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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…

This was our motto throughout Ellen’s visit to Ireland. Thinking of getting another pint of Bulmer’s at the pub? Go ahead – you only live once. Should we go to Blarney castle despite the snow and the fact that the roads are nearly impassable? Probably, since you only live once. Chat with some intoxicated guys (who all seem to be named Paddy) about politics on your way home at night? Well, you only live once.

We were so lucky to have Ellen visit us for 2 whole weeks, while we were on break and feeling relaxed after a nice Christmas. We tried to take advantage of the time off from work to explore, but came up against an old enemy when trying to make plans: the weather. It’s been a while since the weather has prevented us from doing much – after all, Uganda is pretty much perfect all year long, and we visited the midwest in its prime over the summer. And although I didn’t think the weather was really that bad, Ireland was definitely not prepared for it. So we took advantage of as much as we could, and when we were doubtful about whether or not to go ahead with a plan, we asked ourselves the question: “How many times do you live?” The answer: just once. And we had a blast. Exhibits A and B:

Blarney Castle, beautiful in the snow!

a lovely view of Dublin from the top of the Guinness Brewery.

Ellen really made some tracks around Ireland during her two weeks. We spent a couple of days in Dublin, mostly sliding around on the icy sidewalks and thinking about our next cup of tea. We also visited Christchurch cathedral, the Dublin Writer’s museum, a couple of cute pubs, and paid a visit to Muireann and Liam. We had the pleasure of being accompanied by Michael and his friend Jackie, who was also visiting him.

After Dublin, we took a quick trip to Cork and got to spend time with another Mitchell scholar, Jon, and explore the pleasant city. We also made a (very quick!) trip to Blarney Castle, which was breathtaking in the snow… but also VERY cold. Ellen later took day trips to the Cliffs of Moher and to Sligo.

And how can we forget our time in Galway? We did some great ‘traditional’ Irish stuff with Ellen – traditional music at the Crane Bar, dancing at Monroe’s Tavern, walking along the Promenade, and meandering through town.

All in all, it was a fantastic two weeks, and so great to have Ellen here with us. Since we lived together until I moved to Uganda, it was just like old times. Having friends like Ellen come through has reminded me and Jon how lucky we are to have such incredible people in our lives. And it has given us the opportunity to get outside of our normal Galway routine and live a little more. We are blessed indeed.

we'll miss you Ellen!

Me & Matt at the Mitchell Thanksgiving. Note I am eating a TOMATO!

I, along with the two other Americans in my 11-person class, have spent the last couple weeks sharing the excitement and tradition of Thanksgiving with our Irish classmates. We’ve been retelling the Thanksgiving story (well, the version we learned as Kindergardeners, maybe not the most accurate version), describing our family traditions, explaining the importance of the central idea of giving thanks, and reminiscing over the food. The Irish girls were probably sick and tired of hearing about how great Thanksgiving is by the time it rolled around last week. But no one can say we didn’t try to share its wonderfulness!

Jon and I love Thanksgiving so much, in fact, that we celebrated it three times last weekend!

On Thanksgiving day, the other Mitchell Scholars and I had the chance to visit the Irish Dail (their Parliament), sit in on some proceedings, and meet a couple of Senators, including the wonderful David Norris. We also spent some time with staff members at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Anglo – Irish Division, talking about the current state of affairs in Northern Ireland. It was a great way to spend the day. That evening, me, Jon, Michael, Matt, and Neil shared a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at Neil’s friend Sophia’s house. It was a casual night, filled with amazing food cooked lovingly by Americans missing home. We were lucky to have a couple Spanish, Irish, and English friends present for the big event.

Friday evening was Thanksgiving #2, and a big highlight of the weekend. We were invited to Irish entrepreneur (and tv personality) Niall O’Farrell’s beautiful home in Dublin for a home cooked meal. He graciously welcomed us with delicious wine and a multi-course dinner. When the final plate was set on the table, for the cheese course, I wondered if I was going to make it out alive. But you know me, always a corner of my stomach reserved for cheese. I left feeling beyond stuffed.

Saturday’s dinner was the official Mitchell celebration. Trina, the president of the US-Ireland Alliance, cooked a big ol’ turkey and the mashed potatoes, and we all brought something to share. One thing about the Mitchell Scholars: We really know our way around a kitchen! The Mitchells contributed amazing yams and sweet potatoes, lovely salads, beans, and of course, homebaked pie. Matt, an avid beer lover, even brought a variety of microbrews from his recent trip back to the States.

Christina and Bre, the bakers of pies.

If lack of wonderful food was a theme of living in Uganda last year, overeating may be the theme for this year in Ireland.

It was a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend which reminded me of the many things I have to be thankful for: good friends, amazing opportunities, my lovely husband. And of course, good food.

Proud parents Francis and Muireann with baby Liam in the pram

Sitting, taking tea in a house in Dublin a couple weeks ago, I was greeted (in the thickest of Dublin accents) with, “Oh! It’s the great Parnell!”

What a welcome!

After three years, Jon and I were reunited with the MacCumhaill family, back in their lovely home in the cozy outskirts of Dublin.

Allow me to back up. In the summer of 2006, I traveled to East Africa for the first time to do research on fair trade crafts for my senior thesis. I happened upon Uganda Crafts and spent a month there as a volunteer and researcher. I was lucky enough to meet Muireann, an Irish woman who had been working with Uganda Crafts for 6 months.  Muireann was engaged to a Ugandan man at the time, and we hit it off splendidly from the beginning. After a month exploring markets in Kampala, hanging out at each others’ homes, and having a few nights out on the town, it was time for me to leave Uganda. Muireann told me that if I ever happened to come to Ireland, to let her know, and I told her I would do just that.

A couple months later, Jon and I realized that we needed to use some flight vouchers we’d earned earlier in the year. We also recognized that Thanksgiving break was on the horizon. On a whim, I checked flight prices to Dublin. Lo and behold, they cost almost exactly the amount of our travel vouchers. I got in touch with Muireann to see if she thought her family might take us in for a couple of nights, and I got even better news: Muireann would be in Dublin at that time, not in Uganda! Elated, I booked our tickets and counted the days until our trip.

When we arrived in Dublin, Muireann took us under her wing. We stayed with her family, the MacCumhaills, and they welcomed us as if we were long lost relatives. We ate most of our meals with the family, and got to know everyone over delicious Irish dinners. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were.

After three years, Jon and I found ourselves back in the same living room. So much had changed for both families: Jon and I were married and had spent a year in Uganda; Muireann and Francis were now married and the new parents to beautiful baby Liam, and made the move to Northern Ireland; older brother Fionn had been married a month prior. But gathering together again, it was like we had never left. We heard an update from Fionn Sr. about how business was going, and looked at wedding pictures with Fionn Jr.. Siobhan joined us for a walk around the botanic gardens, and Eimear chatted with us about school. I left their house feeling warm and fuzzy all over, grateful for the exuberant welcome the second time around.

Beyond the entire MacCumhaill family, it’s been EXTRA good to spend time with Muireann, Francis and Liam. Last weekend, they came to Galway, and we had the chance to catch up in more depth, especially about Uganda-related topics. And, we also had the chance to eat a lot of good food, and have a few pints out. In two weekends, Jon and I will visit Muireann and Francis up in Northern Ireland, where they have a house out in the country. We’re excited to go!

The past couple months have been wonderful, in that I’ve been introduced to so many great new friends. But this reunion with old friends has brought me at least as much joy.

Muireann and me on the Ha' Penny bridge in Dublin, 2006

Last weekend, I finally got to do something I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year: spend time with my fellow Mitchell scholars.

Adam, Sarang, Shane, Jon, and Michael

After months and months of preparation, emails, and waiting, we finally got to just hang out and get to know one another better. Well, that, and hear from a variety of speakers on topics relating to contemporary Irish life, experience a couple of Dublin tourist must-dos, and spend some time in the American Ambassador’s residence in lovely Phoenix Park. We were busy!

Let me start with the obvious highlight: the other scholars. Mostly, I’m just impressed with how complex, intelligent, and kind I found everyone in the group to be. I discovered that I’m not the only one with an interesting family background. And everyone seems to be so well-rounded and active! I’m excited for what the year will bring in terms of what I can learn from these 11 amazing people…

The weekend was scheduled to the brim. We started it all off with a visit to the American Ambassador’s residence in Phoenix Park for a reception. This building is widely known amongst the Irish – many say it is even nicer than the Irish president’s residence! Indeed, the building proved to be an architectural gem inside.

During the following two days, we met with Irish experts in the fields of journalism, theater, and economics. We visited Kilmainham Gaol and learned about the Irish struggle for independence from the British. We saw a devastating, occasionally funny play by Irish playwright Enda Walsh called The New Electric Ballroom. And we got to visit one of the most incredible museum exhibits I’ve ever seen – an exhibit on W.B. Yeats at the National Library of Ireland. If you’re interested, check out their website which basically recreates the museum online – really incredible use of technology!

By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I was happy but exhausted. If every weekend was this full, I’d be blessed indeed. And REALLY behind on my homework.

Mitchells learning about life in Kilmainham Gaol.

Mitchells learning about life in Kilmainham Gaol.


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