Sunday, August 29, 2010

[We're] A Long Way From Home

When I got to the hotel, I was met at the front desk by Maria, one of the staff members from IFSA-Butler’s Ireland office (conveniently located just across the square outside the hotel), who gave me some information, and a map of Dublin I obviously didn’t need, and a voucher for yet ANOTHER tour bus pass, and placed me in a double room with a girl named Kelsey, whom she explained was actually just coming up from Cork to meet us new arrivals and hang out with us during orientation, since she herself had actually done the program last spring, stayed on in Cork over the summer, and arranged to attend UCC for another semester this fall.

Other than two girls who had arrived over the weekend and were staying in a different room, I was the first one there, and there wasn’t anything planned for us until dinner, so after lying around for a couple of hours I wandered out to investigate the National Gallery (which happened to be about two buildings down the street from the hotel). On the way out, I met another IFSA person, Suzy, the one who actually lives here in Cork (I think she might be a grad student? She’s a UCC alum, at any rate.), who was sitting on the front steps with her dog. The most beautiful dog I have ever seen in my life. And I’m pretty sure that’s not hyperbole. She’s some kind of sighthound, sleek and elegant, about the size and shape of a Pharaoh hound (as far as I know; certainly bigger and heavier than most greyhounds), but solid, shiny black. I don’t think a person would need to know half as much as I know about dogs to appreciate how gorgeous this girl is. And I’m not even a huge fan of sighthounds, in general.

… But I’m sure you don’t care as much as I did. So moving on. The National Gallery is enormous and has much to offer art connoisseurs. But if you know me, you know that I like ancient art. Art with historical significance. Decorative art on objects. I prefer things to paintings, and though I have nothing against paintings, I have to be in the mood to look at dozens of rooms of them without getting bored. I was not in that mood two Mondays ago.

Mostly, I was there to see the Caravaggio that all of Dublin seemed so proud of, and this I accomplished. It’s of Jesus being arrested. I sat and looked at it for a while. It didn’t do much for me.

I did walk around a lot of the other European galleries, and saw some things I enjoyed, including a not-very-famous Van Gogh I really liked. But I should probably go back and try again if I have time on my next visit to Dublin. There are definitely things I would appreciate more if I was more willing to take the time for them, and I basically skipped the Irish art wing, which feels just a little bit wrong, considering.

I had a late, awkward lunch by myself in a cafĂ© around the corner and then went back to the hotel. Suzy and the dog, Sooty, were still on the steps, and we bonded a bit more about loving dogs, and how beautiful and regal Sooty is (“Yeah, she knows it,” was Suzy’s response to something particularly gushing that I said), and Suzy asked me to hold the lead while she went inside for a moment, which pretty much made my day.

Kelsey turned up shortly before we were due in the lobby for dinner. She was very talkative and friendly and could not say enough nice things about Cork.

Dinner was at a pub in Temple Bar called The Purty Kitchen, which was pretty authentically Irish (possibly the only place I ate in Dublin that was). After much deliberation, I settled on beef and Guinness pie (which was fine but which I probably will not order again anywhere else—although at least I can honestly say that I’ve consumed Guinness, and let people assume what they will from that statement). Afterwards, Kelsey sort of took charge of us and we went to a pub down the street where several girls ordered their first-ever drinks (I had forgotten until arriving that I would almost certainly be the oldest, since most normal people go abroad junior year). It wasn’t very exciting since it was still too early for most people to be out, but it was good initial bonding time and good question-Kelsey-about-everything time.

In addition to myself, there are four other girls here for Early Start through IFSA-Butler: Abby, Chelsea, Kristin, and Carolyn. I genuinely like all of them. Abby and Carolyn are in the archaeology class with me. I’ve barely seen Abby (outside of class, that is) since we got to Cork, and haven’t spent a lot of time with Chelsea, although we run into each other fairly often. Kristin and Carolyn and I are still spending a lot of time together.

There is also Roger, who is also from Oberlin (no, we did not know each other beforehand), who was not present at dinner that first night because he was delayed in getting to Dublin. He turned up about halfway through orientation Tuesday morning. He’s around, here in Cork, but I haven’t really hung out with him since we got here, either.

There’s not a lot more to say about Dublin, I guess. We had orientation talks in the IFSA office, which is very cozy and on the basement level of a Georgian townhouse, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, followed by lunches in nice Dublin restaurants. On Tuesday afternoon Suzy dropped us off at the Guinness Storehouse for a tour. As I’m sure you can guess, I had approximately zero interest in being there, but since it was paid-for and it’s one of those things tourists are basically required to do, I guess I’m glad I went. And the bar at the very top of the building is circular and has one giant window all the way around, so you have a panoramic view of Dublin for several miles in EVERY direction. I almost-literally ran around it taking pictures.

Wednesday afternoon we just had free time, and I convinced everyone except Roger and Chelsea that we wanted to go to the Collins Barracks Museum (the National Museum of History and Decorative Arts), but by the time we got there (by tour bus again, so it was a lengthy ride) it was closing in less than an hour and we only had time to rush through a war history exhibit. But that was neat, and I will definitely be going back to see the rest of the museum when I return to Dublin, so I don’t have any regrets about that.

And then Thursday we got up and got on a bus and came to Cork, so that’s orientation week in a nutshell. I’m sure I planned to include more detail at the time, but since I’m so far behind I’ll leave it there for now, and maybe sprinkle in a story or two later on if I remember.

Next up: first week of classes in Cork, and my weekend adventures.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Raised On Songs And Stories

That brings us to… Sunday the 15th, my last day alone in Dublin. I started out by continuing my bus tour (the one I bought a ticket for to get back from the wrong train station) from Stop 1. I had a live guide that time instead of an audio recording like on the one the day before, and he was really entertaining, even if he did launch into renditions of first “Danny Boy” and then “Cockles and Mussels” that dashed an irrational idea I’d had that perhaps all Irish people could sing. (He was good-natured about it, though—said something about how that’s what Molly Malone sounded like when she was drunk.)

I got off at the main tourism office, which wasn’t open yet, so I walked around a bit in a neighborhood I hadn’t really explored yet until it was, then picked up a stack of leaflets about County Cork and made a reservation for the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl for that evening.

Then I got on the next bus and continued, and wound up getting off at Kilmainham Gaol on a whim. The idea had been just to get off to get some better pictures and hop right back on the very next bus, but when I saw the sign that said tours were only 2 euro for students I figured I might as well stick around. So that was interesting. Extraordinarily depressing (we’re not just talking 19th century robbers and murderers and rapists here, but children imprisoned for petty crimes, and people jailed for stealing food during the Famine, and of course the very brief stay of a handful of individuals in 1916…), but interesting.

Back on the tour bus until I’d come all the way around to where I got on and seen that leg of the trip twice. I got off at the Hugh Lane Gallery, which I had gotten mixed up with the National Gallery, and wandered around a bit, but most of the galleries aside from the current special exhibit were closed due to lack of available staff on that particular day, and I was not at all interested in the special exhibit, so I was in and out pretty quickly.

I ended up wandering around the Grafton Street area much earlier than I needed to be there for the pub crawl with the intention of finding someplace to eat dinner, but I got distracted by a street magician/comedian who was promising to do one of Houdini’s famous tricks (extracting himself from a straitjacket and chains), but stretched out the preparation as long as he could by cracking jokes and mocking the audience and, right before he actually did the trick, making a really a touching speech about how street performers do what they do because they love it and because it brings together crowds that are from all over the world but come together to share that little bit of entertainment, and if we really couldn’t afford to give him anything he’d understand but would we at least come shake his hand and say thanks instead of just wandering away? I’d have given him money anyway (that’s an impressive trick for crying out loud), but I’ll admit I gave a little more than I’d planned after that. It was very heartfelt and, even if he does make a small fortune off of suckering tourists, I think it was very true. I wish I could remember exactly what he said because I don’t think I did it justice, but as someone who has performed for a huge variety of audiences, even if it’s never been for money, I can very much relate to the desire to feel like you’ve actually made an impact of some sort. That what you did was worth something to the people watching.

And as he said, five or ten euro is just about the cheapest hour of entertainment you’re going to get in Dublin, and you’d think nothing of spending that to buy him a couple of drinks if you ran into him in the pub later on.

Anyway, it was a good time, and almost made me late for the pub crawl, but I made it. And that was definitely a good time, if a little expensive by the end of the night. There were two guides, both professional actors if I remember correctly, who opened the evening by acting out a snippet of Waiting for Godot before commencing a very entertaining talk about the lives and works of Dublin’s most famous writers, and why the four pubs we worked our way through were significant (actually, only three of them were, the other was, as they put it, “a drink stop with no culture”). They threw in recitations of a letter by Oscar Wilde, and an excerpt from Ulysses (blergh), and something from Shaw, I believe (I wasn’t familiar with it). And the older sang “The Parting Glass” at one point because it was used in a play (again I wasn’t familiar with it, it was either Becket or Shaw). They were really great, and it was really interesting, and the pubs were really cool. I would totally do it again, even if it was exactly the same.

They also sprinkled in ridiculously obscure trivia questions throughout the evening, and before we entered the last pub they asked them all again and had us shout out answers. It came down to me and an older English lady both with three points (out of about ten questions, mind you). They had to make up a tie-breaker, which was “Name a work by Behan.” I had no clue, so she won it. But first prize was a t-shirt and second a tiny bottle of Bushmill’s, and someone whispered to me that I’d gotten the better end of the deal anyway. I don’t remember anymore what three questions I answered correctly other than naming the four 20th century Nobel Prize winners from Ireland (Heaney, Becket, Shaw, Yeats*). That was the only one I was dead sure of, and I do remember that one of the other two I got right was a completely blind guess. So although I was pretty pleased with myself, I’ll admit there was a lot of luck involved. (Also, I would have won without the tie-breaker if I had managed to remember an answer I had seen on the wall of one of the earlier pubs an hour before, but we won’t talk about that…)

Anyway, I hung around the last pub for quite a while having a really nice conversation with a couple of English professors from California, then got horrendously lost on my way back to the hostel and wound up taking a cab. (Judging by the fare, and the fact that all four pubs had been quite close to one another, I wasn’t actually very far away, but I had already walked for a few minutes before realizing I had absolutely no idea where I was, and I was not interested in trying to figure it out by myself in the middle of the night after having been drinking, so I just hailed the first taxi I saw.) That aside, I could not have asked for a better night out, especially since I was on my own, and especially since I had initially thought I was the only person there on my own; it was only on the way to the second pub that I and the other solo traveler in the bunch, a recent grad from the Vancouver area, connected with each other.

Of course, after my night out, I wasn’t really in the mood to get up early Monday morning and move my stuff across town to check into the hotel for my IFSA-Butler orientation. I wound up taking a cab for that, too, even though one of the English professors from the pub crawl had given me his tour bus pass (because he was leaving and it was still good for another day) and there was a stop literally across the street from my hotel. Miraculously (I thought), I was able to check in even though I got there at 10:30 in the morning. And so began the next stage of my adventure…

*Initially, before remembering one of the poets, I had thought to say Joyce. It pleases me greatly to recall that he did not in fact earn a Nobel Prize for his torture of the English language.

Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore

[One of these days I'll go back to having to actually know the songs I'm quoting instead of just using the titles...]

The tale of my trip to Howth is pretty uneventful from the point at which I at least managed to get on the train. It takes less than half an hour to get there. The DART station is a little outside the village proper, but right next to the docks, so I walked around for a little bit looking at the sea and the boats and the seals before heading down the road in search of the trailhead. (Along with about 45374584 other tourists.)

A few observations:

* The water is very blue, much bluer than I would have expected so far north. (I was also fortunate enough to have beautiful weather that whole first weekend in Dublin, and actually got sunburn on my face during my hike. Who’d have thought?)

* Seals are very fat. We are not talking sleek, athletic sea lions here. Clearly the selkie legends come from a time when the ideal woman was rounder than is currently the case.

* There is a distinct lack of things like safety rails and “Keep off the rocks”-type signs and other things that I, as an American, am used to seeing as methods of preventing death and injury by stupidity. I did see a “Use Caution” sign next to a steep decline down to a sheltered beach, and there were some warning signs posted along the cliff trail, but that was it. I don’t exactly have any other evidence for this, but I like to think that local governments in Ireland take a “Use your own common sense; it’s not our problem if you haven’t got any” attitude.

* I’m about 95% sure in hindsight that I must have walked right past William Butler Yeats’s house on my way to the trail and not even realized it. It might even have been the pretty one with the old walled garden I was admiring but scared to take pictures of in case someone was inside watching me. Which is unfortunate, because if I had, then I’d know…

Anyway, it was a pretty easy hike. The initial climb was a bit steep, but still hands-free. I was glad I’d worn boots, but not otherwise concerned. It was very windy, but since the day was clear there was a fantastic view whenever I could keep my hair out of my face for a few minutes. Heather everywhere. Seagulls swooping over the waves down below. A flock of cormorants far out on a cluster of rocks.

It was very relaxing, for several reasons. For one thing, it was nice just to be out of the capital. (I say I’m a city girl, and I say I like traveling alone, but being alone in a city is something else. Over a million people in one place is a lot even for me.) It was nice to just be on a trail with my hiking boots and a backpack. Not to mention that THIS was the Ireland of film and story and of my imagination before the disillusionment of Dublin. It was also familiar in an odd sort of way. Not the details, obviously, but the sounds and smells of being next to the ocean.

Altogether I was very glad I’d decided to go out there for the day, and satisfied that after all the tears and frustration of six months ago I came here instead of Scotland. It’s not what I thought I wanted, it’s not what was closest to my heart—but it’s close enough.

I walked for a long time. The original plan had been to mostly circle the peninsula and wind up at the DART station in Sutton, the first stop to the west of Howth, for my trip back to Dublin. However, I had noticed on the map a way to cut across the middle of the peninsula and pass by Howth Castle on the way to making a complete loop back to the Howth station. I’d miss the western half of the cliff walk, but I figured it was worth the trade-off. But naturally, I messed it up and wound up missing the western shore AND the castle. So I went to Sutton Station, got on an eastbound train, and went right back to Howth. Take that, world.

The castle wasn’t actually all that exciting, but since it was the first one I’d seen here other than Dublin Castle, which is just bizarre (and mostly not medieval, anyway), I was reasonably satisfied. I bought a milkshake and sat near the docks for a while before getting back on the train. At that point it was so late in the afternoon that I had already decided to scrap whatever other ideas I’d had for the day and get as much mileage out of my all-day rail pass as I could, so I rode the train past Dublin all the way to Killiney, which isn’t the southernmost stop but is only a few before whatever is. There’s a nice big sandy beach there that’s literally next to the train station. (Like, if I valued my limbs less I could have just jumped from the platform instead of walking up the road to find the stairs.) I went down and walked for a few minutes and looked around and then got back on the train and went home. As far as trains running, I still had a few hours, but I wasn’t sure what else I’d find to do at that point in the day and didn’t really want to get caught wandering unfamiliar places after dark. Mostly the point had been to see what there was to see from the train. Which wasn’t much. The ocean sometimes. The marsh where I had considered getting off because of the wildlife sanctuary there where you can apparently see lots of birds, but I stopped considering when I could smell it from the train. Give me docks and stables over swampland any day.

I don’t remember what I did when I got back to Dublin that night, which I assume (since I didn’t do any drinking until the next night) means I just went back to the hostel and lounged around. That’s lame.

An aside: I’ve now been in Cork for the same amount of time I was in Dublin, and I actually do find myself missing Dublin now and then. I’m not sure, though, if it’s really DUBLIN I want, or just living in the city centre instead of a half hour’s walk away. Plus I still don’t know Cork nearly as well as I knew Dublin by the time I left (see previous sentence), so we’ll see how I feel after I do some much-needed exploration this weekend.

I do LIKE Cork, though. Just so we’re clear on that. It’s not at all as dismal as Lehigh’s Galway-biased economics professor would have had me believe.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Rocky Road To [And Out Of] Dublin

Back to my Dublin adventures: Friday night after my emergency lock excursion, I bought fish and chips from what appeared to be an Irish fast-food chain, and ate them in the hostel’s kitchen before going back out for a Haunted Dublin tour at twilight. (I believe the guide’s name was Shane, continuing the super-Irish name trend I mentioned earlier.) I have mixed feelings about that. I learned some interesting things that I might not have otherwise (the disgusting story of City Council’s complete destruction of one of the most incredible archaeological finds in the country despite scientific/historical value, tourism value, and public outcry being foremost in my mind), but most of the tales that were told didn’t actually have anything to do with ghosts and hauntings. There were some that were a little eerie or disturbing, but not about anything “haunted,” per se. And the ones that really were ghost stories were not very interesting ghost stories, let alone scary ones. I think I found walking home alone in the dark on my first night in town creepier than anything along the tour. So in that sense, it was definitely a disappointment. I find it hard to believe that Dublin’s City Centre does not have legitimate ghost stories lurking in the shadows. I would say I think that money could have been better spent, but on the other hand there were those historical tidbits I might not have learned on my own, and a couple of interesting sights that were off the beaten path (e.g., what’s left of the city’s medieval walls) and which I might not have found on my own. It was an experience, anyway.

Saturday morning, I got up with a plan to take the DART, Dublin’s suburban train system, out to Howth Peninsula on the coast and hike along the cliffs by the sea. (The fact that I felt the need to get out of Dublin by the second day probably says something.) I stayed in bed too long to get my free breakfast at the hostel, so I stopped at Spar (a convenience store chain that almost literally has a shop on every block in central Dublin) and got myself a scone, along with a banana and a sausage roll that I figured could be a picnic lunch by the shore. Then I headed, or so I thought, for the train station, which was the start of one of the most ridiculous and frustrating experiences of my entire life.

I believed the Connolly Train Station to be somewhere on O’Connell Street. You may or may not consider this logical based on the names; I would probably concede it to be a silly assumption except for the fact that the main reason I believed this was that I was convinced I had seen it written on something posted in the hostel on the public transportation board. However, after walking as far up O’Connell Street as I remembered being on the bus the day before, I concluded that there must be some mistake, and walked back towards the river. I was eventually able to locate the station on my map, and discovered that I had been extremely wrong and it was in fact across the river and fairly far away laterally. Annoyed, I started walking.

I walked. And walked. And eventually thought, “This doesn’t make sense” and “I don’t know where I am” and “There’s a sign for the Guinness Storehouse, which I thought was really far away.” At first I couldn’t find it on the map, or the street I was allegedly on, either. Eventually I discovered that I had somehow wound up in the quarter of the city diagonally opposite of where I wished to be, which was thoroughly perplexing.

Turns out, Connolly Train Station was in fact on the same side of the river as where I’d started out, and just a couple of blocks east. Looking back now that I know the city better, it’s hard to imagine how I managed to do what I did, but as I think I mentioned earlier, those first few days I had some serious directional dyslexia and kept seeing the map as somehow upside-down, resulting in heading in totally the opposite direction from where I should have gone.

So I’d spent something like half an hour walking AWAY from my train station. Now I was seriously pissed off, but I observed on the map that at this point I was closer to Heuston Station than to getting all the way back to Connolly. I kept going, got confused, took a wrong turn, found the train tracks, followed them in the wrong direction for a bit, and eventually sorted myself out and found Heuston Station.

Then the real fun began. Too frustrated at that point to wait in long ticket lines, I went to one of the self-service machines, and after some confusion about how to buy tickets for the suburban line rather than from city to city, I discovered that for less than 9 euro I could buy a day pass that would let me get on an off as often as I wished. Sold. I headed for the platforms.

Halfway there I had a new problem. The ticket read “only valid with a valid CIE number.” I’m not entirely sure what a CIE number is, but clearly I don’t have one. I tried to remember if the machine had said anything about that before I bought the ticket and was about 99% sure it hadn’t. I walked back and forth for a while trying to decide if I should go to the ticket window and explain myself or just try it and see what happened. Eventually fear trumped embarrassment and I went to the window. When I held up my ticket and told the man at the desk my problem, he said “Ah, you’ve got a day pass. You’re grand with that; it’s only the weekly and monthly ones where you need that, but they all print out the same way.”

Personally, I think that’s idiotic, but whatever. Back to the platform I went, at which point I had to confront the other snag I’d noticed earlier but hadn’t had to deal with until I was sure I could get on a train at all: all the trains seemed to be going long distances, and there was no indication of how to get to Howth, or anywhere else just outside Dublin.

I asked someone guarding the turnstiles what train I needed for Howth. “You’re trying to get to Howth? You’ve got the wrong station. You want Connolly.”

$#*&%^@ it. Could I get to Sutton (the only other stop I could remember along the northern route) from here? Nope, had to be Connolly.

He very kindly asked if I knew how to get there, and I said yes, because at that point I’d already decided screw this, I was getting on the next hop-on, hop-off tour bus that came by. I had to wait through two times listed on the schedule at the stop before one eventually showed up, but bought my ticket and went for a leisurely ride halfway around the city to get off at O’Connell Street, pretty much back where I’d started. I arrived at Connolly Station something like three hours after I’d started out from the hostel that morning (it was a fifteen or twenty minute walk away), and ate my lunch on the platform while waiting for the train. The banana, after a whole morning in my backpack, was a lost cause.

So the morals of the story are: 1) Know where you are in relation to where you want to go, and look at the map twice if there’s a chance that might be a problem, and 2) Heuston Station for inter-city trains, Connolly for suburban. Probably I will never, ever forget that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Forty Shades of Green [And Grey]

I moved to Cork yesterday, along with the rest of the IFSA-Butler Early Start kids (more on them when I return to my tales of Dublin). The day started out relatively nicely in Dublin. As we drove southwest over the next two and a half hours, it got progressively darker and greyer, until it would have put Oberlin at its most miserable to shame. Eventually it started raining, and continued to rain all the way to Cork, as we were dragging our stuff into the apartment complex, as we were walking into town… you get the idea. It was still raining when I went to bed. It was that fine, misty kind of rain that’s just enough to be annoying if you’re out in it, but will still somehow get you soaked.

I’ve concluded that weather forecasts mean very little here. The sky just does whatever the hell it wants. One of the presenters at orientation today had a quip about going through several seasons already this morning. It turned out to be a gloriously warm, sunny day, despite yesterday and despite the fact that last night my weather widget predicted another cold, rainy day today. Dublin was beautiful like today while I was there alone, except for a shower here and there, and then during my IFSA-Butler orientation Tuesday and Wednesday it was raining and then sunny, raining and then sunny, raining and then sunny all day long. I don’t mind it much, actually. I mind the relentless grey of Ohio. I mind downpours. I mind sub-freezing temperatures and snow. Indecision I can live with, if the bad isn’t as bad as all that.

Anyway, the landscape outside the bus window yesterday morning also got progressively greener as we moved southwest. People always talk about how green this part of the world is, and at first I had been unimpressed. Now I understand. And eventually I realized that if I could stop looking at the green pastures and the cattle and the wheatfields and the flocks of sheep with border collies standing guard, and look up once in a while, I might see a crumbling medieval tower rising up out of the landscape as casually as you please. I didn’t see anything yesterday that would compare to the castles I saw just hanging out along the highway in the French countryside, but it was exciting nonetheless.

My apartment is glorious. I have my own bedroom AND my own bathroom, and the kitchen is nicer than what I have at home, albeit with few useful cooking utensils. There’s a nice living room, too. My room is brightly lit, my desk is huge, my chair is comfy, my shelves and drawers are generous, my closet is organized. Everything is very well-maintained. This is far nicer than anywhere I’ve stayed in Oberlin. Possibly this is the nicest place I will live for a long time to come.

The apartment I’m in houses five, but so far I only have two roommates. Presumably there will be another two here next month when the real semester starts, but I have no idea whether they will also be international students or whether they will be Irish.

The major downside is that we are a good fifteen minute walk from campus, which is significantly more than what I was expecting from what people had said to us before we got here. Downtown is at least that far again past campus and possibly farther. It doesn’t help that there are five or six apartment blocks in the complex and I’m in the one farthest back from the road. Of course.

The other downside is that laundry costs twice as much as at Oberlin, and the machines are smaller.

Laundry also proved to be surprisingly confusing. First of all, buying detergent was a nightmare; it would appear that it only comes in powder form and that one might have to use multiple things depending on what you buy. I settled on a box of single-use packets that you throw right in with the clothes instead of having to measure the right quantity and put it in the right drawer on the machine. Probably not very cost-effective, but I might be able to get through the whole semester on one box, and if not at least I still won’t waste as much at the end.

Then I didn’t understand any of the settings on the machine, and eventually just guessed and hoped my clothes and sheets wouldn’t be ruined. (They weren’t.) I guess it’s the things you aren’t expecting to be different that turn out to be the most so. The dryer was easier, but dryer sheets do not exist here, it seems.

I had similar problems with the oven later this evening. The settings dial has no words (like bake, broil, etc.), just little symbols, none of which mean anything to me. I picked one at random and moved on to the temperature knob only to be reminded that I have no idea how to convert between Celsius and Fahrenheit in my head. Guessed on that, too. Fortunately I was only heating a sandwich and not actually cooking. I’m going to be in serious trouble when I get to that stage of settling in.

At any rate, we did go into town (a very long walk in the rain) yesterday afternoon to buy things like bedding and towels and hangers. There are two Irish department store chains (the stores in the centre of Cork are literally across the street from one another) that sell reasonably nice clothes and shoes and housewares incredibly cheaply. It’s a little like if Target took on the appearance of Macy’s but kept the same prices. Awesome. Probably going back for other stuff over the next week or so that was less urgent but will be nice to have. Ditto on groceries; I bought a few things for the weekend but haven’t yet done any real stocking up. Learning to navigate the supermarket is also going to be an interesting challenge. So many unfamiliar things.

The Early Start orientation was today, which consisted mainly of sitting in a lecture hall for five hours while various representatives of various offices and organizations talked at us. Useful but dismal. But each of the professors teaching an Early Start course said a little bit about their class, and the archaeology guy seems nice and fun and I think the class is going to be amazing. I can’t believe it’s only going to last four weeks. Afterwards we had a tour of the campus (by some sadly uninformed student guides who I don’t think had been trained in any way or told anything about the Early Start program or visiting students in general), which is very pretty but also large and confusing. I doubt the tour did much for any of us in the way of being able to orient ourselves. I can find my way to the building where my class is, and the library is right next to it, so that’s all I’m going to worry about for now.

That’s all I’ve got about Cork for now. I’m going to hold of on my judgment of the city itself until I’ve gotten to know it a little better; my brief exposure to the city centre yesterday wasn’t enough to make me feel like I know where anything is, let alone what it’s like.

Tomorrow I think the IFSA group is going to the covered market downtown together for some foodstuffs (we walked through it on the way to do our sheets-shopping yesterday and it’s amazing), and there’s a big football game against Dublin on Sunday that we’ve all been strongly encouraged to watch from one of the pubs downtown. I have no idea how Gaelic football works, but I’ve heard there are places in Cork where a pint is cheaper than anywhere I went in Dublin, so there’s that. My class starts Monday, which is also when I get my ID card, so I can set up my computer accounts, and register with Immigration, and generally become an official UCC student in more than name.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In Dublin Town

Actually, before I continue with my adventures, I want to say a few things about Dublin as a whole. I was thinking about all of this while wandering around that first day, and I've had time since to talk to my fellow students and even to some Irish people. It took me until today, actually, to successfully answer the question “What do you think of Dublin?” with something that both sounded positive and didn't make me feel dishonest.

The word that came out (the person asking was an overly friendly museum guard) was “exciting.” I was pretty satisfied with that. It's true, it leaves out what I dislike without necessarily implying it's not there, and it's a compliment that's also a little bit of a euphemism.

It's not that I dislike Dublin. I'd be quite content to spend a little more time here, especially now that I'm starting to learn my way around and am not constantly frustrated. I'm definitely planning to come back up for a weekend at some point during the semester.

But I'm not enamored of it, either. Dublin is a dreary, Old World New York, a city of crowds and litter and buses and concrete. I had been warned that it's packed with tourists; I was completely unprepared for the reality of it. London is much the same: sprawling, grey, packed with people and traffic everywhere you look, constantly busy-but I still love London, or I did when I was fourteen, at any rate. I really think the tourists there, and in NYC as well, are less obtrusive somehow than here. Maybe they are more concentrated in smaller areas, or maybe there are simply more natives to balance them out, but I don't think I've ever felt quite as much as though every single person around me on the street was a visitor.

Dublin is also not an attractive city. There are beautiful buildings, certainly, and vast Georgian neighborhoods* that are, again, much like London and New York. There are also places and things that remind me somewhat of Paris-great grey stone buildings in an architectural style that currently escapes me, old-fashioned street lamps, wide pedestrian streets and broad avenues line with monuments, carefully planned gardens alongside wild natural-ish woods alongside neat rows of planted trees in the city parks. But on the whole, there is nothing I find particularly special about Dublin in the visually appealing sense. Simply looking around has largely ceased to interest me, and was never as exciting as I normally find it to be in cities.

The mighty Liffey, too, is unimpressive. It would hardly compete in the same class as the Lehigh.

There are things I like about Dublin, too. I've already mentioned that there are a lot of things to see and places to go, and there are the odd parts of the city (though not as many as I expected) that have retained their pre-modern-urban-planning feel in medieval architecture and narrow cobblestone streets. If I had the money and the time to eat everywhere I wanted, I might never leave. And while Dublin is a city filled with stone and concrete and hurrying people who don't see one another, it is also a city of history and books and coffee, all of which are everywhere you look and all of which are things of which Dubliners seem to be quite proud. On some level, I don't really ask for much more than that.

I'd never want to live here, though.

And honestly, if after I visit again later this fall I've seen everything I really want to see, I'm not sure I'll ever really feel a tug to come back here. I have enjoyed this time (mostly) and I want a bit more, but Dublin has failed to make me fall in love with it. And I fall in love with almost every place I go.

To Cork tomorrow. I was warned ages ago that Cork is a drab, shabby, tired, post-industry city; not the best or most exciting place for students. Its natives (and a couple of transplants), on the other hand, cannot praise it enough, and the Southwest is allegedly the most authentically Irish part of the island.

So we'll see.

As a side note, since both of these last two posts have had titles lifted from “The Foggy Dew” (which has been stuck in my head since Fiona the tour guide's grand finale lecture last week about the Easter Rising), on one of the many tour buses I've been on since my arrival I heard a rendition of that song that I found very interesting by comparison. I, of course, grew up on Sinead O'Connor's version (backed by The Chieftains). This lady was far less dramatic about it, and I laughed when she clearly referred to “Britannia's sons”… because that is not at all what Sinead calls them.

* the colorful doors of which are such a big deal to Dubliners that they are pointed out by tour guides and featured on postcards

To A City Fair Rode I

Here is the first of several updates to be made over the next few days about my weekend alone in Dublin and the orientation I'm currently attending. I can't believe I managed to get so far behind already.

I was nowhere near a window on the plane, which was sad because I love seeing the place I’m going from above before I get there, so my first glimpse of Ireland was from the windows of the shuttle bus I took from the airport (after realizing as soon as I stepped out of the airport that a stop in the tourism office before leaving the airport might have been worthwhile). It wasn’t a very exciting introduction. The plantlife along the highway didn’t look terribly unfamiliar, though I didn’t recognize any of the birds, and I barely noticed that the bus was on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to. I did observe that I didn’t understand any of the road signs, even when they were in English. Once we hit the suburbs, there was a European feel to the architecture that I couldn’t describe if you asked me to but that I definitely recognized. To be honest, though, I didn’t think the outskirts of the city looked all that different from the rundown parts of Queens I’d passed through the night before on my epic four and a half hour journey to JFK Airport. (It’s really only supposed to be about a three hour drive.)

I got off the bus at O’Connell Street, which is the main thoroughfare on the north side of the river in central Dublin, and set off towards the river (or so I hoped). I attempted to follow the sound of the seagulls, but it was fortunate that I was headed in the right direction anyway, because I’ve since learned that the whole city is full of gulls and while they might eventually lead you to the river, it may not be as directly as you’d hope. I crossed the bridge and walked towards my hostel, only to fail to come across it and to discover that I didn’t recognize any of the street names. Perplexed, I was forced to give up on pretending to know what I was doing and pull out my map, at which point I discovered I had gone the right way but had misjudged the direction I’d come into the city from and thus done everything backwards.

In hindsight, that might be why I’ve had the city upside-down in my head all weekend and can’t seem to stop mixing up north and south and walking in completely the opposite direction of where I want to go. After all my travels, I actually do have a decent sense of direction, but it has totally failed me on multiple occasions during the past few days.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Dublin is easily the most confusing city I’ve ever been in. Streets begin and end and change names in odd places, and come together at strange angles that make it hard to tell whether you’re standing at the junction of two roads or just an awkward bend in a single road. Streets also often have very similar names to nearby streets, or are marked with names that don’t quite match up to what’s printed on my map. Or they aren’t marked at all, which never happens when I already know where I am, only when I don’t. The streets rarely go in straight lines and often don’t come out where you expect them to. And God help you if you miss a turn, or take a wrong turn, because if you expect to be able to go up another block (which isn’t anything close to a standard unit of measurement anyway) and cut back over, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Pretty much every time I’ve gotten turned around, there hasn’t been an easy way to get back on track without walking around in some ridiculous circle that takes four times as long as if I’d managed to get it right the first time.

That said, my handy popout  pocket map of Dublin from AAA, which is actually a total of five maps in varying degrees of detail, has been a lifesaver. I’d highly recommend one for anyone traveling to any major city, even if you’re already familiar with the area, because in addition to helping me find my way around it has led to my discovering things I never would have otherwise. Plus it’s compact and way more subtle than a big fold-out map.

So anyway, after getting myself back on track and locating the hostel, I paid for my bed, locked everything but my purse in the luggage room, and went exploring. I just wandered around the neighborhood for a while. O’Connell Street and its side streets are a big shopping area, and my hostel is right on the riverfront about a block west of O’Connell, just across the river from the Temple Bar neighborhood. Most of the big things to see sort of fan out around Temple Bar. I chose the hostel for the location and I really don’t think I could have done better in that regard.

After walking around for a while I attempted to find City Hall to meet up with a free walking tour I’d seen advertised at the hostel. (I was sure there had to be a catch to that, but there really wasn’t.) That was the first time I got thoroughly lost. Let’s just say I had expected to have about an hour to kill in the vicinity of City Hall before the tour left, and in reality I caught up just as they were starting out.

The tour lasted over three hours and was completely worth every second. I learned more about Dublin and about Irish history in that afternoon than the internet could have taught me in a week. The guide, who was a history and music student at Trinity College, was incredibly knowledgeable, adorably enthusiastic, and extremely funny. Her name was Fiona, and every tour guide and bus driver I’ve had since has had a similarly classic Irish name—at some point I started to wonder if they were really all legit or if people who work in tourism sometimes take on atmospheric names. Also, there are Viking-themed duck tours around Dublin, and after explaining to us exactly why the stereotypical horned helmets don’t make any sense historically, Fiona instructed us to shout “Your hats are historically incorrect!” every time one of the duck vehicles passed by with its costumed guides. That was the point at which I wished gay marriage were legal in Ireland.

Anyway, when I put up pictures later I’ll have more stories from the tour. But we saw most of the big historical things in the area, and Fiona was great. And I greatly admire the way she talked about the Easter Rising. She was incredibly passionate—I couldn’t take my eyes off her—and there are few people, I think, even among historians, who have the ability (or even the desire) to balance that level of feeling with the level of fairness that she gave to multiple sides of a controversy. I have a lot of respect for that because it’s something I feel like I see disappointingly little of at Oberlin, which is one of the places I would have most expected it.

I’m getting off track. I think it’s amazing that there are people out there who give wonderful, three-hour-long tours to big groups of foreign tourists and only get paid in tips. Of course, with a group as big as the one I was in, if everyone just gives the one euro my guidebook said was normal for a tour guide, that still works out to be more per hour than I’ve ever earned. Personally, I tipped her three times that, and I saw a couple people slip her even more, so she probably came out pretty well.

After the tour it was getting towards evening and I still hadn’t officially finished checking into the hostel, since I’d gotten there before rooms were ready. So I went back, and got my key and my bed assignment, and got my backpack out of the luggage room. I was in a long, narrow dorm room with six bunk beds and its own bathroom. There were metal basket-style storage lockers underneath the beds, and the first thing I noticed was that I only had half of a latch. I pondered that for a while, until my bunkmate (a Mexican filmmaker) pointed out a piece of chain lying on the dresser and a couple of other lockers in the room that were locked that way. Ok. I wrapped the chain around the bedframe and through the latch and then discovered that my padlock wouldn’t fit through the links. At that point I was seriously annoyed, so I emptied all my clothes and whatever else I wasn’t concerned about having stolen out of my backpack, took the rest with me, and went out to wander around until I found the Irish equivalent of a dollar store (a two-euro store, which is bordering on not actually that cheap if you ask me), where I bought three much smaller padlocks. They didn’t look terribly sturdy, but they were at least metal and at that point I really didn’t care.

I was planning to cover more, but since I ramble and this is getting pretty long, I'll stop there for now and pick up with Friday evening and my "Haunted Dublin" tour (!) later on.