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Over the Hills and Far Away

September 19, 2012


It has been a while. First it was holidays with my lovely extended family, then it was the scramble to get back into University mode. Since, it’s been a whirl of giving a welcome talk to new mature students and preparing for my final BA year. It’s going to be a toughie – I need to do very well to have any chance of going on to Post Grad studies. WHICH I WANT. Very much.

So while the blog has been tapping me politely on the shoulder, aheming quietly behind my back, I’ve been rudely ignoring it. Instead I’ve plunged into a world of History (Nazis, Globalisation and Irish Palaeography) and Classics (Barbarians, Virgial and Livy, and Early Irish Christianity). World War destruction and the Reconstruction of Rome is all that’s been on my mind for the last while. Mea Culpa, Reader.

Rome’s is not the only reconstruction that’s been focused on, so to speak. A last-minute trip to that bastion of the icy north – IKEA – resulted in new storage and shelves. Finally the 11 volumes of Pepys have a home. Boxes are replete with stationery and cards (loose and collected), and I know where the (whisper the dreaded word) Christmas lists are. And my travel treasures have a new home.

Today I dusted them off, and set them up again. Then I looked out the window at the beautiful mountain – grey today – and imagined flying up and over it to the places where these trinkets were bought or picked up.

The carved wooden wolf is a piece of an old casement that I bought in a temple, half-way up a mountain in south-west China. It was pouring rain that day too. The little Buddha was bought in an extremely expensive antique shop in Amsterdam which was run by a gay couple full of fun and kindness. They didn’t mind crawling into the front window display to pick out what was probably the cheapest item in their shop. Who says you can’t buy something special on a budget?

Everything has a memory. The small plaque was bought in St George’s Monastery in Syria – a week after my dear friend Alan died. Alan was with me everywhere on that trip. Although I’m not religious I do like a good candle. So, I lit candles in front of beautiful icons in every orthodox monastery I visited. I was stuck for time that day – I grabbed the plaque of St George and just made it…last back on the bus. It’s hard to think of Syria now without weeping.

Everywhere I go, I try to take home one thing that says ‘Yes, this is that place’ to me. The first time I went to New York I went to Pageants Bookshop and bought an autobiography: a cloth-bound, mild-mannered book. It’s subject is Mark van Doren. Yes, you fans of Quiz Show – ‘Van Doren, Van Doren’. I bought some 19th century magazine prints of New York in the old days: ‘The Navy Yard’, ‘Old Gotham Inn, Bowery’, ‘Coffee House Slip and New York Coffee House’. Gotham and coffee. And an old book. Perfect.

In Petra, late in the day, when the sun starts to go down and the heat leaves you alone, and you know there’s only so much time to make it out through the magical Siq before darkness and the djinns come: that is the time to pause and chat to man selling copies of Roberts celebrated watercolours of Jordan and The Levant. His mother might be there, sitting quietly on the ancient Roman cardo, with a few bits and pieces laid out for sale. I saw old coins and jewellery and…my classical woman’s head. Now, I don’t care if my venerable Bedu lady was trying to tell me it was an ancient original. It may be for all I know – the Bedu have sold small original finds in Petra for years on end. All I knew was I had the found The Thing: the thing that said ‘I was there’, the thing that still now holds years of memories. Because, Reader – I went back. That day in Petra was the beginning of a connection, only truly severed by a death. So there she is: my lady, staring serenely into the middle distance; be it Roman, Nabatean, or 21st century. She knows my secrets; I know none of hers.

In Luxor, in the shop at the Old Winter Palace Hotel, I struck up a conversation with Abdullah. ‘It’s a pity I can’t keep my key’, I said. ‘I love that it’s still attached to the original brass number plate.’  Abdullah opened a drawer and took out a couple of old brasses. ‘I can give you one of these.’  Howard Carter might have touched one of them, I told myself. Number 325 sold, and comin’ back to Ireland!

There are bits and pieces I collected – like the shards of pottery on spoil heaps in various sites in Libya. And there are the gifts. A small jar handle with a hole in it was given to me by Jamal the guide. ‘Karen, this one you can wear on your neck with a ribbon.’  The lumpy looking piece of pumice-coloured stone has a jewel hidden in it. It’s a creation of the Omani desert – another gift from a guide. Split its ugly sandskin open and its inside will reveal itself in the form of cracked, spindly crystals encircling – if one is lucky- an amethyst heart. I can’t bring myself to break it.

I know what’s inside.

That’s enough.

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