The things I did not expect

DSC_0140I expected to cry.

A lot.

All the time, in fact.

I expected crying and sleepless nights and I’d read so many things about people thinking they saw their dead parent on a street or in a café or down the back of Tesco, like a low-brow Don’t Look Now.

I expected sadness and weeping and missing and oh-so-many tears right from the get-go, but what I did not expect was the shock of waking up one morning in a new world that I had never visited before. Going to bed one night, and waking in a room freshly painted in a colour you don’t like on a street you’ve never been on in a country you’ve never heard of and your phone battery’s gone and you can’t find your bag and when you look in the mirror it’s not your face. That’s what my father’s death was to me.

In November, I visited Washington. I’d always wanted to go there. I was weak with excitement before the trip, and my regular fear of flying poked its head above the parapet but no more so than usual. I was ready, and extremely excited about heading to political mecca the week after the presidential elections. The first 3 days were spent in wall-to-wall meetings with barely a minute to breathe; I drank coffee, ate Thanksgiving lunches that stopped all my clothes from fitting within 48 hours, and I slept a precise 7 hours a night, exhausted from new faces and buzzed chats but with not a minute to spare for rest.

On day 4, I headed off across DC for a few days of solo adventuring and museum visits, and in the aftermath of the noise and bustle of the previous days, in an entirely new city, and on the cusp of it being 11 months since I had seen my Dad, something went awry in my brain.

The morning started as mornings generally do in a new place; a brief and perfunctory breakfast at a European-themed pastry place, an hour spent trying to figure out which method of public transport I could waste more time on, and then I arrived at Arlington Cemetery, the first stop on my tour.

My knowledge of Arlington stemmed largely from news reports and the X-Files. As I walked through the visitor centre, past the guards and welcome staff, I spotted the train that would take me around the grounds, each one of those 624 acres. After a short wait where a few other visitors hopped aboard, we moved off. I felt like a successful adult woman on a very lovely business trip having a little break to visit someplace I’d always wanted to see. I felt happy. I did not feel as if a bowling ball of granite sadness was about to smash me in the face. It was.

The day was warm and the sky was sharp and blue. The train pulled itself up the inclines of Arlington. At the first descent, a shot rang out and as I looked down over the lip of the hill, the family of a soldier stood around a graveside. A boy returned from war, a boy come home. The tears rolled down my face. They wouldn’t stop for hours.

More than 400,000 people lie in Arlington. After I’d gotten off the tiny toy train due to uncontrollable, mortifying sobs, I walked past what felt like most of those people. Through the Nurses Section, up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, over to the Challenger Memorial and on to the mast of the USS Maine. My tears had calmed but were relentless. By this point it had turned into the kind of crying that makes no sound; I didn’t shake or wail, I didn’t sink to the ground or do any of the things I’d seen on TV that looked like they would be par for the course when the death of your Dad finally caught up with you in a foreign country whilst entirely on your own.

The tears continued to run as I made my way out of the cemetery towards the Women’s Memorial. I asked a young security guy how long it would take me to walk to the Lincoln Memorial from where we were; “oof, about three hours I guess”, he said. Young Americans may have the world at their feet, but they haven’t used those feet very much, as the walk turned out to be a swift 20 minutes across the Potomac. I cried as I tried to listen to Wilson Philips to drown out the sadness. I cried as I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. By the time I’d made my way up the Mall, and into the Air and Space Museum, I’d tuckered myself out, and was ready to lie on the ground and sleep. Joan Didion in her memoir on grief following the death of her husband focuses for pages on the derangement of grief and the physical symptoms: “Somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from 20 minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and intense subjective distress.”

I’d walked 26 kilometres that day, wandering in and out of museums, traversing Washington in my keening state. On that final stretch, as the sun dropped behind Capitol Hill, my sciatic nerve in my right leg burned through my skin, my right foot numb. I felt no recognition of myself. My life had changed and my brain had finally caught up. The learning would now begin.

Earlier on in my grief, maybe after 4 months or so, I was planning to head out on a Sunday evening with pals for a birthday celebration, and I looked through a stack of one-size-fits-all birthday cards that I keep in a cupboard in the hall. They’re handy for strangers and more recent friends, the kind you make later in life. As I rifled through, trying to decide between a demure garden scene or a watercolour teddy bear, I found stuck in between them all the last birthday card signed to me by Dad. The oversized capital D of his signature. The slight scrawl and messiness. I slunk from squat to splayed legs, bawling into my cards, hysterical with sobs and bellowing air like a stranded whale.

I was thrilled. I had done it. I was grieving. This was it, right? This was the sadness, the unmentionable depth of loss that I was supposed to be feeling. After three long hours of weeping on a wooden floor, I rose triumphant. I had fucking grieved. I was on my way out of this mess, and soon my life would be back to the way it was before. I was sure I would feel normal again.

In the days leading up to his death, the thing that stands out more than anything is banality. The banality of sitting in a hospital room for 10 hours a day. We never stayed the whole night. I think we felt that if we did, it would’ve been admitting to ourselves that these may be our last hours with him and that was why we were clinging to every one. Instead, we paced ourselves: If we stayed there a lot, but not entirely, then there was less panic, less of a sense of an ending.

He was only really sick for three weeks. The word cancer was only present in one of those. In that final week, when the diagnosis began to form, we faced the full run of TV medical show moments: the questions about resuscitation, the meeting in a doctor’s office when they tell you there’s nothing else that they can do. I cried, but not ridiculously so. In my head, I was prostrate on the ground, smashing my fists against the doctor’s ankles, but in real life it was all quite sedate, I think.

After that meeting, I went to lunch with my Mother. She insisted on keeping ourselves fed as my sister was arriving from London that evening, now that the news had taken a turn for the worst. We sat in a nearby restaurant, and I remember thinking that I was so proud of my body for keeping me going through this. My mind was splintered and paralysed with anxiety, I had no concept of linear time, my abdomen was concrete, and my digestive system had stalled like an old clock.

I remember ordering soup, and when it arrived with bread I felt thankful that some carbohydrates might stop me from completely disintegrating into a heap of iron filings. My saliva had disappeared, and each mouthful of bread had to be downed with a spoonful of soup and a swig of water to force it down into my belly. The ability to live through that moment and that day and that week still baffles me. How did we not die? How did the absolute bizareness of the loss of such a person not just kill us all stone dead with him? I still struggle with it. A moment of forgetting what way is up or down, what my place is now without him, or how frame him in a discussion while holding on to my own sense of myself.

It’s been almost 18 months now. Some days, I feel a more vague sense of missing, like I have misplaced an earring or a brooch. Other days, it feels like I’m waiting on a visit from him, like he is about to arrive and I can’t quite fathom what’s taking him so long. On the worst days, it is like losing a sense. A diminishing of sight, a dulling of hearing, an inability to distinguish by touch. That’s what my father’s death is to me.

But there was no fear in him, and because of this, there is not really any fear in us either. Around the time of the diagnosis, a young doctor came to his bed to tell him that they’d need to pass Dad on to another team. The atmosphere was tense, I didn’t know how Dad would react to this. It wasn’t distressing to him, thanks to the careful delivery of the doctor, but it was a shift in an unknown direction, and there was a distinct awareness that things were becoming more serious. Dad’s reaction to the clearly upset young doctor was to thank him for being so kind as to tell him, and then instruct him to go out and have a pint as he’d had a tough day. Kindness and consideration even in the midst of the tempest. Resilience. Love. Care. That’s what my father’s death was to me, and it is in the company of those things that I grieve, thanks to him.

Bottoms up

It’s been a long time since I wore a bikini. They’re not the most practical of ensembles on a beach (too much sand, and it’s impolite to readjust one’s wedgie in front of a viewing audience) and so I usually stick to a solid one-piece, better for diving and lazing and all manner of things you’d usually do on a sunny shore. But this year, I’m heading to the scorching hot, white-and-blue terraced steppes of the Greek islands, and decided I wanted to go all out. I eat right, I pay my taxes, I ain’t never shot a man in Reno, so I’m pretty sure I get to wear a bikini in climates where it’s so hot you can’t tell where your face ends and the sun begins, even if I’m not of Taylor Swiftian proportions.

If you’re not a woman over size 10 (or about a 38 or for the Europeans), it can be hard to understand the constant see-saw of thoughts that are set in motion when you begin to contemplate showing flesh in public. I’m not an unconfident person; I can attend a party solo, have commandeered the odd set of decks in order to do an interpretive dance to Fleetwood Mac, and I don’t have any huge hang-ups about my arse, but I still can’t shake that niggling feeling of not being sample size when it comes to outdoor outings. Today, to take advantage of sale season, I started looking for some bits of string to cover up the essentials on holiday and found the following pictures:

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This is not a post about skinny shaming. It is not a post slagging off women who have prominent hip bones or thigh gaps or six-packs. All women are beautiful, unless they’re total arseholes, in which case they’re not that beautiful, but on a plainly aesthetic level all women are equal. What made me feel so unsettled was that when I saw a woman who was “normal” after all the hundreds of airbrushed, thigh-gapped women, I felt a shock and it made me feel so awful to think that somehow in that brief period of searching for something and finding only objectified perfection, I had lost a sense of diversity and reality in the presentation of the female body. When I saw these bodies, that represent most bodies and most definitely fall into the representation of my body, I felt, well, a little unnerved. Should they be showing that? What will people think if I go on a beach looking like that? Shouldn’t they – and I – cover up a bit more?

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I’m a 5′ 10″, size 14, and the sight of a woman in the same realm as me made me immediately feel like I should wrap a sarong around me and duck under the nearest sun lounger. What a crock of shit our concept of fashion campaigns is. This post is only about basic photography, it doesn’t even cover the much murkier depths of higher level advertising, where extreme thinness and unreality are the norm, but I just felt I had to post something for my pals and others who might feel the same way.

We have wobbly bits, several wobbly bits, despite exercise and healthy eating and all the things we’re “supposed” to do, and I’m fully reclaiming all those wobbly bits now. I’m sticking a little flag in them, I’m the Neil Armstrong of my very own Lunar landscape and I’m going to appreciate how fucking flawless those women look in their Curve or Plus-size or whatever other euphemistically named bikinis they’re wearing, and feel fucking thrilled that I have a body that can take me to a beach, that can dive me under the water and bring me back to the surface and roll around in warm sand like the Little fucking Mermaid when she gets her legs, although that wasn’t entirely a picnic for poor Ariel either, let’s be fair.

I hate that it made me second-guess myself, but I love that I went ahead and bought 4 of the things anyway. Thighs: Prepare yourselves. Ass: Your day is nigh. Stomach: Your tour of duty approaches. We’re off to see the world, and a grand old time we’ll have too.

Kray’s Last Tape

Reggie-Kray

Liveline, an Irish talk-radio show, played a blinder this week with a segment about the Krays. There was a discussion about how Tom Hardy had only had access to a very short recording of their voices and how no other recording exists, and then this lad from South Circular Road in Dublin rings in with a story about how his brother was put in a coma after getting beaten up in England, and Reggie Kray heard about him on the news and sent him a recording of his voice to try and help him wake up. It’s really rather terrifying and hypnotic to listen to. Fascinating stuff. Listen to it here, with Reggie’s voice starting at 7.24.

The curious case of Del Boy and the Serbs

It’s been a funny few months in North Holland. I’ve learned that Santa’s little helper is a blacked up jester, I’m shockingly good at cycling on cobblestones after a few too many sherries and Only Fools and Horses is a massive hit in Serbia.

It started one day in work when something utterly ridiculous and nonsensical happened and my Serbian desk-mate began to recount a similar incident that occurred during an episode of the aforementioned show. I sat stunned for long enough that Serbian pal began to explain who Del Boy and Rodney were. I rushed to reassure him that I had spent enough Decembers full of meat and carbohydrates sat on my parents’ couch watching re-runs of the show to know exactly what he was talking about. I just couldn’t equate the two things in my head. Serbia = foreignness, a drunken summer on the Danube and Milosevic. Only Fools and Horses = a three-wheeled car, exploding blow-up dolls in Peckham and Cockney Grandad.

A few days later, I met another Serbian colleague at a conference. I walked towards her and just said “Only Fools and Horses”. Her immediate reply was “Lovely jubbly”.

I do not get this. How does it resonate so much with somewhere that is so different to where it’s set?

I’m not the first to notice this. A 2010 Guardian article remarked on the phenomenon and there’s even a Facebook page that encourages Serbians to enter competitions promising Trotter memorabilia.

It’s fascinating, interesting and kind of lovely. The Guardian article says that “The life of Del Boy and ­Rodney is very similar to life [in Serbia]. They always have some crazy ideas to make money.” My colleagues agreed, saying that the madcap schemes of the Trotters were akin to those of many Serbians in harder times. Which is probably why the show was such a hit in the good old Republic of Ireland too.

Letters to a trainee tempter…

One of my main interests in Ireland was keeping abreast of the news as reported by Catholic newspapers. My, em, “favourite” was a freesheet called Alive!, which is basically a vehicle for the extreme right-wing views of a select group of people but is widely available all over the country and is sometimes pushed through the letterbox of unsuspecting citizens.

Alive! runs a stellar trade in unfounded reporting, badly researched articles, disguising opinion for fact and generally weak news dissemination. One of the things that always fascinated me was a regular feature called Dumbag Writes.

Dumbag is a trainee demon. He is a little horned, red devil, much like the cuddly toy Manchester United mascot, and he poses with his trident, pulling a letter out of his hellish mailbag. It’s not quite clear what the relationship is to the letter writer. Surely the actual devil wouldn’t have time to write individual instructions on letter headed paper, but who knows. The main gist is that a small devil is getting tips from a big devil on how to screw over the heathens of the world.

In the latest letter from Dumbag, he discusses how easy it is to tempt bad humans into seeking instant gratification through such evil, awful attractions as “bargain-hunting to pilled sex, from sun holidays to victory in sport”.

Pilled sex? Does he mean sexual intercourse taking place following the consumption of ecstasy tablets? Because if he does then he’s a very forward thinking demon. I’m a pretty forward thinking twenty-something year old and I still wouldn’t immediately list that in my top four cheap kicks.

Bargain hunting? Surely that’s alright. It’s better than buying something crazy expensive just to show off to your mates. Also, kind of boring. And sun holidays? The sun is grand, sound, it helps loads of things. It certainly does not drag people to hell as far as I know. I’m pretty certain at no point in the bible does it say you must remain milky white and in a cold climate to remain useful to the Lord.

And victory in sport? What the fuck is wrong with winning an egg and spoon race? Or kicking someone’s ass at darts? Or table tennis? There are immediate issues to be raised with a gom like Wayne Rooney making several hundred thousand pounds a second for being an alright footballer and a world-class idiot, but I don’t think you can just say winning at a sport lets the devil get your soul.

So many flaws, Alive! You missed the seven deadly sins by a long shot. I don’t recall there being anything in there about drugged riding or scoring a goal or getting a tan on your face in Torremolinos.

A Quart of Tiger’s Piss: A Tribute to my Parents

Skype is the foundation of a healthy, informed, long-distance relationship between an emigrant and their family. You can call home for free and reminisce about childhood activities, enquire as to the health and various brazen outbursts of nieces and nephews and generally keep the home fires burning. Continue reading

My time so far in a land far away: Part 1

I have been a resident of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for 7 weeks and almost 3 days. I came here to work and see things. That is all. My life in Ireland was good, comfortable and easy. In a sense. As the dogs on the road know, Ireland’s seen better days. The news is sad every day, the politicians are shit. I’m not normally one to be so reductionist about politics but the ones in Ireland are just shit. There’s no mad drama, there’s no threat on your life if you protest. In fact, there aren’t really any protests, none of note anyway. Everything was just slowly getting sadder and a bit more grey and I wanted to celebrate my birthday in 2011 with a sense that something new had happened in my life and that I wasn’t part of the Irish decay.

So I have somehow ended up in Southeast Asia, having never been in any part of Asia before, working and living in a city that, at best, stuns me and, at worst, terrifies the actual soul out of my body. I was mad keen on starting a blog about being here but I’m full sure I’ll fall into the trap of talking about how how wonderful the work of the many NGOs is (it is, but I don’t want to bang on about it), or end up banging on about prostitution or the Khmer Rouge or something I really know nothing about. Instead, I just want to list the little things, the everyday things that make it so interesting to be here. The normal stuff that goes on all the time here that makes me feel like such a newcomer to the world that I might as well be learning to ride a bike for the first time or wee in a potty. These are my thoughts of Cambodia:

1) None of the kids wear pants. None of them. They only wear tshirts and run around like they are on speed and do high fives with you. I imagine that there’s some kind of unspoken rule about letting the kid leg it around the city like a little Porky Pig sans trousers, and then when they hit 8, there’s a ceremony where they get presented with their first pair of pants and they hate it. I’d like if the no pants rule extended to me as it would prevent a lot of unecessary sweating.

2) Things are not like they are in travel ads, sometimes local people think you are a dick and they don’t smile at you and it is fine. When I arrived, I was TERRIFIED of getting on a motorbike, one of the main means of transport in Phnom Penh. You get on a man’s moto, he drives you somewhere and you are at his mercy for the journey. The second time I took a moto, I got off the bike and was so thrilled at having survived/not fallen off/not pissed myself, I started telling the moto driver how afraid I’d been but I was so brave etc…I have never had someone tell me to fuck off using only their eyes as well as that moto driver did. He was brilliant.

3) Other people will think things are amazing and you will not, that is also ok. Before coming here, the entire population of Dublin told me about backpacker stuff and how class it was and how much I’d love it. I was born in a city, I grew up in a city. I’m also not sure if anyone’s noticed but there are no insects in Ireland except the odd ant in July and a few woodlice for posterity. I was not prepared for this. I went to a popular backpacker’s retreat outside of Phnom Penh and lived amongst frogs, lizards the length of my arm and a selection of insects and butterflies. I also woke up in the night as there was a rustling on my pillow. I looked across and saw a thick piece of wood which I picked up to throw off the pillow. It was not wood, it was an insect that looked like it was made of fucking tobacco. I have also seen a bat get  murdered by a fan blade. Me and the nature buzz = not pals, except for the lizards.

4) There is nothing like cycling in a country where rules of the road are entirely subjective. Cycling here is like rubbing vaseline and salt into your eyes and then trying to play a really high level of Tetris. Jeeps, trucks, cars, motos and tuk tuks are flying around and you are a lone blip on the radar. Blipping along trying not to get a smack of something but also seeing the city from the greatest vantage point. The bikes here are amazing. Cheap, sturdy and with bells that would deafen you from half a mile.

5) Oreos here give you the shits. I can’t provide physical evidence of this currently as it would probably contravene some kind of international law if I were to post a photo of my post-Oreo faeces, but just believe me. It’s been a very sad goodbye between me and the heavenly sandwich snack.