Familiarity & Surprise

As I approach the halfway mark for my time in Ireland, two things are happening: (1) my surrounds feel increasingly comfortable, homelike, and familiar and (2) I am becoming aware of new aspects of this country that I never before saw, recognized, or, much less, understood.

These two experiences seem, in many respects, contradictory. I would expect that as a place becomes more familiar, it would surprise me less.  But, something else seems to be happening. As I understand more about the landscape and people around me, greater depths and layers are revealed. Perhaps it is only naiveté that could have led me to think this would not be the case, but nonetheless, I continue to be fascinated by what I observe.

It was just this week that I learned that an ordinary looking townhouse very close to where I lived was far more than the single-family dwelling I took it for. The discovery came as I was looking online for a place to hear live music, and I was surprised to find a listing within a kilometer of my house. When I looked at the address, I was further perplexed – it was right in the midst of a residential street, in an area that I had walked through many times.

I did a bit more digging and discovered that the townhouse was actually an Irish language and cultural institution – replete with Irish language classes, traditional music sessions, a crowd of regulars (one of whom I spoke to has been attending since the early 70s), and yes, a pub in the basement. Six months in, it was a surprise to find this in my own backyard.

And so it goes in many ways across this island.  The more I have seen postcard-perfect scenes of green hills ending abruptly in a cliff at waters’ edge, the more I believe that I must have seen the most beautiful and dramatic of the country’s landscape. But, thus far, I have been proven wrong on this count multiple times.

During a hike over winter break, after trekking through a damp, muddy peat bog for an hour at the tip of the peninsula in County Mayo, the trail turned a corner just before a sheer drop to previously unseen water below. It turned out that land that we had seen ahead of us was in fact a small island no more than 100 feet off the shore from the mainland. As we neared the valley of water that divided us from the island, we could see white water foaming as the ocean swept into the crevice and gulls soared in the chasm.

So, even as I become more familiar with my neighborhood, more traveled across Ireland, and more knowledgeable about local issues, I am constantly reminded that there is far more yet to be revealed.

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