Day One and Two

Friday March 13 -Saturday March 14

This journal attempts to record observations during an extraordinary time.  Although the title for this entry says “Day One,” it is actually 207 days since my first interaction with the virus.  That day my doctor urged me to cancel my trip to Paris afraid I would be one of the now 5.7 million Americans stricken with the disease.  I didn’t listen: on February 15th, I landed at Charles De Gaulle airport.  My return flight was booked for March 20th.  I didn’t make it.  On March 13th, I raced home like thousands of other Americans after President Trump announced the closing of borders at midnight to anyone traveling from Europe.

Once home, I ran around the supermarket loading up on beans and toilet paper in a frenzy of ignorance.

The next day, March 14th, I faced my first day of reckoning.  Like many humans, my thoughts turned to vanity.  Who would cut and color my hair?  It was due.  My hairdresser had already closed her store but said she might consider seeing a few regulars.  I jumped at the offer, ignoring the risks .  These were early days.  Maybe I felt invincible.  I had been in France during fashion week when some Italians had been allowed to enter the country as Italy reeled from the voracious spread of the virus.  I had walked down the narrow streets of the Marais past fashion show venues bumping into people, perusing stores for hours.

UnknownMarais, Paris

 In London, I had been to the movies, to the British Library, the National Archives, spending whole days researching family history.

images-1Curzon Cinema, Bloomsbury, London

I was in Ireland just as Dublin shut down.

imagesO’Connell Bridge, Dublin

I had flown on a crowded plane for more than 6 hours and then taken an hour train ride home.  But I wasn’t sick.  So couldn’t I get my hair cut?  No, I finally decided, I couldn’t and so began five months of isolation and negotiations with family, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, with myself on what to do and how to manage.

Dublin Day 5

Wednesday, March 11

The plan- research my Irish ancestors at the National Archives of Ireland on Bishop Street,  a 2 mile walk across the Liffey into a gritty part of Dublin.

IMG_7655-2Millennium Bridge, River Liffey, Dublin

However, the Archives were closed due to the corona virus.  The day was just about shot, so I made my way to Dunne’s Department Store on Henry Street just blocks from my flat.  They stocked faux bone cutlery I had admired at my friend’s house and had unsuccessfully searched for in the Paris “marchés.”  Once I located my prize, I realized 8 forks, 8 knives, 8 soup spoons, and 8 teaspoons were too heavy to fly home.  The clerk recommended sending them through the postal service.  This required a trip to the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street, the republican’s headquarters during the 1916 Easter Rising when they attempted to end 800 years of British occupation.  Beginning Easter Monday, April 24th, the leaders of the rebellion took control of the building.  By Saturday, April 29th, shelling of the GPO made it uninhabitable.  They escaped by breaking through walls of surrounding buildings only to surrender hours later from their new headquarters at 16 Moore Street.

The_shell_of_the_G.P.O._on_Sackville_Street_after_the_Easter_Rising_(6937669789)General Post Office, Dublin, 1916 Easter Rising

Although it was almost closing, the postal workers were most helpful, the cost was reasonable, my problem was solved.

A downpour forced me home where I lit a fire, took up Angelica Grant’s, Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood. and had leftovers for dinner.  I was about to watch TV when I got a text from my cat sitter.  “Because of the Corona Virus, Trump is closing the airports on Friday to international travel.  Will you be okay?”  No.  I wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 10 days.

Unknown

I’m obsessed with how some Jews knew it was time to leave Germany and other parts of Europe during Hitler’s reign.  Would I have had the courage, the sense to get out?  Here I was in a somewhat similar dilemma but I hadn’t paid attention.  My doctor had asked me to cancel this trip because of the virus.  I had had inklings of it’s problems in Paris when France barred Italian trains.  But I hadn’t changed my plans.  Now I had to get out of Ireland by Friday or be trapped in a foreign country,  or so I thought.  Immediately, I got on the phone to change my reservation.  By midnight I managed to get two flights: one with a stop over in London leaving in 6 hours, another leaving Dublin on Friday getting in at noon.  By 3 A.M, I had made a decision.  Worried I might get stuck in London, I chose to leave on Friday even though the flight might be delayed: the time difference between Ireland and the states gave me a 5 hour advantage.

Thursday created it’s own problems.  When I tried to confirm my flight, United Airlines had an expired passport number.  I tried to make the changes on line but to no avail.  When I called the airline, I got disconnected after being on hold for three hours.  Around midnight, I gave up and checked in using the wrong passport number.  I would make the correction at the airport.  But if I couldn’t, would I be kept in Ireland indefinitely?  This was the second time I wondered if I could get home from Europe.  I had been in France on 9/11 and for the few days when the US airports were closed, I imagined never getting home or being shot down mid air.

A cab picked me up at 5 A. M. Friday and for about a half hour provided some distraction.  After the driver uncovered I was doing research on my Irish grandmother’s education, he gave me a brief history of hedge schools.  During the 18th and part of the 19th century, only those of the Anglican faith were allowed to attend school in Ireland.  Hedge schools, usually held in barns, homes and fields were organized to give Catholic children (who were in the majority) an education.  Something to mull over in terms of my great- grandmother.  On the Irish 1901 census, it indicated she could read and write.

Rathvilly-Hedge-SchoolsRathvilly Hedge School Around 1827

Once at the airport, I went to the print out my ticket.  I dug in my handbag for my wallet.  Nothing.  I ran from person to person looking for help.  Finally an airport employee used her phone to call the cab company and yes, they had it and, yes, they would drop it off.  Relief.  But once I went through security, would I be prevented from leaving?  My passport indicated I had been in France just 10 days ago, a restriction for entering the United States.  I got through.  Momentary relief.  As I wandered around the airport, I learned that I had to go through United States Preclearance.  Now I was really worried.  This was US security.  What would they do when they realized that I had recently been in France?  And the line was exceedingly long.  Would I miss my flight?

My worst fears came to nothing.  I was back in Princeton by 2 P.M. –  enough time to rush to the grocery story and stock up on toilet paper.

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Dublin Day 3 and 4

Monday, March 8

My first day at North Great George’s Street, a grand Georgian house built in 1774 and a few houses down from the James Joyce Centre.  Entering the foyer felt like entering a movie set, a huge entrance, 30 foot ceilings, and a grand staircase at the end- on the right, the door to my flat.  Inside, brochures on a table in the small entryway described the house’s history with invitations for guided tours.  Like many Georgian mansions in Dublin, it had been a tenement, each room rented out to a large family.

My flat was by no means a tenement.  Usually my stays are in small apartments or rooms, not luxurious digs but this location was within walking distance of the Irish Writer’s Centre where I planned to spend most of my time.   Large shuttered windows looked out on a garden, a sofa faced a wood burning fireplace, an elegant dining table sat along it’s right side, and a four poster bed with expensive linens fitted out the bedroom, 13 foot ceilings adding to it’s grandeur.

IMG_7675North Great George’s Street

As it was already late in the afternoon, I needed to purchase groceries for the next few days.  The closest supermarket was Tesco’s a half mile along Parnell Street.  Once I left North Great George’s Street, the charm began to wear off.  This part of Parnell was lined with inexpensive “ethnic” restaurants, unsavory drinking establishments, and small shops that had seen better days.

Tesco’s had everything I needed.  As I hadn’t eaten since the day before, I stopped at The Parnell Heritage Bar and Grill on my way home- a real tourist trap.  I didn’t care: I just wanted a Guinness and some grub.

Unknown-1Parnell Heritage Bar and Grill

Almost every night my grandmother ate the same thing for dinner, an Americanized version of Colcannon, the traditional Irish dish of mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage.  She used spinach.  I ordered the version with cabbage and Irish bacon.  A huge mound of mash and cabbage with thick pieces of bacon, more like ham than American bacon, covered in parsley sauce, a rich béchamel infused with parsley, presented itself.  Surprisingly, it was delicious and enough to feed five: I was forced to leave most behind but it eliminated the need for dinner.

Tuesday, March 9.

I haven’t lived in a flat while traveling these past three years, so settling in was a treat.  I was right at home perhaps because I had a home.  After a leisurely breakfast, I spent the day at the Irish Writer’s Centre.

UnknownIrish Writers Centre

As a member, I am entitled to free coffee and biscuits and a room for writing.  One was available on the third floor with windows overlooking Parnell Square.

Unknown-3Parnell Square

The doubts, the ennui that had been dogging me, evaporated.  Two ingredients contributed to this improved state of mind- my own home and a separate place to write.  I vowed that when I returned to the states, I would write away from my house.  There seems to be a quickening of the blood away from domesticity.

As I worked, a memory surfaced.  Perhaps, it was the Colconnan from yesterday’s dinner.  When I was 9 years old, my closest friend was a second generation Irish girl named Mary Ellen.  Her name appealed to me: it was my grandmother’s name and a name she had vowed I would have even if she had me baptized behind my mother’s back.  Yet she was never called “Mary Ellen” but always Molly.  When I wanted to name my daughter, Molly, she dismissed my choice- “Ah, it’s a only a washer woman’s name.”

Mary Ellen lived next to a vacant lot where we played after school or in the early evenings as spring wore on.  The game was always the same- living on a farm in Ireland.  Most likely, these pantomimes were based on our grandmothers’s stories.  We constructed a small fireplace, a circle of stones around which we sat and planned our meals.  Potatoes over the open fire and tea of course.  Each day, the narrative took up from the day before.  Much of it had to do with housekeeping and our version of animal husbandry.  I assured Mary Ellen that during cold weather, the animals stayed in the house for that was what my grandmother had told me.  We also had versions of itinerants who sat by the fire in the evening telling stories in exchange for a meal.  Our stories included our relatives and neighbors just they would have when travelers spun tales around my great grandmother Mary Kearns’ hearth on Upper Kilnamanagh Road in Roscommon.  We gave them appropriate Irish names taken from our extended family: Mary, Bridget, Patrick, Michael and last names, Beirne, Daly, Kearns, McGann.

IMG_0986Upper Kilnamanagh Road, Roscommon, Ireland 

That night, as I had the makings of a quick dinner with dessert, I invited my friend and her male acquaintance to dinner.  Another perk to having a home.  We ate in front of the fire, drank wine, and made plans for lunch at the Michelin starred restaurant, Chapter One, next to the Irish Writer’s Center.  An ideal day, writing in the morning, a celebration with food and drink afterwards.

f4b51e0f-98b4-44b9-b86a-a7ec6c94e167The flat, North Great George’s Street, Dublin

Dublin Day 1-2

Saturday March 7

These days were spent at a friend’s house without much writing, just a brief adjustment to a new country.  Getting there was not easy.  My mode of transportation was a shuttle that stopped within a few blocks of her house.  When I arrived at Dublin Airport, there were no signs directing me to the bus line.  An airport employee led me outside to a bank of bus quays.  But which one?  A man seeing my distress helped me navigate my luggage in what he thought was the right direction; eventually, he became confused and walked off shaking his head.  I chose one whose sign had the same color as the advertised shuttle, red, and settled in for a long, cold wait.  Eventually, I made it to Lucan.  A few glasses of wine, dinner, then bed.

Sunday March 8

A full day.  As we often do when I visit, we took her dog on a long walk along the cliffs of Donabate which face the Irish Sea. Exquisite as ever.

IMG_5876Donbate

Then a film at the Lighthouse Cinema, more a cultural meeting place with it’s lounges and bars.

imagesLighthouse Cinema Dublin

The showing of Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, a biopic on Madame Curie, was of particular interest: an interview with Satrapi followed the film.  Several connections.  First, in Paris, at the Irish Cultural Center, I lived across the street from the Curie Institute.  Second, I have taught Satrapi’s animated film Persepolis many times as well as the two graphic memoirs on which it is based.  I found the film Persepolis disappointing compared to the memoirs which gave a more informed view of life in Iran during and after the 1980 cultural revolution.   However, the superb quality of the animation brought the graphics alive as if they were jumping off the page.

images-2Persepolis

Radioactive’s conventionality surprised me.  Satrapi is anything but conventional.

images-1

It could have been a Hollywood biopic complete with out of focus love scenes cutting to romantic water views.  Entertaining but not so interesting.   However, the interview did better.  Satrapi did better emerging as the outspoken unguarded woman of Persepolis.

In the restroom, for the first time, I took into account the threat of the Corona Virus:  I washed my hands for 20 seconds.

 

 

London Day 5 and 6

Friday March 6

Today was spent at Charleston once the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, now maintained by the Charleston Trust.  I made the same trip that they and their friends often made from Bloomsbury, taking the train from Victoria Station to Lewes, then, for me, a taxi to Charleston.  I almost missed the train: on the one designated for Lewes, people seemed to be getting off rather than getting on.  I left the cabin looking for answers and found the driver of the train.  The platform had been changed at the last minute.  He led me and the other passengers to the correct location and soon after, the one hour trip to Lewes began.

Unknown-2Victorian Station

Train travel, even short journeys such as this, have been a time of contemplation, even revelation, for me.  This morning, I again considered what my son had called the “beautiful struggle,” the attempt to create.  Beautiful would not be the term I would use for my particular battle.

Everything has come into question, especially what I once told my daughter: if I don’t write, if I don’t travel, I’ll shrivel up and die.  Is that what is happening?  I could find outside sources to blame: President Trump, the corona virus, not having a place of my own.  Yet, how can I fault the Irish Cultural Center: a large room, a communal breakfast, invitations to events, a courtyard for writing in good weather?  No.  What about my small hotel room in Bloomsbury?  It too looks out on a courtyard, it too gives me breakfast, and it too has an ideal location.  Why there is even a cinema around the corner showing interesting films and serving drinks at it’s two bars.

The rosy colored lens through which I viewed life seems to have been replaced by clear or even jaundiced ones.

This worm turning in on me began when I read Deirdre Bair’s Parisian Lives, a memoir of writing Samuel Beckett’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s biographies.  Both writers come across as suffering from extreme self-involvement.  Suddenly, I couldn’t read them or admire them.  Now I’m confronted with my own rigidity.  Why should their foibles have anything to do with my own work?  Why has de Beauvoir’s or Beckett’s work become tainted by their mean spirited personalities?   Rubbish me thinks.

12RIDING-COMBO-jumbo                                Simon de Beauvoir                             Samuel Beckett

Might Charleston rescue my interest in writers, in artists?

After a convivial taxi ride, I entered the front garden- restored.  Inside the house, each room filled me with pleasure.  So well arranged to enjoy life: the seemingly casual art, the lamps placed just right for reading, the tables for writing, the studios for painting.

Garden-Room-14-Axel-Hesslenberg-245x360The Garden Room

Maynard_Keynes_Room-_4-540x360  Maynard Keynes’s Bedroom

The gardens filled me with wonder and longing.  Organized beauty that appears natural, not designed, full of grace.  Supposedly, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant wrote to each other frequently about such matters.

IMG_7607A view from the kitchen garde

Beyond the house is a museum, a dining area in a restored barn, and a shop.  I was enthralled.  I imagined living here: it suited me.  I felt at home.  I contemplated buying fabric, a direct duplicate of those used on chairs and beds in the house.  Duncan Grant’s art fits comfortably inside my eyes, my brain.

Charleston-10th-September-17-e1576065700402Pamela by Duncan Grant

My taxi driver brought me back to earth when he dropped me off at the station.  We had had a lively conversation about his travels throughout the states in the late 60’s.  As I was leaving, I told him that, unfortunately, we couldn’t shake hands given the Corona Virus.  He laughed and quickly gathered me in his arms.  I smiled tightly, horrified that he may have given me the dreaded disease.

At Charleston, I had bought the memoir of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s daughter Angelica Grant, Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood which I began reading on the train.  Here I go again.  All the beloved biographies, letters, diaries, novels of Virginia Woolf pale in light of Angelica’s childhood- ignored or worse, treated as an adored object, not a human being.

Again, I say to myself, rubbish!  Might I be a narrow minded prig?.  Or if I’m kinder, one who suffers from too much empathy.  A student in a documentary film course I taught commented on the film selection,  “You seem to favor the underdog.”  Do I want to get submerged by this identification?  Yet that seems to be my subject: my French grandmother, a mixed race woman; my Irish grandmother living when “no dogs or Irish” were allowed; and a Greek grandfather, sometimes, called a dirty Greek.

I once said to someone that to be a writer, one had to be ruthless.  Am I up to the task? Has the air gone out of my red ballon, the book I’m chasing?

Saturday March 7

I traveled to Dublin without much difficulty, yet anxiety seeped in as more news of the corona virus emerged.  My doctor had urged me not to take this trip.  Was she right?  I considered abandoning Ireland, going straight home from London.  But not yet.