A Totally Serious Post on an Important Topic

Ask me what I did today. Go ahead – do it. I will tell you eventually, but first you need the back story . . .

I have lived in Austria for about 35 years now, speaking more German than English on the average day. And yet, I have never lost my American accent. When meeting someone for the first time, it usually only takes a sentence or two before they ask me where I come from. So I have had A LOT of conversations about cultural differences between these two countries. And when I say “a lot”, I mean a gazillion.

It has made me somewhat of an expert on Austrian/American conversational relations. When I was teaching, I sometimes did cultural lessons on the topic and developed a list of “Things You Should NOT Say to Americans” when meeting for the first time. For example, the Austrian might want to know how the American came to be in Austria at all – what brought them to this country. The question usually comes out jarringly direct as:

“Why are you here??”

Another point was that when an American says “Hi. How are you?” it is not a question. (Neither is “How do you do”, by the way.) Under no circumstances do they really want to know how you are – so don’t tell them.

The absolute Number One on this list was this:

“If an American has been in this country for more than 15 minutes, assume that, yes, they DO know what an “Oachkatzlschwoaf” is.”

It is dialect for “squirrel’s tail” and Austrians, for some reason, seem very proud of this word. I’ve been asked literally hundreds of times if I know what it means. What makes it doubly annoying is that I never once heard an Austrian actually use the word in normal conversation: “Oh look at that oachkatzl! What a bushy schwoaf he has!” If that happened, I think it would go a long way in making this all less irritating.

So, go ahead and ask me what I did today, because  I worked on my latest crocheting project – a squirrel for my sister-in-law.

I made the schwoaf.

oachkatzlschwoaf

Loose Ends

(Kur Report – Part Seven)

 

One of my goals in these cure reports is to give especially my American friends and readers a sense of what Austria’s health care system offers to it citizens. I have found discussions about health care (and the horrors of socialized medicine) in the States mind-boggling. I can’t help feeling that if Americans knew better, they would demand better. Much better.

So, in that spirit, I want to give a full picture of what these two weeks included. (Keep in mind, that there will be one more week in April. I am only at the 2/3rds mark.) I left off at the end of Week One. Here is Week Two.

 

Day 8 (Monday): This was an easy day with only three sessions. After another round of individual physical therapy, I found myself back in the mud pack station. Luckily, I was in a different compartment and didn’t have to stare at Lederhosen and Spandex Butts. This time it was Ski Pants Knees and Climber Calves, (both with just the tiniest bit of butt).

In the afternoon there was more spinal gymnastics and I was done for the day by 2:00 pm. In the evening I signed up for an extra yoga class – which was a great workout – very little lying around, breathing and listening to the choir of gurgling stomachs while trying desperately to relax.

 

Day 9: The morning included more electro-therapy on my shoulders, a Radon bath and then a talk on mental health which dealt mostly with stress. The last one was slightly irritating because the loudest and most confidant participants kept trying to shift the conversation toward whatever their own particular problems were. I spent most of the time wondering if there were really such a thing as “positive stress”.

After lunch and another session of endurance training, I took another walk to Böckstein with a friend and this time we went to the soldier’s cemetery there. For such a small place, there were so many gravestones of young men, all dying around 1943 or 1944, i.e. at the very end of that senseless war. Cemeteries can be very poignant places.

 

Day 10 included endurance training, an ultrasound treatment, and spinal gymnastics, to which I added an evening course in Feldenkrais. This was the first day I felt tired – sort of a low point. In the evening I shared a glass of wine with my walking friend, who left the following day.

 

Day 11: My schedule was filled from 8:00 am to 16:30 pm to make up for all the free time I had had on previous days. I had my second doctor’s check-up, grew another 0.3 cm, did underwater gymnastics, and partook in some excruciating relaxation therapy (“Close your eyes. Feel your left big toe  . . . . . . . now move to your second toe . . . . . . .” It took us a half hour to think through only the left leg. Longest hour of my life.) After that was an Exercise Motivation lecture followed by an hour of Nordic Walking. I went into that last one with a prejudiced mind but ended up having fun. In the evening, I finally finished my “Kur Report – Part Six” which was three days in the making.

 

Day 12 started somewhat brutally with weight training and endurance training all before 9:00 am. Then came a quick Radon bath and I was done before noon. Good thing, too, because I then hopped on a train to Bischofshofen to meet my bff, Ly. We mostly walked around for three hours and ended up seeing ALL the sights that town has to offer.

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And that brings me to today. Day 13. An hour of weight and endurance training in the morning and a quick electro-therapy . . . and . . . that was it!

Soon I will be packing and checking out. Returning cards and keys and towels, etc. Maybe a last walk through the village. A selfie with my table-mates. I can’t leave until tomorrow for technical, insurance-related reasons – I am officially on sick leave and legally required to stay here till I’m not.

So, I’m done. For now, anyway. As an extra souvenir (along with my little pink pig), I bought a badge for my hiking stick. Normally you have to climb up mountainsides and reach lodges to earn them, but there are exceptions – like the Vienna badge my sister-in-law bought me after I rode the Riesenrad (giant ferris wheel) in a state of terror. That was a sort of big deal for me. I may not have vanquished a mountain while I was here, but I do feel a sense of achievement. In terms of my state of health, these two weeks have been an upward climb to a nicer place with a better view.

 

 

Chickens in the Outhouse

 

Most people don’t know this, but there are two countries named “Austria”. Or at least in my mind there are. One is the place I came to after graduating from college and it was filled with highly educated professional people who were well-informed on social, cultural, economic, political and international issues. The second Austria was the one I spent two months in as an AFS student at the age of 17. It was a rural village of 108 people in about 15 houses, wedged between a military training base and the Iron Curtain. 99% of its inhabitants left school after the 8th Grade to become full-time farmers, butchers, seamstresses, mechanics, etc. before going on to intermarry. The time elapsed between my arrivals in these two Austrias was either only 5 years or an entire century. Take your pick.

It’s this earlier place that has been on my mind for a while now. After realizing that I was already starting to write this post in my head, I decided to skip ahead a few childhood journals in my “Cringe-worthy” series and read the one I wrote during that last high school summer and my first experience abroad.

It was a trip.

———————————————-

 

Shortly before I left, the long-awaited information package from the exchange program arrived. I ripped it open and intensively skimmed through the pages. The first surprise was that my host sisters were 2 and 3 years old, my host mother and father were only 22 and 26 respectively. Then I read that host grandpa was in his 50s and host grandma (“owner of the farm, practical head of the family”) was in her 70s. Hmmm? Oh yeah, and they were all farmers. Their daily life description consisted of work, watching TV and occasional day trips to relatives. The qualities they were looking for in the exchange student were “able to adapt, uncomplicated, not demanding any luxory (sic)”.

To be honest, there wasn’t much in these few lines to increase my excitement. I was the youngest child in my family with no experience of younger siblings. My baby-sitting jobs mostly had me watching TV downstairs from sleeping kids. I was also a city girl. With the exception of some horseback riding lessons, my exposure to country living was minimal. I’m fairly sure my only face to face encounters with farm animals up to that point had happened in the meat sections of supermarkets. I had almost no references to help me understand what I was heading toward. Despite all the hints in the information package, visions of the Sound of Music continued to happily dance in my head and my only real worry was whether I would be able to find a curling iron once I got there. I boarded a plane.

 

Epic Start

My first journal entry, the morning after arriving, was mostly about homesickness and . . . “feeling out of place”, but that first evening is one of the moments I can still remember distinctly 40 years later. I entered the kitchen and was led through the family bedroom to what would be “my room” for the next two months. That was it. The entire living space for the five of us when we weren’t sleeping was that kitchen. I remember then having to go to the bathroom and making the classic German language mistake of asking where the “Badezimmer” was. (In Austrian houses, the “bathroom” is for bathing and the toilet usually has its own separate room.) I was led back to a second room off the kitchen in which stood an old bathtub, a sink, a washing machine, and this thing. I stared at it and thought “What IS that?? It can’t be . . . ? . . .”. Then I noticed the electrical cord. My host mother, Edna, was clearly amused at me contemplating the laundry spinner and then led me back through the kitchen, out the door into the courtyard and on to the outhouse. As I wrote in my journal, “I almost cried when I saw [it].” There was a pile of old newspapers in there for wiping, but then Edna handed me a roll of toilet paper. She said it was just for me and asked me to keep it hidden and in my room. If her daughters saw it, they would demand to have some too.

My second biggest journal complaint was about the dinner they served me: “hot milk, bread and butter”. Little did I know then that it would be not only my dinner, but also my breakfast, every day for the next two months (except when pig lard was substituted for the butter). Food and the outhouse would become two of the recurring themes of the summer. It’s strange to see now that many of the others also showed up in that first journal entry. On my first full day, Edna showed me around the village, pointing out the Milk House and the “Club 3000” — an old chicken house that the village teenagers had transformed into a little disco. Later she took me to the nearby “city” (where I bought a curling iron). Most importantly, she gave me my first job.

 

“I did a new job today.”                

Bringing the full milk cans to the milk house, bringing back the emptied ones, and washing them out became my daily task for the summer. But each day brought other types of farm work to try out as well. I worked in the stalls and helped with harvests. I cut grass with a scythe and emptied wagonloads of hay into the cellar with a pitchfork. I hoed and chopped and raked and drove a tractor. I stripped bark from logs and stacked bales of straw. I hung up laundry. Lots of laundry. And I broke tools, lots of them, among other things.

  

“Chickens are the most disgusting creatures.”       

I didn’t mind most of the jobs (though I did write that “shoveling manure is revolting”). It was nice to have something to do and all these activities were new to me. There was one big exception. One day Oma signaled to me by way of crooking her up-turned finger that I should follow her. As we walked toward the chopping block, she scooped up a chicken with one hand and then picked up an axe with the other. WHACK! She handed me the upside-down flapping headless thing and said “Pluck!” Trying hard not to gag, I daintily pulled one feather out and then the next before Edna came and saved me. In under a minute, that bird was nude.

My objection to this particular job had nothing to do with sympathy for the dead bird. In fact, one of the funniest things for me to read in this journal was how much I hated chickens.

 

“little monsters”         

There were two other little creatures that I complained about almost as much as chickens – my two host-sisters.  There are stories in there of them taking food away from me, hitting me with an umbrella, calling me stupid . . . the list continues. Edna left me pretty much on my own when it came to dealing with them, which I found even more exasperating. But as the summer progressed, occasional nice moments with them pop up. Near the end I write about how each day began with them running into my room at 8 am to wake me up . . .

 

“going out”

The fact that my host sisters were so young was not such a problem in the end because, it turned out, there were a lot of other teenagers in the village to meet and party with. On my second day there, it was already arranged that a neighbor girl would come and get me: Destination Club 3000. Basically, every teenager in the village was there that night (I wonder why). It was the beginning of what would become an issue over the summer: me “going out”.  I did it a lot.

As I got to know the kids, I started to understand all the interrelationships in the village as well as the external perspective of my living situation and my host family. The biggest revelation, though, had – of course! – to do with plumbing.

 

Drama

 Me being 17 years old and . . . well, . . . me (“never met a boy I couldn’t get a crush on”), there ensued a series of somewhat sorry flirtations that set the village tongues a-wagging. The first was the village butcher/bad boy and I liked him till he went skinny-dipping right in front of all of us. (“I was so shocked!” I declared dramatically in my journal on Day 9.) I moved on to Crush Number Two, whose two most attractive qualities, if I am honest, were his driver’s license and old piece of clunk car. That one lasted about three weeks – until the car died, quickly followed by my interest. The third (potential) crush never went anywhere, because he was a cousin to my host family and much too smart to get himself entangled. The fact that he already had two girlfriends (and I, at least according to the locals, had two boyfriends) might also have had something to do with it.

The funny thing is that, even with my tentative command of German, I wrote often about how much easier it was to talk to these boys than to my (reserved) boyfriend back home. I realized even way back then that the pre-determined ending date of these relationships freed me to just be myself. Still, once a letter finally arrived from said boyfriend, he became my new crush for the final two weeks of the summer.

 

Gossip Generator

Despite the fact these flirtations included almost no physical contact, village gossipers had a field day with my exploits and corrupting influence on the local youth. I unintentionally fanned the flames by becoming close to the one girl in the village (the sister of Crush #2) who was attending high school and spoke excellent English. As I eventually found out, their two (much younger) siblings were born well after the death of their father, and that it was my host Opa who had been spending a lot of time there “helping the young widow out”.  After learning that village open secret, I understood some of the dynamics in my own household better, not to mention why my own host Oma was the biggest gossip generator of them all.

 

“Oma is a killer.”

Oma made it clear to me in a myriad of ways that 1) she didn’t approve of my being there, 2) so I should at least work, and 3) even though I was working, she didn`t approve of me or my work. My journal is filled with episodes where she demonstrated her feelings. She told me repeatedly how bad my cooking was. She yelled at me when I used the phone or the wrong pan. She turned off the lights on leaving a room, even if I was still sitting there. I eventually learned not to take her seriously, but for a few exceptions. The first was the way she promoted rivalry between her two granddaughters, always praising one of them and criticizing the other. Or making only one bottle of milk and letting them fight over it. The second unforgivable transgression was when I was finally let in on the big secret – and I’m not talking about her husband’s affair and love children. No, this was something much worse. It turned out that over in her rooms in a different tract of the farmhouse, there was a perfectly modern bathroom with a flush toilet. No one else in the family was allowed to use it. Scandalous!

The third transgression that I just couldn’t get over was when she complained and gossiped about Edna – saying she was lazy and never worked when that was all she did from morning to night! Unfortunately, my host father, Lou (Edna’s husband and Oma’s son) was not much help. I think he had learned to stay clear of the fray.

 

 

 

“I had a long talk with Edna today and I’m feeling much better.”

 One of the strangest surprises on rereading my journal 40 years later, was how important my friendship with Edna became for the entire experience. She and I would talk a lot while we were working together, and her kindness and openness always helped. She made me feel better about going out with the village kids by telling me that their previous AFS student never went anywhere and that it was a much bigger problem. (“I just cause family strife and break a lot of tools.”)  Apparently, homesickness got the best of my predecessor and she ended up leaving early. Edna also accepted my close friendship with the one girl in the village most likely to cause conflict in the host family (and Edna was the one to explain the whole sordid history to me). When she saw that I didn’t like a particular type of work (like shovelling manure or plucking chickens), she never asked me to do it again. When one of the ridiculous rumors about me reached my ears, Edna and I could laugh about it together. She admitted that she also had to deal with gossip and that she had trouble getting along with Oma too; she advised me to do what she did: just tune her out. The bond between us grew slowly and consistently throughout the summer. One time, she told me about a crime show she had seen the night before – it was about a woman who murdered her mother-in-law. Our eyes met and we both tried hard to hide our smiles because Oma was sitting nearby.

I eventually realized why I was there. It was not only to supply some companionship, but also to serve as a new target for Oma, taking the heat off of Edna for a while. I fulfilled that second purpose exceptionally well. As the date of my departure approached, she began to get weepy at random moments. I understood the full palette of emotions behind those tears.

Near the very end of my stay, I finally succeeded in merging my two circles. I persuaded Edna and Lou to come with me to the Club 3000 for what I guess now was my farewell party. In one of my favorite pictures of them, they are sitting in the club, Lou’s arm is around her and he is kissing her cheek. Her laughing face is positively beaming.

——————————————————–

I have gone back to visit the village and my host family twice over the years: once during my Junior Year Abroad in Germany and again, 15 years later with my husband. I was surprised to see that almost everything looked exactly the same, right down to the wallpaper in the kitchen. (My husband was even more surprised that there were people in Austria who still lived like this.) There were a few new additions, though, like a porcelain seat in the outhouse and two more daughters. If I remember right, Oma had passed away and my closest girlfriend had married the family’s cousin. (I suppose those two events weren’t entirely unrelated.) We had a really nice visit.

Despite the brief intersection of these two worlds, I still have trouble – even to this day – merging the two Austrias in my head. But I am beginning to suspect that has less to do with their differences than with my own psychology. . . .

 

Two Worlds

. . . . because my biggest discoveries in reading this old journal were about me. I recognized the quirks and qualities in my 17-year-old self that would lead me to become a lifelong traveler, the most obvious of which were my roving eye and my roving heart. But it went deeper. I felt free to be myself in foreign environments. I saw the benefits of relationships with pre-determined expiration dates. I found it easy to lead a dual life – to handle the cognitive dissonance that allowed me to write “I love this place!” and follow it with something like “In just two days I will be able to say I am going home in a week!” At 17 I could already allow myself to feel Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (wanderlust) at the same time which somehow freed me to live in the moment. They struck a compromise and coexisted peacefully side-by-side within me. “I live in two worlds” is a statement I have made many times, in many different contexts. It’s a feeling I have carried with me my entire life. It has allowed me to leave places and people, knowing simultaneously that I may never see them again and that they will always be there. It has given me my somewhat harsh ability to silently say, “Goodbye and have a nice life! What’s next?”

 

Early Bird Special

I went out for dinner with two dear school friends last night and it was the fastest five hours of my life. They had arranged to go to a popular place that takes no reservations so we had to get there by 4:00 pm. As our plans were shaping up in a series of ping ponging WhatsApp messages, all sorts of idioms and cultural references to (mean and skimpy) old ladies popped up that were unfamiliar to me and needed explanation – finally prompting one of my friends to write “You have been gone too long.”

So, Blue Hair picked me up and we drove to the restaurant where Weenius would meet us. We all arrived within a minute of one another, but curiously, two of us spent the first half hour at a table with an empty seat while the third spent it on a bench across from the hostess station three feet away. We needed our cell phones to finally find one another. Another round of allusions to our aging processes ensued.

But at the same time, the rejuvenating magic of old friends started working. Conversation flowed fast and furiously, simply picking up where it left off last time. There was no feeling of “having been gone too long” – in fact, no time had passed at all it seemed. Giggling erupted and years started peeling off. Who is getting old? Not us! We are as immature as we ever were! And blessedly so.

The place was filling up and our consciences told us that we really should be leaving to free up the table for all the waiting customers. So we got our doggie bags and spent ten more minutes figuring out what 94 divided by 3 equals. Then we stiffed the waitress and left. Blue Hair drove off the curb with a clunk as we left the parking lot.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like . . .

“American trends take about ten years to come to us.”

I heard that statement dozens of times when I first came to Austria. And it struck me as true. It was 1984, but the younger people were still walking around in hippie garb and attitude. Stores were quaint in their lack of variety or marketing pizzazz. No one celebrated Halloween and Christmas was surprisingly uneventful. Trees were not put up till the 24th, they were only lit up once using real candles, and they were gone before New Year’s Eve. No one put up strings of electric lights outside their homes. I’m not even sure they were available in stores. There were Christmas markets, but they were cozy affairs centered more on mulled wine than on trinket or handicraft shopping.

Things have changed.

I noticed this year that when the Halloween merch was removed from stores in early November, it was immediately replaced with chocolate St. Nicks and reindeers and Santas and angels. Then one neighbor after another strung up lights until we were the only house left without them. Santas appeared on rooftops and life-sized crèches populated front yards. Mailboxes were stuffed full with letters from charities.

Clearly, American trends had come to Austria, but I didn’t realize just how fully until I went to City Hall Christmas market on my evening in Vienna.

This was a level of kitsch that even Americans would have trouble matching. Austria had not only caught up, it had surpassed us! This could not stand!

Fast forward to yesterday as I walked the daily route to this Milwaukee neighborhood’s central shopping street. Along the way is a huge house that has been under the process of gorgeous (and expensive!) renovations for the past 10 or so years, yet still seemed uninhabited. I noticed a huge Christmas tree in the front window and, it being only December 12th, I wondered at the owners’ Yuletide enthusiasm. Then I proceeded to walk past the side of the house and noticed a second tree in the next room:

In the third room there was yet another tree:

And in the fourth . . .

And, yes, there was a fifth . . .

Part of me was fascinated and plagued by the question “Who ARE these people?!” But another part was delighted. Take THAT Austria! When it comes to Kitschmas, we are still Number One!

America Report – Day (Minus) One

It hasn’t been mentioned here before (as far as I can remember) but I’m back in Milwaukee for Mom’s 90th birthday party slash family reunion. It’s 10:00 am on Day One and I have already been up for about six hours. I’ve had a pot of coffee and listened to a couple of podcasts on yesterday’s impeachment hearings, which I find oddly calming. I have taken a long walk, bought a Christmas present, and written a blog post longhand – this one – which I am now trying to type up on an IPAD. (It is my first time using this particular device and it is not going quickly.) I have also started my latest crocheting project. It is another symbolic one – a pink flamingo – to bookend the bat (-shit crazy) one I made during my last visit . . .

(screeching brakes sound)

Back up to Day Minus One.

There is nothing like flying direct on a decent airline (Austrian). Having stayed overnight in Vienna at my generous brother-in-law’s apartment with its impressive collection of single malts, I awoke at a civilized hour, had an unhurried coffee and shower and then meandered casually the two blocks to the airport train station (with its convenient check in counter where I relieved myself of my heavy suitcase. ) I arrived at the airport with plenty of time for duty-free shopping and podcast downloading and breakfasting.

The plane started boarding and, as always, the first impression was that the plane would not be full. Of course things changed. A half hour after we should have been I the air, passengers kept straggling in – most of them harried American senior citizens who had had the misfortune of being randomly selected for an extra security check. They were NOT a happy bunch. Women in a tizzy shared their stories of being “tickled”. The men were more angry and the baseball capped specimen in the seat behind me was particularly enraged. After his first sentence, the thought “Twump voter” passed through my mind. He went on with his complaining:

“This is just a third rate country trying to act important,” he said. “We should strike Austria off the list for the next trip.”

I went through a myriad of unspoken responses to this affront to my adopted country, but finally landed on “Austria says thank you”. Later I leaned my seat back at the first opportunity.

Despite delays, we made up all the lost time, the food was actually good (haven’t said THAT in years!), the landing soft, the arrival procedures quick and my bus to Milwaukee left just ten minutes after my leaving the terminal. My sister was there to pick me up, and when I brought my suitcase up to my room in her house, what did I find?

Next it was all talk talk talk talk until Rachel Maddow finally gave my sister some respite from me. Ten minutes into her A block on the impeachment hearings I was fast asleep.

It is going to be a wonderful week.

To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.

 

Westeros

 

(Ireland 2018 – Part 2)

 

Despite having devoured the first 3 books in the series, I cannot really be considered a true “Game of Thrones” fan. Reading to the end of the fourth book ended up feeling like work. I only managed it because of my neurotic need to finish any book I start. The fact is, I never really got over the Red Wedding chapter in Book 3 and I resent that sadist, R.R. Martin, to this day for putting me through it. When it comes to the TV series, I stopped watching somewhere in the first season. I just couldn’t stomach the (seemingly gratuitous) violence and cruelty.

So it wasn’t “The Game of Thrones” that led me to Northern Ireland, but once there, it was hard to escape the connection. There were all sorts of GoT packages on offer; whole sections of Tourist Information offices were devoted to it. Special maps were made, showing all the locations where scenes from the series had been filmed, like this one (notice all the film camera symbols):

Not surprisingly, a lot of the sites that we had chosen out of old guide books (that predated the show) overlapped with those on the GoT tours. And when they did, we slogged through these sites in a massive convoy of people.

At the Giant’s Causeway it seemed there wouldn’t be enough rocks to hold them all.

At the famous Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, there weren’t enough hours in the day to let all the people who wanted to cross over.

And at the Dark Hedges (Westeros’s “King’s Road”), well, we could hardly see the trees for the forest of tourists passing under them.

 

 

And now I have to confess to being a bit hyperbolic in what I wrote above. I still enjoyed all of the sites despite the many other tourists. They were cool and beautiful and worth visiting. Then again, when I look back at the trip as a whole, my absolute favorite moments were ones when we were almost alone in some gorgeous location – and that cannot be a coincidence.

First we got to the Mussenden Temple and the mansion ruins in Downhill Demesne before the ticket office opened and could explore the places almost completely on our own.

 

This was one of my favorite moments from the whole trip. Me and the sis being in the moment:

 

It was only after I got home from the trip that I started researching the connections between “Game of Thrones” and Ireland. It took me all of two minutes to find an article showing that the fictional country of Westeros is actually upside-down Ireland with some extras:

 

I suppose this all won’t be news to most GoT fans, but I thought it was incredibly neat. The article went on to say:

“Speaking at Comic Con two years ago, Martin revealed that not only was Co. Kerry perfectly redrawn, but the Fingers at the Vale of Arryn were, in fact, the Dingle Peninsula, and several other major Irish cities share their locations with famous Westeros landmarks: King’s Landing as Galway, Donegal Bay as the Sea of Dorne, Belfast as Old Town and Dublin as Casterly Rock . . . . With thanks to the success of the show, many fans are now traveling to the Northern Irish sets to see the amazing locations for themselves, resulting in the Dark Hedges in Co. Antrim, used as the King’s Road in the show, becoming one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the world.”

Source:  https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/entertainment/rr-martin-reveals-game-of-thrones-westeros-is-an-upside-down-ireland

 Despite the crowds, I think it is great thing that the popularity of GoT has been a boon for northern Irish tourism. For me, the opposite has occurred. While googling “ireland locations game thrones”, I ended up watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos – scenes from the series with backdrops I recognized. I really enjoyed them. I just might start watching the show again . . . . .