2013: Richard Parker and a Half Full Can of Redbull

A year consists of 365 days, provided it’s not a leap year. 2013 was not a leap year. A year, like 2013, consists of 525,949 minutes. As I write this, it is the 349th day of the year. That means that I have spent (give or take a few hundred minutes due to frequent time zone change) over 502,560 minutes in the year of 2013. Those minutes have been among the best in my life. Combined, 2013 was the best year I have ever lived through.

On January 2nd of this year, I jumped on the early train from Portlaoise to Dublin. I slept an uncomfortable sleep for about 40 minutes that dark and frosty morning. I took the Red Line into Abbey Street and then sat on the top deck of the Number 4 bus out to Ballsbridge. It was still dark when I went through security check. I sat awaiting my turn to be scrutinised and was momentarily terrified when I heard a loud interaction between an unsuccessful visa applicant and a man behind 4 inches of bulletproof glass.  Turned out that the applicant had “accidentally” stayed in the States 2 years after the expiration of his last visa and had a dodgy experience in Amsterdam involving a suspicious amount of “sweet tea”. I needn’t have worried. My passport and my visa were promptly posted to me a week later. On my way home from Dublin I purchased “Life of Pi” in Easons on O’Connell street.

Fast forward to January 20th when I flew over 4,300 miles, taking 3 flights and over 24 hours of travelling and landed in the snowy wonderland of Missoula, Montana. And so, the journey began for me. Missoula was the starting point of things for me. It was the change in my life that I never knew I needed. Since I first started studying my course, I knew about the 3rd year opportunities. I knew that I wanted to go to Montana. I had no idea just how fundamental the experience would be.

Somewhere between Sunday the 20th and Thursday 24th I made a friend. I walked with my neighbour toward the bus stop, through the snow. We saw a deer. She said he looked like Bambi. This friend would turn out to be my best friend for the next 4 months until she left for Finland. She would be one of my best friends for the foreseeable future. She would come to visit me in F25, in Helsinki and in Ireland. She would make me food, eat my food, share GF brownies and dance on a bar with me in Vegas. She would watch the Eurovision in my apartment and have a Big-Gay-Day with me and she would cry when I gave her photographs and Salmiakki for her birthday. She would teach me how to say “I look good as hell” in Finnish and I would teach her Irish slang and a phrase or two in Irish. She would laugh with me and laugh at me and irritate me and love me, throughout the year. She would be my favourite little Finly. Riina deserves a mention on this blog. I have no idea how I met her. We were both too jet lagged to recall. We just know that I went to pick her up for the Griz v. Idaho State basketball on the Thursday after we arrived in Missoula and we ended up as friends. Best friends. People mistook her as Irish. They mistook me as Finnish. I am privileged to know her.

Frequently people say that their favourite thing about Missoula is the people. I have to agree. I made friends with mostly foreigners, like myself. Like a crazy little party animal who lives on top of the world. The Norwegian made me laugh everyday. She was a daemon for the Iho, hiking and banana bread. She was always the last man standing at any party and organised some of the best parties I have ever been to. She would bike into town with me and the Finn for ice cream in Big Dipper and tea in Liquid Planet. She was always up for an adventure or a lazy day of procrastination. Tanja is my favourite Norwegian and is the reason I can only say extremely vulgar things in her language. She was the last Nordic to leave the States and it broke my heart hugging her goodbye in the Irish House. Her recent Christmas card in Norwegian warmed my heart.

I made friends with some unforgettable Germans, an adorable Italian who will never have more fridge magnets than I, the most loveable Mexicans with the kindest of hearts, a Spaniard who taught me some Finnish, a Moldavian who flew in with me and spoke Italian, the kindest, most motherly and caring Burmese woman who made the most amazing food and is still a legend in the University of Montana. I befriended a beautiful Brazilian man who brightened up my day, a feisty little French girl and the most goodnatured Canadian rugby player who might just be the tallest person I know and a girl from Seattle who showed us all the ropes and introduced me to Superbowl parties, deep fried cheese and chilli. I became friends with Irish students from my own university who I am privileged to see often – an angry leprechaun, a few crazy geologists and a man -among my favourite men – who, upon first meeting him, drunkenly discussed the pros and cons of the female anatomy at 2:30am. I made some of the most interesting friends – a whole bunch of the most different, diverse but fundamentally the same people. Despite our backgrounds, Missoula called out to us all and to the Rockies we came.

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – I can now say, with 100% knowledge of fact that this is entirely false. Because what happened for me in the Golden Nugget on Freemont Street in early April of 2013 most certainly did not stay in Vegas. It did not come to Missoula, in the literal sense, but it did come into my life a little. Then suddenly, what happened in Vegas became a bigger part of my life. Soon it -he- became one of the biggest things. What happened in Vegas was what the Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz disaster should have been. I met somebody so truly wonderful that saying goodbye forever, outside a taxi with 2 other people and an awkward hug would never be enough. Unconventional friendship turned into something more and eagerness to “see what happens” followed. This came with communication at all possible times through a multitude of media – text, email, Facebook, Whatsapp and daily Skype (the record being a marathon 7 hour conversation until 4am) And although 2 timezones and over 3,000 kilometres separated us, something was worth seeing through. He encouraged me to write, he reads through every post before I publish it, every article before I send it to my editor and is a driving force of support for me and my abilities. Finding something that fit so well into my unexpecting life was worth the eventual 9 hour time difference, the altered sleep pattern to facilitate Skyping and the then 7,500 kilometres between us. Because discovering a person who suddenly makes you happier than you have ever been is not something to let go of. When your life is suddenly a lot brighter than before because of the presence of one person who is so compatible to your personality, that person is special and they need to be held onto. A Canadian, Nordic men playing American Football, a broken wrist, a few Finns, a blind date with my best friend, a Mexican, a trip to Vegas and a tearful cuddle at Dublin airport somehow brought us together and let me just say that since that chance meeting next to slot machines and a half full can of Redbull, things have only got one way: Upwards.

Coming back to Ireland was an experience filled with jet lag, overexposure to good food and even better welcomes. I had never been away from my family for more than 3 weeks at a time, so my 5 month absence was met with a joyful return, a balloon, a sign welcome sign and a fry up. I then slept for what felt like a year in a bed of such extreme comfort, that it could only have been crafted by angels, sprinkled with fairy dust and lined with unicorn fur. Less than a week later, most of my family – my incredibly large family, I’ll have you know – friends and a bemused and loveable Finnish man came to celebrate my birthday. Seeing everyone again, having being gone so far for so long was the perfect coming-home experience. It was a chance to catch up with everyone, to have all the people I loved dearly and who had always been a part of my life in one room, a rare occasion to have all the important people in my life together. It was a fantastic night and I couldn’t thank everyone enough for being there and making it special.

2013 marks the beginning of my final academic year in UCC. I have spent almost 4 whole years as a student. I have had ups, I have had downs, but UCC will always have a special place in my heart. This year I live in a house with 7 other girls. 8 girls and two bathrooms. Mayhem, that’s what you’re thinking, utter mayhem! But you’re wrong. The girls are among the sweetest and friendliest people I know. Some of them I have known for years and some I am only just getting to know, but in all my life I never imagined to get so lucky 7 times over with such nice housemates. Sure, there’s an almost constant milk shortage and we occasionally forget to take out the bins and we’ve had tremendously bad luck with the piscine species but we all get along. The houses never empty for long and although we all have our own plans in life and our own journeys to take, we all seem to blend together. There is a constant buzz and atmosphere around the four floors and despite the fact that we’ve rarely been all together at the one time (3 times, I think. Correct me if I’m wrong) we still all mesh together, like one big, ever so slightly odd and mildly dysfunctional family.

With the amount of people walking into my life this year, a certain few have had to walk out in order to make space. A year ago life without some of these people would not have seemed possible. But my 2013 has been proof that a lot can happen in a year. And somebodies who you thought were pillars in your life sometimes turn out to be structures that weren’t really supporting anything and that you can stand stable and strong without them. People faded from my life. Some had been there for a long time, others had only just entered it, but nonetheless without even noting the shift, they were suddenly gone after weeks, months and sometimes years of erosion. Little tiny fragments of their importance worn away by time and experience until one day – nothing. The fading away of such people has not been a source of sadness for me, although I would have expected it. Rather these insignificant characters evacuating my life either through being pushed or their own twisted will has only proved to me just how far I have come in 12 months and just how capable I really am. It was not only people that eroded away. Previous blog posts and the subsequent fall out will tell you that daemons I had been unwittingly clutching on to also drifted away. Through this very blog, through the clicking of the “Publish” button, I dusted away the last of the painful fragments that I held from experiences gone by and cast them, along with those removed individuals, into the realm of memories and nothing more.

My future plans have drastically changed in a year. Exposure to experiences and other cultures has made me want to take a different path in my life. To change from such a certain and definite plan to the current blurred and malleable one might seem a little scary, but to me it is exciting. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. I know that I’ll have studied and learned the things that interest me. I know I’ll have had some fantastic experiences and travelled the world. I know I’ll be happy. And that’s all that matters.

I finished Life of Pi in April. A slow read by me, but I had been quite busy. I cried at the end. And immediately rushed to the sink, filled it with water and popped in a few bananas. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the movie yet, the emotional roller coaster is too much to handle twice in one year. I still wonder about Pi’s stories. I believe that the story of Richard Parker is true, and that the other atrocities suggested are what the first appear to be. I think, however, that had I begun to read Mr. Martel’s masterpiece in January 2012 I would be less optimistic. I would have seen that Redbull can in Vegas as half empty and I would have sat in melancholy, knowing that Richard Parker never made it to that life boat and that Pi’s mother had met an horrific end. However 2013 has changed me. It has given me the optimism and hope that I didn’t know I lacked. It has given me happiness and faith in humanity that had become silently void in my life.

As I said, 2013 was not a leap year. If you offered me the chance of repeating this year, with one additional day, February 29th, despite all the wonder and happiness of 12 months, I would decline. Why, you ask? I don’t want to repeat the year for the simple reason that it has been perfect and doing it all again could not make it any more perfect. I also don’t want to repeat it because I do not fear the future. I look forward to new beginnings that 2014 will no doubt offer me. I look forward to progressing in a happy relationship, in a happy state of mind and in a happy life. I look forward to the challenges of the year, the undeniable stresses I will face, the ending of eras and the start of new ones. 2013 – you have been beautiful. The people in it have been likewise. Here’s to 2014.

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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.