The Loneliness of the Lidl Checkout Line

Checkout lineTiming is everything at Lidl.  And timing is also completely random at Lidl.  While there never seems to be a crowd in the store (we're all solitary wanderers down those long, long aisles, with our big, big carts) you can find a line 15 carts deep when it's time to check out.  Or, no one.

Yesterday, it was no one.  Ha ha!  No waiting! These little triumphs of the day.  But seconds after I sailed my cart right up to the cash register, I realized I was in trouble.  I was on my own.  I had no unloading time.  I was under pressure.  That kind of unspoken social pressure to get your goods on the belt and checked out as fast as possible.  The race was on.

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Fire on the Mountain

Gorse fireSpring or something like it, a respite, a surprise break in the windy winter greyness, opens up randomly in February, giving us still, sunny, maybe even warmish days.  Unexpected days. Suddenly you're aware of the birds (perhaps because you can actually hear them when the gales die down), and mud, and if there's not a tinge of green yet, there's a feeling of green.  You can relax, stretch, walk outside, breathe deeply. And immediately choke on a lungful of acrid smoke.  Because the mountain is on fire.  

Yes, it's that annual Kerry tradition, lighting the gorse every time the day is fine and the air is still, blanketing townlands (and last week the entire town of Dingle) under hazy smoke for hours, forcing closed windows and doors on the very days you want to fling them open, and threatening buildings and people as the fires inevitably go out of control.  Last year a friend had to leave her house with her family as a fire lit by one of her neighbors crept ever closer.  This year (and every year) a farmer was killed when the fire he lit went out of his control.

These fires are legal.  That is, they are legal until the 1st of March, and if they are under control.  It's hard to see how any of them are under control. And here in Kerry, they're lit well after the 1st of March.  They're lit anytime, really, if the wind is down and the day is fine.  

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Silent Men, Minimal Heat and Spooky Cows (Part II)

(To begin at the beginning, see Silent Men, Minimal Heat and Spooky Cows)

Storage heaters turned out to be a minimally effective heat source for a large, stone farmhouse on the side of a hill at the western edge of Ireland in winter.  That meant I needed a fire in my sitting room, every day.  Passing through the mysteriously slug-less kitchen and clicking on the kettle first thing in the morning, I'd open the back door and breathe in West Kerry.  It smells like the sea, and mud, and mist, a clean, complex smell flavored by sileage or slurry or cut hay, depending on the time of year.  

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Silent Men, Minimal Heat and Spooky Cows

Not very much has been happening around here, as is customary on the peninsula in January and early February.  In a few weeks–incredibly, mysteriously–the buds and shoots of spring will stretch out in undeniable greenness, but right now the place is still mostly battened down.  So I'm going to go back to my first winter in Kerry for the next few posts.

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Villagers with Pitchforks; It’s Only New Year’s Eve

"But how do they keep the flaming turf on the pitchfork?" my Dad asked, a year ago, as we prepared to witness the village New Year's celebration for the first time.  I had no idea.  I had just moved there.  I wasn't even sure it would be happening, as my source kept noting the whole thing was "unofficial," a status my father, retired insurance executive, could certainly appreciate.  But at midnight I walked down to the village main street with my visiting parents and waited, uncertain, for bagpipes and flaming turf.

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Sheep, Arrested

The exceedingly green fields across the lane from my house rise steeply, so from my second floor window (in Ireland it's the first floor, but I remain confusedly American on this point) I'm eye to eye with grazing sheep. Usually, the sheep aren't up to much.  Sometimes there's a burst of activity when the young border collie the farmer is training appears, inciting the sheep into a crazy pack trot around the field. Generally, however, it's all about the grazing. Nice, quiet grazing. 


A few days ago I was abstractedly looking out the window while brushing my teeth and I saw a sheep stop grazing, lift her head sharply, and stare, arrested, stage right.  I couldn't see what the sheep saw.  "What," I thought "could possibly get such considered attention from a sheep?"  Had a totally unexpected and utterly absorbing idea suddenly illuminated that ovine brain?   Sheep aren't known for deep thinking.  In a cranium as presumably empty as a sheep's, will the smallest outside stimulus arrest her, or does it take something truly momentous to make an impact on those placid synapses?  

This is a question for a zen master but it led me to remember the time I saw a sheep actually arrested, on the Great Blasket, about 10 years ago.  The Blaskets were fairly uncomplicated then.  If on a still and sunny summer day you got the urge to go there, you drove to Dunquin pier, hiked down the precipitous and much photographed twisting path to the harbor, got on one of two boats operated by the supernaturally gorgeous Slattery twins, and crossed the Blasket Sound.  

Depending on the tides, you'd either jump down to the rocky pier in a quiet cove below the village, or be transferred by twin in a small zodiac.  You'd be informed when the last boat was leaving.  You could stay as long as you liked.  

Walking up the steep green track, the famous white strand gleaming below, Sue Redican's house on the left and the remains of the village on either side, you'd feel a slow infusion of happiness.  The track, and your intentions, led to the cafe, where you'd inevitably see a few friends drinking coffee in the sun at the outdoor tables.   Of course they were there; of course you were.  It was so obviously a day to be on the Blaskets.

On most days,however, you'd encounter an obstacle before you reached the cafe.  Which was perhaps fitting for a place with such mythical overtones.  You'd have to pass a test.  You'd have to pass Rambo. 

An extremely large ram who'd adopted the place as his own personal hangout, Rambo was the cafe gatekeeper.  Sometimes he let you by with only a glare.  Sometimes a warning nudge.  He was surly.  He was unpredictable.  He'd swapped the grazing life for the cafe life, and so was as suave as a ram can get, yet still a ram, and sometimes confused by this. It's not always easy being an ex-pat, caught between two cultures.  

Rambo was part of the scene, always there, never friendly, occasionally obstreperous. Who knew he was wanted?  Turns out there was a bounty on him.  For Rambo, lately, had become a bit too aggressive. He'd headbutted a tourist.  He'd blocked the cafe door more than once.  He'd charged and chased a few dawdling passersby.  The verdict came down: exile.

The arrest was made on a sunny day in June.  Tourists disgorged from the first boat of the day were re-fortifying with caffeine before trekking around the island.  Rambo stood squarely on the track, eyes on the coffee drinkers, faintly hostile (though lacking the mental punch to be truly malevolent).  He never saw it coming.  Three men with ropes jumped him from behind and tackled him to the ground, shattering the morning's peace and startling the coffee drinkers as much as the ram.  

Roped and semi-subdued, Rambo struggled with the appointed ram-catchers as they worked him down the green track and loaded him into a curragh.  Destination: Beginish, the small, flat island immediately in front of the Great Blasket.  Once on the boat, his options were few.  He was unloaded onto that remote, open dot of land to start his new life as, well, a grazing ram.  I picture a Cagneyesque Rambo snarling on the shoreline as the men row away: "You dirty rats! I'll get you for this!"  His cafe life was over. 

For awhile we amused ourselves with pictures of Rambo, bandanna on head and knife in teeth, swimming back across the Blasket Sound under a new moon, emerging dripping onto the White Strand, and beginning a slow, stealthy climb up the track toward the cafe.  Like other minor offenders, his capture and imprisonment would only reinforce his anti-social behavior.  He was back.  And now someone was gonna pay.

But we never saw Rambo again.  He was arrested and he stayed arrested.  Perhaps sheep cannot swim. Perhaps he didn't mind his new life, ram among the ewes on an island where sheep are the highest life form.  Perhaps even a highly imaginative sheep such as Rambo can only stretch his sheepy brain so far.

As I finished brushing my teeth I saw the sheep in the field across the lane unhook her focus from whatever had grabbed it and return to her grazing.  I never saw what she saw so I don't know what held her attention for so long.  But I do know it's definitely possible to arrest a sheep.

Early Sun Warning System

Nothing is rarer on the Dingle peninsula than the sun in winter.  Yes, it does appear.  But randomly.  It's here then gone, out then in.  There's no way to predict these solar benedictions.  When they happen, you have to act fast.  That's where the early sun warning system comes in.


I'm out in all weather (see "Over the Rainbow") because I have a dog.  Marching grimly down the path below Inch Dunes in a raging gale (the dunes give some minimal protection from the blasting winds), the only people I see out there are other dog walkers.  We greet each other merrily as we pass. "Ha ha, those poor sods who don't have dogs, indoor by the fire right now, when they could be out here in the teeth of nature like us," we imply in this greeting.

But I am totally faking it.  I'd be in by that fire in a New York minute if Lucy didn't have such big, sad, brown eyes that she fastens on me in mute dog chastisement if we haven't gone out for our walk (she also has a wicked stinkeye when she's in the mood, and it is not pretty).  I am so much more of a "woman wrapped in big fur rug by the fire" kind of gal than oh, say, "woman soloing up Everest from the north col." But those doggy looks.  Out we go.

Being out in all weather means I'm also out in all kinds of mad weather changes.  Today, for instance, Lucy and I hit Inch beach around noon.  We were the only people on the beach and mine was the only car in the parking lot. For a few minutes I tried to throw a ball in the blasting wind while the dog employed her steadfast stance: little legs slightly apart and firmly planted; ears and tail air-whipped straight up. Pretty soon I'd had enough.  We headed for the dunes. 

About five minutes later, the sun came out.  Properly.  Not a desperate glance from behind hopelessly massive clouds, but full and meaningful eye contact in a wide expanse of sky.  Blue sky.  It was sunny. We went back to the beach.  Emerging from the dunes I looked right, back toward the parking lot. At least two cars were on the beach, with another one pulling in.  A boy racer was doing a donut (irresistible, year-round).  I could see a few people at the receding line of the water's edge, walking our way.

As Lucy and I got closer to the walkers I saw they were a young, happy couple–one of the iconic sights of Inch beach.  The boy racers had parked their car in the dunes and were poking around in debris at the high water mark. Ahead, I could see what looked like a man with his dog.  No, two dogs.  No, three.  A man exercising his greyhounds!  Just behind him, quite near Sammy's store, and no I am not making this up, I saw a young family–Mom, Dad, and four or five small children in parkas–playing soccer.

Where had they come from?  The sun had only been out for five minutes.  In five minutes of December sun, just about every typical human element of a summer's day on Inch had manifested itself.  Some sort of molecular-level early sun warning system had gone out, and the people had responded. No sirens, no radar, no Internet, no phone, no radio.  Just.. a sensing.  Pentagon eat your heart out.

There was only one thing missing.  The water sports enthusiasts.  Alright.  Well.  Sun or no, it is December.  I got Lucy back to the car and into her crate, then peeled off the layers I'd needed at the start of the walk but not the finish.  As I got into the driver's seat and started the car I saw a van pull in to my right and head onto the beach.  Three young guys sat in the front seat.  "Turbu-lence Extreme Sports" was painted on the side. 

Kite-surfers. Yep.  The gang's all here.

Finding the Pooka

An email dropped into my inbox last week from the Puca Press, in Irish and English, inviting me to the launch of "Words, Lines and Knots." Launches are all the rage here. Something is constantly being launched by the resident community of artists, musicians and writers.  This one was from 6-7 on December 3rd, at the press itself.  The short and formatically mangled invitation ended with this cryptic line: "If you have a knot to perform, you are free to do so."  I was definitely going to that.


The Puca Press lives on River Lane, the best laneway in Dingle town.  It's the best laneway for two reasons.  One, because it connects two streets, The Mall and Dykegate Lane, between which no one really has any reason to go.  People on either of those streets are headed north toward Main Street or south toward Holy Ground, and aren't likely to make a sudden horizontal cut down a laneway that, aside from the Puca, features only the concrete, flat backs and sides of McKenna's department store, the Cafe Literarta (known locally as the Cafe Lit), and a couple of townhouses that front The Mall.

So if you're walking down River Lane, you're doing so out of sheer whimsy, just to see where it goes.

The second reason is because at the Mall end, River Lane is a concrete bridge over a river that runs underneath a short row of houses at the top of the street. Directly underneath, not submerged underground. The houses were built over the river.  These river houses are probably one of the few Dingle landmarks that have not changed in the 12 years I've lived in Ireland.  And I have always loved them, loved the idea of a river flowing under the house, wondering if you can hear it burbling at night while in your bed.  

So I sometimes walk down River Lane just to cross the house bridge.

The Puca Press is the only premises, business or residential, that opens directly onto River Lane.  I didn't arrive to the launch until well after 6:30 (still managing to be early. I'll never master Dingle time).  The town was dark and quiet, in winter hibernation mode.  Turning down River Lane from Dykegate lane, I saw, well, nothing.  No people, no light.  But I was sure this was where the Puca lived.  Then I noticed a man walking toward me from The Mall side.  He headed for a faint glow in the line of flat concrete and opened a door.  

I arrived just after him tto the tiniest shop in town.  Through the glass door framed by two large, paned windows, I could see seven or eight people holding glasses of wine and amiably squeezed into the candlelit space among presses, the work counter, and the sales counter.  I entered to a hubbub of Irish, the visitor ahead of me being both voluble and popular. 

After a moment of uncertain lingering by the door, I registered Dominique's "tar isteach" (Dominique Lieb owns the Puca Press) and made my way from the front holding area (an L-shaped corridor, about 8 feet on the long arm and 5 feet on the short arm) to the back holding area (about 6' x 4') via the long arm of the "L," between two presses. From there I could look around at the prints.

Hanging down from work shelves on double strings were uniformly sized, black and white prints on the theme of knots.  The artists were various and the interpretations unique, from John Holstead's elegant, mathematically precise fisherman's knots, to Heiko Rolff's knotted Hokusai wave, to Dominque's celtic intertwinings and Liam Holden's abstract sea squiggle.  There were close up drawings of hairy tangles, aerial views of highway interchanges and intracranial abstractions of knotty minds. 

The limitations of the gallery (it being not a gallery but a printing workshop) meant I couldn't see all the prints close up.  Some were inaccessibly hanging in back of the front press (viewable by the two or three people comfortably slotted into the short arm of the "L"). Others were above and behind the back press (which you could see as you squeezed your way down the long arm of the "L," mindful of not being accidentally decanted out the front door).  As I was working on that maneuver, I saw the book.  

What I hadn't quite understood from the email invitation is that this was a book launch.  Each print was reproduced on thick, irregular cream paper,accompanied by poetry and prose in Irish, English and German, and bound and covered with a heavy tan jacket featuring one of Dominque's images. It was one of those completely impractical, totally beautiful things you know you have to have. I found Dominique (not too hard in a 10' x 6' space) and bought the book.

More people were improbably coming into the shop (proper Dingleites–arriving to a 6 p.m. event at 10 minutes to 7) and I thought I might attempt an exit, which was getting somewhat challenging as the latest arrivals were forcing me back down the long arm of the "L."  I inched determinedly to the door, spent a few moments negotiating with a woman in a long, black and white winter coat about where, exactly, she might go if I actually tried to open that door, and stepped back onto River Lane.

River Lane is also known as the Bothar an Phuca, or Pooka Lane. In the absolute darkness and quiet of a West Kerry winter night, the pooka seems viable.  I imagine it would come from the river side, from under the houses, slinking out, straightening itself, and shaking off the wet before fixing dark fairy eyes on me with nefarious purpose.  

Three people, laughing and talking, turned into the lane in front of me, heading for the launch (I nearly went back with them to see how they were going to fit).  Any pooka behind me retreated back under the bridge. And I walked away from another quirky moment of beauty in my adopted home town, on a very dark winter night, heading toward Main Street via Dykegate Lane.

It’s Not Safe Out There

Sunday afternoon I decided to drive into Manor West in Tralee, our local mall, to stock up on groceries and essentials. I was trying to be a responsible adult, instead of being surprised every day by the dual facts that (a) I need to eat and (b) there is no food in the house.  Late Sunday afternoon is usually safe for this kind of thing.

I crested the hills at Gleann na Gealt and wound down the valley toward Camp. Tralee Bay gleamed in front of me and a snow brushed Brandon rose to the left, very dark against the late afternoon winter sky. The road into Tralee along the bay was quiet.  I skirted around the town center to the Killarney roundabout and spilled out into…utter madness.  

Traffic was backed up all the way to the circle.  "There must be some kind of match on," I thought as I inched along. "All these people can't be going to Manor West at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in late November." But they were.  The place was jammed.     

Creeping up to the central shopping hub all I could see were car roofs, filling the entire parking lot and spilling over into auxiliary parking lots magically created from what had been waste ground a few weeks ago.  There was no reason for all these people to be here.  It could only mean one thing.  It's started. Christmas.

I'm not a fan of malls in normal times.  I have to steel myself to remain in them long enough to get whatever long put off and required shopping has driven me there.  The piped in music; incomprehensible announcements, scornful shop assistants; dazed, captive, young family men; weirdly echoing cacophony; and, most disconcertingly, the brutal discrepancy between the high-life images soaking every shop and the actual shoppers wandering among them induce a near panic that often has me fleeing within half an hour.  

And then there are the meta messages.  Shopping as entertainment.  Shopping as life-enhancing. Lately, Irish leaders have even wafted the idea of shopping as a sort of national duty.  Put Christmas on top of that (shopping for Christ, shopping for love, shopping to ease that nagging guilt) and the ambience is nearly lethal.

So I arrived at Manor West, innocently thinking I'd pop in and out for my messages, and smacking into holiday retail hell.  And I landed into that scene alone.  In fact, it appeared I was the only single person in the entire megashopolis.  Families roamed; couples ruled.  Every so often I came upon a lone man with a cart and a brief hope arose, immediately smashed when the girlfriend rounded the corner with a bag of carrots.  

Some sort of subliminal message had gone out to the other peninsular singles, transmitted and received: stay home with your dvds.  From now until past the new year, shop only on weekdays, at 11 a.m., after the first school run and before the second.  You have been warned.  Not me.  I was a lone woman buying essentials among families stocking up on cheese, chocolate, dvds, christmas decorations, christmas lights, tins of biscuits, wrapping paper and frozen party food. 

I did the only thing I could do.  I bought a pack of condoms.  It was only a 3-pack, but it was a statement, an assertion, a grab at reality amid the unholy fakery of the modern holiday shopping experience. Stuff, stuff, stuff–sex!–stuff, stuff.  That's kind of the effect I was going for.

It's not much but it made me feel better.   I needed to subvert and condoms are pretty much the only subversive thing you can buy at Tesco.  Because it's a long holiday season, and it's just begun.  I'm trying to make it safer out there.

I Don’t Hear Voices

One of the perks of living in Dingle is that people come to you.  You head out for a quick pint one nondescript evening and end up hanging into the wee hours with Nigel Kennedy and Donovan (Nigel happily and obligingly playing the violin on request; Donovan sulking). You sell your house to some guy who turns out to be the drummer for Snow Patrol.  You eye up Paddy Casey over an extended evening in Benner's bar and wonder why he's so damned sad.  You hear that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are up at McCarthy's and it seems entirely plausible.

There is no aspect of celebrity in these interactions, no autograph seeking, no photos, no preening. Everyone's just hanging out. 

For years, the Other Voices concerts in St. James' Church have been one of the best events for this dynamic. In the darkest days of the peninsular winter Dingle suddenly fills with musicians here to play one stunning little gig in the tiny old church on Main Street, filmed for television.  In between gigs there's free mingling and impromptu sessions in the town's many bars and pubs.  All very low key. 

It used to be easy to get tickets. Sometime in November I'd get an email with the potential lineup, and would be directed to a makeshift website where I could buy tickets.  Or, often, you could just turn up, especially for the lesser known groups or singers.  You might be terminally bored.  You might get an undiscovered gem.  You get to see yourself and your friends on television later, when RTE broadcasts the series.  

Those were the days.  About two or three years ago, Other Voices became An Event.  Dublin discovered it.  Uh-oh.  Naively, I thought this wouldn't matter.  I live here.  I should have the inside track.  Getting tickets will be a snap.  And so this year I tried.  

First, I checked the official RTE website, which had nothing but ads for last year's television program.  I could find no reference to this year's gigs anywhere on the web.  I put out a call on Facebook.  Confusion ensued.  People usually at the center of the Dingle arts world traded rumors.  Was it on or off? Too expensive? Funding pulled?  Finally my enterprising and Internet savvy neighbor found a press release on the Hot Press website saying it was on, with tickets available online November 23rd (I don't know how he did it because I've never been able to get back to that page).  No hint of the actual website where one could purchase these tickets, but I had ten days to find that out.

Next, my alert neighbor discovered that a limited number of tickets would be on sale at the church itself, to locals who made it into Dingle on Saturday morning, November 21st.  That's more like it.  Local privilege.  As it should be.  I duly drove to Dingle in a gale to find an encouragingly short line of the Dingle arterati at the doors of St. James' Church.  Five people before me, the tickets sold out.  Damn.  I did get two valuable pieces of information however: the name of the website where the tickets would be sold on Monday morning, and the fact that Snow Patrol would be playing on Friday.

Back home, I checked the website to make sure it existed.  It did.  And there were the dates, individually listed, Not on Sale at This Time.  But it said the concerts were taking place Saturday through Wednesday. The Snow Patrol tip was useless.  A false plant, I wondered?  Has it come to that?  Are we being deliberately put off the trail while tickets are surreptitiously shuffled to the Dublin music business elite?  Is this paranoia a sign that the false trail is working or that thirty days of November gales are getting to me?  

Monday morning my phone alarm went off and I was prepared.  I'd have that website cranked up and ready to go.  I'd use my fabulous Internet skills to snag tickets for as many nights as I could.  I turned on the computer and opened up my browser.  It wouldn't connect.  I tried my email.  No.  My ever steady Internet connection, always on, wireless throughout the house, was off.  Stunned, I could think of nothing for a few minutes but reload, reload, reload.  Then I thought of friends.

One minute to 9:00 a.m., I sent desperate texts to three friends with broadband connections who I thought might be up and semi-active.  At that moment it hit me.  I am a total amateur.  I should have had a nationwide friend network in place, everyone at their computers at 9:00 a.m. on November 23rd, trying for tickets.  What had I been thinking to try this alone?  One friend made it to her computer by 9:05.  She could not get through to the website.  By 9:20 I knew it was all over.  

A call to Kerry Broadband, my ISP, revealed they had shut down service that morning because of a lightning strike.  A lightning strike.  Come on.  Who or what does not want me to get tickets to Other Voices this year?  And why?  Is something terrible going to happen there?  Should I warn the others?

I'm not quite done, though the odds are long.  A well-connected friend has a promise from one of the tech guys to let her know on Saturday if there is any possibility of tickets.  I am not revealing either name.  And I'm already working on next year's strategy.  But right now, I'm not hearing voices.