March 2009 Reflection

“One more thing—,” Eriko croaked to me with a sly grin and a dramatic pause, “I met Michael J. Fox!” My flatmate, rendered mute all last week by a nasty case of bronchitis, finally regained enough of her voice this morning to recount some adventures from her recent trip to Bhutan, the world’s only country to measure ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). According to my good friend, Google, Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia and ranks among the top ten happiest countries in the world. While downing packets of Japanese medicinal powder and popping pills with the aid of a warm cup of tea, Eriko recounted how she and her Japanese tour group unexpectedly bumped into Fox and an ABC filming crew while hiking deep in the Himalayan mountains. It seems that the star was also en route to the Taktshang Monastery in Paro (a district in western Bhutan), where Eriko and her partners were headed. I was floored. She didn’t just meet the man. She hugged him and conversed for a short while. When she told him she was studying in Northern Ireland, he told her that his mother lived for a time in Belfast. Who would’ve thunk it? Eriko also explained that she and some of her travel mates were interested in the idea that the continued prevalence of matriarchal values plays a significant role in creating such a peaceful, contented culture in Bhutan. Besides getting to tell Michael J. Fox in person how much she enjoyed watching “Back to the Future” as a kid, Eriko experienced many other impromptu meetings throughout her two-week trip to Bhutan. In each meeting, she was thoroughly impressed by the warmth of those she met, who “are so grateful for what they have,” in Eriko’s words. She said it was good for her soul to meet such content, friendly people.

The past few months have indeed been a time of meetings for my flatmates and me, some chance and some planned. Most notably for me, the other scholars and I had the opportunity to meet Senator George J. Mitchell in Dublin at the end of February. The meeting was incredible. The encounter might as well have taken place on a mountain trail in Bhutan, because I would have gone anywhere to have the chance to meet Senator Mitchell. But we were very lucky; he came right to this dear island on his way to tour the Middle East as President Obama’s new Special Envoy to the region. Much of the meeting centered, quite appropriately, on Mitchell’s thoughts about the complex nature of the Palestine-Israel conflict. The meeting timed amazingly well with my Peace and Conflict Studies coursework this semester; that very week my classes focused on the history and politics of conflicts in the Middle East. I thanked my lucky stars I was not the same ignoramus I had been just two weeks earlier with respect to the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, or I would not have understood much of what Sen. Mitchell had to say about it. I feel grateful to my masters program for finally enlightening me about many of the complexities behind our contemporary world’s major conflicts.

Speaking of one of those major conflicts: Senator Mitchell also spoke to us briefly about the experience of being at the center of the Northern Ireland peace process. He emphasized the importance of regarding peace as a fragile and continual process and not as a given point to be taken for granted (note: this is my impression of what he said, not a direct quotation!). His words assume even greater importance now, less than a month later, when Northern Ireland is appearing in international media sources almost daily because of the outburst of violence that occurred last week with the murders by I.R.A. dissidents of two British soldiers and later of a PSNI constable near Belfast. The coming together of thousands in January for the annual Bloody Sunday Commemoration March and Rally here in Derry marked another memorable meeting. For a good part of the march, my classmates and I marched just paces behind two men who have appeared in the news a great deal in the past week: Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. In light of the recent, particularly brutal Israeli offensive on Palestinians, hundreds of marchers waved Palestinian flags. The march raised many questions for me about how distinct conflicts may be linked to one another, either by participants in those conflicts or by outsiders. The jury is still out regarding any concrete conclusions on that topic…

This city has been filled with events that bring together all sorts of people—I was thrilled to connect with other feminist-activist women from all over in two separate events held at the Guildhall: the Foyle Day of Action on Domestic Violence and a seminar on “Embracing Diversity” organized by a well-known feminist NGO based in Dublin, Hanna’s House. I continued to revel in the diversity of other feminist activists when I traveled to Madrid in mid-February and met with women from two of the core organizations concentrating on the issue of human trafficking in Spain. In additional to the professional exhilaration I felt upon meeting leaders in the Spanish anti-trafficking movement, I got my share of carefree vacationing while in sunny Madrid. I stayed with a friend, who treated me to some of the best mariscos (seafood) I’ve ever eaten and who showed me a glimpse of the hot salsa dancing scene in Madrid. We also danced tango for the very first time, attending the €10 instructional session before a milonga with mainly retired couples whose simultaneous grace and groove I adored. I have to say that, despite my occasional teasing remarks about the city’s ostentatious architecture, my visit to Madrid was one of the best ‘weekend getaway’ trips I have ever taken.

That said, nothing beats my latest meeting: at the beginning of March, I reunited with my mother and with a good family friend of ours, Incho. They stayed for a whole week. Charged up each morning with a full Ulster fry breakfast (bless Northern Irish B&Bs!) and armed with a rental car, we toured the whole west coast of Ireland. We saw County Donegal for the first time and dipped down into the south, reaching the majestic Connemara Mountains, Yeats country, Galway, and Limerick. A veteran of touring Derry since my brother and friend visited in January, I took my mother and friend to see all the great sites here, which of course included a visit to the critically-acclaimed Tower Museum. The staff burst into laughter when they saw me walk in the door, and I was hit with a barrage of well-aimed quips: “I hope someone here is paying you for bringing in so many new customers!” “Sure, why don’t you just head on into the staff room, since you come in here as much as we do…you must work here!” The kind-hearted employees were impressed that I would keep returning to their museum, and they let me in for free. What can I say? I love seeing the beheaded dude in the ‘Siege of Derry’ section, who looks like he was stolen right out of a haunted house. Or there’s the life-sized statue of the English explorer who, clad in orange shoes resembling modern-day Crocs, charted much of the territory up north before being killed by locals who did not appreciate being ‘discovered.’ Or how about the carriage from ‘one of Ireland’s greatest love stories,’ the legendary tale of “Half-Hung McNaughton”? Poor McNaughton was a potentially gold-digging man who accidentally shot his true love (whose family also happened to be quite wealthy) while attempting to extract the fourteen-year-old from a carriage which the girl’s disapproving father was using to transport her away from McNaughton. He was eventually captured for the murder of the girl and sentenced to be publicly hanged in Strabane. On the big day, the rope broke, however, and the crowd urged McNaughton to go free. He declared, however, that he did not want to be known as ‘half-hanged McNaughton,’ so he bade the hangman take a second try, which then succeeded. Don’t you just love the irony that his act of bravery was for naught, given his current moniker? All this history is too rich to miss! I could never get sick of visiting the Tower Museum.

Spring has begun popping up its head in these parts, in the form of brilliantly-colored crocuses and daffodils on the Magee campus, or the occasional sunny, warm day, but just when I feel ready to declare it officially springtime, we are quickly plunged back into cold, rainy, and grey days. In an effort to create a more lasting (if small-scale) spring, I bought a hyacinth and a begonia for our flat, so Block 12 has been filled with lovely lavender and yellow blossoms for the past couple of weeks. I hope nature takes the cue and gives the yearning masses (err, me) the warmth and growth we (I) so desire. I’m off now to return some overdue books to the university library. The hardest cultural difference for me to overcome here is being charged 50p a day for overdue books instead of the ‘nickel a day’ to which I’ve been accustomed my whole life. I already tried that angle on the librarians here, and they aren’t having it. It seems I must accept that my shelves and pockets will both be empty in a matter of minutes. *sigh*

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