There’s a joke I heard years ago that said which nation would be in charge of different things in heaven and hell.  The joke used stereotypes to imagine the best and worst role for each country, so the Italians were the lovers in heaven but ran the trains in hell, for example.  I got to pondering, where would the Irish fit into that joke?  In heaven they could be the storytellers, or maybe the musicians and singers, or maybe just be in charge of craic (fun).  I have no doubt what they would do in hell, though: they would run the buses.

Everyone (except the employees of Bus Eireann, of course) thinks Bus Eireann does a terrible job.  An article in a paper a few months ago referred to the company as “infamous,” people regularly complain about the service on discussion boards, and whenever I told people I didn’t have a car and had to use Bus Eireann, they would give me a sympathetic look and agree that the service was awful.

What makes them so bad?

  1. They don’t provide customers a map of their routes.  I’ve seen two locations in the city with a very basic map that doesn’t really show enough detail to be useful, but customers can’t have a copy even of that.
  2. The same basic route may be called different things depending on when the bus runs.  For example, the bus that passed by our apartment in Rochestown was the 223, but it ended at different points at different times of day, so the bus might show a destination of Passage West or Monkstown or something else entirely.
  3. The different destinations for the same route might not be so confusing if the route numbers were correctly displayed, but I would estimate that about 15% of the time the 223 bus would show some other number on it because the driver hadn’t bothered to change it.
  4. The buses sometimes run early.  The worst example being the time the bus driver left the station 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time.  When he had this pointed out by a customer who almost missed the bus but managed to flag it down, he simply ignored her complaint and kept going.
  5. The buses more often run late, so a person has to arrive 8 to 10 minutes early but will often have to wait 10 to 15 minutes after the scheduled time for the bus to arrive.
  6. Twice in one week the bus simply drove right past me when I was at a bus stop.
  7. With no map to rely on, a person has to know that a bus runs on a certain street and then wait at a bus stop, but that isn’t enough.  Amy discovered that on some routes, the buses don’t actually stop at every stop along their route, but there is nothing at most of the stops to indicate which of the buses that roll by stop there and which don’t.  There are also no schedules posted at most stops, so it’s all a guessing game.
  8. I once had to ride the bus but I wasn’t sure of exactly where to get off.  I asked the bus driver for help and he promised to let me know when we got to the stop I needed.  When the bus reached the end of its route, the driver looked in his rearview mirror, saw me, and only then realized he hadn’t told me when to leave the bus despite the fact that I had been visible in his mirror the whole time.  I had to pay to get on another bus that was going back in the direction I needed.
  9. Another time, the driver of a bus I was on parked the bus, got out, went into a convenience store, and emerged a bit later with a Coke.

10.  Months ago, a driver took his nearly full bus back to the bus barn to switch drivers.  We sat in the parking lot for several minutes while what looked to be a supervisor chatted with the new driver.  This happened again just yesterday.  This gives an idea of the mindset of Bus Eireann, that the company will delay and inconvenience dozens of paying customers rather than come up with a plan that doesn’t involve buses going off-route, or require a driver to walk 5 minutes to a spot where he could meet his bus. (I say “he” because of the dozens of drivers on the routes in Cork, we’ve only ever seen one woman driver).

11.  There are posted rules against standing in front of a painted line at the front of the bus or talking to the driver.  Everyone respects the rule except the employees of Bus Eireann (identifiable by their jackets) who regularly stand next to the driver and chat away.

12.  In September of 2007 there was a day when people could ride the bus for free.  I know this because, even though I didn’t arrive in Ireland until December of 2007, the posters advertising this one-day event were securely glued onto the bus windows.  On the other hand, posters with what seem to be permanent rules on them appear to be held in place by nothing more than a little saliva.

I’ve seen a couple of columns in the newspapers saying many Irish are “world-class complainers” but another columnist noted that the Irish are moaners, not complainers.  She explained that people here moan to their friends and co-workers about things, but they don’t actually complain to anyone who can do anything.  This columnist thought that was why Ireland had such bad service in many fields, especially health care.

I have to agree, and I would add crappy bus service as one more result of not complaining.  For the record, I did complain about most of these problems, more than once, but nothing changed and eventually they stopped sending out their canned response.  I gave up, too, and began walking into City Centre from Rochestown (about an hour’s walk away) rather than ride the bus.  I still avoid riding the bus whenever possible.

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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).

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.

I don’t mean to keep picking on the Irish and their poor sense of time and inability to look to the future (okay, maybe I do), but I have to share this.  Curious about just how rainy it might be this weekend, I went to Met Eireann’s website this morning at about 8 a.m. to look at the “Three day weather forecast — Cork.”  It showed weather predications for today and tomorrow, and that was it.  Oh, the predictions were for mid-day, so the last forecast was for tomorrow at noon.  Only in Ireland could a three-day forecast look 28 hours into the future and stop.  Not only that, they put in a caveat that the information provided for the county on the three day forecast might disagree with the written text elsewhere on their site, and if so to ignore the three day forecast.  You’ve got to love a meteorological society which, when asked to predict the weather, pretty much says, “Look out the window.”

Pat and I were illegal immigrants for five days this week.  Not by choice.  The immigration office told us that they preferred for us to be briefly illegal.  Let me explain.  Even though my Irish work permit is good for two years, immigrants are required to check in at their local garda station at the one year mark to update paperwork, confirm employment details, etc. The date for Pat and me to renew was the 12th of February.

A friend of mine at work went through this process a few months ago, so I knew that it would require a bit of planning and preparation on my part to make sure all of the paperwork was in order. A month before my work permit expired I rang the immigration office in Cork to get some information on the visa renewal process and to ask if I could come in a few weeks ahead of time.  I was told in no uncertain terms that I absolutely should not come early to renew the visa. A week to 10 days late is grand, but don’t even think of coming in early. I wonder if there is any logic behind this request? If there is a reason, it wasn’t explained to me. I was told that if I arrived early to renew the visa, I would need to have written proof that I would be out of the country or otherwise unavailable on the date my visa expires. Pat has written in previous blogs about the Irish sense of time, and I think this needs to be added as a classic example. It would seem that the Irish government not only encourages procrastination and lateness, but insists upon it.

You know what they say about the weather in Luxor:  If you don’t like it, just wait 15 years.  I’m not sure of the accuracy of the report, but as mentioned in an earlier post, one local there said it had been that long since it had rained in Luxor.  When we were riding in the felucca at Aswan, the chief of the Nubian village was a little unsure whether it had been one, two or even three years since it had rained there, but he said it rained for quite awhile, about 45 minutes.  So, according to Met Eireann, the Irish Meteorological Service, what’s the longest drought in recorded Irish history?  37 days in Limerick in 1938.

As you can tell, Ireland’s climate is just a bit different than that of Egypt.  In Cork in 2008, total rainfall was 1340.5 mm, or nearly 53 inches of rain, about 10% more than normal (although from June through August, there were almost 18 inches of rainfall, or just over twice the normal amount.  As we said earlier, it was a wet summer) .  It was actually drier here near the end of last year and the first 10 days of 2009, but that “good” weather couldn’t last.  Even with the dry first third of the month, it rained nearly 8 inches this January in Cork, more than in any month last year.

Because of the first 10 days, it was a bit sunnier in Cork than normal for January, but that’s relative, of course.  According to Met Eireann, there are on average just over 1 ½ hours of sunshine per day in Cork in December and it’s not much better by January.  Met Eireann notes that year-round, “Irish skies are completely covered by cloud for well over fifty percent of the time.”

Met Eireann tries to make it sound like the weather really isn’t that bad here, stating, “The general impression is that it rains quite a lot of the time in Ireland but in fact two out of three hourly observations will not report any measurable rainfall.”  Yes, that’s right, it’s not too bad because only in one of three hours is there measurable rainfall.  Met Eireann goes on to say that “the average number of wet days (days with more than 1mm of rain) ranges from about 150 days a year along the east and south-east coasts, to about 225 days a year in parts of the west.”

I honestly felt as if for nearly the last year here in Ireland I could not leave the house in the morning confident that I would remain dry the entire day.  Until this last weekend, when Saturday was guaranteed to be good weather, I can’t think of a single day since last spring when there wasn’t at least a threat of rain in the air at some point in the day (this weekend showed how relative a term “good weather” is, when one-and-a-half days of sun seemed like a wonderful break).  Of course it didn’t actually rain every one of those days, just most of them.

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