I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Tetrapods to Lindberg with the Gift of Gab

Here in the land so famous for the gift of gab, there seems to be a passion for communication much deeper than just good craic in the pubs. I’m trying to get my mind around this:

Many paleontologists (at least many Irish paleontologists) believe the first fish slithered out of the water on four stubby legs 385 million years ago onto what would become the isle of Saints and Scholars. (I actually hiked down to see their “tracks.”) Over time those tetrapods evolved into bipods…like the Irish scribes who–living in remote outposts like the Skellig Islands just off Ireland’s southwest coast– kept literate life alive in Europe through the darkest depths of the so-called “dark ages.” In fact, around the year 800, Charlemagne imported monks from this part of Ireland to be his scribes.

Evolution, literacy, communication. Just over a thousand years later, in the mid-19th century, Reuters–who provided a financial news service in Europe–couldn’t get his pigeons to fly across the Atlantic. So he relied on ships coming from America to drop a news capsule overboard as they rounded this southwest corner of Ireland. His boys would wait in their little boats with nets to “get the scoop.” They say Europe learned of Lincoln’s assassination (1865) from a capsule tossed over a boat here.

The first cables were laid across the Atlantic from this same desolate corner of Ireland to Newfoundland giving the two hemispheres telegraphic communication. Queen Victoria got to be the first to send a message–greeting an American president in 1866. Marconi achieved the first wireless transatlantic communication from this same place to America in 1901. And in 1927, when Charles Lindberg ushered in the age of trans-Atlantic flight, this was the first bit of land he saw.

Today, driving under the 21st century cell phone and satellite tower crowning a Ring of Kerry hilltop on the far southwest tip of the Emerald Isle while gazing out at the Skellig Islands, you just have to ponder the evolution of communication through the ages and the part this remote corner of Ireland played.

It’s not a doodle bag…


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Best thing to happen to me on this trip was when my son, Andy, called me and said he’d like to join me for a few days “to see how I do my work.” He cut his alone time short and flew from Paris to Galway, checked out the pub scene there for a day, and then joined me and my Ireland guidebook co-author Pat for five days of research before our planned family get-together in Dublin. It was great to have him along. It reminded me of travels with my grandparents in the 1970s in Norway (even thought they would stay at the fancy hotel and I’d sleep down the street in the hostel to enjoy a livelier crowd).

Andy has had a marvelous trip–assisted on three of our new Best of Europe family tours, was in the streets of Rome the night the Italians won the World Cup, was at the finish line of the Tour de France in Paris a week later, and has a long list of new friends from all over the place. Rather than sit at his hotel desk writing a blog…he’s out there wringing the fun out of Europe. When I bragged to my Irish friend what a fine traveler Andy is at age 19, “He didn’t get that from the stones on the road.”

As a dad, it’s so fun to think of the life experience my son is enjoying.

A few random thoughts from this trip: After all my “life experience” from spending a third of my adult days romping around Europe, I sometimes lose track of what’s impressive to Americans. Recently while filming in Italy, the barista made a smiley face in the foam on my cappuccino. Impressed, I asked Simon (my director) if we could film it. He said “that’s no big deal–they do it all the time in the states.” Later, in Austria, a pear tree was growing like ivy up the wall of a mountain chalet, attracted by the heat the white stucco held. “Wow!” I said to Simon…”let’s film it.” He said, “that’s an espalier, I have one in my Seattle back yard.”

A guide told me that if the building that was there before was still there it would be the oldest building in the town. Vienna’s Ministry of War has been downsized and what was their equivalent of our Pentagon now houses Austria’s ministry of social affairs. Here in Ireland, people keep asking “are you okay?” The Irish are a bit put off by the German inability to appreciate their treasured bagpipes. In German a bagpipe is called a “doodle bag.”

Beans for breakfast…it’s Ireland

I just spent a week in Dublin. It was our annual family vacation. Anne and Jackie flew in from Seattle. Andy wrapped up his 70 days in Europe here. And I took a break from researching. I had a hunch Dublin would be great for a week of family fun…and it was brilliant.

The city is safe, thriving, easy, and extremely accessible. Each night we enjoyed fun and affordable entertainment. Andy drank enough beer to tarnish its allure. Both kids connected with their Irish heritage. (In a week Andy will be back as school–Notre Dame…trying out for the “Irish Guard”–the big intimidating guys who precede the marching band at fighting Irish football events.) We were all pretty wide eyed at the thriving late night scene in Temple Bar. In Dublin the girls are wrapped up like party favors. The guys look like they’re on the way home from a hurling match.

And Ireland’s becoming a melting pot. It seemed everywhere we went young Polish people were serving us: bringing breakfast, cleaning our hotel rooms, taking our tickets. Ireland’s a land long famous for exporting its labor, but today the economy is booming and they’re experiencing a population boom–of immigrants. Of the 10% of Ireland’s population that is not Irish, most are Polish (Catholic, kept down by a bully neighbor…they can relate).

Poles are famously hard working here. My friend who runs a youth hostel employs a Pole who unnerves him by almost shouting “I can do dat” every time he’s given a task. It’s disorienting to hear rough Irish types (historically the under-class at home as well as abroad) talking about their Polish housecleaners like a great latest accessory. “I’ve got a wonderful new Pole…very low maintenance…don’t know how I managed without.”

Except for the beans at breakfast…forget “eating Irish” in Dublin. Going local here is going ethnic. I was at a multi-national food court and it was confusing: Chinese were cooking Mexican, Poles were running the Old Time American diner, a Spaniard was serving sushi, and Irish were running the Thai. Save your craving for pub grub for the small towns.

Yesterday, I was at Croke Park with 50,000 Irish football fans (like soccer but you can run with the ball as long as you bounce or kick it every three steps). Each fan paid €30 ($40) for a ticket. I get talking to my friend, telling him I went to the Abbey Theater the night before to see a play by Oscar Wilde. He asked me the cost. I said €30. He said to his wife, “imagine paying €30 to see a play?” I reminded him that, to a playgoer, spending €30 to see the game we were at would be just as strange.

Ireland’s charming rough edge is surviving its new affluence…but it’s becoming a little less rough. We spent €30 outside the stadium so everyone in my family would have a scarf or hat or flag with the correct colors (gold and green–we were rooting for Donegal). I remember twenty years ago–when the “colors” were cheap dye on crepe paper hats for a buck. I was in the humble stadium on this same spot (where Europe’s thunderous third biggest stadium stands today). The rain was causing my colors to run from my hat down my face–gold and green…still for Donegal even back then. I put the hat atop the umbrella next to me…not thinking it would run in eight small rivlets…coloring those around me. Luckily, they were Donegal fans too. Colors hold fast today. With affluence, the Irish no longer bleed on each other.

During that game twenty years ago I’ll never forget the creative cursing. My vocabulary grew like never before. The Irish–even in polite company–have always been loose with the “F word.” The Irish rock star Bono got in trouble on American TV for saying it, but the station avoided the FCC fine–apparently on a technicality: because, in common Irish usage, it’s considered an adjective rather than a verb.

On this current trip I’ve noticed the Irish don’t say the F-word so much. A decade ago it was f-in’ this and f-in’ that. And the air’s cleaner of smoke too. There’s no smoke indoors anywhere. Pubs come with fresh air and a few blokes smoking outside the front door.

Today, I had breakfast with Noel Dempsey, the Irish minister of communication–who, cabbies I interviewed in the last few days figure, is in line to be Ireland’s next prime minister.

(I made friends with Noel in Seattle when I was the Grand Marshal for St. Patrick’s Day and he was the visiting dignitary. Noel explained that each St. Patrick’s day the demand for Irish dignitaries empties their country of politicians as they fan out to St. Paddy’s Day festivals around the world. They post a listing of all the requests each winter and if you don’t choose one, you’ll get assigned a destination. He liked Seattle.)

Noel said Ireland is very pleased with the performance of their economy. In 1987 their per capita income was 65 percent of the European average. Today it’s 130 percent.

AmExCo is a dinosaur


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American Express was once the convivial, welcoming home to American travelers abroad. It was a gathering place for adventurers living far from the USA. In the 1970s and 1980s we’d meet here to collect mail from home, sell used VW vans, and reconfirm our flights home. When changing dollars into francs, it felt so good to lose money to that smiling, English-speaking person at American Express. Now with e-mail, ATMs, and the general shrinking of the world, AmExCo is a dinosaur. They are closing down shops right and left. And I realize they no longer merit the special paragraph between laundromats and post offices in my guidebooks. I feel almost guilty when I highlight an American Express listing and press delete.

But enjoying change is fundamental to good travel. Change is accelerated as once poor countries are thriving. Last week, zipping on modern freeway from Madrid to Segovia in a comfy air-con bus during the pre-scorch hours of the day, I was staring with pensive wonder out the window. The modern American-style suburban sprawl of Madrid reaches far beyond where any tourist ventures.

Suddenly, just a few minutes after wild scrub and farms replaced the car dealerships and furniture outlets, a towering concrete cross broke the horizon rising high above the hilly Castillian countryside. It marks the grave of Franco–a memorial church longer than St. Peter’s, carved out of solid rock entirely underground. It’s lined with towering angels glorifying Franco and those countless thousands on both sides of Spain’s Civil War who gave their life for “God and country.” Spaniards explain their “late start” in joining the rest of Europe in the remarkable affluence of this generation because they had to wait until the 1970s for freedom to replace Franco.

Later I met a man who looks like a medieval Kenny Loggins with a big grey beard, a toothy smile, and a battered bike. He didn’t speak a word of English. I tried to interview him but he looked at me as if thawed out of some glacier. He just smiled and pointed to his flag. It’s Latvia. He pulled out a magna-carta-like map with a red line tracing his route. His itinerary looks like the trip of a kid with ADD and a two month Eurailpass–but he did it all on a circa 1960 bike. I feel strangely honored to meet him….before Latvia, too, joins in the affluence.

The pipes and fiddles play on.

A few years ago, I submitted the Madrid chapter of my guidebook and a new TV show we produced on Madrid to the local tourist board for a tourism promotion contest. While I knew I was promoting tourism in Spain far more than any other participant, I also knew I wouldn’t win. That was a few years ago. Just yesterday, my local guide friend told an anecdote about how my writing was ridiculed by the panel of judges as being just “too full of Franco.” (Tourist boards are all about fun in the sun and duty free shopping.)

I don’t think you can tour Spain properly without an understanding of how a brutal civil war followed by half a century of dictatorship impacted the society and leaves it scarred today.


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Now I’m in Ireland. I just watched a powerful movie (The Wind that shakes the Barley) in a small town (Dingle) theater filled with local farm kids whose grandparents could have been the stars of the movie showing how a heroic independence was won after a 700 year long battle with the world’s quintessential colonial overlord (Britain) and the battle then morphed almost immediately into a civil war (fighting over how to deal with a Britain-ruled north).

Walking a Dingle street the next day with the retired local police chief, Tim, I worked to bring to life Ireland’s history using insignificant bits of a small town a world away from Dublin as a rack upon which to hang this understanding. A century ago the town’s police station was the Green Zone of English imperialism here, housing the dreaded Black and Tan forces who kept any Irish insurgency under control. It was burned and today only the red brick wall at its gate survives. Across the street a big, white crucifix stands memorializing where local boys were executed (firing squad) by the English “in the glorious struggle for a free Ireland.” This was erected after the Free State was established, but even back then they knew the struggle was on-going. It is dated 1916 to 19__. Ireland remains divided and the date remains poignantly open ended.

I enjoy history–I actually got my history degree accidentally, it was so much fun. And the history that inspires me most is from the last century–heroic figures who people alive today still remember. Churchill, chomping on a cigar in his bunker, keeping England fighting. Ataturk, muscling medieval Turkey from the buffet line of Euro-imperialism into a modern democracy.

Turks still remember the George Washington of their young nation. I have a Turkish friend (Mehlika) who was so dedicated to Ataturk that as a young girl she believed she’d never be able to fall in love with another man. Her father died of a heart attack during a moment of silence at a Rotary Club ceremony to remember what Ataturk did for Turkey. Even today, Turks see Ataturk’s image floating by in the clouds.

The sights and stories of small people (young and old) fighting Hitler, Franco, the USSR, or the Queen carbonate my European sightseeing. And, to any student of history, two things seem very clear: we can learn valuable lessons from history; and the resilience of a people’s cause, while easy for an imperialistic power to underestimate, is an impressive force.

The English burned the harps here in Ireland centuries ago. But the pipes and fiddles play on as today the Irish culture thrives.