For the Craic

January 14, 2010

I was in a pub last night, talking with a couple Irish people. They were already on their sixth or seventh pint of the evening when I got there, so by the time I started talking to them they were speaking pretty freely about other European countries, Irish universities, and the trip they took to America . When I asked them how they liked America, they said “We loved Chicago, we had loads of crack.”

I did a little bit of a double take, but didn’t say anything about what I had heard, and kept talking with them. They told me they were from Dublin and that they were just visiting Galway, and had gone to a few other towns too. They told me “all the other towns are shite, but we had some good crack in Galway.” This was the second time they had told me about how much crack they had, and they kept saying things like this. “We were just having a bit of crack.” “We had tons of crack last night.”

Eventually, they asked me and my friends if we wanted to go to another pub, saying “come on, we’ll have some crack.” I finally had to ask, “when you say ‘crack,’ what does that mean?” A look of realization appeared on their faces. “We’re not talking about crack cocaine,” one said. “Now I know why you had a weird look whenever I said crack,” said the other.

“Craic,” (pronounced like “crack”) is Irish slang for “fun.” That word is the root of the phrase “cracking a joke.” It doesn’t have anything to do with drugs (although it might in some contexts). So if you go to Ireland and someone invites you to have some crack, don’t get freaked out. Also, for any Irish person reading this, if you’re ever talking to a cop in the states, don’t mention that you were just having a bit of craic.


In The Marketplace

January 10, 2010

This trip to Ireland has been full of surprises in many ways. I’m getting to see Ireland in a way that very few people have seen it before. They’re saying it’s getting close to -15 degrees Celsius, a temperature that hasn’t existed in Ireland for at least 40 years.

Incidentally, even though it’s been about 5 months since I was in Japan, I still think in Celsius. I’ve told a few people this story already, but it’s a good one that tells you just how obsolete farenheit is worldwide. I was talking to one of my Japanese professors and said “In America, we don’t use Celsius.” Her immediate reaction was “Oh, you use Kelvin?”

Anyway, Ireland, which is usually known for rain and green, is now snowy and white. Hopefully this is just an abnormal winter, because, as I said before, if this is the start of a larger trend then it could have disastrous consequences. One of the best examples of how this weather is affecting Ireland was what I saw at the farmer’s market yesterday.

I love going to markets when I’m in a foreign country, partly because I love eating, but also because I think food is a really good window into a culture. In the case of the Galway farmer’s market, it was a really good window into what’s happening in Ireland right now. Our professor took us there and told us that the farmer’s market is always busy and full of people. But when we went there, there were only a few stands, and hardly any people. Only a few truly dedicated farmers had brought their produce with them to the market. I asked our professor, and he said it was probably just because the farmers couldn’t drive out to the market on the icy roads, and it probably wasn’t because the weather was affecting the crops. But it shows how just this one bad winter is immediately affecting Ireland, and how reliant a farming economy is on consistent weather.

While the weather is obviously making this trip not go as planned, it’s still a great experience. I came here because I wanted to see what Ireland is like, and that’s not at all what’s happening. I’m not seeing what Ireland is like, because it’s never like this. But I am getting to see Ireland like no one has ever seen it before, and that’s a good experience in its own way.

I thought I was over jetlag, but right now it’s 8 in the morning. Clearly I was wrong. I guess jetlag gives me a normal sleep schedule.

I thought I was recovered from jetlag yesterday evening. Our professor told us there was a TV show about farming that we should watch from 8:30 to 9. I don’t understand how I timed it, but somehow I fell asleep exactly at 8:30 and woke up exactly at 9. Although I had missed the show, I felt refreshed and stayed up until about midnight, thinking I had recovered from jetlag. But the sun still isn’t up yet.

Anyway, yesterday we took a trip to Connemara, an area in western Ireland where the primary language is Irish. Our main reason for going to Connemara was to visit a beach where the sand was made of bits of hardened seaweed. It was a beautiful beach, and apparently it’s only one of a few like it in the entire world.

There were two primary themes being discussed yesterday that I kept thinking about. One was climate change. Ireland is really, really cold right now, which isn’t normal. Roads are covered in frost, because that happens so rarely and people aren’t prepared to put salt on the roads. Lakes are frozen over, and the people who live near those lakes have probably never seen that happen before in there entire lives. Is this a fluke, a statistical anomaly, or is this the start of a new trend? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, but it’s pretty strange. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see Ireland during such an abnormal time, but hopefully this season will stay abnormal and there won’t be any more like it. If this is the start of climate change in Ireland, it could have disastrous consequences.

The other thing we’ve been talking about is sustainability. Is it advantageous, or even possible, for Ireland to be completely self-sustaining? Well, it obviously was for most of its history, but now much of the food in Ireland is being imported from other countries in the EU. This is good in some ways; if it’s a bad year for farming for some reason, it’s not as much of a problem. But there is a movement in Ireland to buy local products and be self-sustaining. When we went grocery shopping, on our receipt every local product had a clover next to it, and at the bottom, underneath our total, was another total of all the money we had spent on Irish products. It ended up being about half of what we payed, so about half of the food we bought was local. In addition, a lot of the local food was shelved together in the supermarket. People are definitely aware of where the food they buy comes from, which makes sense, since Ireland is largely a farming economy.

Anyway, hopefully things will warm up soon. See you later.

Ireland – Day 1

January 4, 2010

So, it’s almost the end of my first day in Ireland. Actually, it’s more like the end of a really long, 72 hour day that I spent in California, Massachusetts, and Ireland. Oh, and the sky. It’s Monday night, and I feel like I’ve been up since Saturday morning. That’s not entirely accurate though. I slept a little on the plane and after I got to Ireland, and I probably didn’t wake up on Saturday until around noon. Anyway, you get the idea.

I flew out of LA around 7 on Sunday morning, had a layover in Boston, and then arrived in Ireland at around 6 on Monday morning. The first thing that happened was that my luggage got lost. I had to fill out this lengthy form, and I was totally freaking out, since all my clothes were in my luggage. But at the last minute, someone showed up with my luggage, telling me that they had just saved it from going to Dublin.

I guess this is a good segue into the background of this trip. I’m in the city of Galway in western Ireland with one of my professors and a bunch of other students to study agriculture and environmental science in the west of Ireland. This means that we’re gonna be exploring bogs, which by itself makes the trip entirely worthwhile.

Anyway, when our professor met us at the airport, he took us on a two hour drive to our apartment in Galway, which is in a really nice area. We stopped at a medieval castle, too, which was a nice glimpse into the history of Ireland. The apartment we’re staying in is terrific. I took a nap after we got there, and some amount of hours later I was woken up by a phone call from our professor telling us that we were meeting for dinner. In a completely disoriented state, I met up with the group in our apartment and we drove to the center of Galway to hear some traditional Irish music in a pub before going for dinner. The music was wonderful, and the atmosphere was great. For dinner we had pizza with mushrooms and onions, which apparently is the standard for pizza in Ireland, the equivalent of cheese pizza in the states.

Now I’m back at the apartment, looking forward to this trip. Time to go to sleep.


November 3, 2009

Yes, Ireland.

This blog was originally started to chronicle my time in Japan, and while it did that, it didn’t do a very good job. So, um… sorry.

But I’m gonna make it up to you, I promise. As it turns out, I’m gonna be going to Ireland in January. I’ll be in the western part of the country, where more people speak the Irish language. And I will write about it more frequently this time, I promise. I’m gonna try and go with the format I used for some of my excursions in Japan, and I’m also gonna draw inspiration from my good friend and fellow traveler/blogger Jami Epstein and try to do a blog post on Ireland every day. I guess that from now on this is gonna be my travel blog. Because it’s a travel blog, just expect there to be incredibly long periods of time when I don’t post anything interspersed with incredibly short periods of time where I post constantly.

Anyway, it’s a long way away, but I’m just throwing it out there now: I’m going to Ireland in January, and I’m gonna write about it.

I expected Korea to be different from Japan in some ways, and similar to Japan in other ways. It’s really way more different than I expected.

There is one obvious similarity in that Seoul is very similar to Tokyo. Both are 24 hour cities with flashing lights everywhere, where businessmen and students party all night. But in this regard Seoul even seems more exciting than Tokyo. This could just be the initial culture shock for me, but I do think there’s a bit more to it than that. Right now I’m staying near a college, so all the nightlife around the area involves students. But this area seems to keep going later than most of the areas in Tokyo, or than any of the college towns I’ve been to in America or Japan. We got to our hostel around 8 yesterday, and when we left to get dinner around 9:30 (I’ll tell you why in a little bit), the manager said all the restaurants would be closed. But he was wrong.

I read before coming here that a lot of restaurants in Seoul stay open 24 hours, and this really does seem to be the case. We got a dinner of galbi, bulgogi, and kimchi at a fantastic Korean barbecue place, and when we passed in on the way back to our hostel around midnight it was still open, as were all the other restaurants, and this wasn’t even in the hub of the area. Basically, from what I can tell so far, Seoul really is a 24 hour city. Tokyo is often described as one, but it really isn’t. It seems like a more accurate description of Seoul. (To be fair, I really haven’t been in Tokyo or Seoul long enough to see what each individual area in the cities are like in terms of this.)

The food in Seoul is incredible, as I expected it to be. So far I’ve had delicious Korean barbecue, an insanely huge and filling lunch of bibimbap, glass noodles, and vegetable pancake that my friend and I finished all of even though we were full about halfway through, and a greasy, hot vegetable pancake that I bought from an old woman in a market. I keep consoling myself by saying that I’ve already lost weight in Japan, that we’re walking a lot here, and that most of what I’m eating is vegetables.

As for our hostel, well, the experience hasn’t been so great. We got picked up at the station by a really grumpy guy from New Jersey yesterday who wouldn’t make conversation. He showed us the “private twin bed room” that I had reserved, which was essentially just a bunk bed in a closet. We got him to put us in the dorms, since they were more spacious and cheaper, while the whole time the manager, who I’ve never seen doing anything, kept calling me Harry Potter (which I’ve gotten a lot in Japan). It took about an hour for our receipts to be made when we paid.

Later that evening, we ran into another guy from LA who was staying at our hostel. He said he had found out about a better, cheaper one that he was planning on switching to, and that he had gotten a refund. We looked it up and made reservations there, asking the manager to give us a refund after we had asked the grumpy guy first. Then the grumpy guy got angry at us because he had switched us into the dorms and now by leaving the hostel we were apparently insulting him. Basically, I’m glad that we’re moving hostels.

That really hasn’t soured my experience in Korea though. I don’t think anything possibly could. People are really nice here in a very different way from how people are nice in Japan, the food is tasty and cheap, and the city is full of energy. The fact that we don’t like the hostel has just made us stay out more, which I’m completely fine with.

More Osaka & Kyoto

July 20, 2009

This weekend I went on another trip to the Kansai region’s two most famous cities, Osaka and Kyoto, two of my favorite places ever. After taking a final on Friday which I did surprisingly well on, me and my friend jumped on the shinkansen to Osaka, followed by the Osaka subway, arriving at our concert venue just in time to see the Pillows. We got to the venue just as the opening act was starting. They were pretty good, a punky indie J-Rock band. The Pillows set was terrific, but not as crazy as I expected, and not as good as the Sparta Locals. But still good.

Afterwards, we headed to Spa World to wash away all the sweat from the concert and the hot day. This time men had to go to the Asia floor, which had all the same features as the Europe floor, just with different looks. There were two Japan themed spas, a Bali themed spa with a jacuzzi and saunas, a Persia themed one with saltwater, a middle-eastern one (with the unfortunately mis-translated name “Islam”) with really hot water, and a totally out of place one called “Dr. Spa” which was hospital themed. Kinda strange. But still relaxing.

We spent the night at Spa World, since it was cheaper and nicer than going to a hostel, and then went to the Peace Osaka museum before going to Kyoto. The Peace Osaka museum is, not surprisingly, a museum dedicated to world peace. A great purpose for a museum, but incredibly depressing. The whole museum was about war and the horrible effects it has. The first floor was all about the atrocities committed against the Japanese by Americans during WWII, and it made me think that the museum was a little biased. But then I changed my mind when we got to the next floor, which was about all the atrocities that Japan committed against the Chinese and Koreans during WWII. The final floor was a little uplifting but still depressing, essentially saying “It’s completely possible for world peace to happen, but it’s also completely possible for the world to be destroyed, either by nuclear warfare or global warming.” Despite how depressing it was, it was a very informative museum about things that everyone should learn about at some point.

When we got to Kyoto we were met by my friend’s friend and his parents, who were giving us a place to stay for the weekend. They’re from Sapporo in Hokkaido, but they were visiting they’re his grandmother in Kyoto, who had enough room in her house for all of us to stay. They were so generous and helpful, and we spent a lot of our time in the house watching Japanese TV and eating delicious Japanese food. Other than that, they took us to visit a few temples, and to an incredible meal at a traditional Japanese restaurant that one of their relatives ran. The restaurant overlooked a river and was surrounded by trees, and we had a multi-course meal of fish, eggplant, tofu, soba, and various other dishes.

On our way back to Nagoya today we took a series of various local trains, since it was the cheapest option and we were in no hurry. During the 4 hour trip back we passed through beautiful countryside and saw mountains covered in forests, as well as tiny farming villages in valleys. The Kansai region of Japan has such rich culture and is just so beautiful. Even the industrial looking Osaka just has a wonderful vibe and a rich, even tragic history. If I were to live in Japan again, it would almost definitely be in Osaka. Not only is it my favorite Japanese city, but it’s just an hour away from the beautiful, historic Kyoto. Kansai is the most varied region of anywhere I’ve been in Japan; you have a modern metropolis next to a historic city, both of which are surrounded by beautiful countryside. That’s why I love not just Osaka, but also Kyoto, and everything else I’ve seen of that region.