Escape from Paris (How we almost missed our ferry home)

Picture this: a man’s screaming face, he is trapped in an underground carpark in a Parisian suburb. He has just spent 6 weeks in overly close proximity to his family on an alleged holiday and now it looks like this “vacation” will continue indefinitely because somebody has locked the keys (with the underground carpark fob) in the apartment.

But I have gotten ahead of myself, first a bit of background. On the previous evening myself and my wife had calculated that in order to make the journey from the not so leafy (best described as up-and-coming) suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine to the ferry port of Cherbourg, we needed to depart at 9am. Google maps had indicated a 4 hour journey (albeit sans traffic) and a 9am departure would give us two and a half hours of wiggle room for petrol and lunch breaks and a bit of leg stretching before our 3.30pm (latest) check-in.

It has to be said that I’m the one in our family who is the stickler for punctuality and my nerves were starting to tingle when my wife arrived back 15 mins late from her pre-breakfast walk and pastry pick-up. But hey, breathe deeply sure we have 150 mins to play with! An hour later I was definitely breathing very deeply as my wife realised that in an effort to achieve an efficient key drop-off, she had left us without a way to get out of our underground car park. A frantic phonecall revealed that our landlord was at least 40 mins away so intercom buttons were haphazardly being pressed trying to find a knight in shining armour who could release us from our dungeon. Then our hero (me) stepped up to the plate and found a manual override on the car park exit. It involved cutting power somewhere but needs must, who cares if Jacques couldn’t toast his croque monsieur that morning (insert gallic shrug). So after a lot of pushing and shoving we got the gate open and we were free! Now all we had to do was get the roof box on top of the car and start to pack stuff into it (note: roof-boxes are not underground car park friendly).

By the time we were ready to leave it was 9.50am but we still had 100 minutes to play with. Then we asked Google maps to plan our quickest route to Cherbourg. The previous night it had suggested going along the Paris ring-road (the infamous peripherique) and we had mentioned to the boys the possibility of seeing Parc des Princes, where PSG play. Now however there were red traffic indicators everywhere and it was clear that we would have to take a more circuitous route. The overall estimated time for the journey had also gone up to five hours. Yikes, only 40 mins to play with.

Things did not get any better once we hit the road. But travelling around Paris on a Saturday in August, what did we expect?! Every Thierry, Dominic and Herve was heading to their breezy summer retreat escaping the intense Parisian heat. Every toll-both (and there were loads of them) had a 5km tail-back, Google Maps kept sending us down alternate routes to beat the traffic but I think it was also sending thousands of other vehicles at the exact same time like a shoal of fish in the ocean.  

When we eventually managed to escape the greater Parisian area our estimated time to reach the destination was 15 mins past our latest check-in time. At this point, the mood in our car was slightly frosty and the tension could have been cut with the proverbial guillotine. Then just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, our Volvo decided to tell us that our tyre pressure was low. Now to say that our Volvo has a heightened responsibility towards all things safety-related is like saying my children are kind of fond of screentime! All you have to do is try to reverse into a moderately sized parking space and the amount of flashing buzzers, lights and sirens that go off are similar to an early 90’s rave. Not satisfied with a reactive approach to safety, the Volvo will also try to grab control of the steering when it feels you are moving out of your lane, think Kit in Knight Rider without the American vocals. Hence when the tyre-pressure warning light went off I was less than concerned and assumed that my wife would be of a similar opinion. Think again, the announcement that “I have to pull in at the next stop” sent a shiver through the collective spines of the other car occupants. At this point I had a decision to make, (i) try to talk my wife out of a totally unnecessary stop or (ii) calmly grit my teeth, nod my head and try to make the quickest pit-stop in French motorway history. For the sake of my marriage I went for the latter, luckily the service station was jam packed so we couldn’t get near the air pump, a quick kick of the tyres later and we were back on the road.

At this point we needed to travel 250 km in 2 hours on roads with a 110 km / hr speed limit (the maths didn’t quite work). Nevertheless we pressed ahead just relieved to have some consistent forward progress. With about 150 km to go we encountered a vehicle with a Carlow registration, similarly packed to the rafters and from the overwrought look on the driver’s face, in a similar situation to ourselves (i.e. dead late for the last ferry out of town). Thus began the great Hiberno-Normandy car rally, think Cannonball Run without the humour, with yours truly as Burt Reynolds and my wife as Farrah Fawcett. Thanks to the expert driving of Mrs Doyle / Fawcett we made the port at 3.35pm (leaving a string of French police voitures in our wake*), only 5 mins after cut-off and crucially they were still checking-in cars. We gave the Carlow car a satisfied fist pump as we both pulled onto the WB Yeats ferry (just like the Italian and Qatari chaps sharing the Olympic high jump gold medal). We had escaped / won / survived, never have I been so happy to board a ferry (note: I hate ferries).  

*This may not be true!

The Longest Month Of My Life

February, usually considered to be the last month of winter and renowned for being the shortest month of the year. However not this time round for yours truly, with hand on heart I can definitely say it has been the longest month of my life. The reason for this apparent contradiction is that we have had builders / painters / plasterers / electricians / plumbers / carpenters / acrobats (this last one may not be 100% accurate but I do have a vague recollection of someone swinging from a ladder at some point) in the house for the last five weeks. For me this is akin to having my fingernails pulled out with red hot pliers while jumping up and down on my son’s most pointy lego blocks!

There is a old saying that ‘a man’s home is his castle’ and this is especially true in my own case (even if a quick google search reveals that this piece of wisdom may have recently been hijacked by the far-right). Everyone has a different way to recharge their own internal battery, for some it is going on the tear with friends, for others it is an extensive shopping spree in Kildare Village, for me it is sitting in the quiet of a place that I call home (well actually it’s playing golf for 5 hours but that really isn’t practical with four young kids). These moments of recharge are pretty rare and therefore exceedingly precious which is why having a month of the year taken has brought me to the edge.

We bought our house 14 years ago in those early blissful months of marriage. While it wasn’t a new build it was only five years old so definitely didn’t fall into the category of a fixer-upper. I can still remember fondly the day we got the keys despite an issue with the house alarm (which the previous owners had cruelly left armed), I took a look around my new home and thought “perfect, this is the place where I can raise a family and grow old (and recharge my batteries when required)”. My wife Niki on the other hand subscribes to the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen or ‘continuous improvement’, goodness knows how she still puts up with me! She saw the house as a foundation open which she could build.

Jump forward 14 years to a house somewhere in Glasnevin. The room is dark and children are bickering in the background. Outside there is a storm raging, its name is Gobnait or Morag or something like that.

Wife: Ah sure haven’t I bore you four fine strapping childer and given you the best years of my life, but you won’t even let me have some men in to fix the place up nice and clean.

Me: I think the place looks really nice as it is. Didn’t you just buy one of those egg-seats and the air-fryer has been a revelation.

Wife: Alas ,no, no, nooooo, sure my mother, god bless her, is ashamed to come visit, never mind my friends from south of the river with their kitchen islands and boiling water taps. And doesn’t Dermot Bannon have a new show on the TV, putting ideas in folks’ heads so if we don’t do something now there will be no labourers had for love nor money.

Me: But we don’t need any of that fancy stuff, sure the boys will just break it anyway or scribble all over it. Wife: Ah you are feckin useless, can’t even mend a tap or wire a plug. I have to call my poor old father from down the country to get even the simplest matter fixed. If only I listened to him when you came courtin’ all those moons ago!

Me (sighing): Well what exactly do you want done and how long will it take?

Wife: Oh just a little piece of work on the utility room and a lick of paint to brighten up the place, that’s all. It’ll only take two weeks maximum and the house will be better than new.

Me: I suppose I can live with that (famous last words).

It is now five weeks later, feels like five years, I have certainly aged at least five years. Doors have been moved, walls have been built, cupboards and plug sockets have multiplied like rabbits. Five long weeks and let me remind you that one of those weeks was mid-term break (including three storms) with the kids at home full-time. Niki has been insulated in her home office while I have been left to the ravages of the paint fumes, dust and buzz saws!

The weekend before the builders arrived (in a more pleasant time when the largest European conflict since WW2 had yet to break out) we moved the collective clutter which had built up around the house into the living room so that the workmen could have a clear run of it. Now I am not unaccustomed to clutter and would never have been known for my neatness but the deterioration of the living room into a mass of coats, school bags, toys, scooters, bean bags, batteries and even pogo sticks made the daily search for the TV remote control an almost impossible task. The living room seemed to suck everything into it like a swirling black hole. I can’t find the ketchup, oh it’s probably in the living room between the Succession box-set and the key for the garden shed.

And that wasn’t the worst part. Some time ago and as our family grew, Niki and I discussed the possibility of getting an au pair. I vetoed the concept on the basis I didn’t like the idea of having a stranger constantly around my living space. So now instead of an au pair think of having three burly men with questionable musical taste inhabiting my space from nine to five. This was the opposite of my happy place and only dignity stopped me from rocking back and forth in the corner of the kitchen.

So now like a character from a Beckett play I am waiting, but instead of waiting for someone to arrive I just want them to leave. I have been told they will be gone tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it!

Highlight of 2021 – A Weekend in Berlin

Looking back on 2021, one of my fondest memories is a weekend break to Berlin in November.

Well it finally happened, I succeeded in escaping the island of Ireland. It had only taken 2 years and 4 months but I had at long last managed to overcome the barriers that surrounded me and what better place to celebrate this fact than in Berlin, a city notorious for its infamous barrier.

Since my wife Niki was coming along with me, our first task was to find someone who would look after our 4 kids while we were away for the weekend. Thankfully Auntie Orla stepped up to the role and was ably assisted by my in-laws who between them managed the Friday school run and various weekend sporting fixtures. A feat which had seen lesser mortals gnash their teeth in agony.

The reaction of our kids to our imminent departure was wide-ranging and varied from a shrug of the shoulder (Lochlan 10) to a tearful “I’m going to really miss you” (Oscar 8). Oscar in particular seemed to think we were going on a 6 month round the world trip rather than a 2 night city break! Once the kids had been sorted, we then made sure that we had checked all the Covid related travel protocols – digital covid vaccination cert in phone and backed up, a new travel app installed and linked to the aforementioned vaccination cert. The vaccination cert is quickly becoming more valuable than your actual passport. I can see why it has already become a black-market item.

Given that this was to be both my and Niki’s first trip to Berlin, I brushed up on my knowledge of the German capital in advance with the Rough Guide to Berlin (borrowed from the library and an excellent decision) and a non-fiction audiobook about the East German secret police called Stasiland (a one way ticket to paranoia and probably not such an excellent decision).

Of course in all the excitement about travelling abroad to a new city we kind of glossed over the fact that our flight was at 7am, thus check-in was 6am and wake up time around 5am (not an ideal start to a relaxing getaway). Given that this was our first flight in a very long time we were also uneasy about check-in queues and security backlogs, however we needn’t have worried. The Aer Lingus set up in Terminal 2 was very efficient, we even managed to check-in our own bags without any human assistance. I have seen the future.

The airplane itself was surprisingly full. I had somehow imagined that all planes were now travelling half full in these pandemic times but this was certainly not the case. During the flight I made an unpleasant discovery, my ears (and in particular the bit that attaches my ears to my head) do not like being encumbered by a mask for 2 hours non-stop. Initially I experienced a slight pain rising to a sharp throb by the time we were over Berlin. I kept trying to pull at the elastic to loosen the mask but to no avail (damn those surgical grade 3-ply masks). Just another physical frailty to add to my ever-growing list!

Berlin has a brand new airport and as one would expect in Germany, it is well served by local railway lines. So half an hour after leaving the airport we were stepping off a reasonably priced train (certainly not the Heathrow Express £££) and into the heart of Berlin. Like fully fledged tourists we stopped at the first bakery and I bought the biggest pretzel available while Niki went for something a bit smaller with almonds and raisins, both were excellent. We took the short walk to our hotel across Unter den Linden and through a shopping street which could have been out of any large European city. It was only when we noticed the only audible noise was the clacking wheels of our travel luggage that we realised that the shopping area in question was only accessible to pedestrians, bikes and scooters (thumbs up Berlin city planners).

Our hotel was very central so it was ideal for myself and Niki to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes, strolling around, taking in the sights and sounds of a new yet strangely familiar place. On that first morning we took in Checkpoint Charlie and Hansa Studios. For those of you who don’t know, Hansa Studios it is where Bowie recorded his Berlin trilogy of albums and also where U2 recorded the bulk of Achtung Baby and where this memorable moment took place (, it still gives me goosebumps watching it.

After lunch in a very trendy/ hipster cafe with old racing bikes hanging from the ceiling (probably too trendy for us but hey I booked it online) we then went to the Holocaust Memorial, Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. Having done the obligatory David Hasselhoff impersonation, exhaustion overcame us and we headed back to our hotel for a nap (a nap ladies and gentlemen, in the middle of the day, we really were spoiling ourselves).

Sufficiently refreshed, we headed out to experience some of the famous Berlin night-life and no, despite many pleas from yours truly we didn’t go techno clubbing! Instead we ended up in a lovely restaurant which serves German style dishes in tapas style portions. Curry-wurst, blood-sausage (or black pudding as I like to call it) and the rest were all served with a modern twist and more delicate flavours than we had expected. It got a big thumbs up from the two of us.

The rest of the weekend passed by in a blur of sight-seeing including the Wall (what’s left of it), the Berlin TV Tower (the tallest structure in western Europe apparently), the Tiergarten and a personal favourite the Hackesche Hof (a set of interlinked early 20th century Art Nouveau courtyards). Mainly we just enjoyed the fact that we were out and about in a new place and out of the monotonous regime and sure there was a bit more mask wearing and vaccination cert checking than on previous city breaks but it didn’t restrict our enjoyment (well at least until we go back to Berlin airport but more of that shortly) . Also I got to spend some precious alone time with my wife which has been far too rare in the past 2 and a half years. While we did miss our 4 kids, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that things (meals, shopping trips, long walks or indeed any kind of walk) are a lot easier to organise without their long-list of individual preferences and dislikes.

So after 3 days of enjoyment we made our way back to Berlin airport for a 7.50pm departure. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time because despite having checked-in in advance we were lumped into the same queue as everybody else in order to drop our bags. Then we headed towards what we imagined would be the ultra efficient German security process, wrong! Berlin airport does not have the usual doorway type metal detectors but instead has those ones where you have to stand like a logo for a 90s boy band while it bombards you with invisible waves of some sort. Despite having 7 of these machines in place the process was hideously slow and I can definitely say that 2 metre spacing was not in place. People were cutting queues to make flights and fraught exchanges were being had with security guards. There was little or no flexibility, it was as if the system had to be obeyed and could in no way be incorrect. It was by far the longest and worst 45 mins of the trip.

We arrived home late on Sunday tired yet refreshed if that makes any sense. Ready to take on the humdrum routine again and hopeful of seeing more of the world in 2022. I just need to figure out how to provide relief to my ears in the meantime.