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The Big Smoke

30 Nov

Some people here call Dublin “The Big Smoke”.  It sounds kind of cool, but I have a feeling that it’s like calling San Francisco “Frisco” – people who actually live in SF sort of cringe when they hear it.  In any case, I had to go to Dublin today.

I’m more than a little freaked out that I haven’t posted on the blog for so long, but November has been pretty crazy with Tara’s birthday, massive load at work, Thanksgiving, my MBA classes, rowing, etc. etc. etc.  In the midst of all this, I had to pass a standardised test called the GMAT exam to get “accepted” into the MBA programme that I’ve been enrolled in for the past three months.  Apparently Dublin is the only place in Ireland where you can take the GMAT exam so I had to go to a testing centre in “The Big Smoke”.

Since our friend Zoe is visiting us from Canada, I brought her along to see the sights.  I found the testing center and parked the car and then Zoe and I looked for a nearby place to rendezvous after the exam when…lo and behold….we stumbled upon the National Leprechaun Museum.

The Leprechauns must be camouflaged on the green carpet

The Leprechauns must be camouflaged on the green carpet

Who knew they even had one…I wish I had had the time to go in and see if they had a pot of gold there, but I was too interested in taking my test.  Which turned out to be worthwhile since I got my results and scored a 740 which is 10 points higher than the average Harvard MBA student gets…and puts me solidly in the 97th percentile…boo ya!  Looks like the old noggin still has a few tricks left in it.



3 Nov

A lot of powerful feelings flooded over me as I cleared U.S. immigration two Fridays ago.  I had been out of the country for over a year so I took advantage of my business trip to Mexico to spend the weekend with Mary in New York.

good times, but not very square…

We were both relieved that there wasn’t any trouble with Mary’s green card, but I was feeling very homesick to be in the U.S. without a plan to get home to S.F.   Nonetheless, New York was just as I remembered it.

You just can’t compare the vibrant buzz of the people and the traffic and the spectacular urban vistas in New York with anywhere else in the world.

it’s all about the buildings..

But the last time we were in the city, there were two more buildings on the skyline, and their absence was a tangible weight on top of all the other emotions that our brief stop in the states was stirring.

So the first thing we did on Saturday morning was to head downtown to pay our respects at the World Trade Center Memorial.

As large as the hole in the ground is here, there is no way to measure the holes in all the lives touched by this tragedy

Any words I can put to the experience would be inadequate, but it was cold out, and emotional, and right next to the site was an Irish bar called O’Hara’s from which we could hear a hot beverage crying out our names.  So we stopped in to warm up and chill out.

Every inch of the back-bar at O’Hara’s is covered with the badges of Police and Firefighters from all over the U.S.  As a central hub of the World Trade center rescue, recovery and cleanup, O’Hara’s has served the servers, and these are the tributes to all the men and women who put their lives on the line in service to others.

badges of honor

There is a bar in Kinvara, County Galway that has similarly covered it’s back-bar with the badges of Police and Firefighters from all over the U.S.   In Ireland, these badges honor the contribution the Irish people have made to U.S. emergency services and at O’Hara’s it is the Irish people who honor the emergency workers right back.

Then an elderly man and his wife sat down next to us and ordered with Irish accents.  So we began talking, and it turned out that this couple immigrated to New York in the 50’s during one of the many hard times in Ireland that sent the Irish across the world willing to work.  This fellow came from rural Longford to this enormous city to work as a welder on the tallest buildings in the world – what a mindblowing shock that must have been.

Today was the first time this weary man had come down to the site since his handiwork had been so senselessly wiped out.  Talk about mindblowing.

It occurred to me that the Irish were a big part of both the beginning and the end of the World Trade Center story.

But even without the Twin Towers, New York is still very much alive, and after honoring the dead, we headed to Greenwich Village to celebrate the living.

the “North Beach” of New York

Our friend Mike had told us they were having a block party.  They had blocked off the street, fired up a barbeque grilling burgers and hotdogs, tapped a couple kegs of local microbrews, and were rocking out to a band of enthusiastic local musicians in front of the Tavern on Jane.  Being there at that moment made me even more homesick because the vibe was so similar to the comfortable community coolness of our old North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco.

And just like North Beach, Greenwich Village is full of surprising little nooks and cranny’s that lie just out of sight of the casual passer-by.  In this case, the highlight was a small private garden shared by a bunch of the nieghbors that we could duck into for a quiet break from the crowding mayhem of a New York street party.

garden party in the village

It was a whirlwind one-day visit to the big Apple, but we managed to experience so many different sides of the city that it felt like a whole week.  On Sunday morning, before I headed off to Mexico and Mary headed back to Ireland, we got to experience one last thing that we couldn’t get on the Emerald Isle: a proper brunch at a sidewalk cafe.

homefries in the homeland

Julie’s Visit

29 Sep

Two interesting things happen when you’re an expat and someone visits you from home: 1. There is an interesting sweet/sad emotion that comes from the combination of  joyful re-connecting and wistful homesickness.  2. There is an emergence of a particularly prideful eagerness to show off everything you think is wonderful about where you are.

Our close friend Julie came to visit recently and in doing so, she garnered the honor of being the first (non-Ennis-native) person to come to Ireland from San Francisco to see us.

We did our best to show her not only where, but how, we were living here.  We had ten amazing – but too brief – days full of experiences both ordinary and extraordinary. 

A perfect example was the very first day of Julie’s visit when we picked up the girls from school (ordinary) and then went into town to tour the ancient Franciscan Abbey (extraordinary) built in the year 1240 which makes it one of the oldest buildings in town.

Even though we had been there a few times before, I think you learn more when you are sharing your experiences with someone new.  This time, I realized that since Saint Francis founded his order in 1209, this abbey on this little island not too close to Italy must be one of the earliest Franciscan Abbeys in the world.

But our visit to the Ennis Abbey was only one small moment of Julie’s trip and there were many many more memorable moments….some of which may even get a blog post here.

Spiral of Life

10 Sep

Our morning view of SF’s Mission District – 2011

This morning we all got up just before 6:00am to head down to Shannon Airport to pick up our friend Julie who was coming to visit from San Francisco.

At this exact time, precisely one year ago today, it was just Mary and the girls headed to the airport to pick me up when I arrived in the country.

It’s like a perfect circle. Except that the second time around the circle it’s never exactly the same. More like a spiral. I like this metaphor, the way life circles around repeating itself in amazing ways with infinite variations. Hopefully each time we go around, we grow a little like those shells at the beach.

Our morning view over the hills of County Clare – 2012

The Americans Visit

19 Aug

It was a strangely disconcerting emotional experience having Mary’s brother and his family come to visit Ireland this summer.

For the first 12 years of our marriage, we lived in S.F.  along with Mary’s other expat siblings and they would all trade news of the family back home, get excited about upcoming return trips or melancholy when the time between those trips grew too long.

This summer, though, we were on the other side.  We were “home” this time to witness the excited anticipation that precedes the prodigal return of an expat child.  There were dinners planned, schedules made, houses cleaned and all sorts of gyrations, but ultimately it was really about the kids.

The most cousins I got in the frame was 7

This was the first time we had 9 out of the 10 cousins together, and it was worth all the effort that the Americans made to get here and all the preparations that those here made to host them.  That didn’t mean there wasn’t complete chaos trying to out-do every preceding dinner.

We spent the week in the Burren house – 13 of us – and we got some fantastic warm sunny days, created a whole host of memories for everyone and at least one epic sunset that I managed to get a picture of.

The cousins instantly fell right in and re-connected, and it was heartbreaking to see them go back to San Francisco this morning.

Their visit was a wonderful chance for us to share and show off all the fantastic wonderful things we have discovered about Ireland,  but it also made us feel all the things we missed about SF – mostly all those family and friends who we haven’t seen for so long.

Put me on your t-shirt

19 Jul

It’s a joke on the postcards and t-shirts in the tourist shop: “Irish Traffic Jam” and the cartoon sheep or cows or you name the livestock are all blocking the cars.

..but no joke, the only traffic on my commute today was this:

When I came around the bend and saw them coming at me, I immediately pulled in – and because I know that the engine can spook the sheep, I shut mine down and waited as the farmer driving the red car approached with his arm out the window slapping the side of his door to keep the sheep moving along.

I don’t mind all the traffic because this is where I end up:

It is something of a miracle to me that I can spend the day on the phone to a dozen countries working in a race with daylight to get as much of the project done in my day – and at the end of it, I slow down to let the sheep go by and I get to look out over Galway Bay and think about how different this is to our life in the States….and smile.

Summer Hols

30 Jun

That’s a word I hadn’t heard before….Hols.  Apparently when vacation comes around, it becomes too difficult to say three syllable words like Holidays.   Nonetheless, the kids are out for summer break now. 

Yesterday as we drove to school in the morning, the girls and I busted out a rousing rendition of the theme song from the Phineas and Ferb cartoon.  Why?  Here’s why:

The lyrics are perfect, so if you don’t have a broadband connection to watch the video on or you just can’t understand the words, here they are (the girls know them by heart):

There’s 104 days of summer vacation, then school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation is finding a good way to spend it

Like maybe building a rocket, or fighting a mummy, or climbing up the eiffel tower
Discovering something that doesn’t exist, or giving a monkey a shower

Surfing tidal waves, creating a nanobot, or locating Frankenstein’s brain
Finding a dodo bird, painting a continent, or driving our sister insane

As you can see there’s a whole lot of stuff to do before school starts this fall
So stick with us cause Phineas and Ferb are gonna do it all

Anyway, that’s the song the girls and I sang and bounced up and down to all the way to the last day of school.  And here’s what they looked like when Mary and I went to pick them up afterwards to kick off the Summer Hols:

The particular significance to this moment goes well beyond simply being the last day of school.  The reality is that when we moved to Ireland last Summer we said we would commit to going for a single year and we’d evaluate how it was going at the end of the school year and decide if we were coming back or not.

Most people said “there’s no way you’ll come back after only a year” and we firmly replied that we wouldn’t commit to staying any longer than the school year.  So while it hasn’t been a complete year here yet, the school year is our main marker and we have quickly gotten to that Evaluation point we said we’d get to.

Between the school, the job, the house, the lifestyle and the general pervasive sense of peace and joy we are experiencing here, it looks like we’ll be here longer than our original commitment.  How long?  Who knows?  Who knows anything these days, but I know it’s been one heck of a great school year for the girls. 

Here’s what they looked like on the first day, way back last August:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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