Wells of Oil, Pots of Gold

A chara,

My winter holidays are kicking off earlier than those of the other Scholars. I’m currently enjoying an overnight layover in London (complete with shortbread shaped like Scottie dogs and an enchanting night at the circus). This time tomorrow I’ll be home in Austin, and I will travel straight from the airport to a rehearsal of Dionysus in ’69.

I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about Texas, actually. It’s a place with mythic stature for many people—and for nobody more than Texans ourselves! When I first arrived in beautiful Galway, I found common ground with many of my new acquaintances when we realized that Texas and Ireland share this quality: outsiders are often so, so disappointed to learn that one doesn’t have an oil well in the backyard or a horse in the garage—or a leprechaun in the garden pointing the way to the pot of gold.

Luckily, our commiseration over Hollywood stereotypes had the power to heal the rift created by — well, let’s call it International Weather Competition 2011. (It’s a version of a dreadful game called Misery Poker at my college). After disappointing new friends or potential landlords by admitting that I don’t wear cowboy boots every day, I further dismayed them by my response to their sallies about how awful Irish weather is. It’s chilly! It rains a lot! Last year it even snowed! Unfortunately, I had just arrived from a scorching desert: in August, Austin temperatures topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the entire state was in the grip of a dangerous drought, and wildfires had begun spreading across neighborhoods and forests. I kept explaining this, with a brave smile, and saying that I’d take the rain over wildfires any day. But everyone looked so sad, and it slowly dawned upon me that I was being obnoxious and that soon I would have no friends.

Thus I learned an important lesson in cultural diplomacy: when someone complains about their own weather, don’t try to top them. Even if you’re from Siberia, or Death Valley. The appropriate response of the newcomer is to agree, to worry about your own greenhorn capacity to cope, and to ask for advice.

Final words on the weather: sometimes I wear waterproof over-trousers to school (a trash bag for legs). And a few weeks ago the wind tried to push me over the bridge into the River Corrib. Comeuppance.

Why the mention of potential landlords? Unlike the other campuses in Ireland, NUIG provides a housing stipend for Mitchells, rather than space in a student residence. I spent my first week in Galway scouting apartments for Mohit and myself. I was quite anxious about finding one, but there’s no better way to learn your way around a new city. It all worked out for the best: we signed our lease on a place overlooking the river, and only then learned that it is the very same apartment that Lauren Parnell Marino and Michael Solis (Class of ’10) lived in happily two years ago! The very same ducks and swans are our river-pets too.

Ireland possesses surpassing natural beauty. I focused on exploring the “Wild West” this term—the lonely lovely Burren, the majestic Cliffs of Moher, windswept Connemara, the ancient ring fort on the isle of Inishmore.

Since I’ve been out of college for four years, I signed up for approximately 836 clubs and societies, eager to try out everything I missed the first time around. In addition to my theatre classes, I’m taking an introductory Irish language class, and sitting in on lectures in medieval history. I’ve learned the rudiments of tae kwon do, object puppetry for kids, and how to shoot a bow and arrow. I participated in my first debate at the Lit & Deb Society (arguing, passionately, that fish pedicures are a form of forced animal prostitution), and attended the society’s inspiring audiences with novelist Colm Tóibín and then-presidential candidate and everybody’s favorite Galway grandpa Michael D. Higgins. (He won!)

Above all I will cherish my collection of theatre memories. I’ve attended more than 30 productions so far, most of them featured in the Dublin Theatre Festival,  the Fringe Festival, or the Galway Theatre Festival. It’s been a treat to witness contemporary Irish artists interpreting the classic texts of Sean O’Casey, John B. Keane, and Brian Friel, as well as mapping new territory for themselves. My excellent classes — particularly Patrick Lonergan’s “Theatre & Globalization” course — are helping me to place what I’m seeing in historical context and to analyze the cultural and economic significance of art in Ireland. My favorite shows have been the two I attended with other Mitchell Scholars: Anise, Derick, and Ivan joined me for Kneehigh’s darkly comic fairy tale The Wild Bride; and Jess and I saw Corn Exchange’s Man of Valour, a one-man tour-de-force about the superhero lurking inside an ordinary office worker.  I was so glad to see these shows in the company of friends — and so glad that my recommendations stood up to the test. You never know with theatre. You really never know.

I’m so lucky to be studying here in the company of my fellow Mitchell Scholars of 2012. We’ve been privileged to meet and learn from politicians, journalists, and businesspeople through the good auspices of the US-Ireland Alliance. Our interests and experiences are so varied that every gathering — even when we’re just eating pie in a farm cottage in Derry or hiking in the Wicklow Mountains — feels like a seminar. In a good way. A great “Can we have a class outside?” seminar where everyone brings grapes and cheese and laughs a lot.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the US-Ireland Alliance for this incredible gift. I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity to study, to travel, to surprise and reassure and challenge myself. The U.S. Embassy in Dublin, too, has been truly gracious: in addition to the lovely reception the staff hosted to welcome us to the island in October, it was moving and comforting to be among American and Irish friends and citizens at the Embassy’s memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Thanks as well to the staff of NUIG’s International Office, who were invaluably helpful throughout the intimidating vicious cycle of you-need-an-Irish-bank-account-to-sign-a-lease-on-an-apartment-but-until-you-have-an-Irish-address-you-can’t-get-a-bank-account!

Go raibh maith agat!

Fair warning, though: when I return to Ireland in January, I’m bringing my cowboy boots.

Slán go fóill,

Katie Van Winkle

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