Category Archives: Ireland

Emigrant? What emigrant?

I didn’t think of myself as an emigrant when I left Dublin thirteen years ago. Ireland’s economy was only on the tip of the downswing, really, and in my mind emigrants were people who were sadly forced to leave their country because they couldn’t get a job. I had, in fact, just been laid off from my tech-sector editing position, but that was just part of my grand plan and very good timing, not remotely a disaster.

I was not remotely sad. I was excited; thrilled, actually. I was finally going to move in with my boyfriend. If I had to change countries to do it, well, that was just part of the adventure. I was a legal immigrant with a green card (lottery; third time lucky), so I wasn’t worried about finding a job. It didn’t have to be a career, because we wouldn’t be there for long; just a job of some sort to keep me busy and fed and clothed. My future was finally coming together the way I wanted it to.

There was one moment, on the plane, that gave me pause. I was filling in one of the customs forms and the space for “Country of Residence” made me think. Technically, I thought, nowhere. At this moment I do not reside anywhere but in this aeroplane. I’d moved out of my flat in Rathgar and was about to move into the boyfriend’s rental house in State College, Pennsylvania – he’d even kicked out his cheerful Albanian roommate to make space for me – but just now I was, let’s say, between abodes. Homeless, actually.

I don’t remember what I wrote for that answer. Probably Ireland, reasoning that my parents’ home was my de facto address in the absence of any other. But I’d been five years out of the family home and didn’t anticipate moving back into it any time soon.

An emigrant, though? That didn’t sound like me. I grew up in the 80s, when Ireland’s school- and college-leavers were jumping ship for America in droves, several of my older cousins among them. (Maybe they didn’t feel hounded out of the country by unemployment any more than I did: I think many left seeking adventure and freedom rather than anything else.) I wasn’t leaving for lack of a job – I left for love, and temporarily at that. “Three years, five at the most,” I said to my parents, who were a little downcast to lose their only child to another continent, but probably happy that this long-drawn-out romance would finally get a chance to come to something. And pragmatic: they’re pragmatic people above all.

I hadn’t ever seen myself emigrating. Maybe a couple of years in a foreign country, I had thought when they asked in school how many of us thought we’d emigrate – somewhere nice like France or Spain, I meant. Never America, which had gobbled up my cousins. I didn’t even want to visit America, for fear it would work its magic on me and I’d stay.

And it did. Or my boyfriend did. One or the other. Here I am. Married. Parenting. Citizened. Staying. Emigrant.

For now, anyway.

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This post is partly by way of introduction to any new readers I may have, thanks to being longlisted for the Blog Awards Ireland 2015. Welcome!

Purple flavour

In Ireland and the UK, something purple is usually blackcurrant flavoured.

In the US, purple is usually grape.

Grape is a weird flavour. It doesn’t really taste of much, just artificialness. But it’s absolutely a legitimate flavour here. Blackcurrant, on the other hand, is delicious, much more so than the tiny fruits themselves, and all the best things are blackcurrant flavoured: Ribena, black wine gums, purple lollipops…

My children, to my eternal shame, do not like blackcurrant flavour. Because they’re American.

We’ve passed the point of no return, then. Even if we moved to Ireland tomorrow – which isn’t happening, I hasten to add – they’d probably never appreciate Ribena. They’re ruined now.

Someone told me once that 12 was the magic number. If you live somewhere else for twelve years, you won’t come back. I’ve been here for twelve and a half years.

Someone else, when we were home last month, asked me if it was strange to be back. I answered, as I always do, that the weirdest thing about being back is how weird it’s not. It feels perfectly normal, and it’s hard to remember that I have a life somewhere else. It still feels like that, even now after all those years. “That’s home, then, isn’t it?” my friend said sagely.

I did indulge myself in the What Ifs while we were there, especially in my hometown, on the playground, looking around at the children my kids’ ages, wondering what it would be like if we lived there. Because – here’s the thing – I didn’t marry someone from somewhere else. I married someone from home. If we lived in Ireland those same children would still be our children. Except they’d like blackcurrant flavour instead of grape.

But then I found myself in a café avoiding the eye of a girl I think I went to school with, because I sort of hate bumping into people. It’s just awkward. I’m awkward. I’m weird. And I’m happy where we are. If we lived in Ireland, maybe I’d be awkward again, with the weight of other people’s expectations all over me again. Here, I’m free.

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: I can be whoever I want in America. It’s harder to do that in the place you came from.

Be careful what you wish for, then. It might not make you happy.

 

Back

Low tide. High tide. In and out, the coastline breathes slowly. When you live by the sea, the tides are a constant presence. You always know where the tide was when you went down to the water, even if you don’t remark on it. You might not know if it’s coming or going, but it’s part of the ever-changing-ness of the water, as much as the sun and the clouds and the wind are constantly changing it.

I forget about the tide, when I’m gone.

Mabel on rocks with Dun Laoghaire in the background

Low tide

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The trajectory of a holiday is mirrored by the trajectory of a single day of travel. You start out full of hope and goodwill, with useful things packed helpfully to hand and brightness all around. As time goes on the unusual becomes normal, living in another country or traversing airport concourses. And finally the downhill slope, you’re nearly there, nearly home, but everyone’s getting tired and cranky. You want your own things and you can’t find anything you need. You stuff it all in and drag the zip closed and you think about the bliss of your own bed.

—-

“Ireland is known for potatoes, rain, and cows,” says Mabel. She learned about the potatoes at school, but she added the others. We saw more of the countryside this trip than we have before – more fields with cows and horses and sheep – and the kids coped admirably with sleeping in a new place every night for eight nights, meeting new people, being whooshed off to play with new children while the grownups drank their interminable cups of tea and talked about boring grownup stuff. It helps that every family in Ireland appears to have a trampoline in the back garden, and that all our friends and family members are truly lovely people.

——

The mountains of Kerry look like dark-green crushed velvet, light and shadow constantly moving over them from the scudding clouds, changing the scene moment by moment. They make you want to give up all your possessions, buy canvases and paint, and live there forever, trying and failing to capture the soft but breathtaking beauty of it all.

Kerry beach scene with mountains and clouds

This could be a painting, right?

——-

It’s much too hot here today for a cup of tea. So I’m having a cup of tea. Breathe in, breathe out. There.

Irish summer

As the weather here gets hotter – veering into hot, humid, thunderstorm, blech – I have to try to keep one section of my brain remembering what 60 F feels like. Or 70; but definitely no more than that. Because in a few weeks I’ll be packing for Ireland, where summer is usually around, let’s say, 18 C (that’s 65 F) on a good day.

But then, just in case we hit a real heatwave where the midlands reach the dizzying heights of 28 (82 F), or a cold snap, when it goes back down to 8 (46 F), we need to be prepared for all eventualities. And rain, of course. Always rain. Unless it’s a fine mist, or a drizzle, or a sprinkle, or spitting. I love that one, spitting. It’s never “spitting” in America. It’s mostly just either wet or dry, and mostly it’s dry. On a practical level, summer in Ireland just means that some days you don’t need a jacket over your jeans and long sleeves.

So I have to do a really good capsule wardrobe, obviously.

(Insert hysterical laughter and me falling off my chair. I try really hard to do a capsule wardrobe every time I pack, but it hasn’t worked yet.)

A capsule wardrobe for all four of us. Because even if we have a nice big baggage allowance and everyone’s big enough to pull their own case and nobody has to be pushed in a stroller any more, we still have to fit everything (and ourselves) into a smallish rental car. Or other people’s cars. Or trundle them to public transport after three hours sleep (if we’re lucky). In the rain, of course.

With this in mind, I’m going shopping tomorrow. I have written my self-allocated number of words this week and I am giving myself permission to take the morning off and go to the outlet mall (mmm, lovely outlet mall), where I will avert my eyes from flippy skirts and floaty sleeveless dresses and flappity sandals and I will look on the clearance racks for tops with 3/4 sleeves and a light jacket with a hood and light wash skinny jeans that are not capris. (And that somehow give my legs the gazelle treatment they’ve always lacked.)

Dressing for summer in Ireland, I realise in hindsight, is sort of the opposite of the way people in LA dress for winter even though the temperatures barely dip at all. They wear darker colours, and ankle boots with their booty shorts. They indicate through accessories and textures that the season has changed, even if the weather isn’t paying the slightest bit of attention.

So I have two lovely new summer scarves (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and of course I’m well equipped with cardigans of various weights and colours. I have a new pair of runners, but I could do with some other shoes that are nice like ballet flats but don’t fall off my feet. I’ll bring my sandals, but to be honest I might never wear them. I remember how buying sandals was in Ireland – I’d buy them and then I’d wear them for two weeks on holidays somewhere warm, and then by the next summer I’d hate them but they’d NEVER wear out so I’d be stuck with them forever.

At least here I get to wear through my sandals and get new ones.

No doubt in the fullness of time I’ll decide to blog my lovely perfect capsule wardrobe. I’ll keep you posted.

Seriously, do I have to say this? Vote YES

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the converted here. I mean, given the demographic of people I know on social media, I’d say it’s highly unlikely that anyone out there reading this is an Irish person who’s going to vote no in the upcoming referendum.

But you never know. Maybe I need to say it, just in case. Just in case some way I put some words together can make a change somewhere out there. Ripples, ripples.

This Friday, Ireland is voting on same-sex marriage. Ireland, the country where the concept of church-state separation is vague at best, where divorce has only existed since 1996, and where gay sex wasn’t legalised until 1993. We’ve come a long way in a short space of time, but we can do more. We owe it to generations past, and those to come. We owe it to vulnerable teenagers out there right now.

Here are a few points I’d like to make to anyone who might think they have reasons to vote no:

If you think it’s irrelevant to you because you don’t know any gay people, I’m 99.9% sure you’re wrong about that. And even if you’re not, why not just do it anyway, for the sake of happiness? Spread a little love around.

If you think it will lead to gay people getting married in the Catholic church, no, it won’t. It has nothing to do with the Catholic Church’s rules, which stay the way they are. It just means that gay people can be married in the eyes of the law in Ireland. Sure, why not?

If you think it will somehow affect your own marriage, just think about that logically for a second. It won’t make your marriage any less valid. It won’t make anyone have to marry anyone else, gay or not. I’m sure you know that, right?

If you think it will lead to the breakup of the family, I can see that the No campaign has been at you. Children need people who love them. And gay people can already have children and adopt children: this referendum has no bearing on that. This argument is In Valid.

If you think marriage just isn’t that, and that gay people have civil partnerships and that should be enough for them, think again. Marriage may have been defined as between a man and a woman in the past, but we need to move on now that we as a society understand more about real people. We understand that being gay is not a “cool” life choice, it’s not a rebellion, it’s not (god help us) a perversion or an abomination. If you thought you didn’t know any gay people, that’s because it’s something they always felt they had to deny, or at least ignore, in your presence. In society’s presence. Because they felt they were somehow, through no fault of their own, second-class citizens.

So tell them they’re not. Tell them that they get to stand up and shout to the rafters that they love this person and they’re going to marry them, just as loudly as you did (or maybe you whispered it to the stars instead, but you weren’t ashamed of it), because they’re people who get to love and be loved in the light of day.

Their mammies get to buy a hat for the big day out. Don’t deny the mammies that.

https://www.yesequality.ie/

https://www.yesequality.ie/

Bits, pieces, other people

The most alluring post title ever, right? Didn’t that just pull you in and make you want to read more? Oh well, I can’t be thrilling every time. Sometimes I just have some random things I want to tell you about.

Picture on the wall

Mabel drew a portrait of me and wrote an interview. It’s all squiggles except at the end it says “MOR TO COM”. This is not relevant to anything else here.

For one, there’s my friend Damien Owens in the New Yorker, as he so modestly puts it. Quoted, actually, from Twitter, when he made a funny about Gerry Adams that’s now immortalised in this very long but also very interesting, if I ever manage to finish it, article. It’s always fascinating to read about your own country from someone else’s point of view.

For another, there’s my other friend who is a court reporter for the national news in Dublin. She’s attending a trial that is by turns obscene and gruesome and bizarre and every time I read about its latest development I think of her and hope she’s getting danger money because it must be horrible to have to sit there all day and listen to it. (She is being offered counselling at work. I think that’s good.)

For a third, I just read another article about objections to plans for a retirement complex in my hometown. I was amused by the fact that someone was worried that “there would be safety issues with ‘large numbers of elderly people attempting to access [the town]'”, because I now have visions of hordes of octogenarians on zimmer frames and in motorized wheelchairs advancing as if in slow-motion on the shops and restaurants of the area, which of course will be powerless to defend themselves.

Finally, let us just pause to rejoice that spring really does seem to have sprung. We had a lot of snow last week, but this week it’s all rain, rain, rain, washing the nasty white stuff away. Yesterday we had 60 degrees and it was dry, and we stopped at the playground on the way home from school and suddenly there was a swarm of children swinging, running, chasing, whirling… it was a good day. Here’s to more of the same.

Pale yellow sunset

Snowy sunset

Christmas Past

I remember the spindly fake tree we had for so many years, and how much I hated it. I remember the foil milk-bottle-top decorations on it that I must have made at playschool, and a cardboard Santa with impossibly long legs and cotton wool for a beard. I remember feeling the weight of the presents on the end of my bed before daylight on Christmas morning and the almost comforting thrill of knowing they were there to wake up to in a few hours. (How restrained I was.) I remember almost busting Santa the year we stayed at my cousins’ house in London – I heard someone moving in the room, but I kept my eyes tightly shut and was all the more excited in the morning because I had heard him. I’m sure all the adults heaved a sigh of relief.

I remember the unshakeable ritual of Christmas dinner at my aunt’s, from consomme to trifle with all the requisite things in between. Turkey, ham, sausagemeat stuffing, sage and onion stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, carrots, celery and sprouts. Roast potatoes of course. Lighting the plum pudding. Brandy butter and cream. A walk in Marley Park to digest, and home for the big film on the telly and some post-prandial port for the grown-ups.

I remember getting new clothes for Christmas, when times were lean and I was dressed in my school uniform or hand-me-downs from my five older girl cousins for the rest of the year. The thrill of those cobalt-blue trousers-not-jeans that matched the green and purple and blue wavy striped sweater and the (oh joy) grey pixie boots to make a real outfit of it; even if it was all from Dunnes I didn’t care, they were new clothes and they were in fashion. I wore that outfit to Sunday mass all year, I think.

I remember clinging to the traditions as they started to crumble; the first year my aunt didn’t host dinner, and how I was bereft, feeling that it wasn’t Christmas at all if we didn’t drive over the winding road past Lamb Doyle’s to Rathfarnham, seeing the lights of the city spread out below us from the heights of Stepaside. I remember the way I established traditions where there had been none, insisting that we take turns opening and admiring our presents, making little piles for each person beside their allotted seat, ensuring that no moment of delight was missed, watching my father slice open the wrapping paper at the join of the tape with a craft knife, surgeon-like, careful to keep every re-usable scrap for next year, taking careful note of who had given what to whom.

(I remember the shock when I first attended the apparent free-for-all of another family’s Christmas, where paper was ripped with abandon and nobody took time to admire each other’s gains until the frenzy was over.)

Traditions are memories that you can re-create over and over. And when they’re finally done with, it’s time to forge some new ones out of folded paper and fruitcake and gingerbread and fairy lights and wrapping paper and carols and friends and family and laughter and maybe even a few tears.

Paper snowflakes on the window

This post is part of the Christmas Memories linky hosted by Naomi at Dr How’s Science Wows. Head on over there and read some more.

Christmas Memories: A Seaonal Linky with Science Wows

The pressure

I had a post about the educational system but then I realised it was only tipping the edge of the real point I wanted to make. So I’m just going to try to tease that out here. Pull up a chair.

I was at the PTA meeting last week, as I have to be because I’m the secretary so I take the notes, typing very fast because our president moves along at a fair clip. And parents were expressing concern about the testing that elementary schoolers (grades 3-5) now have to take, and the new Common Core curriculum, which is not universally understood/adored, and I was wondering if I’m a very bad parent for not finding it as concerning as they did. I mean, it’s not like I understand it better. I haven’t even looked into it. I’m just trusting the system, gullible little fatalistic me.

I suppose I figure that somebody somewhere has employed a lot of experts to work this out, and they are probably a lot more qualified than I am. They are also working within the bounds of constraints I know nothing of. It’s not perfect, but then there are a lot of things about America that are mysterious to me, from gun laws to the disappointing absence of potato waffles, so I just roll with it.

But here’s the thing, and it’s a different thing. There were a lot of resources my national (public) school in 1980s Ireland lacked that my kids’ public school in today’s Maryland has – dedicated music and art teachers, a school counsellor, a computer room, a Russian teacher, just for shits and giggles – but here’s something else it had none of: pressure.

I don’t think it’s an Ireland/USA thing so much as a then/now thing, but it’s a change I’m sad about. Nobody seems to say “It’s elementary school: let’s just show them the basics and let them absorb it all at their own rates and they’ll all shake out when they’re older.” I don’t know what they said back then, but I don’t think they thought too much about it. School kept us off the streets, basically; we learned to read and write and memorize our times tables and fractions and very little else that has stuck with me. My crazy fifth-class teacher was always having us do projects close to her heart, like making paper bags out of newspaper to learn what life was like for children of the Philippine slums, and I’m pretty sure that particular two-day event wasn’t on anyone’s curriculum, but there was ample time for it and we were none the worse off.

Nobody talked about our futures, or going to college, or how to knuckle down and study so that you got better grades – certainly not till 6th class, at least. Grades seemed mostly awarded at the teacher’s whim, anyway – if you were well-behaved, as far as I could tell, your report was likely to feature As and Bs. And it didn’t matter. Nothing was riding on it. No school funding, nobody’s job, nobody’s annual review (probably; okay, I have no idea; but I doubt they had such things in those days), certainly not any child’s future.

I want to shield my kids from that, from The Pressure, for as long as I can. But in second grade they start with proper A, B, C grades and honor roll assemblies, sifting the wheat from the chaff (actually, it’s mostly wheat in this case; they set it up that way, which makes it all the worse for the poor left-behind chaffs), and they’ve already mentioned university to the Kindergarteners. The word hothousing comes to mind. And I don’t think it’s going to help anyone if they end up saying they peaked academically in second grade, y’know?

I get it. I know the school wants university to be on the kids’ radars. They want all the students to know that’s what they should be aiming for, and that with application and good study habits, they can get there. (Might be true. Might not.) But jeez. They’re five. And six and seven and eight. Lay off with the pressure for a few more years. Please.

Do you reckon it’s an America thing or a 2014 thing? Or something else?

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.