Travels through En-ger-land

For the week that’s in it and with all the commotion across the Irish Sea I thought I’d reflect on my own travel experiences in Perfidious Albion.

My first time on English soil was as part of a school rugby trip over 30 years ago. I can’t remember the name of the village we stayed in but I know it was near Taunton in Somerset. My first impression of England, as I sat squashed in the mini-bus seat which I had been allocated (I think there was 20 of us in a bus that could safely carry 15), was of being slightly overawed by the infrastructure and in particular the road network. Our driver (a teacher at our school) must have been similarly distracted as we ended up 45 miles from London on our journey from Holyhead (Taunton is c. 160 miles from London). Perhaps it was the scale and grandeur of the road signage that confused him. Irish signposts at the time very rarely, even on national thoroughfares, exceeded those simple white elongated triangles angling in various directions from a central pole, but these motorway road-signs were works of art bringing to mind Mondrian at his finest, even though I hadn’t a clue who he was back then.

My first substantial anglo-trip was in early 1996 when I decided to go land-bridging to France after the Christmas holidays. At the time I was on Erasmus, studying in Paris (or Cergy Pontoise on the outskirts to be exact), and thought it would be a nice adventure to visit friends who were studying in Oxford and Cambridge at the time. It was a great trip and was neatly book-ended by a boxer shorts & negligee party in the student residence at Oxford and a hovercraft trip across the English channel. You could not have two more opposing insights into English society. The first was like the last days of Rome with opulence and flesh aplenty and while it might sound extremely appealing there was something about it that clashed with my slightly repressed hiberno-catholic upbringing. I ended up slinking away after an hour or so as I was unable to relax with so much skin on display outside of a rugby dressing room! The second was rough as hell and I’m not talking about the waves outside our vehicle. I have yet to see anybody neck more John Smiths (lager) in half an hour than the overly tattooed man immediately to my right on the trip from Dover to Calais. Given the amount of alcohol that I saw consumed on that crossing it still amazes me how a business case couldn’t be made for it to keep going!

More recently my trips to England have centred around London and in particular the business areas of Canary Wharf and the City. The bulk of my time on these excursions has been on public transport (or the Heathrow Express which is basically overpriced public transport) or in conference rooms. These tend to be uneventful with the highlights generally being the ability to check what’s going on in the West End as I travel up and down numerous tube escalators, always nice to find out what Jason Donovan is up to! There have been a few non-business related forays, with a party in Islington which ended up with the neighbours hosing cold water over us in the back garden, while an industrial size tub of mayonnaise was thrown at the front door being a particular highlight. I believe the tub of mayonnaise came from some disgruntled locals in a nearby estate who had been refused admission to the party earlier. To this day I still don’t know where they sourced this particularly large tub of mayonnaise and why they felt it was a good use for it!

Trips with the family have been few and far between however it would be remiss of me to leave out our trip to Peppa Pig World. There were a few lessons that I learnt from this particular journey. (i) Southampton (where Peppa Pig World is located) is further away from London than you think. I had believed that by setting out early from Victoria station we would have plenty of time to enjoy the delights on offer on the south coast, two hours later I wasn’t so chipper! (ii) Kids get very excited over the darnedest things, even (or especially) when I think it is unwarranted. I laughed at the two burly security guards escorting the six foot Peppa when I first saw them, ten minutes later they were more than earning their corn as a swarm of youngsters tried to show their appreciation for their heroine. (iii) The theme park (Paultons) outside Peppa Pig World was actually a lot more fun, particularly the spinning tea-cups which I believe are Niki’s (my wife) favourite thing in the whole of England. This is particularly ironic considering she doesn’t touch a drop!

I look forward to many more trips, hopefully without the need for passport checks!

In The Name Of The Daughter

Looking back a few years ago I thought that I pretty much had it made. Three sons all of whom took a keen interest in sport, all bore a strong resemblance to myself and all had a severe stubborn streak which I believe is important to get ahead in life (although this I attribute to their mother!!). A future of living my sporting dreams vicariously through them was set out in front of me. I could see myself strutting the sidelines of Dublin’s northside barking encouragement (and the occasional piece of constructive criticism) to my three boys for a significant number of years to come and who knew what lay ahead, Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, perhaps even Anfield! Plus I knew all about boys and the issues that surrounded them, for I too had been a boy and that was bound to stand me in good stead even with millennials or whatever their generation will be called! In my mind the parenting boots were well and truly hung up (well at least my newborn parenting boots). My last nappy had been changed and sleep patterns were now returning to normal.

Then two years ago something changed. Ella arrived into our lives in a rapid fashion with a labour of less than an hour. She wasn’t quite as speedy as Lochlan who necessitated a wheelchair-pushing dash to the delivery ward (think the sprint finish at the end of a wheelchair race but with more corners) but still it was clear she was anxious to get into the outside world. Bloody hell I had a daughter, how was I going to deal with that? At first she seemed pretty similar to the boys, well except she had a lot more pink stuff, but it was only when she reached a year that I started to notice some key differences. First of all she was much more relaxed about getting around the place. All the others were up and about by 13 months, Ella just seemed content to crawl, bum-shuffle or even just sit still until well past 18 months. Now this may have been because she had three older siblings who constantly brought her stuff or were quite simply happy to entertain her, but there was definitely something chilled out about her. She also quickly figured out how to rap me around her little finger, she has big blue eyes and a winning smile, even at her tender age she knows how to use them. Things which I would have come down on the boys quite severely, like drawing with crayons on the dining table or unraveling all the toilet rolls, were waved away as an artistic whim when Ella did it. A little giggle, or a big smile or heaven forbid a hug would have me turned to mush in a heartbeat!

I can also say that my bond with Ella (and with it her influence over me) has grown in the last six months since I have had the opportunity to stay at home and care for her. I can honestly say that the hours we share together after the conclusion of the constantly manic daily school drop-offs are simply joyous. Whether it is sharing my toast with her, reading a book to her or just having her on my lap while we watch one of her dvds together, there is kind of a zen like calmness that comes over me while I am in her company. Now I’m not saying she doesn’t have her crazy moments and an unusual fascination with toilet paper, but she is definitely more helpful than the boys. She likes to tidy up, in fact she gets annoyed when there is a mess, this could not be further removed from her three siblings whose rooms can often resemble the deck of the Titanic just before it goes to its watery grave! Furthermore she likes to be of assistance whenever I do some house-work (it does occasionally happen) particularly when it comes to loading and unloading the dish-washer.

Ella also has a level of empathy far in excess of anything her brothers have ever managed. For example if she sees that one of the boys has been hurt (which happens quite frequently and self inflicted more often not) she will immediately go over and give him a kiss and then follow up by going to the freezer to try and retrieve an ice-pack! Last but not least she has incredible manners and will say “welcome” after I have thanked her for something, now bear in mind that this is a concept that I often struggle to use.

So now I am gladly converted to pinkness, rainbows and the invasion of the unicorns. I’m sure Ella will always be happy-go-lucky and glad to hang out with her old man! Teenage years are miles away anyway and I have her three older brothers to help me through those!

As a special bonus feature Ella also likes to kick a ball, talk about a win-win!

Bring Your Knowledge With You

I have been a stay-at-home Dad for just over five months now which is a relatively short period when compared to my 21 years in financial services. So how do my skills as a corporate banker, particularly one who was involved in debt restructurings, translate when it comes to looking after four kids under the age of ten? Well you might think there is not much crossover between the two but actually there is quite a bit that I have been able to draw on.

God how I hated acronyms when I worked in the bank. It seemed that every day brought some new found way for people to try to show you they knew more than you did. Oh you don’t know what IGMMKTY stands for, well it stands for I’ve Got Marginally More Knowledge Than You and I’m going to let you know all about it! Having said that one acronym does stand above the rest particularly when dealing with the behaviour (or lack thereof) of young boys. So I am still SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) when setting goals for my kids. Every morning we go through the ritual of assessing each of my sons’ “performance” during the previous day under the categories of (i) morning, (ii) food, (iii) bedtime and (iv) overall behaviour. Each category has the potential to receive one miniature pom-pom (my own patented arrangement) which makes four in a day and twenty-eight in a week (yet to be achieved by anybody). I also retain the ability to remove pom-poms for especially bad behaviour. I’m not sure if this is SMART but it does give me extra power!! Pom-poms are exchanged for hard cash (I was a banker after all) at the end of the week.

Another lesson I learnt from dealing with groups of men in dark suits (and it was predominantly men) was to try to keep trouble-makers away from each other. In every banking syndicate there are the naturally constructive members and on the other hand those who just like to cause trouble. In the slightly amended words of Batman’s wise butler Alfred “Some men (or seven year old boys) just want to watch the world burn”. Now it is possible to largely neutralise these malcontents by isolating them from the rest of the group, this is particularly important if there is another potential trouble-maker within the syndicate. I have used this technique multiple times when I see temperatures beginning to rise and sense the potential for conflict between my three boys. One of them will get a tap on the shoulder and be told that now is a good time for spending some alone time in their room. Despite the initial and normally quite exaggerated protests this normally does the trick. Although I really don’t see what the big issue with spending time alone in your room is, you would have thought it was solitary confinement in Alcatraz the way they react sometimes! Many a happy hour of my childhood was spent on my own, in my room devising adventures for my gang of star wars figures / matchbox cars / marbles / etc. I even once remember devising a football tournament for my chess set (a fit body enables a fit mind).

Probably the most important nugget of wisdom I have brought with me is that fatigue and hunger are your two worst enemies. Debt restructurings, particularly in the corporate sphere, can be pretty stressful without having to deal with external factors. I remember in one particularly urgent case being effectively locked in a Parisian meeting room with a bunch of other corporate bankers with no food or water while on the opposite side of the table our adversaries happily munched on croissants, pain au chocolats and croque monsieurs washed down with orangina, evian and I think I saw somebody with a bottle of Chateau Lynch-Bages, but I could have just been hallucinating by that point. Needless to say that when we emerged into the Parisian dawn it was not the most favourable deal. Controlling hunger and fatigue is even more important when dealing with young children. You can never have too many rice cakes, and I always need to assess how Ella’s naps will be affected by any given activity. Sure going for an Arnott’s shopping trip at 11am may seems like a good idea (minimal crowds) but get a cranky two year old on your case and the lack of queues at the Nespresso counter seem much less important!

So the transition has been by no means seamless but not as big a change of scenery as you might imagine. There are actually quite a few similarities although I do get more hugs and kisses from my kids, well except maybe in French restructurings where the kissing pre and post meeting can be exhausting!

 

Food Inglorious Food

For me by far the most difficult part of the stay-at-home Dad job has been anything related to food. I actually used to quite enjoy cooking and when I was a carefree bachelor I would take it as a challenge to rustle something up from whatever was in the fridge and / or kitchen cupboards. I normally took a fairly laissez-faire approach to ingredients, not bothering with boring things like weighing scales or recipe books in general.

My favourite cooking implement was a wok and everything and anything would go in there. Results could be mixed but it was generally edible and more often than not quite tasty. I had a few stock meals; pasta bolognese, tagliatelle carbonara, a chicken in soy sauce and mashed potato dish and anything involving Uncle Ben’s sauces. I thought that I would be able to draw on this well to keep the kids satisfied while recognising that avoiding processed food was essential i.e. so long Uncle Ben. Sadly I was very much mistaken.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I myself had been a very fussy eater as a child. My vegetable (singular) of choice was the carrot and if there was even a hint of anything else in my food such as onions, mushrooms, garlic or god help us, celery I would practically roll myself up into a ball and start rocking. My dad used to call me “the surgeon” due to my obsessive removal of items from my meals. To be fair to my kids, they are actually much better than that and will accept vegetables in small doses, preferably if they have been chopped up so thoroughly that they can’t be detected by the human eye! What I did not expect was the rigidity with which they stuck to their mother’s recipes. My first encounter with this was when I was a bit too liberal with the rosemary when trying to recreate Niki’s pasta chorizo dish. “What are all these little bits in the meal daddy? They’re disgusting! Mommy never had them in the meal! Did you even peel the chorizo?” Now what is this about, who in their right mind peels chorizo? According to my research certainly not the Spanish! I have tried to push back against this crazy practise but to no avail so I have to add an extra 10 minutes into my prep time for chorizo peeling! One of the other things I have had to get used to is the weighing scales as I have found to my cost that any slight deviation from the acceptable proportions can lead to wide-scale revolt. Whereas if I can demonstrate that I have stuck to the letter of the recipe complaints are easier to swat aside.

I have tried to broaden the kids menu by dipping in and out of various recipe books to be found in the local library, however this has been met with stiff resistance and while myself and  Niki (my wife) quite enjoyed the pea and leek frittata the kids were not so keen and to say they were hostile towards my chicken with sesame oil stir fry would be an understatement, I think it was Lochlan who said “this is the worst meal ever!” His facial expression was very similar to Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes whenever he was at the dinner table.

So I have had to settle for becoming an expert / proficient in the six or seven stock recipes that Niki has built up and ingrained into my children over the years. I do occasionally indulge myself with the aforementioned chicken in soy sauce with mashed potato but every time I do it I’m quickly put back in my box. Support from Niki isn’t forthcoming either as the recipe belonged to an ex-girlfriend. I guess I should know better!

So I have learnt to quickly shut down the “what’s for dinner?” questions with “it’s your mother’s recipe and I’m cooking it exactly the same way that she cooks it”.

Don’t get me started on the food for lunch-boxes!

 

Ten Tips For A New Stay-At-Home Dad

Last September I took a break from my job of 21 years to look after my four kids on a full-time basis. Now I like to think I have been a fairly hands-on Dad since the arrival of our firstborn (Aaron) nearly 10 years ago but I have never been at home with the kids for an extended period of time. This task has been mainly fulfilled by my wife (Niki) with back-up from a mixture of various creches and child-minders. So it was with slight trepidation and a lot of excitement that I threw myself into the task or tasks!

Nearly five months later I can now look back and reveal what I would like to say to “day one” me.

  1. Routine is good but you must be flexible. When I was a child my parents had a very constant routine in terms of weekday meals which never waivered. When I began this adventure I decided to try something similar, alas my approach did not meet with universal acceptance from my family (scepticism from my wife and downright hostility from my kids). So I have had to roll with the punches and take a more relaxed approach to meal times and try to win the small battles around the sandwiches for the school lunchbox!
  2. Mothers will be very nice to you. The sheer novelty of having a man around who is willing to put his career on hold to look after his children means that mothers will be nice to you and very interested to find out how you are getting on. Some may be secretly hoping I fall flat on my face but they hide it very well!
  3. Grocery shopping on weekdays isn’t an unpleasant experience. First and foremost let me say I hate shopping of pretty much any variety. In particular I detest shopping on a Saturday when it feels like you have been thrown into a particularly vicious segment of The Hunger Games. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that wandering through Tesco / Dunnes / Super Valu on a Tuesday morning at 10am is quite a nice experience. No massive queues and plenty of staff around should I break the habit of a lifetime and ask where something is! It also helps that I have my toddler (Ella) with me so plenty of opportunities for fun and games in those product filled aisles.
  4. The constant availability of food and in particular bread is not a good thing. In work I was able to keep a lid on my impulse eating. A light breakfast would be followed by a cycle into work and lunch would usually comprise of a salad or a healthy wrap with treats only allowed on a Friday. However now that I work at home I have constant access to our well stocked kitchen and most importantly the bread bin! Sure what if I have six slices of toast in the morning while doing some ironing or if I demolish half a loaf of sourdough (my personal nemesis) for lunch. The weighing scales in 2019 have not been my friend!
  5. The house can always be tidier. This may seem obvious in a house with four young kids but I honestly thought I would be more on top of it. Instead the withering looks from my wife on her return from work as she steps through a pile of toys / clothes / dirty plates indicate that it is something I have yet to master (or come close to mastering)!
  6. An up-to-date calendar is vital. My kids are very active and love their sport, thank goodness for that. However it does mean that every week is pretty hectic so throw in a few play-dates or parties on top of that and it can be quite easy to lose track of where you and your various offspring are supposed to be. I haven’t lost anybody yet or left somebody waiting (touch wood) and the 15 minutes I spend every Sunday evening filling out the calendar are vital for that.
  7. Getting out and about in nature is always good. While the walk to and from school has its fair share of main roads to be crossed it also includes a trip through Griffith Park along the banks of the Tolka. If the weather is anyway decent this is a particularly nice part of the day especially the return leg. Indeed on one such journey I spotted two otters (my spirit animal!) swimming in the Tolka. I should really be posting a video but I got so excited about the experience that I tried to round-up everybody within shouting distance and the quality of the video suffered as a result!
  8. Libraries are great. It had been a long time since I had visited a library, in fact my last trip probably dates back to my own childhood and I remember the local library as being quite stuffy and run-down without many new or newer books, then again it was Ireland in the 80s! So I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality and selection of books in Drumcondra library for adults and kids alike. Many an hour has been spent there watching the kids colouring to their hearts’ content while I check recipes for meals the kids will never eat!
  9.  Playgrounds are also great. On a similar theme, playgrounds weren’t the best in the 80s either. Nowadays the selection of equipment and the spongy ground makes playgrounds a much more fun-filled and safe experience. I have also had the good fortune in that the past five months have coincided with Ella starting to walk properly so I have discovered the playground alongside her. Her sheer excitement at going down slides (quite sedately compared to her brothers) and being pushed on the swings has overwhelmingly trumped the whole repetitive aspect, and it does get repetitive.
  10. The world of work continues to turn without you. Maybe it’s because I had become institutionalised after 21 years of work for the same bank, but somewhere in the back of my mind I suspected that everything (or at least that small part of the bank in which I worked) would fall apart once I left the place. But this has definitely has not been the case, all those balls which I was desperately trying to juggle have not come crashing down and work related emails and phone calls from colleagues have been minimal to non-existent. The big wheels of commerce just keep on turning.

On the School Run

Scooting wasn’t really around when I was a schoolkid so I’ve been very impressed by my own children’s ability to whizz around on three wheels. In particular Lochlan has the temperament to maximise his velocity while keeping his father on tenterhooks!

Here is a song / video celebrating that and other things school run related.

I Love It!

 

I was looking for a way to express how I felt about starting my 18 weeks’ parental leave so as usual I decided to resort to my favourite medium of song and to also involve my favourite accomplices, my kids (three in front of the screen and one behind it).

Enjoy!