changing my routine

Summertime is easy. As long as I can get home from work and down to the beach an hour or so before sunset, I am good to go. My favourite place to walk is along Altona beach, the bay stretching out to one side, fancy houses lining the Esplanade on the other. When the wind is from the north the bay can be like a millpond, and the mornings and evenings can be really peaceful. When the wind is coming in from the south across the water, the waves get choppier and the bay turns a darker shade of blue. Either way, it’s my routine.

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walking home to dublin: Cois Fharraige, Co. Gaillimh

Already I am a little bit behind schedule. Just a few kilometres. No good: I will have to re-double my efforts this fortnight.

My walk has taken me south to Rossaveal, where I could have turned off towards the harbour and boarded a fast ferry to the Aran Islands. Soon I can see glimpses of Galway Bay ahead, and I arrive at the crossroads at Ballynahown where there used to stand a big tourist shop selling (naturally green) Connemara Marble, Aran sweaters and other Oirish tat for the Yanks to take home. I know this part of the world very well: I spent a couple of summers down here in the Gaeltacht as a young teenager.

My first bean a’ tí (the lady whose house I stayed in)was a local woman who’d spent quite a few years in the US, so she spoke Irish with a hint of an American accent. The following year, the bean a’ tí was a Londoner who’d married a local man and now took in Irish-language students in the summer. She spoke Irish with no hint of an accent, presumably having absorbed the correct local pronunciation when learning the language.

I know if I walk straight ahead down that boreen instead of following the main road east, there is a big lake in to the right hand side, and if I keep going a mile or so I will find a little harbour with a few currachs turned upside down and a few more moored alongside. Across the bay will be the Cliffs of Moher, and the Aran Islands will be away to the west of me.


The road turns east along the coast road. This part of Connemara is simply called Cois Fharraige, or “beside the sea”. The Gaeltacht school where I went is in the centre of the tiny village of Minna, and the rock nearby where the boys always met the girls in the evening. Down another boreen is a graveyard where we stopped the car one night as grown-ups, and Orlando caught his first glimpse of the Milky Way.

Past Inverin or Indreabháin, I pass the Poitín Stil pub where I remember going with the family on summer holidays with my parents. Later, when I was at the Gaeltacht, my parents came to visit and took me and a neighbour’s child out for the evening, back to this old haunt.

Soon I arrive in Spiddal or An Spidéal, a little fishing village and more recently a tourist destination.

I remember my father and brother fishing off this harbour pier when I was very small. They didn’t catch anything but we bought some fresh mackerel from a local fisherman. My mum took the ribbon from my hair to thread through the mackerels’ gills so we had some way of carrying them. It was a red and white ribbon, and naturally it was ruined after that day. But the biggest memory is the smell of those mackerel cooking, and how amazing they tasted.

In two weeks, hopefully I will be the far side of Galway, somewhere past Oranmore and well on the way to Athenry. And yes, when I get there, we will sing.

walking home to dublin

So, autumn is settling in and winter will soon be upon us. How to keep the activity levels and Vitamin D intake at a reasonable pace when the evenings are closing in and it’s hard to keep motivated?

Well, I have hit upon one way of keeping on track (I hope): walking home to Dublin. Now, obviously it is a long way from here to there, so I had to think of a decent starting point. So what better than a trek across Ireland, starting somewhere on the west coast of Galway and heading east as the days progress?

I have decided Carna, Co. Galway is a good place to start. Our last family holiday was spent there a couple of Julys ago, and we just fell in love with this part of the world. It’s also a part of the world I am deeply familiar with, having spent almost all our summer holidays here.

So I have set off on my solitary virtual walk, taking it slow: only 16-20km a week needs to be covered. This will make sure my summer activity level stays about the same as the evenings close in here in Melbourne.

I sarted two weeks ago, and so far I have come as far as Casla, or Costelloe, walking north-east along the steep edges of Cnoc Mordáin or Aconeera, past Kilkieran Bay with its spectacular views of Gorumna Island and Lettermore in the distance. Inland, a little, to Screeb then south past a landscape littered with bog lakes, boulder beds and other ancient evidence of the glaciation this part of the world experienced.

Soon I will be walking along the coast of Galway Bay, the boreens of my childhood summers all around me, and the Aran Islands rising out of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance to the west. But for now I will enjoy my virtual walk through this little-explored part of my home country.

11 highlights of 2011

It’s been a hell of a year. Tough at times, full of adventure, travel (some work, some play), hard work, sorrow and joy. Here are my eleven highlights of 2011.

1.  Queensland

The year started busy. I spent most of the first three months hanging out in Brisbane with an army of Red Crossers, responding to event after tragic event. The staff in the Grand Chancellor come to greet me every time I checked in with a “Welcome home, Ms Doyle!”. The night before Yasi hit, I sat in a hotel restaurant with colleagues trying to understand the enormity of what was about to hit, the only Irishwoman at a table of battle-hardened Aussies. In Emerald, I met the Governor-General and got a lesson in looking elegant in tropical heat. Some of the people I worked with developed into an amazing support network that I still have today, and one or two deep friendships have developed from the times spent together. I gained four kilos and none of my summer clothes fit anymore, which didn’t matter as I spent the whole of the summer in a white Red Cross business shirt and black cut-off cargo pants.

What I learned: Just because it’s disaster season doesn’t mean you need less fibre – or more alcohol – in your diet. FitFlops are the only footwear you need. Talk about how you are feeling often, and use others to gauge how you are going. Forgive. Hydrate. Never go anywhere (even a disaster zone) without eyeliner: you never know who is going to drop by.

2.  Christchurch

Ten days in ChCh working with the NZ Red Cross after the earthquake was some of the most challenging but amazing time I got to spend this year. I slept in a tiny room in the friendliest little B&B in the world, and got used to the ground shaking beneath me. I saw regular people turn into heroes and find resilience in themselves they never thought existed. I feel privileged to have been able to help in my small way.

What I learned: Always leave your boots by the bed in an earthquake zone, and keep your phone fully charged. Leap instantly to a doorframe when the ground doesn’t stop shaking after five seconds. Be ready to accept help as well as give it. Take a break. And don’t watch live footage of horrifying tsunamis right after coming home.

3.  Lorne

A chunk of normality at the end of summer: the Easter/Anzac weekend down the Great Ocean Road in Lorne with Orlando.  Arriving Good Friday evening with a roast dinner in the boot. Long walks by the beach in unseasonably warm weather. Mid-afternoon naps just because we could. Watching the surfers and browsing second-hand book stalls in the market. A cosy Spanish dinner in a lovely tapas bar on Saturday night. Time to heal and rest and recover and reconnect.

What I learned: Heal. Rest. Recover. Reconnect.

4.  Barbados

A week in Barbados in June, spent mostly staring at the waves (or floating in them) at Maxwell Beach, near Orlando’s parents’ house. Amazing Caribbean food. Weekend nights at Oistins fish market. Plenty of good Mount Gay rum in our afternoon rum punch. Chefette’s legendary all-beef rotis just because they were there. Spending time with Orlando’s Dad. Shopping for jerk seasoning and pepper sauce in the local supermarket. Scuba diving with Orlando in the sites where he learned to dive.

What I learned: One dive is never enough. One all-beef roti is never enough. One box of seasoning shipped home is never enough. One week is never enough.

5.  Mexico

Nearly three weeks travelling through the Yucatan peninsula, visiting Mayan ruins, climbing ancient pyramids, staying in great little guesthouses and eating proper Mexican food. Diving Dos Ojos at last after twelve years of waiting. Gazing out across the jungle with Orlando from the top of a crumbling pyramid in Coba. Margaritas and good tequila. A long walk.  Discovering cochinita pibil.

What I learned: There are only so many tacos, tortas, empanadas, burritos and quesadillas you can eat. The green chilli salsa is the hottest and the best. The Mexicans keep the good tequila for themselves. Never walk home at night through the jungle.

6.  Tasmania

An August weekend with Mena in Tasmania, our favourite state. Gourmet food at Bruny Island and Salamanca Market. The Goddess of Russell Falls at Mount Field National Park. Driving through God’s own country to Lake Gordon. Discovering the secluded beaches of South Arm and falling in love with Opossum Bay.

What I learned: There is not enough time before we die to explore Tasmania the way we want to. You will always buy more cheese than you can possibly eat at the Bruny Island Cheese Company. You don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to discover the hidden gems of this small island; you can do it in a Class A hire car. Always bring layers to Tasmania – the weather can surprise you.

7.  Fiji

What more does a body need than ten days on a tropical island, with a little bungalow, a pristine beach a few feet away, a comfy hammock to swing in, a reef full of fish on the doorstep and more Fijian curry than you can shake a stick at. Diving in clear blue waters with more marine life than I’ve ever seen. Snoozing on a hammock under a palm tree, whenever I want to. Watching a wedding take place on a low-tide sandbar out at sea: the wedding party appears to be walking on water. The graceful hand movements of the women and men as they dance for us after the lovo feast.

What I learned: Never go anywhere without nuclear-strength Baygon. Two swimsuits are not enough for one week. There is always time for a little more snorkelling.

8.  Ireland

Ten days in Ireland might seem short, but when all you want is to visit family and get a little Christmas cheer, it’s all you need. Shopping on Grafton Street with the lights twinkling above. Meeting an old friend by chance in a city cafe. Twenty-four hours in the UK just to catch up on all the gossip with Katharine. Putting up Mum’s Christmas tree one morning, listening to old cheesy Christmas tunes and reminiscing about Christmas trees past.  Christmas present shopping with Ashling and Connor. New puppies to adore. Turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Creating new Christmas family memories, even if they were a few weeks early.

What I learned: Don’t wear your precious Links bracelet over your winter gloves. You will always get a good winter coat in Dublin. Melatonin really helps with jetlag. You can never buy too much Newbridge Silverware jewellery.

9.  Darwin

They asked if I was going to Darwin to see Obama. No, I replied: he is in town to meet me. Memos from the hotel asking us to behave on our balconies (in case the Secret Service shot us) didn’t stop me waving enthusiastically at the Black Hawk helicopter that kept flying past. A lovely dinner with Julie Groome at Pee Wee’s. Celebrating the opening night of Darwin Pride with Chris Power. Power walking early in the morning, then trying to catch up with Hydralyte for the rest of the day. Dragging the living room furniture out onto the balcony for a Friday night feast, because they had taken the balcony furniture away at the start of cyclone season.

What I learned: Behave on your hotel balcony if POTUS is in town. Buy more Hydralyte before you travel in the wet season. Always pack one more white singlet top. Try not to turn into a comedy double-act when presenting serious stuff with Julie.

10.  Altona Beach

The one constant in my year: the boardwalk at Altona saved my sanity more than a few times this year. Park up near the Seaholme end of town, on with the Walkman and the sunvisor (not trendy, but it keep my hair at bay), get some UK garage going and power walk to the other end of the beach or maybe right into the park at Truganina. I know every step of the route and its familiarity soothes me, music or no music, sunshine or no sunshine, high tide or low tide.  It helped me get fit and healthy after the Summer of Love – both in body and in spirit.

What I learned: You can always walk just a little bit faster. Carry another layer with you in the boot of the car unless it is January or February. Sometimes it is best to leave the headphones behind and listen to the waves.

11.  Home

Sounds silly, but with all the travel I did this year, a Christmas and New Year holiday at home in our own house was the perfect getaway. No worries about what shoes to pack. Guaranteed comfy bed and perfect pillow. Only the best local red wine and bubbly served. Friends and family close at hand. The best travelling companion in the world. Excellent wi-fi. No air travel or packing or taxis or travel insurance to worry about.

What I learned: There’s no place like home.

feeling helpless

After a weekend of reading increasingly depressing articles about Ireland’s economic status, I wonder what I can do to help from here. Nothing much of course, unless I decide to move back there and help with the dig-out.

But it is the Christmas season, and it is estimated that there are over a million Irish-born people living outside Ireland. What if each of us spent a little money with Irish-owned companies to send Christmas presents home to our loved ones? Of course, you could always forget Christmas shopping and buy nice little somethings for yourself, like jewellery or a new book. Most of these websites deliver internationally.

Here are some of the Australian Doyle family favourites. They do a lot of damage to our credit cards, but they might do a little bit to help the Irish economy if we all spend $50 or $100 with them this Christmas. – the place to buy everything affordable, from clothes to homewares to food and wine. Send a gift token or have half a dozen bottles of wine delivered. Proudly Irish-owned.  – Ireland’s largest emporium for Irish-designed products. Louis Mulcahy pottery, Belleek china, Waterford crystal, Newbridge silverware, and so much more. – An Irish family-run business selling wonderful clothes, textiles, ceramics, and lots more. And if you’re going home for Christmas, pop into to one of the Avoca Handweavers cafes – fantastic fresh food. – For 70 years they were the place to buy cutlery sets for newly-weds. Now they lead the way in Irish-made jewellery, accessories, gifts, kitchenware and interiors. A personal favourite of the Doyle women. – Around since the early 1800s, Dubliners around the world know and love Easons. A great place to buy Irish books not always available to us locally.

What are your favourites?

help the hallowe’en party

Hallowe’en is not the big deal in Australian that we had at home every year. It was great time of year for us: autumn was well-established, with all the trees turning gold and the days getting shorter. The clocks had usually turned back an hour the weekend before. A bank holiday and school mid-term break happened around the same time, so we had time off school. And then there was the Hallowe’en party.

We didn’t have all the black-and-orange paraphernalia and dress-up outfits they have in the shops now. All we had were sparklers, shop-bought plastic masks that made your face all sweaty, maybe a shop-bought cardboard witch’s hat (but we usually made these ourselves), and home-made costumes. Fireworks were (and still are) illegal in Ireland, so no big fireworks displays for us. I was well into my twenties before I saw a proper Guy Fawkes bonfire and fireworks display in England, and I was bowled over. I still react like an excited child to a good fireworks display.

Children would get all excited as night began to fall, because that would mean it was almost time to go door-to-door and collect treats from the neighbours. We would dress up a ghosts (borrow a sheet from mum), soldiers (borrow a beret from a scout and a belt from dad), princesses (recycle a recent bridesmaid or flowergirl dress), monsters (this was usually a boy who just threw something together and put muck on his face) or of course witches (borrow black clothing from everybody in the house, make a cape out of something, and steal the kitchen sweeping brush or mop).

You never got sweets or chocolate or toys at neighbours’ houses. In fact if we were given sweets at a house, we saw that as bad planning or meanness on that part of that neighbour: they hadn’t stocked up properly for the night. We got monkey nuts (roasted ground nuts), apples, oranges, that sort of thing. We would run door to door and when the neighbour answered, we would all chant “HELP THE HALLOWE’EN PARTEEEEEE”!!! and open our plastic bags expecting a windfall. The neighbour would peer at us, pretend to be terrified at the scary costumes, compliment the fairies and princesses on their beauty, and try to figure out which neighbour’s child we were. Very exciting. Turning up in a similar costume as another child on the same front step was akin to arriving at a wedding these days in the same frock as another woman: very hostile.

Some bold boys would have obtained illegal fireworks but they never knew how to use them so it was all usually very underwhelming. The other illegal thing were “bangers” which were sort of fireworks with sound and no light, just a very loud bang. These things would be set off at more and more frequent intervals as the night wore on. I never really got the attraction, but then again I wasn’t a teenage boy.

At the top of our street there would be a bonfire. I have no idea who organised these things but there was one on every patch of green land all over Ballyfermot. Sometimes there would be a few within walking distance, and when we got older we would walk around to the next bonfire to see if theirs was better than ours. I guess it was the dads and the older kids who would set these bonfires up, collecting firewood and other fuel during the week. I don’t ever remember there being any serious accidents or anything. We all knew you had to have your wits about you on Hallowe’en.

After trawling the streets for our party treasure, it was back home for the party. This is where my Dad came into his own. I reckon Hallowe’en was one his favourite nights of the year. Unlike the rest of the year when Mum was in charge of food in our house, Daddy would get heavily involved in the preparation of the party food. It was the only night of the year that we saw a real coconut, bowls of hazelnuts, walnuts and brazil nuts, different types of apples, mandarin oranges (if we could get them), and the pièces de resistance – a pomegranate and sometimes even a real pineapple. Of course we didn’t call them pomegranates in those days. They were called wine-apples. Daddy was in charge of poking a hole in the coconut and getting the coconut milk out, then smashing the coconut with a hammer to get to the sweet flesh inside. He also cut up the pomegranate and the hard-to-slice pineapple, and cracked the harder nuts for us.

And of course there was the brack. Mum always made our brack which we loved, because hers were always better than shop-bought ones which were a bit dry. She soaked the raisins and sultanas in tea overnight before making the brack, so it was unbelievably moist. I liked hers best because she didn’t use candied peel which I hated. And she always put a 5p piece (a shilling it was still called) wrapped in silver paper, or a brass curtain ring, in the cake for one of us to find. She served it laden with butter. Even now Mum always makes a brack for me when I come to visit, and Eileen makes a fantastic tea-brack herself here in Australia.

Daddy was also the MC for the Halloween party. The games he played with us are still played by my niece and nephew at Hallowe’en even now, with my brother (their dad) and my Mum taking over as games supervisor now Daddy is gone. There was bobbing for apples in a basin, towels at the ready. It was harder than you think to sink your teeth into a hard Irish apple when you can’t get traction. Bobbing for pennies or shillings was even harder, and Bernard was always better at that because he could hold his breath for longer and wasn’t worried about looking like a drowned rat. Now I think of it, apples played a huge part in the evening: the other game was hanging an apple from the ceiling on a long piece of string, then having your hands tied behind your back and trying to take a bite from the apple as it swung around.

The other good thing about Hallowe’en was that it was the night before a holy day – so we always got a day off school next day to go to Mass. Hallowe’en means of course All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day. That morning we went to Mass to pray for the Holy Souls, then home for a post-mortem with our friends on the party the night before.

a solo half-weekend

An opportunity to spend a little time in Tasmania is always a good thing. And so it was that I organised to stay an extra twenty-four hours in Hobart following a work trip.

It was all going swimmingly until I got sick. I’d had a useful meeting with colleagues, raided the Red Cross second-hand bookshop and even had time for a shot of late-night shopping after work. The weather was unseasonably warm and it promised to be a beautiful evening. But my temperature was soaring and by six o’clock on my free night I was sitting in my hotel room unsure whether I was well enough to venture anywhere.

I took a look at my basic hotel surroundings, and imagined the early-summer evening I was missing outside. This was what I promised myself: an evening out on a date with myself, a good glass of wine and Salamanca Market in the morning. What was I thinking? I dosed myself up with more aspirin, changed, and headed out with a new book.

The evening was beautiful. Dressed head-to-toe in black and wearing boots, I was the odd one out. It was all the clothes I’d brought with me. How was I to know Tasmania would transform into a tropical paradise instead of its usual cool temperate maritime vibe? Young women strolled arm in arm dressed in strapless maxi dresses and strappy sandals. Young men scrubbed up well and sported the latest logo tees and edgy hairstyles. Even the over-sixties tourists sported jaunty spring-summer outfits with their Tevas.

Down by the Elizabeth Street pier a beautiful ketch got ready to cast off, crew on board. The sky turned all colours, then settled on lavenders, pinks and blues as the sun set through the high clouds. I strolled towards Salamanca Market and selected a restaurant. Ciuccio’s in Salamanca Place looked inviting and I craved pasta. I headed inside.

Dining alone is a treat for me. Many people I know dread the thought of eating alone anywhere, whether away on business or even just out at lunch from work. I love it. Since my twenties I’ve loved getting all dressed up and taking myself out to dinner, alone, or sometimes with a good book. I sit at my table, hopefully with a good view of something – the scenery, or other diners, or the world outside, and drink it all in. Whether it is the changing view before me or a chance to people-watch, or perhaps to look like you are people-watching but you are actually in deep thought about something else, there is nothing like it. Sometimes it is a more internal experience, when I open my book and settle in for an evening of good food and wine with my reading. I choose dishes that can be eaten with one hand – risotto and small pasta shapes are perfect – so that I can hold my book with the other. There is no need to compromise on ambience or quality of food just because one is reading.

Just because I was reading, I still had a chance to do a little people-watching. The two men beside me were an enigma. I could not figure out whether they were brothers, father and son, colleagues or a couple. The larger table in front of me was a couple and their respective parents, perhaps meeting for the first time, or certainly their first formal evening out together. The couple to the other side of me were innocuous-looking for the most part, except they’d spent the evening playing noughts and crosses and other children’s games on their paper tablecloth with the crayons provided on each table for just that purpose.

I paid the bill and headed hotelwards not long after nine – well, I was poorly. Salamanca Place was still buzzing and the sun had only just set. Amazingly the temperature still hovered around the high twenties and it felt a little like summer in Dublin. Enjoying the solitude, I picked my way through groups of students congregated on the grass and the odd Hobart Show dropout in all their finery, back past Franklin Wharf and along by the fish places moored in the little enclosed dock.

Next morning after a good night’s sleep, I retraced my steps back to Salamanca Place for the Saturday-morning market. It was a good deal cooler in the morning, so my all-black outfit and sturdy boots looked less out of place. I strolled the aisles, unencumbered by any companions whose interests I had to accommodate. I flitted from jewellery stall to book stall, lingering over pieces that caught my attention without feeling I was delaying anybody. The sizzling of those gourmet sausages seriously tempted me, and this was the only time I felt the loss of a pal: logistically, it was not possible to purchase a currywurst outside and a glass of bubbly inside, and still be sure of a pavement table at which to enjoy it all. As Mena succinctly put it later, I didn’t have anybody to mind my sausage… Defeated, it was back to Salamanca Place where I found a nice “gawky” seat at Barcelona, where a healthier breakfast of eggs florentine awaited.

I sat, book in hand, but this was a much more tempting place to people-watch. A young student entertained us in the centre of the Place with beautiful renditions of operatic arias. People from every cafe and restaurant applauded each piece he sang. The fashions of the young women had not abated since the night before, even though the temperature had. I sat, barely keeping my own body at a decent temperature, watching in fascination as outfits more worthy of a Gold Coast housewife wandered past. Two young children, one dressed as a fairy with a denim jacket, the other in top-to-toe OshKosh, played with a twenty-first century frisbee as their parents waited in the ATM queue. A bunch of young women in one corner of my cafe postured and tinkled with laughter for the sole benefit of a bunch of young men in the other corner.

I didn’t buy much: a small birthday gift for a friend, some chocolate for Orlando, some more chocolate for Orlando, and a little shopping bag to send to Ireland for Annette. It was the browsing I enjoyed, all at my own pace and without the need for conversation or compromise. Yes, even I like silence sometimes, and a solo half-weekend was the perfect time for that.