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Well, our final Mitchell reflections have been posted – marking the official end of my year in Ireland.  As always, check out my fellow scholars’ reflections about the year and our time on the Emerald Isle.

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I’m famously terrible with goodbyes. I get teary in the days leading up to a big goodbye, and everything sets me off – the mere thought of a final farewell, the symbolism of a sunset, etc., etc. It’s a bit of an embarrassment when I find myself reduced to tears so easily. So I knew that my last month in Ireland would be rough: many opportunities to publicly humiliate myself with goodbyes to the Mitchells, my Irish friends, and #24 The Waterfront (our lovely home in Galway on the River Corrib).

The Mitchell goodbyes went better than expected. After a great week of activities – meeting Irish President Mary McAleese and receiving our class rings, becoming one with nature at Glenstal Abbey, participating in Listowel Writer’s Week, and enjoying time in the beautiful Glin Castle – we had one last big group hug in the parking lot of the Limerick train station. I held back my tears and laughed at the antics of the group as we said our goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Galway and my friends there was another story. Once, in the days leading up to our departure, my husband Jon just said the word cry and I burst into tears – apparently unable to stop myself. As we packed up our belongings (…miniature Eiffel Tower from Paris, leggings I purchased at Dunnes for only €3, books on gender and economic development…) I thought about the many things I’d miss about Galway. First and foremost, my friends Laura and Avril, who share my interests and now know my quirks enough to tease me mercilessly; not to mention the community of friends I’ve built over the past year. But also: the swans, the Saturday market, the guy on Shop Street that sculpts a sleeping dog out of sand, the habit of taking tea four times a day, the discussions of local politics and the recession on Galway Bay FM. After days of preparations, Jon and I gathered our things and boarded the train. I thought about the loss of our happy little Galway life as we pulled out of the station and began to miss Ireland even though I was still within its borders. Just as expected: at least one public show of tears.

*****

When we arrived back in the United States, my dad welcomed us home with bottles of Guinness. He wanted us to have a little piece of Ireland when we returned. Over dinner with my grandpa and grandma, we cracked open the bottles and poured them the proper way. Grandpa took a couple of sips and asked, “Do any of you actually like this stuff?” He was right: Guinness from a bottle is not as good as it is from the tap. This was not a surprise, but Grandpa’s comment made us all laugh. The funny interaction between an American and something Irish reminded me of all the other interactions between the two cultures that I’ve seen over the past year.

There was the time, a couple weeks before we left Galway, that I checked my email and received a poem. Avril, who was sitting beside me, exclaimed, “I LOVE this poem!” The poem was one about summer by Carl Sandburg, a poet I have come to love from living in Chicago. Avril read it aloud, her Donegal accent filling the room, and I reflected on the beauty of finding an Irish friend who appreciates a Chicagoan’s poetry as much as I do.

I remember another time, months earlier, when my classmate Grainne happily informed me that her uncle was also from Chicago. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?” I laughed, reminded of the many times that Irish friends have asked me hopefully if I know their cousin who lives in Idaho, Pennsylvania, or Texas. “Chicago’s a big city, Grainne!” She defended herself by responding, “Well, he’s involved in politics. He’s worked really closely with Governor Quinn.” Oh, I thought, that’s different! It turns out that Grainne’s uncle is well known in Chicago, and Grainne was quite knowledgeable about Chicago politics. I would have never expected that one of my Irish classmates would have hosted the future Governor of Illinois at her home in County Mayo – but, she did!

I think back to an American Bluegrass festival held in Galway, conversations about American politics with the parents of Irish friends, and the time I explained the meaning of Thanksgiving to my classmates. In the US, I’m bombarded by Irish flags hanging over pubs in every city I visit and the ubiquitous Claddagh rings on women’s fingers. We spend our time reconnecting with friends and family, and talk to them not just about the ancient beauty of County Kerry, but also of the immigrant communities that we encountered in Galway, how the Irish educational system is different than the American one, and our peers’ viewpoints on social issues like gay marriage.

*****

As all of the thoughts of the connections between the US and Ireland flash through my mind, a truth emerges. Ireland has become a part of me more deeply and permanently than I expected. When I took the train out of Galway at the end of June, it didn’t represent the end of anything. My relationship with Ireland, as well as the other Mitchell Scholars, is far from over. It’s just beginning.

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Since we left Ireland, my life has been sort of a big, beautiful blur.

Leaving Ireland was, as expected, nearly impossible to do.  Saying goodbye to our idyllic lives by the sea and our lovely group of Irish friends was really, really sad.  We tried our best to keep our chins up and to enjoy every last second – all the while working on our theses and packing up another year of our lives.  We did take some time to check a couple of things off of our list, including spending an afternoon at the historic Tigh Neachtain pub with friends.

A perfect June afternoon at Tigh Neachtain

After a teary goodbye at the Galway train station, we were off … on our way to our whirlwind tour of America.

First stop: My hometown of Mahtomedi, Minnesota.  We made it just in time for my dear friend Hilary’s wedding, and spent the week both working on schoolwork as well as catching up with family and friends.

We had a lovely time with family, and loved seeing Grandma M and her newest quilts.

Next: Rockford, Illinois.  This time, Jon’s family and friends (and don’t forget those pesky theses).  We crammed a lot of quality time in with parents, grandparents, and our adorable little nephew.

Ryne's got a golf club in his hand - he LOVES to play golf!

Next stop: Chicago, Illinois, for a very quick hello & goodbye to our dear friends Becca and Sam. As luck would have it, we’re finally in the US  just as they’re on their way to South Africa for a year.  Good thing we have that wonderful kind of friendship that you can just pick right up where you left off.

Becca & Sam, Lauren & Jon reunion

Next? Naples, Florida, and then the Everglades, and Miami, Florida.  Jon and I were so excited to visit my mom’s new home in beautiful Florida.  Moving to a warmer climate has been one of my mom’s lifelong dreams, and it’s been so much fun for me to see her in her element in Florida.  Unfortunately, we STILL (!) had thesis work while we were visiting the tropics, but at least we could escape our punishing academic work by going to the beach.

Miami beach.

Well, we’re not done quite yet.  Next, we spent a week in Washington, D.C. We got to attend an annual Mitchell Scholar party and officially started the job search by doing informational interviews.  In between, we visited with friends and worked on theses.  And then… after many months and a final all-night session, I FINISHED MY THESIS!  It’s officially printed and turned in.  I am just waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll pass! 🙂

(I neglected to take a single photo in DC… not like me, but my mind was very much elsewhere).

Right now, Jon and I are sadly separate.  He is in Rockford, putting the finishing touches on his thesis and spending more time with family, and I am back in Florida with my mom.  The big news here is that she just got an adorable puppy: Mabel, a teeny tiny Italian Greyhound.

Me & Mabel

Although the last couple of weeks have been spent solely in the US, we’ve seen so much it seems like we must have left the country a couple times.  We’ve had moments of quintessential Americana, like catching a Saint’s Baseball game with my dad, watching a small-town fireworks display with Jon’s dad, and walking along the Washington DC monuments at night.  We’ve also seen the diversity of American life: I talked with my friend Tena about her Somali students in Minneapolis, visited a wedding shop in search of a traditional Korean dress with my sister in Chicago, and enjoyed Brazilian food in Miami for Jon’s birthday.

Overall, it’s been a beautiful blur of a couple of weeks.  We’re still not quite sure what’s happening next in our lives – where we’ll be “settling down” or what jobs we’ll have, but we’ll be sure to keep you posted.  Until then, you can be sure that we’ll be savoring our downtime in the good ole USA.

I write from O’Hare airport, Terminal 2, Gate E12. It’s 1:30pm CST and in a few minutes I begin my journey back ‘home’ to Galway, Ireland via Atlanta, Georgia. CNN is blaring from plasma screens to my left and right. Straight ahead mammoth planes mosey in and out of their parking spots flanked by buzzing trucks carrying luggage and saran-wrapped chicken or pasta. The sight reminds me of watching the gulls race circles around the slow swans in Galway Bay.

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports over the past nine days…From Dublin to Atlanta to Tampa Bay to Cincinnati to Chicago to Atlanta to Dublin. So much time sitting at gates and overpriced coffee shops waiting to be shot 35,000 feet in the air can make a person crazy. It must feel something like sitting in an interrogation room waiting for the detective, or taking a breather during a time-out before going out to shoot the last-second free throw.

And so, to pass the time, I listen….

Waiting in line for coffee in Dublin an older gentleman chatted me up for a few minutes about his frustrations at the inefficiencies he saw. Why not put full pots of coffee out, so people who just want plain coffee don’t have to wait for the server to fill the cup for them? Why don’t they put the little sleeves that keep you from burning your hand on a to-go cup out, so the server doesn’t have to waste time putting them on for you? If he was in charge, boy, he’d do things differently.

Waiting in Tampa Bay I watched two boys around 8-10 years old meet each other and pass 30 minutes talking about a Wii game they both love. After one of the boy’s Dad came to retrieve him for their flight, the boy’s parting words to his newfound friend were, “I’ll see you on the internet.” In this age of Skype and G-chat video, his use of the word see was perhaps apt.

Waiting in Chicago I eavesdropped on two guys responding to a panel discussion on the federal stimulus bill blaring on CNN. I wish I could have written faster to capture it all. Here’s a snippet:

“I love CNN. Great joke channel. Comedy News Network…They’re all after one world government and one world socialism. I’m thinking I need to get some guns. And a lot of them.” Seriously…direct quote.

His more reasonable conversation partner responded with, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. At least we didn’t go off the deep end. But, I’d say the spending is a bit out of control. I just wish they’d include $20,000 or so in it for me. Then I’d be able to pay my mortgage down a little, trade in for a new car, all that stuff they’ve got programs for.”

When I get tired of listening, I read. Reading is like listening, I suppose, but with more control.

On this trip, I read a Newsweek. The cover story is a case for gay marriage written by Ted Olson – a well known conservative lawyer that represented George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election dispute. Olson has decided that, based on his conservative principles, it’s no longer just for the state to prevent loving, committed, gay couples from marrying, if they so desire. We let ex sex-offenders, adulterers, even murders, marry – but not loving, law-abiding homosexual couples. Leave it to churches to make their own theological determinations, and keep the state out of it, says Olson. This is a challenging argument, especially from someone within the conservative movement.

Then on to the Chicago Tribune. The front page story is about how the Chicago Public School Board presidents have spent thousands of public dollars on superfluous personal expenses. Ironically, the Rock River Times I threw in my carry-on to read has a cover story about Rockford School Board leaders spending $20,000 for a short trip to Chicago.

In his book After Virtue, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre imagines what society would be like if people stopped cultivating internal virtues of ethical behavior and acted solely in the self-interest that modern society holds so dear. Reading about corruption in the Tribune and the Rock River Times makes one seem as if we’ve already arrived in MacIntyre’s afterlife. But I know such cynicism is not exactly fair. Virtue is all around us…it usually just doesn’t make the deadlines. Stories about human goodness don’t sell newspapers.

Someday, when historians look back on our time in search of an illustration to summarize our civilization, they’ll probably look to the airport. It’s all here. The complexity and uniformity of the air travel regime reveals globalization at its most advanced. The architecture is more Mies van der Rohe than Daniel Burnham – built for efficiency, and convenience (unlike the monument style Union rail stations they replaced). Vendors at every corner satiate our consumerist obsessions. Security checks and sniffing German Shepards capture the conundrum of enjoying both freedom and security. People of myriad ethnicities walking the same halls show our increasing cosmopolitanism, even while we usually travel with those who look like us. The bells and whistles provided to ‘frequent flyers’, ‘platinum club members’, and ‘silver-elite customers’ exemplify the enduring separations of social class, as do the scores of empty seats at gate waiting areas that could be filled by those who cannot afford to visit the airport in the first place.

And quiet people with laptops, sitting anonymously at their gate, post their random reflections on an internet blog for millions of people to read.

Or, in my case, perhaps more like two or three…

A gorgeous evening on Chicago's Foster Beach.

A gorgeous evening on Chicago's Foster Beach.

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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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