Category Archives: Travel

The Icelandic Saga: Book One

A fountain of herons in Copenhagen. I had to fight the urge to use a food photo…

It’s been a while since I’ve written once of these. Getting on for two years, in fact. Recent times have not been kind to my straying feet. Still, the fact is that I’m back on the road, or rather in the air, once more, and not just for a quick hop across to London—my only other overseas destination in all that time.

The opportunity to finally make it to Iceland, a long-desired travel destination, was too good to pass up, and I consequently raided my piggy bank to pay for the cheapest flights I could find.* Which brings me to this point: up in the air, on my way to Copenhagen as stage one of a two-part trip to the land of ice and fire.

These days, the act of travelling doesn’t excite me half so much as the fact of being somewhere new. I have an eight-hour layover in Copenhagen between flights, which is something of a bonus arising from my pursuit of value. On an earlier trip, I had intended to spend a few hours in Copenhagen on my way to Stockholm, but train-related misadventures turned those few hours into around 15 minutes. Barely enough to peek outside the train station (the view consisted mainly of bicycles) before catching the next overnighter on my itinerary.

It’s an odd time to be leaving Dublin too. The sun was baking the airport tarmac as we boarded the plane, granting a Mediterranean feel to a nation more accustomed to rain and climatic misery. I should feel right at home in Iceland, it seems: While Copenhagen is sunny at present, Reykjavik seems to be under a cloud right now. Rain-bearing, that is.

This isn’t entirely a solo trip either, for all of my use of the first-person singular thus far. I have friends to meet in my brief tour around Copenhagen, and while I may be arriving in Iceland on my lonesome, and close to midnight, I’ll be meeting my travelling companion the next day. Hopefully, at least: he’s coming from a lot further away than I am, and his travels have been much, much wilder.


*Not a metaphor. At the tail-end of my second college career, my piggy bank is more fully funded than I am.

Bags of Memories

Shattered in Salt Lake City: Near the end of its journey…

On my travels around the Northern Hemisphere last autumn, I had the benefit of three faithful companions: three bags that between them carried all my gear. They were on their last legs even then – their ratty appearance, I suspect, had something to do with the fact that I didn’t once face anyone trying to steal from me – and now the last of them has been replaced. Seems like a good time to reflect on them.

The biggest of them, pictured above, was a mid-sized rucksack. It was also the oldest, originally purchased for a skiing trip when I was around sixteen, meaning that it was with me for something close to twenty years. Too unwieldy for short trips, it accompanied me whenever I was going somewhere for a week or more, meaning that it was with me on my most memorable journeys. Its waterproof inner coating was already coming off in sheets at the start of my round-the-world trip, and by the end one of its shoulder straps was hanging on by a thread. However, it went out in a blaze of glory, from Irkutsk to Vladivostok and on to Walden Pond.

My sports/shoulder bag, a black Nike sack, wasn’t quite as old – I bought it around the time I started college – but it was a far more regular companion, seeing use day in and day out for much more than a decade. Quite how it survived all the wear and tear, I don’t know, but it wore down slowly rather than gave way suddenly, and I used it long after it had ceased to look respectable. A hole in a side pocket led to a few lost coins and the right shoulder strap was more of a string by the end, but it was still useful right up until the end. Much less of a traveller than the rucksack, it proved a much more convenient store for everything I didn’t like letting out of arm’s reach as I headed in search of the rising sun.

The smallest of the three bags was a washbag. When I got it, I don’t remember, but I do remember how: it had lain unused in my parents’ house and I nabbed it for a trip somewhere. Ever since then, it accompanied me on every journey, long or short, full of all the toiletries that kids don’t seem to need but adults do. Nothing more than a pouch with a zip and some internal pockets, it was replaced yesterday by a bigger, fussier-looking alternative, which currently sits half-empty in a bigger bag, ready for a trip home.

Three bags, long-used and redolent with memories. All gone now. That’s the way of things. We can hang onto items longer than we should, spurning better alternatives because of the memories that they accrue over years of use. Not the best of ideas. I’m a partial fan of the idea of a de-cluttered life, but my main argument in favour of letting things go is that separating the memories from the things is a good step. Learning to let go of things takes you halfway to allowing your memories to release their hold on you.

The Mammy Principle

Even Lenin listened to his mammy.

This modest proposal has been brewing in my brain for a while. Pretty much since St. Petersburg, and that was several months ago now. It might not seem that way, but it was.

If you spend any length of time in a museum or art gallery in Russia, you’ll note a common feature to almost every room: the presence of a middle-aged to elderly lady sitting in the corner. Her purpose? To watch over the unwashed hordes who troop through her fief every day and threaten to do unspeakable things to the wonderful things that have been collected for their perusal. Her only defence against this dark threat: a stare that could reduce a hardened Red Army veteran to a sobbing wreck in only a few seconds.

I have to admit my admiration for the genius of this use of an underutilised resource. Who in Ireland does not know the power of a mammy’s disapproval? Even worse when she has risen to the exalted heights of grandmotherhood and can express her disdain over several generations at once. I shall not even speak of greatgrandmothers, lest I inadvertently draw the attention of one.

Such is the threat that these women wield that they rarely have to employ their glare: being in the same room as one, no matter how large or imposing the room, is enough to remind you of all the times when, as a child, you contemplated raiding the biscuit tin, only to turn and find yourself face to face with someone who knew what you were thinking before you did. I suspect that they only leave their seats to have a natter with one another just to reinforce the connections in their victims’ minds between those childhood guardians and the wardens of Russia’s treasures.

Perhaps, in this time of economic distress, we should seek to make similar use of the deeply-felt power of the mammy. I don’t speak of situating them in our museums, or even our banks or shops, where they would surely make any would-be thief pause in his criminality and slink away, shamefaced. No, the places where we need to situate our mammies are boardrooms and parliamentary chambers. No sooner would a captain of industry contemplate an ethically questionable shortcut to profit or an elected official dream up a scheme to enrich those who aided their rise to power than their inner guilt would kick in, they would look over to the corner to find a pair of steady eyes staring back at them over a copy of Ireland’s Own, and they would then return to find some more difficult yet more virtuous means of attaining their goals.

The price for all of this would be small: an increase in general stress levels among the powerful of the land, a few extra chairs and cushions here and there and a constant stream of tea and biscuits on demand. The rewards, I’m certain, would be many.

Focus and Inspiration

Iron and Weeds

I’m counting down the hours to my return at the moment.* One last long transit will take me back to Ireland, via Heathrow. Hopefully the place will have dried out a bit by the time I get there. Should I be worried about my ground floor apartment?

I’ve been in New York for the last few days, stomping out familiar territory as I prepare to return. Although I’ve been here several times in the past, this time around I’ve tried to concentrate on doing things that I’ve never done before. Some are a little obvious, such as going to the top of the Empire State Building. Some are reminders of home, such as cosy pints in the Gingerman Pub. And some are things that I wasn’t even aware of last time I was here, such as walking the High Line.

An elevated railway converted to a linear wildflower garden that offers a unique vantage point over southwestern Manhattan, the High Line is an example of a community project that took a crumbling eyesore and turned it into something that’s not only an asset to the local communities but also a tourist attraction, luring in people who might not otherwise be inclined to visit these parts of New York. I first read about it in a National Geographic article, and that was enough to make me determined to see it and to walk it as I passed through the city.

The High Line is an example of community activism that has had a positive outcome far beyond what the threatened demolition of the line would have provided. Up in the air for the moment is the outcome of a rather more well known outburst of activism: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve been coming across the offshoots of this movement as I’ve passed through the U.S., and I’ve been hearing about its spread across the wider world, but even here in New York it’s hard to say exactly what it’s achieved, or will achieve, beyond attracting attention to itself and drawing the occasional incident of police brutality.

There are a lot of theories in the media about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment. Many of them tend to focus on the fact that beyond protesting about the state of things, there’s little sense among the activists of a clear view of what needs to be done. It’s a fair criticism, but also inevitable: this isn’t a protest about something as simple as ending a war or preventing job losses. Ultimately, it’s about changing the way a small but very influential sector of our society works, and societal engineering is a difficult thing to plan, let alone to carry out.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Any number of commentators will tell you that something needs to be done if our notions of liberty and justice in society are going to be preserved in the face of an unbalanced distribution of wealth and influence, especially when those with all the money and the weight to throw around are fighting to retain what they have and perhaps gather more as the system creaks beneath them.

Occupy Wall Street may not have the answers. They’re unlikely to ever have as much focus as those who created the High Line. But they are at least asking questions and drawing attention to the need for someone in a position of power to take a longer-term view of where we’re heading. If nothing else, what they’ve done so far has reminded those with a knowledge of history that inequality tends to lead inexorably to unrest and revolution if not dealt with in a serious manner.

*Well, I was when I started this. I’m safely home now, and this is being posted late due to the habit of JFK and Heathrow airports of not avoiding gouging their customers for Internet access if they can possibly avoid it.

The Backward Track

Walden Pond: where crowds come to get away from it all.

Scientific impossibility though it may be (apart from for the occasional stray neutrino), time travel has always been a dream of mine. Not so much to see the future, which happens so fast these days that all we have to do is live through it, as to explore the past. Well, my journey from west to east across the U.S. is probably as close as I’m ever going to get to travelling back in time.

I started off in Los Angeles, which was the cultural heart of the world for much of the 20th century and still bears the traces of its 80s heyday, before that hegemony started to splinter. Further north still, I spent time in the palace of one of the barons of early Hollywood, W.R. Hearst, who partied with Flynn and Chaplin and was the thinly disguised subject of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

I dropped in on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row on the way to San Francisco, which still has the antique feel of the late 19th century around various districts, perhaps a reminder of the days when people from all nations travelled there in search of gold and opportunity.

Across the mountains to the east lay two pioneer cities, born from rather different origins: Salt Lake City, built around a core of Mormon settlers escaping persecution/the rule of law (take your pick), and Denver, another gold rush city, proud of its status as the “Mile High City” and its cowboy heritage.

I skipped through Chicago and landed in Washington, D.C., smoothing my path through time a bit. Born in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Washington has the look of a designed city: glance down any of those long boulevards and the chances are that you’ll see some imposing edifice framed at the end of it. Celebrating American Independence, it sets aside a large part of its heart to memorialising the figures who played notable parts in the nation’s history.

Another skip through New York landed me in Boston, keeping that retrograde progress smooth. From this point, I was in the land where the nation was born: the original thirteen colonies that became states in the War of Independence. Washington may enshrine that memory, but these are the places where the action happened.

One side trip brought me face to face with another person who sought to retreat to a simpler time. Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden recounts his efforts to live simply and at peace with nature by the pond of that name. His legacy attracts plenty of crowds to Walden now, but it’s not hard to walk the path along the water’s edge and suddenly find yourself alone for a moment or two, with just the trees and the water for company.

Of course, you can’t live in the past forever. I’m on my way to New York now, and even if it’s a long-settled city, once the Dutch port of New Amsterdam, there’s probably no more modern place in the U.S. Washington may be the nation’s capital, but it’s New York that the world thinks of as the exemplar of the American city, or perhaps even the nation as a whole. A fitting place to wrap up this trip, perhaps.

Mile High Club Sandwich

A Denver breakfast. There is actually fruit in there, under the English muffin…

Sadly, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find a sandwich joint in Denver that used this particular play on words. Not that I would have eaten said sandwich—I just wanted some proof that there are people out there who are as easily pleased by cheap humour as I am. I’m still looking…

Of all the U.S. cities that I’ve been to so far, Denver feels closest to a place I’d want to live in. It’s wide open without trying as hard to impress as Salt Lake City does or being as pedestrian-unfriendly as Los Angeles. It’s also laid back without being as touristy as San Francisco. One thing that I would miss is the sea. Or, more broadly, moisture in general. I don’t know whether it was the altitude or the sunny weather or some combination of the two, but I spent most of my 24 hours there gasping for a drink.

As much as I might wish to have had a little more time in Denver, my whistle-stop tour of the U.S. is working out well so far. After lurking around LA for a few days, I’ve spent no more than a night in any place since then, confining myself to 24 hours each in Denver and Salt Lake City, 20 hours in San Francisco, and a mere hour and a half in Chicago. I’d originally planned for a whole day there, but with accommodation being scarce and expensive this weekend and myself having visited there a mere six months ago, it was easier just to skip it and head for Washington, D.C.

So I’m getting ever closer to home in time and space. When I hit D.C., I won’t be far from the Atlantic Ocean, and there are only twelve days left before I have to catch my flight from JFK. These blogs entries have only really scratched the surface of all that I’ve seen and done over the past month and a bit; the places I’ve seen, things I’ve done and people I’ve met. I’ll have plenty of time to reflect and write some notes when I return, but for the moment I’ll keep on exploring.

Oh, and for those of you viewing this on Facebook rather than the main site, I’ve updated my Flickr account with some new photos. They should be visible in the sidebar to the right.

Justified and Ancient

Not actually made out of Lego.

On the train to Salt Lake City, I had my first Mormon experience a little ahead of schedule, when an elderly gentleman sitting nearby started chatting and soon began to try and persuade myself and another passenger (he’d mistaken us for a couple) that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints was the be all and end all of the Christian experience. Intent as I was on enjoying the train ride, I limited my responses to nods and making a few historical points, but when he claimed that the temple in Salt Lake City was the most beautiful building in the world, it at least gave me something to add to my sightseeing list.

Well, I’ve seen it (that’s it up above, as seen from the tower-block church headquarters next door). Seen it in the darkness, after my train got in at 3am and I decided to wander around; seen it in the sun, though without being let in, as it’s sacred even among the church members themselves; and seen it at sunset, which was pretty damn magnificent (the sunset, that is), viewed from the State Capitol on the hill above. And, well, it’s . . . nice. Solidly built out of granite, with hints of both Disney and Gothic styles in there. But that’s as far as it goes. Even when judged against other religious edifices, it’s no Hagia Sophia and no Pantheon. It doesn’t even hold a candle to St. Peter’s Basilica, which lacks the purity of form of the first two.

The fact that it was built over the course of 40 years by pioneers carting granite from a quarry a few miles away is impressive, though that point falters a bit when one realizes that most of the building happened after the railroad arrived, allowing rather faster stone deliveries. Ultimately, it’s a solid building with a plain facade, a golden statue on top and an unfortunate resemblance to a build-it-yourself Lego kit. To call it the most beautiful building in the world requires the speaker to invest it with qualities that exist outside its physical proportions.

This is not to knock the Mormons too much (I’m not going to type out the full church name every time, which they seem to prefer). Each and every one of them whom I met was polite, friendly and happy to chat to a visitor from abroad. Then again, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who’ve been out-and-out rude to me over the course of the past two months or so. I just struggled at times to cope with the blurring of the lines between “belief” and “truth”, and eventually I escaped to the pub and then a cinema to see the excellent Ides of March, which is all about how politics and the real world destroy idealism.

Hmm. Maybe blind faith isn’t so bad after all. Where did I put that pamphlet?

(Hopefully some of the above is coherent – I’m in Denver now, and by my reckoning, I’ve had about six hours of sleep in the last 48. Time for the head to hit the pillow at last.)

Moving On

More comfortable on the inside.

My 20 or so hours in San Francisco marked the first time on this trip since London that I’ve crossed paths with a former journey. Seven and a half years ago I was there with a friend, visiting a friend of ours and his then relatively new girlfriend. They’re now married and living in London, and it was their house I crashed in on the first night of this odyssey. The very first digital photos I ever took were on that trip, and they’re still on my laptop, which is filling up with the photos from this one. Everything circles around eventually.

San Francisco hasn’t changed much, thankfully. I liked it then and I like it now: a city that seems determined to keep the pressures of the everyday world at arm’s length whenever possible. I had as much fun walking around the piers, up Telegraph Hill, through Chinatown and out to Haight-Ashbury as I have on any of my more exotic walking tours on this trip. Plus, the longer I’m in the U.S., the stronger the mental and emotional ties become that will bring me back home in a few weeks. It’s a nice way to be eased into the end of a journey like this.

If there’s any source of melancholy here, it lies in the seven-and-a-half year gap to my former visit: it was a different time and a different journey, and I was a very different person, still in my twenties and with a lot of things to learn. Yet given just how much has happened in all that time – how much has even happened in the past year – I can’t help but be optimistic when I consider just what I might be reminiscing about in another seven-and-a-half years time. I haven’t got the least clue what that might be, but if it’s this trip, then I’ll be smiling when I think of it.

Relics of Empire

I kept stopping the car every five minutes to take shots like this.

Back near the start of this journey, I spent a day in the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace of the Romanov Tsars, now a treasure house dedicated to the packrat tendencies of those imperial rulers. Two trends were pretty clear: the desire to build as imposing a dwelling place as possible and the need to fill it with art and ornamentation of the very finest quality. After all, those who rule have to awe those who lack the resources to live in similar splendour.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours in the palace of a latter-day emperor: media mogul William Randolph Hearst. His castle at San Simeon is similarly awe-inspiring, perched on a hill overlooking the California coast and strewn with treasures and artworks of the very finest quality. And yet, it was hard not to notice that all of those artworks and treasures were either antiques at least several centuries old or copies in antique style. Whatever their failings, the Romanovs followed the tradition among the powerful and rich of acting as patrons to the artists of their day. I don’t know if Hearst did the same, but there was little that was new about the Castle at San Simeon, apart from the earthquake-proof reinforced concrete structure.

All very different from my experience at the Los Angeles County Art Museum a couple of days before. Whatever your feelings about modern art trends, there’s something admirable about the desire to try new things and see what works, and LACMA is a fine showcase for some fascinating modern pieces.

However, there’s art and then there’s nature, and not much has captivated me on this trip as much as the vistas on the Pacific Coast Highway between San Simeon and Carmel. The drive would have been much shorter had it not been for the constant desire to get out and admire the view every few minutes.

That’s why there’s a photo of the view from the road above rather than of Hearst’s Castle at San Simeon. Well, that and the fact that they have to give written permission before you can publish photos and I forgot to ask.

The Warmest of Welcomes

My very first night in LA and I get this welcome.

LA arranged this sunset just for me. Plus a rainbow on the other side of the sky. Nice.

Americans get a bad rap sometimes, with the stereotype of them being loud, obnoxious and culturally insensitive. Sure, I’ve met some Americans who fit that bill, but I’ve also met plenty of Irish who do too, and a fair scattering among other nationalities. In terms of ratios, I suspect that not too much changes wherever you go: there are always assholes. The vast majority of Americans that I’ve known have been some of the warmest, friendliest people it’s been my pleasure to encounter.

Los Angeles provides a case in point. This is the first time on my tour since I left London that I’ve been in the company of a friend, and she and her family couldn’t have been more welcoming to a weary, time zone-addled traveller. Getting to see Los Angeles laid out in front of me at sunset from the rear of their house was a pretty special experience too.

Los Angeles itself is a city I’ve never been to before, though I’ve bracketed it with visits to San Diego and San Francisco. There’s an odd feeling of familiarity about it that comes from place names that show up regularly on television and film: Mulholland Drive, Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive and, of course, Sunset Boulevard. I haven’t visited them all and I probably won’t before I leave, but I have ventured across the city by car and lived to tell the tale. So at least some of my navigational abilities remain intact.

Next up, a trip along the coast, northwards towards San Francisco by way of the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s all rather unplanned from here on in, save a few stops along the way to see friends, but after the scheduled mania of the trip so far, it’s nice to just take it as it comes.