when I wrote about the second trip, I wasn’t very food focused because of the extreme heat wave going on at the time ruining my appetite. Perhaps the next time I go, I’ll actually dedicate myself to taking good food photos and notes so I can do a proper foodie write up of all my favorite places.

Let’s Go For a Walk

Since I never actually wrote about my trip in 2015, all the main Paris attractions that I did on the first trip never actually made it into the blog: Eiffel Tower, Père Lachaise cemetery, Sacré-Cœur, the Champs-Élysées with Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the beautiful Tuileries Garden.

If you happen to be in Paris when the weather is nice, these are all wonderful places to go. In 2018, I went on a cycling tour and I have almost no photos and less memory about what we saw because it was 37°C and I didn’t bring enough water. The moral here is, don’t force yourself to see the beautiful outdoor attractions if you aren’t going to be able to enjoy them. There’s plenty of museums and indoor / covered activities like street markets. I made it to the March d’Aligre on this last visit which not only had plenty of wonderful fresh food on offer, but also had a rambling rummage sale of old and lost things.

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I personally think that places like the Eiffel Tower (photo album), the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe (photo album), and the Place de la Concorde are all things you could go and see one time for a few minutes and check that off the Paris bucket list. They just aren’t that exciting… Although, it was fun to realize that I’ve now seen the matched set of obelisks that reside in Paris and Luxor respectively. The one in Paris was given to France by Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ruler of Ottoman Egypt in exchange for a French mechanical clock in 1832. It’s twin still stands outside the temple of Luxor.

Notre Dame (photo album) is a place that I would have recommended as a one and done, however, since the fire, I’m not sure this stands true any more. I personally will be interested to see how it looks in a few years. Regardless, unless gothic architecture is your jam, it’s not worth more than a couple hours one time. It is totally worth that, because it’s a very beautiful structure, but it can be very crowded and I think it’s a little overhyped since there are a few hundred (thousand?) churches around Europe that are very very similar. But you’re in Paris, so you might as well.

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The Père Lachaise (photo album) could easily be several days of wandering through a stunning gothic mausoleum laden park taking endless photos of the natural and the macabre. Plus, lots of famous graves like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. If you’re really into the dead, I think the Catacombs are a great indoor option, although I highly recommend a skip the line ticket because when we went, people were waiting 3+ hours for a tour. Also, while the above ground cemetery is definitely good for repeat meandering visits, I think that the catacombs are a single visit attraction unless you REALLY love bones.

The Sacré-Cœur (photo album) as a church is on my “one and done” list, but as a beautiful part of Paris is on the repeat visit list. The views from the top of the hill are absolutely stunning, and the culture around Sacré-Cœur is fascinating: from the roving “vendors” selling anything and everything on the steps to the famous Place du Tertre where local artist are painting and selling beautiful original works of art direct to the public.

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Last but not least, the Tuileries Garden is a large green space between the Louvre and the Musée de l’Orangerie. It’s a beautiful place to have a stroll any time of year. There’s wide open green spaces, chairs placed freely around the fountains, shady tree lined pathways, little bistros and of course a bit of a fun park at one end with a giant ferris wheel. I love to come here when I need a break between sights to enjoy the day and people watch.

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Paris Art & Feminism

I wrote a broader piece about my experiences in these two museums (d’Orsay & l’Orangerie) from my visit in 2017. In this essay, I’m going to focus on a temporary exhibition in the l’Orangerie about cubism and the unexpected feminist moment I found there.

In case it was never obvious before, I do consider myself a feminist (no I don’t hate men, no I won’t use the term “equalist”, yes I have lots of reasons. This Bustle article sums them up nicely if you want to read more). I’m constantly frustrated by the way in which all the historical artists, musicians, scientists, writers, politicians, philosophers… everything … of any note or record are almost always men. White men. Old. White. Men.

It’s not because old white men are better at these things. It is because the women who did them were suppressed. They were put down in their own lifetimes. Their work was stolen by men who took the credit. Their work was copied by men who took the credit. They were just written out of history. By the men who write history books.

Women are supposed to cook for the family, but only men can be great chefs? Women have historically been expected to spin, weave and sew yet fashion is a man’s business? Art forms that men can’t steal are just demeaned, like embroidery or textile crafting. It’s nice this is finally starting to break down in the 21st century, but we still don’t have enough of a balance in the way we teach and promote artists in mainstream culture. Adding women artists to the public consciousness doesn’t mean removing male artists, and it’s high time we start.

Many of the artists and composers and even authors on my “love it” list are dudes. I’m not going to stop enjoying their work just because I’m adding female artists to my worldview. I don’t know if I would have identified with any female artist growing up simply because I wasn’t ever exposed to any. I don’t think we have room for a limited number of artists in our lives. I think the more art the better. While we’re at it, maybe start adding non-eurocentric art and POC artists too, like Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) who was an African-American man who escaped to Canada during the Civil War and taught himself to paint.

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The museums in Paris, in particular the l’Orangerie, have been trying to have more women artists on display. Last time I was there in 2018 it was Helen Frankenthaler. I wasn’t that into her art because I am not a fan of abstract impressionism, but I was really happy to see her in an installation that included Rothko and Pollock. The museum talked a lot about her life and the challenges she faced being a woman in the highly sexist art scene. She was talented, dedicated and prolific yet she’s not discussed when most people talk about this period of art history.

This time, the featured woman artist was much more personally to my liking and I became much more invested in her art and identity. I am only human, and tend to spend more time and energy on the things that personally interest / impact me. If you’ve never seen her work before, then it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to the art of Marie Laurencin.

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“Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) initially studied porcelain painting, before going on to study drawing at a school in Paris and at the Academie Humbert. She was part of the circle of friends at the Bateau-Lavoir known as the “Picasso gang”, and it was here that she met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire with whom she had a passionate and stormy affair.

Attracted to Fauvism for a time, Marie Laurencin, the “Cubist Muse”, simplified and idealized her forms under their influence. From 1910, she preferred a palette of pastel tones, particularly grays and pinks. She went on to discover the painting of Goya in Spain.

In 1920, she began to paint the willowy, ethereal female figures that she would return to later in paintings with pastel tones, evoking a magical world. She painted portraits of famous Parisian figures, and designed stage sets, for the Ballet Russes in particular. Through this, she became interested in metamorphosis, bringing together two of her favorite themes: young women and animals.”

— Informative sign at l’Orangerie

It’s not that Laurencin or  Frankenthaler have been erased. They have (short) Wikipedia pages and it’s not hard to find their paintings online. Before the internet, however, they were virtually invisible to anyone who was not an art history student. Artists like Pollok and Picasso have had hundreds of books, movies, and t-shirts made about their lives and art. They’re referenced frequently in pop culture and have been made to stand as the premier examples of their art eras.

Picasso was a womanizer, an abuser, a narcissist and highly misogynistic. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s well documented. Yet we treat him and his work as sacrosanct as though it is the ONLY example of cubism in all of history. I’m not suggesting we bury the male artists just because they’re jerks, however I think it’s time we start taking a look around and who else might be worthy of historical preservation and artistic praise.

Honestly looking around the museum that day, there was plenty of Picasso on display. It isn’t that impressive.. OK cubism did all this great stuff for “art” and the advancement of creativity, but he wasn’t the only one. I found his works that day to be coarse and overly focused on women as sexual objects. I’ve had a chance to go back through a photo collection of his body of work and I think that whoever curated that particular display may have been selecting for contrast, and I acknowledge that wasn’t a universal trait. However, that day, it was jumping out at me that he was painting women as breasts with a body and maybe a face attached.

Even though Picasso insisted on referring to her as a Cubist Muse or “Our Lady of Cubism” Laurencin didn’t think of her art as cubist, but rather more impressionist. She’s still classed as a cubist artist to this day because art historians would rather listen to how the men defined her rather than how she defined herself.

Despite all this feminism, Laurencin didn’t paint women for empowerment. She also thought they were beautiful. “Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier,” she once said.

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To me it seemed that she focused on their beauty rather than their ability to please a male gaze/touch. Her paintings reached out and grabbed me despite their pastel colors and watery images. The idea that a women could paint women because they are pretty the way flowers or rainbows are pretty rather than because they stir the passions of men. There have been a few queer male artists in the well documented side of history that painted beautiful women in an absence of sexual desire, but mostly you get people like Raphael who literally made up non-existent sex goddesses to paint out of the most attractive parts of the hundreds of ladies he seduced. Really early photo-shopping of models, I guess?

It isn’t to say that Laurencin didn’t sexualize women at all. Apparently she was known for attending sapphic parties “comprised of lesbian and bisexual women socialized and discussed links between female desire and creative production”. If anything she was likely bi- or asexual since her long term relationship with Guillaume Apollinaire is well documented. However, if she did sexualize women in her paintings, it serves to highlight the extreme difference in what a male and female sexual gaze focuses on.

Regardless of Laurencin’s sexual orientation, the sapphic parties weren’t lesbian orgies. The hostess and participants of those parties were early first wave feminists seeking to own their desire and creative power at a time that most women were expected to stay home and raise a family. For context, the suffragette movement in France was happening at the same time (1909-1945).

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It doesn’t surprise me to learn in retrospect that she was a feminist and (probably) queer. I didn’t really know any of this while I was standing agape in the museum wondering how it was that Picasso had been shoved down my throat my whole life while I had never once seen these ethereal and graceful monuments of feminine self-celebration. All I knew was that they were beautiful and yet strong. They were made by a woman for women (Coco Channel, above, was one of her more famous clients) and that they showed beauty within a wholly feminine framework.

For a longer and more comprehensive story of her life, I recommend this website:

https://www.theartstory.org/artist/laurencin-marie/life-and-legacy/

Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

Expat life: When “Home” Is a Holiday

Settling into school life and hoping for the summer to end as quickly as possible. I’m enjoying the new group of students and happy to see some of my best kids from the spring back in my class for part 2. I’m also working up the steam to start my next major research project which will hopefully be the key to the next big chapter of my story. Until then, I’ll continue on with the story of my July in America. As promised, this one’s all marshmallow.


Originally I was going to try and squeeze all my US stories into a single post, but I thought people might get “wall of text” fatigue. It’s true that the “worst things” post was a bit longer, but this one has better pictures ;P

The Best

Despite the months of stressful bureaucracy and anxiety inducing news stories, once I actually arrived in Seattle I had a pleasantly surprisingly nice time. I managed to avoid all the Nazi rallies, mass shootings, bad weather, or other catastrophes. I stayed with my friends who I traveled in Europe with last summer, and who were kind enough to also lend me a spare car. In an all too brief 16 days, I was able to reconnect with some of the best people in my life. Words cannot express how grateful I am.

In regards to headline news problems, I think in large part, I was just lucky (with a small dose of white privilege). It turns out that I just happened to miss the Nazi rallies and mass shootings which happened either right before I arrived or right after I left… it’s like having good weather or something, which I also had because thankfully the west coast was not on fire this year… tho it appears the southern hemisphere is instead?

My last visit to Seattle was only 9 days. I was sick from root canal and kikuchi, and working on emptying my storage unit in a way that would make Marie Kondo proud. I was not in a good space physically or mentally. Despite these hurdles, 2017 helped me to realize I didn’t need to be afraid of returning to Seattle, that the people who hurt me there couldn’t reach me anymore.

This trip (2019), I only had two real “errands” and so was able to take more time to really devote to spending with friends. Sometimes I forget just how important that really is. I live my life at the end of a very long line that ties me to Seattle and gives me stability. I was starting to feel my anchor line fray and now it’s repaired with all the love. I wasn’t lost or breaking, but perhaps dragging a bit. Now I feel stronger and more buoyant, ready to face another year or two of expat challenges out here at the end of my kite string.

Moments and Memories

I got to be in the US for July 4th for the first time in 5 years. I had a beautiful brunch cooked by friends, visited a local backyard party in the afternoon, got to see some friends. The fireworks show I went to was put on by some friends way up in the Snoqualmie mountains and was highly enjoyable. Plus, I got to geek out with people about my ideas and research in a new and exciting way. 

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I got a lovely camping trip near Mt. Baker with some gourmet s’mores and just enough rain to remind me where I was but not enough to ruin the night. My friend brought her boys along and they spent the evening picking huckleberries and later we taught them how to be “dragons” using their breath to keep the fire going strong. ❤ PNW 

I got to visit my friend’s new farm, see all her beautiful and delicious plants, snuggle with the baby bunnies and chase the baby chickens around with a camera. It never occurred to me to use peacocks as guard animals, but it turns out they’re way better than dogs at watching the skies for raptors like eagles or hawks, which in the PNW are a bigger threat than coyotes or wolves.20190708_175710

I got to sit in a living room in my PJs and trade silly YouTube videos and teaching anecdotes. That may sound mundane but when you’ve spent several years socializing exclusively in bars and cafes it’s a huge relief to just chill with ppl with whom you have mutual caring.

I got to eat all the foods I miss: Mexican, Ethiopian, Seattle-style Pho, large American style chunks of beef. At the mexican restaurant we told the waiter I hadn’t had any good mexican food for years because there were NO MEXICANS where I lived… he was so deeply perplexed, unable to imagine a place Mexicans had not yet migrated to until I explained it was Korea. I also got homemade goodies.20190703_094405.jpg

I got to have a whole weekend of the best sunny sailing days and bbq nights in my memory. A couple years back, some very good friends of mine (really amazing people, too) finally fulfilled their dream of selling their house and moving on to a boat. I didn’t realize it, but apparently it had been over a year since they took their home out for a sail before my visit, and as he says it, unless  you go sailing, it’s really just a very small and inconvenient house.

The weather was amazing, calm and sunny (ok, maybe not as windy as we’d like for a sail, but excellent for relaxing). We puttered around the Puget Sound and watched the other boats and abundant wildlife like harbor seals, porpoises and even a couple humpback whales. In the evening back at the dock, we grilled up steaks and burgers with fresh summer corn and talked and laughed well into the darkening hours. I had two days with two different groups because so many people wanted to come along we couldn’t fit them all one one sail. I got to meet some kids, and I got to introduce some of my favorite ppl to each other for the first time. The whole weekend felt like one amazing gift.20190713_143906.jpg

Finally, I got to karaoke it up with my fav singers and watch friends on the outs make up. Way long ago, we had a standing Tuesday night Karaoke event which has since fallen by the wayside except when I come to town. My flight left Seattle on Wednesday afternoon, so that last Tuesday I was in town, we brought back the tradition. Not everyone could come, so we had an earlier event the week before which was much smaller, but allowed 2 ppl I love to talk for the first time since a messy online fight and to make up!66668387_10219151571557527_1426599298904096768_n (1)

At a karaoke night we sing our fav songs from back in the day, and do silly duets, and generally have a great time. Even when it’s not as dramatic as a friendship restored, I love watching ppl who haven’t seen each other in months or years come together again and catch up because they’re both coming to see me. Most of all, I love that our last song is a group sing of Bohemian Rhapsody. It was the “choir” song in general, but some time in the last 5 years it has become the “farewell Kaine song” and it feels like nothing so much as an arcane Bacchanalian ritual as ALL my friends in the bar get up on a tiny stage and circle around me to sing this 6 minute absurdist mini-operatic aria to/with me. It’s actually a palpable feeling of love and support I find stunning. 

I know that none of the people I visited with live that way all the time any more than I do. I felt a little like the Doctor whirling into town for a wild adventure, and at the same time I felt like I was living in one of those quintessential “last summer before everyone goes to college” Hollywood movies where the days are an endless succession of ever more wonderful and heartwarming experiences. We’ve all returned to our daily grind lives, but for two beautiful weeks it was really a golden summer.20190714_203512_2

In Dixie Land

From Seattle, I went on to Memphis to visit with family. To be honest that was much less a “one last summer” movie and much more a “home for the holidays” movie but in July instead of December. That might sound cute, but take a minute to actually think about those movies… Ironically, I had actually suggested we do a Christmas in July event because I miss the heck out of my traditional American holiday foods, but in the truest spirit of “home for the holiday” movie tropes, it was planned for and never executed.

Comedic family drama aside, I did have plenty of good experiences:

My sister and I FINALLY got the tattoo I designed for us when her daughter was born (in 2011). We wanted to get it at the same time rather than doing it in separate cities, and it’s taken all this time for us to be in the same place with the time, the money, and the health (apparently you can’t get a tattoo while nursing) to finally get it done! And with all that, her tattoo artist is also her daughter’s uncle (there’s some by-marriage of her father’s sibling in there somewhere, I’m honestly not quite sure how he’s her uncle and I’m her aunt, but we are not related at all).

I gave the niblings all their accumulated gifts and my niece was very gracious about all of them, but my nephew who is a bit younger and still lacking in social graces was unimpressed by all but the car shaped pencil case. I mean, he always said thank you, but there was a clear difference in his level of enthusiasm once we got to the car shaped gift.

I got to dye my niece’s hair! Super exciting bonding experience there, as you know I love the crazy color in my hair. She wanted purple, and because she’s still a bit young, her mom and I decided on an ombre so that we wouldn’t be putting any of the chemicals near her face. She was a real trouper about sitting still (although playing the new She-Ra on my tablet probably helped), and all the showers she had to have, but in the end she was very happy with it. I later heard her teaching her brother how to be Bo to her She-Ra… wait till they find out who She-Ra’s real brother is…

20190721_145646.jpgI also had a chance to catch up with the girl that saved me from my own misguided desire to be “preppy” in high-school. She could not have been more grunge/alternative if she’d walked out of a Nirvana album. We were thrust together as locker partners by happenstance and eventually I got some JNKOs and flannel and we became great friends. We lost touch after the birth of her first kid, but found each other on Facebook last year and she took the opportunity to drive me all over backwoods Mississippi where I got to enjoy the woods, wash up in a ground pump (icy cold fresh water!), eat at a diner that was stuck in 1956 (prices too, I think) and learn all about what she’s been up to in the decades we were out of touch.

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*Internet life disclaimer: yeah, this post is dedicated to all the nice and good experiences, but that doesn’t mean it’s always sunshine and roses. Never compare your real life to someone’s online life… even your own.


Over the next few months I am going to be working on posting all about my trip to both Irelands. Given that I’m going to also be working on teaching and researching, I’m not sure how much time I’ll really have for writing. To keep you entertained, however, I plan to be releasing a series of Chinese folk tales I translated several years ago. I once intended to make them into bilingual children’s book with short language lessons, but it’s been close to a decade and I don’t think it’s happening, so you might as well enjoy the fruit of my efforts in the form of traditional Chinese stories in easy to read English.

Viking Country 4: The Happy Ending

I did not want to leave Sweden. Ever. Well, at least not until the snows came. I thought very hard about immigration until I looked at the winter weather temperatures and decided that I’m just going to have to build my summer home there instead. I’m kidding of course, I’ll never be wealthy enough for a summer home in Sweden or anywhere else, but it is now where my imaginary lottery winning self has built her summer home. The last days in Sweden were a gift on top of a gift, and even my one day in Norway turned out to be pretty magical despite all the odds. I will always be enchanted by this Nordic land and I hope that you’ve enjoyed the stories so far. It’s time to say goodbye to Scandinavia.


Trollhättan

I can’t lie, I partially chose Trollhättan as a place to stop on my way back to Gothenburg because of it’s name. It pretty much means what it sounds like it should. I didn’t want to do a bunch of driving on my way out of Sweden because it was important to turn the car in on time and get to my bus that would take me on to Oslo. I’d already scheduled a stay in Gothenburg at the front end of the trip, so during my planning phase I was trying to find someplace different that was still not too far. Trollhättan won.

Trollhattan Falls

One of the reasons it won was the name, but another was the promise of a large and beautiful waterfall. The waterfall… is a lie. Trollhättan Falls isn’t a natural waterfall at all. It’s a hydroelectric power plant and when the water is “on” it does create a lovely view of the water cascading over the dam, which is what all those beautiful photos I saw online were. Perhaps because Sweden was the end of such a very very long research and planning exercise, and Trollhättan was the end of my stay in Sweden, I simply took the internet at face value, and trekked on up to see the “falls” on my way to my Airbnb that night.

The signs to the “falls” are fine, but when I found myself in the parking lot of a power plant with no waterfalls in sight, I was sure I was in the wrong place. I was not. There was a river below, and the view was lovely, but no falls. I drove across the bridge and up to trail head. I thought perhaps that might be leading to a waterfall, but there wasn’t much information. A family pulled up after me and set onto the trail. As politely as possible, I approached them to see if they knew where we were and how to get to where I wanted. They didn’t really speak English, and I didn’t speak Swedish at all. In the end we settled on Spanish… The world is a curious place.

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He gave me directions back the way I’d come and I tried following a little narrow road that ran down towards the river. This took me to a viewing platform and fishing spot below the power plant that was also very pretty but lacked any waterfall. At this point I pulled up the photos that led me here and started looking for landmarks. It was only then that I realized the tall dry wall of the damn dam was where the water was actually gushing from in these pictures. Lucky me, I found the only waterfall with an “off” switch. At least Sweden is insanely beautiful, and the view of the river gorge was worth stopping for even without any falling water.

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I made it to my Airbnb, a beautiful house that was out in the exurbs. The couple that hosted me had two delightful young children and were kind enough to let me do laundry while I was there. When I asked for some tips on local things to see, the wife suggested Marstrand (another island in the huge pile of archipelago, more north than any ferry would have taken me from Gothenburg, but along the same coast), and to drive some of the local scenic highways. Both sounded good to me, so I set off in search of Marstrand.

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It was a beautiful island, for sure, and I saw much beautiful scenery on the way, but Marstrand was highly developed and mostly filled with boat slips and marinas. Some of the most beautiful little bits of fjord were visible from the road, but there was no safe place to stop and admire them. I stopped off in a busy parking lot to re-examine my options and decided to visit one island north, the island of Tjörn.

Tjörn 

I don’t know what made Tjörn sound good, but it was. It was like a driving re-visit of everything I’d loved about my first day in Sweden. I stopped frequently for beautiful ocean vista photo opportunities, and drove as far out onto the tiniest of the connected islands I could get to, then walked out to the very edge of the land.

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It was filled with more of the tiny, delicate flowers and signs of life and whenever I looked out at the sea I was filled with an awesome sense of contentment. I sat there in the sun until I felt ready to go and drove on in search of lunch. Google Maps drew me to the Sundsby Gårdscafé where I could get a delicious local lunch and have a nice hike in the woodland nearby.

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Lunch was an enormous slice of smoked salmon, which I will never get tired of eating, along with some new potatoes and a generous slice of bread and butter. I mention the bread and butter rather specifically, because toward the end of my meal when I was the last person left in the outdoor dining area, I was joined by an unexpected diner companion who wanted to share my bread.

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After I was completely stuffed, I walked off my meal in the woods. There were several paths of different difficulties and I opted for an easy walk that would lead me up to the 900 year old oak tree. The woods were a bit brown after the summer drought, but the recent rains had brought out the tiny forest animals in force and I got to see a little brown frog no bigger than my thumb and any number of slugs out for an evening constitutional. Driving back to my Airbnb, I felt like I had just had the most wonderful farewell ever.

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The next morning, I joined my hosts for breakfast. The husband was just home from a work trip in Australia and it was a big family meal with Swedish pancakes, which he was very surprised I’d eaten before. One of the few foods I knew about Sweden before I came! His were quite delicious, and I very much enjoyed being able to just chat with the family and share our experiences of our own countries and other’s we had visited. Meeting people is still one of the most amazing parts of travelling the world.

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Oslo & the Wood Burning Hot Tub

Norway was an odd experience for me. When I bought my plane tickets into Paris and out of Oslo, I thought I’d have my road trip in Norway. When I looked at the prices in Norway, I decided to do it in Sweden instead, but my plane out was still in Norway. I think if I’d known how much I’d love Sweden, I might have planned things differently, but when I was booking buses and rooms, I thought I’d like to at least look at Oslo if I was going to pass through.  I was wrong about that.

However much I looooved the road trip in Sweden, after 7 weeks of travel I was getting very worn out. Even amazingness takes energy. Olso being super expensive, I reserved an Airbnb out on a nearby fjord peninsula called Nesodden. It was much more affordable, there was an inexpensive ferry that ran until about 3am to Oslo, and the hostess advertised a wood burning hot tub as one of her amenities. Sitting out on the fjord in a rustic hot tub looking up at the night sky seemed like a pretty good deal.

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It was a little awkward getting to the house, and only slightly awkward getting in. My hostess was on her own vacation, but there was a lodger in a side cabin who was able to help me find the key box. The house was nice, but simple. The water in the tap was not drinkable, so there was a large fresh water bottle available. The decorations were cute and witchy, and the garden was pretty with some ripe strawberries waiting to be picked.20180819_115155

In my mind, I was going to take that ferry back out to Oslo the next day and do all the sightseeing, but when I actually woke up I realized that I had no desire to move at all. Not to mention, I had no idea of how to deal with the transit since I had zero Norwegian money on me, and the bus ticket app wouldn’t take my foreign credit card. The whole thing just seemed like too much to deal with, and I had enough groceries left over to keep me going so I just stayed.

After a few hours of lounging around, I decided to investigate the hot tub. It was a bit warm to use it in the afternoon, but I knew by evening, it would be perfect. The instructions on using the hot tub warned that it would take a couple hours to heat the water, so I wanted to be sure and start earlier rather than later. Then I discovered the hot tub was empty.20180819_114126

I wandered all around looking for any sign of how it was meant to be filled. I found the draining mechanism, but nothing that looked like an “in” flow. In the end, I had to go back to the neighboring lodger for help, but she didn’t really know either. We decided to just use the garden hose. Sure the water isn’t drinkable, but it’s safe for skin. In any case, before I could fill it, I had to clean the whole thing. Despite the cover, it was coated with a film of dirt, dried leaves, and random dead insects.

Once it was clean(er), I plugged up the drain and began to fill it. The water was… very brown. I had used the hose to clean it, but only a splash at a time, and I had assumed the brown-ness of the puddles was because of the dirt in the hot tub being washed away. Maybe some of it was, but the water in the garden hose was actually pumped up from some local lake and was not filtered!! The hot tub looked intensely like it was filled with tea.20180819_170729

I debated while the tub filled and decided that I swim in the ocean and in lakes without hesitation, so why should a lake-water filled hot tub be any different. It took a long time to fill the whole thing, and I prepared to start the fire up before it was all the way full, but then I couldn’t find the wood! There was a sign inside the house that gave directions about firewood being “on the other side of the house” but since the sign itself was on a door in the middle of the living space separating the kitchen from the bedrooms, I had no idea what “other side” meant. I found a little wood near the hot tub, it looked like the remains of the last bag used, but not enough to heat all that water, and so one more time, I went to the neighbor for help.

The wood turned out to be near her house, and was on “the other side” from the hot tub side. The oven in the hot tub would not hold much wood at one time, and the wood burned very fast. I had to return again and again to reload it, and one time the fire was reduced to a few smoldering coals because I waited too long between visits. I’m not sure where the 2 hour estimate my hostess left comes from, perhaps if one spent the whole time constantly feeding the fire to it’s maximum? It took me a bit longer.20180819_170707

I spent just about my whole day managing this hot tub experience, and as the sun began to set, it was finally ready! While I was soaking in the blissfully warm water and enjoying the last of the sunset, a timid little deer came into the yard after some of the fallen fruit, but she ran off before I could take a picture.

Once I was settled in, it was a very lovely experience. The smell of the wood-smoke mixing with the air of the sea and the fresh clean forest smells from the woods behind the house. I got in and out several times as I became too warm. The house was secluded from the road and the neighbors and I had to get on a plane the next day, so I didn’t bother with a swimsuit, although I did keep a borrowed robe nearby just in case. It felt wickedly decadent to soak naked in the outdoors and I enjoyed dipping in and out for several hours until the sky was black and the stars were out.

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The next day, on my ferry ride back into Oslo to catch my plane out, a beautiful rainbow appeared from the fluffy clouds to see me off.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Scandinavian peninsula is one of those places I’ll want to return someday and get to know a little better. I’m grateful that this ending of my long, and often fraught summer holiday travels were so beautifully magical.

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Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

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I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

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I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

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The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

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Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

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When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

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I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

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I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

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When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

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My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

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They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

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According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

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I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

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If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Valkenburg: Catacombs, Castles and Vlaai

The week I spend in the Lanaken/Maastricht area had spikier ups and downs than usual. One of the ups was this day trip to the small, picturesque town of Valkenburg. There’s not much here, but the whole town feels a little like main street Disneyland. I could not stop the opening music from Beauty and the Beast from running through my head every time I walked around. Aside from it’s rustic village charm, Valkenburg is also home to a strange and unique personal museum: a private replica of the Catacombs of Rome. I’m a sucker for weird museums, and during the crazy summer heat wave, any underground activity floated to the top of my to-do since it was the closest thing to air conditioning I could get.


The transit out to Valkenburg was a little tricky in terms of timing. Once you’re outside the big urban centers the public transit is much less frequent. Nevertheless, I made it to the catacombs in time for the 2pm tour. The tours are only offered once an hour, so I’m really glad that I made it because there is nothing to do in easy distance of the museum, and I was getting pretty fed up with walking under the scorching sun.

Not only is Valkenburg too small to have reasonable buses, most places in town only take local (Netherlands bank) credit cards, their old card machines can’t handle fancy foreign credit cards. It’s really a time capsule! Thankfully I  grabbed extra cash on my way over.

I had seen posts online about the “Roman Catacombs” in Valkenburg so I went there thinking “hey the Romans used to live here, they probably built stuff”. Nope. Well, yes, Romans did live in large parts of what is now Europe, including the Netherlands all the way up to Utrecht, and Valkenburg was well inside the Imperial borders. But, no, these catacombs in Valkenburg were in no way built by Romans.

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Our guide explained that what we were going to see is a replica of the catacombs in Rome. Back in the Victorian/Edwardian days, rich people were supposed to spend part of their wealth investing in public parks, gardens, museums, and other public displays of art and education to enrich the lives of those less fortunate. A large number of Europe’s parks and museums were built this way. The “Roman Catacombs” of Valkenburg are no exception.

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The richy rich guy who commissioned these was Jan Diepen. The museum was opened in 1910 and although it’s gone through some closings and re-openings, it’s now Valkenburgs main claim to tourist fame. Despite it’s lack of originality, it’s still massively interesting since it’s a faithful reproduction of the catacombs of Rome that were visible at the time of construction. It’s now the only place we can see some of the displays that have since closed in Rome, and because of it’s obscure location, the art generally in better shape than it’s Roman counterpart and you don’t have to share it with as many tourists. Yeah, I’ll probably still go to the real ones if I ever get to Rome, but this was a good visit.

The air was nice and cold underground, the frescoes and history were interesting, and my guide patiently reexplained everything to me in English even though I was the only non Dutch speaker in the group. He said sometimes he has to do it in as many as 4 languages.

I sadly did not write any of the stories down that day, so looking back on my photos I have a general sense of “that was fun and interesting”, but no real ability to tell you about the pictures in detail. It felt a little like we were traveling through time as well since the replicas were arranged chronologically.

 
We started with areas of the Catacombs that actually did predate Christianity, and saw the way that the Romans buried and revered their dead, and then the gradual shift in artwork and symbolism as Christianity took over and moved in. It was quite fascinating to see the artwork of the early Christians that still incorporated a tremendous amount of Pagan imagery from Rome’s pre-Christian culture. By the end we’d moved all the way up to medieval art styles of statue and fresco.

At one point our guide pointed out this particular image as being representative of a trend to depict Jesus as fair skinned with long flowing hair. Although previous generations of artists had each picked a different look for the central figure of the Christian religion, it seems this one endured and still remains the most popular depiction.

Although there were several stone replicas of tombs and grave markers, there was one statue that struck me particularly, that of Saint Cecelia. She was an early adopter of Christianity before the Roman Empire made it the official state religion. Back then, Christians actually were persecuted by the state, and Cecelia was married off to a pagan nobleman against her wishes. When she refused to give up her beliefs, she was beheaded… almost? The legend is that she was struck in the neck three times with a sword yet did not die… right away. Her ability to withstand the pain and her prolonged life were seen by Pope Urban I as a holy sign. More than 1300 years later when the Roman Empire was long gone, but Christianity was having a great time ruling the Western world, it is said that her body was exhumed from it’s tomb and found to be intact with no signs of decay. Another miracle! Oh, and that’s not a necklace, it’s the wound from those three sword blows and a little blood oozing out. Martyr art.

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At the end of the guided tour we were turned loose at a small museum that displayed the tools and techniques that had been used to replicate the catacomb art. I admit I was a little tempted to go back and look at some of the art again, but I didn’t want to get lost by taking a wrong turn. After the main event, I did a little wandering around the town square. It is insanely quaint. There’s a whole area of shops and restaurants that looks like it’s out of a story book.

I walked all around the ruins of the castle but declined to go inside. I think I was just too tired for an above ground tour that oh so hot day. And if you think I talk about the heat wave too much, believe me, I’ve cut out most of the references to my heat-borne misery from my notes… it was soul sucking.

As an antidote to heat misery, I stopped off at a little cafe for some vlaai. Vlaai is kind of like pie. I had strawberry that day. It was cool, sweet and refreshing. The base was more like a cookie than a pie crust. It was quite thick but neither cake nor pastry. There was a thin layer of chocolate, a creamy layer and fresh strawberries in a pie gelatin. Clearly fresh berries from the flavor and texture. Served with a little shot of whipped cream and a cup of coffee. Stopping for vlaaii and coffee is a must do in the Netherlands.

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When the sun moved to take away my shade for the 5th time that afternoon, I gave up on staying cool and headed back to the bus stop. No part of the town failed to be cute so I distracted myself from the weather by taking more photos and singing Disney songs under my breath until the bus arrived to take me back.

Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.