Comme ca va? Ca va? As for me, I am doing great. I just got back from a class field trip in Leuven, Belgium. I think I put on ten pounds. If anyone travels to Leuven, I wholeheartedly recommend the Irish College there. It is a wonderful place to stay and they give you three square meals a day. The greatest part was the chef just came back from 10 years in Cajun Country, USA. Needless to say, he fed my classmates and me very well.
So, this is it. This is the last journal entry of my Mitchell Experience! Honestly, I cannot believe that I am sitting here and penning this entry (I know I say this every time, but I do really mean it). My time in Northern Ireland seems to have fluttered by like the blink of an eye. However, this blink of an eye has left a deep, deep impression on my soul.
The last time that I wrote to you, I promised that I would have a more interesting journal for you to read this time around. Let it never be said that Brandon K. Thibodeaux is not a man of his word. The last two months have been some of the most transforming and interesting of my time here. Thanks to the USIT Travel Stipend, I was able to do two things that I always wanted to do, but never had the ability to. The first trip was a trip to Rome for Holy Week. As a Catholic to experience Easter mass at the Vatican, it was truly an awe-inspiring experience that I shall never forget. The second trip was a trip to the former Eastern block. Some friends from my program and I went to the Czech Republic and then to Poland. While we were in the Czech Republic, we got word that the Pope had died. The next day we were on a train to Krakow, Poland. I will admit that being in Poland at that time was truly a re-affirming experience because as we arrived in Krakow we became part of a student tribute to the Pope. Over 155,000 youths from all over Poland (and with us) the world converged on Krakow for a silent march and prayer service in honor of the life of Pope John Paul II. The experience really demonstrated to me that the Catholic Church is alive and well. That meant a lot to me. The next day, the three of us got on a bus and went to the complex at Oechwitc, more commonly known as Auschwitz.
The complex at Auschwitz is truly a surreal place. I remember someone telling me that you can hear the screams there. I will admit that while I walked at Auschwitz One and Birkenheau, I was truly moved. My friends and I that went to Auschwitz are all studying Peace and Conflict Studies. As students of Peace and Conflict, Auschwitz held a truly special meaning for each of us because it really brought home the point that we must use our knowledge and what we have learned in Northern Ireland to try and ensure that such atrocities never occur again. Walking through the rooms filled with tens of thousands of shoes, thousands of eyeglasses, thousands prosthetic limbs, two tons of human hair, and thousands of pieces of luggage really brought the reality and horror of the Holocaust home to me. While I stood on the train tracks that ran into the death camp at Birkenheau, it truly horrified me to realize that millions of individuals rode on those very tracks to their deaths. I can assure you that what I saw there I will never forget. I honestly believe that everyone should go to Auschwitz at least once in their life because it is truly an experience that haunts you but does make you a more determined person.
This last month has been filled with a great deal of traveling. My class just returned from a week field trip in Brussels, Belgium. While we were in Belgium, we had briefings on the European Union, the European Parliament and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The week in Belgium was truly icing on the cake because I came away from that with an extremely in depth knowledge and understanding of the European Union. As the European Union continues to grow on the world stage, it will become imperative to understand it and what it means for future peace endeavors in Western Europe. As a history buff and fan of Napoleon, my favorite part of the trip was a little excursion to the battlefield at Waterloo. I had avoided going there before because I did not want to think about Napoleonâ€™s defeat. However, my professors assured me that the way history was told at Waterloo, one gets the impression that Napoleon won the battle. Yet, he decided to go to St. Helena for the good of Europe. Those professors were right. Nowhere at Waterloo did it explicitly say Napoleon lost here. The experience was good because it allowed me to think about the hubris and pride of man. Napoleon once said, “From the ridiculous to the sublime is but a step away!” Waterloo proved that to me and taught me a good lesson that I am still trying to understand. All in all Belgium was great.
As I look back on the Mitchell experience thus far, I am forced to say that it exceeded my wildest dreams and expectations. The people of Derry/Londonderry have opened their homes and their hearts to me. I am a reader at St. Eugene’s Cathedral on Sunday mornings. The congregation has often invited me to lunch with their families or to their homes for tea. I can honestly say the people of Derry/Londonderry really remind me of back home and Southern hospitality. They truly fill the void that exists from not being in home in Henry, Louisiana.
Ever since I got to Northern Ireland, I have been telling all of my friends and mentees back in New Orleans, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Northern Ireland how wonderful and eye opening the Mitchell experience is. This program has opened my eyes in ways that no other program has. Even my experience with the United States Embassy in Paris did not open my eyes as much as my time in Northern Ireland. The George J. Mitchell Program is truly in a league of its own. While my time here draws to a close, I am really looking forward to the Mitchell bike trek along the western coast of Ireland and the ascent of Mount Brandon. All I can say at this moment is that Northern Ireland has been one of the best things to happen to me. Now, I am off to enjoy my last two months on the Emerald Isle, and the sun is shining!