November 2008 Reflection

Two days ago, I finished the 2008 Athens Marathon at the exact same hundredth of a second as two fellow Mitchell Scholars, Erin and Vicki. Before embarking on my year as a Scholar, I never could have imagined I would complete such a journey, or do so alongside such extraordinary individuals. Travelling to Greece for the marathon turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life, and the trip was filled with a spirit of camaraderie. I would not have made it to Greece or to the marathon’s finish line without the enthusiasm and support of the three scholars who accompanied me, or the countless cheers of “Bravo! Bravo!” from Greek people of all ages who came out from their homes in Marathon and Athens to clap and encourage the runners.

Five days before the marathon, a much more significant event transpired: Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. For the first time in a long time, I felt proud as an American abroad. Everyone, whether in Ireland or in the States, seems to be talking about dreams, opportunity, and transformation. Right now—two tellers at my local grocery store have initiated giddy conversations with me about their high hopes for Obama and how he will change America and world politics, and even New York Times editorialist David Brooks has gone sentimental on us since the election, confessing that he, too, has dreams. I don’t know if it’s the presidential election high, or the after-effects of the runner’s high I experienced at the end of the marathon upon entering the Panathenaiko stadium, built for the first modern Olympics, but something has got me thinking about new possibilities for change and growth and the personal discoveries that have been made possible by the Mitchell Scholarship. Only three months have passed since I arrived in Northern Ireland, but I feel that my experiences here are already shaping me in ways I could never have foreseen.

The changes seem small. My relationship to running has transformed, for example. I have run from a young age, but I was always racing to get somewhere, focused on the end-point (I am also a notoriously fast walker, which vexes my shorter flatmates here to no end). I have slowly come to realize that it is more about the journey one takes than the actual arrival. One of my college mentors always says, “It’s all about the process.” I always believed and agreed with him, but I think I have only recently begun to understand why it’s all about the journey and not the destination. Possessing the freedom to immerse myself in a new context, Northern Ireland, without fixed, preconceived notions of the desired outcome, has enabled me to discover new routes, routines, and perspectives and also to forge fresh relationships with my surroundings and with other people here. Northern Ireland and Europe were strangers to me when I arrived, and I have taken great joy in getting to know them since my arrival, by embracing the unknown.

One of the best ways to get to know a place is to get lost in it, in my opinion. I revel in the “aesthetic of lostness” that makes exploring so exciting and enjoyable. The marathon served as an impetus for getting out daily to explore Derry/Londonderry and the surrounding area. I set out somewhere new for each run, deepening my relationship with the city with every excursion. I must admit, I am a poor explorer: I follow no method and am more of a wanderer. Derry/Londonderry is a lush garden to me, full of textures, activity, smells, colors, weeds, and flowers. I enjoy my romps through it. Call me strange, but I smile and dance as I run. I hop up and down off of benches, and jump up to touch the brilliant, gilded autumn leaves. I sing Regina Spektor and Etta James tunes to the cows and sheep who have the poor fortune of grazing near country roads. My runs have taken me across bridges to both sides of the river that divides Derry/Londonderry, from the Bogside to the Waterside, around the old city Wall, into the countryside, and out to the animal shelter where I volunteer, in a nearby town. Not reaching my desired destination has often resulted in the juiciest discoveries. In my quest to cross the largest bridge across the River Foyle, I had finally found an expansive, bright-green meadow through which paved paths wind their way, right alongside the waterfront, but I took the wrong route to get up to the bridge. It turnd out to be a happy misfortune, however, because I came upon what appeared to be ruins: a castle-like stone house, with no roof or windows. Only the stone frame remained, covered with lush green vines, like something out of The Secret Garden.

Derry/Londonderry, famous for its prominence in the Northern Ireland conflict (e.g. Bloody Sunday, the “Free Derry” Bogside murals, the contentious city name, etc.), exudes character. Neither a small town nor a large metropolis, the city bridges the River Foyle and sits in a valley encircled by rolling green hills. The day I arrived in Northern Ireland, a friendly and talkative taxi driver (a woman!) carried me from Belfast to my new home, explaining the landscape and its history as we went. The panorama transformed as we neared Derry/Londonderry. Suddenly, magnificent hills—”mountains,” the driver corrected me—of all shades of green popped out in front of us out of the nondescript farmland that had surrounded us since Belfast. About midway through our journey, I started seeing evidence of the conflict in the region, on graffiti covering the signs pointing to Derry/Londonderry. All the signs said, “Londonderry,” and on several signs, “London” had been spray-painted, leaving only “Derry.” The last sign I saw showed retaliatory graffiti, however—someone had spray-painted “derry,” leaving just “London.”

In addition to my fresh surroundings, I have entered a new academic field: Peace & Conflict Studies. I have found that, in addition to the novelty of the readings themselves and the appropriateness of studying conflict in an area wedded to conflict for so long, the best part of my program is the student dynamic. Our course is comprised of several Irish and Northern Irish students, Americans from all different states, a Sri Lankan, a Colombian, a Ghanaian, and a Japanese student. Who would have thought that a relatively small university campus in Northern Ireland could connect such a wide array of people and cultures? We have met for tea, potlucks, and dinner outside of class, where we converse about what brought us to Northern Ireland. The Japanese woman, Eriko (who is also my beloved flatmate), left her career as a television reporter and documentary creator, to immerse herself in Peace & Conflict Studies. The Colombian student is a trained psychologist from Medellín, who explained to us over a potluck meal what it was like hearing bombs go off around her when she was a teenager. She said she became accustomed to it, to the point where a bomb going off nearby would barely interrupt a conversation with a friend over the phone. My Irish flatmate’s boyfriend then chimed in that in Northern Ireland, the conflict reached a similar point; violence was normalized and could occur at almost any moment. The Peace & Conflict Studies program offers students many opportunities to engage with local and national community members who played central roles in the conflict and in the peace process. We had the honor of meeting Nobel Laureate John Hume, and we attended an emotionally riveting seminar about the “Towards Healing and Understanding” storytelling and dialogue project, which facilitates “inter” and “intra” community conversations between people who have been affected by the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict.

The flexibility and more relaxed pace of studies here have allowed me to chart my own course at the university. In addition to taking courses in my intended program of study, I audit two classes: French and Drama/Acting. I have always wanted to learn French, and Beginner’s French quickly became my favorite class at the University of Ulster, in spite of my low-level performance in it. All of the other class participants are mature students who come from Derry/Londonderry and the surrounding communities, and they’re an absolute hoot to learn with, particularly when we all stand up to do role-play. Every class, we take a break after an hour to collectively migrate to the café in our library, where we share a tea break and switch professors. These fifteen-minute breaks, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, create some of my favorite moments in each week—we discuss anything from international politics to travel tips to who suffered the worst school lunches growing up (a man originally from England seemed to win, since he was fed mysterious spam cakes at school, eww). The other course, Drama/Acting, puts me in contact with students from the other end of the spectrum: undergraduates. I am the only graduate student in the course, and the other students energize me with their playfulness and keen wit, both in scene work and in acting games. I feel lucky to continue pursuing my interest in drama, in the unfamiliar context of Northern Ireland. Since the students in my program tend to be of a certain ilk, I feel that these additional classes make my experiences at Ulster well-rounded; they allow me to learn with and from people from all ages and backgrounds.

My flatmates have been another fantastic surprise in my life. I truly consider them my family here in Northern Ireland. We tease, support, and comfort one another, barge into one another’s rooms to hang out, and cook for one another. From the first night we met, we felt comfortable joking with each other, and we quickly hatched a plan to start a band together that boasts two names, just like the city in which we live, and will play traditional Irish music, with a zesty twist of hip-hop. Our band is called “Block 12 Dangerous,” because we live in Block 12, and also “Giants & Elves,” because we fall into two categories: very short and very tall women. Six women form the band: Dacia, an American who gives insightful Tarot card readings and is a hot-shot at bowling and archery; Eriko, the Japanese woman I mentioned, who made a documentary on a Japanese marimbist and on sea ecosystems around Japan that were destroyed by fishing/seaweed farming; Maria, an Irish careers counselor who (literally) feeds our collective obsession with apple tarts; Linda, a Northern Irish history major whose small frame belies her ability to hurl a bowling ball wildly; Brigitta, an animated and comical lawyer from Hungary who studies International Human Rights Law, practices Tibetan massage (she gave me a wonderful massage before I left for Athens), and does an uncanny shrieking monkey impression.

All six of us carved Jack-O-Lanterns together for Halloween, the holiday for which Derry/Londonderry is known, and we suited up in costumes (I went as a Freudian slip) to watch the parade and magnificent fireworks. Dacia and I, a vampire and a Freudian slip, respectively, headed to a local bar afterwards to party with the likes of The Joker, a Spartan, Cat Woman, and a flock of cotton-ball-clad sheep. My flatmates serve as daily reminders of the way in which living with and learning about others makes it possible to enjoy, rather than fear, cultural differences. I cannot believe I have been placed in the midst of such incredible, loving, and mature individuals, and I look forward to our first concert and to the release of our debut album (look for it in stores around the holidays).

Many other scholars have said this before, but one of the best parts of the scholarship is the freedom it gives one to discover Europe (and beyond!). First, we all attended the orientation together on the west coast of Ireland, where we stayed at a seaside golf resort that left me starry-eyed (picture a castle on a long stretch of beach, with waves of tall grasses gently swaying in the sea breeze). We got to know each other better by running on the beach together and cooking Irish food in pairs, under the tutelage of a kind, older Irish home economics expert. Later, some of us travelled to Munich, where we helped celebrate d’ Wiesn, or Oktoberfest. It far exceeded my expectations! Besides sitting in the beer tents (the Löwenbräu and Paulaner ones, to be exact) drinking Maß in steins and eating Kaiserschmarrn, a delicious platter of sugared pancakes with raisin and applesauce, we also took an illuminating guided bike tour through the historical center of München. A great portion of those attending d’Wiesn were decked out in beautiful traditional Bavarian costumes. I must say that young men look quite dashing in Lederhosen, the stitched leather knickers… And the dirndls worn by the women varied from simple, make-shift costumes to ornate, hand-embroidered skirts and blouses. A few weeks later, a group of female Scholars headed south of Dublin to Wexford, for the town’s opera and arts festival. Vicki and I looked quite fetching—and ridiculous—in our matching feather headbands, which we wore to see the comedic opera, “Tutti in Maschera,” with Erin. All of us also enjoyed watching hurling on the quay in the morning and wandering the curved cobblestone streets at night, lit with criss-crossing strings of cheery white bulbs.

One of the most exciting trips thus far was one of the shortest: I traveled with my flatmate, Dacia, to Dublin to attend the 2008 Presidential Election reception/party hosted by the U.S. Embassy at the Guinness Storehouse. The storehouse was packed and filled with excitement, and the other scholars and I joined everyone in watching the election results come in on a gigantic television screen. Because of the time difference, Obama’s victory was not declared until those of us who had come from Northern Ireland were boarding our bus home, at 4am. The election frenzy carried on through the night until morning, for Dacia and me, because we went straight from the Embassy party to a short radio interview with BBC’s Radio Foyle back in Derry/Londonderry. The interview arose, bizarrely, from my unfortunate brush with scabies/bed bugs earlier that semester—because I was the only American the head of Residential Services at Ulster could remember (from helping me with my infestation), When called by the radio station asking about a possible interview with an American, I came to mind. In the end, Dacia and I had not slept before the interview, but we felt so elated from the historic events of the evening that we were wide awake, though a bit inarticulate, for the interview.

Most recently, I travelled to Athens with Ryan and Vicki, and it was a superb bonding experience. In addition to helping each other slather Vaseline all over our bodies before the marathon and sharing Gatorade/water bottles and sponges during the race, we took the time to explore the city together. Within an hour of arriving in Athens on Friday night, we took a night walk up to a rocky overlook right next to The Acropolis, the sacred hill site, at which the ruins of three temples built in the 5th century BC can be seen: The Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion. To get there, we walked up Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, a beautiful, curving road filled with arts & crafts vendors, as well as bustling cafés and shops, in the daytime. We returned to The Acropolis during the day and walked all around the rock, which offered spectacular views of the various shades of white buildings that compose Athens. Other memorable events included dining at two quaint outdoor cafés with our whole group of marathon runners, about 12 of us in all (the rest were a jovial, super-fit group of friends from Vicki’s Naval Academy). The peaceful ambiance and our getting-to-know-you conversations were broken by constant hawking in our faces by street vendors peddling anything from lottery tickets to remote-control airplanes to scrubbing pads for pots and pans. These motley intruders made our dining experience both entertaining and irritating. After the marathon, we gorged on Greek and Mediterranean pizza at a cozy pizza parlor near our hotel, which provided just the carbohydrate-binge our bodies craved…ahhh, I love olive oil-soaked bread! The Athens Experience came to an end with a delightful breakfast at a café on the main square in the heart of Athens, which had served as our rendezvous during the whole weekend: Constitution Square, or Syntagma Square, where Parliament is located. I highly recommend trying cream-filled honey croissants and Greek yoghurt with cinnamon and honey, treats Vicki and I shared.

Though I live relatively far from other Scholars, we have found many opportunities to see one another and to travel together, as one can probably tell. I am in awe of the other scholars, and I have so much fun around them. I get a kick out of discovering their skills, interests, and quirks—Erin can do handstands on the edge of a cliff; José is the best and most upbeat travel partner one could wish for and ‘has a thing’ for transportation systems; Ryan runs fast and reads Nietzsche almost just as quickly; Katie is a true “Galway Girl,” playing traditional music in bars in Galway; Catherine does hilarious animal impressions, which are just one part of her vast comedic arsenal; Tyler has already won a dissertation grant to study same-sex marriage legislation throughout Europe and has endeared himself to all of us with his southern charm; Vicki, who exercises endless patience in the face of my ignorant questions about the Naval Academy and the military, somehow manages to be a subtle leader and motivator at the same time that she is relaxed and laid-back (it makes her an outstanding travel partner); Adam’s advanced card tricks baffle the mind, no matter how many times you see them; Chris is a natural-born professor and is my go-to guy for information on the Israel-Palestine conflict; Andrea knows how to jig Irish-style and is a skilled debater; and Travis, a master of email quips, can explain artificial intelligence and ride a bike at the same time.

These are some of the adventures I have experienced in my year thus far in Northern Ireland. Just three months ago, I was doing full-time outreach with a non-profit human rights organization in Newark, New Jersey, searching for victims of human trafficking in detention centers, strip clubs, massage parlors, youth shelters, streets, and farm camps. Now, I find myself surrounded by completely new people, studies, cultures, and places. The adjustment was considerable, but my program and experiences here in Northern Ireland are teaching me that openness to change and to difference constitutes one of the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, imperatives we face as individuals and as communities, if we are to create more just and equitable societies. I look forward to immersing myself more deeply into the study of how to end the many conflicts that perpetuate oppression throughout the world. The field of Peace and Conflict Studies has already provided fresh tools, vocabulary, and lenses for approaching the problem of human trafficking, and I hope it will be possible to channel all of this idealistic excitement into concrete research and community activism in the upcoming months. Also, I will most certainly continue to frolic through Derry/Londonderry and through more of Europe—not everyone has the freedom to explore, and I do not take this privilege for granted. I am so grateful to Mary Lou Hartman, Trina Vargo, and the U.S.-Ireland Alliance for making all of these opportunities possible. I am sending these reflections from magnificent, balcony- and museum-filled Barcelona, where I have come with many of the Scholars, so it seems fitting to end by saying ¡hasta pronto!

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