I must preface this entry by explaining how and why I found myself in Tuam in the first place. I wish I had an exciting story, but I don’t. My study abroad program really wants to make sure that their students get a proper taste of Irish life during their time overseas. This is usually a good thing, resulting in GAA matches and knowledge and castles. Other times it means a sample of real life in the rural West, that fabled “homestay weekend.” I was less than enthused. The prospect of escaping to a foreign land and finding myself either ensnared in house rules or drowning in the drool of someone else’s squirming children seemed rather unappealing. I like living on my own. I’ve been doing it for a while. I just want to buy my own groceries and forget what day the garbage is collected and be a real life adult, okay?! “No,” sayeth the Arcadia gods. “Not this weekend. This weekend you’re going to Tuam.”
My first night in the West went a bit differently than I expected. I pictured myself rolling into the quintessential Irish village, with wee Irish children and glossy Irish setters chasing after the wheels of my carriage, as the entire population don identical chunky cable-knit sweaters and wave from atop their respective herds of sheep. The children and dogs jump upon me as I disembark, yelping and slobbering in such equal measure that I know not from whence the slime on my hands came. With a sack of potatoes in one hand, a pint of Guinness in the other, I walk into revelry of fiddles and penny whistles. Cacophony. The children marvel at my exotic tongue, shrieking with delight as I say word after word after word in a bizarre American lilt. The adults jabber to one another in brogues I cannot understand, minding curious liquids and unknown meats spitting angrily into open flames. Tempting. A young dairy farmer far too dark and mysterious and single for his own good notices me among the rabble. We lock eyes. I take a sip of my pint without the head leaving behind a foamy moustache, thank God. He rolls his woolen sleeves down, revealing elbow patches well-worn from hours spent at a desk reading classical literature by candlelight. Ink on the hem. A writer, perhaps. No, a poet. I drop my copy of Ulysses, casually held in most social situations just in case I need to woo via dropping now that handkerchiefs are out of fashion. A climactic thud. Quiet. Slight breeze ruffling the pages. But his forearms stay warm. Suddenly, dusk! ZOOM IN ON HIS FACE. MY FACE. BACK TO HIS FACE, ONLY CLOSER THIS TIME. Pan out. Silence. We are silhouettes against the setting sun. Radiating chivalry, he saunters over to retrieve the book, brushing dirt off of the cover while making some joke involving dust jackets that I laugh at regardless of how humourous it actually is. A pause. He proposes. Yes I said yes I will yes. He gets the reference. Panorama. He leads me back to his farm atop the cow of my choosing, feral children and dogs nipping at my heels once again, where I obtain free cheese and a marriage visa and a happily ever after.
None of that actually happened. On the last Friday of September—I know, I know. This is long overdue—I arrived in the thriving metropolis of Tuam (pronounced “tomb”) in Co. Galway, a Podunk little town with a surprising number of Irish families who let foreign students live in their houses. The three-hour journey west was lovely and scenic, with the occasional crumbling castle along the motorway sending squeals of delight rippling through the recycled air of the coach. Despite the general mirth, I could not ignore the visions of Nilbog flitting through my mind. (It’s Maut spelled backwards!) And the fact that my family was the last one to arrive, leaving me waiting expectantly in the middle of a deserted car park with no penny whistles or sheep in sight, served only to enhance them. I figured that this was the part of the story where they would kill me and hide me in a bog. Or if the gods were feeling kind, I would simply be forgotten and instead spend the weekend gallivanting around Galway. Gaillimhvanting, if you will.
Well, they eventually picked me up and I’m writing this now so obviously nothing bad happened. My flatmate, Ellen, and I made our way to a quaint country cottage about 5 kilometers outside of the town. We were warned about Irish people being a bit quiet at first, but weren’t really concerned. I can handle quiet people. They are fun. I just keep talking at them until they learn that I am not going to stop being loud until they say things back at me. Eventually I extract every last drop of conversation from their introverted little souls and feel quite content with myself. Friend acquired. I did not realise, however, how different a beast the Irish reserve is. Being plopped into the lives of random strangers for a weekend is always a rather awkward situation, but one does not truly know awkward until one eats dinner in silence before spending the rest of the night watching television. Apparently The X Factor is a big thing over here. Like, it is what everyone talks about. All of the time. I do not own a television, let alone watch it, but if I did, shows like The X Factor would not be my first choice of programme. But as luck would have it, tonight was a very special night: the premier of The American X Factor. And we were going to watch it. Contain your jealousy.
Ellen and I did not want to be rude—curse that Minnesota within the both of us—so we sat there and endured the horrors of Eastenders and Coronation Street, two English soap operas (Yep.) that no words can describe, before the three hour premier of The American X Factor. Could we leave? Could we sleep? Is this what life in the west of Ireland is like, filled with nothing but the doldrums of reality television?!
These questions remain unanswered.
The next day we ventured into town, which was actually a much more interesting place than the view through our coach window let on. We were able to see pretty much every thing on every street in two hours, with some of the highlights being the ruins of a13th-century church just sitting in the middle of everything; a quaint bookshop that didn’t sell anything by Joyce despite having his name on the window outside; the cathedral, where we took great joy in trespassing on the archbishop’s private grounds; and a wee mill. This mill is apparently the only preserved corn mill in the West of Ireland. I would know more facts if I had gone to the museum that all of the signs pointed toward. But there was no museum. All I wanted was a museum. IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK.
On our final day we took a long walk around the “neighbourhood,” which really does not feel like the right word at all. Most of their neighbours are cattle and sheep, who were quite friendly, greeting us with vapid stares and the occasional bleat. And O, the rolling green hills! I felt like Jane Eyre. Or whoever else traipses around lush countryside in their spare time. Here is a picture, since words cannot describe how beautiful Ireland is:
Once the initial awkwardness subsided, the rest of the weekend quickly filled with good conversation and plenty of cultural quirks. Jumping into the life of a native family was an extremely positive experience overall, and I would recommend it to anyone studying or living in a foreign country. And if the inevitable warmth, kindness, and generosity of a local family isn’t convincing enough, then at least go for the food. I must say that I ate some of the most delicious meals I have ever consumed over the course of those few days. Saturday’s dinner was bacon*. JUST. HOME COOKED. BACON. With potatoes and cabbage and some mystery sauce that made the bacon EVEN MORE DELICIOUS, if that’s even possible. And the next morning? A full Irish breakfast, God’s gift to mankind. Which also included bacon. I should have taken pictures. If there is one thing homestay taught me, is it to never underestimate the power of a home cooked Irish meal. Or televised singing competitions.
*The Irish are quite fond of bacon and produce it in many different forms. This thrills me, and I have made it my quest to try them all. I shall divulge my findings in a later entry about food.