Leap of Faith

Just like that, I’ve lived in a foreign country for over a month. Well, not just like that. To suggest that the last few weeks have been a breeze would be rather untrue. I’m not ashamed to admit that at times adjusting has been painful. In a place like Ireland where most people speak English and the weather is so similar to my gray Seattle skies, it’s easy to get self-accusatory. Why aren’t you being more adventurous? Why are you not having the time of your life all of the time? Why aren’t you adapting faster?

As anyone who has left home has probably experienced, there’s a lot of comparison to go along with the self-blame. Throughout September I found myself constantly looking backwards, with one foot in Ireland and one stuck in the states. When thinking about Whitman, a lot of the time it concerned what I should’ve been more grateful for when I was there: friends living right down the hall, food that someone else made, a two-minute commute to class. But I’m in Galway now, and I’m allowing myself to make discoveries about this weird, wonderful place where I have the privilege to live and study, starting with:

Sights/Sounds/Things I have discovered on my mile walk to and from campus

  1. A ruined castle
  2. A horse and her foal whom I have affectionately dubbed Lady M and Clodsby
  3. A forlorn cabernet bottle
  4. A man urinating in a ditch at 2pm
  5. Another man swimming in the River Corrib (on the banks of which I seem to recall seeing NO SWIM signs… alas)
  6. Two and a half rainbows
  7. A purple wig in a tree
  8. The strength of the wind
  9. The meaning of the word wet

A note on number 9: we’re right on the coast of Ireland, exposed to the Wild Atlantic Way in all its gusty glory. That means that when the rain comes, it hits you practically horizontally. Umbrellas are no defense and Pacific Northwest pride won’t keep you dry.

   

Moving on, NUIG is big. It’s somewhat ironic how I left the U.S. aka the capital of big, in order to go to a school in Ireland that’s about twelve times larger than mine at home. The university feel is markedly different from a cozy liberal arts campus, but it’s healthy to experience both environments. Where Whitman life eases along with the changing trees, NUIG pulses with youthful energy, graced by a significant population of mature students due to the economic ease of continued education in Ireland. Regardless, campus itself is dominated by the youngsters. As for youth culture here—which I’m not sure I can consider myself a part of given the fact that 75% of my aspirations start with, “When I’m old and have white hair and felines and am finally dipping into my 401k…”—I cannot help but feel I’m stuck somewhere in 2007 with all the Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister brands buzzing around. It’s a far cry from the mock-boho vibe of Whitman, but I digress.

Cost is a defining factor in education, and those at earlier points in their NUIG careers don’t always– and I’m seriously oversimplifying here– invest their studies with the same tone of urgency that we do in the states after shelling out an exorbitant tuition each year. When I tell Irish students how much we pay in America their jaws hit the floor, or they just laugh. A year of study here for local students is roughly equivalent to what I paid for room and board… so… let’s not do the math it’ll just bum us all out.

Barring the senior-seminar in history which I’m taking, classes are relatively lax, (a facet of the Galway-calm) and campus is full of massive, maze-like, modern architecture. *Fun fact: the engineering building cost three billion euro to build and it’s currently sinking into the river. In general, the days zip along with a calm assurance that, ‘We’ll get to that later,’ or ‘Everything will work out.’ A recent look at my calendar assured me that things are working out. My time here is speeding by, and I think that tempo change began when I decided to live here now as opposed to keeping a white-knuckled grip on my life at Whitman. How did I do this? Well, at the risk of sounding like the most cliché of all study abroad students, I had a jumping experience. Allow me to explain…

There’s an old tower down at Salthill called Blackrock which was built in 1942 for thrill-seeking beachgoers to dive off of. A few other people from my program and I walked down there on a clear Friday evening for high tide with the intent to do just that. The promenade was oddly reminiscent of a Southern California beach walk, complete with a photogenic string of street lamps stretching into the lazy millennium pink sunset.

The whole way there I was undecided about taking the leap into frigid Atlantic waters in late September, you know, like a sane person. I’d checked the temperate before leaving and it stood at a balmy 57 degrees Fahrenheit. As we drew closer and closer to the tower I felt equal parts dread and grim resignation and upon climbing the stone steps, the thought, “You’re only young and resilient enough to fall 25 feet once!” kept running through my head.

That of course was promptly forgotten when I looked down from above—it always feels so much higher when you’re standing on the top, contemplating the gap. I couldn’t very well walk-o’-shame back down with my pride intact however, so I jumped. And I fell. And I continued to fall. And then I hit the water. It was brisk, but contrary to Jack Dawson’s estimation in Titanic, cold water doesn’t “hit you like a thousand knives stabbing you all over your body.” Mostly it just makes your nose run and eyes water, but it also wakes you up and I think that jolt was just what I needed. I needed to have the big old grossly human experience of doing something stupid yet safely dangerous and then calling it transformative.

The sensation of throwing myself off a precipice and flailing in the descent was not unlike my first month here. I just hope that the cold Atlantic water shocked a bit of something new into my system which I can carry into the rest of my semester. I think it might have. In the meantime, I’m going to hold my breath and swim for the surface.

out here in the field

Since it’s fresh in my mind, I’m going to regale you with a tale of what field class means here at NUIG. [I’ll get to my other classes and how I’ve been at a later date, but this is the most exciting thing I did this week and I didn’t quite know how to fit it into my blog so I’ll just call it an installment of the, “Adventures of the Fake Archaeologist.”]

On Thursday I took a day long trip with my Archaeology of Mythical Ireland class…. and the little girl inside of me who secretly wanted to become an archaeologist ever since her six-year-old eyes saw Jurassic Park grace the small screen was buzzing with excitement the whole two hours there. (Granted, what we were looking at was man-made and not courtesy of the dinos, but it still counts!) In total we visited three different ancient sites at Knocknarea in county Sligo, which is north up the coast from Galway.

Site 1: The bus stopped on the side of the road, and our lecturer of the day/Swedish Indiana Jones popped his head inside and barked cheerfully, “You’ll have to hop this fence,” which we did after a few nervous chuckles, and then we were off, dodging cowpies and thistles. Our fearless commander led us up what was essentially a riverbed sans water, still nice and juicy after Storm Ali which had blown through the day before. One girl nearly got claimed by the mud but we prevailed and crested a gentle knoll only to be greeted by two unimpressed dairy cows.

case in point

Once we assembled there with a spectacular panoramic view of surrounding Sligo, our instructor informed us that we were standing on top of a cairn from 3500 BC. The whole man-made structure has been covered by thick green grass and melted into the landscape– reclaimed by the bovines. As our lecturer spoke of who was allegedly buried beneath us I remarked upon how just how relaxing the sound of cows chewing can be. I wanted to commune with them a bit longer but we were off to the other sites.

 

Site 2: I’m going to skip this site because I’m stretching the heck out of my word count.

 

Site 3: Our last stop of the day was Queen Medb’s funeral cairn (pronounced Meave for all you crazies who don’t make a ‘v’ sound by putting d and b together) which sits on top of an outcropping in the center of the Knocknarea landscape. It juts out like a thumb in the center of this huge, mountainous amphitheater. Legend would have it that Queen Medb the ancient warrior queen was buried here after she was killed via cheese projectile by her angry nephew. Moment to appreciate that.

The record is contested and a bit fuzzy, but archaeological evidence confirms that it was used as a place for feasts and rituals and the like

.   

Looking at the massive hill, my naïve self did not suspect that we were going to the summit, however the weather was holding up and our instructor led us on—or up rather. It turned out to be a short hike, actually, with just a wee bit of elevation gain. Yeah. I’ll leave out the sweaty details, but we earned that summit. At the top, there was yet another more spectacular panorama because it’s the tallest point for miles around. You could look out at the Atlantic and wonder how ancient peoples thought about living on the edge of the (then) known world. What I loved most about the spot was how very little I could hear there. Just wind, and the way quietude fills in the spaces of your ears like comforting cotton. Looking back on it, another time I remember hearing that sound is in a field somewhere outside of Walla Walla.

how I felt post-climb vs. how I must present myself to the cruel cruel world of social media

Anyhoo, we walked back down to find a little crepery at “base camp.” I was going to buy a reward crepe when our instructors informed us that it was time to go right as the very first raindrops of the day began to fall. So we piled back onto the sixteen-seater to a mixed aroma of crepes and disappointment.

I came into this course with a paltry knowledge of Celtic mythology but I’m already developing a deep appreciation for this type of cultural memory. I spent two years as a history major, and the methodology of basing one’s historical argument in verifiable written sources was drilled into me from the start. Support. Cite. Analyze. Confirm.

 

Now in dealing with the distant Neolithic and mythical past of Ireland where fact and fiction combine in a tapestry of heritage, I am faced with the maddening reality that written sources simply do not exist. What I’m left to do is read the landscape. And while that is maddening it can also be liberating. All too often in academia, we rely on a very strict idea of what it means to be literate. We worship words and books—lose ourselves in text—rightly so, and yet we sometimes forget that the land around us can be interpreted as a source as well. It holds stories for those who would look and listen. As I’m trying to find my home here I cannot think of a better avenue through which to access and understand Ireland, its people, and its history.

Everything’s Grand

First of all I’d just like to state for the record that I got here and I’m safe! As the folks in Galway would say, “Everything’s grand.” Important to note: they also say this when everything’s not so grand but we’ll let that slide for now.

a very green blur

Where to begin? In all honesty, my first few hours in Ireland were a green blur, (pictured for emphasis). Post fourteen hours of flying and an abridged account of Irish history which ended on a strangely reverential chapter about Bono, all bets were off—but after hearing some travel horror stories of other Whitman students who are studying abroad elsewhere I’m feeling mightily grateful for my uneventful journey. Still, I can now report that being awake for thirty hours straight can make a person hallucinatory.

I got off the airplane in Shannon and found my group of IFSA students (for future reference, IFSA or Institute for Study Abroad is a private organization which helps people like me through the interim period of getting settled and that sort of thing) and we were transported to our living quarters for the next few months.

That bus ride—although blurry—was quite beautiful. We passed verdant green fields and soggy horses and sheep. Each time I saw livestock or a tiny fence made from stones, my heart started fluttering uncontrollably. ‘Twas probably a mixture of sleep deprivation, adrenaline, and the feeling of finally making it to the place I’ve only read about in books, but everything looked magical in the rain.

As far as living spaces go, I’m housed in Menlo Park Apartments, which is a quaint little building with an inner garden and many cats which make themselves known at night when they want to manipulate you into letting them inside your warm residence. Apparently the spiders like it in here as well, but they do not ask so nicely. It’s suite style so I’m living with one other American and two Irish women, both of whom are very sweet and patient when they have to explain Irish pronunciations to the local idiot abroad. But in all fairness, how would you go about saying Tig Coílí?

Pictured here is a view of Menlo Park with our house plant Merta

I’ve been here for a week and so far I’ve walked about thirty miles, been misidentified as an Irish person three times, forgotten my umbrella once and deeply regretted it, stumbled into a rollicking trad session at a local pub, and spent far too many euros on produce which will probably go bad before I can eat it. Ah yes, the trials of being an adult. And a student on top of that! I should probably speak to the institution where I will be studying the next few months.

Readers, meet NUI Galway—3rd ranking in the nation, 1st ranking in craic! (Pronounced ‘crack,’ means fun—this joke would land better if I were there to share it with you in person, but oh well.)

As you can see, I’m going to school in a castle 

Although I don’t start classes until tomorrow, the stress of registration definitely made up for lost time. As of now, I’m signed up for a couple of history courses, an archeology course about Irish mythology, and (hopefully) a course on Irish theatre. On top of that, Galway is a theatre town with a thriving arts scene which I am itching to investigate… so once I get my bearings and fall into an academic routine, I’ll feel more exploratory.

For now, I’m going to sign off and brave the washing machine—wish me luck!

 

Emerald City –> Emerald Isle

a characteristically cloudy Seattle send-off

About one month out from my flight, I rabidly wrote about my upcoming adventure in what I can only describe as a lucky charms fueled fever-dream:

 

“Wow. So, I’m not even on the plane, but I recently got my housing assignment for Galway and it seems ridiculous but it’s a sunny day and in one month I’m going to be on the Emerald Isle itself! Well, that or somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, severely jet-lagged and dehydrated. Either way, I’ll be heading to a country which recently became the first to sell off its investments in fossil fuel companies. A magical, green place where people are happy and jolly and just legalized abortion and have an openly gay prime minister.

This is, yikes, I’m just very excited. For the first time in a long time I’m allowing myself to think about what this semester could be and not what it might be. Does that make any sense? I’m allowing myself to daydream in rolling hills and fiddle tunes as opposed to dreading what could go wrong.

Maybe I should be a little more worried about this, but I’ve got Baba O’Reilly coursing through my veins and—The Who is Irish right? Nope. Not at all. Anyways… I’m just ready. Ready to be pulled into the great green beyond.”

 

I relay all that now—that idealistic expectation of the journey to come written at a safe distance from the reality of saying goodbye to my home here—for scale. This is the largest move I’ve ever made. I don’t want to make light of it but I also don’t want to terrify myself, because that is an entirely accurate description of getting inside an aluminum tube and launching myself 41,000 feet closer to the sun until I come back down in a rain-soaked corner of the world, 4,461 miles away from the people I know and love. Terrifying.

 

But those are also just numbers, and in-keeping with my aggressive support for all things artistic and un-quantifiable, I trust people more. I trust in the people I’m going to meet who are just as terrified as me. I trust in my own ability to make a home in a strange new place.