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An imposing failure

The linguistically challenged person that I am, I have a mono linguist’s habit of reading everything in English, regardless of the language it is actually written in. Fine is always simply fine and never finished. Worst will always be badder than bad and never a sausage. Die will always be an invocation to pass on and never simply ‘that one’. And as for bra? It may be good in Swedish and Norwegian, but I have days when I hate it.

I see a word in a foreign language that reminds me of something and that’s it. It’s etched in my brain…permanently. The Hungarian word for certificate or award – oklevél – will always have me wondering why anyone would want to show the world their bare essentials – their okay level certificate. How embarrassing. So, when in Milan, and passing one of the hundreds of signs around the city that tell passengers that the tram they’re on will pass the d’uomo, I immediately thought ‘dome’.

What’s worse – I managed to convince myself than when I’d been in the city a number of years ago on my way to the Alps (a magical trip where time literally stood still – but that’s another story) and had taken the time to visit this must-see , it had indeed been a massive dome-shaped building. No question of it. Not a doubt in my mind.

I’d been there. I’d seen it. And if we happened to pass by it again, great. But I wasn’t going out of my way to find it. I had more interesting things to do. But as fate would have it, stumble across it we did. Imagine my surprise… not a dome in sight.

IMG_0247 (800x600)Milan Cathedral is gobsmackingly big. I can well believe that it took six centuries to complete and is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Building began in 1386 and the last gate was inaugurated in 1965. So, technically, we’re nearly the same age but that was one helluva gestation.

IMG_0250 (800x600)Having taken so long to build, it’s understandable that the numerous architects involved would have drawn from many different schools (ask me and the best I could come up with is Gothic). Curious, I checked it out and found this quote by John Ruskin who reckoned it steals from every style in the world: and every style spoiled. The cathedral is a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant, the latter being peculiarly barbarous and angular, owing to its being engrafted, not on a pure, but a very early penetrative Gothic … The rest of the architecture among which this curious Flamboyant is set is a Perpendicular with horizontal bars across: and with the most detestable crocketing, utterly vile. Not a ray of invention in a single form… Finally the statues all over are of the worst possible common stonemasons’ yard species, and look pinned on for show. The only redeeming character about the whole being the frequent use of the sharp gable … which gives lightness, and the crowding of the spiry pinnacles into the sky.

IMG_0251 (597x800)Be that as it may, John (and we’re all entitled to our opinion), you have to admit that it’s awesome – in the truest sense of the world.  Apparently Oscar Wilde, when visiting the city in 1875,  wrote home to his mother saying: The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.

While I’m quite fond of Mr Wilde as a rule, I can’t agree. Yes, I prefer plain crystal to that that’s heavily embellished. I like simple patterns, minimal clutter, clean lines and were this, say, a wedding cake, I’d refuse a slice even if I was starving. But as an edifice that literally dwarfs everything around it, it’s … amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever stood in the shadow of somewhere that made ants of us all.

IMG_0257 (800x600)I didn’t go in. Sure hadn’t I see it before 🙂 But if you’re in Milan and have an hour or two to spare, it’s worth dropping in. Entry is free. A lift to the view tower will set you back €12 or, if you fancy the walk, €7. Plenty of priests on hand to give last rites should they be required. It’s all coming back to me know…  the last time I DID WALK UP TO THE TOP… honestly!

Old space, new ideas

IMG_9270 (800x600)I didn’t think there could be much more that would surprise me about Swiss efficiency. Having a tram where you can leave your Christmas shopping as you shop some more and then come collect it on the way home is a stroke of genius. Having a tram that travels the city of Zurich and serves fondue as you sight see shifts time management into a whole new realm. But it’s not just the trams that are put to good use.

IMG_9339 (800x600) (2)There’s a part of town called IM VIADUKT … and not surprisingly, it’s an old viaduct originally built in 1894. But instead of leaving it to rack and ruin, to bury itself beneath a coating or five of graffiti or yards of trellised ivy, the Swiss have turned it into a serviceable work of art: serviceable because of the shops and restaurants and cafés that have established themselves underneath in the 36 arches; artistic because of the night lights that showcase its nooks and crannies, curves and corners. The architects faced a huge challenge – their task was to develop this monumental piece of architecture within the confines of a preservation order, and to do so affordably, given the Swiss penchant for bureaucracy and red tape. And while I’m not a student of the trade I know what I like – and I like this place … a lot.

IMG_9401 (800x600)IMG_9413 (800x600)I stayed with friends in an old industrial space by the river that by rights should be ugly – concrete and steel – but instead is funky and modern without being an eyesore. I spent quite a bit of time marveling at the juxtaposition of old and new in the city – the Swiss seemed to have accomplished in Zurich what so many other city planners have failed to do – a perfect marriage of old and new.

Yes, the sheer beauty of Budapest’s architecture remains unchallenged but Zurich has wedged its way into my heart.

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Built for the sun

IMG_2427 (591x800)If ever a city was built for the sun, Las Palmas was. The locals will tell you that it only rains 10 days a year on the island of Gran Canaria and whether this is true or not is neither here nor there. Buildings which, to my mind, would be eyesores anywhere else, seem to blend in beautifully – or perhaps are made beautiful – because they reflect the sun. It’s a little like what I imagine a mirage to be – shaky images so real that you think they’re a design feature until you look across the road and see the real thing, alive and well, made of bricks and mortar. There’s no holding back with the colour palette, either.

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Images of the beautiful island of Burano near Venice and holiday cottages in the West of Ireland come to mind. In the former, the colour is quirky; in the latter, it’s plain gaudy. Yet here in Las Palmas, it seems so natural. It has to be the sun.

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I don’t have the jargon to talk sensibly about the architecture but I know enough to realise that the city planners have been on holiday for a long time. Old and new sit side by side and perfect harmony is noticeable by its absence. And yet even that isn’t as upsetting for me as it has been in other cities I’ve been to. Perhaps it’s the audacity of the colours – the statements the bright greens and yellows and purples make. Given that Las Palmas is just a mere 500 years old, it might well be still enjoying its teenage rebellion.

IMG_2527 (578x800)While everyone here seems to smoke and cigarettes are ridiculously priced at €1.20 a pack, I’ve not had a whiff of anything more toxic. Perhaps just as well, really. I can’t imagine being on LSD or some other mind-altering substance when, clean and sober, it takes me  a few minutes to decide if what I’m seeing is real or just a reflection of reality.  And it’s happened more than once or twice. It could well be the caffeine though, as I can’t resist a cafe con leche. Even the drabbest bus terminal’s coffee rates. [As a not so complete aside, the local name for a bus is a guagua – what a great word!]

IMG_2469 (600x800)There’s no shortage of greenery in this, Spain’s seventh-largest city. The most popular trees are laurel and palm and the green is picked up in a lot of building design. Skate parks abound and every flat open square is teeming with young and old on skate boards and roller blades trying to outdo each other or master that one set of steps they keep tripping on. I saw one chap (not all that much younger than I am) take three falls before he managed to leap a set of four steps and stay upright. Each to their own, I say. Whatever blings your blade. That and the myriad exercise machines lined up along the prom must deliver quite an active set of a locals and a fitter set of tourists than your average package resort. I even saw a chap reading the odometer on a city running machine last night. Either the city is doing a usage survey or Las Palmas has taken train spotting one step further.

Grateful 2

IMG_6919 (800x593)I’ve been in Ireland since Wednesday and have been on an emotional rollercoaster for most of it. This has been my longest absence in years – four and a half months. In the usual run-up to Christmas, people are in a reflective mood and for the most part these reflections make for depressing hearing. Tales of foreclosures, untimely deaths, theft, suicide, and barely making ends meet are rampant. In the villages of Ireland, isolated incidences vault to the top of the list of evidence of why the country is going to the dogs. In Clane, three girls stole four dresses from the local boutique (one each for them and a fourth for the getaway driver). Another girl had her handbag nicked when she was stopped by a man in a car asking directions. His job – to distract her. His partner’s job – to leap out grab the bag and jump back in. And then just last week, the tyres on ten cars were slashed – randomly. And this is just our village.

Taxi drivers in Dublin warn me of the simmering racial angst that is just waiting to explode. They tell me of the drunken mess that Dublin turns into after 2am. They explain the cheap shots and cocktails that have tempted less seasoned drinkers away from the stable fare of beer and wine and have turned our youth into a vomiting mass of blowdried hair teetering on six-inch heels. Add to that heady mix the rumours filtering through that things are kicking off again up North.

For me, Christmas in Ireland is a time of tradition. I’ve been meeting the same three lads every year I’ve been home since I left in 1994. We’ve all aged. And the Bank we used to work in has disappeared, both in spirit and in substance. But Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this annual homage to times gone by. And every year since God knows when, the Nugent-Manning’s have had a Christmas party where people who might not see each other from one end of the year to the next catch up on what’s going on and the morning after is filled with ‘Did you know….’ At home, we say the rosary, sit around, drink tea and catch up on who’s dead or dying. Every Christmas Eve, after mass, our neighbours come in for a drink or three and the whole country is put to rights as opinions abound and experiences are shared.

IMG_6921 (800x567)When I balance the two – tradition and reality – I worry about Ireland’s future. I worry about Hungary, too, but that’s a different sort of concern. For Ireland, I worry about her people. For centuries, we’ve been the toast of the world – everyone wanted us to visit. But now, Australia and the USA are having second thoughts because the type of people we are sending are not of the same calibre. There’s a latent agression – a feeling that the world owes them something – a hardness and a meanness that was never there before. The landscape, too, has changed. Modern architecture sits in subdued silence with the Georgian buildings of old and I can’t help but compare old and new.

I took the bus to Dublin one morning and as I sat, ears ringing from the chorus of disillusion I’d met with the night before, I watched the bus driver. He was a Dub, in his early fifties. He had a word for everyone. The return fare was €9.20 and those that hadn’t the 20 cent were forgiven. He helped people on and off with their bags and wished everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. His good humour never faltered, despite the manic traffic and dangerous drivers. He stopped before a bus stop to pick up a couple making a mad dash for the bus. He stopped beyond one to shorten one woman’s walk in the rain. He sang along to the radio and over the 20 miles slowly restored my faith in Irish nature.

I had a box of Hungarian chocolates in my bag, intended for another home. When we got to Busáras, I was last off. I gave him the chocolates and told him that since I’d been home, I’d heard/seen nothing to give me hope that Ireland would right herself. And then I’d seen him in action. It was shortly after 11am on a Thursday morning in the Central Bus Station in Dublin. The two of us were hugging like long-lost mates, both of us close to tears.

At the end of this penultimate week of 2012, I’m grateful that I got to travel on this man’s bus and see for myself that the spirt of Irishness for which we are famous, is still alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52