9 February 2006, Thursday / Co. Dublin
Did I say I wouldn’t whinge about the shower at my B&B? Forget that! When I checked in yesterday, I was impressed by the large “en suite” bathroom, but I made the mistake of closing the door to it when I went to bed (trying to keep all the heat, and I use that term loosely, in the bedroom), so in the morning that bathroom was cold enough to hang meat in, and I’m not kidding.
I know now that I am spoiled by my central-heat-and-air, and that when I travel in the winter, airfare and lodging will be cheap, but bathrooms will be chilly. And that’s just the way it is. It was a hard lesson to learn. 🙂
So, yes, once again I was faced with a recalcitrant European shower: after I pulled the ceiling switch to “on,” turned the water pressure up, and set the temperature, I found that the water cycled up from completely cold to unbearably hot, then back down again, over and over. There was about seven seconds in the middle of each cycle when it was passing from cold to hot or from hot to cold during which I stuck my head sideways into the water to wash my hair (didn’t want to actually get my body wet during this process, because it might ice over before I finished shampooing).
This is not a whinge. I’m merely stating facts. Later I wrote in my notes: “I’m not sure if I’m clean or not but I don’t care, I’m so cold. There’s no way I’m putting on body lotion. Down to breakfast.” In point of fact, I never did feel warm enough after any shower to apply body lotion, so I could’ve saved that space in my luggage. 🙂
However, all this was mitigated by the fact that the Blaithin House has wireless! Yes! Yes! Yes! I can’t tell you how great it was to simply open the laptop and check my e-mail. It turns out that this was the only place I was able to get online with no effort—so thank goodness I checked in to this B&B every few days, eh?—during my trip: there are no Starbucks in Ireland (and only one in Paris), by which I mean precious little free wireless to be had.
One thing I’m pleased about is that I knew the B&B “ropes” this time around. You may remember that the very first time (in 2003) I ate breakfast in the Blaithin’s dining room, I was joined by a German couple, and had to stifle my Yank feeling of having my space invaded (they could have sat at the other table!). This morning when I went down, I made straight for the table with an occupant, feeling very European as I did so.
His name was Sebastian, a lovely boy (OK, late twenties) from Romania who spoke halting but excellent English. (And again I am humbled in the face of bilingualism; I really must learn to speak another language, it’s embarrassing to be from such a prosperous nation with so many resources at my disposal and yet … This is a subject I’ll return to, of course, when we get to France.)
Naturally, I plied Sebastian with a million questions (no doubt confirming one or more of his opinions about Americans, although he was very patient): He’s a computer technician. He’s here in Dublin training people how to use his company’s software. His work has taken him to France, Pakistan, and India in the last year. He spent six months in India, where he met a girl from Uganda whom he now considers his girlfriend. Isn’t it amazing, this world we live in! We talked about the price of long distance phone calls, among other things. He was very sweet and shy.
After breakfast I walked down to Gerry’s, and we caught a cab to Harolds Cross, which is the neighborhood where his office is. It’s near the Grand Canal, and we stopped there for awhile to watch the swans that live on it.
Like everything else in this historic city, the Grand Canal has a story. Originally intended to connect Dublin with the River Shannon and the Irish Midlands, it begins with a sea lock at the mouth of the tidal River Liffey in Dublin and winds it way through the city and beyond, stretching eighty-two miles inland (it has forty-three locks, five of which are doubles). Work was begun in 1756, and the main line through Dublin was completed forty years later; the first trade boat passed through it in 1804 (and the last in 1960, after which it fell into disrepair for a time, although it’s been restored now, for pleasure boaters). We don’t know for certain, but it might well have been a Guinness boat that inaugurated the canal: Arthur Guinness purchased the property on which he intended to brew beer in Dublin—and which bordered the canal—on the last day of 1759, and we do know that it was a godsend to his business, since at that time canal transport was much cheaper and much more reliable than road travel. Guinness not only used the canal to bring in raw materials and ship his famous black stout back out, he even used the water in it for brewing (one of the objectives in building the canal was to provide a reliable source of drinking water). The Guinness Company today still uses the stretch of the Grand Canal that borders its property.
As commercial travel on the canal began to fade in the early twentieth century, waterfowl, including swans, began to live there, generating a variety of visual art and poetry that referenced them. Gerry notes that some years ago they appeared to be on the wane, but—as you’ll see—they’re doing fine now. It could be that the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (which now runs the canal) has had something to do with their resurgence … regardless, they make a picturesque sight, and you’ll find the swans mentioned frequently in guidebooks for the city.
Had a cup of tea and a chat with Gerry’s colleague, Brendan, while Gerry checked his voicemail, then the three of us caught a cab to the Burlington Hotel for lunch, where Pat joined us. These guys are great fun, articulate and witty (in my notes I wrote, simply, “Great craic”), and they treat me like I’m someone special. Brendan even brought presents—I’m getting spoiled by this!
At lunch we had a lively conversation about the current brouhaha created by Muslim Arab reaction to those Mohammed cartoons published by that Danish newspaper. My reaction to all this (when I wrote this in my notes nearly a month ago, buildings had been burned and people had died, and we had no idea what more might happen) was, basically, “lighten up”—but Pat was particularly incensed by the media groups that had reprinted the cartoons knowing that they were causing offense, knowing that it was going to cause another reaction. And Gerry’s point was that if it had been a cartoon ridiculing the Holocaust, we’d all be tsk-tsking, saying that it was in poor taste … but at that point in time, not one Western journalist had spoken up to say anything like that publicly (some have, now). Our culture has lived with a free press for a long time, and we’ve become somewhat inured to the pitfalls and pratfalls that accompany it, so we tend to see the Muslim reaction as an overreaction (and to be fair, there is an element of overreaction in what’s happened, not to mention a fair bit of political grandstanding), and … well, you can see how a bottle of wine and a good meal can stimulate the confabulation.
We repaired from the dining room to the lounge out front (for the great people-watching!) for more chat and drinks. I had an Irish coffee, and by then had quite a little buzz going.
From lunch we went to the National Gallery to see the Caravaggio. I’ll explain … I’d received The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr (he’s the guy who wrote 1997’s best-selling A Civil Action) as a Christmas gift, and read it before the trip. Meticulously researched and written so it reads like a thriller, the book is about the discovery, in 1992, of a painting that had been presumed missing for more than 200 years. Working on an unrelated project, a young art history graduate student at the University of Rome happened on a clue in an archive that led her to search for Caravaggio’s 1602 Italian Baroque masterpiece The Taking of Christ, just as an art restorer working for Ireland’s National Gallery stumbled on the painting itself in a residence that belonged to the Jesuits. It’s a fascinating, well-written story (Harr learned to speak Italian so that he could conduct his own interviews), and when I’d finished the book in early January I’d put the National Gallery on my list of must-sees. The painting itself—portraying Judas’s betrayal and the arrest of Christ—is lovely, dark, and desolate; the look on the face of Caravaggio’s Jesus is so sad, so sorrowful, so powerfully human it will make you weep.
One of the interesting things about visiting new places is learning new things, and it helps when one’s traveling companion enjoys the role of Chief Instructor and Sometime Tour Guide. I was constantly pestering Gerry with requests for the pronunciation of Gaelic names and terms. (And remember, Gaelic is not easy, not self-evident: the word taoiseach—which means “chieftain” or “leader” in Gaelic—is pronounced TEE-shock. Would you have guessed that?)
Anyway, there were plenty of them (Gaelic words) for me to wonder about in the National Gallery, and finally Gerry resorted to an answer any parent will recognize: the next time I asked, “how do you pronounce …?” he replied, “What do you think?” The name of the painting was The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (it’s a well-known event in Ireland’s history, wherein one of Ireland’s Norman conquerors married a girl related to the high kings of Ireland, thus solidifying the Norman [French] hold on the country). I’m proud to report that I figured it out—pronounce this EE-fah. If you say it out loud, you’ll hear the English version of this name: Eve.
The National Gallery is not the most famous art museum in the world but it is well worth a visit. It has a marvelous Yeats Room, with the paintings of John Butler Yeats and Jack Butler Yeats—the father and brother, respectively, of Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats, whose famous portrait (painted by his father) hangs there. There are paintings also by some Yeats sisters (it was a very creative family). Another highlight for me was Lady writing a Letter, with her Maid, by Johannes Vermeer. There are only thirty-five Vermeers extant in the world, so that also makes the National Gallery pretty special. I found it interesting, when I was reading the museum’s Concise Guide later, to learn that George Bernard Shaw “left one-third of his posthumous royalties to the institution he referred to, in an autobiography, as ‘that cherished asylum of my boyhood.’” As you might imagine, that is a not-insignificant bequest, and until comparatively recently was the museum’s largest source of funds for acquisitions.
And best of all, the museum’s free to the public!
We shopped a bit in the museum’s gift shop (I can’t resist), then we walked through Grafton Street and shopped a little more.
We’d made plans to go out that night with Gerry’s nieces, so we took a taxi back to Artane to rest up. Later Gerry, Bridie, and I walked two blocks down the road to the Roundabout, where we met up first with Orla and her brother Neil. Then William, Gerry’s brother, showed up, followed by his second son, Eoin (this is the Gaelic “Owen”), and finally Clare (sister to Neil, Eoin, and Orla), when she got off work, escorted by her lovely boyfriend, Kenneth. I had plenty of time to get a generous amount of Jameson’s and Guinness down as I got to know Gerry’s family better while simultaneously grilling poor Kenneth (Clare, I really like him!).
The party broke up a little before midnight, and I only needed a little help getting back to the B&B that night. … Gerry was a bit concerned that I was so drunk we wouldn’t keep to our plan of leaving early that next morning, but my body clock has always been more than faithful. No prob!