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