My six weeks in Ireland flew by. I was working (through helpx.net) in exchange for food and accommodation at Eclipse Equestrian & Activity Centre. I hadn’t planned on going to Ireland when I was first organising my travels. The plan was to visit more community projects/sustainable living initiatives and write a follow up to ‘Is this the Future?’ whilst learning some of the skills necessary to help me live my life in a more wholly rewarding way. Which is exactly what I will be doing for the next two months in France and Spain. But before I made those plans, I received a tempting offer from Anita Tsiopani at the Eclipse Centre, asking if I’d like to come and help out at their kids Easter Pony & Activity Camp. Although I hadn’t planned to be horsing around on my travels, horse-riding is a useful skill which I have and hadn’t used much in the past few years. Also, I’ve worked with children and I’ve worked with horses but having never done the two together, I thought it might be a good thing to shove on the ol’ CV.
And luckily, it all worked out! The Eclipse Centre is a brilliant place, run by the amazing Tsiopani family. Horse-riding (including Natural Horsemanship and vaulting, well as treks and lessons) is just a small part of the place. Athos Tsiopani also runs all kinds of other activities – archery, mud-surfing, fishing, team-building, orienteering, mountain-biking, raft-building… and they also have their own Boot Camp Assault Course to top it all off. They’ve also got five holiday homes, a huge army tent for stag/hen parties/scout groups, a jacuzzi, steam room and sauna… and probably a whole bunch of other stuff that I’ve forgotten about. All set in a 90 acres of breath-taking mountainous landscape.
Anita and Athos are a wonderful couple, married for thirty years after meeting on a bus in Bristol. They still celebrate the day they met, as well as their wedding anniversary – which I think is lovely. It’s so nice to see a couple together for so long, still so in love. Athos is originally Greek-Cypriote, but grew up in England. He’s a perfectionist with high standards, but he is also a big softie who adores his family, is a wonderful chef and loves to tell a dirty joke or ten whilst enjoying a nice big glass of whiskey. Anita, originally from Somerset, is such a natural mother figure and great to swap stories with late at night, over a cup of tea or glass of wine. She’s very easy-going, gives great advice on pretty much anything, also a wonderful chef, gives a good cuddle and is so passionately devoted to her husband and her children.
I spent most of my time at Eclipse with two other helpers (or “interns” as the staff refer to us as, but which seems like the wrong word to use – for me at least…), John and Patti. John is a nineteen year old Irish lad, when I arrived I was told he didn’t speak and my challenge was to try and make him… well, pretty soon he wouldn’t shut up so I guess I succeeded! John describes almost everything as “Claaass” (imagine the Irish accent), eats an incredible amount of chocolate whilst staying skinny as a bean, and cannot give a straight response to anything. He arrived at Eclipse last June for two weeks, and never left! He is leaving after this summer though, to start some kind of Equine course at college. John lives and breathes horses – he reads the magazines, watches the TV shows, spends hours browsing horse-for-sale sites and watching horsey YouTube videos and is often found down at the stables on his days off. It’s really quite nice to see somebody so passionate about something, and I have no doubt he’s going to go on to have a successful horsey career. He’s fun to have a laugh with whilst working, and is always smiling.
Patti is also nineteen years old and is from Frankfurt, with a misleadingly Americanised accent from spending a year in Ohio. On a day off we had together, we were standing outside some tourist-tastic venue and some generic overweight American tourists (in my mind, they were wearing stars & stripes baseball caps, waving flags and holding hot dogs… but there’s a possibility I may be over-fictionalising the memory…) walked past and simply yelled “Wooo! America!” (and waved their flags). Neither of us were quick enough to tell them that in fact, we were both Europeans. But anyway, this happened every time Patti met someone new, which became increasingly amusing to me as time went on. Patti’s just graduated from school and is hoping to go to college in September to study Dentistry. She’s a sweet girl, whose catch phrases are “Alrighty!”, “That’s perfect!” (which is awesome to be told loads of times a day by the way… I’d start asking Patti “Is that okay?” about, like, everything, just so she’d tell me it was “perfect!”), and of course “Johhhhnnn!”. I would pay good money to watch ‘The Patti & John Show’ – which basically consists of John giving nonsensical responses to questions/locking Patti in a stable/convincing Patti of complete bullshit such as him being half French… and Patti going “Ohhh Johhhhnnn!” in her German/Ohio accent, stamping her cowboy boots and folding her arms. Priceless.
Although Anita and Athos were our overall ‘bosses’, Patti, John and I were usually working more directly with Karen Vicencio, a Californian (although there is definitely an Irish twang when she says “like”) with lots of stories to tell. She’s the stable manager, and is a brilliantly knowledgeable person to work for. A few of the horses at Eclipse belong to her, including one called Brannigan who she does various tricks with. Karen also loves to do Irish set-dancing in her spare time, and we went up to the local pub – The Tavern (which is also a shop, post office and petrol station) – to watch her one night. I’ve done a bit of Cornish and Breton set-dancing many moons ago, but these dances were way more complicated than anything I’ve ever done. Despite that, Patti, John and I had a go, which was a lot of fun even though we were pretty terrible. Just doing one dance is exhausting and I have no idea how Karen and the others danced all night long!
There was one other “intern” who came for a week whilst I was there, a woman called Anna, thirty-two and from Singapore. There was some kind of break down in communication about the job she was coming to do which is why she only stayed a week. It was a shame really because in a lot of ways, she and I had a lot in common. She was also on a search for a different way of life and is planning to visit places specifically concerned with getting back in touch with nature – she’s going to Spain and we swopped email address so maybe I’ll see her again. Anna has a wicked sense of humour and had an incredible appetite for garlic, even toast with butter and garlic granules for breakfast! She’s also a pescitarian and we had some really interesting conversations about the whole vegan/veggie/meat-eater subject… as well as many talks about life, love, what it all means and how we can continue to avoid pension payment plans and mortgages.
Anita and Athos also have three sons, none of whom really live at home at the moment but all of whom visited at least twice whilst I was there. The youngest, Sonny – or “The Temple” as he likes to refer to himself – a fitness freak and a really easy guy to be around with a great sense of humour. He’s studying Geology in Cork, but is often Athos’ right hand man for busy weekends. The middle son, Athoulis is a wonderful musician and composer. He’s also studying in Cork and hopes to write music for films as his job one day. I’ve seen some short films he’s made, and was very impressed… and he’s a great piano player. Athoulis has a lot of thoughts and opinions, is a great talker, and stays up late like I do, so we shared a lot of interesting late night conversation. The oldest son, Adam, self-confessed “Yippie” – half hippy, half yuppie – lives in a rented Manor (yuppy) just outside of Dublin, has a big beard and is usually wearing a big cosy jumper from Camden Market (hippy). Adam has a proper shirt-wearing, desk-sitting job, writing codes for computers (and doing other way more complicated things that I don’t understand), but is also a very talented musician, songwriter and photographer on the side. On my first weekend at Eclipse, Adam kindly took me along to a local party and the atmosphere – fire, singing, guitars, whisky – was so much like a party at home (either in ‘The Cottage’ or Ivy Avenue) that I settled right into Ireland there and then. All the Tsiopanis, and the rest of my Eclipse ‘family’, were so easy to live with and fun to be around, I really felt at home with all of them.