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‘It feels nice to spread some joy around the place’

Voice Of EU



Penpals is a word that suggests a specific era in time; decades back in time, when people wrote with pens and posted actual letters. A time before email and Facebook and WhatsApp. Unlike other kinds of correspondents, penpals were usually people you hadn’t met personally, and who often lived in other countries. Back in the pre-internet day, you found them through girls’ magazines, or school forums. It was almost exclusively something teenage girls engaged in.

Penpals are having a bit of a moment again, nudged by all that extra time people have had this last year, on account of not being able to go anywhere. American-born Liz Maguire (27), who came to study marketing in Dublin, and now lives here, has accrued an astonishing 80-plus penpals in the last year. One thing that hasn’t changed is that all but two of them are female.

“The majority of them are in the US,” she says. “Some are in the UK. A handful in France and Germany. ”

Maguire found them though a digital platform that was created last year called Penpalooza, by a staff writer for the New Yorker, Rachel Syme. It uses Elfster – a programme used a lot at Christmas time for Kris Kindles – to randomly match people with each other via an algorithm. Some 12,000 people have signed up to date. Word of it spread via Twitter, on @penpalooza.

“The postman knows my house well by now,” she says. (Incidentally, she is the rare interviewee who can recall her Eircode instantly, without having to look it up.) It’s Thursday when we’re talking, and so far that week, she has sent seven letters and received 11. “I keep them all listed in my book,” she explains.

Some of her correspondents, who range in age from early 20s through late 50s, write frequently. Others just once. One correspondent writes 20 page letters akin to short stories, which she saves to read. “My house is still full of glitter from all the Christmas cards,” she says. Maguire has only met one of her many correspondents, but that’s not really the point.

Why does she do it? “It feels nice to spread some joy around the place. I send strangers birthday cards,” she explains. For birthdays and Christmas, she seeks out cards on Etsy or Instagram made by Irish designers and independent stationery brands. “I believe in the value of shopping Irish and supporting Irish.” For letters, she writes on a legal notepad. She used to use rollerball pen, until her partner gave he a fountain pen at Christmas, so now she writes all the cards and letters in blue ink.

What about the cost of all the cards, not to mention the stamps? “I’m not able to go out to the pub or to restaurants, so I’ve found external ways to spend my pocket money. I have definitely spent money on it. My dad is an accountant, and he is always asking how much I’m spending on it all.”

The earliest thing Maguire recalls getting in the post herself was a card from her grandmother, Gert. “She is a real card sender: Easter, Christmas, birthdays, all of the holidays. She has has the knack of making sure they all arrive on time.

Not all her penpals have kept in touch. It’s in the spirit of the randomness of the contacts: some just send one card or letter and they drop away. Others write regularly, although Maguire won’t reveal about what.

Will the penpal card-writing and letter-writing survive when All This is over? “That’s what a writer working on a novel involving letters contacted me to ask,” she says. “I think it will slow down a bit, and it won’t be the same because we won’t be at home all day, but it will change.”

Maguire believes there is a possibility in creating new kinds of networks of people in the future, who had been corresponding as penpals, but who, when travel restrictions end, will want to meet up in person in different locations around the world. This is what some of her correspondents are telling her. “It’s a new community of people.”

The penpal project is not the only correspondence-based project Maguire is engaged in. She also set up the website

“Since 2017, I have been buying up old letters and diaries from the 1940s.” She posts these letters up on the site. “It’s a history project,” as she puts it.

She buys them on eBay, at fleamarkets and in antique shops. In addition to posting the letters themselves on the site, she also has pieces about preserving old letters, books that feature letters in their plots, letters and love songs – pretty much anything where letters and culture intersect.

I go into the site, and have a random look at a few letters. The viscerality of handwriting is somehow so intimate and moving. One letter was written on Christmas Day, 1944, from the Union Service Men’s Lounge in New York city. From a distance of almost 80 years, the yearning is palpable.

“My Dearest Darling, this is Christmas evening . . . and I am so lonely without you. I just sorta walked around all day in a trance . . .”

What about the ethics of publicly posting formerly private pieces of correspondence on the internet, particularly as many of them are love letters? “If anyone contacted me and said, oh, that’s my grandmother or whatever, I would take them down immediately,” she says. To date, nobody has claimed to be a relative of any of these long ago letter-writers from the 1940s.

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DiverXo: Spaniard Dabiz Muñoz named best chef in the world | Culture

Voice Of EU



Spanish star chef Dabiz Muñoz was awarded the prize for being the best chef in the world at the fifth edition of The Best Chef Awards 2021 on Wednesday. The owner of DiverXo, a restaurant in Madrid with three Michelin stars, accepted his award at a live event in Amsterdam. At a press conference following the award ceremony, Muñoz (previously known as David Muñoz) said that chefs around the world are in a “hard” situation “due to the coronavirus pandemic,” which saw strict restrictions on the hospitality sector.

The Best Chef, a project created in 2015 that is dedicated to celebrating culinary talent, also released a list of its top 100 chefs, which includes 13 Spaniards. Muñoz said these types of awards not only “help restaurants, but also the people of the country” that feature on the top 100 list. “What comes to me, comes to Madrid, which to me is one of the most exciting cities in the world today for gastronomy,” said the DiverXo owner, who added that the recognition will help the Spanish capital “to continue to grow.”

Last March, Muñoz appeared at a culinary conference called “Dialogues in the Kitchen” in San Sebastián, where he talked about the “disruptive” way he had overcome the challenges that emerged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant owner told the audience that the experience had made him “renew his vows” with DiverXo. But the same could not be said for Muñoz’s restaurant in London, StreetXo, which was forced to permanently close last December, five years after it was opened.

The Swedish chef Björn Frantzen came in second place on the top 100 list, and also won The Best Chef Voted by Chefs Award. Basque chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, from Mugaritz restaurant, came in third place, while Joan Roca, from Catalonia, took home the Science Award. At the ceremony, Roca said his team “is strongly committed to science and sustainability,” and added that such awards “benefit the country more than the chef,” as the prize-winners represent “a structure, products, producers.” He also said that chefs strengthen the tourism industry and the work of local producers.

Italian chef Alfonso Iaccarino won The Best Chef Legend Award; Fatmata Binta, from Sierra Leone, received the rising star award for her work at Fulani Kitchen; Italian chef Franco Pepe won the prize for the best pizza and Vicky Lau, from Tate restaurant in Hong Kong, was awarded the food art award.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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Commitments to end direct provision ‘already behind schedule’

Voice Of EU



Government commitments to end direct provision are “slipping”, the State’s chief human rights and equality commissioner has warned.

Sinéad Gibney, chief of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), said slippage meant delays and “people continue to languish in this system which deprives them of so much”.

She was addressing the Oireachtas committee on public petitions on progress implementing the Government’s White Paper on ending direct provision. Published in February by Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman, it envisages closing all direct provision accommodation centres by the end of 2024 and replacing them with a new system of accommodation and supports.

Ms Gibney said “relatively simply fixes”, such as ensuring asylum seekers had the right to apply for a driving licence, were “already behind schedule”. The White Paper had promised legislation would be introduced before summer 2021.

“As we appear today the commission is not aware of any specific legislative amendment having been introduced to allow applications for driving licences . . . Being barred from even being able to apply for a driving licence is a massive State-built barrier to securing or seeking employment,” she said.

“The right to seek employment was hard won for asylum seekers in a Supreme Court case by a determined Burmese man . . . That victory is made hollow by such administrative barriers as access to driving licences.”

IHREC, she continued had “concerns” that an independent inspection regime of accommodation centres had not yet begun.

Before the White Paper the State had been in breach of EU directives by not ensuring vulnerability assessments were conducted on every asylum seeker on arrival.

These were now happening but at far too low a rate. “Figures provided to the Oireachtas in April this year show that 258 applicants had entered the vulnerability assessment process with 151 assessments completed and 107 then ongoing. This obviously needs to be significantly scaled up given there had been 886 applications received this year alone,” said Ms Gibney.

Stephen Kirwan of the Law Society’s human rights and equality committee, described “frustrations” among colleagues that clients in the asylum process were often not getting legal advice until “a very late stage”.

One of the “most significant obstacles to the White Paper being realised” was delays in the processing of international protection, or asylum applications, said Ihrec commissioner Colm O’Dwyer SC.

At the end of July there were more than 5,000 people awaiting a “first instance” decision on the applications and the median time to get a decision was 26.9 months, he said.

Ms Gibney called for a “mindset change” in the whole international protection system.

“It’s about moving towards informing our system with a mindset that we are lucky to welcome in many of the aspirant citizens . . . We need to invite them. We need to offer them integration from day one. We need to see and value the contribution they can make to our society and I think when we do that we do start to then see a system that is informed by trauma, that understands the trauma that some of the people have been through [and] that provides wraparound supports tailored to their needs.”

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Q&A: What is the British government doing to help Brits in Italy overcome post-Brexit hurdles?

Voice Of EU



On Wednesday the British embassy in Rome organised a town hall-style question and answer session to allow British residents in Italy to raise concerns and put their questions to Minister Wendy Morton and British Ambassador to Italy Jill Morris.

After the session, The Local was granted a brief interview with the minister to discuss some of the major issues for UK nationals in Italy that we’ve been reporting on this past year.

From residency rights to driving licences, here are the minister’s answers to our questions about the post-Brexit rights of British citizens in Italy.

How is the UK government assisting British nationals struggling to access the new carta di soggiorno elettronica?

UK citizens living in Italy have been encouraged by the British government to apply for a carta di soggiorno elettronica, a new biometric card that proves their right to live in Italy under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

While the card is not required by the Italian government, it’s strongly recommended as the simplest way for Brits who have been resident in Italy since before January 1, 2021 to demonstrate their rights of residency and ensure they can continue to access essential services.

Some UK citizens, though, have had trouble accessing the card due to processing delays or the fact that their local police station, or questura, hasn’t yet got set up to issue the document – and have run into problems obtaining work contracts and applying for driving licenses as a result.

Anti-Brexit protesters on September 22, 2017 in Florence, Italy. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

The minister said that the British embassy in Rome has been holding regular online meetings to listen to residents’ concerns about the card, and also provides updates via a newsletter.

“Our ambassador has a newsletter that is a way of communicating regularly to British citizens, so they can sign up to this, as well as signing up to the Foreign Office’s ‘Living In…’ guide, to get up to date information on an ongoing basis,” she said.

Ambassador Morris highlighted that the British embassy is collecting reports from British citizens who have experienced problems accessing the card (as well as any other issues) via a contact form on its website.

“We encourage British residents in Italy to report to us when they have any difficulties exercising their rights, whether that’s related to healthcare, whether that’s at the questura to get the carta di soggiorno elettronica, or any other issues people may have,” the ambassador said.

“We log the individual cases; we also look for trends, so when we see there’s a trend of a problem, for example stamping passports at a particular airport, then we target the authorities at that airport to give them information and make sure all the border guards have that information.”

The embassy sends a monthly update to the Italian authorities to alert them to ongoing issues, she added.

You can find the embassy’s contact form here.

The ambassador also noted that the British embassy has worked with Italy’s national association of mayors, Anci, to distribute a booklet to comuni across the country laying out the post-Brexit rights of British citizens.

Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement on reciprocal driving licenses before the grace period expires at the end of this year?

After Britain left the EU at the end of last year, British residents who hadn’t yet got around to converting their UK license to an Italian one were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to use their British license in Italy.

Many hoped that Italy and the UK would later come to an agreement which would allow drivers to continue using their British license beyond that point.

But with less than four months to go before the grace period expires, Brits are now wondering whether to gamble on the two countries reaching an accord by the end of this year – and risk being unable to drive come January 1st – or to undergo the time-consuming and expensive process of retaking their driving test in Italy.

When we raised this issue with Ms. Morton, she said: “We absolutely are continuing to negotiate with the Italian government on the right to exchange a UK license for an Italian one without the need to retake a driving test, and I can assure you it’s our absolute priority to reach an agreement before the end of the grace period which is at the end of this year.”

REAL ALSO: Reader question: Will my UK driving licence still be valid in Italy after 2021?

Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP

What is government doing to help British-Italian families wanting to return to live in the UK?

UK nationals wanting to return to live in Britain with their EU partners have until the end of March 2022 before the bar for being granted a spousal visa will be significantly raised. That deadline is fixed and will not be extended, the minister confirmed on Wednesday.

“If they want to apply, it’s important that they apply before the deadline,” she told The Local.

“Close family members of UK nationals who return from living in the EU by the 29th of March next year can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme as long as that relationship existed before exit day,” said the minister.

“It’s also worth remembering that family members of individuals from the EU, from Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, or Lichtenstein, as well as the families of British citizens may also be eligible to apply for a family permit under the EU Settlement Scheme, which will make it easier to travel with a family member to the UK.”

READ ALSO: Brits with EU partners warned over future problems returning to live in UK

Some EU-British couples, however, are already experiencing problems having their right to live together in the UK recognised, with reports coming out that the Home Office has denied some applications on seemingly flimsy or technical grounds.

“The fundamental thing here is that British citizens can return to the UK at any time. And it’s important that we remember that,” the minister said when asked about this issue.

In case you were wondering.

For British-Italian couples in Italy experiencing problem, “the first port of call should be our team here in the embassy; it may be that they then need to be signposted if it’s a Home Office issue,” said the minister.

“The Home Office has made a whole range of advice available online, and can also be contacted by telephone and by email.”

See The Local’s ‘Dealing with Brexit‘ section for the latest news and updates.

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