Monday, April 14, 2008

Crashing at James Joyce's House

We were sitting in some small, off-the-beaten path coffee shop in the back alleys of this city that didn't care much for the morning after. The place smelled like over-cooked sausages and greasy egg Mcmuffins, but who were we to complain? After all, we smelled like last night, the night before that, and the night before that. Together, we created a stench that would soberly awaken even the most stubborn deep sleeper. "My head feels like it's in a fishbowl of Guinness," said Dave. Our last day in Dublin and the hangovers were starting to take their toll.

But how had we come to this place?

We arrived in Dublin so eager, chipper, and ready to drink ourselves silly. We even came up with a little cutesy name for it: Operation Beergut. Our goal was to spend as much of our time in Ireland sipping on Guinness, Murphy's, or Bulmer's in Dorothy's case, as possible without losing our minds. Together with my friends Dave and Dorothy, we met up with our other friends Elyse, Ryan, and Mary Jane in the city that seems to encourage a healthy beer now and then.

A long weekend off from Spain--time enough to refresh on speaking English, assuming we could understand our Irish counterparts, that is. Naturally, we wasted no time. Pints of Guinness flowed through the mechanical tap, into our stomachs, and out the natural taps. It was beautiful. The Guinness in Ireland is distinct. Though you might find a good one from time to time somewhere else, it will never be like the kind you get there. So milky soft and sweet, like sipping on a cloud or a fresh pillow made of froth and candy.

At the Guinness Factory, you might just want to set up shop and never leave. It's like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Adults. The vibe coming in is electric. There's something about St. James's Gate, the beer coming straight from the source, the vats revealing their secret to the eager Willy Wonka guests, only for one time, and only until you finish your drink. Then it's back on the streets, with ya! A Guinness at the factory is what a perfect milk shake in heaven would taste like. Go back to any point in your life when you tasted something so delicious and refreshing that it makes your mouth water just thinking of it. That won't even come close to the factory's one complimentary drink, well worth the 11 euro entrance fee.

Well, you get the point now, don't you? We went to the pubs, the clubs, the late night kebab stands, and everything in between. Whiskey in the Jar-O, and all the other classic and trite Irish tunes were sung by everyone in the pubs. We danced with each other and laughed. We listened to the locals, laughing at their nonsensical dialect. Was it English or Gaelic? Who cared, it was funny.

At one point a man in a band was showing us how to get from the pub to a bar he liked. I told him I was from Boston and he said he used to date a girl from Dorchester. "Dorchester?" I said. "That's a rough town." "Yeah, well, she was a rough girl," he immediately responded. God, I love that Irish wit. On it went for three hard days, each morning dragging on longer and longer. Until we finally came to our little coffee shop which we stumbled upon out of dumb, lost luck.

Elyse pointed out that we really hadn't done anything particularly cultural yet, other than drinking and going to the Guinness Factory, of course. She looked in her Let's Go guide book and said we should go to the James Joyce Cultural House. Joyce was a popular Irish writer who became one of Ireland's most esteemed artists, partly for penning Ulysses. After discussing the degrees of our hangovers for the better part of an hour and a half, we thought there was a long enough lull in the rain to head out.

No sooner had we left the shop than it started to rain again, in typical Irish style. It was cold and bitter as we marched on to a house that promised warmth and activity--something to stir the remainder of the brain cells that weren't already lost in a sea of beer. We ambled in resembling something out of a Gaudi painting--sluggishly melting into the dry scenery with sunken, sullen faces and eye sockets. To an outsider we probably looked like trouble. But the woman at the desk was kind and patient, telling us it was 5 euro to enter. We considered our options. To the left: cold, bitter rain, overflowing drains, and no where to go. To the right: a roof and heat, and what appeared to be cushy chairs. We paid our entrance fee and went upstairs.

We realized we were the only patrons in what seemed to be a pretty crappy museum. A few large rooms comprising mostly of a large table with various Joyce novels for the guests to enjoy, an old piano in a room filled with 30 or so chairs waiting to disintegrate, and some contemporary paintings made up the former residence Mr. Joyce.

Dorothy and Elyse sat down to pop open a book while Dave and I looked around. With not much to look at, I too opened Ulysses to see what all the fuss was. After a page I gave up. My withered mind couldn't handle that kind of wordiness that early in the morning, and Dave had begun to play Joyce's piano, easily distracting me. I wandered over into the next room where Dave sat playing some medley, clearly not precise and well played, but rather drawn back from somewhere in his memory of a time when he took piano lessons as a child. I pulled together three shaky chairs and laid out across them, staring up at the ceiling.

At some point, decades ago, James Joyce might have been just waking up, looking up at that same ceiling. And as Dave played his piano and I sat on his old chairs, the rain pounded on the roof and the window, much as it had on days like this for the last few decades. Few things change in these old cities.

We were barging in on this dead writer's house, reading his books, playing his instruments, and making ourselves comfortable. We stayed in that house for a couple of hours, not really doing anything, but just sitting and thinking. Dave played while we looked around and imagined what Ireland was like at the turn of the century. Last century, that is.

Often times we rush immediately to do the most touristy things or drink as much as we can before we really get an honest look at a place. We slowed it down just enough to get a feel for the place. Much of the architecture in Dublin is stone and gray, an ironic impression of the climate itself. Outside in the street, people went about their daily business, totally unaware and uninterested in the fact that four Americans were doing as the Irish might do, however artificial it might have been. And so it came to be on our last day in Dublin that we did our "cultural activity" for the week. A little reading, piano, and thinking. Looking out at the window as the city life went by, the rain pattering by in gusts. A typical Irish afternoon.

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