American in Ireland


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When I lived in Los Angeles and worked as a freelance writer, one of my favourite afternoon breaks involved going to the local art house movie theatre for an escape. The Laemmle Theatre in Pasadena always featured a good mix of indie and foreign films, plus they’d turn a blind eye when I’d sneak in a cup of good coffee from the cafe at  Vroman’s Bookstore next door.

I typically chose European films for the ambiance. What is it about skirts fluttering against the tailwind of a Vespa that sparks a desire in every woman to live out her own Fellini-esque fantasy? For two hours I’d sit alone in the dark, quietly sipping coffee whilst absorbed in these fanciful flights of imagination.

I’d dream of one day visiting the seedy piano bar in The Beat That My Heart Skipped or the muted rouge-hued cafes in Amelie – with a dashing European suitor, of course. Like the young schoolgirl who spent her evenings envisaging a new life abroad whilst singing along to Sur les quais du vieux Paris in An Education, I too would aspire to one day turn my Francophile fantasies into reality.

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RUNNING 2

Mountaineering Man is a bona fide runner. He started about 5 years ago and, countless 10 k’s later, has never looked back. Rain, sleet, snow or shine he’s out there, pounding the pavement 4-5 days a week.

Me? I’ve always been one of these sporadic worker-outers. I’ll  join a gym, religiously hit the cross trainer for several weeks before burning out and quitting. I’ll take a few months to decide what to do next, and then do that for a few weeks before taking another extended break.

It was during the last one of these hiatuses that I decided something had to change. I was tired of gyms, particularly as they are SO overpriced here in Ireland (I used to go to one of LA’s best gyms for 75% of the price of what I was paying at the mediocre gym in Clontarf I just left). And as I prefer morning workouts, I was also getting tired of the whole gym rigmarole – you know the one that involves packing all your work clothes, makeup, hairbrushes and other girly bits just to realise once you’re at the gym that you’ve forgotten something essential, like your underwear.

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Table peeps

As my fellow expat and friend Lily said during our Thanksgiving dinner yesterday evening, our friends are family to us as we don’t have our blood relatives nearby. Whether they know it or not, our mates play a very important role in our lives here – far away from our moms, dads, sisters and brothers back home.

This was the spirit behind what my friends Bill and Sharon dubbed Thanksgivingpolooza, a three-day weekend away in the midlands of Ireland to celebrate a very American holiday. The idea sprung about a couple of months ago, when Mountaineering Man considered who we could invite for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. Every year we have to choose just a handful of friends, as our space in Dublin simply doesn’t allow for any more. A hunt for a bigger space was launched.

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After some Google searches and Twitter queries I came across Bishopstown House, a beautifully-restored Georgian estate with multiple bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a roof deck and a massive kitchen. There’s also a private pub and more bedrooms next door in a converted stable house. There is some interesting history behind the building; Michael Jackson chose it to be his Irish estate but he passed away before the refurb was completed. It is now rented out as a holiday home. Sad for the King of Pop, but lucky for us! After a few group emails, I booked it and on Friday we all met up at the property with food, drink and supplies and hunkered down for the weekend. Thanksgivingpolooza 2013 was on!

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Someone recently asked me how I have found the first year of marriage. When this question is posed to newlyweds, I think the answer varies wildly depending on who you ask; some will speak of an extended honeymoon that just seems to keep on going while others will express surprise at how it wasn’t what he/she expected it to be (this could be good or bad, depending on the cause(s) of the surprise. Of course there are a million other answers in between.

For me, the first year of marriage to Mountaineering Man has continued to solidify the bond that was initiated on our first date just over three years ago. I’ve always wanted a partner in life, someone who truly accepts me – wobbly bits and all – and who shares similar values but also inspires new perspective and change. Someone I feel secure with; a person who can stand his ground but also considers there’s a different way to look at something.

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Our first year hasn’t been easy; as you read in my previous post, his mother is unwell and we’ve spent a number of weekends staying with his family who live two hours away. We’re always rushing to get basic chores done like cleaning the house (which we get to every few weeks these days!) and the worry of the situation has led to many sleepless nights – insomnia is rampant in our house lately! Some days we’re like two grumpy toddlers who desperately need a nap, but instead of throwing ourselves on the ground in a heap of tears we’ll snap at each other and slam a few doors to make a point (ahem, that would be more me than MM, I must admit).

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It seems that in every second blog post of late, I promise to blog more often. These days I just can’t seem get a handle on my writing schedule so I’ll omit the usual promise and simply do the best I can to post more frequently.

The last few months have been tough for Mountaineering Man and me; his mother is ill and we’re spending every weekend at his parents’ home, which is about two hours away from Dublin. In order to protect the family’s privacy I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say the illness came rather suddenly. It has been an incredibly difficult time for the whole family.

But even during this dark time, there are a few glimmers of light. It’s nice to spend some quality time with the family, who before this we’d see every third or fourth week. It’s  been a real treat to see my little one-and-a-half-year-old niece, who – totally unbeknownst to her – has been our comic relief and welcome distraction with her funny antics and ever-developing personality.

IMG_0284[1]I feel lucky to be able to see her every weekend, and am grateful that she is getting to know me too. She is a smart little girl, always up for a dance (last weekend her daddy put on some serious  ‘70s disco music and away she went!) and loves for us to read to her from her many books. Mind you, we don’t always agree; she loves her mom’s old Judy doll, which regularly scares the crap out of me with her blank-yet-piercing stare -  she reminds me too much of the Talking Tina doll from the Twilight Zone. And since my niece leaves her all around the house, Judy seems to pop up at every turn (particularly in my nightmares).

We also have at least one dinner with MM’s dad, sister and her family every weekend, sometimes two if we don’t have to rush back to Dublin for work. I’ve become the cook along with my brother-in-law; he’s the fry-up expert and will make the mid-day eggs, sausages, rashers, potato waffle, beans and tomato plate for anyone who is hungry. It looks so tempting I think I’m going to have to ask him to do one up for me next weekend. I usually cook the Saturday dinners and Sunday lunches, and despite my father-in-law’s protests that it’s too much work,  I genuinely enjoy it.

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If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you know that in the last few months I’ve really gotten into making my own bread. The seed was sown last year when I became addicted to the Great British Bakeoff, and was nurtured by a steady diet of Paul Hollywood’s Bread episodes and various River Cottage shows, which frequently sees the curly mopped-topped Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall whipping up batches of fresh baked breads and cakes.

There’s just something so satisfying about the process of making your own bread: the mixing, the kneading, proofing and of course watching the pale ball of dough transform into a golden, crusty loaf. That said, I have found it difficult to find the time to bake bread regularly and up until now it’s been an every-second-weekend hobby. Mixing the dough by hand means making a goopy mess of the bowl and your fingers, and the kneading process requires a clean worktop (meaning you need to sanitise it first!), 10-12 minutes of pushing and pulling the dough and then of course the clean-up afterward.

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Sometimes during this laborious process, I’ll think of my beloved stand mixer, which is still sitting in a dark storage space in my hometown of Los Angeles. Put simply, when it comes to breads and cakes (and a million other edibles), it does the work for you and makes it easy to have homemade baked goods without having to schedule a chunk of time in your diary.

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A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.Steve Martin

For the better part of the three-and-a-half years I’ve been here in Ireland, it’s been night. The previous two summers have been, at best, a mix of muggy mist, fluorescent-white clouds and a few fleeting rays of sunshine. During that first year in Drogheda I had a total of one al fresco meal, which was cut short by a sudden downpour. When I went home last year and visited my hairdresser, his first reaction was, “Your hair is SO dark!” I hadn’t coloured it, it was darker simply from a lack of sunshine…a bit like my soul!

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This summer has been a completely different experience all together. We’ve had long stretches of sunny days and – quell surprise – warm nights. I can’t remember ever being able to step outside after 8 PM in just a t-shirt here, but in the last several weeks I’ve donned short sleeves outdoors in the evening more than a few times. Mountaineering Man and I have been sleeping on top of the duvet for the last month or so, and we’re both sporting tans – REAL tans (not that either of us would ever get fake tan, sorry but I haven’t bought into that Irish obsession nor will I ever!).

We’ve even gotten out for a couple of picnics and barefoot walks on the beach, which I realise for my friends in LA is typical summer behaviour but for us is a real treat. That said we’re also experiencing the downside of having warm weather in a country that is not at all prepared for it; neither of our cars has air conditioning (it’s not a standard feature here). The other day I experienced that brain-melting, so-hot-you-can-almost-see-the-heatwaves moment after getting into my car, which had been parked out in the sun all day. I couldn’t open my windows fast enough.

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For the first year I lived in Ireland, I mainly worked from home. While I loved the freedom (making my own schedule, staying in my PJs, etc.) it wasn’t the best way to socialise myself in a new country.

Though I had a small group of friends in Drogheda (where I lived back when I first came here), I was starting to feel pretty lonely working at my dining room table most days with little to no interaction with other human beings. It was so depressing that at one point, I was putting on makeup and getting excited about a trip to Tesco for milk and eggs. At least I could talk to someone, even if the interaction was limited to a 3-minute chat with the check-out lady.

After relocating to Dublin and moving in with Mountaineering Man, I took a job at a digital creative agency in town. As with most agencies, the hours were long which meant that I spent more time with my 50-odd colleagues than I did with MM or anyone else in my personal life.

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The people who really became my family there was my workgroup – the Social Media team. There were four of us for most of my time there and I was the only female in the bunch. We were a scrappy lot, and I mean that in the best way. Philip – a long-haired thrash metal rocker with a sharp wit and a thick Northern accent – welcomed me into the fold with a typed-up list of recommendations and advice. “Don’t ever, EVER eat at the Bridge Café,” he wrote, referring to the greasy spoon deli and one of the only choices for food near the office.

To this day, I’ve never eaten there – despite the fact that Philip has gone against his own advice and eats there almost DAILY now (“I was wrong about it!” he claims, though I attribute his change of heart to sheer desperation thanks to a lack of decent eateries in the Ringsend area). Philip is the master of the hilarious yet thought-provoking quip (“Some day soon, somebody is going to print a 3D printer on a 3D printer and the universe is going to implode”) – and so-bad-they’re-good jokes.

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I imagine like many people in this world, I have always dreamed of going to Paris. The outdoor cafes, the croissants, the well-dressed Parisians – as an American who grew up Los Angeles, my notions of Paris were firmly rooted in Hollywood storylines and picture postcards of the French capital.

Last weekend I finally made it there, and it was everything I dreamt of and more. It was also the first visit for Mountaineering Man so rather than try to cover the list of popular attractions we opted for a real local’s experience by renting an apartment in Montmartre (via Airbnb) and keeping the tourist traps to a minimum. The apartment was perfect: on the 6th floor with a huge deck and the most inspiring view of the Sacre Coeur, a large sitting room, well-appointed kitchen and comfortable bedroom. The place was decorated with a variety of eclectic artworks and Jean, the guy who owns the apartment, left us with a list of restaurant recommendations and local hot spots.

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For four days we lived like Parisians. In the mornings we’d walk up the stairs of Montmartre and get a café crème, orange juice and croissant or perhaps some yogurt and granola for breakfast – always al fresco so we could watch all the people go by. We’d then explore on foot and Metro trains, choosing one or two spots we wanted to visit. For me it was E Dehillerin, the now-famous shop were Julia Child frequented for her kitchen supplies. The place was buzzing with locals and tourists in search of the perfect cast iron skillet, boning knife or copper soufflé tin. The store has everything a cook could ask for but due to limited suitcase space I opted for one item: a non-stick Madeleine pan for making the popular French mini-cakes.

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Even on the sunniest of days, when the sky and the ocean simultaneously reflect the most radiant shades of blue and the birds chirp away in the full, lush trees and everyone’s showing off their stems in rarely-worn shorts and exposing their bashful big toes in sandals; even on those rare, beautiful Spring days in Dublin, there’s something missing.

It was one of those days yesterday, and while Mountaineering Man toiled away at the office I decided to head out into town and get some much-needed Vitamin D, plus a few other things I’ve been meaning to purchase. My first stop was Fallon & Byrne, a place that has become almost a sacred place for me. Some people have churches; I have gourmet food shops and farmers’ markets. Even if I only need one item, I amble down every aisle and rest my eyes for at least a few seconds on every single item on every single shelf. From smoked salted almonds and squid ink lasagna sheets to sweet-smelling star fruit and whole wild rabbits, the selection is comprised of the most wonderful, mysterious things that never fail to inspire.

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