I am just over twenty-three years old and my mother still writes me plane-notes. For those of you who never had the experience of being a middle-school aged girl, a plane-note is a note that is snuck into your suitcase or is given to you tightly SWAK (sealed with a kiss), not to be read until you are nestled safely into your airplane seat. While girls ages 11-14 will be flooded with these from their friends before any adventure, no matter what the length of time—I, in my relative maturity, always have one from my mother. She doesn’t know this, but I save them. And now as I head into the final few weeks of my experience in Northern Ireland I refer back to the one she gave me in September. Besides her encouragement to embrace the inevitable ups and downs of my new home and her request I attempt to appreciate dark beer she left me with this Irish prayer: “May the road rise up to greet you; May the wind be always at your back; And may the Lord hold you in the palm of his hand.” Looking back on my year in Belfast, I got all those things and more.
The road rose up to greet me in many forms—though it was not always a smooth ride. Challenges came from school, volunteering, and of course, and being unable to find a rum and diet coke for less than five pounds (Belfast has not yet embraced the wonders of the fountain beverage). While my undergraduate education had me consumed with classes and clubs, my graduate education gave me the freedom to explore Belfast beyond Queens. While a significant portion of my time was spent researching for my dissertation and reading for classes, just as much time was spent volunteering and participating in community groups and discussions. I made friends on weekend residential trainings dealing with the challenges of moving youth away from violence and difficult group behavior. I also relied on my co-workers and fellow volunteers for suggestions on the nightlife and, of course, food. I became a loyal attendee to certain classes at the gym and am friendly with the other participants and staff who have helped me stay trim in my attempts to appreciate dark beer and addiction to Bassetts Jelly Babies. Now that the weather has gotten nicer I have been able to take my school work outside and enjoy how the entire city seems to congregate in the Botanical Gardens around the ice cream man come early afternoon. I feel a part of Belfast now—I know the streets, the bars, the people—and thus I can look back and see that have found a road, a path, that is my own here.
I did not spend my entire Mitchell experience here in Belfast. The wind has certainly been at my back. I have traveled around Northern Ireland and Ireland taking in the beautiful scenery (though often from a comfortable distance as I have never been a real nature girl) and the friendly people. I have also been able to travel around the world. As previous journal entries have described, I was able to travel to the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia. My friends in Belfast and I also escaped the winter blues with a trip to Barcelona where we embraced sunlight for the first time in months. I was also able to spend spring break with two of my fellow Mitchell Scholars on a ten day, five country trip around Eastern Europe (yes, we are still speaking to each other). While my friends in America were hunched over law school books and working nine to five desk jobs I was enjoying mint tea in a Tunisian market, seeing Picasso’s artwork in Spain and eating the best pastry imaginable while watching Hungarian folk dancers in Budapest. This year has also ensured that the wind will always be at my back. While I have always had a passion for travel and world affairs, this year has given me the independence and drive to know seeing the world is always a possibility. I have been lucky to have friends to travel with me, and luckier to be based in Belfast with Frank, who took coping with my, um, unique personality in stride. Yet, I have also learned to enjoy discovering the world on my own. I have been able to embrace travels and experiences that I want to do with myself as company—a skill that has allowed me to meet the people I have and take the chances I took that made this year as fulfilling as it was.
I believe the aspect of the prayer that refers to the Lord holding someone in the palm of His hand means the individual has the satisfaction of knowing they are in a good place. Taking this year to study in Belfast has been a unique experience. Anyone who has visited or lived in Belfast knows that you have to approach it with a special sense of humor. The concept of punctuality is considered as outdated as chivalry, while the fashions we consider the mistakes of the eighties dominate the teenage club scene. There is no excuse for skipping tea time or choosing an apple over a biscuit, and Harp (a brand of beer) is believed to have medicinal qualities. Yet, it does not take long in Belfast to feel like you are in a good place. The friends I have made here are some of the most wonderful people I have ever known, and even though I have embraced facing the world on my own I have never once been alone here. I been challenged academically and have adjusted slowly to the local jargon– now understanding that a ‘wee’ thing is not always a small request and that ‘your man’ has nothing to do with a guy I know. I have replaced the rum and diet with whiskey on the rocks. I learned to cook potatoes and that mayonnaise goes well with everything. In the same vein, I have mastered the cruel cardio move that is ‘the burpee.’ I have learned to live in Belfast, and despite its quirks, to know that it is a really good place.
So as I prepare to return to the United States I will leave behind the friends and community I have learned to love and laugh with, and I will bring with me memories and experiences we had. I want to thank Mary Lou Hartman and Trina Vargo for, in a moment of temporary insanity, selecting me for this incredible experience and supporting me throughout the year. I would also like to thank the donors to the Mitchell program because without your relationship with us we could not develop this special, unbreakable relationship with Ireland and Northern Ireland. Amidst my travel books, academic books, volunteer manuals, souvenirs and Jelly Babies, my luggage will also contain my mother’s plane note to remind me that this year had its ups and downs and while I still cannot stand dark beer— I got the answer to her prayers.