A Gray Day in Los Angeles and Ireland

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It is the bleak season of midwinter, just days away from the long night of the solstice. It has been a melancholy week for me, ending with a cap of gray clouds and then rain and more gray.

It was still spitting rain when I walked home from the bar on Saturday night.

Which, of course, put me in mind of Ireland. The weather did, and the declining light and John Banville's column in Sunday's New York Times, reflecting on historical tragedies and how they tend to happen to the Irish.

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My seasonal gloom may have had its own Irish connection - my grandmother was from a well-off Irish American family and my great grandmother was from Ireland. I visited there once, a few years ago, and found that the weather in the northern part of Ireland in July is exactly like the weather in Los Angeles in mid-February, if it's a particularly cold and rainy February.

In Belfast, I rode a damp open-air tour bus with a funny tour guide through an urban battlefield where unemployed young men were stacking lumber and old furniture to burn the pope in effigy. That was instructive, since I'm a Catholic.

I saw the empty Maze Jail, and on that afternoon, it looked more like hell than I thought it might.

I saw sheep and cows. And cows and sheep.

I went to the races in Sligo and won 20 Euros betting on horses with the same name as the wife of my host and on another named Latino Red. That's what you call lucky.

In all, it was the sort of vacation you'd have if you're one of those people to whom things happen. Not amazing things, not like personal epiphanies or meeting a celebrity (or even a former celebrity) or falling in love, even for a little while.

And not awful things either, things like the stories travelers tell that suggest that maybe you don't want to go traveling again.

Remarkably ordinary things happen to me when I travel, and they're always the same things. I'm always asked directions by confused natives of places in which I find myself for the very first time. A vacationing couple from Dublin asked me to recommend a good hotel while I waited for the train in the Sligo train station.

And I was mistaken for a priest in Donegal, which is funny because I wanted to be one when I was five. I'm often mistaken for someone else; sometimes I'm mistaken for an old acquaintance or a person someone went to school with.

Which is disconcerting, as if I'm not really who my passport says I am, as if I've traveled to a place where the authentic me is fairly well known and I'm an unsatisfactory impersonation.

The Irish woman who mistook me for a priest seemed put out that I wasn't, not because she needed the services of a priest, but because I had appeared too convincingly priestly, and if I was capable of casually pulling off that deception while sitting down to a breakfast of fried potato bread, ham, pork sausages, two eggs, toast, jam and tea, who knew what kind of man I might actually be.

The Irish call that breakfast "heart attack on a plate." It also comes with Weatabix, milk, and orange juice.

On the way down to Sligo for the races, the road took us two-thirds around the massive limestone mesa of Ben Bulben, all green even to the rocks at its summit. We pulled into the churchyard of Drumcliff, crowded that Sunday mid-morning with tourists and some churchgoers.

Drumcliff is where William Butler Yeats, a great Irishman and a great poet, is buried with "bare Ben Bulben's head" rising like a wall to the north. There was singing from choir and selling in the gift shop. In Drumcliff, Yeats is an industry.

Yeats composed his own epitaph and it's in large, clear letters on the tall slab at the head of his grave: Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!

It was good advice.

I wanted to like Ireland more than I did. I wanted to see myself in its green-on-green landscape. I wanted the smell of peat burning to mean something. I kept prodding my heart for the unearned nostalgia that my kind of American often has for his great-grandmother's native land.

The people that I met there were unstinting in their kindness. In the villages of Donegal, they lightened their hearts and mine with Guinness and fiddle music (a lot of it country and western). They were lovely, generous people.

They were strangers.

This week in L.A. reminds me of gray estrangement again. And the days have cast another "cold eye" on life.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user André Hofmeister. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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