Thursday, 13 December 2018

Yerevan remembered fondly

Right after the Crimean war we used to hang out in Salvo’s bar in Yerevan, me, Nana Mouskouri and Marco Polo. Nana was old enough to be my mother back then; now she’s old enough to be my grandmother. The bar was on the second floor of the Hotel Philosophe and we always took a table over by the window where Russian soldiers couldn’t overhear us: they were everywhere back in those days, and they were none too subtle in their eavesdropping. Hemingway usually had a table in the back where he could smoke and nobody noticed him, or so he liked to think. He was the only one of us who carried a gun. Most afternoons we talked poetry, with good Georgian wine to get us started, while April thunder clouds gathered around Ararat just over the border in Turkey then drifted down the snowy slopes to drop the coldest rain onto Republic Square. None of us had jobs or even the right (or inclination) to work, but we had a book running every weekend taking bets on who would arrive at the opera house on Saturday night on the arm of the French ambassador’s wife, and who would go home with her husband who always left right before the curtain fell with some beauty or other.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Rent an Irish cottage.

How do you know you've seen the "real" Ireland when you go there on holiday? That questions goes for any country of course, and it seems that tourists generally believe that they've seen the real thing only if what they see matches their pre-conceived assumptions of what the place ought to be like, Even Irish people have different ideas and experiences of what constitutes genuine Irish living, and even foreigners who come to live here for a prolonged period of time only get insights into some aspects of Ireland, not Ireland in its entirety.

One misconception is that the Irish are all Catholic, heavy drinkers, red-haired and hate the English - personally I've never met anyone who ticks all those boxes. Nor have I ever seen anyone in the street dressed in what is thought of as "traditional" Irish clothing, whatever that is. Everyone's experience is different. Am I not genuinely Irish if (as is the case) I never get drunk, don't like potatoes, have no interest in emigrating to America and speak fluent Irish which most Irish people do not?

So If you are tempted to come to "do" Ireland you are welcome, just expect us to fit anyone's stereo-typical view of what it is to be Irish, and be done with any romantic nonsense about travelling in a jaunting car.

Much better is to come and live (quietly) not in hotels but in a private house for a week or two. Renting an cottage has become big business, and they are available all over the island and all year round at reasonable prices. Rent one in Donegal or Mayo, in a rural area if you can to experience the feel of isolation, and take one for a day or two in Dublin before you fly back home.

But be warned, there are some things to watch out for:

  • It WILL be wet.
  • TV reception is not good outside larger towns
  • Sheep get everywhere
  • It's expensive to eat out
  • Signposts on country roads are not to be trusted
  • We drive on the LEFT hand side of the road
  • Don't order Budweiser by referring to it as Bud - bod (pronounced bud) is Irish for penis.
Have a great holiday.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Sleeping rough.

An empty back street just after midnight in a broken part of town. It could be anywhere - Genoa, Marseille, Hamburg - in the winter of 1977. I’m nineteen. Fine, dirty rain drives past closed up offices with broken windows and the sharp wind explores the depth of every sheltered doorway in a way that discourages drifters and tramps from sleeping there. One doorway is angled out of the wind. I find it, I have a nose for such places. I drag in cardboard boxes that I flatten into a thick, springy mattress and I prop up a bin that’s been left lying so that I feel like I have walls all round me. The only street light that works is more than a hundred metres away. I’m safe. I have a blanket, and when I pull it over my head and breathe my breath can’t float away into the night so it warms my nose every time I exhale. I hear trains shunting, sirens, cats and I’m desperately hungry.

Melancholy in Turin.

What better place for a spot of spring melancholy than a seat in the cold sunshine at a table outside Turin's Caffè Elena. It was Cesare Pavese's favourite bar, frequented also by Nietzsche and me, but not at the same time. Just to sit there looking out over the empty Piazza Vittorio with an espresso and a newspaper in the morning, wrapped up in a heavy coat and a scarf. The lonely figure of a priest walks across the emptiness of the piazza and scares off pigeons that swirl around his head as they lift off the dry, dusty cobbles ..... oh sweet melancholy. I imagine it was on a morning like this that Pavese decided that when he returned to his room in the Rocca and Cavour hotel he would feed himself on barbiturates and depart.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Death between Berlin and Vienna.

Chords are played on a piano in Berlin. They are played with a slow, melancholic touch, late on a cold night. The apartment is quiet and the sounds travel through an open window and echo around the empty square below. The music and the brittle light of the stars ricochet off the walls of buildings gleaming with sleet, though ricochet seems to be too harsh a word to use for chords of melancholy piano music, though I cannot find a more appropriate word to use. I could say instead that the music bounced off walls but perhaps bounce would be too frivolous. So we will leave it that when the music was played by a slow, despairing hand the sounds flowed out of the open window to be redirected out of the empty square when they touched the wet walls. Some of the music along with some shards of broken light slithered down the walls to dissolve in puddles of snow melt.
The melancholic soul of the pianist was transmitted through the quiet atmosphere into hallways and attics of buildings all the way to Vienna where they disturbed the dust in one particular closed-up room where generations of my family took their turn at dying over many decades. I heard the music arriving in the rustle of an evening newspaper. My grandfather heard it also and it disturbed his sixty year sleep and he paced around the room for a long time, fretting over pictures that had hung on the walls since before he was a boy, photographs that had been faded by age and revenge.
Now the light of the moon is glinting off the wet cobblestones in a small town in Umbria. The world has fallen silent, or just about. The only sound to disturb the cold peace that has blown in from the countryside is the occasional squeal of a cat roughly mated by a passing Tom. The back street I walk along is narrow; in places I can touch the houses on both sides at once when I stretch out my arms. In the near distance I can see wooded hills on top of which the moon seems to be balancing. The smell of pines and cooking drifts about on the night air. A door opens quietly onto the street, letting a wedge of light fall onto the cobbles. A women puts her head out into the street, holding her dressing gown tightly around her body. She looks around but doesn’t notice me standing in the shadows. A man pushes out past her, takes hold of a scooter that he pushes down the street away from me without responding to the woman’s wave, and soon in the quietness I hear an engine kicking into life and the scooter zips away into the night, buzzing like a demented wasp at the end of summer. The woman stands in the doorway for a while looking up at the stars. I can smell the smoke from her cigarette and hear a slow melancholy playing on a piano from inside her house.
And so to Syracuse. By the time the music arrives the moon has moved away. I have an espresso on the terrace of a café opposite the cathedral where the early morning sun glints off the wet, white marble forcing me to hide behind sunglasses. No-one else is about, or almost no-one. A priest comes out of a tiny dark door in the side of the cathedral. Black, ankle-length soutane, black hat, green scarf. He sneezes in a loud, uncontrolled fashion almost losing his balance and his hat. He looks embarrassed and pretends it never happened, he never filled the quiet piazza with a vulgar sneeze. A nearby dropping of pigeons is startled and lifts off the white marble pavement in a flap of dry, dusty feathers to roost on the roof of the cathedral, and as they and the sneezing priest leave the piazza it returns to its melancholic quietness to make room for the piano music pouring into the morning out of an upstairs window above the café.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Brasserie Federal, Zurich.

While I’m waiting in Zurich (watching the spy in the mirror who is wearing a hat just like mine) I’ll take a seat in the Brasserie Federal. I’ll have the peppered venison with red cabbage, chestnuts and apple, with a Falken schwartzbier to drink and fried apple rings with vanilla sauce to follow. Then coffee, after which there’ll be just enough time to board the 21.40 to Prague. We’ll pull out of Zurich train station precisely on time and before long the seats will have been turned down into beds and I’ll be able to watch Switzerland, Germany and the Czech Republic zip past my window under a clear, winter sky full of crystal and pearl.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Peaches, but not so fresh.

 We sat on a rock in the smoke of a hot afternoon. The sun beat down hard but the trees around the stream used their thick-packed leaves to filter out most of its merciless rays. Only a little direct sunlight managed to penetrate the leafy canopy so not much grew beneath the trees making it easy to find a good spot on the river bank to spread out the picnic blanket. There were squirrels, and the only noise was of the fast river pouring over rocks. And there were birds. I don’t remember much else about the day, but I do know that it was the day that Peaches died and after that there were no more picnics and we moved away to live in the city.

Yerevan remembered fondly

Right after the Crimean war we used to hang out in Salvo’s bar in Yerevan, me, Nana Mouskouri and Marco Polo. Nana was old enough to be my m...