A Journey, a Memoir: Literary Meanders

In the first week of our trip to Europe, we set a pattern that became an important feature of our holiday; visiting sites or houses connected to the greats of literature. The first, at Laugharne, on the estuary of the River Tâf, Southern Carmarthenshire, was where Dylan Thomas spent the last years of his life.  We enjoyed a peaceful morning strolling along ‘Dylan’s Walk,’ from Castle Laugharne to the Boathouse, now tea rooms and a museum devoted to Thomas and his work. Thomas wrote many of his major pieces, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, in a small shed located between the Castle and the Boathouse and its interior remains faithful to how Thomas left it when he took his ill-fated trip to America.

Later that month, after travelling through Counties Clare, Wexford and Galway in the Republic of Ireland, we spent three days in Dublin. Ireland values it’s scríbhneoirí so they created the Dublin Writers Museum, which has, since 1991, celebrated the history of Irish literature through copies of books and displays of writing paraphernalia owned by Irish writers, some of whom have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It also houses the Irish Writers Centre a resource and support service for Irish writers. We spent several hours at the museum, immersed in an august literary tradition that continues today.

We scheduled our trip to Dublin so it coincided with Bloomsday, a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Set on the 16th June, the book describes Leopold Bloom’s thoughts and impressions as he meanders through Dublin. Early in the book he stops at Davy Byrnes’ to eat lunch so we joined the throng at Davy Byrnes’ in the middle of the afternoon on the 16th June 2017, enjoyed a Guinness or two and listened to the Irish songs that grew louder, more intense (and more raucous, but because we don’t understand Gaelic we can’t be sure) as the day joyously rambled into evening.

Early next morning, unaffected by the previous night’s indulgence, we lined up with several hundred others to visit the Long Room of the Trinity College Library and view the Book of Kells.   I studied Medieval Literature in 2006 and have, since then, harboured a desire to see this delicately yet sumptuously illuminated text. Because of its age and fragility, it is displayed in a large glass case and there was barely any elbow room as dozens of tourists at a time strained to see the pages of the book before moving on so more visitors could view the text. The wait and polite jostling, however, were worth it.

After reluctantly leaving Dublin and recrossing the Irish Sea we took the train to Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lakes District, an area beloved of poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge,  and writers Thomas de Quincey and John Ruskin. As a former junior primary (elementary) school teacher, I was on this occasion, more interested in Hill Top, the home of Beatrix Potter, than the Romantic poets. It took nearly half a day to walk from the Lake Windemere Ferry to Hill Top. The walk was mostly uphill but the day was cool and we relished the lush English farmland we passed through. As inexperienced walkers, we were careful to stop occasionally, rest,  drink water and take in our surroundings. Once we arrived we had a cup of tea and sandwich at the nearby tea rooms before visiting Potter’s house and the gardens. Both house and garden match the illustrations from Potter’s books so I took several photographs of the garden for my granddaughter who, like so many children, enjoys the timeless tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends.

In France, the literary highlight was a visit to Shakespeare and Company. A lover of book shops, this is one I have longed to visit. Due to the weather and our poor map reading skills we failed to locate it on our first day in Paris but found it through a circular route (along the Quai de Montebello, down the Rue Maitre Albert then, realising our error, back along the Boulevard Saint-Germain to Square Rene Viviani) on our second day. I had, of course, to buy a book.

In Florence, we discovered the Casa di Dante, the birthplace of Dante Alighieri, was ten minutes walk from our accommodation on the via Lambertesca. We had not planned to visit the Casa, but by then we had come to accept our footsteps often led us to literary sites (though that’s not hard to do in Europe). Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece and the greatest poem of the Middle Ages. It was innovative for the time because it was not written in Latin but in the vernacular, which made it accessible to many more readers. Dante, therefore, anticipated the Renaissance and initiated the development of a national language of Italy.  The museum, steeped as much in the history of Florence as in Dante’s literary works, attests to the esteem held for him by his birth place.

While planning our holiday, we realised that at the end of seven weeks we would need to rest before the long flight back to Australia. We decided to find a beach where we could relax during the final days of our trip. On the advice of friends, and because there are no cars allowed on the island, we spent five idyllic nights on Hydra, a peaceful haven, despite the occasional bray of a donkey. On our first day, we were told about a forthcoming performance by sixteen young actors and dancers, students from the Ryerson Theatre and Dance Company, Canada. The show, Our Leonardo (devised by Corinna Seeds, directed by Peggy Shannon with choreography by Alyssa Martin), was a tribute to Leonard Cohen who, before he gained fame as a musician and song writer, was a novelist and poet. Cohen lived in Hydra from 1960 to 1968 and the tribute was hosted by Hydrama, which has for more than two decades presented many drama and dance performances as well as workshops, seminars and courses. Their focus is on Greek plays but they invite groups from around the world to perform under the stars in their small amphitheatre in the tiny village of Vlychos. We could have spent an hour walking to Vlychos from our accommodation but decided to take a water taxi instead; it and the performance were both free. Once we arrived we followed the locals to the theatre and found seats in the already crowded amphitheatre. The audience included English, Australian and American expatriates who, along with several natives of Hydra, knew Leonard Cohen and we listened eagerly as they shared their stories of the sixties. The performance itself was energetic; young bodies glistened with sweat as the performers sang and danced their homage to Cohen and his music. It was a fitting finale to our abbreviated, eclectic but intriguing literary journey through Europe.

A Journey, a Memoir: Staying on Track

I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train. I remember going to the city with my mother, catching the train at the local station, sitting on the worn, scratchy leather seats, watching familiar houses, parks and railway crossings swish by us and, despite the movement and occasional gentle jolt of the carriage, always feeling safe. I think buses have a sense of forced intimacy where, despite their proximity, strangers rarely chat; on trains, people tend to smile and seem more relaxed.  I was pleased, therefore, when we decided to include several train journeys while in Europe.

The first, from Glasgow to Bristol, began at 7:10 am, barely 24 hours after we landed in Scotland. We boarded at Glasgow Central for a seven-hour trip to Bristol Temple Meads, passing through Newcastle on Tyne, Durham, York, Derby, Birmingham, Cheltenham, Gloucester and numerous villages and small towns.  It was a wonderful way to see the lush English countryside, to gawk, as most Australians must, at the verdant, lyrical green we read about as children, but never truly imagine as it really is. 

Just over a week later we had a mammoth four train experience travelling from Bath back to Bristol, on to Stafford, then Crewe and finally arriving, late, in Holyhead where we connected with the ferry to Dublin. It was quite a day. We had reserved our seats but nevertheless had to locate the platform for each train, find the correct carriage, stow four pieces of luggage, locate our seats and stay alert so we were aware of the station preceding the one we needed, and retrieve our luggage (by now beneath the bags of those who boarded after us), in time to scramble off the train (minding the gap as were instructed each time a train stopped), and again find the correct platform and make it (barely, on two occasions) to the next train. The train for the final leg of the journey was delayed so we, and two dozen other passengers, arrived late at Holyhead. The ferry waited for us, so the last mad dash of the day was from the train station to where, in the same building but a five minute walk away, our passports were stamped before we could board the MV Ulysses. Imagine our relief as we settled into the ferry’s comfortable seats and relax during the crossing to Dublin.

On the 22nd June, feeling by then like seasoned train travellers and having arrived in London the day before, we braved the Underground. We shared an evening meal with one of my partner’s friends who later showed us around Regent and Carnaby Streets and then escorted us to Piccadilly Circus from where we needed to travel a mere two stops along the Bakerloo Line. We thanked our dinner companion and descended to the platform where a discussion ensued about the correct train. The train arrived and my partner, certain he was right, boarded the train and turned to check I followed him. I hadn’t. The doors closed and the train departed leaving me stranded at Piccadilly. For a moment or two my brain ceased functioning. Rooted to the spot, I stared at the empty space where a train and my partner had once been. Eventually, the thought occurred that I should climb back up the stairs and find a taxi. It was then a voice behind me said, ‘Don’t worry, stay right on this spot, wait for the next train, get on at the same door as your friend got on. He’ll get off at the next stop and be waiting for you. You’ll see each other and you can either join him or he can get on the train and you can continue your trip.’ Only a part of my brain took this in as I was wondering if I could call my partner, unlikely because my phone was not working properly and my international sim card had developed the habit of capriciously refusing to connect me in certain locations. I doubted it would cooperate on the Underground. I turned toward the voice and saw a young woman with a heavy backpack on her back, long honey coloured hair and hazel eyes, standing behind me. ‘Will he?’ I replied, my brain still trying to take in what had just happened. ‘Yes, he’ll get off at the next stop,’ she said. ‘But we’re Australian,’ I said. What I meant to say was we were unfamiliar with the Underground but revealing our nationality was all I could manage. Unfazed she said, ‘It happens all the time. My Mum taught me what to do when I was ten. My mates and I, when we go out in a group, aren’t always quick enough to get on the train together and that’s what we do.’ I could hear the next train approach. When it arrived my rescuer, sensing my uncertainty, gently marshalled me onto it. ‘I’ll stand with you,’ she said, ‘you stay at this door and you’ll see him at the next station.’ The doors shut and off we went. Still anxious – my default position during much of our holiday – I answered my companion’s questions about where we’d been in the last three weeks and managed to calm down. If my partner wasn’t waiting for me, I could catch a taxi and we’d eventually, if separately, arrive at our accommodation. My rescuer continued reassuring me. If the heavy backpack indicated she was a student, I thought she might be studying psychology or social work, she so deftly handled a panicky, aged Australian tourist. The train pulled into Oxford Circus and stopped. Just as my rescuer promised, sitting on a platform bench exactly opposite the door where I stood was an exceptionally glum looking fellow. He looked up from his phone to see me waving furiously and, when the door opened, beckoning him to join me and my new friend. He smiled, joined us on the train and together we profusely thanked our guardian angel. We were never so glad to see each other as on that night, he because he thought I’d be furious with him (I wasn’t) and me because I wasn’t looking forward to a taxi trip back to our accommodation.

In July, we shared the highlight of our several train trips. We left our accommodation in Montmartre, Paris, early and made our way to Gare du Nord to begin our epic journey to Como, in the Italian Alps. The countryside just out from Paris was shrouded in a light fog, and for most of the trip to Zurich, where we changed trains, the sky was overcast. Tired from our short but delightful stay in a wet and occasionally windy Paris and used by now to travelling by train, we relaxed, took photos from the carriage (despite the TGV travelling at around 297 kilometres per hour), and dozed off occasionally while the train climbed the hills towards the Alps. Once out of Zurich, however, we looked forward to crossing the border into Italy. We went through several tunnels, each one taking us closer to Largo di Como and the next stage of our journey. The sky was still overcast when we entered another long tunnel. We emerged minutes later and light flooded our carriage. It felt as if we had stepped onto a movie set: the sky was clear, the sun shone brightly and the colours of the lake and surrounding mountains gleamed. We both gasped, momentarily distracting our fellow passengers who, it appeared, had witnessed this miracle before. It was truly one of the delightful moments of our adventures with trains; a journey, as the Italians might say, that was ‘bonissimo’, and a trip I’d recommend to the most blasé of travellers.

A Journey, a Memoir: The Cyclist

Journeys imply place: visiting a specific location; experiencing different landscapes; discovering a new perspective. But journeys are also about people. During our trip, we avoided large hotel chains and opted to stay at Bed and Breakfasts or Airbnbs and as a result met several fascinating characters.

After coming off the M5 and, given Google Maps, enduring the uncertainty of England’s narrow country lanes, we were eager to see our first Bed and Breakfast, a classic Georgian home near Exeter in Devon.

It had two storeys, a large dining room and a parlour, all decorated in heavy, late Victorian age-thickened furniture and densely woven drapes in glowering reds and greens. I don’t have a green thumb, but I am sure there was an aspidistra standing in the corner of the parlour. We arrived hungry, tired and in need of somewhere to dine but our hostess was nowhere to be seen. We stood in the wide hall and coughed loudly, opened and shut the unlocked front door several times and eventually called out, to no avail. We could hear the sound of a television coming from somewhere but could not identify which direction. Eventually, after our calls became louder, a door opened and the television’s babble momentarily flooded the hall above us. A male voice called, ‘Coming,’ and we looked towards the stairs to see a thin man with collar length, wispy hair plastered to his scalp and a welcoming smile punctuated by uneven, and in a couple of cases broken, teeth. His manners and upper-class speech were, however, impeccable. He took a piece of our luggage in each hand and ascended the steep staircase saying as he did so that the lady of the house would be back soon. He swung open the door to a room swathed in primrose coloured wallpaper with sheer pink curtains filtering the afternoon sun. We deposited our luggage, which had taken on a pink glow, and he showed us the powder blue and white shared bathroom, handed us the key and told us to make ourselves at home.

Our hostess appeared later and carefully dropped into the conversation that the man who greeted us was not her husband, only the lodger. We met our hostesses’ husband a day later when we almost let their dogs out on to the busy road and only just avoided a doggy tragedy. Our hostess, however, was unfazed; she was a cheerful, hard-working no-nonsense woman who ran several businesses and admitted to us the day before we left that if we were looking for accommodation akin to ‘Fawlty Towers‘ we’d come to the right place. In many ways, it was a little chaotic but we found everyone there, including the lodger, charming and helpful.

In County Clare, Ireland, a conversation with another landlady went amusingly wrong. The decor on this occasion was more muted, but the welcome just as warm. One morning at breakfast I spotted a large battery charging in the corner and commented on how impressed I was with the number of electric powered cars we’d seen in the UK and Ireland. I also described the public electric vehicle (EV) charge points we saw at the Motorway Service Areas (MSA) in England and that we needed more of them in Australia. Our hostess, a competent, bustling woman with an engaging Irish accent, looked a little confused, but the conversation continued amicably. It was only later when I was going back over our discussion that I realised it was not her car that was electric, but her golf cart (which I call a golf buggy), and certainly not something you’d drive along the M5 to have recharged.

Kilchreest Cemetery, Ballynacally, near Ennis, County Clare, Republic of Ireland.

In terms of the rich and famous, we had only one encounter, though sadly not with the real person. At yet another essential ‘comfort’ stop, this time while driving between Dublin and Limerick, we discovered an MSA named after the 44th President of the United States. The Barack Obama Plaza contained a petrol station, food court, toilets and a visitor centre detailing information about Obama’s Irish connections. We didn’t have time to visit the visitor centre or take our photos with the life-size cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the main hall but we were chuffed with finding this little bit of America in the middle of Ireland.

Finally, my favourite ‘character’ of the entire trip was another hostess in Ireland, this time in Galway. I promised to keep her identity a secret so I’ll call her ‘Kathleen’ and like all our hosts she was warm, friendly and helpful. She also had an energy and attitude I immediately warmed to. An hour after meeting her I felt like we’d been friends for years. On the first morning after arriving she described the easiest walking route from her home to the centre of Galway and wished us well.

We spent the day visiting several of Galway’s famous Celtic jewellers, locating the best pub for a traditional Irish lunch and Guinness, watching the local buskers, searching for an art gallery that, sadly, wasn’t open, locating Nora Barnacle’s home and unexpectedly coming across Charley Byrnes’ Bookshop, heaven for any bibliophile.

Charlie Byrnes
Charlie Byrne’s Book Shop

After a long day, we trudged back to our lodgings and were halfway there when we both heard a loud, vaguely familiar voice. We looked up to see a woman in a pink puffer jacket holding, with her right hand, her mobile phone to her left ear and steering her bicycle with her left hand. She was followed by a string of cars, reduced to travelling at her lazy speed. It was Kathleen, happily oblivious to the traffic trailing in her wake. When I later described the scene to her she smiled and said she had no idea who’d do such a thing. I agreed, promised I’d not tell her husband and asked if I could please share the tale as long as I never revealed her identity; and I never will. Kathleen, may your rides through Galway remain safe and true and thank you for making our stay the delight that it was. You and others like you helped me to understand that where place and character meet, memories and stories are made.

P1030421

A Journey, a Memoir: The Peace of Unknowing

I wrote barely a word during our recent trip to Europe and four days after turning the key, for the first time in nearly two months, in our front door, I struggle to write about our time away from home. I am determined, however, to share the best and worst of our seven weeks, so I have decided to create, over the next few posts, a memoir of our journey. Somewhere, buried in the image-album of my mind are scenes I want to share; still resounding in my brain are the sounds of unfamiliar but welcomed accents and greetings, tastes I registered, impressions I stored, sensations  I preserved. These and the vast, impromptu, barely stage managed theatre that was my journey across the world, are my sources. I hope I can do them justice. What I record in the next few weeks may not be chronological but grouped into themes: the characters we met; how we travelled from country to country; the delights or otherwise of using Airbnb; the food we tasted; even the places we longed to visit but had to miss; my reflections on what we saw, did and enjoyed.

We travelled, during seven short weeks, to Scotland (briefly) England, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and Greece. We stayed in seventeen different towns or cities, some for only one night, others for up to six nights. We had accommodation in twenty different Bed and Breakfasts or private homes (Air B&Bs) and one hotel (after I insisted, we leave the accommodation we had arranged and relocate to cleaner, more pleasant premises.) We travelled on a ferry to and from Ireland and again when we were in Greece, to and from Hydra. I cannot count the number of trains we waited for and travelled on but we took to the air, once in Europe, only once. This means some of my impressions are fleeting, while others seem to impose themselves on me as I go about unpacking, opening weeks old mail and choosing how to live the rest of my life.

Let me just say this; I did not like flying to Europe. I liked being there and I hope these posts will share the joy.

Glastonbury and  Cilwen

These were two of the first places we visited and among my favourites, although crossing the border from England to Wales meant we faced another long drive along the motorway. Despite the rain and dark clouds, I was surprised by the complex pull of Wales, the home of my paternal great-great grandparents and my maternal grandfather. It wasn’t a sense of ‘home’ or even a return; it was something deeper, something primal.   The folded green hills, grey skies and road signs bearing unfamiliar, consonant rich Welsh words above their English equivalent helped make the miles slide by. The sense of attachment increased later when I heard inflexions and rhythms of speech of the people I passed in the street.

Before entering Wales, however, we stopped in Glastonbury, Somerset, a half an hour’s drive off the M4. Steeped in legend and befuddled by controversy, Glastonbury Abbey is supposedly the burial place of King Arthur. Some archaeologists believe Chalice Well, at the foot of the Glastonbury Tor, has been in use for two thousand years. The water from the spring contains iron oxide, giving it a reddish hue which, like the hot springs in Bath, is said to have healing qualities.

We parked the hire car and headed for the tourist information service to purchase tickets for the Well; unfortunately, we didn’t have time to climb the Tor. As we located the well and climbed the hill above it, I didn’t know what to expect. I read and studied the myths, legends and spiritual beliefs of the ancient Celts decades ago but my studies often lead me to poorly researched material, misinformed conclusions and occasionally blatant fictions about the ancient beliefs of the first inhabitants of this area. We sat above the well for a short time. The hills were quiet and light rain fell. When it stopped we decided to descend to the well and sit on one of the nearby benches. All was silent and so we did not speak, awed by more than just the beauty of the place. I wasn’t searching for a message or revelation, I didn’t want to impose my confused feelings and beliefs on the peace we had found but as I sat I felt an inner wisdom uncoil: 'I cannot know', I thought or heard or perhaps understood, 'what I think I know, because at the end of all knowing is only mystery.

 

Knowledge dissolves and words uttered or written fade in the presence of a mystery older than human memory. As we made ready to leave, I pondered the ‘message’ and what it meant to me, who so values learning and knowledge. In the following weeks, during the daily routine of catching trains, finding our lodgings and places to eat that was my life, I occasionally reflected on and welcomed this new form of ‘unknowing.’

 

03_UKtours_007_Erin_Chalice1

 

Two hours later we arrived at Cilwen, a place of delicate peace and beauty created by two gracious men dedicated to making their lives simpler and sharing that simplicity with others.

 

Both Somerset and Wales will remain places where I learned the importance of sitting and letting go of expectations and anxieties. By nestling into the stillness of sites sacred to thousands of generations, and refuges built from love, the silence of simply being reveals new understandings and kindles old memories.