Aprilia Larsen loves our bacon, our friendliness, and the number of redheads.
She’s been puzzled by the sight of armed soldiers outside a bank in Mullingar, and puzzled too that there are so few cyclists.
She’s been trying to grapple with our recycling system – and reconcile in her own mind that apparent commitment to the environment with an apparent disregard for where we throw our litter.
Our beer is cheap, our milk tastes different and our taxis are so much more affordable than in her native Denmark.
It’s rare we get an unbiased view of what life in Ireland is like for people new to this country: the good bits – and the bad, with comment on things we take for granted, and amusement or amazement at things we see as normal.
That’s why 'The Mullingar Diaries’, a blog started in October by Aprilia Larsen, a 23-year-old Danish woman, make such fascinating reading, containing not just her experiences here and her impressions of Ireland, but her take on how life is here; her reactions to the cost of living; how the place looks.
Aprilia hasn’t been seeing just the shiny side of Mullingar: she’s had her bike stolen (and recovered); she’s found it difficult to get to meet people; and she was shocked when she went off the beaten track and found how run-down some of the residential areas are.
All sorts of things come under scrutiny by Aprilia, who hopes one day to become a writer, and her musings have gained her a large readership already.
“I had a blog before, about something different, before I came here, and I had about 200 readers. Now I have almost 2,000,” says Aprilia, who is living in a rented home a couple of miles outside of town.
Arriving here in October represented the realisation of a long-held dream for her, and the move was possible because under the Danish system, she is allowed follow her university course online – and to collect her student grant even while living in this country.
“Since I was 12, I always knew I wanted to live in another country,” she says.
Her grandfather, as it happens, came to Ireland on business some years back, and she heard his stories of how it was in Ireland, although it has changed a lot since his time.
“My first thing was I wanted to go to England, but I have been there so many times, and I also always wanted to go to Ireland, so I decided to come here, and I arrived in October.”
Researching before she came, she figured rents were too expensive in Dublin, and so she opted for Mullingar.
“I wanted something similar to where I came from,” she explains, adding that home is a small town in the north of Denmark, Skagen, which has a population of 8,000.
She’s less confident now than she was at the start about how long her stay here will be.
“I finish my education in two years, and I was planning to stay for two years, but it depends on how it goes.”
If there’s some hesitation about how long she will stay, it’s partly, one suspects, because of the difficulty Aprilia has experienced in making friends here, as she has described in her Mullingar Diaries.
She goes to the pub sometimes, and talks to people, but she’s found it hard to form any real friendships here – even though people are friendly.
Her experience isn’t unique: she’s looked online to find how other foreigners have found friends here – and discovered that they too have had difficulty getting any further than friendly exchanges with those they run into: “It seems a lot of expats who come to Ireland have trouble finding friends,” she has written.
But from her blog, it’s clear it’s disappointed Aprilia: “I think I’ll go crazy if I don’t find anyone to talk to,” she wrote in November.
It’s clear it’s a surprise to Aprilia to find out how difficult it can be to develop friendships in this country, especially since she has found people so friendly. When she arrived, she didn’t know exactly where the house she had rented was – but the taxi driver who brought her out drove around making enquiries until he identified the house she had rented – and still only charged a fraction of what she’d have paid in Denmark. If she goes out walking, people nod and say hello, which doesn’t happen in Denmark. On the rural road on which she lives, passing motorists wave if they see her out.
But it’s a friendliness that appears to go no further.
One can’t help but feel it’s a pity for Aprilia’s sake – and for Mullingar’s – for she is so positive about what she is seeing here and experiencing here, even if so much of it is on her own.
A spin out to Lough Owel left her thrilled, for example: “I was absolutely stunned with the sights that met me,” she has written; she went to a Christmas carol concert at the Cathedral of Christ the King, and she’s hungry to see and experience as much as she can here.
Although living out the country, Aprilia isn’t stranded: bikes figure large in the lives of Danes, and on just her third day here, she went to Kenny Cycles and bought herself a bike. But if ever there was a bleak moment for Aprilia since her arrival here, a time when she just wanted to pack up and go home, it came just two weeks later, when her brand new bike was stolen.
“Who would want to steal a bike in a town where hardly anyone rides them?” she wondered, disappointedly, although admitting bikes do, too, get stolen occasionally in Denmark.
At the garda station, “a really nice cop” took down the details, and rang her that evening with the good news that the bike had been found at Tesco.
Aprilia doesn’t just rattle off her diary, which is extremely well written. She devotes a fair amount of time to making it interesting, and the result is a compelling read.
Watch out for her name: she’s definitely one writer to watch for the future! And if you run into her, try letting the friendship go beyond the superficial: this is a woman who really wants to be part of Westmeath life – so let her in, and show her how warm a people we can really be.
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