The Song Of My People: The Expat’s Guide to Foreign Language

For anyone traveling overseas, speaking the local language is not just useful, but may well save his or her life. For expats and immigrants, threading the needle of “becoming a local” (if that’s even possible) involves picking up not just the local language, but absorbing local inferences and the subtleties of place.

But for the expat we also have to not only learn a new language with all that that entails, we have to overcome the stereotypes and distinctions made about us the minute we open our mouths. Language is a badge of honor and an instant identifier that follows us wherever we go.

Across the street from our Dublin home there is a pharmacy (a chemist, or drugstore if you like). For the past three years I’ve gone into this busy shop maybe twice a month. Yet they always know me by first name. A lifelong learned reflex always led me to think, “It must be my handicap.” I’m sure that they remember me as, “Glenn, the disabled guy.” Imagine my surprise when, after three years, I discovered that they knew me for my “other” disability.   It turns out the thought running through their head was, “ Oh, he’s Glenn, that American guy.” As emigrants/immigrants, and later expats, the moment we speak we are from elsewhere, and we bear the full weight of those associations, both good and bad.

When the choice was made to move to Ireland, my wife and I felt that it was a way to live overseas, and, “mostly” not have to deal with a language barrier. We joked that Ireland, and the U.S. are two countries separated by a common language. And while that is mostly not true, it is true in more ways than we could possibly have imagined.

Arriving in a country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, chances are you will have done a bit of research or at least picked up a phrase book. But imagine your surprise stepping off the boat, hearing and recognizing every word, and understanding none of it.

“Yes, it is English, but….”

What the hell does, “Your one is giving out” mean?

The Irish like to refer to themselves a, “a nation of begrudgers”. And while it’s one thing to know what the words mean, you really can’t fathom the nationalistic depths of that statement until you live amongst the Irish for an extended length of time, and begin to realize that Irish self-deprecation is not just pub sport, but a national pastime in which they begrudge none so much as themselves.

Language, in that uniquely Irish context, divides us and demands an investment of time before we can fully understand where we live and those around us. Clearly language can define one’s life and experiences. But can language save a life?

Years ago, when my wife and I were traveling in China, I came down with a terrible case of “traveler’s stomach” in Beijing. In the morning, after a long night of cramps, my wife ventured out to find a pharmacy and some help for me. Arriving in a small shop she approached the counter and, in her best broken Mandarin said, “My man is pain”. The women in the shop looked at her as if to say, “Yeah honey, ours too. But we don’t sell drugs for that.”

After about five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to reconcile American traveler’s Chinese and the real thing, my wife left and came back to find me curled in a ball on the bed, but clutching the number of a clinic recommended by the U.S. Embassy. A few hours later we went to the hospital and I had my terribly infected appendix removed. Now imagine if my wife had spoken the local language and been given some kind of remedy for cramps. I would gladly have swallowed it and, thinking I was on the road to recovery, headed further inland on our trip, far from quality medical care.

That’s one instance where not speaking the language probably saved a life (or at least prevented serious complications), but knowing the dominant language of your destination is not just useful, it’s culturally sensitive, and, for the immigrant, a crucial first step towards fitting in as a good neighbor. Yet we should never assume that rote language skills are enough to carry the day. They help, and often give us just enough to “fake it til we make it” and begin to learn something about our new home.

Ultimately, language is both the poison pill and the silver bullet of travel, migration (emigration and immigration), and expat life. The minute we open our mouths we are labeled. And the minute we open our mouths we see how the world reacts to us, and begin the process of learning something new.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

  • “Play The Skins” – Living abroad allows you to become someone “new” for a while.
  • Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country
Posted in Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Health Care, Immigration & Emigration, International Moving, Irish Life & Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Stone Fences: Struggle, Sacrifice, and the Expat Life & Legacy

For the past week I’ve spent an hour or so every day digging in the garden, preparing a 4-foot by two-foot patch of ground for planting. Ever day, as I pull dozens and dozens of stones from the ground, I develop a new respect for the rugged men and women who tamed Ireland.

For all of us tourists and soft expats who take our regular trips through the countryside and comment, “Oh Deirdre, look at the stone fences. How cute”, we have no clue how much work it took to pry every one of those damn stones from the ground. They didn’t go to the garden shop and buy some rocks because the missus wanted a fence, they bloody well dug the ground and stacked the stones knowing they’d starve if they didn’t get the land ready for planting .

By comparison, we modern expats seem like such candy-asses with our endless Skype calls, and bitching that, “It’s so hard to transfer money internationally”. We have no clue what the original immigrants went through to make Ireland (or anywhere else) habitable. And it’s not as if they had a choice over where to set up shop. This is either where they were from, or the only place they could get to. Necessity is an amazing motivator.
Faced with starvation, slavish masters, crop failures, marauding clans and pillaging Norsemen, those men and women made Ireland what it is today, and I take my hat (and my candy-assed garden gloves) off to them.

It’s not like anybody wants to see the sausage being made, but, as an adult, when you move somewhere new, particularly a completely new culture, it’s hard not to contemplate and compare. You contemplate the strange and alien place you’ve moved to, and you compare it to what you know and where you’ve come from. Over the past three years I’ve become far more conscious of the way countries behave towards each other, and towards their citizens. I’ve also become aware of the signs and symbols around us that remind us where we’ve come from.

That then makes me wonder what will be the legacy of modern expats (in Ireland and elsewhere)? As screwed up as Ireland may be at times, we have a fairly high standard of living, have shucked off any number of colonial masters, and have had, by turns, the most expensive and most devalued real estate on the planet. Though we’re a small and chronically underfunded country, we participate in world peacekeeping efforts and have one of the highest rates of charitable giving in the world. But the foundations of those things were all put in place long before we came along with our iPad cameras and our Celtic whiskey gift boxes.

Ireland’s ever-present stone fences should not just be quaint curiosities, they are standing monuments to the men, women, and children who, quite literally, fought stone-by-stone for the things we now take for granted.

I ask you, what will our stone fences look like?

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country

Posted in Dublin Life, Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Immigration & Emigration, International Moving, Irish Countryside, Irish History, Irish Life & Society, Modern Life, Things to See in Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why Ireland Is Better Than the United States: One Man’s Joy At Not Living Somewhere Slavishly Devoted To ‘The Individual’

After nearly three years of living in Ireland, the thrill and curiosity of not living in a superpower has dulled a bit, but still fascinates me. On a daily basis the need not to compete with everyone, and the need to assert dominance have been replaced with a much more humble worldview. But it struck me recently that, for me, the biggest change that I’ve noticed is how nice it is to live somewhere where the obsession over individual rights is not society’s dominant priority.

From its gun laws and healthcare centered on those who can afford it (rather than those who need it), to tax breaks overtly focused on making the rich richer, the United States’ “Pursuit of Happiness” doctrine has become the individual pursuit of as much money and possessions as possible. Full stop.

While the U.S. has long prided itself on being a land of rugged individualists, more and more that longing to go out and work hard to carve out a modest, but respectable, life for yourself has turned to petulant demands that individuals never be forced to sacrifice any of their hard-earned wealth in the name of the broader social good. Try getting one of the self-proclaimed one-percenters (America’s upper class) to willingly pay more tax for the sake of improving schools and public infrastructure. God forbid they kick in for healthcare for the underprivileged – which they’re already paying for in other, more expensive ways.

And the U.S. system seems rigged to perpetuate itself. Most Americans are not willing to do anything that might inhibit the endless acquisition of wealth, because, well, “Why tax the wealthy? That could be me. I could be rich one day”.

Admittedly this is all a big generalization. But, watching Irish and European reactions to the childish bickering that passes for politics and public discourse in the U.S., it’s hard not to compare the two sides of the Atlantic. Granted, in many ways Ireland (and much of Europe) now seem to aspire to the lofty heights of American individualism (yet another American export). But, overall, the Irish and European cultures seem to focus less on the individual and demonstrate systemic, institutional/cultural-level compassion for those in need more than in America.

Witness, the “concession” rates for plays, concerts and the like in many European countries. If you have no money in the U.S., it’s assumed that you’ve done something wrong, and, because you’ve not “worked hard enough” you don’t deserve to have any fun or entertainment. In Ireland, and many other European countries, venues offer a reduced ticket price (a “concession rate”) for people who are out of work, or significantly disadvantaged. And there seems to be no stigma attached to availing yourself of the rate if you are in truly in need.

When I ask ticket takers how often they think people take advantage of the rate who shouldn’t, abuse of the system seems such an alien concept that they were hard pressed to answer. And even if there were the occasional bit of cheating going on, they don’t believe that makes those who genuinely need the concession rate any less deserving.

It would be fine, if one man’s pursuit of “more” didn’t affect others. But it has a cumulative effect. Man’s competitive nature guarantees that in an individual-based society everyone eventually starts fighting for more and more. Pretty soon, whether you need a giant house or not, you aspire to one, because that’s what people do. And, somehow, if you don’t always want more, you are not, by God, trying hard enough (and aren’t one of us).

For immigrants the question of individual rights (and a focus on the individual and taking care of yourself) is crucial. It speaks to how much of a safety net you may/may not enjoy in your new home. Will you be required to pay for your own healthcare, retirement, and other “benefits? If the group covers you to some degree, do those benefits accrue immediately, and if not, how quickly do you become part of the group? Are you prepared to deal with that?

If you’ve lived your life in a society that has strong social protections, and a sense of the group looking out for individuals in need, are you strong enough to stand up for yourself in your new home? Will you demand things for yourself in the ways that are required in a society that is “all for one”? With all that it implies, are you truly prepared to elevate the rights of the individual above all others?

If you aren’t willing to make those sacrifices, it’s important to honestly assess whether you are willing to sacrifice those beliefs or change your fundamental nature when society demands it of you.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country

Posted in Dublin Life, Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Health Care, Immigration & Emigration, Irish Life & Society, Modern Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Low Corporate Tax Rates & Attracting Foreign Investment: Is Ireland’s Greatest Asset Its Willingness To Be Controlled By Outsiders

In a recent post about land “ownership, I remarked that in a country with few resources, Ireland’s land may be its greatest asset. Since that post I’ve questioned that assumption, and done a great deal of thinking about what Ireland, this country that I really have grown to love, has to offer.

And as anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I’ve been promising a post about corporate taxes abroad and the “Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment” for nearly a year. Although it’s perpetually in the news here, and often on my mind, it’s a subject that I find both troubling and hard to get a handle on, particularly in Ireland.

First, I refer to foreign investment and lowering corporate tax rates to attract big multi-nationals as “con artistry” because, well, it is exactly that. These companies are not here to “invest” in Ireland (or anywhere else they may go) in any meaningful way. They’ve come to plunder, and, when it’s advantageous, move on. Period.

They don’t give a damn about Ireland or the Irish. They’re in Ireland because it’s cheaper to cool their server rooms here than it is in India, we speak better English than the average tech worker in Mumbai, and because the families of the executives would rather travel in, and be relocated to, Ireland than India (or wherever the next Third World tech-sploitation hub asserts itself). And the Irish politicians know this. But the only way they can sell the notion of a 12% corporate tax rate (with an effective rate of 2-5%) in the midst of a huge downturn is by promising that it will bring jobs.

And it does bring jobs, for a while. But at what cost? Those favorable corporate tax rates can never be raised, or all of the multi-national “partners” that they’ve attracted will simply pack their carpetbags and move on. And once they’re here, these companies want more and more every year. Witness the scam and corporate welfare of the Irish Jobs Bridge program that, while a good idea on the surface, has been bent to provide big companies with mostly free labor, and not really retrained the unemployed in new areas of work.

Ireland, and countries like her, have bent over to accommodate these companies, and sacrificed an entire generation in the name of corporate servitude. What’s next? This all strikes me as just another era of Irish colonization.

Now, I’m not Irish, so I’m sure I’m totally full of it, and missing something here. But please, someone enlighten me. Again, as I said about Ireland and the EU, I just don’t understand why a country that fought long and hard to break with its colonial masters (England, and the church) is so keen to shoulder the yoke of corporate control. Yes, I know Ireland is skint, and Apple keeps the lights on.   But will Apple always be here, and, unless it starts selling something that others genuinely value, how will Ireland avoid always being broke?

Well, how about pouring our resources into promoting ourselves? The entrepreneurial spirit and food products coming out of Cork, the Wild Atlantic Way tourist initiative along the West Coast, and the dozens of film, music, and craft festivals held every year are all Irish products. And what about keeping the corporate tax rates low, but insisting that these companies invest in infrastructure projects that not only improve the companies’ ability to do their work while they’re here, but simultaneously deliver long-term benefits to Ireland? These might include nation wide fiber optic service, and improving the water infrastructure (pipes, etc.). There has to be a cost of doing business. Otherwise, why bother collecting taxes at all?

If we don’t value ourselves enough to value our work, no one else will. This is the same pervasive, low self-esteem, “poor me” attitude I spoke of when discussing the effects of alcohol on Irish society.

And what of the migrant (emigrant/immigrant) who relocates based on the promises of a multinational job contract. Are their promises worth the paper they’re printed (or, more often these days not printed) on? For migrants, the loyalty and commitment of multinationals is a huge concern.

If you relocate to a country based on the word of an employer, or based on the turning economic fortunes of a country that has pinned its hopes to the promises of particular companies, what happens when those companies move to a more “favorable” tax haven? Will they move you? How will your kids readjust to yet another set of schools? How will your bank account handle yet another international move (even if the company agrees to pay “all” of your expenses)?

Yes, foreign investment from multinationals brings in money. But that’s the easy part. The real spadework that nobody, particularly here in Ireland, seems willing to engage in is getting the country to stand on its own two feet. That involves a commitment that extends well beyond election cycles, and, sadly, far beyond the attention span of elected officials.

Reducing corporate tax rates seems like a quick and easy fix, but it creates an unstable future that should be deeply concerning to both emigrants/immigrants and locals. How much is Ireland (or any other country) willing to pay for the privilege of someone giving it money?

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country

Posted in Bureaucracy, Immigration & Emigration, International Moving, Irish Economy, Irish Life & Society, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

As Dublin Wakes: Getting to Know Your City At All Times

I am a reluctant morning person. I’m probably at my “best” early in the day, but I like my sleep. My city is the same. While Dublin looks lovely in the morning, it is often up late, and frequently in its cups, so it’s a city that generally starts late.

Cycling at 6:30 this morning, with the sky tinted rose out over the Irish Sea, and the sun still crawling towards its first cup of coffee, I was struck by the fortitude of this town. Despite the late night and an early morning chill, delivery men and women, the frosty joggers, and the gung-ho get to work early types were all making their way in the day. I’ve always loved to see a city early in the morning, while it’s still stumbling around bleary-eyed in its manky old bathrobe. You learn a lot about a place if you catch it with its makeup off.

Getting to know your city at all times of the day is invaluable. Make a point of seeing it not just when it wants you too. Sneak up on it. Surprise it. Catch it off guard. For potential immigrants this is critical.

In today’s world of too much information and endless sources of input, we are fed a constant stream of constant streams. No, I don’t know what that means either. Except to say that the key word there is “fed”. We are given information freely, and, effectively, told what to think.

One of my favorite lines from the TV show ‘The Wire’ (a show packed with good lines) comes when a wise old clergymen tells a police commander “Nothing in this world is more expensive than free.” That’s certainly true when it comes to getting to know a place. They (the powers that be and their PR operations) will tell you what they want you to hear. They put out the message:

“Dublin is a party town filled with good-natured easy going folks who like to drink and stay up late.”

And before long, true or not, that’s what people expect. They go looking for it, and publicans, restaurant owners, and officials give them that. The whole system gets geared to that thing, and the reality of a place is determined by all manner of information that we get for free. But is it true?

If you are going to live there, year round, possibly for life, you must look deeper and find the answer to that question.

It’s for this reason that I always recommend taking a pre-emigration trip if your circumstances will allow it. When you take your scouting trip, make an effort to get up early and stay up late. See the city with its shirt untucked. Read the literature and the hype, but enjoy the beauty of sunrise.   Say hello to people on the street at 6 in the morning. Do they grumble or say hello back?

A good friend, and fellow immigrant who writes the New Dubliner blog tells me that Paris is really not a “morning” town. By ten o’clock they are just getting the day’s deliveries.

“10 o’clock, seriously?”, I asked, stunned.

Even in Dublin the early morning supply runs are substantively under way by six. In the U.S. it’s often 3 or 4am. Yes, American excess truly knows no bounds.

But my point is, a city’s, and indeed, a country or culture’s, rhythms reflect its values and priorities. They are a pretty good indication of what you can expect if you move there. So, get up, and get out. Get to know the place where you live, and the place where you think you’d like to live.

In the meantime, please share you experiences with city rhythms, and catching notable places off guard.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country

* Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment

Posted in Dublin Life, Home & A Sense of Place, Immigration & Emigration, International Moving, Irish Life & Society, Modern Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Privilege of Immigration: The Honor of ‘Elsewhere’

Earlier this month I went back to the United States for both work and family reasons.  On that trip I was reacquainted with a guilty pleasure available exclusively to immigrants.  When asked where I lived, I must admit that I found myself enjoying a child-like inner smirk as I realized that I get to say, in all honesty, that I live in Dublin.

Now, it may be that it’s Dublin, and the city holds an allure for many people, but, as someone who has always loved to travel, I think it has more to do with the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to live overseas. While it’s true that we made the decision to move, I do believe that luck has a lot to do with this privilege.

And, for those of us who have emigrated by choice, I also think that living in another country is a life altering privilege that should not be taken for granted.  We, voluntary migrants, should enjoy every moment of our time abroad (embrace your inner smirk), and realize that our perspective will be permanently altered by this experience.

There are no great lessons from me here.  Except to say that, as we come up on our three year anniversary, I’m grateful that my trip home prompted me to once again acknowledge the privileged experience of living in another culture.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:


* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country

* Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment

Posted in Home & A Sense of Place, Immigration & Emigration, International Moving, Irish Life & Society, Modern Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ruminations On Land: Thoughts On the Value Of The World

Walking the dog today, in the first real sunshine we’ve had in weeks, I once again found myself thinking about the country I’d moved to.  It wasn’t the people or the government that troubled me; my mind was on the land itself.

I stopped and stamped my feet.  ‘Twas a good solid piece of land. What would I pay for it?  What is it worth? Could I ever “own” it?  What does it mean to possess land?  Would I be responsible for it – a steward? What then?  How do I ask it what’s wrong with it, or tuck it in at night. How could I protect this one tiny patch of Ireland?

I can hear me now:

“Make sure you wear your hedgerow.”

“Don’t talk to strange developers.”


So then what?

Moving from the U.S., one of the first questions we heard was, “are you going to buy”.  In Ireland, property ownership has a special significance.  But back in the States, it’s simply assumed.  Somehow, if you don’t own your own place, or at least dream of property ownership, you are considered less, uneducated, unengaged, or worse.  “You’re non-aspirational, aren’t you?” – as if contentment is something they might accidentally step in.

In a country as big as the United States, land becomes just another asset heaped on a society already blessed with staggering natural and economic resources.  It gets taken for granted.  Not so in Ireland.

In Ireland, the desire to own land and become a part of the landed classes is a kind of virus (gone well beyond the “fever” stage).  During our first few months in Ireland, we kept hearing that everybody in Ireland wants to own property (and they’re frequently unskilled at the practice of being a landlord) because, for so long, the Irish weren’t permitted to own property.  Apparently, their colonial masters consigned them to perpetual tenancy. As with many things in Ireland, that’s true, and not so true.  The wealthy Irish could always own land.  This begs the question:

“Is land ownership the domain of the wealthy and the privileged?

Last summer I asked, where will Ireland’s next boom come from? The unspoken question then was, “what does Ireland have to offer”?  Now, as I consider a country as lush and breathtaking as Ireland, where millions of visitors arrive ever year, lusting for a glimpse of our storied green hills, the answer seems obvious.  Ireland has land.  But we’re an island, and a relatively small one; our natural resources are extremely limited.  In theory, that should make them even more valuable, right?  It does, but…

That raises the question of land preservation. If land is Ireland’s one true natural asset, should anyone (and everyone) be allowed to own it?  Or should it be part of a public/government trust? “But”, scream the Irish, “we can’t trust our land to the thieving politicians.”  True, but which citizens get to own it?  “But”, scream the Irish, “we can’t trust our land to the thieving bankers and the elites.” Fair enough, but…

What about mixed public/private, ownership?  If public/private is our choice, then, once again, the uber-wealthy are the only ones who can afford to buy it and then grant it back for the public good, and the rest of us are still dependent on the “cream of society” to do the “right” thing.

So who owns the land?

Who should own the land?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I know that land is a limited resource, for which the concept of ownership seems preposterous.  Isn’t land conflict how most wars get started, and not just here on an island?

Then again, I guess it’s all one giant island, isn’t it?


Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country

* Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment

Posted in Dublin Attractions, Home & A Sense of Place, Irish Countryside, Irish Economy, Irish History, Irish Life & Society, Modern Life, Politics, Things to See in Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments