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Expats and escargots

September 8, 2012 1 comment

escargotAccording to Wikipedia, the official definition of an expat is “a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).

So, if you go to an expat club, you expect to meet other expats in the same situation as you, right?
Wrong. In some countries and cities anyway.

In Yerevan, Armenia, expats tend to hang out in the “Wheel Club”, a sociable restaurant cum bar which is not difficult to find as there are only a handful of such watering spots in town; and within a few quiz nights or dinners there you will have met all the expats living in the country.

In Nairobi, Kenya, expats (and tourists) flock to popular spots like The Carnivore Restaurant and Pavement restaurant and bar. You’ll also find them easily if you hang out in any of the luxury hotels in town.

In Stockholm, you can read The Local or visit any Irish bar and you’ll find a healthy mix of expats and locals. Attend an event organized by The Local and the chances are that you’ll meet plenty of people in the same situation as yourself bar a handful of Swedes or foreigners with Swedish roots.

In Malta, there are several expat clubs and you won’t find many Maltese there – simply because they already have their own social and support network in place. You might find the occasional Maltese person who is of Maltese descent but a blow-in from abroad, or, occasionally, a local friend of an expat member who was invited along for a drink.

In large cities i.e. over one million inhabitants, and capital cities, you’ll usually be spoiled for choices with British societies or embassies, American Chamber of Commerces, Aussie clubs and much more to choose from so you can sift through and find one that matches you and your interests best.

Then, we come to Lyon in France, a city of almost two million and France’s third largest. InterNations is probably the largest expat club in town; it sells itself as an “Expatriates Community for Expats Worldwide” which helps you to get to know ‘like-minded expats in your city’ but, unlike in Malta, it is run more like a commercial venture than a warm and welcoming place to socialize.

Expect to pay entry for the events, unless you upgrade your status, and expect the drinks at the event to be pricey as the organizers and venues are obviously making money from ‘poor lost expats’ instead of welcoming them with a cheery complimentary cocktail, two-for-one offers and nibbles (like you get at expat events in other countries).

The major difference: in Lyon you will find yourself rubbing shoulders with far more Frenchies than foreigners. Do they consider themselves expats because they are not Lyonnais i.e. they come from another part of France? Does that make them qualify as an ‘expat’? Apparently, it does. Or else they have proudly bestowed themselves with the title of ‘expat’ because they have lived in a former French colony such as Togo for a few weeks, or they have been on vacation a few times to Guadeloupe and Mauritius. These people consider themselves extremely superior and more international than ‘normal French’ people and believe they even qualify as expats because ‘they have been abroad and like to speak English’.

Their other objective for being at these ‘expat’ events is to learn English. So, the role of the homesick expat at these events is not the chance to share experiences and moan about the ups and downs of living in a strange country, no, it’s to offer the ‘locals’ a chance to put their English skills into practice, and give them a taste of our culture so they can become international, just like us expats.

Disillusioned with Internations ‘expats’ , some foreigners try another equally popular  “English club” Act4 and MeetUp.

In all fairness, Act4 does market itself as an English-speaking club and caters for Frenchies who want to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of us Anglophones.

The invitations to English lunches, trips to original version English language movies, trips to the Angloworld pour in. Inevitably, the lunch on Wednesday at 14.00 is often venue-less – that’s decided a day or two before the event. Often, events are cancelled, rescheduled, people put on waiting lists or confirmed and then de-confirmed. In other words, it’s mass confusion. Expect to be bombarded with ten emails every day if you sign up for one event. The latest endeavor is a ‘news club’ which would imply it is a networking club for people who work in media to hang out with other journalists and to immerse in the media world. No, the idea is that you bring a copy of an English news article with you and discuss it … a great exercise to improve language skills, and if you are a ‘ real English-speaking journalist’, then the organizers have hit a jackpot and you should come ‘to see, you’ll probably like it’  – yes, it definitely adds a touch of authenticity to the ‘news club’.

The Act4-ers and MeetUp-ers seem to love everything about us Anglophones – our culture, our language, our way of doing things and even seem to dream of being like us (for all our faults). But, they’ll never be like us – the two cultures are miles apart. Arranging events without an exact time or venue, cancelling last minute, confirming and then de-confirming, that’s not the Anglo way of doing things. But, if you dare to question their way of doing things, or challenge them … then you’ll realize that this is an Anglo-loving club to a certain extent, dare to criticize or raise an eyebrow, or challenge their way of doing things …  and the French culture kicks back in.

Such is the life of an expat amongst escargots!

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Ronan Keating visits the rock

April 26, 2010 2 comments

Ronan Keating made his first ever trip to Malta (or so he said) on the last leg of his 2010 tour, taking the National Stadium near Mdina by storm. Not having made plans for Saturday, April 3, I decided to pick up a few tickets the Tuesday before the concert.

Bruce Springsteen wash-out in Stockholm
My last concert experience was in Stockholm in May 2009 when Bruce Springsteen played in the stadium and, to be perfectly honest, it was one of my worst concert experiences ever. It started with trying to get in …queuing for an hour in the pouring rain to squeeze through one of the two entrances past the stressed-out doormen who were obviously not used to crowds. It rained non-stop for the two hours he was on stage. (Note to self: no more outdoor concerts in Sweden in May!) 

Instead of getting the crowd in a good mood and making them forget about the crappy weather, Bruce decided to play all his new stuff first and only in the last 15 minutes did he finally get around to his really great hits like “Dancing in the Dark” by which time I was so cold, wet and bored that it was time to go home. For a EUR 60 standing ticket, you expect a bit more…at least a bit of atmosphere.

Before Bruce’s concert I had been to see Kim Wilde play on the Cinderella cruise ship which sails between Stockholm, Sweden, and the Åland Islands which belong to Finland. People had been so drunk during her performance that poor Kim had to stop halfway through most her songs to ask people to stop climbing on the stage!)

Ronan Keating wows the audience
I’m not a huge Ronan Keating fan but I do really like some of his stuff and after this concert, I like him even more. On stage, he comes across as such a positive, energetic person with a passion for people and his music. On this tour he was promoting “Songs for my Mother”, the album linked to the anniversary of his mother’s death, and he also dedicated one song to Stephen Gately, his former Boyzone band member and friend who sadly passed away recently.

Yes, he’s famous, yes, he’s rich …but Ronan comes across as someone who has kept his feet firmly on the ground with strongly embedded values and is just a “decent” person. And the positive energy from the crowd, and vibrant atmosphere just made the whole concert even better. Nobody pushed, it was not a hassle to get served at the bar, and the thousands of concert-goers managed easily to get in and out of the venue easily without the need to form a stiff non-moving queue.

And Ronan himself …well he said he was looking forward to getting hammered that night and seeing what Malta’s nightlife had to offer, after a gruelling solo tour. I heard a rumor through a friend of a friend that he called the hotel reception at 3 a.m. looking for a masseuse … 🙂

An honest introduction to an upcoming artist

I recently dropped my Stockholm Key of Honor (a card I was given by the Stockholm Tourist Office to visit and write about the attractions in Stockholm and which gives me free access to all museums and cultural attractions in the city) on the street.

However, as I did not use the card for the past month, I did not even notice that it was missing until one Friday afternoon I received a call from someone called Nadja Ekman telling me she had picked it up on Kungsgatan – a busy city center street.  She had cleaned it up to reveal my name on the card, looked me up on Eniro (a Yellow Pages for Sweden) and called me to return my property.

This is not an isolated incident in Sweden – ok, I’m not saying that everybody in Stockholm is honest, but for sure, people are more honest than in your average capital city. There’s not many big cities where people are honest enough to return something found on a street belonging to a stranger, yet alone something which they could use for their own benefit and which had some monetary worth. And, Stockholm is no cozy village where everyone knows everyone – the area is home to over 1.8 million inhabitants and countless visitors during the summer.

Instead of picking up the phone to call me, Nadja could easily have enjoyed  access to Stockholm’s cultural delights free-of-charge for the rest of 2009, pretending to be me.

I dropped by Nadja’s gallery in Södermalm to pick up my card the next day and discovered she is an upcoming photographer and artist who has developed the Pictoglas method, together with a fellow artist Ewa Stackelberg.

Pictoglas is a patented technique for reproducing photoimagery in glass. Glass pigments are transferred and melted to become an integrated part of the glass structure, making the image imperishable and everlasting. A unique, and upcoming form of art, the Pictoglas method can be used in the art glass industry and as a building material in indoor and outdoor architecture.

Not only did I receive my cherished card back from an honest Swede, but I also discovered a whole new area of art I had never heard about before.

pictoglasMore information on Pictoglas at http://www.pictoglas.se

Ireland: from boom to bust

Johnie Fox's - a famous Dublin landmark pub.

Johnie Fox's - a famous Dublin landmark pub.

Dublin Jameson Distillery Visitor bar Thomas and Alannah

Inside the Jameson Distillery visitor bar in Dublin.

Glendalough original monastic stone settlement 2

The other side of Irish culture - the monastic settlement at Glendalough.

 This is an article I wrote about The Celtic Tiger, aka Ireland, upon my return in December 2006 after being abroad for 10 years. Maybe an interesting read considering the Celtic Tiger has gone down the drain in the past two years.

The Celtic Tiger is still roaring yet Ireland’s newly found prosperity has also given the country a new mentality. The Irish of today are a far cry away from the stereotypical red-haired, happy-go-lucky, rural people who are fondly known for living on a diet of potatoes and Guinness and for using their local pub as a second home. In their place, are hardened, driven people who think nothing of blowing EUR 200 on a good night out on the town and are snapping up property investments overseas like it were a Monopoly game.

By Alannah Eames

Coming back to Ireland, or should I say Dublin, after living abroad for ten years came as somewhat of a culture shock. Maybe it hit me all the harder because I lived in one of the most efficient societies – Sweden where everything is tightly regulated by the government, work comes secondary to your private life and everything works like it is supposed to – for almost five years. Sure some things in Ireland have not changed at all – the fields are still green, you still need to carry your umbrella everywhere with you, the Guinness is still (I am told) better than that found anywhere else in the world, the buses still run according to their own schedule (which never quite seems to match that which is found in the official timetables!).

Yet other things have changed dramatically – not to mention the fact that the country which won the Eurovision three times in a row in the past, succeeded in taking the last position in the 2007 Eurovision. Is this also part of the new Irish attitude that they don’t need to try so hard anymore? Walking through the streets of Dublin on a typically busy weekday, you hear Eastern European and Polish accents more often than you hear native Dubliners. One taxi driver told me, in a horrified tone of voice, “Can you believe that even one of the local daily papers has a Polish language section”. Women dressed in burqas stroll through the small pedestrian shopping streets while young Chinese children speak English with a local Dublin twang. Growing up in Dublin twenty years ago, you were hard pressed to find a dark skinned African on the streets and kids were often heard to exclaim “Mum, what’s wrong with that guy’s skin!”

From rags to riches
On the surface, Dublin may come across as the hip, trendy city which gets featured on all the top tourist documentaries and in the guidebooks, has been labeled one of the greatest cities in the world while the Irish still cash in on their reputation as being one of the “friendliest” people in the world. On my short trips back to Dublin during the past ten years (once a year to be exact), I was also impressed by a seemingly booming economy, the number of flashy cars, the new motorways, the people’s energy and drive, the new choice of international restaurants and the multicultural vibrancy.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Lurking deep under the surface is a country which is struggling to deal with a new modern identity and a huge “Nouveau Riche” population. Once one of the poorest countries in Europe, where legislation and culture were dictated by the Roman Catholic Church, the Ireland of today has milked the EU cash machine to its advantage – turning potholed one-lane roads into motorways; traditionally dull supermarkets into sophisticated retail stores stocking exotic imports and top-notch local brands; and importing cheap foreign labor by the shiploads. Not to mention some of the local habits where fake nails costing around EUR 50 per month, trips to the hairdresser for blonde highlights every few weeks and driving a top-class Mercedes with bank loans exceeding EUR 500,000 seems to be the norm for the average Dubliner in the 25-40 year-old age group.

From emigrants to imigrants
But are times changing? With the entry of less wealthy states in to the European Union, and the growing prosperity of the Irish economy, the roles have reversed and it is now the turn of the Irish to repay part of its dues to Brussels and to integrate foreign workers to fuel its labor-hungry market. As in Dubai, a city that hires cheap, migrant workers by the ton to help produce its million and one skyscrapers, so too does Ireland. Polish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Thais, Filipinos have flocked to Ireland to earn a few euros to send back home to their impoverished families. Just look at the flight arrival and departures board at Dublin Airport and see how many daily flights there are to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States as Ryanair and Aer Lingus scramble to add new flights to even more exotic former East Bloc destinations.

As Germany has, in the past, attracted Turkish, and quite a few Irish workers, now it’s the turn of Ireland to open its job market to foreign workers. I have to admit that it still a new experience for me to walk into several well established Irish bars in Dublin and be served Guinness or Bulmers cider by an all-Asian bar staff. What would be less amusing to know is how much money the owner is saving by hiring an Asian, as opposed to an Irish barman? In the case of Irish people hiring foreign workers, one can only assume that price comes into the equation somewhere along the line.

But don’t get me wrong, Ireland is not alone in using underpaid foreign workers to keep its economy running and give the Irish even more money in their pockets to invest in overseas properties in the likes of Spain, Dubai and even ski resorts in Bulgaria. Demand drives demand. Workers from less developed countries want to work abroad to earn some euros and the Irish want to save costs, put more money in their own pocket and therefore, for many onlookers and for many of the people involved, it can be seen as some sort of “win win” situation for both parties!

If you’re not Irish, you’re not one of the gang
It probably is a “win win” situation for both parties. But what really bugs me is the attitude of many Irish people towards foreigners. There are over one million Irish-born people estimated to be living overseas and there is said to be around 70 million people worldwide who can claim Irish descent. The country from which millions of people emigrated during the past centuries – whether it was in search of food during the Great Famine or in search of work overseas during the economic stagnation of the 20th century, – the Irish have always been reasonably well received in the countries they have migrated to – even if they do grumble half-heartedly from time to time about missing home and how things abroad are not the way they are back home or how boring the people in their newly adopted country are.

Yet it saddens me greatly to see how a significant percentage of Irish people (not all, but enough to leave an impression) treat foreign workers from less developed countries or from different cultures. Just look in the papers and see how many stories you can read each day about Lithuanian men stabbed to death, Polish girls raped, African men being beaten up. But most Irish people will just shrug their shoulders and blame the rising crimes on the foreigners – its almost always foreign family feuds or foreign gangs involved. (Just as they will be equally quick to blame poor service levels on the foreign workers, when some of the lousiest service levels experienced in Dublin have actually involved Irish staff.)

In the past two months alone, I have encountered two racist situations, which considering I spend less than fifty percent of my time in Dublin, is quite substantial. The first one which greatly shocked me occurred in Dublin’s main bus station. Like everyone else, I was standing in line waiting to buy a ticket and there were four people behind me in the queue. One of these was a young African guy – well dressed, around 30 and queuing just like everyone else. Behind him was a gray-haired Irish man in maybe his late forties, early fifties. When the Irish guy tried to push his way in front of the African man to skip the queue, the African guy politely said “Sorry sir there is a queue and I am also waiting”. In response, he got attacked verbally. “Who the f’**k are you to tell me what to do? You’re not Irish. Where were you born?” “I was born here,” replies the African man. “No, you’re f*****g not Irish,” replies the older man who looked like he would hit the African man within a few seconds. My blood was boiling.

A second incident. On the public bus service from Cork to Dublin, a Swedish friend of mine was surprised when a young, Irish guy sauntered up to the bus driver and demanded he pull over so he could go to the toilet/because he missed his stop. When the bus driver, who coincidentally was not Irish, refused to stop – in all honesty, buses stop at designated stops, none of which are for toilet breaks, nappy changing, to grab a takeaway from a local chippers, or whatever other necessities might arise en route, what would happen if all 50 passengers on board wanted to stop at different stages for one thing or another – he was verbally attacked by the passenger. Again, much of the abuse focused on the fact that the driver wasn’t Irish.

Racism exists everywhere under the surface and rears its ugly head in many shapes and forms, but in Ireland, I have been shocked by the manner in which it has been aired – cursing, loud voices, full of hatred and spite and worse of all, openly, in front of a full audience. No shame, whatsoever. Yet, on the other hand, as in many other western European countries, you will occasionally spot the more adventurous types who enjoy the appeal of an exotic partner – it’s not uncommon to spot a 100% Irish-home grown man with an attractive Polish or Lithuanian girl on his arm or a 100% Irish-bred female with an African-born import!

Attitude says it all
Blatancy, sharp tongues and the “I don’t give a sh** attitude” are several other Irish traits which the Irish themselves tend to classify as having a great sense of humor and making a person witty, entertaining and confident. But used in the wrong way or directed at people who don’t understand the culture i.e. those who are a little more on the sensitive side, it can come across as offensive and upsetting.

For years, Irish people have been renowned for their friendliness, openness, hospitality and warmth and for sure, this still does exist here and there, most notably outside of the capital city. But, I am sure for every nice friendly person you meet in Ireland, you will meet at least one of these “I don’t give a sh** about you” type of people.

Like many others, I’ve met my fair share of these people during the past six months – taxi companies in Dublin are probably one of the best examples. One experience in particular springs to mind – I ordered a taxi to take me to the airport at 08.00, 15 minutes later there was still no sign of my driver so I called the company, just to be told “Relax. It’s only 08.00 now”. Thinking I had made a mistake with the time, I checked three other clocks and told the guy quite firmly that it was definitely 8.15. I heard a click and the guy had hung up on me. This does not represent every single taxi driver in the country, as I have also met a few nice ones, but my point is don’t be surprised to experience treatment like this in Dublin. Business is booming in the city so why bother giving service and quality, if people will use you anyway? Dublin is crammed to its full capacity and you should count yourself lucky if you even find a taxi driver available and willing to take you anywhere, just don’t expect anything more than that. And should you make the gross mistake of complaining about the service, don’t be surprised if they either charge you double the fee, don’t bother showing up at all or even go so far as to dump you out on the side of a road somewhere.

Rough around the edges?
There is no official explanation as to why Dublin people have become so tough, raw around the edges and street smart but an obvious reason is that it is a capital city where people commute long distances for work, work long hours and are struggling to pay their bank loans which finances an over-the-top lifestyle which they really can’t afford, but will never admit it.

Dublin has grown tremendously (in population and size) the past few years and the infrastructure has not kept up with this pace. As a result, the public transport system is notoriously poor – buses clog up the cities and the only real solution to transport yourself from A to B is by having your own car.

Hospitals, schools, public health care, all are stretched to their limits. Some of the stories about the healthcare send shivers down my spine. A friend of mine’s brother was beaten up a few weeks ago on a Saturday night in Dublin’s city center. Luckily, some kind passers-by brought him to the hospital. However, maybe being beaten up was the least of his worries. Once in the hospital, he had to sit on a chair in the corridor for almost 24 hours before being admitted for a brain scan and being seen by a doctor, despite having suffered visible head injuries and despite paying a hefty monthly private health insurance fee.

Another example – cell phone coverage. This is something that many people living in developed countries take for granted so you would never expect that a new housing development in a densely populated suburb of a European capital city would not have any network coverage. When I rang the real estate developers and the estate brokers to complain that I could not use my cell phone anywhere in the 3-bedroomed terraced house in the suburbs I had just forked out EUR 500,000 on, I was informed by both the property development company and the estate broker: “I don’t believe what I am hearing. How can you possibly think that a property developer has anything to do with mobile phone coverage. You need to talk to the telecom operators,” in a tone of voice which implied that I was the one who had just landed from Mars.

When you talk to the telecom operators, they tell you it is not their problem either. So, after going around in a circle, the only solution is to give up and revert to standing on the street or in the garden to try to get some kind of connection. But, do they tell you this when you are camping overnight in your car – a routine procedure for many new developments in Dublin (my next door neighbors actually slept in their car for almost 10 days to purchase one of these “prime” investments with no cell phone coverage which were supposedly sold out until suddenly after moving in, we discovered that there were 6 houses still unsold) … no, for sure they will take your deposit and after that, there is no going back!

Stories such as these, should be more representative of an incident in some central African republic or a remote village in Siberia, but no, they are events which crop up regularly in Dublin, the capital of the Celtic Tiger.

A welcome and farewell to remember
Trying to enter or leave the country via Dublin Airport is also a recipe for high blood pressure, for even the calmest individuals. When you arrive, the chances are you will end up walking for 10 to 15 minutes without any trolley for hand luggage and most likely, the conveyor belt for walking on will be broken. Then you need to wait, along with two or three other flights, at the luggage conveyor belt where you desperately watch your suitcase sailing by as you battle with 200 hundred other people to get close enough to pick it off the belt. Once outside, if you arrive late at night, it is another arm wrestling competition to get a coveted seat on the Aircoach shuttle service to the city or southern suburbs … the only other option to escape from the airport, unless you are fortunate enough to have kicked a friend or relative out of the bed to pick you up .. is to join the kilometer-long taxi queue. Unfortunately, leaving the country is not any easier. If you are unfortunate enough to be flying with the national airlines, be prepared to stand in line for up to one hour to check in your suitcase, even if you are already waving a printed boarding pass from your online check-in and expected to simply drop your case at the Baggage Drop desk. Then, it is another one-kilometer queue at the security check and finally a good 10-15 minute walk to many of the gates, not that anyone mentions this at check-in. If you are one of the lucky ones who has managed to catch your flight (despite being at the airport two hours prior to departure), when the plane lifts off the ground, you can finally take a deep breath and enjoy the beautiful emerald landscape beneath you and the scenic coastline.

Silence is golden
Irish people don’t take criticism lightly. They enjoy making fun of others and can take a bit of a teasing, but criticism is something different. For example, a friend of mine is a local policeman, or Garda, as they are known. After being served strange tasting Budweiser on draft three or four times in the same bar, he decided it was time to ask the barman why the beer tasted strange: “Is there something wrong with your Budweiser, it doesn’t taste so good” To which he received the response, “What’s wrong with it, nobody else has complained”.

And that is where part of the problem lies, Irish people just don’t seem to complain. They either pay the price and grumble later behind the person’s back or they just think “Oh well it was only a five-euro drink and I had a good night, so what’s five euros.” If you dare to give any feedback or pass less than positive comments, you can be sure you will be made fun of, have a smart comment thrown back at you or the person in question simply will not care less.

Service with a smile?
Service levels and the attitude of many customer service representatives is, what I would term, “interesting”. Trying to register my company in Ireland, I spent an hour with an accountant based in Celbridge who was recommended to me by a close friend. After filling in the forms, I spent the next 3 months chasing him only to end up calling the Tax Authorities myself to find out that he had done absolutely nothing with my tax registration. Apparently, there was not enough money to be made from my business to make me worth his time or even the price of a phone call or a two-second email to inform me that he was not going to take me on as a client. And, I have since discovered that poor service is not unheard of, even if you have money to spend.

From one of the country’s leading mortgage companies who, due to problems with their direct debit service, did not withdraw five months of mortgage repayments from my sister’s bank account and then proceeded to give her a black credit mark for not making the payments (despite her many efforts to contact them and being left on hold and hung up on many times), to the fruitless exercise of trying to buy a new laptop cable, which after waiting for almost a week led me to find a replacement cable in a small town in Germany for less than half the price quoted in Dublin, the service and attitude of many so-called service providers in Ireland sends shivers down many a person’s spine.

Yet, the average person who has never visited Ireland, or who has spent maybe just a few brief days there as a tourist, someone who left the country years ago or the person who has read all the promotional travel books, still believes that the Irish hospitality, warmth and friendliness is legendary and unrivalled. Unfortunately, this is not the general rule today even though you will come across these Irish “stereotypes” every so often.

What the Irish do best – drinking!
Drinking is something that has been part of Irish blood and culture long before Guinness was even invented! For centuries, small farmers in remote villages were brewing poitín (poteen), until it was outlawed in 1760. With an alcohol content level of 90%, this legendary “Irish whisky” was guaranteed to get you tipsy quickly and to leave you with a hell of a hangover the next day! In the 21st century, the Irish still live up to their drinking reputation as much as ever. It never ceases to amaze that if you go out in Dublin on a Monday night or a Saturday night, there will still be people in the bars (even though competition is rampant as there are bars on almost every corner) and a lively atmosphere. You don’t find that in many other cities!

One thing that visitors often find amusing is the fully stocked cosmetic shelf with everything from perfumes to hairspray and mouth wash found in nightclub toilets. The men don’t lose out either – even the men’s toilets are fully equipped with everything needed to ensure he stays looking good during a heavy drinking session! Yet, one of the nicest things about being in an Irish pub is the crowds they attract – ok, I’m not talking here about some of the hip, trendy places in the cities with nightclubs, which cater largely for the young crowds, but take your average local Irish bar – you’ll see everything from teenagers just over the drinking age limit, to middle-aged couples to old men in their Sixties who have been regulars at the bar for years and even have their own favorite seat. In how many countries in the world do older people get dolled up, meet their friends and socialize regularly in a bar, in extreme cases every night?

Keeping up appearances
One big change I have noticed from ten years ago is how Irish people now take care of their appearance, I am largely referring to Dublin here but the same goes for the more affluent crowds outside of the Pale (the historical name for the greater Dublin area). It is not uncommon for girls to start getting ready to go out for the “big going out night” (Saturday) at 4.00 in the afternoon – the outfit gets chosen with great care, the nails get painted, the hair gets blow-dryed, the make up gets painted on in layers as does the perfume and then it’s all out for a big night – the single ones determinedly on the hunt for a good catch and the attached ones out for some attention and a laugh.

 Traditionally, Irish men have been the kind of guys who would sleep in the same shirt for two days and maybe go to the barber once a year, the most important thing was how much you could drink before falling over. However, the average Irish guy in Dublin today, is much more refined. A flashy car is important, as is a big wallet and they indulge in fashionable clothes, taking care of their skin and hair – I even came across one 27-year-old guy who gets his hair professionally straightened once a month and who can outnumber even me with my collection of bathroom toiletries!

Male grooming is a growing phenomenon in many developed countries but in the more macho type societies, such as what Ireland was once, it is amusing to see how the men have changed over the years. Saying that, you’ll still meet the farmer type in a local bar who is on the hunt for a wife and who considers having a big John Deere tractor, 100 sheep and his own farmhouse as major wife catching material!

It’s only money
But this is a far cry from the “Spend, spend, spend” money throwing mission that goes on in Dublin. Having lived in Sweden for almost five years, where a krona is a krona and they try to save SEK 20 (EUR 2.20) on a bus ticket by squeezing their oversized kid into a buggy (if you are a mother with a kid in a buggy, you are exempt from paying for a bus ticket), coming back to a place where nobody seems to bat an eyelid at paying EUR 55 for an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet – you know the type where they have a conveyor belt and you sit and pick the pieces you want from it – but I was told by my sister that really this was good value because “sushi restaurants are still an exotic type of dining experience in Dublin and besides, you get a drink like a beer or a glass of wine included!”. I looked at her flabbergasted that anybody could possibly think that was a good deal and informed her that you could have the same deal in several other major European cities for half the price. But, Irish people are willing to pay these prices so the businesses are not doing anything wrong- they are simply pricing according to what the market will pay.

Irish people, or I should say Dubliners in particular, are on a mega spending mission and live each day like it is their last. “F**k it’s only money, you might die tomorrow!” is the general philosophy. It is only visitors, foreigners and the occasional blow-in like me, who dares to mention the price word. But it is not just the prices which are the issue in Ireland, it is more a question of what you get for your money. And, to be honest, what you pay in Dublin and what you get for your money, often doesn’t really match.

I have been surprised sometimes – there is a great Thai restaurant in the Sandyford Industrial Estate – tucked away on a quiet side street which has great food at a reasonable price, a nice atmosphere and super-friendly service. So there are some decent places around but as with any other city, it’s a matter of finding them. So, yes on one hand, Ireland is still the emerald island with luscious green scenery, charming country villages, lively nightlife and social people with a lust for life, which many people who have never been there imagine, and dream of. But like with every other place, be aware that there are two sides to every coin. Few people report on the other face of Ireland, and Dublin in particular. For every romantic travel epic about Dublin and Ireland you will read, there is also a person out there who has had a bad experience and left with an entirely different impression. Irish people are, on the whole, staunchly patriotic, and are either immune or conditioned to their environment. Or maybe they are simply happy with the situation because it blends in with their own attitudes and philosophy.

Be aware that yes, Dublin is a vibrant, young and dynamic city but also one which is struggling to come to terms with its status as a modern European city. Ireland is still a country in transition and its biggest challenges are to overcome a serious infrastructure problem and culturally, how to deal with its new-found wealth. The economy has boomed and it has been a rat race to build houses, offices and other buildings as quickly as possible, yet with very little thought going into supplying these developments with basic services such as cellphone network coverage, main roads, public transport service and shops. Likewise, be prepared to experience poor service levels with overpriced products and services, rude taxi drivers, people who will look down on you because you are “not Irish” or because you maybe dress or act a little differently, and a city which can be rough around the edges. As long as you don’t have over-the top romantic notions of what to expect from Ireland, and Dublin, you won’t be disappointed!

A “Wilde” experience

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On Thursday I boarded one of Sweden’s most notorious “Booze cruise” ships – the Cinderella from Viking Line – bound for Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. Even though it was mid-week, hundreds of passengers lined up for boarding dragging empty suitcases behind them. The reason for their (and my) trip? Apart from the obvious answer – to stock up on a few months supply of cheap alcohol and cigarettes at tax-free prices and to party – to listen to Eighties singing sensation Kim Wilde who was playing that night on board. How on earth she ended up on a Viking Line cruise in the Baltic Sea is a mystery to me!

48-year-old Kim came on stage at 23.00 by which time the audience were pretty intoxicated and clambering over the thin barrier before being dragged away by Cinderella cruise staff/bouncers. The first few songs were mediocre and ones I never heard before. During every song she stopped mid-sentence to say “Please keep back. I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt. Please take care of each other and stay back,” before having to restart, or in some cases not restart at all, her songs.

Halfway through she started to play her real hits and the concert really started despite some starts and restarts as the drunken Nordic audience continued to attempt to drunkily clamber over the thin railing and get closer to the “Kids in America” star. By 24.00 she finished on a high with “Kids in America” and despite my disillusionment with the first half of the concert and her performance, I think she gave a fair performance, certainly I can’t complain about value-for-money – the cruise including cabin, breakfast and concert cost just SEK 735 for two people.

I’ve been on hundreds of these cruise ships which plough through the Baltic waters every day but every time the level of drunkedness on board astounds me. As an Irish girl whose country-folk can really drink, it always astonishes me how the locals in this part of the world can be completely transformed from shy, non-eye-contact makers to super-extroverted, super uncoordinated, roaring drunks. My last experiences before disembarking the ship – a 40-something-year-old man fumbling around half-drunk (at 3.00 in the afternoon) for his cans of beer (the box had split) and what looked like a harmless little old lady in her Seventies, who grabbed me by the arm and tried to pull me along with her before almost crashing to the ground. Luckily her equally drunken companion managed to catch her before she hit the ground.

Baltic cruises – they’re an experience for sure and even though every time I swear I’ve never seen such drunken people and that I won’t go on another one for a while, somehow, I just can never resist them! And with Cinderella giving out free cruise vouchers for every SEK 500 of purchases on board, I’ve clocked up 6 free cruises now so I’ll be back on board soon … no doubt dumbfounded once again by my drunken fellow passengers!!

Neighbors … but miles apart!

April 3, 2009 7 comments

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Even if only a 16 kilometre bridge separates Sweden from its ”more Continental” neighbours, the Danes, the distance between the two cultures far surpasses their physical proximity, argues Alannah Eames.

The Danes have always been proud of the fact that they are closer geographically (and in their opinion, also mentally) to Continental Europe than their Scandinavian neighbours. But even if they may be a few kilometres closer, you should still bear in mind that Copenhagen is actually perched on a large island on the far eastern seaboard of the country. In turn this island is connected to another few islands, by yet another few bridges. But for sure, they are further south, meaning less bitter winters and the possibility of travelling by road or rail to Continental Europe.

However, crossing the bridge from my new abode in Malmö is always a cultural change. Not only do I leave behind the Swedish kronor, the complimentary glass of tap water which is easily available in every Swedish restaurant and the “safe” Swedish environment, but I enter a world full of kamikaze cyclists, where a “fika” (coffee and slice of chocolate cake) for two people can sometimes set you back DKK 255 (322 kronor, $53) and where everyone seems to look different. Whereas the Swedes are walking around with their Baby Björn baby holders and three-wheeled off-road style buggies, the Danes are proudly showing off their vintage prams from the pre-war years.

Why are Danes and Swedes so different? Well, if you ask a Dane and a Swede, you are sure to get two very different answers. My Danish friends say: “The Swedes are a bit stuck-up and boring” whereas the Swedes will simply shrug their shoulders and admit that “Danes and Swedes are different. We really don’t understand each other so well” and put it down to a language problem. What makes it even more interesting is that neither the Swedes nor Danes can understand each other’s language so they prefer to communicate in a neutral language, English. Meanwhile, both (without admitting it) in some way envy their happy-go-lucky neighbours, the Norwegians, who can understand both Danish and Swedish.

But is it really a few degrees latitude which sets the Danes apart from their Swedish neighbours? What is a typical Dane and what is typically Danish? Most non-Swedes can easily rattle off five or six things which are typically Swedish (usually including IKEA, H&M, Björn Borg and Abba). But when I asked a fellow expat the same question about what’s Danish, she paused a minute before coming up with Carlsberg, Royal Copenhagen, Maersk Shipping, Danish design and pork.

The Danes were named the happiest people in the world in a recent survey and in one way they come across as more easy-going and content than their Swedish neighbours. Instead of collecting “adult” points for a Volvo, summer-house and perfect ratio of two kids (one boy and one girl) two years apart, they’re quite happy with their hippy friends, knocking back a few beers and cycling a beat-up old bike to work. (But there are, of course, exceptions to this rule.)

Most of them are quite patriotic and content with their homeland. They don’t try to be perfect which probably also contributes to the happiness factor. They don’t hold back feelings and are not afraid to shout at fellow cyclists, to flirt openly if they like someone or to be rude if it suits them. This can be a breath of fresh air, or if you have lived a long time in Sweden and been Sweden-ized, it can take a bit of getting used to.

Fifteen years ago the Swedes headed to Denmark for cheap shopping. Today things have changed and Sweden is cheaper for almost everything, except alcohol. The Danish krone is very strong and you might as well add 20 percent on to anything you buy in Denmark to compare with Swedish prices.

But what I haven’t quite figured out is why all the Danes aren’t rolling across the bridge to Swedish supermarkets for cheaper groceries, unlike the Swedish Volvos I spot on the ferry back from Germany, laden down to the ground with crates of cheap German beer, wine and meats.

For all their reputation for being the shrewdest operators in the region, the Danes don’t seem prepared to head to Sweden to save a few kronor. Is it laziness? Do they want to support their own economy? One reason could be that salaries in Denmark are, generally, much higher than in Sweden. But this is essential to compensate for the country’s extortionate taxes, considered to be the world’s highest. (Note: In Q1 2009, the Danish kronor has risen sharply against the Swedish kronor – approx DKK 1 = SEK 1.5 so Danes are now finally crossing the bridge for bargains!)

However, many Danes have chosen to live in Malmö, lured to modern apartment complexes and old buildings by prices which are significantly lower than the Copenhagen property market and snapping up cars in Sweden which are also much cheaper than in their homeland. Most are commuting across the bridge each day to work. Earning Danish kroner and paying Swedish prices – a win-win situation.

Scandinavia is a paradise for English speakers who can communicate easily with the locals. But here lies another small difference I have noticed between the Swedes and Danes. Swedes often speak perfect English, sometimes so good that you could find yourself asking: “Which part of the UK do you come from?”

In Denmark, they are also pretty good at English but they slip slightly behind the Swedes with their accent. Even if they have lived abroad for a few years, most of them never quite lose a trace of that Danish accent.

On the other hand, mastering, and understanding, the Danish language itself is quite a challenge for foreigners. On paper, it looks quite harmless and you’ll be quite chuffed when you recognize some words on the menu. But when you hear the same word spoken, rest assured that you won’t understand anything of it. Danish almost sounds like they have something stuck in the throat while Swedish can sound like you are exercising your lungs and holding your breath.

One thing is for sure, the Danes are not afraid of social interaction, and even embrace it warmly. At a birthday party or at a house party, they will welcome you and introduce themselves without the need to first down several drinks. Likewise, on the street, if you ask for directions, they will not look the other way and try to escape.

If you strike up a conversation with someone on a train, the chances are that they will not think “Oh my God, I have a serial stalker sitting next to me” and pretend to fall asleep, or worse still move seats.

The Danes have a sense of humour and a relaxed approach to life. Even if on the surface they may seem quite stand-offish, underneath this armour they can be actually quite friendly once you get to know them.

My German boyfriend is an area manager for Scandinavia and he finds the Danes the easiest Scandinavians to relate to. He also swears that Copenhagen is by far the liveliest Scandinavian city, even though it’s not as beautiful or clean as Stockholm.

Me, well I lived in Stockholm for four years before moving to Malmö and even though the Danes are often a welcome breath of fresh air and energy, I have to admit that I’m still getting used to them. Maybe I’m almost becoming Swedish at this stage. Or maybe I just miss my free glasses of water at lunchtime, the efficient public transport system, hills, rocks and forests, and fikas that don’t cost a small fortune.

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Adapting to the Danes
• Be direct. Directness and frankness in communication is seen as a sign of sincerity and honesty. When you gain their respect, they’ll start liking you for it.
• Be yourself. Personality and individuality is welcomed in Denmark.
• Compliment them on their country and culture. They’re a small country and like to feel that people appreciate them, or at least acknowledge their impact on the world.
• Hop on a bike and you’ll immediately feel part of the cycling community. Just don’t do anything stupid, they will not love you for blocking cycle paths or riding in the wrong direction.
• Make a joke or two about Swedish culture but don’t take sides.
• Learn a few Danish words. Your efforts to pronounce their language can help to break the ice and are sure to cause a few laughs.
• Don’t be intimidated by them. Their bark is worse than their bite.
• If doing business, get it in writing. According to fellow Scandinavians, the Danes are known as the best traders and the toughest business negotiators in the region.

Alannah Eames. Published on www.thelocal.se

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