Category Archives: ex-pat

The deepest cut

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my children have American accents. It was inevitable, unless we kept them from contact with the outside world forever. But this is much worse: I’ve just discovered that they like Hershey’s Kisses. Hershey’s Kisses are little individually wrapped blobs of that stuff the Hershey company presumes to call chocolate but the rest of the civilized world knows is cheap brown soapy stuff that coats your tongue with blech and leaves a distinct aftertaste of barf. They clutter up the bottom of Halloween booty bags, and teachers like to give them out for a job well done or a week finally finished. (In direct contravention of county regulations, which state that food is not to be used as a reward in school, I’ll have you know.)

Anyway, both my children, who have rejected the Hershey’s component of s’mores many times in the past, told me today that they like Hershey’s Kisses. I am verklempt. I am horrified. We tried, we really did. We told them from the start that (non-American) Cadbury’s is the only good stuff. That German or Austrian chocolate is quite acceptable. That Irish cows make the best milk, which makes the best chocolate. That the plastic-looking stuff in the brown packets with the silver writing is an abomination in the eyes of the lord and every right-thinking cocoa-lover on the globe. I never even have it in the house.

Maybe that’s where we went so horribly wrong. Maybe by excluding Hershey’s from our lives we made it desirable. Maybe it seemed exotic and thrilling just because it was eschewed. (But never chewed.) Maybe eating the bad chocolate is just another step up from not eating your vegetables – my parents think A, therefore I will, against all logic and decency, steer myself forcefully down the route of B, no matter what the personal cost.

Well, I just hope they learn their lesson. Easter’s coming up. They will reap what they have sown.


A short rant about Harry Potter

One of the very important things I had to bring back from Ireland this time was my own copies of the Harry Potter books, volumes one to five inclusive. (The other two were already here.) We’d started reading them to the kids last year, but to do so I had picked up the first three books cheaply in the thrift store here.

The problem with that, of course, being that they’re the US editions.

I have a beef with there being such a thing as a US edition of anything. Or a UK edition, for that matter; but, and maybe I’m kidding myself here, but I don’t think so, I can’t help thinking that the amendments made to UK books to change them to the US editions go deeper than the other way around.

So it was with a great sense of satisfaction and smugness that I went through the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – sorry, that’s The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US, because heaven forfend the US publishers might credit readers with a little intelligence, apparently – and see exactly what changes were made. Here’s a little list I made.

Original (UK) vs. US edition

  • Philosopher’s stone – Sorcerer’s stone
  • dustbin – trash can
  • shan’t – won’t
  • sherbet lemons  – lemon drops
  • motorbike – motorcycle
  • bobble hats – bonnets
  • jumper with bobbles – sweater with puff balls
  • got – gotten
  • cooker – stove
  • Sellotape – Scotch tape
  • video recorder – VCR
  • comprehensive – public school
  • letter box – mail slot
  • post – mail (but the editor missed one!)
  • holiday – vacation
  • roundabout – carousel
  • food mixer – food processor
  • toilet – bathroom
  • rucksack – backpack
  • hoover – vacuum
  • crumpets – English muffins

(but not [luggage] trolley to cart, oddly enough, which I would have thought a very obvious one)

Now. Really. What a waste of time and a pandering to the US psyche and a dismissal of everyone else that all is. Why not just change the location to suburban New Jersey and be done with it? I mean, if the reader understands that this book is set in the UK, why not let the characters talk like Brits? As soon as Hermione says “gotten”, you can tell that something’s very rotten in the state of Hogwarts. Ron’s mother knitted woolly jumpers, not sweaters, for Christmas; and why on earth would anyone not understand what a motorbike is? Not to mention the fact that the changes aren’t even consistent – sometimes “sweets” become “candy” but other times not.

I want to know if they change the vocabulary in Pride and Prejudice for American readers too. Wuthering Heights? Or The Secret Garden, if we’re just talking about children’s books? If not, what a shuddering shock American students are in for when they have to decipher those tomes, since they’ve had everything handed to them on a plate whenever they read more modern British books.

Growing up in Ireland is not exactly the same as growing up in England, but nobody made any changes to all the British-authored books I grew up devouring. I learned what comprehensive schools were from the context (not in Harry Potter; well before that), because we don’t really have them in Ireland; the same goes for O levels and A levels and GCSEs. I’ve never eaten a sherbet lemon, but I would probably imagine it pretty easily, just as well as I could imagine a lemon drop, for that matter.

Looking in the other direction, my copy of The Outsiders was not a US edition, but I puzzled over the mention of a girl’s bangs for a long time, because we called that a fringe. I figured out that it was something to do with her hair, and the world must have kept turning because I managed to read the book anyway. Similarly with Amy March’s jar of pickled limes in Little Women. I was barely familiar with limes, never mind pickles of any nature, but I coped admirably in spite of it. (I still have very little concept of how you would go about pickling a lime, or why you would want to try.)

Massive generalization alert, but here goes anyway: people all over the world have a greater understanding of daily life in the US than the US does of other countries. People all over the world see US movies and television shows, for the most part not dubbed into their own languages but only with subtitles if necessary. And I’m pretty sure when we read American books they’ve been much more minimally dealt with than everything going in the other direction.

Far be it from me to take a good job from some editor’s hands, but turning UK books into US books (and vice versa) is totally unnecessary. At best it’s busywork, and at worst it’s contributing to the dumbing down of American society.

But (she said as she finally climbed down off her high horse) at least now I can read my children the right versions of Harry Potter without second-guessing every awkward-sounding phrase. It turns out there just are some of those anyway.

US and UK copies of Harry Potter first book

With bonus Star Wars cup because I didn’t bother to crop this.

Home from Home

I arrived home from Home, if you get my drift, leaving all-too-real reality to be plunged straight back into also-real reality with barely a moment to catch my breath. It’s mind-bending to have to comprehend that both realities go on independently whether I’m there to see them or not, it really is. I mean, you can know it rationally, because it’s true; but actually believing it is a leap of faith.

One night’s sleep, and I was straight back to parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings and generally picking up where I left off, with some added phone calls to make to the other side of the world where, allegedly, everything went on just as before.

You might be finally grown up when you walk into your childhood home and it’s just a house filled with stuff where two old people live. You might have finally switched allegiances when you know that home is where the family you made is, not the family you came from. You might feel spit in two, or all at sea, or strangely small, when it’s just you on your own for a while, missing your usual noisy distraction of an entourage. Or you might be too busy getting things done, because you can move around a lot faster on your own, to really dwell on the existentialism of it all too much.

I brought back with me birthday presents and teabags and Penguin bars and chocolate and new socks from Dunnes Stores and a golden snitch fob watch from a little shop in the George’s St Arcade which has already had its chain broken three times. I brought responsibilities and resolutions and numbers to call and questions to answer. I brought my trusty notebook and my laptop, at opposite ends of technology, neither of which I can do without.

I was there, and now I am here. Why is it so hard to understand?

Boats sailing inside the harbour.

Sailors out. Dun Laoghaire harbour with Howth in the distance.



Thoughts recorded while flying over Newfoundland

As I opened my laptop I thought how hilarious it would be if I had someone else’s by mistake, with all the taking out of MacBooks that happens at all the security checks (three this time; probably one still to go). And then what would one do? Consternation would ensue, no doubt. There’s probably a good story in there.

I got up at 7. I got the bus at 8. I was at the airport at 9. I did not dilly dally. I checked in at the desk (very small line) and went through the main airport security (not much waiting). I walked swiftly past duty free and ignored my rumbling tummy, following the signs with the American flags on them for pre-immigration, or whatever it’s called. When they started this I’m sure it was because it was meant to be easier and quicker to clear immigration in Ireland before your flight than to wait in those huge lines with people from all over the world at your destination in the US. But now all it means is that no matter how early you arrive at the airport, you’re starving and barely have a moment to grab a bite before being herded onto your plane.

There was a long line for another security check – where I was lucky enough to be flagged for the super bonus security check as well – and then a really long line for immigration, where they also show you a picture of your suitcase on a conveyer belt somewhere in the building to make sure it’s really yours. Having an American passport, the line I was in was meant to be shorter than the lowly non-US people on the other side of the room, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. By the time I got through I was about to collapse with hunger and barely had time to grab a sandwich and a smoothie before they were calling the flight. Which maybe is good in one way, but reminded me again how awful this process is with small children. It doesn’t really make me want to rush back with the whole family any time soon.

Though the plane is very relaxing. I’ve had some more food, I’ve had time to start a Marian Keyes and finish knitting the hat I began on the way over and I’ve watched one episode of Bones and two of House of Cards. (Which I think we’ll have to do next. It’s like West Wing but viciously cutthroat instead of principled. Jed Bartlett would be turning in his presidential library.)

I know I said I’m not the type to strike up conversations with strangers, but at the Dart station on Saturday I was accosted by an elderly nun (is there any other sort?) who talked to me all the way into town. She was just lovely. You know, you think for a moment that nuns are these sheltered women who know nothing about the world, but a few minutes’ conversation with one will but that notion to rest. Ah, Washington DC, I know it well, she said, and then told me about the children in Kenya where she used to live, and the fundraising she did in the US, and all the children she’d taught … that woman has seen more life than I have, and then some. She was a great person. She said she’d put my name in the pot, so to speak, for the prayers at the convent, and I thanked her sincerely. Who am I to complain about such a generous gesture, to have all those people thinking kind thoughts in my direction?

Newfoundland is … bumpy. With snow in between the bumps but not on top of them. At least, that’s how it looks from up here.

Dublin had soft air, strengthening to mist, moving on up through the ranks of rain to properly coming down for a little while, and then easing off again. It was uniformly grey, and then suddenly a patch of blue would be where none was before and that magical moment would occur when you’d see the sun hit the water on its way out, fleetingly, to douse us in palest gold for a few minutes. I didn’t see any rainbows this year though. Not a one. Maybe I wasn’t looking as much.

Sea and sky

Looking back towards Sandycove from Dun Laoghaire pier

The welcome home hugs were pretty damn good, though.

Airport philosophising

This is the first time I’ve flown transatlantically alone since before I was married. Since I emigrated, in fact. That’s … counts on fingers… almost 12 years. It’s the first time I’ve had this much time to myself, without more than a few sentences exchanged in passing with a stranger, for… a long time. (I’m not the type to strike up a conversation, or have one struck up with me. It’s either a personal failing or a triumph, depending on how you feel about strangers.) B dropped me off at the airport at midday Wednesday, and I’ll get to my dad’s house around 10am tomorrow. Subtract the five hour time difference and you get 17 hours. Seventeen hours to myself. (Fine, I hope I’ll be asleep for some of them. Not as many as I’d like.) Seventeen hours where I don’t have to say more than please and thank you if I don’t want to. Seventeen hours where I only have to think about feeding myself, and my own bathroom needs, and when nobody else’s disinclination to sleep will impinge on my own. For the first time in 12 years? Well, maybe in 8 and a half, since my husband is not such a demanding person as my children and allows me quite a lot more autonomy than they do.

I’m in Boston airport, enjoying the luxurious free wifi. This is the end of the terminal with all the Irish flights, so I’m surrounded by Irish accents of varying hues and the people in the duty-free shop all look unnervingly familiar. What sounds almost jarring in its unfamiliarity now will become commonplace in a day or two. Every time I see a small child I smile at how very cute they are: it’s true that I’m missing my two already, and the two little ones they used to be when we would do this journey and I wouldn’t have a moment to think for myself. If only you could dip in and out of bits of life; you’d appreciate it so much more that way.

Before I had children I was so clear: ready, organized, on the ball. For a few years, then, I was just fuzzy and blurred through lack of sleep and constant distraction. I’m putting it back together again, the clarity, now that I get to function in public alone more and more often. I have my card ready to swipe at the checkout because I’m not restraining a toddler who wants to climb out of the cart – no, in – no, out – or arguing with a preschooler about who gets to press the green button. I have my boots off at security and I’m waiting patiently with my one bag, plenty of time and all in order with crisp, swift movements. The days of overseeing the folding of the stroller and the taking off of other people’s shoes and holding the baby and stopping someone from running through before it was time but then getting them to walk the right way when it was; those are gone.

It’s easier every time we travel; why on earth am I hankering after the stresses and excesses of back then?

Maybe it’s just that humans are bad at endings. We don’t like doors that close firmly in our faces. We like to leave the opening ajar, so that we can peek a head around and check things out, just to make sure we’re really happy with what we have. And even though time never lets you do that, we pretend it does. We pretend we’re still young when we’re not, we do the things we used to do because we still can, just to show that we’re still that person.

I am still that person, but I’m simultaneously enhanced and deflated. Fuller on the inside, not so smooth and new on the outside. Still learning. Still moving. Still wanting to open the doors to the past that are firmly shut. Looking for the door that goes the other way instead.

Sure you’re grand

The world outside my door is an impressionist painting – pointillist, even – made up of little dots of colour everywhere. The wind blows and all the little dots shiver and dance and a few drift away from their moorings in the sky and flutter and swoop to the ground.

Autumn leaves ———

When I’m in Ireland I relax my mode of speech by a few notches. I delight in employing the vernacular in the supermarket, to the bus driver, to the person at the till. I say “Sure” (for “you’re welcome”) and “Thanks a million”, and “Sorry” (for “excuse me”) and “Ah no, sure, you’re grand,” (as often as possible) and am practically a caricature of myself. I’ll ask for ham with the flattest possible a sound, and get tomatoes and oregano and basil on everything I can think of. I’ll talk about yer man and yer one and the yoke that does the thing. And I’ll start swearing more, just for fun and effect.

This day next week I’ll be in airports, all alone, being Miss Organized and Miss Efficient and Miss This is so Easy With No Kids and also Miss Missing Them Quite a Lot. I’m flying home for five days to check in with the parentals, since we’re not going home for Christmas and it’s been a year since I’ve seen them and they’re not really so hot at things like Skype or Facetime. We spent time with most of B’s family members during the summer, but not mine. And it’s finally – finally – the time where I can do this. The kids will be fine. Their father will be fine. Everyone will survive perfectly well without me, and me without them. But I’ll miss them, all the same.

And a lot more little dots of colour will have fluttered down when I get back.

More autumn leaves


Transatlantic Subtleties: Counties

It’s been a while since I’ve done an installment of my thrilling series entitled Transatlantic Subtleties; but I thought of a new one today. (If you’re interested in the others, click the tag at the bottom of the page and they should all appear in a puff of ether.)

The USA is divided into states, everyone knows that. But it was a surprise to me when I first moved here to discover that the states are divided into counties. The reason it’s a surprise to people who are not from America is that the county is never a part of anyone’s postal address. However, when you live in the USA the county you’re in is suddenly quite important – school districts, for instance, are administered at the county level, so if you’re using the public school system, or thinking of doing so, the county you’re in is very salient to your choices. This in turn has an effect on house prices, and from there on the general economics (and demographics – though this is somewhat chicken-and-egg) of the whole place you live in.

When we were first moving to this area people kept explaining what county certain things were in. I thought it didn’t matter. I was wrong. The District of Columbia (or Washington, DC, to you) is bordered by one county of Virginia and two counties of Maryland, and those as well as some a little further out all function as the suburbs of the city. The Metro system, for example, extends into all of them. Some of these counties are pretty well off. I live in Prince George’s County, which is not; and it makes a difference. If, for instance, we find out that the services the school can offer Dash for his reading disability are quite limited, it’s not impossible that we could consider moving to Montgomery County, where the schools are much better funded and they have amazingly wonderful – by all accounts – special services. (I don’t want to do this because I love our town; I think we’d investigate private coaching or other avenues before taking such a drastic step. Also, where we live now is extremely handy for B’s work, and a short commute is a thing of beauty.)

The counties of Ireland might not be of such general interest but I’m going to tell you about them anyway, for the sake of parity of esteem and such like. Ireland is divided into four provinces, but like the US county names, these do not make it into Irish postal addresses. They’re mostly used for GAA (Gaelic Games) championships. The most interesting thing is that in Ireland we put the word County before the name, not after. This sounds perfectly normal to Irish ears but very strange to Americans: “County Dublin,” “County Cork”, “County Kerry” etc. Ireland is about to get postal codes for the first time ever, but up to now only Dublin had them, and they were only two digits at most. If you lived outside the postal code area (where your address would say something like Dublin 4 or Dublin 26) your address would simply say “Co. Dublin” after your street and town name. For the other cities that had names the same as their counties – correct me if I’m wrong – you would end the address with Cork City or Galway City rather than Co. Cork or Co. Galway.

So “city” implies city and “county” implies “down the country”. Or at least well into the suburbs.

A quick note on UK county names. I don’t really understand them. A lot of them end in “-shire” and they mostly have abbreviations, so for instance, my Dad lived in Hertfordshire and it’s abbreviated to Herts. (Pronounced Harts.) Do they have bigger divisions, like provinces or regions? I don’t know. Someone tell me. It’s so much more fun getting a comment than looking up Wikipedia…


Things that are giving me quite a degree of satisfaction these days, smug or otherwise:

– Since school started, I have been to two yoga classes and plonked down actual money to pay for nine more in advance, so I have to go. And they feel really good.

[I have no photo to go here. Imagine me looking fabulously strong and bendy.]

– I took some photos that were in the kids’ rooms in little frames that were always falling down and being off kilter, and put them in one big frame per child. It’s a ginormous improvement, even if I’m the only person in the house who appreciates this.

Two sets of framed baby photos

– My children clamour to hear Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up“, so we must be doing something right. (You’re welcome for the earworm, by the way.)

– Remember that scarf I diffidently began knitting during a brief rush of blood to the head in June? I’m still knitting it. I’m onto my second ball of yarn. I have never in my life knitted something this large, and the last time I knitted anything even approaching it was when I was 12. I really think I’m going to finish it.

long scarf, half knit–  I have new glasses. While my internal jury is still out on how much I love the frames (yes, I picked them, but I might have been momentarily deluded or something), being able to see through unscratched lenses is a wonderful novelty.

Me with new glasses and Dash

– I have advanced to the Finalists stage of the Blog Awards Ireland. This, as you might gather, is actually the final stage in a fairly interminable process, and I’m mightily chuffed to be here as I stopped at “Shortlisted” last year. My category is “Best Blog of the Irish Diaspora” and I’m up against a bunch of gorgeous, enticing, and beautifully written blogs. It’s truly an honour to be included in that group. It would be lovely to have the night out and an opportunity to wear a posh frock, but I don’t get to do that because, well, diaspora.

blog awards ireland

There are, no doubt, plenty of other things that are making me peeved rather than smug, but let’s stop there for today.

Feels like America

It’s that time of year when the weather is glorious, but lurches from high summer to chilly spring with very little warning. It’s the time when I scramble to figure out what I wear in summer and what we eat when it’s too hot to cook and which sunscreen I should buy this year and who needs new sandals. (Me. I need new sandals.) And then after complaining that it’s too hot one day, I’m back pulling out an extra blanket and finding a fleece that I’d put away and carping that nobody can see my pretty new toenails the next.

In other words, it’s spring in DC. The Americans can’t fathom it when I tell them this 75-degree weather is like the most sun-burnished summer day imaginable in Ireland. The Irish people will be spitting in July when I’m so done with 90 degrees and a million percent humidity and the need, the so tedious need, to take the kids to the pool again today because what on earth else can we do except flop around a darkened house complaining about needing a cold drink and an ice-pop and maybe a penguin habitat.

But the kids are playing outside a lot, which can only be a good thing. Dash has a baseball game twice a week and practice on Saturdays, and can also be found playing soccer on the street (thank goodness for cul-de-sacs) most of the time. Mabel eschews balls, but cruises around on her bike or her scooter and has taken up sidewalk chalking too. Soon the mosquitoes will be out in full force once it’s past 6pm or so, but for now it’s really very pleasant.

One day last week was a really hot one. I went to the supermarket early, straight after dropping Mabel to school, and when I came out the full blast of heat from the parking-lot asphalt hit me, the way it does when you come out of an air-conditioned environment; the way you never ever experience it in Ireland. “Ugh, it feels like America,” I thought, unbidden.

Well, that’s funny, I followed up with. It’s always America. But this felt like that other America, not the one I live in every day, but the one I used to visit sometimes, or the one that was new and strange still. It was like the America that was Texas, probably, most of all. It wasn’t just the heat; it was the unsalubrious surroundings of our frankly kind of ghetto little mall, and a tiny moment when the familiar became unfamiliar again. In the same way that the damp concrete footpaths of Dublin will always be absolutely home with their every nook and cranny and patch of moss and littering crisp-packet, the beating heat of crumbling grey asphalt and faded yellow paint will always be alien to my heart no matter how long I’m here.

Mabel with ice cream cone, shades and sunhat

Practicing for summer

Ode to suburbia

This is the time of year when I really love where I live. The streets are lined with trees drooping heavy with pink and white blossoms, like big fat balls of cotton wool, raining their petals down at the bump of a branch. The weather is my absolute favourite type: jeans-and-sandals temperature. Not too hot, but definitely warm. The sky is blazing blue, I can hear a woodpecker somewhere in the trees, and we’re digging out the shorts and wondering if last summer’s Keens might possibly still fit.

This neighbourhood is an oasis of small-town life in deepest suburbia. Once you venture beyond its bounds, you’re on the big anonymous roads with ugly strip malls and chain stores – Target, Safeway, Giant, Payless Shoes… nothing fancy, just the basics. They’re pretty soulless and indistinguishable from any other Targets, Giants, Safeways, Paylesses. But inside the bounds, it’s a village. We have a selection of one-of-a-kind establishments: a (really) greasy spoon, a takeout pizza joint, a barber’s, a shop that sells Keno tickets and hats, a Lebanese cafe that’s a live music venue too – and a co-op supermarket that’s not part of a chain. The first time I stepped inside it, I was transported back to supermarkets in the west of Ireland, the sort you went to when you were on your summer holidays, where they sold things with funny-looking labels and there was a distinctive smell and if you were lucky they had soft-serve ice cream.

Our local Co-op doesn’t have soft serve (at least, I don’t think it does) but it has that same distinctive smell, and exactly the same ladies at the cash registers – except instead of soft Galway accents they have Maryland ones. I don’t get that same spine-tingling thrill of nostalgia every time I walk through the doors any more, because I’m there at least twice a week; but I do still appreciate how special it is to be in a supermarket that’s not a chain, that’s different from everywhere else, that has wine and beer (not the norm in this state), and where I’ll usually see someone to say hi to around at least one turn of an aisle.

My mother stopped shopping at her local supermarket because she didn’t want to meet people she knew. Not that she’s anti-social; I think more because she’d stand there chatting for half an hour and the whole morning would be gone. I think I’ve already heard my children announce, in a deprecating tone that sounds oddly familiar, “…and then Mom met someone.”

But that’s what I love about it. I love that on any weekday morning I’ll drive the girl to school and pass at least two cars whose drivers I can wave hi to. I love that I’ll bump into a mom I know in the supermarket (to whom I can chat at length, or just say hi). I love that I know the fruit guy in Safeway and that the meat-counter lady asks where my baby is – followed by a laughing acknowledgment that she’s not a baby any more.

Much as I miss where I used to belong, I love that we belong here, because that makes it a home.


Spring in the suburbs