Back in 2002 when we’d been living in Dublin for a month or so I took my usual route to work through town on the bus and noticed something very strange. People everywhere – the bus, the street, doing their shopping in the mall – had big grey marks on their foreheads. Not all of them, but many. The weird thing was that nobody else seemed to notice. Everyone was going about their business as usual and giving no sign that they’d realised that every second person they passed had an unusual grey dot right there on their face. It got a bit eerie after a while, the way they were all just acting normal when quite clearly something not normal was going on, and I began to wonder if I’d got on the wrong bus and ended up in some sort of alternate reality filled with aliens.
I got home and said to Josh, ‘This really weird thing happened today’ and he said ‘Did you see all the people with weird grey dots on their foreheads?’ and I said ‘Yes! Wasn’t it weird?’ and he said ‘Yes! It was!’ And although between us we still couldn’t come up with any remotely plausible explanation at least I knew I wasn’t going off the deep end.
Then our Irish flatmate came home and cleared things up for us. It was Ash Wednesday, so it was. All the Catholics pop into mass early in the morning and the priest marks the sign of the cross on their foreheads with his finger dipped in oil then in ash and it stays like that all day.
But of course.
I was on the look-out for ashy foreheads this year on Ash Wednesday, my smug ‘I’m all over this, you’re not going to catch me out again’ expression at the ready, but no dice. Either it’s gone out of fashion in the last fourteen years or I wasn’t walking through a devout enough area. I was quite disappointed.
My point here is this: most of the time living in Ireland is just like living in New Zealand except without the pineapple lumps. The people are the same. Daily life is the same. I’ve had more culture shock in a week in America than I’ve ever had here. But then, just when you think you’re fully on top of things, you get hit by something truly unexpected and bizarre and you realise that it really is a foreign country.
Here’s a more recent example. Before the school year started in September I got the usual crate of papers to read/fill in/fork out money for. Enrolment, rules and policies, uniform, starting dates, calendar for the year, same old same old. Until I got to the yellow one for insuring my children while they’re at school.
It’s a form to be filled in and sent back listing the benefits payable up to a limit of €6,500,000 for various types of misfortune: death, total and irrecoverable hearing loss, permanent total loss of sight in one eye or of one limb/both eyes or two limbs, permanent total disablement and on and on. I read it and thought, ‘WTAF! What the heck are they planning on doing to my children?’ I took it to show Josh who said ‘WTAF! What the heck are they planning on doing to my children?’ Well, he didn’t really because he doesn’t swear as much as me but it’s what he meant.
Upon reading further I discovered that if the kids are planning to lose their faculties, limbs or anything else they’re going to have to be quite creative about it because all the obvious methods are excluded from the policy anyway. They won’t pay out for mishaps incurred in the course of aeronautics or aviation, horse racing or pony jumping, ice hockey, bob-sledding, parachuting, hang gliding, skeletoning (?!?), potholing, motor racing, war, terrorism, rock climbing, scuba diving or white water rafting. Nor are they interested in your misfortune if you were under the influence of intoxicants or drugs, exposing yourself to needless peril, fighting, engaging with radiation or asbestos, doing crime or suffering from insanity (temporary or otherwise).
Well, I ask you. They’re teenagers. If you rule out all that, what’s left?
The cost of insuring your children is minimal, €6 or €9 depending on how much you care about them, but I haven’t filled in the forms and sent them back yet. I don’t know whether it’s one of those things that everyone does or one of those things that no one does. I need to collar an Irish person and get some answers. Also I’m still getting over the shock of being handed a list, with monetary values attached, of all the things that could happen to my children each day when I just assumed they were going to be safely sitting at a desk doing nothing more risky than eating from the school cafeteria.
On Thursday we got a letter from school about the English curriculum. They’re introducing a new syllabus and new assessments for the Junior Certificate cycle, which is the second and third years of high school. It seems to be a full overhaul comparable to the introduction of NCEA. This, of course, is a big deal.
The thing is, sez the letter, there are two post-primary teacher unions and one of them is happy with the new stuff and the other is not. The school, like all others, has a mixture on staff of members of both unions and a few belonging to neither. The union which doesn’t like the cut of the new curriculum’s jib is not allowing its members to use the new assessments. So, although all classes are being taught from the new curriculum, some classes are using the new assessments and some are not. What you do in English this year depends entirely on which union your particular teacher has hitched their star to. The school, according to the letter, can do nothing about this situation except wait for the second union to iron out their differences with the Ministry of Education.
Righto, then. Sounds legit.
Then there was the time that I decided that Noah was old enough to do his own apple-slicing and it turned out that I was wrong. Who knew such a small finger could hold so much blood? Off we went to the doctor who said hmmm, it needs stitches and someone needs to do a more thorough check than I can for nerve damage. He’ll need to go to the hospital.
Right so, I sighed (I hardly need say that this was 5:30 in the evening, the time that all child-related medical emergencies happen), I’ll pop him down to St Michael’s in Dun Laoghaire. Because of our hit-rate with broken bones, proximity to a hospital was one of the things I took into account when we were making the decision about going without a car. St Michael’s is barely a hop, skip and jump from Chez Lawrence (although depending on which bone was broken the bus would probably be a better option) so my mind was at rest on that score.
But no. No no no no. Ooohhhh no. You can’t just take a child to the nearest hospital. Hospitals won’t treat anyone under fourteen years old. There are three specialist children’s hospitals – serving a city with a million residents – and I had to take him to one of those. Do you know how many of the three are close to our house? Zero. Do you know how far away the closest is? Really really far.
That was a fun night.
I assume that this (as well as the school insurance form) is because Ireland is a reasonably litigious country. Everybody’s worried about being sued. It leads to a lot of rules. The number of disclaimers I’ve had to sign for the children to do what I think of as fairly basic activities has me almost worn out. I’m beginning to see the point of ACC in New Zealand. Nobody likes the levies but at least we can take an injured child to the nearest hospital.
Amy is almost fourteen and she’s the one with the most frequent flyer miles by far. She’s managed to break a bone a year since 2013. We’re still waiting for this year’s one and I’ve requested that she hold off until her birthday if at all possible. If she can’t manage this I’m planning to take her to St Michael’s anyway and lie my head off.
It seems the only reasonable thing to do.