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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Culture Shock

I've been in Cairo on the ultimate recessionistas holiday (paid in full by the Bank of Mom and Dad) and the phrase 'culture shock' would be a mild understatement when describing a place where six year olds make a living selling postcards by the Sphinx and, as the family tour guide Manal enlightens me, Pizza Hut is considered a chi-chi dining establishment for a young, hip crowd.

I'm not quite sure how gullible Manal thinks I am, but the fact is evident that Cairo is Poor with a capital P. Driving in from the airport I could count on one hand the amount of apartment blocks that had actually finished construction. Tenants were evidently so assured that the buildings might never be completed that satellite dishes peppered the flat makeshift roofs amongst ancient tarpaulins and creaky girders. On the way to the hotel a car crashed on the motorway and cars stopped across eight lanes of traffic as men swarmed over the accident to check the damage. It was chaos. My father leaned over to me and said in an unnecessarily confidential tone for a minivan occupant, "This is what Ireland was forty years ago". It made me wonder where in the home country Daddy Dearest had seen a satellite dish circa 1970, but I presume he must have been driving down a now lost Irish Autobahn as he did so.

However, I get his point. Ireland was capital P Poor until the mid nineties. Our country became affluent in the course of half a generation. It only took fifteen years or so to beget a whole new cadre of young adults who were incapable of remembering the poverty of a thousand years past. My parents often remind me that, while I may be cruising down the Nile now on a boat worthy of an Agatha Christie novel, twenty years ago we were living in a damp three room apartment with suspicious-looking (and sadly, inedible) mushrooms growing on the bathroom walls.

I wouldn't be the first person to suggest that a recession is merely a return to normality for the land of saints and scholars, and I certainly won't be the last. But what is normal? The new generation of Celtic Cubs adjust their idea of normality every day. We were rich yesterday - now we're not. Today a cruise ship, tomorrow a chilly house share on Barrack Street. It's best just to enjoy the good things - no matter how small or how fleeting.