Saturday, April 29, 2006

In memorium

I didn't have any pictures from his younger years on the computer...

Fourteen years. So why does it feel like no time at all?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Bon voyage

I'll be back online in a couple of days, but I'm flying home tomorrow for fieldwork and will probably be incommunicado until I've recuperated from the jet lag.

Keep a candle lit in your hearts for Leo tonight. I can't write about it yet because I'm having a hard time keeping my composure, but he'll be winging his way home sometime this evening. It's time. It's for the best.

It's still awful.

But I'm going home to good food, good friends and great weather (gasp!). Yay! Talk to you in a few days!

Monday, April 24, 2006

The joys of NHS

In theory, universal health coverage is a great idea. In pratice, it's actually not bad -- but there are some perks to HMOs (I know, an oxymoron) that I find myself missing.

Last week, my back decided it had tolerated enough bad beds, sorry excuses for desk chairs, constant walking, chronic stress and assorted preexisting structural problems. The result? I've discovered the joys of lower back spasms. Of all the issues I've had lately, this may be the one that has me the most upset (and, consequently, leads to *more* back spasms). I'm a voraciously active person. If I'm not biking, I'm walking. If I'm not walking, I'm jogging. Favorite things to do? Hike. Bike everywhere. Kayak ineptly. Horseback ride. Walk the length and breadth of a city to get the feel. Things I'm suddenly afraid will be curtailed? All of the above. What that would mean for my life? Really, truly, can't think about it yet. But stuff hurts A LOT that never used to hurt. I'm desperately hoping that it will improve after school ends and that somehow I'll figure out whether this is all related to a short leg, a screwed-up sacrum or a torqued pelvis and get it sorted for good...the alternative is too depressing.

So, I managed to see my GP today (general practitioner), per the suggestion of the college nurse. I brought a hefty load of reading material to the appointment; it is an established fact that surgery appointments here (not "knock you out" surgery) are always behind schedule. Today, for example, I had enough time to plow through an incredibly dry article on issue linkage and water resources management, even though I arrived about five minutes before my appointment. During the 20 minute delay, a host of patients filed in and out, spending about three quarters of their time in the waiting room and no more than a quarter in an actual doctor's office. I felt particularly bad for the middle-aged man to my right, who'd been sitting grumpily in a chair when I entered, who became even more disgruntled when I was called before him, and who was downright surly when I left the building.

I'm fortunate to have an incredibly nice GP, but doctor's appointments here are different than the ones back home. You don't really get to chat, or even to bring up questions about other health issues that suddenly occur to you. They are efficient to the point of making you feel sort of like you're on a medical assembly line: introduce, diagnose, prescribe. Next! If you're lucky, you'll get ten minutes with the doctor -- I seem to average somewhere in the neighborhood of five. This causes you to become incredibly skilled at spitting out your medical history and current problem in 30 seconds or less. For example, today's conversation went something like this:

"Well, how do I sum this up quickly? Um, the thing is..." Oh crap, she's already giving me that impatient, "get to the point" look. "Lower back pain. Knife-edge spasms. Two weeks. Couple months stiffness prior. Could be short leg. Might be ilio-sacral. Don't know. Acupuncture. Chiropractic. Massage. Ideas?"

Before I knew it, I was plopped onto the examining table for a 12-second exam that consisted of bending my legs in various positions, noting that my glut was tight (no, really??), and referring me to a physical therapist for "evaluation, advice and exercises."

Great. Sounded good. The problem? Oh, I have to wait for six months or more to see this therapist. At which point I will no longer reside in Cambridge and will have the delightful choice of either a) taking a frigging three and a half-hour bus ride to see some guy about back pain, which will have increased considerably after the roadtrip; or b) trying to transfer my place on the waitlist to the therapist in Oxford, with no guarantee that it will actually happen. I tried repeating the NHS mantra, "It's free, it's free, it's free," but my back knew better and tightened up another notch.

So, I asked, feeling a bit deflated, what should I do in the meantime? The answer? Keep moving.

I reiterated the whole problem with the knife-edge pain and the discomfort moving. "Yep," she said brightly, "Motion is very important."

Maybe if I go bang my head against the wall hard enough for the next six months, the pain in my skull will distract me from my aching back.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

And now for a happy interlude

I've been a bit too caught up in self-pity lately to report glad tidings and the reason for the big grins above: the spectacular Coalescent Boy received word that his funding came through for the rest of his PhD.

CB is possibly the one reason I'm still standing right now. As the year's progressed, I've found that, more and more often, he's the one who always seems to know what to say when I'm down -- or, if he doesn't know, he still senses what not to say, or what gesture would be just enough to make me feel like smiling. Even when I'm at my worst, he always listens to the grumbling, the crying, the bitching. It's been almost three years since we started dating, and every day the way I feel about him becomes more integral to who I am.

I always shied away from the idea that it was a good thing to make someone part of you, because somehow I associated that with relinquishing my identity, or at least subsuming my life to someone else's. Instead, I've learned that he makes me more of a person. Better. Happier. Braver. Still me, but somehow new and improved.

Congrats again, mi amor. This hasn't been the easiest year, but there's still nowhere else I'd rather be.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Empty nest

For a couple of weeks now, my backyard menagerie has been going strong -- there's a pair of courting robins who fly in and out, erratically swooping between bushes and pausing so the male can feed the female whatever he finds (it's part of their mating rituals). I have a flock of giant woodpigeons who've discovered the birdseed bonanza and now gobble up everything as soon as I scatter it. I've seen one elusive song thrush, several different kinds of tits (chickadees back home), a cork-sized wren and a smattering of assorted songbirds.

What most excited me, though, was the pair of blackbirds who built a nest in the holly bush. The female was the fattest bird I'd ever see before she laid her eggs, and she and her mate defended the nest rabidly against everything. Yesterday, I saw her challenge a sparrow who strayed too close. It was really fun to watch them and to tiptoe around during morning feedings, listening to her rustling the leaves as she turned around in the nest.

So today I'm feeling pretty low, because there's no bird on the nest. There hasn't been all day, and the three eggs are cold, cold. I wonder what happened. The male was around this morning, but he's gone, too, and I'm afraid that the female must have been hurt by a cat or hit by a car. She seemed too experienced to abandon her nest, and if the maintenance guys and the lawnmower didn't frighten her off earlier this week, I don't know what could have.

It's nature, right? This happens. Still, I was looking forward to hearing the baby birds call as their parents poked around the backyard for food. I hope she's okay, but I sort of doubt it. Crap, crap, crap. With the way the week's been going, I shouldn't be surprised. I really need to stop getting so attached to every feathered or furry thing that comes into my life.

Fat chance of that.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Reaffirming the suspicion that men are evil

See this face? This is the Face of Panic, captured for all posterity so I can look back and remember the very moment when my hair began graying and my skin began wrinkling. Note the wide eyes, the deceptive smile (or is that an impending twitch?). Thank you, oh graduate school, for making this opportunity possible.

The Face o' Panic reached a new stage of alarm earlier this week when it learned that Ndugu, Disgruntled Tort extraordinnaire, has morphed into Ndugu, Disgruntled Tort Who Weighs Nearly a Kilogram. He knows he's not supposed to get bigger until we can afford to buy a new house in Seattle (oops, make that slightly used recycling bin, with housing prices climbing and all). Sure, he looks small in this photo, but this was before the impressive 200+ gram weight gain.

Just when the Face thought it could relax, a new reason for dismay arose, on her damn birthday no less (which is itself a cause for Dismay, thanks to the many, many people out there who still think the "quarter of a century" remark is somehow amusing). This, oh women of the world, is the husband. Sure, he looks innocent enough, but thanks to a mishap with some pasta sauce earlier, he is wearing MY DAMNED JEANS...and they fit him better than me.

Seriously. Can you blame the Face if it's a little perturbed by the cruelties of life?

Monday, April 17, 2006

T-Minus 10 Days

To-do list:

1. Rent hotel. Preferably other than the "Don Juan Motel," which apart from its name has the utter misfortune to be located within smelling distance of the most polluted river in North America.

2. Discover destination is so overlooked that both Travelocity and Hotwire do not list it. Learn that none of the hotels are online. Reconsider Don Juan. Reconsider olfactory-offending river. Stop considering Don Juan.

3. Rent car. Look at rental car company reviews online and discard every affordable option because reviews of budget companies run the gamut from, "Threatened to sue me!" to "Car broke down in the middle of a swamp," to "Broke my knees when I returned the car with a scratch it already had." Wonder if highly overpriced but well-reviewed rental company will be angry if one takes a small compact offroading in the desert.

4. Write interview questions. Mentally lobotomize self for failing to read literature before choosing case study, thereby requiring sprain-inducing mental gymnastics to make questions fit newly discovered, completely inappropriate gaps in aforementioned literature. Silently curse prospective interviewees for wanting to know what I'd like to learn before I've figured it out.

5. Buy tape recorder that can survive 100+ degree heat, caustic chemicals in river, and blows from rocks I throw when batteries die in the middle of a key interview.

6. Figure out if there's a bug spray on this planet that protects the wearer from disease-ravaged, encephalitis-carrying, rabid mosquitoes without causing the wearer's skin to turn interesting shades of gray.

7. Purchase pay-as-you-go cell phone for communication needs when car overheats, mosquitoes corner in alley, desert roads begin looking identical, etc. Delight in words of wisdom from sage ex-San Diego resident who says that reception in destination area can be "patchy."

8. Commiserate with fellow program sufferer, soon to depart for Mozambique. Feel slightly better that land mines and crocodiles are not on my risk assessment form.

9. Contact potential interviewees to schedule meetings. Hear nothing. Wonder in mild state of panic if it is possible to spend two weeks in the field and obtain no results.

10. Check weather forecast and climate history for destination. Purchase SPF-50 sunblock and curl up in small corner of bedroom.

11. Realize that only choice of supermarkets in area is limited to a Walmart and a local store noted in many documents for the large, bacteria-laden foam blobs from river that blat onto produce during breezy days. Consider adopting a no-food diet for duration of trip. Choose foam blats and voluntary abstention from produce over manic smiley-faced spawn of Satan.

12. Contemplate chucking degree and moving to Croatia to work in national park chasing bears away from tourists.

Friday, April 14, 2006


Just in case any of you are registered in Snohomish County, don't forget to vote to renew the school levies this month. They're the same ones we've had for several years and they already failed once because no one turned out for the vote...

I think those of us from the Class of '99 remember the aftermath of the '94 levy failures all too well (those cascading sheets of rain coming through the overpass, the heat they only turned on occasionally, the absence of kleenex, soap and textbooks dated past the 1980s...). This time, the district would lose most of its sports, the pool, new books and a lot of staff, so here's hoping SHS doesn't have to go through that again.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Wrapping up Dublin

Ugh, this is going to be one of those weeks where on every night, around 11pm, I'm going to sit down and think, "Damn it, I didn't write my Dublin blog again! Well, tomorrow I'm writing it!" Then, the next night, around 11pm, I will think, "Damn it..."

I leave in two weeks for fieldwork, and consequently everything's a bit of a madhouse right now. However, I finally received the two pictures of the Liberties (the Dublin neighborhood through which I wandered), about a week after I emailed them to myself from my phone. Not so swift, this technology. Their arrival makes me feel like I'd better write this stuff down now, so here it goes.

After two days in Dublin, I needed a change. In my notes, I scribbled: "Without meaning to, I find myself tiring of my travel companions. I long to slip away and find some corner bar where I can sit, silent, anonymous, soaking up the surroundings." Instead, we toured the Guinness factory, which was fun, but the walk back became more interesting. We took a detour to reach a restaurant on the other side of town, and in doing so we wound up in a "rough" neighborhood. My Brit friend grew uneasy. She's cautious to the point of paranoia about being English in Dublin, even when I'm fairly convinced that they couldn't tell by sight (most of her family's Irish anyway). She wouldn't let me stop to photograph the banner celebrating Sinn Fein's 100th anniversary, even though I'm pretty sure any local members would be moderately flattered by the fact that a tourist knew what SF was. I was more interested in the picture's ironic value: their headquarters was located next to a large pile of rubble that presumably had been a building. Rather than alluding to its dark past, to me it indicated something about where SF has put itself: it's teetering on the edge of oblivion, and no one in Dublin seems to care.

Getting back to the point, once we left the factory, there was a distinct change in the environment. The streets suddenly grew very quiet, without the traffic noise, shops and bustling pedestrians of the city center. (Oh lord, I almost wrote "centre.") Across the street, kids played on a discarded mattress in a bare asphalt parking lot ringed by chain link. Others in school uniforms were kicking a dirty soccerball between compact cars on a dead-end street as adults watched from front stoops above the curb. The most striking change was the presence of laundry. In Dub, entire neighborhoods seem delineated by the presence of absence of washlines, strung between buildings, hanging from window ledges to fences, drooping precariously between trees and other lines. Invariably, they are decorated end-to-end with small childrens' clothing, plaid skirts, work uniforms, dresses. Against the grey, black or red brick facades of looming apartment complexes clustered by the dozen, they pop out, swaying in the light breeze. The futher we traveled, the more I found myself itching to get out into these areas more, to stuff my bloody "Look, I'm a tourist!!" Guinness bag behind a dumpster and learn to blend into the fabric. Before then, there were only fleeting moments when it felt like you might recapture the feel of the old city, rising up from between the smooth, worn stones lining an 18th-century alley where oppressive brick buildings stand guard, casting long shadows at your feet. But then, we'd turn a corner to find a tour bus, a chain store, a high-end restaurant, and the street's memory seeped back beneath the paving. Now, the smell of the city itself was changing: burning peat, brewing beer. While my friends planned a last day of shopping and museums, I concocted a different plan. My idea became firmly entrenched when we spent the next day visiting Dalkey, a seaside suburb of Dublin that I swear to the freaking heavens could have been Carmel if there weren't an ancient Celtic church off the coast. Seriously, they had freaking palm trees. Palm trees! Oh yeah, and Spanish-style villas, and imitation wish I was kidding. C'mon, look at the picture below and tell me that doesn't look like California:

At least there was one shop in town with fresh-caught cod and chips (and that's how both Guinness and fish and chips were ruined forever in the same trip). Overall, though, I seriously wanted to run screaming onto the nearest train. So, on our final morning, I memorized my intended route and shoved my guidebook into my purse until I could conceal it entirely. As mentioned previously, I went for the slightly scruffy look: olive drab hat pulled low, worn jeans. I'm sure the stupid rain slicker gave me away anyway, but I tried.

It didn't take long to get into the old town. The Liberties actually used to be a wealthy, almost autonomous neighborhood of weavers back in the 18th Century, until the British authorities tried to exert a little more control over it. Residents resisted and the neighborhood was basically destroyed, and it's still not fully recovered (this is not me making this claim, this is your Lonely Planet guidebook, which is pretty awesome if you ever need one). Anyway, the area is reputed for having problems, shall we say, but it's also said to be one of the few places left that the city looks on with growing nostalgia in the face of rapid change. This isn't to say that it's a good place, per se, but there are certainly things about it you don't find elsewhere, like a tight-knit sense of community. And Irish people. Those are nice, too.

I didn't have time to write much while I was there, but I took a break at a small corner bakery partway through to sip a cheap (!) cup of tea and note a few impressions. The things that stood out: concertina wire strung across high cement walls. Garbage blowing down quiet streets. Bleak buildings. Nameless shops that were absolutely spotless. An ancient (and frankly awful-looking) hospital. Tall, graffiti-tagged housing blocks. More families than I saw anywhere else. More elderly people, too. A charge in the air, not dangerous but just alive: there were neighbors talking to each other, kids playing with beat-up toys, a vibrancy running along the streets. Changing graffiti -- it's not about the IRA anymore. The resentment now is around what you see in the city, reflected in angry tagging like, "No War But Class War."

One of the images I wish I could share is one of the more striking things I've seen traveling so far. On a long, empty road, a high cement wall with a rounded top walled off a neighborhood from the street. It was a cloudy day, threatening to rain, but the sun momentarily broke through at my back, and the wall began to shimmer. Along the top, running the length of the block, jagged shards and pieces of glass glinted dully like seaglass. The polished greens, browns and clear triangular chunks looked strangely beautiful and at the same time felt ominous. Who put them there? Who were they meant to keep out? Or in? As I walked, I wound up seeing more of that in the center of the neighborhood. I've read that a lot of the 1916 rebels came from the area, so perhaps it remained the site of Irish-English conflict afterwards. Whatever the reason, it's hard to explain why it made such an impression. I thought about pulling out the camera phone, but then I looked around and decided that innocuous anonymity was the mantra of the day.

I can't elucidate why this neighborhood was so evocative and intriguing. Maybe it was just because I finally felt like I'd seen something beyond the average tourist's take on Dublin. I'm not sure. I've always been drawn to the outskirts -- Bryan and I spent a full day wandering around the edges of Prague's central area, and we felt like we learned more about the city than we had in the previous three days. I felt the same way about Kilmainham and the Liberties, I suppose. Anyway, here are the two photos I did feel okay taking. The color is terrible, but the resolution is better than I expected. I don't know if they'll be of any interest because they really aren't as good as they should be, but here they are anyway:

There was something out-of-this-world about seeing a brand new BMW parked on what might have been the second-dingiest block I encountered. It's hard to make out in this picture, but the brick building behind the car and the one to its left are both crumbling to rubble: roofless, windowless, boarded-up and sprouting with weeds. The weeds feel almost trimphant, in a way, perhaps because they're the only living green things in the neighborhood...except for the tidy flowerboxes beneath each window of the house on the right. The house itself is pretty standard: aging roof, deteriorating side walls...but the front...That's what I wish you could see, those defiant splashes of red, blue and yellow in spotless white containers, stubbornly refusing to be consumed by the grime and dirt and decay around them. There's pride and community in the streets of the Libertines, even if it manifests in something as simple as a splash of color.

Damn, you can't see this one, either, but it's on the outskirts of the Liberties, just before you head back towards the river. I will eventually write about how construction projects are springing up everywhere to wipe the blight of the housing projects off the face of the city. This one was huge: this is one building in a full block of identical structures with black, tar-and-cement looking exteriors, stacked row upon row like dominoes in a blacktop lot devoid of play equipment or trees. When I saw it, the area was crawling with machinery, rumbling over adult-sized piles of crushed concrete and twisted rebar. An old man across the street stood watching for as long as I was there. I think he'd been standing there for awhile, and it looked like he wasn't leaving anytime soon. I wondered if he'd lived there, or if he lived in the slightly less depressing blocks behind us. Maybe those were scheduled for demolition, too.

What really got me, though, were the interiors of the apartments. This is what you can't see, again, but every single room inside that building is painted a different color. There are blues, greens, aquamarines, pinks, violets, marigolds, lilacs...and maybe it's because the developer bought cheap cans of paint wherever he could find them, but somehow it looked like it was intentional, like residents decided to create their own sense of vibrancy among the drab statement of the projects. I stood there for awhile, peering into each room, trying to make out the outlines of posters or the regular patterns of stencils on walls.

Where did all of these people go? That day, I saw project upon project with names like Lourdes' Place or St. Mary's Shelter, every one of them shuttered, every one slated for demolition or already ground beneath the bulldozer's wheels. There were traces of the people who once called them home: Irish flags painted across decks or sprayed in outlines on the naked elevator shafts; down by a rapidly gentrifying section of the rail station, a three-story banner proclaiming one of the largest complexes to be "Gone But Not Forgotten," with a picture of uniformed schoolchildren smiling shyly in the complex courtyard. Where did they put them all? Maybe they wound up in nicer neighborhoods, somewhere outside the city center. But then I think about what's happening to Seattle, how the CD keeps getting more like Madison Park, how few traces remain of the neighorhood that was so complex, troubled but alive in a way other places weren't. I looked at that banner for a long time, wanted to take its picture but hesitated -- there were a lot of photo opportunities that day, and very few where I wouldn't instantly betray my disguise as just another local. That, and it felt intrusive, too. Whatever was going on here, I was not a part of it. I couldn't understand it in an afternoon, so what story would a photo really tell?

Then again, I took these two. I still don't know why.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Happy Easter from the UK

That uniquely British sense of humor is alive and well in Cambridge.

Actually, I think it's more my sense of humor...excuse me, "humour"...I'm pretty sure you'd find similar cards in the US, but somehow the use of the word "arse" actually makes it funny.

P.S. They still have better chocolate here. That sorry excuse for Cadbury back home? Clearly, like beer, there's a conspiracy going on overseas. We may be the global superpower, but they'll be damned if we're going to have better culinary artery-busters!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Panic button

I needed to do this for weeks. There's been a two-foot-high stack of papers giving me the evil eye in its dusty corner, waiting for me to remember that I've a thesis to write...last week, I set the seemingly unlofty goal of roughing out a lit review section before doing my fieldwork. Today, I was feeling pretty good. I'd come up with a skeletal but helpful outline of the thesis itself, so I decided to set out on my review task. Then, I realized that I have several problems with this modest proposal:

1. I haven't had time to touch any of these papers since Christmas break.
2. Apparently, over Christmas break, I only read one third of them.
3. I do not remember a single freaking fact from any of that third.
4. The papers appear to be from a variety of theoretical, disciplinary and topical backgrounds. Putting them together into a coherent review will be akin to creating a full puzzle out of those half-full boxes in doctor's waiting rooms, after that tyrannical three-year-old in the corner chair ate the last corner piece.
5. Suddenly, I realize I don't even know what my thesis is really about. At all.
6. I'm either too bored, too terrified, or too amazed by my own screwed-ness to begin sorting out this problem.

Also, Myspace has taken over my life. Slice your ethernet cables to ribbons before you go on that site.

Furthermore, somehow, I'm supposed to come up with interview questions for my contacts based in part on the gaps in the literature I theoretically should have found by now.

Did I mention I leave in two weeks? TWO WEEKS???

I have made it a point not to swear on this site. However, there's only one thing that could possibly summarize my emotions at this point in time: Holyfreakinghellandfuck.

I have no rental car. I have no hotel. No interview questions, no tape recorder, no interviews scheduled (all pending, supposedly), no game plan, no bug spray, no encephalitis vaccinations because there aren't any for this f'ing strain, no time, no clue, NO SANITY!!! Oh yeah, and no socks. The laundry, it sort of fell off my to-do list. At least I managed to singe a semi-respectable frittata this afternoon. I should have done the honorable thing and brained myself with the pan afterwards.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What health threat??

Just to put you at ease, the UK is taking the bird flu issue seriously and is dealing with it in an appropriate manner.

I just realized that this won't make sense to anyone back home because none of you have ever seen Lemsip, upon which this is based...but you should! It's a wonderdrug, that Lemsip: whatever Paracetemol is, we must demand access in the US. With one magnificent, full-blown slap to the face, it will wipe out your flu, cold, distemper, rabies, whatever you contract.

That Ireland post is still coming, I promise. It's just been a slightly longer day than I'd planned, so it will have to wait until tomorrow. Sorry!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Goodbye, old friend

I can't believe that the Paper Cat is gone. P-Square won't be the same without this gem of a stationary shop. Robert Jamieson contributes today's eulogy.

The Paper Cat was the only stationary shop in town open past five on a Friday afternoon in December, when we were scrambling to find giftwrap for a last-minute donation to the Virginia Mason giving tree. I remember being completely enchanted as soon as I walked in the door. The atmosphere was uniquely Seattle: warm, laid-back, inviting. The shop was small but brimming with gorgeous paper, stationary and cards. I vowed I'd return in the spring to buy one of their beautiful journals...and now, it's gone. Like so many other local favorites, it fell victim to indifferent new building owners and obscene rent hikes.

Look, Seattle: I've been to Dublin. You do not want to end up like that, a soulless city that caters to tourists instead of locals. A new array of shiny buildings and expensive boutiques can't replace what we lose when we tear down the old churches, defoliate P-Square and drive out the mom-and-pop shops. For once, can't we decide that we don't want to be like everyone else? I want to come home to a city I remember.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Drunken lullabies

Flogging Molly lyrics ran through my head a lot this week, although their Ireland exists largely in memories and whispers rising from the River Liffey.

The trip was a whirlwind four days, full of the usual misadventures: one early cab, which resulted in one forgotten 35mm camera (mine); one lost cellphone (friend's); one piece of crap digital camera which offed itself two days into the trip (mine, of course); one return bus to the airport struck by building materials just before boarding (ours).

The camera really annoyed me, as I am a photography addict who likes nothing better than wandering around new places looking for unique shots. On Tuesday, it decided that it wasn't going to recognize fresh batteries anymore. I cajoled it, threatened it, bought a couple of new packs in case the other ones I purchased had been damaged...finally, tonight, as I desperately tried to retrieve the few photos I had taken, I resorted to an old Nintendo trick: when in doubt, blow on the bastard. The gods of archaic gadgets smiled on me, and I at least managed to keep it on long enough to grab the photos.

(A view of Christ's Church from the ground. Turn right past the church to head back to the city center, but go straight if you're feeling adventurous.)

Naturally, all of the best moments were lost because the real picture moments happened today, when I parted ways with my travel buddies and spent the day roaming the streets of Dublin's less-frequented areas. Three of us went to Dublin together, but our British companion was uncomfortable moving much beyond the city core, and the other was completely happy to go clothes shopping with her, so I pulled a cap low over my eyes, adopted the best swaggering, rolling slouch of disaffected Irish youth that I could imitate, and forayed off to Kilmainham and the Libertines, neighborhoods that have seen better days...and which, consequently, impart far more about the city than did the glimmering new commercial district.

After a few days in Dublin, I had to visit the "rare auld days" that locals say still lingers in the Libertines. The city center is a dizzying mix of old and new, but it's largely the new that dominates. Old pubs, local haunts, are still around, but they remind me of the last fishermen in Ballard, doggedly clinging to their docks as the yachts close in on them. As a result, the pubs are very insular. In other words, the exteriors look like crap for a specific reason: to keep tourists and "New Dublin" away. We were recognized as outsiders almost immediately, even though we usually hadn't said a word; accents regardless, the very unfamiliarity of your face marks you out in Dub's pubs. The regulars tolerated us, probably resigned to our presence, although we did our best to keep quiet in a corner, making sure the clipped American accents didn't drown out the rich brogues around us. Occasionally, though, an older, shabbily dressed patron would snarl something derisive in our direction. Our reactions were diverse: the British friend grew uneasy; I swallowed it as the momentary swell of general frustration with Dublin's changing faces; the East Coaster felt annoyed. The correct emotion was probably some combination of the three -- it's true that we hadn't done anything to deserve their contempt, but at the same time, our presence wasn't really benign. We were part of the huge changes coming through the city, the same ones which made portions of Dublin feel more like London (and what on earth would Padraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Michael Collins think of that??). In places, there's nary an Irish accent to be heard amid the Mandarin, Italian, Polish, Eritrean, Croatian. You can (as I did) actually spend two days in the city and realize that you haven't spoken with a single Irish person -- everyone in the shops is Eastern European, and Croatians ran our hostel. There are as many Eastern European grocers as there are Irish ones, if not more.

(The view from the River Liffey. The area on each side has been transformed into a cosmopolitan mix of international shops and restaurants. It could be Ireland...It could also be London, Seattle, New York, Italy or France.)

It doesn't seem to be the diversity itself that bothers old Dubliners, as much as the speed with which that diversity exploded. Dublin's undergone a complete transformation since it joined the EU and went from being one of Europe's poorest countries to one of its wealthiest. As one might imagine, a decade or so of rapid-fire change has created as many curses as blessings. Dublin's arts scene, long one of the world's grandest, is in crisis. Think about it: on what do Irish writers muse? On poverty. On pride. On dignity in the face of oppression, dark mirth dredged from the dingy gutter. What happens when the cornerstone of your tradition begins to crumble? The only thing left now's the alcohol, and there's a reason Dublin is now one of the more violent cities in Europe. When the bars let out, it's best to go home (and we made sure to tuck in long before that happened, as Americans and Brits are less-than-popular, even when people are sober). So sure, the city's wealth has grown, but there's a palpable edge to it: beggars sit outside the fancy shops, and there's a portion of the male population trudging about with a visible chip on its shoulder. Plus, there's something out of synche with the worn cobblestone alleys, now home to trendy boutiques and Urban Outfitters.

(This is the Official First Pint, which makes up for the Official Awful Plane-Ride Hair. I haven't been this happy since Gale Norton resigned.)

Still, Dublin's worth a visit. When you do find the old pubs (and I can give you hints about a few), they'll be small and dark, filled with bantering patrons. There's a warmth you don't find in English pubs; it radiates from the walls and fills the room with a sense of camraderie. In the neighborhood pubs, there aren't any bar menus: if you don't know what pub food is, why are you trying to order? We staggered into our first pub as soon as we'd arrived in Dublin -- it was a small, narrow, dimly lit room with the requisite telly on in the corner. A row of men lined the narrow bar counter, and they were the most quintessential Irish-looking elderly men I'd ever seen: florid, weathered faces, laughing eyes, elfin smiles. They treated our entrance with momentary curiosity -- this clearly was a bar stocked with a daily regular crowd -- and then turned back to the bar. Following my Brit pal's lead, I ordered a cheese sandwich from the no-nonsense, matronly bartender. She turned to a table full of middle-aged men drinking lager and started ordering them around, instructing them to go to the folding table beside the bar so they could make sandwiches from the packet of white bread and the packages of cheese. A small griller sat beside the store-bought goods; it was like having your mom make you a cheese sandwich for lunch! Since it was exactly noon, I figured it was late enough in the day to try my first Irish Guinness, which is deservedly reputed as the Best Guinness Anywhere. Ordering the Guinness also clearly impressed the bar crowd, and two of the elderly men offered to help me carry my drink to the table...although this reaction may have been amplified by my friends' decisions to order tea and coffee at a freaking Irish pub. I will NOT get started on the number of highly embarrassing episodes in which they went into frigging pubs and came out with espresso. Dear Lord, I wanted to crawl under the table and die.

(Me in one of those truly Irish pubs, with a rare pint of cider to keep me company as I scribbled down first impressions on the only piece of paper in my bag. In my defense, I'd had a pint of Guinness before this and followed it up with a couple more that evening.)

I can confirm that I will *never* be able to drink Guinness again without feeling a pang for what I drank in Dublin. The Guinness there is smoother, somehow, with a more distinct flavor and a fuller head. In four days, I established that you can in fact live off pints of Guinness, with the occasional Bulmer's cider or Smithwicks thrown in for good measure. I think I drank about a pony's worth of Guinness on my own (that's a half-keg), or at least managed to put away enough to feel I'd taken full advantage of the opportunity. (Guinness is particularly nice with suitably low-key pub fare, like a cheese sandwich with HP Sauce. Seriously, that stuff is fantastic.) It's also amazing to look around an Irish pub and realize that every single male in the establishment drinks Guinness -- and ONLY Guinness. At every pub we visited, this single standard held true. It was remarkable, and actually sort of cool. The ladies seem to stick to cider, but there's also a core who can down their Guinness with the lads. I count myself as an honorary member of that contingent...although I'm sure my Brit friend wasn't too happy about its side effects (walking slightly sideways past the GPO -- post office -- where the 1916 Easter Rising occurred, I pointed out the bullet holes and started on an impassioned but possibly incoherent diatribe about the bloody eedjits who'd oppressed Ireland until then and who'd starved out my family...Hey, I'm patriotic.)

(This is me at the completely worthwhile tour of the Guinness Factory. That maniacal grin indicates my awareness that a free pint awaits at the end of our visit.)

There's so much more to post, but I have a feeling this is long enough for now. So, tomorrow I begin Part Two of the Irish Adventure, in which I see many interesting and somewhat overrated tourist attractions before chucking the whole thing for the slums.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A new adventure

Tomorrow, I'm off to Dublin until Thursday with a couple of girlfriends, and I'm eager to write about what I see. Riding the Celtic Tiger has been a mixed bag for the city, which apparently is swimming in skyrocketing prices, higher crime rates and some of the worst suburban sprawl Europe's seen. At the same time, it's still Dublin -- it's still the homeland, and I am pathetically excited to reach its shores for the first time. This is the initial four-day foray, and then hopefully we'll travel there for a couple of weeks next summer...After all, I have family to find!

Will be sure to post when I return, and I'll raise a glass to ye from Dublin!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Zipping those lips...

There are so many things I'd like to write about school from which I must refrain in the interest of self-preservation, at least until I'm far enough from the city that I have a head start on the mob. However, this one's too good and too illustrative to resist.

The libraries are proud of their 800 year-old heritage, so proud in fact that they've retained many characteristics of those bygone days. E-journals? Forget it. If you're lucky, the library will tell you that journal isn't online. Then, two weeks later, you will accidentally stumble onto an online version of it through a random library link (there are countless search engines in the library and few of them cover all of the libraries in the colleges, departments and faculties). It will tell you that it has all of the editions from 1996 to 2001. However, upon searching for your article, conveniently published in 1997, you find that someone obviously didn't update the description on the site, because now the library only subscribes to 2000-2002. Fortunately, they have hard copies in the UL (University Library) -- but alas, you have to fill out a little slip requesting the edition you need and wait anywhere from 30 minutes to half an eon for them to unearth it from the catycombs in the basement. Then, when you finally think enough time has passed, you go up to the desk to pick it up, only to be told that someone came back hours earlier with a note saying that the entire volume is missing. Trust me, don't ever ask if they can look for it.

The stories go on and on -- we've all had that special library experience -- but none quite rivals the experiences of a grad school friend at the end of this term. She'd checked out a few new books from her department library and made sure to return them before the term finished (again, in adherence to tradition, late fines here also resemble medieval usury). Then, she left to visit her home for a couple of weeks. Upon her return, she discovered a Stern Letter in her pigeonhole (this being the birthplace of Stern Letters of academic varieties). It informed her that she'd damaged two books "beyond repair" and would have to pay roughly $100 before she could use the library again.

My friend is kind to books. She's kind to everything -- she's a sweet, good-natured person who goes out of her way to make everyone else happy, and who consequently is more than a bit bewildered by the accusation that she's destroyed a pair of books. So, she went down to the library to inquire about the problem. She asked that they show her the books, and the grim-faced librarian turned to the page in question to reveal...four light underlines in soft-lead pencil.

My friend looked at them for awhile as the librarian tut-tutted. Then, she unzipped her bag and pulled out an eraser. "But they aren't damaged beyond repair," she protested. "Look, I can get rid of those marks right now without even making the type fade." She reached for the book, but the librarian slammed it shut and whisked it away.

"They Are Damaged," she said, enunciating every word in outrage, "Beyond Repair. You cannot fix this! This cannot be fixed! You must pay the fine or appeal to the Library Board!"

The Library Board is probably part of the Syndicate. We aren't sure who they are, but they clearly have connections to all sorts of covert groups: "The Syndicate does not allow bags in the library." "All queries should be directed to the Syndicate." Fail to turn a book in on time? The Syndicate will get you. Pay those fines a day late? The Syndicate will throw you from the Bridge of Sighs to be consumed by rabid swans.

My friend wrote a three-page letter to the Board and the Syndicate, after paying the ridiculous fee so she could set foot in her library again. They are weighing her appeal...or fitting her for concrete shoes. Whichever seems easier.