Ireland has a blasphemy law.
Take a few minutes to digest that.
Because whatever you think it means, it means.
I had thought that my wife had got it wrong or that she had mistranslated what her mother had said or it was simply another my-mother-in-lawism.
‘We’ve got the Blasphemy Referendum on the same day as the presidential elections, you know,’ was the way the conversation went between my better half’s mother and her self.
‘What?’ the wife had responded incredulously, and somewhat confusedly. Her mother could have literally meant anything. Is it blasphemy to her to have another referendum? Do the Irish wish to place the Catholic Church back into a place of centrality in the constitution and Irish society and so therefore are about to commit blasphemy against all that is decent and good by swearing loyalty back to the holy Catholic Poobah of Rome in all his piousness? Or did my beloved simply mis-hear her own mother’s accent? Was my m-i-l sick of making decision through plebiscite? Was it with a heavy sigh that she said ‘we’ve got that blasted referendum’ over re-nationalising sewage treatment or something?
‘Because blasphemy is illegal, you know. You could be fined €25,000. €25,000!’
And a few moments of knowing acknowledgement of the Irish character of old and a google search or two confirm the laughably theocratic thing you think “blasphemy referendum” means, is what it means. The Irish are about to go to the polls to decide whether blasphemy should still be illegal in Ireland.
Which is interesting.
When I was I wee slip of a study abroad student at the tenderly legal age of 21, I left my native America and set foot on The Emerald Isle’s shores for the first time.
I had been raised Catholic but was not very good at practicing, well, at what I had been raised. But something vaguely spiritual awakened in me in the land of saints and scholars, land of my forbears, holy, holy hosanna in the highest, holy Catholic Ireland where St Patrick ran out the symbolic pagan serpents, and I thought, why not, for shits and giggles, why not see a real, devotional Catholic, pious country as it celebrates the most divine panus angelicus, the consecrated mysteries, the inner meaning of which always seemed to elude me (question as a child: why was Jesus keeping his heart secret?)? So I did.
I had been raised ‘Irish American’.
I have reconciled myself to the fact that ‘Irish American’ counts as a culture. I don’t think it entitles you to call yourself Irish, but it does require you, it seems, to buy into the stereotype of the Catholic Ireland myth, a place second only to Rome in its Catholicity, a land where the aisles up to communion are paved with potatoes and gold (neither of which are indigenous to Eire).
I had somehow not been privy to the many scandals to do with the Catholic Church, child abuse, rape, molestation and rank hypocrisy.
I had not been privy to Ireland’s secular awakening during the economic boom in the 90s known as the Celtic Tiger, a time when the Irish fairly quickly shirked off the shadows of groping priests and the shackles of roman collars.
I had also never seen Father Ted.
So my vision of a pure and Jesused Ireland remained untainted on a Sunday morning when I wandered into a church in the suburban village of Maynooth, just west of the capital, expecting at least some of the mass to be in Latin, expecting at least three miracles before the second reading, the whole church bursting with song and several hours of Irish people soberly and self flagellatingly meditating on the most divine.
An Ireland that was happy to give the Catholic Church a special place in the Irish state enshrined in the constitution of 1937.
An Ireland that would ban the joyously scathing satire of Joyce, Beckett and O’Casey (to be fair, it’s been a while since there’s been that scale of censorship).
An Ireland, bless it, that would write, and keep on the books a law that would sanction the the act of blasphemy (whatever that means and whoever decides what it means) with a fine of up to €25,000.
An Ireland in which a man from Ennis in County Clare would lodge a complaint about actor and writer Stephen Fry who, in an interview with Irish Radio and TV personality Gay Byrne, questioning the existence/benevolence of a god who would allow obscene amounts of children to suffer in horrible ways.
An Ireland in which the same man, clearly finding himself at a loose end, called up the police to find out if they could please update him on the status of his complaint two years later as he would like to know when they’d be prosecuting that awful auld Stephen Fry fella to the full extent of the law.
An Ireland, in sum, that pays gravely serious attention to its religion.
What transpired was a mumbled gathering of assorted worshippers, garbling through their prayers at speed, barely an intelligible ‘amen’ in the house, whilst all kept their coats on (in America’s puritanical Catholic Churches we were always taught to make ourselves comfortable in the house of god), a muted, dark and glum acknowledgement of a shared religious upbringing, with barely a bit of eye contact and not a note of music struck by a single vocal chord.
Far from genuflecting in front of our lord on the way out, the almighty was lucky if he got a curt nod as the becoated parishioners scurried out like rats from a sinking ship and blessed themselves as some hurried ritual to superstitiously ward off the holy cooties they might have contracted within doors, with Christ, as Beckett writes, ‘all crucified in a heap.’
It was not, suffice to say, the ossified holy Catholic Ireland that Irish America venerates. It was not an Ireland had time for a church steeped in constant controversy from the Magdalene laundry revelations to ‘illegitimate’ babies buried in mass graves by sisters of ‘mercy’ in whose care young mothers were entrusted bearing up against the then shameful badge of a pregnancy out of wedlock.
Tomorrow, the Irish go to the polls to vote for their president, a largely symbolic figurehead role (another discussion for another day with another host of issues) but the more important vote will be a kind of symbolic confirmation.
If Irish voters do as polls indicate they will, after years of far more important referenda embracing marriage equality in defiance of a homophobic past and bravely embracing reproductive rights in defiance of a chauvinistic and misogynistic past, across the country, they will be confirming their faith in themselves and humanity and liberal, progressive values, and away from a failed moribund model of morality.
In contrast to the cynical votes that brought about Brexit and President Trump, it will be an optimistic vote for the future. And for Ireland, simply a sign of the times.
So I say again, with less ambiguity, Ireland has a blasphemy law.
Soon it will not.
Flying back from Dublin. Self-satisfied and smug, having sourced a helluva deal on a return to Newark with Aer Lingus for the upcoming annual summer sojourn to the Homeland. I haven’t flown Ireland’s national airline across the pond in years. But they’re cheap this year and if the movie listings for international flights in Cara, the inflight magazine are anything to go by (I mean The Shape of Water? Blade Runner 2049? I don’t get out to the movies very often) as well as the generally pleasant, friendly and efficient service so far, the experience promises to be pretty sweet.
I must have missed a thousand pithy punchlines in the process of being starburst/chewy sweet peeler for the missus, I muse (the fecking things are wrapped so fecking tightly!). It’s my special job in the first and last half an hour of any flight while ‘er next to me winces in pain and looks — and probably feels — like that false explosive head in Total Recall that keeps glitching on ‘Two. Weeks.‘ as Schwarzenegger’s character is passing through Martian customs. I take a moment to mourn the lost inspiration as my beloved grits her teeth and grunts ‘for fuck’s sake keep the ’em coming! This is bloody painful!’
Just keep peeling…
In the last twenty minutes as we can feel the rumblings of the landing gear underneath, I excuse myself and my geriatric bladder in a 39 year old body to pee. I make my way shakily to the back of the plane.
Left restroom: vacant. Open door, squeeze in, side strut. Jump back promptly. Immediate horror. I don’t want to know who has used the bathroom sink in an airplane to wash their hair but they’ve left it clogged to shit and they’ve got the sense of accountability and the personal hygiene of a university freshman.
Leave. Unacceptable. I’m too old to accept standards like this in my toilet experiences.
Across the aisle. Slide latch. Open door. Side strut squeeze in. Latch lock. Sink? Not clogged. Good. But oh fuck.
But I grin. I bear it. I relieve myself, wash my hands, molar kernel incrementally moving back and forth like a stubborn pebble resisting the undertow.
Shudder. Open the door. Slide out and return to seat. Smile composedly and imitate normality to wife.
Resolve self to re-check British Airways flight prices when we get back within wifi range.
Starting a new life abroad can be daunting, especially when your destination country is a whirlwind of activity like India. Here, Expat Explorer, brought to you by HSBC Expat gives you the lowdown on what to expect when moving to the Indian subcontinent.
India promises to heighten all your senses, from visiting the enchanting Taj Mahal, created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the body of his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and now revered as one of the most magical buildings in the world, to surfing off the sun-drenched beaches of Goa.
It’s a country steeped in history, desperate to be explored by an open eye, and, if you accept the way of life in this multi-faceted society, you’ll not be held back in becoming a true resident.
Hindi is the official language, but English is also a subsidiary official language and used proficiently in urbanised zones in businesses, hospitals and schools to name a few examples. Once you are settled in, the challenges sometimes faced when communicating with taxi drivers or retail assistants will be easily overcome and whet your appetite for adventure on the open road through India’s wildly diverse landscape.
India covers a huge surface area. Its population is the same as that of the whole of Europe—it’s gigantic. As you would expect there is a vast range of climates, and yes, different areas can often differ in weather, but it doesn’t range from the deep freeze to the blinding hot. Some areas in the north experience an alpine climate, but most experience a sub-tropical climate. As you head south, a tropical climate can be expected. Do expect the monsoon season everywhere between June and September. It gets pretty wet, but do not dismay as life does not slow down—the wet weather barely makes a dent in the chaotic way of life in the cities.
Expats living in India often prefer to take a taxi. They are relatively cheap and available everywhere within urban areas. Public transport can be less than reliable and is often overcrowded. The roads are chaotic but this is to be expected as cities in India constitute some of the most densely populated places in the world. Taxi fares are often haggled over. Do not be afraid to ask a friend how much you should pay to get from A to B and then negotiate with the driver. Taxi meters are typically ignored.
When moving to India, prepare yourself for a kaleidoscope of culture, religion and language. You will be faced with a magical array of people, colour and food—very few countries around the globe can offer the full spectrum of character which India provides.
And on a completely different note…
It’s St. Patrick’s Day on Monday. I celebrated yesterday evening by attending a Ceilidh, a traditional Irish or Scottish knees up, here in Hackney. It was a rockin’ Celtic shindig to benefit an awesome organisation called Street Child World Cup, who I strongly suggest you check out and donate to on their website.
But, London’s Irish population being as big as ever, here is a list of what’s going on in the metrop this weekend to celebrate the patron saint of The Emerald Isle. Enjoy!
Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin gives us the low down this week on one of the world’s busiest airports, and how to navigate its complex organised chaos
It can be an oasis in the desert or your worst nightmare but, at some point, you will likely encounter Heathrow Airport. It is the world’s busiest international airport serving more than 90 airlines and over 70 million passengers annually. It is also a major gateway to Europe, the United Kingdom, and of course, London. But depending which terminal you are funneled through, your experience could range from bearable to utterly tedious or even just plain ridiculous. For any that have used it, it should come as no surprise why it’s often rated one of the world’s most hated airports.
With horribly long walks to boarding gates and lengthy lines at security and border control, passengers might just find themselves taking a longer time to navigate their way out of Heathrow than it would take to fly to Spain. The airport suffers from a chronic inability to cope with the masses of travelers. The city of London is served by four other major airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, and London City. But if you find yourself on a flight bound for Heathrow from one of the more than 180 destinations in 90 countries that is directly connected to the airport, we’ve got a few tips for you to help suppress any notions of air rage.
Understanding Heathrow: Know Your Terminals
Heathrow Airport is practically a city unto itself with four different terminals and a fifth on the way scheduled to open this June. Because of its vast size, security requirements, and that development has failed to keep pace with growth, the airport has earned a reputation for being overcrowded, inefficient, and full of delays. The airport operates at 99 percent capacity on a daily basis with a take-off or landing every forty-five seconds. The airlines at Heathrow seem to enjoy playing a constant game of “musical terminals” as they continuously shift operations from one terminal to another. As a passenger, you are advised to check the Heathrow website for the latest terminal updates and information. The long-term plan is to dedicate a specific terminal to each of the airline alliances in order to minimize the number of connecting passengers that will need to change terminals. The airport has uniformed volunteers in pink attire to assist travelers navigating the airport.
Top Travel Tips for Heathrow Airport
- Family-Friendly Travel: If you are travelling with children, Heathrow offers special security lanes with staff that are specially trained to work with less experienced flyers and able to accommodate families with strollers as indicated by the rainbow symbol above the detectors.
- Power Naps: If your connecting flight is delayed or you have a long layover and need a couple of hours of sleep, Heathrow offers a couple of options for travelers that need a few hours of shut-eye. Single bedrooms can be rented at the No. 1 Traveller and Yotel for a modest amount.
- Central London in a Rush: If you need to reach the city center in a hurry, the Heathrow Express train can get you to Paddington Station in just fifteen minutes for about £25. It’s an express train with no stops along the way.
- Save Cash on the Tube: It will take nearly an hour to reach central London on the Underground but it is one of the best deals in town at just £6 off-peak to anywhere in London that is served on the network. The biggest battle will be the lack of space for luggage.
- Stay Charged: All travelers like to keep their mobile phones and laptops fully charged for the journey ahead but few airports were built with that in mind. If you find yourself in a part of Heathrow that lacks power sockets, search for any sockets hidden in the floor that are typically used by cleaning staff. Alternatively, you could also bring along an adapter that converts one socket into two so that you can share outlets with other passengers.
- Beat the Security Lines: Unlike in the United States, you don’t need to present a boarding pass while passing through the metal detectors. You also don’t need to remove your laptop but be prepared to place all loose items in a tray and don’t travel with liquids.
- Eat Before You Go: Depending which terminal you are in, Heathrow offers a wide range of dining options. However, they also come at a price. You would be much better to pick up a sandwich for a pound or two at a convenience store to eat on the way.
Getting Through Passport Control
The long lines to cross the UK Border can often give passengers additional time to finish those last few chapters on their Kindle that they couldn’t finish on the flight. Frequent flyers to London know that this is to be expected as immigration officers grill passengers with five to ten questions about their intentions in the UK. If you want this process to go smoothly and quickly, there are a few things that you should know:
- Always carry proof of a return flight out of the country as you may be asked to produce one by the officer. If you do not have one ready, you may need to go through the tedious process of getting your airline to do it for you which will mean proceeding through security and into the long passport line for a second time.
- Know where you are staying as it must be written onto your entry form and the border officers may ask you where you plan to reside while in the United Kingdom. That means you should not head to London without a hotel booking. Memorize the name and the street of the hotel or carry a copy of your hotel reservation with you.
- Be able to converse in English because if you are unable to competently answer the questions posed by the immigration officer, you could be automatically diverted to another line for additional questioning and potential rejection.
Flying Out of Heathrow
If you are headed to the airport to board your return flight out of Heathrow or if you are one of the lucky folks that managed to grab a hot last minute deal on a cheap flight from London, you should be prepared to navigate Heathrow if you want your journey to get off to a seamless start. As Heathrow is an incredibly large airport, it is important to know your terminal before you depart and to allow sufficient time to check-in, get through security, and travel to your boarding gate. The recommended check-in time is typically at least three hours prior to departure. However, some passengers have reported waiting in line for up to 1.5 hours just to receive boarding cards. If you would like to save time, try to check-in online and print your own boarding card if your airline offers this service. You will also want to ensure that you are wearing comfortable walking shoes for the lengthy journey ahead.
If you are a foreign tourist and planning to take advantage of the VAT Refund, you will need to present your goods purchased and the necessary forms to UK Customs prior to checking in your luggage. You should consider whether it is worth it prior to jumping in line as some queues can take over an hour. Once you have cleared check-in and security, you can proceed to the departure lounge. It is here that you will find the majority of shops and dining outlets. You can purchase items here to bring on the aircraft with you. Take note that there are few if any shops near the boarding gates so you will want to ensure that you complete your shopping before leaving the departure lounge to avoid a lengthy walk back and forth. Some gates can take as much as forty minutes to reach and boarding commonly starts forty-five minutes prior to departure so you will need to allow yourself plenty of time otherwise you risk being left behind. Be prepared for one last line to check your boarding card before being permitted entry into the boarding lounge.
Additional Gateways to London
Heathrow’s central location makes it a convenient airport for many travelers. But if you have the opportunity to use one of London’s alternate airports, it may be a worthwhile choice that can save you a lot of time, hassle, and even money depending where you are headed in the United Kingdom. Gatwick and Stansted Airport are not nearly as busy as Heathrow and are home to less expensive charter flights. In addition, you will enjoy less congestion, shorter walks, and faster security lines. While the number of connections to London aren’t as abundant, there is always a direct link by train to the city.
Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin takes a look at how to make the most out of this fantastic city without it taking the most out of your bank account
There are few experiences to rival the first few minutes spent in a city you’ve spent a lifetime reading about and watching on TV. In London, your first experience is likely to be one of sensory assault, especially if you arrive at one of the stations: the chaos of the crowds, the damp, musty, smell, the overwhelming grandeur of the architecture, the incomprehensible and garbled announcements. Take a moment, breathe it in, find your way to a coffee stand to protect yourself from the chaos with a shot of caffeine, and feel the next assault: the one on your pocketbook. London is likely rivalled only by New York in terms of sheer budget strain, with even other Brits grimacing at the cost of the basics here. Still, there are ways for visitors to the city to find their way around, even on a shoestring budget. Here are my recommendations.
The Tube map is not an accurate representation of the actual layout of the lines and stations, and there are plenty of places where various Underground stations are actually closer on foot than they are by train. Cut down on your travelling expenses by seeing more of the city above ground. Earn your pub meal by stacking up the miles, be kind to your pocket, and see more of the sights, all in one go.
2. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely
There are a few standard accommodation options, and most of them aren’t good ones. If you’re on a budget, chances are you’re looking for a hostel: don’t. You may get lucky, but in my experience, London hostels are still horrifically expensive, and many are seedy to boot. You may end up paying an exorbitant rate to be stuck in a damp, dark room with 20 strangers, twelve of whom snore like drains and three (yes, three) of whom are having sex. Unless you’d like to have bed bugs for the rest of your life, choose a hostel very, very carefully, or steer clear. The standard alternative – a large chain hotel, even a cheap one – is not likely to be much better overall: it’ll probably be cleaner, but will also probably break the bank significantly more. So what are your options? One good avenue to explore is to look for timeshare that’s going begging – this can be a better deal and greater comfort than a cramped hostel or dinky hotel. Another good bet is to look for self-catering accommodation, especially if you’re travelling in a group: if it’s just you, it may not work out cheaper, but if you can cram four people into a one-bedroom apartment with a sofa bed, you can split the costs of grocery shopping and save cash by eating at home. And finally, if you’re really broke, look into couch-surfing, which is a sure-fire way to meet excellent people (and a few wonderful weirdos), and end up with your own friendly traveller in future months.
3. Head Away From The Crowds
Let’s face it: the best bits of any foreign city are not the ones that people flock to in droves. Save your precious London cash by avoiding the most garish of tourist attractions. A wander around Southbank is definitely worth your time, and you can admire Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament at your leisure, without having to elbow-wrestle with fourteen hundred other tourists to catch a glimpse of something interesting. If historical London really floats your boat, pick a few sites that you absolutely must check out, but don’t blindly go along with what every travel blog ever tells you that you “have to see”; read the reviews, do your research, and narrow it down. Chances are high that you’ll have more enchanting memories from an afternoon’s wander round Covent Garden or a spectacular evening in a pub than you will of the overpriced stampede at the Tower of London. Even those ten minutes you spent with your cheek flattened against the train window when you caught the Piccadilly line at half past five in the evening were probably more fun (and cheaper).
4. Don’t Fall Prey to the Souvenir Junk.
What do you think you’re going to do with that “Mind the Gap” t-shirt? It’s not original, or clever. Neither is your miniature London bus. It’s understandable to want to accumulate some mementos to take home with you, but try to make them unique or useful at the very least. Buy a fantastic piece of art at a little market, or a warm scarf that will remind you of London for years to come. If you must buy a standard souvenir, keep it small and cheap, like a fridge magnet or shot glass. That way you won’t weigh down your luggage with unnecessary junk, and when you get home and realise you don’t need it after all, it won’t be difficult to find a place to keep it. Plus, you’ll have saved yourself all the expense of loading yourself up with themed coasters and umbrellas.
The American Londoner’s Mixtape Medley of Migratory Tips and Advice: What I Wish I Knew Before I Left
Don’t get me wrong. I love life in London. Wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else (right now, anyway… perhaps in the future… and then I would trade it for something else… I digress). A capital city, this big metrop. If a man is tired of London, he is… yada yada and the rest of what Samuel Johnson said. Point is, it’s a great life and it’s a continuing adventure, but boy could it have been made easier. I’m not saying we don’t learn from our mistakes or that how we deal with adversity doesn’t play a key role in defining who we are in some way, but you might not want to make the same mistakes that I made or suffer the slings and arrows that I endured.
It is in this spirit of public munificence, smoother transitions, obstacles avoided and exponentially greater enjoyment from the expat life that I blog today. With the help of and somewhat at the behest of our friends at HIFX, who have put together a fantastic HIFX tip page to collate some wonderful tips from us experienced expats, I give you a somewhat random (hence the reference to that great art of my high school days in the 1990s, the magnificent mixtape) collection of tips and pointers on making the most out of that incredible journey.
What follows is categorised somewhat arbitrarily between ‘useful’ and ‘make the most’, so bear with me. You might benefit. Even if it’s only from wry amusement.
Do Your Homework — This is going to sound obvious, but certain assumptions can lull you into a sense of security, and you know what happens when you assume. Mine was that being expat spouse, I was automatically entitled to work in any European country by virtue of my wife’s Irishness. Well, every country has its own intricate and insistently labyrinthine bureaucracy and every country has their officious public servants who, just doing their job though they are, are disinclined to ‘process’ you efficiently if they perceive the slightest disrespect for the rules and regulations that it is their job to uphold, manage, administer, and enforce. For the first three years of living in England, I spent six months out of every year, countless pleading, begging, hours in a torturously kafkaesque waiting area down in the Home Office in warm and welcoming Croydon (sarf of the riva’), and minutes beyond measure on the phone listening to coma-inducing muzak waiting to talk to a real person who could tell me what was taking so long for a stamp to come down on my passport granting me that glorious privilege: leave. to. remain. For another year. Had I done my homework and not trusted the dodgy Scottish recruitment agency that brought us over from Ireland, I would have saved time, money, several appeals to our local MP, and the hiring of a West London immigration specialist threatening to sue The Home Office before my passport suddenly turned up. And my case is by no means unique. Take the time. Find out what you need to work and stay in the country. It could save you a headache and an early trip home.
Build yourself an identity — Sure, the love of money is the root of all evil greases the wheels of a vast capitalist global empire, but until we turn to an organic bartering system and convert to an idyllic cashless society, money and the basic bank account are key to some very basic things as an expat. Be careful with this one. Back in my day (when I emigrated from the US in 2001), you could get a letter from your employer, take it to his local bank, flash it to the manager and Bob’s your uncle, you’re suddenly a banking and contributing member of society. Only three years later when we moved to London, I had to depend on my wife’s account and the banks were so strict that even she had to make do with a ‘basic’ or a ‘step’ account, the one they give to shifty foreigners they don’t yet trust. Find out about banking in your country. In England, it’s key to build yourself an identity as soon as you get here. They like to know you’re here. Big brother is watching. Simple things like utility bills or unexpected things like getting a library card all build up an identity for those that watch and wait and decide if they want to issue you with plastic or better yet, a long term loan or mortgage. Find out what’s necessary in the country your destination country and if possible, make contact with local banks and make enquiries as to what makes good credit history. I can matter a great deal.
Shop around when exchanging — No doubt you’ve heard of a bureau de change (took me ages to get the pronunciation right). If you travel a lot you’ve probably needed one in a hurry. It pays to shop around when you’re changing money. Some companies will charge extortionate rates on commission. The Post Office here in England is commission free! There may be a similar deal in your destination country. It may even be cheaper to pay by debit card wherever you’re going or withdraw from a cash machine while abroad. Whatever you do about it, shopping around for the best deal.
Every city’s as cheap as you make it — Yeah, but London is one of the most expensive cities in the world… if you don’t know where to go. This capital is famous for its street markets. We lived above on the Roman Road in The East End for the first year and a half or our Anglo-existence. The fruit and veg was good quality for a fraction of the price of the Tesco supermarket down the road. We live in an age in which every city has hidden costs, but look a little further and you find the hidden ways to save money as well. Anything from freecycle to Airbnb, to the beautiful array of floral displays that can be acquired, “cheap as chips” from Columbia Road when you get there either insanely early or as everyone’s closing up, you don’t have to go broke to go abroad and expand your horizons.
Make The Most:
Follow the Vegetarians — Bit of a strange one, this. Try it though, omnivore and fellow herbivore alike. All the cool places in any city, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, cluster together, satellite fashion, around vegetarian hotspots. Soho in London, Soho in New York, Brooklyn now, West Philadephia, West Kensington Market in Toronto, Vesterbro and Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen… the list goes on and on. I had coffee in a Michael Ondaatje’s regular coffee shop this way. I don’t think it’s vegetarian, but it’s in the neighbourhood of cool. You want to find the cool cafes where the hipster locals go, the cute little vintage clothes shops, the adorable antiques with the dusted off G Plan and Eames in the window, google ‘vegetarian ____________ (your destination).’ Trust me.
When in doubt, laugh — A sense of humor is one of the most subjective and various qualities a human being on this earth can possess. It goes without saying that the British sense of humor is… well, different from the American. If you think that’s true of TV, try competing with fine cockney (or Northern or Welsh) wit in a pub conversation. For that matter, try rolling with the Irish wit, which I find to be even dryer, more deadpan, and arguably closer to teetering on the wrong side of offensive. Wherever you go, the sense of humor will be very different. Accept that. Go with it. Grow some thick skin. Laugh sometimes when it sounds too ridiculous to be true. It probably isn’t. Your colleague is just looking a tad serious to try and catch you out and see if you’ll fall for it. They’re just taking the mickey, ya know. That means having a bit of fun with you, by the by. Real pub dialogists will just tell you they’re ‘taking the piss’, which is to say the same thing, but hearing that particular gem for the first time left me somewhat open-mouthed.
Be a Yes Man — Practically cliche, I know, ever since Danny Wallace’s book, but still a truism that’s worth remembering: say yes to everything, especially when you have doubts. Those are probably the anxieties you need to get over to make the most of life abroad and learn what you were missing all your life in your place of origin. And sometimes, you get the most from that which you expected absolutely nothing from, like Belgium, which sounded like the most boring place in the world to holiday in until we got there and hit three cities in three days thanks to an efficient public transport system, a small amount of ground to cover and some aesthetically grandiose places, gladdening our hearts to that small Eurocentric nation ever since. You want to come out to the pub after spending the last 48 hours partying in Belfast? Not really. Tough. Go. My wife and I got together in just such a circumstance, very much by just such a chance. Say yes.
I could go on, but you’ve got enough to be getting on with what with researching flight prices and purchasing your Eurail passes. I hope some of these do help to save time and make the experience pleasant for you or even prove useful to file away in that mental palace in the back of your head. Enjoy and embrace the adventure!
And remember, for more tips on the life expatriate, check out HIFX’s fantastic tips page.
Slightly misleading post title, I know. I mean it’s purely theoretical. I don’t have any plans to leave at any point soon. Why would I? Duh, it’s London.
There are of course push factors: lack of any family in close proximity to us, a moderate to small flat with no outdoor space, Michael Gove, David Cameron, you get the picture. But frankly, nothing’s reached tipping point yet. My son’s in a good school that The Missus and I both like, modest though our flat is, we’ve made it our own and we may not have a
backyard or front yard garden, but we do have a lovely flat roof veranda that we have to struggle to climb through the window to get to adjacent to the bathroom loo. So, why would we want to move from this dreamy place?
I’ve been to more theatre than ever this year, courtesy of a few different online and print publications that I’ve been reviewing for and I feel so privileged to be able to have done it and to keep doing it. The truth is theatre in London is nothing less than phenomenal. Though the first item on your bucket list in one of the greatest cities in the world may not be to spend two hours in a darkened room with crowded strangers, there are good reasons why it should be.
Obviously, you’ve got The West End. Word Famous. Who hasn’t, right? But it really is the overpriced tip of the iceberg. Any chump can wait in line at a kiosk in Leicester Square, part unthinkingly with 100 quid for two seats with restricted viewing to see Billy Elliot and go home happy, having gawked at Elton John’s vision of the working class in the North of England. What you’ve got to do is explore.
Pre-parenthood days, when we first moved to London, the weekend consisted of picking up the Guardian Guide in the Saturday Edition, paying £6-12 a ticket, and seeing some marvellous, or appalling theatre. Whether it was marvellous or appalling, it was always engaging, in only the way that a performance that utilises space, human voice and movement, and the deep connection between performer and audience can engage on that deep, penetrating sort of gut level. I have seen Paul McGann reach heights of magically realist redemption in a backroom space of a pub in West London in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, took a student group to see a version of The Tempest in West End that was heavy on trapeze artists but fell just short of meaningful, was genuinely touched by Samuel Beckett’s ode to Vaclav Havel, Catastrophe, failed to be moved beyond audible snoring in a dishwater-dull perfunctory attempt at Faustus in The Arcola several years ago, and recoiled in horror at a character’s eyes being gouged out of their sockets in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Serpent’s Tooth, written as a response to a production of King Lear. But my greatest, most heartfelt, and most intensely cathartic experience in London theatre was in a tiny little performance space underneath a pub in Baron’s Court, near Knightsbridge. The production was a version of Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), an immersive performance that set you up with a frame story lulling you into a false sense of safety until the actors turned everything on like a switch about 10 minutes in and from there to the end of the night it was a joyfully bleak journey to the utter depths of the human capacity for pathos.
Because theatre’s a risk, always. More often than not, I’ve been gripped and even when I haven’t, I’ve been provoked by what didn’t but should have gripped me. It’s a cognitive process that happens rarely for me with movies, and almost not at all with TV, probably because my most UnAmerican tendency is not watching it much.
My judgement of course could be somewhat flawed having never been much exposed to theatre when I was a kid, hailing from a small rural town in a mountainous region of District 12 and raised by wolves. My first real memory of proper theatre was a local university production of Waiting for Godot, in which the actors pronounced it Godot as opposed to what the rest of the world say, Godot (Cue Beckett’s gaunt and ghostly cyberfist shaking in indignation), beginning a lifelong obsession with Irish absurdist. But that it is the main reason why I review plays; not because it’s good practice or because it adds to my portfolio, but because I find theatre, especially here in this great metropolis, breathtakingly inspiring and that it lifts my mind off the ground nine times out of ten well after I’ve exited the foyer and am out on the street.
So if you’re in town, go to see a play. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot to see a play in the West End (there could well be much wrong with paying through the nose to see a musical, but that’s another blog post) and you most likely won’t be disappointed by your investment, but it’s more fun, less expensive, and more of a unique experience to get out into the smaller theatres and performance spaces and see what’s out there.
Go on. It’s worth the risk.
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.
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
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
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
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 Island, The 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.