Ireland 2009: All Experience Is an Arch

Inis Meain

I returned home Monday night from a 3-week holiday in Ireland. (Read previous entries on this trip here and here.)

A quick index of the trip:

Canceled flights: 2
Delayed flights: 3
Re-routed itineraries: 1
Airport shutdowns: 1
Hotel shutdowns: 1
Road shutdowns: 1
Occurrences of lost luggage: 4
Unexpected nights spent in Dublin: 4
Unexpected nights spent on Inis Meain: 1

Now, Christina Katz did warn me about traveling during Mercury Retrograde. I thought it would result in a minor miscommunication or two.

Fortunately, for the trip I brought a Kindle loaded with the Zanders’ Art of Possibility, which was the perfect read to experience the trip in another light. Here’s a new index:

Extra magazines read: 8
Extra books read: 2
Additional cities enjoyed: 2
Extra movies viewed: 5
Extra days to refresh the world perspective: 3

Possibility was one theme of the trip. Here are some others.

Observation & Building Fires

Inis Meain cottage

My Inis Meain cottage was heated by a small stove in the living area (seen above). I found the instructions for using the stove in the kitchen—and at first I thought these instructions were for the kitchen stove, which frightened me when I read the first operating step was to light the stove in the “typical way” by building a small fire using newspaper and sticks.

Not having any kindling, I bought packets of fire starter bricks to get the show started each night. The coal was stored in a shed in the backyard, and every afternoon I went out with a metal pail and shoveled it full for that night’s fire.

I have no experience starting or maintaining fires, so everything was trial and error, closely observing how the fire behaved when I used a lot of coal or just a little, what size of coal lumps worked best, if it mattered how I arranged the lumps.

Of course, all of these things mattered, and there were also variables like how much to ventilate the stove, how much ash to leave, and how much stoking was too much.

It usually took 90-120 minutes for me to build a hot enough fire that I could throw anything on it and not worry. Frustratingly, my last night on the island, even with a full pack of fire starter left, I couldn’t keep the fire alive after 2 hours of babysitting it. Looking back, I probably had too much ash build-up in the stove after a week of burning coal, and I wasn’t properly emptying it.

The entire process was one of the hallmarks of visiting Ireland. The farm I later stayed at was also heated by a stove, although a much more massive one, sitting in the kitchen, and you could cook food with it. (Don’t worry, there was a modern stove as well.) One compartment of the stove had eggshells in it; the farm owners dry them for use in their gardens.

Aside from the stove, the farm had a fireplace with stacks of logs for burning (and good kindling), and keeping that fire lit was a breeze. But relying on fires for warmth became tiresome, and if there was one thing I was grateful for when delayed for 3 days in Dublin, it was that I was staying in a hotel room with a thermostat.

Confidence & The Book of Kells

Trinity College Library (Dublin)

On New Year’s Eve, The Conductor and I drove to Dublin for our last night in Ireland since we had an early flight home on New Year’s Day. It snowed that night, and snowfall is so rare in Ireland that the Dublin airport closed the next morning and nearly all flights were canceled. About a centimeter of snow resulted in a departure delay for 3 days.

The Conductor and I had some time to kill in Dublin.

I have to thank friends and colleagues at this juncture—so many sent wonderful tips and recommendations on how to make best use of the time. The Book of Kells at Trinity College seemed to be on everyone’s list, so we went there first.

Since the Kells exhibit is at a college library, I assumed entry would be free, but once we arrived at the building for admission, we saw it was nine euros per person. I glanced at The Conductor, and he glanced at me, and we stepped out of the entry line and started browsing the gift shop next to admission instead. (At this point you have to realize we were on unbudgeted travel time.)

I noticed a poster-size image of the library too beautiful to be believed, with medieval texts crowded on floor-to-ceiling shelves in a magnificent two-story hall. It was the Trinity College library. I told The Conductor I doubted they let the common man in that place.

A few minutes later, The Conductor motioned for me to follow him up a flight of stairs in the middle of the shop. Lots of signs stated “no entry,” and there was a steady stream of people coming down the stairs into the shop.

“Hey, where you going, it says no entry?”

The Conductor charged ahead as if he didn’t hear me. I took shy bunny steps behind him, looked at my feet, and tried to feign ignorance.

Of course, at the top of the steps was the amazing library, and no one was guarding the stairs to ensure people didn’t reverse access the exhibit. (I never imagined a hokey gift shop could reside under such a magnificent room.)

For a few minutes, I just stood and enjoyed looking at the room, waiting for someone to tell me to get my ass back down into the gift shop. Then I tentatively toed around the glass cases with old texts.

The Conductor whipped out his iPhone and started to take a photograph when a staff member shouted, “NO PHOTOGRAPHY.” By then he’d already taken one shot (which you see above), and he came over to show me with his trademark arrogant grin. He walked away to see the Book of Kells as if he owned the place and had paid full-price admission of everyone in that room.

The Conductor has taught me a lot about confidence, although the level of confidence displayed at Trinity College ventures into brashness.

I stayed within about 250 feet of the stairway, and enjoyed every illicit moment that his brashness allowed me.

As I was reading my pile of New Yorkers on the island, I came across an article about the financial crisis by Malcolm Gladwell, and noted some points that reminded me of The Conductor, who works in financial services.

Investment bankers are able to borrow billions of dollars and make huge trades because, at the end of the day, their counterparties believe they are capable of making good on their promises. Wall Street is a confidence game, in the strictness sense of that phrase.

This is what social scientists mean when they say that human overconfidence can be an adaptive trait. “In conflicts involving mutual assessment, an exagerated assessment of the probability of winning increases the probability of winning,” Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, writes.

“Selection therefore favors this form of overconfidence.” Winners know how to bluff. And who bluffs the best? The person who, instead of pretending to be stronger than he is, actually believes himself stronger than he is.

Later in the trip, after our flight was canceled, I wondered aloud, on the airport shuttle, how many people on that shuttle were the victim of a canceled flight. The Conductor got out of his seat, asked for everyone’s attention in an Irish brogue, welcomed them to Dublin, and asked for a show of hands of canceled flight passengers. Everyone raised their hand.

The Conductor & Publisher Paradox

Staigue Fort (Kerry Ring, Ireland)

While The Conductor (shown above) can be a man of confident action, he still asks what I want to do. And, while I work as a Publisher and am a big decider, I am terribly indecisive.

Alain de Botton recently tweeted, “We should be suspicious of relationships with anyone who could not confess to at least 5 reasons why they would be very testing to live with.”

Probably No. 1 on my list would be: “Can’t make quick decisions.” E.g., it can take me so long to choose a movie to watch that I run out of time to watch a movie.

The Conductor, knowing this, either obligingly or hopefully, asks me what I’d like to do anyway.

When our flight home was canceled (but we were already at the airport), The Conductor asked me what to do, which made sense. I am a more experienced traveler.

We joined a very long line of irate people to speak to an Aer Lingus representative. I guessed it would take 3-4 hours of standing in line. It wasn’t the best thing to do. The best thing to do was to get on the phone and call the airline.

But my cell phone wasn’t working in Ireland. Plus I didn’t have the numbers of the airline. As we stood in line, I talked through what we really needed to do—which is a good set of instructions for anyone stuck:

1. Get (or always carry) the airline numbers. In this case, we needed numbers for Aer Lingus (canceled flight to London) and British Airways (next leg of journey to U.S. that we would miss). For anyone using a travel agent, obviously carry your agent’s number with you everywhere.

2. Have your e-ticket or confirmation numbers handy. I had mine, but The Conductor didn’t have his—and had to use an Internet machine at the airport to retrieve the info.

3. Call and pester the airlines until someone re-books you.

I kept our place in line while The Conductor gathered the airline numbers and his e-ticket number. The line had barely moved in the 30-45 minutes it took him to return.

The Conductor’s phone was working, but even if it had been my phone, I would’ve made him call. I hate making calls. (I even wrote a blog post about it.) I hate trying to accomplish things on the phone. I especially hate calling customer service centers for any reason.

The Conductor has spent a great deal of his life working the phones. He could probably write an instructional manual on cold calling. So his skills in this area always prove invaluable.

When he found someone from British Airways to help us (Aer Lingus was hopeless), The Conductor had the customer service rep pulling all kinds of strings to rebook us on a flight home the next day, which ultimately turned out to be impossible. But we had the satisfaction of knowing every conceivable solution had been tried.

If it had been me making the call, we’d still be in Dublin. (When I called American Airlines yesterday to inquire about our lost luggage, I was told there was absolutely no information on it. Later I discovered The Conductor had called prior to me and learned the bags were in Chicago, but weather delays were preventing onward travel to Cincinnati.)

Miscellaneous Notes About Ireland & Dublin

Music at Ros a Mhil Pub

1. Rick Steves has said that Dublin is a bore. I only spent a day in the city center, but compared to other European cities I’ve visited, I’m inclined to agree.

Admittedly, I was extremely neglectful and never properly experienced the pub & music culture, either in the city or the country. But The Conductor did on St. Stephen’s Day, in the tiny port town of Ros a Mhil. For him it was the best part of his trip; he fit into the scene so well (pictured above) he was even asked to sing a song for the Irish; he chose “Stardust.” And I missed it.

2. I craved salty snacks nearly the whole time I was in Ireland. While biscuits in the UK/Ireland are vastly superior to what’s in the U.S. (I suppose you need something to keep tea time interesting over a lifetime), there are few options for a connoisseur of potato chips, crackers, and puffy rice-soy snacks.

3. I endeavor to visit places off-season because I dislike throngs of people, fighting crowds, and waiting in lines. However, visiting Ireland off-season meant many things were closed. I would’ve paid anything to see Skellig Michael, but boats don’t travel there in winter.

4. I love HSBC ads, which I saw on television during my trip, but I usually know HSBC from their European jetbridge ads. More on this in a future blog post. If you haven’t seen their ads, check this out.

5. Irish rhubarb yogurt. [Loving sigh.] This isn’t really unique to Ireland, but whenever I travel, the food served or sold tends to be local—and the fact that food is made fresh and/or local (and not in a factory) is emphasized at every turn. I wish this trend would pick up faster and more strongly in the U.S., so yogurt can taste like yogurt again and not like a pasty cup of chemicals.

6. I highly recommend the Aran Islands for a writing retreat.

7. Malt vinegar packets can look exactly like ketchup packets. You’ve been warned.


Brazen Head Pub (Dublin)

For those who want the full slideshow:

Following are a few photos that I find to be the most poetic and symbolic of what I saw in Ireland.

Stone Shed With Wooden Gate

On Inis Meain - a stone shed and a faded blue wooden gate

Inis Meain Cow

On Inis Meain - livestock grazing among stone ruins

Inis Meain stone cairn

A stone cairn on Inis Meain. Cairns serve as markers. This one was marking Synge's Chair.

Inis Meain tree

The trees in Ireland take the shape of the wind

Ireland's West Coast (County Kerry)

The coast off the ring of Kerry, near the town of Portmagee, with Skellig islands in the distance.

New Eyes, First Days Back Home, and Chili

This Is the Viewing Point

Returning home is the hardest part of these personal odysseys. While I’m away, I don’t miss my home, work, or the people there—everything takes on a degree of such unimportance, I think I must be on the wrong path in life.

Then I’m back, and I have these new eyes. I see people I know so well again, and experience a feeling of welcome and belonging that slowly expands into the passing minutes and hours.

I am reminded of “Ulysses” by Tennyson, which I am so fond of, as my father had taken two lines (in bold below) and turned them into a work of calligraphy. I wish I had that piece of artwork, but it is lost.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

On my first full day back in the U.S., I left the office over lunch to grab a bite.  I ended up sitting at the counter at Johnny Rockets (where I never go), having a bowl of chili—heavy on the cinnamon and topped with cheese and onions—and dipping French fries into a pond of Heinz ketchup squirted from a very large bottle. And I paid with my American Express credit card.

My luggage is still not home yet; I presume it’s having a rest in Chicago. I don’t mind waiting as long as it comes eventually. It’s opened up new possibilities, starting with a new shampoo, a better toothbrush, and fun conversations with immensely kind pilots on Twitter who have good advice on lost luggage.

Posted in Travel.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Darrelyn Saloom

Hilarious! I loved every word of this post but the following sent me into a fit of laughter: “The Conductor charged ahead as if he didn’t hear me. I took shy bunny steps behind him, looked at my feet, and tried to feign ignorance.”

I’ve heard lots of stories about Trinity College, but that was the funniest. But I’ve never heard of Irish rhubarb yogurt. Really?

Darrelyn Saloom

Hilarious! I loved every word of this post but the following sent me into a fit of laughter: “The Conductor charged ahead as if he didn’t hear me. I took shy bunny steps behind him, looked at my feet, and tried to feign ignorance.”

I’ve heard lots of stories about Trinity College, but that was the funniest. But I’ve never heard of Irish rhubarb yogurt. Really?


Hi Jane,
Am laughing at your entry into Trinity – sure you aren't the first to go in by the back door, that's very Irish! And €9 is pretty steep. Delighted you enjoyed it and had fun in the Islands. Your pics are fabulous.
All best
Vanessa (@inkwellHQ)


I think my husband and The Conductor have a lot in common!

Darrelyn Saloom

Hilarious! I loved every word of this post but the following sent me into a fit of laughter: “The Conductor charged ahead as if he didn’t hear me. I took shy bunny steps behind him, looked at my feet, and tried to feign ignorance.”

Well, that and picturing you trying to keep the coal stove lit. 🙂


Loved reading this. My family spent a week in Ireland a few years ago (in summer) and I would love to go back. But we paid full price to see the book of Kells! (Don't think the five of us would have had the gumption to do what you did 😉

shelli johannes wells

Loved reading this. My husband is from Wales so I can relate to the UK/Ireland experience! Especially the cold, food, and beauty of the area.

shelli johannes wells

Loved reading this. My husband is from Wales so I can relate to the UK/Ireland experience! Especially the cold, food, and beauty of the area.


What an awesome blog to come across! Well done writing this up and your photographs are fantastic. I also paid for the Book of Kells, however I did convince a security guard to let me sit on the throne in Dublin Castle. 😉

If you ever make it back, do make a point to see the Skelligs. All 700 or so steps up to the top of Skellig Michael were worth it. They almost killed me, but they were worth it.

Thanks again.