Category Archives: vacations

A vacation and a philosophical epiphany

We’ve been away, and now we’re expecting visitors, so I have to shoehorn a post in here somehow. So here is a series of mostly unrelated paragraphs.

Today is my twelfth wedding anniversary. I can take no particular credit for the longevity of our relationship, except that we’re both people who tend to be happy with the status quo so it would take a really big upset to eject either of us. That and having happened to bump into a person who makes me feel perfectly comfortable being me, and who makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery when I make him laugh. Can’t discount that.


We went to rural Virginia for a week, to the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding area. We saw some impressive caverns at Luray, went horse riding (no, they still didn’t let Dash gallop), and got our money’s worth at a very overpriced water park by staying all day. Mabel turned out to have an affinity for waterslides, and Dash finally decided to try them right before we left. The kids consumed a lot of the Teen Nick channel, which we don’t have at home and is always the mark of a vacation for them, but Dash elected to leave his ipad mini at home, which I was pleased about.

We have lately discovered the joys of The Great British Bake-Off, and it really is something the whole family likes to watch. Who would have thought we’d come together over the correct execution of a pie? Watching the next episode functions as a very palatable bribe.

Reflection of stalactites in still water in a cavern

“Dream Lake” in Luray Caverns

The proof copy of my book in print arrived and I am reading through it, finding places where I missed a closing quote mark or I could really do with removing some commas. I really should have printed the whole thing out before submitting it instead of reading it on the screen, but I am stingy with our printer paper and also very impatient. It will be done soon and I will know better next time.

Also, the sentences are all too long, but hey. That’s me. (There’s a new feature in WordPress that rates the “readability” of my blog post as I write it, and so far I am failing miserably on the sentence-length aspect. I don’t care, WordPress; I don’t care.)

Kids in giant inflatable rings on an artificial "river"

Floating on the lazy river at Massanutten Water Park

The news in the outside world is horrible, and it just keeps on coming. I deal with it by looking away. It’s not good for my mental health to try to take on the suffering of all the horrors in the world; it won’t help them, and it’s certainly not helping me. Being terrified of life means the terrorists have won.

That said, I wonder if every generation reaches a point where they think “This technological advance is just too much too fast; we can’t sustain it and it’s dangerous to rely on it so much.” Because I’m feeling that a bit now. But then, I bet they thought that about air conditioning, and cars, and refrigeration, and the invention of the wheel. Technology brings us wonderful things, like connection and communication and knowledge and friendship – but it makes us forget how to do other things sometimes, like go outside or talk to people, or deal with being too hot or spend three days walking to our destination and die of thirst on the way and have our bread go mouldy.

Yes, if all this technology disappeared, my family would be first against the wall – except B and Dash, who might outrun the rotten-tomato-throwing zombies for a few miles – but on the whole I’m willing to accept that this feeling I have is simply a product of my age rather than THE age. So that’s comforting. I think.

Also, for all the pricey entertainments I had lined up for this vacation, I think what my kids will remember most is messing around in the river at the bottom of the hill – which was free, and they’d happily have spent all day doing. That’s a victory over our dependence on the screens right there.

Kids on/in a small river

Naked Creek, Virginia

(If you want to know more about my book, leave a comment or drop me a line at



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


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.

Five years in the making

Did I say that would be the last of the Italy posts? Oh well, I lied.

I had to show you these, that’s the thing. Because what’s the point of planning a photo for five years if you can’t then make the most of it? (Okay, fine, that’s an exaggeration. But these comparison shots are five years in the making, one way or the other.)

Mabel looking out the same window as a baby and a 5yo.

See, this is Mabel looking out the window (ah, the window; you can climb out that window and you’re on ground level outside, so it’s a great source of entertainment, possibly the best thing about all of Italy) in 2009, at the tender age of 9 months, when she was pulling up and cruising but not walking yet, and therefore ripe for taking a header off the sofa she was standing on; and then again this summer, now that she’s a great hulking 5 years and 9 months old.

Children looking over a wallAnd this is Dash and his cousin looking over the walls at the top of the steps to the town hall in 2009 when Dash was 3 and his cousin was 9; followed by Dash at 8 and Mabel at 5 in the exact same place. (Different camera angle, slightly. My bad. And Dash apparently is standing a step down.)

Children on a see-sawFinally, we have the same 9-year-old cousin and 3-year-old Dash on a see-saw five years ago, and then 8-year-old Dash and 5-year-old Mabel in the same place this summer. They may have repainted the duckies in the interim, but I can’t tell for sure.



red tiled roofs

Walls of shades of yellow and orange, ochre and umber. Dark green shutters always, the colour of the solemn tall trees. Light grey stone, dark grey cobbles scattered with cigarette butts. Prosecco before dinner watching the passeggiata.IMG_8880

Lizards skittering as I walk. Giant flakes peeling off slate paths. Dark, heavy wooden doors and windows that swing wide. Orange-tiled roofs, rippled, stacked, layer over layer on the hillside. Fountains. Passing cone-shaped peaks and looking down to straight Roman roads along the valleys.

Narrow street

The local shop with price stickers and no barcode scanners and a deli counter to die for, where you have to test your Italian to ask for a vague quantity of salami and cheese and prosciutto. Basta cosi. A real butcher’s counter with hunks of meat where the butcher can tell you if the pig was a boy or a girl. He probably knows its name and what it ate for breakfast. Thin dark leaves in among the peaches that still have this morning’s dew on them.


Olive groves and fields of girasoles. Fragrant lavender shortbread just out of the oven and geranium petals swimming delicately in pool water.

Path through olive trees to the lake

How can I tell which moments I’ll remember? Which moments my children will remember? What makes a memory? Is a photograph a memory-keeper, or does it change the memory to something else, something easier but not so real? Does it steal the soul of the memory? What can I do but write it and look at it and hope I lived it when it happened?

Carp in fountain


Worth it

We’re back. All the things that were annoying me so much before we left are still here – the messy toys, the demanding children (oh yeah, they were with us the whole way), the incessant need to go grocery shopping and make dinner – but I feel happier about them now. I pressed the reset button, apparently, and I’m ready to pick it all up again with new vigour. (Just as soon as we’re over the jet lag.)

I can do hard things. I know that a family trip to Italy isn’t exactly a hardship, but it’s a change from the ordinary and it does involve challenges. It’s so easy to twirl myself up inside my little life until I’m just peeking out over the keyboard and feeling like anything further is a huge imposition; and to keep my children to their good regular bedtimes and their unstrict house rules and not push it, ever.

But if you shake things up you find that you can do it, and they can do it. They’ve spread their wings and challenged their assumptions and gained confidence and knowledge; and we’ll all get over the messed up sleeping patterns and the three-a-day Nutella sandwich habit and we’ll be stronger for it. And I can drive twisty Italian streets at night and I can make a stab at a conversation with an Italian stranger who doesn’t speak English, and I can stand in a city on the other side of the world with my family and know we made it there and we’ll make it home again.

And everything will look brighter because of it.

Don’t ever let me catch you skipping a vacation because it sounds too much like hard work. You can do hard things.

Dash brandishing wooden sword

(Even without a sword.)

Italy 2: Everyone has an off day

I realise it sounds horribly privileged and snotty to announce that I was in a bad mood while in Italy – and Tuscany at that, not one of those lesser Italy parts like Rome or Turin – but there you have it, everyone has off days. Yesterday I was in such a fouler we should just have embraced it and gone to Siena.

Siena, I should explain, is a most beautiful town and I’ve been there twice in my life, both times in rotten form for no apparent reason. (I recently had a conversation with Marian Keyes about this on Twitter, which will probably the claim to fame I’d like on my epitaph. She too had a bad day in Siena.) Possibly it’s that Siena occurs at exactly that midpoint in a holiday when everyone could really do with being magically transported home to their ordinary lives just for a few dull hours, free from the pressure of all the things they should be doing and seeing and admiring that begin to weigh you down when you admit that your time here will come to an end and you haven’t yet done any of them. The stress of the stunning, overwhelming beauty and history at every pace gets to you after a while. Maybe Siena is just too much of a good thing, or maybe it was always just doomed before we got there.

The first time, we even found ourselves serendipitously there on the one day of the year when the “Paleo” occurs, which is not a feast of non-feasting – that other sort of paleo hadn’t even been invented when I went to Siena first or second – but rather a huge special festival with re-creations of horse races with people in traditional garb toting actual enormous wooden lances and all sorts. I didn’t care. I didn’t like it. There were too many people, it was too hot, and I’d have been better off sulking on my bed for the afternoon.

Yesterday, we bucked the trend and did not go to Siena. We went instead to the more local lake, and the afternoon was redeemed by the perfectly timed catching of the ferry to the island where we had ice creams and wandered in the olive groves spotting pheasants in the undergrowth and watching the old ladies sitting out in the shaded streets doing their intricate lacework until it was time for the ferry back again.

Path through olive trees to the lake

Sometimes a dark room is balm for the soul, but sometimes you have to get up and take the kids somewhere anyway, and an overgrown island in the middle of Italy followed by some trampoline time does as well as anything else.

Dash upside down on a trampoleneMabel on a trampolene

Italy Report I (assuming that there will be more before we leave, which may or may not transpire)

The wonderful thing about going on holidays in a place you’ve been to before and you’ll probably be again, whether it’s Dungarvan or Duck or Clermant-Ferrand, is that there’s not really any pressure to do stuff. You don’t absolutely have to see all the sights and visit all the visitor attractions because you’ve probably seen them already or else you’ll no doubt see them the next time.

This takes a lot of the pressure off when it turns out nobody got up till 10am again and the kids are now unwilling to be extracted from the pool because of course they only ever start playing with the other children ten minutes before you were going to go out. So you crack open another paperback and turn over on your sun lounger and say “Oh well” and “Do we have any salami and cheese for lunch or should I wander over to the shop?” and then you just stay there contemplating where the sunscreen has gone and that you should probably reapply it to someone, somewhere.

(If you’re in Dungarvan, the sunscreen comment may not apply. But then, sunny southeast, you know. Playground of the gods and all that.)

My little proto-feminist is swinging on the swing chair singing at the top of her lungs “Girls are the best. Girls are princesses and boys have to do everything we say. You can eat their brains…”

The seven-year-old from Dublin just told Dash that “In my country, hardly anyone likes peanuts.” I called him out on this, since I am definitely sure that not everyone in Ireland dislikes peanuts, but he maintains that none of his friends do.

Dash asked me when we could come back to Italy. Our holiday isn’t even halfway over but he seems to have embraced the European lifestyle.

“I don’t know.”
“Can we come next summer?”
“No. It’s too expensive to fly here from America. If we lived in Ireland we probably could.”
“Let’s move to Ireland, then.”

Yesterday we had a classic Grumpy Waiter Experience. I had thought that such things only happened in France, but apparently there’s an Italian strain too. We sat in a lovely outdoor restaurant with a breathtaking view and cloth napkins. The cloth napkins should have immediately alerted me to the fact that this was Too Posh For My Children, but I wasn’t paying attention.

Breathtaking view over fields to Lago Maggiore

Mabel decided not to sit at the table but posted herself in a grump on the step. Since we were the only customers on the terraza, I was fine with that. But the waiter, on coming out and seeing this, decided this was his chance to show off his excellent English and, well, I don’t know – bond with the parents by laying down the law or bond with the child by being amusingly stern – one of those things. It did not come out as either, though. He asked us her name and then called her over to her place, saying she had to sit down. Mabel was unimpressed. So was I, because he wasn’t coming across as either friendly or amusing, and all she was doing was sitting on a step in a bad mood, and in nobody’s way.

There were no pizzas on the menu. There were no breadsticks on the table. When I asked about breadsticks I was told in no uncertain terms that they did not have any. When we asked about apple juice (the kid drink of choice around here) we were told that they don’t have apple juice because other establishments have apple juice. We ordered an orange juice for Mabel and nothing for Dash.

The following things happened:

  • The waiter misheard B’s order for something else beginning with C and brought him a caprese salad. When we said this, he accused B of saying Caprese. He did not apologise for bringing the wrong thing and seemed ready to get into a fistfight over who was right but grudgingly said he’d bring the other thing.
  • The orange juice was red. It looked like Campari to me but it tasted good to Mabel so that was fine. When I tasted it, it was basically Robinsons/KoolAid.
  • I asked for plain pasta for Mabel, with just oil. It came with a dusting of parmesan on top, which of course we did not want. When I Very Politely and with my best Customer Smile said that we needed it to have nothing but a little oil, our waiter went into Defensive Mode immediately and explained to me that in Italy, all pasta comes with cheese. Yes, but I asked for just oil. Please could we have some with no cheese? Just a little?
  • When her pasta finally came out, long after her father’s replacement lunch finally came out, of course she refused to taste it. History does not record the waiter’s reaction to this entirely predictable eventuality.
  • I took the children down the road to the small cafe where the people were friendly and they had a packet of crisps/chips each for lunch, followed by a large Cornetto ice cream. The other members of our party followed at their leisure and everyone was much happier.

Children with huge ice creams

Then we found a giant church on the hilltop where the body of Santa Margharita was right there on the altar (putting St Katharine of Siena’s finger, which I saw many years ago, not to mention Oliver Plunkett’s heart, well in the ha’penny place), and explored a fort that may or may not have been built by the Medicis.

Such is Italy. That’s enough sightseeing for now.

Laundry day

It’s laundry day!

But the best sort of laundry day; the day when I wash everything so that I can pack tomorrow. As time goes on, I’m starting to think that packing might actually be the best part of the holiday. All that unalloyed optimism, untainted by the reality of being away from home with children.

I know I should be laughing by now, because my children are not babies or toddlers, so I will get some time to relax. The last time we went to Italy, Dash was 3 and Mabel was 9 months and teething and miserable and totally loved on and adorable but it was still relentless for me, the most-loved and wanted One With The Boobs. I couldn’t comfort her, but she wouldn’t be with anyone else. And it was always dinner time, when the extended family was sitting in the warm dusk, enjoying delicious food and wine, when I had to walk the sad baby ceaselessly.

At least I got out of the washing up duties, I suppose. There’ll be more of that this year.

This year there’ll be more child politics, more negotiating friendships and trying to put people to bed before things go so far south that someone gets hurt; which with the added hurdle of a five-hour time difference for us could take quite a while… There’ll be more swimming for everyone, more difficulty finding things to eat, more joyous playing with cousins, more mosquito bites, probably. More entertainment, more screaming. I might get to read a book or two; I might be driven insane.

A change is as good as a rest. Keep telling yourself that.

So cute! Dash in Italy. Chocolate milk all over his t-shirt, as I recall.

So cute! Dash in Italy. Chocolate milk all over his t-shirt, as I recall.

9 month old Mabel

Teeny Mabel last time.


If you took all the minutes I’ve spent faffing around unproductively on Facebook this summer and put them together, you’d probably get about as much time as my children spent watching TV when they weren’t supposed to. We could all have achieved so much more.

But summer isn’t for achieving more. Summer is for being too hot and lying around sweatily complaining about it. Summer is for long cold drinks and running out of ice. Summer is for bottles of beer with wedges of lime in them and being too apathetic to make a real dinner. Crackers and cheese it is, with some salami and a few cherry tomatoes. A meal fit for a king. A barbeque under the umbrella. Grilling in a thunderstorm.

Summer is when you wish away the weeks till your vacation, and then you wish them back again because you’ve already been and other people’s are still to come. So then you start looking up midterm break dates so that you can plan something else because otherwise you’ll have nothing at all to look forward to ever again.

We’ve done the uphill slog getting into our summer groove. We’re on hiatus with camps now, but next week we’ll be on the downhill careen to our trip away, which is time out of time. It’s really just a whole new set of stresses and challenges, messing with routines and time zones and sleep patterns and dietary habits and digestive systems. It doesn’t make anything easier but it makes it different, maybe sometimes in a really fun and good way, and at the end of it all we’ll come back to real life with a newfound appreciation for the old and familiar, all the things we’re dying to break loose of right now.

And so it goes. Another summer fritters itself away in sunshine and flash floods and ice creams and bare feet.

Orange flowers


The hustler

What you might call our first date was, I believe, an arrangement to meet up at our university (in the last week of Easter break) and play some pool. With a friend, probably. To the uninformed viewer it might have seemed casual in the utmost. We might have had lunch in the totally unromantic UCD canteen first. Or maybe we pushed the boat out and got one of those little pizzas on the second floor. I should remember, but I don’t.

What I remember is the pool table. We went down to “The Trap”, which is what everyone called the pool tables and juke box in the basement of the Arts building, beside all the lockers, and put some coins in a table. I think we found our mutual friend (through whom we had first met two weeks earlier) down there; we certainly weren’t alone. It being the holidays, the place wasn’t thronged with students avidly avoiding lectures, but it wasn’t deserted either. Some people could reliably be found in The Trap no matter what the season or semester.

Now, don’t be imagining I’m some sort of pool shark. Tom Cruise and Paul Newman would wipe the floor with me in half a second flat. But ever since my friend and I used to push the white ball around the empty table in the Dunlaoghaire Motor Yacht Club with our hands, or watch the coloured balls lining up with those lovely clicks through the little window to the table’s innards, or even when my late lamented Uncle Brian tried to show me how to hold a cue at the age of about seven, I’ve had a sort of affinity for the game.

(My granny used to watch the snooker on TV. That took some concentration, before she got the color set.)

So B was the one who showed me how to play. (I won’t say “taught me” becuase that would imply that I have learned and am now able to do it.) I know the rules and can slide the cue towards the white ball and almost always make it hit one of the others. Something usually goes in a pocket eventually. I don’t really care. I love watching the skill of others, the ones who do know what they’re doing. I love the almost-frictionless roll of ball towards pocket, watching an engineer calculate the angles, or pretend to, hearing the satisflying click (or the rumble when the white goes down and you wait for the table to send it back to you).

So there we were on our date, having a nice game of pool, not exactly knowing where this was going or how to move things forward. I leaned on the table. I put my hand a little too close to where his hand was also leaning on the side of the table as we waited for our friend to take a shot. The sides of our little fingers touched, and a tiny electric shock went through me. That was enough. The direction was set. Fate was on notice.

Wednesday will be our ninth wedding anniversary, by the way.

We used to play a game of pool now and then, whenever we were in a bar with a pool table, with a couple of friends or just the two of us. I didn’t get any better, but I still enjoyed it. Last week on our vacation we had an early dinner one night in a not-very-Italian restaurant attached to a very American bar. We passed the pool table as we walked through the bar to our booth seats. I made a mental note of it. When dinner was over and ice-creams had been screamed for and ordered (politely) and said thank-you for (politely) I suggested we might just see if the pool table was still unused on our way out.

It was. Probably we should not have stopped for a quick game of pool in a bar with our seven year old and our four year old, but we did, and nobody cared, and it was fun. It was fun to impress the kids with this thing they had no idea we would ever do. It was fun to let them chalk our cues and retrieve the white ball and suggest what we might aim for next. They were just about old enough to keep their hands off the balls and the other cues for long enough for B to wipe the floor with my pathetic effort (it takes me most of a game to get my eye in, and it had been a few years) and clear the table, clonk clonk clonk, like a pro.

Or maybe I’m still just easily impressed by some people.

Mini pool table
Not to scale