An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

‘We have moved’

Posted in Uncategorized by Frieda on September 10, 2010

Packed up & gone

I have now formally and forever moved my blog to a new URL, http://irishgirlabroad.wordpress.com/. Please do me the honour of checking out my blog there. I won’t put posts up here any more, to avoid confusion.

A bientôt!

Frieda

“Lovely Leitrim”

Posted in Uncategorized by Frieda on September 1, 2010

Lough Scur, in Driney townland

My new blog post, about the secrets of Leitrim, is here:

Thanks for reading! xx

Complex operation

Posted in Uncategorized by Frieda on August 30, 2010

Let's hope this works!*

Dear Reader,

I’m in the process of performing a complicated technical procedure known as ‘exporting’ my blog to another site. When I set up this blog I immediately had a change of mind as to its title — I realised that describing myself as an ‘Irish Woman Abroad’ made me feel like a haggard crone, a Peig Sayers of the 21st century. I’m sure that ambivalence towards adulthood has deep psychological roots, but (moving swiftly on) the result was that I changed my title to ‘Irish girl’. It was too late to alter the URL, and I’m now doing my best to sort that out — you can find my new blog with a more appropriate, Irish Girl Abroad URL here. In the meantime, you may see some glitches on both versions of the site, which I hope to to eliminate soon. When all’s ready and I feel brave enough, I’ll delete this, the old version.

Ta for your patience! xx

*Pic comes from here.

Love in Dublin

Posted in Culture, Dublin, Relationships by Frieda on August 24, 2010

Romantic Ireland?*

DUBLIN —  Ireland has a flourishing drinking scene, or ‘pub culture’ as it’s fondly known, but the concept of dating is as elusive here as a mystical dream.

Yet single people do exist, and the notion that this odd American practice could be a good thing is gradually infiltrating our national psyche. Last weekend’s Sunday Independent featured ‘Confessions of a Modern Irish Bachelor‘ by one Hugh Farrelly, a pallid, unsmiling journalist, who admitted he was ‘single, straight and 38’. The female perspective has been gaining ground as well. Irish TV today interviewed an intrepid New York woman who’s currently making her way through Dublin’s urban jungle. (Her website, interestingly, doesn’t mention any actual dates here). As background research, the reporters spoke to a few Irish women, all of whom agreed that dating in Dublin is awful and ‘very hard’.

Romance involves a trip to a pub, the consumption of a number of pints or whiskey or vodka, and a further journey to a nightclub or late bar, at which point the individual may approach and engage with a member of the opposite sex. As the night wanes and more drink is taken, primitive nuptials of a kind may occur.

The real romance is with the pub itself. Here we are eminently faithful, returning again and again to the same bars we frequented in our teenage years. Back then there was a frisson because we were underage and it was illegal, but after you hit 18 — and more than a decade on — the intrigue wears off. That rarely stops us, however.

Meanwhile women complain that men don’t initiate conversation; men say women are unresponsive and scary.

Last week I was at O’Donoghue’s on Baggot Street, a packed, roaringly noisy place, chatting to a beautiful woman in her early thirties, who told me how lonely and isolating Dublin is, and how hard it is to meet people. Her huge eyes fixed on me as she explained her plan to move home to the country to be closer to her family. She wanted to meet a nice man but told me she never met any in Dublin. Meanwhile we ignored a table of guys beside us, who looked over pointedly from time to time but said nothing.

After a while, I decided to conduct an experiment. I turned to the guy beside us and asked him if men and women ever spoke to each other in pubs in Dublin. I forget what his reply was, to be honest — this was after a third glass of the pub’s house white wine — but we got into a conversation. I looked around to introduce my friend, only to discover that she had departed for the toilet. Within five minutes another friend grabbed me. Everyone was leaving.

[*Image source: here]

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Beautiful but broke

Posted in Dublin, Irish politics by Frieda on August 16, 2010

The river Liffey*

DUBLIN — Ireland’s capital long ago earned the nickname, ‘Dirty Dublin,’ but its dirtiness this August seems metaphorical rather than actual. I took a cycle around the city today, pedalling from Rathmines to the Docklands to Rialto. The clear skies and a temperature of 17C (63F) passed for a heatwave, and I found the city quiet, green, and almost regal. I’ve lived out of Ireland for ten years and, though I have many Oprah-style issues with my hometown, I enjoy rediscovering it with each return journey. It’s small and you can visit most of it on a bike in an afternoon. You can see why it appeals to tourists.

But hardship isn’t far beneath the surface. Yesterday my mom and I got a taxi to a local restaurant, which we wouldn’t normally do, except that she’d twisted her ankle. A huge cab brought us there, so big we had to speak up to be heard, and you could tell it had been bought in the expectation of transporting far larger groups than our mother-daughter party. The driver said business was tough, recounting how in the two hours up to that point, he’d earned just €5. A different taxi took us home and that driver was more vocal. He said he struggled to bring in €500 a week, and added, rather ominously, that since Christmas, ten Irish taxi drivers had committed suicide.

Yet I can recall queuing for two hours on a Saturday night on Dame Street to get a taxi home, when I was a teenager. Then, there weren’t enough taxis: often my friends and I would share a cab with strangers, and sometimes we’d choose to walk rather than wait, arriving at our houses teetering in our heels at dawn. At that time a taxi license cost £85,000. In 2000 the market was deregulated, and licenses became cheaper, which meant that those who’d purchased the expensive ones now competed with drivers who’d paid much less. Soon, too many taxis were roaming the Dublin streets. The taxi-drivers’ hardship arises not just from the country’s financial woes, but also from government policy.

To accompany my rediscovery of Dublin this time round, I’m reading the greatly informative, edifying and aptly named, ‘Ship of Fools’ by Fintan O’Toole, subtitled, ‘how stupidity and corruption sank the Celtic Tiger’. It’s utterly brilliant. O’Toole identifies, confirms and elucidates many of the things I’ve felt about Ireland (gleaned mainly from overheard parental mutterings), and which, as I grew up, led me to feel powerless.

O’Toole’s observations on our leaders’ lack of eloquence cause me to rethink the criticisms of Brian Cowen I made in an earlier post. I was surprised at his incoherence, which seemed so disappointing coming from a leader, but now I wonder if it was planned. If so it would fall in with tradition, for O’Toole remarks that in order to bewilder listeners, Cowen’s immediate predecessor Bertie Ahern ‘underplayed his own keen intelligence, sometimes deliberately resorting to gibberish, not caring if if make him look obtuse or inarticulate.’

O’Toole makes some sharp points about the Irish: ‘The Irish electorate showed an extraordinary degree of tolerance towards politicians who were known to have engaged in dodgy dealings … [T]he truth was that many voters didn’t greatly care.’

Or again, ‘The real wonder was not that fraudsters got elected but that more politicians did not claim to be crooks in order to get elected. There had been a time in ireland when it was a political asset to have served time behind bars for Sinn Fein. In the Celtic Tiger era, it was an asset to have been behind bars for Me Fein [Irish for ‘Myself’].’

The government that demolished the Celtic Tiger is still in place, along with many of its corrupt systems and structures. Ireland’s future, I’m afraid, seems grim.

*******

Bogland in Kiltubrid, Leitrim*

If that doesn’t cheer you up, I plan a post on Leitrim during this holiday. It’s my mother’s home county, an isolated and gorgeously scenic region that experienced a large amount of development in the past decade. Its fields (some of them) were replaced by housing estates, which in turn were a source of tax breaks for builders. At least 30% of houses there now sit vacant.

*These pictures are from a few years ago. I took some sunnier photos yesterday but I haven’t uploaded them yet. They will follow, and they’re meant to balance my gloomy text!

Losing things

Posted in Irish, Local, New York by Frieda on August 6, 2010

The city

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged here of late. That’s because something very sad happened which I didn’t want to write about, but didn’t want to bypass either. The result was that I didn’t write.

When I feel stressed or tired or upset, I often find that I’m clumsy, more likely to trip, or lose things. True to form, yesterday I lost some prescription spectacles (the purple ones that you can see on the right) when their case fell out of a hole in my bag as I cycled along St. Mark’s toward Franklin Ave. The day was gorgeously hot and I was wearing sunglasses, and though I heard a clatter behind me I just kept going. Later, when I went back peering under cars to look for them, they were gone.

A few months back, an acquaintance told me about a friend of his, an Irish woman called Lydia Prior who was based in LA, but moved home to Belfast when her father died. She’s writing a blog about his death called the Dead Dad Diaries. I’ve glanced at it from time to time, and I’ve found it to be excellent and intriguing, though the title is a bit much for me. Recently Prior posted up a poem by Elizabeth Bishop on the subject of loss. It’s a well-known poem, perhaps almost cliche; still, I’ve found that, more than anything else, poetry articulates these feelings best.

One Art

By Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Counterintuitive thinking on healthcare

Posted in Healthcare, New York by Frieda on July 25, 2010

My shoes: hazardous to the health but clearly worth it

A number of years ago I was invited to a lovely and rather posh wedding in Oxford. I was discreetly placed at the ‘singles’ table beside an eligible doctor, in the hope that a spark might strike. That wasn’t to be. Intrigued by the English health system I asked him about his job; instead of any softer feelings my presence inspired a rant, about the horrible patients who bugged this poor doctor with their stupid worries about colds and minor ailments. Being slightly hypochondriacal, I sided with the patients.

Fast forward a few years: now living in the US, my experience of healthcare is very different and I recall with fondness the days when a trip to the doctor required nothing more than a phonecall and £6.30 for a prescription. I have health insurance of a kind (travel insurance) and I get yearly check-ups, but any superfluous doctoral visits are few and far between. I’m not the only one. At my hairdresser’s the other day, one of the stylists was limping awkwardly. It turns out she’d been wearing high heels, and made the mistake of playing football with her nephew. The result was disastrous — she broke her toe — but instead of going to the doctor, she patched it up herself, strapping it to the other toe as a nurse might have done (admittedly, she was still wearing the heels in question when I saw her so perhaps the break wasn’t that bad).

In the US, where at least 47 million people are uninsured, this sort of DIY healthcare is commonplace. Pharmacists sometimes help out, dispensing antibiotics without prescriptions (I think that’s illegal but correct me if I’m wrong). The medications you can buy over the counter are stronger than those available in Europe and presumably there’s a reason for that. People hobble on home-made canes and wait for nature to do its work unaided.

When I fell off my bike recently, I realized that my emergency Plan B — flying home to Ireland nursing my injury — would be difficult, and intensely painful, to carry out (Plan  A is just do nothing and hope for the best). My arm was extremely sore and it took days to heal. Luckily, it wasn’t broken; I got antibiotics from a sympathetic chemist and avoided an infection.

On some levels this self-care version of healthcare is good. It saves government money, and makes people hardier and less susceptible to self-indulgent anxieties. The uninsured are unlikely to waste a doctor’s time because they have a cold if it means they’ll have to shell out $150. But the real cost is a heavy one, for it must mean that early diagnosis of serious illness is less frequent.

Nor does a lack of insurance stop people taking risks, as my hairdressing-friend’s high-heeled soccer accident shows. It hasn’t stopped me either. Undeterred by her story I recently purchased a pair of rather dangerous summer sandals. I’ll just take care and avoid sidewalk-cracks and hope I don’t fall. It’s an uneasy balance, but I bet that doctor would be pleased.

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Brian Cowen’s summer holiday

Posted in Irish by Frieda on July 16, 2010

Brian Cowen at the Consulate (June 13)

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to meet Ireland’s taoiseach (~ prime minister) at the Consulate in New York. It was Cowen’s first visit this year, and he was variously drumming up business, or showing that he isn’t totally done for, depending on your perspective. At home, Cowen is facing harsh criticism, with an astonishing degree of success — indeed, he faced down a vote of no confidence from within his party just last month.

New York provided an opportunity for the beleaguered taoiseach to relax. Local Irish media reports have been politely positive and his speech at the Consulate on Tuesday was received with applause and even, from a blond lady behind me, a shriek.

The taoiseach spoke without any notes, not even a scrap of paper. This is very difficult to do, unless you’re well-practised or a brilliant orator. Probably as a result of this his language was convoluted and repetitive. He talked of the need ‘to ensure that our investment strategy,which has been so successful, is being allied with a continuation of that strategy.’ Referring to his trip to the New York Stock Exchange the day before, and to his own research into how to promote Ireland as an innovative place, he said, ‘the fruits of that work were coming to fruition yesterday.’

And he made another statement that seemed exceedingly strange but was probably meant to pander to his audience of former emigrants. Ireland is not so much a geographical location, it’s about ‘what’s in your heart.’ We are as determined as ever, Cowen said, to show that this generation is as able as earlier ones to overcome the problems of unemployment.

It didn’t seem to matter to him that emigration is often seen as a dark part of Ireland’s history and that young people’s enforced departure from Ireland now is a renewal of that tragedy. The audience clapped and cheered. Perhaps I hadn’t understood.

Later on I asked Cowen what specifically he planned to do to help young people whom circumstances are forcing to emigrate to the States. ‘It’s an issue I’m working on all the time,’ he said, smiling at me. He added that it’s very political (which immigration certainly is in the US), and said he’d met with immigration lobbyists earlier in the day — I assume this means the Irish Immigration Lobby for Reform. ‘We’re looking for more flexible arrangements.’

The statement seemed vague and I wonder if it’s enough, coming from Ireland’s current leader in the midst of the greatest financial crisis the country has seen. Working on it all the time? It’s better, I suppose, than saying he’s not working on it.

Below is a virtual flip-book of photos from the speech.

Consul Niall Burgess introduces Cowen

This was Burgess' last event in NY

Cowen takes to the podium

New consul Noel Kilkenny listens intently on the right

More of the same

As before

Cowen struck a confident pose

The speech was well received

Afterwards

Cowen greets Marie Burgess

Rapping on Dean Street

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 18, 2010

Leah Hart & friends, ready to rap

When I picked up my camera this afternoon and headed outside, I never thought I’d come across a bunch of rappers: eight of them, along with a woman with a video camera and a car blasting background music, right outside my house. The videographer was Leah Hart, and they were performing a rap cypher, a 16 bar chant to which all eight add their own individual rhythm. They live nearby — Leah’s on Park Place — and they chose my street because they liked the graffiti.

I love my new neighbourhood, Crown Heights in Brooklyn. There’s something magical about it, a community feel with creative artistry sewn in. It’s ethnically diverse and has not always fared well. In 1991 riots broke out after a 7-year-old African American boy was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic man. In the three days of violence that followed, one man was killed and almost 200 injured. Now, though, such conflict seems a thing of the past, and all sorts of groups co-exist and work together, literally, with businesses that are side by side.

Nearby Franklin Avenue is a hive of activity: locals gather on their apartment stoops, businesses thrive. Yesterday I discovered a bijou community center, where freelancers, artists, and local organizations can meet, for free. One or two organic groceries and swish coffee shops bear witness to change: gentrification, which is raising rents and bringing double-edged benefits.

Off Franklin, warehouses and factories overshadow the sidewalks, some in their original function, others converted (legally & illegally) into artists’ lofts and collectives. Everyone seems to have something on the go. At the end of my road, canopied by orange parasols, a man sells watermelons, and plants from his garage.

These are pictures from my 15 minute walk.

Poem by James Wright, on a lampost at Franklin & St. Johns (click to enlarge)

Locals plan to appropriate this disused lot & make it into a community garden (this weekend)

Notice on on Franklin Ave.

Factories on Bergen St.

Local film-maker, McClinton Karma Stanley (see http://www.youtube.com/karmastanley)

A graffito on Franklin Avenue

Sarah Palin [whatever]-gate

Posted in US politics by Frieda on June 13, 2010

Palin on 'On the Record' (Fox news)

As a member of the ‘liberal elite’ eastcoast media, you would expect me to side against Sarah Palin in any argument. And let me be clear, although I’ve had phases of fascination with Ms. Palin (she is SO popular — what can we learn from that/her?) I do detest her politics.

But I’m disappointed in the media’s recent kerfuffle over her. The debate surrounds the question of whether Palin has had breast implants: if you closely peer at the multitude of photos that websites are posting on the subject, you can almost detect a marginal increase in their size; though ultimately it’s hard to tell.

A while back I became a ‘fan’ of Smart Girl Politics on Facebook. Now, these are Republican women activists, who say they are dedicated ‘to effecting change at the grassroots level.’ Although I’m not Republican (bien sûr) I think that it’s salutary to know what the other side is thinking, and even to learn from them if possible, subscribing to an idealistic notion that if both sides listened to each other more, American politics might not — just might not — be so terrifyingly polarized.

On Friday a Smart Girl Politicker posted, ‘deciding it’s easier to ignore Sarah Palin’s role in yesterday’s primaries, the media instead focuses on … her chest?’ linking to an article in the Boston Herald, written by a woman, that begins, ‘Hey Sarah Palin, I can see your cleavage from my house!’ The Herald piece is so snarky and gratuitously anti-Palin, minus any substantial political content, that I felt some sympathy. However nasty you think the woman is, her breasts should not be the point.

Further, sticking ‘Sarah Palin’ and ‘breasts’ into a newspaper article just ends up lending weight to Palin’s criticisms of the media. In the short-term such articles may get a gazillion hits, but in the medium and long-term it’s a liberal-elite-media own goal.

The story’s all over the web of course. On Gawker I watched Palin defending herself on Fox news. With a trickling (Alaskan?) waterfall in the background, evocative of religious bookmarks or the cheesiest of greetings cards, Palin says ‘boob-gate is all over the internet right now because there are I guess a lot of bored, idle bloggers and reporters out there with nothing else to talk about’ (er, I guess so!). But she makes a serious point: ‘They need to grab a shovel, go down to the Gulf, volunteer to help, clean up and save a well or something instead of reporting on such stupid things like that.’

I’m going to stop here, as I’m feeling chastised. On this one, I’m with Palin.

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