Friday, 11 May 2007

VIPs for a day. Checking out of The Clarence

As Thursday eases into Friday, though it is cold outside, we are feeling no pain! Throughout the day we have consumed - between us - 3 bottles of Champagne (one of them the Spanish variety!), 4 Cosmopolitans and a bottle of wine at dinner. Now, back in our room and out of our posh frocks, we let our hair down in great style and decide to open another bottle of wine from the bar. The choice of booze is bewildering: there are Champagnes of various value, several wines, beers, and loads of bottles of spirits. We opt for a French red, which frankly is not the best but comparatively cheap.

We put on a U2 DVD and have a moment of contemplation and a sense of the surreal as we try to equate the man on the screen with the champagne we received at dinner. Could it really have been from him? Impossible to believe, and yet also very believable.

We spend the night talking, revelling in our surroundings..... and being very silly. All the alcohol and excitement is getting to us as we act the goat and make silly vidoes. At 4am, Sue decides to avail herself of the hot tub again, and I take a picture of her in there. The picture is wonderful and captures the moment; there is steam billowing all around her and she is there, basking in the bubbles. A great image!

All too soon, the sun comes up, and we have seen the vista outside in every stage of light, every hue and colour. The time is approaching when we will have to pack, and eventually we do, and dress ready for breakfast.

More outfits, more pictures... then we are fed and the time comes to leave. At reception as we check out, the staff again are flapping around us, and asking questions and we feel like celebrities.

Then we leave (in a lot less style than we arrived, in a normal taxi!!) and are driven back to Sandymount. Back to our flat which seems very small and poky and strangely bland after the grandeur of the penthouse.

A few hours kip, and then we decide that we must send a note to Bono, to thank him for everything and for making our trip so memorable and special. Dianne, who has the best handwriting, pens a note on Clarence paper, and we make the drive down to HQ, where it falls to me to ring the bell on the intercom.

A familiar voice comes on the speaker, and I say that I have a note for Bono. A few seconds later, Dallas, our old Kentuckian friend, appears at the door. I tell him that the note is a thank you for Bono. He asks: "And you are?" and I tell him we are the girls who stayed at the penthouse at the Clarence last night. He tells me he will make sure he gets it and as I make to leave, he adds: "I like the tint in your hair, by the way." I smile and make a mental note to tell my colourist that her red streaks are a winner! Dallas's words make me go all girly and I thank him before jumping back in the car!!

And so our adventure - 3 years in the planning - is all but over. But what memories we will take home with us. We go to dinner at Bewleys in Ballsbridge and reflect on everything.

This visit to Dublin will take some beating but, if we know Bono, he will surprise and delight us again some day.

No Red Bull Required - The Penthouse Suite, Clarence Hotel

Who can sleep! Not me. It's early and I am awake. Light is creeping in and I can actually hear noises from Sue's side of the room! Is she up too!? A miracle!

It's here. D Day! In a few hours we will be in the Limo. It's so exciting neither Sue nor I can contain ourselves... and... we both want to pee and it's not our turn in the bathroom yet!!!!

Everyone is handling this morning their own way, and as we shower and get dressed there is a mild hysteria in the air. We all have to share a suitcase, and Julie volunteers hers. We duly stuff it with our shoes, bags, knickers and tights. And then there are hairdryers and straighteners, and make-up, and toiletries. Oh and notebooks and presents. And clothes for lounging around in. And clothes for leaving in tomorrow. Surely we are going to forget something.

12.30 approaches and I get a phone call on my mobile - it makes me jump. It's Caroline from The Clarence, asking when we are going to be arriving. I tell her 1.30. Next thing, the house phone rings. It's Keith, the limo driver, asking for directions. Sue helps out. Then we have to wait. It seems a long and agonising wait. We pace, endlessly, round and round the living room and Dianne captures it on video. We are all nervous and excited and full of anticipation.

Eventually, I head out the door to stand and wait in the garden. Soon, I see a car, impossibly long and white and shiny, heading towards me. With the sea wall and the pale brown sand as its backdrop it looks out of place, especially when it parks up across the road from the house, half on the pavement because the road here is very narrow and the traffic is busy.

We drag out the suitcase, and all our bags and paraphernalia (our dinner dresses are in suit bags), and get into the limousine. Inside it is as mad as I imagined it to be, with mirrors and lights and dozens of glasses. We open the bottle of sparking wine and toast ourselves and the day. The driver offers to put on some Norah Jones (!) but of course we have our own plans and have brought some DVDs with us. We stick on "U2 Go Home" from Slane, and that plays as we drive through the streets.

It is so weird being in a limo! The fact that you can see out but no one can see in gives you the opportunity to gawp at people and observe them without them realising. And I never realised that people's reaction and attitude to limos can be so odd! Some ignore us completely. Some try to discreetly look out of the corner of their eye while feigning disinterest. And some react quite blatantly, either by flipping us the finger, or - as in one case - by showing gestures of respect. Maybe they wonder who is inside. Some care and some don't. It's funny.

When we get to The Clarence, men on the door at the front of the hotel start fussing around us. They open the limo door for us, help us with our bags, and lead us into the reception. There, we are greeted by a confusing array of staff, so many I can’t keep up. A man (the duty manager) welcomes us and asks if we would like to join them in the bar for a drink. We decline because we are just so excited to get into the penthouse, to have our long awaited Cosmos and get into the swing of things. He tells us that if there is anything he can do for us while we are there, then we should not hesitate to let him know.

A woman then gives us the tour of the amenities of the hotel and then takes us up to the penthouse suite. Words can’t describe my feelings as we go up in the lift and then she leads us through one of the three entrances into the suite! There is a main, double-door entrance and then a single door either side. The idea is that the whole place can be separated into three suites by locking various internal door. This may be so that the hotel can rent the penthouse out as three suites when they need to, or even so that people who book the penthouse can house their friends in privacy in various parts.

The woman shows us all the rooms, and we are just bewildered. It is so huge. When she has gone, Sue and I do the whole thing again, this time with me filming it and Sue doing her “estate agent” act, leading me around the rooms and out onto the balconies. It is such a beautiful place, and far exceeds our expectations. There is a large, modern kitchen with trendy accessories and even a dishwasher, a dining room with a table for 8 people, large living room with peat-burning stove, two bedrooms, two (and a half - mustn’t forget the little room!) bathrooms, walk in closets large enough to live in… the list goes on.

By far the most beautiful feature of this wonderful penthouse is the 40 foot long “Gallery” that is accessed via a spiral staircase. It has a fully stocked bar at one end, a baby grand piano, two huge sofas and a chaise longue, large flat-screen TV and DVD. The whole place is lined with the wood that is the trade-mark of the hotel, and subtle, hidden lighting gives a stylish effect. At the East and West ends of the Gallery are porthole windows with fantastic views of the city. I feel Dublin all around me, wrapped around me like a cloak. Whenever I look out of the windows it is there and it makes me smile. And going out onto the long, front balcony is spectacular: the river winds away from left to right, adorned with bridges and cars and people; and there is a breeze in the air, and the sun touches my face. It's like a dream, but it's true. We are here, and it is fantastic!

With so much to see and experience, it is hard to know what to do first. We want to make the most of this and experience it to the full. First off, we have our cocktails, which have appeared as if by magic on the table in the Gallery. They are delicious and just how we like them - burnt orange peel and all!

The afternoon passes by in a haze of excitement and great experiences! There is a bottle of champagne in the living room downstairs and we are not sure if we should drink it (goodness knows how much it costs!) but we are told that it is complimentary. Mmm… strange, we think, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and we have it whilst basking in the hot tub on the rear balcony. It feels so decadent, and it is! It is truly how the other half live. It’s slightly cold and windy, but the sun is shining, and we have our luxuriously thick Clarence bathrobes to step into when we leave the cocoon of soapy foam.

As the afternoon wears into evening, we cover every inch of the penthouse. We sit on the balconies, particularly the front one, which stretches the entire length of the front of the building. I stand there in the bright sun and drink my champagne while across the street, on the other side of the river, passers by look up and wave, wondering who it is up here in the penthouse suite of U2's hotel. An open topped tour bus goes past and the tour guide points out the rock band's pad (I know they do because I have been on that bus!), and cameras come out and people crane to see. I feel like a celebrity up here, and know that I am far enough away so that no one can really see me!

At the back of the penthouse, accessed from upstairs in the Gallery in the bar area, is a small balcony with a table and two chairs. This looks over a large roof terrace area (The Garden Terrace Suite, we later discover) and is where U2 filmed the video for "Beautiful Day". It's funny to imagine Larry's drum kit set up, and the band singing down there.

Soon, it is time to get ready for dinner, and the best thing about this place is that there is no shortage of bathrooms or places to change, so we do it quite quickly. It's great to put on our special outfits that we had planned for months. In no time at all we are all looking very glamorous, and pose for photos on the spiral staircase.

The Tea Room is low lit and quiet when we arrive. Someone opens the door for us as we go in, and tells us we are all looking very beautiful! We get to our table, and the maitre 'd greets us and pulls out our chairs. He turns to me and says "Good evening, Ms Voisey, there is an envelope for you." and hands me an envelope that had been waiting in the middle of the table. We are all slightly curious, but inside me I have the strangest feeling. I know what this is. I have been expecting it, although there has never been any reason to. Everything happens in slow motion as I remove the note inside, and I can feel everyone's eyes on me.

On an A5 sheet of Clarence notepaper are the words - in bold black typeface - "Happy Birthday, Love Bono". I gasp and incredulously hand the note to the others. At the same second, the maitre 'd produces a bottle of champagne, and we hardly believe it so have to ask - just to be certain. It is from Bono, the champagne. To celebrate Dianne's birthday. I can't believe that he remembered, although as I mentioned, somewhere deep inside I knew he would, and would not let this go by.

For about half an hour we are all stunned and near to tears. The maitre 'd is amused but kindly discreet. It takes us ages to get around to looking at the menu, but eventually, we do and dinner passes in a kind of ecstatic haze. The main topic of conversation is obvious, but we do have the time and presence of mind to appreciate the food. My fois gras is too rich, but the main course of salmon with tomato is delicious, as is the creme brulee for dessert.

At the end of the meal (during which we can't help noticing the staff looking over and chatting to each other about us! Wondering what our connection with Bono is, no doubt!), we decide to head into The Study - the residents' bar - to finish off our wine. I ask for the bill and the waitress goes off to fetch it. The maitre 'd then collars her, and a discussion takes place and a phone call is made. Very weird! Then the maitre 'd comes over and says that the bill is taken care of! We are stunned all over again. We know the champagne is on Bono, but now it seems our wine is too.

What an evening so far! And the night is still young! When we get back to the suite, we quickly change into our lounging gear and stick a U2 DVD on the entertainment system. We plan to stay up for the whole of this experience, and have even brought a stash of Red Bull to keep us going. But our adrenaline and the excitement of having Bono very much a part of our special visit to the penthouse, makes it very easy to stay awake.

So we go out onto the balcony again and look at the lights of Dublin, twinkling red, green and white and reflecting in the black waters of the Liffey.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Back In Dirty Dublin With A Clean Cut - Hanover Quay

Something is in the air today. I don't know what it is, but as I wake I feel strange. We are going to HQ, just to have a look and see if anything is going on. We have had no reports of anything from anywhere. Sue usually has the news first, but even she has drawn a blank. But she has a "feeling". She is keeping this to herself for now, but she admits it later.

Having a car is a godsend down at HQ these days. It beats standing in the cold and rain, although we still do! It's nice to have the option of shelter though, and we can take turns in and out of the car.

Today is another on/off day as far as the weather goes, but we have become resigned to it. The sun, when it shines, is warm and pleasant, but it stutters from behind clouds and the wind is occasionally bitter.

As we wait, we see people coming and going from the studio, and this is when Sue admits that she feels something. She has a knot in her stomach and says that she had a feeling that Bono was around. Not here necessarily, but in Dublin. But today, watching the people emerging to go to the new Spar shop up the street (to fetch coffee and sandwiches) there is a flicker in us all.

Our feelings get stronger when Dallas comes out and goes for coffee. It's a great sign that he is here. An old, familiar face to us, a handsome Kentuckian in his late forties, still sandy blond and sunkissed. Always friendly and polite. But today he is quiet and doesn't speak, which is a big surprise! Usually, he is the one approaching, chatting away with his pleasant drawl.

Before long, Adam arrives, and it is great to see him, as always. He has a glow about him, which I believe comes from being comfortable in his own skin, which seems to have happened to him in later years. A happiness pervades him, and he is always tanned and healthy looking these days. His grey hair suits him, makes him look distinguished and "bright". His smile is always broad, and it is today.

He allows us to take some pictures, and I get the most wonderful one of him. He is signing my notebook and looks up directly into my camera with the cutest smile. After a very brief few words he is off inside and we are left with an empty street again. It was so nice to see him though.

Two more cars arrive a little while later, but they go directly into the garage and it closes, so we don't get to see who it was. Time is moving on, and we start to talk about leaving. It is very breezy and we are starting to get hungry.

We are standing across the street, propped up against a wall and trying to shelter ourselves from the wind behind a large white van which is parked there. I start to feel fed up, and am tired of huddling into my jacket and trying to look like I am supposed to be there! Just then, I hear: "Hello!" I don't react immediately. None of us does. We can't see anyone and the voice seems to be coming from nowhere.

I look up, in the general direction of the voice, and have to crane around the parked van. And there, across the street, standing in the doorway, is Bono! He is leaning against the doorframe, casually, coolly, and is smiling an elfin smile that is inviting us over!

Later, we will laugh about this "miraculous appearance". If anyone has seen the TV show "Ruddy Hell, It's Harry and Paul" starring Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, this put us in mind of that. They do a sketch each week - a skit on Bono and Edge - and at the start of each sketch, Whitehouse's Edge opens the door to Enfield's Bono, and there is always swirling mist and a God-like light in the doorway as "Bono" walks through!

There isn't a light or a mist now, of course, but there may as well be!

Eventually, we get ourselves together enough to approach the patiently waiting Bono, and we ask how he is; tell him he is looking well. He is. He is wearing dark jeans and a dark denim shirt (the flap on the right-hand breast pocket of the shirt is permanently up, as if it is much used for putting things in and getting them out!), and his hair is very closely cropped.

There is something surreal about seeing Bono and I think this whenever I see him. My mind can't get around the fact that this man in front of me is the man appearing on the TV all the time, in various parts of the world with this leader or that. Talking of serious things. Making a difference. And then standing here in front of me, looking ordinary, like any man, everyman, but also like Bono - a special human being who gives his time to such important things and then gives his time to me and my friends, like that means something to him too. And I suppose it does. Because deep down (well actually not too deep down) he is still Paul from Cedarwood Road who had his ambitions and his heroes, and who maybe still understands why we are here no matter how much he claims not to.

Anyway.... I ask him if it is okay if I video for a few minutes.

"I don't like it," he says, and then goes on to explain that it makes it hard for him to spend time talking to the people he wants to talk to. Since the internet, when people can just post the videos on youtube, it takes away from the "intimate moments."

"And we've had many!" he says, leaning forward with a glint in his eye.

He asks us about our trip - how long we are in Dublin for and what we are getting up to this week. It's not an unusual question. Bono always asks us this. But for some reason, this time we have trouble answering.

"Erm," I say...

"Well," says Sue.

Bono's gaze is flicking between the two of us. Dianne tries something...

"Erm" she says...

"You're making this up as you go along aren't you?" Bono accuses, which we quickly deny.

Dianne manages to tell him we went to Brittas Bay yesterday. This appeases him for a moment as he tells us he loves it there. But he is still determined to get us to say more, because I am sure he can sense the reticence in us. He is right. We are very reticent, because in our minds, all we can focus on is Thursday, and the fact that we are going to be spending a night in the penthouse at The Clarence. His hotel. I think our reluctance to tell him is in some way due to the fact that the night we are there happens to be his birthday. We are celebrating Dianne's birthday on that night. It's not the actual date of her birthday, but that seemed the perfect time to celebrate it.

Anyway, by this time, Sue is taking a picture of Bono, and I ask her - out of the corner of my mouth - "Shall I tell him about Thursday, Sue?"

"Yes, go on then." She utters this out of the corner of her mouth and from behind her camera, which I am sure she is only using as a shield so that Bono's penetrating eyes cannot see her face! We bravely look at Bono and his face is a picture - full of curiosity and so intrigued as he watches our exchange! It is hilarious.

"What's happening Thursday?" he asks.

I tell him. At last! It is off my chest. Phew!

"Oh wow!" he says, genuinely impressed. "You dirty girls! You dirty, dirty girls."

Now, having Bono call you a dirty girl is not something that happens every day, and it is amusing and kind of nice. A typically Irish reaction if you ask me. He tells us we will have a wonderful time. Sue tells him that we saved for a long time for it and that it is for a special occasion - Dianne's birthday. He wishes her Happy Birthday.

I ask him what he will be doing on Thursday and he looks at me blankly. "On your birthday," I remind him.

"Oh gosh, yes of course! I had forgotten."

"You could always have a drink with us in the penthouse." Worth a try, I figure! I am only joking of course, and I am sure Bono knows this. Whether he does or not, he is the perfect gentleman and doesn't flinch as he says:

"That would be nice. I usually go to the penthouse on my birthday, but you beat me to it." He is teasing me.

He signs things for us in his usual Bono-stream-of-consciousness way. In my notebook he writes: "Back In Dirty Dublin With A Clean Cut" and hands it back. Then he takes it from me again a little while later and starts to scribble something. It turns out to be a drawing... a street, a doorway and two stick figures. One is obviously female.. rather buxom looking actually! The other seems to have a big bottom....

"That's us standing in the doorway," he explains. "Isn't it amazing?" Meaning, tongue firmly in his cheek, that it is amazing that he can just produce that kind of fine art at the drop of a hat!

When he writes in Sue's book he suddenly stops writing and looks at her. And looks at her. And carries on for what seems ages... just him and his eyes and a look on his face like he is grasping for something that has escaped him. Sue squirms.

"What?!" she demands. Just like that, and it is really funny! He has her rattled and very puzzled as to why he is just staring at her like that. And who can blame her for feeling exposed? Being the victim of Bono's intense gaze can leave you feeling that way.

He doesn't answer and still he is staring! Maybe he is searching for inspiration, I suggest. Or maybe, her name?

"Sue." Sue says. Maybe he thinks he has forgotten it.

Bono resumes his scribbling, and at the bottom of it, he writes "Sue" and then "Sorry" in front of it. An apology for putting her on the spot and subjecting her to whatever was in his mind at that moment. Who knows with Bono?! He never did really explain.

A few minutes more in his company and then it is time to say goodbye. Before he leaves, he wishes Dianne a Happy Birthday again.

And he is gone, leaving us smiling and giddy like he always does. It is always so amazing to talk to Bono. Never have I known him to be anything other than friendly, good-humoured, courteous and extremely funny. I think he genuinely likes talking to us. We've been around for years, and he knows that. He often initiates chats and always encourages us to approach or approaches himself.

We've had some very good times in his company. Like he put it himself: some nice, intimate moments. Those we will always treasure, and respect them for what they are.

So... we leave HQ and head towards Fitzpatrick's Castle in Killiney, where we eat afternoon tea (delicious salmon sandwiches, yummy cakes and lovely hot tea!) and reflect on the day. We all agree that this encounter has made our trip to Dublin even more perfect. Going to the penthouse will be fantastic enough, but now we will have the memory of this day to make it even more special.

I settle into my high backed winged chair. The room here at Fitzpatrick's is large and full of people, many of them indulging in afternoon tea, like us. I am now feeling happy, warm and full and I don't want to move. However, I get up to take a picture through the window, which frames a breathtaking vista of pale blue/grey water and hills beyond. The sky is slightly dull and clouded, but appears brighter because of the green in the foreground of my view. Green, always green. It never tires.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

We Venture Out - Brittas Bay

Dublin has been wonderful so far. It has rained a bit, but the sun has broken through for the most part and anyway, this is Ireland, and tropical weather is not its trademark! There is something comforting about rain, and it makes me feel at home. Maybe because I am English and therefore grew up with it. Dublin and rain just seems right somehow.

Not that I don't enjoy the sun. We have a little as we go to Brittas Bay today. Driving in the car, listening to Sue's Ipod, the windscreen wipers brush away the drops even as the sun tries to dry them.

Brittas Bay is pretty, even with the strong winds that almost take us off our feet. Dianne collects more pebbles (she has to part with some of them eventually!) and Sue plays intrepid explorer and climbs the grassy sand dunes to take some lovely pictures.

Out in the sea the impressive and spookily surreal Arklow Bank Wind Park serves as a reminder that you are in the present, because you need that sometimes when in Ireland. The rugged and often achingly beautiful landscape - with the dark greens of trees and grass, the yellow and black-like contrast of the gorse bushes, the greys of the rock, and the slate blue of sky and sea - transports you to a time when flame-haired bearded men in long robes flashed by on steaming horses.

That is the romantic Ireland that is sometimes in my mind as I stand in places like this, so close to nature and on the edge of a sea that joins my first home and this, my second.

We stay a while and then we leave, getting stuck on the carousel of the Arklow Streets. Then back to Dublin, and our little flat. It's been a nice day... the cobwebs are well and truly blown away.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Zero At Last! Back In Dublin City

So here I am once more.... in my second favourite city in the world. It's strange that I say it's my second, because I have been here so many times and had some fantastic experiences here. I love it very much, but New York kind of edges it out these days for reasons I will talk about another time. I guess they are different, and both unique - and you shouldn't really have favourites (like with your kids!) but there you go....

Arriving here today is strange, because for the first time in over two and a half years, I don't have a countdown to do, and that feels weird. From the conception of this trip, through the arranging of it, Sue and I have been counting down to it like two little girls waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney! First the years, then the months and finally, when New Year was out of the way this year, the days! Most days we texted the count, and our email subject lines kept it up! Madness. But such fun.

It's not like we haven't been here a million times before (and even came a few times while "the countdown" was going on), but this time is special. Special because next Thursday we are going to stay in the penthouse suite of The Clarence Hotel. It's kind of Bono's home away from (or, rather, pretty close to) home, and we want to see the suite that has hosted a few A-List parties and given hospitality to the likes of Clinton and Blair. And we want to see how the other half live, so to speak. To experience the high life in one of the most expensive rooms in Dublin.

So I get here, and we all meet up in the arrivals hall of Dublin airport (me, Sue, Dianne and Julie) and we pick up our car and we venture out into a Dublin that feels sort of different to me this time. More charged with something: expectation, electricity, a vague promise of adventure.

And the flat is lovely. Small but functional and in a pretty yellow house that looks over the Sandymount Strand where the Irish Sea laps at cool-looking flat sand. The Poolbeg Chimneys - lanky, red and white sentinels - stand tall and flash regularly and unceasingly, and bring to me a very real sense of Dublin. They are the markers for me, that tell me I am back. Seen from the air as you come in to land, and seen from many parts of the city.

And now seen from our house.

We settle in quickly and I feel as though I have never been away. That's the thing about Dublin. It is so familiar now after many years of coming here, that I feel at home right away.

This trip is going to be one of the most exciting ever to this green isle. I can feel it. I know it. And I guess the others know it too.

But for now, we have unpacking to do. I film the house and the small, private garden. And we have a quiet, easy first night. Dianne is jet-lagged after her long flight from Arizona, and the rest of us are tired too. We need to preserve our energy!