Airport/Groceries on the Dancefloor


London Gatwick. I find the boards and scan with tired eyes. My flight doesn’t jump out at me and I feel momentarily vexed. Has it all been one big mistake? Wrong date? Wrong time? (In airports I always feel like I’m on the brink of a huge blunder). Then I see it. Bilbao. VY7293 19:55. Boarding gate will be announced at 19:05. Grand.

I head towards Departures, negotiating the wheelie bags and fond farewells. I queue. The guys at security have an impatient air and seem perpetually mystified at the hesitancy coupled with stupidity that comes over the passengers. Every day the same. I take out my laptop and place it in a tray. I pull out another tray and drop my bag into it. I remove my jacket and stuff it alongside my bag. I stick my wallet and belt in the sides. I dig my hands into my pockets and feel for loose coins. None. Grand.

I pass through the metal detector without a beep. I meet my bag on the other side and refill my pockets, slip on my belt, place the laptop back in the bag and heave it onto my back. Passport, wallet, ticket, phone, keys, boarding pass. Grand.

Shiny shops in a busy thoroughfare. I find the food hall. The stench of coffee greets and entices me. I pay for an overpriced coffee and sandwich. The coffee feels good. The contents of the sandwich conspire to create zero flavour whatsoever.

I go down to the seating area. People are reading or pushing buttons on their phones while intermittently checking the boards. It seems a numbness has come over us all. We are in-between, waiting for our lives to start again.

Portugalete, Bilbao

I drop my bag in my room, splash water on my face, reapply some deodorant and go outside. I tackle the hill with purpose. It’s been a long numbing day of travel (3 hour bus journey, airport, flight, airport, flight and car ride) so my energy surprises me. I guess my legs are relieved to be finally set free out of doors.

It’s a big night here in Bilbao. The bars are heaving. Jessica and her friends are in the ‘Why not?’ I’m excited to see Jessica as we’ve been apart over Christmas. I’m also a little nervous as I’m about to meet her friends for the first time.

The bouncer nods at me. The bar behind him seems like a busy cave of activity. He pulls the door open and I step inside, and inadvertently, into a group of eight or so people standing in a crescent formation. They all seem to be looking at me. They must be Jessica’s friends. Meekly I scan the group but I can’t see her anywhere. Then I see her sister Andrea. I smile, kiss her cheeks and wish her a happy new year. This confirms to the group that I am him, Jessica’s new fella. I feel the eyes switch from curiosity to appraisal.

Finally Jessica appears at my side. We kiss, hug and say a few words. A drink is handed to me.People from the group step forward to introduce themselves.  Marie Luis, Alvaro, Luis, Martha, Mirren. We speak in Spanglish. We have to lean into one another to be heard above the Reggathon blasting out of the speakers. Everybody’s nice. Everyone makes an effort. Nervousness has me tilting back my glass with speed.  Aritz, Akine and Ane. After a whirlwind of introductions I’m relieved to be back standing next to Jessica. Another drink is handed to me.

‘I’ll get the next,’ I promise.

I spot a plastic bag on the floor. It’s filled with a box of breakfast cereal, a litre of milk, eggs, apples, bananas and mandarins. How curious it looks! It seems as though  it has been transplanted from somebody’s kitchen of a dreary Tuesday morning to this limitless Friday night of disco balls and lights.

‘It’s for you,’ Jessica says following my gaze.

My face clouds with puzzlement.

‘Tomorrow is a holiday and all the shops are closed,’ she explains. ‘Seen as you were arriving late I thought I’d get you a few things.’

I smile at the bag of shopping and then at Jessica. My fondness for her deepens.



Something Similar? What is she like?

Something Different? Bilbao Metro 4am




I’m sitting at the computer in my brother’s house when Nini wanders in.

‘Hey!!!There you are,’ she says, as if I’ve been hiding from her.


‘I got you a present!’ She says beaming. She thrusts forth a bottle of lemon cordial.

‘Oh. Thank you. I love it!’ I say admiring the bottle.

‘I’m glad you like it.What are you doing?’

‘I’m printing out tickets for my flight. Tomorrow I’m flying back to Spain.’

‘Oh,’ she says with downcast eyes. ‘I was hoping the present would make you stay, but I guess it didn’t work.’

‘ I’ll be back in the summer!’

 ‘What’s this?’ she asks, picking up my passport.

‘I need that for travelling.’

‘Is that you?’

‘Yeah. Some head on me isn’t there?’

‘You don’t look very good in photos,’ she says giggling. ‘But I think you have a nice face,’ she reassures.

‘Awh thanks.’

My brother appears and tells Nini its time for bed. She protests. He tells her that her uncle will read her a story if she goes to the toilet and washes her teeth. There’s silence as she contemplates this. Then she gives in and goes to the toilet.

‘You don’t mind do you?’

‘No man. It’s a pleasure,’ I say as the printer releases my ticket. I take it from the tray, examine it and then fold it away in my jacket pocket.

Nini climbs into bed.

‘You have a very big bed!’ I say sitting down next to her while she scooches over.

‘It used to be my sister’s bed but now it’s mine.’

‘Your bed is bigger than my bed!’

She says nothing but her eyes widen to absorb the fact. I open the book my brother has given me. It’s a book about Irish history.

‘Oh look at her! She’s a woman pirate!’ I say. ‘Would you like to be a pirate?’

‘I don’t really know. I don’t really know what a pirate does really.’

‘Well they go around on boats and sometimes they steal from other boats.’

‘Are pirates bad?’

‘Well..some are.’

‘Is she a bad pirate?’ Nini says pointing at the book.

‘Well..that’s Grainnemhaol. She was an Irish pirate.’

‘And she was a girl.’

‘Yes. Will I read about her?’


I lay back. Nini rests her head on my shoulder so she can see the book.

Grainne mhaol is Irish for bald Grainne. When she was a little girl she asked her father, who was a merchant, if she could join him on the boat. Her father said no, that her long hair would only be getting in the way. So what did Grainne do? She only grabbed a scissors and cut all her hair off. And that’s how she became known as Grainnemhaol.

‘So she was bald?’

‘Yeah like me.’

‘But you’re not all bald: you have some hair here and and around here.’

‘Well, yeah.’

‘But how come she’s not bald in the picture?’

‘Well her hair is very short. I guess it grew back a little. Will I read on?’


I read on but Nini’s mind is elsewhere.

‘When are you going to Spain?’ she interrupts.

‘Tomorrow morning.’

‘Early? Will I see you tomorrow?’

‘No. You’ll be asleep -all snoring and farting.’

‘I don’t snore!’

‘But you fart.’

‘No I don’t. Not like my Daddy does.’

‘Yeah. Well thank goodness for that.’

‘I wish you weren’t going.’

‘I’ll be back in the summer.’

‘But that’s so long.’

‘No it isn’t. You’ll be so busy in school and having a great time that it’ll be really quick.’

Nini lets out a sigh. I don’t know what to say.

‘Will I read more about Grainne this mad , bald woman pirate?’


I read about Grainne’s swash buckling adventures. Nini’s comments begin to taper off and pretty soon I realise I’m reading to myself. I set the book down and gently remove her head from my chest. Her face has a soft sleepy look.

‘Bye bye gorgeous.’

I turn the light off on my way out.


Something Similar? Hanging with the Kids (Now 33% Better)

Something Different? Bilbao Metro 4am

Cans on the Bench

Every time I see the date on my phone I feel a jolt, like I’ve just woken up and realised I’ve overslept. September 7th – I should be back at work. Then I remember I’m midway through my two year career break.

My hometown is making the transition from summer to autumn. The amusement park has closed. The Topsy Turvey and The Sizzler are being packed up. Lorries wait to ferry them away. The kids have substituted the bright summer outfits for uniforms. The tan tourists are no longer vying for the attention of the pretty barmaids. The men they leaned across are still there though, the ever-present pint before them. They pine for the barmaid – her pretty smile and perfect ass were a wonderful distraction. But she’s gone too and now it’s just the usual ugly bastards.   

A mist hangs over the town in mourning for the passing of summer. Neil and I have been walking through it for five minutes.

‘It’s like a ghosttown,’ he says.

‘Yeah. Here, where we going anyway?’

‘Lets see where our feet take us,’ Neil says.

I have a good idea where our feet are gonna take us. Twenty minutes later we are settling down on a bench overlooking the bay with a bag of cans and a packet of fags.

‘So how’s San Francisco?’ I say cracking open a can.

‘It’s wonderful. I really like my life there. The people there aren’t afraid to be true to what they want to do and I respect that.’

Some people can’t tell you how great their life abroad is without shitting all over Ireland . Neil is one such person. I ignore what’s implied because I don’t wanna get into an argument. He offers me a box and I draw a cigarette. We share a light. We smoke and contemplate the sea and the orange lights illuminating the deserted promenade.

‘ I hear you’ve extended your career break,’ he says.

‘Uno mas por favour!’

‘What do you want out of it?’

‘Em…well if I can come home with a good level of Spanish that’d be something.’

‘So, you’re not just pissing around.’

‘Well, some people may beg to differ.’

‘You looking forward to getting back out there?’

‘I am now yeah.  It has the potential to be a great year, now I have a certain standard of Spanish, a group of friends and work experience. ’

‘It’s gonna fly.’

‘I know yeah.’

We slug from our cans.

‘You could be there for a few more years yet,’ Neil says.

‘Well, she’d have to be pretty special…Nah.I wanna settle here eventually. My family are here, my friends too. Except for you ; you’re not my friend.’


‘You still single?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. A few false starts but nothing that lasted. Ah, I’m enjoying the single life. There’s a good social scene out in San Fran; a lot of thirty-somethings that don’t wanna grow up yet, so it suits me.’

‘ So when are you going to grow up?’ I ask.

‘What? Settle down and have kids and stuff?’

‘Well – you went to college, you got a job…It’s the next stage isn’t it?’

‘Well,’ he says taking a final drag from his ciggy. ‘If I don’t do it soon people here might start thinking I’m weird. Or worse, gay.’

 ‘Do you want kids even?’ I ask.

‘I’m thinking of it a little more these days.’

‘I was over at Willy and Roisín’s the other day, to see their little fella. Jesus – even walking out the door was an operation; have we got this? Have we got that? It’s tough. There’s a dramatic loss of independence. And there’s  the cost of child-minding, the sleepless nights and all that. But, when they talk about it, you know they wouldn’t change a thing.’

‘Yeah. I saw them too. I remember Roisín telling me – ‘There is no love in the world as strong as a mother’s love for her child.’ I was like ‘Well what happened to my Mom?’ Neil sparks up another cigarette. ‘Not everyone’s supposed to be a parent, I suppose.’

I don’t know what to say to that so there’s a spell of silence. Then I start thinking about a kid I once coached.

 ‘A few years back, I was coaching a football team. There was one kid; a scrawny little fella. He never missed training and had all the gear and stuff. He had a nice stroke of the ball but he was a coward. Anyway, we put him in the full forward line. He was hanging back out of the melee, as usual, but at one point, the ball bounced over his man and nestled into his arms. He turned. It was just him and the goalkeeper. Me and the other coach were holding on to each other. He took three steps and with a sweet strike, delivered the ball to the back of the net. We were buzzing. That kid had a glow about him for the rest of the day, as had we. And we fucking lost that day and all. The thing is, how happy we felt for him. And we were just the coaches.’

‘Imagine how his Dad felt.’


We drink in silence another bit.

‘ I might never come home,’ Neil says, playing with his ring pull.


‘Maybe. I dunno. It doesn’t have to be wife, kids and mortgage next.’

‘True. I was in the park the other day with my niece. All the kids were swinging, climbing and spinning saying; ‘Look at me!’ and all the adults were bored off their tits. They’d love to be doing what we’re doing.’

‘What? Drinking cans on a bench?’

‘Yeah!’ I laugh.

‘There are many ways to live a life.’

‘Sure are,’ I say.

We bump our cans together.

‘Lucky,’ he says.


‘One short year in Spain. And then what?’ Neil asks.

‘Ah, I’ll just follow my feet.’

 ‘Is it wise, the way we are?’ he asks.

‘Whattya mean?’

‘Just making it up as we go along? Not having any set plans?’

‘Well. We have two more cans. How’s that for a plan?’



Something Similar? Hanging with the Kids

Something Different? A Bit of Romance

Hanging with the Kids

I amble half-asleep into the kitchen when my niece surprises me with a big hug.

‘Oh my God you’ve gotten so big!’ I say, about three times. She rolls her eyes and I realise I sound just like my Uncles did when I was little. She has sure stretched in the 8 months I’ve been away. We get reacquainted over breakfast.

‘What’s your favourite colour?’

‘Well, it’s turquoise or light blue.’

‘It’s not red anymore?’

‘NO. It was red when I was little. I’m going into Senior Infants now.’

‘Oh excuse me, I didn’t realise you were so grown up.’

‘Well I am 5 and ¾’s, ya know.’

My nephew circles the kitchen, reacquainting himself with my presence. As I drain a glass of water, he runs up and plants a fist in my thigh, ‘na-naas’ and runs away while checking over his shoulder to see if I am in pursuit. I give chase. He takes small, quick steps up the hallway. My steps (in role as a cool, calculated villain) are long and slow. The 5 doors of the hallway shut out light and create a gloom.  He comes to a dead-end. I slap the soles of my flip-flops off the wooden floor as I bear down on him. He squeals and howls in anticipation of the impending tickles.

He laughs with unbridled joy, then breaks free from my clutches, lets out a triumphant roar, runs down to the sitting room and hides behind the curtain.

‘I wonder where Toto is!’ I declare, like a pantomime gobshite.

After more high jinks we sit down in front of the TV. I summon cartoons with the zapper and flick through the channels.

‘No, no,no, no,’ Nini says as colourful images blink past. ‘Wait!’ she commands as a princess appears. ‘No.’

So many channels.

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ she says eventually.

‘Yeeeahhhh,’ Toto agrees. 

Twenty minutes of a cartoon. Welcome relief. Nini and Toto stare at the TV, mouths wide with wonder. My mother comes in and plants Jim-jim down on the floor in front of his favourite toy. His chubby hands explore the colourful chunk of plastic that twirls, breathes, bobs and jingles; ‘dododo doodleydo dodododo dooo do.’ I pick up the Sport Supplement on the couch. Kilkenny manager Brian Cody says he has a full complement to choose from for Sunday’s semi-final. He goes on to say ‘dododo  doodleydo dodododo dooo do.’ I throw the newspaper aside.

The ads come on.  

‘I want that for my birthday,’ Nini says.

‘An’ I want That for my burpday,’ Toto says.

I spring to my feet and zap the TV. They look to me.

‘Let’s go outside and play,’ I say.

‘Play what?’ Nini inquires.

‘Whatever you want,’ I say.

She considers this.

‘Okay,’ she says and slides off the couch.

Toto is looking at the blank screen, his face clouding with concern. I tell him we’re going outside. He buries his head into the cushion and sticks his bum in the air. He howls in protest. His anguish is as sincere as his laughter earlier. Jim-jim stops whacking his toy and watches the tantrum curiously. Eventually, I put the TV back on. Toto readjusts himself. The baby coos and gurgles and slaps the chunk of plastic ‘dododo doodelydo dodododo dooo do.’

 Out on the green, Nini has a game.The name of the game is ‘Big/Small Hit the Ball.’ There’s a long, convoluted set of rules, one of which states that you have to be either 5 ¾’s or 33 years of age to play (thankfully, we both make the cut). I’m not sure I follow all the rules but once we start I realise she’s the goalkeeper and I’m taking shots. Nini pulls off some great saves.

 After, she lays down on the grass and looks up at the sky.

‘You can be anything you want when you’re older can’t cha?’


‘You can be a princess, a fairy, or a camogie player….’

‘Can I be a fairy?’

‘No you can be a prince or a knight.’

‘But I decided to become a teacher instead.’

‘But you don’t have to be anything if you don’t want to be, don’t cha?’

‘I have some friends that aren’t anything.’

Nini considers for a few moments.

‘Did you keep your dream?’ she asks.

‘Well. When I was your age I wanted to be a footballer.’

‘But you have to keep your dream secret.’


‘Because, if you tell someone, it won’t come true.’

Nini gets back to her feet and insists on showing me a series of manoeuvres she calls gymnastics.

‘Wow,’ I say.

 A toddler waddles across the green followed by a man on his mobile phone.  He looks incredibly bored. We raise our eyebrows in salutation.

Later, I can’t wait to get out of the house.I put on my football gear and head for the door with my bag on my back.

‘Hey.Where are ya going?’ Nini asks.

‘I’m going to play football.’

Her eyes light up.

‘You kept your dream!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You said you wanted to be a footballer when you were little.’

She comes up and gives me a big hug, like I’m some sort of hero.


Something similar? A Day at the Beach

Something different? Second Date


Second Date

I text my cousin to say the date’s going well and I’ll be late. One hour. No probs, he says.

We are not going anywhere, Maria and I. I’m returning to Spain mid-September and she’s returning to Mexico in April. Still, here we are, snogging on our second date. It’s a long, slow one. We part and smile at each other. Our dancing eyes seem to ask the question; where can we go?

‘We should get a hotel together,’ I say.

‘When? Tonight!?’

‘Uh, next weekend; Saturday.’

‘Okay.I would like to see more Ireland.’

‘Wicklow maybe?’


‘The following weekend I am returning to Spain.’

‘I know. It is sad. Can I visit you?’

‘Uh, yeah. I mean it is expensive and there are no direct flights after October, but yeah.’


We kiss on the lips, drain our drinks and stand. Tonight we are going separate ways. I’m sleeping on my cousin’s couch. She shares a bedroom with a Brazilian housemate.

We walk down Dame Lane. It’s Friday night and the place is buzzing. She links my arm. I consider crooking my elbow but don’t want to look like Lord of the Shire, so I hold her hand, loosely. Ahead I notice another couple holding hands. The man looks at ease but I feel like an inadequate actor playing a role. I’m also anxious we will bump into someone I know. I mean here we are on a second date acting like an engaged couple in Paris in Spring time.  Kissing and staying in hotels is one thing but holding hands? It feels like we’ve jumped a few levels here.

None of us take the reins and we end up squaring up to the couple. After awkward laughter Maria and I walk around them. I tell her how, in many African countries, a man and woman holding hands is frowned upon, as it is seen as an inappropriate display of affection. I use both hands to tell her this piece of trivia.

We arrive at the bike stand. She points out her bike. It’s a crock with tiny wheels. I tell her off for cycling with no lights or helmet on the topsy-turvy streets of Dublin city. She laughs off my concern and reassures me everything will be alright. Again, it feels like I’m playing a role alongside a more convincing co-star. We say our goodbyes.

In the taxi I send a message to my cousin telling him I’m on my way. Then I begin to wonder if a hotel is such a good idea. Sure, the plush, cosiness would help take things to the next level, but is it financially viable? On the two dates I had paid for everything and not once did she present me with an opportunity to brush aside an offer to pay. It’s a Mexican thing, apparently. Finance aside, I feel that, once I go to Spain that will be the end of our courting. She might have the impression that a weekend away is the beginning of something. It would be unfair to indulge this notion.

I’m not sure.The fact that she’s nice doesn’t help. I’ll let it sit in my gut for a couple of days and see how I feel.

I pay the taxi man. I ring my cousin to let him know I’m outside. There’s no answer. He hasn’t read my last message. I ring again. Nothing. I find the apartment buzzer and give it a little push. I listen for the clunk of a key from the bowels of the building but all I hear is a TV with the volume up. I give the buzzer a longer, angrier push. Then I try the phone several times. Ring, voice, beep. Ring, voice, beep. My battery is dying. Time for a new plan.

I walk out onto the street and hail a taxi. The taxi man puts a bit of juice in my phone. He takes me to Smithfield.

‘Any beds available?’ I ask the man on the door.

‘It’s 1 o’clock in the morning on a Friday night in Dublin,’ he deadpans.

On the quay we stop at another hostel. The taxi waits while I run in. Full.

‘Jaysus, course. It’s fuckin’ All Ireland weekend an’ all,’ says the taxi driver.

Next we go to Gardiner street.

‘If ya don’t get one here ya may as well through yourself in the Liffey. There’s loads of hostels. Start at the bottom, work your way up.’

I give him a tip and he turns the taxi back towards the heart of the city. The first hostel is full. My phone burps a message. It’s Maria! She’s still up. My phone then gives another squeak to remind me of the battery situation. Better do this before it’s too late.

A sleepy hello.

‘Maria! Hi! Okay, this is very unusual but my cousin did not answer the door. He is asleep. I am looking for a place to stay. I’ve tried three hostels but they are all full. I am going to try more hostels but if they are also full, is it possible for me to stay in your place? Just on the couch for a couple of hours?’

A pause.

‘I am asking now because my battery is dying. If the other hostels are full I am stuck.’

‘But it is not possible.’

I wait for an explanation; something regarding her complicated living arrangements and housemates.

‘You cannot because I am falling asleep.’

‘Okay. I’ll let you go. Thanks anyway Maria. Goodnight.’


5 Things I Hate about Bilbao

We watch our fresh pints settle.

‘And your hates of Bilbao?’ Arantxa asks.

‘Shit,’ I say.


‘We did it all wrong.’


‘We should have done the hates first, then the loves, so we finish on a good note.’

‘I guess…Anyway, tell me.’

‘Okay, but don’t get mad.’

‘We’ll see.’

I sip my pint.

‘Well first thing,’ I begin, ‘ is the rain here. It’s really bad.’

‘But you are from Ireland!’

‘Yeah but when it rains here, it really rains. The last two weekends it has rained non-stop.’

‘It is true. But in Ireland it is the same, no?’

‘The rain is worse here. I mean I was living in Ireland for thirty two years and I never owned an umbrella.’

‘En serio?’

‘Yes. And I bought my first umbrella after two months here.’

Arantxa isn’t quite happy but moves the conversation along anyway.

‘What else?’

‘Eh…well…it can be quite grim and industrial here. When I get the train into Ametzola all I see are spray painted walls, cheerless buildings, cranes eternally waiting to swing into action and empty platforms with posters advertising films that were out long ago. And on the hills-’

‘You said you loved the hills.’

‘I do but it’s a pity that there are these huge telephone masts on top of them.’

‘You should have seen Bilbao in the early nineties because it was a lot worse. Now we have the Guggenheim, the metro and beautiful riverside walkways. I think you say this because of where you live. In the city around Casco Viejo and Abando it is very beautiful, no?’

‘It’s nice.’

Casco Viejo, Bilbao

‘There are parts of every city that are not beautiful but you do not see this because you are not there long.’

Aranxta sips her pint.

I take out my wallet and produce a flimsy green card and show it to her. She nods. It’s my NIE, a card that basically says; Hello. I’m a foreigner. I live and work here. You need to have one if you are working in Spain.

‘Okay. This is my next hate; bureaucracy. Getting into the mafia is probably easier than obtaining this flimsy card. I was passed back and forth from the Police Headquarters in Bilbao to social services in Santurtzui, to the bank. Each office gave me a form to fill, then sent me back to the last place. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. I’d just take a ticket, get in line and, when my turn came, spill my mounting paper work onto the desk, only to be told I was missing some form and sent back to the last place.’

‘Yes. Well, we hate it too. What else?’

‘It’s a bit of a cultural thing but I don’t like how late you guys eat. Eating dinner at 9 and 10 o’clock at night isn’t healthy. It is too late and when it’s time for going to bed I’m wide awake.  And everybody gets up early here. When the fuck do you guys sleep?’

‘During the day – siesta.’

‘Did you take a siesta today?’


‘I’m beginning to think this is the most sleep deprived country in Europe.’

‘Yes but when I was in Ireland everyone had dinner at 6 o’clock. Then at 10’clock you eat again because you are hungry again. I put on weight when I was in Ireland.’

Arantxa counts it out.

‘The rain, industrial appearance or whatever, bureaucracy, eating late; that’s four.’

‘Okay; last thing is that the Supermarkets are always closed on Sunday. Again, it’s just something I have to get used to, but it annoys me when I wake up on Sunday with no food in the fridge and then I remember the supermarket is closed.’

‘The Chinese shops are open on Sundays.’

‘Well why can’t the supermarkets open too?’

‘They let the Chinese shops open as they are trying to encourage foreign investment. Some Supermarket chains are pushing for Sunday opening but it’s against the law at the moment.’

‘Does it bother you?’

‘We should be able to survive one day without a supermarket, no?’

‘True. Anyway – they’re the five things I hate about Bilbao; but, hate is a strong word.’

‘Yes. Too strong.’


We sip our pints.


5 Things I Love about Bilbao