An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

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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Making the case for Mr. Alright

Posted in Relationships by Frieda on February 3, 2010
Image from the 2008 Atlantic Monthly article

Image from the 2008 Atlantic Monthly article

I’ve recently become entranced by a woman who is single-handedly redefining what women want — if we’re to believe reports. Lori Gottlieb’s neatly-timed pre-Valentine’s book “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough” is based on an article she wrote for the Atlantic two years ago. And yes, I was surprised, too, that such a highbrow publication runs pieces on dating. I will certainly now be reading it more often.

Gottlieb’s argument is cut-throat and practical. Women on the dating market have a particular value, relating to their appearance and their youth. Many think, in their late twenties and early thirties, that they will meet the man of their dreams, but they’re WRONG! They won’t, she says, because “perfect” men won’t ever like ordinary women, who are doomed to hit their mid-thirties and find that they’re alone. As a London Times article put it earlier this week, “Woe betide the naive singleton who assumes her choice of men will widen, rather than narrow, with time.” Woe indeed.

In the Times interview, Gottlieb says, “I’m all for the feminist movement but I think what happened is we took certain feminist ideals — for instance, the idea of ‘you can have it all’, or ‘you deserve the best’, or girl power in general — and we applied that to dating.”

I avidly sought out all available accounts of Gottlieb’s stance, and traced it back to an article from five years ago, also in the Atlantic, called the XY files. There Gottlieb detailed how she broke up with her boyfriend because she didn’t love him, and became pregnant via artificial insemination because she wanted a child. She dreamed of the advice she might give her daughter when the daughter grew up (incidentally, she went on to give birth to a son):

“Perhaps by then I’ll be married to a man who was worth waiting for. But it’s equally possible that I’ll have revised my ‘somebody isn’t always better than nobody’ theory and will tell her that some partner might be better than no partner.”

She had one thing right.

As a girl/woman in her early 30s, I must accept that Gottlieb’s frantic warnings are aimed straight at me. I am one of the poor innocents of whom she speaks, blithely imagining I’m doing the right thing with my life, and little suspecting the disappointment that’s around the corner when my stock plummets.

I’ve considered her reasoning closely, and I partly agree. Let me explain. “Some guys aren’t worldly, but they’d make great dads,” Gottlieb asserts. “Or you walk into a room and start talking to this person who is 5’4″ and has an unfortunate nose, but he ‘gets’ you.” Er, yeah. It’s a sensible point — nobody’s perfect, and therefore the guy you could love might well not be.

But the thing with Gottlieb is that like many polemical writers, she makes her case by extremes. It’s not a question of meeting someone nice who happens not to be tall or rich — both of which are superficial traits —  and “settling” (as she puts it) because you get along with him, or her. For Gottlieb, it’s an issue of total passion v. total tedium. In her dystopian marital vision she even proposes the relationship of Will and Grace as an ideal (Will’s gay).

For example: “So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?”

Mr. Good Enough is a bland creature, falling somewhere between a provider of cash and a babysitter. Despite her recommendations Gottlieb’s distaste for him is palpable. This puts her in a difficult position, because if she so dislikes Mr. Alright, it will be tough for her to settle for him. She is still single.

In the past her criteria in locating The One have apparently been rigid. She always believed marriage should have a “divine spark.” “Many of the guys I dated possessed these qualities, but if one of them lacked a certain degree of kindness, another didn’t seem emotionally stable enough, and another’s values clashed with mine. Others were sweet but so boring that I preferred reading during dinner to sitting through another tedious conversation. I also dated someone who appeared to be highly compatible with me—we had much in common, and strong physical chemistry—but while our sensibilities were similar, they proved to be a half-note off, so we never quite felt in harmony, or never viewed the world through quite the same lens.”

I’m sorry, but I just don’t know what half-note-off sensibilities are. And I thought reading at the table was rather rude. What would we say if a man did that? Gottlieb’s article is not that long, yet the word “tedious” features twice, and “boring” twice also.

The “tedious” Mr. Good Enough is not a creature of the real world, as Gottlieb’s trying to persuade us young women; he is a construction of her own neurotic mind. And although she says she’s already in therapy, the supposed existence of this man is, I suggest, nothing more than proof that she needs to keep going.

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A quick “I told you so”

Posted in Irish, Relationships, Religion by Frieda on January 11, 2010
Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson

Not that you’re disagreeing with me, necessarily.

DUBLIN — I ended my last post with a suggestion to “watch this space” — the particularly Irish space where scandals are brewing this winter holiday. Within four days, a new scandal had broken: the Mrs. Robinson liaison between the 59-year-old wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and a 19-year-old boy.

It’s a complicated, seedy, and frankly fascinating affair and one that has been treated widely enough elsewhere (here, here and here to give a small selection). I will, however, direct you self-promotionally to a whimsical piece I wrote about Iris Robinson’s credentials (or otherwise) as a feminist icon.

I’m watching BBC news right now. The newscaster has pointed out that Peter Robinson’s temporary replacement, Arlene Foster, is the first woman to lead government in Stormont, and the second woman, after Mrs. Thatcher, to hold such high office in the UK. And she’s only 39.

I’m not really arguing that feminism has anything to do with this story, but it’s funny how the tawdry shuffle of power is playing out for women.

I promise my next post will be wholesome.

My Saturday night

Posted in New York, Relationships by Frieda on December 7, 2009
At least I didn't spend my night in a van

At least I didn't spend my night in a van (the pic is courtesy of a company called

How late is too late? Tonight I’d arranged to meet someone who claimed, via email, that he didn’t care if we met late or early. Oh, my literal mind. After a long day of work I faffed around, making food and fiddling with work-things before getting ready. I thought my pal would be okay if we pushed our plans backwards because I was travelling to his area to meet him, so I texted to say I was running late. That was fine. Then I got ready. Then I received a second, wonderfully perceptive text, saying that if I still hadn’t left the house (and I hadn’t) we should probably reschedule.

I feel chastened. And I have an answer to my question. If you’re running two hours late, then, well, you’re too late. So here I am, sitting at my computer, and typing away, on my equivalent of a Saturday night. I guess there’s a lesson there…

However, this does give me an opportunity to post about an intriguing, and I think rather brilliant article that I just read on, by a guy called Ken Ilgunas. Ilgunas is a grad student who lives in a van on college grounds at Duke university, cooking and sleeping there, and showering at the college gym, as part of an effort to avoid going into debt. Duke is one of those US schools that costs an unbelievable $37,000 per year if you don’t have a scholarship or support. It’s well known for having a macho ethos too — its Lacross team was part of an infamous rape scandal a couple of years ago (the players were vindicated).

The masculine atmosphere floating around Duke may explain Ilgunas’ “first man” pose. But even if you think he’s posturing the guy has done something kind of wild. Few people these days would choose to live without heating or a proper water system or, as Ilgunas mentions, an iphone — I wonder if he will buy one soon.

What I really love about the piece is the style. In the era of online, speed-driven writing, there’s something attractively old-fashioned about Ilgunas’ English lit-y tone  (it was no surprise to learn he’s an English major). His use of words like “oftentimes” and “cursed” is poetic even as it’s ironic. He’s not the first student to choose a strange, temporary dwelling over digs — a decade ago I remember hearing of an NYU student who made his home in a library to save money — but he’s able to do it in good literary form.

Here’s the “cursed” bit. It’s overwrought and self-indulgent, but sometimes overwrought works:

“New, strange, unidentifiable smells greeted me each evening. Upon opening the side doors, a covey of odors would escape from the van like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.”

The guy also has a point. US college fees simply astonish me. Most if not all private institutions  charge upwards of $35,000 per year. Students or their parents cough up the cash without a squeak of protest, and if they take out loans that’s just what they do. I study at NYU, where each course costs $5,000, and an MA involves taking nine courses. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have done it without a bursary.  Expense makes American education exclusive in the worst ways.

So despite his youthful self-absorption, I raise my glass to Ken Ilgunas. Metaphorically, as I sit at my computer.

Week in brief: former doms & feminists

Posted in Culture, Relationships by Frieda on November 4, 2009

The week’s real kick-off was on Wednesday at The Richardson in Williamsburg. There I met a friend who formerly (it turned out) worked as a dominatrix in the Dungeon of Mistress Jasmine in Manhattan — I’ll call her D. It’s funny because D. is so sweet — innocent and smiley, with short hair and a retro style, and a mere 26 years old. She teaches, and at one point this year, her students were joking about her private life. “I bet you’re a dominatrix,” one suggested, thinking it miles from the truth.

I had intended to grill D. about her experiences, but she had already quit, after just six weeks or so at the Dungeon. Her boss refused to pay for condoms, with which the girls covered some of the sex toys; nor could they bring their own. They had to buy them from him. Not only that, but  he allowed more and more girls work in the dungeon, so the staffroom became crowded. The clients themselves were creepy; one saved up all his dole money to pay for a monthly hour. Sex with clients was not meant to happen at the dungeon, but the newer girls were inexperienced, and more likely to cross that boundary. All in all, it doesn’t sound like fun.

Second, I went to the launch of a book I’ve been awaiting for a long time. Girldrive, by Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein, charts two women’s trip across America. They were little more than girls when they made the journey, just 22 and 23 (Emma has since died tragically through suicide, last December). Girldrive is replete with gorgeous images taken by Emma. The pair interviewed hundreds (I think 200) women across the States, to find out what they thought about feminism.

Nona, who I interviewed on Thursday, does a great job of bringing the story together — writing most of the sections of the book that explain what they did, and where they went. The most surprising thing about is not the number of women who reject the term “feminist,” but how embattled many are. One 16-year-old, who was raped, tries to comfort herself by saying, “in God’s eyes I’m a virgin. I’m still pure.”

When I spoke to Nona, over our lunch at Balthazar, I expressed my shock: I’d always thought (very naively, I admit) that the most of the US was fairly liberal and cool. “You thought America was progressive?” Nona laughed. ” No offense, but I kind of hate when Europeans are so high and mighty about how progressive they are because realistically it’s a lot easier to be progressive when you have less deep-seated racial situations going on. It’s difficult to get through all the bull-shit in the United States. We have such a fraught history.”