It was the great Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, who claimed that a cynic was a person who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Well, it could be argued that during the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland became a nation of cynics and many of us felt like strangers in our own land.
The obsession with material things, new cars and houses, accumulation of wealth and property ultimately led to the collapse of the economy and a real blow to our nation's soul.
I've usually had real joy in meeting other Irish people on my travels, be it in Thailand or Australia or Egypt, but sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own land. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Coming home for a couple of weeks, after being away since the start of the year, I found myself sitting on a train to Galway next to four or five extremely attractive young women.
Until they began talking! My God, somehow they managed to talk about wedding dresses, engagement rings, and shopping for the whole journey from Dublin to the City of the Tribes. Home again ... !
Still, it's good to get back to meet up with friends and family, sort out a few things before what promises to be the most challenging (and hopefully rewarding) trip of my year.
Central America looms on the horizon, with all its poverty, crime, but also soul and the promise of using my Spanish. I'd be a liar if I said I was not scared about the prospect of spending four months there, but I'm also excited too by the chance to make a genuine contribution to people's lives during two months of voluntary work in Nicaragua.
In pure material terms, my gap year makes no sense. My five months in South East Asia and two in Spain cost me a lot more than I had expected, but I always knew that Spain would be the dearest part of the journey.
But, after 18 years in the same job, I've had a chance to get off the career ladder for a while, not to mention a break from the Irish climate which has driven me mental over the past five wet and windy summers.
The magic of 2010, for me, is that I've met really good people from all over the world, especially in Koh Lanta and San Sebastian. All of them shared a desire for change or to experience new cultures and lifestyles, and I guess you can't really put a price on that.
I might be living on beans and toast for the month of January to come, but by then I will have had the experience of living on a tropical island for five months, be a professional Divemaster, reasonably proficient in Spanish, had a full summer in mainland Spain, and helped poor Central American kids to learn English.
To take inspiration from Oscar Wilde, the value of those experiences should be far greater than the cost . . . even viewed from the nation of cynics where I have covered one club GAA game too many in Pearse Stadium or Athenry.
It's great to be home this month, to meet my family and close friends for two weeks, and, yes, I am experiencing fear about what lies ahead. But life should never be all about comfort zones, or ruts, or over-familiarity, because life is constantly changing, even if you spend all of it in your home town.
And life should definitely NOT be about cynicism. Not when you meet a lady who has battled breast cancer to become a scuba diving instructor in Thailand, a famliy who have sold their house to spend a year touring the world, or a London lady who has given it all up to become an English teacher in Spain.
When I was at my lowest point of the year, sick with an ear infection and from very strong antibiotics, I took huge inspiration from a little Malaysian man who had given up a good job in Kuala Lumper in order to become a guide in the beautiful Cameron Highlands.
For seven hours, he guided me through a trek in the rainforest, sharing his wonderful enthusiasm for one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to. Suddenly, instead of questioning why I was doing what I'm doing this year, I could see the sense in giving up a conventional life in order to follow your dreams.
I might not know the cost of a new house, car, or whatever in Ireland right now, but I sure know the value of meeting new people and trying out new experiences.
Why we left the classrooms: by Pauline
3 weeks ago