clare birthday I recently celebrated my [age not important] birthday here. I spent the first five years of life in Japan, a few in Arkansas and several birthdays in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. This was the first in Ireland, a landmark occasion of sorts. There are days when I still pinch myself…and a few days where I want to punch myself.

I kid, I kid! Even with all the political turmoil and recession depression, I love it here. But I still find myself mired in figuring out the little things. While in some ways I’m quite settled, there are new discoveries almost every day. I’m still trying to distinguish between regional accents that everyone else seems to recognize and I’m struggling to wrap my brain around the culture of Irish Travellers. Whether it’s a type of bread I’ve never heard of (Mountaineering Man recently introduced me to barmbrack – yum!) or political parties (it’s Gaelic but I find it amusing that the main party has the word fail (Fáil) in its name, so appropriate!) it’s trying to understand all the details of daily Irish life that consumes my time.

la driving

Driving in LA is just a whole different experience than driving in Ireland!

Recently I was driving with my friend Grainne and as we drove down a wide road the motorist driving the opposite direction blinked his headlights at me. I was baffled: He wasn’t behind me, so he couldn’t be signaling for me to speed up and it was daylight so he couldn’t have been telling me to turn on my headlights. In Los Angeles, urban legend has it that if you blink your headlights at a gang member’s car, that’s reason enough for them to shoot you so I generally never blink my headlights at anyone. I turned to Grainne and asked her what it meant and without missing a beat she said, “Oh there’s probably garda down the road checking people’s speed and that guy was warning you to slow down.” I’m wondering how on earth she got all that from blinking headlights, but I slowed down and sure enough, just down the road there was a police officer pointing his radar at passing motorists. I was absolutely taken aback by this kind gesture from a complete stranger who undoubtedly saved me from a traffic ticket and utterly puzzled that this vague transmission via headlights is common knowledge to the Irish.

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MM reading the paper, a daily ritual.

I still embarrass myself on a regular basis and will probably continue to do so as this seems to be a skill I’ve enhanced while living in Ireland. A few months ago I woke up early on a Saturday morning, changed into my trainers and workout clothes and drove to the gym. It was about 7:30 a.m. so I knew the gym would be empty; when I arrived there were only two cars in the parking lot. I walked in and stood at the check-in counter, waiting for one of the gym staff. No one appeared so I went into the locker room, put my stuff in the locker and went upstairs to the cardio room only to find it dark without a soul in sight. Puzzled, I went back downstairs and ran into a very stunned-looking woman who nearly bashed me over the head with her broom. She was the cleaning lady and told me the gym did not open until 10 a.m. on Saturdays…that’s practically the middle of the day! In Los Angeles, there would be an absolute uproar if the gym didn’t open by 5:30 a.m., even on weekends. Here people aren’t as obsessed with working out, which is actually quite refreshing to be honest.

There are many little things that still mystify me, like the (mis)spelling of certain words. I still do a double-take every time I see the word tyre, which is the way Irish spell tire. I recently saw a pull-quote in the Irish Times and smugly told MM that there was a HUGE spelling mistake: the word skeptical was spelled sceptical. “That’s how it’s spelled, hon,” he said, chuckling. Turns out he’s right, but to me it looks so wrong and it drives me – an American writer educated in journalism at a U.S. university – absolutely crazy! Another bizarre discovery: the Irish don’t seem to like Jacuzzis or hot tubs, which is odd because it is so cold here. I’ve been to two spas and have researched numerous others only to find that NONE have hot tubs. During a visit to a luxe hotel spa in Co. Mayo, I was thrilled to see what the hotel called a “hydro pool,” which looked like an oversized Jacuzzi. One toe dip in the water let me know it was not the case; the water was not quite cold but it was very cool and nowhere close to warm…argh! When I asked MM how this could be, he said something about hot tubs being “full of germs.” Full of germs or not, I spend many a cold Irish night dreaming of a long soak in Jacuzzi.

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Spicy Sweet Potato and Red Pepper Soup

Cuisinart For my birthday, MM gave me a kitchen gadget to love: the Cuisinart Soup Maker. Think of it as a blender/food processor with a heating element. I can chop my veg, throw in a bit of olive oil and sauté directly in the container of the Soup Maker, add my cold stock and seasonings and boil/simmer and blend it all up into a smooth soup. Crazier still is that it also makes pastry dough, pastes, salsas, etc. However I wrote the recipe so this soup will be easy to make even without this appliance. This spicy and sweet soup will warm you all the way down to your toes, and comes in at a close second behind the hot tub soak.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped roughly

1 garlic clove, chopped roughly

2 medium red bell peppers, seeded and chopped

1 red chili, seeded and chopped

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

800 ml of chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh coriander for garnish

In a large soup pot, heat up the olive oil over medium heat. Throw in the onion, garlic, bell peppers and chili and sauté for about 5 minutes or until the onions are a bit tender. Toss in the sweet potatoes and stir for 2 minutes, then pour the stock over the veg and bring the whole thing to a boil over high heat. After it comes to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Using a hand blender or a regular blender (if you use the latter, make sure to do it in batches being very careful as mixture will be HOT) and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with fresh coriander leaves. If you’d like, add in a dollop of natural yogurt to add creaminess. Enjoy!