For the first time this year, I spent the holiday season away from home. And though I missed Wisconsin (a place often known to my Belfast friends only as the setting of “That ’70s Show”), it was a true delight to spend the holidays with other Mitchells and Northern Ireland friends. In fact, I attended more Thanksgiving celebrations this year than I ever have!
The University of Ulster held an informal Thanksgiving potluck event for international students; scores of UU classmates (from all over the world) attended. The most exciting part of the evening—besides the turkey and home-made pies—was the chance to spend a distinctly American holiday with so many students from other countries, all of whom were eager to learn about the Thanksgiving tradition. For me, explaining the story of the Pilgrims to students from all over Europe crystallized the intercultural understanding that lies at the heart of any exchange program.
Later that week I got the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving again at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Parliament buildings, with a group of American students, Northern Ireland officials, representatives of the American consulate, and others. Once again, I was thrilled by the way that my Northern Ireland hosts so embraced the American holiday; MLAs (government officials in Northern Ireland) and other Belfast locals were eager to understand Thanksgiving and to talk about their own travels to America. The event even featured a table full of turkey-cranberry-stuffing sandwiches!
A final Thanksgiving celebration took place in Dublin with a cohort of fellow Mitchells, hosted by an Irish businessman, Niall O’Farrell. As a future student of business (I recently accepted a place in the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Class of 2014!), I was excited to learn about our host’s experience building an incredibly successful countrywide business (Mr. O’Farrell started the Blacktie formalwear chain) from the ground up. And of course it was a pleasure to celebrate the holiday with the rest of the Mitchell class.
By the time Christmas arrived I had finished my coursework and arrived in Krakow, Poland, with two other current Mitchells. Before coming to Belfast this past autumn I had done almost no international travel, so I was eager to spend three weeks of winter vacation exploring Europe. We spent a few days in Krakow exploring the Christmas markets and cathedrals and one very somber day in Auschwitz. We then moved west to Prague, and after a week in the “city of a hundred spires” (perhaps the most consistently beautiful, exciting city I’ve ever visited), we finished our travels in Budapest (the Turkish baths were—much to my surprise—a highlight). The Mitchell travel stipend was put to good use!
Of course, after traveling for the better part of a month, it was a bit of a relief to arrive back in Belfast to my own apartment and bed. Compared to the previous few weeks on the road, my room at the University of Ulster almost felt like home.