Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Summer abroad: Working in New York and London

The three-month summer break offers many students their first opportunity to live and work in another country

Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 01:00


The three-month summer break offers many students their first opportunity to live and work in another country. Trinity students Fionn Rogan and Gareth Gregan have both travelled abroad to work in restaurants this summer, one to New York and the other to London. They share their experiences of adjusting to life in a new city.

‘My Irish idea of normality is alien here’: Fionn Rogan, New York

“Wacky! It’s wacky! Hehehe,” according to the bearded and bedraggled man dancing disjointedly in his underpants through the centre of Union Square in New York. He swings a ragged plush bunny by its ears, occasionally beating it off the lone bass drum he’s brought along with him.

People point. They laugh. They film him on their phones, thrilled when he lays down his bunny to ride his battered Fisher Price Cozy Coupé, lying on his belly squealing as he rockets through the square. It certainly is wacky. It almost feels like an extreme avant-garde performance piece.

He’s joined in the square by one man dressed in a fluorescent pink turban, net curtains, a tutu, a flip flop and a Doc Marten boot, repeatedly yelling softly the word “priceless”, and another foul-mouthed sinewy creature with a cardboard sign and a wicked energy. They’re an intriguing trio, apparently oblivious to the eccentricity of their behavior and isolated from each other, those who watch them, and reality. Yet they and their onlookers seem to best capture the spirit of New York.

New York is an eccentric place, home to the most diverse body of people on this planet. The multiplicity of human experience, drawn from every culture in the world is clear to see at every moment of every day. As a J1 student travelling from a largely homogenous culture in Ireland, it can be thrilling, even stirring, but also shocking to experience. Shocking in the sense that it’s such a marked change from my normal life. Despite the overbearing and pervasive nature of US globalisation at home, life in Ireland is an entirely different experience to New York.

I’ll admit I hated the city after the first few days. I had no problem finding a job, selling picnic baskets from an upmarket restaurant in Central Park on the Upper Westside. I live on a picturesque, tree-lined street in Richmond Hill in Queens. I was surrounded by friends, and yet I found that, perhaps not life in New York particularly but life in America distressed me. It wasn’t that my life was bad, but that other people’s weren’t near as good. Of course, I realise it’s a dangerous game to judge the quality of people’s lives from your own perspective but I recognised very quickly that the standard of life in Ireland and Europe is far superior to that of the average American. The callous inequity that thrives in this country is gross and alien to me.

An advertisement on the Subway was particularly affronting. Large yellow text, printed on a brash pink background, asked “Are you or have you ever been depressed?” A similar sign on the Luas at home might follow with a number for the Samaritans. The Subway’s offering continued with, “If so, and are aged between 18-64, you may be eligible for drug trials for our new anti-depressant drug” and offered contact details below. It was a jarring thing to see, and similar advertisements catering for those suffering from addiction and schizophrenia plastered elsewhere in the city suggest it’s perceived as a perfectly acceptable way to treat people.

Of course, Europe and Ireland have their fair share of issues also. I landed in the US as news of the Tuam Mother and Child Home controversy broke. We are not better than America, nor are they better than us. We just have vastly different value systems, and in the first week I think perhaps my dislike for New York stemmed from an overwhelming assault on all I held to be normal. It was a knee-jerk reaction. My Irish idea of normality is alien here and of course when I decide to live somewhere for just three months it’s natural I might try to preserve that as best I can.

I realise now though that that is a futile exercise. My best course of action is to embrace life in New York, but I am reassured to know I can return home in three months’ time.

Fionn Rogan (21) is a third year English and History student, from Clane, Co Kildare. Follow him on Twitter @FionnRogan


‘The Irish are kindest to each other when we are abroad’: Gareth Gregan, London

I’m writing this piece from a park in Cardiff, having escaped the brawl of London life. Seeking refuge under the park’s largest tree as the weather flicks intermittently between feeble sunlight and torrential downpours, conditions are perfect for getting my thoughts buzzing about Ireland.

I can be described as a “seasonal emigrant”; an Irish third-level student who, rather than face the uncertain task of seeking out summer employment in our most karst of economic landscapes, goes overseas each year in order to replenish my bank balance for the coming September.

This year I find myself working in a “food-vodka matching restaurant” in London’s Covent Garden, having worked for summers past at Disneyland Paris, and in Boston on a J1.

I’ll never forget the fear when I touched down in Paris just after my 18th birthday, and stumbled through a Parisian ghetto in search of my hostel. In retrospect, it was mad. Similarly memorable was arriving in America at 19, and seeing the looks on my colleagues’ faces when I told them that yes, my mother was aware I boarded a flight to other side of the world without a job, hostel or accommodation waiting for me when I stepped off the plane.

So what have my summer abroad experiences taught me? Firstly, they have made me more aware of what it means to be Irish. As both London and Boston are focal points of the diaspora, my “Irishness” (pale skin, freckles and a mop of ginger hair) is a daily topic of conversation. What I initially dismissed as Paddywhackery I now accept as genuine curiosity from people with deep-rooted connections to the country. There is something brilliantly uplifting about calling a place that brings a smile to others’ faces home.

The Irish are kindest to each other when we are abroad and I have numerous experiences of this across these summers away. The most striking example is the group of UL students who saved my friends and I hundreds of dollars by allowing us to stay with them for almost two weeks in Boston, until we finally secured our own accommodation.

My travels have also given me a better sense of perspective. While Garth Brooks cancelling his Croke Park gigs is unfortunate, I have my doubts that its the national crisis the Liveline team would have you believe. Ireland lives in a bubble sometimes, where the most trivial of things can be blown far out of proportion.

Ireland has many flaws, which I can also recognise more clearly from abroad. Watching the news of Ireland’s recent dealings with the UN over abortion legislation unfold made me realise how certain elements of Irish rule still resemble a theocracy, not present in the other countries I’ve lived in.

It is in the working world that you get a true taste of a country, as the rough edges glossed over for tourists start to reveal themselves. I have met and worked with some incredible people and been given great advice (a recent customer swore to me that learning salsa was the most beneficial thing I could do in my 20s).

Gareth Gregan (21) is studying economics and politics at Trinity College Dublin.

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