I had an unusual undergraduate experience. Ok, that’s an understatement. I went to the Naval Academy, a school that was 80% male, required me to wear a uniform daily, and only let me venture outside the walls on the weekend. Another trademark of USNA was a rigid schedule. I woke up at 7am for morning formations, attended at least four hours of class a day, ran at track practice every afternoon, participated in meetings throughout the night, and stayed up late cramming to fulfill both military and academic requirements. I had a particularly challenging second semester as a Company Commander, a job that compounded my responsibilities and commitments. With such a schedule, I rarely had time to simply catch my breath.
Next October, I will return to the Navy and serve as a junior officer onboard a ship. Once again, I will encounter a similar lifestyle in which I will have little time for myself. In the meantime though, my life in Ireland could not be more different. No restrictions, no major responsibilities, no schedule, and plenty of free time. So I’ve decided to make this year a year dedicated to myself, involving a lot of learning both inside the classroom and out. Perhaps inspired by Eat, Pray, Love, I’ve made several goals to make 2008-2009 a year of self-discovery and improvement.
1. Travel, travel, travel. One piece of advice I received before leaving Annapolis was to take advantage of every opportunity to travel. I’m in Europe- why not make use of RyanAir, Easyjet, and affordable public transportation? So far, so good. I’ve traveled every weekend, touring parts of Ireland and several major European cities. In Ireland, I ventured to Galway, Limerick, and the Aran Islands during the Mitchell Introduction weekend; Glendalough to admire the ancient monastery ruins; Wexford for the Opera Festival; Cork to enjoy some great music during the Jazz Festival; and Blarney to kiss the infamous stone (and now I have the gift of gab!) Around the continent, I biked through Munich during Oktoberfest; ran the original marathon in Athens; admired Gaudi architecture in Barcelona; and even reunited with some of my classmates from the Naval Academy in Oxford. During the next couple of months, I plan on heading to Egypt, South Korea, and maybe even Italy. If only RyanAir had frequent flyer miles!
2. Setting my own schedule. What a change of pace! I have no set daily schedule and no serious stress in my life- I don’t even use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning (and a bell doesn’t sound at 6:30!) I truly have the freedom to decide what I want to do every day. I only have 10 hours of class a week (which is mostly material I am interested in- an added bonus). I also take naps when I want to, have time to go out with friends on weeknights, and work out when I feel like it in the awesome DCU gym. My academic program also allows me a significant amount of freedom- readings are recommended and not compulsory, allowing me to follow my interests. I even have the opportunity to improve the Spanish I picked up living in Miami this past summer. Outside of the classroom, I am actively trying to not over-commit myself so I have more time to enjoy life this year. My only set obligation is a weekly yoga class. My schedule is a lot more fluid, allowing me to take advantage of unique opportunities, like running the Athens marathon. Having so much freedom is an enjoyable adjustment.
3. Furthering my cultural acumen. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the theatre too many times during my four years on the Severn. To make up for a relative lack of culture, I am trying to visit a museum, attend a play, or sit in on a lecture at least once a week. Luckily, the Dublin Mitchells are great at scoping out opportunities. Just this past week, I went with Ryan and Travis to see the Vienna Boys choir, which was phenomenal. I did not know 9-year-olds could sing so well! I also had the chance to see my first opera in Wexford with Lara and Erin. All fun aside- I came woefully unprepared to attend an opera that weekend, so I invested in a 35-euro dress at a clearance store in Wexford for the occasion. Leaving the brand new opera house after the production, I was stopped by a well-dressed operagoer and complimented on my outfit, which was probably several hundred euros cheaper than hers (I think she liked the feathers Lara and I had in our hair!) Other productions I have seen include Thomas Beckett’s Happy Days with Fiona Shaw, which literally featured a talking head on stage, and The Cripple of Innishmaan, a dramedy about the Aran Islands and 1930’s Hollywood that I really enjoyed. I have seen and heard more in theatres in two months than I have in the past four years!
4. Exploring Dublin. Dublin is such a dynamic city, full of fascinating history and great nightlife. When two of my friends from USNA came to visit, we had a chance to visit several of the major sites. We learned about Dublin’s history through walking tours; saw the leftover symbolism of the British domination of Ireland in Dublin Castle; admired the artistry of the Book of Kells and the city’s numerous cathedrals; smelled the flowers in the Botanical Gardens near DCU; became certified taste testers at the Jameson Distillery and Guinness Factory; and visited Kilmainham Gaol, an incredibly moving experience. I cannot adequately describe in words what I felt standing near the black cross that marks where the leaders of the Easter Rising were assassinated. I have been fascinated with Dublin’s history, particularly the Easter Rising- we went on a great 1916 walking tour and walked through an interesting exhibition at Collins Barracks. I still get chills every time I walk past the General Post Office and see the bullet holes left in the columns from that Easter weekend. On a lighter note, Temple Bar has proven to be a great place to party and listen to live music. One of my favorite memories so far is getting strange looks while dancing at Purty Kitchen dressed as an American tourist on Halloween. I am looking forward to checking out more museums, pubs, and clubs in the next few months.
5. Keeping in touch and keeping a journal. I have been much better at keeping in touch with family and friends via email, Skype, and Facebook, though I can always improve. I have also been a good little scholar and have kept track of the daily events of my life in a journal. It is nice to have a chance to reflect and look back on all that I have been doing.
6. Getting to know my fellow Mitchell Scholars. I am so fortunate to be associated with such an amazing group of people. Not only is everyone brilliant, each person is dynamic, has a lot of personality, and is fun to spend time with. It is so great to have a built-in group of travel buddies who will nerd out in museums by day and dance until 3am at night. We’ve already had some adventures together- hanging out in beer tents in Oktoberfest, nearly getting arrested for wearing togas in the Agora in Athens (who knew that togas were considered disrespectful?), munching on tapas in Barcelona, and learning about the beauty of Ireland. I look forward to even more exploits in the near future.
7. Most importantly, learning about Ireland. Coming into September, my knowledge of Ireland was limited, most of it a result of reading Leon Uris’ Trinity. I want to learn as much as I can about Irish history and culture during this year. I remember the night I fell in love with Ireland. In Galway, at a local pub called “the Crane,” I sat drinking pints with my fellow scholars in awe of the Irish music jam session that surrounded us. Anyone can bring an instrument to the pub and just rock out. People belted out well-known Irish ballads and moved their legs ridiculously fast in fits of Irish dancing. I realized after that night that Ireland is a country with such personality as well as a moving history. I can’t help but root for Ireland, the consummate underdog. Unexpectedly, Ireland has also radically changed my perspective of the British Empire. I am learning about the horrors of British occupation. For example, despite what I learned in my freshman world history class, the “Glorious Revolution” of William of Orange really wasn’t bloodless or all that glorious. Ireland is just so fascinating- I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to learn its unique story.
8. As important as #7, getting to know Irish people. I have made some really great Irish friends in my first two months here. My class has spent a couple of nights in “Matt Weldon’s,” the pub right outside campus, drinking pints and celebrating the completion of numerous assignments. We also have lunch together twice a week, which always allows for good conversation. I’ve learned from my Irish classmates about the sing-songy Cork accent, the necessity of watching “Father Ted”, what a fanny is, and what constitutes good craic. Within my program, I am the only American, as well as the only military member, which puts me in a unique position during class discussions. I really enjoy the lack of American perspectives- it puts me outside of my comfort zone and allows me to understand people from all over the world. I am learning a tremendous amount about Irish culture, humor, and perspectives through my new friends.
Those are my main goals for the year- an Irish manifesto of sorts. It can really be boiled down to three things that I really want to do this year: travel, learn, and get to know new people.
So schoolwork isn’t listed as one of my priorities? No worries though. I am still doing homework and really enjoying Development. School is not the same priority for me this year, though, as it was at the Naval Academy. I have to take advantage of my situation, since I will not encounter this much freedom for at least five years. This year involves more than academic coursework for me; it constitutes coursework for life.