By Lauryn Ash
The Irish sun sets so late I would rather be asleep than wait for it to slip beneath the horizon. Unfortunately, the Irish Writing Program at University College Dublin did allow me to sleep earlier than 11 o’clock. Each night was spent frustratingly battling between what I wanted to write versus what was required of me to write. Most people say they cannot write on command. I cannot write on demand. I have to be focused. I have to enjoy writing what I write. Most importantly, I have to feel passionate towards it. Everything I wrote was ridged, stagnant, and dry on the page.
What would I write? Why would I write it? Did it even matter what I wrote?
Even worse, Irish weather is dreary on all the wrong days. When I needed fresh air, it gave me rain. When I needed rain to keep me indoors writing, it gave me sunshine and blue skies. Studying abroad was supposed to be enlightening for my creative process, not inhibiting it. I sat day after night after day looking at the page again and again. Yes, I need all that repetition in that sentence. It was arduous to deal with the lack of pressure! Nothing I did would be graded. All study abroad courses don’t count towards GPA. They even told me they didn’t care so much about quality as about quantity. How could I write what I love if it didn’t even matter if I love what I wrote?
I could barely cope.
I could barely sleep.
I could barely keep my fingers on the keyboard.
They said they wouldn’t judge me. They said they didn’t care how I wrote. What if I wanted them to judge me? What if I wanted them to care?
My hands would reach into my invisible girl pockets and come up empty. Words fell on the page in spurts of hackneyed prose. At the end of my program, I wasn’t proud of what I had written. I was ashamed. The sentences were tasteless. The comma usage: absurd. My peers’ feedback was useful, but not inspiring. I wanted to really connect with other writers, to be immersed in an environment that was dedicated to writing, where everyone was passionate about the experience and thrill of the craft.
Even though my instructors were imaginative and exciting and my peers were intelligent and creative, I felt ostracized from the workshop environment simply because I wanted to write instead of drink.
I had planned to leave days after the program’s duration and from everyone else. I needed the time to compose myself before returning to the whirlwind of a Midwestern-American life. My escape was flawless. I captured three innocent writers and had them share a taxi with me as well as split a hotel room with me for two nights. Afterwards, I lay on a hotel bed with my things strew around the room. As if mocking my inability to pack correctly for return flights, the weather was bright, sunny, and inviting. The morning breeze intermittently pushed the clouds across the sun. It was perfect errand-running weather.
I had no errands to run.
I rolled to the edge of the bed. My suitcase stared innocently at me. Unsorted globs of clothes and coffee mugs huddled in odd stacks around it. The Irish weather taunted me. The ceiling offered no solutions. I closed my eyes. It was exactly 24 hours before my flight took over. What would a good, future-oriented college student like myself do?
Or more productively sounding: making a pre-departure list that required me to go outside and run errands.
Henry Street became my ideal destination. Despite a stream of shops on either side, it was rarely trafficked by the average tourist. Being on the North side of Dublin meant less marketing for high paying tourists. Instead, mothers with strollers, men in business suits, and high-school students flowed in and out of stores, an estuary of mixed motivations, clicking heels, and jingling ringtones. Diverting pathways led to other more niche markets of apparel or specialty goods. Signs to accept credit cards and traveler’s checks were written in Sharpie. Sale prices reflected family oriented goods, not Irish experience services. Used hardware stores and second-hand knick-knacks had locations next to brand name Marks & Spenser’s and Vodafone stores.
The Irish redbrick was worn down from use and beaten into odd pitfalls only people could make.
Chipped sidewalks and deep grout meant wagon wheels and human feet had used these roads, not cars. It was a breath of fresh air for me, coming from America where these types of roads have to be recreated. Americans have asphalt. Ireland has history.
I followed one chipped cobblestone after the other. I came halfway down a block where asphalt began to mix with the bricks before I realized I couldn’t understand a single word being spoken around me. I looked around. Panhandlers and produce vendors surrounded me. Punnets of oddly shaped strawberries for €1 seemed too good to be true. Ten apples for €2 seemed suspiciously fantastic. Halal ingredient stores and Afro-Cuban wholesale shops bordered each other. I found a 25 oz. jar of curry powder for €3.
I wish I had discovered this sooner. Curry every day? Yes, please.
This street was disconnected from the others, but not so far away as undiscoverable. Latvian snacks? Lithuania soda? Ukrainian wafers and Polish chocolates? Every ethnicity was represented. The butcher shop offered every cut of meat. With trays of pig hearts, pig ears, and one pig’s head, I can now honestly say I have seen an entire pig both before and after death.
This underground market beneath the open-air shops had a Polish hair salon and an Oriental specialty market. I couldn’t read any of the labels on the packaging. Smiling faces of fruit told me the flavors of the candies. Vegetable flavored noodles? I’d try that. Meat looked like meat, though I couldn’t have said exactly what cut of meat it was. The store clerks eyed my questioningly.
I suppose, tourists don’t usually go through underground grocery marts rummaging through packaged food written in a language they cannot read. I also don’t suppose many tourists stare at a poster of scantily clad women trying to figure out exactly is being advertised in Russian.
My stomach rumbled. As much as I loved looking at the food, I couldn’t read if I was even able to eat it. Unfortunately, I merged back into the major stream of tourists on Henry St. Less than two blocks away, the modern food court was brimming with people. It offered Burger King, Starbucks, & a smoothie place that reminded me of Dairy Queen. I wanted my last meal in Ireland to be something I would remember and never could experience in the United States.
This food court was the same.
More aggressive walking and avoiding as many small children led me to another side street. To my left, a milkshake bar, to my right, a second-hand shop of tea sets and cooking ware, in front of me, an organic bagel bakery and a Mexican burrito bar, further still, a sushi shop, an epicurean food market, and a bento box themed restaurant. I had to sit down.
There are many foods I like. There are fewer foods I absolutely adore. These would be everything that currently surrounded me.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just choose between them. I knew if I didn’t pull out my iPhone and look up what was around me, read reviews, or gain some stability I would falter and eat each of everything—bad for both my digestion and for my waistline. Instead, I took off Westward into Dublin, away from the main tourism and traffic.
This restaurant displayed mirrored windows and square black umbrellas in a corporate offshoot part of northwest Dublin. The highly maintained brick was a stark contrast from the LUAS rail lines that bordered it. Despite the harsh modern lines, the featured specials were written in brightly colored chalk outside the doors. For this place, I did my homework. €13 for three small plates. I could pick and choose between my favorite Asian fusions.
It was unique; it was light; and did the menu look delicious.
Koh Restaurant was classy, sophisticated, and art deco. Nothing I expected, but everything I ever wanted in an ethnic restaurant. Having ordered swiftly, the waiter brought me a small glass and a large pitcher of water.
This was going to be excellent.
The other patrons were all East Asian, if not directly Thai themselves. Not every ethnic restaurant can boast of serving its food to direct descendants of that cuisine. My excitement was only climbing. Pulling out pad and paper, I recounted the day’s experience. My eyes widened as the food magically appeared in front of me widened as the food magically appeared in front of me. I think the Irish have a different definition of “small plates.”
The soup came in a large white bowl, filled to the brim with spicy Thai basil and seafood. Two trout-filled, gluten-free spring rolls were presented side by side. Together, I think they were as long as my Mac and one-inch in diameter. To end, a large romaine lettuce leaf was stacked with a mixture of beef and pork sprinkled with limejuice and cilantro leaves. If I lived in Ireland, I would order the same thing for take away. It would be three separate meals for me.
I still ate all of it.
This meal was the healthiest, most filling, and spiciest meal I had in Ireland. It was the best meal I had while in Ireland. Dublin’s Irish pubs were not unimpressive by any means. However, they were repetitive. They began to remind me of American chain restaurants. The ethnic cuisine was always brilliant, always beautiful, and always clean tasting.
One Spanish tapas place turned dreary, pre-assignment Irish rain into a Mediterranean shower. One sushi on a belt-system Japanese chain restaurant redefined “all you can eat.” One ice-cream place gave me a shot of espresso with my sea-salt ice cream. But the Thai food at Koh Restaurant beat them all.
In the past, I described spicy food as piquant and sparkling on my tongue. This was more of a tickle. It prickled my tongue, never over-bearing, but never too spicy for me not to enjoy. Meat has been tender, has been juicy. Yet, this mixed chopped meat was not. It was cut into such small fragments that it retained its taste while changing the texture from chewy to crispy. The spring rolls were refreshing. The crunch of the glass noodles and the mint leaves showcased the trout without having an over-powering fish taste.
I could now cross off “last meal” and “snack breakfast” with one pen stroke.
Even better than being over-filled with glorious Thai food? When I did cancel the hotel breakfast, they didn’t even charge me for the previous two days I had eaten it there. Beautiful. Positively, beautiful.
About the Author
Lauryn Ash earned a B.A. in English and Creative Writing at The University of Iowa.
This post was originally published on Niche’s website on September 1st, 2012.