The Jersey Shore of Ireland

We have found the Jersey Shore of Ireland.

Just a 20-minute drive through bucolic green hills of sheep and cows, and distant, shimmering water, lies a fantastically tacky seafront with rides, arcades, souvenir shops, and tragic teens called Tramore. (On rainy days, it also has a warren of corrugated metal buildings known as an industrial park, where one can find such offerings as a paint-it-yourself pottery place, and two different indoor play areas for children staffed by surly teens.) I love it, in the way I loved Coney Island before most of it was razed to make way for luxury condos and hotels, and in the way that it reminds me of preteen summers in “The Sound.”

The morning started off well enough. This is the view from People’s Park in the village of Dunmore East

C in training to be a polar bear with his Gramby. The cold water did not deter him at all.

Based on the 12-year-olds with thigh-grazing hair, severely drawn-in black eyebrows and terra-cotta canned-tan skin that made them look almost forty, there is a reality show opportunity here. One appeared to be wearing a peach toga she clutched at nervously while on a ride. I wanted to scrub their faces clean. “You are my pale people,” I would say. And I would promise they would find someone to love them.

How can you not love such a defiantly summer place even when there is no real summer at all? (Yes, I should have brought my wool coat. In August. To our beach vacation. I am paying for my psychological block against doing this.)

We discovered Tramore out of desperation. Following a morning where we had already gone grocery shopping, eaten two breakfasts, gone to the playground, and the beach, we thought the boys would nap. The rain had started and so we went back to the place we are renting to put the boys down. Thus began the games: G hurled himself out of the pack ‘n play with the skill and body torquing of a pole vaulter. For an hour and a half, we tried threats and low voices. We had throbbing headaches from not enough sleep ourselves. Finally we took them into our bed, and when they still wouldn’t sleep, we put in a DVD. Fear not, American Academy of Pediatrics. TV is no opiate for my children.

We had to get out of the house.

C started having an epic meltdown out of sheer exhaustion. I think the trigger was putting his jeans on, or maybe his socks, but whatever it was we had to carry him, rigid and screaming, to the car. They were out within four minutes.

It is clear that when away from home, we need to be either: 1. Out walking in the stroller during their nap time or 2. In a car driving. It means there is no napping for us, no real downtime, until they finally crash at night. Of course it was too late now for them to have any real nap, so we needed a massive distraction.

Some may call Tramore a blight. For us the blinking, garish lights and din of shrieks and pumping bass arose from the Southeast shore of Ireland like a beacon of hope in a desert afternoon of parenting. The boys drove remote control trucks, rode fire engines, bounced in a trampoline.

G asked: “Are dere mans up there?” Somehow it rained 20 minutes away, but not here

Today we went back for the circus.

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Hello from Dunmore East

Today began our planned holiday, so of course that means we found ourselves running to an emergency vet appointment, and Sascha sitting on top of our toy car trying to get the lid of the luggage carrier to close. (Sashi is fine, but she had an infected cut, possibly from a rumble with a lane cat. Also, to those of you who think my cat is a bitch, the vet said “there’s something royal about her.” So there. She can’t help being superior.)

We are in the “sunniest corner” of Ireland and it was beautiful when we finally arrived. Here’s to summer vacations (with no wi-fi). What are your plans?

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London calling

With twin toddlers, planning is usually the way to go. But the risk is that it can be too easy to plan ourselves right out of something. When we have time to stop and think about it, why on earth would we go anywhere? That’s pretty much what happened with us going to London. When the idea first surfaced, the logistics seemed too daunting and exhausting to squeeze in two weeks before.

But with less than 24 hours of preparation time, some whim overtook us and we decided to just go. We didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see some family and friends that were going to be there. Last minute plans were quickly arranged. We rented a flat that would have two pack ‘n plays. Booked tickets. Cat sitter arranged. Messages left and emails sent.

Yes! We can do this.  We are still spontaneous, fun people! This is part of the adventure of living abroad!

The Olympic Rings hanging from the Tower Bridge

These exciting thoughts lasted about five minutes, or until I decided to check the weather forecast in London: rain Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then maybe some clear skies on Sunday, when we were to leave. I took Sudafed and slept terribly.

So when we got off the plane in London and it was not raining, I was hugely relieved. It was also about ten degrees warmer. Athletes were already arriving; we could see them weaving through the airport traffic in their brightly colored team uniforms like ribbons. Good thing now that the boys are 2.5 years old, we’ve also had some endurance training.

After scoping out the nearest playground and getting some food, we walked over to the Southbank area for sound check.

Approaching Southbank Centre with Big Ben and the London Eye in the background

C watched the amazing drummer, Will Calhoun, and said, “I want to do that.” (Will gave them signed drumsticks, that, you guessed it, we’ve since taken away until they have an actual drum to hit.) Sascha was thrilled to see Oumou Sangare again, after working with her on “Throw Down Your Heart” years ago. Much, much later we were able to get to the theater to see the last twenty minutes of Oumou and Bela’s fantastic show. The entire audience was out of their seats, spilling into the aisles, and dancing.

Sascha, Oumou, and Bela

The next morning we hung out with B in the lobby of his hotel until the cars taking them to the airport arrived. We said goodbye and hit the town at 8:30am.

The very first time I came to Europe, I came through London.  I was twenty years old and had an enormous backpack strapped to me like a tortoise shell. I met C and V in Paddington Station as we waited for our train bound for the same study abroad program. I remember the countryside rising in green hills that filled the train windows, and the feeling that the wide world was opening up, the world of places I had only read about. When the boys yelled “Ben!” as if greeting an old friend when they spotted the famous clock tower, I hope on some level, they have that feeling, too. The world of the “London Taxi” book was coming to life for them, so vividly that when we had to take a van to fit the four of us, our luggage, and the double stroller, they were pissed: “It not a London taxi,” they sniffed.

I crashed for a few hours on Friday morning while Sascha took them by Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace. The highlight of their trip (and I’m certain, their lives so far) was seeing a helicopter land in the road, right across from the playground.

C and her two daughters in St. James Park

C has recently returned to London and later we met up with her.

We enjoyed it until the sky suddenly grew dark and a wind started tossing the trees. I knew the wind meant business. We did not have a good, nearby indoor plan for our four kids. Instead we spent a very long time under a canopy of trees on Birdcage Walk, hoping it would pass soon.

When it finally did stop raining, we walked what seemed like an impossible distance (at least for the legs of the 5-and-under-crowd and their meandering attention spans), to the Tate Britain.

Tearing up the Tate

By the time we arrived at the museum, it was well past dinner and the kids were starting to lose it. We ate over-priced, mediocre museum cafe food and did not look at a single painting. I recommend the museums in London highly, just not as destination dining.

Saturday we hit the Jubilee Gardens and we went back down to the Southbank, which had a Festival of the World going on.  We had brunch with old family friends of Sascha’s, Camille and Schuyla. It was sunny and we were ecstatic.

Brunch with Camille and Schuyla.

We wore short-sleeves. I know most of the U.S. has been struggling with heat waves and drought, but here has been a real lack of summer, and it’s a hard thing to get used to.

The boys were not interested in the London Eye, so we took a river cruise down to the Tower of London. Boat rides, we learned one rainy day in Paris, are a godsend.  We can sight see, sit down, and keep the boys interested all at once.

Tower of London

In the late afternoon, we met another friend in Holland Park, where we found a peacock literally strutting for peanuts. Another mom was kind enough to share some with the boys so they could feed it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a peacock that close.

Finally, we hopped into a taxi (yes, a London taxi) to meet our California friends. By happy coincidence, they were vacationing in London with their children. We had not seen each other since the boys were just a few weeks old. The Eagle was a great little pub with a huge enclosed back garden, and kids were running all over. It was the first time we were able to sit back and enjoy a pint and sort of have an adult conversation, as our boys ran off with their kids and played.

She’s going to make a great babysitter

Los Angeles in London

Unintentionally, this also became a trip to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. In the preceding week, we had both pretty much forgotten our approaching anniversary. In a fit of optimism (and remembrance), we made reservations at Galvin La Chapelle, a very fancy London restaurant, for Saturday night. But after being out with the kids all day (following some brutally early morning wake-ups), I had already eaten a burger at 6pm. We didn’t get to our 9:15pm reservation until about 10pm. We declined starters, ate our entrees, and then discussed how delicious it would be to just go home. Sleep was better than Michelin-rated desserts, at least at that moment. The waitress was worried, in a restaurant with Cuban cigars for after dinner and a gourmand tasting menu: Was everything alright? But that is five years of marriage and almost eleven years of being together: just as happy to get the check, duck into a taxi, and collapse into bed.

Sunday we made it over to Notting Hill, where a friend let us drop off our bags and then we walked together through the beautiful neighborhood to Hyde Park. It was actually hot outside. I think somewhere in high 70s, maybe even 80s.

The Princess Diana Memorial Playground is as good as everyone says, and now I understand why there can be a huge queue. Again we were lucky: we got there before there was a wait. I think we only saw a small portion of it (and had yummy
ice cream cones from the cafe).

Not a cloud in the sky

There was a massive sandpit area with a beached pirate ship. The adventure playgrounds in Dublin are amazing, but for some reason I have yet to find a playground in Ireland with a sandpit. There is nothing my sons enjoy more than digging in sand.

It was so hot (!) that most unprepared parents just stripped their kids down to diapers so they could play in the water and sand.

Teepee playscape

After the park, we only had time to change out of sandy clothes and then get to the airport. We were lucky with the weather and the chance to spend time with so many friends and family.

The flight back was the first plane ride where no one cried. (Not even us.)

Barefoot in Dublin

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It’s a really good thing that we finally have some short-sleeved-weather days. Since moving to Ireland, C has seen people in shorts and T-shirts so infrequently that he thinks if arms or legs are showing people are “nay-nay” (naked).

My neighbors soak up the sun in the lane. One by one they had to pick up their chairs and move so we could get through with the car.

Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, and a bit of The Burren

Driving out from Galway into the backwards “C” of the coast, towards the very tip of County Clare,  we were finally in “postcard Ireland:” wet fields of cows and sheep, low piled-stone walls, and winding, shoulderless roads where I felt I had to hold my breath every time another car passed.

There are may inlets and small harbors dotting the coast, and the landscape changed dramatically based on whether or not the tide was in.  We stopped at Keogh’s for lunch in Kinvara village, where we enjoyed talking with one of the owners who had lived in Northern California for a while and then we let the boys run around in the playground of the local primary school before going up to Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house.
The house has passed though many hands, some aristocratic and some not; at one point it was a literary gathering spot for the likes of Yeats and Synge. The history of generous patronage has embedded itself in local lore: one merely needs to ask a question at the gate, and by the end of the day, it will be answered.

We climbed the damp, circular stairs all the way to the top. The wind shrieked through cracks in the small stairway windows. You can see how windy it was (and narrow!) in these pictures.

After the castle, we headed toward the village of Ballyvaughan. Along the drive here, some of the massive limestone hills of a geoological area known as The Burren began to loom over us.  They look vaguely lunar, and in better weather (perhaps later this June)  I hope we can see more of the slab fields and dolmens and some of the unique plants that grow in the area. We were headed to the Aillwee Cave, one of the oldest caves in Ireland, which had some Easter activities going on for kids. We thought it would be a good entry point for the boys to experience some of the Burren without loosing them down a “crike” (a crack in the rocks).

Let me tell you about touring a cave with toddlers: We had driven 45 minutes from our last location and we were determined to go. We were also sleep-deprived and wind-lashed, and possibly could only think of activities in terms of inside vs. outside as the weather over our weekend on the west coast got worse each day. As we waited in the tearoom, we discovered the tour was a half hour and that strollers/buggies couldn’t come along. A young girl ran screaming from the caves, followed by her exhausted-looking father a few seconds later. S and I looked at each other and just started laughing. Definitely not the best idea we’ve had.

We straggled behind the tour group, trying to prevent the boys from veering off course into a chasm or from picking up some of the thousands-of-year-old-brown bear bones to put in their mouths. At one point, the tour guide shut the lights off completely. I don’t know exactly what he was saying then because all I heard was:

“It TOO DARK.”

“Turn the YIGHT on!”

View from the terraced hillside where the cave is located. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Galway Bay

We waited in a long queue for the restrooms before getting into our car for the return trip. To be more efficient, all four of us went into the “family” bathroom with the changing table. It was so tiny that the smallest movement I made in changing a diaper meant I would set off the automatic dryer on the wall. (You would be hard-pressed to find a paper towel dispenser in Ireland, and the boys hate the noise of the machines.) Every time I set off the dryer, I also set off rage and tears in whomever happened to be standing on the floor. G at one point started kicking and banging at the door, apparently in the hopes of soliciting help from the throngs of people outside who gave us dirty looks when we finally exited.

Because you should always end a travelogue with a photo of the majestic public rest room!