There are so many differences and changes to which I needed to adapt upon moving here nearly seven years ago, but some of them still creep back into my thoughts and strike me with a momentary, “I never did figure out why that’s the case.” About those unique and haunting adjustments, I am writing an entire blog post. Some of these are things I don’t understand and that may never change because it is just “how things have always been done here” and others are things I enjoy immensely, while a few don’t impact me (see below: Don’t Forget to Turn Off the Immersion). So, here we go…
January sales – I can’t figure out why there was only one or two big sale seasons per calendar year. In America, we have big sales for all the major holidays (July 4th, Easter, Valentine’s Day), long weekends (President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving), shopping seasons (prom, back to school, Christmas), or seasonally (post-Winter, post-Spring, and so on). Whereas, in Ireland there will possibly be a sale shelf/corner within certain stores at any given time (though this seemed more rare when I first arrived in 2008), the real sales are only twice a year.
Motor Tax – Buying a car and paying for insurance doesn’t mean your expenses are over, you then pay an annual motor tax to drive the car on the road. The tax is based on the size of your engine. Drive a Smart Car and your annual tax is low (€199/year or $215), but if you’re navigating the streets in a Hummer, you’ll be parting with €1,809/year (about $1,961). On top of that, there is the NCT which inspects vehicles to make sure they are road-worthy. There is a cost to be inspected then the inevitable repairs cost quite a bit as well. Inspection is strict as we discovered the hard way. One very wise regulation/law is that new drivers cannot have a car over a certain engine capacity. Meaning, 20-year-old new drivers can’t start out with an Escalade.
No Bag Ties – Bread that comes pre-sliced in plastic bags (as opposed to artisan loaves sold loose), are tied with a kind of tape that is challenging to open and impossible to close again. No hard plastic bag ties with the date conveniently printed on it. Having said that, the ocean is probably grateful as bag ties seem like the size that would pose a problem to sea life ingestion.
Car Boot Sales – There are no yard sales or garage sales in Ireland. Car boot sales take place in a parking lot or field (mud is an issue so this isn’t ideal) on a set date. People bring things to sell and deals happen. Imagine the Rose Bowl Flea Market, only less extravagant. However, if you do not have a car, it is a challenge. For one item, online often works, but let’s say you’re moving house or getting rid of all the baby things, there is a level of tedium to online sales of the lot. If you want to get rid of something and live outside Dublin, Craig’s List isn’t an option. There’s Done Deal and other similar sites, but in terms of an in-person option, it requires a vehicle.
Queues at the ATM – There are queues (lines) for ATM machines regularly. I still don’t understand it, but suspect it has a lot to do with using cash instead of credit cards.
Big Supermarkets May Just Rearrange or Stop Stocking Items – It confuses me why M&S is constantly rearranging its set up. One day we went in and half the store’s shelves were empty (no exaggeration). With Tesco, three of our favourite products have suddenly disappeared from shelves and we were told they no longer carry it. Those items? Boxed chopped tomatoes, jarred/tinned/canned artichoke hearts (they don’t carry artichokes in any form now!), and tinned/canned black beans. So not even odd things. In the States, when things would stop being available it was because multiple brands were supplying similar items, the distributor encountered a supply issue, or it wasn’t selling at all. I don’t know which of these reasons influenced the demise of those items locally though.
School Choice/Lists – To get a place for your child in standard primary school (or preschool even), he/she needs to be on the list. And if you’re an expat with no relations who attended that school and you didn’t put your first-born child’s name on the list until after he/she is one or two years old (because you didn’t know the lists existed), your chances are iffy. When my son was one-year-old we attended a wedding and talked with an Irish school teacher who asked on how many lists did we have our son for primary school. What now?! He’s going to a National School (essentially public school), why would he need a list, doesn’t he just attend the closest one? Umm, no. Evidently, there is a reasonable chance that because we put his name on the list what is considered very late, he may not earn a place in any of the three primary schools within two miles of our home. But local schools can be searched for using this tool.
School Curriculum & Leaving Cert – I haven’t attended school in Ireland so have no first-hand experience with the notorious Leaving Cert, but having grown up familiar with the French Baccalaureate system, I understand the premiss of the big exam that makes or breaks your college chances and career potential. But the differences go beyond the Leaving Cert to year structure, grade distribution, and course load. An actual student who attended school in America and Ireland wrote about it HERE, so read that for a first-hand comparison.
Customer Service-ish – In Ireland, there are a select number of stores that train their staff to approach customers to offer assistance, inform of a special sale, or greet them. For the most part, customers are usually left alone. In the States, customers are approached (sometimes too much) by sales associates. In a way, it is sometimes easier to find the perfect item with the help of an eager sales associate, but in Ireland you’re mostly on your own. Yet that also affords independence to make choices without pressure. But the lack of reverence for customers also means all humans are equal in the shop aisles so if they’re restocking a shelf and you are in their way as the customer, you must step aside so the cart can go through ahead of you.
Politics – Aside from pro-life/anti-abortion laws in Ireland, even the conservative politicians are still more liberal than the Democrats in the States. Note: Please do not comment on this post with political statements or rants. This post is about differences in culture not about specific political or policy beliefs. In 1990, Ireland earned its place in the first 20 countries in the world to elect a woman to president (FACT). She held office for nearly seven years. In May 2015, we will be voting in the Marriage Referendum and you can see the odds of that passing over on Paddy Power’s website because…
You Can Bet On Anything in Ireland – There are OTB (Off-track betting) establishments everywhere, they are clean with normal lighting, and normal people pop in to place a bet. There is no social stigma for the hobby wagerer and the odds are well-calculated. Go ahead and look at Ladbrokes’s impressive list of all bets possible.
TV License Fee – There is an annual €160 fee for owning a devise that can show you TV programs (that includes computer monitors that can receive broadcasts, like my Dad’s now-defunct computer setup that was hooked up to the antenna of a vintage Betamax). THIS is a breakdown of where the money goes. We escaped paying it for the first four years we lived here since we only watched iTunes programs we downloaded on our computer. But in 2012, we bought a real TV set and, with it, the responsibility to pay the TV License. The money paid goes to fund Irish television programs. Now, I grew up with free television. Five to seven channels of entertainment at my fingertips without cost. Every channel paid for its own way with commercials, except PBS. But here in Ireland we pay for TV AND there are commercials. But the part that gets me is actually that our TV set doesn’t receive all the stations. We can watch THREE stations (RTE2, TG4, and the one with cartoons) with our TV, so we rarely use the antenna feed and 99.9% of our viewing is still iTunes, Netflix, or the like. Many just don’t pay it, but there are TV License Inspectors who come around like truant officers to check. We had one visit once in 2009 (before we owned a TV) and I invited him in to see our lack of TV set. He took my word for it and left. Which I later realised was in the interest of his schedule since entering anyone’s home in Cork is an hour-long visit, usually with tea and biscuits.
Combination Washer/Dryer – Much as in other European countries, there is a reliance on more energy efficient laundry systems. Front-loading combination washer/dryers are commonplace. Most people hang their laundry to dry. Dryer appliances are rare, expensive, and seen as a waste of electricity/money. In rental units, a front-loading combination washer/dryer is what is likely nestled under your kitchen counter, beside the fridge that makes you think you’re back in your dorm because…
Small Refrigerators are Standard – When we first moved here, we knew what to expect and searched for apartments accordingly. We wanted an “American refrigerator,” a shower with hot water not from an immersion (see below), and a dryer (see above). Here, an American refrigerator could mean one of the beautiful big fridges that are standard back home or it could just be a fridge that has a top section (fridge) and a bottom section (freezer). If the latter, it could be narrow (the width of a medium pizza box, but not the depth).
Don’t Forget to Turn Off the Immersion – The immersion is a localized device/system for heating water for the shower. You turn it on when you go to shower and turn it off when done. But if you’re in a family and everyone is showering in the morning there will be one person turning it on for the first shower and someone else turning it off after the final shower. Leaving it on is a waste of energy/money, so turning off the immersion is one of those phrases that is completely engrained in Irish culture and family life.
Parks Have Fences – In the States, there may a sign posted recommending daylight usage of a park, but in Ireland the park has a fence around it and is locked sunset to sunrise. I hadn’t really noticed it until this past summer when we went to Paris and the playgrounds there are open until midnight! That was fabulous, by the way! But here in Cork City both Bishop Lucey and Fitzgerald Parks have big fences and are locked up from dinner until breakfast.
Baby Showers Don’t Exist – I covered this one in a post before, so HERE is the link. Because Irish families are big and expansive, usually gifts are not necessary to outfit the nursery, you just ask an aunt, cousin, sister, or niece and end up receiving hand-me-downs. It does the job and adds a lovely sentimental feeling to the bond a family shares. But as an expat with no family in this country and having a few American friends here, I was thrown a baby shower when pregnant with my son (and it meant the world to me).
Bridal Showers and Wedding Registries Are Uncommon – Same reason as above. Wedding gifts are usually in the form of cash. I’ve been invited to one wedding in Ireland in the seven years we’ve lived here (but wasn’t able to attend as I was recovering from the great liver resection of 2013), but we sent a [cash] gift. I personally understand cash is more useful, but it lacks poetry and love.
Family is Family. Friends are Friends. – There is an invisible force field between family and friends here in Ireland. You may be best friends with someone, but you may never meet their family except in passing and may never be invited to their home or to a family dinner. And family may never be invited to a night out or friend holiday in the Canaries. Or so it seems. Not having family here or the close friends I grew up with, this is just my perception. I’ve been sincerely invited to a family dinner by TWO people in seven years here. One of the inviters was a fellow expat though.
Offering Multiple Times – When I said “sincerely invited” just now, I meant that the offer was extended at least three times. An offer extended once is a kind mention, twice is a gesture, three times is sincere. However, if someone is offering you tea, it may take about six offers until they know you aren’t just declining out of politeness. In America, we say no to tea and it means no. Here, it just means you don’t want to put the hostess to any trouble. So the hostess must keep offering to make sure the guest knows it isn’t trouble. There may be a point where the guest thinks it would make the hostess happy and will just agree to the offer. A prime example of this is HERE and a funny example is HERE (Father Ted, of course).
The Debs and Prom – Here in Ireland there is a Débutante Ball (aka The Debs) and in America there are the Homecoming football game and dance (Autumn), Winter formals, and the prom (Spring). In both cases, high school students dress to the nines. I have been to one homecoming dance, two winter formals, and two proms, but no debs, so I can’t tell you any more about the differences, except that shopping for THE dress is important in both countries. Though I think in Ireland hair, make-up, and nail doing are outsourced more than in the States.
Dog Waste on the Sidewalks – I grew up in a place without such pollution hazards, but here in Cork City Centre it is common to encounter maybe six deposits on the sidewalk within a half-mile walk on sidewalks.
First Names – Rarely will you meet a person who bears the first name of Madison or Cooper as more traditional names tend to be chosen for children, especially Irish language names. And by Irish names, we don’t mean Shannon or Erin, though there are a few – definitely there are more Kevins, Patricks, and Bridgets though. Generally, though last names are never used as first names and rarely used as middle names.
Spray Tans vs Teeth Whitening – Spray tans are commonplace in Ireland, just as teeth whitening is in the States. The alabaster and cream completions of the Irish are beautiful, but many feel their own appearances are improved with a warm glow of artificial tan. And in the States, most people whiten their teeth, especially if they’re on-screen for their profession. I was watching an 80s movie the other day with a star who is still famous and noticed her teeth were normal white (not bright white) then Googled her to see a recent photo that clearly showed a little enhancement of her pearly whites. But teeth whitening isn’t common in Ireland like fake tans are.
Unemployment is Common – In the States, I knew very VERY few people who were unemployed, while in Ireland I know many MANY. And before you judge, I’m talking college-educated unemployment. Evidently, if you live in Ireland you are 84.93% more likely to be unemployed (source). I’m making no guess as to why this is, but will say I moved to Ireland right before the big banking crisis in 2008 so I’ve only lived in Ireland during a recession.
No Call-In Prescriptions – Doctors in Ireland simply do not telephone in prescriptions to the pharmacy like they do in America. This means, if I’m sick and a week on the antibiotics hasn’t helped and I need a stronger dose for another week, I have to haul myself out of bed to go pick up the new prescription at the GP office then bring it to the pharmacy and wait while they fill it. In contrast, same thing might happen and my GP would ring the new prescription into the nearest pharmacy to my home in D.C. then either a neighbour would pick it up (because it was very central and everyone drove near it) or the pharmacy would drop it off at my home for a small fee. That was simply amazing. Though it must be said some pharmacies in Cork do offer home delivery, like Irwin’s Pharmacy on Shandon.
Getting Sick Doesn’t Break the Bank – Without insurance in Ireland, if I get sick with a sinus infection that a week later turns into bronchitis, the whole thing costs me just shy of $100 for two doctor visits and two prescriptions. A real life example of this is when I got sick right before a trip to the States and one of the prescriptions had to be refrigerated, so instead of filling it in Ireland I had my doctor back home (in the States) call the same thing in to the pharmacy. Instead of €11.58 for the prescription in Ireland (without insurance), I paid $185 for it in the States (without insurance). I cried.
Things Are Expensive In Ireland – Everything costs just a little bit more here than in the States. Perhaps sales tax (aka VAT) has a lot to do with that though. In Washington D.C. sales tax is 5.75% while in Ireland the standard VAT rate is 23%. A bracelet with the retail value of 50 (exchange rate unimportant for this example and is at €1 = $1.09 at the moment anyway). In Washington D.C. that bracelet would have the final cost of 52.86 while in Ireland it would cost 61.5. But VAT is included within the final advertised cost of an item so the bracelet would be marked 61.50 in the store on its price tag, while the American shop would have the price tag as 50.00 and the tax is calculated at the register on a state-by-state basis. But for everyday items, there is a difference too.
Imported Items Are Really Expensive in Ireland – For expat cravings, we have to pay through the nose. One standard Butterfinger Candy Bar in Cork City costs €1.99 (equivalent to $2.17 for ONE candy bar) while the same candy bar at Target costs $0.89 ($0.94 after D.C. sales tax), which equals €0.86. Of course, Amazon.co.uk sells a lot of American foods as well and the Butterfingers prices are in £ GBP for further math. But while we’re using Amazon as a baseline for pricing, let’s talk Goldfish crackers. Amazon.co.uk prices one 187-gram bag of Cheddar Goldfish at £4.99, that’s $7 for 6.6 ounces of crackers.
Food Expires Faster – Expiration dates on most fresh foods are sooner in Ireland than in the States. A loaf of bread (non-artisan) from the local grocery store in Ireland may be dated four days from the date of purchase, but in the States it could be a week or two.
Pork for Sausage & Bacon – For a country with such focus on innovative, artisanal, and creative flavours and ingredients, there is an astounding blind devotion to pork sausages and bacon. Not that pork isn’t lovely, but there are non-porcine meats and fillers. In the States, I can easily purchase turkey bacon, veal bacon, beef bacon, soy bacon, or pork bacon for cooking at home. In the sausage aisle of the grocery store, there are any number of options, especially chicken and apple with sage or some such classic. But aside from a few soy/tofu options, the non-pork bacon and sausage options in Ireland disappoints. And by “disappoints,” I mean me personally *frowny face*, since I’m allergic to pork.
Grand Gestures and Rounds – In Ireland, unless it is a celebration of some sort, friends don’t treat one another for meals in the grand gesture seen so often in America. But because Americans are accustomed to such generous gestures, when an Irish person treats to a round of drinks, it is seen as a gift, not a turn. But actually it is a turn, or a round, and each person in the group picks up a round and eventually it is your turn. This is as simple a friendship forging technique as sharing toys at the sandbox. Though I’ve also learned that if you are pregnant or a non-drinker (or designated driver), you are not included in the rounds unless you force yourself in, though friends are still willing to order you your fizzy water or Club Orange to make sure you’re having fun.
Treated Like a Loyal Local – If you patronise a local business in Ireland, there are all manners of courtesies extended to you. A free lolly for your child, an honour prescription so your dosage doesn’t lapse while you contact your GP to get a new written prescription, or setting aside what you want for you to collect later after you’ve done your rounds of town and are headed home. I recently shopped a bookshop in Cork City after not entering its doors for six years and bought €13 worth of books (all from the clearance section) and when I paid the woman behind the counter offered to let me leave the bags there until I was done in town so I wouldn’t need to carry them around. She didn’t know me, she owed me nothing, but she offered such a nice courtesy. It’s those little touches I never would encounter when shopping on Santana Row in the Silicon Valley. But such different stores as well.
Bathrooms Are Not Terrifying – The two most terrifying bathrooms in America are a bar on a Sunday morning and a public bathroom on the road outside a national park. Why? Because the former is hard to maintain during the very busy weekend night shift and the latter is outside the national park’s purview so maintained by local government and perhaps not as frequently tended as one might hope. I’ve been to both places in the States and am grateful to have my own tissues in my purse or hand sanitiser (but secretly wish I had surgical gloves). But in Ireland, that isn’t always the case. Knowing bathrooms are as popular as tables and the bar, the pub/bar bathrooms are kept tidy throughout their opening hours. Of course, I don’t go to college bars anymore so can’t testify to their maintenance. And in terms of the roadside bathroom, I went to one outside Goughann Barra National Park and though it was low on toilet paper and soap, it had functional toilets and running water. Having said that, the best roadside bathroom I ever encountered was a rest stop in Tennessee.
Insults and Teasing – If someone likes you, they tease you or mock you to your face here in Ireland and would say nice things about you behind your back. If someone in Ireland doesn’t like you, they just don’t talk to you or will be courteous in public but not pretend to want to talk with you. Often, you don’t even know what you’ve done to not be liked or what actions secure being liked. But in the States, very often that is the opposite. If someone likes you in America they say nice things to you and nice things behind your back. If someone in America doesn’t like you they will say nice things to your face and mock you behind your back. The trick is that you can’t tell what they’re saying behind your back, hence the term “frenemies.”
Homely and Ride – And though these are all cultural for the most part, there are two language items that always take mental adjustment on my part. Sometimes I really miss being able to just speak and not have my words scrutinised as being awkwardly American. When I go home, there is a sigh of relief as I use idioms, cliches, and the language learned from my family. It feels comfortable. These two words are minor examples:
When An Irish Person Tells Me My Apartment Looks Homely – I know in Ireland it means “cosy” and “comfortable,” but in the States (where I learned my vocabulary initially) it means “plain,” “unattractive,” or “unlovely.”
Ride Lift – I’ve been here years and still I catch myself editing out the word “ride” and using “lift” instead. But what about for bicycles?
Of course, there are SO many other words and phrases that could confuse the most educated world travelling American. HERE is my glossary.