An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Book burning and protests at Dublin midnight mass

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on December 25, 2009
St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin

St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin*

DUBLIN — Outside midnight mass tonight, a man was burning books. At least two copies of the Murphy Report into Child Abuse in Dublin went up in flames. The mass was no ordinary Christmas ceremony, but a tense affair, with hecklers and an Archbishop in full, golden regalia, who seemed humble and eager to please.

Although we’re not practising Catholics, my family has always gone to mass on Christmas eve. This evening my mom and I arrived late to the ceremony at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (it began at 10pm, not midnight, we belatedly found out), but a sense of suppressed excitement was in the air, and we could instantly tell something odd was going on. I don’t remember gardai being at the service before but this year two or three of them stood at the back of the church. After the Palestrina choir’s gorgeous rendition of “Oh Holy Night,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been navigating the tortuous waters the Catholic Church now faces in the wake of the Murphy Report, thanked the singers and all those who had helped prepare for the ceremony. Everyone clapped.

Then, he added that he had spoken to auxiliary Bishop Ray Field and Bishop Eamonn Walsh before the mass, and they had offered their resignation to the Pope. The congregation clapped, again (my mother says with less enthusiasm but it was hard to tell). The archbishop looked worn and his cheeks were puffy and red.

“Pray for them,” he asked the congregation. And he added, “pray for me.”

The clergy made their way down the aisle in a long procession, accompanied by Dublin’s mayor Emer Costello and other dignitaries. They rounded the corner to return to the top of the church along a side aisle, but the archbishop and a priest swerved away and went straight outside instead, going down the cathedral steps and onto the road.

I could’t quite see what was going on — whether Martin crossed the street to the man burning the Murphy Reports. Cameras were snapping, people craned their necks to get a glimpse of the drama. Martin and the priest came back up the Pro-Cathedral steps and stood by the doors greeting those who came out.

I went over to speak to the protester. He said he had just completed a seven-day hunger strike outside the Dail. Both he and his brother had been abused, he explained. When his brother was a boy priests who were his teachers had broken his arm in two places and locked him in a shed for two days. The man said the Murphy Report is a cover-up and does not go far enough. He wants the bishops, and Archbishop Martin, to go on trial for concealing facts.

There was something obscene about the whole thing. People came out from the Pro-Cathedral in throngs and while many stared, nobody wanted to talk to the book-burner. One man called over, “the Nazis did that too.”

My mother and I eventually made our way to our car, which was in a desolate and now empty car-park. A drunk, short-haired, spotty guy in his twenties was loitering unsteadily near our car, and he requested money for “looking after” it. When we refused he held my 68-year-old mother’s door open and wouldn’t let her close it. We somehow managed to get quickly into the car and lock the doors, after which he spat a big glob on the window and kicked my mom’s door.

Dublin feels strange at the moment. On the drive home my mother said it’s a terrible time for Irish history, when all the horrors of abuse are coming to light. But even though it is terrible — and this may be why the city feels frightening and unsettled — it surely was worse before, when people couldn’t say anything.

*I got the photo of the Pro-Cathedral from a blog called Clerical Whispers — which itself reports that a woman knocked over the Pope at the Vatican’s Christmas Eve mass.


Time for the Co-Op

Posted in Brooklyn, Local by Frieda on December 8, 2009
The Park Slope Food Co-Op at night -- eerie, or friendly? (Pic is from image from

The Park Slope Food Co-Op at night -- eerie, or welcoming?*

Ah, the Park Slope Food Co-Op. Today I pulled two brown cloth bags bearing its logo over my shoulder and made my way to the subway for my twice-a-month expedition there. It’s 10 minutes away from me by subway and an average shopping trip takes one-and-a-half hours minimum.

The Co-Op is a divisive entity in Park Slope, Brooklyn (which is where I live). It’s a food co-op where you buy organic/freerange/greenie items cheaply, but at a cost — you have to work there. You really do. The work requirement is two and three quarter hours per month and if you do a cleaning shift, like I do, that shrinks to two hours. If you miss one shift you have to do two within  the next month. If you miss two, you’re out, suspended. You can’t shop there until you make up the work you’ve shirked, which by now will be about eight hours.

But the benefits are brilliant. Contrary to what lots of people say, food is extremely expensive in New York. I’ll never forget an evening in my first month here when I popped out to a local deli (bodegas, they call them here) to buy pasta and sauce and an onion — and came home with $20 less in my pocket. The PS Food Co-Op makes it possible for an impoverished journalist like myself to live on a diet of organic wild Alaskan salmon, free-range eggs, seasonal organic veg, etc., etc. This is important in a country where scary food stories are rife.

Two hours per month may not sound like much but in a busy city life it feels exhausting, on a Monday evening even once a month, to trail my way to the Co-Op and clean and mop and scrub from 8pm to 10. The Co-Op has 15,000 members, which is a lot, but the work requirement is what puts many Park Slopers off. They feel vehement about it. At a recent dinner in a family member’s house in Park Slope, my uncle and cousin disagreed with me about a minor detail of the Co-Op work requirement, insisting they were right, even though they don’t work or shop there, and I do (they were wrong, I checked later).

The burdensome work requirement has also spawned a spate of articles about the place. Park Slope is full of writers and you annoy them at your peril.

So today in the Co-Op I picked up the Co-Op’s own little paper, the Linewaiters’ Gazette — probably so called because you will often stand in a line for up to half an hour before you reach the cash register. It’s usually highly entertaining, full of letters complaining about how certain workers don’t have the right attitude and don’t smile enough. Anyhow an article on the Gazette’s front page read, “They write about working when they don’t do the work.” The author went on to complain about the writers who write pissy articles about the Co-Op in the New York Times.

I’m between two minds about the Co-op myself. As I said, it helps me keep healthy, but on the days my work was piling up and I was under pressure, hauling out my bike and cycling through the dark (or getting the subway) to clean floors seemed like a terrible punishment. And the system is inflexible. A friend of mine left the Co-Op because when he called up to say he couldn’t make his shift since his grandmother had died and he wanted to attend her funeral, the person on the other end of the line said, “We only let you off your shift for death of immediate family members.”

My next work-shift is December 21, when I’ll be flying through the sky to Dublin. I won’t get away with missing it, though, I’ll have to swop the shift with someone. But after today’s shop, my fridge is stocked with veg and that wild Alaskan salmon ($2.15) is in my freezer, and I’m making a wholesome vegetarian shepherds’ pie for dinner tonight. You might hate or love the Co-Op — in my case, it’s both.

[* The pic above is from image from

My Saturday night

Posted in New York, Relationships by Frieda on December 7, 2009
At least I didn't spend my night in a van

At least I didn't spend my night in a van (the pic is courtesy of a company called

How late is too late? Tonight I’d arranged to meet someone who claimed, via email, that he didn’t care if we met late or early. Oh, my literal mind. After a long day of work I faffed around, making food and fiddling with work-things before getting ready. I thought my pal would be okay if we pushed our plans backwards because I was travelling to his area to meet him, so I texted to say I was running late. That was fine. Then I got ready. Then I received a second, wonderfully perceptive text, saying that if I still hadn’t left the house (and I hadn’t) we should probably reschedule.

I feel chastened. And I have an answer to my question. If you’re running two hours late, then, well, you’re too late. So here I am, sitting at my computer, and typing away, on my equivalent of a Saturday night. I guess there’s a lesson there…

However, this does give me an opportunity to post about an intriguing, and I think rather brilliant article that I just read on, by a guy called Ken Ilgunas. Ilgunas is a grad student who lives in a van on college grounds at Duke university, cooking and sleeping there, and showering at the college gym, as part of an effort to avoid going into debt. Duke is one of those US schools that costs an unbelievable $37,000 per year if you don’t have a scholarship or support. It’s well known for having a macho ethos too — its Lacross team was part of an infamous rape scandal a couple of years ago (the players were vindicated).

The masculine atmosphere floating around Duke may explain Ilgunas’ “first man” pose. But even if you think he’s posturing the guy has done something kind of wild. Few people these days would choose to live without heating or a proper water system or, as Ilgunas mentions, an iphone — I wonder if he will buy one soon.

What I really love about the piece is the style. In the era of online, speed-driven writing, there’s something attractively old-fashioned about Ilgunas’ English lit-y tone  (it was no surprise to learn he’s an English major). His use of words like “oftentimes” and “cursed” is poetic even as it’s ironic. He’s not the first student to choose a strange, temporary dwelling over digs — a decade ago I remember hearing of an NYU student who made his home in a library to save money — but he’s able to do it in good literary form.

Here’s the “cursed” bit. It’s overwrought and self-indulgent, but sometimes overwrought works:

“New, strange, unidentifiable smells greeted me each evening. Upon opening the side doors, a covey of odors would escape from the van like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.”

The guy also has a point. US college fees simply astonish me. Most if not all private institutions  charge upwards of $35,000 per year. Students or their parents cough up the cash without a squeak of protest, and if they take out loans that’s just what they do. I study at NYU, where each course costs $5,000, and an MA involves taking nine courses. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have done it without a bursary.  Expense makes American education exclusive in the worst ways.

So despite his youthful self-absorption, I raise my glass to Ken Ilgunas. Metaphorically, as I sit at my computer.

The hazards of working in a cafe

Posted in Brooklyn, Freelance life, Local by Frieda on December 4, 2009

Red Horse Cafe (in summer): not as benign as it might look

There are a number of cafes that I work in near my flat in Brooklyn. If you freelance, cafes are wonderful places to bring your laptop. You can strike up random conversations with strangers and listen in on people’s private chats. You escape the cabin-fever of working from home and your life doesn’t involve sitting alone all day in the room where you normally eat your dinner or, worse, your bedroom (I’ve done that before and I really don’t recommend it, it’s not good for you).

But being surrounded by people has its own inconveniences. You can’t choose the company you keep. Humans can be annoying, as anyone who has ever worked in an office knows — the cough, the laugh, the shuffle, any tiny movement can get on your nerves if repeated often enough.

Right now, for example, I’m in the Red Horse Cafe on 12th street & 5th in Brooklyn, which is so cool that it has both a ning network and a blog (actually the ning site is the new one). I’m sharing a black leather couch with a man who is very sweet I’m sure. And who knows, he might be a famous writer or a little known multimillionaire or just a lonely person looking for human interaction. Still, I can tell you that he is chomping and crunching his lunch noisily, and clearing his throat every 12 seconds. His lunch began with an orange-coloured soup (slurp, slurp), followed by a dish of crisps and a sandwich (munch, chew, chew). It’s winter but he wears a waistcoat that leaves his slightly plump arms bare and in close proximity to mine. He is accompanied by four ring-binder notebooks, a rucksack and a paper-bag filled with other paper-bags.

The man opposite me catches my eye and his eyebrows twitch. He throws a disapproving glance at my couch-mate.

As I write, the snuffly man is gathering his belongings. First I think he’s talking to himself but then I realize he’s addressing me. “This isn’t a good place for short people. You see, I’m unusual because I’m short but I have a terribly long torso. These couches just aren’t comfortable.” Innocently, I gesture to the chairs on the other side of the room. I’m sure they’re far more comfortable. Indeed, that’s where I’d be sitting if that side of the room had computer plugs.

Spanish music is playing in the background. The twitchy guy asks the girl opposite me, who’s wearing a lovely pink and orange shirt, where she got her green MacBook cover.  I don’t really listen in, but it all seems very pleasant.

A fellow with grey hair and a green coat looms over me and asks if I mind if he sits down. I don’t. But unnervingly, the eyebrow-twitcher looks over. I meet his glance, then look away, then meet his glance again. What?!

“Am I typing too loud? I’ve been told before I type too loudly,” I say. This is true. When taking the GRE exams for US college, I was reprimanded by the exam supervisor. The person beside me had complained about my typing.  “Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Twitchy says. “It’s ok.”

Cars beep outside, an alarm goes off. Over by the window the snuffly man is finishing his lunch. On the couches, we sit in a square, Mr. Twitchy, the pink-and-orange-shirted girl, and the green coated man, all typing away on our computers, engrossed in our work and tapping, tapping, tapping.

[The image above is from]