I’ve never kept a journal. It’s not a stinging regret, but sometimes I feel a guilt pang. And once in a rare while, given the right blend of melancholy and Margaux, I feel like Rutger Hauer as replicant Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner describing to an astonished and utterly helpless Harrison Ford (as Deckard, Batty’s would-be executioner) the cruel evanescence of so many majestic apprehensions of rare reality. Yes, sometimes I deeply feel the truth of his farewell, the essential plight of us all:
Damn. If Batty had only kept a journal, but he was too busy racing the clock trying to get more life, not to mention evading a relentless bladerunner’s bullet….
I see the value in keeping a journal; it provides snapshots not only of specific places in time, but of one’s mind in time. It’s a record of where one was–physically, mentally, psychologically, one’s aspirations, one’s priorities, one’s gigs and goings-on. I suppose the closest thing I have to an ongoing journal are a quarter-century’s worth of poems and these columns which I’ve been writing for nearly six years.
But from time to time, often while traveling and thus renovated by a fresh purchase on the world, I’ve jotted down observations looking both outwards and inwards–entries in the journal I never kept. I’ve inscribed some of them on those blank extra pages at the ends of books I’ve been reading (at least there’s a practice I’ve maintained: I always have a book with me wherever I go.) For a while I used to buy Moleskine daily planners. And some have been scribbled on hotel stationery, menus, or cocktail napkins.
One, which I titled “Travel Notes,” dates back to 1994. I was 27 and I’d lost my mind to a French au pair, a nanny, from Aix-en-Provence. All that summer I worked a temp job to bankroll a trip to see her. I’d been to Ireland several times, but this ill-fated hop would be my first foray to the Continent. I enjoy an anachronism: it’s five years before the European Union and the adoption of the Euro, so, like Hemingway and everyone else, I got to pay my way in francs.
I look back with pride on how I made the most of my trip once I discovered my chĂ©rie shacked up with a local kid. There’s no mention of what went down in Aix, only my trip’s bookends flying solo in Marseille, which I happily explored on foot from both ends of the harbor to the top of Notre-Dame de la Garde. I’ve always had a strong instinct for cheerful survival: in the Vieux Port I ate bouillabaisse prepared tableside over a burner and washed it down with a split of local rosĂ©. Over coffee, I wrote these lines:
Marseille, August 1994
A grey film covers the mind at home; it is the callous of the casual, the everyday. A foreign place temporarily wipes this haze from the mind’s optics–often, the more foreign the place, the greater the clarity obtained. So, sitting at a corner Tabac along a “T” intersection in Marseille, one could be tricked into erroneously profound reflections. But see, I know better. The inordinate intensity of perception stems from “the different,” “the foreign.” This heightened state enables the normal to be noticed.
Across the street, forming the horizontal of the “T,” is the Palais du Pharo and beyond it the turquoise Mediterranean. Each bus that cleverly rounds the hairpin turn stops to deliver yet another parcel of sun-bronzed sultries. Work must be difficult duty here under the heat of a Mediterranean sun and amidst the many slim bodies it darkens. I am an American and an Irishman, a light-skinned, blue-eyed foreigner in an ancient city of French and Muslims every shade of the olive. But I’m also a New Yorker, so I’m unfazed.
This cafĂ© has provided me with genetically necessary shade, two extraordinary espressos, a seat, and the pen with which I write: 12 francs. Marseille reminds me of the West Side: I don’t know it that well but I’m comfortable, orienting not on landmarks but on instinct. The city has a certain feel, a base but direct simplicity–like a whore who advertises by simply stating the price.
My holiday in France ends in a mirror image of its beginning: I wind down several hours in a cafĂ© along the Vieux Port in Marseille before boarding a late-night train for Paris. Much at home with a sturdy table atop which I write and let cool a second espresso, I let fly with observations. My first concerns the clever design of my chair. At first glance it would seem the standard wood and canvas affair myriad on movie sets, beaches, or anywhere else a light, portable chair is needed. But whereas the commonplace cousin of the genus tends to sag in the seat and does not allow for a comfortable slouch, this species boasts a taut bottom (a worthy quality in more than just chairs) and extended armrests, making it an ideal perch from which to view the local fauna.
Ensconced as I am in an attitude that would make any passerby think I’m an old regular, I must depart this warm port for the slightly cooler waters (though no less polluted) of New York. By way of a parting gift, Marseille treats me to a public display of its denizens’ piety and right now I watch several hundred of the devout carry banners and a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary (good to see idolatry alive and well!) Traffic halts temporarily to allow the procession to cross from the Vieux Port up La Canaberie. I suspect that stopping one’s car to allow a Catholic parade to proceed may be a supreme act of religious tolerance in Marseille. By way of moral counterpoint, there is, as usual, a constant stream of Mediterranean sirens–taking leave of the breakers, no doubt, to cause some traffic wrecks.
Marseille is tan and cream, brown and faded maroon, the light colors of its stucco walls and terracotta roofs. Marseille is a forest of masts gently swaying in the mistral. Marseille is blue and turquoise, azure and green, the glistening shades of its ocean border. Marseille is a mouth with citadel teeth and the tide for a tongue. For the would-be legionnaire, here is where the road begins towards the donning of the bleached white kepi. For me, it’s the terminus of Gare St. Charles where I can lock up my heavy bag for a while and walk the streets of my favorite stop en route home.
Ten years after graduating from Dublin’s Trinity College in 1997, I flew back for a reunion. These were the days of The Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s short-lived nickname owing to a booming economy based largely on nefarious financial activities which gave it another nickname: the Wild West of Banking.
On the flight over, there were Irish citizens in economy class returning home after a weekend of shopping in Manhattan (for centuries, the Irish only left Ireland, their relatives often holding a wake for them as they would likely never come home again.)
I read this entry now and almost regret its savage indignation. Like Yeats, who lashed his countrymen for their lack of spine in his poem “September 1913” only to confess having underestimated them in “Easter, 1916,” I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the many liberal changes and reforms in that country. But on this day, I was taking no prisoners . . . and no blarney:
Dublin, October 2007
2007 and the Irish remain settled in their religion(s), their small-mindedness. Now, mixed in with the old paralyses, the country booms with newfound–nay, unprecedented–wealth. Ireland is a lifelong slum tenant who has won the lottery; it’s a nation on an extended shopping spree.
Everywhere cranes and scaffolding crown cities and towns. Heading west across the country to Galway on the train, I was astonished that I could spot Athlone–a once-humble town whose two boasts were birthplace of Irish tenor John McCormack and its location exactly at Ireland’s center–from miles away. A diminutive skyline pokes above the hedges, hillocks, and stone walls: rectangular towers of steel and aquamarine glass, as well as a half dozen or so cranes, the giant metal midwives to infant high-rises. Clusters of houses rise wholesale. Young and old alike walk with mobiles [cell phones] pressed to the sides of their heads. A whiff of decadence, once encountered only on the Continent, begins to scent the air along with the age-old perfumes of cow dung and regurgitated pints of Guinness stout.
Last year, the Irish spent 6.5 billion Euros on booze; they spent just over 5 billion on food. But it’s still 50p to use the toilet.
I’m tired of the Irish, their farcical politeness–doilies and lace curtains to dress up their ignorance; the same tired indoctrination into all the old lies: Christianity, nationalism, greed.
The Irish are a careless people; they have a genius for littering. Rude and brusque on the street, they’re fawning and obsequious indoors. Crippled by their history, their culture to which they pay lip-service: Joyce had ‘em pegged.
The bloom is off the wild Irish rose; to get it back, please deposit 2 Euros and press the green button.
This past winter I read Love in the Time of Cholera, a bravura epic of lust and devotion by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel GarcĂa MĂˇrquez. I was very much late to the party, aside from the fact that the book first appeared in 1988. My pals had devoured it years before me, citing the novel frequently as a source of wisdom and manly conduct (with an implied message that I read the damned thing!)
I put a few major dents in the book over several dinners at the bar of a fine local bistro. If love and not palliative sex is the measure, then MĂˇrquez makes it pretty tough for his hero, Florentino Ariza; it’s a lucky thing that Florentino and his beloved, Fermina Daza, live to old age. But I hadn’t reached the book’s incredible, utterly uplifting finale when I found one of those blank back pages and pulled out my pen. I had red Burgundy in my glass, but it might as well have been Margaux:
Princeton, December 2019
I’ve come to realize that in some essential way, all love is unrequited. Oh sure, one hears about couples who grew up as children in some small town, were high school sweethearts, stayed married and happily in love for 70 years, and then, one day, after playing with their great-grandchildren or a daily walk hand-in-hand through daisies or under aspens, died in their sleep–still holding hands when their children found them.
But that’s not love. That’s luck and a lack of imagination.
No, for most of us, since we’re all so selfish and distracted, so mercurial in our moods, we never realize our good fortune, never savor our moments enough, never appreciate what we have until we’re well on the other side of it, either by dint of death or the vicissitudes of our fugitive hearts.