Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Twelfth

July 12, 2014 is most likely the strangest day I’ve lived through in my 23 years of existence.  Honestly. 

King William
Before I recount the occurrences of the day, a brief history lesson is in order.  Think back to your World History classes, friends. Remember the Glorious Revolution?  Protestant William and Mary of Orange took the English throne from James II, a Catholic King?  Well, that throne also ruled over Scotland and Ireland.

But, there was a little problem with William III, a Protestant King, ruling over a place like Ireland.  Ireland was (and still is) primarily a Roman Catholic nation.  So, obviously, they would prefer a Catholic King.

 Cue a rebellion. 

The folks supporting a Stuart reign (James was a Stuart) were called Jacobites.  But, their origin is another story.

Anyway, although Ireland was mostly Catholic, Ulster, the province in which the
entirety of Northern Ireland resides was (is) primarily Protestant. 

Whoa, man, talk about a conflict of interest.

How could King William stand for rebellion from his subjects?  That’s right.  He couldn’t.  He got into his ship and headed over to Ireland to quiet everyone down.  But where would he land?  Yes, friends, in Protestant Ulster.  So, the story goes that people lit bonfires in the hills of Counties Antrim and Down to guide his ships through Belfast Loch.  And he landed somewhere in Carrickfergus.  That’s why people burn big ‘ol bonfires on the 11th night.

Meanwhile, the 12th commemorates the battle of Aughrim, which was the decisive battle of the Williamite-Jacobite War fought on July 12, 1691 (although other sources say that it commemorates the Battle of the Boyne in 1690).

As a result, every year on July 12, the Orange Order and friends march to commemorate “King Billy’s’” victory.  Of course, the Catholic community finds these demonstrations to be a wee bit antagonistic.  After all, the entire story reeks of sectarianism.  And, in a country  divided along religious lines, it’s easy to see how such events can turn ugly.  Thankfully, this year’s holiday was the most peaceful in recent history.


*takes off history cap*

Fancy plumes, huh?
Armed with the knowledge that I just condensed into the above paragraphs, there was no way I could miss witnessing this spectacle while living in Northern Ireland.  Sarah, of course, had the same thoughts.  After all, we’re here for an educational experience. 

And so, on the morning of the 12th, we headed into town with the scent of the previous night’s bonfires lightly clinging to the air.  Fortunately, it rained in the night, so the smell wasn’t overwhelming.  The walk up was eerie.  There were no cars or people about in our neighborhood.  I suppose South Belfast doesn’t care to participate in anything related to the day.  For that, I am thankful.  It wasn’t until we got closer to City Centre did we see people.

Oh, boy.  Groups were beginning to line the parade route.  Street vendors sold food and Union Jack paraphernalia.  Children beat on little drums and twirled batons while their parents stood by, chatting with friends.  Others smoked and took long drinks from their cheap booze.  All of this before 10am.

We settled in to watch at Donegal Place, which in retrospect, was probably entirely too close to “Loyalist Sandy Row.”  The parade reached us around 10:30 or so, and it went on forever.  Thousands of men, women and children proudly marched through the street playing drums, flutes and accordions.  Some came from as far away as Australia just to march the streets of Belfast.

It was strange standing there in the midst of it.  I’ve never felt like more of an outsider.  The people marching stopped to wave and shake hands with people in the crowd.  They were all friendly with one another.  It was like some sort of crazy reunion that I’d somehow stumbled into.  Everyone knew the words to the tunes the bands played by heart, and they sang from their hearts.

But, the weight of Northern Ireland’s entire ugly history was heavy in the air.  It was suffocating.  If I wasn’t crushed by the sheer volume of that hanging over my head then surely my own discomfort at practically participating (even as an observer) would have strangled me, like a noose around my neck. It was a rough, conflicting feeling to say the least.

They marched on for a small eternity before Sarah and I decided to move into City Centre.  There was a gourmet food market going on at City Hall, and we’d been standing for entirely too long.  Unlike American parades, the only variety in the whole thing came from the banners each individual group was carrying.  And, as I laughingly observed, not a single piece of candy was thrown.

By the time we finished our lunch and shopped for a brief moment.  The masses were finally beginning to clear.  And so, it was over, right?

No such luck. 

The aftermath was post-apocalyptic. Half-eaten food and broken beer bottles  covered the streets and walkways in obscene proportions.  Cars trying to make their way through the area crunched over glass bottles and general rubbish.  The transformation was so quick.  The streets lined with thousands of people cleared out so soon and left nothing but carnage behind.  It was like going from blissfully drunk to woefully hung-over in a matter of minutes.  The scent of a thousand cigarettes mixed with food waste, alcohol and various bodily fluids all mixed together to make for a nauseating cocktail of odors.  It was quite the walk home avoiding food, puddles of vomit and the occasional urine. 

No, I’m not making this up.

I do believe that I’ve experienced enough culture to last me the next few years easily.  It was the quintessential train wreck—painful to watch, but impossible to look away.  It was something that I had to see but sincerely wished that I hadn’t. 

Like I said, it was a bizarre day.

The Last Hurrah

Back in May, we had our last hurrah as Mitchells.  This time, our adventures took us to the “sunny southeast” in Kilkenny, New Ross, and County Wexford.  And friends, we went out in style at the Mount Juliet Golf Resort.

The start of our weekend was quite funny.  We were to meet in Dublin to depart, as usual.  But, Dublin was in a One Direction induced frenzy. All roads led to Dublin, so the train was packed with mothers and daughters off for a special weekend.  Great for them—not for us.

But, eventually, we all assembled (minus Tom, who made good on a Facebook threat/promise to meet us in Kilkenny).  We left a half hour (give or take) late. 

Our first stop was Kilkenny Castle, which is a 12th Century Anglo-Norman structure and is full of really cool historical tidbits.  When Ireland became a free state, the family that owned the castle left for England, and the castle was given to Ireland in 1967.

From there, it was on to Mount Juliet where we’d be staying for the weekend.  Nice is an understatement for our accommodations.  We were housed in two bedroom lodges for our stay.  Pretty fancy.  Along with our lodging came dinner at the Michelin Star Lady Helen Restaurant.  Talk about wining and dining in style.  It was quite the experience, and the meal itself was excellent.  Between the food, wine, and travel, I slept like a baby in my luxuriously comfortable bed that night.
The next day was packed with activity.  Our day began at the Hook Head Lighthouse in County Wexford.  It was built in the 13th Century, and is still the original structure.  Afterward, we visited the home of a very kind entrepreneur for lunch.  We ate some of the local seafood.  And, I assure you, Irish seafood is every bit as good as the beef and dairy.  Yum.

Then, we were whisked away to New Ross, where we visited the Kennedy Arboretum and Homestead.  Ireland is very proud of its Kennedy connection and has honored them well. 

My favorite activity of the weekend was our tour of the Dunbrody Famine Ship.  The ship is a replica of one of the ships that Irish men and women fleeing the famine travelled to North America in.  It was jarring to see.  The conditions on board were deplorable.  It’s sad to think that it was actually better than what they were leaving.  Imagine leaving everything you  know and love to board a ship to a place completely foreign.  Then again, I’ve always found immigrant stories to be particularly inspiring.

But, all too soon, it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to our respective “homes.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Germany

After my very inauspicious start, it was time to begin a fun few days in Southern Germany.  But, I suppose I should rewind a bit and explain why I was going to Germany in the first place. 

The story begins…


Where does this story begin?

The Stone Age.

This story begins in the Paleolithic Era when my father and Marvin were childhood friends.  They used to, in the words of Marvin, “throw rocks together” (which is even more evidence that it was the actual Stone Age).

Years later, during a strange time in human history known as the early 1980s, Marvin joined the military and found himself in Germany. 

Enter Daniela.

Boy meets girl, and the rest is history.
Marvin and Daniela

Every other summer for as long as I can remember, Marvin, Daniela, and Shelton, their son, head to Roanoke for a visit.

But, very little of Roanoke has returned the favor of visiting.

Visiting the Shears Family has been on my list for quite some time. It was one of the few things I knew I’d do when I set off on this journey abroad.  And so, during my Easter break, I decided to head on over to Augsburg for a few days.

I flew into Munich and upon exiting the terminal, I immediately spotted Marvin and Daniela smiling and waving.  I knew then that it was going to be a wonderful few days.

From Munich, we travelled to “Mayberry” (that’s what Marvin calls it, and I have no idea how to pronounce or spell the actual name of the village). 
Me in a field of hops in  "Mayberry"

There were a few things about my visit that made me immediately happy:

1.     Sunshine:  I love Ireland, but it’s a soggy mess of a country sometimes. I was long overdue for some good ‘ol Vitamin D.
2.     Being in the presence of someone who knows Roanoke: it was the most at home I’d felt in months.
3.     People driving on the right side of the road: ‘nuff said.
4.     A Barbeque grill: we had a lovely cookout my first day there.  I haven’t had food grilled outdoors since my going away party. It was yummy.

While there, I had a truly one-of-a-kind experience that can only be had in a foreign place when touring around with locals. I was only there for a few nights, but we did as many fun and interesting things as we could.

We spent a day in Augsburg, which is the closest city to them.  Augsburg is old.  As a matter of fact, it’s almost unfathomably old for someone whose country isn’t even 300 years old!

Augsburg was founded in 15BC by Roman Emperor Augustus.  At one time it served as the seat of the provincial government of the Roman Empire.  It goes without saying that the city is teeming with historical significance.  

There was no way that we could have seen and done everything in the short time that I was there, but we did hit a few highlights. And, more importantly, we had a great time doing it.

Among the places we visited were the Schaezlerpalais, St. Ulrich’s and St. Afra’s Abbey, Augsburg Town Hall, and the Fuggerei.  The first stop, Schaezlerpalais, is a really amazing Baroque Palace that is now home to several highly significant art collections.  The most amazing part of the palace was the gilded ballroom. It was built in the between 1765 and 70.  It was absolutely breathtaking.  I can’t imagine the time, craftsmanship and money that went into constructing such a beautiful place. 

The gilded ballroom
St. Ulrich’s and St. Afra’s, which was down the street from the palace could also be described as breathtaking.  The Abby was once a Benedictine Monastery.  We went into the cathedral to look around, and it was well worth it.  There’s something about those old cathedrals that simply demand reverence.  And, by some unspoken rule, everyone respects the sanctity of the building while inside.  As such, I couldn’t really bring myself to walk around snapping pictures left and right.  Instead, I just took it all in. 

Town Hall
The Augsburg Town Hall was also close by, so we wandered down to check it out as well.  It is, without a doubt, the most impressive town hall I’ve ever stepped foot in.  Construction was completed on it in 1624!  Unfortunately, it took a bit of a beating during World War II, so not everything inside is original. But, my goodness, the restoration work is magnificent. 

For me, the most interesting part of the day came when we visited the Fuggerei.  It is the world’s oldest social housing complex still in use.  If you’re confused as to what social housing is, it’s the European version of housing projects.  Back in the 1500s, Jakob Fugger the Rich decided that there needed to be a place for the needy citizens of Augsburg to live.  And people still live there!  There are, of course, stipulations as to how a person can live there.  But, it still serves its original purpose of housing those in need.

The most fascinating bit of our Fuggerei tour was the bomb shelter.  We went into the underground  bunker that housed the tenants during WWII. It was downright creepy, but definitely worth seeing. I can’t imagine the sheer terror of sleeping underground while bombs go off above.  Crazy.

The rest of my time with the Shears Family was spent doing less touristy things.  But, because the experience was less touristy, I think that made it more special.  We visited Marvin and Daniela’s friend who had a birthday, and I learned how to celebrate as a German.

We also attended a festival that comes to town every year.  It was fantastic.  They explained that it was basically a scaled down Oktoberfest. There were rides, confections and beer tents galore!  The food was amazing.  And, we even tried one of the carnival rides. 

That’s living, friends. German style.

But, all too soon, my time in Germany came to a close, and it was time to head back to my sweet, rainy Belfast.

Thanks for the memories, Shears Family!