I spent most of this weekend hanging out with Arianna and Nadia, the international students who are here until Christmas. I went out for Chinese food with them and six of their friends—a girl from Switzerland, two from Italy, and three from Germany. The Swiss girls were all from the German-speaking part of the country, so I didn’t have anyone with whom to talk in French. I did wish there had been, because the two groups periodically broke into conversations in German and Italian, neither of which I could understand. I know now why their program pairs students with different original languages within the same host family—if English is the only language they have in common, they can’t default back to speaking in their own language.
In general, however, the girls were good about switching to English to share the joke with everyone. Arianna and Nadia had warned me ahead of time that all of the girls would be younger than me. But I told them that wasn’t a big deal—it wasn’t that long ago that I was 17. Moreover, I spent a good portion of my summer surrounded by teenagers and preteens. Mostly, however, those teenagers were boys, and as I noted last night, the difference in maturity between 17-year-old boys and 17-year-old girls is remarkable. Naturally, boys were a prominent feature of the conversation—including their principal, who is apparently considered quite sexy—but the discussion was significantly less graphic than similar conversations I’ve had with guys at camp. I also found it interesting to listen to the different girls and the way they spoke. I hadn’t known before that Swiss German was considered its own language, but I did notice that the Swiss girls sounded more French to me than German. I was also interested to note that Arianna’s Italian accent is much more pronounced in French than in English. And I discovered with fascination that there may be something to the French belief that Germans have a less pronounced accent when speaking other languages, or at least that they sound like Americans. Perhaps it’s because English is Germanic in origin, but it was the German girls’ accents that seemed to differ the least from my own.
Linguistic matters aside, what struck me most was our similarities. Seventeen-year-old girls are 17-year-old girls, it seems, no matter where they’re from.
In other respects as well, I could as easily have been staying with a family back home. Irish mothers with five-year-old children are just as likely to serve you chicken nuggets, hamburgers, or Spaghetti-Os as their American counterparts, though they’ll ask if you want a cup of tea afterwards. And they’ll listen to American music and could quite possibly know more about American television than you do, if you don’t watch much TV. This went for the international students as well; I’ve never seen an episode of One Tree Hill, but some of the German girls love the show.
But in other respects, my homestay was a distinctly Irish experience. My host mother’s sister and half-sister both came over for a cup of tea and conversation this morning, bringing their five-year-old sons with them. Both of them live close enough to walk, though I imagine it’s rather more difficult for the half-sister, as she’s fighting cancer that sounds like it’s pretty advanced. They stayed for about half an hour while their children ran rampant in the back room.
The one-lane roads with sharp turns around blind corners, winding past stone-walled pastures filled with sheep and cattle, were also a sight to which I certainly wasn’t accustomed. There was also a strange smell in the air—smoky, somewhere between the odor of burning charcoal (sans lighter fluid) and wood smoke. Judging by the contents of the basket of fuel before my host family’s wood-burning stove I think it must have been peat.
The other awesome and very Irish part of the homestay was that this was the traditional music festival in Tuam. I wasn’t able to attend much of it because it largely took place in pubs, where the girls I was hanging out with were not supposed to be. But I thoroughly enjoyed the parts that I did see. I went to a little bar called McDonough’s while the girls were at the library. It was located at the back of a little general store called the Custom House and roughly the size of a postage stamp. I exaggerate, but only slightly. There were two booths, a small assortment of stools, and then the bar itself, with room enough between for about six people to stand.
The band was small as well: one man with a guitar, and another with an accordion, later joined by a third with a bodhrán. That was all they really needed, though. The really cool part was that other people sitting nearby (though in such a small place, there’s no such thing as far away) would join in by picking up the guitar, adding vocals to a song that was being played, or starting a new one. It was hard to tell the band from the customers, which I really liked. And there were other people who participated as well: an old man who reminded me of Grandpa did a shuffling sort of dance to a couple of songs, remarking as he did so that “there’s no fool like an old fool.” And after he sat down, a little boy who couldn’t have been more than four years old started bouncing around to the beat. It was adorable and immensely satisfying to see.
The bartender himself was incredibly nice as well. All I’d gotten was cranberry juice, largely because I didn’t feel like shelling out for cider, but he offered me tea when I finished my juice. When I asked how much I owed him for it, he said that he wouldn’t have offered it if he intended to charge me. He also came out from behind the bar to talk to me since I was sitting there by myself. He wanted to know where I was from, as does anyone who hears me say more than three words, and how long I was here for, and for what purpose. When I said I was studying in Galway, he told me that his son goes there as well, though I won’t see him because he’s studying in France for the semester. And when I told him that I was studying literature, he got a book out from behind the bar and gave it to me. He told me to keep it as a present, saying that his neighbor had written it but that he hadn’t really had the time to read it. It’s called Eggshells and Broken Dreams, and while I haven’t really had a chance to read it yet, I certainly mean to do so while I’m here.
It was a really fantastic weekend, one that I don’t think I could have experienced anywhere else. And while I complain about the ever-partying students, the difficulties of the Irish registration system, and the incessant rain, I really like Ireland so far. The people are lovely, the culture is fascinating, and there’s great craic to be had all around.