Category Archives: life in general

Cities for living

tl;dr: read this Intelligent urban transport systems

When I left Brussels for Dublin in 1999, I was operating under the assumption that Dublin was becoming a better place to live. The bus system was still catastrophic, but the Luas was under construction, and there was a buzz around the place which suggested there was a focus on how people could live more easily in a city which to be honest, had been a bit of a disaster when I was in college there in the early 1990s. People from Dublin do not tend to like hearing this but fine.

However, against that any time you as a returning emigrant highlighted things that could be done better (and were elsewhere), there was still a prevailing attitude of “Well here’s the Ryanair website, off you go if it is so much better in France”. Most people would take the view that health care in fact was better in France. In general.

I spent 17 or 18 years in Dublin before eventually escaping again. It took about 5 years of planning, battling, thinking about stuff and trying to catch opportunities before it all came together and I got out. The thought of growing old in Dublin depressed me and when I look at debates around certain aspects of living in Dublin still going on I reckon I would be old before Dublin reached a stage where in fact it was an attractive city to live in. Essentially, it can be very difficult to create a healthy life style in Dublin – I managed it for around 12 of the years I lived there and when it went bad, it went quite badly. In the end, I was losing 2-3 hours a day in commuting over a commuting distance of 7 km. It’s one thing to lose that sort of time if you’re travelling 60 km each way. It is ludicrous if the distance is 7km. I walked it one day. It was deeply unpleasant as well.

I’ve long been of the opinion that people in Dublin would be a lot healthier if the place had a coherent, dependable, integrated public transport system. It doesn’t. Not only that, it isn’t getting one any time soon. There is a current project in place which will displace 13 million bus journeys to facilitate something like 1 million bike journeys. There just isn’t an integrated consideration of the question “How do we make this place a good place to live”. Symptoms are attacked piecemeal, other problems are not addressed at all. All in all, if I had to pick one word to describe trying to navigate Dublin, the word Stress would line up.

I whinge at length about public transport in Dublin, but in particular I want to highlight a key problem in that particular city – I am not sure that it is unique to Dublin but my experience is that it is particularly bad in Dublin. It is a city and society in which the default is an unhealthy lifestyle rather than a healthy life style.

For more than 10 years, I worked somewhere that was a guaranteed 20 minutes from where I lived. Every single morning, that’s how long it took me to get there and that’s how long it took me to get home. This meant I had more time to do things like go swimming three times a week, cook in the evenings when I got home without being utterly exhausted, go climbing, do more needlework, go to more concerts. The logistic reality of my life was not all that stressful in the grand scheme of things. When I started working in the city centre I attempted to make public transport work for me because really, it’s more environmentally sound, and in theory it should be a bit cheaper. In reality, the transport times across two jobs in two different city centre locations were either completely unreliable, or consisted of a mode of which one was completely unreliable. I eventually went back driving because the journey times were generally more reliable, and came in at shorter than the public transport options. Again, that was for 7km, and one of them was sa point to point bus service.

People cannot live healthily like this. And yet in Dublin we just took it for granted? Appointment at 7pm? Travel wildly early because travelling on time didn’t guarantee you’d be on time. The amount of time wasted in inefficient travel in Dublin for me was just beyond calculable and it was utterly depressing.

Time wasted like this has all sorts of knock on effects. It puts stress on parents trying to collect kids from childcare, arriving home later from work cuts into time for doing stuff like oh preparing and cleaning up food, doing any sort of a hobby, getting exercise. I can clearly flash back to having spent a crazy amount of time figuring out how best to fit swimming into my schedule and still failing because an 8km journey could take up to 2 hours. Arriving home at 8pm with a need to be up at 6am has a fairly desperate impact on your ability to manage things like a regular healthy eating habit, a reliable sleeping patter and any sort of relaxation. We have increasing rates of burn out and our health indicators are pointing towards obesity and diabetes and other environmental issues in the area of air quality.

As a society we create an environment where the default option is to be unhealthy and to be in an unhealthy environment. It’s a macro level problem. And we expect people to fix it on a micro level. Individuals need to fight hard to sort out diets and eating habits, and getting enough exercise even as they still don’t have time for either and are trying to operate in a lifestyle which is designed to counteract every effort they make. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When you move outside the public transport side of things, there is also the general social issue of presenteeism. Where people work crazy hours and make a virtue of it. Despite the fact that it adds to their stress, adds to the amount of time they don’t spend recovering, doesn’t necessarily add value to their working day. And then they complain about people who they perceive to have easier lives and instead of working on the premise of improving life for all, they look to disimprove life for all

It’s corrosive and it is something we will have to address urgently particularly in the wider context of things like minimum basic income and especially automation of jobs and moves to replace workers with intelligent systems (for a given value of intelligent anyway).

It is clear that we need things to be sustainably financially for things to operate without causing war or catastrophe. But against that, we need to ensure that the benefit of things are shared relatively fairly. We don’t tend to have this debate either and ultimately, it is not going to be healthy to have an increasing number of people unable to find work while another sector overworks itself to an early grave.

I suppose, the point I’m making is we don’t ask whether the way our society operates is healthy and whether our objectives are sane and sensible in terms of enabling people to live healthy lives. I’m not sure how we start that conversation. But I do know that reliable transport would make people’s lives a lot better.

Trail running shoes moan

When I started “running” for a given value of running earlier in the year, I had to go and buy trainers.

This was hard and I wanted two pairs: one to run in and one to mooch around in. I now don’t like the mooch pair and they were Nikes. I loved my trail running shoes. They are a gorgeous black and aquamarine. They are also no longer available. And ASICS have annoyed me by not having nice colours for the replacement range.

Am annoyed. Amazon has the older pair in every size except mine. Mutter, mutter. The search starts again.

A Library, A Library, My Kingdom for a Library

Very few things make me terribly, terribly envious of other people, but home libraries, grand pianos and home swimming pools are on that short list.

I’ve always wanted a home library. A room with floor to ceiling shelves full of books. They don’t all have to be “worthy” books – although I have a collection of dictionaries which probably exceeds most normal people’s need for reference books.

Of course, I own a kindle, and carry around 300 books with me at all times. I can probably fit more books on the kindle than I could in shelves in my current living room.

But.

Actual, real books are special. Of course they are. They have a user interface which kindles really can’t touch. You know by looking at a book just how far through it you are, or are not. The average pocket book is more comfortable to read in bed than a kindle is.

Books have a special smell. Eau de Parfum de Brand New Book which slowly, over a long time period, moves to Eau de Parfum de Musty Dusty Book.

I love new books. I love leafing through them. I especially love the 2017 Edition of the Illustrated Grand Larousse. Did I mention I liked dictionaries?

I love casting an eye over a bookshelf and thinking “Today I will read (or reread) this book or that book”. It’s not the same as doing it through a kindle.

I don’t really care what my house looks like out on the outside. I care that it has a library, with floor to ceiling bookshelves, slowly filling up, in a chaotic but very personal mode. Not for me this utterly ridiculous idea of sorting books by colour to make a Statement. This is not about interior decor. This is about exploring the world.

In the room a comfy armchair with a table and a lamp so that I can see the words and have somewhere to leave a cup of tea as I vanish into a world that only exists in the imagination of a random stranger somewhere.

If the room is big enough, you know, I’ll put the grand piano in there too. Maybe a beanbag too for those days when the armchair is just too formal. Days when, outside it is raining but on the pages of a book in my hand, the world is full of possibilities, and no risk of getting wet, only of travelling a world currently unseen.

I’ve always felt that lots of money was wasted on socialites. I’d spend it on books if I had it.

Feierdag

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Luxembourg rather sensibly has its national big party event in the middle of summer. I was thinking of this as I considered the absolute novelty of standing outside in the warmth of 30 degrees to watch a fireworks display rather than standing out in the freezing cold waiting for the rain in March.

23 June is Bonfire Night in Cork. When the Independent Republic of Cork is declared, make that the Independence Day festival. Trust me. You’ll wonder how you tolerated marching bands in March. There is no comparison.

In Luxembourg, the whole national celebration thing starts the day before the National Day. This includes turning the place into a giant street party. It is unbelievable.

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This is from the Ville Haute near the main expensive shopping district. Just around from this the party starts.

Bar after bar after bar has DJs playing sets on the street.

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including dry ice machines

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and like 20 metres away from all these club on a streets you have gigs on a street.

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These were the headliners on Place d’Armes. Around the corner in front of the Hotel de Ville there was this lot.

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That gives just a bit of a taste of the atmosphere there was in that square last night. This was their audience by the way.

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This here was the main stage where the Military Band were lined up to accompany the fireworks.

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They were brilliant. You can here them in the following videos.

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Jupiter Bringer of Joy

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Jupiter Bringer of Joy

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Bolero

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Bolero

Here are some stills of the fireworks.

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This was me at one of the gigs.

I have to say last night was great fun. There were food stalls everywhere. In the Knuedelplatz, where the guy with the fiddle and the girl on the accordion were rocking out, you went and exchanged cash for tokens. There were stalls over the place selling light sabres and light up hairbands. The buses were rerouted for the evening and free – seriously, they are dead serious about getting people to get buses. Three routes were added to support park and ride. Bunch more photos and weirdly aligned videos (don’t look at me – this happened automatically) to be found here.

Shop boys

There’s a Neil Gaiman book called Stardust the film adaptation of which is, in my opinion, one of the best film adaptations of a fantasy story going. The sort that leaves you feeling uplifted and happy rather than relieved, that is. It probably isn’t as epic as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The chief male character pops up at the outset working in a shop. He has a crush on the local lord’s daughter, who dismisses his interest because well he’s just a shop boy. Later the non-bitch love interest points out that there are shop boys, and there are boys who happen to work in a shop for a while. This is shortly before he becomes local king. In many respect, it’s a fairly simple rags to riches story where the poor boy with no power at the beginning turns out to have rather a lot of it. It is a wonderfully filmed piece of cinema, the music is lovely, the costume is lovely, but there is still this idea that you are only worth something if you wind up rich and successful at the end

That being said. I was at a family occasion lately, and time past were being discussed. The times past being discussed were dances. I grew up in the disco era so all of this was completely alien to me. We had to deal with “the slow set”

Dances in times further back than that – a lot further back – were the stuff of legends. The boys did all sit along one wall, and the girls did all sit along the opposite wall and the ritual was basic enough: the boys asked the girls to dance and the girls, except under extreme circumstances, could not say no. A typical extreme circumstance involved too much alcohol which sometimes leads me to wonder how often in fact, women got to say no at dances down the country. How much was too much? If you said no, you got a scathing review o DanceAdvisor which operated on the bush telegraph anyway. And it was as durable as the internet appears to be. Memories were sharp on this matter.

Society being what it was at the time, there were social “clues” which mattered a great deal. The one which was new to me was the one where a man had 3 pens in his shirt pocket. I dare say the number was variable, but what mattered was if he had pens at all, usually fountain pens, because this meant he was a Shop Boy. The girls liked and aspired to hook up with shop boys.

Because dancing was an essential tool on the road to getting married and being provided for – I hardly need tell you that in the grand scheme of things, economically women were not the strongest in Ireland at the time – things like this mattered. The farm boys did not like the shop boys because typically the shop boys got all the girls. They weren’t thinking in terms of “there are boys who are shop boys, and there are boys who worked in shops for a while”. The life you might lead as a woman who married a shop boy was likely to be very different to the life you would lead if you married a farm boy.

I found this fascinating because most of my life, a townie, listening to people talking about mating rituals down the country, what mattered was road frontage. That you had land and it fronted onto a main road. That sort of land was wealth. But farming brought with it a lifestyle which many a young girl did not aspire to. A shop boy was a boy with a prospect of a better and easier lifestyle.

A boy who was a shop boy just for a while might never cut it in a dance hall in rural Ireland.

 

People who get up early in the morning

Enda Kenny announced during the week that he was stepping down as leader of the party currently in minority government, and this, needless to mention, caused a leadership battle. The two front runners included Leo Varadkar. It was reported during the week that he wanted to lead the party “for people who get up early in the morning”. (Irish Times report)

This is generous of him but it hides something. Many people in Ireland who get up early do so not because they are spectacularly productive but because they have no choice. Leo Varadker wants to lead a party for people who spend 3 to 4 hours a day commuting to jobs in Ireland’s urban centres. Some of these people are not that far from work as the crow flies, it is just they need to negotiate the M50 in Dublin or the N20 and Dunkettle Roundabout in Cork. Leo Varadker was Minister of Transport who shelved the M20 from Cork to Limerick and also, who applied the first delay to Metro North in Dublin. He cut PSO subsidies too.

I used to live in Dublin, and I used to get up early in the morning. Much of that was to ensure I got across the city without spending one hour in traffic. There was a time it was to get stuff done in the mornings, like study, self education and the like. But that stopped when I stopped working somewhere that didn’t involve city centre traffic, for example. When I hear Leo Varadkar talking about being a leader for a party for people who get up early in the morning, he is probably trying to make you think he wants to be a leader for a party for the movers and shakers in the country. Watch any two bit productivity how to be successful video on youtube and many of them will talk about getting up early. Set your alarm 30 minutes earlier. None of them then say “and go to bed 30 minutes earlier”.

But the vast majority of people getting up early in the morning are losing hours of their lives daily to commuting. They are trying to exist as best they can in a country which does nothing if its back is not up against a wall pushing bricks out behind them over a cliff.

We are not talking about armies of Steve Jobs here. We are talking about the kind of people that Theresa May in the UK described as JAMS. Just About Managing.

I’d like to see someone have a vision for Ireland. Radically improved public transport in Dublin and its hinterlands is something which should be built not grudgingly and as little as possible, but with a lot more forward thinking and reality. Stop talking about Metro North and build it. Stop talking about the M20 and build it. Rethink how Ireland approaches public transport. Desire for people to have better lives. Not to be spending hours trying to commute to and from work or school. Desire for more people to be able to live close to work and work on that. This means rethinking how we approach accommodation. Talk about building a better lifestyle for Ireland. Which feeds into better mental health and better physical health. People who are spending 3 to 4 hours commuting daily are shattered. They are not getting enough exercise, they are probably not eating healthily. They are not spending enough time with their families.

Be the leader for a party fighting for these people, Leo. And drop the pity slogans about “people who get up early”.

Is this a trolley I see before me

I bought a trolley yesterday. It had been the subject of a couple of discussions on FaceBook and much was made of the grannyness of such an idea.

I am not a granny.

When I moved to Dublin in 1999, I realised very quickly that as a city, it sucked to try and do anything without a car, so I bought a car and drove around Dublin, specifically to and from Marks & Spencers and Tesco. A girl must eat now and again.

One of the many things that grew to irritate me about Dublin was that it got hard to get around. Where I lived wasn’t handy to a decent shopping centre by foot, for example and it seemed to be a palaver to go grocery shopping at any time other than 8am on a Saturday morning. I had my own parking space next to the M&S collection point in the Jervis Street Shopping Centre.

In 2016 I moved to Luxembourg. The car got sold. I’m probably the only member of my family and extended family without a car at the moment. Actually that’s a lie. My niece in London is likewise carless. She has gone before me. She too has a trolley.

Now that I have a trolley, I am seeing that everyone has trolleys. In Ireland, only old people, old ladies usually, have shopping trolleys. Often they feature tartan. That is not the case here.

When I came here, one of the key contributions to the decision was a desire to live somewhere that it was possible to live very successfully without a car. In a European city, it tends to be. Luxembourg is a bit of a nuisance on the IKEA front but there’s Conforama as a useful substitute. Apart from that, I can walk most places. There is a grocery store around a 5 minute walk away where I can get the essentials. I got a shopping trolley because I also liked shopping in the big – some might say utterly ginormous – hypermarket in Kirchberg.

I think Owen Keegan, the city manager for Dublin, should consider what could happen to his city if every one had shopping trolleys and the bus system ran efficiently, and there were decent hypermarkets (there aren’t. We do not know what a decent hypermarket is in Dublin).

French Presidential

The first round of the French presidential election is taking place today and I am a little fascinated by a lot of things about it.

The top three candidates are pretty much within the margin of error for polling purposes so it really isn’t safe to attempt to predict the outcome on the basis of polling data. Additionally, there is some variation between the top two which means some polls indicate Marine Le Pen will come first; some indicate Emmanuel Macro will come first.

The coverage in the United Kingdom has been interesting. I know the world suggests you should never read below the line in the Guardian but I find it more entertaining at the moment given Brexit than it has been for years. Below the line on the New York Times is good. We have forgotten to value other people’s views.

It seems to me, vibe wise, that a lot of UK press seems to be gunning for a Le Pen victory and a lot of their commenters (usually ones angling for a free and perfect Brexit) too. Almost as though what is likely to be most disruptive is also most desirable. I call this playing with fire.

You could, to some extent, understand the desire on the part of the average rabid Brexit supporter for Le Pen to win in France as they are being fed a line that this would finish off the hated EU altogether. I consider that a bit childish in my own view – whether the EU continues to exist or not is of limited importance if you really believe what is right for Britain is to be outside the EU. If Britain’s only chance of success is that the EU gets smashed also, then that has to call into question the convictions about Freedom, Independent Britain and a Bright New Future Taking Back Control. I sometimes think they’re a bit like that character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the one who crashes his father’s Ferrari.

Both the New York Times and the Guardian have large numbers of commenters below the line who truly appear to be convinced that France’s only chance is if they vote in Le Pen. On the NYT in particular, some commenters have a focus on how dangerous France is given Terrorism but who don’t appear to understand that regardless of the numbers killed in France through terrorism lately, it is still less than the numbers killed through gun violence in the US since the start of the year. In other words if you want my opinion, the US is probably far more dangerous than France is by some distance and accelerating. France is fighting terrorism. The US is not giving up the second amendment.

I wouldn’t pretend to suggest that France got a great choice of candidates this year but as a country, they are not unique in that. I estimate that the most visionary speech made by a prime minister in the UK in the last 20 years was Hugh Grant talking about David Beckham in Love Actually. And let’s face it, the US voted in Donald Trump who makes absolutely every French candidate look competent and statesmanlike, even Le Pen.

As a general note, I sometimes feel that the English language populations are somewhat poorly served by their media when it comes to news about foreign countries where they do not speak English. Absent forcing every one to somehow magically become fluent in a foreign language, I wonder how we fix this. Force journalists to have some command of the language of the countries they are reporting on, I suppose.

A lot to think about…difficult to find a practical solution.

Looking at stubby fingers

Via the wonders of the internet it is possible to get at sheet music online rather than waiting to go through the pile of it 1000km away in Ireland and remember to pack it the next time I am travelling. And so it is that the 2 piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is safely stashed in pdf form on my Onedrive and I can access it from my iPad. Joy to the world and all that.

Rach 2, as you’ll see it named on Youtube, has been my very favourite piece of music for nearly 30 years. In that, at least, it has outshone Eagle by Abba. I bought the score as arranged for 2 pianos in a shop off Tottenham Court Road when I was 14 because I wanted to learn it. This was highly ambitious since only two years previously I had been ruining my mother’s life with a rather chaotic arrangement of the Rose of Tralee which for some reason I had elected to learn when I started learning piano “properly”. IE, by learning to read both the treble AND bass clefs. My teacher could not get me onto the grades half fast enough. I have no idea where the sheet music to the Rose of Tralee is now. I might check the piano stool when I get home. It had a sky blue cover and it was so old that it is not to be found on a Google image search now. All sorts of things are hidden in the piano stool, and there it may be hiding. But I digress. Back with Rachmaninoff.

The shop off Tottenham Court Road only sold sheet music. I’m pretty sure it is long gone because when I was living in London in 1997, studying to be an interpreter, about 10 years after I bought this particular piece of music, I could not find it again. I always thought it was called Oxford University Press for some reason – maybe it said it on the plastic bag it came in – but that could be fiction on the part of my memory. I do remember the shop though. It was magical then and I have never seen anything like it since. It was floor to very high ceiling wooden drawers. There were probably discrete labels here and there to ensure that the right sonatas and fugues could be extracted.

I wanted two piano concertos, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff, and additionally, a Grieg piano concerto. When push came to shove, however, a choice had to be made on financial grounds because two together were just a bit much for 14 year old me. In the end, Rachmaninoff, despite being marginally more expensive, won, and Grieg was left aside for another 3 or 4 years.

I guarded it with my life back to the small town in Cork where I grew up and it took up residence on the top of the piano, sharing space with the various exam pieces I had to do for the RIAM grade system and the music exam for the Intermediate Certificate at school, an exam I passed almost completely on the strength of playing because it was not on the back of my prolific knowledge of required musical theory as laid out in the syllabus.

I worked at the Rachmaninoff on and off over the years. I have very clear memories of sitting in the car, reading along with the sheet music while listening to a tape of the piece ad ensuring I could track which bits were were on the tape. There are still annotations in the book aligning certain sections with times on my favoured/only available recording at the time. And I have very clear memories of using the week before my Leaving Certificate to spend 5 or 6 hours a day working on the second movement. In the days running up to a life defining school exam, I could be found crouched over the piano; a pint glass of Ribena resting on top of the piano, carefully hauling my fingers into the shape of the opening notes of the second movement.

I am never without a recording of the piece of music. For years, the recording I had was Julius Katchen’s recording which had been released as part of the Great Composers part work series sometime in the 1980s – a wonderful resource which introduced me to an awful lot of classical music, and many key performers of the time. When my chips are down, the world tends to feel better with a sound track of that and his glorious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which, to be honest, I might see if that’s available too). Lately I have been listening mainly to Yuja Wang and Leif Ove Andsnes playing it.

To some extent, when I pick up the music with a view to playing this piece, it is less to play it, and more to spend time with an old friend. I know there will never be an orchestra behind me ready to enter after those titanic opening notes. Last night when I did so, it was to the news that my fingers no longer fitted the opening chords of the first movement, if indeed they ever did. I can still manage some of the second movement almost even by heart despite it being 27 years since I prepared for seven honours subjects in the Leaving Certificate by drinking Ribena and repeating the opening eight bars of the second movement ad infinitum…There are places I can still go with Rachmaninoff; and there are places he will not take me.