Today’s flaneuring essay comes from Dublin, Ireland. Take a walk with Karen Huber through her neighborhood. I’m only a little jealous of her trees and leaves. And I used to have a dog named Cocoa, too! (Some have asked, yes, I’m still accepting essays so take a walk and tell us what you see.)
I’m used to looking down at my feet. This is part introversion and partly to guard against trips or stumbles. It also ensures I don’t have that split second panic attack when someone crosses my path. Do I look them in the eye? Do I smile, nod, say hello? I’d rather just keep my head down, be about my business, complete my journey home.
Today, though, I look up. It is sunny, cool. October at its finest.
The leafy suburbs of the American Midwest are not so unlike the one I walk through now. Our town is nestled into the valley along the River Liffey. We are all hills and trees, leaves pressed down by feet and rain. The narrow sidewalks are separated from the narrow road by a narrow patch of grass. You can set your clock by these sidewalks: during the school rush, cars are lined along them, parked on top of them. By 9:10 they are peacefully empty. The half dozen schools in this 2km area are now in session.
On blue-sky days, humans are more prone to occupy these footpaths. Women in puffy vests and oversized sunglasses walk with swinging arms. Couples with babies in buggies keep the older children by their sides. An elderly man with a newsboy cap walks towards me, not looking up, maintaining a slow pace. He is the epitome of an Irish postcard. Fathers ride bikes with a son or daughter sitting along the cross bar (I’m not particularly convinced this is a safe means of transport).
Our island economy is well into a housing boom now, but vestiges of the Celtic Tiger’s bust remain: an overgrown field decorated with a disintegrated for sale sign, only the top edge of which still hangs, hidden by brush. Graffiti is no oddity here.
Waist-high walls guard thin patches of lawn making up the front gardens. Painted concrete, most are an off-white stucco, though a handful stand out in varying shades of peach and tan, distinguishing them from their neighbours. Half the houses have gates to their tiny driveways. Wrought iron, new shiny wood, old wire. These semi-detached homes are nearly identical, apart from the gate, signaling a variance in personality.
The cemetery is hundreds of years old, divided into two sections: the modern and the ancient. More recent headstones touch the foot of the next grave down. I imagine their bodies sleeping eternally, like a bed filled with children. Head to toe, head to toe. There is hardly any room; Irish land is limited.
Cocoa the dog pulls the lead, sniffing everything, everywhere. We are past the cemetery now, past the neighborhoods, past the gorgeous, large Georgian house which sits atop the hill, overlooking the valley below. We find a trail there, leading to a clearing where we can see the steeple of the protestant church, the clock on the façade of a village building, the estates on the other side of the river, the trees in their colour.
Walking these roads, I sometimes feel like a sell-out. We are safely removed from urban life, quiet and protected on this Friday morning. I had hoped we’d be braver, move our brood into the hood, where children still play football in the middle of busy roads, but here we are. And I can’t deny it: our work is both here and there, in the suburbs as much as in the city.
Two women are headed my way as Cocoa and I are on the return trip home. They are Muslim, I assume, wearing the colourful headscarves I’ve grown accustomed to. Muslim immigrants, from North Africa and the Middle East, have come here. Eastern Europeans, Nigerian Christians, Indians and Asians, too. We have all come here, painting a different landscape. Ireland is so different than it once was.
I look up and smile at them. The younger one walks a few feet ahead of the older woman. She looks at me and I mouth “hello.” I think that maybe she has smiled back, noticing just a slight upturn of her lips.
The older woman, she never looks my way. Her head is turned back, but I see her turquoise scarf frame the curve of her lined face.
Karen Huber lives with her husband and three children in Dublin, Ireland, where they work in community development, the arts and discipleship. When she’s not at home with her kiddos, she’s out drinking coffee with friends, writing in libraries, and laughing louder than is culturally appropriate. You can find Karen’s thoughts on motherhood, marriage, culture and faith at KarenOHuber.com or meet her on Twitter at @karenohuber.