Not the Lilac Bus

Not the Lilac Bus

For anyone who has ever enjoyed the bus journey between Dublin and Dungarvan…

2002

25 October, Friday

Carole Angier’s biography of Primo Levi is pedantic, pretentious and extremely long-winded. Given that Levi was an industrial chemist in Turin (apart from his time in Poland) the effect has been lightened thus far only by a couple of descriptions of lethal laboratory conditions and subsequent explosions. Chemistry sets do not turn up in comic strips by accident.

Heavy traffic meant I did not get home until seven, having got boarded the one-thirty in Dublin. A nightmare journey: when your skin crawls at the same speed as the bus. We had to change in Waterford onto a coach that had a hole, a rectangular hole, where the second roof hatch should have been.

Halfway to Dungarvan we then had to pull over to pick up passengers from another bus, to the end of the world in Tralee. It had broken down. When they piled in, a lot of those unfortunates had to sit and get rained on behind the makeshift curtain that had been strung up across the aisle, in front of the hole.

The book is a doorstep impediment to proper appreciation. Having wondered would he ever get to Auschwitz, I closed the Levi biography when they were in the cattle wagons. This was mostly due to the fading light on the bus with the rainy hole.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux

Dr. John Flynn

2017

17 June, Saturday

I’m in the Black Velvet Bar at eight, with a pint of Carlsberg. A burger is on its way. Though this place was on my list I’ve just found it by accident, in that I took a left off the Quai Richelieu to photograph something, on my way to the Bourse, and spotted the street name.

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The Garonne is muddy filthy, like a series of chocolate whirlpools. Though very warm, it isn’t as hot here as I’d feared. There is a breeze. I was right about a wine convention bunging up the local hotels. At the airport I saw a sign for the VinExpo and the taxi driver asked had I come for it. Non, le rouge me donne une gueule de bois. That was my way of saying red wine blows my head off. Too much of it. At nine, I found the Café…

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Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon

Dr. John Flynn

2015

aux-trois-maries

12 June, Friday

I didn’t get a chance last night to write more than four words at Aux Trois Maries (a very nice restaurant in the old town, in a little cobbled square, Place de la Baleine) because the pretty, friendly waitresses kept bringing me stuff. A guy took the payment – he insisted – but I made sure to tell one of the girls there was a tenner with it, between the two of them. After that I went to L’Antidote (pub), only breaking out briefly to have a look at Johnny Walsh’s back up the street. A girl from Lancashire was serving there. A bottle of Heineken later I was back in L’Antidote, telling my new French pals, “C’était merde, j’étais curieux” before I realized I’d left my red cap behind.

It’s cloudy today so it doesn’t matter about the cap. I’m in the hotel…

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Bologna

Bologna

Dr. John Flynn

2016

6 August, Saturday

Getting here was free of hassle. Stepping onto the plane, which wasn’t full, I showed two stewardesses my pass and behind me my mother said,

“I’m with him.”
“Lucky you,” said Barbara, the chief.
“He’s my son.”

Soon B. came down to us and said we could move forward into an empty row. The taxi was cheap to the centre and I found the narrow street with the hotel (Albergo delle Drapperie) handily enough on foot. Out on my own come midnight, I wandered around photographing Bologna at night. I also discovered the Mercato di Mezzo around the corner is open on Sundays. There was a lot of Carabinieri out but they weren’t busy. One carload of the Polizia Municipale turned up too, shooting the breeze on Via Rizzoli.

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7 August, Sunday

Hit my knee for the third or fourth time on the knee-high…

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Innsbruck Trains

Innsbruck Trains

August 2016

On the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Innsbruck from Verona, through the Brenner Pass, a north German family of three shared our compartment most of the way. They had just spent ten days hiking south over the Alps. The only scary incident involved having to run from lightning to reach the next rest hut. The wife was a pigtail blonde, predictably a bit literal but kind and young in spirit. Early forties, I imagined. The husband mentioned seeing the Cliffs of Moher on the Irish west coast and then the only other occupant – an Italian woman – suddenly produced a picture of the cliffs on her phone. I hadn’t the heart to mention that they had become a notorious suicide spot.

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My card worked without the pin at the hotel in Innsbruck. Nonetheless I needed to compile a few choice phrases for a review inspired by the Verona incident and the charmless reaction at the desk that morning. My mother and I had an OK meal in the Altstadt later but by the time we emerged the odd drop from the grey sky and foggy Nordkette had turned to rain. In the morning at a post office over the bridge I’d pick up €500 sent by my brother via Western Union.

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It rained again in the late morning but then cleared up to make a sunny day. Seeing the last of the cloud lift off the Nordkette meant we went up to Hungerburg on the funicular in the afternoon. I made a panoramic short video of the view but stuck my own head into it and later discovered something dark had stuck between two of my front teeth during lunch so it only looked like a visit to the dentist was on the cards.

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A lot of Italian could be heard below and a surprisingly large number of Spaniards were in town too. A few too many dogs. Canines. I didn’t think they were all local. Why do people travel with dogs? It was raining again in the morning. We had trouble finding seats on the train to Munich but eventually got in among two young blondes unfamiliar to each other. When a middle-aged English couple with too much luggage later boarded our carriage and couldn’t find seats, it led to talk in our compartment. These two Brits were in shorts and sun hats yet each had a big rucksack and a wheelie bag, each. They caused the good-looking girl at the window to roll her eyes at me as she retook her seat after a quick smoke on the platform. It was time to put some distance between us and the latest arrivals. “Ja, ich habe gehört,” I said, in reference to having heard the woman laughing hysterically and then swearing, at the end of the carriage (“Farking hell… This is farking ridiculous…” etc).

Die sind Englander. Wir kommen aus Irland.

The girl by the window was interested and happy to hear that, as was the gorgeous student with the pigtail and the anatomy book, near the door on my mother’s side. She beamed as she closed the book, took off her black-framed reading glasses and asked in German if I’d liked Innsbruck. I explained that I’d been there before too, on my own (2015), when the snowy landscape on the line from Salzburg was most enticing.

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I’ll always remember the first time heading up Maria-Theresien Strasse at nightfall, with a royal blue sky reflecting off the white Nordkette. No camera can convey how the mountain chain towers over the city, where the shop fronts glowed though all were closed.

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I went on to outline the Verona hassle to both of them. Was it Juliet’s revenge or Juliet’s curse? We didn’t go to see her bloody balcony but everything was going OK until I paid the hotel bill. We’d seen a lot that morning. There were lots of tourists there speaking German and French but not many Americans or Asians. Or Brits. Having passed the amphitheatre we crossed Ponte Pietra below the huge cypresses on the Roman theatre hill.

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Back at the hotel a young Gianna Ten-Thumbs at reception pressed something she shouldn’t have and somehow locked my pin. She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing and a sweet one (a bit older) had to give some guidance before they were, eh, finished with me. My worries started when I went out then to get some cash. It was all hassle after that. I should have brought more cash but at least my mother still had €327 in her bag.

I’d thought I wouldn’t retaliate online but the dismissive attitude of the young manageress with the glasses quickly changed that. (Hotel S. later got a roasting.) The defensive aggression kicked off with her saying (a) it wasn’t nice and (b) it was a serious matter to make such an accusation. I wasn’t accusing anyone of a crime or deliberate wrongdoing. I said it was clearly a mistake but, given she wanted to talk about seriousness, my “Siamo nei guai a causa di questo” (‘We’re in trouble because of this’) was only met with another contemptuous, f*ck-you shrug.

I told them to be careful in case it happened again but didn’t rear up on the little charmer because I still needed to get the other (sweet) girl looking on to call us a taxi. It was pissing rain outside. There had been lightning in the night, in the distance. Early that morning, heavy rain had thumped some nearby roof or awning and that woke me at half past six. Once I got back home and simply changed the pin code at the bank, the card worked as normal. There was nothing wrong with it that hadn’t happened in Verona.

The two girls in the compartment on the train to Munich in contrast were very sweet and curious. The one beside me had lovely varnish on her toenails – somewhere between pink and orange – and expensive sandals. These ladies were open-mouthed again when I explained that we lived on the south coast and so I’d have to drive 200 km after Dublin. The girl with the anatomy book got off at Kufstein and sweetly said Auf Wiedersehen not just to us but also to the one beside me, who softly replied to her with Tschüss.

There was a chap in mountain boots on my left who never said anything except one whispered “F*ck” at his phone but he didn’t look like another Englander. He even smiled once or twice, for example when I had to stick my head through the compartment doorway to retrieve my mother who had walked past after a toilet break. We got off at Munich Ost and the girl at the window bade me farewell twice, to be sure, as I stood in the corridor with our bags, without swearing, waiting for the train to stop.

Last Exit to Salzburg

Last Exit to Salzburg

2015

A lot of the Saturday morning train journey from Munich to Salzburg was spent talking to two young couples on the train. The Basque girls were from Bilbao, the Spanish boys from Madrid. They were all pleasant but there was something really mignon sweet about the dark girl who sat directly opposite. She smiled like we had a private joke, then she ducked her eyes or looked out the window. It was February and there was snow everywhere outside, though the sun was shining.

At the Staatsbrücke bridge over the Salzach two cops were checking their sub-machine guns and one popped a bullet from a clip out onto the ground as I passed. Having checked into the Hotel Mozart, I made my way back along Linzergasse towards the river. Then I slipped curiously up the narrow Steingasse to verify an address from the imagination of the Grimms. The house, in business since Mozart’s time, belonged deep in a wood. There was even a red button beside the heavy door.

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Turning back I crossed the Salzach and went into the Zipfer Bierhaus for a grill and a drink. After dark I went down some stairs into the imaginatively named Shamrock pub to watch a match. The barman was from Cork and before he finished his shift at eight he asked would I still be there if he came back later. I assured him I would be. I was.

An afternoon customer who returned was a man from Yorkshire but anyway his night would end badly after he got into an argument with a little Arab at the counter. Over a stool, I think. One of the other barmen told him he’d had enough and, outside, he took a swing at a bouncer with a shaved head. That only earned him a bloody nose, which then necessitated an ambulance, which could be observed up on the quay, through the high windows.

The fact that a strawberry blonde in her early thirties later came over when I was full of drink in the by-then crowded bar (live band, Valentine’s night) must have meant that she liked the cut of my jib or else thought I was kind for having helped a disabled girl get through the crowd as far as the toilets and back. My arm was soon around her and her hair was in my face. She asked why I didn’t just speak English to her, when German aphasia was setting in. I can’t have been that bad, though, because when it was all over I stopped at the Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke for a bottle of water. It was very late.

The next day I tried the email address she’d provided along with a phone number. She had a six-syllable name, like that of a ski jumper or an opera singer. In the mail I explained my German was a bit better today and asked her to meet for dinner or a coffee oder etwas zivilisiert. I’d made a mess of her number the night before by putting the code for Ireland in front of it. She replied to the mail sometime in the afternoon. Das ist wirklich sehr charmant von dir but she was already on her way back to Vienna. It turned out she was a shrink. Up to their necks in bulimics and anorexics, who knows?

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A couple of days later I ended up back in the Zipfer B., for the same grill. A young shoe salesman sat down at the big wooden table. By the time he decided to stay and find a hotel, I’d noticed he was very keen on the beer. He said he’d driven over from Bavaria that day to get away from Fasching (carnival). He also explained that one piece of their folk wisdom was enough if one wanted to understand Bavarians – the view that if something wasn’t a complete disaster then it should be looked on as a success.

I left him there after three hours but said I’d be in the Shamrock later. After another shower, back at the hotel, I fell asleep for an hour. On getting to the pub I didn’t notice him at first but then overheard the Bavarian Al Bundy nearby, putting his oar into a couple who seemed to be English. He was locked by then and I wanted him to drink some water but I ended up with it instead. Leaning over the counter to tell the Austrian manager there had been a misunderstanding – that the water was my recommendation for Al – helped to clarify the situation.

Es gab ein Missverständis. Das Wasser war meine Empfehlung für ihn.

The manager then leaned forward too.

He’s an annoying prick who won’t get served anymore.

After poor Al left, quietly at least, I got talking to that couple. The guy was English. He asked if I wanted to have a drink with them somewhere else and she nodded and smiled, so we went to O’Malley’s, which was right next door. These were the only places with any life, at least midweek. Though from Swindon, he looked Middle Eastern but the top-heavy and good-looking blonde was from the Dutch-German border. He got harmlessly drunk while moving his arms to the likes of Oasis and Stereophonics on the speakers and she told me she’d had a stroke eighteen months earlier, as a result of which she’d put on twenty kilos and lost her job. I told her she was lovely and added she was lucky she wasn’t dead. Or worse. He was with BMW and had a problem learning German, although, he claimed, knowing Turkish would have been more useful at work. Together eight years, she had two kids and they lived in Munich. This night was their anniversary. They were nice people. I drank very little.

In the morning nonetheless, Kapuzinerberg was still a tough climb, even forty-eight hours after waking up wrecked after Valentine’s Night, and even after the scrambled egg and scrambled rasher breakfast at the hotel, over which I could hear an Irish table, older than me, talking about hangovers. Kapuzinerberg was still worth it for the view of the river, the snow-covered city and the high castle. Then I crossed the river and took the funicular up to the Hohensalzburg fortress. The heights were even brighter and we seemed to be above the zero-degree haze.

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Salzburg had a lot of well-wrapped beggars hunkered down. Most but not all were Roma but all seemed to call out cheerfully “Hallo!” or “Grüss Gott!” to passers-by. By the sound of them at least, they were the chirpiest homeless I’d ever come across. Overcast Munich was very cold the next day. One guy on the street asked for €2 for a coffee and then asked had I a heart but, well dressed as he was, he wasn’t even parked in a begging spot. I did give a euro to one with one leg, on Bayerstrasse. What is it, about Bayerstrasse? Another time I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec. Then again, Munich’s Neues Rathaus is the most Gothic thing I’ve seen.

In August 2015, on entering Salzburg’s Mirabell gardens, where there had been ice in the fountain in February, my mother and I passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said. They looked very different from the conservatory student string quartet we had watched play a tango on Kärntner Strasse in Vienna the day before.

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Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer. My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the classiest place, with the most stylish clothes. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. After there it was a matter of a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.

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I had just a few in the Shamrock that night. D. told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space but, on a less abstract note, it seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. He’d recently opened the door onto the quay well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of unknown nationality in front of cops and onlookers. After there I crossed the river and walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. A warm red light was on over the magic door as I passed but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants.

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For me the most atmospheric ancient lane is in Perugia. An open window on the weird Via Ritorta revealed a woman calling a guy a “fascista” but, if ever a street gave a feeling of being down a well, that was it. Later I had to go back and video it. At the other end, I caught some of a guy playing the Godfather theme on a concertina.

In August 2018, on the way from Linz to Munich, I last got off in Salzburg, if only for an afternoon. Though the thronged Getreide Gasse was the same as always (I gave it a miss), elsewhere is generally more relaxed and you can hear Mozart seeping out of windows, both chorally and instrumentally. I had two beers in the Zipfer B. Given the hot day, I sat inside at one of the round tables near the counter, where it was cool.

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Most other customers sat outside the front entrance, the light at the end of the tunnel corridor with the stone floor. I was near the staff. They were particularly relaxed and friendly. Morale must be high in that workplace. There seemed to be a buzz around a shift change between three and four. Two of the women seemed to take particular notice of my harmless presence. The younger of the two, with glasses, was called K. She even turned to me too, before she left, for a Wiederschauen.

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