Brianna Parkins: ‘The weather in Ireland is crap but the people are sound’
The former Sydney Rose, is now working as a reporter for Virgin Media 1. She reflects on her new life in Ireland
Former Syndey Rose Brianna Parkins is having her first Christmas in Ireland this year. Photograph: Kirk Gilmour
Since moving to Dublin from Sydney in October, friends and family have been asking me how I’m getting on. Some because they genuinely care, others like my mum ask because they live in hope the cold weather and dodgy immersion will send me running back.
My answer is, ‘‘The weather is crap but the people are sound.” I haven’t seen it on tea towels around Temple Bar but it is my personal tourism slogan for Ireland.
The everyday soundness of Irish people is confronting. From the bus driver who let me on when I didn’t have change and the colleagues who pick me up from the Luas when it rains. It’s my friends who invited me into their livingrooms, the ones who taught me that drinking wine and laughing at children on the Late Late Toy Show is not just permitted but encouraged as a national sport.
Even complete strangers are committed heavily to the observance of soundness. It was the bank manager who had tickets to the rugby and pictured himself sneaking off with a clear run on the M50 until I came in, crying with frustration that an admin error had seen my card sent back to Australia, again. He only hinted at the discomfort most middle-aged men show when confronted with a crying 20-something women and he achieved what I couldn’t in four phone calls and three other branch visits. Sometimes he emails me to see how I’m getting on.
But it’s still hard to be a new arrival in Ireland, the place where six degrees of separation is condensed down to three. I live in a part of old Dublin where houses build 40 years ago are still called “the new houses” and three generations of families drink at the same pub. I’ve never seen the barman ask what they want. They just nod and he knows.
I could stay for a decade and still feel like an interloper. I have the luxury of being a native English speaker and some days when I meet Brazilian and Polish migrants I furtively probe them to see how they do it, how they make a home here, seeing if I can take a shortcut. One told me I had to stop comparing here and there. Not to mentally catalogue what is better where. I try to remind myself of this when I’ve gone a week with half shaved legs because the immersion prevents me from having a full shower.
The process is complicated by the fact Dublin is not completely foreign to me. It’s the hometown of my mum’s family and it owns the accents of the people I love. Strangers now have the same voice of my northsider nan. When I hear it on the red line Luas I look up half expecting her to be there. It’s shorthand for all the netball games she’s come to over the years, her sharp one-liners, the hilarious and sometimes unwanted advice about men she gives to cringing grand-daughters. It’s the smell of Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds and her famous apple pies. The secret handshakes with five dollar notes folded up inside.
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In the Liberties, the tales of my grandad’s ratbaggery now have settings. He has given me a list of places and names. When health concerns threatened to close Dublin off to him permanently Google Earth has opened it back up. He can revisit old houses. “When I get homesick, I put the Dubliners on,” he told me the day before I left. I didn’t realise either of them got homesick. They hadn’t let on to me for the 28 years I’d known them. But then I’d been one of the first-born Aussie children. Had always lived in the safety and convenience of the new, easy country. Too busy going to the beach to have to think about it.
My grandparents arrived in Australia just before Christmas. They landed in Darwin in 40-degree heat on their connecting flight. My mum and her siblings sweating in heavy coats. My grandmother desperately stripping them down. Acutely aware of immigration on the lookout for immigrants carrying potential fevers. They spent the first few days in a migrant hostel in Sydney. The factory where my grandfather had come across the world for a job shut down for the holidays. Nan threatened to move home after her first meeting with a huntsman spider. They had met in the dancehalls of Dublin and now they had moved to western Sydney, a place where only half the houses had indoor plumbing. “I remember it being a good Christmas for us kids but it wouldn’t have been Christmas for them really,” Mum told me.
So I can’t complain too much. With my indoor plumbing, Skype and ASOS next-day delivery presents. But Christmas away from home is not really Christmas. I am lucky to be spending it with my lovely housemate and her lovely family. I can finally wear a Christmas jumper and enjoy a roast away from belting mid-day sun. But part of me still wants to be sitting on a livingroom floor in Sydney accusing a cousin of cheating at Monopoly under a $20 Kmart fan.
For me Christmas only really begins when Mum calls to complain she has put up the tree ALL BY HERSELF BECAUSE NO ONE HELPS. It does not matter that this is a lie and that in fact we offer to help every year. This is preceded by her annual attempt to pass off a bunch of sticks with lights on a “modern, tasteful abstract tree” which is foiled by Dad who proceeds to spend eight hours setting up the big plastic green one. After he texts THAT NO ONE HELPED HIM SET IT UP, only then may it be called Christmas.
Christmas is also a litmus test for new relationships in my extended family. It’s the first time prospective partners have to face down the family. They will always get called an ex’s name. This is no one’s fault but your own, says Mum, “Youse change boyfriends like you change your undies.” It’s nerve-racking facing down the West Coast Cooler aunts but if they can run the final gauntlet of the slightly pissed up and protective uncles in Nan’s backyard, then they’re goers. The final test is the putting up and packing down of the Aldi gazebo, like some sort of skin-pinching closing ceremony.
I have two big families so Christmas Day is a logistical feat and usually involves two sittings at my parents’ house. They have an inground pool which has for better or worse anointed them hosts for the last 20 years. It’s seen some fairly competitive games of Marco Polo over the years. But bigger battle lines are drawn up years early. Nana Betty makes the pudding; my other nan does the trifle. The territories are carved up and respected lest the great double of mud cake of 1999 repeats itself. Last year I made the Pavlova to begrudging approval which would have cemented my place in the female family hierarchy had I not bought the wrong type of cream.
This time of year is a bit more complex for Dad’s side. Three years ago we lost my cousin just before Christmas. He was very young. Not a death anyone could take comfort in and I often think about his dad and siblings who have to spend the day without him. My memories of him mainly revolve around childhood Christmas. The Parkins are all prone to cheating at Monopoly but he had a particular knack for shoving notes underneath the board under the pretext of playing banker.
South Park VHS
Then there was the made-up hunts for bunyips in the bush and the forbidden South Park VHS. I only see the cousins once or twice a year. We have completely different lives, live in different states and barely speak but we’re all in each other’s memories of Christmas. All have the shared trauma of uncles in Speedos, of hours having to listen to horse races when our dads would take us to the beach, my grandmother’s poor neighbour who we waged a war of terror against during the mid 1990s. All it takes is a “Do you remember the time we hid a dead fish under that caravan?” to set us off. Sometimes we fight. Sometimes we settle decades-old arguments over Eucha. We’re not a family that hides skeletons. We prop them up at the table and get them a beer. We don’t carry our grudges around. We dump them all out on the table usually at 1am when you know full well they didn’t roll a six to pass GO.
I think like my grandparents, I don’t miss a physical place. It’s more people suspended in a certain time. It’s dangerous to be homesick for something you can’t go completely back to. I worry about being away too long. That I’ll miss my niece and nephews’ milestones. Sydney will get even more unaffordable. Friends will move on. The same fears all immigrants have really. The bad parts get glossed over and you forget why you left.
I’ve been playing Australia’s only real Christmas song all week. It’s our Fairy Tale of New York but instead of two addicts it’s about a bloke in prison writing to his brother to ask him not to ride his wife. We too have a warped sense of festive songs. It’s called How to Make Gravy and there’s one line I keep singing over and over again; “Have a Merry Christmas/I’m really going to miss it/All the treasure and the trash.”
Thi s article is dedicated to Mary McDarby, an authority on Irish soundness. Happy Christmas.