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.


Tucker said...

Hey Meg,

I am glad that you enjoyed your trip to Ireland despite the numerous setbacks. It always seems to happen that on long anticipated trips those annoying little mishaps always occur at the worst possible times.

I definitely had to laugh at the old Nintendo trick as that brings back some great memories. It is sad to think that with all the new technological advances the youth of today will never learn how to properly rejuvenate electronic equipment when it decides to go on the fritz. It just seems so sad to me that I don't even think I can shed a tear about it.

I wish I had better things to say right now, but it is Friday night and I am tired as all hell after a long week of school. It is only the second week too. As the great Charlie Brown would say, "AAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!" ( great was a bad adjective choice, I probably should have something like pathetic)

Be sure to hit the little one for me. I am not quite sure what he has done, but you and I both know he has to have done something to deserve it. Take care and try not to permanently damage any library books with one of those dastardly pencils things.


Meg said...

Hey Tucker!

Sorry about your quarter. Hey, at least it's the last one, right?

Gotta love Nintendo. There must be some equivalent for the kids these days...if not, we should concoct an appropriately malfunctioning toy for their edification.

Hang in there and try to enjoy some of the weekend. (I know, I know - yeah, right.) I really need to start working, too...errrrgh.

Anonymous said...

Grand reading of your adventures (& mis-)adventures in Dublin. I have some very fond memories of the place myself, but of course that was many years ago 1976-- so I think I'm glad to have been there "when". I'm hoping you can get out West into "the country" on your next visit. see the place where your great grandfather came from & maybe breathe in some of the true Irish spirit which will hopefully be present there!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Meg!!

The Bulmer's, the Bulmer's, the Bulmer's...I have never found a cider quite as lovely and quite as wonderful when served from the tap. I'm sooo jealous of your trip - makes me can't wait to go back some day...

Your Stanford bud (who, incidentally, is also starting to freak out about paper deadlines since I haven't done nearly enough research. Gotta love the procrastination bug...)