April 2008

My respect for American doctors, which was generally high in the first place, has gone up exponentially following my first doctor’s visit here in Ireland. A medical examination was required as part of the green card application, so my employer scheduled an appointment for me within days of arriving in Ireland.

This doctor’s office could best be described as “bare bones.” The receptionist staffing the office had no computer, and the waiting room consisted of a hodge-podge of old conference room chairs. There were none of those comfy overstuffed couches that you would typically see in an American doctor’s office, and the waiting room was freezing!

When I checked in, the receptionist informed me that I would need to provide a urine sample as part of my physical exam. For this most unpleasant of tasks, I was sent down a narrow staircase lit by a single bare light bulb. I managed to [ahem] do what needed to be done, flushed and then turned to the sink to wash my hands. Gasp! There was NO SOAP in the doctor’s bathroom. I was horrified and completely grossed out by this unhygienic turn of events.

After a rather ineffectual rinse of the hands with very cold water, I trekked back up the stairs gingerly holding the sample cup. Instead of discreetly passing off the sample to the nurse (there was no nurse), I was instructed to take my urine sample in to the waiting room with me while I waited for the doctor. What does one do with a urine sample in a room full of patients? Do you hold it on your lap? Do you set it on the table with all of the magazines? What is the proper etiquette in this situation, I ask you? I finally opted to set it carefully on the floor next to the wall and prop a notebook in front of it so the rest of patients wouldn’t have to look at it.

After a few minutes the receptionist prompted me to move from my chair in the waiting room to a single chair in the hallway. I felt like a school kid awaiting a stern lecture from the principal. I heard a man shout from the office, “Next!” and assumed that was my cue to enter the doctor’s office. I handed over my urine sample to the doctor’s ungloved hands. There was no sink in his office for hand washing, and in addition to handling my urine sample he took blood during my visit. Shocking, isn’t it? Universal Precautions, apparently, aren’t universal. Since my visit, I have seen commercials on television prompting patients to ask their doctor, “Have you cleaned you hands?” It is a sad state of affairs when John Q O’Public has to prompt their doctor to practice basic hygiene techniques.

Next it was time for the doctor to listen to my heart and lungs. Ladies: You know how American physicians discreetly drop the stethoscope down the back of your collar to listen to breath sounds? Not this man. I was instructed to lift my shirt over my head for this procedure. It was an awkward moment to put it mildly.

I have since chosen a different physician based on a recommendation by another American who works at Cope Foundation. After meeting her, I have a much better feeling about her level of competency than the fellow who did my physical. Her office is a converted house in a pleasant neighborhood. The waiting rooms are slightly warmer, patient records are kept on a computer, and, most importantly, she has a sink in the exam room for hand washing.


English Market North Entrance

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Shopping for food in Ireland is a bit different than in America, but then much of that would come from moving to any new place. I’m one of those people who hates shopping in grocery stores I’m not familiar with, even in America. I wander aimlessly, and while I may have looked at every inch of aisle 4B seven times, I still can’t seem to see the jars of peanut butter I seek sitting there. Now, to help you understand shopping in Ireland, imagine you’re browsing in a store, and you don’t know if they even sell peanut butter. Finally, when you do find it, not a single brand is familiar to you. This is the dilemma facing an American shopper in Ireland (but at least the product labels are in English). I’d guesstimate that about 85% of the brands are different than those in America, as you might expect. Have a favorite type of bread, cereal, jelly, or soup? You probably won’t find it here, and even if the brand is here, the actual product may very well taste different. Not necessarily bad, just different.

With some things, though, the changes are wonderful. The English Market has been a trading center in Cork since 1788, and currently has four butchers (beef and lamb), two poultry stalls, four fish merchants, two pork and bacon sellers and other stalls selling cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries, and a few other odds and ends. Looking for a cheese to replace your favorite Tillamook? Sidle up to On the Pig’s Back and they’ll be happy to offer you samples of whatever interests you, and the selection of local cheeses is stunning. Expect to find cheeses made from cow, sheep or goat milk, but don’t expect it to be pasteurized.

When we lived in Corvallis, we would regularly go to the Saturday Farmer’s Market and while we loved the produce we purchased there, it was really more of a social outing than anything. Don’t get me wrong, the selection and quality of produce was great, but since we had Richey’s Market available with great local produce, that was our usual first stop. Here in Ireland, though, the grocery stores seem more like the big chains in America, with everything (including the produce) a bit too pre-packaged, so we shop around. I don’t think we’ve bought meat or poultry from a grocery store since we’ve moved here, and almost all of our vegetables and even our rice is bought from one local vendor or another. Yes, I know the rice isn’t locally grown, but packaged rice in the big stores just doesn’t taste as good.

Not surprisingly, our eating habits have changed. Our fish intake has gone up (it almost had to, starting as it did near zero), as has our vegetable consumption. We eat more potatoes and bread and less rice. It is a sad fact, though, that once you know you can’t have something, that’s what you want. Several times since we’ve moved, we’ve been wanting a good pizza delivered, but that’s not going to happen here. And while I’m a pretty good cook, and can make everything from chicken paprikas or beef Bolognese sauce to shoyu chicken or chicken and sausage gumbo, I have to admit that I’m a little saddened by the knowledge that my next Frito pie is years away.

We had thought that shirts with logos on them were typically American, and while they aren’t quite as common in Ireland as in the states, there are quite a lot of them about. The most common logos include Timberland, Dolce & Gabbana, fcuk (which is not a misspelling – it stands for French Connection UK).

Certain sports teams shirts and sweatshirts are common here, particularly Notre Dame and Boston, which isn’t that surprising considering they’re the Fighting Irish and the Celtics (pronounced Keltic here since there’s no soft c in Irish). But I am puzzled by one logo I see fairly frequently. A dozen or so times I’ve seen people wearing an Oregon shirt or sweatpants, or seen Oregon clothing for sale in a sporting goods store. Not Oregon the state, but the University of Oregon (yeah, I can tell by the lettering, plus occasionally the sweats might say something about “Track Town”).

The first few times I saw someone wearing Oregon clothing, I was tempted to yell out (may God and my nephew Dan forgive me) “Go Ducks” just to see if I got a reaction. I suspected I wouldn’t, judging by the fact that no one here seems to have a clue where Oregon is. It’s just another American name used to sell clothing. I even saw a “State of Minneapolis” shirt, which is a puzzler to me.

Still, I wanted to know if there was an Oregonian-ex-pat crowd here, so I was looking for a chance to talk to someone about the clothing. Amy mentioned seeing a teen-age girl wearing sweatpants with Oregon printed across the back, and when I asked Amy if she’d talked to the girl about it, she said no. It is a bit of an awkward conversation starter I suppose: “Pardon me, I was reading your butt, and I noticed . . .”

Finally, though, as I rode the bus into City Centre, I noticed another passenger in Oregon sweats. So I asked if she had gotten the sweats from Oregon, or just bought them here, and she pointed to the Dunnes Store we were passing just then. It was just a pair of sweatpants to her.

The good news is, if you plan to visit us from Oregon, you can wear your Oregon clothing and blend in nicely here in Cork. Just don’t let my nephew see you.

Irish Brown Soda Bread

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

One of the perks of being in a new country is trying the local food. Irish brown soda bread, known simply as brown bread, is a ubiquitous part of the Irish meal. It is always served with soup and many of my colleagues eat it warm with butter at tea. We have also had it served to us before we order our meal at the nicer restaurants and with breakfast at our B and B.

Soda bread is a “quick bread” meaning that it does not use yeast. Baking soda reacting with buttermilk is the leavening agent used here. According to Darina Allen, celebrity chef and owner of Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork, this traditional bread came to Ireland in the mid 1800’s when bicarbonate of soda was first introduced to the country.

Tradition dictates that before baking the bread, the cook should cut the sign of the cross into the round loaf to keep the devil at bay, and then stab each quarter with a knife to let the fairies out (so they don’t jinx the bread). In truth, this ritual was probably done for more practical reasons. Soda bread is very dense, and without these cuts you may very well be left with a raw doughy mess in the center of your loaf.

A couple of weekends ago I bought a scale so that I could make my own brown bread. Almost all European recipes use weight measurements for dry ingredients, so a scale is required for recipes that require precise amounts such as baking. There seem to be as many versions of this classic recipe as families here in Ireland. Pat and I have found that we like it best with a trace of sweetness. The recipe I used for my first brown bread attempt called for a tablespoon of Black Treacle, which is basically black strap molasses. After a taste test done by both myself and Pat we agreed that the flavor was fine, but I hadn’t hit on the perfect loaf of brown bread, yet – the crust was a bit tough. (It was so tough that our bread knife could barely saw through it. Oy!)

I made a second and much more successful attempt this weekend. The bread was delicious and the crust did not cause any cracked teeth. One confession, though: My successful brown bread was made with a mix. A colleague from work told me that most people use the Odlums Brown Bread Mix rather than making their own bread from scratch, and she assures me that it is just as good as homemade.

Irish clothing

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Much of what is true about men’s clothing is equally true for women’s clothing in Ireland. Black is the dominant color, and jeans are worn, but less often than in the states.

Again, let’s start at the top. It seems a higher percentage of women here than in the states have straight hair, but whether that’s genetic or not, well, only their hairdressers know for sure. And the bleaching of hair seems more common here, too. One day, while waiting in the check-out line at the store, I noticed that the five women in front of me all had artificially lightened hair. I looked behind me and two of the three women had unnatural blond streaks, while the third had given her brown hair a red tint.

Many women, maybe even most, wear scarves, and Amy has adopted this bit of fashion for herself. The scarves are a practical way to keep warm, but they are also used as part of a fashionable clothing ensemble. Most women seem to have a closet-full of scarves at the ready to coordinate perfectly with the outfit they are wearing on the day.

Flights to the East Coast of the U.S. aren’t that expensive from Ireland, and because the dollar is so weak, many people fly to the states to go shopping for clothing (and electronics). As a result, women’s clothing follows what appears to be an East Coast style: feminine and fitted, and the empire waistline is quite common. My East Coast fashion experience is based on Sex and the City, so you’ll have to forgive me if my impressions are off base.

There isn’t much of the Eddie Bauer-type casual clothing here, especially on a night out, and I have yet to see an Irish woman in a pair of khaki pants. Go to a pub on a Friday night, and you’ll see the women dressed to the nines, while the men are dressed to the threes in their jeans and t-shirts. Pretty good deal for us men all the way around I have to say.

Amy looked for an extra pair of shoes when she first got here and had trouble finding something without high heels. We saw a show on television where the host was talking to a shoe store owner. The shop owner explained that a particular shoe was “practical” because its four-inch heels were wedge heels rather than spike heels. I’m going to venture that many women here really seem more interested in style versus comfort.

Black coats

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Before coming to Ireland, we were warned that while there were things we could do to look less American, it probably wouldn’t fool anyone. Even if we avoided the most American of clothing, we were told, our American haircuts, and even the way we walk and stand, would give us away. Still, while we couldn’t change all of that, we could try to avoid looking too American. The stereotypical American tourist wears a jacket made of synthetic material, a t-shirt with logo, a pair of jeans, and athletic shoes, probably white.

The idea that a European could spot an American at a hundred metres was illustrated in a story we read in a collection of travel writing. An American was hitchhiking around Poland, when a woman approached him and introduced herself in English. He asked her how she knew to speak to him in English, and she replied, “You’re American; you’re wearing white socks.”

Whether we looked American or not, at least we must have shed our lost look pretty quickly. Within the first couple of weeks in Ireland, we had been asked for directions on several occasions, and what’s most surprising is that we were able to correctly direct the wayward Irish more often than not. Maybe it was our pasty Oregon skin that made them think we were native.

So what does an Irishman look like? They aren’t all redheads (called gingers here) with faces full of freckles, but there are some things that are typically Irish.

Let’s start at the top. That flat caps that we Americans might think of as quintessentially Irish are still worn by some men, but I think I’ve seen fewer than 10 men under the age of 50 wearing them. The hair of most men is usually cut very short, shorter even than mine is here (this haircut is weeks old), although the front is sometimes left a little longer to be combed down, à la Julius Caesar. When we first arrived, I had a short haircut for me, but it was longer than what about 80% of the men wore.

The most popular clothing color here is certainly black. (Yes, I know from junior high that black is not a color, but the absence of color, but you know what I mean.) At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I shot some video of people lined up waiting for the parade to start, and 8 of 10 in a row wore black coats. At lunch one day at the East Village Restaurant and Pub in Douglas, about the same proportion of customers wore black, and all the men’s suits were black. The black wool coat is the single most popular coat worn here, although synthetic coats don’t really stand out since there are so many of them.

Men’s shirts are usually striped. Boys wear sweatshirts with broad horizontal stripes, while men wear button-up shirts with thin vertical stripes. Though not of the lumberjack or Scottish tartan variety, plaids are fairly common (maybe they’re a sort of evolutionary step between the horizontal stripes of boyhood to the vertical stripes of manhood). Men also often wear sweaters (called jumpers here), usually of a solid color.

Men’s pants are usually a dark color, often green or brown. Cords are common, but so are jeans. From what I hear, wearing jeans would have helped distinguished someone as American just a few years ago, but now there are stores in City Centre that display only Levis, Wranglers, and Lee jeans in their windows. And while it’s more common to see the young rather than the old in jeans here, on weekends in particular, many older men switch to jeans, too. Jeans may get worn at work in places like Oregon (our last governor mostly wore jeans with his sport jackets), but you don’t see that here as much.

Men tend to wear brown or black leather shoes, but sometimes wear athletic shoes like most of the boys do. Oh, and the socks aren’t white, except maybe at the gym.

Wedge Tomb
Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics


Ever since watching The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which was filmed in North County Cork, I have wanted to see the landscape of that area for myself. When I mentioned my desire to visit the north Cork County village of Macroom, a native Corkonian told us, “Macroom is f*** all.” However, after our jaunt to the area this weekend, I will have to respectfully disagree with him. Macroom is a charming and bustling town, but the real appeal lies outside of the city in the Boggeragh Mountains.

Recently we bought a book, Sean Teegan’s Scenic Walks in Cork, describing several walks in the North Cork region, so we pulled out the maps this weekend and hit the trail. Well, technically they were paved country roads but traffic was almost nil. In two hours of walking about, we were passed by five cars at the most.

In addition to seeing several stone antiquities, we also stumbled upon the ruins of a penal church, with a small plaque posted at the site explaining its history. “Penal churches” were necessary because beginning in the late 16th Century, a series of laws (known to history as the penal laws) were put in place by the English which severely restricted the rights of Catholics in Ireland. Whether these laws were meant to induce Catholics to convert or simply enacted for political reasons is debated, but it would be centuries before the penal laws were slowly repealed. In any case, Catholics were sometimes forced to practice their faith privately, and so the penal churches were made.

Even the ruins of a centuries-old church are quite modern when compared to the many bronze-age stone monuments scattered among the pastures along the way. As Teegan explains, “Nowhere else in Munster is the concentration of stone circles, stone alignments, standing stones, wedge tombs, circular forts so great as in the Boggeragh area.”

It’s not entirely clear what the significance of the stone circles or standing stones is, since there obviously isn’t a 3,000-year old source to consult (Why I Did It, by Thag O’Shea). But, while no one quite knows why stone circles always have an odd number of stones, their arrangement almost certainly has astrological significance.

In the states, historical architecture could be just an old barn from the early 20th-century. You may imagine, then, how awe inspiring it is to see a 4,000 year-old tomb or stone monument out in the middle of some farmer’s field. More than once we’ve been out driving, and the scenery reminds us of Oregon. But then we see a castle, or a church built in 1190, or these incredibly old stone monuments, and we realize, no, this isn’t like home.

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