Saturday, December 09, 2006

“Vertigo is the conflict between the fear of falling and the desire to fall.”

Previously on our Trip to Cork: It is a bank holiday weekend and our flight to Cork has become an extended tour of circling the airport for nearly an hour and then flying off to refuel at Shannon. At Shannon, a deserted airport lounge is our home for the next couple of hours or so. Dinner has become a priority over missed entertainment. Fortunately, I have discovered that the vending machines at Shannon accept US dollars. (It's because of the military flights, my husband explained later. Well, Yankee Doodle Dandy!) And now: Part the Second of

Part the Second in a Series of Three

Before going further I should explain, in 2002 I was traveling on business to Europe quite regularly. We were involved in a major programming effort with the subscription fulfillment software and the whole thing was based in Bognor. I was identified early on as the one person here who could represent our interests and be responsible for the testing. In retrospect, I was woefully unprepared. But we made the deadlines. And now I generally go over just once a year for upgrades or enhancements.

But it was on these trips that I could take a Friday night flights over to Ireland and enjoy a weekend. The first trips had been to Dublin – the first one would be officially B.H. (before Horslips) in summer of 2002 – but even the June 2003 trip was still before I knew many people in the guestbook and my plans were my own to make.

So I thought I'd branch out from Dublin a bit. I identified Galway and Cork as other possible weekend spots. I flipped a coin. And Cork it was.

And you've already heard about the flight over from Heathrow.

But by midnight, we were finally on the ground in Cork and I went out to catch a cab to the hotel. Mossie Daly was the cab-driver's name. I have his card somewhere.

Because revenge is a dish best served cold.

I wasn't, as you can guess, in a cheerful mood. But I quickly explained the whole business traveler on a weekend jaunt and been to Dublin and everyone says Cork is very nice, etc. etc. Then Mossie said "Are you going to visit Blarney Castle?"

Oh. Shit. That's here? I gave an inward sigh. Should have gone with Galway.

"Oh! Wow! That's here?" I enthused politely. "To think I nearly went to Galway!" And the Bernard Hermann score from Vertigo started playing softly in the background of my imagination.

(Backtracking for a moment: I have a fear of man-made heights. My earliest memories are of the terrors of down-escalators in shopping malls. I tend to avoid window offices in tall building, high balconies, or modernist stairs where the treads are held by metal risers, allowing you to look down and down and down the flights. I believe that my eyesight, which plays tricks on my depth perception, is part of it. But there's also just a primal response beneath all that. And whenever I mention that I'm going to visit Ireland, someone will invariably say "Are you going to kiss the Blarney Stone?" And then because it is not nice to say "Sure, when Hell freezes over" I usually change the subject.)

Mossie went on for a bit about the area and offered his services for a day's tour of all the regional highlights. Something he does for the visiting Japanese golfers. I suggested I was more of a 'find my own path' sort of tourist and probably would be too busy enjoying the many attractions of Cork throughout the weekend.

So by 2 p.m. the next afternoon after I had thoroughly savored the many attractions of Cork, I called Mossie. "Okay, you're on. But that Castle is out of the picture."

To his credit, I did see much more of the area than foot travel or mass transit would have given me. Cobh, in particular, was the highlight of the day. And through the radio station in Mossie's cab, I discovered the whole genre of Irish country and western. So there was my money's worth right there.

But he would not let up about that Castle. Finally I agreed that it would be a shame to come all this way and not just go see it. From the ground. Get a few photos for the album. While he checked in with his sons who were keeping a running report of the day's football game going for him via cell phone.

And when I was standing at the Tower's base I looked up to the highest part and saw the hole with sky beyond suddenly fill with the head of some foolish tourist – for all the world like Marie Antoinette at the guillotine – and Bernard Hermann cranked it to 11. I looked back down to ground level to steady myself and found Mossie holding two tickets for the climb.

"They come as part of the package," he smiled apologetically. "I'll be right there with you. It's all right. It's very safe!"

Really, I still can't remember how he convinced me, but it might have been a play on my innate sense of competitiveness. And the climb up was quite a bit like hiking a particularly rocky trail. (Natural heights are not a problem. I'll peer over the edge of a volcano with no fear at all.)

But the shock of the Tower's hollow core at the top – the rook in my chess set isn't hollow! – seriously unsettled me and early signs of full panic were beginning to manifest. My ears began buzzing and it became very, very important that I not look over the edge of the railing into the interior of the tower's depth where I imagined I would see the broken bones of some poor Japanese golfer...silken tropical shirt faded by the the bottom. It was also important to not see the stones of the parapet's edge in the foreground. Instead I kept eyes focused on the distant horizon and followed the ant-trail of tourists around to the exit tower.

Mossie tried pushing his luck one final time when we reached that hellish spot where the hole in the crumbling masonry allows people to slide out on a cardboard mat and do what they think they need to do. There's someone there too, with a tip jar, and he offers to spot you and help with the process. He looked up at me expectantly. Mossie looked at me expectantly.

"You know," I turned to Mossie, trying to keep my voice low and steady. "It's a good gig. God knows the mouldering bones of P.T. Barnum are rotten green with envy. But I'm not kissing that damn Stone. I'm in marketing. I think I'm fine as is. I also think I'm going to need to sit down soon."

I did nearly break into complete panic at the exiting stairs. The uneven and worn stones that would require close foreground attention and the little frayed rope railing for gripping pushed me dangerously close to the faint I was trying to avoid. Only the press of tourists at my back and the thought of what sort of rescue effort would have to be mounted to get my unconscious body out of there kept me anchored to alertness.

By the time we reached earth, I think Mossie was finally convinced that I wasn't just being an obstinate American tourist. He let me sit down on the grass until the buzzing in my ears stopped and my heart rate slowed.

Later he bought me an ice-cream cone and didn't even add it to the day's bill. And we drove back to Cork listening to T.R. Dallas and Margo on the radio.

Stay tuned for Part the Third:
"One foot in the grave, one foot on the pedal
I was born a rebel..."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"That clinking, clanking sound

Can make the world go 'round"

Consolidating some of my older website essays to here where Google can have its merry way with them. Also, as an acknowledgement that it was my company's IT department that made my Horslips addiction possible, these old travel stories are fair game for inclusion here. This was originally written in Autumn 2003 and recounts


Part the First in a series of at least Two

On January 1, 2002, twelve countries sharing the centuries of common history that comes from proximate geography, apposite culture, and occasional bouts of intra-nationalist animosity took it upon themselves to unite behind that symbol of humanity which we all value.

I refer to, naturally, money.

And so as it was written, so was it done that Mac and PC programmers were set to the task of creating a ALT key shortcut, which – when executed – delivered the following:

And, lo, the Euro was born.

Yes indeed, for the Yank tourist traveling between Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal and Finland, life was no longer the border-crossing ritual of learning new coinage, new denominations, and new terms. Harder it was for the locals to hide the fact they overcharge for the regional warmed-over variant of cerveza; easier it was for the cosmopolitan traveler to breeze through the airport not passing the Monetary Exchange booth and not collecting 200% in currency conversion fees.

Twelve countries. It could have been a baker’s dozen…but for one nation state that decided it would opt out of the new currency and remain with the monetary unit that saw it through the glory days of the Empire and the no less glorious, if slightly refracted through the prism of Washington D.C., days of New Labour.

I refer to, naturally, England.

Sure, Denmark and Sweden opted out too. However, as they aren’t directly responsible for my nightmare Friday night in Counties Cork and Kerry in Ireland, this rant is dedicated to the one nation in the three that does NOT contribute significantly to tasteful interior design or the international porn industry. In for a penny, Chancellor Brown, in for a Pound.

Now I’ll be the first to say that there’s something pretty damn satisfying about walking into a pub somewhere down in Sussex County and slapping a fistful of Pound coins down on the bar. Their weight, their thickness, that Latin or Welsh scratched into the edge like some Elven inscription waiting for Gandalf to decipher – Spend Friend and Enter – the Pound coin can take you back to the age when six people hauled trunkfuls of similar stuff ashore to some Caribbean fever-ridden swamp and only one person returned to the ship tucking up his sleeve the freshly drawn map made from what the rest of the crew hopes is just vellum and red ink. Why just the ring of those coins on the counter at the Dorchester Arms or the Prancing Pony! “Rum, Jim, rum!” I’d bellow. “Tell me when I’ve worked my through THAT, woman,” I’d say, throwing the leather coin purse at the landlord’s doxy. Yarrrgh….

And when pub talk was dull, nothing could kill a few minutes of time like lining up all the coins in chronological order and tracing the sag of the Queen’s chin line through the years. I think they should do one more coin for each monarch showing their final corporal state. A memento mori, if you will.

True, America’s got this one quarter for every state thing happening now, but it doesn’t compare to the fun of wondering exactly what that Welsh phrase is saying about its role in the United Kingdom. What is the Welsh word for Langer, anyway?

But for every pleasure, there is a price. And in the case of those of us who work a week in England followed by a weekend of vacation in Ireland, that price is carrying around TWO separate pirate hoards of coin and currency.

And for God’s sake, Europe...why so much coinage? Both Euros and Pounds have a TWO DOLLAR coin! Lovely, yes, and fit for presentation as a medal, but haul around a pocketful of them and you feel like some Vegas granny that won’t cash in her chips because she thinks it’s more valuable that way.

So, after my fourth business trip, I had a small haul of both pounds and Euros which I kept in separate bags for obvious reasons. Also, when leaving England, I kept a portion of the pounds with me in carry-on, but checked the other two bags of surplus poundage and the Euros in my check-in luggage.

Why would I do that, you ask? Let’s review the situation. Solitary American tourist, late Friday night weekend flight from island to island, and – why, what’s this on the X-Ray? - a mass of metal bits in a loosely shaped container hiding in the carry-on luggage. Spent a lot of time at the ‘special search’ area getting acquainted with security guards those first few trips that way.

So the routine was: taxi to Heathrow with trip and tip in pounds; one last English beer at the airport’s hostelry, a competitor with TGI Fridays for charm and authenticity, again in pounds; candy bar and paperback at the last English airport newsstand in the Irish departure terminal with the astounding collection of porn (and what’s up with THAT, Mr. Irish business traveler?), once more in pounds. Fly to Ireland, claim baggage, and commence the Euros.

It all works like a charm, until one bank holiday weekend in June 2003 when the Cork City Airport tells your pilot that he can’t land until the runway lights are fixed. And then, after two hours of circling get the fuel to the point where a side trip to Shannon commences, a long evening of wandering around the deserted Shannon airport terminal teaches you the lesson of what Ireland would be like if there were no pubs at all.

A handful of English pounds, a planeful of fairly grumpy people who are not living up to that Tourist Board image of welcoming Yank strangers like myself and enfolding them to their bosom (or just maybe sharing their goddamn package of crisps, anyway), and a terminal full of shops and restaurants that closed hours ago. "Still," I thought, "at least you get a chance to see another part of Ireland" and I hurried over to the windows to see what could be seen before the gloom of darkness dropped its curtain. No lights, no hills, no buildings, no features of any kind except Vladimir and Estragon hanging out under a blasted tree. And at that moment, I knew their chances of having a fulfilling evening were better than mine.

It gets to the point where I eat all the cough drops and breath-mints that I have. I make a half-hearted effort to get the flight attendants to go back to the grounded plane and get something from the cabin kitchens, but since this was supposed to be a fifty minute (HA!) flight, there’s nothing doing with that. Then, on my way to the bathroom, I spot a vending machine with that universal red and white logo of carbonation and caramel water. "Don’t know what good that will do," I say to myself, "because it’s just going to want a Euro" but wander over any way. There’s a whole bank of vending machines back there it seems: peanuts, Oreos, candy bars, fruit drops, cheese-its, licorice...a bacchanalian vision that Epicurus would savor. O, for a Euro!

Then, I see him! Engraved near the coin slot--showing the direction his paper banner is to be inserted—is the father of my country, the only George to hold a certain leadership office with any merit, that old cherry-tree chopper himself: General Washington.

Here, in the farthest western reaches of air travel in Ireland, with the dark wilderness of bog and mountain held back by the thinnest veneer of late-twentieth century plate-glass windows, is a vending machine that Takes U.S. Dollars!

And, Mark or Yen or Euro or Pound, I ALWAYS carry Uncle Sam’s greenbacks! Five of them later and I was fit and full, ruminating comfortably over my paperback porn in an airport row chair, waiting for the announcement that Cork Airport found their D-Cell batteries and we could all get on that plane and back to our weekends.

A weekend in Cork, I thought, will more than make up for this unfortunate beginning.

Stay Tuned for Part the Second: Blarney Stoned Again...