February 2008

2317251.jpgI’ve heard “island time” applied to places like Fiji and Bali, but it seems to apply on this wet and windy European island, as well.  Everything seems to take longer than it should:  green cards, getting an apartment, bank accounts.   

I admit that many of these difficulties were brought on by poor timing – namely the Christmas holidays, and the fact that we came to Ireland ahead of the green card.  In our defense, we had already bought our tickets for Europe as tourists before the job opportunity presented itself.  Enquiries were made by both me and my recruiter, and it seemed clear that as long as I started the application for the green card while on U.S. soil there should not be any problems.  Based on these assurances, Pat and I naively decided to press on with our original travel plans.  What a foolish mistake.  As new world travelers, we were about to get our first very hard lesson in moving to a new country. 

When we got off the plane in Dublin, Pat and I received a stern lecture from the Garda officer (Irish law enforcement) who stamped our passports.  He told us we were lucky he was allowing us to enter the country at all, but he was willing to give us two months to get the green card situation sorted out.  At the time, Pat and I both agreed that we were very fortunate to have gotten such a reasonable official at the immigration desk.  In retrospect, I wonder.  Did he know full well what a difficult time we would have trying to get anything done without having the green card in hand?  Maybe he was just teaching us a lesson the hard way. 

The Cope Foundation (my employer) had scheduled a medical examination for me to complete the week that I arrived in Cork.  The Irish health care system will definitely be a topic for a future blog.  For now, suffice it to say that the doctor’s office was Spartan at best.  I was told by another American who used to live in Dublin that health care in Ireland is about 10-15 years behind the United States.  From what I saw in December and have read about in the papers, this seeems to be a conservative estimate.

Back to the green card:  Having my medical done the week before Christmas further prolonged the time for getting the green card.  Human resources informed me that they could not submit the green card to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment until they had the medical report in hand.   Between the Christmas holidays and the appallingly short-staffed hospital doing my blood work, my green card application did not get sent in until mid-January – already a month into the short period of time we had available on the temporary visa.  

After checking the green card queue online, my recruiter assured me that I should have approval by 1 February.   This day came and went with no news.  The clock was ticking.  In a very short time we would be kicked out of the country.  On 6 February, human resources called to say that it was going to be at least another week before the green card arrived.  She suggested that Pat and I go to the Garda station and ask for an extension on our temporary visa.  Temporary visas can be approved for up to 90 days, so we should be able to get our time in Ireland pushed back for another month.  Right?  Wrong.  We were told in no uncertain terms that the date on our passport could not be extended.  Not only that, but when the green card did finally arrive we would need to leave and reenter the country and present the green card to immigration at the airport.  After getting another scolding about the poor way we had entered the country, we left the Garda Station with our tails tucked between our legs. 

Fortunately, the green card arrived two days after our failed trip to the Garda station.  We finally had the right paperwork, but now we needed to leave the country.  In an effort to make the best of the situation, we decided to view this as an opportunity to see a little more of Europe.  After all, traveling around Europe was the primary reason for moving to Ireland in the first place.  For a variety of reasons (well, two actually: cheap airline prices and limited flight choices out of Cork Airport) we chose Glasgow.  We could spend a few days seeing the sights in the city, come back through immigration the proper lawful way, and I could start work shortly thereafter.   

Success at last!  We had a great time in Glasgow, reentered the country smoothly and I am scheduled to begin work on the 25th of February.  Not quite as quickly as I would have liked, but soon enough.   So, we have now come to the end of the beginning.  Neither of us expect life to be completely smooth sailing from here on out, but it should be much less stressful now that I can begin work, we have a place to live and have an Irish bank account.  We even have library cards.  It is official.  We have moved to Ireland.


Wild and Sexy Scotland
Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We spent Valentines Day in Glasgow, and enjoyed ourselves very much. We had some great Indian food, and tried some of the local fare as well. I had Scottish Rarebit for lunch one day, and Pat tried bangers and mash. I always imagined rarebit to be some sort of meat dish, but it is actually a simple, tangy cheese sauce served over toast. Neither of us were brave enough to try haggis, though. According to Wikipedia, haggis is a mixture of sheep’s heart, liver, and lung mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion, and spices. It is then all boiled in an animal’s stomach for about three hours. Yum!

We were able to take advantage of quite a bit of culture while in Glasgow. We went to several very good museums, and on Valentine’s Day we saw the play Equus. We both enjoyed it, but it was very intense and dark. Simon Callow (from Four Weddings and a Funeral) played the psychiatrist and Alfie Allen (recently seen in Atonement) starred as the disturbed young teen.

A few more lessons were learned along the way, of course. The biggest lesson for this trip was about hostels. When booking, I requested a room for two people but did not specify that we wanted a double bed. I think this is the first time in our marriage that Pat and I have slept in bunk beds. We could have changed to a double bed after the first night, but it was going to be more hassle that it was worth. Anyway, we both agreed that we felt like kids at summer camp.

To see more pictures of our trip to Glasgow, check out our Flickr site.

Ireland is a wonderful place to live.  The stereotypes are true: the people are friendly, and the land is beautiful.  Moving here, however, is pure hell.   

House #1 – 3 days  We arrived in Cork mid-afternoon on Monday, 17 December, and checked into our B & B, which was basic but enough for us, and which would be our home for the next three days.  In the afternoon, we wandered from our B & B down to the City Centre.  We had big goals for the next few days, hoping to get a cell phone, find an apartment, start the search for a car, and open a bank account, but that first evening was simply an exploration of a small part of our new home.  The next morning, we picked up a pay-as-you-go cell phone, then dropped in to see a letting agent, who looked at us with a touch of pity when we asked about seeing an apartment.

“You’ve come at a bad time.  In December, owners stop listing their properties, and all of the letting agents will be shutting in a couple of days.   They won’t reopen until the second, maybe not until the seventh of January.”

We felt the first small sickening panic then.  We had two days to find an apartment, since that‘s when our stay at the B & B ended.  (Actually it felt a bit like the old bar line at closing time:  “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”)   The letting agent did show us one apartment, though, on Wednesday morning.  It was in a complex built a couple of years earlier, and the apartment had beautiful new furniture, and it had high ceilings and a wall of glass providing an incredible view of the bay.  Finally, it was a “first letting,” so no one had lived there yet.  It was wonderful, but it was also in Passage West, outside of Cork City, and the commute might be more than Amy wanted to deal with daily.  Plus, it was more than we’d hoped to pay, but we wondered if we’d been optimistic. So on Thursday, while Amy went to the Cope Foundation to meet some of her future co-workers, I looked for other apartments using Daft, an online site for listing and finding apartments in Ireland.  I left messages on voice mail, even letting agents, and got no calls back.   Later we learned that it’s common in Ireland to not return calls, but we couldn’t help but wonder at the time, was it us?  Did they hear the American accent and think, “No way”?  In the meantime, though, I thought, “The Passage West apartment was great, so if we don’t find something else, we’ll be okay.”  That was until Amy came home and announced that her future co-workers warned against moving to Passage West because of the horrible traffic getting into and out of City Centre during rush hour.   Full panic mode.  We were soon to be homeless, the one apartment that we looked at wouldn’t work, and no one would show us another apartment.  Amy had gotten a list of contacts of accommodations that might – just might – have something available.  Part of the problem was that almost every B & B in town was going to close down for Christmas, which was less than a week away, and the odds of us finding a place before then were slim, considering it was nearly impossible to contact anyone letting apartments.

House #2 – 29 days  After several calls, we found a self-catering apartment: a kitchen/living/dining room, a bedroom, and a bathroom.  It wasn’t large, and it was expensive, but it was nicely furnished, in a great location, and would be home for four weeks.    Knowing we had a bed for the time being, and no chance of finding anything else until at least the second week of January, we turned our attention to getting a bank account set up.  Although credit cards are accepted many places, there are many businesses, (such as our first B & B) that are too small to accept cards.  So, we got cash from the ATM.  Every day.  Travel books will sometimes tell you to avoid frequently visiting the ATM by bypassing the usual preset withdrawal amounts on the ATM screen and getting the most possible.  Hah.  Since the Monopoly money we call the U.S. dollar is so weak compared to the euro, and our credit union has a maximum withdrawal of $500 per day, we were limited in what we could get.  I did the maths (that’s what they say here, the maths, not the math), and figured that $500, with the exchange rate and the fees, was about €14.  Okay, it was more like €320, but that’s really not that much, especially with the prices of many things here.  So, a local bank account would at least help us avoid the fees, and once Amy was earning euros we wouldn’t be facing the horrible exchange rates.  Have I mentioned how weak the dollar is? Setting up a bank account seemed like an easy task.  Seemed.  We spent one whole day running from one bank to another trying to find one that would let us set up an account, and none would.  Each bank had a slightly different list of required documents, but to set up an account, we were told we needed a PPS number (similar to a Social Security number), a utility bill with our address, or (and this is my favorite) a bank statement.  So five weeks later, we are still without an Irish bank account.   

Near the end of our time in Aban House, we began looking for apartments again.  The holidays were over, and things should be returning to normal, which might finally allow us to find an apartment.  We reconsidered that first apartment that was a little too far out of the city centre, but wanted to have more choices.  Following some more online research and a few calls, we arranged to see two more apartments.  The first was fine but not spectacular.  The second, though, was better.  It was set behind a huge building that had once been a mental hospital.  This was no Dammasch State Hospital, though, but a beautiful building that was being gutted and remodeled into apartments.  The interior of the building with the available apartment wasn’t as impressive as its neighbor, but we’d be on the top floor and have a bit of a view.  While showing it to us, the letting agent promised that the carpets, which looked pretty old and worn, would get a thorough cleaning and look much better.  She also promised new paint, and it would all be done by the end of that week, so our move in by the following Tuesday would be no problem.  The next morning we called to confirm that we wanted the apartment, and to arrange a deposit.  Unfortunately, Tuesday morning, when we were 30 seconds walk away from the letting agent’s office and ready to pick up our keys to move in, the agent called us and said it wasn’t ready.  In fact, the painting hadn’t even begun, even though the apartment was vacant a full week earlier.  But the next morning we would be able to pick up the keys and move in.  Well, not so fast.  That night we got a voice mail from Aine (pronounced Anya), saying the painting was half done, but the next night would work.  Unfortunately, that would be Wednesday night, the last night of our four week rental at Aban House.  What with the delays we’d already experienced, we didn’t feel confident of our chances of actually moving in, so we arranged for one more night in our short-term apartment.   Sure enough, another call confirmed the apartment wouldn’t be ready by Wednesday, but Thursday should work.  Finally, Thursday morning, we picked up the keys, packed our things, and called a taxi.  (I don’t recommend moving by taxi, but when you’re without your own car, it beats the buses or walking.)

House #3 – 2 hours  We had come to Ireland with five small American-size carry-ons (bigger than European carry-ons), a computer bag, and a camera bag.  It was just compact enough that, between us, we could carry it all.   However, now we had a little food, a throw blanket, a few more clothes, and the bulkiest of all, bedding.  Hauling all that up to the room, even with an elevator, took a few trips, but it was still a pretty easy move. Unfortunately, what we saw when we got in the apartment wasn’t what we’d hoped for.  The carpets did look much better, and there had been some painting, but the fire alarms were still not hooked up, the window in the main bedroom had come off its top hinge (it swung out on the side), and worst of all, the handle on the front door came off in Amy’s hand.   I made a list of the things that needed fixing, (or at least noting so we didn’t get charged for repairs to things that weren’t working when we moved in), and it had 22 items on it.  I called Aine, and she said we could get our deposit back and get out of the contract if we wanted.  Great idea, except we didn’t have a place to stay that night and it was now afternoon.  Because we weren’t sure the door could be opened from the outside if the inside door handle came off again, Amy stayed in the apartment while I walked about 2 miles into City Centre to talk to another letting agent.  On the way, I confirmed that the hostel near our self-catering apartment had a room, so at least we had a safety net.  After I hoofed it back to the apartment, we decided to take the out and move to the hostel.  Another taxi ride, an even bigger fare, and we were about 100 yards from where we started that morning.

House #4 – 2 days  The staff at the hostel were helpful and friendly, and our room was small but clean and comfortable.   At least it was ours for the next two nights.  Plenty of time to find another place to live, right?  You’d think that with our luck so far, we had no chance, and we did experience some doubt.  We arranged to see two more apartments, one of which was back in the building where we looked at the very first apartment we considered.   The other was in a suburb of Cork, a small village called Rochestown (pronounced like this:  “That’s Justin Roach’s town.”   Hi, Justin).   Both apartments were great, both involved a commute for Amy, and both were a bit more expensive than we wanted but they had a great advantage:  They were available.  After seeing the Rochestown apartment, we began to walk and talk, and realized that we both felt Rochestown was more comfortable.  We called the agent, and just in time, because in the few minutes between our calling to take the apartment and walking back there, another interested party called to take it.  For once, Fortune favored the desperate. 

House #5 – The next 5 months  So here we are, in our apartment in Rochestown.  It’s a two bedroom, two bath apartment, more than we need but it’s nice to have the room.  The owners plan to move back to this apartment in five months, so it’s not our permanent Irish home, but finding a home is important in so many ways.  Letting an apartment leads to utility bills, which show our permanent status, which lets us sign up for a monthly pay cell phone plan and internet, and we hope to get a bank account.  Of course, the best part is knowing we have a place to sleep for the next five months.