The Commute

I’ve been in the kitchen doing Tai Chi and catching up with my husband. At 7.30, he reminds me it’s time to wake the children, and I jog delightedly into their room, where they’re sleeping soundly, and gently snuggle Natalie. As she wakes, she realizes I’m there and hugs me tight – ‘Mummy!’ she cries, and then Jaco gets up and climbs on my back, so that I’m a Mummy sandwich.

I have missed my children. I miss them physically, the feel of their embracing, annoying, harassing, gorgeous presence. Last night I’d hoped to arrive before they slept, but it was close to 10, and instead I go into their room, and look down at them, tousle their hair, and swallow tears.

And so begins the commute. The one between Cork and Rome. The one that takes 11 hours door to door. The one that involves a taxi, a bus, a plane, another bus and another taxi. That commute.

This has been a year of movement and change for our family. We sold our cottage of 13 years, drove to Italy, set up home in Rome, sent our children to the Italian school across the road, and spent four months together wrestling with Italian, and getting our urban hats on. But this semester, I am back to work. I’m blessed that I can mostly squash my teaching into a few intense days, and work from home (or a bus) on other days. In September last year, I spent a couple of days booking Ryanair flights from Dublin to Rome (no direct flight from Cork anymore), so that I could be home with my family every 10 days, or 2 weeks, or so. For three months.

In Cork, my lovely colleague Maureen had agreed to let me lodge with her in her rented flat. For most of the first week she’s at home in Galway, so I was on my own. The flat is up behind the Victorian gothic mental hospital (now chi chi flats), high on the Western hills overlooking Cork. I spent the first five years I lived in Ireland driving past this extraordinary building, which was derelict then. It was quite an experience to get up close for the first time. It’s a beautiful walk down from here to the university, down past the water works, and along the river to Fitzgerald’s Park.

And then I decided to do some washing. You know when things are hard, and they just get harder. Well, a few minutes after I’d turned on the washing machine, I came into the kitchen to find water pouring our of the dispenser drawer. I hastily turned it off, and mopped up the water, feeling relieved it wasn’t too bad. And then I tried to get my laundry out, and gallons upon gallons of water poured into Maureen’s kitchen. I used all my strength to close the damn door, ran and grabbed a towel to mop up as much water as it would hold, wrung it in the sink, and did it again, and again, and again. Water was everywhere. I was drenched. Once I had the worst of the water mopped up with the towel, I found the mop, and finished the job. Then I stripped off my wet clothes, and changed. The next few days, were an awful comedy of me realizing things were worse than I’d thought. That day I went over to Peter and Maud’s and washed the clothes that I’d tried to wash, and everything else I’d gotten dirty in the clear-up. When I got home, I realised part of the carpet was wet, and spent several hours stamping on old newspapers, trying to mop them dry. I found Maureen’s hairdryer, and finished the job with that. The next morning I realised that I’d missed a huge area, and that the water had swooshed around the kitchen, and under the sofa. All the windows were covered in condensation. I had a miserable Sunday, knowing that Maureen was returning that evening, going to buy newspapers to mop up the water, and trying to dry the carpet with the hairdryer. Then I realised that the lino in the kitchen had lifted. Sisyphus. Maureen arrived, and I told her what had happened, and said I’d call my builder in the morning to ask for advice. And I was sorry. Very sorry. It wasn’t a good start. I’m supposed to be talking to William (our builder) about renovating our house, and instead I’m asking him what to do about the flood in Maureen’s flat. He’s wonderful. Get a de-humidifier he says, and take up that lino. Peter and Maud agree to lend me their de-humidifier. I drive over after work, and get it. Maureen sleeps whilst I roll it quietly into the living room. The next day I ask Tom and Barry who live in the same apartment block, if they could come over and help us move the washing machine and fridge, so that we can get the lino up. It’s snowing. Barry does hilarious impersonations of his plumber whilst he’s doing important things to the back of the washing machine. Whilst it snows, we roll up the lino, rip up the underlay, and take it all outside and throw it in the large bins. The following day, after a gorgeous walk through the snow, I teach three hours straight and then dash into town to talk to a man about lino and someone to lay it. The next day I fly to Rome for the weekend.

This morning, walking hand in hand with my children to school, the shock of being here hits me. There are oranges on the trees, and the sun is shining. My children keep cuddling me. We’re early, and wait outside, where I greet the other parents. Miriam suggests coffee. There is sunlight, and chattering women. I have Natalie’s bright pink sweatshirt on, and no make-up, and it doesn’t matter. Here we are in the café on the corner of Bon Compagni and Via Romagna. Here I am sitting across from Miriam’s husband, a French Muslim painter, aching about the events in France last week, about what it means to be French and Muslim after that. I’m not very good at it, but I love the tumble of French and English and Italian that passes between us. Vittorio comes down and joins us, Miriam and Hassad invite us to the Villa Medici, where they’re living, and we kiss everyone on both cheeks before heading for home.

There is much that is hard about doing what we’re doing, but I’m also conscious of how lucky we are to be able to do it at all. Maureen is funny and generous about the mayhem in her flat, my children are sleeping a few feet away, and there are oranges on the trees.

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