My grandad taught me to appreciate a smaller world

Our world may have gotten smaller, but you should see it as an invitation to look more closely.

In the years before he died my grandad’s world shrunk. It wasn’t all that big to begin with; he wasn’t one for travelling, never understanding my incessant desire to leave Ireland each time I revealed to him the latest country that I would call home. A creature of habit, he found meaning in the known. Every morning before breakfast he would cycle to the 40 Foot diving point for a swim. He retired early at fifty-five, allowing him the luxury of a morning dip. Before long he was a regular, becoming close friends with his fellow swimmers in the seamless years that followed. During the summers he and my granny would sojourn in Wexford for weeks at a time. The sea was even closer to the chalet than their house in Dublin, and could easily be reached on foot. Even with a change in scenery, my grandad’s precious morning routine remained untouched.

My grandad lived a healthy lifestyle by most benchmarks. He was physically active, ate well, never smoked, and rarely drank. But old age takes no prisoners; eventually, his body began to let him down.

It is amazing how quickly change can arrive, stunning us momentarily and then, with a dawning realisation, alter our lives inexorably. A single visit to a cardiologist was swiftly followed by triple by-pass surgery. Although the operation was medically successful, my grandad never returned to his former health or even close to it.

His body had become a source of mystery. Like a house of horrors at a carnival, it aggravated him in unexpected and perplexing ways. Right up until his death he was plagued by an incessant and stubborn pain in his back that rendered even the slightest movement painful. As the pain progressed, he would find himself overcome by spells of shaking. Endless appointments with a host of specialist consultants yielded no clear medical cause, nor any particularly effective treatments. From painkillers, to patches and lasers, nothing made the slightest dent in the armour of his pain.  

My Grandad where he was happiest

With each new affliction my grandad’s mobility decreased. The world in which he moved became smaller and smaller until all that remained were the four walls of his home and his garden. All his energies became concentrated on his lawn, his vegetable patch and his greenhouse, besides his children and grand-children who were his pride and joy, and his ever loving wife. The rest of the outside world concerned him less and less; it might as well have not existed.

My grandad always tended to his garden with great care, but this duty took on a vocational quality as the outside world became increasingly off limits. He was extremely protective over his small plot of land and guarded it fiercely against intruders, waging battle against slugs, snails, and the next-door neighbour cats. Although outnumbered by the army of garden variety Mollusca who feasted on his leafy greens, they were no match for his dedication. But he would never kill them. Like a loving yet stern father he made daily rounds of his vegetable patch, picking them up with forceps, dropping them in a plastic tray and dispensing them on the green down the road. I like to think the same slugs and snails came back each time, slipping and sliding doggedly down the path under the cloak of night to return to the same patch from which he plucked them, the toing and froing all part of an elaborate, unspoken game between its players.  

Me aged four, posing next to my grandad’s sunflowers

Although only a foursome, the next-door neighbour cats with their wily cunning and nimbleness proved formidable enemies. Undeterred by his seething anger in their presence they would leap over the partitioning wall and defecate on his immaculate lawn. My grandad’s acts of reprisal were contained and peaceful, to begin with. His first defensive strategy was to lay out bottles of water, whose shimmering in the sunlight, according to an old wives’ tale, is said to perturb cats. If caught mid-act the cats would be hosed off the lawn, doubling down on the humiliation of public defecation. Although for all I know, they may not have been embarrassed at all. Perhaps their acts of defecation were intended as the anthropomorphic equivalent of the ‘flaming bag of poop’ prank, and their only regret was getting caught. After all, there was nothing unspoken about this battle; it was all-out war between its adversaries.

When water proved an ineffective deterrent my grandad turned to a more resistant material – steel – and attached a tall wire fencing around the perimeter of his garden, giving the impression from within of being contained inside a fortress. It’s likely my grandad’s efforts only emboldened the furtive felines, for they always returned. Eventually he resorted to installing a device which emitted sound at a frequency only perceptible to cats. Of all his offences it was most successful, but by this stage my grandad was spending increasingly more time indoors due to ill health.

Recalling these memories I find myself marvelling at my grandad’s unparalleled tenacity and focus. Never in my life have I dedicated my energies so fiercely to a single corner of this world, instead preferring to flatten myself like a pancake across the earth’s globe, spreading myself wide and thin as far my resources would allow.

Recently, however, everyone’s world has gotten smaller. Like my grandad, we found ourselves unwillingly confined to our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them, confronted, perhaps for the first time in a real and substantial way, with the vulnerability of our corporeal selves.

Once I let go of the frustration that mired the opening days of lockdown, my attention shifted to the details of my newly magnified surroundings. On one of my countless, looping walks around my estate I noticed for the first time a solitary bench on a nearby green. Had it always been there? I delighted in the colourful and verdant foliage of my neighbours’ gardens, warmed by my appreciation for their green fingers. I became interested in the people that came in and out of nearby houses. Who were they? How were they?

Like my grandad, I now endeavour to spend as much time in my garden as my pinky, Irish complexion and the temperamental Irish weather will allow, setting up a makeshift office in the back garden on sunny days. A wooden chair serves as my desk and like a mystic I squat on a mound of cushions while tapping away at my laptop. During my outdoor yoga sessions I share my mat with crawling ants, taking care to avoid them as I shift from one pose to another with the grace of an elephant. To close a session I lie down and stare at them intently. I observe them carrying the dead bodies of members of their colony, a sanitary measure to stop the spread of infection and disease. It reminds me of the horrific scenes I had seen on the news, depicting countries overwhealmed by dead bodies in the wake of Coronavirus.

A single ant bears the weight of a deceased brethren. One for one. I watch it struggle, pause, and continue on for the good of the colony.

Life under lockdown: I’m finding it harder to accommodate my affinity towards darker genres of music and film

The dance of death: the careless and the careful by Thomas Rowlandson

At the beginning of isolation the bad days came once a week. They were tinged with a melancholy that, beholden in the right light, had the romantic quality of a Shakespearian play. On one or two particularly melodramatic occasions I even shed a few tears, luxuriating in its cathartic after-effect while shamelessly pity-texting a friend pining for sympathy.

“I hope this email finds you well during these strange and challenging times.”

When I first began using this email greeting, which has replaced standard emailing etiquette across the board, I meant each word wholeheartedly. I truly did hope the email found them well. But like many of the recent changes and upheavals in our daily lives, the things that once felt significant can lose their meaning quickly.

In recent weeks my intermittent sadness has given way to numbness and fatigue. The daily doomsday announcement, which I once tracked religiously, is barely afforded a passing glance. Like many of us I was a fervent amateur epidemiologist at the outset of the pandemic, but the endless debates about lockdown exit strategies that weasel their way into every single conversation are beginning to grate.

As of late I’ve noticed that the bad days are coming fast and steady, their recovery periods longer. One bad day spills into two, then three. The novelty of the early days helped absorb the sting of overwhealming loss, but as time crawls on, the sacrifices demanded of us have become harder rather than easier to bear.

My threshold to tolerate human suffering, real or fictionalised, indigenous or exogenous, is diminishing, making it harder to accommodate my affinity towards darker genres of music and films. I had to watch ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ in two sittings to get through the whole thing, which is unlike me, and there have been days where my staple diet of heavy techno has felt too crushing, as though my body, feeling waif-like had to physically receive the impact of the pummelling beats.

I’m not the only one feeling too raw to enjoy dystopian commentary on the fuckuppery that has defined the 20th century. Black Mirror series creator Charlie Brooker has returned to writing comic scripts “aimed at making myself laugh”, claiming he doesn’t think there is much appetite for a new series at the moment.

Like Brooker, I am revisiting artefacts from happier times to help me get through the present tense.

I have found myself gravitating towards uplifting and over-produced pop classics reminiscent of more innocent periods in my life; their plastic, shiny texture feels safe and sanitised, the banality of the lyrics a welcome respite from the all the doom and gloom. Prince, Kyle Minogue, and Britney have all had a look in, but Robyn is the Swedish goddess whose syrupy lyrics and bubbly synths have been my saving grace. At my lowest ebb I played Rebecca Black’s infamous song ‘Friday’, which also served as a handy reminder of which order the days of the fall (and also mostly because Vice made a mini-doc about her infamous rise to fame).

This retroaction of music appreciation has proved a tried and tested coping mechanism during periods of distress throughout my life. I select a song, usually a girlhood pop favourite, and play it obsessively on loop, its repetition simulating a synthetic predictability that counters the loss of control defining reality. I have recently complied these songs into a Spotify playlist, which I have labelled ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in case it should one day be discovered.

For those of us who have been lucky enough to escape loss of employment, illness or the death of a loved one, although we may be growing stagnant through sensory-deprivation, at times it can feel difficult to rationalise that we are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. Confined to the familiar domestic setting of our own homes inventing endless chores to distract ourselves, the carnage and devastation typically associated with a crisis is happening elsewhere, quite literally out there.  I imagine what it will be like recounting my personal experience to future generations: ‘It was awful, a huge tragedy. I worked from home, couldn’t see my friends or get laid, and basked in the sunshine reading books.’

When the low points do come, (as one friend aptly put it, “Most days are grand, but some days you wake up and feel like you’re in the middle of a pandemic”), I try to remember the frontline healthcare workers. They have borne the brunt of the suffering while tirelessly performing their duties; the first-person stories they tell their grandchildren will be harrowing.  

Annals of Medicine – ‘Are you married?’

I must have struck an odd figure, a flat-bellied, white girl sitting alone amongst the pregnant Indian ladies and their husbands. Their bellies came in all shapes and sizes, some modest bumps, others round like melons. The woman sitting to my left had a belly swollen to the size of a beach ball. I thought about the little human she had growing inside of her, extending itself, taking up space in this world but insulated from the worst of its suffering.

I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my life time. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.

I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my life time. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.

Like these women I was waiting for a sonograph. Unlike these women I was (to the best of my knowledge) without child. It was precisely this decision, to remain childless, that brought me here. A year and a half previously I had an IUD inserted. This T-shaped, hormone laden piece of plastic shoved up my cervix was my ticket to pregnancy-free sex for five years, by which time I would be thirty. It was my golden ticket to sexual liberation. No more fumbling with daily alarms. No more pill popping. No more anxious waiting for periods. In fact, no more periods at all.

But even this miraculous invention came with baggage and irregular bleeding brought me to the hospital.

Quizzing me about my medical history, the junior gynecologist asked me why I had gotten the IUD inserted. She was young, just a few years older than me I guessed. Contraception I answered, although I thought the answer was obvious. Nothing to do with periods, she probed, visibly dissatisfied with my answer. Nope, I replied, resolutely.

An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that develops on a woman’s ovary.

Was I married? Also, no.

She repeated her earlier question, What was the purpose of my IUD? Contraception, I answered again, knowing full well it was not the answer she wanted to hear.

Her lips pursed.

Are you sexually active?

Obvious questions would receive obvious answers.

I took my underwear off and lay down on the examination table, knees bent, legs spread, and for the first time that day a foreign object entered me, opening me up. The sensation of a foreign object entering me not for the purpose of my own pleasure is one that I decidedly do not enjoy. I tensed involuntarily, making things worse. The doctor told me to relax so I decided to go to my happy place. I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating in the sea surrounded by mountains. The world was blurry, refracted through the shimmering layers of water. I was the foetus, insulated, enveloped, suspended, protected by Mother Earth.

Then came my turn for the ultrasound. I hiked my dress up to above my waist and the assistant fitted a sheet over my bottom half. The gesture was disarmingly tender and I felt safe and taken care of, like a young child being tucked into bed by a parent. The radiographer squeezed lukewarm gel on my belly and rocked the probe back and forth over my stomach. This was a scene I watched on tv countless times. I imagined how exciting yet anxiety ridden this moment must be for expectant mothers. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, given the circumstances. The radiographer stared at my empty womb on the screen and I stared at her face, examining her facial movements for clues.

Another more senior radiographer arrived and together they peered at the screen, muttering between themselves. A swirl of uninvited thoughts and emotions filled my head. I knew it was probably nothing, but in the no man’s land of ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’ my mind likes to tease out the worst possible scenarios. Just that week I had heard about a girl had continuous periods and then it turned out she had cancer. Then words I recognized were directed towards me: ‘ovarian cyst’. I latched onto them, pulling myself back onto safe, familiar territory.

A vaginal probe was the next step but first I had to pass urine. I went to the bathroom and sitting on the edge of the toilet seat and typed ‘ovarian cyst’ into google: “Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets in an ovary or on its surface.” An image showed a pink ovary with a bulbous, bloated mass pushing angrily from its top.

“Very common”, was printed underneath.

I returned to the sonography room and resumed the now accustomed position. Sensing my tension the radiographer told me to relax as she held the long, thin probe next to her head. “Easy for you to say”, I laughed in reply. For the second time that day a foreign object was inserted between my legs. Holding my breath and then breathing deeply, I thought about immersing myself in deep water bodies surrounded by tall mountains as it pushed its way further and further inside me. I was more relaxed and unclenching this time was easier. The probe was wriggled around inside me, left, right, up, down, the radiographer’s arm between my legs, her eyes staring unblinking at the screen ahead of her.

The senior radiographer’s turn was next. More wiggling, more prodding; more peering, more deep breathing. And like that it was over. With a practised flourish the probe was slid out and I was handed a stack of tissues to wipe myself off. Once clean, I put my underwear back on, a black thong from Penny’s that has seen better days. My report would be ready that afternoon the senior radiographer informed me and without so much of a goodbye she was gone.

The next day I returned to collect my results, which were handed to me in a big white envelope bearing my name. Inside it was a piece of card, with seven black and white pictures affixed by a sheet of sticky plastic. I turned it over in my hands examining the images carefully, not able to make much sense of what I was looking at. Looking at your ultrasound images for the first time is usually a pertinent moment in a woman’s life, one which I had expected to encounter under different circumstances. There was a family waiting beside me, which I guessed to be made up of grandmother, mother, sister and baby. I realised that anyone watching me would assume I was staring at my future baby, and not at a 3.7 cm clear cyst on my right overy as the accompanying report had indicated. I wondered what it must be like to stare at the image of your baby inside you, within you, yet still out of reach. I wondered what it must be like to lose a baby after seeing it alive like that.

The mother and her baby and I were left alone on the bench. It was time for me to leave so I stood up and started packing, returning the images to their abnormally large envelope. As I started off the woman said something to me in Hindi or Marathi, I wasn’t sure which. I didn’t understand and stared helplessly while she repeated the sentence. I couldn’t tell if she was communicating something profound or mundane. Was this a gesture of tenderness on her behalf, having sensed a loneliness in my stolen glances? I felt a discomfort which bordered on guilt, as though I had been caught out doing something I shouldn’t in a place I shouldn’t be, my incomprehension of her words proving my culpability. All I could do was return her gaze with an apologetic shrug, half-smiling, half-wincing, and walk away.

Ireland’s Abortion Referendum and Its Inconvenient Truths

Nothing in life is black and white. No one is ever completely wrong or completely right. So when we choose between people, between sides, always and inevitably, a loss is incurred.

The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and remove the legal barrier against abortion takes an issue of immense complexity and reduces it to a yes or no answer. It has taken place within the public forum, pitting one grass-roots movement against the other. Battle lines were drawn. Adversaries were marked. The voting decisions of the Irish public were the spoils of war. Persuading others to also pick your side is a always a tricky business, one that requires certainty and conviction to keep the facts afloat. But matters of public morality elicit the resolute stubbornness of a crusade, a vertiginous unassailability that elevates its ideological underpinnings to biblical heights.

The pro-choice and the pro-life movement carved their memoranda on stone and handed it out to their cheering followers, but in doing so they deprived themselves of the ability to accommodate views that did not mirror their own. Turning a moral issue political leads to such polarization, compounded further by the media-circus documenting the entire affair. The single-mindedness campaigning strategy of both groups conducted their campaign may have been politically astute, but with such rigidity it becomes hard to appraise one’s own actions and ideology honestly. The hostility and vilification that ensued created such a tense atmosphere that empathising with the opposition become a mammoth task.

Moral debates are rarely black and white, but we have made the false binary of the ballot papers our reality.

Language, Images, Numbers and Truth

Since its conception, the Irish abortion debate has inhabited two opposing ends of a spectrum; the mother on one side, unborn on the other. Split and divided, a separation impossible in nature. Together the pro-life and the pro-choice movements have engineered this divide with the many tools at their disposal: stories, emotions, history, rhetoric, words, images, art, facts, statistics, the vast world of science. Those which favour their own agenda are selected and isolated, the rest shed, cast aside, wilfully ignored.

That which is a “baby” or an “unborn child” to one side of the debate is a “zygote”, a “foetus” or an “embryo” to the other. One side employs terms like “beating heart”, “saving lives”, “protecting humanity” while the other side talks about “bodily autonomy”, “self-determination” and “empowering women”. Both wear the mantle of preserving human rights. “Support her, don’t export her”, echoes on both sides of the divide. Amongst the publicly broadcasted vitriol, sparring matches and creative wordplay, one sometimes needs to be reminded that both campaigns are referring to the same physical phenomenon of pregnancy. The pro-choice movement have chosen to co-opt the vernacular of scientists. Pregnancy is viewed through the clinical lens of medicine, a condition with a symptom that can be treated and cured. Pro-lifers talk about the miracle of life. Emotive language hijacks the maternal and paternal tenderness inspired by a new-born. Abortion is equated with murder.

The image of the foetus is the greatest weapon in the artillery of pro-lifers. They point towards its human features to remind us of our own identical beginning, drawing upon non-existent memories. It reminds me of those jelly aliens toys we had as children, embalmed in gloop and enclosed in a plastic egg. But they fail to elicit from this a higher principle of a right to life. What do tiny fingers tell us about personhood? What do tiny fingers tells us about the ability to feel pain or sorrow or less, or even the ability to register and comprehend one’s own death? What do tiny fingers tell us about the right to have one’s life protected above the bodily autonomy of another?

How does this foetal image, plastered across the length and breadth of our country, help us to find answers to the philosophical and ethical questions about the beginning of consciousness? The meaning an images conveys is never limited to its contents alone, which functions symbolically to point us towards something further. This distant and abstracted thing rises silently from the depths of the image, meets the surface of our mind, transacts, transfers, then plunges deep once again. A silent and algorithmic fusing of knowledge and emotion. Caught unawares, we are highly susceptible to manipulation. A constant state of critical hyper-vigilance must be maintained if we are to retain mastery of our own mind, authorship of our own opinion.

On the LoveBoth website, a cartoon strip documents the progression of the unborn from conception right up until the day it is born. The unborn is painted with a smiling face and rosy cheeks, frolicking and cavorting across the screen as it coos goo-eyed at its parents. The unborn is imbued with a voice, self-awareness and a fabricated personal identity as it reports to its mummy and daddy the changes that it is undergoing. “Mark the calendar — I can’t wait to see, Mammy!”, it exclaims.

When the facts are sterile, diffuse them with whimsical fiction to pull at the heartstrings.

Where there is no voice, supplant it with your own and mute the Other.

For the longest time the profusion of Irish abortion stories that accrued over decades were denied the light of day because it made the lies will liked to tell ourselves easier to believe. When the repeal campaign began, for the first time women in Ireland were given permission to speak. Once the floodgates were opened the stories poured out. In these stories the mother was cast as leading role. A developed and intelligent being with the capacity to think, to feel, and to articulate. A voice that speaks for itself.

In Ireland’s public sphere two opposing narratives run side by side; never touching, never interacting, a single protagonist the focus of attention. Choose a side. Choose a perspective. Choose the facts that work in you favour and overlook those that don’t. Shift the emphasis. Tell the truth, but only the useful bits. This is how people are convinced. This is how campaigns are won.

Inconvenient Truths

A crisis pregnancy is an inconvenient truth, the beginning of a chain of inconvenient truths from which many more spring. As much as we may loath these truths they will not disappear on their own, hence the inconvenience. Whether we speak of them or not, they exist and persist, they duplicate and they multiply, they fester if ignored. Both the pro-life and pro-choice groups have been indulging the ignorance of inconvenient truths when it is at odds with their campaign strategy. Here are some truths they have sought to avoid:

Pro-Life

  • It is an inconvenient truth that by choosing to save the unborn, the physical and mental health of Irish woman is jeopardized.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that by prioritizing the life of the unborn over the mother, Irish women are denied their bodily autonomy.
  • It is an inconvenient truth by that the 8th Amendment disproportionately affects the disabled community, migrant women and the lower social strata of Irish society.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that Irish women who travel to England to procure an abortion will not receive adequate health care.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that even though abortion is illegal in Ireland, 12 women in Ireland have an abortion anyway.

Pro-Choice

  • It is an inconvenient truth that by ending an unplanned pregnancy you are ending another human life.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that the provision of abortion services might disproportionately be used against those with disabilities.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some women regret their abortions.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some men who want to be a father will have their unborn child aborted.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that abortion services may be used by mother’s who want their child, but can’t afford it.

Unpalatable. Unsavoury. Inconvenient. The solution to a crisis often is. The undecided middle are all too aware of the inconvenient truths that are absent in the Yes and No campaign. They remain undecided, sceptical and unconvinced.

Coming To Terms

When I first started learning about abortion, it was described to me as a procedure that terminated pregnancy and would end the life of my baby.

Baby.

A word with pleasant associations. A salty-sweet smell. A tiny fist grasping one long finger. Pure innocence. Death. Baby. Death. Baby. Words that do not look or sound good together. Words that do not belong together. I was terrified of becoming pregnant long before I lost virginity. This is the legacy of the Catholic Church and Ireland’s education system. The fear of pregnancy, even at a distance, prevented me from ever judging someone for having an abortion. But could I carry out one myself? Could I bring myself to kill a baby? My baby? As long as the conversation involved the word ‘baby’, abortion was going to be a guilt-laden affair.

But that was the point after all, wasn’t it? With England only a ferry or a plane ride away they couldn’t outlaw abortion completely, but they sure as hell could fill us with regret and shame till we rotted from the inside. Until a non-Irish friend of mine had an abortion it never occurred to me that this was a decision that could be made easily. By easy I do not imply that it was a light or casual affair. By easy I mean it was a comfortable decision that was not wrought with guilt or shame, and didn’t require a plane ticket.

A guilt free abortion? This was something new and strange. To an Irish woman, this was something radical. Around the same time the Repeal movement was really kicking off and for the first time in my shortish life I was invited to consider this possibility on Irish soil. The impact the incorporation of abortion services into Ireland’s health services would have should not be understated. Women in Ireland were supposed to travel for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to pay for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to be denied medical aftercare. Women in Ireland weren’t supposed to have abortions at all, but if they did, it would be the Catholic way, secret and alone, shamed by society. Up until recently this is what abortion meant to me; I may have long since renounced the Catholic Church but I was only beginning to grasp the extent to which its ideologies still coloured my worldview.

Reckoning with abortion’s terminating human life was still an aspect of abortion that tripped me up so I turned to science to fill in the gaps. Embryo. Foetus. Zygote. I said these words and thought of a goo-ey alien in its plastic egg belonging to my childhood. Words without association. Clean. Hard. Rough. Unhuman. Clinical. Medical. These words belonged in the mouths of doctors. Shapeless and faceless in their white coats and surgical masks, always male in my mind’s eye. I could say these words and feel nothing.

Battle on the Homefront

The repeal movement was a contentious topic in my household, particularly between my pro-life mother and me. On the surface we argued about politics, knowing however that one other’s emotion ran deep. We disagreed on every single point there was to discuss. Eventually I vetoed it as a conversation topic for the sake of peace. When friends came over our chats inevitably drifted to abortion and the repeal campaign. They were always firmly on my side and my mum would find herself outnumbered.

One such typical Sunday morning spent moralising abortion, my friend and I left my mum at home while we went to fetch a coffee. An hour later I returned alone to find my mother in the kitchen in the exact same spot we had left her, hunched over an ironing board and visibly upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me the conversation we had earlier had upset her. I was filled with remorse. The hurt that pro-life supporters might be feeling was not something I had dwelled on much, prevented by my indignant anger. I said nothing except to offer her a hug and wrap my arms around her.

My belief that appealing the 8th amendment is right and correct course of action is unwavering. As the tragic stories of Irish women poured out, stories which they had held on tightly to for years, my conviction that I was right and she was wrong became evermore steadfast. I had grown righteous. I had a wealth of facts and stories and letters of the alphabet to hand. I had thousands of my peers agreeing me. I had stopped listening to her arguments (if I ever listened to begin with), instead waiting for an interlude and an opportunity to hear my own voice. It was time to start listening again, not to change my mind but to acknowledge my mum’s perspective. Suddenly it was important to me that she felt heard and understood.

There are many troubling ideologies buoying the No campaign, but they do hold one fundamental belief that is untainted: all human life is precious and deserves the right to live, no matter how fleeting or tenuous. Taken on its own, it is a pure intention. Talking to my mother forced me to confront the inconvenient truths of the pro-choice position, and critically examine my decision to push against the natural instinct to preserve human life. This was something I had to admit silently to myself. I understood the nuances between the different stages of life. I had weighed the conflicting interests of mother and unborn. I accepted the loss, without guilt or shame. I will cast my vote to repeal the 8th amendment appreciating all its consequences. Somewhere along the line we forgot to seek the humanity in one another’s arguments, opting to build straw men out of one another’s arguments.

May 26th will bring winners and losers, a victory and loss that will be black and white. But let us not forget we live in a world of grey.

Failure to Launch Part III: The Follow-Up

Karen and Geraldine during Geraldine’s visit to India

Last week’s series of ‘Failure to Launch’ showcased Karen and her mother Geraldine, who shared their experiences living together in South Dublin while Karen worked in a law firm. Since then Karen has been living in India for a year and a half, completing a fellowship at Ashoka University and training as a meditation coach while living in an Ashram. With the passing of distance and time this week’s follow-up interview is one of reflection and recognition between mother and daughter, and a rumination of the quality of life for Ireland’s younger generations.

Karen:

1. Looking back at the answers you gave last year, has much changed? Would you answer the questions differently today?

I couldn’t remember reading the answers what the questions were and what my responses had been. But in general I can hear my own voice running through them and my answers stay the same mainly because I think my answers are very reflective of the Dublin housing market at that time and I don’t think that the Dublin housing market has changed. If I’m to believe the news it looks like it has worsened. So I stand by my answers so far. 

2. What do you think about your mother’s answers? Did any of them surprise you?

Well obviously I think my mother’s answers were very prophetic. I think especially the line where she says that she’s going to India and India will hopefully be an awakening for her, and maybe a change in mindset and a change in career direction – that all has happened. I probably didn’t give my mum enough credit for how in tune she was with how I was feeling at the time because I think she managed to put into words the deep distraction or discomfort that I was feeling in myself. I wasn’t entirely aware of those forces at work or how I was feeling but she’s managed to really grab hold of that and articulate it. 

3. Before you went to India your mother said that you seemed troubled and unsettled and that she hoped the experience would be an awakening. Did her wish come true?

The wish has come true. She saw into a crystal ball! [laughing]. The wish has come true, as in, again she was spot on about me feeling troubled in Ireland but I don’t think I really understood how much so until I started meditating in India and that has really lead to a whole evolution of consciousness. And obviously the experience in India has given me a lot more exposure to different fields so I started to question whether I really wanted to go into law. Even that questioning itself has just been so beneficial. Because a lot of us don’t really have that space or the time to question, we’re just fed into what we think is the path post college. So I’m grateful for that. So overall, yeah, I do think it was pretty prophetic. 

4. How did it affect your relationship with your mother, the fact that you lived on the other side of the world for a whole year?

I’m quite bad at keeping in touch with family so I work mostly off sending WhatsApp messages every so often. Even because we’re four and a half hours ahead here and my schedule is so packed, I do find it quite difficult to take phone calls. I’ll voice record for friends; I won’t necessarily do it for my mother, but she’s quite insistent with her WhatsApp messages. She sends me probably a message every day if not every second day, saying ‘Hello India xx’. So she makes me feel like I’m the spokesperson of India, which is kind of cute. So we’ll keep in contact that way and she’s coming next week to visit, so that will be really nice. It will be her first time to India. I’ve managed to convince her that she can come and it will be ok, and that she’ll have a nice time here. And this will be the first time she’ll have come so far away from the European continent. 

5. Rent prices in Ireland have reached an all-time high at an average of €1,304 a month* which is 26% higher than the peak during the Celtic Tiger. Can you see yourself living in Ireland again and how do you think you’ll afford it?

I have no idea how I’ll afford it. It is something that plays on my mind a lot. If I was to go back to Ireland I would need a buffer period for at least six months where I worked and saved up enough to be able to put the deposit on an apartment or something, plus one month’s rent. At the moment I just don’t see how my life would be sustainable in Ireland because for me to live anywhere, you’d have to be on such a high salary for you to be able to live anywhere central in Dublin. I still stand by my word that I’m not going near the outskirts to the likes of Meath and I’m not commuting. So it does narrow down your options. I know that with my mum she said to Stan**, whose just come back from Canada, multiple times, that he need to consider moving out soon. Stan owes my mum some money from Canada and only once he pays that back, then can he move out. But even him and his friends are looking at places and the rent is just astronomical. So it is something I’m bearing in mind, it is something I will have to consider when making future decisions about what country I will be employed in.

*According to figures at the time of the interview

**Karen’s brother

6. Like much of our generation you have spent a considerable amount of time living abroad since graduating. What were your motivations for leaving each time and how has this changed your relationship with Ireland?

Probably while my initial reason in third year of college was because it was part of my university degree to move to Paris, my motivation to come back to Paris after I completed my degree is primarily because my partner lived there and I wanted to work for a year before pursuing further education. My reason to move to India was again to pursue further education. I do think that travel really broadens your horizons. I think it’s really important to interact with difference societies and cultures and all of this. So my reason for going to India was also to experience the culture there. And my reason for staying in India was because I found another programme that I wanted to pursue. None of the experiences that I am having here are available in Ireland. The quality of education isn’t there. Certain areas that I’m pursuing wouldn’t be as strong or developed as they are here.

I do miss Ireland in many respects and I do think Ireland is a great place. Especially if we take about our freedoms that we have in Ireland as opposed to India – that does play on my mind a lot. In Ireland women are a lot more free to wear what they want, to marry or not marry when they want. Although gender equality isn’t there yet, it is maybe more of a conversation than it is here. But similarly I do feel a disillusionment with Ireland. I see my generation of people, I hear so much about the housing crisis. It dominates the news and there are several protests where it was college students coming out on the streets and middle class people who were coming out on the street saying that we can’t afford accommodation and leaving. It is something that Ireland really needs to address. That and also healthcare. I was away when all the cervical smear scandals hit the news and the cover-ups. But similarly I was away when repeal the 8th happened. I was in a hospital bed and I was just so proud of my country, so immensely proud. There’s always a dichotomy there, between feelings of love and feelings of, ‘get your shit together’, you’re better than this. 

7. Just looking back over what you said, what your mother said – what are your general thoughts about the interview?

My general thoughts are that I didn’t realise how much my mum is a deep feeler, and how much empathy she must have to be able to read her children with that much detail. And also I just think its really funny. I always knew that she is liberal but there are some things that she wouldn’t really accept that much. I think that really comes through in her interview where she says, ‘everyone is welcome, partners are welcome and I have to adjust to these new morals.’ I think her comment about the fact we live in a disposable culture where people change partners quite rapidly, I think that’s actually a very concise observation about the era that we live in. We do like in a consumerist culture where people just chop and change, people think other people are disposable and you can treat them as such. She had these interesting inter-generational insights. With mine, I think it was just very matter of fact.

Karen and Geraldine together in India

Geraldine:

1.  Looking back at the answers you gave this time last year, would you answer the questions differently than you did today?

Well that’s a very hard question to answer now because she moved to India in July 2017, so I haven’t had the one-on-one experience with her coming since other than her coming home for one week in July of this year. I found a completely different person came home than who went to India. I definitely noticed a big change in Karen, huge.

2. What did you think of Karen’s answers? Did any of them surprise you?

No none of them surprise me because interestingly enough, although we may have had, I wouldn’t have called it fights, we were able to have open dialogue together. So anything that she has said in her answers she has said to my face. And anything I said in my answers, I had also said to her face. I think when she looks back on mature reflection as you could call it on some of her answers, I think she’ll realise that they were coming from a more selfish and indulgent side of it. I’d say she’d have a completely different attitude now.

Of course I wouldn’t want her bringing home strangers to my home and having them there in my house, and not knowing any of their history or anything like that. And that is where the dilemma always arose as to living under the roof with your mother and not having your own place to live. But its dangerous out there. I just think you generation just have so many more multiple relationships, jump into sexual relationships very quickly, and exposing yourself to an awful lot of danger. 

3. Before Karen went to India you said she seemed troubled and unsettled, and you hoped the experienced would be an awakening. Do you think her wish came true?

Absolutely, in its entirety it has come true. She has lived in India for a year with students whose parents have pushed themselves to the Nth degree to make it affordable for their children to get the experiences of Ashoka University. She has stripped back all the layers of materialism that we take for granted over here, and she can now live a much more humble and frugal life and find that far more fulfilling than the life she ever lived over here. 

4. How did it affect your relationship with Karen, the fact that you lived on the other side of the world for a whole year?

We’ve kept in touch regularly, Whatsapped daily, if not certainly every second day, third day. We try and touch base on the phone once a fortnight, once every three weeks. I’m not usually hung up on that, we don’t do Skype, we just ring on Whatsapp and have a good long chat. When she’s have a period where maybe she’s travelled or she’s done something, she’ll ring back, she’ll tell me all of what she has done and I’ll tell her what’s happened on this side. I think this bond has strengthened because with a lot of this meditation and heartfulness of what Karen is doing comes a lot of reflection. And therefore she has a lot of time to reflect on her own life. I think she has tapered her anger and tapered things that were bothering her, she’s managing to unravel. She’s certainly reached the level of contentment that I don’t even think she expected to reach. 

5. Rent prices in Ireland have reached an all-time high at an average of €1,304 a month*, 26% times higher than it was during the Celtic Tiger. Do you think Karen will live in Ireland again and how do you think she’ll be able to afford it?

I don’t think Karen will live in Ireland again. I don’t think she’ll settle in Ireland. She may have to come back for a transition period, but with the studying that she’s done over in India and the meditation that she is doing currently, she has also had a lot of time to reflect on a career plan and is trying to bring that into fruition with further study in China with a view to going down the international relations, diplomatic core, foreign affairs, which I think will be right up her street. I’m so happy to see her out of the field of law, solicitors and barrister, where its just dog eat dog. I don’t think it was ever going to float her boat, it would just have frustrated her. I think she’s probably on a trajectory now that she’s happy with and she’s doing all the right things to make that come to fruition. 

*According to figures at the time of the interview

6. How do you feel about the fact that Karen, like many of her generation, have to leave Ireland in search of better opportunities and economic security amongst other reasons. 

I personally think its fantastic. I have been a traveller myself all my life, from the age of nineteen I was heading off to the continent and we didn’t have any money. We were in a generation where it was safer. You took ferries, got lifts from truck drivers to your destination – that is unheard of in this day and age. If you got into financial trouble we couldn’t ring our parents, there’d be absolutely no question of them sending us money or anything. You found a job no matter how menial until you got your couple of ha’penny together and you got by. It’s amazing how you got by. And therefore when it came to earning money and saving money, we were probably very good at it because from the age of nineteen, twenty, when I was in college I got a strict budget. I got a budget that I had to live on. If that budget was gone, that was tough. Ireland has definitely become prohibitive for any youngster whose trying to climb on the property ladder now.

I don’t think it’s such a great country to live in at the moment. There isn’t an awful lot of prospects out there for youngsters. I haven’t met any of your generation whose happy and content with their lot and kind of going, gosh yeah my life is great. Everybody seems to be looking towards the next step of what he or she is going to do and how they’re going to move on a little bit. The big concern here is how they’re going to afford to buy. You’d get a mortgage for what people are paying in rent at the moment, and yet there’s such a shortage of property. It’s such a Catch-22. I wouldn’t be signing up for that if I were you. I’m not a needy mother where I have to have my children here. I’ve always said to them, and I think they’ll agree, ‘Go. Go and do. Enjoy the world. It’s a big place out there.’ There’s nothing like travel to broaden the mind.

7. Overall, what are your impressions of the interviews having read them back?

Obviously they’re very though provoking. I think Karen and I both answered them very honestly. I think when she reads back over her answers, she’ll laugh. I laughed! Her responses were so, oh how would I describe it, they’re just so juvenile in many ways. Don’t take offence Karen about that. [laughing] They were just silly. ‘Oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ Her standard of hygiene. I would be the least clean person. My house is certainly far from pristine. If you’re having friends in and they’re spilling drink all over the floor, I’m not cleaning it up. I think she would be exactly the same. It’s a very funny thing to look back on, the two of us when we were both living in the house together, and now that we’ve been apart. When she came home for the week in July, and I said it to her, a completely different person came back. Much calmer, more reflective. I just find she listens so much more. She wasn’t jumping in with her opinion all the time, telling me it was like this. She was far more at peace with herself and able to listen to a conversation and here what you’re saying and take it on board. Not always being the aggressor and trying to get one up or anything. She was so calm and so happy in herself. It was fantastic to see her like that. 

Karen and Geraldine during Geraldine’s visit 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Failure to Launch Part II: Living at Home

Karen and Geraldine on holidays in Romania in 2017

In part two of ‘Failure to Launch’ I chatted with Karen and her mother Geraldine, who spent six months living together in their family home in South County Dublin when Karen was twenty three. The conversations took place a year and a half ago, when Karen was preparing to move to India for a fellowship and contemplating a career as a barrister. In this revealing and insightful interview we talk money, fears of the future, and the difficulties having sex when you still live at home. Karen continues to live in India, where she is living in an Ashram and training as a meditation coach. Next week’s piece will see Karen and Geraldine reflect on their own and each others answers one year on, having spent twelve months living on other sides of the world.

Karen:

1. How do you find living with you mum in your family home at the age of 24? 

Living with my mum can be very difficult. I think that she had a newfound independence post the separation with my father. She has really reclaimed her home and reclaimed her life, and doesn’t really want adult children hanging out of her hair. That said, she has been incredibly accommodating for me moving back after living in Paris. We do clash on occasion as we have very strong characters. Just in terms of the general set up, I pay €200 rent a month to my mother and that’s just a kind of general contribution towards food and stuff. I don’t but any groceries – she buys them all, she fills the fridge. The trade off would be that I try to do some chores, although she tells me that I don’t do enough. Generally it’s reasonably harmonious, well, in recent months it has been. The only thing I find is there is an expectation with my mother to spend time with her and contribute towards the general family atmosphere and I find that I am too busy to do so.  

2. Do you worry about money?

Yes I do still worry about money, even though I know I’m only making a slight contribution. €200 is minimal compared to what I would be paying if I was paying Dublin rent elsewhere. I do worry about money because obviously I’m saving up towards a masters and I do have to make payments towards that. Living costs can be quite high, and if you’re having any kind of social life that can really rack up. That said, if my money stopped tomorrow all my basic amenities are covered. I’ll always have food and there will always be food on the table. I cycle most places. I generally just need money towards my masters and going out and other necessities. 

3. When you think you’ll own your own home?

Never, never [laughing]. Realistically, considering the line of work I’ll be going into, unless I have a partner I will not be able to afford my own home, not in Dublin. If a mortgage saw [my line of work] they might think I am a risk and I don’t think I would be getting a mortgage on sole income. So I would have to be on a dual income with a partner, and then again I don’t think I would be earning enough to live in central Dublin or even suburban Dublin. I don’t want to commute, I don’t think that’s a quality of life, so I’m not willing to go to the outskirts of Dublin or to stay somewhere like Meath. So that only leaves me with one option, that’s to buy elsewhere and live in a different country. And not until I’m probably at least 33. 

How do you feel about that prospect? Are you scared?

I guess because I feel like everyone is in the same boat I don’t there are many people who have that steady pensionable income jobs. A lot of people are living in jobs that are transitional or transient and are looking at the prospect of maybe having several jobs. There’s not really that same road to success or even progression through the hierarchy that there was historically. So it doesn’t really bother me now, but I’d say it might when I hit late twenties and really start to access the situation it, especially in terms of putting a deposit on a house. There are a lot of people’s parents who will help them out with that but if you’re not helped out where does that leave you? You’re looking at a shitty first home to buy, and I’m not willing to do that. If I’m buying a home I want it to be a home that I really love. I don’t really have the skills to buy a shitty home, do it up, and then resell and then buy a nice home. I don’t have the skills for that and I don’t have the energy.

4. Do you feel like your sex life, dating life and social life is affected by your living situation? 

Absolutely, absolutely. In dating life, if you’re dating someone initially it’s not usually a big issue that you’re living at home. But once you cross that boundary and want to go into a sexual relationship, if both of you are living at home, especially in my home, it is out of the question for me to bring somebody home. It’s not even that my mum is not liberal. She is liberal and she would not mind that I’m having a sex life, I think she understands that it’s just a natural part of the age and stage at which I’m at. Its more the fact that she hasn’t verified this person, and she is so worried that I could bring someone home that could potentially rob something from the house. That’s her main concern. She doesn’t care about the sex life but she doesn’t want me bringing strays off the street and then them robbing her. It’s her home as well. There has to be a little bit of respect in terms of the people you bring here.

In terms of social life as well, equally so. She doesn’t mind me having a couple of friends over for drinks or whatever, so long as I tidy the place afterwards. And by tidy I mean spick and span. It is something that I find I have to raise quite early in terms of dating relationship. You’re looking at the person, and if the other person says “I also live at home”, both of you are like, “Fuck”. You wonder, “God, what are we going to do?” Realistically people are going to have sex regardless of whether they live at home or not, so you have to find other avenues of having sex. And the only other avenues really is to be that horny teenage couple in the park, or to rent a hotel. You miss out on nice things like making dinner together, or “Netflix and chill”, and general hangout time. It becomes very like a courtship, and then very seedy if you have to go the hotel route as well. 

5. Do you feel like your generation comes under fire for you lifestyle choices and spending habits?

I feel there’s a general perception of our generation that we’re selfish, that we’re very much in pursuit of our own happiness. That we are unwilling to put our heads down and do the hard work to actually get those jobs and stay in them, to do the graft and then get the home. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. To a degree the employment life or the work life has shifted. I don’t think those jobs are really in effect anymore, they’re not out there for us anymore. I do find that maybe just looking at our generation, we went through the recession, we saw the hard times, and we went through the boom. I do think to a degree that curbed how frivolous and how out-there we were previously. But there aren’t many of my friends that I would think are good with their money, spend their money well, and know how to save. I would say that I don’t know how to save whereas I think my parents are very good savers. I don’t know where they went wrong on that, or where I didn’t pick that up, but maybe when you see to a degree the amount of work that has to go in behind getting a house, owning a house, paying off a mortgage, sometimes you just look at the outcome and think, “That’s not something I want, that’s not something I’m willing to do.” And I think that’s ok as well. 

6. What is the best and worst part of living with your mum?

The best thing I’d say is to always have a backup there at home. When you live abroad or out of home, you do feel like everything falls on your shoulders and you have to be very independent. Whereas it is nice, especially if you have a mind-block or if you’re anxious about something, to go home and discuss with someone like my mother in person, to get her life experience and her opinion on something. Sometimes she talks absolute shite and doesn’t help me at all, but oftentimes even having that conversation will make you reflect differently on the issue and then you can move forward with it. The worst thing is definitely not having that space to invite people over, or make people dinner without having that anxiety of having to clean up. Or, are we using the correct glasses, or if something smashes WWIII is going to break out. Having that element of clean up directly after to her standard, I think that’s the worst thing.

Karen and Geraldine in 2015 celebrating the end of her law exams

Geraldine

  1. How do you find sharing the family home with your adult child?

Karen has only moved back home in the last six months and it has been a challenging time. She has lived outside of the home for the best part of three years. Two assertive women, two opinionated women, two strong women; it required an adjustment period and a lot of negotiation on both our parts. I find it challenging because I’m separated, her father and I don’t live together and that brings its own challenges. She sometimes feels that she needs to go to him if things aren’t going her way in the house, which I don’t agree with. It’s now my house; she lives here under my terms and conditions. Karen is very independent and likes to come and go when she pleases and having lived away, finds it very hard to adjust to living in a family home and “my house, my regulations.”. She has come onboard to an extent but I have said to her on occasion, “A twenty-four year old girl vs her mother living together in a house is very difficult”. It is difficult to find common ground and negotiate a communal living that we can both agree on. But in general, it works! 

2. How old were you when you first moved out of your family home?

My experience is probably a lot different to what my children have experienced. I went to boarding school at twelve years of age. My mother had remarried the year I went to boarding school, therefore we were moving to a new place to live and it was only a place we went to on the school holidays, a new place completely. We had stepbrothers, stepsisters and stepfather. Fortunately for me I was only twelve so I adopted tremendously, integrated really well, loved my stepfather, went to live on a farm, loved the farming life. It worked very well for me! Having said that, I moved to boarding school at the age of twelve and I never went home. At eighteen I was in college. As we moved to Tipperary I was living in Dublin for school days, college days, so I never actually went back home to live with family, with my mother or stepfather. So it was a completely different lifestyle for me. I’ve always lived more or less independently. We had our allowance, we had our budget, we rented our accommodation. We went to college, we got a job and then we got married. That’s how long I’ve been out of the family home. 

3. When did you buy your own home?

I got married in 1990 and we bought our first house in 1993, so I’ve been living here twenty-three years. 

4. How do you feel about Karen bringing home friends or sexual partners?

The house has always been open to Karen, and any of my kids, bringing home anybody. I firmly believe their generation is completely different to how we grew up. I firmly believe that friends are very welcome, partners are welcome. I mostly prefer to think if they’re in a relationship, no matter how temporary, that they are able to bring home that person to the house then going out somewhere, having to rent a room, or whatever one does when one is that age. It’s completely different to the way that I was brought up but I am completely on board with that. 

5. What is the biggest difference between your generation and Karen’s generation?

We never had an open relationship with our parents. We had left the family home from a very young age. We would never discuss anything personal, sexual, or anything else with our parents. We went home to their house and we obeyed their rules. If we brought someone home we slept in separate rooms. We just adhered to their rules. There were very decent people but they lived a very conservative life, and we respected their lifestyle. This generation, we have had to go with the flow and accept their new nuances, their new morals. I would like to think the house is open. I don’t agree going through various partners or umpteen people. I’d like to think that that they would meet and settle, but I think they’re of a very disposable generation where its very much based upon self-gratification. You need to be very careful and you need to realise what you’re doing. I think it’s going to be very hard for Karen’s generation, or any of my kids, to meet the person who’s going to fulfill all their criteria. They’ve had it all and now I’m not sure they know what they really want. 

6. What do you think of Karen’s lifestyle and spending habits?

Well Karen has a very unique lifestyle. I think she is a woman who definitely hasn’t found what she’s looking for. She comes from a family, particularly on her father’s side, of serious intelligence and with that intelligence comes serious challenges. She seems to be in pursuit of something that I’m not quite sure is out there. She has to follow her dream. She’s off to India now in a few weeks time. She’s going with her heart, having done a French law degree. I’m hoping it will find her some peace of mind and some direction of where she wants to go. To me, at the moment she’s very unsettled, very troubled in many ways, and as a mother probably won’t discuss it with me but with her friends. She’ll get there; she’ll definitely get there. India may well be an awakening for her, an opening of her mind and a complete change of career and direction. 

Expenditure, again, she probably doesn’t fully realise the value of money. Again, she will get there. She’s living at home, virtually rent free as she’s paying only a nominal rent. I’ve given her money to survive in India, which she’s going to pay back. But life is tough. Earning money in Ireland is tough. She’s going to have to come back and she’s going to have to realise how she’s going to afford to live and divvy up the expenses. At the moment she probably isn’t fully aware of the cost of living, as are many of her generation. 

7. What is the best and worst thing about living with Karen. 

It’s lovely having a female living at home. I had only one other son living at home, one daughter living in Paris. We probably don’t get enough time to bounce off each other because she lives a very full life and she likes to socialise. She’s not here much. But we did go on holiday together which was fantastic for both of us, just to have that one on one time. I find her fascinating and interesting and do love having a female presence at home, but, at twenty-four years of age its time to move on Karen. Go live your own life! [Laughs] 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Failure to Launch Part 1: Rising Rent Prices

Suitcases

This is part one of a three-part series about the impact of Ireland’s rising rent and house prices for Irish millienials. Next week’s piece will include an interview with a mother and her adult child about their experiences living together.

Within the space of a single generation Ireland has gone from a nation of independent homeowners, to renters and hangers-on living in the childhood bedroom of their parent’s abode. A confluence of factors brought us here, from the global economic downturn and nefarious banking practises, to lack of new properties and soaring prices in the rental and housing markets. For the millennials and baby-boomers that have found themselves elbowed off Ireland’s property ladder, it is of cold comfort to know that their shared ill fate is not through a fault of their own. Itching to vacate the family home, their dreams of freedom either had to be postponed, or the more favoured option, realised beyond Irish shores. Those that stayed behind were forced to stay with their parents or fork over half their salary on rent, a hefty price tag for the taste of independence.

Irish parents have graciously played a huge (and often overlooked) role shouldering the burden of the government’s ineptitude to curb errant landlords or increase the housing supply. As shown by the rise in homelessness those who have a place to stay are still the lucky ones, but living with your parents in your early to mid twenties is far from an ideal situation. To begin with there’s the unnatural pairing of a couple in their fifties co-habiting with housemates half their age. Familial ties aside, the lifestyle choices and unsociable hours of a person straight out of college is going to rub any parent the wrong way. Manoeuvring these obstacles demands compromise on both sides, but this compromise implies sacrifices that neither party should be forced to make. As you enter into the full bloom of adulthood it becomes increasingly important to have a physical space of your own; a space to organise as you please, for inviting lovers and friends, a space for experimenting, being completely yourself, and stepping out of your parents’ shadow.

Child-parents relationships are perpetually reductive in the sense that we are always bound to our childhood and our role as children in the company of our parents. While they may shower us with endless love and hot meals, at some very basic level it is unhealthy to live with your parents past a certain age. Living under your parent’s roof means adhering to their rules (‘My roof, my rules’, is a refrain every child has had retorted to them at least once during a family argument), a completely fair expectation considering it is their home first and foremost. However these limitations inhibit us from forging our own path and closes us off from parts of ourselves. It is only when we leave the parental sphere that we gain the necessary space to stir up latent pools of our personality, revealing internal avenues unbeknownst even to ourselves.

While for some the noise made by millennials may seem like much ado about nothing, the dawning realisation that buying our own home or even renting an apartment would be immensely challenging registered itself as a deep loss for most of our generation. We watched with a mixture of bitterness and resentment as the carefree interlude of salaried jobs, minimum responsibilities and a home to call our own before the onslaught of mortgages and babies shrank into nothingness, meanwhile the return of our parents’ investments, the houses we occupied, multiplied in value under our very feet.

No one could have anticipated that the housing crisis would get as out of hand as it did, nor the pain it would inflict on our small island. Admittedly there is a distinctly bourgeois tone to this article considering the 9,968 people who are homeless, 3,811 of whom are children according to the latest figures by Focus Ireland. Still there is a growing discontentment amongst the Irish youths, who are voting with their feet and streaming out of the country in their hoards. Making Ireland feel like home is harder than ever.

An object cannot feel pleasure, an object cannot give consent. In the aftermath the Belfast rape trial, where do we go from here?

It is unnecessary to spend much time rehashing the disturbing details of the Belfast rape trial, which has dominated news headlines in Ireland in the past two months. If you have been following the case closely you will be all too familiar with the facts. If you haven’t you can find a detailed overview of the case here, or a more succinct version here. In brief, the four accused stood on trial for the following offences against a then 19-year-old Belfast student; Paddy Jackson for vaginal rape, Stuart Olding for oral rape, Blane McIlroy for indecent exposure (he claims she performed consensual oral sex on him although she claims they did not engage in sexual intercourse of any kind), and Rory Harrison was charged with perverting the course of justice by withholding evidence from the police. Following a 42 day trial, the four accused were acquitted of all charges and left the court room as free men.

The Irish public viewed on the side lines as court reporters revealed one sordid detail after the other. For some, the revelations made throughout the trial were a shocking insight into the attitudes and behaviour towards women in society. For others, it simply made overt what had been familiar and known to them for some time. Elements flagged by the general public include the exchange of sexually explicit and derogatory messages and photos in an all-male WhatsApp group, the sexually aggressive posturing within alpha male rugby culture, and the general pervasiveness of toxic masculinity. Above all, it elevated a much needed conversation about consent to the top of public agenda.

An emotional and exhausting trial for all involved culminated with a not guilty verdict for all charges brought against the four accused. No matter how the jury decided, the public, who are not held to strict standards of proof, were always going to exercise autonomous judgment derived from a mishmash of news sources. The response was predictably divided. Some pockets of society argued that justice has been served, while supporters in favour of the victim prompted an #Ibelieveher campaign and took to the streets to show their compassion.

‘Beyond all reasonable doubt’

Rape cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute due to the high burden of proof, ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. This standard must be met in respect of both prongs of a rape charge: the jury must be satisfied firstly, that penetrative sexual intercourse took place, and secondly, that the intercourse was not consensual and the defendant was aware of such. Unlike a murder trial there is no body and usually little conclusive physical evidence for the jury to work with. More often than not, the successful prosecution of rape charge hangs on the jury’s interpretation of the intentions of the accused, which can result in a verdict grounded less in evidence than personal experience.

How does one go about proving something as intangible as intentionality beyond all reasonable doubt? The answer is with great difficulty. Which is why most reports do not result in a formal charge, let alone prosecution.

It is with good reason that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. It is with good reason that the burden of proof in criminal trials is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. But in the case of rape, such barriers to prosecution are causing the law to become stuck. The most recent Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report conducted in 2002 found that 42% of women experienced sexual abuse in some form. The report also finds that only 10% of sexual offences were reported. The latest figures for conviction in rape cases from 2016 showed that the conviction rate for rape in the Republic of Ireland was at just 2%.

Such a low conviction rate could be interpreted to suggest that a lot of women reporting rape are simply lying. Yet according to research carried out by Trinity College Dublin and London Metropolitan University, it is estimated that 9% of rape allegations made in Ireland are false.

The disparity between a 2% conviction rate when 91% of cases are deemed to be legitimate is staggering. In its efforts to protect the accused, the vast majority of guilty men remain unpunished (and therefore undeterred) while the vindication of woman’s right to bodily autonomy is left shambles. It is no wonder only a limited percentage of Irish women choose report in the first place.

At what point have we tipped the balance too far in favour of the accused when the statistics would implore us to act otherwise?

Toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity. A ‘buzzword’ that make some men bristle, and the most apt description of the WhatsApp and text message conversations that were revealed during the trial. The defence team may have successfully argued that the accused were ‘braggarts, not rapists’, but there was little hiding the vile and objectifying view these young men have towards women with whom they engaged in sexual relations.

From where does an attitude of such demeaning inequality spring? I have spoken before about the over-sexualisation of the opposite sex in Ireland from a young age, which begins in the segregated school system and influences the way men and women regard one another at all levels of society.

An object cannot feel pleasure. An object cannot give consent.

The so-called locker room talk the defendants engaged in is rampant in our society and it would be naïve to think the opinions that inform such commentary are restricted to words alone. Sending an explicitly demeaning text about women does not make someone a rapist, but their attitudes towards women as mere sexual objects are aligned. Both herald from a broader culture of unbridled male dominance and privilege, whose consequences are wide-ranging.

The minimalist definition for rape under Irish law is sexual intercourse without consent. That does not mean tying her to a bed, holding a knife to her throat or forcing yourself on her in the back of an alley. Violent rape is its most extreme classification, and while it is the predominant narrative that grips our attention, it is not the category into which most rape cases fall.

For some rapists, the unwillingness of their victim is part of the thrill. For others, they engage in the act purely for their own sexual gratification. In the latter category the woman serves as a pleasure vessel, whose consent is irrelevant to the entitled actions of the rapist. Such men fail to identify their own behaviour as unconsensual.

When you reduce a woman to a sexual object her consent becomes beside the point. An object cannot feel pleasure. An object cannot give consent. A sexual object is for your pleasure only.

The law does not concern itself with your attitude towards rape it concerns itself only with your attitude towards consent. Unfortunately, wider society and the sexual education of Irish children fail to reflect this.

‘Sex’ should be followed by ‘consent’ as soon as it enters a child’s vernacular, and for this reason it is imperative that consent classes go hand in hand with sexual education classes beginning with primary school. Thankfully, Minister for Education Richard Bruton seems to agree. Rather than the responsibility being foisted on universities, no child should leave the Irish education system without knowing what sexual consent is, how it is given and received, and vitally, how it is denied.

Despite the complainant of the case being in a state of shock when reporting the rape to a medical examiner, her inconsistencies were exploited by the prosecution when the case reached the courts. This tells us that an inexact knowledge of what constitutes a sexual offence and how it should be reported can be detrimental to the case of the complainant.

If women and men in Ireland are to fully appreciate the need for consent, they should be well versed in the legal terminology for sexual offence that are committed in its absent. They should be able to identify when a sexual offence has been committed and the necessary steps to follow to report and preserve evidence in the immediate aftermath. Educating young school children in how they should report a rape feels rather Margaret Atwoodesque but it is the reality in which we live.

An emphasis on the precision of oral evidence is also critical, and each person handling a victim of a sexual offence, from medical professionals to members of an Gardai Siochana, should be specially trained in how to handle such cases and the importance of the accuracy of their account should be impressed upon the victim from the initial stage.

Social Media

A commonality of the Belfast rape case and the #Metoo movement is the role of the public as the final adjudicator. As with Kevin Spacey, Michael Colgan and countless others embroiled in naming-and-shaming momentum that began with Harvey Weinstein, the disclosure of the defendant’s name in rape cases in Northern Ireland (but not in the Republic) will have far-reaching consequences for all four accused in spite of the final outcome of the trial.  The greater public know that a verdict of not guilty is not the same as innocent when such a high burden of proof must be met, and for most people their pre-conceptions based on news reporting will remain intact. It remains to be seen if and how the rugby careers of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding will progress.

Margaret Atwood recently spoke out against the dangers of trying an accused in the court of public opinion when the proper judicial channels are deemed ineffective. Her warnings came around the same time as the publishing of the ‘Sh*tty Men in Media’ list, a spreadsheet compiled of the names of 70 men within the media industry who had been accused of sexual misdemeanours, much of it violent. The women who updated the list did so anonymously and none of the claims were investigated when the list went viral.

The journalist Moira Donegan who published the list did not intend for it to go public and her intentions were only to protect her fellow colleagues. Her plan was deeply flawed and left potentially innocent men without opportunity to defend themselves. Alternatively, traditional channels of justice have proved hopelessly inadequate and forcing to create their own avenues for protection.

The fallout of the Weinstein reporting has the potential to harm innocent men while circumventing the course of justice, but unless women feel protected by the higher powers they cannot be blamed for taking up this role themselves.

Amongst all this discussion of past sexual misdemeanours committed by men, it cannot be forgotten that the effective reporting incidences of sexual misconduct and violence is not just about punishment, it is about protecting other women in the future. It was this impulse above any other that prompted the 19-year-old victim in the Belfast rape case to finally go to the police.

The same systems which encourage women to report offences of sexual assault simultaneously make its prosecution prohibitively problematic. If such an incident takes place within the framework of an official institution or organisation, this does at least potentially provide non-legal avenues for recourse, but if such structures are not in place, an impossible to win all-or-nothing court case is the only available option. It is little wonder that the majority of women choose to remain silent. While all perpetrators of sexual violence and misconduct should feel the full force of the law, the legal system in its current form has proved impotent and it is clear that it is not designed to handle the realities of such crimes: their regularity, their systemic nature, and frequently, their lack of physical evidence.

If women are to be protected it is obligatory that there be established a whole new body to handle reports of sexual abuse when the available evidence is unlikely to meet the burden of proof in a criminal case. A civil suit is always an option but this is costly, placing a huge financial burden on the victim, which could be devastating if she loses. Furthermore, on a whole current procedures are still vastly ill-suited to the everyday occurrence of sexual misconduct in its many forms and contexts. It is likely in such a system that the punishment would no longer fit the crime but for most women the end goal of reporting sexual violence is to ensure it doesn’t happen again, to themselves or other women.

Undoubtedly the complainant in the Belfast rape case was forewarned about the realistic chances of the state winning the case, but she pressed ahead regardless. Her bravery has stimulated an overdue conversation about the misogyny which is rife in Irish society and the devastating consequences it can engender. Let us not waste this precious opportunity.

Featured image¨Rape of the Sabines¨ By Girolamo del Pacchia – J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48327746

Men need to start identifying their own behaviour as sexual assault

Like millions of women around the world, it is impossible for me to follow the story of Harvey’s Weinstein with the same distance that is afforded to most -but not all-men. It brings up memories of sexual violence and sexual misconduct in the real world and the workplace that is all too commonplace for women.

As a young girl growing up the burden of femininity is slowly impressed upon you. It begins with restrictions being placed upon your freedom and stories told by way of caution. Movies, books and newspapers lay bare the oppression and subjugation committed against women, but like much of the suffering recounted through words on a page it remains at a distance, belonging to the lives of strangers.

But as your body moulds itself closer to the form of femininity, so too do your experiences start to resemble the lives of those distant women.

Of all the stories you heard growing up, these are the ones that come true.

Is modern society as equal as we like to think?

Irish people like to believe that we live in an egalitarian society, with equal treatment for men and women alike. However the corresponding reality played out on streets, on nightclub dance floors, in offices, on college campuses, behind closed doors, virtually anywhere that men and women congregate together, repeatedly informs Irish women that this is not the case.

To face the staggering numbers – to face the truth – requires an admission that some of the men we know and love are guilty of harassment and sexual violence against women. As a society this is hard to accept, as an individual, even harder. We prefer to believe that most men treat women with respect, the men we know personally at least, even if statistics and experience tell otherwise.

I have experienced countless iterations of catcalling, groping and unsolicited sexual behaviour that I could draw upon as examples from my own life, most of which has occurred within the public domain. To add a filter, I will talk about my experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace and some of the more watered down versions of sexual assault that I have experienced.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

It is one of my first jobs as a teenager and my significantly older manager appears to take pleasure in making my job more miserable in whatever way possible. The ‘light-hearted’ teasing for which I am singled out becomes relentless. A male colleague compares it to the textbook schoolyard tactics of using bullying as a front to conceal one’s true feelings.

Leering at me with a self-gratifying smile on his face he says, ‘You can’t report me because its the pen touching you and not me.’ The sexual overtones are blatant and I feel deeply uncomfortable.

One day while I am standing in the corner of the workplace, my manager approaches and starts poking me with a pen. Leering at me with a self-gratifying smile on his face he says, ‘You can’t report me because its the pen touching you and not me.’ The sexual overtones are blatant and I feel deeply uncomfortable. I know his behaviour is inappropriate, but I am young and lack the confidence to stand up to a figure of authority. The next figure in the chain of command is in the habit of giving unsolicited shoulder massages so I doubt I will be listened to anyway. I try my best to forget it ever happened and stay quiet.

A few years later I am working a job as a waitress. Drunk, the owner tells me that he knew he wanted to sleep with me from the first moment he saw me. His delivery is intended both as a compliment and a proposition. I am a terrible waitress and I strongly suspect this is the only thing that has kept me from being fired. The line between personal and professional is blurred by a matter of course in the running of the establishment, and I know if I were to complain I would be dismissed as ‘too PC’. Again I say nothing, and leave my job soon after.

Fast-forward a few years later. I have graduated from university and it is my first time working in a job that could be described as ‘professional’. The office environment is a novel experience; I marvel at the rows of computers and cubicles, the business attire, the unfamiliar level of formality. One day an older male colleague on my team invites me to go for lunch. It is Friday and virtually everyone leaves the office for lunch, so I agree without reading too much into it. We sit down and he encourages me to order an alcoholic drink, despite not drinking alcohol himself. I decline and order water instead.

As I stutter in reply, he appendixes his question with a sexually suggestive hypothetical situation involving him and I on a bed.

Once we have ordered food, (I order soup, the cheapest thing on the menu), he launches into a peculiar and probing line of questioning. ‘What is the craziest thing you have ever done?’ he begins by asking. Very quickly, I realise the lunch holds more significance for him that it does for me. It is not often that this middle-aged man has lunch alone with a twenty-five year old woman, and his delight as this exclusive ‘access’ granted to him through the corporate world is thinly disguised. The personal questioning continues, culminating with him asking how I would define the nature of our relationship. As I stutter in reply, he appendixes his question with a sexually suggestive hypothetical situation involving him and I on a bed together.

I stop him in his tracks before he can go into any kind of detail. I tell him in no uncertain terms that he has crossed a line and that his behaviour is inappropriate. Half-heartedly he attempts to convince me that I have misunderstood him, but judging by the expression I am wearing he quickly realises the futility.

At age of twenty-five I have finally found my voice against male sexual harassment. I have learnt to use my feelings of discomfort as a barometer for inappropriate behaviour instead of setting the bar so low it requires non-consensual physical contact or even violence to be counted as ‘serious enough’.

When we finally leave he insists on paying for my meal despite my protests, claiming that he ‘earns four times my salary’. My purpose to stroke his male ego has been dispensed with. It disgusts me, yet still I say nothing (initially at least).

A warped sense of bodily autonomy

As a woman in the world, sexual harassment and sexual assault begins early in life. Growing up in Ireland is no exception. At a young age, sexual acts had little to do with mutual lust and desire and everything to do with individual power. Sex was never portrayed as a shared physical pleasure founded on consent and respect, but something to be given, taken, or preferably abstained from. This has dire consequences for its segregated youth, which highly sexualises the opposite gender from a young age while lacking a firm grasp of appropriate boundaries – an incendiary combination.

This bleak disparity between the treatment you deserve but the behaviour you are subjected to, fuels an immense internal conflict.

Although I appreciated the sacrosanctity of bodily autonomy, for years upon years I put up with the actions of boys and men that violated this. As a teenager growing up, the frequency of groping my friends and I were subjected to on nights out was so profuse we grew to accept it as normal (despite always knowing that it was wrong). This inappropriate touching we experienced at the hands of our peers appeared to be a non-issue, never discussed within the education system, by the state or by the media. There was never any encouragement to report such behaviour and so we simply learnt to put up with it.

This bleak disparity between the treatment you deserve but the behaviour you are subjected to, fuels an immense internal conflict. Added to this is the guilt and self-flagellation for staying quiet, which to the inner critic is perceived as silent acquiescence. Many times I wanted to shout stop!, but could never get the words out. I would be leered at, shouted at, or touched without consent, confined to silence by a perverse aversion towards causing offence. But more than anything, my silence was an act of preservation. My gender is a source of danger, and so fear lurks below the discomfort.

The hidden dangers of passive terminology in public discourse

The conversation surrounding sexual violence and harassment in the public sphere has, till now, predominantly been conducted using broad strokes. Nameless, faceless men are responsible for the violence against women. Sometimes men are not even part of the conversation. Sexual violence is described in passive terms such as ‘committed against women’, with the perpetrator omitted from the sentence entirely. Its implications are far from benign; because men are never seen to actively commit sexual assault it enables the shrugging off of responsibility and guilt, the turning of a blind eye.

Borne of unwillingness and ignorance, men fail to identify their own actions, or the actions of their peers, as harassment or assault. The man that grabs the ass will never describe his actions as ‘sexual assault’. This shelters men from viewing their own actions through the same lens as women, and so inappropriate behaviour continues, uncorrected.

There is one night I can recollect that clearly illustrates the unwillingness of men to classify their actions using legal terminology. I am at a music trying to escape a man who is continuing to touch me inappropriately from behind. Despite deliberately moving away to discourage him, he is not to be deterred. Seeing no other choice I am forced to detach myself from the crowd and so I join my group of girlfriends on the outskirts. Upon telling them what happened, the conversation turns to our individual past experiences of sexual violence.

Feminism and bodily autonomy were for him a brand, a form of social currency that might be borrowed to increase his appeal to the opposite sex.

Midway through, the same man whom I had sought to avoid attaches himself to the group. Without a hint of irony, he proffers an educated and seemingly enlightened spiel about the simply awful mistreatment of women at the hands of men. I stand there listening to him, hardly able to believe his gall. I wonder if I am being Punk’d. As I re-enter the crowd, I think to myself, his hypocrisy has at least one silver lining – I will finally be able to listen to the music in peace. But no! Lo and behold, he has taken up his position behind me once again, his roaming hands as active as ever.

It was a classic case of sexual assault unidentified from the male perspective. Lofty feminist declarations are no good on their own, and actively harmful if the contravene one’s own actions. It was painfully clear to me that he did not understand, nor care, about the meaning of his own words. Feminism and bodily autonomy were for him a brand, a form of social currency that might be borrowed to increase his appeal to the opposite sex. Examining his own actions with the measuring stick he produced with such a flourish was not something that served his own purpose. It would entail the curbing of his own behaviour around women, or worse, counting himself amongst the sleazy men he so eagerly rallied against – two things he was unwilling to do. But unless men are prepared to examine their own actions very, very carefully, nothing will change.

The Passive Bystander

In the numerous reports of sexual violence involving public figures, there are often three people involved: the victim, the perpetrator, and the invisible bystander. Regarding Weinstein in particular, a recurring theme in his victims’ accounts was that ‘everyone knew’ what was happening, but nonetheless said and did nothing.

The ubiquity of inappropriate sexual behaviour has led to its normalisation, which is further reinforced through the passivity of bystanders. At best this undermines the severity of the offending action; at worst, if self-defence is classed as an ‘over-reaction’, it censors the victim and hinders their ability to protect themselves.

I would be lying if I said my sense of bodily autonomy remained intact through all of these experiences….

In the early hours one morning I was standing in line of a fast food restaurant when a male behind me in the queue repeatedly cupped my ass cheek. I turn to throw him a dirty look but the cupping does not abate. In frustration I turn to my boyfriend at the time seeking intervention, but I might as well be talking to the wall. He is nonplussed and clearly thinks I am over-reacting. To shut me up more than anything else, he eventually throws a filthy look of his own. Coming from a fellow male, this time it has the desired effect. At long last the touching stops.

I would be lying if I said my sense of bodily autonomy remained intact through all of these experiences, if it had even been whole to begin with, but I am finally beginning to ‘unlearn’ the message that has been repeatedly impressed upon me, that my body is not my own.

One moment clearly illuminates my atrophied sense of physical boundary. I am standing in the queue of a club one night with two men, one a friend of mine, and the other a stranger. We are talking about tattoos, and when I mention I have one on my wrist the stranger grabs my hand and turns my arm over to take a look. My friend comments on this afterwards, describing the non-consensual action as ‘aggressive’. For a moment I am dumbfounded. I consider myself perceptive to breaches of personal dignity but I had not detected the aggression nor the lack of consent in the stranger’s handling of me. It disturbed me that I needed someone else to point it out.

Speaking out is our power!

In contrast to public discourse, when women talk privately about sexual assault the conversation is held in particulars – we ourselves are the objects. In safe spaces we lather salve on one other’s wounds, but we are careful to keep the stories within our inner circles.

In recent months, buoyed in large by the many brave women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful male figures, I have come to realise that as long as women continue have these conversations solely amongst ourselves, nothing will change.

While trauma is intrinsic in the aftermath of a shocking event, many of the fears (accusations of slander, career damage etc.) are man-made and therefore avoidable.

Reporting non-consensual sexual behaviour of any degree feels like a big deal when it shouldn’t. As someone that has stayed quiet on many occasions, but also reported incidences only to have the veracity of my statements challenged, or no charges brought at all, I understand why silence is easier.

Following sexual assault or harassment, a victim’s instinct is to retreat to safety. Reporting is the opposite of this, and the reliving of the incident through the retelling of intimate details to a stranger is often referred to as a ‘second victimisation’. While trauma is intrinsic in the aftermath of a shocking event, many of the fears (accusations of slander, career damage etc.) are man-made and therefore avoidable, but unless a culture of speaking out is actively fostered, in which women are listened to and believed, silence is often the simplest and most logical option.

This is how I felt in work as I continued to sit in close proximity every day to a man whose presence put me on edge. I thought about speaking to HR but mitigating factors stopped me: he was in a more senior and added more value to the firm than I did, and his comments weren’t severe enough to result in his dismissal so reporting the incident would likely do little besides exacerbate my grievance. The company’s stance on sexual harassment was never discussed, so I had no idea what I would potentially trigger by talking to the HR manager. A fear of the unknown and further loss of control over the situation stopped me. My contract was due to end shortly and so I decided to grin and bear it.

That was until a female friend of mine urged me to speak out. She said that similar patterns of lecherous behaviour were rife in her office, but as it was largely unreported the men continued unfettered.

It became obvious that by trying to protect myself I was protecting him too. By staying quiet I was perpetuating the false belief that my office was free from sexual harassment, which potentially put others at risk. For victims of sexual harassment and assault, our strength lies often in numbers rather than truth alone. In case he repeated similar patterns of behaviour with someone else, I was unwilling for it to be treated as an isolated event.

Thinking of all the men and women that had suffered sexual harassment in a workplace but were afraid to speak out, thinking of unknown people in my office who may have suffered harassment, or might in the future, I swallowed my fear and marched myself to HR.

By the time I walked out I felt a million times lighter!

The long reign of decorous silence is finally over.

 

 

5 Days in Lisbon

Berlin was apparently ‘the place to be’ summer 2015/16, but its seems this year’s title has gone to Lisbon. Whether I was talking to friends or work colleagues, every time I mentioned I was going there on holiday it elicited first and second hand stories of people who had been. Despite all the hype my trip to Lisbon was purely serendipitous, chosen by my parents (who have an immunity against all that is in vogue) as the destination to stage a family reunion.

From the reports that had reached me, my impression of Lisbon was a slow-moving artists’ city with a speciality for rooftop bars. Lisbon and I were going to get on just fine.

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Colourful streets in the Alfama District of Lisbon

Day 1

One of the sweetest parts about travelling are those irretrievable seconds when a place reveals itself for the very first time. For the first time, ideas and imaginations are replaced by real, concrete images. As my metro train emerged from the mouth of the underground tunnel Lisbon reveals itself as a city of colours; bulky apartment blocks were disguised in sunny yellows, pinks, purples and greens, colours I was more accustomed to seeing in a children’s playground.

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Pretty pinks and corals brighten tired apartment blocks in Avendias Novas

Drained from my 6.45 am flight (a mistake I am destined to repeat – but the cheaper tickets are never worth the exhaustion!) I head straight to my accommodation on the outskirts of the city. My accommodation of choice is an AirBnb flat, eponymously named ‘The Photographer’s Apartment’ by its owner. The apartment is a welcoming haven for a weary traveller. Sparse white walls served a backdrop to stunning photos, and vintage cameras and travellers’ trinkets decorate the apartment. I feel instantly at home.

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Shabby chic architecture in the up-and-coming Avenidas Novas district

That evening I wander around the Roma neighbourhood, constantly distracted by the flamboyance of the buildings. Lisbon’s brand is undoubtedly shabby chic. Bright colours of pale pinks, olive greens and baby blues truss up dated architecture, with one lone-standing building exuberantly painted in flamingo pink.

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Empty roads in Avenidas Nova

My introduction to Portuguese food hit a speed bump on the first night when it was decided by popular vote that we would eat Chinese for our first meal out. The Portuguese seafood I was so eager to try would have to wait until tomorrow!

Day 2 – Old Town – Grace + Alfama

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Praca de Commerciado is a place of luxury

Bright and early on day two I venture into the old town to do some exploring, beginning my expedition at the edge of the city at Praca de Commerciado. Overlooking the river Tagus, the square is flanked on three sides by traditional government building painted in canary yellow. Set against the backdrop of a blissfully blue sky and fluffy white clouds, the richness of colour has the lavish quality of a fresco

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Tourists throng to the Praca de Commerciado overlooking the river Tagus

Lisbon’s Great Earthquake (and subsequent fire and tsunami) in 1755 reduced most of the city’s structures to rubble, the rebuilding of which has lent a certain homogenous quality to its architecture dominated by the 18th and 19th century style. Building facades in many places share an identical blueprint, featuring square windows laid out in linear, evenly spaced rows. The monotonous, vaguely Communist design is countered by beautifully intricate geometric azujelous tiles that decorate the front of buildings from top to bottom. The kaleidoscopic colours in bright, neutral tones brighten the city at every turn, bringing art onto the streets and earning Lisbon its reputation as a city of timeless beauty.

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Azujelous tiles cover buildings from top to bottom in Lisbon’s Old Town

I spend most of my time in Graca and Alfama districts where the Old Town are concentrated. Much like Rome, Lisbon is a city built between seven hills, and comfortable shoes and a moderate stamina are a pre-requisite to tackle it by foot. As I weave my way up winding, sloping paths the streets begin to shed its modern characteristics. Cars and traffic thin out to be replaced by Tuk-Tuks and trams, modern brands replaced by speciality local shops.

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Tuk-Tuk is the preferred mode of transport in Lisbon’s Old Town

Halfway up the hill I pause at a viewing point, taking in the sea of ochre tiled roofs and cheerful buildings clamouring for space on top of one another.

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Panoramic view of the Old Town at the bottom of the Castelo de Sao Jorge

With the sun beating down, a visit to the Sé de Lisboa Cathedral offers the perfect restbite from the heat. An imposing building built in the Romanesque architecture style dating back to 1147, it is one of the few structures to survive the Great Earthquake.

One of main points of attraction (according to guidebooks, although not, according to the tour guide), is the Castelo de Sao Jorge. The group jostles to the end of the long queue trailing from the entrance where a rambunctious group of musicians gather to play rhythmic carnival style music and flirt with the crowd. After a brief team huddle we opt to avoid queuing in the midday sun, choosing instead to take the famous 28 Tram which brings its passengers on a scenic route of Lisbon.

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Buskers entertain tourists queuing for the Castelo de Sao Jorge

Crammed full of tourists, the 28 Tram is not for the faint-hearted as it jolts its way around Lisbon’s steep slopes and bends, emitting a loud hiss each time it comes to a stop.

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Locals hang their washing out to dry in the Alfama and Graca District

As the tram chugs its way to the outskirts of the old town and into more residential areas, symptoms of Portugal’s failing economy begin to show. The majority of the residents I spotted were elderly and grey haired, slowly inching their way past graffiti covered abandoned buildings most likely left behind by the disenfranchised youth. The Tram 28 is infamous for its mercurial timekeeping and after half an hour I give up waiting, and make my way back to the centre of the city on foot.

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Signs of decay on the Tram 28

That evening I finally had the chance to try some Portuguese cuisine, opting for fish of the day and washing it down with plenty of sangria.

Day 3 – Belém

Lisbon is not a large city and so its has tourism has spawned into neighbouring port districts that can be reached by train within half an hour. Sintra, Cascais and Belém are the most frequented. On the train journey to Belém I see groups of manual labourers working outdoors digging into the hot and sticky road. They look weary and fatigued as they shovel piles of black, glistening tarmacadam.

I had plans to be back in Lisbon before dark so my list for Belém had to be ticked off expediently. One of the first sites was the Padrão dos Descombrimentos, a fifty meter monument shaped like the prow of a ship standing at the shore. Carved into the bow of the ship are the statues of over thirty male figures deemed to have played an integral role in Portugal’s history of expolaration. The title of the carved ship is translated as ‘Monument of Discovery’, suggesting a biased interpretation of Portugal’s colonial past.

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Padrão dos Descombrimentos in Belém

I pay lip service to the Monastery of Jerome and Belém Tower, both UNESCO sites since 1983. The Tower fell short of my expectation. Prior mention conjured fanciful images of a grand and imposing maritime fortress but what materialises is a miniature tower, built on a tiny island in the Tagrus River about a stone’s throw away from the shore. A long queue of dutiful tourists stand in line, but I decide to cut my losses and give it a miss. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from travelling it’s to know when the guidebook should be thrown away!

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Tourists queue to see the Belém Tower

I devote most of my day to the Botanical Gardens, home to over 600 species of lush trees and plants from all corners of the worlds. Keep with the theme of Belém, the gardens carry the stench of colonialism. Shamelessly still referred to as ‘Colonial Garden’, its initial function was to house plants and trees imported from Portuguese colonies. While the gardens and greenhouses showed signs of having gone into disrepair, the excess and exoticism it once represented is still evident.

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I could be in Hollywood along the Palm Tree Boulevard

Walking along the palm tree boulevard it wouldn’t require a stretch of the imagination to picture myself in Hollywood, or somewhere equally as opulent and moneyed. Portugal still carries memorabilia of its past as a wealthy colonial power (or a nation of “discovery” as it prefers to define itself), but today much of it lies neglected, serving as a symbol of its fallen state of grace.

By pure chance the previous evening I had stumbled upon the venue for the Concert de Lago, a daily music festival during the month of July comprising of free classical concerts for the public. Performing that night is a soprano and tenor, accompanied with gusto by the Portuguese National Symphonic Orchestra. The soprano steals the show, singing high notes so powerful yet fragile they hang like icicles in the summer air.

I end the night in the rooftop bar PARK, named in reference to its location on the top floor of a car park. The connection between the name and the location clicks only after I spend minutes scrabbling around alleyways trying to find the entrance. Although it’s a word I shy from using, ‘trendy’ is the most apt description for PARK. The lighting is dim save for chunky candles drowning in a pool of their own dripping wax, the DJ plays feel-good, crowd-pleasing hits, and almost everyone I come across is a tourist.

I don’t hang around for long.

Day 4 – Cascais

No holiday to a hot and sunny climate is complete without a trip to the beach.

On day four I venture to the neighbouring town Cascais, known for its beaches and unusual rock formations. Without the pressure of a list of tourist attractions, it is the ideal place to spend a slow day away from the city.

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Calm waters along the coastline in Cascais

For those seeking a little adventure, the Boca de Inferno cliff formation is roughly a twenty-minute walk away from the old part of Cascais. The name is a translation of ‘Hell’s Mouth’, with ‘mouth’ referring to a hole in the cave carved out by the ferocious waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Fierce waves carve out the Boca de Inferno

Cascais raison d’etre is relaxation and pleasure, with everyone moving at an andante pace and lots of good options for places to eat. My choice of cuisine is an all-you-can-eat vegetarian menu at the restaurant ‘Garden of Wonder’, whose broad selection of food is creative and delicous. Feeling indulgent I treat myself to a renowned Santini ice-cream for dessert, opting for coconut and hazelnut scoops. I savour the punchy flavours while watching some locals playing beach volleyball, killing time till my train back to Lisbon.

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Tourists throng to relax in Cascais

Day 5

 Lisbon has been described as a city to get lost in, which is lucky for me considering I followed the wrong bobbing orange t-shirt halfway through my walking tour. In keeping with the city’s spirit I give into my misadventure, liberating myself from the constraints of maps and tourist attractions. Guided only by the whimsy of curiosity I am free to wander where I please, traipsing up and down alleyways and ducking into whatever shops catch my eye. It is exhilarating.

Around the corner leading up to the entrance of the Castelo del Jorge I come across an encampment, which appears to be a cross between an artist’s enclave and a political statement. The artwork took various forms and was constructed from an assortment of scavenged, recycled material. Brightly painted stones piled on top of one another formed lone-standing installations, and the walls were decorated with love heart motifs in trippy colours. At the edge a colourful mat bore the word ‘welcome’, but no one dares cross periphery.

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An artist’s enclave at the foot of Castelo de Sao Jorge

Lisbon is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Ever the trademark tourist, I found myself constantly reaching for the camera around my neck. While a relaxed long weekend can be spent in Lisbon, something tells me the city’s true magic is locked in its lifestyle, reserved for its locals and creatives seeking artistic refuge.

Who knows, if inspired you might end up staying longer than expected.

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One of Lisbon’s many alleys

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Arabic influence in Lisbon’s architecture since Moorish rule