Bread Wars

Sourdough, wikipedia tells us has been in existence as far back as 3700 BC, but in modern times (certainly in Ireland) it had been something that we only encountered in fancy restaurants, artisan sandwich shops and occasionally in the houses of acquaintances who were also savvy bakers. Then all of a sudden about 18 months ago it was everywhere, recipes were exchanged, shops ran low on wholemeal and strong flour, the internet was flooded with images of crusty bread. Nuances in flavour and texture were discussed constantly and good quality sourdough starters became treasured possessions to be shared only with those deemed worthy to join the cause.

My wife Niki was an early adopter (thanks to a kind neighbour who shared some of that sought after starter!) and had been consistently knocking out quality loaves from the early days of lockdown one. Despite the fact that she is on a low carb diet she approached the daily task with great gusto, finding peace of mind in the regular routine of bringing something nutritious into the world for her family. Then at the start of this summer I noticed in her a certain apathy towards bread baking or maybe it was just that she had become like The Little Red Hen in the fable and she didn’t fancy knocking-back the dough at midnight once again so it could be ready for consumption by everyone else in the family. There was also the fact that providing a daily loaf often required an early start and of the many careers which Niki would be able to pull off, a baker is not one of them, early mornings not being her forte. So about a month ago a set of incredibly detailed (in my opinion anyway) instructions was placed in front of my face and the starter was unceremoniously landed in my lap. The message was clear, this is is your baby now!

Quite miraculously my initial attempt was a success. I correctly identified during the mixing stage that the dough was somewhat light in terms of liquid (100ml light to be exact) narrowly avoiding disaster, and the end product was given the thumbs up by all. Emboldened by this success, I started to express my artistic side by trying out different patterns on the bread. Niki had always been consistent with her # design but I decided to experiment with a Celtic swirl, a shamrock, a loveheart and even a question mark depending on how the mood moved me. Niki seemed to tolerate this expression of artistic temperament but she was less fond of my lack of rigid adherence to her instructions.

As time went by I would sense a presence behind me as I weighed out the ingredients. “Do you know how to zero the scales?” she would add helpfully, “Did you put the full 400g of strong flour into that?” was less appreciated and “How long are you knocking that back for?” was greeted with hostility. I’m not saying that Niki missed her calling as a DS on the RTE programme Ultimate Hell Week but she definitely doesn’t like it when instructions aren’t followed to the letter. When I probed this a bit further it turned out that she thought that the crust on my sourdough wasn’t hard enough.

I was taken aback by this, surely the issue that everybody has with sourdough is that the crust is quite often a bit on the concrete side. I explained that I had been cooking it at 5-10 degrees lower to get a softer crust. Well this seemed to hit Niki like a rock-bun between the eyes! This showed a level of disrespect for her instructions that could only be viewed as insubordination at best and treason (punishable by death) at worst. It was as if by my non-adherence I was endangering the lives of her children (like that chef with the Japanese fish that nearly kills Homer Simpson by not adhering to instructions).

The questions started to flow thereafter, she wasn’t quite shining a torch in my face but it felt like it; how long do you leave it to prove the second time? how much salt do you add? what speed setting is the mixer at? do you add lukewarm water? Finally I had enough, “lukewarm water!” I whimpered “there is no mention of lukewarm water in the instructions, at least I don’t recall seeing it there, please don’t beat me”. Niki grabbed her sacred directives from my trembling hands, “oh” she muttered, “well it should do”. At this she retreated, sensing her moment of weakness I grabbed a wooden spoon and hid in the utility room.

For the next couple of bakes Niki just happened to be around when the bread was put into the oven. The heat was turned up and she was able to munch on the extra crunchy sourdough when it emerged (her low carb diet becoming a casualty of war). But I will have my revenge, wait until she finds out (probably when reading this blog) that I’m planning to add some raisins into the mix! This bread war is just getting started!

TikTok & Ping Pong

Well the kids are back at school and there is a hint that normality might be around the corner but I’ve decided to steer clear of all that boring stuff about routines and sleep patterns (way too useful) and talk about something completely different, TikTok. Now I first became aware of TikTok when all those dance crazes flooded social media at the start of lockdown and of course Donald Trump (remember him) brought it to our attention that he wasn’t a fan (probably couldn’t do the Blinding Lights choreography). I even got the boys to give one or two of the dance routines a try, thus helping to while away some otherwise uneventful hours before cabin fever set in. I was intrigued but put it in a box marked “to be revisited”.

Fast forward to last week and every second video I liked on twitter seemed to be TikTok generated content so to prove (to myself if nobody else) that I am still down with the youth I signed myself up and decided to have a look around. After answering a few generic questions about my interests, TikTok then proceeded to point me in the direction of a few accounts that it thought I might like. Straight away my senses were assaulted by some very loud videos of boy-racers going through Donegal (Letterkenny being a particular hotbed), Russians (good looking ones at that) pretending to be Avengers and very large boats crashing through some even larger storm waves like a Perfect Storm but (spoiler alert) without the unhappy ending. I’m not sure what algorithm they’ve got working in the background but I quickly searched for some TikTok dancers and that got me back on the straight and narrow.

A couple of searches later I discovered something that would change my life forever (or at least a weekend until I got bored), a man named trick shot dav or at least that is what his TikTok handle indicates, who specialises in elaborate trick shots involving ping pong balls and a lot of saucepans. The man’s slogan is “Impossible. Is. In. Our. Minds. muscle emoji” which indicates a strong sense of determination, if not a strong grasp of how punctuation works. But he definitely had something going with this ping pong malarkey, now this was something I could get my head around and also use to impress my increasingly apathetic boys. I quickly learned that there are three essential parts to setting up a trick shot (i) getting a consistent bounce, (ii) repetition and (iii) patience (the last two being intrinsically linked). We definitely had enough saucepans but we were way short on ping pong balls. An order was quickly placed for more balls and to be honest I feel that we could still be a bit light in this area but I couldn’t bring myself to purchase more than 6 at a time, it’s terrible to feel that the world is judging you for your table tennis addiction!

I tinkered with various different formats for my trick shot, the depth and diameter of pans each having an affect on the velocity and flight path of the ping pong balls. Initially I was tempted to go with a criss-cross scenario before settling on a slightly less challenging step-by-step (still causes me to go into New Kids on the Block falsetto) type formation. Once the pots were in place it was then a matter of dropping the ping pong ball at the correct height and then capturing the magical process on video, easy peasy you might think. However a slight variation in spin or drop height would set ping pong balls careering off around the hard floor of our kitchen jeering me with their machine gun laughter. It was then that I utilised my secret weapon, for trick shot dav on TikTok only seemed to operate by himself whereas I had a crack team of minions, I mean children, to ensure a constant supply of attempts. Even better was that each one wanted to be the one to successfully complete the task, generating a constant desire for self-improvement that most successful corporations spend millions striving for.

On this occasion Lochlan was the one to rise to the challenge and his moment of triumph is now captured forever as my first TikTok. Hey my 6 followers must be absolutely thrilled!

The End Result

No one told us life was gonna be this way!

I miss my friends. The passing of time may have scattered my core group of childhood / young adulthood friends to the four corners of the planet (due to jobs and relationships), but over the past 25 or so years we always made time to meet up whenever possible and had more recently gotten into the habit of planning one annual trip away together. But COVID 19 and its related lockdowns has taken that away from us and now we are left with the occasional Zoom calls and our WhatsApp group.

As WhatsApp groups go, it is definitely one of the better ones (currently competing with my “dad, aunts and uncles” WhatsApp group for top content). First of all we have a broad geographic spread with residents in the US and Belgium and a bonus Asian living in Ireland to give us a global perspective on any hot topic. Although we probably could do with someone from the UK for full coverage given Brexit and all that. A full screening process will be required for new entrants, please see Ewan McGregor interviewing potential housemates in Shallow Grave “what on earth could make you think that we would want to share a WhatsApp group like this with someone like you?” I jest of course, we’re not interviewing at present!

We also have a broad range of professional backgrounds from law-talking guys, to pharmaceuticalists (I know this isn’t a word but feels most appropriate for people who know about pharmaceuticals but don’t work in a pharmacy), to civil servants, to law enforcement officers, to doctors and yours truly as financial services person and wild card! In truth everyone on the group thinks of him or herself as the the wild card. We have a female within the group which I find keeps things on the straight and narrow when they are threatening to get out of control, actually scrap that she is likely to be the one sharing the less than PC stuff. There is pretty much an interesting take on every subject from amorous snails to the best movies of Jack Black (High Fidelity for me). There are a few recurring themes, the top seven of which would probably be (i) bad jokes, you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve checked my phone for something urgent to find a pun about Fergal Sharkey in a fireplace store looking for a good hearth or something similar, (ii) reciting our favourite lines from Modern Family, needs no explanation it’s just so goddam funny, (iii) decrying the high humidity levels which have made our alcohol disappear, seems to be especially a factor in Belgium and the US, (iv) nostalgia for TV programmes of our childhood, did you know Floella Benjamin was on Desert Island Discs last week? (v) anything which involves a poll particularly if it’s on the Guardian web-site, please see the greatest UK no.1s of all time which nearly tore the group apart! https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/27/the-100-greatest-uk-no-1s (vi) Trump and anything Trump related, actually our US member tends to steer clear of this one probably because it’s too close to home but safe to say we normally have a good chuckle and eye-roll at his latest outburst (I have personally championed Sarah Cooper’s approach on a number of occasions) and last but not least (vii) COVID 19, enough said really, we used to talk about it a lot, particularly on our zoom calls, but now like everyone we try to avoid it because it’s just so damn depressing.

Then just when we think we have exhausted our stock of witty banter and repartee one member of the group will butt-dial us all for a group call (actually he clearly is the wild card) and then blame his young daughter. It’s like the moment when the bar staff would drop and smash a pint glass and everybody in the pub gives a cheer. We all smile and shake our heads and go back to our daily life.

Still much as the WhatsApp group provides a great source of amusement and I actually know far more about my friends’ daily lives than I ever did before (like they don’t spend as much time working as they should), it still doesn’t match the enjoyment of meeting face to face. In fact the last time a few of us got together was back in late January / early February in the excellent Boco pizzeria on Bolton Street and I can remember asking our resident doctor what he thought about this coronavirus emerging in China? He shrugged and said nobody knows but it doesn’t look good! Of course we did have an ad hoc Irish meet-up during the summer lull in COVID 19 cases but I chose not to go as cases had just spiked to 200 that day. The increases since then and subsequent lockdowns have shown that perhaps that was a bad call on my part!

Anyway we shall keep going on our WhatsApp group, who knows maybe this blog will generate some discussion. And perhaps next year we will meet up again to sing some songs, drink some beer and play Belgian charades!

Space The Final Frontier

One of the major issues in a household with four kids is the lack of space and the issue has only gotten worse as they have gotten bigger and they need more, for want of a better word, “stuff”. Sure, we have gotten rid of changing tables and cots but now we have bicycles and scooters to worry about. Up until last weekend the bikes in particular were a source of concern. We don’t have a garage so the typical place for bike storage isn’t available to us. I had tried to convert our spare room into a bicycle bunker but Niki (my wife) was having none of that, something about wanting to have guests sleep without bicycle spokes near their face, pssh. So we had settled on the far from ideal solution of keeping the bikes in the shed out the back. What made this arrangement particularly unappealing was that there is no way around the side of our house, so all bikes needed to be wheeled or carried through the house to get them out onto the road and the same again on the return journey. Now when you consider what young, carefree boys can cycle through, this was a situation we couldn’t allow to continue.

Following a significant amount of internet searching and a lot of measuring of the available space in front of our house, we decided upon a metal bicycle storage unit (see photo above) as the way forward. Problem solved you might think, but then our solution arrived one sunny afternoon in three very large, very heavy, flat-pack containers! Myself and Niki were so overcome by the size of the task ahead of us that the flat-packs were allowed to stay in our hall for two full weeks (further cluttering up the place). Eventually last Saturday afternoon we got up the courage to attempt to put it together. The instructions said that it should take two people three hours to assemble, we budgeted for four and crossed our fingers. We both knew that once we had taken the materials out of the packaging we were “locked in” and would have to see it through until the bitter end, like an astronaut heading to the moon or a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire!

Things did not start off promisingly. There are two types of people in the world (i) those who follow instructions slavishly and become very perturbed with any deviation from the prescribed method and (ii) those who see instructions as a guideline to be used as a reference when things don’t appear to be going correctly. My wife is very much in the former category, whereas yours truly subscribes to the latter approach, a mix of both is a true recipe for disaster. To make things worse, Niki will freely admit she gets confused by assembly instructions, straight away we were behind the 8-ball. To make matters worse, after we had spread all the parts on the ground Niki asked where the screws were, I looked around and pointed out that there were no screws, only nuts and bolts. Then she asked for a nut while clearly pointing at a bolt! There followed a five minute discussion while I advised that as an easy memory aid “bolt has four letters and is therefore bigger than nut which has three!” Niki accused me of being condescending and started to look menacing with an electric screwdriver in her hand. We had just about completed step 1 out of 10 when father-in-law Mick (an engineer by trade) was called on Facetime to give much needed technical advice and relationship counselling.

Mick gave us some helpful pointers on the vital importance of the correct use of spanners only for us to discover we didn’t have the correct size of spanner. 45 minutes later, Mick was at our door (having travelled from Shankill so within the county boundary!) with the biggest bag of spanners I had ever seen. Unbelievably, he didn’t have the correct sized spanner either. Drastic times called for drastic measures so I managed to locate our toolbox (which I think has lain unused for the past 12 years) at the bottom of the cupboard with the wedding china, of course that’s where it was! While I didn’t find a spanner, I did find an attachment to a screwdriver that seemed to do the trick, with that one piece of genius, I felt that my work here was done, but alas no. Three hours later with the aid of Mick we finally managed to put the bloody thing together. I am quite confident that without Mick’s arrival, this week’s blog would have been about the end of my marriage and how building something with your wife / ex-wife does not necessarily bring you closer together! Mick had a similar disregard for instructions as I did but with the added bonus that he actually knew what he was doing! We may have had to re-do a few nuts and bolts along the way and things did get bent quite out of shape at one point but the end result was very pleasing. Although Niki is still having nightmares about the bolt (or was it a nut) that went missing down our neighbours’ drain and the fact that we had three parts leftover at the end is a cause of concern (for her, not for me, I think they just gave us some spares).

For now we have solved our bike issues, well at least until Ella (3) starts to cycle and we probably have to buy another one of these yokes. Maybe Ella will just stay petite and perfect forever or maybe we can pay the delivery guy to assemble it for us next time, no price is too much!

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Running to Stand Still

So after four or five months where we were struggling to fill the days for the kids, we have rapidly hit a situation where we need our own personal family organiser to manage our schedules (although maybe not for much longer given how things have gone recently in Dublin). Niki (my wife) has had to point out a few times that the role of family organiser clearly falls under my remit and to be honest it’s hard to argue with her (in general as well as relating to this particular point) so I have been plunged in at the deep end. You see in addition to the GAA training (which in fairness had continued for the bulk of the summer), we now have GAA matches at the weekend and more importantly, swimming lessons have returned with a vengeance. Well I say swimming lessons but that is only true for two of our three boys as Aaron (the eldest) is already a better swimmer than I ever was or will be, the term coaching is more apt in his case but technicalities aside, whether he is doggy-paddling or butterflying he still needs somebody to bring him there!

Now we have five trips to the swimming pool to manage each week in addition to the seven GAA matches / training sessions. As the cherry on this particularly appetising piece of cake, the Saturday swimming sessions are at 7am in the morning. That’s right, weekdays are actually the ones where we get to “lie-in”! I can remember one of my first appearances on the red-eye shift when one of the other parents greeted me with a knowing smile and the comment “the road to glory begins here!”. Did we think that we were doing this for our children’s health and well-being, or did we all secretly believe that an Olympic swimming pool lay at the end of this particularly watery rainbow?!

As the piece de resistance for 2020, Lochlan (my second boy) has decided that he wants to give football (soccer in addition to gaelic) a shot this year. He had been making overtures about doubling up between Na Fianna and local club Glasnevin FC for some time but the pressure was seriously ramped-up in late August early September, dates and times of training sessions were provided and lists of names of friends who were already on the team. Hey presto we have another three matches / training sessions to add to the mix (although this has mercifully dropped to two this week as the evenings start getting shorter). That’s 15 different events that we have to make sure our kids attend each week. Suddenly the weekly planner which Niki bought in Flying Tiger at the start of the year has become my best friend. Without it I wouldn’t know where I was supposed to be from one day to the next. There are no free days and Saturday usually involves five different excursions. Now sometimes you can be lucky and get a string of home matches at the weekend, on others you may not be so lucky and you can end up rushing from a windswept field in Balbriggan to a soccer pitch in Newcastle (south Dublin). Where’s my petrol allowance when I need one?

Of course back in my day, my parents would never take me to away matches (cue violins), you’d be dropped at the home pitch in Clontarf and get bundled into some mentor or parent’s car along with 4 or 5 team-mates for an exotic 20 minute trip to Donaghmede or Edenmore or somewhere similar! Nowadays with health and safety guidelines exacerbated by Covid restrictions it’s every man / child for themselves. Consequently Saturdays need to be planned out with a map and compass (in reality google maps). Who needs orienteering when I have my Friday night logistics sessions followed by a jog on Saturday to find where the correct pitch is. Who knew there were so many pitches in Dublin, one particular sprint (while suffering with tendinitis) to a match in Naomh Maurs following an errant trip to St Maurs Park (not an actual park) in one of the many identical housing estates in Rush was a particular low point! It is during these logistics sessions that Niki will usually throw something into the mix about having to buy food or clothes for the kids which will pile an extra layer of intrigue to the whole experience.

Of course despite my grumblings I’d like to point out that I’m actually delighted that my progeny are as excited about playing sport as I am (or at least was in my youth). I still find that I have to keep my emotions in check as I prowl the sidelines but definitely cannot contain my joy if Aaron scores 3-1 while putting my old club Clontarf to the sword or if Lochlan notches two goals on his debut for the aforementioned Glasnevin FC. Now all I have to do is wait for Ella (age 3) to make her appearance on the sporting pitches of the capital, what’s another few training sessions to add into the overcrowded mix. Who needs your own social life anyway?!

Losing Our Religion

It had all been going so well. The boys had slotted back into their school routines despite the odd quibble about early rising times and the quality of Daddy’s packed lunches! Even Ella was beginning to get used to life in Montessori and her initial vehemence that pre-school was not the life choice for her had subsided. Then at 7.48pm on Wednesday as I sat listening to the Guardian football podcast in the car park of the Santry SportsLink swimming pool (for context, my eldest son swims three times a week so I know this car park very well), I got a text from my wife that would change my mood and the course of the week. Oscar had a temperature!

Now Oscar had been behaving a bit on the “contrary” side earlier that day but with the return to school and the extra associated physical exertions we put it down to tiredness and over-excitement (also, I love him but he does have a “contrary” element to has character at the best of times). But on Wednesday evening Niki thought he felt that extra bit overheated and so took his temperature which showed a reading of 38.8 degrees. Nothing that unusual there you would think, after all he has just been re-introduced to all his school buddies, whether it be in bubbles, or pods, or whatever and there are likely to be a few germs flying around which he had not been introduced to while locked down at home. But this is H2 2020 and instead of just keeping your kid at home for 24-48 hours while the virus works its way through his system, you now have to ring your GP and arrange for a Covid 19 test. Meanwhile all the rest of your family have to self isolate until a result is received. Now what’s the big deal with that you might think? The big deal was that Oscar’s older brother (and tormentor in chief) Lochlan was due to have his first communion yesterday (Saturday 5th), this was the communion that had already been re-arranged from last May. So I did a quick calculation in my head, earliest time to ring the GP would be Thursday morning, then 24 hours to get a test time and another 24-48 hours to get the results back and realistically communion at high noon on Saturday was not going to happen. Noooooooo!

When we broke the news to Lochlan he seemed less concerned about the fact that he was missing out on one of the holy sacraments (again) and more troubled that he would have to postpone his debut for the local football team!

Thursday and Friday felt like we had been transported back to late March, nobody was allowed to leave the house and Oscar was confined to his bedroom (with a tray service being provided by yours truly). Needless to say that by mid-Thursday morning his high temperature had disappeared but we had already informed a slew of people of his potential infectiousness; school, montessori, GAA club, swim club, football club, multiple relations and multiple neighbours and most importantly our GP. Oscar’s test was set for 4pm on Friday but by Friday morning he was getting very restless so we allowed him to come downstairs but only if he wore his face-mask, I think if Lochlan had his way he would have made Oscar ring a bell also but myself and Niki agreed that this went a bit too far.

Those long two days were definitely a bit of a drag although we did have the online battle royal game Fall Guys to keep our spirits up, thankfully PlayStation’s launch of the game for free coincided with our return to private lockdown, still waiting for our first victory!

I didn’t get to visit the testing centre in Cloghran but Niki says that it was pretty packed and full of kids who didn’t seem too happy about having a giant cotton-bud stuck up their nose and throat! Oscar displaying an unusual amount of stoicism (and with the aid of a lovely nurse) endured the discomfort without any screams or even a tear. After that it was just a matter of waiting.

So on Saturday we all got dressed up but instead of heading into St Patrick’s chapel in Drumcondra, we sat down in front of the television and watched a livestream of the service. Lochlan was able to point out where we would have been sitting and Niki was able to note who wasn’t wearing their face masks correctly! I tell you, when the purge comes I hope to be on her side! The service itself was lovely even if Lochlan didn’t seem overly impressed that he wasn’t in a jersey and shorts on Saturday afternoon. He wasn’t very keen to show us the actions he was supposed to have learnt off by heart either. Apparently missing Thursday and Friday had erased his memory banks, at least where spiritual miming is concerned. Once the service was over we still had pizza and cake but couldn’t be joined by grandparents as had originally been the plan which was a real shame.

Then just before 4pm (less than 24 hours after the test), we got a text message to say Oscar’s test had come back negative. Sighs of relief all round mixed with the slightest twinge of regret that it hadn’t all happened 4 hours earlier! So now we are faced with the prospect of searching for another communion date whether it be with another local school or with this year’s 2nd class in May 2021. Personally I’m hoping that the church is not operating a 3 strikes and you’re out policy because knowing our luck we’ll need another couple of attempts to finally get this over the line! On a brighter note, Lochlan did manage to make his football debut on Sunday and he scored, so the weekend gets marked down as a success in his books!

What’s That Sound? It’s The Back To School Alarm!

It was 7am on Thursday morning and a strange unwelcome noise crept into my consciousness, a noise that had been thankfully absent for the previous six months, the dreaded alarm clock (or as is more common these days, the phone alarm). Well I say absent but that would fail to take into account the times that my good lady wife (Niki) decided that she wanted to go for an early morning, pre-work jog and set the alarm for “ridiculous” o’clock. Now what invariably happened in those cases was that the alarm woke yours truly (a light sleeper) and I muttered something to Niki who slapped the alarm into submission who then went back to the land of nod (for she is a world class sleeper, a fact that I can testify to having seen her snore delightfully in the midst of North Atlantic storms, a noisy train journey through Thailand, a trek up Kilimanjaro and numerous other situations which were not conducive to catching a few zeds) while I had to stare at the ceiling wondering how my life had come to this! But I digress, back to last Thursday and that unsettling sound which indicated that the hiatus from school had finally come to an end.

Within five minutes of the alarm sounding it was clear that six months had done nothing to change my three boys’ attitudes towards the morning. Aaron (the eldest) was already up and dressed, in cheery form and ready to take on the excitement of the day, Lochlan (the next in line to the throne) was grumbling about not being able to wear a football jersey and shorts but was getting things done in a begrudging fashion, Oscar (my youngest boy) was still completely conked-out in his bed and refusing all attempts to rouse him. Now I know from past experiences that confronting Oscar head-on only makes things worse. So on my first visit to his room one shutter was opened and a few kind words were whispered into his ear, the second saw his light being turned on and his duvet cover being gently rolled back, by the third visit mommy Niki has been enlisted to fight the good fight and I have exited downstairs for the crucial sandwich prep! Oscar did eventually emerge but only after the dreaded threat of losing screen-time had been invoked.

Ah the school lunch, how I have not missed thee! We try to arrange things so that the boys get one source of carbohydrate i.e. bread and two sources of protein and / or fruit per lunch. It sounds pretty simple but our boys’ tastes come and go like the Irish sunshine. A frequent early morning exclamation is “what do you mean you no longer like ham / salami / cheddar cheese / tomatoes / etc?” the list goes on and on and on. In our favour this time round is that Niki has used lockdown to harness the power of home-baked sourdough bread. So now our sandwiches have a tasty and healthy base, albeit that Niki also decided at a later point during lockdown to go for a carb-free diet. As a result she is caught in an eternal circle of feeding the sourdough starter, baking the bread and then being completely unable to eat any of it herself. Sounds a bit too much like Sisyphus and his rolling stone for my liking but Niki has always been built of sterner and less selfish stuff!

Once school lunches had been successfully packed away, we then rushed out of the house in order to meet the earlier than usual drop-off time for Oscar. This had been arranged by the school in order to stagger the arrival of students and entourages. Of course it had to be Oscar who needed to be first to school, for he was still feeling aggrieved by his early wake-up time and decided in his infinite wisdom not to follow the lead of his siblings and use his scooter on the 2km journey to school. Now we live at the top of a hill and while the journey to Drumcondra is not a straight downward line it is pretty close to it so having wheels underneath you is a great advantage. Unfortunately no amount of reasoning with Oscar could convince him of this. In the end his marathon running mother had to pace him over the last km just so he wouldn’t get a late slip on his first day! She also agreed to carry his bag complete with wipes and sanitiser, although from watching Oscar you would have thought it was full of rocks despite the fact that it didn’t even have any books in it yet!

The elder boys reached school at their allotted time and were genuinely excited to be seeing their friends and classmates again. Once this was done myself, Niki and Ella (age 3) celebrated by enjoying breakfast at a local eatery which was very enjoyable. But it was only when I returned home that I realised how much I missed the calmness and the silence of not being stuck with three adorable but highly energetic and competitive males. I sat down and played a game of counting caterpillars with Ella and we weren’t interrupted once by complaining or shouting or screaming once (well I think Niki may have raised her voice while castigating some online retailer for not delivering on-time). Friday ran a bit smoother, Oscar was less grumpy and brought his scooter. People managed to get a bit more familiar with the routine and restrictions around COVID. The only issue was that the heavens opened up on the way home from the school so I was like a drowned rat while the boys were in their sanitised shelter. But still I had that silence, a truly golden silence.

 

The End Of An Era

There have been many momentous moments in the Doyle household over the last 12 months. We have said goodbye to toilet training and are now nappy free for the first time in a decade, hallelujah! The Stokke changing table and cot which had seemed to be a permanent part of our house and served us so well have been packed up and shipped off to a new home (I have my eye on you bugaboo buggy as the next target for expulsion). We are almost at the stage where apart from a bit of extra food chopping-up, the kids can all feed themselves, I hasten to add that the extra bit of food butchery is for our seven year old (Oscar) and not our three year old (Ella) who is quite determined to feed herself (most of the time). Now we stand but a week away from Ella’s debut in Montessori, which will mean that for the first time all our four kids will be education-bound and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the emotions of the day!

I mean we have had similar days in the past with the boys, but Ella is the baby of the house and she has also been my constant companion for the past two years since I became a stay-at-home parent. The joyous refrain of “today is a daddy and Ella day” has been a true highlight of not just my parenting years but my life, full-stop. Now things have become a bit more muddled in the last six months as I have had to share my Ella with her brothers, her working-from-home mommy (reluctantly as mommy seems to get more hugs than I do, not that I’m keeping score) and Auntie Orla while she stayed with us (which was okay because I knew she wouldn’t be around forever), but I know that the bond we have built between father and daughter in the past 24 months will stay with us forever.

Unfortunately Ella’s attendance at Montessori will also mean the end of one of my favourite rituals, daddy and Ella do brunch! In Glasnevin / Drumcondra / Phibsboro, we are blessed with a number of wonderful cafes and boy did we make use of this abundance of riches. First and foremost (and nearest to home) there is McMahons of Botanic Avenue which thoughtfully expanded its premises around the time I began my new gig. Always friendly, a purveyor of good coffee and I can’t recommend the fresh scones with cream and jam highly enough. Ella just loves the toast. A bit further afield is Two Boys Brew down on the North Circular Rd. Once again the coffee here is excellent but for me, the stand out item on the brunch menu is the overnight rolled oats. I was so impressed by this combination of oat-milk soaked oats, almond butter, fruit compote and mint that I started to make my own version (not nearly as nice but still a good and healthy start to the day).

Just around the corner from Two Boys Brew is the delightfully eccentric White Moose Cafe where the pancakes are top notch and Ella is always fascinated by the fact that there is a giant coffee cup outside. Back over in Drumcondra is the appropriately name Lovely Food Company. This place holds a special place in our hearts as it was the first cafe that we brought Ella to when she was only a week old. The food is fresh and excellent with a wide ranging choice on the menu. Just off Griffith Avenue is the more established name of Anderson’s Food Hall and Cafe which provides a truly excellent Irish breakfast for those in need of something more substantial. Ella enjoys looking at the stacked shelves around the place and it’s not bad for a bit of blue cheese or red pesto on your way out. Last but not least is Le Petit Breton creperie on the corner of Whitworth and Drucondra Road. This has become a particular favourite haunt and they know our order off by heart at this point, La Complete (crepe with ham, cheese and an egg) for yours truly and a hot croissant with homemade jam for Ella. The big windows are excellent for watching the busy world go by. We are always greeted with a smile despite the fact that Ella always seems to leave more of the croissant on the surrounding area than in her mouth.

In fact one thing that all these delightful places have in common is that the level of service is always top quality and the smiles that greet us are always genuine (or at least they are very good at faking it). I’d like to think that my natural charm has something to do with it but I know that my always cheerful daughter is probably the main reason!

So when I drop Ella off to Montessori for the first time it will be these happy memories that will sustain me, well they’ll keep me going for the hour until she is mine again (new arrivals are being eased into the Montessori experience so for the first week pick up time is 10.15am hip hip hooray. I’m already planning brunches!

Way Out West

Last week I blogged about our wonderful trip to the Aran Islands but our fun in Galway didn’t end there. While there were many positives, first of all let me deal with the big negative from our trip, the sleeping arrangements! We stayed in the Connacht Hotel in Galway and had access to a two bedroom family suite (to be clear no fault is attached to the lovely Connacht Hotel for our lack of sleep). We had looked at holiday rentals but in the end the access to the kids club, swimming pool and pancakes for breakfast trumped the alternatives. In theory, this reduced bedroom scenario (our four kids are spread over three bedrooms at home) seemed fine to us as, although it would be cramped sticking four kids into one bedroom, at least myself and Niki would have a room to ourselves to watch the odd episode of Suits! Ahh the naivete, you’d think that after 11 years of parenting we’d be able to figure out what was going to happen if we put all of our kids into one bedroom (including two sharing a double bed). Cue multiple outbursts of “stop kicking me!”, “he’s making me laugh!”, “it’s too hot I can’t sleep!” and that was just from yours truly! Apologies to those in rooms 4111 and 4113 if the shouting got a bit out of control at times. So it’s safe to say the sleeping arrangements were not a success but the waking hours more than made up for it.

At the top of the positives was the availability of good nourishment. We had worried that lack of access to our own cooking facilities would be an issue for our very picky eaters. We needn’t have worried. Our first port of call upon arrival in Galway was Dough Bros, well not the pizza restaurant itself (which is not upon to diners due to covid restrictions), but the outlet they have opened in O’Connells bar on Eyre Square. We have always made it our business to visit Dough Bros when we travel to the city of the tribes. This was our third visit and I can honestly say that the pizzas are the best in Ireland, the bases are light yet substantial and the toppings are innovative yet classic. I am thinking of getting an online petition to get them to open an outlet in Dublin. The arrangement with O’Connells seems to be a win-win situation with the patrons availing of quality food along with beverages of choice and the venue has a substantial beer garden / outdoor eating area. Also if pizzas aren’t your thing, there is also the option of Handsome Burger which operates out of the other end of the beer garden. My wife confirmed that the burgers were top quality and the boys loved the rosemary fries! It is no surprise that queues are a regular feature outside O’Connells but we were so impressed that we had to go there again on the eve of our departure, now that’s a ringing endorsement!

For  something a bit more upmarket we ventured to the excellent Brasserie on the Corner which is just around the corner from Eyre Square on Eglington Street. Now going upmarket with our kids is always a risky business but myself and Niki had a hunger for something which took more than 5 minutes to cook so we rolled the dice again and this time came up with a 12. As is customary these days, we sanitised ourselves thoroughly before being shown to our seats. The atmosphere was classy yet relaxed, the steaks (which myself and Niki both ordered) were excellent and the kids menu (along with the crayons which came with them) were sufficiently broad to cover all tastes and artistic temperaments! The “piece de resistance” was the dessert which included a black forest gateau ice-cream, all my dreams had just come true! Before leaving the topic of food (and my waistline shows that I should have left this topic halfway through our Galway sojourn, probably around the time the aforementioned ice cream arrived) I must give a special mention to The Gourmet Food Parlour, a local favourite down the road in Santry and also excellent in Salthill but without the Dublin GAA stars!

So apart from the culinary delights of the West, what else did we do on our trip? Well I got to wear my wet-suit for the first (and second) time. Now my boys have been wearing wet suits on holidays for a number of years, ever since Lidl had one of those middle aisle sales, but this year I decided to take the plunge (excuse the pun) as I could no longer face the bitter cold of the Atlantic without some insulation (excluding my natural version of course). Wet-suits are particularly difficult to carry-off with a graceful air especially when the zipping up process brings to mind William Shatner’s corset in his later Star Trek years, I’m thinking of you Wrath of Kaahhhnnn! But I was definitely glad for its warmth and buoyancy as I bobbed along searching for glimpses of fish and crabs (successfully in the Coral Strand but less so in Silver Strand). Speaking of the Coral Strand or Tra an Doilin as the locals in Carroroe like to call it, I made the fatal error of not bringing along my sandals with me and quickly went from “I don’t know what you “snowflakes” are complaining about, it’ll build character”, to “oh my god, the pain, the pain, I can’t walk please somebody carry me to my blanket”. The ultimate ignominy was when the plastic bag for my snorkel mask blew away and I had to be helped retrieve it by an elderly lady because I was chasing after it with the grace and athleticism of the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof!

So our holiday this year may not have taken in the delights of a French boulangerie, or the rush of water-sliding into an outdoor pool, or even my particular favourite pastime, the one hour browse through a hypermarche, but we did have some memorable times in Galway and the food was definitely to be recommended!

Return to Aran

At long last our summer vacation of 2020 was upon us. This year was supposed to be the year of the French but alas, with covid restrictions that was not to be the case so we found ourselves spending four nights in the Connacht Hotel in Galway. To be honest, we were glad to have that as the hotel was only able to give us 3 nights when we originally inquired about a reservation. We have been to Galway a few times before “en famille” and always like the friendly and slightly off-kilter vibe of the place. However this time around, myself and my wife were determined to do something more memorable than simply Salthill and Eyre Square. So I delved into the memory bank of my youth and came up with the idea for a day-trip to Inis Mor, the largest of the nearby Aran Islands.

My only previous trip to Inis Mor had been as a youngster on a family summer holiday when I was as of yet blissfully unaware of the magical places outside of Ireland, so it seemed very exotic at the time. My wife Niki had been there much more recently doing the Aran Islands half-marathon, although she didn’t remember much of the place because she had been slogging through a grueling 21 kms. As if running 21 kms isn’t difficult enough, she chose to do it over extremely hilly terrain on a notoriously windy outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. Anyway despite the protestations of our children (Lochlan (9) in particular wasn’t keen on visiting a place where wifi was likely low on the agenda), we booked our return ticket with Aran Island Ferries and set off for an adventure.

The starting off point of Rosaveel was the same as 30 odd years ago.  This had the added significance that it meant we had to drive past Colaiste Chamuis in the Gaeltacht where I spent two stints in my teenage years. As we passed the school, I got a flashbacks to multiple games of gaelic football and in particular to an errant piece of chewing gum which was mysteriously placed on my seat during one of the numerous cheilis. I never found the culprit and certainly my Ionsai na hInse wasn’t up to scratch that evening! Rosaveel doesn’t seem to have changed much but the ferry to Inis Mor has gotten a lot bigger and thankfully swifter. My childhood recollections are of bobbing around on the Atlantic for over an hour before reaching the safe haven of Kilronan (Inis Mor’s only notable village), whereas this time round we powered through the waves and made the crossing in 40 minutes. Now there was still some rocking and rolling but it was of the theme park rather than life or death variety!

Once we had arrived in Kilronan we headed straight for the bike hire shop. Just like my last trip, the best way to get around the island was by pedal power so we got fitted up for our bikes. Ella (3) would be my strapped-in companion for the day, the boys (not for the first time) got competitive over what size bike they could choose, while Niki had to overcome her mistrust of all things 2-wheeled (justifiably it would turn out). After much saddle and helmet adjusting we headed out of town to the sound of Ella repeatedly saying “not too fast Daddy not too fast!”. She needn’t have worried, five minutes later at the summit of the first of many of the islands little hills I was out of puff and thankful that I wasn’t in a group of experienced cyclists. Fortunately the weather was stunning and already we were being treated to breath-taking views of Connemara, the Burren and the magnificent Atlantic. Ella wasn’t so impressed by the views but was overjoyed by the fauna all around her, “look daddy a real donkey / horse / cow / goat” was a happy and common refrain as we made our journey along the island. Our destination (once again like it had been 30 years ago) was the prehistoric fort of Dun Aengus.

So after 7kms of hill climbing and descending which involved yours truly pretending to be Stephen Roche (with my very own cheerleader) battling against my two elder boys (or Delgado and Indurain as I liked to call them) for the polka-dot jersey, we reached the blue ribbon beach of Portmurvy at the base of the hill which led to Dun Aengus. Niki and Oscar had taken a more leisurely approach to the journey and were sufficiently enticed by the white sand and luxuriant blue sea to forego a further 1km hike uphill, Ella was also delighted to be able to spend some mummy-time. So myself, Aaron and Lochlan parked the bikes and headed up the cliff-top perch, for Dun Aengus is situated directly 100 metres above the Atlantic, excellent for defending against raiders, not so good if you have a fear of heights! The views from the summit were once again stunning and it really did feel that you might be able to spot North America on the horizon, or at least Iceland! On the way back to Kilronan we took the much easier low road (not something I can remember doing 30 years ago mum and dad!) which passed along by a seal colony for bonus points. The seals were quite easy to locate as they seemed to be singing to each other in a similar manner to my own crooning to Niki in our courting days!

By the time we returned to Kilronan we had all built up quite an appetite so the food in Ti Joe Wattys was gulped down followed by ice creams in the local Spar (the one and only supermarket on the island). In between we did have our one and only fall of the day as Niki’s dismount left a lot to be desired but luckily she had only a bruised shin, damaged pride and a muddy jumper to show for it. Last but not least we headed to another beach for some relaxation and pebble throwing before powering back across Galway Bay to the mainland.

A wonderful day trip and great to be able to connect my own childhood experience with the next generation. Who knows, maybe they’ll be back again in 30 years time, I hope the experience won’t have changed much in the meantime.