‘In Belgium, I dream of weekends in Dublin’

‘Ireland and Me’: Anne O’Brien, Brussels

‘I dream of weekends in Dublin; of being buffeted by wind crossing O’Connell Bridge, under the screeching seagulls that ride the air currents over the muddy Liffey.’

‘I dream of weekends in Dublin; of being buffeted by wind crossing O’Connell Bridge, under the screeching seagulls that ride the air currents over the muddy Liffey.’

 

Last November, The Irish Times invited readers abroad to submit reflections on their relationship with the land they left. The story below is one we received.

Strong winds shift the grey clouds that sit over Brussels. Days like this make me homesick. I long for the tang of salt on the wind. The flat North Sea lies over an hour away, the Belgian coastline is only 65km long. It’s a sea of sorts, so sometimes I head to Oostende.

Last year I turned 52. I’ve lived more than half my life in Belgium. I first came here on a one year scholarship in 1986. It has taken time to forge Belgian friendships and I know they’ll last but I miss the easy chatter and the instant connections made while waiting in the rain for the 46A. Here, only the mad talk to strangers and even then they’ll use the polite “vous” form.

There are good things: Belgian chocolate is possibly the best and Brussels abounds with Art Nouveau cafes where, even in winter, we sit by side outside, watching the world go by. Belgians are foodies, dinner dates are made weeks in advance, food carefully prepared, wine chosen, but on my first evening back home, all I want is to head to Libero’s for a bag of chips smothered in vinegar. Nothing beats poking a hole in the wrapping and popping a scalding, salty chip in your mouth.

I dream of weekends in Dublin; of being buffeted by wind crossing O’Connell Bridge, under the screeching seagulls that ride the air currents over the muddy Liffey. Then heading to Grafton Street with the edgy energy of the buskers and the feeling that anything can happen and sometimes does. I’d take root in Bewley’s with my Irish Times, catching a whiff of burnt coffee, though the brass roaster that sat in the front window is long gone. A perfect weekend.

Hopping on the Dart I’d press my face to the window to watch the changing coastline, from the broad, wet sands at Sandymount, with the lone man walking his dog, to the graffitied remains of the crumbling pool in Blackrock where we swam as kids. Along by Seapoint and the arms of Dun Laoighaire pier that had reached out to greet us as the plane swayed alarmingly in the inevitable cross wind on our descent into Dublin.

We’d dart along past Sandycove and emerge to the splendour of Killiney bay, heads lifting from their iPhones as I’d yank the window open to smell the sea. Then on to Bray, to sit in my sister’s kitchen drinking tea, all the while hoping I’m not morphing into the distant cousins of my mother’s who visited when I was a child, having made the long trip “home” from America.

I remember looking at their fine clothes and wondering what it was they found in Ireland that they couldn’t get in New York. Maybe it was just the sense of being among your own and the tang of salt on the wind.

The doorbell goes. It’s our Flemish postman with a package from Ireland: Pears Soap, Milk of Magnesia, and squashed bags of Tayto.

For more ‘Ireland and Me’ stories, click here. The Irish Times eBook of selected entries is available for download here.

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