Reflections on Ireland: On growing old and growing up

There are certain things I have no choice but to do. One is a childhood beach ritual, a request kid Hilary made to all future iterations of herself. It starts with a story.

Every other summer when I was growing up we went to Ireland to visit my dad’s family. For most of our stays we lived with my Nana and Pop in Skerries, a sleepy seaside town about 30 kilometres north of Dublin. There we spent our days playing grounder with our cousins, snacking on wine gums and Maltesers with my Nana (true evidence of the origins of my sweet tooth), and jumping the metal fence to get to the windmill where we would eat my Pop’s favourite dessert: warm apple tart with ice cream. I remember these trips with an uncharacteristically strong sense of clarity.

Ireland picnics on the beach
Ireland picnics on the beach

One of the activities I look back at most fondly are the hours spent walking along the strip of beach in Skerries – tide out, with gelatinous rounds of jellyfish left served on the shore like pizza pie. My dad stepped on one once and we thought we were going to have to pee on his foot to neutralize the sting.

When the tide was in we would occasionally dare to take a dip. The water was ice cold, and I sucked in my stomach so strongly I thought my insides would forever remain concave.

But I digress. Tide out times were the best.

During our walks we would collect seashells in all shapes and sizes. Despite their beauty, my favourite finds were not the shells, but instead the white stones you could find, buffed smooth and supple by pounding hydraulic force. After we sorted through our bounty (childhood fists and pockets were inevitably full), my Pop would place our choice shells and pebbles out to dry on top of the stone wall next to their townhouse. I was always amazed by how different the colours looked after a day spent baking in the sun. During our last visit before my Pop died, my brother and I accidentally left our treasures on the wall, a blip of forgetfulness the Canadian Border Services no doubt appreciated. When I went back the next time, the shells were still there, despite him being gone.

Pop and us, Skerries beach, sometime in the late 90s.
Pop, my mom, and my brother and I, Skerries beach, sometime in the late 90s.
My dad and I collecting shells, in our incredibly fashionable mid-90s gear.
My dad and I collecting shells, in our incredibly fashionable mid-90s gear.

Here’s where I attempt to draw a comparison where for argument’s sake there should be none.

Tanzania is different from Ireland in almost every possible way, yet it has made me miss the country with an intensity that can only be described as a fierce longing. Maybe these are the emotions necessary to justify my possession of an Irish passport.

It’s because of the ocean. These are the two times in my life when I’ve had an extended and immediate proximity to a salty body of water. Because of that, the flashbacks come at rapid pace.

Dar is a city on the ocean, and when it’s not smelling like other things, it smells like the sea. My regular bike route takes me along Toure Drive, a stretch of road that follows the coast of the Msasani Peninsula. It reminds me of days walking along the seawall in Skerries, taking the long way around so my dad could get a chocolate flake ice cream from the truck parked by the playground. During bike rides and during drives along the seaside Barack Obama Drive, I need to actively remind myself that I am not in Ireland. It’s a bizarre sensation.

This past weekend, myself and three coworkers went to Paje, a beach town on the eastern coast of Unguja, one of the islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago. Paje is known for its excellent kite-surfing conditions, something evident from the hundreds of bright kites that whip back and forth in the wind. The occasional one slams against the water with a thunderous clap.

Beautiful Paje!
Beautiful Paje!
Kite surfing paradise – these looked like mini shelter tents laying on the beach.
Kite surfing paradise – these looked like mini shelter tents laying on the beach.

On our second and last afternoon (we were unfortunately there for just over 24 hours, but I will certainly be back) I went for a walk down the beach. I collected shells and dug my feet into the sand, heels and nails scarred from Mount Meru still feeling the cut of salt on wound.

In Paje the sand is claylike and reminds me of drywall plaster. I realize this is probably the least sexy of ways to describe sand, but don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic. It deeply satisfies my love of textures and turns to gritty putty in my hands. It’s the perfect consistency to sling out a baker’s dozen of vanilla mud pies. When the tide comes in it rushes hungrily into the tiny pools it left empty just 12 hours ago, filling them with tepid water and foam. In Ireland, we used to race sticks in these currents.

Paje edits-4
Incoming tide

As for the shells, they are covered, uncovered, rushed in, and rushed out. Plucked and put on shelves, on windowsills, in decorative pottery. The shells are memories, stories, sadness, and happiness. The shells are links between kid me and adult me.

It’s funny how thoughts can rest dormant and be reignited in different places, with specific smells and certain sounds. I closed my notebook and daintily dropped the shells I had picked up earlier into my bag.

I carry my own finds, nowadays.

Favourite shell of the day, and a find that made me prance around the beach pretending it was a unicorn horn. Because you can't ever grow up completely.
Favourite shell of the day, and a find that made me prance around the beach pretending it was a unicorn horn. Because you can’t ever grow up completely.

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