Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sights, Smells and Sounds

I was riding home from a friend's tonight after a rather commendable session of acro-yoga (commendable because all three of us were 'wrecked', which is Irish for the Canadian 'bagged' or simply put: tired and creaky), and suddenly the city was on fire with sights and smells. The moon was full, and so I howled, honoring the hunky new werewolf guy on True Blood, who my friend Paul and I were lasciviously ogling on IMDB this morning as we Skyped. And when I reached the Liffey I could smell - I think for the first time -- the scent of the sea coming off the river. I forget that I live right by the sea - it's only a 30-minute walk from my front door - but the industry around the centre of the bay makes it less appealing. Sure, I see and smell the sea when I go to Howth or Dun Laoghaire or Greystones, but it is absent on my daily strolls about town.

But tonight, with the balmy breeze blowing, the stars just beginning to come out, and moon full, that gorgeous salty air was all around me. As I pulled into my courtyard, I saw a wee wee mouse scuttle under the gate. This surprised me, because I think it's the first rodent I've seen in Dublin - no kidding! The gulls are building some kind of uber-colony on the roof of my building, I am sure of it from the cacophony of wails that wake me up in the wee hours, but the four-legged wanderers are less in view.

Last weekend I biked to Dun Laoghaire, and was amazed at all the cute pubs and shops and parkettes along the way. I spend a lot of time in very few areas of Dublin. It's under 12km from my door to the DL pier, which is about the distance it took me to travel from the Berkeley St. Theatre to my home the last year I lived in Toronto. Peanuts. But in Dublin terms, it's a hike, and it hadn't occurred to me to do it until my friend suggested it. The purpose of the trip was to do yoga on the pier as part of the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures, but it was raining, so the yoga teacher took the lot of us back to her studio, and ran a lovely gentle hatha class that contained a fair degree of challenge. I chatted to her afterwards, trying to place the accent, and found out she is a New Yorker who has been living in Ireland for 7 years. It's funny, because some people, like my friend Aoife, pick up the accent very lightly and evenly, with all words being inflected just slightly. Others, like this yoga teacher, have some words that sound very clearly Irish in pronunciation (usually 'but' is one of them), and others that still sound quite North American... Anyway, her studio was lovely, and she says that she does authentic hot yoga - not the lukewarm kind that I encountered way back when I arrived in the fall. I'll be biking back to Dun Laoghaire for fresh sea air and hot yoga sometime in the next couple of weeks...

PS I know I haven't written a single entry in 3 months. Oh well.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I live on an island

Eyjafjallajökull, erupting. Image source: Reuters

Many people forget that Ireland is an island. Much to the chagrin of many 20th century nationalists, I think that many people who have never lived in Ireland picture it somewhere in northern Europe, attached to the UK. But there is a big, wide sea between Ireland and the continent, and this becomes very evident when, say, a volcano erupts and sends ash into the atmosphere, grounding all air travel to a halt for days (and maybe weeks) on end. I missed a scheduled trip, and when I was still thinking I could work it out, a friend said "can't you take a train?"

Image source: Lonely Planet

I was supposed to attend a conference in Manchester this past Thursday. I was looking forward to meeting some of the people involved in the loose research network that is linked to the project I'm working on. I dutifully packed the night before (packing, even for a few days, kind of stresses me out), and was up around 6am to get ready for the airport bus, and I looked at my phone, only to see a whack of text messages. This is a very odd thing for six in the morning. The first message to greet me was from Aer Lingus: "Due to the closure of UK airspace as a result of volcanic activity, we have no option but to cancel your flight." By now the whole world knows what is going on with old puffy over in Iceland, but I'll tell ya: this was a very odd message for my dazed and sleepy head to receive at 6am. I thought it was a joke, but then I thought - how did someone hack Aer Lingus's texting system? Too much to process at that early hour. Onto the next message: there were a few from Elisabetta, who was already at the airport en route to Italy: Check your flight before coming to the airport because a volcano exploded somewhere and the majority of the flights are cancelled...like mine." I immediately called Lisa, who was planning to be on the same flight as me, and then thought of Aoife, who I was expecting to run into on the airport bus, because she was off to a theatre conference in Berlin that morning, also on a 9:30am flight. I rebooked for later that day, but it was cancelled. And then all flights were cancelled on Friday. And Saturday. And today. And tomorrow...

In the last few days, Facebook has been plastered with people talking about not being able to go places, and more recently, not being able to come home. Now, if you live in London and are off in Paris for a holiday, you could take a train home instead. Yes, the trains are being booked up by stranded travellers across Europe, but eventually, they will be able to move everyone around. And there are buses, and cars for hire. And frankly, when it comes down to it, if you REALLY had to, you could get all dressed up like the characters in The Road, and walk home! But if I am not on the island of Ireland, I cannot walk home! It's not even possible. And I know that if I am suggesting that one could walk from Paris to London, then I should consider that one could swim from Holyhead to Dublin, but really, we both know that is too far to swim, unless you are Martin Strel. This is why it's a blessing in disguise that I didn't make it to that conference in Manchester - I would still be there, maybe for all of next week, I'm am so over living in a city where I don't know a single person. That was so Autumn 2009.

Anyhoo, I am getting off topic (wait, there was a topic)? What I have realised is that people here fly A LOT. I know at least 10 people whose travel plans have been affected by Eyjafjallajokull. I wondered (aloud on Facebook) if the carbon produced by the Icelandic eruption would outweigh the carbon saved by the cancellation of flights, and two friends sent me this link within minutes. The rise of Ryanair and Easyjet, and the concomitant competition this has created with other regional airlines, like Aer Lingus, has radically altered the way we travel, and we're really not disaster-proof in this area. I wonder how many fewer train trips and ferry crossings occur now, compared to the mid 1990s, when Ryanair really started to take off? It's not just a pain to catch a train instead of a flight (in terms of the time it takes, and the unexpected nature of it), but apparently, it's not even possible: stranded travellers are reporting that they can't get train tickets, because, well, everyone else thought of that as well. But if we all just considered taking the train more often - for its convenience (no full body pat-downs and invasive security scans; you only have to arrive 15 minutes early), and for its relatively small level of emissions, then we wouldn't be so f*cked when mother nature decided we all needed to be just a bit more grounded...

Much to my amazement, both Ryanair and Aer Lingus have announced that they will be refunding or rebooking all tickets without charge. This is shocking, because when other disruptions occur because of mother nature, they are not always so willing to bear the financial burden. Perhaps they realise that their clients might just start thinking about other options...

As for the volcano, it keeps erupting. My friend Angela Rawlings is keeping a blog with frequent updates and interesting tidbits. Check out No Slumber for Volcanologists. And I found this time-lapse video of today's eruptions really beautiful:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Crystal Swing

For those of you who do not know them, Crystal Swing is a band from Cork, consisting of Mary, the mother, and Dervla and Derek, her daughter and son. Mary plays the keyboards, and her clothing and gestures are right out of 50s America. Dervla fancies herself a purer, more Irish Shania Twain, and Derek is.... well, a cross between Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Gumby.

Recently, Crystal Swing made it onto Ellen DeGeneres's show. It was a boon to Irish people all around, but Irish people in Dublin, if I can generalise for over a million individuals, think that Crystal Swing are funny. As in, silly funny.

When I first saw Crystal Swing, I thought that they had to be kidding. I thought for sure that they were ironic -- pretending to be all innocent and country bumpkinish, but really, this was all a ploy to differentiate themselves from other bands, and their performance was faux-innocent. But my friends in Ireland assured me that they were serious. Very serious. I couldn't understand -- I mean, check out Mary, and her little head bops, and her hair style and dress and makeup, and facial expressions...it's so June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver! She can't be serious! And the kids -- siblings -- singing about sex to each other, all the while looking at the camera with faces of pure innocence! Is this a joke? I was really confused.

Things only got worse (for my comprehension) when Panti -- a famous drag queen here in the Dub -- did a parody of "He Drinks Tequila" in her weekly show, referring to her band as Cryshtal Shwing. I thought that Crystal Swing were already parodying something else, so how could Panti parody a parody? Is there a word for this? Linda Hutcheon, where are you when I need you?

But recently, after watching way too many YouTube videos of these folks, I figured it out. Crystal Swing are popular because they tap into what we all want, but are afraid to admit we want. They stand for hope in a world of cynicism. They make us want to believe that life could be so simple and clean. They are ... pure and innocent, and we all want to taste just a little bit of that. I heard them interviewed on Irish radio a few days ago, when they were in Los Angeles for Ellen's show. At the end of the interview, the host said that they were "genuine, warm people," and that they were good people, "and that's the truth." The fact that he felt the need to mention that last part -- to clarify that he was talking truthfully -- is telling, because it's hard to know if anyone (the performers or hosts or cheering audience members) are taking the piss. Audiences are made defensive by their earnestness. Watching Ellen DeGeneres watch Crystal Swing while they perform on her show is telling: she dances around a bit, but every few seconds, she looks over at one of her crew. The look is small and discrete, but it is clear. She is asking: are these folks for real? Do you actually LIKE this? Because, uh, I think I actually like this, but I'm not sure I'm supposed to, because I think maybe they can't really be serious. And then I would be the silly one.

And the truth is this: people like Crystal Swing, but more importantly, they want to like Crystal Swing, but they fear they will look like fools for doing so. So the telling looks appear, and the under-the-breath guffaws break the surface. I understand, because I do it as well. How could I enter into pure enjoyment while watching them, without feeling like other people might think I am naive and have bad taste? It's only possible to like them if... well... if you pretend not to. This whole discussion reminds me of what Carl Wilson writes about in his book about Celine Dion. He hates her music -- he finds it mewling and appalling -- but still, he is driven to understand why so many people are moved by it. He meditates on the nature of taste, and the elements of ego and aesthetic judgment that constitute taste.

I could say a lot more about Crystal Swing and how they provide a way to measure our perspective on contemporary life, but instead, I'll leave you with Derek, and his mouth full of adolescent teeth, doing the Hucklebuck on Ireland's Late Late Show:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shifting perspectives

As you may have noticed, the blog entries have slowed down considerably. I'm aware of this, but because I promised myself that this blog would not be about work or anything resembling work, I needed to keep it purely in the land of inclination. And I guess I haven't been so inclined, for various reasons.

But one reason is simply this: Dublin just isn't as weird to me anymore. When I first got here, my eyes were peeled in a newbie kind of way - I noticed the odd phrasings on street signs, and the way people walked, and the different foods on offer in the shops. But now that I've been here for seven months (today), the quirky has started to shift into the mundane, and it isn't captured by my consciousness in quite the same way. I have to intentionally create Brecht's verfremdungseffekt , in my mind's eye, to see the cultural peculiarities.

The fact that life here is becoming familiar is very interesting to me, because acculturation happens on many different levels, and at many different paces. Plenty of things still appear unusual or alien to me, but the things I notice now are harder to articulate, because they are about the fundamental ways that people interact with the world and others in it. When I have a better grasp on these more intuitive aspects, I will write about them.

My shift in perspective has been highlighted recently by a couple of factors. I have a new friend who is originally from Italy, and immediately I found her compelling; she is so different from the Irish. It's not that I am tired of the Irish, but more that, maybe, her particular cultural distinctiveness is refreshing, and it puts Irish customs and practices in relief. It helps me to see Dubliners, and myself, in a new light. My Italian friend, Elisabetta, is animated, and quick to engage passionately in conversation, and verbally free - she says things directly. She told me that in order to get along with colleagues in Ireland, she had to learn to be less direct; she's had to figure out how to come at things a bit sideways, because her regular approach - which she would use with colleagues at home - would be considered too forthright.

The international stereotype of the Irish is that they are friendly, and quick to bring outsiders into a chat, and great conversationalists, etc. Just look at the first 5 minutes of The Quiet Man, when the American is greeted with glee and offered directions by half a dozen animated little 'ole wans'. Or all the shenanigans that go on in films like The Matchmaker and Waking Ned. I choose the Hollywood Irish films because they have been instrumental in fabricating Irishness for lands beyond Ireland. And these representations are not complete fabrications - the people I have met are friendly, and they do love a great conversation and opportunities for good craic, but I am also finding that there is often a barrier or wall to real social intimacy. My friend Paul pointed out to me that Torontonians are not quite so different - we, too, can be friendly and welcoming to the outsider on one level, but then slightly closed when it comes to really letting people into our inner circles. I like to think that I have thrown away that barrier as I crossed the Atlantic and allowed myself to become vulnerable in so many ways. But it's hard to tell, of course, because how does one use the V-effect on oneself? I know that, in this blog in general, I have been approaching people entirely as products of their culture and society, and that this leaves out a whole realm of other factors that shape identity and behaviour, and that such an approach is reductive and potentially stereotyping, but... oh, well, I said this wasn't work :)

The second recent thing that has shifted my perspective is the arrival of my sister Amber, who in fewer than 12 hours has shown me how accustomed I have come to this place. She is finding so many things interesting that I now take for granted. She giggled at the sign for 'Irish Ferries' that was pointing in the direction of the harbour, and seemed genuinely concerned that our bus was going to crash into other vehicles on the way back from the airport. She isolated the combination of the short buildings and narrow streets as the distinct architectural feature of Temple Bar that creates the character of the space, and she noted the oddity of having one's washing machine in the kitchen. These are all things I noticed when I arrived, but that do not cross my radar any more. They seem like simple differences, but I think they are fundamental differences - radical differences, in fact. What I mean by this is that objects and the layout of objects in space affect our movement patterns in daily life. The narrowness of the streets means that bodies interact in a closer proximity than they do in places that have more space, like Canada. The height restrictions create a different aspect relationship between the human body and the world it inhabits - we are not dwarfed in the streets of Dublin. Amber said that the smaller scale made her focus more on the people and how they were interacting (she also had her ear opened outward, trying to soak up all the Irish accents). The placement of the laundry machine means that certain household tasks become related to one another in particular ways. It might sound like I am grasping at straws here, but I really do think that the shift in spatial relationships can have a concomitant effect on social relationships and customs. But this is starting to sound a bit like work, so perhaps I will switch gears, and leave you with two pictures of my lovely sister Amber, excited by the cobblestones of Temple Bar, and the Liffey and the beauty of its bridges, on her first night in Dublin (and her first night in Europe).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin

Just came back from the parade - I was able to watch it about 200 metres from my apartment, which reminds me how glad I am that I chose such a central location. It makes finding a bite to eat (at home) and changing clothes for the next adventure (at home) quite convenient.

This was my first Patrick's Day parade in Ireland, and I was quite excited, because it has to be the largest and most public way that Ireland performs her identity for herself, for the tourists, and to the world. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I did think it would be big.

I was right, but it was not big in some of the ways I expected. For one, there seemed to be a real emphasis on bicycle or people-powered floats. There were lots of huge puppets operated by groundlings, and usually one person cycling, while others helped to push the float from behind. In some of my pics, you can see them struggling to get up the hill on Dame St. at Parliament. Only a few floats were gasoline-powered, and this was a nice surprise. I mean, I barely made it through all the cigarette smoke that surrounded me on Dame Street - burning fuel would not have been very pleasant. Most of the large spectacle items were animal figures, which I guess fits with the whole pagan thing, and the colours were bright and lively. There was an artisanal feel to many of the large puppets, which was a nice contrast with, say, all the plastic used in the Pride parade in Toronto.

There was hardly a nationalist inkling in site - in fact, there seemed to be an absence of demonstrably "Irish" elements. A few Irish cities/counties had contingents - Donegal, Waterford, Belfast, and there was an international presence as well - I saw Madrid, something from Italy, a group that looked like they were in traditional Indian garb, and a couple of African-themed groups. The most random one had the be the North Carolina State Marching Band. I was like, WTF? Overall, I would say that the multiculturalism of the parade - the presence of different ethnicities - outweighed the visibility of different ethnicities that I encounter on my wanderings around Dublin. But I don't really wander all that far around Dublin, so whaddoIknow?

The crowds were upbeat, but as far as I could tell, not really drunk yet, so that was a relief. Someone told me to wear wellies because it can get that messy outside. But right now, in my very central apartment, it's once again quiet outside, and the barriers on the street were coming down as the last group of cyclists passed by.

Anyway, off I go to other Patrick's Day adventures. Just needed to dump the SD card, recharge the camera battery, and fuel myself.

The pics below show my wanderings around Temple Bar and O'Connell/the Quays before the parade began, the parade itself, and then my street afterward. I had an ok position on the street, but there are lots of heads in the shots, so please skim through quickly!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bray to Greystones in Images

Last weekend I decided to shake up my regular trek around Howth, and instead take the DART south to Bray. There is a walk that goes from Bray, which is small seaside town, around Bray head and to Greystones, which is a slightly bigger seaside town, but one that seems to be growing. The pics below start at Bray's promenade with Bray head in the distance, and then they follow the 6km walk to Greystones. I love train tracks - always have, so they feature fairly prominently. I also have video of a train coming out of tunnel, but I haven't looked into uploading video yet. Greystones is a hip little place, with lots of fairtrade this and eco that for sale. The last pic is from my (alone at coffee shop, armed with camera) still-life study of a cappuccino and my gloves at The Happy Pear. What comes to mind most when I look at this pic is: I wish they washed their windows. I was punch-drunk on sea air and sunshine by this point, so the angle's a bit canted.

Uncool pubs and off-nights

It's become clear that I really like pubs that aren't cool. The cool ones are busy, and this suggests that lots of people like to go to them, and get packed in like sardines. But that's just not my scene - I need more personal space than your average Dublin venue offers (and this includes sidewalks, shopping centres, pedestrian walkways, and queues, where people stand really close behind you, even if they have several feet of space available behind them).

So, I've been steadily cultivating a list of uncool pubs. Of course, they are cool by virtue of being uncool, but it's all about taste.

For quiet drinks in a cosey old-school atmosphere, there is the Library Bar in the Central Hotel on Exchequer St. It looks like it sounds - bookshelves, old worn-velvet arm chairs, open (gas) fireplaces, and a little bar tucked in the corner. I've seen people reading here on a Saturday night, or opening presents at a little party of six, and generally just chatting. The sandwiches are great, and the academic in me feels at home. The lights are a bit bright, but there is no music, and this means that voices aren't competing for aural space. It's all about the space. Incidentally, the Central just opened a 'gastropub' next door recently, called Gastropub. The food is good, but it's a sardine kind of place.

View Larger Map
Library Bar, Central Hotel, Exchequer St.

A similar venue is the Lord Edward Pub, near Christchurch, above a fish and chip shop. Again, lots of red velvet benches and little wood tables, slightly bright lights. I had one of the oddest conversations I've experienced in Dublin with the bartender that night. My companion and I had picked up some fish and chips from the takeaway below, and brought them up to the pub to see if they were ok with us eating them there (while sipping a pint of course). The bartender quite firmly (but kindly) said he was very sorry, and wished that he could say yes, but he just could not. I asked whether it was because they also served food (we were unaware of this), and he said "Oh no, that's not it at all. It's just that, if you take your dinner over there (pointing to a far corner), and start eating it, sure enough the head on this pint of Guinness will just disappear. It's the oil they use - takes the head clear off the Guinness." Naturally, we were kinda confused. I thought he meant that the oil would travel through the air and attack the poor defenseless Guinness, and my friend thought that he meant the oil from our mouths would remain on the glasses, and affect the next user. We talked to him for quite a bit, practically falling into hysterics, and really, I'm not sure we ever figured out what he really meant. The oddity of that conversation endeared the place to me for good, I think.

View Larger Map
The Lord Edward Pub, Christchurch

The other uncool thing to do is go to an otherwise cool pub on an off night. I find Mondays-Wednesday are good for this, and my favourite place to go is the Front Lounge. It does happen to be right around the corner from my apartment, and it's a queer friendly pub, but at weekends, it's terribly packed. On a Monday night, it's the perfect place to sit with a pint and your laptop and write on your blog about sitting with a pint and your laptop in Dublin...

View Larger Map
The Front Lounge, Parliament St.

In terms of fun factor, however, uncool pubs can also really give it up. Take last night, which had to be just about the most fun I've had in ages. After yoga, I joined a few people at the Mercantile on Dame Street to hear this wacky band called The Sick and Indigent Song Club. (Yes, I did say that I went to a pub after yoga - this was a shocking thing to me the first time I did it, because post-yoga usually screams 'green goddess smoothie' to me more than 'pint,' but I got over this ridiculous Canadian confusion shortly thereafter). The band is great - the lead singer is Scottish, and she plays the banjo, wearing a flower in her hair, and looking very proper, but her expression is fantastically ironic, so you know she is much cheekier than she appears. Their sound is really hard to describe - lots of instruments, and a mix between gypsy, celtic, and chanson. They remind me, in mood, of Les Singes Bleues, who used to play at The Press Club on Dundas West in Toronto, before one of the band members moved back to France and killed our favourite weekly gig. So we were dancing around a bit to the band, but they are too fun to watch, so the real cutting loose didn't happen until the band retired and the DJ pulled out the chart tunes. We tore it up! And this was only possible because...the pub didn't have many people in it, so we could spread out over the dance floor, jump off the stage, and swing around the railings. You know, regular dancing-to-pop in your 30s kind of behaviour.

Love the uncool pubs of the Dubs.