American Expats in Ireland: Ways in Which Life is Just a Bit Different

Hello, Americans. If you’re thinking of moving to Ireland, or maybe just visiting for a nice long time, there are some cultural and day-to-day differences that may throw you for a loop. Some of them are obvious–like driving on the left and not pulling a gun on people in traffic. But there are more subtle changes you’ll experience, and it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into before you order a sandwich with extra mustard, drive on bald tires, go hunting for Tylenol, or renew your Amazon subscription.

Irish life is just a bit different. Here’s how:

Food

  • AT HOME: Say goodbye to a lot of the frozen and “convenience” foods you’re used to–Cool Whip, pizza rolls, Bisquick, Jell-O, crescent rolls, cinnamon rolls in a tube, cream of mushroom soup. You’ll need to get back to basics for a lot of your home cooking–learning how to make pie crust from scratch, whipping your own cream, and roasting root vegetables in the oven.
  • FAST FOOD: It’s not nearly as common here. Most big cities will have a McDonald’s, Subway, and a Domino’s Pizza. Maybe even a Burger King. The most popular and common fast food restaurant is Ireland’s own Super Macs. That said, fast food just isn’t a regular staple. Prepare to say goodbye to Arby’s, KFC, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell.
  • BREAKFAST: Forget waffles and French toast. Pancakes as you know them are also gone, unless you find someone advertising  “American-style” pancakes, and they’re usually awful. Cereal is still an option, but you’ll have fewer choices–and be warned, regular Cheerios are very sweet here.
  • SNACKS: You can’t go anywhere in Ireland without seeing a bag of Taytos, which are Irish crisps. Oddly enough, the default flavor of crisp is cheese & onion. Plain “chips” are hard to find here. If you don’t go for cheese & onion, then other popular choices are salt & vinegar or prawn cocktail.Tayto
  • MUSTARD: Beware, mustard in Ireland is not the yellow stuff you’re used to. It’s much MUCH hotter. It’s more like raw horseradish. Use at your own risk.
  • THE LINGO: Let’s do this–Irish vs. American
    – Crisps = Potato Chips
    – Chips = Fries
    – Pies = Savory dinner pies
    – Tarts = Can be tarts, but more likely are full dessert pies
    – Pudding = Well, it isn’t dessert pudding. I still don’t know what the hell it is.
    – Courgette = Zucchini
    – Aubergine = Eggplant
    – Chicken goujons = Chicken tenders
    – Cheese toasty = Grilled cheese
    – Pancakes = Crepes
    – Sweets = Candy
    – Biscuits = Cookies

Pubs & Drinks

  • SPIRITS: Remember what I said about getting back to basics? That goes for drinks, too. Most pubs or bars don’t have a wide range of cocktails available–they’ll cringe if you even mention a Bloody Mary (learn to make those at home from scratch). Forget cotton candy-flavored vodka or whatever specialty liqueur you adore. No Moscow Mules. No tropical drinks with umbrellas. And the smaller the pub, the smaller the selection. Expect one or two types of vodka, one type of rum (probably not Captain), and probably no tequila. However, most pubs have a variety of gin, whiskey, and beer! If you aren’t getting beer, whiskey, or wine, here are the most common orders: Cider, gin and tonic, Irish coffee (coffee and whiskey), hot toddy (whiskey, hot water, cloves, lemon juice), or maybe a rum and Coke. There’s nothing wrong with just ordering coffee or tea, of course!

  • WINE: Do you like white wine? Great, you’ll have two choices most likely: Chardonnay or “sauv blanc”. Do you like red wine? Um, they’ll have some kind of red wine, but almost everyone drinks white wine here. Here’s some good news, though–in many places you can opt to just order the whole bottle, and what you don’t finish, you can carry out.
  • GIN: Gin is quite popular in Ireland, and there are a variety of options for you. What’s crazy, is that gins Americans think of as “top-shelf”, are considered lower end here. Think Tanqueray. If you want high-end, try Gunpowder. Otherwise, just ask for “regular gin” to get the inexpensive stuff. Or better yet, ask for “anything Irish”. There are two types of results you can get when you order a gin and tonic (don’t say “G&T”): Either you get the “local” version, which comes in a normal skinny glass with maaaaaybe a slice of lime or lemon. It depends on how cranky the bartender is feeling. Or, you might get the “tourist” gin and tonic–it comes in a giant “balloon” glass and is laden with four or five different types of fruit and berries. Nothing’s wrong with either, but it’s a funny difference. Oh, one more thing–pink gin is very en vogue with ladies right now. It’s incredibly sweet, but most people like it.pink gin
  • PUB ETIQUETTE: Whether you sit and the bar or a table, most commonly, you will need to approach the bar to order drinks and refills. Expect to pay for each drink (or round of drinks) as you order them instead of running a tab. Cash makes this much easier. If a pub or restaurant is slower, then you may ask to run a tab. Tips are nice, though not necessarily expected. Still, leaving an extra euro or two is always good karma. If you’re with a group, it’s customary that each member of the group takes a turn going up to the bar and ordering a round of drinks for everyone they’re with, including paying for the round. Lots of jokes are made about hiding in the bathroom when it’s your turn to pick up the round–but it’s really bad form to not take your turn.

Restaurants

  • ETIQUETTE: During normal (non-pandemic) times, smaller restaurants assume you will seat yourselves. Look for the specials board, as most restaurants have a menu that changes daily. If nothing suits you there, you can request to see a menu. Bigger, busier restaurants–especially those catering to tourists–will ask you to wait to be seated, and will automatically bring you a menu. Back at the smaller restaurants, when your drink runs out or if you want your bill, you will probably need to approach the bar to ask for either one. This hands-off approach is mostly a way to not pressure you. Remember, meals in Europe aren’t meant to be hurried. Meals are for enjoying and spending time with good people.
  • NON-ALCOHOLIC DRINKS: Pop isn’t nearly as big here. You can almost certainly get a Coke or 7-Up, but expect to get a tiny little bottle and pay a premium (no free refills, almost never a pop machine). You’re better off ordering a MiWadi. That’s a non-carbonated flavoring for water, which comes in a bunch of flavors, including orange, lemon, and black currant. You’ll most likely end up pouring your own out of a communal bottle. Kids may also prefer a Club Lemon or Club Orange, which are fizzy pop drinks. If none of that appeals to you, water, coffee, or tea are always good bets. Oh, and sorry, there’s no such thing as iced tea here. Really. So don’t call it “hot tea”, for there is only one. It is just tea, piping hot and delicious.
  • SOUP: Almost all Irish weather is good soup weather. If you order soup in a restaurant, it will be a puree (as opposed to a watery stock base with chunks). Vegetable soup is the most common, and is a puree of whatever veg the chef had on hand, always served with brown soda bread. The soup is almost always good. I love Irish vegetable soup. Who else is hungry?
  • TIPPING: Tipping is not as big of a deal here, since waitstaff are paid living wages. However, there is nothing wrong with leaving a tip, especially if you want to appreciate fantastic service.

Shopping

  • AMAZON: Break your Amazon addiction now. There is no Amazon Ireland. You can order a tiny number of items from Amazon UK (but it’s a pain). You will have slightly better luck with Amazon Germany. Overall, though, it’s time to cut the cord. Order online locally and support Irish businesses. You’ll get better service, better shipping rates, and quicker delivery.
  • CLOTHING: I’m just going to say it. Women’s fashions are different here and you will miss American clothing stores. That’s just how it is. If you want a true Irish clothing shopping experience, though, you MUST go to Penney’s (not the same as the American store it sounds like). Irish women attack this store with a special zeal that can’t be matched.penneys
  • BIG BOX STORES: They just really don’t exist. Sure, there are some big grocery stores and department stores. But hardware stores are mostly small and local. Few places are open 24 hours. However, there is an iKea in Dublin.

Around the House

  • HEAT & A.C.: First, let’s state that there is no air conditioning in Irish homes. There’s just no need. So you’ll need some fans for the precious few hot days of the summer. Forced air heat is super uncommon. No furnaces. You will have a boiler, though, which is fueled by a giant kerosene tank. Boilers send heat to radiators in each room. The downside is that you need to watch your fuel levels in the tank, or you’ll run out and freeze to death (so my cats say). And ordering oil delivery is expensive and always crops up at the worst possible time. On the other hand, you don’t have that monthly utility bill. The upside is that the radiant heat is efficient and lovely. I actually prefer it. And this system also heats your water nicely (no hot water tanks to maintain). Oh, and there are no HVAC repair people. If you have a problem with your boiler, call a plumber.
  • FIREPLACES: To help supplement your heating system in the winter, many families will use their living room fireplaces to actively warm the room–it isn’t just for decoration. Most families will primarily burn peat bricks (aka “turf”), which can be bought at most every shop. Some may also add some wood logs, but not necessarily.
  • PLUMBING: This is a big one. Somehow, the plumbing here is completely different than in America. Toilet inner-workings are different, bathroom sinks have separate taps for hot and cold, and there’s a weird cord you have to pull on from the ceiling to get your shower/bath’s hot water going. It’s chaos! And then there’s the immersion heater. For times of year when you aren’t running your boiler for heat, your water is heated by an “immersion tank”. You need to think ahead and turn this on in advance of washing dishes. But never forget to turn it off! Do so and you’ll waste money. We have a sign about remembering to turn off the immersion.
  • TELEVISION: You can get a version of Netflix, and a terrible version of Amazon Prime. No Hulu. To stream movies and whatnot, in addition to a cable provider such as Sky, I recommend a combo of Google Play and Netflix. The cable box is important for an expat as a matter of assimilation–not only will you be able to watch tons of your favorite American shows, but you can get the best of modern Irish and British TV: Gogglebox, First Dates: Ireland, and The Graham Norton Show.
  • THE LINGO: Once again–Irish vs. American
    – Hob = Stove/cooktop
    – Cable reel = Extension cord
    – Parasol = Umbrella (even patio umbrella)
    – Byro = Pen

Cars & Driving

There’s a lot to cover on this topic, with different licenses, insurance, vehicle inspections, etc. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty. Let’s just look at the two that surprised me most:

  • THE ROADS: Okay, they’re narrow as hell and scary. Here’s the thing, just drive as slowly as you need to. Let people go around you, and just take it easy.
  • TIRES & BRAKES: Because Irish roads are so curvy, I guess, car tires (tyres) need to be replaced fully about every 6-8 months. This may be appalling to Americans, just thinking of buying 4 tires twice a year, but on the other hand, it is much less common to need to replace brakes or brake pads. So I guess it balances out?

Medical

  • DOCTOR’S OFFICES: I’ll share with you the rural experience of doctor’s offices, but note that in larger cities, it might be very different. Often there will be a single clinic with a few doctors. Specialty physicians will visit the clinic on rotation. Appointments are usually available very quickly and waiting times at the clinic are really short compared to American counterparts. When you show up for your appointment, you’ll have little or no paperwork to fill out, and they won’t ask to see an insurance card (it isn’t needed) or ID. They don’t need to know your employer’s name. If you’re in for a check-up or some minor complaint, you won’t need to wait naked in a gown. You’ll sit, fully-dressed, and chat with your doc at his/her desk. The out-of-pocket cost will probably be about 20 euro.
  • OVER-THE-COUNTER MEDS: You can find ibuprofen and aspirin, but not under the names you’re used to. And you won’t find Tylenol or acetaminophen. In Ireland, the equivalent of Tylenol is called paracetamol.
  • MEDICAL INSURANCE: This is a whole complicated issue, but I’ll just say medical insurance is disgustingly cheaper here than in America. And even if you weren’t covered somehow, medical care is also absurdly cheaper. A recent trip to the ER, for example, cost us nothing out of pocket.
  • ACHES & PAINS: Heating pads (formerly one of my favorite healing tools on the planet) are hard to come by in Ireland. It is much, much more common to use hot water bottles. They aren’t quite as good, but they have their charms–especially when you can decorate them with pretty covers.hot water bottles
  • THE LINGO: Once again–Irish vs. American
    – Paracetamol = Acetaminophen
    – Plasters = Band-Aids
    – Wind = Gas (flatulence)

Weather

  • I hope you like rain. A lot. A chilly day with rain is the most typical weather, year-round. The good news is that snow is pretty rare, and it very rarely ever accumulates in a major way. Winter nights typically don’t dip much below 0 (F), and summer days typically don’t get higher than 75 (F). Here’s a much more normal look at the seasons: Summer days will be about 60 to 70 (F), autumn days will be about 50 to 60 (F), and winter days will be about 35 to 50 (F).

Holidays

  • CHRISTMAS: The traditions are very similar, including decorations, trees, stockings, and gifts. The Irish also often keep a candle in the window. Christmas Day is traditionally marked with an elaborate family feast.The biggest difference between the two countries is the timing. While Americans spend most of December in the grips of Christmas fever and then tear down the decorations and end the celebration almost immediately after the 25th, the Irish keep the cheer going until the official end of Christmas, known as “Little Christmas”, on January 6. In fact, it’s considered bad luck to put away your tree before that date. And it’s also sometimes referred to as “Women’s Christmas”, wherein the men takeover household duties for the day, and women go out and have a raucous time on the town.
  • ST STEPHEN’S DAY: This is the day after Christmas. While the English are celebrating Boxing Day, and Americans are returning gifts, this is a time for Wren Boys in Ireland. There’s a whole backstory, but basically, kids dress up in fancy dress (costumes), and go to local pubs and ask for spare change, usually while singing, playing rudimentary instruments, and/or shouting “a penny for the wren!”
  • ST PATRICK’S DAY: This really isn’t as big of a deal as you might think. In major cities there are parades, and pubs will probably be lively. But it’s nothing like in America; the day is actually a lot more reserved. So put away your shamrock glasses and don’t expect green beer.
  • HALLOWEEN: This holiday hasn’t really taken off in Ireland like it has in America–which is a shame, since here it is a national holiday for all! Still, it’s mostly for kids. Adult “fancy dress” (read: costume) parties are rare, and most people have never tried candy corn. In more superstitious areas, the holiday is treated with some reverence. When it is celebrated, it is often done with a sumptuous meal, which may be rounded off with brambrack (a fruit bread).

Miscellaneous

  • BINGO: BINGO is different. This still blows my mind. Who decided to change BINGO? It’s a game that needed no improvement or adaptation. Still, it’s different. And popular.
  • TRIVIA: If you like trivia games, I’m pleased to say they’re very popular here–except that they’re called “quiz nights” or “quizzing” instead of “trivia”. Be prepared, though, unless you know a LOT about horse racing champions, hurling coaches, and the entire history of EuroVision, you’re going to struggle. Also most Irish have never heard of the TV show, Jeopardy! Instead, try watching the British show The Chase.
  • THE SPORTS: I’m not a sports person, so let’s keep this brief. Say goodbye to ice hockey, basketball, baseball, and American football. Instead, there is soccer, Gaelic football (which resembles nothing you’ve ever seen), and hurling. Hurling is arguably the most popular and the most Irish of all–not to mention incredibly violent and awesome. Take a look at a “hurly” sometime (the bat-things they use), you’ll understand. Root for your local county, and don’t worry about loading up on merch.hurling

American Idioms That Just Don’t Fly

I never would’ve guessed that Americans were so hard to understand with our nutty idioms, but we are. These words/phrases will only get you confused looks:

  • “I’m all set”. Find another way to ask for the bill, or to indicate you’re all done.
  • “Piece of cake.” I guess that isn’t so clear.
  • “A ballpark figure.” My plumber had no clue what the hell I was asking for when I needed an estimate.
  • “Gym class” or “gym shoes”. Eh, I still can’t remember what I’m supposed to call ’em. And it embarrasses my daughter to no end.
  • “I’m bummed.” Just don’t say it. It means butt sex.
  • “I need to get a ride.” The phrase you need is “get a lift”…otherwise you’re talking about sex.
  • “She’s spunky.” Another dirty one. Just don’t say it. Use your dirty imagination.

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