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I’ve just finished an Interrail trip with my adult children (all students). We started in Amsterdam, then we moved on to Stuttgart, then Prague, Salzburg and finally Venice. We stopped off briefly in Mannheim and Vienna along the way.

Interrailing is the way to go if you want an adventure rather than just a holiday. It’s a vacation that requires you to make spot decisions all the time, and not all of those decisions will be the right ones. Murphy’s Law applies: multiple things can and will go wrong. Each day, you are going to experience something new and different, and each day you are creating memories that will last a lifetime.

I did my first Interrail in 1988, and my second one in 1990. 32 years have passed before embarking on Interrail Number Three. Many things have changed in the meantime: the internet, children, that kind of thing. So this trip was very different to my first two trips in so many ways.

Here are a few tips that might help if you are planning a similar Interrail.

Plan Early

For me, much of the fun of Interrailing is the advance planning, and the build up of anticipation that accompanies a well planned trip.

The first question I asked myself was where we would go. This was a surprisingly easy decision. Cork, where I live, has limited connections to Europe, so we placed Amsterdam as our first destination, and Venice our last. Both cities have direct flights to Cork.

It was then just a matter of filling in cities along the way. I lived in Prague for a few months in the 1990s and I still have a good friend there, so this was pencilled in immediately. I also have family members living near Stuttgart, so that went into the book. The last destination was a matter of geography: what’s a good place to stay between Prague and Venice? Oh, look: Salzburg.

Salzburg

Limit your destinations

Depending on how much time you have overall, ideally you should spend about three nights in each place. Long distance travelling is tiring, so you will need to give yourself at least a day to travel, a day to explore and a day to take it easy. Packing all of Europe into a two or three week vacation would not be much fun, so choose a limited number of cities and make the most of your stays while you are there.

Vienna

Pre-book your accommodation

I have bad memories of seeking accommodation when I arrived into new cities on my earlier Interrails . With tools like booking.com and Airbnb, these days are gone. Book your accommodation in advance and be done with it. This alone will remove the single biggest source of stress from your holiday.

I used a combination of booking.com and Airbnb for the trip. In all cases the accommodation was great: in Prague we ended up close to Charles Bridge and our apartments in Venice and Salzburg were less than 10 minutes from the main train stations: a blessing after a long journey. Both places came well recommended.

Choosing accommodation early also allows you to better manage your cash flow when you are travelling: some of the biggest expenses will already have been cared for.

With AirBnB you can change your mind quite close to the travel date. This is a real plus, avoiding you from being caught with a no-refund booking if plans need to change.

Venice

Plan for contingencies

The nature of Interrail is that not everything will go right, so plan for contingencies. In these post-pandemic times, you need to have good travel insurance. There are other things you can do, such as booking extra luggage if you are flying there, increasing the number of travel days on your Interrail ticket, and bringing along a small first aid kid, tissues and over-the-counter painkillers. Think about how you might handle one of your party getting sick or coming down with Covid: these are real possibilities that need to be considered.

On our trip, one of my sons got a bit too much sun one day. He was sick for a few hours. He then had a few unannounced nosebleeds during the remainder of the trip. He needed a pack of tissues at the ready when it happened.

Amsterdam

Pack light

I think one of our biggest mistakes was to pack too much. One of my sons brought a big 20kg bag, that we aptly named ‘Gigantopithicus’ due to its ungainliness. Because many Airbnbs had their own washing machines, we were able to wash our clothes regularly. We only needed a few days worth of underwear, tops and shorts. One small 10kg bag and another 10kg backpack was more than enough.

Because we were travelling during the height of the summer, I packed no warm clothes; I depended on a very light rain jacket if things got a bit chilly at night.

A good pair of comfortable light walking shoes is very important. We walked well over 130km during our trip. You should also bring charging cables, adaptors and power packs for additional charging during the day.

Along with my 10kg backpack, I brought with me another very small backpack to carry water bottles, cameras, sun cream and sunglasses during the day – whatever I needed during my walk around each city.

I also wore light mountaineering trousers that could be quickly converted into shorts if needed. It had additional pockets for my phone, my passport and my wallet.

Prague

Find local supermarkets

Unless you are made of money, dining out for breakfast, lunch and dinner will cost you an arm and a leg. So, finding a local supermarket is absolutely essential. A supermarket shop will help greatly to reduce your travel costs. Alcohol in particular is way cheaper in the supermarkets, and you can quickly add bread, butter, cheese, cooked meat and milk to your shop – and even bring these along to your further destinations. The local grocery foods are wonderful – they are well provisioned with lots of local specialties. They are also much more likely to take cards instead of cash, still a problem for some restaurants.

Stuttgart

Manage your data

When abroad, there is a limit to how much broadband you can use, so keep an eye on your mobile data. You don’t have to turn it off completely as the broadband limit is quite generous, but you should selectively turn off mobile data for apps you don’t need to use, thus giving you some control. It’s possible to see how much of your allowance you have used. In the end we had plenty of unused data: it would have been more of a concern if we were downloading lots of movies, gaming, navigating extensively or using lots of data heavy mobile apps while out and about.

Amsterdam

Create online spaces for yourselves

For our trip, we set up joint picture sharing. We encouraged each other to take plenty of pictures and videos and we regularly uploaded these to our shared account. One of my sons now has the daunting task of creating a somewhat coherent account of our trip, but we can now enjoy both edited and non-edited versions of our trip.

We also created a shared account for messaging, so we could share documents and locations quickly, and communicate with each other if we were apart.

Finally we all shared our locations with each other, allowing us to find each other without much fuss, should we need to do so.

I found the whole experience of being online like this really helpful. A quick shared link helped to avoid lots of conversation and haggling. It also took the pressure off me to organise everything and it allowed for a second or third set of eyes and ears should I make a mistake.

Venice

Thinking of Joe H whose passion for Prague was palpable. I’ve wanted to go back here for many years.

It’s wonderful to be back in the most beautiful city on earth.

The most beautiful city in the world.

There are no problems in nature. When something happens, no matter how bad, nature does not look for a solution or a resolution. An asteroid could hit a planet, and there are no tribunals of inquiry, no hunt for causes. Nope. In nature, irrespective of the damage, time just continues on. An invasive weed could take over an entire island, killing its former inhabitants, rendering the island deserted apart from that one obnoxious plant. If nobody is looking on, it’s not a problem, just a change.

Problems are only a product of the mind. To have a problem, you have to have some sort view as to how things should be. Problems are created when reality diverges from that view. If a machine is not running well, you need a concept of “running well” somewhere.

Thus problems are subjective. If there are different expectations of how reality should behave, then depending on who is looking at it, the problem will look different, or there might not be a problem at all.

If you are the invader of a country that does not want to be invaded, and they resist like hell, then your problem is that they are not complying with your intention the way you would like them to. If you are being invaded, then your problem is to get the buggers out. If you are an arms dealer, then what’s the problem?

So problems depend on who is asking and good problem solving depends on a sharing and agreeing a view of what the problem is.

Problem solving should therefore begin with the question “who?” – who is asking and what is their view of what reality should be? Without clarifying that, you are only inviting confusion.

I’m reminded of Gareth Morgan’s concept of a “psychic prison” when I think of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The idea is that in organisations, the neuroses, idiosyncrasies and psychoses of the founders and leaders get ossified in the culture and structures of the organisation. An observant watcher can see the signs everywhere, from how confidential information is handled, how dissidents are punished, how people are promoted and even the seemingly little things like the organisation of coffee breaks, all-hands meetings and nights out.

I think the same goes with countries: particularly ones with psychopathic leaders.

Russia right now is an extension of his diseased mind. A place where traitors are everywhere. Where enemies are seeking to invade. Where collapse and defeat is around every corner.

Russia is trapped in a psychic prison: not necessarily of Putin’s making, but one he fortified while in power. It’s a sick mental state that’s getting more paranoid and aggressive by the day.

My partner has seen Russian people she interacted with before the war turn into mouthpieces of the very worst of Putin’s ravings. She is involved in a very niche community on Facebook, but I expect that similar sentiments have been uttered in all sorts of different communities. Russians are trapped in their leader’s mental breakdown and parroting his fears and prejudices. It’s a sort of Stockholm syndrome.

Normal people with a relatively healthy attitude towards others don’t think like this.

It’s not just Russia, of course. Many German people had similar attitudes before and during World War II, as did many Japanese. You can see the same sentiments today in America, Poland, Hungary, China and Brazil. The paranoia of the leader infects the thinking of the populace.

But such breakdowns can also dissipate quickly. Germany and Japan quickly accepted radically different norms after their defeat in World War II, and many Eastern European countries quickly cast off their communist norms after 1989.

The end of this terrible debacle has to address this dreadful mode of thinking, otherwise it will persist beyond Putin. Russia has to have a stake in the future of the region. It should not be casted from the international community, lest we want a recurrence in an even more malignant form some years down the road.

But these sentiments are not for now. Right now, Putin has to be defeated or contained. He can’t be reasoned with or appeased. It’s after Putin that Russia needs positive engagement. A way has to be found to allow our Russian fellow travellers to bury their resentments and work for better days.

I keep thinking

Of the five lone exiles

Thrown from their mother planet

On a journey through the stars.

They are free now

Free of us

What happens here:

The pain, the wars,

The urge to hate and torch

It touches them not at all.

True alien spacecraft

Technology barely understood

By the creatures who built them

Beings of a single form

Who could not bear

To live beside each other.

Perhaps, after a million years

One of them is found

By curious minds.

Will they marvel

At the careful handiwork

The thoughtful construction

The imagination needed

To set great vision to flight?

Will they discover

That those who made it

Were cursed

To wipe their planet clean

Trading a vast future

For a momentary chance

To despoil and destroy?

On they travel

Through the endless night

Free of us

This marvellous tribe

Of great mastery

Yet wanton violence,

There will remain

Just five lone exiles.

Pioneer 10

Pioneer 11

Voyager 2

Voyager 1

New Horizons

Everywhere I look these days, companies are trying to get me to sign up to paid subscriptions for their content. While I understand why subscriptions are needed, and I accept fully that companies need to make money from their content, I think the subscription model is oversold. I’m unlikely to pay for a subscription to the Japan Times just to read one article, no matter how good that article might be.

I have a number of subscriptions ongoing. I’m subscribed to The New York Times, The Irish Times, the Guardian and The Irish Examiner. I will readily pay for high quality, relevant content that I’m likely to dip into frequently. But I can’t, and won’t, subscribe to everything. There is a limit to what I can afford and ultimately it would feel like paying for services I am under-using.

Which is why I’m very happy I’ve discovered Readly. This is a content aggregator site that gives me access to hundreds of magazines and periodicals without me having to take out any more than a single subscription. I’m still paying for quality content, but I don’t have to subscribe separately. It’s exactly what a voracious reader like me needs.

Readly has a ton of good content available: from history to science to politics and sport. It also seems somewhat alone in its field: many comparable content aggregators are geographically limited or only cater for free RSS based content. I’m interested if there are other services like this.

One of my big interests is the story of late medieval Ireland. This is a period largely bracketed by the entry of the Anglo-Normans into Ireland around 1170, to the rise of the Tudor dynasty from the 1540s, give or take a few decades.

It fascinates me because we learned so little about this period in school. While other nations were crusading and renaissancing, discovering China, trading spices and being murdered by Mongol hordes, Irish history seemed rather muted, to say the least. The account usually goes as follows: the Normans arrived and conquered Ireland, they built lots of castles, and they eventually became as Irish as the Irish themselves. By the 1500’s English influence was reduced to a small area (The Pale) around Dublin and would have remained this way if it wasn’t for Henry VIII and his daughters and cousins casting their greedy imperial eyes on our green island.

As Irish as the Irish themselves. That single statement seems to cover an an enormous amount of time. Imagine all history since Oliver Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland being reduced to a 6 word sentence, because that’s pretty much the same length of time: 370 years.

I had questions. Precisely how did “Norman” influence get whittled back to a such small narrow area around Dublin? How exactly did the nasty English make friends with their Irish neighbours? What was with all the castles? What else happened in that time period? How can 370 years be passed by so effortlessly?

Even though I still have a lot to discover, what I have learned so far has been engrossing.

First of all, there were a number of hugely disastrous events that get less attention than they deserve in our history books. The Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1315 – an invasion by the Scots affecting great swathes of the country – was utterly devastating. To make matters worse, it coincided with by far the worst famine of the Middle Ages. Then the Black Death came along in 1349, spiriting away a huge proportion of the Irish population. Bubonic Plague was to return every 20 years or so, killing thousands of people each time.

It also appears that climate change had a big effect. The late Middle Ages marks the beginning of the period known as the Little Ice Age. Frequent bad harvests from the later 13th Century through to the 15th Century often resulted in generalised and localised famines. Ireland suffered a significant population loss, resulting in the re-growth of woodland and oak forest across many areas of the country.

The colonisation of Ireland by the Normans was complex, to say the least. The Norman Irish and the Gaelic Irish had a far more bellicose relationship with each other than it might appear. It was often a real clash of cultures, full of hatred and enmity. The Anglo-Irish divided Ireland into ‘lands of peace’, where their influence held sway, and ‘lands of war’: the marshes or borderlands where conflict with Gaelic warlords was frequent and bloody.

This picture is muddied further by the existence of clans and groupings within the Anglo community that went rogue, building fiefdoms and landholdings outside of English control and forming alliances of convenience with Gaelic lords as suited their needs. These “rebel English” were often a bigger nuisance to the English administration in Dublin than the natives themselves.

In these border areas, little progress could be made against what could often be formidable enemies. The rebel clans made copious use of Gallowglasses – foreign mercenary soldiers that neutralised the advantage that Norman armies once had over their Gaelic foes.

The Anglo-Irish also suffered from a wholesale lack of investment from the English crown, who increasingly came to see Ireland as an irritating financial burden. They had wars to fight elsewhere, particularly France; thus Ireland was an unwanted draw on the exchequer. What attempts were made to retake Irish land (and there were quite a few) were often short-lived and limited in scope.

What emerged was a war of attrition, with Crown forces pitted against Irish and rebel clans, and Anglo-Norman landowners vacating their lands due to war, famine and disease.

Despite this, many towns and coastal cities remained in English control. They were frequently harried and attacked by native and rebel forces, but still retained their colonial character, and indeed, survived well. Many of Ireland’s market towns date from this period.

The Gaelicisation of Ireland emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a result of extensive inter-marriage between Irish and Anglo-Irish families, general depopulation and abandonment of lands, and increasing neglect by the English. Events such as the Wars of the Roses in England afforded little time for Irish affairs, though interestingly, some of the great families supported both Lancaster and York, and even fought a battle in Piltown, Kilkenny under these opposing banners. Powerful dynasties emerged from this that were largely unimpeded by the increasingly powerless English administrators. These families developed their own sensibilities, borrowing from both Irish and British culture as they saw fit.

The most significant of these dynasties were the Kildare FitzGeralds, with the greatest of them all – Garret Mor FitzGerald – becoming a de-facto ruler of Ireland well into of the sixteenth century.

The “Norman” castles is an interesting one. The many tower houses that pepper the Irish landscape are often not Norman at all, but very late Medieval and Early Modern. They were often built by Gaelic chiefs, copying from more international trends. This indicates that the traffic towards Gaelicisation was not a simple one-way affair. Well-to-do Gaelic families coveted what Britain and wider Europe had to offer and in doing so became cosmopolitan and less insular.

So, it turns out that Late Medieval times were very complicated. Ireland was a broken patchwork of polities, communities, alliances and enmities, difficult to control and impossible to tame. The period was dominated by great disease and famine, which in turn broke the colonial classes. The grim choice was to retreat to the urban walled towns or to find ways to interact with the Irish enemy through marriages and alliances. Eventually, even the English themselves began to disown the colonial families, referring to them as aliens. Yet, the Anglo Irish community made a huge mark in the country, with laws, boundaries, towns and villages that persist to this day. Ultimately, it was an Anglo-Irish chieftain, Garret Mor Fitzgerald, who united the country, bequeathing to the Irish a sense of nationhood that would persist over the subsequent centuries.

Does any other adult feel

Like they are a wall?

Stopping waves of pain crossing

From one side to the other?

Sometimes that wall

breaks

Or is insufficiency high,

Then the pain washes

Into unprepared garden spaces

Where inky torrents

Do their worst damage.

No more bright flowers

In once pleasant beds

Only sticky detritus:

Dark mud

A lasting stain

That cannot be

Washed away.

A stone hit me

Square in the head.

It hurt me quite badly.

Dazed and in great pain

I sought it out.

I said “Hey stone,

Why did you hurt me so badly?”

The stone remained silent,

Impassive, uncaring,

Unresponsive to my predicament.

It was, after all,

A stone.

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