Friday, 11 December 2015

Expat portrait: Cory Hanson

Today I’m sharing Cory’s Irish experience. I have never met him in person, but I have been an avid reader of his blog for the past two years. He made me discover parts of Dublin I never knew existed, even if I've lived in Ireland a lot longer than him! 

I don't think I have ever come across an expat who embraced Irish culture and history so much and in such a short period of time. And on top of that he decided to share all his newfound knowledge by writing a tourist guide about Dublin. I am truly impressed.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I grew up in a small town in the US state of Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River. I attended a small university in Iowa and earned a degree in instrumental music education, and there I also met my wife. I served as a public school band director for six years before following my wife to Dublin in 2013.

Why did you move to Ireland?

Not many Midwestern twenty-somethings get an opportunity to live a temporary and secure life abroad. When my wife was offered a three-year postdoctoral contract in Ireland, we saw no reason not to take the plunge. I pushed the pause button on my teaching career for a chance to see the world.

What do you do?

As the spouse of a hosted researcher, I am not granted an easy work visa. With my free time as an unemployed “trailing spouse,” I started writing. What started as a hobby blog became a more serious travel writing website and two books. It has been very rewarding, and I’m glad I didn’t simply fall into the “man of leisure” habits so many locals assumed of me.

Tell me a bit about the early days. Did you find hard to settle, find a job, make friends and so on…

We came to Ireland with very few possessions, so we endured fewer headaches than many permanent expat movers. Finding suitable accommodation in Dublin required some hard work and a good bit of luck, but we were able to settle and establish a new life relatively smoothly.

Navigating the bureaucracy of establishing ourselves was laborious and frustrating. Paperwork grinds very slowly, and we found ourselves in some circular traps: needing proof of address to establish a bank account while needing a bank account to establish proof of address, etc.

Once established, with our home utilities finally set up and financially secure, we quickly began a busy schedule of travelling and maximizing our new and exciting opportunity.

Do you mainly socialise with expats or locals?

We have made friends from both local and expat communities. I stay connected with a number of expats in the blogosphere and forum groups, and regularly socialize with the Dublin community. I have also made some lasting friendships within a local environmental volunteer organization. I found volunteering to be the best way to contribute meaningful service to my adopted country and meet friendly, helpful, like-minded people. I would highly recommend volunteer service for anyone setting up in a new country.

What do you enjoy most and least about living in Ireland?

The summer weather and the winter weather. Need anyone say more?

What Irish cultural or lifestyle aspect did you embrace straight away?

Curry chips. Never in my American life would I have thought to slather curry gravy over greasy fried potatoes. What a surprise it was at Croke Park when we saw (and smelled) everyone around us eating this exotic and tasty snack.

Don’t tell the Irish, but I prefer making my own curry chips with French-style, thin-cut fries—not the thick, soft chips so common at local takeaways.

What local custom or tradition surprised you the most?

I had heard of Gaelic sports before we landed in Dublin, but I learned quickly just how much these games mean to the locals. That there was so much controversy over the GAA deal with Sky for hurling and Gaelic football broadcast rights demonstrates just how protective the Irish are of their native games. These sports are more than entertainment and more than money; they are an unbroken connection to the past that the Irish treasure and fight to maintain. Everyone who visits Ireland should try to catch a match.

What has been the hardest aspect of your expat experience so far?

Living so far away from home and family means missing out on some important events. We can’t pack up and fly across the Atlantic for every holiday, every graduation, every wedding, every baby birth, every important family moment. We have to make difficult choices and plan our visits carefully. Sadly, this means telling some of our loved ones, “Sorry, we can’t make it this time…”

What do you do in your free time? Do you have a hobby or a passion?

I have always loved the outdoors. Whenever weather permits, I get outside to enjoy angling in my local river and hillwalking around Dublin and around the country. I wouldn’t say the outdoor sports opportunities are better or worse than those of my home state, but they are certainly different. I wouldn’t find trout in a stream flowing through the middle of a city in Iowa, nor would I have to squish through hilltop bogs when I struck out for a day’s hike.

In the cold, dark Irish winters, I have found the time to rediscover a passion for the classic video games of my childhood. With a light work schedule, I have become something of an expert in a few of these games, and have joined some active online communities dedicated to promoting and exploring video games from the 80s and 90s.

What’s your favourite place in Ireland?

The West. I know it’s not specific, but I have enjoyed every village, rock, and hill of the Atlantic coast. Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, and Cork are all jam-packed with outdoor adventure and stunning natural and cultural beauty, and I get out there as often as I can.

What do you miss most about your home country?

I am a passionate American sports fan. I follow teams in American football, baseball, and basketball through the year. Living in Europe makes access to these games difficult, with limited TV coverage and an inconvenient time difference—the Super Bowl usually ends around 4 a.m. Irish time.

I particularly miss cheering on my local university football team—the Iowa Hawkeyes—on Saturday mornings during the autumn season. I miss the excitement as tens of thousands of fans swarm the city in their team colors. I miss the experience of the “tailgate,” an American pre-match tradition of cooking meat on a barbeque and drinking beer in the stadium carpark.

How often do you go back?

We have only been able to travel back to Iowa twice, once each summer we’ve been away. The length and expense of the flight (and the long drive from the nearest big airport) limit us to one a year.

Name one thing that you always bring back from a holiday in your home country (and why)

Boxed macaroni and cheese. This American convenience food is a taste of home comforts, even though it’s just a box of cheap elbow macaroni and a sachet of powdered cheese sauce. We always return with a few in our suitcases.

Also, medicine and toiletries. Pain relievers like ibuprofen, upset stomach chews, and contact lens solution are much, much cheaper at American supermarkets than Irish pharmacies. We always stock up when we visit.

What is the most unusual question you've been asked about your life in Ireland? And what did you answer?

I am often asked about stereotypical Hollywood Irish tropes. Have I kissed the Blarney Stone? Do I eat corned beef and cabbage? Do I wish people a “top o’ the mornin’?” Have I developed a good Irish “brogue” yet?

To be fair, Irish tourism organizations do nothing to fight these stereotypes, as they keep Americans piling into Ireland year after year. How would most Americans know anything else if these are the only images of Ireland they see?

I usually address these questions with polite corrections: Irish people don’t kiss that disgusting Blarney Stone, most Irish people have no idea why corned beef and cabbage are such a big deal with Americans, and no one here would ever call their accent a “brogue.”

Any funny anecdote or story you want to share?

I’ll never forget the American fighter jet flyover of Dublin at an American university football game at Croke Park in 2014. This is a common tradition at big American sports events; a formation of fighters fly over the stadium at low altitude just as the American national anthem is nearing its climax.
This is obviously not a common occurrence in Ireland, and the Irish Internet blew up with locals complaining about the militaristic Yanks buzzing their city with F-16s. Some thought that World War III had started, and Dublin was the first target. It was the first time I saw the cultural tables turned in Dublin—they had to learn about (and whine about) my traditions for a change!

What has been the highlight of your expat experience so far?

I have sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to explore Ireland and Europe at my leisure. It’s a long, long flight from Iowa, so we have maximized our opportunity living in an easy European hub like Dublin. As a bonus, I have the flexible schedule that allows me to write about my travels and experiences.

How long do you intend to stay?

We will be leaving Ireland in summer 2016, as was always the plan with my wife’s postdoctoral contract. A big part of our expat experience appeal was the knowledge that it wasn’t necessarily permanent. After three years of Irish adventure, I think we’re ready to return to our home country, richer in memories and experiences—if not in our bank statements.

If you had to do it all over again, what would you change?

If I came to Ireland again, I would have made writing a more serious pursuit right away. As it was, I kicked around the possibility of a variety of jobs for the first year or so, letting writing be a casual hobby. Had I devoted more attention to writing, I would have a stronger body of work at the conclusion of my Irish time. Then again, writing all those hobby posts allowed me to find and hone my voice as a writer, so some of my wasted time may have been well spent after all.

If you want to tell  me something else about your experience, feel free to add anything!

Not long after settling in Dublin, I began to receive questions about the city from tourists—mostly American—planning holidays in Ireland. I was flattered that they would ask me for advice, and always wrote long, thorough responses addressing all of their questions. Soon, I turned these letters into one long document that I would send to trip planners, just to save myself some time. When the document neared 10,000 words, and required an introduction and short chapters to keep it organized, I decided to turn it into a book.

I originally saw the book as a simple collection of my free and inexpensive Dublin recommendations, to be given away for free as my way of promoting the parks and walks in the city that don’t have big advertising budgets. As I worked, the scope of the book grew to include routed walking tours, maps, and reviews of many of Dublin’s highlight attractions. With the help of volunteer copy editors—family and friends proofing the book chapter by chapter—I released the first edition of The Frugal Guide: Dublin for free in December 2014.

In the 2016 edition, I have made several major additions to the content and features of the book. Using another year’s experience in the Dublin travel scene—having explored more of the city’s more obscure corners and having reviewed more of the city’s paid attractions—I have expanded the reach and scope of the book, without abandoning its Frugal Guide spirit. I have also included a much better navigation system within the book, building in handy hyperlinks to my reviews, tips, and the 18 custom-made maps. To ice the cake of the new edition, I have been in contact with the planners of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising centenary celebrations, and have included specific coverage of the many Dublin-based events surrounding this historic celebration. The 2016 edition of The Frugal Guide: Dublin is available for free since December 3, 2015 on multiple eBook platforms.

Cory Hanson writes and blogs at, and his free eBook, The Frugal Guide: Dublin is available on Smashwords and many other eBook platforms; 2016 update available now. 
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