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.