The Unicycle and the Scooter Commuter

Or: this is all too easy.  Won’t somebody give me a REAL challenge?

The last one I gave myself was to spend a month in New Zealand with all our stuff gone then bring four children across the world through all the time zones and all the seasons with only cabin luggage.  Is it possible for five people (including some really spilly ones) to live for five weeks in three different countries out of one bag each the size of a large briefcase?  Why yes, yes it is.

When the reality of going across the world with the kids hit me the only thing I could think of to make it easier was to avoid check-in luggage.  Being in the plane is fine; they can’t move.  You know nobody’s going to wander off and end up in Mozambique.  It’s the processing and queueing and having to go from one end of the airport to the other that’s the tricky part.  That’s when I was worried about keeping everybody and everything together while still ending up at the right place at the right time.  I decided that if I could make it work, cutting down on the process by one step and making sure that everyone could carry their own possessions was worth doing.

It wasn’t that hard as it turned out.  At one point a few days before take-off I popped into Napier airport to weigh all the bags and make sure we weren’t over the allowance.  I found that Noah had been managing just fine for the past month with 2.5kg of clothes and toys.  It probably wouldn’t have worked in winter but in January a couple of shirts and shorts each and a few pairs of undies did the trick. During that month I attended a wedding, a funeral and a 90th birthday party and I will admit to sponging clothes and shoes off my mum – kind of cheating – but that’s what family’s for.

We stopped over in Singapore and crossed the world with two school bags and three little wheelie cases (including a very fetching Dora the Explorer one) and, I will admit, a steadily increasing number of plastic bags hanging off our arms with things like wet togs in them.  We were always allowed to board first on plane flights so we had the pick of the overhead lockers, and we used trolleys in airports, but when necessary everybody could deal with their own belongings reasonably easily. So it really wasn’t that much of a challenge at all.

When we arrived here there was a rental car waiting for us, booked for a month as part of the relocation package.  It came in handy for visiting Phoenix Park, where you can feed carrots to the fallow deer grazing on the soccer fields, and Powerscourt Estate.  It was also useful for shifting between the three different temporary accommodations that we stayed in and then to our house.  Beyond that, though, it wasn’t as useful as you’d think.

Here’s the thing: Dublin has plenty of traffic and no parking.  Even out in the suburbs there are plenty of places where there’s no free street parking.  Our house is far enough out of town that visitors could park outside, and we even have a garage at the end of the driveway.  It’s filled with junk though – mostly not ours – and even if it wasn’t we wouldn’t use it for a car because nobody uses their garage to put their cars in here.  Nobody.  Parking in your garage would mark you out as an ignorant foreigner right away.

When we arrived we assumed we’d be looking for a car to buy.  It didn’t take long to realise that trying to drive anywhere here is often more stressful than it’s worth.  You’d never drive into or through town willingly; even if a car was available you’d use the train or the bus.  Many places in the suburbs that we visit don’t have their own parking either, including plenty of supermarkets.

When Amy was born here in Dublin we had a car and the only reason that she was born in hospital and not on the side of the road was that it was a Sunday morning and everybody was at Mass.  I am absolutely serious.  She was not waiting around and we barely made it as it was.  Had she turned up on a weekday there is no possible way we could have got to a hospital – any hospital – in time.  Knowing what I know now, having had later babies under the New Zealand midwifery system, I’m inclined to say that both she and I probably would have been better off that way.  But that’s another story.

Josh came to visit us the next day and it took so long and he had to park so far away and pay so much for the privilege that after that he didn’t bother driving again, he just came on the bus.

So this time we were under no illusions.  Not only would a car be no use in town, it wouldn’t necessarily make things like trips to A&E easier.  When we moved into this house and found schools for the children within easy walking distance I suggested to Josh that maybe, just maybe, we could do without one and perhaps we should consider giving it a try.  He was dubious but I was up for the challenge.

We have pretty much everything we need within walking distance – schools, supermarkets, the doctor and chemist, the post office, the beach, playgrounds, sports clubs and this superlative ice cream parlour which makes sundaes with sauce choices that include warm melted Nutella and Ferrero Rocher.  Walking is safe around here.  There are plenty of short cuts, paths and alleyways (but not the scary grotty sort. One even has a squirrel). Most of the roads are quiet and those that aren’t all have crossing lights where we need them. We don’t always have to walk though as we have many other forms of transport available.

Daniel rides his unicycle to school and back every day.  He has become locally famous for it.  It gives him a certain street cred among his classmates and suits his slightly quirky streak.  He usually leaves before Cassia and I but one day recently we went together and I was surprised to see how many people speak to him as he passes, just little friendly comments about joining the circus and such-like.  I met with the college principal last week to enrol Daniel for September and the principal said ‘Oh yes, I know him, I see him going past every morning with his unicycle’.  He doesn’t exactly blend in, which is just how he likes it.  He’s always keen to ride it to the shops but it’s really hard to lock a unicycle.  It doesn’t have enough parts.  He rides it to the post office, and the doctor’s, and around the streets for fun.  His plan is to make money as a teenager by being a clown at children’s parties.  He may need more than just the one skill, of course, but he’s certainly got this one sorted.

Cassia has a scooter that she goes everywhere on and she rides it like a mad thing.  She zooms along with her Peppa Pig helmet and backpack in much the way the drummer from the Muppets drums – you know, frenetic, hell-bent, hair everywhere.  She pulls wheelies and tries to do tricks.  She tips over quite a lot but so far the only casualty has been a helium balloon that floated away when the handlebar it was looped around went tits-up.  The way to school is mostly a gentle downhill slope which is good because we tend to be running a bit late.  On the way home it can be slow going but she still loves the scooter.  Like the unicycle it comes to the post office, the supermarket, the beach.  It was a cheap Warehouse one for her last birthday and I have to say, I’m fully satisfied that we’ve got our money’s worth.

Amy walks to school but travels to other places by rip-stick. On Sunday Noah needed new shoes and it was a beautiful sunny day so I decided that everybody would just love to accompany us into the local village.  It’s on the sea front and is really pleasant.  The first part of the trip is along the usual footpath and the rest of the way is along a lane-way thing for pedestrians and cyclists, bordered by little stone walls, completely safe and very direct.  Noah, Josh and I walked while Cassia scooted, Daniel rode and Amy rip-sticked, and we were like the circus coming to town.  I feel like that surprisingly often to tell you the truth.

Josh works in town and wouldn’t drive there even if we had two cars.  He bikes to the train station, misses the train, waits, catches the next one and walks to his office, then does it all in reverse.  Lots and lots of people cycle here now.  I don’t remember that being the case 14 years ago but it seems that a lot of effort has gone into encouraging it since then.  In the city there are plenty of cycleways including many dedicated ones completely separate from the road.  This is important because Dublin drivers are insane.  They will go in any direction at any time and at any speed as long as it’s fast.  Footpath, traffic island, it’s all fair game.  To be fair, you couldn’t move around Dublin by car without getting creative and once you get used to it it’s quite liberating.  They take the same approach to parking.  Anywhere, any time.  You have to really.  It still amuses me that on any given street the parked cars will always be divided more or less evenly between pointing in the right direction and pointing in the wrong one.  Nobody here ever considers doing a U-turn to park on the right side of the road; they just zoom over and pull in in the direction they were going.  This leads to a fair amount of being on the wrong side of the road but everyone’s used to it so it generally seems to work out.  Again, it’s quite liberating.  I parked the rental car in all sorts of places and no one ever seemed bothered.  Frankly a lot of the time I wouldn’t have called it parked at all if we hadn’t been in Dublin.

I occasionally use Amy’s bike to get to the shop but mostly I walk.  And I really, really like it.  When we lived in Hamilton the kids and I walked everywhere but when we moved to the country we came to rely very heavily on driving.  Over the last few months I’ve been walking again and it feels right.  When we were staying in the central city walking was always a fascinating activity in its own right.  The city was busy and noisy and vibrant and there was always something surprising and interesting around the next corner.  The kids and I spent whole days walking around to various places and we’d get home tired but it’s that nice kind of tired when you know you came by it honestly.

There are times when a car would be great, of course.  We’ve done a few activities as a family that would have been a lot easier with one – our day at the National Aquatic Centre for example; the time Josh took the little kids to ImaginosityRainforest Mini Golf; Daniel’s birthday trip to Zipit.  If we want to go to the other side of town we often need two buses, or a bus and a train, each way and sometimes buses just don’t come.  Often the central city is blocked off for parades and things and the buses don’t drop you off where you expect.  Josh finds this frustrating but I don’t usually mind.  I like being out in the world people-watching.  It means that most outings take the whole day but I don’t mind that either.  I like the kids to see what’s going on around the place and I like them to know that there’s more to travelling than being shut up in a car getting there as quickly and directly as possible.  It may not make much sense but doing it the harder way, where we have to be organised and aware of our surroundings and deal with other people and take the long way round, it just feels more like living.  More like being a part of everything.  You certainly get a feel for the city that you don’t get any other way.

Cars are expensive.  Insurance here is mandatory so it works like a cartel.  Last time we were here we bought a car from a friend who was leaving the country and the insurance bill for one single year was more than the cost of the car.  Paying for a taxi every now and then and renting a car for the occasional long weekend rather than buying one frees up money that we can spend on far more exciting things.  When you can fly to Paris for the price of a Pizza Hut pizza (yes, you literally can) why would you spend thousands on a car instead of seeing the world?

It is a challenge at times for sure.  Last week Noah tried cutting up an apple and ended up with a finger spurting blood like a geyser.  We went to the doctor (he had to walk there with his hand wrapped in a tea towel) who said that to get stitches we needed to go to the children’s hospital.  There are three and none close by.  I felt challenged right at that moment, so I did.  Josh at work, nobody I know well enough to ask for a ride or to look after the other kids.  But it worked out.  The doctor’s people were kind and helpful and the process involved a taxi, three buses, a train, a very late night and Josh taking a day off work but it all came out in the wash.  The finger is fine and so are the tea towels.

Josh might convince me eventually but I wouldn’t bet the ranch.  We have plenty of wheels as it is.  For now we’re happy to just keep on scooting.





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2 Responses to The Unicycle and the Scooter Commuter

  1. Karen says:

    Great to read your blog, Mel. Sounds as though you’re all enjoying your new home.

  2. Eileen Brierly says:

    aawww .. Melanie. Another brilliantly written piece. I always enjoy reading about what you are up to. You have such a positive way of looking at life. I know what you mean about feeling like the circus has come to town also. There was one time I was at the doctor’s for something and a woman waiting looked at us as we sat down. Her exclamation .. ” are they ALL yours ???? ” .. offended me at the time, but I remember feeling quite proud of them s I confirmed that yes, indeed they are. I look forward to hearing your next instalment. Kia kaha e hoa. ☺

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