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.


Now What?

Coming home is hard.

Certainly, there are days when I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for washing machines and paved roads and reliable hot water and the thousand other conveniences I’ve mostly lived without for the past year. There are times when sink back into a known and longed-for activity with enthusiasm and delight, like the 20+ hours of dancing I did the weekend before Thanksgiving,  and times when I rediscover some simple pleasure I’d forgotten altogether in its absence, like cinnamon graham crackers.

But there are also days when I’m overwhelmed with the enormity of life in America and all the things I’m supposed to be able to navigate now that I’m an adult: Car insurance. Credit cards. Running into an ex-boyfriend and pretending it doesn’t still hurt to be around him. Actually flossing every day because I no longer have dental insurance. Watching friends get engaged and married and not even having a date to bring to their weddings. Resumés and networking and interviews and all those other things you’re supposed to do to get a job and that I haven’t really dealt with because aside from easily-obtained summer gigs, my job up until I left for Mongolia was to be a student.

And, of course, the big existential question: Now What? What do I want to do with my life?

I know that regardless of which way I go, I’ll have to start at the bottom of the career ladder and work my way up. I know it takes hard work to get yourself much of anywhere; that part doesn’t scare me. You don’t get yourself a full ride to college and then graduate .01 short of Summa Cum Laude without plenty of hard work.

But I had a goal in those days, and the good grades were their own reward. Now I’m floundering, searching for direction, afraid to spend the next ten years at the bottom of various career ladders as I put in the time and the effort required only to realize that I’ve started up the wrong ladder yet again and move to the bottom of yet another. It’s not work I fear, but wasted work that does nothing to help me figure out what I want to work towards.

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

It doesn’t help that my interests are of questionable practicality. Computational linguistics seems to be the biggest career field available to those with my degree, and unfortunately, it holds very little interest for me. My favorite (degree-related) classes when I was in college were the linguistic anthropology classes, in which we talked about meaning-making and analyzed language as an expression of cultural and personal identity. How do you get a job doing that?

More than once, we touched on the Myaamia Project, a language reclamation effort headquartered at my home university by faculty and members of the Miami Tribe. I learned that language reclamation was a field that held great interest for me, and when I went to Ireland in 2010, I found myself drawn to the Irish language and the people who were passionate about returning it to everyday use. I also learned that Ireland was in economic turmoil had few jobs for its own young people, much less interloping foreigners. The dream of getting involved with the Irish language effort in some manner – be it as a teacher, a professor, or as some manner of government employee – shone only briefly before it was quashed by the cold voice of practicality.

What do you get when you Google "the nine nines of Mongolian winter," a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

What do you get when you Google “the nine nines of Mongolian winter,” a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

Then, as you all know, I went to Mongolia, where I enjoyed learning the language but was frustrated by the lack of good learning materials. There are a number of Mongolian textbooks available, but I had a great deal of trouble finding one that I liked, as their explanations of the grammatical structure were often insufficient or confusingly, even nonsensically, worded – if they were present at all. I was further frustrated by  Mongolia’s apparent absence from the English-speaking internet, which made it hard to source any observations or conclusions I wished to draw and all but impossible for me to blog about anything broader than my own experiences. There are books on Mongolia, to be sure, but they’re few and far between and largely inaccessible to the public. Most of what’s available is more of what I’m producing here: personal experiences unconnected to broader research, with most additional information coming from hearsay. Anecdotes, not data.

So there’s an information gap there, a niche to be filled, and I’m definitely interested in applying the knowledge and experiences I gained from what was undoubtedly an unusual experience. It would be a real waste for me to walk away from this year without putting those things to use, as though the whole year never happened. But it would take years for me to acquire enough Mongolian language skills to begin filling that gap in a scholarly way, and frankly, I’m not sure I’m willing to give them. Mongolia is a country of three million people, Mongolian a language of 5 million speakers, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into so narrow a niche. Because while I’m interested in Mongolia and the Mongolian language, I’m not passionate about it; it’s not part of me or my heritage the way Ireland is. “Interested but not passionate” is how I felt about architecture my freshman year of college, and I dropped that major within a year, too burned out to continue.

What I am passionate about is writing, which is why this blog is still chronicling my Mongolian adventures even now that I’m back on the other side of the world. The unexpected confluence of interesting and little-known things to write about, a place to write about them, and people who were actually interested in reading them was one of my favorite things about my time in Mongolia. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life writing about Mongolia, per se, but I do know that I want to spend my time writing about something. I’m particularly partial to essays that are part analysis and part personal experience – I’ve had a piece on my mental backburner about The Things They Carried and my fears for my military brother for some time, and another about the Gaelic Storm song “Raised on Black and Tans” and the superficiality of my understanding of my Irish heritage. I’m sure I could pull a number of such pieces out of my experiences in Mongolia, if only I knew where to look.

Or where to write for. I’ll be guest posting on A Girl and Her Travels later this month, and I mean to submit some entries for the Fulbright blog and, if I can come up with a creative approach to their not-very-inspiring prompt, Expats Blog, but I want to do more than just blog – I want be actually published. Unfortunately, I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to look for places to be published, and I could very much do with some suggestions as to where to try submitting pieces.

It feels stupid to expose this sort of vulnerability to the whole wide world, to complete strangers and even potential future employers who might happen to Google me and find that I haven’t always been passionate about whatever it is I’m applying/interviewing/auditioning for. It feels wrong to address my uncertainty in such a long-winded, rambling post, rather than boiling it down into a couple of simple, direct queries. But I’m willing to publicize my own version of what I’m sure is a very common crisis in hopes of crowdsourcing some suggestions from you, my dear readers. I don’t want to risk omitting the detail that will spark a useful suggestion simply to meet some self-imposed word limit. I know the people who read this blog come from many different walks of life, and I want to take advantage of that diversity. The choices and opportunities that seem obvious to you might be ones I’ve never heard of.

So if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this wandering account of my lack of direction, I thank you for listening. And if anything I’ve mentioned has sparked an idea of what applications my linguistics degree and international experience might have, or where I might try to submit my writing, I’ll be even more grateful. I’ve been wandering for a while now, and even if my next journey takes me someplace completely unexpected, it would be nice to start with a destination in mind.


Really, I Swear I’m Not Cold (Yet)

Mongolian people have thus far proven to be very protective of me where cold is concerned; in fact, “overbearing” might be a more accurate word for it. I’m forever being told that I should put on slippers if I’m indoors, or a hat or a coat if we’re so much as passing through the courtyard on my way to class. More than a few of them have looked at my current cold weather apparel (a raincoat layered over a sweatshirt) and told me that it isn’t warm enough and I need to switch to my winter coat.

I beg to differ. I know they’re just trying to look out for me, and in January, I will doubtless heed their wisdom gladly. I’m sure that the dead of a Mongolian winter will teach me the real meaning of the word “cold.” But for now, I wish they’d lay off. I don’t think they quite grasp that America is a pretty big place, and parts of it, Chicago among them, get pretty darn cold. A Chicago winter has nothing on a Mongolian one, certainly, but it’s no picnic at the beach either. While I haven’t seen a temperature north of freezing for at least a week and wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t again until spring, the weather here hasn’t been exactly frigid – daily highs in the high teens to mid-twenties, nightly lows around 0. (All temperatures in Fahrenheit; if you’re a Celsius-user, convert accordingly.) To me, it still feels like an average December week in Chicago, except a month early. This is nowhere near the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced. We’ve yet to equal the coldest week I remember from college in southern Ohio, much less Chicago (or for that matter, Minneapolis or Colorado at New Years’, both of which I’ve experienced on multiple occasions). Thanks for the advice, friends, but I know how to manage this level of cold. It’s the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina residents you should be worried about.

Moreover, I know my own body and how it handles changes in temperature. My body is excellent at heating itself up and terrible at cooling itself off, which means that I overheat quickly and easily. My ideal weather for any sort of outdoor activity (with the exception of beachgoing, since sunbathing does not qualify as an “activity,” and Lake Michigan never gets “warm,” only “less cold”) is 65 and sunny. Most of my friends would prefer it a good ten degrees warmer, but not me. It was 40 degrees when we hiked up Maol Réidh, and so foggy that the mist was condensing in our hair; I started the hike in a rain coat over long sleeves over short sleeves, but by the time we’d been walking half an hour, I’d stripped down to a T-shirt. That’s why I prefer cold to heat: you can always put on more layers, but there are only so many you can take off.

I’ve even found myself too warm here, outdoors, in the past week. When I walked to the gym on Monday morning, the temperature was probably around 0 (the Internet said -1 when I left and -7 when I returned, so who knows), and the walk to the gym was a good 15 minutes, so I’d layered up: tights under my pants, raincoat over sweatshirt over long sleeves, and my bank robber hat instead of the usual Russian grandmother way I wear my scarf. (A million thanks for that, Corry – it’s the warmest scarf I own, and I wear it nearly every day here!) And man, was I tempted to remove a few of those layers by the time I’d been walking for five minutes.

So please, coworkers, do note: my current “coat” is perfectly sufficient for the moment; it’s what I wear all winter in Chicago. It’s my fingers, toes, and nose that are more problematic, and no coat is going to keep them warm.

I think a big part of the reason the cold seems minimal so far is the weather that accompanies it. I lived through 13 full Chicago winters, plus a few weeks in the middle of another four – and let me tell you, they are a drab and dreary affair. The cold is so much colder when it’s accompanied by clouds and that vicious wind.

But the sun and the wind most come from different directions here, so it’s usually possible to walk on the lee side of a building without having to stay in the shadows. And there almost always are shadows, because there is almost always sun. Mongolia is known for its blue skies. The last few days were completely cloudless, with only a few to be seen today or yesterday – no uniform skies of grey stratus here! It means colder nights, without clouds to trap the days heat, but it also means the days here are infinitely more cheerful. And being in the sun makes a huge difference in the apparent temperature. We’ve only had one miserable day so far, and it wasn’t the temperature (probably around 15) that made it so, but the sharp wind and blowing snow. It felt more like 0; in fact, I’ve felt warmer in 0* weather.

Earlier this week, a friend asked if I fear the coming winter. A little, I said. I’m nervous about January. But for now, I’m doing just fine.

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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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I fail at this blogging thing.

And so I present to you another entry I should have posted long ago.

October 18: Belfast

The number of unoccupied weekends before me is dwindling, but if I can, I’m going to have to come back to Belfast. It was far too much to try to take in in a single weekend.

We visited the Giant’s Causeway on Saturday morning, and I was enchanted. They gave us two hours, most of which were occupied by a guided tour; I could have stayed at least another three hours to explore.

The Giant’s Causeway is basically a big set of cliffs beside the sea. These are pretty awe-inspiring by themselves, but what’s really awesome about them is the rock formations.  The cliffsides are largely composed of interlocking hexagonal columns of gray stone, though there are pentagonal, quadrilateral, and heptagonal columns as well. Each column could be circumscribed by a cylinder about a foot to a foot and a half in diameter, and most of them have curved horizontal divisions every foot or so. The overall effect was a lot like looking at a giant, petrified honeycomb, but none of the explanations offered involved behemoth prehistoric bees.

Explanation the First: Giants

This area was once home to the legendary Finn McCool, an Irish giant. Here he lived with his wife and grandmother and a slew of animals. The chimney to his house is visible in part of the cliffside, and he left behind other traces as well. His hunchbacked grandmother is now part of a neighboring hill, where he turned her to stone when she refused to deal with her drinking problem and returned after indulging her taste for uisce beatha one time. (Literally translated ‘water of life,’ the phrase is pronounced ish-kuh baha and is the origin of the English ‘whiskey’). His dog, duck, and camel, all proportionally giant-sized, were covered in lava once upon a time, and thus they are still visible as well. And then, of course, there’s the size 96 boot he left lying on the beach.

Anywho, Finn and his family weren’t the only giants in the vicinity—Ben something-or-other lived across the way in Scotland. Apparently he was a bit of a bully, and so one day Finn took it into his head to make his way over to Scotland in order to beat Ben up. And so he built himself a bridge, carving the columns that we see today. But when he made it across to Scotland, he found that Ben was quite a bit bigger than he. Since he had no desire to play David, he abandoned his plans and fled back to Ireland, with Ben in pursuit. Following his wife’s advice, Finn hid in the baby cradle to await the arrival of the Scottish giant. When Ben arrived at the house, Finn’s wife told him that her husband was out at the moment, but that he was welcome to come in and say hello to the baby. Ben took one look at Finn, curled up in the cradle with the blankets pulled up to his chin and a pacifier in his mouth, and decided that if the baby was this big, he didn’t really want to fight Finn after all. So he fled back to Scotland, tearing up the bridge behind him. All that remain now are the hexagonal columns at either end of the bridge, for the same stones are to be found at a site in Scotland.

Explanation the Second: Plate Tectonics

Northern Ireland and Scotland lie along the edge of the European plate, and when the American plate started to pull away millions of years ago, magma oozed through the resulting gap, covering the area in lava. These lavaflows became the basalt that is to be found throughout Ireland today, though in places it changed into other kinds of rock. The top- and bottommost layers of this lava cooled relatively quickly, forming your standard, rather amorphous basalt. The middle layer cooled much more slowly, however. It began cracking as it cooled, forming three-pronged stress fractures. These stress fractures grew eventually joined up, resulting in the geometric formations we see today.

There’s a path along the top of the cliffs, and I would have liked to hike it, but we hadn’t the time. On the way out, we stopped for a group photo at the ruins of Dunluce Castle. You had to pay to get into the castle itself, so we followed the footpaths around and under it instead. Here we were provided with a couple of irresistible opportunities to see just a little bit more. And so, in brazen defiance of the “no access” signs, we climbed down to the subterranean beach in a cavern below the castle, and up the cliffside along one of the walls. Dirt, a spectacular view, a rare sunny day, and the opportunity to scrabble up and down areas I probably shouldn’t be climbing—a good day, all in all.

I ran into Maggie towards the end of our time at the cliffs, and we made tentative plans to meet back up at the hostel, Unfortunately, these and subsequent plans to meet each other fell through due to the separation of the buses, my lack of internet access, and our mutual failure to include the country code when sharing our phone numbers. (I have since become far more proficient at making international calls). We shall have to be better prepared when she comes to Galway in two weeks for the Aran Islands trip.

Friday and Saturday afternoons I spent wandering the city with Celina, and part of the time with Jordan and Emily. The city center is beautiful, full of that juxtaposition of history and modernity that so characterizes European cities. It more what I expected Dublin to look like, and from what I had seen of the two cities at this point, I much preferred Belfast. With the exception of Grafton Street, I found Dublin rather dull and monotonously modern in its urbanity, with little of the historic charm I associate with European cities. Belfast seemed to have much more character, even though it’s a much younger city.

Sadly, I was once more disappointed in my quest to visit the great cathedrals. As at St. Patrick’s in Dublin, I arrived too late in the afternoon. The cathedral was closed, and I had to content myself with taking pictures from the outside. But I did get some lovely pictures of the exterior, for we arrived at that magical hour of the afternoon when the sun gilds it touches before sinking into the shadows.

Other highlights included the majestic town hall in the city center, and over on the banks of the Lagan, an enormous ceramic blue salmon and a modern statue of a woman on a globe, holding a ring over her head. She’s meant to represent peace and prosperity, but the locals refer to her either as “the doll on a ball” or “ the thing with a ring.”


Since we confined our wanderings to the city center, it wasn’t hard to forget that we were no longer in the Republic. The buildings were beautiful, the atmosphere vibrant, with no sign of the tumult the city has experienced. The only sign of this division we saw in our first two days was the bar across the street from the hostel. It was called The Royal, and both its name and the flags it flew (British, Ulster, Australian, and Confederate) proclaimed it to be a Loyalist establishment. We were advised not to go there.

For those unfamiliar with the politics of Northern Ireland, the country is divided between the Nationalists, who want the six counties it contains to be part of the Republic, and the Unionists, who want to stay part of the UK. Each of these sides is further divided between a more moderate faction and an extremist, paramilitary one. The extreme Nationalists are called Republicans, the associated paramilitary organization being called the Irish Republican Army; the extreme Unionists are called Loyalists, the associated paramilitary groups being the Ulster Volunteer Force and the UDD (Ulster Defense… something), or Ulster Freedom Fighters.

While the city center shows little evidence of the Troubles, as this conflict is called, the bus tour on Sunday took us out to Sandy Row and Shankill, old Loyalist areas where the conflict was literally splashed all over the walls. (Shankill, incidentally, is not a combination of the words ‘shank’ and ‘kill’ – it’s the English version of sean cille, Irish for ‘old church’). The walls here were covered in murals, some older and more violent than others. Depictions of Unionist heroes King William (or Billy the Bastard, as I’ve heard him referred to in the Republic) and Oliver Cromwell were popular, and one mural even asserted the right of children to a safe place to play—but others showed masked men holding machine guns. The spiked fences and barbed/razor wire that had only appeared occasionally in the city center were a lot more prevalent here, and we saw more and more of them as we approached the peace walls.

The walls were erected at the height of the Troubles to separate working-class Catholic and Protestant communities. The idea was that separating the two groups reduced the possibility of violence between them. What resulted were tall walls topped with spikes and razor wire and covered in murals. The spikes, images of weaponry, and overall dereliction of these areas served as a vivid reminder that Belfast has yet to finish recovering from its war-torn past.

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Things I Should Have Posted A While Ago, Pt 1

This has been sitting in my journal for a month, and for some reason, I’m only now posting it. Due to internet connectivity issues, I will have to insert the pictures at an even later date.

October 11: Mweelrea

Having been in Venture Crew since I was fifteen, I’d like to think I’ve done a fair amount of hiking – in Wisconsin, in Minnesota, in Michigan, along a small portion of the AT. Yesterday, however, I went hiking with the NUIG Mountaineering Club, and I can say without doubt that it was the most intense hike I’ve ever done in my life.

We scaled part of Mweelrea, the highest peak in Connacht (western Ireland, to those unfamiliar with the geography of the island). Let’s just say that the photo album is titled “Holy ****, We’re Climbing THAT?!?” for a reason. The incline for a good portion of our ascent had to be between 45 and 60°, even steeper at some points, meaning that we were essentially crawling uphill some of the time. Our ascent took us up several hundred meters – within the first hour alone, a number that grew to over 800 by the end of the day.

Complicating our hike was the fact that Mweelrea doesn’t have trails, something I’m coming to realize is true of most Irish hiking locations. We got on the mountain by hopping a gate and followed the fenceline up the mountainside as we began our climb. I had to hang onto it at several points, being careful to grab the portion below the top string of barbed wire, in order to keep my footing as we made our way at an awkward angle across slick grass, slicker mud, and unfortunately placed rocks. You could never be sure of where to place your feet, as even the grass was often untrustworthy. Connemara is the land of bog, meaning that the ground gives way beneath your feet like a sponge, often submerging you to the ankle in muddy water. Standing water, where the ground is level enough to allow such pools to occur, is to be avoided at all costs; if the ground is so saturated that even a few inches of water are visible above the surface, stepping in the puddle could well mean plunging knee- to waist-deep in it.

We were all cold enough to don our coats before starting up the mountain, but the hard going quickly warmed us up. Hats and coats were put away, though I was the only person to do most of the climb in short sleeves. The going was tough, beut we stopped regularly for breaks, and so I had no trouble keeping up. Indeed, for much of our initial ascent, I felt like the group was too closely bunched; I kept having to stop so that I could see and plan my steps three or four at a time.

The forecast for the day was sun, but the sun was scarce to be seen. A think layer of mist hung about the tops of the mountains, obscuring their peaks from view – and by lunchtime, we had entered that veil. Our breaks became more frequent, as it became harder and harder to see all the way to the back of the line. Eventually, this became completely impossible, and three or four people immediately before and after me were all I could see. Visibility was down to about fifty feet, our fearless leader completely enveloped by the fog ahead.


Only once before in my life have I experienced fog so dense. It swirled around us, muffling all sound. It clung to us, condensing in our hair – no longer do I thing the “foggy dew” of Irish song to be a gratuitous expression. It isolated us, allowing every hiker to climb alone in his own quiet, white world.


The ground had leveled off considerably by this point, diminishing to an incline that, while still distinctly uphill, was comparatively gentle. As far as we could see (which, admittedly, was not far), we were walking across a wide, sloped field. For perhaps twenty minutes, we were able to walk somewhat normally, without using our hands for support and balance or worrying about the placement of every foot.

Which made it all the more surprising when the ground to our right abruptly fell away. We had reached the ridge and were now hiking along the rim of a massive bowl. Not five feet to our right, the edge was studded with impressive boulder formations, which although they punctuated it, did not hide the steep slope or the potential for a very long fall. On a clear day, the view from this rim must be spectacular; as it was, the boulders, half-shrouded themselves, were the only things visible between us and a vast white abyss.


The view to the left was more comforting, but not by much. It too sloped away, albeit much more gradually. But because anything more than forty feet away was completely swallowed by the mist, it was impossible to tell if the hospitable downhill continued, or if it too would end in an abrupt and deadly drop. Making our way somewhat gingerly along the roughly ten-foot-wide strip of navigable ground, we finally reached a small cairn. This pile of stones, little more than a foot high, marked that we had finally reached the highest point of this particular route up the mountain.

But there was no time to stop and celebrate, for we now had to make our way back down from the height we had just reached. And while the descent was less strenuous than the ascent, it was immensely more stressful. The rock on this part of the mountain was different and consisted mostly of small, flat, and frequently sharp-edged stones. Though I wouldn’t have imagined it possible, the footing here was even more treacherous than it had been on the way up. Imagine, if you will, trying to pick your way through a minefield of small loose stones along a pathway that has narrowed to only a few feet. Best step carefully, because a misstep that throws your balance too far to the right could quite honestly be your last. But don’t take too long deciding on where to put your feet, because the gap between you and the person ahead is widening. Most of the group is completely out of sight, and the path ahead isn’t marked. Once or twice, the group ahead of me disappeared entirely, leaving me to figure out my own way across the rocky slope, a harrowing task indeed.


At last the rocks gave way, and we reached a much larger cairn that had been erected to mark the way down. We turned right here, and after making our way one at a time around one particularly difficult corner – the cling to the rock and edge sideways along a foot-wide ledge that disappears altogether at the point of the protruding right angle kind – we were again making our way down the mountainside, with no frightening edges coming perilously close to our path. You still had to be careful about where you put your feet, though, as the ground was muddy and steep.

This seems an appropriate time to mention that the mountaineering club deems several things essential to attend their hikes. These include: hiking boots; wind- or waterproof pants (or at least pants that are not jeans); water; lunch; and a change of clothes for the ride back. During our descent, I was brusquely reminded that the change of clothes should be a full one, including not just a shirt, socks, and pants, but also underwear and a sweatshirt. If, as is entirely possible, you step in a wet patch and wipe out completely, you’re going to want all of those. Even if you can change out of your muddy outer clothes, the bus ride home is not going to be comfortable if you have to sit through it in wet underwear.

At long last, we made our way back down to the bus. My knees were killing me by the time we reached the bottom, and the last part of the descent seemed to take forever. We had finally gotten below the fog line and were able to see just how long we still had to go. The unstable and slippery nature of the  ground meant that you had basically two choices: go slowly, and place every foot with caution, or move fast enough that the ground didn’t have time to give way beneath you. Istvan was of this second, mountain goat mentality, and I envied him his ability to skip nimbly down the mountainside. My own legs were far too exhausted to manage such a thing and would probably have given out beneath me if I tried.

I was thoroughly impressed by the sheep of the region. Even the steepest cliffs were dotted with tiny white specks, and while it was certainly thickest at the base of the mountain, we had to dodge sheep scat all the way up to the top. “Fit as a Connemara sheep,” I have decided, is one of the highest compliments you can receive as an athlete.

In retrospect, all of this sounds a lot whinier than I meant it to. The climb was challenging, and certainly not something I would attempt on my own, but it was well within my own abilities. If anything, it gave me a better idea of what I am capable of. And the terrain, though somewhat perilous, was amazing to behold. My day at Mweelrea was an intense and difficult one, and muddy and misty to boot, but that was what made it awesome.

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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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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.

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Homestay, part 1

17 September, 2001

It seems chose (well, Arcadia chose) a good weekend for my homestay. The traditional music festival is going on here in Tuam (pronounced [tum] or chewm – like ‘tomb,’ but with a ‘ch’) this weekend, which promises to be a lot of fun. Aside from that, however, I don’t know how much of a traditional or even typical family experience I’ll get here. I doubt that most Irish families take in six international students at a time in addition to their own four children.

There are two 17-year-old girls staying until Christmas, one from Switzerland and the other from Italy. There are also two 18-year-old French boys who are here for the week, and an 11-year-old Spanish boy who’s finishing out his month here. And then there’s the 14-year-old  Spanish girl who’s staying with the neighbors but spends most of her time here, playing the family’s 5-year-old girl. The teenage girls all speak good English, but the boys seem to be harder time. It’s like being back in Dijon only in reverse – they insist that we converse in English so that they can practice but I resort to French when they appear to be having difficulties.

I tried talking to them over dinner, but the conversation was about as interesting as the food. I can’t remember the last time I had chicken nuggets let alone Spaghetti-Os – but in all fairness, they do have a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 13-year-old. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to cook for 13 people.

I’ve talked with the parents, and with little Abby, but I’d like to get to know the boys in the family. None of them seem to be particularly talkative; the 19-year-old I only met in passing. The family’s been taking international students for 9 years, longer than the two youngest children have been alive – what must it have been like to grow up with such a transitory family?