10 August 2014

Irish Conversations: Three

"What is it that you'll miss most about Ireland when you move to London?"

My question hung in the air for longer than a moment, long enough for me to think that Mark hadn't heard. I glanced around the room—we were in the cocktail bar at the Merrion Hotel. It was in the Georgian neighborhood of Dublin, just down the street from the No. 29 House, the restored middle-class home I'd visited on my first day in town, but this room was anything but middle class.

It struck the right balance of masculine and feminine: Rich leather armchairs but instead of the expected gleaming brown, they were in a warm cream. On the low tables were vases of flowers, arranged to look haphazard as if they'd just been brought in from the garden, although I suspected quite a lot of care had been taken with them. The napkins were cloth and monogrammed with an M, and you felt that your conversation should be hushed and about genteel things—about the kind of things the landed gentry would find interesting, such as hunting, garden parties, and who made the best dresses in town.

I wasn't talking about those things with Mark, of course, because we aren't landed gentry and because we'd only just met. I'd read in one of my guidebooks that you can set up a meeting with a real, live Dubliner through the group City of a Thousand Welcomes. They call themselves Dublin Ambassadors, and Mark was mine. You get a free drink and an hour's conversation with someone who can recommend a restaurant not listed in your guidebook and who can make sure that even if you don't talk to another Irish person the whole time you're in Ireland {highly unlikely}, at least you'll go home with one good story.

Mark was 30-something, a born and bred Dubliner. He was the kind of man that the word "slight" was made for. He wore a very correct three-piece suit, something you so rarely see now, and his wire-frame glasses made him look even more like he should've been a clerk in a bank in 1912, one who wrote poetry at night in his cramped apartment.

But for all his buttoned-up look, Mark was not about to be pigeon-holed by my overactive imagination. I learned in the first five minutes that he had, for a time, earned a living as a poker player in Las Vegas. He'd been a dealer in a casino in Buenos Aires, and he'd once ridden a motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina. After that, he worked with a non-profit that helped bring clean water to villages in Africa.

You could say he had a touch of wanderlust.

Mark had been back in Dublin for a couple of years, working at a museum and getting a lot of family time. But it was time to go again; he felt it in his feet, he said, and I understood—I empathized with—his deep love for his home but his inability to live there forever.

In two months, Mark told me, he was moving to London, and that's when I asked what he'd miss most about Ireland. It seemed like the right thing to ask someone who was an Ambassador of his culture.

He thought for so long, I wondered if he was reconsidering the move, based on how many things he thought he'd miss, but then he spoke, quietly but fervently.

"The pubs. I'll miss the pubs. I know it sounds expected—the Irish man missing his Guinness, but it's more than that. The pubs in other places, they aren't the same, you know. Your bars in America are made for hook-ups and for trying to outdo each other. And the pubs in England...they don't have the same feel. What I mean is—is that pubs in Ireland are made for conversation. They're made for getting to know each other, sitting so close because there aren't enough tables and chairs for everyone. And they're quiet: Have you noticed that?

"Pubs in England are places of distraction; the TVs, the piped-in music, it all gives you a place to escape. But our pubs here in Ireland, we go there to find a bit of home, of connection. So that's what I'll miss: the pubs."

Mark, who had been looking at me so intently, now looked away, remembering, perhaps, his favorite moments in his favorite pub. I let him sit in that memory as I tried to think of what place in America could provoke such feel-it-in-your-blood loyalty.

Our diners? But not everyone eats there. Not every town even has one.

Our cafes? We're not French.

The mall? Let's not turn into stereotypes of ourselves.

In a country as large and diverse as ours, it's hard to find that one defining institution, like the Irish pub that Mark will miss so much. It made me both jealous and happy: Happy that the Irish have somewhere they can so emphatically call home, and jealous that we don't.

Mark turned back to me with a smile. "And the Guinness. I will miss the Guinness."

07 August 2014

Sneem: A Picture Postcard

Tonight I am in a little town in County Kerry called Sneem. It sounds like a dwarf's name, and perhaps Sneem was the eighth dwarf but got lost on the way to the diamond mine one day and ended up by the sea here in Ireland.

Settling in, he found that he liked the fresh sea air, the touch of rain every day, and not being just another face in the crowd of short, hardworking men. Away from Grumpy, he became increasingly more cheerful, and far from Doc, he started to look like the smart one. People were drawn to his smart cheerfulness, and the town grew up around him and so they decided to name the town after him. Sneem.

I could see why my mythical Sneem the Dwarf liked this place when I biked into town this afternoon. It was the first day of my three-day Ring of Kerry bike tour, and I'd made it to Sneem by 5pm after a day of seeing scenery so achingly beautiful, I couldn't stop smiling. At one point, I found myself humming "How Great Thou Art," a song that came unbidden but that was right for those bright green hills, the mountains rising, the sheep gathered by huge boulders. The works Thy hands have made, indeed.

The bike tour company had given very clear directions for this self-guided tour, and as I descended into Sneem {thinking about how I'd need to ascend that hill tomorrow}, I read the directions to get to the Sneem Hotel: Turn left at the one stop sign in town.

The one stop sign—this was going to be my kind of town.

The stop sign was at a corner of the South Square. Sneem is cut in two by a river—the River Sneem, in fact—and on each bank, there is a square. It's as if the town wanted to pretend that it was bigger than it really is, what with their North Square and their South Square. Each square has a church, so in my mind, one side was for the Catholics and one side was for the Protestants, but even such a divided country as Ireland, I don't think that was the case in little Sneem.

Sneem is called An tSnaidhm in Irish, which translates to "The Knot." It's been called the Knot in the Ring of Kerry, a romantic and charming idea for a town that gets its lifeblood from the tourist trade—from all those tourists pouring in busload after busload during the summer to see Ireland as it was.

I'm just as guilty of that, even if I didn't come on a bus. I came to Ireland to see a slower paced life, one that still feels tied to the earth and to the traditions of centuries. The first thing I thought when I biked into Sneem was, "I'm sure this village hasn't changed into years upon years," a rather unfair thought to aim at a town that's simply trying its best to keep tourists and residents alike happy.

But looking at the tidy green in the center of the South Square, I could see little boys in knee britches chasing each other and women in sensible shoes and warm coats gossiping—because I wanted to see this place as stuck in the past, as a slice of Ireland that's just as it was in some mythical past out of Brigadoon.

Without even needing to try, I insinuated myself in the midst of it all, imagining what it'd be like to grow up in this town of colorful houses and slate roofs. The fair would be the most exciting thing to happen every summer, and I'd have a job waiting tables at the pub D O'Shea's, the one that's painted bright pink in the North Square.

It's not hard for me to make up a whole new life in a place that feels as familiar as Sneem, a place that seems set up to make you want to stay. At the pub tonight—I went to D O'Shea's—I sat on a wooden bench next to a fireplace, and it wasn't hard to believe that people had been sitting on that bench for more than a hundred years, meeting neighbors and ignoring enemies. The waitress called me "love," and told me that I'd made a very good decision in ordering the Irish bacon with colcannon {mashed potatoes and cabbage}.

Everything about this town feels like a memory you'd forgotten about, one that you've only just remembered and now get that long, slow delight of reliving something that was so special to you once.

Sneem. What a name. What a town.

06 August 2014

Irish Conversations: Two

The song rose while I was looking at the housekeeper's room in No. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin: halting, not at all together, nowhere near on pitch.

"Happy -- hap -- happy birthday to --"

"Oh, shall we start again? We haven't made a very good go of this one." That was the older woman, Angela, I think, getting them to all stop. I could hear shuffling, and I wanted more than anything to dash out of the housekeeper's room and see what was going on in the little cafe/gift shop in the next room.

"But we've already lit the candles! I don't know if we want to go out and come back in again. It loses the moment a bit, don't you find?" I guessed that that was Fiona, the woman who'd welcomed me at the door to this restored Georgian house and had so carefully and quietly told me that I needed to put my bag in a locker. She had apologized three times for this, even though I told her it was all right every time.

"Oh, I suppose you're right," said Angela. "We'll just go again like that first try never happened, shall we?"

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you..."

The second attempt wasn't any more in tune than that first, but at least they made it all the way through this one. I've heard that if you want to wash your hands for the properly hygienic amount of time, you should sing "Happy Birthday" in your head; it takes the required 20 seconds. But not when the workers of No. 29 are singing it. Your hands would be extra clean by the time they were done with their timid version.

But Richard—it was his birthday—didn't care. "Och, you all have outdone yourselves, and you didn't have to! It's just my birthday. And Angela, you've gone and made your caterpillar cake."

MY GOSH, why was I still in the housekeeper's room reading about how it was a coveted position in a household because you got your own room? I knew all of that from Downton Abbey anyway, but there was caterpillar cake in the next room. I don't even know what that is, but just hearing Richard talk about it, I knew it was special, and I knew he was most likely turning red from all the attention.

"But it's your 22nd birthday, Richard! That's something to celebrate!" Fiona said, and I laughed because the 22nd birthday is never one I've heard as something big to celebrate, but in the few moments I'd spent with Fiona, I had guessed that she was eager to make people feel both special and comfortable. I had also guessed that she would apologize to an inanimate object if she felt she'd gotten in its way.

Take her introduction to the video about No. 29.

"Now, I'm just going to turn on the little video we have here about the house. There's a long version and a short version, but the long version is only 15 minutes. That's just 5 minutes longer than the short version, but I guess if you're all done after 10 minutes, you could just get up and leave. There isn't anything too important in the last 5 minutes anyway. Not that it's bad if you want to watch the whole thing! No! The whole video is quite good, I find, and I do hope you think so, too, but it's all right if you don't. Well, I'll just turn it on now..."

And then Fiona backed out of the room and apologized for how her shoes scraped on the stone floor.

Even before the happy birthday singing, I had decided that this group of people at No. 29 were ripe for a sitcom. It would be called simply No. 29 and would be about the foibles and victories of this small, mismatched group that had become like a family working at the least visited site in Dublin.

No. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street

I don't know if No. 29 is in fact the least visited site in Dublin, but it makes the show more touching and full of hilarious possibilities if they're the least visited. Imagine them trying to mount a Twitter campaign. Angela, the cook for the cafe, would most definitely use all the words related to Twitter wrong and say that "tweetering" other people seemed invasive and that you might as well be shouting at people on the streets, it was that rude. Eileen Atkins would play Angela, by the way.

There'd be an ongoing joke about how often Fiona apologized, and in every episode, there would be at least two moments that would make you cringe as the staff overwhelms the rare visitor and tries to get them to stay longer.

"Perhaps a cup of tea, then? We could take it in the housekeeper's sitting room, if you'd like. Or! If you'd rather pretend to be the lady of the house, we could go up to the morning room! That was quite fancy, wasn't it? You seem like you'd've been the lady of the house. We'll even let you sit on the furniture, even though the sign says you're not to."

That's not what happened to me, though—I should be clear that the nice, earnest group at No. 29 wanted nothing more than to make sure I had a good visit to their little museum.

When Fiona learned that I'd just flown in that day, she did offer me some coffee and a chair in the cafe, and then Angela came over with caterpillar cake, which, by the way, is cupcakes arranged to look like a caterpillar and decorated with toothpicks for antenna and gum drops for eyes.

When I told them that I was running a half-marathon on Monday, Angela exclaimed, "But Richard is doing that, too! Why, maybe you'll see him! Richard, come talk to the little American about the race you're doing together!"

Then more softly to me, Angela said, "He's been training for months. Eating all healthy and running in Lord knows what kind of weather. But he's nervous because he's never done anything like this before, so maybe you could have a word with him. Encourage him, like."

This is who would play Richard.

Richard, the recently turned 22-year-old, sprang across the cafe and shook my hand. "So, you're running, too, then? You look ready to go now!"

Fiona jumped in, "And imagine, she just got off the plane from America this morning!"

She would be the perfect Fiona.

Richard looked at me with new admiration and I just looked embarrassed. What should I say to "have a word with him"?

"How's your training been for the race?"

I've learned that with runners, they always want to talk about their training—usually complain a little about it, but I think that's often done to ward off anything bad happening {we runners are a superstitious lot}. As in: if the running gods hear you aching a little, they'll make your next few runs go smoothly.

Richard looked out the window at the rain that was coming down in sheets now. "It's been a lot of running in the rain, so I guess if I can do that, I can make it through the race. Don't you think?"

Here was reassurance I could easily give: "Oh, if you've put in the hours training, if you've been committed even when it's been raining, you'll be better than fine on Monday. All those hours running will be worth it when you cross the finish line."

All the staff seemed to have been waiting for me to say something just like that, and they all let out of a sigh of relief and started talking over one another, all telling Richard that he'd be just fine and to listen to me.

It was closing time, then, for No. 29, so I told Richard good luck for Monday and headed out into the rain. As the door shut behind me, I could hear them all above the clattering dishes as they cleared up from their party. They continued to reassure Richard that he had nothing to worry about in the race and that even if everything went wrong, they'd still be so proud of him.

PS I saw Richard in the half-marathon on Monday and ran with him for 1 1/2 miles or so. He was going to make it just fine.

05 August 2014

Irish Conversations: One

After the half-marathon ended in Phoenix Park, I needed to work my way back to Dollymount, out by the sea where I was staying. {And as I said "Dollymount" over the few days I was in Dublin, it started to sound more and more like a place out of Ulysses that I should know, but after awhile, I think everything in Dublin sounds like it belongs in Ulysses.}

The race ran a shuttle to the city centre—packed with sweaty, smelly runners, all clutching armloads of food from the finishers' festival and all wearing our medals proudly. I sat next to a girl from Manchester, who was impressed that I knew where Manchester is, and who was also in Dublin alone. We discussed the difficulties of selfies—how you want to get something interesting in them besides your face but how you feel a little silly lining it all up and trying to figure out where to look and my gosh, has my chin always been so prominent?

In the city centre, I walked to the 130 bus stop across from the Abbey Theatre. Away from a pack of other runners, I realized how out of place it looks to be wearing a medal, as if you've awarded yourself just for getting up and being fabulous. At the bus stop, an old man was looking nervously down the road.

"Do you think the bus is running today? It being a holiday and all?" He had on a blazer with elbow patches, and white hair stuck out haphazardly from under his fedora.

"I saw other buses out, so we should be okay. I'm sure it's coming soon," I reassured him.

"I've been waiting and waiting, and it still hasn't come. Do you think it will, then?" If this conversation went on much longer about waiting and hoping something comes, it would become a scene from Waiting for Godot.

"I do think so. I'm sure the bus is running on a Sunday schedule since it's a holiday, but it'll come." How was I speaking with such authority on the Dublin bus system? I'd only just figured it out the day before.

But he seemed satisfied with my answer and turned his eyes from the road to me. "So you've got a medal on, then."

"I do! I ran the Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon this morning." I resisted the urge to add: "Thanks for noticing."

He leaned back on his heels and gave a long "Ohhhhh!" as if he recognized what I was talking about, but I suspected he didn't. "A half-marathon, then. So you won and they gave you a medal. How nice."

How to explain participants' medals to a man from a generation that would never hand out awards just for showing up...And I think, too, that participants' medals smack of an American invention: We don't want anyone to feel like a loser, so we all get trophies, medals, and bragging rights. We all get to feel special, which you'd think would take away from our specialness, but it doesn't.

"Well, in a half-marathon, you get a medal just for finishing because it's a big accomplishment, running 13.1 miles."

"Yes, you are quite accomplished if you've won, then. Good job, girl. You're fit as a fiddle." He reached out for my hand, and I felt that we were having a private medals ceremony. Should I hum the National Anthem?

Or should I try to explain one more time that I didn't win? Heck, I didn't even have my best time ever in a half-marathon, but that's no matter: I spent the morning running through Dublin—past Christ Church, the Guinness Brewery, and a herd of perplexed deer in Phoenix Park—and if this man wanted to believe I'd won, I'd let him. I'm American, after all, despite my Irish roots, and we do love winning.

I took his hand, smiled, and said, "Thank you, and look, the bus has come!"

04 August 2014

What I Remembered about International Travel

On Friday night, I got on a plane in Chicago, bound for Dublin. It's been three years since I've taken an international flight. Oh, wait, I went to Canada. Several times. Canada, I know you're a different country, but I can fly to you in an hour, and that feels like cheating.

It's like when I came back in July from my trip to Stratford, Ontario, to visit my parents' new condo {and to see four shows in three days at the Stratford Festival}. It was, technically, an international flight: I needed a passport, there were forms to fill out, the announcements on the plane were made in English and Funny French. But it was on a regional jet, one of those tiny planes you think could double as your nephew's toy plane.

When we pulled into the international terminal at O'Hare, we were parked in between two double-decker British Airways planes. I imagined them maliciously laughing down at us, Goliaths against our David, as we got off the plane by stairs onto the tarmac. {Yes, the plane was that small that even a jetbridge would've overpowered it.}

When I say "international flight," then, what I mean is "transatlantic flight." It has indeed been three years since I've taken one of those, and Friday night, I remembered a few things about international travel.

{These are in no particular order.}

Delays are the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels fine. We all know that air travel is a risk—I mean, there's the obvious risk of zooming through the air at 35,000 feet, but also the general risk of logistics. Given the tight scheduling of most airlines today, it takes one thing to go wrong in one airport to throw off the whole schedule, particularly if that airport is a hub. I think this is the modern version of a butterfly flapping its wings in California and causing a tsunami in Japan: one plane has mechanical difficulties in Chicago, and suddenly, no one can get out of Denver.

Given the possibility for all that can go wrong, we should be applauding every time we are able to make it anywhere by plane. We should applaud humanity that we got our acts together enough to be able to put all the right people in all the right places—and then got those people to a new place.

But no one thinks about humanity when they hear the words: "We're so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but the flight has been delayed. We're now showing a two hour delay."

When those words are uttered in an airport, the reaction is disproportionate to the cause. It's the equivalent of getting your hand amputated when you've scratched a finger.

When a delay is announced, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is anger and indignation as everyone seethes that this could happen to them, as if they had fairies weave a magic spell around them in the crib that they'd never be delayed. On Friday night, my plane was delayed because the pilot wasn't there yet. One guy—with a walrus mustache and high-waisted jeans with a t-shirt tucked into them—told the gate agent, "Heck, how hard can it be to fly a plane? Give me a manual and 20 minutes, and I'll get us to Dublin in no time. The computers do all the work anyway."

I'm sorry, sir, we are not in the world of HAL or Star Trek just yet, and I'm sorry for saying this, but I don't trust you or your mustache. I'd rather wait here in the gate, patient and trusting that the pilot will arrive—and we'll make it to Dublin safely.

And we did. We ended up being 3 1/2 hours late, but in the scheme of life, is it worth getting worked up over 3 1/2 hours? As my mother very wisely pointed out: my first day in Ireland was shorter, then, so I didn't have to try to push as hard to make it through the day and to a reasonable hour before I could go to bed.

You can indeed sleep in the craziest positions. I thank my years of gymnastics for my flexibility every time I sleep in coach.

We demand so much from air travel. This should go up closer to the first one about delays, I guess—but it's that my plane was old and sad. The TVs were the small, grainy monitors spaced every few rows or so, and the buttons on my armrest for the lights had been ripped off. I once flew Aeroflot out of Russia, and this plane felt like it might've belonged in their fleet. Everything about it seemed to sigh with resignation, and I spent some time on the flight thinking once again about how far we've come in our expectations of what we "deserve" on a flight. I thought longingly of the one time I flew Air France: care packages, hot towels, in-seat entertainment, and china—in coach.

That flight has been my standard for transatlantic travel for more than 10 years now, but even without that ridiculously high bar, we have a belief that while travelling, we deserve to be pampered. In some ways, it's like we think that when we pay for the privilege of flight, we should get treated like dukes and duchesses on board. Only the finest food, the best movies, and the most overhead luggage space will placate us, but you know what? We should just be happy that we can cross an ocean in the equivalent of a workday. That is amazing, so I'm sorry if the TV wasn't nice or if you thought the chicken was chewy. You were in the air. Above an ocean. On your way to Ireland. Take a moment and revel in how lucky you are.

{This part of the tirade owes much to Louis CK, who has such funny things to say on how we approach air travel now.}

As much as I love speaking French, there is something to be said for not having to speak it as soon as I get off the plane. And that something to be said is: C'est si bon. Most times when I go abroad, I'm going to France. Just off the plane, jet lagged and confused about what day it is, it takes all the brain power I have left to make sure I collect all my bags, let alone trying to conjugate verbs and give addresses to taxi drivers. Here, though, when I got off the plane, I understood everything! And they understood me! The taxi driver and I bonded over his desire to see Chicago, and I was able to clearly communicate concepts and even be funny without needing to pause and say, "Wait, wait, I know the word. Just give me a minute and the French will come back up from the deep recesses of my brain. Wait for it..."

I love it. This isn't actually something I needed to remember about international travel; it's an idea that's always with me. I love that one day, I can be at work, concerned about office gossip and finishing that project, and the next morning, I can unwind myself in coach, eat a quick breakfast, and step off the plane into a whole new country where possibilities await.


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