Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dublin: A Room of One's Own (With a View)

 Living in Bergen, one is apt to forget how ugly the rest of the world is. So Dublin, with its gritty river Liffey and swarms of scruffy Irishmen, was quite a shock. A shock quickly superseded by the near-death experience of thinking our bus was about to smash into another, which was calmed by my remembering that, though our bus driver could not speak a word of recognizable English, he seemed fairly capable of driving on the wrong side of the road without mishap.

Ruth, Amanda and I arrived in Dublin on Thursday morning, and the startlingly sunny walk over the tarmac already made our trip. We put up at the Four Courts Hostel right on the Liffey, near Temple Bar, booking all four beds in one room for the sake of privacy. We picnicked in a church park and walked around the city, orienting ourselves.

We returned from our reconnaissance of Dublin cheerful and wiped. In our room, we all stopped short. A definite odor had settled while we were gone. Not liking to say anything to my roommates, I went to the window and struggled to open it.
“What’s that smell?” asked Ruth, blunter than myself.
“Whose coat is that?” asked Amanda.
“Who’s that?” I turned to see who they were speaking about, and a tousled figure sat up in the top bunk right near my head. Letting the window fall with a whack, I shrieked. The guy looked at me.
Checking out our view
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Excuse me, I’m sorry.” We backed out of the room, and promptly doubled over laughing. Finally, we made it down to the reception desk, where I played every tool in my arsenal to get us switched to a different room. I was a damsel in distress (“we smelled him before we saw him!”), I was a young American woman appealing to the guy behind the desk (did you notice I have boobs?), I was funny –“just how bad is the smell?” “pungent”—, I was a reasonable adult willing to compromise (of course we'll stay in the room Friday night, when the hostel's full-- um, yeah, I'll be at chabad for shabbat). It made me think about how easy it is for young women like us to work the system, and how much of a loss we’d be at in a different culture. Anyhow, we laughed at the guys clowning around behind the desk, and we listened to them joke about how “some people’s hygiene is just disgraceful” with suitably attentive expressions, and finally were moved to a front room that looked out on the river Liffey, without any undesirable odoriferous additions, and the charge to “have fun yourselves.” I woke up early for walks along the Liffey, out-striding the leisurely floating swans (how do they keep so pristine in such a grungy river?).

The next morning, Ruth and I went down to breakfast before Amanda. I went back up alone, and felt miffed when my keycard didn’t work. I began to bang on the door. “Amanda!” I shouted. And again. Thump, thump, thump. "AMANDA!"
Finally, a guy in boxers opened the door, blinking, and grinned at me. “Oh my God—“ I said. “Sorry,” backing up. Wrong floor. Wondering how I could wake up two guys under such embarrassing conditions in the space of twelve hours, I fled up the stairs.

In the Chester Beatty library, the man cleaning the displays asked us if we were here for the special day. Special day? Turns out that day was the inauguration of the Irish president, and our glass-cleaning friend had been a pilot and flown the guy around. Do you like him? We asked. He shook his head meaningfully.
“If that guy was a chocolate bar, he’d lick himself to death.” Delicious metaphor. The Irishman followed us around, offering facts about the displays and throwing in fun tidbits (the new president looks like a little leprechaun, sometimes people come in here and lick the glass). His language thrilled us more than any of the displays, and we quickly began to pay more attention to his twists of the vernacular than the elegant manuscripts before us. 

In St. Stephen’s Green we made wishes on tiny Euro pennies at the fountain and practiced leprechaun heel kicks amidst the autumnal flush. The swans nearby ignored us. Phoenix park was more sprawly, but less charming, even with herds of stags grazing on the rugby fields.
Disguised Bathroom at Fixx

On Grafton Street, Ruth got excited about Starbucks and Amanda about Bewley’s. So we went to both. But Fixx was my favorite, with its walls of books and leafy patterns in the hot chocolate. In all our coffee breaks, we pretty effectively worked over prejudices, education, relationships, comparisons between Dublin, Norway, and the US, and our plans for the future. It's fun traveling with the kind of people that start conversations so interesting, you can see eavesdroppers straining to listen in wherever you go.

Shabbat at chabad was the usual series of coincidences in the small Jewish world. Also staying at chabad was a girl who had been at Nishmat the semester before me, and we plunged into the instant camaraderie of two girls who know all each others’ friends sharing a room. At dinner, we met an Israeli mother and daughter doing a weeklong tour of Ireland before the daughter headed into army service. It took her about a half hour until she warmed up enough to ask me The Question: what age do you get married at in your circle, in the States? Is there a lot of pressure? Ah, Israeli women my own age, how free I feel compared to you. Also present was the new guard at the Israeli embassy, fresh out of his paratroopers unit and aglow with Sephardi gorgeousness. He walked me back after lunch, and as I started to cross the road without checking in the right direction, he threw out his arm to catch me back. “I just saved your life,” he said, and winked. Yummy.

Occupy Ireland! Typical: Beer in the foreground
We met up with Ruth’s Irish friend Colm. He was tall and gangly, with milky freckled skin and wild red hair and a matching beard. Also, an Irish sense of humor-- I was never really certain when he was taking the mick and when just being honest. As we moved down Dame St, someone approached us for directions. “Oh, he’s not Irish,” I responded, and we moved on, laughing, past the “Occupy Dame Street” tent village.

Colm was fascinated by my shabbat experiences. “There are Jews in Ireland? Can I go see them? How did you even find them?” I told him about the five course lunch I’d been served by a friend of a friend of my grandmother’s, and he was all gung-ho for conversion until I reminded him of circumcision.

We took the train down to Brey, past Glendalough and Joyce’s tower. Brey had a rocky beach and the Wicklow mountains in the distance. We danced around near the waves, and I freaked Ruth out by joking about the lack of evidence for the moon’s influence on the tides (it's not my fault most scientists haven't read Cyrano de Bergerac), and we collected as many smooth rocks as we could and carried them around in our pockets for the rest of our trip. 

Between the town of Brey and the town of Greystones, there is a path along the cliff. We followed it over the spray-sloshed cliffs and through blackberry brambles and above aquamarine coves. That afternoon, we went to the Church Bar, a bar in an old cathedral where Guinness got married. It was a beautiful place, with an organ and the bathroom down in the crypt. I wondered how Christians feel about a church-turned-bar, or if they just appreciate the convenience (wedding and reception hall in one).

We kept coming back to the Temple Bar in Temple Bar, where Irish musicians played fun music for tourists. Ruth picked up two American guys with the smooth question, “when does the next band start?” They bought us drinks in Hogans, a truly Irish (read: not-for-tourists) pub that proved its authenticity by the lack of both music and furniture (they must have sold it all during the recession) and paid for the privilege by entertaining us with a hilarious double comedy act of conversation that reminded me nostalgically of my favorite frat boys. It was the first time I’ve let a stranger buy me a drink, and I’ll admit that it brought on an onslaught of feminist guilt, but hey, I was on vacation. I promised myself that once back in Norway, I would stay true to my values and let the US government foot the bill for all my drinking.

We dropped into a grand church. It was the site of Oscar Wilde’s baptism. Not overly interested in the infant Wilde’s immersion in a bath, I walked through the pews, reading the marble plaques on the walls. And made the most wonderful discovery. There, on the wall, was a memorial to Felicia Hemans, who had been buried in the church vaults. Buried right there! Giddy with my find, we went next to the National Library to see the Yeats exhibit.

Until I saw, with my own eyes, the Wild Swans at Coole and To my Daughter written in longhand with bits scratched out and handwriting so atrocious that you couldn’t read them unless you had the poems memorized, I never understood the lure of a manuscript. What wonders the Europeans can lord over us. What vast riches they have, what deep musty libraries full of originals. I pored over Yeats, trying to leech some of the personality out of that old paper through the glass into my being. As we left, I repeated the Second Coming to myself over and over. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It seems truer than ever now, in so many ways that you reading this will be sure to adapt it to your own beliefs. And what a perfectly cloaked insult that would make, I mused. To tell someone they are full of passionate intensity, and mean this poem. I reveled in the thought a bit, then shrugged it and the terrible beauty of Yeats off in Fixx.

Everywhere we went, we saw Irish men singing and drinking and goofing off. But I didn’t get a sense of the Irish woman. The guys all called us “girls,” which bothered me at first. We are three articulate, thoughtful, intelligent WOMEN, and past the “girl” stage. But then I realized that Irish men are essentially just charming, nutty, cheeky boys, and I didn’t mind anymore. It’s a country full of Washer twins. Generous guys, who will make you laugh until you wet yourself, but lacking a certain got-it-togetherness.

So. Bergen for beauty, Stockholm for magnificence, and Dublin for fun. And also for the writing. Until I arrived here, I hadn’t understood how the things I have read have spread a web out across the world, and the glory of filling in my guesses with the real gardens and streets and coasts and fisherman and drunks that I’ve read has me heady.

Returning to Bergen, the beauty of the city overwhelmed me. The frost soft on the ground, the morning mists on the fjords, the firred mountains against dawn sky. As I walked home from a meeting this evening, the lights of the houses on Fløyen glowed down into the pond in the middle of Bergen, and I heard the ducks preparing for bed. Crossing the bridge over the fjord at Florida, I looked down into the water. A crane picked its way along the edge of the fjord, and then stopped, beak erect, standing quite still. I followed its example a moment, letting my frosty breath billow out over the water, and then moved on homeward.

1 comment:

  1. Dublin for culture as well.
    They cherish the harp of Brian Boru and the wonderful Book of Kells above all their ancient treasures.
    Did you bother to visit the Long Room?
    Dublin, meaning dark Pool, was founded by Norwegian Vikings.Both in Christ Church and St. Patrick's Church are great museums attached.