Second to Nun

With her spectacles, walking trousers, and sensibly short graying hair, Susie, an Irish Dominican sister in her fifties, is not exactly the image one would conjure when picturing a member of the Trinity Women’s Freshers Rowing Team.

“The girls had quite a laugh at my expense when I signed up,” she said, allowing the lilting cadence of Belfast’s distinctive accent to write the score for her sentences. “But I don’t blame them. I could have been most of their mothers.”

On Monday mornings before our religious history course together, Susie recounts her experiences sharing a boat with 18-year-old women who are fit as fiddles. After her first practice, she recalled the difficulty of getting into a racing shell that seemed determined to run away from her after she committed one foot to the starboard side and left the other on the dock, coaxing her legs into a split. As a coxswain, she claimed to have nearly steered her boat into a bridge on the River Liffey. And the training sessions are grand, but take her a while longer to complete than her teammates, who, like her Monday morning audience, get quite a kick out of this delightful human.

“I’m never going to be a championship rower. But I’m not going to give it up.”

I have come to call upon Susie’s comfort with discomfort as I have embarked on my own Irish athletic adventure. After months of watching YouTube highlights and following competitions, I have finally gotten the chance to try Gaelic Football. I expected my experience and training as an American football player would prepare me for some success on the GAA pitch.

It hasn’t.

I am, as it turns out, terrible at the sport, which requires much more technical, foot-based skill and knowledge than I anticipated. To their credit, my teammates have been very patient and accommodating of me, their American transplant. Owing to my unusually large size for the sport, they have taken to calling me “Big Man.” Unfortunately for my teammates, “Big Man” cannot kick the ball, even on an open net 7 yards away. “Big Man” does not understand when it is legal or encouraged to make a tackle, and has earned a few rather flagrant penalties that drew outrage from the opposing sideline and chuckles from mine. And “Big Man” is virtually useless at full forward, where he has no sense for the strategy required to set the team up for points.

Despite these challenges, I have been welcomed on the pitch in much the same way I have been welcomed to Ireland: with a big-hearted spirit of inclusion and understanding, with the space to learn and make mistakes as I go about carving my place in this new, temporary home. And through some of the difficulties of transition, in both sport and life, I, like Susie, have committed myself to sticking with it, getting better, and growing from the experience. And I’ve learned to have a few laughs at my own expense along the way.

 

 

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Butter Than Ever

When I accepted the Mitchell Scholarship, out of all the council I received, one piece of advice struck me as particularly concerning. An acquaintance who had lived in Ireland before told me that I should not expect to make too many close Irish friends and to focus more on building bonds with Americans I met abroad. The memory of this commentary weighed on me for months, and when I finally arrived in Ireland I felt somewhat hesitant about trying to make new professional and social connections. This was only exacerbated when I realized no one in my shared apartment was Irish.  As my year in Ireland was just beginning, it felt like I might not actually get to know any Irish residents all that well. Luckily I soon had an experience that has set the tone for my first semester of study.

Two days after arriving, I explored Maynooth University’s grounds. While doing so, I stumbled onto the grounds of the farm owned by the Irish Catholic seminary with which Maynooth University shares its history and campus. Directly in front of me was a small herd of cows. They seemed interested in me but a little hesitant to come too close. Remembering that I had also found an orchard on campus, I backtracked and then brought my new acquaintances some apples. This helped quickly break the ice, and before I knew it I had a big group of Irish friends. Whenever I need excuse to stretch my legs I’ll walk out to the farm knowing that I’ll be met with welcoming, and hungry, faces. My early success with my bovine buds reminded me that I simply needed to be open to whatever opportunities presented themselves here, and I have found the Irish to be welcoming in all instances. I’ve been embraced as I build academic, professional, and political relationships in this country, and the idea that I would live in Ireland separate from the Irish people has been proven repeatedly false.

Early this week, I went to visit my four-legged friends and found a new and younger group of cows chewing the cud. I don’t know if the first group has been rotated to a different pasture or met a more morbid fate. Either way I greatly appreciate the welcome they gave during my first days in County Kildare. I’m excited to see where the growth they helped foster takes me in the coming months, and I hope to see them around. As aside, one other piece of advice from before arriving in Ireland stuck with me. Trina Vargo made clear to us before we left that she welcomed almost any pictures we wanted to share, with two important caveats. First we needed to be in the picture if possible, anyone can google scenic images of Ireland if that’s what they want. Second the pictures should not be of sheep. Everyone has seen more than enough Irish sheep. I hope my picture for this blog honor my first Irish friends while following that aesthetic directive. Now I just need to figure out if they are dairy cows or londondairy cows.  

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The Place to Start

I am a diarist. I have a habit of writing down images that catch my eye and phrases that catch my ear. I enjoy telling stories and reflecting on outings, so I expected to write this post easily. Instead, I sat for an hour, writing and re-writing first sentences. Where to start? The cliffwalk in Howth my first weekend here, falling in love with the landscape? The trip the twelve Mitchell scholars (plus two) took around the Ring of Kerry, growing into lasting friendships? Sitting with fellow geography students, reading each other’s thesis proposals and coming to terms with the self-discipline needed for this degree?

The cliffwalk at Howth, 6 days after arrival

 

Fort Staigue in County Kerry – 2000 years old!

I realize now I struggled with this blog because I could start with any day of the last two months. Each day has challenged me as a student and a person. Each day has been a chance to get to know Ireland and myself a little better. The sheer amount of opportunity crammed into the last two months is the most remarkable thing I can imagine.

Still, I shouldn’t waste this chance to tell a story with a little more detail. Two weeks ago, I stood on uneven cobblestones in an alleyway surrounded by boarded-up windows, graffiti, trash, and questionable liquids. It was drizzling. I was there for my class “Reimagining Dublin,” which asks us to see the potential for accessibility, safety, and playfulness everywhere in the city. Our teacher for the week, an architect working with the Dublin City Council, was explaining how the alleyway used to supply homes and businesses before the spread of cars. He believed simple changes would allow the alleyway to connect people and their city again. Speaking with spirit and swiping his hands, he turned the empty alleyway into a fairy forest: smoothed pavement here, lighting here, painted trees decorating the length. An ode to Irish tradition and the Irish future in one.

This is a different alleyway on a different day, but the idea is the same. Easy to overlook, possible to love.

Now, trying to articulate what living here means to me, I keep going back to the love of place our teacher showed that day. It is a love common to all the people I have met here. At Howth I met an Irish man taking photographs “just because.” When I told a woman from County Kerry about our trip to the Ring, she rattled off four extra places to stop. Every other student in my program has advised me on things to see.

I also keep going back to the memory of an evening spent with a friend early in undergrad. We had both recently moved to Michigan, me from Minnesota and she from Illinois. As we sat discussing the move away from home, she said, “loving two places means that part of your heart is always where you are not.” Part of my heart is in Minnesota. Part of my heart is in Michigan. And with the love of place felt here, part of my heart will always be in Ireland. If I continue to see each day as the start of a story, that love will only grow.

View of the ocean from the James Joyce Tower during an impromptu adventure to Dún Laoghaire.

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Flyover Country

When you grow up in the rural Midwest, you become accustomed to answering the question, “So where are you from?” not with any direct answer but via triangulation, using successively more specific points of reference others may know. I honed this positioning of my hometown as a tour guide at Mizzou. There was little chance most parents and students from in-state, let alone all the visitors we had from out of state, knew where Rogersville, Missouri was. Generally, my answer went something like,

“I am from a small town about thirty minutes East of Springfield.”

That was normally good enough for fellow Missourians, many of whom came from even smaller towns, but for most other visitors, my origin became even more generalized. I was from “3 hours South of Kansas City.” or “Southwest Missouri” accompanied by the shape of an L held up to demonstrate the approximate area of my hometown.

When I arrived in Ireland, the process of answering the deceptively simple question “So where are you from?” became even more abstract. If the accent (although as a true Midwesterner, I feel obligated to contend I have no accent) didn’t give it away, the answer always began with “America.” For the curious, the follow up was “Oh what state?” A proud “Missouri” was the response. Unfortunately, that was often too specific. “And where is that?” inevitably followed.

The Irish can be forgiven for not knowing where Missouri, let alone any town in the middle of the country, is at. After all, Ireland could fit 11.5 times in the US, and two Irelands could be placed in Missouri with room to spare. But it wasn’t just the Irish who couldn’t place Missouri on a map. Fellow Americans I met in Dublin didn’t know either. Flyover country indeed.

At a doubles handball tournament last weekend in one of the many villages surrounding Galway, I encountered a different response. “I know Missouri.”

“Really?” I asked, a bit incredulously.

“Ya, we flew over for a handball tournament at Missouri State University in Springfield. Do you know it?”

Do I know Springfield? It was a bit odd being asked if I knew the place I had grown accustomed to anchoring a part of my identity on. “Funny enough, I actually grew up in a small town right outside of Springfield.”

As I got to know the other players and fellow DCU teammates, I realized we had something in common: many of them were also from flyover country. As they described where they were from, they used the same technique of positioning their origins in relation to places I may have heard of before. Dublin; Galway; Cork; Sligo. Most hadn’t grown up in those places, just as I hadn’t grown up in Springfield. Most grew up in small villages in the Irish countryside, like the one we were in.

When I flew to Ireland, I flew over many of the places the people I met last weekend are from. I looked down on those places as pastoral landscapes, but I was headed to Dublin—the exciting international capital—what did those places have to offer that could possibly beat the excitement of the city? It turns out, new friends, great craic, and some handball. Handball is how my teammates in Ireland learned about my piece of flyover country, and I hope over the next year it might teach me about each of theirs. Now if only they could teach me how to not be bad at handball…

Serving in the second game of 40X20 handball I had ever played at the ICHA 40X20 doubles tournament in Galway

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Groundhog’s Day

I was told Ireland was going to be damp like a doormat at the foot of Europe’s entrance. While I’ll probably be cursed by those Mitchells whose rain jackets were their wardrobe, I have had more sun than not. Alas, I’ve now probably doomed myself and afflicted Ireland to a version of Groundhog’s Day. Like Bill Murray at the end of that classic, I’m conscious of how precious this time is, how fortunate I am to have it, to be a part of this experience, and driven by a desire to make my Mitchell experience meaningful. Because I still don’t know if I deserve this. I do, however, have the ability to make the most of it. That’s what I’ve tried to do thus far, to make meaning on Europe’s welcoming, wonderful, and whimsical doormat (big fan of alliteration).

In an attempt to earn this experience, I continuously remind myself to be more interested than interesting, which, no surprise, isn’t that hard given my intellect and obvious love for self-deprecation. My commitment led me away from my essays (don’t worry, they’ll get done) and onto a walking tour of three famous Dublin cathedrals—St. Mary’s, St. Pat’s, and Christ Church. The tour also led us down into the Cathedrals’ crypts, but that is a story for another time.

The glittering indistinguishable objects below come from St. Pats. The objects are actually leaves of “Lives Remembered” representing some 36,000 Irish soldiers that died in WW1.

St. Pats’ WW1 Memorial

The second picture is of the leaf I filled out for my best friend who passed away while I was in college. St. Pat volunteers chose 36,000 leaves like mine; they met twice a week between July and November threading the messages into 8.5m lengths of fishing line – creating 819 strands in total that stretch some 6.5 km. 

My single contribution to the 36,000 lives remembered at St. Pat’s.

Standing below the gentle sway of such a grand, anonymous feat reminded me of why service stands so close to my heart. The indistinguishability of a single strand doesn’t detract from that strand’s value; on the contrary, the individual gives itself over to the whole and in doing so becomes so much more than it could ever be on its own.

The meaning is always there, it’s just up to me to recognize it. 

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Oh, and look out for the Mitchell Scholar Album! See our album cover below.

Album coming soon!

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The City & The City

As fate would have it, I’m actually not writing this blog post from the confines of my Cork apartment, or even from a nearby coffee shop or distant Irish city. I’m writing from Louisville, KY, where I did my first master’s in music composition and which I’m visiting for the premiere of my orchestra piece, Zaira and Irene. The title comes from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which he describes Irene as “a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.”

The last time I was in Louisville, I was very much viewing Cork, UCC’s Experimental Sound Practice program, and Ireland from a distance. Though I had been to the island before, the prospect of living in the stunning southwest and diving into such a renowned music culture had a near–mythic quality to it. The perspective from a distance is one thing and the experience within is another—in so many ways, Cork has exceeded and subverted the expectations that the view from Louisville promised.

The most significant subversion is the appearance of what “Irish music” means. Traditional music may be emblematic of Irish sonic culture, but nestled in the heart of Cork lives an equally vibrant and equally Irish (or, perhaps, Cork–ish) culture of experimentation, improvisation, and sound art. I’ve spent the past two months learning how to program micro–processors to control electronics, discussing the aesthetics of digital music and production, and engaging in hour–long free improvisations using aluminum foil and the strings of a piano. I’ve performed an open form electronic piece as part of the Cork Audio Visual Ensemble, attended a stunning improvised set at the unassuming Guesthouse venue, and bounced around various pub shows jammed with people for the Cork Jazz Festival.

Setup for the Cork Audio Visual Ensemble (CAVE) at European Researcher’s Night.

Stephen Adams, John Godfrey (UCC Music Department Chair), Mick O’Shea, and Karen Powers perform an improvised set at The Guesthouse.

In exploring the fringes of contemporary art music, UCC’s music department has captured the essence of what makes Cork’s experimental music scene so enthralling, so “Cork” and, in turn, so quintessentially Irish. (For what it’s worth, I’m also studying Irish Sean-Nós singing—can’t neglect trad music entirely!)

But the perspective of distance doesn’t stop there. Yes, the southwest of Ireland is shockingly beautiful, which all of the Mitchells experienced when we embarked on the Ring of Kerry in late September. And yes, the 25–minute walk uphill to get to UCC’s isolated music building includes a panorama view from Lough Mahon to what I can only assume are the foothills of Kerry.

Portmagee, Co. Kerry, where we stayed during our Ring of Kerry adventure.

Overlooking Cork City.

But Cork city also boasts a jungle of labyrinthine roads; its neighborhoods don’t contain the landscaped vistas of American lawns, but simple concrete sidewalks abutting concrete driveways and concrete houses; there’s a campaign on to “save the Lee” from a scheme to build higher walls to (theoretically) prevent flooding. This is all also quintessentially Ireland, quintessentially Cork, and just as much the heart of the landscape as the patchwork green of the countryside.

Back in Louisville, I’m remembering the city from the distance—and now know that Cork contains so much more.

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(Attempting to) Slow Down

Last Monday night, I was sprinting to the James Joyce library at University College Dublin at 10:45 p.m. When I arrived at the front desk, the librarian gave me a startled look, surprised to find someone gasping for air and seeking entrance to the library just before closing at 11:00 p.m. I hastily explained that I was just passing through to check out a book. With an amused glance at my disheveled appearance, he kindly ushered me through the entrance. Once I was through, I began frantically searching for a book I needed in order to finish an assignment due the next day. I emerged 10 minutes later, book in hand, and profusely thanked the librarian on duty. He waved me aside, told me I was “very welcome,” and chuckled once more at my frenetic pace.

While I was an an undergraduate at Duke University, my friends would often joke with me about my penchant for running from activity to activity and bus to bus, but I was in no way an outlier. My sprints may have been a bit more ostentatious than others, but this modus operandi of perpetual motion had been normalized. It was a way of life at Duke, at the high school I attended, and in the neighborhoods in which I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. Americans love darting from assignment to assignment. We love our (ostensible) productivity, our ability to accomplish tasks faster than anyone else. We love fast casual food and Amazon’s two day shipping.

In Ireland, I’m beginning to understand the benefits of a different approach to life. One that is slower, more measured. One that does not locate meaning in the sheer number of boxes one can check off in a day, or in the response time to an email. One that is instead expressly human-centric. It’s the palpable warmth shared between friends at a pub or in the chatter before class starts. It extends beyond the notion of “friend”: even as an acquaintance, I have been afforded that same geniality.

As soon as we began competing together, the other members of my soccer team quickly befriended me. Perhaps ironically, given UCD’s strong international focus, soccer has granted me my first real opportunity to make Irish friends. It has also taught me to slow down. At the first game, I was itching for the kickoff, irked by the delayed start. Now, I just have to laugh as my friends show up to the game 20 minutes late (right on time according to the referee), complaining of a headache from their previous late night out at the pub.

Sunset over the soccer fields at UCD

 

Off the soccer pitch, I have found a sense of quietude in my cultural excursions. One of my first nights here remains one of my favorites. I joined a small group of scholars to attend a reading of the poet Stephen James Smith’s most recent book, Fear Not. In one of his poems, Smith recited, “We must create to know who we can be.” His words have stayed with me, and I hope they will guide the remainder of my time here: I aim to create new friendships, new memories of our travels, and new wisdom gained from books. Along the way, perhaps I’ll take a step closer toward understanding who I can be.

 

At Stephen James Smith’s poetry reading

 

 

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On Beginnings

These days I am obsessed with opening sentences. The fixation took hold one of my early days in Ireland, when I read an article in the New York Times that began with the following line:

“The puppet maker Mirek Trejtnar clip-clopped a red-nosed marionette across a makeshift plywood stage in his studio in Prague.”

The rest of the article doesn’t matter— in short: visit Prague. But after reading this musical sentence, I found myself looking carefully at opening sentences everywhere. I repeatedly asked myself how the best ones made my eyes race to read on and why others fell flat.

The metaphor of my fixation on opening sentences isn’t lost on me; with the past two months marking the very beginning of my Mitchell year, my Irish entrance is on my mind.

I am treating my move to Ireland as an opportunity to freely explore interests I would have shied away from in the past. This resolution leads me to the Mardyke Arena, UCC’s gymnasium, twice weekly to throw jabs and hooks at kickboxing practice, and back again for a whirlwind education in Irish dance where I learn steps whose names vary wildly in descriptiveness from “1-2-3s” to gems like the “hop, hop back, hop back 2-3-4”.

I have found a unique combination of time and space to read and write and think in Ireland that always seemed to evade me back in Boston. My days here are filled with art and conversation. There’s so much music, everywhere around me. Admittedly, some of it is calculated: I have started taking weekly fiddle lessons with Paul, who is teaching me how to relax from classical violinist into a bona fide Irish fiddler. Other times it is less intentional— we celebrated the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival at the end of October, and the entire city buzzed with energy late into the night.

I often think back to the first day of my classes in the School of Public Health, which our professor opened with a friendly inquiry into how we were finding Ireland. “I hope you all have a place to stay,” she remarked.

Others instantly erupted into conversation about difficulties in securing local housing and shared tales of endless apartment visits and extended stints in hostels. Our professor paused to explain the Irish affordable housing crisis to the international newcomers, and from my desk, I felt firsthand a sense of the complexity and scale of the national issue.

Much of my learning about the society around me happens in moments like this, between lectures, running laps at kickboxing practice with Irish friends, and other unexpected places where conversation unfolds readily. The world feels like my classroom. After my meander down Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork one morning turned into an hour-long conversation with the owner of an antique shop, it became abundantly clear that the prevailing sentiment in Ireland is that everybody is worthy of a conversation.

Here, I have also become an avid writer. Multitudes happen every day. Looking back on the opening lines of the 65 short daily essays I have written since landing on Irish soil, I see snippets of days that delighted me, like the first time I heard a musician play the button box and declared myself an accordion enthusiast on the spot. Other days have challenged me, as I question matters of identity, purpose, and ideology that come along with any major life change— a move to Ireland included. Still more have left me enthusiastically anticipating the next. The months to come are unwritten, but I find that beginnings often set the tone for what will follow.

I live on this beautiful island! This simple fact still amazes me essentially every day.

Kinsale, which James and I visited back in September, made a serious bid for the title of my favorite Irish town. We missed Hadley, who arrived in Ireland a few weeks later! I’m so grateful for both James and Hadley– they make Cork feel like home.

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You’re Very Welcome

You’re very welcome.  Very welcome to University.  Very welcome to the pub.  Very welcome to church.  Very welcome to Ireland.

Ireland is often said to be the land of 100,000 welcomes.  Almost wherever you go across the island, Céad Míle Fáilte, or a hundred thousand welcomes, greet you.  It is cliché, but real.

These meetings have invited me to peer into Ireland and Northern Ireland’s history, natural beauty, and dynamic communities.  At Dublin Castle, Kilmainham jail, or ruins on the Wild Atlantic Way, I was moved by the history we often overlook given America’s youth.  Along the Kerry Cliffs, the Connemara mountains, or the Howth trails, I came to appreciate Irish pride in the island’s beauity.  In pubs near Trinity College, Dublin churches, or events I have attended, I have been stirred to think about Ireland’s current moment and place in the world.

Ireland greeted me with humility, hospitality, and friendly smiles.  Yet while I am very welcome, I am learning to actually be present.  To be still.  To soak up the moments I inhabit instead of wandering on to the next.  And to then contribute genuinely with what I have experienced.  Fortunately, I am doing so alongside a remarkable group of Mitchell scholars.

The most important lesson Ireland has taught me, of the many I could list, has been to embrace and learn from the welcome and the opportunity to be a part of the moments, exchanges, and landscapes you encounter.  Sure, I knew this conceptually before I began my year and perhaps lived it from time to time.  I am now challenged daily to live it out.

We can learn from this approach. I adore the city of Washington DC and its people, where I lived for the last three years.  But it is no surprise in one of the most political cities around the world, the mantra seemed to be the famous West Wing line, “What’s next.”  Looking to the future is undeniably important.  We all have our perspectives, passions, and dreams.  But can we take a moment to be welcome?  Can we take a moment to enjoy the process and let it surprise us?

As I have increasingly done so, I have continued to see, as one might expect, that the story is more complicated.  It has layers, history, and interpretations.  To be welcome and truly meet a place or person is to grapple with our past, present, and future.  Under the surface of hospitality are experiences, expectations, and hopes.  For the Irish, that might include impressions of colonialism, the Troubles, and economic challenges. It might include Dublin’s current housing crisis, Brexit, and Ireland’s role in the world.

It is hard be vulnerable and to talk through our realities. To get past the first greeting.  To wonder outside our routine.  But I am grateful to have been invited to take a glimpse into the lives around me: the Dublin taxi driver, a classmate from lesser-known Irish county, or a stranger in a new town.  Perhaps we can apply some of these lessons to our political interactions, if only to think more about how we can approach one another.  There is power in perspective.  Can we welcome each other and try to think differently about the policies, laws, and ideas for which we fight?

Today, I’m trying to embrace my welcomes.  As a wander, I listen, reflect, and learn.  I immerse myself and begin to balance myself by appreciating what is behind us, where we currently live, and where we might go.  For now, I am going to be present. And very welcome.

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Look Mom I Made Friends!!

My biggest fear upon my arrival to Ireland was the prospect of making new friends. I am the only person in my degree program (MRes in biochemistry), and I will largely perform independent research with elderly individuals all year—not exactly a recipe for a thriving social life. Luckily, as I opened the door to my apartment at UCC, I was greeted by a lilting Irish accent exclaiming “You must be the fourth roommate!”. In the coming hours I would learn the sing-song voice that greeted me belonged to my housemate Jill who’s from Kilkenny, and I met my other housemates, Sarah and Gabby, who are from Kerry and New Jersey respectively. Individually we study law, politics, film, and biochemistry, but collectively we share a love of potatoes (in all forms), Ramen, burritos, and movies. I came to Ireland prepared to live with strangers that already had established friend groups and low motivation to befriend a housemate, yet I was welcomed with open arms and incorporated into grocery runs, brunch dates, and movie nights. I forced everyone to watch P.S. I love you, which quickly turned into a lesson elucidating everything wrong with Gerard Butler’s Irish accent.

Although it’d be easy to spend all day at home and watch movies, I felt the need to branch out and try to immerse myself in the greater Cork community. Sports have always been a large part of my life and are normally a great way to meet new people, so I decided to join the Flag Football Team and the Women’s Basketball Team. I’m one of only three girls on the flag football team, but the entire club was surprisingly welcoming. On the bus to games, the lads have educated me on Irish viral videos and Cork slang. There are still instances when I have no idea what people are saying, but I like to think I’m getting better!

Even though it has rained during most of our games, it is nice to be a part of a team—especially one where there’s free Red Bull and ample playing time for everyone. Basketball started a bit later and we’re still all getting to know each other, but we have our first game next week and I’m excited for what lies ahead. There are quite a few other international students on the basketball team, and it’s fun to compare our experiences with the sport.

Finally, the other Mitchells at Cork, James and Anji, have been indispensable in my adjustment to life in Ireland. Whether it’s going to traditional Irish music concerts on Wednesdays or one of our weekly home-cooked meals, it’s nice to debrief our weeks and remind each other when the blogs are due. Anji even let me run her as a test subject through my study which included putting gel and 128 electrodes on her head!

Overall, I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made and am excited for those I’ll make in the future.

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The Bicycle Diaries

Growing up in North Carolina, one of my biggest fears was riding a bicycle. While relatively straightforward to most, biking terrified me and I didn’t properly learn to ride a bike until I was almost 14 years old. My family still laughs about the time at the beach one summer when my swerving, unsteady biking caused another cyclist to veer off the path to avoid me.

Coming to Ireland this fall, I was determined to open myself up to new experiences and challenge myself. After hearing that cycling was big in Dublin, and a helpful way to get around when living south of the city at University College Dublin (UCD), I convinced myself I needed to conquer my fears and buy a bike. While I’ve gradually improved my biking abilities since my teenage days, I’ve never been comfortable enough to consider myself a cyclist, especially on city roads.

After much trepidation, I bought a bicycle at the UCD bike shop, taking it as a good omen when I found out it was the last used bike in stock. I put off riding my bike beyond the UCD campus for over a week, always creating excuses for why I should go another day. Finally, I thought of my best friends from undergrad who are all savvy female cyclists, and decided that I needed to be one too. With only my own self-doubt clouding my head, I took to the streets of Dublin and found my bike ride to be a liberating experience. Under a lucky day of Irish sunshine, I cycled over to the coast, up to Merrion Square in Dublin city center, along the canal, and back to UCD. Despite my original fears – especially of running into a bus (bicycles share the bus lane here) – I returned unscathed and unbowed, emboldened to continue honing my cycling skills. It helps that Dublin has become one of the most bike-able cities in Europe, with ubiquitous bike lanes and lots of caution given to cyclists.

A few weeks in, a group of Mitchells planned an outing to go cliff walking (the Irish term for hiking) in Bray, a town about 14 miles south of Dublin. Out of curiosity, I mapped the route and it looked fairly straightforward. Having never biked more than maybe 6 miles at a time, I dared myself to bike to Bray to meet the rest of the crew. With the key directions written in ballpoint pen on my hand, I wound my way down the N11 highway, with burning legs but feeling strangely proud. Here I was, biking by myself on the roads of a foreign country – something I never pictured myself doing.

Now that the days are marked by later sunrises and earlier sunsets, my next challenge is to acclimatize myself to night cycling (with my lights, of course). As I settle into biking and life here in Dublin, I remind myself that to explore the realm beyond my comfort zone is why I came here.

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Tabbing into the Spirit of the Cailleach

Sitting on a bus, on a sunny Saturday afternoon (October 20th), I wondered if I made the right choice–I almost got off at the stop before my destination, to head back to Trinity College. But then that voice went off in my head saying “isn’t this year is about…adventure and stepping beyond your comfort zone”. I hate that voice. When I reached the venue and saw… pumpkins, mini statues, white masks, pictures of the “old-wise” Woman posted on the wall…I immediately wished then I had shut that voice up. What did I agree to? I asked myself. “Experience!” That stupid voice again. I thought maybe I will sit at the back, sneak out half-way through but then I saw the setup—chairs in a circle, surrounding the “pagan” decoration in the center. Oh, Lawd!

When I received an email from my professor inviting me to an all-day Irish ritual organized by the Women Spirit Ireland, in preparation for Samhain/ Hallowe’en, one of the four Quarter Days of the Irish calendar year, I was absolutely intrigued. I was fascinated by the woman-centric, matriarchy ritual, that is presided over by the “Cailleach,” the Old Woman of Ireland “who is said to have created the world as she dropped large boulders from her apron (womb)”. As a Guinean-American Muslim woman, born and raised in an Abrahamic, male-centric, Father-centric faith, I was excited to experience (observe mainly) something completely different from my own practice.

After a brief introduction, we were instructed to form a line within the circle, then place our left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of us, take two steps forward, slowly rock back and forth, and repeated this until when we returned to our original spots. As we danced in this slow motion, with a soft Irish background music playing in an old CD player, I was in total synchronization with 20+ women. The event, held in a gymnasium, titled “Reclaiming the Spirit of Samhain” was aimed at reflecting on the ancient spirit of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season (Old Year), and the beginning winter or the “darker half” of the year (New Year). From learning the history of the festivity, its connection to Halloween and the role of the “Cailleach”, to sharing supper (with food contributed by every participant including myself), to masks painting (with lots of colors and feathers) to dancing in the dark with the masks, I could not have been happier for listening to that annoying voice earlier. I can probably write a whole book about this particular day in Ireland, but one of the most vivid and rewarding moments happened hours later.

Six hours later, sitting in a circle with all these Irish (mainly old) women, in a very dimmed-light gymnasium, I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. Part of me could not understand why I was sobbing quietly in the dark room, filled with women I only met hours ago. But the other part of me knew very well—I felt an incredible connection to these women. I am not sure what it was, but something in me just opened up. As we went around the room sharing what the Old Year brought us, lessons we learned, what we are hoping to take into the New Year, I was no longer there to just observe (as a newcomer to Ireland) but I became part of the ritual and the festivity. As the next several months unfold here in Ireland, I hope to experience many moments like the one described above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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