I can rarely resist a writing prompt, and when Sadhbh at Where Wishes Come From turned her lovely recent post about her hometown of Bray into a blog link-up, I was in like Flynn.
I grew up in Dalkey, a suburb on Dublin’s south coast. It’s fairly famously posh these days, with lots of fancy foodie places and having had residents the like of Van Morrison and Maeve Binchy, and Bono just up the road in Killiney. In those days – well, in the 80s it was different. Less shiny, more grubby. The main street was always full of restaurants, though, some of which were fixtures and some of which revolved. It had a modest six pubs, four newsagents, two butchers, two greengrocers, three chemists; also the post office, Quinnsworth, Harry Latham’s gift shop, the Chinese takeaway, the chipper, and the Exchange bookshop. Let’s stop there for a moment…
The Exchange was a new and second-hand bookshop. I spent a lot of time combing through the cheapest, most tattered, children’s books, sitting on the wooden floor, finding a gem I’d been waiting for or something new that sounded intriguing. The price stickers were plain white with rounded edges and I still own books proudly sporting the price I paid for them in nineteen-eighty-something – usually around 25p. When I got older they moved up the road to a larger premises and the cheapest books were on the 50p shelf. I would bring my less-loved books down and be awarded credit for them, records kept in a rolodex on the counter by the tall man with an English accent who was always there, and then I’d happily spend the credit on more Enid Blytons, Noel Streatfields, or LM Montgomerys.
Dalkey is built on hills. It has a microclimate. You can look out of your kitchen window in blazing sunlight at squalls over Dublin Bay, or Dun Laoghaire pier shrouded in dark clouds. More often, on the way home, you look up to where Dalkey should be and find it all hidden under a swathe of white fog. My school was right beside the sea; we ran up and down the laughably “all-weather” hockey pitch while a sea mist rolled in and hid the ball from those on the other side of the centre line.
I was something of a blow-in to Dalkey, only having been born and reared there. That is, my parents both hailed from elsewhere, though my father had visited on summer holidays since he was a child. His mother’s best friend was from an old Dalkey family, so really my Dalkey connections did go back generations, if I’d ever thought to bring that up.
I lived in other places, in Ireland and America, before I lived here, where I live now, in a suburb of the Washington DC metro area called Greenbelt, Maryland. This is home now, but I can’t see it with the clarity of a child, low to the ground. I can only see it with practical eyes, ones swayed by thoughts of property prices and amenities and public transport and proximity to the city and decent schools and green spaces and things to do and places to go. I can’t see the granite walls and the corrugated cement underfoot and the graffiti on the lampposts, the way I do when I close my eyes and think of Dalkey.
For one thing, Americans don’t really do walls. There are chain-link fences and some picket fences, but very often people’s yards aren’t divided from the next yard at all, or from the sidewalk in front of their house. For another, the lampposts are all wooden, tall dark-stained tree trunks, so they don’t show up graffiti nearly as well as the pale grey painted metal of Dublin ones. And the sidewalks… well, I just don’t notice what’s underfoot the way I did as a child. I don’t retain the crunch of splayed beech-nut casings or the squish and stickiness of bright-red unshiny berries off the yew tree, the way I did when I walked over them day after day, autumn after autumn, pushing my bike back up the hills home.
But I’ll do my best to tell you what it’s like, all the same. It’s green and leafy. If it’s always autumn in my memories of Dalkey, it’s always spring in my thoughts of Greenbelt. In spring the blossoms here are astounding: pink and white and puce and lilac, bursting off the trees like popcorn. Every now and then you happen upon a magnolia tree: dark shiny leaves and the most enormous, decadent, creamy flowers you could imagine.
There’s a park with a lake at the bottom of our hill – I’m fated to always live in a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill, it seems; but there are worse fates – that you can walk or run or bike around, and admire the scenery and the wildlife. There’s more wildlife here than I’m used to from suburban Ireland – squirrels are everywhere, bluejays and cardinals are slightly exciting, chipmunks and rabbits still raise a squee from me, and now and then you run into a deer (not literally, one hopes) that left its wooded shelter and ventured too far. There are a few beavers in the lake, the source of an ongoing local disagreement between those who would protect the trees from the marauding beavers and those who would protect the beavers from the marauding humans. It makes for entertaining reading on the local listserv.
On the other side of the park is the town’s epicentre: the community centre, the library, the pool, the cinema, the shops. The shops are a little run down, a little tatty and old-style, because we’re tucked away and only Greenbelters come to shop in Greenbelt. But our cinema is a wonderful single-screen Art-Deco movie theatre that is lately becoming a centre for so much more than blockbusters, as my friend who runs it now shows free kids’ movies on snow days and for summer camps, cult classics after closing time, art-house and indy movies twice a day all week. There’s a farmers’ market every Sunday morning. There’s a parade on Labor Day and a festival all that weekend with rides and bumper cars and a huge second-hand book sale, and there are fireworks at the lake on the fourth of July. There’s a cafe that has terrible coffee – but it has great hummus and amazing baklava, with live music and beer on tap around the back.
And I find I have come to the heart of it right there: my friend runs the cinema. I know the staff at the pool, the cashiers at the supermarket, teachers at the schools. Some of them I know just because they work there, and some I met through school or friends or neighbours. If we go to a movie and across the way for a beer afterwards, chances are there’ll be a couple of friends in the bar. I personally am the chump who’s organizing the massive second-hand book sale for the Labor Day festival this year.
Where I live now lacks the connection with childhood memories that are deep in my soul: instead it gives me a connection with people, it makes me part of the pattern. And that’s why it’s home, too.
Click over to Where Wishes Come From to check out the other entries in this link-up.