Greetings from the United Kingdom! I’ve returned from across the pond! I can’t wait to share memories and pictures with you all.
Perhaps I will start at the beginning.
Five weeks ago I traveled to Lebanon, Pennsylvania for rehearsal and recording with the Oasis Chorale. We rehearsed at St. Luke’s, an Episcopal church built in the 1880s. Gorgeous architecture.
The first day was a great day of music-making, but I lost my fervor as the day wore on because I noticed I was developing severe throat pain. But this could not dampen the joy of joining 40 singers and nailing Lyle Stutzman’s “Shout for Joy” at the first down beat. These singers energize me! Thursday I was brokenhearted. My throat pain had only worsened. I was convinced I had developed yet another case of strep throat, and I was sent straight to the doctor. While the choir spent hours recording beautiful hymns that I had practiced for months, I sat in the waiting room at an urgent care facility. I spent the next two days sucking zinc lozenges and taking naps, trying to beat the virus I had contracted. (So, no strep throat. But seriously?! What is with the sickness?)
By using the zinc, downing EmergenC, and gargling warm salt-water, I was well enough to sing at our Saturday and Sunday concerts, which was very exciting for me because these were our only state-side concerts. And, my parents had surprised me and had driven out all the way from Ohio to attend both concerts!
Our last concert, at St. Luke’s, was packed out! It was standing room only, and we found out later there were nearly 100 people standing outside listening in through the windows. A rather warm evening, but so beautiful! I felt so much gratefulness in my heart to God for giving me this opportunity, especially after I had just gotten over the virus. I had had a lot of time for personal reflection, having sat out of several rehearsals, and I felt very settled at the concert. It seemed very worshipful. I felt privileged to sing about God’s goodness. And His grace and mercy. And purity.
Afterwards, the warm lights of St. Luke’s lighted the joyous fellowship. And I’m not just using million dollar words right now. That’s really how great it was. An excellent introduction to good times ahead. Monday: we fly.
Monday we rehearsed in the morning, then drove to NYC. We left for Dublin, Ireland at 9 p.m. and for once in my flight life, I had one of those really cool airplane seat mates who you can talk to for hours. We discussed education, religion, and Irish culture. She recommended a movie for me to watch, and we ended up both watching it and discussing it. It’s an Academy Award-winning movie about a very specific event in Irish history. Apparently, in the mid-twentieth century in Ireland, girls who had children out of wedlock were ostracized by their families, turned out on the street, and would end up living with nuns at convents. Many times, the children were seized from these young mothers without their consent and given up for adoptions (truly, “sold”) to American families by the Catholic Church, the money from which was used to fund missions endeavors in Africa. (??) The movie, based on a true story, follows a journalist helping one such Irish woman, now in her 50s, trying to locate her son in America. The story is complicated by religious undertones whereby the journalist is an atheist, and the melancholy mother is a staunch Roman Catholic, despite what the church has done to her. One of the great themes from the movie is forgiveness; in an emotional scene the mother returns, years later, and forgives the unremorseful nuns who took her son away and destroyed information that would lead her back to him. The atheist journalist is almost angry at the woman: “How can you forgive them after what they’ve done to you?!” The Catholic Irish woman replies with strength: “That’s the difference between you and me.” It is a moving scene, very thought-provoking.
Watching this movie before landing in Ireland was an interesting introduction to Irish culture. Here I was, singing with a Mennonite choir from an evangelical tradition. How did that connect to a very Catholic country? Would my own faith tradition have any relevance to the Irish tradition? To the non-churched, how would my association with church be received, especially considering the people are dealing with certain hypocrisies in the Catholic tradition, including the Irish baby adoption scandal, not to mention the child sexual abuse issue that is very real for some individuals? How did my trip, my faith, and more importantly, Jesus, play into all of this? Was their healing to be had?
I can tell you that my thoughts were whirling when we landed on the sunny runway. My Irish seat mate left me with this: “Dancing, drinking, storytelling, and religion. These are what make up Irish culture. I hope you get to experience all of these things.”
Tuesday was that evil day of jet lag where they try to keep you awake all day even though you didn’t sleep at all on the airplane and it’s like 4 in the morning in your body, but sunny and 9 a.m. in Dublin city center. You feel like cursing, but you’re supposed to be a pleasant tourist all day, so you stand in line for like a half hour to see the Book of Kells and then go souvenir shopping. I caffeined up at a tiny coffee shop and tried not to whine too much. It had been a while since I had pulled an all-nighter.
The Book of Kells was amazing! The Trinity College exhibit was excellent and very exciting to see! Call me a nerd if you want, but that sort of artistry AMAZES me. The idea of scribes spending years copying, preserving, and decorating the words of God is amazing! And then the artistry is exquisite! The tiny detail, the tiny images and imageries… the figures… and all this preserved through Viking raids and the Middle Ages! I caffeine up with a real macchiato, and then I decided I needed a healthy meal (because seriously, what meal am I even ready for right now), so I ate… GET THIS: Nutella gelato. I decided I kind of liked Ireland. Next, we drove to the beautiful Glendalough Hotel, and with zombie smiles, enjoyed the grounds, the trees, the green clover, by the brook, near potted plants, before we were served the most delicious meal. Stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon, mashed Irish potatoes, and a “banquet” of vegetables. Then I had my first cup of Irish tea and an apple dessert, before we fell into our beds at the nearby (sparse) hostel. We are here!
Week 1: Rehearsing, Sightseeing, and English Concerts
The next few days were spent rehearsing and resting. Wednesday we rehearsed at the hostel before exploring Glendalough Visitor’s Centre, which has a wonderful museum display, passionate tour guides, and an informative video, explaining the importance of Celtic Christianity and the early Irish monastic tradition. No other place we visited in Ireland gave such great information of this period of church history. We learned about the history of St. Kevin in the area, the churches from the 900s through 1100s, the Tower, and the Celtic crosses on gravestones.
We choir members were then left to tour and hike at our leisure. I wanted to make the best use of my time and see All The Things. So I set out for the two hour hike, which we voluntarily turned into the three hour hike, because, hello, we’re only coming to Ireland once in our lives, and we should probably hike the rim, wouldn’t that be really cool? I mean, who cares that I’m just wearing off-brand Converse? Heh heh. Let me say: the views were amazing and so are my calves now.
Thursday we ferried to Wales! I’ve never been on a boat that big before, and I was nervous that I might get the sort of seasickness my dad gets. (His stomach turns by simply looking at a canoe.) However, I found that if I stayed in my seat, I felt just fine. Walking around made me a lil woozy though. It was pretty big ferry, with a gift shop, and several restaurants, would you fancy that. We spent the rest of the day busing to Bristol.
I didn’t know much about Bristol, England, but our two-hour, double-decker, open-top bus tour gave us a lot of historical information about the city. A pretty cool town! The perfect mix of old and new. Our bus tour ended at the Church of St. Thomas, the Martyr, a place with an organ so awesome that Handel liked to play it. We tiptoed in after visiting hours (we knew a guy) and enjoyed making music in the space. The church is no longer used as a place of worship, and it’s actually smack dab next to Bristol’s best night club, ironically. So while the side street was overflowing with tables and taps and rowdy conversation, we made music inside a beautiful church, which sits empty, with a lone organ, played by the likes of Handel, that sits silent. I’m sorry to say this to the Bristol British, but honestly, you are idiots. (Sorry.)
We stayed at a riverfront hostel, and once the sun finally went down, we saw a little taste of Bristol nightlife. Yeah, they don’t really go to bed early in that town. We enjoyed a hearty British breakfast the next morning at the hostel: eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms, “rashers” of bacon (thick bacon, slightly fried), and of course, tea.
Next we boarded the bus for Oxford! A two tour walking tour whet our appetites for amazing architectural and literary history! It seemed surreal. I had to remind myself I was in England. I could have spent days there, exploring the streets C. S. Lewis and Tolkien walked, eating at the Eagle & Child pub, and visiting all the lovely sights.
I joined a group of choir members intent on eating at the Eagle & Child, but we managed to miss meal time (they don’t serve food all day), so we had to go down the street to a St. Giles Café where I ordered eggs, bubble, and squeak. Bubble and squeak is like a potato cake with cabbage in it. It was all very delicious.
Our accommodations for the evening were at Keble College, which rents out its rooms in the summer to tourists, buts functions as a college during the school year. Absolutely stately grounds, and the breakfast in the large dining hall was palatial.
Friday evening was our first U.K. concert. We sang at Littlemore to an appreciative audience. Lovely hospitality, and it was great to interact with the audience afterwards.
Saturday we toured Warwick Castle which was a very interesting experience. It was at this point when I realized my knowledge of British history is sorely lacking! Wait, William the Conqueror? Who was he again? The castle grounds were very commercialized and less historical. Very, very kid-friendly. I spent the day being sad that I wasn’t enjoying the experience, and irritated that I could never bring my Indiana junior high students here who have been dazzled beyond belief.
Saturday night we sang at Aylesbury, a 13th century church. For some reason, we, or I, felt a special connection to the small audience. I think the progression of our repertoire moves in a specific way so that by the time we sing “God Be With You Til We Meet Again,” the little grandmas are teary-eyed and so are we.
Our last English concert was Sunday afternoon at Sandiway Gospel Church. What lovely hospitality and reception! The pastor warmed us with his words: “You’ll notice we’ve left the front row empty. That’s for the angels. They’re there to take some lessons from you!” After some wonderful food and fellowship with our friendly hosts, we headed off to the Colwyn beach in Wales to kill time before taking the night ferry.
I had heard NASTY things about night ferries and not sleeping, and ever since our first jet lag, I was determined to get my sleep. We boarded the ferry, and I dashed to find an empty bench. I donned my black eye patch and warm socks and I was out like a light until the captain announced we were back in Irish waters. The next morning, in County Wicklow, we toured Powerscourt Gardens, the third-ranked garden in the world (according to National Geographic). I spent the morning in quiet exploration, poking around the world-renowned living artwork with my Oasis friends whilst sipping an impeccable latte.
No, my readers, but the roses. The ROSES! They were huge! Ancient. Larger than life. Larger than your hand.
If I ever go to Ireland again, I will go to Powerscourt and spend all day in the walled garden.
We left Powerscourt for our Wicklow Hostel, Knockree, way back in the mountains. Beautiful, beautiful landscape. Rain. Mist. Sleep.
Coming soon: Week 2 and Saying Goodbye!