Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZ

2019 Grateful 47: Made in America

Wandering around Williams AZ shortly after 8 am on a Friday morning, I spotted a rare sight. A man smoking. It was such a novelty that I went to join him. We’d been stateside a week and he was maybe the third person I’d seen with a cigarette. Ah no, you say, you’re not back smoking? I’m not, but I have the odd one when I feel like it. And sure amn’t I on my holidays. Anyway, this particular cigarette would prove to be the most interesting one I’ve ever had.

Made in America, Buck WIlliams and his shop in Williams AZ

He put his out and then stuck it into a hole he’d bored into the street sign outside his shop. He uproots the signpost and empties it when it gets full. One day, he said, he put a half-lit butt inside and the others caught fire. Smoke started seeping through the hole. He told a concerned tourist who happened to be passing that it was nothing to worry about, saying the town was built on volcanic geysers and this was just a vent. He laughed heartily when he thought of the 20 minutes the chap spent taking pictures of it.

Buck Williams was born in Ohio and grew up on a working ranch in Alabama. After a stint in the Marines, he spent three years as a deputy sheriff in his home state, twenty with the LAPD, and six as a US Marshall in California. All this before spending 15 years as a train robber in Williams, AZ. Sharing the same last name as the town, his wife decided this was where they’d retire. And they did. About nineteen years ago. When you’ve spent as long as he has upholding the law, it made a change to break it. Williams was part of the staged train robbery put on for tourists travelling on the Grand Canyon railroad. Today, he’s the local gunsmith and the man to go see if you want to learn to quick draw or use a bullwhip.

He was telling me that many old Arizona laws, while not always enforced, are still on the books. If I parked in front of his signpost and he came along and wanted to tether his horse, guess who’d have to move? And if I beeped my horn at his horse, I’d be fined. And if I scared him, I could be arrested. The horse, that is. Williams would take a lot of scaring.

Lots of international tourists come to Williams, stay overnight, and then take the train ride up into the canyon. He himself has a massive Chinese fan club, thanks to being featured in a book on Route 66, written in Chinese. It went down so well, that he’s due to be featured in a second by the same author on cowboys. He’s also nabbed a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for both his fast draw and his bullwhip. He can draw a gun in 2.5 tenths of a second. I asked him why he didn’t write his own book. ‘I’m in the middle of doing nothing’, he said, ‘and I don’t want to start another project until I finish this one.’

He gave me the rundown on Williams and suggested where we should go for lunch. Himself had taken off earlier that morning to see the Grand Canyon. I’d stayed behind to feed my Route 66 memory bank. I asked Williams, given that he’s been around for a while and has lived an interesting life, what advice would he give someone starting out today. He didn’t have to think for long. ‘Learn to be responsible for yourself.’ Too many people these days take for granted what they’re told. They don’t fact check or research. They believe what their friends believe.

Just about that point in the conversation, a woman came in to mail a package with UPS (Williams is an agent for them). Her stepson was in jail in California and the only parcels they can get are from vendors. She’s tried to send it via Amazon but it came to her instead. The Amazon guy, [‘a middle-eastern fellah’, she whispered, behind the back of her hand] had emailed her a barcoded label that only UPS shops, not the franchises, had the wherewithal to read. Williams told her she’d have to drive the 40 miles to the nearest UPS in Flagstaff. They chatted, her animatedly, he calmly. She didn’t want to make the drive and had come in royally ticked off with Amazon and her stepson both, venting her spleen, but she left smiling. All in the space of two minutes.

Made in America, Buck Williams, Williams AZ

Williams took a framed photo from the wall and proudly pointed out his son. He was in the US Coastguard and had been an honour guard for four years when Clinton was in office and spent 17 years as a rescue swimmer. A life so very different from the stepson in jail.

Aside from his love of cowboys and guns, Williams has a love of words. He told me how easy it was to understand modern-day politics – poly meaning many, and tics, meaning blood-sucking pests. He recited one of his cowboy poems for me that knocked me sideways with the punchline. I wish I’d been able to record him but traffic was picking up and his regulars were popping in for coffee. He keeps a coffee pot on the go and it seems like anyone’s welcome.

Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZHe put on his hat for another photo and went on to tell me how to read a cowboy hat. If it’s white or light-coloured, they work somewhere sunny and hot. If it’s high-domed, they work somewhere that gets rain and/or snow. If there’s a cord around the crown, they’ve been in the armed forces – the different colours represent different sections. And his, he said, told me that he was right-handed. This stumped me until he pointed out that the left side of the brim was slightly higher than the right – this was from tipping his hat to the ladies. His right hand would always be on his gun.

And tip his hat he did. I was ma’amed a lot and I loved it. Buck Williams was made in America. He’s a real character who says that if you leave his shop without a smile on your face, it’s because he’s thrown you out. I left laughing. If you ever find yourself in Williams, AZ, pop in and say hi. Buck’s Place. 117 W Route 66, Suite 145, Williams AZ. You’ll be glad you did. And I’m grateful that I had that cigarette. Thanks’ Buck. You’re a gem.

 

For more on the Grateful series, check the blog.

For more on travel in Arizona, check out www.anyexcusetotravel.com

 

 

Valentine's Day, London Brige, Lake Havasu

A Valentine’s Day to remember

Sad really. Neither of us could remember what we’d done for the last three years on Valentine’s Day. Nothing memorable obviously. Himself would rate himself as more of a romantic than not, but perhaps in thought rather than in deed. Pragmatic runs to my core – romance is the stuff movies are made of. That said, I always appreciate flowers, no matter the occasion, but having surreptitiously checked whether a dozen long-stemmed roses would fit in the console of the rental car, I nixed even voicing that wishpectation.

We set out from Palm Desert California this morning shortly after 8 am expecting to be in Williams Arizona by 3 at the latest. We planned to see the iconic Route 66 town and then have dinner somewhere special. That was the plan. When we left, it was teeming with rain. The electricity was cutting in and out. And the day was shaping up to be quite miserable. We opted for the longer route along the Colorado River as the shorter one involved windy roads through a mountain pass and given the infrequency of heavy rain in the area, I didn’t trust the local drivers to stay in the lanes or the runoff to stay off the road – flash flood warnings in effect for the day.

Valentine's Day General George Patton Museum Chiriaco Summit

We stopped for breakfast at Chiriaco Summit around 9.15 and lost two hours there at the fabulous General Patton Museum. It was so great that it deserves a post of its own, and that’s saying something, as I’m not a great lover of big guns and bigger tanks.  We thought we’d gotten ahead of the bad weather, but by the time we surfaced, it had caught up with us.

Valentine's Day, London Bridge, Lake Havasu

We were headed to Lake Havasu to see the famous London Bridge. A bridge that once spanned the River Thames in London was taken apart, stone by stone, shipped to the USA, hauled to Arizona, and put back together again.  It was purchased by Robert P. McCulloch (him of the lawn and garden machine fame – we have one of his strimmers) for $2,460,000 on 18 April 1968 from the City of London. The things some people do with their money. It took until 1971 for it to be completed and since then has been a major tourist attraction. We lucked out. We got the bridge and the British weather. It was pouring. And cold. But not as cold as it would get.

We stopped for lunch and looked at the map to see the quickest way to get to where we were ultimately heading. We were now about 2 hours behind schedule. I noticed Route 66 was an option and on it, the little town of Valentine. I figured that if we went to Valentine on Valentine’s Day, we’d never forget what we did on 14 February 2019. We decided to decide when we got to Kingman.

 

Valentine's Day, Freeway entrance to 40E

And it took an age to get there. The low-lying fog/cloud you can see is the rain we had to drive through. Us and every articulated truck that had anywhere to go other than home. It was nasty. But when the rain eased off a little, the desert colours were gorgeous. Pinks, yellows, greens, purples, and every possible shade of brown.

By the time we got to Kingman, we’d copped that we’d lost an hour having crossed a timeline somewhere along the way. There was no way we’d get to Williams in daylight so we decided to take the high road and head across on Route 66.  I love driving that road. The mother road. I feel other-worldly when I do.

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

When we got to Valentine, we pulled up beside the sign. Another van was parked there. We figured they’d had the same idea. Turns out, it was a TV station from Phoenix who’d come expecting to find something going on. But it was still raining heavily and it was cold and there was no one but us around. They’d visited the general store in Hackberry and had then wandered around Valentine itself before parking at the sign waiting to see if anyone would stop by. We asked Kim Powell, the reporter, if she’d mind taking our photo. I know, I know. I don’t often do it, but given the day and given the place, I simply had to. Anyway, she did. And as one good turn deserves another, she asked if she could interview us. Sure, it’d have been rude to refuse. It’s pretty safe to say that if we did make the telly, no one we know would be watching. But we did… or at least the web.

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

It got dark somewhere on the Hualapai Indian reservation. We rolled into Williams about 8 pm and it looks quite the quaint little town. But after 12 hours on the road, I was ready for my prime rib dinner. Turns out though, our hotel restaurant didn’t quite stretch that far and it was too wet and too cold to go wandering. So I settled for a French dip. But I’m on a promise. Prime rib is something that needs crossing off my list before I leave.

So, from General Patton and his tanks to a relocated London Bridge, to the sleepy town of Valentine, it was certainly a day to remember. Oh, and yes. I did get chocolates. A box of maltesers from a truck stop on 95N. The boy knows me well.

 

2019 Grateful 48

It’s Sunday night. I’m sitting at the table in the Jungle Mansion. One of their 13 friendly local racoons is messing around outside. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s an unseasonable California. The talented SRP is playing the piano. She’d asked what my favourite piece was. I didn’t have to think. Panis Angelicus. She’d not heard it before, but went online, downloaded the sheet music, and played it. Beautifully. Such unpretentious talent is humbling.

Getting a glimpse into how other people live their lives is a privilege not to be taken lightly. I’d not seen my mate J for more than 25 years and had never met S, although I’d been following the Facebook posts since they’d reconnected some years ago. Social media has a lot to answer for. It creates a virtual familiarity that’s so real that when you meet the person for the first time in real life, it’s straight to hugs and chats.

I remember being in Geneva a number of years ago and telling a colleague how well they looked, commenting that it’d been a while since we’d met. They reminded me that we’d never actually met, other than online. I was shocked. It had all been so real. Coming back to Torrance after all these years, reconnecting with old friends, well, it’s been a tonic.

Visiting (and having visitors) can be hard work. It’s hard to tell how comfortable you’re going to be, and how relaxed they’ll be with you around. But not an hour into the visit, I was helping myself to milk duds from the fridge. ‘Nuff said.


They asked what I’d missed about living in SoCal. I said In’n’Out. We went and got burgers from the family-owned chain that has been a feature on the California fast-food plate since 1948. And they still taste as good as they did all those years ago. The next night, himself had a craving for some decent Mexican food. We went to their local, La Capilla, another family-run venture with four restaurants to their name. I liked this local feel, this sense that America is more than multinationals and multi-state conglomerates.

We sat around and chatted, swapping stories of what we’d been up to in the years since we’d last met, moving inside and outside as the sun permitted. As the stories ebbed and flowed, stories that don’t make it on to Facebook or into blogs, the years melted away. We talked of movies and music (I hadn’t much to contribute to either conversation but thoroughly enjoyed listening to the accounts of happenings that made screen names real.) I came into my own when the scrabble board came out. They recorded me reading The Wonky Donkey for the first time – the first time I’ve read it or recorded it. [If you’ve not heard it before, this Scottish granny knocks great craic out of it.] After we’d eaten some home-made Australian meat pies, S played some more piano and the lads sang.

Evenings like these are what memories are made of. At the end of what’s been a mad week that saw me touch down in six countries, it’s nice to feel at home. I’m grateful that friendship can survive years and years and still be as strong as back in the day. And that it can multiply.

 

2019 Grateful 48 – Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

January has been a busy month. I was in Hungary doing communications/public speaking workshops each Tuesday and then doing the same in Ireland each Thursday. My brain is addled. I’m now in Malta gearing up for more of the same. I’ve been preaching the importance of vocal variety, eye contact, body language, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, voice projection and the myriad other elements that go into good communication and watching participants improve week on week. All very rewarding.

In my layperson’s capacity, though, I’ve marvelled at how professional preachers don’t do justice to the time they’re given. Each Saturday or Sunday, they have anything from 3 to 15 minutes in front of a captive audience – and for the most part, in my experience, that time is wasted.

A few years back, I got so teed off by this criminal waste of face time that I recorded sermons I’d have given were I a priest or a vicar or a pastor. No longer than three minutes each contained what I liked to think of as relevant stuff.

I’m a regular mass goer. I’ve had mass in a host of different languages. And while I might not understand what is being said, so much can be gleaned from said eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, body language, and so on. But it would seem that it’s my lot to be constantly disappointed. Apart from a mass in Geneva some years ago, one in Bangalore a lifetime ago, and one in the village late last year, I can’t recall any that have been close to riveting, let alone relevant.

When in Malta, I stay in St Julian’s. It’s handy for pretty much everywhere. I stay in the same hotel close to Paceville. I have three churches to choose from and on Sunday, I chose Imqaddsa Marija, Omm tal-Parir it-Tajjeb (Our Lady, Mother of Good Counsel) as 11.30 mass was in English.

They had an MC, a chap who came out on the altar and explained that the large screens would show the order of the mass so that people could follow along. It was a very international congregation and I noticed more than one person glued to the text, perhaps, like me, having difficulty quickly spoken Maltese-accented English. He pointed out the crying room and suggested that parents with young children, parents who were concerned the children might disturb the congregation during mass should use is (a relief).

The priest, an energetic man in his eighties wearing a headset mic, owned the altar. He asked us all to say hello to those around us before he began. He then talked briefly about how it’s enough to want to be a better person, to try to do good, to be kind. In two short minutes, he nailed the rapport, established who we were, and gave us a reason to care.

The second reading was from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, one you’ve no doubt heard if you’ve ever been to a church wedding. This he focused on his sermon.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I’ve heard that passage a million times but until Fr Hilary Tagliaferro re-read it in his sermon, its meaning had never quite sunk home. I’d always equated it with romantic love – not the commandment of love, not how I treat everyone I meet, every day. In an arresting performance, he asked if we were ready to live it. To try at least. He made it all so relevant. He spoke with a passion and enthusiasm that’s been missing from my church experience for a while.

Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

I was so taken with this model of excellence when it comes to public speaking – he had form, content, engagement – that I asked the lady next to me who he was and then I went to Google. I discovered that Fr Hilary Tagliaferro used to be a sports journalist and was a great friend of Brazilian footballer, Pele. And that he ministers at my favourite church in Malta, The Millennium Chapel, open 24/7 in the heart of Malta’s nightlife (Paceville) – known locally as a pit stop for inner peace. I can see why he’d be popular with the younger contingent. This wasn’t a rote performance. He wasn’t going through the motions. Every word he spoke during the entire mass was imbued with a faith that was palpable.

At the end of a long month, I’m grateful that I got to hear Fr Hilary Tagliaferro in person. He was quite the tonic.

For more on the Grateful series, see the first post from 2011.

Interesting reads

Love in the Bible: From God’s love to the most romantic scriptures

Mass times in Malta

Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

Swan in the road

Trash talk

We went looking for holly the other day, down by the lake. It was glorious – one of those magical brisk winter days when the sun plays hide-and-seek and the fields are half-planted, half-ploughed. The wind couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to do and for a few seconds, we were caught in a leaf storm as it whipped through the trees trying to tear the last of their leaves from them. They fought a good fight.

leaf storm

The colours were of the stuff no artist could capture. In one spot – a narrow neck of water between the fields and the island – Kányavári sziget – the water was trying to freeze. It was humbling to see the broad rough water in the distance to the right, the little ripples by the shore and then in between, the still, glass-like effect of ice in the making. Such is the multifaceted power of nature.

Kis-Balaton icing over

Kis-Balaton icing over

It’s recycling week in the village. On Thursday, we can leave out our paper and plastic for pick-up along with the regular rubbish, so I grabbed a yellow bag (plastics) just in case we happened across any litter on our walk and we set off. We decided to drive to Hídveg and then walk the bike path back to the island. But I missed the turn. And I’m glad I did, because there, in the middle of the road on the bridge, as brazen as you like, was a massive swan. He was busy cleaning his feathers, standing on one leg, neck turned under, oblivious to us. I crawled closer waiting for him to look up. And he did. And then he went back to what he was doing. I beeped the horn. He looked at me again, this time in disdain as if to say, get real, I’m busy. I drove slowly around him to the right and he did move, ever so slightly to the other side of the road. I turned around to come back and faced him again. But this time, he wasn’t going anywhere. No way. Not moving. It was a first for me. I’ve seen elephants, cows, chickens, monkeys, dogs, horses, donkeys, pheasants, deer, moose, pigs – you name it – but this was my first road-hogging swan.

Swan in the road

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

On our walk, we found the usual flurry of litter – plastic water bottles, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and the remnants of black plastic bags. I had to concentrate on my breathing to avoid getting really pissed off at the people who’d so carelessly trashed the place. I’m really making an effort to reduce the stress in my life and to stay the anxiety, but it’s a struggle when inconsiderate, thoughtless people, make it so difficult. Seriously! I was blaming the cyclists who use this path until himself (a cyclist) reasoned that they’d be unlikely to carry 1.5L bottles. Okay, so not the MAMILs but the tourist pedallers then. But it doesn’t much matter who did it, it simply shouldn’t be done.

A new addition to the litany of litter is the wet wipe. Duh, people, these don’t disintegrate in the rain. They’re not biodegradable. You shouldn’t even flush the ones that say they’re flushable. Remember back when plastic bags were free and the world’s collective environmental consciousness was comatose? You’d see bags hanging on trees like ornaments. So plentiful were there that at times it looked as if they were a fruit. Well, now that we’re doing better with our bags, the latest foliage is the wet wipe. Don’t worry – I had my litter gloves on. We almost filled our large plastic bag – I stopped counting at 20 bottles and as many wet wipes and am still wondering where the second sandal is and why I found just one sleeve of a faux-leather jacket. At one stage I wondered what number I’d call if I found a body.

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

As we walked towards the lake, I saw this big piece of pipe, just sitting there. That nearly set me off completely. Whatever about thoughtlessly casting aside a water bottle or answering nature’s call and leaving the wet wipe behind, carrying stuff into the woods to deliberately dispose of it – that’s a hanging offence in my world. But himself, ever rational, pointed to the end of the pipe that was buried underground and suggested it was part of some irrigation system using water from the lake. Alright, I suppose, but it looked ugly and out of place and upset my sense of being.

If you’re out and about walking round the Kis-Balaton, or anywhere really, think about taking a rubbish bag with you. Picking up after others isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but don’t think of them, think the critters who could do without eating or getting ensnared in our waste.

Years ago, Mother Patrick, a nun who taught us in primary school, asked us how long it would take to sweep the streets of Paris. We guessed days, weeks, months even. She said 10 minutes – 10 minutes if everyone swept outside their own doorstep. The countryside doesn’t have doorsteps. It has visitors. Be a sweeper. Make a difference.

Thai food

2018 Grateful 9

I like to eat out, to go out for dinner, to have a long lazy lunch. I am a great fan of early morning breakfast meetings. I like my food. I like the occasion of it all. But eating out day after day? After a month away, the novelty soon wore off. The menus all looked the same. Rice. Noodles. Coconut. Chicken. Beef. Shrimp. When JS told us we were going for pizza on a Friday in Chiang Rai, I baulked. It was early days. We weren’t even two weeks into our four-week stay and I was still appreciating the difference in Thai food. Pizza? How bloody American! But I went. And I enjoyed. Immensely.

Yes, you can find your French and your Italian, even on small islands like Koh Yao Noi. You can find pizza joints and steak hangouts in the bigger cities, too. But you have to look for them. And look hard. I’m sure if you had a kitchen you could get creative with the local market offer and turn out some nice dishes sans rice or noodles. But after a month of sameness, I began to appreciate what I regularly take for granted.

I live in a diverse part of the world. Ireland more so than Hungary, perhaps. Yet in both countries, I can find pretty much any kind of ethnic food I crave. Supermarkets offer all sorts of ingredients from all over. I’m not restricted to rice and noodles. I don’t think I’ve really ever appreciated the breadth of choice that’s on my doorstep and the contributions that migrants have made to the culinary offer here and beyond. When they move, they bring with them part of their home country. Speciality shops open to serve the growing communities and the local fan base eager to try their dishes benefits.

When we landed in Budapest on a Friday afternoon, my first port of call was to KFC. Yep. Fine dining it ain’t but there’s a comfort that comes in a bucket of wings that far outweighs their nutritional value. It’s my go-to food when I need to be wrapped in a hug of familiarity. For the next few days, I was all about Hungarian stalwarts, thanks to some lovely chicken and bean dishes cooked up by the inimitable ZsG. The first day back in the village, it was pork ribs from the travelling butcher, something I’d been craving on my travels. I was back to normal. All was good.

But then, oddly, when it came to inviting friends to dinner, I wanted to cook Thai. I’d been to the Asian shop near Fővám tér and stocked up on the myriad ingredients needed to do the recipes justice. I had my notes from my time with P in Chiang Rai and the cookbook from the class I took in Chiang Mai. I was set. And while I didn’t think my Lad Na tasted quite the same as P’s, they liked it. In deference to their tastes, I’d substituted sweet Thai basil for spicy Thai basil in my Pad Kra Prao (making it something else entirely) and it was delish. Thai cooking is all about flavours. A teaspoon of this, a tablespoon of that, and more of the other. Sugar is used to temper the spice. Sweet and sour work well together. There’s a balance to it all. 

I’m grateful this week that I could have a taste of Thailand at home in a small Hungarian village with four people, from four different countries sitting to the table. That’s my world.

motorbike in Thailand

2018 Grateful 11

I’ve never been so grateful to have faith, to believe in my God. I needed Him this week more than I have in a long time.

Sitting on the back of our Thai motorbike, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago, when living in California: God on a Harley. High literature it ain’t. The hunking-up of Jesus (just call me Joe) didn’t sit too well with me. But I remember that for all its kitschiness, it repeated the basic tenets of good living.

  • Live in the moment
  • Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others
  • Don’t build walls
  • Be real
  • Everything is possible
  • Keep it flowing – if you get/have then give

This week, in Thailand, I read Barry Dunning’s account of how religion is waning in the west and waxing in the east. From my experience over the past month or so, Thailand has a very active religious population. Compared to the half-empty pews of Irish churches, temples and mosques are relatively full. One argument in the comments section noted that the richer we become, the less need we have of religion. I wonder.

Surveys and census tell us that an increasing number of young people say they have no religion. I find that incredibly sad. If I had no faith, no god, to whom would I turn in times of crisis? In whom would I trust? I need to believe and while I recognise that this isn’t for everyone, it is very much the case for me. Call it what you will. Disparage me. Think me mad. But I’d be lost without my faith.

On Koh Yao Noi, the only feasible way to get around is by motorbike. Each day, we’d take off, somewhere. Himself would drive. It’s been on his bucket list for a while. I’d ride pillion, hanging on for dear life, repeating my mantra – Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee. I mantra’d myself into a fugue and thanked the good lord every time we arrived at our destination unscathed. We only ditched it once. No harm done.

Other drivers. Other bikes. Flash rains. Potholes. Muddy patches. Ruts in the road. Old machines. Old-lady racers. None of these made for a relaxing journey. Relinquishing control didn’t help either. But then, I’ve been so scatty lately that I didn’t have much faith in my hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to drive myself.

Although helmets are mandated by law, few locals wear them. Few tourists, either. But I insisted. We might be puttering along way under the speed limit being overtaken by 10-year-old veterans, often three or four on the one bike, but I had to have a helmet. Last month’s concussion is too recent to have been forgotten.

I know I was being selfish. Himself wanted to release his inner ‘Easy Rider’. It can’t have been easy for him to see the kids whizz by but thankfully, he’s not one to care much about what others think of him. So each day, for a couple of hours, I’d stay home and let him away, to go as fast as he liked, to lay flat turning those corners, and be lighter on the brakes going down those steep hills. I’d stay home, praying that he’d come back in one piece and trying to decide if I’d bring back his body or just cremate him if he didn’t.

He felt better. I felt better. And I’m sure God was having a right laugh, used as He is to riding a Harley.

Santiburi, Chiang Rai, visitor or tourist

2018 Grateful 13

I’ve been trying to figure out how long it’s been, he said. Seventeen years, I replied. Almost to the week, I added. Mad really.

Having bumbled around Bangkok, assimilated Ayutthaya, and cooked in Chiang Mai, we arrived in Chiang Rai earlier this week as visitors rather than tourists. And there’s a difference.

Visitor or tourist?

As tourists, we’re at the mercy of guidebooks, search engines, and guest reviews. We read other peoples thoughts on what to do and where to go not knowing if we share similar tastes or ideals or are complete opposites. We make educated guesses as to what we’d like to do and see based on the experiences of others. Perhaps we’re guided by a Top 10 list of things to do or Top 10 list of things to avoid. Perhaps we’re simply into ticking boxes, taking photographs, and then tweeting the world to let them know what we’ve been up to.

Our meals are usually taken with our fellow tourist(s). Our conversations revolve around what we’ve done today and what we’d like to do tomorrow. We become each other’s world. Our phones, giving us audible directions, betray us as strangers. The maps that we fold and unfold mark us as tourists. We’re on a mission of sorts, a mission to see and do and record that same seeing and the doing.

But when we visit friends, even friends we haven’t seen in 17 years, we’re visitors, not tourists. We share their days, their routines. We see places not on the tourist route, places locals go, like a tiny Thai restaurant that only opens on Fridays to serve fresh pizza until they run out. Or a local pub owned by an ex-copper, where you bring your own whisky and buy your soda there. Or a small shop, packed with handmade traditional skirts and shirts and teas and all sorts, where fair trade is a fair deal. We get the inside scoop on protocols and preferences. We get to hear about life and living and how cultures mix and mingle. We get to relax, knowing that if we don’t get to see it this time, we have a bigger reason to return.

So much has changed in both our lives in the years since we last met in Valdez, Alaska. There’s a constant catch-up going on that involves rather than excludes our partners. Backstories become part of the explanations. A mutual appreciation grows. I came to meet one friend and will leave with two. Evening meals have turned into cooking lessons for me. I’ve Pad Thai down, and Lad Ka, too. We will, of course, reciprocate their hospitality when they visit Europe. I’ll need to brush up on my pörkölt and my csirke paprikás and learn a little more about Hungary’s history so that I do the country justice. I’m already looking forward to having them stay.  

So, visitor or tourist? Well, I enjoy travelling. And I enjoy being a tourist. But I prefer being a visitor. This week, I’m incredibly grateful to J&P for being so generous with their home, their time, and their knowledge of all things Thai. Kapun ka.

2018 Grateful 21

Sometime last year I booked tickets to see Ed Sheeran play in Warsaw. I knew nothing of his music. I thought Galway Girl was a song he covered rather than wrote. But the hype that surrounded the announcement of his European Tour – which by the way sold out in record time with extra nights added in a number of cities, including Warsaw – made me curious. And I had friends in Warsaw whom I hadn’t see in a long time so it all worked out.

Fast forward through the intervening months and it came time to book train tickets and make the trip. My friends, in the meantime, had absconded to Zanzibar and had it been easy to sell the tickets, I’d have done so. But our names were on them. And transferring them to someone else had to be done in person – so I’d have to go to Warsaw anyway. So we went.

The National Stadium (PGE Narodowy) is a massive venue, holding some 58,145 (official for football matches) / 56,826 (UEFA capacity) / 72,900 (concerts) punters. The back half of the seating wasn’t open but the floor was rammed with teenagers who had queued since 1 pm for a 5 pm admission and an 8.45pm appearance. They wanted to be up front and centre. Us? We had seated tickets in the rafters and were in no rush anywhere.

Had I done my homework, I’d have known his stage time was 8.45 to 11 pm. I incorrectly assumed he’d appear at 8 pm (it was a Sunday night), so we got there about 7.30 pm in time to catch the last of his warm-up acts, a gal by the name of Anne-Marie. To give the girl her due, she can carry a tune. But when she brought out the vodka (Polish of course) to do shots with her band to mark the end of a very successful tour, I was less than impressed. Really? With a multitude of impressionable teens in the audience, what was the message? Cool to do shots? Okay, I know they’re probably all drinking anyway, but I’m of the mind that stars with a young following have a responsibility to show some decent example. Yep – I was one of the oldest there.

When our boy Ed didn’t show to my schedule, I started to get a tad upset. And when he eventually sauntered on, without a care in the world, I was on the verge of seething. But then he started to play.

Now, as regular readers will know, I can’t hold a tune to save my life so I’m won’t even begin to comment on how good, bad, or indifferent he is as a musician. But as an entertainer, he has it nailed. Just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, coupled with some funny insights in to the 2% of the audience that were there under duress (reluctant boyfriends and super dads) endeared him to my cynical self. The guy has class. And he described me to a T. We’re quite alike apparently when we’re at gigs. Ed and me. Everything goes on in our heads – not a hint of enjoyment shows on the outside. But, hey, anyone who can quieten a crowd of 72k screaming teens gets my vote for audience control.

The National Stadium doesn’t have the greatest sound system in the world – either that or Ed’s diction is a tad off. Some of the lyrics were difficult to make out but the crowd didn’t seem to care. They sang along. Every word. Every single word. Except for that one quiet song when he told them to sssh. And I think it was during that song (whatever it was) that some young lad up in front got down on bended knee and proposed to his girlfriend. It takes all sorts.

Ed Sheeran Concert WarsawCigarette lighters are a thing of the past. Now it’s flashlights on mobile phones. And the Warsaw lot were organised enough to have white lights on the top tier and red ones on the lower one – creating a waving Polish flag. The flashlight effect was given a flickering look by holding up sheets of white A4 paper in front of their phones. From my vantage point, it was quite spectacular (ok, so not everyone was in on it, but it did look great). When he had them wave and pump their arms, the mosh pit looked like a sea of worms. For a minute, I felt queasy.

Knowing Poniatowski bridge (Most Poniatowskiego) over the Vistula River would be closed before the gig ended and that 72 000+ people would flood out of the stadium starting from when he played his last song, we left early. Just two songs early, mind you, but that didn’t stop the wave of sympathy from the young ones. No matter. The music was so loud, Ed followed us across the bridge towards the Centre so we missed nothing but the hassle.

I enjoyed it. Our Ed’s done well for himself. I like the fact that his first support band were some Polish friends he’d roomed with when he was 18. I like that he’s engaged to his high-school sweetheart. And I like the fact that it’s him, his guitar, and his customised looping machine that makes all the noise. Everything we heard, he assured us, was live. The bit about him being homeless has been exaggerated. In his book, he explains:

There was an arch outside Buckingham Palace that has a heating duct and I spent a couple of nights there. That’s where I wrote the song Homeless and the lines ‘It’s not a homeless night for me, I’m just home less than I’d like to be.’

I caught Jamie Fox talking about him on the Graham Norton Show. And I liked his story, too.

It worked out well. It was a fitting end to a good weekend. I won’t be buying a CD or downloading him any time soon, but I will be in danger of singing along. For a young fellah who struggled like many others to make his mark on the world, the boy’s done good. And he’s still a nice lad. Lots to be grateful for there.

 

 

Wedding in the Algarve

2018 Grateful 25

I’ve been to a fair few Irish weddings in my time and there’s a sameness to the proceedings that seems to be favoured. A pattern. A few scoops in a bar close to the church beforehand where everyone gets together before heading to the ceremony. Then the meet and greet in the churchyard with a subsequent meet and dissect afterwards. Didn’t the bride look amazing? Wasn’t the priest just great? Did you see what so-and-so was wearing?  Then it’s off to the hotel for the wedding breakfast, the reception. Usually there’s a drinks reception in the grounds, weather permitting followed by the traditional wedding fare: Soup or prawn cocktail followed by a choice of beef or salmon (no doubt the inspiration behind the name of the racehorse who won the Punchestown Gold Cup in 2004 and was three-time winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup). Dessert might be baked Alaska or even profiteroles. Then tea and coffee to go with the wedding cake. The wedding band would get everyone on the dancefloor after the speeches and the DJ would kick off the afters, when those not invited to the main event would show up for the hooley … and the cocktail sausages. The party would no doubt continue in the resident’s bar till the wee hours, making breakfast the next morning a rather turgid affair. And then we’d all be gone. Home to send in the rolls of film and wait two weeks to check the photos.

Give or take a few details and menu choices, this format is pretty standard, even today. But Irish weddings in Portugal? They’re of a different sort.

We turfed up in Burgau late Thursday afternoon. It was our first time in the Algarve and we’d taken our time getting here, driving down from Malaga across Andalusia. Most of the wedding party were staying in Praia da Luz, a few short miles from our fishing village. That evening, the bride’s parents hosted a BBQ in the villa they’d rented for the duration. [It’s on the market for a cool €4.5 million, and the mosquitos are included at no extra cost.]  Some two years earlier, many of the same crowd had been at another family wedding in Portugal, so it was a case of remembering names and faces and putting them both together. After that, it was as if the two intervening years morphed into a matter of weeks. What a pleasant change it makes to catch up with people at weddings rather than at funerals. Most of those there were making a holiday out of it, using the wedding as the focal point and then doing their own thing before or after. That’s one of the many plusses of getting married abroad. It’s a natural sift – those who really want to be there make the journey.

Igreja da Luz de Lagos

Photo: Steve Jacobs

On Saturday, Kelly’s Pub was the meeting point from 12.30 with the ceremony set to start at 1.30 in Igreja da Luz de Lagos, just around the corner. The yellow-and-white facade was set off beautiful by the Portugese sun and the photo opportunities, no longer obstructed by the trampoline set that usually lives in the churchyard, were many. The style was quite something with a couple of the lads wearing rigouts that might net them a prize at the Galway Races.

The local priest was an animated chap, not at all backward about coming forward. The bride, nearly 30 minutes late in arriving (only so many hairdryers can be run at the one time, ladies), came in for some good-natured rebukes as did we, the congregation, who were far too chatty for his churchiness: music or chat, he said, not both. Fair play though – he gave a great homily, with a humourous lesson for us all, something akin to my bullet theory.

Once upon a time, David went calling on Melissa. He knocked on the door.
She asked ‘Who is it?’
He anwered ‘It’s me.’ Nothing happened. She didn’t open the door as he expected.
Somewhat disconcerted, he knocked again.
And again she asked ‘Who is it?’
And again he anwered ‘It’s me.’ But still she didn’t open the door.
Now, David, being a smart lad, figured that giving the same answer would in all likelihood get the same result. So he decided to change his approach.
He knocked again.
And again she asked ‘Who is it?’
But this time he anwered ‘It’s you.’ And the door opened…

Padre José Manuel Pacheco reminded us that the secret to a successful relationship is that each puts the other’s happiness before their own. [As an aside, apparently 15/16 of the weddings he has slated this year are foreign (mainly Irish and English) with only one Portuguese. Church weddings, it would seem, are no longer that fashionable in Portugal. It was surprising at first but then even in our village of Burgau, you’d be hard pushed to find a local native who seem to have given over their space to French, English, Irish, and Dutch.]

The newly married couple exited to the La Bamba played by String Quartet Solutions with the rest of us in tow. Waiting outside were glasses of champagne with strawberries. Again, the photos. And the oohs and aahs. And all the emotion that goes with seeing a couple so obviously well matched start out on a journey that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. They’re a well-balanced couple, who like their champagne, their Hendicks gin, and their Dominoes pizza. And they have a sense of humour – true Dubs, the entire wedding party was decked out in the GAA blue of the Dublin team.

Wedding in the Algarve

Then it was off to Quinta dos Vales wine estate for the reception. The place is a relatively new winery, with the first vines planted in the 1980s and the first wines sold commercially in 2003. Today, it’s a winery, a sculpture garden, an event venue, and a place to stay. Mixing and mingling in the courtyard gardens before the breakfast, we were serenaded by a fab sax player, entertained by the variety of sculptures on display, and libated with champers and white sangria. I was particularly taken with the wooden furniture made from wine barrels, tooled by the hands of Serhiy Khomyak. One of his benches is now on my lotto list. Parasols were provided to sheild the fair Irish skins from the sun and with the fairly breezy day we had, more than one passing reference was made to Mary Poppins.

Wedding in the Algarve

The breakfast was a far cry from the traditional Irish fare with a selection of local meats and cheeses to start with followed by a choice of fish/meat/veg, and topped off by a selection of traditional desserts. ‘Twas a lovely take on a taster menu complemented by wines from the estate. The wedding cake was a cheesecake – 10 wheels of various cheeses stacked in a tower. A brilliant idea – one to be shamelessly nicked.

Weddings are a funny thing, when you think of it – a meeting of the ages, with the aunts and uncles and friends of the parents, then the friends of the bride and groom, and then their nieces and nephews. The band had their work cut out for them to cater for all tastes and styles. They were great craic. The photographers were kept busy as the jivers took to the floor with a dash and the kids did the Floss (a dance banned recently by one school in the UK).

By all accounts, the party went on till early morning. Long gone are the days when I’d be amongst the last ones standing. It then continued the following day in Praia da Luz at the Ocean Villas resort where a fully catered BBQ with an open bar and a roast pig on a spit worked the miracle cure a lot of people needed. The park, overlooking the ocean, was a perfect setting for the culmination of a perfect weekend.

Wedding in the Algarve

Wedding in the Algarve

This wedding was perhaps the first time I was conscious that I’ve graduated the oldies – the friends of parents. My staying power certainly ain’t what it used to be, although I can still give a night a good run for its money. But when I’m reminded in conversation that they’re only 23 or 25 or 27 or 30 and realise that had I taken a different path, I could have kids that age, I see tomorrow in a different light.  And while I might have, on occasion, spoken with the voice of experience, I was also reminded of things I don’t want to forget.

The young lad who mislaid his passport on Thursday and had decided not to ruin his weekend by stressing about it. He’d deal with it when he got to the airport on Monday, he said. Fair play, I thought, as I flashed back to the meltdown I had when I lost my passport in Las Palmas a few years back. The young lady who worked as a healthcare worker with dementia patients has a book of advice and empathy in her for those new to the illness. If my mind ever fails me, I hope I have a nurse like her. The newly graduated teacher soon to start their first job and full of ideas to imbue the Irish language with new life and make it a language their students choose to learn.  If I had kids, I’d want them to go to their school.

Many of the couples I met had been together since they were 15, or 18, or 21. Ten years and more. They’d known each other since they were infants. They were sure and certain and comfortable in their relationships. The older couples had an energy and a molliness that was enviable. Some of the stories are best left unwritten. After a long weekend of sun, sea, and spirited singing, I came away with a renewed optimism for tomorrow and a rejuvenated faith in the sacrament of marriage.

And for this, I’m truly grateful.

For more on the Grateful series.

For more on the trip across Andalusia.