Spring Break? Try Spring Month! Paris and Austria

So wow, I’ve gotten way behind. But when classes suddenly stop, you begin traveling everywhere, and then people come visit you, and then you have exams, and then more people come visit you, and then you travel again, and then you have more exams…you get the picture. So in this blog, I’m going to try to sum up some other bits of my spring break, starting with going back to Paris (for the third time).

I love Paris. I really do. I think it’s my favorite of the world’s major cities that I’ve been to. More than London, more than Vienna, more than New York, even more than Boston (which up until now I thought was my favorite). It is a magical place. There’s always something to discover there, and if you watch Midnight in Paris, you’ll know that when night falls, it takes you back in time.

Maybe not literally, but Paris after nightfall is my favorite. Especially in front of the Eiffel Tower when it’s sparkling.

So here’s what happened: Lanier and I hopped on a bus back from Belgium to Paris, and after three hours we were safely back in the City of Light. It was lightly raining, and Lanier and I wanted to go do something but didn’t feel like spending any money, so we went to one of my favorite places in Paris: Pere Lachaise. It’s this AMAZING cemetery to beat all cemeteries, and Lanier hadn’t been yet. It was the perfect way to spend an afternoon! I mean, wandering around a graveyard for several hours while it is raining lightly doesn’t sound like much fun out of context, but look at it in context:

Each grave is ornate and unique. If I ever get to choose where I want to be buried, I’d want to be buried in Pere Lachaise where my grave would be part of the most epic real-life museum anywhere.

After strolling around Pere Lachaise, Lanier and I just strolled around Paris and had a much-needed heart-to-heart. It’s crazy how EVEN closer we’ve gotten as friends this semester, even though we’ve been apart. I’m going to need her so much when school gets back in the fall. I won’t know what to do with myself without a good friend like her who will be experiencing a similar thing.

We came back to her apartment, after doing some grocery shopping for dinner at the Franprix, and had sandwiches of Speculoos and apricot jam for lunch (Speculoos is a spread made of crushed spice cookies in a Nutella-like consistency. It’s utterly phenomenal and life-changingly delicious). We just hung out in her one room apartment until it was time to go get Elizabeth from the train station! We fetched Elizabeth, had a very happy reunion, and returned to Lanier’s apartment for dinner (cooked by myself, I’m getting better at this cooking thing) and watching Midnight and Paris! A perfect introduction to seeing the city for the first time, in Elizabeth’s case.

Since Lanier had class, Elizabeth and I went off to do some touristy things on our own. We first attempted to go to the Louvre, but it was tragically closed on Tuesdays, so we went instead to Notre Dame! It was my first time inside the cathedral, so it was pretty cool. After that, we were getting pretty hungry so we walked to Place Saint-Michel (detouring by Shakespeare and Company, one of the most exciting hipster/American expatriate bookstores in the world) for some shopping and street crepes! I got nutella and banana, big surprise there. It’s my fave. =) After Saint-Michel, we made our way to the Opera Garnier, another of my favorite Parisian places. It’s the most beautiful opera house in the world (I can say that since I’ve seen others now) with the most ornate designs, sculptures, and paintings you’ve ever seen on the inside of a building. It was so much fun to go again, but they were having rehearsal in the auditorium so we didn’t get to go in there, sadly since it’s my favorite part. But it was still fun all the same!

After the tour, we walked down to the Galleries Lafayette so that I could show Elizabeth pretty much THE oldest department store in the world. It’s also got stained glass, so it’s seven stories of shopping and gorgeous Parisian building. It was fun! We decided to go wedding dress looking on the sixth floor just for kicks, and that proved to be fun as well. During this, I got a text from my friend Claire (who was in Paris with her parents at the time) that her parents wanted to take us out to dinner, and not just me, but Elizabeth and Lanier as well. Well, this was shocking! But the three of us rallied together and met Claire’s family at their hotel to walk to dinner. You can imagine our surprise when it was a grand three course French meal with apperatifs at the start and lovely dessert at the end. I got this most astounding ravioli made of three cheeses (French cheese, of course, being king of the cheeses) with spinach in it for an appetizer, and I got the most incredible thing I have ever eaten for dinner: a slow-roasted duck. My goodness. I was literally hearing the guys from Remember the Titans humming “Amazing Grace” in my ears as I slowly savored that tender meat in the most mouth-watering sauce on this earth. It brought TEARS to my eyes, that’s how delicious this duck was!! It was served with some excellent haricot verts and of course some wonderful French baguettes for everyone. When dessert rolled around, we could hardly stand how full we were getting, but we just kept plowing on because we HAD to have the dessert at a place like this! Claire and I got the profiteroles to split:

That’s chocolate sauce he’s pouring over the profiteroles. =)

After this dinner, we DEFINITELY needed to walk around some, so after leaving Claire with her parents, Elizabeth, Lanier and I returned to Place Saint-Michel and then to the Eiffel Tower with a bottle of French wine ( so we could feel REALLY Parisian) to watch the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle at midnight. We missed midnight by about five minutes, but we enjoyed just sitting in front of the tower with no one else around and just enjoying how beautiful that structure is at midnight. It was a wonderful night, three friends just enjoying each others’ company in the presence of a light-up wonder of the world at midnight. It was very peaceful, and it was one of those moments that made me feel like I was truly living the study abroad life I’d hoped I would live. We returned to Lanier’s apartment for some well-deserved sleep before setting off again the next morning for some last tourist things before Elizabeth and I flew out to Vienna.

First, the Arc du Triomphe! I personally recommend the view from the Arc more than the view from the Eiffel Tower because A) You can see the Eiffel Tower FROM the Arc) and B) Baron Haussmann, who designed Paris after the fire in the 19th century, designed the Arc to have “grands boulevards” stretching in a spoke formation from it and the view from that position is just incredible. An amazing view of the city, and I completely recommend it if you’re traveling there soon.

After the Arc, Elizabeth and I decided to walk to the Louvre from the Champs Elysees (the boulevard stretching from the Arc), which was a 45 minute walk, but it was a beautiful day and it was a beautiful walk, so it made it pleasant and well-worth it. Once we got to the Louvre, we waited in line for a good long time before going in so that we could see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. We didn’t have much time for the museum unfortunately, but we did have enough time to hit the biggest sights and to cover the Italian Renaissance portrait section and the Greek sculpture section, so that was neat. The Mona Lisa is still my favorite painting in the world, by the way. =)

After the Louvre, it was time to get our things and make our way to the airport, which we did without too much hassle. We flew out of Orly into Vienna, FULL of excitement to explore this new country of Austria!

Spring break? Try spring month. Part I: Belgium

So, here is my attempt to chronicle everything that’s happened to me since I last updated y’all on my life! At the end of my last blog, I had just come back from the Cliffs and the Aran Islands and was all set to leave for the choir festival in Belgium! Let’s start there. Brace yourselves people, I’ve got a lot to say about the last five weeks of my life!

So, Belgium. It was kind of okay that my Barcelona trip got canceled because I got to come home and repack for the rest of my trip. I took out all of the warm weather clothing items I had packed for Spain and added more preparation for cold and rain, as Belgium, Paris, and Austria all had big rainy forecasts. After packing again, I left for the last choir rehearsal we had scheduled, on a Wednesday night. We had rehearsal, and then the choir went out to a restaurant in Cork called Captain America’s for a late dinner before we had to catch our bus to the Dublin airport at midnight. Captain America’s, by the way, is exactly like a typical American steakhouse restaurant. It was a little sad, actually. It was too American for me, even though I did get fajitas and they were awesome (Mexican food doesn’t really exist in Europe, so this was super exciting!). We got some food, and I got to get to know several of the choir members better, which sent my trip with them to Belgium off to a fantastic start. After stuffing ourselves with ridiculous American portions, we went to McDonalds (as the Irish pronounce it, “MAC Donalds”. It’s a Scottish name!) to get McFlurrys (bad health choices began this trip, no judgement, y’all), and then got on the charter bus bound for the airport!

This was the plan: we were going to leave Cork at midnight, arrive at the airport around 4, check into the flight then, board the plane at 6:15, and leave Ireland at 6:45. If any of you know me well at all, you will know that I am terrible at sleeping on transportation vehicles. Therefore, as much as I tried to sleep on the bus/plane/bus from Brussels, it did not happen at all. I was basically awake for about 40 hours, but strangely I made it through! As long as I kept myself hydrated and fed, it was alright. After all, we were in a new country! We had to stay awake to be excited about it!

We got to Brussels at about 9 in the morning and got a bus going to Ghent. Upon our arrival in the city, we checked into our lovely bed and breakfast, owned by an Italian family, and set off to blearily explore the new city. Here’s some pictures of the things we saw!

Ghent is a beautiful medieval city, and I just loved it so much! After doing some exploring, we were STARVING so we went to a lovely little cafe and I had my first omelet (which was delicious, yay I like eggs now), even though the menu was difficult to understand because it was in Flemish. Flemish is a most interesting language, let me tell ya! After we got some good sustenance (been awake for 40 hours by this point), we came back and had some down time at the bed and breakfast. My lovely roommates Melanie and Sarah slept, but I stayed awake since I knew I wouldn’t sleep well that night if I took a nap at 5 PM. Instead, I read The Hunger Games. THAT kept me awake, I assure you. =)

After a filling meal that night, a relaxing hot shower, and a good 10.5 hour sleep that night, I was rarin’ to go the next morning! Which was great, because that day we did a day trip to the charming city of Bruges. Bruges has now become one of my favorite cities in Europe. It’s still very medieval-looking in many ways, a river runs through it, and it’s just big enough to be walkable, but not too intimidating at the same time. Kind of like Cork. But Bruges has so much Old World charm to it. I fell in love! As soon as our excited bus arrived in Bruges (after an excellent bus ride filled with sing-a-longs), we climbed on board a little tour boat ride around the city! THE best way to see Bruges, if you ask me. Of course, being college students, we spent the first few moments of our boat ride experience singing Lonely Island’s “I’M ON A BOAT!” After this however, we became engrossed in staring at the beautiful city all around us. It really felt like we had gone back in time. Here’s some pictures!

I could have spent more than one day there, definitely. Without a doubt one of my favorite European cities. After our boat ride, we were free to wander about Bruges for the afternoon! We did some shopping in this store that sold nothing but specialty beer and specialty chocolate (quite an interesting place), and after that we set out to find a good place to get (what else?) Belgian waffles. Belgian waffles do not look like what Americans have made of Belgian waffles. They’re not circular or even on the corners; they are in fact oval-shaped and look uneven! They’re a lot lighter than American Belgian waffles (surprise, surprise) and something about them just tastes out of this world. I got one with strawberries on it!

I ordered a Belgian beer with it so that I could say that I’d had Belgian waffles and Belgian beer together. Wouldn’t do that taste combination again, but it wasn’t all bad. Hoegaarden’s really light.

Anyway, after our Belgian meal, we went and climbed the belfry in Bruges! 366 steps in the most claustrophobic place I’ve ever been, but it was worth it. The view from the top was spectacular! The ledges all had names of cities on them with a number and an arrow next to it. This indicated, for example, that Paris was 265 kilometers away in that specific direction. It was really cool! We also strolled through some old world streets, met some really friendly Spanish tourists who took jumping pictures with us, and went to an outdoor market. Man, do I love the Irish. They are the most fun people to travel with! Just thought I’d say that. =)

I thought to say that because on the bus ride home, we had a Disney sing-a-long complete with overly dramatic hand motions and harmonies. I HAVE FOUND PEOPLE WHO UNDERSTAND MY AWKWARD SENSE OF HUMOR. Ha. It’s fantastic. =) Also, it was fun to sing Disney songs together because we had other international students there who had originally watched Disney movies in their mother tongues. Sing-a-longs in different languages is officially my new favorite thing to do. Melanie and I sang Beauty and the Beast all the way through in English/German and it was SO much fun.

Well, getting away from Bruges, after dinner that night we went out in the town of Ghent. And where do the Irish go out when they go to another country? You guessed it: an Irish pub. It was quite fun. =) We had a whole big room to ourselves and it was a great opportunity to get to know everyone better! You know what’s extremely sad? I finally get to know the choir better and now I have to leave. There are so many people who I would love to get closer to. I wish I had the opportunity to make that happen.

From this day onward, it was time to get serious on our festival. We had lots of rehearsals, and we had our concert in St. Niklass Church in Ghent on that Saturday. It went pretty well! This wasn’t the actual competition; it was just a concert open free to the public organized by the festival. We performed with the other guest choir in the festival, a VERY Russian choir from Moscow, and wow. They were phenomenal, but definitely some of the most intimidating  new friends I’ve ever met! (more on that later)

After our concert, it was time for dinner and then Easter Vigil Mass. Our actual festival took place on Easter late morning (Belgium doesn’t plan around Easter), so those of us who wanted to go to church had one option: Easter Vigil on Saturday night. A small group of us decided to go to mass at the biggest cathedral in Ghent, a beautiful centuries-old structure called St. Bavo’s Cathedral. This was definitely the most memorable Easter I will ever have! Not only was the mass in Flemish, but it was also the most formal worship service I’ve ever attended. The Easter Vigil at my home church is usually a little more lively than this one was, but I tended to make things a little livelier by trying to understand the scripture readings (Flemish actually sounds a bit like English, more so than other languages). Two things I want to share with you from this experience:

1) “Doop” is baptize in Flemish. Doooop. Doooooooop. That did not get old.

2) George Lucas was a genius. Guess what the word father is in Flemish? Vader. That’s right. I just blew your mind.

Anyway, it was definitely an Easter service I won’t forget! It was fun to worship with the group from choir. Among us, there were three Americans, one Austrian, one Italian, and three Irish. A pretty well-mixed group!

At the tail end of the service, who should walk into the cathedral to meet up with me but my dearest Lanier!! We’d planned on meeting up and it was absolutely wonderful to see her! She and I sat and had some pretty deep conversations about how studying abroad has changed us over a glass (not a pint) of Belgian beer. It’s great to have friends who are in the same boat as you are with that kind of thing and can help you through any confusing feelings you might have about the experience.

The next morning, Easter morning, we had a rehearsal on stage for the festival! After our rehearsal, we had about an hour and a half to romp around Ghent, so a group of us walked around to the main square! Sarah, Melanie and I got some fresh fruit tarts on sale out in the square for our Easter lunch (Mmmmm) as well as some street Belgian waffles (can’t get enough of those!)! We also had far too much fun taking some silly pictures out in the square, like this one!

I love my new choral society friends. =) Again, I can’t express how much it breaks my heart that I really got to know them so late. I love the PC Choir with all of my heart, but there are many things that I’ll miss about the UCC Choral Society. I’ll miss the wide variety of songs that we sang, I’ll miss the friendly and easygoing nature of all of its members, I’ll miss rehearsals with all the delightful mental images our director gave us to visualize our songs, and I’ll just simply miss each and every person in the group. If any of you ever read this, I just want to say thank you for making such a tremendous impact on my experience in Ireland. I love ye!

The festival was quite interesting. The only choirs represented were ours, the Russian choir I already mentioned, and an American Gospel choir from Holland. You heard that right. And by my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, their aging-white-woman director had more soul in her PINKY than PC Choir could ever hope to achieve. There was some SPIRIT in that hall, let me tell you! They had us on our feet singing and dancing right with them. Now THAT’S what I call an Easter. =) They were the best gospel choir I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. AND they were Dutch. You wouldn’t have believed your eyes or ears!

That night, we had a banquet dinner for our choir and the Russian choir. We’d already gotten some bad conceptions about this group from their standoffish attitudes towards us, but thankfully Tom, our director, had an interesting idea about how to break them. At the banquet, he had all of us sit on one side of the long, curving table so that when the Russians arrived, they would have to sit across from us. As hesitant as we were about this idea (the Russians were unsure too when they arrived), it turned out great! It was so interesting to share a meal with some people of a completely different culture than my own. We made all kinds of toasts throughout the meal, and the night ended with a sharing of traditional songs from Ireland and from Russia (us international students kind of sat off to the side and smiled) with the finale being the Irish and Russian national anthems. An Easter to remember! I don’t think I’ll ever celebrate Christ’s resurrection in the same way ever again, but it sure makes for a great story. I learned a lot about people on that Easter as well. =) I love traveling. It’s made me want to travel anywhere anyone will let me go! Maybe one day I’ll go to Russia. Who knows?

The next morning, I was off early to catch a bus back to Paris with Lanier. More on that in another blog. Sorry this was so long by the way, but I wanted to make sure I could get everything I wanted to remember out on paper (electronic paper, anyway).

The Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands!

Y’all, Ireland is beautiful. It just really is. I know I keep saying that, but it just keeps surprising me.

Last week, my friend Claire and I set off on our world-wide adventure! We began our journey at the crack of dawn on March 29 (6 AM to catch a 7:25 bus…yay), but once we got on the bus, we were bound for the fabled Cliffs of Moher!! For those of you who haven’t heard of this famous Ireland landmark, they’re these beautiful cliffs that were featured in both The Princess Bride (The CLIFFS! OF INSANITY!) and in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (when Harry and Dumbledore go to the cave). They don’t fail to impress in person, either. We actually hit them at a really lucky time because we went on the warmest, brightest, and clearest day that we’ve had here in Ireland so far. Here’s a picture!

Just spectacular! They were like nothing I’d ever seen. It’s no wonder that these cliffs are why so many people come to Ireland.

Claire and I had a lovely little picnic of peanut butter sandwiches on top of one of the cliffs, and then we got back on a bus bound for Galway to spend a little more time there. After getting to the city at around 3:30, Claire and I had a fun time just walking around the shopping district of the city! Finally got my first fish and chips for dinner (very delicious, I might add. And I don’t like all kinds of fish) and we went and saw The Hunger Games that night! As a side note, not reading the books first definitely made the movie even more enjoyable for me. Boy, was I on the edge of my chair the entire time!! Claire and I agreed that we were physically exhausted when the movie ended because we were just so stressed out for the characters. Of course we needed something to calm us down after that stress fest, so we went and heard some traditional music at a pub called the Merry Fiddler! Had a good talk with an old man there, who told us about how he grew up in Galway as a young man. I love meeting people and hearing stories like that. =) The Irish are just always ready to tell you their stories, and they always remember yours. I wish American culture was as friendly as that.

The next day started off with a bit of a struggle. Sometimes hostels are hard to sleep in if you have rude roommates. Ours came into the room at 4:15 AM, knocked over everything, and were pretty loud. Needless to say, both Claire and I woke up with very little sleep. =( We took it easy that day and went shopping around Galway, had an afternoon tea, and saw the city! We got on a ferry to get to the Aran Islands that evening and arrived (after a bit of topsy-turvy sea travel) on Inis Mor, the largest of the three islands.

Oh, y’all. There’s nothing like being on the Aran Islands at night. As Claire observed, “The silence is so loud.” It truly is. The population on the islands (even the largest of them) is very minute, and there’s not what you would call a nightlife. Kilronan wasn’t a city; it was a little village. We walked toward a pub with live music that night, but we were honestly scared because there weren’t very many streetlights and it was just so quiet. The both of us having lived in a city or suburbs our entire lives were entirely unprepared to be in a situation like this. We kept an internal (and external) monologue of “This is NOT sketch, this is NOT sketch” murmuring continuously as we tried to find a place with people. We just had to keep reminding ourselves that it really WASN’T sketchy or unsafe; it was just a sleepy village with zero crime life. On a small island in the Atlantic Ocean. With a lot of cows. And rocks. And no anything else. It was just so strange!

We eventually made our way to the pub (called Joe Watty’s, I think) where all the Aran Islanders go on a Friday night. We settled down with a pint (and for me, some crisps) and listened to the three-piece band start up. They began by playing some traditional Irish music with an accordion, a guitar, and a piano (which was interesting because a piano isn’t a traditional Irish musical instrument, so the pianist just played chords to accentuate the reels played by the accordionist), but eventually we realized that they were playing some different genres as well. They did an acoustic version of Rihanna’s “Hopeless Place”, which was actually really well done! Claire and I decided to sing along and make up our own song mash up with U2’s “With or Without You” (watch out, that mash up is gonna hit the charts soon. It worked really well!). In addition to those, they played some Mumford and Sons and a few other more modern tunes. All of it was really well done musically, and we couldn’t have had a more relaxing night. We felt like we should have socialized more, but we were really just too tired. However, I did get in a great conversation with an old man at the bar who had been to Clearwater before and we talked about the Sunshine Skyway for a while (SO RANDOM!).

The next morning (another restless night thanks to some rude roommates), Claire and I got up, ate breakfast, and rented bikes from a rental place next to the hostel. We were lucky enough to get some with baskets so we could put our purses and jackets into them. All ready for travel, we set off to explore the island on our own! Let me show you some pictures from this incredible place:

It’s a landscape like I’d never seen before. The rocks are shaped differently, the land itself is divided by stone walls, there are ruins everywhere, and I’ve never seen so many COWS! Moo. Lots of cows.

Anyway, we eventually made it to one of the stone forts on the island. We left our bikes in the bike lot, paid our one euro admittance, and did the 20 minute uphill walk to get to the fort, which was on top of this big hill. What I didn’t realize on  the way up was that this fort wasn’t a circular fort like many others; it was a half-circle, which meant that it hugged the sea. We got to the fort, called Dun Aengus (the anglicized version of the Irish name), and went through the stone entrance, and found ourselves on what looked like the edge of the world. We got out there and saw nothing but the Atlantic Ocean, a 200-foot-not-roped-off-or-gated-at-all drop. There were cliffs lining the coast, none of them roped off either. At least part of the Cliffs of Moher were roped off for fear of people falling, but not Dun Aengus. It really was untouched. You’d be amazed to know that this fort is from the Bronze Age. Gah.

Anyway, so we got out there and all we saw was one man sitting on the edge with his legs dangling. Now, I don’t really have a fear of heights, but I know that I am one of the clumsiest people in the world so drops to instant death that aren’t childproof are scary to me. I did get close to the edge (hung my head over and looked down) but I didn’t dangle my legs like a super brave person.

I actually think I liked Dun Aengus more than the Cliffs of Moher because they were so untouched. Here are some pictures:

It was crazy to realize that we were about as close as Europe gets to America, there where we were on Dun Aengus. It was beautiful. I could have stayed there for hours, but alas, nature called and I was hungry. We got a panini and some tea at a cafe by the exhibit entrance, and then we did our woolens shopping there too! We got some handmade Aran knits (for the best price on the island); Claire got a very warm purple knit scarf, and I got a PC blue (with purple accents) knit hat! I am in love with this hat, y’all. It keeps my head very warm, and it even has a pom pom on it which was knit for me by the woman who ran the shop while I was there. Love the Irish and their generous hospitality. Love them, love them.

We biked back through the other side of the island, did a bit more Aran knits shopping back in Kilronan, and then took the 5 PM ferry back to Galway. We were EXHAUSTED by this point, so we checking into our hostel, went out for a sit-down dinner (I got spinach and ricotta ravioli with basil and sundried tomatoes, yum), came back to the hostel and watched The Proposal. A good end to a good day.

The next morning was Sunday, Palm Sunday, and I wanted to go to church! We went the United Methodist Presbyterian Church of Galway, which was very interesting! Everyone was so welcoming and friendly, and I think we both enjoyed the service so much. After that, it was time to head back to Cork. We had been planning to go to Barcelona, but there were riots and violence there last week and we didn’t feel safe going there since all transportation had been temporarily shut down.

So, my last few days have been here at home. It’s actually been nice! Got to catch up on some sleep and got to do a day trip to the Rock of Cashel, the site where St. Patrick first used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity and where he baptized the first Christian king of Ireland. It was pretty awesome, too! A huge structure still standing after almost a thousand years. Just shows how baby-young our country is in comparison. Dang.

So what now? NOW (as in a few hours from the moment when I’m typing this) I head to Ghent, Belgium with the UCC Choral Society to perform in an international choral festival! I can’t wait!! We fly out tomorrow at 6:45  AM from Dublin, and the bus leaves here at midnight to get there in time to check in. I will be dead as a doornail, but at least everyone else will be too and I’m not responsible for finding my way through airports on no sleep by myself! After Belgium, I’ll go to Paris to be with Lanier and Elizabeth, and then Elizabeth and I will meet Julia in Vienna for some Austrian fun!! Looks like I’ll be able to update you with several more stamps in my passport by then! I’m so excited. =) Well, gotta go finish my packing, cook dinner, and clean up my room so I’ll talk to everyone soon!

Also, I think I’ll be ready to come home when the time comes. There are just some things and people I miss. I got the stomach flu last weekend, and that made me realize how I do in fact miss home. I’m loving life here, and I’m going to miss it like no other when I leave and I’ll pine for it every day, but part of me will be ready to come back to the States. I look forward to seeing you all then. =)

So what is life like when you live in Ireland for three months?

I haven’t left County Cork since I got back from Paris. Honestly, Ireland’s grown on me in such a huge way. I knew I was going to love it, but I didn’t realize quite how quickly I would grow devoted to it. I loved my visits to London and Paris, but at the end of both trips, Ireland was what I wanted to see the most. Say what you will about the country where YOU’RE studying abroad, but I can say one thing completely, utterly, undoubtedly true about Ireland in comparison to other European countries.

The grass literally is greener here. Like, inordinately greener. And it’s been just as green as it is now since January 2 when I arrived. It’s unbelievable! It may still be 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit every day without fail, but the grass has always been green.

Hmmmm….what have I done since Paris? Well first off, I got a visit from my lovely friend, Julia, the very next weekend! It was so great getting to host one of my PC friends. I’m realizing how truly blessed I am to have friends from my home school in places abroad where I can see them. So many of my friends at UCC don’t have that luxury.

Anyway, Julia brought her friend Sean and the three of us had an excellent time! I got to show them around some of my favorite places in Cork: the English Market, Patrick Street, the downtown park, and of course my favorite pubs like An Spailpín Fanach (which means “The Migrant Worker” in Irish).

I also took them to this little fishing village in Ireland called Kinsale, which I had wanted to visit. It was a lovely little trip! A lot of things were closed since it’s still kind of the off-season, but we had a great lunch at a little cafe and did some great shopping! Here’s a picture of the village. It was very picturesque.

We came back, got some great ice cream in Cork, and then made sweet potato pancakes for dinner at my apartment! Man, those are good. After that, I took them to another famous pub in the city, called the Franciscan Well. It’s a site that was originally occupied by Franciscan monks centuries ago, and it’s been a microbrewery for a good long while now. You tend to see people you know there a lot! It’s a great hangout! One time I went there with my friend Katie on a Friday night, and the two of us saw several English professors from UCC chillin’ in the back having what looked like an intellectual discussion. It reminded me of the group I saw in the Mexican restaurant we went to for my birthday last year…for any of you who remember that.

Anyway, the next day after church I had some choir rehearsals and some homework to do, so Julia and Sean went to Blarney! I really need to go back there, now that everything should be starting to bloom. I have to decide who I want to go back with, though! Still got some people visiting me before I go back home. =)

So anyway, Julia and Sean’s visit was so much fun. =) I’m going to take this time to outline a few things that have shifted in my life since I came here to study abroad. So what is life like after living in Ireland for three months?

1) I have fully acclimated to saying “chips” and “crisps” instead of fries and chips. It’s going to be weird to acclimate again.

2) To me, a day where it doesn’t rain is a “good” weather day. Above 45 degrees Farenheit is warm. If the sun shines, even for a little bit, it is a day of unparalleled glory.

3) Going to the pub on a week day is regular life, common culture. Not being an alcoholic, unlike what many of you might think. =) All societies at school go out for a drink and some community time after each society meeting. If you don’t go out with the group, you miss out on most of the bonding time that comes with joining a group at UCC. There are some pubs here where young people go to get noticed, to drink heavily, and to party, but Irish pubs were not designed for that. The thing I love about my favorite pub is that I see people of all ages there, and usually I see regulars. I’ve met old men with 15 grandchildren who go to that pub every day of their lives (and have been going there since they were teenagers). The bartenders are friendly, and sometimes they bring you free food. It’s a relaxing place, and it’s a place where you feel the most part of the Irish community. And it is not ragingly, obscenely drunk. I promise. And sometimes, it’s a great place to bring a book and sit back and read.

4) The Irish are so proud of their heritage. I’m getting personally very proud of Irish heritage myself. I wish to God that I was Irish. =( People ask me if I am, and say that I must be because of my hair! I always tell them that I wish I was, but that I’m Scottish. They always say “Ehhh, ye’re close enough.”

5) Speaking of which, “Ye” = “Y’all.” It actually is just an Irish thing, and people of all ages do it. It comes from the Irish language, in which the you plural is a different verb form and pronoun than the you singular. Like the American Southerners, the Irish made the distinction between you singular and you plural in the English language by giving the you plural a different pronoun in speech. My choir president will say things like “All of ye listen up!” or “When ye’re done with ye-er folders” or “Ye’re the best.” It’s great! It actually makes me feel more at home than anything else.

6) There are so many things I love about Ireland, but boy am I ready to get back to Presbyterian College classes. My classes have at least 70 people in them (200 in my folklore class) and talk about feeling like a number! I went to an intimate workshop (seven people) sponsored by the English department here about poetry analyzing and memory skills, and even though I’ve had the two professors in charge of the workshop lecture in more than one of my classes, they didn’t recognize me at all, and made the statement that they hadn’t met anyone there before. Definitely made me appreciate my PC classes with even more fervor.

7) People here are so abundantly friendly. Thank God for them.

8) My life direction is starting to change slightly. After taking Irish Folklore and an introductory course in Spoken Modern Irish, I’m getting really interested in learning as much about Ireland as possible. I’m going to apply to some grad schools that have a concentration in their English degrees for Irish studies and see where that takes me. I don’t know, part of me is already planning on how I can get back here some day. And for a visit after that. And after that. Etc…

9) I’m so excited to go travel in continental Europe for two weeks, but the funny thing is that I know that I’m going to be missing Ireland so much while I’m gone.

 

Dear friends and family at home and Presbyterian College,

Thank you for being the reason that I’m going to come home on May 26. I miss you all terribly, and I wish every day that I could bring you here with me. I have been/will be lucky enough to have visits from many of you, and I’m so thankful for that. But really. If it weren’t for my family, Martin, my friends back home and at school, and PC, it would be much harder than it will be already to come home in May. I love you all, and I want you here with me because I think you’d love it too. =) I look forward to coming home and telling you stories about Ireland (for as long as you’ll let me. I understand that you are probably going to tell me to shut up at some point), and I look forward to hearing all of your stories about these months in your life too!!

Much love, Mary Ellis

Ah, La Paris! Vous me manque!

Okay, so I am a bad blogger for not updating my blog for the past several weeks! Things have been kinda busy around here, what with preparations for April travels, friends visiting, and the end of the semester upon us. It’s crazy. I’m done with my classes for the semester! Next week, I have one review lecture and then it’s off to see more of Europe for two weeks! I can’t believe it! I’ll be gone for about two and a half weeks altogether, and packing is already worrying me.

But enough about the future, time to catch you up on my life for the past several weeks! Okay, so first of all, I went to Paris back in the beginning of March for the birthday celebration of one of my best friends. Lanier’s been lucky enough to study in Paris for the semester, and her parents were thoughtful enough to fly over to surprise her for a week! Lanier’s mom invited me to meet them in Paris and stay with them in an apartment they’d rented for the week. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful it was to stay with the Smiths. It felt like having time with my own family for a few days! The first thing that we did once I arrived in Paris was break out a bottle of red wine, some fresh goat cheese from the French countryside, and of course a freshly baked baguette. It felt so French and glamorous. Lanier’s 21st birthday celebration began at Le Procope, the FIRST ever cafe in Paris. That thing was 90 years older than my country! Lanier’s parents, brother, brother’s girlfriend, extended family, other friends, and me were all seated in this extraordinarily fancy salon, called the “Salon Benjamin Franklin”, which as we observed probably meant that a good many French “escorts” had dined with ol’ Benji back in his day in that room. We were immediately served cherry champagne and all drank a toast to Lanier!

The meal that was served to us was a green salad with a pate (which I tried just to say I tried it, but I ended up giving it all to Lanier’s dad, who didn’t seem to care that he was eating raw liver. Ewwwwwww, not my fave. After the entree (not appetizer, but entree in French), we were all given a kind of lamb stew with potatoes and carrots (I do love lamb) and for dessert, the richest chocolate tart I have ever had in my life!

So. Yummy. Well, we had eaten our meal in a very French fashion (the meal took 3 hours and started late) and by this time, it was getting close to midnight and almost time for Lanier’s birthday to begin! Us college students left the restaurant and took the metro to the Eiffel Tower just in time for it to turn midnight! I don’t know if you’re aware, but every hour on the hour at nighttime in Paris, the Eiffel Tower lights up! I can’t imagine a more epic 21st birthday than being in front of a sparkling international landmark. I was kinda jealous.

After the Eiffel Tower extravaganza, we set off to celebrate Lanier’s 21st in Paris, which was some of the most fun I have ever had. I made myself the personal photographer and quote-recorder of the evening, which proved to be a most necessary post the next day when Lanier’s parents wanted to see what they had missed out on. =P The next morning, we got up and went to brunch at a Basque cafe. NEVER in my life have I seen so much food at a buffet. I was literally at a loss for words. There were crepes, crossaints, quiches, various sweet breads, meat kebabs, a HUGE jar of Nutella, creme brulee, and SO much more. One thing I definitely did in France is eat a TON. It’s amazing how traveling on a student’s budget in Europe strongly diminishes your ability to eat good things in the places you travel. Most of London was peanut butter sandwiches and muffins!

After another leisurely meal, we went and saw Lanier’s own apartment and then went to the Louvre! I’ve been to the Louvre before, and it is beautiful, but I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I wanted to see. This time, we saw the Ancient Egypt exhibit, which is HUGE. I kept asking myself, how did all of this Egyptian stuff get here?! Why isn’t it in Egypt? Answer: Imperialism. Ah.

After the Louvre, we walked around to the Comedie Francaise and then to the Opera House (which is STILL my favorite place in all of Paris), but by then it had gotten too cold and rainy to continue! We found a good Chinese place and then went back to the apartment, where some relaxation was enjoyed by all. It was so lovely to be in a city that I had already visited and not worry about seeing all of the major sights and get to just relax with my friends.

That Monday, we slept in a bit and then strolled around the area of Paris which was completely infiltrated with bookstores. We saw the Sorbonne and then Lanier and Paul and I got lost in some secondhand bookstores! I found a few very cheap old books, from 1778, 1895, and 1829 respectively. Collecting old books is definitely one of my favorite things to do. =) One day, when I’ve got a doctoral degree and an office, I’m going to have a huge collection of old books. This collection will stem from my original collection, which will be in my study in my house. One day, I want to have my own personal library full of antique books.

But enough personal reveries.

We also got to stroll a bit through the Luxembourg Gardens! I hadn’t gotten to go there before and even though it was still too cold for anything to be blooming, it was lovely. I would love to go back there when the sun is shining.

We did some crepe eating and life-story-sharing and then had ANOTHER three course dinner that night (like I said, Paris was essentially eating and some occasional sight-seeing. No regrets). Lanier’s parents were entirely too generous. Entirely.

The next day, Lanier’s family left for Normandy for a couple days, and Lanier and Paul and I were left to ourselves for a few hours before it was time for me to return home to Ireland. What did we do? Ate crepes. Duh. With Nutella and banana…mmm. Lanier got hers with Nutella and chantilly! I think if I lived in Paris, I would gain three hundred pounds. The amount of food I eat here in Ireland is enough anyway! But, I have to keep reminding myself that I am walking several miles a day, usually every day, as well as keeping up a good exercise routine, so I’m allowed to enjoy all of the deliciousness that comes with living and traveling in Europe. =)

 

Well, that’s all I’ve got for a Paris blog! Soon (as in like, today) I should be posting another blog about my more recent travels in Ireland (as well as stuff about St. Patty’s Day!) so stay tuned! Until then, I will reminisce about this lovely crepe…

The Ring of Kerry!

Remember when I said in my last blog post that once I got back from London that I truly realized how much I had come to love Ireland? This post should demonstrate just why Ireland in my eyes is the best country I could ever call home.

I got to go on this trip that was organized by the Department of Irish at UCC for international students. It’s a kind of heritage weekend where about 50 students are taken on a bus and driven through County Kerry, placed in a nice hotel with amazing food for two nights, and given opportunities to experience different sides of Irish culture. It was definitely one of the best weekends I’ve had since I’ve been here; it was exactly what my London friends Katie, Claire and I needed after a tiring weekend of planning our own meals and transportation!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Ring of Kerry, picture this:

It’s another image of my version of heaven. =) I’ve already made two separate plans to go back to that area.

We piled onto our charter bus on Friday afternoon and set sail for County Kerry! On the way, it was impossible to take our wide eyes and gaping mouths away from the views around us. By late February, the weather was beginning to get softer, warmer, and drier, but the winter rain’s work was evident in the green hills around us. I didn’t even want to take my camera out of my bag because I knew it was impossible to capture what I was seeing. Instead, I put my earbuds in and turned on my iPod, playing traditional Irish folk music. Could there be a better soundtrack to a bus ride like that?

The countryside in Ireland has endless adjectives that could describe it. Calming. Lovely. Awesome (but in the literal sense of the word). Iridescent. Daunting. Unreal. But not majestic. Other people might say that the landscape in the south of Ireland is majestic with all of its beautiful cliffs, rolling hills, and turquoise seas, but majestic or regal aren’t the right words for me. I think instead I would use words like inviting. Mythical. Magical. Seeing the untouched part of Ireland’s landscape makes me really glad I’m taking a class in Irish folklore because it’s allowed me to picture what life must have been like generations ago when everyone was born, lived, farmed, and died in land like this. So much history is preserved and still lives in that landscape.

But enough of my romantic spiel.

We got to our first stop on the trip at an outdoor museum dedicated to the preservation of life in traditional Ireland. We got to look around houses and shops and see some Irish wolfhounds, Irish horses, and peat. For those of you who don’t know what peat is, it’s what people used to (and sometimes still use) as fuel for the fire. It is a solid block of earth and mud cut from peat bogs all throughout rural Ireland. We even got to have a peat tossing contest (well, Katie did, but I was a city slicker and didn’t want to get my hands dirty. Peat is pretty gross and wet)!

After our peat experience, we drove on and stopped at our first gorgeous overlook! It was getting late in the day, but we could still see coastline, the mountains, and the amazing teal color of the water. Just watching the waves rolling in and crashing on rocks instead of the usual sand I know from home was an incredible sight. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Irish beaches are much preferable to me than American beaches. Maybe it’s because I burn so easily. Ah, well.

Once arriving at our HOTEL (a hotel was so exciting because it wasn’t a floor or a sketchy hostel!!) we had an amazing hotel dinner in our 50 person group. I ordered the salmon option on the menu, and oh boy. It was the best salmon I’ve ever had in my life! We finished our meal with Bailey’s chocolate cheesecake for dessert. I don’t think I have to tell you how good THAT was. It’s kind of beyond words…

I would like to show you a picture of my meal though so you can understand what an entree in Ireland looks like:

Yes ladies and gents, that there is salmon and potatoes with a side of potatoes and more potatoes. They really do love their potatoes. Eegads.

So now I get to tell you about one of my favorite things I’ve ever done!! It’s called Ceili dancing. If you know my dear Molly, you have heard all about Contra dancing, which is Molly’s entire life. Ceili is the Irish Contra, and it’s a kind of set dancing. It’s a major cardio workout! But I honestly can’t tell you the last time an activity has given me so much happiness. We were all learning it for the first time and we all looked and felt silly at first, but for some reason that made me laugh and enjoy myself more. Katie and I both got really into it! We danced for several hours, but I truly could have kept going. The footwork was difficult at first, but it didn’t matter after a while. It was such a great way to meet more people and learn more about a traditional pastime and element of culture for generations! If I could, I’d do it every day. I talked to a lot of people who had done it on the other heritage weekends, but no one seemed to like it as much as Katie and I did. I think I found a new favorite pastime (if I can ever find a place to do it in the States!). Here’s a couple pictures of the dancing:

SO much fun. =)

So after a lovely night sleep, we headed out to a farm and saw some newborn baby cows! They were so funny and kept climbing all over each other like puppies. I leaned over to take pictures of them and my camera almost got eaten!

After cleansing our hands thoroughly of baby cow slobber (not nearly as sweet smelling as puppies, even if they did act that way), we moved on to a small mountain with an amazing overlook. The road wasn’t bus safe, so we had to hike up, and although the steepness was difficult on the calves, the view at the top was worth it. The sun had come out (that NEVER happens here) and for the first time it was warm enough for me to go without my heavy coat. Ireland is truly heaven on earth. Want to know why?

Living in this country is even better than I had imagined it. Moments like that make me realize just how lucky I am. I am so fortunate to get to live in this incredible place for five months. To think that I was worried about missing the US too much…how am I going to go home after this?

We traveled to several more lookout spots and it seemed like the country got even more beautiful. Again, I didn’t even try to take pictures because I just wanted to stare avidly at everything around me. Ethereal.

After this, we went to a beach! Ballinskelligs beach was incredible. The ruins of a medieval castle were on the beach, and we spent a good while climbing all over the castle ruins and looking out over the gorgeous teal water crashing on the shore. Welcome to Ireland. Dang. The early medieval monks who built a monastery near this area were right when they said that the Ring of Kerry was heaven on earth.

Pictures fail to communicate what seeing this in person was like. I wish I could do better. =(

We also climbed all over a fairy fort from 2,500 years ago and Claire and I simulated a human sacrifice to the pagan Celtic gods. We’re probably going to pagan Celtic hell, but that’s cool.

After a long and lovely day of sightseeing and losing my breath at least five times due to gorgeous views and picturesque small towns, a good meal was what we needed. We had yet another delicious hotel meal and headed off to a trivia night at a pub right by the coastline. We heard a talk from a professional Gaelic “footballer” (HUGE in Ireland), saw a Gaelic football demonstration, and then had a trivia night full of information ranging from capitals of countries to American celebrities to Gaelic football questions. It was pretty fun! However, by this point we were exhausted. You’d be surprised just how tiring walking, riding on a bus, seeing beautiful nature, and eating wonderful food is. Then again, might have been the hot whiskey that Claire and I tried at the trivia night. It’s apparently what all the older women in Ireland drink before going to bed every night. It’s hot water with a bit of whiskey, some honey, and some lemon with cloves in it. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but it was pretty good, not too strong. Put us right to sleep!

The next morning after breakfast, we were greeted by these adorable lambs brought to visit us by some local farmers!! I had never seen or touched a lamb before, but after holding one, man did I want one as a pet. They’re so precious! They’re like puppies. When you pick them up, they go completely limp in your arms, totally trusting you to not harm them in any way. Didn’t mind being held at all. In fact, they didn’t do anything except emit the random “Mehhhhh-heh-heh!” It was the cutest thing I had ever seen.

I died with happiness. After the adorable lambs, we went off on what was supposed to be one of the most epic views of our trip. However, with one day of great weather comes another day of Irish weather, and when we got to the top of the mountain to that overlook that’s all over the postcards (the picture in the beginning of this post) we could see nothing for the thickening fog. Sad day. =(

But when it was all over, we were exhausted beyond all reason. It was truly one of the most incredible weekends of my life, and it taught me so much about myself and about the land I’ve been living in. And it also taught me that when I have to leave in May, it’ll be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

My time in London (part 2)

A bit belated, I apologize. The days are progressing so rapidly that I can barely keep track of which weekend is which. I was talking to Martin one time this week and he mentioned a fraternity event  that had happened this semester. I said, “Oh, that was last weekend, wasn’t it?” He responded with a slow “Nnnnno…that was five weeks ago.”

Dang.

Where is my life going?!?

So, anyway, I’ll pick up where I left off, with the Sunday of our trip. Sunday was perhaps my favorite day in London. We began the day pretty slowly with a few difficulties in transportation (per usual), but we made it to Kensington by about 11:30. The area seemed to be just steeped in wealth. I was glad that I was dressed up for the afternoon tea we’d be having later so that I felt a little worthy to be walking those streets. Keep in mind that this is the same area where Kensington Palace and Harrods are. Talk about ritzy.

We got off the underground at the High Kensington stop and walked around the street towards the Milestone Hotel where we were going to have a high afternoon tea and treat ourselves, passing on our way the Royal Albert Hall and this huge Prince Albert memorial. We explored the gardens in Kensington for a little while and saw literally hundreds of people with their dogs roaming around the park. You could not have asked for a better day in the park. It felt so British. Actually, you could have called our entire Sunday a British day.

So after doing a bit of roaming, we made our way back to the Milestone for our scheduled 1:00 afternoon tea. Let me tell YOU, after almost three full days of being gross, sleepy, smelly travelers who had slept on boy’s floors in an Erasmus house for several nights, being treated like most honored guests was just what we needed. High tea is not cheap (a little over 30 pounds) but it was so worth it. Here are some pictures!

Tea, fresh scones, fresh cream and jam, beautiful pastries and desserts. And strawberry cosmos to start. A fully relaxing afternoon.

After tea, we went back to Kensington Gardens and spent a good bit of the afternoon just frolicking around the park! It was pleasantly warm outside, the sun was shining, the dogs were playing, the swans were swimming in the lake. We were deliriously happy, and it was a dream. We even found the Peter Pan statue they use at the end of the movie, Hook! Being the all-things Peter Pan fan that I am, I nerded out at the fact that James Barry himself placed the statue in the park.

So lovely. After the park, we went to Harrods and felt really poor. End of that story.

We shopped around a little more and had McDonalds for dinner because we had coupons for a McChicken and fries for 1.99 (in pounds) so we did that and that made us both full and our wallets a little fuller.

Monday!

After a restful night in a hostel (a bed! Huzzah!), we made our way through subway and train to Windsor Castle.

Incredible. It was so beautiful. Call me ignorant, but I didn’t realize that the British monarch had lived in Windsor for the past NINE HUNDRED YEARS. That’s just hella long. There’s NOTHING like that in America.

So we did a brief tour of the outside of the castle and discovered that since the British royalty flag was being flown, the Queen was at home. Our guide even showed us which tower her bedchambers were so we could wave like stupid American tourists! (which we did)

After our brief outside tour, we got an audio tour and went inside to see things like the war room, Charles II’s drawing room, the great hall still used today for state dinners, and other amazing things.

By the way, a HUGE shoutout and thank you to Dr. Alexander for teaching me so much about Charles II and English history during the Restoration. I was able to appreciate so much more of what I saw at Windsor because of it.

After Windsor, we hightailed it (well, as hightailed as we could with the insane amounts of transportation needed and the mass amounts of underground closings there were that day) to Westminster Abbey and did the tour there! I LOVED Westminster. It’s incredible to think of how much that place has seen. I mean, I saw Edward the Confessor’s tomb. Still standing and doing great after about a thousand years. Doesn’t that blow your mind? I TOUCHED Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave. It’s just mind-boggling to think about.

Poet’s Corner was definitely my favorite. If y’all don’t know what Poet’s Corner is, it’s the place in Westminster where a ton of famous poets, writers, and musicians have their final resting places — including many of my personal favorites!! Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and my main man, Samuel Johnson. There was a chair conveniently positioned right next to his tomb, so I just hung out with him for a while. Just me and Dr. Sam chillin’. People reading this back home, cease the judgement and let me admire my dictionary man in peace. This is the illegal picture I surreptitiously took of his tombstone.

In addition to Poet’s Corner, I also found William Congreve and Aphra Behn’s graves elsewhere in Westminster. Another shoutout to Dr. Alexander for helping me appreciate who they are!!

After Westminster, I met up with Julia and Anna at Trafalgar Square and hung out at the National Gallery. After that, we were all just dead. After a last large meal and several stressful and expensive misadventures in transportation arrangements, we got to our hotel for the night and crashed.

Getting back to Cork the next morning was absolutely beautiful. Going to London for five days made me realize just how much I have come to love Ireland. Just how much it’s become home to me. Just how much it pains me to leave it, even for a short time. Just how much it will pain me to finally leave it in May.

So, in short, London was great. But it just wasn’t the place like my home. =) *click, click*