April 2009

100 euros for 2 t-shirts

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Now that the friends and family who are planning to visit us have bought their tickets and are committed, we can finally reveal just how expensive Ireland is. The cost of things here really struck home on our Easter weekend visit to London. As we waited to see a play at the National Theatre, we strolled around the lobby looking at the wonderful free photography exhibit and listened to the music from the free concert downstairs. I thought back to the previous night when we had visited the free National Portrait Gallery, and looked forward to our free visit to the British Museum the next day. And then it hit me: I couldn’t even pee in Cork for free. As mentioned before, free public toilets are almost non-existent in Ireland (and in 16 months of living here, we have never seen a public drinking fountain).

The tickets to the play we saw cost £10 apiece, and it was fabulous, with dozens of performers on stage and wonderful production values. The seating was comfortable and the theatre a great space. When we saw a short play with two non-professional actors in Cork last year, sitting on flat stadium seating, the tickets cost €15 apiece.

In our two visits to London, considered one of the most expensive places to live in the world, we never had a meal that was more expensive than its equivalent would be in Cork. More often, we would see the prices for a meal and be in awe of how inexpensive the food was.

The Economist magazine creates a “Big Mac Index” comparing the price of a Big Mac in different countries to measure of the cost of living around the world. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to include Ireland in their list, but I went to a McDonalds in Cork to check and a Big Mac Meal costs €6.60. Prices vary in the States, but I can say it’s not that expensive in Oregon. To top it off, the meal deal here is for a medium size meal, and the mediums here really are medium, so about a child size in the United States. It’s the norm here to pay more and get less.

Last year there was a newspaper article detailing the findings of an Irish government minister who found that the exact same shirt, sold in the same chain of stores, was almost 50% more expensive in Ireland than in Britain. This doesn’t surprise me, since we saw in the window of a Cork clothing store a sign advertising two t-shirts for €100 (see the picture). I can only assume they weren’t thin, white Fruit of the Looms, but the fact that this was their one posted price shows what a great deal they thought they were offering.

It’s much more costly to do anything here. If a particular activity is free in America, it requires a fee here. If it requires a fee in America, it requires a membership here. If there’s a membership in America, the membership costs twice as much here. Seriously. Even joining the library, which is free almost anywhere in the States, costs €22 per person, per year in Cork, and we can still only check out six items at a time.

It’s not just food, entertainment and activities that are more expensive here. The cost of 48 pills of ibuprofen is around €9 at a Boots, but a person can buy 200 pills in America for less than that. For the same size bottle of contact lens solution, I’ll pay anywhere from €15 to €20 here but just $8 in the States.

To be fair, there have always been some exceptions to the rule, such as Guinney’s and Penneys, two stores with inexpensive clothing in Cork. And, as the reality of the recession sinks in day by day, more and more stores are actually dropping prices or having more sales (many stores would have just two sales a year here in Ireland, while most stores in America would have two or three sales going on at once).

There is this one upside to the expense of living in Ireland: no matter where we’ve visited, or what we’ve done, everywhere and everything else we’ve experienced has seemed cheap so travel always seems like a great deal. Then again, a moon landing would seem cheap in comparison to a weekend in Galway.

(We may need to explain the title of this post, “Sticker Shock,” to our Irish readers; we said the term to friends of ours here and they had never heard it. It refers to the surprise a person feels when first seeing the price of something that turns out to be much more expensive than expected).


Road sign in Cork

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

I love Irish place names. When we go places, I love to pull out the map of Ireland and just see what new names I can find. Here is a sampler: Meenybradden, Muckish Mountain, Aghagower, Shannawona, Keeraunnagark, Cloonboo, Gortnadeeve, Runnabacken, Crookedwood, Ballinaspittle, Ballylooby, Boobyglass, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, Ballylickey, Reanascreena, Derreennacarton, Gortnabinna, Coolnacaheragh, Dangansallagh, Bawnatanaknock, Coolnagoppoge, and Knockeennagearagh.

Most Irish names seem to describe the place, so certain words and syllables pop up all over the place, such as Kil (church), Carrig or Carrick (rock), Clon (meadow), Bally or Balli (town), Inis (island), and so on.

Irish cities and towns often have two names, the more Anglicized version, and an Irish version, such as Cork/Corcaigh, Galway/Gaillimh, Kilkenny/Cill Chainnigh, and Limerick/Luimneach. Dublin comes from dubh and linn and means “black pool,” but the Irish name for Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath, which means “town of the hurdle ford.”

Confused yet? Well, you’re not alone. Some places in the west of Ireland are designated by the government as Gaeltacht, or areas where the Irish language is more commonly spoken. Road signs in the Gaeltacht have only the Irish version of names, which has proven to be a problem for some tourists. Would you recognize An Daingean as Dingle? We were told shortly after arriving here that the tourist industry in Dingle was hurting from so many visitors getting lost because they couldn’t find Dingle on the road signs. Business owners in Dingle were spraypainting Dingle over An Daingean on the signs in protest.

In America, f*** is universally considered to be one of the most offensive curse words known to man.  That’s not to say that it isn’t said on a regular basis by many Americans, but for many it is considered taboo.  In Ireland, the “F” word is far less demonized and used much more casually.  I wouldn’t put it on a par with everyday slang, but it’s pretty close.
I hear the F-bomb daily in Ireland, and find myself peppering the occasional sentence with it as well.  I hear it when eavesdropping on conversations in the library, on primetime television, and in casual conversations with colleagues at work.  For most Irish people it is simply a colorful adjective, as in:  “For f***’s sake”, “That’s f***ing brilliant” or “the poor f***er.”  I have rarely heard it used in an aggressive manner (e.g. “F*** you”).  Well, there was that one time when we saw a fist fight on Barrack Street between two cab drivers.  F*** was definitely not being used in an affectionate or casual manner that time.
Pat and I remember clearly our first bit of craic in an Irish pub.  We were in Passage West, a small town outside of Cork.  It was lashing rain, and we were at the mercy of the bus which wasn’t due to arrive for another couple of hours.  Since walking around was out of the question we popped into a pub for a drink and some warmth.  We were the only customers in the pub and the owner, Simon, seemed glad of the company.  He sat down with us by the fire and began to chat.  He was incredibly friendly and welcoming, but about every third or fourth word out of his mouth was f***.  To him, it was just another word – a word that he liked to use a lot.
I find it rather amusing and appropriate that an Irishman got away with using the F-word on prime-time American television.  During the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, Bono of U2 fame, said, “This is really, really, f***ing brilliant” on the air while accepting an award.  Somehow it didn’t get bleeped out, and the FCC decided not to make an issue out of it.  Apparently, since Bono used the word f***ing as “an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation”, and not to “describe . . .  sexual . . .  activities” it was okay.
Many Irish use the word feck, as well.  If you google the word, you will see that it has a variety of definitions that are not considered expletives or slang, but in the context of present day Ireland it is used exclusively (in my opinion) as a substitution for f***.  Follow this YouTube link for a Father Ted clip and see what you think.

Mustafa Kemal is one of those incredible military commanders that most Americans have never heard of.  While the Ottoman army generally fared badly during World War I (it was an ally of the Central Powers), the one place it did quite well was at Gallipoli, under the leadership of Kemal.  At that battle, he was the only Ottoman (Turkish) leader to correctly predict where the Allies would land, and as the allies approached, he said to his men, “I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die.  In the time it takes us to die, other troops and officers will arrive to take our place.”  The exact quote varies a little between sources, but nonetheless his troops did as they were told and it unfolded just as he said, with most of men becoming casualties but in the process slowing the Allied advance until more Turkish troops could arrive.  He survived the battle, but was nearly killed several times during the course of the war, including the time when a piece of shrapnel hit the stopwatch which was resting over his heart.

When the victorious Allies carved up the Ottoman Empire, and took just a few too many pieces, the Turks rejected the terms of the peace and thus began the War of Independence.  The Turkish Army, led by Kemal, pushed the Greeks (and others) out of what is now western Turkey and and Thrace before signing a new peace treaty.

Kemal needed some new sense of national self to replace the discarded Ottoman Empire, and he looked back to the Turks.  The Seljuk Turks originally were a people in central Asia who moved into Anatolia (which is the central part of modern Turkey) hundreds of years ago (first as immigrants, then as conquerors), displacing the Byzantine Empire.  The Seljuks in turn were displaced by the Ottomans.  With the end of the Ottoman Empire, all things Ottoman were to be replaced, so the country was given the new name Turkey, Kemal adopted the name Atatürk, or Father of Turks, and he became the first President of the Republic of Turkey.

Atatürk instituted many radical changes and worked to modernize and secularize the country.  He died at age 57 in 1938.  A close ally succeeded him in the presidency and ensured Atatürk’s name and legacy would not be forgotten.  It is still illegal to disparage Atatürk in Turkey.

Sunday, the day we flew back to Ireland, was election day in Turkey and there was no escaping the flags, banners, and posters during our trip.  Vans and buses drove around the towns and villages, the vehicles all festooned with party slogans and pictures of candidates on the side, with loudspeakers blaring what must have been each party’s theme song at full blast, over and over.  The election literally quieted down a few days before the election, though, when the leader of the fifth-largest party was in a helicopter crash with six others.  No one was found alive, and in a show of respect and mourning, all of the political parties agreed to halt the loud campaigning.

Turkish politics can be hard for an outsider to figure out.  Our guidebook states that the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has held inflation in check, improved relations with Greece, and improved life for the Kurds.  Many news stories refer to him as a reformer, and he is continuing to work towards membership in the European Union.  The puzzler for some people, though, is that he is at the head of the AK party, which is strongly Islamist.  A few years ago, he moved to lift the ban on female students wearing the Islamic-style headscarf at university, which would be considered a liberal move in the States, but is a conservative one in Turkey.

This kind of policy makes many in Turkey nervous that Erdogan is attempting to make the country less secular.  In the past the military, which is seen by many as a check against religious extremism, has led coups against civilian governments when those governments were seen to move too far away from secularism (I’m not aware of other countries where the military regularly deposes the civilian government only to quickly restore civilian rule).  An article I read a few weeks ago implied that a military coup of the Erdogan government was not out of the question.  Ergogan’s party didn’t do quite as well as it had hoped and many predicted, so his time in power may end after the next election anyway.  I also suspect that a military coup would severely impact Turkey’s plans to join the EU, so I doubt a coup is imminent.

Antalya, Turkey

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Amy and I flew from Turkey back to Ireland Sunday, and this may have been the first trip where, when it was ending, we thought, “Wouldn’t a few more days here be nice?” It’s not that the other trips were bad (they were great), but we knew we’d be back to some places (such as London, which we’re returning to in a month, and Spain, where we decided to live for 10 weeks this coming fall), and in other cases the flight out was so late and the final day was just so long we really felt the need to come home (such as from Prague or Cairo). We plan to go back to Turkey, but we’d have loved to have spent another week in Antalya.

We arrived in Antalya Monday last, checked into our pension in the Kaleici, a protected area of old Ottoman houses (so it’s touristy but gorgeous), and wandered down to see the nearby marina, or old Roman harbour. Looking out across the sea to the mountains in the distance, it was hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a city. We had mentioned in our first Turkish posting that Turkey didn’t have the “wow factor” that Egypt had (it’s hard to beat a pyramid for really stunning scenery). Istanbul is comfortable and very nice, the Blue Mosque is beautiful, and the villages we visited are wonderful. It was only when we came to Antalya, though, that we were almost stunned by the beauty of the scenery. Each time we’d walk down the street toward the bay and get the first glimpse of the water ringed by the city, with the mountains behind it all, we’d begin exclaiming, “Incredible,” or “Wow!” In Antalya, we finally got the “wow factor” on the trip.

The weather wasn’t as good as we’d hoped (Antalya normally has some of the best weather in Turkey, but it was somewhat chilly and we experienced two thunderstorms), and I managed to get sick about 36 hours after arriving. You’d think with all that going against it I’d have had enough of the city, but as I said, we’re already planning to return on our future journeys.