January 2009 Reflection

Human beings fascinate me. They always have. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved going to airports and other transportation hubs to observe the eclectic collection of humanity, witnessing people of all ages, backgrounds, and traditions. I’ve nourished my enthusiasm for people-watching across the globe this year during my many travels. My favorite location thus far has been the Seoul subway in South Korea as I found the Korean reverence for elders, obsession with technology, and subway sales techniques enthralling and unlike anything I have experienced before. Their reactions to my presence were also new to me; small children literally stopped in their tracks and stared. A taxi driver even asked my friend if I was a celebrity—he was convinced he had seen me recently on television.

Though I am leading a completely different life in Ireland than I ever could have dreamt of back in the United States, not everything has changed. Many of my personality traits and interests, including my love of people-watching, remain the same. Other facets of my life that have remained constant include my work habits, my enthusiasm for family in all its forms, my desire to learn about different cultures, my interest in ghosts and graveyards, my love of language, and my passion for delicious cuisine.

The most glaringly obvious constancies in my life are my work habits, particularly procrastination and messiness. I have always been a procrastinator, putting off what I could do today until the day after tomorrow. Such a tendency has become even more problematic with my travel plans. During recent journeys to Sweden and Korea, I’ve taken procrastination to a new level. I woke up obnoxiously early in the morning to work on term papers, took in the sights during the day, and returned to Ireland hours before my assignments were due. Another trait that remains is my tendency to make my workspace a disaster area. My roommates from the Naval Academy can attest to this inclination; for some reason, while working, I like a good mess. I find it comforting to wreck my desk, leave journal articles littered about, crumple rice krispie treat wrappers on the floor, fling clothes on the bed, and pile up dirty dishes next to my computer. My DCU room has subsequently reached new levels of devastation unfathomable at USNA, most likely because I actually have my own space without roommates or room inspectors to yell at me to clean it up! I find it cleansing though to tidy up my room upon completion of an assignment —I guess it serves as some kind of closure, the final step of the writing process. My work habits remain unaltered in Ireland, for better or worse.

Another aspect of my life that remains unchanged is my love of spending time with my family. I was spoiled at Annapolis—unlike most midshipmen, I had the chance to see my parents nearly every weekend as they formed the core of the women’s track and cross country fan base. It has been quite an adjustment to see them less frequently. Fortunately, my parents and brother came over to visit Ireland in December for ten days, providing me with the chance to catch up with them. I think it’s safe to say that it was the best family vacation we’ve ever had!

Starting in the North, we circumnavigated the island in our rental car. We began in Belfast, where we took a black cab tour and afterwards enjoyed the tastes of the traditional Christmas market. We then proceeded to Giant’s Causeway, which was especially magical because of the incredible storm swell—it literally “snowed” foam on us. We then smelled the fresh whiskey mash at the active Bushmill’s Distillery and drove to Derry/Londonderry, where we walked the Bogside murals and learned about the apprentice boys’ role during the siege of Derry. We dined with Lara, who had the opportunity to learn the source of my nerdiness: my family. While debating something about the elements of the periodic table (you know, normal dinner conversation?), my brother proceeded to answer our question by breaking out the pocket-sized periodic table he received from Virginia Tech that he stored in his wallet. We literally could have been in the movie Nerds. Later, when discussing some other matter, my father reminded Lara, “This is the family whose son carries the periodic table in his wallet.” It was nice to joke around with my family.

My family then journeyed south to Galway, where we took a bus tour of Connemara, saw a whole lot of sheep, and photographed “an Irish sense of humor” in Recess. We then proceeded to Cobh, formerly Queenstown, a famous emigration port and the last port of call for the Titanic, prompting my mother to pose a question for the ages: “Did the iceberg hit the Titanic or the Titanic hit the iceberg?” Finally, we stopped in Waterford and Kilkenny before heading back up to Dublin for Christmas. On Christmas Day, my mom and I attended a multi-hour mass at a Romanian Orthodox Church, a unique Christmas experience. During the afternoon, my father and I walked Dublin for a few hours, taking in most of the major sites. After a delicious buffet dinner at the Radisson, we finished the day by watching the “Christmas classic,” Groundhog Day, together. The last few days of my family’s vacation were spent in Dublin visiting Collins Barracks, sipping Guinness at the Gravity Bar, and dancing with my Dad in Temple Bar. It was great to see so much of the island with my family.

Members of my extended family from the Naval Academy, my friends Sarah and Eric, also visited me in Dublin in early December. We listened to the flawless harmony of Handel’s Messiah in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, only a couple hundred feet from where Messiah first debuted over 300 years ago. We practiced our hurling and Gaelic football skills at Croke Park, learned about the complexities and strictness of Georgian living near Merrion Square, and drank at the Brazenhead, where many Irish revolutionaries were known to enjoy a pint. It was wonderful to experience more of Dublin with my Navy family as well.

I’ve also loved forming a bond this year with my Irish family, the Mitchells, as we celebrated major holidays over the past couple of months. Thanksgiving dinner featured a remarkable potluck—I told Chris’ wife, Kacey, accurately, that her sweet potatoes were the best thing to happen to me since the Mitchell scholarship! Spending New Year’s with my Irish family was a blast too—Tyler, his friend Carlos, Lara, and I rang in 2009 in Edinburgh at the world famous Hogmanay Street Party. Though we had to wait in line for three hours to pick up our tickets, it was worth it when we banded together with our fellow partiers to call out a “non-English speaking” French girl who tried to cut in front of us in line. My French came in handy as I explained to her, “In Scotland, we wait in line…” She finally left after 20 minutes of chiding. The lengthy wait for our wristbands was worth the party as well. We had a blast on Prince’s Street as we watched fireworks explode over Edinburgh Castle, chatted with random English students, and never felt classier as we drank awful merlot out of plastic wine glasses with foil lids. Having a chance to enjoy major holidays with my Irish family was a great experience.

Along with spending time with all forms of my family, my desire to learn about different cultures and histories has persisted during this year abroad. I’ve learned more about Ireland, Sweden, Scotland, and Korea over these two months. First, I have furthered my knowledge of Irish history, coming to understand the intricacies of the Troubles in past months. I have admired both the Unionist and Republican murals in Derry/Londonderry and Belfast, touring them with members of both sides of the conflict, including a former member of the Ulster Defense Force. I also had the chance to learn about Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes while watching Hunger, a movie that disturbed me so greatly that I literally had to sleep with the lights on for a week. I also watched Bloody Sunday and had the chance to learn about the day’s events in detail during my family’s trip to Londonderry/Derry. Finally, in November, the Mitchells met President Mary McAleese, who was kind enough to share her thoughts about Northern Ireland, which were particularly interesting since she grew up there, as well her opinions on other major Irish political issues. My practical coursework in Irish history and culture has focused on the recent past over the last few months.

While travelling with Ryan, Chris, and Kacey in Stockholm, I had the chance to learn about the nuances of Swedish culture as well. What was most striking was the lack of daylight during the winter because of the high latitude—the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon, making us feel exhausted by 8pm. Despite the lack of sunlight, we celebrated “the return of light” on St. Lucia day. We visited Skansen, the Swedish colonial Williamsburg, and learned about the traditions of the Italian Catholic Saint Lucy, the “bringer of light” to Sweden during a period of incredible winter darkness. Stockholm also appealed to my nautical side as we visited the incredibly well preserved Swedish warship Vasa, a 17th century ship that sunk minutes into its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor. It was amazing to learn its story as well—with its ornate paintings and incredible color-scheme – the Vasa must have looked like something Barbie would command on the high seas. Enjoying Swedish meatballs, glog, and delicious pear cider while learning about Swedish history further fulfilled my desire to learn about other cultures.

I also learned a great deal about Scottish culture during New Year’s. We stayed in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, and even journeyed up north. Upon seeing the indescribable beauty of the highlands as well as the lochs that, like mirrors, perfectly reflected the snowy mountains that surrounded them, I understood why ancient tribes thought creatures and fairies lived beneath the waters. Tyler, Carlos, and I also searched the waters of Loch Ness for the infamous monster, but to no avail. Back in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, we learned about the controversies surrounding the coronation stone in Edinburgh castle, honored Scottish warriors in the castle’s War Memorial (which reminded me of John Paul Jones’ crypt in Annapolis), witnessed Victorian CCTV at the Camera Obscura, played with cockroaches at the Glasgow Science Museum, and learned about the world’s religious traditions just outside of Glasgow Cathedral. Lara and I even climbed Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano right in the heart of Edinburgh, for a panoramic view of the city. In just five short days, I became familiar with Scottish history and culture.

Finally, in January, I had the chance to learn about Korean history and culture during a trip to Seoul to visit one of my good friends from high school, Phillip. First, we brushed up on our Korean War history with a trip to the DMZ, where we climbed in tunnels dug by North Koreans to invade the South, viewed the propaganda village right over the border, as well as sighted the world’s tallest flag (160m high!). During a visit to the War Memorial museum, we learned how the Korean War was truly a seesaw of success, as the city of Seoul itself changed hands four times during the first year of combat! Korean museums were also different, especially with regards to history. They were very general, as Koreans seem to view their history in this way: “Kingdoms and dynasties existed for upwards of 5,000 years. Then, the Japanese came and occupied for 40 years. Finally, the Korean War happened.” Though Korean museums may have been relatively light on historical depth, they were full of beautiful Buddhist and Asian artwork as well as lighthearted amusement. My two favorite museums were the Teddy Bear Museum at Seoul Tower, which explained the history of Seoul city through dynamic teddy bear dioramas, and the Kimchi Museum, which displayed over 80 varieties of the Korean staple of pickled cabbage and red pepper. We also took trips to see ancient Buddhist temples, Asia’s oldest astronomical observatory, and visited the famous Busan fish market. Even now, I’m not certain if it is possible for fish to still be in the ocean after seeing the tremendous amount of eel, octopus, and flounder available for consumption in the market.

Phillip, during our many subway and train trips, also explained to me many of the nuances of Korean culture, including the Confucian emphasis of age and respect, the “greenness” of the country, the obsession with technology (there were flat screen televisions in the subway!), the constant focus on education, as well as the sheer crowdedness. Korea is the size of Indiana, yet Seoul alone has a population of 25 million (five Irelands!), which explains why everyone lives in apartments. My favorite story he told me, though, relates to the “coupley” culture of Korea. People in Seoul are always in pairs, normally with their significant other. If someone is single and a friend asks what he/she is doing for Christmas, he/she will respond, “I’m spending it with Kevin.” Kevin, the Christmastime significant other, is none other than Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone, the classic movie that is required viewing during the holidays. Who knew that an American movie would be such a holiday staple in Korea! I knew very little about Korea before my trip over there, so it was a real treat to have a good friend introduce me to the culture.

Along with my desire to learn about other cultures, a random, rather morbid fascination that has also continued this year is taking ghost tours and visiting graveyards. I really enjoyed the ghost tour in Edinburgh because we learned about the closes, admired John Knox’s grave in Parking Spot 23 near Edinburgh Kirk, and had a chance to go in one of the most haunted places in the world, the old city vaults underneath the land bridges of Edinburgh. Back in Dublin, we toured Glasnevin Cemetery and saw the Republican plot, featuring the resting places of anyone who is anyone in Irish politics, including Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Jim Larkin, Michael Collins, and Eamon De Valera. What really surprised me, though, was the sheer number of burial plots for stillborn babies and miscarriages in the cemetery. There were literally thousands of toys spread across the hundreds of headstones. In Korea, we had the chance to go inside a Shilla dynasty tomb in an ancient burial mound as well as visit the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, the only cemetery worldwide administered by the UN. The cemetery was incredibly moving, with its 21 national flags representing the countries that participated in the war as well as its stunning memorial that lists all the soldiers who gave their lives in the conflict. My interest in cemeteries and ghost tours has continued while abroad.

Another continuity in my life is my love of learning new languages. I have always been fascinated with language, even minoring in French at USNA. This year, along with studying Spanish, I have started taking basic Irish classes. Irish is much more difficult than Spanish because literally nothing looks like how it should be pronounced. My favorite part of Irish is its greetings, which demonstrate the strong influence of Catholicism in Ireland. To say hello, one says, “Dia dhuit,” or literally “God be with you.” To reply, one says, “Dia is Maire dhuit,” or literally “God and Mary be with you.” If one is really excited to see someone, one replies, “Dia is Maire dhuit is Padraic,” which literally means “God, Mary, and St. Patrick be with you.” Only in Ireland would St. Patrick be used in a greeting to convey excitement! My roommate and I won a dialogue pronunciation prize right before Christmas, and we hope to defend our title this coming semester.

My desire to sample new cuisine has persisted in Ireland as well. Because I have been a runner for the past eight years, I have always had a healthy appetite and desire to try all kinds of food. My friend Fabio prepared a traditional German feast for some of the Mitchells in November, which featured delicious sausage and unbelievable sauerkraut made with fresh apples. My visit to Korea uncovered a new passion for Korean food, including the incomparable barbeque, the delicious side dishes of kimchi and radishes, refreshing green tea, and the unique taste of purple stone bowl rice. The spiciness of Korean food, coupled with my newfound appreciation of Indian food, has reprogrammed my taste buds to actively seek out red pepper and curry. Back in Ireland, I’ve taken up drinking breakfast tea and enjoying the greasy goodness of traditional fish and chips. My yearning to try new foods has resulted in my appetite becoming much more diverse during my stay in Ireland.

As the old adage goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Though I am experiencing so many new and different things throughout the world, I am still the same nerdy Vicki who loves people-watching, exploring, and, now, having her taste buds set on fire.

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