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.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Safe Road

This week, while sipping my pot of Hermes tea in Java's (all the tea is named after Greek Gods and Goddesses), I heard Galway described as the graveyard of ambition, a blackhole for creativity, andthe place where upon entrance, all writers immediately become devoid of inspiration. Needless to say, this was not encouraging.

Since arriving in Galway, I've found it difficult to sit down and write. This is not due to a lack of free time. If anything, the abundance of time I've spent watching episodes of How I Met Your Mother, reading Jodi Picoult novels, and making grilled cheese sandwiches is staggering...and a little embarrassing. Instead it's been due to a lack of heart wrenching angst, mind-bending stress, or panicky euphoria. Ireland has been a level plane of steady "fineness," a mediocre purgatory of "well that was nice."

Often, when approaching relationships, we are unconvinced of their validity if there are not fireworks or butterflies present. We're so conditioned to the roller coaster feeling of oxytocin and adrenaline induced alarm that when it's not present, we feel that something must be wrong. It's much the same for me and creativity. I draw my inspiration from the high highs and low lows that appear whilst I'm sinking or flying on emotional shoots and ladders. I'm suddenly at a loss when instead of pitfalls and wings, I'm given smooth sailing.

My days here blend together. I have so much free time that it's maddening and instead of being productive, I find myself sliding into slow-born tedium, stretching out a task that under pressure would take ten minutes to two days. However, rather than making me feel content and at ease, this slow pace has begun to make me anxious...small things seem a tiresome burden.

Tomorrow I plan to walk out to the cliff overhanging the beach. Regardless of the weather I will bring pens and my notebook and plug in my headphones. I kind of hope it will rain.

I went to Galway because it seemed like a safe bet...a nice change (emphasis on nice). It was a gentle way of expanding my view of the world. I spoke the language, had visited the country before, would be surrounded by other friends exploring Europe. I was a mere five hour plane ride from my family and would face no situational hardships besides the typical obstacles brought on by studying abroad. However, as I talk to my friends dispersed around the world, going on adventures where things can kill them in the jungle or tackling the social intricacies of navigating a society in which you are clearly an outsider and at times unwelcome...I wish I had been more brave.

People ask how Ireland is and I tell them the truth. I tell them it's beautiful, that it's great and that I feel so lucky to be here. However, sometimes I can't help but wish I was falling down a little bit more...because it'd be nice to have a reminder about how to pick myself up.

Addendum: Perhaps I have been overly hasty looking for inspiration inside myself and in the environment around me. I had forgotten that all too often my best inspiration comes from the other people in my life. Thanks to those...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Green Tea Here Is Brown

In the US, we include phrases like, “Dancing Through Life,” as fanciful metaphors within our bestselling Broadway plays featuring green women with conformity issues. In Ireland, dancing through life refers quite literally to the activities one participates in from venues as varied as a coffee shop on Shop Street to the College Bar or to the clubs next to my favorite coffee shop, Java’s, and from events ranging from birthday parties to Ceili (Kay-Lee) Irish dance sessions to traditional music nights. For some reason, smiling across a crowded room becomes a lot easier when the person is currently breaking out a Lord of the Dance move or doing “The Shopping Cart” (If you’ve never done this dance move please stop reading right now and try it out.)

In the last week, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to experience each one of these venues, surrounded by a comforting buffer zone of my group of friends, which makes the experience of flailing about in public much more manageable to the point where sometimes, it actually seems like a good idea. My first dance experience in Ireland was an informal session. After scouting high and low, my friends and I have finally located a cafe down the street from the local biker bar that we have decided to claim as “our place.” It’s reassuring to have a coffee shop that recognizes your face when you walk in. It’s a lot like the bar from Cheers. One day we even aspire to becoming so regular that when we walk in they ask, “the usual?” The upstairs of this quirky cafe is resplendent in reds of differing shades, lopsided couches positioned on the scuffed wooden floor and a baby grand piano nestled in the corner. It was there, at three in the morning, that I had my first dance in Ireland, whirling myself about like a solitary waltzer while my friend played a song by the Frames (the Irish band that did the music for Once.)

After a solid month of avoiding the dance clubs, last Saturday we set aside our pride and our flats, and, armed with with three inch heels and packets of travel tissues (all of us were amidst the most fun part of a cold), set out for Cuba (this is undoubtedly my cheapest travelling experience). In the streets, hired guys and girls mark passersby with UV stamps which allow you free access on weekdays and half price on weekends. Because I'm smart and eloquent I shouted, "Hey, I'd totally do that for money," when we spotted them on the street. The second floor of the club is all black lights and alternative music. I made sure to get a special glow in the dark eyebrow ring for the occasion. There was a lot of jumping up and down, and for one of my friends, even some being carried through the air. I still maintain that that should be implemented as the new mode of transportation.

The final night of dancing was a step into the traditional. In Ceili/Social dances, people dance in groups of 2-8 people. There’s something compelling about a national identity that prevails here in Ireland that baseball and hamburgers just don’t quite make up for back in the States. Ceili Dance. <--That's a video of the bar. It’s like stepping into a giant family reunion, only with less drama and more drinking. It's hard not to feel like an outsider at times when a group of people all start doing the same dance moves (I always scoffed when this happened in the movies). However, there's something to be said about an outsider perspective, the foreigners' version of anti-drunk goggles perhaps. Already the foreign has started to become familiar, and it's a little go going from color to black and white. I want to believe that appreciation isn't negatively correlated with comfort level...but it would explain all though divorces wouldn't it?

Often I feel as if I need something to commemorate this experience. There's the constant pressure that accompanies events like New Year's Eve and Spring Break to make study abroad feel like the time of your life. It's like continually having the need to make every moment one where (if you had your own theme music...and I SO wish i did) the song from Rocky would be playing or Good Riddance would start at the end of each night.

I've been stuck inside due to my awesome immune system for the past few days. I'm suffering a little bit of cabin fever. Hopefully though, when I'm well enough to leave my house, I'll start making those scrapbook style memories.

If that doesn't work I could always just get a tattoo.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Straddling Two Worlds

The honeymoon is over. I've lost my rose colored glasses somewhere by the wayside of the never ending Irish roads, and now they lay abandoned and covered with dew amid the gravel and banana peel coloured grass. As a Human Development major, and after having worked with youth groups in the past, I technically should have been more prepared for this part of my trip. Whenever a group of people enter a new group or situation they begin going through a cycle of adjustment. The first level is forming, where everyone is still trying to find their space and figure out where they stand in this new environment. The next level is storming, when people tend to become dissatisfied with the group and mild tensions arise as people reevaluate whether this is really where and who they want to be. Eventually norming kicks in where a semblance of peace and amicable living is achieved within the group. It all ends with (hopefully) performing. This last stage is akin to the kid who has to be carried kicking and screaming to his first day of summer camp and then sulks away most of his summer. However, something happens where everything falls into place that last week and when his parents come to pick him up, he's loathe to leave, standing arm and arm with the summer camp friends he's made.

Currently I'm in the storming phase. The idiosyncrasies of Ireland that up until now I've found so endearing are starting to wear on me. Why does is make a laser sound when I cross the street? Is everything truly "grand" and do I really deserve a million thanks? Are Wednesday and Thursday really the best nights to go out to the pubs (you turn into your own parent here even more than when you went to college, because after a month of nonstop partying and slacking off you remember, at the end of this I still will have 6 3,000 word essays to write)? I eagerly await the emails and messages from friends back home, devouring stories of life back in Ithaca and reading the last word with a disappointment to rival the child who just accidentally licked her favorite ice cream cone too hard and is now staring at a melting blob of Mint Chocolate Chip slowly gathering dust while it puddles on the sidewalk.

However, as Potluck, the foreign film we went to see on Wednesday, reminds me, the worst times on your trip end up being the stories you love to tell the most. Looking back, those of the times when you felt the most strongly, even if it was bad. Those are the memories you choose when trying to convey the experience, small life snapshots that attempt to sum up the entire 5 month experience. I've started to adopt that attitude when taking pictures. On a trip to Connemara recently, where we visited the Kylemore Abbey and the Frankletter Education Centre, I was tempted to take millions of pictures of the landscape, mountains rising up like new buds from desolate fields, crags jostling with the sky for space. However, I tried to keep in mind the monotony that pictures of the landscape can turn into at times, I mean how many rolling hills can you really appreciate? I ended up focusing in on the details, little pieces of the journey that would help add up to the total experience, the opulence of the dining room in the Abbey, it's mahogany banister that outlines a twisting staircase, the ivy curling down the corners of a white marble fireplace, and most importantly, the people who share the experience with me.

Many of my friends who come back from abroad say that the most frustrating thing is when people say, "Oh you went to [put in your country here] huh? How was that?" I never quite understood before, but I'm beginning to. Studying abroad isn't like going on a vacation or telling someone how your day was or deciding what you're having for dinner. It's the total of 5 months, give or take, of days spent hungry or tired or lonely or awestruck, a semester of reshaping and testing the personal identity you've built up for yourself. How do you describe a period of time where you stepped into another culture with an adjective? Maybe I'll think about it until that moment, most likely I'll just go back to the old faithful standby of abroad descriptors and say something like, "Oh man it was totally amazing."

For the last couple weeks I've been giving myself some slack. You're just getting started, I'd comfort myself. Or there's plenty of time to accomplish everything you want to do during study abroad. However, now we're a month in, the experience is 1/5th finished and we're not playing house anymore. The life that's slowly been creeping in is steadily solidifying around you until one morning you wake up and you've built your life here, with all it's mundane traditions, Saturday morning quirks, favorite eating establishments, and new foreign identity. I guess this is the time to take stock of how the experience is going, a personal checkpoint to make sure you're on the right track.

I'm not sure when the moment is that I'm going to start fulling identifying with my life here. I both look forward to and dread when that moment will arrive. It's hard to move on when so much of me is invested in my life back home. Sometimes I think it's necessary though to fully appreciate my time here. Other times I feel like I'm quoting the opening speech to every study abroad meeting they made us attend (man those guys get inside your head.)

No regrets right? Well I'm working on it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Semester of First Times

One of the greatest things about going someplace new, is that it introduces a whole new set of "firsts." After three years at Cornell and 14 years in my home town of Blairstown, I had almost exhausted all of the possible novelties. First time at Grassroots? Check. Barbecuing peaches and vanilla ice cream on a warm summer night? You betcha. Board game night where we simultaneously watched Clue the movie while guessing Professor Plum in the Dining Hall with the wrench? Oh yea.

There's nothing like the feeling of doing something for the first time. Not to mention the bonding that goes on when everyone involved has no idea what they're doing. There's something intensely intimate about the blind following the blind. Mutual ignorance and a little tang of fear to spice things up covered with a bravado frosting. Recipe for instant friendship.

Travelling to another country is a little like going back to kindergarten. Or maybe it's more like that dream where you're in class and the teacher tells you you have a presentation that's worth 80% of your grade and you realized you've got nothing. I spend about 90% of my time feeling stupid and the other 10% talking to my friends here about our shared incompetence. Still, not feeling in control is a little like constantly being under the influence. Everything is a little blurred. The colors are brighter and more vivid, and in the morning you either don't remember or you pretend that you don't remember. Also, you continuously have an excuse for bad life choices.

The friendships you make during your time abroad are the relationships forged between survivors. You cling to any aspect of the familiar. You get each other through foreign experiences by reminiscing about NY style pizza and online class enrollment and normal looking toilets. For that time at least, these people because your replacement family, your American-accented lifesaver during the semesters storm.

I wake up every morning knowing that at least one thing that day will be different. Things hit me in waves. The km/liter for gas. The metric system on the measuring cups. The switches to turn on the power outlets. The joules instead of calories on the nutrition facts. The way that when you're walking at someone on the sidewalk they swerve to the left instead of the right (Why are we the only people who drive on the right side of the road btw?). All the firsts lead me to my apartment door at night exhausted, as if I'd spent the day trying to translate French into modern dance. However, there's something inexplicably sweet about each first time...and whether its a good or bad experience, it's something that indelibly branded into your experience.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

This Must Be Cruel and Unusual

I pulled an allnighter. But not the fun kind of `Woo we're going out to party allnighters` or even the `Man I have a lot of homework to do tonight allnighters.` Instead, I stayed up all night because in Ireland, international students register for English seminars at 9 am on a Wednesday morning. There are only three spots in each seminar for international students and you can only sign up for one seminar. This semester, there are over five hundred international students studying at NUI.

My roommate and I were warned we needed to arrive early. That night I went to three bars, one with the chorus, the next in an attempt to see my friend play at a trad session, and the last where I was able to try out Irish dancing for the first time. We walked back in a hail storm around 12 and stayed up eating junk food and watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Four thirty we arrive at school to find thirty students already camped out. It's probably zero degrees and it's raining. Since registration doesn't start until 9, we had a solid four and a half hours to huddle outside on the wet ground. Not good.

Finally we're given numbers to que up later. I immediately determine I'll lose mine and promptly stick it in my right coat pocket, zippering it secure. We trudge to the cafeteria and slump in the corner couches, drinking apricot green tea and eating the best croissants I've ever tasted. That's when I discover my tiny slip of paper isn't in my pocket.

Just to give you a picture of those four and a half hours. My teeth chattered so hard the entire time I was convinced they would shatter. I shivered uncontrollably the whole time and spent most of it curled in a ball on the wet ground with my backpack on my lap as a make shift blanket. Even dressed in ear muffs, two hoods, gloves, scarf, rain coat, and a hat, the cold seeped into you skin. My whole body froze. I tried to curl in a ball to conserve warmth and ended up being unable to get to my feet afterward because my legs had gotten too stiff.

After all this I was signed up for my third choice of English seminars. It's still raining. All I can say is, NUI needs to learn how to post their classes on the internet.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

There are Pigeons in Our Cafeteria

Okay this post idea was stolen from Becky. It's going to be a series of sensory snapshots of my favorite moments/experiences in Ireland to date.

At the beach: The first time I went I was convinced it was only a five minute walk to the beach. The second time, it got longer. By the third time, when I trekked out to see it in the early morning, the walk had swelled in proposion, approaching the mileage equivalent of a very large creature, perhaps a dinosaur. However, watching as step by step the horizon took on the grey green tinge of the ocean, and breathing in the twang of briny air, my feet started to forget that we walk more than ten miles a day here. There are no locals who go on the beach. The only other person even in the vicinity was another tourist, and she wisely chose to stay to the cement stadium seating that serves like a seashelled bookend for a crescent of the shore.
I sat in the sand. I was not cool. I chased around the one type of bird on the beach, trying to snap photographs of their strutting step. I dared myself again and again to walk barefoot through the lapping waves, each one burning like icy hot when it licked my feet.

Walking back from the bars: There are humongous swans in Galway. They are the size of a small kindergartener and a little scary. Every now and then one of my dreams stars a large swan such as these, sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner of people and gobbling down small children with glee. This is what I get for drinking before bed. The only pictures I've managed to get of the swans blur and smear on the camera screen. They rise, coiled on themselves, weighty ghosts perched on the canal's filmy surface. They equally tempt and warn away. I've yet to see their eyes, but I imagine that when I do, they will be bleak and grim and frightfully intelligent. More likely they will simply gaze and glide away, disinterested in yet another foreign trespasser.

The night of my birthday: A giant birthday card covered with old english font and characticures of birthday dragons is safely tucked away beneath my desk. It was made from the remains of a shipping box, artfully cut and stamped with the seal of "weird birthday cards inc." That night, a full moon, we traveled to the Roisin Dubh (Roy-sheen Dove) to listen while men and women joined in to stir together what should have been a cacaphonous melody and instead turn it into an embrace of worn fiddles and basists. Our drinking guests that night were an old man and women (perhaps I'm being unkind...maybe middle age). He was armed with a scraggled beard and an at-times gapped smiles. Her dreads hung down like twisted ropes on either side of her face, swinging as she leaned forward to speak with enthusiasm about the shifting tides brought on by the full moon and the power of different astrological signs.

However, my favorite moments are these: Walking back from town, wishing for the millionth time we had a closer residence, speaking, sometimes slurring to my roommates. We discuss everthing from politics to education to boys to love to homesickness to the difference in culture between our home and Ireland. My feet always hurt. My wallet is always a little bit lighter. I hardly ever remember what we talk about. But these are the moments I'll look back to.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I woke up at the wishing hour. That's a fancy way of saying that after going out to the pubs last night for the umpteenth time in the row I woke bright and early at the respectable hour of 11:11. Professor Maas would be proud of me and my typical young adult sleeping pattern.

On Thursday my friends and I hit up the college bar (yes, for those of you looking at the screen in angry disbelief, we DO have a bar in the middle of campus). It's full of disco lights and bachelor pad couches and the walls are covered with tree wallpaper that kind of look likethe COE basement...I'm getting better at going up to order a beer without being afraid that three big men in bouncer shirts are going to come up, tap me on the shoulder, and kick me out.

Thursday was karaoke night. One of my New Years resolutions has been to take more risks. So far those risks have included, spending a semester in Ireland, being the first pair of international students to sing karaoke in front of all our new classmates (Let It Be by the Beatles) and going downstairs by myself to order a beer (strangely intimidating).

Knock on wood, but I haven't yet experienced the overwhelming rush of homesickness and feeling out of place. It's my 21st today and it was something i was dreading being in Ireland for. Why you ask? Well here (although I did find out their 18, 21, and 30th birthdays are big deals) they've been able to officially drink since 18 and unofficially drink since birth. Also I've been here for a grand total of five days now and I was seriously doubtful of my abilities to replicate a solid friend network in that time.

I guess I shouldn't have worried. There's more than ten of us going out tonight. Some of the girls from Cornell here with me are even bringing over a cake and then we're all taking a jaunt down to the beach. After it's out to City Centre to the Crane or the Roisin Dubh for some traditional Irish music.

Classes don't officially start for me until the 26th of January. The free time is making me go a little crazy in the meantime. All I can say is that when I come back I will be fit (I eat just as much but now I'm walking two miles there and back to the restaurants) and well read.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It's Fuckin' Cold Here

Okay so I thought if anything, Ithaca had prepared me for the cold. Maybe I wouldn't be the most fashionable kid on the block, maybe I wouldn't remember anything I learnt in freshman year Chemistry, and maybe I would never be tan ever again, but at least I believed that I'd be walking around in shorts in the balmy 40 degree Ireland winters.

This is yet another thing I have been wrong about.

It's cold here. Not the "lets put on a cute jacket and frolick about in layers cold" and not the Ithacan, "when I go out in the morning my hair freezes and I can break off pieces of it cold" but definately enough so that even inside my apartment in a sweat shirt and inside my thirty degree sleeping bag, I'm shivering.

Other things that are different here so far:

-There's a lazer noise when you're allowed to cross the street
-There's no butter on the popcorn at the movies
-When you ask for a packet of ketchup at McDonald's they only give you one, and you have to pay for the mayonaise
-When you enter a restaurant, no one seats you, and they never check to see how you're doing
-In the center of Galway, the street signs are posted at knee level, if they're posted at all
-Asking for a "ride" if propositioning someone
-It's not courteous to tip
-The only kind of deordorant sold in late night stores is spray on
-You have to pay for your bags at Dunnes

Irish Vocabulary so far
-"Off license" means you can buy liquor inside the store but can't drink it on the premises
-"to let" means to lease or rent
-"take away" is take out food
-"mobile phone" instead of cell

It's cold and the ground is always wet even when it's not raining.
That said, I absolutely love it here. It's beautiful and surreal and so not the US. I continually feel as if I'm walking in my own personal "Once" or "PS I love you" or "Under the Tuscan Sun" (only in Ireland)...without the poverty or the relationship fights or the death of my husband or the infidelity thing. It's perfect.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Twenty-four hours until destination Ireland

24: Met my friend Jacky in New Brunswick
23: Went out to fill up their keg and get a bottle of Everclear for her friends going away party (She's also going to Ireland!)
22: Go out to Stuff Your Face and get delicious pierogis!
21: Back at the house and start catching up on life and drinking wine
20: Start drinking beer and taking shots...none of which I recommend
19: Still drinking--> 16
16: Three of us, pass out in the bed
12: Wake up to drive home
10 1/2: Arrive at home and start freaking out
9: Shower off the road grime...and hung over feeling
8: Go out to breakfast with my parents
7: Convince myself I lost my glasses and take apart my three and a half suitcases to look for them
6: Spend time weighing the benefits of bringing thirty thousand T-shirts...decide not to because of overweight suitcase costs (Ends up being overweight any way)
5: Curl up in a ball and decide I don't want to go. Teach my dad how to use iTunes
4:Leave for JFK. Finish reading Kushiel's Dart. Pretend we're going to Chuckie Cheese.
3: Arrive at the airport. Say good bye to parents and ask the security person if my piercings will set off the metal detector.
2: Spend 9 dollars on chicken noodle soup and bowtie pesto pasta. Become paranoid about leaving my bags unattended because of the continual warnings of the disembodied female voice on the loudspeaker.
1: Rock back and forth in my seat waiting to board.
1/2: Get onto the plane. Glare at the commotion in front of me when people can't figure out their seats. Realize I'm the root of the problem because I've sat on the wrong side of the plane.
...6 hours, the movies "The Rocker" and half of "City of Ember," another couple hundred pages of Kushiel's dart later...
I arrive in ireland. Oh yea baby.