Category Archives: History

Now, We Fight Back

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Photo by @pollyjohughes (dissembledesign.com)

7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.

They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.

Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.

Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:

“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.

“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)

Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.

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Food > Everyfing Else: Eating My Way Through Brixton

Kaff Bar Brixton

Sizzling Hot Creole Sharing Platter at The Kaff Bar in Brixton

Alas, I was a marked man from the start.

“Now, you’re the vegetarian, aren’t you?” says our gracious and knowledgeable host, Penelope, as our tour of Foodie Brixton begins.

I look around, hoping she’s pointing to someone else and I can chime in with, “Oh, that’s me too, I’m veggie too!” in about 30 seconds.

Nope. It’s me she’s pointing at. I’m the only one.

“Yes… I’m vegetarian,” I concede.

“Do you eat fish?” says our other equally gracious and knowledgeable host, Lindsay, hopefully.

“Eh… no.” Sorry. The short tour, then?

“Perfect!” they both say, smiling congenially, assuring me, “there are plenty of veggie options!” while I wonder if the other tour participants are looking askance at me and wondering how such a creature can exist amidst a London so enthralled in the hipness of toe-to-tail chic.

Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, from this, somewhat inauspicious beginning, grew a culinarily magnificent experience walking and tasting south of the river on a splendidly soaking Saturday afternoon hosted by the superlative walking tours company, Fox And Squirrel Walks.

Elsa Ethiopian Coffee Brixton

An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony hosted by Elsa

Founded by London enthusiast Penelope Sacorafou, Fox and Squirrel have been providing quirky, bespoke tours around the metropolis for three years now, garnering the acclaim of ‘best guided walks’ from The Guardian. High praise indeed. And deserving. Slight blips concerning herbivorous lifestyles aside, the walk is an awesome experience, one that left me feeling both full, amazed, well-informed, and a little politically engaged with the local goings on concerning this historic part of the capital, due in no small part to the fact that Fox and Squirrel have worked really hard to establish excellent rapport with the locals and newbie restauranteurs and other business owners of Brixton Market.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Frankincense, olfactorily enchanting…

Locals like Elsa and her husband Mo, who own The Shawl cafe and hold Ethiopian coffee ceremonies just across the way on Brixton Station Road. I felt like a bit of a cheat having taken part in this East African ritual before at Asmara of Coldharbour Lane, but felt refreshed with all the history surrounding it. The ginger in the coffee was a surprisingly beautiful flavour, warming the cockles amidst the cold, slate grey of the dullish morning on which the excursion took place.

Ethiopian coffee

Mmmm. Ethiopian coffee. Beats yer average tax-dodging chain any day of the week…

A sharing platter atop a bed of spongy injera bread followed the coffee. If you had asked me ten years ago if I would have guessed that the cuisine of Ethiopia could be mind-blowingly delicious, I would have scoffed heartily, but the beauty of being an expatriate is discovery and thanks to some delightful experiences on both sides of the pond, I now know the error of my ways. The joyfully tactile experience of tearing a swather of injera and scooping some moreishly berbere seasoned lamb, lentil or spinach, was bliss.

Ethiopian Food Brixton

Oh, injera.

A quick swill of some vino verde and down Pope Row to family owned Brixton institution Las Americas Cafeterias, where we were afforded the opportunity to sample the uniquely Colombian Lechona, a whole hog (no literally, and yes, I did enjoy just writing that), crisped and stuffed with vegetables, beans and meat and slow-cooked.

Lechona Colombia

Lechona con salsa

Lechona Colombia Brixton

More Lechona, with cracking crackling. Crisp, delish, perfection, a carnivorous paradise…

Impressive still were the time-consuming lengths to which Penelope and Food Journalist guide Lindsay Faller went to cater to my tastes, requesting an order of arepa, the cheesy, cornmealish Colombian cousin to the tortilla and tailor made to hold the cafe’s dynamite salsa. Latin American comfort food at its best.

Arepas Colombia Food Brixton

Arepas, tasty y vegetariano.

Imbibing was the next order of business from local newcomers to London’s handcrafted brew scene, The Brixton Brewery, where we were given an intriguing crash course in the brewing process before tasting libations that would give any of Hackney’s half-dozen microbreweries a serious run for their money. NB: Brixton Brewery names its beers for the local area and the design for their brand is taken from the African influence on Brixton. Ah how I wished to linger and continue, lotus-eater like to lazily sample more of the Effra Ale.

Brixton Brewery

One of the tiniest microbreweries in London, under the arches in Brixton

Brixton Brewery

Makes be hoppy. Electric Pale Ale, named so for the avenue of the same name.

On to the market proper and Brian Danclair’s Fish Wings and Tings, and a colourful palate of Trinidadian flavours in a lively corner of Brixton. One critic has called Paul’s exquisitely flavoured codfish fritters, ‘like a high five from Jesus,’ and his rotis were equally flavoured to perfection, one goat and one pumpkin, perfect parcels of glee-inducing yum.

Codfish Fritters

‘A high five from Jesus’ I Be-LIEVE!

Fish wings and tings

The surprisingly perfect accompaniment to Fish Wings and Tings food

Brixton Market

The warmth of the market hall on a cold wet day

Pumpkin Roti

Perfect Parcel of Pumpkin Roti

Goat Roti

And the goat roti, omnivorous feasting.

And for dessert? Gelato that injects new vim and vigour into the trendified flavour of salted caramel at Lab G.

Lab G Brixton Market

Pure Creamy euphoria… Lab G

Hustle and Bustle

Hustle and Bustle

Brixton Market

Fusion of Cultures

Brixton Market

Fruits and veg of the market

I can’t say enough good things about the Fox and Squirrel foodie tour. I’ve had enough fun and  built up enough of an appetite reliving it while writing this blog post. My fear is that I’ve said too much, but, as they say, the joy is in the eating. I will say though that it is a far more unique walking tour, its guides more frank in their opinions, wittier in their banter, and far more inclined to specially cater to the whims and requirements of a particular group  than your average London walking tour, making eating your way through Brixton with them well worth the time and the cover price. Easily the best walking tour of London I’ve been on, even if I’m pretty sure there was some shredded pork in that last quesadilla (I’m also quite sure the tenderness will delight the majority of readers).

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Remember, Remember…

guy fawkes the american londoner

Image taken from englishisallaround.blogspot.com

…The 5th of November. That’s the rhyme that the English use to get schoolchildren to remember that great precedent-setting event of Great Brrritish history: the foiling of a terrorist plot. That’s right. Guy Fawkes celebrates the war on terror, four hundred years old and still going strong.

Okay, okay. It doesn’t just celebrate the foiling of a terrorist plot.

It also celebrates burning Catholics.

So, get your marshmallows out. The fam and I made it out to a community celebration on Saturday to watch some fireworks lit off and what can I say? It was festive, as a lot of these celebrations are nowadays — no longer indelibly connected with morbid origins, they’re now just about getting together with your neighbour, reconnecting and lighting off some pyrotechnic displays, a bit like on the 4th of July, which, by the by, this is the closest the British have to, with mulled wine and flasks of coffee instead of brewskies and hot dogs.

If you’re still confused about what Guy Fawkes Day actually celebrates, have a look at the video below. It’s wildly hilarious and explains the occasion quite concisely while raising some interesting points of comparison with our contemporary political climate.

Enjoy that? Good. As you know from my last post, I’m doing Movember again this year. I’ve already raised £30 because of some very generous donations so far, but I’d like to hit £100 this week. Please click on the link below and donate a fiver to raising awareness of men’s health issues and to the greatness of my tache (it will be great by the end of the month, I tell you). Thanks!

Pete Lawler’s Movember Space 2013 (Click and Give. Make a Difference)

Theatre: The Code of The West

The Code of The West

Zoe Teverson, David Janson, and Stephen Cavanagh in The Code of The West

‘Go West/ Paradise is there/ You’ll have all that you can eat/ Of milk and honey over there.’ Natalie Merchant, ‘San Andreas Fault’ 

Traveled out West on Thursday, West London that is. Leafy, clean and well-heeled, W postcodes are like a different country. People do things differently there. They bring dogs to pubs, they make contact when they kiss on both cheeks and they have comedy theatres with fairly famous comedians.

This last bit is what drove my wagon out West on The District Line to The Tabard Theatre in Turnham Green to see The Code Of The West by New York/London playwright Mark Giesser.

The play has at its centre the incredible historical figure of Joshua Abraham Norton, the eccentric, Englishman who became the self-proclaimed emperor of the United States, treated with all the fawning deference that one might afford any sovereign monarch, at least within the city limits of San Fransisco. I liked the concept of this story, partly because of the wonderfully quixotic nature of Norton’s story. It says a lot about our secret love of monarchy (oh we very much like to talk about our contempt for the irrelevance of an antiquated and pointless institution, but I saw the crowds gathered in front of big screens to watch Will ands Kate’s big day and if we want to talk about antiquated and irrelevant, what about the GOP, huh? Eh?), the ability for us as Americans to bluster through to great success and status based on immense confidence — a shoeshine and a handshake, as Arthur Miller put it in Death of a Salesman — without being questioned along the way, and our ability to make up the rules as we go along.

The code of the title is a seemingly random set of rules governing the conduct between two parties who seem to be at all sorts of impasses. Say what you will about a written constitution vs a constantly evolving one, there is something charming and wonderfully Californian about invoking a particular set of fictional, unwritten but strictly acknowledged rules that seem to allow characters to circumvent various imminent dangers and come out on top of very sticky situations involving other characters.

The nineteenth century American West is presented, in all its swinging door, stogie-smoking, player piano, patterned wallpaper splendor, as a place where anything is possible and an individual can set their bags down and reinvent themselves, with no judgement and no disadvantage, just as Joshua Norton did after his finances in the UK went belly up and just as a certain two ladies who claim to be connected to the house of Romanov do when they show up proposing a match for Norton.

It’s a fun night of theatre with some great lines that hold currency today. We laugh at an incredulously delivered, “What, borrow money from the Chinese?” and chortle knowingly at the casual declaration by an emissary of an alleged Russian noblewoman, “Oh we get no intelligence from Washington.”

I have to say though, despite his stage chops, David Janson’s Norton didn’t do much more than wander around winking slyly and making imperious declarations and negotiations. He certainly wasn’t the larger than Gordon Bennett presence that I expected and I felt like, marvelous though the historical character of Norton sounded, Giesser seemed to use him as a piece to play off of and a frame on which to hang the narrative and other more compelling scenes. No, the real stars of the show were Stephen Cavanagh as mischievous newspaper publisher Frank Tremont and Zoe Teverson as Claire Greenleaf, the supposed Russian Countess’ supposed emissary and general lady-in-waiting. That these two actors have performed together before is obvious from the chemistry between them that provides a sparkling frisson of energy whenever the two of the meet on stage. Their sparring is a delight to watch, culminating in a deliciously tense strip-poker scene (all a lot more chaste than it sounds). Cavanagh steals the show with a swagger and a magnetic charisma that makes us revel in his crackly, whiskeyed delivery.

The West is not part of the heritage of this ill traveled Northeastern boy who’s never seen the banks of the Mississippi, but I very much enjoyed this portrayal of it and have no doubt that it captures an atmosphere rich with renewal and grit and one that would well worth seeing especially if you’ve become as interested in American cultural identity as I have.

Go west. Good comedy is there.

The Code of The West is at The Tabard Theatre until 9 November to book: www.tabardweb.co.uk

 

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Won-derful, Won-derful, KØBENHAVN!

Wonderful Wonderful KOBENHAVN

As the Northeastern United States has finished recovering from the inexplicably named Superstorm Nemo, and as we prepare to head off to Oslo for a few days, I reflect this week on our Northern vacation last February up to the city of Hans Christian Anderson and macabre, underplayed murder mystery serials, the Danish capital of Cophenhagen.

It’s true, some prefer to go someplace warm and Mediterranean to escape the cold — hours lounging on the Costa Del Sol perhaps or maybe some Island hopping in Sardinia and Corsica —  but not us. My wife, being Irish, tends to react to the sun the same way the witch of the west reacts to water, and I, being raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Mount of Pocono… by wolves, tend to prefer the cold wintry winds and see them like a refreshing tonic to the system. Besides, the missus has a penchant for design and no one is more beloved in the design world right now than the Scandinavians. And I’m easy and I like the ancient and proud notion of beautiful and desolate North. 

And Easyjet flies there fairly cheaply. Bonus!

Snow covered streets in Copenhagen

Snow-covered streets in Copenhagen

But I have to admit, aside from visiting the Design Museum and the Lego Flagship store (Lego is Danish! Yes, really!), we didn’t really know what to expect of Copenhagen. It turned out to be full of surprising delights.

Going from Place to Place

Transport for instance, which, I know, is usually relegated to the end of the writeup under a subheading like “getting around” or “Tubes and buses” or, in some countries, like Ireland, “Good Luck”, was one of the most exciting elements of our Danish getaway. We touched down thinking that it was a Scandinavian city and so bound to have an efficient underground and bus network of which we would take full advantage. But by our first evening, we couldn’t help but notice that there was really only one main, preferred mode of transport: Bikes!

Christiania Bike Copenhagen

Ring my bell? Me, looking ever so slightly confused pedaling my son around in one of the famed Christiania Bikes. (photo by Paula Hughes)

Everyone rides a bike in Copenhagen, including the tourists. And because of the sheer joy of doing as the Romans do but not having done it in years, this became our healthiest holiday in years. We rented a standard issue four speed for the other half and a Christiania Bike, the kind that were actually invented in Denmark, in which to transport my son.

And we biked for miles every subsequent day of our stay. Gloriously, we cycled through snow, over bridges, in sun and warmth, in traffic and out of town until our leg muscles ached with a kind of gladsome soreness at the close of each day. As Copenhageners are well catered for with cycling lanes on every road, cycle traffic lights, and even metal footrests for when you are waiting for a light to change, biking in this bustling hub was easy, exhilarating, and inspiring (we bought bikes on our return to London). And for my money, the only way to travel around.

Rush Hour, Copenhagen (Taken from the Winnipeg Free Press Website)

Rush Hour, Copenhagen (Taken from the Winnipeg Free Press Website)

The Views

The Rundetarn (Round Tower) in Copenhagen

The Rundetarn (Round Tower) in Copenhagen (photo from Wikipedia)

Other impressive elements of the Danish capital included its sheer and audaciously impressive grandeur. We visited the Rundetarn on our first full day and were awed. A cylindrical edifice built in 1642 by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory (Remember Tycho Brahe from Science class? Danish.), it is essentially a cobblestone pathway that ascends spirally for 686 feet affording a breathtaking view of all of the city from the top.

Copenhagen from the top of The Round Tower

Copenhagen from the top of The Round Tower

And do you know what? This doesn't even do it justice.

And do you know what? This doesn’t even do it justice. 

The “Quirky” Neighborhoods

When we first started exploring different parts of the world, being vegetarian, we acquired the habit (naturally) or seeking out vegetarian restaurants in each new city. It’s become a kind of pastime and it always tends to lead us into the most intriguing parts of a city. Thus you will find vegetarian cookery in The Lower East Side, Soho (the original, you know William Blake’s Soho), Stoke Newington, Kensington Market in Toronto, Montmartre in Paris, and artsy, bohemian neighborhoods in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Madrid. So it was with Copenhagen, but the area, in this case, formed part of the main “destination” or attraction.

Christiania Copenhagen

Christiania, Copenhagen (photo taken from ehrasmussentrip.blogspot.co.uk)

The Freetown of Christiania is a ramshackle collection of dirtstreets, homemade houses, caravans, corrugated iron roofed houses, and some new cheap chic looking warehouse studios that falls within the confines of Copenhagen, but outside its laws. Originally a deserted military barracks until squatters took up residence in the 70s, it now boasts a 1,000 residents. Drugs can be bought fairly openly on the streets and there is a wonderfully hippy-dippy free spirit about the place. Despite being on the map, it’s also charmingly difficult to find. We ate hearty vegetarian stews in a clapboard cottage-housed cafe called Morgenstedet and despite the food being delicious and the staff being uncharacteristically effusive (the Danes don’t effuse), the fire-in-a-steel-drum charm of Christiania wore a bit thin on us and we began to worry about the safety of our bikes.

Still, a fascinating wander off the beaten path just for the sheer sight of this community outside of the laws of its surrounding community. And the cheapest hearty lunch to be had in Denmark.

Lego! 

Lego Flagship Store, Copenhagen

Lego Flagship Store, Copenhagen

Yes, we all love Lego and it was a brilliant store, but even more brilliant was how child-friendly a city it was and how child-centered a culture it seems to be. Scandinavians don’t tend to send their children to school or even think about teaching them explicitly how to read until they’re about seven. It may all sound a bit Steiner School, but it also values the idea of a child being allowed to have a free and well adjusted childhood full of play. Not for nothing do our Northern neighbo(u)rs give some of the most generous parental leave of any country in the developed world. Children are encouraged to form strong bonds that will see them through adulthood with confidence. Parents and their charges are openly affectionate and lavish attention lovingly and unashamedly. We could learn a lot.

Plus, Lego!

Lego Copenhagen

My son, in a Lego World

Lego Copenhagen

The fierce dragons of the North

Food and Drink

It surprised me that Copenhagen has recently developed into a culinary capital, but it was a surprise beyond mere joy, especially with a fantastic place like Bio Mio.

Bio Mio in Copenhagen

Bio Mio in Copenhagen

Food is comforting and divine, but the fun element is in the ordering — from a “mood-based” menu, directly from the chefs. I ordered from our chef, trying my one stock Danish phrase, “Taler du Engelsk?,” to which the Danes stock reply was, “Yah. Of course.” To this day, I can’t figure out whether “Yah, of course” is a stock reply they learn when in school or whether they just think it’s mind-numbingly obvious to any foreigner that all Scandinavians speak English better than quite a few native English speakers, but whichever the case, it’s delivered with such amiability and charm that it has to induce a smile, as did our night of dining at this lovely eatery.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Dyehaven, Copenhagen (taken from mettebassett.com)

And for lunch to Dyehaven, which, again, reminded me of a trendy place you’d find in the lower East Side, or rejuvenated and trendy West Philly, with its artsy locals meeting for a pint over some warming vegetable soup or some impressively tasty beetroot-dependent vegetarian smorgasbord, which of course, we could not leave Denmark without trying. As in the UK and the US, the craft beer movement is in full swing here in Denmark and the local brews were delightfully sophisticated, a party on the palate for the beer connoisseur.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Vegetarian Smorgasbord from Dyehaven. Mmmm.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Pale Ales and Dark, Wintry Stouts

And who could forget, Danish Pastries! They really are delicious, but they don’t  really call them Danishes in Denmark.

Well, they wouldn’t, would they?

They call them wienerbrød (literally “Viennese Bread”) and really, what better way is there to start the day. I can’t imagine a single health benefit, but some mouth-wateringly flaky wienerbrød topped with chocolate or cinnamon does transport you. It transported me anyway.

Proper Danish Pastry in Copenhagen

Proper Danish Pastry topped with almonds  from Lakagehuset on the Vesterbrogade

Best of all though… Snow! 

Some people really despise snow. They can’t stand the cold, are frustrated by the icy roads, and won’t take a step outside.

I wonder if those people have ever been to Copenhagen.

Snow in Copenhagen

Snowy City!

Although I’m often asked if I miss America, one of the things I miss most is a proper snowy winter to rejuvenate the soul. Snow, having fallen faintly and faintly fallen gently on the back or our necks hours after checking into our hotel in Copenhagen, snow that chilled the air and seeped into our bones, invigorating our constitutions, that froze the harbo(u)r as we strolled through Nyhavn, packed tightly as we threw it at each other with gusto, snow that rested gently on every branch and bough as we rode through light layers of it, covering the streets of Frederiksstaden, on a crisp morning on the way to a comforting breakfast, snow renewing an innocent spirit of joy.  Here it is in the far North in all its arctic, purely driven, exhilarating grandeur and glory (yes, thank you Geography majors I know that’s not quite correct) in a place that wears a dusty blanket of snow with a particular panache.

Nyhavn Port Harbour Copenhagen

Nyhavn Port Harbor, Copenhagen

Snowy and quaint Frederiksstaden

Snowy and quaint Frederiksstaden

Suburban Snow Copenhagen

Suburban Snow!

Nocturnal Frost Copenhagen

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling
faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, “The Dead”

Christiania Bike on a bridge in Copenhagen

My son, getting into our rented Christiania Bike, “Dukes of Hazard” style.

And with that, we turn our heads away from the snowy North and its enthrallingly desolate beauty and turn our heads towards Spring, which is supposed to come early according to Punxatawney Phil. Before we do, here’s another ode to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, an oldie, but goodie.

All photos were taken by Paula Hughes.

 

 

Following in the Steps of Saints and Scholars: Glendalough, County Wicklow

Saints scholars round tower Glendalough

Try to scale that, marauding tourists… I mean vikings! The Round Tower in Glendalough. No one really knows how the holy brothers got in or out.

As I’ve said before, 2013 has officially been dubbed The Year of The Gathering, for the duration of which Ireland will play host to the whole diaspora of its sons and daughters come back to see the homeland, to reunite with family they didn’t even know they had, to disabuse themselves of illusions to do with leprechauns and to generally appreciate all about the land that disproportionately produces world-class poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Michael Longley, Louis Macneice, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney (insert name of your favo(u)rite here) and many others besides.

But let’s face it. In order to see the best that Ireland has to offer, you need to rent a car. I don’t think I’ll be saying anything controversial or intensely debatable when I assert that Ireland’s public transport system is neither cheap nor efficient. Its urban rail system, the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) is one of mechanized transportation’s great misnomers and I’ve taken train journeys down to Kerry that involved long and tedious connecting coaches from Mallow in Cork (I don’t know so don’t ask). But that is Ireland’s pace and part of its peculiar and particular charm.

But thanks to the Celtic tiger of the 90’s and noughties, Ireland’s road system has undergone some massive modernization, especially around the cities, and is a general pleasure to drive around, basking in the rural fields of green flanking either side of some fairly efficient, if a tad congested thoroughfares (I know those who have experienced them will take this as irony and I’ve been in the traffic jams too, but they’re not that bad).

And what rewards to be reaped from driving 10-15 minutes in any direction outside the capital, from Brittas Bay on the Wicklow coast to the passage graves of the Boyne Valley, from Bray Head south of Dublin to Howth Head to the North.

Such as this gem just 40 minutes south of Dublin as you whip round the quiet country roads, Glendalough (literally, “Glen of Two Lakes”). Glendalough is where the famed sixth century Irish ascetic, St. Kevin, sought refuge from his followers and is said to have slept in a bronze age cave at the edge of the mountain. Who can blame him for wanting to stay in this place? On a fair day, such as the one we visited on, views anywhere in Glendalough are stunning.

Glendalough Saints and Scholars

Arrival in Glendalough, Golden rays warming us from the heavens.

The gently rolling brooks and streams make for peaceful passing of a lovely day.

Glendalough Saints and Scholars

Wandering, “as lonely as a cloud.”

The rural splendor can only possibly elevate and inspire the soul.

stream glendalough saints and scholars

“And for all this, nature is never spent” — Gerard Manley Hopkins

And at the same time it is a place steeped in the spiritual heritage of this island, featuring several different stone churches near the hiking trail on the site, dating back as early as the 10th century. Oddly enough, there were marauding American tourists that were over for the Notre Dame vs. Navy  taking place at the Aviva Stadium. My compatriots were a tad loud, brash and somewhat badly dressed, but generally pleasant. Just as I was feeling on the verge of an epiphany amidst the graves and medieval stone structures, I heard a voice, as if it ‘buzzeth in mine air’ from a rotund lady in sunglasses just to my left saying, ‘WHAT’S THAT, CHER? THAT’S RIGHT. MEET YOU BY THE CHURCH.’ Ah the high dulcet tones of the North Atlantic twang.  That, as I have said many times before, is our charm. We don’t mind how much like sore thumbs we stick out; we will blunder confidently on in hopes of a miracle… or a little guidance.

Glendalough saints and scholars

These old buildings — the first thing to go is always the roof.

Notwithstanding being surrounded by my countrymen, there is a blanket-like tranquility in the air, a permeating peace and beauty, that leaves no wonder as to why the Irish landscape has inspired such mysticism in its poets.

Well worth the day if you’re going to be in Ireland or could make a very good reason to make the trip.

For car rental, Enterprise’s Dun Laoghaire office just south of Dublin cuts right through all the minutia and hassle of holding insurance on cards and all that palaver. There are a couple nice pubs and restaurants in Glendalough, but you’d be better off following the signs north again towards Avoca in Kilmacanogue for a lovely plate of food and a soothing stroll along the grounds.

Go. Be inspired! Feel the rhythm of your feet along the ground informing your consciousness in verse. Come back and tell me about it!

Round Tower Glendalough

Now THAT’S Irish design and engineering. Sure it’s GRAND!

Three Expat American Writers You Must Read

Turn of the screw

The Turn of the Screw, A haunting American Gothic tale about the protection of innocence… (Taken from The Londonist.com)

I went to see the spine-chilling tale The Turn of the Screw Tuesday night in The Almeida Theatre in Islington, my review of which appears on The Hackney Hive soon to be followed by an interview with the famed director Lindsay Posner. It’s a deliciously indulgent and penetratingly haunting tale about a young governess trying to protect her charges from the corrupt influence of phantoms from the past. I could go into an interpretation that sees this as an analogy for the American condition, but like jokes, some figurative comparisons just write themselves.

But seeing The Turn of the Screw led me to thinking about Henry James, a man with whom I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship since he is American-born, but lived for so long in Merry Old England, like myself, negotiating the foggy obscurities of being a stranger in a strange land, always living as though his soul is split in half, a condition that seems perfectly reflected in the dense and difficult resistance a reader encounters in the language of say The Beast in the Jungle or Daisy Miller, the latter featuring an American character trying to find herself ‘on the continent’ and ending up doing the opposite.

But funnily enough, it took leaving America to appreciate American culture. It was only after I left, and especially after I started teaching in Ireland, that I started to appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson to name but a few.

huck finn cover

It would take leaving America to appreciate the genius of the great American novel.

What has intrigued me for years though is the number of writers who’ve gone a bit further than their “tour of the continent”; those writers who, like James, left their homeland to find their own sense of belonging and in so doing carved out for themselves a new literary identity. Not to put too fine a pretentious point on it. Here are three of my favo(u)rites. A by no means exhaustive list, but certainly some good ones to start looking at writers who’ve traveled to find home.

1. Edgar Allan Poe

edgar-allan-poe

You old devil, you. The Master of the Macabre was practically a Hackney boy. (taken from poetryfoundation.org)

What do you mean Poe doesn’t count? He went to school in Chelsea and then got gritty and spent 3 years in Stoke Newington right here in Hackney, East London. It’s no wonder his writing is permeated with gloom and shadow. He had some easy material growing up in the gloom and shadow first in Irvine Scotland and then down here in the famed London fog living through the tumultuous “year without a summer”. Sure, he was only a child, but these were surely his formative years.

Besides, it’s easy to underestimate Poe, as a staple of the school curriculum of most American schools, the assumption is that he’s kid’s stuff — high class pulp. But see past that for a second and you’ll see the Derridians and Barthesians who have done so much to revive him are right: his work is all about the obscure nature of existence and the horror of uncertainty. What is more expatriate than that?

What’s a real pity is that so many seem to miss his bleak sense of humo(u)r. How could he have been doing anything but messing with his readers and seeing just how far we could go with monkeys for murderers and the gleeful insanity of Dr Feather and Professor Tarr? For that wonderful mix of bleakness and surreal wit that centres on expatriate concerns of travel, survival and negotiating the cultural other, I would start with Poe’s only published attempt at a novel, the incomplete but wonderful Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

2. James Baldwin

JamesBaldwin

An outsider in his own country, beautifully articulating the perpetual condition of isolation, Baldwin was a truly gifted expat writer. (taken from allthingsjamesbaldwin.tumblr.com)

Black in the 1940s in America, gay, and deeply disturbed by the political environment of his native country, James Baldwin was assuredly a writer destined to find his voice abroad. That he did, giving voice to that displaced condition that situates an intellectual in a lonely place in their own country and yet yearning to feel a sense of home. For that, he had to join the cultural radicalism of Paris’ Left Bank, where Baldwin would remain resident for most of his life, writing about that recurring sense of disorientation that all of us as expats feel. You have to admire a man who can capture this condition so perfectly in a phrase like, “the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, his journey begins,” which is, by the by, from Giovanni’s Room, a novel depicting that thing that has ensnared so many of us and rooted us down in foreign climes, a romantic relationship abroad. For aesthetic beauty and a deep sense of pathos, it is a compelling read.

3. Bill Bryson

Surely required reading for American Expats? (taken from telegraph.co.uk)

Surely required reading for American Expats? (taken from telegraph.co.uk)

On a lighter note, I don’t think any bookshelf should want for a volume or several of Bill Bryson’s witty words; nor, in fact are there many expat bookshelves that do, such is the joy one feels on curling up with Notes from a Small IslandThe Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, or The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. Bryson is one of two writers (the other is David Sedaris, another great American humo(u)rist, on the darker side of things) whose writing has actually made me snort aloud on public transport, such is the power of his convulsion-inducing sense of the comic. He ranks up with H.L. Mencken for incisive delivery that illuminates the ridiculous in things we have taken for granted, from American diets and walking habits to the inability of provincial middle England to keep its streets clean, nothing is safe, nor should it be. It takes a man who has lived outside his native land for a number of years to highlight its faults and foibles to his fellow Americans and he does it with style.

I could of course have included countless others in this list. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth moves my soul, but I can’t quite stomach her politics. Amy Lowell’s poetry, especially pieces that concern her travels abroad, renews the world-weary spirit. But I decided arbitrarily to stick to prose. And then there are non-Americans who have given us their perspective on our country, Joseph O’Connor (brother of Sinead) in his side-splitting The Secret Life of the Irish Male, Dickens’ scathing American Notes, which lost him the Downton audience of his day, and Orwell’s irony-laced accounts, not of America, but of Europe in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, in which he fought in The Spanish Civil War and remarked that his life was saved many times by the merits of Spanish marksmanship.

But as Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’m forgetting, ignoring, or unaware of countless others that help us to identify our own sense of wandering through this kaleidoscopic mass of confusion that is cultural displacement. But I see great value in any author that is able to bring us out of our day-to-day existences and grant us a sense of the wider world.

Three Things I love About Dublin

O'Connell Street Bridge at night in Dublin

O’ Connell Street Bridge in Dublin at night (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the great words of the Monty Python crew, “And now for something completely different.” I’m coming down from the politics-junkie high of election season as we all slowly exhale and put the presidential pugilism of the last month or two especially behind us. I’m not actually of the belief that, as social animals, anything we do is completely divorced from the political/social sphere, but I did think I’d get back to travel this week, which is not so overtly political.

To that end, inspired by fellow blogger Marina from Hercules Gets a Passportwhose blog post on San Francisco has motivated me to want to one day explore that wonderfully sunny looking city that was once a political hotbed of flower-power and beat poetics in the 60s, I’ve decided to write about a city I love, Dublin. Marina’s blogpost was for a competition and, whilst the competition is closed, I like the idea of taking three  things you know and love about a city and exploring them.

I spent four years in Dublin (actually close to four years, but I have to say something to explain my accent). It is a city rich with a history of wit, of poetic souls, and of artistic temperaments. This year, Ireland celebrates 2013, The Year of the Gathering, a year-long celebration of Irish cultural identity in which particular emphasis is placed on welcoming back the sons and daughters of Eire from the far and wide diaspora to come back home and celebrate their roots. So, just in time for The Gathering, I thought I’d take you on a very quick mini-tour of my Dublin and hope to entice you to join in the celebrations in some way this year.

Lunch in Govinda’s

Govinda's, Aungier Street Dublin

Govinda’s on Aungier Street in Dublin

Who, outside of Ireland, outside of Dublin even, could conceive of a popular Hare Krishna vegetarian restaurant close to the city center? Who could further guess that such a cafe would serve top-notch food at fairly reasonable prices? Every year, at least once, we make our pilgrimage to Govinda’s for lunch in town. Warm, friendly staff will pile your plate high with steaming lasagne, the most perfect sag paneer I’ve yet tasted and generally comforting peppery, spicy potatoes, vegetables and assorted dollops of  scrumptiousness to fill you with virtuous goodness for the rest of the afternoon and possibly the evening. Having spoken to the knowledgeable staff before about the topic, I now know that there are Govinda’s restaurants in cities throughout the world. We’ve been to the one in Toronto which was supposed to be pay what you like but was closed for a festival during out visit, and still periodically frequent the London Govinda’s, which has good food and a more accurate representation of Thali plate dining. But nothing beats the Irish Govinda’s on Aungier Street for a welcoming, relaxing ambiance, generosity of portion size and quality of cuisine.

Swing by Butler’s for a Hot Chocolate after lunch

Butler's Chocolate Cafe in Dublin

Butler’s Chocolate Cafe in Dublin

Butler’s is a Dublinian institution, without a doubt the best hot chocolate and the best chocolate to be found anywhere in Ireland; rich, decadent, warming the cockles and mussels of one’s heart, the piece de resistance is the little sweet Butler’s presents to you on the saucer, which you dutifully drop and mix into your drink. Great place to get gifts to bring back home, meet, reunite and chat over warm, creamy, frothy cocoa.

Butler's Hot Chocolate Dublin

Butler’s Hot Chocolate (Creamy!)

Take a Walk on the Wild Side… Otherwise known as The North Side

The Royal Canal in Lower Dromcondra Dublin

The Royal Canal in Lower Drumcondra, Dublin (photo from http://www.geograph.ie)

Years ago, working at a school in one of the poshest neighborhoods in South Dublin, Ballsbridge, I certainly heard my fair share of Northsider jokes (What separates us from the animals? The Liffey. Ha ha ha ha), but I also always found something genuine and beautiful and full of character about this gritty, underrated half of the city. I lived on Clonliffe Road, near the Gaelic Football and Hurling Stadium, Croke Park. We used to get checked for tickets coming back from Tesco with our shopping and the excitement and buzz of the atmosphere was unparalleled.

James Joyce, in Portrait of an Artist as A Young Man has his hero Stephen Dedalus claim that Drumcondra is “where they speak the best English,” but something about Joyce makes me think that, though he was clearly no nationalist, his sympathies laid with Stephen and the local pride he took in the North side. It is also a place that will afford you, with a brisk or leisurely stroll, some of the finest period architecture the city has to offer. Neither is it without its simpler pleasures, for at the end of your sojourn down this thoroughfare, you will find Fagan’s pub, Ireland’s former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern’s local, a fine establishment in which to sit and relax with a pint of Arthur Guiness’ best and time to ponder and philosophize as Dublin cannot fail to inspire you to do.

Pint of Guinness, North Dublin

The Black Stuff, poured the right way

Whew! That was close… But why?

President Obama celebrates re-election

Jubilation as we Americans just about manage to make the sane choice for the second time in the last twelve years (Photo from ABC News)

And the rest of the world breathes a sigh of relief. Because this is a president with whom the world likes to talk. This is a president that has built bridges and restored our image. This is a president who realizes the value of international cooperation and of pragmatically building constructive relationships, even with former ‘enemies.’

That argument won’t sway many moderates or independents, who are, after all, the gold dust that campaigns painstakingly panhandle for before elections. It does matter, but it won’t sway most Americans. After all,  it was the economy, stupid, with a few issues to do with equal rights thrown in, moron. Which doesn’t square, I know, since more voters tended to say they trusted Romney with the economy than Obama, until you look at the demographics of the voters. In times of economic difficulty, conservatives have trouble convincing those less well off, who voted en masse for Obama, that they can provide jobs and economic security. It’s summed up well in the plutocratic image that Romney projected in the 47% video. Those living on significantly meaner incomes don’t generally think the conservative, especially the rich conservative, will give a damn about their situations.

And yet…

It does baffle me, not so much that the race was close, but that so many issues that still feature so prominently now seem so foreign to me, morally. I do understand there is a socially puritanical vein that runs deep in us, but not so deep that we willfully stand knee deep in the mire of the social stone age of the world while everyone else moves on. I offer below three such examples of issues that, really, we could do without in our politics.

  • Healthcare — This is that great fantastical, fire-breathing boogeyman of American politics. Mention it and watch Rush Limbaugh foam at the mouth and Karl Rove manipulatively asking hard-working Americans if they really want to pay for some freeloader’s healthcare? Of course you don’t, you’re a God-fearing American. I don’t not get the healthcare thing because I’m an expatriate. I don’t get the healthcare thing because we call it moral to take money from sick people and refuse to take sick people with no money. Paying more in taxes for universal healthcare is not giving a handout. It’s investing in your fellow human being. It’s time to welcome ourselves as a country, my compatriots, to the rest of the developed world as well as the human race. That way everyone has one thing guaranteed and one less obstacle to individual independence and initiative.
  • God — I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that Martha Raddatz asked about both Biden’s and Ryan’s Catholicism. It’s not her fault. She’s just the moderator, but we have to get over the idea that a person’s very personal religious beliefs should in any way be outwardly manifested in the way we govern ourselves. The more I hear the left talk about it, the more I think that the separation of church and state is the worst thing that ever happened to America. Do you know who the head of state is in the United Kingdom? The Queen. Do you know who is the head of The Church of England? The Queen. Do you know, in 2012, how high profile a role religion plays in British politics? It makes not a visible difference to a single issue. John Prescott, Tony Blair’s Deputy Prime Minister used to talk about how he likes to avoid all that “mumbo jumbo” and the current Labour leader has professed himself an atheist. Political suicide in America, but a passing novelty here. As it should be. We need to leave the personal beliefs of an individual firmly in the personal world of the individual.
  • Gay rights — I’m not saying homophobia no long exists in England. It does. Nor is the legal status of gay marriage necessarily any better here. But it is indeed courageous for a British Prime Minister to come out (tee hee) in support of gay marriage and promise to the electorate to  introduce legislation by the end of the year on it. But that is also suggestive of how socially liberal conservatives have to be in order to survive politically over here. We’ve had gay cabinet members including Peter Mandelson, and high-ranking conservatives turned journalists such as Mathew Parris. According to a Yougov poll, 71% of British voters support the introduction of gay marriage throughout the country.  And yet, for nearly half of Americans, it still seems to be an acceptable prejudice for no apparent reason. Legal recognition in three states in one election gives me great hope, but it also explains why the GOP are screaming unintelligible oaths about their country being overrun.

Four years ago, Obama ran on the idea of ‘Change.’ The next four years are supposed to be allowing him to ‘finish what was started.’ I hope for the sake of the country that he continues the great work in changing Americans’ attitudes towards issues like these.

As a reminder, I am still doing Movember and have raised £135 for research and awareness of men’s health issues. We are coming into the giving season and it is a worthwhile cause. Please follow the link to give:

Pete Lawler’s Movember Page

In honour of POTUS winning a second term, here is a special list of presidential mustaches:

The Best Presidential Mustaches

I’ve got the power! But how much Choice?

Election2012

Just look at all those Candidates!

To paraphrase The C & C Music Factory, we’ve got the power. This is a cropped bit of my absentee ballot, which, after much negotiation I had emailed out to me by the good people at the Monroe County Board of electors. And with the race as close as ever, and the GOP making a last-ditch effort to throw my home state back into play, this will be in the early pickup tomorrow, post-haste as every vote counts and the latest polls have Romney and Obama in a statistical tie.

Still, I have to admit, it’s not as exciting as it used to be.

I remember excitedly ripping my envelope marked Board of Electors in elections past and relishing the long list of names and choices competing for everything from local councils right up to the top job and marveling to myself, “Ain’t democracy grand?” This year of our lord two thousand and twelve, I can’t help but feel palpably disappointed. Four candidates? Is that all? Are there are only four possible political platforms in our vast and socially diverse nation from which to choose our next leader? No, I’m not so naive as to think there’s effectively any more than two, but in theory at least, the choice is there. I still think, as I have always done, that our system needs to allow for more room for third parties and a plurality of representation of different voices, but that is a debate in which we’d have to talk about overhauling the whole election system and anyhow would that even get third parties themselves to take responsibility and learn from their European counterparts that you have to start from the ground up?

But in theory, in theory, we are supposed to have an openly representative democracy. Is it becoming less so with each election? Back in 2000, I would have had no less than seven candidates from which to choose a new president. Four years later, that number would be reduced to six. In the year in which we elected our first black president, we had a total of five candidates who had enough ballot access to win 270 electoral votes. In a week’s time, it seems we will have a measly four candidates making up our pool of potential head honchos.

My worry is this: with an ever-diminishing choice of potential candidates, are we becoming a more closed, polarized nation divided in bitterness and rancor and unable to open ourselves to the plethora of possibilities that a democracy should be? I lament the loss of Nader. He consistently brought our attention back to issues that candidates, this year especially, refuse to acknowledge as important. I feel for someone like Gary Johnson, a man who has admirably consistent, intellectually grounded freemarket, independent principles. I could never vote for him, but it is thoroughly loathsome that Republicans in some states are trying to prevent me from doing so. If we refuse to even allow certain candidates to play the election game, whose voices are we excluding? And more importantly, what are we refusing to talk about? What are we afraid to hear?

Election2012 Thirdparty candidate

We certainly haven’t heard much in the national discourse this election season about climate change, have we?

You might also like to check out this fascinating article on the marginalization of third parties in US Presidential politics from the AlJazeera website.

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