The ever-changing concept of ‘home’ for travelers 

For some, seeing the world is not just an option– it’s a necessity. 

Through the past few years of traveling, I have determined that the concept of home is always transforming. For adventure-seekers like myself, the very definition of home doesn’t necessarily exist. When you’re constantly in motion, you learn to make a home within yourself, the people you meet, and the new places you fall in love with. 

We hear all the time that home is where the heart is. The reality is that I’ve left my heart in so many places in the past few years of studying abroad. I have seen over 15 countries in three years, and would argue that I’ve left a little piece of myself in each one, with some pieces larger than others. Ireland, for example, has served as my stationary constant for the past three years. It is where I fell in love with learning again, as well as the place I became inspired to see as much of the world as I can. I feel most alive, secure, and confident in Ireland. I am prepared to make my return to my favorite place, with plans to stay indefinitely. 

Cliffs of Moher, September 2015

When I studied abroad for the first time three years ago, I was truly a lost soul. I spent my time controlled by my anxiety, obsessing over small details and having difficulty making friends. Making the leap to study abroad in the summer following my freshman year of college took all the courage I’d never know I had within me. This of course led to a second round of study abroad, this time, for a full academic year.

In these transformative times of adventure, I found that each city or country I visited reminded me a little of home. I had the privilege of seeing mothers playing with young children in Portugal, watching families leave places of worship together in Italy, and dancing along the shores of France among families and couples alike. No location is the same of course, but wherever you find yourself most captivated will stay with you, even long after you depart. If you’re lucky, you become a part of this place, even just for a second. 

Sligo, Ireland, November 2015

This changing definition of home is undeniably beautiful, but also terrifying. To those that don’t embark on a nomadic existence, even temporarily, the idea of securing a home within yourself and new lands will sound daunting. Eventually, this becomes second nature. The goodbyes before you depart are no longer scary, they are a part of this life you chose. There will always be strong connections where you leave behind, but your bags have been packed since the day you were born. You know you were never meant to stay in one place. 

An ode to my backpack… (2014-2017)

I am undoubtedly a sentimental person. However, after traveling fourteen countries in under three years, I have been able to count on one constant companion: my LL Bean backpack. 

My parents gave me a new bright blue hiking backpack before embarking on Semester at Sea in June 2014. My backpack made it through my first goodbye with family, before leaving for Europe for three months. My backpack held my beloved stuffed animal close through my first transcontinental flight. It has been with me every step of the way for the past three years.

Hiking Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland, January 2016

If you search through this backpack, despite many washes, you’ll find grains of sand from a beach in Spain from that summer. There’s a mysterious stain near the large pocket, which I am fairly certain came from spilling my reindeer dinner while traveling in Finland. It has survived many countries, washes, and airport security screenings. 

My backpack is the last thing I pack before traveling, but contains the contents that are most important to me: my passport, glasses, and so much more. My passport allows me to stretch my wings, while my glasses allow me to see the world. Before every trip, my mom manages to slip a card in the backpack. This simple act, so sweet and so reassuring, has meant so much to me through years of travel. 

My backpack came with me every single day, after I made the decision to study in Ireland for my junior year of undergrad. I used it to carry the textbooks that made me fall in love with academics, as well as my essentials on various trips around the country. My LL Bean backpack has hiked up mountains with me, and traveled to nations with different languages and dialects. It has withstood both weather and time. 

Naturally, I’ve grown very attached to this backpack, but it is time to start a new chapter. 

I will start graduate school abroad in just four weeks. I will be moving to Ireland, and it’s time to retire my trusty blue backpack. I am grateful for all the times I’ve been able to count on it for support, and look forward to taking my new green one across the pond. It certainly has a lot to live up to. 

Six honest feelings you have before moving abroad 

In exactly one month from today, I will be arriving in Ireland to start a new chapter– graduate school. Of course, I am excited, but there are a number of other emotions that accompany a transatlantic move. There are many joys of starting a new adventure, but there are a few anxieties that arise, too. Here are six honest feelings you’ll have before moving to a new country.

Slight Panic

I’ll admit, some days the panic feels more than “slight.” There are immigration forms to fill out, visas to apply for, and currency to exchange. You’ll have to find health insurance, a place to live, and so much more. Even though you knew this change was coming, it suddenly feels like it’s approaching quickly. In my years of abundant travel, I have learned not to necessarily believe in fate. However, I believe in good things happening to the right people who take the right chances. Your situation will fall naturally into place, if you work for it. 

Exhilaration

Moving to a new place is undeniably thrilling. There will be new sights, smells, and food to try. You’ll get to know differentpeople, cultures, and ways of life. This is a wonderful time, and it’s important to savor every minute of it. On the days when you feel most excited and looking forward to the future, hold onto those feelings. They will come in handy during times of panic and anxiety that come with the territory. 


Independence

This is the first time you’ll truly be on your own. You’re going off into a whole new world, and it’s unlikely you’ll have the same guidance you received at home. This is both wonderful and can truthfully be downright terrifying. You’ll be in charge of yourself, and you won’t have people to answer to. Moving is a true test of your responsibility, your drive to succeed, and your ability to adapt in new situations. If you take the necessary steps to adjust smoothly and safely, you will surely thank yourself in years to come.

Nostalgia 

Before you leave, everything at home or wherever you are will sparkle a little brighter. You’ll spend more and more time reflecting on happy memories, and on some level, how hard it may be to leave them behind. Not only this, but you’re acutely aware of the goodbyes to come. Don’t let this overshadow your excitement. The cliche states that when one door closes, another opens. Try to remember that no door is truly closed, as your loved ones will always be there to support you in whatever adventure you decide. Each ‘goodbye’ could lead to another ‘hello.’

Hopefulness 

As much as moving abroad can be frightening, you are filled with hope that the experience will be everything you dreamed of. You walk with a little more pep to your step. Your dreams are filled with visions of new friendships and a fulfilling life in an exotic location. For every anxiety about moving, you are likely feeling equal parts hope that your experience will be joyful and lead to happy memories.

Gratitude

As much as this is an independent quest, you know that you could not do this without the support of others. This is your family, who have always believed you are capable of incredible feats. You know that without your friends to lean on, you would not have made it through the many trials and tribulations it took to get you to this pre-departure point. You know that if your professors hadn’t taken the time to talk with you about the upcoming changes, you would not have been able to stand on your own two feet during this process. Thank the ones that love you most before you go. 

Why I Keep Choosing Travel (…and why travel keeps choosing me)

As a child, I would never have thought to describe myself as “adventurous.” I was most comfortable at home, or taking familiar vacations and talking to familiar people. Three years ago, this all changed when I packed an overweight suitcase and hopped on a plane to Heathrow Airport. This one decision, to embark on Semester at Sea when I was coming out of my first year of college, changed my life irreversibly.

It wasn’t a slow, careful, or deliberate decision to start traveling for me. It was a complete and total leap of faith. 

First port of call- Lisbon!

The decision came quickly. I had vague memories of a childhood babysitter discussing Semester at Sea with my parents when I was much younger. I had parused the Semester at Sea website, after hearing an upper classman discuss her fall voyage one March afternoon. The summer voyage application deadline was approaching: Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

As silly as it sounds, my first thought was, “I’ve always loved that Norway ride at Disney’s Epcot.” 

Once I’d applied and received my acceptance, not to mention frantically applied for the proper visa, reality set in. I would be traveling Europe for a whole summer. I would be trying different food, meeting new people, and living on a shipboard cabin the size of a typical bathroom. It didn’t hit me that I was truly on my own until my parents were dropping me off at the airport, wishing me a great summer. 

I went in with zero expectations. I had such little knowledge of the continent, seeing as I didn’t even know rain was likely in London. I had packed shorts and t-shirts, and was not prepared for cool breezes of Scotland or the damp nights in Ireland. I didn’t bother flipping through guidebooks, for some reason I’m still not sure. Perhaps this was due to nerves or uncertainty, or perhaps both. Now that I’d classify myself as an experienced traveler, I like everything planned out in detail. 

London, June 2014

I didn’t realize then that three years later, I’d be reflecting on each adventure, both large and small. I didn’t know that things I would miss out on, or time wasted with people who didn’t have my best interests in mind, would catch up with me. I look back now and regret not being brave enough to travel to Sintra Palace in Portugal. Lisbon was our first port, and I was not yet ready to travel somewhere remote by myself, even though I knew I wanted to see the colorful palace. I could make more excuses, but the reality is that I just didn’t know I’d think about it so much in years to come. 
The lesson here is to jump. If something scares you, you’re probably traveling right. As long as it’s safe and healthy, proceed with caution, and go forth. Someone famous said to do one thing a day that scares you, and looking back, I wish I’d done more. 

It took a couple of ports and some soul-searching to come to the understanding that I didn’t just choose traveling, but that traveling had somehow chosen me. No, I wasn’t in love with every second on the ship, there are of course ups and downs. However, by the time we hit Ireland in early July, I knew something was calling to me. Specifically, I knew that one adventure wasn’t enough. Three years later, I know now that no amount of adventure isn’t enough, life can’t be quantified. Life can only be measured in moments. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list. 

Amsterdam, April 2016

I left Semester at Sea with a heavy heart, pretending to embrace a continued life at my home institution with a smile. The facade didn’t work, because within days of arriving back to the US, I was back in the familiar chair at the study abroad office asking how we could make it possible so I could spend my junior year in Ireland. I was told I’d have to raise my grades, write powerful essays, and be on the receiving end of glowing recommendations. It wasn’t impossible, but a whole junior year at Trinity College Dublin, I was told, was unlikely. 

I took yet another leap, and landed comfortably in Ireland for a whole academic year the following September. I have professors, friends, and family to thank for study abroad round two. I’d like to say that mine is a story of bravery and perseverance, which is partially true, but it is mostly a story of falling through the right set of cracks. Much of my journey around the world has been possible because of the chances I took, and the people I’ve met along the way. 

I chose Ireland because of how solid I felt when I got there. I based my future off of a gut feeling, which of course, I highly recommend. It has paid off and then some. Because after a year at Trinity, full of adventure and joy, I came back to the US for the second time with a vengeance. I fell in love with seeing the world, but I also fell in love with academics. I needed to go to graduate school, and I needed it to be in Ireland. I am beyond lucky to state that I’ll be calling University College Dublin my home in a matter of weeks. 

I choose travel because of the friends I’ve made along the way. These people have left a long lasting imprint on my life, and I would not be the same had we not seen the world together. I am lucky enough to have made lifelong friendships with my study abroad cohorts, both in Ireland and on Semester at Sea. 

Friendship at Blarney Castle, Ireland

I choose to go abroad (for the third time) because as cliche as it sounds, I found myself on the other side of the world. I found myself through books, adventures and misadventures, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to practice my navigational skills in a new city once again. It took getting horribly lost in a small Scottish city, with my heart pounding in my ears, to be able to understand what my capabilities are as a traveler and a person. It took wandering Amsterdam, aimlessly, for hours with someone I’d confidently call a best friend to understand the very definition of trust and a true spirit of adventure. 

I choose travel because I caught both flights and feelings in Ireland, almost two years ago, and I can’t wait to be reunited with my better half. 

I am choosing travel because I would not be the same without it. I would not be the same had I not improperly packed for Europe there years ago. I would not be the same had I not learned my lesson by not going to Sintra Palace. I would be a much different person had I stayed at my home institution, and didn’t take a risk by spending two semesters in Ireland instead of one.  
I am choosing to find a place for myself abroad, for the third time in three years, because I don’t know who I’d be otherwise. 

Barcelona, February 2016

Three years ago today…

Three years ago today, my “home afloat” (Semester at Sea) docked in Dublin, Ireland. I had my first sighting of what would become my home– the place that I would fall irrevocably in love with. However, I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in pathways leading you to where you’re supposed to be. My first journey through Ireland began exactly three years ago.

I’ll admit, when I first saw the dirty port, I wasn’t impressed. It was the only port that Semsester at Sea forbade us from walking on unsupservised, due to the dangerous construction surrounding the ship. Instead, we had buses drop us off around George’s Quay in the city center.

I came into the country on an emotional high from a joyful experience in Scotland. I had just completed a challenging hike around Loch Lomond, despite being admittedly overweight and out of shape. Most importantly, I took my first solo-journey into the city of Glasgow to meet a family friend, giving me my first real sense of confidence that only travel can provide. For the first time in years, I arrived somewhere new feeling accomplished and capable.

A successful hike in Scotland
Ireland was a shock to my system. Dublin felt too industrial. I have Irish heritage, and I thought I’d feel at home right away.

I still read my travel diaries from that summer occasionally. On the first day in Ireland, I wrote, “I don’t feel as though I belong.”

I had signed up to take a field trip to the Cliffs of Moher from Dublin, the day after our arrival. A four hour bus journey to rural County Clare led us to an indescribably cloudy vista. I remember putting my hands out in front of me, and not being able to see them, or the Cliffs. I didn’t do a superb job of hiding my disappointment, as I thumbed through the vibrant postcards in the gift shop that day. I had looked forward to seeing such an iconic landmark, only to be let down and put on another four hour bus back to the city. I returned to the ship in Dublin with a bad attitude, thinking to myself that I’d spend the next day buying souvenirs for family, and I’d be onto Norway.

Cloudy day at the Cliffs of Moher
A tiny spark in me insisted on seeing Trinity College. My cousin studied abroad there, and something told me I needed to see it. It was in the city center, not far from touristy souvenir shops. I thought I’d give myself one more chance to enjoy myself. The sun was setting on a gorgeous summer day, as the tourists started to filter out. I took one look at the school, and knew I was home.

I’ve always been a reader, but never dreamed that loving literature is what would take me across the world. I love my undergrad institution, and I am a proud alumni. However, as a first year, I was still deeply unhappy. I felt isolated and unsure of myself, and didn’t identify with the party culture. I didn’t really know where I saw myself fitting in the school and the world as a whole. The first thought that came to mind while walking into Trinity’s main square is, “Well, it’s time to shake things up.”

No metaphor quite does it justice– the feeling of loving somewhere new, or more specifically, feeling as though you are “welcomed home” somewhere you haven’t been before. I knew, certainly and instantly, that I had to go to Trinity, and it had to be for longer than a semester. Thus, when I returned to the states in August, my first mission was to bother the study abroad office and tell them my new plan. Lucky for me, my ever-supportive parents were on board.

Trinity College Dublin
As mentioned, I struggled in my first year of college. The first real success story I had academically was an English class my second semester, and the grades I earned on Semester at Sea. My grades weren’t where they needed to be to even apply to the school of my dreams. I would like to say that this is a story of perseverance, but mostly, I found the kindness and encouragement of others to get me on that plane to Trinity. I would not be the same person without the help from those professors who believed in me, when I did not quite yet believe in myself.  I remember getting an email from the former director of the program, saying, “You can apply, but I have little faith that you’ll get in.” I guess a little reverse psychology was what I needed to keep persisting, because I received my acceptance letter just a few months later.

I am thankful for each day of that academic year that I got to spend at Trinity College Dublin. Not only did I make new friends, I found my passion: academics. I didn’t have any idea that I wanted to be a professor, or go to graduate school. I didn’t know that reading David Foster Wallace or studying 19th century Irish literature would change my perspective on everything I had learned previously. I had no clue some of my work would be accepted into academic conferences, and that I’d love every second of presenting.

I had no idea I’d fall in love with a person, as well as a place, while I was studying there.

When I returned to Elon University in the fall, I walked around with a heavy heart. A month into the school year, after a celebratory birthday dinner, a professor asked if I was thinking about graduate school. Without thinking, I said yes. The fire in me that invigorated each step while I was abroad seemed to spark yet another change in me– I had future goals. Of course, those goals would lead me back to Ireland. I couldn’t see myself studying anywhere else, other than the place that had changed me so remarkably.

Of course, my first thought was I would need to return to Trinity. It made sense, because I had been happy there. Upon further research, it seemed that UCD would have a program directly aligning with my interests: modern and contemporary literature. The same thought that came to me three years ago reappeared. “Well, it’s time to shake things up.”

I received my acceptance letters from both the programs at Trinity and UCD by January. After visiting UCD, and envisioning myself happy there, but most of all happy in the program, the decision was easy. Trinity will always have my heart, but it’s time to start something new.

All roads have led me back to Ireland. The change in me within the last three years has been drastic. When I seriously traveled for the first time with Semester at Sea, at age 19, I will admit that I began my journey a bit entitled and dramatic. I am grateful and humbled to have seen and engaged with so much of the world at a young age. I just wish that I’d appreciated it more at the time.

I am learning now that it’s never too late to start over. I am looking forward to a new, yet somewhat familiar life in my favorite place. For the past three years, Ireland has been my stationary constant. I am ready for my next big adventure.

Semester at Sea… Three Years Later

One of the major caveats of study abroad is once you return, you truly never stop talking about it. Three years after Semester at Sea, I continue to share memories with loved ones, or just about anyone that will listen. 

Three years ago I left the country without my parents (for the first time), and with a buddy who I can confidently call a lifelong friend. Three years ago this summer, I packed what I thought would be appropriate for a trip around Northern Europe (shorts and t-shirts) into a giant suitcase. I put myself and my ever-growing heart on a red-eye to London, and hopped off the plane to what felt like a new world.

I had never been to Europe before. My knowledge about the continent was so slim, I didn’t even know it would be likely to rain in London. More importantly, I didn’t know that the memories I would make on Semester at Sea, would be so impactful nearly three years later.

I was a shell of a person before I started traveling- anxious, obsessive, and afraid. I feared excitement and human connection, I worried both would be taken away all too quickly. This is the reality of who I was before traveling Europe in sixty days.

Of course, not everything came easy. There were days when I thought the comfort of my bed at home, or even the safety of the library on the ship, would be superior to exploring a new city with new faces. Study abroad was what healed me, but I had to work for it. 

Little memories are what I find to be most impactful. I remember the crew members knowing my name, even though I frequently ate breakfast alone with a book and didn’t always engage much. I remember the first time I felt like a new person had “broke through” to me. I had wanted to see a fortress in Finland, and secretly feared going alone. By the time I had voiced my concerns, a crowd of girls with similar interests wanted to go with me. 

I of course loved the sunsets, but they were not my favorite memories. My favorite moments on Semester at Sea were the ones I felt most alive. I think about dancing on a table in Portugal (…after having my first mojito.) I reminisce treading the water in France, or feeling bold and unafraid in Russia, despite being horribly lost. On my worst days today, these are the moments that are giving me extra reasons to smile. 

Semester at Sea taught me to be honest with myself. I knew after traveling, trying new foods and customs, and making new friends, that the change had to come from within. If you asked me today what my favorite place in the world is, I can still say after seeing 16 countries in three years, my favorite place is anywhere. If I haven’t been there yet, it’s on my list.

I believe in an unfolding chain of events, that everything has a consequence. My consequence for Semester at Sea was studying abroad again. This time, I studied in Ireland, for a whole year. My next consequence starts in August– graduate school in Dublin! If I hadn’t done Semester at Sea, I don’t think I would have made it through college. I say this not to be dramatic or extreme, but because the person I was back then needed to see the world and get perspective. 

If I hadn’t done Semester at Sea, I wouldn’t have found Ireland. I wouldn’t have found love. Most importantly, I would not, in any circumstances, have found myself.

I’ll end with a quote… “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” 

How to apply for graduate school in Ireland as a non-EU international

Congratulations! You’ve made the awesome decision to get a postgraduate degree in Ireland. Not to worry if the application process seems daunting at first. Through my own experience applying to graduate programs in Ireland, here are my top tips for making the process as streamlined and simple as possible. 

Decide on what you want to study With so many world-renowned universities abroad, it can be easy to let location be the initial factor. Instead, narrow it down by programs. Are you interested in a Master’s or a doctorate? What would be your speciality? As an undergraduate studying English, I began with making a list of what my interests were. For example, I knew I didn’t want to specialize in something like 18th century fiction or strictly American writing. Instead, I searched for a program that would cater to my passion for modern literature. Find a postgraduate program that allows you to study something you already know that you’re passionate about. 

How long do you want to be studying? Most programs in Ireland require non EU internationals to be full time Master’s students. This means you will achieve your Master’s degree in a full calendar year. One of the advantages of getting a doctorate degree in Ireland, however, is that most programs are complete within three years. Choose whichever timeline is best for you and your interests. 

Utilize all your resources at your undergraduate university When I began the application process, my undergraduate university was very involved in aiding the application process. While the resources my school provided such as the career development and global education centers did not have specific knowledge on programs in Ireland, they were willing to research on my behalf. Student career centers are also an excellent resource to read cover letters, personal statements, and give a final read-through for all applications. In my personal experience, my professors were my biggest allies, as they all attended some sort of postgraduate school themselves. Professors and lectures are there to support you, and they’ll be excellent support systems in terms of recommendation letters and advice going forward in your academic career. 

Narrow down your chosen applications by location You can’t go wrong with any Irish university. There are definite perks to living in cities such as Cork or Dublin, as well as residing in the gorgeous countryside. If you are a person that loves hustle and bustle, Dublin is obviously a very attractive choice. If you are looking for a quieter setting, I suggest looking in smaller towns or cities with programs that align with your interests. 

Use any and all international resources In my applications to University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin, I found myself incredibly fortunate to have access to support from their international and global offices. Sending an email or a making a quick call to the relevant school or admissions office will relieve all sorts of stress during the application process. 

See what perks each institution can offer Does the university offer on-campus residences for international students? How do the universities compare in terms of research opportunities in the field you are interested in? Be sure to research all the important ‘bonuses’ to attending each university you are interested in. You may find that your dream school offers you everything and more, including scholarships!

Research funding opportunities For me, this was the big question- How on earth am I going to pay for this? Many universities will offer scholarships, grants, or other major financial awards. Other programs fortunately work well with North American loan systems in order to help pay for tuition. Seize every scholarship opportunity available. A small award can go a long way! 

Trust your gut instinct After you’ve received your acceptances from the programs, it’s time to choose the university where you will continue your studies. Trust yourself in this process. Deciding between the three programs I’d been accepted to was truthfully one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make. I narrowed down my selection by these criteria:

  • Will I have an easier time getting a job with this degree?
  • Is this a subject I can see myself enjoying for the foreseeable future?
  • Does the school offer networking opportunities for future employers?
  • How do I feel about the campus? Can I see myself being at home here?

After many months of writing applications, accompanied by the subsequent anxiety awaiting decisions from the universities, I am fortunate enough to state that University College Dublin will be my new home in September 2017. Best of luck with the application process! 

The Realities of Reverse Culture Shock

It’s been over a year since I left Ireland after studying there, but truthfully, I’m still dealing with homesickness and some residual reverse culture shock.  I know rationally that I will be back soon, but this hiccup with my impending hip surgery has compromised my emotional state. Here are the realities of leaving the place you love, and still dealing with it over a year later:

Every Place or Conversation Pales in Comparison to What Was Once Before: After leaving an exciting and exotic location, everything in your hometown seems mundane. No person or place is as interesting as where you were before. Every minor inconvenience seems dramatized, whether that be the lack of public transportation in the US, or something as small as missing your favorite local meal. Last year, I was enjoying the streets of Dublin on St. Patrick’s day with friends that were family. This year, I sat tearfully in a country-club eating bangers and mash with my parents, trying to put on a happy face. The contrast can be overwhelming at times.

All-Encompassing Anxiety There is a study in anthropology that says that when Westerner’s travel, they are terrified of wasting time. While that’s true, I think for me, it’s when I am not traveling I fear I am wasting my life. There is so much of the world left to see, and staying at home because of an injury is frustrating. I am worried I am wasting time, my young years should be spent exploring with the one I love. Instead, I am ensnared by this hip problem, limiting my movement physically and mentally. I am confined, when I was once so adventurous. While I understand that this is just for now, I worry that the time is ticking away.

Talking About Your Experience Non-Stop I left Dublin a year ago, and it is still something I speak of multiple times a day. I talk about the coffee shops and restaurants that I miss, the places that I’ve seen, and the adventures that hold a special place in my heart. Most of all, I talk about the one I love most. Somehow, it makes it easier for me. It’s difficult to be somewhere when I know I belong somewhere else.

Little Details Hurt the Most When I went back to Dublin in December, I made a commitment to make myself to remember the smallest details, in order to carry me over until my next trip over. Even in the airport, I took note of the signs partially in English and partially in Irish, or the smell of the rain on the pavement. I can navigate the streets of Dublin in my sleep, and picture all the places that I called home for a year.

Every Minute Looks Forward to the Future There are very few moments of the day when I’m not thinking about the future. My graduate student career awaits, as does reuniting with the one I’ve loved for over a year now. I’ll be welcome there once again, this time for good and not just a visit. In the mean time, I have to fight like hell through a hip injury.

Until we meet again, Ireland… See you soon!

 

A Personal Essay: A Memory

Hi everyone! I wrote a personal essay for my nonfiction class. The premise is each section describes a photograph. Thanks for reading!

A Memory

Date: June 15th, 2014
Location: The London Eye, England, United Kingdom

The first plane ride without my parents brought me on my inaugural trip to Europe. I had never traveled without my family before, and now I was preparing for Semester at Sea, which embarked from London. Before boarding the British Airways flight, my mom had slipped me a card reading, “We are so proud of you.” For what, I wasn’t sure.

I had landed in London after a night of drinking vodka cranberries on the plane. I touched down in the thick fog at 5:00 in the morning, London time. It had been too early to check into the hotel, so my friend and I dropped off our suitcases behind the front desk and stepped outside, forgetting the new rain jacket my mom had bought me. I knew nothing about London, even anything as basic as weather.

Still, I was hell-bent on seeing what each city had to offer, starting with London. Despite my weariness, I took a double decker bus to the London Eye to watch the sunrise.  

As the Eye hovered with Big Ben centered in the background, I asked a stranger to take a picture of me. The sun was just starting to fight through heavy clouds. A couple in the same pod as me was bursting open a bottle of champagne.

“Excuse me,” I started, already handing over my new camera. “Can you get a picture of me?”

“Sure. Good for you traveling alone!”

I didn’t answer. In this photo, my eyes are bordered with dark purple circles. Still, my smile is genuine. I had worn the compass bracelet my mom had secured on my wrist before leaving the country. I looked wan and tired, but my eyes were hopeful.

Date: June 16th, 2014
Location: Southampton, England, United Kingdom

The clouds were starting to part during my next day in the UK.

I stood on the lido deck of the MV Explorer, the cruise ship that was taking me around ten new countries in sixty-three days. Semester at Sea would be my new home afloat.

In this picture, I am wearing a new jacket I’d purchased in a London gift shop.

The sign behind me reads, “The World is Our Campus.”

The dark circles under my eye persisted from early mornings and jet lag. The ocean behind me was silver and calm.

I was posing with a group of girls I’d met just minutes before when a man I’d later learn was a professor offered to take our picture. My arms are looped around a blond girl that I didn’t know would I would become close to.

I had no idea what I was in for.

Date: June 21st, 2014
Location: Hardanger Fjord, Norway

There aren’t words to describe the Norway fjords. No metaphor does them justice.

In the background of this photograph, there is a family of dolphins splashing behind me. I was posed on a small ferry boat, taking me from one island to another. The water was an impossible shade of turquoise that morning, after the sun had burst through the clouds.

My smile was all encompassing, a grin controlling my entire face. Sunglasses hid my eyes, but I know they were smiling, too.

When I showed this picture to my family a month later, my dad was the first to comment.

“Beautiful,” he said. “The view is nice, too.”

Date: June 26th, 2014
Location: The Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland

The fog had been impossible that day.

After the three hour bus ride from Dublin, I was confronted with disappointment.

My eyes were teary in this photograph. I had been looking forward to seeing the majestic cliffs.

I had reached my hands out into the fog. I couldn’t see them in front of me.

My friend taking the picture had tried to calm me down.

“It’s okay, Mary. You can come back and see the Cliffs one day. You’ll just have to come back to Ireland.”

Of course, she was right. 

Date: May 5th, 2015
Location: Elon University, Belk Library, North Carolina

There were happy tears in the making of this picture.

I had been studying for a philosophy exam when I had gotten the news. A year of studying, applications, and essay writing had paid off.

I had been holding a printed out email. The insignia read, “Trinity College Dublin. School of English.”

I gestured to the guy in the cubicle next to me.

“Excuse me. Can you take a picture of me? This is a really big day.”

I would be returning to Ireland.

I called my mom, while sitting on the silent floor of the library. I couldn’t hold in the excitement much longer.

“I got into Trinity!”

“I am so proud of you, Mary.”

This time, I understood why.

Date: September 20th, 2015
Location: Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland

I do not know if I necessarily believe in God, but I was certain a higher power had sent that glorious day to me. The sun was forceful and bright.

I stood at the very edge of the Atlantic. The sea was a dark shade of cobalt, juxtaposed by grassy cliffs the color of Christmas trees.

The Cliffs of Moher had been positioned in front of me, my back to the person taking the picture. I am looking at the Cliffs in this photograph, staring from a distance.

I couldn’t bring myself to look away.

Date: May 6th, 2016
Location: Dingle, Ireland

My Irish boyfriend and I had smiles that dominated our entire faces. We were riding a ferry boat through the harbor to see the local celebrity, Fungi the dolphin.

Before taking the picture, he had tightened his jacket around me.

“To keep you warm,” he said, holding me safe and steady. He sneaked a kiss when the other passengers weren’t looking.

I had gestured to the man sitting across from us.

“Sorry. Can you get a picture of us?”

I made the decision not to take any pictures of Fungi. Instead, I held Michael’s hand, and committed the day to memory.

A year later, and the photograph is framed by my bed.

Date: August 9th, 2016
Location: Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport, Georgia

My mom and I were walking laps in the international terminal, waiting for my boyfriend’s arrival. The laps were intended to calm me down.

“So, are you going to run to him? Kiss him in front of everyone?”

“Mom. Nothing like that.”

He had managed to slip by me while I was talking. I had missed his grand entrance.

I tapped on his shoulder while he stood in line at the baggage claim. He hadn’t seen me sneak from behind. I smelled his familiar scent for the first time in three months.

“Hi. Fancy seeing you here.”

My mom had been standing a few feet away and snapped a picture of that first hug. Its my favorite picture, by far. 

Date: December 14th, 2016
Location: Dublin, Ireland

Days before getting on a plane to Ireland for Christmas, University College Dublin had sent me the most joyous of Christmas gifts.

I had bulldozed my way through the other passengers to get off the plane first. I hadn’t seen my man in four months.

After passing through the immigration to the arrivals gate, I spotted him. He held up a sign that said, “Sheehan.” His voice was gentler in person than I remembered, his tone soft and kind.

I handed him a Christmas card. Inside was my graduate school acceptance letter.

Next fall, I am moving to Dublin.

In this picture, we are smiling, arms around each other in the lights of the cafe we had one of our first dates in. He was wearing the shirt that he’d later given me for Christmas. Despite fourteen hours of travel, my eyes are bright and happy.

I am home.