Saturday, June 3, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood

In the gutter in Dublin


The rain is gentle in Dublin, Ireland, unlike the hard rain in Iowa this spring. The rain washes down the old slate roofs, flowing into gutters and spilling into private gardens hidden in the back of buildings. High stone and brick walls keep me from spying on people dallying inside those gardens as I look out a window high above. But there is nothing to hide today as most take cover from the rain while the gutters fill to the brim and the Irish green turns greener.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

This Oscar Wilde quote, carved in stone near Wilde’s statue in Merrion Square Park, certainly sounds great. Who doesn’t want to see stars? But, trust me, it’s harder to see those stars when blocked by the ever-present clouds of COVID.

Yup, COVID. Even though my wife is fully vaccinated and has two boosters on board, she was just diagnosed with COVID for the second time in the last six months. Really? Can’t she get a break? I suspect the gods are frowning on her ill-advised marriage. But still. Really?

And to make matters even more daunting, my daughter and her partner, both living in Dublin, also tested positive for COVID. Yup, my family is a contagion.

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And the cherry on top of this COVID sundae? We can’t fly home to Des Moines. We have to cancel our flight and scramble for housing as my wife sits in lockdown for the next 16 days.

Which leaves me. Unscathed. A thorn in all their COVID-sick sides. Footloose and fancy free in Ireland … as long as I keep testing negative and wear a mask.

Which is why I’m in Merrion Square Park looking for good bread — “the staff of life,” according to another Dublin writer, Jonathon Swift.

This is not a small matter.

Our daughter has already attempted to distract me with early morning Irish scones. Delicious in their own right. But not bread. Then she brought cinnamon rolls and donuts. Certainly a staple of the good life, but, let’s face it, not bread. Then my daughter brought Irish Guinness, purportedly a beer that is the same as eating a loaf of bread. The jury is still out because of the need for multiple-day sampling, but I’m fairly certain it’s not bread.

Where’s the good bread?

Merrion Square park is tucked between massive homes that used to be where Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats and Daniel O’Connell lived and hung out. Of course, they were concerned with politics and writing and poetry, not food. Although, it was Oscar Wilde who said, “I can’t stand people who don’t take food seriously.” So I’m looking to see if there might be good bread at the Thursday morning market in Merrion Square.

Leif Jensen hasn’t begun selling yet. But I am drawn to stacks and stacks of heavy, crusty, just-made bread. The smell of sourdough and yeast is swoon-producing. The other stalls are just lifting their awnings. But Leif is ready to go.

“I am here because I was missing a good bread from home.” Leif says in a German accent. “In Germany, we have a very high bread culture.”

Leif actually left Germany 12 years ago as a chef.

“I worked in a lot of Michelin star restaurants. But I first left Germany to work as a chef on tall ships sailing around Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. I returned to Hamburg to be the head chef in a French restaurant. After that, I was a chef in Normandy, France, and then a chef in London.”

I didn’t tell Leif about my similar experience selling foot-long hotdogs around Iowa.

“But I was always traveling between these other countries and Northern Ireland because my wife lived there. Although, she is actually from Botswana.”

Of course she is.

“She became pregnant, so I moved to Northern Ireland. And then, with all the COVID restrictions and my hunger for good bread, I decided to open a bakery. Now I am delivering to restaurants and cafes traditionally baked bread. The real bread.”

I buy two loafs. Yup, he’s not lying, it is the real bread.

Leif, what is next for you?

“I am 34. I’m trying to write a good life story. And I love to engage with people. Just yesterday, I had 15 young students in my kitchen as I taught them how to make sourdough bread. That is special.”

Yes it is. A good life story. And it is special.

Leif goes back to selling bread, and I head back to our apartment.

Six days pass. Every day I have a negative COVID test. I eat Leif’s bread. I walk in the rain. All is good.

On the seventh day, two colored lines appear in my test box. I’m positive for COVID. Aargh!

So now I stand in a shadowy alley in Dublin, masked and distanced, waiting for the side door to open so I can take a more definitive test as a marker to start the clock for qualifying to fly home. The graffiti-covered walls of the alley drip with the soft rain drizzling between the buildings. The gutters fill. There is not a star in sight.

But when I leave after my test, I take a wrong turn. Wandering around the Temple Bar area in the rain, I come upon a closed bookstore — The Gutter Bookshop. Go figure. Named after that same darn Oscar Wilde quote about gutters and stars. I look inside the window that’s holding in all those stories hidden behind their covers — as many stories as stars in the sky.

I make it back to our apartment — aka, the quarantine apartment — COVID central — the Dublin Annex for the Iowa Maximum Security Prison.

Safe and sound.

I cut a slice of Leif’s bread. I watch the rain through the front window. And I think about Leif trying to live a good life story … and other people I know and their good life stories.

Outside the window, the rain continues to softly fall. The streets fill with water. And the lamplights shine … like stars?

At least that’s the view from the gutter. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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