Catchup Post: Italy, Tunisia, and Greece


One last short post to finish the European leg of our trep, covering our time in Italy, Tunisia (not in Europe!), and Greece. Again just linking to the Instagram posts I made for these countries, which were shared previously on Instagram or Facebook.

Italy, Part 1 (9/5-9/10)

Tunisia (9/11-9/17)

Italy, Part 2 (9/18-9/23)

Greece (9/24-10/3)

Country counter after these places:

21st, 22nd, and 23rd countries of our trip
Me: 62 countries (including 37 eating McDonald’s)
Karen: 62 countries
Henry: 36 countries
Charlie: 32 countries
James: 29 countries

Catchup post: Behind the former Iron Curtain


Another short post covering our time in Berlin, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Again just linking to the Instagram posts I made for these countries, which were shared previously on Instagram or Facebook.

Germany (8/25-8/28)

Poland (8/29-8/31)

Czech Republic (9/1-9/3)

Country counter after these places:

19th and 20th countries of our trip
Me: 60 countries (including 35 eating McDonald’s)
Karen: 60 countries
Henry: 33 countries
Charlie: 29 countries
James: 26 countries

Catchup post: Balkans and Bulgaria


Another short post covering our time in Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Bulgaria. Again just linking to the Instagram posts I made for these countries, which were shared previously on Instagram or Facebook.

Croatia (8/11-8/12)

Bosnia & Herzegovina (8/13-8/16)

Bulgaria (8/17-8/24)

Country counter after these places:

  • 16th, 17th, and 18th countries of our trip
  • Me: 60 countries (including 35 eating McDonald’s)
  • Karen: 60 countries
  • Henry: 31 countries
  • Charlie: 27 countries
  • James: 24 countries

Catchup post: Habsburg Country


Just a short post covering our time in Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. I’m not going to give a full narrative, but am instead just linking to the Instagram posts I made for these countries. (If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll have seen these before!)

Austria (8/3-8/7)

Slovakia (8/6)

Hungary (8/8-8/10)

Country counter after these places:

  • 13th, 14th, and 15th countries of our trip
  • Me: 58 countries (including 34 eating McDonald’s) (no new additions except for the +1 McD in Hungary)
  • Karen: 57 countries
  • Henry: 28 countries
  • Charlie: 24 countries
  • James: 21 countries

Leaving Europe–almost four months later

I’m writing this post from the airport in Istanbul–just a few miles from the Bosporus Strait that demarcates the border between Europe and Asia. After 118 days of travel, all in Europe except for a week in Tunisia, it’s time to see more of the rest of the world.

As we started this trip, our rough goal for a year was 3 months each in Europe, the Middle East & Africa, Asia, and South America. We kind of accidentally committed to almost 4 in Europe when we bought a 3 month Eurail pass: the price for 3 months over 2 was minimal and then we made plans without rail for a couple weeks before using the pass and a couple weeks after. The Eurail app, which has housed our tickets for this whole time gave me a helpful summary of where we’ve been with both stats and a map:

That’s a lot of time on trains! Also, 7 ferries, some buses, and 5 flights.
This captures most of the trip, although it’s weird that some of the lines are a lighter color than others. It misses, of course stops in Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Tunisia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzogovina, and Greece that we did by car/ferry.

Anyway, those are the stats. Here are a few more reflections now that we’ve been traveling for almost a third of a year.

There’s not enough time

Which I’m embarassed to say while taking a sabbatical year, but it’s true. The greatest unplanned time suck has been planning our future travels, typically at least a couple of months in advance. Karen and I didn’t use to travel that way, but everything is more complicated now. It’s not really the fact that we have kids but rather that there are 5 of us. That leads to two big consequences:

Airbnbs are almost always better and cheaper. (At least in Europe! We’ll see about the rest of the world.) Our places have typically been fine and often great, but the market for Airbnbs gives you better places when you book earlier and better prices when you stay longer. We’ve been erring more on the side of 3-4 day instead of 1-2 day stays for the latter reason.

Transportation is expensive. I’ve been driving rental cars much more often than I expected for this reason. Last week, we paid $120 round trip for four of us to go three hours each way to Delphi from Athens. A rental car would have run us around $50, but we decided the stress of getting and returning a day rental on top of 6 hours of driving on windy roads made the extra cost worth it. When we do want to take taxis, our family typically requires two, which adds an extra level of stress when there’s always a chance the driver won’t understand where we’re going. In Sofia, Henry and I took a first taxi from the airport and Karen’s driver couldn’t figure out where to go. Luckily I was able to call her phone and have my driver talk to hers. If we instead try to get a “big taxi”, that’s often luxury priced. For this reason, one of our biggest expenses in Tunisia was the van I hired to drive us to and from El Kef from Tunisia.

Besides planning time, we’ve also found the need to pause both for general rest days and to give the boys time to do schoolwork, which also needs to be planned. I’d say we’re still trying to find the balance of how to incorporate enough rest time in our schedule while not feeling like we’re missing an opportunity to see and experience things. “We didn’t come all the way to Athens just to sit in our apartment”, is definitely something I’ve said.

Finally, to navel gaze a bit, I thought I’d have more time to blog, writing a post every week. That clearly isn’t working, so for the rest of the trip, I’ll probably continue to rely on Instagram to capture quick thoughts for every country and probably do fewer of the very long posts than I was able to make up through Switzerland.

We’re really lucky

I’m mostly pointing out challenges above, and it’s true that a lot of hard work goes into this trip. I should make it explicit, though, that we’re having a great time. So far the standout locations for most of the family have been Bulgaria, Greece, Berlin, and Estonia. Almost everywhere else has been solid too, although Karen has gotten sick all three times she’s visited Italy and has let me know I’ll be going without her if I ever want to go again. (The kids have been instructed that if they get married in Italy, their mother will not attend.)

Besides a goal of teaching the kids just how big the world is, we also planned on this trip to get more time together as a family. The original idea was pre-COVID, which gave most families too much time together, but I’m happy to say we still like each other and have (obviously) been able to enjoy that extra time. It might be hardest on our teenager, but he finds respite by ducking his nose into books whenever he gets a chance.

Google is Great

Speaking of our teenager, from China to Scotland over 13 years, the tongue still comes out of his mouth.

After we were hiking in Scotland, Google Photos helpfully sent this reminder of the many years of silly pictures I’ve been taking with Henry. This is joyous and silly, but Google as a whole makes this entire trip so much easier than it would have been during our seminal backpacker days at the turn of the century. It’s almost hard to enumerate the many ways in which this is true, but I’m going to try in this post.

  • Phones/connectivity. Like the taxi example above, this is really helpful for me and Karen, but also for texting the boys if we step out for a bit. (James and Charlie have Google Voice numbers on their wifi only phones and love to use them to text us.) Google takes a bit of a knock here because they just turned off our Google Fi data service because “it was designed for primary use in the United States”, but we’ve figured out how to buy data coverage for our phones in other ways.
  • Directions and mapping. We would have gotten lost so many more times had we not had Google Maps in the rental car. Also, it’s great for finding a hotel or Airbnb right after you arrive in a new city.
  • Local tips and reviews. This is mostly a Google Maps feature too–we used to use guide books much more to plan our activities in a given city, but now we mostly use the reviews on Google Maps if we want to plan out a restaurant.
  • Transit purchases. Frequently you can just buy your transportation tickets in an app that stays on your phone. Even if you can’t, Googling how a city’s transport system work is something I do at least once a week.
  • Email/Chrome/Accounts. This has been super useful on the homeschooling side of things because I can use each of the kids’ accounts to setup assignments for them by logging in as them from my computer. Really nice.
  • Photos. Besides the fun reminders like the one above, it’s been great to have all of our pictures backed up from our phones as soon as we get to wifi.
  • Research. Another area where guidebooks are now less useful–finding random blogs about our destinations has been a great source for planning our daily activities

I’m sure there’s much more I could say, but we’re got to get going to our flight to Nairobi soon. One quick shoutout to the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, though. It has an enormous $550 annual fee, but they reimburse $300 of that on travel purchases (which we obviously have!) and then give you points for other travel purchases that amount to about 6% back on every travel expense. For us, though, the best part right now is it comes with lounge access at hundreds of airports around the world:

Better wifi, free food, better place to sit. Yes, please, especially when you get an 8 hour layover

I’ll end with our travel stats as we leave Europe:

  • 23 countries on our trip so far (not counting Turkey, which is too big a place to let the airport count)
  • Me: 61 countries (including 35 eating McDonald’s)
  • Karen: 61 countries (we’re tied! She’ll probably pull ahead of me when we hit South America)
  • Henry: 35 countries
  • Charlie: 31 countries
  • James: 28 countries

The best place to live in the world?

July 30-August 2

If you had the choice to live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Karen and I love Chicago and it continues to be our pick for our home country. We’ve also lived in Melbourne, Australia, and it frequently rates at or near the top of this list by the Economist Intelligence Unit of the world’s most liveable cities.

Another city always near the top is Zurich, Switzerland. As we were planning this part of our trip, all of Switzerland was going to be via our rail pass while staying 15 minutes across the border in France: we couldn’t afford the price of the Airbnbs and hotels there. (The country is expensive for non-residents, but locals receive a lot of services for the high taxes they pay, so it’s easier to live in Switzerland than to visit.)

My friend Dom, though, lives in Zurich and is absolutely passionate about his hometown. We were hoping to meet up for dinner, but when he and I realized that his family were going to be on vacation when we passed through, they very generously offered to let us stay in their central Zurich apartment while they were away. He also made it his mission to ensure we left loving his city as well. As you’ll see, he was definitely successful!

This is Dom. He’s very cool and we know each other from grad school. I don’t have a picture of her, but shout out also to his wife who agreed to our accomodation just a few weeks after having their second baby. (They were away, with grandparents, on a “baby holiday”.)

Travel to Zurich and our first day

In order to make our way from Betzdorf to Zurich, we had to catch an early train to Cologne, then another along the Rhine to Basel (where we were originally going to stay on the French side of the border) and then finally onward to Zurich.

Cologne to Basel train. Quite nice, except for one exception described below.
Some riverside vinyards along the Rhine
A small town along the Rhine
More Rhine scenery from the train

It was a long-ish day, but we were looking forward to getting to Dom’s place by 5pm or so. However, that didn’t happen: right at the end of our second train, we discovered that the bathroom locks stick. Charlie learned this by getting locked inside a few minutes before we were due to exit at Basel before the train continued on in the wrong direction. Frantically, I tracked down a conductor, harrassed her to rush to our rescue by unlocking the door with a special key, and then rushed the whole family off the train just as we reached the Basel stop. Whew, crisis averted!

Except, of course, in my haste I failed to realize that we got out at the “Basel France” stop and not the “Basel Switzerland” stop that was coming 5 minutes later–the one with our connecting train. Luckily there were another couple of trains we were able to take, but that little slip left us almost two hours later in arriving to Zurich than planned. (Ironically, Basel, France was where we’d initially planned to stay prior to learning of Dom’s offer.)

Otherwise, things were great! We were able to follow Dom’s instructions to get into the apartment, I bought a bunch of groceries (Dom also advised us to skip the expensive restaurants and cook for ourselves), and even had time to finish reading Harry Potter 5 to James before bedtime:

The balcony was both lovely and saved the rest of the family from having to hear my reading voices. We’re hoping to get through books six and seven by the end of December.

The next day’s highlights were (for me) my morning run along Lake Zurich and then swimming in the lake after a short walk from Dom’s apartment:

It was a little muggy, but one of the prettiest runs I’ve been able to do on this trip. Highly recommended.
Google tells me “Young since 1976” is a bakery, but I took a picture of the sign during my run since it’s the year I was born.
Easy beach access from a popular park.
You can’t really tell here, but it was pretty crowded–the Sunday before Swiss National Day. Still plenty of room for us, though.
Also not depicted (until later in the post) are the ducks Charlie kept trying to swim with. He also jumped off that pier a lot.

Walking around this beautiful town

For our second day, we did a walking tour, again thanks to Dom, who sent this wonderfully detailed set of instructions. I’m adding it all here in case anyone else who reads this happens to be visiting Zurich and wants to follow it (which I’d recommend!)

Recommended tour from my apartment: head west toward the lake, stroll north along the lake shore to the opera house, cross Sechseläutenplatz,

Here’s the lakeshore near the fountain. We weren’t sure if we could feed the swans until we saw a few other people doing it.
Which is great, because Karen had brought bread for exactly this purpose.
More swans. Shout out also to my brother Andy who, for Christmas in 2019, gave the whole family “Niksch/Migneault World Tour 2020” t-shirts to track our family’s travels around the world. Here’s Charlie rocking the shirt, even though it took a couple years longer than planned to get going. Thanks, Andy!
Since it was shady and we were enjoying the swans, we also made a little picnic lunch here.
The fountain in Sechseläutenplatz
It was hot that day!

grab a cup of coffee to go at Vicafe, continue north and head into the old town (make sure to take Oberdorfstrasse), walk all the way to Mühlegasse, then cross over Rudolf Brun Bridge (Option: continue until Central Square and then take the Poly-Bahn up to the terrace of the ETH main building, from which there’s a great view over the city; there are also stairs),

This is the heart of the twisty old city of Zurich
It was shady, but the boys were still glad to have wet themselves down in the fountain! (There were also a lot of hills and stairs to walk up!)
The east bank of the river.
And the west bank.
I think this is Karen in the process of taking the prior picture.
And this is Charlie wondering why I’m either (a) taking his picture or (b) we’re stopping to take so many pictures in the heat.

buy an overpriced souvenir at Heimatwerk store, backtrack 5 meters and go down the steps in front of the Heimatwerk store, continue and find the steps up Lindenhof,

I’m not sure if all of these pictures were from before or after the Heimatwerk store (we skipped the souvenirs), but we did climb up some steps!

go down on the other side and continue to Münsterhof, head west to Paradeplatz, go to the Sprüngli store and buy some overpriced macarons, walk south along Bahnhofstrasse toward Bürkliplatz (optional: buy a snack at John Baker’s),

At this point, the boys were hot so we opted for soda/beer over macarons, although Dom was disappointed in how overpriced and touristy our choice of venue was:

I’m not sure what that face is for. His Sprite was about as big as my beer.

from Bürkliplatz take the boat to Zürichhorn or Wollishofen (depending on mood; if you do go to Wollishofen, have a snack or a drink at Rote Fabrik) and end the day at Badi Tiefenbrunnen or Badi Mythenquai.

We started the walk planning to go swimming as described here (at the “badis” or swimming areas with facilities along the coast), but everyone prefered to relax at the end of the day, so we stayed in for the night, watching our second of three movies. We did catch some fireworks for Swiss National Day from the balcony, though!

Some gardens and a view

For our last full day in Zurich, we visited two great sites. First, the botanical gardens, run by the University of Zurich, which Charlie is now very curious about attending. Here are some photos, sans captions:

For the second half of the day, we took a couple of buses up to the “tall hill” of Uetliberg which overlooks the whole city. It was a beautiful view, but when I suggested we hike the way down, I don’t think I realized just how steep it was. Let’s just say that everyone was happy to make it down and we survived with only a few frayed nerves and just one bruised tailbone:

Beautiful train to Innsbruck

So that was Zurich! Like I said, we loved it and Charlie plans to investigate college options in the future. We’re very greatful to Dom and his family for being great hosts in absentia and for providing us with such a great list of suggestions for what to do.

I can’t end, though, without showing a few pictures of our view from the train as we left Zurich and continued on to Innsbruck, Austria. Simply stunning. (The last picture is less about the view and more to capture evidence of our crossing through the tiny country of Liechtenstein. We usually only count a country if we actually spend time there, but it’s so small that we figure this makes the list.)

(Karen did a better job of capturing Liechtenstein itself. I merely captured her capturing it!)

With that little bit of a cheat, here’s our country count up to this point:

  • 11th and 12th countries of our trip
  • Me: 58 countries (including 33 eating McDonald’s) (no new additions except for the +1 McD)
  • Karen: 56 countries (first time to both for everyone else!)
  • Henry: 26 countries
  • Charlie: 21 countries
  • James: 18 countries

Low Country low down and some German roots

July 19-July 29

The term “Low Countries” is used to describe three countries in Europe that have most of the land area below sea level: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. (When I was in school, we called them the “Benelux countries”, but I heard more people call them the low countries there.) Ironically, because all of the mountains to the east of these “low countries” make travel times longer than they looked like they should be on a map, we couldn’t figure out how to include Luxembourg in our trip without too much travel. Instead, after Belgium, we opted to go from Amsterdam to Northwest Germany where Karen spent summers as a child and where a couple of her aunts still live.

This post will be heavier on pictures and lighter on words because I’m trying to catch up a little on the blog since I’m over a month behind.


Our last couple of days in France were in the middle of a historic heat wave, and the trend continued the next day as we took a couple of trains to Bruges, Belgium. With temperatures at or above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, we didn’t feel like doing much besides hiding in the shade and catching a movie at our Airbnb. The only pictures anyone in our family took were two like this from Karen of the canal near where we ate lunch:

She’s currently planning to get a duck to go with our chickens when we get back to Chicago.

In addition to the duck pictures, James did have a few pictures on his phone for the day, but they were like this:

Everyone in the family besides me frequents this boredpanda site when they’re killing time. Because James and Charlie don’t have wireless data on their phones (only wifi), they’ll sometimes save a few articles to look at on travel days.

Charlie was looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and has requested that I now share his two favorite recent memes. He likes dogs:

Thankfully, the heat wave broke after our first night in Bruges and we were able to see the city starting the next day. Here are some pictures we took during our walking tour:

Family photo! Isn’t my family beautiful?
Same spot minus the family. Bruges is also beautiful.
Another canal, one of many.
Famous belgian waffle dough modeled by our tour guide Pascal. (He happened to be Dutch, but had been living in Bruges for about 5 years and we thought he did an excellent job.)
One thing we learned from Pascal is that this famous “Lovers Bridge”, prized place for romantic pictures, was actually made from tombstones robbed from a nearby graveyard. Bruges went from being a wealthy trading center to a dirt poor backwater when their river access to the ocean silted up. It remained that way until people realized it was spectacularly beautful and tourists might enjoy visiting.
Right behind that bridge was this opening for toll guards to raise a chain across the river in order to force boats to pay a toll. James and Charlie are wondering if they could start up the business again.
View from the Half Moon Brewery tower with famous clock tower in the middle.
Also shared by our guide: the location of the best Belgian Waffles in all of Bruges. If you’re ever there, visit “Arlecchino by John- Gelato & Waffles”
Henry likes them
So does James. If you’ve never had them before, what’s special is the extra sugar in the dough, which carmelizes on the outside, giving a sticky/sweet exterior while still staying soft on the inside.
Here we are on the second day. We went back three days in a row. John definitely recognized us and asked us how our trip to Ghent was when we came back on the third day.
Final Pascal recommendation: the Beer Museum! I got to “sample” 4 different beers for $10 and he gets a free beer for every 4 tourists who show up. I got a cherry and then a dubbel, tripel, and quad, so four samples was quite a lot by the end of it. (Percent alchohol of about 4.5%, 7.5%, 9%, and 11%.)

Our second day in Bruges, we split up a little with Karen touring a museum, Henry sitting on a bench to sketch, and me, James, and Charlie taking a tour of the Half Moon Brewery. Here are a few pictures of the day.

Even though Belgium is famous for its beers, the brewery was the only one that actually operated inside of Bruges proper. They had a lot of items on display like this with the old materials they used, but everything had since been replaced with more boring and modern vessels and pipelines.
Speaking of modern, our tour guide was exceptionally excited about the pipeline they’d constructed to bring the beer from the downtown brewery to the bottling site 3km outside of town. (That saved them from having to truck stuff through the non-truck-friendly streets.) From the graphic above, you can see it has 5 smaller pipes inside the main containing pipe. Rumors exist that some of the pipes stop at bars and private homes for tap-ready beer, but those are unfortunately untrue.
James and Charlie joined me on the tour both “to understand beer better since Dad likes it”, but also (primarily) because kids got a soda (famous Fanta!) instead of beer at the end. I got a tripel this time.
After the tour was over, the other two joined us and we ate at the brewery restaurant. Henry was initially daunted by the dimensions of this burger, but it proved to be no match for him.
Also in Bruges is this famous Madonna by Michaelangelo, which was seized by both Napoleon (returned after his Waterloo, Belgium defeat in 1815) and the Nazis (returned thanks to the work of the “Monuments Men” during World War II.)


Our third day staying in Bruges was actually spent day-tripping to the nearby city of Ghent, which we found to be equally beautiful along with less touristy, although as mentioned above we saved our waffle-dedicated stomach space for Bruges after we got back.

See? Beautiful. Here’s the clock tour and main square.
Ghent also had canals everywhere.
And cool murals!
This mural included a sculpture.
And a big castle!
The best part of the castle was that the audioguide was legitimately funny because they had a comedian do it. If you’re in Ghent, it’s highly recommended.
James liked it, even though, he doesn’t usually like audioguides. Karen captured this candid and completely non-staged smile by me, possibly of the guide discussing yogurt sell by dates.
Charlie, however, skipped the audioguide, although he did listen to this part about the toilets. Aiming for authenticity, he did so while sitting on the toilet. (He’s watching me now on a train and says it wasn’t actually authentic because he’s still wearing his pants.)
We did a canal cruise too, although no one but me could hear the guide, so everyone else was bored.
Ghent from the top of the castle.


After 4 nights in Bruges, we took a couple of trains to Amsterdam, staying there for 5 nights. We had a great Airbnb a little bit west of the central city and really enjoyed our time there. Here are some pictures from our first day:

The highlight of the day was the lakeside beach about 25 minutes walk from our place. We like Airbnbs for lots of reasons, but in this case, the host was extra helpful about suggesting where we should go (including here!)
Side view, courtesy of Karen
As we walked home around the lake, we found a place to feed birds. Definitely a recurring theme.
Downtown Amsterdam around 8pm, in search of stroopwafels. As I think I’ve mentioned, James is on a mission to have a pancake or waffle in every country we visit.
The verdict: OK? More like an OK cookie and not in the same league as Belgian waffles. James, Charlie, and I got McDonald’s later because we were still hungry. (County 32!)
Even though the waffles disappointed, we definitely enjoyed the views.
I started the day with a nice run across some canals and through Vondelpark. More on Vondelpark in a bit.

For our second day, we thought it was important to rent bikes since bike riding is iconically Dutch (I’m 1/8th Dutch!) and Amsterdam is maybe the best city in the world for biking. Our destination was “Waterland”, which took us back in time to farming canals and fishing villages just a few miles north of downtown Amsterdam:

After spending 25 minutes or so biking through the city to the central train station, we caught this free ferry across to the north side. James had a seat behind me, but everyone else biked the 26 or so miles round trip.

Here’s a better view of the bike James and I shared. His main problem was the wind made him cold, so he stole Karen’s sweater.
A brief stop to take pictures of the swans (next). Note James’s overlong sweater.
Swans! This is just a few miles outside of a major city.
Our lunch stop had, of course, a playground opposite it.
Fewer pictures of the ride home because there were brutal headwinds. The 13 miles took us over 2 hours to finish. We were exhausted and very glad to return the bikes to the rental shop and walk again, although overall it was a great day.

At the end of the very long bike ride, we had a bit of a respite from city street bike lanes meandering through Vondelpark, a wonderful example of a big city park which included a playground with attached beergarden. Here are a few more pictures from our time in the park over the next few days.

One of many bridges and water features
The same bridge, but fancy
Don’t worry, it was only a few inches deep
We fed a lot of ducks here
James happened to be wearing his “hexagons are the bestagons” shirt for this visit to the hexagonally tiled garden.
Part of the booze-enabling playground. (Squint to see the slide tower through the trees.)

And of course we visited a few museums in Amsterdam as well, although we realized too late that the Anne Frank House has a one-month-plus waiting list:

The Rijksmuseum was very cool and definitely worth a visit, but the highlight for James and Charlie was this interactive exploration game they gave to kids, where they gave them missions to find answers based on the guide. Occasionally, Karen and I were annoyed with their need to rush on to the next place before we had a chance to see the art. (Henry went off on his own and read every single exhibit caption with lightning speed, which is his normal MO.)
Here they are at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, immediately after which they bolted off in search of the next site in their game and I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out where my family disappeared to in the crowded museum.
If I have to know that this painting of a creepy, muscular Jesus exists, so do you. The Holy Family by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, c. 1528 – c. 1530
The following day, we went to the Van Gogh museum, which had this paper-based exploration guide for kids. Similarly engaging, though. (Tickets were sparse here too, but we were able to snag the last time 4 days after we looked.)
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.
Bedroom in Arles

Germany: Heusenstamm, Betzdorf, and Siegen

The final places we’ll visit in this post aren’t really tourist attractions, but rather places (and people) from Karen’s childhood when she spent much of her summers visiting family in Germany. We started by leaving Amsterdam around 6:30am in order to catch a few trains for the Frankfurt suburb of Heusenstamm where we met her Tante Marienne for lunch. Marienne is Jorg’s mother, so maybe you’ll again note the familial resemblance to James? (Jorg was also instrumental in helping us set up this meeting–thanks, Jorg!)

She and Tante Edith were leaving the next day from Heusenstamm for a Danube river cruise and we were hoping to catch Edith for lunch as well, but she wasn’t able to make it south from Betzdorf in time to see us. (Edith didn’t have a cell phone, so we couldn’t coordinate anything complicated.) Instead, we crossed paths and stayed at her home in Betzdorf for a couple of nights after picking up a key from her friend at the jewelry store. (In German, “dorf” means village, and the boys and I definitely found it to be a cute little village.)

Karen’s Oma’s old house. Her bedroom had that top window.
There was a VERY big hill to get up to Tante Edith’s house.
We stretched out once we got there and very much appreciated the hospitality! Karen and I had visited with Henry in 2010 and the house was exactly as I remembered it.
View of Betzdorf from Tante Edith’s living room.
Downtown Betzdorf. That cool structure is just a bike ramp to the second level of the shopping structure.
We made a little trip to the nearby town of Siegen. Here we are after tiring ourselves out climbing to the top of the hill there.

The next day, we continued on to Switzerland, which will be another post. Here’s our country count up to this point:

  • 8th, 9th, and 10th countries of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 32 eating McDonald’s) (no new countries, but added Belgium and Netherlands to the McDonald’s list!)
  • Karen: 54 countries (no change)
  • Henry: 24 countries (he’d been to Germany in 2010, so only +2)
  • Charlie: 19 countries
  • James: 16 countries

A Tale of Two Cities

July 12-July 18

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

OK, I’m not going to continue with the whole thing, but I thought quoting Dicken’s opening sentence to the book that I used to title this post would be a fun way to start since I’ve learned so much about London and Paris over the years from reading. To highlight something more recent, here was a fun moment for James during our brief couple of days in London:

After some deliberation, we’ve decided he’s a Ravenclaw. We just finished reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book 5).

For me, the highlight of London was Bletchley Park where I took this picture of Alan Turing’s desk:

He probably could have used more light.

Turing gained more attention recently through the 2014 film, The Imitation Game, which one reviewer called “one of the most important stories of the last century [and] one of the greatest movies of 2014.”

For me, besides the opportunity to learn more about arguably the most impactful work in all of WWII, I enjoyed learning more about Turing in particular (there were thousands of other people involved in codebreaking, but he was the most famous) because it recalled phrases from my Electrical & Computer Engineering days like “Turing Complete”, “Universal Turing Machine”, and “Turing Test”. The museum didn’t cover those concepts, but Turing certainly left a legacy far greater even than the codebreaking work to which he was central. (It’s long, but if you’re on the nerdier side, you might enjoy this novel by Neal Stephenson, half of which is a historical fiction centering Turing and the events around Bletchley Park. “Long” and “nerdier side” are qualifiers for most of his books, so I’ve of course read all of them.)


Besides those highlights, after arriving in town very late the night before via a delayed train from Scotland, we only had a couple of days in London. Knowing we were planning to spend the second one at Bletchley Park, we spent the first rushing through some of the big sights. First, here’s a before and after of James being punched by an ancienct Egyptian fist:

I checked and he wasn’t seriously injured, but “the punch” does foreshadow how everyone was left feeling after a day of rushing from place to place after a too-short night of sleeping. The pictures above are taken from the astonishingly packed-with-historic-relics British Museum, and on the day we visited, it was equally packed-with-British-schoolchildren and other tourists. (Including us!) To illustrate, here are Charlie and James in front of the Rosetta Stone:

Sure, it’s maybe the most famous thing there, so you might expect that part to be crowded, but look behind–every nook and cranny was equally full of people!

Here are the rest of us, exhausted by all the people right before we left after an hour:

Henry, briefly, was able to find a quiet section on the top floor, but was then quickly inundated by schoolchildren. They weren’t the data-stealing Dutch kind, though, so he was able to text us an update and arrange a rendezvous.

After evacuating from the crowd, we tried to raise our spirits with some excellent ice cream, but as you can see from this progression of pictures, the boys were getting tired:

Picadilly Circus!
Buckingham Palace!
Hyde Park (the original)!
Natural History Museum!
End of Natural History Museum! (About to fall over!)

At this point everyone was exhausted, so we took the tube back to the hostel. It was rush hour, though, so we experienced even more crowding, which explains why the boys had no interest in leaving after dinner to join me and Karen in another walk around to see the city:

River Thames and The Eye! This is also the point where Karen stopped acquiescing to my concerning selfie habit.
Obligatory picture of Big Ben, after which we had another solid hour of walking to reach over 24,000 steps for the day.

Bletchley Park

I said that the Bletchley Park trip was a highlight for me, but the entire family enjoyed the second day in the London area more than they did the first. Here are a few more pictures of the experience:

The British spy service purchased this entire mansion and grounds for the work. Somebody needed better purchasing controls.
The boys were given these really great “spy” assignment books to guide them through the museum. The staff seemed unconcerned when I informed them that the kids were German citizens, which seems like a real problem with operational security to me.
Listening for codes
One of the work areas for officers
“The best tomato soup outside of Beye School.” (He said it started to taste less good at the end.)


The next morning, we took the Eurostar across the chunnel to Paris. James was extremely excited because it was his birthday and he’d planned out the day:

  • Special train to Paris, where they’re celebrating Bastille Day for my birthday
  • Eat a baguette (one of his favorite foods)
  • Eat a crepe (one of his other favorite foods)

He has constructed a mission for himself to eat a pancake (or similar) in every country we visit, so he checked that off the list on the first day in Paris:

The rest of us had burgers. Also, Orange Fanta in Europe began our trip with near mythical status, but has since lost its shine a little.
From the top of Montmarte! With Lemon and Sugar.
He toyed with eating non-bread foods: here’s dinner, but the “steak” he and Charlie ordered from a kids menu, was actually a dry ground beef patty and generally disappointing.
Speaking of disappointing, these are all over Paris and we also spotted “French tacos” in Belgium and the Netherlands. We’re not sure why they exist, but felt offended for our North American brethren.

We spent the next few days visiting some of our favorite sites without going too fast–this was my fifth time to Paris and similar for Karen. In fact, because we would prefer to see things that are also new to us, we weren’t planning to stay for 5 nights, but we found a nice (and affordable!) Airbnb so thought we could rest a bit. Here are a few highlights from our trip. (Not captured is Charlie’s macaron cooking class, which included normal sweet ones as well as blue cheese and foie gras, which he made me eat.)

The boys dubbed this Rodin classic, “The Why”, because it reminded them of this internet meme. (Actually “Jean de Fiennes” from “The Burghers of Calais”)
Henry called me a weirdo for trying to take pictures of butts. (“The Mature Age” by Camille Claudel.)
He had similar concerns about “The Kiss”.
So of course one correct answer is, “a teenager who is frequently embarassed by his father.”
Karen and I caught an excellent concert at Sainte-Chapelle, which somehow I had never visited in those four other trips. There was a string quartet, mostly accompanying a really great soprano.

The first image is by the River Seine right after the concert and the second from the next morning from the same spot facing the other way. We stayed 5 miles north of here, so it was a long but memorable run, although I could have done without having to climb up and down Montmarte at the end. (I went around to follow a canal on the way in.)

We visited the Conciergerie because Marie Antoinette was kept there prior to her beheading and we were trying to cover some interesting French Revolution facts with the boys. They had this cool augmented reality tablet, though, that mostly focused on medieval history which they really enjoyed.
Charlie approved of Whistler’s Mother, but found the audioguide for kids “annoying” and generally did not enjoy the Musee D’Orsay because “it was full of art”.
James appreciated this old train station clock, but was similarly unimpressed.
James was instead obsessed with getting a great picture of the Eiffel Tower. (He thought I did a good job with this one from our river cruise.) He’s our most prolific photographer and I’m really glad we thought to give him Karen’s old iPhone for the trip.


For our final day in Paris, we split up, with Henry and Charlie opting to stay at the Airbnb (ostensibly to at least partially do homework) while Karen, James, and I took a very long tour to UNESCO World Heritage listed Mont-Saint-Michel, which was probably the number one site Karen wanted to see in France. Until the day before we went, we’d been planning to travel to Rennes and see it from there, but rearranged our travel plans in Paris, so the 14-hour bus tour from Paris was our only chance to make the trip.

I was skeptical that it would be worth it–it’s a tourist magnet and the day was over 100 degrees, but we had a great time and several weeks later James still rates it his favorite day of our trip. Here are a few pictures of the day.

Approaching the island from our tour bus. (I sat next to Sharon, an intrepid world traveller and recently retired banker from New York City who gave us advice for our Africa leg and, surprisingly to me at least, has seen Pearl Jam in concert all over the world almost 40 times. She was going to catch them two nights in a row in Amsterdam the next week.)
Crossing the bridge to the island. Picture taken by Drew, a Virginian recent college grad who left his family in Portugal and decided to tag along with us for most of the day.
Being by the sea, we of course saw these guys again. Charlie was safe at home in Paris, though.
Karen made all her dresses for this trip because (a) she’s awesome and (b) she wanted pockets.
See? He had a good day. (The two stops for ice cream probably helped.)
View from the top
The interior is full of this cool gothic architecture. Which makes sense, because it’s over 1,000 years old.
This big wheel was used to raise food up from the shore.

Two last views from looking up:

After adding France, here’s our family country count:

  • 7th country of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds) (no change)
  • Karen: 55 countries (no change)
  • Henry: 22 countries
  • Charlie: 16 countries
  • James: 13 countries

Traveling fast and slow in Scotland

July 4-11, 2022

I’m posting this Scotland update more than 3 weeks after leaving the country because we’ve been busy. Not necessarily busy with traveling, so much as busy trying to plan out future parts of the trip. It’s counterintuitive, but for the cities we’ve only been staying in for a day or two, I’ve felt like I’ve had more time to write than I do when we’re staying for 4-5 days somewhere.

That’s because during longer stays, we’ve been focusing on planning out the next legs of our trip. After longer stays in Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam, and Zurich, I’m happy to report that we’ve now got plans through the first week of October. I’m behind on blogging, though, so let’s get back to Scotland.


We started with an early morning ferry from Belfast to Southwestern Scotland, followed by a bus to the city of Glasgow. Neither Karen nor I had been there before, and had only planned one night as a stopping point after a long day of travel, but we really loved the place. After one of the cheaper lunches we’d had in a while (yay!) we let Henry stay back at the hotel (teenagers need space sometimes!) and went with the two younger boys to the People’s Palace museum, which included a bunch of interesting exhibits about the history of life in Glasgow including this hands on example of what it was like to wash clothes in a “steamie” or communal laundry facility:

Scrubbing hard!

Speaking of the history of life in Glasgow, here’s the Glasgow subway, which we thought looked like it came from the 50’s. (It was actually built in 1896, the fourth oldest subway in Europe, and only has a single loop around the city going clockwise and counterclockwise.)

Maybe not from 1896, but I’m guessing maybe older than me?

I’m not being fair to Glasgow, though, because it’s actually a lively and modern town of over 600,000 (the biggest in Scotland) and it had one of the best museums we’ve seen, housed at the University of Glasgow. The university, founded in 1451, is gorgeous and was the home of such famous names as Adam Smith, Lord Kelvin, James Watt, and Joseph Lister.

We were there primarily for the Hunterian Museum–more about the main museum in a bit–but one of the things Karen was most excited to see in all of Scotland was the Mackintosh House. The house was built in 1906, but is famous for the work done to it by the architect/artist couple Charles and Margaret Mackintosh. First, though, does this look like it’s over 100 years old?

(I thought brutalism started a little later than 1896.)

This is, of course, not the original house, but does have the same shape–if a different facade. The university demolished the original in the 1960’s to make room for student housing, but saved the interior and made detailed measurements before constructing this replica attached to the art gallery a couple of decades later. (Seems like they could have put the student housing next to the art gallery instead, but what do I know?)

It’s a really striking home with artful consideration across every inch, although I’m not sure what it would have been like to live there–in one room they tried to make all the horizontal surfaces at the same levels so the chairs seemed too low to me and the desk too high. Looks nice, though. Here are some pictures:

Although we visited the museum to see this house, it was actually much smaller than the main Hunterian Museum, which was enormous and eclectic, and based on donations in 1783 upon the death of William Hunter, a pioneering obstetrician and collector of interesting things.

The younger boys enjoyed playing drums with a guy who just happened to be there that day in the children’s section, but some of the most interesting content was what Hunter had acquired as “spoils” of British exploration and imperialism during that era. There was a lot of material from Polynesia and the Americas in particular. Aware of this legacy, the museum had recently undertaken a project to “decolonize” the collection, tapping a diverse set of community members to consider a range of elements in the collection to debate and discuss how one might think about these pieces from a modern perspective. I didn’t take any pictures of those arguments, but I liked this 1674 map of the world from China:

Printed with woodblocks by a Jesuit father for a Chinese emperor.
Henry photobombing in the background. He reads every single caption of every single exhibit.

In the upper part of the main gallery, they had a lot of exhibits from medical history including Lister’s successive attempts to create better and better sterilization practices for operations, launching the change in practice used everywhere today, and a bunch of the instruments created by Lord Kelvin. I knew Kelvin as an important physicist, primarily because his name is on an entire temperature scale, but didn’t realize that he was basically one of the greatest engineers of all time. My favorite was this harmonic analyzer, which he used to understand changes to atmospheric temperature and pressure.

A few days later, the temperature near us was over 313 K, a local record.
Here’s the entrance to the museum, just because I think it looked neat.


After spending most of the day in Glasgow, we took a short train to Edinburgh. We stayed at a pretty typical hostel with all of us staying in a single room with two triple bunk beds, but the memorable thing to the boys is that the only other guests at the hostel were a group of about 80 Dutch high school kids. Because the wi-fi didn’t work in the hostel, the boys theorized that it was because these kids were hogging it. Weeks later, whenever someone mentioned Dutch kids (as we did while in Amsterdam), their first association was that Dutch kids like to hog wi-fi.

Of course, these kids were in Edinburgh because it’s gorgeous and has a rich history. Here are a couple of shots to illustrate the beauty:

The castle, which marks the end of the old town and overlooks the rest of the city
Even the playgrounds have spectacular views
Close together in a close.

This last picture is one of the many “closes” or private alleyways that lead downhill from the main strip of the old town. The most interesting one, Mary King’s Close (named after the merchant who operated there), was “closed” to have a government building constructed on top of it in the 1700’s. It was then rediscovered a few decades ago and opened in 2003 as a tourist attraction where you can see how people lived in Edinburgh 400 years ago. (No pictures are allowed in the tour, but you can see a few at the link above.)

Speaking of history, although Adam Smith was based out of the University of Glasgow, he did some of his seminal work and lectures in economics in Edinburgh. This statue was enough to get Charlie to even smile for a picture:

He’s a total nerd for economics, although I need to do a better job adding it to our homeschooling curriculum.

Speaking of history and culture, the number one export of Scotland is of course Scotch whisky (no “e”) and I’ve enjoyed drinking it occasionally ever since my brother and I first visited in 1999. A big part of why is because while in Edinburgh, we took part in the cheesy “Scotch Whisky Experience” which had a Disney-style barrel ride (including animatronic back country distillers) that dumped you out at the end for a free tasting.

I was excited to return and was not disappointed. This time around they had upgraded the tour to include a holographic ghost (fancy!) and I paid a little extra to sample a whisky from each of four of the main regions–my favorite is Highland.

I’m in the barrel!
There’s the hologram.
They had an enormous collection of bottles, which is probably the main legitimate attraction.


Coincidentally, my whisky preference aligns with the next part of the trip, because the following morning we rented a car and headed for four nights in a rented farmhouse in the Scottish Highlands. One of the most beautiful regions in the world, we’d been planning this portion of the trip around the availability of the cabin so we could have a place to rest a little with more space (three bedrooms!) for our animal-loving kids. It didn’t disappoint.

The donkey and ponies really liked when we fed them carrots.
The owner told us that the donkey talked all the time–just like the donkey in Shrek–but we didn’t hear him too much.
Down the road from our cabin.
Random waterfall in the park near our cabin in Glen Garry.
We went running near the River Garry. Charlie only smiles for economists.

The only flaw of the cabin was the fact that wi-fi was a little spotty (and non-existent one day), even though there didn’t appear to be any Dutch kids in our presence. Luckily, they had an extensive library of DVDs to borrow, so after we explained to the kids what a DVD was, we spent a couple nights watching Braveheart, which everyone enjoyed. (The other nights they also enjoyed The Naked Gun and, in the same vein, Hot Shots!)

Inspired by cinematic battles, we thought we’d check out the site of a real one, so on our second day headed to near Inverness to see the museum for the Battle of Culloden. That’s where, in 1746, the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart (known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) was decisively defeated by a British government force. Since “Jacobite” refers to people who wanted James II to be king and we were visiting with our sons James and Charlie (we let Henry be a teenager and stay home), we had a lot of fun pretending the tour guide was talking about our kids as we learned about the battle. Mostly fun at least–Charlie seemed a little incompetent, which wasn’t fair to our Charlie, who is awesome, if occasionally incapable of smiling for pictures.

Where many Jacobites were bogged down in an actual bog and then killed.
We didn’t look too hard, but didn’t see Nessie in the loch. We did, however, enjoy a t-shirt in Edinburgh with a cartoon Loch Ness Monster and the caption, “The important thing is that I believe in myself.”

For our final day in the highlands, we let the boys relax at home under Henry’s care with instructions to do homework while Karen and I drove off to see the Isle of Skye. (This happens to be the day the wi-fi was completely out, so they only did as much homework as they could eke out with Henry’s hotspot.)

Our main destination in Skye was Dunvegan Castle, which is the historic seat of the Clan MacLeod (and also the hero of the movie Highlander!) We mostly were just looking for a place to visit as we enjoyed the natural beauty that Skye is famous for. We enjoyed the day:

Entrance to Dunvegan
View of Dunvegan from the bay. They had boats for rent to go look for seals, which we would have done had the kids been with us. Instead, we grabbed lunch at the cafe.
The clan would go to battle with this 4th century “Fairy Flag”, which they believed let them miraculously snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Probably from Syria or Rhodes originally, they had conflicting stories of the origins, but my favorite was that it was a parting gift of the fairy bride of one of the clan chiefs when she had to return to her people.
The castle had several beautiful and well maintained gardens, which Karen really appreciated.
One of many beautiful views from our drive.
Black Cuillin mountain selfie
Pioneering mountain climbers (not inclusive of all depicted)
Eileen Donan castle, which we only stopped to take a picture of.

After our time in Skye, we headed back to Edinburgh and caught a train to London. The train was very delayed, which we’ve collectively decided not to discuss further, but we got there anyway.

Because I already counted the UK in my last post, our family country count remained the same:

  • 6th country of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds)
  • Karen: 55 countries
  • Henry: 21 countries
  • Charlie: 15 countries
  • James: 12 countries

Returning (to Ireland)

Kids and their humor

Our time in Ireland was the site of multiple returns, most notably to the place that Karen and I met, but I’ll start this post with a different kind of return. First, meet Steven Seagull:

Photo credit James Niksch (age 7); he says he used zoom, so his life wasn’t in quite as much risk as you might suppose

We met the dreaded Steven during the first week of our trip in Tallin, Estonia. He’s famous there for being really aggressive at going after people’s food. (He has that name because Estonian people have a funny sense of humor.) Unfortunately, during our encounter, it wasn’t our food he went after, but rather Charlie’s finger. Thankfully there was no permanent damage, but he did have a red mark for a few hours. We don’t know what Charlie did to deserve this, but it turns out the seagulls weren’t yet done with him.

<Warning: potty humor section. Skip ahead to the next red text if you’re too fancy for that sort of thing.>

Seagulls can travel very far, but I don’t know if it was Steven exactly who got to us in Dublin, Ireland. More likely he was employing some sort of international seagull communication network, possibly headquartered in Brussels. What we do know is that Charlie was again deliberately and maliciously targeted by the seagull community.

Historic O’Connell bridge over the River Liffey. It was here, in this exact location, that the attack occurred. James (morosely contemplating the horror of it all) appears here because Charlie was too distraught for comment.

While he was minding his business, simply paying attention to our guide during a walking tour of Dublin, a flock of seagulls bombarded our location and Charlie got poop all over his sholder.

When it rains it pours: immediately afterwards, James informed me that he very urgently needed to go to the bathroom. So, the three of us rushed away from the walking tour to find a bathroom to use and also clean up a poopy hoody. The closest was McDonald’s, but I had to buy some french fries to get the bathroom code, so on the plus side my count for places I’ve eaten McDonald’s in is up to 30 countries now!

We eventually rejoined Karen and Henry as they were finishing the tour at Trinity College, where Karen was secretly hoping they might consider attending someday. Here they are thinking about it:

You’ll note Charlie took off his sweater, but I think we were able to get it clean

Anyway, back to poop: As you might guess with three boys (and I’ll admit, me too), potty humor is a favorite in our family. (Karen has learned to live with it.) In addition to my protracted seagull story, Ireland has been a great place in that regard!

As a first illustration, here was an exhibit at the Dublinia Museum, which was focused on the early history of Dublin and its founding as a Viking outpost:

The exhibit included a very graphic soundtrack of flatulence and groaning. The boys were impressed.

As a second example, here is a caption describing an old woodcut in the Galway City Museum. Pay special attention to the final sentence:

Photo credit James Niksch (age 7). He made sure everyone in the family read this.

In case you’re a visual learner, here are James and Charlie pointing to the described image:

I feel like the description was exceedingly accurate.

</End of potty humor section. If you skipped past it, you’re no fun.>

Where it all started

Back to the topic of “returns”, Dublin will always be a special place for us because it’s where Karen and I met. I woke up the morning of June 3, 1999 and saw her in the bed next to mine on the top bunk in a room at the Avalon House Youth Hostel. This time around, we tried to stay there again, but unfortunately it closed a couple years ago. Instead, we took a picture from the front door.

Those are the beds behind us. My brother Paul is sitting on the bottom of mine.
Photo credit Henry Niksch (age 14)

After that, we went to the Bad Ass Cafe, where Karen and I had lunch the day we met. It was famous at the time because Sinead O’Connor had worked there as a waitress. This time, there was still a tiny little plaque on the stairwell of the renamed Bad Ass Bar commemorating this fact, but otherwise it was completely changed. At some point, they’d changed the decor to make it look like a “traditional” Irish bar to appeal to tourists and the menu became more touristy as well. It was almost a total disappointment, but the waiter really loved our story of having eaten there the day we met and brought out three free enormous dishes of ice cream for the boys.

Photo credit Paul Niksch (age 19, now older). Karen was a vegetarian, so gave me her ham.
The windows still looked the same at least.

To complete our (generally very boring for the kids) trip down memory lane, we also visited Christchurch Cathedral, where we once ate fish & chips on the benches outside. Our kids don’t really like fish & chips, so we just took a picture.

Photo credit Matt Niksch (age 22, now older)
Henry was getting annoyed with all the pictures we had him take.

Besides our tourism and reminiscing stops in Dublin, we also took the train to Galway in the west and stayed there for a few days. Karen and I had a couple of nice parent-only dinners there, but the highlight for everyone was probably the Aran Islands/Cliffs of Moher bus/ferry trip we took on our last day. It rained most of the time and ended up being a pretty long day, but we saw some beautiful sites. Here are a few of the pictures I took during the trip.

Dunguaire Castle
Typical countryside. Some of these stone fences are over a thousands years old.
Burrens flowers
View from Corkscrew Hill
Inis Oírr view
Inis Oírr castle
He does this pose everywhere
Charlie says, “HELP!”
Rainy Cliffs of Moher
Slightly seasick on the ferry
Cliffs of Moher! It finally stopped raining 15 minutes after we arrived.

Suprisingly good time in Belfast

After Galway, we had a longer travel day: back to Dublin before catching another train to Belfast in Northern Ireland (which is technically in the United Kingdom and another country, but I’m putting it here in my Ireland post!) Besides the length of time spent traveling, it was frustrating for the boys because we’re trying to do as much of their schooling as possible on trains and we’re quickly learning that train wifi isn’t as reliable as we’d like. Here they are trying to work hard.

We’re putting off thinking about finding a new homeschooling plan

So as we arrived in Belfast in the late afternoon, no one was particularly happy and I wasn’t expecting too much. I wasn’t impressed with Belfast during the same trip 23 years ago when I met Karen. In retrospect, I’m thankful for that, because Paul and I left earlier than we were originally planning and the timing was right for me to end up with an awesome wife out of the change. That’s why, though, I was pleasantly surprised that we had such a great time in our couple days this time around.

First off, we put our train problems behind us when we found an excellent Nepali/Indian restaurant and had a great meal:

After that, Karen and I took a stroll around town while the boys relaxed in the room at our cool hostel. The next morning, I had a great run before everyone else woke up and then we went to the excellent Ulster Museum, which had a range of exhibits ranging from ancient Irish history to local Belfast history to an interactive science center for kids.

Trying to finish his assignment from the train!
Global Village Hostel common area
No pot of gold at the end, I ran there to check
Pretty bridge view south of our hostel
The Ulster Museum also had these cool Game of Thrones-inspired dragons from a wrap party for the film crew (much of it was filmed nearby)

The Troubles

The highlight for me and Karen, though, was a three hour “Conflicting Stories” walking tour we took about “The Troubles” between the Catholic/Republican community (who want the north to be part of the Republic of Ireland with the rest of the island) and the Protestant/Unionist community (who want the north to remain part of the United Kingdom) in West Belfast. The tour, like West Belfast with a 26km-long fence, was split into two halves. The first half was with a Republican member of the Provisional IRA who had been released from prison after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The second was with a Unionist former officer in the British Army and security services whose father and brother had both been killed by the Provisional IRA. Both told their stories and encouraged us to listen with an open mind. (The conflict and The Troubles were an issue outside of West Belfast, having an impact including thousands of deaths across Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and elsewhere, but this tour focused mostly on West Belfast.)

One thing that stood out to me was that in this very identity-driven conflict, both sides seemed to be more aligned to aspects of that identity than the broader group they were affiliating with. As an illustration, here is a train sign in Dublin, the capital city that our Catholic/Republican guide wants for his home:

You can see that Gaelic/Irish is always first.

One thing you notice quickly while visiting the Republic of Ireland is that written and spoken Irish is the first language on any official government communication–train signs like this, announcements on buses, etc. All students across the country are required to learn it in school from a very young age. And yet, it is the first and primary language of only a very small minority of people (mostly in smaller communities in the west), and almost everyone we spoke with was at best indifferent about the language. Many mentioned their schoolhood struggles being forced to study it and were quite happy to avoid it as adults.

Contrastingly, our guide was extremely focused on his “Irishness”, a central part of which was the use of the Irish language, which he demonstrated by the way he greeted anyone he saw in the community and by a story he told about being proud that his granddaughter was doing poorly in her English studies in school. When I asked him about what he thought of the future of the language, he acknowledged that he didn’t think it would ever be the main language for most people in Ireland, but appreciated that it was recognized in the 1998 agreement.

Similarly, our Protestant/Unionist guide shared with us that first and foremost the people of his community saw themselves as proud citizens of the United Kingdom. To illustrate this, here’s a picture of Shankill Road, one of the main roads in the Protestant/Unionist community:

See all the UK flags? They were everywhere throughout the community.

Both guides emphasized that even though these two communities live side-by-side, they share very few cultural practices, with no Protestants on the Republican side and no Catholics living on the Unionist side. In both communities, it’s almost taboo to have any kind of relationship at all with people from the other side. This wall (“Peace Line”), which is 42 feet high in some places, helps maintain that divide and also prevents the throwing of rocks and worse things like grenades, from one side to the other. It has 6 gates which all close at 7pm every night:

Our Republican guide continued to maintain that while there is currently peace, he is very actively invested in a hope that the entire island will eventually be a single country. (His preference is peaceful, but didn’t rule out other means.) Besides the political/cultural divide, one of the main reasons he gave for the cause he supported was the economic segregation that characterized much of British rule of Northern Ireland, which he compared to South African apartheid, with the vast majority of economic opportunity going to Protestants. (The examples here were primarily historical, but he suggested that this remains a problem.)

He was excited about the fact that Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA, for the first time received the most votes in Northern Ireland’s recent parliamentary elections and hoped that this, along with some of the border changes caused by Brexit, would help lead to a unified Ireland. (Although they won the election, they are still working on trying to form a government, which might or might not happen.)

Conversely, our Unionist guide struck a mostly a pessimistic tone, saying he thought it would be 3-4 generations until both sides could learn to live together again. His tour focused heavily on the lives and stories of many innocent people whose lives were taken by indiscriminant IRA bombings. Many, many people lost family and loved ones to the violence that characterized The Troubles, but one thing that gives me hope is the fact that likely very few lost as much as him, with both his father and brother being innocent victims. (He said his father was killed for being a Protestant electrician working in homes in a Catholic community.)

As you might expect, the recent events that excited our Republican guide made the Unionist very unhappy, especially the election of IRA members to parliament. He told us specifically and directly that several of those politicians were exactly the same people who had killed people with bombings and that this would obviously be too much to take. We found out later that this wasn’t really true; he was talking about the organization as a whole being involved in bombings–none of the actual politicians seem to be the ones who committed the violence. He did say, however, that there was no way most people in his community would be able to accept being governed by IRA members and that the peace agreement would probably fail if the newly elected parliamentarians were able to build a coalition to govern.

I’m hoping Northern Ireland continues to have peace, but left the tour very concerned about those prospects and hopeful for further breakthroughs. (My hope is that the resignation this week of Boris Johnson as the UK Prime Minister might make this more possible, but I think no one really knows.) I hope as well that my writeup was clear enough to share something useful with you, since I’m by no means an expert!

The day after our tour, we said goodbye to the island and caught a ferry and then bus onwards to Glasgow, Scotland. With Ireland and the UK (which I’ll count here), our family country count is as follows:

  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds–yay for bathroom stops!)
  • Karen: 55 countries
  • Henry: 21 countries (he and Charlie both spent a day in London in 2012)
  • Charlie: 15 countries
  • James: 12 countries