Sitting down to write this reflection, it’s hard to believe that more than six months have passed since my plane touched down in Derry. Somewhere in my luggage, now safely tucked under my bed, I’m sure there must be a list of hastily scrawled out goals for my time in Northern Ireland, written somewhere over Washington, D.C., airspace. Looking at it now would probably inspire more embarrassment than good but I have the inkling that I’d discover how very different my time in Derry has been than what I expected. And how few of those goals I’ve come close to achieving.
I imagined, pre-departure, that life in Derry would be filled with all the activities I never found time for in undergrad. I would dedicate myself to the outdoor pursuits I loved as a kid in Appalachia. I would audition for a campus production. I would spend more time exploring creative writing and less time watching prime time TV. I would find a way to volunteer with a cross-community initiative.
As for learning about Ireland, I planned to wander into local pubs alone and chat up the locals. There’d be much backslapping and ‘hear, hear’-ing, the occasional clinking of pints. These people, I was sure, would weave yarns about Ireland that I wouldn’t find in textbooks.
Now, with more than half of my Mitchell year over, a cursory assessment of my progress reveals few things on my list checked off.
I’ve hiked in the Glens of Antrim, Donegal, and the Sperrin Mountains but the closest I’ve come to kayaking or canoeing was a hurried text message to a friend asking about the local kayak club. I never followed up. I haven’t seen a live production in Derry – much less performed in one, although I did stop to read an advertisement for summer auditions today. I haven’t picked up the pen to do anything creative lately, unless you count the occasional overly dramatic blog entry, and the only pints I clink on a regular basis are with my pub quiz team on Wednesday nights at the Linen Hall.
So I haven’t exactly been living up to my pre-trip expectations but I doubt I could have expected stumbling into the perfect Habitat for Humanity project or having the chance to see 10 different countries in just six months. Had my list included things like sledding down the Alps, hiking to Scotland’s smallest whiskey distillery, wading out to Northern Ireland’s tallest waterfall, watching a monkey rip off my rental car antennae in Gibralter, or watching the Super Bowl on a 12-inch TV at 1 a.m. with a crowd of American, Scottish and Irish friends, I might be more on target.
And those are the things that have made the months since my last journal entry so special. I’ve continued collecting oral histories for my project with Habitat for Humanity, sitting down the wives of ex-paramilitaries, victims of sectarian violence, and volunteers from both communities. Each time, I can hardly wait to get back to my flat to share the stories. They continue to be my best teachers about the Troubles and Northern Ireland. As my project deadline nears, I’ve also been exploring how to present the information and am delighted that I may get the chance to bring my design experience to the table. Telling this story feels like a huge responsibility, which is both terrifying and invigorating.
Traveling has been an ongoing adventure – I’ve slowly discovered that I’m just going to be cursed no matter where I go. I made the mistake of renting a car in Spain without insurance and turned it back in with a flat tire and a dented bumper. (The nice guy behind the counter – who I’ve promised to name my first child after – was kind enough to keep the damage to my purse low.) I dropped an extra 70 pounds on insurance for a car in Scotland and returned it in mint condition. Feeling myself redeemed, I opted out of extra insurance for a van when my family came to visit last week. Two tires with bulges.
Still, those trips gave me the chance to roam the coast of Spain and the heights of Gibralter, to hike the Highlands in Scotland and search Loch Ness, and to take a van from one end of the north to the other, combing the Inishowen, Donegal, and Antrim coasts and taking in crystal blowing, pottery making, and more church ruins and castle remains that I can even count.
When I haven’t been on the road or working in Belfast, I’ve been growing closer to the Irish students in my class. After weeks of polite hellos and the occasional groan over coursework, we’ve committed ourselves to spending more time together out in Derry, even if it means the next week’s tea break will be filled with embarrassing stories from the weekend that most of us would rather forget. I still can’t always understand them and I’m still the only one who looks puzzled when they start telling Irish jokes but I’ve begun to feel as though I can count them all as my friends.
And finally, I was certain that throwing myself into a master’s degree program in history would finally establish, in my ever-changing mind, that academia was the pathway for me. Instead, being in Northern Ireland has only reignited my passion for journalism and my determination to wedge my foot in the media industry’s door. That’s not to say I’m not enjoying my classes or diving into my research – I am constantly surprised by the new topics that pique my interest in Irish history. But being here, in a community that once highlighted news reels and dominated headlines, I’ve learned that too often stories are incorrectly told or incompletely conveyed. I’m beginning to realize just how little Americans (meaning I) know about Northern Ireland and how many stories remain to be told. Being here and learning those stories has only increased my desire to tell the untold stories from corners of the world that rarely get more than their 30-seconds of airtime.
On that note, it’s off to another quiz night and – fingers crossed – perhaps our first win of the semester…