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Interview with Caro – a South African expat living in Ireland

Updated 25 Aug 2022

Caro van Aardt lives in the south of Dublin with her wife and cat. All three of them are South African. They moved to Ireland in 2020 while Covid-19 was at its peak. Two years later, they are finally starting to feel a little bit more at home in the Emerald Isle.

For more on expat life, see our Expat Arrivals essential guide to Moving to Ireland.

About CaroCaro Ireland

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Dublin, Ireland.

Q: When did you move here?
A: October 2020

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: With my wife and cat.

Q: Reason for moving?
A: We wanted to gain experience in the international work market and travel through Europe more.

Living in Ireland

Q: What do you enjoy most about Dublin and Ireland in general? 
A: There is a huge sense of relaxation that comes with living in a very safe country, and the Irish, in general, really know how to relax! Not just drinking, like you’d think. I love all the green spaces that are available to run and walk around in at any time of the day or night. The music scene is amazing with really good venues, and it’s been so much fun to get to see bands that would never go to South Africa. We’ve also enjoyed getting to know the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football.

Q: Have you had any low points? What do you miss most about home?
A: There are low points for anyone having to start a new life in a strange country, largely I believe due to not having any familiar places or faces around you. Having arrived here during the hard lockdown in 2020, we had MANY low points that, at times, felt like just one huge continuous low point. We could not make any friends or even go out to the pubs. But eventually everything opened, and we could start exploring the city and meeting people. I miss my family the most, and then comes the weather and braaiing with wood!

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience culture shock at all?
A: Ireland has been quite easy to adjust to. The people are very friendly and helpful, but a thing that shocked us a bit is the way groups of teenagers (just called “youths”) hang around and look to cause trouble at night on public transport. Everywhere else, you feel so safe, but if a group of youths gets on your bus at night, you can’t help but feel a little tense.

Also, we assumed we’d be in a first-world country with an advanced banking system, but it turns out SA is miles better in this aspect. Here your bank card gets posted to you, and then your PIN gets posted separately two days later. The options for accounts are very limited, with little to no interest being earned. The banking apps are also terrible, considering that Dublin is a tech hub. Granted, postal services work insanely well, but we just couldn’t believe this.

Q: What are your favourite things to do on the weekend? Any particular places or experiences you’d recommend to fellow expats?
A: We enjoy going to parks for walks or trying new pubs with friends. There are endless options for both. It’s also really nice to take the DART to Bray or Greystones in County Wicklow and do one of the coastal hikes there on a nice day. Howth is also one of my favourite places to go, but it’s super popular, so the trails get pretty busy on a good day if you’re not there early. We also love going out running and cycling – the roads are very well-equipped with cycling lanes, making it very safe to cycle here.

Q: How has your partner adjusted to your new home?
A: Overall, she has adjusted very well to the area, the culture and her job. In her own words, “We’re still here two years later, so it isn’t too bad, is it?” Not the rave review one would think you’d get, but it’s the truth. There’s a lot to get used to, it’s very hard at times without your support system from home, and the winters are VERY long, but in general, we feel well looked after in our jobs, and you can’t put a price or value to the feeling of safety we experience here.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything especially expensive or cheap in Ireland?
A: There is a massive housing crisis in Ireland, with only about 799 homes for rent in the entire country. This is just an easy number to show how hard-up people would be to buy and rent accommodation, so the price for housing is absolutely through the roof. On an average salary, 50 to 60 percent of your single income could easily go toward a very basic apartment, not even close to the city centre. That and alcohol are by far the most expensive things.

Groceries are cheaper than in SA, but the options for fruit and veg are never as good as you’d get back in SA, with most fresh foods still having to be imported to Ireland from other countries.

Q: What’s public transport like in Dublin and across the country?
A: The bus, tram and train systems are pretty good and reliable in Dublin itself. Some of the services run 24 hours a day, but not many. It’s rather expensive when compared to the rest of Europe, and the moment you leave the main network in Dublin, you’re stuck with only a handful of trains and buses that go to other counties. In that case, you’ll need a car (your own or rented) to be able to function in other counties, especially in more rural areas. That said, cars are much more affordable here (to buy), but the road tax and petrol are much more expensive, especially if you don’t have Irish driving experience.

Q: What do you think about the healthcare available in Ireland? What should expats expect from local doctors and hospitals?
A: The public hospitals are very good. You’ll still wait a long time if you go for routine things, but if there is an emergency and you’re in an ambulance, you are in extremely good hands if they take you to a public HSE (Health Service Executive) hospital. Medical insurance isn’t as expensive as in SA, but if you ever need a specialist for something, you’ll wait very long for appointments and can’t make an appointment without a referral letter from a doctor.

Q: What’s the standard of housing like in your city? What different options are available?
A: There is anything from small apartments (extremely tiny, with everything in one room and no space to move around) to huge mansions in Dublin. It’s just that there’s not a lot of any of these options available. Unfortunately, if your budget is very restricted, you’ll likely end up in a place that is old, small and not very energy efficient, making it very cold/expensive to run in the winter. It’s much easier to share a house/apartment with someone else, so two incomes can go toward raising the budget for accommodation.

Apartments also frequently come onto the market as furnished or semi-furnished, with all the biggest items of furniture and kitchen appliances included. This takes a huge load off of a person who is new to Ireland since you don’t have to spend any money on these items.

My biggest piece of advice is to keep an open mind in the housing market. Be adaptable and open to sharing with a new group of people if you have to, and be willing to figure out commuting routes

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: In Dublin, it really depends on what housing you can afford. The North is slightly more affordable, but many people would consider it as being a bit more on the “rough” side of the city. If you’re willing to commute into town, Portmarnock and Malahide are lovely seaside areas. In town itself, Dublin 8, Castleknock, Rathfarnham and Rathmines are popular. To the south of Dublin, there are plenty of lovely areas with lots of parks, greenery, and little seaside spots to live in. Dundrum, Cabinteely, Stillorgan, Dún Laoghaire and further out Bray (into the next county) are all great.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It hasn’t been easy to make Irish friends. We made a lot of South African friends easily since your paths kind of cross whenever you’re looking for advice on getting documentation or suggestions on places to stay. Moving here in the middle of lockdown also made it extremely hard to get out and meet people in person. Luckily that’s over now, so there is more time to spend with people and build relationships.

I worked in a hospital for a while during the lockdown, so there was a lot more in-person contact for me than for folks who had to work from home, and because of that experience, I had ample opportunity to forge friendships with my colleagues. I don’t work there anymore, and I’ve kept a few of them as good friends.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: Our ratio of friends still shows a majority of expat friends over locals, but I believe that’s because all expats are actively seeking friends, while the locals aren’t. It’s like trying to break into a circle of friends that had existed long before you came around, just like it would be the case if you moved cities inside your home country.

Throw yourself into things with locals, however uncomfortable it seems. I worked in a place with nearly only Irish people and made an effort to have lunch with them, remember birthdays, and go out with them when invited, even though sometimes you’ll feel like an alien (both in things you do and say that they will find weird, and in the way that you often can’t understand a word of what a group of Irish around you are saying when you’re the only non-Irish person). Join a volunteer programme or a sports club/event where you know you’ll be mixing with locals, and be persistent in inviting people out for coffee, walks or pints. Someone will say yes, and you’ll start to feel like you’re making progress.

Working in Ireland

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: We were lucky enough to come over on a critical skills permit for my wife, so her company handled most of the paperwork, and since we were married, I could join her on a spousal permit, which includes full residence and working rights. So, while getting here was “easy”, once you get here, there are a LOT of hoops to jump through and documentation to secure.

Between your IRP (Irish Residence Permit), PPS Number (personal public service number, without which you can’t do anything), getting registered for tax, and opening bank accounts, you’ll feel like you’re busy with admin for at least the first six months after moving. There are huge backlogs for many of these things, so you’ll inevitably have to wait longer than you hoped you would to get off your Emergency Tax salary and onto your real salary. Everyone (even Irish citizens) suffers Emergency Tax on their first job in Ireland, and this can last for one to three months (if you’re lucky) until you’ve secured your PPS number. Then, at least when you have this number, your first full salary will get a huge “refund” of a large part of that tax that was kept aside while you were getting registered.

Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? 
A: Ireland’s economic climate is a very healthy one. Brexit has positioned the country very favourably to continue growing at a strong pace, and being the only English-speaking country in the EU has its advantages for MNEs (multinational enterprises) looking to invest directly in the EU. Ireland is very competitive in the financial services sector, as well as in research and development and intellectual property sectors.

The cost of living and personal tax rates are, unfortunately, some of the highest in the EU, which will be the greatest pain points for the average person moving here.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? 
A: When people talk about a work-life balance here, they are quite good at implementing that. In my experience, there is always room for making conversation and having the “craic” with each other (pronounced “crack”, but meaning something similar to good vibes/jokes with colleagues/fun times). People work hard, but mostly, when the day is over, they are very good at closing their laptops and walking away because family life and social activities are of high priority to the Irish.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Ireland?
A: Just keep an open mind. You will have a terrible time trying to adapt to a new country if you compare your old and new home and if you keep longing back to what you’ve left behind. Hold onto the good things from home as memories – no one can take them away from you, and your country still belongs to you, just in a different way now. Look forward, not backwards, and make an effort to learn the ways of the locals. Try to understand where they come from and how the culture works; it’s your reality now, and although they will be very interested to learn about your language, food and culture too, you need to learn early on that their culture is the one that will take precedence in their actions.

►Interviewed August 2022

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