In the mid 1980s, we left our toddler with R's parents (and dog) in Dublin and drove our little red car to Northern Ireland. It was my first visit to what was then clearly a conflict zone. I remember sitting in a hotel bar just after we had crossed the border and exchanged our punts to pounds, looking out across the rainy sea waiting for soup and sandwiches, strong tea and R naming the mountain ranges in view. It all looked so benign and beautifully Irish.
We spent the first night with friends of friends in Belfast, an elderly Quaker couple, retired school teachers. It was a silent evening, both our hosts busily knitting. In the morning, they issued a detailed map to the city, where not to park, where not to go, what not to say etc.
In the end, we fled Belfast and its armed soldiers on every street corner, lots of body checks and bag searches, and drove on towards the beauty spots, Giant's Causeway
at sunset, Dunluce Castle
on a bright sunny morning all to ourselves, magnificient views across to Rathlin island
, eating fish and chips on the windy beach of Portrush
, even a guided tour of Bushmill's
Somewhere in Co. Tyrone, we stayed with a brave farming couple involved in community work with both sides (courageous and very, very dangerous), in the evening, they walked us along the areas of the village that were safe for them to be in, the places they had been searched, the small army post they had been held prisoner for the odd night and we went to the one pub they could safely visit and tried to remain cheerful.
But what I most vividly remember is the first day, driving through the beautiful Glens of Antrim
and looking at the neat and tidy bungalows and cottages, thinking that behind those nice lace curtains someone may be looking at us with our Republic of Ireland car registration, thinking, I hate you, you are vermin
One morning, we were stopped and searched three times and in the end, we just drove away and across the border again, back in time for tea, watching granddad in the garden and trying to calm down an overexcited child, who suddenly and miraculously was potty trained.
This morning, I think I need to rewire bits of my brain. I have to start including the potential for divisive scenarios on European soil again. Divisive scenario sounds innocent enough but terrible wars have been started here before. Before the EU.
To be honest, I never wasted much thought on the EU. In my mind it is a costly bureaucratic apparatus somewhere in Brussels doing good and bad things I don't understand. When we have visitors from really far away places, we sometimes bring them for an EU drive, see five countries (Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France) in two hours without a single border crossing. Sometimes, our visitors fall asleep in the car, it's that easy and boring - plus jetlag of course.
We then add some history to perk things up. Spreading out a map of the many different sovereign states, contested borders between small and larger empires, principalities, rulers and their many loyal and disloyal followers and underlings, bloody battlegrounds of tribal conquests long before WW1/WW2. This was the old Europe, we tell our visitors, a belligerent, self centered chaos.
My nightmare scenario: if this brexit leads to frexit and polexit, danexit and hunexit . . . you can come up with really funny terms here, we are on our way back to that chaos.