Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Musings about CuChulainn, Missing the USA

Over the course of a few very busy weeks, I've been writing guest posts for travel blogs here and there, and here's a short article I wrote for Enjoy Irish Culture about CuChulainn, the hero of the ancient Irish epic, The Tain.

For anyone who hasn't read The Tain, it is just a barrel of laughs, while also being very stern and warlike, of course.  I must have missed the funny bits back when I first read it during a university course on The Ulster Cycle, but parts of it are properly hilarious if you're a fan of absurdity and gallows humor.  A certain warrior named Cethern, who slaughters many men in battle and then crawls back to camp nearly dead, with his guts around his feet, is informed by the healer that he will not survive his wounds.  He responds, "THEN NEITHER WILL YOU!" and punches the healer's brains out through his ears.

There are also quite a couple of scenes where CuChulainn's adversaries refuse to fight him, because he is a beardless boy and it would be degrading to their manhood, so he has to run around looking for a fake beard.  And then, after a great battle where he's single-handedly decimated the armies of Connacht and everyone's afraid he's going to go on a rampage and just tear up the entire province, they send all the Ulster women out to flash their breasts at him, and he gets so embarrassed he hides his face and runs away.  Because, ya know, he's seventeen.  Oh, it's just a delightful, dramatic, bizarre epic altogether, and anyone interested in ancient Celtic cultures should give it a read.  (My translation is by Thomas Kinsella, which gives a pretty accurate rendition of most of the important stories in the Ulster Cycle, while interpreting it in a way that's accessible to modern readers.)

Also, I had so much fun reading it, that I drew a comic of CuChulainn and his wife-to-be, Emer, and here it is:

Moreover, in light of the sudden realization that I have six days left in the States, I am beginning to freak out a bit over all the things I have left undone, whether I made the most of my time here, whether I'm ready to be a vagabond again, et cetera and so forth.  So, having been in the US for a good four months now, I'll write about some of the things here that I take for granted, and don't realize I love until they're gone.  As a highly adaptable person, most of the things other American expats miss I am glad to be without.  Like smiling... I can't stand how much Americans smile.  It's exhausting, and unnecessary.  I don't drink soda, don't eat either large portions or fast food, and don't buy brand clothing that costs ten times as much elsewhere.  However, there were a couple of things that going without for nine months as I jetted up and down the length of South America filled me with rage and enormous cravings.

1)  Bagels.  It's silly, I know.  But there is a certain way a bagel has to be, and that is a proper New York style bagel, enormous and golden brown and with crust you have to tear at with your teeth but light and steaming on the inside, and then you eat it with smoked salmon and cream cheese and capers and any number of delicious things.  Nowhere in the world have I found anything up to par (bagels were still a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland last time I was there), except for a tiny cafe just off of the Plaza de Armas in Cusco that served fresh bagels with sides of scrambled eggs, tuna fish, and avocado, bagels so good I almost cried eating them.  It was run by an Israeli family, and then they closed up to travel back to Israel for a few months, which was very sad.

2)  Loud people.  And I'm not saying the US is the only loud country.  South America was pretty loud at all hours of the day and night, and China, as I remember it, had its fair share of street vendors screaming at you over bullhorns.  But the parts of Europe I've been to, people on the whole talk quite a few decibels lower than their American counterparts, and sometimes you have to strain to hear what they're saying.  That being said, I have been reprimanded for being too loud, which generally happens when I'm telling a particularly exciting story.

3)  Peanut butter.  Again, something I never thought I particularly needed to survive until it was gone.  Yes, I suppose it's an acquired taste, but when you think about it, it's the perfect traveling food.  It's high in protein so a little bit will keep you full for a long time.  It's so versatile you can eat it with apples and pretzels and sandwiches and stir-fries.  It doesn't need to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in your backpack as you ride a bus for 20 hours across the Peruvian desert and then eat it for breakfast and not die.  I once paid the equivalent of $9 for a tiny jar of peanut butter that I found after much searching at a "food for foreigners" shop, and I am not ashamed.

4)  24/7 convenience stores.  How I hate including this after years of rolling my eyes at Americans who go to Europe for a week and then complain about how there's nowhere you can buy burritos at 3 o'clock in the morning.  But when you're hiking up Machu Picchu at five in the morning and you have the sudden realization, "I need tampons right now and there is nowhere within a 3,000 mile radius where I can get them because it's Sunday," you see the value in such pandering to rampant consumerism.

Aaaand I really thought I'd have more that I'd miss about the States.  Sorry, America, not sorry.  I will be spending the upcoming 4th of July in Dublin, drinking copious amounts of tea and eating curry chips and Cadbury chocolate and walking around in the rain, and other such non-American things.  It will be absolutely magical.