Overheard on the Eve of the Irish Referendum to Repeal the Ban of Abortion
I live on the fourth floor an apartment block on a quiet lane in Dublin centre. From my tiny balcony (more like a perch) I listen to all the sounds of the city.
No matter the time of day, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch sound battling bells.
During the day there are dueling cement mixers and shouts of orders from the construction workers below.
At five in the evening, it’s the honking of cars trying to get home, impatient that the construction is clogging up traffic on the little street.
At night, under cover of darkness, the mood changes entirely. The local junkies will arrange to meet their dealer, sometimes taking turns with the tourniquet. Lost tourists dragging rolling suitcases trudge wearily down the street looking for a street sign. A well-to-do couple begins an argument as they return from dinner out, saying, “It’s you who’s being an arsehole, not me.”
The narrow street is lined with six story buildings, and the sounds travel up and bounce off the walls. A street level whisper can be heard clearly on the fourth floor.
It’s the end of the school year for the many universities around here, and parties are being held across the city. Last night there was an especially big one on the top floor of my building. At one point, there were about twenty young people partying in the street below, either coming to or just leaving the party upstairs. Sometimes I enjoy listening to the revelers, if only to get a sense of where they’re from and “what the kids are up to nowadays.”
But last night what I heard disturbed me and sent me to bed profoundly dispirited.
I was drawn to my balcony by shouts of protest coming from a young woman, whose friends were trying to forcibly put her into a cab.
Three young men were saying, “You’ve had too much to drink. It’s time for you to go home.”
None were volunteering to escort her home. I figured they did not want their night to be curtailed. The woman (let’s call her Vanessa) wrested herself from their grasps and ran a bit further down the street.
I considered shouting down to them something like, “Listen, fellas, I know she’s had too much to drink. But you cannot force her into a cab.” But I didn’t. What tempted me was the fact that there was a tone to the Vanessa’s voice that suggested something deeper was going on. She was absolutely desperate to regain and maintain her autonomy.
When the cab was dismissed without its fare, Vanessa walked slowly back to group saying, “I just wanted to have fun for once.”
She sat down on a railing, and the men kneeled around her.
One man said, “The dean was very good to you.”
I became a bit smug overhearing this, thinking I might hear a tale of poor academic performance forgiven by a benevolent dean.
“Yes,” said Vanessa. “The dean was very good to me. But she said that there’s nothing she could do,” and then, “The dean said there’s nothing she could do, and now they’re just going to walk off!”
Each sentence or protest that followed revealed a situation much more grave than poor grades.
“It’s all my fault,” she moaned. “I went there willingly.”
The muffled whispers of those surrounding her seemed to say that it was not her fault.
“And now everybody knows!! They are showing the pictures!”
I gasped aloud, beginning to understand more of the story. I hoped that I was not heard.
Vanessa’s voice grew louder, “It’s my fault! I didn’t say ‘no’!” And then, tragically, she added, “I didn’t say ‘no’ loudly enough!”
One of the men said, “Wearing a short skirt and going to their place does not mean it’s your fault.”
“Even my counsellor said it’s my fault,” she went on. “My counsellor! My counsellor, my counsellor, he said it’s my fault! I have to believe him!”
I had the urge to run downstairs, grab her hands, and say, “Oh, sweet Vanessa, it is not your fault. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your whole story. It sounds to me like a group of men took advantage of you, violated your body and your privacy. Even if you said yes to the picture taking, they have no right to distribute them without your permission. Even if you went to the place willingly, you have a right to say ’no.’ And if you’d had too much to drink, your ‘yes’ would have had no meaning.”
But I didn’t. I remained on my balcony, sitting in stunned silence.Why didn’t I go down? I can offer excuses as to why I didn’t go talk to her, but none would suffice. I was afraid I would look like a batty old lady eavesdropping from above, butting in where I did not belong.
Instead, I sat and listened to more.
“They have the pictures and won’t give them back!”
One of the men asked if she’d agreed to the pictures.
“Of course I told them not to take the pictures! Who do you think I am? But they did it anyway! And now they’re going to walk off, the dean won’t do anything!”
This conversation went on for close to an hour.
Eventually she said, “Okay, I know I’ve had too much to drink, and that I just need to go home. But drinking is the only way I can forget.”
Oh, oh, oh, Vanessa, the system has failed you. You turned to your university for help, guidance, justice, and you were told that nothing could be done and that it’s your fault. You are surrounded by well-meaning friends who don’t have the tools to help you.
When in the United States compromising photos of girls and women are circulated, I am not surprised. The States is a place where restaurants named “Hooters” do thriving business and the ‘president’ grabs women’s genitalia. [#notmypresident] But I was disturbed by the fact that it was happening here, right under my nose, and Vanessa seems to have no recourse to address this violation of body and privacy.
This story was overheard last night, May 24, 2018. It was the eve of the Irish public referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, which bans abortion in the Republic except when a woman’s life is at risk. The irony of the timing is not lost on me. On a day on which my adopted country is voting to return a measure of autonomy to women, I am reflecting on the long distance women across the globe have to go before achieving the same rights to self-governance as men.
Whenever I’ve visited a foreign country, I’ve always made an effort to meet and hang out with the locals, rather than remaining in the tourist realm. When visiting Martinique, my husband and I had a great deal of fun speaking French, though neither one of us really knew how.
When visiting the Dominican Republic, we rented a place in town and hung out with the locals, rather than remain on some compound. This did result in a passport almost getting stolen, a close call with a knife wielding mugger, and a great deal of difficulty driving on construction ridden roads that were unlit at night. But those inherent dangers far outweighed the notion of visiting a country without getting to know it.
I live in Ireland now; I am no longer just visiting. I’m striving to assimilate into (not just “get to know”) the culture. I wrote about understanding the local lingo and the accents in my last blog. For me, getting to know the nuances embedded in phrases that are new to me is essential to feeling at home. The first time I heard the phrase, “Oh it was a good laugh,” my New York defenses were raised. “A good laugh” meant to me that someone was being teased or fun was made at someone’s expense. But all it really meant was “a good time.”
Having been here for just about three months, you’d think I’ve met and gotten to know many Dubliners. Well, think again. I am acquainted with just three Dubliners. I’ve been to pubs and many nights of listening to traditional Irish music. In those situations I am more of an observer, and haven’t gotten to personally know the people I’ve met.
My academic bubble doesn’t offer many chances to meet the natives.
There are four new PhD students this year at Trinity: me, Giovanni from Italy, Kai from Hong Kong and Lindsey from Tennessee. Our research supervisor, Evangelia, is from Greece. Her Greek accent often makes it difficult to understand her.
In one of the classes I am auditing, there is a woman from Malasia, another from Canada, and a man from England. There is a man from Limerick and another who is a native Dubliner. The Dubliner is a shy fellow; I’ve only heard him speak twice. There is also a woman from Washington D.C. When I learned this I was very surprised, because she speaks with a brogue. When I told this to Evangelia, she asked with a measure of alarm whether she herself had developed an Irish accent.
“Absolutely not,” I told her, and she looked relieved.
I have met emigrants who have been living here for many years: the Brazilian hosts of the AirBnb in Temple Bar and an Indian man, Shiva, who runs the corner store, for example. They help me to get to know Dublin and share thoughts about being an emigrant, but I am no closer to getting a grasp of the accent and the culture through their friendship.
When I first arrived in Dublin, I met up with Brew, a high school classmate, who has been living here for more than 25 years. I was happy to hear his still evident New York accent. But there were many Irish-isms in his way of speaking, and it took me by surprise. It’s from Brew that I’ve learned what little of the Irish slang I know. He was with me when I learned that I scored a ‘gaff.’ He is constantly saying, “Oh, you’re grand, you’re grand,” even to the pesky people on the street asking for donations. The first time I was at his apartment, I asked if I could use the bathroom. He told me to “work away.”
“Brew,” I said, “What work is there involved in taking a pee?”
He’s the one who caught me off guard by using the phrase “your man” when telling a story. “Brew,” I’d say, “I’m from NY. Who’s my man?”
Most of his conversation is interrupted with, “Y’know wha’ I mean?,” with the ’t’ at the end of ‘what’ clipped off. Often, if we hang out for a few hours, his way of speaking slips back into New York-ese. As much as I want to get a hold of understanding the Irish accent, I seek comfort in the familiarity of Brew’s New York way of speaking. So I like it when he allows it to come back.
I moved to Dublin during the summer. School had not yet started, and I found it difficult to meet people. I befriended Shiva from the corner store (in New York we’d say ‘bodega’). Starved for human contact and conversation, I would invent reasons to go to his store just to chat. I’d go to his store for milk, even though I had milk at home. He grew curious about me when I began asking if he sold regular household items like a corkscrew or screwdriver.
Finally he said to me, “You’re not a tourist are you?”
After that we started to exchange stories and share photos of our families. We share facts about our native countries. The conversations are always fascinating. This morning I went into his store, and he scolded me for not having stopped in for a few days. I told him I’d had nothing to buy.
He said, “What’s with that? You don’t need to buy, buy, buy all the time. Just come in for the ‘chats.’”
This made me smile.
Occasionally his brother, Manu, is in the store visiting. At those times, both Manu and Shiva will assault me with the terrible US news topic of the day as soon as I enter the store.
“Health insurance!” one of them will shout as I open the door.
Or “The price of education!”
They want me to explain away all the ills of the United States. Of course, I am unable to do that, though I try to be as clear as possible. But the gulf of misunderstanding is evident in the questions they ask. Shiva seems to think that everyone in America owns a gun, though I’ve repeatedly told him it’s not true. One day after a rather lengthy discussion of the price of education and insurance as well the gun laws in the U.S., Manu looked quite exasperated.
“In all honesty,” he said, “I have no idea why anyone would want to live in the United States.”
I told him that it was where I was born, where my family is, and that it was my home. This did nothing to change the look on his puzzled face.
From my balcony I listen to the people below, hoping to catch some of what they are saying. Other than construction workers from the nearby building site, the people who come down my little side street are usually either lost tourists or local drunks or druggies, looking for a place away from the cops. I can understand the Italian and German tourists far more easily than the junkies. To me it seems like they are speaking Swedish. Then I’ll hear an English word like “Wha’ever” and realize it’s English.
Last night I witnessed a threesome desperately try to meet up with a dealer. As they shouted at each other, some phrases came through: “I can’t stand waitin’ out here in the feckin’ cold, y’know!” “You call’em! ’Twas me that dun it last time!” The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for My Man” should have been playing in the background. I could understand little else of what they were saying, but the angst and frustration was evident in the lilt of their language. I could probably notate it musically. When they got on the phone with the dealer, their enunciation became clearer and their tone changed dramatically. Instead of angst ridden moans and shouts, the voices became softer, and they were apologetic: “Sorry, sorry. I’ll wait.”
These junkies are of course not my friends, nor will they ever be. But it is one more angle of the local culture that I’m getting to know.
Moving to a new country, I knew there’d be challenges in the form of things foreign to me. There’s the food: a bap with ballymaloe (wheat kaiser roll with pickle relish), for example, and black or white pudding (crispy fried meat discs, with or without blood). There’s looking right, not left, before crossing the street, and those little switches to flip before the electrical outlet will work. And don’t get me started on the appliances and their cryptic symbols.
, But I didn’t suspect that the language would seem almost as foreign. After all, they speak English in Ireland, right?
Over the telephone, the difference in dialect and word usage is especially challenging. When I was talking with the real estate agent on the phone about moving into my apartment, he assured me that the apartment would be ready by the “forst.” I panicked for a second. I thought I was going to be able move in on the first! Where would I stay until the fourth? I asked him if he meant the first or the fourth.
He said, “Yes, the forst.”
“Does that mean August one or August four?”
“Yes, the forst.”
When the technician from the internet company finally arrived (after one failed appointment and two weeks of waiting for a second one), it was really important to find out where he would find access to the connection in the building. I got on the phone with the great big property management company that is my “landlord” and asked where it was. A kind sounding woman on the other end told me it would be on the ground floor, in the “shiffa.”
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Did you say ‘shiffa’? ‘Shiffer’?’ ‘Chiffeur’?”
“That’s right,” she answered, “It’ll be in the shiffa.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what that is.”
I think my statement took her by surprise, because she was silent for a few seconds.
Then she repeated, “It’ll be in the shiffa,” with exactly the same enunciation and volume.
I wondered, “Is it a closet? An alcove? A chest? A corner?”
Turns out it was a utility room on the first floor.
If I don’t understand what people are saying, I have no problem asking what a certain word means or for them to repeat the sentence. Most of the time, however, they’ll say it again exactly the same way, not louder or more slowly. After three times I usually give up and try to move on or get the gist through context.
At a bank on the college campus, there is an ATM outside with a great big sign saying, “ATM and Lodge.”
The first time I saw it, I thought, “That’s weird, to advertize lodging along with an ATM.”
I thought maybe there was some kind of motel or student housing right there in the bank building. After all, Ireland is experiencing a dire housing crisis.
Weeks later, when I went into the bank to open an account, the teller asked me if I wanted to make a lodgement.
“Aha,” I thought, “Here’s where context helps.”
A lodgement is a deposit. ATM and Lodge. Now I get it.
At a little more than two months into my time here, I am still translating in my head. The new words don’t yet have their own meanings. Crisps are still chips, and chips are still french fries.
When they say module, I think course. When they say calendar, I think student handbook.
Michaelmas term means first semester. The very word ‘college’ can mean high school.
Carpark : parking lot :: pitch : field, and on and on.
One word usage was particularly confusing for me at first: “your man.” When someone is talking about another man in the third person, instead of saying “he” or “that guy,” the Irish person will often say “your man.” I used to genuinely ask, “Who’s my man?” This word choice is so irritating to me in its confusion, that I actually have started translating this one, thinking to myself, “Remember, Meg, ‘your man’ has nothing to do with you. It’s just the other guy in the story.”
Then of course for me there’s the general lack of familiarity with the area. Names of locations like Wexford and Blackrock and Dundrum are sprinkled into conversations, and I have no idea how close or far these places are.
In a postgraduate theater meeting this week, the acronyms that were thrown around boggled the mind. DCC, UCD, TCD, DTC, CMC, DTF and many more.The time and location of the meeting was announced a few days earlier, at the School of Creative Arts (SCA) welcome party. The announcement was made before a room of about thirty new students, rather quickly and not very loudly, tossed off the tip of the tongue by someone who has been familiar with this location for at least ten years.
“Monday at 11, in the ATRL.”
“Excuse me?” I called from across the room. “ATRL?”
The answer came even more quickly, “Yeah, ATRL, ArtsTechnologyResearchLab, justgoogleityou’llfindit.”
Yesterday I sat in on my first music class at Trinity. It’s a course - sorry! - it’s a module, discussing 21st century composers. All of the students in the class are pursuing their M.Phil degrees (Trinity’s trumped up version of a master’s). They are younger than I am, and naturally less experienced. Most were born after I’d already graduated from college. As names and terms fell casually from the professor's lips (Berio, Stockhausen, Cage, Schoenberg, Nono, serialism, extended technique, etc.), the students looked a bit lost and most had little to say. They were all ears trying to absorb all of this newness.
Me, I finally felt at home.
There was a phrase I heard often growing up: “Irish luck.” Different from “The luck of the Irish” and any association with leprechauns, “Irish luck” is when you step in dog shit and then say, “Oh well, at least these aren’t my Sunday shoes.” This alludes to the Irish penchant for always looking on the bright side, brushing off less than pleasant situations with a wave of a hand and a merry “It’ll be grand.”
It’s seems to me that rules in Ireland are regarded with the same sort of cheerful but dismissive hand wave. I’m new to Ireland, so I may be proven wrong in the future, but what I’ve noticed so far is that rules here are more like suggestions, to be taken with a grain of salt.
I’ll give you three examples:
In a small post office on the Liffey, I noticed a little sign right next to the counter that said, “Absolutely no service to people on mobile phones.”
About four inches to the right of that sign hung another one, a little bit larger.
This one said, in bolt print, “The third offence of talking on a mobile phone while at the counter will result in no longer be permitted to use this post office.”
Smirking at the contradiction, I then witnessed a man purchase stamps - you guessed it - while talking on his cell phone. The desk clerk was courteous and, instead of a reprimand, offered a cheerful, “Have a lovely day!”
The other day I joined a gym (putting down roots!). A woman made small talk with me as she prepared the papers for me to fill out and asked what brought me to Dublin. I told her that I was a student. Then she explained all of the membership options to me: just weekends, just day time, the full package, etc. There were different levels of pricing for each.
But then she said, “Because you’re a student, you’ll only pay this price and you'll get the full package.”
“Wonderful,” I thought, “but then why did she need to explain all the other packages?”
Then she told about three other options to lower the cost: if I made one upfront payment instead of monthly installments, for three, six or twelve months, I’d get an even steeper discount. I told her that the six month option looked good to me, but that I wasn’t sure if I could get that much out of this month’s food budget.
She said, “Oh, well, we could put it on an installment plan."
I could swear there was a twinkle in her eye.
I tried to maintain a serious face as I delighted in yet another instance of cheerfully ignoring “rules.”
One day my son and I were on a tour bus headed up to Newgrange, where there is a passage tomb that predates the Egyptian pyramids. It was a bit early for us, and we hadn’t had enough coffee.
The bus made a stop to pick up more passengers, and the driver said, “Hang tight, people. We’ll be here for about ten minutes.”
I spied a coffee shop across the street and thought, “Score! I have a chance to get coffee for us!”
I told my plan to my son, and he was nervous that I wouldn’t make it back to the bus in time. I’d seen Irish bus drivers wait for late passengers before and assured him we’d be okay.
“I’ll have my cell phone on me,” I told him, and headed up to the front of the bus.
I told the bus driver that I was just dipping into the coffee shop across the street and I’d be right back.
He said, “Well, there’s no coffee allowed on the bus.”
Just then a woman squeezed passed me as she was boarding. She held a takeout coffee cup in front of my face as she juggled her bags.
I tapped the coffee cup and eyed the driver.
The woman said, “Yeah, but it’s empty.”
The driver looked at the cup then back at me, waved his hand and said, “Oh, you’re grand, you’re grand,” which meant I could zip out to get the coffee.
Tomorrow is my first day of Post Graduate Orientation at Trinity College, where I’ll be starting a PhD in Music Composition.
I am nervous.
Not only do I have “first day of school jitters” (it’s been so long since I was a student!), but I haven’t paid my tuition. In the information on the Trinity website, it clearly states that no one will be given a student ID card unless the tuition is paid in full.
Gulp. I have not paid one cent yet.
I am waiting to see if a loan comes through.
I am afraid that I’ll get there and have no access to buildings or the events in them without a student ID card.
I’ll get it sorted; I just need to figure out exactly which Peter I’m going to take from to pay Paul.
In the meantime, I am hoping that this “rule” about not getting an ID card without a zero balance on the tuition bill is one that can be broken just like all the others: with a smile and an “Oh, you’re grand, you’re grand.”
After a harried first few days in Dublin, shuffling from one Airbnb to the next, I was very fortunate to find a place to stay for eleven days straight until my apartment was ready for me to move in. This was nothing short of a miracle because there was a U2 concert in Dublin that weekend, and all the hotels were booked solid. The hostess had gotten a cancelation moments before I inquired.
The Airbnb was right in the heart of Temple Bar, on a narrow cobblestoned street between Dame Street and the Liffey. The hosts were gracious and welcoming.
After the fiasco of the first Airbnb, I'd hastily packed up the clothes I’d hung up, stuffing my things into the suitcases any which way they would fit. My suitcases were a jumbled mess and, instead of making myself at home in the Temple Bar place, I left it all in the suitcases. I told myself it would make moving into my own place that much sweeter. Getting dressed in the morning I’d shove my arm deep into a suitcase, and whatever came out would be my outfit for the day. So while I was staying put for eleven whole days, I did not make myself “at home,” and remained feeling a bit unsettled.
I really missed decent cup of coffee and my own closet in which to hang up my clothes.
Temple Bar is a touristic area of Dublin, and it seems like three out of four businesses are bars. The front windows of the Airbnb looked out over the cobblestone street and the restaurants across. Day and night the sounds of rolling suitcases, foreign languages, music and general merrymaking floated up into my hosts’ kitchen. I enjoyed listening to this, absorbing where I was, knowing that the permanent apartment I found is on a much quieter street. It was a bit like living on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, only louder because the streets were narrower. I had to keep reminding myself that “regular folk” actually lived everyday lives in Temple Bar, that it wasn't all tourists.
The back half of the Airbnb, where the bedrooms were, looked out over an interior courtyard. In the center of it was a good sized patio with resin tables and chairs, and three levels of balconies lined two sides of it. In the mornings I’d have my coffee at one of the resin tables and a strip of sun would find it’s way into the courtyard by eleven o’clock.
One thing I love about Dublin is that anywhere I go I can hear seagulls. This was no different in the courtyard. In a strange, inexplicable way, this made me feel connected to my childhood home on Long Island, NY and to my ancestors. So did listening to the older woman sitting on the balcony above me, in a housecoat, chatting on the phone with her friend, Betty. Substitute the brogue with a Brooklyn accent, and she could be my grandmother.
Irene is her name, and she is the self-appointed gardener of the courtyard. She does this without ever coming down from her balcony on the second level. Each morning at eleven she comes out and shoots the hose over the balcony to spray the plants below, then takes a seat by her door to catch a bit of sun.
I befriended Irene and made sure to be out there at eleven most mornings so that I could listen to her talk. I loved listening to her tell me about her schedule for the day or what she did yesterday.
One day she took a train to the coast to join friends on a whiskey tasting adventure.
“Oh, it’s just a drop in each glass, don’t you know. It’s not like we were three sheets to the wind or anything like that. But I’ll tell you, I was feeling grand, that I was.”
One day she was excited to tell me that she was going to cash in her gift certificate to Bobo’s, a hamburger chain on the corner of her street.
I cherished these conversations, a break from being a tourist or getting ready to move into my new apartment. It normalized things for me. But while Irene talked she’d never move from her chair by her door, and I’d get a stiff neck looking up at her while we chatted.
Her funniest story was telling me about how she ran out of water while she was in the shower. She had been getting ready to go to the wedding of a friend’s niece and the water stopped while she had her hair all lathered up with shampoo.
“Oh, oh, I thought, ‘What’m I going to do?’ what with the water all dripping down. I had to put on my robe and go to the kitchen sink to wash it all out. What a bother, I tell you.”
Two days later I saw a plumber leaving her house, and I shouted up, “Irene, how’s your shower acting these days?”
“Oh, don’t you know the whole thing started up again, only this time it was worse. The water wouldn’t go down the drain and it was flowing all over the bathroom and into the hall! But the man fixed it right away, says it was not much of a problem.”
One day after a day of sightseeing and shopping for new items for the apartment, I sat in the courtyard with my feet up, ready to get started writing a blog entry. Irene saw me and asked down if there was anything I needed for the apartment. She had given me advice about which shops to go to for things like cutlery and bedsheets.
I told her about my purchases and then lamented about not being able to find an American style coffee maker. I’d all but given up on the idea of finding it, I told her. She grew excited and told me to sit tight, she’d be right back. I heard her rummaging around in her apartment, and soon she emerged with - yes! - a Mr Coffee!
“You mean this?” she asked.
“Yes! Yes, Irene, that is exactly what I mean!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes. I’ve tried to give this away. No one’ll take it. Not even OxFam! They don’t take appliances. I’ve had this one for years, but now I have a different one, my sister gave it to me, the one with the little cups. You put the little cup in and push the top down, do you know which kind I mean?”
“Keurig,” I offered.
“Oh, the taste, the taste! Such delicious coffee!”
She put her fingers to her lips, as though she could taste the coffee as she stood there.
Pleased that I wanted her old coffee maker, Irene went back into her apartment several more times, each time coming out with something else for my new home: curtains, a mirror, frilly guest towels with dust caked in the lace. She lowered these things down in a bag on a string, along with two bags of potato chips.
Finally, she asked me to come up to her apartment to see if there was anything else I wanted.
“Wow,” I thought, “I get to see Irene’s apartment!”
Her place was brightly decorated in grey and red throughout. On the couch were about eight pillows, four of which had “DIVA” embroidered in them. She pointed at furniture and pillows, tables and chairs, telling me where she bought each item.
As part of the ‘tour’ of her place, she led me into the bathroom, where I complimented her shower bench. She sat down on it and pantomimed the whole affair of being caught with shampoo in her hair with no water to wash it off. When she was done, she stood up, only to sit down again to act out the second time it happened, and asked me to imagine the water running all over the bathroom floor and into the hallway. It was a sight I’ll not soon forget, Irene, fully clothed, in her shower acting the whole scene out.
At the end of the tale, I thanked Irene a million thank yous for the coffee maker and the other items and returned to the courtyard to start work on the blog.
Just as I was getting back to writing, the man from the apartment directly below Irene’s came home. He asked me if I’d been talking to Irene, and then rolled his eyes. I’d seen Irene roll her eyes at the mention of his name as well, and I pictured the set of a play, with a two story balcony and Raphael and Irene rolling their eyes as each one tried to finish their tale.
Without any provocation, Raphael launched into a tale of heroism and valor, about going to rescue his son from Kosovo after he was wounded in the conflict in 1998. There were many tangents and sub plots, including Raphael’s time in a boys’ choir as a child and how he fathered a daughter in Thailand. I would occasionally ask a question for clarification and to show I was still listening, but he was not to be diverted from what might have been a well-rehearsed and often-told story. As he spoke, the sun set and the air grew cooler, but he kept on with the tale, never even setting his grocery bags down. After about 45 minutes, I tried to wrap things up. But he grabbed my arm and looked deep into my eyes and intensified his storytelling. After another fifteen minutes, my need to use the bathroom had become nearly urgent. I told him that, and he kept talking. I started to back away, and he walked toward me. I crossed my legs and did a mini jig, and after about five minutes of that he let me go. But not without a final, concluding message.
He took hold of my arm once again and said with the utmost gravity, “The truth…. The TRUTH! The truth will tell the tale.”
It was nearly eleven o’clock in the evening when I left him. I hadn’t yet eaten dinner or done any writing, but the time spent with Irene and Raphael was precious.
I thought my first week in Dublin would be filled with reflection and contemplation. But there was no time for that! I was in emergency mode about finding both temporary and permanent housing.
After the disaster with my initially booked Airbnb, I found myself scrambling to find housing one night at a time. I arrived on a Sunday, and there was to be a U2 concert in Dublin the next weekend; all the hotels were booked! For my second night in Dublin, I managed to find an Airbnb near Temple Bar, available for one night only. I took a taxi from Stauntons on the Green to the room on Lord Edward Street because of my two giant suitcases. When I got to the room, it was so small that the suitcases had to be laid on the bed because there was not enough floor space. It’s a good thing it was a double bed and there was space for me to sleep next to them.
I met up with a high school classmate, Brew, who has been living in Dublin for more than twenty-five years. He was a comfort and a help as we traipsed from one apartment viewing to the next, constantly checking my email to see if we’d found an Airbnb for the next night. He offered almost constant commentary on the sights we whizzed past and he tried to help me get my bearings. Despite the fact that we walked about five miles a day during that first week, there was no way I could get my bearings, no matter how hard I tried. I was jet-lagged and stressed about finding housing, and I felt as though I were being prepped for a game of blind man’s bluff, with a scarf over my eyes and someone turning me in circles.
Dublin is experiencing an unprecedented housing crisis, and finding an apartment to rent is likened to winning the Irish sweepstakes. Descriptions of people lining up for blocks to view a single apartment quelled any optimism I had about finding an apartment any time soon. The process of “approving” renters seems backward and barbaric to me. In my experience and understanding of apartment hunting in New York and Connecticut, an apartment would never be shown to more than one party at a time. And the personality, looks or occupation of the potential tenants would not factor in to the decision to “approve” the tenant. It’s just a matter of whether you decided you wanted to rent it before someone did, and if you could prove that you’d be able to pay the rent. Jesus, apartment hunting in Dublin is like hoping to receive the rose from The Bachelor. At one viewing I went to, there were four other potential tenants there, and six more due to visit in a half an hour. I found myself whispering to the real estate agent, “Listen, I can move in tomorrow,” and I felt a bit dirty. He said that I “seemed a good prospect,” and I went home and wrote an award-worthy essay about what a good tenant I would make. The real estate agent told me he’d received it and that he would “push for me.” The next morning I learned that the apartment had been “allocated” to a “more suitable tenant.”
By the end of my first week in Dublin, two miracles had happened.
The first is that “I scored a gaff,” which is slang for “I found an apartment,” which is a nicer way of saying “a landlord approved me for the allocation of an apartment.” It’s right in the center of town, between the neighborhoods of Christ Church and Temple Bar. On a quiet lane away from buses and bars, it’s less than a fifteen minute walk to Trinity. I’d be able to move in by August 1.
The second miracle is that - despite the U2 concert that upcoming weekend - I found an Airbnb right in Temple Bar where I could stay until the end of July.
I arrived in Dublin on July 16 and on July 22 I woke up with my personal housing crisis solved. Now I could finally get to know the city.
But I was so tired. I felt like I was walking underwater as I made my way through a tour of Dublin Castle.
I tried to feel what I was supposed to feel, fifty years old and moving to a new life in a new city.
I experimented with small freedoms first.
I ate potato chips in bed.
I bought myself a ticket to see the musical “Once.” I am by no stretch a lover of musicals. But I walked past the Olympia Theater almost every day and finally succumbed and purchased a ticket. By myself, sitting in the historic theater, listening to the joy of the opening musical numbers, I was thrilled, excited and proud of myself.
“I did it,” I thought, “I’m in Dublin, listening to Irish music, watching a play about Dublin.”
When the opening music segued into gorgeous four part singing, tears streamed freely down my face.
Feeling a tiny bit conspicuous but not in the least self-conscious, I thought, “No one knows my story but me. I’ll cry whenever I want to.”
And those vocal harmonies will do it every time.
Wow. I did it. There I was in Dublin, ready, at fifty years old, to start my new life.
It’s an odd turn of events that brought me here.
My husband of 28 years was being sent by his company to work at the Dublin office. Ugh. I did not relish the idea of being uprooted, losing all of my friends and musical connections. I had been giving private music lessons for more than 25 years, and it took me a while to build up a full schedule of loyal students. At the same time, though, I always felt that there was something more for me. I have my masters degree in music composition, was president of Connecticut Composers, Inc. for almost ten years, and founded and directed a select chamber chorus that specialized in presenting works by living composers. But none of those facts necessarily made it any easier to get my work performed. I’m an academic at heart and always wanted to return to school to earn a doctoral degree. There I might find more opportunities and connections. So, resigned to having to take up to what I perceived would be a dreary, rainy life in Dublin, I researched opportunities to teach at Trinity College. I did not find any job opportunities, but what I did see on the side bar of their website was a little button that said, “apply for a postgraduate degree.” Hmm. My hand steered the mouse as though it were a ouji board, and I start the process of applying immediately. About a week later I was accepted to the PhD doctoral research program in music composition.
I was beyond the moon excited and my husband was very happy for me. He knew that this is something I really wanted.
Lo and behold, a few weeks later, my husband’s job changed their mind, and said that they didn’t want to send him to Dublin after all. My husband took me out to dinner and, over miso soup and steamed dumplings, he reached across the table, took my hand and broke the news to me. Before I could respond, he said, “But I think you should go anyway. I’ll stay here working in New York and Connecticut.” I began to tremble, and my eyes welled up with tears. Were the tears relief? Fear? Joy? Sadness? I seemed to feel all of these emotions at once.
Two months later I found myself in Dublin airport with two giant suitcase and my flute bag, which was stuffed with many more things than just my flute.
I’d booked an Airbnb for the last two weeks of July, to be used as a base while apartment hunting. The pictures of the Aribnb looked very beautiful in their advertizements. The hosts claimed they were “an artistic couple who loves travellers.” I pictured myself making friends with them and cooking dinner for them in their beautiful home. They’d invite other friends over, and I’d have an instant community in the new city. In the weeks before leaving the US, I proudly told many people about the Airbnb and repeated that line, “We are an artistic couple who loves travellers,” many, many times.
Nicolas, the host of the Airbnb, said that I would not be able to check in until 3:00 in the afternoon. My flight landed at 8:30 in the morning, and by the time I’d made it through immigration and customs, it was nearly 10:00. I could not go anywhere but directly to the Airbnb because I had so much luggage. Waiting at the airport didn’t bother me at all. I’d made it here, after all, and there’d be plenty of time later to do things that are more adventurous than killing time in the airport. So I bought some coffee and potato chips, a new sim card for my phone and chatted up the limo drivers as they waited for their fares. I enjoyed listening to the accents as I absorbed where I was.
At 1:30 I got a message from Nicolas saying that the whole house was not ready, but my room was. If I wanted to check in early I could. The taxi ride took less than a half an hour.
What I hadn’t realized when I booked the Airbnb was that it was located in a less than savoury part of town, Dolphins Barn. It was a bit south of the city centre (about a twenty minute walk) and so a bit cheaper than others I’d seen. I thought that spending two weeks traipsing back and forth to town might be good for me, get me more acquainted with the city.
As the taxi pulled up to St. James Terrace, the driver asked me if I was sure that this was the right address. The first thing I noticed was a great big padlock on the wrought iron gate at the foot of the stoop. I assure him that it was the right address, and he helped me haul my stuff out of the taxi and then sped off.
The padlock was so impressive that I didn’t even try it. I climbed over the gate and rang the bell, leaving the loads of luggage on the curb. I was surprised to see a woman answer, and not Nicolas, the man with whom I’d been communicating. She asked why my luggage was on the curb, and I said that the gate was locked. She laughed and told me that the lock was only for looks, that the gate was actually open. She called to a man named Mike to come from inside and help me bring the luggage indoors. She did not introduce herself, but showed me my room. Mike was doing housekeeping in the other part of the house, and I assumed he was the hired cleaner. I didn’t yet have data on my phone, so I asked the woman for the wifi password. She explained that the internet was out because ‘he’ did not pay the bill. She gave me the password to her iPhone internet, and I went into the room and began unpacking while letting people know via WhatsApp text that I’d arrived safely.
It was important to me to set up my own space to be as homey and comfortable as soon as possible. Just one month earlier, my husband (and I) down-sized to a smaller apartment, reasoning that there’d only be one person living there. That apartment was his choice and a bit of a bachelor pad. A hip loft apartment in a trendy neighbourhood, the apartment overlooked a street lined with bars. The sounds of music blasting from cars cruising the block and people cheering on beanbag toss games in the local bars wafted up through the windows day and night. The bachelor pad had little to no storage space, and I didn’t really have a place to put my stuff. Some of my belongings, like my beloved piano and all of my sheet music, were packed up to be shipped overseas and never came to the new apartment. I felt unsettled and a bit lost in the bachelor pad, and looked forward to making my own home in Dublin.
So I set out to unpack and hang up my clothes right away. I opened a drawer and found a pair of men’s underwear. Yuk. Under the drawer I found a bunch of mouse poop. In the closet I found construction debris and dust.
I went to the kitchen asked the woman what her name was (finally) and where the bathroom was. Daniela showed me, and told me that the door doesn’t shut, but that it will be fixed right away. She said, “Don’t worry, no one will look.” There was a hole where the doorknob should be.
I went to checkout the courtyard behind the house. I found Mike on his knees trying to pick up shards of glass that were lodged between the wooden planks of the patio.
He said, “Sorry, just cleaning up after a party last night,” and rose to let me pass.
I said, “Boy! That was some party!”
He feigned a cheerful tone and said, “Go on and have a sit-down up there. There’s a lovely spot in the sun.”
The courtyard didn’t look anything like the photos. There was yard debris and trash bags lining the walls, a rusted out bike with one wheel missing, a discarded motorbike. Jet-lagged and sleep deprived, I only slowly pieced together the disrepair of the place. The more I looked around, the more I saw. In the kitchen there were glasses and bottles all over the counters and large pieces of a broken window pane were laid out on the stovetop, almost as though someone were trying to piece them back together.
I decided I’d spend one night here while looking for a different place.
I went to tell this to my hosts and found Daniela and Mike sunken into the couch, each texting on their phones. I itemized some of the conditions I found to be unacceptable and told them my intention to find different accommodations for tomorrow, but that I would sleep there that night. Mike said he has nothing to do with any of that, he’s just here to help a friend in need.
He said, “I just brought her coffee this morning,” and I wondered what he meant by that. Daniela looked resigned and said that she understood, then went back to texting on her phone.
I went into my room and looked up on Airbnb how to lodge a complaint. The website said that I had to first tell the host about my complaints. So my first text with my new Irish phone was to Nicolas, listing the reasons I could not stay in his place.
He responded immediately, through the Airbnb app, “Fuck you, bitch.”
Then, “Leave now.”
I went back to the two figures on the couch and showed them the texts.
Daniela scoffed, “Pffsht. He can’t do nothing. He’s on his way to Italy,” and rolled her eyes.
Just then my phone rang. My first Irish phone call. I held the phone up to Daniela to see if she recognized the number.
Her eyes widened, her posture grew quite stiff and she said, “Don’t answer it! Block him!”
I went back to my mouse poop room, trying to figure out what to do. I decided to go out for a walk and see a bit of Dublin. My goal was to find St. Stephen’s Green and a nice cafe with wifi to find a different airbnb for the next night.
St. James Terrace was just south of the centre of Dublin map I had, but I knew if
I walked north I’d end up some place I could locate on the map. After about 45 minutes I felt I was not any closer to St. Stephen’s, and I ducked into a corner bar and had my first fish and chips and ale. I chose a table in the corner next to an outlet where I could charge my phone and access the wifi. I used the wifi to look at maps of south city Dublin to try to figure where I was.
The fish and chips and the ale were fortifying, but I was no clearer about where I was when I decided to just keep walking. [I don’t get that stereotype about men not asking for directions. I despise asking for directions.]
After about an hour more of walking, I noticed that I was literally walking in circles, seeing the same streets I’d seen forty minutes earlier. So I found a cafe with wifi and ordered a cup of coffee with cream. After a few minutes the waiter came out with a can of readi-whip, apologizing that they didn’t have any cream. In the future I’d learn to ask for milk.
As I drank the coffee, I thought about the scene at the Airbnb. I thought about the immediate and aggressive response from Nicolas. I thought about the fear in Daniela’s eyes when Nicolas called me. I thought about the broken glass, and the bathroom doorknob that was pulled off. There was no party, I thought. That crazy man went berserk last night. He’s irrational. Who knows if he’s coming back? Then I pictured him going to St. James Terrace to put all of my belongings on the street. My passport and my laptop were there. I decided to get right back there and pack up and leave. A woman on the plane had told me to download the MyTaxi app, Ireland’s version of Uber. I was so glad I did! I hailed a taxi back to St. James Terrace rather than risk walking in circles again.
When I got back, Mike was gone and Daniela was in her bedroom with the door closed, speaking loudly on the phone. I tried to access the internet, but it didn’t work. What would I do? I went to use the bathroom and noticed a brochure on the kitchen counter about how to help a friend who is a victim of domestic violence. I recalled the unusual birthmarks I’d noticed earlier on Daniela’s arms, and thought that maybe they were not birthmarks at all, but bruises. I became more resolved in the need to leave immediately. Without yet having a place to go, I began to pack up my stuff. Then I tried the internet one more time. It worked! As I was accessing Trip Advisor, friends were calling me on WhatsApp, excited for me and wanting to hear all about my new adventure. One wanted first hand footage, as it were, of the Airbnb I had talked so much about. I was touched by the shared interest and excitement, but I had to tell the friends that I couldn’t talk now; it was imperative for me to find a place to stay right away.
“What??” they asked, “What about your nice Airbnb?”
“No time to talk,” I said, and went back to searching for a place to stay.
I found a room at Stauntons on the Green. I knew it would be swank, but it’d just be for that night. I had to get out of there.
Using MyTaxi once again, I called a cab to take me to Stauntons on the Green. Finally, I would see St. Stephen’s Green! I quietly left the keys to the place on a table in the foyer and went outside to wait for the cab without saying goodbye to Daniela.
When I got to Stauntons on the Green, it was indeed swank. A man helped me with my luggage, and, as I was checking in, the desk clerk apologized to me that there was a concert that night.
“There might be a bit of noise,” he said.
I laughed out loud, thinking that I was so lucky to end up in a nice hotel where the only problem is an outdoor concert nearby.