In 1987 I took my first ever long service leave. I had managed to accrue ten weeks leave on full pay. I was proud of this achievement and thrilled that it coincided with a time in my life when I really needed it.
“Oh she went to Rome, Paris, London, Monte Carlo” I can hear you thinking! Well guess again! At aged 35 I was finally gifted with my second son. Between my third child and my last son I had given birth to 4 still born daughters and when my eighth pregnancy looked like it was going to be ok – in spite of gestational diabetes, blood pressure problems, hospitalisation for 9 weeks and the terrible, terrible embarrassment for my 15 year old daughter – I had every minute of my leave planned being a full time Mum. It was wonderful. I could make the kids afternoon tea after school, meet them at the bus stop, walk the youngest one to kindergarten, do tuck shop duty, be a kindergarten reading helper and fall in love with my new little boy (the would be wrestler!)
So, in 1994 when I was eligible for another 10 weeks leave I started to think about just exactly what I might do. I am of Irish ancestry. My mother used to sing to me of Irish places – Killarney, Dublin, Tralee, Galway, the River Shannon, Cliffs of Moher and so on. I knew a little of my history and I decided that I would go to Ireland to visit the places she had sung to me about.
I am the fourth of six children and by the time I got to go international, all my siblings had already been, so I was loaded with helpful hints. My sister gave me the following suggestions:
- Remember the problem about travelling alone is that you have to carry your own luggage;
- Your feet will swell;
- Drink water once you have had the double scotch necessary for take off;
- Where ever the plane stops on the way over, make sure you get off it and walk around the airport;
- When coming home, have something to declare. This will mean that you go quicker through customs.
Armed with this information and in spite on my biggest fear – which was being impaled in the very small toilet cubicle – I left the country, alone in November 1994 and began the greatest adventure of my adult life (outside of parenthood of course!)
I did the trip from Sydney to Bangkok like a veteran. The ten hours of travel were filled with things to see and do. I found it altogether fascinating. I had managed to secure an aisle seat and the seat next to me was vacant. The gentleman in the window seat was flying to Switzerland on business and was returning to Australia four days later!
Landing in Bangkok I followed my sister’s advice and got off the plane. It did not occur to me that I would be out in the main airport. I had imagined a kind of sealed off transit section. Once I realised I was actually in Thailand I thought I would try to find a phone to call home. Approaching a cafeteria kind of thing I said to one of the people behind the bar:
“Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find a phone?” The worker looked at me like I was speaking Swahili – which of course, relatively speaking, I was.
“Phone” I said…carefully enunciating every sound, “I need to make a phone call….”
“Feruwn…..feruwn…..feruwn?” he replied and I realised I had just had my first experience of not being able to be understood since the last hormonally charged exchange I had had with my seventeen year old daughter! I took myself off in the direction of the toilets, passing a smoking room that looked like a bus shelter under glass with a sea fog that reduced visibility to centimetres.
The flight was then called and I found the transit lounge. I do not know why it did not occur to me that I would have to go through security again. Approaching the metal detectors with reasonable confidence I was terrified as they bloody well went off as I went through them. A squat little Thai customs official (female), carrying a portable platform, grabbed hold of my left elbow and said:
“You come with me over here. Stand on box. Stand still”
Well I was having warm glowing feelings of love towards my sister I don’t think. Atila the Thai came equipped with a cattle prod like object with which she proceeded to check out my entire body, leaving me in no doubt about which two body cavities she thought I may have been secreting illicit substances. Finding nothing I was allowed to board the plane.
Two hours out of Bangkok I could have happily jumped off the plane without a parachute and just when I thought the smell of the toilets was going to envelope me entirely we landed in London. Landing in London I was a bit surprised that members of the Commonwealth of Nations had to wait in line while anyone from Europe just walked straight in but I was able to contain myself – unlike the Canadian gentleman in front of me who spoke loud and long his objections to having to wait while “bloody Germans get in unchallenged.”
I made my way to the bus to go to the connecting flight to Dublin. A trip on Aer Lingus is a must for anyone wishing to experience the power of prayer. The plane was absolutely packed. The musak was belting out “Over the Rainbow” as I made my way to my seat. I have never seen so much hand luggage brought on to any plane since. There were boxes and crates and knapsacks and sleeping bags, bottles of grog and packets of cigarettes. I was sure that the plane would go down in the Irish Sea because of the weight of the hand luggage. The beautiful “Colleens” from Aer Lingus just kept smiling as they closed the overhead lockers…
“I am sorry sir, but this one is full. But if you have a look under the seat third from the emergency exit you will see that there is still a bit of space there. Away you go and put ya package there.” Begosh and begorrah!
It’s a quick flight across the sea to Ireland and as the clouds parted – in true Hollywood fashion, I looked out the window and got my first sight of every one of the forty shades of green. It was breath takingly beautiful and I knew at once that I was arriving in my spiritual home.
Travel Tip: If your feet swell – don’t worry they’ll go down.So what if you have to carry your own luggage – get a bag with wheels.Beware Atila the Thai in Bangkok. You can do it without the double scotch!
Finding My Ancestral Roots
My Irish great great grandfather was sent to Australia for seven years for political crimes. Our version of his story goes that he was wrongly convicted of being involved in the burning of a British barn in County Clare. It was not young James who had done the deed but his older brother who had borrowed James’ coat on the evening of the crime. James was recognised by his coat and charged, tried, found guilty shipped off to Cork City Prison and sent to the antipodes. After seven years he was given a land grant in the Hunter Valley and he married young Bridget Savage and settled down to the serious business of fathering 13 children and getting on with it.
James came from Feakle in County Clare and in 1994 I was determined to visit the place and reconnect with my roots. It was Saturday, November 12th. I was staying at a little place called Drumline between Shannon and Ennis. The owner of the establishment was a man named John Boland. I chose to stay with him because his surname was the same as my great great grandfather!
I set out on my pilgrimage at about nine thirty in the morning and headed for the information centre in Enis. I was given explicit directions and set off up the Tulla Road. I reconfirmed these directions at a petrol station in Tulla and the man assured me I was heading in the right direction – just keep on going up the road about forty five minutes.
Fifty minutes later I stopped at a little shop in a little outcrop of County Clare civilisation. The place had no name. Entering the shop I was surprised to see that the entire floor was covered with flattened cardboard boxes. A woman who looked like she was the product of generations of in breeding greeted me. She had hair the consistency of steel wool and her complexion looked as if she had used her hair to strip several layers of skin off in an effort to keep it clean. She told me I had missed the turn off to Feakle,
“Go back up the road and take the first crossroad on the right.”
I turned the car around and took the turn to the right. The scenery was magnificent. Several times I stopped the car to take pictures of the countryside. It was a sunny morning and the colours were wonderful. About twenty minutes later I found myself driving down a hill and I noticed what looked to be a vaguely familiar outcrop of buildings….I had done a complete circle and I was parked out the front of the same shop but this time I was on the opposite side of the road.
I went into the shop for the second time.
“Oh, you’re back” said Mrs. Steel Wool Face “sure its great to see you again!”
It was as if I were a long lost relative returned from some unknown third world country! I told her what I had done –
“Well, I left here and took the first turn to the right as you said I should.”
“Oh no, you didn’t! I thought you knew not to take that one! I said the first crossroad and that is the second street on the right.”
In my earlier conversation with the lady I had told her I had been in the country for two days. I had also told her I was from Australia and this was my first trip to the country. I had also told her I was travelling alone. I thought for a brief moment of running all this information past her again, but in the end I just said,
“Well it was lovely to see you again. Now after I have gone, just put the kettle on in case I end up back here and then we can have a cup of tea!”
Retracing my steps – but this time getting the right – and after consulting with a man driving a tractor and a totally toothless old man who could have been speaking some Amazonian dialect but who indicated via facial expressions that he thought he was speaking English – I finally arrived in Feakle.
Feakle has two claims to fame. It is the only place in Ireland where toothpaste is made and it is the site of the biggest European Folk music festival. How James could have left the place I could not begin to imagine. Just at the top of the hill, after the right hand turn into the village is a shrine to Mary – erected in honour of the Marian Year. Beside the shrine is a phone booth. I stopped to ring my sister in Australia – and of course got her answering machine.
I got instructions to the cemetery from the man in the grocers shop. As I went into the cemetery the peace was tangible. I did not expect to find anything here but I walked around anyway. Down a bit of a hill. It was muddy and slippery. The headstones that looked very old were surprisingly recent. On my way back to the car my eyes were drawn to a spot where the sun was shining and I saw a very simple stone cross, covered in lichen and looking very old. The name on it was M. Boland. It was really quite eerie how I was drawn to this spot. The grave next to it was marked 1879. Perhaps this was the grave of James’ brother Michael. I stayed there and I cried – it was a huge feeling.
Later that night, my host John Boland told me that Feakle has had the reputation of being a centre of Republicanism and that there are IRA safe houses in the area. Nothing changes it would seem!
There are no souvenir shops in Feakle. I didn’t pick up a stone from the road. I wasn’t really sure at the time that I wanted to share my experience with anyone. I had walked where my ancestor had walked – in his homeland. I left feeling complete. I’d brought something home for someone – not for me. That place was not my home. My home is the place that James began to make for me after he was forced to leave his family and travel an unknown path.
Travel Tip: When travelling in far off lands looking for your roots, check out the instructions and make sure you have a good and easily accessible supply of tissues
Taking the Gene Pool to the Ancestral Roots
The third born of my children is the one who is most like me. Physically she resembles me more than any of the others, but it is her spirit – maybe even her soul – that is most like me I think.
Being the second daughter I am sure she suffers from the same self-doubt and questions that I had as a child and a young woman. By the time I was born, Mum and Dad had one of each kind so there was nothing new for them to learn! I never was the first one to anything in my family until I was the first one to walk down the aisle seven months pregnant, marry a protestant and get a job in the real world!
She is spirit and determination personified.
One day in 2000 – late in the year – post Olympics and my mother’s stroke, she said to me:
“Mum, I have registered with an international Nanny agency.” She had graduated from Uni earlier in the year but had not been able to find a job. She worked part time at a line dancing restaurant but clearly, wanted something more. That night she was at work and I was home alone. The phone rang:
“Hello” said this incredibly toffy voice “May I speak to Mayghan?”
“I am sorry. Megan is not at home. I am her mother. Can I take a message?”
“Oh yes” oozed the toffy nosed twit “My name is Sybil. Mayghan has registered to work in Great Britain as a Nanny. May I interview you?”
Well off she went – thousands of questions checking out my genealogy to see if this child of the antipodes…product of her convict ancestors – might be worthy of travelling back to the old dart to look after the children of an inner city London merchant banker! I must have passed because Meg was accepted into the firm and left the country on my mother’s birthday in 2001.
The father of my children connected with our second daughter on the day she was born. Hers was the first birth he attended (apart from his own of course!) She became his from her first breath and so he pined for her like he had never pined for anything while she was out of the country. He changed jobs in the middle of the year and got a pay out and he decided that we would go to visit her in England.
We collected out tickets on September 11th 2001. I rang Meg to tell her we really were coming. I had not really believed that we would be until the tickets were in my hand. She was very pleased. She was ironing the “little shits” clothing at the time. That night she rang me hysterical:
“Mum, they have bombed the Tower”
“Are you alone? How far away from the Tower are you?”
“No Mum, turn on the tele….look at it …it is in New York” and I turned on the television and together, separated by the international date line and in different hemispheres, my daughter and I watched as the second plane flew into the second Tower and together we were horrified and cried.
I got into bed – very late….her father was asleep and he stirred as I climbed in beside him….
“Mmmm….ughughughugh….grumble grumble grumble…..”
“They have blown up the World Trade Centre” I said “Who knows what we will wake up to in the morning. I hope the world will still be there” and I rolled over and thought of my beautiful daughter on the other side of the world and wondered how I would feel if I was cut off from seeing her ever again.
In spite of it all – we went. Husband, child and I – we got on the plane and threw ourselves upon the mercy of the Gods. The day we arrived in London (minus my suitcase that had been run over in Bangkok ) they started to bomb Afghanistan.
I missed the big Aussie exodus of the sixties when everyone who was anyone went to live in Earls Court, so I had organised for us to stay in a B&B there. It was convenient for Meg too who lived not too far away. The internet description of the place made it sound like a home away from home. I received a couple of emails after booking which assured me that my entire family would be welcomed with great love and that even though we were arriving very early in the morning (4.30am) and our room would not be ready, we were most welcome to have breakfast in their lovely, warm, family like breakfast room…..sounds like heaven doesn’t it?
Well we arrived there and were met by fifteen generations of an overbearing Indian family to be told that our rooms were not available – but that they did have a room for us in their other establishment which was just up the street a bit. This set me into a tizz because the British Airways who had promised me they would find my frigging luggage – were going to send it, via courier, to the digs in Earls Court. The little Indian man assured me that all would be well and so we trecked off down the road.
Our room was a bit small – 1 double bed and two singles and what I thought was a walk in single wardrobe – it turned out to the be “ensuite”. Talk about a euphemism! We knew it was best not to sleep and so we set out to check out the place. Thinking I would have the first opportunity to use an ATM in London I inserted my card into a “Lloyds of London” hole in the wall. Access denied – contact you bank manager!
Now of course, before I had left Australia, I had been to see Slippery Sam the Bank Manager to arrange finance. He was a loquacious larrikin who assured me that I would be right “Darlin” – wherever I went. I had an excellent record at paying off the ten thousand dollars I have borrowed for the first-born’s nuptials, and the ten thousand dollars I had borrowed to do the Ireland trip in nineteen ninety four. “All you’ll need is your card – you can access your visa account and your cheque account anywhere in Europe.”
The middle path walker – who had previously spent 2 weeks in Hong Kong with the Scouting movement – told me that he was going to get travellers cheques.
“Travellers Cheques” scoffed Slippery Sam “No way Darlin’! They are a thing of the past – you won’t need em. Get a bit of cash – and we can organise that for you here – and all you need is the card.” I told the middle path walker he was worrying unnecessarily and was idiot enough to believe old Slippery.
So when the machine rejected my card – for the second time – I entered the Bank. I must have looked like I had just stepped out of the kangaroo paddock because the smug pommy bastard looked down his aquiline nose and said
“Madam, you will not be able to access funds with that card anywhere in Europe.”
“Can I cash a cheque here” and inquired
“Do you have a cheque account?”
“No you pompous shit, I am just asking to take up a bit of time on a day when I have been awake for thirty six hours!”
“Yes I do have a cheque account and here is my cheque book.” He received it like he was receiving a piece of radioactive contaminate – “No Madam, I cannot cash a cheque from the National Bank of Australia.”
Well of course the middle path walker told me not to worry – he had the travellers cheques!
Having received a five thousand dollar limit on my Visa Card I had, of course, gone a bit ballistic with it in Sydney and purchased a digital video camera duty free – that was two thousand of the little buggers gone before I had even left the country! This meant that we had three thousand plus fifteen hundred courtesy of the obsolete travellers cheques and another fifteen hundred on the middle path walker’s visa to get us a week in London, a weekend in Paris, three weeks in Ireland and two days in Bangkok!
Now I know that in my mother’s day they could have purchased a house, three cars, six months accommodation in Katoomba and paid the school fees for six children with that amount – but things were looking pretty desperate for the fat lady, the middle path walker and the would be wrestling champ! And all the while they were bombing Afghanistan!
Megan had decided that she and I would go to Paris for a weekend – it was her present to me for my fiftieth birthday….what a gift! Originally it was just going to be the girls and the boys were going to stay in London. But of course the fellas could not be left alone so we were all going. We were leaving two days after our arrival in London.
John at British Airways managed to find my suitcase the day after we landed in London and it was delivered to the B&B – in a huge plastic bag – minus its top with its innards spewing out all over the place. My beautiful white dressing gown – which I had purchased in the hope of getting lucky in Paris – had the imprint of what I was sure was the landing gear of a jumbo jet right across it. This of course set us off on yet another panic. I rang John of British Airways who apologised most profusely and said I could just pop down to a department store and purchase a replacement suitcase to the value of eighty five pounds!
Although we were all nearly comatose we found ourselves at Victoria Station at an ungodly hour of the morning to catch the chunnel to Paris.
Oh the city of love! We arrived and got a taxi to our gorgeous little hotel “within walking distance from the Tour Eiffel” The father of the children was overcome with jet lag – having walked all over London and its Tower the day before – and he was insisting on an afternoon nap. The daughter – who had arranged the trip to the Capital of Love – was hell bent on not missing a single minute of the experience and wanted to walk to the great phallic symbol. The son….well he just wanted peace so he was prepared to do whatever was necessary.
Me? What of Me? I was pole axed with exhaustion. I was not sure if my legs could support my more than ample body on a trip up the three flights of stairs to our bedroom let alone the frigging Eiffel Tower! Emotionally I was a wreck…. Loaded down with the prospect of my husband and youngest child having to beg for food and accommodation because of my lack of access to funds….courtesy of Slippery Sam the bank manager. BUT….BUT ….BUT….in true I am woman hear me roar tradition I agreed to accompany the fruits of my loins on an excursion into the cultural heart of Paris.
With the planter of the seeds of the fruits of my loins horizontal in the hotel room, we set out… camera, video camera and map in hand. My daughter had spent a weekend in Paris some time earlier and was certain that we could find the Tower with a minimum of fuss. No, we did not need a taxi….its an easy walk! Twenty minutes later when she sat down on a bench and consulted the map I knew we were in trouble!
There it was …we were lost in Paris….she who is most like me, would not give in to asking for a taxi – so we kept walking….and walking and walking. By the time we got to the verdant manicured lawns that surround the tower I was like several of my children “how much further???? Are we there yet???” and if I had been one of my own children I would have slapped myself and sent myself to Coventry! Meg had a complete emotional melt down. She could not believe that here, in the city of love – her present to me – we were fighting on the lawn under the Tower and he father was unconscious back at the hotel.
Having arrived at the base of the Tower I thought that I was home and hosed. THINK AGAIN because it was at this time that the youngest of my children decided to assert himself and announce that there was no way he was going up the Tower.
“No, Mum I am not going up there.”
“Well, if you think I have come all this bloody way to stand underneath the Eiffel Tower think again!”
So Meg and I went up the Tower – what an experience. The view was mind blowing. We did not go to the very highest level but I was proud that we got to the second top platform. We hugged each other and reconnected and forgot about our barney and asked a stranger to take our picture – one of my favourite pictures now!
When we got back down again, I was relieved to find my youngest child sitting on a bench, quietly looking at the pigeons. It was not until many years later that he told me of his own adventure while were we up in the stratosphere.
While he had been walking slowly around the area – taking in the view he had been approached by a man. “Yup, Mum, this man came up to me. He was wearing one of those overcoats.” (At this stage of the telling of his tale, my kneecaps began to dislocate, the gases in the pit of my stomach began to bubble and spew and I felt “DO NOT TELL ME YOU WERE MOLESTED IN PARIS!” started to form at the back of my throat.) “Yeah, it was pretty funny Mum. I was sitting on a bench and he came and stood in front of me and said something to me. I told him I did not speak French and then he started to unbutton his coat.” (Sweet Jesus – I could get done for neglect!) “Then, when he pulled his coat open..” (OH PLEASE… PLEASE DO NOT SAY IT… I CANNOT BEAR TO HEAR IT!) “he had all these watches and sunglasses attached to the inside of it!” (and the Hallelujah Chorus and Land of Hope and Glory and Faith of our Fathers and Waltzing Matilda all began to play simultaneously in my relieved head!)
After our Eiffel experience we decided that we would get a taxi back to the Hotel. We found a taxi rank and stood in a line of people. Everyone was smoking – camel dung by the smell of it – and my two “smoke free zone” children began to complain. My daughter actually wrapped her scarf around her head and began coughing like she was already in the terminal ward. I tried to get them to cut it out – but to no avail of course. Four taxis arrived at once. I started to get into the one that had stopped immediately in front of us when this very well dressed woman – probably a survivor of the German occupation of Paris – began to spit Parisienne vitriol at me. Apparently I was getting into the wrong cab.
Traumatised but in one piece, we arrived again at the hotel. I had left the key to the room with the middle path walker because he had indicated that after a short nap he might go for a walk. There was no answer when I knocked on the door. I asked the concierge if he had seen him leave and he said that he had not. I went to the kids’ room for a while and then tried our room again. Panicked by this stage I went to ask for another key to the room. “No Madame, there is no other key.” “Well could you open the door for me please?” “No Madame – the room is in your husband’s name and I can only open it for him.” Well it was all a bit too much really.
The flight, the bag loss, accommodation breakdown, the bloody money debacle – I had had it and I turned on a real performance. So much so, that the maid did open the room and there was the middle path walker – flat out sound asleep on the bed!
He of course was awake and raring to go after his 3 hour afternoon nap and suggested that he head off to the Latin Quarter for dinner. We visited Notre Dame first – it was shut. I looked at bloody Charlemagne on that great white horse and wanted to knock him off so that I could rest my feet. We walked along the Seine at sunset – it was beautiful. The little stalls were being packed up for the evening. In the Latin Quarter we sought a restaurant that would cater for us all – three out of four of us are usually easy to please but the youngest – who has been brought up on happy meals and chicken nuggets since he refused to eat anything remotely appropriate at around the age of three and a half – was already starting to voice his objections.
We chose a little restaurant – south American food I think. I had the best steak I have ever eaten. Husband and daughter were satisfied but l’enfant horrible wanted chips. I said to the waiter “Do you do chips?” “Oh yes – chips? Yes we can do chips.” Relief all round until he brought out the biggest plate of corn chips I have ever seen in my life. The children left to pick up some “French fries” at a little stall they had seen up the street.
That night, back at the hotel long lean and loveable had to have first bath. The kids and I had great fun looking out the window – night view of the Tower – incredible. Meg and I polished off a bottle of plonk and at around 12.30am we were sorely tempted to walk to the Tower again – but the logic of my aching feet prevailed and I woke their father up (he had fallen asleep in the bath) and we all settled down for the night.
The next day we set out to do the Open Top Bus tour of the city. Oh God! What I saw – the site of Chopin’s funeral:
“Can we get off” “No let’s see where it goes first…”;
The back of Rodin’s The Thinker;
“Can we get off?” “No let’s see where it goes first…”;
“Can we get off” “No let’s see where it goes first…”
And then – guess who had to go to the toilet? “Well YOU get off and I will stay and we can pick you up when the bus comes around again” I said to the walker (now with full bladder) of the middle path. “No, we’ll all have to get off – what if I get lost?” I just assumed that the last part of that was a rhetorical question and kept my mouth shut!
We managed to make our way to Montmartre – saw the famous and very little windmill of the Moulin Rouge. It was a very dirty, squalid sort of place – but for Joe it was heaven because there we could the Gold Arches which meant that he could eat properly for the firs time since leaving the land down under! We made it to the top of the hill and found an organ grinder – complete with monkey out the front of the Sacre Coeur. We all went inside the church. I was just gobsmacked by it – the rest of the party were less than enthusiastic. There were candle to burn in front of one of the shrines. I am a great burner of candles. Each candle cost fifty francs to light. I wanted to light one for each of my children, my Mum, my Dad and each of my five siblings. Fishing around in the candle repository Long Lean and Loveable said to me “What the hell are you doing – you’ve got no money – just bloody well light one.” That was the end of my spiritual experience – reality bit with a vengeance!
We left Paris on Sunday morning. Boarded the train – looked at the country side as it flashed past and about 2 minutes into the chunnel the train came to a dead stop! After ten minutes even the motor went off and for a brief period we were without lights. Meg was nearly white with silent hysteria – the bombing in Afghanistan looks the same on tele when the commentary is in French as it does when the commentary is in English – and terrorism was on the tip of everybody’s tongue! There was no explanation – we just sat. I was consoling myself with the fact that we couldn’t possibly have actually hit the Channel in the time we had been in the tunnel so if was all had to get out and walk back it would be alright.
Arriving back in London was like arriving home. We were told that we could move into our booked accommodation – we were relieved until we discovered that our room was on the bloody third floor. Lumping suitcases upstairs we collapsed into our beds. I awoke to the sound of hammering on the door at three o’clock the next morning. It was the concierge telling me that my daughter had left a message for me to ring her. The phone was in the breakfast room. The breakfast room was IN THE BASEMENT – FOUR FLIGHTS OF STAIRS BELOW! I made the trip though because it meant that I could get the bloody finances sorted so that we would not have to sing for our supper all the way round Ireland for the next 3 weeks!
Travel tip: Try not to fight with you daughter on the lawn under the Eiffel Tower. Don’t believe everything the internet site tells you about “family style” accommodation. NEVER attempt to get into the wrong taxi in Paris.
ALWAYS get OFF the bus!