Amalendu Misra learns a lesson or two about recession and nationalism from Dublin cabbies
(This article was originally published by International Business Times on April 5, 2011)
By Amalendu Misra
I was there for a total of four days and three nights. Yet, it felt like ages. It is not that I was caged up in some downtown police station. I was very much out in the open; staying in a swanky hotel in the middle of Dublin. There were cabs at hand if I decided to move around this chaotic city or to travel out into the country. My trip was handsomely covered.
But, in spite of all the luxuries and perks, I was like a fish out of water — desperate to turn my back and make a fast escape. Again, it was neither my thoughts about an uncle on life-support back home nor my thoughts of my woman going to bed with a pillow. It is just that the place was unraveling and was far too oppressive.
They say the quickest way to gauge a people is to speak to its cab drivers. They are like barometers. Always clocking up the right social temperature. I cannot agree more. That’s why I always jump into the front seat next to the cabbie (you cannot do that in New York, though). Climbing into the seat next to the cabbie is like breaking a barrier and making a declaration that You, the cabbie and I, the customer are going to be pals for the next whatever minutes of our ride.
That is exactly what I did when I got out of the glass-paneled terminal building. It was a big van for sure; I climbed up into the front seat after the initial bonhomie. However, he was not impressed. Ten seconds after we pulled out of the taxi stand, he began to thump on the steering wheel. It went on for a minute or so. He would mumble something and then hit the steering wheel with his fist.
At first I thought it could be a form of turret syndrome (a kind of violent spasm that attacks the patient at regular intervals). My knowledge on this was strictly second-hand; picked up from some magazine while waiting for a haircut in a barber-shop. After one full minute of this display, I asked if he was okay. He mumbled something again, to which I offered my ready stock of aspirin from inside my jacket pocket.
His reaction was uncharacteristic. He burst out in a feat of angry desperation “I need 650 Euros a week, not an aspirin”. I could see he was cracking up slowly all over. He had picked up a foreigner for a passenger; the ride was only a short distance, he had waited over two hours for his turn at the taxi rank and the road was empty with no traffic lights or congestion. I already had a subject and here was a chance to “feel the pulse”.
I volunteered a question: Why is it difficult to get the target amount? His answer was straight from the popular press. Foreigners, inflation, drying up of FDI, fall in property prices ... had all contributed to his sinking weekly income. To this, I could not help but inquire if he was thinking of migrating like many of his countrymen and women in the past? Here was a true nationalist. “Why should I leave? Why should I leave my country? It is the foreigners who should leave!”
I had obviously touched a raw nerve. But I was tempted to keep digging. “How come the foreigners are doing well here and the locals are missing out?” I sneaked in another line of inquiry. “These Poles, Portuguese, Ukrainians, Latvians, and the rest are undercutting our jobs by taking lower wages.”
Surely, my cabbie not only did not tolerate the Chinese, Asians and Africans in this self-proclaimed cosmopolitan capital city but had an open gripe against the white Catholics and other Europeans as well.
The critic in me was now fully awake. I had to ask if he was aware of the 19th and early 20th century Irish migrants to the United States undercutting all the jobs there.
I bet he would have pulled up the cab in the middle of the road if we were in some country road and asked me to leave. But we were in the heart of a dual carriageway leading up to downtown Dublin. While getting off, I tipped him heavily and asked if he was keen to work in my factory across the Irish Sea, as the take-home income was so low here. I could have been punched on my face. He was sullen. This new affront from a foreigner went a wee bit too far. He slammed the door and drove off like a comet.
That afternoon I strolled around the city centre looking for signs of the economic miracle gone wrong in Ireland. Every street and alley had new homeless, announcing their economic misfortune. One of my Irish acquaintances revealed that he had lost 50 per cent on his recently bought house. Another confessed to the fact that she was thinking of migrating to the United States; and also seriously considering India (for its IT sector, of course) as the Americans were no longer so keen on receiving Irish immigrants.
Next day I decided to see the model towns at the outskirts of Dublin, built during the height of the property boom. They looked like a “soon-to-shoot” film set. Rows and rows of houses in various stages of construction, some occupied, most empty, and a few derelict. “The government is now planning to pull them down,” Paddy, my new portly cabbie-for-the-day, volunteered the information. “What a waste!” he sighed. “Are you not getting an 80 billion Euro aid package to rescue your economy?” I put to Paddy. “Aid package, it is a bondage package,” he thundered. Apparently under the agreement terms, Paddy, is son and his yet-to-be-born grandson will get tied down to the loan. Three generations in a row, working incessantly to pay it off.
“You know what?” Paddy thundered again, “Your government is not doing us any favor. It is charging more interest than the open market loan.” I must confess I had not done my homework on interest rates. All I could do to assuage Paddy’s anger against Europe was to utter a neutral “aah”. So much for the miracle economy, the Celtic Tiger, and the One for All and All for One Three Musketeer slogan of the European Union!
It was raining incessantly on my third day in the city. A cab pulled up behind me as I came out of the main reception in Dublin City University. I jumped into the front seat in my characteristic manner. I was self-absorbed for the first 30 seconds or so, while putting the seat belt on and shrugging off the remaining raindrops off my Mackintosh. When I finally turned my head towards the cabbie, it was a non-white face that greeted me. “No charge according to the meter. You pay me less.” Here was an entrepreneurial cabbie from the Elbruz mountains. So how do you feel in Dublin? How is business? Is the current economic condition affecting you? I heaped the questions all at once; for the distance we were traveling was short. “Bad, very bad. Inshallah, I would leave tomorrow, if I can.
See, I work hard and they don’t like me.” Who does not like you? “The other cab drivers, the Irish passengers. I go home, if possible. Nine of us — all foreigners live in one room. What life!” How do you all sleep? “Ah, when there is no work, we sleep in shifts. Six hours maximum.” This foreign worker, undercutting Irish jobs, definitely was not living a life of luxury.
The night before my departure from the city and on the edge of a nervous breakdown, I went to the hotel’s bar. It had the usual smartly dressed weekend drinkers interspersed with a scattering of East European sex workers. Apparently this Catholic country developed a taste for this vice during the boom years.
I ordered two large Bushnell’s and waited for her to open up. Business was bad for Tatiana and every other expat she knew in all kinds of trade. She now patronizes only those cabs without the newly popular “100 percent Irish” bumper stickers. “You should take a non-Irish cab when you leave for the airport. I know this Georgian Cabbie. …” I was rediscovering raw nationalism in these slump years. (Global India Newswire)