A Splendid Labor Day Weekend!

Labor Day Postage Stamp

For many reasons – and for reasons that have varied through the years –  Labor Day has long been my favorite national holiday.

That’s been especially so for the past twelve years, as that’s when the annual Decatur Book Festival takes place.

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This year’s festival was as delightful as it invariably is, even though – and perhaps even because – I decided to attend fewer events than usual, and even though the main person I had hoped to listen to (Krista Tippit of NPR’s “On Being”) fell ill and had to cancel.

As usual, the authors I got to listen to were extraordinarily articulate, funny, engaging, and refreshingly non-pretentious. Among the authors I got to see and hear this year:

  • Elizabeth Kostova, whose Dracula-centric book The Historian I thoroughly enjoyed reading a few years ago, and who happens to know a mutual friend who lives in Asheville, where Kostova nows lives.
  • Four exceptionally bright and funny panelists explaining the mysteriously enduring popularity of Jane Austen’s novels (all of which I’ve listened to, enthralled, via audiobooks).
  • Editors of two anthologies talking about their collections of letters exchanged between two pair of Civil War soldiers and their wives – something that I would never have guessed would have been so interesting, but was.
  • Dylan Thuras, the sweet, funny, and down-to-earth co-founder of Atlas Obscura, which has recently published a book with that title, each of them showcasing off-the-beaten path attractions around the world – including several in the Atlanta area.
  • A panel of archivists and authors talking about the archives and special collections at Emory University’s Library’s Rose Archives – a panel especially interesting because two of the panelists (and the panel moderator) are African-Americans who’ve used the archives at Emory (and elsewhere), and who had eloquent and inspiring things to say about the importance of archives. And also because one the other panelist I know as a fellow-member of the Georgia LGBTQ Archives Project.
  • Sam Kean, the author of  (among other books) Caesar’s Last Breath, who talked hilariously and clearly about the taken-for-granted gases that make up our atmosphere – and who told an intriguing story about the refrigerator Einstein invented.

Besides enjoying a lot more people-watching than usual in the perfect (vs. the often hot-and-humid) weather during the festival, I also (also unusual for me) bought some books from one of the used-book vendors at the Festival. I am now the excited owner of yet another biography of Virginia Woolf, plus a published collection of photos, drawings, and engravings of Oscar Wilde and his circle. Those in addition to the half-dozen gardening books I picked up at bargain prices at the event that (for me) kicks off every Festival, the Dekalb Public Library’s book sale, held outdoors in front of the library.

A Bonus Day of Bliss

After happily mingling with thousands of strolling booklovers on the closed-off streets of Decatur, Georgia, I don’t usually make any special plans for the Monday holiday after the Festival ends on Sunday evening. This year, however, I decided to join a group of four other men who signed up for a Labor Day hike just over the Georgia border in South Carolina, one of the many hikes sponsored by the Wilderness Network of Georgia.

The spot along the Chatooga River that hike organizer Charles had located as the destination of our half-mile hike was as perfect as the weather turned out to be.

The five of us spent our leisurely afternoon sitting by (or cavorting around in) the river, talking, napping, and snacking next to a campfire we managed to keep going the whole time we were there. (I’ve never built a campfire during the day, or in such mild weather.)

 

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Hike organizer Charles, resting after swimming to the far side of the river.

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Fellow hiker (and former Cub Scout) Kyle, creating the campfire that we enjoyed keeping going throughout our otherwise lazy afternoon.

Our day of lollygagging beside the banks of the unspoiled river was punctuated by several groups of passing kyackers or canoeists floating downstream, a gaggle of geese paddling upstream, repeated visits by two blue butterflies, and the constant background sounds of the nearby rapids.

After putting out our campfire and trudging back up the hill to our cars, we stopped for dinner at a Chinese/Thai restaurant in Clayton, Georgia. We finished our meal there just in time for a glorious sunset and the rising of an almost-full moon.

Among the factors that contributed to the perfection of this third consecutive day of bliss:

  • I am part of the large cohort of middle-class Americans who’ve retired from our careers as paid laborers – with at least some savings to finance those retirements.
  • I am privileged to have acheived a standard of living that’s unmarred by debt or constrained by other major financial worries.
  • Despite my age – I’ll be 70 – 70!!! – next July – my health is good enough to hike down to a remote river – and back uphill again.
  • I live in a country whose governments have set aside, and made accessible to citizens, vast swaths of unspoiled countryside, some of them including freely-flowing, unpolluted rivers!
  • I still have functioning senses that allow me to enjoy the colors, the sounds, the smells, the textures and the other sensual delights that a picnic in the woods along the banks of a beautiful river provides.
  • Waiting for me at the top of the the steepish hiking trail was a nice car whose driver got me to the river and transported me back again to my comfortable home – making it possible for me to spend the afternoon in a place remote from where I live.
  • I’m not coping with trying to survive floods, wildfires, or other horrific natural catastrophes, and my life is not being  disrupted by the cruel antics of any government official.

Three consecutive days of Perfection. I am a lucky, lucky man.

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Abajem IV

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I just returned from spending a week on Florida’s St. George Island with eleven friends I met through an organization called Gay Spirit Visions.

GSV was established in 1990, and in 2002 a half-dozen GSVers decided to rent a house on SGI for a week. Chase Robinson has taken care of reserving a rental house each year, and the house-renting group (whose participants vary each year) eventually doubled its size.  The group has rented a half dozen different houses over the years; this was my fourth consecutive year vacationing with these guys on SGI, all four of them spent at the enormous and luxurious “Abajem.”

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As in previous years, the week consisted of hanging out with each other in various combos, either on the beach or within sight of it. Besides enjoying the camaraderie. the conversations, the shared meals, and the spectacular scenery, a large part of the wonderfulness of the week is enjoying an extended break from our respective routines – as well as, for some of us, a break from the relentless aggravations we normally import into our brains via our Internet connections, our phones, and our voluntary tethers to other mass media.

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Although three of us who went to SGI this year live in various towns in North Carolina, Atlanta is home for the rest of us. That means most of us get to extend our annual visits by carpooling down to and back from SGI, as well as spent time together in Atlanta between visits to the island. Although we share many of the values cherished by most GSV participants, there’s a range of ages among us, most of us are retired from our former full-time jobs, about to retire, or are semi-retired.

This year’s Abijem crew:

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Bill

 

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Bradford

 

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Chase

 

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Craig

 

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Jim

 

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Ralph (right) and Ted  (left, in sumo wrestler garb)

 

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Randall

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Roger

 

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Tom

 

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Wayne

 

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Cal (with crocheted cap and flower courtesy Jim)

Our time together on the island is deliberately and gloriously unstructured, but our indoor and outdoor lolling about is punctuated not only by almost nonstop banter and hilarious commentary, but by our taking turns preparing evening meals, silently meditating together each morning, exchanging massages, playing card games (well, actually playing multiple rounds of a single card game: Wizards), intermittently working (alone or together) at various crafts, reading, taking naps, watching a DVD or two, eating in small groups at various restaurants, or driving across the bridge into the nearby town of Appalachicola to visit its shops and galleries. Some of us avail ourselves of Abijem’s swimming pool and/or its hot tub, and Chase provides kayaks, kites, and bicycles. Some of us get up every morning to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and this year our visit coincided with a full moon.

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“Mermaid Barbie” was a permanent feature this year in Bradford’s various tablescapes, which included (among other items, and on various days) painted shells, botanical specimens collected from the island, toy submarines, and a pair of lava lamp-like lighting fixtures.

 

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Mealtime appetizer.

 

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For the second time, Jim (aka Mr. Patience) taught Calvin how to crochet!

 

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Cal losing yet another round of Wizards. Jim crocheted the Wizard’s Hat.

 

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This year, hot on the trail of the the strolling sumo wrestlers was…

 

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…Godzilla!

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Tea time at Abijem, for the humans…

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...and snack time for the birds.

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Randall’s photo of some of the seashells we painted with color markers 

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Sunrise over the ocean.

 

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Lighthouse at St. George

 

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Souvenirs of this year’s visit: samples of our painted shells, a hibiscus flower, and a teddy bear.

 

As I had with with my three previous trips to SGI with these kindhearted, affectionate, intelligent, and creative guys, I looked forward for many months to our week together this year, and hope there’ll be many more annual rendezvouses there.

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Excursion to Gibbs Gardens

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Last Sunday I joined four friends for our virgin visit to Gibbs Gardens, located about an hour north of Atlanta near Ball Ground, Georgia.

I’d heard a lot about this place, and despite the fact that it’s located on my route to and from the cabin in Blue Ridge that I spend time in most months, I somehow had never gotten around to visiting.

Gibbs Gardens was established over thirty years ago but was opened to the public only in 2012. The place is huge – 220 acres of a 300-acre estate, with sixteen distinct garden areas, all connected with walking trails. Gibbs features a large variety of plantings and some magnificently designed landscaping. The gardens include:

  • possibly the largest plantings of daffodils in the United States (20 million bulbs spread over 50 acres of rolling hillsides)
  • a 40-acre Japanese garden, the country’s largest
  • the country’s largest collection of water lilies (140 varieties)
  • 32 ponds, fed by springs or running streams crossed by 24 bridges, one of them a replica of Monet’s bridge at Giverny

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The miles of walking trails meander through all sorts of plantings, and the self-guided tour includes a walkabout of the exterior of the beautiful – and gorgeously landscaped – manor house where the Gibbs family lives. (Well, when anybody’s home: the 70-something-year-old Gibbs is an avid traveler. That he generously allows visitors to tramp around the patios and porches immediately adjacent to the house must be a bit unnerving when he’s there.)

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Here’s a video (from the Gardens’ Facebook page) of what we saw on Sunday:

I wish I could report that wandering through 20 million daffodils was a Wordworthianesque peak experience, but, alas, that aspect of our tour of the gardens Gibbs was, surprisingly, a bit underwhelming. (Will the planned extravaganza of tulips that Gibbs staff has planted be similarly disappointing?) I have no explanation for why the Daffodil ramble was not more exhilarating, but there are plenty of other reasons for putting this garden on your gardens-to-tour list.

If you decide to visit, I highly recommend you arrive as early in the day as you can. This is especially important if you visit on a weekend. Otherwise, you will find yourself forced to park in a remotely located parking lot (quite a few acres of Gibbs’ property are devoted to multiple car-parks) and, once you finally get to the welcome center, you could find yourself waiting in a very long line. Better to arrive early and conserve your energy for all the walking you’ll be doing once you get your ticket.

I also recommend eating lunch at the garden’s outdoor cafe. The sandwiches and drinks are pricey (I spent $12 for a sandwich and a bottle of water), but the food is fresh and the shaded outdoor eating area is a pleasant place to rest after a morning’s worth of walking.

There’s also a gorgeous (if also pricey) gift shop:

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Whether or not you decide to visit Gibbs Gardens yourself, you might find this 24-minute North Carolina public television video worth watching. It includes an interview with Gibbs, who explains how the garden came to be. The video also highlights several of the different garden areas on view at Gibbs:

http://video.unctv.org/video/2289814506/

Watching this video after my visit – and reading the best of the articles about the garden that I found on the Internet – made me want to return to see the sections of the garden (such as the fern garden) that I somehow missed seeing last Sunday. I especially want to return in the fall to see the gardens’ 2,000 Japanese maples!

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Meanwhile, here’s a bunch of photos that garden visitors have posted to Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/gibbsgardens/

For even more photos, Google Images has hundreds of them.

Directions, ticket prices (as seniors we paid $18 plus tax for a single visit; annual passes cost $70), and a list of visiting hours is available at the Gardens’ web site, www.gibbsgardens.com

Note: All of the photos included in this blogpost I obtained from a variety of sources on ye Internet.

A Second Trip to Ireland

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A gaggle of long-time friends who two years ago rented a canal boat and a villa in southern France decided we wanted to do something similar this year in Ireland.

So, mid-September, off we went. For some of us , this was a first trip to Ireland; for others, including me, it was our second trip together there (although my first trip to Ireland, four years ago, was mostly to the southwestern coast). This time Kris, who was on both trips, went over a week earlier than the rest of us so she could attend an annual Matchmaker’s Festival and to do some genealogy research. Kris also skipped the boat rental phase of the trip (week #1) and joined us for the house-renting/day-tripping  part (week #2). Joyce and Walter also opted out of the boat rental week, but they stayed in a town near where the rest of us rented the house.

The Boat Trip

Because Ireland’s canal system hasn’t been spruced up with amenities for tourists to the extent that the canals in England and France have been, we opted for cruising down the Shannon River instead of navigating one of Ireland’s canals.

We decided to pilot the boat ourselves, as we had on our previous boat-renting adventures. The boat we rented for the Shannon was huge – it sleeps eight people, even though there were only six of us aboard. We used the same excellent company we’d rented our boat from in France LeBoat.

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The experience of maneuvering this large vessel down a river was very different from merely mooring it anywhere we might want to stop, as we did in the canals of England and France. Also, like all canals, the Shannon has several locks that must be navigated into and out of in addition threading our way under the river’s bridges and parking our gigantic vessel each night into a narrow slot in a crowded marina!

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We started our week-long cruise down the Shannon at Carrick-on-Shannon, heading downstream toward Portumna. Although we stopped at several towns along the way, we spent the most time in in Athelone, the largest town in the area and located about mid-way between where we started and our intended destination.

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On the bridge in Athelone, with our boat moored with numerous others in the background.

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Out boat in Athlone, where we moored it for several days.

For me, the scenic highlight of the river cruise was our post-Athlone stop at the ruins of Clonmacnoise, the site of a large and famous medieval monastery, located directly on the river and far from any visible towns. We spent a leisurely afternoon there wandering around the site, having lunch in the tea shoppe there, and taking photos.

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Resuming our course down the Shannon, our self-piloted river cruise was abruptly cut short on our next-to-last day when one of our pilots (it doesn’t matter who – it could’ve been any of us amateurs!), while trying to dock the boat in a town where we wanted to spend the night, broke the boat’s propeller! (Note to self: piloting a huge boat through the unmarked shallows of a flowing river is much trickier than piloting a smaller boat down a uniformly narrow and uniformly deep canal!) The boat company sent a rescue team (aka “Connor”) to tow us to the next town by commandeering another boat piloted by another (and not very happy) group of tourists..

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Our propeller-less boat being towed toward the next marina.

We never got to Portumna: instead, we spent the night on our disabled boat in Banagher where our boat had been towed. The following very rainy morning, our rescuers hauled our boat out of the river to replace the propeller, and we bundled ourselves and our considerable collection of (somewhat soggy) luggage into a taxi to be driven back to Athlone. There we picked up our rental cars and headed for the west coast of Ireland for the second week of our trip.

The House Rental and the Road Trips

The house we rented as our road-trip base for week #2 is located at the end of a winding quarter-mile-long driveway off the highway that runs through Ballintubber, a tiny rural village in the countryside of County Mayo, about halfway between Galway and Sligo.

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Although the surrounding countryside was suitably pastoral, the house itself is a large, modern, comfortable structure that – especially compared to the place we had rented in Gordes, France two years ago – is decidedly non-quaint. But we certainly enjoyed settling into our spacious accommodations and the convenience of preparing breakfasts and dinners there (vs. doing that on a boat).

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Our numerous day trips from Ballintubber were often to destinations along the coast – via the glorious countryside and tiny villages in Connemara.

We also ventured several hours south of Galway, to make our obligatory visit to Ireland’s most visited outdoor spot, the Cliffs of Moher.

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Ireland’s Tourist-Promoting Powers That Be have signposted the country’s most scenic network of coastal roads the “Wild Atlantic Way,“and some of us spent a good deal of jaw-dropping time driving through and stopping along those extremely narrow, extremely windy, and extremely scenic roads. Among, them, the “Sky Road” beyond Clifden:

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…and the coastal roads of Achill Island:

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All of us also spent time – at different times, and some of us more time than others – exploring Westport, the largest town near the rental house.

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Most of us made an excursions to the justly-popular tourist spot of Kylemore Abbey.

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The trip to Kylemore was particularly gratifying for me because Kylemore’s beautiful grounds include the only formal garden I visited in Ireland

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I am also glad to have gotten to Kylemore Abbey because I later skipped an opportunity to tour with my fellow travellers Ballintubber Abbey, located within a few miles of our rental cottage.

Incidentally, the afternoon at Kylemore was the only time I got caught in a rainstorm. Kris took a photo of me pinned behind the door of a completely-mobbed bus stop at the edge of the gardens, where we all fled when the heavens opened:

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The Final Days: Dublin

Though some of us were there at slightly different times than the others, all of us spent the final days of our Ireland vacation in Dublin, which now ranks as one of my favorite cities in Europe.

Four of us, including me, stayed at the conveniently-located and excellently-managed (if somewhat overpriced) Kilronan House.

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Dublin’s medieval Christ Church Cathedral, where I listened to the choir singing during Sunday mass.

Some Particularly Memorable Ireland Moments

  • The afternoon we explored the town of Cong, including the ruins of its abbey…

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  • Driving through the countryside along the lakes on either side of Cong:

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  • The hour or so that Randall and I spent gazing out over one of the beaches on Achill Island:

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  • Walking around Westport, shopping with Kris – and taking a quick peek inside what’s got to be one of the most congenially-sited public libraries I’ve ever seen:

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  • My impromptu visit with a local calligrapher, who happens to live near the house we rented (and who happens to be the sister-in-law of the rental house’s owner).
  • The final day of the house-renting/day-tripping portion of the trip. I spent that morning exploring the mostly-Victorian architecture of the town of Sligo.

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After my morning in the town, I spent the afternoon gaping at the gorgeous countryside surrounding Sligo, which the tourist authorities have dubbed “Yeats Country.”

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I knew very little about Yeats before my trip, and still don’t know much about him, other than realizing in the middle of my trip that he had written one of my favorite poems.)

Highlights of my day in Yeats’s Country:

  • Stumbling upon an exhibit in Sligo’s town hall about Yeats’s life.
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The church at the cemetary in Drumcliff where Yeats’s grave is located

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Doors to the church in the cemetery where Yeats is buried.

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View from Yeats’ gravesite.

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View from the edge of the graveyard where Yeats is buried.

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  • Driving many, many, many miles down a one-lane, incredibly curvy – and blissfully scenic – country road to a spot on Lough [Lake] Gill where I could get a good look at the tiny island of Innisfree that Yeats once owned and wrote a famous poem about.

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The view from the parking lot at the Glencar Waterfall is as bucolic as anyone could wish for:

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  • Locating the building in Merrion Square where Oscar Wilde spent his childhood. and finding the statue of Oscar in the park across the street.

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  • My long-looked-forward-to visit to the Old Library at Trinity College, where I (after waiting in line for at least an hour) I finally laid eyes on the Book of Kells (which, by the way, was created by monks in Scotland: long story). My encounter with the Book of Kells was for some reason a bit disappointing; more exciting for me was reading the inspiring words of the library’s rare copy of the 1916 Easter Uprising Proclamation. However, spending a half-hour inside the Long Room of the Old Library was the opposite of disappointing. (Although I was shocked to learn that the library’s famous and gorgeous barreled wooden ceiling was part of a 19th-century renovation – the original ceiling was flat and made of plaster!)

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  • A final Especially Memorable Trip Moment had nothing to do with any scenery or architectural or cultural or culinary wonder. Instead, it was the moment when I retrieved my much-used down jacket (a Christmas present last year from my friend Harvey) from where I’d inadvertently left it at the Dublin airport’s security checkpoint!

(Confession: Losing valuable objects while traveling abroad is not unusual for me. On a six-month backpacking trip with Harvey to Europe in 1983, I left my passport in the dresser drawer of a hostel in Lisbon – something I didn’t discover until the next day, when we were hundreds of miles away. On a trip to Italy with Larry a decade ago, I left behind in our rental car my camera – and therefore all our photos from our trip. I can’t remember what I left behind on my trip to Mexico three  years ago, but surely I came back to Atlanta minus something. In Italy two years ago, I left behind on a bus my iPhone. And on my way back home last year from a trip to Costa Rica, I left a another jacket Harvey had given me ten years ago and that I had worn almost every day since buying my motor scooter. Although I was lucky in retrieving at the last minute in Dublin the jacket I’d left behind while checking through airport security, what I ended up leaving behind in Ireland – although, fortunately, not until I was able to use it every day on the sometimes-chilly boat trip – was a really nice wool neck-warmer that my thoughtful sister Gayle had given me specifically for this trip.)

Chief Disappointment

Aside from the sad fact that I will apparently never convince the people I otherwise enjoy spending time with to leave behind their electronic devices when travelling in exotic climes, the only major regret I have about my second trip to Ireland is that – apart from a few street musicians and some recordings playing in a few tourist shops (and, rather irritatingly, in the breakfast room of our Dublin hotel) – I heard not a single note of Irish music!

This disappointment is completely my own fault: I was unwilling to schlep out to any of the plentiful Irish pubs at 10pm, when the music in all Irish pubs apparently begins. The one time that I visited a pub at night – visiting, in fact, the world’s oldest pub, Sean’s Bar, in Athlone – I left after a boisterous conversation with a bunch of friendly Germans we’d previously met along the river, but before the musicians began playing and/or singing.I did, however, have the pleasure of hearing plenty of Gaelic spoken in the pubs where we ate lunch along the Western coast.

Some General Reflections

  • The people of Ireland are the country’s most memorable feature. No matter where we were in Ireland, we encountered unusually friendly, cheerful, helpful, sweet people, every single one of them somehow able – no matter how brief or superficial the encounter – to display his/her sardonic sense of humor. (And the men of Ireland – quite a few of them red-headed and blue-eyed – are very handsome; their accents making them even more swoon-worthy. Speaking of Irish men, guess what Randall and I missed by coming to Ireland a week too early:

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  • The scenery of Ireland lives up to its reputation. As does its reputation for narrow, curvy (but, hey, very scenic!) roads. Actually, I found Ireland’s though very narrow and very curvey, to be in extraordiarily good repair. We encountered narry a single pothole in hundreds of miles of driving! On the other hand, I don’t think I ever saw, in that week of driving, a completely dry roadway! Although the rain never seems to fall for very long, it rains often: the roads – and most of the grass – seem eternally wet. But then, that’ presumably why so much of Ireland is so dog-gone green!

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  • Although the scenery along the Shannon River is beautiful – and eerily deserted, in general I found the scenery along the canals in England and France to be more enchanting and varied.
  • The oddest thing for me about traveling around Ireland, at least via rented boat and via rented car – and regardless of whether one is wandering around rural Ireland or in the coastal areas or floating down the river flowing through Ireland’s interior –   is how seldom you see any Irish people! During our boat trip and during our many drives, I rarely saw anyone out walking along the road, working in their yards, or hanging out on the streets of the smaller towns. Many of the roads we traveled were completely deserted (with the exception of an occasional tour bus roaring into view from around some hidden curve). Yes, there are plenty of pedestrians to be seen in the larger towns (a fourth of the island’s populaton live in Ireland live in Dublin, something very obvious while you’re there), but the rural landscapes are extraordinarily empty spaces, as well as beautiful ones.
  • If you like looking at sheep, Ireland is the place to go!

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  • Ditto rainbows. Saw more of those in Ireland in two weeks than I’ve seen in a whole lifetime of living in the United States!

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  • If, like I do, you like looking at water – lakes, rivers, ponds, coastlines – Ireland’s got lots of it. Some of my favorite drives were the ones around Ireland’s plentiful lakes. They are all so amazingly unspoiled by development of any kind.
  • The food. Oh my goodness, so delicious! (Only two disappointing meals in our entire two weeks!) The seafood chowders alone are almost worth a trip to Ireland. And then there are the “full Irish breakfasts” we’ll remember.

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  • I need to learn more about the history of Ireland. What little I know of it is so very, very sad. Centennial-celebrating reminders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion were ubiquitous during our trip. As with Irish history in general, I know precious little of details about this event – although I’ve long been aware of the prolonged and relentless, indefensibly brutal treatment of Ireland and the Irish by the British.

Ireland is a country I could imagine re-visiting indefinitely. It is small enough to make getting around relatively convenient (either by car or, as Kris found, even by public transport), yet varied enough scenery-wise to make you want to explore every part of this amazing island. I still haven’t set foot in the far northern or far southern areas of Ireland, but look forward to seeing their natural and cultural wonders some day. And Dublin alone deserves multiple visits.

As I’ve done in a few other places abroad where I’ve traveled (Italy, England, Greece, and France), I spent part of this trip fantasizing moving to Ireland. The Irish Tourist Board has thoughtfully provided me with twenty-one reasons for doing that.  Except for the excessive rainfall, these reasons are mighty compelling!

Notes on the photos: They aren’t all mine. Some of them were taken by my fellow travelers: Randall Cumbaa, Royce Hodge, Martha Hodge, Kris Kane, Joyce Purcell, Walter Purcell, Nancy Ward, and Robert Ward. I’ll be eventually be inserting additional photos they took. The hyperlinks to the place names mentioned in this blogpost, as well as the hyperlinks to Sean’s Bar and the Kilronan House, will lead you to images of those places that are posted on the Internet, which is also where I found one of the photos of our boat, the Oscar Wilde statue, Innisfree Island, the Long Room in Trinity College’s Old Library, and (below) the NASA photo and the map of Ireland. The internet is also the source of the images you’ll see if you click on the hyperlinks to the Book of Kells, the 1916 Easter Rebellion, and the Easter Rebellion Proclamation. If you decide to click on only one of the hyperlinks to look at the images, click on the images for “Yeats Country” if you want to get a sense of why I loved visiting this country so much.

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A Wedding in Oregon

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Early this month, my sister Gayle and I traveled to Oregon for the wedding of our niece Erin, the now-all-grown-up daughter of our younger brother Michael and his wife Inice.

Rather than farming it out to an event coordinator, Erin planned her own wedding, and she did a great job. Hers was one of the simplest and most interesting – and therefore thoroughly enjoyable – weddings that I’ve ever attended. The ceremony was held on the deck Mike built behind the house he built for his family near Bend, located in Oregon’s high desert east of the Cascades.

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Typical terrain surrounding Michael and Inice’s home near Sisters, Oregon.

 

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One of the mountains Michael and Inice can see from their front porch swing – or from their upstairs balcony, or from the hot tub in their side yard.

 

Gayle and I arrived a couple of days before the ceremony, hoping we might be able to help with some of the preparations. Although the wedding and reception were informal affairs and took place outdoors, the run-up to the ceremony was a madhouse of overlapping last-minute activity.

For example, Mike had to clear part of his property so it could serve as a parking lot for the dozens of visitors who drove their cars to the wedding from out of state: Erin and her husband, Evan’s family, and many of Erin’s and Evan’s friends live near San Diego. Mike’s grass had to be cut, all the outdoor furniture on Mike and Inice’s deck had to be temporarily relocated to the yard behind the nearby resort where the rehearsal breakfast and wedding reception took place. And of cours all manner of foods and beverages were constantly being purchased and unloaded at various locations from multiple vehicles.

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Rear view of the resort near Michael and Inice’s house where the rehearsal brunch and the reception were held.

 

The deck in Mike’s and Inice’s back yard, once cleared of its furnishings, had to be decorated with garlands of flowers, space had to be cleared for a videographer and his equipment, the resort had to be stocked not only with copious amounts of food and beverages, but also with linens for the numerous people staying overnight there. A hundred things were borrowed or purchased to set up for the large night-time reception extravaganza: lights were strung up on multiple poles that had to be properly assembled and anchored, tables and chairs were planted around the property, a large stage was hauled in for the live band, vans were rented to chauffeur people from the wedding to the reception and then back to their cars after the reception, dozens of chairs had to be rented and set up, etc. etc.

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The pond Michael dug in his back yard, next to the deck where the wedding ceremony took place. Beyond the pond (and the waterfall to the left), the two yurts.

 

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One of the two gates Michael built in his back yard (that surrounds the pond he built), this one not too far from the platform where the wedding ceremony took place.

 

Fortunately, my brother and his wife were hardly dependent on Cal and Gayle for helping them with the staggering number of wedding prep chores. Mike and Inice have lots of friends and neighbors, and all of them seem to be extremely generous with their time and energies. (A single example: Mike’s and Inice’s friend Stephanie drove to the airport to fetch Gayle and me when we arrived, and drove us back to the airport after our visit, freeing up Mike and Inice to attend to their dozens of other chores and errands.) Roger Gatlin, a longtime friend of Mike’s from his Atlanta days, flew in the day before Gayle and I did to help Mike, and Roger stayed a day longer than Gayle and I did to help Mike break down part of the equipment that he’d helped Mike set up before The Big Day.

 

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Erin and her bridesmaids getting ready for their entrance to the wedding.

 

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Evan and his groomsmen, who included Evan’s older brother Gabriel.

 

Erin’s numerous bridesmaidsand and Evan’s equally numerous groomsmen were completely adorable, and completely – almost alarmingly – young (most of them in their mid-twenties). Their affection for Erin and Evan was obvious, and they all seemed to regard the wedding as a weekend-long party, which is exactly what it was intended to be.

Officiating at the ceremony was Evan’s grandfather, Randall Mann. If I ever get married again, I would want Randall to do the marrying, and to use the same beautiful sentiments he expressed at Evan’s and Erin’s nuptials. I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Randall, and he seems every bit as gentle and wise as his grandson. After Randall’s initial remarks, Evan’s step-dad Michael Seskin read a poem that Evan had asked him to write for the occasion.

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Erin and Evan then read to each other the vows each of them had written – vows that were clearly heartfelt in both cases and so romantic and thoughtful that they brought tears to many an onlooker’s eye, including both of mine. And I was so relieved to realize they were reading their vows from pieces of paper they’d written them on, rather than from their cell phones!

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The newlyweds Evan and Erin, flanked by Erin’s parents, Michael and Inice.

 

It was fun to be exposed to such a lively crowd whose high spirits were in evidence throughout the weekend rather than merely at the night-time reception party. (And, yes, dear Reader, Cal did manage to momentarily stir himself from his observational perch to do a bit of dancing; he even joined the conga line that formed spontaneously  mid-way through the evening.)

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A snapshot of the reception festivities. Instead of a wedding cake, the guests roasted Smores over a fire pit in front of the live band.

 

For me, the most impressive wedding prep achievement miracle of them all was Mike and Inice;’s orchestration of figuring out places for so many overnighters to sleep! They put some guests in bedrooms at the huge and spacious resort, bedded down others at a neighbor’s house, set up their camper to house one of the visiting guest couples, and I think I heard that some people stayed in tents somewhere. Gayle and I were provided mattresses in the smaller of two yurts in Mike and Inice’s back yard, that yurt generously loaned out by Mike and Inice’s friends Hank and Kim, who for several years now have been renting both yurts.

Gayle and I didn’t see much of Erin or Evan, but we did get to meet and visit a bit with Evan’s mom and step-dad. Another highlight of our visit were the moving remarks about Erin and Evan made by Evan’s mom, Evan’s biological father, and by the bride’s parents during the pre-champagne toasts at the reception.

Beyond the pleasure of representing Mike’s family at the wedding, it was wonderful for Gayle and me to spend several days in Mike and Inice’s part of the world – a world that is so different, climate-wise and scenery-wise, from Georgia – especially Georgia in August! (The temperature dropped down into the 40s on our final night.) Mike and Inice moved to Oregon decades ago, when Erin was still a child; although Gayle and I had each separately visited Mike and Inice in Oregon before, and although they visit Atlanta periodically (Mike was able to spent a whole month with me a couple of years ago when he built me my garden house), we don’t get to visit with them often. So it was gratifying to share with Mike and Inice something so important in their lives. Merely hanging out in their beautiful environment was enjoyable and refreshing all by itself. Mike and Inice have created a wonderful home and circle of friends, and it was great to immerse ourselves, however briefly, in their world – so different in so many respects from the worlds Gayle and I inhabit – and under such happy circumstances.

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Gayle, Inice, Mike, Cal

 

Our mom’s health prevented her making the trip out to Oregon with us, so Michael arranged to live-stream the ceremony on the Internet, hoping our mom would find a way to watch it back in Georgia. She didn’t manage to get to see the wedding as it was happening, so I am posting here a link to the YouTube video version of the ceremony so my mom – Erin’s grandma – can watch it someday soon.

Gayle and I had a great visit, and we have every reason to believe that Erin and Evan (who, decided to honeymoon in Iceland) stand a very good chance of continuing to make each other very happy.

Note: I took about half these photos, Roger Gatlin took the photo of the Goughs, and the other photos were posted to Facebook by Karen Byrne, Evan’s mom.

Assisi!

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Some of my favorite images are small enough to use as bookmarks, and this is one of those. It’s a copy of a linoleum block print designed by Gastone Vignati, a retired printer in his late 80s who lives and works in Assisi.

Like other images I use as bookmarks, this one reminds me of having visited a wonderful place. Three visits, in fact.

I first traveled over 30 years ago with Harvey, my partner at that time. To celebrate his finishing his doctoral courses at Emory, Harvey and I took a six-month backpacking trip through Europe. (In getting ready for that trip, I had made a list of towns I particularly wanted to visit, based on the 1979 edition of architect/photographer Norman Carver’s book of mostly black-and-white photographs of Italian hill towns. Assisi was one of the towns featured in Carver’s book.)

I visited Assisi a second time in the 1990s (this time, in much warmer weather!) with my friend Joyce, on our way back from our road trip through Provence, via Italy and Switzerland, to Joyce’s daughter’s house in Germany where Joyce was living at the time.

My third visit was in 2007, with Larry, my partner at that time, who joined a group of six friends to rent a villa in Umbria for a week. St. Francis being one of Larry’s favorite mystics, there was no question about our visiting Francis’ home town so Larry could see for himself the places where Francis spent his short and remarkable life.

Besides having been lucky enough to explore Assisi on three separate occasions, there’s another reason I’m particularly fond of this town. It was during a solitary walk through the non-touristy part of Assisi that I discovered the music of Ludovico Einaudi. A woodworker on the street I was ambling down was playing one of Einaudi’s CDs in his shop, and because his door was open, I got to hear for the first time this incredibly gifted contemporary composer’s music long before I rushed into the woodkeeper’s shop; I thought what I was hearing was a piano being played by some angel. (I had just walked out of an out-of-the-way museum’s exhibit of hundreds of contemporary sculptures of the Virgin Mary.) All these years later, I listen to Einaudi’s CDs often, and I’ve never forgotten how magically I first heard his amazing music.

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Needless to say, Assisi is full of wonders and worth as many visits as you care to make there. And, apart from all the art and the many impressive traces of the only Catholic saint I’ve ever cared a hoot about, one of the town’s wonders is Vignati’s tiny store, Artestampa (“The Art of Printing”). If you visit Assisi yourself sometime in the next few years, you might consider seeking it out. It’s on Via San Francisco. You will not be sorry.

Meanwhile, my periodically plucking out from my little stash of bookmarks this little image – it’s the size of a business card, although Vignati probably sells larger, more expensive prints of it – helps to remind me – and for as long as I’m using that bookmark again – of not only my three magical visits to Assisi, but my love of All Things Italian, and of my fascination with hill towns (no matter where they are: Jerusalem, for example,  is another favorite).

Do you have something that you’ve picked up on one of your own trips somewhere that you use as a favorite bookmark? If you do, I’d be interested to hear about what it is.

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This is the second installment of an ongoing project to post some of the beautiful or startling or humorous images I’ve collected over the years that, for one reason or another, I especially treasure. I plan to briefly explain why I treasure each of these images and/or remind myself how or when they came into my life. For the creators of these images – whenever I’m able to track down their names – the project is my way of thanking them for enriching my life.

 

 

Abajem III

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Earlier this month, I spent a week at the beach with eleven other gay men. We split the cost of renting a gigantic house on St. George Island, off the Gulf of Mexico near Apalachicola.

This year’s trip was much like the week spent with the same group on St. George last year and the year before that: a lot of relaxing and conversation inside the house or out on its decks, sitting under an umbrella at the ocean’s edge, reading, napping, catching up with each other’s lives since we’d last seen each other (about half the group lives in or near Asheville, the other half in Atlanta), meditating together each morning, and preparing and enjoying elaborate, delicious dinners. Some of us got up each morning to watch the sun come up, some of us took long walks, some of us took long bike rides, some of us kayaked, some of us soaked in the hot tub, some of us flew kites, some of worked on art or craft projects, and there were multiple rounds of Wizards. After dinner on our last night we watched a DVD movie together – the brilliant and hilarious Sordid Lives, despite the fact that all but one of us had seen it multiple times before. And at some point we all poked around a bit in the nearby town of Apalachicola.

Sunrise photo by Randall

SGI 2016 photo by Neil

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In addition to the glorious and comfortable surroundings, the perfect weather, the interesting conversations, the incredible food, the frequent laughter, and some astonishing outfits, what made the week special was the harmonious  ease that flowed throughout the week among this diverse, intelligent, talented, and kind group of men. Doubtless this remarkable camaraderie was partly due to the fact that all twelve of us share many of the values and attitudes promoted by Gay Spirit Visions, an organization some of us have been affiliated with for over twenty-five years.

An additional pleasure of my St. George vacation this year was visiting briefly with my Oregon-based brother Michael and his wife Inice, who were on St. George the same week, celebrating their wedding anniversary (they were married on the island thirty-one years ago). My co-vacationer Randall and I, as well as Mike and Inice, also got to rendezvous with Royce and Martha, longtime friends of ours who live on St. George.

I didn’t take many photos this year, so most of the ones I’ve posted here were taken by my co-vacationers – although I’m not sure who took which photos. But first a photo of Abajem, the house we rented, that appears on the rental house’s website:

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Here’s the view from the front decks of the house:

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Next are three photos of  our Master of the Revels and the guy who’s been coordinating these annual trips to St. George for the past fifteen years:

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SGI 2016 photo 3 by Neil

Random snapshots of the rest of us:

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Here’s Bradford putting the finishing touches on one of his amazing tablescapes for our dinner table:

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Again this year, I had great fun preparing three afternoon teas for the group. The comestibles for one of those teas:

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At some point during the week, we somehow managed to assemble for a group photo:

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A lovely week, with a group of lovely guys. I feel blessed to know them, and to have spent another week in their extraordinary company. The fact that we discussed the possibility of spending a week or two together in Europe somewhere was also exciting!

Many thanks to my co-vacationers who posted photos to the Google Document John set up for us. If you’ll let me know who took which photos, I’ll be glad to credit you! And if others post further photos, I’ll be glad to add them here.