For the autumn semester of 2016, I'm lucky enough to be studying in UCC (University College Cork) in Cork, Ireland. I've been here for about three weeks at this point and let me tell you: even though the population speaks English, there are many things that are culturally different. This may seem obvious, but lots of stuff is just different enough to be noticeable, making the experience of studying abroad in Ireland a perfect way to ease into learning about how people in different parts of the world run their own lives.
Ireland is a beautiful country, known for its rolling green hillsides and historical importance dating back to the earliest prehistoric eras. In addition to this, Ireland has a lot of contemporary importance in the world — 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, and it's an eye-opening experience to be able to be on the island during such a pivotal point in Irish independence from the English.
On that note, here are some differences between the United States and Ireland I've noticed thus far:
1. This may be obvious, but...
Much like other parts of Europe, cars drive on the left side of the road here! It's taken a while for me to get used to — a couple times I've looked to the cars in the road as I walk by and there's a child sitting in the driver's seat (then I remember that is technically the passenger's seat...)! Many cars are also marked with a red "N" or "L" sticker, meaning the person behind the wheel is either a "Novice driver" — someone who has gotten their license in the last two years — or a "Learner", someone who is practicing for their road test.
Interestingly enough, the traffic lights here are sticking out of the sidewalks, rather than hanging over the road like they are in America.
2. Walking around the city.
Since I'm studying in Cork (located in the south of Ireland), I've had the best experience walking around here and getting to know Cork City. It's absolutely breathtaking to say the least: rainbows of pained houses, mottled gray cobblestone sidewalks, rusted iron fences, mixed glass-and-metal buildings, and permeating through it all the freshest and purest air I've ever breathed — even in the city centre!
3. Actually, just walking.
Cork may be the second largest city in Ireland (after Dublin), but it is extremely easy to navigate. If Dublin could be compared to Boston, then Cork would equate Providence RI. It's easy to wander down a street and lose your more direct route towards your destination, but just as easy to use your surroundings to reorient yourself and get back on track. And if all else fails, just pop into literally any cafe and some elderly Irish person will likely give you very nice directions. This is coincidentally how my friends and I figured out how to use the bus.
Speaking of the bus — THEY'RE SO EFFICIENT. I LOVE THEM. Bus Eireann is on time, has wifi on board, and is comfortable and feels safe to ride.
4. Honestly, Irish Netflix is bae.
I wasn't entirely sure if my (roommate's] Netflix account would work here in Ireland. It gave me a little bit of a hard time when I first arrived, but has since come IN CLUTCH. Irish Netflix has two whole seasons of Spongebob, 22 Jump Street, and all kinds of the British dramas that I love. I went on an adding spree a couple days ago and probably put 25 things to watch into My List.
5. "Irish Time"
Wheaton has links with UCC and offers the option of taking a class before the semester starts; this Early Start program has definitely been a blessing. There are four or five different classes to take but I decided on the Archaeology class — we have taken four field trips total to see historic sites all around Ireland (all expenses paid, mind you) and I've learned a ton of interesting things about prehistoric Ireland up through the medieval era.
Coincidentally, there is such a thing as "Irish time." People here are very easygoing and don't seem to be in a rush for anything — it's something that, being from a more fast-paced urban environment, is frustrating at the same time as it is relieving. Meaning, I've been late to class after our breaks (it's three hours long, but bless my professor for giving us 10 min and 25 min breaks) but so is my professor so it's chill.
6. Ruins don't ruin anything!
As mentioned, I've been on a couple field trips around Ireland, checking out historic sites. On our most recent one, we had to trek through fields of long grass and even hop over an electric fence (deactivated, of course!) to get to a couple of locations. Ruins of buildings and other monuments are embraced here — if the thing itself isn't left to inhabit its historic space and must be cleared over, the space is demarcated in order to show where it had been.
7. Cows and sheep e v e r y w h e r e.
I'm from a small city in Rhode Island — but a city all the same — and pretty much have never seen anything more than a singular cow or sheep in my entire life, let alone a cow or sheep happily grazing on grass in the hilly landscape. I remember my mouth staying agape on my taxi ride from the airport to my housing accommodation due to ALL THE COWS! There's brown cows, and white cows, and black cows, and spotted cows — and they're all so precious munching on delicious Irish grass or taking a rest on the soft ground. The sheep look like lowered clouds moving slowly across a green sky, I love them so much.
8. Shots shots shots shots shots shots
Okay, it's not like everyone — including myself, don't worry mom! — is downing shots like water in Ireland. But, stereotypes have to come from somewhere, and the Irish are good at holding their alcohol. Bars and pubs are regular meeting places and it's socially unacceptable if you don't buy a drink (doesn't have to be alcoholic of course, just support the local). Traditional music nights are similar to an American open mic, but with generally one band or group of people playing music ranging from old Irish ballads to more contemporary folk songs. Nothing is more entertaining than a group of old Irishmen playing instruments and all the Irish people singing happily along to the music.
9. Learning Structures
Even from the singular class I've taken as part of Early Start, I've figured out that school in Ireland is much different than in the U.S. Professors generally organize the class so that there's a list of recommended reading — I almost had a heart attack looking at all the books and articles listed in the syllabus — but you can pretty much pick and choose what you want to read within the overall topic. For example, I had to write a paper on the Romanization in Ireland so I read one of the recommended overview books about Irish archaeology as well as four or five of the books relating directly to my topic.
Interestingly, majors are different here too. They're called "programs" (well, "programmes") because you pretty much take classes relating to your major throughout the entirety of your college career — none of this "Gen Eds" nonsense. My friend Danny is a med student in his final year at UCC and has been taking medical-related classes since his freshman year.
10. College In General
Since the population of UCC is actually ten times bigger than Wheaton, I'm a tad nervous for when the actual autumn semester begins because then 20,000 students will flood UCC's halls — endless in comparison to Wheaton's approximate 2,000. Picking "modules" is also less stressful, since the course catalogue is open to everyone for roughly five days, instead of giving priority to the oldest students and decreasing from there. Much like Danny, the students at UCC pretty much have a set of required classes they must take, but as a visiting student I'm allowed to choose what I want to learn about while I'm here.
First off, stores are called "shops" here, and I'm beginning to get in on that slang. There are lots of shops and restaurants in Ireland that are the same or pretty similar to ones back home. I've come to fall in love with Penney's and Tesco: Penney's is a discounted department store with extremely trendy, ill-made cheap clothes that need to be replaced pretty often and Tesco is one of the more popular grocery (and more) stores. I would compare it to Walmart, since there is a small amount of housewares, appliances, and even clothing and books at the larger Tesco near my lodging.
These are just a selection of differences between the two countries. Naturally, I've noticed much more than just these 11 — here's a few other points:
- No need to tip waitstaff (unless they were exceptional or working in a fancy restaurant), they make a solid living wage here.
- Euro coins are a pain in the butt but at the same time a lot easier than handing the cashier a €20 note. Plus, taxes are calculated into the price so you can know for certain what you're paying before you get to the register.
- Despite being an island, it's pretty simple and inexpensive to get from here to continental Europe, especially if you use an airline like RyanAir. On that same note, it's very easy to travel around Ireland — just take the bus or ride the train!
- Irish people are super kind and accommodating and no one should be afraid to ask for help or advice while you're here, most people will give you a smile and some pretty lovely assistance.