6 days on the West Coast of Ireland

I have just come back from a six day trip around the west of Ireland with my mother, leaving last Monday morning and coming back yesterday. We went to Galway, Connemara, Inis Mór and Kinvara (with a view to visiting the Burren).

It was one of those trips where things did not go quite as expected.

One of the things that Irish emigrés often talk about upon their return is the sense of a “reverse culture shock”, and the difficulty of resolving their memories of what Ireland is like vis-a-vis what is actually confronting them on their return.

On this trip I was confronted by an image of Ireland as saccharine, parochial, charming. The place was set out for international tourists, particularly on Inis Mór, the largest island of the Aran Islands. We took a pony and trap tour of the Island which was informative and illuminating. Alongside us were an Italian family who snapped pictures over and over of the wattle and daub, thatched houses. It was a little bit funny, because my aunt owns a very similar house in Donegal in which I spent a lot of time during my childhood, and I imagined crowds of Germans and Americans standing outside snapping pictures while we shot air rifles in the back garden or walked to the beach.

Nevertheless, particularly on Aran, I had a sense of resentment from the local people. The service we received in local pubs and restaurants betrayed a lack of training and suggested that hospitality was a profession forced on many on the island rather than chosen; we were informed during our tour that 80% of the island’s income came from tourism. For an island which previously relied on agriculture and fishing, it was suggestive of a way of life in the process of destruction and decline. The disconnect between life as lived and life as presented to outsiders was perhaps particularly startling to me as a domestic tourist.

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Another point of interest was visiting St. Nicholas’ Church in Galway, which is Church of Ireland. By chance I came across some regimental banners from the Connaught Rangers, which my great-grandfather had fought in during WWI, having enlisted as a supporter of John Redmond (he had been in the Irish Volunteers and was later in the Irish Free State army). I asked if there was information about the banners, but they had none. (Interesting in itself – in my experience living in England, most Church of England churches would have some information about their regimental banners and memorials).

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Moreover, as someone used to travelling alone I found being with my mother all the time at times very restrictive, especially as without a driving licence I could not really go off by myself with the car (and public transport is non-existent). The upshot of this is the realization that I really do prefer travelling solo, at least if I’m going for more than 3-4 days (I was worried I was buying into the hype a bit too much), I ought to finally get a driving licence, and self catering is the way to go (there is only so much restaurant food I can take, but this seems to differentiate me strongly from nearly everyone I’ve travelled with). I ended up buying a pack of amber leaf (the 3-in-1 packs banned in the UK are still sold in the RoI), as being around my mother’s chain smoking all day every day was too much for me – though I can hardly hold her at fault for that. I suppose one of the more interesting things about travel, aside from the cultural impressions made on you by the places you visit, is what you learn about yourself and how you relate to others (particularly travel companions).

 

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Moving from the UK to Germany: a Paperwork Guide

Intuitively this seems like something which should be simple, with Germany being in the EU. Actually I think for the most part it is, but there are quite a few things which have come up which I wasn’t expecting. So here goes.

1. Sort out your accommodation in the UK

This means selling your property or moving out of your rented accommodation and settling up all utilities and bills. It’s an obvious one, but there can be a lot to think about here (phone, internet, water, gas, electricity, insurance, council tax, etc). It is especially important to remember to tell the council you are moving. You should also let your doctor and dentist know.

2. Inform HMRC and Student Finance

Generally you need to inform HMRC that you are moving to avoid paying tax on your earnings abroad (though this depends how many days out of the tax year you are spending out of the UK). You need your last P45 and can fill in the P85 form online.

You also need to inform student finance. Although some people try to escape student debt by moving abroad, SF are now apparently hiring international debt collectors to track you down. You will need to fill in a form and will need your contract, or the last three payslips. If you are a recent graduate, you don’t need to do this until your account enters repayment, which is at the start of the tax year (April) after you graduate. The debt can be paid by direct debit from a UK bank account.

3. Banking

You can generally keep your bank accounts open when you move abroad, and I would advise you to do so, as setting up a UK bank account (which you may need later) while non-resident is almost impossible. However, you will not be able to pay into an ISA, so do that before you leave.

Credit Union accounts in the UK are generally governed by a “common bond” which is often geographical or professional. You should contact yours to find out what they advise.

A few things to be aware of when setting up a German bank account:

  • Cash is used for most day-to-day payments in Germany
  • ATMs are less common and will often charge you for withdrawals
  • Free banking is less common and most accounts will charge a monthly fee

I have decided to set up an account with Sparkasse, who operate the most ATMs and have a reasonable fee. However, it is important to do your own research and chose the bank that works best for you.

4. Register and get a residence certificate 

After you have found accommodation (and that will be another post in itself), you need to register with the Meldebehörde, which will be located in a building called the Bürgeramt or similar. Depending on the Bundesland, you will have one or two weeks to do this. You will then be able to apply for a residence certificate within three months.

Back home in Derry

I flew from Bristol to Belfast last night. The flight had a three hour delay, and easyjet compensated us by offering a £3 voucher, which given we were in an airport wasn’t even enough to buy a sandwich! Nevertheless, eventually I managed to get on a plane and escape back to Ireland, where my mother was waiting for me at the airport.

Today I am mostly relaxing, but also going through all my preparations for moving to Germany. It feels as though I am at the end of a long period of uncertainty and stasis and I can finally feel some mental clarity returning. I feel I know exactly what I have to do and I have no hesitations about working through it, even if that meant I was on the phone to SSE first thing this morning.

I also am working on reigning in my lifestyle and spending. I am off the cigarettes again and also trying to do some exercise. This was helped by going to the Brecon Beacons with my friend on Sunday, where we climbed Sugar Loaf.

It was a strange relief coming home; I felt better than I had done in months, as if I could finally get on with my life. Although it was very nice to stay with my friend, it seemed to continue, or even contribute to the sense of prolonged stasis I was feeling. For the first time in a long time, I am starting to feel like myself again.

My 5 Worst Hostel Experiences

Since 2014 I have been reviewing every hostel I’ve stayed in on TripAdvisor. Since then, at least, I have stayed in 23 different hostels across Europe, so I hope that that figure gives an impression that I (to some extent) have an idea of what I am talking about, and this list is intended to be humorous. No doubt, however, there is much worse out there…

1. The Mosquitoes

It was 2015 and I had just finished a contract at a summer school in the Basque country. I had just travelled to San Sebastian with a colleague and was staying in a hostel in Bilbao before catching a flight back to London.

The hostel I stayed in in Bilbao was clean (very clean), but like most places in that part of Spain there was no A/C. Unfortunately, there were also mosquitoes. The dorm was faced with a choice of keeping the windows open (and getting eaten alive), or shutting them and getting hot. Very hot. This was during the 2015 summer heatwave. It was around 35 degrees outside during the daytime, and unfortunately didn’t get much cooler at night. In the end we opted for open windows. I had never thought that I would need a mosquito net for a holiday in Spain, but obviously I was wrong. For whatever reason, I was extremely attractive to them.

I got less than an hour’s sleep, and the next day was covered in angry red bite marks which itched like hell. Did I mention that I had to catch a flight that day? Well, yeah – I had to catch a flight that day.

2. The Bed

This happened at a hostel in Glasgow a few weeks ago. I went to bed early enough, around 10pm and lay down, hoping for some rest. Then I can suddenly feel something sticking into my back. I toss and turn and try to manoeuvre so it isn’t stabbing me. I realize that a spring is loose in the mattress. No matter how much I toss and turn I cannot get comfortable and my back is starting to get very sore. I go to reception to find it is closed. There was only one option left. I picked up my duvet and slept on a sofa in the common room.

3. The Sales Pitch

This happened at a hostel in Romania in July 2014. I will avoid naming the city, or it will become obvious which hostel I am talking about. I arrived in the afternoon with a large group and we were immediately met with a lengthy (maybe one hour) sales pitch for a number of tours and excursions. I knew from my previous research that the prices being quote were disproportionate to the actual cost, though the Americans I was with all went for it. Any attempt I made to ask the staff for information was met with lies or exaggerations (“The train station is really far away, you should use our taxi service”, etc). I asked for a key to the dorm and was asked for a 50 lei deposit, and getting that back was an interesting experience to say the least…

4. Others’ Indiscretions…

I was staying at a hostel in London in September 2014, for one night only. I had chosen the hostel because it was easily accessible from Heathrow airport: I had flown in from Milan and was flying out to Belfast the next day.

When I went to the dorm I was met by a friendly Australian guy in his late 20s, who was sleeping in the bunk below mine. Although he was quite keen to encourage me to come and drink with others in the hostel despite my protestations, he seemed alright. That is, until 3am, when I was woken up by the bunk shaking back and forth violently. I heard a woman moaning, and I realized immediately what was happening. This did not stop even when I got up and climbed out of the bunk, nor did it stop when I pulled my bag out of the locker beneath them. It continued even as I started packing up my belongings. As I left I noticed that he had left his wallet on the floor and his locker was unsecured. I hope that poor sucker chose his partner wisely.

5. The Fistfight

It was spring 2015 and I had just participated in an Angloville programme just outside of Wroclaw, and was staying at a hostel in the city for a few days afterwards to get a taste of the place. I had just finished my first set of university exams and was feeling optimistic about life.

It started normally, with some obnoxious idiots turning on the light at 4.30am after a night drinking and making a nuisance of themselves. I groaned at the thought of having to confront them, but before I could get up, a man sleeping in the bed opposite me had other ideas. He marched over to the group of guys and immediately headbutted one of them in the face. A loud argument in Polish followed and punches were thrown. I pulled the duvet over my head and waited for it to be over.

Eventually the man who had got violent was asked to leave (with threats of calling the police). Despite all this, it still took two complaints to reception to get the others to shut up and let the rest of the dorm sleep.

Why I am Accepting Minimalism

I am currently in the process of pruning down the number of things I own, to the point where I can fit everything in 3 rucksacks and a briefcase. The list is as follows:

  • Laptop 
  • Smartphone
  • Adaptors 
  • Kindle
  • Camera 
  • titanium pan 
  • Knife – buy
  • 1 set of cutlery
  • Bowl
  • Sleeping bag 
  • Bivy bag 
  • Camping mat
  • big rucksack
  • small rucksack
  • Daypack 
  • Briefcase 
  • drybags
  • travel towel 
  • 5 blouses 
  • 2 bras 
  • 10 pairs of socks (inc. walking socks)
  • 10 pairs of underwear
  • Trainers
  • formal shoes
  • Hiking boots
  • Sandals 
  • Flipflops 
  • 2 pairs of shorts 
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Pyjamas x2 
  • Outdoor seat
  • Outdoor fleece
  • Walking trousers
  • shell coat 
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 dress
  • 1 scarf
  • Winter coat
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 jumper
  • Suit jacket
  • Nylon tights
  • Work skirt
  • Nail scissors
  • Water bottles and flasks
  • Tarpaulin sheet x 2 
  • Whistle, compass, map case
  • Sheewee 
  • Trowel
  • Diary
  • Pen
  • Notebooks
  • Folder with important documents (passport etc)
  • Duct tape 
  • Water purification tablets 
  • Inflatable pillow 
  • Eye masks and earplugs 
  • books
  • Swimsuit 
  • Goggles
  • washcloth
  • first aid and toiletries
  • insect repellent/suncream

The list reflects my interest in outdoor activities and hopefully will cover all eventualities. I hope that this project will help me keep track of what I own and what I have with me.

The choice of the word “accepting” in my title is deliberate; I am not choosing or seeking minimalism, and in many respects I feel it is something put upon me. Most importantly, I am doing it to make my life less stressful.

In the last 5 years I have moved 6 times. This does not include the ends and beginnings of my terms at Oxford where I have had to move all of my stuff out of my room and then back in again after the vacation. I am about to move again at the end of this month, and will make a further move at the end of August, to Germany.

It has got easier with time, but there is always a sense of dislocation, of scatteredness, of things slipping out of your reach. Things get lost and damaged. It becomes physically draining to carry and move things, unless you are willing to pay through the nose for help. It is not surprising that most people try to avoid having to move more than a few times in a lifetime. A minimalist approach offers at least some sense of control over what you possess; though it is marketed at the middle class as offering some kind of freedom or transcendence of the need for material possessions.

For my generation, who are trapped in a cycle of precarious jobs, contract based work and renting, this approach to life seems more a necessity to cope rather than a conscious lifestyle choice. Moving every year or second year has started to seem inevitable; I do not see how I could avoid it even if I did jump into the rat race in London or Bristol like most of my friends seem to be doing.

I find the one-upmanship that surrounds “minimalism” in travel forums and among bloggers totally baffling. The ultimate point of it is convenience, practicality and saving money. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

Time at home, and coming back to Oxford to work

After my trip to Scotland, I flew from Glasgow airport directly to Derry, in order to spend a few days at home with my family. My mother picked me up from the airport, and I was quickly at home. In all honestly, I found the time at home very relaxing. It was a relief to be able to spend some time back in a place where everything was taken care of for me. I didn’t do too much while I was there, though I did go out for a drink and listen to Irish traditional music with my mother, and later in the week we went for a day out in Donegal.

First of all, we drove to Glenveagh National Park and had a walk around the grounds of the castle. I have been to Glenveagh many times before in my life, and the peacefulness of the place is always striking, as is the sheer beauty of the dramatic landscape.
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After this we drove down into the Dunlewey Gaeltacht (an area of the country where Irish is used as the primary language) and had a coffee in the Ionad Cois Locha. However, this wasn’t before stopping off at the Poisoned Glen, a breathtakingly beautiful place.
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I flew back to England on the Friday, and the events which followed are recounted in the post I made a few days ago.

That Saturday I started my summer job, which I am now nearly two weeks into. I will post an update on that very soon.

Police harassment at Stansted?

I feel strange about writing this, though remembering what happened causes a surge of differing emotions to rise in me; I think putting down my thoughts might be cathartic. I remind myself that it could have been worse: I am white, Oxford-educated, financially secure and so on, and yet I still feel I have a right to feel a degree of anger and unease.

It started last Friday morning, when, having got an early flight from Derry to London Stansted, I went to wait in the bus station attached the airport for my coach back to Oxford. This was a four hour wait, so I sat there reading a book while waiting for the coach to come.

About 45 minutes before my coach was due to come, a police sniffer dog jumped on me, and two police officers who had appeared out of nowhere immediately began questioning me. I was asked to empty my pockets, my ID was checked against the police computer, and I was asked repeatedly the same questions (where I had come from, where I was going, why, and so on and so on). This went on for about 20 minutes. Eventually they were satisfied that I had done nothing wrong, and they left me alone.

Or so I thought. Next two more officers approach me, purely on the basis that I looked nervous and “frightened” after this experience. What followed here was another 25 minutes of questioning, demands to see my passports, my boarding passes and coach tickets and so on, as well as questions about my personal life and family, and my profession.

The longer this went on, the more nervous and frightened I became. I was worried, too, about missing my coach (which was due to leave at 12). I was asked repeatedly why I was shaking, to which I gave an answer about being tired. I realized that simply saying, “I am frightened because you are harassing me”, would be taken as antagonistic, which one ought to avoid in an airport. It was equally discomforting that the officers insisted that they were working as part of a new programme to keep Stansted airport safe, and that they applied a veneer of friendliness of their actions, as if it could disguise how fundamentally aggressive what they were doing was.

Thankfully I managed to catch the bus, feeling exhausted and uneasy. Should I avoid Stansted airport in future, even though it’s the most convenient location to travel to for me when coming to England? Was it because of how I was dressed, with the Metallica t-shirt and coat with fur-lined hood and boots? Was it because I was so spaced out because of tiredness? Was it the Irish accent? How much worse would it have been if I were Muslim and/or black?

Why was my fear taken as some sort of admission of guilt? Not content with policing my actions, they felt the need to also police my emotions?