Sitting at a Waterford bus stop I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between an Irish retiree and a Syrian woman. He’d lived in Waterford for the better part of his 80+ years. She’d been here for the past nine. After the usual pleasantries he asked her about current Middle Eastern politics. She explained her perspective on what’s happening there. In human terms, not geopolitical jargon. He listened, he asked brief follow-up questions. She smiled, frowned, thought and responded in depth to each request. Then buses arrived and we each went our separate ways. I think we all learned more in ten minutes of conversation than in ten minutes of point-making polemics or ten hours of mass media.
While it’s rare to be privy to such a polite and insightful conversation, it wasn’t the first time for me. I guess I’m pretty lucky. Anyway, this week’s trip brought me a number of firsts, albeit not as significant as this reminder of all the learning we can do when we remember that our mouth is just one of many senses – and it’s the one that usually keeps us from learning. And those other somewhat significant firsts? I’ve left County Cork’s womb of independent bookstores, even if it’s just up the road and over a river. And more importantly, it’s the first time I’m shopping with a specific goal in mind. And for the second time in a couple of hours I encountered a lovely person who not only listened, but accurately anticipated my thought.
It’s been a lot of dog or donkey years since I was last in Waterford. Then it was a cold grey rainy dreary and deserted winter’s day. Today was filled with sun, tourists and tour guides spouting tales of Viking heritage. Have you ever been someplace where you recognize individual landmarks, but have forgotten the geographic or spatial glue that holds them together? In trying to put my finger on all the changes, the only thing that really fit into my mind was the wonderful proliferation of building-sized murals. No matter how grey the day, they’ll make anyplace brighter. My favourite is a tribute to public artists: the portrait of a young man working with his can of spray paint.
Then I walked into the Book Centre – a delightfully cavernous multi-level store occupying an old theatre. It took half a heartbeat, but I realized I’d been here before, twenty-plus years ago. Damn, it felt good to be back. Having said that, I was overwhelmed in another way. A couple of months of mom-and-pop stores doesn’t prepare you for the size, inventory and activity of a wonderful haven with a restaurant, wall-size murals and a reading area complete with a bubbling fountain. It may not be heaven, but it’s pretty close and I could comfortably wander, sit, read and eat here until St. Pete or his opposite number comes calling.
And about that goal. I’d just finished a book I’d picked up earlier in my peregrinations, Rosita Boland’s Secret Map of Ireland, and had seen the publicity on her newest, Elsewhere. I hadn’t seen it in any of the smaller stores I’d visited and figured that a store of this size would stock it. I didn’t see it here, either. So I went to their help desk and asked for it, beginning my sentence with, “Do you have Rosita Bol…” The woman finished my sentence for me as she walked me to a display table and gave me what appeared to be their last copy. I hope they’ve re-ordered.
So far on this trip I’ve read the books I’ve picked up within a month or so. I started Elsewhere on the way home, mainly because when first thumbing through it Boland introduced me to the term fernweh, a German word that describes my view of life. Google translates it as wanderlust. Boland talks of “the pain of not being in foreign parts. A desire to travel. An ache for distant places.” Whether we’re talking about experiencing new places, new knowledge or new experiences, it’s a skin I’m comfortable wearing. The lyrics of Far Away Places [with strange sounding names calling, calling me…] are never far from my consciousness. Having said that, I’d never heard the word fernweh until now. So thank you, Ms. Boland.
If you read my travel blogs you’ll see tales of people and places I’ve encountered, but for the most part you’ll need to discern my feelings from the attitude of the piece. Boland doesn’t hide her feelings. You’re dealing with her experiences and the fear, joy and all in-between that makes us persons. She tells us – brilliantly and movingly – what many of us [me included] hesitate to put in the public eye.
If you’re looking for a good read for yourself, or a great gift for the upcoming holidays, get yourself Elsewhere.
This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.