Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Travelling Spain: Meeting, Memories & Mérida

There was one more city to visit before Madrid. I had considered crossing eastwards to Valenica or even going over the border into Portugal. In the end, I decided to keep things simpler and start making my way inland. From Cádiz, I journeyed 300km north to the Extremaduran capital of Mérida, where there was added incentive to stop and explore.

Since telling my parents of my trip to Spain, they had been tirelessly reminding me that I have a cousin in Mérida. But this wasn't someone I had spent Sunday afternoons with in childhood. Frances was raised in London by my father's oldest sister and her English husband, who, I will always remember, had once told me about living through the Blitz. Despite being first cousins, circumstances meant simply that we had never met. 

Nevertheless I decided, with relentless encouragement from my father, that I would try and make contact with him. But upon reaching only a Spanish lady who didn't seem to speak English, I thought I had been given the wrong phone number. Tired and uncertain, I went to a nearby bar and tried to order a tapa of goat's cheese, only to end up with a full plate of salad.

The next morning, I tried the same number and was relieved to hear Frances complimenting my "brave attempt" to ask if it was right. It was, in fact, a babysitter I'd been talking to the night before. Upon first meeting, Frances confirmed that I indeed had the “head of a Tobin”. His own resemblance to his father was equally faithful.

Frances' marriage to fellow Londoner Rupee in the summer of 1995 had actually been the cause of my first trip out of Ireland. While my parents attended, my older brother and I stayed with my Gran Aunt in her London apartment. I recall her talking about how Real Zaragoza midfielder Nayim had defeated her beloved Arsenal with that audacious lob over David Seaman in the 1995 Cup Winners' Cup Final. 

In the meantime, Frances and Rupee had two children of their own. On meeting them, the younger daughter turned anxiously to her mother and commented: "I don't know Mum, he's a bit big". Afterwards, Frances took me to see the Roman ruins that Mérida is famous for. They were just as compelling as anything I had seen in Moorish Andalusia. 

That afternoon and evening, I was treated to amounts of food probably sufficient until I get home. In between were conversational insights into Spanish society that I could have never incurred on my own or in hostels. Spending time with my cousin and his family turned out to be biggest education of my whole Spanish adventure. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Travelling Spain: Cádiz

After the sparseness of Tarifa, I arrived in Cádiz happy to be back in a busier spot. The sea-surrounded city is one of Europe's oldest population centres. But historical emphasis lies on the eighteenth-century, when it replaced Seville as the region's main port. Maritime is the definitely the primary theme, and I spent a considerable amount of time on the old fort of Castillo de San Catalina, captivated by the sight of Atlantic waves crashing furiously against the rocks.

On drier ground, the nineteenth-century Cathedral conformed eagerly to the opulent standards set by the other Christian temples I've encountered so far, though a baroque style was something of a departure. Descending into the crypt was definitely the highlight. On a Tuesday afternoon in early December, I was all alone amongst darkness, crucifixes, and portraits of dead bishops. Compounding the mystique were the strangest acoustics, apparently induced by the nearby ocean. That alone was worth the €5 entry. 

Day two saw me visit the Torre Tavira, a viewing point once used to monitor the arrival of ships carrying cargo from the new world. Here I was treated to the amusement of a "camera-obscura". But the young guide reciting her rehearsed script was equally entertaining. At once, I played the part of adult and child, reacting excitedly to her tailored statements. Toward the end, she used a card to "pick up" people walking around the city. Being familiar with her line of work, I did all I could to show that I really did care.

In Cádiz, I stayed at the Rough Guides recommended Casa Caracol. This hostel felt like the most alternative of all I've stayed in so far. The people running it reminded me of the buskers in Granada, and there was definitely more of an emphasis on recycling and shared responsibility for the upkeep of the hostel. Like La Banda in Seville, delicious food was provided every evening by staff. Initiatives like this make the hostel experience much more worthwhile: nothing breaks the ice like talking about how nice food is. 

Leaving Cádiz marked the end of my visit to Andalusia. My impression before was formed by literature that informed how it was Spain's poorest, yet most charming, region. There were surely signs of economic hardship, and an atmosphere of decline permeated throughout. My euros were also noticeably more valuable than in Ireland. But there wasn't manifest poverty. Andalusia instead conveyed itself as a resilient place, possibly assisted by traditional virtues of family values and charity. Adding dynamic culture, vast history and very tolerable weather, I find reasons for not visiting hard to come by. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Travelling Spain: Tarifa

Leaving Ronda afforded me the first opportunity to use Spain's renowned railway network. And a two-hour journey to Algeciras was enough to deduct that Renfe is very much worth its reputation. The train ride was clean, comfortable and complimented by yet more mountainous scenery. 

I did, though, have another dose of loudness. This time, a group of elderly women made intermittent, yet very unsettling, exclamations. One was so sharp that it shook me suddenly in my seat. 

After a brief stop in Algeciras, I made my way down to Tarifa. As Europe's most southerly point, this small town is vitalised by the port's use as a gateway to Africa. Indeed the Morroccan coastline is perfectly visible across the water. When I told my father that on the phone, he replied simply: "You're Joking!"

Before becoming a kitesurfing hotspot, Tarifa was morbidly known as one of Spain's suicide blackspots. Speculation as to why centred on the constant presence of very strong winds. Having spent just over one day there, I have to agree that they were depressingly difficult to tolerate. Sandblast and sunburn tainted my lengthy walk on the otherwise beautiful beach.

Nevertheless, the old quarter provided enough for me to stay occupied with. The San Mateo church and the sculptures inside were one point of interest. Spain's Catholicism is different than its Irish cousin. Chapels are more elaborate and depictions of the crucifixion and saints' martyrdom more graphic. It's made me think even harder of what exactly the message is. 

Ultimately, I'll remember Tarifa for two eqsuisite meals. For obvious reasons, seafood was very much on the menus. But I was lucky enough to discover a tiny Vegetariano that served up the finest of samosas. I also divulged in probably the largest amount of tomatoes I have ever eaten, sandwiched by mozarella cheese. It would be nice to eat like that more often. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Travelling Spain: Ronda

There wasn't much I knew about Andalusia before deciding to come here. Major cities like Sevilla, Málaga and Granada sounded familiar, not least from all that time spent playing Sensible Soccer and Championship Manager. That's what made a place called Ronda alluring- I'd never heard of it. Subsequent planning revealed a “white town” divided by 120 metre-high bridge running over a chasm. I was going. 

But the most profound experience of my two nights in Ronda turned out be a single ensuite room and some time to myself. After sixteen nights in shared accommodation, the last three of which were harassed by incessant snoring, I had been desperately seeking solitude. Hotel Morales was the perfect remedy.

Early starts allowed me to explore this dramatically situated town properly. The Moors fortified it well, and throughout the centuries, Ronda had become the site of repeated sieges. The eighteenth-century bridge, or Puente Nuevo, was certainly impressive. Looking cautiously down, accounts of prisoners being thrown over during the Civil War ran eerily through my mind. I also visited a museum exhibiting documents, photographs and paraphernalia related to the nineteenth-century Andalusian “bandits”. Average. 

A recurring theme on this trip has been to find a sunny spot where I can sit and read. One afternoon, I scouted out a suitable spot on the crest of one of Ronda's many urban slopes. Here I was presented with a clear example of Latin peoples' tendency for oral projection. I couldn't quite believe how loudly four men were speaking to each other on the corner. It must have been an argument, even if definitive signs of aggression or submission were lacking. Whatever the topic, the sound of Spaniards in Spain is something I won't forget quickly. 

After moving to a quieter location, I managed a few chapters before being approached by a young family. Dad started off by hassling me for a cigarette or bread. When I told him I had neither, it sounded like he enquired if I was Chinese. At that point, I asked if he spoke English. Immediately he turned to the oldest child, who was nine at most. In a moment of inspiration, she tenuously interpreted the elders' short conversation. But her younger sister stole the show by listening intently to the Inglés introductions and contributing with something like: "Mee nay ess Sara!"

Afterwards, I vainly hoped that they might remember me as some kind of nomad from parts unknown (as if Spain was on the other side of the world, didn't use the euro and wasn't serviced by Ryanair). I also continue to wonder if I somehow seem Chinese. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Travelling Spain: Seville

Having descended from the higher ground of Córdoba and Granada, my first impression of Andalusia's capital was its weather. Winter in Sevilla turned out be the warmest I've ever encountered. On each of the five days spent there, afternoon temperatures climbed well over twenty degrees. Sitting short-sleeved on the grass, I could only imagine how oppressive the summers must be. 

I was formally introduced to Seville by another walking tour. It was guided by a local engineering student and centred on the fundamentals of a very long history. Given my interest in the more recent events of the 1930s, I was intrigued to hear how Franco and the Nationalists projected Andalusian traditions as the most "appropriate" expression of Spanish culture. But that could never have detracted from my later viewing of an authentic Flamenco at the local museum. The fusion of the dancers' graceful technique with elite musicianship made every one of my twenty euros count. 

The rallying point for Seville's sightseers is the Cathedral. But because I had just seen Córdoba's Mesquita, I opted instead for a walk around the nearby Alcázar. Here, as is common across the region, a Moorish palace is augmented by Christian alterations. But there remains enough class to make parts of it truly breathtaking. Combining intricate carvings with a "cupola" cedar-wood ceiling, the Hall of Ambassadors rivals the finest of Granada's Alhambra.

Strolling around Seville was especially rewarding. A distinguishing feature was to stumble upon concealed public gardens with elaborately painted and tiled seating. There was also the unmistakable drama of Plaza De España (pictured). Relaxing here revived my fascination with Europe's "patriotic" buildings. I always enjoy seeing how once mighty powers used architecture to project the notion that this continent was the centre of the world. 

My bed in Seville came courtesy of the very central La Banda Rooftop Hostel. This recently renamed digs is run by four English guys, the oldest of which looks about twenty-five. While being thoroughly dependable for anything weary travellers might need, they personified the laid-back attitude that every hostel is so desperate to convey. La Banda was definitely the first place that I felt like I got to know people. The "internationality" of these places makes them difficult to dislike. 

But there are two sides to every story. One night, as one of the hosts was closing the rooftop area, two well-wined guests demanded to know what the "craziest story" from the hostel was. It was 1am midweek, and as he struggled to recount sufficient "craziness", the Englishman's fatigued expression revealed a more realistic side to the lifestyle of low-budget accommodation. 

Then there was the snorer who shattered the previous tranquillity of our eight-bed dorm. I've never been subjected to so many different tones of breathing. After about three hours of sleep, I watched him gently climb down his bunk, delicately cross the floor, and almost silently lock the bathroom door. He was, in wakefulness, the most courteous of people.   

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Travelling Spain: Córdoba

The outskirts of Córdoba looked more like American suburbia than an ancient European city. Arrival at dusk coloured my search for the right way in an orange glow. Enclosed by blocked streets lined with palm trees were the luminous signs of fast-food chains, soft-drinks and auto-parts. It was close to the images I conjure of southern California, most directly influenced by watching COPS a lot when my house got the "English channels" in the mid nineties.

A taxi journey into town changed all that. Within minutes I was back in that familiar maze of streets and alleys. The driver described Córdoba in minimal English. My replies came in even scanter Spanish. But it didn't matter; you know when someone is trying to make you feel welcome. Courtesy, patience and Latin animation have compensated for almost all communication difficulties in Andalusia so far.

Perhaps due to my arrival on a Wednesday, Córdoba was at first quieter than Granada. This was nice. I enjoyed sauntering around slowly and picking away at tapas in empty bars and restaurants. "Little and often" might describe my dietary regime so far. However, with some exceptions, I've found vegetarian options quite limited. Pork is particularly tricky to avoid- Spain's taste for bacon is said to have arisen during the inquisition, when it became an expression of Christian identity.  

Backpacker Al-Katre was my nicest lodging yet. A small open yard gave access to a common area, bathrooms, bedrooms and a stairs to the first floor. One of the hostesses told me she learned English in Cork, and that accordingly, she could understand every variation of the language. An Argentinian traveller shared a room with me. He too was documenting his trip, and made me feel amateur by being gone before I awoke and returning only after I fell asleep. 

Rivalling the Alhambra for the most visited of Spain's 44 world heritage sites, is the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. Its famous red and white arches bestow a sense of vastness, once filled by thousands of Muslims on their knees, facing toward the spectacular Mihrab. As in the Alhambra, Christian additions and restructuring is plentiful. Chapels, statues and all-out extravagance, though impressive, come across as an attempt to outshine the subtle magic of the Moorish original. In total, this stunning structure took about two hours to see. Other highlights included the minuscule ancient synagogue and the Roman bridge (pictured). 

Unfortunately, my enduring recollection of Córdoba will be, once again, centred on folly. On the night before leaving, I returned to the hostel around 0:10. The door to Al-Katre was shut, allowing only guests with a key access. But even when I unlocked it, the door refused to budge. There followed around twenty minutes of cursing, victimhood and repeated knocking. Eventually the hostess opened up and asked if I had forgotten my key. "It doesn't work!" She me asked to show her. I did. And figured out that there were two locks, the second of which was released by a extra turn to the right. I shuffled off to bed wondering if she had happened to meet anyone like me in Cork. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Travelling Spain: Granada

The mountains that I flew over into Málaga were the same ones I bussed through on the way out. When touring Canada five years ago, I remember being humbled by the landscapes of British Colombia. A similar feeling descended en route to Granada, especially when the snow capped Sierra Nevada appeared in the second half of the journey. 

The colder climate of this high inland city was the most noticeable factor upon arrival. It's been a crisp few days, with the average temperature hovering around thirteen degrees. Yet even in chilly November, the Spanish sun has been strong enough to sit in and worry about getting burned. The evenings have been closer to a less comfortable two or three degrees. But I'll take cold over wet any day. 

Granada is a much nicer place than Málaga. Even its tourist districts have no hint of the disposable "getaways" that emanate from the Costa Del Sol. I stayed in a charming spot just west of the supremely mounted Alhambra. A bohemian atmosphere surrounded my digs, with dreadlocked buskers playing acoustic versions of the western world's favourite songs. This is usually a jaded kind of scene. But Granada's example felt a little more authentic. 

The day after I arrived, I trekked up through the Albayzín quarter. The sight and sound of a vibrant Arabic community is almost like a revival of Al-Andalus itself. Structures and streets looked closer to images of North Africa than anything I ever knew existed in Spain. Narrow streets where cars and buses barely squeeze by are a staple of Granada. Paved with ornate cobblestone, they twist around elevated areas revealing building after building of irresistible charm. This was probably the nicest thing about my stay. 

Visiting the Alhambra itself fulfilled one of the primary objectives of my whole trip. Rough Guides champions Granada because of the "sensuality" of this fundamentally Moorish complex. Christian additions also play their part in making it a very impressive experience. But I'm less likely to forget the folly of racing back up toward the Nasrid Palace after realising I was in danger of missing my designated entry time. My arrival amidst teaming sweat was confirmation enough that running around Kilkenny isn't as pointless as it sometimes feels. 

Granada was also where I encountered a religious procession making its way through windy streets at night. I was told that these sombre advancements have less to with genuine religiosity and more with a time-honoured Spanish tradition. But it looked suitably God-fearing to me. Carrying a grand effigy of the Virgin Mary were fifteen suited young men. Behind them were candle-holding girls, older members of the congregation and a brass band playing foreboding music. I couldn't help but marvel at the eeriness of it all.

My ongoing journey is being underscored by reading The Battle For Spain by Anthony Beever. That La Guerra Civile happened here less than eighty years ago is inducing both captivation and horror. Accordingly, I watched a left-wing protest making its way through central Granada on Sunday morning with considerable intrigue. It's interesting to see young families march with students and trade unionists under hammers, sickles and the republican tricolour. It reminded me of trying to teach English to Italian teenagers a couple of years ago, and being taken aback by them knowing what Das Kapital is. Ideals in southern Europe seem an integral part of life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Travelling Spain: Málaga

I knew southern Spain was going to be different. But until seeing brown rugged mountains on the approach to Málaga, I didn't really expect it to "strike" me. My flight had departed Dublin in early-morning darkness, leaving behind some of this year's most uninviting Irish weather. After tiring of futile attempts to sleep, Andalucía from the air looked exotic enough to delay my inevitable fatigue. 

It was sunny of course. This part of the world sees few days that aren't. A very comfortable seventeen degrees sprang my step all the way to the accommodation.
Yet the sight of coat and scarf-wearing locals conveyed that this was Málaga's version of winter. 

The abiding memory of "day one" will be my first deployment of Spanish, just weeks after learning my first word. It was, admittedly, to ask a waiter if he spoke English, which turned out to be of similar standard to my Spanish. Still, propelled my willingness to eat and his eagerness to sell, we managed to do a deal. Afterwards I asked him if there was a bathroom.

"Si" he replied cheerily, pointing the way in tandem. 

Then, for reasons unknown, I attempted to ask him if I'd posed the question correctly. That was when we finally hit the linguistic difficulty we'd being do so well to avoid. He presumed I was reasking the question, and merely repeated his answer more vigorously. Then I tried explaining that I wasn't asking the same question, that I was wondering if I'd asked the question correctly. Such deadlocks are broken only by smiling broadly and going, finally, to the bathroom. 

My first full day in Málaga was spent exploring the old city as part of a walking tour. The history was surmised by an Italian tour guide. Romans, Moors and Reconquista played their supporting roles before the emphasis settled on the Civil War and Franco. That totalitarian Spain remains very much in living memory was a point he made eagerly, and made well.  

Franco's terming of Pablo Picasso as a "degenerate" seemed as good a reason as any to visit the latter's hometown museum. Pablo left Málaga at age nineteen and vowed never to return as long as Spain stayed Francoist. In the event, the Generalísimo outlived him by two years. The Museo Picasso Málaga boasts 285 of the celebrated artist's works, each one as discussable as the last. I imagine.

Málaga's Moorish remnants are best exemplified by the Alcazaba and Gibralfaro fortifications that sit on elevated ground between the city and the port. While the strenuous 130 metre-climb to the Gibralfaro is rewarded by stunning views, the sheer elegance of the Alcazaba's interior secured its place on my "What I enjoyed most about Málaga" list.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Being Irish

Stereotypes are not normally my weapon of choice. Like any good liberal, I consider them skewed, unreliable and dangerous. But I'm not so naive to think that they are without a semblance of truth. In fact, the only way to invoke stereotypes without projecting spiteful prejudice is to do so in reference to whatever race, nationality or sect that you yourself illustrate.

It's from that shaky platform that I commence this brief dissection of Irishness. And therein lies the first shortcoming of stereotype. What does it mean to be Irish? When I worked in a Montreal restaurant a few years ago, my boss often joked about how he couldn't leave me alone around alcohol. Too often, drunkenness colours how the rest of the world, and we ourselves, understand Ireland.

The Irish obsession with drink needs no further analysis. For me, it concludes with the assertion that our psyche is tormented by a discomfort with sober reality. Our relationship with alcohol might therefore be seen as a continuous attempt to escape. This helps explain why the Irish funeral often reaches the same alcoholic intensity as the Irish wedding. Or why winning and losing at our favourite sports often yields a similar degree of intoxication. It seems anything that solicits higher emotional levels than normal requires the treatment of drink.

So it's our emotions that we are running from? This sounds valid enough. After all, we have only recently discovered that an earnest engagement with the mind can take place outside the confessional box. Catholicism, of course, is another great expression of the Irish character. But its fixation on guilt has probably caused much strife in our minds. The sentiment that Catholics' ritualistic obsession with the crucifixion encourages self-criticism is hardly weak. I don't remember learning about the death of Christ; rather, it feels almost innate. The routine exposure to an ancient preacher dying a painful death to divinely legislate for human wrongdoing is the backdrop to many an Irish childhood, when more intricate falsehoods about ourselves formulate regardless.

A less explored explanation for uneasiness in Irish people comes from our turbulent history. It's still less than two hundred years since Ireland underwent the devastation of a famine that decimated the island's population. I'm not sure what the psychological effect of being in the perpetual state of having nothing to eat has on a people, but I suspect it's quite profound. That's not to suggest that the Irish condition was more content before the 1840's, but the sheer magnitude of the Famine underlines it as probably the most unforgettable episode in Irish history. The transfer of this trauma from generation to generation is likely to have diluted over time, but its impact must somewhere endure.

Songs, stories and commemorations might be an obvious manifestation, but discontent with our national selves could also play out in proclaiming our “pride” in being Irish. Here we sometimes drift into embarrassingly murky waters of tediously claiming common heritage with whatever we deem as success. Dabbling in this kind of nonsense means subscribing to the notion that Irish people have "that little bit more about them". What else could propel the notion that Barack Obama, a symbol of African-American emancipation, is actually from County Offaly?

Not so long ago, a friend of mine recounted an experience he'd had while studying in Italy. As he related another merit to Irishness, a Turkish classmate interrupted him: "Yes Yes Yes. We get it. Everyone's fucking Irish!". Shocked and appalled, the Irishman asked his fellow student to elaborate. It was then that he became aware of his habitual invoking an Irish person's involvement in human achievements they commonly discussed. While listening, I remembered how I once told a pair of English girls that Irish writers were “the greatest of them all”. That might not have been such an absurd statement had I actually read authors from every other country, analysed accordingly and generally had a semblance of an idea of what I was talking about. Instead, I readily repeated a lazy quasi-racist mantra veneering as "national pride".

In Ireland itself, feeling such greatness is a lot less likely. Contrarily, the traditional Irish community tends to view pride as a taboo. It's not that we are unwilling to recognise achievement, it's just we feel we really shouldn't recognise it in ourselves. Nobody wants to be thought of as "having notions" about themselves.

The paradox of proclaiming Ireland's greatness to others while frowning on individual pride at home is interesting. It suggests that being Irish only contributes to excellence when it happens in the world's view. It's probably more accurate to say that it doesn't contribute at all, that any Irish person who achieves does so because of themselves alone. In reality, it has nothing to do with the other 4.5 million people who call themselves Irish.

It may seem self-deprecating to raise these problems with being Irish. So it's worth pointing out that there are plenty of things about Ireland that I enjoy and adore. But it would be so much healthier if this could happen because of proximity to them, as opposed to frivolous association with them. Constantly referring to Irishness is actually a laboured assertion of self-superiority. That it's most proudly proclaimed under a tirade of alcohol is evidence enough that it's just an expression of fundamental insecurity. The fatalist in me concedes that this is the inevitable nationalism of a formerly oppressed country. But as an idealist, I'd like to think being Irish doesn't need to come across as so utterly mindless. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

War Games

I was probably about three years old when, from the back seat of the car, I bawled inconsolably at the sight of a traffic warden at my mother's window. She had temporarily parked on a double yellow line to allow her own mother easier access to the post office. But the hysterics of her youngest son must have worried her more. From somewhere, he had garnered a disproportionate fear of the "Brown Man", as unfortunately dressed 1980's traffic wardens were known in my family. My wariness of uniformed men was further fuelled by my brother when he told me his friend's Dad was a Garda, and that I would be shot if I showed up at their house. These fearsome moments are probably the foundations from which I developed a lifelong fascination with expressions of authority. Before long, I was obsessed with what I considered to be the epitome of masculinity: soldiers, armies, battlefields and war. 

However this proved not to be the nurturing of some perfect warrior. Any "action" I've seen in my twenty-seven years has been extremely limited and more crucially, fictitious. In later childhood, I would often lobby friends for a good old game of "Air Raid Attack". On the rare occasion they obliged, they would find themselves sheltering beneath trees, waiting for me to give the "all clear". This calamity would rarely last more than ten minutes; I never did get the chance to figure out what happened next. 

At other times, my illusions were complimented by more appropriate surroundings. During one school trip, my classmates and I did battle in Laser World- a dodgy simulation of some futuristic war-zone formerly located in Tramore. Scant recollections suggest I enjoyed the skirmish, without feeling I was the difference between victory and defeat. On the bus home, statistics being passed around on a piece of paper confirmed the suspicion that I had failed to hit any targets. This I digested in silence, while less combat inclined classmates celebrated jubilantly.

But my comrades weren't always so tactless, at least initially. On his return from the holiday of a lifetime in Canada, a good friend was delighted to present me with a Super Soaker XP 85. I thanked him profusely, anticipating future glories in the common water fight of balmy summer evenings. Unfortunately, the weapon had been damaged somewhere on the Atlantic convoy, leaving its triple projectile struggling to meet even quarter of the advertised distance. This, coupled with a leaking tank, made me an easy and amusing target for the water-balloon brandishing enemy. 

More successful sorties occurred in the rarity of snowball fights. One of my most cherished memories is teaming up with another friend against our older brothers in the white Christmas holidays of 1997. I can't remember how exactly it unfolded, only that I felt less solitary in playing the part I loved most.

Another account of wintry "combat" comes from my oldest brother. In the big freeze of the early 1980's, he was enjoying a snowy day off school when he spotted a famous Kilkenny hurler delivering fuel to a neighbour. Awestruck, but determined to interact, he gathered a ball of snow and playfully threatened to strike his off-season hero. But it turned out not to be so jovial a scene. The hurler, unimpressed, harshly dispelled my spectacled brother's cheer with the words "Throw that snowball at me and I'll break your fucking glasses!".

In recent years, I've noticed my preoccupation with combat become more "mature". In the cosy confines of western existence, war is not a phenomenon I am privy to. But that same precondition permits me to try and understand conflict's intricacies from a safe distance. With great interest, I watch unfolding chaos in Middle-East and flirtations with nuclear holocaust on the Korean peninsula. I should point out that this is not some exercise in sadism; rather, I like to think of it as a realistic engagement with the ways of the world.  

But there is also evidence to suggest that this fascination is not such a studious hobby, that I'm still just a child who thinks war is cool. Why else would I pass the amount of time I do amassing huge armies in Command & Conquer, watching and re-watching seminal scenes from my favourite war films, or even writing laboured blog entries trying to figure it all out?!

This militaristic fetish probably feeds off my romantic attachment to justice, order and the idea of a common purpose. Actually, I think I am more enamoured with the discipline militarism inspires than the barbarity of its logical conclusion. This isn't such a bad thing; organisational tendencies are amongst the things I admire most in people. They are especially laudable in the pursuit of collective benefit, individual responsibility, and the notion that we might receive from society what we put in. 

There is, of course, a huge difference between such civic responsibility and an unwavering loyalty to authority. But both extremes may emanate from the same source: a desire to equalise the inherent isolation of existence in a chaotic world with a sense of indomitable fellowship. The difficulty comes in trying to maintain a balance between the two, and ensuring that we don't opt for a dangerous road paved with the best intentions. 

Accordingly, I am forever grateful that my childish tendencies occur in circumstances not fertile enough for war. Imagine, for example, that I happened to exist on the streets of a European city during August 1914. In Munich I might have found a kindred spirit in a short Austrian man with a toothbrush moustache, equally enthusiastic to get himself into a uniform and give his life some meaning. In this light, I consider it a privilege to search hopelessly for a raison d'etre in less lethal environments.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

And that's the bottom line...

Finding the will to write has been something of a chore lately. In fact, finishing this short piece has taken far longer than it should have. Anything it seems, is preferable to reading, reviewing and editing. I've never been a prolific writer, but there have been more productive periods in my speculative career. Recently though, I seem more concerned with not “getting it wrong” than working on “getting it right”. The result is routine inaction that I like to veil with words like “apathy”, implying that I'm too busy “not giving a fuck” to bother with aspiration. But in truth, I feel something more sinister lurking beneath the surface.

I think it was Richard Linklater's animated drama Waking Life that introduced to me the sentiment, amongst many others, that laziness and fear are one in the same. It was something I didn't really understand at the time, but it did make me consider subsequent bouts of idleness in a new light. How does a human being, the most destructive of all God's creatures, end up settling for slumber?

Perhaps it's the combination of thoughts and feelings we label as anxiety that most induces an idle state of mind. Our reactions to anxiousness, dynamic as they are, normally yield the same conundrum. Do I attempt to move forward? Even though success is not guaranteed. Or do I withdraw to safety? Tasting neither victory or defeat.

But what exactly is it that we are so anxious about? If so many of us choose stagnation over moving forward, the consequences of trying must indeed be terrible. It does, of course, summon the spectre of failure. And yet, in objective terms, failure is nothing to get hung up about. Common phrases like “Better luck next time” indicate our understanding that the difference between success and failure is often minimal, and that it is certainly no excuse for giving up.

Subjectively however, failure can be an altogether more viscous animal. It might, for example, flood the mind with negativity and self-loathing, the source of which is a fundamental and regressive belief about who we are and how we should live. In a nutshell, this “bottom line” can be exemplified by a phrase like “I am flawed, hopeless and bound to fail”, or words to that effect. Such literal expressions are probably rare. This, after all, is the kind of thing we'd rather not talk about. Instead, we may experience the sentiment through feelings of vacancy and depression.

It's probably inevitable that circumstances will eventually necessitate confronting the “bottom line”. And when they do, we often find ourselves woefully unprepared. Under duress, with nowhere to run, we undertake the impossible challenge of defying it completely. We want to achieve perfection, to leave the darker side of ourselves with nothing to chew on. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more likely that a frenzied assault on our negative self-concept will capitulate against robust doubts and fears. Thereafter, we tend not to be so bold. Our suspicions are confirmed. We cannot.

The problem seems one of perspective. Logic and reason are not things we readily apply to our shortcomings. In their place, we may succumb to the biased thinking and observations of a self-critical mind. The domineering bottom line feeds from prejudiced conclusions and blights a common truth, that trial and error is central to progress. We are being inconsistent, lying to ourselves, and hopelessly bearing the consequences.

The miserable habits I refer to relate to basic concepts of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And it may lighten the tone to mention that they are far from irreversible. But for an entry that I hope will spurn a period of greater activity, they seemed the most pertinent thing to acknowledge.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

On The Run: Postcript

It's hard to find things to write about. Especially at this time of year. So it was a pleasant surprise when a friend directed me to an article in this week's Kilkenny People that offered an alternative account of my recent liberating of two Americans from the round tower at St. Canice's Cathedral. As a result, I have been made aware of some new information that makes the previous entry even more fascinating than it already is. No!

Lovers locked into the round tower can be found on page five of the main section. It tells the story of Chris Mahrer and Brita Thomas' ascent of the tower last month. Chris used reddit.com to post his own account and send his and Brita's thanks to the unnamed jogger who rescued them from a night trapped in the millennium-old building. The Kilkenny People became aware of the post and put the printed word out via some very fine writing by Sam Matthews. It wasn't long before Kilkenny's media machine managed to track down the unnamed jogger's attention. And so, the circle is complete.

In both article and reddit post, Chris sheds new light on the events of that cold December day. He explains that Brita's experience of the tower was tempered by an acute dose of claustrophobia and a fear of heights, something Chris had not previously been aware of. This would explain the intensity of the screams that shook me from my stride as I passed the cathedral. Chris also tells the much happier story of how he, like any wise man, seized on Brita's apparent vulnerability by dropping to one knee and proposing on top of the tower. And of how, after a few moments of compounded vertigo, Brita managed to steady herself and deliver an affirmative response. Yesss!!

I've been in touch with Chris. He said it was strange to read about the event from my point of view. I'm sure it was since the entry also includes references to being chased by wild animals and paranoid delusions about anyone who comes near my house. He also said that he would have bought me a pint if I hadn't been busy running, incurring images of me being drunk in shorts, t-shirt and trainers. Otherwise, he wished me all the best. To which, I reciprocate with many congratulations.

Chris' reddit post-http://cp.reddit.com/r/ireland/comments/15ws3x/thank_you_to_the_jogger_in_kilkenny_who_saved_us/