|Making brown Bread, Lifeforce Mill
Credit: Fáilte Ireland
Grace and Joseph, born travelers, chose their grandparents well.
In the summer of 1978, when Grace was three months old, her British father’s parents, no longer up to a transatlantic flight, sent us tickets to London so they might put eyes on their only grandchild. It was an emotionally rich trip, especially poignant because the marriage was kaput, and I feel the tug of tender memories every time I see new parents hooking a bassinet to a bulkhead.
Joseph, son of my second marriage (to an American), flew to Hawaii at nine months, in the icy January of 1985, because his paternal grandmother celebrated her 65th birthday in superb style by inviting her two children, their mates, and our combined four offspring to Kauai. I remember perfectly the look of ecstatic surprise on Joseph’s face when we got off the plane into sunshine and sweet breeze. Poor lad had thought he was under a lifetime sentence to a snowsuit.
A few months later my parents invited my brother’s and my families to Ireland, where my mother and father annually rented a house in a fishing village on the west coast of County Cork. Joseph picked that time and place to take his first unaided footsteps on the wide old floorboards, into the open arms of his Aunt Kathy. Grace exulted in wildflowers, wishing stones, and calling potato chips "crisps" and french fries as "chips."
I loved traveling with very young children, everything from the gap-tooth passport photos to the clever bottles and bags of nourishment to the perfectly chosen books of local myths to the distraction from my own fears when someone else needed calming in bumpy air. Like all other aggregations of happy moments, surely these very early trips would shape my kids at the core -- as Henry Miller said we might think of books once loved but no longer subject to conscious recall.
Perhaps it was so. But over the decades Joseph has grumbled, fairly enough, that he might as well never have visited Hawaii or Ireland. The rest of us got to feast on our memories of him in those settings while he sat hungry at the table as we regaled him with sentimental stories. And Grace, who has lived surrounded by her grandmother’s Irish landscapes, one green after another, and somehow has a taste for Irish smoked salmon though she likes no other fish, had longed to return there as an adult.
Suddenly it was my turn to be 65. I cracked wise, or unwise, that Romania was the perfect place for the ritual celebratory family trip. A 67-year-old woman gave birth there in 2005, and I would find her doc, borrow an egg, and give Grace and Joseph a baby sib. Instead of crying all over my Medicare card, I would stand the system on its salt-and-pepper head by demanding that Medicare cover my peri-natal care -- and surely I’d get a book contract as a dividend. After all, I’d been 36 and 42 when Grace and Joseph were born (no Petri dish needed), unthinkable not long ago in human history, and the old bat still sometimes won at Boggle and Ping-Pong. As Joseph’s father had sagely said one day at the playground, parents of young children are axiomatically young parents -- this from a mathematician disinclined to whimsy at numbers.
|Ballyconnell Pub Fronts
Credit: Fáilte Ireland
No surprise, the putative big brother and sister varyingly expressed pity, alarm, and ennui. Scratch Romania. Spin the globe. Consider the givens. We had at most a week -- Joseph’s spring break, an interval that Grace and her husband Oscar could take from work. We variously wanted some city, some sea, no driving, a train trip, a place where we all spoke the language, depth and larkiness, familiarity and news, good April weather, wi-fi, and the cost should be this side of insane.
Ireland! Yes, yes, yes. Grace and Joseph could return as grown-ups, and -- a bonus -- we would be there for Oscar’s maiden voyage at age 35, his first pint of Guinness as Guinness ought to be. He, who had grown-up partly in Singapore and had chugged beer and sipped whiskey all over the globe, had somehow missed Ireland.
The plan: We would spend three nights in Dublin, then travel by train an hour down the coast to Bray, in County Wicklow, where I found a family-run hotel, Heather House, smack dab across the road from the beach. A mere two-star hotel, with decidedly mixed reviews on the Internet, but never mind. In Dublin we would stay in perfect grandeur at either the Merrion or the Shelbourne. Oh, sweet agony of choice: the understated Merrion, assembled out of four linked townhouses in the ’90s, or the historic Shelbourne, just back online after a multimillion-dollar do-over. My instinct was to stay at the Merrion, which loomed tranquil, and play at the Shelbourne, which read lively. I picked just right. And Heather House was just right too, in a very different way.
So why did I cry every night?
* * *
It’s one thing to suffer when you’ve fallen off a horse and broken your arm (I’ve done that) and are lying in the mud wondering if the horse is now going to trample you, and it’s another to suffer while curled up in a king-size satin bed, your beloved children a few corridors away in separate but equal splendor. I want to understand what went wrong.
It’s Mother’s Day as I write these words, a month and a half since the trip. Joseph just phoned from college, warm and unhurried even with one last paper to write, telling me that his present would come through the door with Grace and Oscar, who are taking over the grill tonight to barbecue fruity vinegary chicken thighs for me, centerpiece of my special- request menu. They are great kids, plenty devoted, though to quote directly from a friend, annoyed with my gushing: They don’t walk on water, you know. So why on our Irish adventure did I feel perpetually let down, put down, as if the chicken marinade were all vinegar and no fruit?
April Fools Day, and we solemnly promised one another to tricks at 30,000 feet. We were booked on Aer Lingus 108, due to leave JFK at 7:10 P.M. and fly through increments of morning light into Dublin breakfast time. Grace, by laps and eons the most practical-minded member of our quartet at age 28, had searched the Internet back in January for the most favorably priced and timed tickets. I arranged for a minivan via Dial 7, and we got to Terminal 2 nearly three hours ahead of time, which was meant to up the odds that we would all get exit-row seats. We hadn’t factored in that our flight was the second leg of a journey from Houston or one of those places. The perky-yet-earthy ground attendant seemed astonished that there was even a single seat available in the coveted Row 12. But I was wearing my pearls, and I had my courteously insistent face on, and of course there was a seat, there’s always a seat if you believe there will be one, and my kids insisted that I take it.
|Halfpenny Bridge, Dublin
Credit: Fáilte Ireland
Perhaps a touch of paranoia was already in place because I thought they seemed almost giddy at the prospect that I would be practically in the captain’s lap while they were in the very tail of the whale, Row 46. It can’t be, can it, that I was slightly crushed not to be needed? Famously, to a fault, I have encouraged my kids to be independent. (Joseph was the first in his class allowed to take the subway by himself, at age 12; he felt ready, he looked ready, and his father and I gave the go-ahead, never mind the other parents who suggested we were all but criminally naïve.) But I must confess that my carry-on bag contained a deck of cards, a pocket-size cribbage board, and a portable Go set. Games have been the glue of our family life, and I had fond memories of retrieving Scrabble tiles and backgammon pieces from the interstices of airplane seats in days gone by.
At least I didn’t tote snack packs of Cheerios. Band-Aids, though, doubtless secretly hoping for a scraped knee requiring kisses..
Mother’s Day here and now, and a family walk past my window onto 24th Street: two handsome 20-somethings, a couple or a brother and sister, a tall slender older woman with smartly cut metallic gray hair; and the grandmother of the group, curved over a cane but walking a good pace. Something clicks in my mind. The children are about the age of my children, but the woman in the middle is 15 years younger than I am, and her mother is alive. Perhaps she is divorced, as I am, or widowed, or (I hope) she has a husband who is parking the car and meeting them at the Swiss restaurant on my corner, where they will drink flinty white wine and eat air-dried beef and roasted chicken in a pool of rich stock. And perhaps I cried in Dublin because I am out of husbands with whom to share king-size beds, and I am out of parents, and there is less and less I can do for my children that they can’t do for their clever selves. I am the mother of grown-up children, so I am axiomatically a grown-up, ready or not.
Grace and Oscar are in the backyard, and the sweet tang of grilling chicken teases my nose as I try to concentrate on writing. Confession: I dashed to Greenmarket on the Lower East Side this morning because I am addicted to pasture-run eggs and didn’t make it to Yuno’s stand Friday at Union Square or Saturday at Abingdon Square. And in this clear light, with air that tastes like Switzerland, I need to be in running clothes, market basket on my back, browsing the first radishes. So to Greenmarket, and while there I just happened to find a stand selling skinless boneless chix thighs, which were on the menu. (What does this have to do with Dublin? Everything.) I bought three pounds thereof, and I called Grace and told her she could cross chicken off her Whole Foods shopping list, I had thighs fresh from the farm. She said, a touch sulkily; "There’s almost nothing left for us to get." Berries, I reminded her. Lots of berries. Indulge with too many organic berries, please. Maybe a melon. I need you to do this for me.
Originally I had asked Grace to research Dublin hotels: Find us something central, charming, almost affordable. She came up with three plausible places, but instead of picking one, I panicked. This one was too far from the action, that one was prissy looking, and the third was some other way lacking in wondrousness. My mind flooded with memories of the grand settings for the family celebrations I’ve already described, and the others -- pink stucco Bermuda for my parents’ 50th anniversary, baronial London for Joseph’s paternal grandmother’s 75th. Could I do less for my darlings?
Dublin. Hotels. What I want to say is that it was error on my part to ask my brilliant daughter to research hotels, then ignore her recommendations. I hated it when my mother did that. Then again, my children were ecstatic about the Merrion, and so was I.
Joseph summed it up when we met in the lobby on April 2 after depositing our luggage and showering off the flight. "I have a complaint," he said, looking grim. We had already established a No Complaining rule, so he caught our attention. In measured cadences, he delivered the terrible news. "My towel heater doesn’t have a digital read-out."
And that is, truly, the worst that can be said about the Merrion.
The bests are ridiculously many. The exact right mix of warmth and professionalism on the part of the extraordinary young employees, who speak with a charming mix of local lilt and Eastern European flavor. The watercolors and woodcuts of Jack Yeats, which hang in every corridor, along with so many other first-rate Irish works of art that the hotel, properly, puts a catalogue in every guest room. Pastry chef Paul Kelly’s chocolate-chip cookies at tea time -- each cookie blessed with a white, milk, and dark chip. The location, on a quiet square, directly across from Parliament and the Academy of Art, a hop and skip from epicentral Saint Stephen’s Green. The half-acre bathrooms. The color of the minted mushy peas that accompany the award-winning fish and chips in The Cellar. The yeasty smell that hovers around one of the elevators. A sense of privilege that is somehow snobbery free. Public spaces that are genteel but never fusty. An infinity swimming pool, the only indoor version of that technology I’ve ever experienced.
Okay, a couple of real worsts. The music in the restaurants is pretty bad -- light FM kind of stuff, meaningless, better to have no music. But this seems to be true to the point of pandemic in Dublin and environs. How can a nation that has produced such exquisite tunes put up with this aural drivel? Room-service tea wasn’t hot enough, and although I’m tempted to say the scones made up for the temperature, unhot tea is unhot tea. (Hint: If the milk or cream isn’t refrigerator-cold, it helps.) The internal geography of the hotel s a little confusing -- or was to me, 65 and took Valium on the plane.
Yet I recommend the Merrion with all my heart, and if you travel with big kids, stash them in the Garden Wing, where they can live their own lives, while you indulge in the heightened luxury of the Main House.
|Jameson Whiskey Centre
Credit: Fáilte Ireland
Three days in Dublin. Let your kids scoff the city tour bus: It’s the best way I know to get started. If it’s a fine day -- and we had only fine days -- sit upstairs in the open, unabashedly a tourist, dozing in between points of information and witticisms from the driver. Get off anywhere, zig and zag across the Liffey River, wander a bit, get lost and then found. and hop back on the bus to finish the circuit. Do not miss the Writers Museum, with the typewriters of the gods and postcards in Samuel Beckett’s intense handwriting; the Jameson Distillery, which gives you just enough information and a taste of the gold; the Book of Kells -- a hushed and dim sanctuary, one of those places where you understand what all the fuss is about and you sing the praises of those who preserve beauty throughout the ages. Lunch at Davy Byrnes Pub is a joy, a Joyce. A visit to the majestic and jumping Shelbourne is a must. Tea in the Lord Mayor’s Room (book way ahead) has the feeling of ritual but is perhaps better suited--like tea at the Plaza used to be, here at home--to families with young children in frills and starch. The bar is lively to the point of fervid, however, and must not be missed.
Some of these things we did together and some we did separately, and I can’t say we got the mix exactly right. It was murmured later that I was guilty of over-planning. From my point of view, the grown-up kids behaved like adolescents, strenuously needing to prove how independent they were (though grateful for my euros in their pockets). It occurs to me now that in every such group, no matter how loving, someone’s going to feel ganged up. I’d worried about the dynamic among the other three; we’d never traveled together as a quartet. Maybe someone had to be odd person out, and as well that it was I. But that’s my thinking now; in the moment I was no philosopher. I wanted to see contentment, at every turn onto a cobblestone street or glimpse of a new shade of green. I wanted to hear that I was wonderful. I wanted my kids to share their discoveries with me, as I shared mine with them, as well as have private joys.
Two euros and change took us via commuter train on a breathtaking coast-hugging tour of Dublin Bay, down to Bray in County Wicklow. I must say this choice of second locale was a stroke of brilliance, not least the timing. . We arrived on Holy Thursday, as a consequence of which Martello’s Bar, in our hotel, shut at midnight, putting a damper on outrageous noise. Rooms at Heather House are tiny and spare, with no amenities other than thin bars of soap, and I was proud of my brood for not complaining at the abrupt descent from pure luxe.
The joy here is the very sea, and we were right across the street from the gentle teal surf, the stony beach, replete with stones bisected by an unbroken white line -- what we call wishing stones. And the classic Irish breakfast is done just right, served up by a proud cook who grinned when I addressed her as Chef.
My great grief was not being able to score a table at Campo di Fiori, a tiny place voted the best Italian restaurant in Ireland last year. As you may have guessed by now, I am a restaurant narcissist; I believe there is always room for me (as there is always an exit-row seat); and whatever good I may have done for my children over the years seemed wiped out by my failure to get them into Campo. They, of course, were much more interested in plunging into the grimy depths of the Internet café … or perhaps they just wanted to distance themselves from my apologies, my desperate calls to people who couldn’t help. I solaced myself, or tried to, by drinking Prosecco at the deli/wine bar across the street from Campo -- same owners; and buying bread, smoked pecorino, and thick-cut silky prosciutto jerky for a Good Friday picnic during Passover, equal opportunity disrespect for all the gods.
* * *
We know better than to eat at seafood restaurants atop aquariums, but on this holiday weekend we were lucky to get a table anywhere, least of all at the touted Barracuda. Theoretically we were lucky. Dinner went from liver to wurst. Sweet-mannered but hopelessly inept service brought a vodka martini in a water glass, garlic (to which I’m allergic) on everything, and a display of assorted family neuroses that I can’t bear to detail, never mind that my children are wearing pseudonyms. Grace suggested bowling, an old family remedy for frustration. Oscar, no game-player, begged off, and so my begotten offspring and I trudged up to Bray Bowl, where a few pins tumbled and spirits were restored.
Can you see Bray? A perfect half-moon bay, a jumble of hotels and houses fronting it, a promenade, at one end a house where James Joyce lived as a boy, at the other end a honky-tonk arcade and the sudden rise of Bray Head, a very climbable hill with a famous cross on the top. Funky wonderful; Sinead O’Connor has bought a house just up from our hotel, and my infatuated notion of moving there was dashed by a glance at real-estate prices. Once the place where poor Dubliners honeymooned, it’s now an extension of the city, very much discovered.
|Kissing the Blarney Stone, Blarney Castle
Credit: Fáilte Ireland
On Good Friday we picnicked in a meadow overlooking the water, and then, sans Joseph, we climbed to the cross. Given the givens -- among them that all of us were born Jewish -- it was an odd day, and I (who once climbed half the Matterhorn) faltered on the hill, would not have made it to the top had Oscar not teased me into it. I hated having creaky legs, but there was solace in being impelled, if not propelled, by the younger generation. No, not solace -- not really. Justice is more like it. I can be demonic in my insistence on the energetic life, I would rather pop pills than give in to fatigue, I never let anyone claim tiredness (as my mother never let me); fair enough, dammit, that they got to be the ones egging me on.
I murmured of my press connections to get us a table that night in the five-star restaurant at Druid’s Glen, the Marriott golf resort a half-hour cab trip away. On Good Friday all pubs in Ireland are closed, and hotels, which may serve alcohol, book solid. Up hill and down dale, me gallantly astride the backward-facing seat, but, oh, we struck gold at Flynn’s Steakhouse. Was it because it was our last night? Was it because we had eaten so badly the night before? Or was it because Flynn’s is one of the restaurants where everyone conspires to make the evening perfect? Our principal waiter was French, yet he was a leprechaun, winking and twinkling, pouring red magic out of the wine bottle, delivering succulent lamb and duck and porterhouse for two, such that we swooned.
The seaside is but one aspect of County Wicklow, known for its gardens, thought by some to be the most beautiful of the counties. The Tourist Board kindly provided us with a car and driver to see the splendors -- not just any driver but Ernest Crossen, owner of the Dublin School of English, as erudite as he is handsome, and of course a wit. "Don’t ask to see the houses where James Joyce lived. Much easier to find the houses where he didn’t live. His father was a deadbeat, never paid the rent, they had to keep moving -- that’s why every time you turn around, there’s a house where Joyce lived."
We were touched indeed by one of Wicklow’s famous wonders, Glendalough, an early Christian monastic site, a perfect agglomeration of the natural and man-made, two lakes among the hills, a famed round tower, quiet graveyards. The much-touted Powerscourt meant less, perhaps because the 47 acres of garden were barely in bloom, and the imposing stone manse has the hand of commerce everywhere about it. By unanimous vote, the most powerful visual spectacle was the scenic drive along the Sally Gap, through vastnesses of bog -- like the moon, Ernie had told us, and he was right.
Perhaps travel with one’s children, of any age, is always a voyage to the moon, and if I had kept that firmly in mind, I might have more readily accepted the shift in gravity, day-for-night. As I write these words, I love my children, I love our trip, I cannot imagine why I felt that I failed them, why I looked to them (and to restaurant owners) for the affirmation that can only come from within.
Paul Kelly, the Merrion’s executive pastry chef, makes the best scones I have ever tasted. Affable in the extreme, Kelly took time out of his busy day to chat with me, give me a tour of the hotel kitchen--pristine, modest, and peaceful as such places go, and then kindly exchanged many emails with me to arrive at the best scone recipe for American home bakers. Among many honors, he has won medals as part of the Irish Culinary team, competing in the 2004 Culinary Olympics and other international jousts. He looks like an Olympic athlete, compact and fit, exuding energy even when sitting on a silk-cushioned seat in the Merrion lobby. He mentioned to me that when he won a scholarship to study at Johnson and Wales, the great culinary university in Rhode Island, the other students had cars, "but the Irish lads walked everywhere." That must explain how he can eat his own scones and still look terrific.
(Weighing abets accuracy, but I have given approximate volume measurements as well for those cooking in a scale-free environment.)
14 ounces (3-1/2 cups) "strong" flour (bread flour is ideal; all-purpose will do)
1-1/2 ounces (1/4 cup) sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 ounces (3/4 cup) raisins
1-3/4 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons honey
one egg yolk beaten w/ one teaspoon cream for wash
large mixing bowl, big spoon, sheet pan or cookie sheets lined with foil (NW urges Reynolds Release Foil), round plain biscuit cutter
Set oven at 325.
Thoroughly mix dry ingredients and raisins, and slowly add cream and honey until you form a dough. Cover and allow to rest for 8-10 minutes. Roll to one inch thick and cut. (NW note: This recipe is more forgiving than most of re-rolling scraps of dough; handle as little as possible--but you knew that.)
Brush with egg yolks; brush twice for best effect. Bake for 15-20 minutes.
Campo di Fiori 353 1 2764257
Flynn’s Restaurant 353 1 2870800
Reprinted from Thrive magazine, Summer 2007