In my program there are twelve students, five of whom sport Cream and Crimson as their colors, myself included. Everyone always wonders if any us knew each other before Dublin, which always seems a foolish question to me because there are tens of thousands of students in Bloomington. Tonight, however, some of our worlds collided.
I didn’t know Colleen or Carrie before Dublin, and they both have friends visiting tonight. I have met Janie and Matt before. They are both studying in Rome. Kat was just visiting from Rome. What? I met Janie because outdoors stuff; she knows Colleen because of volleyball. I know Matt because we both lived in the same dorm; he knows Carrie through Jewish a Capella. I know Kat from Comparative Literature; the three of them are all studying in Rome. Weird connections. People’s lives reaching out and touching each other’s for the briefest of moments in the oddest of ways. I always thought it was something that just happened to me and my siblings in Cincinnati (especially Bridget). Somehow we know everybody and everybody knows us, but I guess that is just how small the world can be. I am thousands upon thousands of miles away and I still know somebody who knows somebody who met this friend one time…maybe I should start asking random people if they know this or that acquaintance, and see what happens.
Well, I’ve had this feeling before, but never under these circumstances. I’ve had snow days, and ice days, and I’ve even had wind days, but today is the first time I’ve ever had a rain day. Apparently all the rain from last night flooded the basement of the IES center and took out a good number of the things necessary to making it run. So I have today to myself…kind of. I do have that big paper due tomorrow, and now I have the whole day available to me to work on it! I’ll do it tonight.
There’s so much you can do with an unexpected free day. Do something you’ve really been meaning to do, walk in the park, read the book you haven’t picked up in a while, explore the area, even, as much as I hate to say it, clean the apartment. There’s only one problem with the unexpected free day…it’s unexpected. So once you find out, you go back to sleep, start the day slowly, make yourself a late breakfast, and before you know it, it is time to write that paper that is due tomorrow.
On the walk home ripples with aspirations to be waves lap over the curb and onto the sidewalk. Soon my socks are so wet they are almost coming off inside my shoe, and as a girl carefully tries to find the shallowest area to cross the street, I slosh through the ankle deep water conscious of the fact that at this point my feet and shoes can’t get more wet. No one said Dublin would be this rainy. I turn down Church Street and hope that my backpack is still dry as it rests beneath my raincoat, making me look like a turtle thrown onto the streets of Dublin by the water. I never knew what a month’s worth of rain looked like before tonight.
This castle has to be the one that almost every other castle wishes it was. It may lay in ruin now, but the outer fortress is still there, and you still have to cross a bridge to get to the inside. As you walk through the inside, you pass a place now labeled “kitchen,” and see a hole in the wall with the word “oven” above it. At the back, the drop into the sea is sheer and disastrous, and it is not hard to imagine part of this castle falling into the cold waters below many years ago.
We stop at a national park to take a little hike to get to the restaurant where a large, hot lunch is awaiting us. It is raining, everybody is hungry, and people are a little bit cranky, so we get walking. As we walk we descend into a valley it is an easy hike with no climbs to test us, only slick walkways to annoy some. I let the sounds of running water fill my ears and the greenery encompass my gaze. By the time we get to the restaurant there are smiles on most faces and the prospect of a hot lunch is enough to keep us happy.
Quiet ride home. On the bus, on the train, people doze, read books, and write papers. Everybody prepares to reenter our life in Dublin.
After a long day of rope bridges, beautiful coastline, whiskey and getting wet at Giant’s Causeway (there were times I felt like Mickey Mouse raising the waves in Fantasia), going down to the hotel bar a little before everyone else was nice, especially since the night promised karaoke. “Can I get a Tennent’s?” Sterling and beer change hands, and I take a seat at a little wooden ledge that I can rest my drink on while I keep my eyes on the “stage” and the collection of middle-aged adults gearing up to take part in the night’s activities. I finish about half of the pint before I hear a loud thud and look immediately to my left to find my glass on the floor, unbroken and empty. I didn’t knock it over, and there isn’t anyway that somebody could have bumped it over, yet there it was, on the ground with its contents around it, as if pushed off the edge by a mean-spirited ghost. “Can I get a rag or something? My drink fell.” As I start to wipe the floor, someone from the front desk comes in with a mop to take care of the task much faster and better than I could have with the rag.
I fish in my pocket for more silver and approach the bar. “Um, can I get–” “Tennent’s, right?” “Yeah, that’d be great, thanks.” The bartender chuckles, “Would you like one with a flat bottom this time?” I share the laugh, beer and money change hands again, and I take a seat at a table this time.
We left Belfast today after two and a half days of intense study of the conflict. I am overloaded, I am exhausted, I am processing, and I am going to miss the coffee from the hotel. 15 other students from Dublin arrive and we all take the black cab tour together. It’s weird. The nine of us that have been here for a few days see some new murals on the tour, but we know all the information. The tour guides are knocked of kilter because we don’t respond to their sensationalism like normal tourists would. We end up at the Titanic shipyard, and a lot of people get their “I’m flying!” pictures, but because there are only three men, most of the girls would hold each other, then switch.
Finally we climb onto the bus that is going to drive us along the coast to Portrush, and everybody is either dozing off, or staring out the window as the scenery changes boldly green hills spotted with sheep to craggy shorelines with white-capped water separating us from Scotland. It is nice to relax and sit still…I can’t wait for dinner.
We’re not too dressed up, but we don’t look like shabby American students either, so we make our way to a back room of this expansive bar. Walk through the door and there is a different DJ playing different music in a smaller space, but it is comfortably crowded. We get our drinks by yelling our orders to the barman who is less than a foot away, and we stand around a little awkwardly for a couple minutes, but then the night starts. People start moving to the music, and singing along if they know the song, and soon another group has joined us dancing in the middle of the floor. CRASH! A spilled pint hits the floor and a dutiful employee comes out with mop and broom to take care of the mess without disturbing the night. This is repeated several times throughout the night, though never at my hand.
We step out for a few minutes to rest, and when we return we are welcomed with open arms and new rug-cutting moves. Every now and then people slow down and the room becomes in danger of being stagnant, then somebody grabs the Energy and throws it from limb to limb, following only their whims and the pulse of the music, and we all go back into it. We dance, drink, sing, move, talk until the dim lights are brought up and it is time to go. Standing outside we huddle against the chill of the wind and bid our friends from the night good-bye, conscious that we will never see them again. As we depart, glances of regret are exchanged, and wishes escape into the Belfast night. Wishes that we had met earlier, or in Dublin, or stateside so that it might go beyond a night in a bar.
After walking no more than a couple hundred meters, and going from standing under the Tri-color to having the Union Jack flapping over our heads we hear a sickening story of mobs of people yelling at little girls and their mothers on their way to and from school, just because they made that walk of a couple hundred meters to go to school. We were told that people lined the streets to yell abuses and throw objects at these women and their children who are doing nothing more than trying to get an education from the school that is closest to them. Disgusting.
Soon we find ourselves in a graveyard…I think I have been to a graveyard before, but I can’t remember it. Here there are many headstones that say something along the lines of “Here lies so-and-so, father and husband, murdered by three gunmen on such-and-such day.” There are variations, and there are graves that have nothing to do with it. But then there is the path that leads to a Tri-color and a monument, and that path is lined with black granite and names and carnations: orange, white, green. “Here lie volunteers who died for the cause.”
We walk in to the student union of Queens University to go to the Student Bar (what? why don’t we have one of those?), and it turns out it is trivia night! So, naturally, our group of six Americans paid our three pounds to play. We spend the rest of the night in the the dimly lit bar answering a decent amount of our questions with “we’re American,” but don’t worry, we did really well on the Harry Potter round. We talked with some of the student organizers, got a couple of shout-outs from the emcee to “our group of Americans,” and corrected them on the date of Thanksgiving in the US (they thought it was November 4th, fools!) It was a great and goofy time that made me wish there were student bars in the States because nothing crazy was going on, everybody was just having a good time, and sometimes that’s all you really need.
As my room key is handed to me I think Well, I guess being the only male on this part of the trip means I get my own hotel room
. And when we all regroup to head up to the Shankill Road everybody is going on about how incredibly soft their bed is. “The beds are really nice, but I can’t wait until breakfast tomorrow.” I guess these are the things that we students talk about even when we are about to meet a former member of a unionist paramilitary group.
On the taxi ride up we get conversational with the driver, and the purpose of our trip comes up. “Well, between the five of us–this can’t leave the car–between the five of us the IRA is still building and recruiting during the ceasefire, but it’s all about intelligence now.” We quickly learn to take a lot of what is said to us with a certain grain of salt because, while this is a serious thing, since the Good Friday Agreement, Shankill and Falls Road have become something of a tourist attraction. I bet he just likes scaring people.
Plum Smith is a man that is certainly getting on in years, but he is generally jovial and talks of peace and building community. “Why were you in jail?” “Well, I grew up in this area and it is really easy to be swept up in all of it.” “Sure, but what was the reason you were in jail?” “Like I said, being born into conflict is a hard thing and paramilitary groups are inviting and accepting.” “Yeah, I understand that, but what was the actual specific event that put you in jail.” “I killed someone. I shot somebody.” “Right.” Then he walked us down the Shankill showing us murals that commemorated and remembered, some about the Troubles, some not. While we were all taking pictures–BANG…a car backfired, and we all jumped. I jumped because the noise was unexpected, but as I thought about it, if I had been there 10 or 15 years earlier everybody would have jumped because they didn’t expect it, but because they would have known something just happened, and it wasn’t a car backfiring.