I am driving the school run. It is the most beautiful drive I have ever been on. That’s saying something. I have lived in southern France and driven the coast road to work in Monaco each morning. I used to think that was the best drive in the world with the rich blue sea shimmering a thousand sequins and the apricot cliffs rising upwards, the road a mere nylon that was woven perilously and seamlessly into the edge.
No, no, this drive is better. Better than the drive when we lived in Antigua where the road sweeps down towards Half Moon Bay, and the view opens up to the crescent of creamiest sand imaginable, wide as a steel drum being caressed by the sometimes wild and crazy, sometimes yawning, lazy hand of the cerulean sea - a colour that exists only in the Caribbean.
Yet, this drive is still better. Better than that breath-taking drive through southern Turkey towards Fethiye that will be imprinted on my early-20s mind forever, the barren scrubland, the haphazard white houses dotted through the landscape, the feeling that I really was somewhere else, far from home.
Yes, this drive is better. This is our school run in 2018. This is the main road from Annagassan in Co Louth to Dundalk. The 100X bus from Dublin hurtles along every hour, filled with sleepy students heading to DKIT. Do they see what we see? Five mornings a week we gasp at the changing colours. Some days it is peach with a hint of mustard spreading from the east. Some days it is a delicate mint green on the hills. Some days it is a kaleidoscope of pastels smudged delicately by the careful hand of an artist. Always there is a halo of crisp whiteness.
The light is different here. When it rains, a mist settles on the hills of the Cooley Peninsula in the distance. And always the sky is huge. I remember that from my childhood: the sky in Ireland goes on forever.
Seventeen years growing up in Ireland, then 25 years working, travelling and living all over the world: I have dreamed about moving home. I was afraid of making it happen. What if my husband (from New Zealand) didn’t like it? What if my children didn’t like it? What if I didn’t like it? What if the weather really was as bad as they say? I couldn’t remember.
Eventually the power that made us move here was fate more than a drive of our own. Perhaps it was the power of dreaming? Yet at last we can take control of our own lives and not drift from country to country as the wind of jobs take us. I don’t ask the question “What if …?” anymore, I ask “How can I make it happen?”
It is more than a year since we moved back now. And I am in love with a new Ireland, the country of my birth, the country where a connection with the earth and with the air is woven into my DNA. I never knew that I loved it here: is it that early romance where every touch sends shivers to your core, every kiss explodes like fresh oranges, and every look sees deep into your eyes and your soul? No, it is nothing like that. This is a year that has seen me crumble and shake and then be reborn by life in a country that I know but I don’t know. I am from here, but I am not.
I am the little girl in glasses hiding behind the bookshelf in national school, afraid of my new look. I am the teenager on her first day at the convent school with socks pulled up to her knees and a sense of fear. I am the woman in tears at the real estate agent’s office last week. I am the woman that has been brought to her knees by fear and doubt. I am the woman that is falling out of the tree that I have spent my life climbing steadily.
“I have just moved back from the Caribbean,” I would say with a smug grin, to anyone that would listen. Who cares? Right here, right now, I am living back at my parents’ house, the little girl in pigtails wearing T-bar shoes, scared of the world.
The first winter back I quaked at the endless damp and grey. I read all the books promising hygge. I lit candles and bought sheepskin rugs and whiskey. But there’s no snow to ski on and I’m not blonde or very good at making cinnamon buns.
“Nothing is as good in Ireland as it is in other countries,” said my son. It was like he shone a mirror at my soul. I tried not to agree. I fell the last few feet to the bottom of the tree, Ouch. Then I began to shiver and to cry. “You left for a reason”; “You can’t make a go of it in Ireland”; the voices were relentless. There it was, rock bottom. Right back where I started with nothing to show for it.
We arrived back last year full of enthusiasm and goals, filled with boundless energy, a zest for chasing dreams and cocktails, a suitcase full of summer clothes. We had climbed the tree and were throwing down fruit.
We needed to buy a car in the first weeks back to life in the countryside. We had our first row. “You actually won’t insure us for this car? How can this be?” we asked incredulously. I need an Irish drivers licence - ok, I’ll exchange my foreign one. Oh, but that is Swiss - they’re not in the EU. “But they do have cars there!!!”
Finally, back on the road we started to tick the boxes on our long list-of-things-to-do-when-you- move-to-a-new-country. We got comfortable in our tree again, nestled down for the winter. But the storms came and a branch cracked. Things were ok, but not great. Small triumphs. Lots of doubts.
Spring arrived late and we emerged from our den. We had moved sideways, sleepily but not forwards. I am an inpatient person. Sideways around the tree is not climbing up. I need to climb.
Then I got a job that I absolutely love. When we left Antigua and I asked a life coach to guide me through the decisions, she told me to write down my contract with life - what I would accept to do and what I wanted to do on a day to day basis. This is it, I found it. I smiled again. It was March, the days were getting longer - slowly, the Beast from the East had rattled the tree but we were not to be knocked down.
Summer was magnificent and we lay in the grass reading books and the kids sold lemonade and cookies from their roadside shop. We were happy. But a decision loomed. I couldn’t stay sitting on the same branch of our tree. Up or down? Sideways? Do nothing? We had to move house and move county. I knew we had to but couldn’t tear myself away from the safety that we had built.
Inside my own mind, I fell prey to the demons of doubt. I had my first panic attack. In wanted Ireland to give me safety and security so badly, but I had to tell my children to pack their bags again, things weren’t quite right just yet. I fell out of the tree, onto the ground. Thump. It hurt. A lot.
I looked through my tears at the mud on my hands. It was the soil of Ireland, that soft damp earth that brought me home, the mossy grass, the smell of the farm. I looked up at the tree and the misty rain started to fall. I realised that this is where I belong. I belong on the ground and not in the tree. I need to grow my own tree and to allow our children to grow roots of their own.
They followed me and started to explore this new world, this new vision. They are curious, listening to the melodious stories of the Tir na nOg. They are looking at the gentle hills of the Cooleys and the pebble beach at Annagassan. “Are you cold?” I ask them. “It’s not cold,” they say.
We are here. It has taken a year. There is so much still to do. That big list-of-things-to-do-when-you-arrive-in-a-new-country still has so many boxes to be ticked. I add more boxes every day. But the doubt has gone. It has been replaced with delight. We came here for education and to be part of a culture. Ireland has those in bucket loads. There is so much to do and so many places to see. “Shall we go away on holiday?” my husband asks. “Why don’t we just go down the country a bit,” I say.
Live where you vacation is a saying I have heard a lot. We always thought we were living the dream abroad. We were. I wouldn’t change a day of it. But I’m living the dream at home now - at least one of my dreams. I have new ones now. But they are all dreams with their roots in Ireland.
A move back home to Ireland has been one of the hardest things we have ever done, it still is. I have moved before to follow a job or a plan. We came to Ireland with no house, no school, no job - just a vision to be home. We took a giant leap from a coconut palm to an apple tree. Lucky for us, we love apples … and they’re easier to eat than coconuts.
Jennie Ritchie writes at jennieritchie.ie