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July 2019 Vol. 15 No. 2

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Maeve O’Sullivan

The European Project

In the summer of 1973, I was aged nine and three-quarters, eternally squeezed between a sister and a brother. We were known in the family as ‘The Three Little Ones’, since we had all arrived in the space of three years: Ruth five years after No. 2 and Des five years before No. 6. The Fab Four had topped the charts on all of our birth dates, so I guess you could also call us Beatles babies.

in dressing-gowns
we become Batman and Robin –
Penguin trails after

Our mother had a low boredom threshold. She also loved a good bargain, so when she heard about the special offer to mark the first year of the ferry route from Rosslare to Le Havre, she jumped at it. Maybe she’d grown tired of the holiday routine and thought the trip might reprise the glamour of her voyage to New York on the Queen Elizabeth twenty odd years earlier. The two eldest were old enough to do their own thing, the youngest was left on the beach in Dad’s care, and Mum took us three down to the harbour: destination Europe. To us, the Saint Patrick was a huge ferry. We explored its decks and corridors with gusto. Back on deck, we marvelled at the ship’s frothy wake.

floating behind
as we sail southeast –
our spittle

But the highlight was getting Mum’s permission to go to the on-board disco. We gyrated our small bodies to the beats. We even met our first black person in the shape of a friendly man who was very keen on dancing, and very good at it. He wore tight trousers topped with an open shirt, and a gold chain nestled on his chest hair. We were mesmerised. We had seen black people before, in TV programmes and films, but had never met one in the flesh.

beads of sweat gathering
on his dark skin

We landed in Le Havre the next morning. The same sun was shining on us, but everything else was different. The sound of French fascinated us – so beautiful, so exotic -- and even the other children spoke it fluently! Mum impressed us with her grasp of the language, connecting easily with shop-owners and other locals. She gave us each a small amount of pocket money for treats, in francs, so we had to practise our sums. We chose items that we couldn’t buy at home: sweets individually wrapped in long plastic packets which unfolded all the way down to the ground, and notebooks which had small squares in them instead of lines.

transforming us
into continentals –
each new word