Archive for the ‘City’ Category

I’m a Cool Girl Now

Not often, but sometimes, it occurs to me that I am very, incredibly, out of touch with the rest of the world.  It has always been thus, but living in Oxford makes it easy to forget that once I was a geeky Converse-clad girl with a bad hairdo. (I am now a geeky Converse-clad girl with a better hairdo. And sometimes I wear boots.)  My life has become something completely ridiculous, in a rather wonderful way.  Take this, for instance: one of the highlights of my existence is the rush I get when I swipe my card at the Bodleian and open my bag so that they can check to make sure that I’m not trying to smuggle a bottle of water in and walk up the stairs and smell the books.  And there are all these other people there! Doing the same thing! Loving the books! And outside (this is the best bit) there are a bunch of tourists who can’t come inside.  It’s a perverse (and very British) revenge of the nerds; and I’M PART OF THE CLUB!  I actually have a special walking to-and-from the library swagger.  Just so that everyone will know that I belong. (Sometimes, but not often, I even manage to swagger without tripping over my own feet.)



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We tell ghost stories on the way home.  It’s dark; Port Meadow is black, the river is silver and still.  We have bike lights and a parafin lantern.  A mist covers the ground, as if we’re wading through it.  I can see my breath, feel the tingle of my fingers. 

Earlier we walked the other direction.  It was early afternoon, light, grey, the trees bent over the water.  The dog picked up impractical sticks and we sipped from a small bottle of whiskey.  Amazing how quickly we could be palpably outside the city.  Smelling woodsmoke from narrowboats and surrounded by green and brown; the golden stones of Oxford had dissolved, the spires dissapeared behind a puffy cloud.  My wellies rubbed raw a spot on my foot, the same spot on the same foot that had been rubbed raw so many times before.  We came to a crumbling nunnery; now just a field walled in, the outline of a church.  We ate apples at the pub and drank wine waiting for our lunch. 

Now we tell ghost stories but there’s nothing eerie about this stillness.  The eerie part is re-entering the city, coming suddenly to a well-lit bridge, passing parked cars, pubs, restaurants, cashpoints, closed shops, kebab vans.  It’s crowded, though there aren’t many people out tonight. 

Meanwhile, I’ll get back into blogging, but my time seems to be consumed at the moment by a thousand little things–working, writing, eating, sleeping, cleaning, running, planning.  Strolling along the river.  Stay tuned.

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Zombie Comedy

I woke up on Saturday, and I was depressed.  A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her blog from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”The blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”  Which is exactly what happened to me.  Not  a latent, lazy sort of sadness, a seasonal affliction, perhaps, but an active force, something come over you suddenly and without warning, and possessing every atom of your body.

Being in Dublin didn’t help; it made everything worse.  I suppose I came here hoping to claim immunity from trivial worries and the sadness of shorter days; but of course the trouble is always that travel is not escape (Alain de Botton writes brilliantly about this, about “how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind”).  We always hope this when we go somewhere new: either that the unpleasantness and banalities of everyday life won’t follow us, or that we’ll become someone different in the context of a different space.  But travel is not some magical process of transformation.  At best it’s a state of mind, a way of revising our views of the world and ourselves, of exploring and watching; but it’s never the answer to all of our problems, never a method of erasing anxieties, and to a certain extent this will always be a disappointment.

What I forget, in times of minor woe, is that it’s actually freeing to know all this.  I sat in a Dublin café with the man.  I sipped my tea listlessly; I picked at my omelette; I listened to the children at the table next to us, who shouted and screamed and cried and laughed and dropped their toast on the floor and hugged their fathers and smiled at us and ran circles round the entire place.  I told the man I felt unhappy today, but that I didn’t know why–was it to do with my continual battle with my anti-anxiety medication, my desperation at being stuck in a job that a monkey could do, and do better?  Probably not, I concluded.  It was really all about money, which depressed me even more, that such a stupid thing–a philosophical construct–could make me stare so glumly at my empty plate.

It’s not a good city to worry about money in, Dublin.  Things are expensive here.  You can’t even drown your sorrows without taking out a small loan.  And the trouble with me is that once I start worrying, it’s nearly impossible to make me stop.  Even paying the small lunch bill caused a tremor of pain in my mind.

I could easily have wallowed all day.  We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, along the autumnal edges, where leaves were falling most heavily and we could avoid the stink of the pond.  A trio of teenage boys sat playing their guitars; a pregnant woman passed, with flowers in one hand and a man’s arm around her.  Lots of infants ran rampant, with parents trailing behind in helpless pursuit.  A few other lovers held hands.  I felt unoriginal and uninspired; and then I felt the whole world to be unoriginal and uninspired.

We went down Grafton Street, watched a man sculpt a sleeping dog out of sand, listened to Irish bagpipes and Beatles songs.  Past Trinity College and Temple Bar, we crossed the Liffey at O’Connell Street, into the great expanse of boulevard.  Like an abandoned Oxford Street, it sits with its handsome buildings, cheap storefronts, its absurd width and pockets of shoppers.  Gaggles of spotty teenagers in unfortunate clothing (sweatpants and faux-leather jackets, athletic shorts over leopard-print leggings with pop socks and sneakers) chased each other in zig-zags, shouted after one another, spilled their soda, lit cheeky cigarettes.  It was a glorious sun-brightened day and everything looked grey.

We went and sat at a converted church, now a café, bar, restaurant, and nightclub, overlooking an empty concrete square, a few gravestones stacked up on the fringe.  I sipped more tea.  I wanted to wallow–this is the thing.  There’s something delicious about a good wallow, most of us know this, but I was in danger of slipping from healthy wallowing into the realm of desperation.  I played with my spoon.  I said to the man: maybe you should go to the film without me.  I could sit and get some writing done. I could sit and feel sorry for myself.  He said, don’t be ridiculous.  But he said it so convincingly, and probably in a few more words, that I loosened my stranglehold on unhappiness, briefly allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was just a passing phase, and agreed to meet some Dublin friends for the afternoon showing of Zombieland.

I should mention a few things now.  The most important is that I don’t like zombie films.  I don’t like horror films of any kind.  The gorier they are, the more they make me cringe; so although it’s a comedy, and I knew, going in, that it would be funny, the title “Zombieland” didn’t bode well.  Also, I hadn”t been to the cinema in over a year.  I’d forgotten how overwhelming the endless dark corridors, the escalators, the giant bags of popcorn, the bad carpets and the flashing lights are.  I’d forgotten the thrill of anticipation; the movie-theatre smell; the crunching of bags and sipping of soda.  I’d forgotten how much I like to see the previews!  I’d mostly forgotten how huge those big screens really are.  The first few moments of splattering zombies were very, very intense.

Then something strange happened.  I started…what was this feeling?…to enjoy myself.  Really?  Yes.  I laughed at the jokes and started to feel affection (of a certain kind) for the characters.  I forgot how funny I myself was feeling; how unreasonably low, how inexcusably self-indulgent.  I had wanted to sit around like the ghost of some bleak, damned writer; to mope over coffee, to shiver outside in pursuit of quality people-watching, to envy everyone that walked by their freedom and their carefree smiles.  I thought I needed that; but what I actually needed was something else entirely (it always is, isn’t it)–in this case, some good company and a zombie comedy.  We came out into the city; we smiled, we laughed, we ate an impromptu dinner, and the evening turned to night and even if it wasn’t something I couldn’t have done at home (or maybe it was, maybe that’s the point of all this, that the travel state of mind was somehow both responsible for my mood and necessary to lift the cloud), I was grateful for the power of it.

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So, I’m in Dublin.  It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on this blog (let’s be honest: it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything, period).  I did write a post a few nights ago.  It was all about how I walked by a big semi-detached house on the Iffley Road on my way to the pub and heard a weird screaming noise that could have either been someone in pain, or someone having sex, or else a fox experiencing some kind of excitement.  The post was witty, it was hilarious, it was beautiful and brilliant.  And it got mysteriously deleted.  So I’d like to say that I’m suffering some sort of WordPress-induced post-traumatic stress syndrome; but mostly, I’m just lazy, and a little busy.

And now I’m in Dublin.  We’re staying in an almost-swanky 70s concrete-block hotel.  It’s huge; I mean, it takes us ten minutes just to get to the elevators from our room.  We got a good deal on the place, and I’m not going to lie: I like it better than the funky hostel alternative.  It makes me feel more adult.  We get free shampoo!  The duvet is fluffy and white! There’s internet access and instant coffee!  The lobby has one of those über-shiny faux-marble floors!  Mostly it means that I can fart in bed and walk around naked without worrying what other people might think of me.

It’s weird, being here.  I keep having to remind myself that I’m in another country, that I travelled to get here.  There’s no jet-lag or language barrier, no fog of exhaustion; no sense, really, that I’ve left one place and arrived in another.  It’s almost like being in an alternate-universe version of Britain (apologies to the Man for stealing his analogy)–the same markers (chain restaurants, high street shops, uniformed schoolkids, semi-chic businesspeople) but everything slightly, gently, almost imperceptibly different.

The pubs.  The pubs are beautiful; they’re warm and packed and full of life and beautiful, bright-eyed Irish girls, old men with red cheeks.  They’re also almost horrifically expensive, which proves, I suppose, the determination of the drinking culture here–in a country less devoted to its cups, the 5 euro pints would surely drive drinkers either underground or to other pursuits.

It’s nice to be in a city, a real city.  In Oxford we’re spoiled by beauty, and in London overwhelmed by the sheer scale of things.  But here I’m reminded of Boston, which is manageable but bustling, charming but grimy.  Walking through St. Stephen’s Green I feel I could easily be in the public gardens next to the Boston Common.

In other news, it’s mostly been cloudy, or almost-cloudy, a few rare shafts of sunlight turning the trees to gold.  I’m glad.  In my mind Dublin is a cloudy city; always a little cold, a little grey, so that the warmth of a pub is necessary after a long day’s wandering.  If a thin mist wants to fall, all the better.  As I’m writing this, of course, the sun has come out, cast a glorious light over the dark brown stones, and I’m tempted to revise my opinion: it’s a city made to be seen in yellow evening light.  But I won’t, because then I think of Joyce’s Dubliners, “The Dead”, the winter chill, the darkness after the party, the drizzle and snow.

Anyway, more later.  If I spend the entire trip holed up in internet cafés I won’t get to see the city.

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Morning Monks

My morning commute down the Iffley Road seems to coincide with the morning migration of two monks, in full brown robes and leather sandals.  I see them almost every day, and invariably they are carrying matching red nylon rucksacks.  The juxtaposition never fails to delight me.  It’s like the sort of thing that Pico Iyer describes in The Lady and the Monk: an incongruity, an overlap of times and cultures.  No doubt they also have iPods tucked into their pockets and are chatting about grocery shopping, or Big Brother, or traffic; no doubt their lives are as mundane as mine or yours, but minus the rucksacks, they may as well be strolling through the Middle Ages.

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It starts with the voices.  A choir on Magdalen Bridge.  You can just see the conductor’s hands over the parapet, you tell me.

We watch the crowd.  Try to determine whether the pair in front of us–a pale-haired girl in an ochre coat, a nervous boy in too-tight jeans–are dating yet.  I’ll lift you up so you can see, he says, but she makes a demure motion with her head, steps aside, brushes his hand with hers.

More of the crowd: a boy in a golden tracksuit, a girl in pop socks and a cute little dress.  Short skirts, high heels, painted faces.  Velvet blazers paired with the bin man’s yellow trousers.  Stolen bottles of milk, a man dressed as a cow handing out vouchers for free coffee or tea.  After awhile the police on the bridge get tired of standing there, cross the barrier and start emptying cans of Stronbow and Carling into the street.  They let the other side across first, just as the sun is starting to shine on the river.  A few boys in suits and slim ties sprint the whole way, arms raised. Chariots of Fire, they say.

We walk down the middle of the High street.  We know longer know where we are going or why, or how long it will take us.  At Radcliffe Square you tell me I should lock my bike up and we pause to watch a languid group of Scottish dancers.  The bells ringing out now, competing with the bagpipe for attention.  We follow a man dressed as a tree down Catte Street in search of Morris dancers.  I try, but they just look like men skipping around with bells on their ankles, I say.  Shh, it’s the sword dance, you tell me.  You point to their belts; they have tankards for ale, you say, and I gain a bit more respect for the old men in the hats decorated with flowers and ribbons.  One of them escorts the man dressed as a tree down the street.

Near the Bridge of Sighs, a girl dressed as a cow strikes poses on the roof of a car.  When she puts her foot through the open window the alarm goes off.  Around the corner, on the steps of the Clarendon building, a band dressed all in green plays to a scattered audience.

The clock on St. Mary’s says nearly eight when we run into a friend, who offers us a bite of a fresh croissant while we suck on cups of coffee.  I go and stand by the gates of All Souls, gazing into the silent quad, bathed in hazy light.  Now the square is empty and it has never looked so beautiful, I think.  Nearly two years since I last saw it at an hour like this one, the day still in its infant stages, the stones still aglow in the aftermath of a warm dawn.

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Night Fog

I came home yesterday in the silent hour between late-night and last orders.  I’d parked my bike near the pub where the Man and I first met and as I unlocked it, and a pair of pub-goers drifted past me and around the corner, the whole world paused for a moment around me.  There were the strange spikes and unlit windows of the Bodleian, everything still against the shimmery ivory sky; and the uneven streets, the inky alley behind New College.  I went down that alley.  No sound but the din of my own breath, the occasional whisper from my bicycle wheels.  Everything quiet; everything misted.  The damp settling in frail, tiny beads.  Then vague and ghostly sounds as I approached another pair of pub-goers; I chased their voices around corners until, nearly at the High Street, I met them, passed them by, came out onto the black strip of evening activity.  The hum of a kebab van and the frantic high-heeled steps of girls going to nightclubs. Cars on the roundabout gliding from lane to lane.  The Iffley road deserted.  In honour of a friend of ours, who is moving back to her home country after a long time, I went down Denmark Street.  Then onto our own street, which had gone to sleep already, it seemed.  Maybe it was a magic mist, conjured by Puck to send lovers into healing slumber.

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