BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Saturday, December 31, 2011

At the cross roads of the sea

--Tangers, Tangiers... off the beaten path. French mumbled in disjointed bodily cues. Tourists lilting in their obvious incongruity. We swam like novices caught in the wave of people, sand and olive oil. Staring away and within at the same time.--

Finding travel advice about Tangers online was surprisingly difficult. You would imagine given the millions of tourists caught up in the Costa del Sol beach culture that there would be a few who would choose to venture on to something a bit more rich in culture... but from the sea of information on the web, I could not find out what I really needed to know.  This blog stands to correct that lack of information.


i) Algeciras
There are a number of port options, and a number of companies to choose from.  We opted to go from Algeciras because it was one port that guaranteed departures everyday.  Our way out was windy; very, very windy, so none of the fast ferries were running.  I suspect that such winds are a common occurrence, as the coastal highway is dotted with windsocks, and there is a MASSIVE wind farm along the coast between Algeciras and Tarifa.

Anyways... you could look for ferry companies and schedules on line... or you could go to one of the many road side booths advertising tickets to Tangers.... but that would be an absolute folly. Even on a good day the ferries don't keep a schedule.  On a windy day... well... all in good time.

At the ferry terminal there will be people hassling you to buy tickets from them.  Ignore them and march right to the end of the terminal where the foot passengers ticket sales are.  There you will find a current schedule (with more than half the sailings cancelled on our windy day departure) for all of the companies.  There are at least half a dozen companies to choose from.  Take the sailing that is the most convenient for you and buy your tickets directly from that company.

On a windy day, the authorities (not sure who... but we only gathered this information by overhearing other people's conversation) only allow so many boats to be crossing to Tangers at a time.  This meant that our boat had to wait 1.5 hours to depart.  We were a bit put out by that... however, we later met someone else who had to wait 5 hours to depart... so perhaps we were pretty lucky after all!

All the boats from Algeciras dock at Tangers Med.  Which means that the boat trip takes 1.5 hours... and you dock a 45 min drive from Tangers. The ferry companies offer a free bus trip on a fancy coach bus to Tangers... but getting on the bus is a massive free-for-all push, as there definitely was fewer seats then passangers. 

So my summary of that experience was: cost €20 each, total travel time >2 hours, some wind, reliable departures.
 ii) Tarifa
The ferry from Tarifa runs right to Tangers city port... literally just a 15 min walk from the Medina. It's a fast little catamaran boat that only takes 30 min to cross.  We decided to do this on our return trip.  It was a much nicer voyage... and would come highly recommended.  The ferry company even offers a free bus ride to Algeciras on the other side!  The only draw back was that it cost €36 each and it won't run on a windy day.  Even on our calm day of travel BOTH Brad and I were a bit nauseated by the tossing of the small ship.  Clearly the mouth of the Mediterranean is a turbulent place!

There are restaurants... but these only open for dinner starting at 8pm. Tangers is 1 hour behind Spain which means that it was more like a 9pm start. Proper restaurants will serve alcohol, and the food prices aren't too bad when compared to Europe (€7 a plate).

However, there are LOADS of tea shops serving food, plus many more fast food options. These won't sell alcohol (to be honest, I didn't actually see any confirmatory evidence of drinking ANYWHERE in Tangers... though there did appear to be beach side bars, these weren't ever open... perhaps it was just too wintery?).  Informal eating is much cheaper (€3 a plate) and was very tasty.  We ate veggie tangine, veggie couscous, Moroccan salad, and Arabic salad.  All yummy and no tummy issues at all. 

(On that note, I never did find out if the drinking water was good... so we stuck with bottled water, even though the locals seemed to be availing of the free tap water.)

Street food seemed popular, but we only ate a few things from the street as they seemed to involve a lot of seafood or sugar. Dairy seemed to be all goat... but there wasn't really much dairy around. 

The only real advice we would offer is:
i) Avoid the street cafes around the Grand Socco as they are 100% tourist hustlers.
ii) Tipping 10% is the norm.
iii) The mint tea you see everyone drinking is way too sweet.

We stayed in a Riad. There are hotels and they run at normal Euro pricing. There are pensions everywhere, which I suspect are cheap but not terribly well maintained. A Riad is a traditional hotel. By nature they are in older buildings and damp. The reason for the damp is that they are comprised of rooms situated off of an inner courtyard. The door of your room opens into the courtyard.

Our experience felt very traditional. The only heating for the building was the fire built in the courtyard every night. Security on our doors and windows were minimal at best, but that added to the authenticity as they were definitely historical. The outside door into the Riad was beefy, and the Riad (typically) only had 4-5 rooms, leading to a more private atmosphere.

Truthfully there isn't much to see in Tangers. A few museums and parks make up the lot. You could spend a lot of time lost in the ancient Medina, haggling with the vendors over their wares.  There's a few other markets, including a food market that surely wouldn't have passed any Western food safety regulations. The local men seem to spend all their time drinking tea and coffee in one of the many salons. I felt a bit uncomfortable joining in that part of the culture... given that I'm generally not brave enough to walk into a room full of men (who seem to like to stare). The Petit Socco has a few salons that are more tourist friendly and not too badly priced (€0.90 for a coffee).

General advice:
i) Barter. But don't expect that much from it.... it's not like Mexico or Turkey. Basically check around for prices before deciding on the value of the item. Some people will try and rip you off, but most won't.

ii) Ignore the hustlers, unless you actually do need help. The hustlers basically imagine themselves to be "guides", working for tips.  A tip of a Euro would be appropriate for having someone help you find  your hotel.  And given the general lack of appropriate maps, and the thousands of short streets, you may need to seek such help a few times.  If you look lost they will descend upon you, like flies on honey.  However, simply ignore them completely or provide a strong "NO" if they start to follow you. Our first night there I was quite bothered by them; however, by the second day it was easy to avoid feeling harassed.

iii) Dress conservatively. Most of the women cover their hair and wear more traditional clothes. Many of the men wear long robes (I particularly liked the pointed hoods of the mountain Berbers). All the men stared at me, even though I was wearing jeans and a sweater. On the same token, most men would barely address me in restaurant and shops.  It made things more difficult as my French is much better than Brad's.

iv) Don't assume everyone speaks French.  It's polite to ask.  Many people spoke as much English as they did French.  However, I would say that mostly everyone understood some French... though I will admit that their accent and my accent did make some things difficult to negotiate.

v) Don't use Euro's... it's always cheaper to pay with Dirhams.  We used less than €150 (1650 Dirhams) for our trip... (excluding lodgings) and we did a fair amount of shopping with that! The local handmade goods seem to be leather, metal working, pottery and clothes. In fact our Riad seemed to be located in the clothing district, with everyone winding thread and sewing away late into the evening.

vi) There is no siesta, but some shops do close for the call to prayer.

vii) Canadians and Americans (and I assume Europeans) don't need visas. There is paperwork to fill out at the border, but no fees to be paid. Also you don't need vaccinations or anything like that... so it's relatively easy to pop over for a short trip!

Phew!  That about sums it up!  We had a fab time... and only had to cuddle with Nikolai for 4 hours to make up for his feelings of abandonment.  (He had a great time with Grammy, Grampy and Auntie Claire... but felt a wee bit needy when we arrived back!)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Feliz Navidad!

Truthfully Christmas was a bit lackluster. Nikolai and Grammy have both been suffering from a flu/cold for a few days, and Nikolai woke up fevered and listless. He didn't care about presents or Santa or the crumbs of cookies or anything that involved him moving from his prone position on the couch.

As the only child in the house we depended on his enthusiasm to bring about the Christmas cheer!  So I resulted to drugs to bring down his fever... just one dose to get him through the gift opening.  It worked! We had about 4 hours of energy before he crashed again.

Anyways, today Brad and I are off on an adventure. The kind of adventure where it's safest to leave our laptop and toddler behind. We don't feel too guilty about leaving a sick toddler because Nikolai woke up full of excitement for the Christmas toys he'd received yesterday. Hopefully that was the end of his flu!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

--Forward: I (Emillie) was a bit busy at making Christmas decorations out of paper, so I put Brad to the task of writing the first blog entry from our vacation destination.  And the punchline... is Spain! Malaga's Costa del Sol muchos gracias. So this blog is truly a joint effort. --

We now feel completely justified in having fled the Irish winter to enjoy Christmas in Southern Spain. Upon arriving, our local guide mentioned to us that Benalmadena is a bit of a mecca for Irish vacationers, and sure enough as soon as we entered the city limits we spied five Irish pubs. (There are also two Dunnes stores on the coast!)

As for our vacation, we're almost following a standard script here, eating the citrus fresh from the front yard and swimming in the backyard pool. Nikolai was quite excited by the prospect of picking some fruit and dipping his toes into the warm water, but by far his favorite activity involves knocking balls around the billiard table.

Anyways, we're making the most of our time in the sun, and plan on visiting some local highlights. We've already spent an afternoon in Ronda and Malaga, and greatly enjoyed hiking around the old towns of both ciudads.

The picture above features "the Queen" picking an orange from the grove attached to our villa. Below is Nikolai and Grammy on the "honey beach".

Playing pool by the pool. The weather is balmy in the sun!

Posing on the stairs of the Malaga castle. The weather can also be quite chilly in the wind!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Noillaig shonas duit

Back in September we bought and paid for a destination Christmas vacation with my parents and my sister.  At the time we had no idea that we would be moving back to Canada only a short two weeks after returning from our trip.  Regardless, the University is closed for two weeks over the holidays, so we might as well escape from this chilly place.

Since we leave on Saturday, my next blog will be coming from that warmer place.  Today, I'm going to touch on Christmas in Ireland.  Though the country is officially secular, 87% of the population would self-identify as Catholic.  Some of these people fully embrace their Catholicisms. They attend mass every day, eat fish on Fridays, and avoid yoga as it could involve practicing another religion.  The second tier is comprised of people who attend mass on Sundays.  By far the majority of people probably only attend mass for funerals, weddings and baptisms.

The Catholic Church also owns at least half of everything. Obviously they own the churches... but they also own 3 of the 4 elementary schools in Maynooth, they own the Children's Hospital that Nikolai went to in Dublin, they own the grounds of NUIM and rents them to the University (debates between the University and the Priests over new buildings and campus life provides for much of the gossip around town).  So Christmas in Ireland is much more CHRISTmass than it is in Canada.

Evidence of the nativity abound.  The preschools teach songs about baby Jesus. The shops sell costumes for the nativity plays that will be performed by every class in Maynooth (I was tempted to buy Nikolai a Star costume... but might leave it till the sales).

We went to Dublin to see the lights and windows a few weekends ago.  Dublin lights up in a way that is beyond anything I've seen in Canada.  We walked up Henry Street as the sun was setting, so our better photos are all from the Grafton area. Above is a picture of the advent calendar that took me forEVER to sew.  Below is Grafton.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A novel

Anyone with some math skills or basic time management techniques would quickly come to realise that I have an awful lot of free time. Nikolai goes to preschool 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. That's 15 hours a week of free time!  Yet I am far too busy to blog...

So what is it that I've been doing?  And that has been my secret thus far... least until today!  After completing my second draft this morning I'm ready to share...
...I have been writing a novel.

I've always loved writing.  Even as a 6 year old dyslexic kid, I was writing stories full of creatively spelled words. I loved writing my Master's thesis. I loved doing technical writing. So when I was granted a huge chunk of free time, I decided to give it a go.  And here I am with approximately 60,000 words, divided up into 15 chapters. It's the usual stuff about relationships and finding yourself, etc. Much to Brad's chagrin it's not sci-fi or fantasy.

I know that I have a few more revisions to work on, but I suspect that they will go much more quickly than the initial ones. Which is a good thing, because BC doesn't offer a free preschool scheme, so I will be back to full time parenting status for another year and a half!  However, it is more likely that we'll move on to the working/daycare scenario. Either way my novel will be shelved.  This leads to the crux of my blog today... what do I do next?

This is not a plea for readers. I have no intention of distributing electronic copies for critique. The Internet is very clear on that... copyright and security is important. What's more, the few people I have told about my novel writing, generally respond with "am I in it? Did you write about me?" The answer to that question is simply, "no", I wrote about me! I am every character in the book, because how else could I possibly write about someone's experience?  Regardless, I've decided I don't need all my friends and family "reading" into the hidden meanings of my novel unless I'm going to at least be paid a royalty!

Back to my current pondering... does anyone have any advice?  From my Internet searching, it's clear that I need to get a literary agent... but how does one go about getting an agent?  I assure you, I haven't written a glorified blog entry. It's a full story, start to finish. It has dialogue and descriptions and everything you need in a proper story. I was thinking of posting an excerpt... but I'm still fuzzy on the copyright issue.

Below is the writer, walking around the chilly streets of Dublin... for a few more weeks anyways!

Monday, November 28, 2011

I've got moving on my mind!

My ex-pat mommy community is dwindling... with two mommies having left for the USA in November, one mommy moving back to Canada in December, and one mommy moving to Australia in January.  So from amongst my crew of ex-pat friends that leaves just one person behind.  Me.

At least that was the case until last Thursday... when... Brad finally got a job!!! For ease of dissemination here are the details.

Where: At a small aeronautics company in Victoria, BC.

When: Brad's contract is up on Jan 11th, and our tickets are booked for Jan 18th.

What: AHHHH!  Three days and three nights of panic attacks have settled down into a quiet and blissful acceptance.

Why: I love Ireland, but I also love Victoria. My heart has more than enough chambers to hold all of this love.

How: I may be leaving Ireland, but I know it's not forever. The land of wind, sheep and embracing people will not escape us so easily.

Now we get down to the hard stuff.  Moving. Never easy, but definitely made difficult by the great stretches of land and water that we must travel. At the moment my life is full of shipping, selling, donating and flying our possessions out of this apartment. Add to all that the fun of an 18 day xmas vacation (no spoilers) landing right in the middle of all this planning, and all I can say is PHEW!

Anyways, because I refuse to get all teary and sentimental so early in my moving process (spent 3 days wound up tighter than a top last week, and I don't wish to go back there quite yet) this blog is going to be an informative piece on moving "stuff" overseas.

Moving overseas is an expensive endeavor... if you've only a few things to take, flying with them as checked baggage is probably the cheapest (€50 -€100 each).  Shipping is expensive and slow.  However, you aren't given a weight restriction, so that's an added bonus (especially if you have a husband who simply can't help himself when he walks past a bookstore).

Airfreight tends to run at €130 a box. This is usually door-to-door, but it does have a weight restriction.

Deep sea freight runs at about €125 for just a few boxes, or €700 for 50 cu.ft.  Though it does get cheaper the more you ship.  This is for a door-to-door price.  If you deliver to the shipping company yourself and collect it at the port it would be much cheaper.

Bells and Whistles: There are all sorts of things that companies can offer to make their prices seem more reasonable... like free fumigation, free boxes, bubble wrap and tape, free disposal of packing materials upon arrival, etc.  But basically they really don't make much of a difference... unless you're going to Australia.  Steffi is going Australia (good bye my sewing companion) and has a huge number of issues to deal with around inspections.  For example, no wooden toys for her daughter.

Insurance: Insurance is tricky, because if you pack yourself then they only insure total loss, not damages.  So if you want, say, your bike to be insured against damages then you have to hire professional packers. Insurance prices are based on your own evaluation of your items and is listed for each individual item (bike €700, book €10, etc). The price ranges from 2.5% to 3.5% of your goods evaluation.  (Brad will have fun fitting Maximum Likelihood Curves to the value of stuff).

Plane: It is insurance that makes bringing your stuff with you on the plane much more affordable, because the airline automatically has insurance against loss or damage.  And really, over seas there isn't a limit as to how much baggage you want to bring.  We are each allowed 10 checked items... however, getting those items to and from the airport is a pain in the @ss, and will likely add to the cost.  In our case, we have a starting point of 2 bikes, 1 bike trailer... then all of our boxes.

At the moment we're stuck between two shipping options and just bringing it all with us on the plane.  One company quoted us a price €100 cheaper than our second favorite company; however, their insurance costs are higher by 1%.  Just waiting to hear back about the cost of professional packers before doing the math to figure out what we're going to do.

The photos are emblematic of the blog.  Everywhere (in this case, Ireland) has it's blights (in the potato above) and it's benefit. This summer Brad, myself and Nikolai all took horseback riding lessons.  We loved it, and decided if we stayed in Ireland it would become a new hobby of ours. In the land of horses, a riding lesson is about the same price as a swimming lesson. Nikolai was in a class of very competent toddlers, and he wisely chose to ride the smallest horse.  He never did learn to remember to hold on to his reins!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A blog of blogs

This week I have a story to tell, which I am not going to tell.  Some things are too personal for a blog. But I am so full of the story I cannot share, that my brain draws a blank for this week's blog.  Oh the unfairness of it all!  Cursed by the unsharable nature of a public blog.  It concerns Nikolai, an unfortunate mishap and a trip to Crumlin hospital. (Where they asked us our religion upon admittance!! Brad and I felt a bit odd as we answered "none".  We are very spiritual, ethical people. Does "none" describe our attachment to the universe and the grand design?).

Anyways, I can assure you as to the ending... all is well... and Nikolai is back to good form (meaning: good spirits and health).

But the Internet is a "forever" repository of information...
And Nikolai Zarikoff is such an easily google-able name (quite like his parents, Brad Zarikoff and Emillie Parrish)...
So the story of his mishap, at age 3, shouldn't be allowed to exist in such a public and electronic form...
Ah, the benefit of being John Smith, or really even Claire Parrish (sorry Claire!).  It allows for an Internet anonymity that poor Nikolai shall never have.  His life will be documented as he progresses through a series of on-line personalities, and it will be ever searchable.  Most likely this will not mean very much... as his current career goals extend to being an airport security person or a train driver. It is most likely that his life will not enter to the zone of public scrutiny... but you never know.  And I certainly don't want to start him off with an embarrassing story.

So instead today I will share a few interesting blogs that I love to look at occasionally.  Perhaps if I'd gotten a bit more sleep last night... perhaps if the wind weren't battering against my window... perhaps if I weren't so full of motherly feelings I would have written a proper blog.  Instead, I hope you enjoy the eclectic collection below:

FOOD: I like this blog because it tries to recreate authentic medieval recipes... and if you're a fantasy fan, then you might like the fact that the recipes all come from the Game of Thrones.

CRAFTS: About everything and anything crafty. Primarily a collection of inspiring ideas.

ENVIRONMENT: This is a pretty extreme eco-blog.  It's all about how to live plastic free.  It has loads of good ideas... but tends to make me feel a bit guilty.  However, I still check it out to renew my sense of eco-warriorness.

HOME: This is my secret obsession.  Really the only website, besides the BBC and weather, that I would check weekly.  It's basically "Good Housekeeping" with an artsy-hippie kind of twist.

ECONOMICS: Brad follows Engineering/PhD blogs. But last week he found this... and it's worth a gander if you really want to know who has all the money.

INFORMATION: This website is all about creating visual graphics to depict science.  My particular favorite is the graphic depicting the scientific evidence for health supplements.  It's good to know if it's worth shelling out for the latest fad.

The picture is of Steffi and I at a craft sale.  We've been very busy crafting this fall.  We still have some of the items left, and created an etsy shop to try and tap into the online market.  It was only after I started playing around on esty that I realized there are many, many, many, many people just like me.  Hurrah for the Stay-at-Home moms!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My conspiracy theory

Today the students are marching in Dublin. Protesting cuts to government grants and increases in fees. Yesterday the news was all about the military bases that will be closed. And the day before that we were hearing all about the universal housing charges.

Yes, it's budget time again.  Hurrah for austerity measures as this small country tries to cut another €6 billion from it's budget.

I listen to the beating of the students' drums as they make their steady march past my current perch, from the campus to the train. Their forces are to join the other schools in the age-old student cry for free education. Meanwhile, back in the reality of EU/IMF bailout, and a government trying to please everyone and no one at the same time, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has been meeting with the German Chancellor. Press articles about it are rather lack luster... it's not like anything real could come of such a meeting.  However, it is worth noting that the press release mentioned "treaty changes".

And that is the crux of my not-so-very-out-there conspiracy theory. Sorry, no aliens taking over the White House, or anything even as exciting as the mind controlling properties of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. My theory is, that this whole time... this endless spring-summer-fall meetings solving the Euro crisis (without actually solving anything) was really all about treaty changes.  Adding money to the bailout fund was just a time buying manoeuvre.  They need everyone on board before they can jump on the train that will eventually lead to the strengthening of the ECB.  And how do you get everyone on board?

Well, I think our friend George W. Bush perfected this particular political maneuver. I refer to it as "frightening everyone into blind submission". Want to invade some random oil rich countries? Keep everyone permanently on red alert.

Want to get rid of a rather sleazy head of state? Have the markets rally at a rumour of his demise. (Please note, that the markets don't need to follow through on that promised rallying after he's actually been dispatched.)

So if you want to have a centralized taxation system? Well then spend a few years being terrified about the markets completely blowing up! Then, slowly, ever so slightly, hint at the ideal solution.  As today's press conference has shown... it seems that a more unified European economy is the actual solution to the debt crisis. As for the continuous promises of bailouts and reforms?  Well, they're just around to distract, until everyone is ready to accept the difficult reality.

What does the future hold? A fractious Europe teetering on the brink of crisis? Or a unified front of economic power? This is how the future is being presented... and it is up to the European citizens to decide what that future actually looks like.

-of note: I don't really have an opinion on the issue. If Greece and Italy default, my meager savings will hardly be affected. It is the retirement funds of the baby boomers that are truly at stake here. So perhaps rather than a presentation of Europe in Crisis versus a United Continent, one could view it as a debate between European Sovereignty versus the Boomers' savings funds. Regardless, I don't imagine that this debate is over yet.  Once the European crisis is solved, I suppose we'll get to do it all over again with the USA! 

The photos are of a random roadside monastery and a sleeping cat.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Living Like an American in Paris

We've had a few people ask us about our ex-pat lives; wondering how is it different from just moving around Canada. This likely comes from a place of European dreaming, as there is a part in most of us that secretly ponders spending a year en Provence, or dancing in the lights of London. While I'm pretty sure that living in a suburb of Dublin isn't high on most people's lists, we are able to share our thoughts and experiences on being "abroad".

As well, the lens of our life has narrowed as of late, to focus on our ex-pat lives. Brad has been actively looking for a permanent position, and opportunities in Ireland are as appealing and tenable as those in Vancouver. So the questions and pondering of our living in Ireland have reached a heightened tenor. What would it mean for Nikolai to grow up in Ireland... to become Irish? Is that the end of Hockey and an embracing of Hurley? It is all too ephemeral... and certainly too stressful.  So instead I shall focus on what it means to be an ex-pat.

I cannot imagine how it must feel to live in a culture where the dominant language is not the first language that springs to your lips. Even in the freedom of the English language we find ourselves often stranded, not understanding the socially appropriate way to act. It's obvious how to mind your P's and Q's, but what about the deeper layer of social interactions? Something that everyone else in the culture instinctively understands because they were raised with it. It is not something that anyone can explain to you because they are not actively aware of the social taboos. Likewise no one would outright accuse you of doing the wrong thing because it's just not that obvious.

While I'm sure that I often blunder through this culture, like a social oaf, there is one cultural norm that Brad and I only just recently became aware of. And it involves the social exchange involving food. After a year and a half of consistently refusing the lollipops that Nikolai was offered by various shop keepers... Brad and I realised that the polite thing to do was to accept the candy, and dispose of it later.  This policy of offering and accepting, as a simple social interaction, extends to tea. Tea, (typically black tea) must be offered to every guest that comes to your home.  Likewise, the polite thing to do when offered tea, is to accept it.  If you don't want it, then just use the cup as a hand warmer, and leave the tea behind.

I'm certain that there is a similar social organization around drinking beer in a pub.  As of yet Brad hasn't figured out how avoid drinking more than he wants. The social standard is for everyone to continuously buy rounds of pints for the group. However, the last time he went out, most of his group wasn't into having more than a few pints so they all stopped early.  The only trick was that they kept buying pints for Brad!  He couldn't figure out why they would be buying him pints even when he said he didn't want them, and it was particularly odd since they weren't even drinking themselves!  I have theories, that perhaps an Irish reader could help confirm or deny... if you don't want any more pints should you simply leave some beer in the bottom of your pint glass?

And then there's the fact that we constantly sound like a tourist every time we open our mouths. Perhaps some people are able to change their native accents, but Nikolai's preschool teacher has lived in Ireland for more than twenty years, and she still sounds like she just stepped out of a record store in Ann Arbour.  OK, admittedly there are certain occasions when a well placed accent doesn't hurt... like when you're walking around the exclusive section of the golf course.  However, more often then not strangers will simply treat you like you're just a dumb tourist.

Perhaps the hardest part about being an ex-pat is constantly deciding what is your national identity.  If you were to meet us in London, how should we identify ourselves? As Canadians? But we don't keep up on the national politics or news. And our knowledge of the cultural scene is now outdated. Yeah we rocked to Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade... but who the hell is The Rural Alberta Advantage?  And we understand the European Debt Crisis in a way that no Canadian could ever understand it.  We get X-factor, and River Cottage. Our news is full of Papandreou and Berlusconi. A Canadian may have heard mention of the names, but a European has been listening to constant analysis on their politics for months now. (And a slight political comment... does anyone else find it utterly insane, that the markets seem to be driving "democratic" governments? Most political action in Europe is aimed at "stabilizing the markets" rather than actually serving the people who elected them.)

However, we are definitely NOT Irish. We could live here for twenty years and still be known as "The Canadians". So that is the crux of life as an ex-pat. You are a person who is neither here, nor there. Always lost for lack of belonging, and hoping to bridge the best of both worlds (maple syrup and potato farls).

To counter balance this tirade on our lack of belonging, I've included some pictures of our recent visit to our friend's (and current landlord's) house. Last week was a school holiday, and Nikolai and I spent two nights with Elaine and her brood. It was fun to hold and burp someone else's newborn. (No sleepless nights for us!) The picture above is of Elaine's father hauling a crew of three year olds around the house.  The picture below features Nikolai taking a bath with Elaine's two eldest boys (almost 3, and 18 months).

Monday, October 31, 2011


This morning I awoke to a glorious stream of sunlight. The air was so clear that it sparkled and I swear the song birds were chorusing for me. The reason for my spectacular morning was that after 5 days of being struck down by the flu, I had woken up fever and pain free! With tender feet I struck out to survey the damage that my decommissioning had wrought.

First... there's my last blog entry, a bit bland, I admit. It was written from the desperation and need to have an entry for last week.

Then there's the house...
A sea of toys scattered on the floor
piles of dirty clothes in every corner
uncorked bottle of wine sitting on the counter (leftover from Brad's thoughtfully prepared soup)
a container of glue spilling out onto the play table
and evidence of spilt tea mixing into the general chaos
the floor, if I could have seen it through the mess, would probably speak of cleaner days.

Nikolai greets me wearing a shirt decorated with the telltale turmeric stains from the Indian dinner Brad had prepared two nights previous, plus some other additions from meals in between. He was excited to see that I was perky after my long time out. His mummy-worry-nightmare from the night before fleeing at the evidence of my arising.

To be fair, Brad had his hands more than full. On top of working, he cooked dinners, prepared breakfasts, lunches, did the shopping, dressed Nikolai in the morning, and got him ready for bed at night. Cleaning up just hadn't really been on his radar, and laundry certainly wouldn't have been anywhere close to the course of navigation. In addition to all that, Brad also did the school run (Irish vernacular for taking kids to and from school. I haven't seen evidence of school buses yet, which means that rush hour is just that much more congested).

I spent the afternoons laying on the couch making sure Nikolai didn't hurt himself, but otherwise inattentive at best, from the fog of my illness. The submarine mother watching her son cut up his toy butterfly into a billion tiny pieces. "Mama, look, it died!"  And the glue globing out onto the table was definitely my fault too, as I supervised arts and crafts with my cups of herbal tea spilling on the floor (twice) on the table (once).

As for Nikolai's nightmare? well, it involved someone climbing in through the window and stealing my cellphone. He was only reassured by Brad checking that it was safely stowed away. I'm not really sure how Nikolai came to worry so much about the cellphone. It was his primary concern too, when we were moving, that the cellphone would be left behind at our old house. It's not like I'm a crackberry addict or anything, though I do generally reach my limit of 200 texts a month, I seldom use the phone for anything else!

However, when questioned a little further, it becomes clear that Nikolai equates our cellphone with our friendships, because "if we don't have the cellphone, then our friends won't know where we are." seen through that set of lenses, perhaps the cellphone is more valuable than anything else we own, because it symbolizes our connection to our friends. And on that note, I think I'll go write down some phone numbers... you know... just in case... 

The photos are of a sweater that I knit, a hat that I crocheted, and a kid that won't simply smile for the camera.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The beaten path

Well, I guess it's a sure sign that we've lived here for quite some time now... the fact that in showing Baba and Deda around we were able to give them the depth and breadth of Ireland... the best that can be offered in a short tour... while hardly covering any new ground ourselves!

So the review of their visit will focus on the places that were new to me... as I've already blogged about Newgrange, Trim, Castletown, NUIM and Galway.

We did cover some new ground worthy of a note... primarily en route to somewhere else.  The first stop off came as a recommendation from a friend... who was called in desperation after we left Galway for Maynooth at 5pm on Thursday. Was there anywhere good to eat about halfway along that route? (Something affordable was the unspoken request). And that was how we found ourselves at Tyrrellspass Castle.  The food was typical of the Irish family restaurant scene, at typical prices, so it suited us just fine. As it turned out, we all ordered the same dish... and in quintessential Irish fashion our veggie lasagna came with a side of garlic bread, roasted potatoes, coleslaw, potato salad and chips (fries). Leading me to wonder what kind of Irish dinner would it be if it didn't come with at least 3 different potato dishes?  And the veggie lasagna was authentic Irish style lasagna... using a bechemel as it's base.

So, if you want to eat in a 14th century Tower Castle at affordable prices, or if you really like potatoes then I would recommend Tyrrellspass Castle as a good place to stop along the M6!
The next day we drove through Wicklow.  Now this is something I've done before... but thus far it's involved laying in the backseat of the car moaning about carsickness (Wicklow is full of one lane roads twisting around the mountain side). This time we drove REALLY  S L O W L Y and I enjoy the journey. We hopped out in the middle of Wicklow National Park to explore the bog mountains, up close and personal. I've included a few photos primarily because it's a pretty amazing sight. Bog is so acidic that very few things are able to grow on it, and it makes for a unique ecosystem. So while the pictures may appear to be showing very dry grass lands, walking on the bog was more akin to walking on a water filled sponge. Slippery and wet. (It was also a wet and windy day, hence the mountains are somewhat obscured by the clouds).
Now... as anyone who has been reading my blog for a while knows... I ADORE AVOCA.  And this journey through the winding roads of Wicklow ended up at the birthplace of my favorite shop. The shop is named after the original woolen mills located in the rural town of Avoca. It still has a working mill, weaving away the colourful blankets and scarves that they are famous for. It also has a cafe serving it's signature nutritious and delicious food.  (And a bit of excitement on the AVOCA front... our local farmer's market friends has been commissioned to grow organic, heirloom vegetables for AVOCA! A major boon to them for sure, since they currently only earn what they sell at the markets.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passport Control

Baba and Deda are visiting this week. But I'll save my blog about their visit until next week, so I can fill it up with travel tales. So far we've mainly hung around Maynooth as Brad wont be taking time off until the end of this week.

But I have a goal to blog at least once a week, so a blog for this week is well overdue.  This one's a quickie to be sure... and focused on my passport application woes.

Now I'd just like to ask... who ever said getting a Canadian passport was easy? If that's the impression you were left with by the media then I hate to burst your bubble. In order to renew my passport I have to jump through more hoops that a circus pony!

To start off with, Canadian passports only last 5 years... mine doesn't expire until May... but that doesn't cover the 6 months required to cover my exciting Christmas plans (no spoilers here, but it doesn't involve us flying back to Canada). So as a citizen abroad I need an Irish Guarantor. A person of importance like a lawyer or doctor who's known me for more than 2 years... the first issue is the More Than 2 Years issue... we've only been in Ireland a total of 22 months now. A bit shy from the 2 year mark.

But any pony worth it's stuff can jump through enough hoops to get over that hurdle.  No problem, I can come up with 4 references located in Canada. And I can give my employment history for the past 5 years (spans two jobs and my current homemaker status).

So the second issue is known as the Addresses for the Past 5 Years issue... In the past 5 years I have lived in 5 different homes spanning 3 different cities and 2 continents. I've a good memory, but sue me if I can't remember the postal code for our old house on Salsbury Avenue (plus, layer on the guilt about our inability to provide Nikolai with a stable home... 4 homes in his wee short life is perhaps a bit disruptive?).

The third issue is the Proof of Identity issue. Birth certificate... got it... BC CareCard... done... Driver's License... umm... Driver's License??? umm... nope... Who'd a thought it was possible to reach the ripe old(ish) age of 32 without ever learning to drive a car?!  Luckily I have the only other possible substitute... and it doesn't expire until July 2012!  Hurrah for my BC ID... now I'm on my way to proving my Canadianess.  One horrid photo session and €135 later and I'll be the proud owner of another 5 years of travelling!

The picture is of Nikolai sitting between Baba and Deda at Connelly Station on the way to Howth.

Monday, October 10, 2011

At a gallop

My life was plodding along in its usual dappled manner of busy-ness, and with all expectations that this would continue for the foreseeable future... when all of a sudden things sped up into light speed mode.  What happened was Brad's sudden departure to Ottawa, and Brad's parents' last minute plans.

Okay, to explain, Brad was asked at the last minute to present at a conference in Ottawa.  And when I say last minute, I mean last minute. Tickets were booked the Friday before his Tuesday morning departure. What this meant for Brad was the inconvenience of a last minute trip, and a chance to have dinner with some friends we haven't seen in a while.

What this meant for me was that my usually busy life became much busier. As it turns out that last week there was a few of us without a partner in crime, so we decided to have a dinner party exchange. I cooked one giant lasagna and was fed a Moroccan stew and a Thai soup. Anyone with a three year old can imagine the chaos that such a dinner exchange might cause.  Any mix with more than 2 kids tends to be hectic and we were travelling at a rate of 4 kids per dinner.

Anyways, my evenings were shot with doing chores, wrestling my three year old to bed and dutifully working with Steffi on one of my more pressing projects.  In addition, Nikolai took to waking up at 3 am, deciding it must be morning, turning on all his lights and starting to play.  This seemed to last for about 2 hours, at which point he'd realize the sun really wasn't going to come up (apparently my authority on this topic wasn't sufficient) and he'd go to sleep.  The end result was that by the time Brad got back on Saturday morning I was as exhausted as he was.  He may have had the overnight flight, but I was racking up 4 nights of sleep deprivation.

The last minuteness of his trip had meant that it was slotted into an already busy week.  Saturday afternoon we had tickets to the GAA anniversary games at Croke Park. Not the high caliber of playing of the County teams, but some pretty decent beer leagues from the transport authorities.  We were too slow to make it for the Camogie game, but we got to watch a Hurling match and a Irish Football match.  This requires a small aside on Irish sports.  I've previously blogged about the GAA, however, this was my first attendance to an actual game.

Hurling seems to be a very skillful sport. It's a bit like field hockey, but you're allowed to catch the ball (sliotar), and carry it, as long as you occasionally hit it with the stick (hurley).  I definitely found it to be one of the more interesting sports that I've seen (I'm about as interested in sports as I am interested is something completely outside my sphere, like, say, the sexual reproductive pattern of mice).

Hurling was interesting because the ball travels far and fast through the air. Then people catch it (about the size and hardness of a baseball) with their bare hands.  Then they run with it, all the while balancing it on the end of their hurley.

I found the football match to be less interesting.  Probably more like a rugby/basketball cross than something akin to soccer.  The general point is to score by getting the ball over the goal. You're allowed to use your hands but you can't just carry the ball more than a few steps without bouncing it or kicking it.

(I realize I'm totally bastardizing these sports... but you can look up the real rules up for yourself.  This is just my view as an anthropological observer who isn't terribly interested in sports.)

Sunday we threw a Thanksgiving Party for nine non-Canadian friends... made the Christmas dinner from our Vegetarian Entertaining for Friends cookbook... rich and yummy.

But the gallop doesn't stop there, this week we've got a cake eating party for Brad's birthday, a bus trip to the countryside to visit our friend (and landlord)'s new baby, then the whole affair gallops into the weekend when Brad's parents arrive for a 10 day visit (they booked last minute too... on the same Friday that Brad's tickets to Ottawa were booked). As my projects are all coming into fruition all I can say is PHEW.  Here's hoping for a slightly less hectic November!

Nikolai at the train station with Croke Park in the distance.
The National anthem before the football game. I noticed no one in the stands was singing (it's known to be a difficult song). Also the game was played with the Northern Ireland Translink Team... and interestingly enough, only the Irish national anthem, in gaelic, was performed.  Though I guess if you play a GAA sport, then you are showing some allegiance to Ireland.
 The Vancouver GAA teams
 Thanksgiving Dinner

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Refrigerator musings

Earlier this year I came across an art project. It was basically a series of photographs of the inside of peoples fridge and freezers along with a short blurb about the owners of said appliances.  If you're interested in exploring those photos for yourself, you can find them here.

It leads to all sorts of hypotheses and thoughts around how the contents of a persons refrigerator can really describe a persons lifestyle, values, personality, etc.  What I perhaps found most intriguing was how the two separate refrigerators from a recently divorced couple had nearly identical contents.

Anyways, my blog generally doesn't discuss someone else's artwork.  However, at the time we were tickled with the idea of a refrigerator photo and took the following picture of our refrigerator contents:

Not terribly remarkable, and a bit empty (for us) as it was on the far side of our usual farmers' market shop.  What those in North America might notice is... what a funny little fridge.  And it was a funny little fridge. The freezer portion was of equal size and sat below the fridge portion.  It meant that we had WAY more freezer space then we were used to, and considerably less refrigerator space.

The fridges that I had grown up with are called American Refrigerators around here, and can even be used as a descriptor (i.e. it was as large as an American Refrigerator). Now the reason for such small refrigerators is not due to space constraints, rather to the amazing cost of electricity.  I blogged about my shock at our first utility bills way back when I first arrived.  I've since then learned to live like the local's on a lower energy diet.

As it turns out, keeping stuff cold is THE MOST electrically expensive thing you can do. (Hence why there are power shortages during a heat wave, but you don't find similar brown outs due to -40C weather).  In Ireland this translates to a much smaller frozen food isle (only one in our GIANT Tesco's) and fewer chilled foods. For example eggs would be found along side of bags of flour rather than in the dairy case. So homes here often have smaller fridges, and in fact, when we were initially looking for somewhere to live (from our vantage point in Canada) we automatically eliminated everywhere with an under-the-counter fridge.

Irony, irony as our new apartment has one of those tiny fridges. Erase any images you have of a bar fridge, this thing was built for maximum capacity. And surprisingly enough, I find that I have more than enough space for everything I want!

So here are a few of my space saving tricks:
-Many things don't actually need to be refrigerated. We just do it out of habit, and because we have giant monster truck sized refrigerators, for example: eggs, soya sauce, mustard, peanut butter.

-Many veg are happiest stored at warmer temperatures. The trick is to reduce the humidity and keep it somewhat cool.  We've co-opted our small balcony for this purpose. Outdoor ventilation is always better because humidity won't get trapped.  I learned this from my book on Victorian Farming.

-Leftovers don't need to be refrigerated.  Now... this may be an Ireland thing?  Not too sure. But I know some of my friends are always leaving their Sunday roast out till they get around to finishing it the next day, and as of yet none of them have died. However, I was told by a Biology PhD that the Irish climate and e.coli don't get along, so maybe it's not much of an issue.  Perhaps this is why canning over here is much more relaxed?  Regardless, my North American attitude towards germs has yet to allow me to explore this option of  food storage.  And I'm secretly glad I'm vegetarian, so I haven't yet been invited for leftover meat.

So in summary... I am very glad to have this opportunity to feed my family out of a tiny fridge. Now I know that I can do it!  In the future, as energy becomes more expensive, I will be glad to have these skills.  However, I do admit that the one reason we may have so much space in our small cubic fridge is because we're pretty much living out of the allotment and the NUIM orchard.  Here's today's harvest, and I didn't pick any kale or salad greens as they are the least likely to go all "Day of the Triffids" on us (as you may note, one of the courgettes/zucchini was getting dangerously close to that threshold).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

That which doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger

No votes for or against the name of my blog. So I think we'll simply abridge it to Carton Square. Less specific. And better than Earl's Court (our new location). A bit pompous, Earl's Court. But this blog isn't about our new house. It's about the flu we had this weekend.

It was a draggy sort of flu. An achy all over, throbbing head ache and fall into bed with exhaustion sort of flu. Luckily help was close at hand. Sure, sure, Vitamin D and zinc are the cure alls. But that was so yesterday's news. And echinacea has very little evidence proving its worth besides that of an urban legend likely placed in our minds by over-marketing.

I'm talking about the best cure out there for viruses. Recently proven to have a strong anti-viral effect with the H1N1 virus. Generally found to reduce the length of a viral flu by more than half. So, what is it? Well there's more to the bio of this particular cure... It is also deadly poisonous if not properly prepared. So before I continue, let me share my disclaimer... if you decide to partake in harvesting, preparing and eating this plant MAKE SURE you bloody well follow my instructions because I am not responsible if you poison yourself.

So what is this mysterious cure?

Elderberries. The flowers are edible, and the RIPE berries are edible. The twigs, leave, stems and unripe berries are POISONOUS.
Okay, enough with the exclamations. I could have included a photo of the tree, as Maynooth is covered in elderberry trees. But I'm not about to tell anyone to go out picking random black berries from not properly identified trees. However, if you are a Maynooth local you can find the trees lining the canal, by the train station, along Harbour road, down Straffan road (you get the picture).

After harvesting, the berries need to be washed and taken off the stem. I read something on the web about freezing the berries and having them simply fall off the stalks. This did not work for me. Instead I just sort of rubbed the plant and the berries quite easily fell off.

I then processed my berries into three different virus blasting uses.

Frozen berries can be added to pies, crumble, yogurt, applesauce you name it. They aren't sweet, but they aren't that tart either.

I made two bottle of elderberry cordial. This is a concentrated syrup that is meant to be diluted before drinking. I would dilute it 1 part cordial to 8 parts water. You can cut down on the sugar, but that may reduce the shelf life as sugar is a preservative.
Cover your elderberries with water then simmer for 30 minutes. Then strain out the berries and mash them to make sure you get all the elderberry "juice." For every pint (2 cups) of elderberry liquid add 8 oz sugar (or honey), 12 whole cloves, 1 inch of grated fresh ginger and 1 Cinnamon stick. Simmer for another 20 minutes. Pour into sterilized bottles (I just pre-rinsed my bottles with boiling water) and use within the next 6 months.
I got this recipe from the BBC program "Grow Your Own Drugs". As an aside, I absolutely loved the program. The guy is a biologist who decides to cook up scientifically proven remedies. My only complaint would be that many of the remedies take a bit of work to prepare.
However, I would have to say that the elderberries worked! Brad, Nikolai and I were all cured after dosing heavily on the our elderberry stash. And my favorite foraging friend (there's an alliteration for you) also cured her family from similar ailments this weekend using our elderberry cordial. We were so happy with the successes that we went out and picked another lot of berries today!