That’s me on the Claps

When I was a lonely teenager, I had the conviction that the key to life was to turn the right direction down the right street at just the right time so that the Important and Spontaneous Thing could happen. I went on a lot of aimless walks where I dithered at the street corners under the immense pressure of being open to fate. Usually, nothing interesting happened. Now I think that worrying about serendipity is counter-productive. I focus more on walking confidently in a (semi) clear direction. But sometimes the random turn at the random moment does turn up a true, pure serendipitous thing.


Take my last night in Dublin this September. I had gone out to look for some dinner. I was crossing the street, when I looked left and saw the sunlight shining on a bridge over the river. That’s where I’m going, I thought, so I did. On the bridge was a man in one of those Irish caps. He had binoculars, and he was looking at another man who was stumping around in the mud where the river usually was when the full moon hadn’t pulled the tide so low. What’s he looking for? I asked the man with the binos, and he gave me a look.The man in the river had a trowel in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. I think he was a treasure hunter.


The man with the binos’ name was Joe and he was from Dublin, and we started talking about things, which was a huge relief after four days in a hostel where no one wanted to put down their devices long enough to have a conversation. (Tangential rant: people, when you’re traveling, please get off the internet and talk to people so I can have some faith in humanity.) Joe decided to show me a block on Henrietta Street where all the old tenement houses were still standing, so we started to walk across the city.


When we got to that one particular block, we heard music coming out of a building. Joe inquired and found out they were the Na Píobairí Uilleann — the Uilleann Pipe Society — recording a radio show. They invited us in to listen.

So there I was, fifteen minutes into a conversation with a stranger, in a basement with a bunch of Irish musicians playing incredible music. If you don’t know this, in studio shows are much more constructed than they sound. They don’t record the things in order. They recorded all the music, then took the clapping separate. We’ll take the applause for Sheila now. And we’d all (including Sheila) clap our hearts out. You can listen yourself if you like, thanks to radio archives. Maybe you’ll hear me cheering.


Later, Joe and I were eating chips on a picnic table, when an old man in a dirty coat rode up on a bicycle. Joe offered him some chips, which few people would do in the U.S. The man sat down with us and told us stories of his time in Brooklyn and of marching against the Iraq war, even though he felt it was futile. I never did get dinner, unless Guinness and chips count, but I did get to listen to people I so easily might never have met. I don’t know if this was an Important Thing like I was imagining as a girl. It was something more subtle than money or love or fame or purpose. But I felt the current — the story — that moves through life. I felt that sense of possibility. And that’s still a reason I walk down the street.


Dublin Conundrum

So now I’m in Dublin, slowly heading home. Here’s my newcomer’s observations: Dublin is a city of contradictions. I’ve seen a nun in Birkenstocks, a man driving a horse and buggy while talking on a cell phone, a lady who had to move to England to divorce her pub-loving husband but many pairs of men holding hands, a bedraggled 1940’s boy scout canteen from North Bend Washington being sold for twenty euro in a flea market, the word “authentic” on everything that isn’t. 

Dublin looks as if its fashion-consultants were all alternative high schoolers in Seattle in the ’90’s. Lots of black lipstick, hair dyed the color of cherry lollypops, short dresses and frumpy sweaters, everything a little loud and a little awkward, like it’s a statement as much as an expression of natural grace.

I went to hear some traditional music in a pub outside the tourist district a couple of nights ago, and while the bar was a dead ringer for Conor Byrnes, this was no Seattle Old Time Jam. This was a bar full of people (lots of guys — lots of dudes) who were belting out the choruses of everything from “Wild Mountain Thyme” to “I’m Just a Teenage Dirtbag, Baby.” Not sure how that one made the trad cut. I drank my obligatory Guinness; the Irish drank Bulmer’s Cider. A girl with cherry pop hair and cherry pop lipstick drank a cherry pop colored drink. A guy spilled his beer in my hair and then headlocked me and kissed the top of my head to say sorry. I met a bunch of very sweet guys from Donnybrook. One of them insisted on walking me home, though he was smaller, younger, and drunker than I was. I hope he got home alright — he had much farther to go. When I showered in the morning, my hair gave of the artichoke smell of beer.

So that’s Dublin, or a flash of it. No pictures, because I’m in a hurry. 

Iceland on 80,000 a Day

I have been to Iceland now, and I can tell you this: the area around Reykjavik is like Eastern Idaho, only with an ocean.  The same volcanic stone, the same flat yellow-brown, the same desolation with mountains in the background.  In Reykjavik, however, unlike say Salmon, the architecture is very sleek and minimal and Scandinavian.  I saw no cow skulls or split rail fences.

Idaho or Iceland?

The bones of the town lack ornament – no floofy French ironwork for these people – but that is remedied through graffiti.  The city is full of bright murals and graffiti.  I saw a few small boys with spray paint in the skate park, broad daylight, and it seemed almost like everything had been painted with permission, partly because it felt like the kind of place no one did anything they weren’t supposed to do.  I don’t really like places like this; I don’t trust them.  And I don’t like the efficiency of the architecture. But I did like the air, and the freshness in things.

In Iceland, they count their money in Icelandic krona, which is kind of like counting in pennies.  You buy a chocolate bar.  Two hundred and ninety, they say.

When I got to Iceland, I was very hungry.  I had been in England. I had been living most of the day on cake.  I don’t think very straight when I am hungry, but I knew I needed money.  I went to the ATM and got out what I calculated was about eighty dollars, which seemed like enough for a day.  A fat stack of bills spit out, and I went to buy a yogurt.   It was only when I went to my hostel and it just took one of the bills to pay that I realized I was off by a power of ten.  I had 80,000 krona on me, or almost seven hundred dollars.  When I checked my bank balance, I had nine cents in my checking account.  Thank goodness for internet bank transfers.

I would say more about Iceland, but the truth is I don’t know that much about it.  I was there for barely twenty four hours, an unpaid cameo on my way home.  The air was clear and cold and smelled like fall in the Rockies.  The mountain ash trees in town were ripe, and the berries were squished on the sidewalk.  Many people, but not everyone, were blonde.  The old people I saw had very bright eyes.

I stayed in a place called KEX Hostel. It was a great hostel, the kind that is so nice you’re sort of tempted not to leave, especially when it’s forty degrees, dark, and blustery in the rest of Reykjavik.  I did leave, though, with a couple of other people from the hostel.  We wandered around the city doing an inclusive survey of the restaurants, determining that Iceland restaurants are expensive and that you can buy whale at the Mexican restaurant.  We didn’t buy whale.  We ate delicious salads (beets and grapes! Eggplant with coconut milk, thyme, and pomegranate!) at a coffee shop, then went back to the hostel and drank beer.  Earlier, I also ate some dried fish, which is served with plain, cold butter and is a great thing to eat when you’ve been living on cake since Sussex.

On my way to the airport, I went in the Blue Lagoon, which is a funny spa in a volcanic wasteland where you can be delivered by bus. The lagoon is full of milky, salty hot water.  Afterwards, my skin felt thick and clean in a way it never has before.  My bangs were straw.

And then I left, and now I’m home.

I Guess I’m Happier than Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers.  For a long time this was hinging completely on the one essay I had read by her: “Refrigerator Fungus.”  The essay was just that good.  Then I stumbled on an entire book she wrote and decided to bring it to Paris, just in case I needed a dose of Pacific Northwest nature in the City of Lights and Pavement.  I started reading it today, down at the Paris Plages.

I should tell you about the Paris Plages.  Maybe you have been to Paris, and you know that the walkway along the Seine usually looks like this:

Well, right now, it looks like this.  That’s right, they’ve carted in a bunch of nice, fine sand,  beach umbrellas, striped beach cushions, a pirate ship playground, a bunch of ice cream-and-beer stands, toilets, and some palm trees.  And the place is packed.  Music, naked children, picnickers, dogs, sunbathers — it has everything you could want in a beach except for swimming.  Some people I know think it is cheesy and artificial, but you know what? Civilization is artificial.  I mean, everything about Paris was made, so why not make something awesome like a beach?

Anyways, so there I am on the beach in the middle of Paris, reading Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, while scoping out the scene through my rockstar shades.  And the book is awesome, even if it does feel like writing that must be called nature writing, meaning it feels like it’s part of one long circular conversation around an isolated campfire by a group of people who all know what each other are going to say, which is basically this: lots of sharp, particular description of the natural world, some deep human ruminations, and too many sloppy, vaguely Mary Oliveresque phrases.  Like “The Solace of Nature,” for example.  And don’t get me wrong, I love Mary Oliver and nature and ruminations on humanity, but I studied this shit for a long, long time, and like the Delmore Brothers, sometimes it seems to be on repeat.

But back to the book: sometime after the one where she imagines what it would be like if we could understand air through our brains like snakes can (hint: it would be awesome), she has this lovely essay about a year when she wrote down every time she was really, really happy, and put the slips of paper in a basket to examine later for life-data.  Which is a really cool idea, and the slips she shares in the essay are beautiful.  I want to try it.  But the thing is, I think I might be happier than Kathleen Dean Moore.

This is what I have so far today:

When the old woman with the word search sat on my bench in the park with the fountain of roses and talked to me, and kept talking to me even though I’m pretty sure it was clear I didn’t understand too much of what she was saying, and I wrote so much and the sprinkler made the air smell like water.

When I got a great email from someone I like, (Hi Nate), and every time I reread the email today.

When I thought about reading something I wrote at this lit thing in Paris.

When I felt the pure exultation of pedaling a bike through Paris.  (This was, I should say, mixed with big chunks of terror.)

When I was people watching on the Plages, and being a rockstar in my sunglasses.

When I was window shopping in all the schmancy boutiques and French underwear stores in the stone streets as the sun was going down and everyone seemed to be out being happy.

When I was caramelizing onions and rolling out pastry dough with a wine bottle for a quiche (still baking) and new, free music was playing by the Dust Busters, who are a really cool little old-time group, and the light in the apartment was golden.

No offense, KDM, but that’s like a month of happy in your essay. And I haven’t even eaten my quiche. Maybe I’m not being as selective. Maybe today’s results are skewed by sunshine and emails and Paris itself. Maybe the happiness two people feel is incomparable.  I guess what I’m saying is that I would need a big Happy Basket.  I bet, too, if we did Sad Baskets I’d need a big one of those, as well.  I cried, for instance, reading things on your happy slips….

Thank God for rockstar shades.

That’s why they call it a Napoleon Complex

Well that’s a phallic symbol if I ever saw one, said my great-aunt when I showed her this picture, which I took in Paris.

And Grammy, it gets better. Guess who that little guy on top of the thing is? Napoleon Bonaparte.  And guess what he made the thing out of? The cannons of his vanquished enemies.

Gonna Stop by France

Well, I’m back from France, and everything here is blooming and it is raining.  I have no plans.  I am like a flat gray sky: it could be any time of day. This is called jet lag and it hurts my stomach.

France was stone canyons of city, and gardeners in green suits trimming trim hedges.  In France, in Paris, on rainy days in April, no one wears color.   It is just blacks and grays and denim blues.  If they have anything colorful — a scarf, a shoelace — than for sure every other stitch of clothes on them is black.  The clothing stores, however, are full of color. Everyone wears scarves.  Men, women, dogs: scarves. If a scarf was walking down the street, it would also wear a scarf.

In Paris, I walked and walked, mostly in zigzaggy circles, not because I was trying to shake pursuit, and not because I was lost, just because I could.  I could walk in circles all day if I wanted to.  I could go up this street and down that one and who knew what I’d find and when I got hungry: bread and cheese and ridiculous pastries, and when it got dark, I could go home and pet a cat and pretty soon my friend Palash would come back from running the internet and we would go get dinner.

One night we had hot chocolate in a street cafe by the river, while an accordion played on a bridge, and I was like, yep, I’m in Paris.  One night we waited in a crepe line behind two British kids who goddamn better have had a room nearby because they wanted each other so bad they were shaking and the line went on and on and I don’t know if they actually finished their crepes or not but they better have because they were going to need some energy.  One night we ate pizza with crazy things like tartine chicken on it and it was good, but not as good as Biga Pizza in Missoula, sorry Paris, France.  One night we ate Moroccan food and Palash drew up the plans on the tablecloth for the house in the San Juans where he’s going to move to build electric cats. One night we walked by the Pont Neuf, which isn’t new at all, but has a statue on it of this king known by some as the Gay Blade who was stabbed to death by a priest and then the crowd killed the priest and ate him.  Oh, civilization.

One other night, I sort of forgot to come home because I’d met these Tunisian Parisians (say that with me, Tunisian Parisians) who were as awesome as that sounds and we were drinking beer on the bank of the Seine.  I can’t spell their names because I can’t spell in French and they couldn’t spell in English, and no one thought to write them down, but I’d drink with them again.

That night, I peed behind one of these trees. 

Then I took this dazzling photo of my foot.

One day I met a street artist who bought me an aperitif and said things like “You have so much light in your eyes.” You, said Palash, are having a different experience of Paris than I am.  Post-modernism coughs into its hand and says, obviously, but I knew what he meant.

Then we went to Italy for the weekend.

Au Revoir, (briefly)

Armed with key phrases such as “Where is my husband? Is he with your wife?” and “Not milk! I want good wine,” I am leaving for Paris tomorrow after work.  I promise some Parisian stories, but maybe not for a week or two, because why be on the internet when you can be in Paris?  Until then, may I suggest, if you don’t know it already, that you check out Dear Sugar? It is one of the best new things in my life.  It is real and struggling and beautiful and brave.  I mean, it is very, very human, in the kind of way that helps me be too.

And, if I fall in the Seine, forget English, or barricade myself in the Notre Dame (Notre Dame? Non! Ma Dame!), write to Sugar.  She will help.  I am sure of it.