Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Home on the Horizon

A quiet house this morning. I’m just back from dropping this kids at their schools and David has gone to Knock Airport to pickup a new car. We were without a car for five days thanks to a miscommunication between the Baker family and the Budget family. I’m glad we had a chance to experience this place sans car. The only moment of “Grr, I wish we had a car” was yesterday when Corin and I walked into town to pickup Finn from school. I tried to time our walk so that we wouldn’t get caught in the rain. The landscape is so open here (not many big trees in this part of Ireland and Ballycastle is in a shallow valley the pitches into the ocean) that you can see great distances. When I am running I can be two miles from the house and look over to see our cottage. On slow, tired days I imagine the boys are standing at the window cheering me on. Anyway, the broad perspective allows one to get a ‘coming attractions’ of the weather. So yesterday I watched the clouds- some shedding rain - and tried to place our walk between showers. Ack. No such luck. Halfway to Finn’s school the wind picked up and hard rain and sleet fell. Corin and I hunkered down next to a stone wall; I drew him close and then propped the umbrella next to us like a lean-to, keeping the water and ice at bay. We chanted the “Rain rain go away” song and in two minutes the storm had passed and we each had just a damp bit on the side of our pants. It’s hard to mind such moments; damp trousers are a small price to pay for getting to huddle in a hail storm with a two year old wearing a Tigger rain coat.

We find ourselves sliding towards our departure from Ireland. Less than two weeks to go. I feel a mixture of panic, regret and “alright, let’s just get on with it.” The panic comes from knowing that there’s so much more to see and do here – yet we’ll never get to it all. I am caught in the same choice one finds at a favorite restaurant; do you order what you always order, knowing that it’s delicious, or do you branch out and try something new? I am torn between wanting the days to be humdrum Irish days – the routine that I love of running in the morning, walking the boys to school, working or reading or writing for a few hours each morning, having lunch with David and Corin, walking to get Finn later in the day, stopping at Polke’s so that Finn can buy a treat, lazy afternoons to play with the boys, improvising dinner, more play with the kids, bedtime routine for the boys, then reading, tv and talking with David – and days of newness and adventure. Not having a car has helped make this choice, as we’ve stayed close to home. This weekend we plan to do some exploring and will go to Achill Island on Saturday if the weather cooperates. There’s an abandoned abbey in a cow pasture about 15 miles away that we also want to visit. In addition, we’ve arranged for a sitter to come on Friday evening and David and I have plans to go to Ballina for dinner and a walkabout. The next 12 days will be spent in this tug-o-war between reveling in the familiar and pushing myself to see a few more new things before I go. I find that I am more inclined to go with old favorites than to try new things. I suppose that’s a sign that I am really very happy over here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lacken Strand Races

On Sunday afternoon we drove to the nearby village of Lacken for their annual horse races. The races are held on the beach (a.k.a. ‘strand’ in Ireland), a wide stretch of sand between the green hills that edge the ocean. It was one of the most exciting, beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. When I was young I didn’t have much of a horse phase the way many girls do, but I certainly loved seeing The Black Stallion and reading Black Beauty and seeing a dozen horses thunder down the beach, framed by the horizon of cliffs and ocean, left me breathless. The boys were spellbound. David was in a photo-frenzy (a painting is being started this week). From what little I see in the States, horse racing is from the world of the highly controlled and manufactured and marketed. Racetracks seem like the sporting world’s version of a shopping mall, gambling is depressing, the horses are products of teams of vets, trainers, and p.r. agents, and the horses owners seems to get more attention than the people riding the animals. It tips far more towards regimented than primal on the spectrum. At Lacken Strand, it felt primal. I was looking the wrong way through the telescope and could see horse racing as it used to be, from the perspective of what it’s turned into. There was a gaggle of bookmakers (okay, I have to pause here just to let you know that when Misha visited in April she spent the first day loving Ireland because it had so many shops where one could buy handmade books . . . then it dawned on her what those stores were for) set up around tables in the field next to the beach. Each bookie kept track of odds on a chalkboard and pattered in auctioneer lingo, drawing bettors in. The cars and trailers that brought the jockeys and horses were parked right alongside the cars of the spectators. If you ran back to your car to grab a jacket you’d likely hear a horse kicking the sides of its trailer or see a jockey chatting up a girl while sharing a bag of crisps. The jockeys were young, from age 12 to early 20s, most in their mid-teens. Most were males, but there were a few females in the mix and one young woman of about 14 rode in nearly every one of the day’s 14 races; her jacket was hot pink with black polka dots so she was hard to miss. She rode a different horse in each of the races and she must be one heck of a rider to be able to manage such a feat. The jockeys were dressed in crisp pants that seemed to be made of tyvek for their otherworldly whiteness; their jackets were satin and boldly colored, purple bodice with yellow sleeves or royal blue bodice with white and green striped sleeves. There was no code that dictated that boys dress in muted tones while girls get the bright colors. Everyone got to shine.
The track is laid out in a half-mile loop in the sand, with simple stakes and thin rope cordoning off the spectators from the action. By the next day, after the stakes are removed and the tide rises and falls there will be no trace of the trample of hooves. An ambulance stays parked in the middle of the beach and it got called into action a couple of times. The horses are high strung and the mere act of getting to the starting line seemed dangerous. There are no gates to stuff the horses into for the big start. Instead the horses gather in one general area and scuffle and twist and try desperately just to get the heck out of the scrum, while the jockeys try to keep them under control. When the signal to start the race is given some horses are facing backwards, some jockeys are distracted by the fracas. It’s not a tidy start and some horses never seem to recover, remaining half a track back from the pack for the entire race. Some riders were thrown and there’s a mad rush to get them off the track before the horses come round again. You see parents run like hell across the sand to get to their kids. I have a vision of parents at grade school soccer games rushing to their injured offspring on the field, except the risks seem far greater and the panic is in everyone’s chest.

We stayed for five of the races. There’s about 20 minutes between each race, allowing time for the horses in the coming race to promenade around a ring so that potential bettors can study the options and place bets. There’s a sideshow of activities for kids, so we took our intermissions at the bouncy slide and the face painting booth. Finn introduced himself to the guy working the bouncy castle: “Hi. My name is Finn. I’m new to Ireland.” He left the races painted up as Spiderman. Corin was in line to be painted when the skies opened up and rain chased us to the car. Being the little brother can be lousy sometimes. The races continued in the rain; that seemed fitting.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Finn came home yesterday from school bursting with news: “Everyone in the class got a star today except for David. He didn’t get a star because he was [drop voice to horrified stage whisper here] bold.” I love hearing his language shift into the local lingo. Trash is now rubbish and check marks are ticks. One thing I hope he picks up is the word “craic”. It’s Irish for “good time” and it’s pronounced “crack”. I get to giggling when I hear it used. My favorite is when it’s used in the ad for the Volvo Round the World Ocean Race that’s going to be stopping over in Galway later this week. The voiceover announces, “There will be boats, music, food, games for the kids, and craic.” I usually turn to David and say “Honey, grab the kids, there serving up crack in Galway.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Missing: The Irish Version

Missing: The Irish Version

First of all, sorry for being off-line for so long. My parents came to visit for 10 days and I didn’t post because I was too busy eating the amazing food they were serving up AND too shocked at watching my usually demure mom teach Finn how to trash talk while playing ‘Go Fish’. Also, I think the rain rain rain had made my brain mossy and the writing thoughts just weren’t flowing.

Lest you think the earlier entry entitled ‘Missing’ was positioning me as one of those whingy Americans who goes overseas and then complains because she can’t get her decaf nonfat latte and a decent cell phone signal, let me dedicate this entry to some of the things that I love about Ireland and that I will miss a lot upon returning to Maine.

Let’s see . . . there’s raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Oh wait, that’s not it. No, it’s the drying rack, commercial breaks, schemes, and the kitchen window.

Our cottage has a small washing machine; it does a half load at a time. The system for drying clothes is brilliant. The ceiling in the living room/dining room is two stories high so hanging over the dining room table is a drying rack. It’s connected to a pulley and so one raises and lowers it as needed. So smart because: 1) it tends to rain just about every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes, so drying clothing outside would be a frustrating clothes pin polka; 2) it places the clothes in the toastiest spot in the house; 3) the clothes are out of the way. Also, there is just something so damn satisfying about hoisting a load of clothes up to the rafters each morning to dry. Something else that’s brilliant about the system: it holds exactly one half load of clothes – no more, no less. The scale of this house is spot on.

We’ve been watching some TV over here. Sports (UEFA finals for soccer, Gaelic football, rugby), movies, US police dramas (I get a particular kick out of watching Without a Trace on the Irish language station; the show is in English but all of the ads are in Irish; and I have to out my husband right here and now re: his new found love of the show The Mentalist), and an occasional afternoon episode of Oprah (which is running several months behind, so I just got to relive Obama’s victory all over again – very nice). Shows do not run on the tidy hour and half hour schedule here. One station may have a movie starting at 9:10 pm while the next channel has the evening soap opera starting at 9:25. Nothing lines up; it’s all a hodge podge. And so commercials aren’t placed into shows in the same way. Sometimes a 42 minute show might only have two commercial breaks, each a minute long. I confess to watching American Idol for the first time ever. I started watching in back in the US this winter and Ireland has been the ideal place to watch the show. The week’s two shows (performance show and results show) are on back-to-back each Saturday and there are only a couple of commercial breaks. What would take 2 hours to watch back in the US is just over 90 minutes over here – none of the annoying drawn-out drama of suspensefully placed ads.

Over here civic projects are referred to as ‘schemes’. New school being built? It’s a school building scheme. Highway being re-routed? It’s a new roadway scheme. And, if you are lucky enough to live in Ballycastle (which we are) you are experiencing the magic of the “new sewerage scheme.” The word scheme imbues, for me, a level of excitement and intrigue to these projects. I know it’s just a plain old infrastructural improvement, but it sounds so much more cunning, doesn’t it? Hey – it’s been raining a lot here. A girl’s gotta find excitement where she can.

I love our kitchen here. Some things are less than ideal, like the drawer full of dull knives (brought back into service by my Dad, who brought his knife-sharpeners with him to Ireland; the man is magic) and the lack of appliances I use a lot back in the States. But I’m doing aok, mainly because I plan menus that don’t require a food processor or sturdy mixer or decent cooking pot. And I like the creativity that’s forced by working out of a small pantry cupboard and a small dorm-scale fridge. One thing I love about the kitchen are the tiny fridge and the window over the sink. In the US the sink is set under the cabinets and has a view of a bit of wall and a bit of cabinet. The lighting is dim and the color we’ve painted the kitchen could most accurately be described as dusty dung. I often end up in a foul mood while doing the dishes at home and I think it’s because I feel as if I am trapped in a box with only a dishpan and a scrubby brush for company. Here I look out a window while I do the dishes. Our tiny backyard is edged by a stone wall and on the other side of the wall is a grazing field for local livestock. Beyond that is more fields and at the edge of it all is the ocean. When we arrived there were two bulls in residence in the nearest field (Clarence and Louis). Three weeks ago they were moved and the field became the maternity ward for local cows. Six cows were brought in and within a week, four of the cows had given birth. The kitchen window is one part CBS Sunday Morning’s “We’ll leave you this week in this beautiful spot in nature . . .” and one part “Wild Kingdom”. I’ve joked with David about taking a photo from the window and putting it over the sink at home. Or maybe I could get him to paint something and laminate it . . .

I am reserving judgment on the Eurovision song contest. It started last week and it is the craziest thing I think I have ever seen on TV – Vegas amped up on steroids purchased in Eastern Europe and dressed up by Dita Van Teese in consultation with Cirque du Soliel and the Solid Gold Dancers. It’s taking place in Moscow this year and is mc’d by two manic Russian spokesmodels. The best part of watching is the RTE Irish commentator who talks over the show. Sadly Ireland didn’t make it past the first round (apparently not enough body paint or back up dancers on stilts) and so he’s free to just rip into the other acts. He’s snarky and often exasperated with the wacky performances, the perfect foil to the bizarre glitz of the show. My money is on the Ukraine; go to You Tube and watch their piece. Don’t do this at work unless your boss is okay with you watching nearly naked gladiators while on the clock.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Pics

There are some new photos if you click on the photo icon to the right and go to the flickr page. For some reason they're not rotating into the gallery on the blog. Hmmm . . . No time to tech trouble shoot now. It's a beautiful day and David and I are headed from Galway to Westport, then home to rescue my parents from Finn and Corin. Or maybe it's the other way around . . .

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Twist ties. Heavy duty foil. Crushed tomatoes. A salty, crunchy snack other than potato chips. These are all things that cannot be found in our corner of Ireland. Rumor has it that there’s a Marks & Spencer in Dublin where such luxuries abound, but in Northwest Mayo we are, as my Grandma Mary would say, SOL. I’d brought some Q-tips over (or ear buds, as they’re known here), bound together in a twist tie. Believe me, that thing is like gold around the house. I’ve frisked the kids for it and I believe I would go through the trash to find it; thankfully it hasn’t come to that yet. I think of the drawer at home where the twist ties collect, mate, reproduce and plot their next move in world domination. I will be kinder to them upon my return to Maine.
As for the foil, I don’t usually need heavy duty foil. The standard stuff will do. But foil over here is thin and tears easily. One might as well not use it because as you wrap up something the foil rips and the whole point of wrapping it up is moot. I admire Ireland for banning stores from distributing free grocery bags to customers and think perhaps this is their subtle way of eliminating foil from everyday use. Nevertheless I am on a quest for heavier foil.
The lack of crushed tomatoes is pretty easy to deal with, thanks to the fact that there’s an immersion blender here in the house. I make a lot of soups with crushed tomatoes as a base and canned chopped tomatoes + blender = mighty fine soup base.
This country is MAD about crisps. There is an entire aisle of every grocery store devoted to potato chips (crisps). They are usually sold in mega-packs of anywhere from 12 – 40 small bags swooped up in one giant bag. The brands of choice around here are Walker’s, Sam Spudz and Tayto. The flavors are out of control. Standard flavors are cheese and onion, salt and vinegar, and plain. But very quickly you wade into some wild stuff such as Peking Duck, Chocolate - Chile, and my very personal favorite (for insane concept – not for taste) Cajun Squirrel. I am not making this up. I am certain that they would not have to resort to such wing nut flavors (and I am guessing that there probably is a “wing nut” flavor in development) if they would just branch out from crisps into other salt crunchy snacks: tortilla chips, pretzels, chex mix, soy crisps, fritos, etc. Let the creativity blossom in new shapes, textures, and grains. We did manage to find pretzels in an odd EU grocery depot called Lidl. What are pretzels called in Ireland? “Salt sticks”. You have to give them points for clarity.