Sunday, May 24, 2015

Emigration, immigration and wanting to be in two places at once!

I clearly remember the morning that I left Ireland to immigrate to the USA. I was nipping out to the corner shop (last time I'd do that for a while - no such thing in suburban San Jose!) and as I stood at the traffic lights waiting to cross the road, I examined my emotions. I was excited - so excited. I envisioned outdoor swimming, the heat of the sun on my back and lots of adventures. I shoved the sadness of leaving family and friends to a place where it would remain until I had the strength to explore that painful topic.

The green man flashed. A car, obeying the red light, came to a halt in the lane nearest the kerb where I stood. I took two steps in front of him and was just about to step further into the intersection when from the corner of my eye, I noticed a car barreling down the outside lane towards me. He was never going to stop on time. I jumped back out of the way as the car blasted through the red light and passed inches from me, my hair lifting in the wind his car generated. I ran back to the kerb as a police car sped through after him, blue light flashing.

Had I not stepped back, my story would have simply ended there...

The guy in the stopped car sat with eyes like dinner plates. I lipread one long expletive that began with an "f". He pointed at me and mouthed, "You okay?"

I nodded. The lights turned green and I waved him on.

Trembling, I waited this time, not just for the lights to change and the green man to flash but for both cars to stop before I crossed the road, thinking all the while what a tragic headline it would have made in the newspapers.

"Woman set for USA, killed in police chase."

It almost made me cry thinking about my Husband and my Mum (she was there to drive us to the airport) waiting in the kitchen for the milk for their tea, only to hear the sirens of the ambulance as they scrapped me off the road.

By the time I actually did get home with the milk, my active imagination had kicked in, and I'd played out the entire scenario...the wake (in my sister's house in Armagh maybe) the funeral (the Cathedral in Armagh, of course - where else?) and my grave - beside my Dad who had only died a short 3 months beforehand. Perhaps it was no wonder that my mind was a bit morbid.

The thing with immigration is that, unlike dying, you get to come back - time and again. Though I know this is still not necessarily the case for everyone who emigrates because of financial reasons or maybe because their home country is unsafe. I really feel for people in those circumstances, and often think about the Irish Emigrants during the famine for whom returning to Ireland was practically impossible. For people like me, emigration is a luxury. I was one of the lucky ones with the right paperwork and passport combinations. I know so many people who would love to immigrate to the USA. Not to mention the millions of people in the world who are quite literally risking their lives to emigrate, some packed into boats trying to escape hardships beyond my comprehension.

I can't compare with those hardships. But for me emigrating means, no matter whether I am here or there, I'm missing somewhere and someone. In order to be totally happy, I need to be able to be in two places at the same time.
This was never more clear to me than when I was back in Ireland promoting March to November.

It was a wonderful trip, filled with family, friends and book events. My home town Armagh has really become a great holiday destination. It's always been a pretty city, with its majestic Cathedrals and it's charming architecture, not to mention the people - great craic and so friendly. (Even if I do say so myself!)
St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral

But now Armagh has become a culinary delight, sporting many award-winning restaurants and cafes.

On my last day at home, my sister took me for lunch to a place near Market Street - where we had lived as small children - 4Vicars on Vicars Hill.

We didn't play on this street much having been scared away by the ghost story of the Green Lady. The best rendition of this story is by Rosin Kelly. It's actually a sad and terrible tale. I do recommend grabbing a cuppa and hopping over to this website to read it if you like to spook yourself out!
4Vicars is a fabulous place to eat. Not only does it offer a great menu with fresh, delicious food and beautiful decor, but you have a choice of scenery to view as you eat. If you sit in the front section you can have a table that looks out on the old cathedral.
Or you can sit at the back and enjoy a view of Armagh.
The red brick building in the distance is my old primary school, also sited on top of a hill.

I was thrilled to find this spot and even more thrilled to get talking to Kasia Reid, who owns and runs 4Vicars with her husband, Gareth. He is an Armagh local, but I could tell by Kasia's beautiful accent she wasn't originally from Ireland. She told me she was from Poland, and when I asked her if she missed home she simply said, "This is my home now." She made it sound so easy, and I admired her commitment to her new life.

We then had an interesting discussion on the street names around Market Street. I'd been under the impression that Vicars Hill was not only the name of the street we were in, but that it stretched all the way around the cathedral to Market Street where the Bishops Residence was.

"Oh no," Kasia said confidently, "That's Cathedral Close."

I never knew that, and yet I grew up on Market Street, and played in Castle Street, the street that borders the forth side of the square of the Cathedral's property.

We laughed at how it had taken Kasia to come all the way from Poland to educate me on the street names of my home town.

We had a thoroughly delightful lunch there and I would highly recommend this place. I look forward to going back, because unlike Kasia, I've not been able to let go completely and miss my home town keenly. Especially now that it has such an up and coming gourmet scene.

Byddi Lee
Kasia Reid

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go...

I just love the new direct flight between SFO and Dublin, Ireland. It leaves at such a civilized time. I'm sitting here in my pjs and fluffy pink dressing gown, tying up a few loose ends before I do the final clean up in the house and hit the road.

The last couple of weeks have been all about getting the garden in shape for summer and, of course, author events. It's been a lot of fun, and I was surprised by the buzz  I get reading extracts from my book - especially the funny bits. When writing there's always that time delay between writing and feed back. I love getting amazon reviews. (If you've read March to November and haven't left a review please do - here's the link ) It's just such a thrill when someone contacts me and tells me that they loved the book. But when you read a piece to an audience and get the immediate reaction to it, it's like writer's cocaine! Addictive!

So it's a bit early to be planting the summer garden, but with the drought and the way things have been temperature-wise here, I think I'll get away with it.

This post is merely a "before" and also a place where I can view pictures of my garden when I'm away from it. When I get back, I'll post photos of the growth (or not!) from over the 4 weeks.

These are orange lilies, that I bought last year blossoming and all, that have decided to come up again. I hope it's still blooming when I get back - if it blooms!

The pole beans are planted, the trellising is up, (my husband thought we might need a permit from the city for this!) and I'll add the strings when I see how many seedlings actually survive the birds, slugs and ground squirrels!

The tomatoes are in (I hear a collective wince from the Santa Clara Master Gardeners!) but its a kind of experiment, and I want tomatoes sooner rather than later this year.
I've rushed the photos and the plants can hardly been seen from this distance, but I'm hoping that the "after" pics will be great from this spot.

I didn't buy any new annuals this year - I'm relying on return customers...
and volunteers...
Poppies are out - in the garden and on the hillsides.
And then there's this plant. It was here when we moved in 6 years ago and has never blossomed. Now I'm going to to be away for 4 weeks and it does this!
I can't imagine what the blossom will look like but My Husband (who isn't coming with me due to his own work commitments) is under strict instructions to take lots of photos.  I don't even know what this plant is called.
It's nice to know that when I get back from my book tour in Ireland there is a seat waiting for me in the garden.

Byddi Lee

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Home - where the grass is greener, especially from March to November!

I didn't want to be one of those Irish immigrants who cried into my beer and sang sad songs about missing the ould country. Oh, no, not me...

And why would I, when I can see green fields from my garden?
Okay, they are only green for a a couple of months, during the rainy season, and given the drought we've been having in California, that's now down to a matter of weeks.

So, no lamenting from me about missing Ireland, or the rain, instead, I wrote an entire book, all 115 000 words of it set in Ireland!

As I wrote March to November, I realized how much I missed all the uniqueness about home that is so hard to find here - and I'm not talking about rain. There's the pubs, the banter, the chatty taxi drivers, the impromptu traditional music sessions, the potato bread, the scones, the Guinness, the bacon, the whiskey, the Tayto crisps, the Cadburys chocolate, Marks and Spencers Extra Chocolatey Chocolate biscuits, Barry tea, the whiskey, Hobnobs, the style (yes - that surprised me too!) and most of all the people...

Americans who have visited Ireland regale me with stories of how wonderful their time in Ireland was, and the thing they rave about the most is the people. I may be biased, but I do agree with them wholeheartedly, especially when it comes to humor.

The craic is ninety back home. That's a phrase that will trip up many a non-Irish person, and had my critiquing groups running for their red pens. I insisted that any book set in modern day Belfast had to have the word "craic" in it. Other words didn't make the cut, being either not as important or too confusing, such as "scundered" and "banjaxed" which sent the spell-checker crazy into the bargain. Such a rich and varied vocabulary makes writing in "Norn Iron" so much fun.

The other things that the US holiday-maker enjoyed was the bars. I used real bars in Belfast and Donegal as settings for some of my scenes, to the extent that I have readers here in the US asking me to organize a trip to Ireland for them that takes then to these locations. For now, they'll have to make do with the slide show I have on my website.

Here's a little taster.
This is Robinson's Bar, located across the road from the Europa Hotel, reportedly the most bombed hotel in Europe - what a fun reputation to have! If you go in through this door, like Tracy did in March to November, and go right to the back, you get to Fibber Magees, The back door of Robinsons is the door for Fibbers. There's a fun night out that ends in a dramatic twist in the book - I hope you have a less stressful evening here!
Donegal, where the characters go on a road trip, was our childhood holiday destination. I have many fond memories of shivering on beautiful sandy beaches that went on for miles,
 and heart-achingly beautiful but desolate landscapes,
 and every day round off by spectacular sunsets. 
This is the view from the cottage that inspired the one that Tommy's family owns in March to November.
I'm delighted that March to November is generating interest in tourism to Belfast and Donegal.

Special Offer During March 
March to November is available on  Kindle for - $0.99 in the USA or 99p in the UK to celebrate the month that kicks off all the shenanigans in the book.

At the end of March, I'm going home to promote the book, and I can't wait! The response from back home has been better than I ever hoped it would be. The Americans are right - the Irish have big hearts, and I'm lucky to be experiencing that for myself. April is a beautiful month to be home - nearly as beautiful as May, which is the month I always tell people to visit, but really any time between March and November is beautiful in Ireland - if you don't mind a bit of rain and can see the beauty in mist covered vistas and green fields. Because California may have it's own beauty from March to November, but it's not found in its grass!
Byddi Lee

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Tufty Club and other stories

Today I contacted the Armagh City Library to ask if they could accommodate me for a book signing when I go home at Easter. The manager was terrific and immediately agreed. I was delighted because the Armagh City Library holds a special place in my heart - I used to live in the same street as it.
Market street, 2014 - Our house on the right and the Library is house in the building on the left.
So when I hung up the phone, it was no surprise that my mind-Tardis dumped me back in Market Street, Armagh, circa 1973, where I'd lived from the ages of 4 until 9.

It's not many kids who can say that they had a library in their front yard, but I did. In fact we shared Market Street with a library, a Cathedral, and a cinema - the Ritz. People from Armagh used to call any cinema a "Ritz" in the same way "Sellotape" or "Scotch tape" became a generic name for sticky tape. I was an adult before I realized that the Ritz Carlton wasn't a movie house! 

The cinema was so close to our house that when my sister and I fell asleep at the movies, my Dad would carry one of us home and then go back for the other one! I remember going to see Jaws there. My best friend, Lucia and I went together to see Grease - both of us too young and innocent to actually get the sexual innuendo in the jokes. By that stage we had moved out of Market Street, so I must have been 11 when we saw Grease.

Often the Ritz would be evacuated because of bomb scares, and if anyone we knew was at the movies they'd come over to our house. If we didn't need to evacuate ourselves, they'd be welcomed in. I have a vague memory of us all lying on the living room floor because snipers were taking pot-shots at the army and the police outside. Dad would pass out beers for the grown-ups from the fridge, and we'd wait it out on the swirly orange and brown carpet. After all it was the 1970s in the North of Ireland - we were inured to the Troubles, not to mention the decor!

We didn't frequent the Cathedral on our street very often. It's not that we were heathens and didn't pray. Armagh has two Cathedrals, a Catholic one and a Protestant one - this one was the Protestant one and while, from time to time, our parents would take us up for a walk around the grounds, being Catholic we worshiped at the other one. I don't really remember being told not to go and play up there on our own, but on the occasions I did, I had this mixture of thrill and unease that I might be breaking someone's rules.

Church of Ireland Cathedral
Our house's front door opened directly onto the street. No paths, no gardens, no fences for us. The British Soldiers used to hunker on our doorstep, hoping to to shelter from rain and sniper bullets in the alcove created by the slightly recessed front door.

Dad used to tell the story of how one evening after dinner (except back then it was called teatime because we weren't posh enough to call it dinner) he was helping Mum clear up. He was planning on staying in for the evening and had already put on his slippers. He went to put the empty milk bottles out for the milkman to collect the next morning - this was back before recycling was invented, so we had to reuse instead!

Dad open the door and a soldier who was leaning against the door fell into the front hall on top of him. Both were understandably startled, but in a "surprise!" competition the guy with the gun is going to win. Embarrassed and pissed off, the soldier arrested my Dad on the spot. He didn't let him go back into the house to tell my Mum where he was going. He just bundled Dad into the landrover and took him to the barracks, in his slippers and still carrying the milk bottles! They held him for a few hours and then released him. No explaination, no apologies - though my Dad always did point out that he'd been lucky that the soldier's gun hadn't gone off when he'd opened the door or it would have been a much shorter story.

Anyways, poor Daddy, still in his slippers had to walk home a couple of miles through the town from the barracks. When he arrived home he got no sympathy! Mum was mad at him. She thought he'd sneaked off to The Foresters's Club a few doors down from the house. Eventually, she believed him because he was still in his slippers, and Dad would never go to the pub in his slippers!

The Troubles played a big part in all our lives back then. One day my sister and I were playing in Market Street, and we found a parcel wrapped in brown paper. We'd been told in no uncertain terms that unattended packages were dangerous. So we went straight to our parents and told them what we'd found. It was right in the middle of the street - a huge tarmacadamed expanse, not the beautifully landscaped area it is today. The entire street was taped off, and the homes evacuated, and we all stood (as we often did during evacuations) along the top of the hill looking down Market Street. Dozens of police and soldiers milled around and then the parcel disappeared. They found a guy calmly walking away with it. Someone had been loading/unloading a van with innocent parcels and had left one out. When he noticed it missing he'd come back for it, and had just walked over and picked it up!

"Better safe than sorry," my Dad said to us later.

But getting back to the Library...

The Library is a beautiful limestone building that had once been a technical college. I remember it as always being a warm, calm place with the wonderful smell of books, a smell that very writer and avid reader mentions. I know I risk being cliche when I say that that smell still gives me a sense of anticipation - something good or interesting about to happen.

Even when I was a kid (yes, way way back then!) our library had excellent programs for children. I was in the Tufty Club. Tufty was a human sized squirrel - perish the thought! Imagine what that could do to a garden. Tufty, along with his other woodland friends taught road safety, a strange choice of character judging by the number of squirrels that get mashed on our roads in San Jose and whose remains are feasted upon by other squirrels (I kid you not!)

As well as the regular story time and Tufty club meetings, we had a quiz team. I was on the team that made it to some finals or other...a big enough deal for it to attract the local press. My sister and her favorite teddy, Jumbo, came to watch our team compete. I can't remember if we won. Obviously that wasn't foremost in the newspaper photographer's mind either, because the picture that appeared that week in the paper was not your's truly and her quiz team, but instead, my sister and her teddy. Over the years I've tried to hold her stealing the limelight against her, but it's been hard - she is such a great sister. And who could blame the photographer? She was so adorable!

This picture was in the Armagh Observer sometime around 1976
I wonder will she bring Jumbo to see me when I do my book signing in the Library in April? I've a feeling a certain little nephew will, and I wouldn't be surprised if history repeats itself!

Nevertheless, it will be a nostalgic and poignant moment to see my book on the shelves of the peaceful haven that existed in a crazy time and place, where I first fell in love with books!

Byddi Lee