Monthly Archives: July 2011

Cheese, Wine and Cigarettes, or, 4 Days in Paris

Wrote this a few days ago, but only just got my computer hooked up to the internet to be able to post it. Zen Buddhist retreat and Dublin (Part III) to follow – 
Paris, Paris, Paris, Paris, Paris.
Oh, Paris.
Paris and I have been on bad terms since 2002 (and I do mean the city, not the Hilton heiress. Though, come to think of it, I’ve probably been on bad terms with Paris Hilton since 2002 as well. Not that I’d say she noticed). From the moment I saw the Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe from a zooming, dark grey tour bus window, I’ve hated the place. Was it the fact that it had been built up by so many travellers (and French people) as the most beautiful, the most romantic, the most cultural city in the world, that left me inevitably disappointed? Was it the fact that I was yelled at by three separate French people in one single afternoon (the only afternoon I was in Paris)? Was it the ‘deaf and dumb’ Gypsy girl at the station attempting to get me to sign her paper, or the African men at Montmarte attempting to get my wrist, or the Arabic men under the Eiffel tower trying to sell me cheap, tourist crap? Was it that our hotel sent us up 4 flights of stairs with out luggage because the lift was broken, and then gave us the tiniest, limpest croissant and hardest cube of butter for ‘breakfast’ leaving us starving not 30 minutes later? Was it that all the people on my tour bus decided to spend their only free afternoon in Paris at the Australian pub? Was it that our second day in France was spent, not at Versailles, but at Euro Disney?
It was probably a combination of all these things. But, for whatever reason, I felt very much like Paris was not welcoming me in with open arms, baguettes, berets and roses, as had been promised, but giving me the finger and screaming ‘F*** You’ in my face (word for word what one of the Parisians yelled at me during my single afternoon in Paris), a reaction which I could not believe I deserved. The only logical retaliation was to return the favour, ‘fart in its general direction’, and relegate it to the bottom of my ‘Desired and Appealing Tourist Destinations’ list, somewhere below Tehran and Damascus, but still ahead of, say… Baghdad. But only just.
For years, I maintained that Paris wasn’t worth a damn, that the Parisians were the most unpleasant people on the planet, and only snooty, arrogant people wanted to learn French, or be French. On my next trip to Europe, I refused to set foot inside the country again, taking pleasure in flying over it to get to Austria. I was so determined to hate Paris that I maliciously forgot most of the few memories I had of the place, including, until recently, the fact that I had gone up the Eiffel Tower. But, just a few months ago, I got a vague image of an album with some photos in it of me at the top of the Eiffel Tower, the fence that stops people falling/jumping (don’t blame them) off the tower behind me, and beyond that, the incredible expanse of France’s capital city (just like everybody else who has ever visited Paris – go on, admit it, if you’ve been to Paris, you have these photos). I was so underwhelmed by that city and that view I couldn’t even remember seeing it myself. All I can remember is the photos.
I wouldn’t have returned to Paris, really I wouldn’t have, but two very good Australian friends of mine happened to be visiting France for 4 – 5 weeks over the summer this year, and it seemed insane of me to refuse to visit them simply because of the grudge I held against Paris.
Flying in on Wednesday morning, I was reminded of the huge sprawl of the city, and more than that, the horror stories people had told me about the maze that is Charles de Gaulle airport. I had never seen it before, and looking down on it from above was certainly intimidating. My friends had told me they would pick me up, but I had no idea, looking at the immensity of the airport, how they would find me. I had a feeling I was going to spend my 4 days in Paris circling the airport, attempting to find my way out again.
The plane landed, and the first signs that nothing had changed in Paris in 9 years were that a passport control man assumed that I was American (and treated me accordingly), and that a lady pushed right in front of me in the toilet line (the French do not love and respect queues in the same way the English and myself do). I was desperate to correct the passport man and punch the woman. However, the lady who eventually stamped my passport gave me a big smile, a friendly, ‘Bonjour’ and a heartfelt ‘Merci’ as she handed it back. There’s nothing like being in a country where they speak a foreign language (and you understand it, however little) that cheers me up. So, walking out to get my bag, I was optimistic about the trip. But, then I saw the inside of the airport.
For those of you who haven’t been to Charles de Gaulle airport, I’ll try to give you an idea of what it was like. I was in Terminal 1, which was a great big skyscraper, with a road seeming to spiral around it, with exits every few metres. I was near exit 26, and there were at least 2 more terminals next door, that I presumed were just as big. I had a number for my friends, but they had no credit, and I didn’t know that I had enough credit to call them. I had to find a payphone. Remember them? Back when no-one had mobiles or iPhones or iPads or Skype? I wasn’t even sure if they existed anymore. But, I managed to find a payphone AND free internet right next to each other. After a couple of mistaken attempts at calling my friend (and some completely incomprehensible French down the end of the line), I got through to her. “Where are you?” she asked, sounding a little worried. “Terminal 1,” I answered. “Gate 26”. “Ok, I’m at Gate 28,” she said as the line went dead. Gate 28? It seemed too good to be true. I followed a group of Eastern European orchestra members out of the terminal, and there was my friend, turning in circles, trying to locate me. It was a miracle! A modern-day, French miracle! I already liked Paris a great deal.
After a hair-raising drive on the ‘Prepherique’ (the Ring Road that goes right around the main part of Paris, inside of which live approximately 2.5 million Parisians, outside of which live the other 9-odd million, according to one of our travel guides), during which I decided that whilst I was considering changing my opinion on Paris the city, I still wasn’t crash-hot on Parisian drivers, we arrived in Montmarte, where my friends had been staying in an apartment for the past few weeks. We dumped my bags and headed up the hill to see the church and the view of the city. Sitting on the grass, talking to my friends about all the great times they had had in France, I decided I was ready to throw away my old pride and prejudice and embrace Paris again. Even if the single ‘deaf and dumb’ Gypsy girl was now multiplied 50 times over, with even greater force and audacity and even if the cheap tat was still for sale in front of every tourist attraction.
By the way, for those of you who haven’t been to Paris, I’ve been putting ‘deaf and dumb’ in inverted commas, not because I’m a heartless and inconsiderate so-and-so, but because these girls (and boys now) will come up to you with a sheet of paper with a little symbol of an ear on it with a cross over the top. They will point to it, then point to their mouths and shake their heads. They will then ask you to write your name on what looks like a petition. If you do so, they will then ask you for money. I hadn’t realised this is what they did, I had been approached by one on my last visit, and ignored her completely due to my ‘new-city’ paranoia. My friends explained the procedure to me as we watched all the gypsy girls and boys sit around and have a chat, making it kind of obvious that they were neither ‘deaf’ nor ‘dumb’.
We went out for lunch, had a rest, and then went out for dinner. For dinner we went to a chic little tapas restaurant, which had the most adorable waitress. I fell deeply in love with her. She had caramel brown 1950’s nerdy glasses, light blonde hair, a navy cardigan, long rows of small beads hanging around her neck, a small tattoo on the inside of her wrist, on top of which her slightly gaunt look and softly spoken voice made everything about her seem tiny and delicate. In fact, I fell in love with every Parisian I saw, as each seemed more stylish and confident and beautiful than the other. I saw very few overweight people (and most of them overweight people I saw were tourists), which certainly intimidated me, but it made for wonderful people-watching.
And, it was people-watching that we mainly did. We hopped to various bars around the place, ate great food and drank wonderful wine. The wonderful wine was made all the more wonderful because you could either order a glass, or, pay slightly more and get a little carafe of wine instead. You could get various sizes of carafes, going all the way up to the full bottle, and then you would pour it into your glass. There was something very stylish and classy about this – you didn’t have to see the advertising on the wine bottle. You could pretend the wine came from the vineyard out the back, which the beautiful, willowy French waitress had just wafted off to, filled up the carafe from a giant oak vat and brought it back to you at your table.

The other thing we did was smoke cigarettes. Yes, I smoked cigarettes. 4, to be precise. Which may seem like only a few, but was far too many for a non-smoker in a short period of time. By the end of the last day I couldn’t even stomach the smell of other people’s cigarettes, which was a shame considering it was absolutely impossible to get away from the smell of cigarettes in Paris. This was actually the reason I smoked the cigarettes in the first place. It didn’t seem possible to be in Paris, sitting at a café, having a glass of red and not smoking a cigarette. Certainly nobody else I saw was doing that. Talk about unconscious peer pressure.
(As a side note, apparently ‘French women don’t get fat’ – search it on if you don’t believe me – and I want to say, that if I was a French woman, or just a woman living in France, I would become an alcoholic, chain-smoking, cheese-munching 500lb heifer, if this last 4 day experience is anything to go by. Probably a good incentive not to move there).
We did also take a day trip to Rheims (pronounced kind of like ‘hands’ if you were attempting to say ‘hands’ as an 80 year-old emphezyma-riddled German woman who is having a whooping cough induced fit, and also in the first stages of lung cancer. If you get my drift), which is where they make a lot of champagne. A lot of VERY GOOD champagne. We wanted to do some champagne tours, but many of the places were too good to be bothered with tourists, and many others were too good to be booked on the same afternoon as when we wanted to visit, so we only got to see one. But, it was Mumm, so it wasn’t too bad. We got a glass of champagne, were taken 25km under the earth to see Mumm’s actual cellars (the temptation to take a bottle of partially finished Mumm champagne and slip it into my handbag was great, let me assure you), and heard all about the changing process of making the champagne over the years. We saw some bottles of champagne from 1893 onwards, which are kept so that the Master of the Mumm Cellars can come down and taste them now and again, to make sure that the Mumm taste stays consistent over the years. There were many interesting facts about champagne, which I had never considered before (how do they get the same, or a similar, taste year after year when the grapes and the conditions are always changing???), had been misinformed about (a ‘vintage’ year is not necessarily better than the ordinary champagne. If the vintage for a particular year has been bad, the Master of the Cellars is still limited to only using grapes from that vintage in the vintage champagne. The ordinary champagne can be made from grapes from across many years, to get the best taste, but not the vintage champagnes. For Mumm champagne, 2002 and 2004 were good vintages – little tip from me to you), or had simply never entered my consciousness (you can get a job at Mumm turning bottles of champagne in their cellar. It’s a highly skilful job, will take you 2 years to learn and you will spend your days turning the bottles between 15 – 25 degrees to the left, to the right, or up. You will then do it again and again and again until the champagne is ready. But be warned, if you get it wrong, you will ruin all the highly expensive and fancy-pants champagne and possibly end up angering many rich, fancy-pants people. Anyone up for that?)
But, Rheims itself was also very pretty, and very sunny, which made a nice change. The one thing that I still hold against Paris is that the weather wasn’t that much better than the weather in Ireland. It was cold, rainy or overcast most days, and again, very changeable. I went out to the shops one day, thinking, ‘Oh, lovely and warm’, walked inside, came out half and hour later and it was pouring down and freezing. But, nobody talks about how the weather in Paris is dreadful. The Irish are always talking about bad weather their weather is, whereas the French keep mum. Actually, on second thoughts, that’s probably a better idea. Its probably an actual policy of the French Tourism Board. That way, instead of people thinking, ‘Oh, I won’t go to Paris, its got weather just like Ireland,’ they’ll come to Paris and just think they were unlucky to get bad weather. Maybe Ireland should start up a similar strategy. They could do a ‘global warming’ advertising campaign in Australia, with pictures of sunny hillsides, saying: ‘Too hot in Australia? Come to Ireland! We’ve got the weather you used to have,’ and then, when the Aussies arrived and it was raining, they’d just think, ‘Oh, tough luck, we got the bad weeks’ (Global Warming Humour: Politically Incorrect? This whole random segue about Irish and Parisian weather: Too long in an already far too long post?)
The only other thing to say, if I still have your attention (and I hope I do), and if you’re still reading this far (and I hope you are), through all my parentheses (and other nonsense), is that whilst it has been wonderful seeing all these friends and family over the past two weeks, its also been incredibly hard. Every time I’ve met up with someone, I’ve had to say goodbye again a few hours or a few days later. I’ve been feeling more homesick and sad over the last 2 weeks than I have for a while (probably since Dad and Elizabeth visited). Having said that, I’m not at all sad I met up with everyone, just that I am homesick, and whilst I have loved many things about my time so far in Ireland, there are other things that have been very, very difficult. And, whilst I still maintain that there is a reason I’m over here, and planning on staying over here for the next few years at least, and that I may even be getting closer to understanding that reason, I still do miss Australia and my friends and family. I still think I’ll come back some day. But, we’ll see. No need to attempt to predict the future (says the girl who is always worrying about it. I’m at a Zen Buddhist retreat at the moment – more on that in the next post – so I’m trying to be very ‘in the present’. Its working tolerably well).

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Welcome to the Friendliest Place on Earth: Inishbofin Island

My holidays started last Friday, and it just couldn’t have happened at a better time. My last day at work, I ended up falling asleep on the couch when the littlest was watching TV. Not the most responsible of child-minding behaviours, but I couldn’t help it. I kept trying to wake myself up, but I’d just fall back asleep again (also, not the most restful of sleeps, when you keep forcing yourself awake every 15 minutes to make sure the child hasn’t fallen off the table or set herself on fire or something similar). Anyway, I headed off on holidays the next morning. THANK GOD.
I took a bus to Galway, where I was meeting up with a family friend. I’ve known her since she was a bubba, and we used to put on horrendous plays and recitals for our parents, go for bushwalks around her Blue Mountains home, get lollies from the Leura lolly shop, go to the beach – you know, all the stereotypical, fabulous, childhood stuff. However, the last time I had seen her was very briefly whilst on a date at the Speigeltent in 2010, and the last time I had spoken to her properly was in 2006 when my family was passing through the mountains. So, what I am saying is that I was a little hesitant about whether or not we were going to get along, or if we would have things in common, or if we’d fine things to talk about, or if we’d have a conversation like Darcy & Elizabeth in ‘P&P’ when they meet at Pemberley and he asks her how her parents are twice because he has no idea what to talk to her about and he’s so awkward and then he runs off.
Anyway, of course it was fine. It was better than fine, it was fantastic. There was a slight mix-up with which bus station we were meeting at (there are 2 in Galway, which I didn’t know, and, of course, we were both at different ones), but after that, we went and had a leisurely lunch and caught up on the last decade of our lives (it was so leisurely the Polish waitress assumed that I didn’t like my vegetable soup and kept asking if I wanted to change it, and when I said I was enjoying it, she wouldn’t believe me and kept saying it was no problem, no problem….) We then jumped on a bus to the amusingly named Cleggan (try saying it out loud – its fun!), though the other amusingly named Clifden, on the way to the hilariously named ‘Letterfrack’. From Cleggan, we got a boat to the best named place of all, ‘Inishbofin Island’.
I had mentioned to my friend when she got into Galway, that we didn’t have to go all the way out there, that the weather forecast was bad, that we could just stay in Galway and have fun in the town. But, she was still enthusiastic, and I wanted to see the island too, so we thought we’d risk it. But, the closer we got to Cleggan, the darker the skies became, the more sideways the wind blew the grass, the more rain splattered across the bus’ windscreen. It was more than a little depressing and worrisome. It got terrifying, however, as we waited on the pier for the ferry and waves began to break over the top of the pier wall, splashing us poor frozen and wet passengers huddling below. Then the ferry broke its mooring. Only one rope, of course, but that’s not really comforting when you’re about to jump on board a tiny ferry to cross mighty and terrifying seas for half an hour to get to some windy and rainy rock, which is beginning to seem less and less appealing, especially now that you can’t even remember the reason you insisted on wanting to come to the blasted place in the first place, and then you realise, and curse the island’s website that presented the black, moss-covered rock as if it were a freakin’ Mediterrean paradise with white sandy beaches and calm, turquoise seas (here, see for yourself ).
The ferry crossing was awful. I became very religious and philosophical, crying out for help from a God I didn’t believe in, and becoming very empathetic towards my brave ancestors who had travelled on a creaky wooden boat all the way to bloody Australia. I thought the worst waves were the ones that broke white foam over the ship’s decks, but it turned out the worst ones were the ones you didn’t even realise you were on, and then, suddenly, to the side of you, a valley of water would open up, and you would realise the boat was about the tip into it, and the come up the other side. It was like being in ‘Castaway’ or some other terrible Hollywood film about oceans. ‘Titanic’, perhaps.
When we got out of the boat, our lovely hostel manager was there to meet us and take our bags up to the hostel. However, when he saw us in the wind and the rain, and me in my pathetic jacket, he told us to get into the van and he would drive us up the hill too. We arrived at the ever-so-lovely, Inishbofin Island Hostel, all white and blue and big, airy ceilings. We dumped our bags, and headed next door to the Dolphin restaurant for a hearty dinner (I had a large vegetable lasagne, which was divine, and about halfway through it, the waitress came out and asked if I wanted salad & chips. I awkwardly asked if it was… *whispered* included. She said it was, so I said, go for it. She brought out a plate of salad as big as my lasagne and a plate of chips about half as big again as than the lasagne. I scoffed at the amount of food, thinking it was impossible I would get it through it all. Of course, I ended up getting a Bailey’s cheesecake as well…. *sigh*).
We headed back to the hostel after a long dinner, to find a big group of people sitting around and singing along to a guitar. And before you sigh and think, ‘goddam 20-something hippies with their dreadlocks, fisherman’s pants and Ben Harper covers’, it was two families from Northern Ireland with middle-age parents, a Swiss exchange student, and a couple of retirees, all with a lot of red wine and too many blocks of Swiss chocolate in them. I had some work to do, but after a little while, I shyly came over and asked if I could join in. They were so welcoming. After a couple of songs, I sang some harmony with them on ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.’ They encouraged me to sing a song, so I sang (again – I have to get some new songs!), ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. They loved it, and teased me about my hesitant request to join in before hand. The night finished with renditions of some silly songs, like ‘7 Drunken Nights’, and one of the fathers singing, with his gorgeous, bright red-haired ‘Colleen’ of a daughter curled up on his lap. Another Australian song (cheery this time) was requested, but I could only think of mournful ones, so we had a couple more Irish songs and headed to bed. It was so lovely and open and friendly and communal.
The next morning dawned grey and blustery. I still had no suitable clothing, I hadn’t even thought to bring a warm jumper, packing only little cardigans (‘it’s my summer holidays! why would I bring a jumper???’), so I was forced to borrow an emerald green, ankle-length, drover-style rain jacket, which made me look about twice my size and as if I belonged in a BBC TV drama about Northern English middle-aged farmers’ wives.
Still, it kept me warm and dry on our first jaunt around the Eastern side of the island, suggested by the hostel worker, as the walk kept our backs to the wind.
The landscape of the island was beautiful, if a little bleak and desolate. There’s a permanent population of 150 people, and both me and my friend were fascinated to know what sort of person decided they wanted to live out in the middle of the ocean on such a remote little island. Some houses, you would have woken up in the morning to see ocean on one side, ocean on the other, mountain on another, and open fields filled with sheep on the final one. It would take a certain type of personality.
We took a break at a pub over lunch for a warm tea, then went for another wander, headed back to the hostel for another break, and then decided to head to the ‘wild west side’ of the island (full faceful of wind). Here we met up with the Northern Ireland families again (I’ve decided the Northern Ireland accent is definately my favourite Irish accent, its so musical and so funny), who told us about a blowhole they were about to visit on their bikes. We followed for a little while, but it started to rain, so they encouraged us to turn around and take shelter in the nearest pub (the safest place around, as anyone who is a fan of ‘Sean of the Dead’ will know). Its remarkable how many pubs (around 4 or 5) there were for a population of just 150. We came inside to catch the end of a Gaelic football match, a cosy little fire and an eclectic mix of folk sitting around the bar. One of the best things about Irish pubs is how mixed the drinking groups are. There will be children with their parents, teenagers with their grandparents, 20-somethings on dates, tourists, and middle-aged folk of all varieties all sitting around, chatting and sharing a pint. It makes for a much friendlier and less intimidating vibe than, say, the White Horse or the Slip Inn on a Saturday night.
About an hour after we arrived, a trad. session started up. This was the best music I have heard so far on my trip: very traditional, with a few American folk songs thrown in for good measure. The musicians sat in a circle facing each other, very much playing as myself and the Northern Irish families had been singing the night before. It didn’t seem pretentious or snobby, though, it just made them seem like all they really cared about was the music. They were playing because they loved it, not because they wanted to make a spectacle of themselves. There was a young bloke there, with dreads and tattoos, and he sang the most beautiful Irish song, totally unaccompanied, called ‘Tipping it up to Nancy.’ I, of course, fell in love on the spot, and tracked him down the next day, to demand he tell me the name of the song (and in hope he might ask me for my name and email address…. I’ll let you guess whether or not that actually happened).
The vibe was so lovely and the music so great, we ended up sitting in the pub for a good 5 hours without getting bored. The lovely Northern Irish families came and shared our tables with us, told us about their town, Portaferry, and about their own experiences in Australia, many years ago. I would have happily stayed longer, but it was getting dark outside, there are no street lamps on the island, and we didn’t have torches. So, we walked back to the hostel in the dying daylight at about 10:30pm. Others stayed on later, we ran into a 60-something woman the next day who told us she had walked back to her hotel alone around 3am. This made me feel more than a little soft.
The next day was, agian, pretty miserable, but we got up and had a bit of a wander around the middle of the island before heading to our ferry at 1pm. As we were waiting for the ship, an elderly man who I had seen in the pub the night before came up to us. ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’ he demanded. We said we were. He said, ‘But I never even got a chance to chat to you!’ As he left, my friend turned to me and asked if I knew who he was. I said I’d seen him across the pub floor, but that was it. We admired the fact that, again, the people on this island seemed to be the friendliest we had ever met. The man seemed to think that simply by us being on his island, he should have spoken to us, and furthermore, that we would possibly have been upset and/or insulted by the fact that he hadn’t done so! That he felt the need to apologise for this lax attention on his behalf. It was more than a little amusing.
We very sadly took the ferry back to Cleggan (a much smoother journey – we spent most of the trip out on deck, watching the island get further and further away from us). We arrived back in Galway around 5pm, and after dumping our bags in our hostel, we headed out for some dinner and drinks. We headed out to some traditional pubs for more music, which my friend admitted she normally hated, but there was something about seeing it in context that made sense to her. Which was lucky, really, because I was determined to listen to it all night long. We made more friends in the pub, one man who caught me yawning and tried to insist I go home before I fell asleep, another who heard me cry out, ‘Jay-sus,’ and asked if I was from Galway (turned out he was from Cork – he thought I sounded Irish!) some very drunk 60-something men from Tennessee (with their oh-so-proper, and utterly gorgeous, 60-something wives, who were all sisters), and a hideous, elderly Irish man, who held my hand rather close to his bottom, and told me that every day was a sunny day with me around, he could tell by the ‘fun in my eyes’. Would have been charming if he wasn’t so leery.
The next morning, we did a bit of shopping, found the most adorable toy store ever (owned by a German, of course), filled with beautiful wooden models and soft hand puppets. A spiral staircase took us up to two upper levels with more delightful dolls, puzzles and rocking horses hidden away in varioius nooks and crannies. We ironically bought a pile of presents for ourselves and for our parents at this store.
I bid farewell to my friend after lunch, and she told me that Ireland was probably the friendliest place she had ever visited, which made me feel very happy, considering the appalling weather we had experienced. I took myself for a wander up to Salthill, which is a lovely seaside walk on the outskirts of Galway. I then got a message from a lovely Irish friend of mine who is also in the Creative Connections course (she and I made the fabulous chest of drawers together). She, her husband and kids were in the Galway area for a holiday, and she wanted to know if I was around for a coffee. We met up for a cuppa in the beautiful Ard Bia at Nimmos, the most fantastic, cosy, eclectic cafe, located in a little stone building on the River Corrib. Her husband looked like a red-haired Brendan Gleeson, which was pretty darn cool, as far as I was concerned, and we had a fantastic chat, whereby she gave me much encouragement for my latest plan of moving to Germany (she’d done it herself, knowing no German), and suggestions of where I could find work (did I tell you about this plan? I met a fabulous Texan at my friend’s wedding in Florence who was living in Berlin, and I was complaining that I would love to do that. Her response was one that was familiar to me, because it was the same sort of no-nonsense response that got me to book my ticket to Ireland: ‘Well, if you want to do it so bad, just do it. Have some courage and just do it.’ Me: “Oh, yeah, right, just do it. Of course.’) We headed to the art gallery across the road, and then I, unfortunately, had to catch the bus to Dublin. Galway really is a gorgeous town, though, and I can’t wait to head back there before my meditation course next week on the Aran Islands.
As many of you know, I don’t really like Dublin, but I was lucky enough to meet up with some relatives for dinner that night. They took me out to Thai, which was amazing, because I hadn’t had it since I’d left Australia, and apart from spilling an entire glass of perfectly good red wine on the floor (and a couple of drops onto a poor, unkown fellow’s sock), I had a fabulous night. Its so lovely, and not a little strange, meeting up with friends and family over here. I do get more than a little emotional when we have to say good-bye. I do miss Australians and their enthusiasm and openness. Well, no, that’s a lie. I freakin’ hate meeting random Australians in hostels (and they are in every bloody hostel I go into), because it makes me feel like I’m just doing what every other 20-something Australian does. But, I can’t deny that I do love Australians, and I miss my Australian family and friends. More so than anything about the county. Well, no, I do love the country, but there is a sense that it will always be there, waiting for me when I’m ready to go back. Except that, it might not,w hat with climate change and all. ANYWAY, for whatever reason, I feel sad about the not being with the people, my friends and family, because I am missing all sorts of moments and experiences with them. Anyway, that was a very convoluted and silly paragraph. Probably all the French red wine I’m drinking.
That’s right, FRENCH red wine, because, guess where I am now???
An apartment in Montmarte, Paris! And I’ve met up with some of my favourite Aussies, from the Actors Centre, and we are making the most of the cheese, the wine and the bread. Its divine, and my new plan, just formulating in my head over the last day or two, is to move to Paris after Berlin. I’ve completely forgotten Scotland. I’m so changeable and enthusiastic and fickle at the moment. But, I do have a real feeling of freedom and movement as well. That the next few years are mine to do whatever the hell I want with, and if that means flitting from European country to European country, then that is what I will do.
Speaking of which, I intend to head back to Inishbofin Island next year, because I think you can work at the hostel for free accommodation. I think I would like to stay there for a month, just sit in the pub, listen to dreadlocked men singing Irish songs and write or read or learn to play the guitar or something else entirely. I don’t know, but there was something about that expeirence on the island that clicked with me. There was something about that real community feeling, that was sort of what I was hoping to find when I moved to Ireland.
Agh, waxing lyrical about community. Time to stop drinking red wine. Or, at least, time to stop blogging whilst drinking red wine. Now its time to dance to Sarah Vaughan in my lovely embroidered dress, fishnet stockings whilst drinking red wine in my Parisian apartment. Woo hoo.
More on Paris tomorrow.
Oh, and here is a beautiful version of the beautiful song. No dreadlocks though:

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A Day at the Beach in Ireland

It got hot enough and sunny enough on Tuesday to go to the beach.
There was a little bit of drama in the morning, as my eldest girl decided she didn’t want to go to the beach, even though she ALWAYS wants to go to the beach (she wanted to go in February), which was all very confusing, but her parents convinced her… well, told her, that she was going.
I took note from my last outing with the girls, and I overpacked with regards to nappies, baby wipes, sunscreen, food, towels, swimmers, cardigans, blankets, hats, toys and drinks. Even then I still probably underpacked. You never know what a child may need or request on a day out. Best to just take everything you happen to spy as you are packing the bags. Don’t ever ask, ‘Oh, but will I really need a comparative history of communist states in the 1960s and a broken toaster for a jaunt down to the beach with a 3-year-old?’ Just take them. The children will find a use for them. They will especially find a use for them if you don’t bring them with you.
The beach we went to was Inchydoney Beach, just outside of Clonakilty, which is a ‘blue flag’ beach, meaning it is especially clean and well-looked after. The morning we were there, land movers were hurriedly scooping up a whole pile of green algae off the ‘pristine sands’, which occurs from farm pollution going into the water system and out onto the beach. There’s even a surf school at Inchydoney, which made me feel very at home, though when I got on to the beach and saw the size of the ‘waves’ I thought it might be more than a little bit of wishful thinking. Still, most of the group were children, so maybe the waves were just the right size.
I had been informed before we left the house by my eldest charge that she would not be swimming. Her younger sister, however, is impossible to keep out of the water. I wasn’t worried, though, I assumed that as soon as she saw us in our swimmers, the eldest would want to join in.
When we got to Inchydoney, the eldest girl asked where we were putting our towels down. I said, ‘wherever you like,’ which, was, of course, a mistake. She straightaway chose a spot right near the stairs, about 200 – 300m away from the water. To begin with, this was not a problem. The eldest said she wanted to sun-bathe, and the youngest likes to do everything the eldest does, at least for a little while, so she said she would sunbathe as well. Me, deprived of the Aussie sun for far too many months, and suddenly realising I have a deep and passionate love for the sun (which I never realised when I was in Australia), was quite happy to forget all anti-cancer ads I had ever heard and do the same thing. I was amazed that both of them, lay down, quietly, for more than 30 minutes without jumping on me, complaining they were bored or getting into a fight. The peace was not to last, of course. The youngest, decided she wanted to go swimming. I helped her get into her bathers. But I then faced the problem that I absolutely could not let the youngest go in the water alone, and the eldest was absolutely not going to let me leave her alone all the way up on the dry sand. She eventually agreed to come with us to the water. But, hanging on the sidelines as people splash about in the water is not much fun, so she returned to the blankets. In the water, with my back to the blankets, it seemed she was hugely vulnerable to being snatched off the beach by some passing paedophile (they are just always passing, you know), so I dragged her sister, wailing and kicking back to the blankets and attempted to negotiate the moving of the blankets closer to the water. The elder girl would have none of it. The sand near the water was hard and not nice to lie on. Eventually, I convinced her there were dry patches of sand further down the beach and she reluctantly followed. She still insisted on pointedly laying 3 or 4 towels down over the top of her blanket before she agreed to lie down. It was like the bloody princess and the pea.
I went back to the water with the youngest, but, of course, even though we were closer to her, the eldest was very unhappy that she wasn’t the focus of attention. She came over to me and told me she wanted to go home because she was bored. So, I offered to take her for a walk all the way down the beach, because this way, her sister could walk through the water, and she could walk on the dry sand. It was a very neat compromise. Until they started picking up the smelly, sandy seaweed and hurling it into my face. And, then they started forgoing the seaweed and just scooping up the grey, smelly sand and hurling that at me. The eldest girl in particular was infuriating as she was fully dressed and so every time someone went to throw seaweed at her, she would run away screeching and wailing and getting into a temper, as if it were the most horrendous, torturous thing that anyone had ever done to her. When we put down the seaweed, she would then pick up a great big glob of the stuff and hurl it at us. Not a particularly fun or fair game.
Eventually, the eldest girl agreed to go in the water, but then, for some reason, her younger sister decided she was terrified of the water and refused to go in. By about 3pm, I had had enough of attempting to be in two places at once, and packed everyone up and left. When I got home, I realised I truly had had an Irish day at the beach – I was completely and utterly roasted, just like the Irish tourists you see at Bondi Beach who are so sun-starved they just take all their clothes and lie in the sun for the rest of their holiday, or until they’ve gotten sun-stroke. I haven’t been able to sleep comfortably for the last few nights, the sunburn still hurts that much. Very bad of me.

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My Best Friend

My eldest girl had her ‘best friend’ over for a play date on Wednesday. This girl is a sensation in our household. She and my charge became friends on the school bus, as she is a year older than my charge and not in her class. My charge does not stop talking about her. Her best friend’s name is turned into songs, into passwords in games that we play, into poems, into stories, into our make-believe games etc. etc. Even though this magical child has only visited our house once, the whole family knows her full name, her family’s names, what sorts of things she has in her house, the fact that she doesn’t like dogs, and we all speak about her at least 3 or 4 times a day, simply because there is currently no more exciting topic of conversation for my eldest charge.
When the girl came over for the play date on Wednesday, there was much celebration from my eldest girl. The best friend was treated like royalty. Lollies were handed to her first, she was given first choice of chips, popcorn, sandwiches etc. If she said she didn’t like something, neither did my eldest charge. If she said she did like something, so did my eldest charge.
I, on the other hand, became persona non gratis. I was looked upon with great scorn and derision by my eldest charge. I was not allowed to participate in conversations with the two of them, I was ignored whilst they were playing together, my charge always going to her mother, I was only good as a fetcher of toys, food and other necessary items, and only as a far second to my host mother (I was referred to as the ‘servant’ at one point by my charge, which thrilled me no end, let me assure you). This was not attitude that I received from the friend, by the way, who really is a charming and sweet little girl, but from my own charge. She was so determined to have this little girl all to herself that she was jealously protecting her from all other quarters, from anyone else who might potentially steal her away, and whilst she was pretty sure her mother wasn’t about to attempt anything, she didn’t trust me as far as she could throw me with her puny little 8 year-old arms.
It was, of course, not a little hurtful, but its not behaviour that is surprising or even particularly foreign to me. The best friend is such an important possession in girl world, and certainly was to me as I was growing up. I remember a fantasy I created as a child of around 7 or 8 (about the same age as my eldest charge), which I felt very guilty about, but loved to play and replay in my head (no, not that sort of fantasy, you dirty buggers). There was a little girl in my class that I thought was the bee’s knees. She was pretty, nice, gentle, freckles, long, blonde hair and a really lovely family. Whenever I went to her house I had the best time. I desperately wanted to be her best friend, but I had only just moved back to Newcastle after being overseas, and I was too late to be nominated for such an important post – that is to say, it had already been filled. My family was also too late to be part of the coveted ‘family friends’ group of this little girl’s family either, much to my chagrin. Let me be clear, we were family friends, but there were other, more special family friends: family friends who had been there since the beginning, who booked holidays together, who went to each others dinner parties and joked about various cross-family sibling pairings getting married one day so that they would all end up related to each other. So, to make myself feel better, I created this fantasy, which revolved around the stories I had heard of the Newcastle earthquake, where one day at school, the concrete playground opened up wide and all the other little children were swallowed whole, so that it was just me and the object of my affection left. She had no choice but to become my best friend.
I eventually got my very own best friend, someone who I would remain linked to all through primary school. She was also sweet, pretty with lots of lovely freckles (and, actually, now that I think about it, she had the same name as the first girl I really liked, though it was spelt differently… wow, rebound best friend, do you think?) and she had a great house too. We were best friends for 3 and a half years and we did everything together. Walked to school, spent weekends together, dressed my cat in peasant clothing, dressed ourselves in peasant clothing, watched movies (including ‘A Chorus Line’ and its very scandalous song about sex, which we approached in highly mature and oh-so-serious manner, collapsing into hopeless giggles every time the guy sang, ‘but then we did it again’), lay in bed reading ‘Garfield’ comics together, packed picnics and went on adventures through the backyard and down to the park together. We had our own complete fantasy existence in the school playground, which ran parallel to, and in and out of, all the ball games and tag games that all the other children were playing. We had personal jokes and personal songs. Personal dances and personal stories. We could crack each other up with just a word and a wiggle of the ears.
And then, abruptly, she left me to be Mary in the Australian production of The Secret Garden.
Such betrayal! Such jealousy! I didn’t know what I was more upset over: that her family had let her audition for a professional show, that she had been cast (another horrible moment I remember, which made me feel like I was a terrible human being – sitting in the bathroom praying fervently to a God I didn’t believe in that she wouldn’t get the part that she had been shortlisted for it, because ‘even though she was a better dancer than me, we were just as good singers as each other and I was a better actor’), or that she was leaving me behind, making new friends, and having new experiences that I wasn’t a part of. To make things worse, after the production, she ended up going to the private high school in Newcastle, and I went to the selective public high school, meaning we didn’t see each other regularly anymore and our passionate little friendship fell into non-existence. I ran into her at a shopping centre in Sydney a few years ago, and we were utterly delighted to see each other,  exchanged numbers, promised to call, meet up, catch up, but we haven’t spoken since. Part of me wonders if she’s on Facebook, and the other half just feels like that friendship was confined to a certain time and place and its past and it will never come back.
For the first few years of high school, I was casting about for another passionate friendship that could replace the one that had been so cruelly taken from me. I gave my heart away to another pretty, blonde-haired girl, following her about like a little pup, liking everything she liked, hating everything she hated, not expressing an opinion or desire until I had checked what hers was beforehand. Turned out, in the end, her opinion was that I was a pretty awful and annoying human being who she didn’t like very much at all, which was all very confusing and just a step too far for me (though I certainly took some of her thoughts on board), so I moved on.
There were various best friends in between, some of them are still friends, some of them are not. One in particular took up a majority of my high school years. I saw this girl most days (except Sundays), we spoke on the phone most nights and wrote each other letters in between times. We spent most of our time talking about the boys we liked, how much we liked them and how desperately we wished they would like us back. Looking back on it, I don’t know how these particular boys would have fit into our lives, we were so focused on each other, but that is besides the point. It was a friendship of a similar intensity to my primary school friendship, personal stories and personal jokes, dissolving into helpless giggles with just the mention of a word or a movement. I was always aware of the fact that I was not actually the ‘titled’ best friend, but I took comfort in the fact that, in my mind, we were so much more in tune, talked to each other much more, saw each other more than my friend and her actual ‘best friend’ did. It was all very complicated and difficult and political and at one point caused me great angst and self-doubt and jealousy and uncertainty.
And, then, sometime in Year 11, without me even realising it, without anything definite really happening, we just… stopped. The relationship just ended somewhere around June, July, August 2000. I can’t even give you an exact date, because there was no falling out, no event that I can point to and say, ‘there. Right then, that was the reason we stopped being friends.’ Its all…  kind of blank and mixed up. I got very busy with drama projects, she got less busy with them. Her views on the Australian film industry, on the British film industry, on anything that wasn’t completely mainstream started to really piss me off. She seemed totally stuck in Newcastle, with no desire to challenge herself and leave and cut a new path somewhere else (please realise that this was what I thought at the time, in Year 11, and is no reflection on her and her actual achievements. As I have heard through the grapevine, they are very impressive, much more so than my own and she certainly did get out of Newcastle), and, at the time, I was completely derisive of this. By Year 12 it wasn’t that we weren’t even ‘best friends’ anymore, we were hardly even friends. We barely spoke unless we had to. Various things happened between us, around a certain boy that we both ended up dating and now, I can’t even bear to add her as a ‘friend’ on Facebook, though I’ve looked at her profile a few times. It doesn’t seem like the right title, not at all. If they had a ‘hugely significant person who somehow disappeared out of my life and I would like to be able to pry into her current existence but don’t really want to deal with all the unsaid resentments and issues or pretend to be a normal, superficial ‘friend’ of’ button, then that is what I would press. But, Facebook is not so forward thinking or understanding of the politics of female friendship as this. 
Anyway, getting back to my eldest charge. She had the best time. There was discussion of the coveted ‘best friend’ title (My charge: ‘You’re my best friend. Are you my best friend?’ Best friend: ‘Yes.’ My charge: ‘Who’s your second best friend?’ Best friend: laughs, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I have lots of best friends.’ At which point, my heart sunk a little for my charge…), they had a picnic together, they set up a roadside stall, they made signs about ghosts and stuck them all over the house. At many points during the day, she would link arms with her best friend, or pull her in close and hold her by the waist as they walked down the road. My host mother remarked, ‘Little girls are so funny with their friendships, aren’t they? They’re like lovers.’ And I suddenly recognised that this was exactly how I felt about all my old ‘best friends’, and the eventual breakdown of these relationships. The feelings were almost as intense as later romantic relationships I had with men. The strength of these feelings worried me for a long time (does this mean I’m gay???), but I’ve just grown to accept that, for whatever reason, this is how I form attachments to people. Incredibly passionately, all-or-nothing.
And, for you who don’t know, I still do have a ‘best friend’, though we talk sporadically and see each other even more infrequently. I think, at the age I am now at, those passionate best friend years are behind me, and those emotions are now directed towards men in a romantic way. I’ve known my ‘best friend’ since I was about 12, but we gave each other the ‘best friend’ title around Year 11, when my other friendship broke down. How do I know she’s my best friend? It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been apart, we always pick up exactly where we left off, as if nothing has changed. I could talk to her about anything. And, when her Dad was pulling down her old tree-house earlier this year, it had written in it, ‘Erin and Jenny are best friends’, and neither of us can remember when we wrote it or why. So, it must be true.

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Kid World & Adult World

I’ve posted a fair amount today, nothing too spectacular or interesting, really, just random thoughts that have been in my head over the past week. I think I’m still in NYWM mode, and feeling like I need to post something for every day of the week. Not a bad thing, really, I’m just less than convinced of the quality of the stuff I’ve been posting lately. Oh well. Its not stopping me posting.
There is something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the last week or so, which has turned my whole view on life upside down. Its to do with courage.
When I was a kid, there were a lot of things that I was scared of. Big dogs. Barking dogs. Horror movies. Snakes. Rats. Shadows in my bedroom when I switched off the lights. Windows out on to the darkness. Strange noises in the house. Unexpected power cuts late at night. Asking for directions from strangers. The crocodile that lived under my bed and would eat my legs if I let them get to close. The giant spider that lived down the hall and would chase me if I went to the toilet late at night. The big window in my room, which I thought people might shoot me through, so I would often crawl to my bed to avoid being seen by would-be assassins.
Some of these fears followed me into adult life. I still freak out over spiders, snakes, darkness, power cuts, strange noises, horror movies… you get the idea. Its not something I ever expected. Watching my Dad and other adults go through life, watching them face my fears bravely and either get rid of the scary thing, or get me away from the scary thing, I assumed I would one day be able to face these scary things just as bravely as the adults around me. But, truth be told, I’m still a pretty freaked out and paranoid adult.
What I’ve discovered since working with kids, is that as the adult, you often have to appear brave when you’re totally freaked out on the inside. You have to lie and reassure and tell them everything’s going to be fine, and act like you’re fine, because if you don’t everything will get out of control.
Late night power cuts were the first thing I had to face as the ‘adult’. I was babysitting, and the power went out in the house several times in a row, which terrified my eldest girl. I was also petrified, as power-cuts always remind me of an ‘America’s Most Wanted’ episode I watched as an 8 year old, where the murderer deliberately cut the power to get the victim out of the house and to where she could be murdered. It was worse out here, of course, as we are in the middle of the country, there are no street lights, no lights from surrounding houses. Its pitch black. I had to find a candle and light it by the light of the moon with shaking hands. But, my eldest charge was panicking enough for the both of us, so I had to be light-hearted and nonchalant. It was just a power-cut. There was nothing significant in it. We just had to turn the power back on. With each successive power-cut she got more panicky, asking ‘why is this happening?’ over and over requiring me to get more light-hearted. By the last time I was practically whistling and skipping to the power-box in an attempt to cheer us both up. ‘Oh what fun, another trip to the power-box, how I do love the power-box, I’m not scared, why would I be scared, dum-de-dum-de-dum…’
Big, barking dogs are another problem. I really don’t like big, barking dogs. I think they’re going to take chunks out of my legs. I don’t even like little barking dogs. I think they’ll take littler chunks out of my legs. There are many barking dogs on our bicycle route, which terrify both my girls. The littlest has a habit of dropping everything she is carrying onto the ground, covering her ears and just running, as fast as she can in the opposite direction of the dog, not really looking where she is going, or what she might run into. This would normally be my reaction to a barking dog, but, again, I have to be the sensible one. I’ve told the girls that the reason the dogs are barking at us is because they’re scared of us. I bark along with the dogs, ‘I’m so scared. I’m so scared. Go away, you’re scaring me.’ So, now, whenever we meet barking dogs, my eldest charge says, ‘Oh, he’s really scared, isn’t he? Why’s he so scared of us?’ She still seems pretty freaked out, but at least she doesn’t scream and cry anymore. After many trips past these dogs (and no legs, or parts of legs being taken off), I have now gotten up enough courage to yell back at the dogs and to tell them to go home. It even seems to work. I’m so amazed at myself.
But, yesterday was the biggest achievement. I hate spiders. I really, truly hate spiders. I can’t think of anything I find more unnerving than a big, hairy spider. Usually, in my panic and passionate desire to get rid of said spider, I will kill it several times over, first with drowning it in insect spray, then, flattening it with a fat book, and then sucking it up in the vacuum cleaner. Yesterday, the eldest girl freaked out because of a small spider sitting near her whilst she was watching TV. Again, in a desire not to add to her panic, I played it cool. I got a big piece of paper and attempted to scoop up the spider. It ran onto the floor. My eldest girl asked if she should squash it. I surprised myself by saying there was no need. I picked it up again, carried it outside as quick as I could (it was climbing rather quickly towards the hand holding the paper) and let it go free. I was very proud of myself, particularly because I was utterly terrified the thing was going to crawl onto my hand, and I would scream, flick my hand out and send the spider flying across the room and ruin my image as the cool, calm and in-control adult.
There was an interesting interview with the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson on the TV this evening, in which he said that people who had children had a responsibility to be optimistic about the world. You had no right to bring a child into the world and into the future no less, and then lose faith in the world. You need to be able to remain optimistic and passionate about the world, and have the confidence and determination to change the things you don’t like about it. I think it was the same feeling as I’ve been having with the things that scare me. Most of the things that scare me I know are ridiculous, but I let myself get worried about them, because there’s no real reason to stop myself from panicking. Having panicky little kids around suddenly gives me a reason to be calm and collected and reassuring to both me and them.
I’m also intrigued by the effect of having kids around on the food you eat and what you drink. Kids so often follow what you do and not what you say. They notice when you don’t take the advice you give to them. They want to know why you’re not having dinner when they are. They eat more, and better, if you’re eating with them. They want to know why you get to drink diet drinks when they’re bad for you and you won’t let them drink them. I think, in some ways, having kids around would be an incentive to eat healthily and look after yourself better, because if you want them to eat well, you need to do it yourself.
Anyway, that’s that. Again, not very amusing, but, I suppose you can’t be funny all the time.

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Why I Will Never Get Married

So, I think I’ve worked out why I am almost doomed to stay single. For me to be able to become romantically attached to a guy (this doesn’t necessarily mean being in a relationship with them, it just means, me liking them), these 3 steps must be fulfilled:

1) When I first meet a guy, I have to think that they are either equal or lower down the scale to myself in talent, intelligence, attractiveness, social skills, humor etc. This enables me to speak to them without developing a stutter, short-term memory loss, or the ability to fall over my own feet whilst apparently standing perfectly still. Alternatively, if I think they are a ‘better person’ than myself, in terms of achievements, skills, popularity etc. they have to be super-super-super nice and extra-friendly for me to be able to talk to them comfortably.

2) At some point during this friendship, or companionship or whatever, I have to realise that the guy is actually a much, much better person than myself (in all the ways already mentioned), whether or not this is by discovering previously hidden talents, by seeing other girls decide they like the guy or whatever. When I discover said guy is a much better person than myself, I will then fall for them.

3) To seal the deal, said guy must not be interested in me, or, preferably, treat me like shit. If he makes the fatal mistake of seemingly being interested in me, or, even worse, being very enthusiastic about me, I will suddenly decide there must be something wrong with him.

This pattern doesn’t happen very often, as you can imagine, and very often ends in disaster for myself, hence why the single life is not very kind to me. However, at the same time, I’m probably going to be spending a lot more of my life being single.

Luckily, I don’t have the same issues with cats…

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Living in the country is nice and peaceful…

Things in the house are kind of falling apart at the moment. Here is a list:

1) The dryer. A couple of months ago, the dryer started doing this neat trick of turning on, and blowing hot air through the clothes, but not actually spinning them. So, one side of the clothes would get really hot, to the point of burning, and the rest would stay wet and cold. I got around this problem by turning on the dryer, and then giving it a little push in the right direction, a little encouragement, to remind it what it needed to do. This worked up until a couple of weeks ago, when the dryer decided that it would start to spin when I pushed it, but then would stop anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes after it had started. To make things worse, it would then stop blowing hot air on to the clothes entirely, and would refuse to start again for another hour or so. So, now, to get a load of clothing dry, I have to run out to the dryer every 15 minutes, and push it round again before it stops blowing hot air and I can’t use it for another hour. Essentially, the dryer has become another demanding child. Except, this is one that I have no qualms about screaming at the top of my lungs at and launching myself bodily at in frustration. Neither of which have worked to fix the problem, by the way.

2) The sink. The kitchen tap has stopped working, meaning we have to get a big pot of hot water from the bathroom and bring it to the kitchen to do the washing up. We sit the big pot in the kitchen sink, even though we really could put it anywhere we like: on the stove, on the kitchen floor, in front of the TV… but, old habits die hard. I always thought there was something romantic about ‘fetching water from the well’. I now know this is not the case.

3) There is a bat colony living above my eldest charge’s bedroom. That’s right. We have a bat colony in our roof. And they’re protected in Ireland, so we can’t block up the hole when they’ve flown away at nighttime, or we’ll all be arrested. Originally, we thought that there was a bird nest up there, which was much sweeter, but as the noises became louder, the smell became greater, and the tiny poopies began to fall through the roof cracks, we realised it was bats. We had to call the bat-man (sounds funnier when said out loud) from Macroom to find out what to do. We are still waiting for his reply. I am yet to see them fly away in the evening, which is meant to be quite spectacular, and there are apparently at least 28 of them.

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