Approaching the checkout I can almost feel my heart rate begin to increase. I take off my coat and drape it over the end of the trolley. Overheating would only add to the stress. I unfold my shopping bags and brace myself.

Yes it’s time for the Great Aldi/Lidl High Speed Trolley Filling Face-Off. A weekly event. It’s me against the German Discounters and their relentless drive to reduce queuing times while keeping staff levels just one notch above skeleton.

Image

I don't buy this much wine or cake, honest

For the uninitiated, those who remain touchingly fond of branded groceries and have yet to embrace the unattractively packaged but keenly priced bargains on offer, the checkout set-up at Aldi/Lidl looks a little unusual. It’s Not Like Other Supermarkets.

For a start, the checkout conveyor belt is about three times longer than normal. This means you can, indeed must, deposit an entire trolley load of shopping on the belt before any of it is scanned through. Conversely, the trolley reloading end of the checkout is approximately the size of an A4 page. Before they’ll start scanning, the checkout staff politely but firmly insist that you adopt ‘the position’; narrow end of trolley flush with the end of the checkout, ready to receive.

At this point, the dream scenario for the Aldi/Lidl Project Team With Special Responsibility For Maximising Checkout Throughput Rates would be to dispense with the customer altogether. Ideally, remove him or her to a special holding pen while trolley loading takes place with maximum efficiency. This would leave the task-driven and scarily focused checkout staff free to concentrate on scanning through the maximum number of items per minute. Once scanned, items could be shoved willy nilly along the checkout, allowing them to simply slide off the end and tumble into the waiting trolley.

Instead, annoying customers get in the way, fussing pettily about not wanting their eggs smashed. Feverishly trying to prevent their pillow packed rocket salad from turning into rocket pesto under the crushing weight of the juice cartons. And, worst crime of all, PACKING BAGS AT THE CHECKOUT.

This practice is frowned upon by the German Discounters. Instead, we are invited to ‘take it to the shelf’. Behind the checkouts, a wide shelf has been installed where we are encouraged to park our trollies and bagpack at our leisure once the latest scan-and-load landspeed record breaking attempt has been completed.

Well they can think again, because my time is valuable too. I have stubbornly refused to take it to the shelf. I’m never taking it to the shelf. But I appreciate that speed helps Aldi/Lidl maintain their rock-bottom prices. So I find myself approaching the checkout as if it’s a competitive event. I’m pumped. Psyched. In the zone. Those bags are getting packed without recourse to the shelf.

I’m primed for the first bleep of the scanner. And we’re off. I focus on keeping pace with the furiously scanning checkout person while simultaneously:

  • keeping fragile items intact
  • bagging frozen items together
  • placing heaviest items in my sturdiest bags for life
  • maintaining stress levels at no higher than mild panic
  • resisting the urge to bellow “SLOW DOWN WILL YOU” at the hapless checkout person.

I emerge from this process wild eyed, red faced, yet triumphant. I didn’t take it to the shelf. A tiny victory.

 

Photo by Ruben Swieringa, Flickr Creative Commons

Remembering Rory

November 3, 2011

There is a framed black and white photo hanging in my parents’ living room. It’s of me at my third birthday party, posed on the sunny garden wall while most of the other partygoers are playing in the background. Sitting beside me and holding my chubby hand in his, is my first playmate Rory. He was from just over the road, close to me in age and the eldest child in his family. Less than a year after the photo was taken, Rory died of leukaemia.

I only have snatched memories of Rory. I remember him calling to the door to see if I wanted to come out to play (it was the sixties, and our suburban cul de sac was a safe playground even for three and four year olds). I remember his little toy horse on wheels, which he called ‘Jossie’. Most of all I remember my mother gently explaining to me one day that Rory had gone to heaven. I cried and cried, though I must have had only a minimal understanding of death and its finality.

I’ve looked at that old photo many times over the years and wondered how my friend would have turned out had he survived. Rory’s parents somehow got through their unspeakable loss, have stayed together to this day and have raised two daughters. They still live on my old street and I often wonder how they coped with the devastation of losing their precious little boy, every parent’s worst dread.

Recently I ran into Rory’s mum Mary. She was very keen to know if I still remembered him. We began to talk about him, and for the first time I heard the story of the lead-up to his death. It was even more heartbreaking than I had imagined.

A few months beforehand, Rory had been admitted to hospital with complications following a bout of mumps. He recovered and was sent home but, to Mary, he was ‘never the same child’. She knew there was something wrong.

He was generally unwell and suffered repeated episodes of tonsillitis. She wore a path to the GP’s surgery to try to discover what was wrong, but time after time was dismissed as an over-anxious mother. The attitude she got was very much ‘there there dear, calm down it’s just tonsillitis’. But she knew.

Rory was given an appointment to see an ENT specialist, but it was months away. Eventually, in desperation, Mary took it upon herself to phone the consultant at home at the weekend. He wouldn’t hear a word of apology for calling him at home, and agreed to see Rory the following week. When Mary brought her son to the outpatient appointment, she also brought an overnight bag for him. Because she knew.

Sure enough, the consultant felt that there was something a lot more serious than tonsillitis going on, and admitted Rory immediately for tests. Mary says that leaving her son behind at the hospital that day was the hardest thing she has ever done.

When the results came through, her deepest fears were confirmed. Rory had leukaemia. It was at an advanced stage and he passed away just four days later. She told me that she still cries for her lost boy, more than forty years on. After she left, I cried too.

Before we parted, I asked Mary what her GP had said to her after Rory died. He apparently said he would always regret not listening to her and that in future he would pay much greater attention to mothers. Because they know.

Absent

September 8, 2011

I’m standing outside the door of my daughter’s school half an hour after classes have commenced for the day. The school secretary’s face falls as she approaches and she sees who it is, but she forces a smile as she opens the door. I know what she’s thinking; ‘Not you again’. I regularly interrupt this unfortunate woman’s work, turning up with whatever item my child has forgotten that day, be it lunch, homework or a vital book.

When I get home, I spot my son’s recorder on his desk. He was supposed to bring that in with him today for his music class. I’m not chasing after him, his school is too far away and in any case he’s older and needs to learn that forgetfulness has consequences. Yesterday I received a note from a teacher in his new school asking me to buy a hardback notebook for him. What she doesn’t know is that the notebook was purchased two weeks ago but has been languishing in his locker ever since. He forgets to bring it to class.

Between them my kids have lost two fairly new jackets and a water bottle in recent weeks. I get annoyed with them about this, but really I don’t have a leg to stand on. It’s all in the genes; they get their absent mindedness from me.

This week I totally forgot to watch or record the second part of a drama I had really enjoyed last week on TV, despite the fact that it featured David Morrissey (I have blogged before about my embarrassing crush on him). I greeted a man with whom I had arranged a meeting with a blank stare when he arrived at my workplace at the appointed time. I got distracted when processing an online payment from my bank and by the time I remembered again the cut-off time for payments had passed.

One wallet found its way home thanks to these guys

I could blame early senility, but my life has always been like this. I have left keys in hall doors and on shop counters, a wallet on a park bench and another wallet on the London Underground. I once went on holiday with no knickers because they weren’t on my list. I’ve had to call out the fire brigade because the grill went up in flames while I was upstairs reading poetry, toast long forgotten. I don’t even like poetry.

To my shame, I can be relied upon to forget birthdays and anniversaries of close friends and family. A friend once phoned me to know why I hadn’t turned up for a lunch date at her house. I rushed over, but she never really forgave me and I didn’t blame her. Why don’t I write things down in a diary or put them in my phone? Well I do, but then I forget to look at it.

What’s to be done? Are my kids to doomed to lead lives of mild chaos, constantly accompanied by that uneasy feeling that something has been forgotten?

Photo by Ian Mansfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Good Weekend?

September 8, 2011

What did I do last weekend? Let’s see…… 

  • Had a back and shoulder massage
  • Watched a comedy acrobat show
  • Met up with some old friends in a wine bar for a couple of drinks
  • Saw two Booker prize winning writers read from their new books
  • Tasted some wild mushrooms, and some amazing Bacon Jam made by butcher Ed Hick
  • Heard from two hopefuls in the forthcoming Presidential election

    Bob in a tent

  • Saw an interview with the charming, witty, erudite, ferociously intelligent and still snake-hipped Bob Geldof. The best President Ireland will never have.  He would miss his girls too much, he sweetly said. And he wouldn’t be allowed to swear
  • Picked up a secondhand Georgette Heyer book, a writer I’ve been meaning to read for ages
  • Was given two other books – brand new Penguin classics this time – completely free
  • Chatted with eternal boy, journalist, publisher, actor and man behind Broadsheet.ie, John Ryan
  • Saw director and writer Nick Kelly present a screening of his short films, including ‘Shoe’, which was shortlisted for Oscar nomination last year
  • Ate some delicious dinners – crab linguine from Rathmullen House, a ‘Shamrock’ pie from Pieminister and a gorgeous Thai red chicken curry from Wok ‘n’Roll.

Oh, and heard loads of great live music as well. I loved Jimmy Cliff, I Am Kloot, DJ Shadow, M Ward and the Lost Brothers. But OMD were my personal highlight, taking me straight back to the early eighties and even being the cause of some unseemly, creaky, middle-aged dancing. Electric Picnic is a music festival after all.

My message is; if you are middle aged or older, do not fear the Electric Picnic. I’ve been attending with my beloved for a few years now. Given our advanced ages, (we are both in the 45-55 age bracket, that’s all I’ll say) we don’t do the nasty camping business. It’s a cosy off-site B&B for us, with a proper bed, a proper sleep, a proper bathroom and limitless supplies of tea and toast with the full Irish in the morning.

With sturdy walking boots donned, wet wipes, toilet roll and folding seats packed, we’re good to go. On site, the atmosphere is super-chilled and a little bit magical. Even the nocturnal drunks just stagger around benignly, apologising for bumping into you and attempting clumsy high fives. Everyone chats, and I’ve never seen any aggro apart from occasional moments of discord between over-refreshed couples.

Each year when we tell people we’re going to the Picnic it provokes a mixture of pity and bewilderment amongst many of our contemporaries. They just don’t know what they’re missing. I defy anyone not to enjoy it. If you like music, art, literature, food and culture, just go.

No Chips in the Bar

October 6, 2010

Last weekend I got away with my sisters to beautiful Donegal. We stayed in a small seaside village, in a guesthouse that I first visited as a six year old. In the last few years it has had a makeover and is now styled as a ‘luxury beachhouse’. The décor is tasteful, understated and chic; white walls and bed linen, white painted floorboards, navy blinds and pale blue cushions. It is situated next to one of the most spectacular beaches in Donegal. The entire front of the ground floor is glass, to take in the stunning view of the beach and the small island just offshore.

Preparing to tackle the Donegal waves

 Arlene, a pastry chef, runs the guesthouse and does all the cooking. Her mission in life is to make every guest feel as welcome as possible. Croissants were put in the oven as we set off for a quick walk on the beach before breakfast, we were welcome to traipse through the house in damp, sandy wetsuits, tea and coffee was made on demand.

Best of all was the restaurant. We had a memorable dinner there on the second night and all the food was beautifully prepared and presented. The place was packed – it’s open to non-residents – so much so they even had two sittings. All this in a remote village that all-but shuts down at the end of August (I won’t even mention the ‘R’ word here). Two nights B&B with one dinner cost a princely €120 per person.

After a late breakfast of eggs Benedict on the second morning we reluctantly departed, but not before two of us had booked to return with our families.

On our way home we stopped off for food at the Slieve Russell. This hulking monster of a hotel is plonked incongruously outside the village of Ballyconnell in Cavan. With its ‘big-is-beautiful’ ethos it looks like it was designed by a committee of Tiger-era developers. It probably was, it’s owned by Sean Quinn after all. Inside, you could be in any bland hotel anywhere in the country with the usual vomit-inducing patterned carpets, marble pillars and overstuffed striped velvet sofas.

It was about five o’clock. We had not eaten since our late breakfast and were after a quick dinner in the bar, of the fish and chips or bowl of pasta variety. Alas, this proved impossible. The bar menu was limited to sandwiches and soup. If we wanted anything more substantial we were told our only option was to take a seat in the formal restaurant. A quick glance at the menu soon ruled this out. All main courses were around the €20 mark and if we wanted chips with our beer-battered fish that would be an extra €3.50 thanks.

Undaunted, we decided to order sandwiches in the bar with a couple of side orders of chips. Sometimes you just really, really want to have chips, and this was one of those occasions. Imagine our disappointment when we were emphatically informed by the bar staff that they operate a firm ‘No Chips in the Bar’ policy at the Slieve Russell. This rule proved non-negotiable. Chips in the bar was an absolute no-no, a no-can-do, a more-than-my-job’s-worth request. We ordered the sandwiches and quietly fumed at the thought of other people’s chips being prepared in the same kitchen as our sandwiches.

What a contrast with Carnaween House, our wonderful Donegal bolt-hole. We weren’t expecting the same nothing-is-too-much-trouble, personal service from the Slieve Russell, but a bit more flexibility wouldn’t have killed them.

Ireland is overrun with big, characterless hotels with golf courses and spas attached. If we want to attract tourists back here we need more stylish, genuinely welcoming, value for money destinations with great food, run with care and a spark of imagination.

Consumer champion and money-saving guru from the Irish Times, Conor Pope was a guest on George Hook’s Newstalk show the other week. The topic was the cost to middle class parents of bringing up a child.

Conor pointed out that before the child is even born, most middle class parents pay between €3500 and €7000 to secure the services of an obstetric consultant – private health insurance does not cover this cost. Apparently you need to get straight on the blower the moment you see the little blue line appear in the pregnancy test window if you want to get the obstetrician of your choice.

Now this topic is a bit of a personal bugbear of mine. Why are women with straightforward, healthy pregnancies attending obstetric consultants for routine antenatal care and normal deliveries? Do they really need to shell out thousands of euros to have a highly trained consultant tell them that their blood pressure is fine, the baby’s heartbeat and growth are normal and that their blood sugar levels are no cause for concern? That is a midwife’s job.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK lists the following definitions on its website:

  • Obstetrics deals with problems that arise in maternity care, treating any complications of pregnancy and childbirth and any that arise after the birth.
  •  Obstetricians work alongside midwives, whose speciality is usually normal pregnancy and delivery.

 In other words, during a straightforward, healthy pregnancy and delivery, there is no need for a woman to see hide nor hair of an obstetrician.

My first child was born in London 11 years ago. Private health insurance is relatively uncommon in the UK and I, like the vast majority of women, relied on the NHS for my antenatal care. Most of my antenatal visits were to the midwives clinic at my local health centre, with a couple of GP visits in between. I usually saw a midwife called Mandy, a reassuring and warm Welsh woman.

Everyone is assigned a consultant obstetrician, but only sees him or her if problems arise during the pregnancy. Because I had a history of hip problems, I was referred once to the hospital so that the obstetrician could confirm I was capable of having a normal delivery.

On the day of delivery, I was delighted when Mandy arrived on shift towards the end of the labour, and welcomed my son into the world. There was no doctor in the room. A breezy registrar had appeared shortly beforehand to check in on us, announcing that “if baby hasn’t appeared in the next 10-15 minutes I’ll be back to ventouse”. That did the trick. Ten minutes later Mandy was handing us our first child and it was wonderful to be attended by someone I knew and trusted.

Back in Ireland a few years later and expecting my second child, it seemed I had committed a terrible middle class faux pas by failing to take out private health insurance. A lot of people’s first response to my news included the question “Who is your consultant?” They seemed almost embarrassed to hear that I had thrown myself at the mercy of the public system, and I was given grim warnings about the endless queues I would face at the ante-natal clinics.

They were right, the queues literally stretched up and down the length of the hospital corridors. However, I never had to join those queues. At the end of my initial booking visit I was offered, almost as an afterthought, the option to attend a midwives clinic, as I was in a low risk category. This was apparently not a very popular option as I wouldn’t be seeing a doctor for routine care, but I jumped at the chance. At every subsequent visit I walked past the seemingly unending lines of women waiting patiently for a doctor, till I reached the door marked ‘Midwives Clinic’. Here, I never waited more than 10 minutes to be seen and was soon on my way home, passing the same women still queuing on my way out.

That was in 2002. Since then, a handful of midwife-led clinics have opened and a few hospitals are offering ‘domino care’, where midwives visit mothers before and after the birth in their own homes. These services are still very limited however, and are only available to public patients.

This seems to send out a clear signal that midwife care is somehow a second-best option. Of course there are many reasons why women need to see an obstetrician during pregnancy and childbirth. Older mothers, multiple pregnancies, high blood pressure and many other risk factors  require specialist care. Many women probably feel that they are not prepared to take any chance with the wellbeing of their precious child, and they want the reassurance of a familiar face at the birth. But if they were offered the chance to be cared for by a small team of midwives in their local area, one of these midwives would be there for them on the day. And of course at the first sign of a problem at any stage during pregnancy or labour, the midwife can call in an obstetrician.

I don’t know how this system of over-dependence on obstetric consultants and under-valuing of midwives has arisen here in Ireland. It seems an awful shame, not to mention a waste of money. After all, for most women, pregnancy is not an illness. If and when we get the long promised universal health insurance, perhaps everyone will be offered high quality community midwife care, with obstetric consultants available for those who need them, regardless of ability to pay.

Crushed

September 6, 2010

 

How old is too old to have a crush? At the fairly advanced age of 45, I’m still waiting to find out.

My first crushes were the usual neighbourhood boys who seemed not to realise that I existed (fools). I then moved on to a female science teacher, various cool, unattainable older college students, unavailable work colleagues (one of whom featured in a recurring fantasy involving us both getting carried away on a conference room table) and a selection of famous men. For many years my number one crush was Daniel Day Lewis but, alas, he has not aged well.

Once my infatuation with Daniel faded, I was crush-free for a good number of years.

That all changed in 2008 when, thanks to a friend, I attended the Grand National at Aintree as a guest of the sponsors (cheers Nigel). I spotted my future crushee standing at the far side of the crowded hospitality area, gazing slightly moodily into the middle distance. The quintessential tall, dark and handsome stranger. But there was something familiar about him. Where had I seen him before? I slowly realised he was a talented and versatile actor I’d seen in several TV dramas and films. Dredging my memory, I came up with a name – David Morrissey.

David Morrissey, crush victim

I wasn’t 100% sure I had got the name right but, undaunted, I joined his queue next time he went to the betting window. As he turned to leave, I stepped up and asked if his name was indeed David Morrissey. It was (phew) and he politely agreed to sign my racecard.

And that was it. From the moment he directed that intense gaze down at me (he is very tall, and I cannot resist a tall man) I found myself once more in the grip of a ridiculous adolescent crush. He attempted some friendly small talk, enquiring if I’d had any successful bets so far. My response? An inane fixed grin and a muttered, inarticulate answer, delivered while backing away in awe. Impressive.

Since that day I have indulged in the following behaviour:

  • Regularly Googling David Morrissey, with a special emphasis on Google images
  • Once Googling his wife, the writer Esther Freud
  • Making a point of watching any TV programme in which David Morrissey appears
  • Rewatching various clips of David Morrisey several times over (as he emerged from a swimming pool, asked a colleague for casual sex in a police drama, and solicitously enquired whether his red carpet interviewer was cold in her flimsy frock – so thoughtful!)
  • Searching fruitlessly for David Morrissey on Twitter
  • Instantly following David Morrissey as soon as I heard he had joined Twitter
  • Reading David Morrissey’s blog, which has only added fuel to the flames of my crush by demonstrating his self-deprecating wit and charitable nature
  • Engaging in mildly attention seeking behaviour on Twitter in a pathetic attempt to get a response from @davemorrissey64
  • Being stupidly excited on the two occasions that I actually did get a response from @davemorrissey64.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t live alone with an assortment of cats and a shrine to David Morrissey in my house. I haven’t obsessively tracked down every drama or film he has ever appeared in – I have never watched ‘Blackpool’ or ‘State of Play’, apparently two of his best performances from the pre-crush era. I refrained from using my son as an excuse to watch my hero running around in manly armour in ‘Centurion’ after @davemorrissey64 told me it was “a bit violent” for an eleven year old (the poor man is doing his best to discourage me).

Nonetheless, this is quite unseemly behaviour for a middle aged woman. What do I think is going to happen? That ‘Big Dave’, as a fellow-sufferer on Twitter has dubbed him, will read one of my tweets about him and promptly dash for the next plane to Dublin in order to come and ravish me? Hmm, perhaps not.

What is the matter with me? I have a tall man of my own – my husband is six foot four for goodness sake – and we have been happily married for fourteen years. I suppose that is the key to understanding the middle aged crush. The youthful thrills of fancying boys and anticipating first dates are now so many years in the past and as they say, I’m married, not dead.

I don’t know if David Morrissey will be my last crush before I give it up for good. But as he has starring roles in two upcoming drama series (‘South Riding’ and ‘Thorne’) I reckon I’m destined to continue rewinding his best bits and benevolently stalking him on Twitter for another while yet.

 Sorry Dave.

(Photo courtesy Paul Cantrell)

An easy way out?

August 20, 2010

She stares at the word. She is concentrating very hard. I glance at the clock on the kitchen wall and begin to count the seconds in my head. Surely she’ll get this one? Fifteen seconds tick by before she is ready to say the word aloud. The word she is trying to read is ‘asked’. She gets it wrong.

My daughter is eight years old, and she has been diagnosed with ‘specific learning difficulties’. The most well known specific learning difficulty is dyslexia.

Almost every day for the last eighteen months, including weekends and school holidays, either myself or her dad has sat down with her to work on her reading manual – Toe by Toe. As its name suggests, it helps children learn to read in tiny increments. Very tiny increments.

It starts with single letter sounds then moves on to two and three letter syllables. Next up, blending two letters to form new sounds (like pl, cr, dw). We have ploughed our way through loads of exercises to help distinguish b from d, and p from q. Weeks, if not months, have been spent working on how vowel sounds change if an ‘e’ is added to the end of a word (the ‘o’ in ‘mop’ sounds different to the ‘o’ in ‘mope’).

With dyslexia, learning to read is all about rules, repetition and revision. Both of my children found ‘sight’ reading extremely difficult (my older child also has learning difficulties). They relied on sounding out the individual letter sounds of even short simple words like ‘it’, ‘for’ and ‘had’ long after their peers learned to recognise them instantly. In other words, they cannot read without the rules.

In the manual, no word is considered ‘learned’ until it has been read correctly on three consecutive days. Even when a new rule or skill has apparently been mastered, it must be dragged back into focus repeatedly until it eventually becomes subliminal. Of course, the manual is merely a complement to her daily sessions with the learning support teacher at school, who also gives her nightly reading exercises.

As you can imagine, this is all incredibly tedious for everyone concerned. The parent of a dyslexic child needs to draw on endless stores of patience (not something that has come easily to me). But we stick with it, because not learning to read is just not an option. We are encouraged by her slow but steady progress and the small triumphs along the way – I’ll never forget the day she finally mastered the word ‘before’. We still read aloud to her every night, so she doesn’t forget that reading is also a huge source of pleasure. It saddens me that she cannot do this for herself yet. At her age I was to be found surreptitiously reading by torchlight most nights. But, she’ll get there.

There is a potential cloud on the horizon. Because my daughter is being educated in Ireland, she is also learning Irish, a compulsory subject. Before she becomes an independent and fluent reader of English, she will be required to start reading and spelling words like this:

Bhfuil – pronounced ‘will’

Mhaith – pronounced ‘wai’

Briste – pronounced ‘brish-ta’

Gloine – Pronounced ‘glinna’

Suddenly, the rulebook is thrown out the window. The alphabet is different, the sentence structure is different, the pronunciation is alien and phonics, which she relies on so heavily, are useless.

Literacy in Irish is introduced at a time when many children with learning difficulties are still getting to grips with English reading and comprehension. In order to allow them to focus on core literacy skills in their main language, some children are granted an exemption from learning Irish.

My older child has already been granted an exemption. This came at the end of several months of severe stress for him at school when he found himself completely unable to cope with the demands of the Irish curriculum. He began, uncharacteristically, hiding homework from me and getting into trouble at school. His very understanding teacher called a meeting and suggested we get a psychological assessment, which led to the exemption being granted.

His teacher (who incidentally runs the school’s Irish club) was “delighted”, as an exemption would enable him to focus on his English comprehension and other problem areas. She also stressed that it would help his self esteem – not helped by regularly achieving 5%-10% in Irish tests, compared to 80%-90% for his classmates.

The compulsory learning of Irish is a fraught subject, loaded with emotional and cultural baggage. Many people regard being able to speak the language, which almost died out under British rule, as a badge of national pride. For this reason, many take a dim view of children being granted exemptions. The popular view, echoed by the media, is that they are some sort of scam perpetrated by middle class parents and educational psychologists in order to give children an unfair advantage over others.

Having dropped Irish, my son’s score on the standardised Drumcondra reading test has gone up by 12 points in a year. We have no regrets.

I don’t know yet whether my daughter will require an Irish exemption. But I suspect she might. If I am told by an expert that she could benefit from dropping Irish, I will have no hesitation in applying. I’m not about to see her fail to reach her potential for the sake of national pride.

My Secret Shame

August 3, 2010

  • I have a secret. My secret is this.

About once a month, when nobody else is around, I get into my car and drive to a fairly grim retail park on the northside of Dublin. When I spot what I’m after, I pull up the car, roll down the window and speak to a teenager wearing a baseball cap. I hand over my money and am given a package. I drive off again, to a quiet spot in the car park. Only then do I open the package and get my hands on……a Big Mac Meal.

I love Big Macs. I love the cheap white bread of the soft sesame seed buns. I love the ‘secret sauce’. I love the melted plastic cheese. I even love the pickles.

But my McDonalds habit fills me with shame. I never discuss it with friends or family. I always use a drive-through (sorry, ‘thru’) rather than queue up at the counter with my tracksuit-wearing fellow customers. I park well away from other cars while eating the food, and always dispose of the packaging before I get home.

This shame has got nothing to do with problems around food or eating or an obsession with weight loss. Up to the age of about thirty, I was a skinny person. Since then, a combination of motherhood, encroaching middle age and reduced mobility (I need a hip replacement) has changed that. I have a definite muffin top and could do with losing about a stone, but that’s probably never going to happen. Diets are alien territory to me, I have limited will power and frankly, I just don’t care that much. Being quite tall, I tell myself I can carry a bit of extra weight.

Cooking is a pleasure, I love to eat well and can cook a mean Thai green curry from scratch. My weekly bag of organic, locally grown produce is delivered to the door, there are very few foods I don’t enjoy and I love visiting the occasional fine dining restaurant. But pizza, fish and chips and Chinese takeaways also form part of my diet and I have a weakness for tortilla chips and Mr Kipling’s French Fancies. However, I never feel guilty about eating any of it. Basically, I pretty much eat what I like.

So, how to explain the unique shame of the furtive McDonalds trips?

Could it be because I associate it with the most miserable experience of my working life, when I worked as a ‘crew member’ as a teenager? I still remember it vividly; the hyperactive, bossy managers, the smell of vinegar on my hands from the huge plastic buckets of pickles, the beeping of the machines instructing the drones when to flip the burgers. Most of all I remember the catchphrase ‘Time to lean, time to clean!’ (© McDonalds Corporation) being bellowed at me several times during every shift – I wasn’t the most motivated of crew members.

We were given free food if we worked a sufficiently long shift. The rumour among the crew members was that they put some addictive ingredient in the food. Did this get me hooked? I doubt it, except in the sense that the human body craves fat, salt and sugar.

I have read ‘Fast Food Nation’ by Eric Schlosser. I have seen Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘Supersize Me’. But my mortification predates these exposés of McDonalds and other fast food companies. I was embarrassed before I even learned the truth, but it wasn’t enough to put me off. My cloak and dagger trips even continued during the BSE scare.

If I have to pick a reason for my shame, it must come down to snobbery. Your stereotypical McDonalds customer is a young, working class mother giving her kids a treat, someone popping in for a milkshake on the way back from the methadone clinic, or a hoodie-wearing teenager attracted by the sheer cheapness of the food (€6.50 for the Big Mac meal!). In other words, not me.

My visits will no doubt continue, though now that I have posted to this blog, they are no longer a secret. I have finally outed myself. I’m lovin’ it.

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