Apologies for the lack of bloggage last weekend. I’m sure you all felt the blog’s absence keenly. It’s because I was gallivanting again, though this time within the borders of my own country. Our hillwalking club descended en masse to Sneem in Co. Kerry, in the south-west corner of Ireland.
Kerry is one of the most popular tourist spots in Ireland, and it’s hard to describe its beauty without resorting to cliché. Majestic. Spectacular, Scenic. So as with my Iceland post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve decided to concentrate on Kerry’s little quirks, and the county is full of them.
Here’s a flavour of some of the gloriously random things I encountered on my travels
A sign warning walkers about stray golf balls, describing them as dangerous projectiles
A bridge with a dizzying view of water hurtling beneath a grille
A pub with a fictional menu and lasagne the texture of biscuit
A Dalmatian perched on a street sign
A very concise German charity shop owner – when asked if she had lived in Sneem long, she simply answered, ‘Yes.’
Raspberry sorbet ice cream, eaten on a bench by the river
A red setter stretched out on the steps of the hotel, basking in the sun
A garden filled with pyramids designed to mimic the wattle and daub dwellings of our ancestors
This post is part of an occasional series I’m going to call Retail Ramblings, where I chronicle my encounters, good, bad and ugly, with retail and service personnel.
I sat in the window of a small city-centre café with a friend, having coffee. While we chatted, I kept an eye out for my husband, who planned to join us. A few moments later, I spotted him through the window, his back to me.
I expected him to turn around and come through the door, but he stayed still. Why wasn’t he coming in, I thought, puzzled.
I had failed to spot the phone in his hand, and thinking he mustn’t have seen us, I rapped on the window three times. The loudness of the raps startled me. I felt vibrations travel along my arm. ‘I thought the Apocalypse was coming,’ my husband said, when he came through the door.
I turned to the owner of the café, who was at the counter, just a few inches away from our table. ‘Sorry I banged on your window like that,’ I said. ‘You must have thought it was going to break into a million pieces.’ My tone was light and banterful, and I expected an equally banterful response: oh, I thought I was going to have to call the glaziers. Or a verbal shrug: don’t worry about it. It’s made of strong stuff.
What she said, without a trace of humour in her voice, was:
‘If you had broken that window, I would have bust you.’
This week, I ticked an item on my bucket list and went to Iceland. I could tell you about the cascading waterfalls, the black sand beaches, hot springs bubbling from the earth. It’s what we think of when we think of Iceland. And all of these things are indeed awesome, in the truest sense of the word.
But I can’t say anything about these wonders that hasn’t already been said. When you’re a tourist, you’re funnelled towards the big game: the natural wonders, the ancient buildings, the epic landscapes. So instead, I look for the little moments that make a trip sparkle. The quirky objects you stumble upon at street corners. The random conversations. The strange but delicious food. The characters on the bus.
Here’s a word collage of my top ten small but perfectly formed Icelandic moments.
Two polar bears standing guard outside a shop
Carp flashing golden in a pond
A tour guide with flaming red hair who did a scarily accurate impression of a Viking having his guts ripped out
Drinking water that smelt of eggs, but tasted pure as air
An exhausting, but enjoyable search for puffins
A group of farmers entranced by fields full of fodder, but empty of sheep
A museum that blasted punk music from a cellar
Splashes of wall art filled with swirling patterns, fantastical creatures and electric colour schemes
Slices of morning herring, picked to enhance the delicate flavour
A band with no musical instruments
I’m not the most adventurous of travellers. You won’t find me dangling off a cliff or Airbnbing in a yurt. But I don’t think I need you need to go on mad adventures to make your trip unique. I just look out for small details that turn into lasting memories.
I never thought I wouldn’t have time for music. It has always been so vital for me, essential as a pulse. But seeking out new music does take energy and resources, and sometimes my brain doesn’t have the bandwidth for it.
Then last week, a new piece of music wafted out of my radio speaker. Warm notes curled upwards like smoke. The music spread from my nostrils and through the cavities in my skull, then spread like a pulse down to my feet, until my whole body was filled with electricity. I couldn’t remember the last time a piece of music had reached me like that.
The man who introduced this piece of music was a voice from the past. Donal Dineen, presenter of an alternative radio show called Here Comes the Night, which enjoyed a cult following at the turn of the century. His show regularly provided me with those electric moments.
Musical Magical Carpet
The only radio competition I have ever entered was on Here Comes the Night. In my entry, I described the show as a musical magical carpet ride – you never knew where you were going to land next. For my efforts, I won concert tickets and CDs. While it’s true that I had my eyes on the prize, I did actually mean what I had said. Every tune was a surprise, a marvel in its own way.
The show was a portal into a world of music I might never otherwise have heard. The tunes broke the boundaries of genre, of traditional melody. You would hear yelps, scratching sounds, bongo drums, the throb of a Hammond organ, skanky street raps and a haunting vocal – often within the one tune.
The artists stitched old sounds together to make new ones. They built rich layers of sound which melded together to form one unified sound. They used sound give shape to their world and their experiences. On a given night, you would hear hip hop, world music, electronica, folk music and medieval choral music.
The music was not for the faint hearted. If you’re a fan of easy melodies, this wouldn’t have been the show for you. The tunes challenged your ears, but then rewarded them a thousand times over. I spent my nights floating on waves of sound, which filled crevices inside of me.
Most of the time, Donal Dineen stood back from the music he played, but from time to time, his cool, clipped voice could be heard, intoning a litany of names, of artists, record labels, remixes. The names jumbled together, and I couldn’t retain them. I just cheekily taped the tunes and hoped for the best.
When the show came to an end, I allowed that music to fade out of my life. The music was hard to find, and I was too lazy to seek it out. My tapes wore out and stereo systems were no longer sold with cassette decks. Tumbleweed formed over the tunes and I let myself be drawn back into the doldrums of pop radio.
Carving Out Time for Music
Then Spotify came along and I was reunited with the music. And I now knew the names of the tunes. Donal Dineen began a podcast and began to appear on a national arts show. It was on this slot that I heard the electrifying piece of music, by an Ethiopian musician called Hailu Mergia, a doyen of the Addis Ababa jazz scene of the 1970s. If you want to hear the notes that have been feeling my head for days upon days, click here.
Listening to Mergia’s smoky notes, I vowed to carve out time to seek out new tunes, to embark on that musical magic carpet ride of discovery that new music brings.
Last Easter, I went back to my hometown for a good old catch-up, not just with my family, but with various friends. I rang one friend to arrange a coffee date. I would step off the bus and straight into a coffee shop for our chin wag. With another set of friends, I arranged a lunch to take place a couple of hours later, via our WhatsApp group.
I was to meet them on the Saturday, and both social arrangements had been made by the Tuesday. For some people, this would be the stuff of nightmares. ‘I hate to be tied,’ I hear such people say, as if an invite to have coffee at eleven on a Friday were a court summons. I have to say, this kind of talk saddens me, with its implication that friendship is a burden to be borne.
The Privileges of Friendship
I get a thrill when my phone pings with a message asking me to meet at eleven on a Friday, or with a reply that yes, my friend would love to meet me on a Friday. When I get a message like that, it tells me that someone is thinking of me, and that gives me a warm glow. I feel lucky that people think enough of me to want to make arrangements to meet me.
And I feel privileged to even have friends in the first place, because there are plenty of people who have none. Loneliness has become so endemic that the UK Government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness. We have never had more technology to communicate with, yet I wonder if this technology has turned us into tectonic plates, drifting further apart from each other.
Leaving Friendship to Chance
I could have left my arrangements to chance, turned up on the Saturday and sent messages to see who was around. Some people thrive on this. But I know that if I make concrete arrangements with my friends, they’re more likely to happen. Once I’ve made the arrangements, I can slot the rest of my schedule around them. For me, that’s freedom of a kind.
Yes, it’s a commitment. It means carving out time away from my work and family schedules. But it’s a commitment I freely choose to make. Rather than seeing the arrangements as an obligation, I see them as a beacon on the landscape, something warm and inviting to move towards. And I reap the reward for that effort in the form of laughter, support and a sense of belonging.
In recent months, the media has been beaming its spotlight on men who do horrible things. The #MeToo and #IBelieveHer hashtags. Tales of Hollywood sleaze. High profile rape trials. The horrible deeds of men has been questioned like never before.
I’m not really into hashtags, bandwagons or campaigns. Instead, contrarian that I am, I’ve been turning my own spotlight on men who are careful.
Men who weigh up their words when they’re speaking to women.
Men who hold open doors to let shoals of women through
Men who hoist children high on their shoulders so they can see a parade passing by
Men who leave room for women to speak
Men who make you laugh so much you can hardly breathe
Men who put an arm around a woman’s shoulder, and don’t let that arm stray any further
Men who tell you how beautiful you look, no matter what
Fathers who put their shoulders to the wheel
Men who cook succulent dinners
Men who see your lower lip trembling, then wipe away your tears.
These men are our fathers, our brothers, our other halves, our friends. The minefields they negotiate are just as difficult as ours. These are men whose deeds go beyond hashtags. These are men who choose to be careful with women. Let the actions of these men be a counterweight to the tales of sleaze. Let us raise these men up.
Some days have a special, shining quality. Colours are sharper, food explodes with flavour, and conversation flows. There is an ease to the day; everything you do feels just right. It’s a day when you feel fully alive. When a day like this comes along, I call it a Day of Days.
I was lucky enough to have a Day of Days just last week, when I jaunted up to Dublin, Ireland’s capital city, on a literary road trip with a friend of mine. On a Day of Days, it’s a bonus to have good weather to set the scene. After weeks of cold, rain and even snow, spring put in a brief appearance. There was proper warmth from the sun, and the sky was the sort of blue you’d find in an artist’s palette.
For me, travel plans that go like clockwork are an essential ingredient in a Day of Days. Thanks to the speed and efficiency of my friend, the jour was smooth. The motorway was free of traffic, and we arrived at our destination with time to spare. Enough time to tuck into various sweet and savoury treats, washed down with frothycinos.
Conversations and Connections
We were booked in for two events at the literary festival. The first gave us a chance to hear Gail Honeyman in conversation. Gail is the author of the runaway bestseller novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (link). It’s a novel that makes an art form of everyday life. Gail spoke to a packed theatre, but managed to make us feel we were all enjoying one big coffee morning together.
Gail’s laugh could be heart frequently as she talked, a warm, rich laugh that belly-rippled through her. When it came to question time, she was determined to make a personal connection with every questioner. After I asked my question, I was started when she asked if I could raise my hand to show her where I was. She wanted to make sure she answered me directly. She was, to use a popular Irish saying, ‘a real dote.’
After the event finished, we had a generous window of time to enjoy our surroundings and linger over lunch. We were in a picturesque part of Dublin by the sea, and we strolled along the pier, watching the sun sparkle on the sea and posing for pictures at the bandstand.
Food is a cornerstone of a Day of Days. We found an Asian restaurant and were served colourful bowls of Thai food, a feast of reds, blues and greens. Mine was washed down with a crisp glass of white wine.
Then it was on to the second event. This event was a little more cerebral in town, with a panel of authors engaged in an earnest discussion about depictions of love in their novels. There were fewer questions. One of the authors was a little bolshy. He slouched in his chair and made a stream of dry comments. And he pulled up the moderator when she stumbled over the title of his book. I felt it added a certain frisson to the occasion. After all, blandness is the enemy of creativity.
It took me a little time to immerse myself in this event, so I was pleasantly surprised when the moderator said it was time for the last question, and to discover that an hour had passed. It was time to head for home, and the homeward journey was just as smooth as the first. It flashed by in a torrent of talk.
Normally, time with this friend only happens when I can snatch her away from the treadmill of childcare. Now we had space to talk, to share the special moments of each other’s lives, to share humorous observations about the onset of middle age. We were able to learn more about each other’s quirks, likes and dislikes. We discovered that neither of have a taste for 99 cones, those mountains of whipped ice cream that have formed part of so many Irish childhoods.
This Day of Days was rounded off by the sight of my husband waiting at the gate, hot buttered toast and the rather excellent children’s movie Inside Out, which I referenced in a previous blog post.
On a Day of Days, I am released from the steel trap that holds my brain down. I feel reunited with myself, and with this colourful, scarred, yet beautiful world we live in. I would love to hear about what a Day of Days is for you, what releases you from your steel trap. Feel free to share yours.
I was going to a concert one night with a gloriously scatty woman. Knowing her propensity for lateness, I said I’d walk to the venue and meet her there. But she would not take no for an answer, so I diverted myself with an episode of Sex and the City while I waited for her to collect me.
Sure enough, her beep sounded in the street a full ten minutes after she was supposed to arrive. But since this woman is blessed with the luck of the gods, we still arrived at the venue with three minutes to spare. As she pulled in, she invoked the name of her dead mother to help her secure a parking space.
‘I always ask my mother to find me a space,’ she declared. ‘It never fails.’
And sure enough, a space appeared – just beside the entrance to the venue.
Well, Does It?
Is the universe really that powerful? If we trust it, does it give us what we want? Or do good things happen because of decisions we make? These are the questions that ping-pong around my brain when I should be thinking of whether we need milk.
I love the idea of this woman’s mother acting as a sort of celestial valet, guiding the woman to the desired parking spot. Magical thinking, some scornful types might call it. Just the same, it’s a marvellous thought.
But I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman’s parking success was due to the timing of our arrival. We had arrived after most people had parked and settled themselves inside. And when they arrived, they probably assumed that such a premium parking space must be reserved for a musical VIP. Since it hadn’t, my gloriously scatty companion was able to snaffle it. Fortune favours the last-minuters.
Half Choice, Half Chance
In my experience, there’s no getting away from the fact that good things come through good decisions and hard work. But I do believe that if you make the right decision, and if you work hard enough, the universe may just give you a helping hand.
I am wary of cafes with sharing tables. I believe some café owners have an idealistic vision of strangers coming together around these large tables and finding new friends. What it often results in is enforced closeness. Conversations are circumscribed because you don’t want others to hear.
Or you can feel as if you’re drowning in other people’s noise, like the time when my friend and I were forced to share a table with a gang of clacking Spanish students. In trying to bring people together, these tables can take away your sense of personal space.
Last week, my mother and I found ourselves in a café called The Wooden Spoon in Co Clare, in the west of Ireland. The only space free was at a large sharing table, my heart sank. There was one woman at the table, and she waved us over with extravagant gestures when she saw us looking for a spot. ‘There were loads of people here a minute ago,’ she explained, ‘but they’re all gone now, so you might as well sit here.’
The table was actually a door, laid flat and propped on table legs. It was painted pale green, and a pane of glass protected it from food spillages. Wood shavings were artfully placed around the door panels. We sat on one bench and the woman sat opposite.
An Entertaining Monologue
Without preamble, she launched into the tale of the job interview she had just attended at a local nursing home. There were various twists to the tale, as many twists as there had been on the road to the interview. There was her reluctant return to nursing after a career break, the dance she had been to the night before, the fear that the makeup on her shirt collar might have interfered with her chances of landing the job.
Along the way, we heard about the food that she wasn’t allowed to eat and the tablets she was on. Every so often, she hurled questions at us, but she didn’t wait for the answers. It was quite restful – all we had to do was sit back and listen.
Beside her, there was a paper bag bulging with clothes. It had a floral design and the name of a local boutique printed on it. She nurse treated us to a fashion show, pulling out a handsome black dress coat and a white shirt.
While she spoke, the nurse ate a bowl of beef stew. She used wedges of brown bread to dig into the gravy. She dug into the brown depths with such vigour that I feared for her orange nail varnish. ‘I won’t eat for two days now after this,’ she declared.
In the Boutique
When the nurse finished her food, she left in a whirl of bags and coats. In the vacuum that she left, we decided to visit the boutique with the floral bags. As we tried on an array of colourful tops, the nurse reappeared, to put a deposit on another black coat. While she was speaking to the owner, her phone went off.
Her phone was on speaker, so I soon realised that the phone call was from the nursing home. I tried to eavesdrop to find out the outcome of the interview, but the clothes called, and I became immersed in trying them on. I wasn’t kept in suspense long though. Through the curtain of the changing room, I heard her say, ‘Ladies, I got the job.’
I’m not a Bible-basher, but a couple of days after we met the nurse, I came across this quote from Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Now I’m starting to see the wisdom of the sharing table. They remind you of how enlivening conversations with strangers can be.
At a one-day conference I attended recently, the MC told a story, as they do in their effort to fill the gaps. She told the crowd that in her determination to find the perfect dress for her brother’s wedding, she had parked on a double yellow line in front of her favourite clothes shop. She was heavily pregnant and due to be induced. The wedding was to take place a week after she gave birth.
I knew the clothing shop she was talking about, so I knew that there would only have been a narrow strip of footpath between her car and the buildings. As she spoke, and the crowd applauded her determination, I envisioned a few scenarios which I believe could have unfolded while she was in the shop.
A blind man taps his way up to the car. His stick encounters the back tyre. He gauges the distance between car and wall and judges that there is not enough space between the car and the buildings. He taps his way around the car and steps out onto the road. Air currents swirled around his ankles, as cars whooshed past.
A woman approaches the car, pushing a three-wheeled buggy, the kind that can carry everything but the kitchen sink. The wheels jam in the space between the car and the wall. She can’t move forward. She has no choice but to go out on the road, inches from the cars.
An older woman comes up to the car, leaning on a crutch. She too finds that there isn’t enough room to pass. Out on the road, she holds her breath, hoping she’ll be able to move away quick enough if a car came up behind her.
A Victimless Crime?
People think that parking on a double yellow line is a victimless crime. I’ll only be two minutes, they tell themselves. But a lot can happen in two minutes. And it only takes seconds to mow someone down.
If I were a driver, I might well be seduced by double yellow lines. Let’s face it – parking is a pain in the butt. And it takes extra minutes we may not feel we have. But we don’t live in bubbles. What we do does impact on other people.
How much extra time does it really take to find a parking spot? Maybe an extra couple of minutes. If you take those couple of minutes, it’ll mean one less obstacle for a stick user to negotiate. Nobody will have to hold their breath. And the buggy users, the MC’s fellow mothers-in-arms, won’t have to worry about the safety of their children.