Shift and Drift – American Style

My very last night in Missoula was an eventful one. A night that made me think long and hard about an aspect of American culture. That aspect? Dating.

American men are different to Irish men. They seemed to use the gym a bit more. And when they refer to football, it’s far less exciting than a Munster Final in Killarney. The biggest difference I found, however, was dating culture.

Irish men are not romantic.

Yes, that is a blanket statement. Yes, some people may find it offensive. But I have lived here long enough and had enough disappointing experiences to stand by that statement. Irish men don’t do “dates”. They don’t take numbers in bars with the intent of calling her tomorrow and arranging a date for ice cream or pancakes. That sort of craic happens in movies and on episodes of Friends. I had spent my mature life becoming accustomed to men cracking sarcastic comments in an attempt to flirt and desperately trying to avoid that drunk guy in Havana Browns who only plucks up the courage to talk to girls when he’s hammered and insists on trying slobber all over my face once they had acquired the appropriate level of inebriation. I don’t know if he’s attempting to remove all the makeup from the respective faces of Irish women, everywhere, but this guy and his buddies are doing a pretty awesome job.

But to be honest, Irish women aren’t much better.

I confess that I have moaned about the gentlemen of my nation (or lack thereof) on numerous occasions. I have babbled with my friends about how European men and American men are politer, more respectful and more aware of the existence of this thing called romance. But the truth is, if an Irish guy had ever asked me on a date, having just met him, I would have been pretty creeped out.

Who is this weirdo? Why does he want to go on a date with me? He doesn’t even know me. For all he knows, I’m a serial killer. Heck, for all know, he’s a serial killer!! 

I would have lied about my name, given a weird excuse like an allergy to social situations and left the immediate vicinity, my RapeApp on my phone at the ready.

You can imagine my initial confusion then when I moved to the US. At first, I was in denial. I would get talking to the most friendly of strangers. In the University Centre, or outside Child Advocacy Law, no less. We would natter and talk and absentmindedly end up at a coffee shop. Sure when we’re here, we might as well enjoy a nice beverage. What’s the harm? So me and my new friend (let’s call him Kevin) would drink our drinks and talk and then when it was time to go, Kevin would say something casual like, “Hey, this was fun, we should hang out again sometime” and give me his number on a napkin. I’ll admit the number-on-a-napkin thing did make me wonder – classic Hollywood move but I thought nothing of it. That is until I relayed my story to my American friend. When I told her, she laughed. Not with me. At me. “You know that was a date, right?” No, it wasn’t a date! We’re friends! I would have known if it was a da- Oh my God, it was a date! Dammit!! Sneaky American dating culture -1, Gearóidín -0.

After one or two undercover dates, I began to get suspicious. Paranoid to the level of Edgar Hoover, in his later years. I was no longer oblivious to these American’s and their pick up attempts. No, Sir, I know what you’re doing. I know all about you, Man Asking Me The Time. I know your American ways, I know this is you hitting on me. Not today! And instead of answering the gentleman, who probably didn’t want to date me and definitely just wanted to know what time it was, I would simply glare and walk away, determined not to be fooled again.

To any American I may have offended in my time in your country, please note the following:

In Ireland, men try to pick up girls when they are drunk, in a bar or nightclub. They do not try pick up women on the bus, in a library or at a baseball game (more on this later). I am ready to counteract advances in nightclubs. So you will understand my confusion with the American way. You will understand and perhaps forgive my impoliteness. When you, Average Joe Montana, ask me to “hang out” in a public setting, that is not a licensed premises for alcohol consumption, I immediately assume you are trying to kidnap and murder me. This is a legitimate assumption and very possibly correct, in my mind and therefore I am going to say no.

I don’t understand the process of dating someone you’ve just met. Say your name is Jeff. Jeff meets this Irish girl in the Iron Horse Brew Pub in Missoula. He asks for her number. She freaks out, not sure what of the social convention and gives him a fake one. But this is not Jeff’s first rodeo. He calls the number, right  on the spot. Shoot. Irish girl lied to him. She caves and gives him another number, the real one this time. Jeff sends her a text the next day, telling her he’ll pick her up at 8, that he’s bringing her for dinner. Jeff, think about this: You don’t know the first thing about this girl. You know she’s Irish. That’s it. What if you two have nothing in common? What if she’s weird, and loves to talk about grammar, and speaks a language that only about 5,000 people worldwide speak fluently? What if she is actually ginger? What if you can’t pronounce her name or understand a single word she says? Jeff, do you really want to be put in that awkward situation for the duration of a meal plus the drive home? Trust me, Jeff, I did you a favour. Needless to say, Jeff did not pick her up at 8. All hypothetical, of course.

Anyway, back to my last night in Missoula. And baseball. I had never been to a baseball game. Luckily, the Foreign Student Office had organised a trip to the Missoula Ospreys game that took place on my last night. An excellent opportunity to soak up the very last of America before I scampered off home. Alas, pathetic fallacy and the universe conspired and made it rain. A lot. We went to the game, 3 Irish students, 1 Spaniard, 1 Sri Lankan, 1 Malaysian and an American. I wanted a corn dog and some baseball. I got a crappy hotdog and hit on. The guy who hit on me heard my Irish accent and, considering the unique and totally unheard of fact that he had Irish relatives in Dublin, (of all places)  and apparently immediately decided I would be  a good candidate for an Irish wife.

We shall call him Tom. Tom, with whom I conversed for no more than 30 seconds, followed me to the parking lot and awkwardly asked a thoroughly terrified European to “hang out some time”. Tom received an excuse.

“I’m getting on a plane at 4am to fly home forever to Ireland. Bye” Ok, I’ll hand it to Tom. This probably sounded like the worst and most disrespectful lie he had ever heard. But it was the truth and I was sure I had seen the last of Tom as I scrambled into the minivan with my friends, convinced I had just escaped an assassination attempt. But Tom is not a quitter, evidently. And as we tried to drive out of the stadium, Tom stopped our vehicle and proceeded to present us with his name and number on a scrap of paper. You don’t know the half of this guys persistence.

After a thorough discussion of the Tom-Affair in a local bar, the United Nations and I concluded that I needed to text Tom, because Tom thought I had bullshit him. So text him is what I did. I apologised for my bluntness but assured him that I was returning home and I hoped he had a nice life. A text I thought was satisfactory and clear. It was not.

There I stood, cleaning the floor in my apartment, praying that my security deposit would be returned to me when my phone rang. It was Tom. (Ladies and Gentlemen, this is where it gets weird) Tom wanted to know what I was up to for the night. Specifically, Tom wanted to know what time I was flying out at and would it be cool if he showed up at Missoula International Airport at 4am to “chill” with me until I left. Yes. I am serious. Tom saw, in his head, Ross dashing to JFK to catch Rachel before she flew to Paris in the finale of Friends. I saw the opening scene from Scream, with Drew Barrymore. Hiding the cold fear in my voice, I dead bolted my front door and calmly informed Tom that I had a boyfriend and that it would not be cool. Tom’s momma didn’t raise no fool, however, and Tom assured me he would be there, if things didn’t work out with this guy, and that he would totally “hit me up” (what is this? It sounds violent) if he ever came to Ireland.

I don’t know if Tom showed up to MSO at 4am, with a bunch of roses and a stereo blasting Endless Love on account of my terrified race through security. I’d like to think he didn’t, but his subsequent friend request on Facebook hints otherwise.

I’m sure American’s are excellent at romance and courtship. I would never suggest otherwise. I would suggest, however, that when hitting on a non-national try something along the lines of “Hi, my name is Tom and I’ll be asking you on a date in the next half hour. I also intend to follow you out of the country”. This sort of greeting tells your foreign female three three things. 1) Your name is Tom. 2) She’s being hit on. 3) Tom is honest. Tom might also be an axe murderer, but hey, maybe she’s into that?

Montana. It will never fit in a nutshell…

I left Dublin airport on a chilly January morning, lugging around some suitcases that looked large enough to hold a family of Golden Retrievers, my pale little frame wrapped in an oversized coat. Myself and a very large redheaded rugby player queued our ways through 6 security checks and wandered into the abyss. The world, and 18 hours of flying lay before us. If you had stopped me in the airport then, on the morning of January 20th, 2013 and asked me to predict where I would be in 5 months time, I would have answered you, with confidence. I would have been wrong. The girl who stepped onto United Airlines flight to Washington DC had no idea what awaited her after a flight to Denver and a rickety airborne school-bus flight to Missoula.

I had heard all the stories, all of the fun times. But nothing and no one could have prepared me for what Montana gave to me. Firstly, I came all the way across the world and I found more than fluffy pancakes and Root Beer. I found myself. I know that this is the clichéd line that everyone who spent a year developing an immunity to Whiskey and getting completely trollied in Sydney says upon their return. But for me, the phrase has a sudden meaning. I began to perceive things differently and to take enjoyment from new things – things January-Gearóidín would never consider. I willingly pushed myself out of my comfort zone, initially in an effort to be brave but soon out of sheer want and desire for new things and new experiences. I have always loved to travel and to learn about different cultures. I cant say that American culture is all that alien to Irish culture, in that they are both largely western, English speaking countries. However my mind was broadened, not only by the place, but also, by the people.

People may look on Montana as a conservative, redneck and uneducated hick state, with nothing to offer except cattle and racism. Nothing, I mean nothing, could be further from the truth. Montana is beautiful. It is scenic and vast. I have never seen so much sky, so many stars in all my life. You can see shooting stars, planets, meteor showers and galaxies, all with the naked eye. The mountains roll as far as the eye can see and beyond, thundering giants enveloping the land, like titans engulfing adversaries. I arrived to more snow than I had every experienced, its crisp whiteness blinding in the afternoon sun. The fluffy snow falls softly and silently and greats you in the morning with its dry and calm chill. Most Montanans hate the snow. It badgers them for several months of the year and forces them into mittens and scarves. The snow arrives unexpectedly and often for them, just when they thought it was over. Heck, it snowed on April 30th this year in Missoula. However, I loved it. I adored Montana in the snow. It was a mystical and beautiful wonderland, the landscape hugged by a 3 foot carpet of softness, the mountain tops capped by brilliant and crystal shine. I visited Glacier National Park in February when the snow was heavy. I stood in snow that reached my waist. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

When the summer comes, it’s a different place. The sun arrives with punctuality each morning, before human eyes are open. The grass and mountains adopt emerald hues and flourish. The rivers, once icy and treacherous, become bubbling and fast, facilitators for one hundred fly fishers and leisurely bathers. The sun sets – oh the sun sets. They are indescribable. At the death of the day, like a phoenix, flames erupt and dance across the sky. The scarlet clouds mix with the purple tinge of the night and produce the most beautiful painting nature can offer.

I have never been part of such a diverse group of people in all my life. Missoula has a strange effect on its people. I don’t know what they put in the water here, but something about this place makes inhabitants so accepting of others. Those who flock to this quiet city leave behind all notions of self importance, of judgment and of class division. In Missoula no one seems to care what you are. They want to know who you are, where you’re from and where you are going. Whether you’re the eldest in a family of 12 from Egypt, studying biochemical engineering, a cowboy from Wyoming working at the Coca Cola factory or an Gaelic speaking law student from rural Ireland, you are equal in the eyes of those who stroll the grounds of the University of Montana.

My friends in Montana are some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure to know. People who hailed from the most diverse and foreign backgrounds, all thrown together in a room on a frosty Missoula Tuesday in January, embarking on the same journey. How we had gotten there, to the 3rd floor of the University Centre varied so astoundingly from one person to the next. Our lives were all so different, and yet something had drawn each one of us to US embassies in our respective capitals and on to countless flights, covering thousands of miles all with the same destination. We were jet lagged. We were cold. We were confused. Some of us were struggling with English. But we each had something in common – something about each of our personalities that made us think “This is for me” when we heard of a study opportunity in Montana.

The people I spent the past 5 months with are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. Some of them overcame astounding odds to get to where there are today. I had the pleasure of knowing and learning from the most driven and aspirational people. The adversary experienced by some was never perceived by them as such – rather as character building events in their lives, which they had come out the better for. I have always considered myself a somewhat strong person. But standing next to some of these wonderful human beings, I wondered if my strength would have been enough. Do not mistake this as pity – I do not pity these peers. I admire them. In some cases, I am in awe. Some people surprised me in other ways. People I never expected to be as incredibly geeky as me suddenly quoted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or squeaked with excitement upon seeing the attorneys’ office downtown, the one who’s logo was the sign of the Deathly Hallows (probably just a coincidence. Probably.) and we instantly created a bond. Stereotyping was something I quickly abandoned in Missoula Because in the most heartwarming of ways, the people I grew to love surprised me and made me smile.

I have friends whom I have known my whole life. Friends I have known since the tender age of  5 and 6. Some of the friends I made in Missoula became as important to me as those lifelong friends, even after 4 months. Although these friends – they all know who they are – live one, two and sometimes three flights away from me and as much as 7 time zones apart, this distance makes them no less wonderful. Skype and Facebook means the people I love are never too far away. Ryanair and Aerlingus too, mean visiting my friends is an easily cleared obstacle. Certainly, there are people I met in Missoula, people I shared good times with, had heart-to-hearts with, laughed and joked with, whom I will never see again. Though this brings a tear to my eye, and weighs upon my heart, I know that the friends who are most important, the ones with whom I stayed up eating popcorn and gluten free cake on a Monday night, despite the fact that we all had 9am classes, the ones that cuddled me when I was sad and drunkenly declared their love for me on the dance floor of The Badlander- these friends will stay in my life forever. Distance, life or study are mere hurdles. So when I said goodbye to the people I loved most, when we hugged goodbye in the sun, in the rain, in the kitchen, it wasn’t really goodbye. It was “I’ll see you soon”. Although, at the time, it felt very much like a goodbye. I am thankful for Missoula for so many things in my life, so many experiences. But I am most thankful for the friends, the love and the relationships.

I am currently sitting in Toronto airport. I left my apartment at 4am. I flew to Denver and then here, to Canada. I have been here for 3 hours. I have 3 hours left before my flight to Dublin. I wont arrive there until 9am. I miss home. I cannot wait to see my family again. The past 5 months have been the most wonderful and unexpectedly life changing of my existence. I took my seat on the little Delta aeroplane out of Missoula just as the sun came up. It was beautiful. I sat next to the window, watching the golden rays spill out over the Rockies through tear filled eyes. I did not cry out of sorrow. I cried out of happiness, that I had such a wonderful experience. And because like the farewell to my Nordics, my Southern and Eastern Europeans, my Asians and my Americans, I was not saying goodbye to Montana.

Montana, my love, I will see you again.

Lost in Translation

“I’m sorry, what?” 

“I said ‘Can I have a Large Black Tea’?”

“Oh! Certainly. I’ll get that right up for you. Where is that accent from? Australia?” 

The urge to roll my eyes is so great I almost pass out trying not to. I have no idea why people think I am Australian. I’ve lived in the US for 5 months now and I have been assumed an Aussie more times than I have been thought British, Canadian, Irish or Finnish combined. I’m starting to think the problem is with me, rather than the rest of the world. So I engage in small talk with the guy in the coffee shop. I natter on about how I’m Irish and when I order tea, I mean black tea, “breakfast black” as the Yanks call it. He laughs and smiles and says something general and it doesn’t even cross my mind that in his head he is screaming “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SAYING?”

I wait to be called. “Yo, Australia, your single shot soy Latte is up!” I hear him say. No, that can’t be mine. There must be another, actual Australian in the house, with a lactose intolerance who gave him the initial idea of South Pacific-ness. I wait. He calls again, this time waving and pointing at me. Seriously?! We had a conversation about tea! About why I like tea! And then it hits me. I’m like Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense, watching the wedding ring roll towards him and suddenly realising he’s been dead the whole time. I have the same sudden realisation that the conversation that occurred was completely me the whole time, a monologue that this poor employee has endured, being too polite and too governed by “the-customer-is-always-right” to question me. I look down at the coffee. I hate coffee. I look at him. He’s 80% sure that he guessed my order, pulling similar sounds out of my jumbled speech and creating a dairy free beverage with them, I can see it on his face. I give him a false smile. He tried his best. I take the coffee, heap enough sugar in to simultaneously mask the taste and bring about diabetes and shuffle over to a table.

Again, America has heightened the clarity of a fact I have always been mildly aware of. Ireland is a tiny country. Yet within that little country, there is a huge variety of accents and ways of speaking that it is often possible to tell from what part of a city a person comes from, based on their voice. I drew the short straw when it comes to Irish accents. Mine is the worst of the worst. It’s the butt of all jokes, and every time I hear a person on TV or radio with an accent like mine, I cringe and start pronouncing words like “rather” and “articulate” in my best Stephen Fry impression for days. For those of you not from Ireland, think of it like Cletus The Slack Jawed Yokel from the Simpsons, but the Irish version. In Laois we do not put butter on our bread. We, instead, lather that tasty goodness up with Bu-er. Our taps do not dispense water. Ho ho, no my friend, they spout “wa-er dah we pu in arr ke-el ta make tay wi.” [water, which we put in our kettles, with which to make tea] The “th” sound has been completely abandoned in Laois too. “Dis, dat, dem and dose. Dat’s de way de ‘TH’ goes” apparently.

I always try my best to cover it. It’s difficult to be taken seriously in Ireland with such a midlands droll to one’s speech. So people are often unaware of my shameful secret, my sinful ways of communication. Yet every now and then, I get comfortable. I am chatting to friends, people I have known for some time. Yes, they may even be aware of where I am from, but they accept that perhaps I am one of the lucky ones, without such an accent, and are not ashamed to be seen conversing with me in public. I am absent-mindedly relating some story to these people and suddenly, I drop my guard. I mean to say “…and so I told her that the other book was better..” but instead, before I can stop it, from my mouth escapes the phrase “…and so I told her dat dudder book was b-er”. My eyes widen in horror before my lips can even form the last syllable. I look around and I instantly know it’s too late. One friend has started to choke on her drink in shock. Another has the expression of someone who has just been handed a dead bird. I can read their thoughts from their horrified and furrowed brows; What is this daemon that has just escaped from Gearóidín? Do we need to contact an exorcist? Has anyone got the Vatican on speed dial?!!! 

Most of my friends in America are not native English speakers and hail from all over the world. And yet there I stand, at the desk of a car rental company, trying to ask about insurance and my Moldovan buddy, who has known me for the past 4 months and developed immunity to my gibberish, is translating to the clerk everything I am saying. After the first few weeks of utter confusion among international friends and bewildered Americans alike, I constructed a substitute accent. It’s my Made-Up-American accent. I hate it. I can hear it when I speak. I can hear the horrendous twang in my vocal chords as I refer to a ‘sidewalk’, ‘grocery store’ and ‘mailman’ instead of a ‘path’, ‘shop’ or ‘postman’. This accent that makes a little piece of me die inside, each time I use it, means I don’t have to endure that sympathetic head-tilt people do when I make noises with my face that are completely foreign, forcing them to assume a east European and uneducated origin. I avoid people speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and LOUDLY in sentences void of those definite articles and prepositions that foreigners like me seem to find so tricky. I avoid the awkwardness for everybody when I sigh and say “No, I’m actually Irish, I’ve been speaking English my whole life, it’s my first language.”

Don’t get me wrong, people in the States love the way I speak, something I can never get used to, given the 20 years of accent-based torture I have endured. The love my “Irish Brogue”. [For Americans reading: I first became familiar with this term when I met one of your people in France. I thought he was high. But I encountered it again in your fair land. Brogue? Know what a bróg is? It’s a shoe. Google it. I’m not kidding.] and it takes them back to their roots. Their eyes glisten and glaze and they listen to the sound of my voice, rather than the actual content. They expect me to start jigging and supping guinness any minute but I prove a disappointment on both counts. All that remains is an incomprehensible freckled woman who thinks the conversation is give-and-take. It is not. It is give-and-do-not-receive-and-return-generic-responses. Cue my American counterpart:

Nancy-Lou America (as I like to call my alter-accent) might be from Billings, but you’re not entirely sure, because her accent is a little weird. Maybe she has been out of state for a while, in some place fancy, like Florida or Iowa. But Jee Wiz and Golly, she certainly is from America!

The Price of Being Female

It’s tough being a woman.

Before I go any further with this, I feel it is important to let the reader know that this is going to be a biased article. There is no way that I could not write this from a one-sided perspective. I am a woman. I have been one for a while, and before that I was a girl. All of which amounts to the same thing. I have no idea what it is like to be a man, so if you are reading this in the hope of procuring a genderless perspective, please save yourself the time and stop!

As I mentioned, being a woman is tough. Yes, I’m aware that mostly when people say this, they refer to things like childbirth, unfair standards, inequality and chauvinism. However what makes being a woman the toughest for me is something different. The cost. Let me provide you with a little more insight into what I mean.

I have already explained in earlier blogs that I am a ginger, a freckle-face, a carrot-top, a get-back-in-your-biscuit-tin-ginger. Hence we have incurred my first expenditure. Hair dye. Yes, I aim to deceive and I cover my tresses in various chemicals to hide all traces of foxiness until I can properly be mistake for just a very pale brunette. It’s extremely convincing, if done correctly and in doing it correctly, money is required. So every 6 weeks I spend a nice $20 (about €15) on a box of “Chocolate Mocha” and try not to pass out from the chemical fumes while I paste it all over my head. $20 every 6 weeks? Not bad, I hear you say. Ho ho, but if only that were all. As a result of the dye, I need to keep my hair in good condition. Therefore, I need good quality shampoos, conditioners, intensive treatments, deep conditioner packs, hair serums, heat defence and I think that’s all. Hair spray. I forgot hair spray.

Next, due to the horrific skin condition of pale-Irishness, I invest in make up, or rather paint, to cover my freckles. I know that there are a lot of make up brands out there, but I like the ones at the upper end of the pricing scale. They do a much better job of making me look less like a corpse. So I buy foundation. $36. Then I buy Finishing Powder (for the gentlemen reading, just go with it. It’s like when your girlfriend says she’s “fine” but she isn’t. You don’t have to understand. You just accept it.) which sets me back $30. Blush – $20. Another blush, because I couldn’t decide between two identical shades of pale pink; Poppy seed or Dainty and decided to buy them both. Mascara – $7. More Mascara from a different brand, because this friend I have told me her mother’s friend’s spinning class instructor uses it and it’s really good, but I’ll probably end up never using it – $14. Eyebrow pallet (again, just accept that this is a real thing if you don’t know) – $36. Bronzer, because people will totally believe that the pasty white chick is capable of being “bronzed” and thus it’s fine to wear it – $15. And that’s just the daily make up. For nights out, or formal events, you have highlighter ($30), eyeliner ($12), fluid liner ($20) lipsticks in every shade imaginable ($14 x 17 different tubes. I counted.) an eyeshadow pallet ($38) plus four more eye shadow pallets, because the shades that appear the exact same to you were so vastly different to me that I had to have them all, plus individual pots of eyeshadow (I currently own 34 different pots. I am now re-evaluating my life. I am not proud of any of this.)

Oh, no, we are most definitely not even finished with the make up part yet. How does one apply all of this? Yes, brushes and tools involved in each aspect of the face-making ritual are costly too. The most expensive brush I have cost me $40. It’s a tiny “precision liner brush” containing exactly 12 bristles and wholly necessary to my life, or so I informed myself at the time. I have 64 make up brushes of various lengths, shapes and diameters. Again, each a worthwhile addition to my life. I think.

Ok, we have completed the make up part (I haven’t mentioned the nail varnish. I have over 100 bottles of nail polish. Each at roughly $7) and it’s fair to say that all of these costs were not accounted at once and that I invest over a long period of time. But it is also fair to say that there is not a week that passes by that I do not buy another piece of make up. Upon getting to Los Angeles on a spring-break adventure (We need spring-break in Ireland. It rocks. We also need root beer. That rocks too.) I spent over $200 in Sephora in Hollywood. Another thing we need in Ireland and Missoula. My goodness, Sephora was for me, what ranching and baseball caps are for Montanans – Nirvana. I was dazed, in ecstasy, in love. So many pretty, shiny and beautiful things. So many ways to disguise myself into a human optical illusion. I was like a crack addict who had just stumbled upon Crack-Mountain. I left the store, drunk on my purchases, laden with monochrome bags and red tissue paper 3 hours later.

As you can see, I wear too much make up. Resulting in a highly important and inescapable skin-care regime. I spend money on so many facial scrubs, cleansers, lotions, masks, moisturisers, oils, make up removers and pore-minimising cream (I have no idea if this stuff works. It probably doesn’t, but I am a woman and therefore I believe it when a celebrity tells me it does.) I use these things not just daily, but twice-a-day and therefore the need to restock is quite frequent.

Oh and then there’s the shopping. The dresses, the jeans, the tops, the scarves, the more scarves, the hoodies, the shorts, the skirts, the playsuits, the leggings. And of course, the shoes. Oh, so many shoes. They are my vice. My weakness. I have an amazing and somewhat impressive ability to convince myself in seconds of seeing a sparkly pair of heels that I need them. That I must have them. That they are not too high, they are not too expensive and they are most definitely something that I will wear. That the sales woman is right, they do look fantastic and they would look excellent with those skinny jeans I bought before Christmas. Yes, they will do, I will take them, I don’t have too many shoes, I need this pair and it would be so incredibly foolish of me to leave the store without them. Somehow, this ability that I have rarely extends past the actual store in which I purchased the shoes and it is impossible to think in this way after my feet have been thoroughly violated and beaten after wearing the 6inch, slingback monsters for 4 hours.

At the risk of making people faint, I wont disclose how many pairs of shoes I own, nor the price range of such shoes. Once again, I am trying to make sense of my life right now.

I am by no means above average in my cosmetic and fashion consumption. I would consider myself average enough. I do not wear fake tan (I am far too white for anyone to believe that my legs miraculously took on an unconvincing shade of tangerine after no exposure, whatsoever. I also don’t fancy spending $15 on a product every week that has been proven as a carcinogen.) and I rarely put on false lashes (Seriously, those things are far more effort than they are actually worth) or fake nails (Again, so unnaturally difficult to apply, remove and live with. Not. Worth. It) So I find myself wondering what life is like for those women on the upper end of the cosmetic and fashion intake. Do they have trust funds and beauty companies to keep their supplies plentiful? I should imagine so. Or else a crippling but extremely crafty case of Kleptomania. One or the other.

I thought about actually calculating the cost of my hair products, cosmetics and clothing for an entire year for this article. I decided that I could’t do that, for various reasons:

1. I have no way of knowing exactly how much clothes, nail polishes, mascaras or handbags I buy. I could remember a lot, but occasionally (like when I was let loose on Hollywood Boulevard) I seem to black out into a shopping frenzy only to regain consciousness several hours later, holding my own weight in Topshop and Guess carrier bags, void of any recollection of what just happened.

2. Even if I could recall everything, I complete “1984-esque” mind tricks in order to convince myself that the handbag I have just purchased was for the knockdown price of $35, not $78. The prices of my purchases are a blur or reasonableness to me which I know, deep in my heart, to be false, but will never accept thus. Doublethinking.

3. I never, ever want to know.

Genetic Modification and Me.

The USA is big. Seriously big. As in, it’s the biggest place I have ever been to outside of, you know, the world. They like that fact here. They like being the biggest and the strongest and the loudest. You can see it in every aspect of American culture. Sport is huge here! Even college sports are massive affairs, a far cry from a few hundred people spectating during a Sigerson Cup match between CIT and UCC on some rainy Saturday. In America, college sport is something the whole community, and in Montana, the whole state, live and die by. You can literally buy anything with the team logo on it. I wouldn’t be unsurprised to see Albertson’s selling a mop and bucket with the Montana Grizzlies logo pasted all over, in shiny maroon and white.

What America does better and bigger than anyone else, however, is food.

“Better” might be the wrong word, but lets continue.

I arrived here in late January. After 23 hours of travelling I was tired. So tired. I slept on a sofa in a flurry of jet lag and confusion for the first few days. I remember very little about first arriving here due to the fact that my body clock was as confused as a dog trying to learn Finnish. Seriously. Confused. But I do remember one thing, I remember it really well. I was hungry. Hungry for what? I didn’t care. Just feed me. Someone feed me. Now. So I stumbled to the food court, drunk on tiredness, my body swearing it was 3am when the sun was beating down on the crisp Missoulian snow, the whole town buzzing with midday activity. What to have? Tacos? Burritos? Sushi? That all seemed a little exotic for someone like me who was used to every meal containing some for of potato, meat and gravy. Ah, a sandwich bar. That would do. I took my time reading the menu, keen to make the right choice for my first American meal. I chose carefully. I understood what all the ingredients were – a good start – and I asked in my best fake-American accent for the sandwich in question. What size did I want? That was a good question. Let me just lift the reader out of the current moment and offer a little insight into me.

I have the capacity to eat about as much as a domesticated song bird. Not very much. My mother has had a truly terrible time raising me. I probably peaked my food intake at age 7, despite her best efforts to put more food on my plate. I can count the times I have actually finished an entire meal. I regularly order from the children’s menu – not because I like foods named after a cartoon character – but because the portions more than satisfy me. A lot of my friends love having dinner with me, because not only do they get their own meal, they will always get two thirds of mine afterwards. If someone decides to heap my plate with lots of food in the divine hope that I will gobble every last morsel, I will feel sick and push the mountain of cajun tuna pasta away from me, appetite obliterated. I don’t hate food. I am just indifferent to most forms of it. (Except chocolate. Chocolate is my one true love. Mmmmm.)

So there I was, facing an overly happy American in a silly hat, who was cheerfully asking the sleepiest person alive what size sandwich she wanted. I had heard the rumours. American food was big. I was hungry. But I could always ask for more if I needed. Better play it safe. Small. I waited in line and was duly handed a brown paper bag containing my sandwich. I paid, fumbling with this alien currency. I couldn’t have looked more foreign if I was wearing lederhosen and a feather cap.

I took the nearest seat I could find and emptied the contents of my paper bag onto the table, barely able to contain my starving excitement. Wait. There must be a mistake. The “sandwich” that appeared before me was not a sandwich. It was a monster. It was the size of a healthy baby. Huge! I had ordered a small! I sighed in irritation. They had given me the wrong sandwich. Somewhere in the food court, some hungry American, probably named Chuck was opening his own paper bag to find a little-girl-sandwich and he would get mad and demand a show-down with me at noon outside the local saloon for stealing his lunch. Because that’s how Montanans settled scores. I went back to the cashier and calmly explained my problem. I had been given the large sandwich, when I had actually ordered the small. It was no big deal, I would wait for them to give me my sandwich. Sorry? What’s that? This is small? I think you’ll find, good sir, that by all definitions, the sandwich that I am brandishing at you, is not small. It has never been. But I was wrong. For then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied another sandwich being made. It was the size of a toddler. I looked more confused than ever, as I wandered back to my seat. My constant surprise with American food had begun.

Since then I have yet to go shopping and not be shocked by some aspect of the food I find. Most of the food here is modified in some way. I am not going to claim that Irish food is 100% natural. When I left home we were in the midst of a crisis involving beef burgers that were actually made of horses. Horses that were unfit for human consumption. However back home we have this crazy concept called “food-regulations” that I had somehow grown to consider a basic necessity in a western society. Once again, America, you have proved me wrong. It’s like Inception. Nothing I see in the stores is real. It’s just a projection of what I perceive to be real.

Milk. I thought that all you could do was pasteurise it and all that craic? Nope. I don’t know what deal dairy companies have signed with the devil, but whatever it was, milk does not go sour here. You literally have to leave it open and in the oven for 3 weeks in order for it to go a little lumpy. How is this possible?? The same applies to bread and cheese and ham. It’s a little worrying, despite its convenience. On the point of ham, and worrying things, its unnerving to read the ingredients on a packet of lunch ham and be told that “Ham” is ingredient number 12, behind words you’re not even sure are English. Apples here are huge. Unnaturally large and vibrant enough to suspect foul play of some kind. What is “Hamburger helper”? I had made hamburgers before America. I had rarely needed help and when I did, the help I sought did not come in a small sachet for $1.99.

I have become increasingly health conscious since coming to America. I wanted to keep active and it’s incredibly easy to do so in Missoula, because people are always busily exercising here. I have the greatest admiration for Montanans. They are perpetually clad in hiking boots and always carry a water bottle and a backpack with essentials, just incase they have to hike somewhere and it snows. An alarmingly high probability, all year round. In my effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle here, I have taken to a bizarre hobby. I read packet labels. I have been here a while now, and I manage to stay conscious after reading most packets, but at first, it was all I could do not to shout in confused outrage while standing in Walmart’s cereal isle. A small tub of porridge. Why does it contain 11% of my RDA of sodium? Why does it contain sodium at all? What is this sorcery?! Why is there enough trans fact in this box of dried bananas to kill a horse? I was recently speaking to a friend while he ate a pot of something pretending to be chicken noodle soup. The small pot contained 47% of ones guideline daily amount of salt. What. The. Heck?

I said before that I have always been indifferent to food. Not since coming to Montana. For the first time in my life, I miss food. I miss it, on some days, as much as I miss living, breathing family members. I miss rashers. I miss toast. I miss butter that doesn’t contain “corn starch” and “stabilisers” as primary ingredients. I miss milk that you have to drink within 3 days of opening. I miss best-before-dates (sell-by-dates in America mean that long after such a time, the food you are consuming is still scarily edible) When I return home, I have a list of food I want. I imagine I will have to start small. To wean myself onto the food I grew up with. I will be like a crack addict checking into rehab. If I go cold turkey on this involuntary GM food dependence I have acquired, I will surely die, my system incapable of dealing with such a shock. I will have some toast first, with butter. And some chocolate milk, to balance out the sugar intake I have grown to expect with a meal. It may take months. But by Christmas, 2013, I hope to be able to consume that traditional dinner, in all it’s natural goodness.

Don’t get me wrong, America has some pretty awesome foods. Like pancakes for breakfast. Wow. Those things are phenomenal. Maple syrup (ok, I know it’s Canadian, but I had never had it before coming here) on those bad boys? Well, that’s just heaven. Apart from that….?

Note to Americans: Just because it’s good on pancakes, does not mean it’s good on everything. Stop putting maple syrup on your eggs, it’s a sure way to cause death.

Ghost.

If you haven’t already gathered by now, let me tell you: I am Irish. I was born and raised on the tiny, yet oddly influential island nestled in the Atlantic. Ireland has given me so many things. It has given me its beautiful language, its rich culture and its breed of people, unlike no other I have ever encountered. I can thank the motherland for my affection for Barry’s Tea, my appreciation of a soft day and for my fascination with good road frontage. However living at 53 degrees north and 7 degrees west has also supplied me with one of my biggest hindrances. Ireland, land of my people and land of my love; you have made me pale.

Yet again, America has acted as an eye opener for another aspect of my life. I have always been a pale and freckly little thing but I had never felt like a papery skinned ghost woman before I came to Montana.

I suppose by definition I am a caucasian female. However that definition is somewhat unsatisfactory when you take my general appearance into account. I am naturally redheaded [The reader may now take this time to crack all the ginger, carrot topped, get-back-in-your-biscuit-tin snipes they can think of…. Finished? Lets proceed.] and therefore I have a certain genetic disadvantage to the rest of the world, in that the sun is my enemy. We don’t get very much of it in Ireland, so it’s never a problem. But as I sit in this 23 Celsius Missoula sun and write, I cannot help but become nervous. So nervous in fact, that I have moved to the shade. I am wearing sunscreen. Factor 30. But still. You’d never know. I’ll hide in the shade and just admire the sunny area around me from here. I should probably put something on to cover my shoulders. And maybe a sunhat. Just in case.

My international friends look at me like I’m insane. “But you need the sun! You need to get a sun tan!” says my Spanish friend. The Italians too, are telling me to come and sunbathe on the grass. My Brazilian friends look upon me as though I am an exotic bird, bizarre and foreign, when they touch my arm and gush “Oooooh… You’re so paleand then invite their olive skinned friends to come and look at the pasty Irish girl because “She’s so white!”

Well, people of the world, that may be all well and good for you, with your mocha coloured skin (by the way, if I hear one more Mexican complain about how pale they are getting in the normally nippy Montana weather, I will bludgeon them with a bottle of Nivea SPF50) but some of us are not so lucky. Let me enlighten you as to what happens me when I step into the light.

Firstly I get hot. Very hot. Then, due to the hotness I will have decided to wear shorts. Maybe even some flipflops. And sunscreen. A lot of that. Suddenly, a passer-by will yell some wise crack about Casper the Friendly Ghost. Wow. That’s astoundingly original and witty. Your mother must be proud.

I will spend the day in the sun (foolishly) frolicking around with my pasty legs and arms on show, my dermis devoid of any melanin whatsoever. Let the transformation begin.

I starts on my way home. “What is this?” I ask myself in sheer horror when I glance down at my forearm. Because my forearm is no longer there. It has been replaced by a skinny limb composed entirely of little orange ephelides. Freckles. Thousands of them. Maybe a million. A pandemic. My eyes travel up my arm. Oh, sweet Mother of God. They are everywhere. Both arms. My legs. I hurry to get inside. Get me to the mirror. The mirror! When I get there, it is too late. My face has descended into a pool of these evil creatures, determined to tell the whole world, that despite my craftily coloured hair, I am in fact a ginger.

Perhaps an hour later I realise the extent of the damage. This is worse than I thought. My already tainted skin, once the consistency of a baby fish – translucent enough to see my internal organs – has now erupted into a mass of angry, redness, devouring my entire body. I am positively glowing – and not in the cute “pregnancy” way. I am literally glowing -radiating light and heat like a neon sign above a cheap tattoo place, advertising 3 for the price of 2 on lower back ink.

I have been baked, seared, barbecued. My scarlet skin has dried out like a Christmas turkey’s and I am left waddling around, desperately trying not to touch anything for fear of the horrific pain it brings.

For several days I am forced to stay indoors and apply a thick layer of aloe vera to my affected areas until I am sliming about my apartment like a garden pest. Yik. From garden pest, to jungle serpent. I soon begin to shed. My burned skin has given up on living. All my efforts to heal and sooth it have been in vain. The topmost layer of my skin has made it’s peace with the world. It is time to move on. Time to shed. And so it does. Yet again I am confined to my apartment for a few days until the process completes. Until my face has stopped melting like that of the Wicked Witch of the West and my appearance no longer poses a threat to young children and dogs.

Look on the bright side, you might be thinking, because sunburn turns into tan, and once the painful part is over, you will be beautifully browned, like a batch of scones, or an overripe banana. Ho, ho, said the universe, this is not to be! For what happens to us, plighted by the sting of gingerness is this. We remain pale. What the hell? How did I get such a raw deal? I have gone through the sunburn stage, now give me my tan! Nope, no dice.

Thankfully I have gradually come around to actually accept my skin tone, or rather lack thereof and I am no longer conscious of my complete lack of any pigmentation in my skin. I would rather not spend a fortune on tanning products that make me look like I have rolled about in a bag of Doritos in order to “blend in” with all of my tanned friends. I will happily lather sunscreen on my ivory face EVERYDAY (I seriously do this) avoiding skin cancer and, you know, death, even if that does render me looking like a wimpy cartoon poltergeist. I suppose it could be worse. I could be ginger.. Oh. Wait…

Mary goes Stateside

I have a weird name. I have always had a weird name. I could never get any of those cool, little personalised key rings or pencil cases when I was in school. No poster with the meaning of my name on it. Nothing. All because my parents gave me a horrendously Irish-y name to carry around. Ok, you say, that sucks, but you live in Ireland? Yes, in fact I have lived in Ireland for 20 years. My whole life. Let me tell you, that did not make life any easier.

My name is not a common Irish name. It is difficult. As difficult as a 5th declension Irish noun in the genitive case – that’s pretty difficult.

So for my whole life, introductions have always been dreaded encounters. Anywhere I go, I cringe when someone asks my name. They will get it wrong. I’m baffled, truly baffled, when someone gets it right on the first go. I generally get various similar sounding names and the occasional made-up jumble of letters that I am certain is not a word in any language known to man. Only in Gaeltacht areas of Ireland and with a rare Irish teacher or two can I breath a sigh of relief before an introduction.

It’s not like I’ve gotten used to it over time – you’d think it would just be part of my life now. But as I got older, the situation got worse. A new substitute teacher in school calling attendance, for example. She starts off with the As.. She’s getting close. She’s at the Hs.. Closer still.. She’s at K. Almost. She’s at the Ls. “Mary Lewis. Siobhán Loughlin…” Here we go. The Ms. “Breda Mahon. Rachel McCormick….” Pause. Pause. Then, slowly.. “Geer-” Pause. Sigh. “Jeeyr”.. Pause. “Miss McEvoy”. Yes. I’m here. Don’t bother, please, because you’ll just get it wrong. It’s the same in bars and nightclubs when I meet new people. These people are generally a little merry and the music tends to be a little loud. Already circumstances are against me. After a few minutes I’m generally breaking my name up into tiny bite sized chunks and feeding it to my new acquaintance over the beat of some song. Within 10 minutes my new buddy has forgotten my name and goes for something along the lines of “Roisín”. Way off.

Anyway, life offered me this opportunity to come to Montana for a semester and I grabbed it greedily like a sticky toddler does to a Milkybar. Mostly, when people go on J1 visas, the worries that occupy their brains are things like income, culture shock and how much weight the airline will allow. For me, however, the first thing that struck me, the first worrisome thought I encountered was “How the hell will these Americans handle my name? I’ll have to change it”

I didn’t change it. I’ve been here over 3 months now and I’ve been subjected to more cries of “Oh wow, that’s a beautiful name, it’s so unusual” than I can deal with. Americans find that this is the appropriate response when they encounter the most ridiculous and incomprehensible name they have ever come across.

I often wonder what life would be like here if I was a Mary.

Mary would hand her ID over to the cashier when using her credit card to buy a nice bag of bananas, a root beer and some cheese. The cashier would glance at the ID and return it to Mary in silence. The cashier would not squint at Mary’s ID and attempt to read what is written there before throwing Mary a quizzical look, sceptical about the validity of the ID.

Mary would make friends with the other International kids and not have to phonetically spell out her name for the Italians and the Burmese.

Mary would call up AT&T and only give her name once. She would not be asked to spell or repeat it several times. The phone operator would not listen to her name only to call her another, presumably made-up name 3 seconds later.

Mary would not get that glazed look of “What-in-the-name-of-Hedwig-did-you-just-say?” when giving her name to the guy at Starbucks. (Starbucks: I get it that you want the ‘personal touch’ by calling out customers’ names with their orders: “Ben’s Chai Tea! Here ya go Ben!”. But it is not personal when you get their name wrong. It’s actually the opposite of personal. It’s counterproductive to this ‘we’re all friends in this joint’ thing you have going. So when you ask for my name, don’t be offended when I glare at you and say “Does it even MATTER? Just give me my drink!”) Mary’s grande caffeine-free vanilla bean frappachino with cream would be presented to her with “Mary” written on the side. Not “Beatkd[illegible scribble]”

Mary has it pretty good in the States.

Alas, I am not Mary. I have never been. I am, and always will be Gearóidín. Ga-rho-deen. Don’t worry, everybody gets it wrong.