Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Blast from the Past

I’m putting off working on the mountain of papers I have due within the next two weeks, and so I present you with a highly belated entry on what was probably my favorite part of my semester in Ireland: my trip to Scotland with the mountaineering club.

27 October: Scotland

There were all sorts of meditations on Belfast I wanted to record, but now is not the time. We’re on our way back from the mountaineering club’s trip to Scotland. It was a blast, and I’m immensely glad I went.

There isn’t much to write about where Thursday is concerned. We took the bus from Galway to Dublin and Dublin to Belfast, then a ferry from Belfast to Stenraer. Then it was back on the bus to Glasgow, where we stopped for shopping before heading on to Fort William. It was dark when we got on the bus in the morning and well dark by the time we got off it in the evening. So when we finally made it to the hostel, all anyone wanted was food, tea, and sleep.

We stayed at hostel Chase the Wild Goose, which was great craic. We filled the whole thing, so there was no need to bother with locks and such. It was run by a twenty-something guy named Dan, who hung out with and played guitar for us in the evenings and even came out to a pub with us on Saturday night. He also kept us well-supplied with tea and coffee and wasn’t too fussed about us making noise late at night.

The hiking was, of course, great. On Friday we scaled Ben Nevis, which at 1340 meters is the highest point in the UK. It wasn’t a particularly pretty mountain, but it offered some decent views of the highlands. Unlike those of Ireland, Scotland’s major hiking mountains appear to have trails, a fact that I thoroughly appreciated. This, and the fact that I decided to pay for hiking poles, made the walk a lot easier than Mweelrea. It was a long walk, but most of it wasn’t particularly steep. We were told that the medium and short walks would be covering the same distance, but at different speeds, so I chose to walk with the slow group—why hold up the faster walkers when I already know I’m slow?

The difference in conditions between the base and the summit was remarkable. It was raining at the base, but it was too warm for me to keep my hood on without overheating, so my hair was soaked through. Then we got above that level of clouds and it was clear for a good long while, giving us a chance to see the surrounding countryside. But as we climbed up higher, we reached a layer of fog—nowhere near as thick as it had been on Mweelrea, but enough that the lovely view was gone. And as we neared the summit, the terrain became snowier and snowier—there were probably eight inches of it up at the top of the mountain. It was snowing, too, if lightly, and the wind picked up as we went. This was fine as long as we kept moving, but once we got to the top, we got pretty chilled.

Coming down was hard, though. The snow and then the rocks were slippery, and my knees were killing me. I couldn’t keep up with the group either; I tried for a while, but it soon became clear that there was no point in fooling myself. At some level, I knew that there must be people behind me, that they wouldn’t have just left me behind without a leader on sweep. But I was so far behind the main group that I had a hard time imagining that anyone could be moving more slowly. For 2/3 of my descent, I was completely by myself—and for a lot of that, I couldn’t see anyone from our group either before or behind me. It was miserable, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t bitter and frustrated.

Our second day’s hiking was an easy walk along a hill overlooking Loch Ness. There were some decently steep hills, but they weren’t very long, and it was a well-established trail. What you would expect of hiking in the US, really. The walk was short, though, only about an hour—I think we spent more time looking for the trail than hiking it. We didn’t get very close to Loch Ness, either, which was a little disappointing. We did take the bus over to the parking lot above the castle for a closer view, but it wasn’t the same thing.

Ben Nevis by day

A truly enormous tree.

Taken on the bus, believe it or not!

Our last day of hiking was Glencoe, and let me tell you, it was spectacular. Ben Nevis was great just to be able to say that we did it, but I would happily hike Glencoe again. It helped that the weather was wonderful, cold but clear and sunny.

We didn’t take the most logical way up, which meant that we spent a fair amount of time picking our way up and along a field of loose rock (my least favorite of all the hiking surfaces I’ve encountered so far). But eventually we passed that point and were rewarded with some truly spectacular views. Up at the higher altitudes, there was snow on the ground—but because there was enough sun to melt it, you got these really cool ridges where half of the mountain had snow and the other half didn’t.

There came a point near the top where we were told we could see the rest of our route: up a steep and snowy slope and along the top of a ridge before starting back down. Looking up at that one face, all I could think was, “you’ve GOT to be kidding.” Not only was it snowy, it was so steep that it was almost like climbing a ladder—a sharp, irregular, slippery one. But getting to the top was immensely satisfying, and the view from the top was stunning.

Say it with me now: "You've GOT to be kidding!"

The view from the top

And in the midst of all this natural glory, we got a bit of history. We hiked through the valley where the Campbell clan massacred the McDonalds, a surprisingly flat expanse that tapers to a deep crack running up the mountainside. It was a peaceful sort of place, and you’d never guess at its bloody history.

This is the canyon in question.

All in all, I’d say we did a pretty impressive amount of hiking: about 9.5 miles on Friday, which took us up (and, of course, back down)1340 meters. Sunday only took us up about 900 meters, but it took us much longer, so I’d say we walked a good deal further. Not bad for a weekend’s work.

But the hiking was only half of what the trip was about; I’ll remember the time we spent just hanging out just as strongly. On Friday night, we went to a hotel bar and then a pub with a fair number of the group. Katie was short on cash and had to pay with a credit card, so I got her a drink at the first place, and she bought me one at the second. Didn’t give me much a choice about it, really—she asked if I wanted a beer, and I said I wouldn’t know what to get. She just looked at me ad said, “come on,” so I followed her to the bar, and she bought me a pint of Foster’s, which was okay. I met some new friends that night—Andrew and Connlet, whose full name I cannot remember or spell properly for the life of  me, even though it’s been repeated to me on several occasions. In my defense, he speaks quietly, so spelling it out for me while we’re walking on gravel didn’t help me much. I joined them in playing darts that night at Connlet’s insistence; he asked if I wanted to play, and when I passed half-heartedly, he just handed me the darts.

Katie and I had a great time at the pub in town on Saturday as well. Space was pretty tight, and so we ended up crammed into sharing a little table with two guys who weren’t from the group. They were in Fort William on some sort of conservation project, and I think they were Welsh. We ended up talking to them about all sorts of things, from Guinness and microbrews (Katie and I both tried and liked An Teallach, a local brew) to Irish prejudices to the amounts and kinds of tree cover in Ireland and Scotland. Their names were James and Pete, and they were great fun to talk to. Ames even gave us his business car, in case either of us had a LinkedIn account.

As much as I liked the hiking, the socializing might have been the best part of the weekend. We had a really interesting roup of people—international students and staff from France, Germany, Finland, Poland, Romania, Nepal, and the US; older Irish men and women who just take part in the club for the craic of it; a Scottish guy who was doing the same thing. I think I’ve had more experience with the Irish language and musical culture, as well as linguistic conversations, with this club than anywhere else. Several of the guys are studying, researching, or working with Old or Modern Irish, so I could discuss linguistics with them and ask questions like “why is Dublin called Baile Átha Cliath if the name comes from Dubh Linn?” I walked into the kitchen to do my dishes at one point and Liam and Aengus were talking to/shouting at each other in Irish—just functional stuff, nothing longer than “would you pass me that towel?” but still cool.

There’s also a fair amount of knowledge of traditional music and dance. There was an older man and woman who were fantastic at what I’ve since learned is called sean-nós, or ‘old-style’ dancing, and a couple of the others seemed to have at least a basic knowledge. They tried to organize a couple of set dances as well, telling us that we went in and then out and then cross left and then right and so forth. There wasn’t enough space and half the group seemed to have issues with rhythm and direction, so it was a royal mess, but it was great fun nonetheless.

We had plenty of music as well, as we had fiddler, a tin whistle player, and a flutist  for trad music. Plus there were a good four or five guitar players, if you count our host. So there was a lot of singing—traditional and modern, accompanied and a cappella. Though I guess I was the only one singing a cappella. I think I’m going to have to learn to play the guitar; it would be nice to be able to provide my own accompaniment, and a lot of my favorite songs really rely on the instrumental contributions.

All of this made for a grand fancy dress party at the end. The beer, cider, and whiskey were all flowing pretty freely, and they handed snuff around as well, though the Americans categorically refused that one. People went all out with the costumes too—black cats and witches, of course (lazy Americans that we are), but also babies, cowboys, a Trekkie, a leprechaun, batgirl, 70’s guys, an astronaut, a tooth fairy, Pinocchio, a corpse bride. I hadn’t planned or brought a costume, but I wore all black, tied a scarf around my waist for a tail, put my hair up as ears, and used eyeliner to draw on whiskers and a nose. Michelle gave me cat eyes as well—she was a great hand with the makeup.

Corpse bride Michelle, who did such a great job with my makeup (not to mention her own!)

Not long into all this revelry, we played something called the box game. The idea is to pick a box up off the ground with your teeth, without touching the ground with your hands or knees. Those who manage it pass on to the next round, for which you tear off a layer of the box so that it’s about half as tall. I made it to the second-to-last round, for which the box walls were about three quarters of an inch tall. Three people managed the next level, where it was just a flat piece of cardboard, but not me; I was able to get that low, but I couldn’t figure out how to pick the thing up. My muscles were not happy about the unexpected deep lunges; I’m sorer from that than from all the hill walking!

This trip turned out to be one of my favorite weekends of the entire semester, and I’m so glad I went. I made friends with whom I continued to hang out for the rest of the semester; I’m going to miss the mountaineering club and the people in it a lot.

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Busy, busy, busy

I have been in remiss in my blogging recently. My apologies. I really do have journal entries for Mweelrea, Scotland, and Belfast (and possibly another weekend as well?)… I just haven’t gotten around to typing them up yet. Instead, I have been busy with reading Milton, talking to Irish people, hiking up and down mountains in both pleasant and abysmal weather, learning to speak Irish, seeing rainbows, annoying Katie by pointing out that “ambulatory” means “walking” when she tells me to call ambulatory services if she falls on the broken glass on the stairs, trying not to get caught in downpours and hail (with varied success), sitting in Café Luna to do homework for long periods of time, acquiring a taste for various Irish foods, wishing I had the time and determination to do NaNoWriMo, getting better at climbing, realizing I need (or at least very much WANT) my own climbing shoes, getting hooked on Battlestar Galactica, dealing with registration/changing majors/where I’m going to live next year while out of the country watching TG4, adding words like “craic,” “legit,” googeen,” “eejit,” and “amadan” to my vocabulary, having weird dreams about dancing and then getting chased through Walmart by a large and intimidating man because I called him out on shoplifting, writing run-on sentences, and having other similarly exciting adventures. 


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Rambling Catch-Up

I have been in remiss in my blogging recently. So here is an attempt to catch up.

From our weekly Skype sessions, my parents have gotten the impression that I don’t go to class much, which is somewhat accurate. Though I’m taking six classes (19th Century American Literature, Early Modern Literature [Shakespeare and Milton], Saints and Sinners in the Celtic World, Imagining Modern Ireland, The English Language in Ireland, and Irish for Beginners), each one only meets for two hours each week, with the exception of Irish, which meets for four. Fourteen hours of class per week in total, which really isn’t much. The classes are pretty forgettable, too, especially my Saints and Sinners class. I have never sat through a more boring hour of droning about Columbanus and, more recently, St. Patrick. But I’m hoping Miami will count it as a theology class so I can fill up my last CAS requirement.

There isn’t much in the way of homework, either. Only the Irish class features what they call “continuous assessment” – graded homework assignments and tests on a regular basis. For the others, my entire grade will be based on a final exam or paper, and maybe a midterm if I’m lucky. This, my friends, is TERRIFYING. November is not going to be fun. But perhaps December will be, as I’m pretty sure that I will be completely done with at least three of my classes by December 6th.

I do have a fair amount of reading to do; I’ve been slogging my way through lots of Shakespeare (Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and A Winter’s Tale so far; I missed Hamlet and will have to reread it sometime soon). I’ve also found, much to my own surprise, that I actually enjoy Hawthorne when I’m not terrified by the prospect of writing an essay for Tanimoto on it. And now I have about another 400 pages of Moby Dick to get through. How I’m going to find the time for that, I’m not entirely sure. But I like what I’ve read of it so far.

What I’ve been doing outside of classes and classwork might not take up as much time, but it certainly seems more worth talking about. Sadly, I think I have to limit myself to swing dancing once a month. There is a swing scene here, but I just can’t justify €10 per week for a one-hour lesson. It adds up way too quickly. The place and time are inconvenient, as well, and I can’t keep asking my friends to walk across town with me at 9 pm.

This is not to say that I’ve been going without dancing, however. Dansoc offers lessons in Irish dancing, breakdancing, salsa, and hiphop, but naturally I have class during most of these. I did manage to make it to Irish dancing last night though, and I would like to continue going. My calves feel otherwise about the matter, but they’ll adjust.

Going to Irish dance last night meant that I didn’t go to archery, but there are other times during the week that I can go. It’s a pretty relaxed club; you show up and you shoot, and the more experienced members give you tips on how you can improve. For reasons unknown to me, my form was great the first week and fell to pieces last week. Maybe it will be better tomorrow.

I’m also doing capoeira once a week. I’ve only been once so far, but it was AWESOME, and I mean to make every effort to keep going. Capoeira, for those who don’t know, is a Brazilian martial art that was developed by slaves who had to hide the fact that they were training for combat. In essence, it’s combat dancing. I really wish we had it at Miami, because I have a feeling I’ll be hooked by the end of the semester.

There’s also a mountaineering club here, which naturally I joined. They offer wall climbing twice a week and go on hikes on Sundays. Katie and I took the bus out to Leenane, in the hills of Connemara, on Sunday. Katie opted for the short walk; I decided I would take the medium one. Perhaps I should have taken the short one, as a short hike is preferable to none at all.

My walk got off the bus, and then the leader read off the names to make sure we were all there. At this point, one of the guys asked if there was time to go to the bathroom before we headed off. The leader said yes, so I followed the guy who had asked into the café across the street, and I think another girl from our group went too. I should have made sure the leader knew that I was going; you would think I would have learned this lesson by now, as many times as this has happened to me. But I didn’t, and sure enough, when I got out of the bathroom, the group was gone.

Katie wasn’t answering her phone, and this was my first hike with the group – I didn’t know the names of the exec board and hike leaders, much less their phone numbers. So I called Catharine, and she in turn called Arcadia and International Student Services to get hold of the mountaineering club’s contact information. I failed to make it clear to her that it was in the parking lot with the bus that I had been left behind, so by the time she got through to Ishvan, the club’s captain, I wasn’t just “left behind,” but “missing.” We got that cleared up eventually, but it had taken about 45 minutes for me to get through to anyone; the hikes had progressed too far for me to catch up, or for someone to come back for me. So I got to hang out in Leenane for another three hours.

Leenane is along the only fjord in Ireland, and even from the town itself, the scenery was pretty spectacular. My friends from New England say that it’s not that much different from being in Vermont or upstate New York, but I love mountains no matter where they’re found. I only wish I’d actually gotten to hike these. Another time, I guess.

I did spend my time walking the beach and exploring little creeks, going as far as I could without trespassing on what was clearly private property or straying too far out of the town, which I had been specifically asked not to do. Ishvan didn’t want me wandering off on my own and getting lost for real, which I understood.

The weather was nuts, which I guess is fairly typical here. I saw at least five rainbows that day, which isn’t terribly surprising, because the weather went from dark and rainy to bright and sunny to bright and rainy on a fairly regular basis. This attempt at putting together a panorama is crudely done, but it should be enough to give you the idea:

That’s Ireland for you right there. 


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I wish…

… more than anything…

But seriously, now that I’ve got that song stuck in your head (and if you were ever involved in Into the Woods and now have to sing through the entire musical to get it out of your head… sorry!), I really do wish:

  • The Irish had a defined passing pattern. In the States, you walk on the right side of the sidewalk, you don’t run into people, and everything’s cool. Here, they’re as likely to go left as right, and they probably won’t move out of the way if you’re on a collision course.
  • The Euro hadn’t gone up to $1.36. Ouch!
  • The grocery stores here sold sour patch kids. And Worcestershire sauce. And turkey, not in a package where you pay E3 for 3 slices.
  • Irish kids turned the TV off when they were done watching it. Or at least before leaving the house.
  • It wasn’t impossible for me to canyoning at Interlaken.
  • Swing dancing lessons weren’t E10 for a one-hour lesson once a week.
  • I could have actually been with my family for the September birthday celebrations.
  • That more of my classes had midterms. (A weird concept, I know – but think how stressed/terrified I’m going to be in November when I’m writing essays upon which my entire grade will be based!)
  • It were easier to make Irish friends. It’s really hard when your classes are massive lectures! But maybe now that I’m doing mores stuff with the clubs and societies, I’ll have more luck.
  • That Miami had a capoeira club, because capoeira is awesome.
  • That I understood how the heck Gaelic Football works.
  • That some of my friends could be here to experience all this awesomeness with me. Because although this list was mostly one of complaints, I really am having a great time.


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Homestay in Tuam, part 2

17 September

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.