DUBLIN, Ireland — The other week, I took a school trip to Ireland with my class and my schools other two fifth-year classes. It was a fascinating and highly enjoyable few days.
We left from Milan on Monday evening. The plane ride only lasted a couple of hours. It was pretty late by the time we got to the Four Courts Hostel where we were staying in Dublin, so that night we all went to bed almost immediately.
We had to be up bright and early Tuesday morning for a walking tour throughout Dublins downtown. We saw a bunch of historic and government buildings as well as some impressive churches around the city.
At lunchtime we were allowed to split up and go eat wherever we wanted. I went with my class and had my first Caesar salad in around 6 months, which was incredible. Things were sort of flipped with my classmates. For once, I was the one who knew the language and they needed my help. I translated as best as I could for them.
After lunch, we spent some time at the Guinness Storehouse. There was an extremely strange moment when I was about to take my first sip of my complimentary Guinness beer at the end of the tour (Irelands drinking age is 18 dont worry!) and my eyes met with those of one of my teachers.
Not only a teacher, a teacher who also happens to be a monk. For a second I had that uh-oh feeling, but he held up his own Guinness and gave me a goofy grin and a thumbs-up. Italian school trips are not at all like American school trips.
Next, we took a bus to a small fishing village called Howth, where we went to a big hillside called the Summit. It was quiet, windy, and one of the most beautiful places Id ever seen. The hillside was covered in bushes of golden flowers and twisting little paths went all through these.
The view from the hillside looked out across a big bay and the big city was in the distance on the other side. Farther back, mountains. The weather was perfect. It was cloudy, but starting to clear up in places, so the sky was every shade of gray, blue, white and silver. The sun came down in beams that touched the water of the bay.
It was so lovely that I could have stayed there for hours exploring and looking out and just thinking about everything there is to think about, but we had to go. We went down to the more inhabited part of Howth where we spent a while walking around, passing numerous fish and chip shops, and looking at the docked boats and fishing equipment.
When we got back to Dublin, we ate dinner at The Brazen Head, the citys oldest pub. I had bangers and mash. I should mention that I absolutely adored eating in Ireland because it was a break from Italian food, which, although delicious, can sometimes feel repetitive and a little boring.
Ireland, like the States, has a variety of foods. There arent just Irish restaurants, there are Mexican ones, Italian ones, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese ones. All ethnic foods are represented there, which was a nice change.
After dinner we got a couple of hours to go out before we had to be back at the hostel, so I went with my class to a bar, which was fun.
On Wednesday we took a two-hour bus ride to Belfast in Northern Ireland. At a certain point on the ride, we passed out of the Republic of Ireland and into Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom so, among other things, the currency changed from Euros to pounds.
The first thing we did in Belfast was take a quick look around the city centre. The rest of our day was split into two parts, much like Belfast itself. I hadnt realized what a sad city Belfast is. The first half of our day was spent with a Catholic tour guide, the second half with a Protestant guide.
They spoke mostly about the period of time called the Troubles. Im not going to pretend I understand it all very well, but the Troubles were basically a period of fighting, considered a war by some, between Protestant Unionists, Catholic nationalists, and the British army over Northern Irelands constitutional status within the United Kingdom.
The Troubles lasted from the late 1960s until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement supposedly ended it but violence still flares up from time to time.
The stories from the last 50 years are horrible, terrifying and bloody. There were bombings, murders, and hunger strikes. Almost as horrible is the way it is there today. I, naively I suppose, thought the attitude they have there was only the stuff of history books, not a part of life today.
There is much dissidence between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. They live in completely separate neighborhoods and while theyve officially agreed to be peaceful and put an end to their violent acts against one another, after years and years of fighting and terrorism, both sides are still terrified of each other.
For this reason, in Belfast there is a HUGE wall dividing the two sides. The only way through this wall is an opening that closes and locks up every night at 4 or 6 p.m., depending on when it gets dark. It is not unlocked for ANY reason after that until sunrise the next morning.
This isnt a hundred years ago, its today every single day.
The saddest part is that theres no end in sight. Theyre not about to tear down the wall because they think they need it to keep safe from one another. Theres no hope for progress over generations, because parents teach their children all that fear and hate, and the kids never get to see or play with each other because theyre always on separate sides.
The Protestants always stay on the Protestant side. The Catholics always stay on the Catholic side. The Protestant kids go to Protestant school and the Catholic kids go to Catholic school.
Being an exchange student and seeing how people of different cultures, religions and beliefs are all the same and can get along is a major part of this year for me.
Id been feeling brilliantly hopeful about some level of world peace and intercultural understanding. But visiting Belfast an otherwise progressive city where two forms of Christianity cant even get along threw a wrench in it all for me.
I thought wed come further than that. Its a horrible, complex situation and I want to FIX it, but I dont know any way that I (or anyone) can. Its really frustrating.
I brooded about it in the back of my mind for most of the ride back to Dublin, but figured that wasnt doing any good and concentrated on enjoying the trip as I had been before.
Thursday morning, we went to Trinity College and saw its amazing library and The Book of Kells. I thought it was super cool, because the restoration of old books is something that has always interested me and is one of the jobs I want.
I plan on becoming a novelist/food writer/travel writer/cultural anthropologist/historic restoration designer/book restorer/curator/actress/starving artist/editor/critic/diplomat so clearly Im a bit undecided at this point.
After that, we went to the James Joyce Center, which was very nice and educational. Authors are my favorite people to learn about. Id only read some of James Joyces short stories from the collection Dubliners before the trip.
But I bought a copy of Ulysses there, and its one of the next on my list, because I want to read it while Dublin (the setting) is still fresh in my mind.
Next, we all took a train to a village nearby called Dalkey. I had a fashion magazine to read in English for the first time in a long time, so I quite enjoyed the ride.
In Dalkey, we saw the cultural centre and a really old graveyard, and I had a chai latte. We learned a lot about Ireland in the time of the Tudors. Dalkey was a very picturesque seaside town and I liked it a lot.
We got back to Dublin at about 5 p.m., and the rest of the day was free. I took this time to go out on my own. There were a couple of places I wanted to see that werent on our tour.
Theres nothing I like more than finding myself alone in a foreign city with just a map and a general sense of where I am and where I want to go. I like walking slowly and taking everything in. I wasnt at all nervous or frightened to be by myself, because Id done this before plenty of times in Italy and that was before I could even speak the language so Dublin, by comparison, felt easy.
I located one of my favorite clothing shops from the U.S. that we dont have in Italy. I bought a sweater and a dress there, because Id underpacked and run out of clothes. I had nothing clean to wear that evening or the next day, and I was happy to solve the problem.
I went to a bookshop Id read about that was not far away. It was called The Winding Stair and right on the River Liffey. It was wonderful. They had old books as well as new books, and a couple of tables by the windows for sitting and reading with a cup of tea or coffee. Soft classical music twinkled in the background, and there was even poetry scribbled all over the bathroom walls.
It was perfect, and even more so because I hadnt seen a bookstore with a decent stock of books in my native language in a really long time. There was also a restaurant there, but I couldnt eat because I was (after a bit more wandering) meeting my classmates at the hostel at 8 to get ready to go out for dinner.
We went to an Italian restaurant which, Ill admit, drove me a little crazy. (My brain: We are in Ireland. We are going to Italy tomorrow. Can this not wait? Cant we enjoy Ireland when were in Ireland and Italy when were in Italy?) But it was all right in the end, because it was run by Italian immigrants and we could speak Italian with them, which was strange in a good way. Plus I didnt have to translate the menu.
After dinner, our teachers decided to give us a curfew extension since it was our last night. I think they gave us until 2ish. So we went to a pub/bar with live music and then we went dancing again at a club/disco, until we had to go back. It was a nice end to my time in Dublin.
Friday we had Starbucks for breakfast and Portuguese spicy chicken for lunch. We packed up our bags and lugged them to the airport. Then, we flew back to Italy.
I felt good. Id truly enjoyed the trip, plus I felt a lot closer to my classmates and more like a part of the class after spending all that time hanging out together.
And when I finally got back to my house, I had that weird feeling of being 6,000 miles from my parents and where I grew up and yet being home.
Chandler West is a Rock Hill High School student who is spending her senior year in Italy. She writes about her adventures abroad each week in The Herald.