Wednesday, May 24

The Green

[This was originally part of the entry called 'Hope', but since it was getting a bit long, I cut it into two parts. I'm not sure how related they are, but maybe it's better to read that one first...]

After leaving Belfast, I went to Dublin. It's a nice city, but it's growing very fast. Ireland has a huge number of guest workers, being one of only three E.U. countries to have opened up it's labor market to eastern Europeans. And most of them are concentrated in and around Dublin. In fact, in certain areas it's more common to hear foreign languages than English. Although this makes for a very cosmopolitan atmosphere, it doesn't feel like you're in Ireland. The problem is that because of the rapid growth, the locals tend to be getting big-city attitudes. As in they're becoming quite rude, and drugs are becoming a major issue. In fact, most of the public washrooms have blue lighting to keep people from being able to find a vein.

There are still some people that are very nice. When I was eating lunch in a pita restaurant, the owner came over to me personally and asked me how I was enjoying my sandwich. Yet earlier that day, when I was standing on the sidewalk reading my map, some guy walked right into me. Instead of apologizing, he started yelling at me to watch where I was standing. I thought he was going to attack me. It seems that people are either extremely polite, or extremely not. Very few are in between.

Perhaps the best part of the city is the music scene. Mostly for the sake of tourists, pubs usually offer live Irish music in the evenings. But you have to go out early, as by ten o'clock they've usually switched to dance or rock. Also, you can usually hear good buskers on the main streets.

From Dublin, I moved on to West Port, a small village in the midwest. It had a typical Irish feeling, very quiet, but with lots of rain. In fact, I've heard that in the area it rains sixty percent of the time. As a consequence, the countryside is one of the lushest in Europe. Vines and flowers cover most of the fences, climbing up the trunks of trees as well. The country is well deserving of it's reputation.

After West Port I went to Achill [pronounced Akill] Island, which is one of the most isolated parts of Ireland, still relatively undiscovered by tourists. Unfortunately, without a car, it's hard to get around, and so I spent my time walking the roads near the hostel, enjoying the countryside. In the end I only stayed for one night, as the second day was wet and windy, and it was better to spend my time in a bus than sitting around in the hostel.

While I was waiting at the bus stop, someone drove up and offered to drive me to wherever I was going, as he was heading east. Typical Irish hospitality. He told me stories of the history of Ireland, plus recommended some places to see. Although I was on my way somewhere else, he talked me into stopping in a town called Oughterard, which is very pretty, before he kept going farther inland.

As usual, the weather was a bit of a downer. The wind was exceptionally strong, and the rain seemed to be going more horizontally than anything else. I was hoping to hear some Irish [or Gaelic, depending on who you're asking]. Unfortunately, the first day wasn't so successful. All that I heard of it was an old lady yelling at her dog [does that even count?]. And the next day wasn't much better. Again, I only heard it once, in a bar. This time it was an old man who was doing the talking, but to himself. Since the weather wasn't improving, I decided to go the Aran Islands, which were just off the coast.

Although Aran refers to a collection of three small islands, most of the people that live there are on the biggest one. They aren't as accessible as Achill, which is connected to the rest of the country by a bridge. Instead, you have to take a ferry for half an hour. Yet they've done a great job of promoting their tourist industry, which has done wonders for the local economy. The islands are very beautiful, but they have only a few inches of top soil, with the rest just being a big hunk of rock. Hence tourism is about the only industry they have.

Apparently, when the island was first settled, there was no top soil at all. But over the centuries, the people who lived there would cover their property with sea weed, trying to make it suitable for farming. The cliffs on the far side of the island are very beautiful, being about one hundred meters high.

Despite all of the tourism, it's one of the places where the Irish language is best preserved. Most all of the locals speak it to each other, although sometimes they mix in a bit of English. For instance, they'll be chatting away, and just stick in a 'And lemme tell ya'.

Most of the island is has also been covered in a sort of stone grid. Without using anything to properly stick the rocks together, the locals constructed walls about one meter tall all over the island, dividing it into a series of squares where the cattle graze. The rocks are just stacked on top of each other, but fit in a way so that it's more or less stable. I have no idea how, but the walls have stood up to the harsh winds for centuries.

After the Aran Islands I spent a few days in Galway, which is the center for Irish culture. It's a lovely city, my favorite that I've seen so far in Ireland. It has all of the pluses of Dublin, but minus the urban sprawl.

While there, I met two more people from the Couchsurfing website, Saera and Rose:

Saera showed me around town, and told me stories of life in Conamara, where she was raised. It's along the coast, a bit north of Galway. Some of her family members don't speak much English at all, and her brother has an especially hard time speaking it, as he doesn't travel much. They get many students of Irish that come to stay with them, so as to get a full immersion in the language.

Rose [who's last name, by a bit of a coincidence, is also Barrett] was amazingly nice, offering to drive me all around County Clare, which is where the famous Cliffs of Moore are located. Although the cliffs are quite lovely, they're a bit over-hyped. Those on the Aran Islands were a bit nicer, plus much less commercialized.

Much nicer was the drive around the rest of the county, which lasted for eight hours. Yet it felt like much less. The scenery was gorgeous, green as always. At times she had to stop the car and wait for cows or sheep to move away from the center of the road.

To top things off, she refused my offer to pay for our lunch, and insisted on picking up the tab herself. Her reasoning was simply that I was 'a guest in her country.' What's said about Irish hospitality is if anything understated.

One of the things that I enjoyed the most was the local accent. Although all of the Irish accents sound pretty, the one from this part of the country is exceptionally nice, more like singing than anything else. Sometimes I had a hard time to concentrate on what they were saying, as just listening to the rhythm was almost hypnotic at times. And every other sentence was punctuated with a 'Dooyeknou?'.

After moving on from Galway, I headed for Dingle, in the southwest. The roads in that part of the country are mostly curves and turns, so getting anywhere takes quite a while. To go about 250 km takes almost six hours by bus. Dingle is a very nice place, and at this time of the year quite quiet, as the main tourist season doesn't start until June. The couple of days that I was there were spent either strolling around the back roads or reading by the fireplace in the hostel.

Today I arrived in Cork, in the midsouth. It's a pretty town, bigger than any place that I've been to for the last week or so. As usual, the weather is a bit nasty, so I haven't seen as much of the town as I'd like. Hopefully tomorrow will be a bit sunnier.

Sunday, May 21


[Because this is getting a bit long, I'm splitting it into two parts. The other half is called 'The Green']

My time in Alicante ended on a high note. I spent my last night with several friends that I had met there, including Gill from the U.K., Charles from Laval, Annika from Sweden, and Andrej from Poland, along with several of Gill's friends from the U.S. We drank wine on the beach, and given that the nicest part of Alicante is its castle, which rises up in the city center, the beach has a nice atmosphere. Listening to the waves from the sea and having the illuminated castle behind is hard to beat.

The next day I flew to Belfast. It's a very pretty city, but the violence [or as the locals call it, The Troubles] of the last forty years overshadows most everything. The people tend to be somewhat closed, and with good reason. During the height of The Troubles, over twenty bombs were set off in the city on the same day.

Although most people tend to regard the fighting as being of a religious nature, the Protestants versus the Catholics, the problems stem more from politics. The Protestants call themselves Loyalists, meaning loyal to the British Crown. The Catholics are referred to as Nationalists, who want all of the island to be part of the Republic.

Religion and political beliefs coincide because the Protestants are descendents of British colonizers who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, and who mostly settled in the northern part of the island. Very few Irish converted from Catholicism to Protestantism.

The reason that the Irish resent the British so much is that the British oppressed anyone Irish (and after the Lutharian movement reached Britain, anyone Catholic) for centuries. Because most of the Loyalists were concentrated in and around Belfast in the north eastern corner of the island, they were able to keep their area a part of the U.K. when the rest obtained independence in 1922. The Catholics in the north felt that they were being held hostage. The Republic even broke down into a civil war for several years after independence over whether they had conceded too much to the British by leaving them the northern chunk of the island.

The Catholics in the north were kept out of government jobs, which were reserved for Protestants. The Protestants argued that it wasn't possible to work alongside the Nationalists, and so this was the only way to keep the peace in the places where Protestants worked.

Still, there was an uneasy peace for the next forty years. The tensions finally boiled over in the late 1960's. The Catholics decided to copy the civil rights movements of the black community in the United States, but when they held mostly peaceful demonstrations, they were brutally oppressed. A spiral of violence ensued, culminating in perhaps the most infamous tragedy, Bloody Sunday, on January 30, 1972. 13 peaceful protesters were killed by the British army in Derry, a town west of Belfast. The violence continued for thirty years. During this period, the arguments of the Loyalists were more popular due to the Republic being stuck in a horrible economic depression since it's founding.

Over the years, two major things have changed. The first is that the Republic's economy exploded in the 1990's. In many ways, Ireland has become just as rich as the U.K. And as the economy shows no signs of slowing, it may even surpass the U.K. in the next decade or two. The second change is that the demographics in the North are changing. Mostly because the Catholic church bars birth control, Catholic families tend to be much larger. Within one more generation, the Catholics will make up the majority of the population. These two factors laid the ground for a peace deal, often referred to as the Good Friday Agreement, signed on that day in 1998. Perhaps the most significant part of it was that in the future the status of the north would be decided by democratic referendum, which heavily favors the Nationalists. It's of course uncertain that the peace will last through such a referendum, regardless of the outcome.

The I.R.A [Irish Republican Army] formally abandoned violent actions last year, and have not killed anyone for several years before that. They have transformed themselves [hopefully permanently] into a purely political organization. Though they have had a political wing, Sinn Fein [pronounced Shin Fane, meaning 'I, Myself' in Irish] since the mid 1970's, it has always co-existed with the terrorist organization up until last year. Incidentally, it was strange to walk through the Catholic neighborhoods and see memorials dedicated to the 'soldiers of the Republic who have given their lives in the fight for freedom'. Everywhere else in the world the I.R.A. is considered simply as a group of terrorists, and with good reason. There's no excuse for killing innocent people in London in the name of freedom for Northern Ireland.

The most striking part Belfast are the wall murals, which are gigantic graffiti paintings, either on houses (authorized by their owners) or on the so-called Peace Walls, gigantic barriers reminiscent of the one in Cold War Berlin, designed to forcibly separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. These murals are very impressive in terms of artistic talent, but the message very disturbing. Most of the murals feature large 'soldiers', their faces covered by ski masks, pointing rocket launchers at you with such messages as 'This We Will Defend', and a British flag in the background. The Catholics counter with tributes to members of the I.R.A. There are also many impressive murals in Derry.

For a sample of the murals, check out
and for a complete list, go to

While there, I also met two people from the couchsurfing website. The first, Maria, is from Paraguay, and is teaching Spanish classes in Belfast. I was quite surprised to be able to carry on most of the conversation in Spanish. The other person that I met, Paul, gave me a nice tour of the various areas of the city. Being born and raised in Belfast, he was able to explain the history of the town very well. Still, he said that he wouldn't be comfortable stopping his car in certain neighborhoods at night.

Saturday, May 6


Most of Europe [most of the world?] celebrated Labor Day on May 1st, and since this was yet another long weekend, it was a good time to explore another of the regions of Spain that I've been curious to see, the Basque Country.

The Basque region is most famous for the E.T.A. [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna], a terrorist organization who's name translates [from the Basque] to Basque Homeland and Freedom. Their goal was to 'liberate' the Basque regions of Spain and France, and to unite them into a sovereign nation. Still, considering that the majority of the population doesn't support separation, let alone the violent methods of the E.T.A., they've been steadily losing credibility for the past 30 years, ever since Spain became a democracy.

One of the biggest sources of cultural pride for the Basque people is having been the only region in modern-day Spain to have resisted every single Arab invasion from the 8th to the 16th century. It wasn't until Napoleon came along that they were finally conquered.

The Basque language is completely unique, and doesn't belong to any other family of languages in the world. They use the letters k and x several times in most words, which looks funny at first. I learned later that the x is meant to sound like 'ch'.

My first stop was San Sebastian, which is on the northern coast, near France. It's the area with the strongest concentration of Basque nationalism, and is often referred to by it's name in the Basque language, Donostia.

It's a beautiful city, very green, with a mountain fortress overlooking a beach, well-known for it's surfing. The region is easily the wealthiest in the country, as most industry is placed there in order to placate the nationalist movement [other countries have similar situations...]. In general this plan has worked, as public support is usually less than one third of the population. Still, it means that if the region ever does separate, it will substantially hurt the rest of Spain.

Despite the low overall support for separation or violence, tensions are easy to recognize. I'd been told before I went to avoid talking about politics. As an example, both Basque and Spanish are official languages, and all street signs are required to be written in both. Yet the Spanish text is usually spray-painted over...

After leaving San Sebastian, I went a bit south to Pamplona. It's the capital of the region called Navarra, still Basque, but less radical. It's known mostly for their 'Running of the Bulls' festival in early July. This is where they release a dozen or so bulls, which rampage down the streets of the city center, trampling over drunk tourists who are stupid enough to try to outrun them. It's not to say that there are that injuries. Apparently, it's usually less than half a dozen. Still, I don't understand why people are attracted to this sort of thing. The tourist shops were selling postcards with pictures of some of the dumber tourists getting whacked by the bulls as they charge through.

I stayed with Eisi, a friend of Rally, whom I met in Sofia, Bulgaria [Rally is the cousin of one of my very good friends from Montreal, Ivo, who was born in Bulgaria]. He was amazingly nice, doing everything he possibly could to make me as comfortable as possible. Still, I got the impression that he's pretty depressed living in Spain. In fact, he said it straight out. He's looking for a way to move back to Sofia to be close to his son.

Perhaps the most memorable thing that I saw while I was there was a demonstration for a 'Free and Socialist' Basque country, which gathered around 500 people. There were two reasons that I found it so interesting. The first is the use of the word 'free'. The people there didn't seem very oppressed, especially compared to the Franco years [Spanish dictator from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1975]. But of far more significance is that this is exactly the same slogan as that of the E.T.A. and of their political branches. This means that some [or many?] of the people there were at least E.T.A. sympathisers, if not full-fledged members. Keep in mind that the E.T.A. is well known for their brutal execution-style murders [a bullet to the back of the neck], as well as extortion. It's amazing how normal such people can look from a glance...

Still, the vast majority of the people that I met while I was in the area were very nice. I'd been told that the people in the south are more laid back, and that those in the north are more hard working. But in general, the northerners were quieter and seemed happier as well. Their personalities didn't seem to be nearly so loud. Minus the loudness factor, I found the same difference between people in the north and south of France.


This is my last day in Spain. Tomorrow I fly to Belfast. It's been a great experience, but at the same time, it will be good to move on. I've more or less reached my goal of being able to have a simple conversation in Spanish. There is, of course, an enormous amount left to learn.

I'm not sure how or why, but my French has also improved quite a bit since I got here. Odd, considering that I don't get many chances to practice speaking French at all. And when I do, for the first couple of minutes of a conservation, it tends to be mixed with Spanish words. Still, I've gotten much better at remembering words in French, even ones that I've only used once or twice before. My listening comprehension is much higher than it ever was as well. I understand very nearly all of what I hear now.

I'm not sure if I want to come back to Spain again. It's not that I dislike the country. It's just that nothing here really grabs my attention. Then again, not many countries do. The only places that immediately pop to mind are Norway, Latvia, or western Ukraine. And even with those, I can't really imagine living there for the rest of my life. I suppose that in the end, it would come down to the type of job I was offered. Under the right circumstances, I would be happy enough spending a year or two in many northern European countries, such as Germany, Denmark or Sweden.