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Borderlands: A Walk Along the Cliffs of Moher

Time October 28th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Who doesn’t ascribe to the belief that a picture is worth 1000 words? Maybe some of the genius wordsmiths of the past 100 years (John Millington Synge, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, etc). but for yours truly, capturing a two hour walk along one of the must stunning sights in Ireland deserves more than what my pen can deliver. And so, for you dear readers, here are the Cliffs of Moher as presented as a storybook. Skim through if you’ll please, and if the landscape doesn’t suit you, there’s a lovely ending piece of my dear cousins and Your Humble Writer doing duckfaces at a recent wedding.

 

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Setting out.

 

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Casual Castles.

 

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Shallow Thoughts and Camera Perturbation.

 

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History and Old Stones: It’s the Craic

 

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Contemplation and Vertigo.

 

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‘Flips in Famously Photographic Fields’: a new series

 

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Capped off with a very duckish festivity

 

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Some Words on the Occasion of Arthur’s Day, 2013

Time October 9th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

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“Sharpen his pillowscone, tap up his bier! E’erawhere in this whorl would ye hear sich a din again? With their deepbrow fundigs and the dusty fidelios. They laid him brawdawn alanglast bed. With a bockalips of finsky fore his feet. And a barrowload of guenesis hoer his head.”

–James Joyce “Finnegans Wake”

Arthur Guinness’s Day, an annual event to commemorate the memory of Ireland’s most beloved Biermeister, is probably the most ingenious holiday that almost never was. Because, after all, how do you get four million plus Irishmen and Irishwomen out on the streets to commemorate a national beer? Isn’t that what they’re always doing?

“If St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, and Hallowe’en are festivals that offer an excuse to drink, [Arthur’s Day] has flipped the concept on its head and offered the drink as an excuse for a festival.” This quote from an Irish Times article may be trying to hint at a deceptive nature in Arthur’s Day’s so-called nationalist origins, yet no amount of criticism has been able to mitigate the popularity of the festival. What’s perhaps more astonishing than the idea of a holiday dedicated solely to the drink is the fact that, since 2009, the Guinness has flowed merrily all the way from Ireland to countries as diverse as Indonesia and Malaysia. The latter is particularly ironic considering that in predominately Islamic Kuala Lumpur (which religion forbids alcohol), Muslims are raising their foamy sláintes beneath hijabs.

It’s not only about Guinness, though. As if more efforts were needed to wrest attention for the festivities, local venues offer various performances the night of the holiday, some of which have been surprisingly big. Take away the Irish players and you’ve still got acts like Snow Patrol and Stereophonics in Dublin; Five For Fighting and, ironically, The All American Rejects in Kuala Lumpur.

So how does one celebrate Arthur’s Day? It’s not difficult. The holiday is every third Thursday in September (Arthur’s day=’Our Thurs-day”), with a cheers at 5:59 (1759) to cap everything off. Try and hit the streets at five o’clock however and you’ll have no luck finding any standing room. If you’re young and gainfully employed you fake a sick day and find a nice pub by noon: if you’re a student, you and the lads start celebrating the night before.

My Arthur’s Day was like taking a freshman course in nonlinear dynamics: everything moved too fast, I didn’t understand a word that anyone said, and at the end of the day I couldn’t remember most of what had happened. Which is to say that things were a success, more or less. At noon I took my first drink, and found myself on Galway’s Shop street three hours later with the lads.

The atmosphere was so energized as to be combustible; the bodies in the street were so close together that, even filled with seven Guinness, I found it impossible to stumble. Everything smelt like sweat and hops, salt and grass (it’s Ireland, after all).

Somehow I found my way to a queue for a pub, where I ordered two more beers for myself and my mate, although, when I turned around, I saw that they had both disappeared. No matter: after drinking Guinness for a month, your body learns to consume it like water and let you feel its characteristic heaviness the next day. This is both good and bad: good if you want to drink first and worry about the consequences later, bad if you hadn’t eaten anything since two burnt rashers and glass of milk that morning. img_1003

I took a sip. It was now five thirty.

I wandered and leaned and shoved my way back into Shop street. The crowd was already turning Irish-wild, that is, their faces were leaned and flushed like a field of carnations, and they were happily aggressive. One cannot help but make the comparison between Arthur’s Day and a tailgate, but I beg to make a distinction: the tailgate is meant to pregame the football; Arthur’s Day is its own pregame and celebration. What’s more, Americans seperate themselves for the tailgate: to each fraternity it’s own, and such. The Irish, for all their county rivalries, can’t wait to get closer to each other when there’s alcohol involved. Leave enough room to throw an elbow, but not too much that you can’t wrench a hug out of each other afterwards.

I asked the lad next to me to hold my Guinness while I took out my phone to take a series of blurry pictures. He returned my beer when, to my dismay, I found it empty. Fortunately, there was my mate’s Guinness in my other hand. All’s fair on Arthur’s Day, let it not be forgotten. And one does not commit the blasphemy of toasting the master with an empty cup.

And then, ten minutes later, Arthur owned the minute. Intermittent, confused, and messy, those cups exploded into the air like a large, ground-based Russian missile deployment. But nevermind the bad execution; within a moment the pandemonium had culminated into a drunk, brilliant success. Wounded Guinness hurled into the air scattered their contents as thisty drunks caught them on their tongues like snowflakes. A fraternal-smelling wetness prevailed. Stout-sticky shirts became a uniform of national pride. Notes from “The Fields of Athenry” were sung. People were climbing on buildings and lightposts and each other; I turned to my left and saw someone being thrown into the air.

Apart from this, there’s little else of the day to recount. I woke up with my contacts in and received a text message asking if I remembered falling off of a wall. This is of course university norm, yet there was a distinctive Irishness about the whole feeling that didn’t owe itself completely from the Guinness.

Our canonical festivals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the New Year’s, the Fourth of July, and even Halloween all owe their genesis to the concept of family togetherness, a national victory, or religious tradition. Arthur’s Day is much more personal. It is based upon a national hero and the Irish, despite what a sober community might attest, don’t forget the spirit of the session.

Naturally, it has precedents. Saint Patrick’s Day is the obvious one, though this has become so meshed in American culture that most people celebrate a mythologised figure than an actual man (and how many people know anything about Patrick anyway?). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention James Joyce’s Bloomsday, yet the problem with this is that most people won’t go pouring into the streets to celebrate a dense, largely unread book from over a hundred years ago. Arthur’s Day is Ireland’s best hand by far and it’s a keeper. A shameless marketing ploy, sure (what holiday isn’t), yet one with roots steeped in a tradition recent enough and so widely shared as to be accessible to the whole country, and then some.

Ireland sober is Ireland free, once cried the nationalists. Ireland sober is Ireland stiff, corrected a bemused Joyce. And yet, four million raised Guinness have the true right idea. For one day a year, Ireland drunk is Ireland.

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Boots Made For Walking #1: Rubber is the New Versace, and Other Tips for Making Headway the Galway

Time September 30th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

kitten_0  “I used to not know where I was going, but I knew I would arrive.”

–Samuel Beckett

It’s worth arguing that Ireland probably enjoys the greatest walking culture, present and past, out of other nation. Look to literature and you’ll find a wealth of anecdotes detailing how this or that writer was inspired from his or her stroll around the island. Joyce, who walked around Dublin for a couple hours on his first date with future wife Nora Barnacle, probably enjoys the cutest reputation, as he would later memorialize the date (June 16, 1904) as the setting for the events of “Ulysses”, but there are others.

Colm Toíbín’s “Bad Blood” is a report on the author’s walk along the northern Irish border in 1987 following the turbulence of the Anglo-Irish treaty. Beckett’s grueling trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable all feature characters in various stages of meandering. And who could forget the travels of lovable Gulliver, romping about with Houyhnhnms and Yahoos following his unfortunate shipwreck?

img_0710 A walk along the north Galway bay.

There are others. One of the most tragic scenes of the historical fiction film “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” starring Cillian Murphy follows an extended hike through the stone-shod streets of the southwest part of the island. Take a listen at the music and you’ll even find that when the bards aren’t narrating some drunken misadventure or bewailing a lost, redheaded sweetheart, their next bet is the walking song: “I’ve been a wild rover for many a year”, “on the rocky road to Dublin”, and suchlike.

I won’t go so far as to say that the Irish invented the walking culture. Kerouac and Crusoe put to shame even the wildest rovers, and the maxim that every good writer is also a good walker owes no little truth to examples set by Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Balzac, Thoreau, and on for as long as the list (pardon the bad joke) can run.

There’s a link between slow, albeit long exercise and genius: time enjoyed in the development of one’s thoughts, rather than time ran in the pursuit of rigorous exercise and a sweaty tank top. Though it says nothing new to affirm that walking is a more pastoral exercise pastime, we seldom take into account how much we lose when we don’t indulge it. The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.

By which I mean that walking is the cheapest activity you can do. It is, ironically enough, even cheaper than doing nothing, which usually requires a venue in addition to a significant investment of boredom, which is itself a kind of commodity. (i.e. because doing nothing bores us, one must be first ably bored in order to do nothing)

Forget the semantics. Walking is far too simple an activity to be bogged down by my useless digressions. And yet I cannot praise the activity enough. In my travels, I have often looked at my enjoyment at walking as a sort of three-in-one, equal parts practical, enjoyable, and spiritual. kittens

It is a universal truth that one never walks alone. Joyce, perhaps unintentionally, stumbled upon the trueness of this in “Ulysses”, where the simple act of walking births a multitude of thoughts, which become distinct voices, which become separate characters, all filtered back through the original thinker of the thoughts. Such is the spiritual essence of walking: the creation of other beings; the breathing of life into mature thoughts that, without the instigator of walking, would never exist. I am making this sound more complicated than it really is. Permit me to illustrate with this bit of Joyce:

 “Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible…My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two boots in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?”

Few literary resources demonstrate the miracle of walking better than this one of the precocious, troubled Stephen Dedalus walking along a Dublin beach. His thoughts are haywire: they badminton Aristotle against Plato, throw in a dash of Spanish opera, and hint at his nagging feelings that he has had to borrow his roommate’s boots. But we can forgive him for this rambling outpouring thought: he’s young, over-educated, and over-qualified for his position as a (lousy) schoolteacher. And who among us, trying to show off some newly acquired smarts, has never inserted the occasional fun fact where it wasn’t really called for?

But perhaps I feel a particular affinity to the young walker. Stephen walks, lost in his thoughts. I walk, lost. And I don’t write this cheekily. img_0714

Famine memorial

Amusement parks, malls, bookstores; neighborhoods, backyards, and even cars: such were the places where I practiced the art of losing myself. As I grew older, my skills improved: when I was fifteen I spent an hour looking for a community service project ten minutes away; at sixteen I trumped myself by spending two hours on a service road looking for an iHop five minutes away from home. I’ve spent hours looking for a hotel in New York; half a night looking for my host family’s house in Austria; and all of the last three weeks looking for my classes. I’ve gone over more pavement than a steamroller, and I have no doubt in my mind that I’m the better for it.

Getting lost has taught me the folly of order. It has shown me that one can never be sure of his surroundings, that the universe can wear the street-sign garments of regiment and direction, but that these are never the signs of where we actually want to go.

Here is a generalization: the world is a fork in the road with two signs pointing in two opposite directions; both of them marked the same. How do we know which road to follow? We can’t. We take a road with the knowledge, in our heart of hearts, that what we have taken is and will be the only proper way. So be it if we wander. Our wanderings are just the inversions in the road that make the destination worth arriving at. Food tastes better after a hike: pancakes taste better after two hours on the road. But more importantly, these inversions, mistakes if you like, are what stick to memory, because they are the requisites to improvement.

I don’t remember my states and capitals because I studied a sheet of paper: I remember them because they were terrified into my brain after I got caught cheating on the test. I can sound out an adequate Chopin on the piano only because I know how to play very ugly Chopin, very well. I know my way around town like a guide dog, but only because I’ve fumbled my way through it blind. img_0719 Making my way to the Galway lighthouse, the last bit of their homeland that famine emigrants would see. 

Tolkien’s said “not all who wander are lost.” It’s a nice sentiment with a universal truth. I subscribe to it, and to this inversion: “I’m lost because I wander”, and even “I’m lost, and I wander.”

It’s also an apt quote for the direction this rather rambling post has taken. Such is the path that most true walkers take: so focused on the details of where our walk takes us, we sometimes lose sight of the Big Picture.

And so I won’t hold you for much longer (if I’ve managed to hold you at all). Articles about wandering have the tendency to, as you’ve probably noticed, wander. But we cannot afford to pay loose mind to all the benefits of good walking and, even more so, getting goodly lost.

But getting right down to it, these are nothing more than finger foods to chew over next time you find yourself without a roadmap in some desolate, hopefully safe part of town. Geniuses have tramped the same roads before you: masterpieces have emerged regardless of GPS’s. Your own two feet are the cheapest tickets to the annals of a longrunning history, and though the shadows cast by the great walkers is a long one, you can take solace knowing that there’s no end to the miles you can go before you sleep.

Slán agus Sláinte!

PS: Kitten pics courtesy of a very dear friend who doubted that anybody would read this whole post unless it had a cuter incentive.

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Craic Culture

Time September 13th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

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Nothing kicks a blogpost off better than a cute cat picture. Which is why I’m sorry I couldn’t do any better than this very peeved picture of Oliver (our resident furball), being helped to stand and salute his departing master. Oliver’s armpits held by courtesy of my dear big brother.  

So. Here I am, two weeks in Ireland and with one measly blog post to show for it. But then again with anything less than two weeks in the heart of the heart of a country, it’s difficult to find much to say about the experience without reciting the inevitable list of cultural differences and unsurprising similarities. Even so, I might as well knock out a choice few while I’m thinking about it, and so here goes:

Similarities:

  • You can still see at least one McDonalds from your bedroom window
  • America Radio Chart 50 is still the go-to for party, pub, or club
  • Anywhere, anytime, any guy with an acoustic will be crooning away “Wagon Wheel”
  • Even Irish people pronounce “America” as “ ‘Murica”
  • People speak English

 Differences:

  • People don’t speak English. If what we might call the English language is transacted, however, it is either sung or mumbled-mashed into a blend of consonants (Ex: “How are you”= “h’r’ye”)
  • The grass is literally greener
  • Everything car-related is on the wrong side, which is the right side, and so everything is technically right, which I suppose is the way things are back home.
  • Rain (as opposed to not rain, which is what we have in Texas)
  • Evidently there’s something called the metric system
  • Evidently some people don’t charge things in dollars
  • Evidently, people walk
  • Guinness, that tepid brown stuff you might have wretched over back in the States, though still brown here, has managed to acquire a taste, and that taste is perfection.

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LEFT My backyard’s better than your’s

RIGHT An Irish ‘Big Mac’, that is, ‘Big (Bony) Mackerel’

So that’s it, as far as a preliminary list of things go. At least, as far as things that can fit the differences/similarities binary are concerned. One thing does still manage to escape the list, however, and that one thing is ‘craic’ (pronounced “crack”).

Bear in mind, before you get excited and start rattling off all sorts of rude, drug-related jokes, dozens of giddy and immature study-abroaders have already tapped the craic keg long before you. Which then leaves the question: what is craic, if not the fodder for poor punning?

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Shady walkway, Number One: St Stephen’s Green. Ireland has all sorts of mysterious-looking places like this, which is an excuse for saying that you’ll probably be seeing lots of images very much, if not exactly like, this one. Pretty, though.

The craic is everything and anything you want it to be, so long as that any and everything is something nice, fun, exciting, or generally positive. The Irish use craic for a number of salutations: “What’s/How’s/How was the craic?”, “Are ye having the craic?”, “When will we have the craic?” all of which are to be answered with the simple return: “The craic is grand.”

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Doesn’t look too remarkable, but this is (allgedly) Samuel Beckett’s old watering hole. Which is funny, because Beckett wasn’t much of the writer we know him as until he got out of Ireland, more specifically, Dublin. Nice to think of him kicking around in Galway though. 

Mind you, the craic, specifically, the craic’s grandness, is inviolable. It is something beyond the personal, the societal, even the mortal. Deck yourself out for a night of pubbing, only to later slip on the banks of the Galway Corrib and get yourself all covered in freezing mud? The Sperries might be ruined but the craic is untouched. Lose an arm to a passing auto that cut the curb too close? You may bleed to death but as far as the c-word is concerned, you’re a body minus as arm that’s as grand as it’s ever been.

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LEFT Theobald Wolfe Tone, Ireland’s 1798 revolution leader and tragic hero. 

RIGHT Nothing like 10 AM Guinness to start the day off well and proper. The dazed zombie look you see in our faces is product of a sleepless nine hours, not the alcohol.

I don’t really want to venture too far into the philosophy of craic, but there is something to craic that speaks well of Irish culture. People have a tendency when you engage them to jump straight to their complaints: it doesn’t matter if there’s a shining sun and good company, a bad score on an exam or a late night of study worries can make the whole world go belly-up. Ask someone how they’re doing and more often than not you’ll get the whole tirade of tragedies, enough to make any party lose interest, and sometimes enough to bring down their own mood.

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LEFT No, that light you see in my eyes isn’t the camera. Irish Guinness radiates a natural glow when poured correctly. Harness the energy of five correctly poured Guinness and you have enough power to light up Dublin for a week. 

RIGHT “Clockwork Orange” novelist and my Mufasa-in-the-sky mentor Anthony Burgess wrote a novel “Time For a Tiger” during his time in Malaya, referring to this beer here, which you can’t get at any Tom, Dick, or Harry’s pub in the US. This is not relevant to you, but it makes the beer a little famous knowing this. Not recommended, though. 

On the flip side, query the craic and you’re immediately establishing the conversation in a positive light. It doesn’t even matter if you’re labored down by personal problems and stress: the mood has already been struck and the light of a happy decorum takes immediate precedence over an opposing sourpuss. You may still get the same flood of complaints, but there’s at least been an acknowledgment of the worry-free world, and you both may walk away later, feeling just a little bit grander.

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Molly Malone, the tragic subject for a beautiful ballad. Give her a kiss, and hope that you never end up like her. 

And so, here’s to you, dear reader. Get craicing!

 Sláinte agus saibhreas!

PS: I’m beginning to learn the picture system just a bit better. This is a hodgepodge of the first two weeks.

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Trusting Yourself

Time September 3rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”

–James Joyce

Terminals always make me phlegmy.

I can’t quite explain why, but I think it has something to do with the cheap starchy food you find in the restaurants; it glues to the back of your throat and you cough and sputter and finally try to wash it all away with water and Pepsi, but of course that only makes things worse when you realize that Pepsi is pretty much all corn syrup and sugar and very likely much more ill-equipped for dislodging chunks of potato than nothing at all. Of course, you can still attempt to cough it all away, but when you do be forewarned that any spectators who catch you attempting this will think that you’re either hacking up a fur ball or choking on one.

There are solutions: don’t eat from airport restaurants, consume a huge breakfast, or stick to the light stuff like soups and salads (though these, remarkably enough, can still prove to be a gamble). Maybe attempt Lipton or coffee instead of soda if you’re having difficulties.

Aside from that, there’s not much more I can think of. Phlegmy throats and coughing fits are a characteristic of terminals that I have never been able to circumvent in all my years of traveling, no matter how adequately I prepare myself. To say I’ve gotten used to it would be an overstatement, though by now I can admit to having achieved a level of complacency. Braving terminals may mean a day of hacks and wheezes, but all things considered, I prefer knowing my inconveniences beforehand so I can prepare for them. And on a more optimistic note, a grainy throat is a small price to pay to go to the places I’ve gone to.

None of this really has anything to do with my upcoming excursion to Ireland per se (three hours and counting until my flight leaves) and you may very well chock these paragraphs up to personal problems and stop reading here. They are personal problems, I’ll be the first to admit, but there’s a traveler’s truth behind them: amateur travelers, experienced go-abouters, and cosmopolitans alike can share an experience of nothing, ever, going as intended.

This is of course true wherever you go, and yet nothing quite brings you into its universal focus until you’re immersing yourself in another culture and realize that every word you say or frivolous hand gesture that you make has the potential to mean something different from what you intended. We forget that culture is as much a concept as it is a developing organism: it adapts to the times and to people and to trends, even borrowing form sister cultures, and always emerging different from its source material.

This is not my first time overseas. I’ve frequented New Zealand and tramped the streets of Prague; I’ve hiked the Swiss Alps and gotten yelled at by the Austrian police for an invalid bus ticket. I consider myself an experienced traveler not because I’ve had the opportunities to go abroad and taken them, but because I’ve made more mistakes abroad than most other people. As recently as last year, I found myself walking a three-hour journey back to the home of my host mother in Austria at four in the morning, having taken the wrong (and coincidentally, last) bus away from the city center. This is hardly an isolated event.

The thing about it is though, mistakes, until proven harmful, are only unintentional paths. Stephen Dedalus had it right when he called mistakes the “portals to discovery”, though it doesn’t have to be only geniuses that make them. If anyone can make a mistake, anyone can be a pioneer.

There is a theme here, in case you were wondering. Getting lost at four in the morning in a foreign country and culture itself: they’re both just mistakes that led to chance products, ones that history, being ineluctable and perpetual history, has simply had to carry on with. The word ‘mistake’ itself does not do us any favours either; mis-intention is perhaps the more appropriate term.

Clacking away at my keys in the corner of the terminal takes the mind off problems like the phlegmy throat, but only for so long. Sometimes, once you realize that the only-so-much-you-can-do isn’t quite good enough, you’re more comfortable with your situation than you were in the beginning. This can go for anything: packing for a semester-long excursion three thousand miles across the world, researching a foreign country in the hopes of having a better understanding of your future home, brushing up on current politics so that you’re careful not to say anything offensive to your fellow countrymen. Accept the fact that you’ll probably forget something (portable toothbrush) or accidentally insult someone and you feel immensely better.

I’ve been researching Ireland for the past five years—from Famine politics to Gaelic poetry of the Great Blasket Islands, the music of the Dropkick Murphys to traditional ceili and everything insignificant in-between. This may sound a bit like bragging: this is definitely a bit of bragging. Even so, after all is said and done and with all my research, I can safely confirm that I know next to nothing about Ireland or its culture. With preparation one can only learn to speculate: culture moves too fast for anyone who’s grounded only in books to have much of a realistic idea about what it means or what’s important about it.

I’m not saying all of this only because I’m feeling philosophical, but rather because most of the pre-departure blog talk you’ll here is pretty much the same. There’s much talk of nerves and worries, packing woes and cell phone troubles, all of which is overlaid with an emphasis on how excited the traveler feels to be traveling. Describing all of these sensations is a fine way of explaining how one feels about setting off on his or her adventure. Most of it is useless.

I imagine that most people realistically don’t care what I’m feeling about going to Ireland. Adventures are adventures only to those who take them; everyone else’s job is to be polite when they regale you about them. Which means that I’m not going to set out and explain to you how I’m feeling or why I’m excited: what you’ll get here are the stories, as many as I can provide, with as much culture as I can possibly squeeze into the gaps.

I’ve probably rambled away for too long. Too much talk leads us in circles like pony trails: better to make your mis-intentions than talk yourself out of doing anything at all. And so, from now until my plane takes off:

Sláinte agus saibhreas!

PS: Attached some pictures here. Still don’t really know how the add images toggle works so I just threw them down without much consideration.

IMAGE 1: My attempt at sporting some Irish cool

IMAGE 2: My attempt at sporting some Irish sexy

IMAGE 3: Packing despair: do we pack the hurling cleats or the stepdancing heels? Every man’s worst nightmare.

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