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.