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The Crescent City Diaries #14 – Bayou Redux

For my last day in New Orleans I booked myself a second swamp tour. I debated making an excursion to one of Louisiana’s many historic plantation homes, but ultimately decided I’d rather bask in the state’s natural beauty one last time. Oak Alley would have made for a great photo-op, but there’s a real sense of rapture I feel when I’m in the bayou. It’s an utterly unique biome, distinguished by an aesthetic that is nakedly brutal. It’s an environment that’s violent and unforgiving, and yet its cruelty is affixed with so much emergent beauty. It’s not comfy or easy real estate; it’s swelteringly hot, it floods, it endures hurricanes and cyclones every year, it’s crawling with innumerable blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects, and the sheer variety of other jungle horrors make its overflowing alligator population about as bothersome as a line of indecisive pensioners in front of you at the post office. Sure, the alligators are there in abundance- but no one takes them too seriously. If you fall victim to one, it’s more or less your own fault, so there’s no safety-talk regarding a potential encounter.

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Nothing underscored this mindset better than my tour guide- a bearded Cajun who had lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana his entire life. My guide delighted in the company of alligators, and said that he took any opportunity he could get to wrestle and play with them. This hobby sometimes left him with serious injuries, and he pulled down his t-shirt to show us his most recent scar. An alligator had bitten him in the neck, which had to be fixed up with 72 stitches. This experience didn’t put him off in the slightest, however.

“We Cajuns do stupid shit out here,” he said, showing us some other scars on his forearms.

The only thing we had to watch out for, he told us, were snakes. Just like my previous swamp tour, we were instructed not to reach up into the trees because snakes are known to leap from the branches like they’re reenacting The Last Crusade.

“I’ll do anything with a gator- I’ll swim with them, I’ll have me some fun with them. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere near a snake. If a snake gets in here y’all are gonna call me Fat Jesus- because I’ll be running over the water.”

The bayou is home to all kinds of snakes- snakes that swim, snakes that climb trees, snakes with lethal dosages of venom, and snakes that constrict. I shared the man’s fear; whenever I come to the USA, snakes are the only thing I really worry about encountering. I think it’s the stealthy nature of them, and the idea of a lightning-quick bite being enough to send me to the ground, unceremoniously foaming out the mouth as my unfulfilled dreams flash before my closing eyes. Sorry- it’s hard to resist indulging in such narcissistic morbid curiosities- especially when imagining the local papers of my small English hometown sharing headlines of badger culls and flower shows with “LOCAL BOY GOES MISSING IN SWAMP. COTTONMOUTH BELIEVED TO BE AT FAULT”. Man, what a story! I’m half-tempted to plunge myself into the murky waters just to make it happen. But like all dark fantasies, it passes and you find yourself physically recoiling, as if the imagined threat had actually been there in front of you. I’ve actually had recurring nightmares about snakes before I ever stepped foot in the bayou. What’s weird is that in every dream I have, the snakes get decapitated by a meat cleaver. Either I’m doing it in self-defense, or I’m hopelessly begging someone else not to do it, or I’m doing it to an innocent snake while in a trancelike state, unable to control my actions. There’s always the same mixture of pleasure and disgust when it happens, and I wake up with a shudder.

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Anyway that’s enough of that. What was great about this swamp tour was that it was completely different from my other one. The first one was near a private lake, more inland, surrounded by dense tropical woodlands, and we were on a larger boat that carried a good thirty people. The first tour was much more family-friendly as well. My second tour, by contrast, was on a high-speed airboat carrying only five people, as well as a guide with a much more liberal vocabulary. The setting too was different. I was south of NOLA this time, not east. I felt closer to the shore. The environment was that of sprawling wetlands, miles upon miles of low-lying swamplands whose freshwater canals drift seamlessly into the ocean. You could see for miles in all directions, and the boat was super-fast, which was very refreshing given the temperature.

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“Where are we?” I asked when I arrived at the dock.

“We are in the town of Jean Lafitte,” the man at the desk replied. “You know, like the pirate.”

I stared at him blankly.

It took us a while to reach the bayou itself. Once we got there, the guide took us at a slow speed through a natural tunnel in the trees. The trees were so tightly packed that I wondered if we could even fit into this canal. It was like going into a cave. And once inside the bayou, we were completely shadowed by a thick canopy about an arm’s reach above us. This was the part of the tour in which we had to be wary of snakes. Spiders too. The guide pointed out the gargantuan webs that went from tree to tree, and I spotted several spiders that looked big enough to down a small bird.

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We saw some alligators hanging about on land and decided to dock next to them.

“I don’t know about y’all I’mma have me some fun,” the guide said. He tied the boat to a cypress knee and hopped out. Two alligators approached him and he beckoned them closer. After feeding one a few marshmallows, he literally grabbed it by the tail and pushed it away. “Go on, git!” he said. It was the other gator’s turn. The other one approached, and after feeding it, the guide patted it on the snout affectionately.

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Then we were off again. We left the bayou and found ourselves in more wetlands. The guide called out for an alligator he named “Hops” and within a few minutes the creature approached the airboat. Tempting him with a marshmallow on a stick, the guide was able to get the alligator to climb on the boat. The woman in front of me recoiled. When the gator went for the marshmallow, he ended up biting off half the plastic stick as well, before cheekily diving back into the water.

“SHIT-ASS!” the guide hollered at it. “You broke my dang stick! Enjoy shitting that one out later. Heh heh.”

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Further on in the tour we got to ask a few questions. I asked the guy if he had ever been hand-fishing.

“Aw hell no!” he exclaimed. “No way. That there is what we call really redneck. You might get that in northern Louisiana, but not down here. You’d get your arm chewed off by a snapping turtle. Yessir. That’s some redneck shit.”

I was interested in the idea of there being different classes of “redneck” or “hillbilly” within the South. I’m already aware of the difference between the Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns of the south-Louisiana swamps and the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “twangy-voiced” population of the northern half of the state.

The guide explained to the rest of the boat that hand-fishing, or “noodling” was the practice of getting a catfish to try to swallow your arm and pulling it out of the water. I’d read about it years ago, and had written a short story about it at university. I could have sworn it was a Louisiana thing. Perhaps it’s a northern Louisiana thing.

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The guide then revealed that he looked after baby alligators that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild. After raising them for a few years, he released them back into the swamps. He retrieved one from a cooler or something, and we each got to take it in turns holding the little guy.

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It was an amazing day. I had gotten to see at least a dozen gators, and as we sped back towards the dock, I felt pleased with my decision to go on another swamp tour. As I said at the beginning, it was either this or a plantation home. I’ve seen some awesome plantation homes in Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re great and all that, but there’s something really special about the bayou as a place. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to see it again. It’s a voyage to an alien world. And unlike the moon, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or Antarctica, this strange land is teeming with exotic life. I think my decision to go back- and the “magical feeling” I get when I’m there- is down to how far removed from my background it is. It’s almost certainly the most wild place I have ever been to. It’s the kind of faraway place that hitherto only really existed in nature documentaries, observed from the comfort of my couch with a bowl of Neapolitan to hand. To be in such a wild place is breathtaking and surreal. If I think about it, upward of 99% of my life has been spent in the comfort of metropolitan areas. Even in the small town I grew up in, my bedroom views showed asphalt, brick, and concrete in all directions. I was raised in the bosom of central heating, imported goods, and soft cushions. Getting the chance to see an environment untouched by the infrastructure of human civilization was a real treat- and something I’ll endeavor to try again as often as I can.

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The Crescent City Diaries #12

My first stop in City Park was the New Orleans Museum of Art. The temperature in NOLA had been steadily increasing since my arrival, and at this moment I felt like I was getting a taste of Louisiana’s tropical climate for the first time. I had barely been in City Park five minutes and already I could feel myself longing for the air con of the museum ahead.

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Like most of the museums in New Orleans, the Museum of Art is big enough without being too big. It’s not one of those labyrinthine monstrosities like the Louvre or the Victoria & Albert, where you have to prioritize what exhibits you like best. How long you spend here more or less depends on your interest in the pieces themselves. I decided to take my time and try to think about the pieces I found most striking. My interest in art has massively increased this year. I’m Pinteresting the shit out of my favorite Renoir paintings, I’m watching Youtube videos on the meaning of Edward Hopper’s work, and my appreciation for modern art forms has grown exponentially. My favorite exhibit in the museum was that devoted to the Storyville Photographs, a haunting series of portraits taken by John Bellocq in the 1910s of the city’s famous red light district. In many of the Storyville Photographs, the faces of the nude prostitutes have been scraped out, and in others, the women are wearing masks. It remains a mystery why exactly the faces were obscured, and whether it was Bellocq himself or someone else.

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Upon leaving the museum, I walked the short distance across the canal bridge to my next stop: the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. I liked the sculptures on show here; there was something twisted and macabre about them that made me think that each one revealed some kind of repressed trauma on the part of its creator. The giant spiders looked like Castlevania bosses before the textures had been added in. There was one statue of a man smiling as birds pecked away at his skin, eating him alive. I saw what looked like a torii gate with a Japanese guy hanging upside down which disturbed me to no end. And the horse skeleton fashioned out of gnarled branches was suitably reminiscent of the zombified horse the Night King rides upon. Even though I’m more interested in paintings than sculptures, I couldn’t help but feel that the latter was the more powerful medium. If I wanted to convey something that would ignite a discussion, I think I would hire a sculptor before a painter. I think the way sculptures are right there in front of us, existing among us, instead of hanging on a wall, makes them really striking and expressive. It seems less passive and more demanding of one’s attention.

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I left the garden and went south, feeling now quite parched. I ended up at the Morning Call coffeehouse where I got myself a Powerade and some shaved ice. I then continued south, going past the bandstand and over another canal bridge to the Historic Oak Grove. There I walked in solitude beneath a canopy of Spanish Moss, admiring the dramatic, spiderlike growths of the live oaks. I stopped briefly at Goldfish Island before crossing the canal and going north again.

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My next destination was the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. The gardens here are lovely, with sections that reflect both the English desire to illuminate the wild beauty of nature and the French philosophy of ordering it into geometric symmetry. There were fountains, statues of lovers fondling each other in bushes, bamboo groves, and a greenhouse full of cacti. The garden was awesome, and as I stood before the range of bright flower-heads, I thought to myself that even the most beautiful painting would fall short of the splendor of nature. Gardens are an interesting form of art, for the reason that they are neither wholly natural nor wholly man-made. A garden is the intersection between the floral world and the human mind. They represent the unique ego of our species, which attempts to remake the world according to our desires. Even the English gardening style, which celebrates the randomness of nature, is built around framing certain aspects of it according to the vision of the gardener.

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At this point I had grown tired. I wanted to see more of City Park but I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was very hungry and couldn’t see any restaurants in the vicinity. I knew that the park continued northwards, stretching all the way from Mid-Town to Lake Pontchartrain, but I didn’t see anyone heading that way, nor any clear path there. The green fields and live oaks just seemed to go on forever. Unsure, I walked north, abandoning the sidewalk and continuing across the grass. The ground beneath my foot was hard and dusty and I got stones in my sandals. I reached an empty, quiet road through the park that went past a deserted stadium. I kept going, hoping to stumble across another attraction, but there was nothing in sight. I was moving away from the touristy areas. Eventually I said screw it and headed back to the museum, where I stumbled upon the Zemurray Trail that loops around Big Lake toward the streetcar stop. It was at that moment I thought to myself: Big Lake? City Park? Who named these places, an accounting intern dying of boredom?

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While on the streetcar I identified a spot for lunch on Canal Street. The Palace Café is a famous restaurant in a three-story, high-ceilinged building. I went up to the second floor and got my lunch at the bar. The service was impeccable and the Shrimp Tchefuncte I ordered was delicious- but a little pricey. Whenever I enter an upscale place like this I feel both curious and uneasy. The bar specializes in rum and the shelves of rum go all the way around the wall. It’s amazing. As I ate my bread pudding for dessert, a middle-aged man that seemed a little tipsy came over and sat down a few stools adjacent to me. He asked the bartender for his recommendation. The bartender served him a glass of highly expensive rum. The man said he was a “scotch guy”, and never really drank rum, but that this rum was the best he ever had. They then had a lively conversation about how rum was making a huge comeback in the world of spirits. The man then told the bartender that he was from Baltimore, and asked if he had seen The Wire. He said that the city was undergoing some redevelopment, and that he was involved in buying up cheap real estate in the ghetto which was in the process of skyrocketing in value. I listened with keen interest, before finally paying my bill and leaving the opulence of the Palace Café behind.

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The Crescent City Diaries #6

My visit to New Orleans was very unstructured from the offset. It was completely unlike my trip to Budapest. Budapest was a project, something I was passionate about, and traveled to purely to satisfy that passion. It was something I planned months advance, and by the time I arrived in Hungary I was so high off of half a year’s reading of its history and culture that I had accumulated enough things to do that it was easy to order them into itineraries for each day. It was all about seeing those things I’d read about for real.

However, my trip to New Orleans was different. It had always been a longstanding dream of mine to go there, but I didn’t think I’d get to go so soon. The city was still a myth to me, an idea to be toyed with by novelists and poets and movie directors and songwriters. A place that could only be interpreted by art. It never really occurred to me that I could go there, even though I’ve lived on and off in Houston, TX for the past few years. It would have seemed a strange, fanciful idea- a “one day I’ll make it” kinda thing.

So New Orleans was never a project or a plan. I didn’t read up on it and make a bucket list. New Orleans was an opportunity, one that just kind of emerged out of the blue during the process of planning my upcoming visit to my friends in Houston. I’m going to America anyway- why not go earlier? Why not see the Gulf Coast and make the myth a reality? That’s what traveling in the USA really is, going from state to state and peeling off the layers of myth to see the far more interesting truths waiting for us underneath.

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I had 5 days and only a couple things booked, both of them on the same day. So I learned a lot about solo travel and how to take city breaks in particular. 5 days is good because it allows me to move at my own pace, take my time, and discover opportunities while I’m there through word of mouth. However, it also meant that I was more responsible for creating my own fun. Sitting in a hotel room too long feels like a waste, and you don’t have to worry about that with a two day visit. That’s where an itinerary is needed, so you can fit everything in.

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As I’ve stated in the previous entries of this series, I set out on my first day with no clear goal in mind except to see Faulkner House Books and the Café du Monde. But I took the long way to these stops, zigzagging through the French Quarter and enjoying the ambience. I stopped at Aunt Sally’s to engorge myself on free samples of freshly-made pralines and watch them being made in-house. I went to the city’s famous Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and paid a dollar to pet the stingrays. I found a beautiful little walled courtyard where I stopped to take some photos. I browsed antique shops, I tried on a straw boater at the Key West Hat Company, and I fell strangely in love with an abandoned brick building with smashed-in windows. I ate alligator for the first time and loved it. When I got back to Jackson Square I wondered what else I ought to do. Museums. The Cabildo was closed, unfortunately, but The Presbytère wasn’t. The former focuses on Louisiana history & culture, whereas the latter is devoted to Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. I was eager to see some authentic Mardi Gras costumes and they truly are the stuff of nightmares. I can’t imagine being a kid and going to one of the parades. I’d never sleep again. After staring into the hollow eyes of a mannequin with a pointed cone for a nose, oversized lips, and garments unsettlingly reminiscent of striped pajamas, I checked my phone. It was only 3pm! There were still so many precious hours left. Things were going slow, but not as slow as I’d have liked. I became afraid of running out of things to do.

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After leaving the museum I marched northwest on my aching feet and left the Quarter for the first time. My destination? A little spot called Congo Square. A city park was just what I needed. Somewhere quiet, away from the inundation of stimuli that came with crowded tourist hotspots, where I could take some photos and enjoy the scenery. The square is located inside Louis Armstrong Park- which is no coincidence. Congo Square served as a place for slaves and free African Americans to gather in the 19th century for meetings and open markets. They also used the space for traditional African dancing and drum-playing, leading in no small part to the early development of Jazz. After taking pictures of the flowers, the live oaks, and the statues, I wandered over to another massive abandoned building with broken windows. They’re all over New Orleans, and there’s just something about the crude, industrial design, 19th century vibes, and overall dilapidation that fascinates me. I walked around the lake and my feet began to complain some more. It was time at last, I decided, to head back and recharge before heading out again in the evening. I’d done a lot on my first day- and my next was set to be a big one.

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.

My Irish Weekend Part 2: A Rural Snapshot

One of the most common observations Americans make upon seeing the United Kingdom for the first time is how small the roads are and the cars that use them. In fact, it was this very observation that gave me my inspiration to take up blogging in the first place. In the spring of 2016, my friend Marielle, a Wisconsinite, traveled to the U.K to study at The University of Winchester- which just so happens to be my alma mater. She started blogging immediately about everything she noticed regarding life in England. Nothing touristy, but the subtle everyday stuff- the kind of stuff I’m interested in. I eagerly kept up with her blog and decided it was something I’d like to try as well. Write what you like to read, as they say. Anyway, I distinctly remember her characterizing the cars she saw in the U.K as being like “little clown cars” or “bumper cars”. It’s true- everything in the U.K is smaller, everything crammed in. Well, that’s kind of how I felt when I set foot in Ireland. I felt like an American tourist seeing England for the first time.

As quaint and old and slow-paced as the U.K is to an American, Ireland to me seemed even quainter, even older, and even slower. I really did get the sense that I was traveling back in time. By comparison the U.K seemed like a slick capitalist metropolis. The roads in Ireland seemed smaller and less busy. The cars looked old. The infrastructure in general seemed smaller, and less developed, less modern. The stores didn’t have as much variety of products. But don’t get me wrong- I’m not castigating the country for these deficiencies, I’m celebrating it. It’s also worth mentioning that I was never far from the country’s western coast, so my visit was exceedingly rural. As always when I write about a place, I am describing it as it existed according to my impressions of it. The Ireland of my visit was one of cattle guards and moss-covered stone walls. My impression of the place was that it was less flashy and less commercialized than both the U.K and the USA. I found its “deficiencies” to be very charming, and given that Ireland has consistently ranked highly in terms of “quality of life” perhaps these folks are on to something. It felt good not to be faced with a sea of billboards and neon signs and strip malls and car dealerships. Ireland offered me a return to place we don’t often get the chance to revisit in today’s bustling world. It felt more connected to the ways of the past- there were no harsh juxtapositions, but rather a smooth and steady blending of cultures and lifestyles.

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The second thing I noticed was the prevalence of the Irish language in signposts. I guess I was ignorant as to how widespread Gaelic was. I knew that there was a native, presumably Celtic, language that was the language of the island. But I hadn’t expected to see it in a functional capacity. This pleased me. I’m one of those people that can’t sleep at night for fear of losing things forever, whether it’s the Cornish Language or a Leatherback Sea Turtle. So I was glad to see there was a defiant blip on the Gaelic heart monitor yet.

The third thing I noticed, once we had left the Shannon airport, was how inundated I now was with greenery. It’s often said how green the grass is in Ireland and now that I’ve been, I can confirm it ain’t fancy talk. Driving through the countryside of western Ireland your eyes are assaulted by the richest greens you can imagine in the way of grass, hedges, moss, deciduous tree leaves and so on. It was really beautiful.

I’ve never seen so many farms (and cows) in my life. All the farms were bordered by stone walls rather than fences, which I couldn’t help but notice. And the farmyard animals in Ireland are all outrageously extroverted. I’m not even joking here- every time we walked past a farm, the cows and horses would come over to us and stare at us as though expecting our craniums to pop open and project the bingiest of Netflix originals from a hidden antenna. I couldn’t help but think they were bored. But it was a really special experience. I patted several cows and horses during my trip and they were all keen to get as close to us as the stone walls would permit. They were really friendly.

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If I could point to one defining image as being a snapshot of western Ireland however, it would probably be the rows of gorse across the peat bogs. We drove past a lot of bogs and they seemed quite big. They were flat expanses of land that went on for miles, that seemed completely untouched by human interference. They really struck me as wild. And the bright yellow flowers of the gorse shrub have such an arresting beauty- your eyes are drawn straight to them. It’s an image I hope I never forget.

Flowers of the Algarve

During our stay in Andalucía, we chose to take a day trip into neighboring Portugal to see its famous Algarve province. The Algarve is considered to be the jewel of Portugal’s tourism crown; a lush region of orange trees, undisturbed coves, and lapis-blue terracotta tiles that has been repeatedly elected the best place in the world to retire. Given that we had this Mediterranean paradise practically within pissing distance of our hotel in Spain, we decided to hop in the rental car and cross the Rio Guadiana to see what all the fuss was about.

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