As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in gods or spirits that are disconnected from bodies, or souls that survive after a person dies. I believe we are physical beings, with an all too finite span of existence, and that what many people call a soul is really just a part of mind or personality. Of course, I could easily be wrong about this, as is the case with any belief, but I haven’t seen any evidence or argument that has convinced me that I’m in error.
And so it may seem strange that I will be making a pilgrimage this year. Not just a journey that has personal meaning, but an actual pilgrimage. Later this year my wife and I will walk one of the several official pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela – known at one time as a ‘way of St. James’, as people once believed (and some may still) that the remains of St. James were located in Santiago. Leaving aside the vast amount of historical fraud associated with so-called relics, pilgrimages of this sort have been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages, and many people of more religious bent still embark on such journeys – and the Camino, in particular – for religious or ‘spiritual’ reasons. For me, however, this will be a very long walk through places I have yet to visit, where I hope to meet many people, encounter new foods and wines, new music and art, expand slightly my meagre linguistic capabilities, and learn more about myself.
I have long been of the opinion that walking has benefits that other forms of mobility do not. The physical benefits are obvious and well known – and something I can use more of in my far too sedentary lifestyle. In addition to those, walking (if done right) helps to clear the mind and improve our ability to attend to the world around us, in a manner that other, faster forms of travel preclude. The faster you move, the less you take in, and the less time you have to think about and absorb the information around you. If you really want to know a place, you need to walk it.
Before we travel to the start of our journey, we’ll spend more time walking in our own, more familiar environment. We need to get used to walking more than 10 km – usually 15 to 20 – every day, if we expect to be able to walk the 240 km route we have planned in two weeks. So, over the course of the spring and summer, we’ll begin walking more, building up to the distances we need to able to cover. In doing so, not only will our physical health likely improve (did I mention I spend far too much time sitting?), but I expect we will come to know our home town, and ourselves, in new ways.
If anyone has done a similar journey, please let me know about it in the comments. And if you’ve blogged about it, send me link.
In the middle of the city
a field of carefully arranged stones
is calling out.
One stone in particular
calls to me, calls
acoss mountains, calls quietly
as a whisper of wind in short prairie grasses
or snow leaning gently against fenceposts.
There are few of us here
tending to the stones, clearing
the snow and dead
overgrown grasses and cold
dirt from their faces.
Even though I have memorized the place
it still takes a few tries to locate the right one.
And then it is there.
My father’s name emerging, and the dates,
always surprising me
with how many years it’s been now.
The quiet of this place,
this field of stones, where names and dates
drift out of memory. How many years before this is all that is left of us?
Who will visit on a winter’s day
to brush the obscuring snow from our names?
We turn away from the thought.
I say goodbye to the stone.
I promise to return.
This poem grew out of a story my cousin-in-law (that’s a thing, right?) posted on Facebook. It stuck in my mind, as some things do, where it got reshaped (not to say warped) as everything tends to. This is for her, and her son.
Loss In The Supermarket
a woman and her young son
are in the supermarket
looking at steaks when the boy asks are those dead cows?
and the woman answers, yes
and the boy asks why are they dead?
before she can answer
a man nearby says, because they’re delicious
she doesn’t tell the boy this is wrong
or at least, not entirely right
she doesn’t tell him that everything dies
and some things that die are eaten
she doesn’t say that the cows were always
going to be food (and shoes and jackets and
baseball gloves) and that some people think that’s wrong and others think it’s delicious
she doesn’t say the cows
(and pigs and chickens)
only exist to be cut up and shrink
wrapped on styrofoam trays
she doesn’t say that someday she
will fade and fall like the leaves that litter
the lawns on their street, and that
so will he and so will his older brother
and their father, too
and everyone they know
who doesn’t come
to a more unseasonable end
she doesn’t talk about
the hospital where she works
about the overflowing cancer ward
that his grandfather has survived
she doesn’t say there is really no surviving
but only temporary reprieves
she hopes he will not learn this too soon
she chooses her steaks and smiles to him should we buy ice cream for dessert?
Many people find it hard to accept that anyone is really an atheist. When the going gets tough, they think, the tough get praying. There are no atheists in foxholes. I suppose that last part may be true. Most of the atheists I know would rather find an alternative to fighting, if at all possible, while many religions have made a fetish of dying for your beliefs. And, statistically, atheism is fairly unusual, so it’s likely that not many atheists find themselves in a foxhole, especially outside the context of a World War, like the two that consumed the first half of the 20th Century.
Still, people look at you funny if you say you don’t believe in a god. Not that I say it all that often, and not generally unprompted. Atheism isn’t something I advertise. I don’t feel any need to proselytize in the name of… well, of no one, of nothing. I don’t really want to convert anyone to doubt.
But believers often want to convert me to faith, or to convince me that I really do believe in something, and that that something is really juts another name for a god. And not just any god, but their God. After all, as Ricky Gervais likes to point out, there are thousands of gods, and most religious people only believe in one of them, and disbelieve in the rest; I just happen to disbelieve in one more than they do. Or don’t. Whatever.
Frequently the something they try to convince me I believe in is science. This seems funny to me, and shows they don’t really understand what science is. What science isn’t is a system of beliefs. What science is is a method of proving (or, more often, of disproving) hypotheses about the world. It is a useful method for developing our understanding of natural or physical phenomena, and has led to a great many technological advances (although technology, contrary to popular belief, is not the same thing as science).
There are, of course, things I believe for which I have insufficient or no proof at all, although I tend to view these beliefs as hypotheses. I don’t, however, believe these things religiously. If someone were to provide proof that I’m wrong about them, I don’t think I would have much trouble changing my mind. I’m not speaking, here, only about scientific proofs/disproofs. This could be (and often is) more a matter of philosophical persuasion. That was the case when I stopped believing in gods.
I was brought up in a religious family, as an Anglican (the Canadian version of Church of England, Episcopalian, etc). All my early life, I was trying to find ways to think about god that made sense to my young mind. When I was very young, for example, before I started school, I imagined that the bright light at the centre of a light bulb was god. Even then, I wanted some evidence that the being in the Sunday school stories was more than just an idea. Much later, it was the problem of evil that ended my faith for good. The question if god is all powerful, all knowing, all good, and the creator of everything, how is there evil in the world? didn’t seem to have a reasonable answer. It still doesn’t. I don’t buy the ‘free will’ argument, that god is just letting us choose. My will would be no less free if all the options I had to choose from were good. Also, it still doesn’t explain the origin of evil.
That problem, of course, is specific to Semitic or western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a polytheistic world view, or one in which the creator god is not all good. Those have other issues, that western religions share, such as how gods interact with the physical world and its laws, such as conservation of matter and energy.
It may be that I am wrong. That there is a god, or many gods. Perhaps even the one worshiped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I doubt it, but that possibility exists. If I am proven wrong in my atheistic hypothesis, I will acknowledge it and change my mind. (Continuing to believe something that’s proven wrong is just idiotic.) But in the meantime, rest assured I will not try to convert any religious folk (including my family) to my point of view, and I hope I can expect the same treatment in return.
I’ve been home for about 40 hours now, and little by little my body is readjusting to the eight-hour time lag between Ireland and the west coast of Canada. Before my thoughts on my trip recede too much into the distorting waters of memory and forgetting, I thought I’d dash off a few observations in postscript, and post a few more pictures from some of the places I visited.
Whe I first started planning my trip, I had intended to ship my own motorcycle across to Europe. The more I looked into this, though, the more I realized that it made more sense to hire a bike that was already there. This was mainly about cost-benefit. The relatively short length of my time overseas meant the total cost of renting a brand new bike wasn’t much greater than the cost of shipping my own. When I included the various fees and taxes, insurance costs, and what I would need to do with my bike to get it ready for the trip, it was more or less a wash. My wife pointed out that I was less likely to have expensive and frustrating mechanical issues with a brand new bike than with my ageing warhorse, and since the chances of finding a qualified BMW mechanic in remote areas of the Highlands didn’t seem good, and since the hire bike included roadside assistance in the cost of the rental, I decided she was right (as is often the case).
I’m glad I made that choice. The Triumph Tiger 800 is a fantastic bike, and while I don’t like it better than my old R1150GS, certain features definitely came in handy. I’m quite sure that cruise control, for example, helped save me from speeding tickets, especially in Scotland, where speed cameras are ubiquitous. Over time I got used to working with – and more often around – the ridiculous number of controls on the left handlebar, although I’d still suggest Triumph take a look at how this is all arranged. I suspect that something like BMW’s thumb wheel would be easier to use, and help prevent unwanted selections (like inadvertently switching on the heated seats when turning on the fog lamps).
In retrospect, I should have inquired more carefully about luggage capacity. I packed an appropriate amount for the cases I have on my bike, which are admittedly enormous. The aftermarket bags on my GS – Happy Trails side cases (35 and 40 litres), and a Givi top box (52 litres) – can comfortably hold more than enough for a three to four week trip. The much smaller OEM bags on the Triumph are better suited to one week. It’s my own fault for not enquiring. If I ever hire a bike again, I’ll do so.
I would also strongly recommend bringing your own riding gear, or at the very least, your own helmet. The gear I was provided with was mostly high enough quality (I’d even consider buying some RST gear if I could find it here), but it took nearly the full length of the trip for me to remember to put motorcycle pants (or ‘jeans’ as they call them over there, since ‘pants’ means underwear to them) first, then boots. My own gear has nearly full-length side zips, so I can (and usually do) put my boots on first.
The helmet was more of an issue. It fit a little snugger than my helmet, didn’t have a flip up chin bar (which meant I had to remove my glasses every time I wanted to put the helmet on or take it off) or a sun shade (so that I had to decide whether to wear my sunglasses or my regular glasses, something that can’t be changed on the fly). It also didn’t come with internal speakers, so I couldn’t get audio instructions from the GPS and had to look away from the road more often than I would have liked.
The GPS (or sat nav, over there) was an excellent thing to have, and worked well when using Google Maps (or other apps) on my phone wouldn’t have. Even though I had to look at it more than I would have liked, it was much easier to do so quickly than would have been the case on a paper map.
One of the best decisions I made was getting an Irish SIM card, rather than using a ‘travel plan’ from my Canadian provider. The travel plan would have cost me $150, and not even provided me with the meagre amount of data I normally have access to at home. The SIM card (which I got from 3 mobile) gave me “all you can eat” data (60GB!) in Ireland, and 6GB of roaming data for the UK, for €30 (less than a third of the cost of the Canadian travel plan). I ended up using about 17GB total, including 4.5GB in the UK. If you’re a Canadian travelling abroad for any length time, you should seriously consider getting a local SIM card when you arrive. The only downside is how ripped off you’re going to feel you are when you’re at home and paying more than twice the rate for about a tenth of the data you get in Europe.
Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s ridiculous how pretty it is, nearly everywhere.
The Irish people, especially in the Republic, are friendly and welcoming. Dublin is an incredibly cosmopolitan place, with people from all over Europe – and around the world – working and attending university and visiting there. The whole of Ireland is an incredible blend of the new and old. History is on display everywhere, and yet it’s very forward looking as well, especially in cities like Galway and Dublin.
Ireland has punched well above its weight in literature for more than a century, producing such important writers as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, Louis MacNeice, and Seamus Heaney, to name just a few.
Musically, too, Ireland has provided the world with more than its fair share of artists, especially in rock and pop music. Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, The Boomtown Rats, U2, Sinnead O’Connor, The Pogues, Rory Gallagher, and many others have made a huge impact on popular music over the past 50 years.
Scotland has a different kind of beauty than Ireland. More rugged, less lush, but equally stunning. It’s astonishing just how much the landscape changes as you travel through Scotland. There is as much variation in geology and flora as there is in the many styles of whisky produced there.
I would like to have spent more than the week I had in Scotland. It is too vast to really see much of it. What I did see, I loved. From Loch Lomond to Inverness, Moffat to Shieldaig, Elgin to Edinburgh. The beers are different from those in Ireland, and of course single malt whisky is very different from Irish whiskey (which is almost always blended). As was the case in Ireland, many of the road signs, at least in the Highlands, are in both English and Gaelic (although Scots Gaelic isn’t exactly the same as Irish).
In fact, a person could easily spend a week or more just in the Highlands. Or just in Edinburgh. And, I’m sure, the same would go for Glasgow, which I sadly didn’t get to this time around. I hope Adele and I will visit Scotland in the future, so I can see more of it.
England and Wales
I didn’t spend much time in England or Wales. A couple of nights each. The highlight of that was the time I was in the tiny village of Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried. For such a small place, it packs a lot of beauty and history into it. It would be worth a second visit, if I’m ever down that way again.
All in all, it was a fantastic journey, and an excellent, adventurous way to celebrate being 50. If I were doing it again, I’m not sure what I’d change. Add more time, maybe, if I could, and have Adele accompany me for at least part of it. Traveling alone for that length of time was a very different experience for me. I’m glad I did it, but I think I prefer having someone to share the experience with.
I don’t really have a lot more to say. I do, though, have many more pictures. Here is a sampling from them.
One last day. Tomorrow morning I’ll board the plane for home, but I had a couple of things to do first.
After breakfast I took a DART train out to Sandycove, where the tower that figures at the start of Ulysses still stands. There’s now a James Joyce museum there, run by volunteers, and free to the public to visit, although I was the only one there. It’s pretty interesting if you like Joyce, which I do.
I had originally planned to visit Clontarf Castle, but I learned that the current iteration is only about 200 years old, and is now home to a hotel. It bears little, if any, resemblance to the original Twelfth century version, which at any rate was built more than a hundred years after the famous battles with Viking invaders took place. So I decided to to skip it. The Joyce museum was a more than adequate substitute.
Sandycove itself is a nice neighbourhood, reminiscent of Kitsilano in Vancouver, but a little more reserved. The beaches are beautiful, but were sparsely populated in spite of the unusually warm weather.
I left Sandycove and made my way back to Grafton Street, where I had a quick lunch, and then on to St. James’s Gate to tour the Guinness Storehouse. It’s interesting how similar the processes are for making beer & whisky – up to a point. Beer makers put hops into the wort, for example, and they don’t distill their product.
At any rate, i (and several hundred others today) learned the secret to pouring a perfect pint, and I picked up some souvenirs and gifts in the gift shop. I can’t imagine a similar tour involving a Canadian brewer. Who would want to learn how your a Molson or Labbatt’s beer just so?
Now I’m back at the hotel, and thinking about where to wander for dinner. No place too far, I think. I’ve walked nearly 17 km today already, and I’m burnt out on tourist stuff. Then I’ll come back here, and maybe have a pint or two in the pub downstairs before saying goodnight to Dublin for the last time.
This holiday has been a blast. Thanks to everyone who’s been following along. I’ll be back in a couple of days.
It never rains in Dublin. That’s been my experience, anyway. It’s almost always sunny and warm, and as such I’ve sought refuge from big hard sun in Grogan’s pub. I am seated at the bar, with a pint of Smithwick’s red, listening to the publican talk about the World Cup, and other tourists ordering drinks, while the regulars sit quietly off to the side.
I think yesterday I had understated just how much I prefer Dublin to Belfast. The city exudes confidence and hospitality, whereas its northern cousin seems anxious and almost hostile to those who don’t belong. At any rate, that is neither here nor there now. Here is Dublin, and now is a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Since arriving – I’m going to skip over this morning – I’ve had an excellent sandwich, coffee and cannoli at a great little Italian bakery about 10 minutes walk from my hotel; I’ve walked around Trinity University, and peaked at the Book of Kells through the heads and shoulders of German, American and Chinese tour groups, and strolled around St. Stephen’s Green (appropriately on my brother Stephen’s birthday). I am having a relaxing penultimate night in Ireland.
Tomorrow I plan to tour the Jameson distillery and visit Clontarf Castle (where the High King Brian Boru fought the Vikings, or something). I’m not sure what else. I’m sure a pub or two will be involved. An early night, aince I have a morning flight on Tuesday.
Home is very much on my mind. I’ll save reflecting back the past few weeks till I’m back.