Friday, May 19, 2006

What, no Parade?

Last year, I decided to tackle a project: I wanted to become an Irish citizen. I didn't necessarily want to move to Ireland; I just wanted to honor my Irish-born Grandmother. Thousands of U.S. residents pursue Irish citizenship each year, and it takes some doing. You have to prove your heritage, and that means collecting all sorts of documents. Birth certificates. Marriage certificates. Death certificates. There's a sense of accomplishment in getting all the necessary papers in order, so I was pretty proud of myself on the day I put my hands on the last document and prepared my application. My sister decided to apply as well, since one set of documents could serve us both.

So the magic day arrived. December 12, 2005. We had an appointment at the Boston office of the Consulate General of Ireland. Armed with all our documents---originals, duplicates AND triplicates--my sister and I proudly walked through the front door of the office building and into the elevator. I don't know what my sister expected, but I was ready for shamrocks and Irish music (U2, of course) and pictures of Aer Lingus jets and pints 'o Guinness. The whole nine yards. But as we entered the elevator and headed up to the Consulate General of Ireland, there was nothing Irish about any of it.


In fact, we exited the elevator and walked into the office without seeing one shamrock. And the Boston edition of the Consulate General of Ireland is essentially a one-room affair with minimal reminders of Ireland. A brochure here and a pamphlet there. That was it. A rather spartan waiting room is pretty much all there is to the place. That, and a door leading 'somewhere else.' I was sure that beyond this door is where they kept the shamrocks. The Guinness. Our 'Official Welcome Kit to Ireland.'

So, after a short stay in the waiting area my sister and I were summoned to go through the door and into the promised land. Remember the scene in 'The Wizard of Oz' when the house crashes down onto the poor Wicked Witch of the East? When everything turns from black-and-white to glorious color as Dorothy opens the door? You never forget that moment, and that was going to be our moment.

So, from Kansas to Oz we went. Through the Technicolor door and into...

A tiny little room that had two chairs, a small shelf, and BULLET-PROOF GLASS!

It was a horrible, pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain moment. And to make matters worse was this: The woman who tended to our affairs (she being behind the bullet-proof glass) had more of a Braintree accent than an Irish one. We had to pass our papers through a secure drawer and watch...and watch...while she dutifully looked at our originals and stamped the copies. Then she asked for a pile of money...and disappeared behind another door with papers and money. Gone, no doubt, to Emerald City. Although we didn't say it, my sister and I both thought the same thing: 'We've been had.' Not even a receipt. Even Wal-Mart makes sure you get one of those.

So the whole thing was completely underwhelming. No fanfare. No 'Welcome to Ireland!' Nothing. We were told to expect our papers in six months. But my sister and I had nagging doubts about that. For all we knew, our money was on 'Lucky Leprechaun' in the fifth race at Suffolk Downs later that same day. Still, we held onto the belief that the Irish are good people (even the ones from Braintree). I rationalized that our expectations for the whole appointment ( expectations) were just way too high. Not that I expected Bono of U2 to greet me or 'Riverdance' to be playing on a TV, but I expected something more than we got.

The epilog to the story is, of course, that we did get our papers. They came after only three months, not six. So my sister and I are now proud Irish citizens; our status immortalized on the rather underwhelming papers we received. Unimpressive as they may be, these documents prove our dual citizenship.

In all honesty, the benefits of Irish citizenship are marginal: I can head to the shorter line when getting off the plane in Ireland, and I can probably get a resident fishing license rather than the more expensive non-resident one. And, of course, I can live and work and travel throughout Ireland and the EU much easier than I could without Irish citizenship. But none of those are reasons why we did this.

We did it to honor 'Nana.'

Alien Nation

I went into a Wendy's last weekend. The girl at the counter asked me a four-word question: 'Can I help you?' Those were the ONLY four words of English I heard. After taking my order, the girl started speaking in Spanish to all the other workers...Mr. Drink, Ms. Burger, and Ms. French Fry. Not a word of English among them. Upon leaving the counter with my bagged order, other workers in the restaurant spoke to each other in Spanish, too. After 'Can I help you?', everything else was in Spanish.

There's a growing unease about the 'Press 1 for English' America we live in now. Back at the turn of the century, everyone crowed about the marvelous vision of 'The Global Economy.' To be sure, we've enjoyed the dividends of that. But what I encountered last weekend was also a by-product of this 'global economy.' And what struck me most was that this Wendy's wasn't in Dallas, or San Diego, or Los Angeles. It was right here in New Hampshire! Since the genie can't be put back into the bottle, one wonders what kind of 'America' we'll have ten years out or twenty years out.

The biggest irony of all: A mile or two down the road from this Wendy's sits an abandoned...Taco Bell.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

To the Trucking Industry: We Thank Thee

Decades ago, freight largely moved by rail. I remember growing up in suburban Boston and watching long freight trains roll by our house on their way to Mechanicsville, NY and then further west. I'd count the rail cars, with my high-water mark being a 158-car freight train back in the early 1970s.

Today, of course, most freight moves over the road rather than over the rails. There are probably a whole host of reasons for this, but the railroad industry--at least in New England--is nothing like it was 'back then.' So, the 'silver lining' is that we have miles and miles of abandoned railroad lines that lend themselves perfectly to the development of recreational biking paths. Once the rails and wooden ties are removed and pavement put down, you give birth to a 'Rail Trail.'

The Nashua River Rail Trail is one such example. The Trail is completely paved along its 11-mile length, which runs from Nashua, New Hampshire down to Ayer, Massachusetts. When it was active many years ago, the rail line served as the Hollis Branch of the Boston and Maine railroad. It was part of a main rail link between Worcester and Nashua, and the very last freight train rolled over these rails in 1982.

Turning abandoned rail lines into 'Rail Trails' seems like a great thing to do and an easy thing to do. The former is true; the latter is not. Railroad right-of-ways necessarily weave through many towns. In the case of the Nashua River Rail Trail, that means Pepperell, Groton, and Dunstable (all in Massachusetts) in addition to Nashua and Ayer.

Five towns.

Politics being politics, you can easily grasp the complexities involved with getting five towns to agree on anything. In New England. Who will fund the paving? What happens if Pepperell agrees but Groton doesn't? How about maintenance? Parking? You quickly realize that everyone has to be on board for such an effort to get past the 'good idea' stage.

The trail opened in 2002, and kudos go to everyone who worked tirelessly to make that happen. Since then it has been hugely popular with bikers, roller-bladers, runners, and walkers. Quite simply, it's a great way to spend quality outdoor time, and you can do the entire 22-mile round-trip in about two hours...if you don't stop to admire the scenery and wildlife along the way. On nice weekends I'll often ride the trail twice, usually early in the morning before it starts getting busy. Since it spans an abandoned rail line, the Trail is flat and mostly straight. No hills of Kilimanjaro here, which might disappoint true mountain-biking enthusiasts. But let them go to Kilimanjaro; we'll take the Nashua River Rail Trail, thank you.

If you'd like to learn more about the Trail and its history, click the link on the right.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Time Capsule: May, 2006

The Forsythia ushers in another New England spring. Interesting times. Can you be for a free-market society and against 'big oil?' Another question: Why does everyone focus on the nine cents that oil companies take from a gallon of gasoline but turn a blind eye on the fifty cents that government takes in taxes?...Bumper sticker: Press 1 for English...On the streets of Boston they are giving away the Boston Herald to anyone and everyone...I think it's hilarious to see the mainstream media seething at the success of Fox News...'United 93' tops at the box office...I have never once seen an episode of American Idol and I have never missed an episode of 24...The problem isn't high gas prices now; it's all the exploration and R&D and focusing on alternatives to foreign oil that we didn't feel the need to do many years ago. We're reaping now what we didn't sow then...