ar son na fun.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Table for One

How do you measure time? I've been in Ireland for one shampoo bottle, three small loads of laundry, six batches of cookies, about five hundred cups of tea, and one haircut's time. I've been here for one branding by the fireplace (three symmetrical marks on my back where I leaned against the grate) and one irreversibly damaged white shirt that does not belong to me (sorry, mom). I've also been here for three hundred and sixty episodes of Friends, and about as many embarrassing moments in public. I can tell that I've been here for a significant amount of time because I've started memorizing the songs they play in Zumba, and I no longer have to step gingerly off the last stair in the hallway because my body knows how many steps to take to get to the bottom. The bouncers at the Roisin have stopped asking to see my i.d., and the barista at Café Luna says hi when I walk in the door. I'm a regular.

And I am alone. The strangest thing about being here is the fact that even when I am surrounded by dozens of people--all smiling, drinking, chatting, or some indecipherable combination of the three--I am by myself. It makes no sense, and yet it makes perfect sense: I am the furthest away I have ever been from home, my comfort zone, and all the people whose knowledge of my daily idiosyncrasies makes us gel without either of us knowing. No one here knows me on that level, and as a result, I'm the one who is getting a peek into it. I am alone. I walk and dream and eat alone; I go to Café Luna on Monday afternoons and I buy my produce from Mr. Beans on my way back home. I spend my money on chocolate and dried fruit and I know how to get the best deal from the olive vendor at the Saturday market. I am accountable only for myself; last night, I asked myself what I wanted for dinner, and I made it. Afterward, I put an apple in the oven to bake and watched the buttery juices bubble out of it into the pan, sizzling away, releasing a gorgeous cloud of cinnamon into the air every time I opened the door. No one ate it but me.

The thing that this alone time is teaching me, most of all, is that things work in cycles. I woke up on Saturday morning and felt inexplicably sad. Maggie was on a field trip to the Gaeltacht, and I knew the shower was going to be cold. Two hours later I was at Renzo, doing research for my midterm when Erin came to cheer me up: she pulled a banana out of her bag, pretended to make a phone call on it, and handed it to me. Two hours later, I was happy and smiling--I was alone again, but this time I was listening to good music on my ipod and splashing in puddles. Two hours after that, I was crying. Sometimes the desire to write swells up within me like a balloon that I have to get out, and other times my journal gathers dust on the shelf and I don't want to explain myself to anyone or anything. Nothing, nothing, nothing lasts.

That evening we went to the Crane Bar to listen to music, and every room was jam-packed. I left the group at one point to stand upstairs, and just as I walked in, the bartender silenced the room and one of the musicians sang an original song--the kind of heartbreaking one that slices through normal sound waves, the kind that gives you goosebumps that don't go away for hours. We walked from there to Taffe's, where Chris et. al. dragged us to Carbon, the new club that opened off of Shop St.--and when the rest of the group ran ahead of me, I walked in alone. The club was filled with smoke; not the cigarette kind, but the fog kind that comes out of a machine at the beginning of Cirque du Soleil. On the dance floor, without so much as a bonjour, a tall French boy who smelled of soap kissed me on the tip of my ear and asked me if I would like to move to Paris. No thank you, I told him, and bolted. I do want to go to France someday--it's just that today, I'd rather be alone. I began to leave by myself but Chris wouldn't let me, so I thanked him and we shared my bag of pistachios on the walk home.

I've decided that the purpose of this trip, at least for now, is to teach me how to do this. The business of being by myself is something that I never got good at before, not at Scripps, not ever--even when I thought I was, I wasn't. I still love people more than anything, and sometimes listening to Alyssa describe the latest episode of Glee is all it takes for me to jump from mediocre to fantastic on the mood scale; but I needed to know that I could be this way too, drinking a cup of coconut tea and listening to the boys kick the soccer ball around downstairs, flinching each time it bangs against the wall.

Today would have been mine and Jeremy's third anniversary. I thought seriously about calling him about a dozen times and then even more seriously about buying myself the entirety of Tesco's stock of Cadbury chocolate, and decided against both. I sat in the stairwell in the library for thirty minutes and cried because I couldn't find my scarf and couldn't find the exit, and then when I finally managed to make it outside, I saw Nick from Writer's Society leaving Aras na MacLeinn: he had a mustache drawn on his face with marker, and I became inexplicably happy. Nothing lasts. I wrote a little poem, listening to the beat of my feet on the sidewalk on the way home:

I wake up every morning and
the song remains the same,
A tiny bird that thrashes at
the windows of my brain,
Reminding me that if I can't subtract,
I'd better add.
"You only want,
You only want the one you cannot have."

And when I arrived, there was a package waiting for me from my mom. Ferry let out a "yeeessssss,"because he knew that it probably had chocolate in it, which it did. Luckily, he and Higgins were far more entertained by the bubble wrap, and I was able to escape with the candy--which I demolished, upstairs, all by myself.

And there you have it. I've been here, at this spot, for one thousand, one hundred and eighteen words. That's approximately 600 more than I currently have of my Women in Irish Society midterm...which, let's face it, is what I'm really supposed to be doing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Northern Lights

I don't even know where to begin in recounting the weekend I just spent in Northern Ireland. It may have to be one of those experiences that lives on in my head, forever indescribable, and told only through the bazillion photos that we all took in an attempt to capture the un-capturable...

But I would feel like a big, fat loser if I didn't at least try to share some of it, so here goes nothing. Last Thursday, my fellow IFSA-Butlerettes and myself took off for the first of the weekend-long trips that the program plans for us throughout the semester...coinciding, not accidentally, with a graceful little period that the folks in study-abroad-land deem the "six week slump." Apparently, after the honeymoon period ends and the quirks that we've been finding absolutely adorable up to this point (in our case, broken glass on the floor... all the time) start to become unbearable, it's normal for students to begin to feel the first inky pangs of homesickness. I have to admit, even though I've been happier here than I would have ever imagined possible, I've had mornings where I've had to physically leave the apartment in order to avoid wasting the day on Facebook, stalking friends from home and wallowing in my absence from their colorful, smily lives.

Anyhow, what the nice people at IFSA do in these weekend trips is remind us that we, in fact, have the smiliest, most-colorfullest lives of all--we're in Ireland, for Bog's sakes!--and that this entire, gorgeous country is traversable by bus. We all met on Thursday morning (ironically, one of the warmest days I've seen in Galway thus far...what better way to spend it than on a bus with no toilet?) and set off for Belfast, which is about 6 hours away if you head due East to Dublin, and then across the "border" to Northern Ireland. I do not use the quotation marks arbitrarily, because classifying the territory we were heading into proved to be more difficult than any of us anticipated. It's amazing how many of us--in the first of many quandaries about the Republic and what is technically the U.K.--wondered whether we'd need a passport to get in. The answer was no, but all the same... no one knew. We felt half stupid for wondering, and half curious about how many experiences during the weekend would be punctured by confusion over what is, and not, a legitimate question about the politics of the North. Other than money, what would we need to change? Would we need to listen, speak, and act differently?

As it turns out, we didn't have to work too hard to appear well-versed in the intricacies of Republic/U.K relations, because there was never any doubt as to our status as completely UNknowledgeable. It would seem that spending half the day on a guided tour with cameras sticking out of our (most likely Patagonia) jackets is a dead-ringer for Americanness, which in most places, equates with some degree of ignorance. While normally this would bug the crap out of me, I found it to be a relief in some cases: I'm an American, and no, I don't understand your political situation. No, I have no idea what you just said, would you please repeat it? Your accent makes it sound like you're speaking to me from beneath a rock, in the bottom of a crater, with a dozen marshmallows in your mouth. Would you mind repeating that...slowly?

Anyhow, the first night we were there, we were all exhausted (it's amazing how sitting on your butt all day takes it out of you), but were treated to the first of many free meals that the weekend offered and knew better than to turn down free food. You would think we're storing up for the winter, the way we eat over here. It gave us the temporary energy needed to rally and hit the streets, which we did, albeit with timid feet...after living in Galway, the city felt impersonal and oddly corporate. We stumbled across a few interesting things, including a group of students protesting the rise in university fees...which I was awed by because I've never seen anything like it in the States. It seems to me that when they raise our university fees, we complain about it and then fork it over. It's a different mindset over here. After we passed them, we strolled down the street to a pub called Lavery's, which ended up becoming our home for the next three nights. It was fantastic, with at least four separate sprawling rooms full of people, and the type of old-fashioned saloon light fixtures that are a staple in Belfast. Victoria and I ended up going upstairs, which serendipitously turned out to be a showcase of some of the best young musical talent in Northern Ireland (SONI, or Sounds of Northern Ireland)...we got to see everything from a young singer-songwriter with an Elliott Smith sound to a punky rocker chick, who did the best rendition of "Somebody to Love" this side of Freddy Mercury. It was awesome.

It was even more awesome the next morning when we boarded the bus at 8:30 sharp, and got to be among the few who were not hungover from the night before... I think we actually enjoyed the bus ride, whereas a significant portion of people on the bus looked like they'd rather curl up in a ball and die than endure the speedbumps in County Antrim We started the day passing through the gorgeous green countryside, which despite the rain, looked like something straight out of Beatrix Potter...I lost count of the sheep at roughly ten bajillion (you think I'm kidding, but I'm not). We then made our way to the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, which overlooked some of the most stunning ocean I've ever seen...aquamarine blue, which looked magical next to the wild, green cliffs. My legs were jelly when I crossed the bridge, and I loved it. We went to Dunluce Castle after that, and finished the day at Giant's Causeway--which, true to the legend, is one of the most awe-inspiring places I've ever seen! The pictures tell the story far better than I ever could.

Saturday was our last day in Belfast, and we started it by taking one of the historical Black Taxi tours... led by one of the most engaging, knowledgeable, and incredible people I've met so far in Ireland. The group split into a whole parade of taxis, but 5 others and myself happened to end up with the tour guide of the century; his accent was actually comprehensible, and he steered clear of those godawful spiels that make places like the Disneyland Jungle Cruise something akin to hell on earth. This man was amazing. We began in Shankhill, the Protestant side of the city, and saw the first round of murals: Oliver Cromwell, the Red Hand of Ulster, and a particularly chilling depiction of a gunman whose lethal eye follows you wherever you stand. Maggie, being Catholic, was visibly shaken the whole time we were there--and I have to say, so was I. Never in my life has my attention been drawn so clearly to the fact that I don't know what I am, I don't know where my spirituality falls on the spectrum of belief...but here I was, face-to-face with dozens of depictions of men who had murdered countless people because of that very spectrum. The scariest part was the modernity; I think I expected to see paintings of men in wigs and tights wielding swords, not in baseball caps with rifles. We stopped at the "Peace Wall" next, which divides the Catholic community from the Protestants--to this day, there are bricks lodged in the tippy-top of it, on their way over to hit someone on the other side--and we signed our names. I hope to go back someday and look at it again. We jumped back in the cab and went over to the Catholic side, and maybe I imagined it, but it seemed like our driver breathed a little sigh of relief: he told us he was Catholic, and though he said the folks in Shankhill know him by now, I think he was only half kidding when he said that if we saw him running...well, that we should probably run as well. So we parked on the opposite side of the wall that only minutes before, we were scribbling with peace signs and John Lennon lyrics, and walked into the courtyard commemorating the Catholic martyrs and those who died in the Bombay Street violence. My stomach did flips when our guide passed around the rubber bullets used by the military during the Troubles, and almost passed right up out of my mouth when I saw that the final name on the stone plaque--the most recent death associated with the violence--was 2004. What was I doing in 2004? Back in the cab, our driver told us about his childhood, and what it was like to go to sleep each night not knowing if an armed gunman would break into your house--which they did quite often--demanding that you prove your identity, your involvement, or lack thereof. He recounted what it was like to watch his best friend get gunned down in front of him. And like most Irish, he told these stories with composure, like someone might tell you about a particularly nasty bout with the flu...not the type of life or death situation that takes a lifetime to recover from. We were sitting on the edge of our seats as he spoke, doing all we could not to leap up and smother him with a bear hug and our tears...but our driver, also in typical Irish form, ended his final anecdote about a break-in by saying "it's okay, 'cos we hit him over the head with our boom-box."


I spent much of the afternoon that day just wandering around the city, getting lost and people-watching, at a loss for what to do with all the information I'd just digested. I've never felt quite so lucky in my entire life to be exposed to so much history and so much passion, and to be exactly where I am (in my little self) right in the middle of it all. I think about this time last year, and I'm flooded with awe and relief at how much can change in only three-hundred-and sixty-five days... how many hours is that? Approximately how many songs? I can only smile, and thank my lucky stars for whatever alignment they took on to allow me to be here, right now, exactly as I am.

I ended the weekend on a happy note, napping the afternoon away in our fancy shmancy hotel room and eating freshly-baked bread with homemade jam and lemon curd--which tasted especially great on the bus the next day, all six hours of it, as we buzzed back through the countryside full of the same sheep, doing the same thing, about twelve inches from the spot they were sitting in the first time we passed them.

Then again, sometimes twelve inches is a long way to go.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Okay. Anyone who knows me knows that, while I love the ocean, the words "Jenna" and "surf" are never juxtaposed in the same sentence unless being used to describe the cheap brand of laundry detergent that I once bought at Costco. At most, over the years, I've been the proud owner of a string of warm--and pretentiously branded--surf sweatshirts from Channel Islands or the Beach House; but never, and I mean NEVER, have I had an urge to spend a day surfing. Even though I love the ocean, and nothing makes me feel healthier than running in and dunking my head and then letting the salt dry on my skin for the rest of the day, I'm fairly certain that I'm also afraid of it. When I stare at the ocean, I feel small and scared. Back home, every time one of my friends voices their desire to swim out to the buoys, I always nod along--like I find it to be the most normal thing in the world, instead of the equivalent of taking a rocketship to Mars without a seatbelt--but am secretly completely content to splash in the shallow region, picking up shells and making dribble castles. I love surf culture because I love the philosophy, and I love the fact that some people DO want to spend all day out in the ocean...but I've never been one of them.

That is, until this weekend. I signed up for Surf Club at Societies day on campus because I was extremely caffeinated, and doing that international student thing where I just want to be involvedinvolvedinvolved. Also, the surf booth had free candy. So I got the emails for a couple of weeks and deleted them on autopilot...but for some reason, last week, when Erin said that she was going on the first surf trip and did I want to go along, I said yes. I don't know why. I went back and forth and back and forth about it, because honestly, I felt that my desire to go was propelled more by the urge to forge a cool-kid identity for myself, completely independent from anything I've ever been or known--because who is to say that I can't?--than an actual wish to spend the weekend in a freezing cold ocean. Still, I signed up, and Alyssa did as well--the two of us slightly in denial over the fact that going on a surf trip would actually involve some surfing, and an extended period of time in a gigantic-wet-dangerous place that we may or may not be terrified of.

But Friday evening rolled around--and backpacks in tow--Erin, Alyssa, Chris, and I battled the apocalyptic weather (I actually had to hold on to the sides of buildings to keep from toppling over in the windy rain!) to get to the bus that left from campus. It was the beginning of a solid 48 hours in which everything I owned would either be damp, or cold, or both. Tubular! Anyhow, we arrived in Bundoran around 10:00 p.m., and after unloading the surfboards from beneath the bus, were told to walk into one of the houses dotting the street and choose a bed. I felt like I was on one of those TLC shows where Paige Davis just hands you a house key and says "SURPRISE!"--it was marvelous. I settled into #3 along with Erin, Alyssa, Chris, Nick, Patrick, and Daniel, and the group of us danced around our digs like giddy children all night, eating peanut butter sandwiches and playing with the appliances. The houses were incredibly luxurious and spacious--cabinet space and strong water pressure, oh my!--and may or may not have been a quasi-bribe to get up early the next morning and actually complete the surfing component of the weekend...

So, in typical Irish fashion, none of us knew what time we were set to go surfing, where we were leaving from, what time we were leaving from, or what to bring--but at 9:30, we got a knock on the door and rolled out of bed and into the Turf n' Surf bus. The day could not have been grayer, wetter, windier, or rainier. The waves in Bundoran were actually TOO big for us to surf, which was pretty wild--so after suiting us up (in frigid, frigid, FRIGID wetsuits, booties, gloves, and hoods), they drove us 20 minutes to another beach. Alyssa was hilarious...she didn't have her glasses on, so every time we came to a stop next to a field or parking lot, she looked out the window--and seeing what resembled a darkish expanse of something--asked in the most wonderful Long Island accent imaginable, "are we there yet?" Eventually we were, and after a quickie lesson on the beach of where to stand on the surfboard and how to pop up, we hit the water.

Thankfully, the water actually made the wetsuits warmer...and surprisingly, once I got in up to my chest, the ocean felt like a bath. Not the type of bath one would take voluntarily, but still, a bath. It's difficult to describe how I felt out there, bobbing like a tiny seal with my massive surfboard, blinking the rain out of my face... but if I had to, I would say it felt like Christmas morning. Truly. Yes, there were moments when I felt so cold that I questioned my sanity in being there, and yes, the first gigantic gulp of saltwater that made its way into my lungs was not exactly welcome...but I felt so free out there, completely detached from my comfort zone; not trying to impress anyone, just being. And I did it! I actually stood up! I surprised myself in doing it, too, because I was already awarding myself a mental Purple Heart just for making it as far as getting in the water... but about halfway through the morning, I managed to catch a wave. It was AWESOME. My heart was racing the whole rest of the day.

After we left the water and endured the positively awful bus ride back to the surf school (hint: wetsuits are warm IN the water. Wetsuits are NOT warm after getting out of the water), the instructors gave us scalding hot coffee and chocolate biscuits, and sent us on our merry way. That's the wonderful part of doing something like surfing--everything afterward is blissful. Food has never tasted so good. Sleep has never felt so deep. And a hot shower...words cannot describe. Given, even after the shower, none of our bodies recovered to their full warmth.. but it was okay. We ate humongous meat pies for dinner and spent the evening bouncing from party to party, exploring the tiny nightlife that Bundoran has to offer and dancing our butts off.

Now it is a new week, and I am thoroughly exhausted... my arms are so sore you would have thought I spent the weekend hauling concrete blocks. Of course, I'm secretly dying for someone to ask me why my arms are sore, because I want to tell them that I, yes I went surfing this weekend. I'm fully aware of the irony of the situation, that as a native Southern Californian it took me twenty years and a trip to Ireland to try surfing for the first time, but what can I say? I did something completely wild and new this weekend, have a closet full of clothes that smell like rotten seaweed to prove it, and also a tiny row of Irish seashells on my the shelf over my desk to remind me of just how wonderful it felt.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Mighty Wind

This morning, walking over the bridge on the way to school, I actually recited my last will and testament out loud to Maggie and Hannah. Given, it wasn’t nearly comprehensive—when I actually do have to pass on my earthly possessions, I certainly hope I’m able to come up with something better than “give all my music to Jeremy and all my clothes to Isabel!”—but we were in the middle of a monsoon (Only minus the palm trees. And anything resembling warmth), and I had to think fast. It was one of those mornings when the rain seems to defy all laws of nature by blowing COMPLETELY horizontally, no matter what direction you’re walking in, and manages to soak only those areas that you can guarantee won’t dry for the remainder of the day. As if it weren’t bad enough to have class early in the morning, Mother Nature made it so we not only arrived at school looking like drowned rats, but also decided to swear off class for the rest of the semester. Or at least, until tomorrow.
            It would seem that I always start off my blog entries by griping about the weather in some form or another…but its constant volatility is as much of a key player in my daily life here as anything. By mid-morning today, Hurricane Galway had already morphed into something gorgeous, sunny, and brisk. Still windy as hell, but that’s to be expected. My Grandpa Bob told me once when I was a little kid that wind brings change, and he’s usually right…
            So, last week! It was one for the books. I’ve been on a mission lately to do things that scare me, or might otherwise make me want to curl into the fetal position and turn my phone on silent…I’m not talking walk-blindfolded-through-an-abandoned-mine-shaft scary, just going out of my comfort zone to accept invitations that I might not normally take. Tuesday took me to the Crane Bar, where I watched the trad music society from NUIG rock the socks off of a full pub. I sat in my little stoop on the windowsill, quickly becoming my regular spot, and watched as one person after another walked up and added their instrument to the mix. It was bliss. On Wednesday night, we wandered around in search of dancing, and ended up at Massimo’s salsa night—a crowded, dimly lit mob of European exchange students salsa dancing to the tune of a ten-piece, live Cuban band. Needless to say, I was in heaven. The strangest part about it was that there were hardly any Irish people there…which made perfect sense to my roommates, when I told them. “Have you seen the way the Irish dance?” Yes, I told them. “And you’re surprised?”
            Guess not.
            On Thursday night, faced with the option of attending a meeting of Writer’s Society or staying in and organizing my sock drawer (which presented me with less opportunities for possible humiliation), I sucked it up and went to the meeting… and I am so, so, SO glad I did. Here were all the romantic, intelligent, unwashed Irish poets that I’d been waiting to encounter! I walked in the room a complete stranger, and left with some of the most hilarious friends I’ve met thus far. For hours, they all just sat in a circle, passing around pieces of their personal writing to be picked apart and celebrated and discussed. We did on-the-spot writing exercises and read them out loud in funny voices. The whole time, I felt as though every sense in my body was electrified…just dying to absorb this scene, and all the people in it. One of the heads of the society met up with me the next day, after I spent the entire morning reading The Third Policeman and drinking coffee in Café Luna, and he gave me a walking tour of his favorite spots in the city. Like most Irish people I’ve encountered so far, most of the landmarks were prefaced by “so here’s the spot I cracked my head on the sidewalk…” or “and here’s the spot I stole a rickshaw!”—and it was one of the most entertaining afternoons I’ve had yet.
            Then came Saturday, and with it, the 2010 edition of the Americans-take-Galway-City Pub Crawl/Scavenger Hunt. As you might imagine, anything with the words “pub crawl” in the title isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but lucky for me, I had a team of champions. Out of the three teams, we weren’t the most competitive—Maggie, are you out there? Aren’t you glad you gathered those 12,833,872,756,761 coasters?—but we definitely had the best spirit. I had forgotten how completely ridiculous and wonderful scavenger hunts can be. When else do you have complete authority to walk up to strangers and ask them to dance with you, simply on the basis that they have ginger hair? Throughout the course of the day, Erin, Nick, Kerry and I received a traditional performance of an Irish song, were shown the bare belly of a man who was about to be married, were given a 100-year-old recipe for potato cakes from a man who looked to have been around at the recipe’s inception, went knee-deep in the Galway Bay, and hit close to 20 pubs. Needless to say, I will never, never forget it. There aren’t really words to describe how fun it was, so I’ll have to leave it at that… beautiful, silly, and indescribable.  
            Since the weekend, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own just wandering around the city and seeing where my legs will take me. I sat by the water for a long, long time the other day, just watching the birds and feeling immensely grateful for the green grass and crisp air (needless to say, this was before monsoon season hit.) There’s this delicious, smoldering energy creeping up in my stomach lately—I’m not sure exactly what I want to do with it yet, but it’s there. It’s new. For now, I’m just doing the best I can to do the things that are out of my comfort zone—whether it be throwing myself into a brand new group of people, or just ordering tea in Áras Na Gaeilge, where we’re forced to speak Irish. Did I mention I am a complete blockhead when it comes to speaking Irish? I’m doing the best I can, but when the nice little lady in the hairnet asked me what I wanted to order, I almost peed my pants out of sheer terror.
            On that note, I’m signing off for now—of all the things I could do to frighten myself on this particular evening, I think that journeying down to the kitchen in search of food is right up there at the top of the list. Last time I was down there, the floor was covered Tabasco sauce.  
            Slán go fóill!