Roman Holiday

Rome, what a refreshing city; the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain… there is so much to see and experience… If these ancient structures could talk, I think they would have a lot of secrets.

Finding myself at the Colosseum I couldn’t help but think about Gladiator (2000) and they thought the Celts were barbaric! But I suppose it was all in a day’s work; it was the context in which life evolved. The sheer volume of this edifice; I am in awe, I hear the cries, the shouts, the roaring crowd that fills the amphitheatre… I try to imagine what life was like but it’s rather difficult. Emerging from my dream-like state, the hustle-and-bustle of modernity bring me back to my reality… a plethora of tourists speaking multitude of languages.

If Walls Could Talk!

Next the Pantheon; a former Roman temple and is now a church. What architectural prowess, marble floor with geometric patterns, what majestic craftsmanship. The nine metre diameter hole, called the Oculus is fascinating. The floor is slightly convex so when it rains the water flows away. I respect the fact that even ruins are so important to the local people, they carry significance in their own right.

I like Rome. It’s a compact city. It has kept its architectural heritage; there are no unwanted ugliness creeping its way into Roman architecture. I breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of standardisation, in other words, globalisation is on their terms…

I appreciate the exuberance of the Italians. The notion of far niente is compelling; the sweet idleness, delightfully slow-paced way of life. It reminds me of parts of France where life has a rhythm of its own. I feel lifted by the musicality of their language, but also, I think that the musicality comes from their personality and body language. They drive around the streets like mad yet they appear to soak-up life’s pleasures. The streets are so narrow that almost every car has its ‘signature dent’; they remind me of little laneways in an alpine village.

Rome often reminds me of the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983). It’s based on the true story of an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of Jews and Allied soldiers during World War II.

Back to the present…food is simply delicious here. One thing I remarked was the importance of fresh vegetables. Italy is a great place to eat for a vegetarian. There is great taste in their vegetable dishes, a real delight. Of course, not forgetting pizzas and pasta! My choice is the indispensible Margherita, always authentic. My husband finds the pasta Carbonara irresistible; made with pancetta or pork jowl – guanciale – the name is derived from guancia, the Italian word for cheek – a sweet and moist piece of pork.

I want to return to Rome and explore other parts of Italy; Venice, Florence – indulge my senses in art history – Naples, Sicily… My parents and brother’s family toured Italy last year; gosh looking at the myriad of photos they took was enough to persuade me to take another trip there. My sister has already toured many parts of Italy some years ago but she is ready for another trip! Perhaps we’ll explore together…

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The Regatta: A Cultural and Social Encounter

While I prefer exploring places off-season for their authenticity, summer can have its benefits as it reveals the connection locals establish with visitors. Coastal towns in summer are vibrant. There is always some kind of festival going on; the connection with the sea is significant to developing and enhancing these places and key to attracting tourists.

Regatta… a word that evokes the coast, the sea, sailing boats… In Castletownbere, West Cork, the ‘Regatta’ takes place annually, on the first Monday of August – a Bank Holiday in Ireland. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane… It’s not sure when this event first emerged but many retired locals tell me that it is reminiscent of their childhood. I found newspaper articles referring to the ‘Regatta’ dating back to 1912.

A few people to whom I spoke recall a time when there were gig races only prior to the event becoming part of the wider Festival of the Sea. A lot of fishermen used to be involved; my dad recalls there being a specific fishermen’s gig.  

Back to today’s event… there are both senior and junior, ladies and men’s gig races taking place over the course of the day. At intervals there are pillow fights, swimming races, greasy pole among other fun events. The festival not only attracts tourists but also a large number of the Castletownbere diaspora. The Regatta reveals a sense of ‘togetherness’. Fundamentally, this festival is about these people and for these people − permanent residents and visiting members of the Castletownbere diaspora − as a celebration of their maritime culture. People’s attachment to their heritage is revealed through their regular return visits to their native place.

It is a time and a place for all locals to meet and transmit the local heritage to future generations. As many people do not meet with one another outside of this festival due to professional and personal commitments in addition to geographical circumstances it is through the act of socialising during this festival that heritage and identity of the fishing community in Castletownbere is maintained. The festival is important to fishing culture as an agent that strengthens the ties between an increasingly dispersed ‘community’. It is interesting to observe these events take place. As crowds watch the ‘unfolding’ of different events some gasp in awe at the tenacity of certain competitors. The sheer resolve of the contestants offer a ‘theatrical performance’ to the spectators.

People invest emotionally in these events. Events like these reveal a collective sense of attachment to the pier as a place for social gatherings. When the last gig race is patiently awaited you can sense the excitement mounting. The atmosphere is electric, almost emotional, especially when Castletownbere teams are involved in the final effort to cross the line. So why not come visit us and experience for yourself the Regatta, a day-long celebration of maritime culture which is part and parcel of the wider Festival of the Sea.

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.

Bacalhau! Taste the Sea…

My first visit to Portugal was in April 2017. We flew from Dublin to Porto where we stayed with a friend of my husband’s – they used to be neighbours in France before he returned to Portugal with his parents at the age of fifteen. They had not seen one another in thirty years! But, like all close friendships, once they began reminiscing about their youth the thirty years that had separated them rapidly dwindled; it was like old times. We arrived on a Friday evening; we took the train to the other side of town where Stefano came to collect us. It was a warm, or rather hot, evening; you must remember that we live in Ireland which has an Oceanic climate whereas Portugal has a temperate climate. Anyway, he and his wife welcomed us with warmth to their home. We met their daughter, son-in-law and their first grandchild who was three at the time. His wife, what a great cook, prepared a feast of fresh fish and fresh vegetables for each meal. 

On Saturday we took the tram to Porto. We fell in love in the place; the architecture – my husband and I have a deep appreciation for structural design; the vibrant colours; the cafés and restaurants and so much more the list is endless… We were, nevertheless, surprised at the amount of French people. French was spoken at every street corner! We spent the day meandering through the narrow lanes. We lunched at the Café Majestic, a place that takes you back to the Belle Époque. We ordered the cod dish which was un délice – delicioso – delicious. You cannot visit Portugal without tasting, at least once, their cod dishes – Bacalhau – salted cod. It set us up for the rest of the day. We spent Sunday with our generous hosts; a quiet and tranquil day in the suburban countryside, away from the hustle-and-bustle.

The following morning, Monday, Stefano accompanied us to the nearest tram station. We headed into town to catch the Rede Expressos to Lisbon. This is Portugal’s main intercity coach company, providing an efficient service between Porto and Lisbon. We took the 9 o’clock coach and arrived in Lisbon, three hours later, in time for lunch. We found Lisbon so different to Porto. You could tell it is the capital city; more ‘things’ happening, nonetheless, we have a preference for Porto but that’s just us. It turned out to be the eve of the commemoration of Portugal’s revolution that night; there was plenty music and other festivities on Lisbon’s main square – Praça do Comércio – Commerce Square. Freedom Day, April 25, is a national holiday. So we dropped our luggage at the hotel and then went exploring Lisbon, well, in the first instance it was exploring for a place to eat; it was lunchtime! We happened upon a food emporium – the Time Out Mercado – a wonderfully restored warehouse that now houses over 30 eateries. There is everything from traditional Portuguese food such as Bacalhau and Pastel de nata – the infamous custard tart – to Asian, American and other European influences; fine wines and local beers. There is something for everyone. There are culinary classes and musical events. So really it’s a must… That evening we came across a Portuguese restaurant – near the Cais do Sodré train station – that ne paie pas de mine – does not look like much from the outside – but let me tell you that the food is simply extraordinary. We were probably the only tourists there! That’s how you know a place has a good reputation – it attracts the locals! So we went back there the following day to lunch and dine. Fish and seafood amazingly scrumptious; the grilled sardines –not small little ‘things’ but decent size – were in a league of their own.

We visited the Museu Nacional do Azulejo – the National Tile Museum; it is an art museum dedicated to the traditional tilework of Portugal, known as azulejo. Housed in the former Madre de Deus Convent, the museum’s collection is one of the largest of ceramics in the world; an escapade not to be missed. We also visited the Belém Tower – Torre de Belém – thatserved both as a fortress and as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Since 1983 it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a warm and sunny day so we decided to walk back to Lisbon centre, taking in the town’s architecture as we went. Not forgetting our trip on the infamous Tram 28!

Watch out!

It was a visit that was both short and sweet. We found the Portuguese to be very friendly and hospitable. We hope to return soon and I’d advise anyone who hasn’t been to Portugal – Lisbon and Porto – to plan their next trip there; you won’t regret it…

Episode 2 First Impressions

I arrived in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport – Roissy for those acquainted – in January 1992; my life packed into two suitcases. I was about to begin the best life experience. Being a jeune fille au pair was the perfect stepping stone to gaining my independence – I would encourage anyone to embrace such an experience – yet, I was encadré – supported – by a familial network. Of course I was fortunate enough to have earned my ‘pathway to Paris’ through the twinning contingent. Thanks to this personal link to the host family, my experience was all the more unique and meaningful. Memories of this extraordinary time always bring a smile to my face. Especially that I remain in contact – albeit seldom – with family members.

Basically, they took me under their wing; I was part of the family, a family friend rather than a jeune fille au pair so to speak. Sometimes I accompanied the children to their grand-parents in Brittany. I was already acquainted with the children’s paternal grand-parents through the twinning. I have nothing but gratitude towards them as they were so welcoming at all times (and still are); having a full house during school holidays, I usually stayed with the maternal grand-parents. Their maternal grand-mother’s welcome and wonderful cooking made me feel at ease. I recall her being a lovely, gentle person. Also, friends whom I met though the twinning would take me out some weekends.

Only three weeks into my au pair ‘adventure’, I met a young Parisian, my spouse, who sat beside me and engaged in casual talk – in other words chatted me up! He still reminds me of my Irish accent and how he found it ‘pleasing to the ear’! While I employed every opportunity to rid myself of my accent to fully integrate, I was told that it was a pity as they found it ‘adorable’! Yet, I remained awfully proud of my Irish identity; we can be such complex beings! So, leaving my accent behind after a couple of years meant that I was now ‘part and parcel’ of this delightfully complicated and deliciously arrogant place. I immediately knew that I was going to relish every moment in my adopted country.

In order to perfect my French, I read, read and read; watched TV, and more TV. I became a member of France Loisirs; you’ll find these shops dotted around street corners in France, probably more so online now! Becoming a member obliges you or I prefer to say ‘encourages’ you to buy a book every trimestre. As long as I can remember I have had a passion for reading and the good ole smell and the touch of the pages. While I remained a member of France Loisirs, I befriended the Fnac! a place where I felt very comfortable indeed. How I relished browsing through the French Classics – Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Molière and many more; sometimes I found myself ‘surfing’ the English-language shelves – advice from my parents as I was slowly becoming a ‘Frenchy’; I was even dreaming in French! À suivre…

Episode 1 The Beginnings

As you know I’m from West Cork and have lived in France for over a decade during the 1990s. I return to France whenever I can – once or twice a year at least… I have decided to share with you my experiences of French life and my passion for my adopted country. While I am not living there at the moment, I have familial and friendship ties there nevertheless. And of course, my husband being French, I remain immersed in its language and culture despite my living back in Ireland.

Comme vous le saviez je suis d’origine de West Cork (Ireland) et j’ai vécue en France pendant une dizaine d’années durant les années 90. Je retourne en France à chaque occasion présentée – une à deux fois par an au moins… J’ai décidé de partager avec vous mes expériences de la vie “à la françaiseet ma passion pour mon pays adoptif. Bien que je n’y habite plus pour le moment, je continue d’y garder des liens familiaux et amicaux. Et bien entendu, mon mari étant français, je continue d’être immerger dans la langue et la culture française malgré notre retour en Irlande.

My passion for France came about at the age of twelve when a delegation from the Breton town in the Morbihan arrived in West Cork seeking a twin town. Simultaneously, a group from that same town on a walking holiday in South Kerry / West Cork paid a visit to my native town and as we say ‘the rest is history’. Spontaneously my parents became involved; and my mother became a committee member. And so for the next twenty years exchanges took place every year – one year we host and the following year we are guests. My parents, my siblings and I welcomed families and/or individuals into our home. These cultural holidays ignited a keen interest in Breton culture but also in the French language and wider French way of life. Friendships were established, some of whom remain today. As a result of these friendships I gained my ‘ticket’ to Paris. I raised anchor and set sail to encounter new horizons in the early 1990s. It was in Paris where I immersed myself into the French language and culture as a jeune fille au pair. A suivre…

Cotton Wool Clouds!

As I sit on the terrace at home it’s a delight to feel the warmth of the sun on my face; a warm breeze touches my skin like a feather cooling me down. Indeed it is one of those rare days when the breeze is a welcoming encounter.

I hear the sound of the ocean against the rocks and the cries of laughter that come floating in the wind from the beach below. The sound of the sea is soothing. While I love to travel, well, today I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; Ireland is paradise when the sky is blue and ‘cotton-wool’ clouds populace the horizon.

Peace and tranquillity… such bliss. Umm, the bliss is short-lived! The mood is broken! The thundering sound of a plane overhead; I open my eyes and catch the Brittany Ferries on its southbound course… you all know where this story is heading… Ah! Where is that plane going? And what about the holiday makers in the ferry… My imagination is quick to deviate itself from the pleasures of sitting on my terrace to travelling…

Falling asleep in a faraway place, aware of the pleasures that tomorrow will bring, feelings of freedom exploring new places and people, days of discovery fill my imagination. Visiting a foreign city, or distant coastal places, there’s delight in creating narratives of my own as I stroll through the streets sharing my thoughts about art, culture and architecture with my husband. But don’t forget that the ordinary is rich and wonderful. Join the journey of discovering the mundane experiences of new places; Be-in-their-world.

Allowing my feet to take me to where they want to go. Going with the flow, following my instinct, detecting the places where locals go, immersing myself into mundane activities. But, I also very much like to go where the visitors go, checking out interesting spots that showcase the geography, history, and indeed art of the places I visit.  

 I must say that living on the coast entices me to appreciate city escapes; discovering the flurry of activity that city life brings knowing that I’ll return to my quiet haven.  

Weaving together the cultural fabric of places through food, wine, art, architecture, and other elements of distinctiveness that make these places what they are and the people who they are. Threads woven together creating narratives that endeavour to reveal the secrets of such locations. Places mean different things to different people. Sharing experiences can open up new ways of seeing the world around us; and in so doing, entice the visitor to create narratives of their own.

Travelling and writing experiences are, for me, intertwined. I observe the places where my feet take me, be-there; then my feet surrender to my hands. Such encounters, using all my senses, are transferred to the blank page; my hands take over, gliding along its smooth surface. Both pen and page unite to create and archive my memories.