Ireland had been a country that we had wanted to visit for some time. Along with purchasing books on the subject and discovering authentic Irish hats and wearing them proudly and observing St. Patricks’ Day with a pint of Guinness…or maybe two. I think that perhaps Ireland was the most anticipated stop of our cruise around the United Kingdom and Ireland. We docked at the Republic of Ireland which covers five-sixths of the Irish Island. The Republic of Ireland is a sovereign nation and its’ currency is the euro while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and its’ currency is the pound. Our first stop was the town of Waterford which is the home of the renowned Waterford Crystal. We toured the House of Waterford and marveled at the craftsmen’s expertise.
Waterford Crystal had actually been shuttered for a few years due to financial issues but had been re-opened and purchased by the employees. After our extensive tour of the House of Waterford and some necessary acquisitions we took a guided tour of Dublin Castle. This group was led by the best tour guide I have experienced…this young woman simply brought the castle and its’ rich history to life with her detailed accounts of what had transpired in the past within the castle walls and the lively current history of the edifice including the up-coming visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alone with fifty foreign ministers scheduled for December 2012. Her moving account of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visit in May 2011 and the historical significance of the Queen recognizing the sovereignty of the Republic of Ireland was palpable.
Our guide said that especially the Queen beginning her remarks in Gaelic was an honor to the Irish.
At one point she was trying to recall an american movie and she asked the crowd of mostly americans if we could tell her the name of it…as the silence was permeating I said in a low voice…This is Spinal Tap…and she exclaimed that I was correct. I have never seen the movie.
We had a delicious lunch of fish and chips at a local pub. It was extremely full of happy people and one not so happy person. As we were crowded against a table of young men who were throughly enjoying their Guinness I noticed that they regularly bumped against our table…with no ill will…just full of joy of life. Thus when the opportunity availed itself we moved to a table with a little more room, I looked up to see a gentleman glaring at me as he drank at the bar…and I really think he thought we were being disrespectful in some way. However I returned to my delicious lunch and he left…ships passing in the night of different cultures.
Our bus tour guide told us that drinking and driving had become so prevalent in Ireland that there had recently been instituted a zero tolerance of it. At almost the conclusion of our tour our guide sang Danny Boy…and her rendition added such a personal touch to our short visit that it brought goose bumps to the audience.
There is a reason that everyone is Irish on St. Patricks’ Day…Ireland is a beautiful, magical, mysterious land that permeates the soul of its’ inhabitants.
We had talked about it for roughly ten years. The last time we had a family discussion regarding a trip to the United Kingdom…we chose Maine instead. Now do not misunderstand me, Maine, is wonderful and we have since returned there for a repeat of what was an outstanding holiday. However we seemed to never settle on our UK adventure…until we did. In August 2012 we flew from the United States to London Heathrow Airport where we caught a shuttle to our hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, once again… this being our second transatlantic flight, we felt somewhat zombie like. Thus we thought a traditional English Breakfast would be in order. How delightful and delicious with plump sausages, blood pudding, and baked beans we ate our fill with workmanlike proficiency . Now we were beyond sleepy. As we sat on a couch in the ornate reception area Mary Jane was told that our rooms would not be ready for several hours. I wondered if we looked somewhat like the characters from the old television show the Beverly Hillbillies? I received my answer when I told the smartly dressed hotel professional that we had no where to go and were much to tired to do so if we did and therefore she could find us on the couch for the duration of our multi-hour wait. She suddenly found our rooms…all clean and ready for our arrival.
We had arrived at the beginning of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games held in London. As we flipped on the television in our room we quickly noticed that the coverage from the British point of view looked like a different Olympics than what we had been watching just before we left the US. Soon sleep overtook me and the events of the time prior to our embarking consisted or much needed rest and a lovely Indian meal at the hotel restaurant.
We boarded the Princess Ocean Liner at Dover…and the cliffs really are white. The ship was the smallest in Princess fleet and held under seven hundred passengers. By contrast the Caribbean Princess that we had sailed on twice is one of the fleets largest vessels holding over four thousand passengers. I thought that the smallness of the ship would be enjoyable…not so many opportunities to get lost. Later during our voyage I discovered that there was a drawback to being a small vessel…but that is for another blog.
Our first stop was the island of Guernsey. It is a British Crown dependency. It was liberated from Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945. Guernsey had its’ own currency or the Guernsey pound…but we were cautioned on ship to insist on trading in British pounds as the Guernsey pound was virtually unusable anywhere but Guernsey. We toured fort Grey and marveled at the gun casements and the cannonball that was forever lodged in the wall of the fort. We stood in rapt attention as the cannon was shot at noon sharp…as it is every day for hundreds of years by persons dressed as british soldiers from the era when the practice began.
I have chosen in this series to jump around a bit and so comes our bus tour of Scotland that culminated in the fascinating Inveraray Castle. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, as we are, you may recall the Christmas 2012 episode where the Grantham family visit the home of their cousins in Scotland called in the episode Duneagle Castle.
Inveraray Castle is the home of the Duke of Argyll who is the chief of the Campbell Clan since the seventeenth century. Our tour guide was a delightful woman of respectable age who simply brought Scotland alive with her lilting speech and stories. As we rode through the Scottish country side I think that I have never seen such natural beauty.
As we drew nearer the castle our tour guide began to be more excited. She cautioned us that indeed the current Duke and his family did reside at Inveraray and that if we were lucky he might come down to greet us. She went on to instruct us that we must not say, “How ya doing duke?” But rather we should refer to him as, “Your Grace.” So, with much fear and trepidation at the prospect of really meeting royalty we arrived and soon discovered that the Duke had not only agreed to come down but that he was assisting in the gift shop.
Seeing the Duke dressed in his apron that said “Duke” on it was somehow reassuring as was his strange expression when I referred to him as Your Grace.
On August 11, 2014, the actor and comedian Robin Williams died. He was found by his assistant with a leather belt around his neck and slightly suspended in a seated position. The immediate reaction across the world was shock and disbelief. He had battled depression most of his life along with a recent open heart surgery and the beginning stages of Parkinson Disease.
When I heard the news of Mr. Williams death…I was sad and felt a sense of loss. I have reflected on this unusual feeling, in that I had never met him, and have since concluded that he had a special gift to touch those he encountered through his performances. I think it goes without saying that he was a lightning wit when it came to the difficult comedic art form of improvisation. Much as his mentor, Jonathon Winters, he had the ability to take any subject and extemporaneously create an involved intricate world and subsequently invite the listener into an experience that was totally unique. But, it was more than that. Mr. Williams was able to project a caring humanity that those who encountered him knew instinctively was not only real but came from a man who understood suffering and trouble and pain.
Robin Williams connected from an inner genius that he did not learn at Juilliard. In the movie Dead Poets Society he said, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love , these are what we stay alive for.”
Mr. Williams range as an actor was incredible. His role in the 2002 movie Insomnia as the paperback crime novelist Walter Finch was chilling. Or in One Hour Photo the creepy character of Seymour “Sy” Parrish who has developed photos of the Yorkin family since their son was a baby. His ordinary demeanor portrayed through Mr. Williams understated acting illustrated the hidden dangers that can be as close as the one hour photo in any of our suburban communities. Mr. Williams could draw from darkness…that he fled throughout his life.
In 2004 Robin Williams visited with Koko the gorilla. Koko communicates in a modified version of American Sign Language and even understands some spoken words. Their playful interaction illustrates Mr. Williams ability to relate and empathize with another living being.
Koko cried when she was told of Mr. Williams death…and we did as well.
On Saturday, August 9 Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. The police say that Mr. Brown was unarmed but that he reached for the officer’s gun. A witness to the shooting states that, “I saw the police chase him…down the street and shoot him down.” Community protests have been ongoing since the incident with troubling police actions. Two journalist with the Washington Post and the Huffington Post were arrested as they were filing their reports in a local McDonalds with one having his head banged against a window…and then being sarcastically apologized to by the officer. St. Louis Alderman Antonio French was arrested after receiving national attention from his interviews and social media reports. Al Jazeera journalist were teargassed and their video equipment dismantled by the Ferguson police.
The frightening reality of these incidents is that it is not in the war torn middle east…but in the heart of the United States…the mid-west. Without police protecting and serving our communities we would be a country of chaos and anarchy. But isn’t that what has been transpiring in Ferguson, Missouri? All of the protests have not been peaceful…in fact there has been some looting and rock throwing and dangerous tension filled moments for both the police and protestors. Truth and justice of what happened with Mr. Brown and the officer who felt it was necessary to use deadly force..is for the courts to decide…but the reality of the extreme hurting of the residents of Ferguson cannot be denied. How would you feel if your son had been shot to death? The protestors are not all black…there are white residents of Ferguson protesting also. Is it all right to treat some communities with more force than others? Then is it also correct in difficult incidents of the exercise of free speech to decline those rights to the press…who were white? The name Al Jazeera does not leave many americans with a warm and fuzzy feeling…so can we assume that the rights of free speech and assembly does not apply to them?
Last night Missouri Governor Jay Nixon removed the Ferguson police from the job of security for the protests and installed the Missouri State Police with Captain Ronald Johnson heading the force. A night of calm transpired. Protestors say that now they are being treated with respect. Order is being kept…which is what any of us would want if we lived in Ferguson.
Often free speech is wonderful when I agree with it…and heinous when I do not. However if we are committed to continuing our excellent experiment of democracy in our beloved country it has to be for everyone…not just our friends and neighbors…and people who look like we do. Don’t we all have the basic right…when we see the police to feel that they are our friend…and the protectors of our constitutional rights?
Rome is a magical place to visit. Having stayed there for about twenty-four hours prior to our cruise we were excited to return for an additional five days. This was also somewhat unusual and adventurous for us in that we up until that time had returned home directly after a cruise. So we were back at the Hotel Montecarlo and Claude. We decided by majority vote of three, sadly Aaron had to return to the United States due to work commitments, that we would perform much of our tour of Roma by the walking method. Since then I have discovered that every time we are in Europe walking is our primary means of transportation. We set our for the Fontana di Trevi or the Trevi Fountain. The magnificent fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi and built in 1762. It is considered the most famous fountain in the world. The fountain has appeared in several movies due to its popularity. It is a breathtaking feast for the eyes.
As we pushed through the very large crowds of people I noticed a young woman who was setting on a small wooden push cart and who was obviously handicapped. Although many passed her smiling face by as if she was not present…a young priest stopped and spoke with her and gave her some coin. By the smiles on both of their faces I saw the christian principle at work.
We discovered a wonderful trattoria near the fontana and enjoyed a great meal…in fact it was so delicious that we returned again during our stay in Roma. Later that afternoon we returned to the Montecarlo for a short nap only to be awakened by the telephone and Aaron calling from a hotel near the Leonardo da Vinci airport. He told us that his plane back to the United States had not shown up and subsequently was just a few miles away from us until a new flight could arrive the next day. He was exhausted from waiting in long lines at the airport for hours before they secured him a room for the night.
We planned on dining at our favorite trattoria that was a block or so away from our hotel…but decided first to enjoy a drink at the hotel bar. When we arrived at the bar we discovered that Claude was not only the front desk attendant but also the bartender and mixologist. He provided us with some tasty drinks and we sat with some very friendly folks from England. The gentleman told us that he had been robbed the night before and that we must be careful if we boarded any of the trains because that is where his pocket was picked. He went on to exclaim that if it were not for his lady friend he would be in a penniless circumstance as all of his credit card were stolen as well. I thought during our animated conversation that we had found friends for the stay at the hotel…but when I greeted the colorful englishman the next morning he barely replied hello…and did not seem to recall our revelries of the evening before.
In any event we returned to our super nice bald headed slightly crossed eyed waiter at the trattoria just down the street, that we had visited the evening before we embarked on the cruise, and he was ecstatic to see us. He cooked his speciality for us and it was even better than before the cruise…if that is possible. After the meal I inquired if he had any grappa? Now, I must confess at this point that I did not know what grappa was but I had heard it ordered on one of my two all time favorite television shows, The Sopranos, and so I wanted to experience it. The man beamed at the request and responded that he not only had grappa…but for me he would open the best grappa. I replied with equal enthusiasm. Grappa is a grape based brandy made from discarded grape seeds, stems, and stalks. It was very strong, smooth, and good. As the dinner concluded we had been educated during the cruise that the proper tip in most European countries was only a few Euros…if the service was good…and not the twenty percent that we americans were accustomed to. Thus we left the culturally correct gratuity…and our wonderful waiter did not follow us into the street.
We began the next morning with the Montecarlo’s’ extravagant breakfast. Chocolate is the theme with chocolate pastries and Nutella abounding and also some wonderful Genoa salami and diverse antipasto. This is complimented with exquisite cappuccino. Then, we were off to find the perfect suitcase for Mary Jane. She was desiring a small hard case that would fit in the overhead compartments on the airplanes. We walked several miles in this pursuit. Finally we found just the right one…a small fire engine red Samsonite case and we quickly purchased it from the well dressed Italian lady who mostly smiled at us when we asked her questions. Speaking of well dressed. We noticed that almost all men and women we encountered were immaculate in their attire and thin. Women wearing high heels and men in suit and tie…even when driving their Vespers.
The ancient ruins of Rome and the Colosseum were our next stop. These sites are so imagination stirring.
During our five days in Rome we took a twelve hour bus tour to Assisi and Orvieto. This began with some excitement just after Bob’s Limo Service picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the bus tour. A lady immediately came out and instructed us to follow her to a different bus line that would be taking us due to her company not having enough tourists partaking of the twelve hour journey. When we arrived the tour guide said that he did not have our names on his manifest to which I replied that we had purchased our tickets and were planning on joining his tour…he simply waved his hand for us to board. As we began the ride I was impressed that our guide began to tell us what we were going to see when we stopped as well as many of the areas that were passing by the bus windows…and he did this in three languages. However when we stopped at Orvieto the bus parked at the foot of a gigantic hill that we then took a lift up part of the climb and completed it wearily on foot. This process took over twenty minutes. When we finally arrived at the top our guide who had spoken to us in three languages told us that, “There is the church…I will be under the tree…meet me under the tree in one hour”. This was the modus operandi for the remainder of the day. In fact there was a woman from South Africa that constantly berated him throughout the day for his lack of tour guide skills. She told him that she had been a governmental official overseeing tourism in South Africa at one time and that she knew what she was talking about. His response throughout the day was, “Madame…madame”.
A lunch was provided during the day at a local trattoria. We were so happy to be reunited with our new friends from Barcelona, Dan and Michelle, and we sat next to them for lunch. As I was attempting to make my order of the approved foods that the Tour had already paid for, the language gap got the best of both me and the waitress. When Dan attempted to help by telling the young woman what I was requesting and I chimed in…she instructed me that she was talking to Dan. I thought enough said.
St. Francis home of Assisi is fascinating. St. Francis was born into a well to do family in 1181-1182. While Francis was going to war in 1204 he had a vision and returned to Assisi. He then took a pilgrimage to Rome and joined the poor in begging in St. Peter’s Basilica. He was then persuaded to live in poverty. He is one of the most venerated saints of the Catholic Church. I think that his name sake the current Pope is an extraordinary leader. We again had the opportunity to have a drink and snack with Michelle and Dan as well as Mary Jane discovering a wonderful hanging mask that she had been looking for.
As the long tour wound to its’ conclusion and we got off the bus Mary Jane handed our trilingual guide ten euro. Now ten euro is a good tip for a good guide…but our guide was just out of gas, so to speak, yet she handed him the reward smilingly and he responded, “You are to kind madame”.
As we departed Rome I was sure of one thing…we must return someday. There are simply to many sights and sounds and smells to take in even is six days…but God knows we tried.
One of the most intriguing ports we disembarked on during our Mediterranean cruise was Palermo, Sicily. We boarded a bus for our guided tour and the first thing we noticed was the terrible traffic. The streets where chaotic…even more so than Rome…if that is possible. Our first stop was the Plazzo Steri also known as the Chiaramonte. From 1600 through 1782 the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition made its’ home here. This building functioned as the jail of the Inquisition. As our guide described the torture that transpired in the buildings we could not help but wonder if the spirits of those who had suffered as heretics might still be lingering?
The creepiness of the Plazzo Steri palled in comparison to our next stop which was the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. This was like nothing I had ever witnessed. Although we had visited the catacombs in Rome…there were no remains in the wall niches that we walked by. Not so in the catacombs of Palermo as not long after descending the many stairs to the bottom we began to pass…within arms length… the embalmed and mummified remains of not only the Capuchin Monks but also all manner of deceased including nobility, merchants, women, and children. Some women were in wedding dresses while many were dressed in their finest clothes of the day and monks included the ropes that they had used as penance rituals during their life. One body had been in life a casanova and thus had requested to be buried with glass eyes so that he could admire lovely women in his death. His appearance was more than a little disquieting.
An infant, Rosalia Lombardo, was preserved in such pristine condition that she appeared to be sleeping. She died in 1920.
After visiting the catacombs I could not help but reflect on the fleeting nature of this life and the perishable nature of our bodies.
During our excursion in Palermo we were given a couple of hours to explore the merchants district with many fine upscale shops. However they were for the most part closed for a customary two hour lunch and rest period making it difficult to explore more than the interesting facades and frontage of the businesses.
We stopped for lunch and were greeted by a friendly waiter who spoke virtually no english and we spoke no italian. He called for his manager to come out…who did speak a little english. He was smoking a cigar and after some trial and error told me to try his pasta with sardines. I later discovered that Palermo is noted for its’ sardines. Although this combination sounded strange to my american ears it was the most delicious dish I had during the cruise and ranked next to our special dish in Rome.
During the bus tour we were told by our guide that the mafia is still so strong in Palermo that when members of their family our being tried in court that they must be transported by a system of underground tunnels for fear that the police will be attacked and the prisoner released. About this time we passed the opera house that had a prominent role in the movie Godfather III.
Palermo is a beautiful city. It has posses an old world quality that is fascinating.