For the first few weeks in Ireland, I successfully hid my identity as a naval officer through my beard and hair. This was useful because there is a man in my program from Baghdad. Both of us are foreigners on Irish soil so we became friends and tended to sit next to each other in lectures. He knows I am from the States and am married, but I have revealed little else to him. Instead I prefer to ask him about his life in Baghdad over the past many years. I have not learned much to write about yet, but I will say he is tremendously generous and every time I sneeze in class he puts a new tissue on my desk from his pocket. There is also a man from Tokyo. He studied journalism as an undergrad as he is hoping to use a degree in security and conflict to aid his understanding of the subjects he reports and writes about. I asked him if the American military bases on his home islands are frustrating to him. He retorted that Japan needed the US presence and wished that the US base in Okinawa would not be closed.
I recently traveled to Belfast with some other Mitchell scholars to see the sights in Northern Ireland. Our bus driver was a retired police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary from 1977 to 2001. As you can imagine, he saw himself, as well as Northern Ireland, as British territory. He was almost militant about it. Terrorism is significantly down in the area and has been reduced to gangs of thugs; both Unionists and Nationalists unite on the depravity of terrorism.
The police in Northern Ireland do not put up with anything. On Saturday night we were walking to our hostel around midnight and a small police van was driving by. An intoxicated, young man gave the police the bird. Immediately the van pulled over and four armed officers jumped out and chased after the drunkard. It was a matter of seconds before he was apprehended and given a strong warning from the officers. Although entertaining, it was a strong example to me of police presence in Northern Ireland.
Southern Ireland is a mix of growth and history. Steven Sifuentes and I played a round of golf on Mahon Point outside the small city of Cork. To the right of the fifteenth tee are the ruins of a small castle. Just beyond the castle is a river bed that smelled of seaweed and compost. Across the river was a herd of cattle grazing on an expansive pasture. To our left was Cork’s main highway that was protected from stray golf balls by a few hundred yards of netting. German-made trucks rumbled by as I attempted to hit the ball straight. The trucks were loud, but I can only blame myself for driving two balls into the river.
My class of Mitchell Scholars traveled to the home of Rory O’Connell, one of Ireland’s famous chefs. He spent four hours teaching us how to prepare a four course meal of Irish classics like soda bread, spinach and chard soup, homemade mayonnaise, and leg of lamb. We enjoyed our meal with a view of Rory’s colorful and manicured garden.
This same weekend we met at the house of Mrs. Wilson, who talked about Irish political history. That afternoon we ventured to the town of Cobh, pronounce Cove, to see St. Colman’s Cathedral with its disproportionately large spire and the memorial to the 1198 people who lost their lives in the sinking of the Lusitania six miles off the coast of Ireland.
It can be hard to exit the subway at Piazza Duomo in Milan. About ten steps from the top and Milan’s main cathedral comes into view. Its detailed sculptures, enormous size, and white stone façade stopped me in my place. My friend, traveling buddy, and fellow Mitchell Scholar, Stephen Dorner of Georgia was similarly impressed. After gazing at the church and dealing with African immigrants selling bracelets, who would not take no for an answer, we sat down at an outdoor café to have pizza for breakfast. We were in Italy and felt like it was the right thing to do. The café was on Piazza Duomo and we stared at the church for half an hour while enjoying our breakfast.
After breakfast, I attended my first Catholic mass. Stephen explained everything that happening even though the service was in Italian. He went up for the Eucharist while I watched him and thousands of others go up to the altar.
That afternoon we stumbled across a Leonardo da Vinci museum where many of his sketches of war machines were on display. I must have spent an hour gazing at artwork that he might have thought was simple doodling.
For dinner we walked to the Navigili district in south Milan and had a pasta buffet alongside a dried up canal. Our waitress was from El Salvador, and Stephen enjoyed speaking Spanish with her.
On the next day of our trip we took a train to Lake Como on the border of Italy and Switzerland. We walked around the lake and grazed at different cafes. Prosciutto Panini’s were only two euro and lunch was a local meal, peccheralio, a dish of potato pasta and eggplant. We took a boat cruise around the lake, and I enjoyed being out on the water.
I cannot decide if I felt more energy during the hat toss at graduation from the Naval Academy, or in the FC Barcelona stadium for the most important game of their season. I will go with the latter because it is so fresh in my mind. Ryan Merola, a NYPD intel-analyst and fellow Mitchell Scholar, traveled with me to Barcelona this past weekend. The highlight was Saturday night’s soccer game pitting no.4 Barcelona against no.1 Valencia. The mammoth concrete colosseum shook under the feet of leaping fans when Puyol buried Barca’s second goal, giving Barca a lead they never relinquished.
The culture of Barca football is like nothing I have encountered. Camden Yards was empty this summer while Barca’s stadium sells out at 85 Euro a ticket. For all ninety minutes, every time the opposing team’s goaltender touched the ball, 80,000 fans heckled and booed.
My Spanish professor recommended place called La Cataluna Cervercia. On Friday we ordered patatas bravas, two flautas, an egg omelet, and the house wine. The patatas bravas were lighted fried potatoes with a spicy mayonnaise and house sauce. The flautas were crunchy sandwiches easily finished in four bites. The egg omelet was perfectly round and lightly grilled. It felt apart in my mouth and tasted delicious. On Saturday before the game we ventured there again and ordered patatas bravas as well as a tapas with goat cheese and peppers.
Getting to and from Barcelona I had to take a regional train, Renfe. Each way it coasted along the Mediterranean coastline, exposing beaches and old Spanish towns.
I never thought ghosts were real, but the underground city of Edinburgh forced me to evaluate my belief. The Scottish government constructed a building starting on the fourth floor of a medieval apartment structure. Stephen Dorner and I took a tour of the city underneath the city, known as Mary King’s Close, and heard ghost stories about little girls who died of the bubonic plague. In the 1200’s a symbol a wealth was the ability to put plaster on your walls. As I was leaning up against the wall, our tour guide informed me that the plaster was made of water, horse hair, and cremated human remains. I bounced off the wall.
Edinburgh Castle is a magical fort, perched atop a cliff over-looking the city. This Scottish bastion unsuccessfully tried to protect its residents from English invaders, and it is now home to several museums. The best is a display of the Royal Scots Dragoons, the Scottish Calvary Unit which fought for the British monarchy in every British war. And there were many. My favorite part was the militaristic bagpipe music which has been a part of the Scottish military tradition for centuries.
Stephen and I hiked to the top of Arthur’s seat on Saturday morning, a small hill near the Queen’s Palace at the bottom of the Royal Mile. It took some serious climbing but the view at the top was all encompassing. We could see the old city and the Atlantic Ocean. We sat at the top, freezing our butts off, but enjoying the scenery. Mountain tops have a special place in my heart, as I think they do for most adventurous people. If someone says they don’t like mountain tops then I think they haven’t climbed enough mountains.
St. Giles Cathedral, where John Knox preached for over a decade, was a joy to visit. The Protestant symbolism captured in the stained glass and the imposing Gothic architecture was a joy to sit and take in on a rainy Saturday morning. The next day, I went to the 8-am Communion service where I was one of ten people present. The pastor discussed the story of the woman at the well and the nature of the living water. We then took Communion in the Anglican style, in that we all stood around the alter and passed the bread and the cup. People were welcoming even though I was obviously the new guy. They have been attending this service all their lives, and for one hour I got to see a glimpse of their tradition.
After church I took a tour of the Scottish Highlands. The highlight was a boat trip on Loch Katrina, the fresh water supply for Glasgow. The boat was one hundred years old and the only one on the twelve mile long lake. Restricting the type and number of boats is the only way to keep the water fresh. I sat next to a retired Sergeant in the British Army, and we chatted about our lives and where we had been.
At my hostel I met a traveler from Tasmania. We didn’t chat much but she was the first Tasmanian I have ever met.
Ireland has become a temporary home. I feel most at peace when I am with Nicki, but since I can’t have that now, the Emerald Isle is good for me.
During Thanksgiving, one of the largest protests in Ireland’s history took place in the streets of Dublin. My school buddy, Ronan Sweeney, and I got to the front of the march that was supposedly 100,000 strong. The event was peaceful as we were surrounded by children and the elderly. An Irishman I had Thanksgiving with expressed to me the sentiment that Ireland was back in its normal place; oppressed with a loss of sovereignty to outside powers. But this time, it was of their own making. Even in these hard times with demonstrations and calls for socialism, the Guinness flows and the pubs are open. These are the constants of Irish culture.