The Crescent City Diaries #5 – Faulkner’s Footsteps and Tarot Readings

When I traveled to Budapest last April, I made it a mission of mine to see as many of the city’s literary sites as possible. I bathed in the rich bookish legacy of the Hungarian capital, visiting half a dozen indie bookstores, ordering “The Writer’s Dish” at the famous New York Café (once the hangout of choice for the city’s greatest writers), and visiting Írók Boltja- the city’s greatest bookstore, whose name translates as The Writers Shop. Like Budapest, New Orleans is a writerly city, with a proud history for cultivating literary greatness. And like Budapest, it offered me the chance to follow in the footsteps of wild, bohemian writers. Only this time, instead of tapping into the silvery, cigarette-in-the-rain mood of Hemingway and the impoverished American expats, I would be seeking Tennessee Williams and the whorehouse ambience of screeching streetcars and frantic, cocktail-fueled punching of typewriter keys.

New Orleans is both a place that grows writers from within and attracts writers from afar. And the writers that come want to make this tragic metropolis and its decadent, Old World affectations their own- to capture it in their work the way no one else has. As I got to know the French Quarter well, I asked myself if I could truly live here or not. It would be difficult to invest in real estate with the knowledge that at any time all my possessions might get carried out into the sea. And add to that that New Orleans is quite a boisterous place. It was a little intimidating at first, but as I became used to it I thought more about the Quarter as a home. Part of the anxiety attached to its loud, extroverted revelers and shifty-looking characters comes from simply being alone and not knowing anyone. As a location for inspiration, it’s perfect. There is so much art and creativity to feed off of that I could see myself really happy here, if I were able to afford an apartment of course. All I had at this moment in my life was five short days, so I endeavored to experience whatever trace of the writers I idolized that I could find. I found echoes of Tennessee Williams in unpretentious bars, drinking Hurricanes and listening to sweet jazz beneath the ceiling fans of Americana.

One of the few things I wrote down prior to coming to New Orleans was to visit Faulkner House, which had once been the residence of one of my favorite authors- William Faulkner- and now operated as a bookstore. It was the only thing I had planned for my first day, and after I finished my beignet in Jackson Square, I set about trying to find it. My phone was dying and I just couldn’t seem to locate the darn thing. It ought to be staring me right in the face. Eventually, after much retracing of the same steps, I learned that it was in an alley to the side of the St Louis Cathedral, and set off at a quick pace.

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The bookshop is small but very charming, and you can tell it was once a cheap guesthouse. It’s just one room and a corridor, filled all the way around from floor to ceiling with books. The corridor ends in a gate, beyond which is the private residence of the proprietors of Faulkner House. Inside the store is a lady employed by the proprietors to run the place. But she doesn’t just work as a cashier; she serves as an expert on the house, William Faulkner, and literature in general. As I examined the books on offer, other customers engaged the lady and asked her advice on what to get. They told her what sort of thing they were after and she would give them a recommendation. I found this very appealing, and after picking up a copy of Mosquitoes by the man himself, I decided to make use of the woman’s knowledge. I said I wanted a modern novel by a female writer that is set in New Orleans and touches on female themes. She then recommended The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer. Lastly, I said, I need a gritty thriller set in New Orleans. Something dark, a murder mystery, a page-turner, but that featured real place names and captured the atmosphere of the Quarter that I so deeply cherished. The lady then handed me a copy of The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. There we go. Three books ought to be enough. As we continued to chat about William Faulkner and his work, I noticed that a fifty-something-year-old man to my side was listening in. His tousled hair was going white and his clothes were utilitarian, even scruffy. There’s no cash register in this place, so the lady added up the total of my purchases using a pencil and paper. As she did so, she turned to the man and asked if she could help him. He said straight up that he wasn’t buying anything, and had come here to ask about poetry readings in the area. The lady informed him that Faulkner House didn’t do readings, but there were open mic nights at a few select bars. The man nodded, telling us how he was from San Francisco. He mentioned the city’s famous City Lights bookstore, which is probably my favorite bookstore in the world that I’ve been too. It’s up there with Faulkner House and Írók Boltja for me. He asked the lady if this was New Orleans’ answer to City Lights, and the lady blushed, saying “There can only be one City Lights, only one!”

The total for my order was sixty-five dollars. I swallowed a lump in my throat, sweat entering my palms. In the U.K the average paperback goes for about ten bucks. I was shocked that these novels were going for twenty each. I paid and left, feeling somewhat uneasy, as though my long-desired pilgrimage to this place had a permanent mark scratched into its once wholesome image. As I closed the door behind me and turned down the alleyway, I saw the man waiting for me by the iron fence of the cathedral’s courtyard. He called me over. I thought he was saying “See ya,” so I waved and kept going. Then he called out again, beckoning me to join him.

“Why’d you do that?” he said.

“Do what?”

“Pay her sixty bucks. There’s a dozen used bookstores in the Quarter. You could have gotten them for less than ten altogether.”

“Right,” I said, and I started to feel down. He was right of course. Books should never be that pricey. But I had assumed these would be the same price as any other standard paperback, and now I had already paid and left.

“You shouldn’t be paying her sixty fucking bucks,” he said, and after he kept saying it I didn’t know what he wanted from me. I just stood there looking sad. He acted like he had just witnessed a real tragedy unfold. “I just wish I could have told you sooner,” he said, seeing my miserable expression. “I’m just saying.”

He asked me where I was from. I told him.

“Don’t they have used bookstores in England?”

“Yeah.”

We got on to talking about literature and the man said that Faulkner never really did it for him. He said that “In America, there are only three writers worth reading: Herman Melville, Henry James, and Henry Miller. Miller is my favorite.”

I told him I had read some Miller years ago, and asked what British writers he liked. He said that as far as literature, we Brits had “everything”, and that he was especially fond of the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc). He also really liked the novels of Graham Greene. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, we agreed. Enough said.

However the subject came back around to my folly again, and he lamented that he couldn’t have advised me sooner. He eyed the window of Faulkner House with contempt and I stared at my feet like a schoolkid in the wake of being told “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

Sensing my growing misery, the man offered me a weak smile. Several of his teeth were missing. “Hey listen- cheers– alright?”

He waited for me to acknowledge his use of the British word, but I could only find enough strength to smile back and wish him well.

As always with me, indecisions and doubts snowball, tumbling over each other and coloring my mood- as well as my perception of everything around me. I questioned what I was even doing here, on this trip. I felt very unsure of myself for some reason, like I had no idea what I was doing in New Orleans in the first place. I questioned my ability to simply be an adult and live independently and interact with the world around me. The idea that I’d been duped reinforced the nagging doubt that I still belonged in my mother’s womb. I also had to deal with the notion that Faulkner House- after much excited anticipation- was now stained forever in my memory. The city romped past me, blurring into a kaleidoscopic carnival as if to say that to be here, you had to be happy. The French Quarter is a party after all, right? I then began to question New Orleans as a city too. By this point I was standing in Jackson Square again, and I wondered if the city wasn’t meant for me- that it was meant for adults instead. And here I was, the lost boy trying to find his way home in the glare of neon lights.

Yep, I thought all that, when any normal person would probably just say “O shoot, that was a little pricey. But hey, at least I got what I wanted, three awesome books!”. At least, that’s how I assume other people think.

Before I knew what was happening I was sitting myself down beside one of the palm readers outside the cathedral. She asked me what kind of reading I wanted.

“Tarot,” I said.

Now, you wanna talk about an unambiguous waste of money: this is it. I don’t believe in anything religious or supernatural. If anything I think psychics and mediums and all that are utter charlatans and exploitative shysters. But New Orleans is a supernatural city. I didn’t even think about why I was doing it, I just did it. It seemed simply to be the thing to do here.

The woman told me first off that I was a person that said what I wanted and disregarded what people might think. So that’s completely wrong from the outset. She asked me to draw cards and I pretended to take the whole business very seriously like every other tourist in the Square. Something about a Water Demon. The woman must have picked up on my negative energy, because she told me to stop beating myself up all the time, and that if I put myself first instead of trying to please others, everything I wanted in life would fall into place. She even said there was love in my future- I could share this life with someone, if I wanted to.

Against all odds I started crying. Nothing dramatic, just a light trembling and watering of the eyes. The woman looked at me coldly and asked if I had any questions. I quickly paid and left, careful not to leave my overpriced purchases behind.

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The Crescent City Diaries #4

After rambling down Royal Street and absorbing its stylish art galleries and museums, I veered east and made for Jackson Square. This, to me, was the touristic heart of the city. Bourbon Street might be the most famous location, and the number one draw for out-of-town visitors, but Jackson Square is easily the most iconic image of New Orleans as a place to be discovered. The white façade and lofty spires of the St Louis Cathedral overlooking the equestrian sculpting of Andrew Jackson- the Hero of New Orleans- is a picture many folks will be familiar with prior to arrival. Much in the same way no one walks down the Champ de Mars and remarks “Holy shit, I didn’t see that coming!” when faced with the Eiffel Tower. Jackson Square is a distinctly Parisian space, the park cushioned on two sides by the symmetrical 19th century Pontalba Buildings- known for their iconic wrought iron balconies and red bricks.

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I knew straight away that I wanted to take my time here. I had five days in this city and I wanted to give each place the necessary time to soak into my heart and reveal itself to me. I wanted to savor every moment. That’s why I spent my first morning walking leisurely down Royal, chatting as much as possible with the museum curators and entering as many art galleries as I could. I didn’t want the city’s eclectic features to become a checklist.

I walked down one side and then back up again. I gazed in the windows of the square’s boutiques and bakeries. I watched the street performers, palm-readers, impromptu jazz bands, buskers, and caricaturists ply their respective trades. The square has a longstanding tradition for being an open air artist colony, the local painters hanging their works on the iron fence that surrounds the park itself. I approached the cathedral and watched the people who crossed its shadow as much as the building itself. I entered the park and walked around, enjoying the relative quietness its wide paths offered. Andrew Jackson looked very impressive atop his horse. I decided it was time to cross something off of my world-travel bucket list and exited the park on Decatur Street, heading for the Café Du Monde. I knew that getting a beignet and a café au lait at this historic coffeehouse was a rite of passage for anyone hoping to gain access to the culture of the Big Easy. It’s actually something I blogged about wanting to do in a dreamy bucket list post at the beginning of the year, having no idea that I would get the chance to do so in just a few months. The café has actually been in continuous operation since 1862- the heart of the Civil War. It’s something that every tourist does upon reaching the French Quarter; as such it’s as busy as the midnight release of a new Harry Potter book.

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I took one look at the line that wrapped around the exterior of the café and down the sidewalk and left. Perhaps I could return at a later date. That later date turned out to be about an hour or two hence. After returning from the riverfront and its famous aquarium I found that the line had only gotten larger. This time however, I asked an employee if the line was for orders to go or eating-in. He informed me that there was a different line on the other side of the building for takeout options, so I went there. The wait wasn’t too bad and when I arrived at the window I asked for a bag of beignets and an iced café au lait. I pronounced the pastries “bay-nets” because my French sucks ass, and became aware of my folly as I walked away and the sassy mom behind me hollered for some “bean-yay”. What a div I must have seemed.

I decided to return to Jackson Square and eat my lunch on one of the park benches. Adjacent to me on the next bench was a couple that looked like they had lived pretty rough. They were skinny with tattered clothes and whose red, craggy skin was covered in faded tattoos. They weren’t old at all, but I suspected they were drug addicts. They got into a loud argument and I noticed there wasn’t anyone else around me. They reminded me of that junkie couple from Breaking Bad, and I wondered if I should leave before someone got crushed by an ATM. I tried to block out the sounds of their increasingly violent tones and focus on these French pastries. I think I liked the coffee more than the beignets. I only managed to eat one, since they’re quite filling. As is the custom when eating one, I got powdered sugar everywhere. The powdered sugar mess is sorta like the Guinness foam moustache. That’s when you know you’ve passed the test.

“FUCK YOU!” the woman screamed at her partner, marching off in front of me and going to the other side of the park. The guy screamed something at her in redneck and she flipped him the bird without turning around. After just a few short minutes she came back and they resumed talking in a civilized manner. Feeling full, I got up and left. I felt a little bad for being on edge around them, because they had obviously had some bad luck in life. But when you travel solo you can’t take any chances.

The Crescent City Diaries #3

As I dipped in and out of Royal Street’s art galleries on my first morning, I came across a little place called The Historic New Orleans Collection, a large, 18th century house converted into a museum. I slicked back my hair- already wet with the city’s famous rain- and smiled at the lady on the front desk. This museum is free, and you get a discount to several other French Quarter museums and historic buildings by going in there. On top of that, the people here are super-nice. They seemed to match my energy- sometimes, when solo-traveling, I can get really chatty- and dare I say, confident– with the people I meet. I work well in that dynamic- where the other person is in a professional capacity, and so my presence has less chance of being received with disgust. One thing I’ve found out on this trip is that the other person’s body language and eye contact is so important to my self-confidence. My ability to assert my personality and spread my social wings goes up in direct proportion to the other person’s physical signs of approachability. All I need is to be looked in the eye and smiled at, and that reassurance that yes- I am welcome here erases all doubt, allowing me to trust my own words.

I ended up having conversations in almost every exhibit, and the curators here were excellent company. In most museums I go to, the curators just watch me suspiciously. But these curators respond to your level of interest in the exhibit. They smile and say hi when you enter the room, then wait for you to show signs of intrigue before approaching you. I was shown some of the original bureaucratic documents from the Louisiana Purchase which was pretty cool. Basically an invoice sent by Napoleon to the US government…

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What’s also amazing about this place is that they are totally chill about taking photos, so long as you don’t use flash. I ventured into a room with some gorgeous oil paintings of antebellum scenes- and it was so interesting discussing with the curator what we could learn from them about plantation life. We spent a long time discussing a painting of a slave burial somewhere in the south Louisiana woods. The dog without a leash. Who looked after the dog? It probably belonged to the slaves themselves, the curator said. The masters could be seen at the edge of the painting, watching from the trees. It was custom, she said, for the slave owners to maintain a respectful distance during the ceremony. I asked how many of the slaves in the painting were related. They were most likely a mixed bag, she answered, as many slaves were separated from their families at the markets. However, she added, if the masters were kind-hearted folks, they may have tried to keep slave families together.

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We went around the room together. She started telling me about some recent controversy in Louisiana about Confederate monuments. It was interesting to get a local take on it. The curator said that a lot of the monuments were erected in reaction to Northern oppression after the war. Carpetbaggers, they were called. I asked her what Creole meant, and if Creoles were white. The woman said that Creole didn’t refer to a person’s color at all. It was simply a word to refer to first generation Americans in New Orleans- that is to say, those whose parents were born elsewhere (be it Haiti or Calabria) and then immigrated to the Big Easy. So a Creole person could be white or black. I thanked her for the info and decided to move on.

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I spilled out onto the street and saw that the rain had stopped. The rain came and went that day in short, violent bursts. The Big Easy rain was tantamount to the temperament of a true artist. Nothing is smooth and steady in this city, even on my dearest Royal Street. Driving a car through the French Quarter feels like riding a horse through a European trench. That was how one lady put it to me anyway. Every street was fixed with a dilapidated kind of beauty that comes with bearing the weight of past tragedies. A block over, on Bourbon, is where you’ll find little brass bands whose bombastic trumpets let you know that you’re in the hub of wild adventures. Conversely, Royal has individual buskers. Local singers that find a street corner, and whose melodies let you know you’re in the hub of artistic contemplation. There’s the one guy that stands across from the Cornstalk Hotel, starts clapping his hands, and begins “Don’t know much about his-tory…” right on cue as the low light of the setting sun comes to welcome tourists heading out to dinner.

One night, on the corner of St Peter and Royal, I saw a small crowd gathered around a young woman belting out soul music. She had a voice as rich and sweet as the slow-pouring of molasses. There was something about her talent for reaching- and more impressively, maintaining- ambitious notes that made me think of water and curved edges. Across the street I saw two middle-aged women utterly enraptured by this local soulstress, standing with their hands clutched to their breastbones and their mouths slightly agape. I honestly thought they might start crying. If anything, I found myself more struck by their reactions to the song than the song itself.

New Orleans- the French Quarter in particular- is not just a place where artists thrive- it’s a place where art itself is cherished and adored, like perhaps nowhere else I’ve been.

The Crescent City Diaries #2

New Orleans is a city of famous streets, whose names carry with them the immortal weight of myth. Bourbon. Canal. Royal. Frenchman. St Charles. Et cetera. I began to think about them in the same way I think about great novels. The ones whose names alone instill a kind of awe; Crime & Punishment, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Grapes of Wrath. And like those great novels you hear so much about and have yet to read, you become aware in that first moment of contact- the first step on the sidewalk, the first sentence- that the truth of its living essence might very well be buried underneath all that myth, waiting to be discovered by you the way so many others have unearthed it before.

Before coming to the Big Easy I had Bourbon Street confused with Memphis’ Beale Street in my head. I checked my little New Orleans guide book and sure enough Bourbon Street is the first aspect of the city it covered. How long would I spend on historic Bourbon Street? What would I do there? I figured the main attraction would warrant at least half a day. The answer is I didn’t spend much time there at all, which I wonder might sound akin to saying I visited Cairo and only saw the Pyramids of Giza from the shuttle-bus window.

This uncertainty on my part, and my present lack of regret in not doing Bourbon Street justice, are important lessons I think I’ve learned about solo-traveling. My trip to New Orleans stands alongside Budapest as being my first forays into solo-traveling as a lifestyle, and therefore it doesn’t stand in isolation. The various missteps, overestimations, underestimations, surprises, and regrets are all softened by the fact that they are contributing to something larger- this whole “Tumbleweed business” we have here.

Bourbon Street can best be summed up by the t-shirts they have for sale hanging in the windows of Decatur’s tourist shops: “I got Bourbon-faced on Shit Street.”

It’s almost exclusively bars and strip clubs. At first that was kind of intimidating to me. It’s one thing if you’re with your friends, but wandering alone amongst screaming drunks and loud music triggers my fight or flight instinct, which 99% of the time results in flight from the given (or perceived) threat. I walked through it a few times, hands deep in my pockets and gripped around my phone and wallet, and after peering into several dingy saloon interiors, decided against pretending to be confident. I flirted with the idea of channeling Don Draper, sitting at the bar stirring a neat scotch and waiting for someone to ask me why I was so mysterious. But that’s just not me. I’ve never been mysterious, and the path that would make me an interesting person is often too hard for me to take. It’s easier to walk past, and try and act like you’ve got somewhere to be, injecting some rhythm and purpose into my frantic steps.

The street I would come to know best was Royal, which runs parallel to Bourbon. It’s one block over from the neon signs, the bachelor parties, and the brass instruments, and yet the atmosphere is so different. Royal Street is characterized by beautiful Creole townhouses with wrought-iron balconies overflowing with greenery. Almost every door leads to an art gallery, and those that don’t are museums, historic restaurants, and antique shops. The first thing I did in New Orleans, on my first morning, was just stroll down Royal hopping from gallery to gallery. With the rain beating the asphalt in a suitably artsy mood, I relished the work in front of me in a way I haven’t really appreciated art before. The paintings, by and large, were so colorful and expressive, that it was like the people of New Orleans were laying their souls on the canvas. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. It was the soul of the city that was already revealing itself to me to be a commune of extroverts and partygoers and artists and aesthetes. I stared into the enormous face of a rainbow-colored tiger, and the wild beast of the Big Easy stared back.

The Crescent City Diaries #1

Right now I’m sat in bed drinking coffee and scarfing down the complimentary croissants Dominique brings to my room. There’s a pitter-patter of rain on the exterior corridor and a leak that drops down from the vent above my bed. I’m wondering how to describe New Orleans.

I’m here for a week before I get the train down to Houston to reunite with my American roommates before they get married. Flying to the USA ain’t cheap, and I’m not sure how many opportunities like this remain in my lifetime. So I decided to follow up my April solo trip to Budapest with another city I’ve always wanted to see- Louisiana’s New Orleans.

I’ve been lucky over the years to visit several interesting and beautiful cities in this country. My favorites are Savannah, GA, Galveston, TX, San Francisco, CA, and Kansas City, MO. Each of these cities inflame my creativity. They are all places I’d like to return to, just to do some writing, photography, people-watching, and to connect with local artists.

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After spending a few days in the Big Easy however, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no place even remotely like it. I’m not saying it’s the best or the most beautiful, and I’m not sure I could live here- but nothing comes close to approaching the sheer uniqueness of New Orleans. It is without a doubt the strangest place I have ever visited. It’s flamboyant, vibrant, expressive, surreal, crazy, and outrageously decadent. But reducing the city to a mere string of adjectives would be to do it a great disservice.

I’m still thinking of how best to sum up this city on the basis of my visit. I want to get as close as possible to the heartbeat of the Big Easy and its people; I want to refine it as best as I can and say “This! This is what makes it tick!”. So I’m going to do a series of short blog posts, that will be like diary entries chronicling my search for these nascent truths. I think that’s the best way to do it, to give a running narration of my impressions as they are in flux.

The first New Orleanian I met was Leroy- the night shift receptionist on the hotel’s front desk. He was slouched back in his chair, his tie hanging loose, in a pose I immediately started to think quintessentially representative of the French Quarter. He asked what brought me to the Big Easy and I said I just always wanted to see it. He chuckled and said “You just wanted to join the party, yes boss.”

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That’s it. It’s one big never-ending party. It’s a city that probably shouldn’t exist, that perseveres in the wake of relentless tragedy, and which will probably be underwater by the end of the century. And the response is fascinating. The party only gets louder and more wild. The roads of the French Quarter are covered in potholes, and the whole place seems in a constant state of repair. It’s like a big ocean liner slowly sinking, and the response, as I said, of its occupants, is to get out the trombones and the saxophanes. The city will keep the party going until it’s vanquished forever, and I can’t help but think there is a poetry to that; I’m inclined to believe that the city’s artistry is in some way related to its expiry date.

It’s a place that’s stranger still for someone like me that’s shy and socially anxious. It’s a place that’s bursting with color and overflowing with artistic talent. Everyone here is dancing to a beat of some kind. And I never know quite how to act when I’m at a party. I’m the guy that stands in the corner watching the other guy take home the girl I didn’t have the courage to talk to. So I’m unsure of what to do with myself in a place like Bourbon Street- a location so rowdy and bizarre that it makes the Mos Eisley cantina look like a data entry office floor in Swindon.

The hotel I’m at has a lot of character. It’s old and wooden and rickety. It’s not neat and fancy. But it gets endless personality from its creaky floorboards and Creole-style courtyard. The walls aren’t soundproof at all. At about 3am on my first night I woke up due to some Bourbon Street revelers congregated in the courtyard below. Their conversation died down, and I heard a woman say “Wait…what’s that?”

Then she started screaming hysterically. I was bolt upright at this point. She screamed in such a way that you can only associate it with visceral trauma. It was a scream that was in response to something witnessed. I didn’t know what, but I honestly expected to hear gunshots. My heart stopped and- it seems silly to admit this now- I was honestly weighing up where to hide. However no mad gunman emerged. The silence was followed by raucous laughter, and I heard a guy outside my door say “Are y’all going around as ghosts?”

The woman said “Oh my God, I HATE you.”

More laughter. New Orleans has a thing for the freakish and the macabre. I’m guessing these folks were returning from one of the popular haunted tours. I’m not even trying to be dramatic, but it took a while for my breathing to cool down. Before I was able to get back to sleep, an altogether different sound entered my room. Moaning. It came from the room beneath me. The woman’s moans grew louder, so loud that the cause was unmistakable. Whoever she was, she didn’t give a dang who was listening. The sound of her pleasure was so emphatic that I couldn’t have been given a clearer impression of her lovemaking session unless I was taking part. I kid you not, this lasted for 30 minutes. I checked my phone to see how long I was being kept awake. I was so close to this raunchy liaison that I felt embarrassed. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I should perhaps leave. I was hearing something I wasn’t supposed to.

But that might just be my Church of England upbringing. I then started to add this experience to my impression of the French Quarter as a place. Carefree. Passionate. Wild. Uninhibited. Like I said, it’s one big party here. Everyone just lets it out and lays bare their desires. And so the lovemaking just stands alongside the trumpets of the jazz bands, the singing of the buskers, the gyrating legs and hips of the burlesque dancers, the painters’ brush strokes, the museum curators’ stories, the poetry slams, the mime artists, and all the rest of it. It really is no different. So I said to myself, “Welcome to New Orleans!” and drifted off to sleep.

My Irish Weekend Part 4: In Faeries’ Wake

Ireland is very much in touch with its ancient self. I think I mentioned this in part one. It feels old. It feels ancient in a way my home country doesn’t. The U.K has plenty of ancient things, but they’re all at odds with everything else around them. And that’s the difference- Ireland feels like an ancient land.

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Elizabeth and George would take me down to the lake at the back of their country house. We’d sit on a large rock with our feet in the water and drink beer. There were no boats out on the lake and no cabins and no docks. Just the reeds blowing in the wind and the faint outlines of mountains on the other side. George smoked his pipe while Elizabeth pulled bottle after bottle out of her dungarees like a magician performing a circus trick. There were no paths leading to the lake and the whole place was just so natural and untouched. It was awkward making our way through the undergrowth; it was a place wholly disinterested in catering to the desires of Man- and that’s what made it special.

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There are no shops or amenities of any kind near the house. No footpaths and no communities. Only farms, and one or two other such isolated cottages. We made our fun just walking down the roads as far as our legs would go, talking tirelessly about everything from political ideologies to petty gossip. We stopped at several pastures to boop the animals that greeted us.

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We found a path made wholly of daisies that led into the woods, that supposedly was left there by the faeries. We followed it and came out the other side in the shadow of a small castle. It was completely deserted and uncommercialized. Past the castle a different side of the same lake. The lake is too big, and we had walked to far, for us to be able to see the house. At this point we had been walking for about two hours. We continued to follow the shoreline, passing an empty football field and a few country homes. A local gentleman greeted us and chatted briefly with Elizabeth about the unforgiving Wisconsin winters.

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We found ourselves next at some ruins. There had been a chapel here or something. Centuries ago. I took a picture of Elizabeth wearing the Hungarian scarf I had bought her in Szentendre. She grinned at the camera as she stood beneath a stone archway, and I realized that she has the same smile as her mother and her sister. It’s very distinctive. It dominates the face, and speaks to a hereditary sweetness.

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The next day George dropped Elizabeth and I at a pub on his way to work. It was a small place and the menu only had two options. We decided to get ourselves a roast dinner, and I opted for my first ever Guinness. I figured I had no choice really. When else would I be in an authentic Irish pub? I got a photo of me with the foam mustache like the trend-following social media whore I’ve become. Elizabeth and I did some people watching as we drank our beers and ate our gravy-lathered beef. It was the only place for miles around, with no municipal body to call home except a crossroads through the bogs. It served the farmers and country folk around it, and in its own way the pub was the center of community. Most of the people there were watching a sport known as Hurling, which I had never heard of, but which I have since come to learn is 4000 years old. It’s kind of like Gaelic lacrosse I guess? But with the temperament of Canadian ice hockey; the old lady at the bar was quite animated, dropping F-bombs left, right, and center.

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The pub has an adjoining convenience store with a few things for sale like scratch cards and onions. I said we should get George something to surprise him with when he gets home from work. I asked Elizabeth what her husband’s greatest vice was.

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“Jaffa Cakes,” she said instantly. Jaffa Cakes. They power him like a punch card activates an animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disney World. They are to him what a murdered uncle is to Spiderman. Or something like that. Anyway, we got him some Jaffa Cakes, and walked home.

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My Irish Weekend Part 3: Ode to a Compost Converter

As I stated in part one, any discussion of my trip to Ireland is impossible if not told through the lens of my friendship with George and Elizabeth. No blade of green Irish grass exists, without the framing device of these two people, upon which it depends. There is no smell of gorse, there is no twinkle in the eye of curious dairy cows, and no flicker of church candles, unless given life from George and Elizabeth. Ireland is opened up through them; there is no other way in. And this is because, unlike Budapest, I was not in Ireland on official Tumbleweed business. As I said- I was desperate to see my friends, and in that sense my trip was wholly self-serving. There was no mission statement; I was just following an urge- a gnawing, biological impulse- which is the need for companionship and the redress of separation anxiety. I wasn’t buying plane tickets with the excitement of seeing windswept castles and jagged white cliffs. I was very much going there to soothe an open wound, to cauterize the ache that comes with missing people to whom you form strong attachments. I’m not really ashamed of that. And it’s worth pointing out this self-centered motivation, because I don’t want to do Ireland a disservice- nor indeed my readers- by pretending that this is a focused and objective account of the country. It’s not. As I told Elizabeth- I would have visited her if she and her husband were living in a Wampa ice cave on Svalbard, with nothing to do except get cozy in the slit-up abdomens of walruses while eating curried reindeer. The place was not a factor to me- but, I knew that wherever they chose to settle, it would become one of fascination to me, whose aesthetics I would attach inexorably to George and Elizabeth’s personalities. I would cherish these rows of gorse and miles of peat bogs, these tranquil lakes and cutesy farmyard animals, as playing a role in their continuum as a couple. Therefore it was inevitable that whatever I saw, I would in some way romanticize it.

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So, unlike Budapest, I didn’t have a bucket list. I just wanted to soak up as much of their personalities as possible. I wanted Elizabeth to do as many theatrical comedy routines and tell as many shock-value “pipefitter jokes” as she could. I wanted quintessential, vintage Elizabeth at her rowdy best. I was not disappointed. Throughout the whole five days I was there, the three of us talked without pause from sun-up to sundown. By noon every day my throat hurt, but I went on talking anyway. The entire trip was a five-day conversation, in which the only moments of silence were the hours in which we slept.

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We spent our time at their house, sitting by the lake, or going for walks in the surrounding countryside. The house, to me, was a symptom of George and Elizabeth’s romantic worldview. When I got out of the car, I knew that there could be no other house for them. This place was straight out of a fairy tale. It could have been one of those ceramic miniature cottages you see for sale in gift shops. The thatched roof, the hanging kerosene lamp, the cobblestone walls, the little red gate, the Dutch door with its bottom-half shut, the lilacs growing down the wall like Nature’s tapestry, were all qualities that spoke to George and Elizabeth’s collective identity.

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As we stepped inside I told them that the house reminded me of the holiday homes from my childhood vacations to places like Wales, Devon, and Normandy; the downstairs a single room, no TV, windows flung open, a few troublesome houseflies, great wooden roofbeams holding up the ceiling. There was no TV and no Playstation- instead; there were boxes of audiobooks and old board games. It gave me the feeling of being on vacation, and Elizabeth echoed this sentiment, saying that the house had a vibe not unlike that of her family’s summer cabin in the Wisconsin northwoods. It was just so charmingly disconnected from urban life. Aside from its romantic, rural qualities, I was also struck by how “lived-in” it felt. They had really furnished the place into a home, a place of their own, a place of love. The house was brought to life by the little things- the tins of spices and teas on the old shelves, George’s handsome collection of tobacco pipes, the framed photos of them together that made ascension of the staircase a timeline of their relationship- which caused me to think of the house as a house of marriage. Elizabeth delighted in showing me their honeymoon photos, kept in large old school albums underneath the wooden coffee table. We drank beer that she and George had brewed themselves. When the horse in field opposite the house started staring at us through the window, we cut up some apples and went out to feed him. We sat on a large rock by the lake and marveled that all this was even happening, ticking off all the coincidences on memory lane that contrived to bring a country girl raised in the shadow of Lambeau Field and a kilt-wearing Oxfordshire Brit to building a life together in the western Irish countryside- as well as the little coincidences that facilitated my humble cameo to their story. It’s quite a thing, I said.

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Staying with them in this house, I got to know George and Elizabeth on a deeper level. I was really experiencing them for the first time as a married couple, as homeowners, and as a family. And they revealed themselves at once to be gracious and natural hosts. I always get embarrassed when I’m being waited on hand and foot, but I couldn’t help enjoying seeing them this way. George and Elizabeth love to entertain. Throughout my whole stay I was lovingly tended to; scarcely a moment passed when I was not handed a beer or outfitted with an extra cushion. Knowing as intimately as anyone my history of mental health issues, they enquired often about how I was feeling. At one point I was even set up in a hammock, and brought a plate of sausages that had been boiled in cider and barbecued. Now this is living, I thought, feeling the sun warm on my closed eyelids and the fresh, country air rising in my nostrils. George and Elizabeth made me feel like the Sultan of Brunei, treating me with such affection that they resisted all attempts on my part to give a helping hand. One of the highlights of my trip was our adventure to the hardware store. We excitedly purchased one of those massive, Robby-the-Robot-shaped compost converters and hurried back to the homestead to assemble it. When it was ready for use, we each pinched our noses with laundry pegs (which fucking hurt like a sonuvabitch I might add) and proceeded to dump as much rank waste inside as possible. With the lid open, George held up the garbage bags while his wife tried cutting out the bottom with rusty garden shears. When Elizabeth started making a series of retching noises, I insisted they let me help.

“WE COULDN’T POSSIBLY.”

“Liz, you’re about to barf,” I said.

“OKAY.”

So I took the shears from her and finished the job, stabbing at the swollen black refuse sack like a Jedi Knight would the pregnant gut of a pot-bellied rancor. After penetrating the bulging sack I had to act fast as the smell of rancid trash grew ever thicker- as though the mortally wounded beast aimed to take us down with her- and I cut crossways with the shears. An immense feeling of accomplishment and self-worth came over me as the entrails burst forth, and our mission was complete.

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