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some of Galway's Christmas decorations

Merry Christmas from Galway!

On this, our second Christmas away from home, we tried to celebrate as best we could. Last year, at least, Jon and I had my dad, uncle Cliff, and friend Matt with us to celebrate. So it was still a family affair. This year, though, we were on our own. Lucky for us, Shane (a Mitchell scholar who studies in Limerick) took a bus up to Galway on Thursday to join us in our celebration.

Just before Christmas, Ireland was hit with a little bit of snow – which is quite rare. We were hoping for a white Christmas, but instead we got a frosty and foggy Christmas eve.

fog on Christmas eve morning

It was really a beautiful day. The ice/snow had frozen to the still-green leaves of plants and to barren tree branches, making the world around us feel a little more magical and Christmas-y.

To make up for the fact that we were away from home, we attempted to do as many fun Christmas things as we could. On Christmas Eve night, we lit a fire in the fireplace, opened gifts from my mom (which is our tradition from that side of the family), and baked Christmas cookies. We headed over to a midnight church service at our local Anglican church (where Christopher Columbus is reported to have once prayed), and welcomed Christmas with candlelight and carols.

Shane and I bake cookies on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas morning, we woke up and opened presents. Shane was wise and brought his gifts from his family to our place, and so we all had something to unwrap. We opened gifts in the tradition of my family: from youngest to oldest, one at a time.

After the gifts, we made a big brunch of crepes with all the fixings: berries, bananas, nutella, lemon and sugar, and whipped cream. After recovering from the big meal, we went for a long walk along the ocean with Michael (another Mitchell scholar) and his family, who are visiting him.

Christmas morning breakfast

Christmas dinner was another big cooking adventure – red wine, prune, and thyme chicken, with garlic green beans, carrots, and mashed potatoes. Everything turned out well, despite the fact that most of it was a first-time attempt.

Throughout both Christmas Eve and Christmas day, Shane, Jon, and I all made frequent use of Skype to be a part of our families’ Christmases far away. I opened my presents in front of the video camera so that mom could watch. Jon was a digital participant in his family’s gift unwrapping session as well. Between the three of us, we chatted with numerous uncles and aunts, grandparents, siblings, and nieces and nephews. What a relief it was to have the technology to help us feel a little closer to those we love and miss.

This year’s Christmas was peaceful, full of sweets, and full of love, despite the fact that our families were an ocean away.  As much as I look forward to spending Christmas with my family next year, I think I will always look back at this pleasant Christmas fondly.  Nollaig shona duit (merry Christmas!) to you and yours this week.

Last minute shopping on Shop Street in Galway.

Part of my “job” as a Mitchell Scholar is to write quarterly reflections on my experiences in Ireland.  Our reflections were published last week.  You can read mine, reposted below, and what the other scholars have to say, here.

I have a thing for birds. Last year, while living in Uganda, I became obsessed with identifying every weaver, hornbill, and crane that crossed my path. And although the birding is a bit less thrilling here in Ireland, I swoon every time I see a swan gently paddling down the canal that feeds into the River Corrib. So back in September, when Michael (Mitchell scholar), Jon (my husband), and I stumbled across a flock of 40 (yes, 40) swans while on a walk through the Claddagh, I knew that living in Galway would make me very happy indeed.

This year in Galway marks my second year living as an expatriate, and I find myself constantly comparing my life in Kampala to my life here. I’m sure you can imagine the many differences: in Galway, I wash our clothes in a spiffy little machine that resides in the kitchen. In Kampala, laundry was a chore I spent hours doing every week by hand (although, believe it or not, I rather enjoyed it). In Galway, every time the sun shines, I soak it in, because I know it won’t last long. In Kampala, I was constantly seeking out a patch of cool shade. In Galway, the language is English, and I manage to blend in, despite my painfully American accent and fashion sense. In Kampala, I struggled to use my hard-earned Luganda (the local language) correctly and became accustomed to the feeling of being watched. The similarities between my two adopted homes are apparent as well. In both Galway and Kampala, drinking tea is an important social custom, the soccer fans are zealous, and the people are so warm that you are immediately put at ease. Both Kampala and Galway have made their mark on me, and in Galway, I know that the process is still just beginning. Galway, with its twisty cobblestone streets, omnipresent street musicians, and sweet salt air, affords me with somewhat of a fairytale existence. It is easy to while away a day exploring the passageways near my apartment, in the center of the city, window-shopping when the weather is dry and escaping into a café when the rain inevitably begins again. And since Galway is a big tourist city, it’s easy to forget that I’m not actually on vacation; that I’m here to do work.

Work is definitely a big part of my life in Galway. Although at times it is frustrating to have my laid-back vacation bubble popped, I am so grateful that my program is turning out to be exactly what I hoped it would be. The MA in Gender, Globalization and Rights is a part of the Global Women’s Studies program at NUI Galway and is introducing me and my 10 classmates to the intricacies of feminist theory, the Bretton Woods institutions, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, grassroots development methods, and how they are all connected. In other words: more than I bargained for, but in a good way. I am confident that what I’m learning now will be useful in the near future, and that’s a good feeling.

Although I love Galway, I have used the majority of my weekends to escape to other places in search of adventure. Traveling throughout the island of Ireland has been a main feature of my travel thus far, and I’ve spent time in Belfast, Cork, and Dublin with the Mitchells. In fact, tomorrow I’m taking a day trip to Limerick to learn more about Irish Aid and to pay a visit to Shane. I’ve also had the chance to visit London with friends from home, and Bremen, Germany, with Irish friends, Michael, and Jon. All of the travel has given me an excuse to improve my photography, a hobby I’ve kept up since my Uncle Cliff taught me how to use a darkroom in the fifth grade. Meanwhile, I am watching Jon and myself become more and more Irish as the days go by. Jon is starting to add “like” at the end of his sentences. I prefer “Dja know?” as it is awfully close to the old Minnesotan saying, “Dontcha know?” I’ve stopped complaining about the rain and started drinking tea several times a day. The familiar process of acquiring the idiosyncrasies of a place is beginning to happen to me once again.

I can’t write a about my first couple of months without mentioning my fellow Mitchell Scholars. So many words come to mind when I think of the group: energetic, social, well-read, empathetic, hilarious, loyal, open-minded. I’ve already had so much fun with the group, as well as with people one-on-one, that it’s exciting to think that we have much more in store this year. I feel especially lucky to have Michael in Galway with me, to share the joys of our Mitchell year, and look forward to having Rebekah join us here in January. To my fellow scholars: Here’s to many more weekends where we all sleep on the floor, meals that are cooked communally, days exploring whatever locale we end up in, and nights dancing to a certain Black Eyed Peas song.

I think it’s pretty clear that my life in Galway, and in Ireland more generally, is turning out to be pretty fantastic. Between the traveling, the perfection that is Galway, the Mitchell scholars, and my program, I’ve basically got it all. It is truly humbling to be a member of the Mitchell class of ’10, and I’m so grateful for this incredible opportunity. But the cherry on top has got to be this: a flock of swans lives less than a kilometer from my front door.

Living far away from friends and family is hard sometimes, but not nearly as hard as it used to be. I can remember my Grandpa telling me about how when he and my grandma lived in Alaska in the 1940s they used short-wave radios to communicate with family back in Illinois. Each comment was accompanied by several seconds of delay and fuzz. When I was doing fieldwork in Northern Uganda last year, Dr. Chris Dolan – Director of the Refugee Law Project where I was based – told me about how when he was doing dissertation research there in the 1990s he had to send written notes along with people on buses to get a message to Kampala. No texting, just good old word-of-mouth.

Contrasted with these former realities, the revolutionary power of Skype becomes obvious. While sitting in the same chair in my Galway apartment on a random afternoon I can see and listen to my Grandma in Belvidere, friends in Chicago, a former Ugandan colleague now studying at Notre Dame, parents and parents-in-law, etc. I can walk them around my apartment, even a little bit down the street…I can smile, laugh, choose to make eye contact or look away. In short, I can relate…and that means the world. Theoretically, I could even connect these people directly by doing a conference video call. In the click of a button my mom could see and talk to a friend I made a world away in Northern Uganda.

Of course, the joys of Skype are restricted to those who are privileged enough to have  high speed internet and a computer that can run the program. Thus, access is denied to billions. This is the curse and conundrum of the digital divide. I can only hope that with time, the divide will decrease and more and more of us that are separated by oceans will be able to walk each other around our homes, share pieces of ourselves, build relationships to the extant that the virtual world will allow, and begin the process of understanding each other just a bit better.

On Tuesday morning, I dug my bright pink rain boots out of the closet for the first time this year. I had been saving them for a day when the weather was really bad, and Tuesday morning’s weather certainly fit that description. I carefully folded my jeans inside the boots, slipped on my pink raincoat, pulled the hood over my head, and ventured out of the apartment towards the library.

Outside, I faced the rain, which was falling diagonally from the sky in sheets. I struggled against the wind, alongside the rushing River Corrib, past silly Irish women who appeared to care more about fashion than staying dry. Proud of my sensible American roots, I marched on through the cold rain (which turned to hail for a moment) to class.

I’d been warned about the unending rain in Ireland, especially in Galway. But I had no idea that it would be so… severe. I’ve been told many times by native Galwegians that people in Galway don’t use umbrellas because they are no match for the wind and horizontal rain that Galway experiences. In fact, on my walks back and forth from campus, I’ve seen many broken umbrellas, crumpled knots of metal and plastic, abandoned on the street. The umbrellas really couldn’t hold up against the forces of nature in Galway.

As the week has progressed, the rain has continued, unrelentingly, to fall. The River Corrib has been swelling increasingly higher. I have used my bright pink boots on a number of occasions, and have begun to get used to being perpetually damp.

the raging River Corrib, swollen from days of rain.

Thankfully, yesterday morning, I found out that this weather isn’t actually normal. In fact, this November has been the rainiest in 30 years! I was relieved to find this out, because if this were normal, I wouldn’t want to see bad.

Beyond the discomfort of being wet, the rain has brought some more serious problems. The flooding throughout Ireland has been terrible. Roads have flooded, almost completely cutting Galway off from the rest of the country. Flooding has affected downtown areas as well, including smaller towns like Ballinasloe and large towns like Cork. Cork is a mess, as the river Lee broke its banks and has left downtown Cork underwater. The University there has cancelled classes for the next week, and some students are left without housing.

So far, none of the flooding has directly affected us. We have friends that have been unable to travel to or from Galway because of the roads flooding, but luckily this weekend we aren’t traveling. The only possible problem for us would be if the River Corrib flooded, as our first floor apartment is approximately 40 feet from its banks. There are no indications that that will happen, so don’t worry too much. 🙂

As we speak, thunder rolls quietly, the trees are dancing in the wind, and the rain continues. From the safety and warmth of our apartment, it’s actually kind of beautiful. But I am quite grateful that I decided to bring along my huge pink boots.

Just got back from a walk through town to get some basic groceries. On the way back a three piece band (fiddle, guitar, drum) was playing American bluegrass music on Shop Street. Most people kept walking by, since this type of thing happens everyday. But the lyrics of the music caused me to stop for a minute.

“Lord I’ll keep traveling until I reach the place from where I came…And as I go I know that underneath were all the same…”

It felt like they were singing just to me.

Turns out the group was from Pennsylvania…just passing through Galway on a tour through Ireland playing wherever they can.

I can walk down the block for groceries and hear amazing live bluegrass music echoing through the streets. Chicago is my kind of town, but Galway takes my breath away…

Something’s happening here. What it is isn’t exactly clear.

When people walk their dogs around town, along the beach, through parks (all quite common) they rarely need to use a leash. The dogs, magically, just follow their masters–rarely venturing more than 10 yards away.

About a week ago I saw a man with a terrier of some sort walk into a store. His dog happily took a seat next to the door and just waited. Mind you, literally hundreds of people were walking by–some with dogs of their own–on this busy main street.

Yesterday while sitting at the park I watched a young boy–probably around 3 years old–try to sit on a large yellow lab as if it were a horse. This reminded me of the time I tried to ride our westy Nicky that way when I was about three. Nicky turned around and bit me in the face. I couldn’t eat solid food for over a week. This time however, the dog just shook a little, seeming to be a little annoyed.

Its quite unnerving to walk on a skinny sidewalk along a busy street with an unleashed dog and its owner walking in front of you. My immediate instinct is to lunge for the dog and prevent it from running out into traffic. But, it never happens…at least not yet.

What’s behind this amazing phenomenon? Does the ‘dog whisperer’ live down the street? Are the dogs just cultured into good behavior by overwhelming doggy peer-pressure? Are the dog owners secretly beating their pets into submission and obedience behind closed doors?

Or is it the dogs in the U.S. that I’m used to that are the peculiar ones? Have American dog owners, through their use of fences, choke leashes, and the like created in their dogs a longing to break free? But, didn’t we invent those forms of control because the dogs had the tendency to run away in the first place? So, why wasn’t that the case here?

Whatever the case, its a thing of wonder. And beauty.

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Fall is the season of death. And so it has been.

Its now 40 days since Paco’s death. 40 days since death became real to me. That is to say that for 25 years I dealt with death in what I suppose is a classically childish way…its something that happens to people, but at arms length. Now I’ve put away childish things, I suppose, and can see death as the thing most people come to see it as at a much earlier age. Death is real, it is possible at any moment, and it is all around us.

It seems since August 14 I can’t stop staring at death, like a disfigurement in someone that you wish you didn’t feel compelled to look at. Ted Kennedy, a former pastor, a friend’s mother, and a relentless list of celebrities (Michael Jackson, Farah Faucett, Patrick Swazee…)

There are worse places to process life’s finite nature than Galway, where I find myself now. Fall doesn’t seem so teeming with death and decay when everything is green. Its easier to remember the cycle of things–that underneath the autumn leaves are buds waiting to be blossoms in a new day.

They say Galway is the “place where ambition comes to die”. And, I can see why. Our travel book, in its description of Galway, says, “Attractiveness is the city’s main attraction, and you can spend a pleasant day simply following the many pedestrian lanes and riverside and bayside walks.” In our first two weeks here, we’ve found this to be true. I have simply never set foot in a place so pleasant, so communal, and so demanding of deep thought and reflection than this town. In one 5 minute loop from our front door I can say hello to swans along the River Corrib, pass a bridge where Jame’s Joyce’s wife Nora walked daily as a child, step into the sanctuary of a church built in 1320 where Christopher Columbus is said to have prayed before crossing the Atlantic to discover the New World, and withdrawal cash from an ATM at a bank that is housed within the medieval Lynch’s Castle where the term “lynching” got its name. The history here is long, complex, and visible.

One part of realizing our own mortality (in other words, maturing), I think, is to realize truly good moments in life. The past two weeks–as we begin our lives here–have been one big good moment. Another part of maturing, I think, is to begin speculating about what causes particular good moments in life…both with an eye on re-creating similar conditions in the future, and on expressing gratitude to people connected to the causes.

So far, I’ve come up with two causes of this current one. 1) Marry up 2) Take on debt.

Sometimes I forget where I am. It’s not early Alzheimers, or even just ditzy forgetfulness (which I am prone to), it’s the sheer amount of change and movement that’s been a part of my life for the last couple of years. I wake up in the morning and spend a few confused minutes trying to orient myself. Even my dream last night had me in Ann Arbor, Michigan visiting my sister and my friend Matt, and in Philadelphia, visiting friends (newly married!) Katherine and Sean. In each city, I was desperately looking for a place to stay the night, to eat a meal, to settle down a little.

In the mornings when I finally do realize what city and country I am in, I remember that I am in Galway, Ireland. And I am beginning a new life, again.

This past summer was a wild roller coaster ride of time with friends, precious moments with family, travels around the United States, and mental preparation for another move across the ocean. And then, two weeks before leaving for Ireland, my world was turned completely upside down with my most intimate encounter with death to date. My stepfather Greg, lovingly known as Paco, died of natural causes while canoeing in Canada. To say it was unexpected would be the understatement of the year. Paco was one of the most active, healthiest people I have ever known.

I wish I could just write this blog, with my observations and commentary on life in Ireland, without having to acknowledge his death. But I feel that I have to, if I am to be honest about my life here. Because it is not as if I am only beginning a new life in a new country. Not anymore. Now, I am beginning to learn to live with the knowledge of the existence of death in a way I never had to before. I am having to re-teach myself to trust that the people I love will, in fact, be around tomorrow; that I’m not about to lose another person. I am constantly reminding myself to savor the good moments, and to follow my dreams, and to carpe diem! – and all of those cliches. I am doing all of these things, while at the same time, beginning a life again in a new country.

And thank God that country is Ireland. It is a place that practically forces you to feel things more deeply. Its sad history – the oppression, the famine, the poverty – is all around. The constant reminders of it are never far away and are as permeating as the English language, the language of colonization. And at the same time, the good things are somehow so much more sweet. Fast, joyful discussions about anything and everything shared over a pint of beer or a glass of wine. The comfort of a cup of hot tea taken inside a warm house while the wind and rain pound the trees outside. Swans gracefully drifting along the riverbank. Rainbows, the ocean, and so much GREEN. Ireland is so full of life. So it makes for an excellent place to begin again, and to live out a few of those cliches.

And this is where I will leave you for now. After all, I am supposed to be a student, and I have reading to do. I promise more on what my new life here is actually like. And I promise it soon – we should have internet in our place as soon as tomorrow. Until then, slan go foill (bye for now).

Beautiful Galway Bay on a sunny afternoon.

Beautiful Galway Bay on a sunny afternoon.

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Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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