Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Official Post of Scary Hairstyles I Saw in Spain

I really don´t know what cultural impetus is at work to cause an otherwise fashionable people to have the worst hairdos on planet Earth. For the reader´s benefit, I will keep my list brief, but by no means exhaustive.
1. The Dread-Mullet.
I was going to include a picture, but the paltry examples I found on Google images simply don´t do this phenomenon justice. Basically, the dread-mullet, or drullet is the ultimate in "business in front, party in back." You see an otherwise normally dressed person with a normal haircut walking toward you, then you turn around and BOOM, between two and four gangly dreads sticking right out of the neckline hanging down to the ass. Some more professional drullet sporters tuck their natty dreadlocks into the back of a shirt or jacket making the tips all the more obvious.
2. The "Yo No Sé Que" Vampire Huntress.
I´ve seen at least two of these so far, so it´s a safe bet that there´s more out there. Basically a gothic variant of the drullet, this involves super-long, super-strait, super-black hair in the back and extremely close-cropped Lily Allen bangs in the front. Here´s the kicker, these girls maximize the squarishness of an already boxy hairstyle by SHAVING a perfect rectangle out of their temples. They don´t bother maintaining the shave either, so the resulting peach fuzz looks truly horrifying. You need to see it to believe it.
3. The Double-Poirot
I´m not joking, there was an old man in the Valencia train station with an ivory-white Poirot-style moustache on both his upper lip and his chin. Prepare for trouble, make it double. Sleep now, Nyquil calls...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My long overdue mega-post

Due to the insistence of Miss Elizabeth Gager, I feel obligated to update my readers on my activities of the past week. I apologize for the tardiness, but Internet access has been infrequent and unreliable.

First, my position. I am in Valencia relaxing on Amy's sofa, after a somewhat circuitous journey. Three days ago, I boarded a train from Cinque Terre toward Nice. I was supposed to take the express from Genova to Nice, but it wasn't running. I had to take three regional trains from Genova to Ventremiglia, then Ventremiglia to Monte Carlo, then Monte Carlo to Nice, as a result of which the journey took several hours longer than it should. When I finally arrived in Nice, I discovered the reason for my transportation problems. It turned out that there was a major railway strike in France to protest the tyrannical fascist government decision to raise the retirement age for railway workers from 58.5 to 60 (yeah, I know, cry me a river). The strike ended just as I got into Nice, but the rails were fouled up for days and I was told that there was no way I could get to Barcelona by Friday. In fact, no trains out of Nice were traveling much further than Marseilles and I met a German girl at my hostel who claim that it took her nine hours to get to Nice from Lyon. Panicked, I could think of one thing and one thing only: get me out of France. I decided that the fastest way to get to Spain was to go backwards into Italy and then catch a flight from Bergamo airport to Valencia. This worked out fairly well, except for one little hitch. I've been fighting a sinus infection since Venice (I blame the bad weather and general scuzziness of the place). If you ever feel the urge to fly with a sinus infection, don't. The pain is not worth it. I arrived in Valencia feeling like my head was filled with urethane foam and thumbtacks. My ears were so clogged that I could barely hear and while my friends there were all gung ho to enjoy a wild night on the town, all I could hope to do was crash. I'm feeling a bit better now after a good long sleep and I'm excited since it's apparently possible to buy antibiotics over-the-counter in Spain. Awesome.

Over the past few days I've been privilege to so much beauty that I hardly know how to take it all in. Walking to my hostel from my train station in Firenze, I passed the titanic Florentine Duomo looming like a distant mountain. While I've certainly seen my share of impressive old churches (St. Vitus in Praha, St. Marco in Venice), I have to give the Duomo in Firenze props for scale. Yes, the Cathedral of Milan is technically larger, but it's all spires. It doesn't radiate bigness in the same way as Firenze.
In the taxonomy of old Italian city-states, if Venezia was all about trade, Firenze was all about culture. Even today, Firenze is THE renaissance city, with an impressive array of museums showcasing some of the most well-known works in human history. After a two-hour queue and a €10 fee, I had the pleasure of walking the halls of the Uffizi, home of some of Firenze's greatest treasures. Again, the thing that struck me the most was this sense of belittling scale. Bottacelli's The Birth of Venus, which we're all quite familiar with is actually quite huge, with Venus herself a life-sized woman. I suppose we're so used to seeing this work on a computer screen or on the back of a postcard that we lose the perspective that we get when we're actually in a room with the thing.
Of course, all this bigness and culture-saturation got me thinking about the whole point of a Duomo or a Milan Cathedral or a St. Vitus. Ostensibly, of course, they're churches, but they were also meant to showcase the wealth and cultural aplomb of a state. St. Marco's says "Venezia is rich," the Duomo says "Firenze is also rich and we have a proper Duke unlike the Venetians with their silly republic," St. Vitus says "hey Protestants, what have you got? we're the real church." Four years of oblique exposure to Anabaptist ideas cause a reflexive reaction that these grandiose churches are the product of a disastrous marriage of church and state, but tell that to any Italian catholic and expect to be called a Protestant Philistine.
I think what really impressed me about Firenze was how art and beauty always outlive their own goals. The Medicis are long dead, but the artistic revival they helped bring about lives on in the buttresses and colonnades of the city they once ruled. A lot of those massive churches in Praha built to awe the Protestants into the Catholic fold became concert halls. With time, art can become divorced from political or religious motivations and becomes beauty for beauty's sake. Of course the art junkies know all the history and scandals behind a painting or a sculpture or a big building, but the rest of us can appreciate it as a snapshot of human potential.

Cinque Terre: the Five Lands. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that "peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." If the man is right (and he frequently is) then Amy's suggestion that I visit Cinque Terre was the Tango de la Muerte. These five sun-drenched towns, nestled like jewels in the rugged Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Genova showcase some of Italy's most stunning natural beauty. There are very few motor vehicles and the villages are not accessible by car from the outside (although the trains and boats are quite reliable). I had the privilege of visiting during gorgeous weather, so I decided to do a bit of a pilgrimage to all five towns in a single day. I checked into my hostel at Riomaggiore at the easternmost end and immediately jumped on a train to Monterosso on the westernmost end.
The First Land: Monterosso al Mare
A golden beach greets me as I step off the train in Monterosso. The air is rich with the sounds of playing children, gentle surf, and suntanned vendors selling beer or gelato. The main street is shaded with the arches of whitewashed buildings while the aromas of pesto and tomato waft from the sidewalk cafes. This is the largest and liveliest of the Cinque Terre, sprawled out lazily on its gentle sand beach under the auspices of a ruined castle. I don't tarry here for long. I immediately set out on the seaside path through naked cliff faces and shady olive groves. I stop at one point a little ways out of town to take a dip in the sparkling blue Mediterranean. The water is warm and dense, giving me keen sense of my own buoyancy. I swim into a narrow sea cave, carved into the jagged cliffs by eons of waves and tempests. The sounds of the sea are muted in this tight passage. It is the kind of cave you imagine would contain the hydra or some sort of dark mythical monster. I'm not Hercules, so I stroke back to the safety of land, refreshed and content to press on with my journey. The path takes me up rough-hewn stone steps that seem to stretch on endlessly. Eventually, I get to a nice flat stretch along the spine of a ridge with vineyards on my left and the sea on my right. It's a hot day, so every time I come upon a spring or waterfall, I splash some on my face. It's cave-cool and while I'm tempted to fill my bottle with it, I decided to pass on the Giadara. I have been traveling for about an hour when Vernazza finally peeks from behind an outcrop.
The Second Land: Vernazza. I descend rapidly down a crumbling staircase into this tidy town at the base of a cliff. Land is at a premium here, so the builders of the town maximized the use of vertical space. The town girdles a small central square near a sheltered cove. I take a good long drink of the crystal clear water from the public fountain, then treat myself to a much-deserved gelato. After the wide expanses of Monterosso, Vernazza seems small and hidden. Its skyline is dominated by a baroque bell-tower from the church at the crest of the hill. When I leave town, it quickly shrinks from view behind the rocks. The next town, Corniglia, looks deceptively close, but it's a long and arduous hike to get there. The landscape is typical dry Mediterranean, filled with prickly shrubs and trees. Cacti, invasive no doubt, are prominent as are aloe vera plants with their fat leaves. Every rock seems to hide a different sort of lizard. I saw lots of skinks and iguanas. There were magpies and other birds, but no mammals to speak of.
The Third Land: Corniglia. After the liveliness of the last two towns, the high streets of Corniglia seem fairly deserted. It's about 5pm so most people are probably inside on siesta. There is no beach here, since it sits high on a promontory overlooking the sea from three sides. I am hot and exhausted after the hike from Vernazza, so I search for a cafe where I can sit and enjoy a beer. I must have been a real sight stumbling into that town in my leather shoes, bicycle shorts, and cherry red Virgin Atlantic socks. I end up sitting next to a very nice couple from Phoenix enjoying a lazy afternoon of beer and olives under the cafe veranda. There is a boombox somewhere oozing out some laconic Tom Petty hits, making the scene all the more sleepy. The Americans prove such good company that I stay much longer than I planned, which was probably for the best since I needed a good stretch out of the sun. I descend a very long staircase to leave Corniglia, which makes me very glad I decided to travel east rather than west. From the bottom of the stairs onward, the trail is flat.
The Fourth Land: Manarola. I get into Mararola around dinnertime after a long but comparatively leisurely stroll. The town is built on two sides of a narrow valley ending in a rocky harbor. The harbor is deep enough for kids to do dives and cannonballs into. I learn that Manarola is known for it's unique wine, made from overripe grapes and it's distinct dialect. How a postage stamp town of maybe a few-hundred (in the off-season) can maintain its own dialect baffles me. It's an easy twenty-minute walk back to Riomaggiore from here along the well-kept Via dell'amore. There's some great graffiti on this walk, which offers an unparalleled vista of the sun setting on the wine-colored Mediterranean.
The Fifth Land: Riomaggiore. I stumble back into my hilltop hostel ready to crash. I force myself to take a cold shower in the antique tub and then head back into town to grab some food. I end up watching the Australia-Serbia match in an outdoor patio crammed with energetic Aussies. My adrenaline still flowing, I convinced a Canadian girl to come with me back towards Mararola. The Via dell'amore is even more stunning by moonlight. I ended the night on the balcony of my hostel with €2 red wine watching the tide come in.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Venice: Italy's Disneyland

I think I can summarize my impressions of Venice in a few bullets.
-The city is a cleverly crafted scam. Example: the free map of the city gets you hopelessly lost, the "good" map will cost you €2.50. The house wine at the pizzeria is bland and tasteless. The Bascilica of San Marco is free to get in, but it costs money to go on the balcony.
-The city is extortion. Public toilets cost €1.50 in exact change.
-The city is Disneyland. There are stores EVERYWHERE trying to sell you kitschy "cultural" items like Carnival masks. One of the outlying islands, Murano, consists entirely of glass factories and glass shops. Basically, if you don't care about glass, don't bother.
-Gondolas are exclusively for old Japanese people with bad perms.
-It's a miracle that the pigeons in St. Marco's Square aren't too obese to fly. These same aforementioned old Japanese people enjoy wasting perfectly good Italian rolls on them and getting pecked, clawed and shat on for their trouble.
-Unless you have very deep pockets, expect to survive on street food.
-Anchovies are crap. I'd forgotten how much I hate them. Seriously, why don't they just throw seawater on the pizza and get it over with.
-No reason for the worst rain I've seen in ages to fall almost the whole time I'm in Venice.

All in all though, I'm glad I want. The city is beautiful, surreal, disorienting in the most artful way. Walking through the narrow streets with not the sound of a gasoline engine to be heard is an experience worth all the extortion and touristy lameness. No words can describe the grandeur of St. Marco's square. You have to see it, but for Christ's sake, bring money and a good umbrella.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Long overdue

Sorry about the delay in communication. Suffice to say, things have been chaotic the last couple days. I'm in Venice currently suffering from a pizza/red wine/hour ride on a water bus headache. But first, let me tell you about Slovenia.
The country certainly deserves the label of "quaint." The ride in featured a parade of alps demurely peeking out through thick veils of mist. The mist flows through the peaks here like steam off hot spaghetti. The train ride from Salzburg to Ljubljana was an extremely memorable tour of the Julian Alps and Slovenian karst landscape. I would look out my window, and oh, look, there's a 100-meter deep waterfall or a ancient castle perched on a hilltop like a bird of prey. Slovenia is a modest country of only two million people that has none of the imperial pretensions of Vienna or Austria. They weathered all sorts of invasions by jockeying continental powers. The capital of this young nation, Ljubljana, is traversed by several rivers, so it features numerous promenades and small bridges. Although it's a national capital, it has the feel of a trendy university town, with a plethora of quirky cafes, perpetual street music, and a thriving underground scene. Slovenia's real beauty, however, is in its natural majesty, dominated by caves, sinkholes, waterfalls, cliffs, and underground rivers. Proportionally, Slovenia has more caves than any other nation, including the legendary Postojna caves which I got the opportunity to tour. The caves are like something out of a dream, freakish surreal shapes which your mind can all too easily transmute into demons and bugbears. Caves are so common in Slovenia that one of the feudal lords even built his castle in the mouth of a huge cave. Predjama Grad has got to be the single most epic scene I've ever beheld. Look for pictures to come soon.
Friday, the US and Slovenia tied 2-2 in World Cup Soccer. Ljubljana was a riot, especially during the first half which Slovenia dominated. That night, some friends from the hostel and I checked out an alternative bar in uptown Ljubljana. We drank copious amounts of Lasko beer and had amazing conversations with the young Slovenians, all of whom speak excellent English. All in all, an amazing time. I really want to go back and see more.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I must have done something good

And I promise, that's the last Sound of Music reference I make in reference to Salzburg. Seriously, there are other reasons to visit this place other than that lame movie. All the tourists here are obsessed with it. I passed a flock of old Japanese people in the main square singing "Crimb ebery mounutain." That and Mozart seem to be Salzburg's main claims to fame, which is a pity since this place has so much natural and architectural beauty.
Ive felt like such a little kid in this city. Every corner seems to offer a new opportunity for exploration. I see an alley or a staircase: hmm, wonder where this leads? Most seem to end up at a gorgeous panorama revealing the baroque grandeur of this mountain city spread out before you like a picnic blanket. I've had a very good time here. I find that I tend to enjoy myself more in smaller non-capital cities. The atmosphere here in Salzburg reminds me of Cork and the great times I had there.
Salzburg was originally the seat of archbishop-princes who got filthy rich on the salt trade, giving the city its name and its reputation for opulence. There was no "wall of separation" in medieval Salzburg, with the princes having final authority on matters temporal and spiritual. For all their awe-inspiring power, they were fearful people, constantly adding on the the bastion on the Mönchsberg hill abou the city in preparation for invasions by the Turks or by some rogue German prince. The fears proved ill-founded, since the castle was never taken (although it was surrendered to Napoleon in the 19th century), but it still stands today as a testament to the might, wealth, and fear of these enigmatic priest-kings.
The hostel I stayed in here had it's own bar, which was nice since the beer there was way cheaper than going out (Austria gives Ireland a run for its money) but it made me realize that most of my travel buddies end up being from other English-speaking countries. I've met tons of Americans, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Irish, but comparitively few Czechs and Austrians. I feel like I've wasted something here in Austria where the people are pretty approachable and tend to speak excellent English. I think that English might be a comfort, a fortress as it were, that I use to bolster my own insecurity at approaching people. Like the archbishops of Salzburg, I build up walls against imagined threats since when I actually do swallow my fear and strike up a conversation with a native, I tend to have a great time. Steph, the Austrian hostel keeper here, was great fun and really easy to talk to (even if we did end up at an Irish bar).
I've also found that I kind of miss Ireland. I met Aoibhinn, Kristin, and Marie at the hostel and talked with them for about three hours. I feel like the country where I stayed in the longest became my home away from home. Still, I should really branch out a little more. It's a big continent, right?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

It's been a pretty busy couple of days here in Vienna (Wien). Amy and I have certainly made the most of this old Imperial city. We started with a little midnight jaunt around the old town Friday night. On Saturday, we took the bus audio tour of both old and new Wien, getting an earful of the city's storied past. I felt a bit lame on that bus, which was completely unconducive toward snapping photos, but we really didn't see any other option. Unlike Praha, where you can walk most of the main sites in a few hours, Wien is a sprawling modern metropolis and it's main attractions are far-flung. That night, we got a special treat: a night of Viennese Opera and Chamber music performed in the Orangerie at Schönbrunn palace, the former royal residence of the Hapsburgs. It was certainly a memorable occasion, hearing Mozart in a hall where he himself debuted many of his works, but I'd forgotten that I cannot hear Strauss without thinking of Looney Toons. That evening, we searched about madly for a bar (not a cafe, not a discotheque, just an honest-to-goodness bar) and ended up in some dodgy watering hole which reeked of stale tobacco and spilt beer. There was loud Eastern European folk music playing through what looked like Gypsy MTV and all the other patrons seemed to be over-50 inebriated Yugoslavians. The waitress didn't speak a lick of English, but it seems I've picked up enough German to ask for "zwei weissenbier, groß bitte." I believe that if you can order drinks and swear in a language, you've mastered the important bits.
Today, we returned to the Schönbrunn and walked around the extensive palace gardens. We bought exhorbitantly priced soft drinks (Almdudler, a sort of Austrian sparkling lemonade) at the Gloriette Cafe, then headed back to the hostel to make sandwiches. We had a good Viennese coffee afterwards at a corner cafe, then walked along the Meiselstraße through a lively Turkish neighborhood. We came upon a huge neo-Romanesque church surrounded by a concrete plaza which hosted several bizarre metal fountains. A bunch of young Turkish guys were riding unicycles around the fountains. The whole scene struck us as a bit surreal, like a scene from a Michel Gondry film.
Here in Wien, more blatantly than in Praha, I've had to face somewhat of a bugaboo. Every educated Westerner knows about this ghostly figure called the Empire. You know what I'm talking about, that Empire which we know exists, which we know to be evil, and which we must rebel against at all costs. From Star Wars to Foucault's Discipline and Punish, we are trained to believe in the reality of this invisible Empire and the necessity of our rebellion. Wien is riddled with relics of a real Empire, one which was opulent and successful for hundreds of years before losing everything through fighting on the wrong side of two world wars. This Empire exuded an ambiance of epic scale, the stuff of which can only be guessed at by listening to Don Giovanni at Schönbrunn while a ferocious thunderstorm rages outside. I guess as a self-aware American, I like to think I'm with the rebels, which of course carries much more cachet than claiming to be part of the Empire. But then I see a place like Wien, where the Empire was an inescapable fact for almost half a millenium and I wonder just how farcical our rebellion is. If Foucault is right, then even the act of subverting (or claiming to subvert) the Empire, is paradoxically perpetuating that Empire. Despite my best efforts, the Empire remains, monolithic, shrouded in marble masonry and plaster fresco.
I must also own up to the uncomfortable fact that as an American travelling abroad, I am automatically viewed as an agent of a very real and present Empire, despite my best efforts to prove the contrary. To my hosts, I am a synecdoche for not just the political empire of Washington (a city, we must not forget, build to evoke the ancient powers of Rome and Athens), but also the commercial empire of New York and the cultural empire of Hollywood. The prevalence of this last and most shadowy empire is astounding; in Praha, I met a Swedish girl who had never been to the states who spoke English with an almost perfect American accent. A guy I met in Ireland says that American English has permeated the younger generation of English speakers across the world. The surfing community in California starts using words like "like" and "whatever" as nonfluencies and within a couple decades, the vehicle of popular entertainment has spread them to the most remote corners of the world. Europeans know their duty to resist the Empire every bit as much as we do. So what do you do when you become your own devil? What do you do when you are seen as an envoy of an Empire that you spend every mote of intellectual energy denouncing, even though it benefits you indirectly? It is only because of this Empire that I can walk into almost any establishment in Central Europe and the staff will speak my language. Did those Austro-Hungarian intelligentsia suffer from a similar crisis of conscience at the height of their empire? I can't really say for sure, nor do I think it's really my responsibily to apologize for every bad thing America has done any more than I would expect an Icelander to make an apology for the financial meltdown, the volcanic-ash cloud, and almost two decades of Björk. It's hardly their fault as a people that she sucks so badly. All I can do is try to reassure my hosts that yes, I'm an evil American, but that doesn't mean I'm blind.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Golden City

I cannot imagine that there is a more beautiful city than Praha. Even some of the most seasoned globetrotters from my hostel admitted that they had never seen anything like the place. The Czechs infuse every stone and brick with their passion for beauty. They have crafted a city the way ancient bards composed their sagas, expansive in scale, yet appreciable at even the most minute details. The old name for Praha was "the Golden City" since all the rooftops used to be gilded, causing the city to be bathed in a haze of light when the rays of the sun kissed these roofs. No wonder the Austo-Hungarians, not people known for modesty, chose Praha as their capital. The gold is long gone, pillaged by scores of invaders and by the dying empire's own need for funds, but that old radiance still lingers.
I have a redundancy of photos of rooftops, since even most of the dingy apartment buildings have spires of some sort. Architechture nerds will go a little crazy here since Praha exemplifies every major European style of architechture, sometimes within the same building. The city's most famous landmark, the St. Vitus Cathedral, has a bell tower that starts Gothic and abruptly changes to Baroque.
Amy showed up Wednesday, introducing me to her roommate Mike from Valencia. The three of us went on a walking tour of the city, escorted by an exuberant Welshman called Huw. He filled us in on the legends surrounding the grandiose and unique landmarks in Praha, particularly the sleepy Jewish Quarter, supposed home of the famous Golem (described by Huw as the Jew-bot). I saw another famous Clock, the Astronomical Clock of Old Town Square. It's the oldest piece of still-running machinery in the world. Huw also filled us in on the uniquely Czech method of dealing with tyrannical noblemen: defenestration. This word is essentially a fancy term for hucking someone out a high window, often with sharpened stakes at the bottom for good measure. I like this word, it's overly literary and describes something totally awesome. I really wouldn't mind defenestrating Glenn Beck for example.
Despite Praha's glorious imperial history, the city still bears the scars of years of communist oppression. Many of the old buildings were undergoing restoration to undo the damage of years of communist neglect and choking air pollution. You could see the line on St. Vitus where the restoration hadn't yet reached and the stones were still black with soot. Czechs were also much more reserved than other people I had met. Part of this is the language barrier; unlike, say, German, Czech looks completely incomprehensible to most English-speakers. Every time I read a sign, I though to myself "uh, can I buy a vowel Pat?" But the other, more sinister part of this silence is the damage dealt by half a century of repressive communist rule, where anyone could be an informant and your secrets were your tethers to your life.
In Vienna now with Amy. I typed this whole note on a German keyboard, which is just different enough to make me want to scream. Tomorrow, we venture into the other famed capital of the Hapsburg Empire. Guten nacht for now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When in Prague

Last night in Dublin was a pretty memorable au revoir to the nation of Ireland. I attended the Trinity College outdoor production of As You Like It and it rained buckets the whole time. Thankfully, they moved us indoors after the intermission. I was seated right behind the Lord Mayor of Dublin (who is, in fact, a lady). The play was fantastic, although it definitely reminded me that I like Shakespeare for his language and wit, not his plotlines.

Prague. I'm here, and yes, it is stunning. The main shocker for me has been finally being in a place where English is rare. I managed to get to the hostel without too much trouble, but I did get yelled at in Czech by the bus driver as he was trying to explain that I needed to validate the ticket I'd just bought. My money goes a long way here. Last night, I ate a gourmet meal at one of Prague's oldest restaurants "U Medvudo" with a beer and a mineral water for 400 kourna (about 16 euro). Later, the hostel-keeper, who's a damn nice guy, took a bunch of us to a pub where I had three pints and a shot for 150 koruna (about 6 euro!). Afterwards, like a typical bunch of ignorant drunk tourists, we stumbled to the nearest McDonalds for some midnight munchies. Me and the other Americans didn't even want to go; it was the kiwis and the Brazilian. Go figure.
Amy gets in today and we'll probably hit up the free walking tour, although I might do my own exploring before that. I hope to have some pictures up by tomorrow.

Monday, June 7, 2010

"We owe it to each other to tell stories"--Gaiman

For what are our lives but the sum of the stories told about us and what is death but the sharp intake of breath taken in anticipation of the next story.
A tiny community of monks, scratching out the lineaments of a livelihood on the Isle of Iona (a rocky outcrop of a rocky outcrop) are commissioned to make a book. The words of this book will be the words of the greatest story ever told as penned by Messrs. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is this story that has brought each and every one of these men from the green fields of Ireland to this forbidding island. But this book will not just be words on a page. It will be the labor of generations of scribes, illuminators, and bookmakers. It is a work of the highest and most eternal art, a pillar of light woven from the theads of a dark world. The book is the heart of the community, their most prized possession, the expression of their deepest desires and most ephemeral fancies. We think of creativity as a luxury of a stable society, but for these monks, the drive to create was a need, not a diversion.
The light of the great book shone far and wide and invaders from the sea came to try to capture that light and swallow it into their own dark desires. The monks knew that they could not prevail forever against these raiders, so with heavy hearts and worried brows, they sent the book on a treacherous voyage across the sea to their home in Ireland, where it could be kept safe. It came to rest in the sleepy village of Kells in County Meath, and eventually, the heart and soul of the Iona monks would become the heart and soul of Dublin, the city of a thousand songs and stories.
Each book, each person, each meal, each glass of whiskey has a story and as the traveller spins his own yarn through the rolling hills and winding alleys of Ireland, he touches for fleeting moments on all the stories that came before him and will come after him.

Had a fantastic last night in Cork. Met an Irish guy called David and his British girlfriend Chloe. We had a few drinks, talked religion, politics, music, film, the whole nine yards. We then retired to a nightclub and danced the into the small hours. We belted at top volume and in three different keys most likely Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." Hint America, adopt Irish tastes for your nightclubs.
Dublin's been great so far. I saw the above mentioned Book of Kells (my tourguide was a hung-over deadpan Irish chap who freakishly resembled Kyle Morgan), had a couple Guinnesses with a girl from Argentina at the oldest pub in Ireland, the Brazen Head (founded in the 12th century), and ate a €20 meal of Irish stew and bacon boxty at a trendy restaurant in the vibrant Temple Bar district. I visited the Jameson Distillery and tonight plan to attend Dublin's first Shakespeare festival at Trinity College. Tomorrow, it's farewell to the Emerald Isle and hello to Prague.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ring them bells St. Peter...

For my last day on the farm, Gerard decided to give me a special treat, dehorning calves. The squeamish may not wish to read this paragraph. The calf is placed in a metal restraint which holds its neck in place. Its snout is then forced into a ring holder and a rusty irony bar is secured over its head. The farmer then proceeds to burn its horn stubs off with a superheaded iron. The smell is sort of a cross between burning barber hair and overdone roast beef. The whole procedure takes about a minute, during which the calf if probably bellowing itself sick. If the horn stubs start to bleed (remember, horn is bone, which is living tissue) the farmer reapplies the iron to cauterize the wound. The calf is usually so shaken from the ordeal that it is unable to stand, and has to be forcefully shoved out by the farmer.
This procedure is done in compliance with Irish law, which forbids keeping cattle with horns as they are a danger to themselves and to all humans they come in contact with. Gerard assures me that it's much better to do it when they're young since the adult horns must be sawn off. Still, I must say it turned my stomach just a little. It seems we go through a lot to get dairy products. Today, I got a knot of artisan goat cheese from the English Market in Cork. It was delicious, but I couldn't look at it the same as before.
Cork is a lovely little city with lots of street musicians and cafes. It's quite hilly here, so the city sets a nice profile. I met some more Americans last night in the hostel and we hit the pubs for a bit. We managed to find a session going on at this one old sausage pub where two of the American lads were accosted by a 60-year-old drunken Irish woman who insisted on getting a kiss from each of them before she left the pub. After a couple pints of Murphy's, I worked up the courage to ask the uillean piper if I could borrow one of her whistles. I played "The Road to Lisdoonvarna" with the session, and I must say, I didn't do too poorly for a Yank.
Today, I've been walking about Cork hobnobing with the buskers and beat poets. I found one chap who had a full upright piano. Talk about dedication. He played "Moonlight Sonata" and a Chopin Etude. I made some music of my own on the world-famous Bells of Shandon, which are availiable for public use for a small fee. I treated the city of Cork to my redition of "Ode to Joy" and "Amazing Grace" which are the two songs I always play when I pick up a new instrument.
St. Anne's of Shandon also houses the largest working clock in Europe, known as the "Four-Faced Liar" since each face tells a slightly different time. The clock bears the following inscription:
Passenger measure your time
For time is the measure of your being

Something to think about. Dublin tomorrow.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

We need more Torc

This Wednesday, after a long day of picking gooseberries (nasty sour green things with inch long thorns), I got to join the Tralee Walking Club on one last jaunt. This time, we headed into the southern part of Kerry to climb Torc mountain in Killarney Natl. Park. This is one of the oldest Natl. Parks in Ireland and showcases an environment that I haven't seen since I came to this country: forests.
Most of Ireland has been thoroughly deforested to make way for grazing or farming. Trees are found mostly in hedgerows, around buildings and in monocultured timber farms. The area around Killarney, however, was privately owned for a long time by a wealthy family, so the woodland has been preserved there. One of the highlights of the park is the sylvan waterfall of Torc (Eas Toirc in Irish). My facebook photos simply can't do it justice. The sound of the cold spring water on weathered rock, the smell of the mossy ground, just try to imagine them when you see the photo.
Irish forests look very different from those in the Eastern US. They are sculpted by wind and by rain. The first thing you notice is the dusting of brilliant green moss that seems to cover every hard surface. There are real old-work oaks here, gnarled and contorted into fantastic grizzled forms. Pines are the tall trees here, particularly a species with a handsome red bark that gets easily as big as the White Pines back home. Ferns, violets and laurels are abundant in the understory. There does seem to be a big problem with non-native rhododendrons, which, while beautiful, make a choking thatch of woody branches that makes the Amur Honeysuckle back home look positively tame. One of the women on the walk said that the Irish gov't has spent millions trying to control them.
The forests survive only in the sheltered dells. The tableland on the tops of the mountains is too windswept for trees. The day I climbed Torc, everything was perfect. All the elements had come together for a glimpse at the wild Ireland, the green heart of the nation. Sky, cloud, wind, rock, grass, lake, all the elements were in place. From the top of the mountain, I had an unbeatable view of Killarney town and the surrounding lake country.
Of course, in my rapture I lost my head and went to piss behind a rock, figuring no one would see me. In the middle of my piddle, I look up and this extremely attractive young Lithuanian woman who had been walking with us is at the top of the ridge. Thankfully, she didn't see anything, but the Polish guy she was with was cracking up as I took the walk of shame back up the path. I really should stop holding it until I get to the summit, there's simply never adequate cover.
Today, the O'Connors and I took a little trip out to the natural beaches at Inch. I had a delicious smoked salmon salad and a berry-rhubarb crumble. Naturally, I had to dip my feet into Dingle Bay, which was about the same temperature as an iced Bulmers. The girls kept egging me on, though, and I could hardly appear chicken.
Tomorrow, I say my farewell to gorgeous County Kerry and get back on the road. My next stop is Cork city where I'll be for two days before taking the train to Dublin on Sunday. After that, I fly to Prague on Tuesday. Amy Zhou should be getting it on Wednesday and she said she'd follow me as far as Vienna. It'll be nice to have a travelling buddy for a bit, especially someone who's a bit more seasoned at Euro-trekking. Blogging might be intermittant for the next few days, but I'll try to keep everyone up-to-date on what's going on.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Farmers, says Wendell Berry, are inherantly more attuned to the cycles of birth, life, age and death than the modern population at large. The more I allow myself to meld with the rhythms here at the O'Connor farm, the more I realize the truth of this.
The onions I planted yesterday are just sprightly little shoots, demurely pressing their way through the rough soil of the polytunnel. But they will grow to be large and delicious, filling the stomachs of my hosts and their customers.
The female calves that Gerard keeps out in a barn are next year's milkers. Their brothers will be sold to the beef people when they are old enough. Gerard believes in keeping a "closed herd." He says it's cheaper and keeps diseases out.
That dairy cow with the sick udder that bleeds into its milk is on its way out. It's not getting any better and it slows up milk production every day. Gerard told me that he's going to sell her to the beef people. He figures she'll fetch him a couple hundred euro and that all in all, her meat will likely fetch a few thousand. Think about your next steak or burger. Gerard tells me that only the younger dairy cows end up filleted and wrapped in cellophane; the older ones usually end up at the dog food factory.
The girls that I play monopoly with on almost a nightly basis now will grow to be beautiful women some day. Their aren't many asians in Ireland, so they'll stand out their whole lives. Probably lots of Irish boys will hit on them, though they'd better watch themselves with this lot. They're tough as nails.
Will they do well? Will they go to university and get nice normal modern professions? The way she plays monopoly, Anna could go into business, she's cutthroat enough for sure. I wonder, will any of them take over the farm? Gerard is about the fifth generation to work this land, yet he leaves behind no clear heir. He tells me that there's an old prejudice against female farmers, but even that is slowly disappearing. Times change, cultures change, nations (we hope) change. People, at some fundamental level, stay the same.