Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category.

American Airport Security Still Broken

Dan Reed at points out that while lines at TSA checkpoints in airports are down, the system is still broken.

The real problem is that the entire approach to airport and airline security is all wrong – and has been since at least 9-11. It took Herculean efforts – and lots of managerial smoke and mirrors – to get the Fourth of July holiday crowds through airport security checkpoints in less than 30 minutes, on average. But it did not make any one of those passengers, or those airports, or the flights on which those passengers flew, one bit safer. Remember last year’s report from Homeland Security’s Inspector General that showed that airport screeners failed to find weapons and illegal materials smuggled through checkpoints by IG operatives a staggering 95 percent of the time? Nothing has changed over the last year to drop that to some acceptable failure rate – like zero. In fact, with bigger crowds at the airport than ever, and intense pressure to speed up the process, a reasonable person could surmise that the TSA’s failure rate just might have ticked up a point or two (though it can’t go much higher than it already is).

More than a decade ago Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and expert on computer security and privacy, famously dubbed the entire airport/airline security process “security theater.” And that’s what it remains today, even with the “better” performance over the holiday weekend.

On Dublin’s Rocky Road

Just got back from a week in Dublin. I have traveled to many places in this world but the only place outside of the USA that I’ve ever felt at home was Ireland. I’m sure racial memory has something to do with it (I’m quarter Irish) and being American helps since the Irish don’t hold it against us the way some of the Brits (“Iraq! Bush!”) and especially the French and Germans do. But their food is great, their coffee is hearty and black, and of course they’ve got the best beer in the world: Guinness, which I personally haven’t enjoyed in 15+ years but I’m sure St. Peter has one waiting for me, properly poured, at the Pearly Gates because if he doesn’t I’m sure the Other Guy will have one ready for me Down There.

Dublin is a great city with a hint of sadness. It’s fast becoming a multi-cultural European city and losing its “Irish” flavor. This is probably good for the economy and for the Irish people in the long-term, but in the short I’m not so sure. Ireland isn’t known for being a “melting-pot” and still struggles to integrate two very closely related ethnic groups with nearly identical religions. I’m not sure it’s ready to handle an influx of Middle Eastern Muslims, but ready or not they are there and more are coming. In Dublin there are large and apparently growing Eastern European communities. I visited St. Audoen’s Church and heard mass said in Polish. We were served by Czechs and Croats in several pubs and restaurants, and heard Russian several times spoken on the streets. Thanks to the EU’s immigration policy Ireland is opening up, but as an American I’m not sure filling low-skilled and low-paying jobs with Eastern Europeans is a solution to Ireland’s own employment troubles. It’s something that bears watching, and I would love to talk to the Irish more about this issue but since our stay was pretty much limited to Dublin our interactions with the Irish were more limited than previous trips outside of the city.

Talking to the Irish (two taxi drivers and one waitress) we were asked the same question, “So how about President Trump?” The question was posed that way not as a hypothetical, but as a reality. The three seemed convinced he was going to win the election. The Wife and I answered diplomatically, explaining that there was still a lot of time to go before the election and that much could still happen, but none of the three seemed worried. The Wife realized why. They had watched him on TV shows like The Apprentice and were comfortable with him. They knew more about him through those shows and the tabloid stories written about him over the past two decades than they do about Hillary Clinton, who never had the same level of public exposure as Trump. Granted they seemed bemused about him, kind of like, “You crazy Americans…” but they weren’t afraid of him nuking the Chinese or walling off Mexico the way the Hillary-leaning US press tries to scare Americans into fearing him.

We learned that the economy there is still down, but the impression is that things are turning the corner. One taxi driver said that it will be a long time before Ireland returns to being the Celtic Tiger, but remained guardedly optimistic about the country’s future. The impression that we had of Dublin was that the city had clearly seen better days, but the city had potential. Cellphone and broadband services are much better, faster and cheaper than what we are stuck with here. It was easy to get around the city on foot and using taxis, buses and trains. Real estate struck me as overpriced, but then again I’m living in one of the cheapest areas of one of the cheapest countries (real estate-wise) on the planet. And there is plenty to do. The arts are thriving in Dublin and we were bummed that we arrived between major dance performances. The museums are free and top-notch. And the city is filled with plenty of restaurants and pubs so that you never need to visit the same one twice unless you live there or want to.

As an American of Irish descent, I want to see Ireland succeed. I love Ireland and the Irish for many of the same reasons that I love Israel and the Jews. Both nations and peoples have suffered genocide* and oppression. Both have long colorful histories, and both have spawned brilliant scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists that have contributed to making the world a better place. Our next trip back is being planned (as is a trip to Israel coincidentally), and while Dublin’s road to the future remains rocky, I’m confident that the future is brighter than the typical Irish overcast sky.

——*I understand that equating the Holocaust with any other act of genocide in history is dangerous. What the Jews suffered in Europe under the Nazis was unique. No genocide was as carefully planned and executed as the Holocaust – and I respect that. But while differing in scale, the Irish suffered genocide and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the British. I am descended from a husband and wife who came to the US to escape starvation caused by a natural event exacerbated by British policies and used as a tool for the ethnic cleansing of the Irish from their homeland. This was the culmination of several hundred years of oppression that wouldn’t end until the Irish gained independence in 1922. I am not sure how many of my Irish family starved to death during Black 47, but I doubt the number was zero.

And while I remain an Anglophile, I hope that no Brit ever asks me about my guilt over slavery as an American because I’ll have to “let fly” my shillelagh to remind them about their own nation’s sordid past.

Culturally Appropriate This

Yesterday on St. Patrick’s Day I was celebrating my Irish ancestry by listening to Irish music, from traditional jigs and reels by the Chieftains to the punk tunes of the Pogues. Today I’d kill for a Japanese curry (Digression: Why are there no curry restaurant chains in this country? Curry houses are almost as common as sushi shops in Japan.) and listening to Wagakki Band.

And all this is happening in rural North Carolina.

I’ve been meaning to write about “cultural appropriation” which evidently is a hot topic on some college campuses (Digression: Why aren’t getting good grades, landing a good job, or the skyrocketing cost of higher education hot topics? Instead of talking about the mind-expanding process of learning we seem to be talking instead about the mind-closing process of safe spaces and cultural appropriation.)

I am an American male of Irish and Slavic ancestry. My great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother escaped the genocide of the Irish brought about by the British occupation policies. (Digression: The potato famines (yes there were several) weren’t natural events. Sure the potato crops were blighted, but the famines were brought about by the political decisions and actions of the British.*) My Slavic ancestors were peasants of the Austro-Hungarian empire who escaped central Europe in the late 1880s and early 1890s. My hybrid genes have left me with a tendency towards sentimentality and alcoholism from the Irish coupled with an instinctive paranoia and natural talent for baking that kept my Slavic alive while oppressed. I have lived in two non-Western nations – Japan and Tanzania – and my experiences abroad educated on what it means to be American, as well as made me appreciate Western Civilization so denigrated today by nearly everyone.

At the same time those experiences also left me with a deep appreciation of other cultures, particularly the Japanese. To put it bluntly, I think the Japanese are a crazy people. They are racist in ways you have to witness to believe. They are silly, stupid some times and downright ignorant at others.

But this world would be so much worse off without them and their culture. Listen to the song embedded above and watch the video. Wagakki Band has taken traditional Japanese instruments and added American heavy metal to create a unique sound. You don’t have to like it to appreciate its vitality, its energy and its unique character.

By current Leftist standards on college campuses what Wagakki Band has done is culturally appropriate an American sound to create something new. One character trait of the Japanese over the past 1,500 years is their skill at cultural appropriation. In the 7th century they appropriated Chinese religion (Buddhism), writing, and government – then blended it into their own unique culture. Their Buddhism was never much like the rest of Asian Buddhism. As for their writing they may use the same characters as the Chinese but they pronounce them differently and have stuck to a syllable-based language represented by their own writing kana forms. And their form of government was very different from the Chinese, lacking the complex meritocratic bureaucracy of the Chinese. Later Japan would emulate various elements of the Portuguese, British, Prussian and Americans. Strip away all the cultural appropriation and very little would be left of Japanese culture, and what remains would be rather dull (although Shinto has its moments – especially at drunken fire-festivals).

Fredrik deBoer has some good comments about cultural appropriation that got me thinking about all the above since Japan factors into his argument. deBoer writes, “when white progressives complain about culture appropriation, (it) is the denial of the agency of people from other cultures. To accept the idea that, say, an art museum holding an event at which people wear kimonos is necessarily a heinous act of appropriation is to presume that you know that no Japanese people would ever approve of such a thing, even though actual people in Japan will be very happy to at least sell you a kimono. I’m sure some Japanese people wouldn’t like Kimono Wednesdays. I’m sure some Japanese people would find it flattering. I’m sure many wouldn’t care either way. A common response to the controversy, in Japan, appears to have been bewilderment that anyone could be upset about it. But to become offended on the behalf of Japanese people,  you have to presume that Japanese people have no agency [emphasis added]. You have to presume that no Japanese person could say to him- or herself “I’m gonna make a choice, not as an avatar of a culture of millions of people but as an individual, to accept/encourage/facilitate white Americans wearing kimonos.” In place of their agency, you put your own righteous judgment.

I lived in Japan 5 years and never wore a kimono but many of my gaijin friends did on occasion and the Japanese always seemed to appreciate it. When a non-Japanese decides that wearing a kimono is racist against the Japanese, s/he presumes to speak for 120 million Japanese people. That strikes me as pretty arrogant, particularly when those worried most about cultural appropriation seem to have spent very little time in the cultures they profess to speak for. I have friends who have spent 30+ years in Japan and have citizenship (Digression: Very difficult to get unless you are a sumo wrestler) who wouldn’t presume to speak for the Japanese, so some college brat doing so seems laughable. But it’s not that funny; as deBoer states “you have to presume that Japanese people have no agency.” This means that the college kid has decided that s/he has more power to speak for the Japanese than the Japanese themselves do. That’s the modern equivalent of what the White Man’s Burden of a century ago. Not surprising considering that the efforts to separate the races on American campuses are nothing more than Leftist versions of separate-but-equal post Plessy v Ferguson America of the early 1900s. All we need is a progressive version of the Ku Klux Klan for completeness.

deBoer concludes, “Like so many other elements of contemporary culture, the economy of offense is revealed to be just another expression of our own ego. We need to remember that we are not the cosmos, that the world is full of other people making their own adult decisions. To forget that isn’t progressive. It’s, well, a kind of imperialism.”

And that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking. This progressive effort to define and then separate the cultures strikes me as conservative to the point of being reactionary. It’s fascism without snappy uniforms and all that goose-stepping. First it wields power over a group of people without their consent. Then it makes decisions telling them what they can and cannot eat, “You are Chinese therefore you must eat Chinese food. No Big Macs for you.” How to dress, “You are German. You must wear lederhosen and dresses like Julie Andrews wore in ‘The Sound of Music’.” And what music to make, “You are Japanese. You must not play rock music; instead you must play traditional Japanese music with shamisen and koto. What the Koto isn’t Japanese, it’s Chinese? Well then no Koto for you Japanese girl.” It’s actually a lot like what Tokugawa shogunate did, mandating the jobs people and their descendants did forever, creating the classes and setting their interactions – and the Tokugawa shogunate isn’t exactly a progressive icon even if the average progressive knew what it was.

I’m confident this whole movement will pass. Any movement that restrains freedom and prevents people from appreciating Japanese curry is doomed to fail. And any group that would keep Wagakki Band from rocking it like Ono no Komachi meets Motorhead deserves to be ignored.

*The tone of that statement reflects my feelings towards the British government during the Irish occupation. Just because I have issues with the treatment of the Irish during those years doesn’t mean that I support the IRA or hate the British governments post 1922. Quite the opposite. In fact I’m a bigger fan of the British government rather than the Irish Republican government due to the latter’s support of the PLO and neutrality during World War 2. Yes I’m one of the few who believes the Irish have some explaining to do over their actions during that war.

Booking Flights

Just days after returning from Rome we’ve already begun planning for our next trip to Europe. I remember twenty-five years ago planning trips to Africa and Asia, doing the “hard travel” while I was young, and intentionally leaving Europe for when I was older. Now that time has arrived, and I am determined to enjoy staying in comfortable places, leaving the nights spent on the decks of lake steamers or in kimchi dens and nomiya as memories.

But in some ways travel has gotten harder. Sure the destinations we are picking like Ireland and Rome are much more suited for middle class, middle aged folk like us, but getting there is almost tougher today than traveling to Dar es Salaam was 25 years ago. And in surprising ways.

Take for example booking a flight. Today with the Internet and dozens of travel websites booking a flight should be easy, and it is – if cost or time aren’t issues. In 1991 I exchanged emails with a travel agent that specialized in Japanese air tickets. I spent about 30 minutes total and had a round trip ticket booked from San Diego to Osaka for $630.

This past weekend the Wife spent about 2 hours bouncing from one travel site or airline website to another, trying to find flights to Europe that didn’t break the bank or involve 16 hour layovers in Chicago for less than $1300. When she did find something, she looked at the available seats and discovered the fare was only for seats in the middle of the plane. Aisle seats and window seats were $60 more each leg of the trip. Adding that up for the two us made our tickets to Ireland from the East Coast close to $1,500 each. The ex-Navy enlisted Wife let out a string of sailor “language” that could peel paint, ending with the plaintive cry “How can the airlines get away with that?”

Competition, I said, or lack thereof. While the international market is relatively deregulated, American law prevents foreign carriers from flying domestic routes. This situation is made worse by the creation-by-merger of three mega-carriers within the USA. The result of that lack of competition is a textbook example of what happens when monopolies appear: prices rise and service declines. US carriers like that of course, which is why they have fought the European push to open the US market. Yes, the “Euroweenie socialists” are pushing the “capitalist running dog Americans” to free our markets. Of course the crony capitalists like United and American airlines won’t give up so easily, so until they do we will suffer with rude airline attendants, overpriced flights and shrinking seats. But maybe it’s time to forget our “freedom fries” (and honestly, after what happened in Paris, it definitely is time) and support our European cousins to save us from the American carriers (suggested American Airlines motto: “We suck but we don’t care.”)

The Byzantine booking systems on the Internet have resurrected a dying profession: travel agents. In fact for the first time in about 20 years we plan to visit one to book our next vacation. We’ll gladly pay someone to find us the flights that fit our needs and our budget and skip the frustration.

On Rome

I’ve recently returned from a long vacation in Rome Italy, a city that I had never been to and had only seen through the eyes of the great historians Suetonius, Livy and Cassius Dio. Recently I’ve become an otaku on all things ancient Roman, so it was easy for me to spend time walking in a city where every few minutes a piece of that history comes into view. Sure the major attractions like the Colosseum and the Forum are impressive, but so are smaller sites like the Theater of Marcellus, an ancient Roman amphitheater capped by Renaissance era apartments, and the Largo di Torre Argentina, ruins of 4 ancient temples that host a no-kill cat shelter.

While not an overpowering presence, Italian soldiers stood every few blocks bearing holstered Beretta 92FS sidearms and SCAR 17 automatic rifles. A fan of both weapons I resisted the urge to tell them how much I particularly love the Beretta line of weapons. Given their no-nonsense appearance it was clear to all, even idiot foreigners like me, that they were there for a purpose and were fully trained in executing their mission well.

But as I walked through the large crowd in St. Peter’s Square or the throngs the crowded between the Colosseum and the Forum, I knew danger wasn’t far away. Islamic State is as far away from Rome as Dallas is from New York City, and the chaos of Libya is only a short boat ride away. The security of Rome struck me as very fragile, and the government ill-prepared for the onslaught rising on not-so-distant shores. For 500 years Ancient Rome had no walls, and it was illegal to station soldiers within its boundaries. Instead the security of Rome was guaranteed by its legions stationed at the frontiers of its empire. The presence of the well-armed and trained soldiers was meant to assure visitors like me, but instead it made me realize just how endangered the city is.

Two days after my return the jihadis struck Paris.

I haven’t been to Paris, and really had no urge. For most of my life the contemporary French have struck me as a bunch of spoiled slackers. Over the past 14 years I have written several essays critical of the free-loading French, but the attacks weren’t on the French. They were on Civilization, the one that Augustus Caesar helped lay the foundation of, the one that so many Leftist intellectuals take for granted.

Fourteen years of living in a post-911 world and Civilization feels more under threat than ever. Rome was sacked in 410, 135 years after the Emperor Aurelian surrounded the city with walls. I’ve often wondered what the Romans must have felt as they remembered their former greatness and reveled in their past accomplishments but knew, instinctively knew that Darkness was closing in on them fast. The loss of allies, the presence of soldiers within the cities, the gradual decline in the power and pride of being “Roman”. With each passing day it must have seemed that society was getting more fractured, more incoherent and ultimately more disturbed.

I now have a pretty good idea.

Red Barchetta Coming to a Road – and Sky – Near You

Starbucks Race Together – Forgive me for not wanting to be lectured to by a company with an all-white board of directors and a billionaire white CEO, one without locations in poor neighborhoods including my own. I don’t ask the Dali Lama for Italian Roast whole bean, and so I don’t see why I should be forced to talk to a harried twenty-something coffee-slinger about anything beyond wanting my coffee black.

The ISIS Attack in Tunisia – How many people have to die before we start seeing these attacks for what they are? Religiously motivated hate crimes by adherents of the “religion of Peace.” Sure the machete wielding guy shot dead in New Orleans was a Jehovah Witness, but he wasn’t passing around copies of the WatchTower as he killed people, was he? Terrorist apologists just don’t get that there’s a difference between killing someone because you are nuts and killing someone because you are nuts IN THE NAME OF ALLAH. It’s the difference between a white guy gunning down a black guy and a white guy shouting “N****r” gunning down a black guy. I had plans to visit that museum in the near future, and although I haven’t torn those plans up, I am realizing that the “safe places to visit list” is getting smaller by the day.

Ted Cruz – Ted Cruz is courting the Christian wing of the GOP. That worked well for President Huckabee 4 years ago didn’t it?

Israel – The Obama administration demands Israel commit suicide while allying with its mortal enemy. No surprise given Ayatollah Khameini and President Obama’s shared hatred of both the US and Israel.

The UK’s Green Party – Leader of the Green’s Natalie Bennett is promising to demilitarize the UK and evidently lives on a different planet, one without a Vladimir Putin partitioning Ukraine. If she does win in May, it will make it easier for Downton Abbey fans in the US to mount an invasion, take over the island and force creator Julian Fellowes to write a seventh season – one where Mary awakens from a dream to find her sister Sybil and husband Matthew at her bedside. The fans should be able to take the place over with a few pointed jabs and threatening remarks, that is if Putin doesn’t get there first, which given the recent Russian overflights of the UK may be soon.

Germanwings crash – Humans make mistakes. They make far more mistakes than the control systems that fly the planes, and there’s only so much we can do to protect lives from a pilot who wants to become one with a mountain. Has the time come for pilotless planes? It’s going to take courage for the first cabinfull of passengers to fly without a pilot but in the end it’s going to be the norm. Ditto driverless trucks, trains and eventually cars. Would I trust a fully automated car over my 18 year old kid? Damn right I would. I love driving but I have had too many close calls myself, and recognize that an automated driving system would be a safer driver system, and when that happens driving will become illegal (hence the Rush reference in the title.) The Germanwings crash is going to accelerate the discussion on the technology that could revolutionize our worlds this century. It’s coming and the sooner the better. I think…

BBC firing Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear – Please forgive my descent into British English, but F*** the Beeb, the bunch of spineless lefty nanny-state loving tossers. They’ll protect a pedophile like Jimmy Savile but not Clarkson whose political views tended towards the right in the UK (which makes him a moderate Democrat here). It’s one thing to discipline him for his misbehavior; it’s another to dog him for his populist beliefs. Well, the sooner Bennett wins the election, the sooner my comrades and I can take over the country and rest assured, the BBC license will be the second item on our chopping block (after that driving on the wrong side of the road business.) Let them grovel like NPR does here.

Head Transplants – My favorite hard Left science magazine wasted 2,000 words on this “what if.” I say wasted because the success of such a surgery hinges on the ability to meld one spinal cord to another. If we can do that, we can cure paralysis – and to me that’s far more newsworthy than worrying about the ethics of something that may not even be possible.



Evidently Marijuana is Legal in NC Because These Reviewers Are High

Hotel Indigo, Asheville NC

Another review of an Asheville hotel, and I’m beginning to think I’m the area’s fussiest visitor. Over 1,000 reviews and a near perfect 4.5 rating?

Are the other reviewers high? As a long-time resident of North Carolina let me assure you that the state has NOT legalized marijuana but you wouldn’t know it by the other reviews.

First let me state that I am not a well-heeled traveler. I am more Lonely Planet than Michelin, and have slept in some unique places like on the deck of a steamer on Lake Tanganyika and a foreigner’s flop-house in Seoul. While I may watch Downton Abbey I do not demand to be treated as if I lived in it. All I require is a clean island of calm at an affordable price. But the more I pay the more I expect and that’s where things go off the rails at Indigo.

First off let’s dispense with the pleasantries. Hotel Indigo is a very clean hotel that is centrally located in downtown Asheville. It is within walking distance of restaurants, shops and nightlife that make Asheville one of the South’s treasures. Its staff was courteous, helpful and friendly – and rates 5 stars on its own. Unlike the Megacorp Grove Park Inn parking is included in the hotel price, and if “weird Asheville” or the downtown business district is why you are there, you won’t have to deal with the roving packs of metermaids waiting to sprinkle your car with parking tickets. The hotel is very well maintained and it is one of the cleanest hotels I’ve stayed in.

So to summarize:
Pros: Location, Staff, Parking, Clean

Now let’s sharpen our claws and tear into this hotel. First off this hotel is often referred to as “chic”. To a person under 30 this may sound cool. Anyone over that age knows that what’s “chic” has a half-life measured in milliseconds. To put it bluntly the decor of this hotel is horrendous. I haven’t seen that much avocado green since my mother redecorated her home in 1973. All that was missing was harvest gold – likely a planned upgrade for 2016. I suppose the stretched blue spandex on the ceiling and the multicolored carpet in the hallways looks great when one is “tripping balls” but it just gave me a headache. A half-wall in our room was covered with a photograph made into wallpaper. At first I thought it was a forest canopy, then it became a head of broccoli. By the end of my stay I believe it was a close up of a piece of moss-covered wood, but mmmm broccoli – steamed covered with cheese sauce. I guess you have to be high to appreciate it – but don’t forget that marijuana is still illegal in North Carolina and smoking is also banned in the hotel. As are firearms, the hotel conspicuously displaying the “Victims Inside” signs at all entrances, and one must sign swearing to abide by the ban at check-in. I suppose prayer will be banned in 2016, and free speech soon after, followed by the rest of the Bill of Rights. Who are the owners of this hotel? The Chinese?

Victim Signs Posted at Hotel Indigo Entrances

Being centrally located is a double-edged sword (not banned at Hotel Indigo), but decent hotels know how to keep the sound at bay through heavy drapes, double-paned windows, and sound-deadening walls. We stayed on the side away from the highway, but it was quiet obvious when the city was waking up. Whatever the secret is for soundproofing, Hotel indigo doesn’t know it. I’m just glad Luck kept us away from the highway side since The Wife hates light and I hate sound so we both had restless nights in the room; I’m sure it would have been much worse by the highway.

The room was small, a feeling made worse by the large picture of broccoli on the corner wall and it lacked a refrigerator. Now this may not be a deal breaker for some, but for those like the Wife who travel to one of the craft beer capitals of the country, one needs a place to chill one’s Green Man or Highlander. Evidently the management believes fridges in rooms would harm their carbon footprints, forcing their guests to hurt their tastebuds by drinking warm stouts and craft ales.

Let’s get something straight. If you worry about global warming you shouldn’t stay in a hotel unless you walk or bicycle to your destination. Flying is up there with setting Smokey the Bear on fire when it comes to CO2 emissions. If you worry about such then stay home.

Which leads to the worst aspect of the stay: value. You can do much better at other hotels in the area. The Renaissance costs the same and has a bigger room, with walls that won’t give you the veggie munchies. It’s also centrally located and has no problem keeping the city sounds at bay. By the time you spend money on the upgrades at Indigo you could stay at the Haywood Park which has an even better location for business/weird Asheville, plus the amenities and luxury one expects for the price.

If you REALLY want a view, you shouldn’t be staying in downtown Asheville at all. The city is surrounded by mountains and you can do much better with hotels located on those. Even the cheap ones have better views than the most expensive downtown hotels.

Cons: Décor, Gun Control, Soundproofing/Lighting, Amenities, Fake Environmentalism (aka Greenwashing), Value

Booking Tips:
Do NOT book on the highway side of the hotel unless the sound of traffic lulls you to sleep. Also the higher up the better. For couples looking for a “romantic getaway”, avoid everything but the penthouses. Your ‘significant others’ will not be happy (as mine wasn’t).

If I want to camp, I’ll stay in a tent for free. If I’m paying $200 a night I expect a fridge in the room, lights that don’t make everyone look like Kermit the Frog, and hot water that arrives when I want it instead of next Tuesday.

A Stay at the Grove Park Inn – Asheville NC

Originally posted at TripAdvisor.

Let me begin by saying I wanted to like this hotel. If the names Stickley and Roycroft and the term “Arts & Crafts movement” mean something to you as it does to me, then you really have no choice but to stay and appreciate the artistry of the wood and stonework the hotel is famous for. But if you are looking for a relaxing stay where you are pampered by staff, or want a base from which to explore the area, forget it. There are other hotels in the area that can accommodate you better.

Asheville is one of our favorite cities and since we are Arts & Crafts aficionados, we had visited the hotel several times but had no reason to stay there. A medical conference being held there last weekend changed that, so we stayed. Our problems started immediately upon arrival. Because the conference started before checkout we arrived before our room was ready and had to park.

Why does parking have to be gated and controlled if everything in the complex is owned by the hotel? It’s not like people would park at the hotel for free and go elsewhere, and the gates were new since our last visit there in the Spring. Our room wasn’t ready until the afternoon so we had to leave the facility for a trip downtown. To leave the gated parking you have to present your room key, but since our room wasn’t ready we didn’t have a key. We were told to press the button for assistance at the gate, but several attempts to do so went unanswered. We ended up paying the $10 to leave.

Which brings up another point. $15 for parking? We’ve stayed in hotels in downtown areas of Dublin, New York City, and Chicago and parking was included with the room. Why the additional charge? Valet is $22 + tip for those who like paying a stranger to drive their cars and I can understand that. But $15 for general overnight parking struck me as cheap and didn’t match my expectation for this hotel.

Nowadays WiFi is almost as important as a private bath while traveling, and at least it’s free here unlike other high-end hotels. But to access it you have to login with your last name and room number. Since we didn’t have these at the time we arrived we couldn’t use them, so I had to use my smartphone to create a hotspot so that I could use my laptop.

These are minor issues but they do suggest a broader problem I have with the hotel: The Grove Park Inn having the same policies applied to it by the OMNI chain that it applies to its other properties right down to the branding “OMNI Grove Park.” It seems to me that it is a corporate directive to play down the Grove Park Inn name in favor of the OMNI brand, making it impossible to find a coffee mug the Wife wanted with the name “Grove Park Inn” on it instead of OMNI Hotels & Resorts.

If the brand OMNI Hotels & Resorts means something to you then perhaps that’s a good thing, but for those of us who appreciate the hotel for what it has been and where it is, then who owns it today is meaningless. The hotel has changed hands numerous times through its history and will know doubt do so again. In fact it has had 3 owners in just the past 3 years and the only constant has been the Grove Park Inn name.

This thoughtless and heavy-handed approach to the hotel by its corporate owners betrays an ignorance and lack of appreciation for this hotel. To its owners its just another property, not a 100 year old historical icon in Asheville. I don’t see how they will be able to succeed at keeping the hotel profitable over the long term without appreciating the hotel’s distinct and unique character and charm and maintaining those into the future.

We stayed in one of the old parts of the hotel and the room was small but acceptable. If you want a palatial suite either pay for one of the newer rooms or don’t stay in a hotel designed when people didn’t require rooms as big as their bedroom suites in their mcmansions. The woods in the room were amazing, and the unassuming Roycroft desk was a marvel of craftsmanship. Although the floor carpet was worn, the bed was comfortable and we had no trouble with the room.

A lot of the directions and advice we received (e.g. leaving the parking area, logging into Wifi) was wrong. They were also overwhelmed the first night of our stay and attitudes struck me as patronizing or snotty. Later in the weekend we had better interactions as the crowd thinned but it was still hit or miss.

An example of this was entering the new Edison restaurant Friday night and seating ourselves at one of the many open tables after standing around for several minutes trying to catch the eye of a waiter or hostess. Although there were numerous empty tables and had been ignored for several minutes, a hostess approached us and said the table was reserved and told us to sit at the bar, which we did. We were then ignored there too. I guess we weren’t young enough to grab the attention of the staff unless we were breaking the rules. We finally got the attention of a bartender and the Wife asked if he could recommend a dry house red wine. He passed her the menu, said “See page 3” and disappeared. We took it all in stride of course but it was amazing to be treated so poorly at the price we paid to stay.

One final recommendation. Because the hotel is at the edge of the city, if you are staying there intending to spend a lot of time downtown there are much better options closer to the heart of the city.

Like I said, I wanted to like this hotel more than I actually did, and I do hope it improves. But Life is short and there are plenty of other options in the area.

A Trip to Mt. Hiei, Kyoto Japan

I wrote the following while living in Kyoto Japan in 1993. Noise pollution in Japan remains an issue today.

Kyoto is a city of a million people lying about 35 miles north of Osaka. Although mass transportation and urban sprawl have turned Kyoto into a suburb of Osaka, Kyoto has retained its identity as being the cultural and historical capital of Japan, even managing to retain its distinctive dialect of Japanese. It sits in a broad valley with low mountains to the north, east and west with a thin and shallow concrete banked river running north-south through the eastern half of the city. The city is a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial spaces with the edges predominantly residential and the southern part of the city industrial. Centuries old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the city. Although Kyoto escaped the bombings which leveled other cities like Osaka during the war, most of the temples and shrines in Kyoto were destroyed in the various civil wars which raged in the area between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries or by accidental fires which periodically spread and laid waste to the city.

Late one summer the Wife and I  decided to escape the heat and city life by visiting Mount Hiei in Eastern Kyoto. Hiei is a cone-shaped mountain rising about 3,000 feet above sea-level at the northeastern edge of the city. We chose Hiei because we were craving outdoor activity after months spent living and working in the city. Plus Hiei’s history is irresistible to any serious Nipponophile.

In the 12th century monasteries of the Tendai sect of Buddhism were established around the summit of Mt. Hiei. Thousands of warrior monks lived, prayed and trained at the “Enryakuji”, the great monastic headquarters of the sect. As the power of the rulers in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto ebbed with the general collapse of centralized government during the period, the warrior monks caused problems. At various occasions during the next three hundred years the monks would descend on Kyoto to rape, pillage and generally wreak havoc in the city and the surrounding areas, returning to the safety of their heavily fortified monasteries before an organized defense could be mounted. Weakened by corruption and the shift of power to the provincial nobility, the central government could do little to combat the raids and the threat the monks posed to feudal society.

Oda Nobunaga was the first of three great leaders who unified Japan in the 16th century. He was a provincial lord from the east of Kyoto who, using diplomacy and force, began the unification of Japan which his successors Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu completed in the early 17th century. In 1568 Oda seized Kyoto and for 3 years worked to control the various sects of warrior monks living in the mountains surrounding the city. In 1571 he laid siege to Mt. Hiei in an attempt to subdue the monks of the Enryakuji. With the failure of various diplomatic overtures and military attacks and no sign that the monks were suffering from the siege, Oda installed archers at the siege line circling the mountain and the set fire to the trees. The heavily forested mountain of cypress, fueled by dry summer winds created an inferno which trapped the monks at the mountain’s summit, setting fire to their wooden fortifications. In desperation the monks ran through the flames and were picked off one-by-one by the archers. Thousands of monks were killed and at a single stroke he power of the warrior monks was destroyed. Only in 1992 did the monks of the Tendai sect begin to include Oda Nobunaga in their prayers at their annual memorial of the event.

We took a city bus to the foot of the mountain then a cable car which ratcheted up the side of the mountain on geared tracks. Halfway up we switched to a rope-way which lifted us above the cypress-covered valley and carried us to the summit. As we exited the car and stepped on the broad summit of the mountain, all thoughts of a quiet hike in contemplation of nature and history were blasted out of our skulls by a barrage of Japanese pop music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles and trees around the summit. Expecting to find quiet Buddhist temples and hiking trails we found a miniature golf course and game center with a grass-ski lodge where one could strap on roller skis and ski down the mountainside while being serenaded by Japanese pop stars. Searching the woods for an escape from the cacophony we stumbled upon a broad asphalt parking lot flanked by small open air kiosks selling souvenirs and fast food such as fried octopus and squid omelets. We crossed the parking lot and ignored a chain across a trail head and set down the path strewn with soft drink cans. cigarette butts and even rusting refrigerators. Although quieter the noise echoed between the ridges and trees to become an even more annoying din.

The trail zig-zagged down the mountain but try as we might we could not escape the noise. Just when we thought we had found a place where the noise was blocked, the wind would shift and we would be assaulted by the noise again. After half an hour of hiking down the mountain, the litter and omnipresent noise were too much and we decided to leave.

As we turned and began the hike back up the trail we heard the sound of a distant temple gong. Behind a thicket of trees we could make out a Buddhist monastery. The gong sounded again and for an instant I imagined the how the valley must have looked hundreds of years ago during Oda’s siege. The encampment and bamboo barricades at the foot of the mountain. Oda’s banners flapping in the summer breeze. The smoke and advancing wall of flame. But the gong stopped and the din from above muscled out the thoughts. We slowly made our way up the trail and left the mountain.

2014 Update: Beat poet Gary Snyder once said of Japanese Buddhism, “They got the message but didn’t open the envelope.” While living there I was never able to bridge the dichotomy between what the Japanese present and what they really are. Pollution was everywhere, and noise pollution in particular made it impossible for one to ever be alone with his or her thoughts. There were even speakers at the famous rock garden temple of Ryoanji that never shut up. The idea of tranquility never became reality, and the Japanese couldn’t understand it because they had grown up with the noise pollution and so couldn’t understand why foreigners complained. They just didn’t get it.


The Watch

The following was written by me on August 22, 1996 while living in Kyoto Japan. I refer to this event in the About Me page of this website.

I witnessed the pathetic end of a rather sad life today. A young woman killed herself beneath the wheels of a commuter train. Her life ended this afternoon at 12:33, and now some dozen hours later I cannot think of anything else.

Leaping in front of commuter trains is a common method of suicide in this part of Japan. In other parts it is relatively rare from what my friends tell me. Most suicides choose a station with a beautiful view and near a bend so that the train drivers have no warning. As some stations are only served by local trains, these are also more popular as the express trains fly through them – often at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. On stations where the bullet train pass, they do so on outer, inaccessible rails with tall fences constructed to deter the jumpers.

The young woman chose Tofukuji station on the Keihan line – a station on a bend affording a pleasant view of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. It is also served by local trains only. So at 12:33pm, just before a Kyoto-bound train was to pass through the station and pass my Osaka-bound express train, she threw herself onto the rails. I’ve heard that when the suicides jump, they instinctively land on their feet. I wonder if this girl did the same. Did she stand and see the train driver’s stunned face? Or was she looking at the eastern mountains?

There is a wall of air that surrounds any fast moving object, and hitting this is the equivalent of hitting concrete. The would have sucked her body under the train carriages, dragging it along for several hundred yards until the train stopped. Supposedly death is quick, though I’ve often wondered whether that last instant of life stretches for the doomed, turning into infinity. In all the dangerous scrapes I’ve survived time seemed to become quite elastic, with seconds stretching into minutes before reality snapped back on itself and the flow of time resumed once the crisis was over.

My Osaka bound train had been scheduled to pass it’s Kyoto-bound counterpart at the station. Her leap changed all that. Both trains stopped, with mine halting a car length or so from where she laid beneath the wheels. Any commuter knows the rhythm of her train or bus, and the sudden slowing down of the train broke me away from my newspaper and awakened numerous dozing passengers. A group of high school boys at the very front of the train began chattering, and as the train came to an abrupt halt, I knew there was trouble. The driver scurried between a window and a telephone and the high school students along with some curious old people stood up. I moved forward expecting the worst but drawn forward nonetheless by the irresistible force that draws strangers towards the site of a tragedy.

She laid face down on the tracks beneath an axle, her body covered by the shadow of the passenger car  above her. The high school students and the old people began asking each other, “Is it a man? A woman? From the heap laying on the tracks we couldn’t tell. The driver of our train left and trotted to her body, putting on some latex gloves as he did so. I noticed some station attendants appear, each removing his white gloves and replacing them with purple-colored latex ones. One of the station attendants carried a green tarp which they spread on the ground next to the body. They lifted her gently from under the train, and I was surprised by how limp her body was.

I understand that there are those such as paramedics, firemen, and police who know how a dead body looks when it is moved, but to someone whose experiences of death are thankfully few and far between it is quite stunning. When dead bodies are moved in movies, they never look like that. To me it looked as if the station workers were picking up an odd shaped sack of cement. There was no muscle control or rigidity to the body whatsoever. She was completely, impossibly limp. It may have looked like a sack of cement to me but it wasn’t. What those men laid gently onto the tarp had moments before been human, and I suddenly felt sick.

As they arranged her body on the tarp we saw the gold watch on her arm. It was a slim watch, obviously a woman’s, and the students and the old people said almost in unison, “It’s a woman.” For having a five hundred foot long train run over it, her body was surprisingly intact. The head and all the limbs were all where they were supposed to be. She wore blue jeans and was barefoot. She probably had been wearing shoes which had come off during her death since no one walks barefoot in the street of Japan. To be honest I forget what top she wore, but I can see the watch clearly. It was a gold watch, a slim woman’s analog. Had it been a gift or had she purchased it herself? How often had she looked at it, and had she used it to time her death?

As they carried the body across the rails in front of our train the Japanese boys twittered excitedly among themselves as an old woman gazed upon the scene solemnly. The station attendants and our driver hefted her body onto the train platform and blood gushed upon the concrete, eliciting shouts of “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” from the high schoolers. I found myself shaking and noticed that some old people sitting on the train station platform turned their bodies away from the scene only a few feet away from them, gazing up the tracks and waiting for the next train to come and take them away from the little human drama unfolding nearby.

They were not alone. I noticed that quite a few people remained in their seats on the train throughout this little drama. Some of them were reading newspapers or the ubiquitous comic books which occupy the time of so many Japanese when they aren’t working or sleeping. Others simply stared into space, off in their little worlds seemingly oblivious to this scene. Others waiting in the train which had hit the woman looked annoyed as they looked back and forth between their watches and the station attendants, as if their fidgeting would send the body quickly to the morgue and get the train back on schedule. Their train conductor no doubt was making the same train announcements as ours throughout the ordeal – apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we would soon be underway.

And soon we were as our driver returned, removing his latex gloves as he entered the train. The train conductor announced his thanks and appreciation for our wait. The woman’s body laying covered by the tarp, station workers beside it, slowly slid past outside our windows as our train continued on its journey. Next stop Fushimiinari, famous for its Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity.

We returned to our seats, the students still chattering excitedly. I stared at the newspaper and at the article I had been reading but couldn’t concentrate. At this paragraph the woman had been alive and I hadn’t known it; at the next she was dead, and that I knew.

No doubt some would scoff at my apparent naivete and sensitivity regarding this woman’s suicide. My wife and I are expecting our first child in two months, and we were warned that parenthood would make us more sensitive to certain events and stories in the news. Perhaps that explains why I have spent the past hours thinking about that watch and that girl, imagining the future.

Somewhere a person was living their life and received a phone call that changed it forever. Their lives, along with those of her family, were now part of a very ancient play in which loved ones are mourned and their bodies consigned to oblivion. The funeral would last several days, and from what I know about Japanese funerals, they are quite extraordinary affairs. Given the state of her body, the family may forgo the usual dressing of it and placing it in a futon, as if the dead were asleep at her family home. On the next day she would lay in an open wooden casket with a large portrait of her hanging above as a Buddhist monk chanted and incense filled the air. Later she would then receive her death or spirit name, the name which would appear on her gravestone. This practice where the dead are given different names makes tracing ancestors by searching headstones in cemeteries impossible. But the Japanese maintain meticulous family histories, some of which go back a thousand years. Finally on the third day she would be cremated.

Funerals are always bizarre affairs in any culture, so perhaps what I’m about to describe isn’t as strange to some as it was to me. But I find the custom of Japanese cremation to be downright spooky. The Japanese cremate their dead at a much lower temperature which burns away the flesh but leaves the bones. Afterwards the bones are removed from the oven and laid out before the family members. Each member then uses a pair of large wooden chopsticks or tongs to pick up a bone and place it into a special ceremonial box. The rest of the remains are then added to the box with the skull placed on top. The box is then covered and carried home where it remains for several days until the family gravestone is opened. One student told me about her grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned the smell and the warmth emanating from the box as she carried it home. Small ceremonies where a Buddhist monk chants, burns incense and rings a bell are then carried out forty nine days, one year, three years, seven years and thirteen years after death. Each year during the Bon holiday in August her relatives will come to her gravestone and pour water over it as they offer a prayer to her soul.

And so it shall be for this girl whose broken body I saw on my way to work today. I will never know her name nor what drove her to a death which mildly inconvenienced several hundred passengers on the Keihan line for a few minutes on a hot summer day in Kyoto Japan.

Post script: There was no mention of her death in the local media.  I don’t know whether this omission was meant to protect the family or because such acts are relatively common here.

Update: The woman has been dead almost 18 years now. Her broken body has faded into shadow, but the raw emotion of this scene still stirs within me. The watch remains clear.



Long ago I was a conversational English teacher in Japan. It was my first real job, and killed any idea of my becoming a teacher. By my count I taught roughly 7,000 lessons between April 1992 and February 1997 with a year away in Africa and a three month break in the US waiting for my work visa to clear. Even though my last lesson was 16 years ago, in my dreams I often find myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manilla folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 16 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high middle school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”

Worse, I’m back in Japan and inevitably have a pocket full of American cash that I need to change to Yen. How am I going to get to a bank when all the trains and buses take yen only? In fact, what the hell am I doing here anyway? Wasn’t I married with a kid living with a passel of dogs, cats and chickens in the rolling hills of North Carolina? Where is my passport and my return ticket? And why am I living in this disgusting gaijin dorm anyway? I thought Norwegians were a clean people, so why am I smelling one in my dream?

I wake up sweating to find myself back in reality. Dr. Wife believes I have a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and the dreams are part of it. The level of PTSD does not rank up there with that suffered by servicemen and women, or refugees fleeing terrors of their home country. But anyone who has lived in Japan and taught “eikaiwa” at a conversation school knows where I am coming from. I suppose there are all types of stressors that can lead to PTSD, and my experiences while living 4 years in Japan must contain some of them.

It has been 16 years, but every few nights I find myself back In Country, in a lonely jungle filled with the bored faces of my students, teaching the exact same lessons I’ve taught hundreds of times before, in a land where I struggle to communicate, am a foreigner and unwanted.

Tactical Driving in Ireland

Or How to Enjoy the Land of Your Ancestors Without Meeting Them

By my estimation I’ve driven about half a million miles throughout North America without a major accident or speeding ticket, yet the idea of driving in Ireland filled me with trepidation. I agreed to doing so early on in the vacation planning phase with the Wife figuring how bad could it be tooling around a country of four and a half million the size of Indiana? That was before I learned that my credit card would not insure my rental there because of the number of insurance claims in Ireland. The travel guide Frommer’s rates Ireland as the second most dangerous country to drive in Europe, trailing only Greece probably because Greece have fewer sheep.

The Irish road system has an international character. The vistas are pure Irish and one could easily pull over every few feet to see something so beautiful it will bring tears to your eyes. Do so and you’ll be run over by the Irish who drive like Italians on roads built by drunk Greeks following traffic rules dreamed up by the same country that brought you cricket, Hugh Grant and English spelling.

The best advice I found can be viewed here. The only thing I might disagree with is the comparison between Dublin and New York City. I’ve driven in New York City, and there is nothing quite like it. Dublin driving is challenging and I wouldn’t recommend driving around it initially, but after a few days of driving in the countryside and small towns it should be okay. Also, be sure to educate yourself on insurance including CDW, and super CDW insurance. American credit cards will not insure your rental so you will be on your own when it comes to insuring your vehicle. In my case I ended up buying all the insurance offered by the rental company and then going with a super CDW through a third party. Insurance ate up about 2/3rds of my total rental bill, but the peace of mind is worth it because your mind will be too busy keeping your car on the road.

1. Rent the smallest car you can tolerate. Here in the states I drive compact, fuel efficient vehicles except when I’m renting – then I get the biggest, most comfortable boat I can reasonably afford. If you are like me, forget it in Ireland and get the closest thing to a skateboard you can stomach. It’s certainly not to save money: as mentioned above the rental fees are miniscule compared to the cost of insurance, it’s because you will find yourself doing 60 mph on what is known here in the US as a bikepath, with an ancient stone wall covered with sharp rocks on one side of you and five hundred feet of beautiful but life-ending air on the other.

2. Learn how to drive a manual transmission before you visit. This will be a challenge due to the disappearance of the stick transmission here, but try to borrow a friend’s car or even rent one for a day to learn. While uncommon here, renting an automatic will easily double the cost of your car rental. The upside? Better gas mileage. The downside? Learning a skill that you’ll probably never use again unless you buy a high performance sports car. People say learning to drive a stick is easy, and it is with some practice. The problem in Ireland is your busy learning to navigate winding streets as narrow as the hallway to your bathroom, in a car where the steering wheel is on the right and the stick shift is on the left, on the left side of the road, with unfamiliar street signs, lane markers and of course, wandering sheep. More on those later.

3. Ask for a diesel. Diesel is cheaper in Ireland than unleaded and provides better gas mileage. I got 38 mpg combined driving a diesel Ford Focus with manual transmission. At $8/gal, the pain at the pump was the same as here when I fill up my SUV that gets 19 mpg combined at $4/gal. Just remember at the filling station over there the black (diesel) pump is your friend. Fill up your diesel with unleaded and be prepared for a big tank cleaning bill. All that insurance you buy does not cover idiocy.

4. With a friend’s help, using a piece of hotel soap pull the left side of the car so that the passenger mirror just hangs over the line. Be alert behind the wheel, sitting up as if you were driving and note where the line is on the left fender or hood, then have your colleague mark that spot on the hood. Adjust your passenger mirror so that the line is clear there, then move the car onto the right line and do the same on the driver’s side of the car. Those marks will help you stay in your lane, and you know when you are approaching them that bad things such as bills from smashed mirrors and scraped paint appearing on your credit card are in your future.

5. Drive with a navigator, preferably a living, breathing one although a GPS will do in a pinch. A second set of eyes will help see signs you miss and help you negotiate the chain of roundabouts that will set an American’s hair on end. You thought the occasional roundabout our jug handle in New Jersey was bad, imagine three of the things one after the other filled with Irish driving like New Jerseans minus the crude epithets and hand gestures. A GPS unit will not warn you that you are about to enter the roundabout exit the wrong way or sideswipe the thistle covered rock wall on your left. The Wife, who bless her heart could get lost in a walk-in closet, by the end of our trip navigated us through rush hour clogged Dublin streets after the piss-poor directions given to us by the Slovakian front desk clerk failed, managing to not only get us to the airport on time but also avoiding the M50 in the process. After that performance I won’t be trading her in for a GPS unit anytime soon.

If you don’t have a navigator, either bring a GPS unit with you or take the hit and add one to the rental. If the former, make sure it has an updated map of Ireland. Some units do not. Either way I do not recommend navigating Ireland on your own. The signs are small and from an American perspective oddly placed, and occasionally missing altogether. A wrong turn is often difficult to determine until after you are dozens of kilometers down the road, resulting in wasting $8/gal fuel and time.

If all else fails, and it will, stop and ask the locals. I did this three times on our trip and each time the locals were friendly, eager to help, and more importantly accurate. Do not hesitate to do this if you find yourself lost, just be prepared to pay with a brief chat about how your trip is going so far.

6. Signage – Signs are often small and placed using a logic that differs from the US. English appears often, though not always, below the Gaelic, even though Gaelic isn’t spoken by many people aside from a few words that are useful in a pub brawl. The biggest difficulty I found with the signage was the time wasted skipping the Gaelic to read the English, by which time I had to switch my gaze back to the road. Navigators are best for this.

7. Road hazards. There were times that I felt that I was driving in a video game. Roads are often flanked by walls and hedges on both sides. The Ford’s headlights were focused too near to the front end of the car so that I had to drive with the high beams on as much as possible until oncoming traffic appeared and I was forced to turn them off then watch the lines to stay in my lane. It rains a lot in Ireland so the streets are often wet, but it doesn’t appear to slow down the Irish. People often walk pushing strollers or bicycle on the road, making focused driving critical. While I was there two children were killed when their stroller was hit by a car. The worst was a bicyclist dressed in black at night in the rain on a narrow rural road. Then there are these things which are everywhere outside of the big cities:

Irish Sheep in Road

Ireland is famous for its sheep, and they will appear in your way at some point in your journey. Usually they will move out of the way, but only after they realize you are there. Amazingly enough I only saw a single dead sheep as road kill, and very little road kill overall with foxes and cats predominating versus the possums, raccoons and squirrels here in the South. I see more road kill on my way to drop the Kid off at school than I did the 600+ miles I drove in Ireland.

These were some of the tactics I learned while driving in Ireland that I thought I’d share if for the only reason that driving there intimidated me to the point that if I could have I would have chickened out and taken a bus tour. But I grew some stones and did it, maybe not with as much cool and aplomb as I might have liked but did it nonetheless, and I am glad I did. Ireland is an incredible place, and after all the places I’ve been in the world it’s the first where I felt truly comfortable outside of the US. It’s true there is a family connection as there are for many Americans, Australians and Canadians, but there was more to it. It has moved me in a way that I haven’t felt before, and while it was happening I knew it would take time for me to fully comprehend. I suppose it may be similar to the Jews who visit Israel for the first time, or perhaps a Muslim who makes his first hajj, but there is something truly magical about the place – and it has nothing to do with leprechauns, Guinness, or U2. It’s more sublime than that, undefinable. I mentioned it to my sister and she immediately understood. She felt the same way about the place and even though she hadn’t been there in 30+ years she spoke as if she had been there yesterday. I’m still feeling it, wondering what it means but happy that after all the far away places I’ve been to I’ve finally made to some place close to home – in more ways than one I suppose.

Don’t let the driving scare you from visiting this country and taking it in the way it is meant to be: person to person without tour guides, strict itineraries or coaches. I spent a total of 8 days there and when I started I was terrified of driving. Now it’s a non-issue and I’m already plotting my return to see things I missed on this trip, and to chase sheep in a rented Fiat 500. Hopefully these tips will come in useful as you explore the gem of Ireland and the Irish people who make it shine brightly in the heart.