Monday, August 16, 2010

The Long-Anticipated Post-Travel Polemic against European Suckage

1. Europeans are kind of racist. Maybe they just don't have the same PC discourse we have over here or maybe it's just that they never had a Civil Rights Movement but many (white) Europeans have some serious issues with black people and middle-eastern people. The anti-immigrant phenomenon is by no means an American oddity.
2. Europeans aren't religious enough. I understand this, really I do. Europeans have a long history of killing each other over religious differences and the current sex-abuse scandal with the Catholic Church isn't helping matters at all. I think, however, that the response of relegating religion to a national set-piece is not the answer. Europeans desperately need some sort of spiritual awareness. As thing stand, they simply don't understand strong religious convictions as anything but psychologically toxic. This, combined with point 1, explains the current overwhelming European angst over Islam. I'm not proposing exporting American-style evangelicalism or reviving insecure churchstates, but there needs to be some sort of answer.
3. Europeans don't get finger food. I got weird looks in Ireland for eating spare ribs with my fingers. Italians carve up perfectly good pizza with a fork and knife. I shudder to think how they would do in India, where you eat everything with your hands.
4. No dryers.
5. No Mexican food.
6. Unnecessary feuds with neighboring countries that have everything to do with history and nothing to do with the present.
7. The Euro: it's not working.

I really could go on for a while, but I'll spare you.

Now, a little bit on what I'm doing now that I'm back in America and confronted with reality once again.
I recently procured a 9-month contract job working for a company called MedImmune out in Gaithersburg. The pay and benefits are pretty nice and it will be a good foot in the door for me into the world of bio-tech. Plus, it gives me time to save up for my next potential trip. I have a few possibilities brewing.

1. Peru. Amy's idea. So far a pretty attractive option since it allows me to continue practicing my Spanish and promises to be pretty cheap.
2. Nova Scotia. Hugh's parents have a summer home up there. Hugh and I are considering a road trip up there maybe early next year.
3. California. Just to go. I've never been. Maybe I'll apply to UCSB just to get an interview.
4. Japan. Undoubtedly the most ambitious so far. Holly keeps getting on my case about visiting her and I'd love to go. I would need to save up a bit for it though. Ideally, I'd like to go either in March or October. I hear Japan is lovely then.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My obligatory post-travel polemic against American suckage

Now that I have seen the world with my own eyes, I feel intellectually validated in denouncing certain shortcomings of my own nation. Forgive me that some of these will be patently obvious.
I. America is too fat. You know, I really don't know what it is. Maybe its the reduced popularity of fast food, the chain smoking, the walking everywhere, the traditional diet, the marathon clubbing, or just generally higher standards of personal pride, but most Europeans seem to maintain a healthy body shape without too much difficulty. Everytime I saw some Snorlax abroad, I strained my ears to hear them talk and, sure enough, they were American or English (England is becoming the new us, their obesity rate is like 25% now, while ours is about 30%). I really don't think that the American "obesity epidemic" (they always say "epidemic" like it's no more preventable than swine flu) is beyond our control, it's simply beyond our willpower.
II. America is too frumpy. And this is from a man who routinely buys all his clothes at Kohls or the thrift store. I think Michael Pertner put it best: "if I have to go back to College Park where all the girls just wear North Face and sweatpants and uggs, I think I might cry." While some European fashions barely qualify as such and God help us should they ever jump across the pond (case in point, poofey pants), they are at least fashions which i more than can be said of most American clothing, which properly belongs in the category of "eyesore."
III. America does not appreciate the benefits of good public transportation. DC exempted, public transportation in America is archaic, dirty, hard to use, expensive, and unreliable. Most Americans live in some suburb which lies beyond the reach of public transportation anyway, effectively forcing us to be a nation of car owners. Great for the US auto industry (who managed to screw things up in spite of it all), bad for the public and the environment.
IV. America is too provincial. Europeans, no matter what their walk of life, always seem to have been everywhere, whereas most Americans don't even have passports. Even Gerard, a dairy farmer with no college education, had been all over Europe, Asia, and a few places in North America. I suppose living in a continent where two hours has you in a completely different nation and language makes you appreciate the virtues of multiculturalism. Even the most hopeless yahoo from Palookaville, Pennsyltucky would let go of his ignorance and posturing if he had a good long stint overseas. Why? When all you know is your own culture and country, it's easy to start thinking of other nations as abstractions, dots on a map with unpronounceable names or sputtered names on the evening newscast (Eyjafjallajökull?). Abstractions are easy to process. There is little moral dilemma in invading an abstraction. If you cannot adequately process anything beyond your own mental borders, the big other, the outside becomes something to be feared and, if possible, controlled. Once you've been there, walked those streets, tasted that food, it becomes a place and a people as real and dear as your own. You realize that the much vaunted "differences" between "us" and "them" are largely contrivances of unscrupulous people who need your opinion or your vote. Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck would be laughed out of any public forum in Europe. They simply wouldn't have an audience. Stunts like Glenn Beck's planned redux of Martin Luther King's march on Washington wouldn't happen. It used to be that Americans abroad used to have to apologize for George Bush, or pretend to be Canadian. Now, we have to apologize for Teabaggers. I'm sorry world, these guys are pretty embarrassing, but I swear, we're not all that dumb.
V. America is too religious. There I said it, sue me. Not that I think that religious convictions are per se a bad thing (quite the contrary actually) but that the disproportional influence of religion on public life and policy here in America is embarrassing and must end if America is ever to be taken seriously as a civilized nation. Civilized nations are not necessarily non-religious, but they are secular and ecumenical. The current stranglehold of religion on conservative politics in America is both un-American (ahem, Establishment Clause) and un-Christian (a religion that is by necessity, a faith of the disenfranchised and downtrodden).

Next time, my polemic against the suckage of Europe. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Go home, or make a home, or rest

So while my travels are technically over, I realize that I never said anything about London.
I think that a stint in an English-speaking country was a good cultural readjustment for me. London is very large, and very busy, but fairly clean and as I had mentioned before, the most user-friendly city I've ever encountered. Katie and I had a good anti-colonialism rant in the British Museum while viewing the Parthenon Friezes (which rightly belong in Greece). The British Museum as an entity poses an interesting moral quandary since it's collection consists largely of the spoils of decades of English Imperialism, especially in Egypt and Iraq. While I can't in good conscience support what amounts to high-minded piracy, I concede that the Museum has one of the most impressive and coherent collections in the world and it's location in the heart of one of the world's leading cities makes it hard to match as an educational resource. Should Greece, Egypt, and the rest simply forget about it all and leave things be for the greater good or should they assert their rights and say "those pieces tell the particular story of a particular people and they belong rightly in their ancestral homes." The British Museum has a fantastic collection of British artifacts telling the story of the British people from the Celtic and Roman periods through the Middle Ages to the present day. Shouldn't that be enough? What quanta of cultural superiority gives the British Museum the right to keep the Parthenon Friezes against the explicit desires of the Greek government and people? Are Katie and I just nationalistic and biased (considering that we're both extremely proud of our Greek heritage), or do I have a valid point here?
Of course, there are other hallmarks of imperialism adorning the British capital, such as the amazing curries and samosas that Katie and I stuffed our faces with in one of London's Bangla neighborhoods. In a country infamous for its bland food, it makes a certain twisted sense that a recent poll named chicken tikka masala (with a pint of lager) as the favorite dish of the UK. While chicken tikka is good, it's no more traditional Indian than the oft-mispronounced General Tso's chicken is traditional Chinese. Both are products of post-Imperial systems where traditional recipes are tinkered with to meet the tastes of a nation with limited pride in its own cuisine.
My battery's dying and my yia-yia is nagging me to set up her mobile phone. College Park is about 35 C and about 98% humidity. Yeah, I'm home.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Spanish Bombs over Andalucia

So regrettably, I spent much of my week in España curled up in the fetal position in a bed or couch somewhere with a killer sinus infection. I felt like I was cheating myself by failing to go out and party like a rockstar with Amy and the rest, but all my body wanted to do was remain horizontal for as long as possible. I still made a pretty good run of things, visiting four cities--Valencia, Granada, Sevilla, and Málaga--in my time there.
Aside from the aforementioned holocaust of hair, Valencia was a guay-ass place, reminding me of an upscale Miami with less cocaine. Walking around the spacey Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias in Valencia was a highlight as the surreal futuristic architecture made me feel as if I had walked into the set of a sci-fi movie. Everything was sleek, white, impeccably placed, and looked as if it shouldn't stand up, yet it all did. More architectural showpieces than the "highbrow entertainment" venues which they ostensibly function as, the buildings of the Ciudad are the demonstration of an imagination liberated by technology. Will all our new buildings have such panache in the future? I can only hope so, since that would be hella cool. Having observed the passion for beauty that permeates so many of the public buildings of yesteryear in places like Praha or Firenze, I can only hope that our generation leaves an equivalent architectural legacy, rather than prisons of boxy functionality. In Valencia and in Nice, I also encountered that peculiar European phenomenon of topless sunbathing. Really, the practice seems like good common sense, after all, how distracting are tanlines, but I was a bit concerned that I would engage in some inordinate ogling. My female readers will be pleased to know that this was not that case, since the whole topless phenomenon when observed in situ seems more utilitarian than erotic. The sunbathers are nude, not naked, since their state of undress is brazen and intentional and they have not been caught in a fleeting moment of immodesty. They are nude in the way that an art model is nude or an anatomical drawing is nude since their lack of clothing served as a statement of power rather than an exposure of weakness. That said, there were certain breasts which I wish had remained cozened in their bikini tops for both the sake of the aesthetic health of the community and for the sake of my own scathed retinas. Once seen, some things are never unseen.
Wednesday night, I took a night train from Valencia to Granada, which was a soothing and pleasant experience, or would have been if the eight-year-old son of one of my compartment-mates hadn't kept barging in at odd hours. Granada is a splendid old city in the Andalucian foothills. It is home to the Alhambra, the palace of the last Moorish Sultanate of Spain. The Alhambra is Spain's most visited tourist attraction (€12 to get in) and with good reason as it is both expansive and beautiful. The Islamic architecture exhibited there stands in start contrast to the Western styles I have grown used to at this point with it's emphasis on abstract patterns and Arabic script. The ornateness of the patterns and the prevalence of an alphabet which I cannot read made the palace even more dreamlike. It was easy to lose myself for what seemed like hours just mesmerized with the labyrinth of forms in a single wall or doorway. Plus, the multitude of fountains and ledges gave me a serious jonesin' for some Prince of Persia.
Granada is also home to the free tapa every time you order a drink. There are about as many stories to the origin of this Andalucian custom as their are tapas, but what doesn't change is that you get a free tapa with every beer or sangria and they are usually pretty sustaining. Consequently, Andalucia is a pretty cheap place to eat; just keep buying booze and the food will follow. At night, Granada is overwhelmed by swarms of midges which in turn attract legions of swallows to chase down and, well, swallow them. The noise of the swallows in the deep purple twilight is unforgettable.
By the time I hit Sevilla, I was starting to feel better so I was able to actually enjoy myself in this Andalucian capital. One of the highlights of Sevilla was the vast Plaza de España, a huge circular building constructed for the Ibero-American Expo of 1929. The building feels stately for some unknown purpose, so much so that George Lucas actually filmed part of one of the shitty Star Wars films there.
When I finally made it to Málaga, an ancient port town at the southern tip of Europe, I was ready to party. I had an unintentional good time courtesy of some extremely drunk Englishmen who brought out tray after tray of free drinks, including three tequila shots. I was able to get sufficiently drunk to sleep through the noise and lack of AC in the hostel on my piddly remaining Euros.
I'm back in London now, in the impeccable company of Katie Wallner. It was a real sight for sore eyes to see her, my friend of some four years, after weeks of shotgun friendships. Just when I thought I was enjoying my life of artful loneliness, reveling in the conversation of strangers and the unflagging companionship of books, I came to realize how much I really do need people. While the life of exile holds a certain level of charm and serves as a fine soul-making practice, it drains the life out of you eventually. I think, after all my wandering, I am finally ready to go home. I don't quite miss America yet, but I do miss my friends and family and you cannot divorce a place from the people who fill it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Official Post of Scary Hairstyles I Saw in Spain

I really don´t know what cultural impetus is at work to cause an otherwise fashionable people to have the worst hairdos on planet Earth. For the reader´s benefit, I will keep my list brief, but by no means exhaustive.
1. The Dread-Mullet.
I was going to include a picture, but the paltry examples I found on Google images simply don´t do this phenomenon justice. Basically, the dread-mullet, or drullet is the ultimate in "business in front, party in back." You see an otherwise normally dressed person with a normal haircut walking toward you, then you turn around and BOOM, between two and four gangly dreads sticking right out of the neckline hanging down to the ass. Some more professional drullet sporters tuck their natty dreadlocks into the back of a shirt or jacket making the tips all the more obvious.
2. The "Yo No Sé Que" Vampire Huntress.
I´ve seen at least two of these so far, so it´s a safe bet that there´s more out there. Basically a gothic variant of the drullet, this involves super-long, super-strait, super-black hair in the back and extremely close-cropped Lily Allen bangs in the front. Here´s the kicker, these girls maximize the squarishness of an already boxy hairstyle by SHAVING a perfect rectangle out of their temples. They don´t bother maintaining the shave either, so the resulting peach fuzz looks truly horrifying. You need to see it to believe it.
3. The Double-Poirot
I´m not joking, there was an old man in the Valencia train station with an ivory-white Poirot-style moustache on both his upper lip and his chin. Prepare for trouble, make it double. Sleep now, Nyquil calls...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My long overdue mega-post

Due to the insistence of Miss Elizabeth Gager, I feel obligated to update my readers on my activities of the past week. I apologize for the tardiness, but Internet access has been infrequent and unreliable.

First, my position. I am in Valencia relaxing on Amy's sofa, after a somewhat circuitous journey. Three days ago, I boarded a train from Cinque Terre toward Nice. I was supposed to take the express from Genova to Nice, but it wasn't running. I had to take three regional trains from Genova to Ventremiglia, then Ventremiglia to Monte Carlo, then Monte Carlo to Nice, as a result of which the journey took several hours longer than it should. When I finally arrived in Nice, I discovered the reason for my transportation problems. It turned out that there was a major railway strike in France to protest the tyrannical fascist government decision to raise the retirement age for railway workers from 58.5 to 60 (yeah, I know, cry me a river). The strike ended just as I got into Nice, but the rails were fouled up for days and I was told that there was no way I could get to Barcelona by Friday. In fact, no trains out of Nice were traveling much further than Marseilles and I met a German girl at my hostel who claim that it took her nine hours to get to Nice from Lyon. Panicked, I could think of one thing and one thing only: get me out of France. I decided that the fastest way to get to Spain was to go backwards into Italy and then catch a flight from Bergamo airport to Valencia. This worked out fairly well, except for one little hitch. I've been fighting a sinus infection since Venice (I blame the bad weather and general scuzziness of the place). If you ever feel the urge to fly with a sinus infection, don't. The pain is not worth it. I arrived in Valencia feeling like my head was filled with urethane foam and thumbtacks. My ears were so clogged that I could barely hear and while my friends there were all gung ho to enjoy a wild night on the town, all I could hope to do was crash. I'm feeling a bit better now after a good long sleep and I'm excited since it's apparently possible to buy antibiotics over-the-counter in Spain. Awesome.

Over the past few days I've been privilege to so much beauty that I hardly know how to take it all in. Walking to my hostel from my train station in Firenze, I passed the titanic Florentine Duomo looming like a distant mountain. While I've certainly seen my share of impressive old churches (St. Vitus in Praha, St. Marco in Venice), I have to give the Duomo in Firenze props for scale. Yes, the Cathedral of Milan is technically larger, but it's all spires. It doesn't radiate bigness in the same way as Firenze.
In the taxonomy of old Italian city-states, if Venezia was all about trade, Firenze was all about culture. Even today, Firenze is THE renaissance city, with an impressive array of museums showcasing some of the most well-known works in human history. After a two-hour queue and a €10 fee, I had the pleasure of walking the halls of the Uffizi, home of some of Firenze's greatest treasures. Again, the thing that struck me the most was this sense of belittling scale. Bottacelli's The Birth of Venus, which we're all quite familiar with is actually quite huge, with Venus herself a life-sized woman. I suppose we're so used to seeing this work on a computer screen or on the back of a postcard that we lose the perspective that we get when we're actually in a room with the thing.
Of course, all this bigness and culture-saturation got me thinking about the whole point of a Duomo or a Milan Cathedral or a St. Vitus. Ostensibly, of course, they're churches, but they were also meant to showcase the wealth and cultural aplomb of a state. St. Marco's says "Venezia is rich," the Duomo says "Firenze is also rich and we have a proper Duke unlike the Venetians with their silly republic," St. Vitus says "hey Protestants, what have you got? we're the real church." Four years of oblique exposure to Anabaptist ideas cause a reflexive reaction that these grandiose churches are the product of a disastrous marriage of church and state, but tell that to any Italian catholic and expect to be called a Protestant Philistine.
I think what really impressed me about Firenze was how art and beauty always outlive their own goals. The Medicis are long dead, but the artistic revival they helped bring about lives on in the buttresses and colonnades of the city they once ruled. A lot of those massive churches in Praha built to awe the Protestants into the Catholic fold became concert halls. With time, art can become divorced from political or religious motivations and becomes beauty for beauty's sake. Of course the art junkies know all the history and scandals behind a painting or a sculpture or a big building, but the rest of us can appreciate it as a snapshot of human potential.

Cinque Terre: the Five Lands. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that "peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." If the man is right (and he frequently is) then Amy's suggestion that I visit Cinque Terre was the Tango de la Muerte. These five sun-drenched towns, nestled like jewels in the rugged Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Genova showcase some of Italy's most stunning natural beauty. There are very few motor vehicles and the villages are not accessible by car from the outside (although the trains and boats are quite reliable). I had the privilege of visiting during gorgeous weather, so I decided to do a bit of a pilgrimage to all five towns in a single day. I checked into my hostel at Riomaggiore at the easternmost end and immediately jumped on a train to Monterosso on the westernmost end.
The First Land: Monterosso al Mare
A golden beach greets me as I step off the train in Monterosso. The air is rich with the sounds of playing children, gentle surf, and suntanned vendors selling beer or gelato. The main street is shaded with the arches of whitewashed buildings while the aromas of pesto and tomato waft from the sidewalk cafes. This is the largest and liveliest of the Cinque Terre, sprawled out lazily on its gentle sand beach under the auspices of a ruined castle. I don't tarry here for long. I immediately set out on the seaside path through naked cliff faces and shady olive groves. I stop at one point a little ways out of town to take a dip in the sparkling blue Mediterranean. The water is warm and dense, giving me keen sense of my own buoyancy. I swim into a narrow sea cave, carved into the jagged cliffs by eons of waves and tempests. The sounds of the sea are muted in this tight passage. It is the kind of cave you imagine would contain the hydra or some sort of dark mythical monster. I'm not Hercules, so I stroke back to the safety of land, refreshed and content to press on with my journey. The path takes me up rough-hewn stone steps that seem to stretch on endlessly. Eventually, I get to a nice flat stretch along the spine of a ridge with vineyards on my left and the sea on my right. It's a hot day, so every time I come upon a spring or waterfall, I splash some on my face. It's cave-cool and while I'm tempted to fill my bottle with it, I decided to pass on the Giadara. I have been traveling for about an hour when Vernazza finally peeks from behind an outcrop.
The Second Land: Vernazza. I descend rapidly down a crumbling staircase into this tidy town at the base of a cliff. Land is at a premium here, so the builders of the town maximized the use of vertical space. The town girdles a small central square near a sheltered cove. I take a good long drink of the crystal clear water from the public fountain, then treat myself to a much-deserved gelato. After the wide expanses of Monterosso, Vernazza seems small and hidden. Its skyline is dominated by a baroque bell-tower from the church at the crest of the hill. When I leave town, it quickly shrinks from view behind the rocks. The next town, Corniglia, looks deceptively close, but it's a long and arduous hike to get there. The landscape is typical dry Mediterranean, filled with prickly shrubs and trees. Cacti, invasive no doubt, are prominent as are aloe vera plants with their fat leaves. Every rock seems to hide a different sort of lizard. I saw lots of skinks and iguanas. There were magpies and other birds, but no mammals to speak of.
The Third Land: Corniglia. After the liveliness of the last two towns, the high streets of Corniglia seem fairly deserted. It's about 5pm so most people are probably inside on siesta. There is no beach here, since it sits high on a promontory overlooking the sea from three sides. I am hot and exhausted after the hike from Vernazza, so I search for a cafe where I can sit and enjoy a beer. I must have been a real sight stumbling into that town in my leather shoes, bicycle shorts, and cherry red Virgin Atlantic socks. I end up sitting next to a very nice couple from Phoenix enjoying a lazy afternoon of beer and olives under the cafe veranda. There is a boombox somewhere oozing out some laconic Tom Petty hits, making the scene all the more sleepy. The Americans prove such good company that I stay much longer than I planned, which was probably for the best since I needed a good stretch out of the sun. I descend a very long staircase to leave Corniglia, which makes me very glad I decided to travel east rather than west. From the bottom of the stairs onward, the trail is flat.
The Fourth Land: Manarola. I get into Mararola around dinnertime after a long but comparatively leisurely stroll. The town is built on two sides of a narrow valley ending in a rocky harbor. The harbor is deep enough for kids to do dives and cannonballs into. I learn that Manarola is known for it's unique wine, made from overripe grapes and it's distinct dialect. How a postage stamp town of maybe a few-hundred (in the off-season) can maintain its own dialect baffles me. It's an easy twenty-minute walk back to Riomaggiore from here along the well-kept Via dell'amore. There's some great graffiti on this walk, which offers an unparalleled vista of the sun setting on the wine-colored Mediterranean.
The Fifth Land: Riomaggiore. I stumble back into my hilltop hostel ready to crash. I force myself to take a cold shower in the antique tub and then head back into town to grab some food. I end up watching the Australia-Serbia match in an outdoor patio crammed with energetic Aussies. My adrenaline still flowing, I convinced a Canadian girl to come with me back towards Mararola. The Via dell'amore is even more stunning by moonlight. I ended the night on the balcony of my hostel with €2 red wine watching the tide come in.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Venice: Italy's Disneyland

I think I can summarize my impressions of Venice in a few bullets.
-The city is a cleverly crafted scam. Example: the free map of the city gets you hopelessly lost, the "good" map will cost you €2.50. The house wine at the pizzeria is bland and tasteless. The Bascilica of San Marco is free to get in, but it costs money to go on the balcony.
-The city is extortion. Public toilets cost €1.50 in exact change.
-The city is Disneyland. There are stores EVERYWHERE trying to sell you kitschy "cultural" items like Carnival masks. One of the outlying islands, Murano, consists entirely of glass factories and glass shops. Basically, if you don't care about glass, don't bother.
-Gondolas are exclusively for old Japanese people with bad perms.
-It's a miracle that the pigeons in St. Marco's Square aren't too obese to fly. These same aforementioned old Japanese people enjoy wasting perfectly good Italian rolls on them and getting pecked, clawed and shat on for their trouble.
-Unless you have very deep pockets, expect to survive on street food.
-Anchovies are crap. I'd forgotten how much I hate them. Seriously, why don't they just throw seawater on the pizza and get it over with.
-No reason for the worst rain I've seen in ages to fall almost the whole time I'm in Venice.

All in all though, I'm glad I want. The city is beautiful, surreal, disorienting in the most artful way. Walking through the narrow streets with not the sound of a gasoline engine to be heard is an experience worth all the extortion and touristy lameness. No words can describe the grandeur of St. Marco's square. You have to see it, but for Christ's sake, bring money and a good umbrella.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Long overdue

Sorry about the delay in communication. Suffice to say, things have been chaotic the last couple days. I'm in Venice currently suffering from a pizza/red wine/hour ride on a water bus headache. But first, let me tell you about Slovenia.
The country certainly deserves the label of "quaint." The ride in featured a parade of alps demurely peeking out through thick veils of mist. The mist flows through the peaks here like steam off hot spaghetti. The train ride from Salzburg to Ljubljana was an extremely memorable tour of the Julian Alps and Slovenian karst landscape. I would look out my window, and oh, look, there's a 100-meter deep waterfall or a ancient castle perched on a hilltop like a bird of prey. Slovenia is a modest country of only two million people that has none of the imperial pretensions of Vienna or Austria. They weathered all sorts of invasions by jockeying continental powers. The capital of this young nation, Ljubljana, is traversed by several rivers, so it features numerous promenades and small bridges. Although it's a national capital, it has the feel of a trendy university town, with a plethora of quirky cafes, perpetual street music, and a thriving underground scene. Slovenia's real beauty, however, is in its natural majesty, dominated by caves, sinkholes, waterfalls, cliffs, and underground rivers. Proportionally, Slovenia has more caves than any other nation, including the legendary Postojna caves which I got the opportunity to tour. The caves are like something out of a dream, freakish surreal shapes which your mind can all too easily transmute into demons and bugbears. Caves are so common in Slovenia that one of the feudal lords even built his castle in the mouth of a huge cave. Predjama Grad has got to be the single most epic scene I've ever beheld. Look for pictures to come soon.
Friday, the US and Slovenia tied 2-2 in World Cup Soccer. Ljubljana was a riot, especially during the first half which Slovenia dominated. That night, some friends from the hostel and I checked out an alternative bar in uptown Ljubljana. We drank copious amounts of Lasko beer and had amazing conversations with the young Slovenians, all of whom speak excellent English. All in all, an amazing time. I really want to go back and see more.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I must have done something good

And I promise, that's the last Sound of Music reference I make in reference to Salzburg. Seriously, there are other reasons to visit this place other than that lame movie. All the tourists here are obsessed with it. I passed a flock of old Japanese people in the main square singing "Crimb ebery mounutain." That and Mozart seem to be Salzburg's main claims to fame, which is a pity since this place has so much natural and architectural beauty.
Ive felt like such a little kid in this city. Every corner seems to offer a new opportunity for exploration. I see an alley or a staircase: hmm, wonder where this leads? Most seem to end up at a gorgeous panorama revealing the baroque grandeur of this mountain city spread out before you like a picnic blanket. I've had a very good time here. I find that I tend to enjoy myself more in smaller non-capital cities. The atmosphere here in Salzburg reminds me of Cork and the great times I had there.
Salzburg was originally the seat of archbishop-princes who got filthy rich on the salt trade, giving the city its name and its reputation for opulence. There was no "wall of separation" in medieval Salzburg, with the princes having final authority on matters temporal and spiritual. For all their awe-inspiring power, they were fearful people, constantly adding on the the bastion on the Mönchsberg hill abou the city in preparation for invasions by the Turks or by some rogue German prince. The fears proved ill-founded, since the castle was never taken (although it was surrendered to Napoleon in the 19th century), but it still stands today as a testament to the might, wealth, and fear of these enigmatic priest-kings.
The hostel I stayed in here had it's own bar, which was nice since the beer there was way cheaper than going out (Austria gives Ireland a run for its money) but it made me realize that most of my travel buddies end up being from other English-speaking countries. I've met tons of Americans, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Irish, but comparitively few Czechs and Austrians. I feel like I've wasted something here in Austria where the people are pretty approachable and tend to speak excellent English. I think that English might be a comfort, a fortress as it were, that I use to bolster my own insecurity at approaching people. Like the archbishops of Salzburg, I build up walls against imagined threats since when I actually do swallow my fear and strike up a conversation with a native, I tend to have a great time. Steph, the Austrian hostel keeper here, was great fun and really easy to talk to (even if we did end up at an Irish bar).
I've also found that I kind of miss Ireland. I met Aoibhinn, Kristin, and Marie at the hostel and talked with them for about three hours. I feel like the country where I stayed in the longest became my home away from home. Still, I should really branch out a little more. It's a big continent, right?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

It's been a pretty busy couple of days here in Vienna (Wien). Amy and I have certainly made the most of this old Imperial city. We started with a little midnight jaunt around the old town Friday night. On Saturday, we took the bus audio tour of both old and new Wien, getting an earful of the city's storied past. I felt a bit lame on that bus, which was completely unconducive toward snapping photos, but we really didn't see any other option. Unlike Praha, where you can walk most of the main sites in a few hours, Wien is a sprawling modern metropolis and it's main attractions are far-flung. That night, we got a special treat: a night of Viennese Opera and Chamber music performed in the Orangerie at Schönbrunn palace, the former royal residence of the Hapsburgs. It was certainly a memorable occasion, hearing Mozart in a hall where he himself debuted many of his works, but I'd forgotten that I cannot hear Strauss without thinking of Looney Toons. That evening, we searched about madly for a bar (not a cafe, not a discotheque, just an honest-to-goodness bar) and ended up in some dodgy watering hole which reeked of stale tobacco and spilt beer. There was loud Eastern European folk music playing through what looked like Gypsy MTV and all the other patrons seemed to be over-50 inebriated Yugoslavians. The waitress didn't speak a lick of English, but it seems I've picked up enough German to ask for "zwei weissenbier, groß bitte." I believe that if you can order drinks and swear in a language, you've mastered the important bits.
Today, we returned to the Schönbrunn and walked around the extensive palace gardens. We bought exhorbitantly priced soft drinks (Almdudler, a sort of Austrian sparkling lemonade) at the Gloriette Cafe, then headed back to the hostel to make sandwiches. We had a good Viennese coffee afterwards at a corner cafe, then walked along the Meiselstraße through a lively Turkish neighborhood. We came upon a huge neo-Romanesque church surrounded by a concrete plaza which hosted several bizarre metal fountains. A bunch of young Turkish guys were riding unicycles around the fountains. The whole scene struck us as a bit surreal, like a scene from a Michel Gondry film.
Here in Wien, more blatantly than in Praha, I've had to face somewhat of a bugaboo. Every educated Westerner knows about this ghostly figure called the Empire. You know what I'm talking about, that Empire which we know exists, which we know to be evil, and which we must rebel against at all costs. From Star Wars to Foucault's Discipline and Punish, we are trained to believe in the reality of this invisible Empire and the necessity of our rebellion. Wien is riddled with relics of a real Empire, one which was opulent and successful for hundreds of years before losing everything through fighting on the wrong side of two world wars. This Empire exuded an ambiance of epic scale, the stuff of which can only be guessed at by listening to Don Giovanni at Schönbrunn while a ferocious thunderstorm rages outside. I guess as a self-aware American, I like to think I'm with the rebels, which of course carries much more cachet than claiming to be part of the Empire. But then I see a place like Wien, where the Empire was an inescapable fact for almost half a millenium and I wonder just how farcical our rebellion is. If Foucault is right, then even the act of subverting (or claiming to subvert) the Empire, is paradoxically perpetuating that Empire. Despite my best efforts, the Empire remains, monolithic, shrouded in marble masonry and plaster fresco.
I must also own up to the uncomfortable fact that as an American travelling abroad, I am automatically viewed as an agent of a very real and present Empire, despite my best efforts to prove the contrary. To my hosts, I am a synecdoche for not just the political empire of Washington (a city, we must not forget, build to evoke the ancient powers of Rome and Athens), but also the commercial empire of New York and the cultural empire of Hollywood. The prevalence of this last and most shadowy empire is astounding; in Praha, I met a Swedish girl who had never been to the states who spoke English with an almost perfect American accent. A guy I met in Ireland says that American English has permeated the younger generation of English speakers across the world. The surfing community in California starts using words like "like" and "whatever" as nonfluencies and within a couple decades, the vehicle of popular entertainment has spread them to the most remote corners of the world. Europeans know their duty to resist the Empire every bit as much as we do. So what do you do when you become your own devil? What do you do when you are seen as an envoy of an Empire that you spend every mote of intellectual energy denouncing, even though it benefits you indirectly? It is only because of this Empire that I can walk into almost any establishment in Central Europe and the staff will speak my language. Did those Austro-Hungarian intelligentsia suffer from a similar crisis of conscience at the height of their empire? I can't really say for sure, nor do I think it's really my responsibily to apologize for every bad thing America has done any more than I would expect an Icelander to make an apology for the financial meltdown, the volcanic-ash cloud, and almost two decades of Björk. It's hardly their fault as a people that she sucks so badly. All I can do is try to reassure my hosts that yes, I'm an evil American, but that doesn't mean I'm blind.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Golden City

I cannot imagine that there is a more beautiful city than Praha. Even some of the most seasoned globetrotters from my hostel admitted that they had never seen anything like the place. The Czechs infuse every stone and brick with their passion for beauty. They have crafted a city the way ancient bards composed their sagas, expansive in scale, yet appreciable at even the most minute details. The old name for Praha was "the Golden City" since all the rooftops used to be gilded, causing the city to be bathed in a haze of light when the rays of the sun kissed these roofs. No wonder the Austo-Hungarians, not people known for modesty, chose Praha as their capital. The gold is long gone, pillaged by scores of invaders and by the dying empire's own need for funds, but that old radiance still lingers.
I have a redundancy of photos of rooftops, since even most of the dingy apartment buildings have spires of some sort. Architechture nerds will go a little crazy here since Praha exemplifies every major European style of architechture, sometimes within the same building. The city's most famous landmark, the St. Vitus Cathedral, has a bell tower that starts Gothic and abruptly changes to Baroque.
Amy showed up Wednesday, introducing me to her roommate Mike from Valencia. The three of us went on a walking tour of the city, escorted by an exuberant Welshman called Huw. He filled us in on the legends surrounding the grandiose and unique landmarks in Praha, particularly the sleepy Jewish Quarter, supposed home of the famous Golem (described by Huw as the Jew-bot). I saw another famous Clock, the Astronomical Clock of Old Town Square. It's the oldest piece of still-running machinery in the world. Huw also filled us in on the uniquely Czech method of dealing with tyrannical noblemen: defenestration. This word is essentially a fancy term for hucking someone out a high window, often with sharpened stakes at the bottom for good measure. I like this word, it's overly literary and describes something totally awesome. I really wouldn't mind defenestrating Glenn Beck for example.
Despite Praha's glorious imperial history, the city still bears the scars of years of communist oppression. Many of the old buildings were undergoing restoration to undo the damage of years of communist neglect and choking air pollution. You could see the line on St. Vitus where the restoration hadn't yet reached and the stones were still black with soot. Czechs were also much more reserved than other people I had met. Part of this is the language barrier; unlike, say, German, Czech looks completely incomprehensible to most English-speakers. Every time I read a sign, I though to myself "uh, can I buy a vowel Pat?" But the other, more sinister part of this silence is the damage dealt by half a century of repressive communist rule, where anyone could be an informant and your secrets were your tethers to your life.
In Vienna now with Amy. I typed this whole note on a German keyboard, which is just different enough to make me want to scream. Tomorrow, we venture into the other famed capital of the Hapsburg Empire. Guten nacht for now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When in Prague

Last night in Dublin was a pretty memorable au revoir to the nation of Ireland. I attended the Trinity College outdoor production of As You Like It and it rained buckets the whole time. Thankfully, they moved us indoors after the intermission. I was seated right behind the Lord Mayor of Dublin (who is, in fact, a lady). The play was fantastic, although it definitely reminded me that I like Shakespeare for his language and wit, not his plotlines.

Prague. I'm here, and yes, it is stunning. The main shocker for me has been finally being in a place where English is rare. I managed to get to the hostel without too much trouble, but I did get yelled at in Czech by the bus driver as he was trying to explain that I needed to validate the ticket I'd just bought. My money goes a long way here. Last night, I ate a gourmet meal at one of Prague's oldest restaurants "U Medvudo" with a beer and a mineral water for 400 kourna (about 16 euro). Later, the hostel-keeper, who's a damn nice guy, took a bunch of us to a pub where I had three pints and a shot for 150 koruna (about 6 euro!). Afterwards, like a typical bunch of ignorant drunk tourists, we stumbled to the nearest McDonalds for some midnight munchies. Me and the other Americans didn't even want to go; it was the kiwis and the Brazilian. Go figure.
Amy gets in today and we'll probably hit up the free walking tour, although I might do my own exploring before that. I hope to have some pictures up by tomorrow.

Monday, June 7, 2010

"We owe it to each other to tell stories"--Gaiman

For what are our lives but the sum of the stories told about us and what is death but the sharp intake of breath taken in anticipation of the next story.
A tiny community of monks, scratching out the lineaments of a livelihood on the Isle of Iona (a rocky outcrop of a rocky outcrop) are commissioned to make a book. The words of this book will be the words of the greatest story ever told as penned by Messrs. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is this story that has brought each and every one of these men from the green fields of Ireland to this forbidding island. But this book will not just be words on a page. It will be the labor of generations of scribes, illuminators, and bookmakers. It is a work of the highest and most eternal art, a pillar of light woven from the theads of a dark world. The book is the heart of the community, their most prized possession, the expression of their deepest desires and most ephemeral fancies. We think of creativity as a luxury of a stable society, but for these monks, the drive to create was a need, not a diversion.
The light of the great book shone far and wide and invaders from the sea came to try to capture that light and swallow it into their own dark desires. The monks knew that they could not prevail forever against these raiders, so with heavy hearts and worried brows, they sent the book on a treacherous voyage across the sea to their home in Ireland, where it could be kept safe. It came to rest in the sleepy village of Kells in County Meath, and eventually, the heart and soul of the Iona monks would become the heart and soul of Dublin, the city of a thousand songs and stories.
Each book, each person, each meal, each glass of whiskey has a story and as the traveller spins his own yarn through the rolling hills and winding alleys of Ireland, he touches for fleeting moments on all the stories that came before him and will come after him.

Had a fantastic last night in Cork. Met an Irish guy called David and his British girlfriend Chloe. We had a few drinks, talked religion, politics, music, film, the whole nine yards. We then retired to a nightclub and danced the into the small hours. We belted at top volume and in three different keys most likely Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." Hint America, adopt Irish tastes for your nightclubs.
Dublin's been great so far. I saw the above mentioned Book of Kells (my tourguide was a hung-over deadpan Irish chap who freakishly resembled Kyle Morgan), had a couple Guinnesses with a girl from Argentina at the oldest pub in Ireland, the Brazen Head (founded in the 12th century), and ate a €20 meal of Irish stew and bacon boxty at a trendy restaurant in the vibrant Temple Bar district. I visited the Jameson Distillery and tonight plan to attend Dublin's first Shakespeare festival at Trinity College. Tomorrow, it's farewell to the Emerald Isle and hello to Prague.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ring them bells St. Peter...

For my last day on the farm, Gerard decided to give me a special treat, dehorning calves. The squeamish may not wish to read this paragraph. The calf is placed in a metal restraint which holds its neck in place. Its snout is then forced into a ring holder and a rusty irony bar is secured over its head. The farmer then proceeds to burn its horn stubs off with a superheaded iron. The smell is sort of a cross between burning barber hair and overdone roast beef. The whole procedure takes about a minute, during which the calf if probably bellowing itself sick. If the horn stubs start to bleed (remember, horn is bone, which is living tissue) the farmer reapplies the iron to cauterize the wound. The calf is usually so shaken from the ordeal that it is unable to stand, and has to be forcefully shoved out by the farmer.
This procedure is done in compliance with Irish law, which forbids keeping cattle with horns as they are a danger to themselves and to all humans they come in contact with. Gerard assures me that it's much better to do it when they're young since the adult horns must be sawn off. Still, I must say it turned my stomach just a little. It seems we go through a lot to get dairy products. Today, I got a knot of artisan goat cheese from the English Market in Cork. It was delicious, but I couldn't look at it the same as before.
Cork is a lovely little city with lots of street musicians and cafes. It's quite hilly here, so the city sets a nice profile. I met some more Americans last night in the hostel and we hit the pubs for a bit. We managed to find a session going on at this one old sausage pub where two of the American lads were accosted by a 60-year-old drunken Irish woman who insisted on getting a kiss from each of them before she left the pub. After a couple pints of Murphy's, I worked up the courage to ask the uillean piper if I could borrow one of her whistles. I played "The Road to Lisdoonvarna" with the session, and I must say, I didn't do too poorly for a Yank.
Today, I've been walking about Cork hobnobing with the buskers and beat poets. I found one chap who had a full upright piano. Talk about dedication. He played "Moonlight Sonata" and a Chopin Etude. I made some music of my own on the world-famous Bells of Shandon, which are availiable for public use for a small fee. I treated the city of Cork to my redition of "Ode to Joy" and "Amazing Grace" which are the two songs I always play when I pick up a new instrument.
St. Anne's of Shandon also houses the largest working clock in Europe, known as the "Four-Faced Liar" since each face tells a slightly different time. The clock bears the following inscription:
Passenger measure your time
For time is the measure of your being

Something to think about. Dublin tomorrow.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

We need more Torc

This Wednesday, after a long day of picking gooseberries (nasty sour green things with inch long thorns), I got to join the Tralee Walking Club on one last jaunt. This time, we headed into the southern part of Kerry to climb Torc mountain in Killarney Natl. Park. This is one of the oldest Natl. Parks in Ireland and showcases an environment that I haven't seen since I came to this country: forests.
Most of Ireland has been thoroughly deforested to make way for grazing or farming. Trees are found mostly in hedgerows, around buildings and in monocultured timber farms. The area around Killarney, however, was privately owned for a long time by a wealthy family, so the woodland has been preserved there. One of the highlights of the park is the sylvan waterfall of Torc (Eas Toirc in Irish). My facebook photos simply can't do it justice. The sound of the cold spring water on weathered rock, the smell of the mossy ground, just try to imagine them when you see the photo.
Irish forests look very different from those in the Eastern US. They are sculpted by wind and by rain. The first thing you notice is the dusting of brilliant green moss that seems to cover every hard surface. There are real old-work oaks here, gnarled and contorted into fantastic grizzled forms. Pines are the tall trees here, particularly a species with a handsome red bark that gets easily as big as the White Pines back home. Ferns, violets and laurels are abundant in the understory. There does seem to be a big problem with non-native rhododendrons, which, while beautiful, make a choking thatch of woody branches that makes the Amur Honeysuckle back home look positively tame. One of the women on the walk said that the Irish gov't has spent millions trying to control them.
The forests survive only in the sheltered dells. The tableland on the tops of the mountains is too windswept for trees. The day I climbed Torc, everything was perfect. All the elements had come together for a glimpse at the wild Ireland, the green heart of the nation. Sky, cloud, wind, rock, grass, lake, all the elements were in place. From the top of the mountain, I had an unbeatable view of Killarney town and the surrounding lake country.
Of course, in my rapture I lost my head and went to piss behind a rock, figuring no one would see me. In the middle of my piddle, I look up and this extremely attractive young Lithuanian woman who had been walking with us is at the top of the ridge. Thankfully, she didn't see anything, but the Polish guy she was with was cracking up as I took the walk of shame back up the path. I really should stop holding it until I get to the summit, there's simply never adequate cover.
Today, the O'Connors and I took a little trip out to the natural beaches at Inch. I had a delicious smoked salmon salad and a berry-rhubarb crumble. Naturally, I had to dip my feet into Dingle Bay, which was about the same temperature as an iced Bulmers. The girls kept egging me on, though, and I could hardly appear chicken.
Tomorrow, I say my farewell to gorgeous County Kerry and get back on the road. My next stop is Cork city where I'll be for two days before taking the train to Dublin on Sunday. After that, I fly to Prague on Tuesday. Amy Zhou should be getting it on Wednesday and she said she'd follow me as far as Vienna. It'll be nice to have a travelling buddy for a bit, especially someone who's a bit more seasoned at Euro-trekking. Blogging might be intermittant for the next few days, but I'll try to keep everyone up-to-date on what's going on.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Farmers, says Wendell Berry, are inherantly more attuned to the cycles of birth, life, age and death than the modern population at large. The more I allow myself to meld with the rhythms here at the O'Connor farm, the more I realize the truth of this.
The onions I planted yesterday are just sprightly little shoots, demurely pressing their way through the rough soil of the polytunnel. But they will grow to be large and delicious, filling the stomachs of my hosts and their customers.
The female calves that Gerard keeps out in a barn are next year's milkers. Their brothers will be sold to the beef people when they are old enough. Gerard believes in keeping a "closed herd." He says it's cheaper and keeps diseases out.
That dairy cow with the sick udder that bleeds into its milk is on its way out. It's not getting any better and it slows up milk production every day. Gerard told me that he's going to sell her to the beef people. He figures she'll fetch him a couple hundred euro and that all in all, her meat will likely fetch a few thousand. Think about your next steak or burger. Gerard tells me that only the younger dairy cows end up filleted and wrapped in cellophane; the older ones usually end up at the dog food factory.
The girls that I play monopoly with on almost a nightly basis now will grow to be beautiful women some day. Their aren't many asians in Ireland, so they'll stand out their whole lives. Probably lots of Irish boys will hit on them, though they'd better watch themselves with this lot. They're tough as nails.
Will they do well? Will they go to university and get nice normal modern professions? The way she plays monopoly, Anna could go into business, she's cutthroat enough for sure. I wonder, will any of them take over the farm? Gerard is about the fifth generation to work this land, yet he leaves behind no clear heir. He tells me that there's an old prejudice against female farmers, but even that is slowly disappearing. Times change, cultures change, nations (we hope) change. People, at some fundamental level, stay the same.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Murakami, Joyce, and a stab at the soul of Ireland

Anna and Frances have been keeping me pretty busy. Between playing Hedbandz (a kiddie varient of the parlor game from Inglourious Basterds) and Monopoly, they've gotten a hold of my free time. Irish monopoly is different since the prices are in Euro and the street names are all things like "Wexford Avenue." Also, they have Dublin and Shannon airports instead of the railroads. I'm pretty glad for the company though, and as I'm sure I've mentioned a million times, they're absolutely adorable.
So I finally decided to see what all the international hubbub was about and read something by Japanese literary rock star Haruki Murakami. I gotta say, the fuss is completely deserved. This guy is a capital-n Novelist. If Shusaku Endo is the Japanese Dickens then Murakami is the Japanese Vonnegut. That said, reading a €2 used copy of Sputnik Sweetheart alone in a series of rainy cafes in Dingle made me feel lonely. To quote Klosterman (referring to the music of Billy Joel) "the kind of lonely where someone hugs you and somehow you feel worse." For some reason, reading a Japanese novel set largely in Greece got my intellectual wheels turning about Ireland.
The chief caveat about their country that I have heard from intellectual Irish people is the fear of insularity, a word that literally means "made into an island." This is hardly a new problem. Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has Stephen Dedalus describe Ireland as "an old sow that eats her farrow." More recently, Bob Geldof wrote about the "Celtic kulturkampf" mentality that dominated his youth.

This was the culture of cowardice. A cultural inferiority in fact. A fear that what we truly had beyond the basic bollocks, “Yer 40 shades of Green,” are any cunt who could scrape a line from an authentically out-of-tune fiddle wouldn’t add up. They were, of course hopelessly, horribly wrong. But just in case, Ireland was to be kept in its touristic cultural aspic. ‘The sea o the sea, grá gheal ma chroi, Thank God we’re surrounded by water.’ We would bang our bodhráns, blow our penny whistles, and authentically jam our fingers in our ears while we sang, faces screwed in ersatz sincerity, the tuneless maunderings of despair that had, by now, become our national psyche.--Geldof, 2004

The younger generation seems to fear the return of the old provincialism: the weathering of hard times by bending one's neck to the blows and withdrawing one's mind to remembrance of a mythic past. For Joyce and Geldof, this past was that enshrined in the epics and cycles of ancient Ireland. Most today need look no further back than the "Celtic Tiger" years of the late 80's and 90's when Ireland had 0% unemployment and seemed to be moving nowhere but up. When times were hard, and they always were, the Irish in the past could always blame the British. That option is no longer open to them, as Britain is floundering in this economic cesspool as badly as Ireland, but the old defeatism is still there. A fellow I met in An Droichead Beag Saturday night said that the Irish have never really stopped thinking of themselves as an oppressed people. He says the difference between Irish and, say, British or Americans is tangible. These latter two people will fight for what they feel they deserve, the Irish will simply allow themselves to be trodden on. And where do these people turn? Inward, inward, ever inward. Isolate and insulate, perpetuate pain and drown your sorrows in alcohol and Christianity, the two great Irish narcotics. Thank god we're surrounded by water. The result is that people develop a skin thick as a Wellington boot. They are impervious to harm, but also to comfort, to a broadening of the horizons.
Murakami writes about the alienation of modern life, giving a voice to what The Daily Telegraph has ignomiously dubbed "the Eleanor Rigby generation". The characters of Sputnik Sweetheart isolate themselves from emotional intimacy by withdrawing into their passions and treating everyone around them as strangers. Their tragedy is that they live a diminished life, with that spark of themselves that feels passion and growth trapped on the other side of the mirror. Can a nation withdraw into this self-imposed exile of loneliness? To be sure, most of the Irish people I've met don't overtly display this mindset--I certainly don't see it in the O'Connors--but the fear is always there. Just the other day, I heard some cheeky American teabagger on a Galway radio program trying to get the Irish to adopt the American scourge of Beck/Palin style populism. Thankfully, the host and most of the callers seemed to dismiss him as a blowhard, since that sort of populism has historically taken much uglier forms in Ireland than anything currently happening in America.
Will the Irish national psyche ever outrun the curse of it's geography? Does the new generation have the strength to finally break the shell of the Eleanor Rigby nation? There certainly seems to be an unmatched (even in America) tradition of self-loathing, but this critical eye does the Irish people no service when it simply causes the best and brightest to expatriate in disgust. In the modern world, isolation is death. As nations and as individuals, we must always strive to practice humanity to the best of our abilities together. Albert Schweitzer was right; the future of the world depends on it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tá an saol go hálainn

True community is found in the midst of solitude.
I spent the last weekend in the remote fishing town of Dingle (An Daingean meaning "the fort"). The town lies in the shadow of Mt. Brandon perched on a shallow harbor that opens into Dingle Bay. It is the westernmost town in Europe. Although it's a tourist hotspot, the town has maintained much of its traditional Irish character fueled by a fishing industry that still brings in money and by its good fortune to lie in an official Gaeltacht area. Irish is the language of choice in Dingle, and while everyone spoke English, not all the signs were bilingual. I've managed to absorb enough Irish through osmosis to stumble my way around, for example "Síopa leabhar agus caife" means "bookstore and cafe," "uisce" means "water" and "fir" and "mna" mean "gents" and "ladies" respectively. Don't get those last two mixed up. The language gives the locals something distinctive that allows them to retain a sense of local color that I think many touristy shore towns across the world have lost.
That said, Dingle was expensive and overrun with Americans. While it was good to meet fellow Yanks, I could tell that their presence had driven up prices in the little shops and galleries. I practiced a little restraint and limited my souvenier buying to a Kerry football jersey (super-comfortable, I'm wearing it now) and a couple postcards. Booze took up the lions share of my budget. I made a mission of trying all the whiskeys in town, though not all at once obviously. I had a Paddys on Friday (really smooth and mellow), a Bushmills on Saturday (full-bodied and smokey) and a Powers on Sunday (starts out mellow, but has a spicy after-kick). I also sampled Cork Dry Gin (very citrusy), Smithwicks Ale (good stuff, great flavor), Murphy's stout (roasty espresso flavor) and Harp lager (kindof blah and pissy, not really anything special).
I was a bit worried that I'd get lonely in Dingle, but within fifteen minutes of arriving at the hostel I had made friends with Lianna from Germany and Zach from Michigan. Lianna was taking a deserved break from her four-week cycling tour of the Irish coast. She had started in Dublin and planned to go all the way to Galway! She had an extremely thick German accent and tended to over-emphasize words when she was excited (which was, quite honestly, all the time). She was also pretty generous with her pocketbook and I managed to get lots of free drinks from her. Zach was your typical American beatnik backpacker, hiking around West Cork and Kerry by himself. Zach has a strict philosophy of living life leisurely, enjoying cheap rolling tobacco, maladroitly prepared food that he had foraged from Irish grocery stores and taking five and a half years to finish his double major in philosophy and history. The three of us made pretty good craic in a small town of almost 50 pubs. Friday night there was a mild thunderstorm that managed to knock out power to the whole town. We were at O'Flagherty's Pub enjoying Paddys and Guinness to candlelight. When the lights finally came back on, the owner, Fergus O'Flagherty started playing some trad music. The guy is an absolute renaissance man, plays the button accordian, tin whistle, bouzouki, banjo, guitar, uillean pipes and sings very nicely (sort of like the lead from The Dubliners). We had to stagger back to the hostel in lashing rain, which was no fun.
Saturday, Lianna and I checked out as many of the little shops and galleries as we could. I gave my mom a 10 minute call for 1.50 euro. We also played a couple rounds of bowling. That night, after a dinner of ham and cheese sandwiches (saving money for drinks by doing a little grocery shopping), the three of us hit the pubs. We started the night at John Benny's listening to a traditional singer called Pauline Scanlon, who I might add was super-hot. We eventually wandered over to a place called Dick Mack's, which is a legend with the locals. It's the oldest pub in Dingleand used to be a general store. You really don't get more authentic; I couldv'e been Yeats in that place. There's no food, just booze and the gate bears the inscription "Where's Dick Mack's? It's opposite the church. Where's the church? Opposite Dick Mack's." The place was loud, crowded, and smelled of B.O. and stale Guinness. At about 11:30 a skunk-drunk bachelorette party stumbled in, singing and halfheartedly flirting with the stinky fishermen. After Dick Mack's, we ended up at a place called An Droichead Beag, where a lone guitarrist played soulful covers of rock songs and traditional Irish diddies. If Marc Seely were Irish, he'd be this guy. The crowd loved it, everyone was singing along and dancing their arses off. We got back pretty late that night, getting semi-lost on the way back to the hostel. At least it wasn't raining.
In short, travelling alone affords me fantastic opportunites to meet people that I wouldn't otherwise talk to. I met scads of people, Irish and American, this weekend and we all got along just fine. I think that people travelling alone learn to find or create community wherever we go. True community is found in the midst of solitude.
Wish I could write more, but Anna and Frances are pesking me to play a game. It's good to be home.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

You never realize quite how high a mountain is til you climb it

So one day I saw the second highest mountain in Ireland, the imposingly epic Mt. Brandon (Cnoc Bhreandáin in Irish), and wonder how it might be to stand at the top.
The walking club seemed to like me so much that they invited me on a Wednesday evening walk up Mt. Brandon. We started up the mountain at about 6:45 pm (keep in mind that Ireland has sunlight until about 10:30 pm this time of year). The first leg of the climb was the hardest. We clambered up a steep grade on soggy pastureland. The sheep seemed much better suited for the terrain than us. Most of the other walkers were huffing and puffing after five minutes. I thanked God for my young lungs. I guess all this farm work has me in pretty good shape. The sun was still shining brilliantly behind the ridge as we struggled through the hummocks of turf and bracken. Most people were too winded to talk, but I managed to find a couple middle-aged ladies who were keeping up a good pace. I struck up a conversation with one of them and she ended up asking me why I picked Ireland for my vacation. I replied that I loved the culture, the food, the landscape, and it helped that I spoke the language. From behind me, I heard someone say something incomprehensible in Irish. I gave her a blank look. "I meant English, I speak English" I said. She laughed.
And that's how I met Sórache: mother of three, B&B proprietor, and fluent Gaelophone. I ended up spending most of the walk with her, since we seemed to be going at the same pace. Her name (pronounced SOR-uh-khuh) means "brightness" in Old Irish. She gave me a couple tips on Irish pronunciation. The consonent "mh" is somewhere between a "v" and a "w" so Ireland's Eurovision representative is Niamh (NEEV) Kavanagh. "Bh" as in "Siobhán Magnus" is a harder "v." She gave me this theory that if Ireland had banned Irish when they got their independence, everyone would speak it. Seems to make sense.
After the steep pastureland, the landscape got flatter and rockier as we entered a dark misty valley cradled in one of the arms of the mountain. There are some glacial lakes in the valley, fed by springs that are crystal clear and pristine. Very few sheep made it up this far; the most abundant animal was hordes of black slugs thriving on the dewy grass. Next, we ascended up a steep switchback ladder on the far side of the valley. At this point, we had climbed into a cloud, so we could barely see the lowlands and Tralee Bay beyond it. A few people seemed ready to give up at this point but in the end, we all made it up. After that it was a short walk alond the spine of the mountain to the summit. Regrettably, we couldn't see the south coast from the top due to the cloud cover. It was very windy on the summit and there was swirling mist everywhere. The ancient cross and ruined rectory which marked the summit appeared suddenly out of the mist, as if they had materialized by magic. There were plenty of cheers when we got there. Everyone sat down in the ruined church, ate sandwiches, pissed on the summit (it was foggy, so we had privacy) and generally seemed relieved to no longer struggle against gravity.
I challenge anyone who comes to Ireland to climb that mountain and not be overwhelmed by its stark beauty. The inhumane landscape, the black rock, white mist and green grass will transport you beyond your present, beyond your senses. This is the Emerald Isle at its finest.
Check my facebook for Mt. Brandon photos
Slán for now. Gotta go milk cows again.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dairy farming is for neither the faint of heart nor the weak in stomach

Today I helped Gerard with the milking. I guarantee that I will never look at dairy products in the same way. For those of you unfamiliar with the process, I will describe it here.
The cows come in and line up at the feeding bins. The farmer pulls a lever to dump feed from a hopper to the bins. He wipes off the nipples of the udder with a newspaper and sprays them with iodine to disinfect. The milking machine then goes on. It looks like an aluminum and rubber octopus with four flabby arms that fit over the nipples. It's attached to a vacuum to provide suction. The milk all passes through a filter and into a refrigerated vat. While the cows are being milked, the next lot are lined up on the other side of the parlor. When the udders have run dry, the farmer takes the milking machine off the one set of cows and transfers it to the other. He then re-sterilizes the udders and lets the cows go. This happens twice a day and it typically takes about an hour and a half to get all the cows through. Keep in mind that the cows are peeing and pooing all over the place. Today, I had to watch Gerard treat a cow sick with an udder infection. The milk that came out was about half blood and looked like tomato soup. I felt sorry for the poor thing, but God was she ever cantankerous. She kept kicking as Gerard was trying to help her and she almost shat all over him at one point.
No matter how hard we try to keep the place sterile, I guarantee that some trace amounts of feces must get into the milk. I drink the stuff all the time here, completely unpasteurized, not to mention all the people all over Kerry (and the whole of Ireland for that matter) who drink milk from Gerard and the other small farmers. I guess it can't hurt too much.
I encountered nettles for the first time today. Anna and I were playing at "who can kick the football over the house" and when I finally managed to boot the thing over it rolled into one of the side gardens. As we were searching back there, I rubbed against something that felt like a hundred angry hornets. I jumped back and saw the plant, pretty innocent looking all in all. Anna showed me how to rub a dock-leaf on to help ease the sting, but dear lord, it still smarts after several hours. Apparently, the tips of the plant are edible, though I can't imagine they'd be fun to gather.
In short, what have I gotten myself into?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Have I over-romanticized the Life Agrarian?

So I got through my first full day of farm work with my stamina intact. I was feeling energetic enough at the end of it all to take a four mile bike ride to the nearby village of Castlemaine and knock back a pint of Bulmers with an octagenarian Irish gent. He told me that the best cider is in the US. I told him I haven't tried it and he said I should try to find a small local cider mill. I got some nice photos of the Kerry countryside out of the trip as well.
The only reason I have energy to blog after a full day of work plus that bike ride is Claire's delicious high-calorie Irish cooking. Supper tonight was two rashers of dry-cured bacon (not as good as ours, more like salty ham), two award-winning local sausages (amazing), Jolly Green Giant sweet corn (hey, it's a comfort food) followed by soda bread with Irish butter, blackcurrant jam and Ardahan cheese (imagine an earthy Brie with an aftertaste like good dark chocolate). And of course, black tea with milk.
The younger O'Connors are finally starting to warm to me. I would point out that sprightly little Vietnamese girls with Irish accents are possibly the most adorable things ever. Anna (8), the oldest, has a generous heart, but much like myself, hides it with razor sarcasm. I can't help but see myself reflected in that girl, especially considering how she schemes and pushes around the younger two. Frances (5) is pure energy, constantly bouncing around and treating every moment as if it were Christmas morning. Lan (1) is a relatively new arrival. She still seems to be carving out a niche here. She walks quite well and seems to want to go and do everything she shouldn't. She loves sweet corn.
Work today started with powerwashing the dairy again. I'm getting better; Gerard said I only missed one spot. I aim to miss none next time. I then spent about three hours pulling weeds. I recognized most of the weeds, since a lot of them travelled to America with the colonists. It is still quite warm here and since all my short-sleeved shirts are dirty, I decided to take my shirt off in the garden. Go figure my back got burned. In Ireland of all places. Weird, just weird.
I'm starting to get this whole accent thing down. Here are a few observations.
-"Zero" is 'naught'
-'Your man' can mean 'that guy' or 'this person I'm talking about.
-The midpoint of an our is 'half-' For example 4:30='half four'
-The trunk of the car is 'the boot'
-A dip in the ocean is 'a piddle'
-Here in the South of Ireland, they pronounce "th" as "t" so 'three' sounds like 'tree' and 'throw' sounds like 'trow'.
Incidentally, I just realized that the radio is playing the news in Irish. What a crazy sounding language. It took me five minutes to realize that it wasn't just a super-thick Kerry accent.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Back in Ireland

I got in through Cork airport yesterday at 7:30 am. I had zero problem with immigration. The guy in Cork was very nice and said he was sorry about all the bollocks over in Kerry. Go figure. I took a bus into Cork City, which is really a big town, but very charming. I plan on going back there for a couple days when my time at the farm is done rather than spending all my time in Dublin. I took a bus from Cork to Tralee in County Kerry and got picked up by Gerard there.
I spent most of the afternoon doing some transplanting and getting to know the farm. There are six polytunnels and a bunch of raised beds that make up the vegetable part of the farm. Gerard keeps about 20 milk-cows and a number of calves while Claire also manages about a dozen hens and geese. There is also a big shaggy dog called Nero, who refuses to give me a moment's peace. Every time I go to put my boots on, he's there to sniff my face and try to lay his head in my lap. Crazy dog.
Saturday night I went out with Gerard and his friend Kevin to see Robin Hood. The film wasn't the utter hatchet job I expected, but Russel Crowe's accent was all over the place. Afterwards we went out for a couple pints at one of the Tralee pubs to celebrate the birthday of one of the women in Gerard's walking (hiking) club. I met a women named Katrina who invited me to come along with them on a walk on the Blasket Islands. For 20 Euro, I could hardly say no.
The Blaskets are the westernmost point in Europe. They have been uninhabited for 50 some years, although they are well visited by walkers and home to a number of sheep who keep the grass short. Apparently, several notable Irish writers made their name writing about the Blaskets and their former inhabitants. The literary snob in me just made a notch in his belt.
I should note at this point that the weather since I've been in Ireland and England has been uncharacteristically nice. It's been about 70 F and sunny, which is very odd for Ireland. The Irish all refer to this as a "heat wave."
The Blaskill walk was incredible. Check my facebook for a few photos. Several of the people on the tour had a very good grasp on local history and told me all about these starkly beautiful chunks of land. Apparently, the Spanish Armada, on their retreat from being whooped by the British tried to pass by the Islands and were wrecked in a severe storm. Several places that looked to me like nondescript rockpiles were actually ancient Celtic forts. I ate my lunch on the remains of an old hill-fort without even knowing it. There were no trees on the island, due to the wind and the frequent grazing. There was grass, heather, cliffbrake, moss, and very little else. The most obvious animals are sheep, though I also saw hares, rabbits and seals. There are quite a few seabirds such as gannets and puffins.
All the walkers from Tralee and Dingle were very friendly and eager to talk as long as I had wind. One chap called John talked my ear off for an hour about crooked Irish politicians using language which I will not repeat here. Politics seems to be a favorite subject here, since almost everyone I've run into seems to know a lot about American politics. People have pretty diverse opinions, althought they're all scared of Sarah Palin and they're all sick of the Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen. The Irish in general seem to like Americans, although John warned me that not all of Europe would be this friendly. The lack of a language barrier really helps. I mean, yes their accents can get rather thick and a very small minority speak Irish (so far, I've met three, even though everyone takes classes in school), but otherwise I feel pretty at ease here.
We stopped in Dingle on the way back. I'm definately going to visit that town again. It's a cute little shore town with great food and drink and lots of traditional music. Plus it's Gaeltacht, so you can hear Irish spoken on the street. I got a seafood chowder and a Bulmer's cider. The cider is quite good here and a very popular drink for both men and women. Certainly a far cry from Woodchuck back home which is sweet, but a bit pissy. And yes, I can officially confirm that the Guinness is better over here. Gerard tells me that I need to try Murphy's, which is a Cork stout that he claims is much smoother.
Tomorrow will be my first full day of work. I'm a little apprehensive all in all, but I think I'll have a good time.
By the way, does anyone know of an easy way to upload large numbers of pictures? Facebook albums are okay for now, but for some reason it's only letting me upload one at a time. Ideally, I'd like to use my google accound so I can link through this blog rather than having to get a Flickr or something like that.
Slan for now.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bureaucracy is hardly a friend of volunteerism

So, in a great historical irony, an American, namely me, has been deported from the Republic of Ireland. It appears that to enter Ireland as a WWOOFer, one needs proof of medical insurance, proof of WWOOF membership and a printed return ticket all in hard copy. I didn't have any of those although it took me all of five minutes to print them off. To be fair, the WWOOF website said I needed a return ticket, although I couldn't print mine since Ryanair doesn't let you do that more than three weeks in advance. I didn't need to show anything to enter the UK, just the address where I was staying. So I screwed up a tiny bit, but all these requirements caught me completely off-guard.
The problem appears to be the customs officer at Kerry airport, who doesn't seem to care much for WWOOFers. He gave me a whole spiel about Ireland's financial problems and how he couldn't let me in to do farm work which should go to Irish people. I pointed out the WWOOFing isn't work; it's volunteering, but he didn't seem convinced. Gerard and Claire said that the same officer had given them trouble before.
I got to stay and work on the farm for a day, although I plan to be back tomorrow. Now that I have all my documentation in order, there's no law preventing me from re-entering Ireland. All this amounts to is inconvenience and $500 down the drain.
The farm, for those of you who are wondering, is fantastic. Gerard and Claire are very nice and their daughters, all adopted Vietnamese, are too cute for description. I'll have some pics up within the next few days. The work has been fairly tough, as I expected. Gerard had me powerwash the dairy and help him give liver fluke medicine to the cows. Cows are pretty gross animals all in all. You get over your fear of shit pretty quickly, although cow manure is pretty inoffensive as feces goes and has the virtue of only smelling when fresh. The dried stuff really has no odor.
I'll keep you posted when I get back to the farm. Thanks for all your prayers and concern.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

London Calling...

Update: I am in London, Camden specifically. I'm crashing at my friend Katie Wallner's flat, which was barely big enough to fit an air mattress. It was still a marked improvement over my last accommodation: a vinyl-bound chair in the waiting area of Newark Liberty Itnl. sitting in between two elderly homeless women who had wandered in off the street looking for a warm place. A cop woke me up when he ran them off, but told me I could stay since I was clearly waiting for a flight. I felt a little discriminated toward. I mean, I understand that the airport doesn't want to set a precedent of taking in every bum in New Jersey, but at the time it was like "really dude, they aren't hurting anyone."

I had a few hours to bum around in downtown NYC on Monday and completely on a lark I ended up at the Museum of Sex. The whole place is one giant proof of Rule 34: If you can dream it, there is porn of it somewhere. The exhibits were (IMHO) tastefully designed and incredibly informative, though I couldn't hold back the sophomoric giggles at points. As someone who adored Dr. Lindquist's animal behavior class, I found the exhibit on animal sexuality completely fascinating. The museum had an obvious sex-positive feminism philosophical slant to it, as one might expect, but it didn't seem to advocate for total libertarianism. It portrayed certain elements of the porn industry as perpetuating damaging stereotypes that hurt a lot of women. You couldn't help but think about societal sexual mores: i.e. where do we draw the line between allowing people freedom to make their own sexual choices and making the judgment that certain behaviors are in fact damaging, particularly towards women. That is the key conundrum of sex-pos feminism, and while this museum doesn't purport to answer that, they certainly provide their viewers with plenty of intellectual ammunition.

Incidentally, their gift shop contained glow in the dark rubbers. Yeah, how about no.

I saw chestnut trees in Madison Square Park. They might have been the original Asian species to bring chestnut blight over here, explaining why we almost never see mature specimens of C. americana anymore. Also highly prevalent in the park were handsome large, pale-trunked sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). I think I will miss the familiar flora of America, but I should hardly begrudge Europe it's native pride. After all, Quercus rober is as dear to the English as Quercus alba is to us in America.

On London: Unable to make a judgment as of yet since all I have seen is the inside of an airport, the inside of the subway, and a little section of Euston Rd. in front of King's Cross. There is a stark juxtaposition of the medieval and the modern, but it's the little things that I'm really noticing. The streetlights are different, the signage is all large and auspicious looking, and of course the buses are huge. There are also inordinate amounts of Indian people, proving that whole line about the colonized colonizing the colonizer (was it Bhabha who said this, I'm gonna pretend to be smart and say it was Bhabha).

More when I get to Ireland. Cheerio for now.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Last minute preparations

So I graduated. All I have left is to pay my last bill (consisting mostly of parking tickets) and I get my diploma. Graduation day was fantastic, although I suffered a mild sunburn on my face. I was seated next to Alyssa Lord when it was announced that she received the alumni award for all her hard work and service. I really can't think of anyone more deserving. When the rep from the alumni association was reading the catalogue of her accomplishments, Kat Reid piped up and said, "guys, she's gonna take over the world." Somehow, I wouldn't be totally surprised. I got to meet her huge family which is almost a mirror opposite of mine with four girls and one boy. Her brother and my sister exchanged their sympathies.

All in all, the whole experience was fairly surreal. I took quite a few gentle ribs from my fellow English majors about my double white and gold tassel, signifying a B.A. and a B.S. Alyssa and I spent most of the ceremony joking with each other like little kids in church. It's something I do to keep myself in the moment. I do pretty good with the present; I can even handle the past pretty well. It's the future that bugs me out, and what is graduation but a celebration of the future?

I saw the future the previous night from the balcony at Duke's on the west shore of the Susquehanna. The future is a silent, dimly lit river: inscrutible, overwhelming, vast. No line can plumb it's depths and no sextant can scry it's horizons. From the balcony, the present was joy, joy that you could wrap yourself up in like a knit afghan. I was surrounded by almost the entire senior class, all my friends all ready to depart on their own journeys. Everone was tipsy, happy, and talkative. But I couldn't ignore that looming fact of the river, black as midnight, silent as a snowy wood. I knew there was a city on the other side of that river, hazy and indistinct beneath the post-thunderstorm mist. I knew that if I were to jump into that river and swim, it might take me a while and it would be cold and lonely, but those sturdy towers and glittering domes would rise up to meet me. I knew that the city before me was a good place, and the bar around me was a good place, but what separated them could not be known, could not be guessed at.

Later that evening, after a couple drinks had me loosened up, I had a short talk with Hazel Shively. She's working with AmeriCorps for the next two years in Mississippi. I felt a bit jealous. Hazel's future promises a lot of long days and a lot of weariness, but a degree of certainty that I lack right about now. I don't know how things will work out when I get back from Europe. Moreover, I don't know if I will be happy. I told Hazel that I didn't think I had the same passion that I had observed in many of my friends, that dedication to an ideal which I see in people like April Lindley or Frank Eanes. Hazel asked me what I thought was really important. I told her that I feel best when I cook for people, that when I cook I feel a connection to both the ingredients and the diners. I guess I thrive on that connection. I would love to do a complete earth-to-table garden/restaurant. Hazel and I joked that we should start one when she gets back from Mississippi. I'm guessing I'll need to provide capital.

The future is misty, murky, uncertain, and in my case, subject to the whims of shifting volcanic ash clouds from that damned volcano in Iceland. Just yesterday, I about pissed myself when I heard that airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland had been closed again. Now, off to pack...

Friday, May 14, 2010


Tomorrow, I graduate. The prospect is 80% thrilling and 20% terrifying. This is four years of restless nights, rainy days, broken hearts and new horizons coming to an abrupt end when Dr. Phipps says a prayer and we move our tassels to the left. We join the ranks of the a new demographic: the college-educated young adult, the millennial, and (for most of us) the unemployed. I've had a couple bouts of pre-grad anxiety. Once a couple months ago, my senior project adviser Dr. Heidi Lee spent about an hour assuring me that I was a marketable job candidate, I just might need to wait a while. Last night, Michelle Canales was gracious enough to reassure me that I haven't wasted my time here, that I have left some sort of imprint on my friends and on my college. As Tony Stark says in Iron Man 2 "It's not about me, it's not about you, it's not even about us; it's about legacy, what comes after us."

I'm still jumpy. I'm trapped alone in an empty apartment right now in the company of a dazed and confused bumblebee the size of my knuckle that's making weird poltergeist noises as it beats itself against the window glass like a martyr. I yelled like a bitch when it flew within inches of my ear.

I'd like to say it'd be too hard to thank you all personally for all that you've done for me over these past four years, but that's cowardice and laziness.

-Dr. Heidi Lee: Couldn't have made it without you. There's just no way. All those times when I wanted to ditch the project, all I needed was a little shot of optimism and confidence from you and things just started looking up. Good luck with your new life in the Philly area. I think I speak for the whole department in saying you will be deeply missed and fondly remembered.
-Drs. Crystal Downing, Sam Smith, Matt Roth, Pete Powers and Helen Walker: Thanks for all your efforts in converting me from an overconfident high-schooler into a mature critical voice. If my writing ever brings me fame and fortune, I'll donate to the school. If it only brings me pleasure and balance, then you've still given me a precious gift.
-Drs. Jim Makowski, Michael Shin, John Harms, Gerald Hess, Erik Lindquist, David Foster, Ted Davis, Karl Oberholser, Roseann Sachs, Anne Reeve and Rick Schaeffer: Thanks for a stellar and comprehensive education in biology. Your classes made me think not just about science, but about all the implications of that science for society and for Christianity. Keep on doing what you're doing.
-Drs. O'Hara, Joshi, Siddiqui, Gillespie, and Utada Sensei at Temple University: You helped make my Philly semester the best of my college career. Go Owls!
-Dr. Larry Lake: Thanks for all the years of competent, kindhearted, and optimistic advising. You stuck with me even when things got rough and I can't thank you enough (no rhyme intended, but it works).
-Anthony Francesco and Andrew Exner: You guys have been amazing roommates. Thanks for tolerating my obsession with cooking and my suckage at Smash Bros.
-Chad Wright: Good times in Philly bro. Seriously, if you read this, get in touch with me when I get back. We need to catch up.
-Kat Reid, Chris Rogers, Matt Dean, Kinley Zook, Juliette Brinks, Laura Dagley, Laura Waller, Pete Corning, Rita Testa, Inna Potekhina and the rest of you dirty RestoHouse hippies: You guys have been nothing short of incredible. You are one of the few groups on campus who practice what the school actually preaches. Stay awesome. Kat in particular, thanks for all the delicious tea and thoughtful chat. I hope to see you over the summer.
-Michelle Canales: I really have no words. You have inspired me, consoled me and risen to the challenge when I needed you the most.
-Holly Perozzi, Lisa Lindle, Kat Roten: Junior year was tough, but you guys were a perpetual source of relaxation and good times. I'm glad that you all seem to be getting on fine in the "real world." It gives me hope for myself.
-Liz Kraft: Never stop being a BAMF. It's your job, right?
-Rich Chagnon, Bryant Vance, Phil Hobbes, Katelyn Ayers, Rich Shively, Brittney Smith, Lindsay Gatesman, Leah Deputy, Wathira Mbage, Christal Liaw, Kelsey Theuerkauf, Sam Moore, Jevon Gondwe, Mark Netti, Charissa Brown and the rest of the Spring '09 Philly Crew: Philly will live on forever in our hearts. I had a great time with you guys and made some friends that I probably wouldn't have back in Grantham.
-Ashley Pim, Andrea Grove: Two of the most incredible people I know. Good luck with your last semester. Keep the "super" in super-seniors.
-Gillian Smith, Victoria Yunez, Caroline Sharp, Brian Behm, Tyler Chick: Thanks for all the years of good times. It's been one giant party with you guys and I hope we can stay in touch over the upcoming years.
-Bea Sasondoncillo: If there's one thing I learned from you, it's never give up, never frown, never stop loving.
-Alyssa Lord, Emily Williams, Dave Miller, Brittani Mazzone, Phil Martin, Karl Schlobohm, Katrina Campbell, Carolyn Wheatley: Guys, we did it! We're obfuscated idiosyncratic literati now. Go team!
-Ray Yaegle: Messiah College should mint a special medal and hang it around your neck. Seriously, you kept this past year hilarious. Hope you get the job in Maryland.
-Steven Collier: I leave it to you, Gillian, Kinley, and Anthony to keep the department cool in our absence. Carry the torch high, brother.
-Jaime White, Sari Heidenreich, Morgan Lee, Tom Brown, Evan Scott, Lindsay Prior, Ashley Dorty, Brian Pennington, Chris Markley: Greatest staff ever! I think we did some great things this year. Finally, the paper is on the right track for the future.
-April Lindley, Becky Minnick: Don't stop believin' Hold on to that feeeeeeling.
-Elisabeth Sharber: I think all those times I burst into your apartment Kramer-like warrant your own line.
-Elizabeth Gager: I think it's all been said already, but this list wouldn't be complete without you.
-Billy Leonhardt: Shoop-da-whoop?
-Ethan Lichtenberger, Dave Alderfer, Jenn Kelley, Cimone Philips, Allison Stella, Hannah Beatty, Andrew Thompson, Amanda Carlson, Cindy Lee, Devin Thomas, Katie Manzullo, Evan Peck, Ryan Manieri, Josh Lebo, Matt Sakow, Ryan Faus, Shanna Lodge, Tim Brensinger, Amy Chrisfield: Okay, NOW I'm getting lazy. You guys rule, capeesh?
-Mindy Maslin: Yeah, okay. Thanks for talking me into coming here.
-Brittany Eltman: Can't wait to see you tomorrow....
-Mr. Bumblebee: Seriously dude, GTFO of my room. Geeze.

You guys mean the world to me. As long as we have love and Facebook, we'll never truly be parted. I know I've quoted this at you before, but I think it bears repeating now.

Remember your name
Do not lose hope--what you seek will be found
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
-Neil Gaiman

Never forget. Messiah College Centennial Class.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Things He Carried

This is a first-draft inventory for the trip. I am largely limited by the Ryanair 15 kg (about 33 lbs) weight limit on checked baggage.

-Israeli Defense Force travel bag. Good sturdy black canvas that can be carried by straps like a duffel bag or slung on the back like a satchel.
-Canvas paratrooper bag. A versatile shoulder bag that will be ideal for just hoofing around the city and as a carry-on for planes. Thanks to Elizabeth Gager for driving me and my brother out to the Army-Navy store in Bethesda for these two items.
-Passport holder/document organizer. Ideal for keeping all my important papers from getting wet or crumbled.
-Old pair of steel-toed work boots. These are strictly for farm work. I might end up leaving them on the farm in Ireland, mostly because their weight makes them inconvenient to haul around.
-Sketchers Limited Edition. I got these shoes a few years back and they've been reliable friends ever since. They're lightweight slip-ons with a classy leather exterior and a sneaker-like rubber sole. They're an ideal fusion of style and functionality, and they don't scream "AMERICAN CHUMP: PLEASE MUG ME."
-Flip-flops. Eliminates the need for socks and provides style and comfort in warmer weather.
-I'm still wavering about exact choices here and of course I'll be limited by what I can cram into the bag. I'm planning on the maxim that each article should be multifunctional since I will encounter a number of different weathers, climates and work conditions. For example, t-shirts and polos can be worn solo or in combination with a sweater vest and a long sleeved shirt for extra warmth. Pants will probably include two pairs of stylish jeans, a pair of work jeans, one pair of shorts, and a pair of pajama pants that I can wear under jeans if things get really cold. I will probably get a lightweight North Face rain parka.
Personal Care
-Toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution, contact case, replacement contacts (I use Acuvue 2s that last 2-3 weeks), glasses with case, body wash, shampoo, razor, shaving cream (no need to look like a dirty hippie), sunscreen, deodorant, vitamins (at my mom's insistence), pepto bismol, antihistamine, neosporin, band aids.
-Camera with extra batteries.
-Books. Something hefty like Dostoevsky.
-Tin Whistle. Maybe I'll earn some brownie points from the Irish by proving a basic knowledge of Celtic music. We'll see.
-Leather-bound journal. For taking notes

Noticeably absent is a laptop. After much consternation, I decided to cut my technological umbilical cord. I have many reasons, notably weight concerns (my Compaq could be used to bludgeon a baby seal), risk of theft, and increased hipster-cred. This is mildly liberating, but also damn frightening. My laptop is like a best friend who I don't have to talk to and a dog I don't have to feed. What will life be like without checking my facebook multiple times per day?
You, my reader, are probably asking yourself "how will we get blog updates if he has no computer?" Well, I'll have computer access at the farm and I'll be using internet cafes the rest of the time. I plan on writing my thoughts down in longhand in the paper journal and later transcribing into type. So I'm not totally weaning myself off technology, just making a reasonable sacrifice.