Epilogue

As I packed up my room, cleaned out the kitchen and rode out of Galway toward the airport in Dublin, I reflected on the person that I was when I arrived in Ireland on January 1st and the person that I am now. I waved at my ghost who galloped deliriously down the liquor aisle in the nearby grocery store. I laughed as I recalled my first week where I took cold showers and couldn’t figure out the heating system in my room, resulting in at least four layers of wool and fleece every night.  The silence in the apartment coincided with the silence in which I arrived, when my roommates had not yet moved in. I chuckled as I thought about how nervous I was to meet them and how I wondered if they would be angry for using the wrong shower. I went out to dinner with my cousins and aunt at The Front Door on Quay Street and shook my head when I remembered how we tried to find a table for 13 on my birthday. As much as I’ve learned about the ins and outs of Ireland, like how to run the hot water for instance, Ireland taught me much more about myself. Here’s a short rundown of lessons learned in and around Galway.

1.Don’t get too upset about the small stuff.

This lesson was made pretty clear our first few days of class when they told us right away, we’re pretty much always late. Expect to wait at least ten minutes if you’re determined to be one of those ignorant people who arrive on time. They’re also pretty lax about when papers are due. My friend Anne and I realized this when we sprinted to our professor’s office, terrified that he wouldn’t accept our papers since they were over 30 minutes late, when he said cheerily, “Oh hello, come on in girls, set them there, that’s grand. Any troubles? Good! Cheers!” Don’t get too upset if the bus is late. It will get there, and if it doesn’t, someone will help you out and there will be another. The clock on the bus is always wrong, there is never wifi when they say there will be, there is absolutely no sense of order in the minutes leading up to an exam, and they don’t ever check your ID.

2.Turn your flipping cell phone off.

The Wisconsin girls and I soon realized that there really was no need for the cheap little Irish phones we bought at the beginning of the semester. Instead of texting someone when they’re five minutes late, “Where are you?” we just waited a while longer five minutes. Instead of texting “Everyone meet at Monica’s at four,” we would just assume that everyone would show up whenever they could, and they’d know where to find us. We enjoyed watching movies and cooking dinners without worrying about whether or not your friends are actually listening to what you’re saying or if they’re just nodding mindlessly while they scan Facebook. If there was anyone who needed to get ahold of us, then they could wait. Whatever we were doing in the moment was much more important. There was no one we desperately needed to contact who wasn’t right in front of us.

3. Value your time spent with the ones you love.

This lesson comes around again and again in life but became apparent in a cruel way this semester. It came as a huge blow when one of my good friends, Henry Mackaman, died of bacterial meningitis. I regretted not having appreciated any time we spent together longboarding, crafting and playing music, and was sad that I never made it known how much he meant to me and how truly great I think he was. I vowed that I would always let my friends and family know how much I love them. It was also tough to say goodbye to the great Irish friends I made while abroad. We all became friends so quickly that it felt like we’d been friends forever, and I count myself as extremely lucky to have met and counted the lovely Irish and American girls as my friends.

4. P.S. I Love You is a film filled with misrepresentations, overdramatized stereotypes and full-out lies.

This movie resulted in extreme psychological trauma as we soon realized that there are not, in fact, any attractive and charming Irish men. If you were lucky enough to spot one odds are they had a girlfriend, were gay or weren’t actually Irish at all. Furthermore, Gerard Butler has a terrible Irish accent. The Irish girls agreed that he would have done better sticking with his native Scottish, and I agreed he would have done better not thwarting the expectations of young American women who search vainly in pubs for men like him. Also, it is absurd to think that any sort of native Irish person would be found wondering the fields of Wicklow National Park. He is dressed in ridiculous clothes. He is not only completely unprepared for the mud and bogs he will undoubtedly encounter, but he is not wearing a Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch shirt like every other young Irish man I’ve seen. His hair isn’t even jelled. I probably won’t ever be able to watch this film again. In fact I am filled with loathing at the very idea of those conniving, devious and deceitful characters of Gerard Butler and Hillary Swank.

5. Appreciate your sunny days, even the rainy ones.

Sunny days in Ireland were few and far between. The first couple months there were spent dashing from one dwelling to the next, ducking your head to the wind and lashing rain while cursing whoever came up with the flimsy design of umbrellas. Any sunny day brought us running outdoors, falling to our knees and throwing our arms in the air with tears of joy running down our faces. We would run around maniacally wondering how we’d ever taken a glorious sky like this for granted. There were different kinds of rainy days. There were the kinds that brought rain and sun in cycles throughout the day. Rain for an hour, blue skies and sunshine for the next, then both at the same time for the next. Repeat. There were the kinds where the rain fell like mist and you thought it wasn’t a bad day at all to be out, but then you’d take a walk and find yourself soaked within ten minutes. There were the days where the raindrops lashed at your face like razorblades mercilessly for the entire day. But even these days were to be appreciated, because these were the days when you could shamelessly stay in your pajamas, turn the kettle on and move the mattresses to the living room for a lazy movie day.

6. Keep your heart happy.

The Irish deal with their rainy days and rainy situations in one of three ways: one, they crack sarcastic jokes at your expense; two, they brew a pot of tea; or three, they drink a pint of Guinness. All three are very effective at complementing any sort of situation from a celebration to the mourning of a broken heart. Furthermore, being genuinely friendly to another does a world of wonder of someone’s day. It’s amazing how much happier you feel when you know the ticket agent won’t yell at you for requesting a refund for a machine malfunction (unlike Spain), that the museum agent will believe you’re a student and give you the student rate even if you don’t have your student card because it got stolen (unlike London) and that the person with whom you’re interacting is likely to say “cheers,” “grand” or “lovely” at some point in your conversation.

Even though I’ve only been in the United States for a day, I’m missing Galway already. It’s hard to answer the question, “And how did you like it?” There is no way to describe the experience. “Fun!” just sounds stupid and obvious. “Great. It went by too fast,” sounds a little cliché, almost as if you’re explaining the fate of a delicious piece of cake. There is no way to perfectly encompass what Ireland means to me now. It’s home. It’s a place filled with love, lightheartedness and magic. It’s where I arrived, took a deep breath, and said, “Ahh. This feels right.” It was like experiencing myself in a whole other dimension, stepping out of the normal expectations of a 21-year-old and stepping into the shoes of someone who’s exploring, who’s wandering the landscapes of a country and herself, learning just what exactly it’s all about. It was like taking everything I knew, scrubbing it clean and switching a few pieces of the puzzle until it fit together a little more neatly, making me stop and think “Huh. Well that just makes sense.” I had a terrific amount of fun, a great number of things went dreadfully wrong, I made a tremendous amount of blunders, nothing went according to plan, yet it was all incredibly perfect. I knew going into this experience that it was going to be a huge event in my life, something I’ll never forget. What I didn’t know is how much Galway would make me look at things just a little differently, including myself.

All poetic thinking aside, it was some great craic. Cheers!

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Dodging Danger in Donegal

This past weekend I threw the ol’ rucksack over my back once more and set off toward Donegal, a county that lies about a four-hour bus ride north of Galway. I spent a night in the tiny village of Donegal town and then shoved off again for the even tinier village of Glencolmcille (pronounced, “Glen-collum-kill,” or “Glen-mumblemumble”). While there I took a beautiful walk along the edge of  Sliabh Liag (believe it or not, pronounced, “Slieve Leauge”). These cliffs are twice the height of the more commonly visited Cliffs of Moher and are counted as the highest sea-cliffs in Europe.  According to the hostel host, the walk along the cliffs was rated #2 in the world’s most beautiful sea-cliff hikes, second only to Australia. As obscure as that award seems, these things deserved the recognition. I wound up along the path that hugged the cliff edge, stopping intermittently to catch my breath and take in the spectacular views.

Sliabh Liag

Sliabh Liag

There comes a point in your hike when you must make a choice about your path; you either keep going along a more dangerous route, called “One Man’s Pass,” or turn back and catch the path around the other side. Yes, this is a metaphor for every decision I would henceforth make and would ultimately determine the trajectory of my moral development. So I literally laughed in the face of danger and carried on my way, continuing on my hands and knees on a narrow ridge with the cliffs dropping precipitously on both sides. And yes, this will translate directly into any future triumphs in my life. Reckless, you say? Or boldly taking the “road less travelled” in an effort to set the way for future courage and confidence?

One Man's Pass (a little more extreme than this picture seems to admit)

One Man’s Pass (a little more extreme than this picture seems to admit)

Perhaps my favorite part of the day was when the hostel host failed to receive the message that I would need to be picked up from the trailhead at 4:00pm. Sliabh Liag comes in last place in the world’s sea-cliff-cell-phone-coverage scale. Truth. I sat for an hour, chuckling at the Irish sense of time, before I became a little worried. I was fifteen kilometers from the hostel, it was raining and I was freezing. I knocked on the door of the small craft shop at the trailhead. A little Irish lady answered, “We’re all closed up now,” without opening the door.” “I just have a quick question,” I said hesitantly.” She opened the door and stood with her broom and dustpan in hand looking quite stern while I stammered something about my cell phone not working, how I’d been forgotten, how I wasn’t sure of the country code; basically just trying to get the point across that I was stuck there alone with no one to help. She was a bit cold at first, but as soon as she determined that I was not just an idiot American, that I may indeed be in a bit of pickle, she warmed up quickly. She offered to give me a lift to Carrick, about halfway back to Glencolmcille, where I would have cell phone coverage. She and her co-worker closed up shop while I waited patiently on the picnic table outside. Upon leaving the shop and sighting me waiting, she said, “Ah ya look like a wee orphan!” We drove away from the cliffs, the co-worker zooming around the narrow roads at an alarming speed while the shop-owner chatted away. She told me about her younger days, and commented on my nose ring. “I used to have my nose pierced you know. You wouldn’t believe it now but I used to be a bit of a punk rocker.” She went on about her younger days and subsequent blood poisoning from a piercing gone wrong, (“Oh yeah it had me a bit worried!”) until dropping me at the pub on the corner where I would meet the hostel host. I thanked them profusely for the lift, and as I was opening the door to get out the shop-owner said, “Oh not a bother at all, it’s a pleasure, and keep on traveling the world!”

She had drastically improved my mood, which dropped sharply again after I waited for a half an hour in the rain and cold next to the Sliabh Liag pub. It didn’t improve again until I got out of the lukewarm shower, cranked on the heat and buried myself under two duvets. There wasn’t a lot to do in Glencolmcille in regards to night-life, so I read a book and put myself to bed at a rather absurd hour.

The next day I decided to head toward the tower on the hill where there is another hike. It was about a four-kilometer walk to the beginning of the loop, but I had barely been walking for five minutes before a car pulled over and asked, “Would you like a lift?” I shrugged and hopped in. He took me right to the trailhead, stopping once to ask a man on the roadside what’s the best way to get to it. He knew the man by first name, and they gossiped for a tiny bit. I knew they were speaking English, but I had no idea what they were saying. The Donegal County accent was unlike any other. I thanked the man and went on my way up the “Tower Loop.”

It took me to a lookout tower that was installed by the British to keep on eye on the French who may have been planning on invasion. These towers were placed about every two miles up the east coast. I’d say they were a little paranoid; there wasn’t a lot to invade upon here and they had the whole cliffs issue to deal with first. The tower was right up on the edge of some more cliffs, offering an even more spectacular view since these cliffs dropped off so steeply. I crawled to the edge on my hands and knees since the wind was blowing so strongly I was afraid it would lift me off my feet.

The Lookout Tower

The Lookout Tower

Just as I was about to finish the Tower Loop hike, I saw a sign pointing toward the Drum Loop. Since it was early in the day and I had literally nothing else to do, I turned left to extend my hike. It was another lovely walk that wound up and over the small mountain and brought me down to a port buffered by huge cliffs. The waves burst upon the rocks and the water shifted in varying shades of blue. I sat and admired the sight before following the signs back up a road toward the end of the loop, which I assumed couldn’t be very far.

I walked happily down a shallow valley cut by a small river that ran sprightly through with the customary sheep dotting the surrounding fields. It was at this point that I realized I am inherently a shepherd. I was walking casually when one sheep started bleating and following me. Another followed, then another. Sheep came shooting over the hillsides, baaahing and bleating and joining in the flock without quite knowing why they were doing so. I walked a little faster, growing more and more concerned as the flock grew in numbers behind me. I turned and waved my arms in the air and made some standard psychotic noises to try to scare them off, but to no avail. They paused for a moment and kept on. I only lost them when I sprinted ahead, turned a corner and hid behind a boulder where they couldn’t see me. I didn’t see them coming, and shakily continued on the road, trying to get the image of me mauled and bloodied on the road from a vicious flock of sheep out of my head.

The sheep looking for their shepherd

    The sheep looking for their shepherd

 

Trying to lose the bastards

Trying to lose the bastards

I walked and walked, and kept telling myself that the loop would have to end soon, maybe just around this hill, just past this corner. I finally came to an intersection in the road where there was a sign. Glencolmcille: 10km. I said out loud, “Oh no.” But there was no way around it; I had to keep walking. I was in the middle of nowhere so had no hope to even hitchhike. And then, right on cue, it began to rain. And the wind picked it. And the temperature dropped. I ducked my head, put my hood up and cursed. Ten kilometers and 90 minutes later I arrived in Glencolmcille. It was another four-kilometer walk from there, but hey! That was nothing! What they fail to say is that Glencolmille is about 2.5 kilometers in length and the hostel was 4 kilometers from the far end of it. So that tallies up to way effing farther than I wanted to walk. When I finally saw the sign to the hostel, I laughed out loud with joy. With the intention of getting a solid four to five hour hike in, I had walked for more than seven.

I was glad to be returning to Galway the next day; I was homesick. All of my friends, American and Irish alike, had returned home so the city felt a bit different. In an effort to save money that I had borrowed from Caitlin upon the theft of my wallet (the second), I set out my fiddle case to pay for dinner. A 45-minute set got me a soup, some steamed vegetables, and a bag of candy. I opted out of the hostel that smelled like smoke, socks and sorrow and decided to risk the night staying in my apartment which was no longer under our lease. It felt good to be in Galway, but it once more reinforced my belief that the people make a place feel like home. My apartment was empty and drafty and there was no goofy gang of girls sitting on the couch in my living room drinking a pot of tea with digestives. My days are numbered here in Ireland. It is a bittersweet feeling to wander the streets and go to the market since I miss all of the people who used to accompany me. It feels like there are ghosts. But I am happy to meet my Aunt Kate and two cousins, Carolyn and Mary, to show them around my favorite city and show them how awesome Irish life really is.

 

 

Europe for Dummies

One of the perks in studying in a European country is the opportunity to travel the continent rather cheaply. Whenever the Irish rain was becoming just a little too much to handle, we’d excursion off somewhere for a four day weekend and do our best at fumbling through a foreign place. I recently returned from a two-week long venture in Spain, Italy and Croatia, which indeed gave me vast knowledge in how to look like less of an idiot (details to follow soon).

 I don’t think I could have taken any of these trips by myself given my ability to attract disasters. But as time went on we became a lot better at navigating through alien countries. There are some crucial things to learn about your destination before traveling, and below are some essential questions one must ask before considering an expedition.

 

1. What language do they speak?

When traveling out of your cozy little home, it’s best to be prepared with some essential phrases to help you get along in your destination. Simple things like “Please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” “Help me I am horribly lost and incapable,” “Where can I find Gelato?” “Please stop yelling at me,” and in the advice of my dear friend Meghan, “Please don’t steal my kidneys.” Of course some of these phrases will vary from place to place. For example, if you’re traveling to France you’ll want to brush up on words to help you relay your shame about not being French. You may even want to practice pleading for forgiveness on your knees. If you’re in Italy, you might get by with saying English words with an Italian accent, but if you’re really struggling for words simply point at the flavor of gelato you’re attempting to order.  In Spain, save yourself the bother and just speak English because they’re likely to become upset that you’re butchering their language with your elongated vowels and abrasive consonants.

 

 2. Which currency do they use?

This one would seem obvious, but it turns out that the term “European Union” is not congruous to “All of the Countries in Europe who choose to use the Euro as the payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a given socioeconomic context.” Thus, even if a country claims membership in the EU they can still use whatever currency they choose even if it makes it an inconvenience to young clueless travellers. This all becomes rather awkward when you approach a cashier in Prague with a fistful of Euro coins expecting to pay for your Belgian beer and only receive a glare and exasperated sigh. Your night is subsequently ruined.

 

3. On which side of the road do they drive?

Again, this one would not only seem obvious, but not too big of a deal when you don’t have a car or mode of transportation besides your own feet. However, I must say it’s a miracle that I’m still alive and still have functioning lower limbs since one often fails to look the appropriate way while crossing the street. This becomes especially bothersome when a city, like Amsterdam for example, uses bike lanes and trolleys widely and there seems to be no way to differentiate between the road and the bike lanes, and the trolley rails criss-cross the whole mess in no apparent order. You step cautiously onto what you think is the road. Just when you think you’re clear of traffic, you hear a peculiar dinging noise and look up just in time to dive out of the way of a cyclist hurtling their way towards you. You wipe the dirt from your knees and proceed nervously but soon realize that the “median” is nothing of the sort and there is a trolley making its way down the road at an alarming rate. Without even bothering to look, you duck your head and just go for it, sprinting across the “road” and diving into the safety of the, goddamn it, bike lane again. You scramble up, gasping for air, clinging onto the coats of pedestrians on the sidewalk and lie in a crumpled heap next to a fire hydrant until you can pull yourself together enough to try that suicide mission again.

 

4. What food do they eat?

This piece of information is only vital if you have dietary restrictions or if you’ve chosen to abstain from meat like some of my other study-abroad comrades and me. In some cultures it seems as if they like to throw any sort of animal flesh in their dishes, particularly in the Czech Republic. Our only vegetarian options proved to be some sort of fried cheese item. We giggled excitedly at first expecting a Czech edition of our Wisconsin cheese curd that we missed so greatly. Out came a strange square chunk of “cheese” covered in a bread batter. When a fork was inserted, the cheese oozed out in the consistency of some sort of goo, almost like an egg yolk. We could hardly stomach even a few bites. We sighed and turned to our bowls of French onion soup that we’d ordered for side dishes. As soon as we’d gotten past the broth and strips on onion, we were disappointed to find a swirled mess of pork nestled at the bottom of the bowls. I threw my hands in the air, pushed the bowl away from me and turned to sullenly drink my vegetarian-friendly beer.

 

5. Are the people nice?

Since we are so used to the Irish sense of hospitality, it came as quite a shock when people didn’t go out of their way to help people with blank-eyed looks consulting their maps on foreign street corners. In London, our first trip abroad, we were drawn almost to tears when a ticket agent refused to listen to us explain the expiration date on our student IDs to her, turning her nose up and insisting we pay the adult price. As soon as I thought I could handle the continental European sentiments, we went to Paris. Here, no one was willing to help, French people brusquely pushed by us on the streets, store clerks rolled our eyes at us and airport officials were completely absent when we sat abandoned in a snowy airport. Thus it is best to know the general personality of a country before your excursion for no other reason than you’ll know whether or not to take things personally.

 

Even after you have determined the answers to all of the above questions and have taken copious notes, you’ll probably arrive in the determined country and end of throwing all of your notes away because it’s nothing like you thought it would be. Our experiences on the continent have been great learning experiences and fantastically fun endeavors. We were always excited to go but almost just as excited to come back. And always, always, we found that no matter what grand places we saw or interesting people we met, our home is Ireland, and we couldn’t have chosen a better place. 

The Irish in their Natural Habitat

While studying in Galway, I was lucky to live with five Irish girls, all of whom had unique personalities and tendencies that made life in 110 Gort na Coiribe feel like a sitcom. Below I have profiled their behaviors and hobbies so that those close to me can understand what I’ve had to deal with for five months.

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Aoife O’Leary

 Aoife hails from Newbridge, a city south of Dublin. She enjoys doing math problems at the last minute, watching Criminal Minds and singing cheesy classic songs at the top of her lungs with a bottle of wine on Valentine’s Day. Aoife brought us home to Newbridge for two weekends where we were privileged to be able to meet Mary O’Leary, Aoife’s mom, and Lily, Aoife’s grandmother. We demolished their kitchen and took up all of the rooms.  It speaks to Aoife’s kindness that she didn’t throw us out of the house or never speak to us again after we embarrassed her in her local nightclub.

Laura Hanlon

Laura Hanlon

Laura also comes from Newbridge. She enjoys riding a scooter around the kitchen and sleeping on the floor of her room instead of her bed. I blame Laura for some study abroad weight gain as she arrived back in Galway every Sunday night with a plethora of candies and sweets. Now would also be a good time to admit that I often stole slices of her brown bread. She was also our only hope of seeing respectable Irish men. We all collapsed on the floor when we walked in one day and Laura had a few friends over who weren’t all women. Laura likes to attend balls, read and watch Harry Potter, and hoard mugs of tea.

Allyson Doyle

Allyson Doyle

Allyson was reared in County Tipperary. She is proud to say that the sport of Hurling was invented in a nightclub near her hometown, and the stick involved in the sport is called a hurley, and don’t ask any more effing questions about it. She enjoys sleeping past noon, playing with her poo and making empty promises. She and I spent many hours on the couch together, and we had a great knack for convincing one another to skip classes. She proclaims her love to us on a regular basis, but you must give her at least two alcoholic drinks for her to do so. When I first met Allyson, I was quite scared of her as she sat on the couch demanding soup and playing with her lip ring. This intimidation didn’t last long, however, and soon I was giving Allyson just as much grief as I gave everyone else.

 

Emily Holmes

Emily Holmes

Emily Holmes: Emily also comes from Tramore. She is the outcast of the apartment; the room often goes silent as soon as she walks in. She enjoys many activities ranging from kissing people’s feet, stalking a particular super model (to a concerning degree), and otherwise annoying the shit out of anyone nearby. Emily and I spent a lot of time together as she was most likely to be found lurking around the apartment on weekends. I would usually try to avoid her all together, but if I couldn’t, we would usually end up crying because we were laughing so hard.

In all sincerity, I count myself as the luckiest American in Galway because I got to live with and count these ladies as my friends. I don’t think I would have had such a fulfilling and fun Irish experience without these five characters. I thank them for putting up with me and inviting all of my American friends into 110 and making us their own. I will miss them the most out of anything in Ireland, but I know I will see them all again. And when I do, it will probably be me begging for a place to stay because I don’t ever want to leave Ireland again.

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Residents of 110 Gort na Coiribe

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The Writer’s Retreat

Last weekend, Caitlin and I again hit the international trail and hopped over to Scotland for a short weekend. I admit, I was a little anxious traveling with Caitlin again, as our last adventure had included far too many adventures, and not in a good way. Once again, we thought it was such an efficient and responsible decision to take the 2:00AM bus to the Dublin airport. Efficient yes, but in the adult definition of responsible, not so much. We arrived in Scotland in the early morning as it was just a short hop across the channel to our Celtic sisterland. We found our hostel, a lovely place with excellent breakfast (yusssss) and unique artwork adorning the walls. After we’d done some damage to the hostel’s supply of toast and nutella, we set forth into the wild unknown that was Edinburgh.

Again, Caitlin and I relied upon our foolproof traveling system of spotting a pretty structure, glancing quickly at the map to determine that the building could be one of at least four different landmarks, and walking in that general direction. Luckily, a large castle looms over Edinburgh, hardly clinging to the cliffs and staring sternly down upon the happy residents of the beautiful city. With a click of our heels and a toss of our hair, we began our excursion, hardly able to contain our glee and astonishment at the sun. Yes, the sun was shining, and it wasn’t even raining at the same time.

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We arrived at the castle doors and scoffed at the entrance fee. Twelve pounds? Nobody has money for that! However, we were snared in the tiger’s pit of the tourist trap that was the tartan mill that was conveniently located just outside our restroom stop. It was here that we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to adorn ourselves with traditional Scottish garb, including swords, bagpipes, and weaving materials, and pay twelve pounds for a patient little lady to take our pictures. You may have noticed that this was exactly the same price as the entrance fee to the castle that we couldn’t afford. In response, I say if you’ve seen one castle you’ve seen them all, but there is one and only one chance in this lifetime to look like a fool in a musty, heavy, womanly tartan complete with plaid booties and high-five your friend for how absolutely hilarious you are. You may or may not agree.

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After acquiring our treasured prints, we continued our journey down the Royal Mile, an iconic street that goes past a number of unidentified significant buildings, past a great number of kilt shops, and gives great opportunity for spotting little old men wearing kilts with sweat-tops. And we actually heard bagpipes at all times. It’s all true.

The next part of our trip took to us to Elephant Cafe where J.K. Rowling had begun writing Harry Potter. Needless to say, Caitlin and I were both besides ourselves with joy and took no issue supporting such a lovely business by buying lunch and postcards. The most amazing part of the place was, believe it or not, the bathroom. Here, countless visitors had proclaimed their love and loyalty to Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling. I have never been so emotional in a bathroom before, but I was indeed almost moved to tears.

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Caitlin getting inspired 

Our itinerary took us to Arthur’s Seat, a foothill that lies on the edge of Edinburgh and offers splendid views of the surrounding mountains and out to the sea on the other side. Despite our inadequate hiking gear, we made it it to the top without incident and even had time for a short nap on a sunny overlook.

We stopped to appreciate the fantastic views before making our view down the other side. As we stepped timidly, trying to keep traction in our flats and sneakers, Caitlin shouted, “Is that Matty Binder?!” It was so out of context it took me a minute to comprehend where I’d heard that name before, when sure enough, our good friend Matty was on her way up with her friend Becca whom she was visiting in Stirling. It was indeed a wonderful reunion, and it once again reaffirms my belief that you should try to keep yourself looking at least somewhat acceptable because you never know who you’ll see when you least expect it.

We decided to finish out the hike with our two friends, and finally made our way back down the hill. Since the two of them had not been to the Elephant House yet, we decided we’d humor them and go again. Becca showed us the coolest part of the cafe that we’d missed: there are drawers under the tables where patrons had written odes to Harry Potter, thanks to J.K. Rowling, and general sonnets about their adventures on scraps of paper and napkins. We left a few of our own and spent a good portion of time reading through the drawers. Becca then took us out the door and around the backside of the establishment to the graveyard that lies behind. Tom Riddel is buried here, the inspiration for the young Voldemort. We gaped in disbelief at the crumbling headstones, imagining our idol J.K. prowling the cemetery late at night, looking for the most evil of all names to bestow upon the most evil of all literary characters.

We bid adieu to our friends and headed back to our hostel for a well-deserved dinner and nap. Later that night, we dragged ourselves out of our deliciously comfortable bunks and headed back downtown. We crossed into Whistle Binkies, an underground pub right off the Royal Mile. I was called to this particular pub since I had spent a good portion of my adolescence in a pub by the very same name in Rochester, MN. I was transported back in time to memories of Irish music, dancing, late nights, large crowds, and the smell of alcohol. I then questioned what on earth my mother was thinking by allowing me to perform late at night in crowded bars. 

There was a wonderful cover band in the basement, and Caitlin and I ordered Ginger Beers (delicious!) and stood by to watch the band. It was a rather strange hodge podge of musicians: a woman singer who could belt it like Aretha, the hairiest guitar player I’d ever seen backed up by a man who looked like he’d come straight from the office, a bald, dad-like keyboard player in khaki slacks and a polo, and a very obese drummer with a bright orange t-shirt reading “Keep Calm and Fuck On.” Their appearances spoke nothing to their musical skill, however, and we had a great time bopping to some funky beats.

We collapsed into our feather beds (or small hostel bunks) after being awake for over 24 hours while navigating the foreign city. The next day we were bound for Loch Voil Hostel, quite a journey from Edinburgh. We boarded a train to Stirling and then a bus to Callander where we casually bumped into Becca and her friends running a race there (it was a good thing we’d showered the night before). Another bus got us to the King’s Hotel where we caught a taxi. A lovely woman brought us up the graveled, potholed road toward the hostel, passing boggy yards and mossy mountainsides until arriving at the house. It was really not a hostel at all, more like a lovely Scottish cottage with bunkbeds. We were greeted by Leslie, an old self-proclaimed hippie with two long white braids almost reaching her waste and a genuine smile with kind eyes. She mumbled and laughed and showed us our room. After marveling at how absurd it was that we were paying hostel-like prices for our very own cottage getaway, we laced up our hiking boots and walked back up to the road from which we’d come. We were truly in a beautiful place. The road was surrounded by such dense, mossy trees that bordered small streams that ran cautiously down the mountainsides that resided right behind our hostel. Rounding a corner on the road gave us views of the mountains across the lake and down the hillsides below dotted with sheep and lambs.

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On the way back, we walked along the lake and spotted twin lambs. We cautiously approached them, all while keeping an eye on the mother sheep who looked rather unconcerned nearby. Check it off the bucket list you didn’t know you had: petting twin lambs in the Scottish countryside.

We cooked in our own kitchen, read books at our own table, wrote in our journals, listened to traditional Irish music from our ipod, and played cards. We realized it really is great being without wifi or computers or television as we found our writing creativity flourishing and our minds whirring with fantastic ideas. We even found the time to write a mission statement and think of objectives for a writing club we’re going to found at school in Wisconsin. And even better, we went to our respective bunks at 10:00PM, read our books for an hour or two, and then snoozed like dogs. 

The next morning, we ate our toast and struck out the back door in our hiking boots. We literally walked up to the road, looked confusedly around for the trail that Leslie had mentioned, shrugged our shoulders, and went straight up. We scrambled up mossy hills and skirted around small waterfalls all while trying to keep on some sort of general track toward the top of the specified mountain. There were sheep everywhere, and we continued to be shocked by their presence as we climbed higher and higher and saw their nervous peering faces and ratty coats. 

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Scotland’s weather doesn’t differ from Ireland’s too much so we were not surprised by ten minutes of spitting rain followed by five minutes of blue skies and then fifteen more minutes of sleet. However, you never see rainbows without the rain (that should be on a Hallmark card) and we were not disappointed: we saw at least four rainbows within our four hour hike. 

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The top of the mountain proved to be really freaking cold, but the view was worth it. The only noise was that of the wind that whipped our hair around our heads and blew the sleet painfully in our faces. We saw a small herd of deer cross the hillside, looking back to check us out and make sure we weren’t following. We wondered around the summit of the mountain and crossed over to other lookouts to take pictures and shake our heads at the amazing experiences we were having. The best lunch I’ve ever had was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich overlooking the lake and surrounding peaks while sitting on a chair-shaped rock below an outcrop on the mountain to block the wind. It may have been that Scotland has superior peanut butter, but there was just something about it. 

We descended slowly, being careful to keep our footing on the sketchy slopes. We arrived back at the hostel, surprised that the hike had only taken four hours. After a nap, some journaling, and a snack, we went out for an evening hike along the road that ran behind the hostel. Back to the hostel for more reading, cards, and brainstorming for the sure-to-be-bomb club we’re establishing, and finally collapsed into our lovely little bunks once more. We dragged ourselves out of bed in the early morning to get one last hike in before we had to start the long journey back to Galway. We tried not to wake the Czechs who’d arrived late the night before (not “chicks,” as we’d thought Leslie had said) and packed up all of our stuff to board the taxi to take us back to the bus. The taxi driver told us stories about Rob Roy MacGregor who had lived in the area “stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.” Indeed, he is rumored to be the man upon which Robin Hood is based and the basis of the film “Rob Roy” with Liam Neeson. 

We splurged and took the taxi all the way to Callander. From there we took a bus to Stirling where we realized we had some time to kill. We giddily scavenged the sale table in a bookstore and got three books each for two pounds. Satisfied with our bargain shopping, we walked up the hill toward the Stirling castle and jail. Once again, we decided to skip the entrance fee and climb on the ramparts and take self-timed pictures being ridiculous. It’s a wonder people let us out of the house. Back to the train station we went and returned to Edinburgh. We finally got to the airport where we used up the remainder of my Scottish coins on copious amounts of sweets, boarded the plane, snacked on our candy for 45 minutes before landing in Dublin, and then snacked on our candy for three more hours on the bus to Galway. 

It had been a whirlwind of a weekend, and Caitlin and I wondered how we’d come full circle to Galway and weren’t curled up in fetal positions begging to never travel again. We felt refreshed and ready to take on the next week, when I’d actually have to do homework. Scotland is definitely on my list of places to where I would like to return, and I’m already missing the serenity of Loch Voil. But for now, we tuck into our papers and exams and try to soak in everything we’ve been wanting to do in Galway. But Scotland, you’re a close runner-up to our beautiful green island. 

A Weekend in Clifden

Two weekends past, I threw the ol’ rucksack on my back and took off to Clifden, a village that lies a nauseating 90-minute bus ride north of Galway. I was headed there for their 3rd annual traditional music festival. This was my first trip alone, and although I was a little nervous, I knew I would be safe in a tiny Irish town full of (probably drunk) friendly locals playing the tunes of their people.

I arrived around 3pm on Friday and dropped off my bags in the hostel. It was a beautiful clear day in Ireland, so I laced up my running shoes and took off down the road with no destination in mind. I ended up winding down the Beach Road past the fishing harbor and surfing club and ending at the shore. The only sound was the waves gently nudging the rocky beach. The wind danced delicately across my cheeks and blew my hair out of my eyes. It was truly a wonderful day.

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I returned to the hostel and met a few other visitors who I accompanied to the show at the Clifden Hotel. It mainly consisted of local teens who were in a special music program dedicated to traditional arts. I marveled at how these awkward young people with acne on their noses and perpetual looks of angst on their faces could click their toes and heels against the floor in rapid succession with ease. The pulled the bow across the strings and squeezed apart their accordions in complicated Irish melodies without a thought. The concert was followed by sessions in Clifden’s pubs which lasted well into the early hours of the morning. I grabbed a pint with the two girls I’d met at the hostel and enjoyed the music from the perimeter.

The next day I participated in a workshop at the Clifden Community School. I registered for the advanced class which consisted of me, a 60-year-old English woman, and seven Irish 13-year-olds. I learned three new tunes, but not much else, as most of us seemed to have equal or greater technical skill as the instructor himself. But no time wasted!

I took advantage of “Irish summer” and struck out for a long hike that afternoon. Clifden is known for its “Sky Road” which weaves along the hillsides to circle the peninsula in a long loop enjoyed by walkers and cyclists alike. It is home to numerous stopping points that give views past the dotted islands to the open sea. I threw a water bottle, my journal, and some snacks into my backpack and began my trek.

I soon arrived at the entrance to the castle to which some of the girls in the hostel had referred. I followed a hand-drawn sign down a small gravel road dissecting two plots of land holding fuzzy cows and blank-eyed sheep. I was unsure if I was trespassing or not, so I skulked down the road rather shyly, stopping to take pictures of the bay along the way. I turned a corner and glimpsed the castle in the distance. It truly looked like postcard with the sun’s reflection shimmering on the salty waters of the inlet and the colors of the countryside taking on a deep and vibrant green.

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IMG_2577     Yes. This is a real picture, and I took it myself.

As I walked past the castle, peering in the crumbling doorways and turrents, I turned the corner and saw an elderly man with a walking stick headed my way. As soon as he was close enough to talk, I clasped my hands and said nervously, “I’m sorry if I’m trespassing. I’m just having a look at the castle.” “Oh, no bother,” he said. “Let me show you around.”

He proceeded to give me a detailed tour of the castle, reciting a complicated history complete with dates and full names. He even tossed some stories and legends into the mix to keep it interesting. We caught up to a young English woman taking pictures ahead. He kept the stories going with legends of Grace O’Malley, the infamous woman pirate who patrolled the Irish waters and supposedly owned a castle just off the coast of Clifden. He tossed in some local knee-slappers. My favorite was a story about a man and his daughter admiring a newborn donkey. The daughter, upon seeing the creature and petting its fluffy ears, said to her father, “Dad? Can I marry a donkey someday?” The father replied, “Well, you won’t marry a donkey. But you might marry an ass.” The little old man chuckled heartily at his own joke and could hardly pull himself together enough to show us the way back to the road. We passed sheep caring for their young lambs and cows chewing their cud on the other side of the fence. I had to keep reminding myself that yes, you are walking in a field in Ireland next to an old man with a cap and a walking stick past a castle in his own backyard.

I ended up walking with the English woman to the look-out point. I had hardly seen things more beautiful. Lighthouses adorned the islands that were gathered around the mainland. The sea opened endlessly behind them, made more visible by the bluebird skies. I lingered at the viewpoint for quite some time, just taking in the silence and beauty around me. I separated from the English woman and began my walk back. It was lovely to just be on my own with no one else’s agenda. I took my time, stopping to enjoy the changing colors as the sun sank in the sky.

I arrived back in town just in time for the outdoor concert in the village square. A stage was set up next to the line of pubs lining the square and I didn’t wait long for the band to begin. They were excellent: the fiddle player, the guitarist, and the bodhran player worked together seamlessly to produce a lively show. The young dancers and musicians stepped in for guest performances throughout the gig. We kept away the chill by ordering hot whiskeys (hot water, whiskey, lemon, and cloves) and dancing to the beat. We hit up the pubs again for the sessions before turning into the hostel for another night.

The next day, I hitched a ride to Letterfrack, the entrance to Connemara National Park. My hostel friends had mentioned an excellent hike called The Diamond which gave spectacular views of the entire park. The day was a bit more cloudy, a bit chillier, and quite a bit windier, but I was not deterred in the slightest. The trail switchbacked up the mountain for some time, climbing past countless false summits before finally arriving at the pile of stones and small flag that suggested I had reached the highest point. I was treated to a 360 degree view of Connemara, looking out to the sea on one side, back to the craggy mountains on another, and down to the lake and Kylemore Abbey on another. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of battery about halfway up so I was unable to capture the moment, but it made it a little more special to me that way.

I descended slowly, zipping up my hood and tucking my hands into my sleeves as the wind was a put more brutal on the backside of the mountain. I wondered through Letterfrack for a bit, savoring a chocolate bar I had saved for the specific occasion before sticking my thumb back toward oncoming traffic and cruising back toward Clifden. I packed my backpack forlornly and caught the next bus back to Galway. It was great to be back in my home city, but I was going to miss the freedom and mystery of the small, beautiful village of Clifden. Hopefully I’ll be able to travel more around the green island by myself and do some soul searching along the way. But for now, I’m going to do all I can to enjoy my Irish home while I’ve got it.

Some lyrics for Henry

Although these past few weeks have been a blur of traveling, exploring, chilling, and enjoying my overall Irish experience, I don’t think I can give an accurate account of my time here without mentioning an extremely kind, creative, and clever young man. On Wednesday my friend Henry Mackaman lost the battle against a serious form of bacterial meningitis. As devastated as I am, as everyone who knew him is, I would like to share some memories about him so that those who never had the privilege of knowing Henry can understand the amazing person he was.

I won’t forget the first time I met Henry. It was move-in day my freshman year at UW-Madison and the lakeshore dorms were a mess of rolling red carts, packed staircases, tearful goodbyes, and cheerful hellos. I was climbing the stairs and he was descending when I happened to notice his t-shirt. It was a momento from Rock the Garden, a small music festival that is held at Minnesota’s Walk Art Center. I too had attended the event, and I promptly squealed, “Hey! Did you go there? I did too!” in a characteristic please-like-me-please-like-me-please-like-me voice. He smiled and nodded “Yeah I did. Great show!” And he continued down the steps.

My next interaction with Henry was during an ice-breaker held in the lakeshore courtyard (cringe). We were playing an intense game of Ninja. For those of you who have never participated in such a match, it involves a series of self-defense like maneuvers that go around a circle as one tries to deflect an advance by the adjacent person in the circle who had previously avoided the attack of the person adjacent to them on the other side. Participants are eliminated one by one as they fail to dodge the oncoming blow. Sounds simple right? If played correctly, the game is safe, athletic, and enjoyable. Anyway, we were all nervously trying to balance our competitive natures (we had got into Madison, after all) with the desire to not scare everyone off by pulling too aggressive of a move, when the game turned to Henry and the adjacent gamers. He avoided the attack, lept from the ground, twisted in the air to face the other way, and put his arms above his head in what can only be described as a textbook karate grasshopper pose. We all laughed nervously, and then genuinely, as we realized the most important lesson of college: it’s safe to be who you are. I don’t think Henry ever had any problem with this, but for people like me who didn’t quite understand where she fit in yet, I was immediately drawn to these people who seemed to have no questions about it, and I admired them for it. Henry was the epitome of such a person.

The next few weeks were a blur of cheesy dorm events (which we loved), countless games of cards in the den, intense matches of ultimate frisbee, “crafternoons,” and exploring our new campus and city. I remember being incredibly impressed with Henry’s ultimate frisbee skills. Woe was the player who had to guard him, as his teammates tended to launch the frisbee as far and high as they could, and Henry would invariably leap up and snatch it delicately from the air, just out of his defender’s reach. Even more impressive, he was faster and more skilled at the game all while wearing black, beat-up Converse (I never saw him wear anything else.)

As time went by and we began to know more about each other, a group of musicians started rallying on the floor, and there was much talk of “We should start a band!” (Mostly by me, in my still-unabandoned please-like-me-please-like-me-please-like-me voice.) The great Alex Schacherl and I began jamming around the capitol square during Saturday morning farmer’s markets. This evolved into a ragtag group of freshman who crammed themselves into one tiny dorm room complete with two guitars, a violin, a bass, keyboard, and all of these instruments’ corresponding amplifying equipment (I actually just realized how very absurd this was). One of my favorite memories of Henry, indeed of my entire college experience, was when Monty magically procured a tent out of who knows where and set it up in our den. Henry and Alex started ripping some chords and I couldn’t help but to go and grab my fiddle. As the tunes flew, we were soon surrounded by almost the entire floor of Snow Cole who cheered and gave requests well past the beginning of quiet hours. I think even the housefellows were sad to call an end to the show (except for Kelly, who reveled in abusing her powers against the fourth floor).

Setting up the tent. Notice everyone’s skepticism but Henry’s obvious enthusiasm.

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This was the turning point in Snow Cole’s musical ambitions. After countless jam sessions and an increasing repertoire, we were still without a name. It was Henry who came up with it: The Blue Towel Troupe. I don’t have all the details about the origins of the name, but I think it may have something to do with an unfortunate encounter with the housefellow after a shower and a failure to lock the door. You can find some original recordings here. These were all completed in the basement of our dorm; no small feat if you consider the work it took to not only find a time when the room was not being used, but to set up all of the instruments within a certain proximity to the microphone to allow for a balanced sound all while worrying about interrupting quiet hours or imposing on Greenhouse’s “kitchen time.” It wasn’t until listening to these recordings over two years later that I realized, well shoot, we weren’t half bad. I think our, and especially Henry’s, most astounding accomplishment was our numerous renditions of “Ballsac Blues.”(not suitable for all audiences.) Henry made up all of the lyrics and they were different each time we played it. You can all hear the entire band laughing in the background as his lyrics became more and more absurd, yet more and more genius. The capstone of freshman year was delivered by means of the Troupe setting up our equipment in the lakeshore courtyard where we had played Ninja nine months previous. Most of the other members of our floor set up blankets outside to listen to our tunes, and students from other dorms began congregating as well. By the end of our version of “Hey ya,” we were all in tears. We were all sad to see the year come to an end but were looking forward to the year ahead as well.

Sophomore year proved a little more difficult to get the Troupe together as we all lived within 50 meters away from one another instead of just down the hall. AND we would have had to go outside. Luckily, I was lucky to be able to spend time with Henry and admire his skills outside of music: longboarding (you can say it: “hipsters”). As a small group of Snow Colers cruised around town in the early months of our second year, we were all baffled by Henry’s tricks, especially me, who pushed nervously and could only do enough to not fly off the board all together. Some of my favorite memories of sophomore year were cruising down the Steenbock parking garage, holding Createvenings every Sunday night in the loft, and chilling on the Memorial Union docks. As the year went on, it became harder to get us all together as we got involved in other extracurricular activities and our workloads increased. The school year passed quickly, but we were all around Madison for the summer months. Three of my best friends were leaving to study abroad for the year, and I was having a rather tough time with it. However, one of my favorite memories of this summer was the going-away party held for Aubrey.  Henry arrived a little later with some other friends. We were all so excited that he was there, we all shouted in cheer as he walked through the door. I actually don’t remember Henry saying much, but his hugs and smiles and general goofiness held a presence of their own.

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Junior year brought in more changes in our group of Snow Cole family. Members went abroad, joined different organizations, moved residences, and made more friends. I didn’t get to see a lot of Henry in my first semester and for that I am filled with regret. However, I got to interview him for a journalism project about student bands on campus, and the paper gave me the highest grade I received the entire semester. The best part was I didn’t even have to do any work. I could ask one question, and Henry would answer thoughtfully, genuinely, and creatively enough so I just frantically copied down exactly what he said.

It was amazing that when Henry died, a large group of those Snow Colers assembled to say goodbye and honor him. I sat on a hostel bed on speakerphone with Meghan. I mostly just listened, eager for some sort of connection home. I couldn’t understand what my friends were saying, but I heard laughter amidst the tears and patches of freshman stories retold. Just the familiar voices of the group were soothing. Danielle and Aubrey were also on the other side of the world, both on speakerphone with another member of our group of friends. Leave it to Henry to get us all together in one place again.

Now that Henry is no longer with us, these memories have been brought to the forefront of my mind, and I sit awake at night recounting them, sometimes laughing and crying at the same time. It’s difficult for me to be abroad while my friends are gathering in his memory this week, but I will do what I can to honor Henry here. How? By laying down puns that make people groan, by playing music that brings people together, and by accepting both myself and others without judgment. We carry on in this world without our dear friend, but he’s given us some resources: the music he left behind and the friends he helped us make. Through his loss, we have also met others who knew Henry in different places and circumstances and through these people we can continue to learn about him. So for now, I bid a “See ya later” to our friend. And when I see him again, you can bet that there will be a new rendition of “Ballsac Blues.”