SHOPPING culture and ENTERTAINMENT throughout the happy season

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Ho Ho Ho.

It feels a bit odd when people wish you Merry Christmas in the middle of December, but the marathon has kicked off even earlier. I think the first person to wish me Merry Christmas said this on the 3rd of December. And although this is supposed to be the season of joy and happiness, in a somewhat magic way as of the 1st of December Dubliners lost their usual easy come easy go attitude and turned into an army of angry shopaholics.

Shopping became part of Dublin life a long time before I had noticed a poster on Dublin Bus SHOPPING culture ENTERTAINMENT. The add was supposed to promote all three of the above, but the design of the poster was suggesting that Dublin equals to Shopping culture and Entertainment. Skip culture. Unfortunately quite often it is exactly like that. Unless you come to Dublin for some fiddle tunes.

A few weeks ago my sister was asking me to suggest a museum where she could bring her 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son (they've been living in Ireland for over 7 years). Natural History Museum had been closed until further notice and I couldn‘t come up with any other ideas. You might accuse me of ungrounded bellyaching again, but this reminds me of a visit to Van Gogh’s Museum in Amsterdam, where they have special guide books for children. Kids are being asked to find particular details or colours or shapes in the paintings, observe differences and similarities with comprehensive and unfussy explanations. Last weekend I was in London and while strolling through Tate Modern and National Portrait Gallery I encountered quite a few parents and teachers with children. Looking at a dinosaur replica is one thing, but teaching to read paintings is another.

Anyway. Although constant state of shopping (despite the reason of need) - another attribute of the West - can be encountered in Dublin throughout the whole year (think Henry Street for instance), it reaches its pinnacle in December with Merry Christmas as a driving force behind it.

According to Deloitte’s annual consumer survey Irish households will spend on average §1,431 on Christmas this year. Compare this with §411 in the Netherlands; §420 in Germany and §556 in France. Of the Irish figure, a total of §720 will be spent on gifts, §431 on food with §279 on socialising.

My friend’s colleague who keeps constantly complaining about the lack of money and lives with her mother took a loan from the bank - 3500 euros - which she will spend on Christmas gifts. Next year she’ll be working for the sake of Christmas.

As I was looking for a coat last week I realized that the virus of “thingism” (a desire for things) is highly contagious. Indeed there are so many pretty things out there that cry to be bought. The handbags and the glad rags. Things which you desire, but you will never need. And have you noticed - although this is the season of happiness - everybody seems to be angry! Spend three hours in a shopping mall and you will feel as exhausted as a mountain climber who has just made it to the peak of Everest. That virus of thingism sucks out your spirits and leaves you a replica of consumerism fighting for those gifts. Although it is supposed to be a season of joy and happiness. Ho ho ho you’re in the army now.


A few more remarks on begging in Ireland

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In search for response to Christophe's comments on begging, over the past few days I came across two stories in the morning newspapers.

But in the meantime I just want to mention that of course, Christophe, when speaking of freedom I meant to say that our independence and the EU expansion opened the gate and we flooded through them driven by economic necessity and selfishness, yet we chose to work rather than to beg, even when a few years ago we were working illegally, without work permits, often for less than the minimum wage, but we worked, we were not begging (!). And I think I've written enough in my blog about Irish in order for you not to get the impression that I call all Irish street people. God forbid!

According to the recent stories, child begging is up by 30 percent in Ireland and according to some officials, the hike was due to both a change in legislation making it no longer illegal for adults to beg and the growing numbers of Roma in Ireland. This story only heralds my previous post in some way, yet I don't have the answer with a possible solution for this dilema.

Also I discovered that accordng to Dublin Simon Community, about a quarter of Dublin's homeless population suffer from serious mental illness and this is the question of the chicken and the egg: was it mental illness that drove them to the streets or are the streets to be blamed for their mental condition? Either way this should be tackled, but a penny or even a shiny euro jingleing into the empty "Starbucks" cup won't solve the problem.

Come ye who thirsty or starve or are simply lazy and the Celtic Tiger will embrace you all.


Begging as an attribute of the West

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I suppose I was 20. Not that I am past my prime now, with grandchildren racing in the shadow of an apple tree thriving underneath my window, begonias on the windowsill and a duck roasting quietly in the oven. Anyway, I was 20. Third year in college, great expectations, naiveness, etc. I was in America. How incredible that even after the recent dark ages across the Atlantic (paranoic war on terrorism, Iraq, economic crisis, shootings in schools) those tree words still carry an aura of magic. The first glimpse at New York's Manhattan, skyscrapers, astounding feeling that nobody cares about you, therefore there is no need to feel uberimportant, black people, enormous traffic, over air-conditioned "Greyhound" busses, "Amtrak" trains, industrial suburbs of New Jersey, a guy with a python across his shoulders on the bus stop in Camden, a kid selling something colorful in a dinger, a street preacher moralizing about Jesus and Apocalypse and a vagabond shoving a tattered "Starbucks" cup into my face. No change, no change!

If you arrive to a Western country from Central/Eastern Europe, panhandling mostly leaves you outraged, the main difference being the fact that in Central/Eastern Europe you could rarely see fit young men and women, physically capable of working, begging on the streets. If you boarded a plane to Lithuania, you would mainly encounter old weary women on their knees asking for change besides Baroque churches. Throughout my explorations to the USA, the UK, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain I've never seen elderly women begging. Honestly - don't remember such an occurrence. Beggars in the West are fit and well capable of working. Men panhandling besides ATMs, restaurants, on Ha'penny Bridge, besides cars stuck in traffic... Have you noticed that the vast majority of them have hands and feet? Therefore I'm convinced they are in the streets not because they can't get a job or are incapable of working, but because they have chosen panhandling as a style of life.

I encountered panhandlers for the first time when I was walking towards underground station in Philly, USA. At first I couldn't even get - what's the problem? Why so much anger?

Over the past two and a half years that I'd spent in Dublin, I came to conclusion that panhandlers in this country are mainly junkies. Not as angry as in the States, but typically all young. Ironically, quite often they find shelter underneath or besides signs "Staff wanted".

I went to the ATM to withdraw some cash a few weeks ago, but some guy was in my way blocking the access. He apologized and placed himself underneath the money machine.
"Nice day", he said.
"I wonder if for long", added.
"Indeed", I answered.
"Good for you, I'm sure you can enjoy it", he muttered in a voice rehearsed for zillions of times.
"Have you got any spare change?" he asked.
"Sorry", I replied.

Panhandling besides ATMs in Ireland is a tremendously common sight. As a matter of fact, panhandling in general is acutely popular over here. Some say because of the widening gap between the poor and the rich - while some get more and more prosperous others become even more poverty-stricken. Sometimes it is the case, although knowing for a fact that dozens of able-bodied Lithuanians bulldozed their way to various benefits from the Celtic Tiger (on top of working 40, 50 or 60 hour weeks), I tend to think that panhandling nowadays for many has become a kind of occupation - despite vast opportunities on the job market. Although Irish still can't compare to the impeccability of the skills needed to, let's say, Italians. During my two-week-long stay in Italy this spring I learned of such numerous ways of mooching money that I could kick start a new career. I.e. distribute a flyer with a picture of a small girl on the train. She has one month to live. This is my daughter. Please help. I gave a euro - damn it, I couldn't look at that picture without apathy.

As of the 1st of January 2007 the number of those, who day in and day out live with a hand reaching out for small change, has even increased over here. New citizens of the expanded EU flooded the streets. But instead of IT professionals and laborers of mushroom factories, it was an army of gaudy skirts with a marching band of accordions. Until now if you ever met an Irish child on the streets of Dublin, it was a busker with a bucket in front. If you hit the streets of Dublin today, you encounter dozens of children, 10-year-olds and younger, with a hand reaching out for change (what a connotation of the word!). "Spare some change, madam" become the first English words they learn.

Once a Dutch woman whom I got to know while working in the shop, stressed to me that begging in the street with children is illegal in the Netherlands. In fact, during a couple of weekends spent over there, I had never encountered beggars. Just a quick glance of a tourist, which, obviously, could as well be quite wrong. During a few days spent in Denmark I was approached by a beggar only once. A friend of mine gave him a cigarette.

A couple of months ago a young beggar won his High Court claim that a law outlawing begging in a public place is unconstitutional because it excessively interferes with his right of freedom of expression. I guess, the expression of freedom can be interpreted in many ways nowadays.

Emigrants from Romania and Bulgaria risk being stopped from entering Ireland until the end of next year because of entry restrictions on low-skilled workers. In order to work in Ireland, they need work permits. Just 106 work permits were granted to Romanians this year and only 33 workers from Bulgaria were given access.

If I went for a stroll in certain areas of Dublin, I can bet a bottle of good wine, that in a few hours I could calculate more than a hundred of gaudy skirts or their mustached cavaliers. No, not those with accordions in their hands. And not those photographing the architecture of Dublin. But those exhibiting their freedom of expression. Because there can be no embargos for it. On the other hand, I could probably still calculate more pahnandling Irish, staying on the streets because they have chosen to. Despite the fact that there are numerous signs in town saying "staff needed".

Freedom lulled thousands of Lithuanians to Ireland like honey does the bees, while the Irish, allured by it, hit the streets. Isn't it ironic?