Ireland, again

It is nearing Saint Patrick’s day, so I am rerunning this.

Verdant Place, Limerick, Dr Bear 2013 2Ireland is beautiful and very, very green. It really is called the Emerald Isle for a good reason. I once drove through England to Ireland in a drought. England looked like a sun-faded newspaper, and–even though locals kept telling us how bad the dry weather was–Ireland was lush. That summer, it rained ever night from midnight to around 4, and then cleared.

If you have a low tolerance level for quaintness, I would advise you never to visit.

We flew into Shannon, because we decided that we wanted to force ourselves to see the Irish countryside, and were afraid that otherwise we might get stuck only seeing Dublin—lovely in its own right, but not the country.Limerick Dr Bear 2013

We knew we would be arriving at 6:30 am local time, and that it would feel like 2:30 am to us, so we didn’t have anything specific planned. We managed to find our way to the bus, and climbed up to the second story. Apparently, all Irish (and most Scottish and English) bus drivers are expected to drive like the night bus from Harry Potter—lurching back and forth, taking turns at frightening speeds, etc.—but we were also driving across green rolling hills, past stone cottages; Railway Hotel, Limerick 2013castles, all under a brilliantly stormy sky.

We unfolded ourselves at the train station in Limerick, and found the Railway Hotel (Lovely! I would recommend it). The check-in time was 2:00 in the afternoon, and the clerk frowned as we walked in. She suggested we eat breakfast, and I realized she was frowning because she was trying to think of a way to allow us to check into our rooms early.

Inhabitants of North America distinguish themselves by smiling (also, with the help of bleach and orthodonture, shiny, perfect teeth). We expect it of others, and when others don’t smile, we think that they are frowning, or troubled, or rude, or even hostile. To a lot of the world, the constant pleasant smiling seems artificial, and I think I agree, even if it takes some getting used to).

That first breakfast in Limerick was one of the best meals we had—Irish brown bread toast and jam, strong Irish breakfast tea, scones, a full Irish breakfast (rashers? black pudding? white pudding? roasted tomatoes?), porridge—it was so good, I have tried to duplicate the bread.Picnic in Limerick Dr Bear 2013

After a nap into the afternoon, we wandered about Limerick, and found a local farmer’s market that was just shutting down. The very Irish and very sturdy looking lady behind the counter at the cheese mongers frowned at us, then gave us samples of several cheeses, discussing where each had come from, and how long each was aged, and we left with supplies for a plowman’s lunch down by the wharf.

Again and again, we encountered Irish natives who were friendly and kind—the bartender at the Bram Stocker hotel warning us with a heavy brogue that the people in Bram Stocker HotelCork “spoke funny and are hard to understand,” the Dublin cab driver who refused to take us to Cornucopia on Wicklow Street—“Oh, I’d be embarrassed; it’s only t’ree blocks, now. Just cross the bridge and through those tall buildings” (I knew how far it was—6 blocks—and I had a 20 pound pack)—although often, the kindness was about fixing something that had gone wrong.

Things going wrong is apparently common in Ireland, and they all seem to have developed what I think of as “a bemused complacency towards the fecked-up-ness of it all” (“Oh, I can’t sell you a ticket on the bus; you can only get those from a machine, and that one there, it is broken. Marvelous!” “They closed at 3:20? How odd.”) It did surprise me that I had trouble getting used to the b.c.t.f. (as well as the occupied frown), since ??????????????????those are both things with which I face the world. That and the heavy lidded Irish eyes that are part of my genetic heritage.

Another odd observation, though: any given block in Ireland seems to have two pubs, a bookie shop, a homeless person or two and their dogs, and a pro-life billboard. It seems to me that there are vices that might be more important to fight than allowing a woman the right to choose, but, then again, Ireland only reluctantly legalized birth control.

Murphy's in Dublin Dr Bear 2013It was one marvel after another–a beautiful countryside here, a harpist there, music in a pub, the stormy skies at sunset, the voices–Irish is not so much an accent as a cadence, a lilt, a language sung softly. Kind people, great ale, and wonderful food–yes, my friends: the French were polite and the British Isles had good food; re-examine your prejudices!
If you are ever in Dublin, drop by the Murphy Brother’s Ice Cream Shop. They are always smiling.

Of course, who wouldn’t, spending the day around ice cream hand-made in Dingle. (“hand-made in Dingle” that makes me giggle.)

Wheaten Bread (Irish Brown Bread)

Irish Wheaten Bread 007On our first day in Ireland, for our very first meal in Europe, we had breakfast at the Railway Hotel. Besides some marvelous tea and incredible service, we also had some toast, which included a brown bread. My foodie daughter was in love. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” she asked, “if after going through Germany and France, my favorite bread ended up being Irish Brown Bread, and my favorite cheese really was a sharp Irish Cheddar?”

Ne Gustibus Disputatem Est.


  • 3 cups extra-course whole wheat flour
  • ½ cup bread flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup oat bran
  • 1 cup wheat germ
  • ¼ cup brewer’s yeast (optional)
  • ¼ cup melted butter (I might consider more)
  • 2 cups buttermilk or milk
  • 1 Tbsp dark corn syrup or honey
  • 1 egg

Step 1, Prepare Ye the way: Preheat the oven to 400°, assemble all the ingredients, run to the store because you are out of butter, and grease & flour a baking sheet or cake pan.

Step 2, sifting the dry ingredients: In one bowl sift (mix if you don’t have a sifter) the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add in the oat bran, wheat germ, and brewer’s yeast.  Mix thoroughly.

Step 3, pastry cutting: Mix in the butter, much as you would cut in cold butter or shortening.

Step 4, mixing the wet ingredients: In another bowl, beat the egg, then mix in the buttermilk and the corn syrup.

Step 4, combining the big mess: Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones and mix well. The results might be a bit gloppy. No, I take that back: they result will be very gloppy. Flour your hands and try to fashion this into a ball, and if you cannot, add a bit more flour until this is manageable. Irish Wheaten Bread 001

Step 5, baking: Set the round loaf (or round loaves, if you are making little ones) onto the pan. Score the top with a cross. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Rotate them to make sure they brown evenly, reduce the oven temperature to 375, and bake for 30 minutes more. The result should be a crumbly brown loaf.

Final Step, share and enjoy Irish Wheaten Bread 009They break along the score, so you can each munch a quarter. You can have them with a mug of strong Irish tea, and some cold butter, and some current jam. They are perfect as a toast for breakfast, or to accompany a hearty plowman’s lunch.

As always, they are perfect for giving to somebody you love, either in person, or by post.


Sustained by bouncing
between one sensation sight smell taste sound song and another,

I ride on the spirit of the end of a world cup soccer match.

The mountains are frozen in their dance, dipping down into the cottony mist just to rise again dark and blue and green as my car floats around them.

I give a dollar to the harmonica player hunched like a question mark upon the mosaic of the front of a closed store. I strike a match for Gypsy when she asks and squat to meet her dog Shakey; Gypsy is wrapped in a dress as motley as Tibetan prayer flags, and she lights the second half of her roll-your-own.
I hold that spent match in the corner of my mouth like a blessing, like a kiss, as I walk on.

Like a skipping stone, I skim along between sensations and ideas,
sustained by each image or laugh, every word and rhythm, each sight and color, every sound and song, each taste and smell, and every person—

every person as grimy as a tin can, brilliant as a star.


I am tempted to say that the whole European travel last summer was magical, but that is not the best term. It was so very real. The most wonderful places amazed us by just being themselves–so very themselves.

Oxford SquareOxford is Oxford.

Although Cambridge has been the British University for philosophers, I adore Oxford.
Every moment the town is alive and vibrant, yet mellow and thoughtful. Most of the stones have been there since the Tudors and Stewarts, yet each year a new wash of young students pour over them.

I fell in love with Oxford as a young boy.
As I have mentioned before, we were living in Germany, and my parents were sometimes afraid we would forget the English language, so we would go to England once a year. They would take me to Blackwell’s, a very fine, very old bookstore on Oxford ElephantBroad Street. It seemed like the biggest bookstore I would ever see, which meant it was the best possible place in the entire universe to be.

The Bistro is currently located in a town with a university, but this is not really a university town. Other than a disproportional number of places one can get drunk, there is very little to indicate that there is a university here.
Oxford, by contrast, is a university town (as, by the way, was my home, Tubingen). Being a university town means being aware of a lot of students, but also being aware of the place as a place where people come to learn and to think. There is no reason to pretend that you are not Oxford since Oxford is the place to be.Oxford Mansfield College Cat
Oxford is a university, but that university also consists of a federation of 38 quasi-independent colleges, such as Trinity College, Merton College, Balliol, etc. One of our nights there, we had the good fortune to sleep in Mansfield College.
The Porters’ cat is named Erasmus.
Oxford Mansfield College breakfastThe breakfast was amazing.

I have already told the Oxford story involving the surrealism of the marching band playing YMCA, but the walk that more than anything told me what was possible in Oxford was a few nights later. We had eaten supper and The Eagle and Child–hangout of the Inklings–had walked across and behind St Giles to cut down Keble Road and east.Oxford Gargoyles
Keble College amused my daughter no end–and she would still laugh about it for days. A guide book I had read described Keble and having “Brick like an ugly Christmas sweater,” and that may be an apt description. In general, the gargoyles of Oxford are droll and funny–the stone masons clearly had a sense of humour and several pints Oxford's Best Gargoyleinside them–but Keble has the funniest. The expressions of these fantastical stone creatures had us laughing out loud until we reached Parks Road.
We spent some time in the park–Oxford has huge amounts of green space. Like any good University town, there were plenty of students making the best of the last of the day’s sunshine.
As we walked back on Parks Road, we passed a huge beautifully made iron gate–the Parks Road Gate of Trinity College, leading into “The Lawns.”. On the other side were lawns and  gardens, and a company performing Pride and Prejudice.

Mrs. Bennet: Have you no consideration for my poor nerves? 
Mr. Bennet: You mistake me, my dear. I have the utmost respect for your nerves. They’ve been my constant companion these twenty years. 

Oxford Radcliffe CameraA block further, we passed the courtyard of the Bodlean Library, where the Royal Shakespeare Company was performing Taming of the Shrew. Going behing the library to the Radcliffe Camera, we sat on a worn stone stair and listen to a baroque concert.

Austin, Shakespeare and Handel within a ten minute walk, one of the finest bookstores of the world, all surrounded by Oxford Teaparks and old trees, as well as beautiful old buildings–what more could one need?

Well, obviously, tea, but Oxford has that as well.

Until next time….

France has wine, we have wifi.

GordesOn these dreary winter days, I find myself day-dreaming of the mellow sunshine of Provence, in Southern France.
The air is different there. It is infused with a light that cannot be captured in photographs; the most realistic, literal, depictions of it are the paintings of Van Gogh or Cezanne. The air is almost a living being of light and warmth wrapped close around you, lying with you skin on skin. It has its own fragrance, one like nothing else in the world, but if I smelled it anywhere, I would know it. It is a mixture of baked grass and dry5 Avignon (56), ochre dirt, warm fennel, the spicy scent of olive leaves, the sharp, tangy sweetness of lavender, and the warm scent of waking in the early morning after a dream.
This is the part of France where Northern Europe meets the Mediterranean, so the markets are vibrant and full of color–a symphony of fresh produce. You can fill–and lose–your senses in the melons of Cavaillon. They are the size of a young breast and as sweet as the promise of new love.

There is a stereotype that the French are haughty and rude–especially the waiters. I never found this to be true. The French (and their wait-staff) are proud, and–like most 5 Avignon (11)Europeans–they do not share the compulsive or compulsory cheeriness that Americans think of as “being nice.” They are to the point and professional, but, like us, they have things to do and places to be, and their patience can be taxed. Some, of course, are rude, but some are sympathetic, just like people everywhere. The folks at the tourism desk in Cavaillon who helped us find bicycles to get to Gordes were patient and went above and beyond. Paris is, for the most part, less patient with tourists–having lived in Nashville (“Music City, USA!”), I remember just how annoying those pasty, indecisive, lumbering road-blocks could be, and I understand how easy it is to lose patience with out-of-towners. Outside of Paris, however, many of the French are very kind, hospitable and helpful. In southern France, they are also more laid back.

There are 2 things that I found hard to get in French restaurants: wifi and the bill. Europe in general is less attached to smart phones & pads than we are–you mostly see Asian tourists using them. Although there is good, high-speed internet, it is usually in specific places–homes, offices, schools, and Irish Pubs, not showered about as free wifi. There is “fast food” in France, but most French restaurants and Cafés are not fast. Waiters are really quick to seat you, and to get your drink order (and give you bread), but then leave you time to order, bring your meals as they are made, and then disappear.
I believe the two are related.
The reason that there is no rush on the final bill is because there should be no rush to finish the meal. Imagine this: you are sitting in Avignon, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The neighborhood is beautiful. The restaurant is beautiful. The food is amazing, and the company you are lucky enough to share your food with are both beautiful and amazing. Why should you rush? If people must rush in life, they should be rushing in order to eat amazing food in beautiful places with beautiful and amazing people, not rushing that in order to go sightsee. Have some more wine! 5 Avignon (28)Try a bottle of Pastis. Enjoy the conversation. Smell the beautiful air that is Provence. Live.
So, why, if you are in the most perfect place in the world, do you need to check your iPad, your kindle, your iPhone, your Android, your nook, or any other albatross binding you to another place? How could you not be completely and totally in the moment? How could there be more interesting people than the ones you are with?

We have our wifi, they have their wines. We may have one some big wars, but we have lost a very important one.


Alea Iacta Est

Thanks to Wode Toad for his help with the classical Wode_on_sidewalk_after_closehistory & the Latin. This is one of those times when his work in the classical department at St Andrews comes in handy.

He seems to be restless and pre-occupied, though, of late, and talks of travelling).

In the winter of 49 BC, the Roman General Gaius Julius Caesar had decisions to make. He was camped on the edge of the icy Alps, looking south, across the river.
He had established a strong political base in Rome, then had become governor of the vercingetorix-jules-cesarvarious Roman provinces bordering the tribes in Gaul. The Gauls were the various Celtic Tribes who lived in what is now France, as well as parts of Switzerland and Germany (the Gauls in Galatia–in the Balkans–had been subdued by the Romans earlier). He countered a move by one tribe–the Helvetii–and through a series of quick and effective military maneuvers established control over all of Gaul (Omnia Gallia). The crown of this military campaign was the surrender of the Chieftain Vercingetorix on October 3rd in 51 BC.
Caesar, aware of the importance of media, wrote dispatches back to Rome detailing his campaign and his soldiers’ achievements. The work is in a simple andjules-cesar clear Latin prose, yet reads well–Gaius Julius Caesar is a vivid Storyteller, and his History of the Gallic Wars was popular at the time and made him a popular hero (It is still read; Wode remembers scrumping his uncle’s copy as a tad and following the military campaigns). As an encore, Caesar invaded Britain.
However, back in the senate–the body that ruled the Roman Republic–Caesar’s political power had begun to erode. Although Caesar had power (and troops) on the frontier in Gaul, Rome was controlled by supporters of his main rival–Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus).
Julius Caesar was commanded by the Roman Senate to vacate his post and return to Rome.

The rule was that general could only lead troops–or even carry his own weapons–outside of the boundaries of the state of Rome itself, the northern boundary of which was the Rubicon river. To come armed beyond this point was an act of treason against the Republic of Rome, and a capital offense.
However, approaching Rome unarmed and alone left Caesar at the mercy of his accusers.
As the Roman historian Plutarch puts it:
Caesar vaticanWhen he came to the river Rubicon, which parts Gaul within the Alps from the rest of Italy, his thoughts began to work, now he was just entering upon the danger, and he wavered much in his mind, when he considered the greatness of the enterprise into which he was throwing himself. He checked his course, and ordered a halt, while he revolved with himself, and often changed his opinion one way and the other, without speaking a word. This was when his purposes fluctuated most; presently he also discussed the matter with his friends who were about him, (of which number Asinius Pollio was one,) computing how many calamities his passing that river would bring upon mankind, and what a relation of it would be transmitted to posterity.”

So there he is.
At the edge of a river, just out of the Alps, in the ice of January, he is hesitating. 400 horsemen and 5000 legionnaires are waiting for his choice, all of Rome is waiting for his choice. A life of forced retirement is facing him if he goes on unarmed, and either death and humiliation or survival rises before him if he takes his army across the river.
He waits, wavering, hesitating, shivering, trying to decide.

Suddenly, he makes up his mind.
He stands up.
He looks south, across the river, and says:
“alea iacta est“–“the die is cast.”
He leads his troops across the river, into Rome, and into history.

Decisions are unavoidable.
Usually, the choices are all a mixed bag, but to not make them is the worst of all.
Julius Caesar was victorious, but his victory would lead to his death 2 years later (and the end of the Republic). To decide is to cast the dice irrevocably, to take a step into the icy waters of the Rubicon.
To live heroically is to accept the responsibility, to embrace the possibility of defeat, but to march on.
Life is uncertain

This big ol’ goofy world

My dearest reader, who doesn’t write,

I’ve been thinking lately about worlds underneath the world—Gaiman is wonderful for that, as of course, was Rowling. Clive Barker does that well with the parallel world of Ararat (of course, terrifyingly in his other books),  and I suppose that is part of the framing of many zombie and other un-dead stories—the idea that there is another reality lurking right beneath the one in which we go about our lives. I really enjoy Latin American Magic Realism for the same reason—that there is magic right below the surface.
I wonder why this appeals to us?
Sometimes, this brings us back to the world we had when we were children exploring it for the first time, when it was all new and crystalline.
Sometimes, it just shatters the mundane, dull, inanity of this working day world which we find so numbing.

I don’t know about magic, and I don’t believe I have ever really gone looking for it.
I only know the reality of the world as I live in it, and it is as filled with wonder as a good cookie is filled with chips and nuts.

Let me give you an example:
I can sit at a table in Cootie Browns and watch the solidity of my glass,Cootie Browns (5) the table, the college students playing at wait staff, the Arsenal match on the telly. It is all quite pleasantly normal, and the Middle American wasteland of North Roan Street beyond it is frighteningly normal.

But if, after Cootie Browns, I turn left and go two blocks, suddenly I am in a different world.
Dairy Farm best 1There is a creek slowly winding its way through the grass, cutting banks into the clay and stone, over-shadowed by tall trees. There are birds singing, and dragonflies buzzing in the sun and shadows. In one tree, I can see more bluebirds than I have ever seen at one time—at least a dozen.

There is a well-tended but worn red barn, and in Dairy Farm best 4little knots in the grass, there are muddy white cows going about their lives, calmly unaware of the radical incongruity of being surrounded by a town.

Stranger, however, is the little self-contained world that meets me if I turn right instead of left.
Behind the Honda dealer, and down the hill, in the shadow, there is a darker world, another city.
The first time I stumbled across it, it seemed like a little medieval village tucked away, out of view. There are car dealerships, shops and restaurants all around, but here are several blocks of trailers that form their own city within the city, with its own roads and rules. In the hollow, the street winds down into Spring City.
Spring City Trailer Park (1)The street winds around, and turns off into gravel roads that become dead ends and driveways, little homes gathered together and looking inwards. By the dozens, these trailers are close by each other, and are shaded over by big trees, so that it always seems a little darker in the narrow twists and turns of Spring City. As you would expect, there are run down trailers and run down cars and run down people, but here and there you also see well-tended places, happily and tackily decorated with octopus’s gardens of planters and lawn jockeys. I have a friend who is a probation officer who has had clients here, but I suspect there are also folks here who have their own notion of order, and would handle minor disturbances on their own—not that the police are never called in.
Children play, running or riding old bikes, and people sitting on their stoops watch me as I walk by, inhaling from their cigarettes and letting out the smoke without ever taking their eyes off me. I pass a big truck full of furniture, because every day somebody is moving in or moving out of Spring City.

I have been a lot of places. I can spot elephants in the stones of European cities, but I have also spotted live giraffes as I have driven to Knoxville, and completely new worlds walking through Johnson City, Tennessee.
My dreams often seem dull, because my waking world leaves me marveling.912signature marvel