January 2009

The apartment we rented in Rochestown came fully furnished, including a television, but unfortunately, when we moved to our current house, there was no TV.  One of Amy’s co-workers was moving to England and offered hers when she left, but after waiting weeks for it, it turned out to be useless.  It was programmed for satellite and without the original remote control we couldn’t watch anything.  A new remote wouldn’t work unless it had been specially programmed (at a cost of about €60), or so we were told.  Another of Amy’s co-workers was moving to America, so we decided to wait for her TV.  When it arrived, the 14-inch screen looked puny, it was too old to work with the DVD player we’d bought, we could only get three stations at our new location without paying for cable or satellite, and those stations came in badly.  To top it off, Ireland has an annual license fee of €160, so if we kept the TV, we’d have to pay up.  We dumped the TV and haven’t watched for months.

Of course having no TV has its benefits, and we certainly read more than we did, but TV can be a great way to learn more about a country when you’ve just arrived.  We learned a lot from one show in particular, “Nationwide,” which appeared several times a week (in America, most shows appear weekly, every day, or just on weekdays, whereas here they might appear three times a week, or four, or whatever strikes the fancy of the programmers).   Every episode of “Nationwide” featured three or so stories, each looking at different part (a festival, or an artist, or volunteer organization or whatever) of one town or county in Ireland.

Without subscribing to satellite, there are at best only four channels to watch here, and in some locations less than that.  I would estimate that 40% of the total programming of the four stations comes from America, 40% from Britain, and only about 20% from Ireland.  So, it’s largely the same crap you see in America, but worse, actually, because TV producers the world over steal ideas, so three versions of essentially the same show (for example, “America’s Got Talent,” “Britain’s Got Talent,” and “Ireland’s Got Talent”) may all run here.

TG4 is a largely-Irish-language station that gets revenue from advertising but also from Government for its support of the Irish language.  Government tries to encourage the use of Irish, but I’m not sure TG4 will provide real value for money in that regard.  Yes, there is kids’ programming in Irish (“Dora the Explorer,” “Sesame Street,” and “Scooby Doo” are all dubbed into Irish, and the freaky thing is how well they did finding people who can match the original voices, so it really sounds like Shaggy is speaking Irish), but most of the shows seem to be aimed at the over-80 crowd.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it seems the majority of the shows on TG4 are about old events.  There’s the show where the interviewer talks with seniors about the old days, or the two different shows following their hosts as they sail in small boats to coastal communities and talk to people about the old days, or the one with the man who drives around and talks to people about the old days, and . . . well, you get the picture.  They rebroadcast sporting events from decades ago and their one American show is “Cold Case,” which is a police drama about old crimes.  The worst, though, is the show in which they send the host “on a quest to recreate postcards of times gone by.” Yes, they take an old postcard and try to find where the picture on it was taken and recreate the shot.  I’m sure the teens really love that one.

Two other stations also get government funding, which leaves poor TV3 as the only station solely reliant on revenue from advertisers.  This led them to complain (rightly) that the other stations getting revenue from both advertising and Government have used the extra income to outbid TV3 on the rights to broadcast sporting events and American TV shows.  According to an article I read, the proposal to address this imbalance doesn’t involve simply cutting Government funding and putting all the stations on an equal footing, but asking the Government-funded stations to program less popular programs.  Yes, it looks like they’ll need to stop running shows people want to watch.

One plus to watching TV in Ireland as opposed to in America is that here there is no editing of movies, so when “Sin City” was broadcast, for example, it included all the original violence and nudity.  The same lack of editing applies to shows from other countries, although American broadcast TV is so tame by most international standards there wouldn’t be anything to cut anyway.  British TV can be quite entertaining, especially shows like “Trinny and Susannah Undress the Nation,” because Trinny and Susannah really DO undress the nation (before dressing them back up in more stylish clothes).  Amy particularly liked the one with the brawny miners.

But the best things broadcast here are the Cadbury commercials.  Just like in America, most commercials are pretty bad, but the Cadbury commercials are so popular that when a new one comes out, as one did yesterday, it’s talked about on the radio.  Okay, so “Airport Trucks” from last year wasn’t so good, but both the “Eyebrows” and “Gorilla” commercials are quite entertaining.  Follow the links and enjoy.

Gorilla Cadbury Commercial

Eyebrow Cadbury Commercial


A few weeks ago, as I walked in City Centre, I noticed two women standing at a crosswalk, within inches of the button used to request a walk signal.  Here in Ireland, the buttons are attached to lights that turn on once the button is pushed to acknowledge your request (unlike in much of America where there is no way to know whether pushing the button worked, which results in most Americans sharply jabbing the button three times, waiting a few seconds, then pushing it a few more times).  The lights were not lit, so they had not pushed the button, but I decided against pushing it myself so I could watch what would happen.  I don’t know how long they were there before I arrived, but the two women stood there as the traffic lights went through a full cycle of letting cars go from each direction and were started on a new cycle when the women finally just ran for it at a break in traffic.

I’ve noticed this phenomena many times, seeing six or eight people standing at a crosswalk, while the signal button has not been pushed.  There might be another half dozen people across the street and just as clearly their button has also not been pushed.  Everyone seems to be waiting for things to just work out.  As I’ve known for months, the Irish can’t even come up with a plan to cross the street.

This lack of planning ability has manifested itself in some spectacular examples of bad planning.  We’ve been here just over a year, and probably read the local paper around 100 times, so we don’t even have that much history to work with, yet I can cite example after example of horrible planning.  Take the police cars purchased and sitting idle because there was no place to store them (the article left it to the reader to figure out just where the idle cars were being stored in the meantime).  Or consider the new county library, built at a cost of tens of millions of euros, but within the city library district, which meant that due to the laws here it could not actually be opened as a lending library.  This fact was apparently only realized after the building was completed.

There are A & E facilities (emergency rooms) built at huge expense only to lay idle for months due to lack of any agreement on staffing.  When they are finally opened, they may only run half time, due to lack of funding or continued staffing disagreements.  And we’ve already mentioned in a previous post the CAT scans and MRI machines that are purchased but sit unused for months and even years.

Schools are routinely promised new facilities by the Government, but they are never actually built (I’m not sure if this is an example of poor planning, poor follow-through, or politicians lying but I thought I’d include it here.)  One school is infested by rats and other vermin, while at another school the students are being taught in a converted toilet (seriously, I’m not making this up).  If I recall the article correctly, the school with the converted toilet was promised new facilities ten years ago.

There are many, many more examples of this kind of thing, too many to list here.  I’m pretty sure this inability to plan is related to the inability to tell time mentioned in my earlier post.  How do you plan for the future if the whole concept of time is alien to you?

Perhaps I’m being unfair.  A couple of months ago I volunteered for the Cork Film Festival, and it was actually pretty well run, all things considered (and good craic, to boot).  Still, one of the staff who previously worked for the Galway Film Festival told me they once scheduled two films two hours apart because no one bothered to look and see that the first film actually ran over three-and-a-half hours.

When she was in college, Amy spent a week in Mexico with some friends, and about seven years ago she and I had spent about three days in Canada.  That sums up our total travel outside the United States until thirteen months ago. While we both had long wanted to travel, it just hadn’t happened until just over a year ago, when we moved to Ireland.

Besides living in Ireland, we’ve visited Scotland, England, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Spain, and Egypt.  We’ve been on the Thames, the Danube, and the Nile.  We’ve hiked around the Alps and in the mountains of Spain.

We’ve seen the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the Egyptian Museum.  We’ve seen the Charles Bridge, London Bridge, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Alhambra, Sagrada Familia, the pyramids, the sphinx, and the Valley of the Kings.  We’ve been in more castles than I can remember.

We took up flag rugby, relearned a little Spanish, and took lessons in Arabic.  I participated in a Spencer Tunick installation and Amy learned to ceili dance.  And Amy finally got her driver’s license!

Police at Valley of the Kings

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Most visitors to Egypt tell of visiting the pyramids, the sphinx, the tombs and temples. We did all that, and they were all wonderful, but there isn’t much we can say about them that you haven’t already heard or seen.

The one thing that I didn’t know beforehand was just what the security would be like. Everywhere in Egypt, but particularly at the tourist spots, the police are quite a presence in their black uniforms, often carrying assault rifles. At one large roundabout in Cairo, we counted 10 police officers. To travel to some of the temples such as Abu Simbel, all vehicles have to meet early in the morning and convoy with a police escort.

Yet, despite the ever-present police (and army) protection, security seemed quite lax. The convoy didn’t stay closely packed together, and I’m not sure we had any police with us when we left Abu Simbel. We would pass checkpoints at gates to the tourist sights, only to see the guard fast asleep in his booth. We walked through metal detectors at each of the sights, and though every person set off the alarm, no one was stopped. Bags were placed on a belt and sent through an x-ray, but I was never sure if anyone was actually looking. The only exception to this pattern was at the Egyptian Museum, where they looked in every bag, and frisked those of us who set off the metal detector alarm (something I tend to do, since I still have the metal twist-ties in my sternum from my open heart surgery).

The biggest security surprise came when we flew on Egypt Air. When we arrived at the Cairo airport we were thirsty and stopped to buy a couple of bottles of water. Only after arriving at security to enter the gate for our flight to Luxor did we remember we now had large bottles of liquid. But as we were about to look for a trash can, a man waved us through with our bottles.

It seemed the mere presence of police and soldiers was meant to act as a deterrent to violence or damage to the monuments, and to provide a quick response should anything happen.

Egyptian Coke

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

As mentioned in an earlier post, we decided to take a few Arabic lessons while in Egypt. We knew we would pick up only a few words and phrases in our time there, but it seemed an interesting way to get to know the culture a bit better.

The two-week class we had hoped to take was not for beginners, so we settled on just having a tutor work with us for a week. The lessons were both more and less than we’d hoped for. We actually started writing Arabic on the first day, and were taking dictation by the end of the second 90 minute lesson. Okay, it was only one word at a time, but it was incredible to us that we could write out words in Arabic (sometimes even correctly!).

But because the lessons were based on learning each letter and how it looked and sounded in various situations (letters can be written four different ways, depending on if the letter is at the beginning, middle or end of a word, or unattached to other letters), we never learned phrases, just words, and not very useful ones at that. We can now say elephant, comb, nose, thigh, girl, building, book, and quite a few other nouns, but just one verb, to laugh.

The thing that makes reading Arabic challenging (okay, there are a few things) is that vowels are almost never written out. We learned to write the vowels, which are usually indicated by adding little symbols above or below the consonants, but unfortunately, most signs and labels don’t actually include those extra symbols. Still, we could make out the Arabic for Coca-Cola, Baraka water, or other names when we had both the English and the Arabic, and could read some words that were only added fairly recently to Arabic. Thus we could read vanilla, chocolate, and ice cream on restaurant menus, for example, because they were just phonetically spelled out in Arabic.

It was neat when after our first lesson we went in search of the restaurant Mish Mish (recommended by our guide book, but not by us) and I said to Amy, a bit jokingly, that she should find the restaurant name in Arabic. About two seconds later, that’s just what she did.

Cairo traffic

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

First I thought the Irish were bad drivers (sorry, Irish readers, but Amy has thirty-year-old co-workers still working on getting their licenses, whereas I was considered to be a slow learner because I got mine at age 18). Then we drove in Spain, and I realized the Spanish are much worse. But the worst by far are the Egyptians.

You would think the Egyptian drivers would be pretty good, considering the obstacles they have to learn to avoid. Since the sidewalks are non-existent, torn up, or being used as an extension of a shop, pedestrians have to walk in the streets most of the time in a city like Luxor. There are donkey carts, horse drawn carriages, bikes (with their riders balancing enormous piles of bread in baskets on their heads), and even sometimes horses all competing for space on the streets.

Maybe it helps not to be able to see what’s on the road. Drivers don’t use their headlights, even at night. They don’t use their turn signals either, preferring to use their horns, which can mean a variety of things: “I’m pulling in front of you,” “Don’t pull in front of me,” “Get out of the way,” “Want a taxi ride?” “Hey, look, I’m driving down the road,” or “It’s Tuesday!”

Most of the taxis are old and don’t have seatbelts, but even in newer vehicles the seatbelts might be disabled. In a fairly new bus we took to Abu Simbel, each seat had a seatbelt, nicely buckled behind the seat, making it impossible to use.

Lanes don’t mean a lot in Egypt. On the ride to the West Bank of Luxor, the driver drove as often in the left lane as in the right, even in the face of oncoming traffic, eventually drifting back over in time to narrowly avoid a collision. It isn’t just on country roads, though, where lanes are mostly theoretical. On our last taxi ride to the airport in Cairo, it didn’t matter whether the road showed three travel lanes in one direction. Sometimes four cars would compete for space, and sometimes our car would simply drift around the tarmac. There was one moment when we were actually in a lane, and the two cars on either side of us drifted about a foot each into our lane at the same time.

Not surprisingly, our taxi didn’t have side view mirrors anymore, but I don’t think the driver would have used them anyway, since he never looked back once to his blind spot. I don’t think he was unique in not looking for cars coming up behind him; it was the norm for drivers to start moving over and assume the car behind would get out of the way in time. With the high speeds, no real lanes, and cars drifting in and out of our path, it felt like we were on a racetrack.

When we arrived safely at the airport, the driver, who spoke no English, said, “Yaaayyy,” and clapped his hands, which got a laugh out of us. I think I now understand the Arabic saying “Insha’Allah,” or “God willing.” I can’t explain our survival without crediting divine intervention.

Young touts

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Luxor is known as the hassle capital of the world. You cannot step out on to the street without being approached by locals trying to sell you anything from a taxi ride, to scarves, to packets of tissue. Most of the touts are friendly in their persistence and will usually back away with a smile after the second or third time you say “La shukran” (“No thank you” in Arabic).

There were several instances of greater persistence, though. The first day we were in Luxor, as Pat and I were out exploring the city, a kalesh (horse-drawn carriage) driver began to follow us. Since sidewalks are uneven, filled with potholes, and often non-existent, most people walk in the street. As we walked along we repeatedly declined his offer of “Kalesh, kalesh? Only five pounds. Kalesh? Where you go? I take you there. This street closed. Kalesh, kalesh? Five pounds.” On several occasions the driver manoeuvred his horse in front of us on the street so that we were hemmed in and forced to stop and walk around him. It was very frustrating and the only way we were able to escape his persistence was by walking in to a restaurant and having a very leisurely lunch.

Before going to Egypt I had read with some trepidation the experiences of travellers and their encounters with aggressive touts. From what I had read the touts are particularly aggressive towards women, and often make sexualized remarks to women travelling without male companions. I hoped that I would be safe from aggressive flirtations since I was a married woman travelling with my husband. So, naturally, it was just my luck that Pat was laid low with the Egyptian stomach bug for three days while we were in Luxor.

There was a palpable increase in the level of pushiness and flirtatiousness from the men as I walked around the city by myself. The wait staff (entirely male in Luxor from what we saw) were far more chatty when I was dining alone. I was given the Egyptian name Warda (Flower) by the waiter at our hotel, and I was on a first name basis with all the male staff at the hotel by the time Pat had made a full recovery and was able to venture out of the room. Fortunately, I never felt like it was anything beyond harmless flirtation with the staff at the hotel, but I did have a few intense and uncomfortable moments while wandering the souq by myself, and I know that I was intentionally brushed up against by Egyptian men in Cairo on several occasions.

The Egyptian children learn to “work” the tourists at a young age, and my fondness for children seemed to draw them to me on several occasions. While with a small tour group at the Tombs of the Nobles, Zeenep (age eight) and her friend, Mahmoud (age 14) approached our group with some very poorly handmade stuffed camels and dolls. They immediately singled me out as the sucker of the group, and in all honesty if I had had any money remaining in my pocket I would have promptly bought whatever they were selling. Sadly, all my pocket money with the exception of two 50 piastre notes had been used as baksheesh to the various guards in the tombs earlier that day. Both children spoke English quite well and were going for the hard sell with me. At one point, as I walked in to one of the tombs saying no thank you to them for the fifth or sixth or tenth time, Zeenep said, “Maybe yes, maybe no?” And then with great confidence, “But maybe yes.” Although, I did not buy any of their dolls I did give them my last two 50 piastre notes in exchange for a photo. I think it was one pound well-spent.

Despite a few negative encounters, I found the Egyptian people to be incredibly warm and friendly. Even when they are trying to sell you something, which is most of the time, I found myself smiling and (usually) happy to chat with them. It is all part of the Egyptian experience and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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