Peter Funt: Postcard from Dublin
DUBLIN, Ireland -- On the day we arrived, the tourism board in Kilkenny was holding a training program for workers in the hospitality trade. Among the bits of advice: Never say "no"; always say "no problem." And this: Look a visitor in the eye, but not for too long, lest he feel intimidated. Try to gradually shift your gaze to the bridge of his nose.
This nation of 4.6 million residents hosts over 6.3 million foreign travelers annually and, to this visitor, the Irish appear to be doing many things right, particularly in Dublin. The people are friendly, even without the benefit of formal training. The streets are clean. Trains and buses run beautifully. The museums, libraries and parks are jewels, and most are free to the public.
Yet, during just one week in Ireland it also seemed as if all the world's serious problems were on display here.
Ireland's economy is struggling, and the euro has fallen significantly against the dollar.
A heat wave serious enough to have people talking about global warming rolled across the nation in early July. Our cab driver, who didn't appear to be a day under 60, said he had never seen, or felt, anything like it. Indeed, Dublin endured some of its warmest temperatures in all recorded history.
Parliament argued furiously over abortion reform. It's always been illegal in this devoutly Roman Catholic nation, but the new law will at least permit the procedure in circumstances where a woman's life is at stake. The cabbie seemed to understand, but his faith made him uneasy about the change.
As if lawmakers didn't have enough on their plates, they also debated new legislation to make cyberbullying a federal crime. And a bill was introduced to lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
The Irish have long had a reputation for heavy drinking, but now Parliament is considering a ban on alcohol ads and sponsorships at sporting events. I learned this while sitting in a pub, drinking a Guinness, and trying to figure out the rules of hurling. Seems you can score three points by hitting the ball into the goal, or one point by hitting it through the goal posts.
Even in this lush land there are concerns about a water shortage, just like back home across much of the West. Residential fees for water were abolished in 1997, but now they are returning, at the rate of about $400 per year for the average household. However, the government says it won't charge anyone who can't afford it, and even those who are able to pay will never have their water shut off. Instead, households in arrears will find that the water pressure is sharply reduced.
So, there's a lot of news here, and it's pleasing to see Dubliners queuing up to buy newspapers. Numerous dailies remain, among them The Herald, that still publishes both morning and afternoon editions.
Many American food products are sold here, like Rice Krispies and Pepsi. But when it comes to candy bars, it's a different world. Yorkie is a popular chocolate bar, along with Crunchie, Wispa, Drifter and Ripple. My favorite is named Maltesers Teasers, "Crunchy little malt pieces floating in creamy milk chocolate," which its manufacturer recently described as "The biggest UK innovation of the decade."
But you'd have to look hard to find a single candy wrapper on the ground.
I asked a railway worker at the Pearse Street Station how it was that the place remained so clean, even after the busy morning rush. "If I see rubbish on the ground when I walk my dog in the park, I pick it up," he said. "The Irish have a lot of pride."
Dublin is a very pleasant place these days because most folks don't require formal training in hospitality to learn civic pride. It seems to come naturally.