The Best Things Come in Small Packages

I have an unfortunate bedtime habit.

It takes me what feels like twelve thousand years to get to sleep, and I would rather have my skin peeled from me in strips than lie in the dark with my thoughts, so instead I have a habit of propping my phone on its side and scrolling mindlessly through r/politics or the Aliexpress app on my phone until I fall asleep, one fingertip still pressed to the screen.

(You might be able to guess where I’m going with this…)

On more than one occasion I have woken up having purchased some truly ridiculous items are not in any way necessary to my life: a stamped metal 3D puzzle of C3PO; ten identical tongue bars; a clockwork mouse; a set of enamel dinosaur pins; 30 whale-shaped bookmarks…

…And when I say ‘on more than one occasion,’ what I really mean is ‘regularly enough that I know to check my orders first thing in the morning in case I need to cancel anything.’

If you’ve ever used Aliexpress then you know that this is not the end of the world. Most items cost under $3, and truthfully the worst that can happen is that they unexpectedly arrive two months later, like badly-packaged surprise presents to myself. They arrive wrapped in what look like black bin bags that have been hurriedly repurposed, with curiously vague, Google-translated descriptions on the custom notes such as “needle beauty” (tweezers), “claws” (hair clips), and “stationery cat” (cat stickers).

The postman who delivers these questionable acquisitions to my door is an energetic man who bounds in and out of each building with superfluous energy, cheerfully swinging his crossbody satchel like a young, fit, baby-faced Santa Claus. Instead of ringing my doorbell, he often just hollers, “HELLOOOOO!” and waits for me to appear before whipping out some small lumpy package and handing it to me. It’s a loud and interesting interaction that often breaks up my day.

So, here I must rewind and explain that about two months ago I ordered a space hopper. That part is a long story so to shorten it I will just say two things:

  • This was only a half-asleep purchase; I did in fact sort of kind of maybe mean to buy a space hopper. I probably wouldn’t have bought it while wide awake but the fact remains that I made no move to cancel this order.
  • It was not for actual space hopping, it was for a craft project*.

By the time it arrived I had forgotten I had ever ordered it.

Last week, the postman bellowed his usual greeting and I popped my head out the door only to see him pull an irregularly shaped, flat, floppy package from his satchel. He handed it to me and, in an attempt to remember what it might possibly be, I flipped it over and read the description aloud:

“Toy balls.”

Except that even as I started reading it, my eyes had already jumped ahead to the next word. I could tell it was going to sound wrong. I suddenly remembered the space hopper, but I had already started reading and didn’t feel like I could really stop mid-word. My reluctance to finish the phrase slowed my speech down considerably, and so it wound up sounding more like:

“Toyyy….. baaaaaaallllllls……”

Followed by an awkward silence that stretched between us the way the Sahara desert stretches between the Red Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

I looked up and locked eyes with the postman over this limp black bin bag. He slowly nodded in amused sympathy.

“We were wondering down at the post office what that could possibly be, alright!” He said, eventually, when the awkward moment had stretched for so long that time had lost all meaning and we had simply become two blushing inanimate objects in an uncomfortable still life.

My mind flashed through a series of possibilities as to how this might play out. Should I open the package so he could see it wasn’t anything questionable? I could, but then I would have to unfold and reveal a lurid pink space hopper. And then I would have to explain the space hopper, which honestly almost makes me sound more insane than if I’d ordered something vague but kinky all the way from China. Or worse, he might think the space hopper itself was for vague but kinky purposes…

At this point we had been staring at each other for so long I was starting to feel like we had unwittingly entered into a relationship, so I just squeaked, “Thanks!” and dashed back inside with my “toy balls”.

I am now avoiding the postman, and I am also avoiding Aliexpress at night because clearly I cannot be trusted with late-night purchases or people.

Such is life.

Happy Friday, guys.

*The space hopper was too small for my craft project, and so was gifted to a small child who can actually use it for hopping.

 

Toast Seems to be The Hardest Word

I look at the brunch menu in my hand as if it is written in Sanskrit.

What is ‘endive’? 

Why ‘avocado bruschetta’ and not just regular bruschetta?

Why a ‘3-egg omelette’? Who needs three eggs in the morning? Isn’t that awfully inflexible? What happened to poached eggs and toast?

I flip the menu over and finally find what I was looking for; namely scrambled eggs on toast, goujons, french toast, and bacon butties. They are clustered together in a section marked disdainfully as only for ‘Under 12’s’.

Ridiculous, I think, flapping the menu in distress. Are omelettes now considered more mature than scrambled eggs? Does the way you like your eggs say something fundamental about you as a person? I have obviously missed the memo explaining that when you reach the age of 12 you have to put away childish things and scrambled eggs on toast.

I place the menu flat on the table as the waiter approaches and look up at his expressionless face.

“Hi! Could I order off the under 12’s menu please?”

He blinks slowly at me. His mouth gives the tiniest twitch, one corner of his mouth twisting ever so slightly downwards. I don’t know it yet, but this is actually the only bit of expression I will manage to elicit from him over the course of brunch.

“Yeeees.”

The tone is so flat it’s hard to know how he feels about this lapse in protocol.

“Oh great!” I beam. His face stays stony. “Can I… err… Can I get the scrambled eggs on toast then please?”

His eyes flick down to the notepad in his hand.

“Scrambled eggs,” he intones. I wondered whether he is repeating it to himself or asking me to make sure it’s correct. I decide I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either way. This man had clearly never heard of inflections.

“Yep!” I say, just to be clear. I point at the menu item. “Scrambled eggs on toast!”

He moves on with the order, and I sit back, happy to have avoided the fate of the adult omelette. Honestly. Nobody needs three eggs in a single meal. Especially not considering my cholesterol levels.

Fifteen minutes later, my scrambled eggs appear.

…Only my scrambled eggs appear.

My (at least) three-egg serving of scrambled eggs has somehow been wrangled into a circular form in the middle of my plate. It looks like a giant flan gone horribly wrong. An inedible amount of watercress has been strewn across the plate with reckless abandon.  I say a quick prayer for any under-12 who has ever been faced with this monstrous portion of scrambled egg.

There is no sign of toast.

I silently accept the scrambled egg cake, eyeing it warily. I feel like I have suddenly been entered in an all-the-eggs-you-can-eat competition. I am unprepared. I tentatively tear into the quivering yellow creation with my fork. Three bites in, I decide I cannot continue without toast to break up the monotony of all that egg. I make my way over to the waiter, who is across the room standing next to the bar.

“Hi!” I smile. He turns towards me. He does not return the smile. He looks neither surprised nor annoyed to see me there. His face simply does not move at all.

I forge ahead.

“Can I please get some toast?”

There is a brief pause as the words float through the air, enter his ears, and swim around in his mind. He digests them, and then his lids lift just enough for his eyes to find mine.

“Bread.”

Again, question or statement? Hard to know. I hedge my bets.

“… Toast…?” I say hopefully.

He gives the smallest of nods and then walks stiffly away.

Five minutes later, as I am busy deconstructing the egg abnormality, he reemerges and approaches us with a wooden walk that might scream ‘I WOULD RATHER BE PICKING JAGGED SPLINTERS OUT FROM UNDER MY FINGERNAILS’ or else might just be his strangely inflexible natural gait. It really could be either. He bends slightly at the waist and puts down a plate containing two small circular slices of bread.

I stare at it, nonplussed.

“Thanks” I eventually mutter, more out of reflex than genuine gratitude. I am still staring at the bread. Our waiter receives my thanks without so much as a glimmer of acknowledgment, and immediately travels back to his spot beside the bar. His face – for a change – betrays nothing at all.

My mind ticks over as I butter the bread. I did ask for toast, I think to myself as my knife gouges the soft white crumb. Three times! Toast! Is toast an uncommon request now? Is this an unspoken rule like the adult omelettes? Am I that out of the loop? Is there some other way to ask for toast? Did he do it on purpose? Is he over there now, laughing at my futile attempts to get a regular, normal, single portion of scrambled eggs on toast?

I surreptitiously eye him up. He is standing stock still, staring at a light fixture, his face an impressive blank. No, I decide. This man is clearly not capable of such a stretch in emotional range.

Baffled, I eat my bread discs. I leave nothing but the watercress behind, and briefly wonder if it’s possible to overdose on scrambled eggs.

Then I pay and, because I’m a sucker, I tip him the standard 10%.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello

I carried a towering pile of items to the till and placed them on the belt.

“Hi!” said the cashier.

The friendly chirpiness in her voice was probably due to the fact that it was almost closing time, but that’s just a guess. I smiled and returned the greeting, and then focused all of my limited attention on placing the heavy items at the front of the pile so I could bag them the proper way.

Little known fact, but that’s actually what adulting is all about; trying not to smoosh the brie beneath tins of tomatoes. True fact.

The cashier made a comment about the weather, and my friend smiled and agreed while I expertly separated the items in order of weight. I dropped the cartons of milk into the bottom of the bag, followed by the tins of tomatoes and the packet of pasta. I eyed the brie and broccoli as the cashier scanned it through. I was determined to absolutely nail this bagging business.

As an unrelated aside – it’s amazing the things you can trick your mind into thinking are little victories when the going gets tough.

Five minutes later, everything was carefully bagged and paid for. The cashier handed me the receipt. She smiled warmly and said, “Have a good evening now!” to which I naturally replied…

“Hello.”

Not an ‘oh hello, didn’t see you there’ type of hello.

Not a nice, friendly, ‘Hello!!’

Just a flat, short, “Hello” in the same tone you would use if you were to automatically mutter, “Thanks” to a cashier who had just handed you a receipt.

…Which is what I was aiming for when my mind panicked and “Hello” popped out instead.

Cue an awkward pause as the cashier narrowed her eyes at me, probably trying to determine if I had some form of short-term amnesia. I grabbed the bag, turned on my heel and walked right out of the shop while screaming internally.

All this to say that today is my one year blogiversary. I know this because WordPress sent me a little notification to remind me. Thanks WordPress! One year on and I am still having awkward interactions with strangers. One year on and I am still embarrassing myself so you don’t have to. One year on and I am still waiting on that damn manual.

But in the meantime, I’ve got you guys to keep me company.

Hello!

 

Questionable Decisions

The delivery man called me a few minutes after ten o’clock.

“I’m on my way to ye now!” He said, his voice bubbling with confidence. “How do I find ye?”

I spun slowly on one foot, chewing my lip as I considered my geographical ignorance.

“It’s just…. through the village?” I said, my voice lilting upward at the end because I sincerely hadn’t a clue.

Frantically I attempted to chart the course in my mind, but it was just a hodgepodge of picture-book images in there; the post office, the church, the water pump. Was the church before or after the post office? Where was the water pump in relation to either of those? I stared blindly out the window at the rain as the delivery driver rattled down the country roads towards me.

“Alright,” he yelled over the sound of the rain. “I’ll stay on the phone. Now, I’m just at a turn that has me facin’ the post office-”

“Oh!” I shouted, like a contestant on a quiz show. If I’d had a buzzer I would have slammed my hand down. I knew this one! “Turn left there!”

I heard the click-click-click of the indicator snap on.

“Okay and now I’m passin’ a school-”

An image flashed in my brain and I cut in again.

“Yep! Just… if you just keep going past the school and past all the houses…”

“I’m passin’… another school it looks like-”

“Yep, keep going, past that…”

“An’ now I’m passin’ a house with a yella door-”

“Yep, yep keep going, you’ll reach a long stretch of nothing and then there’s a gate on the right that’s sort of at the end of the hedgerow…”

“Is it a long driveway? Have ye a blue door?”

“Yes!”

“Ah I’m here now so.”

“Great! Thanks! If you drive around to the back…”

“Okay will do.”

I raced to the back porch and pulled open the door as the white delivery van swung round the corner. I lifted one foot to step outside and saw that the path down the garden was almost flooded. I glanced mournfully down at my unicorn slippers, then up at the driver, hunched over, dragging a box out of the back of the van. Not wanting to get my unicorns wet, but also not wanting the driver to get soaked to the skin waiting for me to find a pair of shoes, I kicked off the slippers and hopped down the flagstones on my tiptoes.

When I reached the man, he was watching me warily.

“Did ye just-” He paused as he handed me the scanner. “Did I just see ye kick yer shoes off to come outside? In the rain? Where it’s wet?”

I made a mangled stab at signing my name with the tip of my finger, then handed him back the device. There was a moment of silence as we both looked down at my feet, now shiny from the rain.

“Yes,” I said, since there didn’t seem any point in denying it.

“Alright so!”

He smiled at me with a slight frown. It was a gentle smile, a kindly-but-concerned smile. The sort of amiable, uncertain smile you give people when you’re not quite sure they’re right in the head. I briefly wondered if there was anything I could say to defend my questionable decision.

Probably not.

He looked down at my feet again, raised his eyebrows in an expression that seemed to say, ‘Well I’ve seen it all now!’, then got back in his van and backed out of the driveway as I skipped back over the flagstones to my warm fluffy unicorn slippers.

 

One Stranger, Two Viewpoints, Three Drinks

 

One STRANGERTwo viewpointsthree drinks

I had a pretty interesting but slightly infuriating conversation over the weekend.

It wasn’t really that infuriating at the time, because I had already had two vodka & cranberries and at that stage I’m content to slip easily into the role of Devil’s Advocate on any given subject. I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy drinker. After a drink, I just want to do two things: talk and dance. I don’t much mind where you want to take the conversation, I’m happy for you to take the lead as long as I have a white russian in hand.

Unfortunately at the weekend I didn’t have a white russian. Instead, I had just started on my third vodka and cranberry when this man engaged me in conversation. He began by asking me where I was from (of course), and then launched into a lyrical ode to his home county, which I won’t name here. He asked me what I knew of it, to which I replied, honestly, that absolutely nothing was coming to mind. No landmarks, no tourist hotspots, no holiday destinations. My mind was a total, freewheeling blank. He puffed out his chest and told me that actually, it was one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. I lifted a skeptical eyebrow and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Slowly and deliberately, I typed “Things To Do In _________” into my search bar, partly because I was curious as to what would come up, but mostly just to rile him. Which it did! Only not in the way I was expecting.

“THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD!” He yelled over the music.

“Google?” I asked, confused.

“NO, EVERYTHING. GOOGLE. PHONES! I TELL YOU THAT _______ IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND THE FIRST THING YOU DO IS PULL OUT YOUR PHONE INSTEAD OF JUST BELIEVING ME!”

I bit back a laugh, because yes, I do tend to believe aggregated opinions of many different people over the sole (biased) opinion of one person. Is that bad? I opened my mouth to interject but he was off again.

“WE WERE BETTER OFF WITHOUT IT! DO YOU WATCH TV?”

“TV? Yeah, sometimes…” I mumbled, thrown off balance by the abrupt change in topic. I thought we were talking about phones?

“I BET YOU WATCH KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

Okay. Look. As it happens, I have never actually watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but millions of people have. MILLIONS. I’m tired of this implication that people who watch the show are a zombified army of braindead shopaholics who speak solely in emojis and don’t understand basic grammar or syntax, particularly since it’s a disdainful accusation thrown almost exclusively at women. I know plenty of intelligent people who watch it regularly. There’s no reason to use this as an insult.

It’s not the first time I’ve had this said to me with a curled lip of disgust, as if what I watch on television somehow lowers my IQ. Not only does what I watch have no bearing on my intelligence, but it’s almost* enough to make me want to watch the show, just to spite them.

I chased ice cubes around my glass with my plastic straw and tilted my head.

“No…?”

“WELL ANYWAY,” he continued, “I KNEW A MAN WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY AND HE WAS HAPPIER THAN ANY OF US PROBABLY.”

I breathed deeply and looked around me, considering my options. The dance floor was bathed in deep pink and purple lights. To my right, a blonde in a short skirt ran her hand down the arm of a laughing man with dreadlocks. I stabbed at the ice cubes, then took a drink.

“He lived without electricity? Is that what you said?”

I mean, I was in it now. Might as well let myself be pulled by the conversational current.

“YES! LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY. HAPPIEST MAN I KNEW. JUST HAD A RADIO THAT HE RAN WITH BATTERIES AND A PHONE.”

I eyed the ceiling and debated whether or not to point out that a man who has a radio and a phone is not entirely without the benefits of the modern age. I decided, with drunken magnanimity, to let it go.

“What did he do at night?” I asked, instead.

“LIT A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW!”

I laughed.

“You can’t read by candlelight! Have you tried it? You’d ruin your eyes!”

“HE DIDN’T READ HE WOULD JUST SIT ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS!”

I side-eyed him.

“That’s fine in the summer when it gets dark at a reasonable time, but what happens in the winter when it gets dark at 5pm?”

“HE LIKED IT THAT WAY, HE WAS A VERY HAPPY MAN! WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING ALONE WITH OUR THOUGHTS? I THINK MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THAT INSTEAD OF SITTING IN FRONT OF THE TV WATCHING KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

There he goes again, I thought, with the Kardashians. What is the deal?

“That’s well and good if your thoughts are kind ones,” I pointed out. “But what if they’re not? Thirteen hours is a long time to be left alone with unkind thoughts-“

I barely had a chance to finish the sentence.

He leaned in, cutting across me to shout, “I BET YOU NEVER KNEW ANYBODY WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY!”

My eyes narrowed. The vodka and cranberries I’d consumed were busy sketching out a pale pink outline of the sort of person this man thought I was, and it wasn’t particularly flattering. If I squinted the right way, I could see the exact stereotype this guy had pinned on me.

I took another sip of my drink and thought for a moment.

“I did actually.”

“WHO?”

I was starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. Where was this conversation leading exactly? How far down where we going to go? I told myself to relax and let myself flow into the empty spaces left by the holes in his argument.

“The people in my grandparents’ village in Spain lived without electricity.”

I paused, thinking about the pueblo. It’s a dying village. Even when I went regularly, the inhabitants all seemed as ancient and weathered as the sun-split rocks down the hill. I thought about the women I had known with deeply lined faces and no dental care, sitting outside their houses in black shapeless tunics, leaning on canes and fanning themselves.

I thought of my great aunt pressing 100 pesetas into my hand with her bony fingers and shuffling next to me as we made our way to the bakery across the square, which doubled as the only place in the pueblo you could buy anything.

I thought of my great aunt’s house, where the ceiling sagged in the middle, looking like it might cave in at any moment. I thought of the way doors were always left open to cope with the heat, with a beaded curtain strung over the doorway, keeping out the burning sun but nothing else. Walking into the house was an assault on the senses. My nostrils would sting from the smell of cat urine, and I would blink furiously, my eyes taking a minute or two to adjust to the darkness. The reason for the smell was quickly apparent; stray cats would shoot out from under every piece of furniture the moment I took a step in any direction.

Yes, their lives were simple, but their lives were hard. They faced tragedies and difficulties I can barely imagine. My grandfather would tell me stories that would break your heart. They lived lives of quiet isolation and tight community not because they chose to eschew electricity and modern conveniences, but because they had no choice.

The man at the gig, meanwhile, had been surprised into a momentary silence at my assertion that I had, in fact, known someone who lived without electricity. I took the opportunity to squeeze in another sentence.

“They didn’t choose not to have electricity, though. They were very poor. They didn’t have the option.”

His eyes skated around the room as he considered what I had just said.

“BUT THEY WERE PROBABLY HAPPIER LIKE THAT!” He roared in my ear after a moment.

I felt an unfamiliar tingle of annoyance. Unlike me. I thought. It’s a Saturday night. Don’t let him harsh your mellow.

For some reason though, my thoughts flew to the woman who had lived opposite my grandparents. Alone and elderly, she had lived all her life in a tiny cottage draped in grapevines. I thought about how, after she had died, I would look through her window and see her kitchen table, still draped in an impeccably crocheted tablecloth. A small plate sat on the table that had once held a long-since disintegrated piece of toast, and a carefully balanced knife rested on the edge of the plate.

Untouched since her last meal, the room was a silent testimony of her existence. Every year I would crouch to look in through the window, and only two things ever changed; the number of stray cats using the furniture, and the thickness of the layer of dust. Over time, the colours slowly muted and the room took on a ghostly, grey air. When sunlight streamed in the dust particles glistened, making it look even more ethereal.

Had she been happy while she was alive?

As a child, I hadn’t liked her, and that’s putting it mildly. She seemed positively antediluvian, shrunken by age and circumstance. She had once engaged my parents in conversation about the stray cats that my grandmother often fed, and recounted how she had killed a great number of them by swinging them by their back legs and smashing their heads against a rock. Hearing her tell this story had the same effect on me as if she had admitted to being an axe-wielding maniac with a penchant for scalping children; after that I avoided her like the very plague.

Now, with time, I am more understanding. She was completely uneducated and lived in that same small pueblo her entire life. She had no family. The war she waged on the stray cats was ended by her death and, in a twist that shows life has a sense of humour, in her absence they took over her house and made it their own.

I thought of this wizened woman, and how different her life might have been in other circumstances. I thought of my great aunt. The more sober section of my mind struggled to steer my train of thought onto a straighter path. After all, this was a Saturday night chat at top volume with a stranger during a gig, not a cosy in-depth debate in a dark corner at a party. Not exactly the best time to argue the merits of education and how electricity contributes to a greater quality of life.

I leaned towards him so he could hear me clearly.

“I don’t think they would have chosen that life if they had had an alternative,” I said, watching his face.

“BUT YOUR GRANDPARENTS LEFT, RIGHT? BECAUSE MAYBE THEY WEREN’T HAPPY LIVING LIKE THAT. BUT THOSE PEOPLE DIDN’T LEAVE! BECAUSE IT’S A SIMPLER, HAPPIER LIFE!”

My grandparents left because they could, because my grandfather dragged them out of there through a combination of dogged hard work and compromise and connections.

My great aunt, who had been in a relationship with my grandmother’s brother, found out she was pregnant while he was away at war. Unfortunately he was killed in action, and so she had her son out of wedlock at a time when this was enough for society to shun you. The son was born with an intellectual disability. Thankfully my grandmother’s family treated them kindly and supported them despite the circumstances, but still, her life was difficult. It was complicated. She was poor and uneducated and had nobody by her side to make her life easier or more bearable. She went to mass every day and pulled wooden rosary beads between her skeletal fingers, her gaunt face a mask of peace as she prayed.

Do I think these difficult times in her life would have been greatly improved by having a light switch and a functioning fridge? Not necessarily. Some hardships can’t be softened with electric lighting and chilled goods. I do think, however, that electricity often reaches places at much the same time as other things like literacy, and education, and modern plumbing, and state aid. I think those would have made her life easier.

The pueblo had a school, and running water, and electricity in my childhood. The neihbour died. My great aunt died. My grandparents also died. The population continues to decline. In 2015 it had a population of 280 inhabitants.

Back at the gig, I threw my head back to dislodge these thoughts and tried to untangle myself from a conversation that was going nowhere fast.

“I agree that our addiction to our phones is bad but dude, I don’t agree we would be happier without electricity.” I waved an arm around me. “We wouldn’t be enjoying this without electricity!”

He nodded his head from side to side as if conceding the point, and then we were loudly (and thankfully) interrupted by a friend wandering over to say hello.

 

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

It's Okay to Not be Okay

I don’t know if this post is for you. Maybe. I guess you won’t know either until you’re halfway through it. If it’s not for you, that just means it’s not for you today. It still might be for you three weeks from now, or next Summer. At some point, I think this post will be relevant to your life.

Unfortunately.

Even though it’s Monday, and I would have preferred to start the week with something lighthearted, I sat down to type and this poured out instead in a wave of emotion, so here we are.

I want to talk about unhappiness.

This is not an overt unhappiness with people crying at bus stops, or being unnecessarily mean as they cut in front of each other in queues. It’s not a screaming-at-service-staff-about-something-that’s-not-even-their-fault unhappiness, or even the kind of unhappiness that leads to dark undereye circles and terrible dreams. Instead, it’s an almost invisible cheese-wire thread weaving through people’s lives, slicing through their good days. It’s this weak but persistent undercurrent of…

you’re not good enough

you’re not funny enough

you’re not normal enough

you’re not popular enough

you’re not successful enough

you’re not loveable enough

you’re not doing enough

you’re not worthy enough

you’re not trying enough

you’re not happy enough

…..And here’s the thing about that.

It’s always been there. This Gregorian chant of insuffiency is an unfortunate symptom of the human condition. Thankfully, not always. It’s not constant for most people; it tends to chime in at brutally inconvenient times like when you feel so lonely you actually have a legitimate concern you might be invisible, or when you feel like your self-confidence has reached rock bottom and proceeded to dig, or when you have failed spectacularly at something in a public way and are desperately searching for the words to pretend that everything is fine.

It really picks its moments.

This repetitive, monotonous, doubting drone of voices has always been around me, and I just haven’t been paying attention. Now that I’m looking for it, I see it everywhere. I see it, and I recognise it, because guess what? I have it too. Everyone does. Trust me when I say that even the person you look up to the most has had days where they didn’t want to get out of bed.

We know this. We’re all aware of it. We’re alive, and sometimes life is a kick in the teeth. Even the luckiest person can’t avoid the most difficult parts of life forever. Even the cockiest person can’t ignore their inner fears at every waking moment. We’re human, and that means we are skin-draped skeletons walking around with an expiration date, and our short lives are vibrant pops of colour filled with emotion and adventure and love and heartbreak and passion and fury. We collect memories and experiences and feelings and struggles throughout our lives, ee mix them together as we grow, and whatever muddy concoction remains is the sum of our parts.

On some level we are all aware of this.

I think we are getting better as a society at articulating the stickier parts of life, the parts that slow us down, the parts we feel we’ll never move on from. I think it’s great that it’s slowly becoming less taboo to discuss negative feelings.

Have you noticed how we talk about them though?

When negative emotions come up, people have this habit of being unable to talk about them without attaching wholly unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame, like carabiner clips of dead weight. I do it too. I feel terrible, and then I feel terrible about feeling terrible.

Why?

It’s already exhausting to struggle through hard times. When life gets tough, your usual daytime stroll unexpectedly becomes a hike up a cold mountain in the dark, and most of the time it blindsides you and you’re entirely unprepared; you didn’t bring water, you don’t have emergency chocolate, there are no signposts, you’re pissed off because now everything is going to take that much longer, and you didn’t even bring a jumper.

It’s the worst.

Now imagine attaching two dumbells to your waist so you can drag them up that incline with you for no good reason.

Why?

I know that there’s an unease about what people will think. Everything is always supposed to be fine, right? Instagram should be comprised only of excessively highlighted people in beautiful clothes, eating photogenic food in perfect lighting. Twitter should be an oasis of sanity and witty, relatable comments from People Who Have Their Shit Together™. Human unavoidables such as misery, and fear, and unhappiness, and the sort of concerns that keep you up at night until five minutes before your alarm goes off don’t fit neatly into 1:1 ratio photographs or 140 character limits. They ruin the narrative. It’s not a comfortable thing to shine a light on dark thoughts.

And so any reference to these inescapable truths of life and humanity seems to be couched in remorse and embarrassment, and then wrapped in a shroud of shame. There’s usually an acknowledgement of heartbreak or depression or anxiety or failure, and then in the same breath it’s linked to a feeling of weakness or anguish. So not only are we not okay, but we’re not okay with not being okay. Sometimes it’s even followed by an apology, or a reassurance that it will soon change, or a determination to turn things around.

I see this happen not just in myself, or in people I know and love, but also people I don’t. Friends of friends who pop up on my facebook. Complete strangers that are retweeted on my timeline. I see it everywhere, this idea that not being okay is not okay.

So on this dreary Monday, let me just say this:

If you have been unknowingly looking for permission, or subconsciously searching for some sort of sign that you are allowed to take a moment for yourself to just wallow, or cry, or scream into a cushion, or punch a pillow, or go for a long walk with nothing but your thoughts, or anything that you had previously written off as an indulgence… I am giving you that permission.

This is that sign.

You don’t have to be okay all the time. You don’t have to be perfect, ever. You are human, and you are loved, and you have a unique life unlike anybody else’s, and you are wonderful. You have talents in you that you aren’t even aware of.

If you have recently felt less than, know that you are not alone, and you are not less than.

If you have recently made a mistake or done something you wish you could take back, know that we have all been there (more than once!), and that the discomfort you are feeling is what teaches us not to make the same mistake again.

If you are feeling lost, know that sometimes the road is winding, and can even loop back on itself. Familiar landmarks are not necessarily a signpost of stagnation; remember that even when you feel stuck, you are still moving forward.

If you have recently had your trust betrayed, know that you are not foolish for having being fooled. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and you are not to blame for somebody else having broken it.

If you have recently experienced heartbreak, know that this is the price of having loved fiercely, and that it is worth it every time. Some heartbreaks will make you feel like you got scammed, that maybe it wasn’t worth the cost. It was. It always is.

If you have recently had failure, know that there will also be success. Try not to tip the scale by giving more weight to the failure than it deserves.

If you are melancholy, or depressed, or afraid, or worried, or anxious, or struggling, that’s okay. That’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty about that. You don’t have to apologise for not being a presentation-worthy version of your best self at all times. You don’t have to feel bad about experiencing the exact same struggles as everybody else.

You just have to be you.

It’s okay to just be you, even when you’re not happy. Even when you’re not having the most photogenic of feelings. Even when life is roundhouse kicking you in the teeth repeatedly and you feel like self-defence is not an option because your arms have inexplicably turned into pool noodles. Even then.

This is not to say that you can stay there forever.

Eventually you will have to stop punching the pillow. You will probably have to drink some water, because non-stop crying is very dehydrating. You will have to get up off the floor, pull your shoulders back, and tell the frankly irritating buzz of self-doubt to shut the hell up. I am not giving you carte blanche to wallow forever in the Swamp of Sadness. We all know what happened to Artax (NSFL), and you, dear reader, are far too precious to me for an ending like that.

Eventually, you will slide back down the scale to relative normality, and the feelings will shift, and the path will be clear again… at least until the next time.

But right now, as you read this – whenever that may be – if you find yourself in a heap, or you just need a breather, or you’re losing it, or you’re feeling ashamed because you’re losing it, and you don’t have anybody else around who can deliver this message in a timely fashion when you need it most…

This post is for you.

Being a Bit of Both

“Where are you from?”

“Here.”

“Where?”

“Here. Dublin.”

“No, but where are you really from?”

“Dublin. I’m Irish.”

“But where were you born?”

“The Coombe. In Dublin.”

“Okay but where are your parents from?”

“My father’s Irish and my mother’s Spanish.”

“I KNEW it!”

I’ve had this conversation a truly astonishing number of times.

Most of the time I save time and energy by answering the first “Where are you from?” with the answer to the question I know they will get to eventually. I know why they’re asking, and I know how to stem the conversational tide. A simple “My mother is Spanish” tends to trim the conversation nice and short.

On other days though, I drag it out as long as possible, intrigued by how determined people are to dig through my life and find out exactly why my skin is a little bit more sallow, or why my hair is as dark as it is, or why my face is so angular, or whatever it is they’ve picked up on that has marked me as “other.” Half the time, the person asking is completely oblivious to my resigned amusement. They grow more and more frustrated as I refuse to give them the answer they don’t even know they’re looking for, stumbling through a list of questions that really boil down to, “But WHY? Why are you different to me??” Drunk people in particular can get extremely agitated. As I answer their questions on autopilot I watch them struggle to verbalise their curiosity, and I wonder what it is that gives me away. Is it my facial features? Is it my skin tone? My eyes? My hair? My build? The way I speak? The things I say?

Something about me is clearly “off” from an Irish perspective, and it’s something so obvious that people often use the “Where are you from?” line as an ice-breaker… and yet, despite how apparently obvious it is, I can’t see it. If I at least looked 100% Spanish, it might not feel so awkward, but the truth is I answer the same sort of questions in Madrid.

I am a halfling.

I have lived in Ireland all my life. I am comfortable here. I have a stereotypically Irish laid-back personality, along with an Irish sense of timing (every party starts at least two hours after the stated time) and a habit for pulling Irish farewells. I love the Irish respect for mythology, history and tradition (up to a point), and the way the younger generations are pulling the country in a more liberal direction without letting go of our past. I love the string of muttered “Thanks,” “Thanks,” “Thanks,” “Thanks,” you hear every time the bus stops, as every Irish person thanks the driver. I love good-natured banter*, and my travels have taught me that Irish people do banter like nobody else. I can’t roll my r’s, I love to eat, and I can’t take a compliment to save my life. These are all common Irish traits, and although I’ve tried my best to change some of them, it appears that I’m stuck with them.

On the other hand, I visit Spain about three times a year. I love it there. Madrid is my soul city. Right now as I type, I’m listening to my usual morning playlist of Spanish pop. I prefer hip-swaying to head-nodding, and there are definitely more passionate parts of my personality that are straight Spanish. I love to cook (preferably with wine… and the wine doesn’t have to be in the food…), I prefer churros to donuts, and tortilla de patata to roast potatoes. I have a very real suspicion that I may be solar-powered, and after five months of charcoal clouds and misty drizzle my energy is at an all-time low.

Some people feel that it’s difficult to be a halfling; that being a bit of both means they don’t really belong in either culture. I’ve spoken to people who feel like perpetual outsiders because of their dual nationality. In my experience, the advantages far outweigh any of the negatives, but I can understand that feeling. For me, the amount of freedom my bilingualism affords me hugely eclipses the annoyance of tediously repetitive conversations about my background, and I feel lucky to have been brought up with both cultures and languages and traditions and foods and lifestyles.

I am not neither; I am both.

I am Irish and Spanish. I root for Spain in the football, and Ireland in the rugby. I am laid-back and passionate. I am hot and cold.

There are worse things to be than a little bit of both.

 

*Banter is a sort of verbal sparring that from an outside perspective might sound a bit abusive, but it’s all in good fun. It’s a bit like sharp teasing. It’s not negging or derision, it’s fundamentally friendly… A little hard to explain, actually, but maybe think of it as rough ribbing.

Falling Half in Love with Strangers

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I love being able to express myself in writing.

It feels more accurate somehow than speaking words. Talking for me can sometimes feel like playing tennis with a colander; I mean, it’s possible, I can do it, but it’s not ideal. The ball goes over the net, but just about. It goes where I want it to go… more or less. I can’t be sure it’ll hit it’s mark, but I can hope. Later, I’ll go home and think about how I could have done it some other, better way.

Writing is different.

Writing is a tennis racket. When I’m writing, I have the time to think about what I’m trying to say, and then mentally flip through millions of words looking for the one that slots into my sentence like that Tetris block you’ve been waiting five minutes for; the one that gives you a combo and wipes the screen clean. Finding the right word feels satisfying, and I’m always on the lookout for new words to add to my vocabulary. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed this already (like with Hygge and Sonder). I collect words.

Sometimes I find myself reaching into other languages for words that describe feelings or situations that there’s no term for in English. I’m bilingual – Spanish/English – and there are times when I can feel a Spanish word trying to force itself into an English sentence because there’s no English equivalent.

… And yet, even with two entire languages to pick words from (and a smattering of others), I still sometimes find myself searching for a word that doesn’t exist.

I am on the lookout for a particular word.

I want a word for the feeling I get when I connect with a total stranger for a few minutes or hours, and then never see them again. It’s an ability to suddenly feel profound, intense affection for someone I don’t know. It’s not physical attraction, necessarily. It can happen with men or women. It is a non-discriminatory feeling that happens without warning, without rhyme or reason. I want a word that explains how I can feel instantly and powerfully attached to somebody and then, in a perverse way, almost hope never to see them again.

Is there a word for that?

There are a handful of people I’ve met over the years who I still think about from time to time, because even if I only spent a few hours with them, in those hours I was invested. I wanted to know everything about them. I fell a little bit platonically in love with them and their stranger-ness. I felt something that I don’t have a word for, and I hate that. I felt a nameless, wordless bond.

If you’re thinking, ‘Quinn, what are you on about?‘ … here’s an early example.

About half a lifetime ago I was in Vienna, Austria, with barely any German and friends who had succumbed to sickness. I wandered out into the city by myself, and walked the cobbled streets alone with only a crumpled paper map for orientation. These were the days before smartphones, and everything was just a little more complicated. In the square behind a large cathedral, I pulled out my map and tried to trace my finger down the streets I had walked earlier. A voice interrupted my thoughts in harsh German and I turned to find a long line of horse and carriages parked along the kerb. One of the carriage drivers, dressed smartly in a black felt hat and waistcoat, was observing me with amusement.

“Lost?” He asked.

I nodded and trotted towards him. After all, if anyone knew the streets of Vienna it had to be the carriage drivers. He nodded his head at the padded bench beside him and helped me up into the driver’s seat. Up close I realised he was young, with bright blue eyes and a friendly, shy smile. He had a small gold hoop in one ear. I was alone and bored and lost, so I flattened the map against my thighs with the palms of my hands and explained in broken German where I had come from and what I was doing there. I told him I had no plans for the evening, and was just looking for landmarks to visit that wouldn’t require too much walking.

He nodded as I spoke, and pointed out a few different landmarks. Every few minutes a carriage would depart from the front of the line and our carriage would jostle as he coaxed his horses forward.

And then it happened. That wordless, nameless thing.

There is an entirely regular level of healthy interest that we as humans have in each other. When you meet someone for the first time, often there are a number of things you want to know about the person. A lot of adult conversations start with “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” or “How do you know Martin/Julia/Alex/Sam?”

The wordless, nameless thing I feel skips the superficial curiosities of that regular level of interest. I lock onto people. My curiosity spontaneously mutates from a lukewarm, detached interest to a many-tendrilled absorption in the person in front of me. Once this happens, my curiosity extends into private, hidden corners; darkest secrets and earliest memories and family histories and relationships and hobbies.  I want to know what they do to feel better when they’re feeling low. I want to know their favourite food. I want to know when they last cried, and why. I want to know how they get on with their siblings (if they have any), whether they like to dance or prefer to sit by the bar, what age they realised the truth about Santa Claus, and how. I want to know what drives them, and I want to know what led to their presence next to me in that particular moment, out of the 7 billion other people in the world.

If that sounds extremely intense… I realise that. Don’t worry, I don’t interrogate people like I’m trying to solve a crime. I do gently question them though. Max, my friendly carriage driver, told me about how carriage-driving was a family tradition. He told me about the routes he usually took. He told me about how long he had been doing the job, and his worst experience with a passenger. He told me about his horses and his family. He pointed out his favourite spot in Vienna and his favourite coffee shop. We talked for about 45 minutes, and then a middle-aged French couple approached him for a carriage ride and I realised we had reached the top of the queue. Blushing, I stammered an apology and stood to jump down, but Max shook his head and gently motioned for me to stay seated.

“You come?”

I had just watched money change hands and realised that a carriage ride cost about €80. As a broke teenager, I had absolutely no discretionary funds for carriage rides around the city. I told Max as much, and he shrugged.

“You are not passenger. You are co-driver.”

The carriage ride was about 45 minutes of magic. I had never been on a horse-drawn carriage before, but compared to the paying customers I definitely felt like I got the best seat in the house. Sitting up high on the driver’s bench with Max telling me about the landmarks and explaining their history, Vienna looked different. The evening sun threw a golden filter over the intricately carved stonework on the buildings. I glanced over my shoulder at the French couple; the woman’s head was nestled into the man’s shoulder, and the two of them were smiling at nothing in particular. I could see how Vienna might easily be as romantic as Paris.

In between landmarks I slid in more personal questions. I asked about Max’s parents, his ambitions, what he did in his free time. He gruffly answered every question, with a shy smile every now and then to show he didn’t begrudge me my curiosity. Every so often he would mutter a question of his own, his low voice hard to hear over the sound of trotting hooves.

By the time we circled back around to the church, night was falling. The streets were clearing, and some of the other carriage drivers were disappearing in the dusk as they turned in for the night. I hopped down from the carriage, checking my watch.

“I guess it’s time for you to go home,” I said, gesturing at the carriages trundling away.

“Ja.”

“Okay. Well. Vielen Dank Max. That was… amazing.”

Max accepted my thanks with a sharp nod.

“Where do you go now?” My curiosity again. “Where do the horses sleep?”

“Other side of river” he said, gesturing with his arm. “Over…”

I opened up my map again and he studied it for a moment before pointing at an area of Vienna I had never visited.

“You come?”

I looked up to find him looking at me with an inscrutable expression.

I looked down at the map. The area he was pointing to was pretty far away. How would I get home? Nobody knew where I was. Then again, I had no other plans, and I was stuck in this nameless, wordless feeling with Max, Austrian stranger.

I looked up at him with a smile. “Sure!”

He held out a hand and helped me back up into the carriage.

I pried further into his life on the carriage-ride to wherever we were going. He told me about his last girlfriend and how long they had been together and how it had ended. He told me about the food that brought back childhood memories for him, and how he had spent his birthday. At one point, clattering over cobblestones on a dimly lit, empty street, he nudged my thigh with his hand.

“What?”

“You want?”

His hand opened slightly, offering me the reins.

“Me? I can’t! Max, I’ll crash your carriage.”

He nodded insistently and put the reins in my hands.

“You feel?”

I did feel. There was a tension on the reins, a sort of pushing, pulling, rhythmic motion. It immediately gave me a feeling of both pure joy and total calm. I gripped the leather tight and felt focus and control wash over me. He let me drive the carriage down the streets of the city, guiding my hands when we needed to turn, or tugging when we needed to slow down. Eventually we reached our destination, and he slowed the horses to a stop and jumped down to lead them through a large door between townhouses.

I felt my eyes widen as we passed under the stone arch and through time straight into the 1800’s. A small stone courtyard paved in cobblestones housed four stables with glossy emerald wooden doors. Lit by half a dozen warm yellow lamps, I watched as a cat yawned and sat up on a hay bale to greet us. I hopped down, completely enchanted, as Max parked the carriage and led the horses to their stables. I gazed up at the baroque townhouses flanking the little courtyard, my mouth hanging open. When Max tapped my elbow to get my attention, I was startled back to the present.

“I come back. I shower.” He said, running his fingers along the brim of his black felt hat.

“Okay.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, Max, go have your shower.”

“After, drinks?”

“Sure.”

He disappeared, undoing the buttons of his waistcoat as he went. I spun around and sat down on a hay bale to pet the cat. Fifteen minutes later a man emerged from a building to my right.

“Hey!” he shouted, and I looked up, startled.

How would I explain my presence? Was I even allowed to be here? I looked around for Max.

“Hey,” he said again, and stopped in front of me. My eyes slid over this man’s body, from his leather boots, past his ripped jeans, over his white and red motorcycle jacket. A red motorcycle helmet dangled from his hand, and he had very pale blonde hair cropped short. He had a cowlick at the front. I stared at his face, frozen in panic.

Then I saw the gold hoop earring. It was Max.

I started laughing.

Out of his work clothes, he looked like a completely different person. He looked much younger. I realised he was only a couple of years older than I was. Without the hat, his blue eyes looked impossibly big and it was much easier to read his expression. He was pink from his shower, and he flushed and rolled his eyes when I explained, through gasps of relieved laughter, that I hadn’t recognised him.

The rest of the night was idyllic. He refused to let me on his motorbike because he only had one helmet, but we walked together to an open-air bar by the river and sat at a picnic table drinking and laughing and asking each other questions until the night wound down and I realised I needed to get home. He offered to walk me, but I declined the offer. The whole evening I had been suspended in a bubble with Max, and now I felt like I was holding a pin, ready to burst it and step out into the real world again.

We walked to the bridge, and he took my hands with an earnest expression. He said that he always had breakfast in the corner cafe near the cathedral on Wednesdays. He said if I wanted to find him, I knew where he would be. He told me he hoped to see me again. Then he kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hands before turning and walking away, motorcycle helmet swinging at his side.

I didn’t go to the cafe on Wednesday. Although part of me wanted to see Max again, a larger part of me felt that we had spent a perfect evening together, and that was enough. I had half fallen in love with a total stranger over the course of a few hours. I had learned so much about him. I knew more about Max than I knew about some of my friends.

I never saw him again.

Every once in a while, I wonder what Max is doing. I wonder if he still draws in his spare time. I wonder if he still drives the same carriage through the streets of Vienna, and whether that coffee shop is still there on that corner. I wonder if he still has a small gold hoop in his ear. I wonder if he has a family now, and whether he remembers an evening spent talking about life with a stranger from Ireland, who was lost and bored and open to the possibility of being kidnapped. I hope Max is well. I hope he is happy. I hope that his life has been untouched by tragedy.

A few memorable hours spent with a total stranger, and I still care about their wellbeing years later. I still send good wishes their way when I think of them, for whatever those are worth.

There really should be a word for that.

Chasing UFOs at Chichibu National Park, Japan

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I had been in Japan only a few days when my brother suggested visiting Chichibu.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You’ll love it!”

I was happy to go along with his suggestion, seeing as he 1.) is my brother and b.) was living in Japan at the time, so I cheerfully agreed, and the following morning I found myself on a little bus destined for Chichibu National Park.

This post isn’t really about the national park, however.

As we wandered up the hill from the entrance, I munched on my matcha-flavoured pocky sticks and looked around me. It was a sunny day and my brother was right, the park was beautiful. Granite rocks and large volcanic stone slabs reached into the sky and spindly trees dotted the landscape like escapees from a Bob Ross painting. Every so often I would find a sign in Japanese with a picture of a bear and the phrase “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO BEARS!” neatly printed underneath in English. I think they were going for ‘Please be careful of bears’ but I have to admit their translation was much better. Not only was it unintentionally hilarious, but I feel like it had the potential to dramatically slash visitor numbers.

Not that the place was packed, exactly. We passed about five other visitors on our way in, and as we walked, we talked. Over the past few days I had visited shrines and cherry blossoms, and I had started to get a feel for the place. I hadn’t yet visited Tokyo, so the more extreme aspects of culture clash were yet to come, but I was enjoying myself immensely pointing out the cultural idiosyncrasies that my brother had assimilated after three years of living in the country.

I was also taking a great deal of interest in my surroundings. Small, chubby stone statues peeked at us from hiding places in the landscape. I pointed out every statue I saw until my brother finally rolled his eyes to the sky and slowly let out a long breath.

“If you do that for every single one of them we’ll be here until next month.”

I side-eyed him and snapped a quick photo. We continued on until we reached a shrine.

The thing you must understand about shrines in Japan is that they are everywhere. Before you visit Japan, you see a photo of them online or in a travel guide and you think, ‘That’s amazing!‘ What you don’t realise is that there are Buddhist shrines, and Shinto shrines, and although they are amazing, they are also innumerable and omnipresent. I really cannot stress this enough. There are shrines around every corner, in every city, up every hill.

We had already visited about five shrines in the past two days when I spotted this shiny red shrine in Chichibu. I pointed up at it eagerly. My brother sighed.

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“Really? Another one?”

I nodded. The novelty hadn’t yet worn off for me. I snapped a quick photo and bounded off towards the steps with my brother trailing behind me in a decidedly less enthusiastic fashion. At the entryway to the shrine, I circled an arm around a red pillar and admired the carvings as I waited for the sound of my brother’s reluctant footsteps to reach my side.

Suddenly a short, thin, bald Japanese man wearing what looked like white house slippers appeared out of nowhere. He said something in rapid-fire Japanese and I cocked my head like a confused spaniel. I felt my eyes widen in panic and I turned to look for my brother, whose foot had only just reached the last step.

“He minds the shrine” my brother muttered to me, joining me in the doorway.

The man turned his attention to him, and asked him a question. My brother explained in simple Japanese that we were Irish, and the man’s face wrinkled into an enormous smile.

“Air-ris-shu!” He exclaimed, beaming. “You come visit?”

“Yes!” I said, glad to be able to communicate.

“First Air-ris-shu here! Why?”

I pointed at my brother and said, “This is my brother. He lives here. I came to visit him.”

“Ahhh,” the man sighed. He muttered something in Japanese then to my brother, and I caught the word “sakura.” Having already had this conversation a few times since arriving in Japan, I nodded my head pre-emptively as my brother translated.

“He says you’re just in time for the cherry-blossoms.”

“I gathered,” I said dryly.

Each and every Japanese person I had spoken to since I had arrived in the country had made some mention of how fortunate I was to have arrived in time to see the cherry blossom trees. I was starting to think it was a bit of an unhealthy obsession. I mean, who gets that excited about a tree?*

I was still rolling my eyes internally at this national obsession with a flower when the man said something that snapped my attention back to him with laser precision.

“Are you here for UFOs?”

I felt my eyes slide to my brother’s face, trying to follow his lead. Was it another lost-in-translation moment? Did UFOs mean something different here?

My brother was staring blankly at the man. He blinked twice.

“UFOs?” I prompted.

“Yes!” The man bobbed his head up and down so vigorously I started to worry it might fall off. “Many people come for UFOs.”

I flicked a glance at my brother again just to double check that he was as blindsided by this conversation topic as I was. His face hadn’t moved a single muscle, but his eyes had the pained expression of someone struggling with the decision of whether or not to laugh.

“Do you mean… flying saucers?” I asked, haltingly.

“Yes, YES!” The head bobbing increased in speed. “Flying saucer!”

I briefly considered trying to catch my brother’s eye but then decided that it would be a monstrous lack of decorum to laugh in this eager man’s face, so I bit the inside of my cheek instead.

“There are UFOs here? In the park?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.” The man shuffled closer and pointed up at the sky. “They come. They come often. Here.”

“Oh.” I said.

We stood there for a moment in silence, the three of us looking up at a brilliantly blue, cloudless patch of sky. The man, reverently looking up at where he obviously thought a UFO might appear at any moment, and my brother and I following his gaze, rendered completely speechless. In the quiet the moment seemed to stretch, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

And then the silence was broken.

“I have photo!”

I turned to face him. “Sorry?”

“I have photo! One moment please.” The man shuffled into the temple and out of sight.

My brother and I stood motionless. Then the side of my brother’s mouth moved.

“He’s serious. He’s actually serious.”

Laughter bubbled up my throat and I coughed in an attempt to disguise it.

“You didn’t mention Yamanashi was a UFO hotspot,” I said in a casual tone of voice.

My brother snorted.

The man reappeared with a point-and-shoot camera that was at least a decade old. He positioned himself between us and turned the camera over to show us the small screen on the back. He flicked through various photos until he found the one he was looking for and held it up.

“See?”

I peered at the screen. It showed the patch of sky we had just been closely examining, only in this photo there was a small blob in the upper right corner. He jabbed the blob with his finger. “There!” He said, triumphantly.

It looked like a bird to me. Possibly an eagle.

“Mmmm” I murmured, noncommittal.

He flicked ahead to another photo of the same scene. This one had a couple of orbs, the kind you get from using the flash when dust particles get in the way.

“See!” He pointed, excited.

“Yes,” I said. “I see.”

He flicked through, showing us more photos with orbs hanging in the middle distance, and a couple more photos of blurry blotches in the sky.

“People come from all over,” he said. “They come for UFOs.”

“Tourists?” I asked.

“Yes, yes. French. Many French. Some American.”

“French and American people come here to watch for UFOs?”

“Yes, yes. UFOs here many times. French, American… They know. Many times here.”

“Like… Every month, or….?”

“No, no. Sometimes three times one day. Sometimes two times one week. Many times here. Some days better. Afternoon best time.”

“Afternoon? Not… at night?”

“No, no. 4pm. 4pm best time here.” He pointed at the patch of sky again. “Here,” he reminded us solemnly.

“Why here?” I asked.

“Area of activity,” he said, nodding sagely. “Governments come to study.”

“Governments? Really?”

“Yes, yes. American. Japanese. Governments come.” He looked out at the horizon, then stared into my eyes. “Area of activity,” he repeated.

“Ahh, of course.”

My brother clapped his hands together, his patience spent. “Well!” He bowed his head to our new friend. “Thank you, we will be sure to keep an eye on the sky for these UFOs.”

The man put his hands together and bowed his bald head low.

I put my hands together and bowed my head in return. Then I smiled at him, a genuine, happy smile. He legitimately believed in UFOs and I admired that faith and interest and passion, even if I couldn’t understand it. I had enjoyed seeing his world through his eyes for a moment, even if I had to squint a little to see eagles as flying saucers, and dust particles as spaceships.

As we made our way down the steps, my brother’s shoulders started to shake with laughter. By the time we reached the main path, tears were streaming down his face. After a quick look over my shoulder to make sure our friend wasn’t watching us, I joined him. I laughed because that was the last possible conversation I had expected to have at a Japanese shrine (or anywhere really). I laughed because it was sunny, and I was happy, and it seemed absurd to climb the steps to an ancient shrine only to wind up talking about flying saucers. Then I saw another sign for “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO THE BEARS!” and started laughing again.

We finally wiped our eyes and refilled our water bottles for the hike ahead before setting off for Nanatsugama-godan Falls, and as we trudged up the next hill, I looked back at the blue, cloudless, birdless patch of sky.

Just in case.

*As I said, I hadn’t been to Tokyo yet at this point in the trip, and so I had no idea what was in store.