SHOCKS IN SYDNEY

Our final destination on the Australian leg of our journey was one that I was feeling quite emotional about. This part of the trip was more about meeting up with my late father’s only brother Paul, who had emigrated from Ireland to Australia in the 1970’s, almost 50 years ago. On hearing that I was travelling to Australia, one of Paul’s daughters (my cousin Sinead) contacted me and invited us to stay at my uncle Paul’s house in Sydney. My father had passed away tragically at 57 years of age in 2000 and to say I was distraught after he died is an understatement. It was many years before my Dad’s passing that I last met my uncle Paul in Ireland. My memories of him and his family were vague. While I had recently connected with Paul’s children on Facebook, I had yet to meet them as adults in real life. The strongest memory I had of my uncle Paul as a young man was a wonderful moment when he had returned to Ireland for a visit to my paternal grandmother’s house, unbeknownst to her. I remember the excitement of him arriving and secretly being let in through the front door where he made his way upstairs to hide until the right moment arrived to surprise her. She was flustering around downstairs in her sitting room trying to tie a belt on her skirt. She had been told by my father and his sisters that she and my grandfather were being taken for dinner and at this point of the evening she was running late. She had no idea that Paul had returned home to Ireland for that dinner. As she scurried around trying desperately to fix the belt on her skirt, Paul casually opened the door of the sitting room, walked up to her and asked her if he could help her tie her belt. She didn’t even flinch! She casually explained the problem with the belt and began to show him how to go about it. As he started dragging at the belt to secure it, the light suddenly dawned on her that this was Paul, her youngest son whom she hadn’t seen for many years since he had gone to Australia. As a child, witnessing the realization dawning on the face of this beautiful woman who I adored was amazing. She shrieked with delight and began to weep with happiness. Hugging and kissing him, and still trying to rationalize the whole situation unraveling before her. It was a wonderful and special moment of the love between a mother and her son, and one of many beautiful memories I have of Paul being home on and off throughout the years.

My father and Paul had a typical Irish brotherly relationship. Growing up, I am told, they were like chalk and cheese. They both had a passion for music as teenagers back in the ‘60’s. My father was a big Roy Orbison fan and Paul a Del Shannon advocate. I would never put the two of them together as brothers if I didn’t know. While they both had a circle of mutual friends from their neighbourhood, by and large they lived very separate lives aside from this. They had two sisters (my aunts) who still live in Ireland, and all four siblings had a very close-knit bond, despite their very different personalities and the thousands of miles between them since Paul left for a new life in Australia with his wife Anne, (also from Finglas/Glasnevin) back in the 1970’s.

Paul and Anne reside on the outskirts of Sydney with their two daughters Sinead and Orlaith and one son Daire. They all live relatively near to one another. Sinead and Orlaith are both married with children of their own. Daire is due to be married in the coming days.

We arrived into Sydney airport late on Thursday evening, 29th November. The familiar image of the Sydney Opera House came into view as we buckled up on the aircraft for landing. My aunt Anne met us at the airport. Paul was waiting at the house for us, and on arrival, I didn’t know what to expect given the years that had passed. As we walked towards the house, this tall, thin, gentle, white-haired man with the kindest set of blue eyes greeted us. Reaching out to hug him tightly, I realized that in that moment it was like I knew him all my life. I guess that’s the wonder of “family”. It doesn’t matter about years that pass, when you’re family, you’re family; and that bond is there despite the distance of both time and place. My first impression of him was that I could see both my grandmother and my father in his twinkling blue eyes. While he wasn’t “the image” of my father, there was a very close resemblance and as older men they both grew to resemble each other closer than I would ever have imagined. I also wondered that if my father had lived into his 70’s would he have looked like Paul?

(PHOTO: Uncle Paul feeding the Lorikeet birds in his garden)

Anne, getting right down to business, steered us excitedly towards the heart of their home (the kitchen) and opened the wine/champagne and all four of us gathered around to catch up on all of the years that had passed. This was their first time meeting my husband Colm, but within a matter of hours it was like we had all known each other forever. Stories about my father and Paul when they were younger were in abundance and I sat open mouthed listening to the wonderful memories that Paul shared with us about growing up in Finglas with Dad. Anne too shared her hilarious memories of being home in Ireland. Time became irrelevant and by the time we had shared as much as we could in one sitting, it was naturally a late bedtime. We fell into bed merry and content, with the wonderful anticipation of meeting up with my cousins, Sinead and Orlaith and their children the following morning. They arrived, as planned, with their youngest children in tow, bright and early and it was wonderful to at last meet with them, face to face. A trip to Santa’s grotto was on the agenda for their day and the children excitedly explained to us that the Christmas “elf” had arrived to their home and had settled in nicely, causing mayhem as he went. They told us that he was there for the sole purpose of checking to make sure they were being good and reporting back to Santa, and yet they were perplexed that the elf himself was upending everything he could back at their house, and didn’t have to abide by the same standards they did!?!?. Their innocence was heartwarming and of course playing along with it was quite a challenge, trying to ensure that our version of the elf’s existence was consistent with what they had been told. Over the coming days, we heard more stories of the elf’s antics in each of their houses, and what dawned on me was the huge effort being made by their parents to create this excitement for them. Every night, for weeks before Santa’s arrival, Sinead and her husband and Orlaith and hers had to wreck their brains and come up with a new antic for the elves. Hats off to them! And what fabulous memories the children will have when they look back on these years.

(Paul, Anne with my cousin Orlaith and her children)

Over the next few days, Sinead and Orlaith and Daire and their respective partners/husbands and children came and went. Paul and Anne prepared wonderful family BBQ’s and we all sat around in the garden getting to know one another and sharing our lives. When everyone left we would sit with Paul and Anne outside listening to Paul’s huge collection of music and relishing every moment. During the day, Paul and Anne took us walking to visit the spectacular beaches nearby. One of my favorite days was when Paul drove myself and Colm to Cronulla Beach. We strolled along the beachfront and then stopped for a bite to eat at a small restaurant by the sea. After our meal, I left Paul and Colm at the restaurant to venture for a swim. I had swam in many oceans and seas along our journey thus far, and wanted to add the South Pacific Ocean to my list. It was still only Spring and temperatures, while warm, were still not as high as those reached during the typical Australian Summers. The water was cold and I would be lying if I said I didn’t think of the possibility of sharks swimming around, (as we all do when we think of the seas around Australia). Regardless, in I went and am still alive to tell the tale 🥶Indian Ocean and South Pacific Ocean…tick. To dry off, Paul, Colm and I strolled further along the seafront and found a grassy green hill to sit on. As we sat and chatted with Paul, it almost felt like my father was with us. I’m not sure if it was the fact that Paul had very similar characteristics and ways about him that my father had; I’m not very religious, but there was an unmistakable presence of my father as we sat looking over the ocean that day which brought me more comfort than any other time since my father passed away. While Dad and Paul were never alike when they were younger, there was no doubt in my mind that they were in their kind and gentle personalities as they grew older. It was getting late and we headed for home a few hours later. Daire had arrived with his fiancée. Orlaith and Sinead were there with their children and after yet another family gathering with food and wine, the day, too soon, came to an end.

I mentioned earlier that Anne and Paul were hands-on grandparents. It is evident from the moment you meet them that their family is everything. They eat, sleep and breath for their children and their grandchildren. Every moment of their free time is about taking care of their every need. Paul is retired now and travels back and forward between Orlaith and Sinead’s homes doing his Grandpoppy duties. Anne, also spends every waking moment looking after them, and the children adore them both. They are busy busy grandparents and it was incredible to share their family moments with them while we were there.

(Photo: The beginnings of another family gathering. Paul and Anne surrounded by children, grandchildren and us)

Now when we arrived in Australia, we had planned our trip so that we could have a week in Perth, a week in Melbourne and a week in Sydney. We had arrived on the Thursday evening in Sydney and made plans for later in the week to get out and about and explore the sights around. On the following Monday (3rd December), Colm and I decided to head into the city to visit the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour and on the recommendation of Anne and Paul, Taronga Zoo. We also made plans to take Paul and Anne out for dinner the following night and to have our final evening (Wednesday) with all of the family around before we left. We set off early that Monday morning and took a 40 minute train ride into the city and strolled around taking in the sights. To my delight, we came across a native Aborigine, sitting on a side street playing traditional Aboriginal music on a Didgeridoo. I stood for what felt like an hour listening to him play.

(Photo: Aborigine playing his Didgeridoo)

At around noon we made our way to the Harbour to catch a ferry across to the Zoo. Taronga Zoo is a ‘must see’ if you visit Sydney. From the moment we stepped on the ferry to cross Sydney Harbour in the warm afternoon sun, with close up views of the Sydney Opera house as we sailed past, we were loving every minute of the experience. While zoos are not something that I agree with in the context of animals being enclosed in an unnatural environment, Taronga has got it right on that score. The animals have acres of land as their habitat and each section of the Zoo is designed to the nth degree to reflect the natural habitat of each species.

(Photo: The highly venomous and dangerous red back spider at Taronga Zoo)

Having heard of the infamous “red back” spider, I had to gather all my courage to overcome my fear of spiders to enter the spider sanctuary if I was to get a close up look at this life-endangering species. With my imagination running wild on entering the sanctuary I visualized a huge hairy, multi-legged spider with fangs sprouting from its huge wide eyed head. Drama Queen being my middle name, I slowly walked towards the glass box which was my only guarantee of safety from a highly venomous attack. I closed my eyes as I got closer, and on opening them I had to squint to actually see this tiny black spider! Whaaaat? It was nothing like I imagined. Its body resembled nothing more than a beetle with threadlike legs and a tiny red dot barely visible on its back. How on earth something so small can cause such havoc is mind blowing! A little relieved, I ventured on through the room of glass enclosures to see the other spiders gently weaving their webs inside. Yes, some were large and frightening to look at, but here I was, standing only a few feet away, feeling pretty safe watching them in amazement. For a full five minutes only mind. The exit sign above the nearby door was never out of the line of my peripheral vision. We continued on to the Koala and Kangaroos and Emus and snakes and by 5.30 p.m. we had done the full tour and made our way back to the Harbour to catch the return ferry to Sydney.

With rumbling bellies we were famished and opted for an evening meal at one of the restaurants alongside the Harbour where we could dine outside in the evening sun. Over dinner we both began to chat about our plans for our remainder of our time in Sydney which we thought was only a couple of days and about our arrangements for the next destination, Lisbon in Portugal which was ever looming. It was 6.30 p.m. and so we decided to check the train times back to Paul and Anne’s, and at the same time our flight times for the following Thursday to Lisbon. We knew it would be a long-haul flight and we would need to be at Sydney airport well in advance of boarding time for an international flight. As Colm opened his phone to check the flight times, his face became distorted slightly and I’m sure I heard a whimper although I wasn’t sure if he had belly ache given he had eaten his food so fast. When he looked at me in total shock and said “Our flight to Lisbon is tonight! The flight leaves at 9.30 p.m”, I couldn’t register what he was saying and laughed gently thinking he was having me on. He repeated it, slower, and with more urgency “Our flight to Lisbon leaves TONIGHT! In THREE HOURS!”….Holy S**T…he was serious!!! The shock took a whole two minutes to hit me! All hell broke loose! We both jumped up leaving everything on the table behind, running frantically through the streets of Sydney towards the railway station. We quickly gave up and hailed a taxi to take us there as we were at least 20 minutes away from it and still had a 40 minute journey back to Paul and Anne’s house. When we eventually boarded the train I rang Paul’s mobile and left a message telling him of our c**kup! Anne, on returning my call, calmed me down on the other end of the phone saying we would try to get to the airport but that we may not get there on time, but we’d try. Paul assured us that he would meet us at the station and drive us back to the house where Anne was waiting to help us pack and most importantly, bring some level of calm to the whole situation, as she did.

By 7.45 p.m. we were buckled up in the car, luggage in tow with Anne giving it welly on the accelerator and Paul chatting us to keep our blood pressure intact. To miss this flight would result in us having to pay thousands for another one given it was Christmas time and most flights would be booked out. With a requirement to check in almost three hours before an International flight we were on the back foot for sure. Teeth and fists clenched, we pulled up at the airport departure hall at about 8.30 p.m. with sadly not enough time to say our proper goodbyes to Paul and Anne or the rest of the family for that matter. Hugs and kisses and goodbyes were done in the car. We were devastated, but thought, we’ll just have to go back and stay longer next time in Sydney, which we most certainly will do! We had only touched the surface of experiencing the beautiful sights of Sydney and more importantly spending quality time with family. We made it to the departure gate within an inch of our lives, boarded the plane and then the questions started. How on earth did that happen? We had it out, and needless to say, it hasn’t been discussed since! It’s a no-go, no-way, no-how question that is best left like that for fear of major repercussions 😂 and we have both sworn to secrecy on this one 😂. Once onboard, a young girl from Lithuania clearly seeing my disheveled state, began chatting to me. Having literally vomited out my story about almost missing the flight, she took out a little tablet box and told me she had sleeping tablets with her to help her with the long flight and that I was welcome to have one to help me sleep also. Under normal circumstances, I would never accept any sort of medication or drugs from a stranger, but, given the current state of affairs, I gratefully accepted, whipped up the little white tablet, swallowed it whole without water, and was asleep in dreamland within minutes and never woke until we landed in Lisbon, Portugal. It was probably best too that I was. The flight would have been made in silence between us at that point anyway, given the events that had just unfolded. 😱 😂😂😂.

Travelling together as husband and wife and sharing every waking moment with each other is probably one of the biggest tests any relationship can face. Particularly when prior to this we were working full-time and barely catching sight of each other before our journey began. The journey itself, no more than everything in life, has had its highs and lows for us. This, I can assure you was one of the lows. But from the outset, we quickly realized that these things happen on a journey of this magnitude and so we just picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and got ready to explore the next city, Lisbon. The city that would change our lives forever.

More to follow soon….