Our new friends from a world away
It started when we walked into a giant hostel dorm room in Prague. The walls were lined with four sets of triple tier bunk beds, my two travel pals and I were the only occupants so far. Not long after we settled in and put our belongings into a locked cubby, did two more people walk in. When they spoke, their Irish accents took me by surprise. I’m not sure why, I guess they looked like me, they were my age, I expected us to be the same.
The hostel offered free dinner one night a week and we got lucky. My friends and our new buddies walked down to eat together. By the time we reached the bottom of a few beers, we had gotten to know our Irish counterparts.
We learned their names (Ad & Eve), that it was Eve’s dream to backpack around Europe and she had convinced Ad to go with her, that Ad was an aspiring actor and had held major parts in high school plays. Ad went to Uni in Belfast, an hour away from their home, and Eve would be moving to England at the end of the summer for her University. We also learned they were from Northern Ireland, not Ireland, it’s a whole other place! I hadn’t even known. They tagged along for the rest of the weekend activities in Prague. Across the Charles Bridge and through the pubs of Prague, we melted into one friend group.
Visiting our new friends on their home turf
Come Monday, we had to scurry back to Vienna for half-hearted classes. We dreaded saying goodbye to our new pals. They were moving on to the next European city and my friends from NY and I had school in Austria. When we said we’d miss them, they said we didn’t have to. We’d just meet them in Budapest next weekend. And so we did. Then they came to Vienna, we showed them around our school and dorm. Throughout different parts of Europe, we got to know them better than I ever had hoped I would know two kids that we shared a dorm with.
A few weeks went by, our Irish friends went home and we had to face finals. The opportunity arose, just before I was to head back to New York, to visit Ad and Eve on their home turf. I boarded a plane by myself, killed some time in Dublin and met Ad at a tiny bus stop some hours later. His friend was driving a manual car – something I never learned to do. I was thrown off to see the steering wheel on the right. I had been picked up by my friends in their hand me down cars too, I guess I expected them to be the same.
The differences we had
After galavanting around their town, visiting their friends at work and getting pizza from a local place, I sat in the living room with Ad and his friends. They quickly realized, I, an American girl, couldn’t for the life of me pronounce Irish names. It turned into a game. They typed out the most difficult names they could think of. I had to try my absolute hardest to pronounce them correctly, me failing miserably and them laughing their butts off. I guess I expected their names to be like mine.
At one point, I called them Irish kids. I quickly corrected myself and said something along the lines of “oh sorry, Northern Irish”. Their response was more welcoming than I had expected. One girl explained that they liked being called Irish, that they wish they were Irish and that there was a time, not so long ago that their parents and grandparents fought for it.
Learning about the history not so long ago
I had no idea what they were talking about. They explained The Troubles to me. I had absolutely no knowledge about it. And it didn’t even happen that long ago. They started throwing politics and religion at me. What I really took away from the lecture was that there were two groups of people, the Nationalists and the Unionists, that didn’t get along. One group wanted to stay a part of the UK, and the other wanted to join the European Union with the rest of Ireland. They hated each other and let religion and politics drive wedges between communities.
They told me that their parents had experienced the worst of it, people barging into homes and hurting the occupants. This stunned me. Their parents? That wasn’t that long ago, this read like something that I should be reading in a history book from a hundred years ago. My parents hadn’t had this struggle, I guess I didn’t expect their’s to.
So here I was, three thousand miles from home, learning world history that was never mentioned in school, from kids my own age. It was such a big part of their lives, and I had no idea it had even happened. I expected them to be like me. I had 4 or 5 days to spend in the little Irish town, we road tripped to Giant’s Causeway one day, but mostly passed the time walking around aimlessly and eating from tiny restaurants.
One evening walking home, a boy our age approached Ad and I. His demeanor was mildly threatening and I felt Ad tense up, just enough. The intruder pointed his question at Ad, “you’re gay right?” Ad and I had briefly talked about both belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, but there were parts he never mentioned. Ad answered yes and the guy squinted at him for a long time and backed off. Walking home, Ad explained to me that LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland were slower to take off than in the rest of the UK.
In his experience, people had to either explicitly tell you they were okay with you and your identity, or that they had an issue with it. No one would just take it in stride. The guy on the street came over just to “say hey, and say he’s ‘cool’ with everything”. Same-sex marriage was legalized in NY almost 10 years earlier, and in my experience, people on the street didn’t come up to you and ask about sexual orientation. I guess I expected our experiences to be the same.
Every journey is a lesson
In my few months in Europe, I learned that no one is like you. Even if they look like you, they live absolutely completely different lives. Their struggles are different and their names are different and how they drive is different. And that’s the beauty of it. That’s why we travel. To learn and to meet people that will shape your perspective, and widen your horizons, even if just a little bit. There’s so much they don’t cover in history class. So much that you don’t know you don’t know. The only way to know, is to go.