Tea in a Bomb Shelter

So, I was having tea in my friend’s bomb shelter.

In 1998, in Croatia. We had been writing to each other, Matilda and I, since our early teens and I had finally had the chance on a year abroad in an Italian college to take a ferry across the Adriatic to meet Matilda and her family. Our letters were teenaged about our would-be-loves, poetry, exams, dodgy song lyrics; you know the kind. On my three-week trip (there was no getting rid of me), I spent the first couple of days trying to diplomatically ask what had happened and quickly learned to avoid asking any questions about the war. I was twenty-one.

I spent a lot of time in college dorms writing out U2 lyrics, chatting about exam pressures, our aspirations, the latest arthouse film we’d seen, trying to learn beautiful Croatian phrases ‘Hvala.’( Did you know the Croatian word for elephant is the same as the Irish word for Goodbye? Well, almost. Slon, Slan. Trivial but necessary.) We were college students of the same age but we were decades apart in life experience. My new Croatian friends often hurried me past traumatized veterans walking the marbled streets of their city streets, glossed over the bullets in their college walls. They loved their city, their country and I couldn’t blame them for wanting to show me their best, for wanting to leave their worst behind.

However, on the third week, Matilda brought me to see where the family had stayed when the bombing became too hard to bear in their city. Their bomb shelter as it were. It wasn’t dark or underground, it was lovely as I remember it. It was a small square room, painted yellow. It had a view out to the sea. It had a piano, a large table, a bookshelf and a couch. It was all very ordinary. It was from there she had written her letters to me.

So even as a nosy and pretentious Arts student, I learned that war was very ordinary. There was no drama, just huge disturbance to a person’s life. Even now, words like massacre and bombings hold no real value in my thinking but disturbance does. For what is war to a young person but a diversion from their course? Absolute loss of reality, family members, dignity and normality. That’s what war is when you are on the ground.

And there it is on our TV screens again. And to us it means a share or a like on social media. A retweet. But it’s not real for us and we search for it’s meaning to feel we are doing something. But there really is no real meaning to us. No reason. Out there, however, tonight, there is a bunch of ordinary college students who are displaced, who are being pulled from their future and diverted into survival by a war that has nothing to do with them really. Remember them.

For Matilda.

Notions

Right, readers, if you never hear from me again, you know, I’ve been locked away somewhere, a disgrace to her nation for admitting the following. Although, I feel somehow that it’s almost safe to say it to in public now, to publish it even. Yikes. Here goes nothing.

I hate instant coffee.

There I got it off my chest. I mean, there was a time, I liked it, enough. You know, when I was sixteen and trying to be rebellious in a house full of tea drinkers. In other words, in a typical Irish household. I would force myself to drink watered down Nescafe in hiding. I can still see the hard lumps of dusty powder stuck to the teaspoon, shudder.

I mean it’s safe enough surely now to say it what with the nation’s need; craze for good coffee. In every country garage now, you can be assured of a filtered Americano or a Skinny Latte.

But has anyone ever admitted it? No, I don’t think so. Nobody has ever actually said it for fear of offending the aunt who doesn’t actually have a jar of coffee or even worse the mother who might go to the cupboard and produce a three year old sachet that she got in a hotel once out for you to try (I love you Mam). Herself likes the coffee.

It’s not our thing coffee you see. But tea, now, that we do well. But tea in Ireland is political, my friends, and a whole other post.

My love of the cup of Joe blossomed when I went on to study languages in college. More notions. Thanks to the very generous European Union (do you hear that Britain?), Irish students studied and continue to study in universities across Europe. Yes, Europe-wide, there is an exhange of students in many disciplines spending a year of university abroad, drinking coffee, in groups, discussing life and mostly avoiding lectures. The Erasmus program as it is called allowed this girl to flourish in Italian in the beautiful medieval city of Siena, Tuscany. Yes, I can speak Italian with a Tuscan accent, like Dante, ahem. Pure Italian don’t you know. More importantly, I know good coffee and look down on coffee served in the rest of Europe. It’s an Italian thing. Non capirete. You see, Ireland, it’s not my fault, they brainwashed me, one of those coffee cults I’d say.

This also meant that when I left university I was most wanted in call-centres all over the country. My first job after college was giving technical advise to Italians on how to work a mobile phone. I couldn’t personally but they loved a trier! I could speak Italian and take my turn at making the espresso for my Italian teammates who wouldn’t pick up a phone until they had three cups. To my lovely Italian friends, it was bad enough that they were in Ireland where it always rains, but they drew the line at having to drink instant. No, no, no, they would say rightly wagging the finger. No, assolutamente, no! I would agree, the people pleaser I am although it was far from the sites I was reared. Well, about a kilometre actually.

So there you have it. I hate it. And haven’t said it until now for fear of offending someone or not being invited for tea. But mine’s a double espresso Americano, if you’re asking. Sur’ go on, I’ll put the kettle on.

La La La Lovely

It’s a twenty-five minute drive from the cinema home. I daren’t turn on the radio. I don’t want to wake up from the film. Wasn’t it lovely! The singing, the dancing, the beauty, the stars. They celebrated the dreamers. Hurrah. Let’s hear it for them. And look, anything that persuades the dancer to put on the shoes or the blogger to take to her keyboard to write an overdue post, well, we have to celebrate, albeit quietly.

It’s a long dark drive through lonely countryside home. And there wasn’t one other car this Wednesday evening on the road. Not one. At one point, on a crazy bend, there was an old man walking the road holding a high-vis jacket. Yes, holding it! Not wearing it but I suppose him holding it is one step better than the nights he left the house without it. He awoke me from my cinematic reverie and I left the stars behind me and switched on the radio. A play on Yeats. Perfect.

As I pull into the drive I notice the sky full of stars over our roof and the lights at home and it’s lovely to pause outside in the car taking it all in. It’s what us dreamers do. Himself opens the door to see what’s taking me and so is treated to the lovely January night too. The dogs come up to me for a rub now that the competition for my attention are all asleep. Come on. He has the kettle on.

I let him, there, at the television and take my cup of tea to bed and give a look in at the real little dreamers off somewhere unknown in sleep. I record another reel in my memory banks of the three of them, seven, five and two lying peacefully, safe in sleep. They are so incredibly beautiful. And I’m not even dreaming. That’s what a good film does. La La La Lovely.

Another Nollaig na mban

Nollaig Na mban (Women’s Little Christmas) is a bit funny when you live in a predominantly male household. What does this Queen Bee of ours want now?! A day to celebrate women? What?

‘Why can’t it be Little Boys day?’

‘That’s every day,’ I mutter.

‘What?’

‘That was last week darling.’

‘What?’

‘It’s just a day to celebrate the Mommies who have been really busy getting the place ready for the real Christmas. So you guys have to mind me, do the housework and while you’re at it, take me out for dinner.’ Hey, it’s once a year! I’m milking this!

So I put on the lippy, heels and got all concerned into the car, besides the husband who can tie himself in now. Today, we drove to Killarney, our resident town for extraordinary beauty in Kerry that has both good food and open spaces.

Outings are measured. They can be fraught; restaurateurs wince at the sight of young boys coming (can’t imagine why) and so eating out is a hurried affair for the time being at least.

From a very tiny age, however, I have taken the boys with me to cafes locally for a Friday morning coffee. For one half of an hour (maximum) on a Friday morning, I have, over the past eight years carried one, two and sometimes three little boys (aka the double espresso days) with me for a Friday morning coffee. So they’re good enough when they’re out in public, I mean there’s a time limit, but they’ve been trained since babyhood to know that sometimes, Mom needs a little treat, that girls need to be treated a bit special on occasion. And just hold those feminist horses ladies, for when you live with these wrestling, soldiering, bundles of energy you have to have your high maintenance moments.

This year’s Nollaig na mban felt a bit different. My littlest has outgrown the family buggy and while the older two are growing up fast; still holding my hand walking down the street, they seem that little bit wiser. It’s beginning to look, dare I say it, a bit easier. After dinner, we strolled around the corner to Killarney’s National Park to let my young dates run off the energy that they had stored up whilst giving their mom a peaceful enough meal. There was twenty minutes left before the park closed and a fog had descended over a darkening National Park as they ran chasing after each other. Myself and my farmer walked on behind arm in arm with one of the Killarney’s Lakes sparkling in the distance.

At five o’clock to get to the closing gates, I shout that Mommy refrain ‘Who comes to me the very first?’ into the quiet of the park to have one, two, three little boys run through the fog into this lucky lady’s arms.

A Nollaig Na mban to remember.

Back to the Drawing Board

I’m no longer a farmer’s wife; I’m a farmer. Don’t worry, still married to the original farmer, but I’ve earned my stripes. There’s something safe about being the wife of the farmer and not the actual farmer, there’s less responsibility for one. Well, you still have to carry the burden of decisions made, inclement weather and cash flow no-nos but the buck doesn’t stop with you, ultimately.

It would be a mistake to think that farming stops at the farm-gate, in the calving unit or in the field. And if I’m honest, I had left the farm, for the most part, to the original farmer. My job heretofore involved rearing the kids and keeping the farmhouse going was more than enough. But then the opportunity arose to become more involved and I took it on most unenthusiastically.

Didn’t I know all about farming? Wasn’t I now married to him ten years! I had lived through a couple of bad years and some good. Nodding along when he talked about where he was going to move the cows to like the partner of an over enthusiastic chess player, unknowingly clueless.

And while I’m not in wellies full time, I’m more involved in the running of the farm. I understand what’s going on and know the support that I can lend him daily to get the work done. Success in farming comes with good management and animal husbandry. It starts like all businesses in January, back at the drawing board. And this new agricultural dimension for me has helped me invest more in our life as farmers.

So as we sit in our boardroom (really untidy office) planning our goals for the year, our moves and shakes, I’m the apprentice full of ideas, met with the pragmatism and experience of the boss. A good team. It took me a while to take the step, to overcome obstacles I put in the way of my becoming a farmer (and much more besides) but now I’m the actually girl of the house in wellies, there’s no looking back. Here’s to 2017.

Please don’t die Cat, not today

So I had a whole other post to put up for Christmas and then I woke up, with the flu. Our farmer is outside, Christmas Eve is busy on a farm, no, Christmas Eve is even more busy on a farm as we’re trying to put the wheels in motion so that the farm can run on minimum labour over Christmas. So he’s gone. But alas, his children are here, right here, under my flu-ey feet.

Many’s a time I thought during the week of writing about how I’d like to freeze this week in my memory banks for my old age, wistfully rocking in my chair, grey haired and nostalgic and then one of them dropped something. We’ve broken a record this week with the amount of breakages; bowls, cups, butter dish, vase oh and a lamp. Whirlwindy boys, wrecking my house as I try to keep it a home. Christmas is wilder with storms that I probably can’t send them out into.

I wanted to write to you about the beautiful home made mince pies I made in the assembly line of small boys that probably brought on this flu. Stuff of Christmas nightmares. They were tasty but not alas tasty enough to warrant trying the patience of this Saint over two hours. Perhaps, I could tell you about placing the lovely candles in the window welcoming Jesus as in every Kerry homestead. But then, the cat is looking a little worse for ware and all I can think is ‘Jesus, don’t take the cake, not til St. Stephans Day.’ So as I write and sneeze and google (CPR for cats), I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

Love always, Your Girl in worn out wellies,

Anne
x

Number 428

On my first married Easter on the farm, I helped deliver calf number 428. It was chaotic. I was only in the yard to remind my newly married spouse that time was ticking and that we had to be driving to my parent’s house in Cork. I wouldn’t ask it now. Come on. But remember, I was new to this and he was still trying to break me in.

So I arrived in the farmyard in my flowery wellies trying to move him on when I heard a lot of mooing; three cows were calving. Himself was helping two cows out in the calving house, one of whom was having difficulty calving (the vet would have to be called) and another who needed some assistance. One nervous heifer (first time mother let’s say) was nervously backing out of a paddock not knowing what was happening to her (in labour). To ease her worry, I, of all people, stepped in, she who had never seen a cow calf before, to help calm the lady down. I shu-shu-shushed her, cajoled her to calm down with my ‘there-theres’ until eventually she settled herself down in a feeding passage (portion in front of the main sheds where silage is placed for the cows to eat) to calf. Not the perfect location let’s say.

When the vet arrived for the cow in the shed, the scene was chaotic, with the two in the shed in trouble, one in the feeding passage in labour, not to mention the new wife in flowery wellies practically singing to the calving heifer. I remember the poor vet asking Dan bewildered if ‘all was alright?’ not quite sure of the scene he had come upon. To be honest, my lady would have calved away by herself but being enthusiastic and fully sure that this new husband of mine could not manage without his new Jane Eyre, I stood behind the cow as she calved. He had given a few instructions. When the crew beans (calf’s hooves) appear and I was sure the calf was coming out the right way, I could help ease the calf out with the cow’s breath. I felt it; and if truth be told, it helped me when it came to my turn in the labour ward. With each exhalation, she pushed her calf further along it’s journey out. I would wait for her to exhale and then pull on the crew beans to help ease her burden. With a breath, a nose appeared, and she’d breathe again; a nose. Eyes, closed. Ears. Shoulders and then slide, the release into the world. She delivered calf number 428.

She was the first little calf I ever helped to deliver. There was so many that Spring and in my quest to impress himself, I spent a lot of time in those days, feeding calves, preparing bedding, cajoling newborns to drink their milk. I remember 428 as a healthy calf. In the years that followed I continued to know her as she was a bit of a pet. They normally don’t but she was one of those who would come over to you for a bit of a rub. If I was hanging out the washing and the cows were grazing in the field behind the house, she would always come over to me. It’s as if she knew.

So Thursday, I got the text. He was selling cows and would I get the cards ready (each cow had a passport that goes with them when they go for sale at the mart)? Her number appeared. There in the list of numbers was number 428. Honestly, the same day was crazy busy. It didn’t have a lot of time to register with me. There was Christmas tree to sort, kids stuff to attend to, I had to milk the cows (me, yes!) so I put it to the back of my mind. Before I knew it, she had left the yard. I can only say that she lived well here. Knowing him, she had always been treated well, ate in fine pasture, sauntered into milk each day for us. But it doesn’t make it easy when a cow leaves the farm. The difference is now though is that I’m not that girl in flowery wellies ‘playing at farming’ anymore. I’m all grown up. Farming is our family business and is our life here. Just like my hands that are no longer soft, I know that we give our animals a good life in return for their produce and then when lameness or old age threatens them, when they don’t go in calf or when their milk supply goes down, it’s their time to leave the herd. No matter what their number.

It’s hard. I’m sad both for 428 and for the girl in flowery wellies who watched her coming into the world. When I finish this post, the thought will be put to bed as I get on with the next chore of the evening. You know, if you’ve read along this while (and I thank you), then you’ll know that I love farming but it really can be a very hard life.

Number 428.

Badabing

You have to be a little bit sneaky when you want something on a farm. There’s always a queue. Look, this year there was a slurry tank, a course and a milking parlour before us. In fact in ten years, there’s been a lot before us. And the luxuries you have to squeeze past like they’re sales pitches.

A trip to New York. Think of it as an investment, in the farm, your marriage, our mental health. We can do it in the quiet of the year. When the cows are dried off. I know, I know, I say, holding the brochures in and around his vicinity for a month, it could be a bad year. Then again. A good year like a bad year in farming is like a surprise. You never know. It’s a toss of a coin.

Then again, you could hold this pitch when say for example, maybe, when, em, he hasn’t sleep in a few nights in the Spring. I know. I know. Sneaky but stick with me. It’s for his (read our) own good.

You’re feeling sleepy. Ten calves have arrived in forty eight hours. Wouldn’t a soft bed in a New York Hotel with your wife be dreamy. Oh so sleepy. There will be Manhattans and fun and New York adventures and so many dreams for a sleepy, oh so sleepy Dairy farmer.

Sounds good doesn’t it?

And before he knows it, he’s sipping that Manhattan in the Tavern on the Green in Central Park and his face is saying ‘Well, ain’t this life grand.’

Well, when you’re married ten years, you get to know the short cuts.

He’s back on terra firma, checking out the cows after I stole him away for five whole nights without the kids to celebrate our anniversary after ten crazy years. And a break is really as good as a rest. And when you’re married to the coolest, calmest man in well, actually, the universe, your holiday is a meditation where you get to enjoy every moment in the company of your best friend.

Back to the grindstone, the hooting and New York twang is just a ringing in our ears as he teaches the three Yankee capped boys how to play baseball (using a Youtube video) and they roar and shout about rules and catches and home-runs in a North Kerry green field basking in the yellow November light. Now in a more New York state of mind. Badabing.

For one of those smiles

I really would walk a million miles for one of those smiles. These days it seems you have to. I imagine if I was an employer, I’d make it my business to employ only people with big beautiful genuine smiles. Because they’re the winners. You know the ones; the real humdingers, wide on the face, honest, trusting. I love them. People don’t give them out liberally anymore. Not in shops, not on the street, not in ordinary cafes. Indeed, smiling seems to be a five star experience. No fair. Why do I have to pay extra for a smile? It seems like honesty and kindness (two whole other blog posts), they’re no longer a given.

I’m lucky in life to be surrounded in ‘the inner circle’ with smilers and am most privileged. But why should it be a privilege and when did everyone stop smiling? Have they? I once, as a student, had the best job, I worked in a well known tourist store in Blarney, Co. Cork as a Sales Assistant. I smiled all day. Selling tweed jackets although I knew nothing about it, I was proud to be Irish and welcoming visitors and chatting to them all day. I smiled because I knew I was doing my bit for my country and because that’s what I do and it was loved and appreciated all summer long and I had so much fun. I know, Polllyaaaaaaaanna. But get past it. Stop being cynical and I’m saying that to myself more than to you, and start smiling and expecting that smile in return. There a few things as fabulous.  Go on, give us a smile.

A Risky business, really

Today at farming college I was reminded once again of the dangers of farming having heard the story of a long time milker who lost an eye after an accident with detergent. After forty five years farming, of doing the same routine job cleaning the bulk tank, he lost an eye. When I started going to the milking parlour, I saw the dangers everywhere. The size of those cows, what are they, 600 kilos? My farmer used to shrug ‘I mind myself don’t worry.’ And on that tractor? Do you always put the shovel to the ground? ‘I do. I do.’ And when walking in the yard, I ask if he covers up the agitation points where there are grids for hoses to run down into the deep deep slurry tanks; a swamp that would kill a man in minutes. I dare not think about it but unfortunately I have to. There is a lot of stake. There are children now, our family.

There are times when the children farm with us although I try for the most part to keep them out of the milking parlour. It’s no place for them. Unfamiliar voices make the cows nervous. How do I know? Cows tend to raise their tails and make their sentiments known if you get my meaning. The children because they are reared to it, for the most part, know cows well enough to keep well back or know how near they can come. I hope. For although they are very placid animals, they can’t be trusted.

Some weeks back I was milking a couple of rounds for my farmer while he ate a breakfast. I can now, you know, and I love helping out. I was so proud of myself, letting the girls into the parlour, putting on the clusters, feeding them, milking them, spraying them and opening the gate to let them out. But then it came. I mistimed one cow walking out of the parlour, put my hand up on her near a bar as she stepped back. A rookie mistake and a painful one. Everything went blue the pain was so harsh. I couldn’t speak. It took a few seconds for the pain to register with my brain so I closed the gate and bent over in two experiencing a pain that I can only explain as blue. Sheer blue pain. Dull, sharp pain. My hand doubled in size immediately. I was lucky I didn’t break my hand but it still has the hue of a hand that had been caught between a cow and a steel bar. The children’s heads are at the same level that my hand was at, if a cow kicked them, well, I can’t think. But I have to.

Farming is a dangerous, dangerous business with complacency it’s biggest risk. For when you stop seeing the dangers or taking care by rushing or skipping safety procedures, you are putting yourself and others at extreme danger. Please farm safely out there.