The View One Year Ago

One year ago today, I stood with the other international students from Ulster University-Jordanstown. We lined up to take in our first view at Giant’s Causeway.

It was sunny, fairly warm despite the sea’s cool breeze. We walked down the path, poured off of it, and began exploring a bit. I remember standing alone of the edge of a cliff and thinking, “Wow… I’m really in Northern Ireland.” The realization crashed into me like the waves crashed into the rocks below me.

It’s always a shock to actively realize where I am. I first got that feeling on Cannon Hill in Staunton one night after watching a sunset. I felt so at home, but also startled, realizing I was in one of the most unique and charming little towns in the country.

The second time I got it was in Oaxaca, when I was in my host mom’s house listening to the musical language of Spanish, that I could suddenly not speak a word of, and feeling like I left my stomach on the plane. There, it was more of a terrifying realization. Thankfully, once I overcame that first night, I settled in well.

And the third time was Giant’s Causeway, a year ago today. That feeling continued through the day, and it recurred throughout the several months that I studied at Ulster Uni. Something about consciously thinking about my place in the world during those three months was incredibly powerful.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

Thinking back, I wouldn’t change a thing about that gorgeous day in Northern Ireland. So here’s to another year of (mis)adventures, getting lost, and falling down on my rear end (which I did at Giant’s Causeway and most outdoor excursions, because I’m talented)!


Reflecting on My Time in Northern Ireland

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been home for almost two months. During this time, I’ve done a lot of thinking and reflecting on my semester abroad. I can definitely say that coming back to the states is a lot harder than going to Northern Ireland was. Still, I learned a lot and I figured I’d share a little bit about what I learned and how my experiences are shaping my future.

Without further ado, I give you the top ten things I realized both in Northern Ireland and following my return.

No. 1: I don’t understand Americans.

Talking to other Americans is often hard. Since I’ve come back, I’ve realized how hard it is for me to communicate with Americans on certain issues, such as gun rights, health care and affordable higher education.

I’m not saying all Americans are horrible. In fact, some Americans are also quite liberal and agree wholeheartedly with me. The difference is that in Northern Ireland I felt like people understood my opinions, and here I feel like I am constantly having to explain and defend my opinions. I guess that there are some opinions that people will just never understand if they’ve never experienced another set of laws and policies.

No. 2: National pride is a strange thing.

Following my decreased tolerance for so-called “traditional American values,” I’ve also had to recognize what I really think about being an American. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you probably know that I am quite critical of “the system.” Specifically, the American system.

I’ve been frustrated for a long time, but now I feel more distant from my fellow citizens than ever. It’s a strange feeling, but one I’m coming to terms with pretty willingly.

No. 3: I actually like bigger cities.

I never really lived in a big city. My home town doesn’t even have a population of 300 people. The next town over, where I worked and attended high school, has less than 4,000 people. The town in which I am currently living and attending college is just under 24,500 people. In contrast, there are over 280,000 people living in Belfast.

To me, Belfast was huge. Now that I’m back, I feel like everything is just so tiny. I find myself feeling a bit lonely when I don’t see quite so many people out and about. 

No. 4: Plans are overrated (most of the time).

I tend to stress out about what exactly it is I’m doing tomorrow, next week, in the next year, etc. One thing I learned while abroad is that I need to chill out. There were multiple trips that were not well-defined. We made sure that we had key places, travel routes, transportation and a time frame figured out, but we didn’t have detailed plans of what we were doing. Honestly, I think that worked out better. We did a lot of random things off the beaten path that we never would have found by sticking to a strict plan. Life is better when you go with the flow.

No. 5: Be flexible and ready for disaster.

There were a lot of things that didn’t work out on my trip. For example, the weekend we went to Scotland there was a major mudslide which created an impassible roadblock. We had to restructure our entire next day on the fly. Yes, it was frustrating, but we had to take things in stride.

Even when the car took a detour to the ditch on the west coast, we kept calm (okay, I panicked a little) and got the car unstuck. Forrest Gump is always right. “Life is a box of chocolates,” and sometimes you get ones that you don’t like.

No. 6: Be enthusiastic and spontaneous.

Enthusiasm goes a long way. Trying new things and doing every random thing you come across… It’s pretty amazing. I was a lot less reserved while I was abroad because I wanted to have as many experiences as possible.

What I learned from this is that there’s a pretty big world out there. Surprisingly, you’ll still find things that are the same, no matter where you are, and that’s pretty spectacular, too.

No. 7: Living with less is better, not to mention cheaper.

This one was the most difficult upon arriving in Northern Ireland. All I took with me was one bag of checked luggage, one carry-on, and my backpack. The first night there I didn’t even have bedding.

I remember the first day realizing that the main things to concern myself with were food and water. I didn’t get to go shopping for bedding, kitchen items, and general things that I needed for school and my room in the flat until the next day.

Throughout the semester I often found that I didn’t always have everything I needed and often I would have to borrow something from other international students or go out and buy it. However, upon my return to the U.S. I suddenly feel smothered by stuff.

I’ve been doing my best to shove everything away into the basement (at home) and closet (in the apartment). I’ve found that a more minimalist lifestyle is comfortable for me, especially if I’m traveling.

No. 8: Remember what matters most.

One thing that I’m finding incredibly important is to preserve memories. I did so much in such a short amount of time and while I remember the general things I did, like visiting Edinburgh and hiking at Giant’s Causeway, there were also a lot of little things that were important to me, like remembering how the layers of paint looked on a special piece of graffiti art, or how I stayed up late into the night talking to other international students about politics over some wine.

Part of what I’ve done in response to this is print off the photos that meant the most to me. Each photo has a story to it. Maybe there was a particular joke or conversation, or maybe one of us did something stupid at that place. Maybe I had a realization there.

My photo album contains a unique collection of memories that mean something to me but is also a medium for me to show others some of the things that I saw and experienced.

My album, which many of you may have already seen.

No. 9: Friends made abroad are some of the best friends you’ll have.

This one is pretty special, but it’s not quite the most important thing I learned. I made some amazing friends (and found a twin!) in Northern Ireland despite the short amount of time we had together. I feel very privileged to have had the time to both meet and get to know people from all over the world. I hope I have the pleasure of crossing paths with everyone again!

No. 10: I have the confidence to live abroad.

The most important thing I learned while abroad is to that I am confident in new places. I didn’t know anyone the day I arrived. Everyone I met was brand new to me. Everywhere I went was different. Simple things, like figuring out how the electrical outlets worked, were different enough that I had to alter my everyday routine, if ever so slightly.

While abroad I learned to cook, use (some) public transportation and (sort of) drive a manual car among other things. There was always something different, but somehow I loved every moment of it (well… maybe not Dublin). In response to this, I’ve been thinking pretty seriously about where I want to be after I graduate. In the past I’ve been very confused by this question. Now I’ve realized the answer is simple: Europe.

That’s right! I’ve decided to get lost all over again by the end of 2015. I’m currently looking at graduate schools in Germany. That time spent in Mexico made me pretty confident that I can be outgoing enough to immerse myself in a new language comfortably. Also, Germany has tuition-free programs in English that will help me continue along my path to becoming a changemaker.

This may be the end of my story in Northern Ireland, but it’s not the end of my travels. I’ll keep you all posted on my graduate school status as well as sharing a few mini-adventures along the way.

Until my next adventure…


Where Exactly Was I?

Alright. I think it’s about time to get something straight. Contrary to popular belief, I haven’t spent the past three months in Ireland. Yes, I did travel to Ireland, but I’ve actually been living in Northern Ireland. What’s the difference?

Before I explain, I’d like to point out that I’m not an expert. I can only relay what I learned in my politics class and what I learned through personal experience. I hereby make the disclaimer that anything I say is what I observed, and not an attack on or defense of anything that has happened in the region. With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Northern Ireland is a part of the island of Ireland. You can see it is the dark part shown below. Even though it’s on the island, it’s technically a part of the United Kingdom. In case you didn’t know, the official name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In all, the UK has four parts: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Image from BBC

So that means I was really living on British territory the whole time? Yes! But what about the rest of the island? The rest of the island is what we commonly think of as “Ireland.” It is officially called the Republic of Ireland.

Now you’re probably wondering how on Earth Northern Ireland came to be a part of the UK. Let me give you a brief history.

In the beginning, of this history lesson at least, Ireland was an island ruled by various clans and families. There was no centralized government and Ireland wasn’t really a country; however, across the Irish Sea was England, a powerful neighbor.

So do you remember that crazy English king that had all those wives? King Henry VIII was his name. If you’ll recall, he was desperate for the same thing all kings wanted: a male heir. The problem was, his wife, Catherine of Aragon, didn’t give him one. So, Henry VIII asked the pope for a divorce which was denied. Obviously, that didn’t make the king happy and led to England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church.

As a result of the separation, England is a Protestant country. You probably remember a certain saint, St. Patrick, who was one of many missionaries in Ireland. So by this time, most of Ireland had been converted to Catholicism.

At the beginning of Henry VIII’s time on the throne, England had already established their rule in some parts of Ireland, including Ulster where I was studying. Henry made the decision to conquer all the rest of Ireland during his rule. Like I said, there wasn’t a central Irish government and there certainly wasn’t an Irish Army, so after some fighting Henry actually did manage to conquer all of Ireland.

Now, add colonialism. At the same time that Jamestown was being established in America, a plantation was also being established in Ulster. In Ulster, there was a strong loyalty to England, so some declared themselves Protestants as a show of loyalty. Being Catholic was to be against the king (you know, especially since the king was still mad about that divorce-rejection thing).

As you have probably figured out, this leads to the concentration of Protestants with British loyalty in the northeast part of Ireland with the rest of Ireland remaining solidly Roman Catholic and against British rule.

Fast forward through history a little and we arrive at World War I. The Irish, who were still ruled by the British, were sent to fight in the war. Fighting side-by-side resulted in a temporary stabilizing effect for the duration of the war. After the war, especially with all of Woodrow Wilson’s talk about national self-determination, the Irish wanted more than ever to address the issue of their nationality once and for all.

Britain took a look at the island of Ireland and thought, well, overall the majority of the island wants to be their own nation. In six of the northern counties, however, the majorities wanted to remain a part of Britain. Thus, we have partition in 1920 with the Government of Ireland Act. This effectively said there will be a Northern Ireland and a Southern Ireland, each to be governed separately with their own Home Rule, but still a part of British territory.

As you can imagine, the Irish in the South still weren’t happy, and they launched an Irish War of Independence. This eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty which made the South their own Irish nation in 1922. In 1949, it officially declared itself the Republic of Ireland, which is what we are familiar with today.

But… What about Northern Ireland? Like I said, they were majority Protestant, loyalists, unionists. (Okay, majority by gerrymandering.) Most of them wanted to be ruled by Britain instead of this Home Rule stuff they were being given. So no, they weren’t happy either. But it wasn’t just that simple.

The minority was Catholic (this “side” was also referred to as nationalists and republicans), and they wanted a united Ireland. In reality, though it seems like the problem was solved, it was really just being managed and ignored with some easy solution that neither side was really happy with.

Enter Northern Irish Conflict, otherwise known as “The Troubles.”

Mural in West Belfast featuring Bobby Sands.

There was a lot of turmoil and unrest, and in Londonderry / Derry on 5 October 1968 tensions finally boiled over at a civil rights march. Marches and parades were common during this time, and the riots and violence they caused eventually led to the British Army coming to Northern Ireland in 1969. With things getting ever worse, in 1972 Northern Ireland returned to Direct Rule by the British.

At this point the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a nationalist paramilitary, was in for “the long war,” willing to accept nothing other than British withdrawal and a united Ireland. So, a period of several decades of violence ensued. There were bombings, open warfare in the streets, and other horrible acts of violence.

I won’t sugar coat it. This time of roughly thirty years (up to 1998) was awful. If you don’t know anything about the history of the conflict, I would encourage you to do some reading on it, watch some videos, and be ever mindful of the prejudices from both sides while doing so.

From the Troubles, on display in Linen Hall Library.

This period of conflict was a horrible cycle of “you bombed us so now we will bomb you” on both sides. Paramilitary organizations were often the local “protectors,” acting as police, jury, and executioner all at once. Parades continued, as did the riots.

A couple of stabs at peace were made, including the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. In this, the British government and the Irish government agreed to work together on containing the situation in Northern Ireland, work on issues of reconciliation, and provide international support for the region. It held up, but it didn’t bring peace.

It wasn’t until the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) in 1998 that the peace, or at least a framework for it, seemed to have arrived. Even with the agreement, there were still considerable issues to be addressed, including rights and equality, policing, parades, prisoners, victims, and decommissioning of weapons.

There are some successes here. Decommissioning is complete and the permanent disbanding of the paramilitaries has occurred. A police force, called the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI), is functioning fully today. Many prisoners have been released, with limitations. And in 2007, Northern Ireland was able to finally have a devolved government again.

However, many questions still remain. Who counts as a victim? What about the prisoners who were treated unfairly? Is the PSNI actually better, or is it just the same people who were active in paramilitaries performing the same discrimination as before? Which flags do you fly, and when, and where? Who can have parades, and is it okay to do them along the historical routes, even if they go through areas that aren’t of the same community? Should the peace walls come down? How should issues of housing be addressed? Should the school system be integrated?

Yeah, Northern Ireland isn’t perfect. But as a foreigner who lived there for several months, I can tell you that it’s gorgeous, the people are the nicest I’ve ever met, it’s safe and it’s recovering. It hasn’t even been ten years since Northern Ireland got a devolved government, and not yet twenty since the Good Friday Agreement, but I would definitely say it’s healing and well worth a visit.

Beautiful Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, in the background.

Which side was ultimately right? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.


A Spontaneous Hike

On Saturday, a friend and I decided on a whim to pack up and go for a hike, even though it was already noon and there were only about four hours of daylight left. (The sun sets way too early for November…)

So we gathered up a little food, got some petrol, and started off for Castelwellan Forest Park. When we arrived, the clouds had taken over and soon the daylight would be on its way out. These factors made for intriguing lighting along our little hike. As we arrived, we found that there was a castle. As it was getting dark we wanted to get on with our walk so we snapped a photo and moved on.
Our path took us up a hill and passed by a mountain bike trail, which was very dark and foreboding. The light coming through the pine trees was quite interesting.
It had been raining quite a bit and near the top of the hill we found a little lake that had drainage going down the side of the mountain and was drawing water out of the overflowing pond at a fast rate. We found some clovers along here, which were actually the first I had seen in Ireland. Go figure.
When we finally reached the top of the hill in our lovely hike, we had a view of the sunset Mourne Mountains, and the sea off to the left.

We hiked back down the hill as the last daylight was fading, then, as all uni students do, decided we were hungry. We had dinner in a restaurant by the sea called Mourne Seafood Bar.

I very much appreciated that we sat right next to the toasty fireplace. For a starter, we had some freshly baked bread and dips. Then, we moved onto the main attraction: fish and chips! The food was delicious and the portion sizes were generous. I’d have to say that this dinner was truly the highlight of my weekend.So, there you have it! A very short post for a very short excursion!


One Month Gone Already

Today marks one month since I arrived. I can’t believe that it’s just gone by like that. I realize that the rest will probably pass just as quickly, and that makes me even more desperate to cherish every precious moment that I still have here.

In celebration of being here one month, I’d like to address some things that flat out confuse me, bewilder me or make me genuinely wonder about myself.

No. 1: Cheese

What is with the cheese here? I wanted to have a little on hand to use, to make a quick little quesadilla snack or to put on bread with lettuce for a quick and easy bite when I’m busy. Problem is, all they have is this white cheddar. It’s everywhere! You can also find a small selection of what I’m guessing are all some kinds of French cheeses, but absolutely no colby jack. No queso fresco. Just white cheddar.

No. 2: Automatic Doors

It seems to me like every door in the main building of our university is an automatic door. So what’s the problem, you ask? The problem is you have to push a button to open it. And I walk past this button often. Or worse, the door is already open, and right when I try to walk through it the door starts to shut… And I do most certainly at that point run into it.

No. 3: Different Sizes of Currency

This one is actually ingenious. Differently valued bills have different sizes. For example, a 5£ note is smaller than a 10£ note. Don’t ask me why this amuses me, because it just does….

No. 4: Driving

Not that I’ve been driving around the UK, and I know that they drive on the left wrong side of the road here, but it’s still strange to actually be in a taxi and be on the left side. Especially if you are sitting in the front seat.

No. 5: Obsession with Fire

This one is just plain weird. I really don’t understand it, but the Northern Irish have some kind of obsession with fire. It goes something like, “You must keep the doors closed at all times because they are fire doors. Fire is very bad. Fire is dangerous. Fire will kill you. So you will keep the doors closed, or you will die.”

We have heard so much about fire safety here, and I find this somewhat ironic because it rains a lot and is super humid here. Therefore, wouldn’t the logical thought be that there is a very low chance of fire?

No. 6: Race

I don’t think I was prepared for this one. When I went to Oaxaca, I knew going into it that I would be part of the racial minority. Mentally, I was ready for that. However, Northern Ireland is different. I know that I am part of a racial majority in my home community, but there is at least some kind of diversity. I also knew ahead of time that there is far less racial diversity here.

What I wasn’t prepared for is how much less diversity there really is. Only 2% of the population is a racial minority in Northern Ireland, and I wonder if anyone here is really aware of their white privilege. Judging from the conversation I heard in the kitchen last week, I know that at least one local is not.

No. 7: Single Rooms

More than anything, I am grateful for this. I have my own room! In the US, you always have at least one roommate if you live on-campus except in extenuating circumstances. But here in Europe, they value privacy (thankfully).

I really enjoy having my own room. Also, having a full communal kitchen which I share with only four other people is really nice. At Baldwin, in the last several dorms I have lived in, the whole dorm shared one kitchen, and in the last dorm that I lived in this kitchen only had a microwave, not even a stove. Go figure.

No. 8: Co-Ed Living

For most of the people here, this probably doesn’t even cross their minds. However, this is a new one for me. In high school, I hung out with basically all guys. Then, I chose to go to a women’s college. Which means that this is the very first time I’ve ever lived in a co-ed dorm.

How do I like having males around me again? I LOVE IT. Having friends again who aren’t just women is fantastic! Being here has made me kind of wish I’d gone to a co-ed college in the first place….

No. 9: International Student Perks

Being an international student means that I get to mix with the other international students. So basically, I know very few locals, but I have great friends from a lot of different countries!

This, I think, is even better than having a lot of Northern Irish friends because I am being exposed to so many more cultures. Either way, everyone who isn’t American has some kind of accent that makes it difficult for me to understand them, so every conversation is a (good) challenge!

No. 10: Tea and Chocolate

I’ve known for a while that I have a chocolate addiction, but let me explain to you how bad it really is. I have four boxes of butter biscuits, three bars of Galaxy with caramel, a bar of Cadbury chocolate with caramel, two bars of Swiss chocolate brought from southern Germany by another international student, and a box of Turkish Delight (ginger stuff covered in dark chocolate).

All of this chocolate is all in my room. I’m going through it rather slowly, and it will be quite a while before I buy more. Just note that I do admit to having a serious chocolate problem.

Not only this, but I’ve developed a tea addiction. Right now I have three different types of tea in the kitchen, and I probably drink at least one mug of tea every day. One day recently I even drank five. I never have liked drinking tea in the States. How did this change come about?

All the tea…

In conclusion, I’m learning more and more about myself, how I think the world should work, and how some people actually try to make it work. Some of these things (those automatic doors) are frustrating, but a lot of other stuff is intriguing and has been a good learning experience for me.