I am a Speck

FB_IMG_1457514094169    Often times, as tiny people on a big planet, the world seems unjustly overwhelming. We get so bogged down with problems, and snags, and hitches, and tragedy, that we feel like there is nowhere to go except under our covers. We bury our heads in the sand, we isolate, we brood, and we wait it out to try and make that feeling pass. I recall overhearing conversations between my dad and grandpa,

“She’s depressed. She needs to see a therapist.” They would agree and I would just listen, never going to therapy and never wanting to speak about my problems. As far as I saw it, what was a third party going to tell me that I didn’t already know? I was depressed, I missed my mom, I had PTSD, I wasn’t suicidal, I was binge eating, I was sad, lonely, frustrated, emotional, numb, regretful, angry, grieving. I knew everything that was going on inside of my head, inside of my soul, and the last thing I wanted was to hear it repeated back to me. I was twenty-one years old, and less than two months earlier, I watched my mom succumb to the damages of alcoholism. I grew up only to watch her suffer more and more, year after year, and feel increasingly helpless and she became increasingly more destitute of hope.

After her passing, more than anything, I wanted to escape. I was living between Massachusetts and New York, driving countless miles, finishing my bachelor’s degree on time, and wondering if life was worth it anymore. I felt singled-out, small, and useless. I felt like I was out of my body, floating above my friends and family, jaded and undeserving of the “normalcy” they all seemed to possess. It was like the sensation of drowning, without being granted death. I longed to just run away, back to Oxford, back to an unfamiliar place to make me find myself again, and as if it were an omen, my best friend Candice entertained the idea of traveling to Portugal.

Eighteen hours of travel and limited sleep mattered very little when we arrived at the empty resort in the empty resort town. I liked the isolation. I liked the solitude. I was with my friends but part of me wanted to stay alone. I wanted to get lost in the streets, and sit in cafes and exchange eye contact with people I would never see again. We walked up and down the piers and beaches, drinking cappuccinos and eating traditional food. Quickly, we were acclimated to the slow and steady drum of that coastal ghost town.

One morning, walking towards the beach, we noticed a sign, and a beaten down foot path. When we could have gone straight down to the water, three of us hooked a right and, single file, began walking. We didn’t know where the path was going to take us, and we didn’t know where we were going, but we could see the whole oceanfront from where we were, and the sun was high and the breeze was inviting. We passed old leaning trees, towering succulents, and rigid dips in the cliff-side. The view was amazing. The ocean – so blue – and so massive from where we were. I strained my eyes as far west as I could, but I only found the bend of the horizon. My friends and I stopped to take photos, inspect the flora, and snoop around fences of houses lucky enough to line the cliff. We walked for what seemed like hours, as if we were headed towards that bend I kept looking to. Red clay dust kicked up, and the earth switched from dirt to grass to tree covering. On the far side of the trees was a large opening, and a sign warning us of where the ocean tore into the cliff, telling us to stop; we didn’t have to go further.

I looked at the midday sun illuminating the world before me. Seagulls perched along the rocks, and I was jealous of them to not have the luxury for myself. I breathed in the salty air – the air that tasted like home. In that moment, I felt like a speck. I was so overwhelmed by the size of my surroundings, I was so far away from home. And yet, I was breathing in the same salt air, and standing under the same sun.

53 Kinds of Cow

Candice and I took our next international adventure in September of 2013 throughout the hills of Ireland and Scotland. Upon our return from Portugal in November of 2012, our flight home was cancelled and we were forced to stay over an extra night in Dublin. We fell so in love with the accents alone, that the day after returning to the states, still jetlagged and marginally broke, Candice threw a trip for two to Dublin on her magical American Express card.

“Are you on Expedia? Yeah? OK, I’ll check Kayak.”
“A castle.”
“What?”
“We can stay in a fucking castle in Dublin for ten days and it’s $1,400 each with the plane included.”
“Give me the link.”
We flew Aer Lingus on the way home from Portugal, and when they had to cancel our flight, the airline was beyond accommodating, and refunded our flights for the 600 Euro it would have cost normally to fly home. An extra $728 in the bank made us a little cheeky in our plans, and within minutes Candice and I had European takeover 2K13 in the books via Skype conference from our kitchens.
We had some extra money leftover, which is why Scotland was thrown into the middle of our excursion, as well as a side trip to Limerick, about a two hour bus ride from Temple Bar in Dublin, to have lunch with my friend Christina. She and I met at Bridgewater State when I was a junior in college and she was visiting for a semester as an exchange student. We played rugby together for a short amount of time, and shared an Irish Literature class. Christina was tough, had a raw sense of humor, and enjoyed whiskey, which made me believe that yes, every Irish resident must like whiskey. Which later proved to be true – at least at UL.
We arrived on a soggy Tuesday afternoon, tired and excited to be greeted by Christina and taken to lunch. Coffee and a lamb cheeseburger with rosemary steak fries….college food. No wonder she complained about our cafeterias so much. Candice and I toured UL – the gyms, the rugby pitch that the Munster Rugby Team practiced on. Swoon.
“Why go home? Stay here for International night. Pizzas and Jameson.”
Sold.
We sat at a table, low-light, taking turns paying for pizza and Jameson and Cokes. The wonderful thing about having international friends is, if you are open-minded, the potential for deep, multi-faceted conversation is very real. We spoke of foreign policy, student loans, welfare, and 9/11. Whiskey and genuine expression from Christina made me emotional to see how affected she, a foreigner to the United States, was when the Twin Towers fell. Conspiracy theories aside, judgments aside, lay the undeniable fact that thousands of lives were lost, and the hand of humanity reached many countries who had compassion for the families, and the victims. Brought together, and bonding with someone from a different country on a subject that ultimately affected the world drunkenly restored my faith – even if only for a moment – where I first truly experienced how good food, good drink, and good conversation united people.
“Let’s take this into town.”
The three of us hopped into a cab and met with Christina’s friends at a pub in the heart of Limerick, where the population was minimal, middle aged, and sloppy.
“It’s usually busier than this.”
It’s usually busier than this…on a Tuesday?
 
On downing what I believed was my ninth Jameson and Coke, Candice and I were soon engulfed in a conversation with a tall, portly, jolly young man, an acquaintance of Christina. No older than twenty, he smiled wide and his eyes brilliant with passion as he spoke of the farm his family had, and the fifty-three (of fifty-five) different breeds of cow he could recite. Maybe even in alphabetical order, but I was drunk, and this kid was crazy.
“Shut. Up.”
Drunken disbelief pulled Candice and I closer to this stranger. He spoke of his favorite cow, her name, what breed she was, why he liked that breed so much.
What in the….
She and I mouthed this about a dozen times over and over, ten Jameson and Cokes in at this time, while one by one this kid named cow after cow. I discern cows by color. Black, white, white with black spots, black with white spots, brown, chocolate milk…but I learned quickly my whole life-long cattle knowledge was a lie.
All of the cow talk made us hungry, and that led to Chicken Hut, AKA the KFC of Ireland, but worse. By worse, I mean worse for you. By flavor, I mean the tastiest thing my drunk self has ever consumed in my entire life.
Fried chicken with gravy that had the consistency of lard (amazing), fries, a soda, all washed down with impending regret and the continued disbelief that this kid was still talking about cows.
Drunk and tired, Candice, Christina, and I made our way back to Christina’s dorm, and arranged ourselves like drunk little piggies horizontally on her bed. I lay on my left side, facing the wall, knees tucked up, teeth un-brushed, still in the same clothes. Candice was in the middle, flat on her back, arms spread like a little drunk starfish. Christina, cocked diagonally and already unconscious lay at the head of her own bed. I tried to count my breathing in an attempt to make myself sleepy, but the Chicken Hut sat like a brick and I too, now, found myself trying to recall fifty-three or fifty-five types of cow. Candice, I assumed was dancing in a dream, because her jazz hands leaped out at my side, and my knees jerked over and over against Christina’s wall. To break the silence, Christina, in her drunken sleep, methodically ripped the loudest, yet odorless farts from six feet away from me. And thus was the night, a symphony of tickles, wall knocking, and gas, until we rose the next morning for our walk of shame back to the bus, and our hungover ride back to Dublin, penniless, nauseous, and educated in Irish bovine.

Chinese Food is a Universal Language

There are a handful of comfort foods that I turn to depending on the situation. And comfort food can be different for anyone; some may prefer savory, some people sweet, some a combination of both. Personally, I get cravings for red meat, particularly cheeseburgers (my diet is voluntarily 90 percent poultry, fish and quinoa), or anything involving chocolate because, let’s face it, I’m a girl. Girls love chocolate. Fact.

Okay, so not every girl loves chocolate – however my own love of it makes up for a large portion of those who do not consume it. Comfort food is great. It can be a safety blanket, in a sense. For example, when my mom passed away, I turned to chicken noodle soup and lasagna. Neither were particularly nostalgic of her cooking, but they were hearty, and made me feel better. Or, comfort food can be an accentuation to a good time like say, ice cream on a summer night with friends. Hot chocolate after shoveling your driveway, pop corn at the movies, all amazing snacks and treats tied to events that bring people together, or bring a happier feeling to that person indulging. Food is universal, and Chinese food, in particular, and in my humble opinion, is the most universal.
Sure, you have your chain restaurants that find their ways into the nooks and crannies of the globe, providing people with low-cost and “safe” choices. It’s why they’re so successful. What I like most about Chinese food, however, is that each dish in each restaurant, regardless of whether or not it has the same name, never tastes exactly like each other. Each restaurant kind of adapts its flavors to the surrounding environment but still manages to maintain a homely, familiar tone that comes with ordering Chinese food. It’s the whole, “I got full and in five minutes I know I’ll be hungry again,” feeling, and it can be found anywhere.
We knew when we booked our trip to Portugal that we were going to spend Thanksgiving there.
“I can’t believe you won’t be home for Thanksgiving.”
“Dad, I’ve been home for twenty-one Thanksgiving’s.”
“You’re going to miss out. Who’s going to make the fruit salad? Just your brother? There’s tradition.”
“Well, maybe it’s time for some new tradition.”
My dad rolled his eyes at me, but I really thought he was searching the banks of his brain, pulling as many excuses as he could for me to not go to Portugal and miss Thanksgiving. It’s too much money. It’s dangerous. I heard Portugal is cold in November. Their economy…the people…haven’t you seen the movie Taken?
Nothing deterred me. The trip was booked and paid for before it even passed my lips to him that I wasn’t going to be home for the holiday. I was determined and hell-bent and going and that was it.
And it was so worth it.
One of the most dysfunctional, yet memorable trips I ever went on, Portugal was top five. I learned so much about the people, their kindness, the natural beauty, history, and amazing Portuguese cuisine. Sure, I was almost poisoned by exterminators and almost drowned in a sea cave on the first day, but the next six were amazing. We took all of the public transportation, not once were kidnapped, were never bothered by anyone, and even made a couple of friends at a local pub. Portugal, particularly Portimao, was a dream. It was where we were tourists treated like locals – how I try to make every vacation go. These touristy-locals, however, had a holiday coming up, and needed to find a place to eat.
McDonald’s.
We almost did. Almost. Dear baby Jesus, if I could just have a quarter pounder with cheese…
“Guys, we can’t. We’re in Portugal. Americans. Getting McDonald’s. On Thanksgiving.” The three of us agreed that fast food was not the best course of action, but we still had nostalgic yearning for the tastes of home: turkey, stuffing, gravy, other miscellaneous items to make up a 4,000 calorie plate. They didn’t celebrate the overtaking of American in Portugal, though, so where could we turn?
Chinese food.
A small, welcoming Chinese restaurant sat along a line of stores, strip clubs, empty off-season hotels, and vendors. It was surprisingly busy, but we were seated right away, and the staff was friendly. Our menu was in English, and we picked out our favorite tid-bits from home, sipped green tea, and spoiled ourselves with a little dessert. I knew what I was thankful for. Even though we sat across the world, across from each other, we felt a little more at home that evening.
Not only was I thankful for Chinese food among Candice and Vicky but, it saved my life in Dublin.
Candice and I woke up hungover and possibly dying in an overcrowded bed at the University of Limerick, Christina already awake and at work, instructing us to use her toothpaste and whatever else we needed to freshen up before our bus ride back to Temple Bar.
Fresh underwear, a toothbrush, a hair brush, some leftover dignity, I thought.
We got ourselves put together the best we could. I lost my favorite owl necklace that I bought the year before from a street gypsy in Portugal, and my shirt was covered in coffee from lunch the previous day and we both felt equally disgusting. Doing the smart thing, and utilizing the magic plastic rectangles we had, Candice and I wandered the university in search of the gift shop, where we purchased men’s sweatshirts in sizes XL and XXL, grabbed coffee, and slumped into our seats on our bus back, as far away from each other as possible as to not nauseate one another.
Spice Girls was blaring, and I couldn’t see straight without seeing stars, double-digit Jameson and Cokes and two pizzas and Chicken Hut knocking on my uvula. Candice looked pensively out the window, contemplating what I assume was her own mortality and dipping in and out of a possibly still-drunken stupor. The bus stopped to allow more passengers, and a woman boarded loud, Irish, already drunk, and openly attending to the flask of vodka that lived in her breast pocket. Naturally, she plopped herself in the seat between Candice and I, and we made eyes at each other while this woman opened and closed her flask, the smell of alcohol reminding us of our horrible decisions and the fact that we were in the same clothes as the day before.
This went on for nearly three hours until the bus finally stopped near Trinity College and we leaped off out of the time warp of 90s pop icons and poor life choices and stereotypical Irish people.
“Oh my God I think I’m dying. How many buses till we get back to the hotel?”
“Just one.”
“We need to get there as soon as possible. I feel awful.”
“Me too.”
At the risk of projectile vomiting through our words, Candice and I spoke very little as we walked our way through Temple Bar, over the foot bridge, and towards the bus stop to Clontarf.
Suddenly, a rumbling.
Not of our agitated tummies, rather, of voices. Chanting together, we learned quickly that these individuals were protesting the injustices of the wealth. They were sitting down in the middle of a busy intersection. They were getting rowdy. They began shoving.
I’m way too hungover for this shit.
We walked along the sidewalk as the crowd came closer and closer like a wave, only threatening to pull us back into it with a rip tide of oppression. And that’s when we saw it. Unfamiliar characters, universal only to our appetites: Chinese. Buffet. We ducked into the building, now only concerned for our safety and completely forgetting that we were both terminal about twenty minutes earlier.
Well, when in Rome. Or China or….Dublin?
A lovely young woman seated us and gave us a pitcher of tap water with two shoddy glasses. We didn’t care. Our tongues were thankful. She gave us plates, and a fixed price, and said it was all we could eat. Well damn! We sat in that palace of MSG, that neutral zone of General Tso, that haven of noodles, and stuffed our hungover faces as if we never saw food before. Soon we forgot about the protests, the angry people, the two-day old clothes, the coffee stains, the Jameson permeating through our pores, and we reveled in the safety of our bottomless plates. Nothing could hurt us now.