Ireland 2013 notes

May 9th – Clare Inn, Dromoland Estate

BA Flight 2166 Tampa-Gatwick

 

I got an upgrade, but I kind of regretted it. The PR person for BA had kindly arranged for a lounge pass for me before I left Tampa, and at check-in I was given a better seat than the one I’d booked (and paid an extra $50) for. At least, I was told by the check-inagent that it was better: “It’s a bulkhead,” he said, and I thought of all that room by my feet and agreed.

Since the gate agent hadn’t put me into business class, I decided at the gate  to try an upgrade-getting maneuver that I’ve heard from more than one flight attendant can work: I bought a box of chocolates at duty free ($30 liqueur truffles) and presented them with my business card to the lead flight attendant, Reynolds. With that gift I stuttered out that I was a writer on assignment for CURVE Magazine and hopedwe’dhaveasweetflight, thanks. Reynolds, a tall thin black-suited man with ironic 50s glasses, accepted the gift with perfect panache, and promised to come and see me in my seat shortly.

Before takeoff, he did come to my bulkhead, bringing me a glass of champagne from first class, and asked about my assignment. I told him I was going to learn how to play bodhrain in Doolin, and after a few pleasantries he said, apologetically, that he had no room in the forward cabins, they were full, but his staff would take care of me

Damn, I thought, $30 wasted, but I thanked him and said I’d appreciate the space.

“And there’s no one sitting here,” he said pointing to the second seat in my row. “So you can spread out.”

Reynolds was right inasmuch as I could spread out my stuff, and I did so: pillows, blankets, O Magazine with Oprah in a big pink skirt, my papers and pen, nuts, neckrest, water, trash bag, trash, pen, paper, extra gray jacket, headsets, toothbrush, gray socks, landing card, shoes, popcorn, face-spray bottle, chapstick, second water bottle, earplugs, green eyemask, etc etc etc as the trip went on. All my stuff took up all the space in both seats, but in the bulkhead, for some godforsaken reason, the armrests don’t move, so I couldn’t lie down or even slump over to one side very well.

So I didn’t sleep, but I dozed, and read O Magazine, and planned some pitches for editors (including the editor of O), and watched some of CLOUD ATLAS, which makes me think of my friend Rick Rutherford, who first recommended that book to me in a hot tub at Esalen,  but which  is of course not half the film that the book was a book, and thought how lucky I was to have a bulkhead row all to myself,

It was only an eight-hour plus flight, so I knew I wouldn’t get too restless. I took hourly walks around the cabin to keep the blood moving, and I drank a lot of water, and ate the pasta meal and brushed my teeth and read my magazine and dozed and drank water and read my magazine and watched the news and used the loo and got more water and dozed and crossed my legs and changed my position in my seat and adjusted the lights on my magazine and recrossed my legs and stretched them out in the aisle and took walks and spritzed my face and ate nuts and drank water and in that manner the minutes flew by like hours

Although it was dark and the window shades were down, I could tell when we were getting close to the coast of the British Aisles by the rain tipping on the window. However, for only the second time in my life, it was not raining when I landed at Gatwick – further evidence of global weirding.

I had to get across London to Heathrow for my flight to Ireland, so I bought a ticket for the Express bus, which has gone up a lot since last time I used it, about 2 years ago. It’s 25 pounds now for the trip, which is under an hour without traffic.  At Gatwick, the National Express ticket  lady asked me which terminal I wanted at Heathrow, and I gaped in the manner of someone who has just traveled 4,000 miles over 11 hours with no sleep. I’m sure she sees the look all the time.

“It’s overseas, to Ireland,” I hedged, fumbling with my itinerary.

“Is it British Airways?” she asked. “If it’s BA it’ll be from Five.”

The itinerary said it was, so I got a ticket to terminal 5.

On the coach, I had a window seat, and from it I could see a typically stunning series of views of rolling green hills, country mansions dwarfed by country trees, and huge gray gothic and Norman churches poking up high above the hills, built to summon Christians every time they raised their eyes from the soil, I suppose. There were clots of sheep like cream on the deep green hills divided with those very English hedgerows, and though like most places in the world it looked a little bit like parts of New Jersey, I was excited to be in England again.

The winter’s deluges had done good work in making everything green, and the woods we passed were made up of all different trees, aspens maybe, and oaks and  beeches and lots of things I couldn’t identify, in all different shades of green. There were daffodils out in great clumps as big as sheep, all along the way we drove  — and the amazing thing was, all this beauty was along the side of  a major thoroughfare, between the two biggest airports in England. That’s the difference between here and New Jersey: you don’t see clumps of wildflowers from the turnpike driving to JFK from Newark Airport.

I was extremely tired, having not slept in my specially upgraded seat with extra legroom but no folding armrests, and I was falling asleep yet trying to keep my eyes open so I could see England. My eyes were closing, but then I saw a blur of blue – wild bluebells, I suppose. They were along the side of the road, in spots where there were no daffodils. They were small, iris-colored flowers in the shape of little bells, so although I’ve previously known of bluebells only as a theoretical image from Enid Blyton’s books, I felt sure these were they. How could I sleep?

At terminal 5, I took the lift up in the new, all-ugly renovated terminal to the departures area, where the board showed lots of other flights leaving at 1105 but not mine to Shannon. That, I soon learnt, was because it was an Aer Lingus flight, which would go from Terminal 1, which I’d have to reach via Tube. The good news was that the Tube was free. I spent my ten minutes waiting for the Tube to move by reflecting on how I’d made such a stupid mistake, and how John Zussman and my other so-called writer friends were going to write a comment on my blog, as he did when I forgot to check the currency exchange rates in Cappadocia and accidentally gave someone a $80 tip, that he would’ve thought a travel writer might know better…I couldn’t believe that a travel writer wouldn’t know better than to check a departure terminal too. But then I remembered: I HAD checked. Nowhere on my ticket or itinerary does it indicate that flight 65 from Heathrow to Shannon is in fact operated by Aer Lingus, so watch what terminal you go to, Yankee.

The Tube was decorated in Cadbury-purple and it was truly the most beautiful bit of public transport I’ve ever seen. There was a “first class” section – presumably for people who had actually paid for their tickets – which had floor-to-ceiling draperies and dancing girls, somewhat like the Orient Express, but even the plebian section where I sat was stunningly clean and comfortable and sensibly laid out. It was also swift, and I made it to Aer Lingus check-in by about 10.20.

My flight left at 1105, so I headed through security as fast as I could, hoping to buy a camera at duty-free. The first security check was a new type for me: as well as the usual metal detection and shoe removal and taking out and putting in of laptops and liquids and gels, I had to stand on some yellow footprints and gaze into a red-lit camera, presumably while the device took my photograph. It seemed to take a long time, and I gazed at the little red light for quite a while before it turned green and I was free to re-dress and re-pack and go.

In the main departure area, I found the electronics shop and told the salesman, “I have about five minutes to buy a camera,”  The one I wanted was called a ZX30 in the USA, or maybe it was a FX30 in Australia, but it was the one Nic has, and I knew it was a Linux with a Leica lens.

A little dark-haired man with a nice accent showed me the cameras. He didn’t recognize the description I gave of my ideal camera, but he  pointed out a Linux  for 199 pounds that had a big zoom. “Is that a Leica lens?” I asked, peering at it. I couldn’t remember what Nic’s camera looked like; this one seemed to have an unusually large lens aperture, and it didn’t look as neat as many of the others.

“No,” he said. “But it’s built to Leica specifications.”

“It says Leica on it,” I pointed out.

“They’re allowed to do that,” he said. I decided that this camera was as close as I was going to get to the one I wanted and asked him to sell it to me as fast as he could. “I’m at gave 82,” I said. “Can I make it?”

He was on his knees, looking into a cupboard underneath the camera display. “Some of the gates are a fair way,” he said.

“Right,” I said briskly. “That’s why I’d like you to make the sale as quickly as you can.”

“There’s a board,” he said, dimly. It was hard to hear him as he was peering into the dark cupboard and looking at boxes, reading their labels. “It’ll tell you how far — the gates …maybe…”

“OK,” I aid, but I didn’t want to go check the board because I thought it might delay the purchase.

He withdrew from the cupboard and stood up. “I don’t have the camera,” he said.

And that was the luck of the Irish already, to be sure to be sure, because even though I would not have a camera for the trip, if he had had it I would certainly have missed my flight.

I followed a sign to gates 77-93 (a strange arrangement, to be sure to be sure) from the departure lounge and duty-free shops down about 6 corridors each a few hundred yards long, and only one of which had an automatic walkway. We passed a sign leading to another corridor and gates 77-79 and I thought, great, only a few more of these corridors and I’ll come to 82. Instead, the next sign said, “80-93” with another sign pointing left, towards the end of a queue.

This queue snaked into a small corridor that appeared to go nowhere. I couldn’t see the top of the line, but I could see that the queue had dozens, maybe a hundred people in it, and it was not moving. In that way – the length of the line and the arrangement of barriers – it reminded me of a ride at Disneyworld. But in no other way at all did it remind me of Disneyworld. For one thing, there were no games to play or visual enticements to keep our excitement up. Also no one was excited. A very cross woman ahead of me said, “Is this the gate for Ireland?” I confessed I did not know but that I hoped so.

After about five minutes I’d progressed to the point that I could see the action at the top of the line. There at about 10 feet from the head of the queue, sat two identical, sadistic-looking men at two identical black desks, and in front of them a column with a red eye, like the one I’d looked into earlier. It looked like some kind of torture chamber from the future, a little like the scenes in CLOUD ATLAS set in 2090 Asia. A sign informed me that this camera would compare my face to the picture the other camera had taken earlier, presumably to make sure I hadn’t added a false beard and tattoos in the loo in the terminal, or taken off any similar costumes since arrival.

I think this technology must be new, because none of the passengers seemed to know what was going on, despite the sign, and every single person – all of whom must have gone through the same facial-recognition process on entering the terminal, as I had — had to be told  stand on the yellow footprints and look into the red eye on the column, after their documents were checked. I stood and watched as about 40 people stepped too far forward, handed their documents to one of the evil-looking twins, and then had to be told to walk backwards and stand on the yellow footprints and look into the black column. I couldn’t understand how so many people, all of whom had been in the same line and watching the people ahead of them, could not understand that they’d need to look into the camera themselves. Every single person stood and waited to get their documents checked and then was told to go back and look in the machine. It was incredibly slow, not only because everyone was backtracking but because even once they were on the yellow footprints, they had to peer into the red light for quite a while. It took from about 10 seconds to several minutes, in some cases. It was as if the program had a lot of faces to consider, and we all looked alike to it.

I didn’t know what time it was, but very close to my flight time and my flight was boarding. When it was at last my turn to step up, I was probably the most efficient traveler they’d ever seen. Cleverly, I handed the man my documents and then stepped onto the yellow footprints without being prompted, and while he checked my papers, I looked into the red eye with my own red eyes and what I hoped was a distinctive expression, one easily recognizable.

The red eye turned green in record time, and the man handed me my documents with an approving and relieved, “Thank you!” and I headed back to the signs for my gate. I went at a concerned, rapid walk down more of the long corridors. These are all raised, metal-framed corridors that look as if they’re made out of erector sets. The design appears to be 60s futuristic, kind of Jetsons style, with each set of corridors leading to a pod of gates. When I reached a pod labeled 79-87, I thought I was nearly there, and I was: the next gate, oddly, was 82, and although the sign said SHANNON, CLOSING in bright red warning neon, there was another long line of people in front of the gate. I asked a man, “Are you going to Shannon?”

“I am,” he said. And then, evidently fearing that I might be I was thinking of cutting into the line, and thus somehow gain some advantage in boarding, he added, “We all are.”

.

“Glad to hear it,” I said, and went to the back of the line to get on my flight to Ireland.

***

Clare Inn, Dromoland Estate

The view outside my ground-floor window is entirely green and gray. It’s mostly sky, a lovely soft opaque cool sky full of clouds like large lumps of dirty cotton wool. The ground is green fields marked by gray lines of hedgerows, and a road (I think it’s another major highway, though how would you know?) of gray asphalt, and fences and dark gray swallows dipping in and out of view.

This is my favorite weather in the whole world, such an incredible relief after the scorching heat of Florida. It’s been so hot lately that I can’t even enjoy going in the garden except early in the morning, or at dusk, when the mosquitoes are fiercest. But here, the air is sweet and fresh, and the water is absolutely delicious. Ireland is the anti-Florida, I’ve decided, and I like it.

After a long thick sleep I woke up  — it’s still light at about 10 pm – and had some broccoli soup and a mediocre salad and incredible brown bread and butter. As I sat having dinner in the pub, a live musician showed up to play live music. He’s been playing Irish ballads and Johnny Cash and from the very first song, the other people in the pub joined in!  By the third song they were dancing. I am amazed: this is a pretty ordinary hotel in the middle of nowhere, though only about 15 minutes from the airport, and the people here must, I think all be en route to somewhere else. There are a couple of party groups, so I suppose they might be locals, but I have never seen such a jolly crowd in any similar hotel anywhere else in the world.

He’s sung “Rock Around the Clock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Cockles and Mussels Alive, Alive-Oh,” which is a song my mother used to sing and which I’ve never heard anyone else sing in my life, and he has a great strong, happy, tuneful voice.

I’m already having a good time and the jetlag hasn’t even hit yet and the press trip hasn’t started. Already, the destination was worth the trip, even with the armrests, even with the 40-Euro taxi fare and the 25-quid bus, even with the lack of sleep. It’s raining, we’re singing, and the water is wonderful.