The Euro Crisis: A Family Drama

Cast of Characters

The Proud Parents: Germany and France
The Eldest child: The United Kingdom
The Wild Child: Greece
The newly adopted: Croatia
The Redeemable Rogue: Ireland
The neglected middle child: Spain

Synopsis

 G and F didn’t like each other. Then tragedy brought them together.

They cast their differences aside and became inseparable. They decided to build a family.

They vowed to be the best parents in the world. They were young and believed their family would be the happiest in history.

They were wise too. They welcomed their young with open arms and closed fists full of caveats.

(If their own bitter experience had taught them anything, it was that successful family life meant balancing freedom and constraint.)

Each year a new member was born. G and F wanted a big, happy family and they weren’t finished yet.

Their eldest, UK was a strapping lad. At first he imbibed his parents’ values. As the family grew, he began to feel stifled. He wanted more independence.

During a romantic weekend away in Maastricht, G and F conceived a fresh plan to unite them all.

It was the last straw for UK. He decided he wanted out.

When the kids hit their teens, G and F noticed that a crisis in family values was looming across the waters. They blamed fast food and the American consumer culture.

Within a few months, things got worse. Ir, who had fought through a shaky start in life to become everyone’s favourite teenage success story, turned out to be living precariously close to financial ruin. G and F were disappointed and wondered if they were too lax in tolerating her constant partying.

Then S and P went off the rails too. G and F wondered if they’d spoilt the children.

But the family pulled together and bailed the kiddies out.

The mess wasn’t over yet.  Now Gr, the fiery middle child was in trouble. Financial ruin kind of trouble. Gr had been lying to his parents for years.

That was the last straw for G and F, who began to impose discipline.

On top of it all, they agreed to adopt another child.

Cro, a youngster with a troubled past had wanted to be part of the perfect family for years.

When the time finally came though, Cro realised that things weren’t so perfect after all.

Can they all pull together and become a model family once again? A vacation in Davos seems to be their only hope..

What the critics say:

This tension-filled family drama is sure to be a bloc-buster

                               More drama than your average Greek tragedy!

image source: http://www.salon.com

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Big Issue: Small change

The man that sells the Big Issue outside Trinity College has one brown beard, two blue-white tired eyes and five or six wrinkles folded down his cheeks.

His head and shoulders slope to the right so it seems as if he is suspended in the middle of collapsing. He never carries more than three or four copies of the magazine but the little bundle he has got he clutches tightly in his right hand, which he keeps raised in the air, like the Statue of Liberty and her torch. He has a vacant stare which usually points in the direction of Front Arch.

image source: atp.cx

I bought the December issue from him. The cover featured a photograph of a spectacled man in a Santa Claus costume and inside you could read about the origins of the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and about a day in the life of Garda Pauline Sheehan.

When I approached him, his face flashed alive, as if a switch had turned his eyes on.

“Hello, I’d like a copy please”, I began redundantly.
I had two €2 coins ready.
“Yes, love”, he replied, huskily, “yes love. Just a moment.”

I handed him the coins, adding cheerfully, “that’s four euro for you there”, to compensate for the sadness I felt for him, as a long trickle of snot began to drip from his nose.

The Big Issue costs €3. Half that goes to the vendor.

He fumbled for change in the dirty corduroy pocket of his pants. I made a pointless remark about the cover so that he would think I hadn’t noticed the large tear of snot reaching his lips.

He dug slowly inside his pocket until he found a euro among a handful of coppers.
I thanked him.
“Happy New Year, Love. Happy New Year. Happy New Year to you”.
“And to you too!”

I came back for the January issue. It contained a feature about Ireland’s only real-life pet detective.
“Hello Love. Happy New Year”, he said.
This time I had the exact change.
“God bless, love. Happy New Year to you. Happy New Year now”.

Last week I walked past him again. I was sure he was watching me as I went by. I scolded myself for self-absorption. But I could feel his eyes digging into the side of my face as I passed. The sensation overwhelmed me and I turned back.

He was looking me right in the eye.

I retraced my steps.

I was impulsively apologetic.

“I’ve got that issue already”, I said as if I were guilty of something indefensible.

He grabbed my arm. I could feel the force of his thumb on a vein through my coat.
“I love seeing you”, he said. “I love seeing you go by. It’s lovely seeing you. Happy New Year, Love. It’s so nice when you go by”.

I thought about him later that evening; standing in front of Trinity College with snot dripping down his nose searching for a euro to give me back and it came to me that it was one of the most dignified things I have ever seen.

Ireland’s Big Issue is street journalism at its best and I hope there’ll never ever be an app for it.

Armpit hair or the Eurozone crisis? The writer’s dilemma

I met a girl once who let her armpit hair grow nice and bushy so that she could weed out the guys that were more interested in her grooming habits than her intellect. I thought of her yesterday as I was killing time flicking through the bestsellers in Easons. I’d picked up Caitlin Moran’s How to be a woman and happened upon a passage outlining the importance of maintaining a fine balance between the cultivation and removal of excess pubic hair. Apparently, girls as young as 12 are now seeking full body waxes. Furthermore, young boys’ exposure to porn means that they’re unfamiliar with the follicle reality of the female anatomy, which shocks them upon their first real encounter with it.

The things you learn.

I was conscious that it had been nearly a week since my last post and even though popular science dictates that the third week in January presents the greatest statistical probability of lapsing on your New Year’s Resolutions, I was determined to buck the trend and continue blogging.

So I thought about writing about bodily hair; about how I’ll be damned if I shave my legs in the winter, or about how I got my eyebrows threaded last June and that though it was very painful and my eyes were watering like a hose, when the beautician asked me if I was alright I answered that I was doing just fine and that the streaks of mascara decorating my cheeks were intentional.

But I thought the better of it. After all, there are more important things to be worrying about than the state of the nation’s armpits. I resolved to educate myself on a more sober theme.

As a result, I spent much of today in solitary confinement; having decided that I wanted to be someone who writes about the things that matter, rather than the colonies that fester in secret under our nation’s arms.

It didn’t take me long to find a suitable treatise.

With the stealth of a long-repressed id, the Eurozone crisis reared its ugly head from the back of my mind, where I had shoved it to avoid returning to the shameful and possibly unalterable fact that I don’t understand economics.

I began by googling promising terms like “Eurozone crisis”, “structure of European banking system” and “austerity”.

I decided it would be only right to set myself a plausible-sounding essay title to focus my enquiries.

I came up with “Outline the causes of the Eurozone crisis and discuss potential outcomes of Government measures to tackle the crisis”, which I thought sounded promising.

Like most academic titles, it was embedded with the code “Write anything you know about this theme and don’t forget to reference several bizarrely named academics to make the whole process a bit more bearable”.

I skimmed through a few generalities and familiarised myself with key Eurozone celebs like Hosé Manuel Barosso, Christine Lagarde and Evangelos Venizelos. I even recorded the duller-sounding names in a notebook for future perusal.

image source: guardian.co.uk


I thought I’d hit the jackpot when I happened upon the BBC’s Crisis Jargon Buster. I rushed downstairs to make myself a cup of mint tea, took a deep breath, then spent the entire day reading the list of terms and taking notes, which I intend to copy into the desktop folder I have called “My general betterment”.

As it turns out, the crisis is not without its gratifying terms. So much so, that when LSB picked me up this evening, we whiled away a pleasant half hour making economy-related puns over our cappuccinos.

I asked him if he could guess what my new favourite cereal was. Though he’s a savant, he was stumped. He knew that it used to be Aldi’s own-brand strawberry crisp but I told him that was old news.

My morning victual of choice was now … “Credit crunch”.

His groan was nothing on the one I had let out when I reached the letter “H” in the jargon buster glossary. Wedged defiantly between “Glass-Steagall” and “Hedge fund” was the word “haircut”.

And it didn’t refer to armpits.

Such are the dilemmas I’m facing as I embark on another year of blogging. Do I write about my savant boyfriend, who generates hundreds of hits, or about the war in Iraq or the meaning of “art” , which fewer people want to read about?

Should journalists give the public what it should want, or what it does want? Is it more important to inform or to entertain?

What do you think?

How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics

If I learnt just one thing from watching The Iron Lady, it’s that despite popular belief, politicians are people too. Margaret Thatcher might have sent missile ships to the Falklands and vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but she still boils an egg, fills black sacks for Oxfam and asks her daughter to fasten the catch at the back of her dress which she can’t reach.

The snippets of Maggie’s domestic life are definitely the most moving parts of the film (which, in case you are wondering I would highly recommend). It’s impossible not to feel something as you watch the forgetful but resolute old lady plonked awkwardly on the floor in an uncomfortable cotton dress, trying to prise open a DVD case and twitching as she eavesdrops on conversations her daughter has with her carer.

It made me think that if Britain has its iron lady in ‘Maggie’, then Germany has found her equivalent in ‘Angie’.

Like Thatcher, Merkel is frequently portrayed as emotionless and inexpressive and ultimately, as Maggie was, “out of touch”.

A recent article published on Spiegel Online seeks to redress the balance. In it, journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, who has spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, documents a series of moments, unrelated to the financial crisis, nuclear power, or the future of the Euro, in which Merkel shows herself as something more than a political machine.

As a Human Being in fact.

They are ordinary moments.

Once, she laughed uncontrollably and snorted while telling a story about the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who was detained by the Belarusian police while out cycling disguised as a tourist.

Another time, after her defence minister Guttenberg resigned following revelations that he had plagiarised passages of his doctoral thesis, she made an uncharacteristically emotional speech. During it, she kept tugging at a loose thread on her sleeve.

She makes her husband breakfast every morning.

Some, especially the French, might inquire as to why on earth it matters what a politician does behind closed doors. Can they not sew their buttons in peace? Have they not got the right to entertain several lovers without the world having to know about it?

The French media in particular thinks personal privacy is sacrosanct.

Back in November, at the G20 summit Obama and Sarkozy were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet, in the belief that this was a private conversation, and would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got their hands on the clip, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

Why is this important?

Because it reinforces the point that politics is a drama encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions.

We must never forget that it’s the behind-the-scenes conversations over strong cups of coffee and dog-eared files that end up directing events on the world stage.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

It’s one thing to believe in protecting private comments from the public glare but it’s another to detach entirely the personal from the political.

Research has shown that politicians get elected on the strength of their personality rather than on their policies.

It’s not surprising.

People are interested in people. They are less interested in policies. Policies may be more important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines that make them.

It’s futile to remove the personal from the political. We can rationalise emotions but we can’t remove them. Margaret Thatcher’s style of governance was probably affected a great deal more by the values of her stiff-upper lip upbringing than by the pages of briefs and pieces of advice she got from various channels during her premiership.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

How Maggie boils an egg matters, but you’d really better go and see the film to find out.

On being a creepface

I have the unfortunate habit of staring for long periods of time at strangers I find interesting. Conditions in early childhood encouraged the practice. My bedroom was at the very top of the house facing a busy park and a bus stop. From there I could observe ladies in leggings and ear muffs making their way to the shops and groups of children trying in vain to retrieve shuttlecocks they had misfired into trees.

Sometimes I would sit for so long by the window that I could see the ladies return with their Dunnes Stores shopping bags. It always gave me satisfaction to note the details, like that they’d removed their ear muffs and bought a stick of French bread or two packets of toilet paper.

Some people are interested in living life but I am surprisingly content just to look at it. When I was young, I used to find it fascinating to watch my sister play with her playmobil. She’d set up her toy ambulance, or farmhouse or schoolroom and assign names to each of the playmobil figurines, which she recorded in a special little book which I have preserved for posterity.

She became a scientist; I studied Psychology.

I don’t watch much television because my parents are always watching the Bavarian news or German documentaries about the Pope. When I get the chance though I love to watch people watching television.

My favourite person to watch is my mother.

When she has time, my mother watches sentimental German films, which feature families that seem to making a wholesome livelihood milking cows and running hotels in the Alps, but inwardly battling with deep-seated problems like long-lost loves and corruption in the bovine trade.

In the last thirty minutes of such dramas, my mother’s face changes. As conflicts reach their climax, and true thoughts are expressed, her lips begin to move a little, her eyes grow bigger and she can’t stop the tears that begin to roll one-by-one down her cheeks.

When I turn to look at her, she gets embarrassed and flashes me a sheepish smile. I pretend I haven’t noticed even though she should really know by now that her indiscriminate display of empathy is among the billions of things I admire about her and that her compassion for villagers in complicated love triangles is endearing.

My father’s expression becomes exceptionally benign when he watches trains bounding through glorious British countryside and stuffy antique shows where soft-spoken elderly males evaluate the worth of a 1786 gold-plated pocket watch.

In a domestic context, my bad habit doesn’t get me into too much trouble. Apart from the odd bus passenger sitting on the top deck, whose eye I catch as he’s looking out the window into my bedroom, I seem to keep my creeping quite covert.

It’s different when you’re on the luas though, or taking the bus. That’s a riskier business altogether. There you have to be careful. You see, I find observing people on public transport an indescribabe, insatiable delight. I frequently select my seat on the basis of maximum viewing potential.

The other day a south Dublin boy with a voice several decibels louder than the roar of the engine was making arrangements with his friend on the phone.

“Get us a mixer for tonishe will you”, he yelled. “I’ve got lieke three bottles of vodka but I toshally forgot the OJ in Londis. Ish’s going to be SUCH a laugh tonishe…. Definitely. You’re a star…Definitely. Such a laugh.”

He was speaking with such affectation and lack of self-consciousness that a man at the front of the bus turned around in disgust and stared at him for the duration of his entire conversation, and then again when his friend Lola rang back.

Unfortunately the man who turned had spotted me giggling into my scarf and tried to catch my eye. I didn’t want to catch his eye in case he thought I was only laughing because I wanted to share a special moment with him alone.

Once I was coming home on the last Luas and a group of drunk youngsters were amusing me with their unfathomable babble.

I was the tiniest bit tipsy so my subtlety was at an all-time low. I was caught.

“How are you tonight?” the one sporting a pink shirt with an upturned collar asked me.
“Very well”, I beamed.
“ Where are you from”, he asked.
“Bavaria”.
“Is that in Australia?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful place”
“It is! I love it there”
“People from there are so sound”
“I know, they so are! – Sorry, this is my stop”
“BYE darling! See you in Bavaria!”
“Bye now!”

When I got home, I turned off the bedroom light. As I was closing the curtains, I took a steely glance out at the quiet street below. I saw a couple kissing by the park railings. And I watched a man cycling by, singing to himself.

The reality of working in retail

Toeing the Line

Pippa’s feet hurt. They’re wedged in narrow pumps and she’s been on them all day. She’s moving between the till and a number of milling customers, which include a formidable lady in her forties sporting a mass of auburn curls and examining a pair of shiny black boots. “D’you have them in a thirty-nine?” she calls over, waving the article at her. “I’ll just check for you now”, Pippa says, issuing a receipt and handing the customer at the till her bag before returning to the lady.

While she’s in the stockroom, Pippa’s colleague appears, her head barely visible beneath the enormous tower of shoeboxes she’s carrying. “Deliveries just in”, she whispers as Pippa emerges with the boots in a thirty-nine. “Oh, God”, Pippa gasps looking at the mountain of boxes growing in front of her.

Meanwhile, the lady has begun tapping her foot. Pippa hastens over. “Hi there. I’m really sorry for the delay. Unfortunately, we only seem to have size 39 in navy..” The lady purses her lips. “Is that right?”
“Yes, unfortunately. But I can check with our other branch to see if they have them in stock”.
She blinks a few times. “Alright, check”.

Pippa goes to the phone behind the till but there’s already another customer waiting to buy a pair of shocking-pink heels. “Sorry for keeping you”, she says taking the box and commenting, “they’re gorgeous” as she drops them into a plush black carrier bag. Transaction complete, she calls the other branch and dodges around the heap of boxes her colleague is sorting. On the way, another customer taps her on the shoulder.
“Are these leather?”
“They wouldn’t be entirely leather”, Pippa replies apologetically. “but they’re leather-lined”.
Back with the lady now, Pippa explains that she branch ten minutes away has the black boot in size 39 in stock.
The lady shakes her head vigorously; “Oh, I just can’t face the walk!”
“Or I could order them in for you?”, Pippa suggests.
The lady takes another look at the boot, with its glittery heel and floppy leg and puts it down. “I’ll leave it”.

“No problem”, says Pippa brightly, packing it back into its tissue wrapping and returning it to the stockroom upstairs. Her colleague is now up at the till dealing with a man who is demanding a refund for a shoe his daughter damaged while out dancing. As soon as he’s gone, Pippa’s colleague calls over to her and says “hey, go on your lunch, you haven’t even had a break”.

Pippa takes a look at the heap of boxes, at the group of shrieking friends who’ve just come in looking for matching stilettos to wear to a hen night and at the accounts that are yet to be filled in. The sales target figure her boss has given her seems alarmingly out of reach. Rocking Around the Christmas Tree comes on again. “I can’t”, she says.

Living on a shoestring

Pippa has been working in the shoe shop for the last year and a half. She’s got a Master’s Degree and worked part-time all through college. She’s one of the 216,229 retail workers in Ireland and part of a growing number of graduates entering the sector.

Like many others retail employees, Pippa’s work conditions are poor. She splits her time between the various branches of the shop and frequently runs the smaller outlets with no help. “It’s a nine-hour shift, on my own, with no break”, she says.

Quite apart from compromising safety, such conditions represent a breach of the law, which states “Shop employees who work more than 6 hours and whose hours of work include 11.30am-2.30pm are entitled to a one hour consecutive break which must occur during those hours”. Furthermore and rather curiously, retail workers in the Footwear and Drapery trade in Dublin only “are entitled to a 15-minute paid break (exclusive of the main meal break) if working more than 4 ½ hours.” Taking into account the amount of work she does and her experience, Pippa feels that she “could do with getting more than nine euro an hour at this stage”.

To add insult to injury, Pippa is not allowed to wear her own shoes but is instead forced to wear footwear that the shop stocks, for which she must pay out of her own wages. She finds them uncomfortable and permanently suffers from blisters. “I have wide feet”, she explains and “because of that these type of shoes hurt”. The one time she dared to come in to work in her own shoes, she was shouted at by her manager. “She just went crazy”, Pippa remembers.

Fear of managers and bosses is widespread among the workers I speak to. “It’s just a lack of respect”, one girl tells me. “We’re dispensable, so they can afford to treat us badly”. Pippa is used to being shouted at. Of her manager she says, “She has been horrible to me on many occasions, but, to be honest, it’s just her manner with you, and a build up of little things, which over time, would have your confidence in ribbons!” she says, adding, “everybody is scared of her”. On the week I pop by, she has been made cry twice by her employer, which Pippa describes as a “new record”.

Image source journal.ie

“We’re just the Christmas slaves”

Wendy, also a graduate worked her sixth Christmas in retail this year. “In the three weeks before Christmas I worked 16 late shifts; they included 2pm-11pm and 2.30pm-12.00am. There were a few consecutive days where I did not even see daylight. I would come home from work at 12.30am, finally wind down to sleep at 3.00am, wake up at 1.00pm to get to work by 2.30pm … I lived like a vampire, microwave meals became my everyday dinner; eating a home cooked meal was a rarity … My sleeping pattern has become alarming and now that the Christmas rush is over all of us on our staff are suffering with colds, infections and the flu from being so run down and stressed. All because people want to shop at 11pm at night … I remember on one occasion finishing at 12.15am, heading home to bed and my alarm going off at 5.30am to be in the store by 7am: all for minimum wage.”

“Nobody thinks about us”, she says “we’re just the Christmas slaves to the shoppers”.
Compared to other years though this Christmas has not been the worst for Wendy: “The years I worked in fashion retail at Christmas were hell but selling face creams and body lotions is pretty straightforward”.

Short-staffing and Dispensability

The problem of short staffing is widespread in the retail sector. With employers taking on fewer staff, individual workers are forced to work longer hours and to go beyond their prescribed duty. The scramble for vacancies makes employees less likely to speak out against their employers’ malpractices, for fear of losing their job to the ever-growing queue of people hoping to take it. The participation of shops in the Government Job Bridge Scheme, which pays interns €50 on top of their weekly social welfare allowance to work for a period of up to nine months, further restricts the number of workers hoping to get paid minimum wage for doing the job.

Experiences with customers: a mixed bag

Mandate, the third largest trade union in Ireland represents 40,000 workers, the majority of which are employed in major retail companies. In 2009 it launched its Respect Retail Workers Campaign following a survey it carried out on twenty retail businesses and their employees, which found that 74% of workers had received verbal threats from customers in the past year and almost 10% had been assaulted by a customer in the course of their employment.

For Pippa, encounters with customers have been varied “Experiences with customers can be really lovely and make you feel very appreciated and like you have helped someone in some little way, even if it is just by lending them an ear; other times, it can be hell!”

Wendy agrees, “Honestly customers were not so bad this year … but of course there were the people who argued over 20 cent for a gift wrap bag that went to charity and the man who wanted money off for buying three things”.

Employees of smaller business losing out

For the thousands of retail workers employed by smaller businesses who are not part of a union, bringing change about is a difficult, risky process. Speaking out threatens to damage relations with colleagues as well as prospects of promotion. The “At least I have a job” mantra appears to be the guiding principle behind silent, gritted teeth and stoic continuance.

As for work being valued, according to Pippa, “Nothing I’ve seen or heard would really suggest it. It’s a tiring job at first, but you do get used to it. Emotionally it can be awful at times, but the people around me are lovely. It’s nice to be working around people my age, who can pick you up when you are down”.

As for the employers, who are supplied with an ever-increasing number of staff faced with little choice but to work in poor conditions, a change in behaviour is bound to come from above rather than below. For the Government, that means enforcing and checking on the written records employers are required to keep of hours worked, to impose the maximum fine of €1,900 on employers who fail to co-operate with it and to monitor the Job Bridge Scheme to make sure that it introduces more, not fewer paid workers into the sector.

What do you think? Have you ever worked in retail? Do shop workers have it tougher than most?