Finding Balance in Ireland

Words and Photos by Michaela Vitagliano, Visiting Student Blogger

Like many of you, I’m not someone that delights in change and its accompanying uncertainty. But naturally, deciding to study abroad for a year is a decision that is greeted with unknowns and uncertainties. After almost a full year here, I can definitely say most of my worries – Will I like Ireland, will I make friends, will I find things to do here that I enjoy – were for naught.

I still remember the first days I arrived here feeling overwhelmed by taking a bus into school each morning. Figuring out bus routes, times, and fares was an added stress to adjusting to a new culture and school system. Furthermore, having to have exact fare, and needing to flag the bus down was an added step from the transportation I’m used to back home.

There were even changes in academics. Registering across different departments in person, and running around to receive signatures from department heads seemed quite antiquated from the online registration I was used to. Finally, I was surprised at how little time I spent in class – less than ten hours a week, but how much independent study work in the library was expected. Thus the first month or so was largely trial and error.

But now that my academic year here is winding down, I have had time to think about the things I’ve learned and experienced. If it were to come down to one word, I think balance is something I have gained from studying abroad. And I don’t just mean from all the dance classes I took! I think being absorbed into a different culture, and having to constantly engage with it in all forms, is a huge difference from just needing to study in a university bubble in the States. When everything from friends to your laundry machine, dining hall to library is within five minutes away from your bedroom, it becomes easy to think you’ve mastered the balance of life. Study abroad, on the other hand, has essentially been a taste of what some call the “real world” with constant regard to planning, doing things outside of studies, networking, finding a job, planning a few meals, exercise time, and work time.

Photo 1

Travelling

What’s the point of studying abroad if you lock yourself in a library all day? I can find bookshelves anywhere, thank you. Part of my experience was knowing when to travel and when to hit the books. One major difference in Ireland and at Trinity from the States is that there is more downtime to travel, and less pressure to constantly be absorbed by classes. The first semester I was lucky to make use of Ryanair deals and travel around Italy, and visit London, Edinburgh, and Barcelona for the first time. Not only did I learn a lot about other cultures, but I learned a lot about myself – both travelling alone and with others. With classes on Monday and Friday in my second term here, however, I was relegated to taking weekend trips. So I did tourist hot spots like Giant’s Causeway, the Belfast Peace Wall, and the Cliffs of Moher, as well as other trips like experiencing Galway in the context of a dance competition and walking around Kilkenny for a weekend getaway.

 

L to R clockwise: Cliffs of Moher, Belfast Peace Wall, Florence, Kilkenny

Studying

For me, testing in Ireland is more stressful than back home because here, everything rests upon one essay or one exam. Unfortunately, I believe this system isn’t ideal, but there are efforts to update it, though, including Trinity’s Education Project. Back home, a few essays, a midterm, a final exam, participation, and homework assignments all count towards our grade. Of course this too has its flaws: extra work for no apparent benefit with little time for independent study, and a potential subjectivity to grades in the form of grade inflation or deflation. With both systems inherently problematic, it seems that Trinity is taking a step in the right direction by seeking middle ground.

Aside from these views, studying at Trinity requires a little bit of finesse. If the libraries are full, try study rooms (book in advance with two hours max), or the secret student common room on the fourth floor of the Arts Block. Additionally, the 24-hour library might be your friend, but because buses stop around midnight, you might have to find a friend to crash with or take a taxi home if you live outside of town. Since a lot of humanities courses require secondary readings, try to get your hands on those books first, and photocopy or take pictures of the pages you need if you’re not allowed to take the book out of the library. Finally, look at past exam papers and make sure you get some sleep. For an added bonus for coffee addicts: Kaph has some really great hipster coffee, Dolce Sicily does good Italian coffee and desserts, and Cake Café does a nice coffee with cakes.

L to R: Cake Café, the 24 hour library, Kaph

Fine dining and cheap eats

I came to Dublin with preconceived notions of boiled veg, lots of spuds and chips, fish, and overly burnt meat. To my wonderful surprise, I have found that Dublin is truly a cosmopolitan city. Indeed, I have eaten more Indian curries, Thai curries, and burritos here in Ireland than back home in Boston. I attribute this diversity of cuisine to my host family’s amazing culinary skills and to my student budget. While Dublin can be quite expensive for food, places like Boojum which gives you chock-full burritos for six euro, or Brother’s Dosirak which gives you a full Korean meal with unlimited free soup for 8 to 10 euro help balance out other costs. In addition, many upscale restaurants have pre-theatre deals – essentially 20 to 30 euro for a three course meal if one eats there between 5:30 and 7:00pm. This deal has allowed me the opportunity to dine at places like Luna, a fancy Italian speakeasy restaurant, and One Pico. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy my fish and chips at SMS with the student deal, or the occasional spud with butter, Irish bacon, and smoked salmon!

L to R: Brother’s Dosirak, One Pico, Boojum

Getting to know the area like a local while still being a tourist

Sure, there are places like the Book of Kells, Temple Bar, and the Guinness Storehouse. But after a week, Dublin can seem quite small. This is where I was thankful for a little local guidance. For instance, to watch tires and other miscellaneous things being set on fire, head to Dolphin’s Barn. For a much colder type of excitement, try jumping off of the 40 Foot and brave the icy Irish Sea waters. For a worldly bit of eye candy, head to Chester Beatty Library, a small free-admission library that houses manuscripts and miniature paintings. For a sturdier aesthetic experience, walk along the Liffey and note the various bridges, then continue on until you hit the Bord Gais Theatre. For a good dining experience, fun night out, or an expensive taxi fare, make sure to pass through Camden Street. And if you’ve got all the time in the world, take a jaunt in Phoenix Park and try to spot Bambi. Rumour has it that Michael D. might be wandering the park as well. Dublin is mad craic all together!

L to R: Beckett Bridge, Bord Gais, O’Casey Bridge

Making money in an expensive world

Although fees are lower here, studying in Europe can be more expensive than in America simply because those who study abroad also want funds to travel and explore. I think I’ve maybe gone to one museum and two movies during my studies back home, while here I’ve not only gone to concerts and plays, but travelled and eaten out. Part of the experience gained here is learning how to value money, and knowing ways to make money. First off, Penny’s, Tiger, and charity shops are your friends for cheap clothes and items. For food, I’d recommend Lidl, Tesco, and Aldi. For earning money, it can be hard to find a steady job in Ireland without some type of a connection.* I would still suggest printing a CV and walking into retail shop. Other options include Deliveroo, if you own or can ride a bike, and Movieextras.ie which signs you up for a part time job as a TV extra with RTÉ. I have gone to RTÉ a bunch of times now, and can only say that while it is easy money, you will be bored to death if you do not bring a book or something to keep you occupied.

Above: The bridge I walk across to get to RTÉ, and RTÉ.

Figuring out how to plan activities outside of school

With more time than I knew what to do with and the fact that I didn’t know anyone in Dublin, I was worried I would soon get bored. Instead, I realised I just had to actively plan what I wanted to do and see. Fortunately, Ireland seems to be the home of literature and theatre, so I’ve gone to the theatre almost every month here, and have dallied around bookshops such as Hodges Figgis, Chapters, and Dubray. I can certainly recommend any performance at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, and at smaller ones such as the Gate. I’ve also gone to movie screenings at Cineworld, Dublin’s “Imax” theatre, and at the very cool Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield. What else? Dublin is a music scene and with gigs on at 3Arena, The Academy, Olympia Theatre, and Whelan’s I have not been at a loss for my electronic, alternative, or rock fix. For some more knowledge, there are many museums around Dublin ranging from history to art to archaeology. For fresh air, there are James Joyce walking tours, historical walking tours, and pub crawls that one can all take part in. A favourite pub of mine is P.Mac’s, which is quite handily across the street from some good fish and chips.

L to R: 3Arena, James Joyce statue, P. Mac’s

Making friends in a new country

Fortunately, Ireland is such a small place that once you meet one person, you’ll end up knowing a whole town! Despite this slight exaggeration, it is not too hard to make friends here. As a study abroad student enrolled in several courses, while at first it was hard to meet people from class as they’ve known each other since first year, it was not impossible.  Tutorials (like sections) and study groups help students from large lecture courses meet and bond. Above all, however, getting involved in student societies (clubs) is a sure-fire way to make lasting bonds and create wonderful memories. Participating in the Lit Society was a great way to meet people and read new stories, while joining the Dance Society at Trinity was one of the best choices I made here. Also if you have a hobby that you like to do, Dublin is sure to have a group that caters to it. For example, I’ve made a few friends from doing Pilates at Trinity’s gym and from ballet classes taught once a week at a small studio.

Above: Out in Galway with the Dance Society

So all in all, Ireland has been a bundle of fun and learning. What has helped me understand exactly what I’ve come away with has surprisingly been my experience blogging. As some of you know, this is the sixth blog I’ve written for Trinity, and each time has given me a new opportunity to detail my experience and what I’ve learned from a new perspective, whether it be GAA and sports or Irish language classes. If you’re interested in studying abroad – especially in Dublin — I can only highly recommend it. I’m excited to go back to the States with what I’ve learned, but I’m more eager to return to Dublin to visit a city I have grown to love, and to visit newfound friends. And the next time I come back, hopefully I’ll have a better time mastering the bus system!

GA

*Editor’s note: Students studying abroad for a year are eligible to work up to 20 hours a week during term and 40 hours a week during university holidays, but students studying abroad for a single semester are not.

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