Tag: american in ireland

The Politics of Puzzling Hair

Donald Trump’s campaign started off as an Apprentice sequel. A bit of car crash television that viewers watch to enjoy a good laugh and then end up emotionally involved.  Then it veered and swerved wildly into attacking the mother of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan then onto sexual assault. As his R-rated campaign has turned from reality television into a slasher film, complete with racial slurs and stereotypes, it has become apparent that Trump could use a few politicking lessons from the wily gombeen men of Irish politics.

Who would have thought that the Healy-Rae political dynasty  would make a U.S. presidential candidate look backwards and provincial for his lack of policy platform, general knowledge and eloquence?

Jackie & Michael Healy-Rae’s stupid hats & hatless Danny Healy-Rae
Who also would have thought that a presidential candidate would share a penchant for puzzling hair and bad hats with the original gombeen man, Jackie Healy-Rae?

Trump’s stupid hat
On the surface there are no similarities between the Irish political dynasty of the Healy-Raes in County Kerry and empire of Donald Trump, but under the cap is a different story. Political watchers will be surprised to learn they share more than just spectacular comb-overs.

If you’re not familiar with today’s Irish politics you may not know the infamous political dynasty that is the Healy-Rae family of Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry.  The term political dynasty conjures up images of tanned Kennedy’s romping on rolling lawns of their Hyannis compound in tennis whites. Think rumpled suit jackets, mucky shoes, paddy caps and heavy machinery and you have an accurate mental image.

Modern Irish politics has many gombeen characters (remember Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach who was so calculatedly pedestrian that he avoided bribe accusations by claiming he didn’t even have a bank account. He slithered right out of the spotlight after his Celtic Tiger came crashing down and bankrupt Irish banks and taxpayers)

Gombeen is one of those great Irish words adapted from the Irish language but embedded with cultural meaning that makes it difficult to directly define. The Irish word ‘gaimbín’ is a noun meaning interest as in the actual interest charged on a loan. It then became used to define a money-lender and then specifically a shop-keeper or business man who sold gods and food to the poor on credit and charged crippling interest rates.

In general, it refers to shady ‘wheeler-dealer’ type of business men who accepts bribes or looking to make a quick buck at someone else’s expense.

It’s now generally used to describe politicians and businessmen involved in self-serving activities, and more specifically Irish politicians involved in Daly-style vote getting in exchange for pursuing personal favors for constituents. Gombeen men skillfully make insider deals while convincing their supporters that they are actually outsiders, like them, and hence more straight talking and capable of representing the common man’s interests.

The concept is really that despite being wealthy because of your political connections (Healy-Rae and Trump wealth is of course relative) and having no skills, experience or knowledge of public policy or government, you are the more trustworthy candidate because you are a regular Joe-sop just trying to look out for the other honest Joe-sops that no one in Dublin (or Washington) gives a shite about it because they are too sophisticated and corrupt to care about the rest of us. Regular Joe-sops are always honest when it comes to elections.

So while gombeen men make it seem easy to convince voters that they are more trustworthy than the usual politicians, Trump has shown us all that it takes a considerable (and possible uniquely Irish) skill set to maintain the line between straight-talking and ranting without alienating the media and less extreme voters.

Trump began his campaign in gombeen style with virtually no policy interests and lots of controversial ‘straight talking’ air time. Although he was technically a party nominee, he never really felt like a member of any party. He has no policy platform based on facts, plans or experience. Statements about terrorists, immigrants and plans to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexican border with Mexican funding are as far removed from public policy as Danny Healy-Rae’s claims that global warming is not real or Michael’s claims that the Gardaí should dole out drink-driving permits to rural pub drinkers because drink-driving is a made-up problem in Ireland (the Healy-Raes own a rural pub).

Many Irish politicians and commentators have argued that Healy-Rae style politics is damaging to the national interest by ultimately blocking policy decisions that might benefit the Ireland as a whole in favor of local interests. Their ‘local’ interest is to expand their voter base in Kerry and translate this into increased local and national offices. To be fair to them, most international political commentators now argue that Trump style politics is damaging to the U.S. national interests for far worse reasons!

Of course he had a different schtick than the Healy Raes because he’s not hiding his wealth but we have to factor in the cultural differences here. Trump’s number one asset in the U.S. is that he’s rich but his boastful wealth would be a hindrance in political life in Ireland and would it make it impossible for voters to buy the “I’m one of the guys the locker room” talk and trust him (especially while suffering from the Celtic-Tiger champagne hangover).

Trump has now left the likable gombeen track and is completely off-roading in uncharted political wilderness in the U.S. He made some crucial mistakes when he went from calculated ignorance to galvanizing hate and bullying. Gombeens have to carefully calculate how controversial their outrageous publicity seeking statements are in order to maximize press coverage and unmanaged non politician image but rather a regular honest man who just says what’s on his mind. Danny Healy-Rae has received international coverage for outrageous and incorrect statements about climate change being a hoax which he claims is proved by the story of Noah’s Ark (Please look this up, it’s brilliant) and Michael Healy-Rae put forward a motion to make drunk driving legal in certain circumstances where old men and rural pubs are involved (for example their own pub in South Kerry).

Trump has lost the art of being controversial and straight talking by being hateful towards groups that are generally seen as easy targets by a bully.  Gombeen men make ignorant comments, but they save their ire for the smug politicians and elite of the Pale in Dublin and certainly know better than to bully vulnerable groups like those pesky people with disabilities and victims of sexual assault.  How unfair that the media and public tend to take their side!

Trump is shockingly less calculated then the Healy-Rae boys with his late-night tweets, rants and general buffoonery. The Healy-Raes don’t even have a real office – they hold clinics in a pub and their public relations management puts him to shame. Maybe he and his professional political advisers and strategists (assuming he hasn’t had them all beheaded or locked in a tower by now) could use a trip to Kilgarvan in order to see how you win elections without addressing any real policy issues.  A few pints and easy singles slices might just be what this election needs to turn things around.

The Irish Snow

I grew up in Maine, the northernmost state on the east coast of the United States. Maine is beautiful…beautiful if you like winter for 6 months of the year. Snow can begin in early November and last through March or early April. This means Mainers move a lot snow. Between 50 and 100 inches per year to be exact. The annual snowfall varies depending on the region. The coastal areas are lower and manageable but the northern and interior regions are buried for 6 months of the year.

Growing up in Maine sometimes leaves you with a love of flannel, camouflage everything, stockpiling and L.L Bean boots but it always leaves with you with the ability to plow through snow (pun intended). While I lived in Ireland for 10 years I couldn’t help but notice the kafuffle caused by ice every winter.

Yes, we have the cars, clothes and equipment for it but here are a few transferrable skills from a Mainer to help the Irish deal with ice and snow that is upon Ireland now.
Also, please stop posting pictures while driving over the Connors Pass in a blizzard. Just stop driving over the Connors Pass in a blizzard.

Black Ice is Not Everywhere
Yes, the roads are plowed here and we have private and public plow crews working through the night (most people pay for the plows to clear their rural roads and driveways) but Maine is the size of Ireland and it’s impossible to keep the roads clear when the snow is falling fast. Unless it’s a big storm, life goes on so you are expected to get to work and school. This means lots of driving on slippery roads in bad visibility.
I’m not sure where Kerry drivers got the idea that black ice was lurking around every corner ready to jump out and attack them but it seemed to be a very common fear. You will be fine if you go slow enough. The trick to driving in snow and ice is not a trick at all. Go slow enough to ensure that you don’t need your brakes to slow down.
You will inevitably skid and slip in snow and ice but if you are going slow enough, you can correct or ride it out without slamming on the brakes and turning into a spin and careening into another car or off the road. That being said, you can’t control other speed demons who are going to smash into you so if you are very nervous only drive in emergencies.

The Cold Kills
Americans wear ugly and practical clothes like our famous clunky white sneakers. Mainers dress worse than the average American. Carhartts, a flannel shirt and a down vest passes for a tuxedo here. There’s an old joke that goes “What’s the difference between a Maine black bear and a Maine women?” “A flannel shirt.”

The Mainer in me was baffled by the lack of appropriate outerwear in Ireland. How do you not even wear rain coats? I would shudder at the sight of drenched young women running around in high-heels and cotton fashion jackets riding up their backs and exposing wet skin.

Extreme and prolonged cold is no joke and it kills hundreds of elderly people in the U.S. each year. Get prepared and cover your ears, head, fingers and toes.

Fuel poverty is also a serious issue here and if you run out of oil, things can get seriously dangerous fast so if you know someone at risk, take them to your house before a storm or ensure they have enough fuel to last for days.
Falling is another cause of broken bones all winter so make sure elderly neighbors and families don’t have to go out for fuel or food and that you clear roads, steps and walkways for them. Sand and grit is often available for free from councils (or at the beach) and all you need is a bucketful to keep around.

Stop Waiting for the Council                                                                                                               My son was born in December of 2009 in the middle of a cold icy snap in Kerry. I made a treacherous trip to my GP with him when he was a few days old. None of the sidewalks were clear in Tralee at 11 o’clock in the morning. There were lots of complaints about the Council. What there wasn’t? Lots of people out clearing roads and footpaths or spreading sand.

Who does this in Maine? We do.

Shovel steps, clear the driveway (plows bury footpaths and walkways), spread sand and salt, repeat. This is a never-ending cycle of drudgery but there is no magic snow removal fairy and the cities and towns keep the main roads cleared. The rest is up to you. Residential and commercial properties clear the sidewalks and access routes around their buildings. Neighbors shovel driveways of those who can’t do it themselves or those who aren’t home. Ice and snow are particularly dangerous for anyone with mobility or balance issues so be kind and clear the whole footpath up and down the road if you are able-bodied.

Those Ice Things for Your Shoes are a Waste of Time
On a related note, don’t buy those crampon things they sell at Aldi and Lidl to slip over your regular shoes. They are a gimmick and are not going to help you. Wear flat boots and wool socks and walk slow. Help pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly get from the car to the wherever they are going. Ugg-style boots are not outdoor boots. They are extremely slippery and have caused me to wipeout on just wet tiles in the town square.

For the Love of God, Stop Pouring Boiling Water on your Windscreen!
I know you love to boil the kettle and this method of ice removal seems logical. My family arrived that Christmas of 2009 and still talk about the rental car guy running out the car park in Shannon with a boiled kettle to ‘clear the wind screen’. Hot water will indeed melt ice but you know what else it will do? Crack your windscreen. The temperature change between the boiling water and the ice can crack your windscreen. That’s an expensive (and unnecessary) gamble. Spend an extra 10 minutes. Get bundled up, go out and turn your car on and let it heat up with the defrost on high. Wait in the house. If you have inches of snow on your car, use a sweeping brush to clear the car roof and windows off. The snow flies off while driving and creates visibility issues for other drivers. An old credit card works like an ice scraper if you are stuck.

I lived in Ireland for ten years and every winter there was some ice and lots of talk about no one had the right gear. Just buy an ice scraper and put it in your car when winter comes. They cost about $10 and are in hardware stores. The really good ones have a brush on the end. Simple Maine pleasures.

The Wran is here!

Photo source: www.dinglephoto.com
Photo source: http://www.dinglephoto.com
After the peace and quiet of Christmas day, when the only outing is Mass and the main activity is eating, St. Stephen’s day shakes the quiet off and rouses the village from their turkey stupor.  Visitors are in for a treat when a loud group of musicians and dancer’s dressed up in wild masks and colorful motley clothes pound into your house, play music, dance and then shake a bag at you looking for money.  The Wren (pronounced Wran) is a brilliantly mad Irish Christmas tradition here in West Kerry where groups of men originally hunted a wren bird, and then paraded it from house to house in a straw cage or else killed it and nailed the body to a tall pole they carried. The origins are not totally clear but probably pagan as the Wren bird was associated with treachery.  Money was collected and then used to host local  dance where the bachelor wren boys would hope to meet a wife.  The Wren has died out in most parts of Ireland but had been revived in some parts as a parade or in pubs.  Dingle has a large parade and has made it an attraction for people from around the county and Ireland for a big party.

The tradition remains largely the same around here (minus the dead bird and wife hunting) and the Wren still goes from house to house early in the day and then moves to the two pubs before heading up to the village around six for what turns into a rowdy night out.  While most of the money goes to a local charity, there is still a Wren Ball before New Year’s which when I first was here for Christmas was in the old derelict school-house.  The school has since been commandeered by one of our neighbors and bordered up so the mayhem is confined to one of the two  local pubs.

Although a little confusing and hard to explain for a two-year old, the kids love trying to identify their friends and neighbors in masks and join in the afternoon revelries in the pub.

The traditional Wren Song (I’ve never heard this but it could still be sung by some Wrens)

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trate’)

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)

Are there any mad Christmas traditions where you are in the world?


7 Sensible Tips for Traveling with Tots

Summer is here and families are on the move. It is summer vacation so ever hopeful parents will again strap on their baby carriers, collapse their strollers, rig-up a toddler harness and take to the road (or sky). Our travels will certainly involve tears, probably some vomit, maybe an airport delay, definitely a frantic u-turn on a badly lit road with no sign posts and the inevitable question asked through gritted teeth, “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?”

We live in hope that the next family holiday will be fun and rejuvenating. We are forever chasing that break from the grinding monotony of work, school, chores, and bills that comes with raising children. The acceptance that there IS NO VACATION from the grind is too much to bear so we ignore the lessons of generations ahead of us who didn’t travel with kids. They didn’t go to restaurants with kids; actually they didn’t leave the house with kids unless to visit relatives.

So we plan and plan and plan. We buy plane tickets, rent cars, book luxury yurts, research train and bus timetables and hope this will be the year where our children ‘are old enough to enjoy it’.

I am planning a two week trip to Ireland. That is a two hour drive to Boston, six hour flight to Shannon and then a two hour drive to our house in Kerry if all goes according to plan (impossible). The trip for us is routine. I am from Maine but spent the last ten years in Ireland and have flown many times with a newborn, a toddler, a newborn and a toddler and then two toddlers. The prospect of flying with a 6 and 4 year-old with another adult seems straightforward compare to past journeys but I have not forgotten some of those torturous trips (I haven’t forgotten the pain of childbirth either) so I would like to share some advice.

Here is my list of sanity-saving rules for parents traveling with babies and toddlers.

Travel light. Nothing you bring will make the trip easier.

Not only will accepting this motto save your wallet and your back, but it might save you from an ugly breakdown mid-flight. In my experience the amount of time you spend packing gear – the higher your anxiety levels. Millions of advertising dollars disagree with me but I maintain the struggle to find the elusive gadget or toy that makes flying so much easier is part of what makes traveling with kids so stressful.  Rummaging through overstuffed bags while a baby or toddler is screaming is awful and worrying about what to bring for who in what bag is self-inflicted torture. Despite what the massive baby and child gadget market will have you believe, there are no travel essentials that you can’t live without so accept this and relieve yourself from chasing it.

I researched travel car seats, bringing my own car seats, plane harnesses, fabric portable high chairs, pop-up travel cots, bottle carriers, strollers, etc. I tried buying pocket-sized books, coloring sets and cars and hiding them until we were on the plane and then revealing each one when my son’s patience was running out. End result – lots of packaging to stuff into the front seat and about 3.5 minutes of distraction time until crayons, cars and books fall and are lost forever.

I remember one website reminding us mother’s to pack a change of clothes in our carry-on bag so we wouldn’t have to get off the plane covered in spit-up, food or pee. Who cares? You’re getting off the plane. You will look like shit even with a fresh shirt so save yourself the hassle of carrying it.

Buy a very cheap collapsible stroller for the airport. Make sure you can push it with one hand. If you are traveling alone and outnumbered by kids, then consider your double stroller (never a side by side one) for restraining toddlers in the airport but check at the gate at the last minute and make sure you will get it at the door of the plane. This was critical for me on solo trips with two children under 3. Leave your car seats in the car and rent what you need on the other side. I have even ordered car seats and had them delivered to my parent’s rather than deal with bringing them. The price is the same as renting one.

Most places you will stay or rent can provide some baby equipment so just ask in advance.

Don’t fly with babies between 8 months and 24 months. Seriously.

Clearly this is unavoidable if your grandmother dies in Burundi but I highly advise planning your Australian holiday outside of these time frames. These ages are estimates based on physical development and craziness. Once your child can move but before he or she is able to be somewhat rational and sit and listen to you, don’t fly. It’s torture. You’ve all seen the poor haggard dad trying to smile while following a crazed 2 year old up and down the aisles until one of them eventually ping pongs into the wrong person while the mom up front necks a mini bottle of wine.

Traveling with a newborn who can’t move and whose cry can barely be heard above the engine is easy. A nursing newborn is even easier. I’ve flown while nursing and while bottle-feeding and nursing was so much easier. For some reason I had never heard of pre-made bottles (they mightn’t have existed in Ireland at the time) so I had one bag with enough sanitized bottles and cartons of formula to last the trip (about 12 hours door to door) and then another bag with dirty bottles so there could be no cross contamination. I also spent hours researching a comparable formula to the one my son drank in Ireland before we went and made my mom scour the aisles of CVS for the right brand. The horror. If you need to visit family overseas definitely try to do that while your baby is at its most portable.

Fight for the designated baby seats on long flights.

What’s worse than being on a 5 hour flight with a crying baby? Being on a 5 hour flight crammed behind someone with their seat reclined for 5 hours which puts their head 4 inches from your baby’s head and makes it impossible to get in or out of your seat while holding the screaming baby. That stupid cardboard bassinet is invaluable because it means you have seats with no one in front of you and a place to put the baby down if you have to go the bathroom or the baby does fall asleep. It’s also much easier to change a not very smelly baby in that than in the broom cupboard bathroom with the changing table down. Reserve it online, call the airline, call them again the day of the flight, ask at check-in for the seat, ask again at the gate and then kick-up a fuss when you get on the place and get booted to row 34 while a 25 lb ‘baby’ and his parents get seated in the bassinet row. When none of the above works, get a drink.

Stick to self-catering accommodation.

Avoid hotels or other close quarters with civilized travelers as this exponentially increases everyone’s stress levels when you are trying to blend in with romantic couples on city breaks. It also lessens the chance that if you’re children sleep for one night that you will be all woken up by drunken (non-civilized) thugs stomping through the hotel corridors crashing into doors and walls. The drunks will eventually pass out and you will be left trapped in a room shushing a screeching child all night.

Staying somewhere with a separate bedrooms and a kitchen is usually the less luxurious and appealing option since you want to avoid cooking and cleaning while on vacation but trying to put young children to sleep in a crib with the TV and lights on is hard. Turning off the lights and TV and then drinking wine in the bathroom of your hotel room is not much fun either. Putting crazed toddlers who won’t go to bed in the hall of the hotel as punishment and watching them through the peephole doesn’t work either but I guarantee you will end up doing it so avoid the hotel.

Avoid city breaks.

Yes, I realize millions of people with children live in cities and navigate them with ease and confidence but I am talking about flying to another city for a sight-seeing walking filled weekend in a hotel with small children. Even without children these trips are exhausting because you cram so much walking and navigating new public transport into one day (in your practical shiny sneakers if you’re American) and there is inevitably a fight about a map and shopping.

Think about your regular evening/night time routines and activities when at home with your children. If involves strolling along city sidewalks and sampling tapas and cocktails with a stylishly Zara-clad toddlers on scooters who love marinated octopus then by all means, plan a city break. If your kids go to bed around 7 pm and you change into your pajamas BEFORE dinner like me, then be realistic. By 6 o’clock you will face finding a place to eat dinner, getting there by walking again or taking a taxi/bus and navigating car seats and folding strollers with tired and cranky children and parents. Then you have to get home. Young children don’t have a vacation mode. They can’t just go with the flow, stay up a couple hours later, behave and recuperate with a few extra hours in bed in the morning. Ha! The later they stay up the EARLIER my children get up.

City breaks are perfect for when you can get AWAY from your kids for two nights.

Try to remember how the words ‘family friendly’ sent shivers down your spine and make your crinkle your nose up in disgust when you were childless and looking for a holiday. This is how couples feel when they see you and your brood tromping towards them at the pool, restaurant, beach, and plane. Do everyone a favor and accept your new reality. One-pieces, fanny packs and camp sites are the new you.

Be picky about the travel advice you allow to influence your plans.

This mainly applies to social media and online resources where parents LOVE to give unhelpful advice (this list is different because my advice is helpful – duh.) Just because someone you know from a mother and toddler group tells you her train journey across India with her twin babies strapped to her front and back with colorful fabric was great, doesn’t mean you have to believe them.

You also don’t need to listen to someone who flew an hour to visit their mother with one three year old and her husband once. They don’t know anything.

Be selective when seeking or entertaining parenting advice in general but especially when planning trips with children.

I ask myself these questions when listening to or reading parenting advice:

How full of crap are you normally? If you’ve tried to convince me your baby was potty trained at six months or that your toddler just isn’t tired at 10 o’clock at night then I can easily rule out your advice.  It amazes me how otherwise intelligent women choose to listen to biggest crackpots when it comes to parenting instead of  maybe a doctor or at least an experienced sensible parent.

The number one piece of ridiculously BS I’ve read on the internet is a bogus story about a mother making and distributing goody bags to her fellow passengers for her baby’s first flight. The goody bags supposedly included a cheesy rhyme about being patient with her new baby on the flight. Ugh. I am 99% sure this is untrue but if you are people pleasing and psychotic enough to buy, make and bring 40 goody bags onto the airplane along with small children then you deserve the meltdown you will eventually have on your vacation.

Throw Your Rules out the Emergency Exit (no, not your child).

I apply the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” rule to vacations and airline travel. Do I usually let a toddler drink soda and binge on junk food and videos for hours? No. Do I when we are in transit and there is absolutely no hope of modifying their behavior without torturing everyone around us? Hell yes.

Candy, Pringles, pretzels and anything else you can get your hands on (avoiding Coke is still a good idea) on a flight will be your only hope for bribing or silencing overtired and bored toddlers. Who cares about your usual ‘screen time’ or nutrition rules? No one. Just give them whatever they want to shut them up. The only thing more aggravating to the innocent bystander in the row ahead of you than hours of a screeching child is hours of listening to you negotiate with said child. Or listening to you outlines their rules, routine and ideology on sugar. Or listening to you loudly narrate Peppa Pig to a two-year old.

Be prepared to lose a few baby socks.

On my first transatlantic flight with my son I lost a tiny white sock. I spent fifteen minutes searching for one teeny tiny newborn sock on the plane. I searched under the seats, in our seats, in the seat pockets, emptied out carry-on bags and repacked them and became near hysterical at the idea that my perfectly (obsessively anxiety fueled) packing and planning was going to be thrown into chaos by the loss of one sock. Organization, routines and plans are critical elements to being in control as a parent of young children but it’s very easy to cross over into controlling and obsessive. I have tried to learn that letting the little things (physical and symbolic) go once in a while is a big part of being a mother and you won’t be able to survive traveling with children if you aren’t prepared to leave a few socks behind.


One American’s Experience of U.S. Immigration

Once upon a time I was a bright, shiny, hopeful American living in Ireland who thought the U.S. Embassy in Dublin would be my friend. I thought if I was honest, upfront and cooperative the Embassy staff would help me navigate the immigration process for my Irish husband. I cringe at my naiveté. The Obamas visited Ireland in 2011 and by then I had spent five years dealing with the consulate section of the embassy for my own passport, my husband’s tourist visas, an approved petition for an alien relative, and a failed immigrant visa application. I have to admit by 2011, I was a twisted old crone cackling with bitter glee while President Obama’s limo ‘the Beast’ sat stuck on the Embassy’s exit ramp. I took pleasure in imagining the unpleasant and inefficient civil servants scurrying around the Embassy shouting into phones while the media watched the limo wedged on a ramp outside the hideous building.

A famous architect designed the Embassy but the result is a concrete eyesore which sticks out like an industrial lump amongst the Georgian brick in Ballsbridge. There is nothing friendly about the sixties-styled circle tucked behind a giant black iron fence that must be accessed by queuing on the street corner until you’re admitted into a security cubicle out front and frisked in case you have an electronic tooth brush in your overnight bag that might be used to scrub a security guard to death.

Maybe the interior is lovely. I wouldn’t know. Us non-presidential Americans are only admitted to a DMV style office complete with plastic waiting chairs, water cooler and glass partitions. The building is gigantic by Ballsbridge Embassy standards, yet their American services section and visa section, both of which are apparently so busy they can’t reply to emails for weeks or months at a time or allow us to actually speak to a human, is housed in a trailer-sized room stuck onto the embassy like a wart. There are never enough chairs for everyone waiting to sit. It would be terrible if people were comfortable for even a second while dealing with visa issues. The prison atmosphere should have tipped me off to the attitude of the staff and management of the embassy but I maintained a highly unusual optimism that the American staff would of course assist me, a U.S. citizen living in Ireland, to ensure I could bring my fiancé then husband back to the U.S. to visit my family and later on apply for an immigrant visa. The only thing that makes me feel less mortified by my 25-year-old idiocy is the number of people, both Irish and American, who also assume that my husband would be welcome to live in the U.S. with me now that we had been married a few years. I explain with uncharacteristic patience that spouses receive a preference by just being allowed to apply for an immigrant visa in the first place, but that’s where the consideration ends.

My husband went to Boston when he was 21 and overstayed his tourist visa just long enough to accrue a ten year ban on U.S. immigration and travel under the visa waiver program. His reasons for going and for overstaying are his story to tell. At this stage in my life, I don’t think much justification is required for a young person wanting to live and work short-term in another country; in fact I would strongly encourage it and did myself in New Zealand (some countries make it simple). There wasn’t a legal way for him to do this at the time and he took his chances. That being said we both expected and accepted there would be consequences for his overstaying his visa for both of us individually and our relationship. In fact, rather than risk being turned around at Shannon airport by immigration and pre-empting the eventual visa application process after we were married, my husband applied for a tourist visa before travelling to the U.S. again through the Embassy in Dublin and in effect confessed to his immigration offense. This was stupid (and my fault).

In April the Embassy in Dublin approved my husband’s immigrant visa. The process was horrendous. I know relative to the majority of immigrants coming to or the U.S. we had an easy time, especially considering we weren’t under any major financial, political or personal pressure. Even so, I am left baffled, frustrated and disheartened about the state of U.S. immigration policy. What does making it as miserable, inefficient and confusing as possible achieve for the U.S. and its citizens and residents? Does it make America safer and more prosperous? Does it save tax payers’ money? Or is it a reflection of a new brand of aggressive ‘like or leave it’ American nationalism that is reflected in politics? I don’t have the answers but I did learn a few depressing lessons for anyone embarking on the process.

Lesson #1 – There is no room for honesty when dealing with bureaucrats or immigration officials.

We never considered the undocumented route and it wasn’t a good option for our family but if we had needed to move, rather than wanted to move, this is cheaper, faster and simpler and there are armies of attorneys in the U.S. just waiting to take your money to file a change of status, etc once you arrive under a tourist visa. Do not think that ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘going by the book’ will make things easier or there is some inherent reward in the process for not going down the undocumented or illegal route.

This is where an attorney would come in handy but please be careful. Try and get a few personal recommendations as immigration law, like any other area with terrible regulatory systems, is particularly attractive for unscrupulous attorneys to overcharge, perform shoddy work and have little accountability. I managed to complete the whole process without an attorney but I did consult lawyers at different times for advice. I even hired an Irish immigration lawyer based in the U.S. in a moment of panic that cost me $420 for about 20 minutes of advice but the firing saved me $3500. I balked when I realized her hourly rate was $350 and she only took cash.

Lesson #2 – There is no common sense or (apparent) logic in any dealings you will have with United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. I am using the USCIS as a catchall for the different bodies and offices that deal with immigration for the Department of Homeland Security. It’s too complicated and boring to go through them all here but in my dealings they were all similar. The National Visa Center based in New Hampshire was slightly easier to get in touch with than others but that’s not saying much.

If you think something makes sense or is self-evident, than USCIS will misunderstand or do the opposite. Explain everything in letters attached to all documents or applications you submit. They will most likely not read and or still misunderstand but at least you will feel self-righteous in your indignation when this happens. This is all you will have to keep you going at points so don’t underestimate the worth of self-righteousness when a bureaucratic system is stacked against you.

My husband had to apply for tourist visas every time he wanted to travel to the U.S. This involved making an appointment in Dublin at the Embassy, travelling up from Kerry, forms, photos, fees each time. We both had plenty of evidence of an established life in Ireland and no motive for absconding on a tourist visa, as well as enough of a paper trail to make him easy to track down in Maine if he did.   After the third tourist visa (and track record of coming back Ireland), you might think the process would be easier. While it had taken a week for the visa (it’s just a paper stuck into your passport) the last one took four hours waiting in the Embassy just to submit the application. The visa (and passport) didn’t arrive for six months. Obviously our planned vacation had come and gone.

Lesson #3 – Neither the U.S. Embassy in Ireland nor the United States Citizen and Immigration Service care that you are an American that want to move home with their family. You are at a disadvantage if you are a citizen living outside the U.S. Applications outside the U.S. used to be much simpler but since 2009 applications are not processed by the U.S. Embassy in Dublin until the interview stages. As bad as they are, USCIS is worse and very difficult to deal with from overseas.

You can ring their phone number and be told by a computer that your wait time is 93 minutes. Is this a reasonable wait time for any service? You can’t call with Skype or by appointment and if you do get someone they act like you are an alien (a real one from outer space because you are filing from abroad) and simply cannot help you. Even the forms which are aimed at non-residents leave no room for non U.S. addresses. I had paperwork returned because I put my U.S. address (of which I have none except for my parent’s house until we moved back to the U.S. as was clearly explained in attached letters) in the wrong location.

USCIS documents advise you that if you are living overseas and filing a petition for alien relative and associated forms, then your embassy is your first point of contact for assistance. The embassy will then answer any question by sending on the phone numbers and websites for U.S. offices to keep you going round and round in a nightmare fun fair ride.

Lesson #4 – There is no apparent skill, expertise or specific knowledge required by a staff working under Homeland Security. Mistakes are very common, as are misunderstandings of basic application procedures and simple administrative errors. The many staff I encountered by e-mail, phone, and in-person were in the majority unhelpful and not very knowledgeable. I can’t figure out what skills and knowledge are used in immigration decisions. Surely, there must be some expertise?

My husband’s phone beeped at 4 p.m. the day before his visa interview with an e-mail entitled “Change of time for your Visa Interview.” We both froze while he read it.

It took two years of paperwork, phone calls, and over $2000 to get as far as scheduling an interview appointment in the U.S. Embassy for 1 p.m. the next day. We had brought our five year old son and scheduled an appointment for his passport to be renewed for 1:30 p.m. It requires the presence of both parents to sign so we all had to travel from Kerry to Dublin for the appointment and I had scheduled it purposely in-line with the interview appointment. We had just checked into our hotel in Dublin having left our house at 8 a.m. The next morning we had to go to the Blackrock Clinic and collect the results of €400 medical exam that was conducted in twenty minutes the week before during another trip to Dublin from Kerry. The Embassy insists the applicant attends one doctor in Dublin and won’t allow the doctor to post or courier the results despite the applicant paying €400. But with one nameless automatic e-mail, the embassy had changed the appointment. I feared it could be in two days time. They would think nothing of making us come back to Dublin two days later. The appointment had been brought forward by two hours and worked out fine for us since we were in Dublin the day before but if we weren’t we would have had a very difficult time getting to Dublin for the appointment and not even the courtesy of a phone call.

They also ‘misplaced’ my husband’s passport and visa after the whole process was over so while it should have taken a week to return his passport, it ended up taking almost three weeks and multiple e-mails to find out where the passport was. At one point the Embassy actually e-mailed him incorrectly to tell him his passport was collected by a courier company that day. I stopped by the courier’s office a couple days later in Tralee and he confirmed my suspicions they’d never collected the passport. Days of unreturned messages to the Embassy eventually resulted in an acknowledgment that the visa was never issued and they had made an error. Just to get it sorted, I had to e-mail the American Services unit with the reference ‘Lost Passport’ since they ignore emails to their visa unit for weeks at a time.

Now just to clarify I worked in the public service for years and while I can fully understand the frustration associated with working in a highly regulated and inflexible system, I don’t buy that it’s an excuse to be so unpleasant and unhelpful to the public. Communicating with the public IS your primary purpose for having a job so acting like it’s a huge inconvenience that takes you away from some other very important work is ridiculous. It costs no time or money to be helpful and in fact would have saved lots of time in our case if someone had just answered my questions directly and correctly rather than trying to put me off with form responses and links to their website.

One intelligent, skilled professional investigator could have listened to or read my husband’s story, assessed him for risk and verified it through official channels in Ireland in 2-3 hours. This would be a lot more efficient than dozens of bureaucrats in two countries wasting hundreds of salary hours in addition to administration and the army of legal professionals surrounding this field.

My experience as an immigrant in Ireland was very different. Of course there is no comparison between the scale and numbers of immigrants in Ireland and the United States but I don’t think that accounts completely for the attitude. I originally moved to Ireland on a student visa when I started my Masters in Galway. I applied for a student visa with minimal fuss and minimal paperwork. I think it amounted to one visit to an empty and friendly Garda station just outside the city that handled visas.

I got a PPS number (equivalent of social security number) when I was a post-grad student in Galway because students can legally work part-time on a student visa.  Once you have a PPS number, you can pay tax and that’s all employers really worry about so you can get work and stay as long as allowed per your passport. I worked more than part-time as I was hired on a project basis and then after I graduated I was hired by the local government in Kerry and worked full-time with no questions about my legal status. After I married my Irish husband, I reported myself to the Garda office in Tralee. It took a few visits and phone calls to track down Gerry, the semi-retired Guard with responsibility for immigration. He worked at a window in the lobby of the station and his hours were sporadic. The visits to Gerry were pretty relaxed and entertaining in comparison to the attitude I’ve witnessed in Boston and other U.S. airports and offices. The other immigrants were mostly African and Chinese because there is free movement allowed between EU member states so no need for visas or work permits.

One time I heard Gerry half-heartedly trying to ‘interrogate’ a Nigerian man about why his address kept changing and the details about his asylum seekers status. The man was giving confused answers and it was pretty obvious to us waiting behind him that he was making up stories in order to hide something else.

Gerry eventually gave-up and stamped his passport with a sigh, “I know you’re lying but I’ll give you two months to sort it out and come back.”

This disorganization and laid-back approach to rules and regulations has a downside (financial regulation for one) and it still infuriates me daily but I will miss it too. And while yes, I’d rather not have a Nigerian man with an unknown criminal record, a possible false address, identity and zero local knowledge driving me home at 2 a.m. in a taxi; it is nice to be treated as a person by a person with a little common sense and kindness and I’m not sure our officious system makes anyone safer.

In Logan Airport I have been treated with strange suspicion and disdain because I don’t live in the U.S. but am American. This is ridiculous. The world is small now, isn’t it supposed to be a global marketplace? I have to answer aggressive questions about my visit and explain myself for coming home. My husband usually gets pulled off somewhere else to be interrogated because he has a foreign passport.

When I return to Shannon Airport where I have the foreign passport, the police always let me stay with my husband and children even though we have different passports because it makes no sense to split us up. I started explaining my resident’s status one early morning to an older Garda at the passport line and he cut me off with a smile. “Sure, I can see from your stamp that you are living here in Kerry. Welcome Home.”

While it’s neither fair nor completely relevant to compare the overall immigration policies in Ireland and the United States, I can’t help but compare my two experiences and wonder what results are achieved by the inefficient, overburdened, costly, and opaque system of immigration in the U.S. I won’t be the first or the last to ask these questions and when we move back to Maine in a few days, the experience will fade quickly as new opportunities and challenges arise but the experience will influence my future political decisions. The Irish living in America are well placed to improve U.S. immigration policy and I am glad to see they have a strong voice around Obama’s immigration reform and unless I get detained by customs for smuggling Cadbury’s chocolate through Logan Airport, I for one will be adding my voice to the call for immigration reform.

Who’s ready for Junior Infants? Part 1

I spent a normal amount of time  worrying about whether my son was ready for school last year.  Normal for me rests somewhere between the average Irish and average American parent’s time spent analyzing the quality and effectiveness of their parental choices with Irish parents being self-assured (regardless of track record) and American’s obsessing over every detail of every medical, educational, recreational and superficial choice (purchase).

You can start school in Ireland at four.  Most children are almost five or five but there are no requirements, assessments or standards for school readiness.  The first two years are the infant classes, Junior and Senior and these classes usually finish an hour earlier than the rest of the school at two o’clock.

Irish parents are basically reasonable.  There’s not a ton of obsessing over their decisions or their very special children which require very different considerations than every other child that starts school. There isn’t one child in my son’s class who could read or write before school and I never heard anyone discuss this in the summer months. The school was mainly concerned that we sent in ‘indoor shoes’ to save the carpets and labeled all their Twistables.  There isn’t much worry around school here which makes the children relaxed about it but it makes an American mom automatically suspicious.   Where are the forms?? What about the dietary restrictions??

There is one primary school in the village, one teacher per class and this teacher usually has two classes and the whole process of enrolling involves completing two basic forms in the spring.  The pre-school teachers give the school a list of names, arrange a visit for the children in the spring and the primary school invites parents to a meeting one night. There is no excess information given or asked to or from parents. Many of the parent’s attended the school, have other children in the school and if not, have extended family members in the school so everyone knows how everything works. Except when you don’t and then you have to wait until someone mentions there’s no school tomorrow at the bus stop.

I have recently looked at the New Student Registration packet for the elementary school in Maine my son will attend.  There are eight different forms for parents to complete.  My favorite is the Kindergarten Parent Questionnaire.  The questions are reasonable but very American.  I couldn’t help laughing at the consternation for the school principal and parents if these questions were thrown into the mix at my son’s primary school in Ireland. The assumption that your child and your expectations can or will be met by any service that caters for everyone is uniquely American. This information overload and attempt to instill an illusion of choice or control over situations where in fact you’re not in control, is inherent in the questions below:

Please describe your expectation or any concerns you have regarding your child’s transition to
kindergarten. Do you anticipate any separation difficulty, peer conflicts or behavior issues?

This year in kindergarten I would like for my child to …….(goals you have)

Are there any specific social, emotional or behavioral concerns, which may affect your child’s school experience? (For example, family changes or recent losses)

Is there anything else you would like to share about your child? (Daily routines, likes or dislikes)

(This just seems like trouble to me – Johnny doesn’t got to sleep until 11 pm so it’s very hard to wake him up in the morning and I don’t like him to start the day upset so he might be a little late some days.  He won’t eat breakfast so he’ll have to have a fruit salad at his desk in school.  He doesn’t like to share anything blue.  He gets sluggish if he eats and dairy or wheat.  He needs to be reminded every thirty minutes to drink from his filtered water bottle and this means he sometimes has trouble making it to the bathroom but he’ll be fine with frequent reminders and help.)

The American part of me would have welcomed this form because of the thought that the teachers and school administration would get to know my lovely son better, and hence, be better prepared to take care of him.  The Irish part of me thinks it’s pointless. Unless my child has true special needs (not an intolerance to gluten or dislike of the word ‘no’), their and my individual expectations and concerns can not be deal with in a school setting with a hundred other kindergarteners and frankly, my goal is that my son will be able to get along happily in the mainstream of life. Boring I know but the alternative scares me.

How do Irish parents in America find the whole starting school experience?

My son as it turns out was very ready for school (which tends to happen despite my analysis or fretting).  More ready than I was to be a parent of a school-boy…to be continued.