Posted on

Ireland Forever!

IMG_3991IMG_3992IMG_3993We can’t stay in Ireland.

But…

IMG_3910Forever in history, our family’s time here has been officially recorded in the Irish Census! Archived, searchable records will verify that Brent, Natalie, Cassandra, Nicholas and Savannah Thomas lived in Ireland in 2016.

IMG_3911Every five years, anyone residing in Ireland on census day must take part in the census. It’s illegal not to do so, regardless of whether or not one is a citizen of Ireland. And we just happened to be living in Ireland on census day, one specific day that happens only once in five years.

I really do have the luck of the Irish! The odds of this happening were less than 1:1,500 (365 days a year, minus the days we’ve been here, and rounding conservatively). I’m probably the only person on this island who was absolutely thrilled to take part in the census.

 We’ve also made our mark in other ways. We’ve been fingerprinted extensively at the local Garda station, for example (for immigration purposes). And Brent is on record as having applied to the Irish Teaching Council.
IMG_3996
 Sadly, the Irish Teaching Council registration process is where we’ve fallen apart. Thus begins a long blog post that I’ve procrastinated writing. I’ll fill you in on the short version (which is already too long) of why we can’t stay here, and then I’ll show you all the good things that have happened to us while we’ve been going through this uncertainty.
We can’t stay in Ireland because the progression toward getting a work visa has come to a halt. The latest rejection of Brent’s application involves the Garda (Irish police) vetting part of the registration process. They’ve returned his application because Brent signed his name with his middle initial included, which is his legal signature: Brent W. Thomas instead of Brent Thomas.
The area for printing his full name contained only two blanks, for first and last name only. Therefore the “W.” wasn’t printed on the front of the form. He now has to explain the W.  Each of these rejections/corrections goes back and forth via postal mail. The teaching council high-lights mistakes and scribbles notes with a pen. Then they stuff the papers back into an envelope and send the original documents back to us via Post.

The teaching council application required a PPS number that can only be obtained via residency.  The only way to get a teaching job is by first registering with the Irish Teaching Council. Therefore, an American who wants to teach in Ireland cannot secure a job offer before moving here, only AFTER, which is a big risk for us to have taken. But we did everything that the teaching council requested and Brent successfully obtained his PPS number, by first establishing residency and by proving it via utility bills.

Well, this was a huge shock and headache for our immigration officer! We weren’t supposed to get a PPS number until we had permission to remain in the country. The officer was floored that a) the teaching council requested this number before a visa was obtained and b) the number was granted to Brent based on the council’s application request. Neither should have happened, since he shouldn’t have been able to get that number as a non-EU person without a GNIB card or a work visa. Yi yi yi! The agencies really need to have a talk.

Bottom line… Brent and I are highly unlikely to get a work visa, even if we had more time to play with. This became clear the more we talked with people face-to-face.
We met an immigrant who has a master’s degree in his home country, taught for several years there, and was firmly rejected by the Irish teaching council because they evaluated his (country’s) teaching license as not up to the Irish standards– even though his credentials were considered high in his own country. His wife has a good job here and they have two Irish born children, so they’re staying for now. But they continue to struggle. He couldn’t get a teaching registration so he’s driving a taxi (something Brent can’t do because we have no permission to work at all). They also had problems getting an Irish passport for one of their children, even though the baby was born here.
It seems that the immigration rules are all over the place, with different rules for different nationalities, with some rules followed and others not, and stories varying widely depending on when people arrived in Ireland and who they talked to. Some immigrants have refugee or other statuses that give them instant access to all the benefits that Irish citizens have, including the right to work and free health care. Others are denied the right to work or any other right, and are at risk of deportation within two weeks of the expiration of a card or stamp. This has happened to more than one American who had purchased a home here, lived and paid taxes for several years, etc. 2015-2016 has been a tough time for Americans who planned to live in Ireland on a path toward citizenship.
Some of this seems to be political. For example, the U.S. recently deported an Irish immigrant and shortly afterward an American was threatened with deportation in Ireland. Coincidence or tit for tat retaliation? The politics involved in immigration always affect real people. It’s too bad that the countries can’t work together on these issues.
Also, the Irish tell us that a post-Celtic Tiger post-economic crash Ireland doesn’t want foreigners coming in, taking jobs away from the Irish. So, there’s that too… These are issues that the United States also deals with.  Everyone has their own problems.
Regardless of what the reasons are for the stricter immigration laws, based on the research and correspondence we had before we moved to Ireland, getting permission to stay was quite possible. Brent needed to register for the teaching council and then apply for jobs. I found conflicting information about work visas, but I had reassurances from several reliable sources that these things get sorted upon arrival in the country. The general vibe was “just be a good citizen”. If you’re not a burden on the Irish government, you can stay. That’s how it used to be.
Unfortunately times have changed. Our immigration officer said that if we’d moved here five years ago, he could have done so much more for us. But since then, immigration laws have changed – any American who is not yet a citizen of Ireland is at risk of having their visa/card renewals denied. And if you’ve newly arrived, you’re too late to the party… be gone with ye. Your chances of getting a GNIB card are slimmer than a dollar menu hamburger.
There are several recent examples and articles about this, but I’ll let you find those for yourself if you’re interested (I don’t like to link to third party sites if I can avoid it).
The teaching council registration process has also changed very recently, with some rules going into effect for the first time in 2016. So, while Brent may have had an excellent chance of getting in (with persistence) years ago, Ireland is cracking down on any program that could take jobs away from Irish nationals. The latest rejection: the teaching council is now questioning Brent’s still-has-the-fresh-ink-smell Wisconsin license. Satisfying their request would take even more time that we don’t have–IF we could succeed at all.
I could go on and on with this, as it’s been a battle we’ve been fighting for months. But, I think you get the idea. Basically, we don’t have the time, the money, or the inclination to fight for this anymore. As we’ve seen our savings dwindle and our hopes fade, we’ve made peace with the realization that we can’t stay in Ireland.
In case you were wondering… The path for me to get a work visa is even harder, next to impossible really. As a non-EU immigrant I’d need €50,000 ($55,000) provable annual income under the current standards. I’m an entrepreneur with a salary based on royalty checks and event sales, with no proof or guarantee of a consistent paycheck. But even if I could meet a regular proven/documented income standard, I’d still have to apply for an artists’ visa — and that process can take months, with no guarantee of acceptance. And meanwhile, neither of us can work in Ireland… at all.
Again, finding this information ahead of our move was virtually impossible – we were told over and over again to come over and give it a go… that there is “discretionary” leeway for immigration. That may have been true for many lucky people prior to 2011, but it’s not true anymore. 2016 is especially difficult for non-EU hopefuls who don’t qualify for refugee status or other special programs. I don’t fault anyone… everyone we talked to was rooting for us to stay. I don’t have any regrets, either. Moving here was the best thing we could have done – our family is stronger and better for it.
Nonetheless… it’s time to go. I’d expected that we’d have income within six months, tops. That’s not going to happen and we can’t extend our stay beyond this stamp. We need a work visa, GNIB card, and salaries… none of which is going to happen. With time running out, we have to use our remaining weeks here to reverse everything we’ve done to stay in Ireland: the lease on the house, the car we bought, health insurance that doesn’t cover the United States, and so much more.

card 1I fought so hard to get an Irish bank account. I was proud when my debit card came in the mail. Sigh… we’re now unraveling our standing orders and watching the account fade away.

card 3And here’s my Irish library card – It’s an awesome souvenir!

card 2My Irish health insurance card. WHAAA! This is something I’m truly upset about losing. We had struggled to find any affordable health insurance after we lost ours twice.
Brent ended up going to the VA (veteran’s administration clinics/hospitals) for his care. During this time, he fell down with a very serious case of shingles. He would have been to a doctor much sooner if he’d had his old insurance that included local, convenient clinics. He wouldn’t have had to wait until he could take time off from work and graduate school to go to the VA (nearest facility was out of town). We’ll never know if it would have made a difference if he’d come in sooner, but the VA doctor thought so. She said his case was so advanced by the time he was seen that he almost lost his eye. Over a year later, one side of his face still has no sensation – not in the skin, not inside the mouth, not even his gums. His teeth feel “wooden” on one side. He continues to suffer from the nerve damage to his face.
The opportunity to buy affordable private health insurance was one of the best benefits to moving to Ireland, and one of the top reasons why we chose to move here. We needed help and we got it. I’m grateful for the months of peace of mind while we had it. We’ll figure this out, but I’m upset. For those who said, “if you don’t like it [the Affordable Health Care Act], leave”, I have words for you. We left. We had wonderful coverage for a short blessed while. But we can’t stay. And when we return to OUR country, where we are CITIZENS, I will not put up with any of my fellow Americans telling me to leave if I don’t like what my country is doing to me and my family. Other countries don’t want us either. So, you’re stuck with us and I’m stuck with you. I hope we can get along better this time.
Also, we’ll have to figure out how to help Savannah with her chronic incurable eczema. She was HEALED, completely HEALED here in Ireland, as we’d hoped would happen. Due to the high humidity here, her hands are completely and absolutely normal for the first time in about eight years. She had immediate improvement upon arrival. She says that her skin healed the rest of the way after putting her hands in the Celtic Sea! 🙂 This is wonderful… I’m trying not to think about her having a regression when we return to the States.
And on that depressing note.. I don’t want to dwell too much on what we’ve lost, or what we stand to lose. Let’s talk about what we’ve gained by living here in Ireland. Like this bit of goodness…
We have another lasting record of having lived here in Ireland. Savannah was in the Irish newspaper!
Mallow Star 2There she is, in the blue shirt (right), in the photo below:
Mallow Star 3 Knitting Group
Savannah joined a knitting group at the library in Mallow, Co. Cork, Ireland. She, at age fourteen, is by far the youngest member of the group. But she’s been loving it!
She was befriended by the women I call “The Knitting Circle Ladies” (ladies is probably not the right word to use… some of those women are hilariously raunchy). Savannah has told us many stories. All I need to do is create a fictitious murder plot and this group could star in a mystery novel!
While some of the ladies come only for the craic  (pronounced /crack/, meaning fun conversation/party), the tea, and the biscuits (cookies), Savannah has knitted a gorgeous sweater!
She was working on a project before we left the States, I’ll show you that one first. She created her own pattern for this. It may be hard to read in the photo, but she’s knitted the word “hello” on it.
IMG_3985IMG_3986IMG_3987
She definitely doesn’t get her knitting talent from me. I’m lucky if I can use school glue without making a mess of it.
As if her designer original “hello” sweater wasn’t enough, this beauty (in the photos below) is the original (no pattern) sweater that she knitted while at the library knitting group. Notice that she has added sleeves this time and a fancier stitch on the front. I don’t know what it’s called and Savannah is still sleeping this early morning, so those of you who knit will have to figure it out from the photo. 🙂
I have to point out — the sweater looks tiny in the photos, but it’s actually an adult sized sweater that fits Savannah perfectly. I think it looks like a doll or baby sweater in the photo. I should have asked her to model it!
Her skills have soared while living here in Ireland, don’t you agree?
IMG_4010
 IMG_4011IMG_4012IMG_4013Yesterday she attended her last knitting group meeting at the Mallow library. It was definitely bittersweet. There was, of all things and bizarre timing, an American bluegrass group performing in the library on that same afternoon.
Some of you might recall that our family used to play bluegrass with a group, and also as a family at nursing homes, senior centers, church, etc. Savannah shared about that connection and she was also quite the star.
The ladies asked her to sign the books we’d given them. (Savannah’s Inky Imagination features her artwork and Savannah is a cartoon character in our Dramatic Mom comic. Both are available in paperback & ebook, FYI!)
And then, at the end, the ladies gathered around her and touched her shoulders, hugged her, said sweet farewells to her, and told her to send the library a Christmas card. Well, that was absolutely the most perfect thing to say! Savannah told me that she almost cried when they said goodbye to her, but when Savannah mentioned the Christmas card, her face lit up. She’ll enjoy making or choosing a card for these wonderful and wild Irish ladies.
It’s not a forever goodbye, but a forever connection.
I never forget who is kind to my children. {{{{Hugs and Gratitude to the Mallow Knitting Group}}}}
 IMG_3764
 Next I’ll talk about Nicholas. Nicholas took a photography class through the UCC “Short Courses”. It was his first college course. He loved it! He came away from it with nifty skills, fabulous photos of our adventures here in Ireland, and a sparkling letter of recommendation for his application to UCC.
 IMG_3692IMG_3694
 About UCC… Do you remember his excitement when he first saw the Harry-Potter-like campus? Well, he finally finished his essay, after many grueling weeks of procrastination and angst. Nicholas then applied for two programs (schools/majors): Computers and World Languages.
Nicholas was accepted into BOTH!! UCC is in the top 2% of universities in the WORLD… Wow. I couldn’t be prouder of him! He was even offered a SCHOLARSHIP in the computer programme!!!
SCAN0022<<Subject: Congratulations on your offer of a place at University College Cork
Local Time: April 21, 2016 10:58 AM

Dear Nicholas,
Your application for the BSc (Hons) Computer Science in the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science at University College Cork has been reviewed and I am delighted to inform you that your application has been successful and that you have been accepted for a place on this programme.
I would be grateful if you could please indicate on our online application system your decision.  On receipt of your decision, I will send your official full offer letter to you by email before posting it to you.
Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Regards,
********
Non-EU Undergraduate Admissions Coordinator
UCC International Office

<<

Subject: Congratulations on your offer of a place in BA World Languages at University College Cork
Local Time: April 21, 2016 12:55 PM

Dear Nicholas,

Thank you for your application to University College Cork.

I am pleased to inform you that your application for the BA World Languages at University College Cork has been successful.

I note that you have also received an offer for the BSc Computer Science degree. I would be grateful if you could please let us know for which programme you wish to receive an official Letter of Acceptance by replying to this email. Once we receive this confirmation, we will prepare your relevant official Letter of Acceptance and send it to you by email.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,
******
Non-EU Undergraduate Admissions Coordinator
International Office, UCC

SCAN0019Again, it’s worth a second mention… Nicholas was offered a SCHOLARSHIP to the Computer Science programme – 25% off the tuition! What a thrill! Unfortunately the tuition is still out of reach if Nicholas has to also pay for room and board, instead of commuting from home as planned.
Nicholas is disappointed (I’m putting this gently. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on) that he can’t go to UCC, but I’ll share his new plans soon in a blog post I’ve already started writing in my head called “Dream a New Dream”.  This kid is amazing and I know he’ll be successful wherever life takes him. I’m sure the journey will be full of magical surprises.
On to child 3… I’ve done this in reverse order this time, from youngest to eldest.
IMG_3824
Cassandra was the first one accepted into UCC, for graduate school. The process for getting into graduate school is a bit different and apparently faster. She was accepted right away, leaving us to wonder if poor Nicholas didn’t get in (I’m so glad he did — even though he can’t attend, it still matters greatly that he got in!).
SCAN0020
However, Cassie was more excited about three separate offers to submit her CV (resume) to Apple headquarters in Cork! She did that, all three times… She still hasn’t heard back. Perhaps she will yet. Apple has from-home opportunities that could supplement what Cassie will be doing State-side. But, the point is… she is eager to land her first job. She worked hard for her Magna Cum Laude honors and her Math degree. She’d like to put her skills to use to make money!
Meanwhile, Cassie is also an artist. We have news to share on this front, but I have to explain it a little bit first. Cassie does freelance commission work on occasion. She’s worked for a few clients for several years now. Here’s an example of her work on the side of a van. If you live in Florida, you may have seen this superhero character of Cassie’s:
 2014vancrop2
2014vancrop
Cassie also has a series of graphic novels based on her KiLA iLo web comic. Well, the two worlds collided recently, and she’s had a flurry of commission work AND a surprising development: Cassie sold translation rights to her KiLA iLo book series! I can’t share details at this point, but… The first check has already arrived!
No, it’s not much, but for a recent college graduate with student loan bills looming, she’s much relieved that she will be able to pay her first installment and several months beyond. This happy news means that she can breathe a bit easier while applying for her first full time job.
IMG_3388
About Brent… he’s still applying for teaching positions, but now his focus is State-side. He’s done a couple of over-the-phone interviews and he’s made great connections, but he’s at the point now where he has to meet with head masters and panels in person. As soon as he’s able to function post jet lag, he’ll make appointments to follow up his interviews.  We feel confident about this. The hard part will be waiting for the salary to come in. This is his Go Fund Me campaign if you want to help.
IMG_20160317_131255About me…
I had an invitation and FREE tickets to the London Book Fair, but I couldn’t go. I couldn’t risk that the rather flimsy stamp on my passport was going to pose a problem getting back into Ireland – nor could I spend the travel money when I knew that we’d have to come up with $$$ to go back home.
IMG_4007IMG_4006
I also had to cancel my art show – remember that I was accepted to do an exhibit at Friars Gate Theatre in Co. Limerick, Ireland?
Unfortunately I couldn’t get a show date until February 2017 (it would have been a month long solo exhibit! WHAAAAAA!). So, to say that I’m disappointed would again be putting it mildly.
My library events hadn’t yet been scheduled (they wanted me for summer events), so there’s nothing to cancel on that front — I just won’t be here when they try to contact me. 🙁
But, I’ve scattered my books across Ireland – in libraries, in the hands of people I’ve met, as a thank-you to the knitting group who was so kind to my Savannah, at Friar’s Gate Theatre, and to the church that was so welcoming to us. I’ve given away all the books I brought with me, and even ordered more.  Also, I painted an Irish landscape that I’m shipping back to the States.
I’m here, in Ireland. I’m making the most of it!
Our Irish adventures aren’t over yet… I’ve saved the best for last: our trip to Dingle, Ireland. The most magical experience happened – one that has had a profound effect on me. I will never look at life the same way again.
I’ve made the most of my time here. And isn’t that all any of us can do? All of life is an adventure. The best we can do is to make the most of our time.
Ireland forever!
[See update: Dream a New Dream]
Posted on

An Irish Welcome

[Read part one of my journey to Ireland here]

My family and I were welcomed into Ireland by our dear friends Marie and Johnny O’Halloran. We hadn’t yet met in person, but we already felt as close as family. Seeing them was one of the events that I was most looking forward to, and I thought of them whenever I felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of the transition and travel.

Our story is a long one, but I’ll give you the short(ish) version. Marie had learned about my Serena Wilcox Mysteries Pet Contest on Twitter. She entered the contest, which led to a series of e-mails between us. Her adorable Jack Russell “Roxy” won 3rd place and a mention in the next Serena Wilcox mystery novel. Part of Marie’s prize package included a free copy of the paperback when it was published. I sent the book to her, in Ireland.

Well, that was exciting! Ireland, wow. I had a lot of questions about Ireland and I was wistful when I saw her beautiful pictures. Marie insisted that one day I would come to Ireland and there would be a thousand welcomes waiting for me. Naturally, this sounded utterly impossible to my ears. My husband’s job was on the brink, as the company was in a tailspin. My own meager earnings as an artist and author couldn’t finance a trip to Ireland. No way!

We hadn’t been on a real vacation since 2008 when we’d saved every penny to take our family to Disney World. It had been seven long years of “staycations”. Ireland? No, I just couldn’t see it.

But Marie believed from day one that she’d see me in Ireland, and she never stopped believing. Eventually I began to believe it too.  And that’s a good thing because around this same time, Brent was talking about moving to Europe. It’s another long story to explain his/our many reasons for wanting a big change, so we’ll save that for another day. Let’s skip ahead to this part: We had loved our newlywed years in Germany, but why not try an English speaking country this time around, like Ireland?

Yes, why not Ireland? Lately I’d become closer to my late father’s sister, my aunt Ann. She had sent me a collection of photos of our Irish family. It seemed that everything was coming up Irish these days. More and more, it looked like we were meant to go.

I started selling anything and everything we didn’t absolutely need or didn’t passionately want. I had dozens of garage sales. I listed over a hundred items on Craigslist. My husband Brent and our three kids helped with these sales. It overtook our lives for over four years. But we were raising the money for a new life…hopefully in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Brent was ever closer to losing his job. He had enrolled in graduate school to change careers entirely, after seeing that his prospects of a job in his field were bleak. He plugged away at graduate school to become a teacher while I plugged away at increasing my artist/author income. All along, we were selling more and more of our possessions. Nothing we owned was worth much money. It was depressing really, seeing how shabby our things really were. But it’s amazing how much the “fish and loaves” could stretch. Why, we could raise thousands of dollars, one quarter at a time!

I became a most excellent salesman! I sold an opened bag of potting soil and a pretty rock I found on our old property. Brent didn’t think I could sell the dirt or the rock. I knew I could. And that’s how it went.

I marked items separately and put a tag on them. For example, I sold our tackle boxes empty. I grouped the tackle into separate baggies marked 25 cents, 50 cents, etc. People bought *ALL* of the tackle. In the end, I made much more from each tackle box than if I’d sold them with the tackle inside. This was a lot of work, as you can imagine. I did the same thing over and over–for years! There was an element of insanity in this.

All along, I felt as if I was meant to learn something. Perhaps if I believe I can, I can. If I believe it will happen, it will. Maybe there was something to Glinda’s words to Dorothy. She had the power all along. She could have gone home at any time, if only she had believed it was possible. The ruby red slippers were just a fashion statement. All she really needed was to believe.

But, despite my best self-coaching, and my unceasing prayers, it felt like this bizarre quest was never going to end. We’d be spinning our wheels without actually going anywhere, indefinitely. Through it all, Marie never wavered. She was completely confident that I’d be in Ireland, where I would see a dolphin in the wild, something I’d always longed to do. I always felt better after talking to Marie. She made me feel as if anything was possible, that Ireland was possible.

Then, I didn’t hear from her for a long stretch. There was a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong. Marie’s story is her own, so I don’t want to tell too much of it here, but she was going through a surprise pregnancy after believing that she couldn’t have children…and to top it off, she was pregnant with twins! She and Johnny were over the moon. Sadly, her pregnancy was difficult and the boys were born very early. Lorcan and Cathal were micro preemies. Their proud parents loved both sons from before they were born, and they will love both boys always.

But dear Cathal lost his fight after a few short weeks here on Earth. I was heartbroken for Marie and I offered to help her through her grief journey. She had no pictures of her babies without tubes and medical equipment covering their tiny bodies. I wanted her to have an image of her precious children, whole and free from tubes. I suggested using Photoshop to create a photograph, or maybe I could paint them. Marie wanted a painting. Even when I felt nervous about getting it right, she insisted that Cathal would help me paint it.

Almost a year later, when Marie was ready, she gave me the images I needed to create a painting.  She told me that I could wait until I was in Ireland to paint the picture, but I started working on it right away without telling her. At this same time, without telling me, Marie was working on making a connection for me in Ireland to exhibit my art there. Our e-mails crossed at the same time, even though we were in different time zones (a six hour difference). She was telling me about the connection she made for me, at the same time that I was sending her the file of the painting.

Marie was confused at first, thinking that I was replying to the email she had just sent. But her email had somehow gone into her outgoing folder, and hadn’t gone through. No, this was an email from me about something else… about the painting that she didn’t know I had started on, let alone finished. It was a powerful experience for both of us. Describing these emotions would take many words, and even then I could not do it justice.

I brought the painting with me on the plane. I wanted it with me to give to her right away, as I knew that she would want to have it. This is the painting video. And here is the painting:

Oil painting Marie's Babies by Natalie Buske ThomasWhile I was preparing to bring her painting with me (I packed it in a cloth bag inside a plastic art portfolio case that I then packed tightly in my luggage with clothes protecting it), Marie and Johnny were busy helping me get a lease on the house we wanted. They acted as my representative. Marie made calls for me and Johnny visited the property to get the documents and keys. They surprised us with a video that Johnny made when he visited the house.

I couldn’t believe it… This would be our home! It didn’t seem real. And yet, there it was. We had raised the money to get ourselves to Ireland, for the deposit on the house, and we even had a small amount of savings to get through the next few months. It would be hard, as Brent was unemployed and waiting for his teaching certification to come through. But we’d face the same difficulty if we were waiting Stateside. Why stay there, muddling through these hardships in the frigid Midwest, feeling lonely and depressed, when we could go to Ireland? Why not try? At the worst, we’ll have spent the money we raised and have to return to the States  — AFTER living in Ireland! We had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The housing market in Ireland was not at all what I was expecting. I found it next to impossible to find a “fixer”. I wanted a low budget home. What I found was a variety of beautiful homes, for less rent than we found in our high cost of living area in the States! Well, gee, I guess you could talk me into it, if that’s really all there is…I still wondered if there was a catch. How could we be this lucky?

The days leading up to the big trip were stressful. There was too much to do. Suddenly all the “hurry up and wait” had become HURRY UP and GO! A snowstorm hit Minneapolis the day before we left and that threw everything into a big mess. The flight we would have been on was canceled. Not delayed, but canceled altogether! We feared that we wouldn’t get out of Minneapolis.

Of pressing concern, the condition of the roads was slowing us down. Brent had to finish the rest of our last-minute errands on his own because I had to stay in the house and try to get everything out. During the worst of it, I was breaking down because I lost the special locket that Aunt Ann had given me. It contained a picture of my great grandmother, Nellie Murphy, my Irish relative, but that’s not all.

IMG_2544The front of the locket had the initial “N”. When I first saw this locket, I initially thought that Aunt Ann had it monogrammed for me, Natalie. But the monogram looked old–a part of the antique jewelry. So, what was going on? Then I remembered that my great grandmother went by the nickname Nellie. N! We shared the same initial!

IMG_2549Here are the photos inside the locket… Nellie Murphy with her husband Thomas, my great grandfather. And yes, Thomas is also my (married) last name. Strange, huh? To make this more interesting, my Aunt Ann is also a Thomas by marriage (completely different families though).

IMG_2552The back of the locket had a shamrock on it. Isn’t this a beautiful piece of jewelry? I’m sure you understand my anguish in losing this locket just moments before leaving for the airport.

I’d been planning for years to wear it on the plane. I had set it on top of my traveling clothes, but Brent had moved my clothes when he stripped the mattress to donate it to a homeless family in need. The locket could be anywhere–maybe it was in the bag with the sheets in it. That bag was gone now and we didn’t have time to track it down.

The person who came to pick up our mattresses had been in a small truck with no bed on it. It was snowing and hard going. Well, that whole fiasco took much longer than expected, and Brent was late in getting out to donate a last-minute round of our possessions.  The kids helped me look for the locket, but we had too much to do. I told them to give up the search. I had to let go of it.

Meanwhile, WHERE WAS MY HUSBAND? We were supposed to head out to the airport in ten minutes and we weren’t ready! We still had stuff in the refrigerator! I tell you, I didn’t know if I would vomit or cry. Fortunately I did neither. I came close, and that’s bad enough. We ended up leaving in a mad rush, with the kids’ mattresses and other items to donate still sitting on the porch, waiting for the woman in the truck to make a second trip to pick them up. I hope she did. I never did hear what happened. Perhaps I will get a bill from the property manager!

Meanwhile, Marie and Johnny had arranged to be available to pick us up from the Cork airport and they were hoping to get word about how our flight was going. We couldn’t get anything through! Our Internet was cut off, we were running late, and Brent’s phone didn’t have an international plan. We’d have to focus on getting through baggage check in and airport security. I wanted to be at the airport three hours before the flight. We made it with two and a half hours before departure, which was still plenty of time. We were good! It would all be OK. Let’s calm down…

And then…

Baggage check in went sideways. We were overweight in our luggage, which led to a mad flurry of bailing things out. Regretfully my small cast iron skillet was thrown away in the airport bin. That was a tough loss, as it was my American made Lodge skillet that I’d meticulously seasoned and cared for, but… sacrifices must be made. We got that mess all figured out and paid a few hundred dollars more than we wanted to for the remaining overweight luggage, but we would soon be on our way.

Or would we?

There was a man at the counter who would not give us service. Now, I don’t want to get into it here, but let’s just say that I question his motive for sending us TWICE to a long line that we didn’t need to go to. It would be politically incorrect for me to spell it out to you here in this public blog. Think Minneapolis. Think of what is going on there. Think of possible bigotry toward a white Christian family. I don’t know… All I know is that we had to get the help of another employee because we were refused service. He said repeatedly that he could not do something that he obviously could do (and was forced to do when another employee got involved — all the while making it clear that he did not want to do it).

This whole affair took well over an hour. It felt hostile. It was unsettling. It was awful. But we are safe and that’s all that matters. We were able to finally move on to security.

And security in the Minneapolis airport was needlessly oppressive! It was a police state. My daughters were doing the best they could to comply. My fourteen year old Savannah was struggling to put her electronics into the bin, while her other things were also in separate bins, while taking off her shoes, etc. And I couldn’t help her because I was also doing the same thing, getting my laptop out, etc. We were trying to do as requested, as fast as we could. All the while, a female TSA agent was barking at my daughter like a drill Sergeant.  “You have to keep it moving!” and “Ma’am, you have to keep it moving!” OK, really? I know that Savannah looks older than her tender years, but “Ma’am”? She couldn’t tell she was a teenager? The giant plush giraffe and the way she was dressed didn’t give it away? I hate how this woman was harassing my daughter! I will never forget this!

And then we went through the rest of the ordeal… where Cassie was “felt up” – patted down over her bra, and Savannah’s hair was raked through because she was wearing something in her hair that apparently set off the metal detector.

I was selected for a TSA agent to go through my carry on bag, and that experience was wretched. The guy kept saying, “MA’AM, DON’T TOUCH THE BAG!” when I was merely trying to help, and I hadn’t touched anything. I was trying to tell him that I had forgotten that I had a pair of hair cutting scissors in the bag. I had packed it at the last minute, totally forgetting that I couldn’t bring them in a carry on. He wouldn’t listen! He kept talking over me.

He rummaged through everything that I’d carefully packed, leaving it in a mess. He skipped right over the scissors–which had likely set off the alarm, and instead found my kitchen set – utensils that Brent had gotten as a work anniversary present and are part of our set… the only set we had left. He removed our BUTTER knives and threw them away. Or whatever it is that they do with confiscated items…

I had the option to pay for them. I chose to let them go, as this trip was already too expensive. Now the butter knives from our set are gone. Needlessly.

The problem was the SCISSORS! As I had tried to tell him. (Well, no worries, I got caught with the scissors at the security line in the UK. The London airport figured it out. Lucky me, now my butter knives are gone AND my hair cutting scissors.)

After all of this, we got to the gate in Minneapolis only ten minutes before boarding. And that’s when they checked in my carry on bag, yes, the same one that was stripped of its butter knives. Freaking needlessly because the airline chose to check it in anyway!!!! And this is what happened, if you haven’t already read this part.

Anyway, well, you can see that we did not have a good experience. I could go on and on… it could have been worse. I’ve experienced worse, actually. But our three flights to get to Ireland can all be summed up by the final windy touchdown in Cork when Cassie hurled into a barf bag.

Ah, but we were on the ground! A thousand welcomes were waiting!

Our first welcome was at the immigration counter. The Irish agent was a jolly older fellow who was a bit like Santa. He chatted with me about our kids’ plans to visit universities in Ireland. Then he stamped our passports with the maximum 90 days without any more questions! It was the moment that could have gone wrong for us, and instead it went very very right! We now had the gift of 90 days in Ireland!!!

We have to get “permission to stay” if we wish to extend our visit beyond the 90 days. At that point, we can be granted a year. And each year it will go the same way, until about five years of residence–assuming that we are good citizens and can support ourselves. Then, we can apply for citizenship if we choose — Ireland allows dual citizenship, so we’d also be American citizens.

But, all of this is getting ahead of ourselves.  Brent has to get a job first. There’s a lot to do… I need to focus on the wins we’ve already had instead of immediately freaking out about the next step. We have a 90 day stamp. That’s something to celebrate!

Back to my travel story…

Marie and Johnny met us at the Cork airport when we arrived. I will never forget looking out the glass doors while exiting the baggage claim area and seeing Marie waving to us. I can’t describe how good that felt. It was like seeing a sister I never knew I had. And just like that, nothing else mattered.

Brent had booked a rental car, a “people carrier” (a small mini-van). It was the last car available, and more expensive than we’d hoped, but at least he was used to driving a mini van, so that was good. He got an automatic thrown in because they didn’t have any manual transmission vans left. This turned out to be a good thing because driving on the left was more of a challenge than Brent had anticipated. And it was a horrific nightmare for his passenger, WHOA!!!! Scary as hell!!!! Even though he followed Marie and Johnny’s car, he still blew through two red lights and hugged the left side of the road so precariously that I was convince we were gonna die!

But we made it… first to Dino’s, an Irish fast food restaurant that serves GIGANTIC fish fillets and delicious chips (fries). YUM! That was truly delicious and great fun. They still had Christmas decorations up, reminding us that it was December 30, not yet New Year’s Day. People were still on holiday.

Next, we followed Marie and Johnny to the house — which was way, way, in the middle of… nowhere. In the middle of a forest! Yes, there were other homes along the way, but which way was this….? There were no road signs. There was only an ever-narrowing one-lane road…

Savannah took these photos, with her iPod from the backseat:

Way home from airport 2

Way home from airportAnd then… there it was, just like we saw in the advertisement online, and in Johnny’s video. It was real, the house was real!

Our new homeOh MY MY MY! Our new home is gorgeous!!!!! Pinch me, I’m surely dreaming. [This photo was taken from the dirty backseat window with Savannah’s iPod, that’s why it’s so cloudy.]

IMG_2425I took this one later, with my nice camera – which the airline did not break! WOOT!

I’d been plunging toilets in a 100+ year old house, with drafty rooms in which I wore a jacket inside the house, and sometimes gloves (when typing at the keyboard my hands would get icy), and now I’d be living in this beautiful home! We went from a kitchen that was too small for our family — we had to take turns getting our food! — to a kitchen where all five of us can stand around chatting and snacking together all in one space. And when we want to sit for a meal, we can have dinner in a separate dining room! I could go on, but… you get the picture. The house is wonderful!

And guess what Marie and Johnny did? They surprised us with a kitchen food of food! Now, we knew that they were buying groceries for us, because she had asked me to email her a list. What she DIDN’T say was that she wouldn’t let me pay her for the groceries AND she would add extras! So, there was all of this waiting for us.

It was a joyful housewarming! I took pictures of the goodies, the extras….! And I’ll share those next.

But I didn’t take any photos of our time with Marie and Johnny – there will be plenty of photo opportunities later. Some moments are not meant to be photographed. Our time with them will hold a special place in my heart forever. The moment when I gave them the painting of their sons — the look on Marie’s face. I just… it plays over and over again in my mind and tears spring to my eyes every time. She cried. But it was that look when she first saw it, that look of recognition. I will never again doubt my talents. God did not give me the ability to paint for no purpose. What I do is meant to heal – it is meant to help others. I might not always know what to do, but if I am willing to do it, Someone will show me what to do – at the right time, for the right reason, for the right person. This was that time, that reason, and that person. I will never forget that moment.

Moving on and wrapping up this long blog post with something lighter — the treats! This was our Irish Welcome! (There were also bags of regular grocery times – we were well stocked!)

1These are the extras that Marie surprised us with…

IMG_2441Ha ha! Had to laugh at this. I’d asked Marie what a “mince pie” was. I saw that the McDonald’s in Ireland (on their website, when I was looking at it State side) was serving mince pies. I thought they were meat pies (called “mincemeat” afterall), but no, they are desserts. MMM! Cassie’s holding one up to show you:IMG_2443We tried them microwaved and baked — definitely better baked. MMM!

IMG_2446Here’s Nicholas enjoying his first mince pie:

IMG_2447

I also didn’t know what “Taytos” were. Marie had mentioned that she’ll have to lay off the Taytos when she prepares to run a 5K. I didn’t know what those were, although I did guess they were probably potato chips (crisps). But I was only partially right… they are IRISH crisps and they are very good. It’s important that I experience Taytos if I want to live in Ireland. 🙂

IMG_2448They even have a Tayto Park! Maybe we’ll go…

IMG_2451Savannah cracked the toffee open for us. She loved this experience and she kept the little hammer as a keepsake.

IMG_2452

IMG_2455CHOCOLATE! Cadbury is big here. It was fun trying the different kinds.

IMG_2456I love cake. And I love Christmas. What could be better than a Christmas Cake? WOOT!

IMG_2458The Christmas Cake in all its glory! The ribbon is real – we removed it to find a cupcake-like liner. In fact, it was like a huge cupcake! The cake was heavy, sort of like a coffee cake. It served our family of five twice over!

IMG_2460

But the best, I mean the BEST, is this…Irish Creamery BUTTER!!! We just have to stay in Ireland, if only for the butter!!!!

IMG_2470And the meat… mmmmmmmm! I tell you, everything we’ve eaten here has been fresher and of better quality, for a better price, than what we used to get in the States. What’s going on, America? The food here is AMAZING!!!! And everything is clearly labeled. Allergens are marked in bold. This helps me tremendously because my girls are allergic to nuts, especially nut oils that can be found in pesto and can crop up unexpectedly in other places too.

IMG_2473Made this nutritious, simple, and DELICIOUS meal of tender seasoned steak on a variety of greens with fresh cheese, bread and Irish creamery butter. It doesn’t look like much food but it was so hearty that we only needed one plate to feel content, full even! Of course I do have a healthy slab of butter on my bread. 🙂

Our Irish Welcome was absolutely wonderful! Thank you, Marie and Johnny — and Marie’s friend as well, who chipped in for the extras. We would have had a miserable experience without you. I don’t know how we would have even made it home from the Cork airport! Seeing your happy faces upon arrival meant more than you could ever know. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. We look forward to many fun visits. xo xo xo, The Thomas Family

I’ll continue to update everyone on our Irish adventures. And please don’t forget about the book I’m writing, A Dolphin in the Wild: How God Sent me to Ireland. The story is still unfolding.  Oh, and the special locket I told you about? The one that I lost?

IMG_2544I had it with me the whole time! It was in the pocket of my personal bag — the only bag that was with me from the first leg of the journey until the end. I took these pictures of it today — as it sits on the dressing table in my new bedroom!

See, Dorothy, the ruby red slippers were on your feet the entire time. You needed to only believe that you could go home.