Category Archives: vacations


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

Transatlantic subtleties: Homes from home

Before I go any further I realise that there are some terms that need clarification when discussing one’s holidays (that is, vacation) with a transatlantic audience. This is (almost exactly) what we stayed in last week.

Caravan/trailer thing

The campsite calls it an RV, but it’s not. I wanted to call it a caravan, but it’s not. It might be a mobile home if you were in Ireland, but here a mobile home would probably be bigger. So here are some parameters for your terms if you should be called upon to explain your temporary dwellings to someone from across the pond.

Tent: Fine, a tent’s a tent. I’m not a camper, so that’s all I have to say about that.

Caravan: I believe that if you say “caravan” to an American, they will envisage an old-timey Romany (gypsy) caravan. Or maybe a bunch of camels following each other over the dessert. To an Irish person, a caravan is a tin can with bunks in it that you can pull behind your car. This, obviously, is a lovely vintage one. Newer ones aren’t quite so petite or bijou.

Adorable; but I wouldn’t want to live in it

Trailer: To an American, a trailer is something large and inhabitable that you can pull behind your car – an Irish caravan, in fact. To an Irish person, it’s a base with a tow-hitch and wheels that you would put something like a boat on to transport it.

An Irish sort of trailer

Mobile home: To an Irish person, a mobile home is a large caravan, possibly with the wheels taken off. What we stayed in last week was an Irish-style mobile home. To an American, a mobile home is can have actual rooms and a deck built on it and be mobile only in the vaguest of meanings. That it can be easily moved by a tornado, for instance.

Mobile home (US style)
This home is “mobile”, if you’re American

RV: This stands for a Recreational Vehicle. It’s one of those huge caravans with a built-in driver’s seat so you don’t trail it behind your car but might trail your car behind it. Some Americans sell up the family house when they retire, buy an RV, and travel the length and breadth of the continent for some or all of their remaining days. Others just have one to go on vacation with. I cannot imagine trying to drive one on European roads, but I think they’re called motorhomes there.

RV (recreational vehicle)

I have no idea where a camper van fits in all this, or what you’d consider one to be. Is it the orange VW Beetle “bus” my cousins had in 1976?

Vintage VW camper van
Just add (Little Miss) Sunshine

One other thing occurs to me. If you get rained out of your campsite, you might want to check in to a more permanent establishment. Hotels and motels and guesthouses are fine, but B&Bs might cause a hiccup of misunderstanding.

In the US a Bed & Breakfast is a particularly nice guesthouse. It’s usually quite fancy and some of them don’t take children. We will probably never stay in one en famille. An Irish B&B, on the other hand, is usually a private house that rents out a bedroom or two to tourists. Generally speaking, Irish B&B’s are a good budget option and very family-friendly. The one thing both types of B&B have in common is that with any luck the breakfast will be good.

Transatlantic subtleties is an occassional series of posts, to which I add whenever the mood moves me. You can find the others by clicking on the link in my tag cloud on the right.

Those crazy (upstate) New York summer nights

There’s nothing like spending seven nights in an 8- by 28-foot space with your nearest and dearest and a very flaky internet connection to make you appreciate the comforts of home. We had fun, we did stuff, but people kept sleeping when they weren’t meant to and then not sleeping when we would have preferred that they did.

Inside the camper van
Camper living

A brief overview of our vacation by the nights, goes like this:

Night one:
I knew we had to bring bedding but I didn’t think to ask if that included pillows as well as pillowcases. I was going to get the kids to bring their pillow pets, but then I forgot. So we spent the first night with no pillows. Now I’m pretty sure when I was 22 I spent an entire summer in London sleeping without a pillow to my bed, but apparently now that I’m Very Old I can’t deal with that any more. Between the bumpy mattress and the strange place and the no pillow, I felt as if I barely got a wink. Dash fell from his pull-out sofa bed onto the floor, but didn’t notice a thing.

Night two:
We spent a large chunk of the next day finding a Sears to buy pillows. One each for the grown-ups and one for Mabel. Dash said he didn’t need one. Insert violas of foreboding here. We all slept relatively well, and I am passionately in love with my new pillow.

Night three:
Dash woke up that morning with a massive crick in his neck. Being not prone to downplay any possible illness or injury, he maximized the melodrama and the whining for the next two days, culminating in the middle of night three when he moved (on his new pillow) and the crick woke him up with a wail of agony (pseudo-agony). Which of course woke his sister as well as his parents. Everyone had to be gently massaged back to sleep over the course of the next hour or so.

Night four:
The previous nights’ discomforts paled into insignificance when we were woken by three long beeps of some sort of alarm at 4am on night four. The trailer/camper/mobile home was fully equipped with a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm, and we had no way of telling which one had beeped, or why. I put Mabel back to sleep, stepped over the still-sleeping Dash, and conferred nervously with B. We cycled the A/C and opened windows, and nothing further happened, so we lay down again, gingerly. BEEP BEEP BEEP said the alarm again, piercingly. There was no smoke, so we thought it might be the CO alarm. This was not the annoying blip of I-need-new-batteries. I didn’t want to risk it. We got the children up and put them in the car, and all sat there glaring balefully at the camper/trailer/mobile home of DOOM, as the birds started to sing and dawn came creeping in. We tried to call the emergency number for the campsite people, but our phones didn’t work there. We didn’t know which trailer they lived in.  Our own residence continued to fail to blow up or do anything remotely dangerous, but the alarm still beeped every twenty minutes or so. The children did not go back to sleep. Neither, therefore, did the parents.

It turned out to be the smoke alarm, saying that it did, indeed, need batteries. I was not amused.

Night five:
You’d think we’d have slept exceedingly well the next night. We would have, except for the hour or so I spent getting Mabel some water, evicting a moth from her bunk alcove where it was fluttering all over my face (urgh), and finally microwaving her a waffle. Which she rejected.

Night six:
Night six was fine once the massive thunderstorm that rolled in at story time rolled away again, leaving me wondering how people in campsites don’t have trees topple on them every time there’s a storm.

Night seven:
Everyone slept pretty well. We’d finally settled in. Which meant, of course, it was time to leave.

Girl in carseat with pillow
Clutching her new pillow for the trip home


I’m tired of seeing the same post every time I open my blog, and I have several things almost written but who knows when they’ll be fully written or at what point I’ll just say oh what the heck and press publish anyway, so here’s a very quick update for you and I even put some commas in there so don’t complain about this long sentence. Stream of consciousness, baby. Chanelling Joyce.

I’m sure I would be more prepared for our upcoming “camping” vacation (not real hardcore camping because everything is on site, which is very normal in Europe but took a bit of concentrated Googling to find in this country) except yesterday I was struck down in my 40-year-old prime by a stomach virus/fever thing that made it impossible for me to stop the kids watching TV because I just had to nap on the sofa all day and the whole experience left me with a renewed respect for old people and people with chronic ailments because damn if life isn’t much harder and more full of no fun when everything’s an effort.

Contrary to my belief that it would probably last forever and I was probably dying of something horrible, as always comes upon me when sick, my fever disappeared around midnight last night and today I feel much better but after a burst of energy this morning (library, Target, laundry) I’m now a bit tired and prone to being grumpy and can’t figure out what would be a good thing to eat and generally wishing I could put these children into suspended animation for a day. Or a week.

So that’s why it’s been quiet.

Sleeping bags for camping

Notes from the beach

When I was seven-almost-eight, we went to Corfu for a holiday. (It’s a Greek island, sort of shaped like a seahorse, mostly off the coast of Albania. My father pointed across the sea and told me that I was looking behind the iron curtain, but I didn’t know what he meant.) It was the first time I’d been on a plane since I was two, the first trip abroad (apart from to England, which doesn’t count) that I could recall, and it left me with a host of wonderful memories that were purely my own, not merely things recounted by others or pasted into a photo album that I might think were half memory, half family lore.

Will Dash remember our trip to the beach this summer like that? Is it sufficiently different from daily life? Is he old enough? What will be the parts that stick, that live forever in his mind and come back with startling recall?

Last week I sat on the sand where the waves came in, showing my children how to dig a moat around a sandcastle and wait for the water to fill it. I showed them how to make mud pies with their hands, how to wriggle their feet down into the sand as the ocean recedes, how to turn their backs to the waves so they don’t get splashed in the face. By our third day on the beach, I watched my son wander away a little (a very little) on his own, intent on collecting smoothed shell particles, dragging out a channel in the sand with his heel. I showed his sister that I could write her name in the sand, and how the ocean would erase it mercilessly. It was all new to them, and I was the keeper of wonderful discoveries. 

The sea has always been a part of my life, since I grew up with a view of Dublin Bay from my bedroom window (up a hill, half a mile or so from the coast). My school was so close to the sea that  seagulls would wheel outside our windows looking for scraps of sandwich. When bored (or just plain lost) in maths class, I could gaze out at the horizon, watching a cargo ship make its way slowly across the bay, or the ferry head off to Wales from nearby Dun Laoghaire. 

When I was feeling antsy and adolescent, full of pent-up stuff, and the need to be great, or do something, or justify my lonely existence [dramatic flounce], I’d walk briskly to the harbour road and pick my way down to the rocks, where I could sit with nothing further between me and the small island just off our shore. The Irish Sea is not a very pretty or spectacular one – it’s not the romantic, exotic Pacific; the sparkling, freezing Atlantic; or the softly lapping Mediterranean – but it has its moods of grey stillness or glorious blue-green or angry energy all the same. I’d sit there until the swell had taken my feverishness and smoothed me over, and then I’d walk up the hills home again.

I’ve always been drawn, when looking at maps, to the end places. The tips of land, the pointy bits. So when I first saw the Outer Banks, those long sandbars down the coast of North Carolina, punctuated by lighthouses, I decided we should go and visit them some day. Of course, when we got there my somewhat romantic expectations of a verdant and windswept isle were somewhat dashed – after all, one long sandy beach is pretty much the same as another, whether it’s Brittas Bay or South Padre Island in Texas or Duck, NC – and with two small children in tow, we didn’t get to drive as far as any of the lighthouses, to find out what these particular end points of the world looked like.

But still. I introduced my children to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the other side of which laps up against such hospitable shores as Roundstone and Achill Island and Dingle, sites of my own family holidays many moons ago (and not in Greece). I showed them how to make mud pies and moats, and they tasted the salt water for themselves and watched the sand crabs scuttle as the waves receded. It’s enough.

Iron man

We all know that it’s Dash’s long-held ambition to be a metal-maker when he grows up, so that he can fashion jetpacks and Iron-Man-like suits to his heart’s content. So when we visited a replica Elizabethan ship at Roanoke Island on our vacation, and then found it came complete with model settlement site with real people doing real jobs like, for example, a real live blacksmith, he was pretty thrilled.

He was fascinated to see the forge in action (while the rest of us wilted in the record-breaking midday heat), and overjoyed when the smith presented him with a newly hammered, bent, black, iron nail.

Dash (far right, dodging the camera) in the settlement village. The forge is that structure at the back.

The nail is his new most prized possession. If you asked him to chose between his blue light saber and the nail, he might be hard pressed to answer. But, just like the light saber, he keeps misplacing the nail, and at an inch and a half long, it’s that much harder to find.

With a quarter, for scale

The first night, he took the nail to bed with him. So sweet.

Not so sweet at 4.15 when he appeared by our bed with a piercing, “Daddy! Daddy!” I took him on, since I was half-awake anyway (probably just recently back from Mabel’s bed; Mabel’s not sleeping well just now), and B clearly was not.

“Daddy’s asleep. It’s the middle of the night. Tell me.”
“No, I have to tell him.”
“No, tell me. What is it?”
“I can’t find my naaaaaiiiil.”
“Okay, I’ll tell Daddy, and in the morning we’ll find the nail. I promise.”
“Can I get into your bed?”
Sigh. “Up you come.”

Shortly thereafter I was called away again, and left him snoring peacefully beside his insensible father. The nail was located in the morning. He’s only lost it several million more times since then, but not, so far, in the middle of the night again. Today he got a small plastic pill box to keep it in, which will make it about 2% easier to find, perhaps.

In its box

The blog post it would have been nice to read before our trip to the Outer Banks, North Carolina

So you’re going to the beach. Here are a few tips from those of us who just got back.

  • Remember that you are not the only people leaving the greater Washington DC area in a southerly direction on the Saturday morning before the 4th of July. Or on any given Saturday in summer, for that matter.
  • Don’t panic. Not absolutely everyone else in that particular traffic jam is headed straight for Duck, NC.
  • All the people you encounter in the dead-stop traffic five miles from the bridge to the Outer Banks, however, are. Be prepared to add another couple of hours for the last twenty miles of your journey.
  • Maybe next time, consider getting a rental that starts on Sunday, and/or leaving earlier than 9.30 in the morning. Yes, that means you’d have to actually make some effort to pack a little more the night before. Deal with it.
  • Never forget – don’t worry, you won’t be allowed – that a vacation with children is not so much a vacation as a relocation of all your daily hassles to a new and less purpose-built area. If you have to eat out, they won’t like the food. If you’re self-catering, you’ve just brought all your food-preparation requirements to a new house with an empty fridge and bare cupboards. If you’re lucky, there might be a sharp knife, a can opener, and a decent chopping board.
  • So let the kids eat fries for dinner every night if that’s all there is. A week of it won’t kill them, but a week of trying to feed them properly might kill you.
  • Leave the Internet behind if you like, but don’t unplug so much that your rental has no TV. In fact, cable TV will provide a world of wonder to children who are accustomed to nothing but PBS.  Do try to make sure your accommodation has cellphone reception, though. (Ours didn’t.)
  • Think of bringing a stepstool so the kids can reach the basin. It’s the one thing your rental  almost certainly isn’t equipped with.
  • Be advised that the a/c will be set for somewhere near freezing, to ensure that nothing moulds in the excessive humidity, and to drive you outside to the beach or the town after a little while inside. You are not allowed mess with the a/c settings, so do bring a cardigan.
  • If you lose one of the house keys, don’t panic until it hasn’t turned up in the load of washing you just put on.
  • Come to think of it, if you’re bringing seven of everything so you all have enough clothes, why bother doing laundry? Either skimp on packing, or avoid the laundry room entirely. You’ll spend most of your time in your swimsuits anyway.
  • Your place will have an outside shower so that you don’t track sand onto the carpets and into your bedsheets. Don’t bother trying to get the kids into it. Just send them to the pool, and don’t worry about the signs telling you to wash off any sand before entering. Nobody else did.
  • Let the kids know that it’s okay to pee in the ocean. Impress upon them that it’s not okay to pee in the pool. And this doesn’t mean that they should get out of the pool and pee standing beside the pool.
  • It’s hard to predict how much the sunshine and the water will tire everyone out. Instead of trying to estimate when the kids will be tired, just keep going until they all collapse in a screaming heap of devastation, then bring them home and put them to bed.
  • Stop complaining about how it’s as hot as hades and as humid as the inside of a tumble dryer, and just go to the beach. That’s why you’re here.
  • Avoid hurricanes, wear hats, and don’t forget the sunscreen.
And then my camera got a teensy bit damp and now I can’t see anything on the screen, even though it still works, but I have to look through the viewfinder as in the olden days, which is very vexing.

Hippo birdy

It hasn’t been the most eventful of birthdays, I have to admit. Mostly, we’ve hidden indoors lest the sun shrivel us to a crisp, venturing out only to make the one good use of this weather – hanging some laundry on the line or bringing it back in again.

I say “we” because the children have been with me all day, of course, but they weren’t the ones doing the laundry. They were the ones climbing the clothesline, pulling towels off, trying to set up a tightrope, and generally hindering my progress in trying to pack for our week at the beach.

I should probably be thinking deep introspective thoughts about what I’ve done in the past year, how I’ll improve in the one to come, and how awful it is that I’m one year closer to forty. Mostly what occurs to me is to wonder whether, as next year my birthday will fall on a Saturday, I’ll be contractually obliged to throw myself a Fortieth party. I’d really rather throw one for B in March, but his birthday falls midweek. Not that one has to have the party on the exact day, but it does lend itself to parties, and only happens once in seven (if that often).

We did get a babysitter last night – who managed to get Mabel to sleep, wonder of wonders – while we went to the movies and then for a very quick drink. And tonight an Indian takeout is winging its way homeward as I speak. (You might think I would rather have a nice salad when it’s 102 degrees outside, but I will leverage my air conditioning and eat the food I like.)

Hippo birdy to me, as Sandra Boynton would say.

Transatlantic subtleties: Holiday v. Vacation

This is an easy one, right? Americans say vacation where UK/Irish people say holiday.

Almost. But then.

In Ireland you go on holidays (or on your holidays), when you go away from home and stay somewhere else for a while. You are on holidays when you don’t have to go to school or work for a while. That much translates directly to “vacation”, except for the plural.

Holiday, in the singular, is where one might get confused, because Americans use that too.

A holiday in the US is a public day off, such as July 4th or Labor Day. A holiday weekend is the weekend one of these days is attached to. A typical conversation at work when I first moved to America might go like this:

– How was your holiday?
– What holiday? I didn’t go anywhere.
– Monday. Was a holiday. Remember?
– Oh, you mean my bank holiday.
– What’s a bank holiday?

In the UK/Ireland, a bank holiday is what we generally call a public holiday, and that weekend (when it falls on a Friday or a Monday), is a bank-holiday weekend. Confusingly, there is actually a distinction between bank holidays and public holidays, and sometimes the bank is closed when everyone else has to go to work, but mostly they’re all just called bank holidays. Because if the bank is closed, it’s time to party. Apparently. (I bet it’s Angela Merkel’s fault.)

“The holidays”, in America, means the Christmas season, which you aren’t allowed call Christmas for fear of offending people who celebrate Kwanzaa or Hannukah or Solstice or whatever else it might be. Hence “Happy holidays”, which to an Irish person would evoke images of sun-drenched beaches, and fruity libations, possibly in Spain. To an American it means snowflakes and ice-skating and gingerbread cookies and other secular wintery goodnesses.

If in doubt, just call it a break.