Sunday in Skerries

On Sunday we drove out to Skerries in North County Dublin to visit the monstrously talented children’s book author Niamh Sharkey and her family. It was a cold, bright day. Niamh had warned us to dress warmly; the playground was by the sea.

We must have maneuvered through five roundabouts to get there (the traffic circles in Europe take some getting used to), and at the last one, we wound through a railway underpass so narrow we had no idea it was two-way until nearly getting sideswiped by an oncoming car.

One of the two landmark windmills in Skerries

From Niamh’s kitchen, we could see a giant windmill.

We packed up all the kids (she has three adorable older kids who G & C keep talking about) and followed them to Ardgillan Castle.

Ardgillan Castle

Ardgillan is a gorgeous public park with plenty of (free!) parking. The location was spectacular. Standing at the top of a rolling meadow, we looked down to a line of yew trees flanking the castle. Beyond the castle (technically a country house from the late eighteenth century), lay the turquoise Irish Sea.  The grounds have rose gardens (not yet in bloom), picnic areas, and beautiful walking and cycling paths. They even host children’s parties (giving an entirely new dimension to the princess phenomenon among young children).  Looking north, the velvety Mourne Mountains looked painted by watercolor on the horizon.

You can see the Mourne Mountains to the right of the castle

On the almost 200 acres of grounds, there is a wonderland of a playground. With a pirate ship and a submarine, another perilous rope tree and a zip line, this playground was as state of the art as the one in Malahide, though a bit smaller. How will we ever go back to U.S. playgrounds? Why does North County have such amazing playgrounds?

G checks out the view from the playground

On the way back to Niamh’s house for lunch, we drove down hilly roads lined with ivy-covered trees and organic farms out to the road edging Skerries Harbour. Thickets of ragwort banked along the road, pops of yellow as sharp as the sun (the harsh light made for long shadows, despite the place being so photogenic, it was hard to capture in that light). White caps skimmed along the water. The tide was out so the boats in the harbor looked tossed there, keeling over like forgotten toys in the basin.

Who would have thought it'd be hailing a few hours later?

We didn’t explore the village of Skerries on foot but just did a quick drive through.  I would love to go back again (especially when it’s a bit warmer, to get ice cream from the tiny pier-side shack known as “Storm in a Teacup”) to see more and stroll along the beach.  Highly recommend this as a day trip from Dublin with young children. It was about 45 minutes north but it felt a world away.

We had so much fun that the boys missed their nap and we left her house at 4pm, just as our blue sky gave itself over to a dark cloud and hail started.

Niamh gave G his first ukulele lesson

The boys conked out by the time we were on the N1 and C wanted to sleep on Daddy for another hour or so when we got home.

 

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Daytripping to Hill of Tara & Newgrange: Part 2

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After visiting the Hill of Tara, we traveled closer to the River Boyne, which was an important prehistoric trade route and whose valley was (and still is) rich with abundant farmland. Horses grazed on its banks; the Irish honey I … Continue reading

Daytripping to Newgrange & Hill of Tara: Part 1

When my mother was visiting in January, Sascha took the day off one day so he could pick up the boys from crèche and we could head out on one of the daylong tours that depart from Dublin.

We got picked up at a nearby hotel and set out about 45 minutes north, into County Meath to get a glimpse of Ireland’s pre-Christian history and its Viking blood.

I do not recommend the tour for young families, because it cannot accommodate a buggy/stroller. The terrain is extremely hilly and mucky (both mud and sheep excrement) and thus very slippery. Also, our tour guide took herself very seriously. There was an 18 month-old girl (in a pink coat and purple boots, with a rosebud hat) babbling happily in the seat in front of us, until the tour guide turned around and mentioned to the parents that they should take “him” to the back of the bus, where “he” might be more comfortable, because “he” was sitting close to the microphone and it was her show.

An old church is now the visitor center at Tara. Its graveyard looks down at the Boyne Valley

The first stop was the hill of Tara, the ancient capital. That morning there was an incredible fog and a bright coin of sun trying to bore through it. As we wedged into a cut in a stonewall to walk out to the site, everything was shrouded in mist. It truly felt other-worldly, making our way over grassy trenches and mounds, underneath of which were several thousand year-old unexcavated earthworks, included a royal house and passage tombs.

My mom heading up to the site

Misty morning

Exploring a distant world

Looking down at the valley coated in fog. Beyond are the remains of an old monastery

One of the most famous things on the hill is believed to be the Lia Fall or Stone of Destiny, the coronation stone for some 142 kings. Showing how much does not change in politics, it is priapic and attached to a legend: it was said that ancient conquering people of Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, brought the pillarstone and it would roar when the true king stood on it. The stone was moved from its original location on the site and ringed with contemporary stonework.

Of kings and men

A more modern mythical object is a “Fairy Tree” – a leafless hawthorn whose black branches were covered with ribbons, bits of fabric, and even a USB cable. People make the pilgrimage for luck and good health.

Fairy tree at the Hill of Tara

Part 2 (in a few days) will feature Newgrange, a 5000 year-old passage tomb and astrological observatory

Daytripping to Howth

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Howth is a peninsula that juts out into the sea just north of Dublin, about a half hour by car but also accessible on the DART line. A mom friend suggested it since a playground, a working pier, and the … Continue reading

Fota Island (Part 2 of our first road trip, in which we get pulled over by the garda)

After leaving the beautiful manor grounds of Castlemartyr, we checked into Fota Island Resort (which just recently had a nice offer on Groupon. Another cheaper option is to stay at the self-catering facilities). Fota Island Resort is new, so it doesn’t quite have the same aristocratic feel but it is quite lovely in different way. It’s more modern-lodge in feeling.

Fota Island Resort Lobby

The lobby was still festive with holiday decorations and in the mornings, there was an amazing buffet breakfast, where you could also request pancakes, smoothies, and egg dishes made to order. The other slight advantage Fota Island Resort had over Castlemartyr was a playground on the premises. The spa was beautiful, and also had a water therapy room like Castlemartyr. For whatever reason, however, the boys didn’t want to go in the pool. It is filled with screaming, squealing kids and the water is a bit cool. We were disappointed because pools make for tired boys.

On our first morning, the boys were not very well-behaved at the buffet, and despite it being a family-friendly resort, I felt like we were those people everyone stared at.  When we got back to the room, G promptly vomited up most of his smoothie, but he seemed fine after that. I put a towel over it and called housekeeping to come clean it while we were gone. Whatever stomach bug is present is a lingerer—it’s not a 24 hour thing. I’ve not had a right stomach for a week.

At this point in the trip, I have become skilled in the wadded up cloth napkins that I try to kick under the table, so as to better hide the ring of food, spit-up, and other toddler detritus surrounding our table

If you have children, one of the main attractions in the Cork area is Fota Wildlife Park, and admission to the park was included with our stay. Unfortunately, the boys were more interested in the sand at the playground near the entrance and the train ride we took around the park than in most of the animals.

Ice cream makes u happy (G's motto in life) was printed on the side of the train

The main problem with our suite was that there was no door, just a grand archway between the bedroom and main bath and the living/dining area. (This suite was also bigger than any NYC apartment I lived in). There were two pack ‘n plays, but we wondered how to put them to bed at night: Around our bed, meaning we have to sequester ourselves near the door and out of their sight line? Sascha thinks maybe the bathroom, which is big enough and does have a door, but I nix the idea. It seems like it could get cold. The other option is to push them closer to the dining area and entrance, and try not to make any noise and stay in the bedroom. We end up going with the first option, since we order room service one night after putting the boys to bed and need to be in the main area. Staying in hotels must be affecting the boys, since C insists on reading one of the coffee table books for his bedtime story, something about the Cork City Markets.

Thankful for the big beds at the resorts because more often than not, they ended up sleeping with us at some point

We made a quick stop to Cork City. Nearby Cobh (formerly Queenstown)  was the last port of call for the Titanic, which I didn’t know but was quickly made aware of since the centennial is coming up with all sorts of events. Cork is supposed to be a great place for food, but let’s face it, we weren’t going to some artisan/slow food joint with the boys in tow. We wind up at a mediocre pizza joint.

This reminds me of what my friend and I used to call "English wrong" in Japan, where English would be used in advertising as if English was cool in and off itself, even if it actually made no sense. Because as any one from the States knows, L.A. is known for many things, but bagels are not one of them!

As we were headed out of the city and back to the hotel, we are trying to negotiate one-ways and look for signs back to the traffic circle and lights and a siren flash behind us. Immediately I feel tense, like “hide the drugs!” What does that say about me? Don’t answer that.

An extremely pretty Garda with a gorgeous red mane comes to the driver’s window.

“Did I do something wrong?” Sascha asked.

As soon as she heard his American accent, she smiled.

“Your driving, it leaves a little something to be desired,” she laughed.

“How bad was it?”

“Ehm, pretty bad. There was some weaving,” she said, making a wavy gesture with her hand.

We apologize, blather on about how it’s our first real road trip, pull the twin card, we’re still getting used to driving, and it’s night and we’re trying to look at the signs blah blah.

She didn’t ask for any paperwork, and in fact, apologizes for the narrowness of the roads. I figure she is just glad we are bad drivers because we are American, and used to driving on the other side, and not inebriated locals.

Her parting words: “Just try to stay between the lines.”

For the record, Sascha drove the majority of the trip and he did amazing. Back through sheep country, we make our return to Dublin.

The boys slept most of the way home. When they are awake, it is light enough for them to see out the window and take it all in.

We arrived back safely in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, exhausted from our “vacation” and thrilled to be home.

Comfort food is exactly what we need

Driving on the other side of the road

I have been driving since I was about 13 or 14. My mother saw no great harm in my brothers and me getting behind the wheel when we were a few blocks from home. After all, my dad had a ride-on mower that we would steer while sitting on his lap when we were young; in beach towns we’d ride bumper cars and go–karts in between eating fried dough and ice cream. So after gymnastics practice, she would pull over and let me drive the blue Bonneville home.

She didn’t know that one of our favorite suburban pastimes would be sneaking out of the house and taking the cars. We had nowhere to go, really. It was the kind of town where the lights usually started blinking at 10pm. But driving on the empty streets and blasting the radio, we just reveled in our freedom.

I passed my driving test on the first try. Driving school was not mandatory at the time, so I never had any formal lessons, beyond my mother and my brothers, who would blow off noontime Mass to let me practice in parking lots. I did fail miserably in my efforts to learn stick shift, which I chalk up to a father-daughter clash. My father had no patience to teach me, and I gave up too quickly.

I owned exactly one car, when I was a junior in college. It was a Dodge Shadow in the strangest shade of blue you’ve ever seen. My friends dubbed it the Teal Mobile. When I moved to Japan, all that I kept of my belongings was what fit in the car.

Sascha is a borough-bred, meaning Manhattan born and raised. He got his license when he was twenty-two, after college in CT, where he wouldn’t have to parallel park. The years we lived in NYC we had no car. When we first moved back to L.A., we had a series of rented company cars. I remember feeling absolutely adrift on the massive span of the 405: five lanes in each direction, an endless swarm of headlights. I had once negotiated the freeways and exchanges effortlessly– the 10 to the 110 to the 5 or the 405 to the 10 to PCH or the 5 to the 134 to the 101, but in the time I was away from California, I had forgotten them and crucial shortcuts. My friend V., who has a special passion and talent for L.A. routes, was extremely disappointed in me.

When the boys were coming, (and the job was ending). Sascha and I knew we’d have to buy a car in California to ferry around our new family. We agonized over what car to buy for months, going on test-drives, with me waddling across lots and into showrooms to use the bathroom. It was actually one of our first big parental decisions, and because we thought we were too cool for a minivan (we just couldn’t do it as our first car purchase), we narrowed it down to SUVs. (Go on, judge us. We did at least buy a hybrid.) We consulted Consumer Reports endlessly. This is the thing responsible people seemed to do. The type of people who are becoming parents. I realize more and more how insane modern parenting is. We are so fearful, so anxious (even though we think we aren’t), and people make a big profit off selling us the illusion that we have some control.

When we left CA, we shipped the car we bought to CT. In our limbo year there, we careened around the state to every fair we could find on the weekends; during naptimes or bedtimes we’d drive the dark stretches of narrow parkways between CT and NYC to visit friends in the city and let the boys run through the sprinklers at the American Museum of Natural History.

Here we hoped we’d be able to forgo a car. Sascha bikes to work and everything essential is within walking distance of our cottage, though the gale-force winds, rain, and early darkness make walking with the stroller less enjoyable. The trouble is in seeing the country. We don’t know if we have a year here or many, and getting on the trains or the buses with the double stroller and luggage is extremely difficult. (Buses, for example, won’t take you on if there is already a buggy/stroller on board.) The biggest problem, though, is that the public transport system doesn’t link up, which is disappointing for a European capital. The LUAS, or light rail, near us, for example, doesn’t connect to the DART line, which runs along the coast. So three months in, we caved when a car came to us from a friend of friends who were repatriating to the States.

Meet Blue Steel, a ’97 Nissan Micra:

Who needs luggage?

It looks like the Matchboxes my younger brother used to play with. It is so tiny I’m nearly positive that it would fit in our American SUV if we folded down the back seats. But by some miracle, the double stroller fits perfectly in the hatchback boot, as well as our car seats. You may recall that our lane poses some challenges:
So finding this car, which actually maneuvers down the lane without scraping the houses and fits the four of us plus stroller, and is automatic, was kind of miraculous.

We each took a driving lesson. We almost didn’t, and just rented a car for some post-holiday exploring, but again, now that we are parents, we are more cautious. Like we should, for example, make sure we actually feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road before we strap in our sons. Welcome to the Age of Overparenting, indeed.

I was a confident driver in the U.S., but here my long-honed habits, now second-nature to me, are useless, even potentially dangerous. I must train myself to let my eyes drift up and left to the rearview. I must reverse with my head turned over my left shoulder instead of my right; stop my right hand from reaching for the gears. The signals are on the right side, so we set off the wipers almost every time we try to indicate a turn.

I should tell you I’m a terrible back-seat (passenger seat) driver. I slam on imaginary brakes; wince at cars coming too close. I don’t like being in a car unless I’m driving. So it was comical to be in a driving school car, where the instructor has his own set of brakes, and the car has a sandwich board up top and all around the doors announcing the driving school. I kept getting annoyed when he would press the brakes as we were approaching other cars. Then again, I’m glad he was there because Dublin has a shocking lack of helpful things like, say, lane markings. And bus lanes: you are in a bus lane, now you’re not, oh wait it’s a bus lane again, and you can’t be in it except maybe sometimes on Sundays or late at night. As people have told us, once you are outside of the city, on the large national roadways, it’s much easier. But within the city, at least at first, it feels much more stressful. I was fairly certain, for example, that a big street right near us was one-way. That’s how narrow it is. Sascha’s tip was to drive in the middle like it is one-way and move only if another car is oncoming. That helps a lot with holding my breath for fear I am going to sideswipe all the parked cars to the left of me.

We are ready to do some exploring of this fine little country we are lucky enough to be living in.

The boys like our "yittle" car

Stay tuned for our journeys on the road.

Daytripping to Malahide

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In the space of 24 hours, a month’s worth of rain has fallen. There is flooding on certain streets but we are all fine. Yesterday, sitting in some areas of the house where the skylights are above us, I felt … Continue reading