This first week of the semester has been quite an experience. You think you know how you’ll exist in these new places, but only time can really tell. Excitement and wonder carried me through the first 48 hours of my time in Cork. I wondered around town with wide-eyed little-boyishness; gaping at everything; browsing old bookstores; smelling; tasting; pub hopping, eagerly swilling Murphy’s and Kilkenny—because drinking Guinness and Jameson is just too tacky, after all. In 48 hours I managed to walk nearly 20 miles around a downtown with an area of about 3 square miles. I was a hobbit blundering around Middle Earth. All was quixotic adventure; dragon slaying, tilting at windmills, a search for the holy grail.
Then the jet lag, and the beer, set in.
My third full day in Ireland was the hardest one so far. After a deep, Rip Van Winkle type sleep, I woke to the realization that I needed to—without sugarcoating it—get my shit together.
You don’t realize how many comforts you really have until you are without them. My flat was empty, save for the essential appliances, a few basic kitchen gadgets, and a bed spread. I’d brought the necessary toiletries and clothes, but I didn’t realize how much I’d be in want of a few basic things and how—ridiculous as it may seem—the lack of these things seemed to make the prospect of the coming months unbearable.
I needed a bath mat, because this is a humid country and water on your floor will stay there for days. I became oddly fixated on this one. I needed a bathmat more than anything in the world. Also, I needed groceries: coffee, bread, coffee, something for dinners, and to pack for lunches, and coffee. Bathmat and coffee. Oh, and I wanted a salad. Just a salad. Some lettuce and some dressing. Okay, bathmat, coffee, salad. These things will save the world. Let’s do this.
Now, there are no Targets or Wal-Mart’s here. So, if I could just go find a few things, from somewhere, then the day would be a success. Armed with my rain jacket, an empty backpack and a pocket full of Euros, I set off. The first man I met aimed me, in a heavy southern Irish accent, at, “PaulStreetTesco, ’boutakilometeroff, thatshouldhavewhat yaneed.” Perfect. Well, possibly perfect. I marched on, in search of this Paul Street Tesco, to a quest-like rhythm:
Bathmat–Coffee–Salad. Paul Street Tesco. — Bathmat–Coffee–Salad. Paul Street Tesco.
Finally, like Chaucer’s pilgrims might have finally spied Canterbury, Paul Street Tesco appeared gleaming before me, at the end of a narrow street, rising up from the saturated stones, hidden, all this time behind yet another incredibly old brick building.
Tesco is my new favorite place. They have all the things—a dragon’s hoard of essential items. I had to be careful not to buy too many of the things because I’d walked quite a long way and I only had the one backpack—you don’t get plastic bags here. Quickly, I sought out the hallowed items: bathmat, coffee (instant but beautiful), and salad fixings. When I asked a clerk where the dressings were, I was brought to this: (see photo). What the hell is this? Salad Cream? After staring at the shelf, and the bottle’s label, trying to glean what exactly I was dealing with, I simply laughed, telling myself,“Hey, Joel, what dip or dressing don’t you like?”
“Very true,” I answered myself silently, dropping the salad cream into my basket, realizing that sometimes, things just aren’t going to be the same. The salad would be different, but the ordeal was done. The day, a success.
So, with a grey backpack bursting with bathmat, coffee, salad, and a wild assortment of things I normally take for granted, I rushed home to my flat. Quest complete!
One of my favorite English professors at the University of Montana likes to tell us often, “the best stories take place during the moments from which the main character realizes that, nothing will ever be the same again.” I think it’s exactly this wisdom, when applied to real life, which makes a semester abroad so profoundly meaningful. After all, every moment since I left Missoula has been part of the constant realization that, indeed,nothing will ever be the same again. My salad is different—actually quite tasty. My Kencocoffee is instant—also quite tasty. My bathmat is red—not so different really, but I still can’t figure out the bizarre shower controls. All these collections of seemingly minuscule moments condense together and burst forth into a grand revelation of the world’s vastness and variety. If a bathmat, coffee, and salad can seem so important as I gain my footing in a new country, imagine the importance of a friendship made, or a heavy green moor traversed. Imagine what is yet to come.
Quest plots, as my English professor taught me, should have five recognizable parts: The Call, in which the hero must set out to perform some task because the place, or time, he occupies is somehow lacking. The Journey, through strange territory and obstacles wild. The Arrival and Frustration, when things are revealed to be harder than originally assumed, and great perseverance is required. The Final Ordeal, is the climax, or greatest test for the hero. The Goal, in which the task is finally accomplished (or not accomplished) and the hero’s world is somehow forever changed.
It occurs to me now that much of life is the constant embarkation upon quest plots. And, if we let them, even the smallest tasks can become epic adventures, and the most meaningless goals become strange discoveries and dragon hoarded treasures.
We are all the heroes of our own stories.