Washington DC, Clacton-on-Sea, Belfast: three locations on three consecutive weekends with different family members on each.
Weekend 1 in DC was with my brother, celebrating his milestone birthday – just him and me – no other family members from either side. We’d both lived in DC at points in our lives, both love the city and as my brother remarked, ‘we’ve known each other all our lives’, so we had plenty to reminisce and laugh about without the normal tensions and frictions of extended family.
Weekend 2 was with my two grandchildren – both under 5 – and their aunt (my daughter, who I keep forgetting is not under 5). We took them to Clacton for a weekend beach holiday, while their parents went off on their own weekend jaunt. We’d chosen Clacton as it was close enough to their home for us to make a dash back if it all got too much for them (or us!). When we booked we didn’t know their parents were also going to be away – so we had to hope for the best. It all worked out beautifully.
Weekend 3 was my own birthday with my partner. Belfast was an idea triggered by watching the Kenneth Branagh film, Belfast. It was a fascinating and sobering learning, to be a tourist in a remarkable city, rocked over the years by the hammer blows of industry, politics, disasters, The Troubles, war, famine, … We also had great fun – eating potato cakes, soda farls, and Irish bacon (last just my partner. I am vegetarian), sipping Dunvilles 1808 whiskey and walking along the River Lagan towpath.
Each weekend was wonderful, and each was totally different from the others in many ways, but very similar in other ways. The differences lay in the nuances of the interactions with the family members – I’m a sister, a grandmother, a mother, a partner (which one is ‘me’?) – in the cultures of the locations, in the different things to pack to take, and in the stuff we did while away.
The similarities lay in the ways the trips reinforced predominantly the joy that being with family brings – and I count myself grateful and fortunate to have that, and simultaneously was a reminder of the familiar rubs and irritations inherent in any family ‘getting along’ process.
Take the differences in cultures around food. On the flight over to DC, I was remembering the taste of my favourite (favorite) bagels that I used to eat there, the insanely large portion sizes of many food items, the way the waiters whisk away plates if you look to be taking a last mouthful – notwithstanding the fact that the person or people you are with are still eating.
I could never stand that. When I lived in the US, and sometimes thought of handing the waiter a little card saying ‘do not remove any plates until everyone at the table has finished eating.’ My brother and I did eat bagels, and also went to a couple of eateries we used to go to when we lived there – Kramerbooks being regularly on the list.
Just for old times’ sake we went to another place we both enjoyed and found ourselves drinking margarita’s mid-morning. Alcohol at that time of day is something completely unheard of in my normal life. Additionally, a) I have only had margaritas in the US b) they used to be a drink I had when I went to Mexican restaurants which wasn’t a regular event. One of the great things about a trip out of routine is the ability to do something that’s somewhat out of character.
The Clacton eating involved trying to get the two children to eat anything beyond chips, and ice cream. Oh, they did eat candyfloss. The older child had learned about it somewhere and was intent on trying it for the first time. We didn’t dare tell his mother that we had given in, but it was worth it to see his delight, and we got it in a shop where I could buy a liquorice pipe – something I hadn’t had since I was about his age. The candyfloss server made one portion (26g sugar and 102 kcals) and put it on two sticks – so each child had half a portion. At some points each day they also ate carrot sticks, apples, and scrambled eggs, albeit with some encouragement. My daughter and I had a nice plate of left-over, nutritious child-rejected food for lunch and dinner each day.
I’ve mentioned the soda farls, Irish bacon, and potato cakes we ate in Belfast. My Dublin born and bred mother used to make wonderful potato cakes, and these ones were a good enough approximation of hers. My partner thoroughly enjoyed the Ulster breakfast he had (two days running). I noticed no untoward seizing of plates by the Belfast waiters. We’re both fans of whiskey (Irish) and whisky (Scottish) so we tried a couple of Irish ones we hadn’t tried before – Tyrconnell and the local, Dunville’s 1808.
One of the similarities I noticed in all three locations was the amount of local information generated by the local councils to give people insights into the locality.
Clacton, for example, has a new seafront heritage trail that slowed up my morning run as I stopped to read each of the info boards, but was worth the slower time to learn more about this delightful family friendly seaside town.
Belfast has numerous trails, local history info boards, and superb murals that speak to the history of the town. We walked the Titanic Trail, learning more and more about the shipbuilding industry and the lives of the workers in the shipyards as we walked. What unimaginably hard lives they led then, but are they just differently hard lives to the hard lives many people have now?
DC is awash with similar info boards, but as I wasn’t being a tourist but a reminiscer of my life there, I wasn’t looking to find out about the city – rather compare what I saw now with what I remembered. Many of the shops I used to go to had gone. The level of poverty and homelessness seems to have significantly increased – tents around DuPont circle were new to me.
Buildings have been torn down and the sites rebuilt on. The YMCA I worked in is one. It has been replaced by an office block.
Oddly, I can’t remember the minutiae of my day to day life there. For example, I know I had a bicycle, what happened to that? Where did I get it from? Who did I give it to when I left? But some things came flooding back – like how to use the metro, the stops on the bus routes. (In Belfast both a new learning experience!) Meeting with some long-time friends was as if I had seen them only yesterday and not 7 years ago.
Three weekends, three locations, three family experiences. All different and each wonderful to have had.