On Coffee and Culture

I woke up early last Friday morning to essentially do one thing: get free coffee. If you have spent any time with me, I have probably waxed poetic about my desire for coffee. What might surprise you is that I until this morning, I had no coffeemaker of my own here in Dublin. My kitchen came furnished with an electric kettle, so it seemed silly to purchase a coffeemaker that I’d eventually have to leave behind. Thus began a long, arduous battle with myself, as I was torn between feeling that I should just purchase instant coffee and wanting to go to a shop and have a proper cup of brew.

During my first few weeks in Ireland, my funds hadn’t yet hit my bank account (everything in Ireland moves much more slowly than I had expected), so I was living on cash (i.e., the cheap) until greater financial security arrived. My first day, jet-lagged and a bit delirious, I wandered into a grocery store to purchase some staples and I picked up the cheapest canister of instant coffee they had: GRANAROM. I figured that it would hold me, so I took it home and eagerly fixed myself a cup.

It was awful.

Perhaps, I thought, I’m simply not preparing it right.  I added cinnamon. I put in my soy milk. Brown sugar.  Tried making it stronger. Making it weaker.  After about 10 cups of tests, and 10 cups of disappointment, I gave up Granarom as a bad job.

So, since the first week of September, a jar of instant coffee has sat on my pantry shelf, waiting for use as I rummaged, rearranged, and selected every other item in the vicinity.  I hated to throw it away, as there was nothing wrong with it; I just didn’t care for the taste. It seemed wasteful, and you never know, maybe it would be necessary one day.  It would suffice in a caffeine-craving pinch come dissertation time.

Friday morning, however, I said goodbye to my old friend Granarom.  Bewley’s Cafe (a famous Dublin establishment cum coffee company, established in the mid-1800s) has declared this their Coffee Amnesty Weekend. If you were one of the first 1,000 people to bring in your jar of instant coffee to the main Bewley’s on Grafton Street, they would trade your jar for a free single-person cafetière and a starter pack of 5 different brew blends for you to experiment with. After waking up, responding to emails and having my morning breakfast of fruit, granola and yogurt, I gleefully packed my canister in my bag and set off in the cold toward Bewley’s.

It was strangely sad, I admit, placing my jar of Granarom into the wicker basket with other half-used jars–a cemetery for jaded java dreams.  Walking back to my kitchen at Trinity, I unwrapped the box and brewed my first pot.

Heaven.

In giving up a vestige of my first day in Ireland, I have gained a much more practical (and satisfying) prize: better coffee at home, at a much lower cost.

I still have other things to remind me of my first day in Ireland, I tell myself.  For example, I carry my cell phone (the first thing I sought out when I got off the plane, so I could safely utilize the much-needed Google maps feature) with me everywhere. Still, the Granrom was something different: it was a daily reminder of a mistake–improvidence–naiveté–and a token of how far I’ve come in learning to be self-sufficient as an adult who has to cook, clean, shop for lightbulbs (and return lightbulbs, and pay attention to correct wattage)–all in a new city, new country, new culture.

Sitting, typing this while drinking a freshly brewed cup of coffee, I own up the the fact that while I will not miss the ne’er-pleasing aftertaste of my Granarom, that jar has taught me a few good lessons over the past five months.

Over the past five months (has it only been five?! it seems like I have been living here far longer—and yet, much shorter!), I have learned so much about the person I am, and the person I want to be.  Despite my own  wonderful study abroad experiences as an undergraduate through Centre College, I would have found it presumptuous to call myself a “global citizen” before my time in Ireland.  Now, my experience as a Mitchell has allowed me to become exactly that.

It’s difficult to articulate exactly how multi-faceted the experience of being a Mitchell Scholar is. Though I am working harder than ever, I am also having a fantastic time.  Mitchells are spread throughout the island of Ireland, but, in my case, all roads lead to Dublin.  Living in the city center, I’m never more than a few blocks away from a traditional music festival, a speech at the National Gallery, or a matinee at the National Theatre.

The position of being an American immersed in a foreign culture provides a range of discourse outside the traditional US educational realm.  As a Mitchell Scholar, you get used to interacting with creatives, business people, and policymakers from both the United States and Ireland, such as local Senators and U.S. Ambassador Dan Rooney. This experience extends beyond the island: in March, for example, the ’12 Mitchells are traveling to Brussels to tour the European Commission and Parliament.  I can’t tell you how many discussions on business innovation or economic modeling I’ve found myself in; though I hold no formal training or expertise in the area, I have learned how to be an active listener, as well as to productively contribute with my own opinions as an artist. (In Ireland, the artist is seen as contributing substantially to the economy – indeed, the arts rank high as a national export and tourist feature, to say nothing of their enrichment of national culture.)

As a student in theater and performance studies, I’ve found not only these formal events, but also everyday, intimate interactions to be an incredible learning experience, both personally and artistically. They have challenged my thoughts and beliefs, and forced me to interrogate my own experience of being an American.  I hate having to bracket an observation or question with, “As an American,” but I’ve found that it’s sometimes necessary for to convey a point: in spite of all the broad similarities between Ireland and the US, there are also nuanced beliefs, communication practices, and social mores at play.

My work in the Literary Department of the Abbey Theatre Amharclann na Mainistreach (the National Theatre of Ireland) has proven a fascinating contrast to other theatre work I’ve done in the United States—particularly my experiences with the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.   Both literary offices dedicate much of their time to the cultivation and support of new work, yet the conversations surrounding the process are quite distinct.  I find myself increasingly interested in the ways that subsidized art systems inform the creation of dramatic works speaking to issues of nationalism, and the greater emphasis on artist cultivation rather than project development (although the latter, of course, still happens).  Too large a topic for an M.Phil dissertation, to be sure–especially once you add in a comparative discussion of other national theaters and the US, which conspicuously lacks a national producing company). Ah, well … food for doctoral thought?

On that note, I will sign off and head to work. Today is a busy one: activities for the opening night of “I (heart) Alice (heart) I” on the Abbey’s Peacock stage, a meeting on possibly being dramaturg for a production, and continued work on my dissertation proposal (to be presented tomorrow!).

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