The rules of recetiquette
Just when we had become comfortable with wealth, we became poor again, and suddenly in need of a whole new set of social mores. Pat Fitzpatrick gives LIFE’s definitive guide to recetiquette, the rules of recession etiquette.
It was an awkward Christmas for a lot of us. It's hard enough meeting up with people once a year to have the same old conversation, but this time out we had to face into the annual, 'How are things with you, anyway?' without a clue what to say. The recession means that a simple question around the dinner table such as, "Any holiday plans yet?" will be greeted as if you asked: "Has anybody here ever had the clap?" Holidays? Nobody admits to going on holiday anymore! You're after making Margaret cry now, because Phil lost his job last Thursday.
Post-recession Ireland is a minefield for those who aren't familiar with the new rules. Here are the things you need to know if you are to avoid every Irish person's nightmare -- public embarrassment.
Don't mention the war
The very mention of the word Bulgaria can bring mayhem to the dinner table. Your friend Maria will weep uncontrollably as her husband Dave explains that she won't talk to him since discovering the three apartments he bought during Mick's stag party in Sofia are now worth eight lev.
The fact is that everybody around the table will have their own property horror story. But that's not the only reason to avoid all things real estate. Every group also has its own David McWilliams in residence, a smartass who rented her way through the boom and is now eating through her cheek in an attempt not to scream: "I hate to say I told you so," which couldn't be further from the truth.
She will cut loose eventually and ruin the night for the majority of you, those who are trying to drown out your negative equity with a couple of pints with your friends.
If you must talk about property, then for God's sake don't say anything bad about a tenant. The tenant is the new superstar class in Ireland. For most landlords, the only thing standing between them and the poorhouse is the remarkable people who pay enough rent every month to help with 10 per cent of the mortgage. The landlord class is reduced to a group of quivering wrecks at the notion that their tenants might break it off with them. Say something vaguely negative about your tenant and you could find a whole restaurant looking at you as if you had just said: "Last night I had sex with my dog."
The early-bird question
To early bird or not to early bird, when it comes to choosing a restaurant? Yes, €25 per person for a four-course meal is tempting, even if coffee is counted as a course. And there is every chance that at least one person in your group is broke and dreading the cost of a full-price night out, which somehow always comes out at €70 a head plus tip, unless somebody goes on to page two of the wine list. But this is Ireland. To avail of the early bird you will meet at half five for a quick one, which means a rapid two, so everybody drinks slightly more than normal over dinner, because momentum is the devil when it comes to the booze. You're foolish with the drink by half seven, as you vacate your table for people who are willing to pay full price. Orla's boyfriend can't stand up and you're off to the pub with at least four hours of drinking time left. Do the math. The early bird is a brilliant idea on a Tuesday night, or if you want to leave more time for sex, but it's a false economy if you're using it as a launch pad for a night of gargling.
Tales of the Recession
It is de rigueur these days to place a ban on all discussion of the recession over dinner. This is driven by the mistaken notion that people are "here to enjoy themselves", when in fact the only reason people step outside the door these days is to hear stories of people worse off than themselves. Don't worry about it, though, because once people get onto their third drink they'll avoid the story ban and the air will be blue with people talking about the fella with the helicopter that now drives a taxi.
You need to out-recession every one else with the best car-crash tale of the night. Nobody will push you for names, in case you are the person in the car crash, so feel free to make it up.
"My brother knows this guy who remortgaged his house to buy a yacht and two apartments in the south of France and now he's about to lose his job in the bank and his wife, no stranger to boob jobs and shopping trips to New York herself, told him the other day that she's going to leave him for some teacher guy she met down in Lidl. It makes you think." This story should work with any crowd.
But be prepared, because this is bound to finally open up our national wound: who is to blame for the recession? As we know, the answer to that is "somebody else".
If you want to have a harmonious evening, the key is to identify some group not represented around the table -- bankers work a treat here --and then agree that those bastards are to blame for the entire thing. If you are at a bankers' work do, then blame Brian Cowen.
If you are at a bankers' work do with Brian Cowen, seriously, you need to start hanging around with a different crowd.
The Supermarket issue
Put a group of people together these days and they'll end up talking about supermarkets. We might be helpless when it comes to property prices and unemployment, but our choice of shop remains one of the areas where we still feel in control of our destiny. People are passionate about supermarkets these days in a way they weren't before, so if you're going in to company, make sure you know where you stand.
A good start is to make it clear you know the price of a litre of milk in three local supermarkets and mention that you learned this while reading your shopping receipt -- studying your receipt is very now. Remember, this year, thrift is the new black, so you need to be able to rattle off the numbers of how much you saved by switching to Lidl/buying own brand/using loyalty cards/shoplifting/whatever worked for you.
Be careful not to overdo the Scroogery, though. Anybody can cancel their health insurance and start buying own-brand beans at the supermarket, but then you spend four days on a trolley in a hospital corridor being treated for cheap-bean fever. You really don't want to be the price-of-everything, value-of-nothing guy.
You will definitely need a firm view on the shopping-in-the-North question. If you are travelling through more than three counties to save money on your grocery shop, then cut it out. People who travel from deepest Munster to fill their boots in Newry are kidding themselves. Who really needs 8kg of onions? How much stuff gets thrown out after over-shopping?
These long-range shoppers never add in the price of petrol. When forced to do this they respond, "I was going to be in Newry anyway." Sorry now, but nobody with any sort of a life is ever "going to be in Newry anyway". They're travelling up there especially to buy an amount of jacks paper that they couldn't use up in a lifetime even if the family had four arses each. To top it all off, they arrive home wrecked 10 hours later, unconsoled by the fact that they need a second fridge just to cope with the amazing value they got in yogurt. Don't become one of these people.
Remember, also, to forgive your old supermarket. Just because you have saved yourself a fortune by switching to a cheaper place doesn't mean you have to buy absolutely everything there. OK, you still feel cheated by your old supermarket, and are in the first flush of love with the new one, but life is too short for cheap toilet paper and toothpaste that reminds you of lucky-bag bubblegum. You should stay friends with your ex in a supermarket sense, and return there now and again to buy shaving cream that doesn't give you a rash. People will respect you for it.
You need a good haggling story these days if you're going to make an impression. A lot of people see themselves as the new Michael O'Leary if they get 10 per cent off a sofa. "So I said to the guy, 'There's a recession on, now get real!' I didn't realise I was so good at negotiating -- I might start my own business."
Really? You're the first person to open your wallet in that shop for four days; the guy would have offered to cut your grass, mind your kids, and clean your gutters for life, as long as you took something off his hands. At just 10 per cent off, he's rolling around on one of his fake Persian rugs, laughing his arse off at the new Michael O'Leary.
You're nobody in the haggling stakes these days unless the salesman follows you out into the car park after you called him an out-of-touch arsehole for only offering a 70 per cent discount. When he starts to tell you how his daughter had to sell one of her ponies, you should twist the knife and ask him to throw in a rug. Remember that bankers, politicians and furniture retailers caused this recession. It had nothing to do with you. You have every right to be angry.
Buying a Car
This is a tricky business. Even though you can now get one for a carton of cigarettes, there is the danger that arriving to work in a flashy motor these days will put two words into your colleagues' minds: drug dealer. If HR get wind of this they'll either fire you or try to buy drugs off you. It's a career stopper either way.
Outside the workplace, driving around in a new car is just an invitation to road rage from people who will assume you are to blame for the recession. There is only one solution; disguise yourself as an old person.
Old people are the only category in this country that definitely did not cause the current crisis. While the rest of us are forced back into sackcloth for our sins, the elderly, who built this country, don't you know, are allowed to carry on spending regardless.
They have two things that make them virtually untouchable: oodles of spare time and free travel. As the Government's attempts to wrestle the medical card from them showed, fired-up oldies can mobilise on the streets faster than you can say: "I didn't need a new set of false teeth, but when you can get them for free, why not?"
So if you are going to flash the cash, make sure the first thing you buy is a pensioner disguise kit, which should include one of those handy tartan shopping bags on wheels.
Can I afford to be a foodie?
During the boom years there were two ways of proving your middle-class credentials in Ireland. The first was to study hard at college, build a career and constantly deny yourself gratification, while obsessing about getting your kids into private schools. The alternative was to buy an organic chicken. Talk about a no-brainer.
With money tighter, a lot of people are wondering if they can afford to be that ethical. The supermarkets have spotted this and free-range or organic chickens are reduced in price to the point of being suspiciously cheap. Does free range now mean that the chickens are allowed to move from their own crap for one hour every day and stand in the crap of the bird next to them?
The other issue is farmers' markets. Yes they're worth a visit to get your hands on fresh Irish produce. The problem at these markets is the twenty-something trustafarian in the knitted hat with the cupcake stall who is obviously just there to chat up yummy mummies in the hope they might give him €3 for one of his eight cakes. That kind of fluff was fine during the boom, but now it's impossible not to yell, "Get a proper shagging job!" at Godfrey and that will only make you look crazy in front of his hippy friends who will then rip you off at their turnip stall. So be careful. You could always have some fun with Godfrey, though, by haggling with him over his €3 cupcakes.
As discussed earlier, this is a minefield. Unless you feel comfortable asking somebody how much money they have left in the bank, under no circumstances should you ask them what they are doing for a holiday this year. People who went to the Seychelles last year will reply that you can't beat a week in Brittas, and everybody will look at their shoes with embarrassment. Other people who went to the Seychelles last year will reply that this year they are going to the Maldives, and you'll only drive yourself crazy wondering where they got the money from.
If somebody asks where you are going yourself, then you should answer, "Spain". That way they can assume you're crawling back to unflashy Benidorm for €3 jugs of happy-hour sangria, followed by chicken and chips down the Dog and Duck. This may be true. Or maybe you're popping down to the villa in Marbella for a month -- "What recession?" says you. Because, let's face it, you didn't cause it, so why should you suffer?
Do you remember Rashers Tierney? Rashers was the incredibly poor guy in Strumpet City, the drama set in Dublin during the 1913 Lockout, who had a small army of chisellers because, as he put it himself, sex was the one thing that the working man could enjoy for free in "deeze difficult times". With so many other forms of leisure now out of financial reach, we've started giving each other the glad eye again as the Rashers Tierney in all of us figures out the best form of tax-free fun when it comes to bang for your buck.
Don't do it. Chisellers were a nice little earner back during the boom years, when a generous children's allowance would cover things such as pony lessons and still leave a bit over to cover the mortgage. And, despite the fact that the Government is bound to claw back a lot of the allowance in the next few years, the modern chiseller will still want to carry on spending like nothing has changed. They're a bit like the public service that way.
If you do feel the urge for some lovin', then try to stick to cybersex and talking dirty to each other for the next couple of years. If you must have sex, use at least three forms of contraception. Because when it comes to the cost of the modern chiseller, even Rashers would say: "Jaysus, love, no tanks."
Fire the Cleaner?
Can you really afford the pleasant Lithuanian girl who comes every Wednesday with her friend who doesn't have any English to give your house the once-over? You spend an hour every Tuesday night cleaning the house anyway so they won't think you're a slob. Would it hurt to continue on and finish the job yourself?
If you share the house with somebody else, then it probably would. The Lithuanian girl isn't a cleaner; she's a conflict-resolution expert. For €13 an hour, she and her friend set an independent benchmark for how clean the house should be, meaning that you and your housemate/spouse/boyfriend don't have to fall out over the state of the tiles in the bathroom. When it's clean enough for Lithuanian Cleaner Lady, then it's clean enough.
If you still think that €13 an hour is too high a price to avoid yet another "why do you want me to polish the back of the wardrobe?" argument, then it might be worth your while to figure out the cost of a divorce.