A thunderstorm in Florence

A thunderstorm in Florence

24 June 2013

In Florence, the bus tour didn’t last the hour. It sped around a shorter, darkening route, minus Santa Croce, but at least it was over before the deluge. The omission of Santa Croce was due to the Calcio storico annual free-for-all, which the impending thunderstorm would inevitably postpone.

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As we disembarked, my father asked for chips, having developed a taste for the McDonalds variety in his eighties. The rain started during a shared quarter-pounder meal beside Santa Maria Novella, where I took the burger. At the table my mother rustled in her bag and produced a baby Bacardi and put it into the Coke. Then she revealed he had expressed to her a wish to see the Duomo.

Outside, the rain was getting heavier by the minute. She rustled in her bag again. They donned plastic macs and I got the umbrella, which was broken. A few hundred yards away, the piazza was by then a pond, ankle-deep under thunder and lightning. The authorities had shut the door of the Duomo. I told my father to go back to the door of the Baptistery, where she had ducked into the doorway. A young man there with a clipboard told her she couldn’t stay because there was a christening on but then he let her be after she used the one phrase of the English-speaking nations that is understood by all others.

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By the time we made it back to the station the elements had eased off. At first I couldn’t find a ticket validating machine on our platform. I asked two inspectors talking at the far end. One of them just waved me away with words that included “schermo” and “binario” but where was the schermo on the binario? That was what I wanted to know.

It turned out to be half-concealed at the entrance to the platform but then a delay invalidated the urgency. On the train I asked a glamorous, dark young woman across the aisle to make doubly sure it really was the one for Viareggio. When she learned we were Irish and I was the minder, for their fiftieth anniversary, she looked at my wet father and said something that made him say, “Eh, she doesn’t like me”, but she’d only said that she thought he looked a bit Italian.

The inspector with the wave showed up with his Germanic eyes and his short beard, a spaghetti western type, a dodgy Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte. His first move in the carriage was to eject an African hawker (“Scende da quà”). After punching our tickets he gave a sinister smile and politely said “Grazie” but then my mother told me to ask him if there was a toilet because she was feeling a bit sick. He only grasped why I was asking when I explained it was for my mother. Then he indicated a choice, front and back. I didn’t say anything to either about drinking in McDonalds.

John Italy 2013 173

John Italy 2013 172

Austria #6 – Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Austria #6 – Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Dr. John Flynn

At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of them to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.

A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have…

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Armed Robbery in the Eighties

Armed Robbery in the Eighties

Photo: model of getaway vehicle

For most of Ireland, the Eighties were a time of grime and crime. In May 1986, for example, burglars in the middle-class Dublin suburb of Clontarf beat an unfortunate man to death with one of his own golf clubs. Emigration climbed steadily until it passed the 100,000 mark in 1989, the year I cleared off too, for a while, to London, where I described my CV to a fellow alumnus – college, dole, unreal jobs (“as opposed to having a real job”).

Take the outline of a Christmas story: a forest in the morning; lochs of cold water; mud; an uncle on the back of a lorry; loading it with Christmas trees; two shady locals nervous about money. A cousin got jammed, stuck in the trees. Come on, move back there. Behind his father, the boy could not move. A minute or so passed. Come on. In the same mild, distracted tone, over his shoulder. Looking up, I was silently watching the boy struggling, twisting, packed up to his waist in rising Christmas trees, on the back of a lorry in the cold, dark, grey mess that was the forest. The lorry driver was from Cork. He then said something. There’s one born every minute.

Another case of going nowhere: the evening Foley crashed into a ditch near Durrow viaduct to avoid an old guy in a blue car coming against us. We tried to get the little truck back on the road. The old chap had an Italian accent. He sounded just like Chico Marx. A red minibus then got in the way. The road was narrow. The minibus driver was silent, trying to edge through, and Foley said to him, “Hey, don’t blame me if you tear the side out of your bus!” The corner of the truck was sticking out. “Will you hang on for a few minutes, will you?” When the Snozzler et al came along in a blue Mini, we all pushed it out of the ditch. Then the Snozzler turned to me. “You were great on television, lad,” he said, in his utterly adenoidal voice. He was the old man L. C. had hit over the head with an oil drum, for his wages, a few years earlier. Nearly killed him. Fractured his skull.

Dole Poem

November, 1984

This is Class Hall E. The time is 10.20 AM. It is a bright, mild morning outside while in here the professor talks about historical geography. Or geographical history. Does it matter? I have money worries again. They are nothing new here. This life may be hedonistic and paid for by someone else but I have to say I don’t care, don’t I? I have to make some excuse for living like this. There’s more to it than that, I know. I don’t fail exams. I must be malnourished or something to be thinking like this. I can’t see too clearly. I have no real problems to occupy my mind. I’m left to my own devices. This is a search for meaning, capital letters.

It is now near four o’clock. I’m in sociology. I’m looking out the window and it’s sunny out there. I’m depressed because of the winter too. We are heading into it and I don’t like the thought of Christmas. He’s talking about poverty and he’s making me think of money. The dole office was robbed here last week.

The dole office manager was carrying a briefcase of cash down the street for the day’s payments when two men in balaclavas pulled up beside him on a Honda 50. The pillion passenger levelled a shotgun at the manager, took the case and wished him a Merry Christmas. They took off again and vanished at top speed. It was the perfect job on the day but the two Napoleons of crime were caught after they neglected to sign at the dole office, the following week.

The Gigs Place

The Gigs Place

Dublin, twenty years ago. The nights spent darkening the door of the Gigs Place in later years – it could take some time to get in – can be counted on one hand but all the key details had been sketched at the outset.

1996

7th September, Saturday

Gigs Place: out of the corner of my eye I saw a young crew-cut slipping out with a Groucho Marx walk (a runner). Then there was the long-haired musical type who insulted me after roaring for pepper. Got into a slanging match over pepper, saw a guy do a runner, met two women: a fifty-one-year-old female Dorian and a doctor in the house (her niece). More wine. The pinch test: Dorian showed me the difference between the skins of ‘old’ and ‘young’ via the elasticity of the back of the hand.

8th September, Sunday

On Sunday morning the ends of long streets in their post-dawn haze – all cities look the same then. Awake, shake scenes from your awareness. Bed at 7.20 AM.

17th October, Thursday

Gigs: people crashing out left, right and centre. Of a group of four women across from us, the one good-looking one lost the plot after making a pudding sandwich with her toast. She had to be helped out, while I never saw what happened to another member of her group who’d dipped first.

Behind us, one of a group of three women lay stretched out like a corpse. I only spotted the horizontal human-like shape on rising to go to the toilets.

Over to my right, beyond the dried-leafy trellis, a ginger-haired fella rested his head on his table, with his clean fry-up and a tall glass of milk. Vermeer might have captured it. Every so often a waitress would make a token effort to wake him. The Gigs Place is some place.

21st October, Monday

Words for a review of the Gigs Place: fare with no exotica and no frills. Optional chips with everything. Bad wine, the list consisting of red & white.

16th November, Saturday

Gigs: the sight of the night was a fella puking like a muck spreader.

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Austria #5 – Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle

Austria #5 – Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle

Dr. John Flynn

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The easiest way to get from Ireland to western Austria is via Munich but at Dublin airport in February 2015 the flight was overbooked until three people took an Aer Lingus bribe to stay behind: €250 plus a free hotel night. I didn’t try to sleep on the plane because I had to eat something i.e. two sandwiches. The Munich airport train seemed to take an age before reaching Marienplatz. The Neues Rathaus looked great in the fog but there was a hint of snow too. It was the most Gothic-looking thing I’d seen.

At the Stachus hotel the room was fine, it had a heated floor. I had a shower and went down to the Augustinerbräu for a couple of steins and a bowl of soup. From there I sought out the Hofbräuhaus but at midnight it was closing. The odd fleck of snow landed on my lips…

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