Friday, December 31, 2010

Ghosts of Boyfriends Past

I wrote the last post about what it’s like to revisit your old life, when you’re a different person at a different point in your life.  Well, I took that to a whole other level as well, in this recent trip to the UK.  It’s one thing to revisit your past life ... try revisiting your past romantic life!  I met up with mine a couple of times, as I passed through Edinburgh where he now lives with wife and two children.

(Okay, before I start, let me reassure anyone who might be ready to smack me upside the head for being an idiot that I’m not talking about getting reinvolved in your past romantic life.  I just mean seeing the person in question again, long after the fact.  Please, I’m not that big an idiot.  It took me a fairly long time to realize it, but it is a very good thing that my relationship with this particular person ended.)

One friend of mine recently questioned why I bother to still see this guy at all.  After all, the relationship crashed and burned, he turned out to be an utter shite as a boyfriend, so why even bother?  Well, a couple of reasons.  First, he was a huge part of my life while I lived in the UK, and I like maintaining connections to that life.  Second, and more important, I think it’s good, sometimes, to keep that connection even if the romance doesn’t work — there were very good reasons why I had to fire him from the “boyfriend” job, but with enough time and distance he’s actually become a good friend.  We had a lot in common in some ways, even though “fidelity” didn’t appear to be one of them.  (He’s not the only ex I stay in touch with — one or two were truly despicable people, but some of them were good people even if not good boyfriends and/or not the right person for me.)

I would’ve laughed in disbelief, once upon a time, if anyone had suggested that I’d have a slew of ex-boyfriends that I stay in touch with.  (Don’t ask me for the technical definition for a “slew”, I’m not quoting numbers.)  I was very much a late bloomer in the romance arena, with my first date coming after I’d graduated from high school.  Oh, there were a couple of incidents earlier— I remember getting an anonymous note in Grade 6 that said “I love you. Don’t be annoyed” (to this day, no idea who sent it), and there was a guy in youth orchestra with a crush on me.  (He was younger —hey, I was a cougar at the age of 18 and didn’t even know it!)  But nothing of substance, really.

At some point, though, I finally stopped being a geek with thick spectacles and morphed into a girl that guys apparently found attractive; at first, of course, I had no idea what to do about this as I had no experience of any kind.  So I got involved with one guy, for sure, that I wouldn’t have given the time of day to, had I been a little less naive.

I can see I’m going to have to spill the whole story.  My whole romantic history, laid bare.  Well, maybe not all of it — let’s say, those people who were significant enough to last at least a few months, but no explicit details of any kind to be shared.  (This is a family blog, after all.  Message me privately if you want the real scoop.)

First up (in my oh-so-naive youth) was ... oh, let`s call’im ... A.   Much older (more than 10 years), significant especially when you consider that I was a very, very naive 19-year-old.  (Or was I 20?  Can’t remember if it was just before or just after my birthday that we got together.)  Thought I loved him; thought, actually, that I was going to marry him when I finished university.  Put up with all kinds of ridiculous crap that I wouldn’t stand for 2 minutes now, so at least I’ve learned something in the intervening 20 years; the line he always used that made me crazy was "When you're older you'll feel differently" (he trotted this out any time I disagreed with him).  First (and only) guy I’ve brought to a big family Christmas; everyone had me married off by the end of the day and I swore I wouldn’t bring anyone home again unless it really WAS that serious.  (They’re all still waiting.)  Lasted about a year, give or take.

Next up ... B.  2nd year university.  Very sweet, smart, funny, and probably could’ve been a fantastic relationship.  Except that I think he was still hung up on his ex-girlfriend (who lived down the hall from me in residence) and I had a huge crush on someone else (a male friend of mine, unfortunately perpetually with girlfriend).  Bad timing all around, really.  (Hmmm ... wonder what’s he’s doing now?  Oh, wait, he was an Albertan, so never mind.)

Then there was C.  Summer after 2nd year university, part of 3rd year.  Adorable and sweet and (unlike the other guys I’d met while at uni) working with a paycheque and able to cook.  Thought I was the most beautiful woman in the world and the love of his life.  On occasion he also thought I was a dangerously radical feminist pinko commie tree-hugger, but the arguments were good-spirited and a lot of fun.  I don’t remember actually why I broke up with him, but in any event it probably wouldn’t have mattered whether I did or not; I’m 99% sure I spotted him several years later in the Pride Parade in Toronto.

Let’s see ... 4th year uni.  D and E, who were sweet, shy and geeky, and cocky, brash and certifiably insane, respectively.    (Guess which one I liked better.)  D I got involved with mostly because he liked ME so much; I find it’s very pleasant to be adored.  But I probably shouldn’t have, because I knew I was never going to return that adoration.  E ... well, the tables were turned, definitely, I adored him but he sort of just tolerated me until he met someone else.  Pity, really, he had the most fantastic blue eyes I’ve ever seen.

Moving on .... F.  First English guy I got involved with (not the infamous ex that I saw in this past trip).  Think I went out with him mostly because I was still enough of a London-virgin to be bowled over by the posh British accent; to be told that he “fancied me like mad” (instead of, oh, “you look hot”) won me over.  But that languished and died when I met ...

G.  The infamous ex.  Fell fast and fell hard for him, and we were on-again/off-again for years.  Broke up once because I learned he’d cheated on me while I was travelling in Europe (yeah, that’s the news you want to get on the phone from your boyfriend while you’re sitting on a roof terrace in Paris – I had to give him some credit for coming clean, though).  Got back together, inevitably, when I went back to the UK, despite my best intentions to the contrary;  apparently I didn`t think having my heart broken once was sufficient and I went back for more, finally coming to my senses when he (you guessed it) cheated on me again.  No phone call this time (he wasn`t going to tell me); I found letters he’d written to two other women.  Dumped him immediately; relapsed occasionally afterwards but finally managed to get over him altogether (although, even then, it was very bizarre going to his wedding).  It took a while longer, though, before I could honestly say we were friends.

But we seem to be, now, and I’m quite glad about that.  He was a lot of fun as a boyfriend, but fundamentally terrible (I am not willing to share with other women, and he didn’t seem to understand that); he is, however, a good person in many non-boyfriend ways, intelligent and interesting to talk to.  He’s going through a tough time at the moment, and I actually feel bad for him; even a few years ago I’d probably have been just a little bit vindictively pleased by the karmic payback, but it seems I’ve gotten past all of that.

Back in Toronto.  Let’s see ... H.  First younger man (6 years, more significant for 20-somethings than it would be now) of what was going to become a trend.  Adored him — we clicked on every conceivable level and could talk, literally, for hours on end.  Not my choice to end it (one of the few) but he appeared to freak out about the idea of an actual relationship.  Plus he got transferred to Winnipeg and I wasn’t inclined to follow. 

Rebounded with I.  Much nicer guy than you’d actually know from the way I treated him.  Oh, I liked him well enough, and we had fun, but I was still hung up on the previous guy and didn’t really give him a fair chance.  (Sorry, dude ... if I knew where you were now, I’d apologize in person.)  Although my friends didn’t like him at all, so maybe he wasn’t as nice a guy as I think he was; did they see something I didn’t?  (Wouldn`t be the first time.)

Then there was J.  Lots of positive things about that one, very cute and smart and fun to hang out with.  Serious chemistry.  But, as a downside, an arch-conservative who thought that, if we got serious, my job was to follow him around the country as he got transferred for his job.  I don`t think I'd ever choose to do that, no matter how much I liked someone, but the fact that it wasn't even up for discussion (just an expectation that his life and his decisions automatically became mine, and I had no say in any of it) made it an absolute deal-breaker. 

Who am I up to?  Oh, yes, K.  Falls into the category of “lovely guy but just not for me”; I don’t think I treated him TOO terribly but I probably should have called it off sooner than I did.  Incompatible views about what we wanted from life, at a very fundamental level, which means we’d never have worked.  (He also probably voted Tory, which is a deal-breaker.)  At any rate, he’s gone on to be happily married and have children, so he’s darn lucky that things didn’t work out with me. 

L was a complete departure from the earnest, be-suited, corporate types I’d hitherto usually become involved with.  Nothing resembling a career; he managed to support himself but God knows actually how.  Really interesting way of thinking and looking at the world, which made for some fascinating discussions (and I’m a sucker for a man who gives good argument); smoked an astonishing amount of marijuana and still functioned.  Really, really liked being with someone who wasn’t a corporate wage-slave, and if he’d been a starving artist or poet or musician I could’ve respected that (I don’t care how much money someone makes or how “successful” he is, if he’s following his passion); however, the complete lack of ambition to do anything OTHER than smoke pot got a bit tiring.

Went back to the corporate type (well, government corporate type, which is a slightly different breed) with M, after an embarrassingly long break from the world of dating.  Don’t ask me why the break, exactly; I got busier and busier at work as I kept getting promoted, I stopped paying much attention to a social life as my friends all started to get married and have babies and drop out of my day-to-day life, and I seemed not to have a lot of enthusiasm to try very hard to meet new people.  I also didn't notice the lack so much as I had some lovely substitutes for a dating life with close gay friends.  Anyway, with the government guy — we connected on so many levels it seemed fated, at first (not that I actually believe in fate); it was as if someone had flipped an “on” switch for me and brought that side of my personality back to life. 

Why didn`t it work?  Well, I gave up when I realized just how connected he also still was to his ex-wife — I don’t mean they were actually still sleeping together, but it seemed nearly as bad that she was doing his grocery-shopping and his laundry, watering his plants, and making him dinner at least once a week.  I finally called a halt to it when I learned he’d gone on vacation with her; I’m still not quite sure what the deal was there (they’d been divorced for years), but I do know it was better not to be in the middle of it.  (Still a little bitter about it, though, as I think there was a lot of potential for us, if he’d only stepped away from the ex far enough to see it!)  He resurfaced briefly a few months after I broke it off, ready to pick up where we’d left off — no, worse, acting as if we’d never “left off” at all.  It didn’t fly; I didn’t take him up on it. 

I think that's it.  Oh, there have been other random dates and flirtations and guys who have been around for a short time, but those are the ones I`d count as having “mattered”.  Mostly good guys, actually, so I’m pleased to see I’m smarter about these things than I was at 19 (or 20, whatever).

If I could just hand-pick pieces from all of them and mix them together to make a composite guy, I might just have the perfect man. (Actually, I think I may already know the perfect man, but since he's gay that doesn't do much for my love life.)   Since that’s not possible, I’ll have to see what’s out there in 2011 — there's no one around to kiss at midnight as 2011 rolls in, but perhaps I can change that next year. 

You Can't Go Home Again

It’s an odd thing, going back to places you’ve been before ... but after a long interval, when you’re a different person at a different point in life.  The last few weeks in the UK and Ireland have been a lot of that.  Oh, I’ve been a lot of new places, too, which I loved, but I got the chance to go back to a few from “the last time around”. 

Let me back up a bit.  I tend to assume that everyone already knows this, but as a bunch of the people reading this will be people I’ve met since it all happened, they may not actually know.  Anyway ... my sister Julie and I went to the UK on Working Holidaymaker visas (as they were then called —temporary visas for people under the age of 27) just after university and camped out in London for a while.  (I do mean “camped out” —our bedsit was pretty primitive.  But it only cost 30 pounds a week, so who’s complaining?).  We also had shorter visas for Ireland (up to 4 months only, unlike the more generous two years in the UK), and migrated over there the following spring.

Julie went over before I did —I think she got tired of waiting for me.   I kept stalling, since I was head over heels in love with this English guy and really didn’t want to leave London.  I had a hunch we wouldn’t survive any long-distance thing, which proved to be true when the relationship crashed and burned later that summer.  (More on that in a subsequent post!)

I’ve been back to London since, and it was a very different experience going back “on holiday” as a working professional with money to spend —London was a lot of fun when I was a poor starving backpacker, but having a bit of cash in your pocket opens up a whole other world of possibilities that you don’t see as a wandering 20-something making a few pounds an hour and living in a grotty bedsit.  It isn’t necessarily better, though —I loved the time I lived in London, despite having scarcely a penny to my name the whole time, and by my most recent trip to the city (before this) I was substantially better off but starting to get restless and unhappy in my little working rut.  (Being happy, and having money, don’t necessarily go together.)

Going back to London this time was an odd combination of the two.  I’m not the same girl I was in my 20’s when I lived in London, but I’m kind of back in the same budget category.  It’s an odd feeling now, saying to someone, “Er, I can’t actually afford to go to that restaurant ...”; when I was working in Toronto, I’d gotten quite used to going out where I pleased and paying the bill without even needing to check how much I was spending.  I don’t have that kind of financial freedom right now, but I have again the same kind of freedom I had in during my 20-something London days —the freedom to wander at will, go where I wanted and do what I wanted without having to answer to a time clock.  (I think I value that kind of freedom more than the financial kind, although it would be really nice if they’d go together.  If anyone cracks that problem — how to have unlimited time and unlimited money at the same time — let me know.)

Going back to Dublin was perhaps even more of a shock.  I went there after leaving Cork — I’d originally planned to work my way back north and see more of Ulster, but weather intervened and I opted for the more prudent choice (i.e. where I was more likely to be able to get out again).   I hadn’t been back at all since I lived there while on my Irish work visa, and it felt surprisingly unfamiliar.  Oh, there were a few things I recognized (my old “local” The Bleeding Horse, for one), but for the most part I felt like I was wandering around a strange city i’d never seen before.

I suppose it’s because I didn’t really live there very long, compared with the length of time I spent in London.  In hindsight, I wish I’d spent as much time there as my visa would have allowed —but, at the time, I made the choices that worked for me then.  It seemed more important, then, to see where that relationship might go, than to move away from him to a strange city; who knows, maybe it was even the right choice.  We didn`t end up together (and thank god for that, it would have been a disaster) but it taught me a lot about relationships, and, if I hadn`t tried, I might have always wondered “what would have been”. 

Dublin’s still a great city, familiar or not, and like every other Irish city I’ve ever been in it lives up to the stereotypes —the people are really friendly, the accents are delightful, they do drink a lot and there is a pub on every street corner (sometimes more than one).  It’s compact enough that you can walk around the central bit, and there’s a couple of new tram lines (well, new since I last visited) for the times it just started to feel too damn cold to keep walking.  All the pubs came in handy in the cold, too; whenever I started to lose feeling in my fingers and toes, I’d just nip in to the nearest pub and have a pint while I warmed up.  I even went to the oldest pub in Ireland —probably the oldest pretty much anywhere, since it was founded in 1198 A.D.!  (How many cities take their drinking so seriously that they’ve kept the same pub in business for more than eight hundred years?)

I’d have loved to spend more time there, but you might’ve heard something about the kind of weather they were getting over there — I was getting worried about getting back to London at all (let alone getting out of Heathrow when I got there), so I thought I’d better start heading back that way. 

But it was good to go back, to there and to London and to every other place I revisited.  But it reminded me that you CAN’T go back, really; the UK and Ireland are inextricably linked in my memory with a particular, significant period in my life, and I find myself thinking about that time whenever I’m back over that way.  But it struck me very strongly this time that I’m not that person any more, and — what’s more — I don’t want to be.  I like having challenging work, and some money to indulge myself occasionally, and a place that I can call home (where it doesn't feel like camping out!).

Oh, there’s some things I’d like to get back again.  I think I wrote about this before — how I remember feeling very alive back then, much more so than in recent years – with the “higher highs” and the “lower lows”, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, but I feel like I threw myself into my life with much more passion than I’ve been able to summon for the last few years.  This past year excepted — while I’m not the same wide-eyed innocent who headed off to a new life in London way back when (and I’m glad, she was a bit of a dolt about many things!), I have found some of that passion and joy and enthusiasm that had gotten lost somewhere along the way.

Now, whether or not I can keep this attitude when I have to go back to earning a living again ... that’s really the question. Talk to me again this time next year to see how well l've managed it ...

Who Do You Think You Are? (Part IV)

(As promised, I’m back again to pick up the story from Derry.  I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath.)

Okay, I got a little sidetracked as I was starting to write this.  The next steps in my travels after Derry had much to do with family history; I was thinking about it and was online anyway, so I started googling (yes, it’s a verb) to see if I could track down anything about my great-great-grandfather Dominic O’Neill (born in Ireland, emigrated to Canada during the Famine).

Lo and behold, there are a multitude of free, searchable databases out there (the National Archives of Canada has a wealth of information) and he popped up in a few places. I think I found his parents’ names (on his death record in 1909) —Henry O’Neill and Ellen Needham —so I can go back another generation for one line of the family.  Then I started looking at the information my mother has gathered and trying to put all the pieces together and puzzle out how I was related to all of these names.  (My father has information somewhere for his side of the family, too, so I’m sure I’ll get distracted again once he locates it.)

It’s addictive.  I think this is going to be my project for next year, when I’m back to working for a living, and when I can’t afford to go anywhere because I’m paying off credit card bills from this year off.  (I don’t have any yet, but ...)

Anyway, I digress.  Why I started down this tangent in the first place was prompted by starting to write about going from Derry to Cork and Dublin; in both places learned a lot about what it would have been like for my Irish ancestors fleeing from the Famine.   The Dominic O’Neill of my Google search was the last generation who left Ireland — he was a child at the time, so presumably went to Canada in the company of his parents and siblings (but I haven’t figured that out yet).

Cobh, about 15 kilometres outside Cork and an easy train ride, was one of the main departure points for the so-called “famine ships” (or, more graphically, “coffin ships” – so called for the horrendous death toll during the Atlantic crossing) in the 1840’s and 1850’s.  More recently, it was the last port of call for the Titanic before it headed out to sea for its fateful date with an iceberg.  The excellent Cobh Heritage Centre has a wealth of information about both; the Titanic stuff was interesting enough, but I found the discussion of the famine ships much more riveting.  Some of my people were on those ships!

I can barely imagine what it must have been like for the people who left – my family, way back when, and a million other folk who went on to found thriving Irish communities all over the world.  Another million or so never got the chance to leave, as they died of starvation in Ireland.  The country’s population went from 8 million in 1840 to just over 4 million by the end of the century, and it’s never bounced back to its peak; I think current-day Ireland is about 6 million people.

The more I learn about the Famine, actually, the more astounded I am than the country and any of its people actually survived.  With a vast segment of the population dependent on the potato crop, its utter failure in the mid-1840’s wrought devastation on the country.  Small tenant farmers could not pay their rents, triggering mass evictions as landlords sought to rid themselves of the problem.  The more unscrupulous landowners rented the most notorious of the “coffin ships”, with the cheapest ships and crew (read: oldest and least sea-worthy for the ships, dregs of society for the crew).

Whether or not they really thought that all of their former tenants had a fighting chance of surviving the voyage to the New World I don`t know; what does seem apparent is that many of them didn`t really care much one way or another.  Out of sight, out of mind – get the problem (the poor Irish tenants) off the land, put the land to better use, and if the tenants didn`t last the trip, well ... what’s a few Irish Catholics more or less?  (They weren’t all Catholic, of course, but Catholics were disproportionately represented – they weren’t allowed to own land at the time and made up the majority of the tenant population.)

Passenger quarters on a 'famine ship'
These weren't healthy people to start with – some had been reduced to eating grass by the time they boarded ships out of Ireland.  The voyage would have taken two months, more or less, through the wild weather of the North Atlantic.  The ships were crowded and the passengers were not always allowed up on deck for fresh air.  Provisions were basic at best and insufficient at worst; disease and death ran rampant on many ships in the crowded and poorly-ventilated quarters.    There’s a replica of one of the famine ships (the Jeannie Johnston) now berthed in the River Liffey in Dublin (touring it was a fascinating afternoon) – it was one of few good ones, with a perfect record and every passenger arriving safely, alive, at the other side of the Atlantic.

Even getting to North America was no guarantee; ships could be held up at the quarantine island of Grosse-Ile in Quebec for another few weeks before passengers were allowed to continue on their way.  Some died while the ship was still waiting, and they are buried at Grosse-Ile (now a Canadian National Historic Site).

But some made it, despite the odds stacked against them.  My family, and millions of other part-Irish North Americans, are here as living proof.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Oops, I was too busy eating and forgot to write ...

I have a bit of catch-up to do.  I think I left you in Londonderry, and I have some more stuff to tell you about Ireland and Scotland and London.  But with all the associated trials and tribulations of getting home again, and then Christmas and family stuff and all my time being taken up eating and whatnot, I forgot to get back to this.

Anyway, I promise to do it again tomorrow.  I'm not feeling very writer-y tonight and my brain is tired after finishing a very interesting (but fairly heavy and information-dense) read on the history of cancer.  So it needs a break before it can cope with organizing my random thoughts about the rest of my travels, and about what's coming up next, into some kind of logical and (I hope) entertaining order.

But for now, I'm just going to go in search of more junk food.    Mmmm, chocolate.  And jelly beans.  And pumpkin pie.  That's on top of all the turkey I've eaten. (Needless to say, Christmas is not the time to try to go vegetarian.  Maybe in India.)  Someone asked me recently if I was anorexic (I guess the change in my eating habits is fairly dramatic, or at least the amount of weight I've lost is); they would have been very reassured on that point by the vast number of calories I've consumed over Christmas.

I think I'd better get travelling again soon, or all my success at getting-fit-and-losing-weight-without-really-trying in South America will be completely undone.  (Newfoundland already posed a bit of a setback with an all-fried-food-all-the-time diet, and with all the real ale and potatoes in Scotland and Ireland the most recent jaunt probably hasn't done me any favours either.)

So tomorrow.  Last day of 2010 and all that, so I'd like to get caught up and start 2011 fresh.  (And maybe gloat a little bit about how I was supposed to be going back to work in 4 days, but now won't be for another 3 months.  But I'll try to restrain the gloating -- there are too many people who know where I live and who might hunt me down and hurt me.)

In the meantime -- hope y'all had yourselves a merry little Christmas.  What's everyone planning for New Year's Eve?

Friday, December 17, 2010

No Retreat, Baby, No Surrender

(I was going to go with the more obvious musical reference -- U2's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" -- for this post but opted for the Boss instead.  What the heck.)

Derry-slash-Londonderry is a pretty cool city, even if it does have a bit of an identity crisis.  No one seems quite sure whether its name ought to be Derry (most people seem to refer to it this way in conversation) or Londonderry (it mostly shows up this way on formal things like bus schedules and such).   It was "Derry" before it was "Londonderry", changing to the longer name in 1613 when the City of London played a role in the so-called 'plantation' of Ulster with Protestant settlers.  So it's been more than a bit contentious ever since which it ought to be called -- particularly during the Troubles, when choosing one or the other would instantly mark you out as belonging to a particular side.

And it hasn't been a terribly peaceful place, so picking a side could be a dangerous thing to do.  As far back as the Siege of Derry in 1688-89, Catholics and Protestants have been at war here -- when Catholic followers of the ousted King James II surrounded the city in an effort to take it back, 13 apprentice boys (revered ever after as local heroes) barred the city gates with a cry of "There'll be no surrender!"  Loyalist (Protestant) supporters adopted "No Surrender" as a slogan, and you used to see it adorning the walls of Belfast's Shankill neighbourhood.  (You get now how the song reference fits in, right?)

More recently, the “Battle of the Bogside” in this city in 1969 — a running battle between residents of the Catholic Bogside neighbourhood and the Royal Ulster Constabulary — prompted the British government to send troops into Northern Ireland.   (They were still there, when I first came to Ulster in 1994.)  A few years later, it was the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday of U2's song, a day in January 1972 when 26 civil rights protesters were shot by British soldiers; 13 died immediately (6 of them just 17 years old), and one a few months later, of injuries received that day. 

Peace Mural, Derry
By any reckoning, odds are it shouldn't be a positive or optimistic place.  Yet it seems to be; it's lively and friendly and welcoming, and a fascinating place to walk around.  (There's also a fine pub or two that make the welcome even warmer.)  Unlike Belfast, Derry didn't have murals in the Troubles, but has added them since 1997; done by three local artists, these commemorate events of the Troubles in a thought-provoking way.  There’s also a couple of memorials, one to the hunger strikers of 1980-81 (including the most well-known, Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament shortly before he died), and one to the people who died on Bloody Sunday.  Of the murals, The Death of Innocence is probably the most moving; it's a mural depicting a 14-year-old schoolgirl who became the 100th victim of the Troubles in 1971 when she was shot in the crossfire between the IRA and the British Army.  The whole array manages to end on a positive note, with its most recent mural of a huge stylized dove of peace. 

It's interesting, anyway.  I hadn't been to Derry before, but it's shown up in literature I`ve encountered; the books that stick in my mind the most are probably Leon Uris's Trinity and Redemption (he's not exactly impartial in his depictions of Ireland, but he tells a good story).  So while I felt a little like I'd been there before, in spirit, I was very glad to get there for real. 

In the footsteps of giants
Well worth a visit, if you've never been —and, even better, the Giant's Causeway is within easy reach of the city, for a perfect day trip.   If you don't already know, that's the remnants of the path built by the Irish giant Fionn MacCool, so that his rival, the Scottish giant Benandonner, could cross the sea and face him in battle.  Seeing the Scot approaching, Fionn was so terrified by the size of his rival that he fled home, asking his wife to hide him.  She did, in a huge cradle, and when Benandonner arrived in search of Fionn, told him that the figure in the cradle was Fionn's child.  Alarmed by the size of the “infant” and assuming the father must therefore be truly gigantic, Benandonner raced back to Scotland, tearing up the Causeway behind him in case Fionn tried to follow.  That's why only the ends remain — off the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland (where I went), and off the Scottish isle of Staffa.

Believe it?  Well, maybe not, but it makes a good story.  And how else could I say that I've walked in the footsteps of giants?

(P.S. -- I tried to add pictures, but Blogger isn't co=operating.  Have a look on Shutterfly if you're curious.)

(P.S.2 -- okay, it let me add pictures the next day.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? (Part III)

Family is a wonderful thing.  But sometimes I wonder about mine. 

On my dad’s side (the MacLellans), I’m descended from sheep rustlers (but, in their defence, it was either an act of political protest or they were starving and desperate for food, after being forced off their farmland in the Highland Clearances).  The MacLellan family motto is “Think On”, which isn’t, as you might be inclined to think, a reference to our noted intellectualism.  No, it’s from a 12th or 13th century MacLellan chieftain who rode up to his enemy’s castle with the enemy’s emissary’s lopped-off head spiked on a sword, and yelled out to him to “Think on’t” (Think about it) before crossing him again. 

On Mom’s side (the O’Neill half), I’m descended from former High Kings of Ireland, but with slightly unsavoury reputations. The Red Hand of Ulster —now on the Northern Irish flag, and co-opted by the Ulster Volunteer Force as part of their insignia in “the Troubles” —was originally an O’Neill emblem.  Legend has it that the O’Neill chief of a raiding party, in an effort to inspire his warriors, decreed that the land of Ulster would belong to the first man to lay his right hand on the ground.  One bright spark cut off his right hand and lobbed it off the boat on to shore, in his determination to win the prize.

Yikes.   

So if genetics have anything to do with it, I`m prone to violence, thievery, and so ruthless in my ambition that I will, without batting an eyelash, kill anyone who gets in my way or even maim myself to achieve my goals. 

Are you sure you want to admit to knowing me?

The Walls of West Belfast

I went back to Belfast recently, and found it’s changed enormously since I was last there in 1994.  Most of it is change for the better; I was quite happy to be able to walk into the centre of town at night without being stopped by a British soldier saying “Good evening” as he swung his machine gun around to point it at me.  (This happened, last time I was there.)  But some of the things I found so intriguing about Belfast on that first visit are starting to disappear.  Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?  I can’t decide.

I`m talking about the murals.  There are two tradionally “working-class” neighbourhoods in West Belfast:  the Falls Road, the Catholic neighbourhood; and the Shankill, its Protestant equivalent.  When I visited in 1994, you couldn’t cross from one neighbourhood to another directly — there was a huge brick wall, topped by barbed wire, separating the two (ironically called the “Peace Line”), and you had to walk all the way back to the centre of town from one and head back out to the other.  I remember seeing one schoolyard that backed right on to the Peace Line, and thinking how sad it was that the children in that schoolyard would grow up hating the people on the other side of the wall — just because it had been that way for generations. (Now, you can walk between the two.  Parts of the  Peace Line are still there, but streets have been opened up again.)

Protestant Shankill
The walls in the Shankill were adorned with huge murals portraying UVF insignia (Ulster Volunteer Force, the Loyalist/Protestant paramilitary that you never hear about in North America), the “red hand” of Ulster, and letters 3 feet high proclaiming “No Surrender” and “Remember 1690”.  (That last is the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when Ireland came under English control; memories are long here.)  The walls of the Falls Road were adorned with Catholic imagery of Madonna and Child, IRA slogans (the Irish Republic Army, the better-known Nationalist/Republican/Catholic paramilitary), and words of warning to the British to go home, that Ireland would fight to the death to be reunited.
Catholic Falls Road

Many of those murals are gone now.  There are still a few left, and some new ones have been added —but the new ones are mostly about other causes (Palestinian or Basque nationalism, or environmental activism), and the old ones have in many cases been painted over.


Why is Che always there somewhere?
I tend to think that’s a bad thing, but that’s what I can’t quite decide.  I think that it is a dangerous thing to forget history (who was it who said, “Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it”?) and wonder if it isn’t better to preserve these reminders of Belfast’s (and Northern Ireland’s) past, so that society doesn’t forget what it has lived through and slip back into that kind of division.  Belfast should keeps its murals for the same reason that concentration camps in Europe have been preserved and opened to tourism:  for people to see, and remember, and think “Never again”.  And it is absorbing, as a visitor, to wander the streets and take in the murals, as you think about the all-too-recent violence in this city, and I think Belfast would lose some of its identity if they were no longer there.

But is it better, for the people of Belfast, that they’re still there?  If you lived through a concentration camp in Europe in the Second World War, you might choose to go back and visit one day —but you don’t have to be smacked in the face with the reminder, day after day, as you go about your daily life.  The people of Belfast who lived through “the Troubles” do, as they walk the streets of their neighbourhoods and see the grim reminders of violence.  Should they be allowed to wipe those reminders away, and start afresh, without having to see it and relive it day in and day out?

That’s what I can’t decide.  What do you think?

Separated by a Common Language


You can get very spoiled, as an English-speaker, many places that you travel in the world.  If you don’t want to try to learn any of the local language (whatever it is), your odds of finding someone who speaks yours are better than if your native tongue was, say, Afrikaans.  It’s the language of business, and of tourism, in much of the world, and vast numbers of people in other countries aspire to learn what I grew up speaking; I even met other backpackers in South America from non-English-speaking countries that had learned English specifically to travel (instead of learning Spanish – they figured English would be more useful for speaking to other backpackers, and it would take them more places in the world). 

(And thank God I grew up speaking English, that’s all I can say.  I can’t even begin to imagine trying to learn it as an adult – it’s got to be the most illogical and pernicious perverse language on earth.  I wouldn’t stand a chance if I hadn’t learned it by osmosis when I was too young to know how tricky it is.)

But the thing travel teaches you in addition to just how useful knowing English can be is that English isn’t just English.  It’s Aussie, and Canadian, and Kiwi, and Irish, and Scots, and (God help us) American, and it isn’t even consistent across any one of those countries.  Oh, sure there are some national consistencies (if you hear someone talking about being on “pogey”, wearing a “tuque”, asking for a “double-double”, or showing off his “Molson muscle” while buying a “two-four”, you’ve got a Canadian), but even in my own country it changes:  a Newfy sounds about as much like me as I sound like an Aussie, and Albertans twang like they belong in Texas.

And some of those versions of English?  Good luck trying to understand them!  Edinburgh (my first stop in Scotland) wasn’t so bad; some of them sound delightfully easy-to-understand Scottish, but many sound more English than the English because of their private-school educations (would you think, listening to him, that Tony Blair is an Edinburgh boy?). 

As I went further north and west, though, things started to change.  And, interestingly, people started to recognize my accent as Canadian more readily (I don’t think I was mistaken for American, ever, outside of Edinburgh); one woman told me that Canadians sound like Scottish people trying to sound American.  (I think it was supposed to be a compliment.  Anyway, she likes our accents.)

I thought I was really out of depth with the Scots accent when I arrived on the Isle of Lewis, as I listened to people talking on buses and on the streets, and couldn’t make out a word that they were saying.  I clued in, finally, that I was actually hearing Gaelic (not English); something like 60% of the population of Lewis is fluent in Gaelic and it’s used as an everyday language.  Street signs are bilingual, with Gaelic displayed in bigger, more prominent font; you hear Gaelic spoken in shops, on television, on radio, everywhere.  (And I learned it’s pronounced “GALL-ic”, not “GAY-lick”, for the Scots version.)  Their accents in English were noticeably stronger than the east coast, but I could still (mostly) understand them.  Skye and Oban weren’t too bad, either.

Then I got to Glasgow.

Did you know that Glaswegian is another language?  It’s not just an accent, my friends, it is way beyond that.  They have their own vocabulary and pronunciation and phraseology that often bears little resemblance to English as it’s spoken elsewhere in the world.  Read this, for example, and tell me what you think it means: 

Ah hink yoo're huir uv a bonnie. Dae ye want tae gang fur a bevvy?”

I heard this from a Glaswegian in a bar.  It means, more or less, “I think you’re cute, can I buy you a drink?”  (I had to ask him to write down what he said so I could share it here later – it took about four tries before I finally got the gist of what he was actually asking, so maybe not the most successful chat-up line ever.)

I can’t quite make heads or tails of what exactly renders it so unique.  One thing they do, though (along with other West Coasters) is something I’d previously thought was distinctly Kiwi they turn “i” into “u” when they pronounce it.  For example:  minute” comes out something more like “munnet”, and “fish and chips” is (you guessed it) “fush and chups”.  (They don’t sound much like Kiwis, otherwise, but perhaps that explains where that particular Kiwi quirk originally came from.)

Then, just when I was kind of getting the hang of Weegie-speak and actually able to talk to people without saying “Pardon me? What did you say?” every other sentence, I crossed over the sea to Ireland.

Wow.  Belfast is another strange little pocket of language, too.  The cute wee Irish boy (from elsewhere in the North) working in my Belfast hostel told me they have a “Wa-wa” accent so called because every non-Belfast person listening to them has to keep saying, “wha’? wha’?”  (as in “Pardon me? What did you say?”)

Things have calmed down, language-wise, outside of Belfast, and I’ve been able to understand people.  You can’t help but get lots of practice in the Irish accent, as people will talk to you, unprompted, everywhere you go.  Seriously, just stay still for a few seconds next to a person in a small town in Ireland and I guarantee they’ll be deep in conversation with you shortly thereafter; this is a very friendly country.

I’m not proficient enough yet in the subtleties of Irish English to tell you how the North differs from the South, or the east from the west; perhaps I’ll just have to come back.  If nothing else, I have one burning question to settle:  if I had to pick one or the other, would I choose to listen to a cute Scottish boy, or a cute Irish one?  The jury’s still out on that one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? (Part II)

I’m leaving Scotland temporarily and am on my way to Ireland (on the very swish Stena Line ferry that has free Wi-Fi in the middle of the Irish Sea).  Well, Northern Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned it’s all “Ireland” (I realize I’d probably offend some people in Ulster by saying that, so I’ll keep the opinion to myself while there).  I love travelling pretty much anywhere, but both Ireland and Scotland have special places in my travel heart; it’s an entirely different experience to travel somewhere that you feel some kind of connection to. 

There are other places I’ve been that I’ve loved —Machu Picchu, Morocco, Tuscany, Tikal to name but a few— but they don’t grip me the same way.  There`s more than a few drops of Celtic blood in my veins, so I feel like I`m coming “home” in a very real sense when I come here instead.  It’s not too many generations back that my great-(great)-grandparents left; these are my people.  Hey, they look like me (this is one part of the world where I blend into the crowd completely), and they know how to spell my last name.  I definitely feel at home.

(My karate instructor claims that my Irish/Scots heritage explains my attitude to martial arts; he used to marvel that, no matter how many times I got knocked down while sparring, I’d just get back up and plunge in again.  Whether this is a compliment to the Celts I’m not sure; it could mean we’re valiant and determined not to quit, or just too pigheaded or too stupid to know when we’re beaten.)

I`m most clear about where the MacLellan line of my family came from; I probably feel most like a "MacLellan", too, by virtue of carrying the name.  (Never underestimate the power of your name as part of your identity -- I am as much an O'Neill or Hefferan or King as I am a MacLellan, but what I call myself adds more weight to that name. In the unlikely event I choose to get married, I won't be changing it.)
Ferry from Oban to Mull, in Oban Harbour

I paid a visit to that part of the world after leaving Skye, and spent a few days in and around Oban.  It’s a pretty wee town, set on a snug little harbour on the west coast of Scotland about 3 hours’ journey north of Glasgow.  There’s not a great deal of tourist-y stuff to do, but there are a few ruins to wander around and see, and it’s a lovely place to just go for a walk.  (And I never, not once, had to spell my last name for anyone.)

I took one day to visit the islands off the coast, spending most of the time on Iona; it’s gorgeous and green even in the beginning of winter (warm air from the Gulf Stream, apparently) and has been considered a holy place since the 6th century, when St. Columba first landed from Ireland with the intent of Christian-izing the savage heathen Scots.  The famous Book of Kells (an illustrated 9th century Bible, now residing in Dublin’s Trinity College) was probably produced by monks here, but shipped to Ireland when Viking raids became a significant threat.  (The Vikings weren’t stupid; they knew that monasteries and convents had all the wealth in those days.)   The existing Abbey isn’t quite that old (parts of it date back to the 13th century, but most of it is 15th century), but it’s magnificent; the man on duty in the gift shop was quite thrilled to see me (I think he’s not seen many tourists for weeks) so he was quite happy to give me a detailed description of the Abbey`s history and architecture.

The MacLellans don`t go back in Oban quite as far as the Abbey, I don`t think; but it’s still pretty cool to walk the streets and think that, some time around the Clearances, three MacLellan brothers decided to leave (or fled for their lives, whichever story you choose to believe) and ended up in Canada.  Further back, however, there is a 12th or 13th century “MacLellan’s Castle” in Kirkcudbright (pronounced something like “kirk-COO-bree”) in southern Scotland, which is the ancient stronghold of the Clan Chief.  (I suppose the fact that it’s in ruins now says something about how far the family fortunes have fallen in the centuries since!)

For the O`Neills (maternal grandmother`s family), my parents tell me that great-great-grandfather Dominic O`Neill left when he was a child of 4, in 1841 (presumably with his parents, if they were still alive) —at the height of the Potato Famine as one of the hundreds of thousands who ended up in the New World.  I`d thought he came from County Tyrone in the north, but opinion`s divided (one cousin thinks they came from County Cork).  One day I`ll have to track down more details; in the meantime I`m going to wander around a bit of the North as I haven`t seen anything of it beyond Belfast.  (And I last saw Belfast in 1994, when “the Troubles” were still a reality and paramilitaries on both sides still set off bombs —so I imagine it’s changed quite a bit in the intervening years.)

Of the Hefferans and Kings (paternal grandmother`s and maternal grandfather`s families, respectively), I know not very much at all.  I`m assuming that Hefferan is also irish and they came from over here somewhere as well; King is probably English but I really don`t know.

I think this’ll be my project for next year, when I’m back at work and travel days are but a distant memory.  I don’t want to wonder; I want to know!  But in the meantime, I still feel like I’ve come home.  

P.S.  Glasgow people thought I was crazy for going ALL THAT WAY to Belfast in one day without flying.  Please, it`s only going to take six hours by bus and ferry; in Canadian terms, that`s practically next door.  My mother used to do that length of trip twice in one day (to Ottawa and back to pick up my sister from university.