“It’s a long, long way
From Clare to here…”
So says the well-known Irish song by Ralph McTell. But actually, it’s not so very long nowadays. Ireland is criss-crossed with very modern motorways and the journey we made last week from Amsterdam to Dublin Airport to Co Clare only took a few hours. Yet in other ways it really was a long, long way from here to Clare: we left behind lots of work and found ourselves completely free to get up late, walk in the wind and rain, eat lots, sit beside the fire, read, watch TV, do crosswords, wander around the town… and abandon all sense of routine or responsibility. For a whole week it was wonderful. This was a bit of a nostalgia trip – we stayed in the same hotel as we did thirty years ago and visited some of the same tourist spots like the amazing Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and Lough Derg. At the end of our week away we had another nostalgic experience: David was invited to speak at the thirtieth anniversary of Dundalk Baptist Church because we had been living and working in the neighbouring church in Newry all those years ago. It was a lovely chance to meet up with old friends from those days as well as seeing many new faces. Then it was all over and we came home to Nieuw Vennep. Suddenly we felt ready to return to the work, the routines and the responsibilities we had so eagerly abandoned just a week before. Isn’t it amazing how a restful week away can give us new energy (even when we have passed the 60-year marker)? Let’s hear it for holidays!
Here’s the Fureys’ version of a Long, long way from Clare to here…
In the bleak mid-winter
Christmas came and went.
All the presents bought and wrapped,
Cards received and sent.
We put up our tiny tree
With its lights and snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Just a month ago.
We stayed in Nieuw Vennep
And some family came,
Simon, Sarah and their boys,
Joel and Luke by name.
Grandpa Dave and Granny –
Energy quite low –
Had their batteries recharged
Just two weeks ago.
We went to a circus,
Played in muddy parks,
Took a trip to Amsterdam,
We sang carols at our church,
Ate meals long and slow,
Films, games, stories, jigsaws…
Not so long ago.
Now the house is quiet,
Family have left,
Ibuprofen eases aches,
Still we feel bereft.
We have both gone back to work,
Christmas come and gone.
And the bleak mid-winter
Simply carries on.
Dutch houses have big windows. And thin (or no) curtains. From inside, this means the living space looks large and bright and the residents have a good view of the garden, passing cyclists, buses or the nearest canal – depending on where they live. From outside, it means that passers-by have the chance to spy slightly on those inside. Obviously there are rules to this game: it is not considered polite to stand with one’s back to the street gazing into the nearest house or apartment; however, there is no problem with taking a quick look sideways as you walk along the footpath (whilst keeping a sharp lookout with the other eye for any bikes that might mow you down, of course). This ‘speedy sideways stare’ technique means that you can gain lots of glimpses of life inside Dutch homes: families eating dinner; children watching TV; parents relaxing or doing housework… At this time of year you can even pick up all sorts of clever Christmas interior decorating tips for the price of a sideways glance. The ‘speedy sideways stare’ is not confined to home spying: our Sunday morning tram journey into the city centre offers further glimpses of people’s lives: a lonely looking man with a carrier bag watching the traffic; a young couple with backpacks striding along the street; an old lady drinking tea alone at a table in a deserted square; a shopkeeper opening up for business; street sweepers cleaning up after a busy Saturday night. Where do they all come from? Do they have families? How are they feeling today? We can only guess the answers to these and many more questions. It makes me think how little we know of many people we meet on a daily basis. For the most part we get glimpses – only sometimes do we have the privilege of getting more involved with people, finding out more about them and offering more than a glimpse of our own lives and passions. Just a thought!
My memory is getting better. Every year I find I can remember another year further back – isn’t that amazing? When I was a child, I used to think my Dad was ancient because he could remember and tell us about things that had happened to him 40 or 50 years ago. Now I find I can easily do the same – even though I often have more trouble remembering what I did yesterday (see Breaded Chicken –two blog posts ago). As we are both reaching 60 this year, David and I (to be fair, it’s mainly me) seem to reminisce more. Recently we spent an evening talking about things that happened in our childhood and teenage years (we knew each other as far back as primary school – aw!). I still remember the ‘proper’ way to wind up electrical cable, as demonstrated to us girls in ‘Mathetes’ music group by the super-knowledgeable blokes (David and Richard). I can also still remember the words of the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ that we learned in Irish when we sang at the Letterkenny Folk Festival in 1975! I have just rediscovered this lovely wee poem on remembering (which I vaguely remember from school days): https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44387/i-remember-i-remember
Remembrance is a big issue at this time of year. For many people All Saints Day on 1st November is a time to give thanks for loved ones who are no longer alive. This year there has been a lot of focus on remembering particular events of the First and Second World Wars – the Dunkirk evacuation (with the launch of the Christopher Nolan film), then the Battle of Passchendaele and also the launch of the Irish poppy to remember Irish soldiers who died in WW1. At a personal level, as we approach the end of another year we are bound to look back and remember the changes since last year. Some memories are painful, others are happy… some things are helpful to remember; others would perhaps be better forgotten. Whatever our memories, we will do well to heed St Paul’s advice:
‘Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.’
We were driving merrily along, heading for our local recycling centre, when we saw it – Rijsenhout zegt NEE (Rijsenhout says NO). Why are the residents of Rijsenhout saying NO? It seems the local authority is proposing to site high voltage cables in the village and people feel strongly opposed to it. That took us back a few years ─ more than thirty, actually ─ to when there were Ulster Says NO signs on townhalls, council offices, gable walls and billboards in Northern Ireland to protest at the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Around the same time Nancy Reagan (wife of the US president) used the slogan Just Say NO to encourage American young people to stand up against recreational illegal drug use. More recently, on UN World Day of Human Trafficking this year, faith leaders in Malaysia signed a joint declaration to Say NO to human trafficking and urged other countries and groups to join the campaign. Psychologists note that we often find it difficult to say NO – we spend a lot of our lives trying to fit in and not to be different from the crowd. But it strikes me as important that we do learn to say NO when the issue is important and goes against our convictions of what is morally right. As I watched BBC News coverage of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China this past week, it was clear that nobody was going to stand up in that gathering with a Say NO to Communism banner. Thank God we live in a society where everyone is free to protest and let’s defend their right, whether we agree with them or not.
Being an organised sort of person, I took two chicken breasts out of the freezer before breakfast and set them on a plate beside the sink. They would have plenty of time to defrost and we could have a lovely risotto for that evening’s dinner. Throughout the morning, every time I passed them I turned them over and prodded them to make sure they were thawing out nicely. After lunch time I was making a cup of coffee when I glanced at the chicken plate – Shock! Horror! There was only one chicken breast! Where had the other one gone? Ok, Miss Marple, time to get thinking… I knew I had left the back door open for a minute or two to take some rubbish out to the bin. Had a cat come in and stolen my chicken breast? Not being fond of these feline creatures, I nervously searched the whole house in case one was having a silent feast under a bed or behind a chair. No luck. Then I revised my theory: the cheeky jackdaws that were trying to build a nest above our bedroom window might have swooped in and stolen the tasty meat. But do Dutch jackdaws eat meat? And why would they be satisfied with one piece when a second lay available beside it? Anyway, in the absence of a better idea, I settled for this as the solution to the Mystery of the Missing Chicken Breast. I related my theory to David when he returned from work and he was rather sceptical but had no better ideas to contribute to the think tank. So there it was – strange but (apparently) true!
Next day, I felt like some toast for lunch and went to the cupboard to get the bread box. Inside the bread box, looking strangely smug, was a chicken breast! Now, how could that possibly have got there? Do cats or jackdaws know how to open and replace plastic sealed lids? They must do! I certainly would never do something that silly…
People often wonder how Scottish Stuart and Irish Dave managed to work together at IBTSC. Well, it wasn’t difficult and it was fun. We had a lot in common. People had difficulty understanding us (particularly Stuart) when we spoke. We’re both pipers – no I don’t play the bagpipes, work it out for yourself. We shared a similar kind of humour, the ‘always slag off your mate as much as possible’ kind of humour. We shared each other’s toys, little windup toys, we amassed a great collection and our favourite was the woodpecker. We had such fun with the woodpecker. We both spent Wednesdays trying to avoid Dorothy – that’s her day in the office. We spent everyday trying to avoid Marianne and there’s a reason the library was on a different floor of the building – sorry Pieter!
In practice our working week went along the following lines:
Monday morning we’d look at each other wondering how we both managed to end up in the Netherlands. Then we would proceed to lament the coffee on offer before a conversation about what needed to be done by Friday – and what there was half a chance of getting done by Friday.
A few days in the pressure would tell on one of us – usually Stuart would crack first and start throwing a starfish on his head. Ok, so he never actually threw a starfish but he would start playing with the windup toys and playing bagpipe music loudly.
Inevitably I too would succumb to a little craziness and need my level headed colleague to pull me back from the edge of insanity with one of those ‘wise up and catch yourself on wee lad’ looks
By the end of the week all composure was gone and we just embraced crazy.
Stuart, I will miss your friendship, companionship and craic. Here’s a little tune to bring a tear to the eye