Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Daily Grind


This is a post I’m writing to appease my mother, that will also answer the question ‘Where the heck have you been all this time?’ So what will follow will be a side-by-side approach to my daily life, in Bilbao and here in Cork.

In Bilbao, I reluctantly woke up at 6:30 in the morning, Monday through Friday, dragged my sorry butt out of bed, groaning, crying to myself, writing sonnets to my pillow and the inside of my eyelids; I eventually got to the bus stop at 7:35 to catch the stupid bus. Notes on the previous: never wake me up before 7:00 in the morning – yes, that half hour does really count – and the bus is stupid because of the schedule that made it so that we had to wait an hour after we got to school, draped over tables and trying to transpose our reality back to our beds, or at the very least into a more comfortable chair.

Classes began at 9, and lasted until about noon. Every morning I had my track class – track three, which combined Spanish 301, 305, and 410 and moved at a breakneck pace – which was then followed by either History of Art on Mondays and Wednesdays or Conversation on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Friday was screwy, as we had that in Bilbao. Wait a minute! Bilbao? Weren’t all my classes in Bilbao? Well, actually, no. Most of my classes – Monday to Thursday – were in Leioa, where the main part of the university is. On Fridays we went to the business school in the heart of Bilbao (Elcano), which was fine by me, as we used the metro to get there, which bought me an extra 15 minutes of sleep, sometimes a whole half hour. Decadence.

I didn’t have any classes with Spanish people, because I wasn’t at a level where I could be learning about my subject material (environmental sciences) in Spanish; this meant that my classes were entirely through my program. I did learn a lot, though.

The weekends you’ve all heard about if you’ve been keeping up with me, so I’m going to skip that and heap unnecessary condemnation on those that missed it the first time around. For shame, et cetera.

Here in Cork, my classes are all 15 minutes away or less; I have classes earlier in the morning Tuesday through Friday, and on Monday, my one and only class is at 12, so that means I wake up at 7:30 or 8:30…or 10, if I’m skipping class…(you didn’t hear that!). I rush off to class (I am always five minutes late, to my perpetual consternation), making it just in time because of the Irish schedule at the university. Classes are scheduled on the hour – 10:00-11:00, for example – but really go from five minutes past the hour to five minutes before the next hour, so from 10:05-10:55 for this one. This is a wonderful idea, as I can (almost) always make it to class before they start teaching.

This time restraint is completely unofficial; it’s meant to give students time to go from one class to the other, but in reality I believe it is another sign of Irish Student Disease. What is Irish Student Disease, pray tell? It involves being late all the time (“I was having a coffee with the lads, and woops! I was a bit late…”), or if not being late, simply not coming to class (“…I realized that I pissed away a whole class again”). I suspect another part of this new regional disease will crop up in April, when there is a month break: unwashed bodies, bent over desks with a lone lamp on, hair standing on end. This is the time when Irish students realize that they’re up the river without a paddle, so they spend those heady days of spring frantically searching for it, when it’s already gone downstream. Go to class, kids. Seriously.

But I hear someone in the peanut gallery shouting “Pictures! Where are the pictures?”

Here’s what home looked like in Bilbao:

Satisfied, Mom? I wasn’t living in a crack den. Where I am living now isn’t a crack den, either; my apartment is clean, spacious enough, and well located. Though there are some interesting fumes from the meth lab downstairs…

Okay, stop freaking out. It’s not a meth lab. It’s a flea circus. You have to see it under a magnifying glass, but it’s fantastic: they jump through fiery hoops and everything.

My bedroom window is the one two windows to the left of the second floor balcony, which is where the living room is.

Highlights of the surroundings:

Commuting in Bilbao was absolutely no fun if you went by bus (so you don’t need to see photos of that), but the streets and the metro were both an absolute delight.

Here in Cork I take one of two routes to class – most of my classes are really close, because they are in a different part of the campus, so that doesn’t really count. When I’m running late, I go by the city way, but on those occasions when miracles happen and I’m on time (also when pigs fly), or when I don’t give a toss about being late (more likely), I go by the river, on a path that runs to the university.

There are a lot of flowers along the path – it’s February and there are blossoms littered liberally along the side. There aren’t just crocuses like this, there is actually a medley of plants: daffodils, other colors of crocuses, and flowers I’m going to call snowdrops because that’s what I imagine what they would look like.

So I’m just going to ruin it for you and say that the university in Bilbao did not impress me with aesthetics.

One thing I really liked about this university is that basically all of the buildings on our side of the street were connected by balconies, so you didn’t have to go downstairs if you weren’t leaving that part of campus. Crazy, right? The part I especially love here is that you can see the beds of lavender that were planted at the foot of the staircase. Sometimes I’d pick one and hold it to my nose the entire way home.

On Mondays I had two classes I helped teach and two different Catholic private schools: the first school was Pureza de Maria (Purity of Mary), where I helped with the five and six year old class. I don’t think I did much to help them, as they didn’t know more than colors, food, and the members of the family. They were really cute, though: they remembered my name the second time I came around, which really surprised me. All I remember about being five does not involve a long attention span – or for that matter, a long memory. I must conclude that these children were geniuses.

After an hour, I left to go to my next school, nursing a slight headache but looking forward to my next group.

Those were the fifteen year olds at Nuestra Senora del Carmen (Our Lady of the Carmen), all pretty socially awkward, but I think we had a really good dynamic. I told them all about Maine, taught them to sing a couple of my favorite songs (one of them was Running Bear, which people from camp know…), played one of my favorite parlor games, and made them do the jellyfish when they skipped doing their homework. The jellyfish is another camp tradition and I hereby promise that if you want to see this, you can ask me – ONCE – and I will do it regardless of the situation. I will be stared at and will turn as red as the reddest raspberry. Let’s just say that the homework assignment that I gave following this activity was a pretty good effort.

The University College Cork is much, much prettier. The college was placed on the spot that is actually responsible for the existence of Cork City: in the sixth century, a guy called Saint Finbarr came in and founded a monastery, where educational as well as spiritual pursuits were carried out.

Here’s the building they put on postcards:

This is the oldest building on campus – as well as the prettiest, though it’s surrounded by tasteful modern architecture. The grass quad in front of it has a bit of lore (probably spread by the groundskeepers) that anyone that walked across the grass would fail their exams. I have not seen a single person so much as put their toe on so much as a single blade of grass while at the university. There’s also an archway there under the tower, on whose floor is the crest of the university (which I don’t have a picture of, sorry), which is supposed to make women pregnant if they step on it. I’ve stomped on it three times out of spite, gleefully, and in a manner that draws stares from passerby.

Other great hits of the university:

In the center of the circular plaza here, the spoken word is echoed in a way that people outside the center of the space can’t hear – it’s pretty awesome.

I really like this school because it’s always active with some sort of student group organizing something. I think that UMaine would be like this, if not for the ratty old winter.

So there it is. I haven’t been squatting under a bridge (much) or on police watchlists (unless you count…). I’ve been walking a lot every day, basking in the warm weather (and alternatively wondering why nature is conspiring against me so I can’t wear my nice coat), and delaying doing my homework for as long as possible.

A Strong Sense of Self-Preservation


This past Sunday a friend of mine, Pauline (who hails from Brittany, France – where crepes come from!) and I went to Blarney. If that rings a bell, it might be because of the rock that is in residence at Blarney Castle, which is a rather enormous and drafty affair that brings you right back to the good old ages. It’s situated on absolutely stunning grounds, which have several different areas of interest, especially for nature lovers.

We went to the castle first (as I was positively bubbling with excitement at the prospect); there were patches of crocuses on the way, that were budding tentatively into bloom.

And then: BAM. A castle.

And it was a lovely sunny day, too – Saturday was rainy, so we lucked out. Of course, when I say that it was sunny, I say that it was more or less bright out. But there was a blue sky – sometimes.

The castle was built in 1446 by the McCarthy clan, a site that had hosted two previous castles. Clearly, this one is the best. And the most impressive, of course. It has been besieged at least four times – I’m not sure if this counts the time in 2008 when a bunch of people showed up for a naked photo shoot: your decision, I think. Blarney is as famous as it is because of Elizabeth I, actually; she showed up to visit the McCarthys to negotiate their entrance/submission to the British Empire, and was put off by the lord himself, due to his eloquent and rather more than somewhat roundabout language. Elizabeth threw up her hands, said “It’s all Blarney!,” and the rest is history.

And just because I won’t really have opportunity later: this thing is rigged out for war, make no mistake. It’s not something I generally think about, but when you come across an ‘oubliette,’ a turning paving stone that deposits your unwanted visitor hard on his butt back outside the castle, or something generously called a ‘murder hole,’ a hole on the first story of the castle through which you pour hot liquids such as water, oil, or the contents of your friendly neighborhood latrine, it gets the point across. It’s incredible to think about these things actually being used for their intended purpose; sure, we see it in movies, but the castles are too clean and the action is too stylized to really seem real.

And BAM! Here I am. (“Oh my God it’s HUGE! A real castle! It’s really, really, really, really, AWESOME! …”)

And as we approach the castle, it seems that it has three pores – a dog kennel and dungeon. The dungeons themselves are open for access, and are a bit damp and cave-like; they make up one’s mind about the potential life of crime that one is sometimes drawn to lead. They are also not for claustrophobic people; I couldn’t stand up in any part of it.

This is one of the tunnels. The light here is from the flash of my camera: don’t let it fool you. And that plan for robbing Tiffany’s? For all those concerned, please disband the group and shred all paperwork and return the plans to city hall. I’m not ending up somewhere like this! And of course for anyone in the police force that may read this little bit of fiction, well, be assured that there were never really concrete plans in place. Well, not really concrete anyway.

This is another view of the castle; to the left of which is the watchtower:

And yet another view of the castle:

This is something special – if you draw your attention to the top of the castle on the side facing you, to the hole in the battlements there, you are looking at the site of the Blarney Stone. You can even see the feet of the man that assists the visitors of the castle – more on that later.

We entered the castle; this is a view from the battlements.

We came in through the wine-storage room; we later saw how difficult it would have been to get wine upstairs (such a tremendous profusion of stairs…), so I now hold that there must have been some sort of pulley system, as I don’t think that any poor bastard would be pressed into lug a barrel up those terrible stairs, mostly because he’d just fall right back down to his original elevation.

We saw a number of rooms in the castle; most of them weren’t labeled, but there was a ladies’ bedchamber (adjoining which was the priest’s residence), the family room,

 and the kitchen.

The kitchen looks tiny, but there is a gigantic fireplace behind this point, and it extends beyond the chains.

And now, a note about heights.


Or rather, I am scared stiff by them. We spent what seemed like an eternity climbing up these narrow, nervewracking stairs:

The only thing that stood between me and certain death was that rope there. There was no railing, no handholds on the other side. Anne may remember how slowly I went down that steep flight of stairs in San Marcos in Venice, gripping the metal bars on each side – that was kid’s stuff to this. These stairs reduced me to a pathetic, pale-faced, shivering puddle of humanity. I even broke out into a cold sweat. Small spaces? Uncomfortable, but fine. Spiders, snakes? I give them their space, but also fine. But I hate Ferris Wheels and, apparently, certain aspects of certain castles. Pauline was genuinely concerned for my health; what was between me and my decent right back down those stairs was my backbone, and it was worth it, even if only as a vindication of my courage in the face of hardship.

Oh, it was so very high up…

So very, very high up.

So we went up that last bit of that particularly nasty flight of stairs from the kitchen; at the top I clung to the bar provided, breathing quickly, edging along the battlements of the castle, trying not to look down, trying not to totally lose my cookies and have a public upset. I am happy to say that I maintained an amount of dignity while also keeping my sweaty, white-knuckled grip on the rail.

The battlements surrounded what was three stories of the castle – the floors of which had disappeared (making it death to the right and death to the left, what fun). The uppermost floor was the banquet hall, which was handily placed near the kitchen:

The group of people at the far side of the hall were surrounding the Blarney Stone. Now, please don’t be too bummed when you hear that I did not kiss the stone – a rock that gives the kisser ‘the gift of gab,’ something which I already posses in spades, if I may say so myself – because the stone is positioned in such a way that you have to be propped upside down by an attendant OVER THIN AIR in order for your lips to make contact with it. I was already experiencing an amount of distress, and refused point blank to go anywhere near a plummet of such heights. Pauline did – and I’m applauding her for her guts, something I simply do not have.

Pauline is a beautiful person, in both character and appearance. What I would like to highlight here, though, is the expression on her face. It is because kissing the stone requires a quantity of flexibility, and even then, it still sucks. Note how far away the ground is. How very, very far away.

On the way back down, there was a similar set of stairs; however, I was not inspired with a similar amount of dread, as there were two iron bars to cling to in order to prevent death. I was still rather unhappy with the situation, but much more content than before. And is it possible to convey how satisfying it was to step back on solid ground? (No.)

The rest of the time was spent eating lunch on a wall overlooking the poison garden and walking the extensive grounds.

The poison garden itself is full of all sorts of harmful plants, ranging from tobacco to mandrake to devil’s nightshade, with helpful plaques describing each specimen. The sign at the head of the garden I hope Anne will appreciate, as I am adding it to my ‘dumb and obvious signs’ collection:

Um, Duh. Highlights of the garden:

There were a few plants that were labeled but not there; I assumed that, if no explanation was provided, it was too cold for these to survive. For one, however, there was an explanation:

The grounds are tremendous – they rivaled the castle itself (though you have to factor in my fear of heights, so for some they may come in a bit behind, but still). Pauline and I walked around, me gushing about trees, Pauline bringing out her binoculars to look at birds and classify them with her field guide. It was wonderful being a nature nerd with her because there was no condescension when I thought a rock or plant was worth noting, and she showed me that there is more than one type of swan – and that the differences can be as simple as a bump on the beak, for example.

A picture show:

As you can see, Blarney is well worth the visit, for history or for nature. Only – if you have a fear of heights, do yourself a favor and bring a second pair of underpants!

We No Speaky ‘Eengleesh’


This weekend I have done nearly nothing; Saturday was spent in bed or on the couch. I finished one book, decided not to start another, and participated in ‘Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.’ Today I did a bit more; I went to a flea market where they sold some cool stuff, found a pair of jeans, and ate Nutella, as today is ‘World Nutella Day.’ I justified this by going swimming Friday and Sunday (today).

Last weekend, I stirred myself from languor and went to Dingle for the weekend. No, this is NOT something you do in the toilet. Dingle is one of the areas in Ireland where Irish/Gaelic is spoken as the main language; these places are called Gaeltachts. You can look it up of the web and see maps that show exactly where they are – the one I was in was in the west, toward the south. Basically it’s the nearest point to America you can get while still technically being in Europe. It’s also freaking gorgeous.

Actually, you may already know the panorama of the region if you’ve seen Ryan’s Daughter, a movie that was done in 1970.;it was directed by the same guy that did Doctor Zhivago, so it’s long, depressing, and very grand. Personally, I wouldn’t watch it for the story, because I’m more into happy endings: staring into the sunset, holding hands (etc.), but even so, it was worth it for the scenery. Just don’t be fooled:

1. It really isn’t sunny even half the time in Ireland, and yet there is just one rainy scene, appropriately placed for drama.

2. The village was built specifically for the film, and all but the schoolhouse was demolished afterwards.

3. I have not met anyone with such ridiculous accents here. Sure, the denseness of the accent varies depending on the region, but there are some that are just improbable.

I made a spur-of the moment decision to go there, because it was offered to go to the house owned by the Gaelic program at my university, for a very reasonable sum of money. It’s in a town called Dun Chaoin (Dun Quin, phonetically), which is basically the farthest west you can go on the peninsula. The house itself is large, with several bedrooms and a large kitchen; we cooked our own food and fessed up money for the grocery bill at the end. I loved it.

The first night there we got the opportunity to hear what the local school principal had to say about Gaelic in the area; what I found to be truly amazing was that his first language was actually Gaelic – it was people spoke to each other: they learned English in school, not the other way around. There was also the fact that he said that he was translating everything he said from Gaelic to English in his head before he spoke.

He talked about how when he was growing up there was little technology – you might have had a telephone, but you had to ride your bike an awfully long way to ask permission to watch a match on television in someone’s living room. You got around by bike or by cart, and everyone had only as much as they needed. People farmed their land, produced the majority of their own food, raised cattle and/or sheep, and took milk to the creamery, where all of the community’s milk was processed. No one had a lot of cash on them; when they wanted to buy something, it was pretty common to take out credit based on the amount of money you would get from the creamery.

The creameries are no more, as there are regulations to do with milk processing that a small community can’t meet; fields are populated by herds of cattle and sheep, and some have gone to seed. There has been significant change, but I think – based on my very short stay there – that a lot of the character is preserved. It’s just gorgeous.

You could say that the peninsula has gotten a lot of action – there were its earliest inhabitants (who didn’t bother to name themselves), the Carca Dhuibhne, the Gaels, the Vikings, and then the Normans. This also makes Dingle the home of several deadly cool archaeological sites; on Saturday morning we took a bus tour, which featured three of them, plus a great beach.

This is a place called Ceallunach an Riaisc – I don’t know how to pronounce it either (and you thought Spanish was hard!) – an early Christian site. When Christianity came to the area, it was accepted and then layered over pagan temples, so you might see Ogam stones (holy stones) with crosses in them or maybe a church next to a pagan burial ground. This is all Christian, though. There was a wall on the outside to protect the settlement, a forge, and three or so two-room houses for monks to live in. There aren’t traces of a church on the site, but, after all, the building on the site of Stonehenge was made of wood before they decided that stone suited them better. A non-pagan version might have happened here (though it seems weird to build houses out of more durable material than the church, the focal point of the community).

I really liked walking into one of these rooms and deciding where things would have been; a fire in the center, a cot or two along the walls, and maybe a chair and table. There was not a lot of space in there, that is for certain.

There was also an upright stone at the site – I haven’t included a ‘pictorial reference’ because it wasn’t really all that clear in the photo I took of it. Basically, it’s a stone that stands about chin height that has a cross etched into it. The grooves aren’t very deep, so it’s a bit hard to make out, but it’s cool to think about exactly how old it is (unspeakably old), and how dead the person that carved it is (unspeakably dead).

The next place was a church, called The Oratory, or the Cell of Gallaras.

What’s great about this is that the entire thing is intact. Well, okay, there is no door, but that’s just about all that you might still want out of this thing. The whole structure is made of stone – the walls just kind of slope upward and meet to form a roof. I don’t know how they did it exactly but I like it. Still early Christian, blah blah blah.

Oh look! There’s me! This is when the wind wasn’t blowing too much and so I could actually keep my jackets unzipped. Also note that I left off the gloves and huge hat. Still, it’s nothing like Maine in the winter – and the girl from Florida was really not having fun.

The last one was still a church, but moving forward in history a bit, to about the 1140s (practically a whippersnapper in comparison). This one was bigger and more elaborate – but minus the roof.

They affectionately call it Cill Mhaolceadair – after they practice pronouncing it a couple of times to be sure they got it right. This church has a nave and a sanctuary: two rooms! oooh! aaah! (how exciting, how revolutionary!). Sorry. I put my sarcastic pants on today.

The doors are incredible – not just the doorway to the church itself, but also the doorway to the inner part of the church.

In the back of the inner room is a window on the far wall:

If you squeeze yourself through this window, you get to go to heaven! So this means if you’ve got something on your mind and you’re just not quite sure if wronging Great-Aunt Elenore on her deathbed was the right thing to do, well, you have hope! (But seriously. Go on a diet first!)

The next stop on the tour was a great view of the Blasket Islands; these are islands that used to be inhabited but aren’t anymore. There’s supposed to be a huge amount of folklore surrounding the culture of these islands; since there’s no one there now, it’s been bought up (most of it, anyway) by a private investor first and then by the government. Basically, it’s beautiful scenery and empty houses.

The Island furthest in the distance is the giant, a landmark around here, a feature that shows up a suspicious number of times in Ryan’s Daughter.

This photo was taken on a picturesque cliff.

Very, very picturesque.

After this we went to a beautiful (quite windy) beach. The good news is that my hiking boots are actually waterproof! I wasn’t sure before, as they didn’t seem quite sturdy enough to hold up to their promise. Three cheers for dry feet.

The rest of the day was spent watching Ryan’s Daughter. It’s three hours long, so it takes a while.

Sunday morning was spent making an ‘Irish Breakfast.’ There’s rashers (bacon), sausages (single-serving cylindrical sausages), white pudding (sausage that you have to cut up), and black pudding (like white pudding, only, well, black. Yes, it is made with blood, but so is chorizo), scrambled eggs, toast, and tea. The vast majority of the meal was a mind-dizzying array of meat products, so I stuck with toast, eggs, and apples I snuck from the bag while everyone else was in a meat-eating stupor.

Before catching the bus for a very stimulating three hour bus ride, we walked to another beach. There were sheep on the way; we participated in a sheep-fueled delight that dimmed only when we realized that you can’t make sheep come to you, no matter how hard you try.

This was arguably my favorite part of the trip, which is saying a lot. It’s a wide beach with mountains, surf, and the occasional cow pooing placidly on the grass.

Of course, the walk there wasn’t so bad, either.

The best thing about this beach is that it is littered with rounded multicolored stones. Long story short, I came home with five stones:  light blue, blue-green, dark purple, potato-colored, and ruby red. My little heart fluttered. Geology is cool. Don’t judge. (P.S. Mom and Dad: I-love-you-so-much-please-take-them-home-in-your-luggage-for-me-m’kay-thanks!)

This kind of shows the coolness of the rocks. But if I showed you their full potential, you might scream like a little girl and jump around like an A.D.D. five year old, which would scare away small children. So I’m really doing you a service.