Going Galway: Part 2

July 28, 2010

Galway started to grow on me the next day. Once the nightlife had passed, I found myself in a cute seaside town with lovely cafes, medieval looking churches and buildings, and an arts festival with some intriguing events. I grabbed a lovely blueberry scone and coffee at Providence Market Kitchen followed by a traditional Irish breakfast at Ard Bia. Ard Bia was charming, decorated like your aunt's living room with lots of local food sourcing as indicated by the printed sign on the wall:

"Anyone with anything from their garden they want us to buy Irish strawberries, any fruits or vegetables please bring them in and we can give you a few bob and make lovely things with them!!!"

After touring some of the local scenery, I headed over to the Fairgreen Festival Gallery where they were showing a retrospective of video artist Bill Viola, a short film by Spike Jonze, and some paintings and drawings by an Irish artist Brian Bourke that looked intriguing. I hadn't seen any of Viola's work before and, although some of his videos can be tedious, he has a great knack for calling out corners of our world, little details that generally go unnoticed, but when recorded become these pivotal centers of human connectedness. He'll focus on a puddle on a street reflecting neon lights for several minutes with the drone of a city in the background. Or a light on a ship speeding across the ocean in darkness. Or a larger than life heart beating nakedly.

I found much of it impressive (the live installations must have been stunning), especially considering he was doing much of this in the early 80s before video was taken too seriously, but the interviews between the respective pieces revealed him to be such a pretentious windbag, it was difficult not to be put off. He loves to talk about how much eastern philosophy has influenced his work and how he focusses on timeless themes like love, death, birth, rhythm. But it seemed to me if he had understood any eastern philosophy at all his ego would have withered away long ago instead of being so wrapped up in his own "art". At one point he was discussing the dying of his mother and offhandedly remarked something to the effect of, "Well of course I'm going to record my mother dying. I'm an artist. I'm compelled to do it." Oh, the angst of being a successful artiste! Sure enough, they cut to his footage of his father sobbing on his mother's stomach in a hospital bed. It's his right to capitalize on it of course, but it seems to me that he's selling out the very sacredness of the themes he professes to uphold.

After the tedium of Viola, the short Jonze video with his usual brand of light-hearted cleverness was a welcome relief. I'm Here was about a clunky boy robot (in an LA that treats robots as second-class citizens) that falls in love with a more liberated girl robot that shows him how to live in joyful abandon. As they fall in love, ignoring society's expectations of them, her iconoclasm takes its toll on her fragile robot body. The boy robot offers up his own precious parts in sacrifice to her for the enriching perspective she's given him. It's a well told, simple story that reminded me that good art, indeed some of the best art, doesn't have to be incredibly complex or obscure (Bill Viola, take note!).

I really enjoyed Bourke's work as well. He paints himself as this impressionistic Don Quixote figure, unabashed in his ludicrousness and sometimes withering nakedness. There's a playful, dark humor to his work which often includes thieves on crosses and lovely distorted, almost cubist portraits of women somewhat past their prime with backdrops full of vibrant energy. Although the art show, like Galway itself, was unexpectedly small, it definitely made the afternoon (if not the trip) worthwhile.

Artsy's Bill Viola page

Going Galway: Part 1

July 26, 2010

I booked a train to the west coast for the Galway Arts Festival, a weekend of theatre, live bands, and art installations. It was my first time taking a train in Ireland and, as such, there was a bit of an... altercation. I reserved a seat on the train so I would be sure to get a window seat, but when I walked up there was an older Irish gentlemen sitting there.

"I'm sorry, I believe you're in my seat."

He waved me off. "I can't see the print on that ticket. And anyway, there's no sign, except for this one across from me."

Sure enough, there was a flier on the table across from him spelling out reserved, but none where he was sitting. I shrugged and sat down in the reserved seat, making small talk with him. Soon a crisp guy in his early 40s with a shaved head wearing a suit, sat down next to me and set up his laptop to begin work, followed by another older gentlemen across from him.

Five minutes before the train was to depart, a guy roughly my own age with split teeth and curly black hair with a dust of grey came up and told me that he had reserved my seat. I explained that the guy sitting across from me had taken my seat and he explained that there was no reservation slip. Words were exchanged and the gentlemen next to me scoffed at our latecomer, telling me not to move because the train reservations were always fucked up and you're supposed to get there early. We were at an impasse. We kept going round and round until someone asked who the last person to sit down was. We all looked at the second older guy who sheepishly shoved his nose in his newspaper.

Finally, it was decided that he would move across the aisle, the first older gentlemen would move to the aisle, and the guy my age would sit across from me, effectively switching seats for our reservation. This was fine by me, as I would have been going backwards had I kept my original reservation. The shaved man next to me kept cursing our latest arrival under his breath for making such a fuss and our new arrival promptly busted out tall boys of beer and began drinking. You can drink on the train? Fuck. Should have grabbed some beer.

I got into Galway, checked into my modest hotel, and immediately took the bus into town. I had heard such lovely things about Galway, but I was shocked walking into City Centre to find it so touristy. Neon Bud Light signs hung in every pub window and crowds of young Europeans swayed drunkenly through the streets. It was reminiscent of Playa del Carmen. I wouldn't have minded so much had I been with my mates, but this was not what I expected. I had some seafood and went to see a solid production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and then walked around the city looking for any redemption.

In the back alley behind a club I heard some lively music and found that it was a Pogues cover band, The Bogus Pogues, were playing a benefit for West's Community Garden Project at a club called Róisín Dubh. Róisín Dubh seemed like a fairly good venue, as the Saw Doctors and Jakob Dylan were playing there in the next couple weeks. I was pleasantly surprised to see people my parents' age in the audience, but everyone was nonetheless dancing and pogoing excitedly to the band who, in true Pogues fashion, were getting increasingly shit-faced and having a lovely time. Seduced into the abandon of Galway, I started downing Guinness and screaming along mightily.

Dublin delectables

July 25, 2010

Who would have thought I'd come to Dublin only to eat Italian food? The city, as a result of the last decade's extreme gentrification, has undergone a renaissance in fine dining. While the Irish are known for liking food on the blander side, European fine dining has emerged with a smattering of French, Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese places along with gourmet American burger chains and a deluge of delicious Italian cafes, delis, pizza bistros, and wine bars to satisfy the immigrant populations, as well as the new Irish middle class.

That taste comes with a price though and it's hard to eat out at any place decent for less than 15 Euros (almost $20 USD). You really have to look hard for deals and, due to the economy, a number of restaurants are announcing early-bird specials: eat 2 courses for 20 Euro between 6 - 7 pm. My complaints about the prices have always found a sympathetic ear. It's almost shocking how expensive it is to generally eat out. You'd think living in New York would lessen the sticker-shock, but being such a large city by nature provides competitive prices and Dublin (apart from the rent) appears to unequivocally be a more expensive city to entertain oneself. The best deal I've found was through a Mexican kid I met in Galway named Carlos, a chef at Pablo Picante, that is trying to introduce cheap burritos to Ireland. Despite the terrible name, the burritos were surprisingly tasty and at 6.50 Euro, the best deal I've found in Dublin so far.

Despite the expense, I've had some delicious meals here, the most memorable of which haven't even been Irish. But they have a uniquely European flair, especially at work where my first meal consisted of chicken breasts wrapped around creamy chicken livers. Every work meal (and practically every other meal) includes a different potato side, ranging from new potatoes with rosemary to silky potato babka, usually accompanied by a kind of mid-Atlantic fish like salmon or hake. Today work even had a fluffy whole wheat pizza with german sausage, bacon, and swirls of mustard! It was actually pretty good. The snacks feel more European (and thus healthier) as well: individual rounds of cheese or brie with whole wheat, cracked pepper, or water crackers; dried apple rings and crisps proudly declaring they're cooked in 100% sunflower oil without preservatives.

But the most delicious by far have been the Italian meals. My manager Jorge has taken me to this deli around the corner from his house in City Centre called Taste of Emilia that is absolutely fantastic. They have fresh sausages, melons, mozzarella and parma ham flown in from Italy weekly. We ordered a couple antipasto boards with parmesan cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar, kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes, mortadella, Italian sausage, parma, mozzarella brushed with olive oil and ground pepper, and a shaved carpaccio sprinkled with artichokes. For dessert with had hand-made milk chocolate with hazelnuts served room temperature so it was just perfectly gooey. I left with some strolghino salame, some parma ham, parmigiano reggiano, and a giant yellow melon for later.

In Temple Bar they have a farmer's market every Saturday where I picked up half a loaf of rye sourdough which I paired with a selection of raw cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk Irish cheeses, some cress, and the parma, sausage and melon for dinner with my roommate Ayoko. Ayoko is from Tokyo and hadn't eaten a lot of Italian food (if you don't count Domino's Pizza), but needless to say, she loved it. The Temple Bar market also has a booth with fresh oysters from Donegal (half a dozen for 12 Euro). They shuck the oysters in front of you and serve them with just a splash of lemon (and vinegar if you get a milky one) and a side of soda bread. The oysters were absolutely mammoth and fresh tasting. I've never had oysters this good. They were firm and chewy, tasting clean and lightly salty. I gobbled them down with some sparkling wine, though a good pint of Guinness would have completed that meal.

Although my neighborhood is a bit of a dead zone, there are a couple good restaurants nearby. The tiny Juniors around the corner is absolutely lovely, featuring seasonal new European cuisine and a selection of reasonable wines. The clams cooked in white wine, garlic, and parsley were rich and savory with sides of toast smothered in fresh herbs and oil. The taste of dipping those toasts into that golden broth with the taste of mussels still on the tongue has stayed with me for weeks. I had the monk fish for dinner which was thick and sumptuous. It came with new potatoes, but (and a thanks to Anjali for teaching me this), I substituted the potatoes with Irish "mash" thinking I'll be able to control my ratio of fish, potato, and broth. It was absolutely delicious. Afterwards, the chef said no one had ever asked for it like that and he was seriously considering revising the menu.

An Irish Wake

July 15, 2010

After the funeral we went to a wine bar called Pinot's for the wake. Pinot's is in a chic urban mall nestled by apartments built on top of small offices, testifying to the gentrification that has overtaken Dublin within the last decade. People can literally live, work, and shop all in the same place. Pinot's had the stylish ambiance of a New York wine bar with leather chairs, good wine, and stewards circulating with thoughtful renditions of fish + chips and other appetizers.

At the wake I met Felicity's nephew, a precocious 14-year old Michael who was schooled in London and building his own computer. I was amazed at how well mannered and thoughtful he sounded for that age (when was the last time I was impressed by anything that stumbled out of an American teenagers mouth?). He was thrilled to hear I worked for Google and we talked mobile phones, the cult of Apple, and social networking. Later his mother came up to me thanking me for talking to him and saying I was exactly how he pictured a Googler: looking unintentionally suave I guess in my black suit and t-shirt. I guess there's something to be said for ill preparation.

A more informal wake followed at a local pub where we loosened our ties (at least those of us that had them) and relaxed with some Smithwicks (pronounced "Smithicks") and Guinness. We hadn't eaten enough at Pinot's so ordered some "toasties" -- small grilled cheese sandwiches sliced diagonally which were unexpectedly good. During the course of the next few hours we processed the day's events, talking and laughing, getting increasingly drunk and friendly. I was introduced to dark Irish humor, that brand of wry humor that goes to deeply inappropriate places, while being simultaneously hilarious. By midnight we had all been drinking for 10 hours and stumbled out the bar searching for cabs to take us home.

Speaking of dark Irish humor, I was confronted with this advertisement as I exited the train to Howth, just north of Dublin. I sent it to my father of course. On his birthday:

An Irish Funeral

July 11, 2010

I was in Ireland three days before I went to a funeral. My friend Felicity's mother, Frances McKevitt, who had been struggling for a long time with cancer and ataxia, passed away the day I arrived. She had been in a coma for two weeks and off life support for eight days. She was, needless to say, an extraordinarily strong woman. Although I hadn't met her, I went to the funeral in support of Maxwell and Felicity who are both amazing and lovely people.

When I'd arrived in Ireland my mother asked me if I'd brought a suit. "A suit? What would I need a suit for? I didn't even bring a button-down." Always listen to your mother. I woke up early the morning of the funeral and went into City Centre to Marks & Spencer, a very European clothing shop my manager had suggested. I found a form fitting black jacket and pants, but the cost was already running me over an unbudgeted 120 Euro. I had a black t-shirt and decent shoes and decided to make due. It was perhaps too "rock star" without a tie or button-down, but I hoped that my presence, on such short notice, would make up for it.

As I jumped in the cab requesting Foxrock Church, the driver asked if I was going to a wedding (damn, maybe should have bought the tie). "Unfortunately, quite the opposite." On the way down we talked about how much people were eating these days and the ever increasing portions at restaurants. He told me about some grossly overweight Texans that got in his cab and kept requesting to see the "real" Ireland. The driver merrily told me he obliged by dropped them at a well-known gay club. "I even waited around the corner to see their faces as they came out. I just couldn't resist!" He was a decent fellow and we talked cordially on the way down and wished each other well.

As I entered the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, I noted a sign that CCTV (security) cameras would be in use. The church itself was lovely and modest with mosaic tile spelling out sobering Latin phrases over the apse. Feclity's family had been going there for decades including weekly services, weddings, and funerals. Mr. and Mrs. McKevitt had been married in that church, as had their children and it was wonderful to think how this tied them to their community. The pews were appropriately penitent, having no proper backs to even lean against. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been to mass, but much of the phrases returned easily, having spent so many Saturdays and Sundays of my youth in rote recitation. The service was led by Felicity's uncle which made it very personal and was supplemented by The Decibels, a singing group that Mrs. McKevitt had formed in her youth that added beauty and reverence. Felicity's father spoke eloquently and with such passion, I found myself moved to tears although I hadn't met either one of them.

Afterward, we drove out to the cemetery which was morbidly picturesque. The trees and grass looked brilliantly vibrant against the grey Dublin day and black forms moving somberly across the grounds. As the priest said the final blessing, crows cawed in the distance and two tattered gravediggers lowered her into the ground. We sank our heads, silently paying our respects and headed back for the wake.

The Google Ghetto

July 7, 2010

I'm staying in the South Docklands neighborhood near the River Liffey. The Docklands was a rough area of hardened sailors and dockhands in the 19th century when port traffic such as thousands of cattle walking down the streets, the gasworks, and smell of sewage dumped into the river made it into one of Dublin's worst slums. In the 1980s, the city began a process of revitalization to regenerate the area. Now, the Docklands is a strange amalgamation of older cheap, modest houses and newer chic corporate apartments and urban lofts that have sprung up just south of the river.

In this way it resembles Williamsburg in that the local population keeps getting fractured and displaced as the city builds housing for Dublin's corporate population, recently building the enormous O2 stadium and developing chic restaurants and bars along the waterfront. Maybe it's a bit more like what Williamsburg will be in five or ten years: surrounded on all sides by chic, empty apartments with expensive organic grocery stores and a built-up water front where the bands of the moment come to capture everyone's attention for an evening. Google's offices are here, as well as Facebook's, but there's an unsettling emptiness to the place, a cold sterility that makes it feel soulless and void. The Irish have nicknames for many sites around town and this one, appropriately enough, is "The Google Ghetto".

The apartment itself has the predictable industrial design of cheap metal, glass, and hardwood floors. It's deathly quiet and I don't believe I've passed a single person in the hall since I've been here. At night there are very few people out, but sometimes you see them in their living rooms working on their laptops or watching television as if reflections of your own apartment. In the mornings everyone heads to work purposefully, either walking or on bikes, not speaking or looking very happy. Although this is ostensibly one of the "hippest" areas of the city and one by most standards its residents would be considered "successful," there sure seems to be an absence of smiles on people's faces.

Still, it's within walking distance to City Centre and right next to the DART (the local light rail transit). I've even discovered a couple local bars to go for a pint where the locals, those Irish slowly being squeezed out by the tech boom, seem friendly and full of advice and opinions. There are, of course, good restaurants within walking distance, including an oddly out of place upscale Filipino restaurant.

Behind my apartments is an old gasworks that used to manufacture gas from old coal. The smell was notoriously putrid and these were generally housed in the poorest of neighborhoods. Now, of course, it's been turned into luxury corporate housing, but the architecture resembles Jeremy Bentham's proposed Panopticon. It's quite stunning to look at, despite the fact that I've never seen anyone enter or leave.

Dublin Days

July 4, 2010

The flight to Dublin went fairly smoothly except for the weight restriction which left me scrambling to transfer 7 lbs. of my life from one bag to my carry-on. That and the fact that the seat wouldn't lean back were the only glitches in what was an otherwise pleasant flight.

My friend Maxwell has been staying in Dublin the last month to tend to his wife Felicity's mother-in-law who has been sick and was gracious enough to pick me up from the airport. I met him at the airport bar where he was already drinking a Guinness at 9 am. Because you must show a boarding pass in order to drink that early at the airport, Maxwell found himself in the awkward position of having to produce a boarding pass within 30 minutes after telling the bartender his wife had the passes in the airport gift shop. To his credit, Maxwell deftly downloaded his boarding pass from the month before into Photoshop and changed the date in order to satisfy the bartender. This is the man's commitment to Guinness.

After setting up my phone, Maxwell took me to The Bank on College Green, former site of the Belfast Bank built in 1892 which has the bathrooms downstairs in the vaults. I had a delicious bangers and mash that were chewy and garlicky and smothered in brown gravy with, of course, more Guinness.

Then we walked over to Mulligan's pub which Maxwell claims is the best pint of Guinness in all of Ireland. It certainly didn't disappoint. There is clearly something superior about the Guinness here than in the States. At Mulligan's the texture is smoother and tastes light and pure, like spring water with a small sugary finish on the tip of the tongue and virtually no aftertaste. Originally a shebeen (or unlicensed drinking venue), Mulligan's has been ‘legal’ since 1782, making it one of the oldest pubs in Ireland.