As I write I am sitting on the balcony of a little apartment in a residential part of Alghero in Sardinia. The sounds of families at their evening meals echo around the courtyard below, the clatter of cutlery and tables being set, towels being beaten off balconies and hung out to dry, the bells of several churches pealing the Angelus in a strange kind of harmony, the more distant sound of mopeds and traffic and children playing football in a playground. The tantalising smell of pork sizzling on a grill wafts through an open window.
It is August down time. I’ve just spent several days without access to wifi or a mobile phone signal and I’ve been reflecting on how I accidentally became a blogger and why I might continue.
It’s just over two years since I started writing this blog. The inspiration, apart from a growing fascination with Chinese food and culture, was the news that my son Shane and his wife Shan were expecting a baby in Beijing who was bound to cement our Irish and Chinese families together. At the same time my daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike were settling in Australia. Our lives were set to get that bit more interesting, complicated and global.
Since then the blog and life has evolved in ways I hadn’t expected. The gleam of a dream that was #BabyShananigans is now our 18 month old grandson Dermot, a cheeky, cheerful, engaging life force all of his own who has managed to captivate all of our hearts. Shane and Shan held their Irish wedding and Dermot’s Christening in Wexford last December attended by our own and Shan’s extended family, most of whom who had not ventured outside China before. Meanwhile Claire and Mike have got Australian citizenship and found a beautiful home near Sydney.
We have all become citizens of the world with long-haul travel now part of our life blood, some part of us always looking forward to the next trip and recalling longingly the last, getting used to communicating by FaceTime, marvelling at each improvement in signal quality and broadband speed and how, despite my fears, you really can build a relationship with a toddler over thousands of miles of distance.
And my “encore” career with a variety of projects that keeps growing, now includes an attempt to set up an Ireland China Institute within the Institute for International and European Affairs. China and its people have crept under my skin alongside a growing admiration for its food, culture and language.
My project to learn from Shan how to cook authentic Chinese dishes has gradually morphed into a broader, haphazard exploration of Chinese cuisine, occasional cookery demonstrations with my friend Robert Jacob and baby steps towards learning the language. Shan’s friend and bridesmaid Wei Wei, who writes her own blog My Chinese Kitchen is now my teacher of both the language and Chinese cooking here in Dublin.
Just over a year ago I acquired a Big Green Egg because it resembled a traditional Chinese clay oven and might solve my dilemma of how to cater for Christmas dinner and Twelve Days of Christmas for Shan’s extended Chinese family. This “not just a barbecue” smoker, roaster, grill, pizza oven, kamado oven all in one unleashed a creative surge and I’ve discovered even more about the joy of experimenting with recipes and preparing ingredients – long slow cooking and pizzas on my Egg, fast stir-fries in my wok and sometimes a combination of both. I’ve even tried a Chinese take on pizzas.
I continue to write about travel in Italy, China and Australia, often wishing that I could write mid-experience but knowing I must put such thoughts to one side so that I can live the moment and not just be an observer. Sometimes that means I’ve a series of half drafted blog posts and little time to complete them. But the very act of recalling the experience later to write about it helps cement the memories in my mind.
Italy was my first love long before China snuck under my skin but I’ve got used to the idea that I have no hope of Italian relatives now that I have Chinese and Welsh ones. Instead I have surreptitiously “adopted” my friend and Italian teacher Solange and her Irish twin sons who have a gorgeous mix of Argentinian and Romanian blood in them too. They are my Italian “family” in more ways than one and the resonance between Chinese, Irish and Italian families are strong.
Once in a while I will review a restaurant. I could happily spend a lot of my time reviewing the fruits of my favourite hobby – finding interesting places to eat out – but there are others who do that much better than me and I rapidly run out of superlatives. Still, when I find a gem or a local treasure, I cant resist writing about it.
And from time to time I write about family or rather what it is like to be a long distance granny and the mother to two children that live on the opposite side of the world. Sometimes those pieces feel like the best bits of writing I do, straight from the heart, written in one sitting, effortlessly. There is always a risk that writing like that will paint an artificial picture of an idyllic family life. That’s not the case of course. Every family has it’s share of tragedies, traumas and day to day tensions. But for me these pieces are a release valve for the overwhelming experience of becoming a grandparent, a love for which nothing – not even being a parent – quite prepares you, and also for the realisation that your relationship with your children can deepen and strengthen as they become adults, even when they live on the other side of the world.
So to mark the second anniversary of the blog I did a bit of reorganising of its contents to make the posts you are interested in easier to find. Most of the feedback I get on the comes via Twitter and I know, for instance, that some of you who follow Shananigans never cook any of the recipes but enjoy the underlying stories, the glimpses of Chinese family life and the tales of travel to exotic places. Blog posts that are mainly about family, travel or food reviews now have their own categories.
Other readers have their favourite Chinese recipes that they cook again and again. These are now grouped, by main ingredient, in the “Recipes” section of the blog which is sub-divided into Chinese recipes, those for the Big Green Egg and Irish or fusion recipes that don’t fit neatly into either of the other categories. I’ve put in a “Menu Plans” section too because I’m always looking for ideas for how to put various recipes together into a manageable meal.
There is a growing band of BBQ enthusiasts here in Ireland and abroad who go straight for the latest Big Green Egg recipe which is why I have grouped those together. Indeed those of us who purchased our Eggs from A Room Outside in Limerick are rapidly forming our own little support group sharing tips and recipes and fun. Barbecuing is not just for the boys!
Recently I added a list of my favourite blogs to the home page, blogs that I follow and return to again and again because I love the way they are written and they suck me into the writer’s world. I will add to this slowly over time.
I have sometimes thought of taking a hiatus in blogging, a pause to regroup as life gets so busy. But then a germ of an idea pops into my head and I feel the need to write there and then. So my posts have become a little more sporadic but still emerge, as if with a mind of their own, about three or four times each month. Right now I have half written posts about Hong Kong, Sardinia, Big Green Egg essentials, some new recipes from Wei Wei and a few new recipes of my own. Any day now I will finish some of them off.
Over the last two years I have made many new friends through the blog, friends who I feel I know very well through their reaction to what I write even though in some cases we haven’t even met. Thank you for your responses and encouragement that meet the need of every writer, even us amateurs, to be heard and to feel that sometimes a small something of what we write has a ripple effect out into the lives of others and an echoing resonance that connects us all around the world.