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All is quiet today and the sky is bright above my Chicago suburb. No more sounds of plows in the streets as they try to keep up with a blizzard that dumped over a foot of snow on us. No more scraping of shovels or drone of snowblowers going up and down driveways every couple of hours.

Chicago man with snowblower, AP/Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

Chicago man with snowblower, AP/Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

The snow has stopped and the streets and driveways are as clear as they’re going to get. But with this storm’s one-two punch a brutal cold has settled in that explains the silence. As I type this it is -16 degrees Fahrenheit outside (negative 26.6 ºC)! And this does not tell the story of our windchill, which is much colder and describes how the air actually feels as these brutal temperatures, in the form of wind, hit your body. I haven’t heard a car pass by on the street for hours because those who can, are staying inside their homes. The local schools are closed and even my husband’s employer told him to stay home today, a phenomenon in itself! The birds are silent as though trying to go unnoticed by this biting cold and the squirrels that live in the two trees on my parkway are nowhere in sight. Hopefully, they’re snuggled up close together keeping as warm as possible. We only venture outside to walk our dog, who we dress in a coat with a turtleneck sweater underneath. Even wearing this get-up, he comes back inside shivering, feet frozen and  tiny snowballs clinging to his fuzzy fur. Seán is a Bichon Frise and not made for this weather.

Meanwhile, it is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Ireland. But, a milder temperature does not mean that Mother Nature is taking it easy on them. Lashing rain and 120 km/h winds have wreaked havoc with damaging waves and floods along the coast and across the country from storms that have come repeatedly since before Christmas.

The River Shannon floods Kilbaha Bay on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

The River Shannon floods Kilbaha Bay on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

Tides rise and huge waves explode against the shores of the Loop Head Peninsula and all along the coastline taking down sections of stone walls, washing over roads and flooding promenades. The howl of gale-force wind and the thunder of 40 – 60 foot waves would be invigorating and exciting to witness if it were not so destructive. I imagine the local people snug inside their homes having battened down the hatches, hoping for the best and afraid to venture out to see the damage each time it quiets down between storms.

Storm damage in Kilbaha, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

Storm damage in Carrigaholt on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

My house on the Loop Head Peninsula just outside Kilkee is inland enough that the waves themselves can’t reach it, but with wind like that and the lashing rain, I am preoccupied with concern for its wellbeing. A huge weight lifted  from my shoulders when we received an email from the local man who checks on the house for us. Reading the words, “You’ll be glad to know that Teach de Búrca stands proud with no damage done to it or any of the outbuildings,” was such a great relief that I felt a surge of optimism and a special warmth for my little Irish house as it continued to brave the storms.

So here I am surrounded by snow and cold so dangerous that I won’t be leaving the house today – not even for my mocha! The cabinet doors under the kitchen sink are open to allow heat to surround and protect the pipes from freezing as are the doors around water pipes in the basement. Curtains drawn and blinds closed through the night in an attempt to keep out drafts, are now open to allow the sun to magnify some heat through the windows. The furnace is on overtime doing its best to keep us warm, so far so good. I am here and I know what is happening and what I need to do. But since I’m not in my County Clare cottage, I can’t see for myself if all is well after each storm so I am haunted by phantom sounds of crashing waves, howling wind and the rattling of my red half-door.

Lahinch, Co. Clare Promenade photo taken by photographer/surfer George Karbus courtesy breakingnews.ie

Atlantic waves appear to swallow the promenade in Lahinch, Co. Clare, photo taken by photographer/surfer George Karbus courtesy breakingnews.ie

I’ve played a Damien Dempsey CD repeatedly throughout the holidays. In fact, it has been more the theme of my holiday season than the usual collection of Christmas CDs I unpack with the ornaments every year. My favorite track is, “School Days Over”. This version of the song is sung in a gritty, workingman’s voice that makes it easy to imagine a boy, barely a man, being called to work and facing the hard reality of his life. Although the song was written by Ewan MacColl and depicts the mines in England, Scotland and Wales, Dempsey sings it in a style that is unquestionably Irish. The lilt at the end of several lines throughout the song, tells us that the hard life of the laborer was as much a part of Irish culture as the more romantic and cozy things that resonate when we think of Ireland, like music in the pubs and strong, milky tea with brown bread.

Far from the streets of Dublin and the boreens of Loop Head, I woke up this morning to piles of snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. The Chicago area has been hammered by snow that seems to have been incessantly falling in varying degrees for nearly 48 hours. Declan was up early this morning with the snow blower and I with a shovel, trying to get a head start on the snow in the driveway, on the steps and in the dog’s pen in the backyard. After the shoveling and in spite of blizzard conditions, I still managed to drive to Elijah’s, my favorite coffee shop, for my morning mocha. It would take more than treacherous roads to keep me from my morning ritual of mocha, book reading and the occasional enjoyable interruptions of friendly banter with a couple of my favorite baristas and a few of the other regular customers who, like me, come in every morning.

It could have been the fiddle music playing on the speakers at Elijah’s this morning, or maybe just my obsessive Damien Dempsey exposure recently, but I spent the slow, white-knuckled drive home singing “School Days Over”. My weak imitation of Dempsey’s version of the song passed the time happily for me but didn’t bode well for Eoin when I arrived home. Seeing him still in his pajamas and playing on his iPad with all that snow piling up outside, I began singing my own, off the cuff, version of “School Days Over” urging him out the door to shovel the snow accumulating once again in the driveway. Lucky for Eoin it’s 2014, and aside from family chores, child labor laws are in place. His bit of shoveling didn’t take too long and was followed up by an hour or so of sledding with his friends on the little hill at the end of our street!

Come on then Eoin, it’s time to go.

Time to be shoveling all that snow…

I have lived in and around Chicago my entire life and have seen all sorts of blizzards. Before this week, the three biggest would probably be during the winters of 1967, 1979 and 1999. Like everyone else around here I experienced the collective excitement, dread and finally, back-breaking cleanup of those Chicago blizzards. One thing I’ve always noticed, is that Chicagoans are at their best during blizzards, and the bigger the better! They smile more and have an upbeat tone to their voices as they commiserate with their fellow blizzard survivors. Yes, we complain and some even threaten to move to a more temperate climate. But the complaining is usually accompanied by smiling faces and twinkling eyes, and the threats are rarely carried out, at least not until advanced age and tired bodies demand a move.

Chicago children enjoying the Blizzard of 1967, photo from the Chicago Tribune archive

Along with the collective experience, like everyone else I have my own, personal memories about each blizzard and my situation at the time. Going back to The Chicago Blizzard of 1967, my memories revolve around school snow days, a 10-year-old’s dream! Back then I lived with my parents and sister in an unincorporated area just a couple blocks from Chicago’s city limits, and I don’t think our neighborhood was as quick to get the roads cleared as the city probably was. With that storm I have no memory of holding a shovel in my hands, but vivid memories of hours at play building snowmen, tunnels and igloos and sliding down a snow drift, which covered the southern wall of our house and was at least 8 feet tall – according to my recollection anyway! I also have a picture in my mind of my mother pulling a sled down the street heading for a small local grocery store to restock our refrigerator with essentials. This memory alone tells me that our street was not yet clear enough to drive upon even a day or so after the snow had already stopped falling.

During The Chicago Blizzard of 1979 I was a newlywed living in an apartment on Chicago’s South Side. At the time I worked downtown and traveled home from work on the Archer bus and then switched to the Kedzie Avenue bus that took me a block from our apartment. The main routes in Chicago must have been kept pretty clear because I made it home to within a block of my apartment but then remember walking that last block down sidewalks that had not yet been shoveled, the snow already coming up to my knees and still falling in large flakes heavily from the sky. I was young enough and newly married enough to think the experience was romantic and cozy and that feeling was only amplified as I entered my lovely, cozy apartment – with its oak floors and beautiful oak cove molding and French doors leading from the living room to the bedroom – and I was greeted by the scent of a delicious dinner, simmering in our trusty Crock Pot! That was probably one of the tastiest meals of my life.

The Chicago Blizzard of 1999 was another story. I was a recent widow that winter. In fact, it was the first winter following the death of my husband, that very November. Alone with an 11-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son and only two shovels between us, I have to admit that this was not a blizzard of twinkling eyes and upbeat Chicago-style commiserating over the weather. It was a blizzard of sadness, fatigue and exasperation. A blizzard of sore arms heaving shovels-full of snow over my head to the top of ever-growing mountains of snow that bordered our driveway. Perhaps getting through The Blizzard of 1999 made me stronger and gave me the confidence I needed to move forward, but it’s not a memory I like to revisit.

This is not a toy car, it's Declan's work vehicle in the driveway this morning hours before the snow ended.

Yesterday and this morning we were hit with The Chicago Blizzard of 2011 and Thundersnow! Lucky for us, a few years ago, during the first winter my Irish husband experienced in the great Midwest, Declan made the decision that he could not live here without a snow blower! Since then the snow clean up has been more manageable and, though still hard work, less back-breaking. So this recent blizzard was for us, mostly a matter of waiting for the wind to calm down enough to allow Declan to get out there with the snow blower. This morning between the two of us – him with the machine and me with a shovel getting to the spots the machine can’t reach – we managed to have about two feet of snow cleared from our driveway, along with the driveway of an ailing neighbor, in roughly four hours. And as usual, the snow clearing was accompanied by Chicago-style twinkling-eyed commiseration about the blizzard with a neighbor or two!

Still in my pajamas under the coat!

However, last night’s storm gave me an experience I’ve never had in all my years of Chicago snow and blizzards. Last night in the thick of the storm, with gale force winds blowing straight from the North turning violently into tornado-like swirls of snow, I saw a bright flash of light! At first I thought my worst fear had come into being and a power line had fallen. But a few seconds later, after hearing a loud clap of thunder, I realized that in the middle of this raging blizzard we were getting thunder and lightning! So last night, The Chicago Blizzard of 2011 managed to surprise this somewhat jaded snow storm veteran, by giving me my first experience with Thundersnow! Yet another unique blizzard memory.

Snow Day 2011, Eoin and his friends in about 2 ft. of snow!

If you read my last post you know I was up drinking tea and writing in my blog early this morning… from about 3:15 a.m. until after 4 a.m. While sitting at the computer I suddenly felt the house shake and heard a ‘boom’ sound. This was not just the usual wind clattering the windows, I actually moved in my chair and felt my feet moving on the floor. At the time the only explanation I could come up with was that our snow storm had turned into a blizzard and the wind had kicked up a notch, after all, this is Chicago not LA! However, much to my surprise, my son just informed me that at 4 a.m. this morning we had a 3.8 earthquake, with the epicenter 50 miles northwest of Chicago. It’s the first one I’ve ever felt, and hopefully it’s the last!

Chicago's "Bean" covered with snow - photo by Sharon Hicks Bartlett

There is about a foot of snow piled in a neat stack on the railing around the deck in my back yard… or as my husband refers to it, the back garden, which sounds much nicer than it actually looks most of the time. Poor Declan was out there a good portion of last night fueling up the snow blower and trying to keep up with the incessant snow, which didn’t really look like much coming down, but quietly kept coming and piling up throughout Monday night and all of Tuesday. Usually, I get out there and do a bit of shoveling during the day, but I have a nasty cold and could not bring myself to venture outside any more than absolutely necessary yesterday. My cold is also why I am up drinking Sleepytime Tea with honey and lemon and blogging at 3am! I rarely get sick, knock on wood, so when I do, it comes as a bit of a surprise and I don’t cope very well.

The first thing Declan did when he moved to the States… well no, actually he did it when he first applied for his U.S. VISA… was purchase a snow blower! Irishman that he is, Chicago snow and cold were a bit of a shock to him. He quit smoking, for awhile, after spending just one week here with us in February of 2001 when my daughter was in the hospital for a surgery. Being forced to stand outside the hospital doors for a week with the other smokers in the frigid cold of that particular February worked as well as any nicotine gum! When he was finally allowed his VISA and moved here to join us, it was another extremely bitter, cold winter. He arrived just after Christmas and was a bit surprised at my gift to him. Holding up the big, white, hooded Eddie Bauer parka he exclaimed, “Where did I move to, the North Pole?!” Later, he would tell his friends “back home” who wonder at our extreme temperatures, how his parka keeps him warm enough, but his legs are always freezing! (In the summer he likes to tell the folks back in Ireland that he comes into the house to cool off in air conditioning set to the same temperature they’re complaining of as “hot” over there!) Also, that first winter he eventually had to give in and switch from scraping the ice from his car windshield every morning with a credit card, to conforming and using an ice scraper like the rest of us!

My time spent living in Ireland was a weather adjustment for me as well, but quite different. I remember that I pretty much wore the same jacket, either layered or not, throughout the entire year! That year in Ireland I hardly remember an actual season. I do remember one particularly lovely day in October though. It was a bank holiday (a wonderful European invention the US could use a bit of) so Declan, Kate and I drove out to the West for the weekend. I have photos of us at the Cliffs of Moher with sweaters tied around our waists and wearing sunglasses. But I also remember that following summer, suddenly realizing one day while visiting my mother-in-law in Dublin that… hey, it’s the middle of July and I’m still wrapped in a sweater, shivering in front of the fireplace… I guess this is summer! I learned that year that while Chicago experiences the seasons with extreme changes in temperature, Ireland experiences the seasons with much more extreme changes in light. The days become very short in the winter and grow to a lovely length in the summer, when the night never goes completely black. But sometimes it’s not so easy to tell the season by the temperature.

I don’t know that either place is better or worse when it comes to weather; they’re just very different. However, my husband’s alarm clock is set to wake him up early this morning so he can bundle up and tackle that driveway before work, so, I would say his adjustment to Chicago weather has taken a bit more resolve and strength of character than I had to muster for Ireland! So, cheers Declan, maybe you can think of this when you’re back in Ireland complaining of the rain!

Chicago neighborhood by cojones 2010

We’re having another cold, snowy day in Chicago. Although, today and last night the snow has been very light, only accumulating about a half inch, last night it was blowing around like a blizzard… and I loved it! First of all, we needed a nice, clean white blanket to cover the dirty, partially melted January snow that was scattered about giving everything a dingy appearance. Secondly, there is just something invigorating about braving the wind and snow as it blows and bites into your face and forces you to walk backward! Unlike many in Chicago, I will admit that I love this stuff. But, all you have to do is look at the smiles on the faces of the people here when we get a real blizzard to know that deep down, Chicago people thrive on our harsh winter storms. We bundle up properly with no pretense of fashion, loudly stamp the snow off our boots upon entering the local coffee shop to pick up the morning cup, and proceed to moan and complain about the weather, all the while with twinkling eyes – though that could be due to the cold – and an energy you don’t see during the dog days of summer.

I love Chicago! This is the place of my birth and the city I have lived in, or next to, my entire life. Chicago is the place where both my parents were born and lived all their lives, as well as, the parents of the majority of my childhood friends. South-siders, most of them. The people here are friendly to the point of desensitizing me to the legendary, yet more subtle, friendliness of the people of Ireland. When I returned to Chicago after living a year in Ireland, folks often asked me, “So are the people there as friendly as I’ve always heard they are?” And I had to say… they’re nice, and they’re friendly enough, but nothing like the people of Chicago. The friendliness of the people of Ireland is more reserved. Ready with a smile and an interested response to anything you have to say to them, they usually wait for a person to talk to them first. The closest anyone would come to asking me where I was from after hearing my accent would be the statement, “So are you here on holiday?” But that wouldn’t be the case in Chicago. We are much more direct, in fact, I’m sure more than once my husband’s accent has been met with, “Are you from Ireland? How long have you been here? Why did you decide to move here? Do you still have family back in Ireland? My great-grandmother came from Tipperary! Do you know anyone by the name of “O’Reilly” in Dublin? He worked with me here in Chicago one summer. I think it’s Michael O’Reilly. Oh, is Dublin pretty big? I didn’t know that. So how do you like Chicago? How is it different from Ireland? Is Ireland as green as they say it is? I’ll bet you don’t get snow like this in Ireland!” And all this would be said with an open innocence and genuine curiosity that could never be mistaken for pushy or nosey, except by the most cynical person.

The first time I realized that Chicago people are different, was during my first trip to Toronto. I was waiting in line at a grocery store check out counter, and like any Chicagoan, I struck up a conversation with the person behind me. Well, attempted to anyway, as the person didn’t seem to be in the mood to talk and apparently did not find my observations about the great selection of items available in Canadian super markets, very interesting. I chalked it up to that particular person being a bit unfriendly, or maybe just having a bad day, until I then directed my casual chit chat to the woman working at the cash register and received little more than a polite smile and a slightly befuddled stare. It was then that I realized that the open, friendliness that I have taken for granted my whole life just might be specific to Chicago. After many subsequent trips to Canada and after meeting a lot of people over the years who have moved to Chicago from other states and cities, by the time I made my first trip to Ireland I was aware that Chicago people are unusually open and friendly. But, I’ll admit, I was surprised to find out that our friendliness even rivals that of ‘the land of a thousand welcomes’!

Coffee shop troll that I am, it’s no surprise that I came up with the perfect example of the difference between the friendliness of the Irish and the friendliness of Chicagoans, in the context of coffee shop experiences. If I was sitting in an empty coffee shop in Dublin and another person walked in alone, nine times out of ten, in spite of the room full of empty tables, the Irish person would sit either at the table directly next to me, or at most, one table over. They would likely sit there quietly, but there would usually be a sense that they would welcome a bit of friendly conversation if I were to initiate it. If I remained silent, they would often find a pretense to say something… like ask if the newspaper sitting on the bench between us was mine before they picked it up to read, and then use my accent as the perfect start to a conversation, most likely asking if I was on holiday. Now, move this situation to a coffee shop in Chicago. If I am sitting in an empty coffee shop in Chicago and another person walks in, nine times out of ten that person will find a table that is a ‘respectable’ distance away from me, very likely across the room, as we like our physical space and will give it to others as well. However, shortly after getting settled in their seat if not before, that person, if he or she is a true Chicagoan and not a life-long suburbanite, will catch my eye and begin a conversation as though I were a long time next door neighbor they just happened to run into. And if we’re lucky enough to have wandered into the shop out of a good Chicago blizzard… you can bet the conversation will be an enthusiastic rant about the weather!

Walking Across the Chicago River - HuffPo

“I’m up to me eyeballs in snow, so I am.” That would be exactly how my husband would describe the weather in Chicago today if he was on the phone with one of his mates back in Ireland. It’s not how he really talks, but a sort of ‘put on Irish’ he falls into when he really wants to describe something or is just joking around a bit. It sounds to me like a sort of combination North Dublin/Cork thing, and that would make sense because, although he spent most of his life in the ‘posh’ South Dublin neighborhood of Clonskeagh, he was born and spent his youngest years in Cabra, a workingclass North Dublin neighborhood, so he knows how to talk like a Dub when the situation calls for it. As for the Cork part, he spent the majority of the summers of his youth in Cork, with his aunt and uncle, both teachers in Mitchelstown, and their four children. But, just for the record, my husband has a South Dublin accent that many Americans hardly recognize as Irish, thanks to Hollywood and Barry Fitzgerald. In fact, one time someone even asked him if he was from Boston!

Anyway, the plan today was to skip the blog and meet my daughter for breakfast at our favorite Andersonville coffee shop/restaurant/boutique, Kopi. Daughters are wonderful by the way. Sons are wonderful too, but in a different way. Mothers and daughters can talk for hours, on subjects son’s would never dream of discussing, while sipping Russian Tea and Chai Tea Lattes in a great little shop and never get bored! And then, that same mother/daughter combination can top it off with yet another browse through the boutique section, ooo-ing and ahh-ing at the same clothing and jewelry they ogled just a week before! But Chicago weather has no regard for the plans of mothers and daughters, so here I am typing away again.

I came to the computer with the intention of writing about Dublin. With all the talk of cottages in bogs and the rugged, haunting West Coast of Ireland, I felt like I was neglecting my home away from home, Dublin, the city I have come to think of as Ireland itself these past several years. But that subject will have to wait for another day because I cannot be in three places at one time and at the moment, I am existing in two.

Here I sit in the midst of a snow storm and all that entails… changes of plans, a grocery stop at Jewel to stock up like a good Midwesterner in a blizzard, and an eye on the driveway with plans of doing a bit of shoveling in an hour or two so my car doesn’t pack it all down when I have to pick up my son from school. But, and this is the mystical part of it, I am also pacing in front of Rose Cottage, worrying still about the condition of the water pipes in this cold spell. I can prove I am there because I can hear my boots crunching on the “stone garden” as I pace! Every once in awhile I walk to the back deck so I can peer through the big windows to see if there is any clue of a mishap or anything that might let me know that the heat is still going on at the specified time and keeping the pipes from freezing.

I’m still worried about the pipes because, not only did I have the audacity to purchase a cottage in a remote area in a country across the ocean, but also because I am relying upon Irishmen to deal with the problem. And if I learned anything in the year I lived there, in this marriage and in the process of selling a house in Dublin and buying one in Kilkee… it is that the Irish are different than Americans, so they are.

Normally, I would consider myself pretty laid back for an American. I keep my schedule flexible, I would never be considered a type-A personality, and I don’t spend my energy trying to keep up with the Jones’s. However, compared to an Irish person, I’m a neurotic New Yorker demanding results yesterday. The Irish way of approaching a problem is to circle it, sniff it, walk away for a respectable period of time…. usually a period of time longer than I thought possible… and then come back to it for another circle, sniff and maybe to poke at it a bit. Then the process is repeated. Eventually the problem either goes away, somehow gets solved, or, and they won’t admit this, grows into a bigger problem that needs to be circled, sniffed and poked from a different angle. I just fear that freezing pipes fall into the third category. In this particular case, the circling, sniffing and poking involves arranging for the alarm man from Galway, who has the keys, to make his way down to the cottage to meet with the local man in Kilkee, who has agreed to keep and eye on the place for us.

So, American that I am, I had to split in two in order to cope. One of ‘me’ is doing just fine dealing with weather I’ve lived with and dealt with my entire life. That’s a piece of cake. While the other ‘me’ paces and peers… and waits for a stranger from Galway to get a call from my husband telling him to meet me in front of Rose Cottage with the key so I can get in and fix the problem!

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