Thursday, May 28, 2009

Home Again to the Rain

I'm still in Florida and it's raining.

Standing outside an apartment block in Sun City Center, an older woman commented on the torrent as it fell from the thunderheads. 'I love this smell,' she said, watching as the water struck the Florida fir trees and the palms in fat droplets.

And with her comment, I was instantly transported three-thousand miles to a place very different from the Florida panhandle; to the rain-washed streets of Ireland, and to the smells that remind me of my home.

Rain in Ireland is mixed with a thousand different odours, and each of those smells takes me back to a particular season.

In the winter, Irish rain mists and billows, and walking through the streets of a small town, one can smell the peat that burns in warm grates, the fires nestled beyond thick walls. In the spring, Irish rain pelts from towering cumulus, and it is mixed with the fragrance of blooming heathers.

In the Summer, Irish rain falls softly from thick black skies; the humid days carry the odours of newly mown lawns and summer flowers. And in the Autumn, the cool rains again pelt from the skies, throwing the smells of decaying leaves into an atmosphere once again heavy with the smoke of peat and coal.

Rain reminds me of Ireland, but so do the smells of that place. They mix and blow, gently wafting into a walker's soul, carrying them on toward new seasons in a land that will always stay green.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back in the US of A

Every now and then I get a hankerin' for the Land of my birth and head back home. Right now, I'm writing from my father's apartment in Sun City, Florida. It's gorgeous outside: blue skies, temps in the mid-70s, strange species of Florida birds flitting from one sun-lit tree to another ... what a paradise!

Dad lives in Freedom Plaza, a retirement community just east of Tampa. Here, the average age seems to be north of 70. And when Dad introduces me to his co-residents, he usually starts the introduction with the obvious: 'And this is my son, Tom. Tom lives in Ireland.'

To which the response is usually a glazed look, followed by a moment of dis-belief, and then the inevitable: 'You live in Ireland?' 'Yes Ma'am,' I'll reply. 'And how long have you been there?' '27 years,' I'll state.

Invariably, I will then receive a look of absolute shock. 'You mean you don't live in America anymore?' 'No Ma'am.' 'Don't you want to come home?' 'No Ma'am. Well, sometimes maybe.'

This will be followed by a look of confusion tinged with a wee bit of suspicion. 'Don't you like your own country, young man?' And I know that no matter how much I might explain, my absense from America will always generate a certain level of mis-understanding and mis-trust among my fellow Americans.

If You Live Abroad, Many Americans Will Never Understand
If you plan on uprooting your existence to move to Ireland or anywhere else in the world, be prepared for a shock: many Americans that you know will never appreciate your decision. Be prepared for a certain level of mis-trust and skepticism. Be prepared for all sorts of accusations being leveled in your general direction, including my all-time favourite, that leaving America simply isn't patriotic.

Be prepared for silly, sometimes outrageous, thinking from others on why you've chosen to leave the country of your birth. Oh, you might tell people the honest truth: that you simply want to see how the rest of the world lives. Or you might acknowledge that you're interested in new cultures and a different way of thinking. But whatever reasons you might state, those reasons can be twisted by some, and a minority will invariably start a whispering campaign whose sole focus is to get to the bottom of your true reasons for leaving America:

'That Tom just never fit in. He's had to run away with his tail between his legs.'

'What's wrong with that fellow? Doesn't he realise that America is the best country on earth?'

'Good thing he left! He obviously hates America. The country is better off without him.'

And no matter what you say, or how you try to explain, a small minority will always view you with a certain level of derision, suspicion, and whispered dis-like. But take heart! You'll be living thousands of miles away. So you won't have to listen to it. Not all the time anyway.

But enough of the lesson. This morning, I accompanied Dad to Mass at the local Catholic Church. I was astounded to find that Mass here takes over an hour! In Ireland, Sunday Mass lasts only 30 minutes or so. I pointed this out to Dad, and had a handy explanation for the difference:

'I'm worried about you guys, Dad. Mass here takes twice as long as in Ireland. Must be due to the fact,' I said, with a twinkle in my eye, 'that the Irish are just that much holier than you folks here. They only need to pray half as long for the same result.'
Dad is pondering on this view, and I know I'll hear his counter-argument shortly.

For more stories on living in Ireland, you might like to try my book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Staying in Touch

Back in the early days of my stay in Ireland - way back in 1982 - staying in touch with my parents, sister and many friends back in the States was difficult and expensive. And for a number of reasons: the phone system in Ireland didn't work, long distance calls to the US were almost a buck a minute, and when we finally managed to get through, the connection might be interrupted at any minute by Mrs McGillikuty down the road who had inadvertently cut in on our conversation.

Fortunately, things have changed and for the better. Now, keeping in touch with kith and kin is flexible, inexpensive, and easy.

The Power of Irish Communications
First, let me make the point of saying that I am not involved with any of the companies that I'm about to recommend. I'm not a shareholder or an owner. I'm just a poor slob who's tried a number of different telecommunications systems, and based on my experience - such as it is - believe that these might offer a way of saving a few bucks.

Getting a Phone - if you're staying over here for a prolonged period, you might want to invest in a standard land line. Back in the 'old' days, getting a phone here was a journey into the unknown: phones could take up to a year to be installed, and that small piece of plastic and metal that would be connected to the outside world could cost up to one thousand bucks. Nonsense! But fortunately things have changed.

In Ireland, you now have a large choice of companies offering 'bundles' of products. Try any of these:

Eircom - this is Ireland's largest telecom company. The company offers a wide range of services including standard landline, broadband, wireless, and similar. The company has recently reduced costs significantly. Check them out.

Perlico - my 'preferred' supplier. I pay about 60 euro a month for a bundle that includes landline, broadband, and wireless. That monthly fee includes 'free' calls to both landline and cell phones (called Mobile Phones over here), but there's a limit to the number of monthly free calls. If you exceed that number, you're charged extra for it. Check out their website for more information.

Bundled Landline, Broadband, and Television - a number of companies now offer inexpensive bundles that contain these capabilities. Try BT or Google 'Television and Telephone Bundles in Ireland' for more information.

Long Distance - want to make numerous long distance calls for next to nothing but don't want to install VOIP on your laptop or PC? Then check out Blueface. Calls to the United States cost less than a euro cent a minute.

My 'Bundles'
Like most people, I wanted a telephone and television 'system' that would allow me to have a landline and broadband for the Internet, but that would also let me do so inexpensively. I also wanted access to Cable TV that would allow me to view the Irish television stations (RTE, TV3, and the Irish TV Station TnaG), the UK stations including SKY, and access to some US news stations such as CNN and Fox. So here's what I did:

1. Perlico - I use Perlico for my landline, broadband and wireless needs. That costs about 60 euro a month.

2. Blueface - I use Blueface to ring my Dad and anyone else I can think of who live overseas.

3. SKY - go to the link, but this company offers a wide range of products from about 30 euro a month.

Mobile Phones - in Ireland, mobile phones and bundles are offered by a number of companies including O2, Meteor, Vodafone, and 3. Personally, I use O2. But all of these companies are constantly changing rates in order to attract customers. Visit their websites for more information.

So happy talking! Today, doing so costs much less, for much less hassle, than ever.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Being Real...Almost, Anyway

Just got back, folks. I've been away to the great town of Newcastle on business. For those of you who are a bit geographically challenged, Newcastle is a small city a few hundred miles north of London, located on the east coast of England, and just south of Scotland. The people are friendly, the beer is great, and the wind blows constantly. I've never been there before - and because this was a flying visit - I can't exactly say that I really visited the place. But I'll be back, I know it in my bones.

That's one of the pleasures of living over here. From Dublin, a whole lot of Europe is right at our doorstep. Climb on a boat and go to Scotland, England, or France. Climb on a plane, and the riches of Europe are within a couple of hour's grasp. Many Irish (those who still have money, anyway) have properties in Portugal, Spain, Greece, or Turkey. Not bad considering that only a few hundred years ago most were picking potatoes.

So back to the blog: while I was away I actually received a few visitors to the site. What'cha know: word is getting out about a mad American intent on spilling his guts about living in Ireland. Anyway, one of the messages was from 'Michael' (see the entire message on a separate post, if you'd care to), and Michael stated (explicitly): 'Tom, speak your mind! What is it that would have made you change your mind?' Michael was commenting on a comment that I had made to a previous post, to whit: 'I sure wish I'd visited for longer. I probably would have made a very different decision with my life.'

So what would that decision have been? If I could do it all again, would I change 27 years of my personal history, re-load my panniers, climb back on my bike, and pedal madly for my homeland?

Home is Where My Soul Is
Just over a year ago, I visited Bunratty Castle (way out near Limerick, just south of Shannon Airport) with my family. While I was there, I met this wonderful lady: an Irish woman, she had emigrated to the United States with her husband back in the early '60s. She's lived in Seattle ever since. That in itself was a coincidence, because I spent some time in Seattle when I was a boy, and as she talked about the place I felt my heart break a little bit.

'Do you like living in Seattle?' I asked. 'I always enjoyed the place. I went to St Philomena's School,' I continued, now getting a little choked up. 'That's just south of the airport, down near Des Moines.'

'Oh, I know that place!' she said. 'Right on the Sound. Sure, we go to Salt Water Park for picnics all the time.'

The fact that she knew the place made me feel even more upset. She must have sensed my distress. 'Are you all right?' she asked kindly. 'You miss it, don't you?'

I nodded. 'Sure you do,' she said gently. 'I still miss Ireland, even after all these years. I've lived in America for well over forty years now, and even after all that time I'd come home in a flash.'

'Why don't you?' I asked. 'Because,' she replied, her eyes tinged with a forlorn but understandable sadness, 'my heart would break in two. You see, all my family live in America now. My sons, my grandchildren...if I came home, I'd miss them terribly.'

And she touched my heart because I knew that I felt the same way.

Emigrating is hard work. Nobody says much about that, but it's true. Oh, you can complain about this and that: about the differences in culture and misery of the weather or high taxes. You can bask eloquently about the wonderful things of life that keep you on in a 'foreign' country: the good schools, the great people, the feeling of being somewhat 'different' and the knowledge that you have marched to a different drummer.

But...then there's this one fact that is irrefutable: you are not a true citizen of that country. Oh, you might eventually get your passport, of course, so you are - de jur, as the law says - a citizen. But your heart might not be quite as binding as the law.

See, there's this problem. When you're away from home as long as I've been, you realise a truth: you are what you are. You are what you lived. You are what you've been taught.

I'm an American at the end of the day, and immensely proud of it. I'm proud of my heritage and my people. I'm immensely proud of the fact that my people fought in the civil war and revolutionary war and helped to settle the Ohio Valley. I'm proud of the fact that my great-great-great....father was the first governor of Plymouth. I'm proud of all that, yet I'm not there....

...and I will never go home. Not now. And not for six very good reasons: two daughters, a son, two grandsons, and a good Irish wife. Oh, make that seven reasons. A dog, Rocky, who wouldn't be content living anywhere else.

I don't always feel like I do right now, typing as I am, thinking of Michael's admonishment to speak my mind. Right now, I'm homesick, to be frank about it. I miss things: I miss a good hot dog. I miss seeing the Cubbies play, even if they never win the World Series. I miss people that don't think I talk in a funny accent because I talk they way they do.

I miss 4th of July fireworks (I combat that by being the only guy on my block to fly Old Glory on Independence Day). I miss Thanksgiving (even though my wife combats that by making me an absolutely stupendous dinner every 4th Thursday of every November). I miss watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and Jello that comes out of a box and has to be made up, and root beer, which a fellow can't get at all over here.

I miss America. I miss Americans. And I feel like this sometimes simply because no matter how long I'm away, or how hard I try to fit in, I'll always be an American. It's as simple as that.

Nobody told me that I'd feel this way when I came over here so many years ago. Like the Irish lady that I met in Bunratty, and who is invariably still living in Seattle, all I can tell you is this: if you decide on coming to Ireland, or live anywhere else in the world, you will take your country with you in your heart, wherever you might roam.

And that can be the hardest work of all because sometimes it will break your heart.

So thank you, Michael, for your comment. You've made me consider. And in writing this, I feel better, because I know that however long I might be away from home, my home is also with me. It's with me in the form of my kith and kin, both here and in the United States. And it's with me because I will always be proud of being an American.

That's also in my heart. And it is something that can never be torn from me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

You're Moving to Ireland. Now What?

A few years back I was flying home to Ireland, having visited my folks in California. We made a pit-stop in Boston, and with a couple of hours to kill, I wandered down to the gate intent on getting some work done.

I took a seat in the packed departures area and took out my various notes and got to work. But I couldn't help noticing a good looking gal sitting across the aisle from me. She had a map of Ireland in hand, and studied it as intently as if she was hoping to find the Lost Treasures of the Sierra Madre.

Funny thing, maps. Those small pieces of paper (and in these days, internet images) hold so much more than directions and geography. Often, they'll hold a host of dreams, expectations, and future wishes that seldom match reality. When I first came to Ireland, back in 1980, the Ordinance Survey map that I used (and which I still have stuffed in a drawer someplace) was much more than a hodge-podge of roadways. Rather, it was my key to adventure. Do I turn left or right? Do I go north or south? As some of you know, I turned north, and when I made what I felt to be a somewhat innocuous decision, my life changed forever. Therefore, and since that decision over 20 years ago, I've viewed maps with a fair bit of suspicion.

Anyway, sitting in Logan Airport, watching that good looking gal study her map with such...such...intensity, I couldn't help but feel my curiosity rise. 'Are you going to Ireland?' I asked, and felt a fool. She's sitting at an Aer Lingus gate. Where did I think she was going? But she never batted an eye. Obviously, she had been hoping someone would ask.

Bursting with enthusiasm, the details of her impending adventure gushed forth from her innocent lips: 'I'm from Toronto and I'm flying to Ireland and I'm meeting my Irish boyfriend and we're buying a house together and then in a year we're getting married, and isn't life just amazing.'

I blinked. 'Have you been to Ireland before?' I asked innocently.

'No,' she said.

'Oh,' I replied. Big mistake, I thought. And as it turned out, I was correct.

If You're Planning on Living Here, Visit the Place First

Many North Americans think that they understand Ireland, even though they've never been here before. Maybe it has to do with the fact that so many North Americans are descendants of immigrants from the Auld Sod. Maybe it's because Ireland occupies a sort of mystical, mythical, mysterious - yet comfortable - position in most people's psychie. Maybe it's because the Irish have been so successful at marketing their culture throughout the world that North Americans think they know the place.

Let me tell you something: even if you think you know and understand Ireland, you don't. Take my word for it. It's just not possible. Yes, the Irish speak English just like most North Americans do (some of them, anyway). And yes, the Irish truly are some of the most hospitable people on the planet. And yes, the Irish watch television and go to films and eat and drink just like you possibly do. But right there, the similarity stops.

Ireland is not Peoria Illinois. And if you don't believe me, then take note:
  • Ireland possesses a different culture and a different history - they may talk in English (and, if you're lucky, sing-song Gaelic), but the history of this country has influenced its people and its cultural fabric. Therefore, Ireland is different than North America.
  • They drive on the other side of the road - they drive on the left hand side over here. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but wait until you try it.
  • They have a different form of government - which can drive a person from the United States to distraction, if you're not careful.
  • They eat differently - yes, we now have McDonald's and Burger King over here, but the cullinary tastes of most Irish people are different from North America.
  • The Irish conduct relationships differently - here, if you ask someone to make a firm decision (for instance, and in business, if you ask him/her to hire you) a 'Yes' may mean 'Maybe', and a 'Maybe' might mean a 'No'.
Ireland is different. It's a different people, a different culture. The roads are different. So are the phone systems. So is the health system, and taxes, and the process of buying a house.

Therefore, when I hear about some poor person who has made the immense decision of moving here without even having bothered to visit the place first, my immediate reaction is to say: 'Hold everything! If you were going to buy a car, would you test drive it first? Then why not visit Ireland before you commit your lifetime to it?'

That's my advice, anyway. And it's based on half a lifetime of thinking about it.

As to the woman I met in Boston: as it turned out, I kept in touch with her after she arrived. She lasted just short of one year. Today, and as far as I know, she's back in Toronto, making a new life for herself.
A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland 2015 Kindle Edition Now Available!
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Sunday, May 3, 2009

What's that Orb in the Sky?

In March it was raining as usual. Big fat drops, little skinny drops, drops of all descriptions, and all of them seeming to have my naked head as their target. As I hurried along the main street in my small town of Navan, doing what I could to keep the trickling mess of water from pouring down my jacket collar, I felt that I was on God's wet shooting range. I imagined that He was nicely settled in a duck blind of some type or description, cup of tea at His elbow, smiling down at earth, and with me in his sights. 'Ah-hah!' he was saying coyly. 'There's Richards. The poor slob thinks he's going to get away with it. Ah, look at him! Hurrying toward that cozy looking dry spot underneath that Oak Tree there.' And God took aim, and the heavens opened, and wouldn't you know it but I reached that Oak Tree soaked to the skin.

I've always mentioned that it rains all the time in Ireland. It rains so much that we've moth-balled our Factor 15, and know that we'll only experience sun when we finally get up and pay out large money to get to France or Greece or Orlando, or those other warm and sunny spots that lie across the globe, just out of reach.

Discussing the weather is something that you must become adept at if you plan on visiting here. In Ireland, the weather is a constant source of conversation. We begin discussions with it and end discussions with it. At times, the state of our Irish climate can become the topic of serious conversation. For instance, my neighbour Phil, a good guy who works for the Prison Service, will be outside attempting to cut his lawn between showers. I'll walk out to study the sodden state of affairs, wondering how in God's name the poor man is going to plough his lawnmower through the sodden green mass confronting him.

'Fecker,' Phil will say, as he starts the mower for the hundredth time. 'Bloody hell,' he'll state as it bogs down again in the tangled mess of overgrowth. 'Feck it!' he'll finally yell as he abandons the mower to the elements and heads inside. Then he'll notice me standing there, watching him. 'Have you seen the weather report?' he'll ask. 'Rain,' I'll state. 'Feck it to hell. I'll cut it tomorrow.' And Phil will go inside for a well deserved cup of tea.

As I say, it rains incessently, and at times even the best of us get fed up with the whole business. Suicide can sometimes seem a better option, especially in the Spring, when you've already managed to get through five months of rain, and truly believe that the sun just has to shine. But then you know that you're fooling yourself, and know that it's probably going to rain until at least June. Or maybe July or August or September. But then Autumn will be here, and the whole bloody cycle of rain will start all over again.

Of course, there are times when it doesn't rain. On those occasions - which can last even two whole weeks! - it seems that God has gone on holidays and forgotten to reload his rain machine. What happens is this:

We'll be standing in our living room, my good wife and I, and all of a sudden the rain will STOP. Suddenly, the grey mass of cloud will lift a bit, and the two of us will stare hopefully at each other. 'Do you think?' she will say. 'No,' I will reply. 'It's a joke. Don't get your hopes up.'

And then we'll notice it. Rays of sunlight! We'll run out into the yard, staring up at the glowering clouds, sunlight whisping hopefully around their edges. Around us, all of our neighbours will have lined the paths, all of us staring upward as if watching an aerial display. Our mouths will open with hope, agape as the clouds continue to part. Then someone will see it first.

'There!' Phil might say as the clouds part. 'What's that golden orb in the sky!' And cries of ooh's and ahh's will rise to the heavens as the warmth of that long-lost star streams upon our pates.

The sun does shine in Ireland. It's just that when it comes out, it takes most of us a while to recognise it. But take heart! 'Sunshine' is honestly a part of Ireland's vocabulary after all.