Sunday, February 5, 2012

Four Countries in One Month

I spent the first few hours of this new year desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to flag down a cab in the jungle of New York City. I ended up walking home from the East Village to Battery Park at 3 in the morning with a group of giddy and harebrained friends that I’ve gathered over the years. By glowing diner lights I laughed so hard that my abs ached the next day.

In Temple Bar
I finished that same month walking over the old brick streets of Temple Bar in Dublin with a friend of mine peering in restaurant windows and enjoying a hot toddy at a pub called The Foggy Dew.

In one month I have traveled to four countries – by far the most amount of travel that I’ve ever completed in such a short amount of time. In between I dined in a top floor apartment in Paris with a view towards the Eiffel Tower, shopped along the chaotic little paths of the flea market in the Place du Sablon and drank my way to the bottom of numerous cups of coffee and started over on a book I’ve thought about for years. And at such a strange (or at least unfixed) time in my life.

Let me first admit that I haven’t enjoyed “growing up” very much. In a very earnest conversation with a friend of mine over dinner one night about a year ago, we were discussing the various things that seem to be more problematic as time goes on. We have new fears, new neuroses, rote patterns of behavior that have become ruts.

Road to Dublin
“So do you think that you’re getting better or worse as time goes on?” I asked and we both answered the question in unison with embarrassed smiles of admission: “Worse – definitely worse.” We toasted this somewhat sarcastic confession over plates of well-made Indian food in solidarity, but I silently began to go over the things that have disappointed me or how I have disappointed myself over the years. I used to be so trusting of the universe, so present in whatever moment was elating me or scalding me. I used to be phobia-free and now I sometimes walk down streets with my keys formed into brass knuckles whereas once I walked through the streets of DC at 10 p.m. entirely on my own after having watched Buffy in Georgetown at the age of sixteen. I used to love airplanes and now I grip the seats and shriek a bit at each dip in the air (much to the disappointment of my fellow travelers).

I’ve worked numerous jobs basically half-awake at the wheel and finally acquired a sense of the educational debt that’s smothering me and that I signed on for. I’ve been in and out of relationships on the road to nowhere with decent human beings several times over now and I have no artistic life to speak of though it still is the bright sun at the center of my universe: as indispensible as it is untouchable. And sometimes the best news to me in a day is the free burrito I won from Gorditos. Have you ever ended up at the end of ten years and said to yourself “I don’t recognize me…”?

But in going over the past month, I have come to understand exactly what I have gained over the course of a decade and, as such, have also realized that I have unknowingly sponsored my very own “It Gets Better” campaign.


Beautiful Day on the Liffey
While the rest of Europe is buried under snow banks and experiencing a cold snap that is keeping many people indoors, I left for the island of Ireland where the forecast was all wind and rain and a general sense of discouragement in response to how hard hit the country has been by this latest recession. What I found instead was a week’s-worth of blazing sunshine and the friendliest people that I’ve met in Europe so far.

“That’s a nice camera you’ve got there,” the tour guide notes to me as I snap pictures in Dublin Castle.

“You’re just being nice,” I reply wiping off the blurry camera lens.

“Does it take video too?”

“Not very well,” I tell him, “I tried to record the evensong in St. Patrick’s Cathedral the other day. It sounded horrid.”

“The recording, not the evensong,” I clarify and he laughs heartily.

This exchange leads me to a recommendation that will result in my best meal in Dublin: an Indian restaurant called Jaipur between Temple Bar and St. Stephen’s Green where the staff is as fanatical about my presence there as I am about the food and the group of four gentlemen celebrating the Welsh victory in today's rugby match are gregarious, inclusive, and encouraging of me writing a book. I’ve found that all these Dubliners are eager to chat, incredibly helpful in pointing you in the right direction, and generally glad to have the tourists here, even though times are tough. Or maybe because they are so tough. I am so glad to be the age that I am: capable of managing this journey without a guide or stewarded experience, but not so self reliant that I won’t speak to strangers and make new friends with the bartender at the Guinness Storehouse, the grandfatherly cab driver, the carriage driver who lets me reach out and pet the velveteen nose of his horse: Sparky (putting me in mind of James Wright’s poem “A Blessing).


St. Patrick's Cathedral
On my first day in the rebellious Dublin sunshine, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (a building that was founded in 1191). The whole style of the cathedral is far more colorful than the other European churches that I’ve been in and Kristyn and I were lucky enough to be there in time for the rehearsal for that evening’s evensong performance. The whole building contains art and artifacts that are hundreds of year’s old including an old church door in which Gerald, Earl of Kildare cut a hole to thrust his arm through and calling an end to an age-old feud with Earl, James of Ormond, in 1492, old Celtic crosses and Irish wolfhounds standing guard over fallen soldiers.

St. Patrick's Cathedral - Interior
But, for some reason, my favorite relic was Jonathan Swift's death mask. The death mask – what a quirky habit of an older time (popular in the 17th century, it seems for leaders and people of note). Upon someone’s death, they would take a plaster cast of the face of the deceased. It’s a somewhat morbid tradition and I don't know why it draws me in so. But I remember spending a prolonged period of time with Keats’ death mask as well in Rome. Even as I looked out over the Spanish Steps on a bright July afternoon, seeing Keats’ face there staring back at me, so blank and so young. I felt more present with him than in all the activity outside on the streets of Rome.

Swift Death Mask
And then there was Jonathan Swift’s death mask. And, I mean, I liked what I read by Swift well enough (Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal), but I never knew anything about him as a man and probably never cared to. I've since learned about the somewhat dubious relationships that he had with two women (one nearly twenty years his junior who he met when she was eight and he was her tutor, although the affair didn't start until many years later). He never married either of them though he was buried next to the one he had known from her youth. But Swift’s mask – somehow even though life had already gone out of him, he looks concerned and troubled. What dark thoughts did he have on his death bed that left him capable of that expression and how did the plaster cast bring out those details so truly? I don't know - call me strangely dark and gothic, but I love a good death mask.

And I love that I know myself well enough now to pause at these things, to feel sorry for or sympathy with someone who was once a character in my mind, but suddenly becomes a person. I’m glad that I take the time to pause instead of rushing headlong onto the next thing on the agenda.


Wilde in Merrion Square
It also appears that Oscar Wilde is haunting me a bit on this journey. A man whose writing I always respected, but never soaked in. Before I left, one of my friends quoted him to me in a line of wisdom I already forget on New Years Eve. In January I visited his grave where I found one of my now-favorite lines of poetry by him on his grave. And then the other day, stepping away from the novel for the afternoon, I decided to visit Merrion Square because of the once again un-promised sun streaming in the streets and the proximity of its location to me. I walked briskly, skirt swishing around my knees, but grateful for the high boots in the wind. And right there – at the corner facing me in Merrion Square park was a reclining Oscar Wilde facing No. 1 Merrion Square where he used to live.

Apart from the fact that he wrote his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest and a number of other great literary works (The Picture of Dorian Gray – his only novel that I know I read, but I now have no memory of), he was a man known for his wit and sparkling conversation. He was a man much appreciated at parties, loved and lamented for his cleverness. He is someone I surely would have stood near at a writer's salon in order to hear him, but not to draw attention to myself for I surely wouldn’t be able to keep up the banter. Earnest brought him popularity and fame and it was at the height of this that he tried the Marquess for libel – a trial that brought to light his own homosexuality and resulted in his imprisonment. Whereas he was once known for lightness and love of pleasure, the prison experience and the abandonment of his former life caused him to write De Profundis (something I've never read)– a letter of deep distress, an illustration of trials, and a journey towards darkness. In other words, the downward spiral.

Eire in Merrion Square
He died two years later in a country that wasn’t his own, penniless. Alone. And relatively young. Just forty-six years old. And now his grave is covered in kisses. I hope he knows that we were waiting for him on the other side of his death. On the other side of the trials in his life – we were here. From everywhere, holding plays and poetry very close and wishing that we could have told him, “Christ, Oscar, it gets better.” It never would for him.


Every night after visiting a restaurant or a pub together, Kristyn and I return to the hotel bar and have a cup of Bailey’s Irish coffee (hers) and a mug of chocolate (mine) and we laugh and complain and listen to the middle aged men singing Elton John songs at the top of their voices in the blue-lit bar (drinking: it’s not just for young people anymore).

First Guinness at the Gravity Bar
Last night, Kristyn’s company hosted a party at the Guinness Storehouse in the heart of Dublin that was spread over the museum’s multiple levels and tiered to take you through the entire history and experience of this classic Irish beverage (something my cab driver refers to as “Mother’s Milk”) and is capped by the Gravity Bar which boasts a panoramic view of the city of Dublin where I have my first pint of Guinness ever.  I also was able to hear Ireland’s own Ham Sandwich perform and timidly stand at the edges of the action watching the sound girl with her patchwork stockings and Diet Coke t-shirt tied off to reveal her midriff while Kristyn and I end up talking to an old Irish man whose cousin published three novels here in Ireland and I am reminded of one of the most important ways that life gets better.

Kristyn at the Door of Reconciliation
I am accompanied on this trip by all manner of friends. Friends that have traveled to far-flung Venezuelan villages and are now stationed in Paris. Friends that have crossed oceans to explore new cities with me. Friends that I made in books when I was very young and their poetry was the only thing that made sense to me. Friends that are un-met or just beginning like the fellow who budged over at his table in this crowded cafĂ© making space for both my laptop and his netbook just now.  Friends that will visit the seediest dive with me or remind me to treat myself to a white chocolate parfait topped with this season’s raspberries.  Friends that now live on another continent and have learned two new languages and then will tell you in one breath about the treasure of their Jewish sushi bakery (?) down the road. Over the years I have come to know some of the warmest, most sophisticated, intelligent, and vulnerable people that one could have the pleasure of knowing. And living this many years has only grown that population in my silly, sometimes-insecure heart.


En Route to Howth
Last Friday afternoon I walked to the Pearse Street train station and bought my ticket to travel to Howth – a seaside suburb of Dublin. As I boarded the train I queued up my iPod to U2’s epic “In the Name of Love” and rolled through the city and countryside with a feeling of epic possibility accompanying me. I opened up my journal and tried to write down what was feeling, but sometimes I have to remind myself not to take a picture or write everything down in my little black journal, but instead just watch the migrating geese working their way over the field in the sun. And just remember being here. Not process or preserve it.

Howth Lighthouse
I read somewhere that traveling produces the same chemicals in your brain that falling in love does – because of the newness and novelty of everything. It’s one of the reasons why some people say that they feel more sexy when in a foreign country. And as I stepped out into that little port side town, something like falling in love with my life happened to me. When I arrived, I kept the ear buds in right through my walking tour of town. I followed the sun all the way down to the point of the Howth Lighthouse and stood there while two other Americans sat right on the edge of the breaker and talked. Along the way, a street performer played jazz sax for the tourists and I pulled my red coat tighter around me.

St. Mary's Church
Howth is a town settled by the Norweigians as a strategic Scandanavian stronghold that has been converted into a suburb of Dublin. It is home to a small town of commuters and is populated by several small boutiques, fish and chips stands, and a variety of local taverns. One of my favorite spots was St. Mary’s Church and graveyard. It was one of the earliest churches built in the area – built by Sitric, King of Dublin in 1042 which fell and was replaced a few times and the ruins that are now standing are from the second half of the 14th century. The graves are decoarted with flowers (still) and surrounded by a wall that is lined with ivied benches for sitting and writing.

Writing Bench in Howth
Up the winding cobblestone streets, looking in tea shops, viewing other churches, watching the wrong way traffic, I finally found a place with free Wifi (The Abbey Tavern) and people extremely generous with their time where I was able to sit for more than two hours and work on my book (also set in a coastal town).

On the train ride home, it turned out that my train car was completely empty for three whole stops, and for some reason I decided to sing loudly along with the songs by Coldplay and the Weepies shuffling on my playlist– fiercely, passionately, and without reserve. They might have even heard me on the other cars. I didn’t care. And I can't remember the last time that happened.

If you want to picture me on this trip, think of it just so: me in a knitted black hat, layers beneath my red coat, sitting alone on a train, chasing the setting sun back into a city and singing, unembarrassed for a change and so glad that I am this age and not any other one.

Note: Tonight I'll be rooting for the Patriots at my favorite Dublin bar late night. Could be my best Super Bowl yet.

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