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Apart from furious paper writing, the past week has been almost completely defined for me by the craziness of the Icelandic volcano. Now that the chaos has subsided a bit, I thought I’d reflect on all the ways we’ve experienced the volcano’s effects over the past week.

  • If it weren’t for that stupid volcano, Jon and I would be enjoying time with his mom and grandma, here in Galway, at this very moment. They were due to arrive on Wednesday this past week, but their flight was cancelled. We are just sick about not being able to see them, but there was nothing anyone could do about it! We are slightly consoled by the fact that we’ll be home in the US in just about two months. But we are missing both Cindy and Vanesse this week!
  • We had one unexpected guest for a night, which was a pleasant surprise! A friend of mine from Northwestern, Robert, got stuck in Ireland for almost a week. We hadn’t seen each other since graduation, so it was really great to catch up face to face. I got to show off my beautiful adopted hometown and hear more about Robert’s life in Los Angeles. Robert is a budding travel writer/movie maker, and is documenting his epic Europe adventure (and other travels) here. Check it out – he’s hilarious! – and I’m sure he will be a household name someday.
  • Michael (my fellow Mitchell scholar/dear friend in Galway) got to spend a whole extra week with his visiting friend, Ryan, while he was in travel purgatory here in Ireland. Poor Ryan was the best man in a wedding which took place yesterday, and worked so hard to get home in time for it. He ended up getting a flight that would bring him home to Chicago just in the nick of time… so we trust that he eventually made it!
  • One (of many) sad local stories we heard: An older gentleman in Ballybofey turned 80 last weekend. He was born in England but settled in Ireland. To celebrate his big day, he had all of his relatives flying in from England and elsewhere: kids, grandkids, brothers, sisters, cousins. Everyone. Of course, all flights were cancelled and no one could come. Apparently, he held the party anyway, but was devastated that his most dear friends and family were an island away. Breaks your heart just thinking about it!
  • The market for flights has been all messed up ever since the volcano. Jon still needs to buy his one-way flight home, and the prices have jumped pretty significantly – we’ll have to wait for them to drop a bit. And Ryanair has used this as an opportunity for a big promotion – over the weekend they advertised dozens of flights at only 3 euros each way!

All in all, it’s been a pretty crazy, surreal week. Full of stories about the strange ways that this volcano (and by extension, air travel) has affected our daily lives. It has brought people together in unexpected ways (seeing Robert again!) but also kept people apart (Cindy and Vanesse). And it has reminded us that, although we’ve been able to use technology to do some pretty amazing things, Mother Nature is still boss.

Yesterday the FDIC orchestrated the closure of AMCORE Bank in Rockford. Harris Bank out of Chicago will now take ownership of its assets and deposits.

Although it sounds like AMCORE played a lead role in its own demise (see the Rockford Register Star reporting on it here), I can’t help but be sad about the situation. AMCORE was more than just another bank for Rockford. It was a locally-owned institution that for 100 years had taken a leadership in the civic life of the community. A Rockford Register Star editorial puts it this way:

“The bank’s reach was vast. Not only was it one of the area’s largest employers, it also sponsored races, charity golf tournaments, regional spelling bees and Adopt-a-Soldier programs, to name just a very few. It lent untold leadership talent to nonprofit boards and organizations.”

It was also one of the few companies that stayed loyal to the idea of downtown revitalization. The summer I worked for Rockford Urban Ministries on 7th Street I learned this first hand. AMCORE’s 7th Street headquarters single-handedly sustained several restaurants and shops, giving the business district energy and hope.

As the focus of discussion zeros in on national debates about economic recovery and Wall Street reform, AMCORE’s closure reminds me about the civic fabric that is being so deeply frayed in local communities around the country.

1) Today I turned in my LAST essay for my coursework!  From here on out, all I have to think about and read for is my dissertation.  I’m so happy/relieved!

2) Yesterday, I was on Andrew Sullivan’s blog.  While reading, I remembered that I had submitted a “View from My Window” photo from our apartment in Kampala, way back in April.  I had never seen it posted on his blog, and assumed that it didn’t get posted at all (after all, he claims that he gets hundreds of these photos a week).  Then, I noticed the little search bar on the right, which I had never thought to use before.  Sure enough, I typed in “kampala” and… found my photo as the View of the Day for May 26!  So it was published after all.  How exciting!

Living far away from home sheds new light on the value friends and family have for a full life. To viscerally miss someone(s), although painful and even harmful, is quite an educational undertaking.

Its this realization, I suppose, that led a particular quote from one of Isaiah Berlin’s letters to jump out at me recently.

Isaiah Berlin was a British diplomat and philosopher during the mid 20th century. Some would call him the century’s preeminent thinker. I’m not yet convinced of that, but this doesn’t take away from the joy that comes with reading his letters. In an age where curt emails dominate written discourse, its fun to think about someone spending so much time writing thoughtful letters.

The quote that caught my attention came from a letter Berlin wrote to a news correspondent named Morton White in 1970. According to the editor of Berlin’s letters, Henry Hardy of Oxford College, Berlin wrote that “Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends.”

After reading this on a Google Books version of Hardy’s volume, admittedly, I grabbed for my dictionary. Indiscreet is one of those words I know the approximate meaning for, but not the precise one. My Mac dictionary tells me that it literally means showing too great a readiness to reveal things that should remain in secret.

Good point, Isaiah, I thought after checking the meaning. The value of old, close acquaintances is that they give you the benefit of the doubt. There is a basis of trust that comes only from history which allows you to say things you may not fully mean or haven’t fully thought through. I think the value Berlin sees in this is that people have an intrinsic need to “think out loud” among trusted others…it allows us to sort ourselves out and practice becoming in the context of a community.

As I often do after reading something that gives me pause, I did a google search for “Berlin indiscreet friends” to see if anyone had written more commentary on the quote. Doing so revealed something interesting. Depending on the source, Berlin’s quote is written using either indiscreet or indiscrete. Which is correct, I thought? Quickly realizing I would probably need more than an internet connection to answer that question, I started to think about what the second use, indiscrete meant. On this, my Mac gives the literal definition of not divided into distinct parts.

Mmm. Well, whether or not Berlin meant to, I think he provides us with a double entendre that pretty accurately sums up the value of intimate friends. They allow you to be fully open (indiscreet), and fully whole (indiscrete). In short, they allow you to be free. And since freedom is intrinsically valuable beyond measure, I think Berlin is quite right to say that “Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet/indiscrete to intimate friends.”

Right now Jon and I are skyping with our Ugandan friends: Stephen, who is studying at Notre Dame, in the US, and his wonderful girlfriend Winnie, who is working in Gulu, Uganda. We are recalling memories of our last double date at an Indian restaurant in Gulu and talking about current events in Uganda. Stephen is sharing some of his thinking about some new ideas he has for projects in northern Uganda. Winnie  keeps asking us when we are coming back.

I’m struck by how much joy these little interactions give me. To be able to hear both Winnie’s and Stephen’s voices while we are on completely separate continents feels like some sort of miracle.

A little bit of simple joy for my Wednesday afternoon.

We just returned from a spectacular weekend up in Co. Donegal with our friends Laura and Avril. Avril was gracious enough to invite the three of us up to her family’s home in Ballybofey for a night and then to the family’s vacation cottage in the wee village of Kilcar for the next two nights.

We were treated to some home cooking from Avril’s lovely mom and enjoyed beautiful weather in Ballybofey. We took a nice long walk around the family land with Avril’s adorable dog Millie, and simply enjoyed being outside and not thinking about assignments for a couple hours.

Me, Avril, and Jon enjoying some wine after our walk around Ballybofey.

On Saturday, we headed to tiny Kilcar, a tiny village situated right on the Atlantic ocean and in the shadow of a beautiful mountain, Slieve League. Our host and chauffeur, Avril’s dad John, asked us to help with a chore as soon as we arrived: moving his flock of sheep from one field to another. Of course, we said yes. I was very hopeful that I’d get the chance to grab a sheep and snuggle up with it. If I only knew what was coming my way…

yes, you are seeing that right... me and a precious little lamb.

While moving the sheep, two young lambs were moving a little slowly and got scooped up by John. He passed them off to the four of us for a couple of minutes of cuddling. Turns out the twin lambs were born just THREE HOURS earlier! Needless to say, I was in absolute heaven. Dream = come true.

Laura and a little lamb.  Note the umbilical cord!

Laura and a little lamb. Note the umbilical cord!

Jon, me, lamb. Ecstatic.

After much nuzzling and squealing, we returned the lambs to their (understandably upset) mama.

While the lambs were definitely the highlight of our first day in Kilcar, we still had lots to do to finish out the day: Laura tried her hand at driving a tractor, we took a 2 hour walk and hung out on the seashore with the tide coming in, and devoured a lovely stew. Then it was out to experience Kilcar’s nightlife at the John Joe pub. We knew we’d be noticed as outsiders, but weren’t expecting to hear someone utter “Who are THEY?” approximately four seconds after we walked in the door. We enjoyed a couple pints and headed home to get some rest for day of fun number three.

Day 3: Climbing the great Slieve League mountain. They’re known as the highest sea cliffs in Europe (although it seems that title is contested), and we started the hike around lunchtime. It was a gorgeous day and a perfect hike. We took our time, taking lots of photos of the incredible cliffs and the sapphire blue sea, and stopping to enjoy the view whenever we felt like resting a bit.  Afterwards, we headed back to the house, exhausted but happy.

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County Donegal has officially won my heart.

Jon with his dear friend Jacob. Note Jacob wears his cell phone on a cord around his neck.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating piece on the spread of cell phone technology throughout the world. I, of course, was most interested in its focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a story that has been told over and over in recent months: mobile phone use has spread rapidly throughout Africa and there are a thousand different ways that mobile phones can be used as a tool for development.

This article tells the story from the perspective of a guy with basically the most interesting job ever: traveling the world to observe how people use their cell phones and talking with them about design.  One of the things I really liked about this article was that it went beyond describing possible development projects based on mobile phone technology to highlighting the fundamental ways that cell phones change the way people live, which in turn impacts development.  For instance, the concept of “just in time,” which is the ability to make decisions with little advance planning.  A great quote:

Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars — can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

And of course, I loved this article for the descriptions of cell phone use in Africa I have come to know so well.  Sending money via text message (our friend Hellen would do this all the time). Cell phone entrepreneurs (kiosks are everywhere, selling time on a phone or selling an hour to charge the phone).  Small businesses transformed by immediate access to information, or immediate contact with their customers (we would call up our boda boda driver, John, all the time to see if he was available to drive us.  And we’d ask him to bring along however many bodas we needed to move whoever we were with).

Cell phones have become a mainstream part of the culture in a way other technologies haven’t yet, at least in Uganda.  Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that mobile phone technology will one day, in the future, encourage development in sub-Saharan Africa.  It already is.

Spring is finally making its way to Galway!  This photo was taken over a month ago, on a randomly gorgeous day.  Since then, we’ve had a lot of rain, some snow, a couple rounds of hail, and generally chilly temperatures. But it’s getting better now – buds on trees, flowers blooming, temperatures rising…

To welcome spring in, we’ve planted a little herb garden in planter boxes on our back porch.  I’m terrible with gardens, so we’ll see if we can keep everything alive! Photos to come.

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A little over a week ago, 10 of the Mitchells and I boarded flights headed to Brussels.  We were going with the intent of learning more about the many, many workings of the European Union.  We were graciously hosted by the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU, the group of people representing Ireland in all parts of the European Union.

During our official tour of the EU, we got to sit in on the proceedings of the European Parliament, enjoy a lunch with the US Ambassador to the EU, learn about the many different committees and groups that make up the EU machine, and get to know some lovely Irish people in the civil service in Brussels.  The European Union gets a bit of a bad reputation for its unwieldy nature, and it’s hard to disagree with that in some ways.  The decision making process is long and complicated – but that’s part of the point.  The EU system is designed to ensure that decisions are made with a high level of buy-in from all member states.  It also tries to walk the oh-so-fine line between bringing Europe together around shared interests and becoming the United States of Europe.  It was great to learn about all of this from a closer perspective – and now I will understand so much more when reading the news about what’s happening in the EU.

After the EU portion of the trip was over, we had a couple days of free time to enjoy Belgium on our own.  A small group of us took a train to the neighboring city of Bruges, which is a huge tourist destination.  We wandered the cobblestone streets, watching boats cruise down the canals and tourists wander in and out of souvenir shops.  It was a lovely, sunny day and we celebrated that fact by eating outside and meandering in the sun; no big to-do list for us.  That night, we explored a bit more of “real” Brussels (the non-EU part), and got to see the beautiful Grand Place all lit up at night.

On Sunday, there was more wandering around – a farmers market, checking out some of the cool Art Nouveau architecture around town, eating fresh bread.

We took the tram out to see the Tervuren Africa Museum, which was a museum created by King Leopold to create interest and support for his “project” in the Congo, around the turn of the century.  Of course, King Leopold’s Congo project was essentially to force the Congolese people to work as slaves, with Leopold taking the profit from the vast amount of rubber and ivory exported out of the country.  All done without Leopold so much as stepping foot on the African continent.  (I highly recommend the book King Leopold’s Ghost for the story on the Belgian Congo.)  For this reason, the Tervuren museum is really interesting, as they have maintained the exhibits as they were originally designed.  We only had one short hour in the museum before we had to rush off to the airport – but I was really glad I got to visit.

All in all, a productive trip!  Made better with lots of Belgian chocolate, Belgian beer, frites, and the company of the Mitchell crew!

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Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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