Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Town I Loved So Well

There are posters all over town for a play: Sinbad and the Sea Pirates. As opposed to what, exactly? Mountain pirates? I know, savanna pirates.

The other day I was sitting in a café down the street from the university reading the textbook for my Viking archaeology class, and who should walk in but the lecturer for said class, who is also the editor of said book. I waved, and he came over to my table, saw the book, and laughed. I bet I'd get bonus points on this essay if he knew what my name was.

It snowed last night. I mean it snowed hard-core, albeit for less than an hour/about an inch. I spent most of my last day in Cork trooping around to music stores on a bodhrán quest (mostly for a friend, although I also bought a small cheap one for myself, because I thought it might lessen the pain of the nice one not being for me) through a layer of snow I had not expected to see while I was here. The pond in Fitzgerald's Park, near the river in between my apartment and the city centre, was frozen solid where a day or two ago it was mostly water with some slushy ice. The ducks and terns had fled, presumably to the river. I was one of several people walking back and forth to photograph the snow-covered rose garden from multiple angles.

My last walk by the river. Farewell my lovely swans, my awkward terns, my elusive cormorants. Farewell my funny/creepy rooks. And farewell my herons, even though there was a good deal of love lost between us after I discovered this: (I just couldn't look at them the same way after that.) It's funny, I never though I cared much about birds, but I may have spent more time this semester watching birds than in all my time before now.

I meant to mention before, I think, that I count swans compulsively. I like the way they're so often in even numbers. When they're not, sometimes if you watch them for a bit you can guess which is the odd one out.

It took me a month or two, but eventually I saw exactly six in the same place at the same time.*

I also don't think I realized how much I cared about water. Everywhere I have gone this semester, I have gravitated toward rivers and bays and the open ocean.

I am very sad I did not get to go back to Killarney. There is a lot that I didn't have time for, but I think that is my biggest regret.

I feel like there is so much more I wanted to say here on my last night in Cork. I could say it's strange to think I won't walk down the Western Road again, or hike up the ridiculous hill to the music building, or see the spires of a cathedral from my living room in the early morning. I could rejoice that I no longer have to live with the slovenly roommates who after a semester of unabashed disgustingness left yet more for the two of us here until today to clean up. I could mourn that I will no longer drink a pint in The Gallows on Wednesday nights, or find live trad music whenever I want it, or be able to get on a bus and be any of a several dozen beautiful and interesting (and preferably by the sea) places in less than an hour or two. I already miss some of my classes and lecturers, and I already miss MedRen and O'Bhéal and assorted friends and acquaintances, some of whom live here and some of whom have already left for wherever they came from. (And to those I would have seen if I'd made it to Tom Barry's on Friday night—I'm sorry I missed you. I hope it was fun, and I wish you all the best.)

But I don't think any of that is what I really wanted to say.

I've never been good at goodbyes. They're always awkward. And in ten minutes there's going to be a taxi outside waiting to take me to the bus that's going to take me to the plane that's going to take me to New York.

So goodbye, Cork. Goodbye, Ireland. It's been quite a ride. I hope we will meet again someday.

Good night [morning?], and joy be to you all.

* This is a geeky fairy tale reference. Look up "The Six Swans" by the Brothers Grimm, or "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Anderson, which as far as I can tell is based on the Grimms' story and which I think might be the only happy thing Anderson ever wrote. One of my favorite novels ever is a retelling of these tales, set in medieval Ulster. (I think. Maybe Leinster. But probably Ulster.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Land of Song

I meant to post this earlier, while I was studying for my exams and coming up with all of these, but somehow I never found the motivation and the time simultaneously. Actually, that's true of a lot of things I've intended to post and never have.

Anyway, for your amusement, I present: Highlights* of Medieval Irish Legends (all from the Finn Cycle). Citations available on request, but I'm too lazy to include them up front in something this informal.

The winner for best euphemism for sex/possible sexual assault: "He took her, and she was in his company."

Finn is psychic**: "At the end of the day Finn came to the hut and found the headless body. 'This is a body without a head!' cried Finn."
You go, Finn. Great clairvoyant hero, indeed. Nothing gets past you.

Creative Writing 101: Descriptions are important. "[blah blah blah] on two hills equally high with one another. And there was a black gloomy deep dangerous horrible precipice between them." Got enough adjectives there?

From the next paragraph in the same tale: "'and although your accoutrements and your clothes and your garb are hideous, and your own appearance not the most beautiful, if you make the leap she will be with you and accept you.'"
Well. When you put it that way.

This one even confused the lecturer: "and he [Finn] was dead between the two rocks. Fishermen of the Boyne found him... Aichlech cut his [Finn's] head from him, and then the sons of Uirgriu killed him." Wait a second...***

Apparently adjective abuse was a common problem in medieval Ireland (this might be my favorite): "Then a fierce pitiless powerful manly vengeful virile battle was fought between them."

Unintended double entendres: always a win. "'Perhaps the men of Tara think that we have been long enough conversing here, maiden,' said Finn. 'If it be long enough,' said the maiden, 'since you made a start to the talking, it is up to you to wrap it up.'"
Hurr hurr hurr. Man, he's trying to be all suave and subtle and she just gets right down to business. (He takes it in stride, though—his next line leaves nothing to the imagination.)

This is the one that made me decide to do this little compilation in the first place: "'I will depart, son of O Duibhne,' said he, 'and I leave this advice with you, not to go into a tree of one trunk in fleeing from Fionn, and not to go into an underground cave which has only one entrance, and not to go into an island of the sea which has only one way leading to it,'" and the reader is thinking, Yes, yes, all sound advice to someone in hiding, "and he said, 'whatever place you shall cook your meal do not eat it there, and whatever place you shall eat do not lie there...'" uh-huh, uh-huh, that makes sense... "'and whatever place you shall lie do not rise there.'" Ok, ri—, wait what?!

This is followed shortly by sex euphemisms AND random double entendres in the same paragraph: "'Diarmaid,' said she, 'though your valour and your bravery be great in conflicts and in battle-places I think myself that that little drop of errant water is more daring than you are.'
'That is true, Graínne,' said Diarmaid, 'though I have been for a long time keeping myself from you through fear of Fionn I will not suffer myself to be reproached by you any longer; and it is hard to trust women,' he said. And it was then for the first time that Diarmaid ó Duibhne of the bright-tooth made a wife of Graínne, daughter of the king of Ireland... And Diarmaid rose early on the morrow and went to the Searbhan Lochlannach and made a bond of contract and agreement with him and got permission to hunt and to chase from him and never to touch his berries."

Also, sometimes when a lecturer says something particularly funny or witty, even if it's not really important, I write it down so I can laugh at it again when I read over my notes later. I ran across two of those from this class: "It's hard to find a point in this depressing little story..." (So we're reading it... why, again?) and "There may be a tradition in Irish literature for how you talk about sinister meals of fish in abandoned houses with severed heads." (I don't think you need the context for that one to see its ridiculousness.)

In the interest of not being a total dick (although possibly it's too late), here are a couple of things I picked out that I really liked in a serious way rather than a WTF way:

"'What is sweeter than mead?' said Finn. 'Trustworthy conversation,' said the maiden."

And Graínne speaking of Diarmaid (in a poem that's not connected to the Diarmaid and Graínne story quoted above; don't even get me started on what a bitch Graínne is there): "There is one on whom I should gladly gaze, for whom I would give the bright world, all of it, all of it, though it be an unequal bargain."

There are also some good statements made about life in the forest, close to nature, being infinitely better than life at court surrounded by fancy things, but I don't have any quotes at hand.

Conclusion: If I were a lit major, or I'd had the foresight to make an independent major in folklore and mythology, I would totally be planning to come back to Cork for a postgrad diploma from the Celtic Civ department.

* meaning: Unintentionally Hilarious Sentences
** No, really, that's actually an important theme.
*** If you're trying to figure out how many times this man has to die, as we were, here's a hint: Pronouns are ambiguous.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Time Draws Near

Well, the pretty little blue and red hat I knitted myself last winter is now somewhere in Galway. I hope some other poor university student finds it and likes it and gives it a good home.

I guess I haven't really written that much this semester about actually living in Cork. I've been trying so hard to keep up with everything else that the day-to-day stuff has sort of slipped through the cracks. Most of it I don't suppose has been remarkably interesting—ask many of the American students here and they'll tell you that they go about their lives between trips and adventures not all that differently from the way they would at home, except that every once in a while as you walk down the street it suddenly hits you: Hey... I'm in IRELAND.

I think what I'm trying to say is that despite all the frantic weekends here and there trying to experience as much as we can before leaving, this isn't entirely the extended vacation it sometimes appears to be. We're living here. We go to class and write papers and buy groceries and do laundry and clean the kitchen. And sometimes that's all we do. If you're one of those that thinks even the mundane becomes exciting just by virtue of being in another country, well, no, it really doesn't. Maybe for like a week. After that, you forget where you are and just do whatever it is you do.

I think I first realized this back in October when I was in Killarney and went riding with that couple on vacation from Georgia (that would be the state, not the country). They asked me what they should do in Cork, and I had no idea what to say. I have not experienced Cork the way they would. Other than the Public Museum, I haven't done a lot of the touristy things. (I think I meant to, at first, but it just never happened and after a while it didn't seem important anymore.) When I have free time, I walk by the river or sit in a computer lab on Facebook. I've gone to very few restaurants. I'm a college student; usually my version of eating out is cheeseburgers and kebabs from places a middle-aged tourist wouldn't want to set foot in. I don't even know that many pubs, because I'm not the kind of person who goes out that much, and when I do, it's the same places over and over again. If someone were to visit me here, I'd be glad to show them MY Cork and maybe explore some new things—but I have no idea how to instruct someone else on how to enjoy Cork. At least not reliably.

People have been asking if I'm excited to go home. It's a hard question to answer. It's a little like when you're a kid, and it's August, and summer's gotten kind of boring, but starting school doesn't exactly sound like the way to fix that. (Not that Cork is boring.) I think if you had asked me two months ago if I wanted to come home, the answer would have been a resounding yes. In fact, someone did ask me that, a certain blunt and insightful friend, and I almost cried. I wasn't homesick, exactly; I never really had the whole culture shock thing. I was lonely and isolated and watching my friends back home go on with their lives without me and feeling like I was missing everything important.

I still feel that way, but now I'm also more invested in my life here. I've gotten to know people and gotten involved in things that are going to be hard to leave behind. It could be worse—I know at least one girl who found a boy, and it started out as a nice casual thing, but it started too early, and after a whole semester it's gotten out of hand and she's realized just how much she's going to miss him when they never see each other again. Studying abroad, I've discovered, is more of a blessing-and-a-curse situation than anybody tells you beforehand. It's a good experience to have. It's fun. You learn a lot about yourself and about life and about connecting across cultures and all that other cliché stuff. But at the same time, it's a terrible thing to be somewhere just long enough to get to know it and start to find your place, only to have to leave it again.

I've been struck by how different this experience is than my experience with Belize, and I'm not talking about the difference between the two countries here. I expected it to be different because here I'm a regular student going to class and joining societies and just generally managing my own time and decisions, whereas there I was basically working. I was a student, yes, but the classroom was an excavation and I was there all day, every day, and I lived and worked and played with the same people all the time. It was meant to be a different experience, but I was unprepared for some of the ways it's different. For one thing, the scatter of goodbyes here feels strange and disconcerting. Things are not over all at the same time, and it makes for awkward situations when you realize that you've just done something for the last time and probably aren't going to see someone again even though you'll be here for days more. Plus you're inevitably going to miss saying goodbye to some people because you didn't know ahead of time that you weren't going to see them again.

Leaving Belize also felt less final, somehow. Or maybe that's just the way I remember it now, because I have kept loosely in touch with so many people via Facebook. Maybe it was the constant close proximity; I think a lot of us really didn't expect our goodbyes to be final, but planned to meet again sooner or later, even if not all in one group (and many have). Maybe it was just that we all knew we had the option to come back again the next year, or the year after. Obviously we knew we could never come back and have it be exactly as it was then, but it still felt different. I can't really explain it, I guess.

Here, we have no illusions. I have already said a few goodbyes in which there was no pretending that we had any expectation of ever seeing each other again. ("Have a good... life, I guess...") I walk the streets of Cork in these last days knowing that although I hope to return someday, I might very well not. At the very least, there's a very good chance that I won't before many of the people I know have moved on and some of the things I love have changed beyond recognition.

And so the answer is yes, I'm excited to go home, but I'm not excited to leave.

(And you can tell because my room doesn't even look like packing everything I own is on the horizon, let alone imminent.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Come Join Me In Rhyme

At the risk of getting a lot more personal than I tend to like to do in this blog...

There's a place I go sometimes called The Hayloft. It's a tiny room (the bar takes up fully one quarter of the available space) in the upstairs of a pub in the city centre, and on Monday nights it plays host to O'Bhéal. (I'm supposed to know what that means, but I can never remember.) O'Bhéal is "Cork's weekly poetry event". The evening starts off with a silly poetry exercise, with a free pint for the winner, then a guest poet brought in for the night reads for about an hour, and then the rest of the time until close (usually around midnight) is an open mic. I've seen the crowd vary from less than a dozen to more than you'd think the room could hold, and ages range from twenty-ish to the 67-year-old who tried to buy me a drink last night. Many, if not most, are regulars.

I stumbled upon this by accident: They had a special event for Cork Culture Night in September, on a Friday instead of the usual Monday, and I saw it in the Culture Night listings and went thinking it was a one-time event. And it was love.

I forget sometimes that social science is not where I planned to end up. Four years ago the direction my life has gone, and more specifically the extent to which it sometimes seems I've turned my back on the arts, would have been unthinkable. The only literature courses I've taken since beginning my second attempt at college have been my French classes, and sometimes I'll sit down to write a French paper and suddenly remember that hey, I actually enjoy this, and I think this is what I meant to do once upon a time.*

I could go on about that for a while, but that's getting pretty tangential to the story, even for me. Anyway, I hadn't been to something like this in ages, and it used to be a huge part of my life, and it was really refreshing. And it made me really, really happy at a time (the semester had just started) when I didn't really know what I was doing yet and was trying to figure out what my life here was going to be.

I wound up not going as often as I wanted to. Sometimes I decided it was cold and I was lazy, and sometimes I was disappointed by my failure to get other girls to go with me (I succeeded twice, but that was it), but after a while I had to stop caring about both of those things because I was running out of time to say "Next week," so for the last few weeks I've gone pretty regularly. It's always a good time, and I've never felt unwelcome or out of the loop even when I'm there by myself. The guest poets are always great (the first one, on Culture Night, was a comic who recited, among other things, a very long poem that was a dialogue between Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and was absolutely hilarious), and although the things read during the open mic sometimes vary in quality, everybody gets applause and support.

The MC (and, I believe, the guy who started all of this in the first place several years ago, and who kind of reminds me of Liam Neeson) always approaches everyone in the room with the open mic sign-up list, including me. For a long time, I just smiled and shook my head. Like I said, it had been a very long time, and I was a newcomer (and a foreigner to boot), and those two things together made me very uncertain about reading anything myself.

But also, and perhaps more importantly, it had been a very long time since I really wrote anything to read. I wrote poetry constantly in high school and my first semester in college, but after that it sort of stopped. I don't think it tapered off as I got busy with other pursuits, either, it just stopped. I'd written two poems since then that I can think of, and most of another that got lost because MS Word's autosave function sometimes fails to save automatically even though I'm pretty sure that's why it exists, which sort of sucked any remaining motivation out of me. That was it.

Now, I have a theory about this cessation of writing that involves my need to write a specific poem, and you can feel free to ask me about it sometime, but I'm not going to get into it here because I don't think it's really an appropriate topic for this blog. The point is, on my way home from Culture Night, I wrote a poem. I wrote THAT poem, in fact. And it was like magic: in the last two and a half months I've written more than I wrote in the two and a half years before it.

I finally read one of them last week. I'm pretty sure it's the best poem I've ever written, and reaction I got from the audience was more positive than I would have ever dreamed. There were actually spontaneous grunts of approval somewhere to my right, at least three people made a point of telling me in person afterwards that it was great, and the young woman who was MCing that night reclaimed the mic after I sat down and said, "Erica, you can come back anytime."

I don't think anything else I have to offer would measure up, but it was pretty satisfying nonetheless.

Last night I read the poem I wrote that first night. I wanted to explain it, the story behind the writing of it if not the subject, but things were running behind and so I just got to the point. But I read it.

What I really wanted to do was write something during the semester specifically to read last night, something about O'Bhéal; it would have ended with something like "I came all the way to Ireland to find myself again," but working backwards from an ending has pretty much never worked out for me and I never really found the time to work on it anyway.

Anyway, I'm going to miss O'Bhéal a lot. I walked away from The Hayloft last night very sad to know I won't be back again. It wasn't until the last couple of weeks that I really started talking to people there, but it's been really important to me all along, and I don't have anything like it back home to return to. I'd like to try to find something, or start something at Oberlin. Whether either of those things happens or not, and despite the fact that I didn't go as much as I intended to and kind of wish I had, I think it's always going to be one of the things that defines my life in Cork as I'll remember it.

* That's kind of an unintentional play on words that no one is going to notice unless you know that my primary French professor and I share a certain fascination with fairy tales and folklore.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Too Full of Memories

My enchantment with Belfast—with its charming Christmas spirit, its exciting markets, its handsome Victorian pubs with great trad music—ended abruptly when we commenced our “Black Taxi Tour”* on Saturday morning. Other city tours I have been on have taken in all the major buildings of the city, discussing all sorts of miscellaneous facts along with history, taking topical detours to point out something important even if the tour has a theme into which that something doesn’t fit. Tour guides are enthusiastic and convey a love of where they are even when exploring somber topics.

When we got into our cab to go learn about the Troubles, I guess I assumed we were going to drive around and see the sights and hear about religion and politics along the way. Instead, we left the city centre at once and went straight to the troubled neighborhoods, divided by a wall, and stayed in that part of the city for the next hour and a half. This was not a tour of city halls and churches and historic homes, but of bloody streets and memorials and political murals. The driver wasn’t eager to share, or even bored; he was bitter.

As we got underway, the cab driver glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if any of us were Catholic. We looked around at each other awkwardly. The boy sitting next to me said yes. “Well,” said the cabbie, “You and I couldn’t live in this neighborhood, just because of being Catholic.” He then pointed out a side street down which was a shop or two that would be closed by the police by five or six in the evening, “just in case there’s any trouble.”

“That’s how daft this city is.”

We stopped first in that Protestant neighborhood, which is filled with huge murals of assorted historical figures, as well as one of a camouflaged gunman who, eerily, seems to keep his painted gun trained on you wherever you walk. One of the murals is of a man who, according to our guide, single-handedly killed fifty-something Catholics.

“In most countries, that would make you a serial killer. Here, it makes you a hero. You get your face on a building.”

He told us about how the two groups are distinguished in a conflict where race and appearance don’t differ, where you can’t tell on sight who’s different from you: names. Catholics have names that are Irish and/or Biblical: Patrick and Matthew, Niamh and Naomi. Protestants have English names: Victoria, Elizabeth, Henry, Winston. William can go either way—but Protestant Williams are called Billy and Catholic Williams are called Liam. What I took away from this? Obviously there were times someone targeted a whole neighbourhood populated by one side or the other, but as for individual killings? They weren't random, at least not all the time. You knew who your victim was.

We went next to the wall dividing the Protestant neighborhood from the Catholic neighborhood. On the Protestant side, it’s painted and visitors write their names on it alongside messages of peace. On the Catholic side, there is a memorial garden with plaques listing the name of various categories of people who died because of the Troubles. The list of murdered civilians gives their ages. Two of them are little girls aged four and five.

After some more murals and depressing exposition, we headed back to our hotel. “See those taxis over there?” asked our driver as we started down the street from our last stop. Apparently, they only operate in that part of the city. The drivers won’t take you from there to, say, the city centre. If the potential destinations are restricted to one area, then if “you get into one of those taxis, you know you’ll get home safe.”

This is not the way things were. It’s the way things are.

“Are things getting better?” asked the guy in the front passenger seat.

“I think this is as good as it’ll ever be,” said the cab driver.

* Our taxi was actually painted with a multicolored checkerboard pattern. Whatever.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Twas In The Town Of Belfast

(And some other places, too.)

Thanksgiving weekend (last weekend for the non-Americans), after a late night Skype date on Wednesday with my entire family including my grandmother and one of my aunts, was the trip to Northern Ireland.

I’m not sure how long it would take to drive directly from Cork to Belfast. For us, going first to Dublin to pick up the IFSA Butler students studying there and in Maynooth, it took a solid six hours, not including the brief stop in Dublin. It’s something I’ve remarked on before in contrasting my experiences living in an urban setting in PA and a rural one in OH, but it never ceases to surprise me how much your surroundings can affect your perception of distance. Six hours is a long drive in America, too, but nowhere near as unbearable as it seems here where I’ve gotten used to getting everywhere within no more than an hour or two. On the other hand, walking thirty or forty minutes to get somewhere is something I’d have to be really in the mood for and have nice weather for back home, whereas here it’s normal. Not having a car really changes the definition of “walking distance.” Of course, a big part of it is that here I am always in compact cities or towns—not everywhere I might consider walking in Bethlehem or in Ohio is necessarily pedestrian-friendly.

But I digress. The most striking thing to me about the drive to Belfast was that I had absolutely no idea when or where we crossed into Northern Ireland. I was expecting it to be fairly obvious. I mean, it is technically another country, and I’m not sure I’ve ever crossed a border without realizing it before.* I wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal (certainly not like crossing borders in Central America… holy crap), but I thought there’d be something.

Oh well. Belfast is a small city. Our tour guide the following morning was going to claim it was no more than a mile square, which I suspect is untrue (I’m not sure what she meant, but there’s no way the whole city is that small; probably not even the downtown area) but it’s probably not as big in area as Cork, anyway. It does have more people than Cork. It does not have more people than the Lehigh Valley. I believe it’s comparable to Winston-Salem. And it’s the second largest city in all of Ireland.

The city centre area, where we stayed, is pretty enough, and currently filled with Christmas decorations. Outside the city centre there are some much rougher-looking neighborhoods. Carolyn and Kristin and I walked as far as the Queen’s University on Saturday afternoon, though, and the university neighborhood seems fairly quiet and attractive. I think I expected the city as a whole to be a lot harder and seedier than it actually is. I think I could have been happy living there. Especially if I didn’t have to live so bloody far away from everything the way I do in Cork.

We also went to the Ulster Museum, which was moderately interesting. It’s a history museum and a natural history museum and an art museum all rolled into one. (We skipped the art floor.) I thought it was pretty nifty to be able to learn about the Troubles and look at stuff from a Spanish shipwreck and see dinosaur fossils all in the same place.

Thursday night the Butler staff had arranged a “Thanksgiving” dinner for us at a
neighboring hotel. The restaurant was really nice, and, like everywhere else in Ireland, already had Christmas decorations up, which made the Thanksgiving confetti scattered on our tables pretty funny.**

Dinner was, as someone else put it, “a good try.” The food was decent, but they focused more on presentation than on quantity, which I guess is typical for a fancy restaurant, but is not the point of Thanksgiving dinner. Also, the two Thanksgiving staples that should have been guaranteed to be present in Ireland—bread and mashed potatoes—were missing, much to our disappointment. BUT, the turkey was free-range, and dessert, which was practically a meal in itself, was fantastic.

Belfast’s City Hall is home to an awesome outdoor holiday market, with stalls selling all kinds of gifts and decorations and tons of awesome international food and sweets you’ve never even thought of before. I drank mulled wine and ate a kangaroo burger! because who knows when I’ll have another chance at that. There must have been half a dozen places to buy crepes, Bailey’s hot chocolate abounded in multiple flavors, and I’ve never seen so much fudge in one place before. And it’s basically on City Hall’s front lawn, and the building is all lit up at night. It’s really lovely and it made the snow fun instead of annoying.

On Friday morning we had our tour of the Antrim coast. Beautiful, and so different from other parts of the coast I’ve been to. Very very rocky. According to our tour guide (although, see my above comment about what she said about Belfast and decide for yourself whether you believe her), it’s someone’s job to drive along part of the coastal road early every morning and make sure there haven’t been any rock falls that need to be cleared away.

Also—you can see Scotland!

Our first destination was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which is maybe twenty meters long and suspended over the ocean between two cliffs. Apparently it was first built by fisherman, but whenever that may have been I sincerely doubt it was the same bridge that’s there now. I know this because I was able to cross the bridge that’s there now. Needless to say, I did not look forward to it, and I considered not doing it right up until it was my turn. But it’s far sturdier than anything I’ve ever imagined from the term “rope bridge.”

I still snapped when people*** decided on the way back that jumping up and down on it would be fun.

I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t quite as dramatic as expected, although for me, something more epic probably would been a no-go.

Next stop: Dunluce Castle, allegedly with one of the most dramatic settings of any castle in Ireland.

Honestly, I was kind of indifferent. I was riding along thinking how absurdly pretentious it seemed to be mildly bored of castles. But bored I thought I was.

Then we saw it.

As our guide put it, even Scottish visitors have to admit it’s pretty impressive.

It’s literally on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. When I say literally, I mean that back when it was inhabited, the family elected to move elsewhere after the kitchen FELL OFF INTO THE OCEAN. This cliff is actually a very high, steep island; there are some outbuildings on the mainland and one accesses the keep by crossing a short bridge.

It’s amazing. A fairy tale ruin. Like something out of a movie. It actually made me think of the castle by the ocean in The Last Unicorn, although if I remember correctly there was beach in between that castle and the water. Not so much here.

I need to look up more about it, though, because as usual the guide didn’t really “guide” us, and there was only so much information posted. I didn’t really understand the layout.

Of course, part of the problem was that we were given FIFTEEN MINUTES off the bus to explore. Seriously?! If it was a tower house that might be one thing; as castles go, they’re usually pretty small. But this is a sprawling Norman castle on a cliff. You can’t possibly appreciate it in fifteen minutes. I don’t know what this woman was thinking.

Possibly it was that we were losing daylight. I’ve mentioned how early it gets dark here. This was several hours farther north than Cork. The sun was distinctly in the west by 12:30 in the afternoon, and for all intents and purposes we were at the Giant’s Causeway at sunset—at 3:30.

The Giant’s Causeway was pretty neat. It’s bigger than I thought, not in terms of rock size but in terms of how spread out it is. It just goes on and on. And it’s not flat, either; there are all kinds of interesting steps and formations to climb. (I didn’t, much.)

So that was that, I suppose. There was snow on the hills when we set out that morning, and it hailed and/or sleeted more than once while we were out adventuring. It snowed off and on the rest of the weekend, and there was quite a bit in Dublin by the time we took the Trinity and UCD kids back on Sunday. Apparently it’s snowed quite a bit more this week. We didn’t get much here in Cork, and it melted within a few hours. The city salted its sidewalks maniacally for what no one in Ohio or PA would bat an eye at.

* That actually may not be true, because I’ve gone from France to Monaco and back again and it occurs to me that I don’t remember that at all, so it’s quite possible it’s also a totally open border.
** We’re not sure where one acquires Thanksgiving confetti in Europe. We suspect it may have had to be ordered specially for us.
*** read: assholes

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fare Thee Well, Dear Anna Liffey

I don’t think there is much of interest to you about my most recent Saturday in Dublin, the day before the odd bus tour of my last post. I woke up early and availed myself of a truly impressive continental breakfast in the hostel before walking to the Collins Barracks Museum of History and Decorative Arts (or something like that). I went there back in August with some of the other IFSA Butler kids, but very briefly and I wanted to see the rest of it. I got there right after it opened for the day and stayed for almost three hours*, after which I walked back up the river to Temple Bar, where a really neat outdoor food market was underway. (I ate grilled lamb meat on a stick and bought a pecan tart that looked like it might measure up to my mother’s but sadly did not.) That afternoon I revisited the National Museum of Archaeology, just to take a closer look at the Viking exhibit since I kind of got rushed through last time and since I’m now taking an actual Viking archaeology class. By the time I was done with archaeology (which took a surprisingly short time because it’s a small museum and I was just there a couple of months ago), I still had about an hour before the museums closed for the day, so I went around the corner to the natural history museum, a.k.a. “The Dead Zoo.”

Ireland’s National Museum of Natural History is an interesting place. It’s a very small building and it’s called the Dead Zoo because the only exhibits are of stuffed animals. Most of them have been there forever. The museum opened in (I think) the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and basically hasn’t changed since then. Most of the displays and the labels are exactly as they’ve always been. Specimens are mostly grouped with others they’re at least vaguely related to, but sometimes there seem to be multiple groupings in the same case that don’t really go together at all. (The ground floor, which is all Irish animals, is a bit more consistent in this regard than the exotic animals section upstairs, where, for example, there is one case that has a family of lions side-by-side with an assortment of South American monkeys.) Also, a fair number of specimens are just mounted heads hanging along the walls and around the support columns.

On the one hand, this is pretty neat. I like old things. I like seeing how things used to be, and keeping them that way where it’s practical.**

On the other hand, I do think there are some problems with it from a museums-are-for-educating-the-public standpoint. Species names and classifications sometimes change, and I definitely noticed some labels that are either outdated (i.e. a name that isn’t used anymore, or a subspecies that’s no longer recognized) or not very specific.*** (And since I’m not a biologist, if I noticed some… God knows how many there actually are.) There was also a specimen or two that I’m pretty sure represent species that are now extinct, but which are still mixed in with everything else with no indication that that’s the case. So I guess we’ve found the point at which I stop being in favor of avoiding change just for the sake of preservation.

However, something encouraging from the frontlines of the war on ignorance: More than once during my museum adventures that day, I heard parents actually gently correcting their children when they announced something that was wrong, or explaining something to their children that was actually correct. So often I just get depressed and angry overhearing conversations in situations like this, because it’s obvious the parents are just as uninformed/misinformed/just plain stupid as their kids and end up reinforcing their wrongness instead of teaching them something (or, God forbid, reading a sign and learning something themselves). It’s really nice to know there are people out there who do value knowledge.

Unfortunately, that good feeling was slightly dampened by my acute awareness that Irish children are just as obnoxious as American children, and Irish parents apparently no more interested than their American counterparts in attempting to teach their children that different situations call for different standards of behavior—e.g., use your inside voice, or better yet, just shut the hell up once in a while.

I don’t hate children. I hate badly behaved children. Just like I hate poorly-trained dogs. In both cases it’s not their fault; it’s the fault of the person responsible for teaching them manners.

Of course, there are plenty of rude adults in museums, too, and I’m not sure I can believe that they just don’t know any better.

Moving on. That evening I think I just hung around my hostel. The next night, after my day trip, I went to a pub around the corner for trad music and what I’m pretty sure is the best whiskey ever made. It was a personal goal this semester to find a whiskey I like at least as much as (and preferably better than) Jameson that’s not prohibitively expensive. Success. Massive success. It’s a little more expensive than would have been ideal, but it’s not outrageous and it’s so good I don’t even care. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to obtain even here. I’m hoping to hunt down a bottle before I come home, but I may not be able to outside Dublin. Sigh. At any rate, I thought that was a pretty good way to end what was potentially my last trip to the first part of Ireland I saw.

I said when I left it the first time that I’d be content never to go back to Dublin once I’d seen what there was to see. Now that I’ve done that, it turns out I was wrong. I have a soft spot for it after all.

I’m still not sure I’d ever want to LIVE there, though.

* More than a third of this was spent in a single exhibit: “The Way We Wore”—roughly three centuries of clothing styles. Conclusion #1: I really need to get back on friendly terms with a sewing machine. Conclusion #2: Wherever I find myself after college, I really need to find myself a theatre company to work for.
** Alternative sentence: I have a pathological aversion to relatively minor changes that can’t be undone. Specifically, changes that involve undoing something, like putting away a puzzle you spent hours putting together. So leaving displays exactly the same for decades kind of works for me.
*** “Tapir.” Right… that’s nice. You know there’s more than one kind, right?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

County Wicklow, Ireland's Lovely Garden

On the Sunday of the weekend I was in Dublin last, I headed south into the countryside on a tour I’d wanted to do back in August and was determined not to miss out on. Naturally, it was grey and wet and raining that day.

The first stop was Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains.* Glendalough means something like “the place of the two lakes,” which is nice, but the reason it’s famous and I wanted to go there is that there’s medieval abbey with a round tower and multiple ruined churches. You’d think I would be tired of these places by now, but not quite. The bus driver dropped us off a kilometer or so up the road and said he’d pick us up at the church site about an hour later, so there was a nice walk through the wet woods in addition to exploring the ruins. It started POURING halfway through, but I didn’t really mind. It was lovely.

We then drove through the mountains along the “Braveheart road,” where a lot of scenes from that were filmed. I couldn’t really take pictures through the bus windows in the rain, which was unfortunate. It did, however, really make me want to watch Braveheart.

After leaving the hills (and possibly Wicklow--I don't remember what county this is in), we came to Brownshill Dolmen, which is a portal tomb and has the biggest capstone of any portal tomb in Europe. It’s massive. It weighs something like 100-150 tons (they guess). That was cool to see, and was actually the reason I booked this particular tour, because none of the half dozen others to Glendalough and Kilkenny stop there, but it’s never been excavated, so there’s not really much to learn about it because nobody really knows anything about it. Other than that it’s monstrous. The setting doesn’t hurt, either—the area it’s in is ridiculously flat (like, northeast Ohio-caliber flat), which makes a giant, unnatural rock formation really stand out.

We spent the afternoon in the city of Kilkenny, which is filled with medieval buildings, most of which are churches or monasteries and most of which I didn’t actually see.

I was somewhat disappointed, because despite being on a “tour,” we didn’t tour Kilkenny so much as get taken there and told where to meet the bus in three hours. I’m not sure that visiting the dolmen was worth not going on tour that might actually have been organized, or not just figuring out how to get to places myself on my own time.

At any rate, I visited Kilkenny Castle, which is enormous and would be right at home in the Loire Valley, I think. I paid the nominal fee** for a self-guided tour, which in theory should have taken about an hour and took me about twenty minutes. The reason for this is that while the castle has been fully restored and is indeed beautiful, it’s been restored to what it looked like in about the 17th and 18th centuries, which is a little late for my interests as far as castles are concerned. Back in high school I found the Palace of Versailles to be somewhat dull for the same reason. I’m aware that that’s blasphemous.

Anyhow, I saw it, and then I had almost two hours to kill. The tourism office was closed because it was a Sunday, so I had no maps or information other than a sign here and there around town. For a little while I just walked around aimlessly, in search of an inexpensive lunch (know what else is closed on Sundays? Most cafés) and feeling frustrated and annoyed with my choice of a day tour. About the time I started actually seeking out medieval buildings and realizing how close together everything was (more so than it looked on the map sign), I had to rush to get back to the bus. Other things that were closed that day included a medieval house museum and gardens (I’ve never been in a medieval townhouse!) and the round tower at the cathedral (the first one I’ve seen in a city, and also the first I’ve seen that one is allowed to climb… but no).

So, I’d call that day a partial success. Glendalough was beautiful and I’m so glad I went. Kilkenny was kind of a bust. If I ever get another chance, I will definitely be doing that differently.

* Not really mountains, apparently. Actually, I learned that, technically speaking, most of the “mountains” in Ireland aren’t high enough to be officially called mountains. Could have fooled me.
** Student discounts abound. Sometimes they’re not great—-a euro or two off—-and there’s at least one bus route I know of where it’s actually cheaper to buy an adult day-return ticket than a student return ticket. Go figure. But other times, student prices are like half the regular price, or even less. This was one of those

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dublin's Fair City

Disclaimer: I wrote this last night but was unable to connect to the internet until today. I am far too lazy to go back and correct all of the "todays" and "tomorrows" and "yesterdays," so figure it out yourselves.

All right, Dublin. You’re just as ugly and crowded and generally unpleasant as I remembered, and I’m still going to mock and criticize you as much as any Irish person, but the truth is I don’t hate you as much as I pretend I do. You were the first piece of Ireland I saw, and we got to know each other pretty well those first days when I was totally lost and alone and nervous about what was going to happen once I left. In some ways I still feel like I know you better than I know Cork, despite the fact that I still seem to have that directional dyslexia.

Of course, setting is everything. Today was a beautiful day, bright and sunny and not very cold. And my hostel? Awesome. I’m staying across the river this time, right next to Trinity College and Temple Bar. There’s a great pub next door and another across the street, and a Luas* stop on the same line as the train station not five minutes away. The hostel itself is bright and clean and plastered with posters and fliers about discounts and fun activities, and my room has windows and an actual shower instead of just a drain in the bathroom floor. And I have a locker that can actually be locked! And breakfast includes pancakes on Sundays, which I’m going to miss, but still. When the first hostel I stayed in was less than fantastic, I shrugged and thought, You get what you pay for. Every hostel experience since then, and especially this one that’s also in busy central Dublin and only slightly more expensive, has suggested I chose poorly (both from the outset and by not leaving once I saw it). Well, live and learn.

Another perk, which is mostly just mocking me but is nice nonetheless: The kitchen/common room area is filled with oranges. Big plastic bowls of oranges on almost every table in the room. NOT FAIR.**

Dublin is gearing up for Christmas. There are decorations and displays in all the stores and lights over Grafton Street. It’s a little weird, so early and so warm, but I may not see this place again before I go home, other than on the way to the airport, so I’m enjoying it while I can.

The plan: museums tomorrow and yet another bus tour on Sunday, to Glendalough and Kilkenny.

I really like trains. It’s a different perspective, somehow. I’m kind of miffed that my ticket was as expensive as it was, and I’m a little annoyed with myself for my insistence on booking a ticket that wouldn’t require me to miss any classes (Leaving Dublin at 8 a.m.?! Really?!), but it’s just so much nicer than taking a bus, even though I don’t really have a specific reason why.

In other news, a very strange thing happened yesterday. The older man sitting next to me in my Vikings In Ireland And Britain lecture turned to me and struck up a conversation while we were waiting for class to start (this in itself is unusual) and after a brief exchange he said, “You’re not from these shores, are you?” I said no, I’m American, and he asked what part of America. I said Pennsylvania and he nodded knowingly and I thought nothing of any of it because I’ve had this conversation eighty times.

And then he said, “Pennsylvania… Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton.”

I was so astonished*** I think my mouth literally dropped open, and I have no idea what he was going to say next because I was already exclaiming, “I’m from Bethlehem! How do you know it?”

Come to find out, he lived in the LV for a few years back in the 60s. Small. Freaking. World.

Also come to find out, he’s not actually a student. He just sits in on classes that interest him, with permission from the lecturer but apparently totally off the record. And he takes notes anyway. It’s a good way to pass the winter, he says.

I think that’s what I’ll do when I’m retired.

* Dublin’s light rail system, in case I didn’t mention it before.
** For those of you who don’t know me that well or who missed it, there’s a high probability that I am allergic to oranges, which I only discovered about a year and a half ago. I’ve made a point of trying to avoid oranges and orange juice since then, just to be safe, but for most of my life I had no such restriction and I LOVE ORANGES.
*** It’s a rare Irishman who can name Pittsburgh or Philadelphia when I mention PA, and even in the US I’m surprised/impressed/curious when someone from outside the Mid-Atlantic has heard of Allentown, let alone the whole ABE triad.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

As The Light Declines

This past Sunday I went on another archaeology field trip! You thought those posts were over, didn’t you? So did I. This was an optional trip for students taking Early Medieval and/or Viking archaeology classes, and I figured an inexpensive guided outing about Vikings was worth sacrificing a potential weekend for independent travel.

There was actually less Viking stuff involved than I thought when I signed up, but it was still interesting. We first went to Ardmore, which is a major early medieval church site overlooking the ocean. Sparing you a lesson on early Irish church sites, things that are there include, in chronological order: two ogham stones, a “shrine-chapel”* in the style of a very tiny early stone church and with an open grave in the floor that probably once held the bones of the site’s founding saint (St. Declan, if anyone cares), a really well-preserved (unless I missed or just wasn’t told something about it’s having been restored) round tower**, and a ruined Romanesque church with an interesting but badly worn frieze on the west wall.*** And of course the inevitable eighteenth and nineteenth century cemetery that’s taken over the entire site with its lopsided, haphazardly placed tombstones and built up the ground so much and so unevenly that the lintel over the original door to the shrine-chapel is almost at ground level from the outside.

After Ardmore was an early medieval ringfort, much smaller than the one at Garranes that my earlier class visited, but with an intact embankment. It still caught me off guard—we walked right past it before hopping the fence, and our teacher was standing in the entrance before I realized it was there. (Eyes-of-an-archaeologist fail.) Partly I was just not paying attention, but also, like the walls of James Fort at Kinsale, it’s so covered in vines and brambles that from the outside it just looks like a stand of shrubbery if you aren’t looking very closely. Once you spot the entrance, though, it’s painfully obvious, and inside, there’s no mistaking what it is. There’s nothing visible other than the embankment, but that’s A) still standing, and at a fairly significant height, no less, B) still surprising level, and C) almost perfectly round. I thought it was really cool. And after giving correct answers to several questions posed by the teacher, including one that was directed at me without my volunteering for it and to which I knew the answer without having ever been told before, I got to feel a little bit less unaware.

I also got a laugh out of one of the “mature students”**** when I got hung up at the fence because I’d failed to leave my purse on the bus and announced “This is why archaeologists don’t carry purses” after throwing it over the fence ahead of me.

We then moved on to Waterford city (possibly the least exciting Irish city I’ve yet been to) to see the collection of Viking artifacts at the Waterford Treasures Museum.

Said one boy in the class, after the fact: “The Waterford Treasures Museum, the foremost museum on Viking archaeology… in Waterford.”
Me: “Quite a distinction.”
Another boy: “Yeah, it’s also the worst.”

It actually wasn’t that bad. They have a pretty cool sword that was broken intentionally before being buried. And Waterford is an important area, Viking-wise; one of the most important sites in Ireland, Woodstown, is just a few kilometers away and was discovered quite recently. Also, they’re moving to a different building in the next few months, where they’ll have room to be able to display more of their collection. I think the vast amount of stuff recovered from excavation at Woodstown (despite the fact that it was only a teeny tiny percentage of the whole site) kind of overwhelmed what started out as a smallish local museum. Expanding will probably make it a bit more impressive. There are currently exactly 12 cases in the Viking exhibit right now, all quite small and several of which only contain one or two things.

Cool stuff other than the sword included a tiny weight with a face carved on it and a bird-bone flute. I think one of the most interesting things (for me to recount, anyway) was a medieval dog collar. It’s not really something you think about or expect to find in a museum, but if you look at paintings or tapestries from the Middle Ages, you do see them, especially on aristocratic hunting dogs. I laughed, though, because the label in the case said something like, “This collar may have graced the neck of an Irish wolfhound, but was more likely worn by a greyhound” because blah blah prized by the nobility blah blah blah. And I was looking at this thing thinking, prestige value be damned, has this person ever SEEN a wolfhound up close? That collar might fit around one’s leg…

Anyhow, that was that. It was a good day, although we didn’t spend as much time in Waterford as I would have liked and I’d kind of wanted to see other things. Something I did not take into account sufficiently when thinking about the timing of my travels (and how most of them should have been undertaken earlier to avoid the cold and rain) is that it gets dark really really early now—by about five, maybe a little after. (Not “sunset is underway” at five, but “the sun is a faint glow on the horizon” at five.) I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle that while in Dublin this weekend. I mean, although I do take some basic safety precautions, total avoidance of walking alone at night, especially in familiar areas, is clearly not usually one of them. But also, the last time I was in Dublin I had more than three extra hours per day in which that just wasn’t an issue.

Also… that was three months ago. Holy crap.

I think just in the last week or so almost all of the visiting students had the sudden realization of how close this is to being over.

* term apparently coined by Tomás (who taught my Early Start archaeology class), which I think is pretty significant and which I did not know until now
** I don’t care how many of these things I visit or how often they’re discussed in my classes or even how closely they’re associated specifically with church sites, I cannot see one without thinking of Rapunzel. Especially if the pointed roof is still intact.
*** The one Biblical scene, other than the Adams & Eves and Adorations of the Magi that pretty much everyone recognizes, common in medieval art that I seem to be able to consistently identify is the Judgment of Solomon. I’m not sure whether it’s a particularly obvious scene or this says something about me. I’m also good at spotting Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, so whatever the explanation, it must have something to do with babies and knives.
**** This phrase always strikes me as a somewhat non-specific way of describing students who are older than the typical college age range (more of a non-description, actually), although perhaps part of its appeal is the subtle implied insult towards traditional undergraduates.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Through Streets Wide And Narrow

When my sister and I were little, we had these travel bingo cards with various things you’d be more or less likely to see from the car window. One of the things that never failed to be almost impossible for us to mark off was the dreaded S-shaped curvy road sign, which isn’t exactly surprising considering most of our traveling involved four to six lane interstate routes across open countryside.

Well, not only is the S-shaved curve sign ubiquitous in many, if not most, parts of Ireland, they’ve got curvy road signs here in shapes I didn’t even know existed.

That’s something I had intended to mention while I was comparing striking landscapes earlier, but had forgotten about.

Some other interesting travel facts:
* There is just one bus company for almost the whole of Ireland (the Republic of, anyway). They do the city routes and the inter-city routes. The only city I’m aware of with its own separate bus system owned by someone else is Dublin. As if the agony of trying to find and navigate public transportation in America didn’t already make me weep, here is this beautiful, convenient simplicity. Of course, I realize the U.S. is far too big for this to make sense… but on the other hand, just HAVING affordable and readily-accessible-wherever-you-are buses is something of a novelty for me. I remember trying to explain to my roommate Claudia and her German friends that I’m not really used to getting around on buses because I don’t live in a huge city and realizing how absurd that sounded. I’m sure more Americans would choose public transportation over driving if it were an option outside the most urban of urban areas. I can’t even get from Oberlin to Cleveland on a bus now that LCT did away with the airport express (which never did go to Cleveland proper; you had to go to the airport and then get on a different bus); I’m not sure, but I’m betting the same is true between Selinsgrove and Harrisburg. Here, even though the numbers of people in any of those places would be much smaller, that would be unthinkable. Also, round-trip bus fare from Cork to Dublin (a four and a half hour trip) is significantly less expensive than round-trip bus fare from Bethlehem/Allentown to NYC or Philadelphia (a two and a half hour or a one and a half hour trip, respectively)—even though gasoline is far more expensive. There’s something wrong with this.

Sorry, that was more of a rant than a fact. Moving on…

* Roundabouts (a.k.a. traffic circles or rotaries, depending on what region of the States you live in) are EVERYWHERE. Outside and in between cities and towns, I don’t think there is a junction of main roads anywhere that involves a simple fork or intersection. Ireland is all roundabouts, all the time.
* One-way streets are common to the point of being excessive. I can’t imagine trying to drive here.
* I also sometimes can’t tell what’s a one-way street. I couldn’t tell you what an Irish one-way sign looks like. Maybe no such thing even exists. And the roads themselves do not always have markings on them. Highway routes and streets in the city centre make their intentions quite clear; streets in some other parts of the city, not so much. And it’s not just quiet residential streets like in some parts of my neighborhood in Bethlehem—the road UCC’s music building is on seems to be a fairly important one, and it has no markings at all.
* Pedestrian-only streets exist somewhere in almost every city or town I’ve been to that’s of any respectable size. They’re not all in medieval quarters where the streets are too narrow and/or winding for vehicle traffic, either. In fact, there are plenty of narrow streets with too much vehicle traffic. There are also narrow streets where cars can’t go, but just today I was on a pedestrian street in Waterford that was easily wide enough for two standard car lanes.
* Parking half (or more) on the sidewalk on streets where there’s technically not room for on-street parking (which is most places in the city) is commonplace. I’m not entirely sure how well it’s tolerated by people with the authority to collect fines, but drivers are clearly not deterred.

That’s all I can think of for now.

I had an “Aha!” moment this afternoon wherein I finally realized exactly what a bookmaker is and why there are so many of them. To be fair, I hadn’t exactly been pondering this, or really paying much attention to them at all, but three months is still an embarrassingly long time to be that oblivious.

I’d blame the fact that I come from a country with conservative social values, where people paradoxically prefer to make their vices more sketchy by keeping them underground, but in some other ways (drinking culture being a prime example), the norms in both Ireland and Britain are closer to those in America than to those in continental Europe.

Fortunately, I was alone when I had this little epiphany. And surely that’s better than the fact that one of my roommates, based on a fragment of conversation I overheard earlier, has somehow managed to live here for two months without realizing that “first floor” and “ground floor” are not synonymous and that we therefore do not live on the sixth floor from the ground, but the seventh floor from the ground and the sixth that is numbered. Clearly someone always heads straight for the elevator and pushes a button without paying any attention whatsoever to anything else. I’m still wondering how she hasn’t either had a ton of problems or just figured it out long before now in trying to find her way around other buildings.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where Fisherman Go When They Don't Go To Hell

Roommates. WTF. We have a weird living situation anyway because we have very little contact with each other, somehow. Claudia and I have remarked upon this before, that it’s bizarre to live in an apartment full of people who don’t really try to be friends with each other. Friendly, but not friends. Or if not friends, then at least, I don’t know, aware of each other’s existence more than just in passing. I mean, obviously there is guilt for that on everyone’s part, but it’s still weird. But also, someone (or maybe a couple of someones) apparently doesn’t think it’s necessary to clean things like pans and oven racks after using them and that pieces of food too big to fit down the sink drain will magically disappear instead of sitting there being wet and disgusting. It bugs the hell out of me. I had intended to leave a polite-but-angry note about it before leaving for the weekend and forgot, and then the other day I discovered a note from Claudia to the same effect—on top of the roasting pan that had been sitting unwashed for days and that she had finally cleaned herself even though she’d never used it, let alone last. That made me really angry, because that’s not the first time she’s taken it upon herself to clean something that shouldn’t have been her responsibility, and I left a note next to hers that was considerably less polite than it would have been before this development, saying she’s clearly a better person than me and it’s ridiculous that people can’t clean up after themselves. I also pointed out that the other oven rack, which I’d just pulled out, was ALSO dirty and someone had better wash it.

As of last night, it was clean, both notes were in the trash… and the roasting pan was back in the oven and dirty again. If it’s still like that when I go in there to make lunch today, I may kill someone.

Onwards, then, to being almost caught up. After Killary, there followed several weekends over which I didn’t go far from Cork for various reasons. In hindsight, this may have been poor planning since those were the last of my three day weekends and the last weekends over which I could get away with pretending not to have essays hanging over me, and now the weather sucks to boot. But at least I had good weather for the short trips I went on…

The first was to Kinsale, a small town on the southern coast of County Cork, about thirty or forty minutes by bus from Cork City. Seemingly everyone around me had already ventured to Kinsale back in late summer, so I was behind the times, but I’d heard all about how adorable it is, and how good the fish and chips are, and how cool the 16th century fort is. The first and second facts are true. I may never about the third, because there are in fact two 16th century forts at Kinsale, outside either end of town, facing each other across the harbour. Charles Fort has been preserved or restored or both and is open as a tourist attraction, with exhibits and tours and a trolley shuttle from the center of town so you don’t have to walk the two kilometers or so to get to it. James Fort, roughly the same distance in the opposite direction, is accessible (on foot) but in ruins. I picked that one. I had a reason for doing so at the time that I’ve now forgotten. I was planning to go back another day and visit Charles Fort as well (I could have been able to do both in one day, but I’d gotten a late start and only had the afternoon to work with.), but as I’m running out of days and the weather is getting colder and wetter I’m no longer sure I’ll manage it.

Regardless, I absolutely do not regret that decision. It was a long walk, along the highway, and part of it was a little sketchy. The path up to the fort was more sketchy. The fort itself, on a hill overlooking the harbor, was EPIC. You can’t go into the main part of the fort, but you can walk all the way around it, and there are places where you can climb onto/through/over some of the outer walls, which are pretty much totally buried and grown over. There are also some other structures, including one that almost looks like the remains of a small church and what’s left of some kind of guard tower or something on a promontory right on the harbor (we’re talking windows right above the water and water on maybe five out of eight sides) with views in almost every direction. It was late afternoon on a bright, clear day, so the light was amazing and I took an absurd number of pictures.

I spent a lot more time at the fort than I’d expected it to merit and would have stayed longer if it hadn’t been getting close to sunset with a two kilometer walk back to town. There, I ate fish and chips in the park, and took a few dozen more pictures of the harbour and its assortment of fishing boats at sunset (because the colors were awesome) and then walked around for a bit before the bus back to Cork came. I would really like to find time to go back and explore a bit more.

That Monday, since I still didn’t have classes on Mondays yet, I carpe diem-ed and took another short bus trip to Youghal, another small coastal town, this time east of Cork City. Youghal’s biggest claim to tourism, other than beach and fishing boats, is its medieval ruins. It’s one of the few places in Ireland where a substantial part of the old city wall still survives, including an interesting clock tower that’s now in the middle of town straddling a main street. There are also several old churches, a tower house (which is interesting because these tend to be countryside phenomena; urban ones exist but are relatively unusual), and an assortment of other old buildings, many of which have been renovated over the centuries and are still in use. I think my favorite is the friary-turned-pizza-restaurant. There’s a well-marked historic walk around the town with information about a lot of the different things to see, and although it didn’t quite live up to my enthusiasm, it was still pretty cool. I don’t think I could ever get tired of being able to walk down a modern street and pick out medieval doorways or parts of medieval walls just hanging out alongside more recent additions to the same buildings. Everything changes; things never change—in some places, those phrases aren’t contradictory at all.

The only other significant adventure I can remember from October was the weekend after my explorations of Cork’s historic fishing villages, when I and four other girls got up on Saturday morning and went to Midleton, home of the Jameson Whiskey Distillery. I guess I don’t have anything in particular to say about that; I like history, I like drinking, and I like to do touristy things with fun people, so where could it have gone wrong? One could argue that before lunch is a bit early in the day to take a tour that ends with free alcohol, but hey. It’s not like we college kids were the only ones.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Rattled O'er The Bogs

Backing up again… The weekend following my trip to Killarney was the first of two trips that IFSA-Butler organizes for its students in Ireland each semester: Two days at the Killary Adventure Centre in Connemara.

Killary is located in the middle of nowhere (again!) next to Ireland’s only fjord. Who knew Ireland had any fjords?

Connemara was breathtaking. Mountains and bogs and scrub and the ubiquitous sheep. Instead of green, it is mostly shades of brown and orange. I loved the Burren, and I loved Kerry, and after Connemara I had to resign myself to having three favorite parts of Ireland. (Observe: They are all in the west and near the coast.)

I tried for a while to think of how I’d describe each of them if I had to choose just two words and wanted to really describe them instead of using vague terms like wild and beautiful and stunning. I still think of the Burren the way I first described it, in words like “stark” and “desolate,” but at the same time I feel like there needs to be some kind of qualifier or disclaimer to keep those words from making it sound sad or unappealing. Perhaps “haunting” instead of “desolate.” I’m not sure that’s any better.

Kerry is harder because it’s so varied. I like “lush.” I also like “dramatic,” but that doesn’t do a very good job of differentiating it from the other two. “Vivid.” “Sweeping.” I’ll have to ponder this a while longer.

For Connemara, I choose “vast” and “rugged” without question.

Anyway, so the way the Adventure Centre works is that you sign up for any of an assortment of outdoor activities, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We were there for a day and a half, so we had time for three activities. Nearly all of these activities involve getting wet, getting muddy, climbing and/or jumping from things that are really high up, or some combination of the above. As I’ve already discussed, heights, and specifically exposed heights, are NOT my thing. Water and dirt are less problematic, but since it was October on the west coast of Ireland and was beginning to get genuinely cold (and was absurdly and apparently abnormally windy on that particular weekend), I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about those either.

That left three things about which I was enthusiastic: hill walking (which as far as I can tell is just an awkward way to say hiking), archery, and clay pigeon shooting.

Well, hill walking didn’t happen, because I signed up for a combined archery/shooting session first because I was determined not to miss out, but then it turned out that that was a possibility Saturday morning and afternoon and Sunday morning, whereas hill walking only showed up on the sign-up board on Saturday morning. (We signed up for things one at a time, so I could not have seen this until it was too late.) That left me with a dilemma on Saturday afternoon, and an even bigger one on Sunday morning. For the first, I was forced to resort to zip lining. Oh lord. And for the second, “ringo,” which is apparently what the Irish call tubing. Not lazy river tubing, either. Dragged-behind-a-speedboat-hanging-on-for-dear-life tubing. So much for not getting wet. In summer, I think it would have been really fun. As it was, cold and grey and me with a cold and kind of done with the whole weekend at that point anyway, I really really really wanted to not wind up in the water (which everyone else did at some point). I was successful in that on my first turn, and refused to take my second so as not to take any chances.

Fun fact: When firing a shotgun, you sight with one eye—the eye that’s on the same side of your body as the gun. For most people, this is presumably not a problem because their dominant eyes and dominant hands are on the same side. It does, however, become a problem if you’re, say, unambiguously right-handed but basically half blind in your right eye.

Translation: I have to shoot left-handed. I’m not sure why I didn’t foresee this, but I didn’t. And it took me a while to convince the guy in charge that no, really, I physically cannot close my left eye independently of my right eye. My body is too smart/thoroughly adapted for that. And since chances are I wouldn’t see the stupid pigeons if I managed it, anyway, there’s not much point.*

Now, since I’d never held a gun before, there’s probably an argument to be made that it would have felt awkward no matter what. I’m inclined to think it would have been far less awkward if it hadn’t gone against every instinct I have. I can imagine holding it right-handed and I’m reasonably confident I could translate that into reality with minimal strangeness. Left-handed, everything seems backwards. I literally had to think about every move I made.

Of course, the other problem was that I had assumed “clay pigeon shooting” would involve stationary objects, maybe lined up on a fence or something. In fact, the clay pigeons are launched into the air, and you’re supposed to hit them in flight. Yeah, right. I got 1 out of 25.

Archery went much better. The targets are closer, and more importantly, they don’t move. And nobody ever taught me to shoot a bow with one eye closed; I do it right-handed and use both eyes, and that seems to work just fine. (Then again, that’s how I throw darts, too, and I have zero skill at that.) I’m tempted to go shooting again at some point and try that the same way and just see what happens. If I still embarrass myself, well, I like archery better anyway.

After the fun of the morning, the zip line was decidedly not how I would have chosen to spend my afternoon if I’d really felt I had a choice. However, everything else was equally or even more out of the question (unless I just signed up for archery and clay pigeon shooting again, and don’t think I didn’t consider it). I figured, I don’t have to DO anything to go zip lining; I just have to hang there in my harness and survive, and it’ll be over quickly. So I went. I was one of the last to go, so I got to dread it for probably a good forty minutes or so of watching other people fly past over my head. Then I discovered the second thing of the day that I should have foreseen but didn’t, namely, that you don’t just get launched from the top of the hill. You have to climb up a sketchy wooden tower first, and stand there for an agonizing five or ten minutes while they hook up all the ropes and explain how to let yourself down when it’s over. By “climb,” I don’t mean a ladder; I mean there’s a series of what looked like enormous staples in one of the corner posts, and it’s a little like rock climbing, except your harness isn’t attached to anything yet. And by “stand there,” I mean on a crate. Yes. Let’s take someone who shakes and cries in high places and not only stand them on the edge of a twenty-foot drop knowing they’ll have to step off it any minute, but bump them up an extra foot and ask them to balance on a much smaller surface. Did I mention that it was absurdly, abnormally windy that day? Fun times.

Oh well. At least it was indeed over quickly once the standing around part was finished.

In a nutshell: Adventure Weekend could have been more fun… but it also could have been a lot less fun. I was glad I went, even if I fail at shooting clay pigeons and the weather was too dismal for me to enjoy being on the water. The second IFSA-Butler trip is coming up two weeks from now: Thanksgiving weekend (presumably so the Americans don’t spend that weekend sitting around feeling sorry for themselves while their families are all together across the ocean) in Northern Ireland. We’re going to spend all of Thanksgiving Day on a bus, probably in the rain, and they are going to try to give us a Thanksgiving dinner when we arrive in Belfast. Cute, but I’m curious to see the Irish take on an American holiday feast. If nothing else, it’s bound to be better than my sister’s Thanksgiving in Hawaii four years ago when the caterers apparently didn’t believe in vegetarians.

* Before anyone starts feeling smug: sure, I could have if I’d been wearing my glasses, but even with glasses I still can’t close just my left eye, so it’s a moot point.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In A Strange But Happy Land

In the interest of not falling farther behind, I’m going to write about this weekend before working on the backlog of updates from the past month. Apologies to the chronologically anal—I do feel your pain.

I believe I’ve already mentioned the awesomeness that is the UCC Medieval and Renaissance Society, so if you missed it, go back to around the end of September to catch up. I missed a few weekly meetings/training sessions after that first one, but I think I’ve managed to go about half the time and it’s always a good evening. The spear and I are not a very good team, but I am uncoordinated, slow to process visual cues, and pretty damn small, so I don’t think anybody should be very surprised about that, myself included. It bugs me, but no one makes a fuss about it. I know that sometimes the guys with a couple of years of experience go easy on me during training to sort of let me [try in vain to] figure things out, but there is no such mercy when we play games, so I don’t feel like an object of pity.

This past weekend, the society booked out a hostel in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, County Tipperary and nine of us spent the weekend holed up in the woods with an experienced reenactor who worked with us on spear and then on dagger. The experienced also got some sword and shield training time, and those of us who are beginners got a few minutes of very basic sword instruction, too.

I was absurdly excited for daggers, partly because it’s cooler than spear fighting and partly because I had a suspicion/hope that dagger might go better for me because it’s considerably less unwieldy than a spear. I’m not sure I’m any better at it, but it was really fun. I definitely felt like my size was somewhat less of a disadvantage—I can at least name both pros and cons to being small and using a dagger. Using a spear… mostly cons. Using both was just problematic: If the dagger is in your belt, it’s hard to get to it fast enough while you’re still learning how to react to things, but keeping it my hand like everyone else was even worse. I could probably do it with my own dagger back home, but we were using big clunky wooden practice daggers that had handles as big around as the spears, and I could barely get my hand around both at the same time, let alone find a good enough grip to handle the spear effectively.

I do think one of the biggest things I took away from this weekend is that I just wasn’t made for hand-to-hand combat. I could have the best reflexes in the world and fantastic hand-eye coordination and I’d still be 5’1” and not strong enough to get out of a contest of force. Or, alternatively, I could be tall and muscular and still be slow and clumsy. There are just too many things to fix that are out of my control.

I am very much looking forward to archery this weekend. I really like archery, and I think it’s partly because I’m not at the same automatic disadvantage.

It was pointed out to me a couple of times that being closer to the ground does have its advantages. And that if I ever do get to be pretty good at something, I'll have the element of surprise in that my opponent won't expect it of me.*

Anyway, it was a lot of fun even if I kind of suck. And the place we were staying was completely awesome. When I said it was the middle of nowhere, I was absolutely not exaggerating. There’s a sign at the place where you turn off the main road, and then a long, narrow, bumpy road through the woods to the actual hostel. It felt like it took half an hour. So when I say we were out in the woods, I mean it. Utterly surrounded by trees, no signs of civilization. There are deer nearby, and a random lone chicken in the yard.** The owners of the hostel do not stay there, nor is there any staff; they live somewhere else on the property and come up in the late afternoon to light the fires, and if you need anything else you have to call them. Yes, I did say “light the fires”—I think supposedly there is some sort of heating, but I never noticed it. It was quite cold. We stayed near the coal stove in the dining room or the fireplace in the sitting room whenever we weren’t in the kitchen. There is no electricity to speak of; there are lights in the rooms but they run on batteries. The ovens and stoves are all gas, and the refrigerators are somehow also powered by gas, which I’ve never even heard of being done before.

When we went to bed the first night, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. The four girls (two Irish, one German, and me) shared a room, and the Irish girls (or rather, their disembodied voices in the dark) were gushing about the darkness and how they’ve been in the city too long. And I was like, well… I grew up in the city. I was amazed at how many stars there are when I moved to a small rural town for college. I don’t think I experienced total darkness until I was an adult, and frankly I still don’t like it very much. I like to leave my window shades cracked to let in light from the street. I don’t think I minded the dark that much in the jungle, but the jungle is never silent in the same way as the Irish countryside.

Speaking of stars, there was a clear enough sky on Saturday night that we could see them. And oh my. I saw constellations I’ve never even seen in Ohio.

Anyhow, it was remote and rustic and altogether a perfect setting for us. We all loved it. I think they are going to try to go back to the same place for training weekend next year.

We stopped at a discount grocery store on the way up to the hostel and all chipped in and agreed on what food to buy for the weekend. We were able to eat A LOT quite cheaply, and it was really really nice to cook real meals with other people. It was a little like being in a co-op. Or like living with Meredith and Thalia and Matt, whom I already missed before being reminded of how much I love “family” meals.

On Sunday, two of the other girls and I had planned to get up early and go explore the woods before training, but after a marathon zombie board game the night before that kept everyone involved and two of us who were invested in watching up until two, everyone overslept and there wasn’t even going to be as much time for training as we’d hoped. We ended up skipping training and going exploring anyway. It was very pretty—it was a cold, grey, classic-November morning and the woods are mostly pine forest where everything is covered in moss and you can totally understand how Ireland came to be the land of fairies. I am not a fan of autumn or winter in their own right, but I do love the woods this time of year.

It still catches me off guard that it’s ok here to wander off the road or the path and just dive right into the woods. But… there are no snakes. No bears. No large carnivores, or large animals at all other than deer. Ireland’s great outdoors is so very safe. All you have to do is watch you don’t stray into the Otherworld. ☺

We found a deer skeleton. Smooth white bones, totally clean, half buried in a bed of pine needles. I didn’t want to move it or try too hard to dig out what I couldn’t see, but everything I could see was roughly where it should have been. I don’t think it had been moved or dismantled at all. I pointed out what the different bones were to the other two. It was seriously cool. Totally made missing out on more spear time worth it for me.

Sunday afternoon before coming back to Cork, we visited nearby Cahir Castle, which is very large and was expanded and remodeled a lot over the centuries. It’s apparently one of the best preserved castles in Ireland, and was very different from most of the others I’ve seen in terms of layout and design (presumably because it was occupied for something like 600 years, which is ridiculous, and changed so much over that time). So that was cool. And a really fun thing to do with people with whom you spend a lot of time playing with medieval weaponry.

Something else that’s a fun thing to do with those people is watch the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven (which it turns out is exponentially better/more interesting/more cohesive that the cinema version that so disappointed me when it was first released), which is what I did last night instead of going to my history class. Hey, I think I’m allowed to absent myself one time—and it was even historical.

On a somewhat irrelevant note, I utterly failed to come up with a really good song-line title for this post, which kind of puzzles and irritates me. Why do I not know any songs about battles and castles and green Irish woods?

* He meant well. But it’s probably fortunate I am not easily insulted about stuff like this.
** We discovered this on Saturday morning, and he became a sort of mascot. At least I think it was a he, based on the impressive spurs. It had no tail or comb to speak of and I never heard it crow, but one look at its feet and I was not much inclined to try to catch it. Spurs or no spurs, we never did figure out how it avoids getting eaten in the night.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Along The Enchanted Way[s]

I used the same song twice in a row again. Oops.

It is [past] time for another belated update: my solo trip to Killarney almost a month ago.

Well, as I mentioned at the time, I had planned to enter tourist mode and go on two bus tours, one of the Ring of Kerry and one of the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle was first, and best. It was not a promising beginning: It was a grey, drizzly morning with clouds hanging low enough to suggest they weren’t going anywhere, and our departure was delayed by several late arrivals, much to my annoyance. But, Ireland never stays at its worst for long and the rain and clouds did clear up fairly early in the day, and once we were underway our driver proved to be entertaining as well as knowledgeable. He kept up a fairly steady stream of commentary all day, filling in jokes and stories where there wasn’t much to say about our surroundings.*

Our stops included a famous beach, Inch Strand, several scenic overlooks with spectacular views of Dingle Bay and cliffs and the Blasket Islands, the town of Dingle itself, and, most exciting to me, the Gallarus Oratory, an early medieval stone church that the guide claimed is the oldest surviving church in Ireland. I’m not positive that’s true, but it’s highly possible. I suspect it’s the oldest intact church, at the very least. It was beautiful. I don’t know if you’ll believe me when you see the pictures, but trust me.

Dingle, which is where a lot of movies set in Ireland have been filmed, is stunningly green, full of sheep and wide open fields and rolling hills. It also has some pretty dramatic changes in elevation and some roads that A) are exceedingly narrow and on cliffs next to the ocean and B) would rival Arizona’s mountain highways for hair-raising curves. It’s gorgeous, though.

The Ring of Kerry is also gorgeous, and very similar but surprisingly different at the same time. Still lots of green, but a lot of not-so-green, too. I think [I can’t remember the name of the peninsula the Ring of Kerry loops around…] has more mountainous terrain than Dingle, despite Dingle’s rather impressive cliffs. More of it seemed remote and rugged. That could be a flaw in my memory, considering how long ago this was now, but I know for a fact that the last stretch of the Ring is along the MacGillicuddy Reeks and through Killarney National Park and involves several truly stunning vantage points at elevations that are not to be sneezed at, shall we say. There were a lot of scenic stops along the Ring of Kerry, some on the coast and some in the mountains and at least one that was both (and also includes an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary). We also stopped in a couple of cute little towns, one of which is apparently where Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier spent their honeymoon (why, I don’t know and can’t imagine). Our first two stops for the day, though, were super-touristy (not that the whole tour wasn’t) cultural attractions. The tour price did not include admission to either of them, which irked me, but I decided to assume they were worth five euros apiece. The first was another of those folk parks, the Kerry Bog Village. More 19th century cottage reconstructions: marginally interesting. More wolfhounds: better. TINY FUZZY PONIES: totally worth it. The next was a border collie demonstration from a guy who is apparently a world champion in sheepdog trials and trains really fantastic dogs. This one I really almost didn’t do, since I grew up going to Celtic Classic and watching sheepdogs every year of my childhood, but there was nothing else nearby and I really do love watching the dogs work, so I grudgingly paid my five euros and joined the group. And I’m glad I did, actually. He had some really weird exotic sheep and the dogs were amazing and this was in one of the areas where everything is uphill and people raise sheep because that’s all the land is good for, so the demonstration was basically on a more or less vertical slope that made for easy viewing and some really great pictures.

All in all, I think the Ring of Kerry was a fuller day than Dingle, even though we weren’t gone any longer, but even though it was exciting and beautiful, I think I preferred Dingle. I think people who had already done the Ring of Kerry played it up too much for it to live up to my expectations, especially since I’d seen the beauty of Dingle just the day before. I think it would be hard to argue that either trip isn’t touristy, but Dingle definitely had more of a “hidden Ireland” sort of feel to it. I don’t know if any of it was actually more remote or off the beaten path than parts of the Ring of Kerry, but it felt like it. I think the drivers/tour guides also made a difference: Ring of Kerry guy was far less chatty and not as interesting when he did talk as Dingle guy, who as I mentioned before was hyper-engaged. And there again I think experiencing the one before the other hurt the second.

Both nights after my bus returned I wandered around Killarney a bit, exploring and souvenir shopping, and both nights I found a nice pub with music and had dinner at the bar. There was a great band at the one I went to on Saturday, who I think was originally from Cork, and I didn’t want to leave. Sunday was less awesome music-wise, more like a typical trad session, but still good, and the Irish stew was well worth the expense of eating out here.

Monday morning I (along with a couple on vacation from Georgia who were on their way to Cork next, making me an awkward human travel guide) went horseback riding in Killarney National Park. It was awesome. I rode a bay pony named Diamond who was less than enthusiastic, but didn’t give me too much of a hard time even though I’d never ridden English style before and had not a clue what I was doing (and I’m not exactly an expert rider in the first place). It was another drizzly morning, but never more than a drizzle, often through sunshine, and we saw two or three rainbows in the two hours we were out. We also saw a herd of deer and my first-ever pheasant. The park is lovely, although admittedly I spent more time thinking about my horse and the mechanics of riding than about the scenery. That was okay, though. And I think maybe I prefer English to Western now that I’ve tried both. The English saddle is less comfortable, but as I predicted the stirrup position feels more natural to me and my short legs. I have a very hard time keeping my heels down in a Western saddle, not to mention keeping my feet in place if I get jostled (which I do, because I’ve never figured out how to post and probably never will until I manage to find time for riding lessons). And I like having both hands on the reins, although on the other hand I’m a lot more comfortable with the way one uses the reins in Western riding. The guide keeping up the rear of our little group told me I could shorten the reins about a dozen times that morning.

So now that I’ve bored the heck out of everyone who doesn’t ride with that little comparison, that’s the end of my Killarney adventure. I didn’t want to leave, and I had wanted to go back up before now and explore the Park some on foot, but that didn’t happen. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance now or not.

* The best of these that I remember was a story of uncertain factuality about this trio of robbers/highwaymen/outlaws of some sort or another (I missed the beginning of this story, so I don’t have the details) that are on the run and end up hiding out up in the hills somewhere with two sheepherders who “were very good friends… if you get what I’m saying.” After a while the outlaws get too comfortable and start using their real names, and the shepherds figure out who they are and tie them up in their sleep and hand them over to the law. And, said our driver/guide, if there’s truth in that story, “it must be the only time in history that two queens have beaten three jacks.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Gifts of Mind

Me: Guess what I did today!
Tom: Robbie Keane.

He is married, thank you very much. And not that attractive anyway. And yes, I did have to Wikipedia him to learn both of those things.

This happened last Saturday, and I’ll write about what I really did later. Along with an assortment of other things that have happened in the last month… I fail at blogging. For now, the prospect of going all the way back to my adventures in County Kerry is too daunting, so I’m going to ramble about life in Cork for a bit. Bear with me.

One other lingering thought about the field trip to the Burren: On the bus ride home, we filled out course evaluations. I tend to take a pretty lazy approach to course evaluations, although I recognize that this may not be helpful to the instructors or, by extension, to future students. Furthermore, I tend not to give highest ratings unless I really think they were deserved, and I am sparing with praise in the comments sections. (Actually, I routinely leave comment sections blank unless I really do have something to praise or I need to criticize something.) So, it’s a pretty big deal that I wrote a paragraph about how much I enjoyed that class and how much I think the field trips (we went on more than any other Early Start) added to my experience not just of the class but of being in Ireland in general. I also made a point of saying what a fantastic lecturer Tomás is, making this what I believe is only the second time in my college career that I have used the phrase “one of the best” on a course evaluation.

I wish I’d found reason to be as enthusiastic about my other classes. I’m enjoying them, I suppose, as much as classes are generally to be enjoyed. Just not on the same level.

The following are the topics for my history essay, verbatim:

1. Assess the historical significance of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852

2. Write an essay on Irish emigration in the nineteenth-century.

3. Assess the historical importance of the Easter Rising, 1916.

4. Why does Ireland have one of the most interesting culinary traditions in Europe? Please make reference to the idea of ‘tradition’ in your argument.

5. Write on essay on the development of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1938
Discuss Ireland’s changing role in international affairs since independence.

That’s it. No other guidance other than 1500 words, typed, with citations. So, in other words… Write an essay on whatever the heck you want, with as broad or as narrow a focus as you please, that has something to do anything that’s covered in the lectures for this course. I feel like they could have saved themselves a lot of time and the world a lot of paper if they’d just told us to choose a relevant topic and have done with it.

On the one hand, I find the lack of directed work and, more importantly, the lack of graded assignments, here very stressful, and the emphasis on in-class essays for what grades we do get extremely intimidating. (I loathe in-class essays. Give me a multi-question exam (two or three essays does NOT count as multi-question, either), or let me write my essays at home.) On the other hand, the expectations seem low and the workload [at least from where I’m sitting] is negligible. I guess I don’t have any firsthand experience with the culture of large public universities in the States, and Oberlin is tough even by selective-private-school standards, so maybe I’m biased. I’m also used to working while in school and to taking discussion-heavy classes where keeping up with reading is necessary to avoid embarrassment if nothing else, which no doubt also contributes to my perception that I have a surprising amount of free time on my hands. I hear often that Irish students don’t value the opportunity to go to college very highly because it’s virtually free for them, but I know for a fact there are plenty of American students who don’t care about education either. And we all find ways to coast, even in places like Oberlin; that’s student culture, not Irish culture. What I’m surprised by is the way in which professors here seem to make it relatively easy to coast. Readings, at least in the classes I’m taking, seem to be a lot more optional than in most of my classes at Oberlin; you might do better if you crack a book once in a while, but good lecture notes will mostly get you through. That’s true sometimes at Oberlin (I would know), but usually not entirely. And having just one paper to write for almost every class, and rarely more than 1500 words? I write two or three or five times that much for nearly every class at Oberlin. It’s the price one pays to major in social sciences and/or humanities.

There is going to be a big student protest in Dublin next week. I am not well enough informed about Irish politics to understand the details, but it has something to do with a proposed increase in university registration fees and with the sense that the government should be doing more to stem the tide of college graduates emigrating in search of work (and thus depriving Ireland of their potential contributions to society). International students are being encouraged to go along, but I’m not sure this is an instance where curiosity about the experience is a good enough reason to do something. I’m not entirely comfortable lending my voice to something I can’t understand (and frankly, my student loans alone are more than it costs an Irish student to go to university, so even if it is a totally different system I find it a little hard to be sympathetic when they complain about fees) and I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea that I have any right to get involved in this—or in anything to do with Irish politics, for that matter. I’m a transient with a foreign passport. I don’t even have a work visa. I’m not even pursuing a degree here. This is not my battle, nor is it a human rights issue where saying that would just be a cop-out. This is, as far as I can tell, purely a political fight, and I think it should be a fight for the people who are actually affected by it. I’m not at all convinced that my opinion should matter even if I did understand exactly what’s at stake.

That was all a lot heavier than I think I was intending to get in this post, so I’ll end on a lighter note. Earlier this week, I had the surprise/pleasure of partaking in an experience I did not expect to be cross-cultural: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with props and audience participation. How funny is it that ordering a sandwich can be a giant culture clash and yet shouting and throwing toast in a movie theatre is something everyone can understand? Life is awesome sometimes.