Saturday, August 22, 2009

Badly Behaved Children

No less than 6 weeks have passed since we rolled off the ferry in Porto Torres and officially began to call Sardinia 'home'. The last 2 of those weeks I've spent back in Cork for work. My complete inability to blog in the 4 weeks in Sardinia is an indication of how completely and quickly I've settled in. I find that I can blog when I'm on the road (I'm writing this from Cork airport on my way back, erm, home, to Cagliari), but I haven't yet found a place in my normal life's routine for this activity. I will, though. Promise. In the meantime, I'll catch up where I left off.

We left peaceful Brittany and made the 4-hour drive (in five-and-a-half hours) to Paris, a place that by contrast manages to make an awful lot of noise. New York might be the city that never sleeps, but Paris is the city that never shuts up. It even snores. Certainly the Quartier Latin where we were based, has a variety of auditory expressions that would rival a philharmonic orchestra. The morning is announced by rubbish trucks and delivery vans, emptying the detritus of the previous night's excesses, and stocking up for the reprise. They are kept company by the bells of nearby churches, each with a slightly different opinion as to when the hour strikes, and how it should best be announced. The Greek restaurants start their plate-smashing from around 6 in the evening, competing with all the other tourist restaurants for the cobble-weary, knapsacked footfall. The buskers kick in on every corner with a different instrument and genre, which mixes into perfect dissonance by the time it reaches our window on the second floor of Rue Saint Severin. The final movement of the day's symphony includes a clutch of beer-soaked choristers, shouting instructions to each other from distance of 1 meter or less, before rolling in to passing taxis, or passing out in hotel foyers. The curtain goes down. You may sleep now. You have 4 hours before the garbage collection begins again.

Paris was our first city together. Letizia and I met in Dublin, but shared our first address in Paris. We stayed there long enough to know it as a living city rather than a collection of monuments. Paris is one of our horcruxes - we embedded a little splinter of ourselves here. Every time we come back, we experience a familiarity that disarms the foreboding of its features and facades. But we know its disadvantages too. I associate Paris with fatigue. It is a place that sucks the energy out of you - though of course you may enjoy the experience. Paris (within the peripherique) is a relatively small city when compared to say London, and it has a public transport system that works well. But somehow, inexplicably, everything you want to do takes a lot of time, and every joule of energy you spend seems to attract a hefty tiredness tax. (This isn't just me showing my age - I remember the very same effect 15 years ago as a - sigh - young man.) The street drains you with every footstep. It surely didn't help that for our three days there, most of those steps led from one clothes shop to the next or from one Disney attraction to the next.

For those readers who followed us around the world on this blog, I can tell you that my duties as a shopping companion correspond very closely with those of Assistant to Official Tour Photographer. In both roles, the most frequent instruction (by now unspoken, but completely understood) is 'hold my bag and keep out of the way'. Such is my expertise on the matter, I can offer tours of Paris' most authentic shopping experiences, complete with an explanation of where to find a place to sit down in even the most minimalist of shop interiors.

One thing that surprises a lot of visitors is how well and how *cheaply* one can eat in Paris. The high price of beer no longer leaves the Post Celtic Tiger Irishman breathless, but the low price of food - if you go to the right place - still has the power to shock. One of the most enjoyable was a fresh noodle restaurant recommended to us by our Sardinian friend Silvia who came to live in Paris around the same time we did and lives there still. Paris isn't the only thing Silvia and we have in common. Silvia also has a daughter called Nina - though much younger than our own. When dining together with friends and their children, sometimes a little patience is called for from all parties, and the younger the child, the more patience is required. In such circumstances, I would not normally complain about the behaviour of a friend's offspring, and certainly not on such a public forum as this (Silvia is a reader of this blog). But I have to make an exception in little Nina's case, when we met up with Silvia for noodles one lunchtime. Perhaps it was the heat of the day, perhaps the noise of the waiters shouting at each other in French and Mandarin, but this young lady did nothing but irritate her mother from the dumpling starter to the final sip of coffee. At one stage - I'm not making this up - she actually kicked Silvia. I did my best to look the other way, and pretend that nothing had happened, but obviously it was a very awkward moment. All I can hope for is that her behaviour gets better after she is born.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Afloat Again, Happily

We have just spent our 5th night on the road: one night on the ferry to France, one night in Brittany with our friends the Crowleys (who we believe might still be our friends after our departure - though I might be misinterpreting the nature of their enthusiasm on the morning of our departure as something more substantial than relief), and three nights in my sister-in-law's apartment in Paris (one of which the said sister-in-law was brave enough to spend with us before leaving for the South). Now is as good a time as any to recount some of our travels so far. But in keeping with tradition, it's late and incomplete.

Perros-Guirec is a beautiful resort town on the Northern end of Brittany. It's where Parisians come to unwind, and where our friends Elizabeth and Andrew and their two beautiful and delightful daughters came to live after many years in Cork (Elizabeth is a Breton - or should that be Bretonne?). We woke them up at some unspeakable hour which my watch doesn't even register, and instead of hurling insults and other, heavier, items from their upper windows, they called us in, fed us, and even listened to me drone on and on about how the world was still bobbing up and down after the boat trip. We had driven for an hour to get from the ferry to Perros-Guirec, passing through some very sleepy towns along the way, one of which had a name that demands some attention: Saint-Michel-en-Greve. I happen to know for a fact that this means "Saint Michael on Strike"*. If this kind of stereotypical town-naming is allowed to continue, what's next? An Irish town called Saint Patrick Goes On The Piss. Or somewhere in Essex called Saint George Pines After The Empire?

I digress.

Andrew and Elizabeth took us down to the beach that is the focus of Perros-Guirec, where the girls began to play together in that happily un-selfconscious way that kids of that age still manage. The sun was pleasingly warm without actually hurting, an occasional passing cloud bringing some welcome shade. It was almost perfect. The fly in the ointment was the coefficient, which stood at a disappointing 55 - very low for this time of year, I think you'll agree.

What's that? You don't know what coefficient I'm referring to!? Well, if you ever come to France, and in particular Brittany, you'll want to bone up on this matter, as apparently it forms the basis of some 82% of all conversation you are likely to have with the locals. In fact the best thing you can do, pretty much as soon as you get off the ferry, is make your way to the whiteboard that will be on display somewhere near whatever beach you find yourself on, and memorize the 8 or so meteorological statistics that will be written there. Time of high tide, low tide, air and water temperatures, and of course, the coefficient. It is a very French thing, you will find, to encode all possible facets of daily life into Cartesian co-ordinates. I suspect that the meaning of most of these numbers is immaterial - it is the mere fact that they exist that gives them a sense. They give comfort in an unpredictable world. They tell you that somebody somewhere has a formula, that measurements are being taken at regular intervals, and that answers are being arrived at which eventually find their way onto whiteboards on Breton beaches. And that surely means that the rest of us can relax, or at least restrict our worrying to those results that lie outside seasonal expectations. The other 18% of the time, we can find something else to worry, and converse, about.

After Perros-Guirec we drove to the nearby Ploumanach, a gorgeous coastal town with a particularly unusual setting thanks to the pink granite that forms its border with the sea. Andrew and I settled into an easy dialogue where I would bang on about how, even now, the scenery continued to bob about thanks to my sea-legs, and he would keep mentioning the pink granite. This is the kind of conversational direction that can take hold when two men who don't know much about sports, or indeed tidal coefficients, attempt small talk. As the day wore on, we were forced to abandon the shallow-end chit-chat, and head for the deeper waters of philosophy, software and comparing the Irish with the Bretons. I fear that it is the lot of the ex-pat to continuously compare his homeland and its people with the adopted country of residence. No matter how urbane and well travelled we think we might be, there are some things that will be forever foreign. For Alan, it might be the stuborn French habit of pronouncing 'j' like 'g' and vice versa. For Andrew, the irrational absence of pub-quizes will probably always offend his Irishness. For me? Well, I have my suspicions about what the pebbles on my windscreen will be as I drive towards a new life in Italy. But let's just wait and see, shall we?

Despite their early start the next day, Andrew and Elizabeth kept us company until late, when we all retired to the utter silence of the Breton night. I fell asleep instantly, and slept deeply, rocked to sleep by the last internal eddies of the Atlantic tide.

*Alright - not entirely true. A greve, as well as being a strike, is also the word for a stoney beach. This blog will never let the truth get in the way of a mediocre story, but will at least endeaver to present it as a footnote.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Casting Off

It's our last evening in Ireland.

Yesterday, the cut-rate courier arrived at our address to relieve us of 8 boxes of our worldly goods. He arrived late - hours late - emitting, as one English politician famously said of another, "something of the night about him". It appears that his journey was taking him to West Cork after our house so it may very well be that our 8 boxes, packed and prepped for their new Mediterranean home, will make it no further south than Bantry. This is the risk you run when you go for the cheapest bidder - the suspicion, no, the expectation, of disappointment.

And if we lose the boxes? What of it! According to Nina, we'll just go look for them. It will be an excuse for another round-the-world trip, hunting down the boxes. A global treasure hunt where the prize is a few copper pots, cookery books, stuffed toys, jigsaws, and the occasional old friend.

In managing the move, we have done a triage: What do we need on the road or immediately on arrival? (Packed in car.) What do we need soon after arriving? (Boxes by courier.) What do we need once we have established ourselves in Cagliari? (Removal company.) There is a fourth category, into which I suspect most of our 'stuff' belongs. But it has been years now that making bonfires on one's own back garden has been against the law, so it'll just stay here indefinitely. Perhaps I can get NAMA to take it on?

The trip itself can be broken into three sections (and easily reassembled, one hopes). Brittany, where we impose ourselves for the night with our friends Andrew and Elizabeth, formerly of this parish. Paris, where we impose ourselves for 3 nights with Letizia's sister Giovanna (our New Zealand fellow traveller). And Piedmont in North Italy, where we will impose ourselves on the Biaggi family, who we are accustomed to meet on the beaches of Sardinia (I wonder if we'll recognize each other with our clothes on). If this trip had a theme it could be "How to travel long distances without forking out for a hotel room". Simon and Leah in Brisbane will attest to our ability to make ourselves at home in a place that somebody else already made theirs (guys - I wish your place was on the way too - I could really do with an evening on your couch, drinking your beer, and hogging your conversation.)

In total, we're looking at around 1600km of driving - that's a little less than Santiago de Chile to Iquique, or a little more than Canberra to Melbourne and back (raising the obvious question, why would you go back to Canberra?) But I can't wait to get on the road. The emotion of motion is already clouding my thoughts, to the point where I almost don't care where we end up. A wrong turn could take us anywhere. And that's OK by me. All roads lead to Home.

Even if it turns out to be Bantry.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cardboard Boxes and Metal Hearts

Over the last few weeks, I've been asked 'Are you packing?' more often than a buyer at a drug deal. The answer until now has always been 'no' (leading naturally to a quick frisk, just to make sure). And now, all of a sudden, 8 cardboard boxes are waiting silently in the hall this morning, ready for collection and transport. Tomorrow we'll prepare what is to go in the car with us. The day after, we sail.

Nina and Sara are on a disturbingly even keel. They've had their last day at school, their last art class, and a few other 'lasts', and so far they have kept their heads (when many others around them were losing theirs). I'd like to think that this indicates they are emotionally balanced young ladies, but I have to allow for the possibility that Letizia and I have reared two titanium-hearted sociopaths. Or perhaps more tellingly, that Letizia and I are two titanium-hearted sociopaths, and the two girls never really stood a chance.

The last 2-3 months since Easter have been probably the most socially active time we've had in 9 years in Ireland. There wasn't a weekend where we didn't have somebody to see or something to do. And the weekdays weren't slack either. But this oddly enough makes it easier to say goodbye to Ireland (and the mid-Summer rain that's been dampening spirits over here last week doesn't hurt either). Decorum would demand some regret, some sense of loss. But the only effect that the packing has had on me is to give me bags under my eyes.

It might just be that though we've lived here for 9 years now, we never really unpacked.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Life Part II: Back on the Bus

I'll regret this. Probably not as much as you, but I will regret this. I'm going to open this blog up again.

It has been more than eight months since we got back from our around the world trip. That is, we've been back in Ireland longer than we were ever away. The memory of those times is cataloged with all the others of our family life. They weave through the fabric of our family life as easily as we dip in and out of them. Unexpectedly, the memories are sometimes painful. No feelings of regret, just the bruising that comes with seeing how quickly time has gone by. Things happen quickly.

Since our return, I've been to three funerals, one christening and a Holy Communion (that's a lot of church for a heathen like me). My boss nearly got wiped out mountaineering in the Italian Alps (one of his climbing buddies didn't make it). Two uncles, an adoptive grandmother, and a primary school contemporary are no more. And I have finally hit 40. What can I tell you. If mortality were any more in my face, I'd be holding my nose. 

But while I am officially in the second half of the game, there is still everything to play for. If there is one thing I know how do well, it's change. Moving. Starting again. (Running away?) And so we're getting back on the bus. We are leaving Ireland and moving to Letizia's home town of Cagliari, Sardinia. (My long-suffering employers have agreed to let me continue working for them from there.)

This move is the excuse I've been looking for to open fire again on this blog. Sardinia is a place I know well, but have never really lived in. It is a place that I have loved and hated for different reasons and in very unequal measure (on balance it is a place that I believe we can safely call home - for a while at least). For what it is worth to you, and for as long as it might last, I propose to offer a view of life on another island, a diary of a relocated family, and whatever else a brewing midlife crisis will provide. I will avoid, unless humour and a good story demands otherwise, the cliche'd rants on overpaid Italian bureaucrats, crazy driving and endemic gangsterism (in any case, my Irish readers won't find anything novel enough in that). 

If truth be told I'm not sure where this blog is going. But if you enjoyed following us around the world, tune in and follow our latest attempt to escape from reality.