Coronavirus and Airbnb

Over the years I’ve come to see Airbnb as a Bad Thing. Besides a couple of poor experiences at the hands of Airbnb “hosts” (I prefer to call them vultures), it is clear that between Airbnb and low-cost airlines our cities have been turned into tawdry tourist theme parks instead of vibrant spaces for the people who actually live, work and raise families there. I’ve been shocked by the Disneyfication of some of the city centres I visited lately. Quebec city was like a film set, with burly North Americans wandering around marvelling at the brickwork and windy streets, as if getting a behind-the-scenes look at a set from Game of Thrones. I met very few non-tourists over the course of a week spent there. Porto looked like it was in the throes of a zombie apocalypse: the riverside was crammed with hordes of red-faced, sweaty Britons mobbing mindlessly around anywhere that looked like it served alcohol. The few natives I saw there looked swamped and under siege. And Dublin . . . I think they should change its name to the Irish version of “trying-to-find-anything-non-touristy-in-the-city-centre-is-harder-than-advanced-Where’s-Wally”. (Its current name in Irish – Baile Átha Clíath – means “town-of-the-crossing-place-of-the-hurdles”).

Airbnb has significantly contributed to the hollowing-out of the city centres of major and minor world cities. If you want to live in the centre of Madrid, Dublin, London, New York or Granada, Salzburg or Cork you’ll have to compete with hundreds of thousands of global tourists who are prepared to pay multiples per night of what you can afford to pay. For landlords it’s a no-brainer – if all they’re interested in is the bottom line. And landlords are landlords, after all.

When Airbnb started out over a decade ago there was something almost noble to it. You’ve got a spare room? Why not make a bit of extra cash by renting it out to travellers? You’ll be their host, take care of them, show them around the city maybe, share a meal, an evening drink. It’ll be like when your boyfriend’s second cousin comes to crash, only you’ll make a bit of money out of it. The original model allowed those on meagre budgets to stay in amazing locations they could never otherwise afford – at the same time as getting the low-down from a clued-in local. Then, it all went pear-shaped. Somewhere along the line it stopped being a cottage industry. Landlords got involved: they started renting out entire apartments and houses. The concept that you took a room in a normal household died out. Property management firms and vulture funds got involved. It became a holiday rental business. A very lucrative holiday rental business. Very soon, any property for sale in our city centres was snapped up by the Airbnb industry. Renting of city centre apartments to long-term tenants who wanted to live and work in the city centre became a thing of the past. Our city centres became Airbnb-ified.

But now, this coronavirus thing is putting an end to that. No one is travelling. Perhaps no one will travel for a very long time. Six months. A year. Maybe the type of low-budget travel we’ve become so used to over the past 20 years is over. Whatever the case, Airbnb is taking and will continue to take a hit. And the good news for our city centres is that the vultures are turning back to ordinary tenants to make a buck. Already, a couple of weeks into the Irish coronavirus crisis, the closing of the tourist tap has forced Airbnb hosts to move away from travellers and return to renting to regular folks. According to this Irish Independent article there is already a 64% rise in the availability of rental properties in Dublin. Let’s see how this one plays out. Perhaps some good will come of this awful pandemic.

Posted in Ireland, Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Out and About

During the long winter nights and short winter days it is sometimes all too easy to come up with excuses not to leave the house, unless it is to forage Grizzly Adams-like in the shops for provisions. You find yourself in a cycle of breakfast table to work, work to dinner table, dinner table to sofa, and sofa to bed from the end of September until the days begin to lengthen towards the end of February. The outdoor world can become a stranger to you, and even if you’re an outdoorsy type, you can slip into bad habits, saying to yourself that you won’t take that run tonight because it’s pelting rain, or postponing that hill walk due to fog or wind. You’re not helped by the gloomy December and January skies and the entry of the body into hibernation mode. The call of nature seems to whisper: “Your ancestors huddled and spooned in fire-warmed caves from Halloween to vernal equinox – why shouldn’t you?” The festive season is another sucker punch in the ribs for outdoor physical activity, where the emphasis is on candlelight, port, crackling Yule logs and feasting.

That’s why kids and dogs are great. There’s nothing like being the father of a toddler or the owner of a giddy cocker to lift you up out of the sofa and onto the pavements and greens of your neighbourhood no matter how cold or damp or gloomy the weather.

My kids have grown beyond the toddler stage, unfortunately, but I remember how the outdoors seemed to exert an almost magnetic pull on them. They always wanted to be outside, whether it be in the park scooping holes in the sand or on the footpaths wheeling Sally and Vickie (their dollies) up and down in their tiny, rickety buggies. It seemed as if the house was unable to contain the wonder, joy and imagination their play entailed. Walking with them, sometimes behind them, keeping a watchful eye, I saw how they imagined and transformed the mundane into the wondrous. The green was not a rectangle of rough grass and spindly trees, but the lawn of a princess’ castle. The tunnel of tree boughs behind the supermarket was a secret pathway to fairyland. The crude tyre swing was a rocket to the moon. We got to know every nook and cranny of public space around our home: the girls toddled up every hill and down every dale of the green in our estate and the bits of fields behind it. We knew where the good primroses peppered the shade under coming-to-life oaks in spring. Where the daffodils danced in secret clumps, where there used to be a farmhouse. Where the deep puddle that never emptied, even in the driest of weather, lurked, and how the stones sploshed and the ripples spread across its black surface.

We have a dog now, the Archie I have written about recently. Bringing him for his daily walks, I find myself brought back in time, to when I watchfully roamed every blade of grass in the locale. Just as with the girls when they were toddlers, I find myself being pulled into every nook and cranny within walking distance of the house. Archie has helped me rediscover those magical spots I explored with the kids. And I think for him our neighbourhood is no less filled with wonder and joy than it was for the girls. Every rustling leaf, minor tussock and urine-marked bush elicit from him a hearty wag of the tail and merit a good, long and hearty sniff. Every bird, from willy wagtail to partridge gets a lopsided, drool-spattered chasing. Every person we pass gets a wag of “nice to see you” – and would get and a pawing and licking of friendship if I allowed it. Nothing or nobody is ordinary for Archie. The outdoors is a masterpiece of olfactory and visual stimulation, painted with a pallet designed to bring out a contented canine curiosity.

And so, once more, I am an outdoors man. Come hail rain or shine, you will not find me on the couch, but in some corner of the green, or hollow in the “waste ground” (I hate that term; the “waste ground” near our house is abuzz with walkers, kids and their huts and tree houses) with a frantically snuffling cocker.

Posted in Childhood, Dogs, health, The Street | Tagged | Leave a comment

Moving Country

It’s funny how it’s the small things that get you. Getting dressed recently, I pulled out a long-sleeved top and held it up for examination before putting it on.

I need a new one of these, I said to myself, noting the fading and bobbling. I’m not a bass player in a grunge band.

My next thought was: Have to go to Springfield.

The said clothes shop has been my go-to outfitter for tops and T-shirts for the guts of twenty years. Except there’s no Springfield near where I currently live. There was a Springfield, though, near my home in Madrid, where up until two years ago, I lived for almost nine years.

I still haven’t found a tops and T-shirts emporium in my new city. Or a place to buy those jeans I like. Or a nice tapas bar. Or a replacement for that satirical news programme we used to watch every day before turning in. Or a million other little trivial, but-not-so-trivial-at-the-same-time things.

Moving country in your forties, while exciting, challenging, exhilarating and all the rest of it is not fun. For certain things the forty-year-old version of me had become set in his ways. Between the ages of thirty and forty, it seems as if certain patterns of behaviour, preferences – ways of being – had become set in stone. And while moving has been almost like an earthquake, it hasn’t been far enough up on the Richter scale to crack these hefty slabs of habit and choice. I still want to be like the pre-move me and do many of the things the pre-move me did.

For this reason, moving country has been bloody disruptive. And two years after the fact, I still haven’t reached a place as comfortable in as I was pre-move. And let’s face it, it’s not just the little things – the long-sleeved tops and tapas bars. The move has destroyed big things, important things which I haven’t recovered yet or am working hard at to recover. I’ve come to see a big move such as the one we’ve done as a huge dissolving process that takes with it all the certainties, life rhythms and patterns of the old life. The struggle is reforming the old ways of being to meet the new life in some sort of spirit of harmony.

Some examples: I used to do weights most nights in our old life. A half-hour of lifting and pressing in our large living room while the family watched TV together in the evening was deeply embedded into my routine. Somehow, with the change in location, the new living room, slightly earlier evening mealtimes, a different division of chores, I’m lucky to do weights twice a week. Similarly, I haven’t been as punctilious with my guitar playing as I was in the old life; I just can’t find a time/location where it fits into the new life as it did in the old. And writing and blogging . . . I’ve barely done any of that since the move. Things were so hectic immediately after moving country that I put these on the back burner for a couple of months, but that couple of months has turned into two years.

When you land in a new country you tend to take care of the big stuff first: the house, schools for the kids, the car, insurance, assurance, broadband, activities for the kids, the garden, that dog you promised them. And home life somehow seems to coalesce into a pattern just as easy and wholesome as the pattern you had pre-move. But the things that made you you – defined you – get left by the wayside in sorting out these large practicalities. And you need to find yourself again. The move has broken many things down, so it’s time to build them up again.

My new life will not be fully mine until I’ve found that go-to top shop in my new city.

Posted in Being Irish Abroad, Life | Tagged | Leave a comment

My Poor Garden

The first thing we did when we moved into the house fifteen years ago was the garden. For months before we got the keys, we had been drawing up plans for a cottage-style garden out back and a heather- and grasses-themed patch out front. We bought seeds – dozens of packets – and sowed them in trays that we kept in the sunniest spots in our little rented flat. We collected cuttings and visited garden centres, snapping up bargains, so that by the time the house was ready there wasn’t a square inch of dining area, floor or worktop of the flat free of leaf, frond or branch. We had very little plans for the house itself – that could wait. We figured that it was important to take advantage of the fact that we’d be moving in in summer: we could get the garden established first so that by the winter we wouldn’t be looking out at a sea of mud.

We were given the keys on the Friday of the weekend of the June bank holiday. After moving our few things across town, we set about whipping the garden into the shape we’d plotted out. We spent weeks digging and turning the soil, working late into the night in the glow of the midsummer sky. As we planted rows of seedlings as the midnight dew fell, we joked that our new neighbours must have thought us mad.

That garden is now mature. Some of our seedlings and saplings took hold and prospered, others not. Some plants for which we paid a relative fortune withered after a few seasons, while a pair of bay plants we bought for a couple of euro each and which were less than three inches tall at time of planting are now handsome trees, twice the height of a man. A eucalyptus sprouted too high, beanstalk-like, and had to be taken down. The winter of 2010 cut a frosty swath through the more exposed sections, took a camelia given to us by my late father. The tenants we left the house to while we lived abroad did not do the garden proud – I will never forgive them for pulling up a row of woody lavenders. But last summer the garden was beautiful. It reached the pinnacle of what we had dreamed for it. There was one night in June when we sat out with friends having a few beers and I thought: This is what I always wanted this garden to be.

Then, last September, we got a puppy.

The garden now resembles the front line of a World War I theatre of operations.

I knew prior to purchasing Archie that introducing a canine to a small cottage garden would spell an end to the near perfection achieved last summer. The dogs I had as a child were no respecters of herbaceous borders, trim lawns or sparsely planted rockeries. Amy, a cocker, was a digger. Muffin, a wheaten terrier, had a thing against cineraria, and sculpted these huge nests among the flowers for her many phantom pregnancies. I knew that dogs scraped before and after “doing their business”. That urine bleached grass. That number two’s needed collecting on a regular basis. In short, I knew it would be a struggle to keep as nice a garden as I wanted to keep with a dog in the family.

However . . . The beast has destroyed my garden. Beyond any of my prior experiences with pooches. Archie is: a digger; a rooter; a scraper; a puller; a stripper of bark; a snapper at leaves; a snapper of branches; a hunter, extracter and sucker of bulbs; a pooper on heathers; a stomper; a squasher; a tearer; a ripper. He either loves plants and wants to devour every gram of vegetation in the garden, or he hates plants and wants to devour every gram of vegetation in the garden.

I cannot see a way forward. This does not seem to be a mere phase the dog is going through. His interest in landscaping does not seem like something he will shed as he leaves puppyhood. As he approaches seven months of age, he’s as much of a digger and destroyer now as he ever was. I could restrict his access to the garden, letting him out only under strict supervision. But those moments when he is on his own among the laurels and willows are as close to freedom to mooch and mull as this teenage canine gets. I could fence off those parts of the garden I wish to keep out of the reach of his mighty paws and choppers, but the garden is postage-stamp enough as it is. I could change the garden, remodel it: theme it as dog-proof rather than cottage. Exasperation has led me to almost consider this. But, I have decided to adopt a Lebowskian attitude to this. I will abide, and perhaps in a couple of years when the mutt is middle-aged, his interest will turn from excavating to observing birds or licking drains. And perhaps then we might put the garden back together.

Posted in Humour, Plants | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Joy of a Dead-End Job

It’s a wonderful thing to have a dead-end job. A luxury, a boon, a privilege. I once read that the more restricted your choices in life, the happier you would be. It’s all this humming and hawing over myriad options, this indecision spurred on by near infinite choice that makes us anxious and unhappy. A dead-end job most definitely cuts off your options. In a professional sense there are only two: stay or go. As long as the dead-end job pays enough and doesn’t “twist your melon”, as the song goes, you don’t even have to devote a single bite of your brain’s valuable RAM to this question. You’re content to keep walking up that professional blind alley, that cul-de-sac of the working world – you’re staying.

Happy in your dead-end job, you can devote every second of the time you spend outside work to living – real life and all of that. In between clocking out and in you dwell for not a whit on your work, workplace or colleagues. Your leisure time is your leisure time, one hundred per cent (if not more!). You see friends slipping away from the dinner table with a buzzing phone mouthing “I’ve got to take this – it’s work”, or people in cafés sighing while tapping frantic responses to emails on their laptops (and not enjoying that Frappuccino one bit) and you deeply feel both your luck and the rightness of your choice. Outside work your time is your own. You’re not worrying about the outcome of yesterday’s meeting as you butter your toast in the morning; you’re listening to Debussy or Calexico or that podcast you follow or chatting to the kids about their plans for the day. When you’re hammering out a few chords on the guitar, you do not suddenly pull up, a line of prickly sweat tricking down your back with the thought of “oh, my God, did I send Halpin the correct attachment this afternoon?” ricocheting around your mind. There’s no night terrors starring bosses, line managers, promotions, demotions, transfers, section mergers, restructurings, CV enhancement or any of the like: it’s all water off a duck’s back to you. Your spirit is free, untroubled. You pity those poor souls handing over good money to mindfulness gurus who will struggle to teach them what comes naturally to you: “forget about work, live – live in the moment”.

It gets even better. You can even bring your private life into the dead-end job. In a complete reversal of almost everybody else’s angst-driven work life, you can take your hobbies and interests into your dead-end job and indulge them while on the clock. Of course, you must be one of the very lucky few whose dead-end job involves down time, or spells when you’re unsupervised, or where it appears as if you’re working, when in fact you can be updating your blog or studying that biography of de Gaulle. Or your job may be one of those which allows you to simultaneously work while also improving the self – a one-eye-on-the-widget-stamping-machine, a one-eye-on-the-laptop kind of job.

If you’re one of those people with more hobbies and interests than time to squeeze them into, then the above type of dead-end job is ideal. What to somebody else might be a soul-destroying, watching-the-paint-dry borefest, is to you an opportunity to cultivate that hefty bushel of interests. So, while you keep an eye on the widget-stamper, making sure those numbers are within tolerance and nothing is snarling up on the in- or out-take, you can simultaneously be tracing your tangle of a family tree back the generations, learning about hop isomerisation in homebrewing, or editing that short story. You actually look forward to going into work. At home there are distractions: the kids, the dog, street noise, phone calls. At work, the environment is more conducive to . . . work. Be that the work you are paid to do or your own dabblings.

Thus, your dead-end job can be a deep artesian well of self-esteem, instead of what would otherwise be the case – an unsatisfying, soul-destroying grind is transformed into intellectual and artistic stimulation. Instead of boring repetition, your working day is all about creative realisation and the growth of the self. What’s dead-end about that? When you feel disdain being directed at you by superiors or those to whom you reveal your lowly “roll”, you can happily deflect this by thinking to yourself: “In their eyes I am a mere factotum, whereas I’m a composer of symphonies/weaver of tall tales/theoreticist/genealogist/man of letters”.

But what, I hear you say, if your dead-end job doesn’t afford you the opportunity to write the great American novel or solve the mysteries of quantum mechanics? What if it’s an all-hands-on-deck type of job, no slack time, no chance to free up a hand or two to for knitting or leatherwork or typing or whatever hobby you might indulge in the workplace if allowed? My answer: you still have your brain. You’re a poet, a writer, or you’re studying for that diploma in water chemistry: while the body may be going through the motions of your dead-end job, your mind can be soaring over the artistic and creative highlands. Your shift is then anything but mind-numbing. While you roll your metaphorical (or real) doughnuts, you could be working on the fifteenth stanza of your epic poem on the Battle of Lepanto. Over and over, throughout the eight hours of company time, you’re composing, editing and memorising your stanza. And then upon clock-out you rush to the nearest phone, tablet or laptop and commit the said stanza to electronic immortality.

The amazing thing about pushing the possibilities of what can be achieved hobby- and interest-wise within a dead-end job is that the day goes by flying. What for your colleagues is surely a slow, clock-watching torment, goes by in the blink of an eye for you. In fact, you sometimes find that you could do with an extra couple of hours at work to finish that chapter/equation/blog/design.

Should one feel guilty about spending large chunks of one’s working day at one’s hobbies and interests? Not if one is simultaneously performing the work one is being paid to do. If my boss orders me to clean twenty-five windows before lunch and I do so with time to spare, why should I not spend fifteen minutes or half an hour between tasks on that short story that needs finishing? If there are no customers, I’ve taken stock, done all the ordering and dusted the shelves is there anything wrong with me studying a couple of pages of Virgil or the Spanish subjunctive? Should every moment at work involve scurrying from one menial task to the next? Isn’t true work-live balance all about work grazing – a little bit of activity here, a break, a little bit of activity there, a break? We are not slaves, after all. If jobs exist which are so menial and unchallenging that 99% of our spirits and brains do not need to be engaged in order to perform them then where’s the wrong in harnessing that unused creativity and intelligence during the working day to our own benefit? In a perfect world dead-end jobs would not exist. Every job would stimulate, involve and excite, and the work you performed would slot in seamlessly with your personal life in terms of passions, interests and motivations. There would not even exist the concept of “going to work” – you would be your work and it would be you, or at the very least a closely woven extension of you. But until that perfect world comes into existence and dead-end jobs cease to be, I cannot recommend them highly enough!

Posted in Life | Tagged | Leave a comment