Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back to the Beginning

Oftentimes the end of a journey will closely resemble the beginning. There’s the same medley of feelings, excitement at the thought of embarking, anticipation of a new adventure, trepidation at adjusting to a different environment, and a little pang of loss at leaving what has been your home for so long. When I think about going home, spending the summer in Ithaca, images of weekends spent at the farmer’s market and nights attending free concerts on the Art’s Quad fill my mind. However, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that after a busy day working I won’t be able to walk to school and swing by the College Bar for a pint of Guinness. I know it will feel unnatural not to have a Trad Session going on when I walk into a pub and I’ll dearly miss the Irish slang of “savage,” “class,” and “grand”. I sat with my roommate Meg on the side of the Claddagh, eating rasberries from the weekend market, and it suddenly hit me, that I wouldn't be doing this again for a long long time.

I’m ready to go home and spend time with my parents. The thought of catching up with friends at school and sitting at the State Street Diner for a tuna melt that tastes more like mayonnaise than tuna and does not include corn it’s a dizzyingly thrilling prospect. However, after a month or two I know the wanderlust will return and I’ll be ready to hop back on a plane to Galway. It will be lovely to be home, but I’m starting to wish that being in Ireland and returning to Ithaca weren’t mutually exclusive endeavors.

During college the concept of home for many students gets turned upside down. For those of us who define home as the place where our loved ones reside, it can become tricky as to where we want to leave our hearts. Loyalties and friendships shift from high school to college, as new bonds are forged over late night binges of Wings Over Ithaca and Insomnia Cookies. However, sometimes, instead of establishing a new place to call hearth and home, you’re left feeling unsettled and stretched, straddling two different locations and sets of families. Going abroad adds yet another branch to the metaphorical family tree. It's as normal to me now to walk down the street and see a pasture as it is to come into close contact with a castle. I walk around my countryside hometown and keep on wondering why the sheep aren't spraypainted in cotton candy colors (something the Irish do to keep track of their flock).

The strangest thing about coming home has been how little effort it’s taken to adjust. After spending the last five months in a continual state of trying to assimilate, it’s an unfamiliar feeling to slip easily into a comfortable environment. It’s both reassuring and disappointing to find my world so unchanged. I feel like I’ve been soaked, put through a blender, and spit back out to make all-natural paper Christmas cards. It’s strange that the internal difference isn’t reflected in the world around me, or in more colloquial terms; it seems wrong that everything looks the same when I feel so different. Still there’s a symmetry to my surroundings here that exudes comfort, something about the winding country roads, each bend of which tells a childhood story, that makes me feel at peace. Thus the story has come to its end, a circular journey in which the heroine returns back to the location of her origin, only instead of the keys to the kingdom, or an ancient royal heirloom, I’m armed with hundreds of digital photos, a couple of filched Guinness glasses, and a view of the world that's a little more stretched than what I started with.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Penultimate Week-long Getaway

Studying abroad is not a vacation. One of the most defining moments during the study abroad experience occurs after the honeymoon period has worn off. Instead of a tourist’s fascination with every new sight, “Man I really need a picture of that gorgeous gas station over there,” a veteran’s weariness seems to set in. The first time I walked home in the rain only to have my grocery bags break 100 meters from my front door I found myself cursing Ireland. The nonstop misting rain that makes it feel like you’re constantly walking through a sponge, the environmental bent that means you need to pay for grocery bags, the temperature that’s only available in Celsius so that I never have any clue what the weather forecast for the day is, all these things suddenly stopped being quaint and refreshing and a “grand adventure.” This was the moment I knew I had ceased to be a tourist. This was also the moment I knew it was time for a real vacation.

Luckily, the past Grace had possessed the foresight to predict this moment. Three friends and I had made plans to venture to sunny Croatia, the new south of France. We found cheap flights to Zadar, the only available airport when you’re coming from Dublin, and rented an apartment for the week. When we arrived, knowing only the Croatian word, “bog” for hello, we were promptly greeted at the airport by the owner of the hotel, carrying a sign that read Aliza, the name of my friend who had booked the apartment. For a mere 15 euros (115 or so Kunas, the local currency) a night, we were privy to the most beautiful lodgings I stayed in my entire time abroad, complete with balcony porch, in ground pool, grill, and garden. A coffee maker graced our apartment and we began the trip by partaking of one of the three free bottles of wine provided to us by the owners.

Croatia was everything I needed in a tropical getaway. We spent our first few days marveling over the cheap prices and purchasing the necessities (which turned out to be a 1 lb bag of almonds and lots of pasta) at the local versions of 7/11s, along with the outdoor market in town. Zadar, the fifth biggest city in Croatia, is broken up into the old and new sectors. The old section of town is comprised of white stone streets, red clay roofs, and outdoor restaurants and bars. However, the most significant places in old town Zadar was the forest tucked away into a corner of the city, swelling to mythical proportions in the pre-dusk light, and the Sea Organ, a testament to nature and engineering which consisted of a series of pipes that were places into the ocean at different levels so that with each wave a new sound was created, often resembling a whale’s song. I finished five books while lying by the side of our hotel pool and finally chased away some of my skin’s reflective paleness brought on by Ireland’s cloud-cover.

The most memorable day by far was spent exploring Krka National Park. From the very beginning we had planned on touring around to see Croatia’s famous waterfalls. However, I had been expecting something akin to East Coast falls, singular entities that plunge in linear fashion from hundreds of feet. Instead the entire park is blanketed in a series of rapidly swelling waterfalls, the width of the entire river. Using man-made wooden pathways, it’s possible to traverse the entire park, weaving over and under these massive falls, spying the local wildlife on the way, which includes such beauties as the human fish (a fish that possesses elbows…creepy indeed).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Murphy's Law and One of the Seven Deadly Sins

When we first arrived in airport Beauvais, one hour outside of Paris, we were greeted with a trip through customs and then a hasty "Welcome to Paris, now you must leave." We had planned on starting our ten day tour through Paris and Italy by staying overnight in the airport. Our plane had arrived at 11 pm that night and we had hoped to save on a hostel by spending an uncomfortable, but much cheaper, night spent curled up on airport benches, where the worst thing you have to worry about is one side of your butt going numb.

However, unbeknownst to the nine of us, airport Beauvais closes promptly at 11pm. Therefore we were forced to take the one hour bus into Paris without a clue as to where we would stay for the night. We postponed the problem, using the procrastination skills developed by any good college student, by camping out in a fast food joint, Quick Burger, the American equivalent of McDonald's, until 2 am. At that point we were once more unceremoniously thrown out on the streets. Welcome to Paris, city of romance, tall phallic-looking sparkly towers, and the world's most delicious croissants.

The nine of us huddled together for warmth on a park bench, finally leaving after a chilly sleepless night to catch the sun rising over the Eiffel tower. I'd like to say it was the last of our mishaps during our ten day trip but I'd be lying. Although we were lucky enough not to miss any of our three flights, two train rides, four five hour bus trips, or three taxis, we still managed to encounter a few more snags. In case you ever book hotels in Italy: you cannot sneak extra people into the rooms. They ask for passports. Also, if you plan to take any high speed trains, make sure you validate your ticket by sticking it into the little yellow marked box in front of the tracks. If they catch you without a validated ticket, they will throw you off at the next available stop. But, most importantly, never ever ever stay in Hotel Veneto.

We consulted maps more times than I was able to keep track of over those ten days. However, the times when I found myself feeling most lost was when we went sight-seeing among the Catholic Cathedral's. In Paris we toured Notre Dame, and instead of feeling awestruck and inspired I found myself feeling sweaty and frustrated at the crowd that moved in a gape-mouthed circle, always flowing in the same direction. Maybe I've merely seen too many churches, but the large stained glass windows and the gold-enameled statues only serve to make me angry. What's the real point of all this opulence? Does God truly appreciate having millions of dollars spent on decorations for his temples of worship? Is there truly a point to making every pillar out of marble?

When we were in Rome, we stumbled upon the Pope giving a speech. Apparently it happens every Wednesday. Hundreds of chairs are lined up in the Vatican courtyard. Groups of people flood in from all parts of the world, school trips and church groups that all cheer with Superbowlish enthusiasm when they're given their shout out as the Pope gives his speech in no less than six different languages. By this point I'd traveled to four different countries, besides Ireland during my study abroad experience. I'd spent time in Brussels, Amsterdam, Seville, Paris, and Rome. I'd attempted three different languages (I didn't even try Dutch), not to mention the struggle of deciphering the Irish accent (which at times should qualify for it's very own dialect). However, no time did I feel as foreign or as out of place as when I was surrounded by this sea of believers.

It's an amazing and an intimidating things to find yourself amidst of sea of people who have given themselves over to faith. Currently, it's something I still struggle with personally and an issue I'm never certain I will really come to terms with. I have to admit though, there's something inspiring about a mass of people, all from different backgrounds, cultures, languages, that have come together to sit for a two hour papal speech, 5/6th of which they will not be able to understand. Sitting in the courtyard of the Vatican, I watched the members of the crowd watching the Pope, and I envied them their ability to believe that somewhere, someone had a plan.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Churros and Chocolate

Remember nap time? For most of us this idea is a thing of the past, a reality only in vague memories of kindergarten classrooms, replete with cardboard pinups of the alphabet and hand turkeys on the walls. However, in Spain, nap time, formally titled siesta, is part of daily life, as normal as the double cheek kiss hello and the pig legs hanging over the bar at restaurants.

Three weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Sevilla in the south of Spain, only a Ryanair skip and a Renfe high speed train jump, from Dublin, Ireland. I was immediately assaulted with a completely foreign culture, complete with 7 Euro tapas meals, bottles of wine for 1.6 Euros, and 2 Euro bus trips to visit ancient ruins (Italica). After nearly fourth months of living abroad you'd guess that I would have become accustomed to culture shock, but Galway, with it's pastoral hills and small-town feel, is easy to make into your home.
Sevilla was quite possibly the most romantic place I've ever been. When you're in love, you typically see the world through idealized glasses. An oil stain becomes a rainbow of colors, a cracked asphalt sidewalk is merely a nesting ground for the dandelions poking through. However, Sevilla provided the glasses without the oxytocin. The air actually does smell like orange blossoms, due to Orange trees dotting each sidewalk, and the Royal Gardens actually do ring out with the music of fountains and children's laughter. Sevilla even has it's very own castle, which, when it's lit up at night, looks like every fairy tale I've ever imagined.

In only a couple months I had allowed myself to become a little smug. I had felt like a pro at navigating Galway's back roads, at locating the nearest grocery store, at bringing my own shopping bags so I wouldn't need to pay when I arrived. Travelling to Spain thrust me into a whole new world, a place where I was once again a stranger. Still, whether due to my past experience of adjusting to culture shock, or simply the welcoming environment of Sevilla itself, it was a much softer landing this time.

Even wandering around the Madrid train station I found myself sucking up the details. The jungle of plant growth that grew wild in the middle of the downstairs floor. The sign that said "No Turtles" that stemmed from people leaving unwanted pets in the giant green space. The ten foot tall stone baby's head that greeted you as you walked out of the station.

I don't know about you, but I often find myself wouldn't what would have been. I typically regret the things I've done more than the things I haven't simply because making a choice means closing a door. As we get older and find more and more options closed off to us, it can be a hard fact to face that we no longer have the option of being a famous ballerina, an astronaut, an Olympian athlete. Going to Sevilla was like having five days to walk around in my "what ifs." What if I had chosen a country other than Ireland? What if I had picked a place that spoke a different language, where the culture was not just the flip side of the page but a whole different book? Leaving Sevilla, I was plagued with a gnat storm of doubts, tiny nagging alternate forks that whizzed through my mind.

When I stepped off the plane into Dublin Airport the air did not smell like orange blossoms. There was no chance of me going go to see a Flamenco performance in a hidden club through a blank red door and no possibility of getting a meal for less than ten euros that wasn't McDonalds. However, I felt something inside of me soften when I heard the first lilt of Irish accents, and a knot in my shoulders that I hadn't known was there loosened at the sight of BusEireann. Coming back to Ireland felt like coming home, and that was enough.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Knowing Where to Look

There are some social situations I have never been able to master. For example, when you're walking down a long stretch of road and you see someone approaching you from far away. You don't want to meet their eyes because they're still a good five minutes away from you and it would be strange to spend the rest of the time walking towards each other staring into each others eye's. However, it's most natural to look in front of you when walking, and also a good preventative measure to keep from bumping into things. Therefore, I usually compromise by awkwardly darting my eyes around to the front and then coming back to an imaginary fascinating view to my right (for some reason I always pick the right).

These are some of the uncomfortable situations you don't have to worry about when you're surrounded by good friends instead of strangers. Two of my friends visited from the States this last week. It's was strange at first to have my two worlds of home and study abroad collide, a bit like traveling to the Amazon rainforest and seeing a Pizza Hut stationed in the center. However, it was amazing to be able to show them around Galway as well as Ireland and get to experience things through a new set of eyes. There's a kind of excitement, a need to take advantage of every moment, to see every site, that I was able to piggyback upon while my friends were here. We watched the St. Patrick's Day parade and biked around the Aran Islands, and whether it was the beautiful sunny weather, the presence of my friends, or the feel of walking without shoes oh the beach; I had some of my happiest moments in Ireland during this past week.

They say it takes twenty days to form a new habit. This doesn't apply to forming substance abuse addictions or to falling in love. Instead it's about the little things: Knowing which way to look when crossing the street; Automatically not leaving a tip when you're in an Irish restaurant; Looking for the switch that turns on the oven. These tiny details seep into you, diffusing slowly into your bloodstream, sinking into your subconscious. Like the tiny scratches you'll sometimes receive when walking through the woods, you don't remember when or how you picked them up but they've somehow become a part of you.

I tend to lose things a lot. Just yesterday we walked into town and went to the weekend Farmer's Market. It's on a side street to the right of Shop Street, a small cobblestone outcropping dotted with stalls sellin everything from medallions to gourmet olives. I purchased this amazingly fancy cheese and fresh rasberries, a delicacy in a country where the potatoe passes for all the fruits and vegetables you will ever need. However, somewhere between stopping to soak in the sun in Eyre Square, and looking through the mall for comfortable walking shoes, I set the bag down and lost it.

Sometimes being abroad is a little like losing something. Only instead of a bag of berries and gourmet cheese, it's a piece of your identity. You start to forget little things about yourself like whether or not you say CARmel or CARAmel or which pizza toppings really are the best or if you snore. Luckily, close friends are like having a safe box for all those personal details. They keep them safe so that even when you forget, you know where you can find the pieces of yourself.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Have you ever noticed that when a group of people try to enter or exit out of double doors, there is usually a bottle neck effect? This occurs whenever classes let out at NUI. Students pour out of one of the five or so auditoriums in the Arts Concourse building and immediately make their way for the exit, like passengers jumping from a sinking ship. However, every one seems to have a mild case of the Lemming-effect, prone to following the person in front of them. Maybe this was bred into us as a survival technique from days long gone; following the more skilled guide through the dangerous night around you. Still, now that we have killed off most of the animals that could hunt us to extinction, it doesn't seem to be that effective of a habit. Even with two doors available, each student will use the door that's been pushed open by the person in front of them. Sometimes the single file line with stretch back ten, twenty meters in the corridor, a winding human snake of complacency.

So what is it that makes people so unwilling to forge their own way? Does it just not occur to them to try an alternative route, or is there something deeper that makes them hesitate?
Classes at NUI do not function the same way they do at Cornell. Instead of having class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the same lecture hall at the same time, the schedule spins and winds like an acrobat on Ecstasy. Sometimes my Comparative Public Policy class will meet in Kirwan Theater, sometimes in Oh'Eocha. At times it's at 3 in the afternoon and then the next day it will switch to 4. In keeping with this nontraditional system, each class runs for a different period of time, several starting as late as three weeks after the semester has begun. Most classes run for a mere two months total, and instead of continuous assessment, each class has either a final exam or a 3,000 word paper.

Lucky me, this means that I have six 3,000 word papers to finish by the end of the month. After the end of May, I'm one final exam away from being done for the semester. However, this knowledge hasn't been helping me to start my papers. What is it that helps us paralyzed, that makes the beginning so much more difficult to face up to? There's a kind of solace in inaction, a refuge in the knowledge that even if you're not accomplishing anything, at least you're also not messing anything up. This kind of thinking works pretty well until it comes up against the idea of deadlines. Still, you've already gotten yourself into a bad habit, and so, instead of a weekend spent putting your nose to the grindstone and getting assignments out of the way, you find yourself justifying just one more hour watching Scrubs (because really, that JD holds all the life wisdom you ever need.)

Every day I walk the forty minute trek back from school. It's long, and tedious, and I now know exactly which landmarks are halfway (the hospital) , two thirds (Tesco), ten minutes to go (McDonalds). Five minutes away from my house there is a building slowly going up. In the two months that I've been here, I've watched the construction transition from a muddy pit in the ground, to a twenty foot high stone wall (stemming from a muddy pit in the ground). They must work on it for hours each day, but since I spend a mere couple seconds passing it, the site seems to spring up from the ground. It's always fascinating to me how little pieces can add up after a while. My life in Ireland often seems to be like that, a favorite coffee shop, a right turn on the way to school, knowing about the computer lab on the bottom floor the Arts Concourse...and suddenly you have a routine, and you're already halfway there.

Have you ever heard the story about the man who rebuilds his ship? He starts after a bad storm destroys half his hull one day. Years go by and he replaces board after board, strengthening a part there, a sail there. Finally there comes the day when the whole shop is composed of new pieces. The question is, when, if ever, did that ship stop being the vessel he initially had?

Sometimes, I feel that Ireland is merely stripping me down the most elemental pieces. Some things remain the same; my procrastination on papers for example. Other times, I feel like the abroad experience is changing me, seeping into my bloodstream to subtly alter each of the cells it comes in contact with, and it scares me, to look in the mirror in the morning and not know if the same person will be staring at me that night.

Yesterday, when I was leaving the Arts Concourse building, I got stuck in the same old herd of students trying to leave. I was shuffling along, content with my place in the crowd...until suddenly I wasn't. I walked forward, pushing my way through the throng, and exited through the other door. It's not much, but it's a start.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Red Light District

We arrived at 9pm on a Thursday night. By this point we had been travelling for over 36 hours. During that time period we had slept only in 1-2 hour increments, and of those, only stolen the kind of sleep from which days spent travelling by train and bus into lands where you do not speak the language will get you.

The Red Light District is neon and flashing lights. It's the spiritual home of all individuals who have ever had a case of the munchies, fast food joints perched on every corner like Starbucks in NYC. The streets are dark and wet, littered with wrappers from artery-clogging delicacies. Sex shops, their front windows rife with bullwhips, handcuffs, and sporting signs like, "the most vibrating store in Amsterdam," stand proudly next to Indonesian restaurants.

The air is continually tainted with the smell of marajuana, enough to give you a contact high when you decide to take a stroll. Coffeeshops (these do NOT sell coffee) dot each street like splatter paint, oozing lazy coils of smoke from their beckoning doors. The partons sit inside the light-dimmed cafes, eyes opened to half slits, blood shot and drowsy. They talk about the meaning of life and the universe and existentialism and then always loops back around to where you can get the best weed.

I never knew what a peep show truly was until I set foot in the Red Light District. In my mind I tried to discern meaning from denotation...figuring that it was much like the way we used mannequins in the States to lure people into our stores. Only, instead of mannequins they were real women, and instead of wearing clothes, they were mostly nude. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk inside the head of the person in charge of making one of those online sex sites? The ones that pop up on the screen at the worst of times with blinking bold faced letters, advertising every fetish imaginable, and some you never knew existed? That was what being on the streets felt like.

Each street catered to a different fetish. One of the streets sported heavy set women, poised in front of their windows, fleshy stomachs bared, heavy breasts hanging low on their chests. Another street catered to the more S&M style patron, women decked out in leather straps and spiked collars, whips in hand, black boots riding high on their thighs.

They stood garbed in skimpy bikinis and lingerie, striking poses as the tourists passed by. Most wouldn't meet your eyes, but some were brazen, attempting to single out clients by tapping on the glass partition. Behind them you could see into a tiny room, just big enough to fit a single cot. If the patron was interested, he would enter their room, either by the front door or around the back. The deal would be struck, the curtains closed, and anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour later he'd be back out on the street. Strangely, or not so strangely enough, there were no streets that I saw which catered to a female patron. Then again, these would probably have to entail fancy hotel rooms with a thousand thread count sheets where the guy takes you out for dinner and a movie before you make sweet yet tender love and then cuddle.

I always thought I believed in the legalization of prostitution. I thought it was something akin to providing kids with sexual education that covered more than abstinence; it was going to happen anyway so we might as well make sure it was as safe as possible. I believe that a woman can make the choice to be a stripper and that it isn't anything to be ashamed of. However, after seeing these women working the peep shows I'm just not sure where I stand anymore. They just looked like they wanted to be anywhere but there.