March 2008



Mazda 121
Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We have reached a new milestone in our assimilation to Ireland. We bought a car! My dad loved to shop for second-hand cars. For him, it was all about the challenge of negotiating a good bargain and seeing what the salesman would take in trade. I think Dad would have traded chickens and potatoes for a car if he could. I know for a fact he did trade custom engraved rifles for cars. For me, though, buying a car has always been an unpleasant and stressful task. I don’t have a clue about cars and I am sure it shows. As you can see from the picture, though, we were successful in our car quest. It’s not fancy, but it runs and will hopefully keep us mobile for the two years that we are here.

Driving in Ireland is a very different experience from driving in the U.S. The most obvious difference is that the Irish drive on the left side of the road. When we picked up a rental car in January I was the one designated to drive, since I needed the practice before I began driving for work. I knew it was going to be a difficult transition to driving on the left hand side of the road when I first went to the left side to hop in the driver’s seat and it wasn’t there. Sitting in the right seat and driving was a new experience, and I became aware that as I drove my entire body was leaning towards the left side of the car. It was as if my mind couldn’t process the information while I was sitting on the right hand side of the car.

For me, the most nerve wracking aspect of driving in Ireland is the narrow roads. Many of the roads that are designated as two-way streets are only wide enough to allow one car to pass at a time. The unwritten rule seems to be that oncoming traffic will pull to the side and allow several cars to pass. Then it is their turn to drive down the road while oncoming cars give way to them. This turn taking makes for slow going, but it is the only solution for many of these roads. While test driving a car in city centre last week, I was driving on one of these very narrow roads. I was following a local delivery truck when, for some reason, an oncoming drivers decided that she could just squeeze through rather than wait for us to pass. The truck driver and I were both forced to drive up on the sidewalk, and when the car passed me our side view mirrors still clipped each other. It is very common to see cars with their passenger side view mirrors folded in or dangling sadly on the side of the door.  I can definitely see why this would be given my own “mirror clipping” encounter. 

As Pat mentioned in a previous post, the cars are generally quite small here. Between the price of fuel and the narrow roads a small car really is the most practical choice. It is also far more common and much less expensive to drive cars with manual transmissions. Being a country girl, I learned to drive a manual at a young age, so this isn’t really a big issue for me. The Irish do, however, have a technique that I will need to brush up on before I take my driver’s test: using the handbrake on a hill start. This is not a technique that I learned at home, or ever observed anyone else doing. It actually makes a lot of sense given the hilliness of Cork City and the amount of traffic here. There isn’t much room for rolling backwards before first gear engages.

Despite the challenges of learning to drive in a new country, we are both thrilled to have a vehicle. We are looking forward to forays out to some of the wild and scenic areas or County Cork and beyond. Maybe even this weekend if the weather holds…

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In the span of fifteen years, Ireland has gone from being one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its wealthiest.  When walking through downtown Cork, one can easily count a minimum of eight cranes at work erecting various high-rise buildings.  The financial boom has had a significant effect on Irish cuisine as well.  In the not too distant past, Irish fare was best known for boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, boiled parsnips and generally bland uninspiring food.  While you can still find these mushy and less than savory items on menus in some restaurants, they are no longer the norm.

County Cork has become well-known as a foody’s paradise.  Chefs have access to an abundance of fresh food here:  an impressive array of fish from the local rivers and ocean, local farmhouse cheeses, acres of potato fields and grass fed lamb and beef.

It is a delight to have so many restaurant choices, but it can make quite a dent in the pocketbook.  Vegetarian soup, such as potato-leek or carrot-parsnip, served with one or two slices of brown bread is consistently the most affordable item on most lunch menus.  This meal usually runs around €4.  A simple sandwich with mayo, ham and cheese and a very small side-serving of salad usually costs between €6-8.  Most other items on the menu are €11 and up.  Dinner menus are even pricier.  It is almost impossible to find dishes for less than €15 for dinner, and most are €20 and up.

Ireland has become much more ethnically diverse in recent years.   The country’s booming economy and the recent addition of several Eastern European countries to the EU have turned Ireland into something of a melting pot.  At the Cope Foundation I work with a woman from Germany, two men from India, a man from Nigeria, and two women from South Africa. 

With this level of diversity in a city of over 120,000 people one would think that there would be a number of ethnic restaurants.  Poland has a particularly large community of immigrants in Ireland and, while there are many small Polish grocery stores, I have not yet seen a Polish restaurant in Cork.  There are several Chinese and Indian restaurants, but Mexican food is definitely a rare cuisine for the Irish.  One will occasionally see quesadillas on a lunch menu.  The pronunciation “Kay su dee ah” is sometimes put next to this item, which seems to indicate the lack of familiarity with this genre of food here.

Pat and I decided to try out the only Mexican restaurant in town for dinner on my first week of work.  Several guidebooks and a couple of locals had endorsed it with pride and raved about the good food to be had there.  Since enchiladas are my favorite dish, I decided to give them a try here in Ireland.  In America, all Mexican food meals begin with a complimentary bottomless basket of chips and salsa.  Here, a small basket of corn chips costs €2.  My enchilada cost €15, and it was a lone enchilada wrapped in a flour tortilla instead of the standard three corn tortilla enchiladas you usually get in the States…and no beans.  I absolutely love refried beans, so this was a bitter disappointment to me.  While the food was fine, it did not come close to the flavor and authenticity that can be found in so many Mexican restaurants back home.  At the end of the day, for two main dishes, no chips and salsa, and tap water to drink the meal cost $58.19 American.  To put this in perspective, Café Mexicana is billed as good value for the money here in Cork.  Ouch!

The high prices here in Ireland don’t just affect the tourists.  Everything is expensive here:  restaurants, the price of homes, petrol, apartments.  This really hit home for Pat and I when we went to Glasgow in February.  We hadn’t exactly gotten used to the high prices in Ireland, but had started to resign ourselves to them.  After seeing pricey menus for so many weeks, it was a treat to be able to find affordable meals and entertainment. Now that I am earning euros, I am sure that we will take advantage of the cuisine and culture that Cork has to offer on a more frequent basis.  I suspect, though, that we will feel more able to do so when we are touring about in other more affordable areas of Europe.

Here in Ireland (and Britain) holidays are not referred to as national holidays, but bank holidays.  Some are the same as those celebrated by Americans, such as Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Others, such as St. Patrick’s Day and Easter Monday at least celebrate a holiday that is of course known and celebrated in the states, even if they aren’t days off for most workers.  Labour Day and May Day are the same thing here, and celebrated on the first Monday of May.  But then they have St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, a saint’s day that I suspect the majority of Americans have never heard of.  Finally, they have June, August, and October Holidays, which don’t coincide with any particular religious, historical, or cultural event. 

So, you’d think that the banks would be closed on the bank holidays, and that would be it, wouldn’t you?  Oh, foolish reader, have you learned nothing?  On Christmas Eve last, we went to a bank to set up a banking account just after 11 and were told they didn’t have time that day because they were closing at noon, but we could come back Friday when they would reopen.  Somehow, two days of bank holidays meant the banks were to shut down for three-and-a-half days. 

Three weeks ago, just as Amy started her job, I read somewhere that both Good Friday and the Monday following Easter were holidays, and I was looking forward to a four day weekend with Amy.  No, she was told by her supervisor, Good Friday is a bank holiday in Britain, but not here in Ireland, and Amy would have to work.  Apparently no one at Cope consulted the banks (or the post, for that matter), because the banks were closed Friday and again today, Easter Monday.

In America, holidays are an excuse for stores to have Sales, Sales, Sales.  That is one of the biggest differences with the holidays here, that on a holiday like today, many stores are closed, and the others don’t seem to have any special sales going on.

Apparently, when St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, he also got rid of the cats.  I could count on my fingers the number of cats I’ve seen in the three months we’ve been here.  Dogs, though, are very popular.  Look in the classifieds of the paper, and you’ll see column after column of ads for dogs (quick aside, did you know that the name Colm was pronounced Column?  I always thought it was one syllable).  Look under cats, and there are three ads advertising cats free to good homes, and one ad looking for a Stud Chinchilla cat, whatever that is.

Dogs, though, are everywhere.  I don’t mean that there are people walking them everywhere or that they are behind every fence.  No, it’s just that most people seem to let their dogs run free here.  There was a news story recently about a dog that had been reunited with his owners after a fourteen month absence.  The owners said the dog disappeared when they “let him out for his morning run.” 

When we go walking, whether out in Rochestown, Douglas Village, or Cork City Centre, it’s quite common to see dogs trotting along all alone.  Most of these dogs don’t seem to be strays.  They are well-groomed, and look as if they are simply out to get a pint at their local before buying the Evening Echo and returning home, or maybe they’re off to play poker with that cheating bulldog.  I don’t know, but in any case they usually look like they know exactly where they’re going.  The one thing they don’t know how to do is pick up after themselves, which is why there is an inordinate amount of dog poop everywhere.  This is why I’m a cat person:  cats don’t poop on the sidewalk.

You thought today was the first day of spring?  Maybe in America, but not here.  In Ireland, the first day of spring is the 1st of February. 

I was a little skeptical myself when Amy came home from work one day and announced that she had been told that 1 February was the first day of spring.  How could that be?  You can’t just make up something like that, because spring begins on the vernal equinox, when the Earth’s axis shifts so that the Sun passes directly over the equator on its way north, and that usually happens around the 20th of March (sometimes the 21st) .  But I looked it up, and sure enough, spring comes to Ireland on 1 February.  Summer, by the way, begins 1 May.

I began to consider just what makes a season.  For school kids, summer begins the day school lets out, and ends the day the next school year begins.  For others, Memorial Day and Labor Day mark the opening and closing of summer.  Officially, though, we were always told summer began on the longest day of the year, in June, and ended on the autumnal equinox in September.  Of course, we also were told that the seasons were reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Think about this possibility (I’m sure for somebody, it’s a reality):  You and your neighbor live in an equatorial country.  The equator passes down the middle of your street, and you live on opposite sides.   By the definition of seasons used in the U.S., you celebrate the first day of spring on the day your neighbor celebrates the first day of Fall, since one of you is in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern.  Doesn’t really work, does it?  Which explains why many cultures have just two seasons, rainy and dry. 

If you look up the sunrise and sunset of a place like Singapore, which is just 90 miles north of the equator, the longest day of the year is in June and clocks in at 12 hours, 12 minutes, and a few seconds. The shortest day?  That’s in December, and it’s 12 hours, 2 minutes and some odd seconds of sunlight.  Actually, from late November to early January, for over six weeks, the amount of daylight per day never varies by more than a minute.  In other places even closer to the equator, or on it, the variation is even less.  The extremes in sunlight happen as you move farther from the equator, which explains the days with no sunrise or sunset, depending on the time of year, in places like Alaska.  Cork is around 52 degrees north, so the variation is quite large.

I thought a bit about our definitions of time, and which time units are “real” and which we just make up.  Of course, a year is not a human-made thing.  Whether people are there to observe it or not, it takes a year for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.  A day, too, has an obvious significance.  But a week?  It may be Biblical, but it doesn’t have any astronomical significance.  The same with a month (unless we’re talking about a lunar month).  Hours, minutes, all made up to help us make sense of the passage of time.  The seasons, though, are partly man-made concepts that someone decided to tie to the very real shifting of the earth on its axis and the change in weather that follows in most places.  Yes, there is a day with the most sunshine and a day with the least, and there are two days (the equinoxes) when the sun is over the equator.  But why should those necessarily define the seasons?  In most cultures, they don’t.  A summer that begins on 1 May and ends on 31 July encompasses most (but not quite all) of the days with the most sunshine.  It may seem different to an American to define summer that way, but it makes sense.


Irish boy resized
Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

More than one person in the States has commented to us recently, “They don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, do they?” You know, it’s one of those things they heard someone who heard it from someone else. It’s true America can go a little over-the-top celebrating the day, and New York has the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world, but let me assure you that the Irish do celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Though he was probably Welsh by birth, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. His saint’s day is a bank holiday, a national holiday, and most cities, including Cork, have a parade and a celebration. Amy had been warned by some of her co-workers, though, that the parade was not that impressive, and was mostly just people walking. Still, it was our first St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, and we couldn’t miss out on the celebration. So this morning, Amy and I went with our friend Arun to Cork City Centre so we could all see our first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland (actually, for all three of us, it was our first St. Patrick’s Day parade seen live) .

The streets around the very heart of the city were all closed off hours before the parade was scheduled to start at 1, and we wandered down to a small group of booths selling food from local vendors. Much of the selection was about what you’d expect at a fair in the states: Brats, American hot dogs (at €4 each), ice cream, candy, curried chicken on rice, and my own choice, the pork and onion burger with bacon on top. Any pork product that comes with bacon on top is of course a winner in my book.

After a bite to eat, we made our way to St. Patrick’s Street (usually just called Patrick’s Street) to await the parade. Soon, a group of motorcycles came roaring by, and the parade was on. Or so we thought. A few minutes passed and nothing happened. Finally, several groups of marchers passed in succession. And then a wait. This tended to be the pattern; we were near the end of the route, so the different units of the parade had time to spread out before reaching us.

Even though Cork is the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland, it can still feel like a small town. The parade certainly seemed more like that in a small town rather than what you’d see in a big city. Other than the motorcycles at the beginning, and two SUVs following an Army unit, I don’t think there were any other motorized vehicles. There were marching bands (usually bagpipe bands), and plenty of little kids, including basketball groups, an in-line skate hockey team, and dance schools.

There were also quite a few marchers from other countries. The biggest group of immigrants in Ireland is from Poland, and there were several Polish groups in the parade. It was nice to see so much cross-cultural representation, because there have been a few incidents of violence toward Poles in Dublin recently. There were also groups representing people from many different African countries. Eventually, the parade ended, or at least stopped for long enough for us to decide to move on.

A few hours after we got home, we watched the TV news showing highlights of the parades in Dublin, Cork, and Galway. Many of the images of the Cork parade were familiar, from the frogs to the Chihuahua. Yes, the Chihuahua. But then, we found ourselves looking at a float on TV and saying, “We didn’t see that.” It’s possible the float appeared after we left, but I wonder if it even made it to our location.

After the parade, the traditional way of celebrating the day began for many of the adults: going to pubs and drinking. Maybe next year we’ll join them.

 You can see more photos of the St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Cork on our Flickr site.

rabbit-snowman1.jpgCork has a reputation as a generally safe city, but there are still pockets of crime in a city of this size.  One gray dreary January day, Pat and I decided to divide and conquer in an effort to get several errands taken care of a bit more efficiently.  As I was crossing the bridge over the River Lee to scout out the location for my written driving test, I was thinking to myself how nice it was to be able to walk around a fairly large city by myself and still feel safe.  This bubble of false security was ruptured rather violently not long after this moment of blissful ignorance. 

I walked around the corner on to a slightly less busy street and was quickly confronted by a young woman with slurred speech asking for “two seconds of my time”.  I shook my head and began to move away when she grabbed my hair and then started slapping my face and body.  I pulled away from her only to be accosted by her male counterpart a few feet away who also grabbed my hair and attempted to detain me.  I once again escaped and then sprinted toward a group of road workers who were about 25 yards further down the street as I screamed for help.  I was glad to have someone to run toward, but the men made no move whatsoever to help me or to check to see if I was okay.  After I had stared wide-eyed at one of the men for several seconds he mutely shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. 

I very much hope this degree of inertia is the exception to the rule and not the norm when someone witnesses another person being attacked on the street.  Of course, hopefully, I won’t find myself in such an unsavory position again.  But one never knows.  The encounter has definitely raised my level of alertness when I am out and about on the streets, though.

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