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.

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!

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.