One Foot in Two Worlds

Three short weeks ago, an exhausted Bolch/Richtarik family returned to the US.

The intervening days have been a whirlwind of unpacking, washing, shopping, errand-running and overwhelming tiredness. Think jetlag on steroids, and you still haven’t approached the fundamental weariness that has hit the household’s adult population. Declan, naturally, is unaffected.

Don’t get me wrong: we are genuinely happy to be back. We missed (among many other things) our cat Gunner, our king-sized bed, ceiling fans, big-ass washers and dryers, driving to the store, our community, milkshakes and American plumbing. Say what you want about our country, we do plumbing right. And, of course, I’ve been smoking or grilling nearly every day on the Big Green Egg.

My sister asked me whether the Irish ate pork. “Whatever gave you the idea that they didn’t?” I asked. “Because you’ve been smoking so much pork,” she replied. “Well what else are you supposed to do on a Big Green Egg?” I said.

Too much to do

Part of the reason for our tiredness, I think, has to do with the incredible amount of household work that awaited us. Take the mail, for example. Despite stopping all of the magazines and everything else we possibly could, we had an overflowing milk crate’s worth of mail waiting for us. It took me an entire day just to deal with that, separating the snail mail wheat (very little) from the chaff (very much). Seeing seven months’ worth of mail at one go does provide insight into how often charities we never support constantly send us stuff we don’t want.

The contents of two bedrooms and my office were packed away so our tenants could feel at home with their own stuff. All of those things have to find their way back where they belong—a process that’s still not complete.

Marilynn shops what’s on sale, creating a weekly menu based on store specials while stocking up on pantry items. We ate through as much of that as we could, leaving the rest for our tenants. But that meant the cupboards were bare when we got back. It seems like we’ve been to one store or another every day since we got back.

I was responsible for turning everything back on that had been turned off, resubscribing to what had been canceled and getting our cell phones working again, which required at least four trips to the AT&T store, three to Best Buy and a drive to the Atlanta ‘burbs for a new flip phone for Declan.

Add the start of Declan’s school year (and the requisite supply list shopping), my business and Marilynn’s work, and it all adds up to too much to do.

Another life left behind

Another reason for our malaise, I’m sure, is that we still are pining for our life in Belfast and our friends there. Toward the end, I absolutely felt like a native, albeit a native with a decidedly Southern American accent. I took great pride in striding unmolested past the Belfast tourist office, where reps for various bus/rail/drunkie cab tours hang out and hand leaflets to passing strangers. People who know where they are going don’t get pamphlets.

We have a ton of friends there and had more adventures in seven months than many families have in a lifetime.

Simply put, living outside your country and somewhat out of your comfort zone puts a new perspective on every aspect of your life. I can’t escape thinking about the post-World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

And I believe the answer is: You can’t.

Coimbra an Up and Down (Mostly Up) Experience

I forgot to mention how hilly Coimbra is. Porto is the same way. Getting up the triple and quadruple switchbacks—while walking on cobblestones—is a test for any person. Fortunately, Declan took that into consideration, too, when planning this trip.

He scheduled mid-day breaks on most days, so I wouldn’t have to be on my feet for too long at a stretch and would be ready to go again in the afternoon. He also booked hotels close to where the action is.

In Coimbra, the nighttime action includes fado music, a Portuguese specialty that generally denotes a sense of longing. We attended an event at à Capella, an intimate venue in a 14th-century chapel. The music was interesting, but not really to my taste. However, Marilynn liked it better than the flamenco music and dancing we saw in Seville, Spain, a few years ago.

Roman influences everywhere

On our final day in Coimbra, Declan had us scheduled to visit the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, built over the remains of a Roman forum. The cryptoportico (a kind of elaborate foundation) is believed to be the largest surviving Roman building in Portugal.

A tour of the cryptoportico begins the museum visit. Long, spooky corridors with occasional archways line one side, while shorter offshoots and individual rooms are dotted throughout. In other places, industrial walkways above other ruins allow good views of other parts of the cryptoportico.

Other highlights of the museum include the 11th- or 12th-century remains of part of a Roman-style cloister that was unearthed on the site in the 1930s. Another is the expansive apse of the church of the Convent S. Domingos, which was built between 1553 and 1564. A controversial decision was made in the 1960s to dismantle the severely deteriorated church, where the apse wound up in the museum. Seeing the amount of degradation, however, the decision seemed a wise one.

You’ll also find lots of religious painting, sculpture, statuary, reliquaries and what Declan and I like to call bling. Among my favorite things, however, were the dozen or so azulejos (Portuguese tiles) that contained mathematical or astronomical concepts dating from instructions issued by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 1692. The style suggests they were made in Coimbra.

Going back to church

There’s no better way to top a visit to a museum full of religious artifacts than to see a church. So after lunch, we found our way to the Historical Cathedral of Coimbra, a “church-fortress” dating to the 12th century. The church features small slits in the walls, just like in a castle’s battlements, the better to station archers in case of a siege.

Like all churches this old, there are numerous influences, including Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance. The highlight, for me, however, was the 13th-century Gothic cloister that surrounds the central courtyard. I especially liked the pediments below the arches, each designed in a different pattern.

Our time in Coimbra complete, we boarded a train for our next destination—Porto.

Declan Plans Portugal Adventure

For literally months, Declan has been planning this nine-day trip to Portugal. The last hurrah, if you will, to this wonderful seven-month European adventure that ends in just over two weeks.

When I told someone he had planned 85% of the trip, Declan looked at me sharply and said that the estimate was low. In retrospect, he’s probably correct. He first defined what cities we were going to visit after Marilynn and I said we should confine ourselves to the north of Portugal, where it was likely to be cooler in the middle of July.

Declan then researched plane tickets from both Belfast and Dublin to find the best (and cheapest) ones. He researched sights, hotels, transportation, restaurants and more, filling our days with activities while respecting our need to rest from time to time.

I’m writing about our first day in Coimbra on the fourth day of the trip (in Porto), and I can say that Declan has done a tremendous job so far.

Academic beauty in Coimbra

After flying in to Porto, we immediately headed to Coimbra, in the middle part of the country. Coimbra served as Portugal’s capital for more than 100 years (between 1139 and 1255, when it moved to Lisbon) and houses the country’s oldest university, founded in Lisbon in 1290 but relocated to Coimbra in 1537. So I guess Coimbra’s loss is Lisbon’s gain, and vice-versa. We stayed at the Hotel Vitória, a short walk from the train station and centrally located within the city.

Our first day was dominated by a visit to the Universidade de Coimbra, located in the highest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013. Several of the buildings feature terrific city views, including the clock tower. One ticket allows entry into all of the buildings, and climbing the clock tower is an extra euro—the winding staircase gets tight and twisty at the top, but the views may well be worth the vertigo.

The Biblioteca Joanina (library) was deemed too distracting for student use, its 60,000 volumes housed amidst gilt, frescoes and lots of ornate woodwork. The 18th-century building remains too precious for tourist photos, so you’ll have to take my word that it ranks high on the audacious scale. Speaking of audacious, under the library is the Prisão Académica (academic prison). Misbehaving students were housed under the library until their grades got better, I suppose.

Student exams and important academic ceremonies take place in the Paço das Escolas (the original Royal Palace). We saw what appeared to be a Ph.D. defense take place in the Grand Hall, a high room with lots of dark wood, second-floor doors that can be opened from the two-sides balcony above, ornate ceiling and large portraits of Portuguese kings.

Saint Michael’s Chapel dates from the 16th century and replaced an older chapel from the 11th century. The 2,000-pipe organ dates from 1737 and remains in use today for music concerts, as well as weddings and baptisms at the still-consecrated chapel.

The central buildings of the university form three sides of a rectangle, with open views of the city from the fourth. With his back to the city, the statue of King João III overlooks the courtyard. The 16th-century king was responsible for moving the university to Coimbra and expanding it during his reign.

Several other historic buildings are included in the ticket price, including the Chemistry Laboratory, the Cabinet of Physics and the Cabinet of Natural History. The latter, created in 1772, is the oldest museum in Portugal that remains in its original location. These three buildings, with their science exhibits and displays, could easily have filled a day for those with an eye toward the history of invention, chemistry or natural history.

All I can say is that Declan knows what his parents like.

All Roads Lead to Belfast City Hall

While Belfast City Hall may not be the physical heart of the city, it certainly embodies its spiritual heart. Although we’ve been in and around the building on each past visit to Belfast, we’d never taken a public tour until last weekend.

It was well worth the 45 minutes to learn about the history of the city, the building and the city’s governance structure, which features 60 councilors for a population of 330,000. There is also a new multi-room exhibit on Belfast that you can view.

Center of it all

The city’s core bus network consists of 12 lines that begin and end around Belfast City Hall, so pretty much wherever you go, you’ll glimpse the imposing, yet welcoming Baroque Revival building completed in 1906. Before 1888, Belfast was a town, but it was declared a city in that year by Queen Victoria.

Of course, the burgeoning city needed a new building, so the city fathers knocked down the White Linen Hall and built this new edifice for 360,000 pounds. The building features five domes, the tallest rising 173 feet. The largest dome is at the center of the building, with an opulent grand staircase leading dignitaries and visitors to the upper floor.

We got a glimpse at the deputy mayor’s office, the robing room where councilors formerly donned robes for meetings and the council meeting chambers. By the way, councilors still wear robes on special occasions, although members of the Sinn Fein party generally refrain.

During a council meeting, which takes place on the first working day of the month, the lord mayor sits on one short end of the room on a dais, with risers on both long sides with tables and comfortable chairs for the councilors, who are arranged according to political party. The press corps occupy tables in the middle, with spaces for dignitaries on the fourth wall. Members of the public sit one floor above the council chambers on the long interior side of the room. The council chambers and three large meeting rooms are paneled with Irish oak carved by Harland & Wolff artisans.

Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide gave those who wanted an opportunity to try on a councilor robe and to sit in the lord mayor’s chair.

Lord mayors and memorials

The largest meeting room, the Great Hall, was destroyed in the Belfast Blitz in 4 May 1941, a German attack that killed 1,000 in Belfast. The hall was rebuilt in 1953 and features seven original stained glass windows that were moved to the country before the war began. During the tour, we saw workers either setting up rooms or tearing them down, evidence of how much use the city hall receives.

Each lord mayor, elected from among the councilors, now serves a single one-year term, and after it has his (or her) picture painted in a style and by an artist of his choosing. Those portraits are moved once a year to make way for that year’s mayor.

You’ll find a number of statues and memorials on the grounds, including the Titanic Memorial remembering those who lost their lives in the 1912 sinking. There’s also a memorial to Sir Edward Harland, who once headed Harland & Wolff and served as Belfast mayor in 1885-1886.

Unlike many civic buildings, Belfast City Hall is open nearly every day for tours, and the building and grounds are in use almost daily for public events. I’m sure those who frequent its halls lose sight of how impressive the building is. The exterior features Portland stone, while the interior is adorned with Italian marble.

And, if an impressive interior and expansive grounds aren’t enough, Belfast City Hall features an outdoor lighting system that can illuminate the building in a literal rainbow of colors.

Finding Quality in Every Effort

I was saddened to hear about the passing last month of professor and author Robert Pirsig, best known for the 1970s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

I first read the book during the early ‘90s, during a time of professional turmoil, finding much comfort and direction from its pages. I still think often about Pirsig’s take on Quality, which assumes almost mythical proportion (including status as an uppercase word). Occasionally, I’ll take my battered paperback copy down from its shelf and thumb through its worn pages, refreshing my memory as to the book’s importance in my life.

Quality as a driving force

If you haven’t had the pleasure, the book is ostensibly a fictionalized autobiography about a father-son motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California. But it’s much more. Pirsig takes a deep dive into writing and the subject of Quality, which he believes is a fundamental force in the universe. The motorcycle, the road trip and the relationship between father and son are merely backdrops to the discussion of Quality.

The philosophical discussion of Quality isn’t what interests me. I relate more to the idea of having Quality in one’s life and in one’s efforts. One of my personal mantras is, “If it’s worth my time, it’s worth doing right.” Personally, that means finding the most efficient way to cut the grass, put away the dishes or arrive for a meeting on time.

Professionally, Quality means not just doing my best but doing what’s in the best interests of my clients, based on more than 30 years as a professional content producer. Admittedly, it can be frustrating when the client goes in a different direction, but I take solace in knowing that my first effort was an honest attempt to fulfill the assignment. Ultimately, I get paid for giving clients what they want—even if I don’t think it’s what they need.

There are no shortcuts to Quality as an ideal.

Guy book? You be the judge

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” may be more of a guy book. My English professor wife couldn’t get into it, and she reads widely. It can be a difficult read, mainly because the protagonist isn’t always a nice person. He is fighting his own demons, including a past that includes a stint in a mental institution and a course of electroconvulsive therapy, which altered his personality. He is sometimes short with his son and can be a real pain.

But who among us is always calm, always rational, always in control?

If only for Pirsig’s take on Quality, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is worth a look. I know for sure that I’ll be returning to its pages soon.

Europe Drives Motorists to Public Transportation Better than in US

Europe beats the US all to hell in terms of transportation. I realize that part of the reason is large parts of Europe are compact, compared to the spread out United States. Still, it’s fairly easy to move from city to city on a train (preferred) or a bus, and then within a city using a subway, tram or bus in Europe.

When traveling, it helps that we plan to stay near the center of these cities to take advantage of the transportation. But even traveling to Potsdam on a day trip from Berlin during a recent vacation was easy and fairly inexpensive. We bought a seven-day Eurorail pass, which allows free transportation on the days we designate. They weren’t cheap, but it’s a relief knowing that most of our major transportation is paid for. Sometimes you have to pay extra to take high-speed trains or book a reservation on a particular train, but those costs are modest.

In Berlin and Amsterdam, we bought tourist passes that included transportation. So in addition to free or reduced admission to certain museums, the buses and trains were included. The Amsterdam passes alone were more than 200 Euro total, but we visited enough museums to more than recoup the cost, not counting the half-dozen subway and tram rides we took.

Cyclists and bikers everywhere

That’s not to mention the bike riding. Many European cities are compact, making it easy to get around by bike or motorbike. Few riders had helmets, but I never saw a crash, even among pothead tourists in Amsterdam. We even saw small children riding with their parents on bikes and tons of kids on Razor scooters.

I believe the reason they’re so popular is the proper infrastructure is in place to support it. Dedicated bike lanes are placed next to sidewalks, separating cars from bikes from people in many instances. Bike parking decks rise several stories next to the central train station. City-supported rental bikes schemes let tourists live like the locals while giving the locals a cheap way to grab a bike and go.

A friend in Antwerp said the local bike scheme is 40 Euro a year for 30 minutes’ bike use at a time. That’s enough time to check a bike out, pedal to the store, check it back in, shop, then rent another bike for the return trip.

I also think it helps that driver education is a much bigger deal in Europe than in the US. Getting one’s license is difficult and takes considerable practice. Many young drivers take the test two times or more before passing. Because those skills are taught for a longer period of time, I think they become more ingrained.

You will find the occasional asshat tearing down our street in Belfast, but for the most part, I see drivers using their turn signals, letting other cars in and observing the pedestrian crossing signs. I was amazed to see rush hour traffic on a motorway in Amsterdam evenly spaced, instead of cars sniffing up the tailpipe of the cars in front.

Getting out of our cars

Governments that truly want to serve constituents should make the necessary investments in transportation infrastructure beyond the car. Bike ridership might be low in your city, but rather than use it as an excuse to build more roads, leaders should explore why it’s low and ways to get people out of their cars.

Atlanta has MARTA, but its track configuration was designed to appease politicians rather than move people from where they live to where they work. Attempts are being made to address this, but those infrastructure improvements will take decades. In the meantime trains run barely frequently enough during rush hour and not nearly often enough otherwise.

Unfortunately, I don’t think America will suddenly lose its love of the passenger car and embrace the train, the bus or the subway anytime soon. But savvy leaders in certain areas are recognizing the importance of transportation infrastructure beyond the car to attract younger workers who increasingly are learning to drive much later—if at all.

They can look to Berlin, to Amsterdam and to Antwerp for examples of how to successfully marry roads, rails and bike lanes for the betterment of all.

Free to Pee, You and Me

I’m visiting your city, seeing your sights, eating in your restaurants and staying in your city’s accommodations (frequently paying a visitor tax). The least you can do is provide me a few free places to piss.

I’m talking to you, Venice, with a visitor tax and seemingly one pay toilet in the entire old part of the city, despite posting 500 signs for it. You can’t provide free toilets on the Venetian island of Murano, yet you can pay someone to collect toilet tolls? I’m talking to you Berlin, which had public facilities where you wanted to charge me 1 euro.

I’m talking to any bus or train station with pay toilets. I’ve paid for my ticket, which helps finance your operations, so give me someplace to go (literally). In Prague, you had to pay to pee even in places you had to pay to enter. We paid the equivalent of 20 euro to climb the Petrin Tower yet had to pay another 10 crowns (about 40 cents) for the pleasure of pissing there.

Toilet.jpgThere also are places that deserve praise for their potty policies. Lyme Regis has free public toilets about every 100 metres along the waterfront. Marilynn said there were no toilet seats in the bathroom, but, hey, it was free. Failing public facilities, many cities have McDonald’s, what I call America’s Pit Stop. But, in Prague, you had to pay 10 crowns there, too.

What is it with the French and public peeing?

It’s no wonder that cities like Paris have a problem with what they delicately call les pipis sauvages, or wild peeing. We didn’t experience this (fortunately), but there apparently are places in the City of Light that stink to high heaven, especially in summer. They’ve installed 400 free, self-contained WCs in Paris that are free, but we also saw a pay one in Prague.

The latest French advance against a tide of urine is the uritrottoir, basically a colorful box over sawdust, straw or woodchips on a public street for people to place “deposits.” When full, the device signals that it needs to be collected, and the bedding is later used as compost in city gardens.

In the 19th century, the French came up with the concept of the pissoir, which you can figure out from the name. We saw several of these between the Olympic stadium subway stop in Berlin and the stadium, basically covered places to take a leak. But since we saw just as many people pissing in the woods along the same route, I’m not sure they are working.

Up-close encounter with les pipis sauvages

I knew this would be a blog topic in the early days of the trip, and I’d written a rough draft on the train from Prague back to Berlin, from where we’d fly back to Belfast. After eating at a great new sushi restaurant and visiting the DDR Museum, which documented life in East Germany under Communist rule, we were walking back to the Alexanderplatz train station along the main avenue at about 9 p.m. Alexanderplatz has wide sidewalks, at least four driving lanes and room for a tram. This ain’t no alley.

And then we saw it—a German punter taking a leak on a small bush along the sidewalk, beer in one hand and I’m not sure what (but have a really good idea) in the other. Fortunately, he had his back to us, but his front was on view to anyone driving by or on the tram. Judging by the fire-hose strength of the stream, this guy really needed to pee.

I can’t remember ever peeing in the street, but I understand the overwhelming urge to go. We will go to great lengths to avoid pay-as-you-go policies. I’d rather stop in a restaurant, order a meal or a drink and partake of their facilities rather than outright pay to pee someplace else. I’ll cross my legs and think dry thoughts for an hour, rather than flip a train station attendant 50 cents to partake of the plumbing.

This must stop. I call for a Urination Declaration, demanding free public toilets for tourists. Because peeing (and pooping, for that matter) are fundamental human rights. We all gotta go sometime, and it oughta be free. Our motto is, “Free to Pee, You and Me.”