(Photo credit Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel -- or someone -- leaves clean, assorted sized Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests' use.

(Photo by Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel — or someone — leaves a variety of sizes of clean Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests’ use.

After feeling sad under the Fairy Tree, I grew even more sorry when we returned from our walk, because we had to leave the Park Hotel. By 11 AM, everyone else — four writers, two PR persons, one guide and one driver, plus their luggage — had gathered in the hallway to say goodbye and put on coats and open umbrellas for the short walk out to the bus. This writer, however, was not there.

I was in my room, packing reluctantly, when some soft-spoken Irish person called me from reception.  At the Park Hotel, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken staff and the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken guests, and no one would ever be gauche enough to introduce themselves (unless they were local gentry) but whoever it was ringing me — an employee, the third-generation owner of the manor, a helpful stranger  – told me in a voice no stronger than a beloved auntie might employ in a similar situation she’d thought she’d give me a ring as my friends were just wondering about me, as they were gathering in the lobby. And, she didn’t need to add, they were ready to take off and wondering what the feck was taking me so long.

I rushed along the curious stairways and corridors leading (I use the term loosely) from my wing to the lobby, but the other people in my group were hatted, jacketed, and out the door getting on the bus by the time I arrived. After shouting after them in an unmannerly manner, saying I needed another minute, I stood panting by the beautiful, very antique, 8-sided leather-topped desk that presides in an aclove off the foyer, which desk is the closest thing I’ve seen at the Park Hotel to any kind of office-like infrastructure, or any suggestion that the hotel is a business and is not the home of your best and wealthiest friend. There is nothing so garish as a “reception desk” or a “cashier” or even a “concierge’s stand” at the Park, but every time I came into the little reading alcove I found a conveniently placed, soft-voiced, well-groomed person who behaved in a manner befitting one of the cherished Park Hotel retainers.

There was just such a person there, looking as if she had nothing she’d rather do than help me with any arrangements I might like to make, and to whom I tried to make payment for the incidental charges tomy room. (We TC writers are the guests of the generous tourism boards and hoteliers et al, and we enjoy the tours, entries, wines, meals, and suites without charge to our good selves, but we do occasionally have to pay for our own incidental expenses such as laundry.) I’d ordered room service instead of going out the night before, and I’d had my filthy, wet, trousers that I’d worn on the boat and in the horse-cart and in the rain cleaned, and so I owed the hotel about 14 Euros. But I couldn’t pay my bill — to the extent that any bill actually existed, because of course I was not presented with one — because I couldn’t find my wallet! Horrified at myself, I asked if I could ring later with my credit card details, and the beautiful young lady assured me that of course I could, no problem at all at all. She gave the wide-eyed, dimpled impression that my leaving a bill unpaid was an honor for the hotel , and that I was being endearingly over-conscientious in my obvious design to pay it. I left smiling with embarrassment and gratitude,  and hoping that she was a hotel employee.

If my colleagues awaiting me on the bus were slightly less gracious than the young woman, it’s only because they were tired, hungover, and pissed off at me. It didn’t help that when I ran, wet and breathless and still embarrassed and newly in debt, to get on the bus, late, I was still, even while climbing the steps of the big Mercedes, groping through my carry-on bag, hoping to find my missing wallet, and after the bus started up but before we pulled all the way down the half-mile driveway, I realized that I’d left my laptop in my room. I had to make a quick decision – never a good idea in my case – between saying nothing and hoping that the Park Hotel would forward the laptop to me at our next hotel, and stopping the forward progress of the press trip, thus delaying our departure even more and incurring more enmity of my peers and up-until-that-morning new friends.

“Oh no!” I said. “My laptop’s in my room!” Tiger, one of the two really gentlemanly, chivalrous two men on this mostly female trip, silently downshifted and U-turned the bus, crunching back over the long ancient gravel road to the hotel’s front gate. As we went, I stood up and apologized, rocking in the aisle, to my sister- and fellow-tour members.  ““Oh no, I know,” I said. “Now I’m the person on the press trip that everyone hates.” By the time Tiger had shifted into park I was crouching at his elbow, and ducking down the steps, I added,  Even I hate me!”

When I got back to the 8-sided desk, one of the ubiquitous elegant doormen informed me without my having to introduce myself or announce my plight that the laptop was already on its way to reception. He conveyed this information in such a way as to make me feel the hotel’s deep regret at having inconvenienced me by not chasing the bus down and handing it to me through the window. Once the machine was in my sweaty incompetent little grasp, I once I clambered back onto the bus I also perchance found in my suitcase my wallet, so we set off just about 15 or 20  minutes beyond the time we should have gone.

One of the two PR ladies — Ruth, I think, who was not the one who’d suffered through the boat ride with me the day before and thus still positively inclined towards my presence on the trip —  assured me that it wasn’t such a huge thing to leave a bit late on a Sunday morning, but I felt guilty and embarrassed, anyway, about being so chaotically unprofessional and having thereby inconvenienced a considerable percentage of the employees of County Kerry’s tourism industry, and so I sat quietly and self-accusingly in my cushy seat and determined that I would have to be scrupulous for the rest of the trip about not being late or inconveniencing anyone – let alone everyone. For at least the next hour I did not ask for anything or proffer opinions about, say, whether we should or should not make a stop to take photos or drink Irish coffee. I sat meekly in my rightful seat and tried to work out how to work my new camera, a Fujifilm EXR, I think.

Before lunch we were taken to a place called Valentia Island, although William the tour guide said apologetically that it was no longer an island, as it had bridges. In Ireland, a land mass is not considered an island if it is possible to reach it other than by boat. Skellig Michael definitely qualifies as an island, still, despite having all the mod cons of stone steps and beehive dwellings, but Manhattan, for instance, would not count.

On Valentia, we had a tour from a local man and pub owner, Mauris, who is an expert on the first transAtlantic international cable and who has built a road up a cliff lookout and put up signs about the Irish legends and local history and so on. Mauris had a great, sometimes incomprehensible Irish accent and he talked  knowledgably but fast, and the wind was blowing my ears off and I got a bit confused about the various politicians, transAtlantic telegrams, freedom fighters, notification of the Titanic disaster, dates, and legendary events, and I came to think that O’Connell had been thrown off the cliff by someone called Finn, leader of the Vikings, or maybe by a troupe of imaginary legendary beings called Finnoghs, or maybe Firblogs, ancient Irish bloggers who invented the ancient Irish warning system for shipwreck notifications and telegraphic (telepathic?) calls for help.Rules for joining the warriors

There's a lot of information on these signs, and I was hearing it out loud while trying to take in the scenery and atmosphere. I got a bit muddled.It was all muddled to me, but while we were on the cliff the sun did come to a thin place in the clouds, and I took a few pictures that had more than one shade of light in them.

As I was pointing my camera out to sea in the direction of the cloud gap, a writer named Cathy, who joined our group yesterday, and who has family in Killarney and spends a lot of time there, pointed out the Skelligs to me. I didn’t know what “the Skelligs” were when she said I could see them “over there” and pointed across the hills: I didn’t know if I was looking for a kind of bird or some trees or a village or a group of people, perhaps Irish gypsies. She said something that suggested that “the Skelligs” were the ghost-like mounds of islands in the far distance, briefly visible through the mist and clouds.

Cathy was excited about their appearance because it was so overcast, and in her excitement she said, “See? They’re sharp!”

What with the misted morning light, the fog, the clouds, the incipient rain, and my own inherent blurriness, I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t very extremely fuzzy around the edges, so I was even more confused. “What?” I said. “Sharp what? Where?”

“See, it looks like a pointed hill,” she said. Looking where she was gazing, I saw a pale shadow shape that I would said was the underbelly of a cloud. And, again prompted by Cathy, next to that one I saw another, larger, similar shape.

“Sharp?” I said. “Those are very soft focus to me…”

“No, I mean the shape,” she said. And okay, when I squinted and used my imagination, and because I am very suggestible, the tops of the islands did look a bit like the shape of spears – not like a rounded hill or even a single Alpine-style peak, but narrow, pointy things like flinty broken arrowheads. And then the mist closed in again and they were gone.

After that sighting, we were taken to the “Skellig Experience,” a visitors’ center which turned out to contain an amazing, thrilling introduction to and history of the islands but which looked unamazing and unthrilling from outside. It’s nearly invisible as it’s been built into the hillside, with a grass-topped roof, and so in the mist and overcast daylight it looks much like many of the other hills in the area. At night I’m sure no one could find it.

Inside, we were shown a film about the Skellig Islands, which fascinated all of us and made us all ready to beg, bribe, or in case of the important writers demand to be taken there, but the man who ran the museum, who is also a world’s leading expert (as opposed to a following expert, as all of us were becoming) on the islands, told us that there would be no opportunity to get there for at least another week, because of the heavy rain, heavy waves, and heavy tides. Considering how miserable we’d been yesterday just puttering across some inland lakes, you’d have thought we would not be keen to cross 8 miles of open water in similar conditions, but several of us were ready to row ourselves there at first light if we could get a boat.

Our enthusiasm was slightly dampened, ahem, when we came across the exhibit of the iron gates that once guarded a pathway on the Skellig Lighthouse station, which is, note, on land, NOT on the 8-mile-out Skellig Michael. Here is the sign, and what’s left of the gates:

A former gate...

Skellig Lightbhouse gates sign...and it's former mate

Anyway, we couldn’t get to Skellig Michael, not that week. The tour leaders told us to give up, but I kept praying for a break in the weather, as Mother Theresa did for a cease-fire in the Bosnian war so she could get through with the Red Cross trucks. She made it; I did not.

What made Skellig Michael attractive to me was its strange history. The film showed how in about the year 600, on Skellig Michael, which is in case I haven’t impressed this on you enough eight miles out to sea from a barren cold Irish coast where hardly anybody lived anyway, some monks who had been living on the mainland built – and I use the term loosely, because they actually hacked it out of stone – a monastery. Using only hand tools, and hands, they cut into the rock three different sets of 600 steps each going up the extremely steep, arrow-head-like sides of the rock-island.

Why such redundancy? Why build three separate entrances to a monastery that only they and occasional pirates even knew about? No one knows. They built the three massive stairways with no handrails, presumably to make it that much more challenging to reach the top – which was desirable as a building and prayer site why, exactly? Because it was 600 steep steps closer to God? According to the film and the historian, no one speculates or can imagine what possessed those monks, but something must have fevered their imaginations and fueled their spirit, because once they’d reached the freezing cold, barren, top of this Godforsaken rock-mass eight feckin’ miles out in the Northern Atlantic, there they built six stone “beehive” houses and lived, two men to a hut,  so apparently 12 men, alone on the rock, until death. Perhaps fortunately, death was not that long in coming for most of them.

Extremely little is known of how they managed any of it, let alone WHY they managed it, or how many of them were killed or kidnapped by Algerian or Spanish or Portuguese or African pirates, all of whom regularly attacked the defenseless, innocent monks and took their gold, silver, and lives. But it is clear from the archeological evidence, most of it still standing, that after about 200 years of that cold monastic lifestyle — which would have made a Spartan villa seem like a high-end resort — that is, about 800 AD, the later monks of the same masochistic order found it necessary to build, at an even more extremely distant point on the rock, a hermitage!

Seeing this small, grey-brown, lichen-covered stone hut on the screen — it looks like something from the Stone Age — and hearing from the narrator that it was a “hermitage,” I started laughing. Seated behind me, the other writers responded similarly, that is, with incredulous snorts. The evidence was on film in front of us, but we still wondered why even the least sociable of the 9th-century monastic brothers would feel the need to get away from the the tip of the island and the other 11 monks. Beleaguered, maybe even self-righteously fired up like my neighbors on this Floridian island organizing a noise-reduction petition against the giant, pastel-covered party houses whence every weekend emanate the whoops and house music of overprivileged twentysomethings at the beach, those monks went off and carved a little cave space where a guy could get some peace and separation from the things of this world.

Well, I thought, as we left the Skellig Island Experience (enthralled, but still embittered at not having experienced Skellig Island itself), maybe I could see where those monks might have been sick of the clamor of the group. I know what it’s like. To have to live and eat and move with the same people day after day, packing in and out of five-plus-star country house hotels, attending champagne receptions and six-course dinners with selected wines, or trooping in and out of trad nights at wonderfully bright cozy pubs to see world-class musicians, being fed locally produced and lovingly prepared meals from third-generation chefs and prizewinning someliers, being walked up and down pebblestone pathways through rich botanical gardens by rich thirteenth-generation estate owners, and of course being driven collectively in a new Mercedes-Benz luxury bus while addressed by an expert on the history of the areas we were visiting was stressful in much the same way as hacking out a stairway from bare rock in the middle of an Atlantic storm, sustained only by pelican meat and seagull droppings. Look at how easily we journalists got annoyed with each other and began to despise one member of the group: that morning, I’d just about become the one person that everyone would have wished to send to the hermitage, if we’d had one.

In the next few days, I’d make a point of getting everywhere a few minutes early, and, being as helpful as it was possible for such a cossetted guest to be, I also made a point of being ready to carry my own luggage, reconsider seating arrangements, or elucidate my vegetarian preferences anytime, in order to make up my standing with my fellow and sister penitents on our pilgrimage of luxury and Irish culture.

And it came to pass that I escaped censure and ostracism, perhaps because I worked so hard to make amends, perhaps because our press group was an unusually mature, relaxed, and pampered one, led by unusually capable and broadminded and fun-loving PR people (see photo below of Ellen and Ruth)

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts.

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond (Kelly green) of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts, two women who know how to have fun, even in the rain and regrettable wind.  For more on their companies, itineraries, or drinking suggestions  go to visitIreland.com, and tell them I sent you.

or maybe because One Other Person at the conference was so dreadful. But that story is for the private, not-to-say secret-gossip blog: let me know if you want to read it.

Anyway, having had the Skellig Island Experience but not the experience of Skellig Island, I desperately want to see these islands for myself, and I will. Soon. Anyone want to come with me? Start training now for those 600 stone steps, with no handrail, in extremely high winds. And don’t be late!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kenmare stone circle, County Kerry

Courtesy William Burdette

Courtesy William Burdette

Our guide, William, took a few of us writers on a walk this morning in Kenmare — which I had embarrasingly been mispronouncing ‘Connemara’ — to see some standing stones.

The site was just a few hundred yards away from the main shopping streets, and only a few fields and hedgerows from a horrible new house, built by the people who have bought the land on which the standing stones stand. If I had purchased property on which there were 3,500-year-old standing stones, I might not have built a tacky, yucky wood-façade rectangle to live in, but maybe they think their new house is just perfect in that setting. I don’t know. I do know that there are many similarly rephrehensible new dwellings around Cork and Clare, especially around Doolin, so that as I’m trying to compose a decent photo of a 14th-C. castle or an Iron Age ring fort or a lovely ruined abbey, I get bits of pale yellow painted stucco and metal siding in the shot, and it’s annoying.

But most of Kenmare is largely free of such objectionable objects, and after we passed the ugly new house, we walked up a path lined with cowslips and more of those blue flowers, and I got William within sight of one of the stems of blue blossoms and asked that he say definitively what they were: he looked at them for quite a while, started to speak, stopped, and then said, in a cautious way, “Yes, those are bluebells.” Whew. It was good to know  for sure.

At the end of the short uphill path, at the top of the hill in fact, stood a ring of standing stones. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t such an impressive sight. The stones were about as tall as I am, though wider (and older!). Inside the ring, maybe 50 feet in diameter, stood or lay a large central stone, looking like a place designed for human sacrifice. It reminded me of the last scene in the film Tess of the D’Urbervilles, when Tess lies down to await death, at Stonehenge. Being only the second set of standing stones I’ve seen in this lifetime, I guess the comparison was inevitable, but this was smaller than Stonehenge and had no other visitors, and we could walk up to the stones and touch them, so I did, respectfully.

Will told us that “they” (meaning I think “archeologists” or “Irish people in general”) don’t exactly know what the standing stones were for, though they may have been used as a calendar, to mark the seasons of the crops. There is some apparent alignment of the tallest stone with the setting sun, in certain seasons. But Will added  that his archeologist brother-in-law admits that a) often the archeologists in Ireland don’t want to mess with such edifices and arrangements, for superstitious reasons, and b) even when they do study them they often have no idea what they’re looking at.

When I noted that there was no graffiti or damage to the stones, William said that such desecration would never happen, because Irish people believe that it’d bring bad luck on the person who committed it. In the manner of quite a few Irish tale-tellers (i.e. everyone I met on this trip), he told us a harrowing fable – supposedly verifiable and which has been in the newspapers and so on – of a few years ago when a family up north moved some standing stones to build a house, and then within two years, two of their children had died in freak accidents, the implication being that the former choice led to the latter tragedy. He also, later, showed us a house that had been cursed by a priest during the famine, because the rich landlords therein refused to help the poor people in the town. The priest supposedly said that one day, ravens would fly through the ruins of the house, which was then a grand manor. We saw the house today, and it’s certainly ruined and available to ravens, so the Christian curse seems to have taken effect.

As William talked about the superstitions, or pagan holdovers, of the Irish people, I asked him to say more about the “fairy trees” that he spoke of before. Earlier, he’d pointed out a tree in a field as we were passing and explained that was a “fairy tree.” These are old trees in fields or sometimes even in the middle of villages, roads, and major highways, which are respected and protected in perpetuity because they have been used for centuries as the burial sites of unchristened infants. Traditionally, babies who died at birth or at any time before they could be christened could not be buried in the consecrated graveyards, by order of the church. It was thought by the people that the fairy folk took such babies – especially boys – to fight underground in the fairy wars. To prevent this unwanted inscription, the people would bury the bodies of the unchristened babies under a special tree, usually a white or black hawthorne marked by a boulder at its base. These became known as “fairy trees,” and the knowledge about them has been passed down through hundreds of years.Interestingly, there are no signs or formal markers on the trees, but archeologists have at times dug up the earth around certain such trees, only to return the bones to beneath the tree rapidly.

The stories about the people – usually unmarried girls or women, I imagined – having to bury their children in unconsecrated ground, probably stealthily and in the rain, made me think for a second time in one morning about a Hardy novel, particularly the heartbreaking scene in one of them – is it Jude the Obscure? – in which the young mother takes her sick newborn to the priest’s house, begging him to baptize it before it dies, and he heartlessly refuses. As I remember, the girl then tries to baptize the baby herself, because despite the priest’s cruelty she still wants the church’s blessing for her child.

A few minutes later, as we were leaving the stone circle, Will said casually, “This is a fairy tree here.”

I thought it was an awfully handy coincidence that he’d see a tree directly after I’d asked about them, and I asked, “How do you know?”

He said, “It’s white hawthorne. In a few months this will be covered with white blossoms, like snow.”

I still wasn’t convinced – just because it was a white hawthorne, how did he or anyone know it was a fairy tree? But then he moved closer, peered into the branches, and added “See, there are things hung on it.”

Yes, when I looked carefully, I could see that the branches were indeed draped with bits of cloth. Tapes and ribbons dangled among the green leaves, and higher up branches were strung with beads and necklaces and hung with earrings. Then, too late, I remembered then that someone had told me to take a bit of ribbon with me to the standing stones, but I had no scrap of fabric on my person other than my clothing. In my pockets I had only my big metal room key  and I considered leaving it on the tree but thought the Park Hotel keepers might object, especially as the room number was painted onto the key and it could easily be used by a wicked fairy to gain illegal access to someone’s sleeping chamber.

Kimberley, bless her, started going through her bag, and she found a cute little metal key ring in the shape and colors of a butterfly, which, as I recall, her daughter had given her. She took her keys off it, to give it to the tree.

I said, “Let’s leave it here for all the women who had to leave their babies here, because they were banned from the graveyards.”

Kimberley agreed, and she hung it on a branch just above eye level, where it looked festive and commemorative. “It’s Mothers’ Day today,” she said.

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Photo courtesy KimberleyLovato.com

I was surprised to learn that — I’d lost track of the days. I thought of my own mother, so far away, and wished I could be with her, but was glad I’d see her when I went home. It was a lovely, sad, Irish moment, and I was grateful to Kimberley for sharing her trinket – a gift from her daughter — and reminding us of the day’s significance.

May 11, 2013

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Photo thanks to: www.kimberleylovato.com

“Wow.” “ Have I died and gone to Heaven?” “ Indescribable beauty…”

Few things irritate me more than the language of bad travel writing: superlatives, extremes, and rhetorical questions. The <noun> is always the best, the most, utterly and unbelievably <adjective> the writer has ever seen, in his/her whole life!

The problems with this kind of writing are many, but one is that when a traveler comes upon something – a view, an activity, a town – that really does trump all the others in that traveler’s experience, there are no words left for it. Not everywhere can be the best, the most beautiful, the least describable in words.

When I read, often in the Sunday travel supplements to major papers, that a writer “cannot put into words” how wonderful a place is, I say, “Try. It’s your job to put it in words.”

And so, instead of resorting to the language of hyperbole, I’ll write about the trip I’m on right now, and attempt to finds words to tell you about a pretty good time.

Last night, dining at Dromoland Castle, Will our tour guide told me that the blue flowers I was describing to him (see last two blog posts!) were bluebells. “The woods are full of them,” he said, with authority that comes with being at least six feet tall and having pure white hair and a deep voice. He said he’d been golfing two days ago and had seen the bluebells everywhere. But the same morning, my sister-in-law, Lyn, wrote back to my blog post saying that she thought the flowers I’d described were grape hyacinths, which I’m pretty sure correspond to the “grate” hyacinths of Sarah’s email, earlier. Both Lyn and Sarah are from England, so they should know. But Will is from Ireland and from right here in Ireland and has seen the flowers this week, so he should know better. This morning on the bus as we left Dromoland and headed west towards the Ring of Kerry and Gap of Dunloe, Will noted in passing a few patches of blue among the green fields, saying, “There’re some bluebells, Gillian.” The bus was moving, and the clouds were drizzling, so I wasn’t sure that what he was waving at were the same things I’d carried carefully indoors the previous day, nor that those were the same as the first blue blossoms I’d spotted in London. Later, when we reached the spot where we were to catch a boat across the lakes, I pointed out still more blue flowers, which looked similar if not identical to the ones from the day before, and one of the PR women said she didn’t think the flowers were bluebells, but Will should know.

There are two PR ladies on this trip, Ellen and Ruth, both petite, pretty blonde women, both cheerful souls with appropriate raingear, and neither of them thought we should go ahead with our proposed boat trip across the lakes to the Gap of Dunloe. Neither did Will or any of the other writers except me.

It was, admittedly, undeniably, inevitably, raining. And the boats had no coverings.. A., the only male writer on the trip, said he had “done the lake twice” before, didn’t want to go.  And D. who is quite sick, definitely could not go. And so our leaders, Ellen and Ruth, turned back from the boats and started herding us towards the coach again, saying, “No, no, no,” but I refused to turn back and kept walking towards the boat saying, “Who says no? The boat man?” because the boat man – an old man in green overalls and a cloth cap – was sitting in his boat, and with him were about four people who obviously were NOT boatmen but tourists like us wanting to go across the lake.

“No, we’re saying it,” Ellen said. “It’s too cold for an open boat.”

“No it’s not!” I said, with my usual diplomacy and charm. “Can I go? I can meet you all at the other side of the lake?  Because he’s going anyway, and I’ve never done this before.”

Kimberly, my new friend from the night before, looked undecided. Earlier she’d said she’d go with the flow. Ellen reconsidered, and said, “I’ll go with you.”

Just like Jesus, or maybe it was Judas, I asked her three times if she wanted me to go alone. She didn’t have to come in the boat, I told her. I was perfectly fine to go by myself and meet everyone later. I didn’t need her to come. Three times, she said she’d go with me. And then, suddenly and bravely, Kimberly and Barbara came too.

I clambered in first, hauling myself over the edge of the long red boat – like a very long rowboat, big enough to hold about 12 passengers on six little rows of seats – with no assistance from the boatman, who was standing in the middle of the boat watching me, silent and still. Ellen followed and the two of us sat at the bow, backs to the front of the boat, facing in. Kim and Barbara followed, and quickly pulled up a tarp from the bottom of the boat to put over our knees. The dull red tarp was filthy, and wet, but my legs were warmer beneath it than without it, so I gratefully kept myself under it as much as I could, which was not much. “This is going to be great,” I said as we set off. “Look, the sun is coming out already.”

“It’s an hour and ten minutes,” Ellen said. “We’re going to get wet.”

“I thought it was twenty minutes!” Kimberly said. She pulled her collar up over the back of her hat. “Didn’t someone say it was twenty minutes?”

“Are we heading towards the ocean? Are we in a bay, or is it the mouth of the river?” I asked. The water was thick and mercury colored, like a tarnished mirror in a sunless room. Ellen wasn’t sure.

“Well, is it fresh or salt water?” I asked, thinking that would clear up where we were. “Or briny?”

Kim looked over the side of the boat at the chop a few feet down. “Only one way to find out,” she said.

At the stern, the boatman was talking to the other four passengers, but the wind took away his words.

“Can you speak a little louder?” I shouted to him, across about 20 feet of boat.

Ellen shook her head. “He can’t hear you.”

“I thought this was going to be a twenty-minute trip,” Kimberly said again. She was the thinnest of the four of us and  thus the most prone to hypothermia. Earlier in the day she’d  been saying how she hated to be cold. I was reminded of my sister Valerie, who turned blue when Nic and I took her snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef – in Australia, in summer. Here in the North Atlantic in a cold spring, Kimberly’s hands and legs were hidden beneath the tarp, but her shoulders were shaking..

“Too late now,” someone said, but then and a wave broke over the bow and over Ellen and me and Kimberly and Brenda, interrupting the conversation, as did Ellen’s scream.

We were wet but still seated. “Well, it’s fresh,” Kimberly said, licking her lips.

A few more waves crashed on board, and the two women across from me pulled the tarp up to cover their faces, hiding from the wind and rain. As they did, several gallons of rain and lake water  that had collected on top pf the tarp drained down my left leg and into my shoe.

“My ass is wet,” Ellen said.

“My foot is wet,” I said.

“My whole right side…” Kimberly said. “Are you just kidding about the hour and ten minutes?”

Barbara, who as far as I could see was drenched, didn’t say anything. She was raised in extreme northern Ontario, in a remote mining area, by polar bears.

But the scenery, as I kept maddeningly pointing out to my dripping boat mates, was fantastic. I said inept and annoying things like, “Wow,” and “How beautiful,” and “Just amazing.” I know I used the word “fairyland” at least twice. This is what it looked like, in part:

The very choppy, mercury-gray water flipping up triangular waves to knock against and break against the boat. A thousand meters away, dry-looking, rocky points of land or little islands, one of which contained the ruins of a monastery from the 6th century.

“I can’t imagine what possessed them,” Ellen said. She shuddered, or maybe shivered, as she looked at the wet gray ruined ruins. “They must have been mad. It was hard enough for normal people to get a living. But on that rock – they couldn’t have any animals, and they couldn’t grow anything except a few herbs…”

“They could fish,” I pointed out. I was thinking it sounded like a nice existence, at least for a writer. I bet those early monastic scribes were very happy in their 6th-century life on the remote island and would feel very sorry for us 21st century writers with too much food and not enough God and no peace.

Ellen looked dubiously at the sharp brown cliffs over the rough water. “Fish…” she said faintly. “They might fish. But they’d be dependent on puffins, and seagulls…and religion. Mad. My ass is soaked through.”

So this is how the scenery looked: a chop of silver-gray water, thick and hard with points of waves on it, occasionally sharpened by little wet flames of sunlight, when the damp and soft-edged sun appeared in a hole in the clouds. Above the waterline, the islands and banks were rocky, gray and strangely dry-looking. Above them rose dull brown cliffs, with little vegetation, no houses, no visible animals, no livable-looking habitat. On the bank of the mainland, on my right, the earth held millions of trees of different shades of green, but the islands had none. Above the brown stretches of hillside was pale blue, thickly clouded sky.

I named and studied the colors, trying to memorize the shades for my painter and interior designer friend, Miho: dark gray, gray-brown, rust-brown, pale blue, gray green. Who would think such a dull palette could result in such spectacular and soothing scenery? There was no warmth in it except some of the peaty browns.

“Are we almost there?” someone said. Kim and Barbara were not looking at the scenery; they were keeping their heads down, as the rain was driving into their faces if they looked up. I was glad to be sitting with my back to the weather and thought of the Irish blessing about having the wind at your back. My father had given me part of it as I left: “May the road rise up to meet you.” Maybe it was.

Over the chop and the wind, we talked about how great it would be, later, to get in a warm bath, into dry clothing. We speculated about the central heating of our rooms at the Park Hotel, and about the likelihood of our getting Irish coffees on our lunch stop – a barbecue at Lord Brandon’s cottage, at the gap of Dunloe, an outdoor meal which Ellen was sure was going to be moved indoors because of the weather. Ellen apologized for the rain and cursed the young PR woman who’d encouraged her to bring us on this venture. “But it’s great,” I said, gratingly. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Neither have I,” she said, grimly. “And never again.” Later, she amended it to say that in future, she might tentatively plan the boat trip but “call it on the day” dependent on the weather. Well, I didn’t want to draw her attention to the fact that she had called it off, on this day, but someone (I) had talked her back into it. So I told her  that any PR person could take a group of writers to a five-star hotel for lunch. But it took an independent thinker, a brave and hardy soul, I implied, to bring us to a freezing cold lake to be drenched with rain and out of sight of civilization— to show us the real Ireland.

The boat slowly veered towards a marshy bit of island. “Are were there?” Kimberly asked. She was huddled tightly under the tarp and her cheeks and hair were streaming with water sluicing off her cap.

“You know last night, you were saying you had trouble with narrative?” I asked her. “Well, conflict is at the heart of all fiction.”

“We’ll start a fight on the bus,” Ellen offered.

“No, really,” I said. “Those people on the bus are dry but they’ll have nothing to talk about later. We’ll all remember this for ages. If nothing bad happens, there’s no story.”

Barbara – the one from the Arctic Circle – nodded as well as her frozen muscles would allow. “It’s true, Gillian. We will remember this a long time.”

The boat was nosing into some grasses. There was nothing man-made in sight except for an ancient stone bridge, apparently the same vintage and structural stability as the monastery. I wondered if we were going to have to go rock-climbing to get to our barbecue lunch.

“That’s an unapproved road,” Ellen said. “Don’t write this down. I took a car there once – you’re not supposed to; the road crumbles away under you as you drive. It’s very dangerous. The views were incredible.”

The boatman gesticulated and yelled silently from his end of the boat. Somehow, we realized we were supposed to get out, and somehow, we did. The other passengers said that the boatman was going to shoot the rapids under the bridge, and pick us up on the other side. I was jealous: I wanted to go white-water rafting in the 30-foot rowboat with the old man. “Shall I get back in?” I offered.

He shook his head wetly and vehemently. I got out and joined my friends walking down the stony, slippery path to the bridge. Every time I put my left foot down, water sloshed out the top of my shoe, but every time I put my right foot down, it didn’t.

We were traipsing through a kind of glen or small valley, with the river on one side and little fairy villages made of boulders and ivy and lichen-covered trees on the other. Weird fey hillocks appeared for no reason, and I was sure that under them were coffins or corpses or more monastery ruins or castle foundations or more rocks; everywhere there were turns and twisties  of barely visible paths, and all was green and gray and gleaming with rain.

We walked past the old bridge and down further, out of sight of the boatman. We talked longingly of the hot food we might soon be getting, of the hot drinks and hot baths. The boatman did not appear on the water; a few people went back to see where he was, and one man stood atop the bridge and leaned over and shouted. Ellen promised us that after lunch – which might well contain hot whiskey drinks or at least cups of tea, in our barbecue on the beach – we’d be taking “jaunting cars,” i.e. pony traps, up to the top of the gap, and the  traps we’d ride in had roofs, and the jaunting-car drivers carried blankets for the passengers. This was quite exciting, and we discussed at length the relative merits of dirty cold wet woolen or horsehair blankets compared to dirty wet tarpaulins, and the insulating qualities of both. We decided that wet blankets on dry land would be better than a wet tarp on a wet lake.

Everyone else had by then gone back to watch the boat, so Ellen and I followed. Through the bushes, I saw the front of the red boat nose forward, against the current, and then slide back. “He’s been doing that for half an hour,” someone said. “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

The tiny engine wasn’t strong enough to push the boat upstream through the narrow part of the river flowing through the bridge. We watched, our heads turning right then left as if at a very slow  tennis match, as the boat slowly surged forward a dozen yards, and then was sucked backwards over the boulders.

After a long time, we saw one of the other passengers inside the boat, pushing against the edge of the bridge with a long thin boat-hook. After many, many tries, he succeeded in adding enough forward momentum that the boat passed through the rapids, and the boatman – whom I had not yet heard utter one word – came and picked us up.

There are degrees of coldness and wetness that a person from Florida can understand and relate to, and then there are degrees beyond that that raise primitive fears and long forgotten instinctive reactions. I get tense when I’m cold, and nervous. Kimberly, who lived for many years in St. Petersburg, looked dangerously frigid and could not stop shaking. Barbara sat as close as she could to her, but they were both wearing rain jackets so not much body heat got shared. Ellen, on my side, tried to cuddle up to me, but when she out her arm around my back, she pulled back, newly sodden. “You’re SOAKED!” she said.

“It’s a raincoat,” I said. “Better it than me.”

She didn’t try to get close after that, but just kept herself hands under the tarp as best she could against the flapping of the wind and the breaking white water.

County Kerry barbecue

To our horror, the barbecue was not cancelled. When we reached Lord Brandon’s cottage, a sprawling white house on the side of a cliff, there was an outdoor patio set up with tables, and a  barbecue stove with glowing coals, which we all gathered around and leaned into, trying to dry our clothes and faces and hands and spirits.

Through the steam, Ellen asked Grace, the woman running the outdoor café at St. Brandon’s cottage: “Is there a place we could eat inside?”

Grace shook her wet head. “I’ve got steaks coming out,” she said. “And there’s salads over there, and cold drinks.” We looked at the array of beer and colas, the green salad and tomatoes in festive little bowls.

“Is there a fireplace inside?” Ellen asked.

“Is there a heated room?” I said.

Grace shook her head. “All I’ve got to get dry with is paper towels.”

“Is there anywhere we could go in for a few minutes to warm up?” Ellen asked.

Grace shook her head. “I’ve got baked potatoes coming out, too.”

“Nothing for a vegetarian,” Ellen said. (PR people don’t like writers to miss a meal.)

“There are baked potatoes and salad,” I said. I don’t like people to make a fuss about my not eating meat. “That’ll be great, no worries.”

“I’ve got some vegetable soup in the shop,” Grace said.

“Yes, please!” I said. I’d never been so grateful to have a fuss made over my vegetarianism.

I removed my outermost two layers – my long blue raincoat and a gray velour hoodie – and left them in a sodden heap on a bench as I tried to dry out my sweater. I was ignoring my sodden lower half, as my left side was miserably cold and wet and there was no hope of any warmth or dryness for a long time. I was looking forward to the blankets in the jaunting cars, though.

As we huddled over cooling plates of food in the wind, but out of the rain, Ellen made phone calls to find out where Ruth and the others had ended up. There were a lot of buses involved, a lot of changes of schedule and re-arrangements. I focused on my baked potatoes (not very good, despite my hunger) until I heard Ellen saying something about a taxi.

She wanted to cancel the jaunting cars and get some real, nonjaunting cars, with hard roofs and sides and electric heating instead of blankets. I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to lead my friends into being wetter and more miserable than I already had led them to be.

Just then, the rest of our group arrived.  Ruth, a very pretty woman, looked like an otter with rain dripping from her sleek wet head. She peered over Ellen’s shoulder at her steak, saying, “I hope that’s really, really tasty.” She and the other writers– including the very sick woman who should have been resting in bed or at least lying down in the back of the bus – had descended from the top of the gap via jaunting car, none of them having realized at the outset that it was an hour’s journey and that the rain would be driving directly horizontally into their faces the entire way.

Ellen explained about the taxi she’d summoned, and then looked at me suspiciously. “Do you still want to go in the jaunting car?” I did, especially if I could take an Irish coffee with me. She told the driver to wait for me and then, perhaps out of a sense of PR duty or insane curiosity about this attraction her friend had put her on to for the benefit of visiting journalists, she decided to join me.

I went to get us hot drinks, thinking that with hot coffees and warm blankets, we’d be laughing all the way, ho ho ho ho. The lady behind the counter of the coffee bar was making teas and coffees as fast as physics allowed. I ordered a hot chocolate and an Irish coffee to take away and then, as she spooned cocoa powder and poured shots of whiskey into cups, I said, “Could you make that an Irish chocolate?”

“No,” she said, with unIrish brevity and obvious displeasure. “I can’t.”

Something about her tone suggested that she wanted to say more, and I thought perhaps she thought it a waste of good whiskey to add it to sweet cocoa, and it would be entertaining to hear her say so, so I said, “Can’t or won’t?”

“I can’t,” she said. “I’m not allowed to serve whiskey in any other way besides Irish coffee.”

“Ah,” I said, glimpsing behind her dark eyes many pages of fine-print rules and regulations for the serving of alcoholic beverages in the County of Killarney, or wherever we were. “Is that because Irish coffee’s a food, and you’re not a bar? So you can serve food but not liquor?”

She nodded tiredly. I got the impression that she thought it was a stupid and confounding rule, but being Catholic, she was used to such impositions of authority and would not risk her eternal soul to try to overturn it.

“I see,” I said. I handed her a 10-Euro note for the drinks, and she gave me two covered cups, whispering, “I did it for ye anyway. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t!” I said. “Thank you!” and I went jauntily back to the jaunting car.

Our driver was Casey and the horse’s name was Charlie. Charlie was a big black and white cob, wet to the withers, but Casey owned him and assured me that he took good care of him and indeed, the entire way up the mountain, about an hour, didn’t use the whip once except to touch Charlie’s hip as gently as I might nudge a kitten. Charlie responded to clacks and whistles and singing from Casey, and even, when Casey sang a certain Irish ballad, Charlie seemed to step up his own tempo to match the rhythm. I am aware that that last sentence sounds like something in an Enid Blyton story, and I’m sorry, but it is exactly my adult and sober perception that on the three occasions when Charlie began a particular song, the horse changed its pace, and that the latter pace went better with the song.

Charlie pulled us strong and sure up the potholed, rutted pathway of the gap. It was very steep in places and I offered to get out, but neither Casey nor Charlie took me up on the offer, and indeed I don’t think the cob was much bothered by his burden. The strangest thing was when Casey stopped the horse and told him to back up, back up, back up, and Charlie did so, in blinkers, blindly following girders and pushing back the little cart with his sizable rump. We must have backed up about 40 feet, over potholes full of wet muddy rainwater, before Casey stopped and reached down to pick something up off the road. “Someone lost some sunglasses,” he said, and tossed them onto the seat.

I was amazed. Ever since I lived on the beach I have vowed never again to spend money on sunglasses or beach towels, since both items are available free and in great variety and quantity on Anna Maria, every morning after there have been tourists or a storm or both.  But Casey apparently rarely sees sunnies lost in the roadway, and evidently they’re worth enough to inconvenience his favorite horse considerably. I don’t know why he didn’t just have one of us hold the reins while he jumped off and got the glasses, but I was having a hard time understanding his accent and didn’t want to complicate things by bringing up questions of animal welfare ethics.

At the top of the hill, we met the other writers and Will and the other PR lady in a lovely pub with a big red fire. Everyone who came in went straight to the fireplace and stood with their back to it, warming up, until a newer person came in and took their place. Ellen got us hot whiskeys and hot waters with lemon and we all stood around steaming and drank the steaming drinks and survived.

The Park Hotel

The Park Hotel Kenemare made me go and buy a camera. There were only two shops in town that sell cameras, and one of the shops sold only one camera, but it was on sale at 149 Euros marked down from 249 Euros. I looked at its 15X zoom, and then I walked to the other shop, which had two Panasonic Linux (not Lexus!) cameras, one of which had a 5x zoom for 99 Euros and one of which had a 8x intelligent zoom for $139 Euros, none of which made any sense to me. The two salesmen in there, amazingly, seemed to know even less than I did about buying cameras, and could only read to me the information on the boxes in front of my nose: 16 megapixels vs. 12 megapixels.

I wished Nicole were there. She’d have told me in seconds which was the best buy, and why, and if I’d dithered she’d have bought one for herself and sold it to me later. After a lot of wondering, I returned to the first shop and bought the one with the big zoom, hoping I’d made the right choice. As soon as I can work out how to use it, I’ll start sending photos with these blogs.

I would love to send a photo of this room, which is one of the nicest (superlatives be damned) I’ve ever had (in my whole life, damn it). 216 was a huge semi-divided room, with old grand wooden canopied bed curtained with dull gold and dull pink drapes, and a beautiful sitting area with an antique writing desk (where I am sitting with my laptop on the green leather) and lots of big dark glossy furniture. At my right, the green-velvet-curtained window opens to a swath of green grass and gardens to a lake. I would like to stay here for the rest of the press trip, if not the rest of my life.

Dulling the senses

The spa at this hotel has a motto: “Awaken your senses.” After a day of being freezing cold and windblown, wet-arsed and red-cheeked, I didn’t want my senses awakened any  further. I wanted them dulled to gentle soothing numbness, thank you. But the ads and a desire for warmth led me down a copper-and-dark brown corridor, each step nicely dry and dryly carpeted, into an urban sleek spa full of harmonious scents and redolent with Enya music.

As usual in such places, the receptionist was a beautiful young woman with large soft eyes and an even softer voice. As usual the changing area was equipped with locally made toiletries, standard luxury, all very nice, and the two saunas, wet and dry, were pleasingly tiled in off-white little tiles with occasional tasteful touches of red or black or green, and though lying down in  the dry sauna wasn’t “just like lying on the beach” as the soft-spoken receptionist had said it would be, it was very pleasant, and after I sat for a few minutes in the wet steamy eucalyptus-lavender-oil misty wet spa my bottom was warm for the first time in many hours.

And then there was crushed ice to rub on my hot skin, and then a shower with three degrees of intensity, marked from “Irish Spring” to “Tropical Rainfall” to “Monsoon,” and all of that was charming and pleasant and standard five-star kind of thing, all lovely and great but all pretty much on a par with other spas I’ve enjoyed and then I saw the hot tub.

Wow. The tub was in fact an outdoor heated pool the size of a small bedroom, perched on the outer edge of the building, overhanging the hill, and surrounded on three sides and on top with glass, with one open face towards the lake. I had to myself the whole big tub, which was warm, not too hot, and I lay on my back and floated, looking up at the pale blue-gray sky and the pelting blue-gray rain, and I felt very futuristic, somehow, in all that glass and metal and clean air, and at the same time I felt a kind of animistic Druidic sense of occasion – a sort of solstice, a celebration of warmth after an endless period of coldness.

In the park, which is to say in the space around me on three sides, the wind was blowing the neon-green leaves off the laden branches, and the new branches of buds and baby leaves waved like football crowds. The treetops reflected, gray and green, on the surface of the clear water of the pool, and the shadows of the reflections blended with the mottled green-blue and black-brown marble of the bottom.

Face up,. I floated suspended, warm and wet and with a dry warm face, between cool fresh wind and warm clear water, between rain on roof and water beneath me, between indoors and outdoors, between the gap of Dunloe and the Park Hotel of Kenemare. I looked out at the soft gray sky and the green trees and fresh clear transparent air moving the tree limbs around, and I felt very human in a strange, futuristic, beautiful space that was new to me.

And then I got a massage! It started with a footbath and foot massage while I sipped hot ginger-lemon-honey tea made from fresh ingredients that very morning by the beautiful woman doing my massage, Louise, and  then she gave me one of the best most superlative massages of my whole entire life, and wow, it was indescribable, and then after my massage, once I could rouse myself to move again, I was told to relax in the relaxation area, another large quiet glass room surrounded by green and gray nature. Again I had it all to myself, only this time I was reclining on soft dark brown pillows in a heated robe, drinking hot ginger tea and eating lime sorbet from a silver bowl.

Ravens flapped against the wind through the sunlit evening, calling across the quicksilver water. Firs and deciduous trees swung their branches, baby spring rabbits grazed on green green grass, ivy climbed across ancient crumbling stone walls, and azaleas and camellias blazed in full hot bloom. Some pink red-hot-poker type of flower stood up from the grass where the rabbits bounced and played, and around the hills the light lit up the white, twisted trunks of old silver birches, and sometimes the soft-edged sun sifted through the soft, thick gray clouds, and all the time, all the old trees leaned slightly in the same leeward direction.

On my left, the huge gray-stone building of the hotel rose, massive and reassuring as religion, solid and dry under a slate-blue slate roof, and in it was my canopied bed with warm covers and serenity. Wow, I thought. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought. Have I died and gone to Heaven?

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.

“It seems like a big ask,” I said to Nic.  I was worried about our planned date. On Monday, Nic would be returning to Australia after a six-month stay here in Florida. Sunday night, she had planned a great last date for us. She was taking me out to dinner plus a special event: releasing a bat that has been in the wildlife sanctuary where Nic has been a volunteer for six months.

“What does?” she said.

“The bat. It’s been in that little box for, what, two months? And now it’s supposed to make its way in the world? It’s been hand fed grubs and now it has to find someplace to live with a colony it doesn’t know, and fend for itself.”

“That sounds just like me!” Nic said.  She is going home to Melbourne with no job and no place to live: she’ll be sleeping in the extra rooms of friends or family for a few weeks, trying to find her place…so in that sense, yes, I could see why she empathized with the bat and the big ask. On the other hand, she hasn’t been kept in a box here, and she’s stretched her wings plenty. Also, she’s a large and intelligent mammal who can speak the language fluently and already has friends waiting for her.

I was more worried about the bat, which hadn’t so much as stretched its wings out for weeks.  According to Gail, who runs the wildlife sanctuary, it did get out of its cage once and fly around the room in the sanctuary, but for all I knew its muscles might have atrophied since then. It’s a tiny bat, not much more than a baby,  its body about 3 inches long at most, plus a tail of about 2 inches, and its head the size of thimble – plus big ears.  It’s very dark brown, though not black. At the wildlife sanctuary it lived  in a plastic box inside an incubator. The box was big enough for the bat to crawl around and try to clamber up the sides, but not big enough for flight.

After an early dinner by the water, we went back to the sanctuary, and Nic brought the bat in its box to my car. Nic drove, and I asked her to roll the windows up and not talk loudly. “The bat has very sensitive hearing,” I reminded her. As we drove, the bat moved around its box as if eager to get out. Again and again it tried to climb up the plastic sides, but found nothing to hang onto, and slipped back down into the folds of a thick cotton cloth.

We were taking the bat to a bridge over a river nearby where bats were known to hang out, and we would arrive there at dusk. The plan was for the bat to hear its friends-to-be squeaking under the bridge and join them.

About 7.45, just after sunset but with plenty of light still in sky, we got to the park, which is in the middle of an upscale residential area. The waterway is popular with manatees and small boat owners.  The river goes out to the bay there, under a bridge, and the sides of the park slope down towards the water, which is deep and black. I carried the box to a grassy spot, trying not to attract any attention from the few people left around. There were lots of bird noises and a few black crows and white seagulls heading home to their safe places for the night. There were also a lot of cars going over the bridge, which seemed disproportionately loud. The bat, which had been crawling disconsolately around its cloth bedding, hid for a while in a fold of the cloth. It stayed still for quite a while, maybe listening.

Nic and I made out  many different birdcalls, and some other high noises that might have been bats, and might have been insects or other birds. At one point the bat grew as animated as a bat in a box can be – it came out from a fold in the cloth and stretched out one large flat wing. Then it groomed itself a bit, then crawled towards the far side of the box and up the side. It stretched the other wing.

Nic went to look for other bats, trying to spot the colony whence the bats would depart at dusk. She went to the far side of the bridge, by the bay, and then walked back to another bridge a few hundred yards inland.  I sat there watching the bat and watching the sky get darker. The green grass and trees turned to gray-green and then gray. Nic came back reporting no bats. But just as she did, I saw something swoop under the bridge: it was time.

We’d been warned not to let the bat fly out over the water, in case its first flight wasn’t successful. So we carried the box across the bridge to a set of big banyan trees a dozen yards from the water. After we got there, on a bit of land that was between the banyans (on someone’s lawn) and the river, we saw more bats swooping out from under the bridge.

Nic held the camera and I opened the lid of the box. The bat did nothing. After months of trying to escape by climbing up the sides of the box, once the lid was removed the bat seemed to want to go to sleep. The woman who ran the wildlife center had said if the bat didn’t fly off, we could bring it back, but she said usually she just released bats by leaving them in a tree. I wasn’t sure about this – she doesn’t seem to have any evidence that the bats so released ever fly again.

After a few minutes, we lifted the cloth and bat out together, and set them on the grass, at which point that bat took off like a bat out of hell. It stretched its wings a bit but  didn’t fly … it refolded its wings and crawled, at a rapid pace, directly towards the banyan trees. The grass was deep and dark, but we saw the tall grasses moving and so watched the bat’s progress, faster than I’d expected, towards the big trees. It seemed intent on getting there – perhaps there were other bats in the trees and it could hear them, or perhaps the bat was just hastening in the opposite direction from us and the box. It moved as fast as a cat walking, and it was heading directly towards the iron fence. We watched with some alarm, because If it got beyond the fence we would not be able to get it back. I’d told Gail that we’d bring it back if it didn’t seem able to fly. But neither of us wanted to return the bat to the box.

“Well, maybe we should pick it up,” I said.

“Maybe,” Nic said.

As we stood there mumbling and watching the movements in the long, swishing grass, the bat trundled through the railings and onto the private land. Once there, the grass thinned out, and the bat  emerged from the underbrush and took a few trial hops, maybe a foot or so each, in the manner perhaps of the few flight of the Wright brothers’ Flyer at Kitty Hawk, but also in the manner of a creature that can no longer fly properly.  Then it continued crawling. We couldn’t see it anymore but we heard it. We stood listening for a long time, and the noises grew less distinct. There were about five huge trees with long roots hanging down and many dead leaves rustling, but in between the other rustles, every now and then we seemed to hear sounds like a bat crawling.

After a while I moved to another vantage point, and there I saw a creature with a tail  up in the branches of the tree. I saw something stretch a wing out on the ledge by the water. Nic heard bat-crawling noises at the base of the tree.

Well, I was disappointed. It would have been much more satisfying if the bat had swooped up and take a victory lap around our heads, then flown off into the sunset. Maybe in parting it could have given a slight tilt of the wings to acknowledge its appreciation for all Nic and the wildlife sanctuary and I had done  to save and rehabilitate it and give it its freedom. Instead, we stood in the increasing darkness staring through some iron railings and wondering if the rustles we heard were a good sign.

We went back to the car, and drove home. Nic is leaving tomorrow, and I don’t know how she’ll be.

On my way to Oz recently, I had a long layover in LA, during which I stayed at my friend Vicky’s house in Sherman Oaks. I met Vicky at a Sun magazine retreat about 7 years ago and we’ve seemed like lifetime friends ever since.

It was fitting with our Sun-born friendship that on the very day of my visit there would be, she told me, an annular eclipse – a rare event in which the moon passes across the face of the sun, creating a “ring of fire” effect. It would be late afternoon, peaking (or ringing) around the time I’d be waiting on her front step for my airport shuttle. But, she warned me in her best school-psychologist tone, “The only way to see it is not to look at it.”  She said we must  improvise a “viewer,” possibly  from cardboard and paper.

“We could use film,” I said, thinking back to my last eclipse-viewing, ca. 1979 in Florida, when the more scientifically minded of my classmates created little pinhole boxes that worked like cameras to project the light of the sun (of, actually, the absence thereof, in the form of the moon’s shadow) onto a safe viewing area. Other Floridians, we read in the paper, were viewing the phenomenon through used film strips, the brown, sharp-edged negatives that used to be returned when one had one’s photos quaintly “developed” at a “lab.”

Of course Vicky and I didn’t have time that Sunday to look up a website and figure out how to make a viewing device before it was time for the eclipse. We were busy talking, drinking, talking, eating, walking and talking and then packing in a flurry for my flight. I barely had time to call my sister on the East Coast and advise her of the “annular” eclipse.  She had been having cocktails with her neighbor and my mother and they were all a little tipsy.

“A lunar eclipse?” she said, both to me and to her neighbor, Betty, and other assembled guests. “How exciting!”

“No, not lunar, annular,” I said. “It means ‘ring of fire.’ It’s visible here; you’ll have to Google it to see if you can see it there.”

“There’s a lunar eclipse this afternoon!” she sang out to her friends, implausibly.

“No, there isn’t!” I shrieked. “It’s annular. It’s a ring of the sun showing around the moon!”

“An eclipse of the moon?” she asked me. There was a lot of noise in the background, and some static on the line.

“No, the sun! Look it up,” I said. “Google it, or ask Paul.”  Paul, my brother-in-law, tends to know about scientific phenomenon, having been a state park superintendant for most of his life.

“TellFrank and Paul there’s an annual eclipse!” she sang out, incorrectly.

“It’s once every 120 years,” I said. “Annular, not annual.”

“Well, I don’t know what that is,” she said, slightly annoyed. But she was excited about seeing it, whatever it was, and hung up torun find Paul.

Back in California, we toddled outdoors with my suitcase about 5 pm, Vicky carrying a piece of typing paper and a chunk of cardboard with a pencil-sized aperture.

The air was brownish gray and soft, as if it were dusk, and lots of neighbors were out on their own stoops, peering up at the sun between two high buildings. “Oh, wow, it’s really happening!” I said.

“Don’t look at it!” Vicky proffered the two pieces of paper. “If you look directly at it you’ll go blind.” Vicky is Scottish, and her premonitions of doom have a serious Celtic ring of firey authenticity to them.

“But it’s not bright right now,” I protested. “The moon is over it, see?”

“DON’T LOOK!”  She handed me the cardboard-plus-paper like someone giving a prescription drug to a dying person.

I hummed a few bars from the Manford Man song: “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun; but, Mama, that’s where the fun is!” and we argued briefly about who’d written those lyrics. We agreed that Vicky’s boyfriend, Bruce Springsteen, had done a brilliant job with recording it.

I turned my back on the sun as directed by my hostess, and noted that there was a brilliant and interesting reflection in the window of an apartment nearby. “Can we look at it that way?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to go blind!”

I held up the cardboard and let the sun shine through it onto the paper. There was no result at all of my doing so, as the hole was large enough to allow a full beam of light in, with no lens-creation effect at all. “This is not a pinhole,” I complained. “This is supposed to be a hole made by a pin, not a pencil.”

One of the people standing near us overheard, and said, “A pen-hole? Do you have a pen?”

I didn’t (some writer I am), but he did, it turned out, and I pushed it through the thick cardboard in order to make a smaller,  more lens-like aperture.  Then, with a certain amount of angling of papers and imagination, it was possible to see a vague, half-moon-shaped shadow palely displayed on the paper.  It was hardly the “ring of fire” I’d been hoping for, but it was nonetheless evidence of an astronomical occurrence in progress, and I showed it to Vicky with pride.

She didn’t see it. When I looked again, I didn’t see it, either.

The neighbors, who were squinting at the sun through their eyelashes and not going blind, said they could see something, but they didn’t seem impressed. People in LA have pretty exciting lives and a once-in-120 year event is no biggie.

I gave the neighbor his pen back, and Vicky and I sat and waited for my shuttle, and talked some more, updating and deepening the long and ongoing exchanges that make up our friendship.  In the 18 or so hours I’d spent in LA, we’d caught up on our current views and experiences of The Sun, love, sex, families, her work at school, my writing, and weight-loss strategies that were working for us both. Mama, that’s where the fun was.

At 6 a.m. in the transfer terminal of Nadi Airport, in Fiji, I found a shower. The bathroom downstairs near the first-class lounges was unlocked, unattended, and unoccupied, so I helped myself to warm water and pink liquid hand soap. I had no towel with me (using only carry-on luggage for this 3-week trip to three countries, and feeling quite smug about it) but dried myself with my bathing suit and an old bra, the one I’d been wearing since leaving Florida, and in LA for a day, and on the overnight flight to Fiji.

It’s a relic, this bra — 10 years old, the cotton worn thin in places and worn out to holes in others, and useless as a supportive garment. I planned to wear it one last time on the first leg of this journey, where comfort mattered more than appearance, and then throw it away. It’s disposable clothing. But as I reached towards the trash can, meaning to drop in the soggy, stinky ball of material balled in my fist, I was stopped by seeing a scrap of red yarn.

     

That one inch of red, sewn with one stitch and then knotted in the elastic, was a remnant of my first trip to Bali in 2002. Ten years ago, newly emigrated to Australia and still not a citizen, I had to leave the country every 4 months to renew my visa. So I took a holiday to Bali with my Australian partner, Nicole. While staying at a casual beach-side resort, we’d taken our laundry to the strip of shops and cafes in the village, where we were relieved of our bundle and our chore by two young women. They inventoried, listed, marked with thread, washed, dried, folded our laundry and returned it with huge smiles and warm greetings to our hotel room the next day, wrapped in brown paper, for about $9. Each item was marked with a bit of bright red yarn, which we deduced was used to distinguish our laundry from other people’s in the washing machine.
     
The two weeks we were on that trip, we were also closing on the purchase of our first house, a condo in a Melbourne suburb. It was the first house either of us would own, and the beginning of our life together.    

A decade later nearly to the week, I’m dripping in a steamy windowless airport bathroom, trying to throw away the bra I wore on that trip. It’s worn out. I don’t need it anymore. I’m traveling lightly as I fly into Melbourne for what might be the last time. 
     
Nic and I sold our condo a year ago, and then, 6 days before we were due to leave on an extended trip to Europe, she broke up with me. All of our belongings except what we were taking on vacation were in storage for six months. I had no time and no ability to sort them and to figure what I would need for my life without her.
     

I went alone to Europe for four months, and then I went to Florida to live near my parents, and pretty early and often after we split up, Nic said she’d made a mistake in breaking up with me — I agreed — and she wanted to get back together. She said she’d meet me in Europe, but she didn’t, and then she said she’d meet me in Florida, but she didn’t, and now she has a new girlfriend. Our plans to reunite and repair and resume our relationship have gone from being on hold to being off.
     
 I am now going back to Melbourne and the storage unit, to sort out my stuff, doing what I didn’t have time to do last year. In the next 13 days I will examine, evaluate, touch and decide on every single item in a 10-cubic-metre storage unit, and each thing I will give away, sell, or ship to myself. There will be no more storage after I get on my return flight in 2 weeks’ time, and so, presumably, also there will be no question of my coming back.

I look at the small red knot, with frayed ends, against the dingy and sodden white cloth. I will not throw it out, yet. I want to show it to Nic, one more time.
     
We were amazed that our nine Australian dollars — about enough to pay for a suit to be dry-cleaned, at home — could buy such painstaking work from the two washer-women. The difference in pay for their labor and our own shocked us. On my hourly wage at that time, it would have taken me nine minutes to earn $9. It wasn’t that we felt we were underpaying them — that $9 would buy a lot more for them in Bali than it would for us in Oz. And our standards of living were probably not all that different, in terms of what we ate and were we lived and how we got around. If it took each of them, say, an hour to do our clothes, and that work earned them enough for a couple of days’ groceries, it was relatively similar to our earning potential.

 
But the work they did seemed different: their was manual labor while ours, ostensibly, was not. But Nic, a reference librarian, had to have a shoulder replacement from handling books, and I, a reporter in Parliament, had to take several months off work to have physical therapy for my left arm and hand, because of strain from typing. I wondered if the Balinese women got such injuries from their jobs, and if they did, if they got treatment.

The bit of yarn brought back all that reflection, that awareness of difference and similarity that is the heart of travel. It also brought back pleasant memories. I remember sitting on some low, shallow steps at the entry to a shop where Nic was buying postcards — for which she did not bargain, thus adding incrementally to the imbalance in prices paid by tourists — and one of the many slim, saronged women who were standing around the shop in their flip-flops, either working in the store or spending time with friends who worked there, started chatting to me. She, very short, was about on eye level with my head as I sat on the low step, with my knees up around my ears. Seeing my belly protruding between my legs, she said, in a friendly way, “You going to have baby?”
     
 Aghast, embarrassed, and laughing, I said, “No, I’m just fat.” All the ladies laughed, and so did Nic and I, though I sounded a little high-pitched.
     
Later on, another local, used to spotting tourists from different parts of the world, told Nic she looked as if she came from Stuttgart: we didn’t know if it was Nic’s auburn complexion, her sturdy build, or something else (her refusal to bargain?) that made them make that mistake, and we wondered which was worse: to be thought pregnant, or German.

 At a lush tropical spa, in a shady private outdoor courtyard with a waterfall for background music, Nic and I got a “couples massage” that included oils and creams and rubs and much lovely attention to various parts of our bodies. We shared a milk bath. We drank a strange, opaque, hot fruit-and-cereal beverage. The two slim, beautiful, long-limbed Balinese masseuses helped us shower off the salt scrub, as unselfconscious with us as if we’d been toddlers, not grown-up women and lovers.
  

 I have no other mementoes from that trip.

 

 I will be meeting Nic at Melbourne Airport in 12 hours, and soon after that I will throw away that bra.

     
 And then I have to sort out all the other stuff in storage. One way would be to select and save only things I can remember now, that is, the things I have actually missed in the year since i last saw them, to wit.:
     
    1)  My cookbooks. My bound, fluttering, pages-falling-out, heavy binder of my own collection of recipes, the Esalen cookbook, and my Cold Pasta paperback. My Calphalon omelette pan and soup pot. My Wusthof  knives.
     

    2) Canadian artist Jillian Tebbitt’s charcoal-and-ink paintings from her “threshold” series, each about five foot high, which were framed in beautiful silver-and-rust frames and which hung asymmetrically over our staircase in Melbourne. Also some portraits of me and my mother drawn by my late friend Richard Illsley.
     
    3) The wardrobe. It’s the only piece of furniture I shipped out to Oz in 2001, and the only one I care about. About 150 years old, it’s either French or English, and I got it when we moved into an old house in England when I was 16 — it had been left behind by the previous, French, owners, who must have been either very sad to let it go, or crazy. It’s a medium-dark wood, inlaid with lighter pieces in irregular, soft shapes, like bows and ribbons with long curling ends cascading down the sides of the bevelled mirror. The ribbon-ends are tapered, flowing and symmetrical, the opposite of the chewed-looking torn off yarn ribbon on my bra — and I have never seen any inlay so beautiful and unusual. 

It would cost me at least $1000 to ship it to the USA. I could get perhaps that much, or perhaps much less, if I sold it to an auction house. I have no job and no regular income beyond a modest amount from the proceeds of the sale of my house. It’s the only piece of furniture I own or care about. It’s beautiful. There are other beautiful wardrobes in the world; the world is full of lovely things that other people have had to give up or sell when they’ve moved, and i could buy one with the money I got from selling this one. None of the other beautiful pieces were part of my life when I was 16. It’s only furniture. It’s the only furniture I own.

If I can’t decide what to do with that wardrobe, and if I can’t bear to throw out a wet, twelve-year-old undergarment that no longer serves its purpose, how can I give up on my relationship — a civil union, and essentially a marriage — of twelve years? I can’t imagine how I will do this.

     
All I know is that it’s related: how I make decisions on the stuff in the storage locker is related to, and affects, and is affected by, how I make decisions in my heart.  But right now, I don’t know how I will manage either one.
 

Many of you have written asking various forms of the title question (“Where have I been?”) in varying degrees of irritation /bemusement / relief when you did not receive any Blogodonia posts after late September. Well, I was all over the place, to wit, viz,  after leaving Europe in late September, I went back to Florida via stops in New Jersey with Paul; Philly with Miho; Sy, Norma, Tim, Krista, and Heather (and kids) in Chapel Hill;  and Alabama with Leslie. Then, between October to May I was in England (twice) on press trips, and in between  I was changing my abode in Florida frequently. Such fun is living out of a suitcase, re-usable green bags, and the back of my niece’s old Honda, that I’ve started a new game. It’s called “Where’s Jill?” or in the vernacular, “Where the bloody hell is she now?”

Today’s “Where’s Jill?” quiz offers three hints: 1) It’s a major international airport. 2) It’s called the mile-high city. 3) I am en route from TPA (Tampa, Florida) to LAX (Los Angeles, California). I have nostalgic feelings about this airport from the early 1980s, when I discovered the “chapel” on the second floor and spent a peaceful afternoon between flights, sleeping on a red-cushioned pew, in total solitude. Those were of course the pre-Home Security days, when you could be free of human company and surveillance in an airport as long as you were seeking out the  presence of The Divine.

Today, though, I’ve found a new area of the airport to enjoy. It’s unusual  in that it is not crowded on a Saturday afternoon, and there are plenty of seats, although sadly not the kind one can lie down across. Still, even with ample seating downstairs, I noticed the green grass above me: the upper realms of the hangar-like terminal were unoccupied, so I took the escalator up to a huge, open area of which one tiny room off to one side is apparently an employee break room.  Now I have to myself a space roughly the size of a huge penthouse, with at least 20 seats all available to me, and a view of the concourse and the gate below, and NO ONE else is here!

I came up here hoping to nap, but I’ve turned into one of those sad people you see at airports, surrounded by computer equipment and hunched over a couple of small screens while holding a phone. I am using my phone, my Kindle, and my netbook, and the best way to access them all while remaining within reach of the electrical outlet is for me to sit on the dusty, dirty carpet. So I am.

I am en route to Melbourne, Australia, on a journey that will last about 4 days — I left Florida on Saturday and will arrive Melbourne I hope Tuesday night, and even including the loss of 24 hours due to the International Dateline, it’s still a big trip. I am spending Saturday night with my Scottish friend Vicky, who lives in LA, and whom I haven’t seen in about 2 years, which will be great fun, but the rest of the journey between hemispheres is not going to be nearly as  pleasant as it will be to drink G&Ts with her and chat and enjoy her Scottish accent and British sense of humor.

The purpose of my trip is complicated (no kidding) but in short, I am Tying Up Loose Ends, at least logistically, and thus untangling a bit of Nicole’s and my knotty domestic lives, even as we see how the threads will run together in future (to prolong a metaphor past its useful life).

Consequently, I am going to be touching and sorting the 99% of my worldly possessions that are in storage in Melbourne, and thus in transit I am traveling (or travelling, for  British readers) lightly, carrying only electronic items and their impressively long and thick cords, drugs (Valium and antidepressants), and tampons (there’s a reason there’s a brand called ‘Always’). Having so few items with me, I feel it important to keep everything charged up at all times, so I’m now alternating the alternating current source to my three best friends: Kindle, red HP, and Tracfone.

I bought the Kindle last January before my first long flight this year to England, and have subsequently used it only on long flights, so I don’t know it very well. I have only one book on it, David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST, and in my fifth month of purchase I’m still only 8% of the way through it (note: this is not quite as feeble an effort as it sounds: the book in standard print is nearly 2000 pages).

Having a few hours to kill here in the mystery airport, I decided to see if I could access my email on my Kindle, and I found that yes, with only about 2 solid minutes of clicking, tapping, and smearing my finger across the tiny touch-screen, I could in fact get gmail up, albeit in a font best suited to small insects. Still I could read a message from Nic, having a wonderful time in Hobart, and I could write back — oh, wait, I could hit Reply and get a blank space to write back — but no, I couldn’t write. There was no keyboard , no matter how many times I tapped the touchscreen, mimicked the motion of typing letters on it, swore, or fiddled with the mysterioussettings or pressed promising-looking icons. I even turned the screen horizontal, hoping a keyboard would fall into place, but none appeared.

So I switched to my netbook to write back to Nic, but left my Kindle on to charge. It was at 92% when I put it down — plugged into the wall socket — and a minute later when I checked the storage again, it said 91%.  At that rate I’d be flat within an hour and a half, so I’ve stopped checking it and hope it will charge itself.

Meanwhile, the owners of a baby that has been crying through my entire trip have ascended the escalators into this area which I was starting to think of as my private study. Incredibly, this child and its misery have been my companions since we were seated in the waiting area at Tampa. Now, at least 1000 miles distant (clue #4!) and 7 hours later, I am still within hearing range of this baby, whose sobs are not just sad or angry like most babies’, but a kind of choking, wracking cry that makes me want to put it out of its misery.

It’s times like these — and they come often — that I am once again proud and glad not to have had children. I feel sorry for these parents, but I also wonder what they were thinking; they already have two other perfectly good children, trundling around them like moons, never straying far from the center of diaper bags, carry-on strollers, and parental authority and snacks — did they (the parents) really think a third one was a good idea? And if they did, couldn’t they keep it to themselves and not allow its wailing disjointed cries in the public world of airports, where there are stressed and under-resourced travel writers trying to calm and corral their own important charges?

I am going, as I said, to Melbourne, to sort out my life’s possessions. I will have 13 days and 14 nights there, to organize the storage, giving-away, sale, tossing-out, and shipping of a decade’s worth of personal items. I have completed only 1 of the 5 flights I will need to get there, and already I’m on the verge of infanticide. I’d better go get something to eat. Where the bloody hell am I?

In late May, when I left New Jersey for 3 ½  months in Europe, I packed everything into two bags: one black, medium-sized, cylindrical bag on wheels, plus one red daypack.  The cylindrical bag can be expanded to the size of a large gym bag or folded down very small, with the use of extra zippers.  The total weight of all my gear was about 20 pounds.

My friends and my niece – who suggested I use plastic baggies to separate items in the bags — praised me for packing light and nodded appreciatively when I bragged that, after two weeks, once I’d given away a bunch of gifts in Macedonia, I’d be down to just a very small version of the black cylinder.

Two months later, I hadn’t reduced the size of the black bag at all. In fact it was more tightly packed than when I’d left, despite all I’d offloaded, because people had given me gifts, and I’d bought a few essentials as well.  As I was leaving Macedonia, here is what I was carrying:

Clothes

Tops: 1 long-sleeved cotton teeshirt, 1 zip hoodie, 2 short-sleeved cotton teeshirts (I’d only brought one, but I was given one from the Macedonian Pearl seminar, which practically gave me VIP status anywhere in Macedonia), 1 button-down cotton dress shirt (a gift from Leeanne after I admired it); 1 button-down quick-drying camping shirt.

Bottoms: 2 pairs of quick-drying camping pants, one full-length and one Capri-length; one pair lightweight hiking pants.

Dresswear: Black, below-knee-length TravelSmart dress (formerly my mother’s).

Smalls (in Baggies) : One short-sleeved wool undervest or “Spencer,” 2 sturdy, uncomfortable bras and 2 useless, comfortable ones; 7 pairs undies; 2 ½ pairs of white socks (the missing sock was lost from the best pair, a bamboo-fabric from Timberland, which I’d left in a private home in Macedonia where I washed my socks in the family sink; I kept hoping I’d find the lost sock, and so did not throw away the one odd one) plus one nonwhite pair (those, formerly white, had been accidentally grayed by my friend Chris in Macedonia, when we had access to a washing machine).

Shoes: 1 pair stained and exhausted Sketchers Shape-Ups, 1 pair black Crocs sandals.

Jewelry: 1 watch; 2 nearly identical bone pendants with suns on them, from Thailand (I thought I’d give one away but haven’t found the right person yet.)

Miscellaneous: 1 mold-stained bathing suit.

Toiletries

In black bag given to me by Nicole 12 years ago: Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap in two forms (liquid and solid), toothbrush and paste, dental floss,  1 small pair nail scissors and 1 nail clipper; several hotel-room bottles of moisturizer; eye drops, Aspirin, Rx, tape for wrapping my knee. In plastic baggie: assorted tampons, eye drops, earplugs, eye mask.

 

Everything else

Music and art supplies: pages of music and lyrics for Roma and Macedonian folk songs and some American gospel and shape-note songs;  a bag of paints, brushes, and art erasers given to me by Walt, along with sheets of 100-weight painting paper and a few cardboard frames.

Reading and writing materials: One paperback, Reading Lolita in Terhan, which after 2 months I had read only 8 pages of; at least 15 pens, including one from Turtle Bay Resort, Hawaii; one from Scottsdale, AZ,  CVB, and one from the DisneyWorld Hilton (I am unable to leave pens behind and am never without at least a dozen of them);  1 small “steno”  notebook.

Electronics: 1 Acer Aspire netbook, 2 memory sticks; one Swiss-Army brand laptop “skin” to  protect the netbook from falling (but not, it turned out, from loss);  1 digital Linux camera in a pink case; extra memory card, cable to connect camera to computer; 1 large, heavy universal adaptor plug

Ceramics: 1 Macedonian angel figure (a gift from Vaska, my friend and the receptionist at Hotel Manister, chosen by her little girl); 2 mugs with spoons given to me by Gabi (the friend in the MAUS story).

Miscellany: Water bottle (with water); organic gourmet Vitamin-C lollipops, Vitamin C tablets, lysine, glucosamine; 2 small handwoven dishcloths, given to me by a nun at the monastery where I stayed; the smallest Swiss army pocketknife made; 1 WW 2-era brass Yugoslavian Army field oil & polish dispenser ; 1 recycled parachute-silk bag (maroon, very strong).

Rugs: 1 large, heavy handwoven wool runner, black and red, a gift from the nuns at Berovo, which took up 1/5th of my bag and weighed as much as all my clothes put together (I was warned  not to ship anything I cared about by Macedonian post, so I had to carry it.)

That was all I was left with after I’d given away a lot of gifts from the USA, passed on several warm, bulky items of clothing to the nuns, and mailed a few things to England. Other than the rug and the ceramics – which were precious gifts – what could I have done without? Admittedly the lollipops were nonessential, but I’d been giving them out to kids in Macedonia and had only a few left. They are gourmet lollipops, and lightweight, so I didn’t chuck them out. As for the Yugoslavian oil dispenser, you never know when you’re going to need one of those to clean a rifle.

But it was too much. I hated having to carry those two bags every time I moved. I have dragged it resentfully through two continents and 7 countries, and in that time I’ve thought carefully about how to lighten the burden. Now, near the end of my journey, I’ve figured out how to travel really lightly, so from now, on all future journeys,  I  will be able to use only one small daypack. Here is the secret, which I offer for any of my friends or readers to use or share with any of our fellow and sister travellers. In future, I won’t bring any clothes.

(Note: The following post will be a whole lot more interesting to people who have read the post immediately preceding it. To view that post, click on the title, “Keys Lose; Family Get.” , which should appear  just above and to the left of this text.)

In the middle of this morning, I went out to the garden, where I noticed that the small silver-ribbon-wrapped teddy bear had moved in the night. He (she? it’s hard to tell) had moved from where I’d left him, with his little head sticking out above a flower pot as in an Anne Geddes portrait, to a more comfortable position where he could rest his back. I remembered Carol’s advice to ask him about the pixies…

Also I remembered Lyn’s advice to look near the arch. I also remembered Siobahn’s interest in  the parsley I bought at the car-boot sale. I ignored all of the advice, but I did move the car-boot parsely out of the greenhouse into the open air, so it could get some rain. This move necessitated the re-arrangement of several other pots, so that the newcomer could also get a share of any sunlight that might ever fall on this part of England. This is what I was moving around, as seen from eye level:

Pots seen from human level

As I reached for one of the small pots, I saw it like this:

Pots at pixie level

And then, I saw this:

Pot at teddy-bear level

I can’t think how the keys got underneath that pot! I have not touched it in at least 5 or six days, yet the keys disappeared only the day before yesterday. I didn’t go anywhere near those pots when I put the parsely out…at least, as far as I can remember. I think the only rational explanation is that the cats, pixies, and teddy bear worked together, for the fun of watching me play hide-and-seek (mostly seek) for 36 hours.

I would like to thank the friends and relatives on three continents who contributed support, psychic intuition, and common sense during this difficult time. I am especially grateful to the silver-wrapped teddy bear, who wishes to remain anonymous. May she guide your future searches.