A night in Madrid

A night in Madrid


28th December, Wednesday


Those f*cking Marianistas are having a pow-wow in the corridor near my door. I complained to them once. Since then they have stopped shrieking. They probably think their normal talk is cutting me some deal. I came back too early. I’d have liked to stay in the dark Luna bar on the Paseo, with the Eighties music and the old lads in a back corner, playing Ludo for money, but Juana won’t go there, so B. and I had just the one before reverting to the tapas bars.

They’re even shushing each other now and then, outside.

29th December, Thursday

Update: come half past midnight I got dressed and went out again to advise them all that I was heading downstairs to complain. Porqué aqui, fuera mi puerta? Trenta minutos tras medianoche. Ahora tengo que reclamar, con el jefe. Dondé están las habitaciónes? They all sat on the floor in early teenage silence. At the lift I added a head-shaking “Sin respeto” before pushing the ground floor button. I found the night porter. Hay diez Marianistas fuera mi puerta, trenta minutos tras medianoche. Yak yak yak... I made the international hand signal for yakking. He just asked for my room number. That was the end of it.


B. came with me to Madrid. From my hotel near Atocha we got a taxi to Sol. In trying to get away from the crowds we stumbled upon the royal palace.




After lunch (back near Atocha) he went off shopping before his train home and I went for a nap. At dusk I got up and walked to the top of Paseo del Prado before turning left onto Gran Vía.



After a few hundred yards of that I couldn’t stick it anymore and turned back. The anthill was even more teeming. The park down the middle of the Paseo del Prado is nice, though. I was photographing the many fountains and the art gallery after dark.




Tonight is a night for doing nothing but resting and sleeping before an early start.

30th December, Friday

Another all-Spanish chat with a taxi driver saw me to the airport early but all the cafés down by the departure gates were f*cked up in one way or another – no cards accepted, out of croissants, kitchen closed etc. Luckily the plane wasn’t packed. A mercy.


Low Country

Low Country

The Fall is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Albert Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” but, in 1997, a two-hour BBC documentary on him ended with the camera on the sunlit trees along the French road where he died in January 1960. His last letters, read in a sombre voice-over by Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?

Another January, in the Gare Centrale in Brussels, while waiting for the train back to Amsterdam to get going, Pat had just one woman to think about. He’d landed in Amsterdam a few days earlier, when there were snow flurries rippling across the runways at Schipol. Viewed from the tram on the way from the station to the hotel, the snow on the dark brown stone was like a Black Forest gateau but the cold that white night was unreal. Reaching as far as sixteen below, it was too cold for red light. He’d never have thawed out in time, for one thing. For another, there was someone on his mind.

What really made Saturday night there, nonetheless, in The Grasshopper hash bar on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, was the guy who came up the stone steps inside the front door and then collapsed across the table beside him, smashing cups and saucers before hitting the floor like a dead man. At least, Pat thought he might be dead. The bunch of teenage American girls at that table went, “Oh my gawd, is he like, OK?” “I hope so,” replied the cute little Dutch one who reluctantly came out from behind the counter. Pat helped her pick him up, as an American girl turned and asked one of his companions a question.

“Is your friend a doctor?”
“No. But it’s OK, he’s got a Master’s in Sociology.”

The guy they picked up and put on a seat rested for a minute before making his way to the toilet. Later that same night, the Bamboo bar was where they met a young American chancer who came in with a Dutch mother and daughter. The American explained the presence of his two companions.

“I picked up these two babes in a McDonalds.”

The daughter was in her early forties, a good-looking Germanic blonde, among many, among the menacing trams and bicycles. Her mother was maybe seventy. The American had gone up to them and given them a little-boy-lost story. The charm had worked and later he bought them a drink or two before they all arrived and squeezed in around the table.

At this stage the daughter was clearly on a high, which was only added to by the fact of getting into the bar, away from the cold and the snow and the slush and the frozen canals. She was waving money and insisting on getting the drinks and laughing and seemingly telling her mother that she didn’t have to stay if she was fed up.

Pat didn’t think the mother looked too bothered, actually, but the daughter seemed just thrilled to be having a bit of fun. He imagined a suburban home and a divorce. The young American looked to be on a definite promise that night.

Twenty minutes into these reflections, the train was in Mechelen. I’m a bit deranged, I suppose, really. Too long in the dark facing the wall of the cave and unable to imagine the light. Taking the shadows on the wall to be real. Shadows, shadows, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Antwerp was reached after another twenty minutes, after he’d listened to a bunch of Flemish suits in the carriage practising their English. Her unpleasantness had mostly taken the form of so much snapping. Talking to him as if he was less than a dog, while he felt a strange kind of sickness that enveloped the ache and left him in a daze.

Soon the train was crossing the Dutch border and he saw Rotterdam again from high over the Rhine. He made the airport with four hours to kill. It’s hard to believe, all the same, considering the fact that I didn’t care that she was gone. The fourteenth of April. The calendar is meaningless sometimes.

Having moved from one garish airport bar to another, he bought a bottle of beer. TV shots of European Union landmarks had given no overall impression of the Belgian capital. It was more like Auden’s poem, Brussels in Winter. Wandering through cold streets, the formula had escaped him alright.

“What’s wrong with you?” she snapped.
“I’m freezing.”
“Well, you should be wearing layers. That’s how to dress, over here, in winter. Don’t you know that?”

In the church of Saint Nicolas he’d lit a candle as an offering to Job. She realised what he was doing and for a moment the old warmth and amusement seemed to return. Back in her place, he fell asleep in his overcoat on her couch as she sat at her computer across the room. When he woke, she was actually smiling.

“What’s so funny?”
“You’re such a waster,” she explained.

At least the tone of voice was mild, that time, but that couch was where he lay awake for long periods over two nights, her discreet door slam both times echoing in his brain in the silence. All he’d hoped for, on leaving his friends behind in Amsterdam, was her good company in another strange city.

He finally checked in but another hour had to pass before boarding. The bitterness and resentment had taken him aback. He didn’t want to believe it but now it was a must. Yet, think of what she used to say (“I do love you in a way”). Now look at me and understand my epilepsy. There’s a chasm between love and justice.

Her mother had given him a pair of shoes she’d left behind and Pat had brought them over but they were no glass slippers. With nothing or no one to turn to, or turn on, he’d been too cold and miserable and too far from home to take the hits with dismissive indifference. He wasn’t too weak, though, to twist the knife a little, in retaliation, before he left.

“Alright, you’re right. I didn’t care, in the end. But no one’s innocent here. So don’t tell me you think you are?”
“We’re just not compatible. I’ve told you that before.”
“I know that. But I don’t want to fight with you. So, if you can’t be civil to me – no more contact.”

This put tears in her eyes. She admitted that they could talk about this all day. Pat remembered times when her tears would have made him do anything to stop them. She had one more thing to say, one more observation to make.

“You think it’s easy to go back to being friends.”

He’d never heard a woman say that before. That used to be his line. All the same, this time he just couldn’t talk about this all day, unlike all those other days.

“Well, look, I have to go.”
“What time’s your train?”
“As early as possible.”

She moved no farther than her doorstep. There was nothing more to say. He looked at his watch. After four hours in the airport the time was gone and he actually had to run for the plane. It was a long, long way to the gate but he just had to get out of there.

They would never completely forgive themselves, of course, but, after two months had elapsed since that last battle, he just knew one day he’d wake up and it would be two years. One day when he’d know that that was it, there was nothing left, except maybe a cold aversion, until that too melted into the past, the history of a foreign country. Out of the loop and beyond the pale, over the seas and far away.

The Spell of Siena

The Spell of Siena


4th August, Monday

Departure was delayed for over an hour but we landed in Pisa at ten to five. Getting to the station and on a train to Empoli was easy, as was changing trains, but the second was a hot one (no air-conditioning in our carriage). The line we took into Siena was shrouded in trees. Around nine we ate well near the hotel (Ristorante Vitti), with a nice house white in a charming bare bottle, in a wide nook with wall statuary. Then we went down to the Campo, after stopping off at the Loggia Mercanzia.

Loggia mercanza

palazzo publico

The book mentioned a scallop shape but the one photo of the Campo therein gives no idea of the hollow that’s in it or the size of it.



campo thru gap

5th August, Tuesday

Going into buildings is of less interest to me at least than the exteriors but my mother was amazed by the marble reliefs on the floor of the Duomo.

duomo floor

The Madonna and Child part of the Maestà in the Duccio room of the Museo dell’Opera is like a class photo, with all the heads, and it was a good job we abandoned waiting for the Panorama del Facciatone. A French child (a girl) emerged in tears, scared of heights, as I deduced from checking the book. At 12.30 we got finished with interiors. As for lunch, I chose Osteria Cice just for the aroma out of it and again we weren’t disappointed with the food (main & dessert) or wine.

Siena is an extraordinary place, roof over roof, all the reddish brown (i.e. sienna) bricks piling up from ridge to ridge.

ridge john


duomo distance

Tonight I mistakenly looked for a third good place to eat and dragged my mother around for nearly half an hour – there were still some banking suits out and about – before we went back to Ristorante Vitti. I’d been down at (if not quite in) Saint Catherine’s hangout at six when she sent a text (“Come back”) from San Domenico. There was thunder and a darkening sky with at least one distant flash but the rain didn’t last long, back at the hotel.

girl street

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.

John Italy 2013 174

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.

Jean Italy 2013 220

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

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

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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Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Dr. John Flynn


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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