Once In a Very Blue Moon


IMG_1710 (1)We set off down the road to Albertville, through the tunnel of Frejus into Italy on the morning of July 31st not THE worst day for travel in France, not ‘Black Saturday’ but merely ‘Red Friday.’ The roads over the mountains were surprisingly clear. The plan was to go to our hotel just off the Tangenziale di Milano, take a recce out to the World Fair site and have supper there. For Saturday, we had booked tickets for the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan and would spend Sunday at Expo 2015.


For six months from May to October this year, (and right through Ramadan, which must have been a very difficult gig for the Muslim participants) Italy is hosting this year’s Universal Exposition where more than 140 nations are billed to be “sharing ideas and discussing solutions on the theme, ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.’”


Our accommodation at the Grand Hotel Villa Torreta in Milan included evening Expo tickets (7pm to 11.pm, worth €5 per person). Had we spent €39euro each on tickets and dedicated a glorious 31?C Sunday at the start of August to the Fair, we would have been exceeding peeved. That we had free entry and got to view it over 4 hours as a blue moon rose over the spectacularly diverse roof-scape of the global village was fine, but for an event dedicated to feeding the world, it was neither memorable nor inspirational, just international consumerism. Each pavilion is merely a glorified food tent, at which to buy a plastic platter of that country’s culinary specialties.

We (eventually) found the correct parking zone for visitors’ cars (not easy, the signposting is dire) and walked….and walked…..to the site. In through airport-grade security, up a mildly intimidating tunnel-bridge which crosses over a railway line, and out the other side to the Expo proper. The pavilions of some countries are huge (America, Germany) some are tiny (Uzbekistan, Ireland) but after all the walking from the faraway car park to the grounds, we couldn’t be bothered climbing the many, many flights of stairs to the big ones, and the small ones were too dull to bother with.


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The Pope himself has a pavilion, with a smiling portrait of Papa Frankie and the legend “Give us today our bread” …..irksome to a lover of the gorgeous rhythm and flowery language of the pre Vatican II Bible’s “give us this day our daily bread.”


The Holy See’s next door neighbour is Israel, boasting to be the “Fields of Tomorrow” (whose fields?) Ireland should have been subtitled “Fields of Athenry.”


Iran was vast, dark, deserted. France did not appear open nor welcoming. Rather than put forth an overly optimistic image of their country and its food production as many of the exhibitors do, the Napal pavilion acknowledged their devastated land and their people in need of shelter and sustenance. It was sad and moving, prayer flags fluttering.


We did not find the Saudi Arabia pavilion, where, it being Friday, I wanted to stand outside and sing “FREE-E, RA-IF BAD-A-WI.” I had planned to go to the Irish pavilion, sit down and say “Ah Jeysus lads, I’m shagged. Give us a cup of Peter Barry” but when we got there, it was closed. It was only 10.30 but the Irish contingent had already taken off to wherever it is that Irish people go to around 10 o’clock by a blue moon on the eve of Lúnasa, the ancient Celtic celebration for the harvest. (Traditionally, they climbed hills and did a spot of matchmaking.)


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All was very quiet around the wooden box with the big green tree, outside of which were circular tables with tops in the shape of 4-leaf clover. Few misinformed inaccuracies annoy me more than the use of a 4-leaf clover in lieu of a shamrock, for Ireland’s shamrock specifically denotes a trinity.




Whatever the architecture, the folksy dancey-dances, the children’s activities and the light shows, Expo 2015 appears dedicated to one thing: the sale of food. Every day, 450 tons of food is delivered to the site in 600 lorries, but even our experience of the food was bad. It being Italy, we chose Eataly, which has separate ‘restaurant’ counters serving specialties of all the 20 regions of this darling culinary country.


Plastic plates of decidedly ordinary Italian dishes were priced at between €12 and €15. We sat outside amidst some pleasing larger than lifesize carved statues and the ‘music’ was deafening. “HOUSE! HOUSE!HOUSE!” screamed over loudspeakers to an incessant dumdumdudm beat, getting me so hyper I stood up and headbutted “CastelGandolfo!CastelGandolfo!CastelGandolfo!” Later, we stopped again at SudTyrol for apfelstrudel and buckwheat slices (€5 each) because I want to visit South Tyrol. Best value appeared to be in Argentina, where a meat plate enough for 2 people was €13….and they had a queue around the block.


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We enjoyed ourselves in the vast, clean, fair under flashing and twinkling and shooting lights and a blue moon, but we enjoyed ourselves because we were four friends out on a skite, in Italy – our beloved Italy – birthplace of my paternal ancestors.


IMG_1713 (1)We couldn’t get the drivers of the buses, or “People Movers” to understand our question as to whether they shuttled to the car parks, so again, under the eyes of (armed) military at every corner, hundreds of us trudged across the bridge to the exit, hoping we would not become green biscuits at the other side. We made it intact, only to find the parking fee a flat €16.50 whether for a full day or a few hours. As we looped around the site on our way back to the hotel, we called mild obscenities and gave them the evil eye out the car windows….we would not be coming back on Sunday.


Two weeks ago, in solidarnosc with our Hellenic cousins, Himself and myself went to the “Big Fat Greek Weekend” event at the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg Berlin. The Markthalle is a warehouse building ringed with stalls and street food vans, bars and cafes (not unlike the English Market in Cork, but about a quarter the size and with far more associated bars and restaurant counters.) On the ‘Big Fat Greek Weekend’ the stalls of organic growers, bio pig farmers and butchers, wine and beer makers etc were expanded by many Greek entertainment, cultural and kids’ events and Greek food vendors and part of the proceeds were donated to Greek charities related to the economic crisis. It was a very wet Sunday, so we squelched into the covered area, a welcoming, aromatic buzz with lots of (basic but perfectly serviceable and sociable) seating. The food and drink was gorgeous; interesting, tasty and affordable, the vibe was light and the event was thoroughly international, relaxed, friendly, democratic and enjoyable. It was what Expo Milano should have been. Maybe they have their conferences and discussions on feeding the world in association with the Expo, but we, the swarms needing to ensure that our grandchildren will have food, have neither invite nor entre to these exclusive think tanks.


On the road between our Milan hotel and the Expo is a long, large building which appears to house refugees. Every day thousands of people arrive on Europe’s shores and border crossings, desperately in need of food and shelter. Many of the pavilions at Expo Milano 2015 celebrate their home countries, but nary a single one could afford to go to the Fair. A couple of visitors buying tickets for this event purporting to deal with the world food crisis, arriving by car, having a meal platter, a glass of wine, a slice of cake and a cup of coffee, can expect to spend in the region of €115. In Germany recently – particularly in Berlin – signs have appeared on walls of parks and pubs and clubs “Refugees Welcome.” I saw no such sign at Expo Milano.




How about recognition of the locally housed citizens of the world – neighbours of the World Fair – by offering them free transport and entry and the price of a meal?


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Lucy H Pearce

One of my Goddaughters, Lucy Pearce, runs “Be Your Own Publisher” e-courses and a publishing business, which includes editing and production and writes a blog. Her latest entry “Stranger than Fiction” ( http://dreamingaloud.net/2015/07/stranger-than-fiction/) I found not stranger than fiction at all, but absolutely understandable and easily solvable.


Lucy lives with her family in idyllic surroundings beside the sea in East Cork. She has the busy life of any wife and mother of three as well as running her own business, but she has the support of her husband and her extended family and in-laws down the road.


She described what for her was an experience “stranger than fiction:”

“A sudden intense still neck, plus intense nausea and light sensitivity like a bolt from the blue.” “As a sufferer of migraines, I know my migraines. This was not one. The nausea and extreme discomfort in my neck and base of my head got worse not better, and on day three I called the doctor. Expecting him to tell me there was a stiff neck bug doing the rounds, so go home.


Instead he said what with my history of migraines, the sudden onset, its location and the fact that I’ve had two plus this one in under a month – I needed to go straight to the emergency room in our regional hospital.

Suspected bleed on the brain.”


“Just that morning I had finished reading a book – Stir – about a food writer who suffered from exactly that.

The book I am editing, should have been editing yesterday, is a memoir about a mother diagnosed with a life-threatening illness out of the blue, considering the impact of it on her children.

Words, stories and real life were becoming a hazy blur of a reality which belonged to me.

My husband drove me to the hospital and dropped me off, taking the girls off with him.

Hospitals feel so alien to me, and put me on high alert. As a highly sensitive introvert, they are like living in your highest vulnerability the whole time: lack of control, bright lights, lots of noise, things that hurt, no privacy… Usually I am on the verge of a panic attack just walking in the doors.”



At the hospital, Lucy’s CT scan came back clear, her blood pressure and oxygen levels were good, her blood showed no sign of infection:


“No idea what it was (although at that stage I had hot and cold pins and needles going up the back of my head and felt wiped out – classic end of migraine symptoms for me.)

But they didn’t feel clear. The only way to be sure it wasn’t a brain bleed was a lumber puncture.”

Having discussed it with her husband, Lucy decided against the lumbar puncture, they drove home and she gratefully and luxuriously went to sleep in her own bed, where she woke up next morning fine and dandy. She is however, still puzzling the cause of such painful and worrying symptoms.


In the summertime, with a garden to tend, seasonal visitors and travelling, I don’t get much time to read (or write) blogs, or even to catch up with the papers, but on a trip to San Francisco in May, there was the luxury of hours on ‘planes and in airport lounges with free periodicals. In the Wall Street Journal was an article by one Elizabeth Bernstein entitled “Don’t Take This the Wrong Way You May Be Highly Sensitive”


The front page article dealt with studies and research on “HSP” or “SPS” (Highly Sensitive People or Sensory Processing Sensitivity) – an innate permanent trait rather than a disorder or a condition – according to Ms Bernstein, which is found in 20% of the (American) population and was first identified in the 1990s. In early May, the First International Scientific Conference on High Sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity was held at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.


A HSP is someone who ‘responds more intensely to experiences than the average individual.’ The WSJ columnist quotes Dr. Elaine Aron, who has a clinical practice in Mill Valley, California: “People who are highly sensitive have a deeper depth of cognitive processing, are easily overwhelmed, have bigger emotional responses and notice subtleties more, according to and they are particularly sensitive to emotions—their own and those of others.”  Ms Berenstein continues: “It isn’t the same as introversion, although HSPs find the need to withdraw from social interactions or stimuli when their brains get overwhelmed. Brain-scan studies of HSPs show differences in their neural activity, compared with non-HSPs: HSPs are more empathic, pay closer attention to their environment and are more attentive to social clues from their close friends and partners.”

“The trait has its downsides. HSPs get worn out by too much stimuli. They can become easily hurt or offended. And they have been known to overreact to a situation.” “’They’re processing information more thoroughly,’ says Dr. Arthur Aron, research professor at Stony Brook University in New York and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘So they are more easily overwhelmed.’”


With the WSJ article was a ‘quiz’ to discover if one was HSP.


  • Other people’s moods affect me.
  • I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens close by.
  • I have a rich, complex inner life.
  • I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
  • I am conscientious.
  • I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time. Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentrating or mood.
  • Changes in my life shake me up.
  • When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.


I ticked 8 of the 9 boxes. One of the downsides of empathy is physically, albeit psychosomatically, feeling the pain of other people. Being busy, privileged, contented and up-beat, hale and hearty (as opposed to alone and palely loitering) I don’t have to go to medical doctors, but occasionally, when we feel our molecules require re-alignment, my husband and myself have a Cranio Sacral Therapy session. I recently told our therapist, Steve, that I was grandaltogether, but sometimes I get ‘sympathetic’ pain when a relative or close friend is suffering. The day my friend Síle was due to have a knee operation in the South of France I limped around, unable to walk. Her husband wrote to say the operation had been postponed and I was immediately cured. If my sister in Cork has a bad tummy or her back gives out, I am doubled up. When Himself comes home after a long haul flight, it is I, not he, who had to take to the bed with exhaustion. When my Mother in Law was ill with cancer, I had bone pain.


In Cork University Hospital, Lucy was right not to take the lumbar puncture, but to go home to bed instead. She had begun experiencing cranial pain whilst reading a book about a woman with a bleed on the brain and was editing a memoir about a mother considering the impact on her children of her being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Lucy – Don’t Take This The Wrong Way – but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you girl dear.


You are merely a Highly Sensitive Person.

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Talk to Me of Mendocino

thank you Joni


In my Alma Mater, a convent boarding school, we were admonished that “When a woman whistles, Our Lady cries.” I have always whistled and the only respite I got from wimpled wrath was when workmen were renovating in the school grounds. I could whistle with impunity and the nuns thought it was the builders, not one of the Young Ladies under their wing.


Airports always make me whistle…usually a song about the place I am leaving or landing (though most often it is “as I leave behind Neidín”) and on Thursday, Montreal customs inspired Joni Mitchell’s “California.”


The system of customs for those transiting Canada en route to the United States is to channel them into a separate area where an electronic board shows the name, flight number, destination and baggage status of each passenger. “Wait here until your name turns green”said an officer, pointing to the board. There was my name, and my destination: San Francisco. I began to whistle and hum..


“…..Caught a plane to Spain

Went to a party down a red dirt road

There were lots of pretty people there

Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue

They said “How long can you hang around?”

I said “A week, maybe two

Just until my skin turns brown

Then I’m going home to California”


California I’m coming home

Oh will you take me as I am

Strung out on another man?

California I’m coming home”


My name turned green, and along with it a picture of my baggage on the carousel. I told the officer it was indeed my bag, showed my Irish passport, stated my business in Obamaland gave my fingerprints and a smile to camera, and I was through to California.


Sitting (still) in our night dresses on a sunny terrace in Morgan Hill, friend Joan and I discussed what mischief we might get up to during my stay in Silicon Valley. I said I wanted to go to Mendocino, as a kind of pilgrimage to Joni Mitchell, and she to be poorly at the moment. Joan looked puzzled; “What’s the connection?” I sang “….talk to me of Mendicono, closing my eyes, I see the sea. Must I wait, must I follow, won’t you say ‘come with me?” Joan still looked puzzled.  Mendocino is three and a half hours away, in Northern California. Her electric Mercedes only does 40 miles on a charge, her husband’s Tesla does 200 so if we were to go to Mendicono, it would have to be an overnight trip.


Himself was offering to bring me instead, when he mentioned the McGarrigle Sisters…..and then it dawned; having been focusing on one Canadian – Joni Mitchell – a lot lately, I had forgotten about the other Canadians, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. It is they, of course, who wrote and sang “Mendocino.” No wonder I had lost Joan in translation.  Himself clicked on the McGarrigle/Linda Rondstadt version of the song.


kate and anna mcgarrigle

Beautiful, wonderful Kate and Anna Mcgarrigle. Gorgeous, divine–voiced Linda Rondstadt. Soul-stirring Joni Mitchell, the sound track of our youth……


Kate Mcgarrigle is dead. Linda Rondstadt has Parkinsons Disease and can no longer sing. Joni Mitchell is seriously ill. We should gather rosebuds while we may…..but I am not going to Mendocino on this trip. I shall light a candle in a quiet church in California for us all instead.



….and Linda Ronstadt, talking about her Parkinsons:


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The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton



With age comes (some degree of) wisdom. I have done so many stupid things over the decades, I do not really deserve still to be alive.


F’rinstance: Aged about 9, I used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to walk beside the Curraheen River near our house. I still don’t know the official names of some of the surrounding places, we had our own names – like Christopher Robin and his ‘Hundred Aker Wood’ – and the Curraheen was always called simply “The River” though it was merely a tiny tributary of the Lee, Cork’s lifeblood.


The River flowed through Tanglewood, a dense thicket of flowering rhododendrons with tall walnuts overhead, bearing nuts that never ripened but fell green skinned and finger-staining from the trees. Thence through Uncle Tom’s fields (some indeed ‘sad and boggy’ like Eyore’s Gloomy Place) past the Model Wood parallel to the Lee Fields (then also owned by Uncle Tom, no relation, a neighbour.) The land was deserted then but for the black and white Friesian dairy cows of the county, too lazy to be curious; pasture, prone to flood, not good enough for meadow. Living in a shack in the Model Farm Wood was a frightening bearded hermit, keeper of dogs, and ofttimes one would hear shots fired. I hadn’t yet read Gavin Maxwell’s “Ring of Bright Water” – but, when I did, I knew the signs on the soil; the tracks and spraint of otters. On one such morning walk, I saw for the first time (the only time, apart from on a market stall in Istanbul) leeches sucking on a mossy tree trunk.


Andy O’Brien, diving at the Lee Baths, 1934 (picture: O’Brien family)

Parallel to The River was the Lee, where as adolescents we would swim in summer from the squelchy ‘beaches’ made by the hooves of thirsty cattle. We were unaccompanied – in those days, kids roamed free – oblivious to currents or the sudden surge of overflows released without warning by the Electricity Board from the upstream Inniscarra Dam. There was soft mud underfoot within one’s depth and deeper, the submerged riverweed-tethered limbs of fallen trees. I would terrify myself in the water thinking of the terrible findings in “The Greengage Summer” of coming across a corpse in the dark water. On the town side of the Carrigrohane Straight Road was the open air Lee Baths where once I dived so deep into 30 feet of rusty water from the highest platform, I scraped my forehead to bleeding on the rough concrete floor. I will never forget the shock of hitting my head, how long it took to come gasping to the surface, the realisation that I could have died….but even then the realisation that I had been saved.


At two decades, in shawls and long skirts, carrying my knitting, I would hitch-hike from hippy music festivals in the West back to Dublin. Once, at night, a young lorry driver picked me up and harried me about pulling over for ‘a kiss’. I do not know how I got out of it….but he did keep driving. We reached the outskirts of the Western suburbs and at long last, I was able to tell him to let me out. He stopped, I jumped from the high cab and ran to my aunt’s house. She opened the door, asked no questions about my late night unannounced appearance and brought me in, smelling of pot and woodsmoke, to a clean and honourable bed. (This last week, she died. I will never forget her that night opening wide the door to safety.)


In a pub in Baltimore at the start of The Troubles in the Six Counties, my friend Miriam and I found a lift back to Cork from a friendly stranger. During the evening, I did notice him accepting something from behind the bar, and shoving it under his jumper. Much later we heard that it may have been part of some bomb or incendiary device which he was transporting north…..Maybe we had travelled, when the West Cork harbourside pub closed, through the country roads, in the middle of the night, in a car carrying a murder weapon.


But of all the stupid things I did, maybe it was wisdom gleaned from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton which really saved my life. There was an electric socket above a wardrobe in our bathroom and into this I once plugged a two bar electric heater, snaked the cord to a narrow ledge at the end of the bath, filled the bath with water and got in. Just a little slip and the electric heater would have toppled into the water. I hadn’t yet learned that one should never even unplug an electric kettle or flick a light switch without first drying one’s hands, but I had already read some Merton, and he had recently died: electrocuted by an overhead fan while stepping out of a bath. He came into my mind and like an electric shock in itself I felt fear, very gingerly got out of the water and reached up to yank the fire from the socket.


Seven Mountains


In the library of my convent boarding school, Laurel Hill in Limerick, the shelves were well stocked, but the work of a former student, Kate O’Brien was locked away. Saying “you read a lot, you can handle this, but don’t talk about it” a nun once gave me a book covered in brown paper. It was Kate O’Brien’s “Land of Spices” – a banned book, banned for ‘obscenity’ by the Irish government. It was there I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton and young and impressionable, idealistic, romantic, already unconsciously seeking pathways through the world, fell for the person, his writings and his philosophy.


Greg Fischer


I have often thought of Merton since, always paused when seeing his name, often meant to go back to his writings. At a Brookings Institute “Global Cities Initiative” conference in Munich last November, I met with one Greg Fischer of Kentucky. His family come from the same county as I, both of us nurtured by the same river. We immediately clicked, we just ‘got’ each other, I later quoting him, he quoting me. (I was not participating in the conference of 40 business, civic and government leaders from the US and Germany, I was just the dragalong wife of my invitee husband.) We spoke of Macroom, of Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton, and my new friend told me the philosopher/poet monk was buried in Louisville, the city of which Greg Fischer is currently Mayor, his second term as First Citizen of Louisville.


Greg Fischer Mayor


Now I see – through Mayor Greg Fischer’s office newsletter – that a film has been made of Merton’s life. Called “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton” it is produced by “Knitted Heart” films (a title after my own heart!) and is due for release this year, 2015, as part of the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth, January 31st 1914.


Merton Movie


I just wish it had been ready for inclusion in the 65th Berlin Film Festival. Already the advance publicity for “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton” – a film of love and death and the whole darned thing – is positive, which is more than can be said for some of the big productions which have graced Berlin’s screens this past week. There are many celebrations this year to honour Merton’s centennial, particularly in Louisville Kentucky, with which he is most closely associated. Read him.



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Sex and Drugs and no Sausage Rolls

It was the second worst reception I have ever attended. (The worst ever was after the Tour de France set out in Ireland in 1998 and when they had raced as fast as their carbon fibre and Lycra would carry them up a ramp and into the maw of a Brittany Ferry at Ringaskiddy to get them the heck back to Mainland Europe, there was a ‘celebratory party” in Cork City Hall that night. It consisted of about 500 people, a dozen packets of Pringles, a six-pack and some ladies with a Samovar for tea.)


God be with the days of the sausage rolls, the black pudding on sticks. That was then – at Celtic Film+Television Festivals, at the Television markets in Cannes…… On Saturday night last in Berlin at a reception hosted by the Irish Film Board and the Irish Embassy in Germany, there was plenty of drink and a few bowls of crisps, peanuts and thin pretzel sticks. “Delighted to see you all” said James Hickey of the IFB…..to see us? He couldn’t see a thing. Nobody could. “You will recognise me, because I’m the only person here wearing a tie” said Irish Ambassador Michael Collins.   He actually wasn’t; a tall man beside him was holding a mobile phone over His Excellency’s notes so that he could read them by its light. He also wore a tie. The reception was held in a nightclub, eight storeys up looking down over Potsdamer Platz and the night city. It was almost entirely dark except for the black UV disco light which wasn’t kind to teeth. “But you couldn’t see anybody!” I said to him later “and nobody could hear me either” Mr Collins replied.


Karadshow Splash News

Karadshow Splash News

So I admired the view, had a glass of wine and left, out into the depth of the 50 shades of grey draining the city, the wind and the cold (it had been -2C in the afternoon) skittering on the gritted footpaths, to get to a film called “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” The Berlinale is a showcase and a marketplace but it is also a People’s Film Festival and the people come out in force. Especially if one is neither red carpet nor accredited, it is hard work. (If one is red carpet or accredited, it is even harder work. The press photographers are like a herd of buffalo, just as heavy, dark and wide, their long-lens horns lethal if they are stampeding to catch a star. If you are – say – Natalie Portman before a screening, the screaming is mind-blowing ….“NATALIE!!” “THIS WAY!” “NatALIE” “LEFT NATALIE LEFT!!)


Because Berlin is four times the size of Paris, one spends an inordinate amount of time travelling from place to place and then queuing to see a film while the big names are strutted, posed, photographed, mauled, shepherded, applauded, seated and bouqueted. During the earlier part of Saturday’s cinema commute I had felt something in my boot and thought it was a pebble of grit from the icy roads, but at the Irish reception, bored, I unlaced and pulled off my boot (could hardly find my own leg in the darkness) and turning it upside down found what had been causing the irritation: a green plastic disc with a big white ‘U’ on it – a jeton to unlock French SuperU supermarket trolleys. Well Holy God. How it got there I will never know (just as I will never know how Werner Herzog became Wim Wenders on the link title of an earlier blog post, though the TEXT itself was correct.)


Earlier that day I had left before the discussion after the excellent documentary “The Seventh Fire” (executive producers Natalie Portman and Chris Eyre) at the Berliner Festspiele because it was all too much as the line of crew on stage to be applauded got longer and longer, the flowers were given in the wrong order – (and attempted to be given twice to Natalie NATALIE ) and then there was “a break” for them all to be seated before the Q+A. No lads. Get the act together. We’ve got films to go to.




“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” was shown to a full haus at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a building with a circular roof which resembles a mollusk, so we locals call it “the Pregnant Oyster”. One puts oneself through the hassles and stresses and hype, the expense and the exhaustion of Film Festivals for the same reasons as miners pan for gold. One is always hoping to find a gem….and every year I do. (Last year it was the documentary about the street photographer and house nanny “Finding Vivian Maier” which has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars.) So far this year, the gem for me (apart from the works on paper…rather than the film… of Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat) it has been “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”


Based on the graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an Account in Words and Pictures” by Phoebe Gloeckner – a Christmas present from the subsequent screenplay writer and producer Marielle Heller’s sister – the film premiered at the Sundance Festival at the start of the year and was received with acclaim. Set in San Francisco in 1976, it is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, Minnie (Played by Bel Powley) who has an affair with her mother Charlotte’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard. Minnie wants to be loved, and when she discovers sex for the first time with Monroe, she wants sex. Lots of it.


Minnie has a younger sister and the family live in the quintessential San Francisco house. Though she is a lone parent and goes out to work, Charlotte does a LOT of partying, quintessential 1970s San Francisco partying, and neither her friends nor herself think anything of smoking and doping and bringing home lovers to the family home. Minnie is so amazed by her taste for sex that she chronicles her experiences, thoughts and feelings on a tape recorder and illustrates them in copybooks.


It is San Francisco 1976 and Minnie is 15. In about 1970, I was working in Press and Public Relations for the Irish Tourist Board in Cork and got a job transfer to their offices in San Francisco. Just as I was preparing to make the change, arranging accommodation etc., Bord Fáilte closed down the offices, and so my life took a different course. I have oft times pondered, if I had wandered, what would have become of me. Albeit branded with Irish (and worse, Limerick) Catholic convent boarding school guilt, I had been blooded by hippies, feminists, poets, potheads musicians and dropouts and was a perfect match for the City by the Bay.


Despite the terrifying situations (this is Irish Mammy hindsight) which Minnie and her friends got into, it was a movie about innocence, gently portrayed; a sweet and funny indie pic, not as saccharine as “Juno” but with an echo of its attributes. “Diary of a Teenage Girl” is destined to be big, particularly amongst fans of the television series “Girls” and the “Girls” ethos.   But let them remember: “Girls” did not invent sex and drugs and rock and roll and self-expression and introversion and wasting time and getting tattoos and breaking taboos and talking about stuff instead of doing it. You know what? Their much-maligned parents did. Yes, those self-same parents; establishment, mortgage-free, stuffed shirt, square, (or worse! endeavouring to be hip! Yeeech….) They fecking invented it. Right? If Minnie was 15 in 1976, she was born in 1961, so therefore, her mother, Charlotte, was probably born circa 1941…..or OMG! earlier! Charlotte would now be in her early seventies….let’s say she’s the same age as Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion. Minnie is now 53 and is probably stumbling her way – just as discombobulated as she was by adolescence – through the menopause.


So just don’t lay ‘past you fell by date’ on me my young friends….we invented the dangerous things you get up to, the terrifying situations you put yourself in. Admittedly we had but flash bulbs and tape recorders to chronicle it and typewriters after the event….not the instant world audience you have today for your mooning and a-spoonin’ groovin’ and a-shakin….but you’re still only trotting behind us* when it comes to BOULD.


*and all the other ancient civilisations.

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“Queen of the Desert” The Answer Werner Herzog was too politically polite to make

Gertrude Bell“Somewhere in the letters home of Gertrude Bell, the doughty English archaeologist and colonial administrator, there is a description of a pleasant afternoon spent riding in the Mesopotamian desert in 1918 or 1919. Bell trails a walking stick in the sand. Behind her, Arab boys erect cairns to mark the future boundary between what will eventually become the states of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.”   Thus wrote the English writer Jonathan Raban in his book “My Holy War, Dispatches from the Home Front” in 2003.


“Bell was one of the many British and French nation- builders who carved up Arabia in the years following the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The lines they drew in the sand rarely corresponded to any pre-existent historical, tribal, cultural, or geographical reality. The nations they invented were arbitrary agglomerations, their borders thrown up around dozens of warring local sheikdoms. These fictional states were given kings (the British loved to create monarchies in their own image) and elegantly written constitutions, as if the right sort of ceremonial language and regular twenty-one-gun salutes could somehow transform the chaos of post-Ottoman Arabia into a neat patchwork of Denmarks, Hollands and Swedens, with date palms and minarets.”


Apart from (justifyable) shouting and jostling by photographers trying to get Nicole Kidman (sneakily pulling up her sleeve so that her Omega watch, which she endorses, would be seen) to turn her head so the unfortunates to the right of her didn’t just get hair, the press conference for the new Werner Herzog  film which screening this evening at the 65th Berlin Film Festival, was a polite affair.Herzog, the writer director of the biographical drama based on the life of the British traveller, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer and political officer Gertrude Bell, is being featured at this year’s Berlinale for his life’s work. “Queen of the Desert” is in the “Ballsey Lady” category of this year’s festival.   Though she had an enormous effect on the subsequent history of the world, Gertrude Bell was virtually ignored until now, but due to the film, is now being classed “The female Lawrence of Arabia”.


He has a reputation as a difficult boss, but in public conversation, Werner Herzog  appears to be the most congenial, thoughtful and polite of men (though he did make a swipe at a Huff Post Cultural reporter saying she ‘believed too much what she read on the internet.’) Most of the questions from the floor concerned inspirations, landscapes, difficulty of filming, actor relationships – yadayada – even how some scenes of magic tricks were shot.


A young man from German Public Radio asked the most political question regarding Gertrude Bell’s legacy and its consequences to and on the modern world.  Herzog gave vague gentle answers so as not to offend, or appear to offend, or be seen to offend, or be beheded by radical Islamic groups.

My Holy WarIn the months and years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the English writer, traveller, sailor and commentator Jonathan Raban wrote a book called “My Holy War” a series of essays – written over that time – assessing, in the words of an Englishman living on the liberal north west coast of the United States, of George Bush’s “War on Terror.”   The book was weakly received at the time, but since then I have gone back to it again and again, for to me it seemed prophetic and since it was published in 2006, much of what Raban discusses, worries about, has come to pass.


His chapter “Here We Go Again” featured a character with a familiar name: Gertrude Bell.   The Bell family were poddibly related by marriage to the Smith Barrys who lived on Fota Island in Cork Harbour. Dorothy Bell, known locally as ‘Lady Bell’ and well-liked, was the last surviving member of that family and lived in a turreted house called “North Esk” on the other side of the Lee Estuary to Fota at the entrance to Cork Harbour. (I almost bought part of the house myself in 1985, but my family called it “Dracula’s mansion” and said that if I did go ahead and buy it, they would refuse to visit. It was bought instead by Nora and Blake Norton and their family who had come back to live in Ireland from New Jersey, where Blake was a sound engineer – (and still retains links with) Children’s Television Network and the programme “Sesame Street”. They had the money to make it into a very modern and welcoming home….which I did not. The Fota Island Estate was subsequently bought by University College Cork as a historic building housing a collection of important Irish art, the grounds became both a farm with an experimental – and before its time – photovoltaic project (which I always spelled withan ‘F’) and is now an excellent Wildlife Park, and sadly, a commercial hotel and golf course.


Any connetion between Dorothy Bell and Gertrude Bell was probably through marriage. Dorothy married into the Bell family, who ran “Bell Lines” shipping container transportation business out of Tivoli/North Esk, and she died in North Esk in the 1970s, without issue.


But back to Wim Wenders and to-day’s smartly fielded questions regarding Gertrude Bell’s legacy.   This is how Johnathan Raban put the answer, succinctly, in “My Holy War” 2005 and if he’ll pardon me, I’ll quote chunks in full, because the legacy of Gertrude Bell was not just poetry from tents in the desert ……


“A nation so fancifully constructed does not easily lend itself to governance. You need a warlord, with a loyal standing army and a far-flung force of secret policemen, to prevent the country from falling into the turmoil that is the natural state to which it is perpetually tending. The systems of government that have evolved in Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are paranoid family dictatorships with ancestral roots in a single city of village. Thus the Assad family of Qurdaha, an Alawite village up in the hills behind Latakia, Syria’s Mediterranean port. The Saud family of Riyadh, an oasis town in the Nejd desert, now the capital of Saudi Arabia. Thus the Husseins of Tikrit, a town ninety miles north of Baghdad, and the birthplace of Saladin. (Saddam’s full name is Saddam Hussein al-Tikrit.)”


Jonathan Raban goes on to discuss how, if the European inventors of these countries “believed that generously drawn borders would encourage a commensurate enlargement of national as opposed to local consciousness, the effects have been quite the reverse.” Bush, says Raban, justified his attacks because Saddam was using “weapons of mass destruction” against “his own people”. “But the concept of ‘own people’ in Arabia needs footnoting” “…When Assad sent his army into Hama, he was not moving against his ‘own people’ so much as attacking his traditional enemies, those whose base lay within his territorial jurisdiction.” “…..From the perspective of Tikrit, the Kurdish city of Halabja and the floating villages of the Shiite Marsh Arabs did not contain Saddam’s own people: they were, rather, insolent colonial outposts that needed to be taught a savage lesson.”


Osama bin Laden, continued Jonathan Raban, addressed his calls for armed resistance to the West and its ‘puppet’ dictators in the region to the ‘ummah’ the nation or community of believers. He never spoke of ‘Saudi Arabia’ his own home country “…he always refers to it as ‘the land of the two holy mosques’ for to bin Laden and his followers, the Saud family are usurpers, kept in place by the patronage and militry might of the US. In Osama’s version of things, the country we know as Saudi Arabia exists only as a piece of arrogant colonial mapmaking.”


Raban concludes: “It is hard for us to understand the intoxicating appeal of pan-Arab Islamic nationalism – the dream of an Arabia without borders, united under a restored caliphate, answerable only to Koranic law, the Sharia. To Western eyes, Sharia law, with its public stonings, beheadings, amputations, its male triumphalism, appears tyrannical in the extreme. How could anyone see in it the promise of liberation?”


“The answer lies in the despotic tyranny under which most Arabs now live. President Bush said ‘They hate us for our freedoms,’ but that is not true; freedom is a rare commodity that Arabs would dearly like a lot more of. They hate us rather, for the condition of humiliating subjection in which they find themselves, and for which, rightly or wrongly, they hold us responsible. They hate us for Sir Mark Sykes, for Georges Picot, for Arthur James Balfour, for Gertrude Bell, ………”


“My Holy War Dispatches from the Home Front” by Jonathan Raban, first published in 2006 by the New York Review of Books, New York. First pubished in Great Britain in paperback by Picador , an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd. ISBN-13:978-)-330-44594-8. ISBN-10:0-330-44594-4

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Berlinale 65, 2015. 2



Berlinale Booking

Oh the frustration! I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. The on-line booking system for tickets for the Berlin Film Festival is a mine field, a backwards and forwards relay race which ALWAYS results, when pressing the last button for payment…..in a “Session timed-out, return programme choices.” Yesterday I got a ticket for 1 that’s ONE showing – but that was by queueing in line (as opposed to on-line) by a physically ablebodied person. Dare I say unfortunately?…..had I been challenged, it might have been easier. This is how:


One goes to Potsdamer Platz. In the snow, it was easier for me to hop a U Bahn to the place I knew, rather then venturing into Audi headquarters, which I don’t. ) Why, oh why is it Mercedes, whose headquarters is just down the road in the ‘East’ (and with an excellent little café) rather than Audi – headquartered fecking miles away in the ‘West’ which is the Berlinale sponsor? Life is so hard in the First World.


In the PP Arcaden (as opposed to The Mall of Shame) one finds 2 long queues, so one does another recce and finds a ‘Handicapped’ desk. Two windows, 1 customer booking. One asks “Tickets?” They answer “Are you handicapped?”One responds “Er… no.” (One could go into details about one’s inability to post letters or understand money or technology but one doesn’t want to bore them.) They reply “This is only for handicapped bookings only.” One says “But there’s nobody here, if a handicapped person comes along, I’ll gladly move back.” They laugh “But we only have handicapped SEATS” “Oh” one says “You mean in the end of rows, or wheelchair access spots?” They laugh again, so much one sticks out just the teenny tiny tip of one’s tongue at them. They laugh even more.


One thinks of brothers Christy and Michael Dunne, excellent traditional musicians who used to busk outside Roches Stores in Cork and at least one of whom was blind. (I have an original of the iconic picture of the Dunnes I was given by the Cork Folk Festival photographer, but it is framed on a wall in France, and with all the “INCORRECT PASSWORD AND LOGIN NAME” I have forgotten how to pull one from the web.   In the meantime (i.e. until my husband comes home) see http://www.advertiser.ie/galway/article/29160/the-dunne-brothers-busking-in-galway   Anyways, I thought of Christy and Michael and how they when they once annoyed a neighbour on the Northside and she shouted after them “That you may be cured!”


Then one goes to another kiosk, where there are 2 online ticket pick-up desks and one which they tell me is for o’rnry tickets….BUT ONLY USING MASTERCARD. One rifles through wallet (one isn’t very good on finance) to see if one has a MASTERCARD. Swiss? No. German? No. Aha! FRENCH. Off we go…..pieces of paper flying over one’s shoulder, crumpled paper at one’s feet, programme already torn, notes frayed, nerves frayed. After all but BEGGING, offering one’s body….nay one’s SOUL….even MONEY for tickets to the two films one REALLY wants to see “Queen of the Desert” and “Nadie Quiere La Noche” (Until the End of the World) both Ballsey Lady films, one, the new Werner Hertzog, about the explorer Gertrude Bell who was probably responsible for the current incomprehensible, inhuman excesses of ISIS. The other film ais bout about Josephine, wife of Robert Peary the Arctic explorer, with Gabriel Byrne.


The Irish and the northern Indians have at least one ancient, non-violent tradition of protest in common. In the pre-Christian Irish tradition, the injured party fasted on the doorstep of the offender. It is speculated that allowing someone to starve on one’s doorstep was such a great dishonor to the household, that they had to admit their wrong-doing, thus clearing their doorstep and their name. In India the practice may have been in use from around 400-750 BC, until it was formally abolished by the government as a recognized public form of protest in 1861. I think I shall go starve on the red carpet at the Berlinale Palast, until, ashamed of being deemed ‘inhospitable’ Werner Hertzog, Isabel Coixet, Gabriel Byrne, Juliette Binochet or Festival Diretor Dieter Kosslick lets me in.


And this is my background music: I know it isn’t Parry, it is Lord John Franklin, but it is still an Arctic explorer’s wife’s lament and it will do for my purposes, for they all starved in the snow. It has been recorded by Sinéad O’Connor, Pentagle, John Renbourn, Bob Dylan and Liam Clancy amongst others, but my favourite version is by the Canadian Valdy (Paul Valdamar Horsdal) but can’t find that online, so here’s Mícháel O’Domhnaill and Kevin Burke.



“We were homeward bound one night on the deep

Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep

I dreamed a dream and I thought it true

Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew


With a hundred seamen he sailed away

To the frozen ocean in the month of May

To seek a passage around the pole

Where we poor sailors do sometimes go


Through cruel hardships they vainly strove

Their ships on mountains of ice were drove

Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe

Was the only one that ever came through


In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow

The fate of Franklin no man may know

The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell

 And now my burden it gives me pain

For my long-lost Franklin I would cross the main

Ten thousand pounds I would freely give

To know on earth, that my Franklin do live”


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Loin Girding for the Berlin Film Festival



Oh joy, oh bliss oh luxury! To-day I am girding my cinematic loins, perusing programmes and social media sites, cleaning my wohnung and buying in basic foodstuffs to Be Prepared. The 65th Berlin Film Festival (or Berlinale) begins tomorrow!


Alone in Berlin without a child to wash or a man to feed, I can come and go as I like….and I like to have a choice of 441 films over 10 days. After years in the German capital in FreezingFeckingFebruary, one learns the pitfalls that can mean disappointment, the local eccentricities, how to dress for the weather and how to get tickets. It used to be just queues, but with improved technology (even 2 years ago online booking was a nightmare) the buying of tickets has become much more straightforward, much more easily linked to the actual programme – though a physical programme with dog-eared pages, crossings-out, sticky note fringes, hi-viz underlinings, stars and swooshes is part of the joy of participation.


It’s going to be very, very cold in Berlin in the next 10 days. Wear a vest. (Not in the American sense of ‘sleeveless waistcoat’ but the European torso-covering undergarment also known as ‘undershirt’ or ‘singlet’) If you haven’t got one, go straight to Uniqulo when you arrive (Tauentzienstrasse 7b/c, 10789 Berlin.) Apart from their ubiquitous light down jackets (now worn on my recommendation by multitudes of my friends, relations and fans, followers and secret passifans) get anything from their ‘heatech’ underwear collection….they also had some excellent cashmere on sale recently.


Wait for the Green Man (‘Amperman’ in the East of the city, where he has a hat) (also referred to as “The Wee Fenian Man” in Belfast) before attempting to cross the road…..even if it is in the dark early morning and there is no traffic in ANY direction. This applies mainly to Irish people and PARTICULARLY visitors from Cork, where Jay Walking is a local sport in the same manner as Bowling (not in the American sense; this is played with solid steel balls of 18cms in circumference weighing 28oz or 794 g. Both are practiced on public roads and thoroughfares. Parents teach their children the former from when they are babies, by pushing their strollers out in front through the traffic.)


If booking tickets for the Festival online, be prepared. Go through the programme, mark what you want, sit down at your computer with your credit card handy. Do it very quickly or you’ll lose out. Queueing for tickets in the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden (the opposite side to the Mall of Shame) can be either soul destroying or fun. It’s only fun however if shared with a friend, taking turns to go for coffee or allow the other a peebreak. Tickets can also be purchased this year in the Audi building……but haven’t tried it yet.


If you don’t speak German, use Germanglish (but preface it with raised eyebrows signaling that you are a big ejit and haven’t a ballsey, but are gamely trying.) Just put ‘en’ “tát or ‘e’ onto the end of English words, or substitute an ‘i’ in the middle for a ‘u’ (as in ‘kutchen’ for ‘kitchen’. Examples: fax = faxen, copy = copien and so on.) Everyone in Berlin speaks English and even the most humbly regarded humans – the homeless, the manual, unguilded labourers – will reply in English that will shame you for your ignorance of other cultures. The vast majority of the screenings, discussions and introductions at the Festival are in English.


If wore out and just wanting a chat with a friend, go to a posh hotel close to the cinemas, get a comfortable seat by a fire and order an Irish coffee. It will cost you, but it will be worth it, because you’ll be revived and you can sit for hours in comfort. Take no notice when staff come up and ask if you want anything else.


When someone refers to “The Mall of Shame” they mean the “Mall of Berlin” shopping centre which opened in the Autumn. The developer has already gone bankrupt and did not pay its (predominantly Romanian) builders. If they refer to “The Airport of Shame” they mean Berlin Brandenburg, which was supposed to open in 2011 but has recently been postponed for a fifth time, until 2017.


“Bikini Berlin” does not mean either a pool or swimwear designed in the German capital, it refers to a new multi-use complex whose top floor resembles the New York ‘High Line’(ish) but looks out over the Monkey enclosure in the Zoo…..a bit like the view from Aras an Uachtaráin (Irish PResedential Residence) in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.


Watch out for dog pooh.


Don’t watch out for graffiti; it will hit you in the face, between the eyes, under the feet, by the hand.


Women: wear black boots (preferably with leg warmers) or everyone will know you’re a tourist.


Don’t expect the U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations to be well signposted on the streets or their routes to be well mapped in the interior. You are supposed to devine, not have it pointed out to you.


Always click your train ticket. Transport payment is on an honour basis and if you’re caught unticketed – or even unclicked – you’ll be taken off the transport and fined e40. No excuses. And you could miss a film.




It’s OK for us mere mortals (the nonbeautiful) to use the red carpet to enter a cinema….sometimes it’s the only way.


Do have lots more advice, but haven’t time to write as I’ve got to click my Bic, book those tix, see those flicks with all those chicks……..Or in other words: head out into the cold white streets (it’s snowing) to sit in the warm dark cinemas and enter other worlds.


See ya! Bye!

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What a wonderous thing is the human body – as wonderous a thing as a pelican (his beak can hold more than his belly can.)


Two days ago, on Sunday, the Feast of St Brigid, in Ireland called the first day of Spring, it was snowing hard in the French Alps….had been for 36 hours. I was alone in the house by the lake, Himself was in Abu Dhabi. In Abu Dhabi, that most modern of modern cities, communication with the rest of the world can be difficult as they block the lines (whatever…I don’t know the technology, but Himself can never reach me from his mobile and Skype is sketchy.) However, he happened to be at meetings in the Government Offices (they work on Sundays) and there….ta-dah!…. excellent and immediate international connectivity through any means. One rule for The Men In The Tower, one rule for the people.


I was alone in the snow. One friend I had the security of knowing was only ten minutes away, ready and willing and able (she had already helped me out by checking the house and putting on the underfloor heating before I arrived back after 2 months away,) the other two empathetic local friends were away.


My Grandmother always said that ‘bad luck comes in 3s’ and if she broke or lost something, would go out and break two jam jars to get it over with. On Wednesday we’d had a family bereavement and I wasn’t able to get home because of flight times and bad weather preventing my driving to Lyon for a ‘plane to Ireland.   I had also drowndéded my camera and iPhone by putting an unscrewed aluminium water bottle into my backpack while out walking that afternoon, so my only outside world communication was land line and email (duh.)


It was snowing outside, but I was unearthing summer clothes to pack for a trip to Singapore, Sydney and Dubai. It was hard to think flip flops shorts and badenahs while I fed with logs the gaping maw of the fire; in and out of the house, in and out of the stove like a poor steam train stoker, a glass-blower’s apprentice, a smelter worker in a Soviet steel works.


On Saturday night I dug the apron around the car and out to and around the gate  (we had put down tarmacadam specifically for ease in snow shoveling) and praise the lords, that was easy with my Big Yellow Shovel….then down the driveway a-puffing and a-panting to the walnut trees and out on to the ploughed and gritted road. Did it. I had an escape route!


On Sunday it was as though I had never been out. A driveway as pristine white as the pavement outside John Kerry’s Boston home. So I packed. (Two suitcases, one weighing 20kgs, the other 23kgs.) (“Why TWO Belle?”) Because Himself wanted desk phones, mobile phones, documents, laptop sleeves, short sleeved shirts and sun hats from home, that’s why. I put them in the car and started shoveling again.


Then I re-cycled, cleared the ‘fridge, emptied washing machine and dryer, (yadayadayada) dressed semi-acceptably, laced up my snow boots and fled, leaving almost 2 hours (less than I’d wanted) to clear and start the car, lock up, dump the rubbish, get through the snow to the airport, check-in, buy diesel, return rental car and get through security. My heart was beating fast….adrenalin pumping, metabolism going a mile a minute. (“What were you wearing Belle?” Brown V neck cashmere sweater[Florence+Fred for Tesco, Cork] saffron sleeveless sweater with sequin detail on pockets, hood+neckline [Monoprix, Annecy] black cashmere long-line zip hoodie [Galleria Kaufhaus, Berlin] brown wool-mix Ralph Lauren jodhpurs with buttoned legs [Kildare Village] calf high Puma laced snow boots [Manor Geneva] cuffed and hooded saffron and white fur long-line shearling coat [Marmaris, Turkey] and saffron suede gloves [Fete de St André street market, Annecy]) It was still snowing.


For legal reasons, I can’t go into detail about some of the journey and what happened when I was getting gazol, but I eventually got out on the motorway. We have a clicker for French toll roads which opens a computerized barrier on a priority lane, but that was in our own car, this was a rental. I queued at the toll stations, with other cars zipping and wheeling and walzing and shoving and squeezing between lanes to try and get into the fastest moving lane.


The weather has not been kind to the ski stations of the Savoie Mont Blanc region. The season is supposed to start in mid December, be rocking for Christmas and continue on until mid-March. Flights and accomodation are booked out, equipment rentals do a roaring trade, the part-time ski instructors work flat-out, the mountain-top restaurants serve chips, hot chocolate and mulled wine on a conveyor belt basis, drivers ply the icy roads with vans and buses full of people and lumpy gear…… This year, over the past 6 weeks, they have had, in all, about 7 days of excellent skiing conditions. Searching flights when I thought I might go back to Ireland last week, ads kept popping up for 20% reductions in skiing holidays for January into February. This is unheard of. For the Savoie/Mont Blanc area, it is the most expensive time of the year. Saturday and Sunday are ‘changeover days’ when the last lot go out and the new lot come in….always traffic bouchons. In the local (excellent, but untrendy) Semnoz station, the snow fell so deeply over the weekend that it cut the electricity, so for the first really good ski day of the year so far, they could not take credit cards, print insurance receipts, run lifts, cook food…..




In France, one pays (one sure pays) at each toll along the motorway. In Switzerland, whether you are passing through for a stretch of 10kms to get to Geneva airport, or are a ‘frontallier’ commuting twice a day and then some, you pay e40 odd for a ‘vignette’ a car window sticker which gives you access for the year (and the month of January.) This was February 1st and my red ‘14’ sticker was one day out of date. I queued at the office for a vignette and then the cash collecter on the road outside had the gall to try to pull me over again to watch me actually STICK the vignette to the windscreen! I threw up my hands in good Gallic style and told him it was in a rental car and I was late for a flight out of Switzerland and he waved me on.


Onwards to the airport, where construction work was still in progress on the car parks. It used to be easy; you’d park the car outside the departure doors, go in and check-in cases, come back out – sometimes within the 15 free minutes allowed – and give back or long-term park the car in another location. Now there were queues, special lanes for buses, taxis, hotel-rental car shuttles, chaffeurs+limos, emergency and diplomatic vehicles (of which there are a LOT in Geneva.)   I took the less crowded option, to go into the underground parking. Spiral down, down, down, pulled in, couldn’t find the CHF change I usually keep handy for parking/baggage cart in GVA, got a trolley which took euro, found a 50c coin, humped the bags, waited for the lift…..broke my own strong strong rule of ALWAYS noting letter, number, pictogram, colour and floor of where the car was parked…..


Above ground, the airport was hell. No room to move, crowds and crowds and groups and straggles of Michelin Man-wide people (ski jackets) and their mountains of gear. Men being so cool with their skis on their shoulders, who then turned around and decapitated whoever was behind them with a slash of the blades……manoeuver trolley, 43 kgs of luggage through the queues. Last week, my beloved husband (in whom I am well pleased) had foreited going to kryptonite level with his own airmiles – and thus easier access to business/first class seating etc. on flights – to me, and got me a gold card. I went to the (almost empty) First Class check in. They took my 43kg without quibble and said boarding was at 5.05. It was now 4.40.


I had no Swiss coins for the parking, knew I only needed about CHF2, asked a (so labeled) “Airport Angel” where I could change 2 euros for CHF2, and she looked at me blankly and said “American Express. downstairs, turn right” (If it were Ireland, she’d have said, “here, I’ have it” and dug into her pocket and I’d have gladly given her a fiver.) Thought I’d get change instead (usually, if you buy a magazine or a chocolate bar with euros in the airport they give you your change in Swiss coins whether you like it or not. ) I hadn’t had lunch and there was no time to go to the lounge, bought a (disgusting, cellophane wrapped) bagel at a café and asked for my change in CHF. He shook his head and said “No” (a lot of people had said “No” to me in the past 5 days) so I shook my head and took back the fiver…..with a snarl, he banged open the bin and flung in the (unopened, cellophane wrapped) bun. Queued at American Express. Got CHF3 for my e5 (I know the exchange rate has gone down –to parity I believe – but like HELLO?) and ran.   Realised I hadn’t the foggiest iota where I had left the car……


The lifts, big as an industrial elevator, were jammed with skiis, boots, babies, strollers, wide people, suitcases, backpacks……I went for the emergency stairs and ran. Up and down….in and out…..over and back, squeezing past equally off-pissed off piste people on the narrow concrete steps behind the glass doors…. “Feck it” (ses I to myself) “I’ll leave the car, catch the ‘plane, pay the extra (about e30) to have it brought back to the French side” (about 4 kms by road, 5 metres through the airport) but then realized. (like HELLO? My coat and my carry on bag, containing my jewellery and some $US for travelling was in the car….. “OK so”(ses I to myself, and I still running underground, a distance that seemed as far as the CERN circle for the Large Hedron Collider….which, incidentally, was all around the airport….maybe I was actually IN the tunnels of the CERN Large Hadron Collider ?) “I’ll bring back the car, get my bag, miss the plane if needs be” (I probably added another “Feck it” for good measure, just to get at St Brigid, who was having a feast day party making me run rings around an area which was EVEN BIGGER than what her cloak would cover.)


It was now 5.05. My fellow passengers had started boarding. Found car, drove to exit, around the (UNSIGNPOSTED) route to the French side.   Even though – through visiting friends in Cessy, a million times – I KNEW the high-fenced barbed wire entrance to the French side of the airport was past the Franco/Swiss borderpost at Ferney, I thought “ah, they’ve put up a sign at last” and from the roundabout after the motorway exit, switched into the lane marked “AIRPORT. FRANCE” Immediately, I knew it was towards the Haute Savoie France, not the Ain France…… Back to the airport, around again, out of the airport, onto the motorway, up the slip road, through the tunnel under the new runway, past the border post, cross the road at the teeny, tiny sign that said “Airport,” through the high fenced laneway (under reconstruction; single flow traffic, sign that said “Bouchons”) a 3 minute wait for the lights to change….. squeezed the car into a yellow lined space, ran upstairs to the rental desk, threw down the keys, said “All good…..car full…late for flight” to the receptionist and ran. It was now 5.15.


Back through the corridors, past security (French) down the stairs, through the baggage hall, through security (Swiss) out into Arrivals, up to Departures, to security (Flights.) The queues were snaking out past the barriers into the airport concourse. Dodged through to the ‘Priority’ lane, which was empty. Praised the Gods of Spring (had gone off St Brigid) when the gates opened to my ticket barcode. Fling off clothing, pull off boots, open laptop, throw out arms in a routine worthy of Ditta Von Teese (“What were you wearing Ditta?” …..oh never mind.) Through security. X-Ray machine lady pulls 2 small unopened bottles of water from my bag and coat pocket.   It is now 5.30. Plane scheduled to leave in 5 minutes.


No time for footwear. In stocking feet, boots in hand, I ran for the gate and reached it at 3.38, 3 minutes after scheduled take-off. Fellow passengers still sitting down, sign above desk saying “Delayed to 5.50”.   Thank you St Brigid (and sister who had rung that morning as she went out to Mass, saying she’d pray for me.)


And if you are still with me, just one more thing before I tell you that I got home to the warmth, comfort, security, fun, intellectual stimulation, excitement, adventure, affordable food, breath-taking creativity, obliging, warm, interesting – and more importantly and endearingly, interested – funny, creative, original (yes, that’s the one;  originality….not much of that under the mountains, unashaméd appropriation of ideas) self depreciating, caring, confident, loving, reliable friends: I was flying to Berlin via Vienna on Austrian Airlines and the young female cabin staff on (both) flights were calm, firm, smiling and really, really nice. (“What were they wearing Belle? Red. All red. Red suits- skirts, pinnys and tops or trousers – red tights, red scarves, red shoes [just a click and you’re there.]) “I know you’re busy” I croaked to one steward “but when you’re ready, could you possibly get me a glass of water?” “Of course!” she smiled, and she did. Then when the trolley came around I had a cup of tea and a generously full tumbler of white wine.

Then I fell asleep.

Then I got to Berlin.

Then the Iranian taxi-driver told me Teheran has changed, and boys and their girlfriends can go out in the streets together. What about women wearing nail polish ses I? what about women having to sit in different parts of the bus? What about keeping dogs? “EVERYONE has dogs as pets” he replied.   Eleven o’clock at night. He still dumped my 3 bags (50kgs) on the street outside the apartment, did not carry them to the kerb, not to mind the doorway.


Made it. My body had been in flee and flight mode all day and yesterday I spent realigning my molecules, growing out my fringe.  I could hardly move. I had lost 2lbs.  I do not recommend this diet.


p.s. No pix to this post.  I do not have a camera, I do not have a ‘phone.  (But am I happy?  YES!)  (“What are you wearing Belle?”) Oh shut up

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Berlin, A Quiet Saturday

In Berlin there are so many bloggers, so many artists, so many little photographers (with and without blue hair) that everything is constantly documented.





According to intel from Tim (Strangely Strange) Booth, a supermarket had recently opened in Berlin called “Original Unverpakt” (Original Unpackaged) where all the goods were open, nothing was sold in tins, packages or containers. One brought one’s own bags, jars and boxes and fed the items – from pasta to soap to shampoo to vegetables – into those re-cyclables and thus transported them home.


The address of the business – which was started last year by two women, using crowd funding methods to get it underway – is close enough to us, so it being a cold slow January Saturday we took a trip into the Turkish/trendy area of Kreuzberg to investigate.   We had also read about a well established ‘hummusaria’ close by in Neukölln called “Akroum Snack” and set out to try both to-day. “Akroun Snack” (Sonnenallee 45, 12045 Neukolln) is a tiny place, but it’s the real deal.


Going out I weighed myself down with bags and containers to shop in Original Unverpakt, but saw nothing I wanted. It is a small shop, prices appear high and I was sorry for the mustard cress seedlings, wilting (in their plastic container.) It was busy however; people were buying the little cotton bags with the ‘OV’ logo to bring home little bits of little things, filling bottles and jars with stuff from the dispensers on the walls. They looked very contented and very earnest, supporting local, eating healthy, saving the planet. A young girl in high platform shoes with long blue/green hair the colour of the sea, was earnestly, absorbed, self-consciously taking photographs with a fat camera.


We bought nothing at ‘Original Unverpakt’ but in the bookshop next door I found “Journey Home” by Dermot Bolger (a family friend) so that constituted my contribution to buying local, thinking global (or maybe, in this case, visa versa?)



At lunch time on a biting cold, wet drab grey Monday last week, we were in a lovely little Hungarian restaurant “Szimpla Kaffeehaus Budapest” (Gartnerstrasse 15, on the corner of Boxhagenerplatz, 10245 Friedrichshain) and a lithe young girl was dipping and arching to get the best shots of the upscaled downmarket furnishings, the bar made of old doors, the mismatched chairs and sofas, the look which Dublin establishments are working their Irish butts off to achieve on the city streets. “Szimpla” has wi-fi, big bowls of minestrone soup which would set you up for the day, chunks of onion tart, fulfilling milschkaffees….but salad a wee bit tired and plain sliced white bread in lieu of rolls.

Andreas Varady


At the ‘A TRANE’ Jazz Club, at a gig by Hungarian Gypsy/Slovak/Limerick boy Andreas Varady (and his Daddy and ‘little brudder’) on Wednesday night, ‘phones were held up right through the performance to capture every riff and quiff. There is not a stone, a change of light, broken pavement, important statue, gilded angel, dead stone horse, gargoyle, tower, bridge, cloud or reflection in Berlin which has not been photographed from every angle.


At Akroum Snack we had lunch; taking our cue from the ‘Stil in Berlin’ blog, we had small freshly made Middle Eastern pizzas which were crispier than the pitta bread (which came with a bowl of cut fresh tomatoes and onion with olives as part of the deal )- and thus excellent for dipping – bowls of Foul, which is like hummus and Fatteh, chickpeas with yogurt, fried bread and toasted almonds, which had me groaning in ecstasy. Most of the tables (about 25 covers) were full with men in black with dark stubbled chins, talking earnestly and eating fast – with the odd wrist swing of prayer beads inbetween the dipping – or young people looking completely at home. The glasses of unsweetened black tea, to which one helps oneself from the samovar in the front of the shop, are free with the meal.


Akroum Snack is painted brown and dusky, has plastic flowers in ceramic pots, black tables and chairs which are cleaned assiduously after each customer. Besides ourselves, there were also 2 other tables of people speaking English. I asked one couple how they had heard of the restaurant; had they read about it online? I got a frosty reply: “we have been coming here for years, since we came to live in Berlin” and where were they from? “Russia” (figures) “what part of Russia?” “St Petersburg.” “Ah” ses I “how gorgeous, I haven’t been there since 1987”……which elicited the first smile from my newhardlybestfriends. The staff however, were much more outgoing, speaking English, wanting to know where we were from, hoping we’d come back. We will. Please don’t change a thing….


But sure, then you’d need something sweet, and near the “OU” we happened upon a serious ‘kuchewerkstatt’ called “bravo BRAVKO” (Lausitzer Strasse 47, 10999 Berlin)   White, white white, serious industrial display case, a smell to drive one crazy with sugar lust, young engaging staff, and the cakes, Oh My Interdenominational God……. Apfel-Nuss-Vanillecreme, Karotte-Vanillecreme, Pecannuss-Mokka, New York Cheesecake Kirsch-weisse Schokolade, Schokomousse-Himbeere, Franzosische-Mandel-Apfel……. Even if you don’t speak German, bet you can salivate to those!





There was a steady stream of people in to buy and take away slices of cake and two couples of uber trendy men at the next table, but nobody taking photographs, nobody documenting this sweet interlude in Berlin town. So I did.


Then we came home an I did the ironing.

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