TWICE last week I was informed that champagne sales are up in Ireland. Once, by a man in the trade who cared less about the fact that this rather benefits the French more than us because, he crowed: "It means the money's back. People are spending!"
Fantastic, I thought drily, I must get my order in for a Christmas crate of Dom P before they're all sold out. Imagine if I had to make do with M&S cava – how embarrassing would that be?
All last week I was hearing that the good times are coming back; house prices – at least in Dublin – are shooting up, unemployment is down (if you don't count emigration or job schemes), restaurants are full and the queue to buy bespoke caramelised onion relish (only a fiver a jar) at your local farmers' market is only out the door.
Meanwhile, I head down to Aldi in East Wall, Dublin, for the weekly shop. In our house, the debate is not about champagne sales being up or down, but about which is better value for money – Aldi or Lidl. And from five years of careful shopping in both, I can tell you that it's Aldi – most of the time. We shop religiously there, sometimes twice a week, because if you run out of anything you could pay up to three times more in your local shop for the same product. Do that a few times and there's the price of your child's next school trip/dental appointment/new shoes gone down the Swanee.
Every week, Aldi has 59 cent offers on fresh veg and fruit; we load up the trolley and have a competition to see who can Google the best recipe for soup or casserole that can be made purely with these ingredients. It does for a lunch and a dinner and the rest makes a decent base for a stew – and yes, I get an odd stoic sense of satisfaction from keeping my family so healthily fed at bargain basement prices.
Last week, it was simple: a roasted carrot and parsnip soup, and the 10-year-old made up a load of fresh fruit salad with the 59 cent bags of grapes and apples. Meat is bought at the local butchers who do a weekly family deal for €20.
Coming up to Christmas, I tend to refuse many of the offers of lunches, drinks and get-togethers that I would have been delighted to attend pre-recession. "Sorry," I tell them, "but I have a headache/a sick child/a toothache." And if I'm meeting anyone for a coffee, I always insist that I've eaten lunch already. Whether I have or not is beside the point. Agree to join a friend or two for a quick sandwich and before you know it, the electricity bill has been drunk and devoured. So, if budgets are to be kept, little lies have to be told – it's all for the greater good, or so I keep telling myself.
You see, I was under the illusion that most of us were living this way. But I was wrong. Because it seems that, for nearly half the citizens of Ireland, the past five years have not been the financial catastrophe experienced by the rest of us. Did you know that 40-odd per cent of Irish citizens thought that last month's Budget was fair and decent?
Who are these people? Well, we know – depending on which analysis is used – public sector workers earn on average between 20 and 50 per cent more than their private counterparts, but our recession-proof people are not solely made up of those who work for the State; though the ones with secure jobs, guaranteed pensions and annual increments do tend to feature most prominently.
There's also the Google generation – the young ones who have good jobs and a lot of disposable income to throw about. They have few, if any, debts. They have no dependants or loans or financial obligations. Ditto those older people who have their mortgage paid off and now own their property, particularly those wily public sector workers who had the cop to take early retirement and can now cocoon themselves with a pension their replacements can sing for.
And, of course, the politicians are all super recession-proof and always have been.
What's odd is that – regardless of the well-documented testimony of the half the country who are suffering from, and paying for, the continuing economic disaster – a considerable number of recession-proof people just don't get what life is like on the Other Side. I know this, because I'm blue in the face trying to explain to public sector friends – who complain about the extra few hours they have to clock in every week (that's two hours I'll never get back, one teacher said to me as I listened to her in astonishment) – what it's like to be part of the Lost Generation. They haven't got it so far, so I'll try again.
My generation is the generation who bought homes at the height of the boom, work mainly in the private sector and have kids who are just going to get even more expensive before they, inevitably, emigrate. They have homes in negative equity that they will never own, with huge mortgages that they will never pay off. They work, not just to pay the bills but to remind themselves that they are of some use to society (they refuse to do the sums that could show they might be better off throwing it all in and going on welfare).
They choose to pay property tax monthly because there's not a hope that big a lump sum could be taken from their carefully calculated budgets. They hold their breath when their children cough or sneeze, silently begging them not to be sick, as they add the cost of a GP visit plus prescription. They calculate the bottom rung of tin-plated health insurance schemes, realise even that meagre amount of cover is a luxury and throw themselves on the mercy of the public health system while they suck up the increase in transport fees (who can afford a second car these days?). And one other thing is certain – there'll be no champagne on our dining tables any day soon.