Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Final Thoughts

All ends with new beginnings..and sure enough, here I am once again sitting in a new apartment, starting new classes within a new major, beginning a new job, meeting new people. I am starting over, kind of. And in a sense, that's where I hoped study abroad would put me. When I left, I wanted to distance myself from my life in the US in order to view it with a clearer head and plan accordingly. I needed a change of direction in order to find it. Since then, I've made some changes, I have a better idea of where I'm going and I'm generally excited about where I want to go. That was one take-away from study abroad. Aside from that, I just have a few final thoughts I'd like to share on the whole experience before concluding my blog. This will most likely be my last post (unless I develop some new brain vomit I just can't keep to myself).

When I meet friends and family for the first time after returning from Ireland, a fair number of them tell me, 'Well, you haven't changed too much. Just the same old Amy I remember from 6 months ago.' And I think, huh, 'Interesting, because you've changed.' Maybe not very much, but everybody has changed in at least some respect. And I also think, 'Well, damn. Because that's kind of the point of study abroad.' If I haven't changed, have I learned nothing?

One of the largest changes I notice in myself is a new-found appreciation for where I live. Every day since I've returned I am struck with the realization that I kind of live in a forest which is not very well-known and probably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Yeah, okay: there are quite a few urban areas. Even then, it is NOTHING compared to Europe. Case in point: nobody from Not The US knows where Oregon is on a map. It's North of California. 

We are also spoiled with our trees. I can smell the fresh air and pine each morning, I can see the stars at night, I can watch the deer come down from the nature reserve to eat the flowers from my neighbor's garden. In what I thought was the 'burbs. I'd get to places described by others defining beauty and I'd think, Yeah, I guess this is pretty nice, thinking at the same time about how the Pacific Northwest has some of the tallest trees in the world and the Oregon Coast and the tree and snow covered mountains you fly through as you approach the PDX airport right around sunset (do they do this on purpose?) and the Columbia Gorge. And I realize that it's not fair to compare other places to the Pacific Northwest, because we really do live in a comparatively rugged, unspoiled region of the planet and the type of beauty we have here is not the same type you find in, say, Cork. I guess the real comparison lies not in the natural beauty of these places, but in how easy it is to access it. In Oregon, one is never too far.

It's not that I had to appreciate Europe less to appreciate Oregon and the United States more--it's that my time away from the US highlighted the aspects of its culture that I really identify with. This was especially important to me because, before leaving, I picked out what I didn't agree with and developed a fairly cynical view of American society. (As a side note, I feel like that cynicism is a fairly common trait among my generation, which looks at everything going on and wonders if the world is going to shit and knows that big change needs to come, soon.) The more time I spent away, the more I realized how much of and what aspects of American culture I do identify with and that helped me feel more connected to home. As in, I love the Pacific Northwest. I think this is where I want my home to be for awhile. It's gorgeous, the people are chill, and it's probably one of the best places in the world to be a female engineer.

PNW praising aside, another big topic connected with travel is stereotype-smashing. People tend to say that travel will crush your stereotypes, so I left expecting my stereotypes to be crushed. Maybe it's because I expected it that it didn't really happen. Call me a terrible person--I think traveling actually reinforced them more than it destroyed. For example, before visiting Italy I believed that I would be subjected to a lot more street harassment there than in the US. Yes, it is true. I was promptly honked at while walking down the street a record of 4 times in 5 minutes, beating the previous Corvallis record of 3 times over 20 minutes. However, despite this, I will say that my experience away reinforced my belief that people are more similar than different. I was constantly reminded that we are all driven by the same fears, needs, hopes and desires.

Well, that post certainly became long. I suppose this an abrupt way to end such a rambling post. Then again, I've said what I wanted to and was willing to say and I hope you have all enjoyed reading my blog. With that, go raibh maith agat (thank you), oiche mhaith (good night), and well wishes on all of your own adventures. 

See you on the flip side.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Full Circle

I've been home exactly one week. At once it feels like no time at all...and ages. When I go running, listening to the same Aerosmith music that I listened to in Cork, I can close my eyes and see my Irish running path unfolding before me, meter by meter. When I see a stick lying in the tall grass on the side of the road, I almost have to physically restrain myself from picking it up and...well, where would I move it to? Toss it into the road? Honey, you're in the 'burbs now, I think. And everybody knows everybody. So you probably shouldn't dance to your heart's delight along your new running route (except you do so anyways). You also probably shouldn't try to order a beer at that restaurant, because, girl, you've got over a year to go before that's even legal. Your fingers twitch towards your parents looks all the more appetizing because it's out of reach. You kind of want to try ordering just because you think it's a dumb law.

That said, I really haven't felt the reverse culture shock so much. Maybe on the plane in Chicago, and the nightmare that is making a connecting flight in the O'Hare airport. I compare Heathrow to Chicago here, and that perhaps is a little unfair because Heathrow's Terminal 5 was voted best terminal in the world, or so I remember. However, the contrast between Europe's extensive transportation system and the US' becomes a little laughable when one spends 2/3 of one's transfer time waiting in the US Citizens Customs line, thinking about how pissed off all of the Americans look while video screens overhead blast energetic, patriotic music with fireworks going off in the background and the words 'Chicago Welcomes You' blink at you in bold letters. Actually, that was one surprising thing: Americans tend to radiate a lot more pissed off vibes at the world than others, in both the way they speak and stand. Interpret that how you will. People seemed happier in Sweden. That said, I am very happy to be back home.

I spent my first Saturday in the States rushing around town and chattering until my dad's eyes glazed over and returned to the paper. IT hit Saturday night: that leveling bulldozer they call jet lag, combined with a cold. I woke up Sunday morning actually delusional with fever, freezing cold, at 2:30 in the morning, not tired. So I romped quietly around the house for the next 6 hours and decided that 'getting back on schedule' was not a top priority with a cold, so I went back to sleep. And woke up terrified that instead of a cold, and jet lag, that I was in fact dying of Tick-Borne Encephalitis EVEN THOUGH supposedly West Sweden does not have ticks that carry that disease. I had all of the symptoms. My life goals kept flashing before my eyes and each time I'd feel a new pang of disappointment: well, I haven't really done anything much yet and I've got things to do before my nervous system fails and I'm bed-ridden or dead. So I take some Advil because I figure this is ridiculous and fever induced, and I go back to sleep. I've done a lot of sleeping these past few days. And also managed to finish True Grit, which, if you haven't read it, is the ultimate American Classic and possibly takes the cake as my favorite book of all time. Mattie Ross don't take no shit from no one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Last Things

Two weeks of WWOOFing later, I find myself Thursday morning in a Dublin hostel, awaiting my Aircoach bus back to Cork City. There, I pick up the suitcase I left at the Tourist Information office two weeks ago, do some last minute shopping for the fam (yes, I think I can manage to bring you back some porridge oats, because it seems oats in the US *just don't taste the same*), stock up on a lifetime supply of digestive biscuits (I say for other people...we'll see if they last the flight), and go running through my Cork walking path one last time. Tomorrow is an early 5 am start to catch 3 connecting flights, which should, if everything goes smoothly, put me back in the States by tomorrow evening.

Hands down, I am really excited to see my family. It's been over 5 months since I've seen them and over two weeks since I've talked with them by any other means save email to let them know I'm still in fact alive. Which, I suppose, way back when would have been quite a lot of communication when it now seems like little. In any case, at the same time, I will miss adventuring abroad and all of the wonderful people who have made my time away such a fantastic experience. Thank you all! And to those back home, I am looking forward to seeing you soon!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

WWOOFing it in Sweden

Bataholms Gard, Laholm, Sweden

Results of WWOOFing, Week 1:
1 splendidly weeded potato patch
1 tar-painted wooden block 
15 kilos of honey
1 sheep pen
1 cleared sheep pasture
7 happy cows (the oreo kind)
1 sore old grandma
and 2 damn fine piles of wood

The sore old grandma, of course, is myself. Kind of like after going to the gym that first time, every day here I wake up and stumble my way through morning chores nursing the results of the previous day. I've been at Bataholms Gard for a full week and must say that I am pretty proud of my work, particularly my artful and impressive piles of wood. Down by the lake (yes, Bataholms Gard has half of a lake on its property which is the perfect temperature for swimming and is clean enough to drink from), I am working with two other WWOOFers to clear the area of trees and debris that fell during Sweden's winter storms. In a couple weeks, our hosts are going to bring the sheep down to pasture. By next year, grass will cover the area once blanketed with pine needles, carefully cleared and raked by yours truly.

Figure A: Wood Pile 1

Figure B: Wood Pile 2 (Now twice this size)

In any case, I am genuinely glad to be here. I had no idea what to expect, yet I cannot imagine getting luckier. To start, our hosts are both fabulous. I am potentially eating better than I have throughout my entire time in Europe and the accommodation is terrific. The WWOOFers live in a separate cottage on the farm with its own kitchen and bathroom. I have my own comfy bed to sleep in at night and I feel relatively safe. What's more, we are on the West Coast of Sweden, which means that if I get bitten by a tick (and I did, two days ago...wait, and also yesterday, and also today), I probably don't have to worry about my brain turning to mush from Tick-Borne Encephalitis. Those ticks, apparently, only hang out on the East Coast.

WWOOFing Accommodation

I could write a long post about every day here, but I suppose that's not what either of us wants to do (I write it, you read it). So, I suppose I'll describe the highlights. Every morning and evening, I circumnavigate the farm to walk out to the cows, where I then count them (hopefully there are 7), check the voltage in the electric fence (not with my bare hand--that's only happened a handful of times, once with my forehead), check the water tubs, and then check the pressure in the water pumps. That takes about 40 minutes. Then, I usually go down to the lake to clear the sheep pasture. I now have a slightly unhealthy obsession with piling wood, meaning I really want to get the pasture cleared before I leave. However, probably the most exciting thing I've done is some beekeeping. I got all dressed up in the astronaut suit, went out to the hives with Maria (one host), and took a few frames of honey. We pick the wax off with lice combs, then spin the frames in what looks like a really big colander. The pure honey collects on the sides of the basin and drains down, into a waiting bucket.

Gustav, Belinda, Ferdinand, Edvard, Olivia, Dick, and Gertrude 

On my day off, I biked with two other WWOOFers about 20 minutes into Laholm. We continued 20 minutes more from Laholm to the beach, where I partook of the scenic views and The Saltwater Cure. It was a fairly relaxing day, minus the part where I got separated from the group and lost a few times on the way back. Then, last night, I biked with the three other WWOOFers here to the festival grounds right outside of the village of Ysby, which is maybe only 10 minutes away. We had heard there was swing and traditional Swedish dancing. Yes, there was. Only it was a lesson and all of the instructions were in, surprise, Swedish! So we just kind of danced and did our own thing, and tried very hard not to bother the people around us.

Downtown Laholm

Thursday, May 22, 2014

And So the Wheel Turns

Monday the 19th of May rolls around and once again I find myself, for the third time in my life, unpinning wall decorations from a college apartment. I've got equal parts Christmas music, dubstep, and Aerosmith playing in the background, consequence of the rather unfortunate lack of internet. It's a homesick killer.

- - -

The last three days comprised a period of intense change for me and I'm not going to lie and say that I was okay. I panicked over my future two weeks in Sweden, I stressed over final packing, I was sad to say goodbye to my Ireland friends, and I was also very homesick knowing that I would not see my family for another two weeks. It was an awkward state of limbo, to know that my study abroad in Ireland had officially ended but that I was not going home. The packing really brought it into perspective. By 10 pm on Monday night, it was apparent to me that not everything in my dorm would fit in two suitcases. You'd think I would have learned a thing or two about how to reasonably handle packing from my preparations for Ireland and from my time in Ireland itself. Nope, not really. So, once again, I resorted to the age-old, tried-and-true tactic of the lost and overwhelmed college student: I called my mom. We had four phone conversations over the course of the next 5 hours, in which I endeavored to delve once more into that state of brutal self-honesty. I achieved that state. The only thing is, there is a very fine line between brutal self-honesty and total apathy--and that is a line very easily crossed. In the end, I didn't care about any item too much. It all seemed so wasteful, throwing away the perfectly good items that I couldn't donate because of an opened package. I ended up just falling asleep, and woke up early the next morning to pack with renewed vigor. I fit everything into two suitcases, with just enough time to feel elated before heading over to the hostel across the street that said they could watch my extra suitcase for two weeks. Eh, that turned out not to be the case. I told the woman at the front desk what I needed to do and her immediate response was, 'Oh God no.' In my slightly dubious mental state, exacerbated by lack of sleep, I panicked instantly: only 7 hours left to get rid of this suitcase. I think she saw that I was just about in tears because the woman at the desk was very good about calling up the tourist information office and asking if I could leave my suitcase there. Yes, they said. And relieved, I made it just out to the front yard of the hostel and lost it. I'm not ashamed. I cried out the stress for a few minutes, said 'No. I don't have time for this,' and headed up to UCC looking like death to close my bank account. I said goodbye to my Ireland friends over a pitcher of hot chocolate at Fellini's. And finally, I went on a meditative cleaning spree to ensure a positive score on the room inspector's chart. Everything that needed to get done, got done. I got up early the next morning to begin my travel day to Sweden, smoothly reached the farm I'm going to WWOOF on for the next two weeks, and now here we are, typing away. Ironically, my internet connection is better here.

Dzogchen Beara

On Saturday evening of the 17th, I returned from my few days' stay at Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Center in West Cork. It was a spectacular experience, the first time I'd ever *really* traveled on my own, and possibly the best thing I've done in Ireland all term. The people there seemed like family, united by trust and by purpose. Dzogchen Beara is fairly remote and everybody comes with a specific, similar purpose, so it doesn't feel like the typical hostel experience. Many played instruments and participated in an impromptu Thursday night jam session. Most went to regular morning and afternoon meditation sessions.

Between meditation sessions, I went on two adventures with a couple other ladies staying in the hostel. Both involved long, muddy (but beautiful) hikes through tick-infested woods and a couple streams to get to two brilliant locations: a swimming cove and a modern castle-inspired hotel once meant to be ritzy, but never completed. It reminded us of The Shining, which on one hand made us feel like really cool explorers. On the other hand, we were kind of freaked out when we decided to hitchhike back from the abandoned hotel and the first thing we saw in the back of the truck that picked us up was a chainsaw. I got to hang on for dear life next to it.

Overall, Dzogchen Beara was a lovely place surrounded by lovely people.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Tibetan Buddhist Adventure

Here I am, done with finals, done with my official UCC term in Ireland...and I'm not flying home for another 3 weeks. What am I doing, you ask? This is where my mom snorted and just about gave me the biggest guffaw of my life. It played out like this:

Me: Yeah, I'm going up to Dublin for a couple days to do some touring. Hit up the archaeology museum again. Heading back to Cork for a day. Then I'm going on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat. I booked myself into this hostel for a few days.

Mom: *snort* YOU DID WHAT?!?!?

Me: I'm going to spend three days at this Tibetan Buddhist center in West Cork, on the Beara peninsula. It's supposed to be beautiful.

Mom: *still snorting* WHAT are you planning on doing there?

Me: Ummmm, I....don't know?

I leave tomorrow, which is why I am posting one day early yet again. I'm heading off to the Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist center with no idea what to expect, except that there are meditation sessions in the mornings and afternoons and two wonderful cats who may sneak into the hostel cottage. I am not Buddhist. In fact, I don't really belong to any religion. I believe that all religions have their own equally valuable bits of wisdom to impart and I admire the self-discipline that often goes into practicing them. Because of this, I've always wanted to spend a few days at a religious center--and I decided that I might fit in a little better at a Tibetan Buddhist center than a convent. That is why I am going. At the very least, I hope it will be a somewhat relaxing 'collect your thoughts and prepare for the next 2.5 weeks' experience. After this, I come back to Cork for a few days to take care of The Last Things (close bank account, pay apartment fees, clean, pack, etc.), then permanently move out of my apartment early on the 21st of May. From there, I fly to Sweden and plan to spend the last two weeks volunteering on an organic farm. Which I am very excited about and slightly nervous for, as I have absolutely no experience whatsoever working on a farm. Lack of knowledge aside, I am very ready to do some practical, hands-on work.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

One Day More

One Day More is my favorite song from Les Mis. So, naturally, I listen to it somewhat regularly. I was doing so yesterday when I realized how accurately it sums up finals. Lines such as:

One day more to revolution
We will nip it in the bud
We'll be ready for these schoolboys
They will wet themselves with blood


Tomorrow is the judgment day

is a fairly accurate description of mental preparations for the start of finals tomorrow. Because I had so many of my final exams in the last two weeks of March, I only have three finals in May: one 3-hour final tomorrow morning, two on Friday, and then I am done for the term. This is nothing compared to what the regular UCC students have to do: the other day, my roommate's Irish engineering friend asked me how finals were going. I told him that I had 3 finals, none of them yet, that I'm still just studying. He just kind of stares at me. 'I still have 10 finals to go,' he said. Keep in mind that these aren't just regular tests--some are worth nearly 100% of one's grade. And, because UCC is on a year-long schedule (though UCC is switching to a semester schedule next year), some of those tests cover material from way back in the fall. Ouch.

Going back to the One Day More theme--and I'm not going to elaborate on this too much--in exceedingly dramatic terms, the song is also a good representation of the end of this study abroad experience. After finals end this Friday, I'm off and my friends are off. Even though I will see them again for a day or so later in May before I really leave, the end of finals is a separation point. Most people I know are excited to be heading home in a few weeks to see their families again. At the same time, I think many also consider Cork a home away from home. This is a good example of the 'double life conflictions' that I, at least, experienced as a study abroad student balancing my life back in the States with that which I've made here. I suppose that 'double life' may have the wrong connotations, but there you go. Alright, back to studying.