The day after tomorrow, we’ll fly from Reykjavik to NYC, returning to the States after 11 months abroad. I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake in our Reykjavik guesthouse trying to account for and remember the things we’ve done, the places we’ve visited and the experiences we’ve had. Here’s what I came up with:
3 Continents visited (Oceana, Asia, Europe)
5 Countries in which we’ve watched Homeland
4 Countries we’ve visited ruled by authoritarian regimes
4 Post-communist countries
7 Bicycle trips
17 Countries visited
12 Countries visited with universal health care (not America)
8 Pairs of shoes worn through (Me: 2; Sujata: 2; Boy: 2; Girl:2)
74 Blog posts posted (that’s just mine–Sujata not included)
10 Visitors from the States
10 Countries where I swam laps
5 Boxes sent back to America
4 Birthdays celebrated
6 Islands visited
11 Months out of America
16 UNESCO World Heritage sites visited
1 Pubs that serve Bereta beer–Viniloteca!
6 Rental cars
5 Countries we drove on the right side of the road
I probably think slightly more about fashion than the average middle-aged American male.
That said, I feel like a slob in Paris.
When I met Sujata in 2000, I looked like a holdover from the late 80s with my pegged jeans, baggy shirts and weird, faux-mullet haircut.
There are a number of critical junctures that can make or break any romantic relationship. There’s the first kiss, the meeting of the parents, the first argument and, at least for us, the first time Sujata critiqued my sartorial choices.
It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you dress, the shirts and pants and sweaters and ties and blazers and whatever else that you choose to cloak yourself in everyday say something about who you are or who you think you are and pretty much no one wants to be told, in blunt or even gentle terms, that the clothes they are wearing look stupid, or out of date or, worse, ugly. In other words, even if you profess to not care what people think of your sartorial choices, you actually do, and you will be (even slightly) offended should someone/anyone raise an objection to anything that you might choose to wear.
That’s partly why fashion as a topic of discussion (or critique) rarely comes up in normal adult conversation and that would especially be the case with dudes. Imagine strolling down the sidewalk with your best friend and offering, “You know, you look like you are on your way to Applebee’s, man, why don’t you change that shirt before we head to the pub?” Because unless you sleep next to the person who is leveling critiques at your sartorial choices, you should really just not go there, unless you are trying to derail the relationship/friendship in the first place.
That said, one of the critical junctures in our relationship was the first time Sujata verbally turned her nose up at my fashion sense. I think her first shot across my couture bow was directed at my jeans, which she declared to be too tight and high-waisted. This was in the early to mid 2000s as low rise jeans were coming into fashion. I, stuck in the mid-80s, still thought that the jeans Springsteen wore on the Born in the USA tour were in fashion and I wasn’t aware of the low-rise craze. Next, came derision cast at the houndstooth blazer that I’d been wearing for upwards of 10 years and then from there, there was a protracted assault on my denim shirts.
I grudgingly took her advice and, over the years, acquired at least a modicum of fashion sense. It’s not like I have a fashion coach, subscribe to GQ, or read the Style section of The Times, but I will go out of my way to find a stylish shirt, a nice pair of dark wash denim jeans, a pair of smart shoes and a few nicely-fitted blazers.
At my age and given my subject position (white, male, middle aged) the object is, at minimum, to not look like a denizen of the American suburbs, which, as it turns out, isn’t that hard to do. You just have to stay away from baseball caps, cargo pants (or shorts!) or t-shirts emblazoned with “Just Do It,” “No Pain No Gain,” or “Go Hard or Go Home.”
And I have to say that as you get older, it’s a lot easier to look older simply based on your fashion choices. A baggy pair of jeans or khakis, a schlumpy collared shirt (or worse, a polo shirt!) and suddenly 50 looks like 60. And I’m not ashamed of admitting that I’m slightly vain enough to care.
We’ve been living in Europe for nearly nine months now and, over time, I’ve figured out European fashion. I bought some beautiful wool sport coats and fashionable European-cut slacks in Italy and a pair of Campers in Spain. In Saigon, I found a tailor who made me three beautiful shirts and, of course, I have the classic sweater that Sujata made me in Ireland. I’ve purchased a scarf in just about every country we’ve visited. So, I felt pretty fashion forward throughout most of our European journey. Well, at least I didn’t feel particularly fashion backward.
European men favor slim-fitted slacks with an inseam just above the ankle, a style choice which allows them to show off their shoes as well as their socks. Most men over 30 wear a European-cut blazer (fitted, shorter in the sleeves than most American blazers and shorter at the waist as well) with an open-collared shirt. You rarely see ties. Soft leather or suede chukkas or (better) pointed, high-top, wing-tip leather boots (very cool!) are popular as well.
If you had to characterize European men’s style you’d say it’s quite minimal and close-fitting. The lines in the shirts, blazers and pants are straight and smooth and there is no taste for baggy or oversized fits. Colors are, by and large, muted, earth toned. There’s no room for loud plaids or paisleys and forget about wearing plaid on plaid or plaid with stripes.
French men, though, are at the top of the pile of European fashion. In Dublin, for instance, dudes walk around with skin-tight spandex jeans–they look like they just got off the boat from Queens. Romanians dress like guys on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Spaniards dress like San Franciscans and the English dress like they just woke up and couldn’t remember if they were going to the rugby match or the office. The only European men who can compete in a fashion sense with the French are the Italians, whose taste for fine wool blazers and trousers is impeccable.
French men, though, can make khaki look cool.
The other day, as we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, a very fashionable young man walked by us. Dressed in his spring fashion blazer, open-collared cotton print shirt, perfectly creased trousers and pointed wing tip boots, he appeared to have leapt from a catwalk. “Look, children, a flaneur,” I whispered, to which Atticus quipped, “He seems like the kind of guy who should have a television crew following him.” Well played, young man!
All this is probably making you wonder, “How can I look dress more Parisian?” Or, “How can I get my partner to dress more Parisian?”
Well, if that’s the case, then read on. As I’ve been admiring French architecture, the Seine and French Impressionist paintings, I’ve also had my eye on French fashion so here are a few tips on how to look as cool and fashionable as any Parisian man nonchalantly waking through La Marais:
Get a scarf. I started wearing scarves when we were in Cambodia last summer. The Cambodians (perhaps because they were colonized by the French) love their scarves and Cambodian scarves are made of a light cotton that you can wear throughout the summer. I bought about 10 of them when we were in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and hardly a day has gone by since then when I didn’t have one wrapped around my neck, even in warm weather. In Paris, though, a scarf is simply required.
Get a pair of high-top, wing-tip leather shoes. If you are in the States you may need to special order these because I don’t think they sell them at Cole Haan, but, it’d be worth the extra postage and, anyway, get a pair of French boots so you are at least supporting the French (who voted the right way in the last election) and get them before #45 levies import taxes on European goods because after that happens, everyone will want them.
Keep at least two buttons of your collared shirts open. I know, this is hard for American men, but, you know what, you just have to do it and then, eventually, you’ll get used to it and you’ll feel free. In the week that I’ve been in Paris, I’ve not seen one Parisian man wearing a collared shirt that wasn’t opened at least from the last two buttons. Since we’ve arrived, it’s been getting progressively warmer and I’ve noticed that at the temperature rises, fewer buttons get clasped. You just have to try it and then it starts to feel normal. Today, for instance, I left the flat with three of my top buttons undone while kept looking around to see if anyone was staring at me on the walk to the Metro, by the time we got to the Musee D’Orsay, I completely forgot about it and just melded in with all the other Parisian men.
Wear v-neck tshirts. You will never, ever see a Parisian man walking around with a crew neck tshirt. C’est horrible! V-necks are way cooler and fashionable and if you are really freaked out about keeping the first two buttons of your collared shirt open, the v-neck will make you feel safer and more secure.
If you are feeling fashion adrift, I hope this little bit of Parisian advice will get you through the spring and summer fashion season.
After five months in Ireland, it was time to move on. The semester at Maynooth University came to an end, the Regis students all dispersed across Europe and back to the States, the children finished their school work and our Irish visas were about to expire.
Paris seemed like as good as any of a place to end the first part of two-year hiatus from 45’s reign, so we boarded a flight early this morning and landed in the city of lights before noon.
It’s a miracle we got here at all.
A few days before our departure, I walked into our living room in Maynooth only to find Sujata staring at the computer with a look of complete horror on her face. “Um . . . I think I made a big mistake,” she declared and then informed me that the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris that she thought she purchased never really got submitted and we didn’t have a flight. After a frantic search, she found us reasonably-priced seats on Air Transavia (it’s not that bad!) and the crisis averted.
I wasn’t actually that excited about visiting Paris. I really like beaches and although we have been traveling for a year, we have spent probably about two days at the beach so I really wanted to finish up this European part of our adventure in Cadiz or some quiet Grecian island. Plus, it’s been so cold in Ireland–I felt like I needed to bake a bit in the sun to get all the cold and dampness out of me.
Those dreams were roundly outweighed by a nine-year old’s dream to climb the Eiffel Tower and Sujata’s dream to spend her fortieth wandering through Parisian arrondissements, munching on croissants and sipping wine. Besides, they blithely informed me, we’re on our way to spending a year on the beach in New Zealand and you don’t even have to work! So I set aside my ocean dreams for at least two months.
But, I have to say, after Emmanuel Macron’s white-knuckle handshake of 45, I was ready to come here and support the man, and the country, that is willing to fight to make the planet great again.
Plus, it didn’t take long for me to fall for Paris. We usually take public transportation from the airport to our hotel or Airbnb, but we left Dublin with more luggage than we would have liked so we took a cab to our flat in La Marais. I was glad for the ride, though, not just because I didn’t have to lug a 15kg duffle bag as well as my backpack (although that was nice), but because I got to see the city as we sped along the surface streets.
In some ways, Paris’ cathedrals, haute couture shops and outdoor cafes reminded me of Vienna and Rome, and I even saw a little of Barcelona in the way the sunlight glinted off the white stoned buildings along the Seine and among Paris’ many lovely plazas.
We left our flat with a clear set of objectives: 1) find a creperie, 2) stop by the Notre Dame cathedral, 3) walk over to Shakespeare and Company and 4) find a nice outdoor cafe to relax and watch passersby.
Objectives 1 and 2 went swimmingly.
We wended our way from La Marais, across the Seine and over to Isle Saint Louis where we stumbled upon a quant creperie.
Afterwards, we found our way to Notre Dame and admired the flying buttresses, the ancient stained glass and the absolute grandeur of the place.
Everyone was excited for Shakespeare and Company, but for different reasons. For her part, Sujata wanted to get a book by an American expat to Paris (she was thinking James Baldwin or Richard Wright), get a classy Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside cover and then retire to a cafe (preferably by the Seine), order a glass of wine and begin reading. The children just wanted another book to read and I just wanted to walk around the bookstore that published Ulysses and served as a lending library to the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and other members of the Lost Generation who made their way to Paris following the first World War.
It was at Shakespeare and Company, though, that things went a bit awry and we found ourselves caught up in that very thing you think will never happen to you, namely, a terror attack.
I was standing in the middle of the store reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (they have like five copies–try finding any Cohen book in any US bookstore), Sujata was at the register with an armful of books (she chose Wright’s Native Son) and the kids were somewhere in the store, I wasn’t exactly sure where.
I was really enjoying the first few pages of Beautiful Losers and even contemplating getting my own copy when Sujata sidled up to me and asked, “Did you hear that?” No. I didn’t hear anything. “Gunshots.” Oh. I carefully put the book back on the shelf and looked around the front of store where an employee was calmly shutting the front door. He turned around and in a voice as calm as the Seine, he announced that there was a shooting at Notre Dame and could everyone please stay in the store?
No one said a word.
There was some scuffling of feet and of course everyone whipped out their cell phones. We didn’t get SIM cards at the airport so we had no data and of course there was no wifi in the store so we just kind of moved to the back of the store, looking for the kids. We found them in the back, quietly reading in the kid’s section, so we sat down with them and waited it out. I, bizarrely, picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution (don’t ask!) so to take my mind off whatever the hell was happening outside, cracked the spine and tried to read.
You could hear sirens in the distance, but the people in the store, just stood in groups, chatting quietly and flipping through books.
Some people in the store started quietly narrating events: a man with a hammer attacked a police officer in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Later, we learned that the assailant was “neutralized” (dead? handcuffed?”) but the area was sealed off and folks were under no circumstances to go near the cathedral.
I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I wasn’t scared and I certainly wasn’t thinking that the store would be stormed or anything like that. I figured that we’d be okay, but I do remember worrying for the people who were at Notre Dame (we were just there!) and hoping no one was hurt.
Then I just got disgusted.
Here we were, holed up in a store, listening to sirens pass by, following the news on phones and wondering what exactly was going on. Plus, we have been wandering around the world for the past year. I have seen exponentially more acts of kindness and grace then I’ve seen or been a party to acts of stupid bullshit like attacking someone with a hammer and I just became internally furious to think that in my country a semi-elected cretin (not Cretan!) is holding us (and the rest of the world) hostage and now here, in Paris, we’re held hostage by idiocy on a whole other level.
After a time (it felt like around 30 minutes), the back door swung open and an employee told us that we were free to leave the store, if we wished.
Minutes before we were allowed to go, the skies opened up, delivering a tremendous Parisian thunderstorm. It rained earlier in the day, in fact, on our walk from Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company and as we stood under oak trees, watching the rain bounce off the sidewalks, I remarked to Sujata that these are the things they used to write songs about. Despite the rain, we walked out of Shakespeare and Company, away from the cathedral and on a roundabout way back to our flat. I opened our umbrella and Sujata noted that that probably wasn’t the best time to leave the store (on account of the rain), but I just wanted to get out of there at that point.
The mood on the streets was cautious. Mothers were still out there pushing prams, but they were walking with a purpose, heads down, home on their minds. Couples sat at the outdoor cafes, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes, but the sips seemed like gulps and the inhales seemed like long drags. We walked quickly and quietly, looking back over our shoulders periodically.
Later that evening, as we ate dinner in our flat, the children said they were nervous, but definitely not scared.
Our friends from Denver came to visit us in Ireland last week. After they left us, they flew to London so they were in the environs when the terror attack happened on the London Bridge.
I guess this is the new normal. As we were walking back to our flat from Shakespeare and Company, I watched the kids as they walked ahead of me, arm and arm with Sujata. What will this world look like when they are my age, I wondered? Will they even be able to bring their children to Europe and retrace our steps?
It’s not an easy time to be a college student with a political conscience.
Emboldened by the racial, gender and economic provocations of the current administration, Right Wing conservatives like Mike Pence are happy to use any microphone they find themselves standing in front of to rail against what they consider to be a virulent form of political correctness that’s sweeping across college campuses, turning them into so many cauldrons of overwrought liberalism.
That’s certainly what Pence was up to this past Sunday when he addressed graduates of the University of Notre Dame and, after congratulating the students and wishing them the best of luck, launched into an attack on so-called political correctness on college campuses.
Pence’s very presence at the ceremonies, his role in the current administration and his long history of anti-gay rhetoric and policies precipitated about 100 of the Notre Dame graduating class to walk out of the ceremony.
Conservatives looked at the students who walked out on Pence and cried out, “See, we told you! The fascist left can’t accept free speech on campus when that speech challenges their own beliefs.”
In context, though, the peaceful and orderly walk out by the Notre Dame students looks tame compared to a few campus incidents that occurred earlier this year and to which Pence was no doubt referring to in his comments.
Last March, students at Middlebury College disrupted a talk by the controversial sociologist, Charles Murray, and even went so far as to rough up one of the Middlebury faculty members who invited Murray to campus. Earlier in the year, protests against a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent at Berkeley and, more recently, Ann Coulter cancelled a scheduled visit to Berkeley because of threats of violence.
The reality, though, is that most college campuses are wastelands of political involvement and most students, cowed by ever-escalating costs of higher education and anxious about getting ahead in the business world are more interested finance and marketing than they are in violent or non-violent resistance to a corrupt political system.
Only 100 of the nearly 3,000 graduates at Notre Dame chose to walk out on Pence. What do you think kept the rest of them in their seats?
I’m sure Facebook feeds, Twitter accounts and the blogs of the conservative media are filling up with exclamations about the disrespect that Notre Dame students showed to Pence. The truth, though, is that it’s the administrators and faculty members at Notre Dame who made the decision to invite Pence to commencement who are to blame.
Administrators at elite institutions have come to treat commencement as a kind of showcase of their own purchasing power. Commencement season has become a time of chest thumping as universities jockey for the most sought after speaker. What’s worse, political, cultural and entertainment luminaries are trotted out on the stage to speak the same old shibboleths. And, they are paid quite handsomely for their saccharine words.
What’s lost in this model of commencement invitations is the more civic-minded purpose of the commencement address. More than anything, commencement (or, the beginning) should be a time for university communities to come together, to celebrate the achievements of their graduating class, to thank the students, their families, staff and faculty for their work and dedication and to set the institution on course to fulfill the democratic mission of higher education in America.
Fat chance, though, of anything like that happening in the current American climate.
And it’s not that controversial ideas and people don’t have a place at commencement ceremonies, which are whitewashed enough with their inspirational platitudes. A strong and vibrant democracy accepts a wide diversity of political thought and astutely uses its collective acumen and wisdom to parse out alternative facts and heavily-laden ideological pronouncements.
Confident and mature people (and by extension, nations) actually seek out criticism as a way to get better.
No matter what you think of Mike Pence, by virtue of the fact that he’s aligned with #45, he is a divisive political figure who has a greater chance of offending audiences at a place like Notre Dame than he does of compelling them to think deeply and act in the world with a sense of justice and grace.
In that regard, it makes sense for a place like Liberty University to invite someone like #45 to its commencement ceremonies. Eighty percent of fundamentalist Christians who participated in the 2016 presidential election voted for the sitting president and given that the students who choose to attend Liberty are overwhelmingly evangelical Christians, why shouldn’t Liberty invite him to speak to its graduates?
For Notre Dame, a Catholic and purportedly global, outward looking and relatively ethnically diverse campus, to trot someone like Pence before the graduating class and its families seems like tone deafness at best and provocation at worse.
I’m still in Ireland, so I did not get to attend graduation ceremonies at my home institution, Regis University. Aside from seeing my students receive their diplomas, meeting their families and saying goodbye, I generally don’t look forward to commencement ceremonies. I was disappointed, though, to miss commencement this year because Regis invited Father Greg Boyle to address the graduating seniors.
Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of the great book, Tattoos on the Heart, is the kind of American we should set out to become. He’s funny, smart and worldly in his outlook, but more importantly, Father Boyle, through his long-standing commitment to serving communities of color and working on the front lines of gang violence in Los Angeles, is a paragon of decency and compassion.
Hats off to Regis for inviting Father Boyle and for demonstrating respect and compassion for our graduates and their families at this exciting time in their lives.
My folks are in Ireland for a week, so we rented a car and drove to County Cork from Maynooth for the weekend. This was the first time I visited Cork and I was looking forward to our stay mostly because one of my favorite Irish writers, William Trevor, was from Cork and many of his novels are set in Cork townlets and villages so I was looking forward to seeing the country side, if only to visualize what I imagined from my reading of Trevor’s novels. Cork is the rebel county of Ireland in that great republican leaders like Michael Collins hail from Cork, so I was excited to see some of the sites related to Collins and republican Ireland as well.
We stayed in Cork city the first night. Cork is rougher around the edges than we expected and my folks wanted something a little more quaint, a little more “Irish,” so we hopped in their car on Saturday morning and drove to Kinsale, a little fishing village 20 km south of Cork city.
Kinsale is a picture-perfect harbor village. We checked into a gorgeous hotel right on the water and walked to Fort Charles, a sixteenth-century English military stronghold designed to keep the French and the Spaniards from landing on the island. It turns out, though, that the French and Spaniards did indeed land in Kinsale although they did it through the figure of King James II, the Catholic king of England who landed here in 1789 with funding from the Spanish King and with French and English soldiers by his side. James made it ashore and fought his way about Ireland with his army for a year until he was ultimately defeated by William of Orange at the famous Battle of the Boyne and expelled from Ireland just a year after he landed at Kinsale.
We had fun walking through the ancient fort, enjoying the scenery and imagining the military scenes that took place here so long ago.
We made reservations at what we were told was the best restaurant in KInsale so we showed up on time, were seated by the maître d’, ordered drinks and appetizers and everything seemed to be going okay.
The restaurant started filling up and it was a small space with low ceilings and hardwood floors, so it started getting busier and louder as we finished our first bottle of wine and happily waited for dinner. We hadn’t seen my folks for some time so we were enjoying catching up with them and telling them about all the adventures we’ve had over the course of the last year.
Our children don’t use electronic devices at the dinner table. They join in the conversation with us and they are, generally speaking, good conversationalists. And, despite the fact that they had walked nearly eight miles that day and hadn’t slept much the previous night, they were animated and engaged with the conversation at the dinner table that evening in Kinsale.
We were all enjoying ourselves and laughing about something when I noticed the maitre d’ approach our table, lean toward the middle and ask, “Could you all keep it down, you’re a little too loud and we’ve had complaints.”
We have eaten in restaurants all over the world and we have never been asked to lower our voices, even in places like Japan which, relative to Ireland, have a lower threshold for public noise and garrulousness.
I was, then, taken aback by the request, especially given that we were the only table with children and, frankly, the only brown people in the restaurant. It was hard not to read something into the message the maître d’ delivered.
Ironically, just before we were asked to quiet down, my father had just related the following story: He was in a restaurant in Florida one time and a family sat down next to his table. The parents were chatting and the children took out their electronic devices and were either playing games or reading but shortly after the kids took out their devices, the host; walked over to the table and asked the children to put their devices away because they were too bright and were disturbing the patrons. The father went nuts, started yelling at everyone in the restaurant and then the whole family got up from their seats and left the restaurant.
We can agree, I hope, that going ballistic in public is bad behavior and should be discouraged. That said, maybe, though, the parents had a long day and just wanted to relax and talk with each other. Maybe the kids were exhausted themselves and just needed some time to check out.
I had my father’s story in mind when the hostess in Kinsale delivered her news to us. I wanted to snap back that we were really sorry to be enjoying ourselves and maybe they should issue an Ipad to all the children they let into the place so that the kids remain passive and quiet and we are so sorry for having fun and enjoying each other’s company. I looked at Sujata and she clearly had a similar message to deliver. We both, wisely, held our tongues, acknowledged the request, politely said, “No thanks, we’ll have dessert somewhere else,” paid the check and walked out.
The place didn’t get any quieter, by the way, as we got up to leave.
And the thing is that it wasn’t that great of a restaurant. The waitress used her fingers to move the appetizers from one plate to the next and as I was walking down the hall from the toilet back to my seat the very hostess who within minutes would ask us to quiet down pulled me aside and asked if I’d reach up to the top of the wine rack and grab a bottle that was out of her reach. I was, of course, happy to oblige.
All that said, my children are not shrinking violets, either. My daughter, in particular, has one of those voices that you can hear across the room and her laugh, a rollicking, full-throated chuckle, is unique and evident when she is enjoying herself. I suspect that whoever complained was hearing her laughter over the din and perhaps assumed that others in the restaurant were raising their voices in order to compete with the nine-year olds. Who knows?
There are many things to love about my daughter–she is funny and quirky and, as our friend Cath says, “full of beans.” It’s her voice though–both the physical projection as well as what she says and how she says that is one of the things I love the most about her.
When she was five years old she told us that she wanted to be in a play so we enrolled her in a community theatre production of The Little Mermaid. We weren’t sure how it was going to go but she stuck with it and secured two minor roles for herself. On opening night I found myself volunteering behind the scenes–I was assigned to the boys dressing room where I was charged with helping the boys change get into their proper costumes and it was the closest I think I’ll ever get to being on the set of a Wes Anderson film.
Just before the play started I walked around to the front of the auditorium to watch the opening number because I knew my daughter was in the first scene and I wanted to see her maiden performance. The curtains parted and there she was, leading a phalanx of war-torn sailors, marching to the front of the stage and launching into the opening number, “Fathoms Below.”
She was five at the time and she was surrounded by six or seven other five-year olds and as they opened their mouths, all I could hear was my daughter, off-key and shouting the lyrics with the energy and confidence of a seasoned veteran of the stage” “I’ll sing you a song of the kind of the sea/An’ it’s hey to the starboard, heave ho!/The ruler of all of the oceans is he/In mysterious fathoms below!”
My eyes were like spigots. I had to wipe the tears away and I thought to myself, that’s my daughter, that’s my daughter.
She’s secured minor roles in two other community theatre productions and when we get settled in New Zealand, I’m sure we’ll find another community theatre for her to be a part of.
I’m proud my young daughter doesn’t act like the girl that the larger culture expects her to act. She’s strong and opinionated and she doesn’t let anyone mess with her. That’s how we raised her. That’s how she is, and that’s, I hope, how she’ll be for the rest of her life.
So, I don’t like it when strangers ask her to be quiet, especially when she’s not even being excessively loud.
I thought about that first night of my daughter’s young acting career tonight as we quietly left the fancy restaurant in Kinsale. I also thought about the poor people who were in the restaurant and were agitated by a young girl’s laugh. What’s wrong with them? But, then again, who knows? Maybe they were struggling with relationship or health issues and just wanted a quiet dinner away from their troubles. But beyond all that I also worried about the message that was being sent to my daughter. She heard what the hostess said and because she is respectful of others, she quieted down and actually said very little the rest of the short time we were in the restaurant. When we left, I grabbed her hand, told her I loved her, and told her to not worry about what happened back there.
We bought them cheap, overly-preserved ice cream at the corner store, walked back to our hotel and went to bed.
I thought I’d could put the experience behind me, but when I woke up in the morning, the hostess’s words still grated against me.
I’ve spent a good bit of time in swimming pools over the course of our travels, and this past weekend on our trip to London I reached perhaps the apex of my international swimming experiences when I swam in the London Aquatics Center, the site of the 2012 London Olympic swimming competition and the pool where Michael Phelps distinguished himself as the greatest swimmer and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time.
Phelps won four gold and two silver medals at the 2012 London Olympics and by the end of that competition he had earned his 18th gold and 22nd overall medal. After his last event in London he was given an award naming him the most outstanding Olympic athlete ever. As in, London 2012 was the 30th Olympiad and Phelps was designated the most outstanding of all the exceptional athletes that had competed in the previous 30 Olympiads. That’s almost impossible for me to understand.
Before I jumped in the 50-meter competition pool at the London Aquatics Center in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I had swum laps in a variety of pools in New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Japan, central and southern Europe and Ireland. In fact, much to Sujata’s chagrin, one of the first things I do when we arrive at any given city is look for the nearest pool. Oh, and it’s not that Sujata doesn’t support my swimming habits, it’s that when we arrive to a new city, the priority is generally finding a place to eat or the location of our hotel, so looking for a pool comes across as an indulgence.
Despite my best efforts, though, sometimes I just can’t find a pool or what I do find is too far or we just don’t have enough time for me to get to the pool. Other times, I’d spend a good amount of time getting to the pool and it’s a bust–like the outdoor pool I found in Phnom Penh where I walked a mile on treacherous roads just to get to the pool and could hardly complete my 1500 meters because the air was so smoggy that my lungs were on fire after just a couple of laps.
There was also a funny moment in Timisoara: After much searching, I finally found a lap pool and it was walking distance from our flat. Score! Or so I thought. I immediately threw my swim gear in my backpack and pretty much ran down the street. I walked into the natatorium and a janitor who spoke no English waved me into a room that I guessed was a changing room so I changed from street clothes to my swim suit, walked through a number of corridors, opened a door and voila, there was the pool. I had a great big grin on my face as I approached the pool and before I heard a gruff voice yelling in Romanian. I knew the verbal assault was directed at me and all my Romanian friends who heard this story said I should have just jumped in the water and started swimming because The Yeller would have just walked away, but being the good, first-born American that I am, I stopped and learned from The Yeller that free swim was over and that I’d have to leave the pool. So I did and I never went back there.
And as much as I loved swimming in the London Aquatics Center, the very best swimming experience I’ve had to date was the Osaka Pool, quite possibly the coolest indoor swimming pool in the world.
If it weren’t for the legacy of greatness that the London Aquatics Center holds, I’m not sure I would have had such a great time. For one thing, the pool was pretty far from where we were staying at Waterloo Station so I had to get up early and ride the Underground at rush hour (not fun) for 40 minutes before I even arrived at the natatorium.
Incidentally, it had been 15 years since I’d last been in London and I forgot how tight the cars are. I know that’s why they call it the Tube, but when I first entered the car at Waterloo, I had a slight panic attack because I was shoulder to shoulder and back to front with a lot of people and there was very little ventilation and it was just not a pleasant experience.
The car eventually emptied out. I got off at Stratford Station, walked through a giant indoor shopping mall that I assume was constructed just for the Olympics, cut down a few side streets and there was the Aquatics Center sitting in the middle of the Olympic Park.
I’m a bit weird I guess in that my heart generally skips a beat or two when I see an indoor pool. Some of them–like the Osaka Pool and the London Aquatics Center–are simply architecturally and even culturally interesting: here’s this huge bubble in a major urban where real estate is high-priced and scarce and it’s dedicated entirely to swimming. And given that not many people swim that much anyway and that, aside from flying, swimming is one of the most unnatural activities for a human to engage in and that these natatoriums cost a lot of money to maintain on an annual basis, I think it’s just amazing that they exist in the first place. So when they do exist and when they exist in this grand and palatial manner, I’m grateful to the largess of civic-minded people and tax payers who fund these sorts of public spaces.
I was a bit shocked when I walked in the locker room at the London Aquatics Center. The sign clearly said “Men’s Locker Room,” but I noticed that there were women in their blow drying their hair, so I quickly turned around, walked back out and re-read the sign. A few moments later, a dude walked by me and retraced my steps so I followed him in and quickly realized that the locker room was an enormous–probably 2,000 square foot–area that acted as a co-ed changing room. There were 3×3 foot changing rooms cubed and linked together across the center of the room and you just walked into one of those tiny rooms, shut the door, changed into your swim suit, put your stuff in a lock and then walked through a section where you could shower and then walk out on to the pool deck.
The pool itself was pretty crowded–I shared a lane with four other swimmers but given that the pool is 50 meters long, you hardly ever see the other swimmers except if you stop for a break at either end. And, swimmers are, by and large, decent people; that is, they don’t worm up on you if you are slower or give you dirty looks or flip you off or do rude kinds of things that drivers sometimes do to cyclists and runner. Still, having so many people in the pool and in your lane makes you a bit conscious of other people around and, at least for me, takes away from the meditative and mentally relaxing part of swimming.
Until you stand at one end of a 50-meter pool and prepare to dive in and swim to the other side, over and over again, you can’t really appreciate the athleticism and power of Olympic swimmers. Physically, I’m not that that much smaller than Phelps. I’m 6’2″, I have size 11 feet, a 6’5″ arm span and I weigh 170 lbs. Michael Phelps is 6’4″ he has an arm span of 6’7″, size 14 feet and weighs 194 lbs. I’m also not a terrible swimmer. I routinely swim 1500 meters and if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish that in around 30 minutes. That said, when I dive in the pool and start my forward crawl, I look insignificant and minuscule compared to Phelps, who cuts through the water like a shark. And that’s one of the things that is so remarkable about Olympic swimmers–they dominate the water in a way that is really beyond the scope and ability of probably 99% of the human race.
After I finished my swim, I slipped out of the pool and just stood on the deck for a few minutes, admiring the beauty of the Center and thinking about Michael Phelps and what he accomplished here.
We did other, more typically touristy things, in London and Sujata and I will get around to writing about them shortly.
For the winter term I’ve been teaching a course in the English department here at the University of Maynooth and yesterday was our last class meeting. Given than I’ll be moving to New Zealand and on leave from my home institution next academic year, it was the last class I’ll teach for some 15 months. I half-heartedly looked around for a university near where we will be living in Whakatane on New Zealand’s north island. The big universities are two to four hours away by car and given that we’ll be living on the beach on the Bay of Plenty, one of the sunniest and warmest places on the island, I figured I could find better ways to spend my time than preparing for classes and grading papers. I can’t say I’m happy about the prospect of being out of the classroom for that extended period of time, but, I guess I can’t say I’m sad either so I guess it’s more correct to say I’m ambivalent.
One thing I do know is that teaching abroad this year has been a unique and exciting experience. I spent the fall semester teaching American Studies classes at the University of the West in Timisoara, Romania, I had a chance to lecture at Karoli Gaspar University in Budapest and then this past semester I taught an American literature course at Maynooth as well as an Irish history course to the Regis students who are studying here at Maynooth.
Each of these teaching experiences brought its set of joys and challenges. I still think about and miss the students at the University of the West. Their warmth and their excitement in learning about American culture is still with me and I’ll always be appreciative of their generosity and willingness to share their time and experiences with me and my family.
Given the way the class schedule was set up, I ended up spending a lot of time with the Romanian students–we were together in class for three hours every week and then quite often they would meet me and my family for dinner after class. They were a funny, irreverent and gregarious lot and I think, in many ways, they spoiled me with their friendliness and openness. They made bracelets for my children, gave us delicious Romania foodstuffs and a number of them even came to the post office with us and acted as our translators so we could ship our boxes from Timisoara to Romania.
Teaching at Maynooth has turned out to be equally exhilarating but quite different from my experiences in Romania. Irish students are by nature, I think, more cautious and guarded in the classroom and I think it took the students in my American literature class a little while to get used to my teaching style which is more Socratic and discussion based than what they are used to.
I also have a tendency to get worked up and dramatic around certain literary moments and early on in the semester, I think some of them thought I was slightly crazy. Like, for instance, when we discussed that amazing moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck is faced with the prospect of turning Jim into the authorities (and doing the right think according to antebellum slave laws) or continuing to hide Jim from the authorities (and breaking the law) and he stands there and thinks for a moment before he does the truly right and just thing and declares, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell.” It’s a classic American moment of the individual giving the middle finger to a corrupt and unjust system. I’ve read that passage probably 100 times over the course of my life. It still sends shivers up my spine and I have to say that it resonated deeply with me as I read it with my Irish students following the ascension of #45 so, naturally, I got slightly worked up and acted it out and while I think the Irish students were entertained by my excitement, I noticed them giving each other sidelong glances as if to say, “Oh, boy, what have we gotten ourselves in to now?”
At the same time, though, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate the sarcasm of my Irish students. The Irish are, generally good at sarcasm and take some pride in their cheeky and cynical outlook on life. That makes sense, given their history vis a vis the British empire, and it makes for honest and entertaining verbal exchanges in the classroom, especially when I would ask them to think about Irish equivalents to American historical or literary events.
For instance, while we were reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, I did a little presentation for them on public memory and American war memorials which prompted a funny discussion on Irish public memorials. The Irish, I learned, are really good at mocking their public monuments and for good reason, I have to say. Here, for instance, is the monument Dublin put up after the IRA blew up the statue of Admiral Nelson on O’Connell Street in 1966. They call it “The Stilleto in the Ghetto” or “The Stiffey in the Liffey” (!).
The famous statue of Molly Malone is dubbed “The Tart with the Cart” or “The Dish with the Fish.” James Joyce’s statue off O’Connell Street is referred to as “The Prick with the Stick.” Are you getting the patterns?
Americans, who by and large do not possess the trenchant and irreverent sense of humor of the Irish, have no nicknames for our iconic public monuments and you don’t have to look too far beyond the Washington Monument for material.
As the students packed up their bags and walked out after our last class, one young man came up to me, thanked me for the class and asked for some book recommendations of American authors. Students used to ask me questions like that quite frequently, but I’ve noticed over the years, as the internet and hand-held devices take a large toll on all of our intellectual and spiritual lives, that I get those kinds of requests more and more infrequently. But, I’ve found Irish students to be quite intellectually curious and well read so I was pleased to write down a few books for the young man (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was at the top of the list), and made a mental note of that moment as I’ll want to remember it next year when I think back fondly on this past year.