Missing AM/PM

Andersonstown, Belfast, N. Ireland

The last week has been nothing short of exhausting. I’m the one to blame for that. I’ve been running around town touring, consuming and attending to details that, in the long run, don’t matter much.

There is quite a bit to write about. I have a few ideas regarding where I’d like to start but I think that tonight will involve just letting the whole bit flow on its own.

In Desperate Need (or, “Missing AM/PM”)
I became quite homesick last night. Something snapped and I realized that while things are very similar between here and home, life is different enough in Ireland to upset every now and then. This obviously requires a great deal more explanation.

People are very much the same no matter where you go, I’ve learned. We all have the same basic needs: eat, sleep, love, be merry, make a dollar (or a pound or euro), chat with friends, see something interesting now and then, and learn a bit while you’re at it all. This is life in California and everywhere else I’ve been including Ireland. I believe its simply human nature.

But there are details about how we go about meeting these needs. Methods, if you will, to the madness of our species. What I’ve discovered once again is that often subtle – and not so subtle – shifts in the details break the flow of our means. A perfect example: in the States almost all of us use cars to get from point A to point B. It’s the same in Belfast. No problem.

Yet, the finer details of driving from A to B in Belfast vs. A to B in California are dramatically different. You’ve heard me ramble on about adjusting to driving on the left of the road versus the right. Old news and not that amusing to begin with. Yet, while I certainly have the hang of it now, there is still something markedly wrong about the whole process to me. Drivers of manual transmissions use their emergency brakes at stop lights and those driving automatics put them into neutral. Never mind that the yellow light means it is about to turn green, not red and that every hundred yards or so there is a sign indicating ticket-cameras for citations, though I’ve never actually seen a camera…

But, it’s not just driving, either. There are so many finer details to life in Belfast (and probably Ireland as a whole, though I have little to no experience elsewhere on the island) that are different that I feel as though I’ve been turned upside down and forced to walk on the ceilings sometimes. You probably did that as a child: sit upside down on the couch with your head hanging down where your knees should be. You might have looked up at the ceiling and wondered what it would be like to walk around the house with it turned upside down. If you really want to know what it is like, go somewhere else entirely different (yet mostly the same) and stay there. Eventually, I assume, you’ll come across a feeling like this.

It happened last night when I no longer felt as though I was on holiday, I was simply somewhere else. I’ve been walking on the ceiling for days and I realized – quite explosively – how disconcerting it all was. Learning new roads, new locations, new foods (even the ones whose signs I recognize are considerably different), new people, new accents, new money, new fashions (old fashions, actually…just revisited five years later)…. I can go on and on.

Unfortunately for you, I probably will.

I started to miss everything I once knew last night. My family, my friends, my job, my wife, our home, all of you who are dear to me…. It all seemed, well, gone.

In desperation (though I didn’t know it was desperation at the time), I rang a few of you who were busy about your early evenings. I was reaching a difficult state; one that I should say was not entirely conducive to a healthy frame of mind. Okay, brutal honesty: I had a couple of pints around the time that this all set in. Do I think that the drink was the cause of it? No, I don’t. But, it didn’t help the emotions I was beginning to struggle with.

Then I realized that this was exactly why I am here. No, not to drink, but to examine – deeply – my life and what it means now. This isn’t holiday, this is a sabbatical. This is supposed to be a time of rest, contemplation and hopefully renewal. I made this change on my own accord, forcibly turning my world upside down once again and demanding that I make sense of it on my own.

So far, it hasn’t been any of the above. In fact, I am just as busy now as I was prior to leaving. Not likely a conscious decision but a defensive one. If I slow down and actually have time to think then there are numerous issues, severely intense emotional issues, that I begin to confront. All of the sudden, the last two years of my life comes crashing in. Memories arrive, images burn, and real questions arise. Folks, it gets pretty ugly in this head of mine at times like these. I spent a year being consumed by them and a considerable portion of the last six months avoiding them until I no longer had a choice.

Leaving our home is a perfect example. There was no other option for me. I simply could not afford it. Decision made, it was time to act.

You may have read about that in one of last month’s posts so I won’t delve any further.

But, Aidan, you may ask, where in the world are you going with all of this? I’m getting there. Just a minor precursor.

So, I’m without home, job, etc. Now I’m in a new country experiencing life from a different perspective. I was attacked last night by issues that I knew would follow me here just as they will follow me everywhere. The big exception is that I really didn’t have anywhere to turn to avoid them. Home base no longer exists. All creature comforts are gone or seriously changed. Those things that you turn to when life gets strange at best are unavailable or so far away that you cannot turn to them.

I wrote for a long while. I cried a lot. It was a pretty disgusting scene all teary and snotty. But, I made it to bed and awoke this morning in a serious funk. No, not a hangover, a _funk_. There is a huge difference.

After a quick bath (there’s no shower here), I dressed and scrambled out of the house. I needed a serious cup of coffee and a few smokes. I needed territory I recognized, faces that I knew, and something familiar – anything – that I could depend on.

What I found sucked. Big time.

It was Sunday morning, around 11:00 a.m. Everything in Belfast was closed. I don’t mean like most places, I mean every damned door was locked. If you weren’t in church, you were at home. Plain and simple. I wasn’t at either and apparently Belfast on a Sunday morning is no place for a yank like me.

I drove for nearly half an hour in desperate search of a coffee. I wound up lost somewhere on the outskirts of downtown and happened upon a little shop called Spirs. The closest equivalence in the U.S. is an AM/PM minimart. But it wasn’t close enough to satisfy my cravings.

First in business was to acquire smokes and coffee. The brands of cigarettes here are unfamiliar. There are, however, strange little half packs of Marlboro. They taste as odd as they look. The best thing I found was Bensen and Hedges Super Kings, a sizable smoke with nearly no flavor or nicotine. It would have to do.

I then paid 50p for a cup of coffee which I had to request from a hot food counter on the other side of the shop. While the young bloke was pouring me one into a wee Styrofoam cup I noticed the menu on the wall above me. There were fried things like pancakes, sausages, breads, beans, chips, and eggs. But, it wasn’t your average breakfast from home. No, this was a plate of pure cholesterol and heartburn, entirely lacking of taste. Not to mention, the pictures just looked gross. I was craving a big machaca burrito stuffed with shredded beef, onions, peppers, tomato and salsa spicy enough to soak your brow.

Instead I found a bag of five pancakes, cold and wrapped in plastic, available for a pound fifty-nine.

Um, cold pancakes? When was that ever good?

I’m certain that I missed a painfully obvious detail that somehow being a stranger would not prepare me for. I don’t doubt for a moment that absolutely EVERYONE knows that you buy the bag, take them home and put them on some strange toaster or hot plate and serve them up with boiled-friggin-something that makes them taste just like paste, but really good Irish paste. Really good to everyone but me.

So, the coffee arrives, in the wee little cup.

Shit. I just said “wee” twice. I’ve got a serious rant about that but I’ll get to it in a minute. First, the coffee: it’s CRAP! Thrice-filtered, twice pissed and boiled to a temperature that only astrophysicists comprehend, the coffee in this country is horrible. And the look that they give when a yank asks for a couple of cubes to cool down this lava are downright offensive.

Never mind the fact that the entire country buys their ice in divided plastic bags. One little plastic console per cube. I asked about ice-cube trays and I may as well have asked whether or not they noticed the sky was purple today.

“Why don’t you make your own ice?” I asked.

“Wha’?” Confused response.

“Never mind.”

So, I sound funny and ask for very strange things but don’t these people have taste buds? Probably not because they were scalded off as young children drinking tea at a temperature close to that of the sun 18 times a day. Don’t get me started because tea is another damned issue altogether. No, I didn’t want a cup 20 minutes ago (when you last asked and served one to everyone else in the restaurant) and I still don’t. I’m still nausiated by the fact that people are scraping off layers of soft pallet like a third-degree burn victim every time they take a sip.

No, please don’t get me started on the tea (“tay”) because I might get a wee bit pissy.

God lord, “wee” number three. A fair warning to all: I’ve got a rant to get off my chest here. It might be offensive for the more sensitive readers….

Everything here is “wee.” Out for a wee bit o’ craic. Wee packs of smokes, wee cups of coffee, wee little taxis on wee little roads with wee little drivers who ask wee little questions like, “Are ye’ fro’ Canada?”

“Canada? No. What gives you that impression?” I reply.

“Havn’t ‘erd ye’ say wee ev’n once.”

Apparently booting a cabbie in the back of the skull with a wee bit o’ the fist is a bit offensive in this country.

I don’t need any “wee little” anything. What I need, right now, is an AM/PM. Because, for the love of all that is good and holy, I’m in a horrible condition and I’m from the U.S. where EVERYTHING is big. I’m in a desperate need of a diet coke (did I mention yet that the Diet Coke is flat and gross here and that NO ONE has self-serve fountains?) so big that the condensation ring along could flood out Las Vegas. I need a big-ass pack of smokes the size of cigars. I want to smoke those cigarettes and drink that diet coke in an SUV the size of Montana, crushing little Renault hire-cars along my big, wide freeway. I want traffic so thick that I can sit and chat on my cellphone for an hour before I move an inch. I want big friggin’ offensive all-beef hot dogs on thick buns soaked in plain yellow mustard (not HP – a painful attempt at A1 Steak Sauce) and I’m going to use as many damned napkins (which are rare to find, almost as rare as toilet seat covers) as I need to wipe every big steaming gob of goop off my face. Then I’m going to reach over and grab a twelve pound BigKat candy bar and break my front teeth just attempting to get my mouth around it. When I’m done, I’m going to push the enormous lever on the ice dispenser until I can ski down the pile I’ve left on the floor. When I’m done I’ll melt that mound of ice with a Venti Traditional coffee from Starbucks and turn it into black tar stains and a price tag that could feed a family in some countries for a month.

Wee my American ass. There’s nothing “wee” in the States! If there is, its DEFORMED or BLASPHEMOUS or probably BOTH!

Yes, that mentality which I’m shocked I brought with me is excessive, wasteful and dangerous to the environment. Why do we keep it on? Because for just a few more years, before the States self-destruct into a massive pile of garbage and decay, WE STILL CAN. As that watermelon-smashing hypocrite “comedian” Gallager once said, “Why? Because we’re Amer’cans!” Did anyone ever point out that the guy who makes so much fun of American waste is famous only because he takes enough food to feed a small country and smashes it to bits on the audience with an over-sized mallet? Now, THAT’S an American.

Wheh. God, that felt good.

I realized then that what I needed more than solace, a warm hug or something familiar was as simple as the common AM/PM. I needed something subjectively “normal” and predictable. Because that predictability is something that my life has been lacking for a while now with the exception of heartache. Sure, there have been great things that have made me smile, and dare I say, even happy. But life has been brutal over the last 2 years as you all know. Leaving home and all of its comforts has been nothing short of painful and cathartic. Being in a new town in a new country with everything different forces you to recognize what you no longer have. And, it’s strange what you miss once you realize that you no longer have it. As wonderful as this journey has been over the last few days, Sunday was rough. I never in a million years thought that I would miss AM/PM almost as much as I miss you. That doesn’t mean I only miss you a little more than a convenience store, it means I miss the convenience store a whole damned lot.

So, as you can see, I snapped a bit today. I needed something of home, something I recognized, something that reminded me that I’m not living on a parallel universe but the same planet where I grew up on.

The cure: I went geek-shopping. I bought some strange cables and power adapters and then spent a few hours trying to find a local pay-as-you-go cell phone. Found one and it should work fine until I go to the cottage. I’m not going to hand out the number. You can still call my old cell and the brick of a Motorolla I carried here will ring. I’ll get your message and give you a call back. I’ll also try not to forget that late afternoon is still morning for y’all. So long as you keep in mind that if you call after 3:00 p.m. your time, most people are sleeping around here.

Until next time, keep it big, make it excessive and light the world on fire with your ravenous American hunger for spice, health food and Excursions. At least at home we know that if it has to be small it better be really friggin’ fast, extremely fattening or painfully expensive.

As it should be.

Yours from Ireland, livin’ la vita craic,