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Ostkreutz S Bahn Station doesn’t look much, though it looks a whole lot better than it did a year, two years, three years ago – when one could hardly find the entrance amid the tangle of brambles, detritus and debris, the echoing steel staircase, the rusted wire and iron railings – but for the preponderance of parked bicycles in various states of decay and disarray.
Still, as the busiest train station in the old East Berlin, and one of the busiest in this hip and rapidly gentrifying but plenty gritty area of Friedrichain, every day Ostkreutz is a coming and going of thousands of passengers and their attendant baby buggies, skate boards, musical instruments, bicycles, bags and dogs.
I love Ostkreutz. it is my gateway to the world. When my daughter first heard me say this, her reaction was “Thank God”. Why I asked? Because, she reminded me, it used to be the South Link Road in Cork which I would defend against its detractors as my favourite artery, my gateway to the world, but now, I had moved on. (The detractors of the South Link Road be many; though less now that the snarl-inducing Magic Roundabout has been sorted out with a multi-million euro fly-over unscrambling the routes to the airport, the Dog Track, Killarney, Cork University Hospital and Schull. It was known as ‘The Magic Roundabout” because it was a miracle if you could to figure out how to circumnavigate it.)
But back to Berlin. The approaches to Ostkreutz may be dirty and potholed and graffitied and flyposted and littered with empty bottles, but Berliners – and those who love Berlin – don’t notice such things. (I do. I love Berlin but it grieves me that such a wonderful, beautiful, exciting, intoxicating, inspirational, mindful, fun, rich place is ruined and by graffiti, which is accepted as “Street Art”. It is not. It is ugly defacement of new paint and plaster work, people’s homes, historic buildings and magnificent streetscapes, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted.)
I walk to and from Ostkreutz at all hours of the day and night, and travel in its trains, gladly and with confidence. I have never had a bad experience and always enjoy the walk and the ride………until Saturday.
Saturday evening in Berlin. The sun has sunk in a peach pink sky, momentarily flashing flame on the steel carriages of a train passing towards Amsterdam, creating one of those glorious city silhouettes of “towers, domes, theatres and temples…all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”
At six thirty I boarded an S Bahn at Charlottenburg on the Ostkreutz route. There was a smell of alcohol in the carriage. Alcohol in Berlin trains is nothing remarkable; people drink by the neck from beer bottles – though rarely spirits – all the time. One gets used to it and it doesn’t constitute a threat as it might – say – in Britain. There was a strong, tall young man in the seat behind me. His hair sprung and hung in long blond dreadlocks around his head and down his shoulders. It was early evening in early February in a northern European city. He was “wearing” a short sleeved denim shirt, open to the waist and denim jeans torn up the front even to his upper thighs, displaying legs badly splotched with sores, bruises, brown and red spots and his feet were bare.
I moved seats up to the very front of the carriage, where 3 women sat in 4 seats. The 2 young women opposite were in street wear for work…. the work of the streets…. again, not uncommon or remarkable in Berlin. These women are experienced enough to dress appropriately for their trade and for the weather. One had on an imitation sailor’s hat pinned to her long thick brown hair, much make up, a short well-worn waisted trench coat missing its belt, a mini-skirt barely covering thin black tights. Her companion had long straight blonde hair, much make-up, a matted faux fur trimmed hooded anorack, black shorts over open mesh black tights and both wore black, knee length, stiletto-heeled boots. They were swigging from a shared bottle and jigging their hips to tinny bass-beat music on their ‘phones and talking loudly. The smell of alcohol in the carriage was from their booze….with the movement of the train, their fizzy wine had exploded on opening and spilled over the floor. Sitting down, I had to move the cork – and an empty plastic pack of cooked ham cuts – from the seat. People eat on the trains in Berlin, but never litter.
I always keep change in my pocket for people busking or begging on the streets or selling the (Berlin equivalent of) Big Issue on the train, and give unquestioningly, but a when a wild looking young man with a wide squat-nosed dog (which actually looked somewhat embarrassed) came a-begging I shook my head…something about him…..
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the half-naked blond hunk-hulk leave the train. Maybe he had noticed the two men entering…… In Berlin, ticket purchase is on an honesty basis, but increasingly, they are doing spot checks. The inspectors always work in twos, and in mufti, exactly like all the other dressed-down riders (though ‘dressing down’ in Berlin is a kind of uniform, a wish for and sign of, acceptance as a local.) They were checking our tickets at the top of the carriage when a trumpet note sounded at the back. Three middle aged male musicians (I would say Romanian from their instruments, wind and an accordion) were preparing a serenade.
The ticket checkers were instantly on the case and as the train pulled into a station, roughly hustled them off. An older couple also alighted – whether in solidarity or because that was their station, I don’t know. I stood up to see more as the train doors closed: The two men were pushing the musicians down the escalator, while the older couple tried to calm them and keep them from physically molesting the buskers. The Ladies of the Night got off at Hackescher Markt, gateway to their stomping ground. The train moved off towards Ostkreutz. Another Saturday evening in Berlin.
We probably all have one, a chair on which no one ever sits, but is nonetheless a fixture in the home.
“Thing Industries” a company in Australia, aware of this phenomenon, has created and are successfully marketing such an article of furniture. Not making any bones about its place and use – as is the wont of Aussies – they call it “The Sacrificial Chair.” One cannot use it as a chair per se, because this chair has no seat.
A Sacrificial Chair is an item of furniture used solely as a receptacle for clothing, not for bums.
This is our Sacrificial Chair. It is nice piece of 20th century furniture, originally from the Ikea, but more in the style of Alvar Aalto’s Paimio than the blue shop’s Poang. I like it because it is neat and lacks space-eating curves or bends, is covered in raw linen and the seat and backrest are fastened to the wooden frame with natural leather straps. Aalto’s “Paimio,”designed for a tuberculosis sanatorium of the same name in 1933 was the inspiration for Poang. The inspiration for the metal Paimio was from a Marcel Breuer Bauhaus chair in the ‘twenties…..and Breuer, in turn, claimed to have been inspired by his bicycle (which cannot have been inspired by Flann O’Brien, because The Third Policeman was not written until 1939/40.) Though it is comfortable, I do not like the Poang because it is such a cliché, an icon of Ikea and its curved back takes up too much space.
Our Sacrificial Chair sits in a corner of our bedroom in Berlin, under the sloping eaves. If one were to sit on it, one would probably hit one’s head as one got up. That is the problem with ‘characterful’ or ‘cosy’ living areas created in the steeply arched roofs of houses in areas prone to snow. God preserve me from flat roofs…..but in future, I don’t want any more houses with slanted ceilings and short walls. In posh these can be called a ‘Penthouse’ apartment, in German, it’s a ‘Dachgeschoss.’ Ours is a Dachgeschoss in an Altbau – which means the building itself is around a century old and survived the War. Before us, the space was inhabited by pigeons.
One cannot sit in our Sacrificial Chair. Our tall friend Ciaran comes in to watch Irish rugby matches on television when we’re away, as we have the wherewithal to grab moving pictures bouncing from other countries on the earth to satellites in space, and back again to this atmosphere, and he does not.
One day last year, there must have been a particularly exciting match, for Ciaran managed to break the chair and it is no longer situponable. It was thence removed to our bedroom, in which it has since rested, with the sole purpose of being a receptacle for discarded clothing. Every night it comes into its own, as we cast off the clothes of the day and drape (OK, dump) them on the Sacrificial Chair. Every time I bring clean laundry to the room, the Chair is the half way point between ironing board and closet. Packing to go away, little piles accrue on the Chair, it is where odd socks go to meet their mates.
My first meeting with a seatless chair as statement was on the invitation of the artist Dorothy Cross. I know not the date nor the location, though I think it was on College Green in Dublin. It must have been early in her career because there is no web record of this piece named “The Coronation Chair” which she brought me to see long ago at an Irish Exhibition of Living Art, when she and I were young and on train journeys to the capital from Cork, were wont to discuss subjects such as the ins and outs of blowing glass penises or the making and cutting of glass hearts and finger rings in the Waterford Glass factory. Even Sean Kissane, Curator of the Irish Museum of Modern Art when I sought assistance tracing it, originally thought I was inventing the large sculpture, that it was a figment of my imagination, for the only images are in Dorothy’s slide library….and mine (but neither of us has current access access to our files.)
In recent times I have become familiar with the “Broken Chair” at the entrance to the Palace of Nations in Geneva. “The Broken Chair” a 12m tall piece made of 5.5 tons of wood by the Swiss artist Daniel Berset and carpenter Louis Geneve does have a seat, but it has a broken leg, symbolising the damage done to limbs by land mines and cluster bombs.
Erected by Handicap International in August 1997, The Broken Chair was supposed to stand for three months, but it was kept through public support as a reminder of the failure of many countries to sign the Ottawa Treaty. The Ottawa Treaty is officially known as the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and their Destruction” but is commonly referred to as the “Mine Ban Treaty” which aimed to eliminate anti-personnel landmines around the world and became law in 1999. One hundred and sixty two states are parties to the treaty, but 35 United Nations states, including the US, Russia and China are non-signatories.
Another Big Art chair is – or rather was, for it has been sold to a private collector – “The Writer” by Giancarlo Neri. The Writer, a 9m high table and chair was installed on Hampstead Heath, London in 2005 in the presence of a constellation of writing stars including Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. There was much argument about The Writer’s merit as art and what it meant (grist to the mill of locals, Hampstead being the home of the chattering classes.) Was it art? Did its emptiness and inaccessibility speak of the lonliness of the solitary writer? (This particular Writer however, was never alone, as it constantly drew crowds of curious detractors and happy admirers.)
The first piece of advice to aspiring writers is the primary necessity of the placement of bum on seat. …but writers are the best, most creative and most shameless of any group or pod or pool at inventing excuses for not practicing their trade, and would not hesitate to blame the family Sacrificial Chair for their inability to get into writing mode: “I cannot. There is no seat”.
For the past week Berlin has been a softer city, its hard edges rounded and white with snow in sub zero temperatures. Yesterday morning at seven o’clock it began to snow again, first a little powder then the lazy, crazy dance of fat flakes.
It was a Saturday in the city, a day when the weekly working populace suit themselves, do what is pleasurable. It was the last day of the gorgeous “Botticelli Renaissance 1445-2015” exhibition at the Gemaldegalerie and our friends took their 3 newly adopted children, their first art outing as a ‘real’ family. People were pulling sleds of delighted youngsters through the streets, meeting for brunch, tromping through powder in Berlin’s many wonderful parks.
There was very little traffic on the streets, but everywhere the sound of snow ploughs with their flags flying, busy and important…their unmistakable heavy, dependable, gritty noise. I dressed in 6 layers of clothing – as many as in the Arctic – starting with a long sleeved ‘heat-tech’ vest, 2 pairs of socks under and fur-cuffed toppers over boots, and fur hooded, down Patagonia parka. Ducks, goats, sheep, cows, coyote, possums and plastic containers had contributed their hides, lives, natural covering or re-organised molecules towards my comfort.
I was going out to a Picture Framing Workshop in an abandoned municipal swimming baths in the area of Wedding. Five hours manual labour at tables in the old changing rooms of an abandoned municipal swimming baths in -4c is not everyone’s idea of a cool, classy Saturday in the sexiest city in Europe, but I was in heaven.
When I came home, I learned that a friend had died, at seven in the morning, as the snow began to fall afresh in the Grunewald – the ‘green forest’ – outside their house. Falling in the unseeing vision of his wife as her strong warm heart broke and the soft, soaring place he had created there turned to cold hard stone “…..falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead….”
Overnight, the temperatures rose and this morning the city was green again and black and red; the forest and the naked street trees, the roofs of the buildings, and the pigeons crooned their unexpected pleasure. I woke to the realization that yes indeed, we are re-made anew every single day, changed irrevocably, either expanded or diminished by the day before, lightened or leadened. I woke to a new life of which our friend Hugh would no longer be a part, in which his wife Martina would be always on her own. I woke to a text from my sister saying “Happy Feast Day!”
Today is not the feast of St Elizabeth mother of John the Baptist, Elizabeth of Hungary of Portugal, or the ‘more contemporary’ Elizabeth Anne Seton or the Grand Duchess of Fyodorovna, it is the feast of St Francis de Sales. I had taken ‘Francis’ as a pre-adolescent on my confirmation but that was after the animal lover, Francis of Assisi…
It was later I found the links with Francis de Sales, patron of many things dear to my heart and my survival: of journalists and writers, of my adopted hometown Annecy and of ‘de sales (as we say in Cork) my favourite time for shopping. Francis de Sales “the Gentleman Saint” Bishop of Geneva, was noted for his deep faith and “gentle approach to the religious divisions in France resulting from the Protestant Reformation. ”
Francis was born of noble kin in the Chateau de Sales in 1567 in what is today Thorens-Glieres in the Duchy of Savoy, died of a stroke at Christmas time 1622 in Lyon and is buried in the capital of the Haute Savoie, Annecy. The eldest of 6 boys and destined to be a magistrate like his maternal grandfather, he went to the best schools in the area, including the Capuchin college in Annecy and (accompanied by his personal servant and priest tutor) on to study rhetoric and humanities with the Jesuits in Paris, and learn riding, dancing and fencing. In 1588 he went to Padua for law and theology towards his doctorate in 1592.
He was bright, but reserved and quiet for a handsome, well built young fellow of privilege. In 1584 hearing a theological discussion about predestination, Francis, thinking he was condemned to hell, went into a slough of despond which made him physically ill. Three years later, reciting the “Memorare” in front of The Black Madonna – Our Lady of Good Deliverance – in Paris, he dedicated his life to God. (“Remember oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thine intercession, was left unaided…”)
With a legal position in the Senate of Chambery, his father chose him a ‘suitable’ bride, a well bred heiress who would enhance his politico-military career and keep the noble lineage going, but Francis said “thanks papa but no thanks” and refused to marry. He signed over his succession rights to his younger brother and was ordained in 1593.
Consecrated Bishop of Geneva in 1602, he lived in Annecy as Geneva was under Calvinist control, and his diocese became famous for its efficiency, hard working clergy and well instructed laity “monumental achievements in those days” (and might I add, Wiki,to-day; in a city where it takes 6 copies of several documents of facts, figures and photographs, complete with letters of consent from bordering neighbours and a 3 month wait, for permission – possibly –to put up a pre-fabricated tool shed at the end of one’s garden.)
Francis was a mild, patient man who counselled charity over penance as a means of progressing one’s spiritual life. A meeting in Paris in 1618/19 is reputed to have profoundly influenced Vincent de Paul in his work for the poor. Francis was a spell-binding preacher and writer in French, Italian and Latin, with a style accessible to lay people. (Ironically, he had no luck in Thonon, whose citizens refused en-masse to listen to his sermons, and stuck with Calvinism.) It was his output, and his extensive use of books and broadsheets – the social media of the time – even devising a sign language to teach a deaf parishioner, which led to his being proclaimed, in 1923, Patron Saint of Writers and Journalists and the Deaf. He also appreciated the abilities of intelligent women and was friendly with St Jane Frances de Chantal, founder of the ‘Visitandines’ in Annecy in 1610 and beside whom he was buried on January 24th 1623 (or 4?)…. except for his heart, which the Lyonnaise wanted to keep, but was taken to Venice during the French Revolution.
Francis de Sales was beatified in 1661, canonized four years later and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877. Every time I pass the statue of St Francis de Sales in Annecy looking out on the boats and promenaders as I drive home from town along the lake, I say hello. Every summer I vow to put a straw hat on his baldy head. Every winter, particularly in snow, I vow to knit him a big warm woolly scarf and wrap it around him agains the cold wind from the mountains and the water. Every time I think of this, I balk, considering the implications of yarnbombing a beloved Annecien in this way… and how to get a high ladder up behind the tall statue in the depths of the night, before the baldy-headed long bearded cleaner, the first on the streets each morning besides the bakers, discovers my act of faith……
Over the weekend, it got progressively colder, which is as it should be of a Berlin January.
It was so cold on Saturday that on the square expanse of wind-whipped Alexanderplatz a young couple, laughing, hunkering down by the U Bahn entrance pulled fleece pink and black and white spotted hooded animal print ‘onesies’ out of two brown paper carrier bags and put them on over their clothes. They had just bought them in the huge Primark store across the way. Thanks Penneys.
Over in Hackescher Hof, a posse of Dorgans was waiting. This is only a mere sampling of Dorgans….there are many more where these fine men came from (Cork’s North Side, though few of the dynasty still live by the Lee.)
We talked of ships yes, shoes yes, sealing wax – in terms of letters – cabbages yes, and kings….or those who would be king. Theo, the poet, always has a bon mot, for that is his trade, but this time, I took away a saying of one of his brothers – can’t remember which, for there are too many. Talking of the harbour towns of West Cork he said “In Schull there are two types of people: the Haves and the Have Yachts.”
By the time we had bade European goodbyes on the street (kiss kiss) it was snowing. Berlin is beautiful in the snow, for there are three things in particular which mar this most wonderful of cities: the scars of demolition and development, dog pooh and graffiti. Snow covers all three. The light was low, Spree water slow, the skyline stark, the streets deserted and the traffic hushed.
Berlin is a place of gardens, parks and open spaces. On Sunday we went for a walk in Treptower Park, an area cleared in the 1860s to make a leisure facility for locals. In 1896 the Berlin Industrial (and decorative arts) Expo was held on the site. In 1919 – the year of their murder – Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg assembled a rally of 150,000 striking workers there. When the river in many places formed part of the boundary dividing the city, Treptower Park was a popular recreation ground for citizens of the East and in 1987, was where the UK band Barclay James Harvest played the first ever open air rock concert behind The Wall.
In all seasons Treptower Park is beautiful and beloved. On Sunday afternoon, the park was monochrome….stark leafless trees against a grey sky, boughs heavy with snow, the licorice river. All around were the tracks and signs of play; of snow shoes, skis and runners; children being pulled in wooden sleds, dogs delirious with excitement, twig-fingered snowmen (for I saw none with boobs) couples embracing, two young men playing table tennis on a concrete board.
On 23 acres stands Berlin’s largest Soviet memorial, built by the Russians at the end of the War and providing both a burial ground and a commemoration for the soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle for Berlin. Some sources quote their dead at 100,000. German casualties are estimated at over 458,000 and civilians who died at 125,00. Figures vary for the actual number of Soviet soldiers buried in Treptower Park, but it is certainly between 5,000 and 7,000. At its centre is a massive, 70 ton, 11metre high bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding,in one arm a rescued child, in the other stabbing a sword into a smashed swastika at his feet.
This is a sacred place, for good men died to free the city, good men are buried here. But it is often referred to as ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Rapist.” When the Red Army entered Berlin in the spring of 1945, the men raped hundreds of thousands of women. The exact figure is unknown, but in a 2004 introduction by Antony Beevor to the book “A Woman in Berlin” written by an anonymous author from notebooks chronicling events at the time, it is put at between 95,000 and 130,000. Thousands of those women could not live with the agony of these repeated rapes and subsequent pregnancies, and committed suicide.
Dusk was falling as we walked through the trees from the memorial, past the Archenhold observatory and planetarium (housing the Great Treptow Refractor telescope, the 12th largest in the world) where, in 1915 Albert Einstein presented his first lecture on the theory of relativity.
Through a formal row of tall pruned poplars a young woman was prancing for a camera, backwards and forwards on high spindle-heeled platform boots. Her hair was yellow and she wore a black bodice, lace shawl and knee length crinoline skirt.
On Monday a big yellow taxi took away my old man and he sailed up up and away, into the clear blue sky….the sun shone, but it was not enough to melt the snow, for it was – 9 centigrade.
It is Berlin Fashion Week and through the Brandenburg Gate, facing up from the boulevard of Unter Den Linden at the side of the Tiergarten, is a massive metal and plastic tent structure, emblazoned with the logo of the auto manufacturers Mercedes Benz. Tiergarten park however, is untouched by fashion and, almost deserted in the white cold of a January Tuesday, probably looks a as it did over the centuries since around the early Seventeen hundreds, after Fredrick Wilhelm I cut down some of the dense woodland – it had been a royal hunting ground – and built roads and plazas to create a forest park for the populace. (The was further deforested during and after WWI when the trees were used for firewood and the land for growing potatoes.)
We walked – Elaine and Oliver and I – through the 500 snowy acres, stopping by woods for a coffee at the restaurant close to the Embassy quarter. Outside, by the frozen lake where in summer boaters in boaters boat, a brazier blazed, fed with logs from the park. Inside, four wood stoves warmed the large-windowed room. At the next table, hearing two men speak a familiar tongue, Elaine asked “Are you Irish?” and so began an encounter leading us from two youths, from Westmeath and Galway at Athlone Regional Technical College decades ago, making a pact to get together on a business venture when they made it in the world.
Decades passed and Ireland passed into the twenty first century and the two old college friends did come together on a business venture: in the glory days of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger they bought a couple of apartment blocks in Berlin, and now, the investment having trebled in value, and they not getting any younger, they were sitting over a nice pot of tea, discussing the sale of one of the buildings.
Celtic Tigers and Irish property developers do not have a good reputation, but there was a consciousness of good karma and conscientiousness about these two men. They did not come in and pillage the land and leave; they have a great affection and respect for Berlin where they spend as much time as possible and cycle all over the city….that is, when they are not keeping an eye on their respective dispersed children, restoring old mills on the Shannon as artists’ colonies, or renovating and sailing a clinker built boat on same said waterway. (I did not quote “…..the soft and dreary midlands/With their tame canals/Wallow between sea and sea/Remote from adventure” because I am too polite.)
Reluctantly….in the same manner as the Dorgan boys had slipped off late into the evening….. these Irish boys left late for their lawyers meeting, just as the restaurant staff lit a line of candelabras in the window and the sunset splotched pink behind the trees.
In the darkness of moon on snow we picked our steps over the narrow Lichtenstein bridge crossing the Landwehr canal, from which, and into whose waters, the body of Rosa Luxembourg had been thrown having being rifle butted and shot in the head, 97 years ago this week, on January 15th 1919. We spoke of her politics, determination and great intellect, still quoted today, and for which she died.
And people ask me “Why do you like Berlin?”
Monday morning. Wake up world, David Bowie is dead. Reflex reaction is “may he rest in peace” but there’s no emotion; this icon passed me by.
Three days later I’m saturated in techicolour, glitter, smoke and stardust, gold and silver, music, cigarettes, coifs, quotable quotes, important lapels. I can hear “ground control to Major Tom” in my head, but that is all. I was not of that world, this icon passed me by.
Three days later and having been on the verge of silently shouting “Enough!” (click of keyboard to stop the colour, the chatter, the noise, the adulation, the agonies and ecstacies, the biographic snippets detailing Life Changing Moments through the East London Boy) stuff begins to percolate through my indifference.
This icon passed me by, but he was there alright, pulsing and glowing in the shadows. There are little slivers of recognition, the light beaming through….
Where did it come from, my love of lamé? Was it the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon….or was it Bowie? Remember 1985, a seminal year, the year Cork celebrated being 800 years old as a city, the year Air India 182 flight crashed off the west coast, killing 329 people, the year I began working in television, the year I bought my first house, the year I met my husband? Dancing in the streets. I have photographs of my little daughter in a smocked dress, dancing in the streets. We danced in the streets despite the rain to the anthem of the era.
Hair. Hair defined my generation; with ‘Hair’, with the Beatles. Hair caused familial battles, public riots. When along came Bowie, we discovered that hair could be both wave and particle (with often disastrous results.)
In Singapore two months ago, we went for lunch with friends. Narrative in popular art irritates me, constitutes an eyesore, but this poster in the restaurant window so resonated that I photographed it.
Gentle resonance; but it was not until this morning, day 3 After Bowie, reading yet another tribute to the East London Boy, I recognized the reference and yet another slant of brightness filtered through.
He was there alright, in full view, out of sight.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.