January 2009 Reflection

I just completed my last final exam from the past semester and find myself sitting on a tall stool in the snug, second-floor library café on my campus. Despite an impromptu post-test debriefing with my classmates in front of “the castle building” (as we affectionately call our beautiful, Gothic Great Hall), my brain is still buzzing with key phrases I learned for our exam essays, such as “the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” “there’s a difference between a wink and a blink,” and “war cannot be eliminated without eliminating patriarchy.” Before entering the café, I browsed the stacks and picked two “français facile” yellow, level-one books (one day I aspire to reading the blue and green ones) for an upcoming assignment in my French class. The series is aimed at novice French students. Basically, the publishers take classic works of literature and boil them down to limited baby banter vocabulary that is more digestible to beginners such as myself.

Having just reveled in watching the film “Slumdog Millionaire” while I visited London with my brother and his girlfriend last week, I could not help but choose Dumas’ masterpiece, Les trois mousquetaires. It looks like a real bodice-ripper, going by the illustration on page 41. I also picked up another great work, La petite Fadette, for two reasons: first, George Sand fascinates me, but I have not yet read her works; and second, I get a kick out of the ‘period costume’ photo on the book cover, which features our ostracized heroine in a dirt-stained, hot-pink long skirt, paired with clogs and a tattered brown shawl, plopped atop a cartful of dingy hay.

I took these two pocket-sized treasures to the café, where I have treated myself to a “fifteens” bar with my tea, to celebrate finishing my course exams. This (the treat, not the test) marks a personal achievement in overcoming the wariness that other American students and I experienced when we first encountered fifteens, which are a wacky combination of sugar-laden goodies, including: 15 candied cherries, 15 digestive biscuits (i.e., cookies), 15 marshmallows, and 15 chopped walnuts, all mixed together into ‘sausage’ shapes and rolled in coconut shavings. They are a two-year-old’s heaven, a tooth’s worst nightmare.

So. Here I sit, with my raspberry tea and pure-sugar bar, reflecting on my most recent experiences as a Mitchell Scholar. Looking back on this morning and forward to the events I foresee occurring later today, it strikes me that maybe I should take the approach of using the particular to reveal a slice of the larger picture, by sharing a small piece of my life here — say, a day. To clarify what follows: I took a break from writing a running account of today’s events, and thus the rest of this entry describes what already happened today, post-fifteens bar.

The café started to fill as the lunch rush hit, and a young man sat next to me to eat a cup of soup with brown bread (my favorite lunch this winter, incidentally). I had been puzzling over the ‘bodice-ripper’ sketch for some time now, applying the same attention span and skills that a preschooler might give to figuring out a picture book. From what I gathered, some guy who is not one of the musketeers decided to tear off part of a pretty woman’s bodice, thereupon discovering she has concealed a musketeers’ logo tattooed on her shoulder. She’s not very happy about her ripped dress and looks as though she might punch the man in retribution, because her right fist has the little ‘motion/action’ parentheses around it. I felt ashamed for adulterating a classic work in this way and decided to take a chance on the soup kid next to me, to remedy the situation. I turned to him and asked if he had ever studied any French, and when he began to say, “Well, a little…” I immediately pleaded with him to help me understand the illustration in question. We worked on the dilemma for at least 15 minutes, until we realized the sketch did not even correspond with the text on the opposing page. At that point, he had to leave, but we introduced ourselves. An undergraduate music student in his final year, he invited me to come to his performance assessment recital in the campus fine arts building later this evening.

I had my first doctor’s appointment at the local hospital this afternoon, but I had just enough time beforehand to join many of my Peace and Conflict Studies classmates in a celebratory lunch at one of the most well-known restaurants in the city centre, “Flaming Jacks.” After our get-together, I caught a cab over to the hospital on the Waterside of the city. When I hopped into the cab, and the driver asked where I was headed, he reacted to my accent immediately. “Are you a damn Yankee?” he smacked with an air of playful melodrama. He and I then discussed the oncoming sunset of the Bush administration during the short ride, and when we arrived I discovered, much to my chagrin, that cab fares double upon crossing the river. On top of that downer, I cannot say that my hospital visit was a pleasant experience, but the posters in the waiting room did teach me some new local vocabulary (note to self: ‘dummies’ = pacifiers, not idiots).

To save cab fare on the way back, I decided to walk home, which was about three miles away. The gusting northern winds teased me with hints of spring warmth and whisked my long hair in all directions, probably making me look somewhat like the book cover depiction of Sand’s bedraggled French heroine. For the very first time (I am ashamed to admit), I walked along the curbs painted in Union Jack colors in Protestant neighborhoods of the Waterside. Just as I crossed Craigavon Bridge back to the City Centre (incidentally, it is the only double-decker road bridge in Europe!), I was hit with large droplets of rain. My French class would begin soon, anyway, so I decided to break down and call a cab.

That single decision has rekindled my belief in serendipity. Still feeling the sting of the doubled fare exacted by my ‘tried-and-true’ cab company, I called a new taxi service I had never tried before. The cab driver who picked me up was a local Derry man whose family had immigrated to Northern Ireland from China several decades ago. We began conversing, and I shared my interest in the issue of human trafficking. At that moment, we began one of the most engaging five-minute conversations I have experienced. The man shared all sorts of information about immigrant flows to Northern Ireland from Hong Kong vs. Mainland China, cultural differences between the two regions, and human trafficking networks within the Asian communities of Northern Ireland. I was stunned. In my work with an anti-trafficking organization in the United States, I searched for people like this man, who were concerned about the issue of trafficking and willing to share whatever information they knew about trafficking networks. They are rare birds. “How did I get so lucky as to step right into the taxi of one such individual in Derry, of all places?” I wondered to myself. The generous man shared his contact information with me and said he would answer any other questions I might have. Huzzah!

Filled with excitement from my lucky cab ride, I bounded off to my evening French class, where we learned how to count calories and to say “I don’t want any bread; I just started a diet yesterday” in French. Our class emitted several collective groans throughout the evening in response to the bizarre quality of our outdated, early-1990s textbook. During our tea break in the library café, we discussed the huge jazz festival coming up in Derry in May (the second largest on the whole island, right behind the Cork festival). After class, I headed straight to the student recital, where my new friend performed masterful piano and harpsichord pieces, and other students chimed in on the classical guitar, the violin, and voice. I must note with great pleasure that the short recital was broken up by an oh-so-Northern-Irish tea and shortcake break.

I walked from the concert to the flat of my classmates, Sam and Heather, just a block from campus, where many of us were going to meet before heading out for drinks and karaoke. On my way to their flat, I passed by the bar where we had all planned to go tonight, which is just around the corner from their apartment. A whole squad of at least a dozen police officers, each armed with bulletproof vests and machine guns, stood on the sidewalk in front of the bar. One of them suddenly crossed my path and instructed me, his gun almost brushing my arm, to please cross the road, as the area in front of me was blocked off. I quickly saw why. About four or five young men were lined up, arms in handcuffs behind their backs, along the pub walls, waiting to be taken away. As I walked up the street leading to my friends’ flat and rounded the corner onto the little lane on which they live, I jumped in surprise, because I nearly bumped into two more armed officers who were hidden around the corner. They laughed awkwardly as I dashed off, heart racing. I believe that is the closest I have ever been to a machine gun.

I drank some wine at Heather and Sam’s place and chatted with several classmates, my flatmates Dacia and Brigitta, and even my youngest French teacher, who also came out tonight. Before heading out, I had a much-needed heart-to-heart with one of my close friends and classmates. Understandably, our group ended up going out somewhere other than the bar next to the police raid, opting instead for ‘Thursday night salsa dancing’ at Beckett’s Bar downtown. We met a young woman from Tanzania there, who joined our all-female salsa circle out on the dance floor. When the music took a turn for the worse—which usually happens around midnight—we packed up our things and parted ways.

I came home to my cozy little room and watched some “Daily Show” online, listened to M.I.A.’s “Paper Plane” (from the soundtrack of “Slumdog Millionaire”) on YouTube at least a dozen times, and caught up on email. Most notably, I solidified a meeting with a human trafficking researcher at Queen’s University for early next week, an encounter I have looked forward to for a long time. Also, after the exam this morning, I spoke briefly with my professor, Paul Arthur, about a disturbing racist/anti-immigrant incident I witnessed downtown right before the holidays, which reminded me to send an email to a local human rights organization asking for information on local immigrant rights work.

Finally, before putting together this “diary of a day,” I worked on organizing and downsizing photos from my recent holiday travels, which included visits to Sweden, Edinburgh, London, and new sights in Derry/Londonderry. I am trying to be better in 2009 about sending family and friends photos of my experiences here. The photos, I realized, create a nice timeline of the past month. To celebrate Christmas, I visited Sweden and stayed with my brother-in-law’s family. I ice-skated with hockey-playing young men, whom I dubbed ‘incredible ice monkeys’; ate homemade gourmet Christmas cookies; became inspired by home-cooked feasts to prepare more than salads and omelettes for myself back in Derry; sang schnapps songs; read a Swedish book to a four-year-old in invented English (think preschooler-trying-to-understand-a-picture-book, once more) while he spoke Swedish to me, neither of us understanding a word the other said, but nevertheless happy as clams; attending an early dawn Christmas mass lit only by candles; and got to dress up as Santa Claus for a neighbor’s child. One of my favorite Christmases yet.

I spent New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, Scotland with two fellow scholars, beloved Tyler and Vicki, as well as a new friend, Carlos. We spent the night sharing special moments with dozens of strangers, laughing, running the crowded streets of old Edinburgh, and drinking bitter, though cost-effective, wine. The day after, my brother, Per, and my friend, Susannah, came to visit me. We hung out in Edinburgh with Vicki for a day before heading back to Derry/Londonderry, where we toured the Bogside murals, the Tower Museum, a couple of the oldest churches in Western Europe, and the city walls (all well worth a visit, if not several). After that, Per, Susannah, and I caught a cheap RyanAir flight to London, where we binged on plays for four days, mainly at the National Theatre. We got up early each day to stand in line for discount stand-by tickets, which landed us front-row seats to one of the best plays I have ever seen, “August: Osage County”! My holiday vacation ended with driving a rental car from Dublin to Derry and back again (long story), before catching a pint of Guinness with Per and Susannah at the oldest bar in Dublin, “The Brazen Head.” We even met up there with Catherine Fontana and some of her friends from Trinity. I was sorry to say goodbye to Per and Susannah the next morning, but I was also glad to return to my dorms to find that most of my flatmates and classmates had returned from their own vacations, which generated a lively, affectionate reunion amongst all of us.

Since I spent this morning immersed in the work of some of the scholars and social justice activists whose work I most admire, I would like to round out this busy day, filled with many ‘firsts,’ with a nighty-night rumination on the words of one of those scholar-activists, Audre Lorde. Each time I meet new people, see new places, and am exposed to new ideas, I try to bear in mind Lorde’s conviction that embracing difference as a positive, “creative springboard for change,” rather than as a barrier that elicits fear, enables us to create peaceful, interdependent societies. “Difference,” she declared, “must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic” (1984). I don’t know whether or not the sparks are flying yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying my daily experiences with difference here thus far. I remain tremendously grateful to the U.S.-Ireland Alliance and to Mary Lou and Trina for making each of these days possible.

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