Coverage of the American election can get a bit stale, however much of a junkie you are. There’s only so much you can read about polling figures, voter turnout, preachers, terrorists, and the view from Alaska before you need something a little less… engagé. Step forward, please, the people behind http://www.yeswecarve.com , a website which asks Democrats to go that extra mile and carve Obama’s face, name, or logo into their Hallowe’en pumpkins. Their sole aim may be to brighten my day. My faith in the democratic process is restored, thanks to what they’re calling – wait for it – Barack O’Lanterns. Thank you, America. And roll on November 4th…
I’ve enjoyed learning languages ever since I realised it’s just a slightly more sophisticated way of doing hilarious impressions of foreigners. I had a wonderful French teacher in secondary school who, despairing of getting thirty puberty-struck boys to roll their Rs or discuss the pamplemousse, hit upon the idea of getting us to do the most exaggerated and stereotypical French accents in English, and to then transpose them into what people with letters after their names call the ‘target language’. Cue a classroom full of teenagers screaming about bread, miming riding bicycles, and singing Piaf (that one may have been me). But the thing is that it worked. The accents got better, more fluid, just more French. I suppose the reason for this is that most national stereotypes are basically true. Irish people argue passionately that we no longer have a culture based entirely on drink, then glass you in the face and vomit in your cappuccino. Brazilians have an obsession with beaches that would put Allied generals to shame. Thai people will laugh at everything: “Look, a fatal head wound!”
The only national stereotype I tend to take issue with is the one certain Americans have for Mexicans. More accurately, my problem stems from their having two. Many Americans believe that Mexicans are (a) coming to the United States to take all the jobs from good hard-working native Americans (well, not native Americans), and (b) that they are work-shy, bone-lazy good-for-nothings. When I was in the States, this caused me constant confusion: how have racist Americans managed to characterise an entire nation using two propositions that are mutually exclusive? “Them goshdarn Messcans, puttin’ us out of a job by bein’ significantly less productive, an’ thus flyin’ in the face of accepted ec’nomic theory… shit, let’s just go shoot some critters.” It’s an odd little blip in American racism, otherwise so logically sound.
So how can we put other national stereotypes to use? How can we get concrete benefits from ancestral prejudice? Simple. Every episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo, every rendition of La Cucaracha – these contain keys to ‘blending in’, to reaching that state of traveller’s nirvana idealised by the compulsive liars and Australians whose evil genius crafts those masterworks of fiction, Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. If you succeed in blending in, they tell you, no-one will know you’re a tourist. The Japanese commuters will become blind to the fact that you’re six feet tall and blonde. The Ugandan street vendors will mistake you for a cousin. Never mind your backpack and ‘I Got Lamped In Lumpur’ t-shirt, these people will greet you like a long-lost brother, and you will curl up in the warm, welcoming bosom of your new native land. If you really want to blend in while speaking a foreign language, start by doing a seriously obvious impression of the person you’re talking to. They just might think you’re one of them. Or they might punch you. But at least that, too, will be authentic.
An odd thing happens when I speak foreign languages, but it comes from this idea of national stereotyping: deep in my little insecure heart is a little Lonely Planeteer who just wants to hang out with ‘the locals’. The upshot is that if I speak in a language that isn’t English, my personality changes drastically.
I first noticed this in France, probably while spitting on an old lady who’d tried to take my seat on the metro. My French alter ego is like me, but without that filter that keeps certain thoughts inside my head. Skip French John in a queue, and you’re likely to hear a lengthy meditation on what a cretin you are, how your hideously deformed parents met, and how your wife gives away more than Oxfam. And cheaper. French John delivers this to anyone nearby, however fixedly ahead they might stare.
I really love speaking German, and become oddly polite and enthusiastic when I do so. It’s a great language – if you’re familiar with it, you’ll know that there are only four actual words in German, and all other words are made up of appropriate combinations of the basic four. I came across a lovely one last week, as we celebrated the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into paradise. It’s a beautiful concept, but loses something in its German expression: Maria Himmelfahrt. This translates directly as ‘Mary Heaven Journey’. Another favourite is the contraceptive pill, which becomes die Anti-Baby Pille. German is an amazing language, but one that seems to force its logic and its eerie calm upon me when I speak it.
And now I’m in Italy. As I’m only learning the language, I haven’t yet found a settled Italian personality. I can feel it coming together, though. There are bits of French John in it – I squabble with people just to get the bit of oral practice – but there’s also a physical element, meaning that I spend a lot of my time gesturing and trying to sketch concepts in the thin unpopulated air. I know I’ll never really blend in, but it doesn’t stop me taking my coffee at the bar and feeling very proud when I’m asked for directions. I get inordinately excited about pasta and scoff at vegetarians. Most of Italian John is just a more exaggerated version of Irish John, gleeful at being culturally required to wave, shout, and obsess over cheese. Maybe, for all this talk of cultural differences, we’re all basically the same. Except for the English.
God, I’m doing a lot of this blog thing today. It’s nice to be back. And it’s even nicer to tell you that my good friend Mr. Barry McStay has started his own blog, which you’ll find at bazmcstay.wordpress.com . If you’re interested in theatre, golf, poetry, the recession, or golf, he’s the man for you. I’ll be putting the link in the sidebar any minute now. That’s just one of the improvements I have planned. I’m going to kidnap Sinéad Keogh and get her to teach me how to gadget this shit up a notch.
Hello! I had a wee vain look at the blog stats for today and they’re very heartening – it’s truly lovely to think that you’re all coming back just because I’ve started shouting on the internet again. But I was looking at people who’ve linked to the blog (which, if you were thinking about doing it, is an excellent idea. I’d support it.) and I noticed I’d been given a mention on irishblogs.ie . In the ‘Technology’ section. My mistake or theirs? Let’s just switch something off and back on again. That should fix it.
Yesterday I fulfilled a long-held ambition, and visited the church of Santa Maria della Concezione. To be honest, though I had a peek inside, the church itself wasn’t what I’d come to see. What I’d come to see was down a flight of steps and past a rather forlorn bush with a ‘Do not throw cigarettes here’ sign taped to it. Here, just off Via Veneto – one of Rome’s most exclusive shopping streets – is a Capuchin cemetery. It has some interesting features that distinguish it from a normal cemetery: for one, instead of being buried in the ground, the bones are delicately arranged on the walls and ceilings of the various rooms. Some unknown architect (who, we are assured, was French – of course) saw great structural potential in the human body, and set himself to building these unimaginatively named chapels: the ‘Crypt of the Skulls’, ‘Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones’ and – my favourite – ‘Crypt of the Pelvises’. Skeletons wearing brown habits and holding small cards with their names and when they lived recline in arches made of forearms, while two child skeletons hold a skull like a fresh-baked cake. A chandelier made of more delicate bones hangs from the ceiling with a red candle burning inside. Even more fun are the designs on the ceiling and walls – lines of jawbones (some with teeth protruding), an hourglass with wings made of shoulder blades, and then what the guide charmingly describes as ‘a large baldacchino made of pelvises, from which hangs a fringe of vertebrae’. Fringe is the right word – the bones dangle like Tim Burton’s Christmas decorations. The crypt was created and added to from about 1631 (when the remains of dead Capuchin were exhumed from the old friary and turned into fixtures and fittings) until 1870; after which, presumably, aging monks no longer had to fear the designer approaching with a glass of milk in his hand and a glint in his eye. The message that greets you in five different languages in the last of the rooms is ‘As you are we used to be; as we are so you will be’. And in case that doesn’t get the message across, there’s a clock on the wall. It’s made of bones. And time, it seems, is nearly up.
Hello, friends and loyal readers,
I know I’ve been away, far far away. I was in a foreign country which denied me internet access at every turn. Then I came home and the situation barely improved. I’m now in Trinity, in my room, piggybacking off some local wireless network. And it’s nice to be able to talk to you once again.
So apologies for the lack of blogification recently. I’ll make this up by putting up some things I’ve been working on over the last month or so (don’t worry if chronological order seems skewed, you’re in safe hands… ladies, I’m a historian), which I hope you’ll enjoy. And much more writing will ensue from now on.
Thanks for reading, and please do comment on anything that grabs you – it makes it a whole lot more fun.
Lots of love,
There’s a picture of me somewhere on this blog. You can see me, holding a stack of pizza boxes and looking unreasonably happy. You can also see that I wear glasses. Some glasses-wearers hate theirs with a passion and are willing to stick fingers and plastic plates into their eyes in order to avoid them. Not me. I’m spectacular and proud of it.
When I was about four, I had an operation to get rid of my squint. I remember snippets of those few days spent in Temple Street hospital, but what stands out is the time I realised the button at my elbow could summon a nurse who, within reason, had to attend to my every whim. Being a small boy in dashing pyjamas, I had very few material desires, but had already developed a trait I still have today – the Midnight Hunger. Thus, I have since associated illness and hospitals with nice ladies bringing me Coco Pops. This was not a good concept of suffering to grow up with, and has perhaps left me more callous than I might otherwise have turned out.
In primary school, I had huge glasses, the kind that people wear nowadays in order to be cool by looking square but knowing it. Unfortunately, my senior infants’ class had not yet been introduced to irony, so I was just the chap with the spéaclaí mór. I was also a beneficiary of that quantum leap in ophthalmology, the patch. For anyone who didn’t have one of these as a child, the patch was basically a really big sticking plaster that was put over your good eye every day for hours on end in an attempt to persuade your lazy eye to cop the fuck on and start perceiving stuff like a real sense organ. The idea of the ‘lazy eye’ was just that – one of your eyes was basically the slow kid at the back of the class, who just needed a special teacher and an exemption from Irish to sort himself out.
This tendency to take optical conditions very literally is one my mother has too. I am longsighted. This does not mean what she thinks it means. Since I was diagnosed as longsighted, my mother has been convinced that I have some kind of superpower – prodigious, almost telescopic eyesight – which allows me to perceive the tiniest objects at enormous distances. For example, she could spot a car some eight hundred metres up the motorway and ask me what county it’s from. If I’ve lost my glasses, she might suggest that I prop up my book on a table and read it from across the room. Every time I try to explain that I’m not longsighted in that way, to her I become nothing more than that ungrateful child, unable to use his powers for good, all the while leeching off the parents who pay for glasses to allow him to perceive all those unimportant things going on right in front of his face.
So I’m in this lovely bar in Rome. It has Belgian beers, burritos, and a book exchange, and thus is probably designed mainly for me. It also – and this is important – contains Andrea Mulligan and Aislinn Lucheroni, who have told me I have to write a blog post and write it about them. They’re working in the Irish College too, and a little miffed at not having been given an honourable mention in the blog yet. So this is theirs.
Aislinn Francesca Lucheroni: Half Italian stallion, half Dundalk pantomime horse. She speaks perfect Italian using only her hands, and is our guide to every intricacy of this foreign culture. Can we drink a cappuccino in the afternoon? Should we try to hop a bus without paying? Why is the world’s most Catholic nation made up of bed-hopping lechers who all claim to have been partisans during the war?
Andrea Maria Mulligan: Not pleased that Italians think she has a boy’s name. Has a boy’s name. We’ve followed her quest to become a papal countess up to the coffee shop at the top of St Peter’s and to the middle of the volcanic lake at Castel Gandolfo.
Both have slipped elegantly into Roman life. Aislinn wears sunglasses at all times, including in the swimming pool, while Andie only takes hers off when someone has merited the full force of the Mulligan scowl. Between them, they speak seven European languages, including fluent Dundalk and Cavan. They humour me when I covet smoking jackets, they finance my late-night-savoury-snack hunts, and they put up with me typing away in the corner of this terribly swish café. Goodnight, sweet ladies, goodnight.
Something very special happened today. Before I can tell you about it, there’s something I should explain. I might not be a very religious person – a Jehovah’s Bystander at best – but I have a guilty secret.
I love popes.
I have a poster with every pope ever on it. I have a John Paul II snowglobe. I spend a lot of time thinking about who my favourite pope is. Should you care, it’s Leo IX. But it changes often. Popes are just that great.
It’s not a religious thing – it can probably be traced back to the medieval history course I did in first year, taught by the astoundingly brilliant Professor Ian Stuart Robinson. It contained a sizeable chunk of papal history, mainly stuff about the conflict between the Empire and the papacy, and introduced me to some rather ball-breaking popes like Gregory VII who, having declared the would-be emperor Henry IV deposed and excommunicate, watched him do penance barefoot in the snow outside the castle at Canossa for days before he even came close to accepting his apologies. And even then, just two years later he was gleefully prophesying Henry’s death. Then there’s Julius II, who commissioned some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known and led his own troops into battle. These were popes that fought dirty, not hesitating to forge documents or to foment rebellion when saying a Mass wouldn’t quite do the trick. They tried to build up a papacy that held all the power in the world, floating a mighty two fingers at any temporal ruler they chose. It’s impossible to read the history of the papacy and not feel a profound respect for the faith, the conviction, and the sheer bloody-mindedness of these men.
But I digress. Quite a lot. I honestly didn’t start this as a ‘gwan the papacy!’ rant. Rather, I wanted to tell you about today. Today, I saw the pope. That’s right: I saw Saint Peter’s successor. I saw His Holiness. I saw Benny.
We went to Castel Gandolfo, a town in the Alban Hills outside Rome, where the pope has his summer residence, looking out over a beautiful volcanic lake. So we arrived in a rather dinky square early enough in the morning, and it was already filling up with (I’m making up the collective nouns here) a confusion of pilgrims, a formality of priests, and a consternation of nuns. We had a coffee but didn’t rush into the queue. Then, after an hour and a half spent sweating on strangers, being told to shut up by a man annoyed at our singing, screaming school-style at people skipping the queue (I enjoyed shouting ‘Protestants!’ and then ducking under others), and singing folk songs with some very proud Germans from the pope’s home province, we were told the palazzo was full and that we’d have to watch the audience on a big screen. We muttered, swore, and took our places.
The pope employs several MC priests to warm up the crowd – they do the ‘Anyone here from insert country here?’ thing, and the crowd goes wild. Especially the Poles. They brought a brass band.
It was this brass band that gave me one of the happiest moments of my life. Earlier, in the queue, they’d been playing a variety of golden oldies and sacred music. Then, we heard something new. A familiar song. I nodded along to the intro. Was it…? It couldn’t be. Not here. No way. But it was.
Here, outside the pope’s summer residence, the papal flags fluttering and nuns everywhere the eye could see, the world’s favourite gay classic was being blasted out by a hearty Polish brass band. And people were dancing. Little thickets of hands flew up, dancing along with the chorus. Yes, I laughed. But this wasn’t normal laughter. This was knee-bending, fist-clenching, primal laughter, combined with the purest happiness and gratitude for these plucky Poles. Wherever you are tonight, gentlemen, thank you.
So, having failed at the violent free-for-all that is the queue for the audience, we watched from the piazza. And it was great. The man himself gave a homily, spoke in six languages, did some more shout outs, and the crowd went wild. Proper All-Ireland final wild, with people chanting ‘Be-ne-detto’ and waving flags and flustering priests. Pope Benedict XVI also does this wonderful thing – when he welcomes a particular group and goes to bless them, he extends his arms towards them and wiggles his fingers like a magician at a children’s party. It’s amazing. That’s proper blessing. There’s no point in magic words without comic hand-waving, and this pope has both in abundance. He hasn’t forgotten that even Jesus started out as a party entertainer, until he was spotted at the Cana gig and became a star.
Given that so many so-called mortal sins – adultery, stealing, murder – seem to go unpunished, I want to know why God comes down so hard on people who get drunk in the afternoon. As one of these minor offenders, I genuinely resent the tiredness, the confusion, the sheer difficulty of life after a long and liquid lunch. Having made my merry way through the midday meal, I think I have a right to sit over coffee and feel satisfied with myself. And if I should choose to allow myself a liqueur in order to indulge that satisfaction, surely that is a matter between myself, the waiter, and my dining companions. I don’t understand why an omniscient and omnipresent being should really care. It’s not like it’s something important, like wearing a garment made of two different materials. Perhaps the long lunch is punished all the more severely for having been left out of Leviticus.
Today is the feast of the Assumption. We were up at a quarter past nine to practise for the ten o’clock mass. The charming Michael McGrath and the eminently eligible Hugh O’Connor even came along to the college for some Eucharistic action, enjoying all the hymns we sang, lavishing particular praise on the way we rhymed ‘word’ with ‘Lord’, and trying to ignore the moments where the composer has clearly stolen the chord progression from ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’. Funny Girl, of course, is a musical with strong resonances for the Catholic community.
August fifteenth is like another Christmas in Italy – a religious holiday hijacked and made into an excuse for eating an enormous meal. On this solemn occasion, we went native and tripped lightly to Da Valentino, a little restaurant not far from the Roman Forum which stays open on the Assumption, possibly in order to get on Our Lady’s tits. This may be a labour in vain, as being poorly depicted on dodgy wristwatches and hologram posters in Lourdes can make you awful tolerant altogether.
The first reading in mass today (as you’ll all know, I’m sure) came from the book of the Apocalypse, the Biblical equivalent of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. The homily that followed was a masterclass in avoiding a discussion of John’s vision of a pregnant lady covered in stars being attacked by a dragon with ten heads and seven horns and fleeing into the desert this is the word of the Lord. I’ve read that recent theological scholarship claims the book of Revelation is actually a coded anti-Roman tract, but to be honest, they would say that. It’s like not apologising for the obnoxious relative by claiming they have a rare illness or a family history.
So, after a long day and a little lake of wine, I sit in my room, wrapped in a towel, not even knowing if I’ll ever get this onto the interweb. I’m due to reap the poisoned harvest of this afternoon’s indulgence when a pilgrimage group from Mount Mellick arrives tonight. Still, it could be worse. There isn’t a dragon in sight.
If any man shall take away from or add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this blog. Amen.