w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
The original thinking was that we’d come during the summer, but by the time we’d gotten around to looking for a house, most places were already full. I felt I was scrapping the bottom of the barrel when I stumbled upon this house on airb&b as there were no reviews and it was located in a corner more remote than we’d previously considered. Yet, I was captivated as I scrolled through the images and its lovingly written description. When the owner offered a discount for September, it was a done deal.
Afterwards there was remorse. It was, after all, the country, and I am a city girl (or at least a citified suburban one). How the heck would I fill my days? I flipped through the pictures again, trying to imagine myself in the big house, surrounded by 8 acres of wilderness. And quiet. And nothing to do. I implored Chris to contact the owner to inquire: What exactly does one do in the country? I mean, is there a cow to milk? Or a stone wall I’m supposed to sit on? “I’m not asking her that,” he said dryly. “Just get your mind around it. It’ll be fine.”
I take his advice so by the time Susan asks what I’m most looking forward to, I sigh and say dreamily, “We wake up and it’s chilly and raining so Chris builds a fire and we drink coffee and after breakfast we teach the kids to make soup and then go outside to stomp around in the rain and then we take a long, hot bath in the claw foot tub and then we read aloud taking turns to do all the voices and roast a chicken and play long, involved board games and tinker around on the piano and Oona paints and Isoo birds and we all get to write.”
What really happened is that I screamed more in that first week than I ever did in my entire life. The homeschooling, the intense togetherness, the lack of structure, kids who can’t find anything in an unfamiliar house, being surrounded by people ALL OF THE TIME. Do you really need to ask? And then there was the day the refrigerator and the toilet broke at the same time. And the apocalyptic number of flies. Argh.
Chris, displaced most of all, spent the first few days drifting around like a ghost; faint, distracted, searching for quiet corner to write and think, only to find he was now living in a circular room. But the worst offender was Isoo. “Oh my god, there is nothing to do here!” he would moan (translation: “How will I live without a TV?”). He nags us incessantly to take him birding. We fling open the door, sweep our arm across the landscape and say ”have at it!” He looks out quizzically, blinking in the threshold like a newborn not used to sunlight and fresh air. Oona, thankfully, has managed to keep herself busy chasing frogs, gathering blackberries, making pies, collecting pebbles, scampering up the big rock to paint, waking up early to get first dibs on the swing in front of our house. All accompanied by constant chatter and fueled by an endless parade of snacks.
But there are also lovely surprises, not least among them, fantastic weather. We’ve had nothing but warm, dry days since we’ve been here (knock wood). Another thing we were wrong about: There’s loads to do - here are some of the more memorable things we did in our first 10 days in the country:
WHAT WE DID:
1. Lough Hyne and Knockomagh Woods
Lough Hyne used to be a small fresh water lake until sea levels rose and flooded it with ocean water, causing it to sustain an unusual collection of marine and plant life. It’s also home to the Knockomagh Wood, a majestic oak forest consumed by moss. The place feels so enchanted you half expect to run into wood nymphs and trolls. We took the steep, zig zag trail to the top. Definitely a workout for the glutes, but the amazing views of the countryside were worth it.
Chris and Isoo leading the way.
Oona finds a rope swing.
Oona at the top. Breathtaking views of West Cork's farmland and Lough Hyne.
2. Cape Clear/International Storytelling Festival
At only 3 miles wide and 1 mile long, Cape Clear is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island and one of the few remaining areas where Gaelic is still spoken. Chris and I were totally psyched to attend the 20th Annual International Storytelling Festival, but Isoo was there for the sole purpose of birding. We drove 30 minutes to Baltimore and then boarded the ferry for Cape Clear. Sprawled on the only available bench was a goateed man wearing dark shades, hat, and a sour-expression, a giant backpack wrapped in black plastic garbage bags at his feet. He was also wearing binoculars, the tell-tale sign of a birder. “Hi there, plan on doing some bird watching today?” I asked, eager for tips to share with Isoo. I was going to melt him with my sunny American demeanor if it killed me. It didn’t work. He had no interest in me, but during the 40 minute ride, he and Isoo grunted at each other, squinted into the horizon and pointed out sea birds. With a little prodding, I learned that his name was Gareth, a professor just returning from giving a lecture at Purdue University and, as luck would have it, the brother of the Ireland’s foremost bird watcher and moth expert. When I asked where on Cape Clear he liked to bird, he sheepishly confessed to having a small place on the island good for spotting, but suggested we take the Green Trail for some hiking.
By the time we pulled into the harbor, Gareth was quizzing Isoo on his bird knowledge and a crowd of white-haired men with crazy eyebrows and rich accents had gathered to play audience. After some handshaking and tilting of caps, we had a quick picnic lunch at the pier before we set off for the Green Trail, already reminiscing of our good luck at having made new friends, when from behind a stone wall we heard, “I suspected we’d meet again.” It was Gareth, tin coffee mug in hand, standing in a field on the edge of the woods. Behind him was not the charming cottage I suspected he was modestly alluding to, but in the words of Oona, “The World’s Smallest Hut”, just large enough for a cot, his pack and a cook stove.
Ah-ha! Gareth was an actual genius misanthrope! A real live, bird watching hermit! Even Isoo admitted that it was like glimpsing a bit of his future self. As we walked away Gareth, shouted “Stop for a cup of tea on your way back.” Alas, the trail looped us in another direction and we were late for the festival so it was the last we saw of Gareth, but not of our other new friends. We huffed in, sweaty and exhausted from the hike just as the festival doors were closing. We would have been the last ones in if it wasn't for a white-haired man who slid in next to Isoo, greeting him in loud whispers. You guessed right. Our fellow commuters were the storytellers. We had a fantastic time listening to them and meeting other storytellers from Austria, Switzerland, the US, etc. And as if to make certain that everyone had a memorable time, Oona spotted a dozen dolphins and a giant breaching whale on the ferry ride home. One of our favorite days so far.
Left: Isoo and Pat, one of the storytellers from the festival. Right: Looking for birds (Gareth is in the pink shirt).
The scenic ride to Cape Clear.
Pulling into Cape Clear harbor.
The Green Trail hike is very bush wacky. Totally overgrown with heather and nettles. Although the bushes were often taller than Oona, she insisted on leading the way. Wear pants and long sleeves to avoid getting scratched. Or skip it and walk the paved roads instead.
See, even the paved roads are pretty. On our way down for the locally made goats milk ice cream.
Dolphin spotting by eagle-eyed Oona.
WHERE WE ATE:
Séan Rua's Restaurant and An Siopa Beag
Conveniently located on the harbor, Séan Rua's Restaurant and An Siopa Beag is an all purpose grocery store/restaurant/pizzeria/bookshop and the meeting hub for the tiny island of Cape Clear. It’s the kind of place you go to several times a day during your stay on the island, because, well, there’s not many other options. The menu is limited, but the views are great and the staff, friendly.
3. Skibbereen Farmer’s Market
Ok, I’m going to amend my previous comment about the food in Ireland. Yes, the pub food in the big cities is wanting, but the local food in Ireland’s farming region is a whole other animal (excuse the pun). Last Saturday we went into Skibbereen, a funky little town with a great art and music scene, and was floored by the selection of absolutely fresh meats, fish, cheese and vegetables (yes, Ireland now has vegetables beyond potatoes). The really cool thing is that it’s stuff grown literally on our doorstep. We spent the whole morning sampling and chatting with the farmers, and then stayed to listen to the band, who incidentally, were pretty darn good.
Giving new meaning to doing shows on the road.
I totally need one of these trucks.
WHAT WE ATE:
Frankie's Bad Ass BBQ
Seriously good. Every Saturday Isoo wakes up and begs to get a Frankie burger and one of Liliane's crepes. The hot dogs are really Irish sausages, but still pretty good.
Crepes a la Francaise
When the kids are old and gray, the only thing they may remember about Ireland are the banana and nutella crepes.
Chris and the kids can have their burgers. What I really love are the spicy falafels.
West Cork Pies
Chris, Oona and I are addicted to the outrageously tasty Thai Scotch Eggs.
The Real Olive Co.
Fresh, delicious Mediterranean food imported from Spain. Also on the menu is buffalo mozzarella made from the only buffalo farm in Ireland. Olives, anchovies, cheese and a handful of their roasted cashews are our go-to Sunday afternoon snack.
4. Bantry House
Bantry House is a gorgeous private estate owned by the White family for over 300 years. While it was once their residence, it’s now opened to the public. You can dine in the café (formerly the kitchen), sleep in the B&B, walk the charming gardens and wander the ancient rooms. It’s the kind of place where Chris and I geek out, touching things we’re not supposed to and imagining what it would be like to live in that era. Oona is a sucker for the treasure hunt and quizzes. Added bonus: Watching Isoo writhe in agony.
The gorgeous gardens of Bantry House.
Overlooking Bantry Bay.
The over-the-top dining room. And the library where Colonel Mustard did it with the wrench.
5. Drama Class
Say what? Isoo and Oona want to take drama class? Not. Who cares? Not us! Desperate for a little time away from the kids, er, I mean, to give them a chance to make some Irish friends, we enrolled them in a drama class (the only thing we could find that suited both ages and allowed for a per class tuition). Isoo almost threw up when we told him. Oona was game. Ironically, he liked it better than she did. See ya next week!
Are we having fun yet?
6. Liss Ard
Liss Ard is a sprawling Georgian estate located just a few minutes from our house. It’s a gorgeous Inn with fancy lodgings nestled in 200 acres of lakes, woods and gardens. It’s lovely, but what makes it really worth visiting is the James Turrell Irish Sky Garden Crater. You enter through a locked gate, walk through a long, dark vault, climb several steep steps and are “rebirthed” into a giant, man-made crater. In the center is a stone tomb looking thing that you’re supposed to lie on and quietly contemplate the sky. It’s actually pretty amazing and powerful, but Isoo and Oona insisted on clawing their way up the incredibly steep incline and then running around the vast rim howling like idiots. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly the experience Turrell was going for.
Oh, while we were there, we met one of the chefs at the restaurant who confessed to letting himself into the crater on the recent full moon. He said it was an incredibly eerie, magical experience. Jealous.
The crater from a distance.
Clawing your way up is one thing. Sliding all the way down on your butt and ruining your pants while screaming bloody murder is another. All part of the fun.
The kids run wild on the rim while mom tries to contemplate the meaning of life.
WHERE WE ATE:
Cafe at Liss Ard
Cathy, the wonderful baker/owner at Café at Liss Ard, sells her homemade pastries and cakes from this tiny little room decorated with vintage knickknacks. Think mismatched Victorian china, lovely fluted cake plates and dollops of fresh cream, all served in the beautiful graveled patio. As we came late in the day, Cathy was able to join us, sharing her treats and letting the kids play with her dogs.
7. Soccer, Soccer, Soccer
We took a nap the other day and woke up to find that a couple of farmers had come to cut stuff down, harvest the hay and then bale it up. These are probably not the correct farming terms, but what do you want from a citified suburban gal? Anyhow it changed the whole property for us. Voila, now we have a huge soccer field!
Every couple of days Isoo yells for Oona and gives her an intense soccer lesson. She should be ready for TE tryouts when we get back!
Today's lesson: pull backs.
We drove the 1.5 hours to this charming harbor village famous for its colorfully painted houses and plethora of restaurants. It was the first time back in 12 years. We had a blast walking the town and showing the kids our old apartment, grocer, hang outs, etc., until Chris inexplicably got poop all over his shirt and backpack. He made the 3km walk up the long winding road to Charles Fort in the heat wearing a hooded black fleece. By the time we got to the fort, he was a hot, sweaty, miserable mess. His solution was to hike down to the shore, strip off his clothes and plunge into the icy Bandon River. Oona, his partner in crime, joined him screaming, “My buttocks are frozen!” Isoo and I sat on the rocks shaking our heads. Ironically, Chris did the same thing 12 years ago, jumping off the shores of Compass Hill in Kinsale to swim with the seals. Some things never change.
Many a pint was pulled here during our last stay.
Oona and I had a great time running through the massive fort, playing hide-and-go seek and doing cartwheels.
But hard to know which of the two guys enjoyed it more.
Chris swimming in the icy Bandon River just outside the fort. I'm sure the other tourists had no idea what to make of him.
WHERE WE ATE:
Black Pig Winebar
We had our best meal yet at this hip little tapas bar. Elaine, I kept thinking how much you would love this place, to curl up with a great glass of wine and grab a cookbook off the shelf. The patio out back was so romantic Isoo commented that it might be nice spot for a date. The food scene in Kinsale has definitely improved (ask Chris about his short stint as a cook in Ireland)!
Last but not least, as we got deeper into our stay, we did manage to figure things out a bit. Isoo did bird, Oona did paint, we all got creamed by Oona in chess, soup was made, baths were drawn and we even found a stone wall or two. And finally, Chris and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary with lots of family cuddles and a quiet dinner at home. Perfect.
Blackberry hunting on the path down to our house.
Early morning reading by the fire.
On the lookout for the Willow Warbler.
Oona painting on the rock in front of the house.
One of many many stone walls.
WHERE WE ATE:
I'm going to say it: Chicago has the best pizza in the world. Even if you think yours is better, it's not (this goes for you, too, NYC, with your greasy, flaccid slices). This place was fine, but it was no Giordano's.
A small organic grocer with a kitchen that cranks out vegetarian pasties, muffins, salads and soups. This was widely lauded as the place to go to in crunchy Ballydehob for decent grub. I wanted to find it amazing, but it was just fine.
“What you want to do is go back 'round and when you’ve come out the other end, make the 4th right onto a dirt road. The sign’s blown off, but you’ll be alright. The road’s bumpy and you have to go quite a ways. Don’t let the stream put you off, just drive right through. The house is at the end of the lane.”
We follow, Ruth, the caretaker’s, instructions. We find the town, and the road so twisted and narrow you can’t help but gasp every time a car races your way (for the record, the side windows were already shattered when we picked up the car). Then the dirt path, overgrown with tall grass and spikey blackberry bushes. We splash through the promised stream, the car rocking as it dips into ruts so deep I wonder if the rental has a spare. After nearly a mile and a half, there it is, at the top, looking exactly as it did in the pictures only bigger and sunnier; the exterior painted yellow with blue trim. Oona runs out of the car to scamper up the huge rock that fronts the house. Isoo heads straight for the tree swing. Chris fishes out the key and disappears inside, leaving me to struggle with the luggage.
“Cheong, leave it, you have to see this!”
It’s only our fourth day in the house, and it's still revealing itself. It’s a great, open, (believe it or not) sunny house with loads of windows and a set of Dutch doors (I have always wanted Dutch doors!) that flank either side of the kitchen. And while it's comfortable and spacious, it’s not one of those cookie cutter luxury homes. It's imperfect - the tubs are stained from the manganese and iron in water. There is the occasional missing light fixture. The trim in the Living Room is in the midst of replacement. The freshly painted exterior is puckering. The tin garage is missing half its walls. The 8 acres is not flat and wide, but overgrown and wild, with more than its share of thickets and thorns, ditches and water holes. But it is a house alive with color and art and the sense that a happy family of young children lived here.
I love the little details: The slightly warped plates handmade by the owner, the dining table stained with coffee rings and paint splatters, the claw foot tub under windows that open onto Fuschia flowers. I pull open a dresser drawer to find a child’s diary. Another reveals a skeleton key. The extensive record collection with everything from Underground 80’s, Burl Ives, flamenco, Al Green. Wellies, in an assortment of sizes lined up in the mudroom. DVD sets of Madmen and Dexter. In the pantry gluten-free flour, brown sugar, Yogi tea. A creased photo of a young woman with dark curly hair wearing an infant in a carrier. The chair pulled up next to the piano as if a lesson had just been conducted. A pair of green stone earrings in a tiny bowl. Well-loved Teddy bears with noses gone missing. A giant jar of 1-cent Euro coins in the laundry room. I pull a sheet of scrap paper from beneath a pile of puzzles to find a pencil drawing of a small mouse. In the bookshelf are tomes entitled “How to Repair Farm Roofs”.
The kids unearth a chess board and Isoo becomes obsessed with the idea of beating his sister. After dinner we collect our scraps and gingerly make our way to through the brush, timidly lifting the lid of the compost bin to peek inside. We squat in the tub and clumsily sprinkle well water over our heads. The foreign brand of detergent transforms our pile of folded clothes into someone else’s clean laundry. I try on the pair of wire reading glasses left on the fireplace. My hair smells of the half bottle of Aussie shampoo found in the second bath. There is no TV so instead we, too, fill the house with music.
We are archeologists, slowly discovering and learning how to be this family. Did the mother also sit at this table, looking out the window as her daughter sat on the swing calling for a push? In turn I wonder what clues the new owners of our old house will find. A stray hair clip. The patch of grass worn away where Isoo kicked his soccer ball. The carpet flattened where the sectional sat. Will they know to put their couch in the same spot? Hang their pictures on the nails left by our paintings?
After the month we will move on. Invariably we will leave something behind. Perhaps Isoo’s worry stone, already rubbed smooth by his thumb. The small jar of dried dill the kids insisted I pack for their pasta. Oona’s hairbrush. One flip flop. A roll of tape. A shoeprint left in the foyer that says: We were here. This was our home.
Chris in the front Dutch door.
The owner is an American potter, the husband is Irish, and they have 3 girls that they raised in the house for 8 years before moving to NY State. Her beautiful handmade pottery is found throughout the house.
The open plan kitchen/family/dining room. The rack above the cast iron stove is a traditional drying rack which is lowered by a rope (the house also has a washer and dryer).
The living room has loads of records, a piano, guitar and a cute reading nook that's perfect for Hide-and-Go-Seek.
The sliding barn door opens to reveal a powder room. Dexter's Midnight Runners, anyone?
I sometimes sit in the chair to write, but more often to stare out the window.
I miss a good shower, but I do love a claw foot tub.
Not surprised that Isoo chose the smallest room. He loves bright, cozy spaces most.
I thought for sure Oona would pick this room. I was wrong. But it leaves us plenty of space for guests. Come visit!
The old stone chicken coop overgrown with Fuchsia flowers.
Oona finishes her soup to find a frog at the bottom of her bowl. A doorway marks a growing family.