Bah Humbug and Un-Happy Birthday EU

Last year I had to start paying ransom (VAT) when I receive gifts from friends and family abroad. Not only did I have to pay VAT on the declared contents, but on the postage as well!

Below is an email I sent to those in my Irish constituency related to financial matters. Of the 4 people I sent it to, including the Minister of Finance, only one responded (a local Councillor) and that was to tell me the directive came from the European Union (EU).

I then forwarded the email to the Irish contingent representing finance at the EU level and heard a deafening silence.

Therefore, I decided to post it on my blog in case other people are experiencing the same issue. If more people raise it with their EU representatives, there’s a chance to change the law to at least remove having to pay VAT on the postage of the package. Twice I’ve had packages sent to me from my sister in the US that contain $12-15 worth of items and the postage was over $45.00 (the fact that international postage is outrageously expensive, given most things are automated these days, is a whole separate topic). For me to pay 23% VAT on $60 ($15 worth of items + $45 postage) ends up costing almost as much as the items themselves! It’s no longer a gift at that point, it’s a burden.

Now some may think that the EU has more important things to do than retract a law that’s causing undo hardship on a small number of it’s constituents; however, I would argue that they had plenty of spare time to enact the law in the first place, so they can find the time to amend it.

I hope the members of the Oireachtas had a Happy Christmas.  Mine would have been happier had I not, for the first time in the 11 years I’ve lived in Ireland, had to pay ransom to the Department of Revenue to receive the gifts my friends and family sent from abroad.

In 2021 the Oreachtas implemented legislation whereby gifts from non-EU countries would be subject to customs fees and VAT if “the value of the gift (including insurance, freight and postage costs) is €45 or less”.1 There is some jargon on subsequent pages of the website about declaration codes and “negligible value”.  However, that is all legal speak that a friend or family member will struggle to interpret, and the post office in the remote location may also struggle to declare.

Has anyone in the Oireachtas tried to send a parcel it the last 2 years, domestically or abroad? At least half the time, the value of the postage meets or exceeds the cost of the items contained in the package. 

Over the years since I moved to Ireland, I have been humbled by the generosity of my friends and family who will send me packages even though I gasp at the amount of postage they have had to pay.  This year, my sister sent me a package containing $12 worth of contents and it cost $47 to send the 1kg box.  A friend spent $65 to send $40 worth of gifts, just because they care about me and wanted me to have a gift along with a few of my favourite things. On the package from my friend I had to pay €28 in VAT (including the An Post fee) to claim this parcel of Christmas gifts.

Who came up with these values and why is postage, freight, and insurance included in the charges?  There is no value to the recipient for postage, freight, and insurance, except possibly the love of the shipper, who paid such a price to send a little good cheer.

How is a family going to cope with such charges, particularly in this economic climate?  Their friends and family abroad were just trying to be kind by sending something to brighten the holidays, but now the family may have to turn off the heating for a few hours each day for a week, or cut out part of their Christmas dinner in order to pay for the tax on gifts from abroad.  Or worse yet, refuse the package, because they cannot pay.

Given this new legislation, which is being implemented with great force this year (I did not have to pay VAT on any Christmas packages last year), I’m going to have to tell my friends and family to stop sending me birthday and Christmas gifts.  It’s just too expensive to receive them.


Finding your EU representatives:

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Give Me Back My Sugar!

Slowly but surely over the last few years, fizzy drink (aka soda or soft drink) companies in Ireland and elsewhere have been ruining their beverages.  First it was Sprite (that I noticed, anyway) and it has made the cycle through almost every other soda I (used to) enjoy drinking, including 7-up, Fanta (all flavors), San Pelligrino Limonata (and other flavors) and even Ginger Ale.

I blame the medical community.  The ones who blame the obesity crisis solely on fizzy drinks, as if chocolate, candy/sweets, crisps/chips, and fast food play no part.  Nor, it seems, does the entire processed, ready to heat and eat food now available in the supermarkets.  The fact that kids don’t play outside much anymore as they are all glued to some form of screen or other (phone, tablet, video game, TV) isn’t on the front line.  No, they just put all of their wrath into one type of beverage.

Too much of any of these products is bad for you.  Targeting a single product isn’t going to solve the problem.

For every study that says full sugar drinks are bad for you there is an equal study that says artificial sweeteners, when they aren’t causing cancer, can actually cause you to crave high fat and sugar in other foods.

So what have these soft drink companies done? Removed some of the sugar and replaced it with sugar substitutes.  They claim they are plant based (Stevia and similar) and give the beverage a ‘great new taste’.  Who does their taste testing?  I’ve tried these new formulas and each and every one of them tastes like it has been doused with artificial sweeteners – the same taste as saccharin, aspartame, and every other non-sugar sweetener.  One swallow is all it takes and I’m pouring the remaining contents down the drain.

Much of this rush to sugar substitutes has been a result of sugar taxes introduced in countries like Ireland and the UK.

I’m not so much opposed to companies substituting part of the sugar for other non-sugar sweeteners, but I do object to them being passed off as the same as the original full-sugar variety.  If companies want to create a “lighter” version, that’s fine, but please label it as such.  I object to buying a product, taking a swig, and finding out it’s not what I expected and end up binning the rest.  Companies need taste testers whose taste buds haven’t been severely damaged by too many artificial sweeteners.

Let the consumer decide. Do they want a sugar-substitute variety at a lower price which may taste different or do they want to pay the price and have their original variety.  I’m in the latter category.  I don’t drink soda every day, some weeks I don’t drink it at all.  I’m not a coffee drinker and not a big tea drinker either, so sometimes when I need a hit of caffeine I reach for a Pepsi (thankfully one of the products that have not succumbed to the sugar switch on its original variety – they have plenty of other part and non-sugar varieties).  I like the taste, just as it is.

I also like a lemon beverage when I don’t want caffeine and am out at a restaurant.  If I don’t drink coffee or tea and can’t get a decent tasting soft drink at a restaurant, I end up with water.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with water – it’s my beverage of choice 98% of the time.  But restaurants don’t make money off tap water – they do off other beverages.  So I’m not a cheapskate when ordering water in a restaurant, they just don’t have anything that tastes good that I want to drink.

Did you know an equivalent amount of wine has between 50% and 100% more calories than a can of regular Coke or Pepsi?  A pint of beer has almost the same amount as a can of full sugar soda.

Stop hiding behind flawed studies – statistics can be arranged to say whatever the person requesting the statistics wants it to say.

I did write to Nestle when San Pelligrino Limonata, my last frontier, went the way of Stevia.  They did write back but the response was pretty much I was out of luck.  So I’ve stopped buying their product and every other soft drink product or lemonade that uses artificial sweeteners.

I also complained to Subway in Ireland when they switched to only diet drinks.  You can get a sub with double meat and cheese and extra mayo, but you cannot have sugar in your beverage.

The only way to make an impression on companies is to talk with your wallet.  If you don’t like the new varieties, stop buying them and let them know why. Hopefully, they will get the message.

Education is the key to building healthy societies, not making decisions for people.  Start the education young and follow it through with other healthy choices.

Give people information, but also give them choice.  Put a warning sticker on the full sugar variety if you have to, like they did with cigarettes, but let the consumer decide what form of beverage they prefer.

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Taxing Obesity

The Institute of Public Health is proposing that the Irish government implement a tax on soda and other sugary drinks to help combat obesity.  Attempts in New York to ban large soft drinks failed because it attacked only one segment of high sugar drinks while not regulating others like fruit drinks, milkshakes, and even lattes which can have more calories than a soda.  It’s not possible to tackle a large scale issue by focusing on a single minor element.

If they want to tackle health issues like obesity, why not put a tax on video games like Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox?  Instead of children playing outside and burning calories, they sit in front of a screen for hours on end; the only parts of their body performing any exercise are their thumbs. 

Health insurance companies are now starting to charge overweight people higher premiums because they seem to think these folks will need more care in the form of knee and hip replacements and heart surgeries.  What about athletes?  Do they get charged higher premiums?  I suspect there are a high percentage of athletes who obtain medical care on a more frequent basis for sprains, fractures, ligament tears, arthroscopic surgeries, as well as hip and knee replacements than the average obese person.

Haven’t governments learned that so called “sin” taxes – those on things like alcohol and cigarettes just don’t work?  If a person wants those items, they will forgo other things in their life such as clothing, heat, and even food. Taxing sugary drinks will do the same thing for people who like an occasional soda. Cutting funding for schools means that activities such as the arts and athletics are the first things to go as they are considered non-academic, along with after school programs that provide activities for young people. 

Governments tend to tackle large problems like some people weed their gardens – pull just a leaf off a weed and hope the rest of the plant mysteriously disappears.  What happens in reality is the weed, if not dug out by the root, just comes back larger.  Tax one thing and people shift to another or merely shift their priorities. 

In addition, there never seems to be any guarantee with these taxes that the funds will be used to encourage healthier lifestyles. If governments and health insurance companies really want people to become healthier, why aren’t they out there helping to make fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods more affordable?  Why does sugary cereal cost half as much as a healthier granola?  Why does it cost extra in some fast food restaurants to substitute a bottle of water for a soda – especially one that is smaller in total ounces than the soft drink?  Pre-processed and fast food is often cheaper than fresh alternatives.  That’s where the emphasis needs to be instead of targeting one small element of a much larger societal issue.

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Disconnect Me

We seem to want to be more connected these days, but not in a good way.  We use media such as Facebook, Twitter, Cell Phones and Texting; instead of gatherings and face to face conversation.  Too many people would be lost without their cell phone/mobile device.  Most days, I would like to lose mine.  It’s great for emergencies but I don’t always want to be reachable 24 x 7.  Whatever happened to privacy?  I should not have to drop everything whenever that electronic device goes off.

How many times have you been to lunch, dinner, or a party and while talking to someone they will immediately drop the conversation as soon as their phone goes off?  It’s as if you, the live person, are somehow less important than that incoming message/call. Would it really be the end of the world if you ignored that device until after your meal?

Some might argue it could be an emergency.  I have two counter-arguments for that – just how often is that really the case in proportion to the number of interruptions you receive, and how did we handle these things before cell phones?  I don’t ever remember the world coming to a screeching halt every time someone couldn’t be reached for an hour or two, in the pre-cell phone era. You should be able to glance at your phone and determine in an instant whether it’s an emergency.  If you must answer and discover it’s not an emergency, tell the person you will get back to them.

In addition, what kind of a testament is it to our society when a child can’t be away from home without a cell phone because the parents want to be able to reach them at a moment’s notice?  I remember being gone from morning until dinner time as a kid, and my parents didn’t drive around the neighborhood or call all my friends homes every hour to see where I was and if I was all right.  Are fear and uncertainty now the driving factors in our lives?  Or are we all turning into control freaks?

While I do believe that a cell phone can be handy for emergencies like driving at night and having car trouble, I do not want to be tied to some electronic device so that someone can interrupt me any time of the day or night.  It may be convenient for them, but it can be annoyingly inconvenient for me.  If I want to go away for an afternoon or weekend of peace, quiet, privacy and a re-charge of my internal batteries, I shouldn’t have to answer to the electronic ball and chain.

So if you call or text and I don’t answer right away, merely assume I’m busy doing something else, and will get back to you when I have time.  If you don’t hear back in three or four days, then maybe it could be an emergency or then again, maybe my batteries are still charging.

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Government by/for “Average” People

The United States (US) presidential election has been put to rest for another few years.  With the obscene amount of money that is spent on elections and a candidate who made more money in one year than most people can even hope to win in an average lottery, I thought this piece I wrote a while back deserved some air time.

If the representatives we vote into government offices are supposed to represent all the people maybe they should be compensated like their constituents.  That way, they might be more inclined to pass legislation that would benefit a larger segment of the population.

Instead of making salaries that, by the standards of the people they represent, are well above average, they should be required to accept the “average” wage.  If they are a federal level representative, they would receive the “average” wage of the country.  At the state level, they could receive the “average” wage for that state, and so on and so forth.  Alternately, the voters could decide what the pay rate is for their representatives.  No automatic annual increases, it’s all decided at the same time that the legislators are voted into office – all on the same ballot.

Let’s not limit this to wages; it should extend to benefits as well.  They would need to accept the “average” health care plan for whichever level they represent.  I strongly suspect that alone would go a long way towards the passing of real health care reform.

They could be allowed an expense account for travel between their home and the legislative location they serve.  That would likely include “modest” accommodations at that site – which means they can’t stay at the Hyatt Regency when a Hampton Inn would suffice.  Maybe the governments could own a set of “average” apartment buildings for these representatives to occupy while they are away from home.

No more automatic cost of living adjustments, either.  Where can you get a guaranteed pay increase each year unless you turn it down (which they seldom do)?  Try the United States Congress!  (You can probably lump most corporate executives in this category as well, but certainly not the “average” worker.)

Why do we allow our tax dollars to be spent this way?  If these people are supposed to represent the average person, then they should live like the average person.

Some might argue that no one would run for office if they had to accept these terms.  I highly doubt that would be a deterrent.  It would only discourage those who are used to living high on the land, which we seem to have plenty of, already. Instead, more “average” people would run and be elected, which would hopefully have the benefit of instituting more legislation that is for all the people and not just the special interests.

Maybe that’s what the founding fathers really meant when they said “We the people” and “for the people”.  Is it just my utopian dream, or it’s time to get back to basics?

(Aside: From what I’ve seen, this problem isn’t limited to the United States.)

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Olympics 2012

For many people around the world, the Olympics were over a few weeks ago, but this year I found myself just as interested in the Paralympics.   For those who may not be familiar, the Paralympics are for those with physical disabilities that range from sight impairment through those missing multiple limbs.

It’s impressive to watch fully functioning athletes compete at such a high level.  You see the joy on the face of the medalists as well as the heartbreak of those who did not make it past the qualifying round.   I applaud all of them for even reaching the Olympics – a feat most of us couldn’t even dream of achieving and posted a poem on my web site dedicated to all athletes as I believe they all deserve a medal.

I’m at least equally if not more impressed by the Paralympics’ athletes.  Many people might think it’s primarily wheelchair bound athletes, but it’s much more than that.  I saw blind or nearly blind men running races (with sighted guides running alongside them – note: this year the guides received medals as well, which is only right as they must run as fast as the Paralymic athlete).  I witnessed high jumpers who only had one leg – try hopping on one leg for 10 feet then jumping over a bar.   It’s not only the amazing abilities these athletes exhibit, but I saw so many genuinely beautiful, warm smiles on their faces.  How can you not be inspired by them?

The other thing I enjoyed about the Paralympics coverage was seeing so many medals ceremonies.  They have all but been eliminated from the standard Olympic coverage in modern times, and it’s a shame.

It could be because the events were held across the pond, but the coverage of the Olympics, and likely Paralympics in Ireland were far superior to that of the United States.  Having lived in the same time zone as the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, I can honestly say it is not just proximity that determines the quality of the coverage.  US coverage has sunk to being little more than sound bites and quick flashes during prime time television, only covering what the network wants people to see.  Here in Britain and Ireland the Olympics were on all day long – at least 10 am until 10 pm on three to five different channels.  I saw sports I never knew existed and enjoyed all of them.  The US could take lessons from the BBC and RTE.

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Politically Correct, Emotionally Bereft

There’s a term that is used frequently in Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK), though more sparingly in the United States (US) to define what was once girl-/boy-friend, soul mate, significant other, live-in, sweetheart, and when in doubt, spouse as well. The term is partner.

Whenever I hear the term partner connected to a person, instead of the warm breeze one would normally associate with a love interest, it is replaced by an icy blast of indifference.

I suspect the word’s popularity developed as a bridge between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Its heavy usage in Ireland and the UK could also indicate a language bridge to cross over to the continent. Another potential reason could be “significant other” was just too much of a mouthful.

Of all the possible words one could choose to describe a love interest, I would have to say that partner would be near the bottom of my list. For me, the term conjures images of a business-like association based on economics, practicalities, possibly legalities, and/or duty. While these terms may also apply to a personal relationship, they lack the emotional punch that should arise when referring to the person on whom you have bestowed love and devotion.

I would much rather use a term that at least has some implication of affection such as paramour, which comes from the Anglo-French par amour or “passionately, with a strong sense of love or desire” although some dictionaries define that term as an illicit or adulterous love. Another alternative could be beloved for a person who is dearly loved. At least these terms conjure warmth rather than indifference.

If we can take a business term like partner and twist it to mean love interest, surely we can start a new trend with a term that is still politically correct but no longer emotionally bereft. Pick something that resonates with you and start using it. Make one up if you have to – people make up new words all the time. (Post it as a comment, we could have a contest.)

When I do finally find my soul mate, I will be doing my part by making a concerted effort to change this trend by not calling him my partner; regardless of my expectation that he will be an equal participant in household duties (though I suppose that last bit just struck a whole set of potential candidates off the list – such is life).

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Ten Things

In this day and age of budget cuts, unemployment, housing crises, and health care issues, it’s easy to become discouraged.  Even if you normally think the glass is half full, the more you see and hear, the more it tilts in the direction of half empty.

Watching some people, it appears as if nothing can go wrong in their lives, but then there are others who can’t catch a break, no matter how hard they try.  After finding myself sliding down the slippery slope of the latter category, I decided to try an experiment. 

Each night before going to bed, I had to write down 10 things I was thankful for that day.  My original goal was to try not to have repeats and focus just on what happened that day.  On the surface, it didn’t sound that difficult, but in practice it was significantly more challenging.

Certain days were easy, with at least the first half springing quickly to mind based on events of the day,  yet on others it would have been simpler and faster to list 10 things that went wrong.  Often, it required reaching into the mundane, including things that may not actually have been an event, but merely a result of living.  Repeats have become common, but they are things for which I am truly grateful, and I’m also learning to appreciate the little things.  It really forced me to focus on the good and sweep away those difficult items that may have been clouding the day.  

Several times I was in bed before I remembered and twice I did forget, but it always sprung to mind the next morning and I made sure it was one of the first activities of the day.  I recently completed 40 days of listings, and I must say it has improved my view of life.  At least for now, I plan on keeping it up, at least until some of the challenges I’ve been facing are resolved, and maybe even beyond. 

Try it sometime, even for one day.  If it’s easy for you to list 10 then maith thú or ‘good on ye’ as the Irish say.  If you struggle to complete the list, then welcome to what is probably the majority of people in the world; just taking it day by day.

Life is a journey, and occasionally we need a helping hand along the way.  Sometimes that helping hand can only come from deep within ourselves.

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Let Them Eat Cake

Nutrition guides change as frequently as Irish weather.   Eggs are bad for you one month, then good for you the next.  Chocolate, coffee, and even assorted fruits and vegetables have been victims of this see-saw guidance.

A number of years ago, a mechanism was introduced to help people choose the right amount of food per category on a daily basis. The food pyramid continues to be revised in an effort to improve eating habits.  While it may provide a simplistic guideline, I can pretty well guarantee that a Sumo wrestler and a super model are not eating off the same pyramid.

So we start to get the message, eat more fruits and vegetables.  However, as soon as you start to feel comfortable on that bandwagon, the rules get fuzzy again.  You can’t eat just any vegetables; you need to limit the high carbohydrate varieties like corn, peas, and carrots. Of course some argue that corn is a grain not a vegetable and peas are a legume and belong on the protein side.   However, peas still appear in the veggie section of many versions of the current pyramid.  Corn is a grayer area, only appearing on some versions as a vegetable and not at all in others.

Fruit is another place where you can’t seem to win.  Fruit juice isn’t as good as the real thing, so limits or even avoidance are advised.  That’s all well and good; however, have you ever tried to swallow a vitamin or other solid medication with a slice of apple or orange versus their liquid equivalent.   Water may serve the same purpose for some people, but others find those pills, pardon the pun, ‘a little too hard to swallow’ with plain water.  What about children?  Now, giving little children juice is suddenly bad; as bad as a soft drink with too much sugar.

Looking for a healthy snack; something small, easy to carry around? How about a box of raisins?  As a bonus, it’s a fruit, so you can cross another serving off the list, right?  Not so fast.  Despite or maybe because of their compact nature, raisins are high in carbohydrates and sugar, natural sugar, but sugar none the less.

With the changeable nature of these guidelines, coupled with increasingly busy lifestyles, it’s no wonder people give up, throw their hands in the air and declare, ‘let them eat cake!’  Who knows, maybe cake will appear on the “good” list one day.  In the mean time, you may want to consider this guideline:  moderation, and a little common sense, goes a long way.

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One More Day

Few people these days can claim they have too much time on their hands. For most of us, there never seems to be enough hours in a day. We find ourselves bemoaning, ‘If I only had an extra hour…’ or ‘If I just had one day…’

Well, this year, and nearly every four years we do get an “extra day.” (If you are geeky enough to want the exact calculation, click here  and don’t even get me started about leap seconds.)

In ancient times, they actually added a day, today, February 24th, resulting in two days with the same date. It had to do with counting the days backwards from March 1st, or ante diem sextum Kalendas Martii (“the sixth day before the calends of March”). (Note: It’s also known as the bissextile day, but merely the looks of that world conjures up an entirely unrelated subject.)

March 1st, at one time, was the beginning of the year and also explains why February only has 28 days, normally. When certain Roman emperors wanted to add more days to their specific month they just grabbed them off the end of the year – i.e. February.

But why is it called Leap Year, when you aren’t leaping anything? More accurately, as they did above, you repeat a day or go backwards. In my overly logical, left brained, highly literal brain, the other years should be called Leap Years, as you leap over or do not observe February 29th (or the second February 24th, as it were), and this once every almost four year event should be called Non Leap Year. However, that term certainly does not have the same ring.

Just in case you’re interested, it’s called a leap year because it causes certain holidays or festivals to leap from their prescribed day relative to the previous year (e.g. if St. Patrick’s Day was on a Tuesday one year, then it would normally be on Wednesday the following year unless it’s a leap year where it leaps another day to Thursday).

One of the most well known traditions for Leap Day allows a woman to propose marriage to a man (not as unheard of in modern times as it once was). In some places, if the man refused, he was required to compensate the woman for the slight. Although it’s tempting to want to keep that particular condition around, in this modern day of politically correctness it would likely be set into some anti-discrimination law requiring it to work both ways; which would have further consequences such that no one would ever propose to anyone ever again for fear of having to pay some kind of recompense if the person refused.

February 29th should, however, be turned into an international holiday so that you could actually do all those things you don’t have time to do in a normal day, week, or year. Feel free to begin lobbying your local government for that particular benefit; however, refrain from holding your breath, waiting for it to come to fruition.

Anyway, there you are, here’s that extra day you’ve always wanted. Make the most of it (that is, unless you have to work, under which circumstances you might consider starting that referendum for an additional holiday).

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