A Good Show

When my first semester of classes finished in late January, a classmate and I decided to contribute to pandemic-conscious-population-dilution by renting a small cottage in Wicklow from a lovely woman named Mary. Back in August, when Trina was describing these blogs, she said we were encouraged to include pictures, but jokingly pleaded with us “please, no sheep pictures, we see enough!” Just to be safe, I have censored all sh*** from my photos and from here on out will refer to them only as “The Neighbors.” In Wicklow, social distancing is comically easy as our closest neighbor is a ten to fifteen-minute walk away. Our closest Neighbor, however, frequently bumps into the trash bins at night while making cartoonish bleats.

A key feature of Mary’s cottage is that there is only internet connection in one window sill. During the past couple months, it has been easy to waste away hours watching the news, reading long form analyses of the news, or reading many short form summaries of the news in rapid succession. But now, I finally have the isolation needed to connect with real Irish culture — the Father Ted DVD box set my friend brought with us as the sole source of digital entertainment. And who is there more understanding who could guide me through the existential time we live in now other than Father Ted? Like me, Father Ted also wakes up at 11 AM in his twin bed, in his house, in the middle of nowhere, (perhaps surrounded by fields full of The Neighbors?)

At other times I connect deeply with Mrs. Doyle — making endless cups of tea to stave off the threat of all-consuming dread. On rainy days, sometimes, I feel a teeny bit the Father Jack as I sit completely sedentary in an armchair reminiscing on the simpler, better times of my pre-pandemic youth. But at times I feel like Father Dougal, extremely confused about how I ended up a Catholic priest in a remote part of Ireland.

While sitcoms are by no means a substitute to in person cultural immersion, they do provide a window sorely needed when you are trying to get to know a new country from the confines of your room. At this point, I’d argue, that there’s no better tool for highlighting cultural in-jokes than a laugh track roaring when you are silent. So, whenever the country reopens after this pandemic, I will be totally au fait with the mid-nineties Irish zeitgeist.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cucanandy

Some years ago, I saw and heard the Irish music group “Ghost Trio” perform the song “Cucanandy.” This was in the era of live music. The song chilled me to the bones. (This was before chills were symptomatic.) It has haunted me ever since. And now, in these dark days, it reemerges for me again, eerily apropos, playing silently in my head while (I imagine) roaming the (locked-down) landscapes where it was born some unknown time ago.

As a traditional song, the origins of “Cucanandy” are wonderfully unclear, as if it emerged from the salt of the earth itself. Many notable Irish folk singers claimed to have had it sung to them by various female members of their families as they were growing up. Indeed, the song is recognized as a “dandling song”—a song to accompany the moving of a baby up and down on one’s knee, an affectionate vertical rocking. Perhaps this is why it’s so haunting: the song emerges from the grooved recesses of infancy, that alien being we all once were and never can remember or return to. 

Although I doubt my American parents sang this particular song to me as an infant, I can’t be sure, and in any case the song has the crystalline melancholic lilt of any good lullaby. This may explain why many Irish singers, even in vastly different regions (before information was instantaneous and sharing virtual), improbably claim to remember the same song from their childhoods: it is made of the stuff—the overwhelming love, the promise of comfort, the yearning, the loss already emergent if not yet arrived—of lullaby.

Elizabeth Cronin

We can hear versions of the song today thanks largely to Elizabeth Cronin, an influential traditional Irish singer born in 1879 in West Cork. In late January of 1951, almost exactly 70 years ago, when Cronin herself was in her 70s, ill and ailing, the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax brought a microphone to her bedside and she intoned a version of “Cucanandy” that exists to this day. It is marvelous to hear it: a voice from the 1800s, recorded in the middle of the last century, singing just before the shadow of death a song for the liminal time just after birth. Because, as the contemporary Irish writer Niall Williams observed in his excellent novel This Is Happiness, “as you get toward the end, you revisit the beginning.”

Joe Heaney

Later, the singer Joe Heaney (in Irish, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí), born 1919 in my own County Galway, and died 1984 on my own United States west coast, recorded another version of the song for another folk music archive. Heaney moved to the US in part because he thought his sean-nós singing (Irish for “old style”) was better appreciated there than it was in Ireland. The oral, a cappella tradition of sean-nós emerged largely in response to various historical British efforts to crush Irish culture by confiscating traditional instruments. The voice, after all, cannot be stolen.

The song title “Cucanandy” is nonsense as far as Cronin and Heaney knew. Often the song is sung in a medley with other tunes, as in Heaney’s recorded version. The lyrics vary with each iteration. They meld Irish and English language. And, as we’ve seen, in a series of ghostly reverberations, they meld together a larger story about Ireland, the United States, even the history of British imperialism (my course of study here).

The version of the song that hooked me, by the Ghost Trio (itself named after a Beckett play) and later The Gloaming, is not apart from those interlinkings. (None of us are.) The lead singer Iarla Ó Lionáird had Elizabeth Cronin as his great aunt. Her voice is, almost literally, within him. 

Image result for iarla o lionaird
Iarla Ó Lionáird

I’ll close with the verse that seems always to appear, and haunts me so, simple and profound:

Throw him up, up

Throw him up high

Throw him up, up

He’ll come down by and by

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Feeling Grateful

My New Year’s resolution was to embrace and express gratitude. These gratitudes often took the shape of people, particularly those here with me in Ireland. So I’ll share them below, in the hopes that in 2021 you’ll join me in choosing to prioritize gratitude.

1) My Irish landlord, Peter

Peter loves to talk American politics, and he won’t drink his tea unless it’s boiling hot. He is a retiree from Shrule, a small village in County Mayo. When I was here by myself for a bit over the holidays, Peter made it a point to stop by for weekly coffee chats. When I told Peter that fellow Mitchell Kyle was allergic to cats, Peter added an extra barrier on our gate to prevent cats from getting in our backyard. When fellow Mitchell Mason and I struggled at first to set up our Irish bank accounts, Peter drove us to his local bank and argued our case to the branch employees.

2) My volleyball teammate, Cerena

Cerena & I in the Latin Quarter

Originally from California, Cerena moved to Galway four years ago to earn her PhD at NUI Galway. Her accent sounds very Irish, so when I first met her at the Galway Volleyball Club I didn’t realize she was American. It was Cerena who showed me Irish pancakes (which are just crepes for the record), and it was Cerena who taught me that when you say “dirty takeaway” in Ireland, you’re referring to the least nutritious, but potentially most delicious (depending on your mood) to-go food. To give some comparative examples, think like americanized Chinese food, McDonald’s fries, or KFC. Cerena & I’s favorite eats in Galway are the Singapore prawn noodles from Papa Rich and a carnitas and queso burrito from Boojum.

3) My housemates, Mason and Kyle

Kyle, Mason, & I were lucky enough to travel to the Cliffs of Moher. We were less lucky with the weather.

Humble and down-to-earth Mason is the best for surprising you with a crazy story over a glass of Chianti. Even the neighborhood cats can sense Mason’s kindness, and one in particular named Felipe will only approach Mason and no one else. Mason is also the only person I know who can cook a good pork chop (sorry mom).

Kyle has every reason in the book to brag, but he has absolutely no interest in doing so. For my November birthday, Kyle decorated our entire house with balloons and party decorations. When Kyle makes his famous quesadillas, he blares Todrick Hall and our kitchen turns into a dance club. Kyle also has the unique ability to find adventure in everything, from watching Pixie at the cinema to trying a spice bag from the infamous X’ian Street Food on Quay St.

4) The Dublin Boys™

On the way to Blackrock with the gang!

There’s nothing like having friends who know exactly what you’re going through. I am grateful to have spent a few weekends on the Galway-Dublin Exchange spending time with fellow Mitchell scholars Dan, Alex, Achille, and Joseph.

Alex is one of the kindest people I know. When he stayed in our home in Galway, he left a painting of Menlo Castle and a bottle of Cork whiskey as thank you gifts. Alex’s only flaw is that he think the Kansas City Chiefs will win the Super Bowl this Sunday. Go Bucs.

Dan taught us Galwegians the memory game Fishbowl that combines Charades, Password, and Taboo. He serves as a very fair moderator when things get heated, and let it be known that the Galway Mitchells are the reigning Fishbowl champions. I hope Dan knows how much of a genius he is, because there is no doubt amongst the rest of us.

Achille is a morning person, runs marathons, and will one day make an excellent lawyer. When Achille visits Galway, he gets the honor of being our house DJ. It’s impossible not to feel motivated when Achille is around, and it should also be noted that his Halloween Avatar Aang costume was incredible.

The chef of the group, Joseph has an incredible bolognese recipe that requires loads of cooking time and even more red wine. Joseph’s breakfast sandwiches are also famous, and he makes one heck of a tour guide for experiencing Dublin. One of my favorite memories of 2020 includes his mandolin and Dan freestyling while Achille harmonizes. Find them on Spotify. 😉

________________________________________________________________

In Ireland, as a Mitchell, and in life in general I have loads of things and people to be grateful for. I’m looking forward to finding more in 2021.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A “Normal” First Semester

The day before my fall semester of classes was sent to commence, I sat sipping a celebratory pint of Guinness at Murphy’s Pub in Galway with my two housemates, and fellow Mitchell Scholars, Kyle and Becca. We were celebrating a successful first day of Zoom classes for my housemates and looking forward to my first day of in-person classes. Just as soon as we had clanked our glasses and shouted, “Slainte,” I received an email stating that my first class would not be happening in-person – Zoom classes were slated for the first week.

I certainly understood the need to transition our classes online, but I was indeed disappointed. I should have known it was too good to be true. We were amid a pandemic, after all. As I logged onto Zoom the next day for my first Irish class, it became clear that my professors intended on bringing us safely into the classroom. They committed that we would be on campus starting the following week, pending university approval. I could not help but be skeptical. To my surprise, my professors kept the promise of bringing us into the classroom, not just that next week, but for the entire semester!

To say that I was lucky would be an understatement. My five classmates and I sat socially distanced and masked-up around a large conference table each class session. Day in and day out, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in active dialogue with my classmates, guest lecturers, and professors. I listened as guest speakers demonstrated their role in planning a better future for rural communities in Ireland.  I took part in group exercises aimed at making the group better teammates, researchers, and champions for rural communities. 

While most of these events would have been possible online, I am thankful for the social interaction that accompanied the classwork. Daily, my professor would walk the class down to the canteen during our mid-class break and buy each of us a coffee or tea. Each of these trips was filled with hilarious questions about why the Irish show respect to the Magpies or why Americans are notorious for having road rage. On Thanksgiving, I brought my classmates a pie to enjoy with the expectation that I would have to educate them about the American holiday. To my surprise, I was greeted with a chorus of “Happy Thanksgivings” as soon as I entered the room. Their thoughtfulness warmed my heart and made me feel so much closer to home when I needed it the most.

The Spring semester is shaping up to be much different than last semester – there has been no firm commitment to bring us back to campus due to current Level 5 restrictions. Regardless, I’m thankful for the experiences I had with my classmates last semester and anticipation is building for when it is once again appropriate to gather around the conference table together. Until then, we’ll enjoy our time on Zoom and do our part to make that in-person rendezvous possible. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pandemic Cuisine in Northern Ireland

A common misconception about modern Northern Ireland is focused on the limitations of the region’s cuisine. Although Northern Ireland does reflect its relative historical isolation within its culinary heritage, to believe that local cuisine has remained stagnant in recent years would lead you to miss one of the most underappreciated culinary evolutions in Europe. Currently, Northern Ireland plays host to two restaurants with Michelin Stars, and a significant group of others winning the praise of Michelin Bib Gourmand ratings. Even more consequential is the fact that many of these eateries primarily feature local ingredients and honor the culinary traditions of Northern Ireland. These restaurants have earned international recognition for turning a humble cuisine into offerings tourists will travel across the world to eat.
A great disappointment of living in Belfast during a global pandemic has been missing out on these culinary offerings. But out of this disappointment has grown one of the major highlights of my time in Northern Ireland – becoming completely dependent on the native goods of Ireland to build a completely local diet. Now, this might sound complicated during a pandemic – we typically imagine truly local produce as being scarce and expensive – obstacles that might be magnified during lockdowns and periods of social distancing. However, with many of the regular restaurants and farmers markets closed down, a direct to consumer wholesale market for fresh, local products has begun to flourish. It’s been so successful, that I haven’t stepped foot in a supermarket my entire time in Belfast. Instead, I get a fresh collection of everything I could want, from produce to meats and dairy, delivered via no-contact carrier straight to my door.
Now there are challenges, especially to a palate that has been trained to think it sustainable to be eating pineapple in January and root vegetables in July. If I’m going to eat and experience the foods of Ireland, that just isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’ve been challenged to expand my palate, and my culinary skills, to incorporate products and foods that I haven’t used before. For reference, without the ability to sit down at one of Northern Ireland’s fine restaurants to taste their food myself, I’ve relied on local food programs and books from the library to build an anthropology of the culinary heritage. My experience has gone beyond just eating well, and moved into learning about the history of the island of Ireland in a way I would not expected to.
I by no means can recreate anything close to the dishes you’d find at one of Michael Deane’s various eateries in Belfast, but the challenge of embracing my surroundings – not just academically, but culturally – has been one of the most fulfilling experiences being in Northern Ireland has offered. I look forward to continuing these practices in the next place I find myself while cherishing all the dishes from Northern Ireland I’ve come to love.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Making Friends & My Alter Ego

Dormon Horfitz is two and a half feet tall, two hundred years old, and never seen without his cane–though he has enough pep in his step that you’d expect he doesn’t need one. This is because he does not in fact need it. It is his magical staff–his focus. Dormon is not real. He’s my character in an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign I’m in with some people from the University College Dublin. Due to the current restrictions in Ireland, I haven’t had a chance to meet any of my classmates in person. However, I had the opportunity to join a remote D&D campaign. We meet over Zoom once a week for several hours to track down demonic cultists, battle wyverns, and capture Nightmares.

The thing about meeting people remotely for D&D is that they don’t know me, and I don’t necessarily know them either. Instead, we’ve gotten to know each other’s characters. A resourceful and paranoid rogue, an upstanding and gullible cleric, a flute playing bard who’s always chasing down her four children. They’ve had meals together in dingy

taverns, camped out deep in the woods, and gotten fair food at the annual spring celebration. Through these adventures and misadventures, we’ve created friendships and connections.

D&D has offered me a unique opportunity in these times. I can let my own insecurities go and step into a new world. This fabricated world has allowed me to make connections with people I would never have otherwise met. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of strangers who’d be willing to sign up to sit on Zoom for two hours every week with each other. However, that’s exactly what I’ve found myself doing.

I won’t lie. It’s been taxing. I’ve moved to a new country where restrictions keep me from meeting anyone, just to sit in a bare dorm room watching video lectures all day, eat, sleep, and repeat. I’ve found myself falling into my shell. However, I haven’t had to do it alone. My dear friend Dormon and his loyal companions are there for me every Thursday for a couple of hours to dispel the dreary mundaneness.

Beyond the joy that this D&D campaign has brought to me in these times, it has also further shown me the power of technology to foster and maintain connections. D&D on Zoom feels in many ways like an odd mashup of the old and new. I can see and talk with people from six different locations all at once, and yet we play a game where we roll dice to deal damage and tally our health points on a piece of scratch paper. However, I think this is when technology is at its best, because it is unobtrusive. It brings us together but lets us forget it exists. As someone who does research in computational creativity, I think this is a crucial lesson. Computers do best when they stay out of our way. Software that allows computers to create on their own behalf can toe the line between competition and collaborator. As a developer of such software, I must keep in mind that the best tools lay in waiting until called upon, and don’t stray too far from the artist’s intent.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cesar’s Hair Salon

Parnell Street is one of the busiest streets in central Dublin and is also home to one of the most racially and ethnically diverse areas of the city. Following the British occupation of Ireland, the street was renamed after Charles Stewart Parnell, parliamentarian and former leader of the Irish Nationalist Party. To the east of Parnell Square, you can find Nigerian, Brazilian, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese restaurants and businesses.

I first found myself at Parnell Street per the recommendation of my friend Azeez, who after examining my tattered hair line said, “head to Parnell bro; they’ll fix you up – I promise.” A good friend is one who lets you know when your hair is looking like a mess. 

My hair is such a huge part of my identity. Black hair has always been a site for resistance – there’s always that history that’s tied to it. So, even when you try and not make hair political, the history of black bodies and hair, particularly black women’s hair, is innately tied to a political struggle. 

Locking my hair five years ago was a way of outwardly expressing love for myself, love for my people, love for my culture. So naturally, before moving to Dublin, I was quite concerned about finding the salons and products necessary to care for my hair as usual. Cesar’s Hair Salon on Parnell Street has been essential to my whole and healthy well-being here in Dublin. On average, before lockdown, I tried to get my dreadlocks retwisted every six weeks and faded every two weeks 

My visits to Parnell Street have allowed me to learn about Dublin from the purview of its migrant communities. Every trip to the salon is filled with stories, banter, and if you go on Sundays, tasty treats. Cesar, the salon’s owner, moved to Dublin from Lagos, Nigeria twenty years ago to create a better life for him and his family. After working many odd jobs for several years, he saved up enough money to open his salon. Cesar is the most well-known man on Parnell Street – he might as well be mayor. His salon is always teeming with people from all backgrounds – a kailedoscopic view of Dublin’s burgeoning multiculturalism.  

On a final visit to Cesar’s shop before lockdown, he lamented about closing the shop indefinitely. 

“This is my home. These people are my community. What worries me is that I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back” he said. While he was speaking, I realized that I would miss the salon too. It had become a home for me as well. I’d even say it’s the place in the city where I feel most safe. 

It’s been five weeks since I last saw Cesar and one thing I know for certain is that as soon as lockdown is over, I’ll be making a trip back to his salon on Parnell Street. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Belfast with Me Always

When I applied to spend a year in Belfast, I had a decent idea of what I thought I would be getting. I had been to Belfast before and made great friends, both Irish and American. When I returned to Belfast a year later, I found the same people in the same places ready to welcome me again. But when I returned this time, I found no one where I left them. Covid restrictions made meeting new people very difficult, and I was discouraged knowing how impactful these friendships could be. I was worried that without the ability to make casual friends in pubs, or go to friends’ houses for dinner, this time in Belfast would be less impactful, and I would have a more difficult time understanding my purpose here.

A few weeks after the semester began, all of my classes moved online due to Covid’s increasing presence in Belfast and Northern Ireland. I quickly found a silver lining brought on by much of my alone time. For the first time in years, all I had to focus on was my studying and thinking. I was consumed by questions of justice, ethics, and care in education, healthcare, and work for people with intellectual disability. Most gripping was considering experiences of women who receive prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome. This is an issue that continues to gain public attention, especially with the recent publication of “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” in The Atlantic. The article describes increases in selective termination rates in cases of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome. My thinking found its way into final assignments and even spurred discussion with students in a class at the University of Mississippi through former Mitchell Scholar, Ashleen Williams.

I returned home to Knoxville for the holidays and had the opportunity to reflect on and share my experiences from the fall. Though my experience was entirely different from the first two experiences in Belfast that were full of new friends and always spent out exploring new places, it was just as meaningful—perhaps even more so—in its quietness, and its significance only continues to grow.

With the flexibility of virtual classes, my boyfriend, Evan, came to join me in Belfast several weeks into the fall. As Evan and I explored what we could of Belfast, I was able to see Belfast through new eyes, and we got to focus on one another during a time where all other distractions of daily living were removed—yet another of the pandemic’s unexpected silver linings.

Belfast taught us lessons during such a formative time of our relationship that we will carry with us forever. To be sure, shortly after we returned home for the holidays, Evan and I got engaged with a ring we found in Belfast. Now, Belfast will be with both of us always. Always remembering the lessons of warmth and hospitality her people taught us; always remembering the lessons from challenges of adapting to life in a new place with each other.

Evan and I are now back in Belfast and planning a wedding that will pay homage to our time here. Belfast will forever be part of our lives and embedded in the memories of what have been some of our best times together.

An engagement photo of Evan and me in a classic South Knoxville spot on the river just before it reaches Neyland Stadium of the Tennessee Volunteers.
A photo of my engagement ring in front of Belfast City Hall lit up for Christmas.
A post-engagement surprise from Ainsley, the dear (American) friend I made the last time I was in Belfast, who continues to be a big part of my life and sharer of many great Belfast memories.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

There’s nothing like a water feature…

I was a month into the fall semester, and I still hadn’t met anyone in Dublin besides the other Mitchell boys. I was wading through the murky waters of a depressive episode: here I was thousands of miles from my family, with no social structure available to meet new people and few locations to do so. Ireland had recently reentered a level 5 lockdown, so travel outside a small radius of Trinity’s campus was prohibited. I felt alone, and upset with myself for leaving the security and conviviality of my family life to venture forth into genuine isolation.

There was one thing that offered some hope: the postgraduate reading room on Trinity’s campus remained open, despite the restrictions. That meant that classmates of mine were still travelling to campus to make use of the study space. Starved for social interaction as I was, I would keep an eye out for any of the students in my classes in the hopes that I would finally be able to have an in-person conversation and, dare I say, make a friend. Luckily, my attentiveness paid off. On my way out of the reading room in October, a classmate of mine was walking in, and I (rather intensely) pulled him aside and ushered him into pleasantries. With a sense of urgency, as the conversation dwindled, I asked if he would be interested in grabbing some beers from the local Spar sometime and having a drink by the canal. He agreed; a few days later we sat beside the water and chatted about class work, politics, family, relationships, and anything else. That same student has become a dear friend-we study together in the reading room most days of the week.

I cannot lie, drinking in public is exciting to me. I’m from an Irish family myself, one composed of punks, emos, and general social dissidents. Playfully illicit pastimes, especially with respect to drink, are some of the best memories I have with my siblings. And while drinking in public is legal in Ireland, it still carries a sense of rebellion for an American like myself. I was eager to share a few beers with my classmates since, as I have often been reminded, Irish social life revolves heavily around the pubs. As those are not available to us, cans of Brew Dog and Guinness by the canal is the best we could ask for.

That’s one thing I’ve realized about the United States, and something Kyle Berlin and I have spoken about by that very same canal: there isn’t much free space meant for friendly congregation. Parks and the like don’t allow drinking, which often lubricates the wheels of social interaction, especially with unfamiliar folks. The public sphere is limited to locations that have to be paid for, like bars. In Ireland, though, there seems to be a greater emphasis placed on maintaining interpersonal relationships. Evidence of this is the locales which support a vibrant public sphere-the parks, water features, and other infrastructure which facilitates fellowship in all its forms.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lockdown ’21, Revisited

We did manage to sneak in a visit to the stunning Aran Islands!

Out of everything I was excited for in looking ahead towards my Mitchell year, the idea of spending a Christmas season in Europe was easily at the top of my list. I envisioned touring Christmas markets in Bavaria, watching the ignition of some enormous Yule Goat in Scandinavia, or going to a Christmas Eve mass in an old Irish cathedral. Of course, this was all back in 2019.

Fast forward to November of last year and I could feel that old excitement building again as I worked through my first online semester at UCD. As winter break approached, Ireland’s plan to emerge from lockdown for the holidays looked like an oasis after weeks of tight restrictions. The whole country seemed like it was ready to exhale. I could hear it in the voice of my barber as she told me about visiting her daughter in Spain while swapping details of our upcoming plans, or in the general milieu out in the streets. On top of everything, my girlfriend had a flight booked to Dublin for a long-awaited reunion after months of FaceTime calls.

Needless to say, I was eager to finally have a chance to get out and see a bit of my new home that had been cordoned since nearly the day I arrived. We decided to split our time between Dublin and Galway, and with an inbox full of reservations to various museums, pubs, and restaurants, we were ready to (responsibly) finally inch closer to the European Christmas of my now-modified dreams.

Unbeknownst to us, however, we had already entered onto another bend in the road out of this pandemic. The now-infamous British strain of COVID-19 had snuck into the country and seized this moment of national respite to hit yet again. As the third wave of infections began to surge, and the Irish government announced yet another lockdown on Christmas Eve, it was hard to feel much of the holiday spirit as I watched my inbox refill with cancellation notices. Of course, relatively speaking, I was extraordinarily lucky to be healthy and in Ireland in the first place; Still, the feeling of frustration was unavoidable.

Much like back in March, when the festivities of my college graduation dangled from a thread that eventually snapped, I could feel my excitement for this long-awaited celebration evaporate. This time, however, we decided to learn our lesson from almost a year ago and wasted no time renovating our break.  Tours were replaced by walks around Galway, pub crawls were replaced with a crawl through the beer aisle of Dunnes, and we made our own paintings for much less than two tickets to the Louvre. Sure, it was no European Grand Tour, but it was the best of craic regardless.

These days, it’s easy to forget just how quickly any enjoyment of the present can be stymied by an endless longing for better days. Thankfully, making the most of simple pleasures is quite easy to do on the Emerald Isle.  

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Unlucky Number 13

I have lived abroad before. I spent my freshman year of undergrad in Florence stumbling through broken Italian and a phone with no service. I spent my junior year in London adjusting to British politeness and the constant rain. I thought I was used to adapting, and figured that these skills would suit me well during my year in Galway. I was correct, but it would be rash to say that the challenges of COVID-19 didn’t put these skills to the test.

I love meeting new people. There are very few things more satisfying to me than hearing someone tell a story the way they deem it should be told. It is an actual thrill to watch as a person decides which bits of themselves to share when you first meet. You can practically see the internal dialogue in their head: what makes me interesting? what are the defining features of myself? what, right here and now, should I share with this stranger?

It is because of this love for the unfamiliar person that I often stumble into bizarre situations. I will stop a stranger in the grocery store if I’m lost on what to cook for dinner. If I hear someone tell a funny joke near me, I’ll laugh. I am the first person to message a random organization on Instagram because they posted something I found intriguing or important, and this is exactly how I ended up playing in the National Volleyball League of Ireland. 

When I saw NUIG Volleyball post an Instagram story of them training, I sent a message asking if I could join the next practice. They responded back immediately, letting me know that the next practice was that very night. I should preface this with the fact that I am not an elite athlete by any means, although that’s the distinction I received in order to play volleyball matches during COVID-19 lockdown in Ireland. I played volleyball in high school as a right side hitter and on an intramural team at New York University. 

I almost didn’t go to that first practice. The location was in a Catholic school I’d never been to. I had no idea how good these girls would be, and worst of all I hadn’t brought the proper shoes or knee pads for volleyball. Fellow Mitchell Scholar and housemate extraordinaire, Mason, told me I’d regret it if I didn’t go. As usual and annoyingly so, he was right, and so off to practice I went despite the typical Galway weather of rain, wind, and more rain.

The volleyball scene in Ireland is minimal compared to the United States, and because of this everyone seems to know everyone. When COVID-19 caused all university play to cease, I was invited to join the Galway Volleyball Club to compete against other teams across Ireland. I train with men and women alike, and my teammates are Irish, Polish, Greek, Croatian, Canadian, American, Italian, French, Malaysian, and the list goes on. My coach, Luke, plays for the local hurling team and calls me “Florida” as a nickname. Our team captain loves to say “Becca Brett” really fast because it sounds “very American” to her. When we create cheers during matches, most of my teammates don’t know what I’m saying. This confusion is because in Ireland certain volleyball terms are different than in the United States, like opposite hitter instead of right side, wing instead of outside hitter, or the fact that liberos aren’t allowed to serve ever. 

Unfortunately, Level 5 lockdown has suspended game play and training for the Galway Volleyball Club. In December, I look forward to seeing my crazy bunch of teammates again and screaming “Opa!” together after scoring a point. I may wear the unlucky number 13 on my jersey, but I am lucky in the sense that a random message on Instagram has brought me fifty new friends. I know that Ireland will continue to grant me sweet surprises such as this.

Our first match was against IT Carlow on October 11th.
Although I was a right side hitter in the USA,
I play as a middle hitter in Galway because I’m one of the tallest girls on the team!
Our home court is in Claregalway, a 15 minute drive from the city center.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learnings of a Perpetual Tourist

I landed in a nearly vacant airport with a stern voice warning of the pandemic over the intercom. I had come to Ireland on a nearly vacant plane and had slept on the flight with my mask on. I sat on a bus with ten rows between me and the one other passenger and recounted moments from last I was here as we drove through Dublin to the university. The welcoming committee stood behind glass. I zigzagged through the rope course where crowds were meant to queue, unsure of when to acknowledge the gazes of the biding staff.

Life is constructed in such a self-centric way. “I” am the subject, always. And from such vantage, each reality is formed. However, in these moments, I am pulled from my pinhole view. The world expands rapidly and panoramically. It was naive to see this pandemic as my issue, or America’s issue, or any derivation or combination of the two. But I am naive, and experience is my teacher. And so Ireland has taught me to step back and observe how connected and interdependent the world is.

It is obvious, but I will state anyways, that my experience here has sidestepped expectations. I haven’t met an Irish person. I haven’t been to any buildings on campus. I haven’t spoken to a classmate. I haven’t even seen all of my professors’ faces. I feel, in many ways, like a perpetual tourist. As a tourist, I have strolled streets and peered in windows that spill gold onto the sidewalk and wondered what dinner the dwellers will have that night. I have eavesdropped on conversations and made a mental note of where my witty comment would fit. I have showered and dressed and sat alone, hoping for a pair of eyes to find me and confirm my existence. To remind me I am real.

From these moments, I have grown. I have found deeper reasons to study in the absence of validation. I see that my knowledge is my power and I will forge and yield it. I have unearthed a bolder self in the absence of recognition. A will to exist and be good anonymously. Most of all, I have affirmed my passion. The work of ethics in machine learning is the work of the observer. Observation of a field, of its effects, of who controls the data, from whom it has been taken, and toward whom it will be applied. I must release myself from all of these roles and yet know them all equally. I see now the beauty in this solitude state. Perhaps a twisted trick, but one that has pushed me in ways I could not push myself. It has forced me to face the uncomfortable self-lackings that constant companionship conceals.

So, while Ireland has not spoken to me, she has taught me. I will stay steadfast in pursuit of my passions. I will walk the streets and wonder. I will think critically and question before accepting. I will step back and widen my view. I am a tourist, perpetually. And yet, this place has begun to shape me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment