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The Parting Glass

Time July 25th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

As someone who finds it hard to be compelled to change very easily, it is both a shock and, in a way, a welcome relief to find myself very much changed from this past.  In a sense, I think I have found or understood more of who I am and what I want to be in life.  This past year has been like a series of windows into my character.  To try and state directly what that is like would be impossible, or if not impossible, beyond my grasp to attempt.  Instead, I shall offer a glimpse of my experiences so that whoever may read this may see what possible opportunities await, and maybe then an idea of what I wish to get across will become more apparent.

In terms of music, I was beyond fortunate.  From small gigs in the basements of pubs to sold out concert halls I saw more acts than I could have possibly imagined, two of which were the greatest concerts of my life.  Dublin’s music scene is pretty top-notch, and because the Irish truly love their live music they send incredible amounts of energy to the bands which results in a much better performance on-stage.  In order of appearance, I saw: Imogen Heap, Mystery Jets, Chuck Ragan, Gaslight Anthem, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Gemma Hayes (three times), Iron & Wine, Gogol Bordello, These Charming Men (a Smiths cover band), Josh T. Pearson (who announced he learned his father died not an hour before the concert began), Drive-By Truckers, Noah & The Whale, Belle & Sebastian (in Vienna), Explosions in the Sky, The Submarines, The Mountain Goats, Harvest (a Neil Young cover band, twice), Villagers, Beach House, and Stornoway. Plus numerous little unknown bands, friend’s bands, and the like.

Had I been able to see all the theater I wanted to, this next list would be about the same length as my concerts.  Still, I did see a fair share for a student.  Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (starring Alan Rickman), Shaw’s Pygmalion, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, as well as McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmore.  Trinity Dublin’s theater society, Players, put on a number of their own productions, some typical, some avant-garde, and both serious and hilarious.  Some of those included the Laramie Project, Oedipus Rex, and a friend of mine’s musical that he wrote, Jurass-tastic! the Jurassic Park themed musical, set to the music of Elton John, Beastie Boys, and Lady Gaga.  I was nearly in tears for most of the show.  There was also the Dublin Shakespeare Festival, in which I saw a number of small performances of scenes from various Shakespeare plays put on by my friends at Trinity.

On the subject of festivals, it seems every other week there is another festival of some sort in Dublin.  I experienced at least a half-dozen theater related festivals, a Fringe Fest, foreign film festivals, LGBT Pride Week, traditional music festivals, literary themed fests, and so on.  What “festivals” usually means are free performances, live music, or anything else of that sort.  There is also Culture Night, in which every museum, art gallery, performance space, and anything else is open free to the public, and the entire city seems to go out to enjoy it and the city’s collective spirit seems to be quite jovial.  At the start of the summer there were free movies in a park on a big screen, with movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Inception, and How To Train Your Dragon.  A Zombie march with thousands of participants dressed and acting as the undead.  On June 16th, Dublin had its annual celebration of Bloomsday, the date that James Joyce’s Ulysses occurs, and the streets were filled with folks in Edwardian garb, recitations or performances from the novel, and countless copies of the book in hand of Dubliners and tourists alike.

I visited a half-dozen countries around Europe, such as England, Scotland, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Gibraltar, and Poland. .  I’ve tasted dozens of beers from probably as many countries and eaten amazing local delicacies.  Visits have included gorgeous natural landmarks and scenes, and horrifying displays of human evil in the form of Nazi concentration camps.  I’ve gone to the tip of Northern Ireland, I’ve seen the murals of Belfast depicting “heroes” and victims of the violence there, the southern tip of Ireland near Cork by Kinsale and eaten the seafood there, explored the Ring of Kerry and hiked through its lakes and valleys.  And I’ve gone through Galway on my way to the Aran Islands and biked across Inis Mor to gaze across the Atlantic Ocean, with rainbows around me, while waves crashed against the cliffs I stood on.  I’ve listened to old-timers regale tales of the revolution and civil war in Ireland, and I’ve heard songs of joy and songs of sadness.

Some of my journeys and adventures I owe directly to the Butler Program staff and many others I owe indirectly, because of the kindness and support I received from Geoff and Maria.  Not only did I have an amazing flat in an incredible location.  They took me around the country and where they didn’t take me, they had suggestions and ideas of where to go and what to do.  They showed me the hidden spots of Dublin that only a local would know, and treated me not as an advisor would treat an advisee, but as an equal and a friend, which they surely have become.  And I cannot forget my amazing flatmate Heather, who has become a trusted friend after starting off as complete strangers thrown into a flat together.

I have made friends from around the world while here on this small island nation.  From the café I briefly worked at I made friends with Malaysians, Brazilians, Poles, and others.  During my travels I have met people from dozens of countries and all walks of life, not to mention all of the friendships I have made and built up over my year at Trinity.  Some will be remembered for the fun times had and the memories they hold, and others will be held near and dear to my heart for what they have taught me about the world, others, and myself.  And, thanks to the age of Facebook, most of these friendships will be maintained for years to come.

I cannot begin to stress what this year has meant or done for me.  It would not be the same for everyone that came to Ireland, but I hope that all who go abroad would have a similar experience if they were willing to give themselves to the experience, the people, the cultures, the countries you visit and the country you choose to call home for a period of time.  For me, I can’t imagine having a better experience than the one I had in Dublin; one that was more suited to who I am and the journey that I am on.


There’s No One as Irish as Barack O’Bama…Wait, What?

Time May 31st, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The opportunity to see one’s president is not one that comes up very often, particularly when you are in a foreign country, and even more so when that foreign country has little in the way of political influence.  Yet, lo and behold, it was announced that President Obama would be making a visit to Ireland while I was still here.  What for?  An official State visit? Revisiting the Northern Ireland peace issues? Something related to the Irish bailout? Answer: none of the above.  Instead, the United States of America’s first black president, the one whom certain sects believed was Kenyon and a Muslim, is in fact, Irish.  Well, technically 5% of his blood is, but that’s more than enough for the people of Ireland to count him as one of theirs (a song was written by the Corrigan Brothers called, “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama”).

Genealogists discovered a while back that President Obama had roots to the small town of Moneygall, by way of his great-great-grandfather Falmouth Kearney, a shoemaker who immigrated to America during one of Ireland’s famines.  150-some years later, his great-great-grandson, the President of the United States, returned to the small village to meet his 8th cousin, Henry Healy, and find his roots.

To celebrate, Ireland collectively went nuts.  I can’t vouch for the small town of Moneygall, which apparently had every rock and house painted in Irish and American colors, but Dublin certainly went overboard in terms of its preparation to receive the president.  The bookie agency Paddy Power changed its name for the week to O’Bama Power.  There were Obama cakes sold in shops.  American flags were hanging from every storefront, in a country where hanging an Irish flag tends to mean Republican or even IRA-leaning tendencies.  It was astounding.  Compare these warm welcomes to the Irish publics reception to the Queen of England’s visit less than a week before, with posters all over town with “NO Royal Visits while ENGLSIH Troops Hold Irish Soil!” I even saw a guy flick off a television screen with the Queen on it.  I couldn’t believe my eyes at all of the excitement.

On the Monday morning of his visit, a few friends and I went to queue in front of security to get into the area where Obama would give a speech.  We got there at around half past nine in the morning, pretty near the front of the queue, though we would have to stand and wait until two for them to open the gates to go through security, getting patted down by Secret Service Agents in the process, and it wasn’t until half past four that the “festivities” began.  Ireland wanted to impress the president and so gathered a large number of Irish musicians, actors, and other famous figures to put on an “opening act” as it were for the president.  Actors Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Saorise Ronan, and Gabriel Byrne gave brief speeches, along with a number of famous sportscasters and other sports figures.  The Irish musicians ranged in age and style, from traditional Irish music, modern rock, pop, to…Jedward.

Jedward is hard sensation to explain, if it’s possible at all.  Jedward are a pair of twins, John and Edward, that became popular from the show “The X-Factor” (think American Idol), where they made waves with their over-the-top hair and excessively bubbly personalities that makes you question whether anything is going on upstairs for them.  But popular they most certainly are, even though they personally breed feelings of vague homoerotic incestuous undertones to their dancing around in bright red costumes.  Imagine Lady Gaga, but completely unaware of their schtick.  It was surreal to see this absurd teen sensation perform on the same stage that the president of the United States was about to occupy.

Following Jedward’s performance, which was interrupted slightly by a sudden burst of rain and wind from the heaven’s that many took as a sign that some higher power/s did not approve of Jedward, Ireland’s Taoiseach took the stage to warm up the crowd.  He was received with a mix of cheers and equal boos, either because the crowd hated him or hated the fact that he was delaying Obama from coming onstage, but he tried to push ahead.  As the Taoiseach neared the end of his speech, a shrieking of almost unbelievable proportions came out of the audience, causing me to wonder if the Beatles were coming out now, when I saw that President Obama and his wife Michelle had come onstage a bit early, and from there the Taoiseach had to basically give up and abdicate the podium to appease the crowd.

Obama tried his best to greet the audience in Irish, much to their delight.  He spoke of his enjoyment of meeting his extended family, seeing the town where his great-great-grandfather came from, and the taste of a good pint of Guinness; I can only imagine how much Guinness paid for that photo op.  The themes of his speech were of the many bonds between America and Ireland, their shared histories, and having the courage and determination to go on in the face of difficult obstacles, economic or otherwise.  Obama’s speech was very sensationalist and repeated itself a bit much, but the heart of it was very true and dear.  Focusing on the fact that so many Americans have Irish roots, that came from times of economic troubles, and that so many of these Americans try to trace these roots of theirs, he emphasized the important immigrant history of America, as well as Ireland’s role in producing so much from such a small island in its emigrated peoples; the great-great-grandson of a poor shoemaker had become the president of the United States after all.  He finished his speech with a declaration that if things seemed impossible to reinforce oneself with the mantra, “Is Feidir Linn” in Irish, or in English, “Yes We Can.”

Obama’s speech may not have changed any of my personal feelings for him or touched any deeply personal chords, as it did for a few of my friends in attendance, the event itself did have quite the impact.  Having never seen a president of ours before, that alone was pretty exciting, but seeing the president in a foreign country, one that I was studying and living in, made it an entirely different experience.  Even though Ireland is obviously an English speaking country and is like America in so many ways, the little differences begin to add up over time that create something of a foreign or outsider feel to life here.  While Dublin has been home to me, Obama’s visit has reminded me that I am American, and that my time here has given me roots in Ireland, even if those roots do not come in the form of bloodlines.  The story of my seeing the president in Ireland is one that I know I will look forward to telling over and over as I grow older, and telling it as part of the greater story of my time and life here in Dublin and Ireland.



Time May 2nd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Easter Sunday for many brings views of traditional activities such as dyeing or hunting for brightly colored eggs hidden around a yard, eating chocolate, regaling on a late sunny morning post-brunch and after listening to a pastor’s sermon on the Easter Bunny.  This past Easter Sunday at my home away from home I did not attempt to recreate these scenes. Nay, instead I opted for a completely different experience, one that I feel was far more rewarding than what the dear Easter Bunny could have brought to me in his woven basket.  What was it then that could so easily surpass chocolate and family?  Simple: a Star Wars convention.  “Invasion: Dublin” took place here in Ireland over Easter weekend, with the Emerald Garrison, a collection of Star Wars-supergeeks who volunteer their time for charities and other such things, having “invaded” Dublin’s RDS center where they constructed a whole bunch of Star Wars vehicles, sets, and were all set up in homemade costumes.

Inside the large convention hall, where I will apparently be having one of my exams in a few days I have just learned, the entrance was lined with tables selling all sorts of Star Wars memorabilia and then some.  New and old posters, toys, books, soundtracks, action figures, plush dolls, collectibles, comics, you name it, it was there for sale. Even a few items specific to the event itself; I myself purchased an Emerald Garrison shirt and an iron-on patch for my hiking bag so I can project my nerdiness even in the inner-depths of mother nature.

Past the seller’s tables however, were the real treats. In the center of the convention hall the Emerald Garrison had constructed a life-size replica of a Y-Wing.


An AT-ST, with triumphant Ewoks.

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A skiff with Jawas.


Steve Sansweet, unofficially the world’s biggest Star Wars nerd, giving a talk about his immense collection of Star Wars-related memorabilia.  He was surprisingly down to earth and fun.


A Stormtrooper signing a little kid’s autograph book.


And dozens of other characters walking around: two Darth Maul’s, Darth Vader, the Emperor, Stormtroopers of various sorts and sizes (some a little short for a Stormtrooper, others a little plump), Chewbacca, Rebel fighters and pilots, Twi’leks, a Sith that I could imagine to be nightmare inducing to some kids, and all kinds of fun and weird aliens.

The most wonderful thing about the whole experience, besides the obvious fact that I got to nerd out in a most extreme fashion, was seeing parents bring their little ones to this and the joy on everyone’s faces during it.  You’d see little kids running around with lightsabers or in Darth Vader costumes, and the parents would have Star Wars shirts on all the same.  You could tell the parents were having just as much fun as the kids were, which is a pretty special thing nowadays.  The idea that something could bridge so many generations; people who could remember seeing Star Wars when it first came out or grew up with it, can share in reveling in the magic of this universe with their kids, who are just as excited.  It felt like something you would see in those old 1940s and 1950s films, where the entire family is out together and having an enjoyable time, except this is real.  Idealistic, perhaps, but beautiful all the same.  What’s more is that the workers at this weren’t teenagers or 20-somethings being paid minimum-wage to be there all weekend, but extremely enthusiastic Star Wars nerds who love being able to share their passion for the enjoyment for others.  That’s what makes the sight of a Clone Trooper Commando, covered in blood and nearly seven-feet tall, leaning down to shake a five-year old’s hand so sweet, or their willingness to play along when kids chase them down with lightsabers and hack them to pieces.

So while it was a galaxy far, far away from a traditional Easter, it’s silly to pin down an exact way one must enjoy an arbitrary date on the calendar. The Emerald Garrison put on an amazing show for this green isle, and I saw a lot of happy faces come and go. Including my own face once I got to hang out with an old buddy of mine.


Saint Patrick’s Day

Time April 4th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

For the past several weeks whenever I have talked with anyone from the States, I invariably get asked the following question: “So what was Saint Patrick’s Day like??!?” It makes me pause and reflect each time and every time.  Do I tell them what they want to hear? Do I make up a story about what it was like?  Or do I tell them the truth? I usually end up choosing a light blend of each, so that I don’t feel guilty about completely making it up, while also covering up a fair amount of the harrowing truths that I don’t feel completely comfortable delving into each time.

In a nutshell, Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin is exactly what you would expect it to be, but when you’re actually there it may not be something you necessarily want.  The day started off quite quietly and innocently; the other Butler folk decided to hold a little shindig in their apartment above mine, with a little bit of Irish coffee and a few other beverages to get the day “started off on the right foot.”  Not being one to snuff a party so close to my door, I attended the 9 am party, in my pajamas and martini in hand a la Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H.  I was applauded and congratulated for my classiness. Following drinks, I went with one of my flatmates to go watch the parade passing by near our flat.  I didn’t really want to go watch it, not being a parade person myself, but I had been harassed by Irish friends of mine to go see it just once, and I have to say it was worth it, though in a surprising fashion.

We were taken aback by the, well, bizarre approach the parade took in its choice of floats and costumes and whatnot.  Other first-time viewers I talked to in the subsequent weeks agreed to this.  It felt like I had stepped into some wormhole into another dimension where I was watching a parade that was a mix of a Fringe Festival and some ridiculous New Orleans celebration.  Giant three-headed dogs floats were a common motif; one was hellish black and another fabulous pink.  Creepy human-like puppets that just passed over the edge into the Uncanny Valley of uncomfortable.  Jackalope skulls playing jazz instruments.  The list goes on and on.  There were plenty of opportunities to scar and give children nightmares for a good while.  Apparently it was all designed to a story by Irish writer Roddy Doyle that he wrote for the parade, too, which is something I’ll have to read, because damn, what the hell was all that about.

Most of the day was rather low key as I waited to get a text to a party some friends were throwing. Around 9:30 or 10 at night, I got bored waiting for the party to start so I went off to go witness what havoc Dublin was visiting upon itself.  I got my wishes and a little bit more.  Visiting the Temple Bar, which is admittedly incredibly touristy normally and for this it was probably entirely so, I saw nothing but blocks upon blocks of drunk souls.  Imagine, if you will, Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve waiting for the ball to drop and the amount of people there.  Now imagine if they were all outrageously drunk.  That is a good starting point for what was before my eyes.  As I walked around for a couple of hours scouting things out, I must have witnessed at least a half-dozen separate ambulances drive up to places to bring out someone and take them to the hospital, and that’s just what I personally saw by chance.

Eventually I got the anticipated text, found the party where I actually didn’t know anybody except this random girl who invited but wouldn’t actually talk to me there, but found only good spirits, in both senses, and congenial manners.  Drinks were had, laughs made, introductions found, friendships bonded, and so forth into an enjoyable evening.  Or, rather, an enjoyable morning, since I didn’t get there until after midnight and the party dragged on until nearly 5, when the last few of us rolled out and back to our homes.

My Saint Patrick’s Day was not the typical foreigner-in-Dublin’s experience, and I’m glad for it.  I enjoy my drink as much as the next person, but what I saw horrified me and a number of other people I know, many of whom I would define as “excessive partiers.”  After a certain point the gluttony just becomes too great, and while interesting to take a step back and watch, and becomes less about celebrating anything, even partying, and just envelops itself in disheartening excess.  Instead of “going with the flow” and participating in something just for the sake of, I actually had a fantastic night and made a boatload of friends.  So, thanks Saint Patrick, for, whatever, I guess.




Time March 23rd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In America, Prom at the end of high school is, for a great majority of people, a highpoint in their young lives and the pinnacle social event.  For me it meant about jack squat and I couldn’t have cared less about it if I tried, so it was to my high surprise that I found myself not only interested in, but excited for a dance here in Ireland.  Two to be more precise.  It took some mental readjusting to convince myself I wasn’t being hypocritical, justifying it with the shallow argument that these were not just simple “dances” but they were, in plain fact, Balls.  Fancy schmancy, elegant Balls, held in prestigious hotels or, in my favourite case, a flipping castle.  I’ll admit to being shallow enough that the prospect of going to a Ball in a castle is enough to win me over.  It was enough to win one of my best friends who is studying in Paris for the semester to fly over as well for the occasion.

Two Balls, one on either side of Reading Week and a week plus’ worth of travelling throughout England and Scotland where my only guarantee was going to be little sleep; I was excited.  The first up was the Music Societies Ball, which I would attend with a good friend from back home who was visiting me and Ireland for the week.  All I had to mention to him was that we could go to a Ball, in a castle, and he was sold, the three-course meal and various musical groups playing for our entertainment were simply icing on the proverbial cake.  Suited up in fine attire, or as fine as my friend could find; he mistakenly assumed he wouldn’t have any need for anything dressy while abroad so he was rather lacking, but we made due and excused it because we were Americans and who really cared.


The Music Ball was held in Clontarf Castle, to which we were taken to by a not-so-fancy-pancy bus.  Nor were we immediately greeted upon entrance by a string quartet like we were promised.  I, for one, was quite peeved.  But this was made up for by the fact, which concluded to be the general sentiment of the entire group that evening, that we were in a castle, having a Ball, and regardless of anything else that was more than enough to satisfy.  The string quartet eventually did play, followed by numerous a cappella groups, a jazz group with a most magnificent singer whose voice they ran through a speaker to give it that old 1930s or ‘40s radio-feel to it, and finally an eclectic group of student DJs.  The DJs, I must add must have had some vendetta against music past the ‘80s, because apart from two Daft Punk songs, nothing made it past that decade, a fact I was not displeased about in any form.

The second Ball, mere hours after my flight touched back down in Dublin, was held in the illustrious Burlington Hotel by the Psychology Society, of which I was not a part of but I scored a date to it and I desperately needed an excuse to wear my tuxedo that I had shipped over from America in anticipation of a previous Ball that had gotten cancelled, much to my rage and fury.  With friendly date in-arm, we entered the second Ball which, while not held in a castle unfortunately, was still pretty nifty.

This was more of the same, minus the live music, but instead replaced by a professional photographer.  I’m sure many an American Prom had photographers present and whatnot, but from everyone I’ve talked to about it the consensus was it was always pretty lame and disappointing.  Whatever this guy was doing at the Psych Ball was working though.  Every picture I saw that he took came out fantastic and, well, professional, and all with three little clicks of the camera.

Honestly, there wasn’t that much of a difference between Prom and these Balls, but there was a more mature air about them, less of a need to impress or make one last stand before college.  Everything was more relaxed, fun, and, even if it’s just because it’s called a Ball, more elegant and refined.  What’s in a name?



City of Murals

Time February 18th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

There are times when borders have no gates and other times when the border is more than just the physical reminders of gates and barriers, but a presence in the air, a sensation that pervades all around you.  When I took the bus up from Dublin to Belfast for one of Butler’s weekend trips I crossed multiple borders; technical and imagined, seen and unseen.

I couldn’t make the first evening and day of Butler’s trip because I had a few classes I couldn’t afford to miss so I only have the word of a number of trusted friends that the sights of Giant’s Causeway and other such highlights were magnificent things to behold and wonder. My journey instead took me by Bus Eireann up to Northern Ireland.  Like Greyhound and other forms of mass transport in the States, Bus Eireann has its fair shares of what some call “Lynch-ian” characters, in other words the bizarre people that seem to only exist on bus routes and disappear immediately thereafter.  There were the rowdy and loud teenagers near the back, the tired and saggy middle-aged and old shutting their eyes from the world around them, the person with absolutely no luggage but five grocery bags filled with food and who-knows-what-else, the college kid with eyes lost out the window…  There was no checkpoint or border stop when we entered Northern Ireland.

Two, three hours later I found myself in downtown, central “South” Belfast. I checked into the hotel Bulter had put us in, which was actually pretty nice.  Since the rest of the Butler crew was still out on their planned adventures I took advantage of the remaining daylight and sunshine while I still had it to go tour around the city by myself and try to get the feel of Belfast.  My aimless wanderings were somewhat aided by the tourist maps and signs posted about the city, since I hadn’t the foggiest clue which way was which.  My little lost feet found me along the river with beautiful buildings and bridges along the waterfront as the sun disappeared to the west and night overtook the city.  My eyes eventually spied a sign that stopped me in my tracks, advertising pints for £2, which, even after the conversion back to euros, meant I could fill myself with wonderful Guinness for half the price I could in Dublin. I firmly planted myself against the bar, ordered my pint and learned, to whatever truth it may actually hold, that the pipes for the Guinness tap have to be cleaned every two weeks or the taste and consistency changes considerably, or so said the bartender to the native Belfastians with accents I couldn’t begin to comprehend, except that they loved Guinness.  It was after a few pints that I was found by a few of the Butler guys at TCD who were on the re way to dinner, so I joined them for a bite and friendly conversation.

The next morning after breakfast they spilt us up into three sections, with each section at a time being taken on the Black Cab Tour of Belfast’s famous “troubled” sites. They explained that in the city center, South Belfast, things were fine nowadays and nothing bad really happens there, but in West Belfast the trouble is still a very felt presence.  At our first stop we were given a brief bit of history of how the calamities began way back hundreds of years ago and how they’ve been evolving yet staying basically the same ever since.  All around us were housing units in decent, not terrible nor fantastic, condition, and almost every single one of them on one end had a mural painted on it.

You can divide the murals into two basic types: peace murals and the violence or war murals.  I care to blanket them into such black and white categories because, from what I saw, they all pretty much fit perfectly into those two choices.  There were murals dedicated to innocent civilians killed in the violence, to murdered children, to ending the hate, the suffering, and the violence. Then there were those proclaiming the justice of the cause, loyalist to Britain or separatist to, dedicated to “volunteers” of the fighting factions.  One that was pointed out to us, a painted mural of a guy in his twenties with a backwards baseball cap and “thug bling” around his neck, had been connected to the killings of somewhere between thirty and fifty people before he was himself killed.  The guide made reference to that by saying it would be akin to Americans painting a picture of OJ Simpson on the sides of buildings, or any other person famously connected with murder.  The impression stayed.

Next they took us to the Peace Wall, a name aptly or poorly fit depending on your feelings about the situation in front of you.  The Peace Wall is a series of walls that separate the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, thusly creating a semblance of distance and safety from the other group when they would otherwise be separated by a distance of about thirty or forty yards.  On the wall are quotes and signatures of hundreds if not thousands of people who have made a pilgrimage to the site to write words of peace.  You can find quotes from the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, and other famous figures whom have traveled there to promote peace between the two sides; you can also find the scorch marks from Molotov cocktails and bomb blasts.  The guides then showed us large gates connected to portions of the wall, leading into the communities inside.  Every night they are still locked and sealed around 9:30, under guard.  Every single night, after all these years.

After the tour a group of us walked around the city center, coming upon a huge open market full of stalls of vendors of every sort. Fish mongers, butchers, bakers, pastry chefs, farmers, weavers, nearly everything you could want and maybe a little bit more.  I got myself a delicious jerk chicken wrap from a Jamaican lady and listened to two young guys on guitars play an eclectic cover of songs, from Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, to maybe the best cover of the Counting Crows “Round Here” that I’ve ever heard.

I walked on my own around the city for a while, see if I could find some sights.  I had with me a brochure for a tour of the place where the Titanic was built, and since it didn’t look very far away on the tiny map in my hands, I thought why not and went off to find it.  Once again, my poor navigational skills led me astray from my goal and I wound up a few miles down a road I had no intention of going down.  I ended up, I found out later, in East Belfast, a place that hadn’t been named on the tour before. It was walking here that I began to get a feeling in me, an eerie presence I couldn’t quite place, like something was off or that I had crossed over some imaginary line.  As the feeling got stronger, I saw the first mural, a peace one, with a strong message begging for the violence and hate to cease. Thirty feet away was another mural, dedicated this time to the Red Hand of Ulster, the Loyalist forces, which said they would never give up their true and just fight for English rule. A store that sold nothing but Union Jack souvenirs.  Mural after mural, memorial after memorial dedicated to fallen volunteers/soldiers.  At one point, someone pulled out of a parking spot in their car, popping a rock out from under a wheel, which made me jump in fright.  Even though nothing around me was actually threatening, the broad daylight did little to shield me from the primitive fear from hearing all the stories of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being killed just because.

During the tour earlier, they mentioned how in Belfast the fighting wasn’t between blacks and whites or other stereotypical fighting like that, it was between Catholics and Protestants. Someone asked if you could tell the difference, if there were signs. They said no, not really, you couldn’t really tell just by looking at someone.  I hate myself for this bit of immaturity, but when I heard that the first thought that came to mind was how stupid it was to fight over such meaningless differences, when you couldn’t even tell by looking at a person. But, really, do looks really matter, either?  In a way, that’s part of the message I took from the tour and the trip.  It was easy to get up caught up on one side, and say the other one was at fault because blah blah blah, and then mock the whole thing for being ridiculous, as opposed to other similar tragedies.  As I walked back to the city center, I went through a street of alternating violent and peaceful murals and unlocked gates.  War and peace until I passed the one I saw when I entered, that rang out a resounding “No more!”


Simple Saturdays

Time January 31st, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This past weekend Dublin celebrated its “Trad Fest,” a festival dedicated to traditional Irish music, and did so by hosting several dozen, if not many, many more, Irish groups who played various venues all around the city, focusing most of their efforts in Dublin’s Temple Bar area, which happens to be just a few minutes’ walk from my flat.  I had actually forgotten that it was happening this weekend; I had been so busy with all the events going on at Trinity during the week that the weekend was blocked off as recovery time without plans to do anything, but as it happened I was going out to do errands Saturday morning, picking up groceries, visiting farmers’ markets and the like, when I ran right into the middle of all of the festivities.

I had been looking to hit one of the farmers’ markets so I could grab some cheap and fresh foods, like salmon, goats cheese, breads, veggies, all of that good stuff, when I found that their usual area had been blocked off for a big stage. Admittedly, I was a bit ticked off about this, I had been looking forward to getting my food and now it was nowhere to be seen. I followed the signs’ marked arrows to where there might be my elusive vendors, made more difficult when I realized the signs weren’t made for any particular direction so the arrows were useless on any and every level.

As I walked about Temple Bar I looked at all the posters for upcoming concerts when I heard a voice, directed at me, say, “Hey, wanna come in?” I turned to the voice, and it came from a guy standing in the doorway to the Button Factory, a popular club/bar/concert venue that I had been to before, most notably several months back when I get to see the musician Imogen Heap perform there and I stood about three feet away. “Sorry?” I said back, not really knowing what he meant. He told me they were “open” today and that I should come in. I was still confused, but went in anyway just to see what was going on. Inside, the people there told me I could tour their recording facilities since it was the school’s Open Day (I learned that besides owning the Button Factory/numerous other venues, the recording studio there also ran a music engineering school). They offered me free tea and coffee and said the tour was only about a half an hour, and as long as I was interested it was worth it just for the free drink.  Since I’m a sucker for free things, and I didn’t have anything better to do with my afternoon, I said screw it and joined the tour.

The five other guys on the tour were all clearly interested in sound/music engineering/production of some sort and had at the worst at least a limited background in the subject, whereas I hadn’t a clue about any of it.  But I got to tour a real fancy recording studio where a lot of major Irish and other acts had recorded music (Bell X1, Gemma Hayes, Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, Republic of Loose, etc.).  Ironically enough, I seemed to have more interest and excitement about taking courses there, and seemed to get the attention of the instructors and directors than the actual potential students.  Whatever. The best part though, besides seeing many millions of dollars worth of recording equipment, was that we visited the studio where they shot part of the film Once, during the recording scenes of the movie.  The tipoff for me was the basement studio we visited, where Marketa Irglova’s character plays the piano.  Really cool little surprise I thought.  Not a bad little treat that only cost me an hour of my day.

From there I finally found all my little vendors and their goods, as well as stalls of farm animals full of chickens, sheep, and goats for the little city kids to see and pet. Quite cute.  I also came across two large-enough stages with musicians playing their traditional songs, old or new, again, for free to the whole public.  While the music was good and fun, the real magic came from being able to walk through the crowded sheets, though not so crowded as to drive you mad, with wonderful weather, and everyone in good and happy spirits just enjoying their day.  Families with little kids running about, old folk being old, brats being brats, couples being cute and couple-y, and friends walking around and taking everything in.

With so much going on, I could have spent all day and then some just walking, watching, and listening, and I nearly did.  The simplicity of it all struck a chord with me as one of those days meant to be just taken in and enjoyed for what it was, no fancy ribbon attached.  Pleasure the was pure and good, and a lot of times hard to find, but this weekend it was clear as the sky above.


The Boys Are Back In Town

Time January 27th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

With the last of the wintery weather hopefully behind us, the spring semester at TCD has finally begun, its doors open to a whole new realm of possibilities for misadventures within the confines of the college, the city of Dublin, the green acres of Ireland, and all of the shores and lands a short toss of the stone away, paid in by pennies in comparison to the hellish fees that US airlines subjugate you to.  I thankfully avoided all of the horrors that my friends found themselves in while trying to get home from places like London; another wonderful benefit of being gone for a year and having no intention or desire to return to the freezing and godforsaken tundra that is oft called Minnesota is that I didn’t have to worry about storms closing down airports in two different places.  I’ve expressed little interest (read: none) to my friends and family in going back to a place during when there are blizzards every day, you never see the sun, and for weeks on end the temperature is -40 which means it doesn’t matter which temperature scale you use because they meet up at that point, which is an awful thing to think about, so I won’t, and don’t.

Besides the usual drudgery of returning to school and thus the Irish version of work, of which I have come to love for how the ease I found in adapting to such a relaxed form, a new semester of school brings new surprises into the mix outside of the usual academic switch-a-roos. Like a new season of a television show, a new semester is a chance to introduce brand=spanking new characters into the situation to give it some spice, get rid of old characters for dramatic effect or because they just sucked, and push the show into new directions. The end of the fall semester meant goodbyes to friends who had to leave to go back to their schools back in the US (though I never actually said goodbye to anyone), but the opening of the spring had Butler building up their cast of students from just myself and my flatmate to an additional eleven students, bringing the total of Butler TCD students to an auspicious thirteen.  Not only does the introduction of so many people change the feeling of the program, though neither a bood or bad direction, simply neutral, the bigger whopper in terms of dynamics is the wildcard of a new flatmate being tossed into the mix.  Like any successful show, forcing in a new main character completely transforms the experience; for better, for worse, for anything?

I will admit a certain kind of disregard, which sounds so much harsher than I mean, for the new Butler students, not for their behavior or personalities, of which I’ve really enjoyed whenever I’ve gone out with them as they tend to have high and jovial spirits with a treasurable excitement for the adventure they’ve just begun. No, my distance from them is instead out of a fear that I might get caught up with them precisely because they are a fun lot that is so readily accessible, but they’re not the reason why I’m here: Irish kids are. One of the reasons I picked Ireland was that I knew that not only no one else from my college was coming here, but also fewer people tended to come to Ireland than say Scotland or England.  Being in a program where I only had one other person that I could possibly spend time with “automatically” forced me to go out and find people to make relationships with, locals relationships, and now I have a healthy amount of Irish friends, something that I found my friends going on other non-Butler programs in England or wherever they went didn’t get, ironically so for a study-abroad program.  Which is to say nothing of any of the new people or their reasons for being here, and already I am noticing their making local friends and finding their own lives is already happening, but the fear of having an easier path to slip onto was, and still is, a great fear of mine.

Away from that fear though, is a semester that I can look forward to, with classes I know I’ll enjoy that are full of friends previously made, events around Dublin up the wahzoo, and trips all over to make the most of my remaining months in Ireland; I have friends to visit all over Europe, like Spain and Austria, I’ve already lined up a pilgrimage to visit the concentration camps around Krakow, there’s a Butler trip to Northern Ireland in a few short weeks, I plan a return to England to visit more friends there, Scotland as well, and if all works out I may find myself back on the Aran Island with two of my best friends from home to celebrate Tedfest V, a tribute to the late, great, television show, Father Ted, held on the islands where my friends and I might find ourselves living in a Mongolian Yurt for a weekend.  And of course, possibly the most celebrated holiday in all of Ireland, with its ripples felt round the world, Saint Patrick’s Day. Excitement is in the air, my notebook is ready, Ryan Air’s jets are fuelled and ready to go for cheap, and the Guinness is delicious, so, once more, into the mystic I go.


In Bruges

Time December 8th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Bruges first became a popular tourist destination in the late 1800s after a novelist penned a few words about the city, condemning it as a poor, dirty, and desperate place.  Word of its reputation soon spread, and people from all over Europe and the United States flocked to the small Flemish city in northern Belgium.  A little over a hundred years later, the Irish playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh makes the city the hideaway spot for his two Irish hit men in the award-winning film In Bruges, whose main character, played by loveable if not lewd Colin Farrell, endlessly rips on the sleepy city.  Again, after Bruges is insulted, people from all over the world flock to it, and in 2002 it was named the European Capital of Culture.

I couldn’t have cared less about it being the “Cultural Capital of Europe” or anything else; I went to Bruges because of the same reason as everyone else: I really loved In Bruges and wanted to go see all the same things that I saw in the film.  I do want to try and justify my obviously tourist-like decision by saying that I’m a big fan of McDonagh’s work in general and not just his movie.  In other words, the terrible “I liked it before it was popular” argument. Read More »


“Down With This Sort Of Thing” and “Careful Now”

Time November 23rd, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I had heard rumblings and rumors about some sort of student protest for a couple of weeks, but I had paid little heed to it since I knew little of Irish student politics.  On a Monday morning at the beginning of one of my lectures, a group of students went up to the hall’s podium and, with the lecturer’s permission, began a short speech.  They outlined the Irish government’s plans to raise student registration fees and cut education grants, and so on.   To show that the student body is a significant voting bloc they announced there would be a march on the upcoming Wednesday.  The Student Union leaders there pushed quite hard for every student to go out and protest, as, and these are their words, “Even if you aren’t affected, someone sitting near you will be.”

Then things got interesting with the appearance of an opposing voice.  A single student went up to the podium to speak and this student voiced concerns that the Student Union was bullying people for their own political gain and in accordance to their own private agenda.  He argued that, “If you wish to show your appreciation for the education you are receiving, then attend your classes on Wednesday.”  As he walked to his seat, a student nearby said in a very loud and firm voice that he was “probably just a rich prick looking out for himself and can afford the increase.”  I almost laughed for the immaturity of the room for its collective “Ooooohhhhh” at the confrontation.  The opposing student responded with, “That’s just the kind of mindless rhetoric the Student Union engages in instead of an intelligent debate.”  The debate there was settled by one more student  who spoke at the podium to announce that they were having a film showing that evening at seven o’clock, followed by a visit to the pub.  Laughter ensued.

When Wednesday finally rolled around I had decided, in light of my ignorance of the situation, that it would not be appropriate for me to participate in something that I didn’t fully understand, nor was I sure if I even agreed with it or not, but that it would not be wrong for me to follow at the side, to observe as an impartial bystander.  I didn’t have any classes in the afternoon that I had to deal with, so I was completely open to go watch and take pictures.

The Trinity College students met at their front square at noon and after twenty or thirty minutes of rabble-rousing they lined up at the front gates to begin their march.  I guesstimated there to be about 500 to 700 students all lined up?  Since there was no way I could get through that crowd and get in front at that point, I left through the side gate nearby so I could get around to the front of the march.  As I exited, students marched through the streets along Trinity’s south side.  Two guys went past on these metal stilts that were curved, and with their bodies being painted they were quite reminiscent of the creatures in Avatar; their yelling and screaming weird noises certainly helped that comparison.  Since there wasn’t much room on the sidewalks, I didn’t have much choice but to join the other students in the road and go with the flow.

I must admit that I was more than a bit confused at this point, since it was shocking that so many students could have gone through Trinity’s front gate, which is just wide enough for a car to get through, and come around to this point this quickly.  I also noticed that many of the students around me had silly masks and costumes on as well.  Oh well, I thought, and continued on with them.  They marched to the Government Buildings near Merrion Square, where outside the gates there were already protesters for home-birth and a few other causes, though in few numbers.  The students yelled and stomped and chanted, eventually sitting down in the middle of the street and blocking traffic, much to the disdain of the police force.  All in all I counted maybe a hundred or so students at the gates.  It was then I realized I had made an error and apparently got caught up in another college’s protest.  Whoops.  I hurried off to go find “my” protesters.

I followed straggling students, made visible by their bright yellow t-shirts “for unity” and walked up O’Connell Street and past the Spire of Dublin.  It didn’t take long for me to start following the sounds of the gathering collective ahead of me.  When I reached what I felt like was a collecting point, or I just couldn’t get any closer because of all the people, I pulled myself up on top of a fence to get a view of the hordes of people around me.  What I saw was hard to believe even with my own eyes and limited viewpoint.  If you have never seen a huge protest before, let me tell you it is a spectacle to behold.

Let me paint for you a picture of a sea of people, dressed mostly in yellow, all mobbed together for their collective cause.  Signs with every sort of slogan you can image were raised above their heads, ranging from the serious (“Education, Not Emigration”), the humorous (this post’s title is a famous Father Ted reference, look it up on YouTube), to the outright angry which I’ll refrain from quoting here so as not to cause offence.  One group of young men in black suits carried a coffin with “Education” written on the sides and top.  I saw secondary/high school kids marching alongside middle-aged adults, holding signs together.  There were students from as far away as Galway and Cork, and in great numbers.  I stood on my fence, leaned up against a pole and snapped shot after shot as thousands marched past me.

Even after an hour or so I saw no end to the multitudes streaming past my stakeout, and so I decided I wouldn’t see much else to warrant my staying there any longer, so I packed up and went back to my flat to call it a day.  Later that evening I heard that things got out of control in a few places and the riot squads were called in to quell the small group of rioters.  It came to light a day or two after that a couple of very left-wing extremist groups took control over the then peaceful protest to use it for its own political means.  So it goes in Ireland.

Exactly one week later while I was in London visiting friends who were studying there, I came out of the Westminster tube station to see Westminster Abbey when I saw a row of police vehicles blocking the road.  I thought that maybe the Queen or some other royalty was coming through, since they block the roads for that.  Turning the corner, I saw tons of protesters in the streets.  Seeing as how they were in the area where there are always anti-war protesters on strike and things like that, I assumed they were a larger gathering of the same people.  But as I got closer, it was no such thing! Sure enough, it was England’s big student protest for all the same things.  I laughed at my chance encounter and went off to go do something else since there was no way I was getting through the massive throng of people in front of the Abbey.  Ironically, it would turn out that the stereotypically “proper” English were in fact a lot more rowdy than their supposedly “unruly” Irish counterparts, and there were a number of police scuffles, including a student that dropped a fire extinguisher from a rooftop at police.  So much for English civility.

Epilogue: I wrote this about a week before the Irish government asked for a bailout from the EU and the IMF.  By the end of January, if not sooner, there’ll be a change of government, and the budget cuts that are being made will probably only be made deeper. The effects of this student protest, which claimed 25,000-40,000 supporters, which at the time had a big effect on the system, may be significantly lost in light of these big changes.  Only time will tell how this will turn out, but it certainly makes for an interesting time to be living in the middle of it all.


The American of Inis Mór, or: Are You Right There, Father Ted?

Time November 15th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

A cold air and a gray sky met me on my walk to the train station, a sure sign of foreshadowing as any, and a fine atmosphere to match my downtrodden mood.  I’m always out to save a few bucks wherever I can, so I’m taking a very early train out to Galway, which I found had a ticket price of zero.  Hard to argue with that.  As the train sped off smoothly towards the west I let its gentle hums lull me back to the sleep I was so sorely missing then.  A few hours later I awoke as we pulled into Galway’s combination train and bus station, and was greeted by a somber and slow rain.  I put my jacket over me and my messenger bag, with all of my clothes, and set off.

My first mission was to find the office to pick up my tickets for my ultimate destination, the Aran Islands.  After asking around a bit to find the right office, the first one I had found was closed, I grabbed my tickets and was told to meet nearby in the late afternoon to catch the shuttle to where the ferry would be moored.  This gave me about six or so hours to kill in Galway before I had to be on the bus.  For once, I had decidedly planned ahead and actually knew a few things to do in Galway, whereas my normal method was to wing things and make it up as I went along.  By planning ahead this time, I of course mean I had quickly glanced at a guidebook for Galway, memorized a few things that stood out for one reason or another, and hoped for the best.

I made my way down a street not really knowing where I was going, and came out past the shops and into the wharf area.  Winding my way through the docks and piers in the rain, I went towards the bay.  Sea lions poked their heads out at the water and gazed at me.  No matter what I said to them, in English or through random noises, they ignored me, and continued floating and staring.  A man stood idly fishing while two kids messed about around him, screaming and squealing.  As I walked to where the seawall divided the docks from the beach, a song was in my head, and as I reached the sands of the beach, like in a movie the song faded out slowly and softly, and was soon replaced by the natural soundtrack of the ocean’s waves rolling up the beach, the rain gently colliding with my jacket, and the faint calling of seagulls in the background.  I let the scene surround and envelop me, giving in to its beauty and calm.

For the next few hours I wandered about the town, briefly visiting the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway campus just to see what that looked like.  I stopped for lunch at a nice little place, Mustard I do believe it was called, because I was starving at that point and needed to escape from the rain, which was coming down like a monsoon.  I spotted a museum across the way and figured it was another place I could kill time at, and, importantly, do it out of the torrential downpour.

When I stepped into the museum I thought I had mistakenly walked into the middle of an elaborately absurd play.  There were about a dozen different ethnic groups, and maybe a dozen people of each, from around the world all dressed in their traditional garb: Africa, China, Mexico, and so on, adults and children alike.  Pictures were taken by professional photographers here and over there, food was set out, with bottles of wine to accompany.  I watched the spectacle in front of me for a few moments before I decided to use the chaos as an excuse to tour the museum sans payment, not to mention sneak a bit of free food while I was at it.  Honestly, I don’t think there was any charge, but the chance to pretend to be devious and get away with it was too good an opportunity to pass up.  The museums halls were filled with the history of Galway, from the history of its curraghs (small boats), its role in military history, the legacy of the visit by former President Kennedy, among other exhibits.

Some time later I had wasted enough time to make my way to the bus.  I made a stop on the way at a place called McDonagh’s to grab some food to eat on the way since I wasn’t sure if there’d be anyplace to get food late at night when I arrived on the island.  If you ever find yourself in Galway, do yourself a favor and stop at McDonagh’s for a bite to eat.  I went in because I could get deep-fried salmon, but while reading their newspaper clippings they had hung on the wall I learned that they had recently been voted the “Best Chips in Ireland.”  With this in mind, I added chips to my order.  I must say, I can’t really definitely say if those chips were the best in Ireland since I didn’t think they were mind-blowing in any way, though still very good in their own right, but the salmon was excellent and I was bitterly disappointed on my return that they weren’t open.  With food in hand, I jumped on the bus and waited to leave.

A short bus ride later, we boarded our ferry for Inis Mór (or Inishmore), the “main” island of the three Aran Islands.  The boat broke through choppy waters, bouncing up and down, over and over. I won’t claim to back up my substantiations for this at all with any legitimate meteorological knowledge or expertise, but with all of the rainfall Galway had received recently, coupled with strong winds, made for one rocky voyage out to the island.  I think I saw about a fourth of all the passengers step out to the outside decks for fresh air, or something more, during the short voyage.  Fortunately I wasn’t affected by the bounces in the waves in the least bit, so I enjoyed my greasy deep-fried salmon and chips, probably very much to the chagrin of all the other nauseated passengers.  This did not hamper my mood in the least bit however, and I ate to the joy of my hungry belly.

Forty minutes after we departed from the mainland we arrived on Inis Mór and a hop, skip, and a jump later I was in my little cozy hostel where I would spend the next two nights.  The nice hostess there told me and others that a pub up the road just a short distance away would be hosting some music that night and that it would be a lot of fun for us to go watch.  Since it was still relatively early, probably around nine in the evening, and I didn’t have anything better to do, unless I wanted to read literary theory, I opted for the fun night at a local pub.

I should make my reasons known at this point for why I wanted to visit the Aran Islands in the first place.  I first came to know of the islands through the plays of the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh, respectively his plays The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.  Most know McDonagh’s  2008 film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell.  It was these plays that pushed me to go visit the islands, so that I could see the landscape and people that inspired them.  While researching the islands, I learned that they were also the inspiration for the setting of the BBC’s much acclaimed series, Father Ted.  If you decide to study in Ireland, whether it’s for a year or just a single semester, it is imperative that you watch this show before you arrive, as the Irish will almost certainly ask you if you’ve seen it and will make constant reference to it regardless if you have or have not.  Even if you aren’t studying in Ireland you should watch it, it’s just that good and full of hilarity.  Legend has it that when it was on the air pubs would switch from whatever sport was playing on the television to the show, and entire pubs would watch together.  With these two reasons to visit, I had little choice but to follow suit.

The walk to the pub was up this unlit road, and were it almost anywhere on this earth I would be frightened for my life, but considering it was such a small island that survives on tourism, I bet on the option that there were not any psychopathic killers inhabiting the island.  In retrospect, considering McDonagh’s plays involve such insane characters, this might have been a poor choice.  But it turned out to be completely fine, I had nothing to fear and I made it to the pub without a single fright.  Almost all the patrons there were locals, with the exception of the random Japanese film crew; everyone knew each other in a way that was a bit like the show Cheers, minus the laugh track.  I sat at the bar with a drink and waited for the music to begin.  Maybe about fifteen minutes later a girl looking about my age walked in and came up to the bar next to me.  Asking for a menu, I could tell by her accent that she was, clearly, American.

Breaking my usual style and form, I decided to play it “cool” by waiting a bit for her to settle in before I spoke up.  Why, I have no idea, but so it was.  I learned that she was a nanny for a family in Holland, but that she went to college right by my hometown in central Minnesota, and in fact knew a few of my friends.  The Minnesota diaspora, or our travelers it seems anyway, is large and all over the world.  Eventually the music began, two local boys on bass and guitar playing mainly covers of popular 90’s tunes that brought back a flood of middle school and other memories.  A rousing rendition of Colin Hay and the Men at Work’s song, “Land Down Under” was played for two Australian ladies at the counter.  We stayed as long as we could take before venturing back into the dark and back to our hostel.

Up early the following morning I rented a bicycle, as that’s about the only way to get around the island.  I was a bit shaky at first, seeing as how I hadn’t ridden a bike in say about six or so years, but I somehow managed to gain control of the mechanical beast and rode my two-wheeled steed northwards.  I watched the sun rise over the island’s bay and wrap its warm rays over the hills and pastures.  I zoomed and soared on the islands winding roads, hugging the coastline as I went.  I passed cows and goats grazing as I made my way up to the northern end.  I passed a few of the island’s designated “sites,” old churches and things like that, but I was more interested in just getting to the northern tip so that I could not only say that I did so, but also so I could venture to the cliffs at the extreme tip.

When I got to the end of the road, literally not metaphorically, I ditched my bike and began climbing over the rocks to make my way to the cliffs.  A storm had moved in at this point and I had to take shelter beneath some rocks for nearly a half an hour while I waited for the rain to let up.  Under a rock I sat, huddled up to keep warm, and wondered about what had brought me here on my own, to these islands and to be crouched under rocks miles from any human contact, and many more from major civilization.  No answer.  The rain eventually gave me respite and I continued my way to the cliffs, not too far away.  In the distance was a small bleached lighthouse, and white waves crashed upon the shores nearby.  I climbed to the top and I was faced with the sight of an entire ocean before me.  Hundreds of feet below the ocean waves roared and the wind blew something fierce.  I felt as if the entire universe existed in just my presence.  I stared out over the ocean, and mimicking the scene from Garden State, I yelled as loud as I humanly could, my voice carrying over the waves and across the ocean.   That was my answer.

I biked back across the island, to the center and west, where I visited the Dún Aengus, a decrepitude prehistoric fort that’s one of the Aran Islands’ big draws.  I walked around its ruined walls, thousands of years old, and watched a group of Americans be loud and obnoxious.    Outside the remains of the fort, I bought one of the trademark sweaters of the Aran Islands, famous for their stitching style and quality.  Though I bought an “Aran Island sweater” I did not get one of the handmade kind, as no matter how nice and warm they looked I could not justify to myself purchasing a €130 sweater.  Inside one of the shops I overheard an older man, who looked to be in about his mid-sixties, talking with the shop woman about his recent doctor’s visit.  He learned his health was getting better so he told his doctors was going to return to his “usual five or six pints a day,” to which the doc replied, “I didn’t hear that.”  This is Ireland.

I ended up biking all the way to the very southern tip, to be able to say I’ve biked the length of an entire island.  Hijinks ensued later when I got lost on one of the little back-roads of Inis Mór and ended up taking an unintended self-taught lesson in mountain biking at quite uncomfortable speeds and angles.  I celebrated my survival through the day with a much deserved dinner at the same pub I visited the night before, and ended my stay on Inis Mór before I left the next morning with more music, laughs with the locals, and drank into the wee morning hours.  The following morning, the ferry took us into the rising sun, and I made the voyage home, having completed one of my pilgrimages and knowing myself a little better too.


A Caution to the Birds…

Time October 27th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

If I have painted a positive picture of Ireland and Dublin to you so far it is because my experience has been really quite nice.  But this has been no utopia however, and because I am still grounded in reality there are some negative things that I’ve had to persevere through, namely Trinity College Dublin’s archaic class registration system and having to deal with registering with the Immigration Bureau.  The latter is less important, and also not very interesting, so I shall spare the details of that misadventure and focus instead on the unique trials of registering for classes with Trinity.  I will make up for some of my unkind words by talking about how my classes are going, to end on a positive note.

Trinity was established, according to Wikipedia (and the college’s website for those who disapprove of the almighty Wiki), in 1592, giving the college about a four-hundred year history.  Four-hundred years is a wealth of time for an institution to build up a towering heap of bureaucratic regulations and red tape that has survived quite healthily to this day.  Most, if not all, U.S. colleges and universities, and most of the rest of the world as far as I understand, have you registering for classes well in advance of their starting date.  In addition, you probably do it online, correct?  Not so at Trinity, no.  Resisting modern technological advancements in educational system infrastructure, Trinity has you as a visiting student meeting with a ‘Visiting Student” advisor for whatever school or subject you are pursuing to “register” for classes.

I was accepted to study in the English and Psychology schools, and I had very different experiences for both.  For Psychology, I was told to go meet with the advisor on a certain day and I’d get signed up for classes then.  Sounded simple enough, so I went.  And it was that simple, actually.  If we had any questions, the gentleman who was the advisor was more than ready to help out, and encouraged all the visiting students, all Juniors/third-years, to take courses at the level we think we should be at, so basically all year-three courses.  With a signature from him, a photocopy of our schedule, and we were out of there.  Done and done.

English was a touch more of a struggle to understand what to do and how to get it done. To explain: the English Department was lax in its posting of the course timetables, i.e. when the courses you would be taking would take place each week, but wanted you to meet with the Visiting Student advisor before these were posted.  So you were being asked to choose classes when you didn’t know when they would be.  As someone who is used to meticulously scrutinizing my schedule to make sure I get all my classes, this wasn’t something I could easily adjust to, especially because I needed to take certain courses for my major back home.  Plus, I had my Psychology courses to account for as well and make sure those and the English courses didn’t conflict, to add to my stresses.  The other little bit of it was that they would only let us take courses from the first two years, and if we wanted to take a Sophister option (years three and four) we had to fight for it.  By “fight” I mean you just had to ask and if the one you wanted to take had available spots you could take it, but they made it out to be a much bigger deal than it actually was.  I ended up meeting with the advisor on about three separate occasions, and waiting in line with everyone else for an hour each visit, just to make sure I was “signed up” for the classes I wanted and needed to be in.  It would turn out that besides the one Sophister course, I didn’t need to register for any of them.  At some point I do believe I had an aneurism because of all of this.

My advice?  In the immortal words of the great Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic.”  That’s it, that’s all you need to do, don’t panic.  Everything ended up working out great for me.  Most classes had open caps so I didn’t need to worry about not getting a spot, in both English and Psychology, and there were hardly any time conflicts so I ended up getting all of the classes I wanted to get.

So what are the courses like here?  Well, for the most part they are enormous lectures once a week, and my English courses also have “tutorial” sections once a week as well.  For me, someone who goes to a small liberal-arts college and a “big” class is one with over thirty students, “enormous” to me is over a hundred students, but for lectures I guess the size doesn’t really make a difference one way or another.  If you have spent any time researching studying in Europe you’ve probably read or heard a million billion times how it is “different,” “harder,” and the schools expect you to “do more on your own” and so on and so on.  Well, basically, that’s more or less true.  You only spend a small amount of your time during the week sitting in on lectures, though tutorials help bolster it for me, while the rest of the time is yours to do with it what you will.

While I do have to prepare things to talk about and discuss for my tutorials, I have no “busywork” for my classes except for the assigned readings.  Granted, my four English courses combined give me a hefty reading load for the semester, I counted approximately seventeen books that I should be finished with by the end of the term, but I don’t have to waste my time doing worksheets or other things like that, which is absolutely wonderful.  Also, because lecturers only have a couple of courses they lecture on per week, they spend an impressive amount of time preparing for these lectures of theirs, and so almost every single one is top-notch quality.  The lectures for me have ranged from the serious (debating sexism in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), to the quirky (the overabundant sex in the Victorian era, including a man who claimed to have slept with over one-thousand women and wrote a detailed account of his exploits), and to the utmost hilarity (mockingly comparing the similarities between Wuthering Heights and Twilight).

Though the whole registration system was a tad on the side of FUBAR, it got easier once I stopped caring and just let it work itself out, and so if you go in ready to take your time and not panic, it’ll be a much more relaxed process.  And if it wasn’t apparent, I really do love my classes, which were one of the big reasons I came to TCD.  I get to take a wide-range of topics, and the lecturers really do know their stuff without coming across as stuffy, over-learned windbags.  Can’t really complain too much with that being the case.


Astral Week(end)s

Time October 13th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Ignoring the arguably greater importance of discussing what classes and things like that are at Trinity, or maybe things that I’ve discovered or do in Dublin, I opt instead to jump to a more immediate topic which occurred this past weekend and from which my body is still recovering from the abuse I put it through.  Butler took all of its participants from all over the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, etc.) to a place called Killary Adventure Company, near Leenane. Killary is one of those “adventure camp/park” places where you can go and do lots of outdoor activities, including, but not limited to: zip-lining, kayaking, laser tag, (clay) pigeon shooting, archery, tubing (called ringo here, crazy Irish), rock walls, and so forth.

The four or five hour bus ride from Dublin along Ireland’s highways was one of the most enjoyable bus rides, if not the most enjoyable, that I’ve ever been on.  Luscious green fields broken apart by small stone walls and dotted with sheep grazing filled your eyes every way you looked.  As we got closer to the coast, gentle but beautiful hills began to rise up without impeding any of the farms, which just continued their way up the sides.  Killary is set on Ireland’s only fjord, which fact they seem to be immensely proud of as they would constantly remind us, and the scenery is something to be seen to be believed.  Seeing the inlet, nestled between sets of hills, which led to the ocean was something out of a postcard, but for once actually tangible.  Of the fifty or sixty people there, I think I heard almost all make a remark at some point about the beauty that lay in front of us.  I think that counts for something.

Unfortunately since there are only two people from Dublin my dear flat-mate and myself were at a slight disadvantage with the groups from other cities, as they had somewhere between ten and thirty people per group, as well having been together for well over a month.  Needless to say there were cliques and all of those sorts of things.  Some exclusion did occur, but for the most part people were quite friendly, open, and receptive, and I did end up making a number of friends.  It also made for a wonderful time for the “Small World” effect to work its magic.  My flat-mate found someone from her home college, and I met a girl from the same town in rural, central Minnesota that I’m from and was best friends with one of my high school classmates.  Small world!

Saturday morning, after a quaint breakfast, we began our “activities.”  I signed up to do clay pigeon shooting and archery for the morning section, since it seemed like fun and not too intense, something I’m not fond of in the morning.  Archery was first up, set to the lovely tunes of Bob Dylan and the Kings of Leon by way of our instructor’s iPod and portable speakers.  I wasn’t a fantastic shot by any means; if I were a William Tell or Robin Hood I would be bragging about it “be not afeared,” but I didn’t fair too badly and I was the first to get inside the inner circle, just outside the bulls-eye.  Shooting was a bit of a different story.  First-person shooters on the computer apparently don’t give you the “real feel” of aiming and recoil of a twelve-gauge, so I was about a one-for-five with that one, but it was still loads of fun.

Lunch was a multitude of different sandwiches, delicious and warm soup, and soda bread that with every slice made you crave it more and more until I think everyone ended up eating an entire loaf each.  Post-lunch had us on our afternoon activities, which for me meant going kayaking, cliff jumping, and gorge walking.  I was hesitant about kayaking because I could see from about a half-kilometer away there were white caps on the water where we would be kayaking.  It was really windy.  And by windy, I mean someone checked and saw that there were warnings for gale force winds in our area, and we would be out in the middle of them.  Rough and windy, just the way I like it.

They gave us wetsuits to change into down near the beach, which would be a saving grace shortly thereafter, because the water was absolutely frigid and the wetsuits kept us from being soaked to the bone.  They told us that the water was actually quite warm that day, but I’ve been told such things before and it’s always been a load of horse-hockey to me.  Granted, I am a huge wimp when it comes to water temperature. Normal outside temps, whatever, I don’t care if it’s forty below, I’m from Minnesota and I don’t care, but once I’m in the water I freak out and feel like I’m going hypothermic.  But not that day!  No, into the cold waters we went, paddles in hand and butts in kayaks.  Unfortunately the aforementioned winds were actually that strong which made it a struggle to get even fifty yards from shore.  We tried playing “kayak games” which ended up with most of us falling out of kayaks countless times and banging our bodies every which way.  But we still had fun, even if it was in a masochistic way.  We walked to a nearby cliff where we took turns jumping off and back into the freezing waters, don’t ask me why.  From there a guide took us on a gorge walk that went through a large portion of the camp, where we climbed up waterfalls and did other gorge-walking related activities.

After a steaming hot shower I was able to raise my body temperature to something above a cryogenic state, aided by another warm and hearty meal.  And bread, lots and lots of bread.  For this evening, the camp had prepared a “disco” for our entertainment, to which most of us were rather wary and apprehensive about what that would be like and if it would be any fun at all.  Certain activities ended up taking place among different groups at the camp which gradually lowered inhibitions and led to most of the people slowly joining in on the “disco” session.  The “disco” was just a normal sort of dance party type thing, with the exception of the DJ being about sixty years old.  Another exception was that the DJ really rocked and played an amazing mix of songs.  I think almost every student, most of the instructors at the camp, and even some of the Butler staff, joined in on the fun, dancing and rocking out like mad until the wee hours of the morning.

Thus following morning came much sooner than desired, along with a bunch of its friends such as bruises, blisters, and stiff necks, mostly from the dancing but a fair share came from kayaking as well.  Fortunately the activity I picked for the morning wouldn’t require much movement or anything that would further stress my body: laser-tag.  We were given camouflaged clothing, war paint, and realistically heavy imitation guns for our game of laser tag in the woods.  This is where my nerdy side kicked in and I was able to try and live out my computer games and war-movie memories and fantasies.  I decided that the best course of camouflage would be to draw a large handle-bar moustache on myself so I’d be indistinguishable from the many moustached-trees and shrubs of Ireland.  I spent quite a bit of time crawling around in the mud, sniping my opponents or creeping up to flank them.  At one point as I was squaring off against someone, during a game of capture the flag, I heard her gun go off saying, “low ammunition.”  She then made a last ditch run for our flag, and I, with full ammo, made chase after her, laser-gun blazing.  She didn’t make it far.  It was through this that I was able to feel like I was in scenes of Platoon and that sort of thing, which was pretty awesome in my lame book.

A couple of hours later, after a big group photo, we said our goodbyes and got back onto our respective buses.  It was a long and sore bus ride home, but again, full of beautiful scenery.  My body feels like it’s been run over by a truck a few times, and I didn’t do nearly enough reading that I should have, but I made some great friends, and had a wonderful time.  Not bad Butler, what’s next?


Into the Mystic…

Time September 29th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | Comments Off on Into the Mystic… by

My body was still fighting all of the sleeping pills I took for my flight over the Atlantic when the adrenaline kicked in as the green isle appeared through the plane’s windows.  Like a cliché, Ireland was shrouded in mist along its coast, and I could make out small towns and villages nestled near the shore as we made our way towards Dublin.  My legs tapped together uncontrollably while the couple next to me talked about the preparations they needed to take care of before they got back to their house.  A few minutes later we were on the ground.

Going through security and customs was unbelievably simple and easy, with the officer at immigration displaying the overly nice Irish temperament by cracking jokes and telling me what a “brilliant time” I would be having.  Shortly after, I had my luggage, went out the front doors, and got onto a bus to take me into Dublin’s city center.  When I stepped on the bus the radio was playing Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” and I thought there couldn’t be a better way to welcome me to Ireland than that.  Once I arrived in the city center, right at Trinity College in fact, my attempt at trying to navigate through local and tourist-filled streets with two large pieces of luggage being dragged behind me was not the most engaging task, especially since I got off at the wrong stop and thus I had to walk an extra fifteen minutes past Trinity to Butler’s office on the other side of Merrion Square, but still I endured.

After a few small adventures on my part, the people at Butler’s office took me over to my flat on Whitefriar Street, which to give a perspective is just about a block from the beautiful Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.  I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt when I saw the flat I would be spending the next seven or eight months in.  Right next to a number of run down and beat up apartments, my place was quite modern in style and came complete with its own concierge and electronic security gate to the outside.  Inside it was just as marvelous, if not even more so.  It wasn’t huge by any means, but for just two people it was clearly more than enough.  Said other person in the “we” there will join the story a bit later.  Two bedrooms, two complete bathrooms, a living room with a television, two couches, wireless, a small dining table, and the most delightfully cute kitchen that has just about anything one could need or want as a college student, except for perhaps a device that magically creates pizza.

I spent the evening with two friends from high school who were in Dublin for a few days.  We caught up over dinner, bangers and mash for myself, and Guinness at the Brazen Head, which claims to be Dublin’s oldest pub.  It isn’t.  It was great fun though.  The following day I was on my own, running around trying to find grocery stores and build up supplies for the next few days, and for the year as well.  To say my flat is in a wonderful location is an understatement, by about a hundred fold.  A seven or ten minute walk from campus means I can get back and forth whenever I want without worry or real effort on my part.  Most students at Trinity College Dublin, also called the University of Dublin, live off campus, often at home, and are anywhere from a twenty minute walk to an hour-long bus ride or more.  For reference, some friends of mine that I met who are going through Arcadia live about thirty or so minutes away by foot.  I do believe I win in this instance.

In five, ten, or fifteen minutes I can get to about a half-dozen different grocery stores, music shops, restaurants of every variety, movie theaters, drama theaters, concert halls, and more pubs than you can shake a cat at.  Old pubs, new pubs, cheap pubs, expensive pubs, good pubs, bad pubs, local pubs, touristy pubs, student pubs, young pubs, old-people pubs, gay pubs, you-name-it pubs.  There are even pubs that are old, have been remodeled, cater to an older crowd on certain evenings, and on other nights cater to a young gay crowd.  It’s fabulous.  It’s also dreadfully expensive, but so it goes.  It’s basically a perfect location, and my return to Hartford, Connecticut or rural Minnesota next year is already looming in my mind in a dreadful way.

The day after that, my poor, dear flat mate finally arrived after harrowing experiences with airports for several days and being stuck in one place after another, but she did arrive and arrived alive.  Butler gave us a few brief lectures that morning on what to expect, some stuff about safety from police-man Paul (called the Garda here), and a lovely, and quite yummy, cooking session with a delightful woman named Jess.  We had two more “Butler activities” the following day, one of which was a terrific brunch with the Butler crew, and then followed by a tour of the Guinness factory.

I have heard many a-story about visiting the Guinness factory while here in Dublin and how it is “a must.”  They were spot-on.  Guinness did a fantastic job with their museum tour-thing.  For the showing and explaining the process of brewing beer, something I wouldn’t think would be all that appealing, personally, they somehow made it rather exciting and interesting.  Even if it hadn’t bee, it would have been worth it just for the end.  At the top of factory/museum/tour, which is shaped like a pint glass, you enter a 360 bar, where you not only receive a free pint of Guinness, what else, but also the most gorgeous and unforgettable view of the entire city.  To one side, you see Dublin’s port and harbor, on another side are open fields, and in another breathtaking hills with clouds hanging just over them.  We probably spent a good forty or so minutes just looking at over the city.  We found Trinity, and, after a while, our flat too.  It gave me an idea of what the city actually looked like beyond just a street-level view, and what its surroundings were.  The final touch, were quotes from various James Joyce books, printed on the windows, so that when you looked past where the quote was, you could see the actual place Joyce was referencing.  A literary dream.

Coming up soon: things to do in Dublin (so much!), Trinity’s different “Societies” (so many!), and classes (so something!).  Same bat-time, same bat-channel.


Waiting For My New Life To Begin

Time September 15th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In a few short hours I’ll make the long drive to the airport with my parents, say those bittersweet clichéd goodbyes, and then board my first flight of the day that will eventually get me to Dublin, Ireland.  My clothes, my face, and my hands are covered in sweat and dust, fragments from my last night here in Minnesota working at a kiln, firing pottery with family friends.  My bags are all packed, not with my whole life but with just enough necessities for a year that I can carry easily with me across the pond.  I’ve done my goodbye’s to the few friends remaining here at home, the rest having already headed off to their own respective colleges and universities around the country and world as I normally would have done.

I’m going to Dublin for the year to study at Trinity College, under which halls the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett once walked, and through the same streets that James Joyce and many of his character’s treaded.  I’ll be honest and upfront and say that I know relatively little of Irish culture and history outside of what I gleaned from reading Martin McDonagh plays and watching reruns of Father Ted on BBC.  What attracted me wasn’t a familial connection, I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me, nor was it some desire to be in a particular place, though the reality of tracing the footsteps of Leopold Bloom through Dublin does grab my nerdy bookworm-self as rather exciting.  No, what the draw was for me were a few different factors.  Partly it was for academic reasons, Trinity being a fantastic institution, so I hear.  Looking through their previous year’s course catalogs made me feel giddy with delight at the possibility of taking classes ranging from Shakespeare, Ulysses, to a class that focuses on the modern American novelist and essayist the late David Foster Wallace, all at the same time.

The other big pieces that helped me choose Ireland and Dublin were a mix of personal wonders and desires.  Beyond the tried concept of trying to find myself in a foreign land, à la Eat, Pray¸ Love, I want to look for and find the natural beauty in the rolling green hills of Ireland and understand how that contrasts with the seemingly unending struggles that the country faces, whether in the form of famine, war, economic downfall, or the emotional struggles people of a rainy nation must face.  The country has a rich history of prose, poetry, lyrics, music, and theater that comes from those that face such plights and then use them in a creative outlet.  I find great admiration and awe in those that understand their troubles and can use that suffering to create something beautiful, and if I can learn that skill to unlock my own soul then I will be a better man for it.

I’m saying goodbye to my room like I do every year.  My books and my record collections, to my cats.  My clothes are sealed in vacuum bags looking like beef-jerky now.  Everything’s set and ready to go.  Nothing else to worry or be anxious about, and everything that I could worry about is either in the hands of the airline companies, Butler’s International Office, or the gods.  So I release myself from conscious worry and let my subconscious find ways to make its anxieties known, like nibbling away at my fingernails.

I’m lost somewhere between being excited and being nervous.  I’m used to being far away from home and dealing with culture-shock; I think college should help you prepare and deal with that pretty well so I’ve gotten past that fear.  At the same time I’m also not excited because I’m leaving a home, my home university, that took a year and a half of struggling to make my niche, and in doing so finding a family in my friends at my college here in the US, and while I had an amazing time this past semester and I look forward to two more when I return in a year, I fear the old adage, “You can’t go home again.”  It’s certainly proved true for my home in Minnesota, where most of my connections to the place have burned away and I know I probably won’t return again for quite some time.  I’m excited for all the opportunities that I have ahead of me and the memories waiting to be made, but a doubt has surfaced in my mind about what I might be missing here.

I’ve been trying to deprive myself of sleep so I can slumber for most of the way to Dublin, an attempt to realign my body clock to its new time zone.  My record player is coming to its end which is my signal to finish writing this and then catch a few hours of sleep before I begin this journey.  The deep smell of smoke from the kiln is lingers on my body still and the memory of this night holds fresh in my mind.  Closing my eyes I think of the stars shinning bright as if to wish me a safe voyage across the ocean, the half-moon lighting my way home, and the heat of the kiln slowly fading from my body as I venture away from the bosom of the Mississippi River to the hands of the Dublin on the horizon.