Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What It's Like to Be a Cyster

Five years ago this week, I was sitting in tenth grade geometry, pretending to learn about something I’m sure had to with angles and shapes. I say pretending because I was doubled over my desk in pain. So much so that I had reservations about being able to make it to the nurse’s office when the bell rang. How humiliating would it be if I had to crawl? However, I made it there with most of my dignity intact and laid on a cot for a couple hours while the women in the office that day murmured behind my back about a burst appendix.
Fast forward to that night and I was in the hospital because the doctors weren’t quite sure what was wrong with me. Yeah, that’s a statement that should send a flood of confidence through you, when the medical professionals are unsure. But after more tests (and learning I am indeed allergic to the lovely CT scan dye), they told me it was not my appendix and I would not need surgery. In fact, it was good news. I had a rather large ovarian cyst that had burst sometime around that early morning math class.
It was the worst good news of my life.
They gave unhappy sixteen-year-old me instructions to take Tylenol and drink lots of fluids and sent me on my way with no other words of comfort. Nothing to warn me that this wouldn’t be the last time it happened. Not a word about how I was about to go on one hell of a rollercoaster ride that probably wasn’t going to end until I was dead. Thinking back, I’m not sure I would want to break that to me either. Or, more likely, the doctors probably just didn’t know.
So I curled up in misery for a week, lamenting the loss of five days of school because back then, I was kind of a stickler for the rules and the worst thing that could happen was that I missed that big English test because I was too busy moaning in pain from this…thing. I didn’t like to say ovary back then either.
Then a woman my mother worked with sent her home to me with a strange acronym. Four letters that would change the direction of my thoughts forever, that would shape my life in impossible ways for the next five years and beyond.
You might know what it stands for. If we’re close friends, it’s possible I’ve told you about it once or twice but it’s okay if you don’t remember. Because even though PCOS affects 1 in 10 women worldwide, it sadly goes wrongly diagnosed, or even worse, completely undiagnosed until much later in a woman’s life. So you might know what it stands for but probably not.
It stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It’s a mouthful, I know. But if you look at it and break it down word by word (hello, English major), it kind of defines itself. Poly means many (think of a polygon; see I did learn something in geometry!) and cystic means cysts, which are fluid-filled sacs that can gather at different places in your body. Ovarian is just a fancy way of saying relating to a woman’s ovaries. All together it’s something along the lines of: many cysts on the ovaries, and then they throw syndrome after it to make it sound fancy and also because even though many women are working to change syndrome to disease, those medical professionals can’t decide what to call it, so syndrome it is.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Now that you know what it is, it doesn’t sound so alien-like, does it? So what is it? In a very simple explanation, PCOS is when a woman’s hormone levels are messed up. Messed up in ways that don’t allow their body to function in ways that a “normal” woman’s should. I’m not going into details about all the different symptoms because 1. There are many and each woman has their own unique mix of them and 2. Because despite you probably never hearing of PCOS, you can Google it (yes, just those four letters, you don’t even have to spell it out) and a pretty list of symptoms will pop up on your screen.
But I don’t really want to talk about the inabilities and flaws of my body. Sure, they’re there and I’m dealing with them, will deal with them my entire life in some way or another, but they are not what’s important, at least not today. Not for you to know.
I want to talk about the way PCOS makes you feel. Don’t roll your eyes – I can see you doing it – because I’m not talking about sharing our feelings in a group circle with refreshments afterwards. If you cringe away from the phrases such as “makes you feel” and “sharing our feelings”, then perhaps it’s easier for you to think of this post as a public service announcement. I promise you that my only intention of making this post public is because it’s time for people to know the truth. And I – like countless other women – are tired of hiding in corners, of being afraid or anxious when topics like this get brought up.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is not talked about and there are a couple big reasons for that that I’ve pieced together over the past five years. One is because this stuff is downright embarrassing. If you’ve done your Google search like a good little reader, you’ll know what I’m talking about. PCOS strips us of our femininity and god, if that’s not a bit shameful. No one wants to talk about extra hair growth or forty extra pounds that just showed up in the last two months. Not even me, writer of this very post. So people – women – keep their mouth shut and lie about what’s going on. Because not having your period for six months at a time is normal, right? It’s the reason that I spent years trying to hide the big blue pills I have to take every day from my friends, often going into the bathroom at restaurants to avoid questions. Which is stupid, isn’t it? Lots of people take pills; that’s the way our society works nowadays. My grandmother even has a special container that labels all her pills for her and tells her when to take them. So I should just get over it.
Except it’s uncomfortable because we’ve been taught that it’s wrong to talk about such personal stuff. There’s also that nagging suspicion that your friends and family aren’t going to quite understand when you tell them you might not be able to have kids (“Oh, wow. Uh, that’s too bad.”).
Reason number two is a lot easier to understand. It’s because lots of doctors simply don’t know what PCOS is, have never heard of it. Like us common folk down here in not-that-smart land, PCOS is unfortunately not talked about a lot in medical circles. That’s something that we, as a community, are trying to change and although it has grown in recent years, it’s still not near enough. Most OB/GYN’s have little knowledge of it (if they’ve even heard of it before). Lucky for me, I found a wonderful endocrinologist near my hometown who has been supportive and helpful (and knowledgeable!) from day one.
So back to our feelings (or the PSA, whichever one you prefer). Because this syndrome is not often talked about and also because it can be an uncomfortable topic to broach, this means that we with PCOS often get weird looks when we're forced to bring it up to people. Like that time I was at a spa with my roommate and one of the ladies gave me this completely disgusted look when I had to explain what the list of medications was for. It was humiliating and she made me feel like a bug beneath her ugly shoes. All because she didn’t understand what I was going through and that it wasn’t exactly my choice. As if I would choose this.
My favorite encounter was one that happened just this past Christmas break when an x-ray technician inevitably asked when my last period was. And my inevitable answer was a big sigh and then a mumbled “I don’t know, like three months ago? Four?” Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:
“And you’re not pregnant?”
“Are you sure?”
Wait, hold on, it’s all coming back to me. I just now remembered that one night back in September and oh god, you’re right! I must be pregnant!
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Big, disbelieving frown on her part.
“Well what other possible explanation could you have? Lying about it is not going to change anything and this could hurt a potential baby.”
Is this for real happening? Did she just say that? How much trouble would I get in if I punched her?
“I have PCOS,” I tell her bluntly, looking over her shoulder at the wall. “It’s polycystic ovarian -.”
This is the best part – when she cuts me off.
“Oh fine, you don’t have to explain. It doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter.
Oh but it does, I wish I had told her. It matters so, so much. Because it’s an invisible disease and you never know who could have it. Your sister, your mother, your best friend, that girl you slept with last weekend. Your wife, your girlfriend, your grandmother. This syndrome is not prejudiced against skin color or religion or lifestyle. And there is no cure. All we can do is manage our symptoms with a nausea-inducing cocktail of medicines that can take years to perfect.
It’s taken five long years for me to except my body the way it was made, imperfections and all. Five years before I was ready to acknowledge to the world that I’m a little different than the other 9 out of 10 women in my statistic. But I am. And now I know it’s okay.
I didn’t write this post out of self-pity. In fact, I would have been more than happy to never tell anyone ever again about my PCOS. But I can’t ignore it. Neither can you. I posted it because there are women out there who deserve to have the basic rights to their body explained and protected. I’m hoping that by telling my story, I can help get the word out about PCOS and the need to stop shying away from it.
I might never have had the courage to write this post if it wasn’t for the incredibly supportive online PCOS community who have changed my life in bigger ways than this syndrome ever could. And to them, I send a huge thank you for letting me know it’s okay to talk about it and that these are challenges no woman should ever have to deal with alone. Even if she feels like the one woman on Earth who drew the shortest straw.
You didn’t, honey. We’re out here, I promise.
I hope that you, reader, are ready to listen now too. And maybe – hopefully – I’ve convinced you it’s safe to open your mouth. This goes for all illnesses and disorders. Word of mouth is the fastest way you can help. Word of mouth and acceptance.
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. You’re already helping.

*To learn more about and/or find support for PCOS you can go here: http://www.pcosupport.org/symptoms.php

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Continuation of Barcelona, Spain

 I'm done apologizing for the late blogposts but if you want something to blame, blame the Irish weather which gave me tonsillitis. Between that and the plague earlier this semester, this country is wearing me out! That's why it was nice to get away to Barcelona although it's hard to believe I've been home for over two weeks!
This is follow up post to the one previous so if you haven't read about our first two days in Barcelona, go here. Then come back and read this one. Please.

So day three was Saturday, and once again, we dedicated a lot of the day to Antoni Gaudi, that famous architect I talked about last time. Perhaps the most famous work of Gaudi's is the Sagrada Familia, a magnificent church (not to be confused with a cathedral, I learned). The first thing we were told about the Sagrada Familia (of which I knew nothing about) was that it was a pain in the ass to get tickets the day of. The line is probably about half a mile long, no joke. So thanks to our hostel, we were talked into buying our tickets online early that morning and were able to escape the line that I had absolutely no intention of standing in.
The second thing we learned about the church is that it is giant. Looking straight up at the tallest towers made me dizzy, and they are still building more towers, taller towers. The building takes up about about a block in downtown Barcelona, unable to help drawing attention to itself by both it's giant stature and intricate design (not to mention the throngs and throngs of eager tourists surrounding it). My parents had suggested we pay up for the audio tour and boy was it worth it. It was about an hour and a half long and listening to the background of the church and it's design was rather soothing as you wandered inside the church.
Stained glass has always fascinated me and because the Sagrada Familia boasts almost floor to ceiling stained glass windows, I stood there for a while in plain awe. I'm not particularly religious. Raised Catholic, I attend a Jesuit school, but religion is still so abstract to me and the only thing I'm sure of is that there's a God out there somewhere and maybe a heaven. But let me tell you, as soon as I walked into that church, an incredible feeling of peace and content filled me. Maybe it came from God, maybe it was standing in such a majestic building, I don't know, but I do know it's not something I'm ever going to forget.

We spent a couple hours in the church before meeting up with our friend Eden, a fellow American who is studying in the Netherlands (and staying at our hostel). The three of us set out to find two of Gaudi's famous houses. Well that was the goal at least. Despite having two maps and asking directions about ten times, we ended up wandering around the Barcelona streets for a good two hours, learning later that we were walking in circles, about a block or two over from the houses (oops). However, the weather was warm, I was wearing good shoes, and I was with two friends. We stopped into a cafe to ask for directions and ended up staying for lunch. Of course once I saw the chocolate croissant things in the bakery window I had to have dessert first. Oh adulthood how I love thee.
After finally finding the houses (one of which was covered up: joke's on us), we moved on. Because we were running out of time and money we decided to do the tour of one of the houses at another time. That's coming, I promise. Just bear with me.
We made our way to the Arc de Triomf. It's literally just a giant memorial arc that was built in 1888 as the main gate for the Barcelona World Fair. It was nice. Very big. While we were there taking pictures, we bumped into Chris, another one of our new friends staying at our hostel (I bumped into more people I know in Barcelona than I do at home where I've lived for ten years). Chris just happened to be on his way to the Picasso museum which was our next stop as well.
Wow. Much impressive.
The Picasso museum (which boasts thousands of Picasso originals) is hidden away in the backstreets of Barcelona's Gothic District. There are pretty much no signs or anything but Chris had his nose to the map and he lead us there with little trouble. It was a little expensive to get in and the four of us were debating if it was really worth it at all when an employee came up and told us if we could prove we were students, we could get in for free. More free things? Sign me up!
So into the museum we went. 
I can appreciate different kinds of art. Obviously, I like writing. Music is awesome. Drawings and paintings and sculpture are all pretty great too. And there's no doubt Picasso was one hell of an artist.
It's just, as I went through the museum, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing something. A couple of the paintings really took my breath away, I admit it, but for the majority of them I felt nothing. I hope this doesn't make unappreciative of art and perhaps it's just a lack of any kind of art background but as the minutes dragged on, the more I wanted to leave. Just how much abstract art can someone look at without needing a drink? Answer me that.

It was getting dark (and cold again) by the time we left the museum and us girls split off from Chris and headed to the gigantic park that boasted an impressive fountain. I wish we had been able to go back when it was warmer and lighter out because this place was seriously cool. And filled with hippies. It was like throwback thursdays on steroids (and if you don't know what a #tbt is then bless your heart). Groups of people were just sitting on blankets and playing guitar and smoking and singing while their dogs roamed around. Slack lines are also a phenomenon in Barcelona, I guess, because they had dozens set up around the park. If you don't know what a slack line is then you must not have an older brother who is a personal trainer that brought one home a couple years ago. It's basically a six inch wide and however many feet long strap of nylon that gets strung up against two trees. Then you try to walk on it. So, like a tightrope, but easier. Or easier in theory; they are still difficult and take a ton of practice to master. It was funny to watch the little kids on the ones about a foot off the ground and even funnier to watch all the hippie guys with dreadlocks fall off the ones seven feet from the ground.
After wading through the dogs and picnickers, we located the fountain which wasn't hard because it was about as big as that arc. Okay maybe not but it's one of the bigger fountains I've seen and the water was so clean! We spent a little while goofing off there before heading back for the night.

Continuing on with the adventure, let's move on to day number four. Don't worry, it wasn't as busy as the last few because we finally had some time to relax! Yes, you know what's coming, don't you? The famous Barcelona beach! But first let's hear how Sarah and I stumbled upon an authentic Spanish festival/parade.
The two of us were actually on our way to go take a ride in the cable car over the harbor (which we didn't end up doing) when we passed his interesting looking market. It was a line of stalls that sold everything from herbal, homemade cough drops to raw chocolate to empanadas to carved wooden utensils. We were perusing when we heard this noise from behind us and realized that there were just a few hundred too many people lining the streets for this to be normal. We went to go stand with the crowd and witnessed one of the coolest experiences ever. I can't really explain the costumes and the energy that surrounded the parade with any sort of accuracy so let me just leave you with some pictures.

Sunday was by far the warmest day so surprise surprise when we found ourselves laying out on the beach. There were guys going up and down the beach selling things like beer (and one ambitious fellow: crack) and Sarah snatched up a printed sheet/blanket thing so we could lay on the sand. Oh and lay we did. We laid on that sand all the up to the point where a Spanish lady came by asking if we wanted a massage. I shot straight up and said yes yes yes I do want a massage. Right here. Now. 
So Sarah and I ended up getting massages on a beach in Barcelona and it was beautiful. A cathartic experience really. Want to see a picture?

Two happy and stress free girls!
Not much else happened on Sunday except that we went out with the hostel and friends to an Irish pub for drinks. I know, I know, an Irish pub in Barcelona? You're supposed to be getting the Spanish experience, Marie! But we just couldn't help ourselves and it felt like home. Except that the drinks in Ireland are better, because man the Irish know how to handle their alcohol like no other!

*Deep breath* Okay here we go onto the last full day of our trip: Monday. To be honest we were pretty exhausted by this point, having been up late every night and out and about all day long so we kept it pretty simple. During the day, Sarah and I went back to one of the Gaudi houses, Casa Batlló, to take the tour. What was nice about this tour was that the audio tour was included in the ticket price. Plus we got to skip another long line by getting our tickets ahead of time from the hostel!
The house was impressive. There's not a single straight line in the makeup of the house (remember how Gaudi liked curvy things?) except in the attic. I was most intrigued by the courtyard and decided then and there that I would like a courtyard one day. One with mosaic art all around made for me by a famous architect. A girl's gotta have standards.
My other standards include a winding staircase that leads up to a rooftop adorned by more beautiful music art. Boys, take note. 

Front of the house

Open staircase. The walls are meant to represent water

That night was our last night in the great city so we treated ourselves to a nice dinner. We started off with strawberry daiquiris followed by some pink hummus (who knew?) on toasted bread and finished with the best goddamn burger I've ever had. Just the right touches to end an amazing trip.
I understand now why Barcelona is such a popular vacation spot but no, Dad, I still don't want you and Mom moving there for retirement!

I'll be back for you, Barcelona <3

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Barcelona: The First Days

Two white girls walk into a bus station at two in the morning with sunglasses on…
It sounds like the beginning of a joke you don't want to hear the end of, but six days ago it was my reality. About two weeks, my roommate asked if I wanted to travel to Barcelona, Spain with her as plans with another friend fell through. I hemmed and hawed about the decision. The flight was a lot of money. I would have to miss a lot of class. I had a big paper due the day we came back. On the other hand…Spain meant sun.
For those of you in the US being held captive by winter storms and for the those of you in Ireland being driven insane by the relentless rain, you understand why sun is a big deal. It's well…warm. It's like being wrapped in a blanket without all the annoying fleece fuzzies sticking to your clothes. So I agreed to skip classes, write the paper the day before, and who really cared about the money in the long run? It's why I worked my butt off last summer at 5:30 in the morning making all of Hunterdon County's breakfast sandwiches (you're welcome).
So fast forward to that two in the morning bus trip. We stayed up all day and night packing and shopping and being excited. That excitement lasted all the way into the first fifteen minutes of the bus ride before I fell asleep. Awake at around four-thirty to get into the airport, through security to our six-thirty flight. The flight that I also slept through. All I remember is the annoying flight attendants going up and down the aisles asking if anyone wanted something to drink. The first few times it was nice but you'd think they'd get the hint when people start pointedly looking in the other direction when they stopped by.
Unlike last time, my luggage was on conveyor belt and we went on our merry way to a cab. Before we could get to a cab though we had to go outside and that meant palm trees. Everywhere. I stared up in awe; we don't have a lot of palm trees in Buffalo and Ireland. Or Jersey. Now that I think about, all those places could use a few more palm trees.
Our hostel was about a fifteen minute drive from the airport and I wasn't sure what to expect because I've heard such different things about hostels. Some are terrible, some are okay. My brother assured me I would hate them because I'm a little spoiled I wasn't used to staying in one. I would like to point out that it was not the case at all! This hostel was clean and the staff was friendly and helpful. We were in the biggest room (nine bed co-ed) in order to save money but it ended up being a great decision because we made friends from all over the world. Almost all of us those first couple days were American but many were studying abroad like Sarah and me and it was neat to get to see different perspectives.
For those of you who have never stayed in a hostel, it's a pretty simple setup. Tiny rooms with a locker for each person. That's it. We had an attached bathroom with two showers and two sinks because our room was large but the other bathrooms were in the hallways of the floors above us. In the basement, there was a small but cozy hangout spot with a couch and dining table, along with a TV and a couple computers with crappy wifi. But at least we had wifi.
Because we couldn't check in until two (it was only about ten-thirty), we dropped off our luggage and explored a little. And by explored, I mean we got lost. Hopelessly lost. Even armed with maps that my parents sent me from their trip to Barcelona, we wandered down to the harbor and couldn't find our way back. So we just walked around for ages, admiring the buildings, the people, and yes, the palm trees. Being in a big city again was a bit of a shock because we're used to Galway which is more like a large village than a city even though it's the third most populated place in Ireland. Barcelona was more along the lines of New York City but with wider sidewalks and much older buildings. Everyone had their laundry out to dry on the balconies so walking down the streets kind of felt like walking through a Disney movie. I would have started singing but my jaw was down to my knees as I took in everything, from the little kids playing soccer in the street to the butcher shops with hunks of meat hanging from the ceiling. It was as if no matter how many times I turned my head, I couldn't see everything that was going on.
After stopping to pick up some snacks, we finally found our way back to the hostel and checked into our room. Next on my list was a shower and a nap, which felt so good! That night we hung out around the hostel, eating pasta that they made for us (who can say no to a three euro dinner?) and playing drinking games with some other residents in the hostel. Then we slept.

Day Two:
I have to admit we slept in a bit on Friday, our first full day in Barcelona. Once we got outside (in the sun!!), we met up with Sarah's friend, Taylor, who is studying in Barcelona for the semester. After grabbing lunch (coleslaw and sausage: a weird combination), we headed to Parc de Guell (Park Guell). I'm sure many of you don't know who Antoni Gaudi was but Barcelona is pretty much dedicated to him. He was a famous architect who designed the Sagrada Familia, a huge Cathedral was started in the 1800s and still being constructed. He also designed several houses in Barcelona and had influence in Parc de Guell (where he also lived for a number of years). He is famous for his innovative use of natural light and curves in his architecture. Much of his work is influenced by nature and more specifically, water, so a lot of it has a wavy feel to it. Some of it literally: the walls in one of the houses curl like waves.
Anyway, we spent the whole day in the Park, walking through the never ending paths with little idea of where we were going. Like I said, the Park is home to Gaudi's house where he lived with relatives toward the end of his life. We paid the admission price to go inside the first two floors and inside, they have pieces of furniture he designed on display. I watched a mini-movie on the different pieces that explained how he would design furniture for a specific person by building it around the said person. So if you like to sit with your arm slung over the back of the chair, he would cut a little nook for your arm so you would be more comfortable. It's an interesting concept.
The Park was high up in Barcelona and boasted incredible views of the city. There's a part where you can climb on this little castle/chapel rock thingy so that when you get to the top you have a 360 degree view of the city. Aside from the sun and the palm trees, we were also excited to see cacti. Loads of it. It's so eye-opening to travel to a place outside your comfort zone. The most similar place I've been to Spain is Cancun, Mexico and trust me, it was not that similar. In Cancun, they speak the kind of Spanish I learned in high school. Not so much in Barcelona. Although many of the Spanish speak broken English, many of them also do not, so I had to do a lot of lip-biting and remembering back to when I was fifteen and not paying attention in spanish class. And also a lot of gesturing and saying never mind.
We were standing in line to see one of Gaudi most famous works (a mosaic lizard and also some curvy mosaic benches), when an employee came up and told us that in another hour, this part of the park would be free. Yay for free! We went and got something to eat before coming back and snapping some more photos of this lizard. It probably would have been more impressive if I hadn't been so darn cold. Apparently once the sun leaves, the it gets cold. So the most exciting thing for me were the vendors selling scarves. I didn't even try to haggle like you should in Barcelona because my teeth were chattering for me to do anything more than point and nod at the thickest scarf I could find.
The hostel we were staying at does scheduled outings at night and so we ventured off with them when it got dark to go see the Magic Fountain. Let me just say that the pictures of the fountain are almost more impressive than the show itself. It's just a giant fountain that lit up and spurted water to music. It belongs more in Disneyland than it does in Barcelona. It was cool for about two minutes but I couldn't help thinking how much better it would have been if I had had a couple drinks beforehand.
After being underwhelmed at this magical fountain, we all headed out for tapas. Tapas is something that should be a thing in the United States but it's not. It's basically like eating a bunch of appetizers for dinner. You go out to a Tapas Bar, pick out five or six of these little treats. Things like a slice of pork with honey mustard. A biscuit with jelly. A coconut fried shrimp. You can pick as many as you want and they are delicious and easy! You eat until you are full and then you're done; so simple!

Since this post is getting long, I'm going to wait and do another for the rest of my time in Barcelona. Stay tuned for the next installment in the travels of this writer!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Not a Fan of Starfish and Turkish Delight

It's been a while! It's already February 24th and that means that I've been living in Ireland seven weeks from tomorrow. Wow. Half the time it feels like the days are dragging (seven weeks isn't that many, right?) and half the time it freaks me out there we hit the midway point in our academic semester. Last week. Yeah, you read that right. Classes here only go until the first week of April. 
We've been keeping busy with every day life in Galway. Our newest mission is to try as many little cafes and restaurants in Galway as possible. So I'm trying really hard not to drift to my favorite haunts (even though I spent two hours on Sunday reading at my absolute favorite lunch spot). Sarah and I tried out a French Creperie on the way to school one morning and it was delicious! We also splurged and bought ourselves a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant. I had this fancy pizza with feta cheese and sun dried tomatoes and it was the closest thing to American pizza I've found so far! I may be half Irish but the Italian part of me is so not impressed with the food here.

Of course we were starting to feel the effects of all this eating so we searched out a local gym and signed right up! Sounds pretty average but it's grown to become one of my favorite parts of living here. I'm used to running five days a week so giving that up for five weeks was difficult! But now I'm back on track and enjoying the nice hot showers the gym has.

On top of that, I finished up a novel I've been working on during our nights in. And during class. And early in the morning when I can't sleep. So all my writing creativity has been geared toward that and this blog has been neglected. The first draft is all done though, so there should be much more time for blogposts in the future!

On Friday, Sarah and I ventured to the Salthill Aquarium, which was about a mile and a half from our apartment. It was my first time in Salthill and it definitely isn't the city! It's catered to beach tourists, especially during the summer months. It's filled with condos and B&Bs and rich people. God granted us a miracle and though it was windy on our walk over, the sun was out and the sky was blue. The Aquarium is supposedly one of the largest in Ireland. I'm not an expert on Aquariums but as far as I could tell it deserved the title because there were a shit ton of fish. Like, it got to the point where I was excited to see the Kelp Forest because it wasn't fish. And they weren't cool fish either, but brown and gray fish with the creepy eyes. There's no need to look at me like that, buddy.
Still, it was neat to do something different and they had other gross things like eels and lobsters so the day wasn't a total loss. Not to mention the billion starfish. We headed over to the starfish pools with all the little kids to listen to some young, hot marine biologist tell us how messed up starfish are. You think I'm kidding but these things are no joke. You can hack them into little pieces and they will just multiply. Remind you of anything? Hydra, guys. Hydra. And we all know how badly that could have turned out if Hercules wasn't around.
Starfish = evil.
On our way home, we walked along the beach just in time to be pelted by the lovely Irish rain I've come to hate more than having slow wifi. Still, all the seashells were pretty and it was great to be out in a wide space instead of cooped up on the streets of the city. By the time we got back we were wet and cold so we stopped into a cafe called Sweetie Pies that we've been wanting to try. They're known for their decadent cupcakes and yep, they were good! 

Touching the butt!
Kiss anyone?
Bloodthirsty little things.

On Saturday, Sarah and I decided to take a trip out of Galway and headed for Athlone, which is situated in the middle of Ireland. We're taking a class on the Development of Castles and during last week's lecture, we talked about Athlone Castle so we thought: why not take a trip there? There's something to be said for living in a country where you can wake up on Saturday and decide to go visit a centuries old castle. 
Athlone is located right on the River Shannon (we have the River Corrib here in Galway) and had that small town feel. That and a lot of shoes sales. Every time we rounded a corner, there was a shoe store begging for us to come in and spend money. Good thing we have iron will power. We marched right past those sales taking with us only crumbling hearts and full wallets. 
Our destination was Athlone Castle which was about a fifteen minute walk from the bus station. The castle was impressive; you don't quite understand how big these things are until you're standing at the base and realize your neck is craned all the way back just to see the turrets. There has been little renovation done to the outside but the inside was made into a state of the art museum. We wandered around the museum for about an hour, reading all about the history of the castle and the town (uh, there was a war, and uh, people died). They had fun things to do too, like playing the Irish version of the Oregon Trail. I only killed two hundred of my men (the trick is to make sure they have plenty of beer) and stormed the castle without the enemy taking over. Go me. I was a little more impressed with the actual sword I got to hold. Man, I have got to get myself one of those. I felt powerful just looking at it.
We had this one little hiccup to an otherwise pleasant experience. There was this older lady who shadowed us the whole time, repeatedly warning us not to touch anything and not to take too many pictures.
"Girls, a few pictures should be enough."
"Just make sure you don't touch anything."
"What did I say about the pictures?"
Did she think I was going to sell them on ebay? All I wanted was proof that I held a sword. 
If I thought I needed a babysitter at twenty-one, I would have brought my own. Along with a flask because man, she was annoying. We managed to ditch her after she corralled us into a theater to watch some movie about another war. ("Just go in here, girls. I'll shut the door for you, okay bye."). 
After the castle, we had a couple hours to kill so we headed back into town to look for food, stopping first at a old-fashioned sweets shop. We don't have many of these in the States but they are everywhere in Ireland. You just go on and there are a million kinds of candy behind the counter and you pick and choose what you want. I wasn't going to get anything until I spotted Turkey Delight (from Narnia, duh) and we sweet-talked the lady into pretty much giving us two pieces because we're American's and don't know what it is and would really like some. Want to know what I found out?
Turkish Delight is disgusting.
If I didn't like Edmund before, I certainly don't now.

With my sword. 

For lunch, we followed a sign that read Beans & Leaves and pointed down little alley. And that, ladies and gentleman, is where I found Heaven.
Beans & Leaves boasts healthy organic food from simple ingredients and my god, it was wonderful. For lunch, I had fish and chips (french fries) with a cup of tea. The fish was golden and flaky and melted in my mouth and the french fries were honest to goodness french fries not the weird kind they serve here. So yeah, lunch was good. But dessert…it was on a whole different level.
All lunch I was seated facing this colorful, attractive dessert blackboard that was just watching me. So I did what any other good, salivating customer would do and ordered myself some dessert. Because I'm trying new things, I opted for the Apple and Almond Tart.
Guys, I can't even explain it to you.
It was like a wonderful cloud pastry that didn't even taste real. Let me put it this way: it was so good, I would pay thirteen euro for a bus ticket just so I could get it again. There are baked apples on top and some kind of apple crumble filling with toasted almonds and powdered sugar over top. I'm still thinking about it two days later. 
After that, we walked past the shoe sales with our eyes tilted toward the skies so as not to be tempted and hung out at the bus station until our ride home arrived. 
So that's what I've been up to. Going to class, eating food, and going to the gym. Oh yeah and visiting ancient ruins and learning about man-eating starfish (okay there are no man-eating starfish…that we know of). I'll try to update sooner next time!
Apple and Almond Tart with a spoon of whipped cream.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones…Wind and Hail Might Kill Me

Hello again!

Now that I'm mostly recovered from the plague, I can get back to blogging about the good stuff! Last weekend was the first time that we got the chance to explore outside of Galway. We love our city but it was time to get to adventuring! So the three of us (Sarah, Lauren, and myself) booked a two day tour to see the Cliffs of Moher and Connemara.

The first day, the bus left at 10:00am so we all begrudgingly got up on a Saturday morning, skipped the farmer's market, and headed to the bus station. After a few turnarounds, we realized the station was just around the corner and let me say that the bus station here in Galway was so nice. And so clean! I detest the Buffalo bus station with it's shoddiness and grossness and unsafeness so I was delighted to find this was not the case over here. Keeping with the usual, the people who worked there were helpful and accommodating and quickly got us on the right bus.
So began our journey.
I know you guys in the States are having some serious weather. Trust me, I know. None of you will shut up about it on Facebook. It's cold, it's windy, it's cold, it's snowing, it's cold. I get it. But you have not felt wind until you bus is shaking back and forth on the side of the cliff as you drive next to the ocean. 
Our first stop was to Ailwee Caves. By now we were high up in the Burren (even though they told us it was the lower part). The Burren is a region of the land that is covered in limestone, sparse in population, and very beautiful. Well, I imagine it was beautiful; I couldn't see much out of the rain-streaked windows. Back to the caves.
           My childhood claustrophobia came back the second I walked into the dark entrance and the iron gate closed behind us (was it really necessary to close the f-ing door?). It took all my energy not to turn around to Sarah and Lauren and go Guys, what would happen if this whole thing just caved in?
You would die, Marie. You would die.
Some Irish dude discovered the cave in 1940 when his dog chased a rabbit into it. Thinking that this miles long hole in the side of a mountain wasn't a big deal, he kept his mouth shut until 1975 when some British cave-lovers came by and that's when he revealed the big secret. The coolest thing was that there were 2000 year old Irish Brown Bear bones just lying there. Next to a big indentation in the cave dirt floor where the bear slept. Again, I had to stop myself: Hey guys, what if the bears aren't really extinct?

Toward the end of the tour, the guide announced she would be turning off the lamps that lit the wall and that all cellphones should be turned off and put away. Is everyone okay with this? she asks, as if a bunch of college kids are going to say they are scared of the dark. Pssh, I’m not afraid.
If you’ve never been victim to 100% darkness then I envy you. Keep it that way. It was the craziest and most frightening thing I’ve done in a while. Here I am, standing on a rickety bridge over a ten meter drop into a cave and I couldn’t even see my hand waving an inch in front of my face. Of course, my basic instinct was to curl up in a ball and cry and wait to die but then the lights came back on and as the trembling subsided, I realized it had only been about thirty seconds.
No big deal or anything but at the end of the tour, the guide said she would not be accompanying us out and gave us the type of directions all good Irish give (go left here, then right, then straight for a bit, then left again. You can’t get lost!) But we got out and jumped back on the bus to head to the rock thingy.
I’m still not sure of the rock thingy’s significance or purpose. I do know that it was some type of monument and that a guard stood outside at all times to stop people from lighting bonfires beneath it. Stupid people. Then I got outside in the ferocious wind and the rain and I thought, Actually, a bonfire wouldn’t be a bad idea.

By this time, we’re starving and tired and just been told that the Cliffs have closed due to the 75 mph winds and the bus driver was sorry, but we couldn't go. Ugh, whatever, I thought, lamenting the loss of my thirteen euro. We pulled into this small town to eat at a pub and found no less than four other tour buses parked outside. Everyone else had the same idea. Instead of taking us somewhere else, the bus driver gave us forty minutes, lined us up, fired the gun, and off we went, to battle for a place in line for food.
Seeing that I have no luck anywhere I go, we were last in line, and stood for forty-five minutes, praying and hoping that the bus wouldn’t leave without us. Note of interest: someone came up to me while I stood in line and was like "Oh my god!" It took me a second to realize it was a girl from high school. In New Jersey. And here we were in the same tiny pub in Nowhere, Ireland. Life is weird. The bus didn't leave without us and we ate out of take-out containers on our knees while sitting on the bus. It was still the best food ever. After living off of egg sandwiches and tuna melts for three weeks, the pasta and three different kinds of potatoes tasted like heaven. I wasn’t even mad about the thirteen euro anymore.
Our driver decided that even though the weather was dangerous, he would drive us to the Cliffs and we could go in the back gate. Great.
We hit the wind head-on as we get off the bus. Of course we were walking straight into it. We kept getting blown to the side and backwards and forwards and basically had no control over our bodies. Which is why that rock barrier along the Cliffs was so important. In the pictures, it looks cool and in person it is cool but we were just not at the best angle and time of the day and the sun was right over the Cliffs in our eyes so we could only see dark outlines. Not to mention, we were getting tired and it was getting easier for the wind to knock us around. Back to the bus.

Our last stop was to the mini-cliffs. I’m not sure if they have a real name or not but everyone just calls them the mini-cliffs. The actually Cliffs of Moher are about 700 feet high and the mini-cliffs are half that. Still, the ocean was shooting up spray over top of them and one of the waves caught us when we weren’t looking! It was a much better view though and probably my favorite part of the trip.

Day Two.
            This time we picked the later pick up time at 11:30. Thank goodness! We weren’t really sure of what we were getting into or what the attraction was but we were game for anything!
            Turns out we traveled from Galway to Connemara, which boasts some pretty impressive mountains. The driver kept stopping and letting us out to take pictures. Don’t get me wrong, but, uh, all the mountains started to look the same. Wow, yes, impressive. Let’s move on.

            We got to the main attraction, Kylemore Abbey in the afternoon. I was in Ireland during summer of 2009 and as we rounded a corner and caught sight of the Abbey, something about it seemed so familiar. The castle is breathtaking, one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen while being here so far. And I was sure I’d seen it before. A chat with my mom the next day confirmed my suspicions: we had driven by the Abbey almost five years ago.

Take note, future-husband-wherever-you-are. This is what our house better look like.

            We got some lunch and perused the souvenir shop until two which is when we bought our tickets to get into the Abbey. I know Kylemore also has some impressive gardens but we didn’t get a chance to see them (this time) so I won’t be talking about them. But the castle enough was incredible. Sarah, Lauren, and I spent a lot of time inside, reading everything and taking too many photos. From the 1920s to 2010, Kylemore was actually a girl’s boarding school, so there was a lot of information on it during those years. Me, a total history nut, was in nerd heaven as I imagined all the girls who had come and gone over the years and all the history the castle held within the walls. Because we had a bit of extra time, we decided to make our way to the Gothic Church (no, that’s really what it’s called). It was cute and old and historic. Outside was a graveyard where all the previous nuns were buried (ten still live in the Abbey).

The real adventure began we tried to walk from the church to the bus because it started hailing. Ever been caught in a hailstorm? No? Let me help you out.
It’s like being pelted with rocks. In Ireland, where the rain blows sideways and not down, it was like being pelted in the face with rocks. And even though we had our scarves up, covering our faces, the rocks hurt. Not to mention I couldn’t see and was really hoping not to fall in the lake we were walking next to. Wouldn’t that just be the icing on the cake? The three of us were shouting promises to God the whole way, negotiating our grades, our vices, our first borns, anything as long as he would make it stop hailing. He must have heard because the hail stopped and the torrential sideways Irish rain started up right on cue. I imagine God sitting up on this throne in hysterics, Hahaha, Marie, I don’t want your first born. Only you will be able to handle that creature.
We made it back to bus, faces stinging, completely drenched but also exhilarated. There’s just something about walking through a hailstorm that brings people together. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep on the bus ride more than once, wet hair and all.

It was definitely a weekend to remember, between the wind and the hail and the rain. So I know it’s cold at home folks, but hopefully my suffering makes you feel a little bit better. At least I have some cool photos to show from my struggle!

The lake in front of Kylmore

Inside Kylmore

Signing the guestbook! So exciting!

Gotta love the rolling hills.


White girl mirror selfie!

*Reminder that you can make the pictures larger by clicking on them.