Meeting a US Ambassador (Kinda) Certainly a First

Being married to a Fulbright Scholar has perks beyond living for six months in Belfast. We were part of a group at a reception Monday night for the US ambassador to what’s officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pretty cool, huh?

Officially, Lewis Lukens is the chargé d’affaires-ai, a hoity-toity term that Wikipedia says means interim until Trump’s nominee is approved. But hey, he has the same privileges and immunities as the ambassador, so that’s good enough for me.

Hanger-on-spouse or trailing husband?

Of course, other than a brief handshake and a quick “nice to meet you” I spent all of my time talking to other people and figuring out what their connections were. But I did meet two other Fulbright Scholars, learning more about them, and spent time with the husband of the Fulbright Scholar who lives across the courtyard from us. At these events, he calls himself the trailing husband, while I prefer hanger-on spouse.

The Fulbright Scholars were guests of the host, Consul General Dan Lawton and his wife, Paula. Declan was specifically invited because the Lawtons have teen-aged children, so the kids could hang out while the adults mingled. Declan got his own tour of the mansion (yes, counsul generals live in mansions) and munched pizza upstairs.

Paula is also a Stewart Parker fan, and we’d already met her and Dan when they attended the staged reading of Parker’s play “Pentecost” last month at the Linen Hall Library. She has been recommending Marilynn’s book to people, which has greatly endeared her to us.

Where’s the Guinness?

OK, it was much like any other reception I’d ever been to, but with a few twists thrown in. For example, there was no Guinness but there was Budweiser. We’ve been to events at the Irish counsel in Atlanta, and there’s always Guinness. And with apologies to Marilynn’s cousin who works for InBev, yes, Budweiser is getting popular over here, although I cannot imagine why.

After initial pours behind the bar, the gregarious bartender made the rounds offering refills. I finally had to cut myself off. And the wait staff was among the most pleasant I’d ever met.

The ambassador’s staff photographer from London also was on hand. He had actually been in Atlanta for a religious studies conference and commented that it was weird seeing a downtown skyscraper that looked derelict, with boarded-up windows. Marilynn and I independently thought about the Westin-Peachtree, which had several boarded-up windows for a couple of years after the 2008 Atlanta tornado.

About the photo: I’m not the kinda guy to take selfies with the chargé d’affaires (although others were), so while chatting up the photog I asked about getting a reception photo for the post. They’ll be on Flickr, he said, but I’m still waiting, so I stole this one from when Lukens visited the RAF Museum.

NI Political Situation Clear as Mud

Talk about muddy waters. Thursday’s special election in Northern Ireland raised more questions than answers about power-sharing and a potential border poll.

The unionist DUP wound up with 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly versus 27 seats for the republican Sinn Fein. Fewer than 1,200 votes separated the parties.

But looking beyond the main parties, to those that lean one way or another, it’s pretty much of a tie. The main parties have three weeks to form a new power-sharing government, which remains very much in doubt as the leaders of both parties remain entrenched in rhetoric.

Failure to form a new government could mean the return of direct rule from London, which I’m not sure anyone wants. The election was historic in that unionists will not have an overall majority should the new government be formed, the first time in 100 years.

Election differences to US

This was a special election triggered in January by the deputy first minister from Sinn Fein resigning and the party not appointing a new minister. After a short election period, which saw greater Belfast blanketed with election placards affixed with zip ties to utility poles, nearly two-thirds of voters turned out. In the last US election, which was regularly scheduled and much expected, only 55% of eligible voters turned out. I think that speaks volumes about participation in the political process.

I’ll point you to a previous column about the political situation in Northern Ireland for the reasons behind the special election, but I wanted to point out the differences between the election systems.

Regardless of your political position, I think you would agree that many US voters wished they had had more choice among candidates, that neither Democrats nor Republicans truly represent their feelings. But in a two-party, winner-take-all system, voting for a third-party candidate is like whizzing in the wind.

In Northern Ireland, fractional votes count. In other words, you don’t just vote for a single candidate. You rank the candidates according to your preferences. In some cases, the fourth or fifth choice could swing an assembly seat one way or the other, which happened in this case. Some voters we talked to take great delight in listing their most-despised candidates 12th and 13th out of a field of 13.

To me, that seems like a much better way for the electorate to be heard.

Now for the border question

Beyond the power-sharing question, political pundits also are talking about the potential for a poll on whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in the wake of Brexit. The divorce of Great Britain from the European Union means the border between Great Britain and the EU will become the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The island is accustomed to free movement of people and goods. The only way you know you’ve passed from one country to another is whether the signs are also in Irish and whether the speed limit signs are in kilometers or miles per hour.

No one is talking about a hard border and immigration checks, but Brexit and the nationalist gains in this election bring up larger issues about where Northern Ireland believes it belongs in the world order.

And if no government is formed in three weeks, yet another snap election is possible. So stay tuned.

Remember the Venues Less-Visited

In the two months we’ve lived in Belfast. I’ve walked past the historic Palm House in Botanic Gardens at least a dozen times. I know how cool it is to walk among the tropical plants and marvel at the architecture of the steel and glass structure. You can see for yourself what an impressive structure it is.

But I’m always on my way to somewhere else, either the PEC (gym) to work out or a shop along Botanic Avenue, the garden being a popular, tree-lined cut-through when it’s open during daylight hours.

Declan and I made a point to go by there on Sunday after we visited the Ulster Museum, also located within the gardens. But the Palm House closes at 4, so we missed it.

Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. Haven’t.

We have notched many “firsts” during our extended stay in Belfast, including visiting Belfast Castle and Cave Hill, attending a pantomime performance at the Grand Opera House, as well as events at Ulster Hall and the Linen Hall Library. But in the search for the new and the wow, we’ve lost touch with the familiar-but-still-impressive.

At a former job, I sat among the managers and heard them talking about flying in such-and-such job candidate, putting him/her up in a hotel, arranging dinners, etc., when I knew there were qualified, in-house candidates who were getting the short shrift. But the new and shiny has the power to grab and hold our attention much more than the familiar.

I’ve lived in in-town Atlanta for nearly 25 years, most of that within four miles of Zoo Atlanta and the former Cyclorama. For many of those year, we’ve been members of the zoo. And for the last four years, Marilynn, Declan and I have been Zoo Atlanta volunteers who were able to get into Cyclorama for free.

How many times did I go before the big Civil War canvas was rolled up and carted to the Atlanta History Center? Exactly zero. Marilynn and Declan saw it on the very last day it was open.

I was born in central Florida and still have relatives there, but I’ve never been to see the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Declan has never smelled the sour mash fermenting at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, despite the fact we get to Murfreesboro fairly regularly, and it was a favored destination when friends or relatives visited Fayetteville. And I’ve still never been to Tims Ford State Park in middle Tennessee, near where I grew up.

More on the Palm House

The two wings of the Palm House were completed in 1840 for the sum of 1,400 pounds. Each is 65 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall. The central dome rises to 46 feet and was constructed in 1852 and ties the wings together perfectly.

One wing houses more temperate plants in a cooler controlled climate, while the other contains tropical plants in a heated environment. The central dome houses a range of both temperate and tropical plants, with tall trees that tower over visitors.

Like the Ulster Museum, the Palm House is free to visit. And the very next time my feet take me past the Palm House, I’m pushing the door open and walking in. I promise.

Walking Between the Raindrops

If you were a tourist in Belfast today and doing anything outside, you’d have hated the weather. Fortunately, we aren’t tourists, so it was a wonderful day. If you stayed inside every day it rained in Belfast, you’d become a hermit in short order.

We entertained guests at the flat last night and slept in later than normal for a Sunday. I’m fighting a cold and welcomed the extra slumber. But when we got up, the rain was slanting sideways across the bay window in front. A crappy day, to be sure, and not one that screamed, “Let’s spend the day outside!”

For the love of crisps

But the flat is small, and one can only lie around for so long. So between downpours, we walked down the Lisburn Road to Poundland to buy weird crisps. This will be fodder for a future column, but Brits love odd-flavored crisps. Prawn. Lamb. Worcestershire sauce. Ham and pickle. Steak.

On past trips, we’ve become quite taken with the Meal Deal, which normally consists of a sandwich, crisps/dessert and a drink for a low set price (generally 3-4 pounds). Great for eating lunch on the go. I always try to buy the oddest crisps I can find that don’t contain onions (I’m allergic). But I have been unmoved by the selection at Tesco (local grocery store chain). Then we wandered into Poundland a few weeks back, and there, in all their glory, were the odd crisps I hadn’t yet encountered, many of which I likely won’t love. But I will try them all.

We bought a half-dozen bags (at a pound apiece, of course), went hairdresser window shopping for Marilynn and bought a few sundries at Tesco, before returning home.

Poop and polar bears

The rain started coming down almost the second we reached the flat. But it soon let up again, so Declan and I spent some time at the Ulster Museum, which is free and near the flat. The Ulster Museum is a joy to visit, and the exhibits feature a little something for everyone. You’ll find contemporary art and sculpture, Egyptian mummies, artifacts from Ireland’s rich history, ammonites, dinosaur bones, dinosaur poop and Peter the Polar Bear, who lived life at the Belfast Zoo and now lives on in death in a prominent place at the museum. You’ll also find an Irish elk (pictured), more accurately described as an Irish giant deer.

We stayed for about an hour, leaving right before the museum’s 5 p.m. closing—and yet another rain storm.

Meal Deals aren’t just for lunch, either. For dinner, we had a Marks and Spencer 10 pound dinner deal—whole roast chicken, rosemary potatoes, apple tart and a surprisingly good bottle of wine. And there is half a chicken left over.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday in Belfast.

The Vatican—Once Was Absolutely Enough

On our second foray into Rome, we saved the best (or at least the most crowded) for last.

The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica are tourist magnets, especially to see the Sistine Chapel. We wanted to get tickets first thing in the morning, but the website was in Italian and wouldn’t take our US credit card, so we booked at our hotel the night before and could only get a noon sloton a Saturday.

 

 

We warmed up that morning with a visit to The Spanish Steps, famous for being a grand set of scenic concrete steps built to honor a visit by the king of Spain in 1723. (One interesting note: the French paid for them). We also visited the Piazza del Popolo (the People’s Square), a popular place to people watch and check out the statues, including an enormous obelisk pilfered from Egypt that dates to the 13th century B.C.

So many people. So MANY PEOPLE!

After a quick early lunch and a subway ride, we alighted near the Vatican—to jaw-dropping crowds. “Remember, it’s low season,” Marilynn reminds me. “I don’t handle unrestrained crowds well,” I reply, recalling an event several years ago at the Washington Monument. The cramped elevator ride up was bad enough, but when we were coming down, the guy next to me had his daughter on his shoulders, towering over me and crowding me. “Just 90 seconds down, just 90 seconds down,” I repeat soundlessly to myself, remembering the trip up.

 

“And we’ll slow the elevator down so you can see the memorial plaques from the states that contributed,” the guide said, which upon hearing the guy with daughter leans over right in front of me. I said something to the effect of, “I have a borderline panic disorder and you need to get the hell out of my personal space!”

A forced silence ensued while the elevator car descended to the bottom and the doors opened. The crowd parted as if by magic to let the screaming lunatic off first.

It wasn’t that bad at the Vatican, but it was close. The forced march to the Sistine Chapel was the worst. I swear we encircled the Vatican twice and marched right through Pope Francis’s personal quarters at one point while walking between buildings. I joked on Facebook that I had to hip-check a couple of Asians, but, in reality, I wasn’t kidding. I got separated from the family on multiple occasions.

But the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel does live up to its billing. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be in such an iconic structure and to wonder at what it must have been like for Michelangelo to paint it over four years. It was breath-taking and worth the cattle-like way we were herded into the chapel, which fortunately is much larger than imagined, so I had just enough space.

The (delicious) road less traveled

Then we went to St. Peter’s Basilica, where we didn’t make it past the courtyard. We’d all had our fill of crowds, so we went off the beaten path to Trastevere, which Fodor’s calls “Rome’s enchanting, medieval heart.” Marilynn wanted to see San Pietro in Montorio, the church where 17th century Irish rebel Hugh O’Neill is buried. Loyal readers will recall O’Neill from our trip to Kinsale, where he got his arse kicked in a decisive 1601 battle.

Unfortunately, the church was closed Saturday afternoon, but its location overlooking Rome provided terrific views of St. Peter’s and the city. We saw a powerful photojournalism exhibit at the Royal Academy of Spain, before spending the rest of the day wandering through that part of town.

After seven straight days of Italian food, we were delighted to stumble upon Eat Street Food, where we each devoured hamburgers (two with eggplant [really!] and one with egg, bacon and sauce, lots of sauce) and fries. I also enjoyed what might have been the best house wine I’ve ever tasted.

Thus sated in both body and spirit, we made our way back to our hotel, ready to get back home to Belfast.

Getting from A to B Nearly All the Battle in Venice

Everyone gets lost in Venice. Tourists, definitely. But so do locals, those who’ve been here a few years or their entire lives. We’d have seen more of the canal city during our day-and-a-half stay, but we kept seeing the same streets time and time again.

We were warned by a local not to trust Google Maps, so Marilynn bought a full-size city map, in addition to those tourist maps you get in any tourism office. Didn’t help. You’d think that staying along the Grand Canal would be a great way to navigate from one part of the city to another. Good idea, except for the fact that the street along the main canal is cut apart by restaurants, fisheries and other businesses.

So here we are, wandering down one street, only to find it’s a cul-de-canal. Another street looks promising, until it twists 90 degrees, then twists again on itself. You’d think that the larger plazas that dot the city would serve as great landmarks, but you’d think wrong. We weren’t the only ones. We saw scores of people consulting maps, and I’m certain a large percentage of people staring at their phones didn’t know where the hell they were, either.

Hate to be a deliveryman

Copy editors are trained to spot the unusual, and on the first morning, after marveling at how the lingering mist clung to St. Mark’s Basilica, I was struck by the sheer number of delivery folks I saw. Other people were taking photos, and I’m looking at the goods coming in by boat, being transferred to hand trucks and two-wheeled portage vehicles and hauled up and over the steps of many canal bridges. And don’t forget the outgoing freight—mainly parcels and refuse—that has to be hauled out the way it was hauled in. No tractor-trailers here, and, as Declan rightly pointed out, we saw not a single car during our stay in Venice.

My feet were sore after half a day getting lost. Imagine missing a turn when you’ve just hauled a full load of boxes up and then down steps on either side of a canal. Oh yeah, while dodging oblivious tourists.

Touristy stuff

We did manage to see a few things, including the impressive St. Mark’s Basilica, which has more gilt on the ceilings than Catholics have guilt in their hearts. Declan and I also took the water bus to Murano, known for glass-making. We saw a master craftsman quickly make a clear vase, then turn another tube of molten glass into a stallion rearing up on its hind legs. Then we spent a couple of hours along the central canal, perusing the literally dozens of glass shops there. I assume there is some place on the island where you can buy a Coke and a bag of crisps, but it ain’t along the main drag.

We traveled to Murano while Marilynn was a guest lecturer at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Georgia State University has an exchange program with the university, and one of her students last fall is finishing up her degree at Ca’ Foscari. Before our afternoon apart, we all had lunch with her former student, as well as a GSU student who’s taking classes in Venice this spring.

We eventually got to the point where we could make it from St. Mark’s Basilica to the Grand Canal to our guest house without incident—just in time to leave for Rome.

Renaissance Comes Alive in Florence

So I’m sitting across from a nun on a high-speed train on the way from Florence to Venice. Although it sounds like a joke, it’s true. And she’s nun-spread to the seat Declan’s supposed to be in. But who’s going to tell a nun to move the hell over?

We spent nearly two days in Florence, following our first of two forays into Rome. Where Rome was somewhat chaotic, with centuries of history piled atop one another, Florence definitely remains a product of the Renaissance it helped create. The streets, though still narrow, are uniformly level and easy to walk on. The city centre is compact and chock-full of interesting things to do and great places to eat.

But with the Renaissance comes Renaissance pricing. Fortunately for us, low season means we snagged a primo room at the Torre Guelfa for about half price that included a sumptuous meat, cheese and croissant breakfast. It also means that every high-end retailer you’ve ever heard of has an outlet here. Tiffany. Mont Blanc. Prada. In other words, the Renaissance meets the Miracle Mile in Chicago or the Streets of Buckhead in Atlanta.

Another room with a view

But high-end retailing aside, the beautiful buildings, priceless artifacts and great dining (if you’re careful) are the main attractions. Luigi, our front desk clerk, raved about the view from the hotel’s tower, built in the 13th century. And he was right, as you can see from the photo.

We visited the Duomo, a 15th-century cathedral whose red dome dominates the Florence skyline (and the photo), and the Medici Chapels, which includes many funerary items that contain sacred body parts and several Michelangelo sculptures.

Later, we walked along Ponte Vecchio, the central bridge across the Arno along which the Medici family famously ousted more common merchants like butchers and bakers in 1593 and installed jewelers and goldsmiths, a tradition that continues to this day.

Today we visited the Palazzo Vecchio Museum. This second palace of the Medici family housed popes back in the 16th century and once was the center of government in Florence. Today, it remains a popular event venue, as evidenced by the fact it was closed yesterday for a Valentine’s Day event. The central hall rises more than 100 feet and is dominated by large paintings and sculpture. Most interior rooms feature intricately decorated ceilings and walls that remain striking centuries after their installation.

We capped our Florence visit at the Uffizi, which has housed the Medici family art and sculpture collection since the 16th century. Da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio and Michelangelo are just a few of the artists represented.

We had a memorable Valentine’s Day meal at La Casalinga, including maybe the best steak I’ve ever wrapped my lips around that didn’t come off hot from my Big Green Egg.

While I appreciate all types of art, I do admit being tired of Mary and Jesus portraits (forgive me, sister), and men sculpted in combat while not wearing pants (either the English or the American kinds).

Not sure what that portends for our trip to the Vatican on Saturday.