Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One of these things does not belong

Context: This happened in February 2010.

A friend of mine is visiting from out of town so Wife and I take him around Walnut Creek to enjoy some beer and people-watching. Walking down one of the main drags, we pass a place completely new to us. It's called "1515" which is what I assume is the address, a two story building gives customers the chance to look outside to the street below and it sounds like a good plan for our next stop.

We go inside, walk past security to go upstairs and find a table next to the window. Wife proceeds to the bar to order drinks and I look around the room. Immediately something doesn't seem right. I can't put my finger on it, but I am uneasy.

A few minutes later, the DJ turns the volume up from five to seven and the crowd starts to non-chalantly dance wherever they are standing. Time passes as we chat with each other, catch up on the past couple of months, and watch people passing by below.

We all exchange some confused and worried looks when, later the volume goes from seven to nine and we can't hear each other talk. That's when I realize it : I am in a game of "Which one of these things is not like the others?" and we are the outsiders.

My first thought is "I do not have nearly enough gel in my hair to fit in here."

My second thought is "I also do not have nearly enough hair on my face to fit in here."

I look to my left and one of the girls has written letters on her knuckles with a ballpoint pen. When she puts her fists together they read : LADY GAGA.

I look around the room and it's teeming with guys in their early twenties wearing their plaid shirts and Livestrong bracelets like badges of honor.

We leave immediately. If any readers saw me walking out of there - that's the explanation. It was an accident, please don't assume I have any desire to be around (or be like) that crowd.

In the future, I'll be sure to ask the doorman what the percentage of hair gel to actual hair the clientele usually has and make an informed decision.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Northern Ireland - Part 3

Context: This was in May of 2002.

We wake up on our final day and sign up for a local tour that takes us through some of the grittier parts of Belfast. I wasn’t too frightened, after all, I’ve lived near major cities most of my life and I firmly believe that if you mind your own business, you are usually safe.

The main division in Northern Ireland is along a combination of political and religious lines. On one side you have the British/Protestants and the other the Irish/Catholics. Our first destination is a neighborhood where everything is painted the colors of the Irish flag (sidewalks, fire hydrants, lamp posts, houses, fences, everything.) Shortly after, we pass through one for the opposite side where the theme is the Union Jack.

The driver has a running discourse on the various acts of violence that have happened and I wonder just how much is fabricated just to make things sound more dangerous. We pass by a pub that has a gigantic metal barrier covering the entrance and he explains that, when it became difficult to throw pipe bombs inside, they started to drive cars through the front of the pub to blow it up. The barrier looks new and this is where I begin to get nervous.

Our next stop is a neighborhood where the sides of two-story houses had huge murals – each one describing someone brave soldier fighting for their side of the cause. The driver motions to one in particular which is of a man called “Mad Dog Adair”, whose nickname pretty much describes his behavior and propensity for violence.

He story ends with, “Oh! And there’s your man right there!” and standing on the other side of the street, smoking a cigarette, is Mad Dog himself glaring at our bus. This is where I start to get really nervous.

Leaving the neighborhood, I note a group of about fifty armored police gathering up the street. The driver explains that every year they have a march which proceeds right in front of the other faction’s church – so rather than have the factions kill each other (sparking yet another blood feud), the police step in between and fight them directly. I let Wife know I am ready to go back to Dublin now.

Arriving home, I read the news and there were over thirty injuries but only a few deaths, so it is reported as “relatively calm”. Belfast is definitely one of the most sobering places I have ever seen, but I am pretty sure I would go back to learn more about the city itself. They say that children going to school together is slowly breaking down the division, but only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Northern Ireland - Part 2

Context: This was in May of 2002.

Bushmills is not my first choice of Irish whiskey (I am a Jamesons drinker), but I am fascinated by any process of manufacturing – especially brewing and distilling. Every time I order a pint of something bubbly I can't help but think on all the pieces that went into creating it.

After being split into several groups, it is announced that there will be no pictures on the inside. After the initial disappointment, it’s clarified that the spark from the flash is dangerous in an area with fumes that are flammable. Everyone looks around to make sure that no one is thinking of turning us into a ball of flame because they want to add a memento to their photo album.

The guide takes us through the process (the barrels, the mash, the bottling) and this is where I learn that during the aging phase some of the whiskey evaporates. This has been called “the angels’ share” for a long time and I envision an explanation many years ago with someone being called to account for missing whiskey and saying “Don’t look at me, I have no idea. Maybe some angels drank it.”

At the end of the tour there is a tasting and an opportunity to buy a bottle that is specially aged and has a label with your name printed on it – I pass and head back to the bus. (Ten years later, in hindsight, it would be awesome to have it on my shelf.)

Our final stop for the day is the “Giant’s Causeway”, which is a field of hexagonal rocks sticking out varying heights. They were created by the famous Irish giant Finn McCool. He heard there was an even bigger, tougher giant living over in Scotland so he started building a rock bridge to connect to the neighboring coast. When he got close, he saw that there was, indeed, a massive giant so Finn hightails it back the way he came, ripping up the bridge behind him. (This is the shortest variation on the tale. Scientists say that it was actually caused by a volcano erupting underwater a long time ago, causing the instant cooling and shaping magma into hexagons, but what do they know.)

Our finale was a visit to Newgrange - which is a subject for a whole other post. It's an ancient limestone tomb older than the Pyramids at Giza and deserve more than a couple paragraphs.

Getting back to our hotel, we ask the staff for suggestions on where to go the following day (our train doesn’t leave until late afternoon) Over dinner, we decide to take a bus tour of Belfast itself. I knew Belfast’s reputation, but so far it seemed like a normal European city. Nothing different had jumped out at us and the tour supposedly takes you through the “real” Belfast.

Next up, the “troubles”, the colors and a mad dog.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Northern Ireland - Part 1

Context: This was in May of 2002.

After the closing of my previous employer, we packed our bags and flew to Ireland to see if I might be able to get work there.

After going on over a dozen interviews during the course of three months, the reality of our situation in Ireland sinks in – everyone is intrigued about an American techie trying to get work he is over-qualified for, but they are going to end up giving the job to a local.

There is no guarantee that we will ever get back to Ireland so Wife and I make an agreement: we each choose one last place to see before we go back. I decide on the Aran Islands (which is a whole other story) and she chooses the city and surroundings of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Two days later we are on a train to Northern Ireland. The excitement of seeing something totally new is tempered with a melancholy of knowing that we are soon leaving and may never see the emerald isle again.

Our tour bus picks us up at our hotel and is packed with people (all with cameras at the ready). It’s our first taste of “group tourism” (where you are confined to ride with about thirty strangers) and we decide quickly that it’s not our cup of tea. I find myself really rubbed the wrong way with certain behavior and hated being lumped in with that group.

For example, one lady would be talking loudly about her pets (or job, or new purse) while the driver was describing a landmark we were passing. After he was finished, she would notice the landmark, scream, “Excuse me! What’s that?!”

He would repeat himself from the beginning. After about the fifth time doing this, he would simply respond, “I don’t know.”

She noted she was very disappointed in his lack of knowledge. (In hindsight, I find the whole scene hilarious, but at the time it was torturous.)

Our first stop was Carrick a Rede, the main feature being a rope bridge over a massive gap where fishermen catch salmon. In pictures it doesn’t look like much, but in person it can be quite daunting. The churning waves crashing against the rocks underneath you invoke the stereotypical feeling of danger.

Our tour group slowly crosses the bridge and, as we approach the midway point,  the woman in front of me stops walking and starts screaming.

“I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” she yells. I don’t know what to do, so I ask “Do you want to go back?” and look behind me strategizing on how to get the woman out of there.

“No!” she yells and I am confused. “Ok, well, you’re almost across, just take it one step at a time.”

“No!” she yells again, and the man behind me says “Come on man, get her moving!”

I realize that, for some reason, I have become responsible for this woman’s panic attack. A young boy starts bouncing up and down and the panicked woman screams louder. I lose patience and scream at her “Hey! You can’t just stay here, you have to go forward or go back! Make up your mind!”

She turns and stares daggers at me, she purses her lips and starts moving forward again. Reaching the other side she marches off in a fury. I let Wife know that we are going to cross the bridge before that woman on the way back since I don’t want to get stuck behind her again.

The initial drama over with, I look around and realize it’s gorgeous.

The rolling waves crashing into rock all around us, random shades of green covering the rock and the inland scenery.

Arriving back at the bus without much incident, we set aim to our next destination : the Bushmills Distillery. It’s a good thing because, although it’s only mid-morning, I know I am going to need some whiskey to deal with the group dynamics.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My authority. Respect it.

I have been traveling a lot for work recently. It’s provided me with a bit of time for writing, but mostly just leaves me exhausted. However, I wanted to get this down immediately before I forgot or assumed I dreamt it. This happened this morning.

I noted last week, as I was en route to Seattle, that getting up at 4 AM for a Seattle flight is like a squirrel jumping onto your face – confusing and uncomfortable.

Getting up at 3:45 AM for a flight to Vegas was more along the lines of a complete stranger walking up to me and throwing a pickled herring at my feet – just as confusing, not as uncomfortable, leaving me asking myself “Did I do something to deserve this?”

One positive thing is that I am becoming extremely proficient in navigating airport security. I have learned that if I start stashing things like keys, watch, etc. into my carry-on backpack before hitting security I can save precious seconds in the “bin assembly line” at the checkpoint.

Even at 5:30 AM, the line to pass through security at SFO in Terminal 3 is large (about one hundred people.) I wait as the line progresses and double-check that I am set : I.D. and boarding pass in left pants pocket. All other pockets empty. Watch, phone, keys, belt in backpack – I am ready to roll.

In order to keep things moving quickly, sometimes they will station what I call a “shouter” near the front of the line. This person’s duty is to scream to the cattle to have their boarding passes and I.D. ready (this is so you aren’t fumbling around looking for ID when the man at the podium simply wants to put a pink highlighter mark on your boarding pass.) Standing about 10 feet in front of the podium is a woman about 5 feet tall assigned the morning's shouting duties.

I approach her and she looks at me and asks “Do you have your ID and boarding pass?”, I respond in the affirmative and make to move past her. She holds her hand out in front of me in the “Stop!” motion, so I assume she is letting traffic get a bit more caught up before letting me through. I stand there looking straight ahead, waiting for the hand to change to “Go!”.

Nothing happens. I turn to find her staring right at me. She looks at me as if I were daft and screams, “Can I SEE them?!” I reach into my front left pocket and show her. She seems a bit shocked that I could produce them so quickly.

I say, “I’m sorry, I thought I was supposed to show that guy.” and point to the man wielding the pink highlighter at the head of the line. She makes a sound of exasperation, turns her head so she is staring straight ahead, balls her hand into a fist and pounds her chest three times.

“I am an officer too!”, she yells and moves on to the next person who has his papers in his hand already.

This makes me wonder if I have ever met a female with a Napoleon Complex before (I have met many males with one, and pray that I never let my 5’6” stature morph me into that.) In any case, I continue to be torn between respecting people trying to do their job and being faced with someone who appears to not wear the cloak of authority appropriately.

I’ll continue to keep my head down, follow instructions and hope that I don’t get put on a list somewhere that will make me late for already stressful travel.