Friday, September 26, 2014

NSO vs. Fresher's Week

Wholesome (and alcohol free) fun
at NSO.
     There is a fabled tradition at American Universities that goes by many names: “Freshman Orientation,” “New Student Orientation,” “Welcome Week.” Billed as a great way to meet new people and find your way around school, they’re also a thinly veiled attempt to keep you from getting homesick during your first week at school. One can easily identify them by the large number of student groups roaming campus, each led by a peppy upperclassman in some brightly coloured garb. It is generally considered the most exhausting part of freshman year – even classes are a welcomed relief. At Trinity, a similar tradition takes place – Fresher’s Week. In many ways, it is quite similar to its American counterparts. There are gaggles of freshmen excitedly rushing around, always looking a bit bewildered. An overwhelming assembly of clubs and societies trying to solicit said freshmen. Endless presentations on using the library, registering for modules, navigating Dublin.

Fresher's Week opening
     The biggest difference between Fresher’s Week and anything in the US is what happens after dark. In the US, school-sponsored and alcohol-free events dominate the social calendar. At Trinity, it’s quite the opposite. The college still officially sanctions the events, but they generally occur in bars and clubs. Alcohol is involved. In a way, it helps make the whole thing less awkward – people are free to socialize in a ‘more natural’ social setting. But nothing can remove the awkwardness of being asked (for the thirtieth time or so), “What’s your name? What’s your course? Where are you from? Oh, the US, cool!” Trust me, it’s just as uncomfortable at the bar as in the dinning hall. Of few of us, foolishly, decided we would buy these wristbands which gave you access to all of the week’s events. (We discovered later that these bands cost €2 more than simply paying at the door.) This meant that we got to spend the week branded as freshers, something that greatly wounded our newly minted upperclassmen pride.

     The bands did serve as a nice symbol of our odd, indeterminate position. We’re new to Trinity and haven’t made many friends yet, just like the thousands of freshmen swarming around. But we’ve been in higher education for two years now and generally know how ‘college’ works, like the third years we’re sharing classes with. We went to a few events throughout the week, some of us more than others. But by the end, most of us accepted that you only have the energy to do college orientation once.

Monday, September 8, 2014

More Irish than the Irish themselves?

     Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, it has often been said that the original English settlers became more Irish than the Irish themselves. After almost three weeks here, some of us are starting to feel the same way. Since arriving, we’ve spent countless hours in a crash-course on Irish history and culture. I’m not sure if it’s possible to absorb an entire culture in three weeks, but our instructors are definitely doing their best to make that happen.

     In addition to time in the lecture hall and the library, we’ve been making a number of cultural excursions. During our first week we were exposed to some modern Irish cinema. Well supplied with popcorn and gummies, we watched Adam and Paul, the story of two homeless addicts wandering the streets of Dublin. Loosely adapted from Waiting for Godot, it has the feel of either a very depressing comedy or a moderately funny tragedy. Its dark, dry humour wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The perspective it presents certainly isn’t the one you would get from the guided tours – and that was exactly the idea. According to Ciaran, one of my favourite professors in the course, the movie was an experiment on their part. We seem to be the guinea pigs this year.

     Our next visit was to Croke Park, the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The museum at Croke Park.
Home to the All-Ireland finals in both Gaelic football and hurling, it can hold over 82,000 people. Each one of Ireland’s 32 counties puts forth four teams: men’s football, men’s hurling, women’s football, and camogie (women’s hurling). The teams are all amateur – none of the players get paid for playing. All the money the teams make goes back into training, development, and travel. Since the stadium was being prepared for the Penn State-UCF game the next day, this fact started an interesting analysis of the merits of amateur athletics. Our tour took us through the entire stadium, but I was most interested in the mechanics of field. Turns out, they need to use large rolling grow lights because they grass doesn’t get enough natural light to stay in playable condition. And even though it rains almost everyday, they still have a comprehensive watering system. Apparently the field drains so well, in order to remain playable in such wet conditions, that the grass needs to be watered every second day or so. And in order to maintain the field’s usefulness in the colder months, it is fitted with an underground heating system.

     This past week, we had our first introduction to Irish theatre. The show was George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Part comedy of manners, part satire, part reflection on the nature of violence, the show was both hilarious and quite dark (often at the same time). Are you beginning to sense a pattern here? It played in the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland. It is a beautiful proscenium theatre with a single tier of seats. The explosions, lighting design, and set concept were all incredible.

Imposing? Check. 
      On Friday, we took a trip into the past. Loaded onto buses at an ungodly hour of the morning (9am) we headed about an hour out of Dublin. It had all the trappings of a middle school field trip, down to the bagged lunches and chatty girls in the back of the bus. Our first stop was in the small town of Trim, Trim Castle. (They filmed sections of Braveheart on the castle grounds.) The largest Norman castle in Ireland, its grounds cover over three acres and are completely enclosed by a large curtain wall. The central keep stands over three stories tall – dominating the surrounding countryside. It was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries by the lords of Meath as the seat of their power along the river Boyne. We had free reign of the castle grounds for an hour before our tour. We explored the foundations of the Great Hall, the cellar, the dock. Taking advantage of the large tower between us and the visitor’s centre, we even managed to scale a section of the curtain wall.

The enemy takes the walls!
     Our tour took us inside the cavernous keep. With walls over 4 metres thick and 50 feet tall, it is an imposing structure. Originally guarded by a garrison over 20 soldiers, along with the lord and his family, it is now only home to a number of sparrows. After receiving a quick history of the castle from our guide, we ascended the spiral staircase. (We were warned to beware of the trip steps, a set of steps slightly smaller than the rest which were designed to – you guessed it – trip an attacking soldier as he ran up the stairs.) The view from the top was absolutely stunning; you can see the remains of four medieval monasteries in the immediate vicinity. Following lunch in the shadow of the walls, we journeyed to the hills of Tara. Home to the ancient High Kings of Ireland, Tara has been used as a ceremonial and burial site for well over two thousand years. Dodging copious amounts of sheep poop, we spent the afternoon exploring the ditches which mark the site. I even hugged the stone that declared the King worthy of joining with the goddess Maeve and ruling all of Ireland. I am not worthy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Where's the Pasta?

     They say you should use your study abroad time as an opportunity to expand your horizons. In that way, Ireland could be called ‘study abroad lite’ – they all speak English, there’s fairly regular Internet access, and one is never more than a few hundred yards from a pub. But I think such a categorization really does it a disservice. It is definitely a different experience from, say, Germany or Angola in that I’m not constantly trying to think in another language. I can be fairly confident that I just ordered a burger and did not accidentally insult the server’s mother. It is almost possible to feel like I’m still home…almost. Granted, the cars driving down the left side of the road would be a good hint, but it’s the act of constantly being shocked out of my little assumptions that makes the familiarity so jarring. In it’s own way, it opens you up to things you wouldn’t have even thought could be different.
     The grocery store is prime example of this. One of the first things I learned about shopping is that you can always ignore the things stacked on the ends of the aisle. They’re just put there to distract you and anything of importance can be found in its proper place among the aisles if you need it. So when I went looking for pasta the other day, I walked past the section four times because I’ve trained myself to ignore the ends. I finally stopped to get my bearings, only to find the pasta starring me right in the face. When I went to check out the first time, I headed for the self-check out machine – I felt confident about my ability to handle this one. I put down my basket on the right side of the machine, like I’ve been doing at Safeway for years now, only to have the polite, Irish voice from the machine complain about my placement. Only then did I take note of the little signs indicating that one’s basket goes on the left and you bag on the right. Successive trips have been more successful, but I’m trying to stick to the off times until I master the checkout.