OK, the wine I’m drinking is called Undurraga Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s from the central coast of Chile—a warm, sunny region ridiculously well suited to growing grapes, and specifically good at growing the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. At the table with me are Wine-Allergic Girlfriend and her 14-year-old son, neither of whom are helping me drink this bottle of wine. I didn’t mean to order the entire bottle—there was a mix-up between the barman and me, a mix-up I saw coming but did not address. We’re in a pub in Dublin, with a bunch of folks in red jerseys who are singing songs about football. We’re down the street from some type of stadium and the match starts soon. W.A.G, Stepson, and I have been in Ireland for a week and we leave early tomorrow morning. I meant to just order a glass of wine, but now I have this whole bottle.
THE PLAN WAS THIS: take Stepson to Ireland for a week as the penultimate piece to our family’s homeschooling experiment. After he’d had a frustrating, pretty terrible first semester in eighth grade, W.A.G. and I pulled Stepson from school. I don’t mean to be melodramatic; it’s not like he was lighting cats on fire or shooting out eyes with slingshots or anything. School simply wasn’t working.
Without getting into a long discussion about it here (though I’m more than happy to get into that discussion elsewhere; seriously, e-mail me if you’re the parent of a teenager and are freaking out about school), we decided to give homeschooling a six-month try before high school. To anchor the educational experiment, W.A.G. devised a plan wherein Stepson would organize a trip to Ireland: read guidebooks, research historical sites, make budgets, navigate airline and car-rental websites, draw lines on maps.
We chose Ireland because, as the story goes, Stepson’s father’s family fled Ireland during the Great Famine, and this story intrigued Stepson. When his ancestors arrived at Ellis Island, the immigration officer couldn’t pronounce their actual last name and so slapped a new one on them—Ireland, their country of origin. Stepson’s great-grandparents (still alive) carry the Ireland name.
A FEW THINGS ABOUT THE GREAT FAMINE LEARNED WHILE SIGHTSEEING: While we were driving through a town in the middle of the country, on our way west to see something called the Cliffs of Moher, Stepson pointed out the masts and sails of a large 18th-century boat coming up on the left.
A sign nearby advertised the boat: “Historically accurate Famine Ship!”
“Famine ships were the boats that carried people out of Ireland during the famine,” I called back from the driver’s seat. “It’s like the boat your ancestors came over on.”
I had to react quickly, but I knew enough to capitalize on this admission of interest. I made a hard right into the parking lot. Like a lot of towns seemingly built around a single tourist attraction, the area around the “historically accurate Famine Ship!” exuded tarnished hope: a small (empty) lunch café; a flickering set of computer screens promising to genealogically “link you back to a Famine Ship!”; way more employees than was necessary to service the 10-odd people milling about waiting for the next tour. Stepson and I tried to work the computers, but we didn’t know his ancestors’ pre–Ellis Island name; and, anyway, the roller ball inside the computer’s mouse didn’t seem to do anything.
Before boarding the ship, we watched a short video that began with some information about the Great Famine, but which primarily focused on (a) the building of the historically accurate famine ship, and (b) how great John F. Kennedy was.
Now, although the potato crop had failed a number of times before the Great Famine started, in 1845, it had never failed on such a vast scale. At the time, Ireland was under direct control of the British Crown, and, for reasons including this and others we won’t get into here, poor people were seriously poor. Most worked in a tenant-farmer setup—tending land for an often absentee British aristocracy in return for a very small plot of land. The only crop that could be grown in those plots in sufficient quantity to feed a family was the potato. Thus, monoculture; and thus, when the Phytophthora infestans —a water mold that attacks potatoes—arrived in Ireland and decimated the potato crop, a lot of people literally had to leave in order to survive.
After the video, we boarded the historically accurate famine ship, and a young man went through the motions of the tour with a practiced, if not entirely focused, enthusiasm. He continually looked over our heads and to the right, as if checking the time somewhere on the mast. Midway through the tour, without warning, two women, in what I gathered to be historically accurate costumes, entered from behind a closed door and began a scripted presentation that was followed by a Q&A with the audience. They explained the horrific conditions under which most people traveled across the Atlantic on these ships—and they were truly, sickeningly horrific, from lack of food to near imprisonment down below deck. Though the two women did an admirable job telling their tales, the whole situation felt forced—as if someone very far away thought the presentation would bring history alive. When they opened the floor to questions, most of us just stared at our shuffling feet.
AS IT TURNS OUT: traveling with a 14-year-old is difficult. This is not a surprise. Both W.A.G. and I spent a good portion of our mid-adolescences ruining family vacations, including, for my part, a trip to Ireland when I was 16 and not talking. Truth be told, relative to what I karmically deserve, Stepson was an angel.
But still. Our respective concepts of fun and time were simply too different for things to go smoothly. Conflict erupted over every decision, and, of course, when traveling, decisions need to be made all the time. Food proved to be the most challenging for us. Mealtime came on like Midwestern rain clouds, and usually involved the three of us walking off in separate directions for 10-minute cooldowns before agreeing to just get through whatever sandwich experience was nearby. Dublin produced the most conflict, for it offered the most choices. Our dynamic improved considerably when, after we’d rented our car and taken off for the west coast, we spent our time in towns with no more than two meal options.
For obvious financial reasons, we all three shared one room wherever we stayed, something predictably problematic. Similar to his eating habits, Stepson’s sleep patterns differ wildly from those of W.A.G and me. Given his choice, he would stay up until 4 and wake up no earlier than 1. When finally asleep, he not only shifts position constantly but also speaks aloud at normal daytime volume: “I don’t like shells,” he’d call out lucidly at 2 a.m. During our second night, which we spent at a converted-castle bed-and-breakfast (I know, right?), W.A.G. pulled me into the bathroom, where she revealed a stash of muscle relaxants, and those muscle relaxants became my serious BFF.
NOW AN ATTEMPT TO MAKE A TENUOUS CONNECTION BETWEEN THE CHILEAN WINE INDUSTRY AND THE GREAT FAMINE AND, POSSIBLY, MY FAMILY VACATION: The Chilean wine industry tells roughly the same story as many of the other New World wine regions: Europeans brought grapes over when they did the whole Guns, Germs, and Steel thing; a lot of bad wine was produced for local consumption; and then, as worldwide wine drinking increased (most notably American wine drinking) and postcolonial political situations stabilized, the wine industry modernized and started producing wines that were good enough to export. Chile’s economy is strong compared to many of its South American neighbors, and, along with copper, wine is one of its most important exports.
The tenuous connection is this: Though it was the Spaniards who originally brought grapes to Chile, the biggest influence on the industry came in the late 19th century, when a number of unemployed French winemakers left France in the wake of the Great French Wine Blight. Though it happened about 15 years after the Great Irish Potato Famine, and though out-of-work winemakers don’t compare with starving masses, it still remains that a boat from America carried to France a plant-eating insect that destroyed about 40 percent of all French grapevines, hobbling the French wine industry and putting many winemakers out of work. A lot of them literally had to leave in order to survive. Chile’s near-perfect grape-growing climate attracted many of these winemakers, and, as Karen MacNeil puts it in The Wine Bible, by the late 19th century, “rich Chilean landowners and mining barons showcased their wealth by building wine estates modeled after Bordeaux châteaux. They planted vineyards with imported French Grapes, most notably cabernet sauvignon.” When American tastes—i.e., a preference for rich, thick grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—started dominating the global wine trade in the late 1980s, Chile was well positioned.
AND THOUGH THIS IS PROBABLY PUSHING IT: let’s connect the dots (dots that will be easier to connect if, like me, you’re also drinking wine). In 1850, a boat carrying seed potatoes and the deadly Phytophthora infestans leaves New York for Belgium and stops in Ireland on the way; disease takes root, the potato crop is lost, and a few years later a boat carrying Stepson’s ancestors leaves Ireland for New York; in 1858, a boat carrying diseased grapevines from America lands in France; disease takes root, much of the grape crop is lost, and out-of-work winemakers leave France for Chile; in the late 1990s, Ireland, where the population declined for 70 straight years after the Great Famine, reverses the trend, diversifies its economy with the help of the EU, and enters a boom time and period of immigration (more boats, more planes, this time bringing people into Ireland) called the Celtic Tiger; Ireland transitions from one of the poorest to one of the wealthiest nations in Europe in just under a decade, resulting in, among many other things, increased wine consumption. ALL OF WHICH MEANS: a boat carrying Chilean wine and a plane carrying my family arrive in Ireland in the summer of 2008 and meet up in this pub in Dublin.
OK, BUT: it turns out that Stepson’s ancestry is not Irish. We’re not sure what it is, and neither are his great-grandparents. Their last name is Ireland, but when we contacted them, telling them how excited we were to visit the country of Stepson’s ancestors, they wrote back, “We didn’t know he had Irish ancestry! Must be on his mother’s side. How neat you are going!” We’re not sure the origin of the Ellis Island story, but it obviously emerged to fill some kind of gap, to connect some dots. Somebody crossed an ocean sometime, we know that. But we don’t know much else.
EVERY TRIP HAS ITS GIVE-UP POINT, the point at which all attempts to be in a place other than home are thrown away and you (or at least I) seek out the familiar.
After a particularly tense car trip back into Dublin (at the conclusion of which, Stepson complained when we exited the car: “Wait, we’re walking to dinner?”), following five nights in a row of us all sharing a room, attempting to agree on meals and activities, W.A.G., Stepson, and I decided to take the night off from being “in Ireland.” We found a movie theater near our hotel showing the new Indiana Jones. For dinner, we happily patronized a Subway. It wasn’t the best part of our trip, but it was one in which we all felt really together. The ancestry thing and the homeschooling plan, which, admittedly, lost steam after about one guidebook and one spreadsheet, all these now seemed like the necessary trick to get us here, to this shared recognition of ourselves as a unit.
The next day, with a soccer match about to start nearby, and red jerseys everywhere, we went to our final pub of the trip. Stepson ordered his umpteenth bowl of beef stew, and I, instead of another Guinness, which I’d felt obligated to drink while in Ireland, ordered a glass of wine, and now, lucky me, I have this whole bottle.