Goodbye Fucking Ireland

November 30, 2010

One of my last nights in Dublin I went to the Brown Bread Mixtape with Carolyn. Brown Bread is a monthly theme night that laces music, spoken word, comedy, and poetry with sly social commentary and, at times, outright rage. I heard about it from a guy I met at work, Kalle, a writer and performance poet from Waterford.

I was enormously impressed by the energy and passion of the players that took over the upstairs of The Stag's Head. The performances were funny, creative, and emotional, showcasing a variety of talent from both Irish and international performers. Although I tend to be skeptical of spoken word poetry which all too often lapses into Beat-speak, I found Stephen James Smith's sultry rhythms moving and was quickly won over.

During the intermission they brought in a great deal of delicious brown bread with butter and jam for the packed audience which went rather well with a nice pint of Guinness. Carolyn and I were interviewed for an upcoming radio show about Brown Bread and we met many of the performers who were absolutely gracious and thankful that we had come.

Although the offerings vary each month, it's clearly Kalle's passion and energy that fuels the Mixtape and makes it so unique. Check out his spoken word piece railing against the Irish politicians in charge of the banking system:

Finally, at the end of the performance, Kalle led the audience through an anthem that shook the walls with heartfelt passion. It reminded me of why Ireland has had such a fierce and bloody history of standing up against political and social repression. To hear a room full of Irish folks roaring, "My blood is boiling for Ireland" is bone chilling. It's hard not to respect the Irish passion for political discussion and action, especially when compared to the level of apathy in the States. "Ireland, Ireland, Ireland fucking Ireland!" the crowd sang. I can't think of a better sentiment now for that troubled island.

Angel of Dublin

September 14, 2010

I met Angel at Slattery's, a local pub frequented by the young, tech folks working for Google and Facebook. Angel's a Chinese immigrant and Slattery's is one of three jobs she's working while putting herself through school to get the European equivalent of an MBA. It was clear that she's a hard worker and ambitious, eventually wanting to start her own business. But for a lot of immigrants, the opportunities (especially in Dublin these days) are limited.

"Angel" (whose real name is Hui Fang) was amused that the more I drank, the more my eyes closed to a squint. Must be a function of old age because it's been commented on more and more. She was intrigued that I was from New York and I would drop in and visit her for a pint now and again to visit with her. She always knew I wanted a Guinness and somehow always had the correct change waiting for me before I even payed her.

The Chinese are incredibly hospitable, she said, even giving up their own beds for guests and she insisted on showing me a good time in Dublin. That I was her American "guest." I couldn't argue and we made plans to go see a movie and then perhaps go dancing later.

Dublin has a lot of immigrants. In fact, most of the people I've met weren't Irish at all. They were Spanish and Romanian, Chinese, French, Moroccan, Mexican, Slovakian. They also tend to get paid less than the comparable Irish worker, but certainly more than they'd be making at home, so there's some understandable hostility and resentment toward the hand that's feeding them.

A lot of immigrants, like Hui Fang, come over to learn English which means they end up with some hybrid of an Irish brogue superimposed over their original accent. In Hui Fang's case, it was rather cute, but I must admit that I struggled to understand her here and there. Since she's only learned English in the last few years, she also struggles a bit to understand English and goes to the movies regularly, which I imagine is good practice. Though in hindsight, perhaps it wasn't terribly wise to take her to see Inception of all movies. Difficult enough for an English-speaker to follow, much less someone already struggling with comprehension.

We took the bus into town and went to a Chinese grocery store so we could sneak snacks into the theatre. I was pretty lost in there and we ended up with some round textured crunchy nuts that were a bit too sweet, some dried chewy strands of salty yellow fish fiber, some sweet creamy gelatin to be slurped out of plastic shot cups, and some green tea drinks. As we covertly opened our snacks under the cover of darkness and the dried fish rose to meet me, it occurred to me that we were likely the only people in the theatre eating some kind of contraband fish gut. There's something special in that.

We went to a pub after and exchanged stories and relationship history. Was this a date, I started to wonder? Hard to be sure. But Angel was refreshingly forward about asking me questions and forthright about answering. I admired her for striving so hard to better herself and told her I'd be happy to show her around New York if she ever visited. After we went to a disco and met her friends, a couple of lovely young Brazilian girls. The club was playing songs like Kool and the Gang's Celebration and Let's Hear It for the Boy, but based on the crowds overwhelming approval, I'm pretty sure they weren't doing it ironically like in some New York borough's. Angel ran to get me drinks regularly (against my protests) and I talked with her friends. One of them, a lovely blonde started making out with a young punter who she apparently kind of knew and I talked to the other about Dublin and places to travel in Europe. When Angel returned, after a short consultation, she insisted her friend liked me and tried her best to get me to pay attention to her. If this is hospitality in China, I certainly can't complain.

After a stop at Burger King for the girls, we ended the night ridiculously late and not a little tipsy, despite the fact that I was meeting Carolyn in Edinburgh the next day for the Fringe Festival. I promised to help Angel with her resume when I got back and that we'd watch another movie together, perhaps Gone with the Wind, which she had downloaded online.

"Gone with the Wind, huh? Is there a Chinese translation for the title?"

"Mmmmm... something like... Girl Who... Girl Who Have Very Long History."

I made a comment about how the movie represented such breakthroughs in technology for its time. Angel didn't believe me.

"Why? When do you think the movie came out?"

"Oh, like very soon. Within last ten years."

Globalization meets pirated media. Certainly the Chinese can't expect we're all walking around with waxed Rhett Butler mustaches... although lately I've been seeing some hipsters that might confirm that very image.

The Galmire Girls

August 30, 2010

Me: On the train to Killarney surrounded by the Glanmire women's basketball team.

Jesse: Dirty limerick ensues?

The Glanmire girls were terribly tall
And up to no good I recall
They were headed to Killarney
For some sporting and blarney
After filling their baskets with my balls

Don't You Forget About Me

August 29, 2010

I've been talking with Ayako about some fundamental differences between Japanese and American culture. While Americans are certainly considered hardworking, frequently turning up in the top 10 hardest working countries, I'm convinced we've got nothing on the Japanese.

According to Ayako, entry-level Japanese workers are expected to put in 12 - 15 hour days the first year working at a company. After that, they're able to finally relax and settle in to a mere 10 - 12 hour day. This is so common there's even a term for death by overworking, called karoshi.

Such devotion to work is perhaps compounded by the idea that Japanese at a young age are expected to plot a strict course in life from which they're not expected to deviate. The Japanese sense of happiness also seems to be bound up in their individual talents. There doesn't seem to be an inherent separation between what motivates someone out of preference verses innate aptitude. It was interesting when asking Ayako what drove her to follow how she spends her time (whether it was working or playing piano), she would respond simply that she was good at it.

We talked a lot about this and what it means to be "happy". Is life any less fulfilling if your happiness is predicated on what you're good at? Can we be bred to be satisfied in our jobs, as opposed to more base inclinations? The American perspective is so different -- one of working hard and playing hard -- but there's a strict separation there. There's not an expectation that people should enjoy their work simply because they're good at it. For those slogging through their jobs (and let's face it, that's a fair number), that's what weekends are for. To reclaim what made life important in the first place.

Desperate to communicate the American idea of having a personality totally independent of work, I wandered past a decrepit theatre in Dublin hosting a John Hughes retrospective. I could hardly resist then, taking Ayako to see The Breakfast Club, complete with the dust and scratches of 25 odd years and a warbling sound track. I couldn't think of a better movie to show teenagers resisting categorization, an inherently American claim to individuality. Not sure she totally liked it, though we both had some giggly moments along with the cheering audience.

These are some statistics of estimated annual hours over 8 centuries (to put our contemporary work ethics in perspective) courtesy of Wikipedia:

year               type of worker                      annual hrs
13th century    Adult male peasant, UK            1620 hrs
14th century    Casual laborer, UK                  1440 hrs
Middle Ages     English worker                        2309 hrs
1400–1600      Farmer-miner, adult male, UK   1980 hrs
1840              Avg worker, UK                       3105–3588 hrs
1850              Avg worker, U.S.                     3150–3650 hrs
1987              Avg worker, U.S.                     1949 hrs
1988              Manufacturing workers, UK        1855 hrs
2004              Avg full-time worker, Germany   1480 hrs
2008              Avg worker, India                     2817 – 3443 hrs
2010              Investment Banker, NY              5082 hrs

What do your work hours look like? Are they in line with the contemporary average of where you're living?

Killing with The Colleen Bawn

August 28, 2010

I took my roommate, Ayako, to see a play at the Temple Bar Project Arts Centre called The Colleen Bawn (which loosely translates as beautiful blonde girl). I had no idea what it was going to be about, but considering the long history of good Irish theatre, felt compelled to see something while in Dublin and was itching to get out of the house on a Friday evening.

The Colleen Bawn is a melodrama written by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault in the 19th century. It was first performed in New York in 1860 and so definitely had dated notions of comedy, suspense, and propriety. That being said, the players did a wonderful job with the material given, considering how ridiculously melodramatic plays of that time could be.

To sum up (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Hardress Cregan and his mother have fallen on hard times. His mother tries to persuade Hardress to marry the wealthy Anne Chute. He agrees, although he is already secretly married to Eily O'Connor, a beautiful fair-haired girl (in Irish cailín bán or colleen bawn) who has many admirers including the roguish Myles-na-Coppaleen. Anne, seeing Hardress with Eily one night, mistakes him for her lover, Kyrle Daly, and, angry at Kyrle, she agrees to marry Hardress. Hardress's servant, the hunchback Danny Mann, offers to murder Eily so that Hardress will be free to marry Anne. Thinking that Hardress has agreed, he takes Eily to the lake where he attempts to drown her, but he is discovered and shot by Myles-na-Coppaleen. At the wedding of Hardress and Anne the police come to arrest Hardress for the murder of Eily, but before he is taken away Eily appears. Hardress is released, Eily is accepted by Mrs. Cregan, Anne and Kyrle are reconciled and Anne offers to pay off the Cregans' debt.
This was based on the true story Ellen Scanlan who at 15 was married to John Scanlan, but when his family refused to recognize the marriage, he persuaded his servant kill her. The servant took her out to the River Shannon in County Clare where he killed her with his gun, stripped her, and weighted her down with a stone before tossing her in the river. After her body washed ashore, Scanlan was arrested for murder, tried, and hanged at Gallows Green.

After the play, we grabbed dinner at the delicious Eden and walked the streets of Temple Bar. There we saw an Australian offering a rather intriguing outdoor amusement. He had a bicycle in which he had reversed the handlebars, so when the rider turned right, the bike went left and vice versa. The Australian had laid out a carpet over the rugged cobblestone street, and charged 4 euro for people to ride the bike roughly 8 feet. For those successful, he would give 40 euro. Every ten minutes or so the Aussie would jump on the bike and ride in circles effortlessly. Of course, when anyone else tried it, they couldn't ride the bike more than a foot before awkwardly stopping or crashing to the cobblestone. But considering the amount of drunken revelers at any given moment in Temple Bar, it was the perfect scam. We watched for about 45 minutes as patron after patron tried to master the reverse bicycle before being humbly thrown to the ground. We estimate in less than an hour, the Aussie had made over 100 euros and had a line of brave, inebriated souls still behind him.

For your amusement, here is a small sample:

Awash in Amsterdam

August 25, 2010

I've always wanted to go to Amsterdam. Not simply for its reputation of wanton permissiveness, but for its ecological consciousness and relaxing pace. It always seems to rank as one of the top 20 best cities to live and with good reason. It's a city that's largely tolerant of diversity, lovely to look at, and a marvel of urban planning.

Because the summer tickets were ridiculously expensive, I had to catch a taxi at 4am for a 6am plane. The cab driver told me all about his homeland of Romania where they grow plums in bottles to make ţuică, a kind of plum brandy. There were old Irish people drinking Guinness at the airport at 5 in the morning. God bless.

Jeanette flew in from Copenhagan and because she works in the hotel industry, got us a room at the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, which first opened in 1867 as a destination for royalty and noblesa, more recently hosting the likes of Queen Elizabeth, The Rolling Stones, and U2. It was a gorgeous hotel right on the water and within walking distance to the center of town. We grabbed some ham and gruyere pancakes with a crowd of Dutch senior citizens and then strolled through the city. We walked around Albert Cuyp Market sampling cheeses and drooling over the smoked fish and pastries, then headed toward Westerpark to the Westergasfabriek, a former gasworks with galleries, cafes, and performance spaces.

We found ourselves in a crowd that looked suspiciously like The Hell's Angels -- lots of leather, large beards, and tattoos. Jeanette looked at me nervously, wondering exactly what I'd gotten her into, until we intrepidly entered a hall to find... well, a biker rally. These were bikers alright, but of the distinctly Amsterdam variety who had tricked out their bicycles in the most bad ass ways. We walked around stunned at the amazing design, a testament to the commitment that Amsterdammers have for cycling.

Everywhere you go, you find bikes lined across canals, corralled into corners, chained to public property. The sidewalks were the only part of the city I found truly challenging, as they negotiate with bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, light rail, pedestrians, other bicycles, and at intersections: cars. But the commitment to being energy efficient is impressive, especially considering the frequency with which it rains.

After dinner we walked down to the red light district to see what all the fuss was about. To be honest, I was disappointed. Though larger than I'd imagined, it appeared to simply be a lot of women in windows wearing bikinis. I'm sure if we'd taken in a show or something I would have had my boundaries challenged, but I found the red light district to be surprisingly sanitary. That probably shouldn't surprise me, as the rest of the city seems just as efficiently managed.

The next day we did a canal tour and hung out in the luscious Vondelpark where we caught a free show -- some inoffensive bluesy music that made it a fine family affair for a Sunday. Still, it's hard to get used to the amount of marijuana smoke wafting through the air at any given time. Though not unusual in New York, the frequency is just ridiculous in Amsterdam. Literally, everywhere you go. But there's also something liberating in knowing that the state isn't wasting precious resources busting people for drugs as they're going through museum security checks. They're able to focus on what's truly harmful. It's hard to realize how tense it is to live in a security state when it comes about so gradually.

Jeanette flew back and I checked into the humble, but clean, Zandbergen Hotel. Not sure why they would put such a menacing clown painting over the bed, especially in the one city where you don't need to be going to bed with menacing clown paintings over the bed... but I digress.

The next day I rented a bike and rode to the Riksmuseum to see some amazing Dutch painting. The Rembrandts were absolutely breathtaking. Some of the colors and textures looked so surreal, they seemed to be popping off the canvas. Amazing that those kinds of effects could be created hundreds of years ago. Makes me think that most digital art strives to achieve the same affect with less than half the effort. Maybe that's efficiency or maybe just laziness, I'm not sure. I then popped over to the Van Gogh museum where I saw many of his early works I'd never seen and learned much more about his life. Those textures and colors of the French countryside are gorgeous and I found myself eager to travel through the south of France.

I walked around the canals, visiting antique stores full of well designed porcelain and Napoleanic memorabilia. Sat in cafes on the water and watched people enjoying the warm weather and boats drifting lazily through the canals. As the sun went down, turning the canals a dusky gold and the strains of accordion players wafted through the air, the scene around each corner seemed lovelier than the last and I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually here.

It made me think that I could easily chill in Amsterdam for a year or two. It's hard to imagine the quality of life being much better with such kind people who seemed so content. I worked out of the Amsterdam office on Monday which is small and has communal tables for lunch. As I was taking a cab back to the airport, the driver asked me if I had any coffeeshop contraband on me, for he would be happy to take it off my hands.

"I don't smoke myself, you see, but people forget it at the airport and can get in some trouble. I usually offer to take it off their hands and just give it to my friends."

Na Zdravie!: Part 2

August 17, 2010

The festival closed down early, so the throng of revelers descended on the poor town of Dun Laoghaire mad with hunger. There were lines everywhere, but none more so than at the off-license liquor store which wound around the block. We walked up the hill toward the center of town and I hit it off with a couple tech guys: Julian a tall strapping Australian who was dating the lovely Judith, and his jovial co-worker Sam (who I believe was Irish, but sounded suspiciously Australian). We opted for fish and chips which had the shortest wait, but even then our party broke apart as others went in search of shorter queues.

We all met up again in front of a local shop where we sat and chatted, eating and smoking. A small, wiry Irishman with a shaved head (not looking unlike Milan2) came up to the tallest of our party, Granko, and snarled drunkenly, "You're sittin' in my seat." At first we all thought he was merely being coy, but he adamantly insisted Granko had taken his seat. Granko explained congenially in a heavy accent that we had been here a while and that this couldn't possibly be his seat. The Irishmen railed that he had paid for his food and this was always his seat. Amused, Granko pointed out that, "Well, there are 8 of us and 1 of you." This set the Irishman off. "I don't care how many you are. You think I care? I'll kill each and every one of you. Don't worry, I'll kill you all quickly, except you..." He turned back to Granko. "I'll kill you sloooowly."

We laughed heartily over the distinction which inflamed the Irishman further. Granko is around 6'4" and a former security guard at Google. Though thin and wearing glasses, he didn't look like someone you'd opt to mess with unless you were an intoxicated Irishman or had mental problems or both. After exchanging some more words so as not to sacrifice too much dignity, Granko graciously gave up his seat and we walked away while Daniella berated us for not walking away earlier. It's well known that people get knifed in Ireland all of the time for lesser misunderstandings. There have been 100 fatal stabbings since 2003 in Ireland and a quarter of these were foreign nationals. Most were Eastern European.

As we walked back down to the port the city was exploding. Lines were queued up around nightclubs and women walked by in soaring heels and strapless dresses. Some of the girls looked young, in their mid-teens. "That one's almost worth the jail time," Sam muttered as we stood in awe of the shortness of passing skirts. We stood on the corner discussing the best strategy to integrate into the madness.

"Hey, isn't that Milan?"

We looked across the road to see Milan2 sitting on a stone wall, his knees to his chest, looking dazed and a little scared. Lucy and Daniella went to go talk to him as we watched hungry men with turned heads and laughing women. A tan, bleach-blond girl in a see-through white dress and white thong walked by prompting speculation that she was Russian. "Эй, ты русский? Я говорю на русском!" She walked up the block without turning. Ten minutes later she walked by again.

Milan2 had been convinced to rejoin the group. He walked up and looked down shyly, "I'm sorry. Sometimes I get a little too much, too intense." "Oh, don't worry. I've been there. I completely understand." He smiled appreciatively.

It was decided we would go back to Julian and Judith's who have a place across the road from the harbor. We entered into a charming little apartment with a view of docked sailboats and sat around the table. They were impeccable hosts bringing beer and vodka, delicious ouzo, coffee, and tea. Judith made popcorn and we sat around and talked with people filtering out leisurely to the porch to smoke. I realized suddenly that I was in the midst of some European fantasy I'd had for years, some mixture of my mother's Peace Corp stories and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. strangely perfect, sitting around with these lovely accents, passing around shots, talking and laughing. A bidet sitting serenely in one corner of the bathroom.

Milan2, feeling overly thoughtful in his drug-induced state, talked to me of life, death, and what it meant to be American.

"You Americans... you left behind your home country. You left behind and never looked back. You don't even know any of your history."

"It's largely true," I admitted, "though my family has been able to trace back at least some basic ancestry on my mother's side. They were Polish on the German border.

Milan looked at me suspiciously. "Let me look at you." He looked me up in down. "No, you're not Polish. You don't look Polish."

I shrugged. "Perhaps, I got more of the German side."

He nodded. "Americans... you have no history. No accomplishments. You were never the first to do anything! You only follow the Europeans."

"Hmmm... maybe... maybe..." I replied attempting to mollify him. "Except, of course, the iPhone. You have to admit we did come up with the iPhone first."

"Oh. Yeah, yeah, okay that's true. The iPhone."

"And also modern air conditioning. We came up with that."

"Hmmm... yeah, I give you that."

"And what about the Internet?" someone chimed in. The Americans invented the Internet."

"Oh, the Internet," Milan2 grumbled.

"And the car? The telephone. What about Google?" Suddenly, I felt like I was in that scene from The Life of Brian, "What 'ave the bloody Romans ever done for us anyway? Nothing!"

Someone reminded us that the last train left at midnight and we scampered across the road in various states of intoxication and merriment. The turnstiles were open to accommodate the crush of people and we hurried on to the DART to be hurled northward into the night back to Dublin.