As cliche as it might be, the phrase "time flies when you're having fun" has never held more true for me than right now. I blinked and suddenly I realized that I've been here almost 2 months. But that gives me a lot more experience to give advice for what to do during your time abroad.
After Cobh, my friends and I planned a last-minute excursion to London. I was hesitant because we were going to get back early Monday morning and I wasn't sure if I would be able to get to class on time, we'd just gone somewhere the weekend before, and despite having jumped overseas, I hadn't ever gone anywhere on my own for fun. But the reality is that there are ALWAYS going to be reasons not to do something, and so the question then becomes whether or not you're going to let those reasons keep you from doing it. So I said yes, and I'm so glad I did. We'd gone on a food trail of Cork the morning of our trip, a guide leading us around the city showing us where all the really good food is (I found a sushi place that's a little slice of heaven, in my opinion). After we were done, we hopped in a cab to the airport and flew to London. After checking into our hostel (as a tip for anyone staying in one, be sure to bring a towel, flip flops, and a padlock), we set out on the Underground and explored (so much, that I now consider myself to be an expert at public transportation). We saw Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, a good chunk of the River Thames, and Tower Bridge, all twinkling in the dark from the city lights. Then we ventured over to Soho and Chinatown, both of which are easily two of the coolest areas of London, for some gelato scooped out by some very nice Italians. The next morning we got up to watch the Changing of the Guards outside Buckingham Palace (I'm not joking when I say this, but the band ended up playing Viva La Vida by Coldplay and it was one of the more bizarre moments of my life), ventured over to King's Cross Station for some epic Harry Potter nostalgia (I got a picture with the Platform 9 3/4 wall), explored Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, hiked all the way up the Monument (311 steps!), found our way to St. Paul's Cathedral, and then wandered over to the Tate Modern Art Museum and Shakespeare's Globe.
And if you're wondering, the plane ticket was around 30 euro, the hostel was about 25, and the Underground tickets we bought were about 15 pounds. So I basically went to London and back for around 100 bucks. It was so worth it.
Not everything is one big vacation. I've said that before, but I'm reiterating it because I think it's important. I managed to get sick two weekends in a row (as I was traveling, of course), so I decided to take a break. Slept in my own bed, caught up on reading and papers for my classes, tackled some new recipes, and spent time alone wandering through the streets of Cork, exploring the city by myself. It was refreshing and much needed. There's nothing wrong with not going somewhere every single weekend, and while studying abroad may seem like you're constantly going on vacations and having adventures, you're still in school and going to need some time to yourself to concentrate. Staying in for a weekend really helped me refocus my academic self, and it also kind of forced me outside of my comfort zone. International students kind of latch onto one another, which is totally understandable when you move to a new city and country! But with my friends having gone to Galway, I was forced to do things on my own, and it reminded me that I'm independent and strong enough to conquer slightly unfamiliar territory alone, so I'm plenty prepared to conquer the rest of adulthood.
Staying in Cork that weekend did feel a little bit like I'd missed out on an adventure since my friends went off to travel. But it was important for me personally to stay behind, and sometimes you might just need that. And that is okay! Your wallet and bank account (and whoever is helping you fund your time abroad) will probably thank you for taking a breather too.
A couple of weekends ago, most of my Cork friends and I met up in Dublin with a bunch of other Arcadia students to travel up to Belfast in Northern Ireland. I've heard the stories from my mom's best college friend about NOT talking about the Troubles when she was over here in the late 70s. The fact is, that's just not how Belfast or Northern Ireland is anymore. Things have significantly calmed down, and it's just a beautiful place to visit and explore. But I did bump into some exchange students who were more along the lines of the stereotypical American: loud, obnoxious, arrogant. They were very loudly discussing the Troubles (with a lot of inaccurate information) at a pub, probably after having had a few too many pints. It wasn't pretty. As an exchange student, you are a representative of your entire country, whether you like it or not, and the way you act is going to determine people's impressions of your country as a whole. It's a heavy burden, especially given that no matter who you are or where you go, you're probably going to have to deal with the stereotypes of your country. And it can be frustrating! Logically speaking, those exchange students don't speak for Americans as a whole, and people know that. But it's important to still recognize that you're a guest in another country and as such should be respectful.
I'm not saying you can't have fun, because the Irish certainly know how to have some fun. But the whole point of going to another country and living in another culture is to experience it for yourself, which means it's best to keep an open mind and just observe. That way, you don't commit a cultural faux pas and end up with people glaring at you from across the bar, but more importantly, you learn what it means to live as a citizen of the country you're visiting.
Other than the pub in Belfast (which was called Filthy McNasty's and no, I'm not kidding about the AMAZING name), we explored the city center and ventured over to the Botanical Gardens and Ulster Museum, which has something for just about everyone. Not to mention it's completely free! The first day there, we got to go to the Titanic Experience, which is actually right on the shipyards where Titanic was built. Understanding the whole process also required us to get a crash course on the history of Belfast at the time, so we learned all about the linen mills and whiskey businesses that dominated the city. We also got a lecture on the Troubles, the key players involved, and many of the political murals that popped up during the city during that time, and we got taken over to the Belfast Peace Wall to see where the Loyalist communities were separated from the Nationalists. I think what I find so fascinating about Irish history is that all of it is so interconnected. You literally can't talk about what happened 50 years ago without understanding almost every aspect of Irish history, stretching all the way back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It's fascinating and seems to be uniquely Irish, but maybe I only think that because comparatively speaking, the United States is a relatively young country.
We also went to Giant's Causeway, which is where the photo you see was taken. (As a disclaimer, Arcadia University probably recommends that you do not sit on cliffs.) It's where the rocks are naturally hexogonic and supposedly where giants lived. The short version of the legend surrounding the area is that Fionn mac Cumhaill, an Irish giant, frequently got into shouting matches with Benandonner, a Scottish giant across the sea. One day, Fionn decided he'd had enough of Benandonner and built the causeway over to Scotland. Upon arriving, he realized how big Benandonner was and promptly turned tail and ran back to Ireland, where he found his wife, told her that a massive giant was after him, and she recommended that he hide in the crib and pretend he was their baby. When Benandonner came looking for Fionn, his wife said to be quiet because the baby was sleeping. Benandonner, not being the brightest of giants, saw the "baby" and thought "if that's how big the baby is, I don't want to know how big the father is" and immediately ran back to Scotland, destroying the causeway on his journey back. Geologically speaking, there's a much less entertaining reason for all the landscape and rocks. We spent time hiking through all the rock formations before venturing up the cliffs to get a stunning look at the Northern Irish coastline and a peek at Scotland in the distance. And last but not least, we saw the Dark Hedges which, for all my fellow nerds out there, is what they use as the Kings Road in HBO's Game of Thrones.
I felt very at peace up in Northern Ireland, and I very much want to go back. There was something about it that felt very much alive and reminded me of the spiritual magic so many Irish writers have spoken about.
I took this weekend off to finish a paper that was due on Monday (so don't worry Mom, I AM actually doing schoolwork here), but I'm looking forward to even more adventures!