Sunday, April 29, 2012

3rd Quarterly Report

I thought I'd share here what I just sent to the Watson Fellowship Office. Again, you might recognize some parts of it pulled from other blog posts, but let it at least be a summary of where I've been and where I'm heading.

April 28, 2012

To the Watson Fellowship Office,

Hello from Dublin! The unrelenting rain of the last few days has given me the impetus to stay inside and write this. I hope this finds you well and enjoying a spring that is somewhat warmer and drier than the one I’m currently experiencing in Ireland (although I must admit that after so many months in hot countries, it’s kind of a relief). 

When I last wrote, I was in Copenhagen on a week-long hiatus from my research in Germany.  There, I learned where my father gets his taste for rye bread and licorice and, for the first time in my life, was surrounded by people who pronounced my last name correctly. I met many of my Danish relatives (who had only been names in my mind up to this point), came face-to-face with my grandfather’s grave, and found it to be a restorative and thought-provoking week, as well as a trip that added to my understanding of my own name.  

I returned to Germany, this time to Berlin, to continue my research. I had many questions left from my first few weeks outside of Leipzig and was eager to have more conversations about the legal regulations for naming a child, as well as the phenomenon of “Kevinismus”, a term Germans have developed to describe the relationship between the kind of names chosen by parents and these parents’ socioeconomic status. Compared to my methodology in some other countries, I was able to conduct my research in Germany in a fairly conventional way. I met with a few people at the Freie Universitat of Berlin and also had the opportunity to attend a few parent/child classes with a friend of a friend and her one-year-old daughter to talk to the namers and the named there. Despite the unusually low temperatures, I enjoyed wandering around Berlin’s streets, attending a few events at the annual Berlinale film festival, and taking in countless museums and cups of cappuccino. 

On my twenty-third birthday (in between project countries #4 and #5), I flew to Istanbul to spend a few days with my sister.  It was wonderful to have some “vacation time” to explore that beautiful city, and most of all, to spend time with my sister and celebrate my birthday with someone who has known me since the day I was born. 

I then made a home for myself in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. While in Zambia, a family of missionaries living outside of Petauke who had serendipitously stumbled across my blog invited me to stay with them for a few days and learn about names in the Eastern Province. I had the experience of talking with many of their students (all Zambians and Zimbabweans training to be pastors) about the names of their children, cultural traditions, and the differences between Zambian tribes. Sitting with forty Zambian men over lunches of nshima (a thick maize porridge you eat with your hands), and talking to them about names, America, and why I wasn’t married yet, is an experience I won’t forget anytime soon. While in Zambia, I also traveled south to visit the majestic Victoria Falls and had the opportunity to come face-to-face with the recently-won African Cup of Nations.  I took advantage of a rainy season discount and spent a few days on safari in Kafue National Park. 

In Lusaka I hired a research assistant, a first of the year. Levis helped me with language translation, introductions, and just generally being someone I could walk around with in places that would have been very difficult to visit on my own.  Though Lusaka was not my favorite place in the world, I learned an immense amount there and, by the end of my stay, was able to compile a list of names from several different Zambian tribes that are given to babies to describe the circumstances of their birth (my favorite being the name, “Tikambenji”, which is given to baby who comes as a surprise, and means in Bemba, “what is there to say?”)

It was difficult to leave Zambia because of some of the close relationships I had formed there, but I was also ready for some cooler temperatures and coffee that wasn’t instant. I spent a couple nights in London en route from Africa and got to project country #6: Ireland, on April 13th. I’ve now been in Dublin for exactly two weeks and have five weeks left in Ireland before heading to my final project country: Iceland. (I’m sure you’re hearing a variation of this in all of the quarterly reports this time around, but I can’t believe I only have one more country left after this).  

I’ve decided to spend my time in Ireland in Dublin, Belfast, and Galway (meaning that I’m technically adding Northern Ireland as a project country, I suppose).  I am greatly enjoying Dublin for its literary history, cheap student theater tickets, and being surrounded by so many people who like to talk. So far I’ve found that my interviews about names here lead to conversations about family, language, history and politics, all woven into one. I’m mainly looking at how names play a role in identity politics in Ireland as well as religious conflicts up north. 

Although every place is still new, and it’s hard to ever feel prepared for what awaits me around the next bend, one major unknown--the unknown of if I can do this, and do it happily—has vanished. I think less these days about how I should be spending my time this year, and more about how I want to.  I think my major challenges for the next three months are trying not to think too much about my return to the U.S., and also the logistical task of making the meager remains of my stipend work in the two incredibly expensive countries of Ireland and Iceland.  (There will probably be a lot of ramen noodles involved). 

This year has affected me in some ways that are more tangible than others. I’ve become a better map reader and my spatial orientation has vastly improved.  Because of the variety of keys I’ve held in my possession, I’ve become very good with locks. I have learned words in new languages and a whole slew of facts about history and politics and religion that were previously foreign to me (literally). I have learned time and time again that one of the main disadvantages of being alone is no one to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom, but this is more than made up for by one of the main advantages: never having to share dessert.  Because of this year I will be a better (and lighter) packer, a more adventurous eater, and a more entertaining person at cocktail parties.

But the experiences of my last nine months have also instilled in me many things that feel much, much bigger and that are much, much harder to articulate. At this point in the year, it is hard to avoid thinking about what awaits me when I return home because at this point my plans are nonexistent. I’ve been joking with friends and family that thinking about applying for a job in the east coast with an English Literature and Theater degree feels more daunting at this point than being a young American woman traveling alone in India does. I am beginning to brace myself for the inevitable, “So, how was it?” question, and trying to figure out how I will (literally and figuratively) unpack all that this year has been into my life at home. 

What I can say with certainty is that this year will somehow, inevitably, be brought back with me because it has become a fundamental part of who I am. What the last months have instilled in me beyond these tangible skills can only be described as a system of beliefs. In my last quarterly report, I talked about how much of this year has been about finding my own throughline—figuring out who you are is inevitable when the streets and people are constantly changing around you. Figuring out how to be a chameleon and adapt to all of these unknowns, while simultaneously learning what you need in order to feel at home there has made me feel somewhat invincible. It’s not a naïve, fearless invincibility, like the kind that leads teenagers to drive too fast on highways, but an invincibility that comes from realizing the world is small once you know how you can contribute to it. It comes from realizing your own power to connect with people, whether it is the Zambian man in the N’gombe compound who perpetually referred to me as “mzungu” (white person), the older couple in Mysore, India, who will hopefully keep calling me their child for the rest of my life, or my friends from college as we figure out how to communicate long-distance and as adults. 

No matter how many plane rides I take, there is still a sense of magic about the idea. I can’t quite fathom how it’s possible to be so many worlds away, and that in a matter of hours inside a small space, you can arrive somewhere so different from the place you left. I can’t believe I’m lucky enough this year to act as the throughline between places, and to learn how to do so. There is an invincibility that comes with the knowledge that I can land anywhere and find what I need. This landing could be disembarking from a plane, but it could also be a landing from more metaphorical fall, falls that I will most likely, inevitably face throughout my life. This year has taught me to recover from these landings, to be patient with myself, forgiving, and fearless. It’s taught me that connecting with other people is what the world is made up of, and above all, it starts by discovering your own power to do so. 

With gratitude and appreciation. See you in August, and thank you, thank you, thank you.


Nell Bang-Jensen





-Outside the Sansoucci Castle in Potsdam, Germany.
-With my birthday "cake" in Istanbul, Turkey.
-With the African Cup of Nations in Livingstone, Zambia.
-On the edge of Victoria Falls.
-On a microlight flight over the falls.
-On the side of the road in Zambia's Eastern Province.
-Taken in downtown Dublin. 
-In Howth, Ireland, a seaside suburb outside of Dublin. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nine Month Watsoversary

This morning it was warm.
That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it wasn't pouring rain, and I could get away with wearing just a sweater.
(While shivering, just a little bit).
It was like Ireland was at least attempting to be spring-like. 

It was spring-like enough for me to put on my new red out-of-Africa dress and walk to the Botanical Gardens. I wandered around, trying to think about what I should write in my third quarterly report but mainly thinking about how in the world it's possible so much time has passed that I'm writing my third quarterly report. 

My Watsoversary photos vary a lot. Most are taken quickly, in the privacy of whatever room I happen to be staying in. (This is mainly because of time, but also because setting up a camera and photographing myself holding up any number of fingers in a public place would be more than a little embarrassing). My surroundings are constantly changing in them, but I am too, in visible and invisible ways. My clothes change, my body's changed, my hair has been long, then short, and now an awkward in-between. There are some photos where the number of months loom large, and some where it's kind of an afterthought. This feels fitting. There are times this year when I am, literally, counting down days, and there are times when I don't remember that I'm on a timeline at all.

Now is one of those times. It's as if because I know home is just around the corner, I can stop thinking about it so much. I am going to try, as much as possible, to treasure these last three months--to focus less on the numbers, and more on the gardens.

In the past month I have:
-Gone on safari.
-Watched multiple African sunrises.
-Had a tailor in Kwambala Market make me a sundress out of a Zambian chitenje.
-Visited Kafue National Park.
-Been woken up at 4am by a hippopotamus.
-Compiled a list of Zambian names from five different tribes. 
-Received a Turkish water blessing while driving away in a taxi.
-Ridden a bike for the first time all year.
-Been the closest to home than I've been in nine months (geographically).
-Completed my time in all of my project countries outside of Europe.
-Had a proper British afternoon tea.
-Visited Shakespeare's Globe.
-Picnicked in the park.
-Eaten fish and chips (more times than we need to count).
-Set foot in Ireland for the first time in my life.
-Learned the proper protocol for drinking Guinness in a pub.
-Watched Dry the River perform at Whelan's Pub in Dublin.
-Seen four plays.
-Incorporated the words "dearie", "love", "feck", and "grand" into my vocabulary.
-Gained a better understanding of Irish history and recognized the anniversary of Easter Rising on April 24th with a trip to Kilmainham Gaol. 
-Climbed the cliffs of Howth.
-Reinforced my love for Farmers' Markets.
-Learned to stop making weather predictions and always carry a raincoat. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Name Post: Names in Translation


In my introduction to Irish names, I wrote about how in the Irish language it often takes more words to get to the same meaning in English. I wrote that Go raibh maith agat” is the equivalent of “thank you” in Irish, but it literally means “may you have a thousand good things.” What I didn’t mention, however, is how this actually translates back in context.

In Dublin, what you hear far more than “thank you’, is “thanks a million.” People say “thanks a million” to bus drivers, they say it to waiters (“This looks grand, thanks a million.”), they say it when people hold doors open for them. Today, most people living in Ireland speak only a few words of Irish. It's something they've learned in school and have since forgotten. Because of this, I don’t think you can argue that “thanks a million” comes from translating “may you have a thousand good things” in their minds. I like to think that this is what their ancestors did, however, generations ago, and that somehow, after wishing someone thousands of good thing in Irish, a simple “thank you” did not suffice. 

Translation is a messy process. I'm wondering what exactly the translation of “Go raibh maith agat” would be? Do you argue that the translation is “may you have a thousand good things”, or “thanks a million”, because that is the English equivalent that is actually being used? When you switch languages, you are often switching much more than that—geography, cultural contexts, differing lifestyles and sentiments. 

In Ireland, names seem to undergo frequent processes of translation. This translation clearly takes place in roll call at school, when children’s (often English) names are read under their Irish equivalents every morning. As I mentioned in my last post, poets and artists today are often engaged in an act of translation as well; using Irish name equivalents on their work as a political statement. 

It’s not a new idea here. For years under the Penal Laws, people were not allowed to give their children Irish names, so all documented names were Anglicized. This didn’t prevent people from using Irish names at home, however, so John would be Sean and Margaret would be Máiréad in their parents' mouths. (Funnily enough, this is not dissimilar to in Zambia, where I talked about how there is a history of floating names that aren't documented but that are frequently used).  I find it interesting that while historically, people would have Anglicized versions of their names on documents and use Irish names at home, in contemporary Ireland it's almost the opposite; school children answer to Irish names but most use English names in all other contexts of their lives. 

What I’m thinking about now,  however, is whether these names are actually translations. Is John an actual translation of Sean, or is it how the name sounds when on the tongue of a native Irish speaker? Is this all that a translation is, after all?  And if we say that Thomas is a translation of Tomás, and Jean is Sean, is it a stretch to say that Aoife is Eva? Where is the line in finding a translation, and finding a separate name altogether?  
Furthermore, there's a difference between equivalents and translations. I recently read a brief article about this translation confusion in Ireland, which shows how these questions get more unclear when looking at names’ Latin origins as well ( They use the example of “Charles” to demonstrate this. An Irish Charles will probably have been called “Cathal” at school (the Irish equivalent of Charles), but in the Irish language, when people talk about historical figures like King Charles, they use “Searlas” as the equivalent. Katherine, the author of the article, went back to the Latin roots and found that Carolus and Cathaldus are two distinct names. Cathal isn’t really Irish for Charles, but it’s the name chosen as the English equivalent. I wonder about the children of immigrants in primary schools here and what happens when their names are translated to Irish. Are their names left untranslated, or do they go sound by sound to try and find Irish equivalents?

It reminds me vaguely of being in in fifth grade French class and learning (to my delight) that we could choose “French names” for ourselves. The class ended up being divided into people whose names could be vaguely French already (Michael would just be “Michel” when the teacher pronounced his name, “Madeline” could keep her spelling and gain a new pronunciation). And then there were the Zorabs and Justins and Tyrones who just needed to choose something new. And the Nell, who, rather than choose a rough translation like “Helene” or something along those lines, she wanted to be something exciting, like “Nathalie Pascale” or “ Charlotte Sophie.” (Nell soon realized that no one ended up actually using those names beyond the first day, but it brought her great comfort to write it on the top of her papers). 

Iarfhlaith told me a story last week about his friend who was once stopped by the police. He gave them the Irish version of his name, which he had taken to using, and the policeman wouldn’t take it. “That’s a nonsense name,” the policeman said. “What’s your real name?” 

Translations are political and personal. Most people here still do have English versions of their names on passports and birth certificates, whatever they choose to go by in their daily lives, and there are stigmas attached to them, particularly in Northern Ireland.

I’m starting to believe that, like “hygge” in Danish (look it up: and the classic "schadenfreude", names are words that simply can’t be translated. I think this might be because it is not really words that create the definitions of names, but people. A Michel isn’t a Michael, not really at all, and I think there is a world of difference between John and Sean. In times past, names used to be translated more frequently than they are today, I think. I'd guess this because this year I've found many examples of places where there used to be more (or stricter) laws governing what kind of names people could and could not have. 

I wonder if it is actually a beautiful and unanticipated benefit of globalization that names are earning their own right.  It is undeniable that names still have certain stigmas attached to them, particularly in a global context. And, as Iarfhlaith's story shows, there are still people who unabashedly call some names "nonsense names", even names that originate from the very country they are standing in. But I like to think, and want to think, that maybe we're moving to a place where a name is a name, without translation. 

It might be the difference between saying thank you, and saying it a million times over. 

(Speaking of globalization, Blogger informs me that this week the majority of my readers are in the U.S. and Russia. Anyone care to explain how that happened?) 

Monday, April 23, 2012


If I ever decide to marry for money (I've accepted that with my English/Theater major I'll never have much of my own), one of my first orders of business will be acquiring property in Howth.

On a day that started out sunny, I took the train out to the suburbs. Howth (rhymes with “both”) is a popular weekend excursion for Dubliners, offering castle ruins, cliffs, hiking trails, and delicious seafood. If you look on a map, it’s that little blob off the Irish coast.

The blob above does not adequately express how beautiful Howth is. It was cold and windy, and I walked along the water to a nearby lighthouse, watching seagulls and boats, and getting near to Ireland’s eye, a tiny little island off the coast. The town is made up of seaside houses that can't be described as anything else but quaint, and cliffs that seem to fall straight out of the pages of romantic classics.

It was a day of discovery and a reminder that this country that I’ve landed in is, actually, an island.

And it is beautiful.
Will you forgive me for repeating myself when I say that I am beginning to love this place? (Yet another place?) Because I am. Really, quite a lot.

How could you not love this, really?

Let's say that it's not because I like everywhere I go, but because I chose my countries wisely.

It's been a few days of somewhat inexplicable joy, wandering around Dublin and its outskirts. I was skyping with Sara, the Watson Fellow I met in Ubud, Bali, the other day, and we were talking about how sometimes the best way to describe how we're feeling this year is full. Things feel epic and big and emotional, and the smallest things can affect us in such huge ways, while things that used to feel so big matter so little now.

This fullness means that I spend a lot of this year tearing up at inopportune moments (I've already written about my tendency to cry on airplanes), and smiling at things that aren't funny. I teared up the other day watching parents and their teenage daughter saying goodbye at Trinity College, and I couldn't help but grin while jogging in Griffith Park last night (and I don't even like to run). But sometimes things just feel too perfectly aligned this year. I feel so full of all the newness made familiar, and it feels too big to be contained in me. It comes out in tears or smiles when I'm least expecting it, and perhaps because of the bigness that is this year, the small things it is composed of are more than enough.

The last few days have been full of small wonders--discovering a Saturday Farmers' Market in Temple Bar where I could buy pesto and fresh mozzarella, choosing a favorite Dublin street (for the record, it's Cow's Lane in Temple Bar, mainly because it's covered in cobblestones and features not only a pie place called Queen of Tarts, but also the beautiful Gutter Bookshop where employees have handwritten opinions and summaries on little index cards next to each book). I've been having toast for dinner to save up for student theater tickets, trying to work on my own Irish accent, and taking advantage of the rare pockets of sunshine.

There's enough love to go around.

Here's my current song for happy. (With hand claps). Turn it up.

I'm also putting this picture in, a picture that was taken almost exactly a year ago on one of Swarthmore's sprawling lawns. I'm putting it in just because it looks eerily like the image in the video for the song above. And it's of people who make me happy.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Name Post: Introduction to Ireland

Every place has history, but some places, more than others, have people who tell it. I’m finding that Dubliners like to tell their histories and names are often entangled in them. One Irish woman I met the other day joked that Irish people like to talk a lot because in the Irish language, it takes more words to get to the same meaning. “Thank you”, for example, is “Go raibh maith agat”, which literally means “May you have a thousand good things.”
Taken at the National Botanical Gardens, a ten minute walk from where I'm staying.
There is an industry of names here. There are “houses of names” on almost every street downtown; a fact that delighted me until I realized they were only focused on surnames and family crests. Coming to Ireland to “trace your roots” is a common tourist attraction, and one I can sympathize with. There’s is a Nellie Mitchell on my mother’s side who was originally from Belfast and moved to the United States upon learning her family arranged for her to be married to a 30 year-old, cigar-smoking man when she was only 18. My dad’s mother was Helen Nolan, with a given name that also lends itself to Nell, and another Irish surname.
Inadvertently, I’m learning quite a bit about surnames. I hadn’t known before that the “Mac” preface to names means “son of”, or that technically, instead of “Mac”, women would use a different prefix and have a different surname. An Anglicized name like “McDonell”, for example, would have originally come from something like “Mac Dhomhnaill” in Irish, meaning “son of Dhomhnaill.” The daughter of Dhomhnaill would go by “Nic Dhomhnaill.” I’m also learning that a lot of names we think of as Irish can be traced back further, and are not technically from Ireland. The last name “Fitzgerald”, for example, actually comes from the French for son, “fils”, so it’s guessed that it’s a Huguenot name that ended up here.
I’ve asked a few people if a family of McDonnells in Dublin today would actually go by “Mac” or “Nic”, and essentially have different surnames within the same family, or use the anglicized McDonnell for all. Whenever I’ve asked anyone this question so far, they always mention roll call.
In most Irish primary schools today, the roll call is consistently done in Irish. This means that children’s names are all translated. At school, if not at home as well, Mary McQuaid would be Máire Nic Uaid and Patrick Casey would be Padraig Ó Cathasaigh. In this way, the schools take on a sort of nationalistic project with these names, even though most often passports and birth certificates have the anglicized versions.
There’s a lot surname translations and naming rules that can be found online and are written by people who understand this much better than myself. (This short and sweet summary is quite helpful, for example: What interests me more, however, are the contexts in which these names are used, and that, for example, whenever I’ve asked if these traditions are followed, every Irish person I’ve spoken with brings up the memory of roll call. I want to hear more about given names, because in that department, more than with surnames, people have greater choice as to what is passed on. (Let this be my official disclaimer to "pass" when it comes to the vast and historical Irish surname front).
The River Liffey
Although there are probably few families left who are using different last names for the different family members according to Irish tradition (Mac v. Nic, for example), Irish given names have seen a resurgence in recent years. I think part of this resurgence owes to the choices made by contemporary Irish writers and artists who are choosing to use their Irish names in their work. For example, I recently learned that one of my all time favorite poets, Medbh McGuckian, was actually born with the given name “Maeve.” Supposedly she started using Medbh, the Irish version of her name, when her university professor, Seamus Heaney wrote her name that way when signing books to her. (Just one of many historical/onomastical*/literary/beautiful stories that all seem to be tangled up in each other on this incredible island).
Parents are echoing this sentiment and beginning to use Irish names more and more now. In fact, I learned the other day that giving Irish names to babies is so “in” here right now, particularly among wealthier communities, that people often mock the trend, putting on snobby voices to pronounce names like Niamh (pr. “neev”) and Iollan (pr.”ul-an”).
That said, statistics show it's a small trend. When I looked online at the top names in Ireland in 2010, only two of them, for girls and boys, are what I would think of as traditionally Irish. One, “Sean”, has also taken on international popularity, but the other I could tell was traditionally Irish because I had to ask someone how to pronounce it: “Aoife” (pronounced “Ee-fa” or “Eva”, there is no ‘v’ in the Irish language) was #10 for girls.
Giving children given names is a relatively recent trend. (Several people I've spoken with have mentioned they think it started up around the 1970s). Under the British Penal Laws, Irish language, as well as Irish names, were banned. Because of this, when modern parents are looking for traditional Irish names today, they’re often going many many years back to Gaelic and Celtic mythology.
It isn't just the British who are responsible for the dearth of Irish names in Ireland, however. As I’m finding is true with most things here, religion also plays a large role. For a long time, the Catholic Church in Ireland wouldn’t baptize a baby unless it had the name of a saint. Because names are often passed on through generations here, today when you meet people who bear the names of saints (Bernadette, Bridget, or Mary, for example), you can guess that they’re from a Catholic family. This means that names, even given names, are large indicators of religion. In a country where this can mean quite a lot, names have become directly linked to conflict.
One woman told me that there are a few people who have Catholic names but who are actually Protestant. She told me that many of these conversions to Protestantism happened during the potato famine. Some Protestant churches were giving out free meals to help people during this time, but in exchange, they asked for them to convert from Catholicism. She told me that it may just be a rumor, but today people with Catholic names who are actually Protestant have relatives referred to as "soupers"; people who swapped their religion for soup during the famine.
I am slowly figuring out the right questions to ask here, and how to ask them carefully. I'm finding that names are caught up in most things, to the point where they're almost taken for granted; from the joking term "soupers", to the fact that the slang word Protestants call Catholics, "Tadhgs", is used because the boys' name "Tadhg" is so popular among them. These are things that are probably second nature to most people living here, or really anyone who has taken an Irish history class, but words and terms I am just figuring out how to wrap my clumsy American tongue around.
I'm lucky they're beautiful sounds to learn to say, and sounds, as the shop down the road will gladly tell me, that are part of my own history.
The information above has been compiled through several conversations I’ve had over the last week, especially my conversations with: Irafhlaith Watson, a sociology professor at UCD (his own name is pronounced “ear-la”, which has to be one of the loveliest boys’ names I’ve ever heard), Paulina, my Dublin walking tour guide, and Peter Joseph Holden, whose wife runs the self-catering apartments I’m staying at--a man whose brain I pick about Irish names whenever I see him painting the gate outside my apartment, only after he asks me (daily) if I have an Irish boyfriend yet.
*I might have made up this word, but I figure if onomastics is a word, onomastical definitely should be.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What A Pint of Guinness Taught Me

I have never been a particularly patient person. I like resolution and I like certainty. As a child I would get into epic, teary battles with my family members. There were slammed doors and silent treatments, but my stubborn passions would be quelled instantly at bedtime. I would never be able to sleep without profusely apologizing until there could be no shred of doubt in my mind that things were entirely patched up. Resolution always won.

I have too little patience with myself, especially. After so many months of travel, I think I secretly expect that I'll arrive somewhere and dive into deep conversations with strangers; that I'll be privy to family stories and naming secrets and become an integral part of these strangers' lives.


I'm finding the need to remind myself that though time is marching on, each place I visit is still brand new.

I had my first interview about Irish names at UCD (University College Dublin) this morning, but there is the diminishing but pervading sense of guilt that I should be doing more on my project. How can there not be, really, when someone gives you a gift as big as this opportunity?

I've been doing a lot of thinking, particularly as the big 3/4 mark looms near. A student reporter from one of Swarthmore's newspapers just e-mailed me wanting an update on how the year has been. It all feels just too big to say.

One thing she asked was what advice I'd give to future Watson fellows, and what I will say, although I can't seem to say it to myself all the time, is to have patience with yourself.

Last night I was feeling aimless. I had spent a day wandering around art galleries and exploring Dublin but couldn't justify how this related to my research or what I was doing in Ireland in the first place.

The woman who manages the apartments I'm staying at keeps talking about a pub with traditional Irish music on Wednesday nights. Finally, around 9:30pm, cabin fever and guilt became too stifling. I walked down the road for some music. I sat there and listened (instrumental Irish with some Cat Stevens thrown in), and I couldn't help but smile at the fact that sitting alone in a pub can feel scarier than finding my way around southern India.

I made a big cultural slip. I've made many this year, most of which I'm probably still not aware of. This time, I took my Guinness off the bar before I had let it settle. The barman informed me of this and told me I should put it back, let it settle, and then he'd "top it off." I blushed and put it back, feeling the judging stares of all these old Irish men in the pub watching the Barcelona soccer game; men who I imagined had learned to let their Guinness settle decades ago.

I thanked the bartender, picked up my glass, and found a table. I tapped my foot and people-watched and drank my beer. I settled. And then, when I was ready, I walked home in the dark and a light rain fell.

This year is about researching names, cross-cultural comparisons, and independent study, but it's also about learning to be alone in a pub at a table for one. It's about recovering from cultural slips, and knowing they'll be stories for later. It's about having patience with yourself, letting go of guilt, and about waiting for things to settle.

I just forget that sometimes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Ha'penny bridge

A lot of cities around the world have a "one city, one book" program. Unlike in most cities, however, in Dublin, you see this book everywhere. It is on posters advertising the initiative and in the front of bookstore windows, but most tellingly, it is in the hands of countless people on public transportation. Dubliners like to read, and this year, they're reading James Joyce's Dubliners.

My street in Glasnevin.

"The Dubliners" is also the name of what might be Ireland's most popular traditional music group. Dubliners is a book, a band, and most people walking the streets outside my window. For a few weeks, I'm joining them. I'll be in Dublin for two weeks before heading up to Belfast on April 30th (after that comes Galway).

I've spent the last few days getting acclimated; visiting tourist sites and learning the bus system and all of those other processes and errands that manage to fill my first few days in a new place. Now that I've gotten the lay of the land a bit, I think I'm managing to find my favorite hidden places to return to and have decided to ignore a lot of the tourist sites. This might be because at this point in the year, museums and old churches have lost their appeal a bit, but mostly because of the price tag. Ireland is an expensive place to be (despite its economic woes), and I'm having to make some hard choices. I don't think Iceland will be much better, and it's a bit sad to me that I left my two most expensive countries to this point in the year, when my budget is rapidly diminishing. Things are fine, but I'm having to make some tough choices (Is seeing a page of the Book of Kells really worth 9 euros?)

Trinity College
Christ Church
Ha'penny bridge
Bachelor's Walk
Henry Street
Dublin Castle
St. Stephen's Green
St. Patrick's Cathedral

I'm lucky that nooks and crannies are easy to discover in Dublin, and I'm learning that sometimes the places you would expect to be the least interesting have the best stories. It's a very compact city and I can walk pretty much everywhere I want to go. I'm staying in Glasnevin which is on the outskirts of the city and is home to Dublin's biggest cemetery. I took a tour of the cemetery the other day which gave me a thorough historical perspective on Dublin by an elderly man who said things like, "He was a lad of eighteen summers before he was hanged in the war..."

To get oriented, I also succumbed to doing a walking tour of the city. It ended up being a one-on-one tour in the rain, by a guide who was enthusiastic and undaunted. She asked what I was researching and ended up giving me a pretty comprehensive tour of Dublin names. She epitomized the stereotype of Irish friendliness, and I'm finding that most people here do. Conversations tend to be peppered with "love" and "dearie", with a fair amount of congenial swearing thrown in for balance.

People here like to talk and their city is made up of stories. There's the Irish revolutionary named George King who was captured by the British during the Easter Rising and was told to give them his last name first. He obediently told them he was "King George," a name that didn't make the British particularly happy. I like this story mainly because every Dubliner who has told it to me has laughed hysterically in the telling of it.

I learned the story of the Dolls' Hopsital, which was a Dublin institution for over fifty years and then, due to the poor economy, was going to close last year because it couldn't afford rent. Dubliners who had grown up taking their teddy bears and dollhouses there for repair raised enough money to move it to a new location and keep it open.

There is the story of the Italian immigrant in the George St. Arcaade this morning. I bought a loaf of bread from her and found a new friend. There are stories of Viking histories, and buskers playing fiddles and Davy Byrnes for a gorgonzola sandwich.

For an English Major, my lack of knowledge of Joyce is embarrassing. To remedy this, I have joined the ranks of Dubliners reading Dubliners and am going to Glasnevin cemetery next week for a lecture and reenactment of one of the stories that was based there. Because I'm a dork. And it's free. (You can take the girl out of Swarthmore but you can't take the Swarthmore out of the girl).

I'm waiting to hear back from a few people to set up some interviews and discussions about Irish names, but in the meantime, I'm perfectly content with these nooks and crannies; with being a temporary Dubliner.

*Apologies that most of the photos above aren't terribly pretty. Ireland's gray skies & rainy nature have not been as photogenic as I would have hoped.